The Fall by Stephen Herron

Belfast. My home town. Well, it is now. I always wanted to live in the town where I was born. Not the various scattered stains that I called home for so long in my childhood, but right here, not a half-mile from the actual building in which I emerged into the world, 25 years ago. It sounds a long time ago. I'm 27 now, but that doesn't count the first year. My name is James, though sometimes others call me Shanachie. It means "Storyteller", and sometimes, I can't remember why they would use that name for me.

So. I've been alive for quite some time now. I've learnt a few things, this and that. Many have argued about the true beginnings of wisdom. I happen to know it occurs when you learn when to keep your mouth shut. Cynicism is the price of wisdom. Optimism can exist beside true vision. The world sucks, but a good attitude is the only thing that can save it.

The above pearls of wisdom are born of pain, of winter and of forgetting the magic, the Dreams that we all have, deep inside. Some Dreams, though, can burn cold, like frost on bare skin. We all make vows and promises to keep Winter at bay, but when the one thing you live for hurts you so much, what hope do we have ?

Why do I talk of Winter like that ? I can't remember.

Have you ever felt sad for no reason ? Like there was something that you mourned without knowing it's name ? I have. I know the taste of bitterness. That hint of childhood remembered, glimpses of the familiar through younger eyes. The distinct feeling of loss. The sense of the Fall.

Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. The words of another, but they ring true. The memories are sweet, though tinged with much sadness. I remember the forever bright summers of my middle-childhood. I remember sitting in my garden, listening to the birds sing praises to God. He was in His heaven, I was in my Eden.

As with my predecessor, my Fall was because of woman. I fell. I fell in love.

Jenny. That was her name. It sticks in my mind to this very day. I can't hear or see the name without being reminded of her. She had dirty fair hair. She was taller than me (at twelve, nothing peculiar), and gangly thin. She was funny and serious. I felt at ease with her, unlike the vague feelings of embarrassment felt when with other girls. She transcended her gender, in the eyes of a boy, she became a boy. No uncomfortable sexuality to get in the way. She was Jenny and I was James. We were friends. Everyone knew we were, no one made any comments. My peers at school knew about her, but said nothing. She went to a different school, so it hardly mattered. Well, in fact, that's probably why we worked. If we had seen each other everyday in school, pressures may have come between us. As it was, we saw each other everyday outside school, and made do.

The holidays were the best times. The anticipation grew and grew until the magical half-day. We would meet after school and run home together. She tended to be that little bit faster, and would be standing there, gasping and laughing as I caught her.

We would then run down our street, over the wall at the bottom, and across the small brook. Then there was just us and the field.

That field was scene to so much of my childhood. So many wars and battles fought across it with water pistols and water bombs. So many expeditions, with sandwiches and toy binoculars. So many sunlit summer evenings, when the sun stayed up almost forever. But that's another story. One I forget, sometimes.

We would walk around it on those half-days, talking and giggling, imagining our futures. We always assumed we'd be together. The years went slowly by- and we grew up. Sometimes, I'd feel as if there was more, something I was missing. Jenny thought I was being silly, and she'd tell me so. Being Jenny, I knew she was right.

One minute we were rushing through Primary School gates for the last time, the next we were wrapped up in woollen blazers and entering the vast world of Grammar school. We ended up together, at last. The same school. That was the most exciting part of it. We would get the bus together, eat lunch together, come home together. We wanted to be in the same classes together so we could do each others homework. For some reason, it didn't quite work out that way.

The first few months were great. I truly relished the learning experience- I had an insatiable curiosity. My new peers were classy and refined (I had been the only one of my class to make it to Grammar school), and I felt at home.

Jenny (and I was still the only one allowed to call her that) was happy too. I didn't see of much of her as I had hoped, but our journeys to and from school were still sacred. Lunch-times, well, our social lives were busy enough. We could do without that brief hour. We did study together, and we were in enough of each others classes to help each other out occasionally.

But Jenny was changing. I still imagined dragons flying over the fields, and made up stories for Jenny late in the dark evenings. She grew less interested in my tales, in my imagination. Sometimes she told me that I should grow up, but she was rarely that serious. Mostly, she laughed and smiled, and made my day complete.

Then came the First Year Party. It was a tradition, apparently, for the first year pupils to get together near Hallowe'en and have a bash. I thought this was a marvellous idea. It was only when my peers began deliberating over who they would ask to it that I sensed a problem.

I had become aware of the attractions of the other sex for some time now. It began as a niggling feeling that I was missing something, as friends began 'going out with' girls. They never actually went out anywhere, except in one case that I knew of, where 'out' was behind a building site cabin. Never mind.

I have to indicate here that my memories of this period are sharp and clear. The blurred reality of younger years, the melting of many years into one is gone. I can remember smells, colours, sounds all in perfect clarity. Just not always when I want to. A scent may bring a whole week of memories clattering back. I just had to mention it.

