We always used to say: "How is it possible for someone to not like peaches?" It seemed an impossible thing, like not wanting to breathe, but Rachel refused to eat the ones we had stolen that day because she said they were too furry.
Lily was the one who had stolen them. She had sneaked them into her schoolbag while the greengrocer had been serving another customer. She had spent a few cents on a single red apple just to seem legitimate, but she had walked out of the shop with four ripe, juicy peaches hidden at the bottom of her bag.
We ate them in the secret place we had discovered in the attic above the art class. It was used to store tins of powdered paint and boxes of coloured paper and it had a window which overlooked the oval and the boys' change-rooms.
We called it our Look-out and we'd sneak up there after school to watch the boys play football and share stories, drinking sometimes from wine bottles one of us had stolen from the local bottle-o; or to tell jokes about the teachers we didn't like and the girls we thought were stupid.
That day we heard some shouts and we looked down below to see Billy Jones running out of the boys' change-rooms with Paul Lang's clothes. Paul was cursing as he chased Billy, coming out of the change-rooms completely naked. We laughed. We watched as he ran after his clothes with a red-faced expression, swearing loudly.
Paul Lang was a bit of a nerd who didn't really have any friends and we should have felt sorry for him, but we laughed, delighting in his embarrassment. And he looked so funny, naked, with his ever-so-pale skin.
It was a funny thing to see.
And then, when the fun was over, we sat down and ate our peaches, our mouths glistening with juice. Rachel stayed at the window and said:
"He shouldn't really have done that."
"Do you fancy him then?" asked Claire.
"Wrack off," Rachel said and we all laughed.
The peaches were the best peaches we had ever tasted. It was as if the juices from every peach we had ever had in our short lives had been concentrated into their pale flesh so that they were bursting with unbelievable, impossible flavour.
We called ourselves the Fearless Four. Lily, Claire, Rachel and me. Up in our secret Look-out, we thought we were the Queens of the school. We thought we were goddesses looking down on the small world below us.
The world wasn't our exactly oyster waiting to be shucked, but it was definitely our plaything, ready to be explored. Individually, we may have had our own private hopes and fears but, together, we were invincible and the world owed us, and whatever we took from it belonged to us. Peaches were the least of it.
Many, many years later, when Rachel sat on her porch, swallowing her medication, her mouth still scarred from the thorns, she told me that she wished she had eaten her peach that day. She longed, now, for its furry sweetness. But it hadn't been like that back then.
Secretly, I was in love with Rachel of course. There was something special about her that fascinated me. She told stories about herself that most people thought were crazy, and most of the school thought she was just an oddball, but she was accepted in our group and I thought her stories made her all the more lovely.
The thing about Rachel was that she was always somehow detached from the rest of us. It wasn't that she wasn't part of the group – she joined in the pranks and larks as enthusiastically as anyone and could be trusted with the deepest and darkest of secrets – it was just that there was a sense of distant loneliness about her, as if part of her, at least, was watching the world from the outside.
I watched her that day when we ate the peaches. When she thought no-one was looking she leaned forward and kissed the glass of the window. She was looking at something below and her lips met the hardness of glass with softness and longing. It was just a brief moment and she quickly looked around to see if someone was looking, so I averted my eyes, but I wondered who had been the object of her desire.
Many days later, in a private moment, I plucked up the courage to ask her and she was a little surprised that I had witnessed her glassy kiss.
"Oh, I was just practising," she said after a while.
"No-one in particular."
I wasn't sure I believed her. I think she saw my disbelief, for she added:
"I always smell of roses. Did you know that?"
I didn't know what to say and she smiled a little at my confusion. She reached out and pulled my head closer, her hand on the back of my head, pressing it ever so softly into her neck.
Sure enough, the skin of her neck was heavy with the heady aroma of pink roses. It astonished me. I looked at her and she had a serious expression, the look of someone sharing a terrible secret.
"Kiss me," she said.
I was shocked. I had always wanted to kiss her, but…
"Just because," she said.
My heart beating a little faster, I leaned across and kissed her on the mouth, our lips barely touching, so that it almost wasn't a kiss at all. But I gasped. Her mouth tasted, incredibly, of rose petals.
"See," she said when I looked at her, "I am cursed, cursed by flowers."
