Chapter Sixty Eight: Arrival

It was about 4am on the Sunday morning when Thomas called, and I could hear the emotion in his voice, the slightly stunned delight coming over the line, as he told me, “It’s a girl, Elisabeth Ann, seven pounds, two ounces, and she’s fine.  They’re both fine.”

  “Do they still weigh babies in pounds and ounces?” I asked, curiously, after a brief, awkward silence.

  “Oh Maggie…” he laughed, I could have said anything I think; he was so emotionally high that it wouldn’t have mattered. 

  I recovered my faculties at last, “Congratulations, the both of you, and send her my love.”

  “I will”

    It feels terrible to write that I didn’t visit my mother and my new baby half sister in hospital but the truth is; I just couldn’t face it.  They were in Stepping Hill, the hospital I was taken to last month, and, well, I’m not good with hospitals at the best of times.  As it was, I waited a week before going to see them.

  I felt very nervous as I knocked on the door that cold Sunday morning, it’s hard to explain why exactly, but I didn’t feel ready to see my mum just then. Now that the baby has arrived, I have to accept and adjust to the changes that she will inevitably bring, but I’m still not entirely at peace with that. I would like to be, for everyone’s sake, but I’m just not. The whiney, selfish, self centred, childish part of me doesn’t want to share my mother, and it’s going to take time to get over myself.

  But it wasn’t just because of the baby that I was feeling nervous, it was because of what happened last month, of how I felt then, and how I feel now.  I couldn’t face seeing her, knowing that I would have to tell her what I’d done.

  The baby was asleep in her cot in mum and Thomas’ room when I arrived, her skin was very smooth and slightly pink, and what little hair she had was pale reddish blonde.  “She’s a very quiet little girl,” whispered mum from next to me, and I could hear the affection in her voice, as she added, “very serious I think…”

  “Was I a quiet baby?” I whispered back.

  She explained, without taking her eyes off Elisabeth Ann, that I had been what was known as a “difficult baby,” which I read as being shorthand for “child from hell,”

  “You wouldn’t let me feed you, and you used to snatch the spoon off me and throw the food all over the place, and you howled…” she winced in memory, “So did I actually,” she confessed, quietly, “we howled in stereo for about the first six months, I think…”

  I tried not to feel upset about this.  It has occurred to me before, of course, that she might not have had a particularly great time raising me, but I didn’t like to think that I might have contributed to the problem, or that I was the problem. 

  “Still,” she said, brightly, as Thomas came into the room, “at least there’s someone else to feed her, change the nappies, and wake up in the middle of the night when I’m too tired this time…” he kissed her, and put his arm around her shoulders.  Then we settled into silence as we watched the sleeping baby once more.  She had been dressed in yellow, I noticed, and appeared to be drowning in a sea of white and yellow bedding, above which hung a farmyard mobile, featuring a number of friendly looking sheep and cows.

  “Sorry I didn’t come sooner,” I said, quietly, as we moved into the living room.

  “Well, you’re here now,” she said, as she eased herself onto the sofa “sit down.”

  As we drank our drinks, later, I told them about the invitation I’d received to join the Girls From Mars, and about how I wasn’t sure about it. “I don’t think Fergus wants me to do it,” I said, feeling slightly pathetic. “I think he’s afraid of what would happen, to us, and… to me.”

  “What do you mean?” she asked.

 “He’s worried about my health,” I said quietly, dreading the repercussions as I said it, “my mental health,” I couldn’t look at her.

  “But you’ve been doing so well lately,” she said, soothingly.

  I shook my head “I’ve had a few setbacks lately,” 

  I watched as she nodded, sadly, to herself.  “I see,” she didn’t probe me as to what I meant, but I could tell that she was disappointed, just as clearly as I could tell that she wasn’t surprised. 

  “Sorry,” I said, involuntarily.

   She shook her head in distraction, “Don’t be sorry,” she murmured, “Never be sorry,”

  I got to my feet.  I felt as though I’d ruined everyone’s day as I said, “I should go.”

  “No,” she said, looking up sharply, “don’t go… I’ve been thinking about what you said…”

  I sat down once more.

  “There are a number of things I feel I should tell you, they should help you decide… Firstly, you are a far better drummer than you are a waitress, secondly, I don’t believe that Fergus would leave you again, and also, I think this chance you have, if you took it, would probably strengthen what you two have more than it would damage it.  Thirdly,” She met my eyes, and her expression was gravely serious as she said, “you don’t have to be passive about this, you can be in control, of what you do and don’t become involved with in The Girls From Mars.  You have a great many useful friends, Maggie, and they’d all be willing to help you to be in The Girls From Mars, and be comfortable with being in The Girls From Mars.”

    Thomas offered me a lift home, and it seemed rude to say no, so I accepted with wary thanks.  The weather wasn’t fantastic, and it would save me from getting wet.  Mum stood in the doorway, holding Elisabeth Ann, who had woken up with a high, keening, slightly wet sounding cry as is usual for those who have the disadvantage of having no teeth.   Despite this, it wasn’t a particularly shrill or demonstrative cry; it was almost apologetic, as though she was politely trying to draw attention to the fact that she needed feeding.  She hasn’t, as yet, learnt to roar and howl.  I smiled and waved to them both as I climbed into the passenger seat, and mum waved back as she watched the car reverse out onto the road.

  We talked a little on the way home, and whilst I did my best to keep up my end of the conversation, I was aware that we were making small talk; the situation had a depressingly familiar feel to it and our conversation soon petered out.  The early evening darkness was creeping in as we passed The Blossoms in Heaviley, and I found myself thinking about Elisabeth Ann. 

  Thomas almost echoed my thoughts as he said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t seem entirely comfortable at home today.”

  I looked up, guiltily, “Was it that obvious?”

  He nodded.

  “I’m sorry,” I couldn’t look at him, so I gazed at my hands, clasped tightly together in my lap, “I shouldn’t have come; I knew it was going to be…” I stopped myself in time.  “I… felt a little out of place,” I said, more carefully, “it was like walking in on a picture of a family, I felt as though I was intruding.”

  He didn’t say anything for several minutes, but when he did, I could sense the tension in his voice, “You said that we were a family, but you didn’t include yourself in that remark, I’m just wondering why.”

  “I don’t believe I am a part of your family.” It felt strangely good to say it at last, and I felt able to look up and meet his eye once more.

  “My family is your family,” he shrugged, “your mum, your sister…”

 “Half sister.”

  He turned to me, and said, sharply, “Does that half make such a difference to you?”

  I hesitated, “I don’t know,” I confessed at last, my confidence dipping again, “I don’t know how it feels to have a sister, or a brother, I just knows how it feels to have a half sister and two half brothers. Now, I have another half sister. It feels the same, but it also feels different because…” I stopped. I wasn’t sure why it was different, just that it was.

  “Because she’s Rachel’s, not Tony’s” he finished from me.

