by Anne-Marie Swift
an espresso martini
“I used to know her,” I tell the girl I’m
with, though it’s not strictly true. Turns out I didn’t know her at all. Her, or
her friends, that big, bold group of men, mostly gay, all loud and comfortable
It’s five years, maybe more, since it all
broke up and now there she is, sipping an expresso martini in the bar I always
“Go and talk to
her”, says Charlotte. And so I do. It’s surprisingly easy. She sips her drink –
she didn’t use to drink at all – and I ask about her friends. She talks to me as
if we’ve never been apart.
"Alex and Vesey, it was a mess. Remember
the Bonfire Night part? I think that evening was the beginning of the end. When
someone puts themselves deliberately right in the way of the fireworks like
that, they're either unhappy with their relationship or unhappy with
Silence. She's waiting for an answer from
me. This was always her trick. Throw the unanswerable question at you. I can't
believe she's referring to that night as if it was just a part of the flow, just
I haven’t forgotten that Bonfire Night. It
was me that wanted a fireworks party. I wanted the show if it, now that we had
this fantastic house. I wanted the neighbours to look out over our big garden
and see fireworks going off and dozens of fashionable people drinking champagne
and having a fantastic time.
I needed her to make it happen, though. I
didn't have enough friends. I had the money, I bought some great fireworks. I
needed her to make the fireworks speak.
She carries on talking to me about that
evening. She thinks she's reminding me of what happened, what was going on that
evening but it’s all new. I didn't see anything except her, and as it turns out
I wasn't even seeing her clearly.
"You noticed, didn't
you, Mark, after all his suicide attempts, right at the other end
of the garden safely away from the fireworks? He told me that night, told me
about his suicide attempts and how ashamed he was when he failed. He'd taken all
this booze and pills and then he woke up and realised it hadn't worked - that's
what he said, he said it hadn't worked. So he rang the ambulance service, and
when he got through to them, he told them what he'd done and he was so
embarrassed that he'd done this thing, and they had to come out to him, and
there were people dying of real illnesses,
and so he said "Don't put the sirens on or anything, I don't want anyone
to stop their cars for me".
She laughs, and takes a hard drag at her
cigarette. “I think he wants to live." she adds.
still alive then?" I say.
"Oh, yeah" she says, witheringly "They're
still alive". As if alive was not really much of an
We are quiet for a moment and I think of
going back to my table.
It was her best do ever. This group of
people that would have travelled to any party she gave, her posse, they were all
I think back to her
friend Mark. I see his cat-shaped face, pointy front teeth discoloured from
smoke. I see him running his hand over his baldy
head with sensual pleasure, drawing attention to the masses of holes in his
pierced ears and the one single long long black painted fingernail on his little
And then he sees me looking, knows how
gauche I am, how uncool, how Stella is the only cool thing about me and he says
"So, Harry, wanna shag?" and they all fall around laughing. I was lost with
those people, their smart humour, their way of laughing with you but also, just
a little bit, at you.
I think back to Alex and Vesey. They were
the long-stay relationship of that flighty, movable, troubled group. They'd been
together for ten years and their relationship was a source of wonder, amazement,
and constant gossip for the rest of the group. They were an extrovert open
couple, having people over to dinner six nights out of seven, their phone
ringing constantly, and talking talking talking. It seemed to me that there was
nothing they didn't talk about, and nobody they didn't talk to. Even I knew what
went on in their bedroom. I wondered just how much Stella told them about what
went on in the bedroom she shared with me.
Alex and Vesey arrived late, which was
usual and separate which was not so usual. Vesey came first, with a couple of
young gay guys nobody recognised, and pissed, well-pissed, that kind of
risky-drunk when you know that anything could happen. It could be brilliant or
awful. Vesey and his new, drunk friends were like fireworks themselves. They
could flare up in beauty or take your eye out.
Alex arrived later, alone. He had walked.
He didn't want to go with Vesey, Vesey was too pissed to be seen with, he
Alex and Vesey met in the kitchen, our
beautiful blaring white kitchen now full of people I barely knew, all making the
house look untidy and yet more beautiful. There was Vesey, short dark hair, pale
skin, those Celtic blue eyes slightly bulging with excitement, drink, defiance.
