Lara liked a snakebite. She drank other things but this was her go-to. She was only in it to get fucked; she didn’t care about the taste. She admitted that to me freely, once I got to know her. I took a light interest in taste myself, but mostly I chose my booze by colour. I liked anything vibrant, Aperol or crème de menthe. I worked in a pub called the Queen’s Head and whenever things got depressing in there I’d pour myself a shot. My manager, Mark, rarely noticed. Unless the schoolgirls were in, he spent most of his time in the back, gambling on his own fruit machines.
I’d had six shots the night I met Lara. It was Valentine’s Day. The pub was empty but for a single regular sat at the bar, reviewing his reflection in a pint of Guinness. The door opened and a guy came in, with Lara following behind. It was raining out. They were both dripping gently, holding themselves. He was perhaps nineteen, in an ugly red and yellow polo shirt, no coat. He had an Adam’s apple like a swallowed blade, hair in a scraggly ponytail. Lara wore fishnets and huge black boots. She seemed to be surrounded by a fine blue light.
It was only when the guy with the ponytail repeated his order that I realised I hadn’t been listening. There was an edge of shyness to his voice, left over from being with Lara. The raindrops coming off him tapped at the wood floor.
Sorry, I said, reaching for the pint glasses.
It’s lager and cider. Equal parts. Cheapest you’ve got.
I know what a snakebite is, I said.
He watched me, dead behind the eyes, as I poured. I was wearing a university hoodie, a rain mac, leggings worn thin at the crotch. My hair was clotted with grease, and there was nothing on my face but lip balm. I’d never had a boyfriend, and had just accepted it as the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen to me. I imagined myself married, ten years down the line, to a man who used gel in his hair and cooked burgers on a barbeque for our dumpy kids, but I hadn’t put much thought into how I might get there. The future, to me, was something that would just happen.
The guy with the ponytail paid in change, then went over to the pool table. He rested his drinks on the felt while he pushed coins into the slot. Lara went to him, lifted a snakebite and drank from it. She looked directly at me, just for a second, over the lip of her glass. Then she put the drink down and polished her cue with a chalk. She broke, and she broke well. The sound echoed through the room like a smashed glass.
The Queen’s Head was a grotty pub, with streaky glasses and an odd assortment of furniture that had mostly been dragged in off the street. Mark notoriously didn’t ask teenage girls for their IDs so they’d come from all over the city to get served, some not even bothering to change out of their uniforms first. Pervy Mark, they’d whisper to each other, while he used his teeth to crack open their Smirnoff Ices.
I’d dropped an empty CV into the Queen’s Head midway through my first year, and got the job on the spot. I hadn’t needed the money as much as something to do. University, it turned out, was little more than an empty time slot in which young people could take a stab at smallscale alcoholism before deciding whether or not to launch into the real thing. Halls, where I’d lived in my first year, radiated the slightly sweet smell of vomit. Patches of it would go unclaimed in the corridor for days, until eventually someone had the sense to run a hoover over them.
In my opinion, drinking was fine, but it wasn’t an activity in and of itself. It didn’t count as doing something. I’d come to university to meet the sort of people who wore berets, stole handfuls of cherries from fruit stalls, talked about art and politics. Here, rugby boys downed entire bottles of rosé followed by bowls of their own piss, then did press-ups in circles.
For my second year, I’d moved in with a group of medics, all female, with various skin conditions that they would discuss at length. They’d spend evenings on the sofa together watching Take Me Out, splitting a Domino’s and scratching each other’s arms.
E45? they’d say. Sudocrem? Bio-Oil?
When I went home to my parents’ house in the Cotswolds for term holidays, a guy called Quaver would take over my shifts. He was at university elsewhere, but his parents lived opposite the Queen’s Head, so he’d return to the city just as I was leaving. We’d crossed paths a few times. In early January, I showed up to my first shift of the year to find him standing on a chair, pulling down the tinsel that I’d stapled up a month before. He had a lip piercing, and his hair was shaved and bleached yellow. He called me Babe, lazily, as he was leaving, and helped himself to a packet of peanuts from behind the bar. I remember thinking that Quaver could have been me, in a parallel universe.
When the game of pool was over, they sat at the corner table again. Lara had her back to me, so all I could see was the triangle of her elbow on the arm of the chair. The guy with the ponytail bought all the drinks. They moved on to lagers after the snakebites, and kept going for hours.
In this time, I drank two vodka cranberries and inhaled a supermarket pasta salad that I’d brought in my bag. I hand-washed all the pint glasses, sprayed the entire bar with Dettol and wiped it down. I took all the spirits off the shelves, dusted them and put them back. I checked my phone about once a minute, just for something to do. I went to the toilet a lot. My whole body was jittery and feverish. If I wasn’t stealing glances at Lara, I was thinking about when I’d next get away with it.
At around eleven o’clock, Mark came over for a Strongbow. She’s too fit for him, I reckon, he whispered into my ear.
I picked up a cloth and set to work polishing the taps, which I’d already done twice in the past hour. I hadn’t noticed, I stuttered.
At last orders, I went over to Lara’s table, my fingernails dug into my palms. Lara looked up and smiled. She seemed very drunk by then – her eyes were drooping – but that smile was perfect, glinting like a coin in the dim pub light.
You’re on my course, she said.
Thought I’d seen you around.
My fingertips felt slightly wet. Sorry, I said. I don’t recognise –
It’s cool, my attendance is shit. I’m almost never in.
