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Chapter 12: The Tripwire of Reality
Even I’ll admit that what I was writing was dullsville central. No more weird locals to study and document, no scandal, no gossip, none of the habitual oddness that had come with art school – just the enigma of call-me-Mary-Sue, the band rehearsals, and the vaguely alarming knowledge that a surprising number of the people I knew were getting hitched. I half expected to get an owl from Tarkatron and Gweniffer (as they had called themselves in their last letter) any day telling us they were going to pop into Gretna Green on the way up to visit us and tie the knot.
It was crazy, though, I thought. Everyone seemed surprisingly young. I thought back to when I was eighteen, when I’d just left school and was about to butcher my hair and run off to art school – I’d been very adamant, then, that I’d stay eighteen forever. Not literally, but, you know, I had this little masterplan of having a different hair colour and boyfriend every week, maybe a really cool little job and some trendy digs in Camden or something, lots of seizing the day and acting on impulse and whatnot. I’d just about accomplished the hair colour thing before reality, the economy and Scorpius caught up with me. It was kind of like all my foolish little teenage dreams had been running a marathon and then – bam! The tripwire of reality (economy, and Scorpius) strikes again!
I’m not sure I minded that (looking back, the idea of being trendy and seizing the day, every day is kind of laughable, plus I’m a tad fond of Scorpius), but somehow I felt that I’d never in my wildest dreams/nightmares (delete as applicable) envisioned myself as already settled down and working by the age of 23. Already thinking about such preposterously grown-up things as marriage and early bedtimes and actually doing the laundry and whatnot. No, I liked my life, but I still felt like the old me would have thrown a hissy fit if she could have actually seen her future in all those Divination lessons she sat through.
I tried to project this into what I was writing. No, really, I did. I tried so hard. But it was very whiny. Whinging, miserable, woe-is-me-why-do-I-have-to-grow-up sort of stuff. Here we have Fauna, craving the hedonistic life she always dreamed of: will she choose Buck for the thrill of sharing his life as a one-armed skydiver, or Eugene for his stability and baking skills? Eugene, duh.
The truth is that a girl will usually go for the nicest guy. I know I did, even if I wasn’t lusting after an improbable bad boy in the first place. Or maybe the whole thing was just one big inverted parody and it was actually a case of Scorpius picking the nice girl or something. Or maybe I was the bad girl. I’m not sure.
As the early days of January dragged on, it became harder and harder to write the damn thing. When I sat before the typewriter or with a notepad in my lap, it was easy to let my mind wander. Not even wander: my mind bloody went hiking.
Usually, what with being alone in the flat and stuff, when my mind went off to climb the Himalayas, it took a while to claw it back to coherent thought again. Luckily, Scorpius was often in too, and he seemed to be something of an expert in Lucy and her Mad Hiking Mind Studies, especially Module 1: Getting her Mind to Stop Hiking and Return to a Cogent and Brisk Pace. Probably passed with an Outstanding.
‘You’re doing that face again,’ he piped up, startling me out of my reverie so suddenly that my notebook fell from my lap and slapped onto the bare wooden floor.
‘What face?’ I turned to look at him. He was slouched on the other end of the sofa, sketchbook propped on his knee and a pencil in his hand. His trainers, resting on the coffee table, had scattered mud all over the newspapers. Given the state of the economy, this somehow seemed fitting.
‘That face you do when you think nobody’s watching,’ he said, squinting down at his book. ‘It’s good fun to draw.’
It was one of those moments where I felt something had been lost in translation between us.
‘Huh? You draw me?’
‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘You get really self-conscious. And you’re hard to draw. Kind of better when you’re relaxed.’
‘I’m hard to draw?’
‘It’s not the drawing itself that’s hard,’ he frowned. ‘It’s the finished result. If I get a tiny thing wrong, it looks…creepy. Because it’s like you but not you if you get me?’
I felt we were straying into artspeak territory.
‘Yeah,’ he continued. ‘I know, it’s only an interpretation of you. But, you know, it’s got to look like you, and when something’s a bit off, it’s scary. Because I see you every day and I know exactly what you look like, and if I get it wrong it’s like I’ve drawn a stranger.’
‘So…’ I said, still processing the phrase only an interpretation of you. ‘What is this face, then?’
‘It’s like you’re concentrating very hard on something. Something nobody else can see. Kind of like you’re angry at it, too. But your eyes are all wide and spacey, and there’s kind of a bit of a smile there too but you look really distracted at the same time, kind of worried too. That’s generally how I know your head’s in the clouds. You look a bit drunk, but not so happy.’
‘Surely that’s not a good thing? I don’t really want to look drunk.’
‘Nah, I like it.’
I felt like I should have been flattered by this, but I’d been in a bit of a touchy mood that week, and knowing he was drawing me had put me right off my non-concentration. I stood, picked my notebook up from the floor, made up an excuse about having to send an owl to my mum, and flounced off to the bedroom.