The incident involving Paul Lang troubled me a little. I had enjoyed laughing at him and had told the story over and over about how we had seen him naked, running outside, his thin body with its skin as pale as curdled milk. The girls asked me for details. His chest was bare. His penis wasn't small but it wasn't large either. His nipples were tiny red welts on his pale chest.
When he walked down the corridor, girls looked at him and smiled. They whispered and laughed. Sometimes he cringed. The boys began calling him 'soft-cock' and 'milk chest.' Someone wrote some graffiti in the library suggesting he was impotent.
I felt a little responsible, as if I had had deliberately provided the material for this cruel ribbing. But I didn't say anything to anyone. When people laughed at him, I laughed as well.
One afternoon I came upon him in the corridor. He looked at me resentfully. Normally we ignored each other but he spoke to me that afternoon.
"It was you wasn't it?"
"What was me?"
"You told them about what happened."
I didn't deny it.
"You've changed things."
He looked sad.
"People have always laughed at me but now they like being cruel. When I walk down the corridor they pinch me. Did you know that? Not just the bullies. Everybody. Someone put a turd in my locker. And they do things like steal my lunch. Or put drawing pins on my chair."
"You should stand up to them."
"How do you stand up to an entire school?"
"You should try something."
He looked suddenly very angry. I thought he was going to hit me because he came at me but all he did was hold me by my arms and press me against the lockers.
"What should I do?" he asked bitterly, "what should I do to you?"
"Let me go," I said angrily.
But his fingers dug deeper into my skin as he pressed me against the doors of the lockers.
"This is what it's like," he said, "this is what it's like to feel helpless."
He looked me fiercely in the eyes. He just held me there. He was almost trembling. Then he kissed me. He kissed me on the mouth in a clumsy, insistent way. I think he was almost as surprised as me for he looked shocked after he had done it and, before I could say anything, he let me go and, leaving his locker door open, rushed off.
"You're a knob, Paul Lang!" I shouted after him.
I'm sure he thought I'd tell everyone else about what had happened but I kept it to myself. I felt sorry for him and didn't want to add to his woes.
When I say I kept it to myself, I told the rest of the gang, of course. We shared secrets among ourselves like boxes of delicious chocolates.
"What a dickhead," said Lily, "do you think he fancies you?"
"I don't know."
"Was it a good kiss?" asked Claire.
We all laughed.
"We should get him back. Play a trick on him."
"I think he's very unhappy. People bully him all the time."
"Yeah, well he brings it on himself," said Lily, "he's so pathetic. We should send him a love letter. Ask him to meet at some place. Watch from a distance."
"That would be cruel," said Claire.
"I know. That's the point."
"We should just leave him alone," Rachel said out of the blue and we all looked at her.
"Why?" asked Lily with disdain.
"People bully him enough. He's already as unhappy as anyone should be."
I could see Lily getting ready to argue and I knew that meant we'd end up doing something mean so I said:
"Maybe she's right. He's not worth it. I think we should just leave him alone too."
Lily looked annoyed but we had our own kind of democracy in the gang and she could sense that she had lost the argument so she changed the subject and we ended up making plans for a raid on the local church orchard where we'd steal shiny red apples, as many as we could, and persuade Claire's mother to make us sweet apple pies with custard.
Rachel became quieter and more aloof. I thought perhaps she was in love. She missed a few meetings in the attic. Lily said she was going soft but I defended her, saying she was sometimes sick.
One afternoon, we went to the museum and it was here that the first of the rose events happened.
Rachel looked pale and tired and, while we wandered trough the room with cases filled with tiny glistening insects pinned to boards, I asked her if she was all right. She smiled weakly and said she had been feeling odd lately. I reached out and held her hand and she smiled, threading her fingers through mine.
"Sometimes, when I'm with you, I'm just about the happiest I can be," she said.
I think she would have said more, except she started coughing. It was the type of dry cough you have when something is stuck in your throat.
"What is it?" I asked, "what's up? Are you all right?"
But she kept clearing her throat and coughing, until something fell out of her mouth and floated to the floor.
A tiny, pink rose petal.
