1. The Reunion
The lights had already changed from red to green but the Jaguar made no attempt to move, its engine idling whilst the night’s rain coursed over its midnight blue silhouette. Inside, the woman drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, in time with the splitter-splat of raindrops on the windscreen and stared out into the darkness, completely unaware that the blotchy lights were now signalling for her to go. Her mind was too busy chaotically recalling the events of the evening, snippets of conversations whirling about her head but in particular one simple sentence.
“Oh God no, didn’t you hear? He was killed as well.”
The words had tumbled from the florid mouth of Felicity, a rather horsey, do-gooder of a woman but one who had also always been prone to idle gossiping, especially if it made her sound like she was one of the crowd, which clearly she wasn’t. Whilst the rest of them had moved on since their days at The Grammar, Felicity Williamson had sent her own daughters there, joined the PTA and was now on the board of Governors. It was rare to see her out of her own personal uniform even, a regulation navy blue skirt and bottle green crew neck. With her now greying, wiry hair scrunched back from a ruddy face, the weathered skin a testament to a life devoted to the great outdoors, her nostrils flared wide in excitement as she spoke. Anyone would have thought she had actually known him, the way she had gone on, when in fact all she had ever known were the overheard girlish asides of the common room.
“Back in ‘99 I think. Helicopter smash. Dreadful really, Claire died instantly but he managed to crawl from the wreckage. The rescue teams found him slumped quite a distance away. Claire of course was unrecognisable; all that was left intact was her platinum wedding ring. It was just as well that it did survive or else she would have been unidentifiable; after all, what with her fear of the dentist, there were no dental records.”
It did not appear that Felicity was about to draw breath anytime soon such was the speed at which the words were racing out of her mouth.
“Apparently there was an inscription on it, no doubt something hopelessly romantic I should think. They were dreadfully in love after all. Such a shock. I understand he was quite a talented pilot. Used to perform at Air Shows even. Can’t imagine what might have gone wrong.”
Eliciting gasps from the now rapt crowd, you almost could see the adrenalin pumping in the glint of her eyes as Felicity boldly carried on. A solitary blue vein at her temple stood proud, an indication as to the level of near hysteria she was in at finding herself for once the centre of attention.
“Yes, yes. Dreadful business. Such a tragedy. Especially a man like that. So talented. Such a fabulous catch. I remember we all had a secret crush on him, even me.” She flushed momentarily and rolled her eyes in an attempt to convey her embarrassment before thundering on,
“And I believe one or two even tried to get their claws into him, but he only really had eyes for Claire. So tragic she’s not with us tonight.”
The woman could have sworn Felicity’s eyes had flickered over to her with this comment but had chosen not to dwell on it, too appalled by the obsessive regaling of the passing of Matthew Bennison. You would’ve thought he had been a famous celebrity the way Felicity spoke of him, rather than some rather spoilt, emotionally retarded mummy’s boy. It was bordering on adulation and it offended her deeply to think that surely it was his wife, Claire, their great school friend, they should have been remembering rather than her boorish husband.
“I doubt she’d really give a shit,” she muttered under her breath before turning her back on the charade and strutting back to the bar for a re-fill. This was going to be a long night.
‘Tonight’ had in fact come about thanks to a craze that had swept round the latest social networking site. ‘25 Random Facts’ was a request sent from one friend to another to make a list of twenty-five otherwise unknown facts about themselves. It had started off innocuously enough but over time had gathered steam so that by the time it reached the newly reacquainted gaggle of ex-Grammars, it had become somewhat of a confessional. Gone were the simple, ‘I like eating cheese at 3am’ statements and in their place were now ones more along the lines of ‘I always fancied my best-friend’s sister but didn’t dare come out until I was twenty-one’ type revelations.
Staring blankly at the rain-slicked street ahead she watched the relentless barrage of water as it flashed down in front of her car bonnet, momentarily lit by her headlights so as to make it resemble an endless stream of sparklers raining down on the pitch-black tarmac. And for that short moment she was totally oblivious to anything other than what was going through her mind as she trawled its depths in an attempt to recall her own list. She had compiled it some months ago but knew it was still embedded somewhere, so numerous were the times she had read and re-read it before finally posting it. But in particular she searched for the exact words of a declaration she probably should have saved for the confessional, one which instantly made her squirm in her leather sports seat, her perfectly manicured fingers digging into the steering wheel.