  I nodded.

  After the long silence, he said quietly, “Your mother cares about you, as do I. We both love you; we don’t want you to feel pushed out.”

  “Maybe it’s because we were always a team,” I reflected, “it was always the two of us, and now…”

  “You’re sharing her with me and Elisabeth Ann.”

  “Yes”

  “It doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both.”

  “I know that, I think, deep down… I just don’t want to be in the way.”

  “You aren’t in the way, how you could be?”

  “Because with Elisabeth Ann I become an afterthought again, a mistake again.”

  “Why do you feel you were a mistake?”

  “Well, I know I wasn’t a planned baby.”

  He was quiet for a few moments before he said, “I’ve known your mother a long time; we were students together, before she met your dad.”

  “I know, she told me.”

  “She was very determined: she knew what she was doing when she decided to keep you.”

  There was another awkward silence, before I said, “I remind her too much of Tony sometimes, I think.”

  He sighed as he said, “I think she accepted Tony for who he is a long time ago. Maybe you should too.”

  We lapsed into silence again.

  After a while, he asked, “Are you going to tell me about some of the setbacks you’ve been having lately?” He added, tentatively, “I think I understand why you don’t want to tell Rachel, but you can talk to me, if it would make you feel better.”

  “It’s best I don’t” I said quickly.

  “Sure?”

  “Yes.”

  “You don’t have to keep everything bottled up, you know, it can help to talk about it.”

  “I know, and thanks,” I smiled, awkwardly, “but I already talked it over with Fergus, and I’m hoping that particular crisis is over now.”  There was another lengthy silence before I asked, “Are you going to marry my mother?”

  We were nearly home now, and I saw him hesitate before he replied, “I’d like to, but she hasn’t said yes yet. Would you like me to?”

  “I don’t know,” I confessed, “I don’t think she knows either.”

  “I did wonder if she didn’t want to say yes until she’d got you used to the idea.” He confessed as he stopped the car. “But I could be wrong.”

  “You could ask her again,” I said hesitantly.

  “Would you like me to?”

  I thought about it for a few moments. “Yes” I said at last, “I would.”

Chapter Sixty: Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?

Nat and I could hear Fliss, Kylie, and Meelan performing three part harmonies to The Waitresses ‘Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?’ as we got ready to go out. The three of them were in Fliss’ room, preparing for an evenings entertainment at The Gates (Mad Girls In The Attic were playing) and The Thompson Arms (Shake-O-Rama!) whilst Nat and I were in my room, preparing for our own night out. They emerged as I rooted under the sofa in the living room for my boots, and I was struck by their air of exuberance. Dressed in jeans, her hair pinned up for the evening, and wearing a blue silk shirt, Fliss looked pretty and happy. Meelan was in her usual skate jeans and t-shirt, and Kylie was wearing blue denim three quarter length trousers with Fliss’ old blue velour halter top. As Fliss returned to her room for her handbag, I watched in concern as Kylie produced a pack of cigarettes from her handbag, lit one, and inhaled. I hadn’t known that she smoked.

  The three of them had left by the time Nat and I were ready. We were going to see The Renaissance Girls, Iona Black’s band, and I was excited as we waited in the living room for my mum to pick us up. The first Renaissance Girls album had come out in 2001, and had been a self-titled masterpiece of jagged, dark, alternative rock. It had been reasonably well received, critically speaking, and had sold quite well, so good things had been expected of the band. We had waited with a great deal of excited expectation for the second album, and waited, and waited, and waited… But things had happened in the intervening four years, both personally and musically for the band, not to mention for Nat and me, and in the thick of all that history, The Renaissance Girls had been forgotten; until now. The second album had finally arrived, and we were more than ready for it.

  “Remember when we went to see that band when we were sixteen?” said Nat, “and they did a cover of a Firefly song?”

  I nodded, “They were called The Midnight Girls” Nat often liked to test me on memories of our collective youth.

  “Do you remember which song it was?”

  “Of course,” I said, “it was ‘Silver Bells’, one of Iona’s songs.”

  Nat nodded, “I miss all that, all those late night gigs and sleepovers.”

  “And school in the morning.”

  “No,” she said, resolutely, “I don’t miss that.”

  I smiled as I leant back against the sofa and closed my eyes.

  Mum arrived a few minutes later, looking considerably more vital and healthy than she had at our last meeting. I’d spoken to her on the phone a few days ago, and she had calmly assured me that both her fainting spells and morning sickness had now ceased. There had been an awkward moment when she mentioned, very reluctantly, that Thomas had asked her to marry him again, and that she had said no. But I had sensed that it hadn’t been the whole story; she had sounded far less sure than she had a month ago. When she arrived she was wearing her old faded black jeans and her Doc Martens, and her jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a slight bump against the fabric of her t-shirt. It wasn’t a big bump, it was just, well, noticeable. Nat walked over to her and hugged her hello, and I hesitantly followed suit a minute or two later.

  There was a sizeable queue outside the Students Union, and the touts were out in force, merrily, and mercilessly, working Oxford Road. When we did get inside, we had to sign in as temporary SU members, always a hectic and crowded affair, before heading for the bar and getting our drinks.

  It was on our way upstairs to the bar, and the gig, that we crossed paths with Lalita Cain, who was accompanied by a pretty young girl of about Fliss’ age. “This is Aurora, my god-daughter,” she explained, after we had exchanged awkward greetings. I noticed that she wouldn’t look at Nat, and that Nat was quietly edging away from our group as she pretended to be equally fascinated by the posters for upcoming gigs and her Academy listings guide. “We were just heading backstage.” We let them go, and it was only as we arrived at the bar that mum turned to Nat, and said, “That was Aurora Gough, wasn’t it?”

  Nat nodded, “Lalita did mention her a few times, when we were still on speaking terms that is. She and Aurora are very close.”

  None of us spoke any more about it, for we knew the story. Iona Black had married Taylor Gough, her producer, in 1987, two years after she had had his daughter, Aurora. Following their divorce in 1993, he had gained custody of Aurora and, following his death in 1996, she had been raised by his parents. Iona rarely spoke to the press, so her feelings on the situation weren’t really known, and she wasn’t the kind of woman people wrote books about, so we were unlikely to ever know. “Unless she writes her autobiography one day” said mum as she carefully massaged the bump.

  Nat shook her head, “I don’t think she’s the type to do that.”

  Mum nodded, “You’re probably right; how refreshing in this day and age.”

  “Aurora’s a nice name,” said Nat, cheerily, “Have you and Thomas decided on names yet?”

  Mum shook her head, “No, at the moment we’re just using ‘the bump’.”

  “You could go for something really distinctive like Thessaly or Tiara…”

  “Peaches or Pixie,” I added, sarcastically.

  “Suri or Jaydynn.”

  Mum shuddered.

