Tag Archives: reunion

All My Friends: Neil

I don’t function in the countryside. I’d felt myself tense up just driving over the Severn Bridge and seeing those rolling Welsh hills and valleys extend to the horizon. Well, I imagine there’d be rolling hills, great waves of grass spilling over itself, a dazzling emerald expanse, if I could have seen anything through the pissing rain that my one working wiper flapped ineffectually against. If there had been a way to cross the central reservation and hightail it back to a stale coffee and greasy fry up at Aust Services then I’d have done it. Why had Lizzie arranged this nostalgia freak show in the middle of nowhere? I’d just driven past Bristol and, presumably, several functioning bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. Everything, in short, required for a decent night out. The order sometimes varies. Finishing in the hotel rather than the hospital is optimal. I’ve never been to Bristol. It could have been fun. I’d even drink cider if it meant avoiding the onward trek into the wilderness. Is cider a Bristol thing? Or is that pasties? I try not to venture further west than Reading for precisely these reasons: the avoidance of hold-in-one-hand meals wrapped in pastry and alcohol distilled from apples bobbing around in some straw-chewing farmer’s barrel in a barn. But right then, squinting into the deluge plastering itself onto my windscreen, imagining the verdant fields beyond, I would have happily killed a kitten for the chance to bite into some stodgy mincemeat and sup on warm, flat scrumpy rather than keep going.

My first impressions of the cottage were not good. I didn’t really have a benchmark as cottages were another thing I’d deliberately avoided in my life along with tents, horses, farms, summer walks in meadows, autumnal tramps through drifting leaves in the woods, bluebells, campfires, and botanical gardens. I was yet to see a green space I couldn’t mentally improve with concrete, a Starbucks, and wi-fi. There was a purple flower climbing its way up the walls and framing the door that had prompted much delight in the others but which just looked like a drop in centre for drunken, drowsy wasps to me. I’d spotted at least two of the little bastards furiously headbutting a window as soon as I’d stepped inside. Later I learned that this mysterious plant was called wisteria but not before mis-hearing Lizzie and spending a few confused minutes wondering why she was quite so enthusiastic about having contracted listeria. Cue, inevitably, general hysteria.

My first impressions of the others were not good either. This was the second time they’d all made a first impression on me and at least they were consistently disappointing. That first first time, back when nobody was reflexively sucking in their stomach every time someone pulled a camera and everybody’s imagination still outstripped their income, I’d only really been impressed with Richard. He’d always had a confidence about him which I’d mistaken as an acceptance of himself and being a grown up when the rest of us were still kids. It wasn’t until later that I realised he was just a bit of an arrogant arsehole with an inflated sense of entitlement. Therefore, given my track record on first impressions, I wasn’t reading too much into my initial deflation this time around but, seeing them, listening to what they’d done and filling in the blanks on what they hadn’t, I couldn’t help but see my own failures reflected back. I wasn’t the person they had known but I wasn’t sure I was quite the person I’d wanted to be either.

I’d gravitated to Jon as the evening progressed. It wasn’t like I’d planned it but it didn’t surprise me either. If he remembered that night I tried to kiss him then he didn’t bring it up and I could tell from the way his eyes still tracked Clare around the room that not only was he still playing for the wrong side but that he was also still playing out of his league. I think I wanted to tell him that he was important to me but I wasn’t good at sincerity at the best of times and least of all removed from my urban comforts. I don’t mean that I still had feelings for him but I wanted to tell him that his rebuffal was the turning point for me; it was when I realised who I was and felt good about it. The details are a little hazy – tequila will do that – but I do remember him not being a dick about it. Just a kind, gentle even, letting down and then we sat round listening to records until I crashed out on his floor. I don’t tell him any of this. We just talk about some songs like we used to.

As the night started to find its natural end my need for a smoke finally became more urgent than my aversion to being outside. I figured the wasps were probably asleep but I didn’t really want to find out if you could fight off a badger by stubbing it in the eye with a lighted cig. The insistent nicotine nudge was too persuasive. I convinced myself that the same farmer that I wouldn’t be buying cider from anytime soon had probably killed all the local badgers to stop them spreading TB or something. I accept I’m not going to be offered the gig when David Attenborough goes. I know more about Country & Western than I do about the country. What I mainly know is that I don’t like either of them.

I avoided being bitten in the ankle (or throat – maybe they can jump?) by any of the myriad of woodland creatures running rampant in my mind and settled down on the sofa. Jon was still up, playing Astral Weeks now, but I recognised his look, even after all this time. Van was going to give him solace that I couldn’t. If he could hear Richard and Clare shagging through the floor above then he wasn’t letting on. Luckily for him it didn’t seem to last all that long. I flicked on the TV, turned the volume right down, and flicked the channels until I found something to look at that reminded me of civilisation. I don’t even know what it was but it wasn’t green. Tomorrow I’d drive back to Bristol and spend the rest of the weekend in bars, night clubs, cafes, shops, museums, galleries, hospitals, and hotels. I fell asleep wondering why the hell you had to pay a toll on the Severn Bridge going west but grateful, at least, that I could escape home for free.

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All My Friends: Jo, Jo Jo, Joanna

I’m Joanna now. For at least the last five years. Joanna. No, not Jo. Definitely not Jo Jo. Nothing that you can play back to me across the span of years separating us as we are today, all thirty something and figuring we can get on with things now that we know who we are, and how we were then, nebulous, not quite set, wobbling around in the moulds we’d crafted in adolescence, cooling into the hard and fast people we were going to be. No name, in short, that you can append with any of the rhyming prefixes that marked those years together and which, at the time, I had laughed along with. Blow Jo. The time Richard regaled seemingly the whole campus with a tale about our oral adventures. My oral adventures. He wasn’t one to reciprocate which was unfortunate as his three minute missionary mission hadn’t exactly knocked me out of orbit. Houston, we have a problem. Or flow Jo. A personal favourite; a fairly routine, clumsy mishap spilling the contents of my bag onto the floor one night in the pub sparking tampon related hilarity and an incident in which a pint of snakebite and black was soaked up in its super absorbent layers. Crow Jo. I dressed in a lot of black then, stayed pale, went heavy on the mascara, dyed my hair, listened to the Sisters and All About Eve and the Mission, so I vaguely understood this one. Of all of them this was probably the one I’d been happiest to wear as a label back then; their intentions may not have been entirely good but I wore this one like a badge of honour. I’m pretty sure there were others: slow Jo (always late), go Jo (always first to leave), and various comments on my sexual proclivities or otherwise (no Jo if I batted away some cack handed, groping pass from an unwelcome suitor or pro Jo if I decided to have some fun and it was, in the classic male-female double standard, deemed too soon or, heaven forbid, a one night stand).

Joanna suited me better these days. I think they’d all been surprised that I’d cut back my hair, neat bob, still jet black, and they were a little thrown by the suit. I’d come straight from the office. I assume, perhaps, they thought I’d turn up in the bat mobile or astride a giant raven or something rather than in my standard issue, company scheme Ford Mondeo. It was white, had too many miles on the clock for its age, and struggled to start on cold mornings. It got me from A to B and served as a neat metaphorical expression of where I was in my life. I’d spent a decent part of that first evening with all of us back together trying to imagine what each of the others would choose to drive but had given up after pegging Clare as wanting an Alfa – looks lovely, slightly aggressive, but completely unreliable and will always let you down – but needing a Golf – something steadfast and whilst not that sexy to look at, actually quite exciting underneath if you picked up the right model. One of the merits, or otherwise, of working in a brand consultancy was that I could now reduce almost any emotional expression to a mental exercise that shorthanded human behaviour to car choice or likelihood of being life and soul of a party or best-fit celebrity. Clare would be Jennifer Aniston: likeable but doomed to make terrible romantic choices. At a party she’d be the one flirting and subsequently sleeping with the guy with whom she’s done all of this before, writ large, whilst her old friends look on with quiet pity and the man that actually loves her, is obsessed with her, watches in drunken despair. Oh look, that’s exactly what she is doing. Maybe there’s more to those brand projection techniques than I give them credit for.

