"The song of the Skylark is fast, variable and sustained, delivered as it hangs suspended from considerable height. At the close of song, it soars steeply, head to wind before its dramatic drop earthward."
Falla, Gibson & Turbot: A Field Guide to Birds of NZ & Outlying Islands, 1966
The keyboard gleams as she poises herself on the edge of the seat, hands hovering, ready to transcribe the key paragraph she knows must come soon. Sucking in her breath, she leans back on her chair, pressing damp palms against tired eyes. She wills the words to come.
Late summer nights are the hardest to bear with the heat of day settled in the dimly-lit room with its cane sofas, brightly patterned cushions, and the woman in the corner at the desk. Windows and doors are open to the still, heavy night that lies wearily over the hot haze of day. A ceiling fan turns listlessly, cutting the fragrant air heavy with blossoms and earthy dampness, but no breeze comes. The humidity of day seems to rest here in this room; a thick blanket of darkness and insect sounds.
11:59 p.m.: The computer screen's bright glare announces one last precious minute of the day to make a difference, to do one last thing that might somehow make her more. She jerks from her thoughtful repose, fingers on the keyboard in one fluid movement. She taps urgently, as if slowing down may let whatever thought has arrived slip away again. The tap-tap sounds a beat with the chorus of tree frogs and the drone of mosquitoes, and there is life here in the little room in the heat and darkness.
12:12 a.m.: Another noise joins the chorus, jostling for its place in line, but its entry to the symphony signifies an end, and she instinctively jumps in her seat. A wearied look of frustration superseded by concern passes over her face. Removing her glasses, she flicks off the desk light and pads across the bare wooden floor to the urgent cry of a baby awake.
St. Cloud 2006
"My name is Billie May Skylark, and I'd like to send my manuscript in for consideration… it's a fictional work, yes… no, not as yet. Sorry, can you hold for just one second?"
I take a breath and cover the mouthpiece with my hand, turning to one of my eighteen-month-old twins who is attempting to climb inside the dishwasher. "Sunny! Get out of there now, that is not a toy! Mommy is on the telephone."
Grabbing the wriggling terror, I placate him with a cracker as I return to my phone call. "Sorry about that… no, that's correct. I haven't yet published a novel… no, I have had a few poems published, and I currently write a column… oh, ok… no, that's quite alright; I understand. Thanks for your time." I stick my tongue out at the receiver as I place it back into its cradle, wondering how it might be possible for a writer to ever get published when no one will look at your novel unless, duh, you've already published a novel.
"I give up!" I announce to the dishwasher; although I know that, really, I won't.
The truth is that I may never get my book published, but I know, deep down, that even if I remain the frustrated, undiscovered writer forever, the simple act of writing has saved me. Amidst nappies, pureed foods, and tantrums, I manage to hold on to a hidden identity which allows me to believe I'm somehow more than the groundhog day pattern my life since babies has become. I tell myself, sometimes out loud whilst cleaning the highchair, soaking the laundry, or playing peek-a-boo for the zillionth time, I am also a writer, I am also a writer, I am also a writer.
"Sunny, sweetie, where's Evie?" one of the twins is no longer in my peripheral vision, and this is always a bad sign. "Honey, where's Evie?" Sunny gives me his dimply double-toothed smile and waddles away, wearing only a nappy and singlet. "Evie… Evie, where are you?"
As usual, I begin the triage search, starting with the places I know most likely to be the site of some awful accident. I race around the house calling her name, trying not to sound like a frantic freak of a mother. Did I close the door to the laundry? Are the baby gates on? Did I leave the garden gate open? Meanwhile, Sunny toddles around after me, giggling as though we are now in a big game of hide and seek.
Reaching the twins' bedroom, I find the lower drawers of the tallboy open and every item of clothing and bedding on the floor. She's been here, but she's not here now. In the bathroom, rolls of toilet paper are unraveled, covering every surface. No baby, but I'm on the right track. Laundry door definitely closed. I exhale a breath of minor relief. Out into the front garden, still no sign, but the dog food dish has been emptied into the plant pots. Down the side lane to the backyard, I'm calling her name loudly now. "Evie, Evie, where are you?" Long grass itches bare legs as I run through the overgrown yard we never seem to find the time to care for.
Panic takes hold, changing in an instant what was irritation and mild concern to the icy chill of raw fear. If Evie has gotten this far down the yard, then she might reach the dilapidated fence… which leads directly through the bush to the cliff.
The yard is half a kilometer long, most of it thick with overgrown grass, the rest beyond the fence is dense bush. I had never thought it possible that an eighteen-month-old could make it this far down the yard, but kids surprise you every day. Shit, why was the baby gate to the garden unlocked?
This and a zillion other panicked, terror-stricken and self-flagellating thoughts bounce around my head as I tear through the last few meters to the fence. "Evie!" I scream this time, the pitch in my voice stifled by the heavy bush which waits beyond the fence. There is no sign of a baby; no sign at all.
"Billie! Hey Billie, over here." I turn to the sound of the voice my chest heaving, overwhelmed by panic and the sprint through the long grass. Searching for the source, I shield my eyes from the glare of the midday sun.
"Jack, I've lost her, Evie's gone." His silhouette appears at the crest of the hill leading down to the fence, he is carrying something and I sink to my knees in relief.
"Here's Mommy. Now, what do you guys think she's doing down here?" Jack walks calmly toward me, and I open my shaking arms out to the giggling bundle of mischief he brandishes. I hold her wriggly body to mine as tightly as possible, relief sparking tears as I scold her lightly.
"Where have you been monkey? Mommy's been looking everywhere for you." She smiles and puts her thumb in her mouth, nuzzling into my breast as though it should still hold some sustenance. "Thank you Jack; where was she?"
He smiles down at us; Sunny is on his shoulders, tickling his ears. "I think maybe the dogs have burrowed a hole under the fence. She was in my garden pulling up the flowers."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I was on the phone for a few minutes, and then she was gone. I thought for a second…" I stall gesturing toward the fence behind me. "I'm a disaster. Women like me should be given compulsory birth control. I don't know how to do this."
"Yes, you do." He puts a work-scarred hand under my elbow and guides me to my feet, Evie almost asleep in my arms, exhausted from her escapee adventure. "You just need a break."
I take a breath and wipe my damp brow with the back of my hand, hair sticking to my forehead. "Thank you Jack, for everything."
He smiles and we make our way back up through the long grass to my open French doors. All is as it was. I carry Evie to her cot where I pull up the rail, should she wake from slumber and decide on another expedition. Jack takes Sunny and lays his compliant little body down on the adjacent cot. We tiptoe from the room and I flop on to the sofa, wondering when life became so very tiring.
Jack returns with a glass of ice water, places it on the table, and tells me to have a rest. "I can see your halo glowing from here, Mr Kelly" I sigh. "My very own guardian angel right next door."
He smiles, making for the door. "Have a nap; I'll get that hole in the fence sorted this afternoon." He leaves with our dog, Toby, trotting along at his heels, and I watch him go; a strong, solid, reliable frame. He stops, bends down to pat Toby's head, then rubs his belly, turns briefly back toward my house and then is gone.
Jack Kelly is my neighbour here in St. Cloud, the South Pacific Island furthest from just about anything and anyone I have known before, a small dot on the map that is now our home.
To find St. Cloud, you might take a plane to Costa Rica then head south, down just past the equator line. Or you might head to Peru and travel north; St. Cloud lies somewhere in the expanse of blue ocean that lies between. We moved here shortly before the birth of our twins, and without Jack, the change might have been too much for me. Jack is a rock, always around with a calm word and a smile. He's like the pied piper for animals and kids. Wherever he is, there's bound to be a dog or two in tow, and whenever he's here, the twins are laughing. Jack is low on the drama factor, and as I'm married to a guy like Evan, any relationship that doesn't involve drama is welcome.
Being a single male in St. Cloud is a precarious position as there are, it seems, more women than available men. Jack keeps a low profile. He's been burned before. I tell him it's only a matter of time till one of those single ladies on the island manages to reel him in, but he isn't interested. After meeting his ex-wife Claudia, I knew the reason why. I think after a few years with her, any good man would need at least a decade of celibacy. She's a piranha with highlights and long legs, and on the few occasions I've seen her, I surmised that she's the sort of woman who doesn't like women.
They divorced two years ago, although Claudia seems to think it was more like two weeks ago. She tries to keep her talons in Jack's life any way she can. The story goes (and here in St. Cloud, you quickly become privy to most stories) she trapped Jack into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant. Jack's a good guy, old fashioned in a way and would have insisted on doing the right thing. Of course three months after the wedding, he discovered there was no baby but there you go. Jack's a "believe the best in everybody" kind of a guy and made a go of things. They say he wanted a family and she didn't, and well, the rest is history. It was a simple divorce; Jack gave her everything, and she now lives in a beach villa overlooking La Misere, St. Cloud's most beautiful beach.
Jack built a house here on Frontiere Point on the opposite side of the island. His house is next door to us, although I'd say "house" is a stretch of the term. His "break-up build" is more of an open-plan man cave atop a large work shed; basic but functional.
Claudia's penchant for expensive, soft furnishings and designer wallpaper ensured Jack will have a lifelong aversion to anything but the basic comforts. He maintains he doesn't need much, and his studio room above the work shed reflects this housing: only a woodstove, bookshelf, radio, and sofa bed. Jack's passion is boats, and he works day and night drawing, building, and restoring them in his work shed below his man shed, along with his two dogs, Louie and Bets, for company.
Closing my eyes, I let the heat sink into my bones. I stop fighting and let it soothe me into the hazy place between wakefulness and slumber. I can hear the sound of the ocean beyond the end of our yard and the constant buzz of insects. St. Cloud is always sleepy in the heat, but an undercurrent of activity thrives below the surface of its overheated community; it is a hive of people and life. A community in a bell jar.
Sleep comes quickly and I am soon lost in a dream. I am making a speech, thanking people, shaking hands and signing books, but it's raining, and I realize someone forgot to put up a canopy. Words on pages run till everything is blank. I look down at myself and my literary demeanor has changed to mother coffee group attire; braless and in sweats with baby vomit down my front. Jack is in the crowd stifling a laugh and Evan stands, arms folded, embarrassed and disappointed.
The telephone rings and rings, and the dream dissolves with the downpour. With half of me still at my dream book signing, I scramble for the handset only to hear the sound of two hungry cries from the bedroom. "Hello?" I sound pissed off because of course I am, the phone has pulled me from my so needed nana nap and woken the twins simultaneously. I clear my throat and answer again. "Hello?" More warmth in my tone.
"Hey baby, where were you? I was about to hang up."
"Evan." It's always good to hear his voice. "I fell asleep with the twins, we've had a busy morning. How's work?"
