Here are some of my stories for you to enjoy.
This story first appeared in Woman’s Weekly magazine in April 2009.
I hadn’t wanted to go to Claire and Greg’s engagement party in the first place. Claire has never been my favourite person. What is it about being in a couple that makes some people impossibly smug, and somehow oblivious to everyone else’s feelings?
Yes, I was jealous. Of course I was. But she didn’t have to look at me in that coy way and say, ‘It’ll be your turn some day, Manda.’
They’d all ganged up on me though – just like the old days. Everyone at college had called us ‘the gang of five’, but sometimes I felt like it was ‘the gang of four’ and me. Claire, Greg, Julie and Buzz. Long before Claire and Greg became a couple, it seemed like the rest of them were the four corners of a square and I was floating somewhere in the middle.
‘You have to come, Manda,’ Buzz had said. ‘We all promised we’d meet at Sydney Harbour and celebrate five years since we left college. The film festival will be on as well. Everyone will be there, you have to come. Please.’
‘Why did she have to commandeer it and turn it into her engagement party?’ I’d asked. ‘Why does everything have to be about Claire … and Greg?’
‘Because they’re in love and they want us all to be there to celebrate their engagement,’ Julie had said gently.
‘And,’ said Buzz, ‘It’s a party and it’s in Sydney. How bad can it be?’
So, I endured the long flight and the puffy ankles. I ate the vile tasting airline food and watched the dumb movie. And I thought about the old days. Specifically, I thought about Greg.
He’d been the beating heart of the group. Somehow, we’d all gravitated to him like wasps to beer and been left just as intoxicated.
On the first lonely night in the halls of residence he’d been the one who knocked on everyone’s door and gathered us in the kitchen for coffee that tasted like tea and tea that tasted like old socks.
‘Isn’t it great to be here?’ he’d asked, with his baseball boots up on the kitchen table and his chair leaning back against the wall. I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off the slogan on his sweatshirt, ‘When I grow up I want to be a computer programmer’. It took me ages to realise he didn’t know how to turn a computer on.
That was Greg all over. Misdirection, smoke and mirrors and a feeling that you never quite knew what he’d do next.
‘I wanted to go to Oxford really …’ Claire had said and we’d all looked at her as if she’d just landed from Saturn.
I think I was the only one who noticed the way Greg flashed his grey eyes at her and thumped the legs of his chair back on to the floor.
Buzz had broken the silence with a joke, Julie had put the kettle on and made another round of drinks and I’d just sat there taking it all in and hoping I wouldn’t spill my coffee.
Years had passed, essays had been written and finally we’d all graduated. Claire got a First, of course. The rest of were happy with our slightly less flashy degrees and we all went off into the world. The four corners of the square stretched and relocated, and my place in the middle became a vacuum.
Sydney isn’t the obvious place for five graduates from Wales to end up. But, maybe it was that magnetic pull that Greg had over us again. He’d gone off backpacking as soon as he graduated.
‘Life’s too short to get a job,’ he told us.
Claire had sniffed disapprovingly and went to Keele to take up her MA place. She didn’t finish it though. For some reason, she decided that travel would broaden her mind far more than her professors could. She was the first to get on a plane and cross the world for him.
Then I’d had a phone call from Buzz. ‘Manda. How do you fancy a year in Australia? I’m going out there to work and Julie said she might come too. You should come. We’ll all be together again.’
Of course I considered it, but I was making good money by then. I’d settled into my job as a lab technician and my little square of the world felt like it had stopped rocking on its hinges. I just thought it would be irresponsible to give it all up and go halfway across the planet. I was wrong. Without them I felt like I was just counting time.
Of course, they had all come back eventually. Full of tall tales and photos of the harbour, they’d settled back into rainy real life and things had returned to normal. The square hadn’t lost its strength and I’d been happy to shelter back inside it.
Then Greg had got itchy feet again and decided to go back to Australia. And that’s where this crazy idea came from in the first place. A party at Sydney Harbour for all of us, five years to the day since we’d graduated.
‘It’ll be awesome. A country-warming party for me with all my favourite people,’ Greg had said.
‘And don’t worry Manda, we won’t throw you in the water,’ Buzz had promised.
I’d laughed and punched Buzz on the arm, all the while trying to convince myself that Greg wouldn’t be lost to us for ever when he got on that plane. A square with only three corners wasn’t going to protect me from much.