Anyway, the Party. I had the wit to ask some second year friends about their experiences. A big mistake. The mythology of such parties get created this way. Stories (and I still wonder whether or not they were true) described drunken orgies. This shocked me, and influenced my thoughts on the matter.

A week before the Party, I was aware of not having anyone to take to the Party- or maybe, I had just assumed that Jenny and I would be going together. I asked her about it on the way home from school a few days before hand. She smiled her smile, and told me that she had already been asked to it by a close mutual friend.

It really, truly felt like a physical slap to the face. I went cold and felt sick. She actually asked me if I was okay. I remember nodding dumbly.

The following few days have lost their sting slightly, but not much. I wandered around in shock. I avoided Jenny (I got the bus before the one we usually got) and failed a couple of tests in school. I told them my dog had died, and received some sympathy. I don't know where the lie came from, as I certainly had no dog of any description, dead or not.

The night before the Party I came out of my state of shock. I realised with perfect horror and delight that I was jealous. I was jealous, and that meant I was in love. I was in love with Jenny.

Everything came into focus. I had an energy, a drive like nothing I have ever felt since. I knew that I had to get her back, to tell her how I felt. She had to feel the same way too.

You can see the Fall coming, can't you ?

The night of the Party came along. I put on my best jeans and got dropped off by my parents, who sent me in armed with five pounds and a pat on the back. I knew what I had to do. I knew what I had to do. I walked into the assembly hall like John Wayne, ready and willing to do battle, to win back my girl.

She sat in a darkened corner of the hall, on his lap. They cuddled. The music (I remember, it was Duran Duran, Rio) wrapped them up. The flashing lights of the disco froze them in a strobe.

My whole world collapsed again. A friend walked past me, and dragged me down the steps to the dance floor. I half-heartedly boogied on down. I kept my eye on her, and the first chance I got, I almost ran over to her.

She smiled, and hugged me. I hugged back, happy and sad at the same time. She asked me to dance, and I accepted. Afterwards we sat down, and she told me all about the guys she had kissed that evening. Guys, mind you, plural. I counted five. I smiled. She kissed me on the lips, out of the blue. Then she laughed. "You're number six !" she giggled, and with that laugh, part of my soul was lost to me, forever.

My Fall was made up of several things. Firstly, she was the first girl I ever loved. That feeling signifies the move from childhood to adolescence, which is the end of Innocence. Secondly, it was the first time I ever felt jealous. That cold dark feeling visited me that day and stayed forever. That was the end of Innocence, too. She made me feel vulnerable. My soul felt naked- that another had the power to do this was frightening- and I had a glimpse of how the First Mortals felt when they realised their sexuality. That was my Fall. And I loved every minute of it.

I wasn't the first boy she kissed. I don't have that honour. I was the sixth, however, and if there had been a plaque for that, I would still have it on a shelf today. We never kissed again after that, and I never told her that I had, briefly, loved her. We continued to grow up together, and she went out with more boys than I can remember. We stayed friends- best friends- until we eventually made our way to University. Then, for many reasons, we went our separate ways. She went to England, and I stayed here.

She wrote to me, of course, and I wrote to her. The letters stopped coming after a few months, though I kept writing.

Then she wrote a letter which, for a few hours while I read it again and again, made my world crumble around me again, just like it had all those years ago. She had met this guy, and, well, she was having his baby. She was in love with him, and she was happy.

My heart was broken. I felt Summer leave me in its wake, and I fell deep into the golden pain of Autumn. And there I remain.

What could I do ? I wrote back, congratulated her, and told her that I'd love to come over and be with her when she gave birth. That didn't happen, but she remembered to phone me when she did eventually have her baby.

She named him after me.

I spoke earlier of loss. That sense of sadness. I feel it now. I have a photograph of Jenny and her son on my desk, and I'm looking at it right now. Her true love left her as soon as he found out about the kid, and she has never been with anyone since. She's happy enough to be single, and my namesake is certainly as cute as a button.

I do sometimes wish, though, that things might have been different. If I had only been the first one to kiss her, if I had been the first to make love to her...

I still love her. My childhood sweetheart- isn't it sweet ? The fact remains- she is over there, living in England with her son. She works for a computer company. She's happy. I'm here, in the city I was born, writing about the past, travelling to fairs and concerts, and telling fairy stories to children, who sometimes look like long lost memories, with faces that I recognise. Lately, they look sad when I tell them stories, as if I'm going to be going somewhere without them. I don't understand.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice. I never spoke the words out loud, nor could I tell you the day, month or even year of the decision. But I knew that if Jenny ever asked me, I'd give up my life as a storyteller, as a traveller. I'd turn my back on everything that I hold dear, because they were never as dear to me as Jenny.

And maybe I'll have to make that sacrifice. Maybe I'll pay her a visit. Maybe I'll say to her those things I wanted to say, eleven years ago. Maybe she'll reply with the words she used in countless dreams.