It’s a Wednesday morning. Neither you nor I have work today, we are in the same city at the same time, but it’s she who’s making us do this. I am walking a tightrope between looking good for me and not making an effort for you. So, there is mascara and there is eyeliner – it moves smoothly across swollen eyelids, like biro on a slipper’s rubber sole – but no eyeshadow. Because you’re not worth it. I put the lipstick to my mouth, then stop. Everything moves in cycles, and I wore this shade then. It will look like I haven’t moved on and that will not do.
How has this face changed? No real lines yet, just crêpe creases when I smile. Not a problem today. ‘Fat people don’t get wrinkles,’ you told me once. It was probably to make me feel better. You probably shouldn’t have used the word fat. I’ve lost and gained a lot since then, that moves in cycles too. I hope you’ve aged badly. A picture proves nothing these days.
I look at the reflection of the bedroom. Strange to be getting ready here again before meeting you. This has changed too. Long gone is the white MDF desk with its skyline of cassettes, joss sticks and icons of dubious origin. Less is more these days, and I’m here less and less often. No trace of poster pockmarks, just a print my parents found in an antique warehouse, and this mirror bought online.
Your room was in a pocket of the city I’d forgotten about, exotic because it belonged to someone else’s childhood, your childhood. Your room was long and narrow. The ceiling was high and the window stretched all the way up to it, with a low windowsill. That was your place. You told us about your sister’s Rick Astley days and your brother’s temper. It’s always summer in my memory. She is sitting on the bed next to you and I am sitting on a reversible yellow sun/blue moon rug at your feet, letting sunlight and stories spill over me.
Maybe I forgot my place.
I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. I’ll eat later. Everyone else is asleep. I don’t want to think about you or about today either, so I turn on the TV. Breakfast news blares, ‘Tensions are rising in…’, I turn down the volume and switch the channel. The news will dig its fingernails into me throughout the day, so there’s no need to give it an early start.
When we watched TV, we watched MTV. You were the first person we knew to have it. We watched it downstairs in the living room, and when we did, it consumed us. I can barely remember that room, just guitar strings in the desert; bleach blonds with dark roots. We didn’t realise those American summers were heroin sunny. ‘We could do that,’ she said. ‘Just drive around painting in the Mid-West.’ We never managed that nor a Goonie adventure. We didn’t even have bikes. We did the little things we could do. Dyed our hair, bought makeup, stuck our thumbs through the ends of our jumper sleeves and wrapped ourselves up.
Spring sunshine bathes my face. I’m walking in today, because there are other things I need reminding of too, like how good my life has been without you; like having the time and energy to walk in; like the fact I can stop at a café on the way and have breakfast out. This is my Wednesday and you will not spoil it. It’s not summer yet, but the sun is warm through the café window as I eat eggs and drink coffee and watch the people who are in a hurry. They carry on with their lives, and soon, we will carry on with ours.
A song comes on in the background and I’m back in that summer that didn’t rush away from us, September jolting us back. We put down our pens in the exam hall and knew school would no longer bookend our time. No more being cramped by polished shoes and routine. There were no rainy housebound days that July, just the park, the beach, the club and a festival that didn’t live up to our expectations. Then, our first time away as adults. Six of us, on a holiday paid for with money earned half-asleep on Saturday mornings in newsagents, cafés and cinemas.
‘I can’t believe they’re playing this!’ We shouted and jumped, so innocently amazed that we made that first bar, on our first night, our holiday local. I spent the second night outside it listening to you, saying ‘I know,’ ‘the cheek of it’ and ‘you look great’ on a loop, while everyone else was inside dancing. For the record, that girl wasn’t a bitch and did look better in that dress. Why did it bother you so much anyway? Then again, you are the girl who tried to make a funeral all about herself. There was a time I couldn’t listen to those songs. I can now. Just not today. Because of her, not because of you. ‘It was lovely, thanks,’ I say to the owner as I pay. ‘I just hadn’t realised the time.’
