The following short story by Jessica Andrews is extracted from The Book of Newcastle, edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner, and published by Comma Press on 23rd January 2020.
When we were splattered with freckles and tied up in pigtails, we picked sharp rocks from the garden and pushed them into each other’s wrists, our flesh tender and white like peeled crabs. I remember the way our wounds looked, mushy and filled with pieces of grit.
‘Now we are blood brothers,’ I said. She looked at me from behind her nose.
‘Blood sisters,’ she pouted.
We got changed on the back seat of the car every Wednesday night as my mam drove us from school to our dance class, held in a cold room above a chip shop on the Chilli Road. We fumbled our way into fishnets and slurped purple Ribena from plastic cartons, comparing the clusters of keyrings on our matching backpacks. She was smaller than me, so she always got picked to play the best parts, like being lifted into the air by teenage boys in flared Lycra. My mam sat late into the night sewing sequins onto our leotards, ruining her cuticles to make our small bodies glitter as we flitted across the stage.
We grew out of green gingham summer dresses and frilly hair bobbles, into sparkly butterfly clips and bubblegum lip gloss. My parents got divorced and my mam held my hand while a lady smelling of sunbeds pushed cubic zirconia into my navel. Her parents stayed together and she put a stainless-steel bar through her nipple in secret. She got on the school bus first in the mornings and listened to Destiny’s Child on her iPod Mini until she got to my stop. I would claim the seat in front of her, crossing my legs so the glittery nail varnish on my pink Converse caught the light. We spoke mostly in code and giggled through our braces all the way to registration.
We streaked each other’s hair with purple dye and took to wearing our dads’ old T-shirts torn at the necks. We spent Saturday afternoons ogling people we knew from Myspace on Goth Green, sharing bottles of White Lightning and watching the skaters in Exy Park, desperate for them to notice us in our cut-up Ramones T-shirts. We stumbled up the stairs of Northumbria Union on school nights, thrilled by the bare backs brushing our bellies beneath our crop tops. We smeared red eyeshadow across our lids for My Chemical Romance and asked The Hives to sign our knickers.
‘How old are you?’ They worried in their white suits, pressing their Sharpies into our bum cheeks.
Someone made us friendship bracelets out of special beads that changed colour in the sunlight. We labelled them ‘virgin bracelets’ and, one after the other, we cut them off with shaking hands and kitchen scissors. We stopped eating lunch and started applying fake tan. We went to the back room of a beauty salon in Walkergate and stood together, stark naked, as a woman sprayed our bodies with orange liquid from a long hose.
‘Lift your arms up,’ she barked, and we did, in unison, ‘so you don’t get white bits under your pits.’
Newcastle seemed small and we felt full of possibility. We zipped each other into bandage dresses and blagged our way into Gotham to drink treble vodka oranges, piling our leather jackets in a corner as we croaked the Oasis dawn chorus on the sticky dancefloor. We twirled in damp circles to The Smiths at Jukebox, losing our phones and bruising our thighs on the stairs as we toppled over in our platform shoes. Once, we both passed out on a chip shop floor, and a taxi driver carried us into his cab and drove us home.
I fell in love with a boy at school who wore bangles and wooden beads, and did his eyeliner in the toilets at lunchtime. We went to parties at his house in Birtley, where people swallowed his sister’s Ritalin and had sex in the alleyways. One night, a police officer knocked on the door while we were jumping on the settee in our spangled dresses.
‘Do you mind if we have a quick look around?’ he asked us. There had been armed police lining the high street for days because a man called Raoul Moat had shot his ex-girlfriend in a house down the road and was on the run. We didn’t even pretend to be sober.
‘Sure, mate,’ my boyfriend winked, ‘but I don’t think you’ll find him in here.’
My boyfriend and I shared bottles of rosé wine in the Dog & Parrot after school, putting Milburn on the jukebox and snogging on the cracked leather sofas. We jumped the Metro and skulked around South Shields, running naked into the freezing sea. We carved our names into the 100-year-old lifeboat displayed on the seafront and stole Fanta from the Subway self-service machines. She started going dancing without me, applying false eyelashes and skittering across the Diamond Strip in a pair of Kurt Geiger’s. She sat in the passenger seat of second-hand Nissan Micras, mouthing the words to Beyoncé songs and drawing her eyebrows on in the rear-view mirror.
I stopped drinking Diet Coke by the canal with her at lunchtime and began going to the sixth form library to scribble essays, a different kind of life growing beneath my eyelids. She spent her free periods with boys who lived nearby and turned up to Media Studies wearing their boxer shorts underneath her trousers. She invited me for chips at the Tanners after college, but I turned her down to eat cheese toasties in my boyfriend’s bed.
I got a place at university and packed everything I owned into an enormous grey suitcase. The night before I left, we went out dancing together for the last time. She wore a silver dress and flickered like lightning beneath the strobe lights. Later, my new friends would make fun of the way I’d trailed strange bits of miscellany across the country, like used envelopes and clumps of wires. I laughed it off and joked that I hadn’t wanted to leave anything behind.
Miles of rusting train tracks stretched between us. She sent me a card with a cat on it that said, ‘Good Luck!’ in bubble letters. I stuck it up in my new room. The walls were the colour of seasickness. I stopped answering messages and spent weekends wandering around art galleries holding hands with boys who brought me sunflowers, while she sniffed powder off kitchen tables and shuffled to The Stone Roses across someone’s stepdad’s carpet. My boyfriend came to visit and he seemed small and vulnerable beneath the shiny new buildings. He raised his eyebrows at my long, black coat and drank too quickly around my new friends. He laughed at their names and their too-loud voices. I could see what he saw, but I didn’t want to think about the ways in which I was different to them. We broke up over the phone as I sat in the bell tower of an old gothic library, running my fingers along the pages of leather-bound books. I bought a bike and got knocked off one night by the wing mirror of a passing car, while gazing drunkenly at the moon. Home seemed small and far away.
