Picture this scene: There is a small town theatre and a group of local school students are gathered for the rehearsal of a musical version of Tom Sawyer. The boy who will someday become me is to play a not insignificant part as Huckleberry Finn, a role for which his teacher has dyed his hair red and placed upon it a large straw hat. The boy (who is fourteen) finds this only a little less embarrassing than the moment when the drama teacher tears the bottom from his jeans – while he is still wearing them – to add, she says, a touch of authenticity.
The group is seated in the theatre’s tiered seats; there is an air of expectation as the teacher arranges props on stage. The noise is subdued, however, and it is only a matter of time before Huck becomes aware of a whispered message making its way towards him from the seats at the back. There is an accompaniment of tittering. It is Joe Harper who finally relays the missive; “Joanne Lenton wants to know if you will go out with her.” He has never kissed a girl; he only knows the 13-year-old bank manager’s daughter by sight. In a fit of embarrassment and confusion he says quickly, “No.” and hears the single response passed quickly away from him like an echo.
And so, the years pass and the characters disperse. Then last week I am inspecting one of the many work sites I oversee. The manager says to me, “One of the staff says she knows you from when you were in the bush.” He tells me which town and I say I was never there but there is someone in the industry with the same name; she probably mixed us up. “What’s her name?” I ask. He tells me it is Joanne Lenton. It takes a while before the name makes sense to me and I recall Huckleberry Finn and the Chinese Whisper. All I say is, “I think I might have gone to school with her.”
Now I have kissed a girl and I am no longer confused; I am interested to see her again. Did I break her heart back then, I wonder. There is a faint knot in my stomach that takes me by surprise. But when we meet she only says with a laugh to the manager, “Oh, he’s not the one.” She searches my face briefly but there is no recognition there. “You went to school in Grantham,” I say and it’s like I want to teach her a lesson; to make her pay for forgetting me, “ Your father was a bank manager there and your best friend was Carol Beswick.” She laughs nervously and there is a slight uneasiness in her eyes. “Now you’re really wondering who I am,” I say and I smile trying to wipe away something like embarrassment that has crept into the scene. “I have to go now,” I say to the manager.
As we walk towards my car, he says to me, “You must have some memory. Did you know her well?”
I slip into the car. “No,” I say finally.