chapter fourteen - the conversational bus network
I’ve had horrible hangovers in my time, but none of them truly held a handle to the hangover from Burns Night. Probably just as well; I felt so alcoholic that it was inadvisable to hold a naked flame anywhere near me.
I woke up feeling like I was locked into a suitcase with sandpaper stuffed down my throat. After a bit of wriggling about, I worked out that I was actually safely tucked up in bed, although the covers were the wrong way round and the pillows had vanished.
It also felt like someone had hit me over the head with a sledgehammer. Repeatedly.
I curled up into the foetal position and burrowed deeper into the covers like a child hiding from the dark. It felt as if my internal organs had decided to go on holiday but were a bit late for their bus and were subsequently trying to make a speedy exit through my mouth. Bundled up with the duvet over my head, I just lay there and wished I’d never been born until the covers were unceremoniously thrown back and a bright light appeared, only to be blocked out a moment later when Scorpius popped up holding the Holy Grail.
I say Holy Grail, but I mean a tumbler full of cold water and a half-empty phial of Auntie Angela’s Instant Pick-me-up potion, which is a pretty cheery name for something that is essentially industrial strength painkiller for those well over the apparition limit.
I gulped it all down before Scorpius even had a chance to speak. He just sat beside me and patted me awkwardly on the back while I shivered and stuck my head between my knees.
‘So,’ he said, after a few minutes of this had passed. ‘Do you want the good or the bad news first?’
‘Argh,’ I shoved him off. ‘I don’t want…I can’t
‘Well, good news is that you enjoyed yourself.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
‘Bad news is that…well, you called Mary-Susannah a bitch and tried to steal an accordion.’
Despite the pain and nausea, I felt myself go a little bit numb. ‘Oh, oh no-’
‘Yeah, and you punched Prentice in the face.’
‘It wasn’t intentional!’ he said quickly. ‘And Prentice didn’t mind. It was during the strip the willow dance, you see, when everyone’s a bit violent and-’
‘Oh, you know, it’s all like, linking arms and spinning around really fast and…well, your fists where everywhere. But it all turned out okay!’ he added. ‘Jock managed to fix his nose up right away-’
‘Yeah, and I’ve never seen someone undo a shirt that fast in my whole life.’
‘Don’t worry, you were in the flat at that point!’ he added, as put my head between my knees again. ‘Still kind of alarming, though-’
‘Oh, shut up,’ I pressed my fingers to my eyes, trying to un-see the chaos that was the bedroom. A picture frame hung crooked on the wall, a tartan scarf lay crumpled in a corner. The magazine table had been pushed over; an avalanche of Artistic Review Monthly
had buried the right hand side of the room.
‘Did…did I do this?’
‘Well, I always said you were a happy drunk,’ he said. ‘And…you’re a lot bouncier when you’re happy.’
I had a sudden, vivid mental image of Scorpius throwing me repeatedly at a wall whilst I boinged back like a rubber ball. Then I shook the image out of my head and shut my eyes tight.
‘Right, well, I’ll go and put the kettle on,’ he said warily, as I hugged my knees to my chest and began to rock back and forth. He toddled off to the kitchen, and I took a deep breath and swung my legs out of bed, thinking I should probably go and lie under a cold shower for a bit to make me feel better.
As I stood, the calendar caught my eye. Burns Night hadn’t been crossed off and, so, methodically, I picked up the black marker pen we used to score off the days from where it had been left lying on the floor, and then carefully drew a x over the twenty-fifth.
Some very familiar handwriting on the day below caught my eye.
Gwen and Tarks visit
And then, underneath, in Scorpius’ crawl.
Pick up from bus stop at ten am.
I felt a little bit more nauseous.
‘Scorpius?’ I called out in my croaky, post-party voice. ‘What time is it?’
He came back through from the kitchen and crossed the room to stand beside me, one hand on my waist and the other clutching his tea. He peered at the calendar over my shoulder.