Then, out of nowhere, Greg and Claire had got engaged. I did not see that one coming. Suddenly the square, and my world with it, was lurching at a strange angle.
Thank God for Julie. She’d been staying with me that week and had taken me out every night in a bid to cheer me up. I hadn’t needed to tell her why I was so upset, she’d just kept making pancakes for breakfast and soup for lunch without either of us needing to say a word.
The whole of Australia was throwing a party as I walked into the restaurant in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Claire was the first person I saw, standing and fiddling with the napkins on a beautifully laid table. Just for a moment she didn’t see me and I just stood and looked at her.
She’d put her coal-coloured hair up in a twist and loose strands fell delicately on her cheeks. Her black dress made her look impossibly slim and for the hundredth time I wondered where she got her calm and poise from. In all the years I’d known her, she’d never looked so beautiful, and I’d never felt so distant from her.
Looking up and noticing me for the first time, she smiled. A lump rose in my throat as I went to say hello to her. I knew that I had to be nice to her. This was no time to be jealous.
I couldn’t scream, ‘It should have been me he proposed to. I’ve wanted to be his wife since the first day I met him.’
Even I could see that would be totally inappropriate. So I kept my thoughts to myself and chatted politely to Claire while we waited for the others to arrive.
Buzz came tumbling in first, looking strangely unfamiliar in a suit. It was almost as if someone had hidden his trademark jeans and green sweater, so he’d had to wear something else instead. Smiling and joking with the waiters, he made his way over to our table.
‘Where’s Jules?’ he asked.
‘Here she is now,’ I said as she walked in, wearing a purple dress which made her look less like a little girl than usual.
Julie came and sat down between Buzz and Claire, and took Buzz’s hand. He looked at her the way he always does, with an expression I suddenly realised was love. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? I’d been so caught up in Claire and Greg that I hadn’t even noticed the most obvious and perfect thing in the world.
Before I had a chance to say anything, Claire picked up her glass. Candlelight from the table arrangement was playing on her cheeks and her eyes had a feverish shine.
‘Now we’re all here …’ she began and couldn’t go any further.
I looked at Julie, who wasn’t even trying to hold back her tears.
Buzz stood up and took the glass out of Claire’s hand.
‘Greg wouldn’t have wanted us to cry. He’d have told us to cheer up and get on with it. We all came here to help him celebrate his engagement. But, I guess he got the last laugh this time.’
‘When’s the funeral?’ Julie asked Claire, in a choked whisper.
‘Not for a couple of weeks. They have to have an inquest as it was a car accident, and then I can arrange to take his … his body, home. You’re all going to stay aren’t you?’ she asked, her voice cracking with despair.
‘Yes. Of course we are. How could you think we’d leave you here alone?’ I managed to say.
As fireworks made dandelion clocks in the sky above Sydney Harbour, I held Claire in my arms as we both cried. Through my tears I was aware of Buzz and Julie linking hands as they stood over us. Imperceptibly, the square slid back into shape and found a new strength.
This story was originally published in the Momaya Press Annual Review 2007.
Shredding The Label
Looking at Cathy always was like looking in a mirror. I watch as she strokes her finger across her lips. She leaves a trail like snail slime. It always irritates me when she does that, clagging up the rim of the glass. I’ll have to wash that up later ….
She’s pouring me another glass of wine. As my nose hovers over the top of the glass, I breathe in the alcohol fumes. I just need her to be a little more tipsy than I am. Then I can talk to her.
I wonder where to start. I slosh my wine gently and a thousand rainbows dance around my glass. Why do they call it red wine I wonder, when really it’s purple? Like red grapes are really purple and white grapes are really green.
‘You know – the thing that happened ….’
‘Oh Maggie – don’t get started on that again, please. I’ve told you before. It’s best not to think about it. We can’t just backtrack on all of those years. ’
‘Why not? She backtracked on the first six years of our lives.’ My glass shakes and dark droplets slip onto the tablecloth.
‘I don’t think she did it on purpose.’ She brushes the drops away with her fingers, staining the ends with boozy stigmata.
‘You don’t know that do you?’
‘Does it really matter?’
‘It does to me.’ I must keep hold of my temper. Especially today.
‘But how can we tell her? How can we tell anyone? I don’t see why it matters anyway.’