"Oh, you know; it's good, but I'd rather be there sleeping with you."
I hear the smile in his voice and return it with one of my own. Evan was born with the gift of the gab and as he speaks, his soft persuasive tone slowly pulls me from my sleepy funk. Since I have known him, he has always been able to sweet talk anyone, get himself or others out of a fix with words and charm, and somehow always win me over no matter how mad I might be. Evan is Irish with all the accompanying cheeky humor and charm you might expect. He is my weakness; dark haired, green-eyed, tall and lean, he was and is my first love. We are here, with our babies in St. Cloud because of him. I have followed Evan since we met: a journey equally satisfying and terrifying, depending on which day you ask me.
"When are you coming home?" The sound of the twins yelling for me gets louder every second I ignore them.
"I'm not sure sweetheart, I have some plans to finish before I cut out."
I'm used to this. Evan's job in Becketsvale (St. Cloud's only city) means he leaves before the sun rises and generally returns home after the sun sets, usually smelling of a few local after work cocktails. He is happy in this new job, so I don't make a fuss, even though the days are long without him. His happiness feeds mine.
"Do you think Evie can climb out of her cot yet?”
"How would I know?" He sounds vacant. "It wouldn't surprise me."
I hear a thump in the bedroom and a bang at the closed door. "I can't believe it; she's out! I gotta run Evan. Oh, and you have to do something about that old fence at the end of the yard. I thought Evie had gone off the cliff earlier."
"You'll turn yourself grey with all that fretting. It's practically a kilometer's hike. There's no way they could get down there".
"How do you know that? Evie is practically catching buses on her own!"
Evan laughs. "Go have beer baby; the twins are fine. I'll see you later."
I hang up, rolling my eyes. A beer is Evan's answer to everything; a beer, for crying out loud!
I walk toward the source of the commotion and find Evie has climbed up and into Sunny's cot; she has a crayon and is trying to draw on his dimpled cheeks. I shake my head and stifle a laugh. "What am I going to do with you two? You, my girl, are your Daddy's daughter." I lift curly-haired little Evie into the air as she giggles and charms me with her beaming smile. She is light and wiry, where Sunny is dimpled and chubby; he is fair while she is dark, and seeing them together, it is almost impossible to believe they can be related, never mind twins.
Baby gates secure and double-checked, we three head to the living room floor where I lie on my tummy with the twins and their toys, watching them play and intervening when one looks set to clobber the other with a building block. I love this, watching them together and seeing them explore and learn. I love their need for cuddles and reassurance and love that I am the one who can always give them that. I love all of this yet the voice that nags, "It isn't enough" won't leave me alone.
If my physical body were to reflect my lack of balance since the twin's arrival, it would look like this: swollen feet, skinny legs, oversized milky boobs, and a head that is shrunk from lack of stimulation. A brain once of good size and function reduced to the size of a walnut. Maybe I should do a quick mirror check just to be sure this hasn't actually happened yet; the head shrinking bit that is. The boobs, the feet; that's all a given.
The air has changed, and a rare wave of cool rolls over the heat haze. My skin prickles with the unfamiliar sensation. In no time at all, a thunderclap sounds, and we gather at the windows to watch the show; St. Cloud hosts the most dramatic thunderstorms this time of year. The twins watch in awe as the dark sky is sliced with lightening, and for a split second, their wide eyes are bathed in white light. We count the seconds till the thunder rolls and they squeal in delight, burying their little heads in my lap as the booming noise shakes the sky.
Storms have always smelled like change to me; something coming, a warning to be ready, a signal to assume the position. It was a night not too dissimilar to this when my life course last jumped tracks, but I wasn't ready. If it hadn't been for that storm, I'm not sure how life might have worked out. But the thunder and lightning that night in London, the smell of change, and warning to be ready were for me, I just didn't know it then. At the end of that stormy night was Evan, and I would wait for him in the rain then follow him to shelter.
St. Cloud 2006
He's always liked the rain. It falls heavy in St. Cloud, downpours washing the heat from the day, cleaning and smoothing as they go. The sound overpowers the fusion of music, laugher and talk in the small beach bar, and as the storm heightens, the battering rain on the tin roof becomes deafening; a high-frequency drumbeat that crowds out competing sound until the rain is all there is.
Evan leans back on his chair, one arm lazily slung around the empty seat beside him, the other reaching for the half-empty bottle on the table. There's nothing to be done but wait out the storm, and for now, there's nowhere else he'd rather be. Here, no one needs anything, and he doesn't have to be anyone but the guy who wants to wind down after a long day. It's a guilty pleasure; he should really head home, but for the first time all day, he feels relaxed, the beer working its way through the tension and stress.
Scanning the small bar, he watches the faces; his artist's eye taking in detail carefully, storing away features, expressions, profiles, and angles: the stooped posture of the drunk, the raised face and flushed cheeks of eager new love. Hands gesticulating, fingers pointing, palms raised to the sky in surprise. People all around, yet he's happy to sit alone for now. He'll let the first few drinks work their magic then he might be social.
It should be hard to feel lonely in a place like St. Cloud. Its tight-knit community is a comforting blanket of new best friends and family. But Evan's default position is lonely; it's always been this way. Despite friends and a growing family, there's a space inside him that's always alone. The feeling is almost comfortable; its familiarity welcome in a head whose thoughts and moods swoop and dive like birds riding pockets of thermal air in summer skies.
"You want another beer Evan?" The barman smiles in Evan's direction, gesturing to the now-empty bottle in his hand. "It's a real good St. Cloud storm out there. You'd be wise to hang here till it passes. You don't want to be driving these roads in that." As if on cue, a loud clap of thunder sounds, followed closely by a bright flash of white as lightning splits the charcoal sky. Evan nods in agreement, attention quickly shifting from the familiar faces in the bar to the light show over the ocean. The cold beer arrives, and he traces a finger carefully down the dewy glass before raising the bottle to his lips; eyes still fixed on the drama unfolding in the St. Cloud skies.
This is his sort of weather; big, loud, unafraid and dramatic. Storms here are unrelenting, but short-lived, wild and unrepentant, yet apologetic in departure, a perfect sound bite of nature's great contrasts. The fiery fury is short-lived and the watery sunlight that follows fills the island with a beauty that always feels like the first day of spring.
By nine, he knows he should go home. Billie will be waiting. He drinks the last sip of beer from the bottle then lifts his phone, fingers working quickly on the illuminated screen.
"Hey baby, on my way now. Love you. Ex."
The rain has eased a little; the storm passing, and he knows that if he stays for another, he won't be safe on the road. Heading out of the bar into the moisture-heavy night, he jogs to reach his truck, jacket over his head and keys in hand. The fall of rain is still heavy, although the intensity of before has faded. The red Ford starts first turn. Evan flicks on the lights and reverses carefully from the parking lot before hitting the stereo and turning up the volume.
Falling rain on the roof, the low beat from the speakers and scraping metronome of windscreen wipers form a chaotic symphony in the confines of the truck as it winds its way around the dark roads. Evan drives steadily, carefully, his eyes focused despite the low buzz of beer in his bloodstream. The truck descends down into the darkest part of the road; the base of a gentle dip in the land before the gradual climb skyward. Bright headlight beams carve a narrow path through the darkness, and dense bush rises on either side of hot tarmac. Here the sky is barely visible as overhanging ferns and palms create a dark canopy.
The route turns inland and begins to climb gradually out of the dense valley, winding slowly up around the hairpin bends toward the island's highest point. The truck climbs and slowly gains speed as the road stretches out to traverse the island. Here the rain seems harder, a pocket of the storm lingering, reluctant to leave. Sheets of rain and gusts of warm tropical winds buffet the truck around, and Evan struggles to see the road ahead. There is no other traffic; no other lights to break the darkness.
Taking a hand from the wheel, he distractedly pushes back the damp hair that sticks to his face as rain streams in the half open window; the stormy drive suddenly seems less like a good idea.
He glances down at his cell phone thrown carelessly on the passenger seat. He'd left the bar feeling invincible, and a drive through the storm hadn't seemed like a big deal. The weather is worse than he'd realized and he knows she'll worry. He'd call her to explain, but there's no reception here. He should pull over and wait it out. The truck is buffeted again, and the tires slip and skid on the dark, slick road.
"Fuck." The cuss is barely audible amidst the rain on the roof; he bangs the steering wheel with the heel of his hand and flicks the headlights to bright.
Eyes straining ahead on the dark road for a safe place to stop, he doesn't see it, and blinded by the sudden glare of headlights in the dark, it doesn't see him.
One image flashes bright before impact: a crystal-clear frame of color, mid-flight and a flash of dark eyes in the moment life meets death. Color and feathers clearly defined, wings outspread, the angle of the head and sheen of the beak. A Scarlet Macaw. He knows every bird on the island and even in the moment of frozen panic, he recognizes the form. Evan hits the brakes and the truck screams to a halt, skidding and turning on the slick road.
The sound of breathing is louder than the rain, louder than the screech of tires and louder than the sound of his voice and the words that will come too late. He fumbles with the door, hands shaking uncontrollably and runs through the heavy rain to the spot where the bird lies—a muddied pile of wings and once bright primary colors that seem to leech and dilute on the rain-soaked road.
"Oh Jesus, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." The words drip and pool on the tarmac. He knows it's too late; the damage done. The bird lies awkwardly, crushed and broken, and Evan sinks to his knees by its side. Headlights from the truck shine over the scene: the rain beating on his back as he bends over the Scarlet Macaw, palm outstretched to lay a hand on its heart.
Life flickers, the spark of spirit trying one last time to restart the broken body. The bird's dark eyes are fixed on Evan; no trace of fear or pain as the last essence of life flickers and dies. The bird stiffens imperceptibly under his open palm; and he feels it, the very moment the heart stops and life leaves. Rain falls relentlessly, and he sits there at the side of the road with one hand on the heart of the bird that grows colder with every passing second.
An hour, a minute, or only a moment passes, and he sits, unable to move, unwilling to go back to the truck and drive away. Where did the life go; that force that propelled the bird forward in the rain to meet its end so meaninglessly? Where did it go, and what was the point? All that beauty, a life, nurtured, grown and lived moment by moment… where was it now, and why was it him that took it away?
He picks up the broken bird and holds it to his damp shirt, walking slowly back to the truck. The noise of the rain is an angry drumbeat on the roof as he sits in the driver's seat, shocked and shivering, with the Macaw's colored feathers drooping dully on his knees. Fate, chance, or circumstance, he took away life and felt it leave. Mud-spattered hands rise to his face, and he weeps, not knowing if the sadness is real or imagined.