Fifteen years ago, the mid-morning faces on this road would have been very different: the out of work, the harassed mothers, truanting children. If I’d seen someone like me sitting in a café, I’d have wondered, ‘I know why I’m here, but why are you?’ Now, each café has a lap-top user in the window. Working from home means working from Costa. The self-employed pay the wages of the media creative baristas, smashing avocadoes instead of the system. My thoughts already sound like you. As I pass charity shops, independent cafes and the organic supermarket, people walk in and out with as much ease as they pass from weekend to weekday.
Marble and granite tempt me into the cemetery. Even death is beautiful in the sun. I don’t read the names engraved, there’s no time, just trace my hand over the tops of the gravestones, let granite and lichen rub away my skin. It’s quieter here, though it shouldn’t be. The low wall, rusty railings and occasional tree are not enough to shield me from the traffic. I bang my foot on a hidden stone border. Grass has grown across the graves, uniting the dead. I am accidentally walking over people, buried decades deep, but they are all part of the cycle. The grass, the trees, the flowers. She could be in this air now, or one day splash over my foot, trailing over the side of a boat in the Mediterranean.
I’d never been in her church before the funeral. I’d been in yours, bleary-eyed on a Sunday morning, or over-dressed on a Saturday evening, ready to rush for the bus. In hers, there were yellow glass windows with white hexagonal frames. They rose up behind the altar; a honeycomb daisy chain cross, bathing the mourners with a callous warmth as they swarmed up for communion. She smiled at them from the top of the coffin, from her final school photograph. Smart and sensible. Not herself. I couldn’t walk past it, but I saw you touch the lid.
The gate and the graves are behind me now. On this side of the cemetery it’s still fifteen years ago. I pass two off licenses, a betting shop and then a sea of graffiti and shutters. The hipsters will never make it this far. Anything they tried to pop up would be slapped down. Two women in pyjamas stand outside open front doors. One tells the other, ‘Seriously, I was fuming with her!’ The other, holding a baby in the crook of her right arm, a pink padded star, nods her head in agreement, then shrugs. ‘Yeah, but she’s your best mate.’
The road inclines steeply upwards. This area is hard to escape. When I look back, the empty shops run into cemetery green and the sun hits a pond beyond it, but when I turn, the city skyline appears as if from nowhere. Beautiful. Yet, none of these places ever felt like they belonged to us. So we left. Not her, but you made up the distance for her. What did you find? There is a lifetime of questions between us. If we could go back and change one thing, would she be here now? Would we two staying friends have made a difference? When our three divided into two twos, it wasn’t just the maths that was wrong. If we’d still been a three, then she wouldn’t have been there, hanging on a street corner like a stereotype. They weren’t our sort of people, but she’d started to branch out. Sick of us, maybe. Sick of juggling of us, or just putting up with us.
The ridiculousness of the afternoon ahead hits me. This farcical meeting. If we forget about the argument, about who was right and wrong, if we forget about the past, we are left with the fact that we are two strangers. I cannot be annoyed at the child you were, being the adult I am. If I meet a stranger in anger, I will lose the higher ground. I will be as ridiculous as you always made me feel. She’d find all of this hilarious. My discomfort, possibly yours.
Beyond the city is the river. The sun bounces off brown water. Industrial chic. I imagine stretching myself across it, linking two worlds. Above it, the sky is the colour of your wallpaper. It was the sort that squashes down when you press on the pattern, then pops back up. It must have been fashionable once. When it was scuffed and torn with too many unfaded squares, your dad painted over it. You got to choose the colour. Then choose again and again until you chose an acceptable one. It was unfair, a violation of rights, a – and I stop this train of thought. It’s giving the illusion of solidarity.
I’m opposite the steps where we used to meet before a night out. Walking distance to our pub. Everything was walking distance in this city we thought was so big. We sometimes waited half an hour for you to arrive. There was no apology, just, ‘I couldn’t get my hair straight’, ‘Does my makeup look okay?’ or ‘I’ve walked out. They started having a go at me for no reason.’
A group of teenagers is standing on our steps today. They look as though they’ve been picked up from our era and dropped into this. I didn’t think long hair on boys was even a thing anymore. I want to tell them how wonderful and terrible their futures will be, to infuse them with confidence and self-respect. I don’t. Instead, I think about how things sometimes change less than we think. That was the first landmark, and everything is fine. I’m still here. The me I am now, not the me from then. You haven’t taken hold of me yet. I know there will be others. Not the school, that’s gone now, rebuilt with more glass and less asbestos.
