Short story; this version revised in August 2008.
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Nothing prepares you for that first contact from Friends Reunited. It’s meant to be from the odd-looking girl in your form group that everyone used to ignore. Telling you she’s married with four kids and, not only that, she’s one of the country’s top barristers, and when you finally piece it together you realise she’s grown into Cherie Blair. That would have been odd. The Blairs are a good deal older than me. Still, I’d have coped. I’d have believed. I have an enormous capacity for belief.
It had taken me ages to think what to say about myself. Not married. Fat chance of that. No kids. Not even a job to brag about. Nil points. So that’s what I put.
I knew that would give some of the class of ’83 a laugh. Including Mr Mathieu who taught us French. He would have had me married off a decade ago, if not before. He never did understand what held me and Philippe together.
Philippe’s name wasn’t on the school listing when I added my details. Of course I looked for him. It was a relief when he wasn’t there. There was a certain security about inaction, knowing he was unreachable. But the site allowed him to find me.
I hope you’re ok. I found a letter you wrote to mum from five years ago. People at that address told me you’d moved on. I didn’t even know you’d kept in touch.
I’m writing because of mum. She’s had a bad accident, but she’s ok. She’s going to need some care for a while. Someone needs to stay with her. I don’t know how long. I thought you’d understand.
This must sound really weird. Will you think about it? Then call me. I’d pay you of course.
I couldn’t tell what panicked me the most. Erika being hurt, or knowing Philippe had seen my letters. How many? Which ones? He couldn’t know how many letters there had been, including the ones unwritten and preserved in my head.
There was a time I lived for any news of Erika. Having to make do with a card twice a year with her couple of sentences when I longed for regular handwritten sheets. She told me nothing really about herself, and never anything about Philippe.
I treasured those cards. They were the only way I knew she was alive. Except they’d stopped coming a few years ago and I told myself that was it. Time for me to stop. Surely by then Erika knew everything I wanted her to know. Much too much. I was excited to know she must have held onto my letters – some of them, at least.
It was November when Philippe introduced me to his mother. The first spell of really cold weather. It took me ages to get that far, finally inside Philippe’s house. Even though it was always Philippe, everywhere I went. Had been for months. I always wanted to be with him. He mostly wanted to be with me as far as I could tell. Going home with him was a treat. It was just Philippe and his mother, no one else, and all she seemed to want was total immersion in Philippe and me.
We went out to the pictures that first night. She sat us in the front row where everyone could see when we fell off our seats laughing. Erika laughed the most. When the people behind started shushing us, she just turned round, showed them a smile and that silenced them. She was stunning.
She was a deep bass voice and surprising giggle, cherry-coloured hair and sweet cigarette smoke. Galoshes, I said first time I read the packet. Mr Mathieu would have sighed and turned green.
She touched my arm and blew her smoke. “Kay, you’re so funny.” She made me feel funny even when she knew I wasn’t trying to be. She winked at me and made me feel funny right into the middle of myself.
That’s when she was Philippe’s mother, before she became Erika. Glamorous Erika with a letter ‘k’; it connected us. I loved the way her name sounded, although I was being careful not to call her anything. Trying to be polite, I’d made the mistake of calling her Mrs Joyce once too often.
“Give it a break, Kay. I’ve never been married and I’m not starting now. No man good enough, is there, my boy?” She twiddled the back of Philippe’s hair. There had always been the two of them. Before me.
I phoned Philippe the same evening I read his email. What else could I do?
“It’s been a long time,” I said.
“I know. How are you?”
I left a silence.
“I didn’t know,” he said, “not until last month. I didn’t know you were still in touch. I‘ve had to look through a lot of things, sorting out stuff. It was a surprise when I found the letters …”
I didn’t like the thought of my words in Philippe’s hands. They were old letters, not about me now. “You said she had an accident?”
“She crashed the car. Lucky she got this far. You know how much she was drinking.”