That life can be so fragile, so easily given and taken away, that one action, one decision can be a catalyst for catastrophe. That life is a spider web of consequence, and we are all at the mercy of one another. The spill of tears triggers grief unexpressed in a lifetime of occasional sorrow. He cries, and the relief of tears leaves him calm and washed out—how much later he doesn't know.
When he opens his eyes again, the storm has passed, the rain a mere drizzle, the wind all but gone. "Billie." He needs to get home to her, feel her next to him, and let her remind him there's meaning in the chaos. Before Billie, it was always this; life as a series of chaotic events with no reason or meaning. She'll smile and make him laugh, and somehow within the madness of just being alive, it'll all be okay.
It's how she's always been, it's who she is for Evan; a brighter, happier half that finds something good in everything, even him. She'll make it right, just like she's always done from the very beginning. He needs to get home to her and that single thought lays the lifeless bird by the side of the road and turns the key in the ignition to make the careful drive home.
Maybe it's the rain and overwhelming emotion, the feeling of being out of control and the storm, but the drive home sees Evan follow a series of memories: a stormy night not so long ago, rain in summer, birds in flight, and Billie.
Billie & Evan
Five Years Earlier (London 2001)
"Pens down and wait at your desks, please. You may not talk or leave the room until instructed to do so." The exam invigilator must love this phrase. He can stop pacing the rows, looking over our shoulders, and sit with a good British cup of tea before the next wave of terrified students arrive to seal their future in the last exam of finals.
I place my pen down and exhale slowly, desperate to be outside in the fresh air of freedom. My head throbs from three hours of frenzied essay writing; my fingers ache, and I would like more than anything to lie on the grass and look at the sky. Witness the world outside academia. A door is finally beginning to close as a new one opens; goodbye undergraduate life, here I come into the world of adults. An educated, university-qualified adult, no less. I'm on the threshold of a new beginning, and despite my heavy head, I feel a buzz of new life, of new direction fire up inside. I glance around at the sea of faces; some crumpled, some elated. Whichever way this may have gone for each of us, one thing is certain; we are done.
Cheers and car horns sound as we emerge from the great hall of pain. The last exam of our undergraduate study finally complete, the final paper in the four year degree we all so desperately wanted. Now that it's over, what will we do?
"Over here, Billie!" My vision is still a little hazy from long hours of concentration and little sleep as I turn to find my best friend Iris wearing a smile that speaks on its own.
"We did it! We did it, holy crap, can you believe it's all over? We're done!" She throws her arms around me as we are engulfed by a wave of similarly elated students; everyone is cheering, and as if from nowhere, beer flows. Warm beer in plastic pints is handed out and we drink deeply, barely stopping for breath; the haze in our heads replaced quickly by the warm buzz of booze.
"Jesus H Billie, this is the best day of my life," Iris announces, lying on the grass a few hours later wearing a toga and still drinking beer. "What'll you do?" She props herself on one elbow to face me. Her tone might be asking what I'm having for dinner not what I'm doing with the rest of my life.
"I'm not sure I know where to start." I exhale a long, slow breath. "I'm thinking maybe I'll write the next great novel of our time." I examine my open palm as though looking for a life line to confirm my prophecy. "I'll aim for the Booker Prize next year, and soon after, a whole section in the library under 'W'. Billie May Worthington a writer for our times!" I flop back on to the grass eyes closed smiling wistfully.
"Well, that sounds easy enough, send me a copy of your first best seller." Iris is smiling, her eyes focused on her own projected future. "Yep, good luck with that Billie, but I'm getting myself a job pronto. There's no time to fanny around! I'm heading straight to make some big bucks. Jesus, I've student loans coming out my arse." Iris is also Irish and has a way of expressing herself that can equally horrify and reduce me to howls of laughter.
"Iris, what the hell kind of a job do you think you're going to get with a degree in literature? I doubt the stock market will take you." I laugh.
"Ah, just you watch Billie girl, the world's my lobster, it's up, up, and away from here," she announces, all excited smiles.
"I think you'll find its oyster," I correct, shielding my eyes from the sun.
"Oyster? Who said anything about oysters, for God's sake? A bag of crisps would do nicely." Iris flops back on to the grass, moaning. "I'm peaking too early, it's not even five. Okay, no more beer for an hour and forget the crisps. I need a sausage roll."
8:00 p.m.: Hot shower, sausage roll on board, and a pint of water for Iris, and we are ready for the night of partying we so deserve. In the halls of residence bar we drink cheap cocktails, debrief the year, and swap tales of woe on our performances in today's exam.
Just after nine, our artist-in-residence friend, Derek, or Dez as he prefers to be called, swans into the bar. "Ladies and not so attractive men, you are all looking fabulous tonight!" he announces, red curly hair bouncing as he waves his arms at us. "Accompany me, your cultural guide, into the depths of the city's art scene this fine evening. Our taxi awaits."
We raise our eyebrows, someone throws a crumpled crisp packet at him, and we carry on our conversations.
"Oh, come on you lot." He looks deflated, alter-ego diminished for the moment. "I booked the cab. It's outside. Who's coming to the opening with me? I promise you'll love it, pizza's my shout on the way home!" He awaits the rush to the doors, but gets no response; everyone is quite comfortable, ensconced with their best friends, drinks, and a DJ in the corner.
"Oh, poor Dez. Come on Iris, let's go with him." I nudge her in the ribs, gesturing toward Dez, who pouts by the door. "The poor guy's going to shed a tear if he has to go by himself." Dez has a crush on one of the artists who happens to be part of an opening in a swanky art gallery in town; we had promised him we'd keep him company on his love mission.
"Oh okay, as long as there's free bubbles," says Iris, only half-reluctantly. "I can do art." She applies more lip gloss to her already glossed pout.
"Yes!" Dez punches the air as though Arsenal has just won the league. "Let's go babes." He motions to us, and then pauses, looking carefully at me with the critical eye of a fashion consultant. "Don't you want to change Billie?"
Hands on hips, I turn to face his frizzy hair and nose ring. "Why, is there a problem, ginger nuts?" It's hard having flaming red curly hair. Dez has many nicknames, and not surprisingly, "Ginger nuts" is one of his least favorites.
He raises both palms to face me and stutters, "No ma'am…" He looks at the others, who are stifling smiles and raises an eyebrow. "I'll just go saddle up your horse." Everyone is laughing now, including me; my unchanging dress sense is often the butt of many jokes.
It wouldn't be so funny if I weren't called Billie May. It opens me up to a whole realm of country and western gags. You see I'm rarely seen out of leather cowboy boots and some well-worn Levis, and as I am originally from Kansas, the name slots me right into that Midwestern country girl stereotype. The cowgirl gags are something I'm quite used to.
My Dad is a Londoner, and my mom is from Kansas. They divorced when I was barely a year old; country life was not quite what my Dad had envisaged. Mom died of cancer when I was fourteen, so I came over here to live with Dad. These days, I'm as much Londoner as Kansas gal; a strange blend I guess. So my jeans and boots are all Kansas, and my shirt is usually an expensive designer something-or-other, a bid by my stepmother to glamorize me. I like to think my feet are still in Kansas with my mom, and the rest of me is pretty much Anglicized. The prairie girl twang of twelve-year-old me now replaced by a strange blend of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Anne of Green Gables.
"Leave her alone Dez, and get your fecking beret on," says Iris. "Let's be off to critique some art."
"More like get Dez laid!" hollers a voice from behind as we head for the door.
We step out into the still-humid night air, unseasonably warm. These balmy days that stretch into evening are usually reserved for August and early September; summer's last dash before autumn. But here in June, the warmth feels aged. The air smells thick, but not fragrant. These are hot city smells—individually indistinguishable, of the color grey. Iris and Dez are arm-in-arm up the steps and along the sidewalk to the waiting cab with its shiny black exterior and yellow light atop. I dawdle behind, needing a second to take in the evening, relishing the smells and sights. This could be the last evening like this; here with these friends. I'm ready for change, but nostalgic as always and resolve to hold as much as I can of this last evening to memory. I will write about it later, as I do with mostly everything; journals with descriptions, short poems, sketches, the odd photograph, concert tickets; collages of place and time in images and words.
"Get a move on Daisy Duke; the meter’s ticking!" cries Dez from within the taxi, a shiny black beetle, wings open and ready for flight. I hop inside, and the driver pulls away from the curb with the confident air of a true London taxi driver. He drives with the conviction that he is invincible and the road his own. We three must seem an odd bunch huddled in a row; Dez in his second-hand suit and Doc Martens, Iris in a seventies dress and platform wedges, and me, straight-Sally with jeans and ponytail.
The city flashes by; the light waning and the traffic thickening. Stop-start, stop-start, car horns and sirens, roundabouts and underground signs, everywhere there are people.
Dez peers through the glass divide that protects the driver from us, his custom. Checking the neon numbers on the meter, he says. "All right, mate, pull over here if you will."
The driver clicks his tongue and, with a slight shake of his head, pulls in to the curb. Cars behind honk their annoyance.
"But we're not here yet Dez." I'm confused.
He leans in conspiratorially. "Sorry, gals, I've run out money. This is as far as we go." He grins, and we roll our eyes, protesting, as we emerge from the shiny beetle, and Dez parts with a rolled up ten pound note.
Iris whacks him on the arm. "What about the pizza on the way home, you tight cockney?"
He laughs and does a little skip.
"You might not see me on the way home ladies; I'm wearing my lucky undies!"
My turn to punch him on the arm. "How far to walk, then Romeo?"
"Just a few blocks this way." He links arms with us, and we trek through the city to find the much anticipated gallery opening.
"Now just so you two don't look as entirely clueless about the art scene as you so obviously are, let me fill you in… " Dez nudges me. I am lost in one of my favorite hobbies: people watching. "The location is totally amazing," he enthuses. "It's worth a visit just to check out the building. It's the old synagogue near Baker Street, fabulous architecture. They've converted it into three floors, plus there's a loft space and a basement, so there are five exhibits."
Iris is searching in her bag for gum, and I'm still busy watching the scene around me, the people, the bustle, and the feel of night in the city, wondering where each person is going and what their story might be.
Dez doesn't notice our distraction and carries on enthusiastically. "Now, I think there's a mix of painting, sculpture, and architecture; models and stuff. Anna is a sculptor. She's amazingly hot, and wait till you see what she can do with her hands." He's breathy in anticipation.
"Christ, I didn't think it was that kind of show," says Iris.
"Her sculpture, you daft cow," says Dez. "Although I think there are a few penises there."
"She sculpts penises?" I ask, trying not to sound too straight.
"Oh yes, in fact, she held interviews to find the right male models for her work."
"She was paying young blokes to show her their willies?" says Iris, aghast. "Can't you get arrested for that?"
Dez ignores her. "I was going to go along myself, but then I worried I might get stage fright and not be able to get it up on command; then she'd never go out with me."
