Chapter Forty Five: Towards An Edge

Nat was discharged from hospital on the 3rd of January. Fliss collected her in a taxi because I couldn’t face going: hospitals scare me and, besides, I wouldn’t have known what to say… I knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted to ask, but… I couldn’t. When I arrived home from work, they were on the sofa, and a sombre but composed Nat was resting her head against Fliss’ chest whilst Fliss held her in her arms. She looked up as I entered the room, but didn’t say anything. I made myself scarce.

The next day was Saturday, and would normally have been a day off but for the fact that the weekend receptionist was away on holiday, and I had agreed to cover her hours. It was quite a relief really as it got me out of the house and earned me some money at the same time.

The day passed uneventfully, and I arrived home at about nine o’clock. When I wearily opened the door, I was nearly deafened by Transvision Vamp’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care.’ It grew louder as I trudged up the stairs, and I could hear Nat and Fliss singing along. Fliss danced past me on the landing wearing her Adrienne dress, she was swigging enthusiastically from a bottle of Lambrini. I followed her down the corridor to her room, where Nat was waiting for her. “We’re going out,” she announced as Nat began to crimp her long gold hair.

“I gathered that,” I said, joining them on the bed and relieving Fliss of the Lambrini. I took a swig, and then passed the bottle on to Nat.
“Why don’t you come?” asked Nat as she wiped the bottle.
“Where are you going?”
“Poptastic,” giggled Fliss tipsily; her face was flushed as she tapped her fingers against the bed frame.

Nat finished Fliss’ hair and stood up. She was wearing tight blue jeans with a black velour halter neck and pale pink stilettos. She and Fliss shared out an enormous stack of luminous pink plastic bangles, “Why don’t you come?” she repeated.

“No thanks.”

Nat shrugged and started to arrange Fliss’ hair further, and I left them to it. It could have been a good night out, but not after a twelve-hour shift, and I felt so tired.

I couldn’t sleep again that night, no matter how many times I closed my eyes, thoughts kept popping into my mind, leading to worries, to other thoughts, to ideas, to fears, they multiplied by the minute until they grew from a single thought to a buzz of words and pictures, a clamour of voices that span faster and faster around my brain and wouldn’t shut up. I could feel my head begin to throb, and my heartbeat increase so that it began to thump in my throat. “I’m dying,” I thought, “I can’t stop this, and it’s suffocating me, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” just thinking it made it happen, I began to feel dizzy as my head throbbed more and more urgently, I could feel the sweat dripping into the sheets as my breathing became more and more ragged, “Stay calm,” I told myself, “stay calm, stay calm, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, think of something else, something else,” I closed my eyes once more, and I concentrated on my breathing… in… out… in… out… inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale. My breathing slowed, my heart ceased to pound, and the dizziness gradually drifted away, it was over. My right arm was stinging as I reached over and touched it, and something wet met my fingers. I shivered as I switched on the light, sweat was seeping into a cut on my arm that, in my panic, I had scratched and re-opened.

The dizziness returned as I staggered, blindly, into the bathroom. I clutched at the door handle to try and steady myself, and hit my knee, hard, on the door. I wound a length of toilet roll around my arm and used sellotape to secure it to my skin. I was shaking as I found my clothes, so much so that I regularly had to cling to my bedside cabinet, or the walls, as I dressed. I lit a cigarette and took a long, hard drag, too hard, I became light headed once more and had to sit down. The cigarette was burning my hand before I had control of my senses again.

The cold, breezy night air began to clear my head, and I felt calmer as I walked along the largely quiet streets. I walked until I reached the Saturday night hustle and bustle of the A6 kebab trade, then I retraced my steps. I felt more awake as I closed the door behind me, but I was tired, so, so tired.

I drank coffee in the kitchen until I heard Nat and Fliss arrive home, then I read in my room until my alarm went off, reminding me to get up for work. I don’t really need that alarm anymore.

Don’t need breakfast anymore either, just black coffee and cigarettes, they make my head buzz and my eyes sore, but I don’t care. “Heavy night?” somebody asked me when I got into work. I just nodded.

When I arrived home in the evening, Fliss and Nat were seated at opposite ends of the sofa, facing each other like a pair of book ends, their bare legs overlapped, and Nat was absently stroking Fliss’ left leg with her right foot as she read ‘The Pursuit Of Love’. Fliss was reading ‘The Princess Diaries’. An indescribable pressure was building up inside me as I walked through the room and down the corridor to my own room; my hands were shaking as I reached for the knife on my dressing table and slide the blade, lengthwise, down my arm.

When I returned some time later, the pair of them were sprawled out on the sofa, watching ‘Flashdance’ on video. I stood in the doorway and watched, I used to love ‘Flashdance’ when I was about fourteen; it’s like a fairytale for aspiring dancers. I must have been away a while, for they were already at the audition scene, right at the end. As Jennifer Beales began to dance, and Irene Cara began to sing, I saw Fliss’ eyes light up. After about a minute, she turned to me and asked with wide, awe struck eyes, “Did you use to dance like that?”
I smiled, but didn’t answer.

“She still can, when she wants to,” said Nat. “Well,” she amended as the break dancing sequence commenced, “mostly she can.” She turned to me as the credits rolled, and said, “We’re watching ‘Coyote Ugly’ next, if you want to watch as well.”

I shook my head, “No thanks.”
“Or,” she suggested, “We could watch something else.”
“It’s your turn to cook,” I growled, pointedly.
“Oh, yes,” with a guilty expression, she got to her feet.

There was an icy silence as I took Nat’s place on the sofa. “Why did you do that?” asked Fliss, she sounded hurt.

I looked straight ahead as I coolly replied, “I don’t like how she’s using you.”

