“Don’t ask me about sex, okay ?”
“It’s okay Pete. I’ve had the talk. My mum drew the short straw and told me what goes where and how babies are made and how to stop babies being made and how to fake an orgasm. All that stuff.”
“How to what now ?”
“Alright, alright. Just kidding. She only told me the important stuff. You know the faking it bit and how to stop babies being made,” laughed Jen.
“This explains a lot. Remind me never to meet your mother. Or, indeed, sleep with her.”
“At least it wasn’t my dad, right ? And did you just turn down my mum ? You shouldn’t be so choosy. She’s pretty hot for her age.”
Pete exhaled loudly, deliberately. “Weird now. I knew I shouldn’t have raised sex, it always gets weird. All I was saying was don’t ask me about whether I’ve had any recently.”
“Given the request I think I can fill in the blanks. Don’t worry anyway, I wasn’t calling to check up on that. I’ve learned my lesson. We’ll just end up talking about Eeyore having phone sex with Sufjan Stevens again.”
“That’s not quite how I remember it.”
“I was paraphrasing.” Jen put on her best TV voice over voice: “Previously on conversations between Pete and Jen…”
“That’d never make it past the pilot episode,” Pete countered.
“Hey, it might. Maybe they’d get someone more famous in to replace you for the actual series but I reckon I’d be snapped up to continue playing the role of myself.”
“I’d forgotten just how much your calls cheer me up Jen…”
“Quit it sarcasm boy. I know the only reason you won’t let me Skype you is that you wouldn’t be able to hide the smiling.”
“No, it’s because I don’t want you to see the state of the flat to be honest.”
“Still living out of pizza boxes ?” asked Jen, concerned.
“Something like that. More like I’m living in a pizza box. Apparently some people get a compulsion to clean and tidy as a side order to go with their grief but I didn’t seem to.”
“Like the world’s worst meal deal ?”
“Yeah. An Unhappy Meal,” said Pete. “I’ll take mine extra large.”
“What are the fries in this analogy ?”
“I don’t think that’s the most important part of what I’m saying Jen.”
“Mmm, I know. I just really like fries. I think they’re probably the onion rings or something. Georgie loved those Burger King onion rings, you know ?”
“Yeah, she did,” said Pete. “Do you remember coming back from The Chemical Brothers in Brixton ? She must have had four bags of them before we got to Victoria. I think she had the munchies from all that secondary smoke.”
“She never could handle her secondary smoke.”
“Handled everything else though,” said Pete quietly.
“Yes, she did Pete,” Jen answered, equally quietly. “She was… She was… Fuck. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t fucking trite and pointless. She was Georgie and she was my friend. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much.”
“I thought it’d get easier, you know ?” said Pete. “Those first months I was just numb to everything, like my brain had decided to self administer a huge dose of anaesthetic. I knew there was something horribly wrong but it was all sort of detached, like I was watching it happen to someone else. But these past few weeks the anaesthetic’s wearing off and outside of the numbness there’s just pain. There’s just nothing but pain.”
“I’m supposed to say it’ll take time, right ?” said Jen gently.
“You’re hurting too Jen. It’ll take time for all of us. I don’t know, the talking helps but the actual words… the actual words just all feel empty.”
“That’s why I call and talk… talk stupid. All that vapid nonsense is just a way to not say what we’re supposed to say. If the words are all empty then why not make them really, properly empty ? I miss her so hard Pete and I know that it’s not fair to call you and say that.”
“It’s okay. None of it’s fair but I don’t have exclusive rights on missing Georgie. She loved you. You were her best friend.”
“Apart from you. We were her best friends. Christ, I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years.”
“Want to hear something stupid ?” said Pete, suddenly.
“Always. Especially now,” replied Jen.
“I got into an argument today with some bloke in Sainsbury’s. I think I’d been spoiling for a fight for the last few weeks, I just didn’t expect it to be over a deli counter in a supermarket. I keep thinking I’m through the angry phase but then I just find myself back in it again. Anyway, we were waiting to get served – it was one of those counters where you take a ticket and wait for your number to come up – when this guy suddenly pushed in front of the woman in front of him. She says something, strong Eastern European accent, and then he turns round and tells her that he doesn’t have to wait in line behind people like her anymore. That she can go get her cheese in her own country.”
“Her own cheese ?”
“Seriously. You couldn’t make it up. He started ranting about taking our country back and how she wasn’t welcome, coming over here buying up all the foreign cheese. I think she was Polish…”
“Renowned cheese makers that they are…”
“Well, quite,” Pete continued. “Anyway, everyone was standing around not knowing what to do and this poor woman started to look really quite scared so I asked him to get back to his place in the queue and calm down a bit.
“You asked him to calm down ?”
“Yeah. Turns out telling frothing bigots to calm down doesn’t really calm them down,” said Pete.
“What were the chances ?”
“Easy in hindsight. He starts yelling at me that I’m a traitor to my country and that I need to learn what democracy means and how his grandparents had liberated Europe from the Nazi’s…”
“So he started doing irony ?”
“Not intentionally, no. I think he offered me outside but by then the security guy had appeared and threatened to throw us both out if we didn’t cool down. My new friend Mosley or Nigel or whatever his name was turns back to the counter and places his order. Only goes and orders pierogi and kabanos.”
“No fucking way.”
“No, he didn’t really. Slab of Cheddar and some Red Leicester.”
There was a pause as Pete laughed at his own joke before Jen asked, “How’d we get in this mess ?”
“Elastic bands,” answered Pete. “Hear me out, I’ve got this theory. I didn’t vote leave but I get why some people did. They’re not all like that idiot. It’s just that we’ve gotten too stretched…”
“Keep going Chomsky.”
“It’s good, you’ll like it. The elastic band is society and then imagine the people at the top of society are one end of the elastic band and the people at the bottom are opposite them. The more distance there is between them the more tension there is in the band, until the band either snaps back together again or…”
“Or it breaks,” Jen finished.
“Or it breaks.” Pete started singing softly: “I got those elastic band post-Brexit blues.”
“Ha, sounds like it should be a Nick Cave song.”
“You heard Skeleton Tree ?”
“Of course I’ve heard it Pete. When you were telling me about that Sufjan Stevens record a couple of months ago I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to listen to something that was so nakedly carved out of someone else’s grief. But then I heard the Cave record and I’m like a moth banging its head against a light bulb. There’s no shelter in it, no comfort but it just shows you so much pain that it kind of matches your own. I’m not making any sense…
“No, I get it. You ever have tinnitus ?”
“That ear ringing thing ? No, not really. I mean only after a gig or something, nothing permanent,” said Jen.
“I have it a bit. Like static in my left ear all the time. It’s always there but one of the things they tell you to do to mask it is to match it up with something on the same frequency. So I might listen to some tuned out radio white noise and then I don’t hear it. I think the Nick Cave record’s like that. Only something that intense, that raw, can match up to what we’re feeling and give some release to the pain. Maybe not release. Give some sensation to the pain might be a better way of describing it. It short cuts that anaesthetic.”
“Why’d we want to do that ?”
“Because the anaesthetic’s not real,” sighed Pete. “She’s gone Jen and she’s not coming back.”
The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.
“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.
“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”
“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”
This is story 40 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts
This is a direct sequel to story 14 (https://42at42.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/riffs-and-variations-on-loss-and-friendship-featuring-balloons-aa-milne-sufjan-stevens-and-phone-sex/) and shares its structure: I just really wanted to hear Pete and Jen talking to each other again. It also directly lifts its title (or the basis for its title) from the similarly named Sufjan Stevens song.