The Middle Beach High reunion was minutes old and already abuzz: the girls giggled as they arranged white garden chairs in rows along the walls, they nattered while they adorned sand-filled bottles with yawning posies; the men cleared their throats and rehearsed the success stories of their lives.
Some glanced over their shoulders in between sentences or peeked from behind their plastic cups of supermarket prosecco. Carlotta Cunningham was coming, expected to arrive just after nine—or 21:00 as she had written in the email—directly from the international airport, probably by cab if she couldn’t find a decent hire car, (who knows if I still know how to drive on the left!) and maybe, although not definitely, accompanied by an upcoming poet from Barcelona whose work everyone just had to get to know.
Patricia had not come out of nostalgia or curiosity or even camaraderie, although she did reward a cursory salute to Steve (he’d been the first person to get into her pants at high school and that deserved some congratulation); she’d not even come for the satisfaction of hearing about the unprosperous developments of her former peers, or to laugh at their tawdry polyester skirts and trousers, their accents, and depressing work and familial sagas. Like the rest of them, she’d come for Carlotta. Not to fawn, or publicise her own narrative—yes, she was still thin and smooth-skinned, had studied abroad, and was the wealthy and successful Editor in Chief at a popular women’s lifestyle magazine in the city—but to confront her once and for all, and expose her fraud in front of her most loyal fans, label her as a plagiarist and give her a taste of a little prosecco-powered literary criticism.
“She’s the same old Carla,” Julie said as she pushed tacks into the welcome banner. “All smiles and always something funny to say. I sat next to her in ninth grade English and even Perky Giles knew that she was going to become famous someday. I bet he didn’t know just how famous.”
Patricia steadied the ladder with one hand and held a cigarette and cup of prosecco in the other. She stared drowsily at a group of men who were laughing over the punch bowl. What more boring parade of farm animals could there be in the world?
“Are you done yet?” she asked Julia. “I’m tired of looking up at your cheap undergarments.”
“No, just a few more. You know, they want to make her latest novel required reading at the school now. They should I think. It’s really quite a nice series.”
“Fantastic, if one trashy novelist with bad punctuation isn’t enough, now we’re going to infect an entire generation with more bad writing and more tepid fantasies of microwaved vampires.”
“Jealous are we, Patricia?”
“Do you mean envious? Not at all.”
“Well, what then? You were always such good girlfriends.”
“Our parents were neighbours.”
“You were hardly apart. I remember Miss Daily trying to separate you in art class and you both wouldn’t budge.”
“Is that so?” The memory flashed in her mind: of her and Carlotta, chaining clay-covered arms and declaring themselves “Siamese twins forever” before the quivering lip of Miss ‘Salvador’ Daily.
“I guess we were close at a stage… until she stole my ideas and turned them to shit. She knew I was better than her. That’s why she went into my room to rifle through my diaries and private stuff and–”
“Hmmm?” Julie was struggling with the last tack.
“I said she’s a stupid, plagiarising whore.”
“What was that?” Julie clattered down the ladder and regarded her work with a gappy smile.
“Nothing. Nice work with the sign, babe,” Patricia lied.
“‘Welcome class of 1980’. It’s absolutely crazy that twenty-five years have gone by. Did you ever think you’d end up back here?”
“There was never a doubt in my mind. Here, have a drink. It’ll help you get over it.”
The two women stood for a while in silence, Patricia surveying the room while Julie rolled backwards and forwards in her ballerinas, taking regular sips at her cup.
“Hey Jules, check it out… Marvin turned up. What’s he doing now?”
“Physiotherapist, I think.”
“Whatever happened to him and Carla?”
“They got engaged. But she broke it off.”
“Obviously,” Patricia said. “But why? I used to be able hear them fucking next door. The way she was carrying on you would have thought he had a twelve inch cock made of diamonds.”
“No one knows why they broke up, but it’s a darn good thing for her she did. I don’t think she’d have handled the life of a rich housewife in the ‘burbs very well. But, Pat—don’t bring it up in front of him.”
Patricia adjusted her bra and pulled back her shoulders. “Why not?”
“Don’t you think he’d be interested? He still looks great. And so do I.”
“Where do you put all that ego?”
“Seriously, you’re about as much fun as getting an enema in zero gravity. I’m available, he’s available…”
“And you only broke up with Doug two weeks ago.”
“So what? Is there an eleventh commandment no one told me about? Thou shalt deprive thyself of a good time because thy ex-boyfriend is an interminable dud in the sack?”
“It’s just doesn’t seem proper.”
“Doug was like shagging a potato, only with less carbs.”
“Oh, that’s rich! Coming from a ruglicker.”
“Don’t say that!” Julie blushed and her thick eyebrows came together to form the ghost of a mono brow.
