I’m on the rickety swings in the park with my cousin Jane. Jane is twelve now and I am nine. She’s more or less ok but because she is three years older than me she sees herself as a cut above. Like, now she has to be flying higher than me. Her swing is almost reaching the top of the bar. I’d be too scared to let that happen because of the way the rusty old frame always wobbles and shakes. So I don’t even try to get there. Anyway, I’m starting to play my Name Game so my mind’s in another place. This game’s about coming up with a secret name for someone. A name which is more like them than the name they have. Doing this is one of the fun ways I spend my time.
Well anyway, take the name Jane. It’s like a piece of plain paper with nothing on it. Just a blank sheet whichever way you look at it. Even if you hold it up to the light. This name doesn’t tell you anything at all about the way Jane is. The last thing you’d say about her was that she was blank. There’s stuff written all over her.
Jane loves nothing better than flitting around. She is everywhere at once. Telling everybody what to do – mainly me that is. She has come to stay with us for the weekend and though I like having someone to hang out with she does keep on at me, making my head spin. I’ve a feeling that by the time Sunday night arrives and her dad comes to collect her I’ll be glad to be alone again.
Today is Saturday. We’ve got a bit bored with the swings now and so we’re going down to the Old Farm together. It’s a bit more exciting there because we can jump on the fallen tree trunks and paddle in the ponds, if they haven’t dried out yet. But when we get there it’s all: No, walk along the tree trunks this way. No, like this. You have to point your toes forward and jump. Like this. Like this! And at the same time as all the bossing she goes running in and out of the ponds and leaping across from one tree trunk to another. Like an insect – a bee or a mosquito.
The word flit comes into my head as I watch her. If you write flit as Flit, you’d be turning it into a name. You know, starting it with the Capital letter. Wouldn’t you. I see at once that this is the right name, the best name for my cousin. Nobody could hope for a truer one.
I hear myself calling her. Though never out loud. Because I sense that in spite of the name being so truly her she wouldn’t like to hear it. My father once said, ‘Too close for comfort,’ when he had overheard Auntie Julie tell Uncle Johnny something about their pet dog. And then Uncle Johnny had got annoyed all of a sudden and stalked out of the room. Dad said it was because her description of the dog was a bit too like himself and Auntie Julie was really talking about him. I’ve thought about this a lot since and it’s made me ask myself whether the truth is the very last thing people ever want to hear about themselves. So I keep her new name to myself. But I say it over and over.
Flit, Flit, Flit.
What I find out though is that people can change. The discovery worries me. Because it means the name I’ve chosen for someone may not be right forever. Like Flit. And it’s Flit who has forced me to come to terms with the fact I’ll have to think again. Flit is thirteen now. And yes, she has changed. This came about fairly suddenly as I didn’t notice anything new in the Easter holiday when I went to stay at hers. Now it is early summer. She’s at mine for the weekend. And I see at once that she’s different from how she was before. With new concerns. She has turned slow for one thing. I feel distressed when I realise I’m going to have to sort out a new name that matches what she’s become. I thought I’d seen her real self and it had made me happy to think I’d worked her out. But Flit just isn’t true of her any more. Yet the thing is, though she has changed she isn’t completely different. She’s not like a new person. There are some things about her which link her to what she was. Like, she bats her eyes at the same speed with which she used to do everything else. And also, there’s a little fast twitchy something which happens at the sides of her mouth. Especially when she’s smiling. So it seems a bit complicated. I will have to try and accept the way of things and hope I’ll be able to come up with something. But I feel doubtful.
All at once a huge excitement rushes through me though. Because I am having a new idea. It just hits me. What I have to do is change the way I play the Name Game. I start thinking about how you make words from letters. Letters are exciting. You can fiddle about as much as you want and rearrange them. They are like a kind of puzzle. Just one more or one less letter in a word and the meaning’s changed. Wow. You can adapt a word to make a different word by changing a letter or two and keeping the others. And I also see the feeling of the old word can still be there if you get it right. It’s so clever. I see this adaptation as the way forward. It’s the answer I was looking for but didn’t think I’d ever find. You need to change the name, yes, but at the same time make sure you’re linked in to the name you’d had before as you don’t want to lose everything and start from scratch. It’s the best game ever. So how do I go about this when it comes to Flit?