I sensed her tense, “Did it never occur to you that I know what I’m doing?” she said coldly. I didn’t trust myself to reply. “This,” she tried to explain, “What we have, isn’t what you think it is.”

“Isn’t it?” I turned to face her, but she couldn’t meet my eyes, “I’ve seen how she looks at you, how you look at her, I’m not stupid Fliss!”
“And neither am I!” her fury surprised us both, and she made sure that she was calm before she spoke again. “I still love Adrienne,” she quietly admitted, “I always will, Nat knows…”

“Nat’s still in love with Amber!”

“I know,” she met my eyes at last, and I saw the pain in her face as she said, “You’ve got cruel, Maggie, you wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise, Nat cares about me.”

“And do you care about her?” I asked tensely.
“Yes,” her expression was one of bewilderment, “of course I do!” She got to her feet, “and anyway,” she continued, “why do you care when tea gets cooked or not? It isn’t like you’ll bother eating any of it!” She joined Nat in the kitchen.

Later, Nat walked into my room as I sat brooding on my bed, her movements suggested caution and her eyes were wary as she asked, “Can I come in?”
“You are in,” I growled. She made to leave again, but I stopped her.
“I came to tell you I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said from the doorway.
Guilt stabbed my heart as I asked, “Where will you go?”
“Back to my mum, until I can find a flat, won’t be for long.”
Nat’s mum is a journalist. She mainly writes for The Guardian, and despite the fact that they each, in their own way, work in the same industry, they really don’t get along. It may have something to do with Nat’s mum having read Nat’s diary when she was sixteen, a betrayal which would have been bad enough on its own, but which was confounded by the fact that it also led her to discover Nat’s secret hiding place in which she kept her stack of unsent love letters to girls at school she had crushes on. But then again, it might not have done. Anyway, Nat hasn’t lived with her mum for more than three months at a time since leaving high school.

It was with this in mind that I said “You can stay here longer if you like; I know Fliss would like that.”

She shook her head, her eyes were still wary, as she said, “No, I’ve stayed too long.”

I nodded as I stared at the floor.

I heard the floorboards creak as she moved, slowly and cautiously, across the floor towards me. Gracefully, she knelt down in front of me and took my left hand in hers. “It’s happening again, isn’t it?” her voice was quiet, calm, resolved.

I extracted my hand from her hold easily and gazed directly into her dark eyes, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Her eyes flicked from my face to the knife on my bedside cabinet, and then back to my face, “Yes you do”, and with that same calmness, she slowly unbuttoned the cuff of my shirt, and slid back the sleeve. The burn from my cigarette was blistered and pink, the cuts and scabs red and livid. Her expression didn’t change as she surveyed the damage, “These need treating,” she said at last, “stay there.” She was back a few minutes later, carrying a bowl of water, a bar of soap, a flannel, and a tube of germalene. I didn’t resist as she bathed and washed the burn and cuts, nor when she put the ointment on. I sat there, and I let her do it. Neither of us spoke, and her face remained calmly resolved to her task. When she had cleaned and treated both of my arms, she got to her feet, “I’ll pack tonight,” she said, as though our last conversation had never happened.

“Nat…” I began as she walked back towards the doorway. She paused, “Thanks.”

She turned to face me, and I could tell that she was worried as she said, “If you won’t tell me what’s happening, what you’re feeling… promise me that you’ll talk to someone.”

I shuffled uneasily against the mattress, “It isn’t time for that…” I muttered, “Not yet, I don’t feel like that anymore.”
“Then what are you feeling?” she demanded.
I thought about it, “Nothing” I said at last.
“Sometimes nothing is the worst thing you can feel.”
“I know that.”

Our conversation caused me a great deal of uneasiness, and I had to get out. Not many places are open on a Sunday night in Manchester’s club land, but I found the dark kitsch of Fab Café strangely reassuring. Not many people were in, and I watched the film footage on the T.V monitors until I felt restless again. As I walked down Portland Street and took the right hand turn onto Princess Street, I observed the people shoving past me, heading off into the night towards home, towards friends, towards a pub, a club… sanctuary, and I realised that life is essentially meaningless and pointless. These people, this street, the streetlights in the darkness, music, clothes, money… none of it meant anything to me. Nothing felt real; it might as well have been a dream, except that I don’t dream anymore, nothing mattered but the fear, the fear that was seeping into my bones via my skin, the fear, the fear.

I found myself inside a goth club that was a darker darkness than outside, white faces with dark black eyes and bruised or blood red lips loomed in front of my face. I saw sparks of silver in the darkness, through the smoke. I heard my feet walk onto the dance floor, and over to the bar. I bought a snakebite and black, but don’t remember drinking it, what did it matter? Nothing was clear, nothing mattered. Then, cutting through all the smoke, all the pain, all the fear, came a series of hard, jagged, unrelenting, crashing chords, and a voice, soaring high, crying out in pain, and singing, singing… the glass fell from my hands as I stared, mesmerised, at the DJ, wanting to see as well as hear the lyrics:

I can no longer feel
My heart beating
And I can no longer see
You
I am sick, so sick
And I can’t be
Strong for you

It held me like a spell, like the only truth in a world full of lies. It wasn’t painful, the only thing that wasn’t, and it mattered, even as I knew that I was being pushed further and further towards an edge that should never be crossed.

I don’t remember going home.

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Chapter Forty Four: New Years Eve

 Fliss and I – for various reasons – had planned a quiet New Years Eve in, catching up on the final series of ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ on video.  It wasn’t so much that we couldn’t afford to go out as that neither of us felt up to it.  Fliss had arrived home via a hellishly convoluted train journey on the 30th, and I had arrived home from mums on the 27th.  Neither of us discussed our respective Christmas’, but I could tell within a few minutes of her arriving home that Fliss’ family Christmas had been about as enjoyable as mine had been.  God knows what Katy’s was like…

  Fliss made hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows, and the two of us settled down on the sofa with Marmalade and our videos.  Before too long, Marmalade was asleep in my lap and the heat from our gas fire was making me feel drowsy.  In the glow of the firelight, I saw Fliss reach for the remote control and pause Buffy mid kick, “Did you hear something?” she asked.