Denim jacket, tight shirt, expensive jeans.
There was Alex, face to face with him, eye
to eye, nose to nose. Alex also with short cropped hair, ginger-blonde, light
blue eyes against Vesey’s dark blue, they glared at each other. The whiteness of
the kitchen glared back.
home" Alex said clear and sober to Vesey “if you have another
were just enough people around to make it humiliating for Alex when Vesey
slowly, deliberately, poured a pretty long, pretty strong drink into his glass.
His eyes were hard. One or two laughed when Vesey said “Shame you won't be
around for the fireworks."
Later, Alex has
gone, the new drunk friends are leaving and Vesey's too pissed to be funny. He's
scary instead, stumbling down the steps to the
garden, the beautiful landscaped garden, crushing the expensively planted future
flower beds, swearing at the firework display.
"We've had Prozac" he shouts, across the
London gardens "and that was no fucking good either". Was anyone watching?
He was wrong though. The fireworks were
good. I’d spent a fortune on them, and I did stuff I don't usually do. I read
the backs of all the packets. I shut the door to one of the many, many rooms in
our fantastic house and I read all the packets and I really tried to visualize
how each firework would look in the night sky above our beautiful garden, and I
choreographed them. I actually fucking choreographed
I did it for
Stella, of course. She loved fireworks.
long after we first met, we were sitting in the cosy little house she rented. It
was a Saturday evening, it had been shovelling it down with rain all day and now
we were lying on the sofa, the telly on, smoking a gentle spliff, as she lay in
my arms. Suddenly we heard a succession of loud dull bangs from
I thought it
was a car backfiring, and then I thought it was a bomb.
Stella realised though, straight away. She
was up and out of that room and running down the road, and I was running along
with her, following the plumes of stars in the sky. It wasn't far to one of the
greens they have in Cambridge where all the foreign students hang out in summer
and people scurry across in winter.
And there were the fireworks. God knows
what it was in aid of. The fireworks were pretty good, as far as I could tell at
the time. Plenty of big bangs, some moments when the sky seemed to be ready to break. Lots of
colours. Lots going on - you'd look over to one side of the sky as
something exploded, then glance, for no reason, over to the other side and see
some pink trail of stars just quietly making its way across the
She was gripping my arm so tight and I
looked around at her. Her face was turned up to the sky. She was absolutely and
utterly entranced, as if she was flying across the sky, breaking up into a
thousand pieces like one of those fireworks. Tears poured down her
I persuaded her to move in with me not long
We had a good relationship. Dinners out,
dinners in, her meeting my friends - not many of them, it didn't take long. Me
gradually learning to establish and respect the complex landscape of her friends
and family, their lovers and interrelationships.
Sex. Loads of sex. She was tireless,
indefatigable, sometimes almost desperate. But who's complaining? We never
stopped having sex, every day, sometimes twice or more. The sex was always
there, even right at the end. Even as our relationship was actually falling
apart, she could still suddenly wrench my trouser buttons open and make me come
in her hand, for no apparent reason.
And always her
friends, that terrible bitchy glamorous group of friends. The midnight calls she
took on her mobile phone. The long Sunday afternoons when all I heard was her
voice saying "No ... but no he must understand that, surely" and they would
talk and talk and talk to her in between, and I didn't know and couldn't imagine
what they were saying. She'd come off the phone and be weary and
It wasn't that I was jealous. I just wanted
to protect her from the demands of her friends. They asked too much of
Holidays together. I loved the holidays
most of all, they were the times when I felt as though I really had her. The
friends were far away, work was far away and it was just me and Stella,
sunshine, food and sex.
On a Canary
Island one New Year's Eve, we sat in an outside cafe on the main town square and
whiled away the time till midnight. We had thought that there would be something
happening in the town square but it quiet, and we were chilly and a little
bored. I thought we could see the new year in back at the hotel, in bed.
five minutes before midnight, they started to pour into the square. They came
from every direction. All ages, every type of person. People in evening dress,
glinting diamonds or something like
diamonds, carrying bottles of champagne or fizzy Freixenet. Families with
children. Young people in jeans. They came pouring in, as if they had been held
behind barriers somewhere and just now been released into the square.