  “Holly, because she was conceived at Christmas,” added Nat, “and if it’s a boy, he can be Nicholas.”

  “I think not.” said Mum, decisively.

  Seeing The Renaissance Girls live was very different to seeing The Beauty Queens live, I soon discovered. Because it was so long since they had last played together, and because they didn’t really have anything to prove, The Beauty Queens gig had been quite friendly and relaxed. The Renaissance Girls, by comparison, were a lot more theatrical, dark, and intense. There was a lot of epilepsy inducing lasers and lightning flashes just before the start of the set and, when it all cleared and the basic stage lighting had been restored, the spotlight lit up a small, black clad figure, looking to her left, away from the crowd, her long black hair across her face, a guitar slung across her hips: Iona Black. Her voice was a little shaky at first, but it got stronger as the songs progressed, and soon she was soaring above the jagged metallic tinged dark rock, her voice clear and strong, slightly metallic in quality, matching and enhancing the music as she sang of fear, despair, pain and isolation. Her face was white in the stark lighting, her dark eyes brooding and slightly distracted. She moved awkwardly and self consciously in her loose black long sleeved shirt and black jeans, but her performance felt sincere, albeit quieter, less flamboyant than one would expect.

  “Now there’s a woman who has gone through a lot of shit to get where she is today,” declared Nat as mum drove us back to my flat.

  I nodded in agreement. It was, after all, at least part of the attraction in my case. I liked Iona musically, but her unwillingness to sell her story, and herself, to the press was another quality I admired. Sure, the woman had problems, but she kept her personal and professional life separate, as much as she could, and I had to admire that.

  “Do you think she always wears long sleeves on stage?” asked Nat once we were back at the flat.

  “I don’t know,” I confessed as we waited in the kitchen for the kettle to boil, “I was wondering about that.”

  “It would disguise any scarring.”

  “Yes, whereas wrist bands just draw attention to it.”

  We drank our tea in comfortable silence on the sofa in the living room. As Nat wiped her mouth and checked her mug for lipstick stains, she asked, “Does Rachel being pregnant bother you?”

  I nodded, and I could feel myself blushing in discomfort as I admitted “But I don’t know why, just that it does.”

“You’re embarrassed” she said, quietly.

  I could feel myself blushing as I shook my head, “No, I’m not, really I’m not – I just don’t like talking about it.” I felt flustered, but Nat just nodded, and somehow I found the courage to continue, “I got over her and Thomas being together last year,” I admitted, “this is something else, and I just don’t feel ready to talk about it yet… I don’t know what I feel yet, or why, I just feel uncomfortable.”

  Nat smiled, “I really hated growing up as an only child,” she admitted, “I wish one of my parents had given me a brother or sister.”

  I shook my head, “But we are grown up now – it’s too late now for it to matter that way.”

  “Maybe that’s the problem.”

  There was a long silence before I felt able to say, “I don’t know how I fit into her life anymore. It was simpler when it was just me and her…” I felt like such a whiney child, but at least it was the truth, “since other people have factored in, its complicated things, and I think I’m sad that things will become more complicated again.”

  Fliss, Kylie and Meelan weren’t due back for several hours yet, so Nat slept in my room rather than risk being disturbed on the sofa. We undressed with our backs to each other before climbing into bed. As Nat rested her head on the pillow next to mine, I asked, “How’s Violet?”

  Nat smiled, wickedly, “She’s very well, thanks.”

  “Am I allowed to ask if any new developments have occurred, post Valentines Day?”

  “You can ask, I just won’t tell. I’m taking notes from Iona Black: Don’t kiss and tell.”

  “You’ve loved her for a long time now,” I reflected, calmly and blithely, “since you were eighteen or so.”

  “Almost as long as I’ve loved you,” she murmured, sleepily.

  I blushed again.

  “Does it hurt you if I say that?” she asked, anxiously.

  “No,” my face was on fire, and I felt very, very self conscious and uncomfortable. This was Nat after all; I couldn’t lie to her if I tried “I think I’ve always known. I just never knew how to handle it.”

  She kissed my neck, and said, “You don’t have to handle it, I just wanted to let you know. We won’t talk about it again.” She turned over so that her back was to me, and I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

  It took a long time, but after I had run through the day’s events in my head for a few hours, I at last began to feel sleepy. I was just about to nod off when I heard the front door open and close, and three pairs of feet as they clattered up the stairs. Sometime around dawn, I slept at last.

Chapter Fifty Eight: Emotional Conflict

“What’s wrong?” asked mum as I sat down on the sofa. She seemed unusually pale and tired, and there were lines on her face that I don’t remember noticing before.

  I felt guilty as I said, “Does there have to be something wrong?” she’d been poorly this week, and off work for a few days. Thomas had advised me to be gentle with her as he left, and I didn’t want to worry her.

  “No,” she sighed as she cautiously lowered herself down into the armchair, “but I think there is, I can tell when something’s bothering you… Is it to do with the band?”

  “How did you know?” I was surprised.

  She sighed as she wearily raked a hand through her unusually limp seeming hair, “Because it usually is to do with the band.”

  I cast my mind back to February, and the awful day when Fliss and Katy had argued over songs, specifically Fliss’ songs. On our previous albums, Katy and Fliss have always shared the main songwriting duties, often collaborating on songs, but this apparently stopped sometime last year, whilst I was ill. “Now they’re writing alone,” I told mum, “it’s as though they’re in competition with each other, and I think Katy’s starting to feel threatened by Fliss’ output.”

  She nodded, but her eyes had a distant, glazed look, and she was absolutely ashen faced. She closed her eyes for a few moments and sagged back in her chair in what, I realised a few minutes later, was a dead faint.

  I have to confess to panicking for a few moments. I was used to her always being reliable and, more than that, always there, perfectly robust in body and mind. I didn’t know how long Thomas would be out of the house for, and I didn’t know what to do, or what was wrong.

  She was only out cold for a few minutes, but those minutes felt like hours. My heart was hammering in my chest, and the adrenalin was surging through me, making me shiver and shake. When she at last opened her eyes, I almost cried with relief.

  She seemed a little confused to find me hovering over her, and her eyes still looked strange and distant as I asked, “Are you alright?”

  She nodded vaguely, and then closed her eyes and went to sleep.

  Thomas was back about five minutes later, I heard the back door open and his cheery whistle as he opened and shut cupboards, presumably putting shopping away.

  My legs were weak and shaky as I ran through to the kitchen. He looked up from what he was doing, and his expression of amiable cheer drained as he saw my face. “What’s wrong?”

  “It’s not me,” I blurted, “but she… her eyes were really weird, then I think she fainted… she came out of it, but then she fell asleep.” There was a shake in my voice too, I realised as I talked.

  He got up from the cupboard, and I could read the worry in the expression on his face as he said, “Where is she?”

  “Living room, armchair.”