  I shook my head.

  She was about to press play on the remote when there was a distant knock at the door.  Fliss stopped the tape, and got to her feet.  The cat, sensing something was up, jumped down from my lap, and followed Fliss down the stairs.

  A couple of minutes later, the living room door opened once more to reveal… Nat.  But it was a Nat that I had never seen before.  Her hair was hanging loose and seemingly un-brushed, her clothes looked as though they had been pulled on with no thought as to whether they matched or not, her face was devoid of make-up, and her eyes were puffy, as though she had been crying.  She was clutching a carrier bag.  Behind her, staggering under the weight of two suitcases was Fliss.  I watched with increasing apprehension as Nat tottered over to our armchair, reached into her carrier bag, and produced a bottle of gin from which she took a large, desperate swig.  More shakily, she reached into the pocket of her jeans for her cigarettes and lighter.  The carrier bag clinked glassily as it dropped from her fingers to the floor, and her fingers shook as she lit her cigarette and took a wobbly drag.

  We waited, expectantly.

  “She threw me out,” she snarled, bitterly, as she exhaled, “She said… she said she never meant for things to go as far as they did,” she choked a little, and then took another swig of gin, “She told me she didn’t love me, that she never loved me, she just wanted to have me.”

  Fliss winced.

  Tears were running down Nat’s cheeks as she continued, “She was everything I was looking for! Everything I wanted, I need her!” She wailed, “I never needed anyone before!”  She took another swig from her bottle, and then dragged fiercely on her cigarette, “God, I’ll be a laughing stock at work after this,” she growled, “but I don’t care about that,” her voice wobbled, and then became a thin wail, “I just want her!”

  “What about Dylan?” I asked quietly a few minutes later.

  She violently shook her head, “Oh no!” her cigarette butt smouldered, and she used it to light a fresh cigarette, “that’s over, it was an all or nothing choice…”

  “But he would take you back,” I reasoned, “if he knew it was over, I’m sure he would…”

  Nat shook her head emphatically once more, “No,” she said, firmly, “you weren’t there, you don’t know what happened, what he saw, what he walked into: He walked in on Amber going down on me for fucks sake!”

  I could feel myself blushing as I looked away.

  “God, Maggie!” snapped Nat, “You are such a prude…”

  “I am not!” I protested, furiously.

  Nat and Fliss exchanged a knowing smirk.

  “I’m not!” I cried, “I am not a prude!”

  “Then why are you so angry?” asked Nat coolly, her eyes mocking.

  I’ll give you angry, I thought furiously as I stormed out of the room.

  I was stonily calm when I returned, about an hour later.  Nat had finished most of the booze by then, and was lying on the sofa, a fag trailing from her fingers, and her head in Fliss’ lap.  Her expression was maudlin as she half opened her eyes, and slurred; “He doesn’t love me, Maggie, not like I love Amber.  He finds me amusing, and he treats me as someone to look after him and be there for him to fuck, but he doesn’t love me.”

  “Then why did you marry him?”

  “Because I thought he loved me!”

  “Did you love him?” I demanded.

  “No,” she sighed, her expression tired and confused, “not really.”  She squinted up at me, “He wanted stability, and it was what I thought I wanted too.  I was sick of feeling like everyone else had their lives sorted when I didn’t, and of being surrounded by happy straight people… Amber was good to me, I thought it could last, I was wrong.”  A melancholy expression settled over her face as she said, “I thought I’d met my Fabrice when he walked into Juvenile Hell that night, instead,” she sighed, “he just turned out to be another Anthony Kroesig.”

  “What is she on about?” whispered Fliss as I took Nat’s cigarette away from her, and stubbed it out in my ashtray.

  “I don’t know,” I whispered back.

  Her arm rested on Nat’s shoulder as she whispered soothing words into her ear.

  “It’s no use, Fliss,” said Nat sadly, “there isn’t going to be a happy ending for me.  At least Adrienne loved you, Amber never loved me at all; I was just another conquest.”

  Fliss kissed her just above her ear, “I love you, Nat” Nat began to cry, “Shh…” hushed Fliss, “What’s the matter?” but Nat didn’t reply, she just sobbed harder.  When at last she stopped, she whispered something to Fliss that I didn’t quite catch.

  “What did she say?” I asked quietly.

  Fliss’ eyes were wide as she looked up from Nat’s horizontal frame, “She says she’s pregnant.”

  None of us said anything for a few minutes, although the words ‘Oh shit’ hung in the air as plainly as if anyone had spoken them.

  “Oh Nat” soothed Fliss at last, “why didn’t you say something before?”

  I felt numb as I asked, “What will you do?”

  “Get rid of it,” said Nat, savagely.

  “Does he know?” I asked quietly.

  “No” she snapped, “and he never will,” her eyes were icily determined as she said, “it’s best for everyone this way.”

  I was unable to sleep that night.  My mind was buzzing with all of the revelations that the night had brought me.  I had never felt sorry for Amber, I realised, and I still couldn’t.  My heart went out to Nat, as it always has done, but I wasn’t sure about how I felt about Dylan.  There were issues there that I just didn’t want to think about, including my own feelings for him.

  At three a.m I got up and, figuring that Nat would probably be too drunk to wake up, made my way into the living room where Fliss and I had left her, comatose on the sofa, a couple of hours before.

  She wasn’t there.

  I felt the panic rise upwards from the pit of my stomach to my throat.  But her clothes were still there, as were her suitcases.  She couldn’t have gone far.