I could guess. She’d given me my first rum and coke. I skipped Mr Mathieu’s extra French and went to Philippe’s to wait for him, knowing Erika would be there. She looked as if she’d just got up, standing in a bathrobe, hair wrapped in a towel.
“Is it that time already?” She waited at the door looking down the street for Philippe. When he didn’t appear she patted my arm and pushed me towards the living room. “So, just the two of us. Want to tell me what’s wrong?”
I didn’t know there was anything wrong but I made something up. “I’m sick of this stupid world,” I told her. It sounded so true that I felt the snot exploding from my nostrils.
She nodded and let me cry. “Well, I know how that feels.”
She poured the drinks. She filled mine with coke right to the top.
“Go on, drink it down, love. This isn’t the answer. I’ll tell you that. But it tastes good.”
I was so grateful she didn’t tell me it was my age.
“Believe me, Kay, if you’re female it’s always your age. Age is the ongoing battle. We have to keep finding new ways to beat it.”
So we danced. We got thirsty, we drank some more, and we danced. We danced so hard the towel unravelled itself. Erika swore in the mirror and rubbed her fingers through her hair to fluff it up. I told her it looked fine, fine and divine. The rum was humming softly in my chest. I felt hot. I took off my jumper and Erika threw off her robe, spinning me round the room in satin peach underwear.
Fine and divine. Fine and divine.
Even in my limited definition, that underwear was sexy. I wondered what happened in her daytime when we were in school.
“Were you expecting someone this afternoon?” I asked her.
I turned under the arm that she held high for me. “Only you, darling. Only you.”
We laughed, and then Philippe was at the door. Erika let go and I carried on spinning. When I hit the floor the room was spinning.
“Philippe! Hello!” I waved to him from the carpet. “We’re having a party.”
His face was redder than I’d ever seen it. He wouldn’t stop staring at Erika.
“Get dressed,” he shouted at her. “You’re drunk.”
“No – I – am – not – drunk.”
I wanted him to stop staring. “We’re having fun, ” I said.
They ignored me. I watched Erika pose for him, taking the glass in her hand, pausing with it at her lips. “I could get drunk, if you like.” Then she offered the glass to him, laughing.
“Fuck you, mother,” he said.
Philippe was asking if we could meet up. “I think it would be easier,” he said.
I wasn’t sure anything would be easy. “Why now – after all this time?”
“She asked for you.”
It’s what I wanted to hear, but I guessed he was lying. “Why do you need someone else to care for your own mother? You haven’t forgiven her, have you?” Or me, I added silently.
“Meet me,” he said. “What are you doing next Sunday?”
“Is she – is she badly injured?” It terrified me that Erika might be unrecognisable.
“Please,” he said. “I’d like to see you again.”
I had nothing else going on. The day of the week made no difference. Sometimes it was hard to remember what day it was. Philippe was on the wrong tracks if he wanted me to keep Erika off the bottle. I wasn’t an alcoholic, could hardly match Erika drink for drink. But I had a problem stopping some days and I knew for a lot of people that counted me in.
Underneath it all I was excited at the thought of meeting Philippe. We’d been closer than close, told each other everything. I was the one he talked to when he started having sex. I became the third person in that relationship, too, always just on the outside of everything, even when I knew it was me holding it all together. It wouldn’t have been right to be jealous.
It was funny the way he told it. He didn’t mind me laughing. And I was being such a self-righteous cow. Said I wasn’t going to do it until I was eighteen at least. Emphasising that last bit. Refusing to speak to him all through Biology when he admitted they didn’t use a condom.
“We didn’t need a condom,” he said. “I kept having to stop for a drink of water. Knackered myself. It’s really hard, you know. I gave up in the end.”
I didn’t think it got more special than that. Friendship I mean. Erika knew it. She wanted to keep me close and safe. She always made Philippe walk me home, even if it was the middle of the afternoon.