When we go out for a walk on Saturday afternoon my cousin starts chatting up all the boys down our street. This is the only activity she seems to have any energy left for. Flirting has become the most noticeable thing about her. And on the Sunday, down at the Old Farm where all the local kids hang out these days the boys are just swarming round her. Yes, she is heavily into this flirting and I find I’m able to sort her new name out straight away. As follows: I stick an r in after the Fli and before the t. So now I have Flirt. It’s less bee and mosquito-like but with the eye batting teasy extras taken care of. And the name is somehow in keeping with her dopey-droopy pouty lips. I can hear that r buzzing quietly away inside her mouth. As if she’s seen a ghost but has lost her tongue to come right out and say so. It’s just perfect for what she has become: A flirt. Her new name helps me to see her the better. How did I come up with this? I can’t help praising myself.
Now my cousin is eighteen and I am fifteen. She took her exams this year but got such bad grades she upped and left her school. Then she couldn’t find any work and after a short while she turned hard and sharp. I’m not blaming her, I’m just saying. We are just coming out of the front door of her house when I become intensely aware of her new self. As I close the gate to her front garden and look to the left I see the wall. It has bricks at top and bottom but in between there is a long stretch of flint. I can’t stop staring at this wall. It seems to be telling me something. And yes, it is the wall which gives a clue to the new secret name that is starting to hover in my mind. I’m surprised to see such a resemblance between the knapped flint wall and my cousin. They are both very sharp and shiny. And so cold. I run my hand across the flint part of the wall. It makes me shiver.
‘What are you doing?’ Flirt asks me in a cross voice. ‘Hurry up. You’ll make us late.’
We are on our way to the cinema.
‘Ok,’ I tell her quickly, because she sounds too hard to mess with. And this is the exact moment when I come up with her name replacement. I think of the word flirt then extract the r and replace it with an n. Because that makes the best name for how she is now: Flint. Just perfect. And it says all, because I’m sure there’s some flit and flirt in her still, despite the new hardness.
She stares at me with flinty eyes. As if she’s angry about something but won’t say what. It makes me feel uncomfortable. So I call her by her new name secretly and I feel better then.
Flint, Flint, Flint.
Yes. Just right.
A few months after this Flint meets a man who is older than she is and things change again. We are just going down a street close by her house and she starts telling me about this guy, Rob. The next minute we happen to pass a lady pushing a baby along in a buggy. And I see the hard shiny flinty part of her slip away in an instant. She’s come over all gooey and gluey. She puts on a sugary-baby face and starts doing all these chirrupy noises. It makes my stomach turn. I’m sure it would have turned the baby’s stomach too, if it could have heard the way she was carrying on. The lady and baby pass us by in a short while. But the sugar-baby act goes on and on for the whole length of the street.
‘Oh, it’s so sweet. A baby. What a cute little baba. It’s a doll. A real cutsie….’
I feel a sudden panic because she is so completely different from how she used to be that I don’t see how I’ll be able to make a good adaptation. But then I relax. All I have to do is focus on another word. Flit and Flirt and Flint are not the only possibilities. And no sooner have I said this to myself than a new name cones to me.
Jane has always been slick in one way or another, throughout all her secret-name changes. The word slick is what I’m looking at now. There is still the li in the middle of the word so though it is different it isn’t totally unher either. I at once see my way to make the latest adaptation. Slick. That’s the new basis. All I have to do is get rid of the sl and ick is what is left. Ick is the new right name for her. Because this is how she has become. Also I like it because there is one letter left from the early days. I. It used to be lower case and was set in the middle but now it’s a capital, and starts off the name. And it’s right for her too because isn’t she just a bit of the big I am when all’s said and done?
Ick. I say her new name to myself a few times and laugh out loud. She doesn’t hear me though because she is still ickily waffling on about the baby in the buggy.
Not that she’d even come close to understanding what I am laughing at. But then she doesn’t. know anything about the name game, does she. Like, I invented this game and have never let her into the secret. So this is really no more than you’d expect.
Jay Merill is a 2017 Write Well Award nominee, a Pushcart Prize nominee and is the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. She is published in 3:AM Magazine, The Bohemyth, Boyne Berries, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Bunbury Magazine, The Casket of Fictional Delights, Crannog, Fictive Dream, Flight Journal, The Galway Review, The Literateur, Litro, The Lonely Crowd, Minor Literatures, MIR Online, The Nottingham Review, Platform for Prose, The Pygmy Giant, Spelk and elsewhere. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt – God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies – which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize.
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