My main concession to my past, to the old Jo that they’d all known, was to bring my laptop so that, at the very least, the weekend would be soundtracked appropriately. I wasn’t selfish enough to turn every evening into a re-creation of a night out at Sector 5 but I knew that once everyone was suitably refreshed that I’d get away with chucking on ‘Temple Of Love’ or ‘In Between Days’ or, at a push, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. Turns out that I  totally didn’t get away with the Bauhaus. Neil and Jon took over DJ duties at that point to enthusiastic encouragement from the others and played the hits as remembered through everyone’s indie-tinted glasses, presumably with those thick rimmed NHS prescription frames. Some time later, after what seemed like a long discussion, they settled on LCD Soundsystem which I’m not sure was likely to unite the new, shiny us in the same way that, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit united the memory of us. I liked it more than Jo would have: she was a bit more militant about that sort of thing. She would have found it a bit too arch, a bit too knowing. I just danced.

I danced and I remembered. It was like I’d always been on the periphery before, always observing, and a flood of memories came back seeing them all again. Jason holding an upside down, empty pint glass on his head, tears of beer streaking down his cheeks, other hand raised in celebration. Neil asleep on Jon’s floor surrounded by vinyl, the two of them sharing music into unconsciousness. Gina in the library with the lead piping. No, seriously, Gina in the library, protesting as me and Clare dragged her out to join us in the Union on a Friday afternoon. Richard, in a rare moment of not being a total dick, buying that nine bar after our finals and initiating the second summer of love in ’94. To be honest I don’t really remember that: June went up in smoke. Lizzie getting us backstage, into the VIP area, at Glastonbury after blagging security that she was managing PR for Rolf Harris. Back then he needed less PR, not sure even Lizzie could pull that one now. All of us eating vodka jelly and opening our hearts to each other as only drunken strangers can. All of us vowing to keep in touch. All of us swearing these were the best days of our lives.

I danced and I remembered. I even remembered Jo, the various versions of Jo that were foisted on me whether I wanted them or not. I think she would have liked Joanna.

 

All My Friends: Jason

I was pretty drunk but that was not unusual so I had no problem catching Lizzie’s arm, steadying her as she stumbled over her dance steps. It was like I’d re-calibrated my own sense of sobriety over the past couple of years; no drink at all left the world too sharp, too acute and I needed a few units to take the edge off it. Otherwise there was just too much of everything. I suppose I was aware that it was taking a little bit more, steadily month by month, to blunt the razor. I was aware but I had no interest in stopping.

It had been an effort to come. Lizzie was hard to say no to, just like old times. Somehow she’d worn me down, stalking me on social, filling my mobile with texts, piling up mail in my in box. I wasn’t really in touch with the others and so perhaps curiosity had gotten the better of me. They’d all sent messages after 7/7 but Lizzie was the only one that I’d seen in person, insisting on taking me out to various pubs in Highgate, plying me with gin until I’d loosen up enough to talk about it all. Most of those nights ended in tears – my tears – and her arms around me, whispering that I needed to let it out. She meant well but I always felt like her therapy 101 approach to my psychological welfare was akin to her approach to parties when we’d all known each other as students: she was brilliant at making a mess but lousy at clearing up afterwards.

In the end it’d been the promise of some peace in the country that had convinced me. I think Lizzie had sent everyone an invite with a screen grab from Withnail & I on it underscored with a stolen line from the film: “what we need is fresh air, harmony, stuff like that”. Maybe she didn’t realise quite the extent to which I’d been drifting into the arena of the unwell, to steal another line, but seeing Richard E Grant’s disheveled indignance stirred something in me; one washed up, booze soaked loser calling to another. London wasn’t good for me anymore, I knew that. I was double dosing on beta blockers and citalopram just to function, slooshing the pills down with a glass of red on a good day and a bottle on a bad one. I’d started travelling in the rear of tube trains because I figured if someone was going to blow themselves up they’d be near the front, cause more damage as the momentum of the trailing carriages concertinaed into each other. I’d started applying rational assumptions to irrational acts carried out by lunatics. What did that make me?

If you’d have asked me before that day, before the smoke, before picking my way through darkness, nostrils filled with the scent of charred flesh, mouth stung with the iron tang of blood, before the starter-gun blast that had left my ears permanently tuned to a constant background of static, before hearing the confused, frightened cries for help, if you’d asked me just before then I’d have said I missed them all. Lizzie and Jo and Neil and Clare and Richard and Jon and Gina. There had been a time when that was our little universe, each of us orbiting the others. Afterwards a distance opened up. I guess the explosion pushed me out, gave me enough velocity that I just flew off into the darkest reaches of space. How do you break orbit? What would I know? Neil could probably explain it but none of us ever really had the patience for listening to him explain his degree except Jon. And even Jon seemed to give up on him after a while. Everything changed that day. I changed that day and they became, pretty much in an instant, strangers to me.

Nothing in the weekend had caused me to change my view. I saw all of the old routines play out but felt detached from all of them. I used to be a part of it but now I just felt like I was watching a bad remake of The Big Chill or, worse, Peter’s Friends. Jesus, let it be me that’s saved up for the end of the film as the big reveal: I’ll be the one with the incurable disease or the one that died or the one that’s about to be murdered. So I did what I always did lately and I drank. It made the movie more bearable. It slowed things down enough, dialed down my twitchy anxiety enough, to catch Lizzie’s arm as she faltered. I watched her dancing, the others calling her name in time to the song, and watched her unhook her bra, drop it to the floor. Everyone cheered. Same old Lizzie. It reminded me of something we used to do and I thought this was her last attempt to bring me back, to tractor-beam me back into their constellation.

I dropped my jeans, swung my hips in an exaggerated fashion. Lizzie mock spanked me just like all those nights a lifetime ago, all those nights before, and the others laughed and called out encouragement. I fixed a smile on my face and tried to tune in to the joy, to the nostalgia, concentrating on gyrating my hips, forcing as much comedy as I could from the simple act of removing my trousers, but it was drowned out in my head by screams and fire.

All My Friends: Lizzie

It was all fabulous. Exactly as I’d pictured and planned it: the cottage, the reunion, the long rambling walk through the countryside, the dinner and drinks, the old times marked by a new time together. I’d seen the cottage in a magazine and knew instantly, surreptitiously ripping out the page and stuffing it into my handbag, nonchalantly glancing up to see if anybody in the waiting room had noticed. I just knew. We all had to get back together and it had to be there. It was the impulsive Aries in me but there was something so right about it that I spent the next few days trawling social media, tracking everyone down, getting this thing set up. The girls had pretty much all said yes straight away – Clare needed a bit of a pep talk – and once the boys knew that the girls were coming then they’d all fallen into line. Just as I knew they would. Predictable boys who’d become predictable men. Fun though. Hopefully they’d be caught unawares by unpredictable Lizzie.

The cottage leaned towards the ramshackle side of shabby-chic, all of the furniture was not so much distressed as pleading for help, but I still loved it. For the longest time I just stood outside taking in the sweet smell of the wisteria clambering up a trellis on the front of the house, a riot of pink and purple to rival the contents of my make up bag. Okay, almost rival. I had hoped the others would arrive to discover me resplendent in front of the flowers, perhaps toting a small glass of something fizzy, reading something serious and romantic like Emily Bronte or Daphne Du Maurier but a local farmer started muck spreading in the next field along, ruining the ambience, and I remembered that I’d only bought Jilly Cooper’s “Riders” with me anyway so I waited for them all inside.