Right, I said. Same.
This wasn’t true. I always went to my lectures. I was actually quite fearful of what might happen if I didn’t. It wasn’t that I was worried about getting into trouble, more that I’d be completely forgotten, that I’d disappear.
It came out of nowhere, like a trick. I thought it was, at first.
Isn’t she cute?
The guy with the ponytail looked me up and down.
So, er, it’s last orders, I said.
What’s your name? asked Lara.
For a moment, I forgot even this simple thing. Meg, I said finally. Yours?
She told me, and I started to turn away. I wanted to get back behind the bar, to safety.
Wait, Lara called. We should hang out.
I turned back. I was struggling to concentrate.
I need a girl mate, she explained. Too many boys around, you know?
I nodded as if that resonated with me.
Here, she said. Put your number in. We can get pissed.
Lara had one of those brick phones that could be dropped from any height and survive. It was battered at the edges. I punched in digits. My fingers were numb, perhaps someone else’s.
I’ll text you, she said.
I went back to the bar and started getting everything together for close. I did two shots of blue curaçao, just to calm down. I got the mop out and started sloshing it around the sticky floor behind the bar.
I said bye, but I didn’t look up until I guessed Lara was almost out the door. Her ankles were unsteady, crossing over each other in their huge black boots. Once I got to know Lara, I noticed she wore those boots all the time. The girls I’d met before would put high heels on to go clubbing, and walk home barefoot with mascara running down their faces. Lara wouldn’t have worn heels to a wedding, and I certainly never saw her cry.
The guy with the ponytail was propping her up with his arm. He touched her like she belonged to him. She wouldn’t text me, I thought, as I watched her silhouette waver in the glass panels of the door.
I received a text that Saturday. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and I was in bed fully clothed, eating own-brand cheese puffs with stained fingers. Lara wanted to meet at a karaoke bar, eight o’clock that evening.
The venue had red walls, and a fuzzy projector displayed YouTube lyrics onto one. Lara sang ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams, but she made it punky, somehow. She was wearing red lipstick, one shade darker than the walls. The crowd loved it. She had us in the palm of her hand. At my turn, I refused to sing. I told her I didn’t know any lyrics.
That’s the point of the screen, she said. It’s karaoke.
I can’t read, I told her.
She laughed. I hadn’t meant it as a joke; I’d meant it as a lie. Anyway, she dropped trying to persuade me.
We drank rum and cokes. Lara made friends with various men in the audience. She introduced me to some of them over the music. I’d nod briefly and then stand in silence, pretending to be interested in whoever was performing. I could feel the nervousness in my collarbones, the insides of my neck.
It wasn’t even eleven before Lara leant into my ear and shouted that she was leaving. She threw her thumb over her shoulder, gesturing to a student with a rip in his T-shirt and a dog tag. I lingered for a few minutes after she left, looking around aimlessly, convinced that I’d blown it, and then I went home myself.
After that night we saw a lot of each other. Lara would invite herself around to mine. I’d make her dinner, usually beans on toast, while she looked up club nights on Facebook. She lived a few blocks away from me, in a house full of computer science students that she’d found online. I never met any of them.
My house is dead, Lara would text. I’m coming over.
After we ate, we’d get ready to go out. Lara liked to dress me up. She told me I suited eyeliner, so I let her draw big flicks on the corners of my eyes. She’d make me wear one of her tiny lace thongs under a pair of her black skinny jeans, with the thong pulled high so you could see it above the waistband. The thong was so uncomfortable I ended up with a rash, and Lara’s jeans made me feel like a rodent being squeezed to death by a boa constrictor. I didn’t protest. I understood that I was her project.
Lara dragged me along to various clubs, carrying nothing but her driving licence in her bra. Men would buy her drinks, and occasionally they’d buy mine too. I still wasn’t good at conversation, but it turned out that I didn’t need to be. My new outfits could do the talking. I went out with Lara night after night, staying far later than I could reasonably handle. I’d exhaust myself into oblivion, and spend the daytime swallowing down ill-advised doses of paracetamol, entire bottles of Lucozade.
It really was a whole new world: music so heavy I could feel it in my ankles, pills that stole hours. I did a lot of squatting on the floors of smoking areas, Lara blowing rings. I don’t know if I was enjoying myself or just in a continual state of curiosity. For the first few months, I felt as if I was gliding through a museum. I once got home in the early hours of the morning – stinking of vodka lemonade, eating a jar of glacé cherries I’d bought from the newsagents on my walk back – just as my housemates were leaving for early lectures. They looked me up and down as we crossed paths in the front garden. I stood with my key in the lock and watched them move towards the bus stop, struck dumb by the nothingness of my old life.
Some nights, I’d study Lara for flashes of ugliness. I’d take note of the strange angle her wrist bent into when she was doing up her fly in the toilet cubicle, or the crusty flakes of skin that would build up under her lipstick when we’d had a long night, or the way her pupils would roll back in her head on the dance floor, as if she were searching for something inside her mind. I liked these moments; they made me feel closer to her.
Lara’s beauty elevated her above the rest of us. She could pick up things she wanted like dominoes, and scatter the rest. I’m freezing, she said once, to a kind-eyed stoner wearing one of the nicest Carhartt canvas jackets I’ve ever seen. We were standing in a queue outside a club. The boy shouldered his jacket off and passed it to Lara.