When I got there, I remembered that I did actually have something to do. I crossed over to the calendar Scorpius’ mum had sent us for Christmas – puffin-themed, although I wasn’t entirely sure why – and carefully wrote Gwen and Tarks visit on the twenty-sixth of January, which suddenly didn’t seem all that far away.
I’d no sooner set the quill down than the mirror caught my eye. It was as if it had been standing there all the time I’d been writing on the calendar, waving at me out of the corner of my eye, going yoo-hoo, loser! until I finally turned around, when it ended up standing there looking as smug and self-satisfied as an inanimate object ever can. Which isn’t really all that possible, but I have quite the overactive imagination.
Look, I’ve never pretended to have a knockout figure and conventional beauty. I try not to get bothered about my appearance. I don’t see the point; it’s not something I can change, unless I throw my salary away on pricey charms and that terrifying figure-controlling underwear you see in the magazine classifieds. I’ve got gappy teeth, and I cut my own hair, and my body is better at impersonating an ironing board than most ironing boards. I’m surprised my hips can even hold up my abdomen, let alone a pair of jeans. But I don’t usually let this bother me. Except, once in a while, when I’m feeling touchy, I get a proper look at myself and wish I did have the means to invest in some better skin and a nicer roots and whatnot. That was one of those times.
I ended up standing there trying to figure out if standing like a constipated duck made me look any more attractive and half-wishing that I was a bit more like those simpering heroines of Amortentia Publications who actually had something of note in the chest department.
It took me something like three minutes to realise that standing like a constipated duck didn’t make me look any more attractive. It just made me look like a constipated duck.
Scorpius wandered through from the kitchen/sitting room at that point, perching cross-legged on the end of the bed and looking up at me with an almighty sigh.
‘You know, you’ve been awfully funny this past week,’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ I snapped, knowing full well that the tone of my voice communicated the exact opposite.
‘Pfft, you’re not.’
‘I so am.’
‘You are so not.’
‘Yeah, well,’ I turned away from the mirror and flopped down onto the duvet, searching vainly for some sort of appropriate comeback. ‘You’ve been weird recently too.’
The look of vague amusement he’d been wearing faded slightly. ‘Huh?’
‘You know, past few months-’
‘You work so much!’ I frowned. ‘Way too much! You’re always tired!’
‘But I’ve got to work-’
‘Why?’ I demanded, aware that I was starting to sound a little shrill. ‘Why do you have to work so much? It’s going to make you ill-’
‘Because I need to! Because you need me to!’
‘I never said-’
At this point, he grasped me by the shoulders – not too hard, only just enough to make me realised that it was one of those rare occasions that he was desperate enough to make a point to overcome his own habitual shyness.
‘We’re poor,’ he said.
‘We’ve got enough to get by on, we’re hardly destitute!’
‘But we - what if – I dunno – what if something happens, or…or what if the economy takes another headplant? You know it’s tough already-’
‘We could what if for forever and a day, you can’t budget for everything!’
‘There’s no point arguing about it, you know we need the money. We need more than enough to just get by on, we need to put something away for a rainy day, maybe even save up so we can spruce up the flat a bit – I mean,’ he motioned around him. ‘We’re using a pile of magazines as a table!’
I didn’t mean to sound so spiteful, but when I said ‘It’ll always be a rainy day, Scorpius,’ it was as if I’d punched him in the face.
‘Let me get another job, then,’ I said. ‘Let me work more. It’s hardly fair that you have to work three jobs and I just arse around with a typewriter all day-’
‘But that’s not fair either.’
The fight seemed to go out of him. ‘Your writing pays more than me…flogging cameras, and stuff. I dunno, I just – we should probably save up a bit, you know? Put something away for…you know, days to come. Maybe a better flat, or something.’
‘I like our crappy flats. They’ve got character.’
‘Yeah, but…I wish we had something to show for ourselves. We can do better than this.’
‘Having money isn’t the key to happiness,’ I said, evidently having transgressed from stupidity to philosophy.
‘But it helps,’ he said.
And I got what he meant, I really did, and that’d probably why I couldn’t spout the usual but all you need is love and tea and toast maxim that was on the tip of my tongue. I knew he was right. I knew we were just on the wrong side of skint, struggling in an economy that was on the turn. If anything, my little gig with Witch Weekly had been the fluke of the century.
So instead I said this: ‘God, you’re always on about money. Give me a break.’
There’s something I’ve always been very good at, and it’s saying the exact opposite of what I really want to say. It makes me quite good at killing arguments. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not, though.
‘It’s important to me,’ he sounded incredibly glum. ‘Look, my shift starts in an hour.’
And then the worst bit-
‘We’ll talk later.’
I hated that phrase. It reminded me of a few very specific moments in my life when I’d heard it from my parents, usually when I came home drunk in the very small hours of the morning during the summer holidays and usually preceding a severe telling-off. It was the sort of phrase that made me jittery and nervous and drop things.
