In my dreams, the good ones, Mary Iris McCormack - Mim for short - is forever doing handstands, her knees bent, her feet planted flat against the redbrick playground wall. The skirt of her school uniform hangs like a soft green bell about the half-hidden clapper of her head, and when she turns to face me I see strange, knowing, upside-down eyes peering from beneath the inverted hem. She looks away and a quick flick of blond hair sweeps a swirl of dust from the asphalt.
Dreaming, half-aware of the fact, I wonder how long it's been since that hot yellow-blue, small-town afternoon in her sister's tent. Thirty-nine years? Forty? Can that be true? Has it really been so long since she left me, moved to the city, the bright lights, London?
From the skirt-bell's apex two flawless legs rise into the air, a matched pair of flying buttresses kissing the wall to keep it in its place. Suddenly straightened, oh-so-carefully parted, they become a walking V as Mim inches towards me, poised, balanced, her hands sharp-angled on strong, supple wrists. Spectacular. V for victory.
I hear high-pitched peals of laughter coming from the bell's interior, and at the dark forbidden fork - a place my eyes have no legitimate business - I see her navy-blue knickers.
Three times in the past week I've woken at this point and looked towards the pool of light where the night-nurses sit. I know one of them well - nurse Mary O'Connor, redheaded with a lovely Irish lilt on her. Her father used to be my postman, delivering my letters, collecting my replies, bringing me dry paper and disappointment. Big city news - too big for a small town Freiston boy like me.
When she moves in a certain way, laughs just so, Nurse Mary O'Connor
reminds me of you.
I like to imagine her standing, yawning, unhitching herself from her station and her little pool of sensible light. I like to picture her upended, walking silently through the sleeping ward on her hands, her crisp white uniform too tight to do the bell thing, but her no-nonsense cap dropping off and her red hair tumbling free.
I see her stop at my bed, grin, execute a slow turn, and head back towards her desk. Yes. Even without a bell, even without a glimpse of navy-blue underwear, that would be something worth waking for.
I close my eyes and think about you, Mim - still doing handstands in my dreams, still showing me your knickers, still getting me into trouble after all these years.
Winner of the 2003 Word Smitten Competition