Richard pulled into Adam’s leafy driveway and the security light snapped on. He parked up and went to the door, ringing the bell. Adam’s mother opened it and invited him in. ‘Hello there Richard! You’re off to see the basketball tonight, I understand?’
‘That’s right. Our new coach plays for them, so we thought we’d go and see him in action.’
‘Well, that does sound like a good idea. Adam told us all about your new coach. He says Mr Taylor’s from the United States as well, is that from anywhere near Washington D.C.?’
‘Not too far, I think. I still haven’t asked him where he’s from actually.’
‘Oh, well, I’m sure that’s nice for you, to have a familiar sort of person about!’
Richard nodded as Adam arrived. They farewelled Mrs Curtis and headed out to the car.
Thoughts rolled back in.
Adam went to the passenger-side door but Richard waved him off. ‘You’re in the back seat. We’re picking up Kirsty.’
‘Oh,’ Adam said. With a wistful look he closed the front door and got in the back. Richard waited for him to settle, then reversed out of the drive with Adam’s head and shoulders filling the rearview mirror.
Grandparents and cousins and football and proper cities and being right in the centre of the world.
This was stupid. How many times had he had these exact thoughts? He needed to snap out of this groove. It was making him crazy, going over it all time and time again. It wasn’t so hard. He needed to make a choice – leave in August or leave at Christmas. And then he needed to follow through on that choice, tell the guys, tell everyone. Sort stuff out with Kirsty.
If he stayed until Christmas, did that suddenly make it sensible to go out with someone? That was stupid. Thinking round and round in circles. He needed to snap out of this groove.
Richard pulled up at Kirsty’s and hadn’t even turned off the engine when she came out the door. She ran over and jumped in the passenger seat. ‘Hey! We’re not late?’
‘Nope, hop in.’ Richard wasn’t sure if she was expecting a hello kiss but it didn’t feel right so he just drove.
Adam leaned forward, sticking his head between the front seats. ‘Hi Kirsty.’
‘Hi Adam, how’s it going?’
‘I’m okay.’ He stayed there a moment, then settled back. ‘How is school?’
Adam asked Kirsty questions, and she answered them, and Richard drove down the hill. He was only half-listening. He just needed to decide. Why was that so hard? It wasn’t. He couldn’t tell anyone until he’d decided. And he’d somehow decided that mixing Kirsty in with all the rest of it was a good idea? It should all be so simple, but it wasn’t working out that way. Why couldn’t he get his head straight on any of this stuff?
The Hutt Valley basketball stadium was a concrete barn with tiered seating along the north wall. It was not going to be packed for tonight’s preseason game but there had still been a lot of people queuing to get in, little kids and parents and the inevitable crowd of teenagers strutting around. ‘Where shall we sit?’ Kirsty asked, holding Richard’s arm.
‘We can take our pick.’ Richard scanned the half-full bleachers. ‘How about over behind the bench?’
‘Wow. Look at them go,’ Adam said. He stepped a little forward from the others. The Shakers were on court running a layup drill, the same one Damon had taught them on Thursday, and each time one of them leapt they seemed almost to hang in the air. Body after body rose and glided in.
They found some seats behind the Shakers’ bench. Kirsty sat between the two boys. Adam didn’t take his eyes off the court: ‘Do you see that guy? That’s our coach.’
Richard watched. Kirsty’s hand was on his. He shifted his hand around to hold it, encircling her fingers, and they responded, linking in with his. He liked this girl but, really, lets be honest. Why prolong things? If there was change coming he had to take it full in the face, that was his way.
How could he be so eager to say goodbye to his friends?
Kirsty said something to him that he didn’t catch. He looked at her and she smiled warmly. Richard smiled back, but he felt it come out slightly off, so he looked away again. She was still very much a mystery. Sometimes her body language would shift in a way he couldn’t interpret and he would realise how much of a stranger she was. She’d smile sometimes and he’d wonder just how deep it went.
One by one the Shakers went into the air, grabbing the ball as it bounced off the backboard and sending it back up for the next person in line. Richard watched them landing, feet coming to earth, one after the other.