If I was completely honest with myself my heart did sink a little when I first opened the door. The apparently very recently applied disinfectant didn’t quite mask the slightly musky, damp smell, as if someone had hurriedly tried to clean up after two wet dogs. Not dogs like my beloved Judy either, more like the ones that chased her around Hampstead Heath trying to mount her. Poor thing. Their outsized amorous attentions always reminded me of that unfortunate night I spent with Giles from the First XV who insisted on initiating sex by calling a scrum, shouting that he was about to bind on, before declaring ‘ball coming in now’ at the moment of penetration. He had a sticker on his door in Halls that read “I like playing with odd shaped balls: do you?” which I assume he meant as a joke but the strange thing was that he really did have very odd shaped balls. I told him he should probably get them checked out and we never really saw each other again after that.

I opened a few windows to let in some air – mostly slightly pungent manure tinged air – and bagged myself the best bedroom. Huge double bed – why not be optimistic – and the only en suite bathroom. The bath boasted a stained in tide mark, a yellowing brown line running a couple of inches below its top, but it was nothing that half a bottle of Molton Brown wouldn’t hide. An explosion of bubbles and a few carefully placed candles, quietly exhaling lavender and sandalwood, and it would suffice. I now hoped the others would arrive to discover me ensconced in foam, reclining, glass of champagne in one hand, spurting shower head in the other, their imaginations running wild, assuming they’d caught me in flagrante, exclaiming at my outrageousness. Sadly the plug didn’t fit flush in the plug hole and the bath would only stay full if I sat on it, the combination of that digging in to my buttocks and the taps poking me in the back forced me to give up. The shower didn’t work properly either. There wasn’t enough pressure to rinse clean the bath oils from my skin let alone get me worked up into a lather.

But it was fabulous. Really it was. When they all did finally arrive I felt as excited as I had the night Daniel Braithwaite had introduced me to his tongue piercing. Something of an oversight not inviting him to be honest although none of the others had really taken to him. Such prudes. It was wonderful. We talked and ate and then, later on, we danced in the kitchen. Someone had put on that Vic Reeves “Dizzy” song that had been out when we’d been at Uni and, just like they used to, everyone had changed the words to “Lizzie”. I was a little tipsy and had spun on the spot, the room blurring, faces from the past flickering in and out of view. I think Jason had caught my arm as I slowed down, stumbling a little, head still spinning long after my body had stopped. I was tipsy but not so drunk that I couldn’t still feel the lump under my breast rubbing against the underwire on my bra. Since it’d grown I’d stopped wearing all of the lacy stuff that I liked, settling for something more comfortable – god forbid, even those hideous sports bras – but I’d made an exception tonight. Just in case. To feel more comfortable I ran my hand up my back, unhitched the clips, and made great show of wriggling the straps free from my shoulders, pulling the bra free from under my top before dropping it in the middle of the kitchen floor. The others found it hilarious, bellowing “Lizzie” along with the song even more loudly; just another moment of spontaneous, delicious outrage to add to my long list.

After I went to bed, alone, I found, in my handbag, the photo of the cottage that I’d ripped from that magazine in the waiting room a few months ago. You get a decent class of magazine in the oncology ward at London Bridge. Next to the photo was an unopened letter with the hospital’s address stamped on the front and my test results inside. I turned it over in my hands and, like all the other times, teased at a small tear on the top of the envelope with a fingernail. A perfectly polished, manicured fingernail. I put the envelope back in my bag. It would be fine. No, it would be fabulous.

All My Friends: Jon

I’d spent too much time stuck talking to Neil. He’d cornered me as I’d gone over to the laptop – Jo’s I think – that was acting as jukebox for the evening. The screen was cycling through a bunch of old photos, all of us back in the day; a ragbag assortment of early 90s band tee-shirts, ill advised fringes, over sized graduation gowns, that weekend we went camping in the Peak District and tried to find magic mushrooms, out of focus shots of the inside of pubs, young blurred faces refracted through half full pint glasses and bottles of Diamond White. It was strange seeing us like that, all digital. Pictures had never formed part of our moments back then, they were something you dug out and looked at weeks after the event. I was surprised she’d kept them and gone to the trouble of scanning them all in. I’d long since discarded all but a handful of mine and I think I preferred our youth when it was analogue and disposable.

Me and Neil had been pretty close for a while. I’d been a bit surprised that he’d been invited as I knew the others had been happy to lose touch after we’d all drifted off after college. He’d single handedly got me through the stats modules on our course and I was grateful for that. He was lousy at reading people for someone that had a degree in psychology though, and all of the reasons why our friendship had waned over the years came back to me as he picked apart every song choice I made trying to liven things up after dinner had been cleared away. The Wonderstuff. Like a watered down Waterboys, they sounded old back then, let alone now. Okay then, The Waterboys. Celtic music for people that have never been to Scotland or Ireland, roots music for people with no roots. Nirvana. Pixies with a poster boy but without Kim Deal. Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Two words. Slap. Bass. And on and on. Eventually I put on LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and left him mid sentence (New Order moved to New York, hired a publicist and started self referring constantly…) to cajole the others into dancing.

We were all pretty drunk and the effects of the alcohol, as well as some kind of nostalgia muscle memory, pulled everyone into place in the room as if we were all back, 19, 20 years old, as if nothing had happened to any of us since. I slipped back into my patented head down indie-shuffle, only now without my hair dropping across my face. What was it Lizzie used to say to me? Something about eyes being the windows on the soul so why did I cover mine with a pair of curtains? She was up and dancing too, as unrestrained and enthusiastic as she always had been. She still sang along loudly, seemingly untroubled by actually knowing the words although, by the end, she’d picked up the “where are your friends tonight?” refrain which she embellished with an expansive sweep of her arms which seemed to signify that said friends were right here. It was a bit literal. Clare was dragging Richard on to our make-shift dance floor. We’d all seen this before and knew how it ended. I watched her flick her hair, tilt her head to one side, saw her beckon to him with an out-stretched finger. He took his time, all casual disinterest, eventually  acquiescing with a hands-up gesture of mock surrender and then they were circling each other, orbiting closer and closer until he leant in, whispered something in her ear and they both laughed. I remembered too many nights and too many mornings picking up the pieces and forced myself to look away. Clare was as beautiful, as out of reach, as stupid as I remembered. But I think I still loved her and so I guess I was just as stupid too.

Later, as everyone started to drift off to bed, I put on Van Morrison, a gentle serenade for sleep. It was the record playing that one time we made love. You teased me about it for the longest time afterwards – it was just a drunken shag, Jon – but I know what it really was. To me at least. Another night that had started dealing with the fall out from another of your run ins with Richard but had ended with your mouth on mine, nails dug into my back. The way young lovers do. Sweet thing. Slim slow slider. Van was singing those sensuous songs just for us, the melodies swirling like tendrils of smoke around us as we entwined.

Now he was just singing them for me and my memory of you. Through the ceiling, from somewhere upstairs, I heard laughter and then, steadily, the rhythmic knocking of a headboard. I turned the music up and poured another glass of wine.

 

All My Friends: Clare

Remember that time when we danced in the kitchen to “All My Friends”? It was the end of the night, all of us back together, ten year anniversary meet up. Later on the two of us had drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of “Astral Weeks” floating up through the floorboards, rising like a soft, sweet spell through the house. The covers were still kicked off the bed, lost in the urgency of our prior entanglement. The last thing I heard before you started calling my name, over and over, breath rising faster, coming now in gasps, was Van singing love to love to love to love to love to love and then, for a good long while there was no sound except the beating of your heart, my head collapsed on your chest, your fingers in my hair. I guess I never learn.

I woke up around five a.m., skin raised in bumps against the early morning chill. You must have rolled across the bed at some point in the night taking the duvet with you. Part of me saw the funny side; everything between us in bed had been the same as it always was and you stealing the covers was no different. You were always selfish in bed. To be honest I’d been drunk enough this time that I couldn’t even remember if I’d come last night or even if I particularly cared.  I sat for a while on the edge of the bed, arms criss-crossed, knees pulled up to my chest, hands rubbing some warmth back into my body. The room was stale with the smell of last night’s booze and last night’s sex. The sun would be rising soon and it felt like watching it might be my only consolation from a predictable and miserable weekend. I pulled on some clothes and left the room as quietly as I could. Not out of concern. I couldn’t face another one of our morning-after conversations.