  His expression turned to one of relief. “Good; last time it happened we were in the middle of the Co-Op.” He seemed amused as he said, “It’s nothing to worry about, really, she saw the doctor about it this week, it’s perfectly normal.”

  “Normal?!”

  He paused, and then said, carefully, “Oh… she didn’t get the chance to tell you before she passed out?”

  “Tell me what!”

  “I’m going to have a baby.” She said, sometime later, as she sagged, sleepily against the back of the armchair. “That is,” she gazed up at him affectionately as he held her hand, “We’re going to have a baby.”

  There was a long, painful, silence. Thomas watched me, anxiously. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say something, anything, to break the awful anxious silence, but I couldn’t. Of all the possible explanations for her fainting spells that there might have been, this was one I hadn’t even considered. I wanted to be calm and congratulatory, but I couldn’t be – not then. I was in shock.

  At some point, Thomas quietly left the room. So unobtrusive was his exit that I didn’t immediately notice that he had gone. At last, she said, “I’m sorry; I was hoping to break it to you gently.”

  I shook my head to clear it, and laughed, oddly, as I looked up into her face. She seemed worried and concerned as I said, “What do you want me to say?”

  “’Congratulations’ would be nice, but only if you really mean it.”

    “Congratulations.” I echoed. I did mean it, but…

She shifted awkwardly in her chair, “If it’s any consolation, we were at least equally shocked when we found out.”

  “Is this what you wanted?” I asked, still stunned.

  She turned away from me, but I could see that her expression was one of sadness as she said, rather evasively, “I think I’m still in shock in some respects.” There was a long pause, then she said in a tired, quiet voice, “It’s not what I wanted, but…” she sighed, “I’m not… un-pleased, and… I know he is pleased, I saw it in his face when I told him.” She turned to face me, and I saw the anxiety in her eyes as she asked, “What about you?” insecurity was creeping into her voice, “What do you think?”

  “I don’t know yet,” I said, carefully, “it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” I forced a smile as I said “I know one thing that would cheer you up though.”

  “And what’s that?” she asked quietly.

  “Fliss would love to baby-sit.”

  I expected her to laugh, or at least smile at this, but she only looked more worried, “You do mind,” she said, sadly, “don’t you?”

  I shook my head, “No,” Or, at least, not in the way you think, not for the reasons you think I added silently to myself.  But I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice as I added, “another half brother or half sister it is then.”

  She gazed, searchingly, at me, her eyes shone with concern as she said, “Is that what really bothers you, that I won’t have time for you anymore?”

  I wanted to deny it, but the spoilt only child in me screamed ‘YES!’ because I knew she was right, possibly more right than I would ever want to admit.  “Tony never did,” I muttered bitterly, “not after he got married, not after they had children.”

  “Tony never had time for either of us, before or after that,” she reminded me, gently but firmly, “you know that.”

 “Is he going to marry you?” I asked, a little uncertainly.

  She snorted, “Don’t be stupid!”

  We both laughed, and it released some of the tension in the room.  As she wiped her eyes, she said, “Can you honestly see me walking down the aisle of some church in miles of white tulle, surrounded by bridesmaids and pageboys, forty six years old, oh, and about eight months pregnant by the time we’d have arranged and paid for it all?”

  “No,” I persisted, “but it wouldn’t have to be like that, would it?”

  Her expression became one of horror, as she said, “My God, are you actually suggesting that I do marry him?”

  “No,” I said, vaguely, unsure as to just what it was that I was suggesting, “Not really, I just thought he might have asked that’s all…”

  She shook her head, firmly, “Marriage isn’t an issue we discuss, it cropped up once, fairly early on, but we both seem to share a certain amount of pain and horror at the very thought of it, so it hasn’t cropped up since.”

  “Even now?” I asked, incredulously.

  “Well,” she admitted, her shoulders tensing as she practically recoiled in discomfort, “He did start to say something a few weeks ago, after I found out about the baby, about ‘doing the decent thing’, but I squashed it flat, and he hasn’t mentioned it since.”

  Fliss was playing one of her new songs on her newly acquired second hand acoustic guitar when I arrived home. The pared down chords made stark contrast with her voice, allowing it to soar, and making it sound purer than ever as she sang:

I’ve been

Lost so long

Lost so far

Lost so great a distance

That I

Never thought that I’d return

I paused in the doorway to her room, afraid to move lest I put her off, as she played and sang the rest of the song.  When she looked up, she smiled vaguely, a faraway look in her eyes as she said, “Hello… you’ve been gone a while.  I wasn’t sure where you were…”

  “I went to see my mum,” I told her, “and I’ve some news you’ll like.”

  “What?” her eyes brightened in expectation.

  “I’m going to be a big sister, well,” I corrected, “half-sister.”

  Fliss’ face lit up, as I had known it would, “that’s great!” she beamed, “have they thought of a name yet? Or do they not know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl?”

  “I don’t think they’ve got to that point yet,”

  “Then let’s make a list for them…” she reached for a pen and paper, and we began to throw names about.

  “I really liked that song you were playing just now,” I said.

  She blushed, but her voice was uncharacteristically bitter as she said, “Seems a pity, no one will hear it.”

  I squeezed her arm comfortingly, “Don’t give up; we’re all going to confront Katy at her flat next week, remember?”  Jenny hadn’t wanted it to come to that, but we haven’t seen Katy since February, and she doesn’t respond to Jenny’s letters, so we have no choice.  When any of us phone her, she just hangs up on us.

  “I’m not going,” sighed Fliss, “it won’t do any good, and anyway; there’s a Kaffequeeria meeting that day, and I’d rather go to that.”

  “Do you want to leave the band?” I asked, concerned.

  “No,” she said, carefully, “but I’ve been wondering if the three of us could get rid of Katy, then,” she added, with some of her old time naïveté, “things could go back to how they were before.”

  I shook my head gloomily, “I don’t think things can ever go back to how they were before.”

Chapter Fifty: Far Away In Time

The flat has felt very empty since Fliss left to go on tour, and Marmalade has separation anxiety and has taken to mewing pitifully all night, every night. I let her sleep at the end of my bed; it seems to help.

  I didn’t want to leave the flat today, as it’s the first time I’ve been outside since February, but something was calling me, a yearning guitar riff, a lonely melody, which led me to Hazel Grove in search of my mother’s Martha And The Muffins ‘Echo Beach’ 7”.

  The weather was surprisingly warm when I left the house, but I didn’t feel reassured.  I had taken care to cover my body in clothes that were bland enough to make me invisible, but my hackles were up all the same.  A neighbours door slamming made me jump, gangs of kids coming home from Saint James’ made me nervous, so I kept my head down as I walked to the bus stop.

  On the bus, I looked out of the window as though seeing the world for the first time, and took care to mark off each district as the bus trundled along the A6.  Soon we were in Hazel Grove; the white monolithic Sainsburys building heralding our arrival. I got off opposite MacDonalds, a smaller but equally invasive monstrosity, and slowly and nervously began to walk to my mother’s house.

