Kick Up the Leaves and the Magic is Lost

'cause you had a bad day
you're takin' one down
sing a sad song just to turn it around
you say you don't know
tell me, don't lie
you work at a smile and you go for a ride
you had a bad day

I sat down to work on an informative post about "verbal sparring" in writing for an upcoming blog convention.  I got two paragraphs in and found myself opening a new document and writing the following one-shot.  This is largely for Mirriam, but I hope everyone enjoys it.  Additionally, I would love to hear people's thoughts on "verbal sparring" as I go about writing my post.  Read and think about it!
* * * * *

“How could you be such a jerk!” I shouted.  “What is wrong with you!”
Vince was agitated, not, I quickly saw, because he was remorseful, but because I had hounded him down since I had passed Li in the hallway, routed him out with the ruthlessness that would have impressed our Roundhead ancestor, and pressed him for an answer.  He wanted to squirt away and I would not let him; he was growing hot under the collar when he turned on me and shouted back,
“I just got tired, all right?  Honestly, does anyone take this seriously?  I’m on the brink of my career.  I have other things to think about.  I can’t have perfume and nail polish and hair styles and magazines gumming up my brain.  You said yourself I needed to focus on my work.  Get off my case!”
For a moment I stood in the little grass quad, staring at him, choking on disbelief.  I knew my brother was stupid.  I even knew, though I did not want to admit it, that he had all the ramshackle making of a no-good.  I never really thought he would hear me when I kicked him at his studies and told him to take them seriously.  I never realized he would be so stupid as to chuck the most important relationship for a career.
But then I have always been the quixotic one.
“Don’t you leave,” I snapped as he was turning away.  “I am not done.”
“Well, hurry up,” he snapped back.  “I have a class in—”
“An hour!  I think I can get everything out in that time.”
He pushed back his jacket and shoved his hands into his pockets, slouching in that most irritating, arrogant way.  He sniffed, too, distain wrinkling his little button nose.  How I wanted to punch it!  It would have been easier that way.
“You still don’t get it,” I started out, knowing even as the words came out of my mouth that they would only drive him farther away.  “I told you to buckle down to your studies and take life seriously because people are depending on you to do it.  That isn’t your money you are wasting by blowing off classes.  Grandfather is depending on us to do well and make that money count for something.  You need to take your work seriously because your employers will be depending on you.  This culture is so totally lacking in dependable, honest workers—we might at least try to be two.  You have no idea how valuable a dependable worker is.  The same goes for Li.  She was depending on you.  She had plans—and they included you.  She was depending on your steadiness, your sensibility, your seriousness in your relationship.  You don’t chuck it all in the river just like that! just because you got tired!”
I listened to my last words.  Vince knew I had not finished because I had made a long habit of pausing for breath before barrelling on, and as I listened to my words I realized the problem was much more serious than I had imagined. 
“You do you mean,” I levelled at him, “you got tired?”
He shrugged.  “I just got tired of her being everywhere all the time, always demanding my attention.  Honestly, it was like having a puppy.  I would want to go out with my mates and she would get cross because I would go without her!”
“Well, small wonder you wouldn’t take her, with the mates you have,” I snorted.
“Always!”  He began pacing.  “I would always have to pick her up, take her here, there, to class, to the store, out to lunch.  I know she hasn’t got a car but I never had a moment to myself!”
“You idiot.  You never get a moment to yourself when you are in a relationship.  You don’t generally want one.”
“Well, I did!”
“Well, you’re going to get a long one!  Look ahead to a long, lonely, cold life, completely devoid of any sensible woman because you are a jerk!”
He flung out a hand at me, accusingly, militaristically.  “Why are you taking her side?  What does she have to do with any of this now?”
I sat down heavily on the stone bench, feeling the damp seep into my trousers, and not caring.  I put my head in my hand.  Clearly against the black of my eyelids I could see Li pushing her way through the little press of girls, displacing an Egyptian exchange student with a bump and a little cry; she had rushed on, her face turned from them, but I had seen.  I must have looked like an idiot myself, poised on the edge of the scene, caught in surprise when I saw that her almond-round, Asian face was crushed in pain, a pain barely suppressed.  She had run on as if late for a class, but I could not help noticing that she was headed toward the girls’ room.
“You made her cry,” I said through my hand.
“Girls cry.”
I exploded off the bench.  “You made her cry!  You made a girl cry!  That doesn’t make you feel like a monster?  You can just stand there and tell me ‘girls cry’?  What do you think girls are?  Are you so totally medieval?”
He looked at me quizzically.  “What are you talking about?”