Give it back once we’re inside, yeah? he said. It was a Christmas present from my mum. She’ll kill me if I lose it.
As soon as the boy’s back was turned, Lara pulled me by the wrist. We sloped away, her zipping up her new jacket against the night.
Another time, a few weeks after this, Lara was sitting on a barstool in the Queen’s Head, drinking a pint. A group of schoolgirls were dancing on the pool table, playing Ariana Grande out of their phones. Mark was lingering nearby.
I met that guy with the ponytail in the petrol station, she said.
I hadn’t seen him since the night Lara and I first met.
What were you doing in there? I asked. You don’t even have a car.
I wanted to see if I could coax whoever was working out of their shift.
Something to do.
I didn’t say anything to Lara then.
Didn’t you notice the Shell logo on his T-shirt? she asked.
I shrugged. I hadn’t. What did you say to him? I said.
I just asked if he fancied a game of pool. He left the counter empty and we walked over here. Lara laughed.
D’you think he got fired?
She contemplated the idea. Probably, she said.
I knew that she hadn’t actively been trying to get him out of a job. Lara wasn’t malicious like that. She just wanted someone to fuck, and there he was.
The first time Lara kissed me, we’d just been kicked out a bar. We were wearing matching mesh tops that you could see our nipples through. I looked appalling, and Lara looked great. She’d been caught in the beer garden with a bottle of Amaretto she’d smuggled in under her jacket. I’d told the bouncer it was mine, and we’d both been made to leave. There was a fight going on in the street outside. I’d never seen a proper fight before, not up close like that. I had to watch in snatches, through my fingers. One man grabbed the other’s face and pulled it towards him, so the two men were standing nose to nose. He didn’t take his hand away, and I could see the skin of the other man’s cheek stretched tight over his jawbone. Blood and saliva were dripping from inside his mouth.
Lara was excited. Whose side are you on? she asked me.
I don’t know, neither. The police will be here in a minute.
I like the one with the tattoo, she said. He’s got the edge.
We stood with the rest of a small crowd to watch. The fight looked equal to me. One second one man was under the other, scraping against the tarmac, and the next they’d swapped places. Finally, the man with the tattoo pushed the other very hard into a car. The windscreen cracked against his head, and he slid to the ground.
Told you, Lara said.
The winner dusted his hands off on his jeans, as if he’d just finished rolling out pastry. The crowd began to disperse. It was then that Lara put her hands on either side of my face and leant in. Her mouth was molten and luscious. I closed my eyes. Her hand tugged casually at my hair. I could hear the music playing in the bar, and the occasional whoosh of passing traffic. I didn’t question the kissing. I just kept doing it. It was nice. When Lara pulled away, the winner of the fight was looking at us. He had his arms folded across his chest, and he was smirking.
Lara nodded at him.
Hey, she said.
He nodded back. Hey.
I glanced down at the loser’s bloodied face on the pavement. He appeared serene, as if sleeping, surrounded by a fine glitter of glass. Someone was knelt down next to him, trying to rouse him awake. I looked at Lara, looking at the winner, and I understood. I said my goodbyes, bought myself a portion of chips with curry sauce, and walked home through the black streets.
Lara and I had been friends about two months when I went home for Easter.
You look thin, my mother said, the night I arrived. Are you eating properly?
I’ve been dieting, I lied.
The real reason I’d lost weight was because I spent most days sleeping, and by the time I got up again it was almost time for another night out. There wasn’t much opportunity for meals.
My mother looked proud. You must tell me what you do, she said. I’m in a rut with the Atkins.
It’s just cucumber, I said. There’s no secret.
I slept around fourteen hours that night, and sixteen the next. For the rest of my trip, I averaged around twelve. I must have really needed it. Most days, I was still exhausted. I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to watch an episode of Peep Show.
My father kept inviting me to do various activities with him. He’d retired the year I went to university, and I think he was bored at home alone with my mother. He did tennis lessons on Wednesdays, and he’d bought a little rowboat to go fishing on the river. I always liked spending time with my father, but that Easter I didn’t take him up on his offers. I wasn’t in the mood to be active, and I had tons of work to be getting on with. Since meeting Lara, my grades had slipped so monumentally that I was starting to receive threatening emails. I hadn’t been to a lecture in weeks.
By the end of the holidays, I’d made some headway with catching up on assignments, and my energy levels were refreshed. It was good to feel normal, if a little boring. By now I knew what I was missing. As I sat on the train back to the city, I composed six or seven different text messages to Lara. I didn’t send a single one.
From the station, I went straight to the Queen’s Head to check the rota. It was late. The pub was empty apart from Quaver, who was collecting up the coasters. He came over to me, wiping his hands on his jeans. Since the Christmas holidays, he’d changed his hair from yellow to turquoise, and had two new face piercings.
Those schoolgirls left some open J2Os here that haven’t been touched, he said. D’you fancy one? I could put some gin in.
Sure, I said.
Quaver had never shown any interest in me before.
I was wearing one of Lara’s jackets, and I must’ve been looking good. We sat at the bar together to drink. Quaver did most of the talking. He was studying agriculture. He wanted to grow vegetables. Leeks are so beautiful, he said.
I didn’t really get him. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him that bar work suited me fine.
Next time you make a stir-fry, he said, try adding a spoonful of peanut butter.
I’d never made a stir-fry before, but I promised him I’d try it.