I thought she was playing a trick, but she looked so scared I knew it was real and she hadn't stopped coughing; and then she opened her mouth, as if vomiting, and a stream of coloured petals began tumbling out of her mouth, fluttering in the air, falling to the floor in a pink, yellow, white and red carpet; thousands and thousands of unbelievable rose petals, spewing from her mouth like confetti; filling the air with their astonishing aroma. Until, at last, she was done and she fell to her knees, gasping, tears rolling down her eyes, a few papery petals still falling and landing on her fingers.
No-one else was in the room and no-one believed us, but they could see that Rachel was sick, so they sent us home. On the bus we held hands again and we didn't say a word, we just sat there, speechless and stunned.
We hugged goodbye and I kissed her on the forehead and I noticed that her skin tasted of roses.
She spent a few days in bed and, when she came back to school, something had changed; she was far more serious, even more withdrawn than before, dwelling in her own thoughts.
At one of our meetings in the attic, where we ate stolen Lamingtons, Lily suddenly turned on her telling her that she was as boring as hell these days. Without a word, Rachel stood up and left. She never came back.
I was afraid I might never see her again. She avoided me most of the time. I still went to the meetings in the attic, but it just wasn't the same. The light-hearted camaraderie had left us and Lily's pranks took on a harder, crueller edge.
Paul was still being teased. Someone stole his bike and threw it in the creek. He started receiving death threats, typewritten on blue paper. At sports he was regularly tripped up or punched when the teachers weren't looking. Even some of the teachers began picking on him. The photography teacher locked him in the dark room as a punishment for poor work and his maths teacher loved humiliating him by getting him to answer difficult maths questions he knew he'd fail.
One afternoon, he opened his locker to find someone had filled it with red paint, covering everything: his books, his spare clothes, his lunch. They had written the word 'blood' on the back of the locker door.
Two days later, Paul Lang committed suicide by hanging himself in his bedroom. We found out at assembly one morning.
No-one said anything, but we knew that the person who had filled his locker was Lily, using paint from the attic.
An eerie quiet fell over the school that day. Virtually everyone had reasons to feel guilty and ashamed about how they had treated Paul.
Rachel and I started talking again. She said she had been freaked out by the rose petal incident, but was feeling better now. We started hanging out in the library and I missed a few meetings in the attic for the sake of her company. The meetings weren't enjoyable any more anyway. Lily denied being the one who filled Paul's locker with red paint and said: "That wasn't what made him kill himself anyway. He killed himself because he was a loser."
Being with Rachel, reading books and newspapers in the library was much nicer than cold afternoons in an attic surrounded by paint tins and paper. Besides, there were too many memories up there, hanging around like unwelcome ghosts.
Rachel and I decided to attend the funeral. Apart from the school Principal, we were the only ones from the school that went. The Principal said a few words, telling the congregation of mourners how Paul was a decent lad who was liked by all.
Rachel headed off suddenly and I followed, thinking she was upset but, when I came upon her, kneeling under a plane tree, she was coughing and I thought it was going to be petals again, but this time something small and dark fell out of her mouth. I thought it was a dead tooth, but then a few more fell out and I realised they were thorns. I watched in astonishment as hundreds and hundreds of dark, sharp rose thorns tumbled out of her mouth, making a little pile on the damp earth.
When she had coughed up the last one, she looked at me, her eyes open in terror. Her mouth was bloody and torn, the blood shining on her pale jaw, trickling down the sides of her mouth. I rushed up to her and held her, wrapping my arms around her as tightly as I could, not worrying about the blood staining my shirt, just letting her shake and sob into my chest until she could sob no more.
Our lives changed after this. The gang fell apart completely. We no longer went to the attic. Rachel and I grew closer and fell in love.
Lily went on to be a politician. You've probably heard of her? Claire went interstate and we never heard from her again. Rachel and I moved in together. Sometimes we visited Paul's grave, not out of obligation, but because we wanted to.
Rachel developed a kind of epilepsy, which had to be treated with medication. She had all sorts of little illnesses with made her lethargic and in need of careful attention. I got a job in a bookshop a few streets down and, in the evenings, cared for her.
One of the side effects of her medication was that she could no longer taste things. Food, for her, was just a series of bland textures. That was why she regretted not eating the peach, back in the days when she was young and could taste the world.
All in all though, we've made a reasonable job of our lives. We still love each other and, for the most part, we are happy.
Rachel is still haunted by roses.