‘Of course it matters. Don’t you care how I’ve felt all these years?’ Now she’s sprinkling salt on the blotches of wine on the tablecloth. The salt sucks up the liquid and slowly turns pink. The stain is still there though – underneath.
And I wonder if she knows how much I resent her. She thinks I’m jealous of her – but I’m not. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
‘Of course I care,’ she’s half way down her second glass of Merlot. ‘But I didn’t feel any different.’
‘You must have.’
‘No – we were so close. We shared everything.’
‘Not quite everything.’
‘But that was afterwards … a long time after.’
I refill her glass. The red wine splashes and gurgles from the bottle. The bottle zings against the glass, but this time I don’t spill any.
‘But if I’d still been you it wouldn’t have happened to me. It would have happened to you.’ Does that sound selfish I wonder?
‘No it wouldn’t. That’s ridiculous. How can that be true?’
‘It is true.’ It isn’t, of course, I just wish it was. It’s funny how some people’s lives just seem to be programmed to go a certain way.
‘Maggie – don’t.’ The wine has stained her lips now; all mixed in with that horrible stuff she slaps on them.
‘They always say that the mother can tell the difference even if no one else can. It’s meant to be almost a psychic thing. So why did she get it wrong? It shouldn’t be possible. She should have known! And if she had known it wouldn’t have happened would it?’
‘Well according to you, it would. It just would have happened to me instead. I suppose that would be all right?’
And that’s the kind of thing that really makes me want to slap her. Why should I pay the price for having my destiny stolen and replaced with a nightmare?
‘Did you ever think about asking her?’
‘No. I think the problem was that we both just accepted it. We were six … it’s just that at that age … well, you think your parents are always right don’t you?’
‘Maybe if we’d had a father, things would have been different.’
‘You mean he might have been able to tell us apart?’
‘No, I just mean different generally.’
Oh yes. A father would have made things different. A father and not just a succession of ‘uncles’, each worse than the last. Well maybe not quite that … one was definitely worse than the others. But I can’t even remember where he came in the long procession.
‘Sometimes I thought I’d got it wrong … and I just imagined that it happened ….’
Well, it’s all very well for you to say that isn’t it my smug sister? You didn’t imagine it. Not any of it.
She puts her hand over the top of the glass, but I playfully slap it away. I top up my glass as well and hope she won’t notice I’m not actually drinking that much of it.
‘The thing is,’ she says … ‘now I’ve met Gavin. None of that … stuff … matters any more.’
I clench my fists against the chair. How can she say that? How can my sister be so self-satisfied and predictable? Easier for her than for me of course.
When you watch films where people have swapped identities, it’s always supposed to be funny, or clever or a big adventure. No one ever mentions what it’s like when you’re the one that … well, loses out. What if I don’t want to be Maggie? What if I want to go back to being Cathy. Cathy – the happy one, the well balanced one, the one that’s never been any trouble.
I am Cathy. But no one will believe me. After all, how could a mother make a mistake like that? Mothers always know don’t they? But what if just a moment’s absent-mindedness results in a twist in fortunes that rollercoasters out of control?
I get a corkscrew and open another bottle.
‘So, how are the wedding plans going, Cathy?’ I say. In my head I say Maggie but I won’t say that aloud.
‘I’ve got to get my birth certificate from Mum so that Gav can go and get the marriage licence.’
You see there’s another conundrum. If my birth certificate says I’m Cathy does that make me Cathy? Or Maggie? It’s not like your birth certificate’s actually part of you is it? It’s not stapled to your head or anything. It’s not tattooed on your leg or welded to your DNA.
Apparently it happened a lot in the blitz. People would just walk out of a bombed building with someone else’s identity. It’s like all those Agatha Christie stories where everyone turns out to be someone else …
Of course no one ever believed what I said anyway. I tried to tell people I was Cathy. And everyone just said ‘Oh, what funny tricks you girls play. Now do be sensible Maggie.’
And I tried to tell people about the other thing as well, but I couldn’t get the words out. Maggie knows though … we used to share a room.
Even when I was sent to the school counsellor all those times, for being naughty, I didn’t say anything. Well, it didn’t help when they always started by saying ‘Of course – you’re Cathy’s sister.’ And then they’d look at me as if they couldn’t believe that Cathy’s sister could be naughty. Well, if only they’d known the truth.
And no one listens to me now. ‘It’s the drink talking,’ they say.
