Ancient History

Ancient History

On the bus, a girl in a black puffa coat sat down beside me. After a few minutes, she nudged my arm. “You’ve just started at Asda, haven’t you?” she said. I nodded and she said she’d seen me get on the bus a few times in my uniform. “I’m in cold meats,” she said. She asked me how I liked the job, and when I said I was still confused about where everything was and how it all worked, she said not to worry, I’d get used to it. I had my book open on my lap, and she asked me what it was about. I was embarrassed and said it was short stories, they were all about all different things. She nodded her head encouragingly as I spoke. Her mum read those Mills and Boons, she said, had I ever read one? “They’re pure daft,” she said. “I mean the lassie’s thighs are quivering before she’s even said hello to the guy.”

The bus went all the way from town to Braehead, and there was a constant stream of people getting on and off. I felt sick with anxiety at the thought of another eight-hour shift ahead of me. I knew I would make mistakes on the till and have to call over the supervisor and endure her telling me off, sighing.

The girl asked me if I’d met Bernadette Stanley in the bakery yet? They used to be best friends, she said, until a few weeks ago. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, “it’s ancient history, but put it this way: some people are very two faced.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. Her arm was almost touching mine, and every time the bus braked we jostled against each other.

“Actually, I first met Bernadette on the bus,” she said. “I’m pure weird that way: I meet all my best friends on the bus!”

*

The next day she waved at me from the stop and immediately sat down beside me.

“I realized I forgot to tell you my name,” she said. “I’m Sharon.”

“I’m Iris.”

“What age are you, Iris?”

“Seventeen.”

“That’s good, I’m eighteen. Oh, I’d a time of it last night,” she said, and told me a long, convoluted story about a customer’s dog running amok in the bakery aisle. She knew all the complications of the private lives of the staff, and spoke about them as if they were members of her family, incorrigible and loveable.

“What’s your favourite cold meat?” she asked as we walked to the front door. “Do you like tongue?”

“Actually, I’m a vegetarian,” I said.

“A vegetarian,” she repeated wonderingly. “I knew a vegetarian once… This is going to sound dead daft, but what do you eat?”

I told her cheese and pasta and things like that. “Good for you,” she said, “taking a stance. I couldn’t do without my bacon,” she said, “I eat it at least twice a day.”

“That’s a lot of bacon,” I said.

“I’m pure addicted,” she said.

The next day the bus had barely pulled away from the stop when she took a wedge of cheese out of her bag. “See what I got you,” she said.

I looked at it in horror.

“Go on,” she said, beaming, holding it forward. “It’s Wensleydale.”

When I didn’t say anything, she said, “Don’t you like it?”

“It’s not that,” I said. “They’ll think I’ve nicked it.” Just the other day a shelf-stacker had been frogmarched into the office for eating a macaroni pie without paying for it first.

“They won’t know.”

“Sometimes they check your bags,” I said.

We sat in uncomfortable silence, until Sharon said, crestfallen, “What am I meant to do with it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I thought you would like it,” she said.

“I do like it,” I said. “It’s really nice of you getting it for me.”

“I’ll just have to throw it away,” she said.

“Why don’t you put it in your bag?” I said.

“I’ve already got a warning,” she said, “from when I let my mum off with the turkey at Christmas.”

“Oh,” I said. “Maybe you’re better throwing it away then.”

“The turkey was deformed,” she said. “It wasn’t a proper one.” She began to unwrap the cheese. “Do you want a bit?” she said.

“I’ve just eaten.”

“I don’t even like cheese,” she said, taking a big bite out of the chunk. “Do you know what this reminds me of? My dad got hypnotised in Blackpool last year and they made him eat an onion like it was an apple. It was pure hilarious.”

*

Because we worked in different departments, I never saw Sharon during my breaks, and she finished an hour after me. I was glad not to have to talk to her on the bus home, when I felt so tired, desolate at the thought of doing the same again tomorrow and the next day and the next day. A boy who worked in fruit and veg waited at the same stop, and I began to hope he’d talk to me. He had wavy blonde hair, and a bit of acne round his mouth. He never smiled or spoke to anyone, and I fancied he was a deep thinker. I was dismayed to discover from Sharon that her ex best-friend fancied him too. I tried to probe her for more information, feigning incredulity, but that just got Sharon onto one of her favourite topics – her and Bernadette’s falling out.

“I’ve never even seen him speak to anyone,” I said, trying to get her back to Keith.

“What I will say about him,” Sharon said, “he’s not a people’s person. See when Bernadette was greetin in the staff room, he just blanked her.”

“Why was she crying?” I said.

