Margot and I have been friends since we were ten, when we wore jumpers two sizes too big and fat little ties, which were supposedly cool. We phoned each other most nights. We often ran out of things to say but it wasn’t a problem. We would lie on our separate beds in our separate houses and listen to each other breathing. Friendship meant something different to us then. When I see her, my insides slide as though I’ve taken a step and left my body behind. We hug. She smells strange; earthy and sweet at the same time.
You look well, Margot says, whatever that means.
Oh, so do you, I say. It’s been so long.
I offer her a cigarette but she’s given up. I light up anyway, take a long drag and watch as my smoke drifts across the table towards her, the way her face shifts ever so slightly. We discuss work, the weather, things we’ve seen on Facebook. Margot shows me her engagement ring. It is as big and sparkly and green as it was in the pictures.
Like my eyes, she says, without a trace of irony.
I wonder if the old Margot is trapped somewhere inside this one. I imagine her head banging against a ribcage, thud, thud, thud.
So beautiful, I say.
I was the pretty one. But wasn’t me who decided. The boys did – those strange creatures with authority on our appearances. They decided who was nerdy or cool, lesbian or fuckable, pretty or ugly. There was no space in between. Our own ideas about ourselves flitted about uselessly but didn’t land anywhere; created an uncertainty that left us borderless, undefined. But I had it easier than Margot. I was the pretty one because she wasn’t. She was so pale she was practically see-through, the shifting dark mass of her organs almost visible beneath her skin.
We loved playing brides. Funny to think of that now. Sometimes we snuck into Margot’s mother’s room to try on her huge, frothy dress when we were home alone. Margot standing in front of the full-length mirror, one nipple poking out of the sweetheart neckline. We used to make collages of our dream weddings. We’d spend hours trawling through magazines and catalogues, our scissors scraping around each chosen image, the remainder collapsing onto the floor. It was such a treat when we got given a new copy of Brides Magazineor You and Your Wedding. One time, Margot’s mother gave me a bumper edition of Elle Wedding and I thought I would faint with delight. I believed I had it all mapped out and I just had to wait until I was grown up for a man to come along and choose me to be his wife. I couldn’t wait to be loved like that.
Margot’s voice is soft and even, a line running across a screen. I burn the tip of my tongue on my coffee. Press the sore point against the back of my teeth. Everything becomes sharper. I keep nodding, on and on, like a little nodding dog.
You should come and stay with us! Margot says, clasping her hands together. The eczema on her knuckles splits open, red and livid. You’ll come for a weekend, won’t you?
She looks like a girl again, eyes wide like that. I hesitate for a moment, a split-second – and then I say yes. Of course I do. I’m basically a doormat.
Sure, I say. That would be nice.
Margot becomes more animated and I feel warm, like I’ve done a good thing. She chatters on about venues, vows, flowers. She can’t wait for me to see the house.
It really is beautiful, she says. I feel like all my dreams are coming true.
I’m happy for you, I don’t say. I am curious about her life. I want to meet the man who has chosen her until death do they part. I want to understand how their lives work like that, side by side. We part with another sickly hug and a date in the diary.
My boyfriend refuses to come with me. I knew he would.
But you hate Margot, he says, lolling on the sofa, watching some crap reality programme, girls strutting around in bikinis like flamingos.
She’s my oldest friend, I say.
But you hate her.
I think about saying please, asking again in a cutesy voice, but he’d just sulk all weekend and generally be a cunt about it.
I do not hate her, I say. He grunts. My body flares momentarily with rage. I squeeze my left hand tightly in my right.
You’ve outgrown each other, he says from the back of his head. Let it go.
I watch his face side-on in the flickering light and wonder what it must be like to be inside his head. Sometimes I fantasise about scraping his eyes out with a pen.
Go if you want to, he says. But I’m not coming with you.
The night before I’m due to go to Margot’s I fall asleep on the sofa with the television on. I dream of one thing, then another, grand cinematic scenes that change suddenly, leave me reeling. First I’m sweating, juddering, burningly itchy everywhere. I reach up to scratch my scalp and to my sick horror, something comes away, lumps stuck under my fingernails. Something sticky, grey and shiny in the moonlight. My stomach slips, swoops. I realise it’s my brain, coming out of my skull. Then black. I’m lying down. Maybe I’m in bed after all. No, not my bed. A bed. Margot, smiling down at me. Long red hair trailing across my chest. There is a blinding light behind her head, so bright it hurts to look at. It darkens her face so I can’t make it out properly. But I know it’s her. I can tell. I can smell her. I can see her teeth in the blackness, glinting.
I wake in a panic, breathing erratic, heart banging all over the place. I know it was just a dream but it’s a relief to find my head in one piece. I glance down at my hands; count my fingers, just to check they are all there. My eyes burn with sleeplessness and I wish to fucking god I hadn’t agreed to this.