We stayed up late drinking. I worried that Mark would catch us, but Quaver didn’t seem bothered. I figured if we were going down, we were going down together.
Eventually, I invited Quaver back to mine. There was something about him that made me feel bold. I’d only slept with one other person before, under a hedge in the front garden of a house party when I was fifteen. I hadn’t enjoyed it, and had been avoiding sex ever since. With Quaver, it was OK. The skin on his palms was rough as wood. He had coarse stubble, but his shaved, dyed head felt like carpet. I wouldn’t call the experience pleasurable, but I appreciated his textures.
The next morning, Quaver was gone before I woke up. Lara came over at around midday. She looked rough. There was none of the ceremony that I’d been hoping for. I wondered if she’d even noticed that I’d been gone. I wiped her face with a hot cloth and made her a sandwich. She fell asleep on my bed and I sat on the floor for five hours watching YouTube videos with my headphones on, so as not to disturb her. When she woke up, we went to the kitchen together. I made her another sandwich while she smoked rollies at the table. One of my housemates came in for a baked potato. She had the worst eczema of all them, and every time she moved a few flakes of her skin floated to the floor.
Can you not smoke inside, she said.
Lara didn’t react, and my housemate looked at me.
Meg, she said.
It’s fine, I mumbled, and went to crack a window.
That night we were going to a warehouse party. Back in my bedroom, Lara pulled a PVC dress out her bag and told me to put it on. I’d gained back a few pounds, from eating properly over Easter, and I looked like a deflated balloon. We drank cheap white wine. Lara worked mascara into her eyelashes in thick layers.
I had sex last night, I announced.
Oh yeah, she said. With who? She sounded like she didn’t believe me.
Quaver. He, um, works in the Queen’s Head.
I had a dizzy feeling in my stomach. Yes, I said.
Oh yeah. Had him.
A few weeks ago, while you were away.
Her voice didn’t change pitch at all. She was still doing her mascara. I picked up one of her lipsticks and started applying it amateurishly.
You know who else I fucked recently, Lara said.
I held my breath. I didn’t want to know.
My mum’s ex-boyfriend. I bumped into him in WH Smith. He was up here for some work thing. He told me he barely recognised me, all grown up.
Lara laughed. Isn’t it?
The lipstick looked hideous on me. There’s lots of men in the world, Lara, I said.
Our eyes met in the mirror. Lara looked almost shocked for a moment, and then she grinned. I know, she said. Isn’t it wonderful?
The warehouse party was held under some disused railway arches, and had a snaking queue organised by metal barriers. Tickets were expensive, but Lara knew someone on the door. Inside, the lights were low and flashing. I followed Lara into a huge crowd, collecting other people’s sweat on my arms as I elbowed past. Everyone was drinking tap water from tiny plastic cups, and had ringing, orb-like pupils. In the centre of the crowd, I danced to a beat that didn’t change for hours, and Lara stuck her tongue in so many mouths I gave up keeping track.
At around 3 a.m., Lara took my hand and dragged me to the square of portaloos that were serving as bathrooms. There was a single hose coming out one of the walls, and people were using it to wash their hands. A man had come with us from the dance floor, and Lara introduced him to me as Stevie. He had a bald, waxy head and shifting eyes. He seemed like he was waiting for something. We stood chatting for a while. He kept mentioning his daughter, a seven-year-old called Princess. She was fussy with her food, and Stevie found it hard to get her to eat anything but Milkybars.
I said I needed a wee, although I didn’t, and went and locked myself in a portaloo. Pretty soon, there was a knock.
It was Lara. I let her in. The cubicle stank of piss and was much too small for the both of us. She looked a bit out of it, and was smiling at me guiltily. She asked me if I wanted some coke. Sure, I said.
I was still finding my footing with drugs. An online forum had advised me to take a little, and wait an hour to see how I felt before taking a little more. So far, this technique had been working fine.
OK great, said Lara. Stevie’s got it. He’s a dealer, I think.
Are you saying you want some money? I was completely sincere.
No, no, that’s the fun bit, Lara said. He wants a blow job.
Lara used a piece of toilet paper to polish her scratched-up reflection in the portaloo mirror. She was deadly serious; I could tell by the way she was looking at herself.
Why can’t you do it, I said.
Oh, come on. I got us in here free. You’re wearing my dress. I do everything, Meg.
She said that last sentence slowly, her eyes on mine through the mirror. Then she pushed the plastic door open and left me in there. I waited, and when Stevie knocked, I let him in.
I woke up the next day with huge blanks in my memory, and a taste in my mouth like liquorice. I pulled the duvet up over my head and stayed in the dark heat for ages, refusing to open my eyes. It took a long time to persuade myself to confront the world. When I finally did, I found that Lara was sitting on the end of my bed. She looked radiant in the afternoon sunlight coming in through my window.
She handed me a carton of orange juice, fresh from the supermarket fridge, and a pot of strawberry yoghurt. Lara had never bought me anything before. I downed most of the juice, and peeled the lid off the yoghurt.
Good morning, she said.
That was all it took.
Term started again that Monday. I didn’t go, and neither did Lara. Twelve minutes after our first lecture was due to start, we each received an email. Lara had been officially expelled from the course. I had this term to prove myself, or I would follow suit. Lara seemed dispirited by the news. As for me, I was pleased that they’d even noticed my absence.
