1st Place: ‘You and I’ by Niamh Busby

I saw you on the train yesterday. 

I haven’t seen you since junior school; since GCSEs and the endless clouds of Linx and stifling assembly halls. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to recognise you, to actually see you. Ten years can change people in many ways but you more than most, you who I’ve known at four and at sixteen, you who now wears vibrant orange trousers to rival only the orange curls poking out of a knitted black hat. This striking difference meant my gaze slid over you countless times on our morning train journeys, assuming you were another jack-the-lad to roll my eyes at until you offered to let me on the train first yesterday morning and you smiled. You smiled and I knew you. You smiled and I was standing behind you in line after lunch, the collar of my school blouse choking, school prayer on my lips. 

You said nothing though a line appeared between your eyebrows and I ducked into the first seat I found, pulse in my throat.

We were always paired together, you and I. Mostly because of our surnames then briefly in primary school because of our height. They used to make us line up in order of tallest to smallest and you of course were always at the front, nearly head and shoulders above the rest. I grew tall quickly, almost forcibly at the thought that I might be moved further down the line from you. I haven’t grown much since, no such line to queue in anymore, whereas you still tower over most of the train-goers.

For the rest of the day my mind was a tangle of fleeting memories like flies buzzing out of reach of traps. My head felt fuzzy as I remembered itchy school days, the smell of pencil shavings, rosary beads clicking in our hands and you, always you in those memories.

Like the day we both lost a tooth, tissues pressed to our gums, the playground steps unforgiving. That was only the first time we sat there like that but not the worst. No, that was when we sat shoulder to shoulder, your nose leaking blood and my cheek grazed and wet. There was a boy who loved to torment me, do you remember him? He would pull at my cardigan, throw things at my face, say terrible things always when the teachers’ backs were turned. Even you avoided your eyes from it until the day he pinned me down on my stomach and dragged my face against the gravel. You had pulled him off and I watched as your nose crunched under his fist. He moved to another school and we stuck together after that.

People didn’t exactly think we were friends, just that we were thrown together by school so much that we tolerated each other. They didn’t know about school books nudged towards the other in their worst subject right up until GCSEs, about our shaking shoulders and smothered laughter in the church pews as we practised for some sacrament or other, about you soaking my school jumper with thick tears when your parents got divorced, or about the late night texts when we were old enough to have phones. They don’t associate how I got the scar on my cheek to why your nose has a crooked slant. 

When people saw us at the library studying together they assumed it was coincidence and pulled you away into distraction while I packed up my books and went home. You tried to ask me to formal, or well at least I think you tried. It was outside the corner shop beside school and you had started rambling about formal and about wanting to go with someone fun and your freckles disappeared behind your blush but then your mates came over and joked about asking me to the formal. I told them to fuck off and they called me a frigid bitch and you said nothing until we walked home from the bus, saying they were prats and they shouldn’t have said it. I told you I was going to the formal with the girls and that was that. You went with the lads and got so horrendously pissed I had to take you home in a taxi. You just kept saying sorry and pressed your lips against my head when we reached your house before you boked in your mum’s roses. We never spoke about it. 

I remember the last party we both attended, vanilla vodka shots and spilt Buckfast while the lads searched the house for a lighter after they lost their only one out in the garden. I remember lighting one of the rings on the gas hob and you tilting your head over in, feg between your lips, eyes meeting mine. You rested a hand on my waist as the rest of the lads took their turn and I left soon after, emotions twisting in my stomach until I thought I would choke on them. I didn’t say goodbye. 

You moved to a grammar school while I stayed behind at our run-down high school, stuck with the rosary beads and prayers and masses in the assembly hall while you got better A Level options and a chance at Oxbridge. We lost contact after that, though for a few years you’d always send a birthday text while I tried to forget the years before Uni and became someone else, someone not afraid of choking on her emotions. I wish it would have happened sooner.

Now I’m standing on the platform waiting for the train again and you are here, weaving past office workers, solitary pensioners and grim-faced students until you come to a stop beside me. We don’t look at each other until the train approaches, until we see our reflections in the glass windows as the train slides to a stop.

The two of us smile. Just you and I.

About the Author

Busby (she/her) is a Northern Irish writer who enjoys picking apart memories, especially her family’s memories, and turning them into stories (sorry fam!). She has previously been published in QUB The Gown, orangepeel and Gypsophila

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Published by sonderlit

New Irish literary magazine reflecting people, our differences and similarities.

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