I knew there were risks involved in travelling backwards. But here was Philippe asking for the one thing I hoped and wished for. I’d go so far as to say with all my heart. What was it I’d always liked about Philippe? His certainty that he had a role in the world. His strong sense that he was right and deserved to be listened to. If it had been anyone else I would have called it arrogance. But Philippe was always there, before Erika, and it felt constant. I imagined that if we met up again we would pick up just where we’d left off. I was choosing to ignore the silence of those years. When Philippe could have brought us together we used him as a separator. Not a word from Erika about Philippe, until I scrubbed him from my letters too.
Erika sent me flowers once. I remember calling after the delivery man. “Wasn’t there a card?”
“No,” he said with a wink. “Must be a secret admirer.”
“Will you check? ” I said.
There was no card. It’s not as though it would have been Erika’s signature, but it would have been something to see Erika’s name. To know she had spelt out a message for me. I could keep a card. Flowers would be past their best in a week.
It was the most recognition yet. Eleven purple irises. A reference point which meant she did read my letters. A postcard that time. I had gone to Paris for a few days. To escape, I thought. I didn’t understand until I got there that Paris isn’t somewhere you go to escape strong feelings. Paris whisks you up in a cyclone of emotion. I followed the beautiful people from grand building to grand building. I walked the miles in art galleries as I was expected to do.
It was in the Musée D’orsay that I saw the irises. A giant poster of a Van Gogh painting in the gallery shop. I was sucked into blues and greens, imagined myself wandering between the stems. Tiny yet powerful. Even in the dark edges of the leaves I saw clarity. Erika was going to know me. I bought the postcard version and wrote in my clumsy French:
Partout où je vais, la lumière pas se fanent. Mon coeur est sûr.
The flowers didn’t arrive immediately, maybe eight months later, following one of my letters where I tried to stick to facts and leave out feelings. The flowers were a sign that she walked a path with me. Erika believed in me and I should believe in myself.
Wherever I am the light won’t fade. My heart is certain.
I kept a single iris pressed in the pages of a notebook. Life can’t be lived so intensely, I wrote beside it.
We met in the car park of a Little Chef off the M5. Philippe had grown a beard. I never expected to see him with facial hair. We hugged and kissed and I teased him about the bristles.
“I take it you don’t like it,” he said, rubbing the thin outline of hair around his mouth.
“It’s fine. I just never imagined you could grow whiskers.”
I’d made him self-conscious. It was such a long time ago. What had I done with the time?
“Doesn’t he look gorgeous? I love it. I shaped it for him.” A young man, maybe just over twenty, got out of the passenger seat of Philippe’s car.
Philippe waved him closer, looking expectant, excited, more alive than I wanted him to be. “This is Jason … my partner.”
“Your lov-er, you mean. Show me some respect.” The young man draped himself around Philippe’s shoulders. He whispered in Philippe’s ear and looped a finger through his belt.
I thought Philippe looked embarrassed. I was knocked off guard. It wasn’t the Philippe I’d expected. Not after some of the words he’d used to me. This he could have prepared me for. I would have had time to think about it, found a way to be pleasant even.
“Nice one,” I said. “After everything you said!”
“Things change. Thank goodness.” He smiled as if he was pleading me to smile too.
It hurt too much. I should have been told somewhere private, on our own. My best friend’s gay. Alright, we hadn’t spoken for eighteen years. But I deserved to know first.
“How long?” I really wanted to know.
Philippe looked at Jason. “How long have we been together?”
“No,” I said. “Well that too, I suppose. I was thinking more, how long have you been gay?”
Jason pulled a face like he didn’t understand the question. “All his life I should think. Jesus!”
Philippe looked at the ground. “It depends what you mean by being gay, doesn’t it.”
I understood his answer. But I wasn’t letting this pass. He must have rehearsed this moment. I couldn’t be sure if my next breath would set me off screaming or crying.
“So you’ve been into boys … ” I shrugged “since …?” I dared him to name the year.
“Since leaving Uni, if you put it like that.”
