If I Had Not, If I Had
by Clive Collins
If I had not been late getting to my bus stop that day, I’d have missed the girl who stood before me saying, “Joy, remember? Holy Cross Infants and Juniors?”
I did, but I was a still-at-school seventeen-year-old ragamuffin, while she, in the years since last we’d met, had changed into a “glimmering girl.”
She lingered, like a smile. “You were kind to me, Walter.”
I disagreed, but she continued, “Yes, always ready with a sweet word you were when I was laughed at, shamed in the classroom. Without you, I’d have given up.”
I said I thought I’d only made things worse for her.
“You mean that silly ‘Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar’ business? I dreamed you would lead me there one day, when we were grown. We used to talk about going to live in Hollywood next door to Doris Day.
“What hurt was being called ‘gypsy’ all the time, because I was dark and we weren’t long off the boat from Ireland.”
I said she should forget the past; that if ever she had seemed gypsylike, she did no longer. “A princess now,” I mumbled.
She lowered her eyes and mimicked a curtsy.
“I mean it,” I said.
And then it was time for her to go. Parting, she slipped her fingers beneath my blazer’s frayed lapel. “I’d like us to be friends again, Walter.”
Joy O’Connell was what I had named her, a princess. I thought for a moment she might kiss me goodbye, and waited, wanting, fearing. She didn’t, though she waved as she moved away from me. Unkissed then, I remained a frog.
I never saw Joy again, although I think now if I had tried to, she might have been my life’s companion. That I did not remains beyond understanding.
AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: The Wendy House, St Barnabas School, 1956. ‘”Joy” sits holding a dolly. The author, in unseasonal long-sleeved shirt and tie, kneels at the opposite end of the table from her.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This piece is an abridgment of a much longer, so far unpublished, story. I wanted to see whether three hundred words could hold what seem to be recurring motifs in my writing — chances lost, roads not taken, love unreciprocated, self-consciousness, shame, and a debilitating fear of rejection. The expression “glimmering girl” comes from “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W.B. Yeats. “Walter, Walter” is a song made popular by the English singer and comedienne Gracie Fields.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Leicester, England, Clive Collins has spent the greater part of his life working as a teacher in Ireland, Sierra Leone, and now Japan. He is the author of two novels, The Foreign Husband (Marion Boyars) and Sachiko’s Wedding(Marion Boyars/Penguin Books).Misunderstandings, a collection of short stories, was joint-winner of the Macmillan Silver PEN Award in 1994. More recently his work has appeared online and in print in magazines such as Penny, Local Nomad, The Story Shack, and terrain.org. He was a short-listed finalist in the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.