Pulp.net - The Reunion

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008
THE REUNION

Sarah Butler
Have you ever sat in the cinema, or at a dinner table, or in a meeting, and wanted to open your mouth and scream? Or have you stood on the side of a busy road, watching the hustle of lorries and cars,
reunion-butler-336

and considered stepping off the kerb? Or have you got to the glass doors of the sixteen storey office block, with the stony-faced receptionist, which you turn up to every working day and thought you might just keep walking, see where you ended up? You know you won’t, which reassures you and pisses you off at the same time. It’s just a game you play in your head.

Ever since he asked me, and I said yes, I’ve had a deluge of those kind of thoughts. I feel like I’m walking along the edge of a fast eroding cliff and I know the only thing to do is not to think too hard. I need to concentrate on the small things that propel you through a day, which is how I ended up here, standing on Market Street in the middle of Leicester, watching the sleeves of my coat collect tiny jewels of drizzle where my elbows poke out from under my umbrella. I’m wearing a new dress: pale blue silk, expensive, bought with a stab of guilt last week, and I’m pissed I even bothered now because who cares what people you haven’t seen for a decade think about you anyway? I’m stalling for time, standing one door down from the bar, examining a cheap-looking window display of birthday cards and crystal animals and porcelain figures, and I’ve got this sick, tired feeling right in the centre of each of my bones. I don’t want to go, and there’s no-one making me but myself, and some stupid idea that having RSVPd, booked time off, bought a dress I’m not sure I like, and travelled all the way here, I am in some way obliged.

I consider getting back in the car, going home to my parents and telling them. Look, I’ll say, and I’ll hold up my left hand, wiggle my fingers. How didn’t they notice? How did we sit through grilled mackerel and puy lentils and roasted beetroot, cold fizzy wine and too-sweet shop-bought chocolate tart; pass the salt and no thanks, I’m driving; oh, of course you are? How didn’t they see?

I look at a rosy-cheeked mass-produced shepherdess that surely no-one would really buy, and tell myself I can go back home, or even get on a train back to London. I can do anything I want to do. The idea sits heavy at the base of my stomach.

There is a notice written on a piece of A4 paper sellotaped to the pub window. St George’s Reunion, upstairs!!!! Four thick exclamation marks. I am a sociable person. I have a mobile phone filled with other people’s numbers. I have a busy life. I can do school reunions, engagement parties, weddings; am comfortable chatting to half-strangers in semi-lit rooms. I’m an asset at parties – interesting but never challenging, pretty but not too much. I put other people at ease. I don’t shove my opinions down people’s throats.

I close my eyes and blow out through rounded lips. Pull yourself together is a common phrase in my family, if not always said in so many words. I say it to myself now; imagine the fault lines running across my skin. And then I’m inside, breathing in second-hand smoke and the underlying smell of bodies and beer. I am walking up the wooden stairs, my shoes clicking beneath me, rubbing soft red circles of pain into my heels.

‘Nikki.’ A woman standing by a table covered with handwritten badges beams at me. She wears a red dress that isn’t flattering: it somehow emphasises the extra flesh around her neck and arms, and when she turns to rummage for my name amongst all the others I notice a grease stain on the skirt.

I have to pin the badge around the strap of my dress so it doesn’t punch holes in the material. It lurches to one side and then the other, pulls at my neck line. I could not wear it, but I do.

Someone’s waving at me from the bar and I recognise Susie, field a memory of stolen sips of gin from her parents’ drink cabinet. I smile and walk over and order a tonic water and wish I hadn’t decided to take the car. If I could drink, perhaps it would be easier to feel something.

‘Nikki, how are you? It’s been, like, forever.’ There’s a slight American tang to Susie’s voice which makes her sound desperate.

‘I’m good, good.’ I take a big gulp of tonic water and end up coughing, tripped up by bitter bubbles.

‘So, what have you been doing?’

What have I been doing? It’s a fair question. I left school fifteen years ago. Fifteen times twelve is one hundred and eighty; a lot of months, when you think about it.

‘Oh, you know.’ I wave a hand to one side. ‘This and that. I’m working in London.’

She nods. I am on the right track: job, location, housing situation, love life.

‘I just got engaged, actually.’ It sounds natural, acceptable, not like she’s the first person I’ve told since he asked and I said yes.

‘Well let me see then.’

I look at her, the lipstick already gravitating towards the far edges of her mouth, her eyebrows lifted in expectation. In the end she grabs my left hand and I follow her gaze to the three tiny diamonds held in place by gold claws.

‘Beautiful. He’s here?’

‘Oh, no. Work, and, you know – I didn’t – ‘

‘I know, I know. My husband’s at home with the kids tonight, bless him.’

Pipped you to the post, is what she means. Husband and kids? Fuck. The truth is I didn’t invite him. He tried to invite himself but I side-stepped it.