  As I made my way down the path to the front door, I was forced to recall my last visit, the one that had ended when I stormed out, my mother screaming after me.  I took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

  The door opened, revealing Thomas, clad in a suit and tie and holding a piece of toast.  We awkwardly exchanged glances before he said, “Rachel’s still at work, she’s got an evening class tonight.”  As I turned to leave, he said, “Don’t go, I’ll fix you something to eat, and you can wait.”

  I demurred, but I really wanted that Martha and the Muffins 7”, so… “O.K,” I nodded, and he stepped aside to let me past.

  “I didn’t realise that you were up to leaving the house yet,” he said as he steered me into the living room and onto the sofa.

  “I’m not really,” I admitted “this is my first attempt.”

  “How’s it been?”

  “Pretty terrible” It was strangely easy to talk to him, “You don’t have to feed me you know; everyone else has been…”

  “It wouldn’t be any trouble; I’ll need to cook my own dinner anyway…”

  “Tea”

  “Dinner, tea; whichever”

  “Well, alright then, do you want any help with it?”

  “Possibly, but I shan’t start it yet, and it doesn’t sound as though you came over simply to be fed”

  “No,” I agreed.

  “Do you need Rachel for it, or can I help?”

  “Well,” I began awkwardly, “I kind of need to ask her, but… I want to borrow some of her records.  Do you know where she keeps them at the moment?”

  He shook his head, “You would probably know better than me.”

  “Well, she used to keep them in the loft, but…”

  “I’ll get the ladder; you can go up and look.”

  Later, as I sorted through the records, he confessed, “I was never really into punk, I mean, I liked some of it, but it never had the same pull for me as it seems to have done for your mum and dad.”

  I pulled out Neena’s ’99 Red Balloons’, “She used to sing me this when I was little,” I commented as I put it to one side, “I used to love it, I’ve been trying to remember what else she sang me, or played me, when I was little.”

  By the time he left to start preparing tea, I had located The Raincoats ‘No Ones Little Girl’, 10,000 Maniacs first L.P, some Throwing Muses, The Beauty Queens L.P, and a selection of Smiths 7”’s.  At last, I found the Martha and the Muffins 7”, squashed between Strawberry Switchblade and This Mortal Coil.  I walked over to the Hi-Fi, switched it on, lifted up the lid of the hardly used record player, and lined up the record.  The moment the opening chords faded in, I began to dance.

  As the record began to fade again, and the static began to crackle, I became aware of Thomas, watching me from the doorway.  He dried a mug with a tea towel as he remarked, “You’re very like her you know.”

  I stopped dancing, “I know,” I wheezed, “everyone tells me, it’s the hair and the eyes.”

  “No,” he shook his head, “it’s more than that,” he finished drying the mug, “Can you help me with the vegetables? I fancied a roast dinner, but it takes time.”

  As I peeled potatoes, he asked, “Is it normally you or young Fliss who does the cooking at home?”

  I smiled, it sounded as though he had taken rather a shine to ‘young Fliss’, “Are you obsessed with food?”

  “No, just making small talk.  I thought it might be less irritating than asking you how you’re feeling lately, that’s generally annoying when you’re depressed I’ve found.”

  I nodded sagely, “It would be irritating enough if I wasn’t depressed; it’s one of those questions that people never really want an honest answer to.”

  “It’s on a checklist of questions, yes”

  “How do you know this?” I asked sharply.

  He hesitated, and then said, in a rather less jovial tone, “I had a particularly bad bout of depression shortly after my wife left me, five years ago.”

  “Oh,” I said quietly.

  An awkward silence followed as I resumed peeling and slicing the vegetables. 

  “Why did she leave you?” I asked, cautiously, then, seeing the expression on his face, I quickly added, “If it’s not too rude to ask.”

  He sighed, “There’s never just one reason…”

  “No,” I murmured as I thought of Fergus and Terry, and of Nat and Dylan. “I suppose not.”

  “She met somebody else, but it was over before then really.”  He smiled, but there was a strong trace of bitterness as he said, “I was too plodding and boring, I think, and I suppose we wanted different things by then.”  His smile became brighter, and the bitterness disappeared, as he added, “Maybe it was all for a reason though, I probably wouldn’t have met your mum again otherwise.”

  I smiled wryly as I admitted, “I’m glad you did.  I wasn’t at first, but… I am now.”

  Mum still hadn’t come home from work by the time we had finished tea, so Thomas offered to drive me home to Heaton Chapel. “They’ll only get knocked about on the bus,” he pointed out as he gestured to the records.

  In the car on the way home, he asked, “have you talked to Fergus lately?”

  I could feel the colour rising to my cheeks as I realised, “You know what happened,” I said softly, “I suppose everybody does.”

  “I drove your mum to the house that night,” he confessed.

  I was right: Everybody knows.

  “I think you scared him,” he said carefully, “and I think that he would come back.”

  I shook my head.

  “Well,” he said kindly, “you don’t know if you don’t try, he seemed to care about you.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “He phoned for help; he stayed until he knew you were safe.”

  “He dumped me,” we pulled up in front of the flat, “I have to go, thanks for tea, and for helping me with the records and everything.”

  “Want me to help carry them in?”

  “Thanks, but… I’ll be fine.”

  He nodded.

  Later, as I sat with Marmalade on the floor in the living room, listening to records as the sun set outside, I thought about what he’d said; it was strangely comforting, “He seemed to care about you.”  It was probably true, but only as hindsight, not as anything to build hopes on, for despite what Thomas had said, I knew that I didn’t have the right to try and win Fergus back.

Chapter Forty Seven: Lost Between The Gaps

 I don’t remember everything, just… bits and pieces of what happened.  I was outside myself, watching: I saw a painfully thin young woman, her pale freckled skin lacerated in many places, her back covered by a luridly bright snarling tiger which gripped a white lily in its jaws. Her shoulder blades were prominent as she convulsed with sobbing, and her hair was long and tangled; it veiled her as she buried her face in the carpet. I heard the sobbing, the ugly, pained, despairing crying and screaming, and I realised that it was coming from me.

  My mother was holding onto me, holding me up as she forced me to drink from a steaming mug filled with pungent, pale, translucent liquid.  I swallowed with difficulty, the liquid burning my tired throat as I felt my swollen eyelids grow heavy. She helped me to my feet, and my knees gave way as she helped me over to the bed; the last thing I remember is the quilt being put back on the bed, cocooning me in softness and warmth as I closed my eyes.

  I dreamed such dreams…

  I dreamed of Terry, and I remembered, I remembered what happened four years ago. I remembered lying on the sofa in agony, feeling as though I would throw up at any minute; the room was spinning before my eyes, and just looking around was making me feel incredibly dizzy.  I closed my eyes, and tried to think.  I knew that I couldn’t stay, that I must leave, I might have survived this time, but I didn’t want to hang around and wait for him to finish the job.  I was frightened of him, but I was even more frightened of him killing me.

