A short story that had the honour of being rejected from the Cambridge Short Story Prize! After a second edit, I decided it would be happy here.
She scrabbled around on the desk, knocking a compact of face powder off the edge. It hit the corner chair on the way down, and smashed into powdery chunks. Corrie held back the urge to burst into angry tears, and flattened her hands on the desk surface, willing herself to calm down. The surface was cool, and she could feel the heat from her skin seeping into the wood. It seemed pointless.
Her purse was still missing.
An encouraging whine from Jen floated from the bottom of the stairs. “C’moooooon I wanna goooo.”
“I’ve lost my fucking wallet! CHRIST!” She sat down on the edge of the bed in a full body flop, digging her fingers into her scalp. The smell of fresh hairspray filled her nostrils. Muffled footsteps sounded on the staircase.
“Corrie, it’s okay, I’ll pay.”
“That’s really sweet of you. I think there’s some cash in the mug on Tris’ bookcase.”
“Spending your husband’s money on the high life. Aww yeah.”
“Shh. I’m just going to take some for backup.”
Rain hazed in the streetlights as they clung to the stem of Corrie’s umbrella. Jen smoked a slim rolled cigarette whilst they waited for the cab that Jen’s phone claimed was just a street away. An orangey-mud city sky glowed down at them. Corrie pulled at her fringe, nervous tension in her ribcage.
“I dunno why I bothered to do my hair now.”
“Why? It’s good! Oh, he’s there-” Jen ran into the street, temporarily abandoning the safety of the umbrella, and leaning into the passenger window of a black taxicab. “Hello! Jennifer, yeah? We’re going to Buck Street. Brilliant! Yes!” She looked back at Corrie, encouragingly. The smell of the rain, combined with her excited grin, the taught faux leather of her leggings as she tripped to the passenger door, and the muffled sound of KissFM on the cab radio all settled on Corrie at once. They were doing this. This was fine. Corrie crumpled up the umbrella and ran to the cab.
[can I stay at kasia’s tonight for a sleepover? Her mum is okay with it xxxx | 11.03am]
[Yes, I think so. Who else is going, is it just you and her? Can you promise me you’ll keep your phone on? | 11.05am]
[just other girls from school! amy etc. thank youuuuuuuuu <3 xxxxx | 11.10am]
[You’ll keep your phone on and ring me or Dad if you need anything, promise? That bit is important. xx | 11.11am]
[yes i will. it’ll be okay we’re just watching some stuff and chilling. thank you! kasia says hi xxxxx | 11.20am]
The driver paused at a red light. Students ran across the road, shouting. Another motorist, a lane across, leaned on the horn, seemingly just to make a point.
“Are you worried about Marianna?”
“A bit. Tris is still in the pub. Just the one over the road, y’know. I made him put his ringer on max.” Corrie snorted.
“He’s got this. You know he’s got this. It’s fine.”
She could sense Jen’s wide smile in the dark. The lights changed. The taxi felt womblike, and her tension seeped out onto the floor, caught on the lights of late night newsagents and chicken shops, and was left behind in streaks. Corrie leaned back in her seat and forced herself to breathe out.
“She’s a good kid. Not like I get another go now.”
“That doctor sounded rude as fuck.”
“Oh he was. He was so smug. Why would you be smug when you’re telling someone they’re, y’know, officially past it?”
“Oi! Excuse you! I’ve got a year on you, at least. Hey, we’re here – HEY THIS IS IT THANKS” Jen segued from mock fury to cheery officiousness as the cab swung onto the street of their destination. Corrie slid out onto the roadside, patted all her pockets and slid a hand into her bra to find her pilfered cash. Jen had already trotted to the blue lit entrance of the club and was standing primly on the step expectantly, avoiding the rain. A couple in their late twenties rooted through a handbag a few feet away, the girl’s fur coat spikey in the wet.
“I think you should pay for me to get in with that attitude.” Jen grinned as she joined her. The bouncer cast an eye over them, and smiled, saying nothing.
Corrie shoved a twenty pound note under the perspex window to the girl in the door booth, and motioned vaguely that it was for both of them. Two pounds change came back, and no eye contact.
“Let me stamp your hands, ladies.” The bouncer muttered.
Corrie repeated the word under her breath as they tramped up the stairs. “Ladieeeesss….”
[You okay, honey? I’m going out for the evening with Jen! Last minute plans. Dad’s going to be at home if you need him. Let me know everything is fine at Kasia’s. x | 16.20pm]
[Annie? Let me know? | 16.55pm]
[love you mum xxx | 17.36pm]
The upstairs bar was surprisingly full. Brushed steel, damp with lager and a hustle of middle aged men in sleeveless tops, sporting crows feet, smattered with poorly applied eyeliner. A trio of girls that looked Marianne’s age shoved by, talking in sharps and screeches, and Corrie did a double-take. Jen crushed her way between two leather jackets and yelled instructions to one of the bar staff over the music. One of the trio of girls began shouting to her friends through a door to the smoking area, until the slim matriarch behind the bar made a furious swiping motion with her hand, and the girl’s friends grabbed her by the elbows and herded her out. Jen grabbed Corrie’s attention back to the matter at hand by shoving a plastic cup at her, and fixed her with a look. She mouthed a thank you. Jen responded with a head cock, her long earrings swinging, and made a questioning smoking motion.
[I’m back in the house now. Couple of pints with James. M texted at 9pm. Love you. | 22.55pm]
The smoking area was covered by a few sheets of corrugated plastic, but mercifully they’d installed a heat lamp. The pair shouldered their way gently through already-settled smokers, and found a leaning corner. In the breeze, with the dull thump of the base through the wall, and the hum of chat, Corrie watched her friend deftly roll two cigarettes. It still looked skilful, after thirty years. She’d never learnt to roll, but she’d also never entirely learnt to quit.
“So, he said if I haven’t bled for a year, that it’s officially the menopause.”
Jen frowned deeply, meeting her eyes as she navigated the end of her cigarette into the flame of her Clipper. “Mmhm.”
Corrie exhaled a cloud of exasperated smoke, smearing ash on her top. “I…just…I’m forty-six, y’know? I didn’t think it was time. He just shrugged and gave me a leaflet.”
“Wizened cunt.” Corrie said awkwardly, and giggled at her own rudeness, but felt hot moisture invade her eyes.
“Oh babe, but it isn’t, don’t be like this.” Jen enveloped her in a tight hug.
“I’m so glad you asked me to come out.” She sniffed into Jen’s brown curls, licking the tears that ran down to her top lip. Jen smelt like stale smoke, and rosewater.
“It doesn’t matter. You are tall and lovely and we needed to go dancing. We were overdue.”
“I think I’ve dropped my cigarette. We’re going to burn the club down.”
“I could start screaming, just for the fun of it.” Jen was still squeezing her tight.
“Wouldn’t be any different to when you used to get high.”
“Fuck you.” Jen pushed her away gently and laughed. “Anyway, that was a great tactic for creepers. The night I chased weird Ben out of your flat after he touched your boob, do you remember that?”
“It was amazing.” Corrie was laughing properly now. Her face felt warm and wet, and she dabbed it with the sleeve of her jacket.
The bass vibrations through the wall shifted slightly. Two men stopped talking, and looked expectantly towards the door. A woman in orange PVC boots flung her cigarette on the floor and darted back inside, excitedly.
“Dance? Yes? No? Yes?” Jen bounced on her toes.
They moved through the warmth of the crowd in the dark, and found a space. Moving came back easily. Jen was good at choosing places – they’d always gone out dancing together, but a cheesy rock bar was perfect for this evening. Popular enough to be busy, but not so trendy that Corrie felt like it was effort. She was done with effort, she concluded. She watched Jen put her hands in the air, and pulled gently at nothing in time to the music, eyes closed. They turned in circles, and sang at each other. Corrie felt herself being watched once or twice, but the gazes she met were mostly flatteringly curious, or just vacant – strangers looking for anonymous friends. A younger man touched her elbow, and she pulled back to look at him. He shyly mimicked a cigarette. She was about to shake her head no, but Jen waved her rolling papers at him, and he replied with a cheerful thumbs up, dancing companionably whilst Jen rolled a cigarette on the dancefloor. And then another. And another. Corrie glanced at the man carefully, trying not to stare. He had a fine bird-likeness to his face. Long muscles in his upper arms. He put a hand on her shoulder and tried to shout something. She smiled and squinted, shaking her head and waving a hand near her ear to show she couldn’t hear a thing.
Something in her armpit buzzed. Then buzzed again. She peeked into her shoulder-bag just to see the light on her phone go off.
“Jen-” Corrie looked up, to see Jen’s mass of curls bobbing through one of the doorways, and their new smoking buddy following. Someone knocked into her from the side, and she stumbled, chest tightening again. Backing up into a dark booth on the side of the dancefloor, she fished out the phone from the bag, and winced as the bright screen shocked her eyes.
[3 missed calls]
[M seems a bit upset? Coming home early. Tx | 02.48am]
The club was full now. Prickles washed over her. She shouldered her way through the crowd, and briefly got caught in a group of women shrieking along to a power ballad. Excited and drunk, they tried to draw her into their circle, and pawed her limply when she waved her hands frantically and crashed through the other side of the group. Their euphoria seemed frightening at this point.
Outside, Jen was on the edge of the smoking crowd, in easy reach. The bird-like boy was gesticulating with his cigarette. Her lips had pulled into a wine stained smile. She was enjoying the attention.
“JEN. I…something’s up with Annie. Marianne.”
“Shit. What. Do you-” Jen pulled her cigarette from her mouth and ashed sharply.
“I gotta go, I’m so sorry, she’s called me – it’s her second sleepover, I really need to go.” Other people were looking, feeling her panic. Corrie turned and ran, heat welling up through her. Tearing down the metal stairs, her ankle wobbled dangerously on the last step, and she grabbed the rail, nearly falling and clutching the flaking paint. The cold air of the street rushed up to meet her and sharpened everything.
Still raining. A slam above her and Jen came tearing down the staircase after her.
“Hey, hey waitwaitWAIT.”
“I have to get back there, I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t not be there for her!” Carrie frantically fished for her umbrella. Her keys jingled in the depths of her bag.
“Yeah, I said I’d pay for you.”
Jen fished a couple of notes out of her wallet, and crushed them into Corrie’s hand forcefully.
“She’s probably just fallen out with her friends.”
“I don’t know that.”
“I know. I’m calling you a cab.”
[I’m home in 20 mins. is she there | 03.15am]
[yes x | 03.17am]
The dark house smelt slightly of reheated bolognaise. Corrie crept up the stairs, trying to compose herself. This was probably overkill. She didn’t care.
“…Annie? are you up?”
“Yeah.” A small voice.
“Can I come in?”
Corrie entered the dark bedroom, and felt her way onto the end of the bed. The outline of her daughter was under the covers, hair still in a bun. Clothing was piled near the door, crumpled in folds in the nightlight from hall.
“How did you get home?”
“Dad came and got me. I’m so embarrassed.”
“You don’t have to…what happened? Was it not fun?”
“No. Ugh. Mum. I think…it’s a period. I wet through my PJs. It was everywhere.”
“What? Oh. Oh god. Okay.” Relief.
“You think it’s funny, don’t you?” Her voice was sharp with accusation.
“No, oh my god, honey.” Corrie shifted in the dark to get her arms around the angry lump at the end of the bed. They were both silent for a bit.
“You know I was out with Jen tonight?”
“When we were in the common room at school, when we were fourteen, she got put in detention by Mrs. Moore for something. I can’t remember. She made her sit in her office after hours and do maths exercises for a punishment. She got her first period all over her new office chair. It never came out. She said it was her revenge.”
“…what?! Mum, you mean, Jennifer with the curls and…your best friend?”
“Yes.” “Was she embarrassed?”
“Not really. She just found it really funny. She was always up for a good time.”
A few dull taps on the window. The rain had started again. Corrie’s phone buzzed in her coat pocket and she reached for it. Marianne looked at her, faintly curious.
[is M okay? we’ll do it all again soon, promise. love you xx | 03.29am]
© Holly Nyx 2019