She studied Hairdressing at Newcastle College. She told me her lecturer said that coloured dye was ‘passé’. I thought about her small hands as I backcombed my hair alone in my student room. She called me to tell me that she was dropping out of the course, but keeping the expensive products. I imagined her at her dressing table, skin damp beneath her pink bathrobe.
‘It’s okay for you,’ she said. ‘You’ve always known who you wanted to be.’ I was working long nights in sweaty pubs, serving gin and tonics to bankers with ties around their heads and going to parties in old factories strung with disco balls. I was surviving on instant coffee and scrawling lecture notes in lip liner on scraps of paper, while everyone else typed diligently on their MacBooks. I thought that she was being unfair.
Missed birthdays and sour gossip lay strewn across the country. Muddled sentences detailing drunken trips to A&E and strange men in VIP areas leaked across my cracked computer screen. I heard she was going out with a bouncer with a scar across his face who could hold her whole bum in the palm of his hand. I worried about her, but I was busy learning how to pay a gas bill and roll my own cigarettes.
She sent me a message in the middle of the night.
‘Something bad has happened,’ it said. I typed a line of emojis from my phone at the bus stop as I made the dark journey across the city home from work. I tried to imagine what kind of madcap situation she’d gotten herself into.
‘It’s really bad, Em,’ she typed. I frowned as the little dots next to her name that meant she was writing flickered on and off.
‘What is it?’ The dots goaded me from the palm of my hand.
‘I can’t write it down.’ I took the train straight home to her. We rode the bus through the sagging streets, weeds tumbling onto the motorway, just like the old days. She looked pale against the red and yellow squares of the seats. I asked her about it.
‘Leave it, Em,’ she said. ‘I can’t say it yet.’
We put on some sequins and lipstick in my old bedroom with Morrissey, trying our best to pretend that nothing was missing. The dirty bars that had once been delicious felt cold and plastic. Gotham had stopped serving trebles and the Dog & Parrot was stocked with fresh toilet roll and sold Espresso Martinis and truffle fries. We slipped between doorways trying not to notice. Closing time came and we blagged our way into the casino in Chinatown, with all the other people who didn’t want to go home. They felt in their pockets for stray coins, panicking at the light of the morning beginning to drip through the window of the Gate. Boys with bullish faces glanced around the room, seeking us out. She breathed through her nose and looked at the table.
She told me about all of the times she had gone out without me, because I wasn’t there. She told me that she felt strange in the clubs where women twirled on tables covered in feathers, but her new friends bought Grey Goose by the bottle, and besides, she didn’t have anyone else to dance with. She told me that one night she met a student in the smoking area who wore white jeans and lit her cigarette with a silver Zippo. She said that he rolled his eyes through the smoke and said, ‘Let’s get out of here, shall we?’
He took her to a house party in Heaton where he mixed her a cocktail in the kitchen, then pressed her up against the wall and kissed her. She told me she liked it at first, but then everything grew confusing. The music sounded far away and the other people at the party melted into distant rooms. The student took her into a bedroom, and she felt scared and wanted to leave but he locked the door and wouldn’t let her go. She stayed the night and the next morning she vomited all the way down the bus and everyone looked at her and nobody asked if she was okay.
I went to the bar and bought two glasses of white wine and a tube of salt and vinegar Pringles. I held her hand and we watched the people around us as they began to fray at the edges. We shared the back seat of a taxi and I saw her outline silhouetted against the window, as orange streetlamps sputtered in the first light of the morning.
I returned to my new life with a bright white sickness in my head. I knew that in my desperation to become someone different, I had left her behind. I turned my back on our half-cut world of drinking and dancing and dreaming of other places. I sat in expensive pubs and changed the texture of my vowels for women who did not wear makeup or drink pints of lager and were always warm enough. I imagined her smoking in a sequined dress in the queue outside of Digital. I wanted to climb back through the years and slip my arm through hers. I wanted to cut out the parts of myself that were selfish and rotten and wanted things that were bigger than us.
I sent her some Percy Pig sweets from M&S, and a postcard telling her I loved her because I didn’t know what else to do. The parcel got lost in the post and she got taken to hospital in an ambulance with acute appendicitis. The doctors cut open her body and took bits of her out of it. She cried because she thought she wouldn’t be able to wear a bikini again. I couldn’t help but think that boy had left parts of himself lodged inside of her soft belly like shards of glass. I wished that I could offer her my own appendix as an apology, small and shiny and covered in blood.
Jessica Andrews writes fiction and poetry. She grew up in Sunderland and has spent time living in Santa Cruz, Paris, Donegal, Barcelona and London. She has been published by The Guardian, Stylist, The Independent, Elle, AnOther, Somesuch Stories, Caught by the River and Papaya Press, among others. She teaches Literature and Creative Writing classes and co-runs literary magazine The Grapevine, which aims to give a platform to under represented writers. Her debut novel, Saltwater, was published by Sceptre to much acclaim in 2019.
The Book of Newcastle, edited by Angela Readman and Zoe Turner, was published by Comma Press on 23rd January 2020 and is available from all good retailers, or to order direct from www.commapress.co.uk
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