We used to call her The Stick Insect. It was cruel but completely appropriate. She had a tall, awkward, brittle body. When she walked, it seemed like she might snap or be blown away by a strong gust of wind.
Her face was pale and cratered, puckered like pink polypi. Her cheekbones were misaligned, eyes at varying heights. She lived near my house and I would see her walking in the street, barely able to support the weight of her own bag, or going to serve at the altar on Sundays. I remember her first Communion; bones inside a mass of brittle lace.
The rumour was that she had been a surviving Siamese twin, separated at birth, although this was never substantiated. She was translucent, like a jellyfish, a bag of lungs, frail bones and a heart like a clot of blood, barely able to function.
Walking to school, our paths crossed and she would sometimes smile and wave at me, barely lifting her spindly arms, her long fingers trailing. I would walk most of the journey with her trailing behind me. I picked up the pace when the school gates approached, desperate not to be seen arriving with her in tow.
When I crossed The Stick Insect in the corridor, she would smile at me, her mouth slightly open, her eyes staring at me, turning as we passed, stopping in her tracks.
At school, The Stick Insect became an obvious figure of fun, a freak show without friends who retaliated in a high-pitched squeal. I remember her fairly frequent absences; hospital appointments, notes excusing her from sports, and when she was seen in the gym, the occasional sight of scars, like welts, running across her gaunt body.
When the Maths teacher was late one day, The Stick Insect, who sat in front of me, was treated mercilessly by some people in the class. They talked about her like she wasn’t even there. I didn’t say anything. I just laughed along with all the other kids in the class.
After the teacher had arrived, the tirade stopped. The Stick Insect turned around and looked at me. Her gaze lingered. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking but I couldn’t look her in the eyes.
I knew as soon as I turned into the narrow alleyway there was no way out. At the end of the alleyway was Roper, the most feared lad in the school. I looked up and saw the high brick walls stretch upwards. I turned to look back the way I came and saw Ackie, his sidekick, stood at the other end, a smirk across his ruddy face. I tried to say something but before I could, I felt Roper’s massive hands on the back of my neck as he smashed my head into the wall. He dragged my face across the bricks and threw me to the ground. I saw him swing his foot back to kick me in the stomach. I braced myself for the blow but it didn’t come. I opened my eyes. I saw Roper looking over me and I heard a brittle voice.
‘I saw what you just did. I’ll tell on you.’
‘The freak show’s arrived. Let’s get out of here before we catch something nasty.’
I saw Roper and Ackie turn and run.
I felt the tears, not because of how much it hurt, but because I felt humiliated. I sat up slowly against the wall. She broke into a kind of feeble run towards me and knelt down beside me.
‘I saw what they did to you,’ she said. She took her hand and placed it against the side of my face, still burning and raw from the wall. It felt cold and clammy.
‘Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.’
She smiled at me. A wide smile that was more peaceful than I would ever have imagined. I dragged myself to my feet and stood there with my shirt tails hanging out, looking up at her face on top of her lanky body. She placed her hand against my face again. We were closer than we had ever been before. Then she turned and hobbled up the alleyway.
After a minute, I followed her onto the playground. I saw her properly for the first time, lustrous against the vast shadow of the school.