Heartbreak, The First Time

This old world will never change (

The boy leans out of the window of the train, hoping to improve the reception of his transistor radio. By his measure, there is not enough music in his life, and he is determined to listen to it at every possible opportunity. Right now, for instance: he has about ten minutes before the train will leave, destroying with noise and interference his chance of hearing the daily half-hour music show being broadcast right now on the local-national radio station.

We’re talking about South Africa, in 1965, early on a Wednesday evening.

Halfway down the platform, the boy sees three girls of about his own age, fourteen or a little older. Two of them he recognises vaguely from school: he does not know their names. The third is a complete stranger. As they board the train, he retreats back into his seat, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to be seen with his ostentatious toy.

[A one-band AM radio that barely works? Yes. Not everybody had one. Younger people, think Walkperson. No, let’s say iDevice. No no no, forget all that: think about those people who walk around wearing shiny Bluetooth earpieces with thick curly wires. What do they look like? What do they think they look like?]

The carriage door opens, and the three girls come to sit down around him. They are clearly up to something, but what? “Nice jacket,” says the stranger. It’s hard to tell whether she’s being complimentary or mocking. “Been somewhere nice?”

Untutored in the ways of women, or of the world, the boy’s first inclination is to tell, truthfully, no more than necessary. “French lesson,” he says. There are giggles around him. His next inclination is to tell, truthfully, far more than necessary. “My teacher lives up on the hill, I have to go to her house every week.”

The giggles increase, but in what will come to seem like a miracle, the strange girl does not press the point. “Radio?” she inquires with a nod. The wire of its earpiece is peeking out from the lump it makes in his jacket. The boy nods too, hoping that he is not about to be mugged. “Any good?”

“It’s OK.” By the standards of the time, it is OK.

Once again, the girl changes the subject. “You come down here every week?” she asks. Obviously, she knows the little her friends could tell about him. They are no longer giggling; the train has set off, making all the noise that trains make. Speech has to be loud if it is to be heard at all, if there is to be conversation.

And, though he will never remember what it was about, there is conversation. The girl and the boy talk about anything and nothing, with rare interjections from the other two. Thirteen stops and nearly an hour later, his journey over, the boy waves goodbye with a “See you” — although they have made no arrangement to do so, not even exchanged names — gets off the train and walks the rest of the way home, wondering what has happened to him.

He is not the only one to wonder. “Are you all right?” his mother asks, later that evening.

He is distracted, still puzzling. He has spoken to girls before, and they to him; but exclude his cousins, and classmates talking about school, and neighbours — no, not even neighbours, as far as he can recall — he has never had an encounter remotely like the one on the train. What is this thing called? Love?

After a night’s fitful sleep, imagining how next week’s presumed meeting might play out, he begins to see that he can plan for it. She asked whether he did the same journey every week, implying that she herself did. The train schedule is sufficiently reliable that he can count on seeing her if they arrive at the station within half an hour of one another. He spends hours trying to decide what he will wear — the same jacket, or another? (He has two that are presentable). The same pair of shoes, or the same pair? (He has two that are presentable). The same — No, wait, what about the jacket?

All of Thursday passes like this, and Friday. The boy begins to look out for the strange girl’s companions, and realises that he regularly crosses paths with one of them. Her name is Jennifer. He wonders how he has never noticed that Jennifer is gently attractive. He looks forward to school on Monday.

He spends most of Saturday with a couple of friends, a nascent band, at the home of one of them. On his way home, he sees Jennifer cycle past him and turn up a driveway. He concludes that this must be where she lives. He files away the information in case it should ever be useful.

Monday is a dream. He walks on air, his head wreathed in clouds. Tuesday is even better. At lunchtime he runs across Jennifer, and nods a diffident Hello as he has done several times in the past few days. Why not? They are almost acquaintances.

Unusually, she lets her eye catch his. She speaks. “That girl — ” His heart skips, Yes, what, yes, what, yes, what? “ — won’t be on the train this week.” She watches his face as impassively as he watches hers, confirming that the message has been received and understood, until one of them decides that enough is enough, and nods a Goodbye indistinguishable from the earlier Hello. They move off along their previous paths.

Well, nearly. For his part, the boy has come crashing down to earth, and can travel horizontally only because the trapdoor to the bottommost pit of Hell is closed for maintenance. Somehow, in his bones (if he still has any, which might not be the case) he knows that this week is shorthand for this week or next week or any week thereafter till the end of time. He will never see that girl again. He will never know her name.

He is able for a while to pretend to himself that this week means only what it says, that the following Wednesday might bring joy to counter the misery of this Wednesday — on which his train journey is entirely uneventful. But on that second Wednesday, his worst fears are realised, and once again, nothing of interest happens. His life may as well be over.

Still, the band plays on. The boy changes his route to his friend’s house, taking care always to walk slowly along Jennifer’s road. Once or twice in the next few months, he sees someone who might be her. She is always alone. The habit of looking out for Jennifer becomes so ingrained that he forgets why it started. Is he in lo — no, does he fancy Jennifer? He doesn’t know that either.

It’s one of many things he will never know, never get the chance to find out. Within the year, he will have left the country, never to return. Never knowing a damned thing about anyone, not even himself.

Is that it, you ask? Is that it???

Yup. You have to start somewhere. Heartbreak expands to fill the heart available.

Why Dolphins? Answer, it’s the title of a song that includes the lines Sometimes I wonder / Do you ever think of me? I heard those lines again last week in what I take to be a currently-popular ditty. It must be a very common thought.

But I don’t like that song so much, so here are two others in which The Boy would have wallowed.

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