‘Er,’ he said.
‘It’s quarter to ten.’
There was no time to lose. The hangover could wait; I was suddenly an evil overlord, barking out commands while a startled Scorpius dithered about like a moth around an electric flame.
‘We have to tidy. No, you tidy, I’ll go pick them up. Sort out these magazines – no, do the kitchen first! Repair anything I broke! And make it snappy!’
First things first. I had to look a little more presentable. With one hand, I threw open the wardrobe and clawed at the tangle of clothes within, whilst the other worked at tugging off the baggy t-shirt I used as pyjamas.
‘Don’t just stand there,’ I hissed, as the still-dithering Scorpius dithered around behind me. ‘Or do you have work?’
‘I took the day off!’
‘-on the condition that I work the late shift the rest of the week barring Wednesday when I…I...’
I froze, the shirt stuck around my ears.
‘Well,’ I finally said. ‘At least it’s something.’
‘Er,’ he dithered. ‘You…should probably finish getting changed.’
He dithered off into the kitchen and I dressed in the cleanest things I could find, shoving my feet into the same well-worn grubby excuses for trainers I wore every day. Then I bounded out of the bedroom, cuffed Scorpius around the head as a sort of goodbye, seized my anorak, and then sprinted out of the flat and down the stairs.
Out in five minutes. It had to be a record. Even for a scatterbrain like me.
I hadn’t exactly had the chance to put on make-up or even wash my hair, but I figured Tarquin and Gwen were probably well used to seeing me hungover by this point.
They were already there by the time I’d reached the bus stop. I’d quit running by the time I got to the High Street, slowing to a brisk pace instead, but I was still catastrophically short of breath and red in the face.
The two of them seemed to perk up at the sight of me. Gwen tried to wriggle out of the large rucksack she was sporting, whereas Tarquin threw all caution to the wind and bounded up with his industrial-sized rucksack still strapped on. I only had a moment to catch my breath before he crashed into me and, seconds later, Gwen came running up and threw her arms around the both of us.
‘It’s been so long!’ Tarquin cried.
‘It’s been two months!’ Gwen corrected.
‘I’m so sorry!’ I said, as the two of them did a brilliant job at impersonating boa constrictors. I was more than aware that I probably looked (and smelled) like the walking personification of a morning after. ‘I’m so hungover!’
I felt like they’d be angry and, to be honest, I felt pretty crummy for not having made an effort for them, but then Tarquin released me and gripped me by the shoulders.
‘Aw, you started without us!’
Gwen, who had broken away to rummage about in her rucksack, reappeared with a bottle of wine in each hand.
‘Hair of the dog!’ she said brightly. ‘Now, take us to your leader!’
It took us a while to get back to the flat, a mixture of me dawdling to give Scorpius more time to clear up the trail of destruction I’d caused the night before, and Tarquin and Gwen stopping every few minutes to point at something and laugh. They seemed very taken by the tartan fiesta and cuddly Loch Ness monsters on display in the window of CUMBERNAULD NEWSAGENTS.
The door to the flat was opened by a very flustered Scorpius, who was holding a tin of baked banes in one hand and had a paintbrush between his teeth.
‘E-yo,’ he offered by way of greeting, before spitting the paintbrush out into a corner, putting the baked beans onto a bookshelf and letting us into the flat.
It was pretty tidy, I had to give him that. It was a little higgledy-piggledy and the toaster was mysteriously upside-down, but there was a general air of order that had not been there when I’d sprinted out about half an hour before. The sofa looked a little out of sorts, as if the cushions had been stuffed with duvets and then inflated. This concerned me.
‘Did you hide something in the sofa?’ I muttered, as we busied ourselves with taking Tarquin and Gwen’s coats.
‘Nope,’ Scorpius said. ‘Just checking to see if the sofabed still worked.’
Then he threw out his arms, stepped back, and declared-
‘Ta-dah! Our snazzy, crappy flat!’
And at that moment, the cushions toppled off the sofa and the wire bed frame within rose, elegantly unfolding like a woman’s leg emerging from a taxi, landing with a soft thud on the coffee table.
‘Wow,’ Tarquin said. ‘Your flats just…’
‘Keep getting crummier?’ Scorpius offered, trying to hoist the sofa bed back up again.
‘Just leave it,’ I said.
‘It’s nice, actually,’ Gwen peered round the kitchen/living room and up along the corridor to the jumble sale we called our bedroom, where the chaos of magazine furniture and tartan could just be seen through the open door.
‘Bit poky,’ I shrugged.
‘No gremlins in the cupboard?’ Tarquin said.
‘Nope,’ Scorpius grinned, dropping the end of the sofa bed back onto the coffee table with a thump and an ominous clatter. ‘But we inherited a cat!’
After it became obvious that neither Scorpius nor I had seen Mr Andrew Socks that morning, the four of us set about searching for him, whereupon he was discovered curled up on the kitchen shelf where we kept our condiments. Scorpius, holding the pepper mill in one hand and Mr Andrew Socks in the other, stood and beamed at us all like he was the lord of the manor. That or like the cat that got the cream, only cream that was a bit scuzzy and falling apart at the edges. Not that cream does that, unless it’s intensely scuzzy. Anyway.
The one thing about having a scuzzy flat is that there isn’t a lot to do in it. On the plus side, the one thing about being nauseous and hungover is that one generally requires a lot of fresh air to speed up the recovery process. So, after we’d had a cuppa apiece, we resolved to go out and take a bit of a stroll up the beachfront. Anoraks on and boots laced, we left the flat.
‘So what are you two up to these days?’ Tarquin said, as we meandered down the High Street. ‘I mean, we pick up stuff from the letters, but not everything…’
‘Uh…’ I faltered.
‘Odd jobs,’ Scorpius said.
‘A lot of odd jobs,’ I chipped in.
‘Mostly photography stuff.’
‘And I’m pretending to be a writer,’ I said.
‘You’re not pretending
‘I’m writing a smut for cash,’ I said. ‘Covering topics as broad as the zombie apocalypse and, er, smut.’
‘Sounds fab,’ Tarquin said, although he didn’t sound so sure.
‘And what are you up to?’ Scorpius asked.
‘Travelling, mostly,’ Gwen said.
‘Well, making the most of the great British railway infrastructure,’ Tarquin cut in. ‘We had a bit of a cash windfall last year…’
‘But mostly we just, er…’
‘I don’t really know what we do.’
‘Busk? Street theatre? Card tricks?’
‘I mean, card tricks look way more impressive if the muggles don’t know you’re just using a vanishing charm…’
‘But nothing very…fixed.’
I shared a look with Scorpius.
‘Same with us,’ he grinned. ‘Nothing very fixed.’
I didn’t say anything, but I was pretty relieved to hear that our two closest friends were just as unemployable as we were.
‘Looking forward to seeing your book out,’ Tarquin elbowed me.
‘Oh, no,’ I grimaced. ‘I’ll have to use a pseudonym. My dad would go crazy if he knew what I was doing for a living…’
‘What, writing bad sex scenes?’
‘You know what he’s like.’
‘What’s your pseudonym?’ Gwen asked.
‘Uh…’ I said the first thing that came into my head. ‘Prunella Pinkington-Smythe.’
‘I like it,’ Tarquin nodded.
‘Bit posh, but still a bit of je ne sais quoi
,’ Gwen said.
We shared a murmur of assent before falling into silence.
‘Nice place,’ Tarquin said, a few minutes later.
‘Quiet,’ Scorpius smiled. ‘Cold.’
‘Cheaper than London,’ I cut in. ‘But, you know, not cheap enough.’
The silence that followed was a little awkward.
‘Things will pick up,’ Scorpius said eventually. ‘I’m sure.’