And the thing about us was that, even though we argued as the next couple, we rarely had those we’ll talk later conversations. Usually, our arguments were petty in the extreme. Trivialities and fripperies formed the basis of just about everything we did, mostly because ‘trivialities and fripperies’ is a fantastic combination of words that needs to be said more often.
There were things to do first, though. Scorpius had his work, I had my arsing around with a typewriter, and then we both had a band rehearsal of the still-unnamed-New-New-Elgin band at three that afternoon. Although call-me-Mary-Sue had taken it upon herself to enter as a solo act on behalf of the town, it seemed that the town in question was still intent on entering (and winning) and were going to perform, fluttery eyelashes or not.
So Scorpius vanished off to flog cameras, I vanished into a smog of daydreaming and absent-minded noodling on the typewriter, and the day vanished in what felt like a matter of seconds. I felt like I’d only just sat down when the clock ticked round to quarter to three and I had to get back up again and put my anorak on.
The snow had stuck around after the New Year and showed no signs of leaving. I had to watch my step on the way to the Town Hall; the streets were paved with ice, bordered with lumpy snow on either side that turned to slush where the two met.
I wasn’t the last person to arrive at the town hall, but I was by no means the first. Most of the ‘band’ (inverted commas very much intended) had already assembled, plus a crowd of assorted hangers-on and New New Elginers who were probably just there for the free tea and biscuits like I was.
Scorpius wasn’t there, though. I gave him half an hour. He’d never been entirely punctual as a person, and I knew how difficult the Floo Network could be at rush hour – half an hour tops. Half an hour before I’d allow the little nervy feeling that’d been twisting me inside out all day to take hold and develop into full-scale worrying. Look, I know he’s perfectly old enough to look after himself and all that, but the boy’s chronically accident prone and I like to keep an eye out for him.
I moseyed around the hall for a bit, chit-chatted, swapped some small talk, munched my way through a plate of shortbread with the help of Jeans C and P – the day continued to slip away, minute by minute, until it got to half past three and he still wasn’t there.
I started to worry.
‘Something on your mind?’ Jean C asked, cracking open another tin of shortbread. Over on the other side of the hall, the musical types were ‘jamming’ together (I was sorely disappointed when I found out that this didn’t actually involve any jam).
‘Yeah, sort of,’ I said. ‘Scorpius is late.’
She shrugged. ‘It’s only been half an hour.’
Half an hour it might only have been, but I’d been on edge all day – no, more like all week, for no reason – and my mind had already been fast at work conjuring up horrible nightmares in which he was caught up in the imminent zombie apocalypse, only to return, even more accident-prone as one of the undead.
Another quarter of an hour. Then another five minutes. Two minutes. I couldn’t stop looking at the clock. Then, suddenly, it was four, and I was standing up and telling the two Jeans and the box of biscuits that I had a headache and was going to go back to the flat.
It was a blatant lie. I knew I was raining on the parade – whoops, band rehearsal – by being so intensely anxious and worried and gobbling up all the biscuits and, besides, I just wanted to check the flat and see if Scorpius had just forgotten to turn up to the town hall. I felt it would put my mind at ease.
On the walk home, I tried to reassure myself. It was probably a work thing. Probably another shift, overtime, something like that – or maybe he’d gone to see his mum on the way home and lost track of the time. Or maybe there had been a zombie apocalypse and the relative isolation of New New Elgin had kept me in the dark about it.
Or maybe he was just trying to squirm out of ‘talking later’.
Halfway down the High Street, I tried to construct an entirely sensible and zombie-free scenario that would explain away his mysterious absence. It was Cameraderie. They had a difficult customer; he was trying to put seven colour films in for one-hour processing five minutes before closing time, and was holding Scorpius at wandpoint until they did it. He’d be there, looking adorably downtrodden and scared, still wearing the threadbare maroon corduroy jacket he’d left in that morning, probably crying a little bit. He’d be pleading with the customer. I have a girlfriend in New New Elgin, please, curse her instead. He might even have been set free already; he’d be in the flat when I got back, it had been a misunderstanding all along, we’d laugh it off, and we’d never have to talk.
I was so busy trying to construct this comforting thought I was barely looking where I was going, let alone what or even who was behind me. I’d just stepped onto Burns Lane when something hit me in the small of the back like a dull punch. It’s a cliché, but – and trust my artistic licence on this - everything went black.
a/n: oh how I missed writing Lucy angst and cliffhangers. Here's a double-whammy. I even had to switch to my angst playlist and all to write this, even though I mostly just played 'love will tear us apart' by joy division on repeat.
thank you for reading & i hope you liked it (and don't hate me too much for my angst and my cliffhangers! I promise, the next chapter is...well, cracky. And Scorpius really gets his moment in it).