  I don’t know how I made it to the telephone, but I did.  It was painful to move, I had searing pain all down my neck and my back, and my ribs felt as though they were on fire.  On top of this were the dizziness and the mother of all headaches; I didn’t notice the pain in my wrist and face until later.  I reached the phone on my hands and knees and tried, as I dialled, to remember by mothers work number.

  The look on her face when she saw me is forever etched in my memory; she was absolutely horrified, and for the first time in my life, she had nothing to say.  After a moment or two of shocked staring, she reached out to me and tried to hug me to her, but I cried out in pain, and she had to let go of me.  Then she was crying, and I was crying because she was crying (she never cries) and somehow, in the midst of it all, I managed to tell her that I wanted to come home.

  She was sat by my bed when I woke up, and as I slowly and painfully blinked my sore eyes, and slowly moved my muggy seeming head from side to side, she brushed my hair out of my face with her fingers, “Do you want a drink?” she asked when I was still, “or anything to eat?”

  I shook my head, my eyelids were heavy still, and it was a struggle to stay awake, “I let you down,” I whispered, thickly, my tongue felt heavy and strange in my mouth, “I’m sorry.”

  She took hold of my hand, “There’s nothing to be sorry about,” there was an uneasy pause before she added, “I still care about you, Maggie,”

  “I know,” I said.

  “But I can’t put my life on hold for you, not anymore.”

  I nodded wearily, “He’s good for you.”

  She smiled tearfully, “And so are you,” she got up to leave.

  When I closed my eyes, I was back in the past again, back to four years ago.  For the first three months after I left hospital, I was paralysed by my depression, and the longer I stayed in bed, the harder it was to get up.  I felt numb; completely passive in my inactivity.  As time went on, this changed, and one minute I was crying, the next I was thumping the wall in anger and frustration.  I didn’t even know why I was crying, or why I was angry.

  My mother, seeing that I wasn’t safe to be left alone, put her career on hold for six months to look after me.  This worried me, and I spent long hours telling her so, but she would just tell me to stop thinking about it and concentrate on getting well again, “I’ll be fine”, she said.  I realised later that she felt guilty about not guessing what was going on, and that she wished she could have intervened sooner.  She was fretting as much as I was, but for different reasons.

  Whilst I was lying there, she unpacked my belongings and put them away.  Over the weeks and months, she brought me food and drink, which I usually refused, and read to me.  She decorated the room, hung new curtains, and put up pictures.  One day, she came into my room after a long session rooting about in the loft, looking very pleased with herself, “Look what I’ve found,” she said, unrolling the tube of paper she had been carrying; it was her Siouxsie poster, it had been hidden away for years with all her punk stuff.  I watched with a degree of interest as she pinned it to the wall facing my bed and every day, for months afterwards, I would stare across the room at Siouxsie and lock eyes with her black rimmed eyes; she didn’t communicate anything, being a poster, but there was something reassuring about her presence all the same.

  I still have that poster, I took it with me when I moved in with Fliss and, if I look up, I can see her staring out at me across the room.  I still find it comforting.

  The scene shifted, and Fliss was marrying a young, shy looking and awkward seeming, mousy haired girl.  It was spring, and the weather was fresh and scented with the roses from her bouquet.  The light breeze ruffled the lace and chiffon layers of her dress as it blew her long gold hair across her face in fine strands, her blue eyes shone with happiness as people began to throw confetti, rice, and rose petals, then, the image changed.  They were inside now, a hall of some kind, everyone was seated at tables and Fliss was seated next to her mousy partner.  A hand was extended to her, it held an L.P, and I read the name on the cover: Titanium Rose. Fliss’ eyes glistened with tears as she took hold of it, and she looked up into the face of the giver.  It was Nat, but an older, greyer, more haggard Nat that I had ever seen; Fliss seemed no older than eighteen, but Nat looked over sixty.

  The scene shifted again, and I was kissing Fergus up against a tree in a field, it was summer, and the grass was dry and yellow, tickling my bare legs.  Our kisses became longer and more passionate, and the grass caught fire and burned quickly, climbing higher and higher, it didn’t hurt, even as it burnt us alive.

  He was holding my hand as he sat by my bed, his cold, wary fingers stroked my face as he said, “I love you, but… I can’t cope with you when you’re like this.”

  I tried to speak, but no sound emerged.  He stood up to leave, “Please” I whispered, “please…” but I couldn’t finish, I was weighed down, held in place by invisible restraints, “please…” I wanted to tell him I loved him, I wanted to ask him to stay, but he couldn’t hear me, he kept on walking, he was gone.

  Fliss and Flora have been here, and I sense a distance between us; they seem wary of me, frightened of me, of what I might do.  They won’t get too close, or stay long.

  When I closed my eyes again, I was a freedom fighter in a decaying concrete land in which buildings fell every day like so much grey dust.  I fought for peace and justice, justice for the victims of war, and all shunned me, even those I chose to help.  I was diseased, and disease is always contagious, I wore a mask so that no one would have to look at me.  One day, after a fierce days fighting, I used my scarred, rough hands to pull away rubble and free survivors and was joined by a masked soldier who worked at my side.  Normally they don’t like to get so close to me; I see things, I can foretell, I can see the past also, and I spend long months in blackness.  I am scarred; I am unclean, diseased, feared.  The soldier didn’t mind.  We worked all through the night, and as the day broke we staggered past the barricades and shell holes, along the dusty road in search of sustenance.  Roadside café’s would not serve me, but they served the soldier, and we took our leave.  As we unmasked to eat further down the road, I recognised the blonde streaked hair and deep blue eyes of my companion as she turned to face me: Nat.

  As I looked into her eyes, I was thrown back in time once more, to four years ago.  It was during my third month in bed that Nat visited me; she came back from London, where she was working as a P.R, especially.  I think my mum phoned her and asked her to come because, by then, she was so worried that I think she’d try anything.  I wouldn’t get out of bed, even for Nat, so she said, “O.K, I’ll get in then,” and she pulled back the covers and climbed in next to me.  We lay there, side by side, she in her designer clothes, with her immaculate hair and make-up, me in my sweaty nightshirt, and we talked.  She asked me to tell her what had happened, and I did so with little hesitation, Nat was my best friend still then, and I didn’t leave anything out.  Maybe that was wrong, maybe I should have spared her some of the details, but we’d always been honest with each other, and honest always felt like the right thing to be.  I was crying as I told her, and she put her arms around me and stroked my hair.  She told me not to worry, that everything would be alright, and even though I didn’t believe her, I let her comfort me, and she let me cry all over her new expensive clothes.