We all laugh. "Does she only want to sculpt stiff willies, then?"
Dez doesn't register my tone. "You know Billie, that's a good question; I can't say I'm sure. Let's go take a look."
We are still two blocks away from Baker Street, Dez having hugely underestimated the distance, and Iris's platform wedges proving to be a hindrance to our pace.
"For fuck's sake Iris, did you have to wear those God-awful shoes? It'll be midnight before we're there."
"I'll kick your arse with one of these here shoes if you're not careful ‘Mister I'll get us a cab and pay for the pizzas on the way home!'"
I zone out of their squabble as a cold prickle of temperature change laces my skin with goose bumps. "You guys, I think it's going to rain. We should hurry"
They don't hear, so caught up in a dialogue over the role of platform wedges in the fashion revolution. A sudden flash of lightening stops us all in our tracks; in one blink, the city is all white reflected light and we are monochrome shadows of ourselves. Thunder follows closely, and heavy rain that washes the heat from the day.
"Run!" yells Dez, his voice high-pitched amidst the deep growl of thunder.
We run as commanded, convulsing with laughter, sinking into the hysteria that so often accompanies a storm. Iris pulls off her platforms, and we dash through the rain, squealing like three preschoolers until drenched and breathless; we arrive at the gallery, dripping wet and bedraggled into the foyer.
Iris has barely stopped to look around before she bellows out to anyone who might listen, "Fucking hell, its bloody wild out there! Anyone got a towel?" For a second, all is deathly quiet, glass clinking and hobnobbing stops. All eyes turn in our direction. The art crowd, momentarily ruffled quickly recover their composure at the uncouth disturbance and progress to ignoring us.
Dez is mortified and guides Iris and me to the ladies' room while he scoots off to hang up his sodden second-hand coat (which incidentally smells really bad now) and find us some champagne.
We smooth our hair and take turns standing under the hand dryer. "Okay, that should do Iris, let's find the bubbles." I pull her toward the bathroom door, but she insists on applying some red lippy to both of our pouts.
"It's much more alternative than pastel shades darling. We’ll fit right in.” We emerge only slightly less bedraggled than we entered to find Dez with his red hair all a frizz deep in conversation with an attractive brunette. He is holding three bubbling pink glasses whilst sipping clumsily from another.
"Ladies, come meet my dear friend Anna. She's the sculptress I've been telling you about." The brunette turns to us and says hello with what appears to be more of a shoo-fly hand action.
"Dear friend my arse," whispers Iris. We take our drinks and politely tell Anna the sculptress we are off to look at her willies. She doesn't flinch.
Dez is quite right; the old synagogue is breathtaking despite the modern renovations to convert it to a gallery. We walk around, enjoying the sheer spectacle that is the world of art; one I would so like to understand but remain on the fringes of. I know what I like and equally know what I don't, but don't ask me to discuss relevance, theory, or influences behind a body of work. I'd consider the question carefully then tell you I like the color.
Despite our lack of education regarding the nuances of each exhibit, Iris and I take our time enjoying the glorious pull of passion in creativity. Well, I do. Iris is fiddling with her mobile phone, and then suddenly turns to me, agitated and a little apologetic. "I've just had a text from Marcus, he wants me to meet him at ten." Her cheeks flush. Marcus is her latest love interest, and she's trying to look unflustered.
"You're leaving me?" I ask, knowing the answer.
"Ah, you'll be alright, you can talk to anyone, and I've seen quite a few of those art ponce types giving you the eye, all rosy cheeks and blond hair. Now, you have a grand night. Say cheerio to Dez for me, and I'll see you back at the ranch… maybe," she finishes with a smile. "Oh, don't look so forlorn, get yourself another glass of free bubbles and mingle. I know you secretly love this stuff." She pecks me on both cheeks and makes a dash for it before I can answer. I'm not that fazed; this situation is more than a little familiar to me. Iris has no loyalty to friends whatsoever when it comes to men. She will dump her girlfriends at the drop of a hat if the chance of a quickie with a new flame arises.
"Be seeing you then," I say mostly to myself and head for the waitress with the tray of filled glasses. I take my time knowing I have nowhere to be and am now effectively here on my own, sad git that I am.
Art ponce guys checking me out, as if! Iris has a clever way of always making it seem like she's trying to do me some kind of a favor when she's off on a love mission. Of course! What was I thinking? She just wanted to free me up for the man of my dreams who must be floating around all these alternative artsy types just waiting for the chance to sweep me off my feet. I laugh out loud, the bubbles going to my head. Oh well, this is good; it's something different, and I don't have to make small talk with anyone. I can't help but keep a tiny eye out for any surprisingly handsome art types who I might want to make some of that small talk with, but it's only the highly unattractive ones who seem to be here tonight.
I have been on a man famine. In fact, I don't want to think about how long it's been since well, you know. I've been a little caught up in studies; this is what I tell myself when the truth is I have no interest in any of the types of men that seem to be interested in me. Of late, it has been beef head rugby blokes or the nerdy anorak types straight from "University Challenge," and presently, I am not desperate enough for sex to go down those roads.
"Single it is!" I toast myself; I am one strong woman. I don't need a man to make me feel good about myself. In fact, I just finished my degree today, and I rock. Oprah would be standing in applause. This is a "you go, girl" moment. "Wooo!" I whoop, giving my thigh a good cowgirl-style slap and am instantly mortified, realizing I may have had more bubbles than I care to admit. I catch a few glances and examine my thigh like I was swatting a bug.
"You must like this one a lot," says a deep, heavily-accented voice behind me, there is humor in the tone and I jump, ready to defend my feelings for the exhibit I am whooping amongst. "Sorry, didn't mean to make you jumpy and all, it's nice to see someone appreciating the work."
I turn to face the voice and find myself close, too close to his face. He is smiling and about to laugh, you see in all my self-reflection, I hadn't realized I was whooping in the room of sculpted willies. I slap my hand over my mouth, afraid I might laugh out loud or have my jaw drop and my tongue loll.
He is beautiful.
"My name's Evan." He holds out a hand; his fingers are long and slender, and I stare at them for far longer than is polite before reaching my own hand out to clasp his.
"Billie May." I feel color rise to my cheeks. My gaze has now traveled from his fingers up to his face and all the small talk I should be making has left the building. I'm writing a soliloquy in my head to the beauty of this man, all dark, wavy hair flopping over one eye, strong jaw, and clear green eyes. I have been holding his handshake for too long, and now I'm not sure just how long the staring thing has been going on. Crap. I say a silent prayer for serenity, plus some irresistibleness, if it's not too much to ask.
"Are you an artist Billie May?" he asks.
"No, and you can just call me Billie." I smile and flatten my hair, not sure whether to run or stay. "I'm just here with a friend." He stares, still smiling that lop-sided grin and I'm afraid if he doesn't stop I may do something worse than the whoopee thigh slap.
"Do you really like the penises?" he asks, and I quail. He just said penis to me, and now I can't stop thinking about his. Internal face slap moment. Billie May, you are twenty-two years old, and you can do this. I channel my grandma and look up to answer the penis question without a glimmer of fantasy.
"Not really, I just…" Oh crap, will he think I don't like penises at all now? "Well, not these penises, I mean… oh fuck, can we talk about something else?" I'm a disaster; he will run for the hills wondering who let the mentally-challenged hillbilly in.
"Did you just say fuck?" he asks only loud enough for me to hear, and in his perfect pronunciation of the word 'fuck,' I realize that accent is of course Irish. He is laughing at me, and I can't help but laugh too. He leans in. "It's a little stiff in here, if you'll excuse the comparison, but they don't like bad language. You'd better come with me." He takes me by the hand and leads me out of the room of sculptures and guides me through the crowd. People recognize him and say hello as we pass. He nods and replies, remembering everyone's name, and I am reeling—following him, holding his hand, and wondering who the hell he is.
This moment bears testimony to the sheer pull of physical chemistry.
I know nothing of this man I met moments ago, but I do know that from the instant I saw him, heard him, and touched his hand something changed. Not a small sort of a change like a weather front or a mood flip and not a mild attraction, but something large, something strong and dizzyingly powerful. I've never taken drugs, rarely been really drunk, but I can only imagine this feeling; this sudden high and overwhelming need must be similar to that of an illicit high. Suddenly and unexpectedly plugged into a power source I didn't know existed; a thrilling new sense perception never expected to be in the realm of possibilities.
From zero to one hundred in a few short breaths, my heart rate and blood pressure are operating at warp-speed, and I try to breathe calmly and convey none of this mad mixture of feelings threatening to overwhelm me. Regardless of the fear that I have suddenly lost control of something vital, I have no choice but to continue. I walk with him, holding his hand; this intoxicating stranger who appeared from nowhere. The feeling is so heady I pray he won't let go, and as we walk through the crowded room, my crazed imagination projects wildly forward to a future scenario involving him and a few small dark-haired, green-eyed babies! Oh my God, what am I doing? This sort of thing does not happen to me. I should shake off the weirdly possessive hold he has taken of my hand and gather myself. But of course, I don't. It's the absolute last thing I want to do.
We pass the bar, where he grabs us two glasses then takes me to the lift where we ride to the loft; the only exhibit I haven't seen yet. I stand in the lift, back to the wall, and he mirrors my pose, standing opposite, looking intently at me. He doesn't say a word and neither do I, but I return his stare and relish every second of it.
The doors open with a loud "ding" announcing our arrival to the art lovers in the attic. In an instant, I shift from infatuated to awe-struck as I exit the lift into what feels like another world. This room is full of light, light from all angles giving the impression of daylight. No, something brighter, almost cleaner than daylight. A light unfiltered by pollution and smog, something clean and pure reflecting and bouncing off every surface. The ceiling is arched and high above our heads, and models hang everywhere; large and small, paper thin, and proportionally perfect. All machines of flight, old-fashioned, and in differing shapes and sizes, all neutral and as bright as the light, so we had to stand still to see each one properly, as the slightest movement sent prisms of light to blur the edges of each perfectly-formed aircraft.
The room is crowded, but the light makes it feel less so, people are quiet, respectful; walking, then stopping to stare, walking some more, and then sitting for a time on one of the folding chairs assembled at various perfect vantage points.
I turn to look at Evan to thank him for bringing me here to see this, but he has slipped away, and for a moment, I'm crushed. A hushed voice speaks; a recording that's the voiceover for this work, a description of what it means and the influences of the artist. Closing my eyes for some relief from the overwhelming sensory assault of light, I hear the words more clearly, the same sentence repeating as though part of the work itself.
"I am fascinated by flight, the notion of escape, freedom in wings," the sentence repeats. I open my eyes in recognition, and he is there in front me, the half-smile, the voice, his voice. "I am fascinated by flight, the notion of escape, freedom in wings."