The night’s black was softening to a dark blue as I left the house. Someone was asleep on the sofa in the lounge, TV fizzing with static lines opposite them. The kitchen looked like a Tracey Emin installation, there was a skyline of discarded, empty bottles arranged in a line on the table we’d all sat round for dinner a few hours ago, and the floor was strewn with a set of clues about how the evening had gone. Several corks. Smudged cigarette ash. Somebody’s iPhone. A bra. Not mine. Too big. I guessed maybe it was Lizzie’s. A pair of Levi’s. Also not mine. I couldn’t place them but I knew they weren’t yours. I remembered enough to know we’d made it upstairs still dressed. I knew because the anticipation of you was always what tripped me up, seemingly even after all this time. Van was still singing quietly from the speaker in the kitchen. Stuck on repeat through the night.

It was chilly outside but the air cleared the fog in my head; the cold felt like clarity, cutting through last night’s heat. It had been a surprise to see you and maybe that’s why all my good intentions turned bad. What’s that saying? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It wasn’t hell. At best it was two old friends rekindling something they once sort of had. At worst it was a drunken reunion fuck that didn’t last long enough to remember why we’d ever slept together in the first place. You seemed to enjoy it so I guess I could console myself with the fact that I’ve still got it. The worst of it really is that it happened, that I let it happen, made it happen even. It had been a good night, catching up with old faces and kicking around the times we’d all been together before, living on top of each other in student rentals and cooking up another variation on pasta and tuna, or toast, endless rounds of toast, and drinking cheap sherry straight from the bottle before we’d head out to some retro 70s night at the Union. It was only ten years on and now it was all Prosecco and tagines – one meat, one vegetarian – and swapping stories about first homes, second homes, mortgages, trips to Ikea and how many weddings there had been this year. Underneath I guess it was still the same. The dynamics in the group settled into the same rhythms. Me and you settled into the same rhythm.

How could I have been so fucking stupid? You hadn’t changed. The same cock-sure smile, the same easy conversation, the same self-assuredness. When you’d told me you were “in the City” now I nearly spat out my wine. It was too obvious and too perfect. Of course you were “in the City” and, no doubt, perfectly at home there. You didn’t look surprised when I said I was teaching. God, I think you even said something, it could have been “good for you” like the patronising twat you are and, instead of turning away and joining back in the conversation about that night we all moved our mattresses out of our rooms and slept outside in the Quad when we were all in Halls, I smiled and thanked you. I was like a needle being dropped on vinyl. I just settled back into a groove that had been well worn in years ago and let the same old song spin. We both knew the tune and the words. It’s a song I thought I’d given up singing.

The sun lit the horizon and a honey-glow spread across the gardens around the house. Birds began to chatter and trill, breaking the stillness of the dawn. My head was starting to ache and so I headed back into the wreckage of the kitchen to see if somewhere amid the carnage there was a packet of paracetamol. Even just a glass of water. Something to shake the pain. I guess, misguided as I was, that’s all you were the night before. Something to shake the pain.

Just like Stevie Nicks

American Girl:

She was just an American girl. I knew her when we were at school. I used to hang around at the end of classes, try to leave at the same time as her in the hope of us meeting. In my head maybe we’d arrive at the door together and I’d make an exaggerated show of letting her through first. I’d practised a gesture in case the right circumstances arose that I thought conveyed the right mix of casual nonchalance and chivalry. A half shrug, left palm raised, head inclined, sardonic smile. After you. I had spent a long time on getting the eyebrow raise right. A couple of millimetres out and it just looked a bit leery. Maybe I’d over thought it but I wanted her first impression to be a dizzying sense of sensitivity and strength and, yeah, who am I kidding, sexiness. Later she told me that she mostly had just taken in an overgrown fringe, a brief waft of sandalwood (I was burning a lot of joss sticks at the time), and had assumed that I was having dental work; it was her only way to account for the strange rictus grin I’d managed.

She covered her books in band logos – Hole, Babes In Toyland, Sleater Kinney, a possibly ironic Motley Crue – and I didn’t really think she cared about who held doors for who. She gave the impression that she was used to getting where she wanted to go and so maybe she just figured that doors opened for her anyway. She’d usually be last to leave the class, arguing with the teacher about next term’s reading list (too European, too white, too male) whilst packing away her books in a black, canvas shoulder bag dotted with button badges. The Clash. Janis Joplin. Nina Simone. Angela Davis. I didn’t know it was Angela Davis until she told me about her, at some length, later. Stevie Nicks. There were a lot of Stevie Nicks badges. I knew who she was. My dad was always a bit of a Fleetwood Mac fan so I’d always figured they weren’t that cool. I wasn’t that smart back then but I was smart enough to realise that I should never bring this up with her. By the end she’d taught me a lot of things but chief amongst them was this: there is nobody cooler than Stevie Nicks.

We used to skip RE and sit up on the balcony at the back of the school, up where no-one was supposed to go. Cutting. That’s what she called it. We’re cutting class. Religious Education. Who needs that? It’s not like deification of satin scarfed songstresses was on the syllabus. She could have taught that class. Delivered it as her doctoral thesis. There was more than one time where we’d sit sharing a pair of ear phones listening to Gold Dust Woman in our version of fervent prayer; she always had the right earphone and I took what was left which was, well, left… I could never get her to say ‘bunking off’ or ‘skipping’ without it sounding like she was poking fun at me. Come to think of it I couldn’t get her to say much without it sounding like that but looking back I don’t think there was any malice in it. She didn’t have many friends. I think it must have been hard relocating like that, upheaving geography and culture and adolescence. People found her standoffish I guess, where I saw mystery and romance and the brightest, saddest hazel eyes I’ve ever seen, they saw brashness and heard that direct twang that seemed ever in search of an argument. To me she was always just sure, you know? I thought she knew who she was at a time when I had no idea. Maybe the reality was that she was a bit lonely. I know I was.

She used to like the sound of the traffic. You could hear it from the school, up on the balcony, because we weren’t that far from a couple of main roads. That what you call a Freeway? She was teasing when she said stuff like that but perhaps we did all seem a little small to her. She liked the traffic. Said it reminded her of the sound of the sea, reminded her of home. She probably said ‘the ocean’ rather than ‘the sea’ but I don’t properly remember. It’s funny how the little details separate us but the sense of it was the same: she missed the great, rolling expanse of water that swelled and sang at the shore she used to live by. We couldn’t really compete with that. Landlocked and little. We had a couple of good pubs but I was never convinced I’d get served so I never took her.

Was I in love with her? That’s a hard one. At the time I was kind of obsessed with her and I suppose that’s one definition. It was pure and hard and right and I guess that’s another definition. But love? There was never anything that happened. Well, nothing except one of those intense, deep connections you only really get when you’re seventeen years old and you’re so lost in yourself that when someone else finds you it’s like two dust motes dancing in space that fall into the same orbit. Two atoms colliding. The chances are so infinitesimally tiny that you look on it as some kind of miracle. We were cutting RE so I guess neither of us believed in a higher power but if you’d asked me at the time then I’d have said that it felt like fate. I say we never believed in a higher power: I mean other than Stevie, of course. I guess I was never her Lindsey Buckingham but she was always my Stevie Nicks.

She was just an American girl. Wonder what she’s doing now? I miss her.

 

Don’t Let It Bring You Down

It was the month I spent learning ‘After The Goldrush’. Holed up in a house in Harrow, curtains tight all day until I’d open them up late to glimpse the dusk. I used to watch the street lights come on before slipping out to the corner shop to pick up enough to barricade myself back in for the following day. I think I was getting by on cheap Shiraz, a pack of Marlborough Lights, and tinned sardines on toast. Sometimes I’d upgrade to a better bottle of wine and skip the sardines. There was a guy that hung out near the shop who kept trying to sell me weed, or something to ‘turbo charge your cigarettes, mate’ as he put it. After about a week he budged on his opening price and so, occasionally, I swapped out the sardines for his low grade skunk. That was pretty much my life that Autumn, sleeping through the day and numbing my way through the nights with booze and pot and Neil Young.

