Vignette No.15 – Gap Year

Gap Year

It was my mother who suggested it. Well, insisted upon it. Having discovered in Year 9 that certain tones of grey made me all but invisible to the casual eye, I had refused to wear pretty much anything else ever since; my mother, she of vibrant prints and strong perfumes, couldn’t understand where she had gone wrong. By the end of my last year in high school I was leaving the house under sufferance only and when subtlety failed, she point-blank ordered me to go out with my friends.

I had one friend. She lived in southern France and was a terrible correspondent.

“You must have a gap year,” Mother announced, when she discovered me asleep in my bedroom instead of promenading the dress she had picked out at my school’s glitzy nostalgia-fest. I think this was the moment she had to accept I was cripplingly, unemployably shy and something had to be Done. “It will do you good to get out of yourself, discover a different side to life.”

The next day she dragged me off to an alternative tour company recommended by one of her colleagues, who had a formerly recalcitrant, now apparently reformed teenage son. We entered a waiting room papered in impressionistic travel posters and an extremely tall man bounded out of a side office to greet us. He had a craggy face and heavily tanned skin – that was all I saw before I transferred my eyes to the safety of the green linoleum. My mother stepped forward to shake hands and introduce both of us. She told him everything. It didn’t seem to occur to her that I might find that unutterably humiliating. Mother wouldn’t recognise humiliation if she tripped over it, which she wouldn’t anyway, not even in her six-inch stilettos.

“You’re right, ma’am, absolutely right,” the travel agent agreed enthusiastically. “It changes your world. I took eight months in the African jungle, myself, when I was twenty. It opened my eyes for the first time in my life!” He took two long strides across the waiting room to grab a set of glossy brochures off a wall rack and returned to fan them under my nose, like a stage conjuror about to start a card trick.

“What takes your fancy, miss?” He was looking directly at me for the first time, beaming eagerly. He had a nice smile despite a mouthful of crooked teeth. I avoided his eyes, looking at the semicircle of brochures in his enormous brown hand, trying not to think about all the things that were wrong with my face that he was surely noticing at such close range. The pimples at my hairline. The insect bite on my neck. The mole on my ear. He fluttered the brochures slightly and I couldn’t tell whether that was because he wanted me to see them better or he was just sick of holding them out for me.

I only chose one because I wanted to get away. So far away that maybe I might leave even myself behind.

And with the wrongness of my reasons, moral law dictates I should have regretted my shallow and ungrateful decision for the whole six months I have been here, but it’s been the best time of my whole life. The man in the agency was right. It does change your world.

Of course, everything was set up to make things easy for me. My landlady has been wonderful. She puts out my meals at regular hours and pets my head affectionately when I pass by, but mostly she leaves me to get on with my own thing. In this new city I have tasted things I’d once never have dared touch and talked to people without practicing the conversation in my head first. I’ve spent hours people watching without freaking out when they looked at me too. I have danced for buskers and sunbaked on a stranger’s roof and roamed the night alone until I met dawn coming the other way. I sat in an apartment that reeked of lavender and loss and let an old woman know she wasn’t alone – I made faces outside a bored little girl’s car window until she was laughing so hard she could barely breathe. Somewhere along the way I stopped being so scared of what I didn’t know and started learning again. I became someone I actually like.

The craggy man from the travel agency is coming this afternoon to lift the spell, to change this elegant young tortoiseshell cat back into a girl. My mother is coming too. She’s the only thing I’ve missed about being human – well, opposable thumbs were good too, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to paws. I’m looking forward to seeing her, to saying thank you. The only thing that bothers me is how I’m going to explain.

I’m not staying human.

© Faith Mudge 2012

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