Lara picked a bottle of whisky from the off-licence, which I paid for, and we went and got drunk in the park. It was raining heavily, so we sat under a large tree. Its new spring leaves were fluorescent against the white sky. My jeans got damp from the spongy ground and seeped through to my knickers. I’d never got drunk in a park before. It wasn’t even midday.
I wonder if people think we’re homeless, I mused.
Probably, said Lara. Anyway, I will be soon. No student loan means no rent.
I pressed my hands between my thighs to warm them. Would your mum help, I asked. Just until you find a job.
Lara laughed sourly. Would she fuck.
I drank some more of the whisky. Things were drowsy and nice. Come and live with me, I said.
Mm, said Lara. She was picking at her hangnails, subdued.
We were silent for ages. This was the closest to emotional I’d seen Lara get. Until that point, I’d never had any idea how she was feeling. I started spewing words just to fill the silence. You’ll be in much less debt than the rest of us, I said. Degrees are useless anyway, everyone knows. I could get you a job at the Queen’s Head, if you want.
Lara didn’t respond.
Yeah, I said. The pay’s shit, and those schoolgirls squeal like brakes that need oiling. You could do better.
Desperate, I started talking about the weather. The rain, I said. It’s not so bad, really. The sounds it makes when it hits the –
Meg, give it a fucking rest.
I looked out onto the wet park, holding my breath. I was tired and drunk, and my hands had started quivering. I stood up, dusted my jeans off, and walked home in the pouring rain.
The next day, I went to my tutorial. Nice of you to show up, my teacher said, as I walked in.
I apologised profusely, and bit back a smile.
On my way home, I bought Lara a baby rabbit from a scuzzy pet shop. The rabbit had been put outside on the street, asleep in a cage full of sawdust. There was a sign on the cage that read Lionhead, £12. I suppose the shopkeeper thought some passer-by would be unable to resist. I was that sucker. I hoped a new pet might cheer Lara up. The rabbit was grey, and its fur was a soft, matted fleece. Underneath, its bones felt shockingly fine. The shopkeeper couldn’t tell me if it was a boy or a girl, but I knew already.
Lara seemed pleased with him. I hadn’t got a cage or anything, so we just let him hop around her room while she packed up her stuff. Every so often, we’d lose him under the bed, and have to coax him out with a leaf of iceberg. I asked Lara what she wanted to call him.
Doug, she said, without a pause.
Doug, like Douglas?
Doug like Meg. Something about him reminds me of you.
I smiled goofily, flushed with pride.
That evening, I helped Lara move into my bedroom. We walked the four blocks between our houses five times, lugging cardboard boxes along with us. After, I called in sick to my shift. On the phone, Mark sounded dubious. I didn’t care; he could fire me if he wanted. It was only nine o’clock, but I got into my single bed with Lara and we lay there listening to the faint, methodical thumps of Doug exploring the carpet.
Night, Lara said. Thanks, by the way.
Lara fell asleep quickly. I could tell by her breathing. She was lying on her side, facing towards me. I turned on my side too, so that our noses were almost touching. I lay there for a long time, trying to breathe in the same air that she breathed out. It was hot as the inside of her body must have been, and it tasted of petrol.
Living with Lara was as I had imagined. My bedroom became a lawless nest of fishnets, dirty underwear, rotting carrot sticks. Lara would do things like fall asleep with a half-drunk bottle of fruit cider balanced in the duvet, and we’d wake up stinking of it, our forearms stuck to each other. She’d sit on the floor and trim her fringe, tiny pieces of hair fluttering around her that I’d have to fish out of my tea for weeks after. Once, I got the hoover out as a hint and left it in the doorway while I went to my lectures. Lara managed to overheat it, somehow, and the bag exploded. When I got back, there was black fluff strewn all over the bedroom. It stayed that way for days. I started to feel that it was Lara’s room, and to tidy up would be somehow rude. As for Doug, he ate through all my chargers and shredded the entire textbook for my course. Often, he would escape into the rest of the house and wreak havoc in someone else’s bedroom. It didn’t matter; all of my housemates had stopped speaking to me anyway. The week Lara first moved in, she’d flirted outrageously with two of their boyfriends, and ate the last slice of a birthday cake that one of their grandmothers had baked them.
I’d never been happier. I’d come home from work and make us dinner in the middle of the night, while she painted her nails and tried to find boys she’d slept with on Instagram. For the first time in my life, I had a companion. I suddenly understood why people chose to get married. I loved sharing a bed with her. I’d close my eyes, and when I opened them again it would be morning, as if I had simply blinked, and yet I’d feel perfectly rested.
Other nights, Lara would go out drinking and not come back, and I’d lay awake worrying about what she was getting up to, and with whom. I’d stopped going out much at all by then. I told myself that this was because I was determined to keep my place at university, when really Lara had stopped inviting me. When she’d finally crash through the door in the early hours of the morning, I’d feel such euphoric relief that my sleepless night was somehow made worth it. We’d curl up together and doze into the afternoon.
Lara had been living with me for around six weeks when she found out her mother was ill. She came into the Queen’s Head to tell me. I was useless. I got out from behind the bar and gave her a wooden hug that I regretted instantly. I’m so sorry, I said, as if I was a stranger who’d just bumped into her in the street.
Lara’s mother, Tracy, had complained to her doctor of feeling more tired than usual, and shortly afterwards been diagnosed with a cancer that had already taken hold of most of her body. We went down to Norwich on the train. Lara lost her ticket, and I had to buy her another from the conductor. It was nice weather, and we spent the journey in silence, watching the conveyor-belt countryside slip by in the big window.
