A dark and funny story about a teenage girl who has a crush on a bizarre boy at her school.
Camilla was secretly in love with Jon, a boy at her school. She didn’t have the courage to walk up to him and prayed that he would be the one who made the first move. Did he share her feelings? If the girl had been honest with herself, she would have realized that Jon had never even noticed her. Camilla decided not to tell anyone about her crush. She was afraid that her school friends would spread the story far and wide until it was out of control. Camilla knew that Jon was not the kind of person you were supposed to fall in love with given that he was, according to school gossip, a nutcase. Though the girl’s parents were unaware of the boy’s dark reputation, she saw no point in opening her heart to them either; they would have done little more than smile condescendingly at her teenage infatuation.
The summer holidays were getting close. As was customary at Camilla’s school, excursions had been organized for the students. These getaways were scheduled for the last week of June. All kids were expected to take part in one of them. Though most excursions focused on sports, a surprising amount of them had unusual themes. While some were refreshingly novel, others were downright bizarre. Who would want to spend a whole week studying hedgehogs by night? Camilla was probably the only student who hadn’t yet made her pick. One morning, she spotted an unusually large gathering of kids around the activities board. They were all staring and pointing at a newly added sheet. As Camilla got closer, she read the title: Bird spotting expedition, Orkney. The girl understood why this piece of paper attracted so much attention. Only one person had signed up: Jon the nut. Like all other students present, Camilla was transfixed by the boy’s name. It had been written hastily, with an extremely leaky ballpoint. Jon had crudely wiped his ink-soaked fingers on the activity sheet, leaving broad blue smudges. Camilla was convinced that had she been asked to make as much of a mess as possible while signing a document, she would not have been able to equal Jon’s natural sloppiness. The girl wondered how the boy ate breakfast. Probably like a hyena, gobbling cereals directly from his bowl, while milk splashed onto the kitchen table. Surprisingly, she found this vision so erotic that it gave her goose bumps.
Camilla listened unwillingly to the chattering students around her. It was rumored that the new excursion had been tailor-made for Jon, in order to canalize his extremely violent nature. This desperate move was, according to a tall girl with glasses, an ultimate attempt from the government to save Jon from a one-way ride to jail or the psychiatric ward. A high-ranking officer had apparently asked their school to put up that sheet at the very last moment, once everyone else had signed up for other activities. Camilla pictured a heavy man with medals hanging from his jacket, flipping through nature books at his massive oak desk, organizing excursions for criminals. It couldn’t be true, she thought, or else the countryside would be packed with filthy, nasty-looking men, pretending to be interested in birds only to avoid lengthy stays in prison.
‘Maybe he signed up because he’s into wildlife,’ Camilla said.
She received only blank stares. When at last the bell rang, all students returned to their respective classes except Camilla. She stood alone before the activities board and, after a while, took out a pen and added her name under Jon’s.
The bird spotting expedition participants were to meet at eight in the morning on the following Monday at the train station. As far as Camilla knew, this would include only three people: Jon, herself and Mr. Wurlitzer, the accompanying natural science teacher. She had never been in one of his classes but knew what the man looked like. Given that he was unusually tall and morbidly obese, the girl was not at all afraid of missing him in the large crowds that commonly cluttered public spaces. Camilla proceeded straight to the platform, where she spotted Jon. The boy was standing dangerously close to the rails, looking down. Camilla walked up and, in a confused mess, said many things at once:
‘Hi. You’ve signed up for the bird spotting expedition? You’re not going to jump, are you? My name’s Camilla, by the way. Life can be beautiful, you know?’
Jon stared at her. As the train was about to rush in, Jon took a step backwards.
Camilla sat opposite Jon, in an almost empty wagon. As the boy hadn’t spoken one word, she decided to break the silence.
‘Isn’t it odd that Mr. Wurlitzer didn’t show up?’ she asked.
The boy shrugged. Camilla was about to ask another question when at last Jon spoke.
‘What are you reading?’ he asked.
She looked down at the three books that were neatly stacked on her knees. When Camilla was much smaller, she used to own a large black cat that always sat on her lap. Its weight and warmth had been a great comfort throughout her childhood. After the cat died, Camilla needed to always have something on her knees, or else she felt naked and vulnerable, no matter how many layers of clothes she had on. Of course, she could not tell him this story. Instead, she handed over her books.
Jon studied the cover of the first one. It was a French novel:
La chinoise qui retenait l’eau by Solange Losange.
‘It means something along the lines of the Chinese woman who retained water,’ Camilla said. ‘I’ll probably never read that book since my French is not very good, but I love its ambiguous title. One can only guess whether this woman held back water magically and thus improved harvests in some drought-plagued Chinese valley or if she had a medical condition.’
Jon stared for a while at the bloated features of the Asian woman on the cover but did not reply. He moved on to the next one, a Japanese phrase book. On its front, two young children, a boy and a girl, had their arms stretched out towards an out-of-reach albatross.
‘I’m not planning to learn a new language, but that image is simply brilliant. Between the lines, they are telling us: Hey, you will never speak Japanese; it’s totally beyond your capacities,’ Camilla said. ‘Originally, I had gone to the bookshop for Ballard’s Crash but it came with an extremely ugly cover that showed a black and white illustration of Liz Taylor, with a horrendous line of colored squares on the side.’
The last book was British Birds by Porn Johnson. Jon smiled.
‘Funny,’ he said.
‘Yes, why would someone who wrote all those books about alternate realities suddenly care about birds?’ she asked.
Jon looked taken aback. Camilla realized that the boy was referring to the author’s name.
‘Oh, that. Yes, his parents must have had quite a sense of humor,’ she said. ‘Which bird book did you bring along?’
