Irene’s voice was discovered because she couldn’t help singing along with the choir whenever she was taken to church. From nine years of age she didn’t miss a single practice session (Tuesday morning and Friday evening). From twelve years of age she was singing centre stage on every occasion, so popular was she and high the demand the growing church attendance made for her performance. She cared little for anything outside choir. She wasn’t anymore religious than required and never showed interest in singing any other style of music.
She attended get-togethers, but showed little interest in ball game and other childish nonsense. At first the teasing was growing with her choir girl reputation, but when she consistently failed to care, it eventually levelled off and the attention she received was diverted towards other insult avenues deemed appropriate in the name of social anointment: her puny stature, greasy hair, one ear bigger than the other and the eyes of a husky dog.
Irene spent long hours in the summer months lying on her back on the hot asphalt: in the road behind her house, on the side of the skate park, in the school parking area on a weekend, and her favourite, in the little alley behind the church. If people stopped to stare at her, asking whether she was alright, she would blink in an understanding and reassuring way until they gave up, called her mad, or both, and then left. In winter she would cover the floor of her bedroom in hot water bottles, throw a blanket over and, with arms splayed, practise her melismata until her voice went out or she started shivering, whichever came first.
Growing up brought into sharp focus that nature had not given Irene much beside her prodigious voice and dogged determination to passively endure existence. She turned sixteen and having failed all essential exams she could not apply for vocational school. The day her results arrived, she read the letter and then went to the skate park. For Irene it was just another summer afternoon.
The hot July sun softened the asphalt making it tacky to the sweaty touch of Irene’s back covered with a white tank top. The broken shade of a pine tree protected her enough so she wouldn’t end up peeling her skin off to the flesh. She had her eyes focused on the cold bluish green of the pine needles above her, not on their shape just on their colour. Her ability to completely disregard one feature and obsess over another had been her blessing and curse. She was so absorbed she did not observ the lanky boy staring at her for the best part of five minutes. His look was not dirty, but reverential, fascinated, and for a moment worried, checking her chest for the unlikely reason of making sure she wasn’t dead.
He stretched his hand holding his skateboard above her, forcing her to give him attention. She looked at him and spoke with her empty gaze.
‘I thought some extra shade would do you good, looks like you were burning your neck’ he said while still holding the skateboard above her. Irene had the corner of her mouth curl up, in what appeared to be her returning blonde-haired Dylan’s smile.
Irene had bypassed the torment of feeling adolescent shivers of love and had made her own the resentment of unrequited love. She had someone’s attention, and that was the only thing she wanted. She didn’t say a word and allowed two-years-younger Dylan to stare at will.
When his arms started to tire, he turned the skateboard round to show its bottom side, and having had plenty of time to gather courage, proceeded to talk about its custom paint job. Irene’s eyes were flicking open occasionally, looking past and through the eagle craddling a skull, set on a background of flames painted in the only style the guy at the skate shop knew of.
Irene attended the pine asphalt while Dylan was pining on the asphalt. He was actually a pretty talented skateboarder in spite of not being quite built for it, but with his mind somewhere else, but not very far, he failed more often than he should have and forgot about landing in a self-preserving manner. He only took a break when successful, and then he didn’t care for the cheer of fellow skaters and love-stricken girls. He would strut, mostly out of pain, over to the pine tree. The tree had become more welcoming that Irene, greeting him with its invariable sway in the hot wind. Irene would smile, Dylan would assume approval, and then go back for more. This ritual took place while pine needles grew slightly less blue and slightly more yellow, the scrapes and loose thuds of skateboard wheels hitting asphalt providing a fitting soundtrack to Irene’s wicked idleness.
When Dylan finally mastered a gazelle flip, he felt he had earned the right to Irene’s full attention. Irene was done for the day and proceeded to slowly peel herself off hot asphalt. She headed off, the back of her tank top stained in layers of sweat and bituminous matter providing ample opportunity for crowd entertainment. Dylan followed her, at first about 30 m back, but then he rapidly grew impatient and being wildly more fit than Irene he closed the gap in an instant. He wasn’t trying to stalk her, he wanted her to notice him, and when she finally did, she didn’t frighten. She spoke to him for the first time: ‘I’m going to church.’
‘Looking like that? It’s Wednesday. There’s no church today. Who goes to church anyway?’ said a befuddled Dylan.
‘I..I like music.’ mumbled Dylan.
By this point Irene was no longer a member of the choir. She didn’t fit the innocent child look the choir was built on. In an immature display of power, she plonked down under the open practice room window and outsang the poor choir children with every opportunity. When the choir leader had finally had enough, he came storming out, knowing well what he would find. He didn’t expect a lanky blonde skater boy standing dazed outside his window, staring at a sweaty, greasy Irene, who was, for the first time since he had known her, smiling. He found the scene so utterly surreal he couldn’t find a way of acting, not even one of the ones he had prepared on his way out. He went back in, closed the window, and tried once again for a Kyrie eleison.
The next day Irene didn’t turn up to the skate park. She never turned up again.
From the Little Blue Marbles Series: