The thing is, we’ve been friends since our first day at primary and you sat down at my elbow at the sticking table and said, What shape are you?, then dug around in the wafer-thin glue- backed paper shapes scattered like autumn leaves across the table-top before us, plucked a small pink star from somewhere and offered it to me as if you always knew exactly who I was going to be.
I’m Kate and you look like a star, you said and from then it was Kate and Elisa, all through school.
Now, we’re both in our forties, and I buy the tickets to try and make you happy. When you ask why I would want to spend two days running round the Olympia staring at men, I prattle something about how, in this age of equal marriage, it was maybe time for an Ideal Partner Exhibition instead, that they’re missing a trick not chasing the pink pound.
The thing is, we grew up together, from little girls in long socks and scraped knees into awkward teenagers, you sprouting tall and stick thin, with no real chest to speak of, but such a smile, while I blossomed without wishing to, hips and breasts blooming in perfect proportion, until our sharing clothes became impossible.
I hate my hips, you said once, sulking out of a Top Shop changing room, back in jeans and t-shirt, your face a storm of disappointment, the dress you’d been trying back on its hanger, and, stupidly, I swallowed the urge to tell you just how beautiful you looked right then.
Today, your hair is cropped and side parted, while mine, dyed grey well ahead of the current fashion, I still wear long. In your pumps and no-brand jeans and Michelle Shocked t-shirt, you look more like a lesbian than I ever have, while I’m in heels and that knee length floral Paul Smith you said you liked. Because.
The thing is, the lads were only interested in me, especially the boys you liked, and at first I knocked them back, let them call me frigid, let them make up stories about fingering me round behind the Sports Hall after the school disco, until, that summer between fourth and fifth year, when I tried pretending with Scott Fellows’s best mate just to get you in with a chance of a drunken snog with Scott on the steps outside the swimming baths, but it never happened and that was the last time I ever let a lad put his tongue in my mouth.
It’s alright for you, all the lads fancy you, you said, but back then I couldn’t tell you just how much I wished they didn’t.
The exhibition space is a white noise of conversation, music and movement and we are pulled along by the current of the crowd. Bubbles of recognisable sound pop on the surface of the hubbub. A muscular figure in pristine work clothes and sporting a lengthy but well-trimmed beard stands on a dais near the entrance and a voice from hidden speakers punches above the ambient sound, saying,
…brown-white slim-fit Lanvin check western shirt, Dsquared2Distressed Cool Guy jeans, Nubuck gringo Bergerac Paraboots. Often sighted in the trendier parts of east London, the Lumbersexual affects a Woodsman chic for the lady who likes a splash of rugged in her man. Just don’t expect these well-groomed and thoroughly-moisturised guys to be sporting hi-vis jackets and felling trees anytime soon.
I look at you, you look at me, and we laugh loud enough to draw stares from the crowd.
The thing is, coming out to you at eighteen was harder even than coming out to my parents, because at least my parents had guessed somehow, and when I finally sat them down, wrenched the words up and clattered them onto the coffee table between us, they were more amused than shocked, but you, your eyes trembled with disbelief, shook with hurt and tears.
Why couldn’t you tell me? you squeaked between sobs, and all I could think of was your giving me that pink star that first day in primary, and all I could say was, I am telling you, I’m telling you now.
Across another stage a parade of men in beach shorts strut to a techno soundtrack, their tattooed bodies toned to rigid armour. They seem more CGI than flesh and blood. Their oiled muscles shine under the stage lights, and in my head I imagine them descending into some mass re-enactment of the fireside wrestling in Women in Love.
I put my lips close to your ear, so you can hear me over the music. Your sort of thing?
Too gay, you say, and wink, and our laughter is drowned by the techno until the fluttering of your lips at my ear sends shivers through me.
What are they meant to be anyway? you ask.
They’re all about tattoos and piercings and chiselled bodies apparently.
I count the elements of the ridiculous internet-coined portmanteau on my fingers. Sport. Porn. Meterosexual.
So gay, you say, laughing, So gay it hurts.
Homophobe, I say and slap you on the arm and we laugh together as the Spornosexuals spin and glisten to the beat.
The thing is, there was that time we were both home from University, both just out of horrible relationships, mine with that psycho-bitch with the thing for strap-ons and pulling hair, yours with the dick who ended it in the pub then said you should get tested for NSU and genital warts, which you did and thank fuck you were all clear, and, as we shared the worst of the last few months, you poured the vodkas and mumbled something about how life would be so much simpler if you were gay and we fancied each other, and we laughed until the booze and our laughing brought us face to face and I tried for the kiss.
Don’t fuck about, you said, your panic-edged laugh too loud, and I pulled back, poured more vodka, said I was just messing.
At the Normcore stand we search for a model that resembles your ex-husband. These men are a blur of fleece jackets and and creased slacks that flap above no-brand trail shoes. All are clean shaven, their haircuts unremarkable. They look like shadow cabinet MPs on a Bank Holiday.
There, you shout, and I have to admit the man you are pointing to does look a bit like Andrew.
See? You married Mr Normcore.
No, I married Mr Fletcher.
Yeah, but you’re plain old Ms. Kate Latimore again now.
Less of the plain old, thank you very much. And anyway, I might have kicked his name into touch along with him, but I kept the Mrs when I slipped my maiden name back on.
You’re Mrs Latimore now? Is that even allowed?
That’s the one benefit of being divorced, you say, I can do what I like.
The thing is, that time you were in London for work and called out of the blue, I thought we were going to hit the town and have a laugh, like the old days, so your arriving at our table at the Tate Modern with a man in tow was a shock, and not just because I was miles away, staring out across the city skyline at the dome of St Paul’s and counting the months since we’d last seen each other or even spoken, when the reflection of you in the broad pane of the window, hand in hand with a rake of a man in a bad shirt and worse haircut, slipped into the foreground of the glass, shook me suddenly from anticipation of your arrival and sent me plummeting into awkward reality.
Date’s set for this summer, you said, flashing the ring as the waiter poured the champagne I barely touched but insisted on paying for.
We lunch at the Central Kitchen. Ranch burger, skinny fries, onion rings. Elderflower pressé to make it feel at least a little healthy.
Seen anything you like today? I ask and you pull a face, gesture at your mouth full of burger, shake your head.
The thing is, when you called to say you’d had your first scan, had cried as the Doppler beamed your baby’s static-edged heartbeat to you as if from another planet, then watched baby unfurl on the grainy ultrasound image to reveal a pretty face and pouty lips that made you think girl, and we chatted about birth plans and god-parenting and me being the cool auntie that she was sure run to when she couldn’t talk to Mum, I checked my calendar to make sure I was in the UK for the due date, and I congratulated you, but part of me, just a tiny part of me, wished it wasn’t happening.
As the due date approached and I heard nothing from you, hadn’t been able to reach you for months, I called and called, every number I had, until, finally, it was your mum who told me.
Artificial grass covers a corner of the exhibition floor. An embarrassment of SAHDs play football, Frisbee, sit eating picnics surrounded by kids, or stroll the space, babies hanging from shoulder harnesses. These men look a little deranged, their eyes wide and mouths wide as they exaggerate their speech that way adults do when speaking to very young children. Whatever they are saying is lost beneath the chattering of the crowd and the music bleed from the other exhibition areas. You don’t stop, don’t even really look, you just slip past, head down, and I follow behind.
The thing is, the first time we saw each other after your first miscarriage was so awkward that, afterwards, I almost stayed away, but you were soon expecting again, sharing the news cautiously this time, as though just saying the word pregnant was enough to trigger cramps and bleeding, and I nodded and smiled as we toasted with organic lemonade, you and Andrew huddled on the sofa, me across the coffee table in the armchair, all of us smiling, all of us terrified, but it wasn’t fear that made me want to be elsewhere, it was the fierce ordinary normal love that fired from Andrew’s eyes each time he looked at you.
It’ll be alright this time, won’t it, you asked as you walked me to my car, and I nodded, squeezed your hand, hugged you, said Yes, yes, everything’ll be fine, and the words felt like finally letting you go, yet still weren’t enough to spare you another three miscarriages.
We spend what remains of the day visiting the adventurers, the hipsterpreneurs, the geeks, the bits-of-rough, the sugar daddies, the creatives, but they do nothing for you. We stop in a space made up to look like a real juice bar and I order smoothies. We sit on high stools, suck on straws like schoolgirls and watch the women shuffling past. We don’t speak for a while and when we do it is you who breaks our silence.
They all look so desperate. God, I must look so desperate to you.
No more desperate than anyone else here.
You’re supposed to say, no Kate, you don’t look desperate at all.
Oh, you want me to lie and make you feel better? Sorry no, won’t do it. Fact is you’re no more more desperate than I am. We all need someone to be with, want someone special.
Crowds of women pass by, one or two who look a little like us appear at intervals, almost doppelgängers, all searching for what they think they want even as they hurtle toward whatever they will inevitably end up settling for. How happy they will ever be depends upon the distance between the two.
I’m tired, you say. otel? Bar? I reply.
You nod, already on your feet.
The thing is, when your decree absolute arrived, it seemed unreal that something supposedly so permanent and lifelong could be wrapped up with the issuing of such a prim little document, and that was the moment, stood in your kitchen in the early morning, toasting the arrival of the bloody thing with ironic Pomagne, the moment I came closest to telling you everything.
Yet still I said nothing.
Three drinks in, we are taken to our table. We order wine. I know what you will order before you do. You eat your baked Lemon Sole slowly, break the flesh of the fish from the bone with care. Once one side is stripped, you flip it and begin again. I swirl pasta on my fork, swallow my carbonara without tasting it, gulp wine to drown down the urge to say something other than small talk.
We don’t have to stay for the second day, you say as we wait for desert. It’s a waste of time.
I top up your wine. You raise your hand. No more for me, you say.
Lightweight? How old are you? Sixteen.
God. I wish.
Really? Why on earth would you want to repeat all that?
To do things properly.
But you’ve got a great life, a great job. You travel all round the world, a girl in every port, what would you want to do any differently?
Just one thing, I say, but I’m not drunk enough to go further so I pour myself more wine and desert arrives before you can ask anymore.
The thing is, I’ve tried so many times to just be honest with you, years of waiting for the right time, knowing that even if I should somehow find the strength to tell you what I really want I’ll be unable to speak more than three words.
So still I say nothing.
More drinks. Time lapses and we are stood outside my hotel room. You are helping me find my key card. We giggle in whispers as you fish about in my bag for it.
Seriously though, you say, let’s not do another day of this, let’s head to a gallery or something.
You open the door for me and offer me my key card, and I am not so drunk that I don’t realise I need to take it and slip it into the socket behind the door for the lights to come on, but my thoughts are swimming and I know I’m staring, not at the dark room beyond the door frame but at you on the threshold, and I can’t stop, even when you ask,
Elisa, you okay?
can’t stop even as you take my hand, concern flapping across your face, and I want to just say I’m fine, honestly, but the sudden taste of cheap adhesive muddles my tongue and, instead, I find myself saying,
The thing is,
Short Story Competition Third Place 2016
Dan Powell is a prize-winning author of short fiction whose work has appeared in the pages of Being Dad, The Lonely Voice, Unthology and Best British Short Stories. His debut collection, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Prize. He is currently working on a second story collection and a debut novel, is a First Story writer-in-residence, and is completing his PhD in Creative Writing at University of Leicester. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.