She hasn’t noticed how many times I’ve topped up her glass. It’s amazing how easily distracted she is. You just have to mention the wedding.
Gav’s nice you know. And I can’t help wondering why he wants her and not me … not when we look so alike. I’ve never had a boyfriend though. You should see the bridesmaid’s dress she wants me to wear! I haven’t told her yet that I’m not going to wear it … she won’t like it when she finds out.
‘I’ll get another bottle from upstairs, Mags,’ she says. ‘That one’s nearly dead.’
Yes it is. I’ve waited a long time for this talk though, so a break while she goes upstairs is nothing. Not compared to the other breaks. Cathy went to university, then had a gap year. She sent me lots of postcards of India – nice of her really. All those white hot beaches. She might have been trying to rub it in … but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
I pour the dregs of the last bottle into her glass. Little bits of red residue from the bottom of the bottle mix in with the wine already in there and slowly float to the bottom. I walk over to the sink and tip the rest of my glass away. I run the taps to get rid of the smell of the alcohol. If only everything could be swilled away that easily.
‘Yes, fine,’ I say. I don’t care – I’m not going to drink it.
She pours it like a waitress. Or a barmaid. Like everything she does, it is professional and crisp. She isn’t drunk enough yet.
She tucks her hair behind her ears, hair that’s brown like chocolate, Gav says – apparently. They make a lovely couple. He’s just the right height to make her look petite and fragile. And his white chocolate hair makes him look much younger than he is.
I sip the Valpolicella. Not as good as the Merlot. But maybe she won’t notice. And maybe she won’t notice the ground up powder mixed with the sediment in her glass. That should just give her a bit of a nudge in the right direction.
‘Don’t you think Gavin ought to know about all this?’ I ask, as I run my finger around the top of my glass, dipping it first in the wine so that it squeaks and resonates.
‘No secrets when you’re in love are there ….’ Not that I’d know. Not that I’ve ever had the chance to find out. Not about real love anyway – just that other thing. That thing that wasn’t love; and that was forced on me when I was too young to say no.
I pick half the label off the wine bottle and shred it with my fingers.
I’m not bitter. What is it they say? Don’t get mad, get even. OK then.
‘Another glass of wine?’ I say, and she holds her hand out to me. The diamond twinkles and refracts light across the table. Globes of light settle on the piles of pink salt and illuminate them.
‘Thanks, Sis.’ I wish she wouldn’t say that.
I tip the bottle so that wine pours freely into her glass. Right to the top so she can hardly lift it.
‘Sip a bit first,’ I say.
She slurps and we both laugh. ‘Thanks Sis,’ she says again.
‘You know I love you Mags. I’m sorry about all the other stuff. Sorry, y’know?’ she says.
As her voice begins to slur, I wait patiently for my moment to come.
‘Have another glass, Maggie,’ I say. I hold my breath.
‘Yeah …’ she says, ‘thanks.’
My heart stops beating. I don’t want to push my luck, so I slosh more wine into her glass and sit back in my chair. I resist the temptation to bite my nails. Cathy doesn’t bite her nails. They’ll need to be beautifully manicured for the wedding.
Cathy’s growing her hair for the wedding as well. I unclip mine from the top of my head and let it fall on to my shoulders.
When we were really little – and I was Cathy – we laughed all the time. At the park, on the swings, going round and round on the roundabout – our pigtails touching the floor in a daredevil dance. I loved Maggie then. We didn’t need anyone else – not even our mother. Maybe she resented that.
Then for some reason, I was Maggie. I knew I was Maggie because Mummy called me Maggie – so I had to be. It’s not the kind of thing you argue with. And it’s not like anyone else could tell us apart. And then – it didn’t really matter. Maggie and Cathy. Cathy and Maggie. Interchangeable – almost.
Even then, it would have been OK. If the other thing hadn’t happened. Or if it hadn’t happened to me. I gasp a mouthful of wine down to stop the angry tears from coming.
She is slumped across the table now. Three bottles down – yes that should do it. I look at her face. My face. She sighs slightly through the alcoholic fug.
Slowly, so slowly and gently, I ease the ring off her finger and on to mine.
I pick up her mobile phone from the table where she has put it down.
‘Mum, it’s Cathy. I’m just coming over to get my birth certificate for the marriage thing. Maggie? Oh yes, Maggie’s fine. I’m going to take her home first. She’s had a bit too much to drink again… but I’m sure she’ll be all right.’