I take my boyfriend’s car. He’ll be comatose all day anyway, probably won’t even notice. I turn the radio up to disguise the strange clunking sounds it makes. I try not to think about how many times I’ve asked my boyfriend to get it checked out. Before long, packed motorways give way to winding country lanes. I could be going anywhere. The motion and exhaustion lull me into a state of peacefulness. I put my sunglasses on and imagine I am going on a solo road trip somewhere exciting, off into the sunset, leaving my life behind. I think about things Margot and I could talk about. I could ask about her family, but it is uncomfortable to think about them, as though they are estranged members of my own blood, people I’ve forgotten about, abandoned when I shouldn’t have. Margot’s mum used to take me to hospital appointments when my own mother wasn’t around. Some nights she would wait by the side of my bed until I fell asleep. For all I know, she could be dead now.
I miss the entrance to their drive the first time. I didn’t notice it get so dense. Tall, thin trunks clamouring together, so thick they filter the sunlight and cast everything in a dark, greenish hue, at once calm and inexplicably sad. I smoke before I go in; stare upwards through the branches as though I’ll find something in the distant cracks of blue sky.
You made it! Margot’s voice rings out behind me.
I did, I say.
There is a pause for a moment that feels like a lifetime and in it I regret being here with every inch of my being.
Come in, she says. Let me give you the grand tour.
Turns out Margot’s fiancé can’t make it tonight after all. He’s working away, but she hopes he’ll be back in the morning. We can take a walk across the cliffs together.
You can see for miles. It’s beautiful, she says. All that water.
A memory surges: fifteen-year-old Margot on holiday in Wales. Grey sky, grey rain, so heavy it hurts. She sits down and screams that she won’t go on. We pull our hoods up; wait until she’s done. Her face getting redder and redder. Us watching, silent as walls. I ask Margot if she remembers.
Hm, she says. That was a very long time ago.
But you remember?
I suppose I didn’t like walks as much back then, she says. I love them now though, don’t you? I love being out in nature. Everything smells so fresh. I don’t suppose you get much of a chance in the city though, do you?
No, I say and take a sip of wine.
Margot and I didn’t fall out very often as teenagers. I never liked confrontation. But when others said things about her I didn’t defend her in the way I know she would have defended me. I didn’t tell her when her period leaked through her knickers and onto her skirt during maths class. I sniggered along with the rest of the class when she stood up to hand her test in. When the boys said she was easy or called her a slag, I didn’t outright agree with them, but I did smile along, sometimes share a quick glance with them. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Margot. I did, desperately, but it made me feel better about myself.
Then the boys started saying that she let them put their hands down her pants. Margot said it wasn’t true, but one time I saw it happening. Margot’s face blank, bored even, skirt hitched up around her waist. Whichever boy it was had his brow furrowed, a slip of pink tongue sticking out in concentration. Boys used her to learn the female anatomy before moving onto better things. Whenever anyone spoke to her directly about it I remained very still and silent and looked down at my shiny black school shoes with ribbons instead of laces. I loved those shoes. Afterwards, we acted as though nothing had happened, to the point where now I’m not entirely sure how much of that actually happened or whether I made it up. But I do remember the sour pang in my heart when I realised she was lying to me, as clear and as true as anything. I ask Margot about it, super-casual. She shrugs. I hooked up with boys when I was a teenager, we all did.
I wonder who ‘all’ is. There was only ever me and Margot. The other girls barely spoke to us, but we liked it that way. We had sleepovers. Just the two of us in the same bed, Margot clinging to me like a little limpet. I’d have to peel her warm body off mine so I could get to sleep. We drank undiluted Pimms together in the park, made our own fun. We dripped it into each other’s eyes because we’d heard that would get you drunk quicker. I remember the sharp sting, stumbling, howling with laughter, clutching onto each other, a life raft in the spinning world. Flashes of those days come back to me. Pissing in the subway late at night when we thought no one was looking. Smoking weed behind the library with boys from another school. The taste of fire clung to my throat, made me nauseous. Walking home in the dark, Margot crept along the pavements, hiding behind cars, insisting the bad man was coming for her, as he always was.
I ask Margot over dinner. The memories are filling me now. I blurt them out, one after another. I want to remember them, relive them. She looks down at her steak and cuts a precise slice, perfectly pink inside.
I don’t remember it like that, she says. Perhaps it was the vodka in my eyes.
Pimms, I think but don’t say. It was Pimms.
So how long have you been with your boyfriend now? She asks, looking at me across the table, and I feel the years we’ve spent apart stretching between us like a black hole.
More. Getting caught showing each other our privates in the toilet at school. She must remember Mr Muhammad’s face. She must. His glasses steaming up, the way he turned pink, stuttering. We were put into isolation for two whole weeks and when our parents asked why he simply said ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and coughed into his handkerchief, refusing to elaborate. Flashing our boobs to a near stranger to earn ten quid for vodka lemonades at the rugby club. I felt so dirty afterwards I couldn’t sleep and I let Margot hold onto me all night. Stealing mascara and nail varnish from Boots. Almost getting caught but outrunning the security guard, our hands clasped tight the whole way.