It had been all she could do to avoid the endless references to her point number twelve that evening and she had spent much of the time fielding a plethora of provocative jokes about it; although most of them were pretty feeble in her opinion making her wonder where that pithy schoolgirl wit had disappeared to over the years.
“What on earth possessed me to bring that one out into the open?” she mused bitterly, before running through her list once more to try to work out how each thought had arisen, somehow egged on by the one before it. Despite her initial misgivings about even taking part in such a self-obsessed activity in the first place it had proved somehow cathartic in the end. By the time she had finally reached number twenty-five she felt like she had covered the equivalent of a year’s therapy in just ten minutes.
1. Contrary to popular belief I did not flunk out of school. I have however flunked out of life on more than one occasion.
2. If it weren’t for my first husband I would more than likely be living out of a box.
3. I am a bit of an adrenalin junkie and like nothing better than throwing myself out of perfectly good aeroplanes.
4. Thankfully this has taken the place of my previous addictions.
5. ‘Appetite for Destruction’ by Guns ‘n’ Roses is still my favourite album. I fear it may well feature in my epitaph.
Only a fifth of the way through and already she had delved too deep, offering far more than was necessary. She really ought to have paid attention to the alarm bells, no, make that the klaxons, ringing in her head.
6. I used to dream that one day I would be as famous as Axl Rose and always had my headband at the ready.
7. My first taste of stardom came at the tender age of fourteen when I was propositioned by….
A car’s horn blared at her from behind, halting her mid-flow and pulling her to her senses. Glancing up she saw the light was green and in her embarrassment immediately pressed down hard on the accelerator, too hard it seemed as her front wheels skidded for a moment on the wet tarmac in a bid for traction before she finally shot off into the distance, leaving the rest of the world behind her. She didn’t bother to look in her rear-view mirror but if she had she would have caught sight of the impatient car behind her coming to an abrupt halt as the lights returned immediately to amber and then red, forcing them to wait for the next change.
Her senses now fully re-engaged, she charged through the dark, glistening streets of south London, still somewhat unsettled at being caught out in such a reflective moment and now desperate for the sanctuary of home. Taking a sharp left she careered onto her driveway, gravel spraying up from under her wheels and killed the engine. Within seconds she was out of the car and click clacking her way across the stones in her Laboutin heels, red under soles flashing with each step. Then her key was in the lock and she was instantly transported into the safety of the imposing Georgian façade of her home.
With the door shut securely behind her, she kicked off her shoes, scattering them in opposite directions across the flagstones of the hallway and as she tossed her bag to the floor, absentmindedly pushed at the answer phone which immediately sprang to life. Keeping one ear out for any messages, she carried on with her normal routine, chucking her car keys into the hammered silver dish, throwing her leather jacket over the crown of the twisting banister and shaking her hair out in front of the mirror above the hall table. She was just about to wander into the kitchen to search the fridge for her habitual nightcap when a voice caught her by surprise.
“You may think you have everyone fooled but you are very, very wrong. You see I’ve worked it all out.”
Her blood ran cold as she stood motionless in the doorway, her back to the machine. As the voice reared up slowly behind her it was as if it were crawling towards her, spreading itself insidiously across every surface of her home on its journey, and she found she dared not move for fear of being seen to waiver, even though she knew she was totally alone. The voice went on with its salacious tormenting of her,
“It’s time you gave up this pretence. I know the truth and I even have the proof. There’s no way out now.”
With that the line went dead and she sank to the floor.
2. A Few Random Facts
Sitting at the kitchen table, having dragged herself up from the cold stone floor, she tried in vain to connect the voice on the machine with a face from her past but it was impossible to even be sure as to whether it was male or female. She dared not press play again for fear that allowing the voice to infiltrate the air around her once more would be akin to summoning the dead.
In an effort to distract herself from the goose bumps on her forearms and the shudders that continued to convulse along her spine, she forced herself to continue with her mental regurgitation of her list. Perhaps by dragging herself through it once more she could be reassured that she had given nothing away and that this hideous caller must be no more than a prank. She lit a cigarette, enjoying the crackle of the burning tobacco as she sought out the words she had written some months previously.