The hospice had an air of faked warmth. The nurses’ footsteps clacked against the wood laminate flooring, and the biscuit tin was empty but for a few sharp little drawing pins. Tracy was sharing a room with a woman to a drip. The woman was watching Antiques Roadshow so intently that she didn’t even blink when we arrived. The television was a tiny box attached to the wall, of the sort I’d only ever seen at car boot sales. Tracy was asleep in a hospital bed under a scratchy sheet, wearing a thick smear of bright pink lipstick.
Lara had bought a cone of yellow roses at the station, which she lay down on the bedside table. The paper crackled, and then there was quiet. Lara and I stood awkwardly, not looking at each other. I watched Tracy’s chest, trying to ascertain if she was breathing. A good few minutes passed before she spoke.
Get rid of those, she said. It’s the smell. Can’t think. Makes me want to vomit.
She still didn’t open her eyes. Her face was grey and sunken. I realised she hadn’t been asleep at all. Lara picked the flowers back up and tossed them in the wastepaper basket in the corner. Sorry, she said.
Why didn’t you come sooner?
Lara apologised again. I reached for her hand but she pulled away.
Tracy opened her eyes, looked us both over and scoffed. Nice outfit, she said. Appropriate.
I thought of my own mother, who stocked up on my favourite herbal teas when I went home. I introduced myself, and Tracy frowned at me blankly.
You could’ve at least called, Tracy said to Lara.
Every day, the nurses ask me when my daughter’s coming. Tomorrow, I tell them.
Mum, I –
Tracy’s voice was a little raspy. Rhea’s daughter comes in the mornings before work, she said. Brings pastries. After work, she brings her little son. Charmer. Yesterday, he gave Rhea that balloon.
Lara and I both looked at the woman in the other bed. There was a heart-shaped balloon attached to her drip. Rhea nodded at us, then returned her gaze to the television.
That’s lovely, I said.
Tracy closed her eyes again. Her chest started going up and down very fast.
We should go, Lara said.
I looked at the cone of roses in the bin. We only just got here.
Lara’s voice hardened. Meg, she said.
Out the window, the sun slid behind a cloud, and the room became three shades darker. Through the gap in the door, I watched a nurse push an empty wheelchair down the corridor. On Antiques Roadshow, a café owner was told that his grandmother’s vase was worthless. Lara turned to leave, and I looked one last time at Tracy. Her eyebrows drew together a little, and then her eyelids flickered. I willed her to open them. She didn’t.
Lara and I caught the bus back to the station, where we sat on hard plastic seats for three hours, drinking bad filter coffee and watching the announcement board light up with trains going all over the country.
Lara spent the entire journey back doing her make-up, using the black screen of my smartphone as a mirror. She drank a dented can of pre-mixed sangria that she found at the bottom of her backpack. She didn’t offer me any.
When we got to the city, Lara walked with me down to the bus stop, but when our bus arrived she didn’t get on. I’m going out, she said.
I didn’t ask where she was going. I doubt she even knew. It was five o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, but she’d find somewhere. I sat at the back of the bus, and watched her silhouette get smaller and smaller. It was drizzling, and the street lights bled in the windows.
Later, alone in my bedroom, I looked up a set of earrings online. They were hoops, with a pair of red diamante lips suspended in the middle by a slinky gold chain. Months before, I’d seen those earrings in the shopping section of a magazine that one of my housemates had left in the kitchen, and they’d reminded me instantly of Lara. I couldn’t remember the name of the magazine, or the brand of the earrings, so I just typed the description of them into Google. I wanted to give Lara a present to show her I was there for her. The earrings were two hundred pounds, far more than I’d ever spent on a single purchase. I entered my card details and ordered them.
Lara didn’t come home that night. I waited in for her all the next day, half-listening to the recorded lectures that my teachers uploaded to the student portal. For lunch I made a stir-fry with peanut butter and fed some of it to Doug. When I went to the Queen’s Head for my shift at five thirty, Lara was in there, passed out across the pool table. The schoolgirls were huddled around her, gripping their bottles of Bacardi Breezer so tight I could see the bone through their knuckles.
I charged through the crowd. Out my way, I said. One of the schoolgirls put her hand on my elbow and looked at me very seriously. I think she might be dead, she said.
I brushed the hand away. She’s fine. She’s just tired.
I slipped one arm under Lara’s neck and the other under her knees. Lara’s head fell back as I lifted her, and her mouth opened. Her tongue was covered with a layer of thick, yellow scum. The schoolgirls gasped.
Mark, I called. You’ll have to cover me. I’ll be back in half an hour.
Sure, said Mark. He moved into the crowd, resting his hands on a couple of the schoolgirls’ waists. As I carried Lara outside, I could hear him speaking to them in soft tones. You poor little things, he said. Let’s have another drinky, make it all better.
Lara was heavier than I thought she’d be. I kept having to stop for breathers on the walk home, laying her body down on a low hedge or the thin red bench inside the bus shelter. She didn’t seem to notice. The only sound she made was a light, wheezy snore whenever I picked her up or put her down. Back at the house, I couldn’t reach around to get my key out my pocket, so I knocked on the front door and waited for one of my housemates to answer.
Jesus, said my housemate. It was the one with the psoriasis. Has there been an accident?
Of sorts, I said.