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ was the one I kept coming back to. It was invariably the song that was still on when I’d drift off to sleep in the early hours, sometimes still oscillating away on repeat when I woke the next day. I’d reach across from my bed, pull my acoustic off the floor and cautiously sound out the progressions, right hand barely scratching the strings, just a faint echo of the original song coming out of the speaker. If there was anything left from last night’s joint I’d spark that up and ease into the evening semi-conscious. That whole time is lost in a haze of smoke and heartbreak. Only love can break your heart? Damn straight, Neil. Damn straight.

Early in the month the phone used to ring late at night. I was pretty sure it was you but I never picked up. I know you thought we could be something else, all that ‘I still want us to be friends’ stuff that you’d said steadily over and over again the night you told me. But who wants to snatch glimpses of a set of polaroids when you used to be in the film? We were widescreen and surround sound. We were the stars. I won’t watch someone else take my leading role while I skulk on the sidelines. We started as friends. That was your other line. We started as friends, so we can go back to being friends, as if I could go back to being the person I was when we started. You changed that person. Wrapped yourself up in him, around him, like you were ivy working your way into brick and wood, finding the spaces to catch and latch on. I guess that’s not fair. It’s not like I was unwilling; you were an invited invader. I just didn’t realise how much of me was so bound up in you, how much would crumble and pull apart when you retreated.

Lately the phone’s not been ringing and I’ve swapped crumbling and pulling apart for crumbling and burning. A succession of nights numbed and lost in sweet, sticky smoke. It makes the music sound better even if it doesn’t really change anything. Sometimes I’ll put on Tom Petty or, if I really want to drown in nostalgia, Stevie Nicks, and try to put you in your place: you don’t have the exclusive rights on breaking my heart or the soundtrack to it. But the American Girl feels like a lifetime ago and we were just kids then. Edge of seventeen? I hear you, Stevie, I hear you. That was all too long ago. Not like you. Right up close. You were present enough that I didn’t wash my sheets for weeks because I was convinced they still held your scent. One of those androgynous perfumes, I used to spritz some on my wrist on the mornings you’d stayed over so I could keep you with me for the rest of the day. But you’re past enough that now there was mainly just an oppressive and pungent cloud of weed hanging perpetually in my room. Even through that I thought I still caught the traces of you but I was pretty stoned when I was awake so my senses were not reliable. Not to be trusted.

You will come around. That’s the very last thing I let you say to me. I didn’t believe you then and every time Neil sings it now, every time I pick restlessly at my guitar strings and murmur the chorus, I still don’t believe it.

 

Tangled Up In Blue

I didn’t get Dylan until I was 33. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. There was a time in my mid 20s, a time half lost in a fug of smoke, incensed and insensible, when I remember really trying to get him. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young and it seemed like a logical progression. Maybe I had it back to front. Everything was a little back to front then, dealing with the fall out from the end of love number four. It even sounded a bit like a Dylan song. Talkin’ love number four blues. Ballad in desponden-cee minor. Maybe not. Look, he’s a genius that shaped the entire cultural landscape of the twentieth century. I’m not. I’m just someone chalking up too many failed love affairs, measuring them all against a teenage friendship with a girl from America who disappeared, and finding them all wanting.

I think an appreciation for Bob is hard won. I don’t think it’s something that just slots into place instantly. There’s that snare shot at the start of Like A Rolling Stone, like a starting gun for a century, but otherwise it doesn’t offer itself up easily. You have to work at it. Stick with it, live with it for a while, let it percolate into your soul. Perhaps that’s the great lesson here: that anything worthwhile is going to take a little work. Anything including you but I guess it’s a bit late for that.

You choose your poison. I got tired of feeling blunt so I knocked the smoke on the head sometime in 2012. My standard joke is that I quit after discovering it wasn’t going to be part of the Olympics in London: that I’d trained all those years for nothing. I think I had a line about being disqualified for taking performance enhancing drugs as well. One of those standard, semi rehearsed bits of conversation you carry round with you. Scarily enough, if by some oversight on the part of the IOC, pot smoking had been approved as a discipline (or an indiscipline I guess) than I’d have backed myself for a medal. Probably not gold. It’s the sort of event where you could imagine none of the participants quite rousing themselves to strive for the gold but I reckon I’d have split the bronze with some other lost stoner. Maybe from Estonia. There you go, another Dylan-esque turn of phrase for you.

It was easier after I left the flat in Harrow, escaped further up the Met Line into Metroland. Out here it’s all Majestic Wine and micro brew shops. A much more respectable narcotic selection to desensitise yourself and get lost in. I buried the memory of you, phosphorescent number four, in expensive reds and dry whites. It was cheaper to buy more than six bottles so there was better value in oblivion. There were occasional moments of reflection as I was stewed in the booze: why didn’t it work, was it you, was it me, wasn’t life simpler sitting up on a balcony kicking round stories about Stevie Nicks with the smartest, sassiest girl you ever met? I keep coming back to that last one. I see friends now pair off and proclaim that they’ve found their soul mate. I always shied away from the phrase. It seemed a bit, well, shit. Maybe I’ve softened lately. Maybe I think I let mine slide away. Not just my soul mate. My accomplice in chief, my co-conspirator, my confidant, my touchstone. Time distorts memory and perhaps I just see the past as a rose tinted hue, all Stevie Nicks silk scarves and bare feet and incense burners, and perhaps it wouldn’t have been that simple.

That’s why I didn’t get Dylan until I was older. He’s complex. Life looks pretty simple when you’re young and you figure getting knocked down isn’t such a big deal: you’re spry enough to pick yourself up and go again. It hurts a bit more these days. Takes a little longer to find my feet each time I lose them. There’s more dust to dust down. It’s all a bit more complicated and that’s the thing that Bob speaks to. After we finished I sank into ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and didn’t surface for weeks. Just absorbed it until it was part of me. Didn’t try to learn it (I could never get Dylan’s picking down). Just drowned in it.

Got tangled up in it as I untangled myself from you.

 

Go Your Own Way

The invite had sat on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks before I really looked at it. I’d assumed it was some sort of alumni fundraising circular; the usual plea for funds to refurbish the science labs or name a building after some long dead headmaster. I hadn’t dismissed it, it wasn’t mentally earmarked for the shredder, but it was a long time since I’d really thought about school. Seeing that name again, the old latin motto, brought back memories I’d long since let settle. They’d taken a long time to sink and silt over and the envelope shone out at me like the search lamp on some sort of submersible come to dredge my past. I’d had to google the motto. Ironically it was ‘ad perpetuam memoriam’.

The fact that there was a reunion wasn’t the thing, at first, that I noticed. I was fixated on the opening paragraph of the letter and three words in particular. Twenty five years. There was something about seeing it in black and white that shook me out of myself, took me out of my comfortable, self imposed solitude. Not a content comfortable. More a best-we-can-do-is-make-him-comfortable comfortable. I was sober after smoking too much in my 20s and drinking too much in my 30s but I was still rounding off the sharp edges of living, now through routine and work and exercise. I didn’t feel much anymore – my heart rate only spikes now in spin classes – but that seemed better than the relentless sense of disappointment and dislocation of the past couple of decades.

Twenty five years. The words seemed to press play on a montage of memories I didn’t know my brain had edited together. It had done a pretty professional job. There was a soundtrack. Soft filters. I’m sure we didn’t all look that good. I know we were all younger but the photographic evidence would suggest a greater number of dodgy haircuts and bad fashion choices. I knew because I’d pulled all the old ones out to look through. Me and K seven or eight years ago at someone’s 35th birthday, the whole night spent fielding questions about when we were going to get a place, when I was going to pop the question. It was round about the time the penny dropped for me with Bob Dylan. Maybe just after it fell apart, I don’t properly recall. She should have been everything I wanted: smart and funny and confident. Like all the bits of myself that I liked reflected straight back at me. I can’t tell you why it didn’t really work out.