8. It makes me nauseous to recall how badly I dressed in the 80’s.
9. If I had known in my teens what I know now I might have listened to my mother more.
10. My first husband died two years into our marriage. My only consolation is that there were
never any children who would have lost a father.
11. I have been married twice in my life but loved only once.
12. I am not who you think I am.
And there it was. That was the only one she really regretted. Not the ones about the husbands or the marriages, but the enigmatic statement that was number twelve. It should have been a throwaway comment but it was the one that everyone had persistently alluded to that night.
“So, just who are you then?” Jo had asked, with a nudge.
She had been waiting patiently at the bar and hadn’t seen her old best friend, Joanna Copeland, sidle up next to her. It wasn’t until she felt the gentle shove of an elbow in her side, causing the ice in her drink to clink together that she had finally taken notice.
They hadn’t been face to face since sixth form, some twenty or so years previously and she struggled to compose herself, eventually producing the most engaging smile she could muster but one that she felt probably fell way short of expectations. In an effort to cover up her uneasiness at this direct line of questioning she chose to play dumb.
“I am not who you think I am.” Jo repeated the words, assuming a menacing voice as she spoke them, as if to lace them with a portentous resonance.
“Oh, well, you know, I always liked to think of myself as enigmatic. I was just playing to type really,” she said jovially, trying to simply laugh it off before giving in to the obligatory hugs.
As they embraced she had to work hard to release the telltale tension in her shoulders. She thought she did a pretty good job yet was well aware she no doubt still felt brittle to another’s touch. She had never been comfortable with physical closeness.
“Hmm, is that right?” Jo had continued cordially, having finally released her from her firm, warm, grip.
But her latent displeasure at finding herself in this scenario had not gone unnoticed by Jo who in sympathy did her best to assuage any fears of further inquisition.
“You know, I realise it’s been a few years but I’m a strong believer that people never really change that much and I think I knew you pretty well at school”.
She gave Jo the once over, this former friend of hers with the slightly awkward smile still plastered across her face, and took in the subtle differences that the passing of time had made to her. She was still just as pretty as she had been twenty years previously, with tousled, sandy blonde hair framing her petite features, the same mischievous glint flashing in her eye as she gently probed for more information. But in addition were now the marks of experience, the soft lines creasing her eyes, a slight fullness around her chin line and a subtle creping of the skin on her throat. Watching her old friend laughing heartily she realised she had not heard a word of the last few sentences Jo had said. She was also alarmed to discover that they’d been joined by another old face.
Tall and willowy, Jasmine de Palma, or ‘Jazz’ as they’d called her, stood at around six feet tall but the years had hunched her shoulders, making her appear almost apologetic as she nervously tried to interject her personality onto the evening. Fiddling with her short dark hair, repeatedly attempting to force a reluctant strand behind her left ear, Jazz also made reference to what should have been taken as nothing more than a throwaway remark. How wrong could she have been?
“Fabulous to see you, except you’re gonna have to remind me who you are. Please, do tell, I’ve been dying to ask.” Jazz was laughing out loud as they exchanged a feather-light brush of cheeks.
There was a moment’s awkwardness as the three pretended to sip at their drinks whilst surreptitiously reappraising one another. This was the moment of truth, she thought to herself, braced for comments about how much she too had changed but none were forthcoming and she couldn’t help but wonder whether this was from politeness or whether she had actually managed to cover up all trace of events from the past twenty years.
“So here we all are then. Well, I guess not all….” Jazz trailed off as she realised her faux pas. There was only three of their original group of friends there that night. One of their clique was missing.
Claire Houseman, a gentle, generous girl who was considered to have been very popular at school, had been killed in a helicopter accident along with her husband, Matthew Bennison, some nine years previously. A respectful hush blanketed the three of them as they desperately searched for a way out of discussing the loss of their friend and it was painfully clear that some in particular felt it more keenly than others. In an attempt to break the silence it fell upon Jazz, having raised the subject and always aware of other people’s feelings, to try and make amends by blundering on with some vacuous reminiscing.
“God, do you remember when Claire was dating that dodgy biker bloke and her parents found out they’d spent the night camping out in some field?”. They all smiled at the memory.