‘But honey, I’d love to meet your school friends. And I mean, we are –’

Engaged. Slip a metal lock round her finger so she doesn’t make off with all that time you’ve invested. You’re thinking I should have invited him, and perhaps you’re right, but the whole ring thing was such a bolt from the blue in the first place, and then there was that woman in Tesco’s, and, well, I just didn’t.

I talk to Susie a bit longer and manage to escape before she launches into the detail of her second childbirth. I approach a group of women. They are the same configuration that used to hang round together at school. I remember them in PE, running with exaggerated effort, lining the edges of the netball court and chatting. Painted nails and gold necklaces. Amanda – still leader it seems – turns to me and smiles, almost shyly.

‘Nikki Clore, we were just saying how nice you were, just wondering if you was going to be here.’

‘Ta-daa.’ I spread my arms out to each side. Jesus, they are just the same. Older, yes; the cigarettes that looked cool back then have etched lines out from the edges of their eyes, but ignore that and we could all be sixteen again. Their hair is unanimously blonde and carefully cut; their features outlined and emphasised with black and beige and the occasional flash of blue. I take a breath and a drink of tonic water and start asking questions I don’t care about the answers to.

Amanda tells me a long story about some screwed up relationship with a prison officer. ‘I mean, just because I work in Tesco’s doesn’t mean I’m thick,’ she says, waving her cigarette uncomfortably close to my dress. I nod in agreement and wonder if she talks to her customers too.

It happened yesterday, he’d proposed the day before and I was wearing the ring. It felt weird on that finger and the diamonds kept slipping round the wrong way, pressing sharply against my palm when I curled my fingers into a fist. I popped into Tesco’s for some Tampax and queued up thinking about nothing much: the hairstyle of the woman in front; the cost of periods; whether I’d change my computer background picture when I got to work. I made brief eye contact with the checkout woman, in her fifties with gold earrings and tightly plaited hair, and then concentrated on pulling a plastic bag from the clump by her till, persuading the edges apart. I didn’t realise she was talking to me, not straight away.

‘Why you so sad, girl?’ she said.

I licked my fingers and worried at the opening of the bag until the two sides slipped against each other.

‘I can see it in your eyes.’

I glanced up then and saw she was looking at me, my box of Tampax in her right hand.

‘I – what?’

‘I said why you look so sad?’

‘I – I’m not – what do you mean?’

The woman shrugged. ‘I just ask.’ She passed the box in front of her scanner and pushed it towards me. I fumbled in my wallet for my card and pressed my pin number into the pad. I wanted to say: I’ve just got engaged. What the hell are you saying things like that for when I’ve just got engaged? I’m not sad, of course I’m not sad.

I said nothing. She handed me my receipt and looked at me. ‘Be happy now, girl, things will come good.’

I grabbed my bag and left the shop. I had to stop outside and press my hand against the glass front to steady myself. The anger swirled and snickered around my feet, sweeping up through my stomach and chest until it stabbed at my eyes. I mean, it’s stupid, isn’t it, to get bothered by some bored checkout woman talking crap? But I kept thinking about it all that day, and now, still, I can’t quite get it out of my head.

I feel a hand on my upper arm and turn to see Alex Morgan.

‘I thought it was you,’ he says. ‘I saw you on the train last night.’

He’s not bad looking, not bad looking at all. I remember a small kid with glasses and olive skin, a mouth that rarely smiled. He’s fleshed out, not big but solid looking and muscular. His face makes me think of one of those Italian cherubs carved out of marble.

‘You should have said.’

‘No name badge.’ He grimaces. ‘Could have gone horribly wrong. Can I get you a drink?’

‘Just a tonic water, thanks.’

‘With vodka?’

‘I’m driving.’

He raises his eyebrows. ‘You’re a braver man than I. I couldn’t cope with this,’ he waves an arm around the bar, ‘sober.’

He has a point.

He returns with a tonic water and beer for himself. He drinks quickly and greedily and when he talks I notice the wetness of his bottom lip.

‘Now, let me guess.’ He studies me and I feel suddenly uncomfortable. ‘You were into art, weren’t you? I always imagined you at art school, throwing paint at walls and ogling naked men.’

I remember the school art room, paint-spattered tables, sinks stacked up with palettes and brushes, the store room jammed with colour. I look at Alex and imagine reaching out my hand and cupping his face in my palm.

‘So, an artist? A graphic designer?’ he persists.

‘Hardly. I buy women’s knitwear for a chain.’

‘Chunky polo-necks and glittery evening cardigans?’

‘All my fault. And yourself?’

‘I cook.’

I frown.

‘A chef.’ He holds up his hands and I see the scars – old burns; the memories of cuts. ‘Not a house husband.’ He chuckles. ‘I’m not buying into all this marriage, babies bullshit everyone seems so into.’

I transfer my glass to my right hand, take a sip.

‘I was right about the art, wasn’t I? You were good,’ he says.

I shrug.

‘I remember that show, for the exams, you made a face out of wire and paper.’