“Big George was laughing at her perm. You know Big George that does the trolleys? Big daft George?” I shook my head. “She’s a very sensitive person, Bernadette. You remind me of her,” she said, “the way you go red all the time.”

“Oh, I hate it,” I said, touching my cheeks.

“Look, you’re doing now!” Sharon said.

Sharon’s other favourite subject was her sister’s wedding in October. It’d been in the pipeline for four years, and every detail had been planned meticulously by Sharon and her sister. The one thing they couldn’t agree on was the first dance song. Sharon wanted You’re the First, the Last, the Everything, and Carol wanted Lay me Down in a Bed of Roses by Bon Jovi. Sharon didn’t think that was romantic enough.

“What do you think?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been to a wedding before.”

“Me neither,” said Sharon. “I can’t wait. Maybe you could come,” she said. “I’ll tell Carol you’ve never been to one before.”

“Oh no,” I said, “you don’t have to do that.”

Luckily, a couple started fighting at the back of the bus and the conversation was diverted. I was off for the next three days, and I didn’t see Sharon on the bus on Monday or Tuesday. On Wednesday she got on at the usual stop and sat beside me. She wasn’t wearing her uniform, and her face was pink and blurry.

“Is everything okay?” I said.

She shook her head. “I wanted to tell you myself,” she said. “They’ve sacked me!”

“What happened?”

She started to cry. “You know how I told you my dad has gout? Well on Saturday he was queuing to pay for his shopping when he got an attack. He was in agony. So I started scanning his stuff, but it was taking too long, you know what it’s like on a Saturday. His face was all screwed up in pain and I said to him, Look I’m just going to pass these through quickly, so he could get home to take his pills. I mean, what would you’ve done,” she said, “if your dad was in that much pain?”

“It’s a dilemma,” I said.

She began to cry louder. “He needed the whiskey for my uncle’s birthday,” she said, “he couldn’t come back for it later,” bringing out a tissue. “The thing I’m really upset about,” she said, “is that we were just getting to be pals. I don’t want to lose you,” she said.

I was taken aback by this. The only person I’d ever considered my best friend was my older sister. A year ago she’d moved to Birmingham to train to be a nurse, and I missed her badly. Sharon looked at me tearily, and I felt flattered and compromised at the same time. “We can still be friends,” I said lamely.

“Do you want to go out on Saturday night?” she said. “We could go to Bonkers.”

“I don’t know,” I said, and she said come on, I couldn’t sit at home forever. “Don’t you want a boyfriend?” she said. “Carol met Kevin in Bonkers.”

Before I could say anything she got up, saying she couldn’t face getting off at Asda. “I’ll see you at seven on Saturday at Central Station,” she said. “Be there or be square!”

*

Bonkers didn’t open till nine, so we went into a pub on St Enoch’s Square first and drank a Baileys Irish Cream each, then a vodka and lime. Apart from a row of old men at the bar, the place was empty. Sharon talked about her efforts to find a new job, and asked how the old bunch were getting on at Asda. I told her the latest gossip – that the cash-office supervisor had run off with the trainee manager – and we talked about that for a while. Sharon didn’t shy from making harsh moral pronouncements on those whose behaviour she found lacking. She said she would never cheat on her husband, if she had one.

By the time we’d queued to get in Bonkers it was already ten o’clock. We squeezed our way to the bar and ordered Southern Comforts and lemonade. It was very dark and smoky. Sharon put her arm through mine so we didn’t get separated, and we stood at the edge of the dance floor, watching people enjoy themselves. Sometimes we pointed things out to each other – a poser on the dance-floor, or a girl gyrating against her friend – but it was too loud to hear much. No one bothered with us. At eleven o’clock we had to leave so Sharon could catch the last train home. She bought a bag of chips to share on the way to the station. “Wasn’t that great,” she said. “Being part of the buzz!” I said it was a pity we had to go home, because I wanted to dance now.

“We’ll definitely dance next week,” Sharon said.

*

All through May and into June we met at seven o’clock outside John Menzies in Central Station. As a concession to me, we’d start off in the Thirteenth Note, a hippy pub that had mismatched chairs and candles in wine bottles on the tables. The boys who drank there all had long or longish hair, wore cords or flares, and looked like they went to art school or studied philosophy. The girls also had long hair, wore no makeup – an assertion of their superior moral fibre, it seemed to me – and were either very thin or quite fat. My daydreams often centred around looking like one of the girls, and having a boyfriend like one of the boys, and I was happy just to sit there, soaking it all in. Sharon hated it. She liked to get dressed up – frosted white eye-shadow, pale pink lip-gloss, thick lines of brick-coloured blusher up her cheeks. She wore diamanté earrings the size of gobstoppers, and piled her hair on top of her head with a scrunchie. Every five minutes, worried that her ponytail was wilting, she’d take a massive can of hairspray out of her bag and give it a few more blasts.