It was useless.  In a minute I would be strangling him and be charged with first degree murder, and even then he would not understand.  I had tried and suddenly I realized that I did not want to mend the breach between them.  I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed, sending him staggering backward.
“Shut up,” I snapped.  “And God help,” I added, doubling back a moment as I was about to leave, “God help whatever woman you do marry.”
He took a step after me.  “Where are you going?  Trent!”
“I’m going to apologize for you!”
I barrelled out of the quad, my precipitous exit and shout startling a wandering group of Indian students.  I swung wide of them and went on, hardly seeing where I went, until I found myself in the same colonnade wherein Li had brushed by and disappeared.  I had to ask several girls in a staggered, Orion’s-belt pattern across campus where I would find her; though I was in no mood to talk to anyone I was also in no mood to go banging in stall doors in the ladies’ lavatory. 
Don’t have let her walk back to her dorm alone, I prayed, moving at a quick half-shuffle, half-jog down a long dipping sidewalk.  I scanned the crowds as I took a left and dropped down a flight of broken stairs that had seen better days and worthier feet; stunted yews grew over the staircase and shut off the sunlight, shut off the world, and I soon found myself wrenching open a narrow wicket gate into the butterfly garden, cut off from the world, alone, save for the uncertain notes of a thrush and the muted but ever-present rumble of the traffic. 
I stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked around the garden.  The watered sky, empty from last night’s rain storm, arched above me, pillared by the ancient weathered stones of the surrounding buildings.  The garden was a wet mess, a tangle of flowering bushes and tracts of dewy lawn, but nowhere did I see Li.  My informants had assured me she had ducked down here; the only ways out were by the stair or the decrepit chapel, generations since unused, which formed the east end of the butterfly garden.  With a sigh I struck out from underneath the yews into the face of a sudden sharp wind, trekking up the aisles of damp toward the chapel.  I supposed that, if I were a girl, I would go cry in a place like that too.
I walked until the dew had soaked my socks and stained my Oxfords, fighting sprays of honeysuckle, until at last I stepped up on the broken threshold of the chapel and slipped into the dank dark of the vestibule.  The sound of traffic was silenced behind me; somewhere in the gloom as my eyes adjusted I could hear the soft rushing sound of running water.  I took a few careful steps forward, for the chapel, like the kingdom, had seen better days—like the stonework stairs, worthier feet—and I did not want to catch my foot in a hole and break my leg.
The chapel was very small, very long and narrow, with no chairs or pews but an altar at the far end—undecorated now—which was lit up by a single high window in the south face of the walls; the north-facing window had been boarded up, but the south-facing window’s board had been pulled down and lay scattered on the floor under years of dust.
The altar was not the only thing lit up in the early morning light.  Sitting on the floor, propped up against the altar, was Li, her arms around her dirty updrawn legs and her face hid in her knees.  My stomach clenched but I forced myself to walk calmly across to her.  She did not seem to hear my coming; hesitantly, silently, I set my hand on her head.
She started and looked up; her mascara had streaked and was running, the soft pink winging shadows of her eyes had been rubbed and smudged on her temples.  Her little dark eyes were puffy from crying, but the odd thing was that the vulnerability, the complete dashing of all her careful feminine appearances that made her look unapproachable like a goddess, only endeared her to me still further.  I swore softly and dropped down on the balls of my feet.
“What are you doing here?” Li sniffed and, turning, hid her face from me.
“I come here every Thursday,” I replied glibly to her blunt, stupid question.  “This is where I worship.”  Then, when she said nothing, I added quietly, “I made Vince tell me.  I’m…I’m really sorry.”
She shuddered and hitched her arms further around her legs.  It was a bad position to be in: her skirt was too short even to walk about in, I thought, and the cold stones were raising goose-bumps on her skin.  Wordlessly, because I was suddenly angry again, I unbuttoned my cardigan and flung it around her knees. 
“You shouldn’t have come down here on your own,” I told her more forcefully than I should have.  “It isn’t safe.  This place is far too secluded and—” I almost mentioned the skirt, but thought better of it just in time.
But I had said enough.  Drawing herself up, fury clenching her face—she had, apparently, not got done crying and I had interrupted—Li retorted, “What do you care?  Why can’t you just leave me alone?”  She balled the cardigan into one hand and thrust it back at my chest, nearly knocking me over.  “Go away and leave me alone!  I don’t want to hear about Vince.  I don’t care what you have to say in his defence!  He made himself perfectly clear and he won’t get me back—you tell him that!”
“Stop shouting!”  I recollected myself and unfolded the cardigan again.  “Someone might think I was hurting you.”
