The Axolotl by Rebecca Field

When I think of you, I remember that teenaged girl in her too-short skirt and laddered tights I used to sit with in biology class.

We would sit at the back on high stools, tracing the patterns of scorch marks and acid stains on the dark wooden benches. Decades of students had carved their initials there and left hard wads of gum under the edges for our wandering fingertips to discover.

By the window were rows of potted geraniums in various states of leaflessness. There was a view over the hockey pitch where generations of girls cemented their hatred of team sport under the tutelage of the hated Miss. Sanders.

You loved to look at Axl, the inventively named axolotl who lived in the corner of the science lab, far from the Mexican lakes his ancestors had sprung from. He paddled languorously in a few inches of greening water, the red frills of his gills fluttering to and fro. We’d never known such creatures could exist before. Axl was an alien life-form – a creature destined never to grow or develop beyond his juvenile life-stage. His cold, black, lidless eyes, smooth pink flesh and tiny underdeveloped limbs made me think of the pictures of premature foetuses I’d seen in medical textbooks in the library. His wide toothless grin was not dissimilar to that of Mr Cowan, our science teacher himself, whose thin-lipped mouth grinned at us from the front of class, as he attempted to enthuse us with his subject.

As he lectured on photosynthesis or peristalsis, making illegible notes on an overhead projector that we were supposed to copy down, you spent your time sketching in your notebook. Horses, cats, dogs, axolotls, all in amazing poses and situations, sprawling across the pages like constellations in blue biro. If Mr Cowan happened to pass by, you would snap the book closed, your face flushing a deep scarlet, avoiding his eye. You didn’t need to concentrate in class, you knew all the answers already. Mr Cowan knew that. We all did.

You might have gone on to art college or university, if things had been different. You might have become a famous painter, doctor or Nobel prize-winner. You might have become a bride or an aunt or a mother. But you did none of those things. You didn’t grow up or get a job you hated. You didn’t run up a student debt and a bigger waistline like the rest of us.

I saw Mr Cowan in the pharmacy last week. His hair had greyed and his beige raincoat hung off his slender frame but I knew it was him the moment our eyes met. He carried a reusable shopping bag and his wife was buying laxatives. I recognised those inquisitive eyes, that thin-lipped grin and the suggestion of something more bubbling beneath the surface. I wondered whether some neuron deep within his brain fired in a brief moment of recognition before he turned away. I thought about approaching him, grasping his elbow and saying, ‘Do you remember me? I used to sit at the back of your biology class in 1992?’ But I didn’t want to have to explain. He would have asked about you and I didn’t have the right words. I remembered the axolotl. Some creatures aren’t meant to grow up.

Rebecca Field lives in Derbyshire and works in healthcare. She has been published online at Literally Stories, Visual Verse, The Cabinet of Heed and Spelk. Rebecca was highly commended in the 2018 NFFD micro fiction competition. She can be found on Twitter at @RebeccaFwrites.