“No one’s going to go for us in here,” she’d say glumly.

Increasingly, though, I’d begun to dread Bonkers. The boys all looked like older versions of the boys I had gone to school with, with gelled spiky hair and coloured Benetton or Lacosse shirts, and the DJ played dance music all night. I had run out of things to say to Sharon. What we did, for two hours, was drink. I quite enjoyed being drunk, and I enjoyed Sharon telling me to slow down, I was pure mad. Sometimes we’d try to find two boys to dance beside, hoping they’d notice us. Often, as we walked home to the station, Sharon would say that some guy had been looking at me, and I’d say no, he was looking at her, and Sharon would say no, it was definitely me, and so on. In truth, no one showed the faintest interest in us.

*

Sharon decided that we should start saving to go on holiday together to Blackpool. She’d been with her mum and dad, and knew we’d have a great time. Even if it rained, she said, you were never bored in Blackpool. She wanted to go to a fortune teller on the pier, Gypsy Rose, who her mum swore by.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think I can afford it.”

“You can if you start saving this week,” Sharon said.

I couldn’t think of anything worse than spending seven whole days with Sharon in Blackpool, which I imagined to be one great big Bonkers. I was planning to start university after the summer, and wanted to buy my books. I had my eye on a fitted leather coat, the type I saw the girls in the Thirteenth Note wear, and a brown suede bag. On my days off I’d take a bus to the west end, and wander around Byers Road, exhilarated with the thought of what was ahead of me.

“A tenner a week,” said Sharon. “If I can do it, you can.”

We walked along Glasfurd Street in silence. “Don’t you want to go on holiday with me?” she said.

“It’s not that,” I said.

“Is it Blackpool?” she said. “We can go somewhere else. I don’t mind. As long as were together, that’s all that counts.” She threaded her arm through mine. “I’m not going to go on holiday without my best friend!” she said.

*

Every week now Sharon talked about our holiday to Blackpool. She had planned exactly how much we’d need for the B&B, how much spending money, how much for food and drink. She was putting away extra so she could get some new clothes, and her nails done. She’d told Carol her wedding would have to go on the back burner for a while, till she got organized. She had a new job in a biscuit factory, but was thinking of doing beauty at college after the summer. “Imagine me a student, with all the pure eggheads,” she said. She still liked to hear the Asda gossip, and I liked having someone to talk to about my supervisor, who I hated, and Keith, who I continued to be in love with. Once during a conversation about who we’d go out with from Asda (on point of death, if we really had to) I’d got Sharon to mention Keith, and then teased her relentlessly thereafter for fancying him. Every Friday I‘d bring it up, for the pleasure of saying his name, until Sharon became bored and suspicious. Her mum and dad had got married at eighteen, and Carol had got engaged when she was eighteen, and that’s what she wanted for herself: a nice husband and a family. She stressed the basics: he had to have a job, and be a Catholic. Aside from that she wasn’t, as she said herself, picky.

*

One Friday night in Bonkers two men approached us. This had never happened before. They asked us if we wanted a drink, and Sharon said we’d have a vodka and Coke. When they came back from the bar the man in the lime shirt introduced himself and his friend, taking my hand as if to shake it, but kissing it instead, in a parody of courtly style. He did most of the talking. They were over from Coventry, putting up the scaffolding for a new housing development in East Kilbride. They were looking for a couple of pretty girls to show them the sites. “Do you know anyone who might fit the bill?” he said.

“Cheeky!” said Sharon, her face aglow. “I’ll show you the site of my foot in a minute.”

“She’s feisty, this one,” he said, nudging his friend. “Watch out for this one.”

“Yeah, you better,” Sharon said.

This went on for the next half an hour or so, while me and his friend pretended to laugh along. Or at least I pretended, being unable, even if I’d been willing, to follow what insults were jokes, or what jokes were insults. My head was spinning from all the drinks they’d bought us. We sat down at one of the booths, and had a round of tequilas, after which Billy put his arm round Sharon and they began to kiss. Me and his friend tried to make conversation. He had a cheery, red face, with a neck that poked straight out of his shirt like a drainpipe. “It’s hot in here, isn’t it,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “It really is.”

“I’ve never been in a club this hot.”

“It’s a bit colder near the stairs.”

“That’s why I’m sweating so much,” he said, pulling his collar. “This heat. I’m not usually this sweaty.”

“It’s because it’s so busy,” I said.

“Must be,” he said, nodding his head. After a few minutes, “Do you two work together then?”