“Oh, relax. Why don’t you ever let your hair down? There are plenty of good women left in the world just waiting for the chance to get lucky with a prissy librarian from Waverton. Or are you still saving yourself for Carla? You do know she used to wear bikinis to school instead of bras.”
“I already told you,” Julie said sternly. “She’s not my type. I’m going to get a drink.” She walked a few paces then stopped. “You can be such a bitch,” she muttered and flicked an imaginary fringe from her face as she stomped away.
With a satisfied snort, Patricia lit a cigarette and tugged on it in small puffs. Julie did indeed prefer the company of woman: the famous Polaroid of her passed out with her tongue lolling between Jenny Kingston’s thighs at the school formal had proven that. However, her puritanism and unwillingness to accept her orientation had stultified her sexual development, much to Patricia’s unending delight. Patricia imagined Julie in a white satin dress, kneeling before the altar, a parrot sitting contently on her shoulder (a baffling yet important detail), with a rose in her hand, murmuring Carla’s name into Jesus’s marble ear…
JULIE holds out a rose to the statue of JESUS.
Deliver her to me, O Lord. Forgive my nature and allow me this one wish and I will beg no more of thee. I promise I’ll keep padding my bra with Revelations!
JESUS sighs then turns to JULIE.
Julie, my little lamb, how many times do we have to frigging go through this? Don’t you remember what I said last time? I can’t make the mother of Satan love you! It’s not in my job description. Plus I’m not sure how we stand on setting up gay unions between humans and demons. It doesn’t sound very kosher to me at all.
JULIE begins to sob.
OK, OK. Look, I’ll have a word with the boss, but I can’t promise you anything. Still… well… it might help your case if you… you know… scratched my marble for a spell. These nails are a bitch.
Patricia looked over at Marvin. She had always been attracted to him at school. Not because of his strong cheekbones or square shoulders, or even his sleepy smile; but simply because he was unavailable. He had been ‘Carla’s boyfriend’: constantly shielded by impenetrable high school alliances and bathroom blather. She drew her cigarette down to the butt with one inhalation, picked up her handbag from the floor then strode across the hall.
“Hi,” she said. Smoke popped out from each of her nostrils.
Marvin gave her a slow wink. “Pat! Lovely to see you again. You look amazing. Have you done something with your hair?”
“You mean the red highlights? Oh, they’re natural. And look at you! You finally have facial hair!”
“Bought my first bottle of whisky yesterday without having to show any ID,” Marvin said and raised his cup in a mock toast. “Twenty-five years. I still can’t get over it. Feels like only last week that I was running around the courtyards throwing spit bombs at Mr Quantock. Although, when I look around at some of the shockers in this room, I realise that time has indeed passed.”
“Steve has a beer gut.”
“Didn’t he always?” Marvin looked down into his prosecco. “I heard Carla’s going to make it.”
“Julie spoke to her personally,” Patricia said. “She’s flying in tonight all the way from Madrid.”
“You don’t say. I can’t wait to see her.”
“Either can I.”
“I’m sure she’d be happy to see you. You were great mates.”
Patricia couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “Don’t exaggerate,” she said.
“Do you remember when we all snuck out that night and you met us in the backyard of your parents’ house?”
“Hey,” Patricia held her hands up, “the guy who sold it to me said it was weed. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Certainly had Carla fooled, she nearly choked she was giggling so much.”
Marvin sighed and gave a watery laugh. “That girl must have done something right since we broke up. Haven’t read a single one of her novels. But knowing Carla, they’re probably juicy You know, when she started writing, I couldn’t believe it. She was always so anti-intellectual.”
Patricia’s throat tightened. “What would I know?”
“We haven’t spoken since the breakup. I tried to call her and all, but, you know…” Marvin’s face softened.
“She’s probably too busy living the life of a successfully novelist. Sounds awful really. You’re better off.”
“She didn’t say anything to you about it, did she? About us I mean. You know, with you guys being such good friends at school at all… I’m just wondering.”
Patricia put a hand on his shoulder. Hard as an overcooked pot roast. “I feel like something stronger to drink. What about you?”
“I miss her, Pat. I miss her laugh, her pointy nose. I used to call her my ‘little pixie’. Did you know that? My little pixie. That’s why I came—so I could talk with her. Straighten it all out. I know she still loves me. After all we’ve been through together.”
She almost felt sorry for him, and probably would have if he’d simply told her what everyone else had already guessed: that Carla had dumped him because she was a manipulating cow and a bisexual miscreant. How she would have loved to listen in on that break up call.
MARVIN is seated on a black, faux-leather chair in a sparsely-furnished office. His green tie is loose around his neck. He has one foot on the desk and is clipping his toenails. He is speaking into a telephone receiver wedged between his ear and shoulder. A table fan RATTLES on his desk.