Jason acted bewildered. “Do you mean you haven’t met any queers before?”
I faked a smile and punched Philippe hard on the shoulder. “Ask Philippe later.” God, he was so young. What did Philippe see in him?
They followed me inside and we ordered. When Jason left for the bathroom Philippe asked if I was surprised.
“I’m surprised you brought Jason with you.”
“He’s my partner.”
“Your lov-er, you mean.” I couldn’t help it. “He’s very young, isn’t he?”
Philippe sighed. “We’ve all been very young. You used to think it didn’t matter.”
I still felt young; I wanted to be young.
“You’d better tell me about Erika,” I said.
Philippe read out a medical list. I tried to take it in but all I really wanted to know was “Were there bad head injuries?”
“Nothing lasting,” he said. “She’s on the mend. But you know what that means.”
“Apart from the fact she’s a complete nutcase,” Jason had returned to the table.
I chose to ignore him. “How do you think I’m going to be any good for her?”
“She needs someone she can trust,” said Philippe. “A lot of things happened that shouldn’t have. You were meant to be in her life. I’m sorry.”
How could he say that? So simple. “It’s not just about me, you, and Erika. I have a family too. They almost had her up on an assault charge.”
“They got over that,” he said.
“Well, I’m not sure I did.”
Philippe really was being unbelievable.
Jason’s eyes widened. “An assault charge. Wow! What did she do, Philippe? What did your mother do?”
“Leave it, Jase. Not now.”
Jason looked at me with new respect. “I wouldn’t go anywhere near his mother. She’s mad. I told him, she needs mental health services.”
Philippe’s calm exterior faded. “You forget, ” he pointed at me. “You forget I had a fucked-up adolescence too. It wasn’t enough I had to share my adolescence with you. I had to share my own fucking mother with you!”
“You stupid tosser,” I said. She was always your mother. Only ever your mother. I didn’t need another mother! Christ!”
Philippe was shaking his head. “At least I’ve changed my life. Where are you now? Thirty five and still chasing after her. You’re a joke. A mess.”
He wasn’t getting away with this. It was down to him we were fighting over Erika, eating lukewarm food in a crappy Little Chef. “You got me here. You wanted to bring me back.”
Philippe put down his knife and fork. “You still write to her. You do, don’t you?”
I hadn’t written in three, maybe four years. Somewhere you’ve got to draw a line.
“Perhaps you don’t send them any more. But I bet you write them.” Philippe nodded like he’d cracked a secret code.
I had to hand it to him. He was quite astute. Most men wouldn’t have had a clue. This was Philippe, though. I missed him. I suddenly had the urge to hug him. Jason chewed with his mouth open, wondering what might happen next. I don’t know. It always amazed me how things moved from the fighting to the hugging. That’s really what held us together and pulled us apart, always Erika at the centre.
Philippe hadn’t been himself the whole day. He was so snappy I couldn’t even ask him what was wrong. He wouldn’t say anything so I just kept walking his way after school.
Finally, he said, “Do you want to tell your mum you won’t be back till later?”
I was so relieved. It meant he wanted me there.
I went to the phone. Music was playing from the front room. Erika would be getting ready to welcome us. I hadn’t even started dialling the number when Philippe came back to the hallway. He looked like he was going to throw up.
“I’m going out,” he said, “and you can go home.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just go!” he shouted at me.
I was used to his silence but not his shouting. “What’s wrong? Where’s your mum?”
I had to see for myself. He didn’t want me to go in the room. Almost pulled my arm off trying to stop me. I kicked him in the shins.
Erika was lying on the settee. I could see the pinky-brown of a nipple and crusty stuff round her mouth as if she’d dribbled in her sleep. I saw her chest moving where skin met fabric and thought I knew what had made Philippe want to run.
“It’s ok, she’s breathing. Philippe, it’s ok.” I touched her face. She didn’t feel hot or cold, just sort of normal.
“Do you think we should get an ambulance?”