There were earlier pictures when me and S were together, mostly late night, early morning pictures. We were always laughing. Half the time we were high as kites which explains some of it but there’s a kind of youthful mania in those shots that I barely recognise now. Back when we thought we were indestructible and the world was laid out solely for us to experience and enjoy. There’s a couple of pictures of my flat in Harrow, presumably taken sometime in the aftermath of great love number 2 imploding. The flat’s littered with pizza boxes, my old acoustic guitar propped up in the background, a copy of ‘After The Goldrush’ on vinyl set in front of it. Looks suspiciously like I staged that shot. This was all pre-instagram and social media though so I’m not sure who I was trying to impress. Possibly myself. I don’t really listen to Neil Young anymore. Better to close that whole period off.

There’s only one picture of Anna. The American Girl. Someone at school must have had a polaroid – first time round before they came back as some kind of ironic, kitsch reminder of more innocent, less digital times. She’s gazing off into the middle distance, knees tucked up under her chin, hand resting on top of one of them with her obligatory silk scarf tied around her wrist. I’m not in it but I remember it. I was sat a couple of feet away, eyes fixed on her as she looked out towards some imagined future. I was always sat a few feet away staring at her in those days.

I wasn’t in touch with anyone from that far back. I’d often wondered why you’d never written but as the years had passed I’d accepted that I must have simply misjudged the connection. Mistaken your amusement for affection. It had taken me a long time. I think it’d have been easier if there hadn’t been that one moment, the day you left, when we held each other. I felt awkward at first but you wrapped your arms around my back and buried your face in my neck. You said something but I didn’t quite catch it, your voice muffled by my body. It sounded like ‘I’d give you my world’ but I don’t know now. Memories play tricks. I must have listened to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ a hundred times after you left, anything that Stevie sang on, anything that spoke to heartbreak in a language that we shared, and maybe I just came to believe that in your moment of leaving that you were quoting lyrics back to me. You were packing up. Years later I assumed you’d long since been shacking up too.

I put the invite back onto the kitchen table. I knew without checking my calendar that I was free the night it was on. I was always free. That night I put ‘Go Your Own Way’ on for the first time in too many years and all I could hear was Lindsey Buckingham singing ‘everything’s waiting for you’ over and over again.

 

Free Fallin’

I didn’t know that you called me American Girl until much later. It was a surprise that you called me anything at all; those first few weeks after I crash landed in England you seemed unable to speak to me. You were always there. Hanging around like a lost satellite that had lodged itself in my orbit. A lost satellite that had stopped sending signals home. Or was that me? I guess if I’d realised you were nervous then we could have started talking earlier. I could have put you at ease but that wasn’t really my thing back then. I felt constantly on edge so didn’t see why anyone else should feel comfortable. Young, dumb, and missing my mom.

I was the worst kind of know-it-all smart, my cast iron belief in my own rightness matched only by a massive, gnawing insecurity that was at the root of everything I did. I used to argue the hardest with the people I respected the most. Endless, stupid debates with the English teacher over ‘the institutionally patriarchal book list at the heart of the syllabus’ or chewing out Dawson, the History dude (I think I may have been the only one to call him that) over his small minded obsession with some argument a bunch of cavalier guys had with another bunch of roundhead guys. I know that stuff was important in the mother country but really? Couldn’t we have talked about the A bomb or Kesey and the Pranksters or slavery or the MC5 or something? I’d have settled for Roosevelt and the New Deal or Lincoln. Your idea of history just seemed, well, too prehistoric to me. Like I say, I was a pain in the ass.

It was ’89 and I was doing what I always did every time dad dropped us down in a new town, unfamiliar setting and a new set of faces; I was playing offence before anyone (I hoped) had figured out that they were supposed to be playing defence. All predictable self protection. Or, I should say, predictable with the benefit of hindsight and a sharp dose of therapy: I didn’t like the taste of that medicine though and never lasted the course. I guess now, looking back, that I can see the funny side of people singing “she’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis” and that stuff about Jesus and horses to me. It was a big song that year and there was a cleverness in the cruelty: to them I was some small town American with a funny voice and a big mouth so why not bait me with a song about small town America sung by a guy with a kinda funny voice. Did Tom Petty have a big mouth? I don’t know. He always just seemed like one of the good guys to me. Even that stuff with the Wilbury’s. Supergroups were never my thing but he was pretty cool. Fleetwood Mac are the exception, of course. Not strictly a supergroup but they might as well be.

You were different. I mean, for a start, you had a nickname for me that was at the bad ass, cool end of the Tom Petty song book spectrum. I don’t think you even knew it was a song which was kinda cute in itself, it was just a name you gave me because you were too shy to use my real one. But you were different because you saw past the bluster and bullshit. Once we finally got talking I felt like you got why all my external expressions of myself – the badges, the bands, the scarfs, the clothes – were important and how they were simultaneously me but also deliberate barriers to stop people getting too close to me. Jesus, it was exhausting being a teenager. You were curious about all that, curious about me, in a way that wasn’t just about an adolescent boy trying to infiltrate his way into an adolescent girl’s panties. Or at least that’s what I tell myself now. I’m sure it’s true. You were purer than that. Never tried anything, never touched without asking, never even tried to kiss me. But I knew you wanted to. Did you love me? Did I love you?

I used to drag you up onto the school balcony to listen to the traffic. We had to cut class to do it. What did you call it? Skipping lessons? I know you guys invented the language but really? We were consciously making a decision to remove ourselves from the preordained path laid down for us. C’mon. It was an act of rebellion. An act of alleged self harm. It was a cut, not a fucking merry step between walking and running that signifies a certain jauntiness. We cut. We didn’t skip. You think Patti Smith did much skipping? Or Courtney? Or Stevie? Stevie Nicks never skipped a step in her life and neither did I. You just used to scrunch your face up, blush, and look away when I let loose with one of these rants back then. I think I did it to see whether I could push you away, some weird way to test your resolve or your faith in me. You never failed me.

I got dragged away again before anything could happen at its own pace. Another country, another continent, another move. If I’d have been more open or you’d have been less closed then maybe we’d have broken through those long, intense conversations into something more concrete. More, I dunno, more physical. Maybe I should have just turned around, one of those times I felt your eyes on me, always on me, and kissed you. Maybe I should have been a little softer. Maybe you should have been a little harder. Maybe we could have left this world for a while. Maybe we were falling. And maybe we should have let ourselves.

 

The Needle And The Damage Done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say.Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.

 

You’re A Big Girl Now

I had the ink done in my early 30s, just the inside of my arms across the elbow joint, to hide the scarring. It felt stranger than I’d expected sitting in the chair and feeling a needle again. In a way I kinda liked it, liked that the first sting wasn’t immediately deadened by that familiar, spreading honey, but was just followed by more sharp stabs. Repeated little reminders that this was the difference between being alive and being dead. It had taken me a long time to figure out that being alive cost a little pain that you were supposed to endure and not numb. I’m not trying to kid anyone that I had some sort of straight edge awakening as I got older – I still drank a little more than I should, still rolled the occasional joint – but on my own terms I’d been sober for four or five years.

On my left arm was this rose design I’d been kicking around on notebooks since as long as I could remember, probably all the way back to school. The centerpiece, which covered most of my old tracks, was the main flower, fully open as if you were looking down on it from above. Trailing off it and running up and down the sides of my arm was this interlinked chain of barbed wire and petals. After all those years in rehab and therapy you’d have thought I’d have shaken off something so clichéd but, like I say, it was a pattern I’d been sketching out for a long time. It felt like it was me: there was something beautiful there but you were going to get cut up pretty bad if you tried to touch it.

