Tulips From Amsterdam
I fell in love with Lucy the day she broke my leg.
It wasn’t her fault, not really. It was a proper tackle, just a bit too enthusiastic. I’ve never seen anyone play rugby with quite the same ferocity. Coach Barker let her join in the training sessions with us even though she couldn’t play in any of the matches and I’d see her at the games sitting in touch, her face eager – desperate to get on the pitch with us.
Anyway, I landed awkwardly and broke my leg in two places. They told me afterwards you could see the bone sticking out. Harry Sharp, our prop, threw up all over the pitch and they had to send everyone home early.
Lucy came to see me in the hospital, bringing a huge bunch of tulips with her.
“All the way from Amsterdam,” she said. “Like in the song.” I found out later she’d picked them from someone’s front garden.
She was mortified – kept saying sorry over and over. In the end I had to get the nurse to calm her down. She was nice, the nurse, all motherly and that. She brought Lucy a cup of tea and patted her shoulder and made her sit down. Once she’d done that, Lucy was okay and we really got to talking. Mostly about rugby, but other stuff as well. They had to tell her twice to go home once visiting time was over.
We didn’t go to the same school, so during the week we’d meet up at the park. Sometimes we’d just stay there or if we had enough cash we might go and see a film. Or we’d go down to the canal and feed the swans with the remains of our packed lunches. Lucy loved birds.
“If I could,” she said, “I’d fly right away from here, as far as possible.”
Sometimes she would come over to my house and we’d go up to my room and listen to music or watch a DVD. I was never invited over to Lucy’s, though. She lived on the Colebrook Estate which had a rough reputation and I just assumed she was embarrassed about it. I told her I didn’t care where she lived but she was adamant. I wasn’t to walk her home, and I wasn’t to go round there ever.
“Promise me Jack,” she said. “Promise me you’ll never come round.” So I did. Spit and swear, the old fashioned way. I suppose I should have wondered about it a bit more but when you’re sixteen you don’t understand much really do you, despite thinking that you know it all.
“I want to get away from here, Jack,” she said and we started making plans. When we both got to eighteen, as soon as we could, we were away. Europe first; Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam.
“You can get me some proper tulips then,” I said and she laughed.
We’d find work, pay our way around, see all there was to see and then really take off. India, Thailand, Australia.
We had it all worked out and for a while I believed it, believed that we could. But then I started my final year at school.
I was doing alright. Well, better than alright really. Our maths teacher said I should apply to Cambridge; that I had a natural talent and he’d help me with the forms and everything. So I did. And I don’t know why, but I didn’t tell Lucy. I just kept making plans with her, all the while making different plans in my head. I told myself that she knew it was just a dream as much as I did, just a game we were playing. How could she think it could really happen, two kids with no money? I didn’t realise she had everything staked on it, that it was her escape, so I kept on playing, poring over maps and making promises I knew I wouldn’t keep.
It makes me sick now to think of it. How could I do that to someone I loved?
When I told her that I’d been accepted into Cambridge she went white.
“What about all our plans?”
“We can still do that, Lucy,” I said. “I’ll come home for the holidays and work. And once I’ve got my degree, once I’ve got some money saved, then we can go and do all that stuff. But I have to do this first, it’s important to me.”
I thought she’d understand but it was like I’d betrayed her. She ran off right there and then, shouting behind her, “Don’t you ever come near me again.”
She wouldn’t talk to me at all, no matter how much I tried. I’d see her in town or in the park but she’d just turn away. In the end I stopped seeing her around at all and I guessed she was avoiding me. I should have gone to her house but I felt like that would be the worst thing I could do, after I’d promised and everything. And there was a bit of me, a horrible selfish bit, that didn’t want to, that just wanted to get on with my life.
I went away to University and did the best I could. I got involved in student life, made new friends. But there was always something missing, something not right and in the end I realised it was Lucy. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and when I went home for the holidays I’d made up my mind.
No matter what promises I’d made, I was going round to see her.
Her house was tiny. Two of the windows were broken, held together by bits of duct tape with filthy curtains hanging limp behind them. The front garden was a tangle of nettles, bits of old machinery and broken glass.
I knocked on the door and waited. I could hear someone clumping around in the house and swearing. When he opened the door I actually stepped back. He was filthy. Greasy hair, mossy teeth and breath that could strip paint. The little I could see of the inside of the house was squalid. No wonder she didn’t want me to come here.
I cleared my throat. “I’d like to see Lucy,” I said.
He peered at me. “You’re that kid ain’t you,” he said. “The one who filled her head with all those stupid ideas.”
He drew himself up, pointed a finger at me, the nails like black crescent moons.
“Well she’s gone, thanks to you. Left me. Took off. Not seen her for months.”
Then he slammed the door.
I asked around but no-one knew where she was. No-one seemed to even know her at all. I went back to University, but every time I came home I went to see if she was there. She never was. Every time I spoke to mum I asked her if she’d had a phone-call or a letter, but she never had.
Months turned to years. Mum moved away and I stopped going home at all. I got my degree and met another girl. We went off travelling together, did all the things I’d promised Lucy we’d do. But we didn’t stay together and I think it was my guilt that finished it for us. I tried again with others but nothing ever felt the same. Nothing ever lasted. No-one was Lucy and the only thing I could do to make it better was to find her - to track her down and make up for abandoning her, make her see how sorry I was.
It took some time but today I’ll finally be with her again. Today I’ll get to say sorry. I shift the flowers from one hand to the other. It’s not far now.
It was mum who found her in the end. She saw her in the local papers on a trip back to our old town.
They’d bulldozed the Colebrook Estate to make room for a new leisure centre. The houses had been empty for years, the tenants long since moved on. While they were digging they’d come across remains. The skeleton of a young girl, buried in one of the gardens. Dental records had confirmed it was Lucy.
Her father didn’t stand up to questioning for long. He blamed it all on me, said that I’d filled her head with ideas; that she’d decided to leave, to follow me to Cambridge. He’d tried to stop her and had knocked her down. Just an accident, but she’d cracked her head as she fell. He’d panicked and buried her in the garden in the bottom of an old pond he’d once started digging, then spread the word that she’d left.
No-one missed her, no-one looked for her, not even me until it was too late. I’d believed that she’d taken off alone, after all her talk. But if I’d stopped to think about it, if I’d been less wrapped up in myself I’d have known. How could she have? Where would she have got the money?
I’m as guilty as he paints me. I killed Lucy as much as he did.
She’s buried under a simple headstone - just her name and the dates of her birth and death. It doesn’t say anything about who she was; the girl who loved rugby and birds and me. It doesn’t say anything about her hopes and dreams. It doesn’t say that all she wanted to do was fly away.
I stand there for a while and then lay the flowers down. Tulips. As many as I could carry. All the way from Amsterdam.