“No.” He was determined. “No. I don’t want you to look at her.”
“She’s drunk. I’m not doing it any more. I don’t want to see her.”
“I’m not leaving her.”
He screamed at me, trying to get me out of the room with his shouting. He stood at the door, rocking, smacking his fists against his thighs.
I stroked Erika’s cheek, wiped the hair back from her mouth. Then her head went back, her hands came up in spasm, and she puked all down herself, partly over me.
I watched Philippe punch a hole in the glass door. It didn’t shatter; it was like the whole pane just crumbled to the floor.
“Tell me what to do, Philippe. What should we do for her?”
“I told you to leave her. Fucking leave her.”
Her head rested on my arm. Her tongue was fighting its way around her mouth. I thought that was a good sign.
“She’s coming round. Erika?” It was the first time I’d used her name in front of her.
Philippe’s blood was dripping onto the carpet. “Why won’t you just go?” he said.
“I’m not leaving her.” I wiped Erika’s mouth with my sleeve.
“Fuck you.” He stepped back through the broken door.
“Philippe. Your hand. Don’t go!”
Erika was sick again. She coughed and even tried to sit up. There was no way I was letting her choke on her own vomit. I risked leaving her for half a minute while I went to fetch a glass of water. She wouldn’t have any, so I drank it. When I tried to get her to her feet my own legs were shaking so badly we collapsed back on the couch.
“Ow. Kay? Wa doin?”
It was good if she could feel something and recognise who I was. I needed her to co-operate now. I had to get her up the stairs. We were a mess.
“Where’s Philippe?” she kept asking as we shuffled a step at a time.
She was fighting me off when she slipped. I fell with her a little way but managed to hold on and grabbed for the handrail. She started clawing at me, scrambling to get up, scratching at my arms and chest. I was so busy stopping us falling I let her do it until she calmed down. It hurt. Her nails were like razors.
Eventually she used up any energy she had. I dragged her up the top three stairs. My arms were aching and I knew she’d cut me all over my shoulders. I wished I’d thought to make coffee. I hoped water would work just as well. Perhaps submerging her in water, giving her a shock would bring her round. And it would get rid of the smell.
I leant her against the wall in the shower. I quickly undressed, then got Erika out of her robe. She wasn’t fighting, she seemed resigned to me sorting her out. She still had her eyes closed, hardly flinched when the water cascaded onto her. She seemed able to stand on her own after a bit. I started soaping her arms, but it felt too personal. I got a sponge and squeezed soapy water over her chest. I had to move in close to step into the water spray. It stung where Erika had scratched me. They weren’t deep scratches, not even drawing blood in some places, but they became raised and red in the hot water.
She looked so thin and vulnerable. It was scary when she started making strange sounds and I realised she was crying. I moved to hug her.
“It’s ok,” I said.
Suddenly she went wild. Arms flapping, screaming at me, “Get out, get away from me.” She looked horrified, like she couldn’t recognise me. Then she hit me, her whole arm coming straight at my face.
It got me out of there. I bundled my clothes together, ran into Philippe’s bedroom and shut the door. My heart was beating as if it might explode. I could see myself in the mirror, wet and confused, one eye closing.
When I opened the bedroom door the water was still running. I wanted to look but I couldn’t. If Erika drowned, after everything, it would be my fault. All the way home I tried to decide whether death was preferable by drowning or choking. Finally, I figured there wasn’t much between them. It was suffocation in any case.
Philippe didn’t turn up for school the next day. Someone joked that he’d beaten me up and was in hiding. Funny thing was I wanted to see them both so much. There was no way Erika would purposefully hurt me. I had to see her.
I looked through the letterbox. Someone was in. The broken glass had been cleared and I could hear the television.
Erika opened the door, alive and dressed.
“Kay! Oh my god! Your face.”
I hated seeing her so alarmed. “Is Philippe in?”
She pushed her hair back with both hands. “Isn’t he with you?”
