I have always believed you can tell a lot about an individual’s personality from their first big crush, or their first love. It’s that decision made during a tumultuous moment of hormones and confusion, where you are afforded a brief moment of spectacularly focused clarity. I was not surprised that your first crush was a bus driver old enough to be your father’s father. All the kids on our estate hated him because he wouldn’t slow down for the local cats making their suicidal darts across the road from between parked cars. One side of his face was heavily scarred from being hit and dragged under a bus when he was a teenager himself. You once asked him why he decided to become a bus driver after such a horrific introduction to them as a means of transport. He smiled, with a glint in the one eye that still worked, and said to tame the beast. Then he squeezed the steering wheel and showed us that lop sided grin. He had teeth only on one side of his jaw.
As far as I know, this has been your only crush. My first crush was, and still is, you. But if I mentioned this, you wouldn’t talk to me for weeks. I desperately want to know how you can know about love and yet find it so alien a concept – not a philosophical rejection but almost biological too. You recoil from contact unless it is machine. You plunge your hands into the rusted old tractors that line the beach like sentinels; a final stand of old men and women after the regular army has been annihilated, awaiting their own doom from certain invasion. I bore you for hours about love, but you peer into the complex tubes and wires of the broken engines, trying to restart them from nothing more than thin air and curiosity.
You clearly had feelings because you cried and you laughed. One time you lay down on the sand with your head underneath one of the massive rear wheels, staring up at the huge teeth of the treads. You said to me; if you love me, you’ll start this engine and drive over my head. Then you started laughing, looking at me. I couldn’t do that, I replied. You’ll be killed. No I won’t. Cheerfully. No I won’t. You rolled onto your back and clasped your hands over your stomach, looking thoughtfully up at the underside of the tractor like a contemplative mechanic. You picked at the rust and it fell into your hair.
Later on, we’re daring each over to leap over a bonfire we’ve started on some derelict land. We start by leaping over the sides, feeling the intense heat drying our eyes. Your face is darkened by ash and soot as you take a running leap right over the centre, as the flames momentarily recoil in surprise and then stab and grab for your ankles. You stand, expectantly, and through the heat haze it looks as though you are melting into liquid. As I begin my run up, the flames seem to be waiting, more alert this time round than before. I clear it, and all the hairs on my ankles are singed clean off my skin. The bottom of my jeans smoulder, and one of my laces glows and then goes out with a single strand like gossamer. You smile and tilt your head. As far as your reactions go, it’s as good as a raucous, snarling, heaving fuck from anyone else. I remember my number one masturbatory daydream in which I pound you against a wall and you bite your lip so hard it bleeds.
Years later, I’m in a pet store with my partner and our young son. I haven’t looked directly into her eyes for nine days. I have a flashback to a story you told me, apropos of nothing, as you were laying under the tractor.
You told me; when you were six you had a beautiful canary, which you loved – other than the bus driver, it was the only living thing I ever heard you attribute love for. After only a year it died. You’d left the window open in January for it to sing to the other birds and the sharp winter wind froze its little heart stiff. You tearfully shrouded it tightly in white toilet paper, teardrops forming little splats, and solemnly buried it in the front garden, underneath a rose bush. The next day, as you stared out of your bedroom window down at the neat pile of freshly dug earth amid all the snow, a local cat ambled over to the mound, sniffing at first, and then digging it up in front of you. You screamed and shrieked to scare it away, hammering on your window, calling out to your parents to do something. Do Something. They told you to stop making so much noise. Shut the fuck up. No, you can’t go out, it’s too cold. Your father stormed up, gave you a whack over the back of your legs and closed the curtains.
After he’d slammed your door shut, you got up from the floor and peered out of the curtains. The cat looked up at you with the white parcel in its mouth and then sauntered away, leaving its little footprints across the grass and beyond.