The Outcast

Clare O’Brien

You must have been ten years old.  You blazed into our last year of primary school with your wild halo of auburn curls and your riot of freckles across skin as pale as our mid-morning milk. Your name was Antoinette, and you didn’t belong.

I liked you from the start with your wide smile and your loud laugh and your funny French name. You brought warmth and sunlight to the dull London drizzle. You were an untidy splash of sound and colour across our grey asphalt playground, where the old oak tree in the corner had seen so much cruelty, and stayed silent.

At seven, when I’d been the new girl, I had made the circuit of that playground, begging to join in.  Each gaggle of rope-turners and elastic-snappers and conker-knockers had turned me away. 

I knew how you felt
when the children
mocked you,
humiliated you
and excluded you

It had taken me three years to make friends, so I no longer had to find an unseen corner to curl up with a book. So I knew how you felt when the children mocked you, humiliated you and excluded you, made your wide smile die on your face like a crushed flower.

I wanted to help you.  I wanted to be your friend.  But at ten, I already had too much to lose. I’d fought for acceptance, and the others made it plain that any friend of yours was no friend of theirs. You were disturbing in every sense. They were afraid of your brightness, your difference, your budding beauty.  I watched them make you afraid, too.  I protected my interests and did nothing.  And you stopped laughing and learned to keep quiet and disturb no-one.  You crept along the school corridors, keeping to the shadows like a silent tortoiseshell cat.  A year later, you left, and I never saw you again.

I hope you forgot us, shook us off like the dust we were. I hope you became a goddess. I’ve looked for your bright, wide-open eyes on theatre stages and cinema screens, listened for your ecstatic laughter, scanned publishers’ lists for your name.  You must be living out there somewhere, painting your life on a canvas that’s wide enough, that can take your vivid colours. I would love to see you again.

Previously PR to a politician and PA to a rock star, Clare now lives noisily in Scotland, writing her first novel, ‘Light Switch’. Her work has recently appeared in Mslexia, The London Reader, Spelk, Cabinet of Heed, Northwords Now and anthologies from The Emma Press and Hedgehog Poetry.