I can't explain exactly why at this moment I am afraid, but fear rolls over me like a breaking wave, crushing and cold. Something strong and powerful urges me to leave, to run, and not to look back, but it makes no sense, and riveted to the spot, staring at all this beauty, I stay. The feeling passes so quickly I wonder later if I imagined it; the adrenaline and anticipation of the moment confusing my overwhelmed senses.
I reach out a hand to him. "Evan the artist, freedom in wings." He looks embarrassed, then quickly recovers. "You're not going to swear, are you?" he asks, smiling.
"I love it," is all I can say, and we walk then together through his pride and joy; him describing each model and what it means to the whole work, me mesmerized.
If there was ever a question about this man I met barely an hour before, it was gone; the strange and confusing fear gone, too, replaced now by longing. I follow him, and I wait for him, and we leave for his apartment. I wave goodbye to Dez, his arm now around Anna; he winks and points to his lucky undies, and I leave without question.
I hardly know him, and it doesn't matter.
Arriving at his studio apartment, amidst the debris of models that didn't make the show, he tips my chin and kisses me hard on the mouth. "I can't explain," he says, and I believe him because neither can I.
Pushing me against the wall, he pins my arms above my head, kissing me with rough urgency. I respond with the same, surprised by own fearlessness. What am I doing, what am I doing, what am I doing? The question bounces around my usually sensible head, but I don't care to answer. In fact I know exactly what I'm doing, and God, it feels great. There is heady pleasure in surprising my measured mind with its set responses and careful understanding of the world. For a moment there are two voices, and the new Billie is loudest; she's carefree and confident, whilst the Billie I'm used to stands open-mouthed and horrified at the unfolding scene.
He removes my still-damp clothes with expert dexterity, then when I'm breathless, wearing only bra and knickers, he smiles and slips my leather boots back on. Hair falling around my shoulders, cheeks flushed with lust, I embrace my inner cowgirl and let him kiss me all over until I can't take it anymore.
Overcome by him and so aroused I might explode, I remove his jeans as slowly as I dare. He is before me, hair tousled, green eyes sparkling with something deeper than humor now. For a moment, I remember how the evening started, the discussion of an erect penis, and here I am…
He is on me, unfastening my bra and tossing it behind his head, moving to my breasts hungrily. There are no thoughts now aside from this moment, and I am lost in the sheer pleasure of being touched by him.
Eyes closed, Evan's hands move over me as though committing form to memory. His mouth, soft and soothing, covers the trail of his hands. Fingers stroke a subliminal message, and I am molded, shaped and reformed under his fingertips and mouth to his version of perfection. He speaks quietly, whispering; his accent thicker than I can understand as he slides his hand between my legs, and I cry out, unable to hold back.
But he shakes his head, kissing me again, the kiss harder now; his teeth biting down on my lower lip as his hand and fingers find their target. In moments, I feel desperate and wild, unable to wait.
He steadies me, bringing both hands to my shoulders and pushing me back on the bed. There is a pause in the onslaught, and as I lie back, breathing heavily, I hear him fumble; a packet rips, and somewhere in my lust ridden daze I register relief and fleeting disbelief that I forgot to insist on protection.
I reach out and hold firmly to the sinewy forearms supporting his naked body above. Eyes locked on mine, he eases himself inside me, and I cry out again as he throws back his head, hovering on the edge of control. "Jesus Christ, Billie… " His eyes are dark and hair damp as he takes a long, slow breath before sinking down toward me again, face inches from mine, hands pushing against the bare concrete wall the bed lies against. He thrusts hard, again and again, and with each movement, I slowly unravel, forgetting everything and knowing this could be all there was and it would be enough.
Reaching hands into his hair, I breathe his name, back arching as I come closer second by second to climax. Slipping into his rhythm, I follow thrust for thrust, breath for breath, till finally we come together and collapse, tangled and undone, to sleep till morning. This was the changing storm and turning point, an end and a beginning, a love story and a tragedy, birth and death all starting out that night amongst the broken models and beer bottles.
I wake early as sharp fingers of sunlight pierce the shadows in the room. Windows without curtains leave us exposed and naked above the city, and the distant sounds of London waking up rise and filter through sunlight and sleep. Evan lies still on my chest; his breath even, one hand in my hair the other wrapped around the small of my back. Pinned to the bed, the evening flooding back, I stare at the top of his head in wonder that this is not in fact a dream. Cramp in my lower legs soon takes hold, and reluctant as I am to spoil the scene, I move myself gently from underneath him. His eyes flash open, and he grabs my shoulders, all traces of sleep gone. "No you don't," he whispers, and the rest of morning went something like that.
"Love is the opposite of wisdom." I should know who said that, being a Literature graduate; someone who no doubt loved someone like Evan. I was, from that morning, no, probably from the night before, from the very first conversation in the room of penises, in love.
I had feared that it would wane, like most things that start so dramatically and without warning, but it didn't. I wanted to be with him every minute, and as of course that was impossible, I thought about him all the time. If I wasn't with him I was thinking about him and just thought of him was like a shot of something illicit. I could raise my heart rate simply imagining his face.
All of this haste and mad passion were so unlike me, my friends worried briefly for my sanity, then quickly got sick of me mooning around and accepted that aliens had taken over the body of straight arrow Billie. Every part of me knew all of this was unwise, but I didn't care; Evan was everything I wanted, and the best part of it was he wanted me too, as badly as greedily, and as urgently as I did.
Social experiences at university seem to operate on a slightly different time spectrum to those in the outside world. Friends made over a few intense terms can feel closer than those childhood friendships nurtured for years. Maybe it's the pace and promise of life on the threshold of opportunity; stresses, studies, first loves, and heartbreak, all while trying desperately to climb the ladder to the adult life you want. My short relationship with Evan soon felt mature; the intensity of a few short weeks akin to a year on the outside.
I had climbed the study ladder, hit every rung to reach the graduate spot, and now I seemed to have grabbed on to a wild stray rope, tying it deftly to mine, soon believing it had always been there. Had I hopped onto Evan's path or him to mine? It didn't matter. In no time, it was a given that we were a couple. I had, without fully understanding, relinquished my single self and become part of something beautiful but complex; something that would bring me to my knees, but give me more than I dreamt possible.
Grey light from the small dimpled glass window bathes the bathroom in monochrome. Everything is concrete or steel, no soft edges or fluffy towels, and I'm thankful that it's summer because Evan's apartment has no signs of heat. I wonder how in the world he made it through the winter.
A cast-iron tub stands on four claw feet against the bare concrete wall, the white interior chipped and cracked, and a trail of wet footprints on concrete lead to where I stand, examining my reflection. The sink and toilet are stainless steel and I can't help feeling like an extra in Prisoner Cell Block H. Evan's warehouse attic apartment is basic, and the rent cheap. I'm not entirely sure it's supposed to be residential, more like a studio space Evan sleeps in post-creative bursts.
I rub more steam from the mirror and critically assess my flushed face, which, of course, critiques me right back. At least he has hot running water! I towel off and decide this Billie is quite preferable to the Billie pre-Evan. The bubble of hazy lust, although I'd optimistically call it love, has not burst, and flush-faced seems to be my new look. I go about my day with the self-confident air of one recently shagged by the most gorgeous man on the planet, and that's usually because I just have or am about to be. I somehow entirely skipped the 'playing hard-to-get' bit with Evan, and thankfully, he skipped the "aloof-playing-it-cool bit," and we haven't spent much time apart since the night at the gallery.
I lean forward to scrutinize my reflection, still waiting for the moment where the alarm goes off, and I wake up with braces on my teeth and no boyfriend. I pinch myself hourly, and so far I'm still in this reality; so far, I have only woken up with him beside me and so I walk each step on happy feet. If I had the voice for it, I'd sing, but honestly, I don't think that would do my love life any favors, so I hum softly as I finish examining my flushed reflection in the steamy mirror. With a cheeky wink to self, I thank my lucky stars once again for art galleries and sculpted willies and Irish men and general good fortune.
Fully dry, I grab some sweats hanging on the back of the bathroom door and wrap a towel around myself "à la movie star" style before heading through to get changed. Evan's back is to me at the concrete bench against the window. His kitchen is compactly comprised of a bench, a plug-in two ring electric burner, a small fridge advertising "Bud Light" (no doubt acquired from a bar), two small saucepans, and a wooden chopping board. The smell of coffee wafts through the studio, and the espresso pot bubbles excitedly on the burner.
"Do you think there's any water left in Greater London?" asks Evan without turning around. I ignore him, slipping into my clothes and heading to the enticing coffee smell. Two small red cups sit on the bench, and Evan pours out equal measures of dark creamy espresso and a heaped teaspoon of sugar into mine.
He stirs steadily. "Do you take an hour-long bath every day?" His eyes sparkle as he hands me the sweet-smelling red cup.
I shrug. "I like water."
He nods, watching me as he raises the cup to his lips and sips slowly. "What else don't I know about you?"
"Heaps," I answer, smiling brightly. "In fact, I'm incredibly deep. You may need to spend quite some time trying to unravel my psyche… you know, figure me out."
He is still nodding, going along with my humor; a small smile plays on his lips. Carefully, he puts the coffee cup down and laces his fingers together, bringing index fingers to his lips as though in great contemplation. "I see, it could take some time then."
"For sure." I nod. "You might need to focus on me full-time for a while just to get a real handle on things. In fact, you might want to make me your muse." My expression has no flicker of a smile, and for a second, I panic and wonder if he thinks I'm serious and he's hooked up with a narcissistic crazy girl, but I catch his eyes twinkle.
"Uh-huh, do you have a vacancy? I could lounge around half-naked, eat grapes, and recite my poetry for you; that sort of thing." He is silent, watching me, and I'm waiting for him to laugh. "I'd do that for you… just to be helpful…"
"I don't know if it'd be helpful at all." His mouth smiles, but his eyes are all serious. I know that look.
"Okay, I'll forget the grapes."
He takes the coffee cup and places it on the concrete counter, then grabs my waist, and throws me over his shoulder in one mad move. I scream while he laughs, slapping my bum, heading purposefully toward the bed, which is only really a few strides from the kitchen.
"Okay, okay, I get it. You don't need a muse." He slaps my bum again, and I yelp, "Ouch! I would so not even be your muse if you asked me! That hurt." He throws me back on to the mattress, and I raise my hands, warding him off, while he grabs my wrists and pins them to either side of my head.
"Don't worry, I'll kiss it better." I laugh at the cheesiness of his reply, but my trousers are already off, he's as good as his word.
"Evan, I just…"
He stops. "You just what?"
"I just had a bath." I pretend to push him away, but of course I'm not really serious.
"I know, you smell great."