  I shivered as I made my way through to the kitchen.  I had pulled on my dressing gown, and was wearing a jumper over my two nightshirts, yet I still felt cold.  In their three pairs of socks, my feet felt like blocks of ice.  I put the kettle on and mixed coffee and sugar into a pool of milk in my mug.

  At the kitchen table, I clutched my drink in my numb hands and tried to think.  We are to re-commence recording at Twilight tomorrow, and then, as now, I wasn’t looking forward to it.  Since she returned from her week away, Jenny hasn’t tried to question me about my behaviour, but I know that she’s been watching me.  Normally she doesn’t attend every day of our recording because something always crops up at ‘NME’ to prevent her, but since our row, she seems intent on sticking it out to the end.  I find increasingly that I’m struggling to play up to my usual standard, yet everyone seems to have accepted this.  I don’t know why.  Maybe they wait until I’ve left every day and then the session drummer slips in as I slip out.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  If I could do it, I would be a dancer again, and leave Titanium Rose; they’ll probably sack me soon anyway.  It feels like months since we were last in the studio, and like years since I last saw Fergus, or even spoke to him.  He won’t phone me, and I can’t phone him, it’s like he was someone I loved once, a very long time ago, in another life maybe.  That time has gone now, and we no longer belong together.

I think I nodded out for a couple of hours there, I don’t know what happened exactly; one minute it was dark, the next minute, daylight.  I have never felt as alone in all my life as I have at this moment.

  Where was I? Nowhere probably.

  As I sat in that kitchen thinking, or not thinking, over a week ago now, I heard the sound of a door creaking open along the corridor.  There were footsteps, slow and hesitant, and then a series of thumps, followed by a crash.  I ran from the kitchen, my heart pounding in my chest, my head filled with a sudden sense of wrongness…and I saw Nat.  She was lying in a crumpled heap of black satin and red lace at the bottom of the stairs, and she was eerily still, the disquieting stillness of unconsciousness.

Chapter Forty Three: December Days

Cold, so cold… no matter how many layers of clothing I wear, I am still icy cold.  My eyes are sore, they flicker constantly, and my head aches so hard, so painfully.  Cold, so cold… the icy winds, the early nights and dark days of winter have driven away the golden sun, and it will rain until May, rain and rain and rain.

  “Once again, from the top” the voice spoke coldly and distantly in my cans as I waited at the drums, and stared bleakly around the cold grey studio.

  “What?” I snapped.

  “Again, from the top,” there was no change in the producers tone at all.

  “Why?”

  “You’re still going too fast”

  I could feel the anger firing through me as I got to my feet, “There was nothing wrong with those takes!” I yelled at the faces behind the glass, “I’m playing at the right speed! Everyone else is playing too bloody slow!”

  As I got closer, I could see them all behind the thick glass, exchanging looks, and I could imagine what they were saying, “She really thinks she’s something, doesn’t she?” “We could have gone home by now if it wasn’t for her”, “We should have sacked her months ago.”  They all had their eyes on me, and were waiting, as though they were watching a recently lit firework.  I kept my eye on them as I walked towards the door.  I didn’t think that anyone would stop me, but I wanted to be sure.

  We’ve been ensconced at Twilight Studios for the best part of a month now, recording our album.  I’d like to say that it’s been a pleasurable experience, but on the whole it hasn’t been.  Katy is co-producing, along with Sean Cooke, who was recommended to us by The Girls From Mars, and, as such, she has a lot more power behind the desk than Fliss, Flora, and I do.  “I hate that man,” seethed Flora at the end of the first week as we prepared to go home, “but,” she conceded, reluctantly, “He does know how to get the best out of you.”  Fliss nodded in glum agreement.  Sean Cooke had been particularly hard on her, I thought.  He frequently told her to stop standing about looking pretty, and he pushed her beyond her natural vocal range on the grounds that it was “good for you.”  He thought I was lazy and incompetent, and he didn’t mince his words in telling me so.

  “Interesting show of temper,” remarked Jenny.  She was standing by the main entrance to the studios, barring my way.

  I shoved her aside, “Tell it to Sean, not me.”

  She grasped hold of my arm, carefully but firmly, and pulled me back inside, “Sit,” she snapped, and gestured to a nearby seat in the lobby.

  I threw myself down onto the cold plastic chair.

  “What the hell is going on?” she snapped as I slouched in sullen silence, “Why are you acting like this?”

  “Like what?” I snapped.

  There was a brief, uncomfortable pause, before she decided to try a different tack, “What’s wrong, Maggie?” she asked in tones of mild exasperation.

  “Nothing”

  “Then why are you biting everyone’s head off?”

  “Look who’s talking.”

  The barb seemed to have pierced her, at least a little bit, and her expression became thoughtful.  “Alright,” she said, at last, “If there’s nothing wrong, why have you been so distracted? Why hasn’t your playing been up to its usually high standard?” Her voice was louder now, and I could see that she was having trouble controlling her temper, “Why is Sean Cooke leaning on Sandra Dee to draft in a session drummer to replace you?”

  “Fine,” I snapped as I got to my feet, “I’ll be off then shall I?”

  She pulled me down again, “You know that Sandra Dee don’t want that, neither do I, neither do the band… we all know how good you are, but you do seem to be distracted lately, and, well, we’re all, well… concerned” She gazed sternly up into my eyes, “Especially me” I looked away as she continued, “I won’t be here next week, so I can’t be here to argue your case for you, you’re going to have to be firing at one hundred per cent, because you’re going to have to prove to him that you’re as good as we know you are.”

  “Yes, well,” I muttered bitterly, “I’ll try to be a good little girl next week.”

  “That wasn’t what I meant,” she was trying to be stern, but I saw the spark of humour in her eyes.