‘There’s Scott and Dennis,’ Adam said, waving at the entrance. Dennis was leading the way through gaps in the crowd with Scott blundering after. The referee whistled a minute’s warning and everyone started settling on the benches.
Dennis smiled as he joined them. ‘Prime seats. Hey folks.’
‘Hey Dennis,’ Richard said. He saw Kirsty out of the corner of his eye and noted her expression, an odd angle to it. She smiled at Dennis, said hi. Dennis thumbed over his shoulder to point out Scott, who waved at her. She waved back and started to speak but gave up as the announcer brought the PA online.
They all settled in to watch. The announcer introduced the players. The crowd started to cheer. Richard held Kirsty’s hand and let his mind run in circles.
‘Wearing the number 10, it’s our MVP from last year, Damon Taylor!’ called the announcer, and the audience cheered, a wave of noise rushing back over them. He was watching but not seeing, and the thoughts came back, the tide washing in, it would swallow him whole, it would carry him away.
Down by the river they sat in a circle, passing around a bottle of vodka-enhanced coke and a Dennis-special joint. Richard passed on the alcohol, Adam skipped both coke and smoke, and Scott held on to both for as long as he could get away with. The stony ground wasn’t too comfortable, but the cold wind had eased.
Richard was still in a quiet mood but the conversation was surviving perfectly well without him. He listened and watched. Scott was lobbing questions Kirsty’s way, getting more voluble as the night progressed. ‘You liking school okay?’
Kirsty shrugged. ‘It’s school. Does anyone really like school?’
Adam put his hand up. ‘Um, my dad did.’
Scott waved that off. ‘Ah, he thinks that now he’s shot of the place.’
‘No, really. He really did.’
‘Such a freak. If he was a normal human being he would’ve hated school too.’
‘I didn’t say that, though,’ Kirsty said. ‘I didn’t say hate. I don’t hate school.’
‘Of course you don’t,’ Dennis said from the other side of the circle. ‘Hate is such a strong word. It’s a vicious word.’
Scott nodded, picking up on Dennis’ theme. ‘Ooh, a hard and nasty word, indeed.’
Dennis nodded firmly. ‘I’d have to agree with you, Mr Collins. A hard, hard word indeed it is.’
Kirsty glanced at Richard but it was Adam who stepped in to explain: ‘Um, it’s kind of an in-joke.’
‘Strong word!’ Scott said loudly. ‘Vicious it is, not used lightly! Isn’t that right? Indeed! Use instead, dislike! Not so hard! Not so wrong!’
‘What was his name again?’ Adam asked. ‘Feldman?’
‘Wait, a relieving teacher, right?’ Kirsty said, light dawning. ‘Old guy?’
‘Feldwick,’ Dennis said.
‘Oh god, Mr Feldwick!’ Kirsty started laughing at the sudden memory. ‘He was awful. Lost his nut over the littlest things, I remember once someone clapped a duster and he just went crazy. The silliest things!’
‘Tell me about it,’ Adam said sheepishly.
Kirsty poked him in the side. ‘Is there a story here?’
Scott spoke up, waving the bottle around for emphasis. ‘So this one time we’re all pretty much rioting. Fighting in the corner, climbing out the window, everyone eating and talking, and some of the guys jumping on desks like the superstars of wrestling, right? And Feldwick’s just at the front of all this, just chewing on his pencil and staring into space with this blissed out look... oh, man. So we four were up the front, right? Talking, sure, but it’s like Apocalypse Now all around us. We’re just talking and suddenly there’s this big move from the front, and Feldwick’s on his feet! So everyone in the room shuts up and looks to see what he’s gonna do – and his face, man, he was suddenly furious and – this was so great! – he storms up to Adam and points a pencil at him and shouts right in his face, If you don’t stop clicking that biro young man I’m going to confiscate it!’
Kirsty was delighted. ‘That’s incredible. What happened?’
Adam shrugged. ‘I gave him the pen.’
Scott started giggling and kicked Adam’s leg. ‘You looked so unhappy! Man. I wish I’d had a camera.’
‘Well, it wasn’t fair, and he didn’t give the pen back,’ Adam said. There was a stubborn edge to his tone.