I shook my head. My heart was pounding again. She made us coffee and turned the TV down.
“It’s good that you’re here,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here. It saves me coming to you, of course.” She made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. A short expiration of breath. Hah.
She looked at the ceiling while I counted to thirty.
“I’m the one who did this to you, aren’t I?” Hah again. “I’m not totally out of my mind.”
The back of her hand was soft against my cheek. It was my turn to lean into her, hoping the responsibility would fade away.
“Thank you for coming back,” she said. “You shouldn’t have had to see me that way. I know you were there. I don’t know quite when, or how, but I think I did this to you.”
“It’s alright,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. She looked so sad.
“No,” she said. “It’s not alright.”
Did she want my forgiveness? I had nothing to forgive her for. I needed her to be happy. It was the only way I would be happy.
She gripped my hand. “You are the best friend anyone could have. The sweetest girl. Philippe is very lucky.” Then she touched her lips to my swollen brow.
I hugged her. I needed her to know I was her very best friend too.
We asked for coffee. I wanted something far stronger. Philippe lit a cigarette and absentmindedly passed the packet to Jason.
“You smoke?” I said. “That has to be the revelation of the day.”
“Only with coffee.”
“And after sex,” added Jason.
Maybe Jason wasn’t so bad. I liked him when he was quiet. I inhaled their smoke, imagined it was Gauloises.
“She needs you,” Philippe said. “I can’t do it all. She won’t even acknowledge Jason and she won’t be with anyone she doesn’t know.”
I hadn’t really sobbed until then. “What do you want me to be, Philippe? You’ve already said it. I’m a mess. What good am I? Erika doesn’t know who I am.”
He sighed. “Do you think any of us can forget?”
I had moments of hope that she would want to meet me again. Mostly in the minutes before sleep, when you allow yourself to drift.
“What do I know about looking after sick people?”
“This is Erika,” he said.
She was starting to feel real. I sniffed, tried to breathe. “How bad is she?”
“A lot better. She just shouldn’t be left alone.”
This wasn’t reassuring. I’d been on my own too long to wonder why anyone should care. “You’re worried about her drinking,” I said.
I wondered if I should tell him how I hadn’t got round to the recycling for a few weeks and the cans and bottles were stacking up in the hallway. How I wondered about keeping the empties there so I had the excuse not to invite anyone in the house again.
“Her physical care’s mostly sorted. It’s …” he shrugged “… the rest, you know.”
“I hope what you’re trying to say is she needs a friend.”
Philippe smiled. He could probably tell I needed a friend too. Why hadn’t he asked me which way my relationships lay? I didn’t mean the boy or girl thing. He just presumed there wasn’t anyone. Ok, so I’d admitted to my whole peer group that I wasn’t married, wasn’t anywhere close. He should have known that had another connotation altogether. Truth is, there wasn’t anyone. Hadn’t been for a while. No one who could deal with my mood swings.
“She does know you’re meeting me. Philippe, she does, doesn’t she?”
“Well – not exactly. What if you’d said no?”
There were more phone conversations. With so many things to sort out Philippe apologised for leaving no time to talk about me.
“I think I ended up assuming a great deal,” he said. “It was something I read in one of your letters – that you had more empty space than was healthy. Will you forgive me for taking over?”
I didn’t think he had taken over. Not really. That was down to Erika and began a long time ago. “How’s Jason?” I said.
“He’s fine. Thanks for asking.” Philippe paused. I wondered if Jason was listening in. “Keeps asking me to tell him more about you. I’m not sure what to say. What you’d want him to know. It should really be about now, don’t you think? What are you doing with yourself?”
“Not much, ” I said. “Reviewing my options. “
“Good. I’m arranging dinner so the three of us can get used to each other.”
“You, me and Jason?”
“No. You, me and mum.”
“You really think we can do this?”
There was a pause and I imagined Philippe’s shrug. “Erika’s expecting you,” he said.
I believed him. It was decided. It was like being invited home.