The right arm didn’t need quite so much attention; I’d never gotten the hang of shooting with my left hand and I never trusted anyone else to do it. There was just enough romance left in me to work up a design from the lyrics for “Rhiannon”. Something that’d remind me of the kid I was that first saw footage of Stevie Nicks twisting and spinning on stage, gossamer sleeves seeming to suspend her above the stage. She was the fiercest, prettiest thing I’d ever seen. But even then I could see the sadness and I think that was what stuck, that idea of facing it all down like the coolest fucking lady to walk the earth even though your heart’s broken up. “She rules her life like a bird in flight and who will be her lover?” There was enough romance for me to pencil it out but not enough for me to bear it permanently on my skin. I settled on “Never ever been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm”. Tusk wasn’t my favorite album but I always liked that song and it said what I wanted to say I guess. It felt good to reconnect with the things I’d claimed as my own when I was younger, those early markers of identity that I’d near obliterated in a blizzard of powder through my 20s. Felt good to find common cause with Stevie again that wasn’t cocaine.

The guy that did my tattoos loved Dylan. I sat in that studio for hours listening to Bob wheeze his way through his abstract riddles whilst my mistakes were blotted out in reds and blacks. I didn’t get it. On some level I guess I admired the poetry but it didn’t speak to me, didn’t move me. I found him bloodless. Almost like if we’d swapped places and he’d been sitting in the chair the needle would jab him in the arm and there’d be nothing. Perhaps he’d drawl something sly and sardonic, rational and detached, launch into thirty verses of metaphor when all I really wanted him to do was tell me how he felt. Does it hurt, Bob? You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, he says back. Come on, let me in a little: does it hurt?

Me and Zac, the guy that did my arms, didn’t really talk much but towards the end I asked him why he only listened to Dylan. Called him on the whole emotional absence thing. He raised an eyebrow at ‘emotional absence’ and asked me just how much therapy I’d had. Those phrases stay with you, I said, and besides don’t change the subject. His response was to play me ‘Blood On The Tracks’. Said he barely listened to it these days, that it was too raw for him, and, besides, customers generally didn’t like mention of blood in the studio. I think that last part was his idea of a joke but neither of us laughed. We listened to it in silence, he even stopped using his gun, and just let the songs puncture my skin instead. So it does hurt, Bob. It’s ripping you apart, just like the rest of us.

When it was done I asked him to put “You’re a big girl now” on again and I let my thoughts wander back to a time when I knew someone. Really knew someone. Sure, we were just kids but you were the only one I ever let through my barbed wire, the only one brave enough or stupid enough to ride out my storm. That’s the trouble with storms though, isn’t it? They blow in and, just as quickly, they blow out again, leaving all that wreckage behind them. I hope you forgave me.

Bob was singing “with a pain that stops and starts … like a corkscrew to my heart… ever since we been apart” and I found that I was crying, tears falling over my outstretched arm, a blur of ink and blood smudging Stevie’s words. I have always been a storm.

 

Landslide

It was my third year in Mammoth and I still didn’t know why I came. That first time he’d convinced me that I’d love it, that there was nothing like the sensation of ploughing through powder, cold Californian air in your lungs, the mountains cutting a jagged zig-zag across the horizon. I went with it then. I think I was caught up in his relentless enthusiasm, mistook it for something more joyous than all the deadbeats and down-and-outs that had polluted too many of my years. I guess it wasn’t a mistake. He was more joyous than what I’d become used to but the object of his joy seemed to largely be himself. I just got to bask in the reflected glow, catch a few rays. I never did tell him just how much powder I’d ploughed my way through when I was younger; coke was cheaper than skiing too and the risks seemed pretty similar. Maybe that just reflected my relative skills. I was lousy on the piste but a world champion ex junkie. One day at a time and all that jazz.

We met after I’d moved to San Francisco. It hadn’t really been my plan but it turned out that there weren’t too many ways to scratch out a living bumming it on Big Sur and I couldn’t face returning to Seattle. The very definition of a bad scene. Good coffee though so there’s that, I guess. I think I’d initially avoided defaulting to the Bay as it seemed too obvious. Stick a pin in the big map of Bohemia and chances are you’re going to find yourself idly imagining hanging out on Haight and losing long nights in late night bars with artists and artisans. The stubborn part of me – and it’s not like it’s a small part – resisted that for a while. Did I think I was going to go all Mary Ann Singleton, rock up to Barbary Lane and live out my own tales of the city? Swap smokes with my landlady and share my dreams with poets and painters? I was forty-one and past dreaming.

I don’t know if I was some sort of novelty for him, with my tattoos and scarves, my opinions. He was doing something in Silicon Valley that he’d told me about several times but which I never really cared enough about to grasp. A social media start-up I think. He’d been pretty bemused by my analogue habits and had insisted on setting me up on Facebook, connected me back up to a whole sequence of people I thought I’d long left behind me. Trawling through my life had taken a while, if only because I’d moved around so much. All those schools – a bunch of people I didn’t remember – as well as my various addresses on the West Coast. A lot of friend requests in Seattle went unanswered. I assumed they were either dead or they still owed me money. Like I said, it was the very definition of a bad scene.

I knew we were an odd fit. I was the exact opposite of his ex-wife and maybe that was all I was ever supposed to be. The anti-her. I don’t know what he was supposed to be for me. He was attractive in a Gap advert kinda way but I hadn’t ever thought I’d be bothered about how someone looked in tailored chinos. And he was enthusiastic. It was like he was powered on his own internal dynamo, each day permanently set to ‘awesome’. I think maybe I thought that some of that relentless energy would be infectious, that it’d be something I could catch, like a more pleasant form of crabs, you know? But it never seemed to infect me. We had a lot of sex. Enthusiastic sex, on his part at least. But it was always sort of empty for me, like he was bench pressing at the gym or silently counting off the number of seconds he could hold himself in a plank position. Not silently actually, there was always a loud and upbeat commentary. Come on. Two. Three. Four. Five. Come on. You’re nearly there. Six. Seven. Eight. Hold on. Nine. Ah yeah. Ten. It was rare for the count to get past ten.

The atmosphere between us had been different on the drive up to the resort. Maybe he’d grown tired of my sarcasm and sniping, maybe he was weary of his little collapsing star, a black hole sucking at his ever radiating light. I joked that we should head north straight past Mammoth and right on through to Mono. They would probably welcome me like the home coming queen. He didn’t get it and muttered something about there being no snow in Mono and how he’d booked just-the-best-lodge again this year and that if I didn’t like it then I didn’t have to come. I clammed up and didn’t say much else for the rest of the journey, even left his ‘Hootie And The Blowfish’ running on the car stereo. Apparently it was what he listened to in college. On its own that should have been enough for me to flip open the car door, roll into a ball, and launch myself out to bounce down the freeway. Lie there for a while on the asphalt, let it fill my nostrils. I must have listened to him hit rewind on ‘Only Wannabe With You’ five, six times, each repeat just reinforcing the irony.

The day he left me half way up a mountain was when I knew we were done. Or more like it was the day I resolved to make us done, I think I’d known we were done for a long time but just got stuck in my own inertia. I don’t even remember the details of the row. Just me being me, wise cracking, whip snappin’, smart ass me. And him being him, lame ass him. We were off piste – literally off piste, that’s not a metaphor – and I’d only gone to keep the peace, to appease his incessant need to do something: it’ll be gnarly, come on. So really I knew the problem wasn’t him but was me: when did I start keeping the peace and appeasing people? When did I nod along dumbly to something being gnarly that wasn’t a fucking tree? When did I ski? When did I go off piste? Again, literally. Metaphorically half my life had been somewhere way off piste. I watched him disappear down the slope in a spray of snow, sun radiating off a million unique frozen flakes thrown into the air by his departure. It was a good exit, I had to give him that, and it spared me the indignity of anyone witnessing my own descent. Most of it was on my ass.