"And, we have stuff to do… "
He pulls the tattered Lonsdale hoodie I found in his bathroom over my head, and my words are muffled in the heavy fabric of the oversized sweater.
"What did you say you wanted me to do?" he asks when my head finally emerges, face flushed, hair everywhere. The smart comeback I'm about to say is lost as he carries on doing what I hoped he'd do all along.
Much later, no further forward with our day, I jump from a doze that may have lasted a week, entirely naked and disorientated. Evan is no longer beside me, but on the other side of the studio, sketching and making notes. I pull the hoodie on and pad over to where he sits, wearing only his jockeys, hands black with charcoal.
"Hey." He smiles up as though he'd forgotten I'm here. "Turns out you might be my muse after all."
Moving closer, I lay a hand on his shoulder and look down at the sketch. He continues in some sort of hurry to get the image that has appeared in his head onto paper. It's a figure, arms outstretched, face undefined. The charcoal edges are smudged, giving an impression of movement, perhaps flight. It hangs suspended, and as I watch him work, the elegant arms blur into wings.
He carries on without looking up, seemingly oblivious to my hand on his shoulder. The wings become more obvious, less human, more bird, feathered perhaps, and stunningly beautiful. I don't want to break the spell that has him drawing as though in a trance until unceremoniously a telephone rings, making me jump, and I remember I have a life outside of this blissful bubble. My mobile lies on the bench ringing loudly and I panic wondering what time it is realizing I really do have 'stuff to do' today.
"Billie, what time are we supposed to be there? The bloody tube has broken down, and I have to walk to the next station."
"What time is it now?" I'm trying not to sound entirely disoriented.
"It's twelve, for God's sake; tell me you've picked our robes up?" My eyes widen in horror that I could be so incredibly dizzy and lose track of myself this way. Our graduation ceremony is at 3:00 p.m. "Don't panic, I'm on it. I'll meet you at my room at one-thirty."
"Okay." Iris sounds marginally relieved. "What a palaver, honestly. Mam and Dad will be gutted if I don't have the robe and funny hat; they've probably been parked on the front row seats for hours."
I hear a car horn beep in the background, some muffled swearing, and then Iris is back. "Better run, I've a taxi driver with road rage after me. See you soon." She hangs up abruptly.
"Shit." I lay a shaky hand on my forehead.
"What's wrong?" Evan has snapped out of his mad sketching frenzy and looks up with concern.
"'I can't believe I almost forgot!" I dash around, scooping up abandoned clothes, trying not to panic.
"It's graduation ceremony today! At three!"
"It's not even one; you're not late," Evan answers, looking confused at the flap I'm in.
"I know, but look at me. I still have to pick up the robes and… never mind, I've got to run."
"Okay, will I see you later?"
I pause only because I'm not sure what has been organized for the night. There was talk of some post ceremony drinks and nibbles for friends and families, but I hadn't taken much notice as I hadn't invited any family to come along. To be honest, it hadn't felt like a big deal, and I wasn't too wound up about the whole thing. That said, half of Iris's family had planned a summer holiday around the event and would be there to see her take the stage and become a graduate.
"I'll call you."
"Can I come?"
I stop rushing around for a second and look at him. "I didn't think you'd want to."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Well, it'll be boring as hell, and you'd have to sit on an uncomfortable seat for three hours watching hordes of people you don't know get a little certificate to tell them they can go make their way in the world."
"You're right, boring as hell." He watches me as I scurry around trying to locate a missing boot while tying my hair up in a ponytail. "Billie, I've had this great idea."
"Uh-huh." I am only half-listening, suddenly struck by the thought that the robe shop on campus may close at lunchtime.
"Move in with me." I stop midflight and turn to him. He shrugs, and I let my breath escape slowly, trying not to look fazed. He waits, watching, but I'm overwhelmed and it shows. I have of course been entertaining the fantasy, but in those love-struck daydreams, that bit happens later. I'm late and panicked and so rather than say the immediate "yes" that feels inevitable, I suck in my breath, close my eyes, and press my hands together, trying to gather my thoughts.
"Nothing, I just need to go right now."
"Is that a no then?" His expression is unreadable and his usual humor has left the building.
"No… I mean yes." Now I'm all flustered and suddenly feel unsure of everything, not how I feel about him, but the pace that all this is progressing. It's not the way I do things. Momentarily confused, I shake my head and scoop up my bag. "Today, I'm going to graduate, and then I can think about tomorrow."
He watches me, unblinking.
"It's not a no, Evan, I'm just a little freaked out." He still doesn't answer, and the moment is so unexpectedly tense I feel claustrophobic and need to leave. I grab my bag and head to the door, turning briefly to him. He looks out the window, back to me, arms folded.
"Bye." My voice is small and apologetic, and as the door closes, I feel the hot prickle of tears and hurry to the elevator, afraid I might give myself away. As my proximity to him lessens, the physical hold he has over me lets go its grip a little, and my confusion turns to anger. I replay the short scene that unexpectedly turned the mood on its head. I can't believe he's angry I didn't immediately say yes, jump into his arms, and tell him he is the man of my dreams. Despite feeling he really might be that guy, his cold response to my confusion has thrown me, and I'd like to yell at him for making me feel shitty for wanting to take a little time over a fairly big decision. At the same time, here I am tearful and afraid that somehow I may have ruined things and punctured the perfect bubble I have naively been living in for the past three weeks.
The auditorium is packed with family members and loved ones, bottoms in Sunday best squashed on to row upon row of folding chairs and I wish just for a moment I had someone here, too. A proud face in the crowd to nod and think, "That's my girl. Didn't she do well?" It's my own fault, of course. I didn't bother telling anyone about the ceremony, didn't feel like the fuss or tension between Dad and Step Dad; an extra reminder that Mom, always the peacemaker, isn't here. So, here I sit in a row of similarly dark-robed friends with funny chalkboard hats listening to the university Vice Chancellor's speech about education and future potential and promising careers.
Slowly, slowly, row by row, we take the stage and walk left to right as our name is called to be congratulated and presented with a rolled certificate. It's all a little tedious, and I can't believe anyone in the room, aside from the proudest of parents, is having a good time. Iris's family (as expected), sit near the front, turning regularly to catch sight of her and give a wink or a wave. The audience have been asked to keep their applause till the end of each class division to prevent the event running on till midnight, but when Iris takes the stage, there's an outburst of wild cheering as Mum, Dad, brother Gav, and Aunty Agnes stand for a full ovation. Iris gives a dramatic curtsey to the Vice Chancellor, a thumbs-up to her proud family, and skips off the stage, clutching the roll of paper she hopes will make her fortune.
Suddenly, my cheeks are red, and my eyes threaten to spill over as waves of emotion take me by surprise; a family of sad and happy thoughts and memories buzz around my dramatic head, and as my name is called, I'm dabbing at my face with the edge of my graduation robe. Dez nudges me from behind, and I rise, taking a deep breath, and head down, praying I don't embarrass myself with a quivering chin as I do the steady walk from left to right. Conscious of the heat and heavy, expectant silence, I let one foot lead the other, step by step toward the Chancellor, and smile in what I hope appears a gracious manner and take my ribbon rolled certificate.
"Congratulations Billie May, and best of luck for the future." The words almost set me off again, but I focus on his polka-dot tie and manage to keep the waterworks at bay. We shake formally; he has cool hands and a kind smile, and I smile back, surprising myself with how important the moment feels. It's my final step in academia and first step into the real world; a rite of passage and a new beginning.
Still smiling, I exit left when there's an obnoxiously loud wolf whistle from the back of the hall. Heads crane around in the direction of the noise, and there is much "tut-tutting" as people rubberneck to see where the disturbance has come from. The whistle sounds again, this time followed by a very loud, well-oiled Irish voice.
"Billie May… I love you… did you hear that? I love you…" The next drunken word is intercepted by campus security, and there's some commotion and swearing as Evan objects to being ejected. I'm frozen on the stage, unsteady legs only just keeping me upright as I conduct an internal debate from eyes and ears to brain. What I can see and hear cannot be happening; Evan wouldn't behave this way, wouldn't make a fool of himself like this, wouldn't sabotage my ceremony. Eyes wide, hand covering my mouth, I watch in horror, unsure whether to laugh or cry. All around the audience swivel heads from me to the figure at the back of the hall still slurring words of love as he is forcibly removed by two swarthy security guards.
I walk steadily to my seat, my cheeks burning. Iris and Dez are in hysterics. The Vice Chancellor taps the microphone and professionally settles the auditorium before continuing on with the next long list of names, praying, no doubt, that there are no more drunken delays to keep him from the free champers outside.
"Oh my God, Billie, that was pure class!!" Iris hisses in my ear. "He is one crazy fucker!" She can barely contain her giggles.
Dez leans in, mimicking, "Billie May, I love you, too… " I jab an elbow back in his direction, but he carries on regardless. "Bloody hell, I need some of what he's had. There'll be no action in the sack tonight, girl, that boy'll have to go sleep that one off!"
I shush them both, gesturing at the stage while the rest of the ceremony carries on uneventfully. I want to laugh about it too, like them, make light of the whole thing, but I can't. I sit preoccupied, furious with him, then worried about him, and then frustratingly a tiny bit flattered that he made such an ass of himself for me.
I try not to lose sight of the nostalgic feelings I was enjoying only a short while ago and hone in on the last few robed handshakes and speeches from academics, all the while hoping he is asleep at home working up the hangover he will no doubt be nursing by midnight.
The crowd has been ushered from the stuffy auditorium to a huge canvas tent set up on the cricket pitch where family members hug flushed new graduates and drink bubbles in plastic flute glasses. Iris is giggly and a little drunk already; her Mum and Dad bustling around looking proud, and Gav chats with Dez, eyes scanning the marquee at the mass of gorgeous girl graduates ready to party.
"I can't believe Evan did that Billie. That guy's crazy?" Iris's eyes are wide as she relives the scene in the auditorium. She claps her hands together in glee, loving that Evan appears to be crazier than her.
I shake my head in disbelief; I still can't decide whether I find the incident appalling or quite funny. "He is." I don't know what else to say; he is, as Iris says, entirely mad.
"Pure class, escorted out of graduation by security. I love it!"
"What will they do to him?"
Iris slaps my arm like I've just made a hilarious joke. "Well, he's not off to Barlinnie, if that's what you mean! Don't worry, Billie; they're not about to arrest him for getting pissed and telling his girlfriend he loves her at graduation. He'll be down the pub by now waiting for you."
"You think?" I frown, still part worried, part mad, but heading toward 'part drunk,' and really just desperately want to see him.
"What's up with you? You're acting weirder than usual."
I take a large glug of my fake champers and screw up my lips. "Yuck."
"Here, have another; that'll help." Iris pushes another plastic glass into my hand before I have time to object. "Spit it out then, what's up?"
