The man in the motorized wheelchair had a devastatingly handsome face, a clear English complexion, a sudden easy smile, serious blue eyes.
“Well,” he asked. “Why are you here?”
“I’m showing my friend where I went to school.”
He nodded. He had spoken after I pointed out a small square spot of concrete on the ground and said, “The headmistress used to live there. I wonder why they knocked her house down?” It must have been obvious, with the guts of a towering steel-and-concrete structure right behind me, its shadow darkening what had been a sunny spot years ago. But I ignored the new building and looked instead for familiarities.
We were in a throng pushing down from the main school building to the road where we would catch the bus. Between the shorn steel pillars of the new building I could see the curve of the old driveway, the grass lawn sweeping up to the wall between my school and the one next door. Trees, yes. But no daffodils. It seemed supremely wrong to be here in a season without daffodils. All my dreams have been of running down the driveway past a blur of yellow on my way to freedom.
We had been in the school till the bell rang and we were flooded by all those escaping students, accept that they were old, or in wheelchairs, or male. They weren’t wearing uniforms. The man in the wheelchair wore a soft green suit, the color of shadowed moss, and a shirt as white as his teeth. “There’s the bus,” he said. I strained to see if it was the 44, my favorite bus, which would take us from Milltown to Enniskerry. It was, but it went the wrong way, up a new road, where the river should have been.
“Oh yes,” I tell Nada. “Everything’s moved now.”
The main building was being remodeled. American girls were giving away candy in the lobby. I grabbed some chocolate and a handful of papers which turned out to be pictures one of them had drawn. They were crude but pretty. When I walked over to thank her, she turned her back on me, and I saw that the doors, which had been all-glass when I was there, were now steel, with only a tiny glass pane at the top, bisected by thick bars. “One of my friends ran through the glass,” I told Nada. “That’s why they changed it. But I don’t know why they put on the bars.”
The concourse was huge, way bigger than I remembered. The stage area, where the teachers had stood for prayers and announcements, was gone. The balcony above was dim and plush. I walked past classrooms filled with velvet and gold. The windows let in no light.
I tried to tell Nada what it was like here, being a heathen in a non-denominational but strictly religious school. My dad always got us to prayers late on purpose. Day after day we were humiliated, having to stand in the glassed-in lobby on show. Time after time we got black marks for missing prayers, and the headmistress glared at us. She called in my dad, too, to talk to him. “You girls are missing prayers, Mr. P,” she said. “It will not be good for their souls.”
“And…?” my dad responded.
“You must make sure they are on time for prayers,” the headmistress responded.
“Why would I do that?” my atheist father replied.
In the end the headmistress gave up on my father. Instead she called me in.
“You are disturbed psychologically,” she said. “You need a psychiatrist.” I didn’t know what I’d done, other than stand with my sisters in the glass lobby every day, stared at by 500 or so girls. Perhaps my face had flashed my father’s resistance at her when she mentioned my responsibility in converting my father to one who would ensure his children’s spiritual health by getting them to prayers on time. Finally she allowed us to stand on the balcony with the others who didn’t pray, the Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the four Heathen girls.
But now, in my dream of this morning, the concourse stood vast and empty, the balcony unlit, the stage gone. When the bell rang, Nada and I found ourselves outside in a through being drawn down to the street, past the brick walls and onto the road. But the 44 went the wrong way and the river was gone.
“I used to mitch,” I told him. “I’d walk to the penny shop up the road and buy sweets for people who didn’t dare mitch themselves. All the teachers knew. I never got in trouble.” I didn’t need to tell him why. Once only my father had given me a black eye. I ran away from home and went to a friend’s birthday party, walking two miles in the pouring rain to Enniskerry and then taking the smokey 44 bus to Dundrum. When my friend’s mother asked about my eye, I told her I’d walked into a door. The universal excuse. She was the gym teacher. After that, everyone at school was kind to me. My parents were never notified when I went missing or got bad grades. Even the headmistress gave up her resolution to convert me.
I didn’t like to be touched. I didn’t like crowds. I’d had a black eye and had run away from home. None of these things told a story about me that was true. Still, people invented what wasn’t there.
I was friends with a girl who was regularly beaten by her big sister, and perhaps even her father. We mitched together. She smoked pot in the tiny flat owned our Malaysian schoolmate, who mitched also. As they smoked, I looked out the window onto the brick wall three feet away. The light filtered through smog and rain, slid across the window sill, and pressed through into the dim room, thick with pot smoke. It touched me. Maybe that’s why I never forgot God.
In my dream, the wall to the river is high and when I lean over it I see only houses. Everything has moved. My school is obscured by an unfinished skyscraper. The 44 bus goes down a road that doesn’t exist. The man in the wheelchair, in his mossy suit, smiles, GQ on wheels. And then I walk down the road a little, disconsolate, and lean over the wall again, and there is the river, falling over a series of carefully placed stones, trickling into a pool. The water is clear over the mossy growth on the stones. Everything is very still.