We ended up wandering along the beach. The weather was pretty nice for New New Elgin, with a mild feel to the air despite the snow that was still heaped along the edges of the pavements. Walking along, just the four of us, with the waves breaking on the shore and the seagulls cawing in the sky above – it was pretty lovely. Even though I still felt like I’d been beaten up with a sledgehammer, I almost wanted to keep on walking for as long as possible.
So I suppose it was kind of a good thing when we got lost.
We didn’t mean it and, to be honest, we were pretty thick to have lost ourselves on a bloody beach, of all places. We’d been walking for a while, but beaches are kind of long and pretty straight, so we should have been more than able to find our way back. But, alas, still being young, a little bit thick and, in my case, hungover, we ended up miles away from New New Elgin in a little seaside village that barely even merited a name on the map. And it took us half an hour to find said map.
‘Huh,’ Tarquin squinted up at the little dot on the map that said ‘you are here’. ‘I still don’t know where we are.’
‘Well,’ Scorpius joined him in squinting. ‘We…are there.’
Gwen peered around their shoulders at a bench on the promenade, where three old ladies were sitting, staring out at the sea. ‘We could ask for directions?’
‘No,’ Tarquin and Scorpius said in unison.
‘Good time to stop for a rest?’ I hazarded.
We ended up settling down onto a spare bench. There wasn’t room for Scorpius, who dithered about on the left, kicking ineffectually at a couple of drinks cans that had been abandoned there.
‘How about we have a poke around and try to find out where we are?’ Gwen said, after ten minutes or so of swapping anecdotes/dithering. ‘And then if you two stay here, we’ll report back in…fifteen minutes?’
‘Sure,’ I plunged my hands into my anorak pockets and settled back into the seat. Fifteen minutes for me to wallow in my hangover. Seemed alright. So Tarquin and Gwen trundled off into the distance, Scorpius aimed one last kick at the can at his feet, missed, and then flopped down into the seat next to me. As the two of us stared out at the sea, I had a strange feeling of déjà vu.
‘I’m exhausted,’ he told the horizon (honestly, Scorpius was something of a master when it came to the thousand yard stare, and I was half-convinced that he was talking to the sky instead of me).
‘Hey, me too,’ I said. ‘Except, you know, a bit more…queasy.’
‘Rather you than me,’ he laughed, snapping out of the horizon-bound gaze. ‘I’m not sure this was the best idea.’
‘What, ending up in the middle of nowhere?’
‘We’re really lost!’
‘I can see this going the shape of the pear,’ I said. ‘Knowing us.’
‘Yeah,’ he smirked. ‘Zombie apocalypse. Bet it’s right round the corner.’
I glanced over at the three old ladies on their solitary bench. ‘I think it’s already arrived.’
‘To be honest,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure I’d last long in the zombie apocalypse.’
‘Nah, me neither.’
‘I guess it’d be fun, though.’
‘Oh, yeah, an experience.’
‘Survival is just a bonus. It’d be a great story, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ I laughed. ‘Something to tell the kids!’
There was a strange pause.
‘What, do you…want kids?’ he said.
It was the conversational equivalent of a runaway double decker bus travelling at full speed down a very, very steep hill, in the sense that it casually came out of nowhere and knocked me a little bit senseless.
‘Sorry – I just-’
‘No, I didn’t mean-’
We flailed about for a while before eventually regaining control of our senses.
‘It’s…it’s a turn of phrase,’ I said, fidgeting. ‘I didn’t mean it, like, in a psycho girlfriend way-’
‘Oh, I get it now,’ Scorpius, who looked mightily embarrassed, ran a hand through his already messy fringe. ‘I just…’
‘That is to say,’ I said, hurriedly. ‘Not that I don’t ever want kids ever because I probably will when I’m a bit older and broodier and-’
‘I just…concerned in…in case…’
‘In case what?’
‘Well, um, in case that was your way of trying to say you were, um, er…expecting.’
My mind flashed up an image of myself standing at a bus stop, but then it clicked.
‘No!’ I nearly shouted. ‘Oh, no! No surprise buns in the oven-’
I nearly hit myself over the head for using that
particular turn of phrase. Really, pregnancy should never be associated with baking like that. I quite like baked goods.
‘I just know we’re kind of careless!’ he threw up his hands in alarm, and the flailing and dithering started all over again (it was a vicious cycle). ‘That is to say – not like I’m going all psycho boyfriend or anything and yeah maybe if I’m older and stuff but-’
‘Just not right now!’ I cried, aware that we were both losing control of the conversation and, to top it off, the three old ladies were peering at us with some interest.
‘Ha, ha, sorry,’ Scorpius sounded a little weak, as if he’d just been hit over the head or something. ‘Yeah, like that! I mean, we’re not even married or anything yet!’
This was conversational equivalent of a double decker bus travelling at speed number two with bells on
. Like, really noisy, jangly sleigh bells in the wrong season
And I was surprised that it was so awkward
‘Married, huh,’ I said. ‘That’s a big deal.’
,’ he laughed.
I could feel conversational double decker bus number three about to hit.
‘Just a bit of paper,’ he said.
I could almost picture a routemaster appearing over the top of a hill.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he seemed unabashed. ‘Just, like, a legal agreement.’
‘Well, yeah. Why else would you marry someone?’
The metaphorical driver of the imaginary conversational equivalent of a double-decker bus number three had just slammed his foot on the accelerator. I was a little lost for words.
‘I dunno,’ I said.
‘Well, you know,’ he shrugged. ‘I mean, marrying someone just seems to make it easier to split up with them.’
I wasn’t quite sure where this conversation had come from or where it was going, but I did
know that I had to wrap it up quickly before bus number three knocked out half my brain cells. Metaphorically, of course. I think. You can never really be sure of much in the vicinity of New New Elgin.
‘In what way?’
‘Money,’ he said. ‘Seems to be what it all comes down to.’
I ended up gaping at him, which was neither productive nor attractive.
‘That’s a generalisation,’ I said, finally.
We’d gone from hypothetical zombie apocalypses to hypothetical children to the whole bloody concept of marriage in the space of about five minutes. He seemed to guess that he’d said something to offend me, because he gave up talking altogether and went back to his thousand-yard horizon-bound stare.
But, being the idiot that I am, I tried to pick up the conversation again.
‘So, you’re basically saying that…’
‘You’re…you’re not really…for it?’
He seemed to struggle with an answer. ‘Not…not in principle. I don’t know.’
He took a while to respond.
‘It’s an outdated institution,’ he finally said. ‘I don’t really believe in it.’
Believe me, I tried not to make a fuss or disagree or anything. I wasn’t really in the mood to argue or debate or anything. I felt like I’d been hit by a sledgehammer and
three metaphorical buses.
I just wanted to pretend that I was completely fine. Not, you know, hungover and a bit surprised and also a little lost in the middle of nowhere. So I just put my head on his shoulder and tried to adopt a suitable thousand-yard stare until Tarquin and Gwen got back.
Forget thousand-yard stares, though. My stare was something like four-hundred-and-forty miles long in the opposite direction, and that was when I suddenly realised that I missed London all over again.
: I don't usually wait for ages to update, but when I do, I give you a triple serving of angst. Sorry, guys. I've got interviews for art schools soon and it's a bit stressy~ I just want to write ALL the angst. And make ALL the difficult chapter images, including the frankenraven I made for this one my photoshopping bits of zooey d. and kstew together. Crivens.
Hopefully things should be a bit more interesting and, er, fun soon (and please don't kill me for that last little bit. It was coming from the start. This is actually one of the first things I wrote for this story. Bit of trivia there).
Anyway, thanks for reading, & I hope you enjoyed (regardless of angst)! ♥