I’d cut thin strips from newspapers, dipped them into cold glue and draped them over the wire, teased out the shape of a girl’s face – mine – who looked wistfully upwards, as though aware she was missing out on something.

‘And that painting of the horse, you remember that?’

I shake my head. ‘That wasn’t mine.’

‘No?’ He sounds disappointed. ‘I thought it was.’

And suddenly there is nothing else to say. I twist the ring around and around, using the fingers on either side. I don’t care anymore if he sees it. Eventually I shift my weight and look around the room. Several people sway drunkenly on the tiny dance floor in front of the dj.

‘I guess I might –’ I wave a hand in no particular direction.

‘Mingle. Of course.’ Alex gives me a mock salute. ‘Good to meet you again, Nikki. Maybe in another ten years.’ His voice is slurred now with beer.

‘Maybe.’

And that, as they say, might have been that, except I end up following him down the stairs at the end of the night. Even then, if it hadn’t been raining, I might not have offered him a lift. He accepts as if it’s his right and I’m immediately annoyed. We hurry, me trying to share my umbrella with him which just gets us both wet. I can smell damp concrete and new leaves. Water seeps into my shoes, climbs quickly up my tights. We slam the car doors shut and sit, panting a little, brushing ourselves off and laughing at the lick of cold water against our skin. I start the car and try to ignore the length of his thigh on the seat next to me.

Lights, mirrors, check behind. I reverse out of the space. The car headlights illuminate pools of wet tarmac. Rain hammers against the windscreen. I turn the wipers onto the top setting and watch them splash water to and fro across the glass.

‘Someone’s angry about something,’ Alex says, yawning and stretching. His shirt rises up to show a snatch of stomach, a neat belly button, a line of dark hair.

‘I love this kind of rain,’ I offer. I imagine, sometimes, going outside and spinning round with my face lifted up to the sky.

‘Have you ever danced in the rain with no clothes on?’

Like he’s read my mind or something. Like he’s laughing at me. ‘Of course not,’ I snap.

‘You’re an artist.’

‘I buy knitwear for a department store.’

‘It feels like heaven.’

‘I’m sure.’ And there’s that swell of anger again, thick red in my throat. A car passes in a flash of too bright headlights and I feel the beginning of a headache press at the backs of my eyes.

‘Come on, then,’ Alex says.

‘What?’

‘Stop the car and we’ll dance.’

‘Naked?’

‘Starkers.’

There is a moment, right now, when I could say yes, apply the brakes, step out of the car and take my clothes off, item by item, throw them, unfolded, onto the driver’s seat; and then dance.

‘You’re drunk,’ I say instead. I can feel the prick of tears behind my eyes. I want to be at home. I want to be in bed. I keep on driving and he shifts his weight so both his knees point towards me. I press my foot down on the accelerator and feel the dizzying swoop of speed, the blur of fields passing on either side.

‘Lighten up, Nikki, you only live once.’ His fingers drum against his thigh. I imagine him lifting up the weight of my hair. I stare at the road and its boring white painted lines. My eyelids feel like lead.

‘Are you always like this?’ I ask.

‘What?’

I shrug and he gives a soft snort of a laugh.

‘Challenging, do you mean?’ he asks.

I shrug again.

‘Are you always so uptight?’

I curl my fingers around the steering wheel until I feel the ring cutting into my skin. My heart smacks against my chest. Ignore him. Drive the wanker home and then get yourself to bed. I want to dance. I want to stop the car and strip off and dance, but it’s too late now. It’s always too fucking late. I press a little harder on the accelerator and feel the car respond. Twin circles of headlights approach and pass, approach and pass. I imagine myself turning the steering wheel to the right. It wouldn’t take very much. I imagine the sound of metal hitting metal.

‘You drive fast, though, for a careful person,’ he says.

I turn to face him then and I want to land a punch right in the centre of his face. I want to paint purple and black across his skin.

‘Nikki, you might want to—’ He gestures towards the windscreen.

I keep looking at him. There’s a right-hand bend in the road, just coming up now. It always holds the rain for some reason, that corner, and when you drive through it, great swathes of water rise up on both sides of you, like you’re parting the sea.

It only takes one small decision, doesn’t it? All those times I’ve thought about screaming, I haven’t. All those times I’ve thought about stepping out in front of a lorry, or walking past my office block into an unplanned day, I haven’t.

As we approach the corner I don’t slow down. Instead, right at the apex I accelerate and feel the tyres slip and skid on the wet tarmac. Have you ever done that? It makes me think of ice-skating: those women in leotards flying across cold glass. I pump the brakes and pull at the steering wheel, because there is still part of me that’s that kind of a person; but I am blissfully out of control. I can feel the textured rubber of the steering wheel beneath my palms, and see the intricate pattern of tree bark and grass, lit up by my headlights. I look at the ring clamped around my finger, the diamonds dull like cheap plastic. And I think about him asking me, and me saying yes, and I wonder if this is a way out.





© 2008 Sarah Butler

Links