“Maybe you are!”  Her voice rose to a reckless pitch.  “It’s all you men ever do!  Well, I’m tired of it!  I’m tired of your lies!  I’m tired of your stupid, stubborn brutishness!  Do you think I’m just a scarf, to be put on whenever the weather gets cold and taken off and tossed in a corner when you get too warm?  Do you think I’m just a toy that a boy can get bored of?  Do you think I’m not good enough?  Maybe I’m not good enough!  Maybe Vince is right!  Maybe I was kidding myself all along, thinking this would come to anything.  Why would anyone want me?”
She was spiralling out of rage into self-guilt and I had to do something before she pulled us both in over our heads.  I laid the cardigan back over her—my hands were shaking rather desperately, and I did not know why—and cut her off by saying levelly, “I didn’t come here to defend Vince.  I nearly throttled him a moment ago, if that means anything to you.  And I don’t think you’re not good enough—it was Vince who wasn’t good enough—and you’re not a scarf.  You’re just in pain and you’re blowing this all out of proportion.”
She looked at me in silence, her narrow, angry eyes telling me “Don’t you lie to me” with a force that was almost physical.  It chilled me.
“What do you want me to do, apologize for the entire male sex?  That is a tall order, even for me.”  I shifted and thumped down on the floor beside her, my back to the altar.  “I came to apologize for my brother’s assish behaviour—that’s the best I can do.”  After a pause I added, “I really mean it.”
“You really mean what?”
To be honest, I was not sure.  I sincerely meant my apology for what Vince had done—for what Vince had undone—but after a moment’s reflection I found what I really meant was that she deserved better.  People were stupid and cocky and did not see how vicious the world could be nor how vulnerable life really is: but in the half-light of the chapel, with mascara streaking her face and her bare legs shivering, one had only to look at Li once to feel how delicate the beautiful things of life were and how easily they were crushed.  Did no one care?  How could Vince look at this girl and think, “She doesn’t need me and I don’t need her”? 
On an impulse I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.  She tensed, but did not resist.  “I mean that I’m sorry I can’t fix everything.  I’m sorry you think you are rubbish, and that there are people like Vince in the world, and that—here.”  I dug into the pocket of my cardigan and pulled out my handkerchief.  Li started back as I scrubbed at her mussed face; mascara came off in blurs and smudges, but she looked a little better.  She would have to dry her face and do it all again once she had stopped crying—she had not, quite, even now, but the tears were tracking silently out of her eyes—but the worst of the mess had come off on my once clean, starched kerchief. 
I pressed it into her hand.  “A gentleman never goes out without a pocket handkerchief,” I said.  “He never knows when he may need to assist a lady in distress.”
She hid her face in the handkerchief.  Her pale cheeks began to colour with embarrassment as it dawned on her through the torture that she looked as though she had got in a fist-fight with a road-worker.  “Who said that?”
“I did,” I admitted in a gallant tone, though I felt suddenly awkward.  “Are you feeling any better now that you have punched me in place of Vince?”
There was a pause.  “No…  But I think I can stop crying.”  But then she sobbed again and hid her face further in the cloth, and I sat in the damp chapel, swimming in its watery morning light, my arm around the shoulders of the beautiful Asian girl I had come to know so well.  The world was a skin-thin place, starkly normal, going about its normal business, and it came to me as a crude, circus-coloured thing, and I was glad yesterday’s quiet gathered in yesterday’s chapel, hiding us while the huge world of Li’s heart cried itself in pieces. 
After awhile she stopped, and long after that she broke the silence shyly.  “I am sorry I was mad at you.”
I lifted my head off the side of the altar.  “You weren’t mad at me, no more than I was cross with you.  We were both mad at Vince, that is all.”
She nodded and we fell silent again, listening to the soft purl of water down the old stonework and, from the butterfly garden, the full-breasted trill of the thrush.
Li said presently, reluctantly, “I should go.  I have class.”
This stirred me to action.  Rising, I held out my hand for her.  “Not today,” I said as I pulled her up.  “You are much more important than class.  I am taking you back to your dorm so you can change out of that ridiculous skirt—please don’t wear it again—and then I am taking you for ice cream.”
“But—class—” she began, looking frightened and bewildered.  Her eyes were at once humorous and adorable widened like a startled doe’s.  “I don’t want ice cream—”
“Yes, you do.  Dorm first, then ice cream.”  I helped her over the rough chapel floor and out into the sunlight.  “There are times in one’s life when it is perfectly acceptable to run from trouble.  This is one of them.”
The wind, when we climbed up the stairs and out from under the yews, caught us in the face.  Li’s thrush-brown hair flew back into the level morning sun, sparking wild fire, and suddenly I laughed—I could not help myself.  Would that a spirit of the past might visit my brother years from now and show him a glimpse of what he might have had, what he had forever lost.  Li looked at me quizzically, but pleasantly: I saw the rage and much of the sorrow had been soothed from her face.  Contented with that I put her arm in mine and walked her down the long south road, her hair and the cardigan, hitched up over her shoulder, flowing in the wind behind us.