“Wasn’t she meant to be at your house, Jo? Christ they hit the roof! I guess she was actually quite the dark horse really. What was his name?”.
Watching Jo and Jazz struggle to come up with an answer she finally found her voice but almost immediately regretted it.
“Fletch. Fletch Walker.”
“That’s it! How do you remember these things? I’m hopeless, memory like a sieve.” Jazz shook her head in despair.
“It’s not hard, I was kinda hanging out with his best friend at the time.”
“Oh God, that’s right….Mick wasn’t it?” Jo’s eyes flashed with excitement.
“That’s the one.”
A flash of recognition lit Jazz’s face.
“Shit, yes I remember now. He was pretty hot actually. To think, whilst Jo and I were behaving like proper Grammar girls and dating nice St.Thomas boys, you two were off with some well dodgy characters.”
To her surprise she found herself smiling at Jazz’s take on things.
“They weren’t that dodgy. Actually quite nice guys really, just not quite what our parents had in mind I guess, what with the tattoos and the leather and the fact that they wore more make-up than us.”
Ice broken, the three of them broke into peals of laughter.
The teenage years had been complicated, as they nearly always are, and as typical in a girls-only environment such complications had almost always revolved around what was perceived by their parents as an unhealthy obsession with the local boys. The vast proportion were still in education, attending local schools, and therefore tolerated to some degree but additionally there were other, much older and altogether more unpredictable lads that made the parents nervous. Fletch and Mick had definitely fallen into the latter category.
Prowling around the periphery, these older boys were already out of the system, working and, more importantly, driving and it was this independence that was a constant source of agitation for the younger ones they unintentionally emasculated. Whilst they all mixed freely there was no denying the animosity that simmered beneath the surface and occasionally this would boil over when one of the girls took up with a new ‘outsider’. The younger boys were not confident enough to approach the older lad involved so preferred instead to intimidate the girl into giving him up. Claire had once been on the receiving end of this vitriol and as the old friends chatted that night they recalled her telling them about the time she had been ‘summoned’ to answer to a couple of St.Thomas boys about her unfaithfulness, despite the fact that she was neither dating nor involved with either of the boys acting as her jury. It was Jo who remembered that one of those boys had in fact been Matthew Bennison, Claire’s future husband. She had dumped Fletch somewhat callously pretty soon after the confrontation.
“Christ, that man was controlling her before they even started dating. No wonder we lost her altogether once school was finished.” Jazz commented, her words carrying a bitter edge.
On the flipside of the males’ battles, the girls, at least in this clique, were far less antagonistic. They found all types equally appealing and were fully supportive of each other’s choices, whichever camp they fell into. It was not uncommon for any of these boys or older lads to pass from one girl to the next over a period of time and thankfully most of the time this was handled incredibly well, but there had been occasions where jealousy had raised its ugly head.
Within their clique there had been four at the helm; Jo, Jazz, Claire, and Sophia Leadbury, the uncrowned leader of the troupe, although she had not kept in touch with any of the others since the day she had flounced out of the school gates for the last time. Despite all they had shared, once those ‘A’ level grades were in hand, Sophia had chosen not to celebrate the results with her friends of the last seven years, but instead had apparently decided to cast them aside in favour of a life on the wild side. It had been hard for the other three to fathom, particularly Claire who had been closest to Sophia, as they had watched her go without even a backward glance. It had seemed Sophia felt Grammar girls would only hold her back, so great were the plans she had in mind. Plans which she had shared with them on occasion and they had listened intently to, rapt in her dare-devil attitude to life, each of them wishing they had the balls to break away from the pressures of their social standing and the expectations of their parents. Sophia had seemed to feel nothing of this, never afraid of what her mother and father might think or how disappointed they might be in her.
An only child, it was clear to everyone apart from Sophia that Suzanne and William Leadbury wanted to give her every opportunity that life could offer, however in her eyes she saw only the pressure to conform, to succeed and to live a normal life. She would often complain that they seemed to care little about her emotional wellbeing, instead concentrating on guiding her down a socially acceptable path in which she had no interest. She revelled in rebellion, in the ability to shock, and at times it even seemed she took delight in goading them, as if to incite a negative reaction was better than no reaction at all.