"I don't know, I've never met anyone like him before…" Iris rolls her eyes and then makes a gagging face. I nudge her in the ribs and continue. "He wants me to move in with him, but it all feels so fast."
"And the problem is?" Iris looks at me like I'm the mad one now.
"Well… I really like him."
"And?" She looks at me in disbelief.
Iris raises a hand and interrupts me. "And, nothing! Will you get over yourself Billie, and quit thinking everything through? Make a few rash decisions. So what? You really like him!" She raises her voice. "Why the hell shouldn't you? He's gorgeous, and he's Irish; what's not to like? Go have fun, for Christ's sake, you bloody well deserve some!"
She stops for breath and turns around as though expecting some applause for her motivational soliloquy. Jim, Iris's Dad, stands beside us, nodding and looking interested. He's traded the bubbles for a pint of something frothy and dark brown and raises the glass to me.
"Aye, cheers to that, so you do Billie! Away and tell that boy how you feel!"
He nods sagely and slurps a great mouthful of frothy beer, then tries to disguise a gassy belch. I suddenly see the funny side of everything. Maybe it's the company, the bubbles, or just the moment but soon we are all laughing and my worries leave with the first of the robed graduates heading for the pub.
By twelve-thirty, we have lost the cloaks and the hats, have drunk more than we should, and are ready to go dancing. We file into our usual haunt, 'Crystals', a sticky-floored student nightclub where the music is great and the drinks cheap. I keep expecting to find him waiting somewhere for me, ready to laugh off the wolf whistling scene, and whisk me away to his apartment where we'd forget all the tension from before, and I'd "get over myself," as Iris so nicely put it and maybe make a few rash decisions. That could have been my hesitation with the move-in thing. It feels that the only decisions I've made since laying eyes on him have been rash ones and I freaked out. Just asking for time to think it through shouldn't have been such a big deal, right?
He's not here, the nightclub is packed, and there are sweaty bodies everywhere. That feeling of claustrophobia is all over me again, and I suddenly need to leave. I don't worry about goodbyes, no one cares much at this stage of the night, and most are too sozzled to notice. I slip out of the exit into the cool night air and decide that if he's not coming to me, I'll just have to go to him.
The confidence and bravado I felt in town is long gone by the time I reach the door to his apartment. I am now substantially soberer than before; a combination of the cool night air and the brisk walk. Suddenly unsure if I'm doing the right thing, it takes a long minute of almost pressing the buzzer before I finally do. The tinny sound rings loudly on the quiet street, and I imagine the shrill noise upstairs that might wake him; it is 1:30 a.m.
The automated latch opens as someone inside the apartment block (Evan, I hope) lets me in. The thought of the dark elevator creeps me out, so I take the long stair climb, also creepy but at least dimly lit. By the eighth floor my legs are shaking, and I'm breathing so heavily I'm sure I might wake someone. There is a light on in Evan's apartment; it shines through the high glass panel above the front door, and I take this to be a good sign. Knocking tentatively, I wait, still gasping for air. Nothing. I knock again, louder this time, and as the door clicks open, I jump.
"Come in," says the retreating back. Not the, "Hello, hey baby," "So glad you came over," sort of a welcome I'd been hoping for. He disappears around the corner, and I follow, waiting nervously at the edge of the studio while he stands, still facing away from me, stirring something in a cup on the counter. All this way in the night to see him, and I'm lost for words, wondering why I came and wishing he'd just turn around.
"I was waiting for you in town," I say hesitantly to his back. An old white shirt hangs loosely over jeans, and his feet are bare.
"I thought you'd come out and meet us after…" I have a sudden flashback to the wolf whistling and calling. Evan at the back of the auditorium, hands in the air, making a scene. He has obviously sobered up but I don't see signs of the hangover he deserves.
"I was busy." He still hasn't turned around, and I'm beginning to feel freaked out.
"You were busy?" His flippant reply irks me. "So after making me feel like a total ass in front of the entire university, you decided you'd go find something better to do?" I can feel myself bristling and just want him to turn around!
"Look." He pauses, seeming to gather himself before carrying on. "I'm sorry, that was stupid. I didn't plan it. I came down to see you, I wanted to watch… I'd had a few drinks and well… story of my fucking life."
Is this supposed to be my explanation? "Will you shut up and turn around?" His shoulders sink a little, but he does and I hear myself do the dramatic girly gasp as his face catches the light; one eye is swollen shut, his upper lip is gashed, and cheek grazed. Frozen to the spot an awkward distance away, I reach out an arm, the other hand covering my mouth still wide in shock. Although only a second has passed, it feels like an hour before I find my voice.
"It was my fault." He looks away ashamed. Finding the use of my legs, I move to him, grabbing his hand, which I now see is dressed and bandaged.
"You were in a fight."
He looks at me with the one eye he can actually open. "Billie, I'm bad news; you should go."
I shake my head, grasping on to his good hand as he tries to move away. "Have you been to hospital?"
He lifts the bandaged hand. "Twelve stitches, then an escort to the cop station".
"Shit Evan, what did you do?" I shiver involuntarily, and he walks to the bed and grabs a blanket, throwing it round my shoulders, then passes me the well-stirred hot tea he'd been hovering over. I sink into his one armchair as he sits on the bed, his head hanging like a sorry dog.
"I can hardly remember. I'm a fucking idiot." He brings his hands to his face, and then winces, everything too sore to touch. "After you left this morning, I painted and drank too much, and then it seemed like a good idea to come along and tell you all the reasons why you should move in with me. As you can see, I made a total arse of myself and managed to show you instead a whole lot of fucking reasons you should steer clear."
He attempts a small smile, but his swollen lip isn't playing. "Those security fuckers decided to kick me out, and I got myself all fired up, knowing I'd managed to screw things up again. So I went and got myself in a good fight… and here we are."
"Here we are." I pull the blanket around me and wonder, not for the first time, where the other Billie has gone and if she's ever coming back. My head is jumbled, tangled thoughts and conflicting feelings battle for a place in line. All noise and chaos, but over everything, the loudest and most insistent of shouts is the one that says, "Listen… stop and listen. His words are true. He loves you."
Another long moment as we both stare at the cool concrete floor and the world slows down and stills. "What you said, before you got kicked out and got yourself beaten to a pulp… the bit you shouted after the whistle." My cheeks flush again, despite the chill. "Did you mean it?"
I'm wondering if I should re-word my question to, "Do you remember what you said?" Then follow it with: "Is the insane behavior and mad drinking a regular thing and were you serious when you said I should run for it?"
I don't say any of those things because my heart is heavy looking at him sitting on the edge of the bed, all broken and bruised, as though he won the lotto and lost the ticket. I want to fix him and make it better, and in that second of quiet contemplation, I make a decision on a deeper level that will shape my future.
The question has thrown him, and he looks up with his one good eye fixed on me. "I did."
I feel the confusion and fear sort of slipping away in the darkness, leaving me strangely calm and full of hope, despite the scene. Despite the drunken, mad behavior and the bruised face, despite the intensity and the anger and his total unpredictability thus far, his passion and honesty are real. That he loved me enough to shout it in front of 500 strangers today fills me with joy rather than horror, and in that moment, all the flashing strobe warning lights dim to candle flickers.
I decide to let myself love him back.
"Will you say it again…?" There's a flicker of hope in his face as he watches me carefully, then says it quietly this time, for an audience of one; not for attention or to make a scene, but because he means it and I need to hear it.
"I love you."
I close my eyes. The words fill me up, but I'm afraid to trust myself.
"How can you be sure?"
Evan rests his palms on top of his head, still staring at the floor, unable to look at me.
"I can't explain. I told you before; I just know, and it's making me crazy. I don't know what to do with it, and I'm afraid of fucking up."
Pulling the woollen blanket with me, I sit on the floor by his feet, and he strokes my hair with his good hand, movement careful and unsure.
"I love you, too."
I sit beside him on the bed and hold shaky hands on either side of his bloodied face. His hands cover mine, and for a time, we sit together, letting the moment rest before moving slowly back to lie on the bed, face to face, chest to chest, too sore and bone-tired to do anything but touch. We talk quietly till the sun comes up and then fall asleep entwined; his head on my chest, my limbs wrapping him in a promise that tomorrow will be better.
I wake before Evan and lie still, gazing around the studio as the light changes and brightens on every surface. In the dim haze of last night, I noticed only Evan and the bruised, bloody face he tried to hide. Now I see the walls covered in a breath-taking collection of charcoal drawings. Huge sheets of torn paper, the winged woman of before in varying poses, her posture elegant, then suggestive, graceful then ugly; her features emotive, eyes large and expressive. And no matter how many times I rub the sleep from my eyes or tilt my head to view her from a different angle, from every place in the studio it is my face that stares back.
"Let's do it Billie; screw what anyone says. I sure as hell don't give a fuck!" He takes a deep breath before continuing, reigning in the anger which is beginning to surface. "Come with me, you won't be sorry. We'll make it work. Say you will."
I wait in silence for the break in Evan's persuasive speech; he finally runs out of steam, stopping for breath and placing a hand on his forehead before sighing, eyes raised to the heavens. "Do you always have to be so fucking pragmatic?"
I take a moment to enjoy the power. He is waiting for me to call the shots, and although I know my answer, I drag the moment out just a bit longer. We stand in the middle of Evan's studio, and I can see his breath; icy white puffs of frustration as he waits for the answer which will determine our future.
"That's what I said. I'll come."
I can't help but smile at the incredulous look on Evan's face. Did he really think I'd let him go? His furrowed brow is gone, and he has the look of a little boy just given a lifetime supply of ice cream. "You can't change your mind; you've said it now." He folds his arms across his chest, warily smiling, but still unsure.
"I know." I fold my arms across my chest, mirroring his ‘don't mess with me’ pose and try to convey a certainty I don't feel.
Evan has been offered a job in Paris; not just any job, but a great job. A dream job. One that is tempting enough to lure him from this drafty loft space studio to a downtown Parisian apartment and nine to five hours in a suit. I can't imagine the transformation or how it will fit Evan, the complete non-conformist, but this is the chance he has been waiting for, and he wants me to pack up and move with him.
We have known each other six months, and I have no doubts that Evan was sent to this planet for me. Life before him has faded into some non-descript haze of blahness, and an imagined future without him is not an option. But I find myself thrown by the news that things must change. I'm reluctant to give up our idyllic existence here where I write by day and waitress by night, where Evan makes art, and together, we somehow scrape together enough money to pay rent and buy bread, wine, and coffee: the essentials.