‘He was crazy, you know? Certifiably crazy.’ Scott took another swig and passed the bottle to Dennis.
‘The crazy could be useful, though,’ Dennis said. ‘I got a girl out of one of his classes once. Just turned up at the door and said she had to come with me to the office. He didn’t even question me.’
‘Oh, that’s such bullshit,’ Scott said. ‘You talk so much crap, man. So where’d you take this imaginary girl then?’
‘To her imaginary bedroom. I seem to recall.’
‘You’re such a cock!’
Kirsty wrinkled her nose, grinning as she exhaled. ‘You haven’t changed, Dennis.’
Scott leaned across Adam and took the joint from her, and while he had her attention he asked ‘So, how long have you known Dennis?’
‘What?’ Kirsty answered, wondering if she’d said something wrong.
Richard turned his head, paying attention.
‘How long have you known him?’ Scott asked again.
‘A few years, I guess?’
‘Know him well?’
Kirsty looked at Richard. Their eyes met briefly. Richard tried to read the expression on her face – that same look he’d seen before. He suddenly had a suspicion what it meant.
Richard followed Kirsty’s glance at Dennis. Dennis was still and relaxed, half-smiling. ‘Um,’ she said.
People aren’t ever honest about things they should be honest about.
‘You guys went out?’ Scott looked at Dennis, who didn’t deny it. ‘You guys went out, right?’
Kirsty looked a bit thrown. ‘I figured Dennis would have mentioned...’
Dennis was dismissive. ‘It was just a couple times.’
‘So.’ Richard said it carefully. Everyone stopped talking to listen. He was sitting a bit forward, making eye contact. ‘You went out with Dennis?’
Kirsty turned around on the old stones to face him properly. ‘Well, yeah, I guess you’d call it that.’
‘Why didn’t you mention it?’ Richard asked, calmly.
‘Look, this is a problem? I dunno. We haven’t talked about this stuff, have we? I was going to mention it but there wasn’t ever a right moment, and I didn’t want to make a big deal – it isn’t a big deal, right Dennis? It was years ago.’
Richard shook his head, straightening everything out. ‘I’m just surprised you didn’t think to mention it.’
Kirsty frowned, prepared to fight her corner. ‘I was going to tell you – several times, and tonight but you’ve been in this weird mood, and you’ve got enough on your plate right now. Shit, Rich, I can tell you’re having second thoughts about us, it’s obvious. What was I meant to do?’
Richard shook his head. ‘You don’t know what I’ve been thinking.’
‘I’m not stupid, okay? Just – just don’t act like it’s something I did wrong. If you’ve changed your mind then just say.’
Decisions. Richard knew what he was doing. She shouldn’t be questioning him. She didn’t get it.
The silence was broken by Scott. ‘Enough on your plate?’
Richard looked at him.
There was something in the way he looked back. ‘What else is on your plate?’
‘You haven’t told them?’ Kirsty said.
Scott’s eyes narrowed and he glanced at Dennis. Dennis sparked his lighter, looking at the flame. Adam’s face was pale in the dim light, shying back, uncomfortable.
Dennis shook his head slowly.
‘Rich? Something dawned in Scott’s expression. ‘Oh’
‘Thanks, Kirsty,’ Richard said, and he realised he was in a foul mood, had been in a foul mood all day, and he wasn’t hiding it any more. He glared at her, his voice calm and low. ‘Your confidence obviously isn’t worth shit.’
Kirsty sat back, stunned. He thought there might have been tears coming into her eyes. Good.
‘When?’ Scott asked.
Dennis sparked the lighter over and over again, shaking his head, not looking up.
Adam wasn’t understanding but he didn’t say anything.
He’d known how it would play out, he’d known how he would tell them. Not like this. This was stupid. This was a mess.
Scott persisted. ‘When are you going back?’
The flame of Dennis’ lighter jumped and flicked and Richard stared at it too. He was angry and he knew exactly which way to go. He had to move and that meant to make things end. No beginnings from now on, steadily reduce meaning, bring all the strands back in to the centre.
‘August,’ Richard said. ‘I’m leaving at the start of August.’
That was it.
It was done.