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Her hair flowed all the way down her back like liquid sunshine, her dress was a meadow of flowers and from the hem, thin legs descended to clean-white tennis shoes, obviously new. Adrian adored her from the moment he saw her.

She was four, and she stood nervously beside Mrs Thomas, her eyes looking steadfastly at the floor, as the teacher told the class "This is Cushla, boys and girls, and I want you all to make her wecome". As they chanted a "hello" in that sing-song cadence of obedient children, the girl lifted her eyes and looked at them with a clear green gaze.

Adrian shuffled his chair over, and waved an eager hand in the air. "I'll look after her, Miss" he said, and a warm smile lit the teacher's face.

"This is Adrian, Cushla," she said, "he'll show you where things are. You sit here beside him."

"You have pretty hair," he whispered, as the girl settled into her seat. She turned to him and gave him a shy smile, without speaking, but with a look of grateful friendship.

At mid-morning break, when the parent helper brought in the milk (this was in the days before Thatcher became the milk snatcher) Adrian snaffled a second bottle, its baby size enchanting the girl, as he pierced the silver-foil lid sharply with a straw and handed it to her. "I think our Adrian is smitten," Mrs Thomas remarked, smiling indulgently at the boy, as he hovered solicitously, making sure that the new girl didn't spill or drop, and brought back the empty bottles afterwards.

It soon became clear that if you wanted to know where Cushla was, you looked for Adrian. He was easy to spot, stocky, and a full head taller than anyone else in the Infant class, his hair a shock of classic carrot, his nose peppered with freckles like spilled sesame seeds, and his ears, if not jug-handles, a fair way from flat against his head – and wherever Cushla went, he was somewhere nearby. He didn't interfere with her games, or intrude, but he was always there, a protective presence. The girl smiled at her large shadow, and accepted his slavish devotion placidly.

The girls at school, like girls at every school, played skipping games at break times. The favourite of these, at this school and this time was "Green Gravel"
Green gravel, green gravel all of the day
I'll send you a letter returning the way
Turn your back you saucy cat
(here the girl jumped to face in the opposite direction)
And say no more to me
Or I'll tell your mother you've been kissing
(Name of boy) in the larder
How many kisses did you give him
5 … 10 … 15 … 20 …
Different boy's names were chosen for each girl, often shifting day by day, many of those names causing the jumper to trap the rope in disgust before even reaching five – but for Cushla, day in day out, the name was "Adrian Marshall" and her gallant knight sat watching and smiled to see that every day, she skipped cheerfully on, never trying to shorten or reduce the game.

In school photographs, You would find Adrian standing stolidly behind the chair that Cushla was placed on, or sitting doggedly at her feet, and her smile was always as sweet as that first day she met him.

As she forged ahead of the class – she was the kind of girl that was described as "bright as a button" – she never changed her seat to sit with the 'clever ones', but at the start of each new year, either seated herself beside Adrian, or saved a seat beside her for him to sit in.

On birthdays, he would give her 'real' chocolates while the others gave her Smarties or Maltesers, and she gave him books she loved, and helped him see what she loved in them.

They always danced the "Gay Gordons" together.

Infant classes passed, and then Juniors. Nothing changed. It was Cushla and Adrian, Adrian and Cushla, as reliable as the tide.

Then, at the age of nine-and-a-bit, something happened to Cushla. Instead of looking up at Adrian she found herself his height, face to face with him. Beneath the white broderie-anglais blouses, breasts began to bud.

Suddenly, Adrian wasn't the only boy to spend all day looking at her, and as she looked back she began to take more notice of what she saw.

There was a pair of twins in the class – Dominic and Christopher. They were held to be identical, but for the first time, Cushla began to observe that if you really looked there were distinct differences between the two, and she really looked. She saw that Dominic was taller, his eyes were wider, his smile a little more lopsided. She said so to Adrian, and he nodded in agreement, the way he always agreed with her. She said so to her girlfriends, and they nodded too, but their nods were knowing.

Although skipping games were only part of play now, they still happened, and one bright Thursday, Adrian was close by, his eyes half on marbles and half on the girls as Cushla stepped up to the rope. It wasn't his turn to shoot, so he watched, and listened.
Green gravel, green gravel all of the day
I'll send you a letter returning the way
Turn your back you saucy cat
And say no more to me
Or I'll tell your mother you've been kissing
Dominic Curzon in the larder
He waited for Cushla to stop the rope, horrified.
How many kisses did you give him?
Of course she would stop the rope, because it was HIM, Adrian, that she was supposed to belong to, always him.
5 … 10 … 15 … 20 … 25 … 30 ….
He saw her there, her face alight with smiles and set in concentration as she jumped harder than he had ever seen her jump before.
35 … 40 … 45 … 50 … 55 … 60 ….
He turned away, tears stinging behind his eyes, back to his marbles, as behind him the chanting went on and on and on, and inside, he broke into shards, and then crumbled into dust.

As he heard the numbers climbing higher, the betrayal got too much. He slipped away, quietly.

And on the playground, Cushla kept jumping, oblivious.

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