I thawed out in McCoy Station with the other mountain refugees. Pitch black coffee and wi-fi: everything I needed to plot my trajectory back home. I figured I’d hire a car and hit the road. If the pass through Yosemite was shut then I could always head south and find a motel in Fresno or some other collection of malls masquerading as a town. I pulled out my phone to call down to the lodge’s concierge service, might as well get them to book the rental and with any luck my soon to be ex would end up picking up the tab. I had a notification in Facebook. Usually I ignored them, someone I’d long forgotten wanting to ‘connect’. There wasn’t much in my past, save a few precious months of genuine connection across the Atlantic, that I cared to revisit. I opened the app resolving to erase myself, to disappear from the digital realm, but the message stopped me. It was my old school in England extending an invite across twenty five years to a reunion.

I was sat inside and if I pressed my face up close to the glass screen separating me from the cold then I could make out my reflection, the translucent outline of my features superimposed on the white capped peaks in the distance. I looked old. So did the hills but they carried it with a certain rugged charm. Through the glass, way out in the distance on the mountain opposite, a shelf of snow dislodged and discharged itself down the slope, obliterating my reflection in a sudden and shocking blizzard of the brightest white.

 

Dreams

I didn’t know why I’d come. I mean, of course, I did but my reasons were too ridiculous to acknowledge honestly to myself. Had I seriously expected to pull open the door to the old school hall, stand silhouetted in the frame, and watch as you turned, met my eyes, and ran across to embrace me? A woman I didn’t know that used to be a girl that I did. We knew each other for such a short time, and it was so long ago, but I’ve never known anyone so completely before or since. So why come? The girl I knew wouldn’t be seen dead back here.

This was the hall where we’d sit for assembly and you’d roll your eyes to the ceiling, exhale just loudly enough to be heard, shuffle deliberately in your chair every time the Head started another of his speeches about values or the ethos of the school or anything you saw as pompous English bullshit. That was almost everything as I remember it. We used to do that experiment in Physics where we observed a magnetic field by scattering iron filings onto paper and then putting a long, rectangular magnet down amongst them. Most of the filings would disperse, be pushed away. A few would cling to its sides. You were like some sort of super magnet dropped onto the school, poles misaligned, repulsing everyone with waves of force. Everyone except me. I was the iron filing that attracted and stuck. Like the patterns on the paper in the experiment I saw the strange beauty in the disruption you caused, too.

I don’t really recognise anyone. There may have been a circuit where people had stayed in touch but I wasn’t part of it. I imagine people had found each other again on social media but I’d never kept any kind of online profile, hadn’t even done that lurker thing of checking people out anonymously. Okay, that’s not entirely true. A couple of times, maybe five years ago, I’d looked for you. I didn’t have much to go on. It seemed fair assumption that you’d still be called Anna – although you had always joked about changing your name to Stevie – but would you still be a Meredith? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. It was impossible to know. I couldn’t find anyone that I believed was you on Facebook and I could hardly search google for “Anna, the American Girl”. I did, anyway, and it just turned up a line of dolls. Dead eyed, plastic, and passive. Pretty much the least appropriate search result for you imaginable.

I have brief, polite conversations with a couple of people that pretend to recognise me, swear they remember me like it was yesterday. I don’t recognise the person they’re remembering anymore. A little part of him never properly left this place, a little part stayed bound up in the memories of someone he collided with nearly thirty years ago. I wonder what he’d have done if he knew then what I know now. The conversations dry up. My evident distraction is maybe taken for rudeness and I excuse myself claiming that it’s all just a little overwhelming. And it is. Just not in the way that they imagine. I scan the room again and mark your absence in it. Like I say, it was always ridiculous. For old time’s sake – all of it was for old time’s sake I guess – I leave the hall and find my way back to the balcony above the back of the school. The one we used to sit up on and listen to the drone of cars along the main road into town. Out of town. You always insisted it was the road out of town but then you were always on the move, always ready to leave.

There’s a stillness up on the balcony, cold air pinching my skin after the stuffy heat of the hall. I’m aware of my heart beat. What was that Stevie Nick’s lyric? Something about your heartbeat being the sound of your loneliness? You would have known and would have been outraged that I didn’t remember. All I remember is what I had, and what I lost.

It starts to rain. Just one of those dreary light drizzles but enough to shake me from my thoughts. I turn to head home and you’re standing there at the door out to the balcony, arms crossed, satin scarf hanging from a wrist, thirty years older wearing a lifetime’s story that I don’t know in the lines on your face. “Do you wanna cut RE?” you say.

“Always,” I reply. “I was saving your spot. Where have you been?”

“Well, that’s complicated,” you say. “You know us women. We will come and we will go.”

“Stevie?”

“Always,” you reply. “Now either you come here and hug me or you find me a drink or I’m on the next flight back to California.”

 

The Chain

I tell you later that I knew you’d be there. Knew you’d be up on the balcony, looking kinda sad, getting wet, staring out at the passing cars and watching their headlights refract in the rain. The truth was a little different but it was still like me to double down on front and confidence when I was terrified. Even after all this time. Especially after all this time. The truth was that I’d travelled five thousand miles to see if I could find the only place I ever felt at home and I had no idea what I’d have done if you weren’t there. I have no idea what to do now that you are.

“Do you wanna cut RE?” I say.

“Always,” you reply. “I was saving your spot. Where have you been?”

“Well, that’s complicated,” I say. “You know us women. We will come and we will go.”

“Stevie?”

“Always,” I reply. “Now either you come here and hug me or you find me a drink or I’m on the next flight back to California.”

In the event you deliver on the hug and the drink. I think we both needed the drink after that embrace. Later we’d fill in the long blanks we had in each others stories but, in a way, we didn’t need to; there was something in that moment that unspooled the past twenty or so years and we were as we’d been, stood on the balcony, buried in each others arms. Only then we were saying goodbye and now I didn’t know what we were saying. When we parted I’d whispered ‘If I could I’d give you my world’, my parting gift from the Mac. I don’t know if you heard it. It wasn’t really like me, a rare moment of honesty and vulnerability making itself heard over the bluster and bullshit. Plus it was a Buckingham line and, as you knew, repeatedly and with great passion, I was more of a Nicks kind of woman. You shift your head slightly so that your mouth is close to my ear and you say: “I never broke the chain.” That was one they sang together. “Me neither” I say back. For a long, long time there’s just silence and two people holding on to each other as if they can squeeze out of existence the time they spent apart.

It’s when you buy me that drink that I tell you I knew you’d be there. I catch myself slipping back into my old habits, the bullish bravado, but I guess you can’t expect that to all fall away immediately. We’re in one of those pubs you used to insist existed near the school but never had the nerve to take me to. That part of you, the insecurity and the nervousness, has gone but there’s still something unsure about you; like you’re looking for something. Was it really me all this time? I see the way you look at me now and it’s like all those years just evaporate, you still see the wise-ass kid shooting her mouth off at the world, shooting first and asking questions later. I think you still see what I could have been and, just for a moment, I worry whether I’ll match up to the idea of me that you’ve been carrying around all this time. But then I realise you’ve seen the tattoos, maybe even clocked the track marks, and that look hasn’t changed. You still see me. Like you did back then.

We have a couple of drinks and talk. It’s like we never stopped. You ask me where I’m staying and I confess that I hadn’t thought that far ahead – it’s the first moment I let slip that maybe I wasn’t so sure you’d be where I expected you to be after all. I figure you probably haven’t changed so much and so I suggest that I stay at yours. I waited twenty five years for you to make a move on me and I’m damned if I’m going to wait another twenty five. And I can’t really afford a hotel.

Back at your house we dance. You put on Rumours – what else – and we shuffle and giggle our way across your lounge, towards your stairs. We kiss and you, in your terribly formal English way, invite me to bed. I almost feel like I should curtsy, take your hand and pull the full Stevie Nicks pose from the album cover, but I catch myself. I sense you might mistake the gesture, think I don’t take you seriously and I don’t want that. I recognise what I feel as love and joy and that’s all I want to convey. For a few moments I whirl on the spot to the music, silk scarf trailing up and around my head, dancing, spinning and turning. And then I stop, take you by the hand, and lead you up the stairs.