“No, we used to.” Feeling I should add something, I said, “You two work together?”

“Yes,” he said, nodding again, as if in contemplation. Another few minutes passed in silence when, quite out of the blue, he rested his head on my shoulder. In an agony of embarrassment I started ahead, afraid to move, and after a few minutes he straightened up. “Excuse me,” I said. “I need the toilet.”

Even when I concentrated, I couldn’t walk straight, and kept having to open my eyes wide. The faces I passed were hellishly red and overblown, like carnival masks. In the toilet I splashed cold water on my cheeks, and tried to compose myself. I thought I might be sick. I sat in a cubicle with my head bent, eyes shut, until I heard Sharon bang on the door, saying we had to go.

*

The cold air sobered me up a bit as we walked to the station. Union Street was noisy with people leaving and entering the pubs, music blaring from the open doors. In the distance the streetlamps glowed like strings of beads. We were walking together, slowly because Sharon kept falling over on her high heels. Now I could see clearer I noticed with a fright how much older the men were than us. The one who’d been kissing Sharon had a receding hairline. He was trying to persuade her to go back to his hotel.

“What kind of girl do you think I am?” Sharon said.

“I don’t know. What kind of girl are you?”

He put her arm around her and she giggled and said, “Hey, don’t touch what you can’t afford.”

“I can afford you and still have change,” he said. We were at Union Lane now, and he said, “Here, come here a minute, I want to show you something.”

“Sharon,” I said, “we need to catch our trains.”

“I’ll just be a minute,” she said, and walked after him down the lane. I was left again with his friend.

“I’m going to get something to eat,” he said finally. “Do want some pakora?”

“No, I’m okay thanks.”

I felt sick, and miserable, and furious with Sharon. I leaned against the wall, checked my watch. I don’t know how long I’d waited – maybe three or four minutes – when I heard Sharon scream. The lane was long and narrow and it was hard to see anything. I called out to her, but by that time I could see her running towards me, her hair dishevelled, her lip bleeding.

“Come on,” she said. She grabbed my arm and we ran down Union Street, and across the taxi rank, into the station. When we stopped, I could hardly breathe. Adrenalin was pumping through my body, and my legs were shaking. “Are you okay?” She was crying a bit, almost absent-mindedly. “What happened?” I said.

She shook her head. “I’ll tell you next week,” she said. “I just want to go home. My dad’ll murder me if I miss my train.”

*

The next week we were meant to be meeting earlier, at six, to put down a deposit on the holiday. I had the day off work and stayed in my dressing gown all morning, only getting up from bed to snack and pluck my eyebrows. It was raining, the sky filled with shelves of black clouds. Throughout the day I kept pretending to myself that I intended to meet Sharon, even if just to tell her that I couldn’t go on holiday. I thought, I’ll give it till four o’clock, and then decide what I’m going to do. The idea of going out in the rain and cold to meet her filled me with dread. I thought, We’ve not got a proper arrangement anyway, not really. Nothing’s set in stone. I was furious that I’d got myself into this situation. My eyebrows looked terrible, and it was too late now – it was probably too late – to have a shower and put on my makeup. At five o’clock, I thought to myself, Sharon probably won’t turn up either. She’ll have stayed at home too. Who’d go out in this weather? But I knew she would. I watched the rain pour down the darkening streets. Mum came home from work and said, “Aren’t you going out tonight?” and I said no, it was cancelled. “That’s nice,” she said, “we can have a girl’s night in,” but a few minutes later we fell out because I’d left the kitchen in a mess. She went into the sitting room, and I went into my bedroom, banging the door. At seven I thought, Sharon will have realized by now. She’ll have gone home. She won’t wait more than an hour. I thought of her on the train home, worried about me. But it was too late now. It was done. At nine I thought, She’ll definitely, definitely be home by now. I got out all my uni open-day stuff and tried to read over it, but I couldn’t concentrate. At eleven the rain started up again and I lay in bed, listening to it drum on the bin-sheds. Cars splashed up and down the road. I tried not to think of Sharon, but my mind kept returning to her. I knew she would have waited a long time for me, before going home. I said to myself: She’ll have been home for hours now. She’s probably in bed, asleep. There’s nothing I can do now.

Colette Paul has published a collection of short stories, Whoever You Choose to Love, (Phoenix/ Weidenfeld & Nicolson) which were serialized on Radio 4, and nominated for Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award. She has won the Tom Gallon/ Royal Society of Authors short story prize, and had stories published in magazines including New Writing, The Edinburgh Review, Manchester Review, and Stand. Three of her stories are included in Love, Loss, and the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short stories, edited by Victoria Hislop.

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