I swayed into the garden, sozzled on alcopops and squinting into the dark. A couple of large shrubs spread over the right side of the lawn, and as I came alongside I saw a pair of female legs stretched out on the grass. A couple more steps and I could see Stacey on her back, hands behind her head, staring up at the sky. We had never spoken much, but she glanced towards me and I was intrigued by her expression, halfway between a smile and a scowl. I rolled onto the ground beside her and stared upwards.
“You bored with the party?” I asked.
“Whatever gives you that idea?”
“You seem more interested in whatever’s up there.”
“Maybe I am.”
I kept my eyes on the sky and held a brief silence. It wasn’t a complete surprise to find her in that spot. She wasn’t an outcast at school, but wasn’t part of anyone’s group and had a reputation for an offhand attitude, dark clothes and liking weird music. And I wasn’t aware of any of the boys having chatted her up. The alcopops prompted me to be the first.
“So what do you see up there?”
Stacey turned her head towards mine. For a moment I expected her to snap at me, but she looked back to the sky.
“No. You go first.”
I guessed she was daring me to be clever. I knew a little about the night sky, so I tilted my head forwards, enough to spot the North Star and point to its side.
“Second star to the right.”
“North Star, and second star to the right.”
“And what’s so special about that?”
I waited, fearing she was going to think it was lame.
“You mean where Peter Pan took Wendy and her wimpy brothers?”
“Like in that old Disney film.”
I spoke the words from the song.
The second star to the right
Shines in the night for you
To tell you that the dreams you plan
Really can come true
Another moment of silence, then she laughed. I felt pleased.
“Is that what you want to be?” she asked. “Peter Pan?”
“No, but Neverland sounds like fun. I like the bit about dreams coming true.”
“So you want to be in a Disney cartoon; all pirates and fairies and little boys in animal costumes.”
“Can you think of anything better?”
She was quiet for a moment, moved her hand on the grass and brushed against mine. I wanted to reach out but didn’t.
“I’d rather go to the third star to the right.”
I looked up. I suppose there was third star to the right but I had never given it much thought.
“And what’s there?”
“Fun stuff. The type of fun that annoys your parents and gets you kicked out of school. Where they’ve got music and drink and drugs that nobody here has ever heard of, and you can stay out and put off the morning for as long you like.”
I thought for a moment and decided that might be more fun that Neverland.
“So how do you get there?”
“We’ll work that out.”
We. I liked the sound of that. I turned my head and we shared a smile, hinting that it could turn into something more. Then a yell ripped across the garden and two blobs of teenage testosterone charged towards us spraying beer onto our legs. Stacey sat up and snapped.
“Oi! Is this a snogging session?”
She stood up, grabbing a handful of earth from the shrub bed and pushed it into the knobhead’s face. He spluttered on it and his mate burst out laughing. She stomped back towards the house. The knobhead grabbed a handful of earth and muttered about pushing it into her face. I grabbed him from behind, his mate stood in front and we made some calming noises. Five minutes of that put a couple of years on his age and he agreed to let it go, so I walked back into the house looking for Stacey. She had gone.
I dampened the disappointment by telling myself I would run into her during the summer, but she dropped from sight. Weeks later we went back to school and I heard that her parents had split and she left town with her mum.
It was ten years before we met again. I was happy, with a job I liked, a nice flat and a girlfriend I was ready to marry. Stacey looked washed out and detached from the world, but as we noticed each other on the street she stopped and spoke my name.
“It’s been a long time,” I said.
“I know. Sorry, I remember I left you at a party.”
“Yeah. Where did you go? The third star to the right?”
For a moment she stared as if I had spoken nonsense, then remembered.
“Oh yeah! And you wanted to go to Neverland.”
I asked if she wanted a coffee, took her into a café and wound up ordering a couple of burgers and chips. She picked at the food, and I noticed some small scars on her arm.
“What have you been up to?” I asked.
“You go first.”
So I told her about A levels and university, work and my fiancé; and that I only saw a handful of the people we had known at school. Then it was her turn. She mentioned another town, then a city up north, then a seaside town known for benefit claimants and a drug problem. Now she was dossing with a friend in scuzzy part of London.
“What about work?” I asked.
“See anyone from school?”
She shrugged again.
“Don’t tell me you spend all day watching telly?”
Her face twitched into a smile.
“No, done bits and pieces …. and been to the third star to the right.”
“Is it worth the trip?”
“It’s an experience.”
She made some vague references to people, places, nightclubs and a rock band that meant nothing to me. I asked a few bland questions. She gave evasive answers. Her smile remained but her eyes were sad. I had an idea she wanted to show me something without telling. I was ready to give her a chance, but two coffees were pressing on my bladder so I excused myself and spent a couple of minutes in the loo. When I returned she had gone. I knew I had done nothing wrong but couldn’t help feeling bad about it.
The next time was seven years later, while I was crawling slowly out of a bad place. It had been nearly three years since my wife died, and although the skewering bouts of grief had faded I was still in emotional limbo. A lack of focus had knocked me backwards at work, a misjudgement had led me to sell my flat and buy one less comfortable, and I was unable to experience anything like fun. It was a sunny day but I felt dull when I stepped out of café and saw Stacey facing me across the street. She raised a hand and I waited as she crossed the road.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I heard about your wife.”
“It was a while ago,” I replied. “I’m getting on with things.”
“Yeah, you look …..” she hesitated.
“I know. Sad.”
For some reason I smiled and she responded. I realised that she was different from the previous time, with more weight on her face, a nice hairstyle and brighter, better kept clothes. She seemed to have herself together.
“Are you back in town?” I asked.
“Yeah. Do you want coffee?”
“I’m caffeined up at the moment.”
“How about a walk? The park’s up the road.”
I had somewhere to be but agreed, sending a text message with a so-so excuse. We walked into the park, around the duck pond and up the hill. She asked about my wife, how I was handling things, who I had around me, finding the words and tone of voice that conveyed a friendly concern. It was more than I would have expected for our third conversation in seventeen years. Then we sat on a bench and looked down towards the tennis courts and kids’ playground.
“I owe you an apology,” she said.
“Disappearing from that café last time we met.”
“That’s OK. You seemed a bit scattered, like you didn’t know if you wanted to talk.”
“I was worse than that. I was still doing stuff that didn’t do me any good. Drifting back and forth to …” – she laughed awkwardly – “the third star to the right”.
I remembered us in the garden at that teenage party and smiled.
“Do you still go there?”
“Not for a long time now.”
She told me she had been back in town for a couple of years, that her parents had got back on speaking terms and her dad was better than she remembered. There were some other family around, she had picked up with one woman from our school and found a couple of new friends, and a job that had her interested. She had given herself the chance to live a life.
“Boyfriend?” I asked.
“There have been a couple. Neither lasted. No broken hearts. What about you, since your wife passed away?”
“A handful of internet dates. All awkward, left me feeling I wasn’t ready.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Can’t rush it.”
We glanced at each other. I noticed that her smile was different, glad to be in the world rather than laughing at it.
“You look better,” I said. “Happier.”
“I saw the light,” she replied.
“Which light’s that?”
“The one that leads to Neverland.”
I laughed. “Oh no!” You’re reminding me of that.”
A light spray hit our faces and we realised a shower was coming. Stacey looked at her watch and said sorry but she had to get back to work. I was ready for a friendly goodbye but she asked for my phone number, punched it into hers and a few seconds later I received a text.
“So you’ve got mine as well,” she said.
“Does that mean I should call?”
“Yeah, sooner rather than later. We can do something together.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“Maybe we can look for that second star on the right.”
Image by Rich Murray, (amended), CC BY 2.0 through flickr