  I head felt less muggy when I next awoke. Nat was sitting next to me on the bed, and as I turned my head and gazed up at her, she gently placed a hand on my forehead and then removed it once more, “I brought your pills,” she explained as she handed me the by now familiar glass of water.  The first pill was an antidepressant, the second a multivitamin, I swallowed both, handed the glass back to Nat, and lay down once more, resting my head in her lap.  She stroked my hair as I said, “I dreamt about you, at least, I think I did.”

  She smiled, “What was I doing?”

  “All sorts of things, you had your baby, then you were old, then we were soldiers and you helped me…”

  “Shhh…” she stroked my face.

   “I remembered last time, I remembered what happened before.”

  “Which bits?”

  I shuddered, “Everything, just, everything.”

  She sighed, pensively “I know Fergus hurt you, but it’s not the same, not the same as it was with Terry.”

  Tears were in my eyes as I said, “I couldn’t make it work with him, Nat, and it was my fault, for not facing up to Terry and what he did.”

  “You took him to court; he got a suspended sentence…”

  “He’d done it before, I should have told them…”

  “You didn’t want to, you said…”

  “I remembered… everything he did.”

  “Fergus wouldn’t hurt you; he wouldn’t do those things to you…”

  “I let him, I let him do it.”

  “No you didn’t.”  There was a pause before she asked, carefully, “Does Fergus know, about Terry?”

  “He thinks Terry raped me”

  Nat frowned, “Terry did rape you”

  “I consented”

  “He had his hands around your neck!” she exclaimed in horror, “He was strangling you!”

  I didn’t say anything, and we lapsed into silence.  After a few minutes had passed, I said, warily, “Nat…”

  “Hhmm?”

  “Did you fall down the stairs on New Years Eve, or did you throw yourself down the stairs?”

  There was a very long silence, before she said, rather tensely, “I was drunk; I fell.”

  “I don’t believe you.” I said, quietly.

  She shrugged, “Don’t then,” but she sounded tired, as though she didn’t care if I believed her or not.

  “I wouldn’t hate you for admitting it,” I said, quietly.

  Her mouth twisted into a bitter smile, “You would be the only one who wouldn’t…”

  “That’s because I’m mad.”

  She shook her head tiredly, “You aren’t mad; sometimes I think you just live by a different set of rules to the rest of us, a different set of standards…” She looked at her watch, “I need to get going.”  I sat up, and she got to her feet, leaving me to lie back down again.  I turned so that I was lying on my side, my back to her as I pulled my knees in close to my chest and tried not to think.  She kissed me on the cheek, and said, “Don’t worry about Fergus.”

  “He’s left me, hasn’t he?” I said softly.  She didn’t answer.  “It’s O.K, I know he has.”

  “I’m so sorry Maggie,” it all came out in a rush of words, “I tried to talk to him, so did your mum, but he wouldn’t listen.”

  “He was scared,” I murmured.

  “Yes, I think he was.”

  It would have been about two days later when I finally found the motivation to get out of bed.  My legs threatened to give way several times as I walked over to the mirror, which my mother had covered with a dust sheet because, after I had been discharged from hospital, I had told her that I didn’t want to see myself ever again.  It took a long time to remove the dustsheet because my knees kept wobbling, and I had to keep sitting down until it passed, but eventually the sheet was off and I was able to see the worst.

  After so long in bed, my skin was greasy and pasty, my hair was lank because it hadn’t been washed, and I was emaciated with muscle wastage and self-starvation.  When I looked at my face in the mirror, it didn’t look like my face; the eyes were blank and expressionless, and there was just nothing there: it was like my soul had died.  But maybe, I thought as I looked at myself, maybe it hasn’t died, maybe it’s just gone into a long sleep.  Maybe I can get it back.

  I had a shower and got dressed.  It all took a long time because I was very shaky still and kept getting dizzy and having to cling to things.  I got myself some soup and toast, and sat down on the sofa in the living room to eat it all.  As I placed my tray of food down on the table, I espied some lyrics, or poetry, in Fliss’ handwriting.  Curious, I read:

            It’s in the pain on the dance floor

            In the hopeless tears in the toilets

            There is numbness in the air

            A kind of angst and nihilism

            A sort of quiet despair

            She has broken down

            She has shut down

Uneasily, I shifted my attention to the papers surrounding Fliss’ words; these were press cuttings and press releases, and I didn’t want to read them, but I felt I had to.

  I went back to bed after I had read and eaten – I still tired easily – and I wanted to be alone for a while to think about what I’d read.  Certain phrases stuck in my mind like a fishbone in my throat: “Nervous breakdown”, “history of manic depression”, “self-harmer”, “self-abuser”, “eating disorder”, “neurotic”, “sick”, “mental illness”, “attention seeking”, “victim.”  The last one echoed unbearably, “Victim, victim, victim…” be a victim, be a poster child for a cause, an illness, a way of life, be a troubled soul, with a romantic cause, be a victim, be crazy, out of control, troubled, mad, insane, schizophrenic, dangerous, unhinged, unsafe… Alone.  Be a victim, be a label.

  Later, lying in the dark, I overheard a row between Fliss and Flora concerning the lyrics and cuttings Fliss had so carelessly left on the table, “Don’t you see!” yelled Flora, “you could send her straight back to bed, and straight back to being so horribly ill!”

  I didn’t hear Fliss’ response, but I knew that Flora had got it wrong.  If anything, those lyrics, those hastily, thoughtlessly written press cuttings, the apologetic press releases, had made me feel that there were some things worth fighting for.

Chapter Forty Six: My Funny Valentine (Part One)

The only sound in the room was the clinking of knives and forks against our plates as we ate.  I stared at my plate as I shifted the food around absentmindedly and drifted off into my thoughts.  Yesterday was Valentines Day, but I have received no card, no flowers… nothing.  For a few moments I felt sad about it; then anger took over.  It’s over, so why do I expect him to send me flowers?

  “Maggie,” my mother’s voice gently interrupted my thoughts, “you’re not eating; is something wrong?”

  I looked up from my plate as I muttered “I’m not very hungry.”

  “Did you eat before you came out?” she raised her eyebrows as she locked eyes with me.  Her expression said everything.  “At least eat the vegetables.”

  My arm felt hot and sore as I speared my carrots with my fork and mechanically shovelled them into my mouth. I chewed without tasting and then swallowed the greasy mush.  When she stopped watching me, I surreptitiously ran my fingers down the length of my left arm from elbow to wrist.  I could feel the heat from the two-day-old wound, even through the loose cotton of my sleeves.  It made me nervous.

  To take my mind off the small quantities of vegetables I was swallowing, I thought about Titanium Rose.  Our album has gone off to be mixed, and we are shooting two videos next week, plus there will be a photo shoot in Manchester.  I felt tired just thinking about it.

  I didn’t realise just how light-headed I was feeling until I stood up. The sickening dizziness made my head buzz as I swayed and grabbed, blindly, for the edge of the table.  Tired, so tired… somebody caught me as I fell.