You don’t remember any of it?
I don’t remember it like that, no, she says, shoving her steak in her mouth hurriedly as though it’s about to get up and walk off.
Suddenly I want my boyfriend, more than I have in months. I want to be cuddled like a baby. I want to be tucked in bed, to sleep with the light on. I want to be far away from here. I take a long sip of my wine. Edges soften. I feel myself getting drunk.
I think I should go, I say.
Margot looks at me. No! She says. No, don’t go. Oh god. I’ve upset you, haven’t I? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.
Oh, no. It’s nothing to do with you, I say. I just don’t feel well. I’ve got this headache.
You’re lying! She says, dropping her cutlery onto her plate with a clang.
I’m not Margot, I just –
Oh come on, she says. I know it’s been a few years but bloody hell. I still know you.
My heart starts to clang in my chest like an alarm bell. My breath skips, stutters. No, really. I just don’t feel well.
Don’t do this, she says, grabbing hold of my wrist. Instinctively I snatch it back and she collapses onto the floorboards with a thump. I don’t want to be alone. She starts to wail and something cracks inside me. Please, don’t go.
Too much. There’s a reason I forgot those years. Each memory folded, unfolded, smoothed out in a different light. Margot’s breath hot in my ear: I wish you were dead. Margot screaming, in some unspecified place, different places: You’re supposed to help me. Blame, blame. Rain-soaked hair, dark smudges under her eyes, jumping out in front of my car on my way to a friend’s house. Her face shivering white in my headlights. Don’t do this to me, she says. Don’t you love me? I don’t want to unlock the door, but I do, of course I do. I’m so young, seventeen, eighteen. I don’t know what’s happening. There’s blood all over her arm and it’s so red and she’s telling me she wishes I was dead. And then, and then. She’s holding me, telling me she’ll be okay and she forgives me this time. Threat hanging in the air like smoke, choking me. When I look in the morning there are bruises up and down my arms, bluish-grey, lilac, mauve. You’re making this all about you, she says. I’m the one who needs help. Margot’s mum, eyes red, passes me a cup of tea. You’re so lucky to have somebody who loves you this much. I wish love was different. Imagine another life. Imagine a dress. Every night I pray she’ll get better. Every morning I pray I haven’t done something wrong. I think it is my fault. I think it is normal. I think this is just what it’s like. Slammed doors, hospital wards. Constantly told: she loves you so much, no need to tell anyone. Tears, tears, tears. Please stop, I say. You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me more, she says, eyes full of anger, hate even. There’s a reason I forgot so much.
When I wake, it is still dark. We are not touching. I watch her as she breathes beside me. In, out, in, out. I think: she is just a person, just one person.
I wonder what her fiancé will make of all this, and then I get it. Slowly at first, then all at once. This house is beautiful but bare. There are no photographs, no pictures of any kind, very few personal effects. I walk barefoot across the polished floors, softly softly, onto the main landing. There are so many closed doors. I don’t know which one to choose. I leave them all and take the stairs. I float out of the front door and leave it open. Why not? I take a deep breath of cold air and am surprised to find that there is no voice in my head telling me that it’s all my fault. I look up at the fuzz of stars beyond the treetops, the clear sky above.
One more. Summer. I’m standing at the edge of the jetty, looking at the rush of green water beneath my feet. All the other children are splashing and laughing, but I’m afraid. What if I sink and drown? What if I get eaten? What if there’s seaweed? I take a step back.
There’s nothing to be afraid of, a voice says behind me.
I turn around and there she is, long red hair dripping down her back, her breasts barely two puckers on the flat board of her chest. She takes my hand and smiles.
You just close your eyes and jump. One, two, three.
About the Contributor
Marni Appleton is a writer of fiction. Her short stories have been published in The Tangerine and Banshee, among other publications. She has a Master’s Degree from Royal Holloway and is studying for a PhD at the University of East Anglia.
Sour Heart - Jenny Zhang
I have chosen this collection of short stories for its powerful portrayal of loss in many different forms: the sense of loss that comes with growing up, the loss of home, culture, families and secret ambitions. I admire Zhang’s ability to intertwine the heavy sense of loss with moments of laugh-out-loud humour, and the unflinchingly honest way she writes about tragic experiences.
More from Issue Ten:
- Tracks of Life and Death by Liz Kohn
- A short course of treatment by Tim Love
- Heating disorder by Myriam Frey
- Heirlooms by Rosie Garland
- Mourning by Katherine McMahon
- The Ghost of my Mother is waiting for me in Arrivals by Claire Collison
- Pakistan Zindabad, from Abroad by Hana Riaz
- Adopt a vortex by Han Smith
- Sea Sickness by Eloise Unerman
- British Street Music by Tamim Sadikali
- Pomegranate by Caroline Gonda