  “It was really” I smiled sheepishly, “You just said it differently.”

  She sighed as she rested her head on her palms, and scrutinised my face with thoughtful eyes, “Of all of you, I feel I know you the least… why is that?”

  I shrugged, “Maybe I like it that way.”

  “You have secrets.”  It wasn’t a question.

  “Everybody has secrets” I stood up, and slowly slipped my arms inside my coat, “Not just me, I have my reasons for being who I am.”  She didn’t try to stop me from leaving.

  As I made my way through the car park, I was reminded of Fergus.  Although we have broken up, I’ve seen him every day since, at work.  We see each other three times a day on average: in the morning, at dinnertime, and at half five when I go home.  We don’t talk; we just nod grimly to each other in passing.  It is awkward, agonising… but that is how it must be.  Or so I thought…

  On Friday the 12th of December, I was late into work because my bus was late.  It had been raining, and I had left the house without my umbrella, the consequence of which was that I was soaked to the skin by the time I reached the studio.  Shivering with cold, I hung my long black coat over the radiator and turned my attention to the switchboard, which was still switched to ansaphone.

  I was about to switch the machine off when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, and stopped.  There was a polythene cup on my desk, and it was warm to my touch.  I removed the lid: Black coffee.  Next to it was an envelope with my name scrawled on it in handwriting that I knew all too well.

  Inside, he had written:

  Dearest Maggie,

  It is with a certain amount of regret that I must tell you that I am leaving Manchester and returning to Scotland for a time.  Perhaps it will be for the best, as it will give us both time to think.  I am leaving tomorrow morning; firstly for Glasgow to spend Christmas with my family, then in the New Year I will be working for a studio in Stirling for a while.  I will be back on the 12th February.

  Before I leave, I had to tell you that I still love you.  I think I always will.  I want you back, for all it would mean in the present circumstances, I hate this atmosphere there is between us.  Without you, there would be little to return to Manchester for.

  All my love,

  Fergus.

  I felt nothing as I read his words, but I couldn’t let so honest a card go unanswered.  I found a piece of paper and a pen, and I wrote:

  I love you, but we can’t be together, is futile to pretend otherwise.  You should be with someone who makes you happy.

I passed it to him as he walked past my desk on his way back from dinner.

  At half five, the night was black and stormy as I put on my coat.  I wasn’t looking forward to the walk to the bus stop, but it had to be done.  I braced myself, and walked out into the night, straight into Fergus.

  “Did you mean it?” he asked, tightly, “What you wrote?”

  “Yes, I did… I’m sorry,” I continued walking.

  He followed me, “Sorry for what; for loving me or for not being with me?”

  “Either, both…”

  “People who love each other should be together”

  I stopped, and then turned around to face him, “Not you and me.”

  “Why not?”

  I couldn’t answer him.  The wind whipped my hair and the rain lashed my face as I tried not to meet his eyes.  He put his arms around my waist, and I rested my head on his shoulder, “You don’t want this to end, do you?” he murmured.

  “No, but I have to,” I knew that I should move out of his arms, but I didn’t want to.

  “Why?”

 “Because I can’t give you what you want and because what we had wasn’t enough for you”

  “It could be enough,” he said, but I could hear the doubt in his voice.

  “No,” I sighed, “I was stupid to think it could ever be right.  We just don’t live in that kind of a world.”  I raised my head from his shoulder, “I do love you, I…”

  He kissed me, and I let my feelings for him get the better of me as I kissed him back, for a long, long time.  It felt both beautifully sad, and tacky, what with the rain and everything, but I knew that I didn’t want it to end.

  “It’s over,” I whispered when we stopped.

  “No,” his eyes bored into me, “it’s not.”

  I hung my head.  I had run out of things to say.  He pressed a piece of paper into my hand, “Phone numbers,” he explained, “If you would call me…”

  “No.”  I was as firm as I dared to be.

  “Keep them anyway,” he forced the piece of paper, wet by now, into my cold hand, my numb fingers closed around it.  “Let me give you a lift home,” he said as I slipped the paper into one of my pockets.

  “No, I’m fine.”  If he drove me home, I told myself, we would have to say goodbye all over again, and I didn’t think that I could bear it, whatever the weather was like.

  “But it’s pouring down!” he protested.

  “I want to walk,” I maintained stubbornly, “I need to think…” He caught my hand as I made to go.

  “Think about what I said…” he urged.

  I nodded, and he released my hand.  Through the dark and relentless downpour, I could feel him watching me as I walked away.

  Fliss went home to her parents for Christmas, and I had already agreed months ago to spend Christmas with mum.  Tony had taken his family off to Spain, sparing me the annual torture of visiting him.  It was only as I journeyed from Heaton Chapel to Hazel Grove that I remembered that mum and I wouldn’t be alone this Christmas, Thomas, the boyfriend, would also be present.  I sagged a little lower in my seat on the bus, I had forgotten.

  Things began badly: “Good God!” he exclaimed in astonishment, “She looks just like you when you were that age.”  I could tell that he was scrutinising me equally as much as I was scrutinising him.  He was tall and broad, with very dark brown hair, and he was clean-shaven.  His clothes were fairly non-descript; jeans and t-shirt, but I noticed his eyes, which were a muddy green; they were framed by long, luxurious brown eyelashes, unusually long for a man.  He must have been quite a looker when he was younger.

  I didn’t really know what to make of him, or what to say to him.  What do you say on occasions like this? I had met my mother’s boyfriends before, and had usually found something to say to them, but this felt different somehow.  Both of them were waiting expectantly for a response from me, but I was tongue tied still.  Eventually, I managed to say hello, and to shake his hand, but it felt weird.  I was wary, and I wasn’t sure why.

  “Tony’s daughter?” he asked mum.

  She nodded.