  When I came to, I was lying on the sofa.  It was a new sofa I realised as I gazed blearily around me, then, I noticed Thomas; he was sitting in one of the matching armchairs opposite me, “Are you alright?” he asked as I slowly sat up, the dizziness had disappeared but I was so tired my bones ached.  I shivered as I sagged back against the sofa, “Would you like a drink?” I heard him ask as I closed my eyes again.

  “No,” I murmured, “thank you,” it was such a struggle to fight off sleep that, after a while I stopped trying.  I dreamed almost immediately, or so it felt to me, I dreamed that I was watching Titanium Rose perform.  I was in a crowd at a big arena, and the air was heavy with sweat and smoke, the excited screams of the audience rang in my ears, bodies were crammed up against each other, and the stage was metres, not feet, away from the ground.  I saw Fliss, she was wearing a white sequinned mini dress, Katy was in leather, Flora in velvet, but when I turned my attention to the drummer, I didn’t see myself… instead I saw a pale, angular girl, who smiled sardonically at me as she pounded my drum kit with patterns I had written… Amber.  The dream shifted, and this time I was lying on white sheets on a narrow bed, in a narrow, white room, shackled, I turned my head to my left, and saw… Nat, but it wasn’t the Nat I knew, as she moved, I saw the lost look in her dark blue eyes, just as certainly as I saw the toddler on her lap.  I was seeing Dylan’s Nat, I realised, an alternative and disconcerting vision of what might have been if Nat had made different choices.  It was as though I had said it out loud, for the vision lifted the child to the ground and took hold of its hand. It got to its feet, and said, “I made my choice, it’s time to make yours,” and I gazed around me at the white walls… the white, padded, walls, “High security,” reported the voice, “when you lose it, girl, you certainly know how to do it in style.”  I felt the creatures hand on my forehead, cooling my brow, testing my temperature, and I heard my mother saying, quietly, “I wish that she would talk to me.”

  “Maybe it would be easier” said a man’s voice, Thomas, “if I wasn’t here.”

  “No,” I could hear the tiredness in her voice, the weary worry, “I don’t think so; I don’t think it makes a difference anymore.”

  I could sense her eyes on me still as we made tea in the kitchen later, and as I stood by the kettle, waiting for the water to boil, I heard her say, “You’re looking very pale lately,” there was a note of caution in her voice, as though she wasn’t sure how I would respond.

  “I was always pale,” I murmured.

  Her voice grew more confident, “And you’ve been sleeping badly, I can tell.”

  “Yes.”

  An awkward silence descended, and was only broken when the kettle began to boil.  I reached up with both hands to pick three mugs off the shelf that was level with my head, and as I did so, the sleeves of my top slid down my arms, revealing a series of pink and red wounds and scars which contrasted angrily with the white, blue tinged flesh of my arms. I quickly set the mugs down on the counter and hurriedly smoothed my sleeves back into place, but it was too late.

  I felt the pressure of her fingers on my right wrist as she grabbed hold of me, she slid back the sleeve in silence, and I made myself look at her face; then wished I hadn’t.  Her face was a mask of shock and pain as she asked, quietly and tensely, “Is it just your arms?”

  I nodded.

  She let go of my arm, and I re-arranged the sleeve once more, “Explain to me,” she said in a voice tense with anger, “tell me why, why you’re doing this to yourself again”

  “It’s the only thing that works,” I muttered dully.

  “Works” If she had been angry before, she was furious now, “how can you say it works? Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?”

  It was like a stab to the heart, not because I care what I look like, because I really don’t, but because she was saying that I couldn’t cope.  A kind of nervous energy pushed me on, and I could sense my hands shaking as I snapped defensively, “It works for me! You have no idea what it’s like living with this!”

  “Yes I do,” she said sharply, “and you need help”

  “I’m managing! I’m coping!”

  “No, you’re not,” she was struggling to rein in her temper, “I can tell just by looking at you that you’re not coping; you’re not eating, not sleeping, you’re hurting yourself…”

  “I DON’T HAVE A CHOICE!” I screamed.

  “YOU CAN’T FUNCTION LIKE THIS!” she yelled, “YOU’RE ONLY MAKING THINGS WORSE!”

  I couldn’t stand it any longer, I could feel the pressure mounting up inside me as the pain came flooding back, more, harder, more overwhelming than ever, I stepped outside myself once more, and watched as the stranger that was me stormed out of the back door and strode towards the front of the house, footsteps followed her, speeding up as she increased her pace, and I heard what she couldn’t hear: My mother as she screamed after that tall, retreating form, “I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” she was screaming, but nothing registered, nothing was heard as the stranger that was me carried on striding forwards, she screamed again, “I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!, D’YOU HEAR ME? I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!”

  I found myself at the bus stop without my coat, my bag, or my money, shivery and nervous in the chilly February air.  Sheer anger and adrenalin appeared to have gotten me that far, but they were rapidly disappearing, leaving only nervous energy and an ever increasing sense of fear. I wasn’t myself, and I could see myself for what I was: frightened, young, and no longer in control of myself, or my actions, I felt my throat close up as I began to hyperventilate, and I clung to the bus shelter until I was able to control my breathing once more.  I wanted to scratch my arms, to re-open some of the angry wounds, or to cut myself afresh, but all I had with me was my bus ticket, my keys, and an eyeliner pencil, all in the pocket of my jeans.  The jeans had been skin-tight when I bought them, about four months ago, now they hung loosely from my hips as I reached into my pocket as the bus approached the stop.

  I felt the tiredness return as I sat down, but the pressure in my head was lessoning at least, my hands were shaking still, I realised, and the anxiety increased as I looked around me, people were openly staring at me, and the realisation made me worse, I tried not to make eye contact with anybody, and concentrated on trying to stop my hands from shaking.  The bus was already travelling through Stockport town centre by the time I achieved this, so I knew that I didn’t have long to decide, “I made my choice, now it’s time to make yours”, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be scared any longer.  I reached into my pocket and withdrew my eyeliner pencil; it was blunt and soft, crayon like in it’s consistency as I wrote on the back of my ticket three simple words:

I NEED YOU

I got off the bus at an earlier stop than usual, and turned down a road that I wouldn’t normally use.  Before too long, I was on a road that I recognised, and outside a house, a door that I knew almost as well as my own.  I knocked, timidly, and then tipped open the letterbox, letting the ticket flutter through the gap to the floor below, like a frail, white moth.  Would he see it? I hoped so.

  I am writing this on the stairs, from here I can see our front door, and I will see him if he comes.  I am very cold, very nervous, what if he doesn’t come? What if he’s met someone else? What if he no longer loves me? What if he despises me? I don’t think I could face that, don’t think I could deal with that, not now, where is he? Where is he? Where is he? Oh, where is he?

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.

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