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Love is Fireworks by Keith Rossiter

Two children, wielding too-big racquets, lob a tennis ball back and forth across the sagging net of an unkempt back-garden court. A slender, fair-haired boy, and a slenderer, fairer girl who might almost be his sister. 

The boy, who is ten, feels an unfamiliar passion for the girl. For weeks he has composed love letters in secret, and burnt them in secret. Once, he used his watercolour set to paint the words, but decided it was too childish. He knows he is in love, and he revels in the pain of it. 

At school he teases the girl to hide his feelings, but now they are alone.

The girl hits a sweet return, and the boy is so busy watching her that he skies the ball, which flies into the diamond mesh of the fence behind her. 

He feels foolish, and beckons her to the net.

“I’ve got a ton of fireworks,” he says. “Bought them with my pocket money. Shall we let some off?”

“I’m scared of fireworks,” she says, skipping back to the base line.

“Huh,” the boy grunts to himself, and serves a violent and wayward stroke that she dodges with ease, laughing at his exertions.

The tennis court is at the bottom of a rambling garden. A stone path leads across a lawn of grass that is beginning to green again after a dusty summer. Beside the house, the only home the boy has ever known, stands a large van. Men, sweating in the midday sun, load furniture and tea chests filled with his mother’s china, his mother’s clothes, his own toys, his books and sports equipment. He doesn’t want to watch.

The van is almost full and sags on its elderly springs. The boy tries not to think about the van’s last visit, when it came for his father’s things. For the boy, right now, life seems like a crazily whirling Catherine Wheel in a fireworks display, and the only fixed point is this girl.

The boy’s mother appears at the back door of the house and calls: “Lunch time! Your friend can have some too, if she likes. Hurry now. It’s nearly time to go.”

The boy and the girl stand looking at each other, realising for the first time the finality of the moment.

“You’ll be going away soon,” she says. “For good.”

He nods.

“And I won’t see you again.”

His throat and his eyes feel full. He nods again, overwhelmed by the helplessness of childhood.

“Ever.”

He is unable to speak for fear of crying.

“I love you,” she says.

Burning blood turns the boy’s ears red. Hot blood rushes in the boy’s ears. The Catherine Wheel that his life has become is screaming in his ears.

He almost chokes when he speaks, finally, in a voice that seems to come from outside himself.

“Well I couldn’t love anyone who was afraid of fireworks,” he says too loudly, and turns away, embarrassed, to chase a ball that had rolled into the weeds in a corner of the court. 

For the beat of a heart the girl gapes at his back. Then she drops her racquet and flees. 

The boy turns when he hears the old gate’s hinges squeal. He watches her lurch out of the court and run across the lawn, past the van and into the street. She does not look back. He stands, shocked and foolish and defeated for a moment, and then he walks to pick up her racquet and mutters to himself:

“Girls. Well, I couldn’t love anyone who was afraid. Of fireworks.”

Walking to the house he feels useless, like the burnt-out cardboard shell of a rocket. He repeats: “I couldn’t love anyone who was .... I couldn’t....”

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