By Aliya Whiteley.
There’s an awful moment in any friendship when it becomes obvious that you no longer like each other.
Pop quiz, hotshot. What do you do?
1. Call it a day
2. Pretend nothing has happened and carry on meeting up at the pub every Friday, changing talk to reminiscences about the great times you had rather than attempting to find a new topic.
I go for option two. I act friendly. It all sounds friendly in my head. But I can’t let this important moment, the death of our friendship, go by without alluding to it. I’m the kind of person that has to point out the prize fish in the tank is dead, you see. I have to tell you the toilet paper is caught on your heel or I just can’t rest.
‘Hey, Pippa,’ I say, ‘More booze? I’ll get them in. Club later? Toppers? Shufties? Curly fries and cheese to follow it all up? Remember that great night in Chester? Brilliant. Shame those days are all gone. Behind us. Don’t you feel like it’s a real shame?’
‘Yeah, it sucks,’ she says. She has an umbrella-topped drink in each claw and is taking turns sipping them. ‘Being over twenty is like being a bit dead, innit?’
‘It’s not just that. It’s like, also that thing you said about my mum.’
‘My mum. When you said that you hated her.’
‘Yeah, but you said you hated her first.’
‘That doesn’t make it right!’ I shout, and suddenly there are tears and wobbly movements to the loo, pushing past the long queue of sparkly heifers giving it mouth – whaddya think you’re there’s a queue here you get to the frigging – you know what I mean.
God, the Pussycat Dolls are loud and mean on the ears. The sound reverberates around the five stalls and three sinks, and the floor is sticky under stiletto. I hate my life – it hits me just like that. I hate my life, and my mum, and I know this is meant to be a gradual process of realization but it’s not, it’s like a great big fucking Frankenstein monster of a turnaround in my head.
The other girls push past me and give me evils. Sheree comes out of the nearest stall and her hair is this incredible pink mess. She’s even found a lipstick in the same shade, unbelievably; I thought that went out twenty years ago, so maybe she’s borrowed her mum’s. I bet she has a good relationship with her mum. I bet they talk about types of condom and everything.
Just the thought of it is enough to set me off again, so I dive into the stall Sheree just came out of and squat down on the floor, next to the sanitary towel disposal box, and wonder why I’m such a disaster zone and how exactly the floors of toilets always manage to end up so sticky. What’s on them? Is it wee? Are women so drunk that they fall off the seat and end up pissing all over the floor as they lie on their backs and kick their legs like giant cockroaches?
Not a good image.
The voice has a deep resonance, as if coming from an underground cavern.
‘Hello?’ I say.
‘Hello?’ I sit up and look around the cubicle.
‘In the hole.’ The voice drops even lower, and gives a creepy laugh, as if it’s in a second rate horror film. ‘The hole, Tanya. The hole… mwah ha ha ha ha…’ I peer into the toilet. There is no water. The smooth off-white bowl drops away to a star-speckled galaxy, and in the centre of the unimaginable millions of miles of emptiness is a small pink duck. Not a real one, obviously. A cartoon character representation of one.
‘You’re a duck,’ I say.
‘No, I’m a being of vast power.’
‘You look a lot like a duck.’
‘I’m being kind on your eyes. If I showed you the real me, it would blind you instantly.’
‘Yeah, well, I can manage that too if I forget to put my make-up on.’ I eyeball him. ‘So what’s up, duck?’
‘Tanya,’ it booms, ‘your life is shit. Come to terms with your hatred of your mother, stop drinking too much in disgusting nightclubs, and try harder to impress boys, and you could unlock your deep, deep potential.’
‘I have potential?’ It was news to me.
A banging on the door drowned out the duck’s answer. ‘Busy!’ I shouted. The banging stopped. ‘You know, this is a drug-related moment. I’ve ingested something. Some oik must have slipped me rohypnol.’
‘If that was true you’d be asleep in the back of a taxi, heading for a not very nice flat and an appointment with a video camera, methinks. No, trust me, Tanya, this is real.’
‘No shit,’ I say, and then remember I’m talking to a toilet and have a laugh at my own wit.
‘I’m wasted here,’ says the duck. It sighs. ‘Right, look, just try to be a better person, okay? Before it’s too late. And it’s very nearly too late. Disaster is around the corner.’
‘I’ll try,’ I say, in a reassuring tone. I’ve used it on my mum before when she’s obsessing about the length of my skirts, as if that meant anything to anyone other than the pre-naughties generation. Or standing in the living room at 2.30 in the morning, telling me I’m a disgrace. And then I’m crying again. ‘I hate my mum,’ I say. ‘I hate my mum and my life.’
‘No,’ says the duck, patiently, ‘you just hate yourself.’
‘That’s so not deep on any level.’ I have a think about it, then as quick as I can given my state of inebriation I lift my skirt, pull down my pants, sit on the toilet, and have a wee. Then, while the duck is still coughing, I flush.
‘Byeeee,’ I say, over the scream and the gurgle.
The banging starts again on the door, so I get myself presentable and then throw back the door to have a right go at the stick-girl on the other side. She backs off quick-smart; they always do if you make eye-contact in the right way.
On the dance floor, the Pussycats have seceded to Alesha Dixon, and all the girls are out there, waggling their fingers at their imaginary boyfriends who do nothing. Pippa is out there too, with Carlie and Kylie and Candida. What a happy little groupette, in a circle, no gaps to be muscled into, no room for one more.
So I leave.
Outside, the air is very cold and the electric lights turn the night into a kind of purple haze, so the song starts playing in my mind and it’s the best sound to stomp home to. I could be a rock chick. I could wear black and only eat black foods and think black. That would be easy for me, particularly with my new mum-hating, world-hating vibe going on, but I decide against it. I’m not sure why.
I get home, and the house is darker than the street. Usually mum waits up so she can say something awful. I swear she spends hours thinking it up, but tonight the walls are not hot with her plottings. It’s an icy house, a dead one. The music, even the haze in my head, has stopped.
The lounge is abandoned, the telly turned off at the wall and a Dairy Milk wrapper next to a nearly empty cup of hot chocolate, the brown smeared over the rim, mingling with that peculiar pink of her lipstick.
The kitchen is worse: the dirty plates, the crumpled washing still in the basket. The hall echoes with my footsteps. The stairs shrink up and away to some sort of awful realization.
The duck warned me, and I didn’t listen, and she went. This is what truly alone is, this feeling, now – the house without meaning, and nobody to tell you that you’re disappointing them.
I go up the stairs. I pass her bedroom door. It’s closed. I make it to my own bedroom with wobbly little steps, and I take off my clothes to a mantra: could she have left could she have left could she have left? Really? People say they feel their heart hammering but I feel my heart doing the opposite, flinching, and each breath I take is another blow to it, a pain that makes my ribs hurt.
I tell myself that in the morning she’ll be there. She’s in her bedroom now. Asleep. I could go and check. I could get up and go and see her, eyes closed, on her side, denting the mattress, fat chin on the pillow.
The duck said I should trust myself.
Trust me, I say, she’s there. It’s not too late to make everything right, to start over, to make the most of my potential. It still sounds stupid and Hollywood and pretty much impossible, but I have to believe it now, or else my life has gone the way of the duck. Flushed away.
I lie awake, and wait until the new morning, and try to trust.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aliya Whiteley was born in Ilfracombe, North Devon, and as a consequence spends a lot of time writing about weird seaside towns. Her mystery novel, Light Reading, was published in paperback by Pan Macmillan in April 2009. She has a website here, and blogs with fellow writer Neil Ayres here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 26th, 2009.