Forever Young | Steve Ashton

A haunting tragedy of obsession and loss.


Forever Young

By Steve Ashton

For the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Award


Lisa, Lisa, Lisa. Like a dog with a bone, I buried the memory. Now I return – sniffing, searching, digging.

I have interred many childhood memories in the labyrinth. Some – the pummelling sensation of sand ripples on bare feet, the acrid smell of rain on a dusty pavement – are perfectly preserved. Others, mouldy with neglect, crumble to dust at first touch.

One memory is still alive, and evolving.

I find Lisa wandering the passageways beyond the locked door. She wears the same cornflower-blue dress she wore the night of the party. I tap her shoulder.

She turns, her expression neutral. “Freddie?”

This indifference reminds me of those first years at secondary school, when she shared giggling whispers with her friends whenever I trailed her to the bus stop.

“It’s Ben, actually.”

She touches the tip of her nose in self-reproach. “Ben! Silly me. How are you?”

I have a wife and three kids, and a job at the sports centre, but I reveal none of this. “Do you remember smoking behind the gym at break times?”

“OMG, yeah!” she shrieks – I like to update her with modern teen expressions – “And we’d bribe some spotty kid to warn us if Old Bill Benson came snooping.”

That kid was me, but I don’t say so. Instead, I remind her that she once borrowed my ciggie to light hers. “You drew on it to get a better glow. When you gave it back, I could feel the moisture from your lips.”

She screws up her nose. “Isn’t that a little… creepy?”

“I still have it – that cigarette butt.”

“You need to learn to let go,” she says, playfully wagging a finger.

“I never let go,” I say.

Her smile disappears and she begins to fade into the mist. I take her arm and draw her back. “After dark,” I say, “I would hide among the hawthorns opposite your house until I glimpsed your shadow on the bedroom curtains.”

She tugs free and rubs her wrist. Her eyes dart from side to side, but I have the key to the only exit.

“Do you remember that last school dance?” I say. “You missed the bus and asked me to walk you home.”

She frowns and tilts her head. “That was you?”

“Icicles hung from doorways. Tree branches slumped with snow. A million stars shone overhead.”

“Did you try to kiss me on the walk home?”

“No.”

“Well there you go,” she says. “That explains why I picked you.”

“Gentle Ben, they called me.”

“A girl has to be careful.”

“You wanted to go the back way, past the park, so your friends wouldn’t see us together.” I gather up some folds of her dress. “You were cold. I offered you my school scarf.”

“Navy blue with red and gold stripes.”

“That’s right. I said you could keep it. I imagined it hanging from a hook in your hallway, and hoped you might brush against it each morning as you reached for your coat. But you wouldn’t take it, even when I insisted.”

She shivers a little, her pale, exquisite face framed by a fringed black bob.

“I was sick with love for you,” I say.

“Love is a self-inflicted wound,” she says, jutting her chin. “You had an image of your perfect girl. Then when I came along, you forced me into the picture.”

There is a long pause. She stares into my eyes. “Why did you do it?”

“I never wanted that moment to end,” I say. “Just the two of us, circling under the stars, our fingers interlocked.”

“I was only fifteen.”

“And you still are. Perfect. Forever young.”

She rubs her neck. “Did no one suspect you?”

“Me? Gentle Ben? No!”

I lunge for her. She escapes into the mist, but when I inhale, I breathe in her essence. I am complete.

*

It is past midnight, the house asleep. In the hallway, my old school scarf hangs from a hook. I never did try to dispose of it. It seemed wise to keep it hidden in plain sight. I take the scarf and go out into the night.

Icicles hang from the porch roof. Snow lies deep on the privet hedge. I walk beyond the streetlights to the back of the park, where the tall trees stand. The frosted grass sparkles with the reflection of a million stars.

“This is the place,” I say. “Do you remember?”

My eyes flick left and right, as though under Lisa’s control.

I grasp a low branch, hook a leg over, and swivel upright.

The scarf knots with reassuring tightness. It is a comfort on my neck this cold night.

As the branch judders, dislodged snow spatters on the ground beneath my dangling feet, dousing the star spangles until everything is black.