  “That would explain the height”

  I was unsure as to whether I was meant to stand there patiently and be dissected, or whether I was meant to give as good as I got.  In the end, I did neither.  I simply left the room.

  I didn’t like him, I decided, as I waited in the kitchen for the kettle to boil.  He made me feel like a stranger in my own home, and, worst of all, she was letting him do it.  Then, I remembered… it wasn’t my home anymore, I had as good as told her so, months ago.  I told her to put him first.  But, as much as I disliked him, I decided to make an effort.  I made drinks for them both as well as for myself.

  “Has Fergus gone home to Glasgow for Christmas?” asked mum as I handed her a drink.  She was next to him on the sofa, holding his hand, so I claimed the armchair.

  “Yes,” I replied, guardedly.

  “And how’s the recording going?” she asked with interest.

  I just shrugged.

  I took the time to take in the room, which had been decorated far better than if simply mum or I had done it.  The tree was magnificent; it had new decorations instead of our old ragged tinsel and scuffed baubles, and had been dusted with fake snow.  The windows had been decorated with fairy lights and more snow, and it all looked extremely picturesque.  I complimented him on his handiwork, and he seemed pleased.

  But it was an uneasy truce.  In my old bedroom later I stood in front of my old full length mirror and stared at my reflection; huge green eyes stared back at me, her eyes, but they were blank and expressionless, surrounded by dark shadows and bagged skin.  The face was as pale as milk, with freckles that stood out in sharp contrast to the pallid skin, and my cheekbones were showing through.  Was it really my face? I could feel the sense of panic rising in my chest as I muttered, “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? WhoamIwhoamIwhoamIwhoamI… stop it, stop it…” it was getting worse, I could barely breathe.  “Stop…” tears were pouring down my cheeks as I reached for the scissors on the chest of drawers next to me and slashed, wildly, at my arm, eventually drawing blood.  My ragged breathing slowed as I calmed down.  I let go of the scissors.

  Everyone was in bed as I made my way to the bathroom, everywhere was dark, and cold… so cold.  It slowed me down, and I felt frightened… of being alone, of myself perhaps.  I don’t know.  But I’m cold, so cold… I can’t get warm at all, no matter what I do.  So cold.

Chapter Forty Two: Armistice Day

Fliss, resplendent in pink fishnets, black stilettos, black ra ra skirt and pink Blondie t-shirt, tottered and skittered her way across the living room in hot pursuit of her much prized ‘Leader Of The Pack’ 7”.  In the excitement of picking out records, the Shangri-La’s classic had been dropped, causing it to roll across our still uncarpeted floor at a rate of knots.  As the disc wobbled, and then dropped to the floor, Fliss pounced, scooped it up, and placed it carefully back into its battered sleeve.  Having recovered herself, she then clambered awkwardly to her feet and shuffled and tottered her way back across the room to the hi-fi, and her record collection.

  Nat, inspired by Ladyfest Manchester, the four-day celebration of all things lady-made and pro-feminist, had launched a monthly ‘Girl Night’ of music and dancing at Juvenile Hell.  She had borrowed some of the more locally based Ladyfest DJ’s and performers for the nights October launch, but was now searching for more regular DJ’s, which was where Fliss came in.

  Her fidgety exuberance was of stark contrast to my own tiredness.  I slouched on the sofa, feeling headachy and irritable as I watched her.  My eyes felt sore, and the lids felt heavy and had taken to flickering every now and then, in a way that was beyond my control.  I had to stretch my eyes wide in order to feel awake, and it was all too much effort really.  I closed my eyes and half dozed for several minutes.

  The Chiffons ‘Sweet Talking Guy’ was playing as I opened my eyes later, and Fliss was prancing and sashaying her way across the floor as she packed her records into cases ready for the night ahead.  The troublesome stilettos lay abandoned by the hi-fi, one of the heels was off, and Fliss was wearing her old size 3 pink and white trainers as she danced.  Her gold hair flew out at all angles, gently flicking back and forth across her face as the tiers of her ra ra moved from side to side in sympathy.  I smiled as I got wearily to my feet.  Fliss held out a hand to me, and we proceeded to twirl each other enthusiastically, if not entirely skilfully, across the floor.

  Towards the end of the record, Fergus arrived and our self-consciousness returned.  I retired to the sofa, and Fliss quickly finished packing her records and departed.

  He kissed me hello, and told me I looked tired.  I leant back into his arms, and closed my eyes.  He massaged my forehead with careful fingers as he said, “That’s the most relaxed I’ve seen you in weeks.”

  “Hhmmm… what?” I asked, drowsily.

  “Dancing with Fliss”

  “It was just fun.”

  “Fun,” he echoed, blankly.

  “Yes, fun,” alarm bells were ringing as I opened my eyes and sat up.  In turning to face him, I saw the doubt on his face “Oh my God!” I exclaimed in amazement, “You actually thought there was more to it than that?”

  “It’s possible!” he snapped defensively.

  “Don’t start this…” I felt too tired to fight.

  “Well, what am I supposed to think?”

  “About me dancing with Fliss? Nothing!”

  “About us!”

  I didn’t have an answer for him.

  “Well?” he demanded.

  “Fliss is my friend…” I began, pensively.

  “And I’m not?” He grabbed my wrist as I made to get up, “And I’m not?”

  I jerked free, “No,” I muttered savagely, “Not when you’re like this.”  I hurried through Fliss’ maze of rejected vinyl, CD’s, stray clothes, notepads and pens towards the doorway.  I was about halfway when, with a slight click, all the lights went out.  I was unsure of my footing, so I froze.

  “Maggie?” I heard him call in the blackness.

  “I’m fine,” I heard his footsteps coming towards me, “Careful,” I cautioned, “don’t trip over any records.”