8 ripostes:

  1. OH MY WORD!!! JENNY!!! I LOVE THIS!!!! I adore verbal sparring (mainly because I do it frequently in real life) and this is just BRILLIANT!!! I'm printing it out. Saving it. Going to re-read it. THANK YOU A THOUSAND TIMES. Ohmyword. I really adore it. *squeals* And it's so inspiring for "Acceso" which I'm working on right now!!!!

  2. *Gasp* AWESOME! Oh, this is so cool! When you said 'verbal-sparring,' I confess that I thought you were talking about banter! But NO! This is worthy of Elizabeth and Darcy! Verbal Sparring INDEED! (I feel justified in the use of my caps because someone else did it first [which is a horrible excuse, but there you have it]) Stupendous!!

  3. Oh. yes. This was awesome. I was totally sucked in. Yuck, Vince needs a good dose of lake water.

  4. Mirriam - Hurrah! I'm so glad you liked it! You usually like what I write but one can never be sure. As for inspiration, how providential! I'm glad I could help!

    Mad Elvish Poet - I have to agree, when I think of "verbal sparring," I usually think of banter too; but then I realized there is much more to "verbal sparring" than simply that. I hope to explore it more in the topical post but at the moment I am having trouble sorting out my thoughts. Which is probably why I squirted off and wrote this one-shot. :P

  5. Wow, wow, wow!! This is excellent. My "verbal sparring" usually consists of upset back-and-forth, with a dash of indignation. ;)

  6. Absolutely ENTRANCING! I loved every moment of it! It wasn't quite what I expected when I saw "verbal sparring"...however, I think this exceeded my expectations and broadened my understanding of the concept. Brava! :)

  7. I loved this, Jenny. So different from your usual settings, and yet your natural, rhythmic style still weaves it all together. Poor, fragile Li broke my heart. I almost wish this scene was part of a full book, just so I could read the whole story, but part of its charm lies in its economy. Brevity is the soul of wit, after all.

  8. Elizabeth Rose - I know, it's not my normal setting. I've said before that contemporary fiction is my bane, so when I realized I was going to write a one-shot in modern university setting, I was determined not to let that cramp my style. And you seem to have liked it! I seem to have carried my voice through properly; additionally, it was nice to write a man again. I've been writing Margaret, and Adamant before her; I'm looking forward to writing Rede but he won't happen for some time. I was glad to discover the old-fashioned, genteel brain of modern Trent Bellinger.

    Oh yes, he's even got a last name. :P

    Squeaks & Bree - How I've blown everyone's mind! Can't be put in a box. Can't have people thinking, "Oh, she's doing verbal sparring, how dull. Move along." Nope! I find there is much more to the term than first meets the eye, so keep watch! The blog convention is scheduled for October and I'll be giving you all a heads-up when it rolls around. I hope to crack this topic open more in my post then.