I just don’t understand why you have to leave, Carla. We’re supposed to get married in a week! What am I supposed to do? Just cancel everything?
MARVIN listens to reply while clipping his toenails.
But I’ve let you screw me for everything so far. I gave you money, a car and I even let you sleep with your Bikram yoga teachers in the tool shed while I was cleaning the house. What more do you want?
MARVIN listens to reply, stops clipping his toenails and a look of excitement crosses his face.
Do you really mean it? So if I throw myself into the path of an oncoming bus you’ll think about coming back? Oh, Carla! This is awesome news!
“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” Patricia said.
Marvin’s expression changed as if he’d just been told a joke, the punch line of which he was still to apprehend. He started to blink and murmur and then, with a dramatic swivel of his head, he turned and faced the wall. His neck bunched against his shoulders and the bulk of his upper body began to vibrate.
Patricia withdrew her hand. Oh Jesus, he’s not crying is he?
“Why? Why? Why?” Marvin chanted. He pushed off the wall, his face stitched in a grimace. His mouth, or rather, two rows of cream teeth framed in gum, were chattering with such intensity Patricia thought they might at any moment launch out of his skull and bite off her head.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Let me get you a drink.”
Marvin shooed her away with a clumsy wave. He scampered towards the toilets, shoulders writhing, leaving Patricia standing alone under a bunch of red and white balloons holding two cups of warm prosecco. A few heads turned and she offered them a shrug. What else could she do? There was obviously no one left who hadn’t lost their minds over Miss Cunningham. She wondered at their reaction when she did eventually giraffe into the hall with her Spaniard skulking behind her: would there be cheers? Wolf whistles? Would they rush to meet her, arms scratching for attention in some sort of hysterical welcoming tunnel? No, Carlotta was smarter than that, Patricia had to admit. She’d steal in unannounced, through a side entrance and wait until someone recognised her; or, better, shoot straight for Julie who would only be too glad to usher her around the grounds to graze on all these impeccable idiots. When she heard someone clap she spun around, half-expecting to see the long, blonde locks of her former friend, but it was only applause for Steve, who was balancing two full cups on his bald head. It was then she realised that she’d not even rehearsed her own script. What would she say when Carlotta came to gloat at her? And would Carlotta even listen to her? Her stomach contracted.
From two speakers on either side of the small stage, a metallic whine echoed. Julie tiptoed to centre stage, measuring her pace as if the floor were a melting glacier. She tapped the microphone and cleared her throat. “Can you all hear me? At the back? I’m sorry everyone, I know it’s a little early for a speech but I have to make an announcement.” Patricia could see that she was shaking. “We’ve just received some bad news. As you all know,” Julie read from a sheet of paper, “Carla Cunningham, famous author and fellow graduate, was to be attending this evening’s event. However, her agent has just telephoned to advise us that, due to unforeseen circumstances, she will not be coming. She wishes everyone the best and is sorry she couldn’t make it. Maybe next time.”
Someone in the hall let out a faint laugh.
“Her books are out near the canteen,” Julie continued, “and are still for sale if anyone would like one. Unfortunately this means that there’ll be no book signings.” And with that, she dropped the microphone with a fantastic boom and rushed backstage.
The hall exploded in sighs and laughs. Chairs were dragged across the floor. Somewhere at the back near the emergency exit, a glass broke. Probably with relief, Patricia mused. The lights went dim and through the speakers Michael Jackson began belting out ‘Black or White’. Patricia transferred Marvin’s drink into hers and poured it down her throat in one shot. “Fan-bloody-tastic,” she said and threw the cups to the floor.
To her surprise, an emptiness overcame her as she looked around the darkened hall. She felt suddenly as if the world and everyone in it had just grown bigger, and were now above her, staring while she shrank further and further away. Sure, Julie would be alright: she’d continue to obsess quietly between library shelves or maybe even find another preoccupation, like cats, with which to whittle out the rest of her life; Marvin would find an attractive substitute—a domineering artist or shallow marketing manager—with whom he could sleep and drink and laugh while he secretly pined after Carla. They’d all be fine; all of them. But what about her? What of her own story? Was she supposed to keep turning page after page, hoping for something new, while the leering smudge of Carlotta Cunningham peered at her from between the lines of text like a streak of white out?
PATRICIA marches towards the door. She doesn’t stop as people greet her. She walks out into the car park and searches through her handbag.
Where are my bloody keys?
As she searches through the bag something bulky falls onto the ground. It’s a worn manuscript entitled: ‘Vampire Fantasies’ by Patricia O’Neill. PATRICIA stares at the manuscript for several seconds, then kicks it into the gutter. She storms off.