So as the others had watched her disappear out of the gates on the day the results came in it was Claire who had sighed,
“And that’s the end of her I guess…”
It was a comment made all the more poignant by the knowledge that she and Sophia had been virtually inseparable for much of their teenage years but something had happened along the way and by the end of sixth form it was clear for all to see that there was little love left between Claire and Sophia. They who had once been the greatest of friends were by then, or at least appeared to be, chalk and cheese. Claire never divulged to Jo and Jazz what had caused the rift so they could only guess at what terrible betrayal might have split these two girls apart. She, on the other hand, knew only too well.
13. My greatest achievement was also my biggest disappointment.
14. I long to experience the adrenalin rush of base-jumping but am too chicken.
15. I wish I had never had to say goodbye to my first love.
3. Teenage Kicks
There were many different scenarios that came to mind whenever she thought about the teenage years, but above all it was the hot, dry summers spent lazing in fields that seemed to best represent the burgeoning heat of her own previously latent desires.
Their calves whipped raw by sun-bleached wheat stalks, any number of boys and girls would stagger their way across the coarse fields until they could find a clearing or else make one of their own. There they would collapse, lounging back on their elbows, their long, lean legs stretched out before them as they talked passionately in groups of how they too would make their mark on the world. And as they talked, joked, or teased one another mercilessly, they would pass a bottle of whiskey or vodka around, its rim moistened by one mouth and then another, so that the saliva mixed on the glass edge. So engrossed were they in proving their intellect amongst their peers that they remained innocently unaware of the intimacy they were actually sharing, there on that cool lip of the bottle.
16. I am somewhat partial to scotch and no doubt it will be my final undoing.
As cigarette smoke wove a pattern in the sky above their heads, occasionally joined by steely blue bursts from a smouldering joint, its thick pungent plumes pouring from the corners of young mouths, they discussed politics, the environment, travel, but above all music. Music, music, music. The life source of youth. And all the while, the Sun, undisturbed by their activity, sank ever lower on the horizon. It was a behaviour that was repeated week after week, summer after summer but there was one particular afternoon, in the height of August during their sixteenth year that would come to haunt her. It was the day Sophia had lost the love of her young life to Claire.
The Sun was a murderous red that day, hanging low in the sky, and it felt as if they had acres of time spread out before them. In their minds nothing could touch them, after all they had the whole of their lives to live yet. They could do anything they wanted - they saw themselves as daring, experimental, fearless. Immortal.
As bare ankles flicked through the tall grass, scattering midges and sawfly into the air, grasshoppers built their rasps up into a frenzied crescendo. Finding a clearing, the usual crowd settled into a lazy circle and began their normal rituals. Sophia had found herself quickly bored by the conversation on this particular occasion, so had lain back on the ground, her hands behind her head and stared at the thick cobalt blue skies that bled over the very tops of the hills. She had noticed how the hills were clothed in the voluptuous curves of oak trees, and she began daydreaming about the day she might use her own such curves to seduce the boy she had had her heart set on for what felt like an eternity.
Easing one eyelid open and raising her head just a few centimetres from the ground she looked over to her best friend. Claire was sitting nearby, coyly chatting with a couple of boys who were obviously vying for her attention. From there she looked over to Jazz, who was as ever slightly removed from the rest, slowly stripping a single blade of wheat whilst Jo held court next to her with a mixed collection, debating the merits of whichever novel they were currently studying for English Literature. Without realising it, Sophia thought to herself, they had all already embarked on their future lives. Jo, the intellectual and no doubt perpetual academic; Claire, the prize arm candy, destined to be the perfect wife; Jazz, forever on the edge of life watching others, waiting for that moment of opportunity that may or may not one day arrive; and then there was her, Sophia, aloof and guarded, destined to forever go it alone.
As the afternoon wore on and the Sun continued its rampage across the sky, each one of them inched evermore into the shade of the few trees they could find dotted about in the field; the cool ground found beneath the boughs working to ease the sting of sunburn on their calves. The air was still, heaving with the expectation of a coming storm that rumbled over the distant fields.
Now propped up against the trunk of a solitary oak, Sophia let her eyes wander over the array of bodies laid out before her and thought how much they reminded her of peaches plucked fresh from the tree, their flesh warmed by the burning sun, soaking up those intense rays.