Does she need an ambulance?
I shook my head. She just needs to sleep it off.
I carried Lara through the doorway, and at the bottom of the stairs I stopped and looked back at my housemate.
Would you mind? I said.
My housemate took Lara under the armpits and together we carried her up the stairs. I was embarrassed when I opened my bedroom, because of the state of it. By this point, Doug’s droppings had started to break down to a dark fuzz that became part of the carpet. If Lara and I walked barefoot in there, the fresher ones would stick to the soles of our feet like flattened raisins. The smell though, I think, was coming mostly from the piss. It was putrid and tangy. Once, I left a textbook for one of my modules on the floor for a few days, and when I picked it up again the paper was crinkled, dark yellow from cover to cover.
We hauled Lara onto the bed. My housemate retreated to the doorway and lingered there, looking on, while I carefully removed Lara’s boots and jewellery. I picked up Doug from the floor and tucked him into the covers to keep Lara company. I leant down and gave them both a kiss on the forehead, one after the other.
Are you guys, like, a thing now? my housemate asked, as I closed the bedroom door behind us.
You mean me and Lara? I gave a tiny laugh. No way.
After my shift was over, I went via the supermarket to pick up some supplies. I figured Lara would need a good meal, and I bought some Berocca tablets and a bag of oranges, for the vitamins. They were selling daffodils at the checkout for cheap. I picked up a bunch.
It was dark out, and the sky was murky from the street lights. My body was sore from carrying Lara and working an eight-hour shift. I didn’t have a bag, so I held my shopping wrapped in my arms. As I walked, I thought about asking Lara to give me a massage. She’d sit with all her weight on my bum, and rub her hands up and down my back. I closed my eyes for a few steps while I pictured this, and then I tripped over a kerb and landed funny on my ankle. I was fine, but my shopping was everywhere.
I was gonna do eggs, I said, as I pushed my bedroom door open. But I smashed them all, so it’s just cheese on –
I’d gone straight to the kitchen when I got in. I was hungry, and I assumed Lara would be too. She’d probably not eaten for over twenty-four hours by this point. I’d filled a tray with the plates, two fizzing glasses of Berocca, and a water jar for the daffodils. I had to walk into the room backwards, because I had no hands to get the door open. When I turned around, Lara was naked on my bed, sitting upright with her face towards the window and a man between her legs.
I dropped the tray on the floor. The toast landed cheese-side down. The Berocca dyed a large patch of the carpet coral.
Sorry, I said. Shit, sorry.
Lara looked over her bare shoulder, as if seeing what it was that I wanted.
Sorry, I said again. I rushed out the room, kicking the tray aside to let the door close behind me. I stood with my back pressed against it, feeling the sobs rise up in my chest. It wasn’t long before the man came out. He was pulling his arm through a bright red fleece, and he had a large red satchel slung over his opposite shoulder. The bag was gaping open, and inside were hundreds of envelopes.
Are you a fucking postman? I said.
The man Velcro-ed his bag shut. Nah, he said. I just wear this outfit for kicks.
He started to make his way down the corridor, dragging his feet as he walked. At the top of the stairs, something occurred to him, and he turned around and came back. I thought he was going to apologise, but instead he dipped into his bag and handed me a small package.
Thanks, I said. I shook the package gently. Inside, Lara’s earrings jangled.
The man nodded. Uh huh, he said.
The day after, I was buying a Twix in a newsagent when my card got declined. I checked online banking on my phone, and found that I only had thirty-four pence in my account. The man behind the counter slid the Twix away from me slowly, as if it was some kind of weapon I’d been brandishing.
When I got home, Lara was sitting on the bed, stroking Doug’s ears. The daffodils, still strewn across the floor, had withered in the night. I noticed that Doug had tried to eat one then changed his mind. Lara and I hadn’t spoken about the postman. I’d slept on the sofa, and when I’d come in that morning to change, Lara was still asleep. Now she was drinking a Fosters out of a reusable Starbucks cup. I knew it was a Fosters because I could see the empty can on the floor next to her. That Starbucks cup was one of my housemate’s most prized possessions. Lara must have stolen it from the kitchen.
All my money’s gone, I said.
There’s no money in my bank account.
Lara took a sip from the cup. It was translucent pink, with a plastic screw-on lid and a straw coming out the top. Drinking a lager out of it looked obscene.
Have you been spending my money? I asked.
Lara put her head to one side. A bit.
I was surprised at how nonchalantly she was admitting it. She reacted as if I was accusing her of borrowing my hairbrush. I asked her what she’d been spending it on. I knew that this wasn’t important, in the scheme of things, but I wanted to know.
Taxis, she said. Drugs. She looked around the room, disinterested. I just take your card out with me sometimes, she said.
You take my card while I’m asleep?
Lara nodded. It’s not like you’re using it.
In spite of myself, I laughed. It was like being a parent of a small, unusually witty child. They drive you crazy, and yet you love them. Lara laughed too, and then got up off the bed and put her arm around me. She was still holding Doug in her other hand, and his whiskers tickled my neck.
You spent my entire student loan for this semester, I said. I wanted to sound annoyed, but it came out half-hearted.
This was the closest I got to an apology. Lara stayed hugging me for some time, Doug nestled between us, and eventually I gave in and hugged her back. As I did, I reasoned with myself that I could borrow the money for the next two months’ rent, interest-free, from my father, who might even forget about it. Lara didn’t have anyone to ask that. As for the Twix, I didn’t even want it anymore.
