She's several shades blonder now, like so many of them, but I recognise the face behind the false eyelashes. "Jane," I say, more stating a fact than offering a greeting. Starting from the one point we know. Before I know it she's spinning and shimmering like a golden bauble, all exclamations and air-kisses, eyes sparkling. So how are you, how are you, how are you, and all that occurs to me (very well, very well, and yourself) is that I'm disconnected. That there's a feeling here and I'm not feeling it; that it's not strange to be back here, not strange enough, not far enough away in time or space.
"I'm teaching here now," she says, and I already know this because somebody else told me ten seconds ago -- our gossip vine has been cut back and trained along new lines but it hasn't withered, not a bit, its tendrils are coiled and primed to choke -- but I feign amazement, at least well enough, no way, yes way. It was always my secret dream, never shared, to go back to the old school to teach; call it some sort of half-formed desire for vindication or revenge, if you will, call it a desire to show them, but the further I get from it the less I can remember what it was I wanted them to be shown. I am not jealous of her position. To the Grammar School boys she must be a goddess, a glorious pillar of knowledge and light; I can observe this without resentment or regret. Crowned with the heavy rays of fading daylight, she seems transfigured. Perhaps we all are.
"The weirdest thing," she is saying, "happened to me the other day. It was raining really hard," and I feel her story washing over me, "I asked one of the boys to give me his umbrella..." I feel the thrill of a small boy in the rain run through me like electricity, eyes wide as his golden-haired goddess of a teacher steals his umbrella, her eyes twinkling like the drops of water in her hair. There was one teacher, there always is, who sheltered me through so many downpours, until I'd learned to weather them. She was the reason I wanted to come back, and the reason I couldn't come back, the reason it's taken me ten years to come back. I feel some nameless small boy gathering the rain to his heart, and I wait for the storm. "And the name-label on to the umbrella was yours!" I sewed those name-labels by hand on every accursed thing, from the shirt on my back to the stones in my pockets. The white machine-embroidered tape appears before my eyes like silent sheet lightning.
"A big black umbrella?" I ask, caught up in the flood. "With a handle like a walking stick? Someone stole that umbrella from me, years ago, from the cloakroom pegs, and I always wondered what happened to it." I did. I have remembered. "I used to walk along the corridors with it," I mime, diving into the story, "tap, tap, tap." "Yes!" "Like an old English gentleman with his stick." Her animated narrative has infected me; I have jumped into the river now, I am heading for the source.
"So I asked him where he got the umbrella, and he said, it's mine, and I said it certainly isn't," a girl's name on a man's umbrella in the hands of a boy, and the divide between generations is not a point or a line, it's black dye leaking out in the rain, "... a friend of mine, and actually I might see her this very weekend! Now isn't that weird?" I show amazement. I am amazed, but here in the old school quad I am remembering how to act, acting the things I do feel, acting the things I don't, until nobody can tell the difference. Is this what I was waiting for? Ten years of calm and this sudden swell of distant thunder all building to a chance encounter in the lost property cupboard?
We return to talk of teachers, how they influenced us, how they must have loved us, hated us, all at once. We had the same English teacher, but I barely recognise her through someone else's eyes; I have held her portrait in my hand for so long, shown it only to people who cannot touch my memories, and now somebody who was there remembers, is unfolding the photo, talking about it as if it was a picture that other people could see.
"Of course, though, it's awful, isn't it, you heard about Mrs G——?"
Of course, I didn't hear. I can't hear anything now; Jane is talking to me from behind glass, from above the water. Don't tell me. Heard what? Don't tell me. She tells me.
Her voice is so far away. I am standing in the rain, and somewhere, somewhere else, a small boy spreads the folds of my umbrella over his head, unfurling its black wings from a thin line into a wide dark stain. His pockets are full, and his stolen photographs of teachers or sisters or sailing ships will not be unfolded by careless hands, will not slowly leak their colours into the river, will not be bleached bone-white, the fading dye running down to the big sea.