‘I didn’t get a chance to buy one,’ he replied.
‘That’s okay. I will lend you mine,’ Camilla promised.
In the late afternoon, Jon and Camilla got off their train and hung around the station for a while, searching for Mr. Wurlitzer. He was nowhere to be found. As directed by their itinerary plan, both students boarded a bus and, two hours later, a ferry. It was getting dark by the time they reached their guesthouse, which was located in the middle of a small fishing village.
That night, Camilla lay awake in her bed, thinking of Jon. She was wondering what he was wearing and whom he was dreaming of. A loud screech of car brakes pulled the girl out of her reverie. Camilla rushed to the window and looked down into the street. A monster-sized silhouette, which could only belong to Mr. Wurlitzer, climbed out of a vehicle and proceeded towards the guesthouse’s entrance. Shortly afterwards, the natural science teacher ascended the staircase, while his trolley bag banged along. With the regularity of a metronome, he stopped every three steps to catch his breath. At long last, Mr. Wurlitzer reached the second floor, where all guestrooms were located. Camilla jumped back into bed and listened as the man walked slowly down the corridor. He was so large that his flanks brushed both walls at once, bringing down the neatly framed flower drawings. Like a small child, Camilla covered her head with a blanket when she heard the repeated crashes and tinkles of broken glass. Why wasn’t anyone stepping out to complain about the astonishing racket? Camilla realized that all other guests were probably trembling in their beds. That thought set off a nervous fit of giggles, which the girl tried hard to muffle. Was it her imagination or was the building caving in, under the weight of the huge man? She wondered what would happen if the entire place collapsed. Camilla pictured a news headline scrolling at the bottom of a television screen: Obese teacher brings down Scottish guesthouse – two dead and many injured. The girl wanted to believe that her survival instincts would send her jumping out of the window before it was too late. Camilla realized how unlikely this scenario was. She would scream from her rubble-covered bed, in the desperate hope that Jon would rush over and dig her out. The boy would carry Camilla to safety, while a bunch of nightgown-clad neighbors clapped their hands and congratulated him for his courage.
Nothing dramatic happened. Mr. Wurlitzer slammed his door shut, an act that Camilla interpreted as a phenomenal f-you-all. Within a couple of minutes, the house had fallen back into an eerie stillness.
In the morning, while peaking out into the corridor, Camilla noticed that someone had cleared the smashed frames and broken glass. She headed down to the breakfast room, where Jon sat alone, sipping tea. With a jolt of shock, the girl noticed that the paper tablecloth in front of him was splattered with egg yolk. As Camilla slowly stepped closer, she noticed that his hands and teacup were smudged yellow too. He even had some in his hair. Jon only saw the girl once she stood right in front of his table. He flashed a disarmingly charming smile.
‘Hey,’ he said.
Not knowing what to say or do, Camilla grabbed a clean chair from another table and sat opposite Jon.
‘Did Mr. Wurlitzer show up?’ he asked.
‘Of course,’ she replied. ‘Didn’t you hear him last night?’
‘It would take an earthquake to wake me up.’
‘Mr. Wurlitzer was louder than an alien attack. That teacher freaks me out,’ Camilla retorted.
‘Perhaps you should knock on his door?’ Jon suggested.
Before Camilla could reply, the guesthouse owner, Ms. Rose, walked up to their table. She appeared not to notice the huge mess on Jon’s table.
‘Did you two sleep well?’ she asked.
‘Oh yes. We had a wonderful night,’ the girl replied.
‘That’s lovely. What are you planning to go and see today?’
‘We’ll head to that large hole in the ground. I believe they call it The Gloop,’ Camilla said.
‘That’s lovely. And where will you two have dinner tonight?’
‘We don’t know yet,’ the girl went on. ‘We were thinking maybe a seafood restaurant.’
‘That’s lovely. Well, I have to get back to my kitchen. A wonderful day to you both.’
‘A seafood restaurant?’ Jon asked once Ms. Rose was gone.
‘I think it’s a good idea. Ms. Rose sounded very enthusiastic.’
‘She would have replied ‘That’s lovely’ to anything you say, even if you had told her that we were planning to eat bird shit tonight,’ Jon said.
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘Shall we bet?’ Jon asked. ‘Go and tell Ms. Rose that we changed out dinner plans. She’s in her kitchen.’
‘Yes. I mean no. I can’t tell her that. It’s disgusting.’
‘All right,’ Jon said. ‘I’ll wash up and off we go. I see no point in waiting all day for elusive natural science teachers.’
On their way out, Camilla walked up to Ms. Rose.
‘Excuse me, Madam. We wish to leave a message for Mr. Wurlitzer. Would you kindly tell him that we’re out for the day?’ the girl asked.
‘That’s lovely,’ the woman replied.
Camilla realized that Jon would have probably won his bet.
Neither Jon nor Camilla had a driver’s license. Luckily for them, an understanding mechanic agreed to rent a scooter. Within an hour, they had reached The Gloop. It was a wild, windy and gloomily beautiful place.
‘Would you like some chocolate?’ Jon asked.
‘Yes, please,’ Camilla replied.
She flipped through the pages of British Birds but was unable to match any of the delicate illustrations with the black dots flying at a great distance.
‘According to Porn Johnson, this area is a bird-watching paradise,’ the girl said.
Jon had walked up to The Gloop. Camilla was shocked to spot him standing so close to the bottomless pit. She gasped and, for the second time in two days, said many things at once:
‘Why do you always stand so close to danger? Is it true that you’re extremely violent? I love you, in case you’re wondering. Did you make all that mess at breakfast with only two eggs?’
Jon stared at her and stepped back from the precipice. With the tip of his tongue, he licked off a brown smudge of chocolate at the corner of her mouth.