“Andrei? Andrei Jenkins?”
It always began like that. Your name and a question right after it. The high, wow-I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-you inflection tacked on to the end. He hated that intonation. It was always the same raised, disbelieving tone every time he ventured out into the town he’d grown up in. Inevitably, the slight undercurrent of recrimination would creep in: your parents miss you, your mother worries about you, you never visit, what’s wrong with this place- don’t you like it? How long are you here for? Why won’t you stay longer?
It was always the same, semi-accusatory note that they all used- Mrs. Lalwani from the cornershop, Mr. Cook who owned the pub, Ms. Angela from his old school- everyone always made it seem as though he was letting his parents down by living in another country, living his own life, doing his own thing. Everyone knew everything that there was to know about his life and everyone had an opinion about it that they wanted to share- with him, specifically.
“That’s me..” Andrei answered, still staring down at a box of cereal.
“Wow. Hi! I.. I haven’t seen you since sixth form! I mean, you probably don’t remember me anyway. I’m… “
“Kim. Kim Holden.” Andrei said, his voice surprised.
“Yeah! Yes- I can’t believe you remembered! Wow. Andrei Jenkins- back in town. Who’d have thought!”
“Uh…yeah! I’m in town for a few weeks- see my parents, catch up with a few friends and things. And, wow- Kim Holden! The belle of sixth form…”
She giggled and waved her hand at him playfully.
“I’d hoped you’d forgotten that! You and Orpheus called me that all throughout our last term. It’s odd how long ago that was- nearly ten years now!”
“A whole different life now.”
“Yeahh. Do you see any of the old crowd these days? James, maybe?”
“No, not really. I see Achlys when I’m in town, of course, but no one else.”
“I was really sorry to hear about Oro. It was a huge blow to everyone…”
That was another reason why he hated being back home: the conversation somehow always ended up at Oro.
It wasn’t that he disliked speaking about his best friend or reliving the memories-he just didn’t know how to start. The conversation always ended at a “I’m so sorry for your loss” and the awkward always began. It was as though Oro was a solid wall that stood between him and all these people that they had in common. It was impossible the cross over, to go on with the conversation. It was easier to end it quickly, painlessly.
Except for Achlys. He could always talk to her about Oro. Remember. Relive. Recreate. There wasn’t any awkward silence, there wasn’t a rush to end the conversation or smile at each other in silence as someone tried to think of something halfway intelligent to say. With Achlys, it was just easy- he’d never had to try. The words just came, the hands just stilled and the corners of his mouth just lifted.
It was Achlys that Andrei thought of as he walked home that morning, a box of cereal in his hand and change jingling in his pocket.
He was smiling a little.