Longlisted for University of Sunderland Short Story Award 2016
Friday night in the neighbourhood. The windows are all open and the air is warm and sticky as cupid’s kiss. The couples lying on the grass in the park are too hot to flirt. Across the road, Fiona is getting ready to go out. She applies a final coat of lip gloss, settles the shoulders of her white lace Topshop t-shirt and swaps the thin gold chain with the ampersand for the string of blue beads looped over the dressing table mirror. She considers the beads, twirling them round on a finger. Nope. She slips off the beads, puts on the chain again. Above the single bed, is a poster of Doisneau’s Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville, which she bought after a trip to Paris last summer with Alex when she had just turned seventeen. Catching sight of the lovers in the mirror, Fiona frowns. She doesn’t know what to replace them with. When she goes to Thailand she will come back with a silk hanging of goddesses or elephants, and a new vision of how to live her life. Fiona is a stubborn optimist. She sits forward now and looks deep into her own eyes. You can do this. The film playing and re-playing in her head has Becca cringing, apologetic, crushed. It brings a smile to Fiona’s face as she gets up and goes over to her pile of shoes. She lowers herself gingerly – it’s a tight skirt – and pulls out one blue satin platform court from the heap. There is mud caked round the heel. Fuck. Now she is going to be late.
Craig is in his room in the half-way house he shares with four other lads, one street further from the park. Craig’s social worker, Mark, has fixed him up on a brick laying course at college. Everyone keeps telling Craig how well he is doing, but Craig isn’t so sure. He’s bricking it, every day. It’s a crack his mates are tired of hearing, but Craig doesn’t think up jokes easily; for him it never gets old. His room is minging, with plates and mugs on the windowsill and chip wrappers spilling out of the bin, but there’s no reason to clean up. None of the lads ever open the windows or even the curtains; when home, they are on their screens. Craig is sitting on his bed in his underwear, drinking Carlsberg and eating cold pizza, and playing Call of Duty Advanced Warfare. He is completely shit, but he is getting better at picking his weapons. When he’s killed yet again in an abandoned bunker by Golden Gate Bridge, he checks the time and, after a brief struggle with himself, quits the game. He glances over at the wardrobe spewing its contents onto the floor, and scopes out a clean crumpled shirt and his good pair of jeans. He yells out to his housemates that he is having a shower, and crosses the landing in his boxers with his bottle of Lynx shower gel. He’s not sure why Angela said to meet at the pub, instead of at hers, or his. It’s a worry.
Fiona has changed her skirt and painted her toe nails to go with her beaded flip flops. As she runs downstairs, her mum calls from the sitting room.
‘Are you off out, love? Have you got your keys?’
‘No. I’m going to chuck gravel at the window to wake you up.’
Her mum is straight out into the hall.
‘Are you kidding me, Fiona? Your Dad has an early shift tomorrow.’
Fiona is frowning at her feet, not listening. She runs back upstairs, and pulls out her high heel pink strappy sandals from under the bed. Perfect! Her phone buzzes, and she texts back a quick apology. She’ll be there in ten.
The pub tables behind the low looped metal chain are already full. It’s a young crowd, drawn to the big screen and the low prices. The boys wear shirts over jeans, and drink lager. The girls have made an effort. The mix of perfume and hair products, shower gel and aftershave, the hubbub of voices and music and sports commentary drifts towards the noise and smells of the main road. This is the road Craig takes, past the chicken shop and curry house, past the little swing park where the teenagers sit hunched up on the bench like old men, taking the piss out of everything. Craig pauses to check his hair in the window of a nail bar, runs his hand over his chin. Should he have shaved? Trouble is, it makes his spots sting. He glances past his reflection to the clock on the back wall, groans, and backs into a couple who have stopped for a snog in the middle of the pavement. A kid in a hoodie on a BMX, slaloming by on his way to the skate park, calls out:
‘Threesome! Gross! Get a room!’
Angela’s already outside the pub when Craig gets there, playing on her phone. Not good. She is too pissed off to let him kiss her. Craig leads her in to the bar.
‘Carlsberg, and a bottle of WKD Blue. Cheers, mate.’
There’s nowhere to sit, so they stand, wedged between two big groups. They have to shout.
‘You said you’d phone.’
‘Sorry. I’ve been busy all week.’
‘Busy doing what?’
Craig buries his face in his lager. Angela is steaming. She fiddles with her lip ring. Craig makes a grab for her hand, but she is too quick for him, and thrusts it deep in the pocket of her combats. Craig knows he is in trouble. Angela has been his girlfriend since they were fourteen, since before he got taken into care. He kissed that plump white shoulder before it acquired its swallow tattoo. The generous breasts under her purple vest top, her cigarette breath in his face as they shag, are all he knows of love. All he needs, his timid heart tells him. But Angela is not happy. She is tired of waiting for him to sort himself out. All the old photos still raise a smile, but on evenings out with the gang, Angela takes a look round and wishes she hadn’t picked Craig.
‘Come outside. I need a fag,’ she mutters.
Fiona heads into the pub as Craig and Angela are coming out. She spots Becca and her heart gives a lurch. They haven’t met since the party at Rob’s. Not in the flesh. No one knows how she has cried over the posted photographs, hated the likes. Becca’s gone a bit quiet the last couple of weeks. Fewer shots of sipping cocktails with Alex, more rants about cruelty to Spanish donkeys, which is partly why - but Fiona wishes she hadn’t come. There’s obviously nothing wrong. Becca looks gorgeous, tanned, just the right side of skinny, in a hot pink vest, shorts and flip flops. Fiona feel stupidly dressed up. As her cheek brushes Becca’s, her eyes sting. She blinks and trills:
‘Nice tan, Becca! So jel. How was Tenerife?’