As a single white cloud bubbled up from behind the oak trees on the near horizon and time seemed to slow ever more on that long languid afternoon, a swarm of minute dandelion-yellow hoverflies came to investigate the group, one in particular holding its place just inches from Sophia’s face. It watched beady-eyed, waiting for the flick of her hand that would send it shooting back off into open space but she was too engrossed in what was going on around her to give a hoverfly even a moment’s notice. Couples had begun to pair off, wandering into the darkness of the oak woods across the field from them on the pretence of seeking deeper shade and as she watched them go, Sophia wondered how she could get close enough to him so that he would finally see what he was missing and take her with him into those woods. Him with the thick mop of chestnut hair that fell so seductively into his eyes, him with the lopsided smile and long elegant fingers that did not quite fit the machismo he exuded. But for now he was across the circle from her, his beautiful face illuminated by the golden glow of late summer, and she had to content herself with watching him from afar.
Normally she might have been happy with this but sitting next to him that afternoon, as was becoming alarmingly frequent these days, was Claire, giggling shyly, her shimmering hair a curtain across her face as she responded to his low murmurs. Sophia felt once again the now familiar knots of seething resentment build in her stomach. This was not the first time she had sensed a growing intimacy between them, however in the smothering heat of high summer it incensed her to the point of fury at what she now began to view as a total betrayal by her best friend.
Lighting a cigarette, Sophia dragged hard. How was this happening? How was he ending up with her of all people? She had given herself to him on a plate just weeks previously and now he was ignoring her in favour of that prissy, uptight bitch. Just because his mother hadn’t approved. Apparently she wasn’t girlfriend material for the budding star of the rugby team. But what exactly was wrong with her? Wasn’t she thin enough, pretty enough? She had certainly put out enough at Jo’s party so that wasn’t it. Christ, even Jazz was now snogging someone over by the forest’s edge. She had never felt so lonely in her life and at that very instant she wished she could be someplace else and in particular at the very bottom of a cool, silent pool where the solitude would quieten her mind as she pulsated through the icy depths. Or perhaps it ought to be Claire there instead, she mused. Preferably in concrete boots.
A sudden split-splat of warm water fell on her shoulder, shattering her daydream. It was soon followed by another and then another in quick succession. It appeared the thunderstorm had finally caught up with them as, squealing, they gathered up their things and dashed under the cover of the forest. By the time they reached shelter the drops were falling thick and fast; big fat splashes on their hot, burnt, butter-soft skin.
Sophia shook out her hair and noticed that he and Claire had temporarily parted company in the mad dash for cover. She took this sliver of opportunity to sidle up to him and make her move.
“It’s mad isn’t it?” she whispered conspiratorially, leaning in close.
“What is?” he replied, so disinterested he didn’t even bother to look at her.
“The weather, the way it changes so fast”, she was beginning to have that sinking feeling in her chest already. As an opening gambit this topic of conversation totally sucked.
“You’re talking to me about the weather?” he looked at her now, incredulous, a vague hint of a sneer twitching at this top lip. She had screwed it up, yet again.
“Erm, yeah.” was all she could manage before she was ceremoniously dumped with the words,
“Right. Yeah. Whatever. Sorry, excuse me a minute…Hey Claire, over here!”
And with a gentle shove of his palm to her shoulder, he was gone.
The intense dislike of her own mediocrity, which had lain just beneath the surface for much of her young life, was all-consuming now, sweeping over her from head to toe. Sophia wanted desperately to run, disappear into the depths of the woods forever, but knew she must stand her ground, not be seen to be vulnerable, if she was ever to maintain any standing within this social circle. So she figured she had a choice to make; she could either surrender to her inferiority and play the part of lapdog, forever massaging the egos of those cleverer, prettier, or just plain cooler than herself, or else she could fight. Create a persona for herself that would hold its own within her peer group and who knows, maybe even one day lead it. And so it was in that instant, when she finally accepted she had lost out to Claire that Sophia chose the latter and set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the death of the love of her life.
17. I am terrified of heights, which makes jumping from them all the more exciting.
18. Before I die I want to pull a ripcord and have it fail.
19. My favourite food is anything you can eat with your hands.
20. What I want to know the most is how to just be myself.
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