We have been living together in a perfect bubble of each other and dreams for our separate, creative future ambitions, unhindered by any real responsibility, fuelled by an imagined future. It's a bubble where anything feels possible and all of life is presented as an opportunity. With Evan, I believe I can do anything; I will become published, and in my love-struck haze, I write with new passion. I am wordsmith and nothing escapes an evaluation in long verbose descriptions in my head. Thankfully, by the time my words reach paper, they have been reduced to something more concise and, I hope, less sappy.
Every day I wake up surprised to find myself here beside Evan and constructs from his flying world. We are happy together, and since graduation, which already seems like an eternity ago, there has been little to wobble the pedestal I place Evan on. That I could be this fortunate takes my breath away. And so I begin each day with a long, deep breath, some good sex, and a big hallelujah to whoever is up there looking after me. Being a strong believer in karma, I figure I must have done some pretty selfless things in a life before this one, and I'm hoping all this selfish pleasure isn't screwing me over in the next life.
Evan rugby tackles me before I can change my mind, and I fall backward onto the tatty sofa, yelling in protest but actually not trying terribly hard to fend him off. A coffee cup smashes to the floor, a flailing limb toppling its contents over a newspaper opened to the careers section. There is a thud on the stairs, followed by several more, and a loud bang on the door.
"Ignore it," growls Evan in my ear, and I do until the banging persists and Iris's voice is heard in perfect foghorn pitch.
"Quit shagging you two, and let us in!"
Evan flops on top of me, sighing in resignation, while Iris continues her barrage from the stairwell; she is not a force to be messed with. "Are you coming to the pub or not? Me and Dez here are just about dead walking up those bloody stairs! When are you getting a real flat Evan? C'mon, let us in. We're taking you two for a pint!"
I push Evan off, laughing and rearrange my clothes.
Iris and I link arms as we make our way to the local pub; 'The Barley Mow'. The night is cold and damp, and we huddle together talking conspiratorially. "Hope you haven't made a decision yet," Iris says, the boys trailing behind, out of earshot, talking music.
"Well…" My hesitation speaks for me.
"Oh, c'mon, Billie, I thought you were going to give it some time, a few weeks at least! What about your internship? I thought you had that all planned out." She lectures out of concern, and her worry merely mirrors my own, but I've made my decision. "I know, and I've thought it all through. It's the right thing."
Iris throws me a questioning look. "I swear to God, Billie May Worthington," she uses my full country and western style name for effect, "I'd believe the body snatchers had taken you in the night and replaced you with Barbie!"
I tug my arm from hers, laughing, and give her a friendly punch to the arm.
"What happened to 'Billie May… make some rash decisions for once?'" I impersonate her in my best (really quite bad) Irish accent. She frowns momentarily then a light goes on as she remembers. "Oh, that? That was just the champers talking; you didn't think I meant it, did you?"
I laugh, and we carry on, walking down the dark, cold streets, past terraced houses and corner shops.
"Anyway, you really can't talk, can you, 'Mrs 'never made a rash decision in love before'!'"
"Yes, you, Iris O'Neill! You are one fat hypocrite. You have thrown deadlines, plans, and friends out of the window more times than I can remember the minute your latest love interest gives you the thumbs up."
"Watch it cowgirl. I'll have you know I've a romantic heart is all, and by the way, I resent the fat bit. I may be a hypocrite, but this arse can still squeeze into size ten jeans from Topshop!"
"You've got to be kidding me!" I squeal. "Is that with or without high control support pants?"
Iris screams with laughter and punches me back, her Beyoncé-size bottom always a topic for teasing. At all the hilarity, Dez and Evan descend, keen to share the joke. Evan slides between me and Iris, throwing his arms around both of us. "Break it up ladies." He is all smiles; the victory from my earlier decision fresh on his face.
"Feck it, here's Ken!" says Iris, frowning up at him. Evan looks bewildered as I laugh and Dez strides ahead to open the door to the pub.
Inside, the sights and sounds are familiar and comforting. Lots of university friends crowded into corners, around tables topped with pint glasses and empty packets of potato chips, laughter and music.
"I'll sort the bevies out," says Dez, as he weaves his way through the crowded bar. Iris heads for what looks like the last free table. The pub is full of people from university who, a little like us, haven't quite moved on to the next phase. In between graduation and new careers, they stay here and string out the university experience just a little longer, ignoring the responsible world till start dates demand they consider mortgages and pinstriped suits.
The night is one of laughter and memories of good things from our times here at this point in our lives. Strange that within a year mostly everyone will move on to somewhere else, to a different phase of their lives where student days will seem distant and strangely carefree, despite the pressures of study and exams and a future reliant upon good grades and job applications. We all fit; this cross-section of life, all with hopes and dreams, all on the brink of the adventure that ‘grown up’ life holds. We are a bustling, drunken collective of tomorrow's potential lawyers, doctors, artists, writers, teachers, accountants, dreamers, and drunks. Anything is possible, and with that thought in mind, we are excitable and overconfident; tomorrow we could do anything, but tonight we enjoy this moment when possibilities bubble in the froth of our beer.
Any indecision on my part soon fades as the momentum of our move to Paris gains speed. There are so many loose ends to tie up when leaving one life to begin another. My internship at Baker & Marlow publishing house was to begin in six months within the editorial department. Giving up this opportunity is huge for me, but I know opportunities will be waiting elsewhere. My path with Evan will take me there, and so I decide that in Paris, I'll learn French and focus on my writing. I conclude that the time will give me the chance to see if I can write a novel worth publishing.
Evan's company, Sans Limites, is an international pioneer in ethical architecture based in the heart of Paris, and already, an apartment in the city waits. I move through the process of packing and goodbyes with a strange mixture of excitement and anxiety. All around, the old life is changing, everyone preparing for new challenges, careers, and locations; it's time for me, too, and wherever Evan went, I would inevitably follow; this much I knew.
Evan's art is sold, packed, or discarded to be ceremoniously burned, and with the money he makes, we are to set ourselves up in Paris before the first paycheck arrives. The models of flight from the exhibition on the night we met are packed; some boxed whole, the others carefully disassembled and laid piece by piece in layers of cotton.
On our last night, Evan makes a bonfire in the shared grass patch mistitled "garden," overgrown and untended by the busy commuters and students who live on the block. We gather with Iris, Dez, and the usual crowd to pay tribute to the great Gods of fortune who are to send us on our way into the world. The January night is cold but dry, and the sky glitters bright, a touch of frost in the air. Evan stands before us, glass in one hand, matches in the other, behind him is the tall pile of paper sketches, old canvases and wooden structures (some half completed), and others that seemed to me to be perfect and unworthy of the funeral pyre. Anything considered in any way imperfect by Evan was to be sacrificed to the fire. Friends had asked him to let them keep the odd model or sculpture lying nervously awaiting the flames, but Evan had refused; only perfection got to stay and be admired, the rest would go.
"… And so my friends… thank you for coming here on this fine London evening to celebrate this offering to the great God of art, good fortune, and good times. Before I light this fucker and warm us all up, I'd like to say thanks to you all for your friendship, and good luck for whatever comes next."
"Get on with it you Irish twat!" shouts Dez from the wings. Evan laughs, undeterred, bowing in recognition. "That I am… and so in good Irish tradition, I'd like you to raise your glasses." Evan is loving the stage and ceremony. We lift glasses and bottles to the darkening heavens.
"Happy trails!" shouts Evan and throws the lit match into the waiting pyre. It responds with a flash of brilliant light, a crackle and hiss as paper, canvas, then wood ignite; one following the other to a great crescendo of orange and red light. We cheer, and Evan takes a bow as the melancholic sounds of Jeff Buckley singing "Hallelujah" float around the scene, speakers propping open Evan's studio window high above.
Much later, lying on the grass with Evan, I wonder hazily about that fire—the way the flame traveled as though it had always known where to go, what to do, and who to follow. Waiting to be ignited, and then becoming for a time all there was, consuming in mesmerizing brightness and beauty all it touched, only to be extinguished into ash and smoke then nothing at all.
Evan strokes my bare arm as we lay side by side, with the fire out, the air is cold. Smoke blends with the smell of charred wood and grass sticking to my clothes and hair; the smell of childhood camping. Propping himself on one arm to face me, Evan touches my cheek.
"You know I wouldn't have gone without you."
I open my eyes and reach over to hold his hand, stained with ash from the fire. "Really…?" I reply, smiling in the dark. "Not even for an apartment in Paris, dream job, fat salary, and Parisian girls? Not to mention the great croissants."
He strokes his chin and turns his head thoughtfully to the side. "Well, I hadn't thought of it that way… now that you put it like that…"
I throw a handful of leaves at his playful expression, and he grabs me at the waist, straddling my horizontal frame, pinning me beneath him, then folds his arms and looks down at me menacingly. I return the stare, trying to look unfazed by the heat I feel move through me as his weight pins my hips down. He falls forward, hands on my shoulders, face above mine but not close enough to touch. I have gone from sleepy to adrenaline-fuelled in seconds. I think momentarily about who might still be around, but the quiet assures me that all have left or are drunkenly asleep.
There's a danger in Evan that is intoxicating and a need in him that passes to me. I close my eyes, leaving the Billie that I am accustomed to behind, sipping her tea, wearing her cardie. The Billie who inhabits me in these moments with Evan is awesomely unfamiliar. She is my ‘Go Girl’, daring and wild, knowing just what to do when cardie-wearing Billie would be cringing in disbelief.
"Fuck the croissants." He says, unwrapping the blanket around my shoulders, pulling one strap of my singlet down slowly, carefully, touching my breast then moving to the other strap. With both breasts free, he stops and watches me half-naked in the small, smoky backyard, covered in grass and ash. Our breath trails white in the creeping frost, but for now the cold is forgotten. I wait, the dark night heavy with smoke and anticipation; I watch him and wait. He looks up at the half moon, a cloud obscuring the silver light, breathing in deeply, he runs both hands through his dark hair then moves to me. My cares of where we are and who might be watching are hiding in the hedge, embarrassed. Billie the Goddess is in the house, and as Evan unbuttons my jeans and moves his hand inside, I am captured by the power of physical chemistry and the pull of sex. He closes his eyes and a low sound escapes from somewhere near the back of his throat; it's a cross between growl and a moan, the simple sound of a hot-blooded man about to get his rocks on. Unintentional and animalistic, a basic sound of anticipation and pleasure; the rumble before the eruption.
It never ceases to amaze me the time it takes some men to go from foreplay to "here I am in your pants; let's get it on!" How is it possible in the throes of passion to maneuver a belt, jockeys, and a penis so deftly then negotiate the quagmire of a woman's usually tight clothing and underwear? A thought crosses my mind that Evan must have had much practice at this skill, his timing to take off stunningly fast, but sassy Billie pushes the thought aside carelessly and enjoys the ride. This sex was an unspoken promise, a plan for our future, a new beginning, and a pledge to ride together wherever our "next" took us.
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