All week we are publishing (with permission), a number of the shortlisted entries from the 2022 Outsideleft Short Story Competition (details here). We will announce the winner on Friday. This entry, Always April is by Harriet Bradshaw.
It was the summer term of ‘97 and it made no sense to be indoors. But we were. Sitting on plastic chairs sweating over mathematical equations. The smell of baked concrete drifting through the uncharitably opened windows.
I tried to distract myself from her. Wondering what the purpose of pi was. How would calculations help me with my feelings? Those muggy nights kept me awake, wide eyed and wondering if she ever noticed me. The new girl. April. Full of hope, like the month.
I noticed the small things. The way she fiddled with her stud earrings, pushing them in and out of her soft lobes. How she brushed the wisps of hair from her eyes. She wore makeup when the rules prohibited it. Lip gloss and painted eye lashes. Precocious lines and powder on her symmetrical face. Her long dark hair was wound into a golden clasp, which she’d unwind, shake out, and braid. I could smell it, camomile and soap. She spoke sometimes as if she were the lead in a movie; her intonation and posture a performance. All the boys seemed to like her. I was no different. She had a slim figure out of a fashion magazine, and rolled her skirt up on purpose to reveal her legs.
What’s the square root of 225? I asked myself as a desperate distraction.
“Oh, come on. Where is it?”
And I clumsily turned to her, even after swearing I wouldn’t engage. “Do you want to borrow something?”
“Yes…. A sharpener. Do you have one?”
And my face burned as I rummaged in my pencil case and handed it over. I turned back to algebra and pretended to put meaningful numbers into my calculator.
It was too late. I’d started something I never wanted to start.
“What did you get for question 3?”
We whispered and collaborated, sharing notes that lesson and the lessons that followed. And she was smart, sharp witted. Algebra and trigonometry became my world, the highlight of my timetable. It was our time. When she spoke to others, jealousy consumed me. Slowly over those lessons our conversations evolved from numbers, to gossip, to…
“What do you want to do with your life?”
“Be happy? Make a difference? Or is that lame?”
“Not at all. Same.”
And she’d smiled at me, that smile of youthful uncorrupted understanding. She started noticing me in the corridors and during breaks, calling me over to talk with her friends. And slowly I was in deeper than I’d ever imagined.
Sitting on the field with her and her friends in the unforgiving sunlight, we’d watch the boys exhausting themselves playing unofficial sport, all vying for April’s attention. I’d heard April’s friends whispering sharply as I’d got up to leave.
“Why are we talking to her?”
“Yeah, look what she’s wearing.”
“She’s weird. Have you seen her face?”
I’d turned to their unkind giggling, heat spreading beneath my cheeks, nausea bubbling up. They’d hushed themselves, sugar-coated smiles resting on their sour mouths. I hesitated as April stared silently at me, a beat too long. So, I carried on walking, staring down at my thick sensible shoes, scuffed and tatty, one in front of the other.
“Because Katie’s not boring like you!” I’d heard April finally snapping back.
I turned and met her gaze; her eyes were ablaze. She lifted herself up and glided over to loop her arm through mine. Nose in air she pulled me along.
“Are they watching?”
“They’ll come around.”
And we walked back to the stuffy canteen to share a tray of curly fries before double maths. She’d sat there twirling the fatty potato in ketchup as the tables got wiped and packed up around us. She talked about boys and whether they noticed her. Fishing. For sure she knew she was pretty. She spoke of her friends’ obsessions with dating, waist measurements and weight. She’d been finding it all so dull recently.
“What about you? Anyone you like? You can tell me. We’re friends.”
My back prickled with sweat as my throat constricted. I’d looked at her wondering whether to confide, that’s what friends do after all? But I’d never had a friend, let alone someone to confide in. So, I said nothing.
“Oh, you know. I don’t think any guys would be interested. You heard what they said.”
“What about your clothes?”
“That’s easily changed.”
“Not my face.”
“So what? You’ve got a bit of acne. It’ll clear up. You won’t have spots forever.”
“I guess so.”
“Katie, stop being so downbeat. You’re great, a good friend. Interesting. That’s what matters. Looks fade.”
She said it with such conviction I almost believed her. I smiled weakly, shifting awkwardly, before the moment melted away.
When the bell shuddered for the school year to end, I cried in the bathroom knowing I wouldn’t last a summer. Not how I was. So, later that day she caught me off guard when she came unannounced to my home, inviting me to walk in the woods. We kicked through twigs as she tried to explain why she’d moved to the school so late in the year. But suddenly her speech was broken by tears. I couldn’t burden her with how I felt, even if we were alone. So, I took her to the park where we got sick on the roundabout like children should. We forgot the confusion of hormones and emotions, the stresses of youth, as we played on the swings, leaping dangerously off, pretending to fly.
As the sun turned into fire and spread through the smoky sky, we sat, backs to the tree. We watched the blue fade to a soft grey. The hairs on my skin stood up as the air cooled. April scratched our initials into the bark, grinning. Then she turned to me with that driven sincerity.
“Promise me we’ll always be friends.”
Life was her theatre. She commanded her stage. I nodded, bitterly. ‘Always friends’ was so concrete.
© 2022 Harriet Bradshaw (all rights reserved)
About Harriet Bradshaw
Harriet Bradshaw is a journalist and camerawoman, known for reporting on climate change and filming on the frontline of the pandemic for the BBC. It was during the coronavirus crisis that she started writing short fiction as a hobby for her mental well-being, having lost a friend and her grandad during this time. In her free time she is currently editing her first novel, with the hope of being a professionally published author one day.
The Outsideleft 2022 Short Story Competition: Concrete
Lisa Blower and Jenny McCann
Harriet Bradshaw - Always April
Sean Taylor - Fatum Divina
Callum McDonald - Alice
Claire Griffiths - Man on a Bridge
Alice Gregg - The Little Village Wall (unpublished)
Sourav Roy - The Chalky Bit
And the Winner is...
The winning story revealed here
Special thanks to the Bear Bookshop in Bearwood for helping out
Main image on this page from Pexels by Arin Turkay