  His hand was on my hip.  I heard a rustle as he reached into his pocket, then there was a series of clicks, and his cigarette lighter produced a tiny, intensely bright, yellow flame between us.  His face was now illuminated in the darkness, and his expression was grimly resigned as he took hold of my hand.  “Come on,” he said quietly, “Let’s go and find some candles.”  There was at least one in my room, I knew for sure, plus my lighter, so that seemed to be as good a place as any to start.

  When the candles were lit, we arranged them throughout the room, and settled down on my bed.  The candlelight threw shadows against the walls in the flickering light.  He held me in his arms and blew gently on my neck.  I closed my eyes once more.  “Are you tired?” he murmured.

  “Yes,” I replied drowsily, “I still can’t sleep.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know.  I don’t get the nightmares anymore, but…” I sensed him start to kiss my neck, “Fergus…”

  He paused, “Shhh…” now he was touching my breasts.

  I said nothing, and he continued to work his way down my body.  It could have been so easy to let him do it, to just lie back and think of something else, too tired to resist, but… when he touched me… there, I remembered… It was no specific incident that I remembered, no clear memory, just a feeling, and a series of emotions: Fear, turning into panic, and anger.

  He must have sensed it, for he stopped, and let me go.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered in the dark silence.  I reached out to him, but he wouldn’t let me touch him.  He moved away from me, and sat in angry, uptight silence at the opposite end of the bed, “You know I can’t.”

  “Sometimes,” I could hear the strain in his voice, “I think you just don’t want to, or that you don’t care.”  His eyes shone angrily in the candlelight as he said, “How can you be so cold?”

  It hurt, but I couldn’t blame him for saying it.  “I don’t choose to be,” I murmured, my voice unsteady and unsure, “it’s how I am.  You always knew that, it never used to bother you like it does now.”

  I sensed his exasperation as he said, “I thought you would change, as you got to know me, got to trust me…”

  “I have…” but I knew that I hadn’t changed enough for him.  “I love you, more than I’ve ever loved anyone.  Why isn’t that enough for you?”

  He moved along the bed towards me.  As he held me, he said, “Usually it is.”  He kissed me, softly and lingeringly, and we lay down together.

  The power had come back on by the time Fliss arrived home.  We had seen the street lights come back on, but had stayed still on my bed, the candles flickering and guttering around us.  I rested my head on his chest, and tried not to cry when he stroked my hair.

  Fliss ran into the room, exclaiming, “You’ll never guess what just happened…” she stopped dead, sensing somehow that she might be intruding.  We persuaded her to stay, but she still seemed uncomfortable as she perched, gingerly, on the edge of the bed, her eyes wide and wondering, as she blurted, “Nat’s left Dylan!”

    Apparently, Fliss was packing up her records when Dylan came storming up the stairs from the office downstairs, the expression on his face murderous.  The club was more or less empty, but for Fliss and the Juvenile Hell staff, all of who were in the process of clearing up.  Nat came running up the stairs as all and sundry were observing Dylan, and she looked, according to Fliss, “a total state,” her hair was messy, and her shirt was half on, half off.  She and Dylan started screaming at each other, “I didn’t take much of it in,” confessed Fliss, “but it was mostly rude, and he kept saying, ‘How could you? How could you?’  Then Amber appeared, she’d come up not long after Nat I think, but I hadn’t noticed, and she looked all mussed up and harassed as well, and a bit worried, so, I kind of got the gist of the situation around then.”

  “Nat and Amber?” asked Fergus, his tone bordering on disbelief.

  “Yes,” said Fliss, the distaste creeping into her voice, “isn’t it bizarre?”

  “So what happened next?” I urged.

  “Well,” said Fliss awkwardly, “Amber just sort of stood there, like a lump, a little away from them, looking a bit sheepish and unsure as to what to do or say, they were still screaming at each other at this point you see, then Dylan gave Nat an ultimatum.  He told her that, if she left with him then, and if she promised to give Amber up, he’d forget what he’d just seen.”

  But Dylan’s ultimatums and cajoling had come to nothing: Nat refused point blank.

  “She moved over to where Amber was standing, and she said ‘No’.  He pleaded with her, but she wouldn’t budge, so in the end he left.  He looked utterly destroyed, and I felt very sorry for him.”

  So did I, I realised.  But I couldn’t dwell on it, not then.

  “What about Nat?” we both asked.

  “Well, she looked a bit shaken,” admitted Fliss, “but she seemed quite calm really, she turned to Amber, and said, ‘Come on’, and then they went back downstairs, got their things, and left.  Amber looked as sick as a dog, and I still didn’t get paid.”

  Later, when Fliss had gone to bed and we were lying, quiet and still, in each other’s arms, he asked, “Do you think Nat loved Dylan?”

  I thought about it, “Yes,” I said at last.

  “Not anymore,” he sighed.

  “So it would seem.”

  There was a long pause, and one of the guttering candles went out altogether before he spoke again, “Do you think he knew, about her girlfriends?”

  “I don’t know,” I confessed.

  “I bet she never told him,” he said, a little smugly, “and I bet he never asked.”

  His tone was beginning to irritate me, “Does it matter?” I snapped.

  I sensed his sigh on the back of my neck, “Little defensive, aren’t we?”

  “Nat’s my friend,” I snapped, “I don’t like it when you talk about her like that.”

  “She shouldn’t have married a man she doesn’t love”

  “But its O.K to sleep with one is it?” I demanded.

  “Why does that bother you so much?” he sat up and glared at me as I turned to face him, “Just because she gave me the one thing you never could!”

  I felt as though he had stabbed me.

  “That’s it, isn’t it?” he cried triumphantly.

  I slapped him.  There were tears in my eyes as I said, “Why do you keep hurting me like this? Why are you always saying things, and pressuring me, and…” I burst into tears.

