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 and confident.
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 to.
“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 life."
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 another evening.
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.
"So everyone's still alive then?" I say.
"Oh, yeah" she says, witheringly "They're still alive". As if alive was not really much of an achievement.
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 there.
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 finger.
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 said.
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.
"I'm going home" Alex said clear and sober to Vesey “if you have another drink".
There 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 them.
I did it for Stella, of course. She loved fireworks.
Not 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 outside.
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 sky.
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 face.
I persuaded her to move in with me not long after.
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 uncommunicative.
It wasn't that I was jealous. I just wanted to protect her from the demands of her friends. They asked too much of her.
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.
Then, about 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 mayhem.
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.
I had so much wanted to kiss her all the time it was happening. And now I was kissing her. A 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 laughing.
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 night.
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 phone.
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 fool.
I was 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 too.
She'd never had anything like it, had she? What had she ever had in her life?
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 away.
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 fine.
I guess I overdid it on the drink. She was right about that night, about everything breaking up, but the only person I saw was her.
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 uselessly.
I 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,
"Harry, you don't even know the meaning of the word."