It would be easy to miss the next landmark, but I know it’s there. I don’t leave the main road, but I look down the side street. I see a sign jutting out from halfway up the side of a building, the only hint of an occasional club. Wednesday daylight shames it into seediness. The colour scheme doesn’t help. No windows. Graffiti covered shutters. An attempted maroon and black makeover. From here there’s no sign of the late-night roof garden. Not a garden. Metal stairs, moonlight, security lights, and you talking again about your mother: her sarcasm, her cruelty, her selfishness, her not understanding you for comic effect – all the things that made you, you. You had your blind spots and I had mine.
We set the bar low for bars. The carpet was sticky before the night had begun. It had diagonal stripes geometrics. Saved by the Bell. There was the black hallway where we sat for privacy and the lounge where we sat on New Year’s Eve. Not on the seats, but on top of the sofa backs. Young and oblivious. Spilling drinks bought with Saturday job wages didn’t matter because happy hour was never ending, escalating and terminating relationships. We bought drinks that don’t exist now, and shouldn’t have then: Castaway; Blastaway. Why? We weren’t there for that. We were there for the music, and dancing, and love, and dancing, and singing, and dancing. ‘You’re like an Ever Ready Teddy!’ she shouted in my ear. If you kept your drink in your hand, there was no need to stop dancing, a thumb in the top of the bottle. Eyes closed, we climbed guitar strings. Smoke filled the air and our lungs but we thought we would be long gone before it had time to kill us. There were no consequences. Just elastic bands to hold our hair back later. This right mind, right time, right place feeling would last forever. These were the friends that would see us through. Tie-dyed into our bone structure, the music thumped through us. We didn’t know heartbreak yet, but in the morning we’d know whiplash.
All that is behind me. I reach the river and turn. I see through new wraparound windows that you aren’t here. Good. I’m early and know you’ll be late. I won’t wait this time, but I will be ready. I choose a seat looking out. I don’t want to be ambushed.
This could be anywhere. I could be anywhere. No-one is looking at me, judging me, and that calms me. They are not you, but there are memories here too, neutralised behind the living wall and softened by scatter cushions, but still there. We saw our first concert here. We saw a lot of bands here. Always standing though. Why would you sit? We were late booking once and ended up in the seats. We tried to sneak down, but they caught us and we had to go back. Then you disappeared to the bar with someone else who looked older.
Out of the window, I see girls with hair dyed more professionally than we ever managed, holding bags from our Saturday afternoon shop. Repeating our lives. I had the sort of hair that girls in club toilets touched and asked if it was natural. Not like yours. Long, dark and, I now realise boring. Maybe you haven’t gone grey, but I’ll still have the better hair. You’ll have the stretch marks, the worries about your children’s school, the revelation that it’s not the school that’s the problem.
During the funeral service, there was constant movement. I stood, sat, knelt and shook hands in sequence and on automatic pilot, but the cemetery was still and green. Most of the bees had gone, and my memory of it comes in short flashes – sharp black edges against the grass, men grunting under the weight of straps, a hug from her mum, not being sure what to do next, and then noises in the fog. ‘She was my best friend!’ It was your voice, shouting at me. We had just seen the same thing, been through the same thing, and yet, you were shouting at me. As if I hadn’t known, as if I wasn’t crying too, as if, even on this occasion, your feelings meant more than mine. And I didn’t say anything. Not because I was ignoring you, or because I wanted to hurt you, but because I really didn’t know what to say to someone who would do that.
I might not recognise you. Will you know me? And what do I do when we are both sure it’s us, anyway? Shaking hands would be weird. I can’t hug you. Air kisses? We never did that. I’ve never done that. Even you won’t have become someone who does that.
You open the door.
J. Cavanagh is a writer, lecturer and researcher from Liverpool who splits her time between London and the North West of England. Her stories ‘Office Space’ and ‘First Snow’ have been published by Fairlight Books and Progenitor.