  After what felt like a long time, he took hold of me and tried to calm me down. It was like he was trying to soothe a fractious child, and, as such, I refused to be soothed.  “You worry me when you’re like this,” he murmured, “I never know what’s going to happen with you lately, you scare me sometimes…”

  “Don’t patronise me!” fury combined with my tears, and I felt very, very tired.

  “I’m not…” he seemed hurt, “Tell me what’s wrong,” he brushed my hair out my eyes with his fingers, “talk to me, please…”

  I pulled away from him, “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just tired…”

  “No,” his expression was one of concern, “no, this is more than just being tired, this is something else…”

  “No it’s not! I’m fine! Nothing is wrong! I’m fine!”

  “You’re not fine,” he murmured, “you’re very far from fine…” He stood up, and then turned to face me once more, “I don’t know what you need anymore,” he admitted at last, and I could tell that he was worried, “But I don’t think it’s me.  If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

  As the front door slammed shut behind him, I seemed to step outside myself.  I saw myself walk through to the kitchen and open the cutlery drawer.  I picked up the stiletto knife and held it out in front of me, it glinted in the moonlight, and I knew as I stood there that the barrier was gone.  I stretched out my left arm and tensed it against the cold steel blade as I drew the knife across my arm once, twice, three, four times.  And it felt better.

  I put the knife down, washed it, dried it, and put it back in the drawer.  I was no longer watching myself, no longer crying, and I felt calmer, freer than I had for weeks.  I glanced at my arm.  The cuts weren’t deep, and they would soon heal, but I would have to be careful now.  No short sleeves, not until the scars had faded.  I changed into a long sleeved nightshirt, and went to bed.

  But I slept no better that week than I had in the weeks before, or since.  My mind was overactive, it wouldn’t switch off, and my thoughts, my worries, my fears, wouldn’t leave me alone.

  I drink coffee these days; it keeps me awake whilst simultaneously shredding my nerves and accelerating my heartbeat.  I won’t write about Fergus, although I know that he’s left me for good.  I won’t lie to myself about that.  He’s probably off sowing his wild and much stored oats as I write.  I won’t think about that.  I try not to imagine him with other girls, but sometimes at night… I see them in my mind, and I cut myself to stop the pain.

  A few days ago, Fliss and I went to Juvenile Hell.  Against the backdrop of red and gold glitter, of bright young things, of alcohol and cigarette smoke, I observed Amber and Nat together.  Nat looked twice as beautiful, twice as sexy as usual.  She was wearing black stretch satin, very low cut, and was positively glowing with happiness.  She was the more affectionate of the two, I noticed, the first to take her hand, to throw an intimate glance her way.  She stroked her fingers when she took a drink from her hand, she danced for her… and Amber knew it.

  Fine boned Amber, in her tight jeans and tight t-shirt, watched her through washed out grey eyes that shone with lust.  She flicked her long bleach blonde hair behind her equally pale shoulders constantly, and the next time Nat took her hand, she let go with a coldness that mirrored her exterior.

  The Juvenile Hell staff seemed shell-shocked, although some of them must surely have seen what was going on before that night: I know that, deep down, I’d had an inkling. Part of me wondered how much Dylan had suspected before he went storming in, and part of me wondered how he was feeling now that it was all over.  I’d liked him, the few times I’d met him, and I don’t like seeing people get hurt.

  Later on, Amber’s coldness seemed to melt away, and she started to return the affection that had been thrown her way all night.  Fliss and I, two single women in a club that seemed to be full of couples, watched with a combination of envy and melancholy as Amber and Nat enjoyed a particularly passionate and prolonged snog. “Time we went home,” sighed Fliss “before I throw myself at a perfectly innocent stranger and make a terrible, terrible mistake.”

  I smiled sadly, “You’re right, let’s go home.”

  We lonely girls must stick together.

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

Described as being “The classic regency romance – now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem” (not to mention the oddly whimsical ultraviolent regency zombie mayhem illustrations…) this book turned out to have an odd charm of its own, whilst being horribly compulsive.

For anyone who has been enjoying The Jane Austen Fight Club on Youtube (until it got blocked for copyright reasons that is…), this is of a similar ilk, only it’s more Night Of The Living Dead, The Evil Dead, or Buffy than the original Fight Club.

Imagine that regency England has been suffering from a plague of zombies, with London partitioned into sectors, the military encampments more worried about the undead than Napoleon, and in which it is the norm for all unmarried women to study martial arts in defence of the crown…

Weirdly, it works, mainly because this is a mash up or slash endevour really, not an original work as such, but it works by using a distinctly Austen turn of phrase when describing even the most un-Austen like scenes of carnage. As well as the zombie/vampire related films and shows listed above, it also shares a surreal subtlety with Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, itself a satire on rural fictions such as those by Mary Webb. Gibbons could, with an apparently straight face, throw in lines about cows losing legs, and high melodrama in which overwraught spurned men collapsed into piles of sandwiches, whereas Seth Grahame-Smith gives us class snobbery over the distinctions between Japanese ninjas and Chinese grand masters, a disturbingly twee take on what to do with ‘tame’ zombies, and a training game called ‘Kiss Me Deer’;

“The rules were simple: Sneak up behind one of the large bucks grazing in the nearby woods, wrestle it to the ground, and kiss it on the nose before letting it go.”

In the horror stakes, who would have thought that Charlotte Lucas would suffer a fate even worse than simply marrying Mr Collins? that Elizabeth Bennett would arrive to see Jane in Netherfield not only all over mud, but also all over zombie?

Lady Catherine proves to be as infuriating as ever, albeit with martial arts skills and expensive ninjas, and Grahame-Smith gives Wickham a comeuppance that seems oddly appropriate, all things considered.

Not for the fainthearted, and it’ll ruin the original for you, but good fun nonetheless.