‘Oh my god, it was amazing. Me and Alex got so drunk. I fell over and cut my hand and I can’t even remember doing it. Look!’
Fiona bends over the thin red line across Becca’s palm. She thinks: why don’t I just tell her to fuck off? But says instead:
‘You started without me, I see! Can I get you another one?’
Becca hands over her empty glass.
‘White, please. I’ll get the next round. I’ve got something I need to tell you.’
Waiting to be served, Fiona processes this. When she comes back, she wedges herself into the space between Becca and the door that leads out to the toilets, and leans against the wall. She takes a gulp of wine.
And Becca, face turned away, almost has to shout above the noise in the lounge bar:
‘Why didn’t you warn me that Alex is a fricking arsehole?’
Fiona takes another gulp of wine. What the hell.
‘Well, if it comes to that, Becca, why didn’t you warn me that you are a total bitch?’
Craig watches Angela light her rollie. She exhales and stands with her hip jutting out, turning over in her mind, what she is going to say. Craig can feel it coming, and he has no idea how to stop her. It is like the time he came off his bike. He had a bad feeling about the blue Nissan and the narrowness of the gap, but he couldn’t stop moving along the road. There was a moment just before the Nissan clipped his front wheel when he felt completely free, as if he was outside the whole thing, and it was going to sail past him, as if it was some other boy on some other bike it was aimed at. Then the bike bucked under him, and the car was above his head and the road was skidding past his cheek and shoulder, and as he drew in his breath, the pain came. He watches as Angela drops the little stub of her rollie on the pavement and crushes it under the sole of her high top trainer.
‘I don’t think it’s working, Craig.’
Craig feels himself hit the tarmac.
Becca is flushed. ‘I was off my face at Rob’s. I’m sure we could have sorted it out, if you hadn’t got so upset.’
‘You kissed him in front of me, Becca. That’s why we split up! ’
‘I know. That was mental.’ Becca twists herself away and back. ‘We always promised hoes before bros, Fifi. I should have stuck to that.’
Fifi? Fiona nearly spits out white wine. She hasn’t been Fifi since they were in primary.
‘He’s a total shit. Have you seen Megan’s profile?’
Fiona shakes her head. She unfriended Megan, along with a bunch of others after the party. Everyone but Becca. How else could she see what was going on, and torment herself?
‘I’ve not been eating. My Mum says I should go to the doctor. Megan’s such a bitch. She’s got everybody over on her side.’
Fiona drinks her wine and stops struggling to hear Becca over the noise. What does she think? What does she feel? She has torn the scab off this wound so often, but now she cannot locate it. What does she miss about Alex? The smooth outside of him, the soft shine of his hair, the smell of his skin, his easy manner in a bar or a club. It doesn’t seem much, Fiona thinks, with a lightness of heart that takes her by surprise. She looks down at her feet and is glad that she picked the pink strappy sandals. She is glad she came out tonight. She leans forward, smiling, and holds out her glass.
‘Same again, please, Becca Biscuit. I just remembered why we all called you that. Short for biscuit nicker, wasn’t it? Nothing changes.’
Angela has left. Craig wants to lean back against something, but the wall space is all taken. He walks back inside the pub, where the human noise has him clutching his pint like a drowning man. What he will do tomorrow? He likes Saturday afternoons round at Angela’s almost more than being in bed with Angela. He likes sitting on the sofa with her dad watching Sky Sports. Later, her mum will call them to the table and serve up something Polish with a hard name, but so tasty - and he won’t be there. And Craig wipes wet eyes on the back of his hand, mourning a loss he can’t put a name to, since family means his dad, and his dad is gone.
Fiona is threading her way back from the ladies. She sees a guy standing by himself near the door. Nice looking, short fair hair, stubble, long legs. But it’s his face. Fiona remembers him from school, a couple of years back. And why not say hello after all? She wants to do something to mark her independence from Becca and her crowd. The words form themselves, and with them a bubble of possibility. Fiona can feel it coming, like the time at school they pulled a raffle ticket from the box, and before the number was even read out, seeing the folded pink oblong, she knew she had won.
Becca is walking towards Fiona with a glass of white wine in each hand, as Fiona moves away. She watches Fiona cross to the sad lad clutching his pint. His eyebrows shoot up, and he nods his head, and starts to smile. Moments later, Fiona is gliding back to Becca, also smiling.
‘What’s that about?’
‘Nothing. Thought I knew him, and turns out I do. Craig, from two years above. Remember?’
Becca isn’t sure she does, and anyway, she doesn’t care. She is pissed off, in fact, though she tries not to show it. This evening was meant to be about her. Fiona’s face tells another story. She takes her wine and chinks glasses with Becca.
‘Cheers. To the future.'
Craig leaves the pub, heading home. Darkness has fallen. He passes the chicken shop, the takeaway, the empty swing park. It was a funny thing, that girl coming up to him. Pretty, and smiling, and now her number was safely on his phone. He feels his phone bumping against his hip as he walks. He wonders if he should text Angela again. He’s tried ringing, but her phone’s switched off. Craig reaches the street he lives on, walks past rectangles of light under the orange glare, until he gets to his front door. He is the first one home; the house is in darkness. He flicks on the hall light, goes up to his room, pulls off his shirt and his jeans. He crosses to the window, flips back the curtain, and stands looking at the white pin pricks of the stars. He leans out as far as he can, and stares down the street in the direction of Angela’s house. His view is blocked by all the streets in between. He can just see the outline of the park, its trees solid black against the airy black of the sky. He cannot see Fiona walking past the park in her pink strappy sandals on her way home. But if he had, he would have seen her stop and turn, as if searching out his direction, before putting her hand to her lips and blowing the scented night air a kiss.