Lara, I said. The skin of her shoulder was cool against my cheek. Maybe you should take some time out for a bit, just try and slow down.
Lara’s body stiffened. She pulled away from me. She threw Doug to the floor. He froze when he hit the carpet, and I flinched. I bent down to get him, but before I could he’d shuffled under the bed to hide.
Who do you think you are, Meg? My mother?
I got back up, shaking my head. My lips opened but no words came out. I closed them again. I didn’t want to cry in front of Lara, but I was.
Fuck this, Lara said.
The bedroom door shook the whole house as it slammed, and the front door did the same.
Please, shouted one of my housemates. I’m trying to study.
Lara wasn’t back the next day, or the one after, or the one after that. Every time I called, her phone went straight to answer machine. Whenever one of my housemates got home, I ran to the top of the stairs to see who it was.
I tried to go about my life in an ordinary fashion. I attended my lectures and went to the library, where I mostly just sat with a book open on the desk and scrolled through photos of Lara on my phone until it was time for my shift at the Queen’s Head, where I stood behind the bar and did the same.
At the weekend, I cried for three hours, and then I cleaned my bedroom from top to bottom. It took me a day and a half. Doug watched with great interest, twitching his nose.
I went to the post office on Monday morning. I hadn’t even opened the package before I returned it. On my way home I stood at the crossing of a busy junction for twelve minutes, waiting for the lights to change. There was an old man with a stick standing next to me. If you ever want to kill yourself, he said, this is the place to do it.
I turned to him. His skin was sunken and translucent. I could see the green veins in his neck, the shape his eye sockets would be in the grave. I thought of Lara, the most alive person I’d ever known. Thanks for the tip, I said.
That evening, one of my housemates asked me if Lara had moved. We were in the kitchen, wordlessly fixing ourselves separate meals. When I told her no, Lara had simply gone out and not come back, she was alarmed.
Call the police, she said, picking nervously at a cold sore on the edge of her mouth. For god’s sake, anything could have happened.
I thought of a police car cruising around, slowing to check for Lara in various ditches and alleyways. A part of me wished that she had been murdered, just so I could get on with my life.
Six days after she left, Lara came back. I answered the door at four o’clock in the morning and there she was, scuffing the toe of her big black boot against the front step. She looked dreadful. The whites of her eyes were the colour of salmon, and there was a huge hole in one knee of her fishnets; a raw, seeping graze in the middle of it.
That’s it, she said. She’s gone.
For a moment, I thought Lara had died after all, and this was her ghost, referring to itself in the third person, returned to haunt me. I was struck by catastrophic grief, and then I put my finger on it. Your mother, I said.
Are you feeling OK?
Lara puffed her cheeks at me and pushed her way in.
She went straight upstairs. I made her a decaf coffee in the kitchen and spiked it with rum. When I got to the bedroom, Lara was sitting on the edge of the bed, Doug dozing in her lap. I wondered if he’d missed her as much as I had.
Looks tidy in here.
Thanks, I said. It’s easier without, you know –
That’s not what I meant.
There was silence for a while. Are you staying, I asked.
Do you want me to?
Of course I want you to.
I sat tentatively next to Lara on the bed and fought the desire to ask her where she’d been. It seemed the only option was to love her while she was here, and just try to scrape through the times when she wasn’t.
I bought this. It’s for Doug.
She was holding up a bag of watercress. The leaves were slightly darker than normal, and had leaked a vivid green liquid into one corner of the bag. I ripped it open and emptied the contents into a cereal bowl that I kept on the floor for rabbit pellets.
Lara went to brush her teeth. When she came back, she looked pale and sad. She took all her clothes off, got into bed and turned to face the wall. Doug finished his meal, balled up inside the bowl and closed his eyes. I found a recording of whale song on YouTube, pressed play on my phone, and climbed in next to Lara.
What the fuck is this?
I thought it might help you sleep, I whispered.
She rolled over, and I could feel her breath hot on my face. She put her mouth on mine. Her tongue tasted like mint imperials. I listened to the whales moaning. The kissing seemed to go on forever. It was slow and beautiful, and then Lara was stroking my stomach and kissing other parts of my body. I looked at the ceiling and tried to focus.
Lara, I said. Are you sure?
Lara found my hand under the duvet and brought it between her legs. Her skin was cool and slinky as nylon tights, and I closed my eyes because I couldn’t stand the burning sight of her.
Shut up, she whispered.
She lifted my pyjamas off. I could feel the pulse in my clitoris, and then my nipples, my toenails, and finally in the hair follicles all over my head. Out the window, the sun was just rising. The sky was the palest blue, with tiny strokes of fire. A bird in a nearby tree hooted. I came, and then I tried to make Lara come, and failed.
It’s fine, she said. You were better than I expected.
Don’t push it, Meg.
I fell straight to sleep after that. Lara’s hair was tangled in my hand. I didn’t dream. I woke smiling. The whale song had cut out, and Lara was gone. This time, she’d taken all her stuff with her. I searched the room for Doug, calling his name frantically. I pulled everything out from under the bed. I turned his cereal bowl upside down. I was lying face down on the carpet when I heard him scrabbling at the wardrobe door. Lara must have shut him in there by accident when she packed her clothes. I opened the wardrobe. Doug looked up at me, twitched his nose, and hopped out into the light.
Image © oatsy40