I have not written anything to a deadline – or with a certain theme in mind – since my days at university. I’ve always written exactly what I wanted and, more often than not, stayed entirely in my comfort zone. I write Young Adult fiction mostly. This is what I am good at. Or so I am told.
Last week, I ventured out to the deepest darkest back streets of Vauxhall in order to attend a creative writing class. Its been my mission since moving to London to try and regain what I lost since moving away from Manchester – a group of writers with who I can share critiques and stories, and generally give me the kick up the arse that I so desperately need.
I didn’t quite find that with this class but I did find something just as important: my confidence.
The class was entirely devoted to voice – that particular something that makes your writing unique, yours – and I was surprised to see that I still had that something, I hadn’t lost it. It was just hidden in a drawer somewhere for me to come back to (much like my first novel!)
So when my friend stumbled across a competition, she sent me a link. Usually I would have shyed away from such a restricted theme (and short word count – I do like to waffle) but in the spirit of being a little braver, I decided to enter.
The theme was Friendship.
If you hold the city to your ear you can hear the rattle of the underground beneath your boots and taste diesel as the carriage speeds past. The underground is oppressive. There’s this feeling of being buried, of being forgotten, underneath heaving roads and pavements swollen with people.
I don’t get the tube anymore. Not since I saw a man masturbating into a plastic bag on the Jubilee line. Only metres away from me, and there he was, going at it like a horny teenager, and staring right at me. ‘It could’ve at least been the Northern line,’ my housemate had suggested.
I take the bus to meet Ruby at the station. Euston is heaving. Rush hour and people are milling around like ants. London is getting whiter. It’s the kind of white you can feel before you even step outside because of the bright quality of the light coming through the windows and doors. It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas and there’s a guy dressed as Santa at the top of the escalator. His suit is too big and hangs off his pinched frame. He makes no move to confront me as I squeeze past him and through the crowd, just shakes his bucket like a tambourine.
Her train is late so I wait outside, roll a cigarette and sit at one of the picnic benches. The snow seeps through my jeans, strokes at my legs with icy fingers. The others are late too.
Time passes. I’m watching the pigeons peck at some discarded chips on the floor, hobbling along on popcorn-feet, but I must have been watching for some time because she’s there, clicking her fingers in my face like a hypnotist snapping me out of a trance.
‘I’ve been calling,’ she says, and I can tell she’s annoyed because she’s got her head cocked in that way of hers. ‘Alison and Beth are over there.’ She nods in the direction of our two closest friends stood squabbling in front of a coffee stand.
‘I told you it was platform six,’ Alison is shouting.
We both laugh.
I stand to hug her. She embraces me like she usually does: entirely, like she really means it. I have always been envious of her warmth. She looks altered without the armour of mother-hood. Her outline is no longer blurred by a distended belly or pushchair. I try to remember if she has always been so thin.
We walk arm in arm like school girls. I suggest heading to Camden but Alison complains about her heels and the snow. Ruby holds my arm closer as a taxi speeds past. She yelps and I laugh as her elbow collides with mine.
For the past year a small person has been attached to her hem, her sleeve. Her scowling son, blonde and round like his father with no trace of Ruby’s darkness, her angular features, and always clinging to her like a conjoined twin. I made a joke, once, when Hugo was a couple of months old, comparing her first-born to a tumour.
‘You know,’ I explained. ‘Because he grew in you and now he’s living on you,’ but it didn’t go down too well with the new husband who instantly removed his son from the room with the pretence that he would go ‘make more tea.’
‘But it’s what we do, Rubes.’ I’d hissed when her husband still hadn’t returned fifteen minutes later. ‘We’ve always said stuff like that to each other.’
‘It’s different when it’s your own, Niamh.’ She’d offered me a small smile and shook her head. ‘You just wouldn’t get it.’
We take a seat in the corner. When I’d first moved to London it had surprised me just how many pubs there were. Old ones, and faux-old, with aged armchairs and crackling fire places, quizzes, and seventeen different types of ale, situated on busy main roads, or secreted in alleyways or old public toilets.
Alison, blonde and buxom, sits cross-legged in one of the pub’s large chairs and rolls her eyes. She’s been talking about herself for the last ten minutes. ‘And work is driving me nuts,’ she moans. ‘I feel like a fucking baby sitter.’ She swallows her gin quickly. ‘No offence,’ she says to Ruby with a dismissive wave.
Ruby shrugs off the comment like rainwater.
On the day she found out she was pregnant, Ruby had called me. Five minutes passed before she even spoke. ‘I’m knocked up, Niamh.’
‘Stupid condom broke.’ She sniffed loudly and I knew she had been crying in the gap where nothing had been said. I hear the phlegm rattle at the back of her throat. ‘I think the git knew and just kept on going.’
‘How’s Dave?’ Beth asks returning her cup of coffee to its saucer. No-one calls Dave a git now that Ruby has married him.
‘Oh, he’s great,’ Ruby says beaming like a 1950s housewife. She is good at it; this very private kind of acting, no-one notices the small crack in her voice, the slight frown. I can’t stop myself from looking at her, though; the whole time she is talking about her husband, just to reassure myself that she is only pretending.
After a couple of minutes or so, I have heard enough. I won’t tell anyone the truth, though; Ruby knows this.
‘He’s just a little stressed,’ Ruby adds and bites her top lip. She won’t let the words spill out; she’ll choke them back like vomit.
I bang my fist on the table. It’s harder than anticipated, the table shakes and everyone jumps. ‘Shots.’ It’s the only thing I can think to say.
Beth: ‘It’s not even five.’
Me: ‘It’s my birthday.’ I hide behind the drinks menu.
I feel a hand rest on my knee and give a small squeeze. ‘Thanks,’ Ruby whispers and I just smile.
‘Fine,’ Beth says from across the table. ‘But I’m not drinking tequila after last time.’
Fingers crossed, ya’ll.