It was still quiet, joyful but restrained,
happy but quiet, when the church bells started to chime and the crowd went wild,
counting down together until on the last chime every single one of those bottles
of champagne was opened, and everyone in the square grabbed each other and
kissed and laughed and shouted and pushed champagne at each other, at us. It was
After that, just as the evening seemed so
good, after that, the fireworks started over the sea. These fireworks were more
than good. They were wild. They were amazing. There were times I thought the sea
would explode. I've never seen so much colour, so many stars, such a total total
mad riot of it. Stella was laughing and crying all at the same time. There was
even the odd tear at the corner of my manly dry and tearless eyes.
When the sky had finally broken into a
million pieces and the sea was a shattered mass of blue, when the families had
stopped cheering and the kids had been rounded up to their parents, when the
last speck of colour had disappeared out of the sky so that only the safe old
stars sat up there, then she let me kiss her.
so much wanted to kiss her all the time it was happening. And now I was kissing
curious kiss, a remote kiss. She was kissing a feeling she had had about the
fireworks, not me.
But of course I forgot it and a couple of
hours later we were lying in bed and I'd just had my orgasm and we were both
We went on. We
were back in England and we were living together, and I got this great job
offer. The money was good and I’d travel away from home. I missed Stella but I
wondered if she even noticed I was gone. Her friends were around more. There
were more phone calls in the middle of the
One time, we'd had
dinner, been to this restaurant I knew she
loved, and when we got back into the car, her mobile phone rang. She took the
call, of course, and then she said to me “I’ll be a while”. I thought she meant
she’d call them back, but when we got home she took the car keys from me and
disappeared into the London night.
I hated that
It was her new friend. When she had a new
friend it was as if she'd met a new lover, she jumped to their every call. So,
when Daniel rang and there was something going on, she didn't even stop to
explain, she just got into the car and left me there feeling a
good at the new job and I worked all the hours and then I got a better job and
then I got us this flat, this immense crazy tall, empty white flat. And if you
would have seen her face when she first walked into that huge white ballroom of
a front room, with the January sun gushing through the windows and running
around in pools on the wooden floor, if you would have seen her
face, you would have lain down and died for her
She'd never had
anything like it, had she? What had she ever had in her
I had to give her everything I could. We
moved into that fantastic flat. We had phones in every room and she had her own
line. We were happy. We had great sex, all the time. But when I wasn't at work
and when we weren't having sex, I could feel her slipping
At first I thought she was having an
affair, of course. Original of me. I came home from work at odd times, tried to check up on her,
but she never was in the bedroom shagging some guy. She'd be out at work,
or if she was in, she'd look up from a book, puzzled, irritated. She'd go out
with Alex or Vesey or Oliver someone and I'd quiz her when she got back. Where
did she go? How many drinks, joints, whatever had she had? Exactly how many, I
needed to know. I needed all the detail to reassure myself that she wasn't
cheating on me.
But it didn’t help and anyway she wasn’t
sleeping with anyone else. I could feel her going away, but I couldn't pin down
what was happening. The sex was still great and she was mostly there when I got
in. What do you do?
So we had the
bonfire party. I thought it would bring us together. I'd do the fireworks and
we'd kind of share her friends and somehow everything would be
I guess I overdid it on the drink. She was
right about that night, about everything breaking up, but the only person I saw
I saw her so close and intimate with Mark. I saw her protecting Alex and Vesey. I saw
her finally - this is the last thing I remember - standing on the steps
down to the garden, Vesey's arms tight around her, like lovers. She was looking
up, into his face, not into the sky where my fireworks burnt and hung
screamed. I remember screaming across the garden as the last and biggest of my
fireworks threatened to smash every last window of my house and all the houses
around, as the sky blazed for one last terrible time, I ran up the steps from
the garden, pushing Vesey to one side so I was looking her in the face, eye to
eye, face to face, almost lips to lips. I screamed, pathetic, "You don't love me
anymore", and she said to me, calm and kind of tired,
you don't even know the meaning of the word."