I couldn’t believe it was you after all this time; six, seven years ago when we were both at college: me with my long red plaits, and you with your shaggy blue-blonde mane. Staff and students always shot us a glance – we were the ones they had always wanted to be: one good at English, Geography and Russian, the other acing Maths, History and Science. Between us, the national curriculum didn’t stand a chance.
People said we lived in each other’s pocket which wasn’t strictly true; sure, we spent most of our weekends together but we always went home to our families. Always. We never once slept over. Even though you asked me to. Practically begged me to. We were just good friends.
At least I thought we were.
You stand a little way off, half-turned to the wall, half-watching the buses cruising up and down the main road, searching for the number that will take you home. You puff on a cigarette which doesn’t surprise me. You were always sneaking a crafty fag between lessons, zipping off to the toilets or huddling in the shelter around the back of the school. I hated that smell; I still do in fact, especially how it stuck to our hair and wove itself into the fabric of our clothes. I’ll never forget that time when Mrs Hepworth casually called me aside and informed me that smoking was prohibited on school premises. I could have died. You got off scot-free. You always did.
I’m wearing tinted sunglasses and a black mackintosh with ivory buttons – a few people look my way but you’re too busy with your cigarette to notice.
And that’s when I see them. The kids. Two beautiful girls in pinafore dresses, one with her hair in bunches, the other with plaits. Your kids.
My heart feels ready to fly out of my mouth. I can’t believe that such a rebellious, carefree girl could end up being a mom so young. You must have been eighteen when you had your eldest. One year after us.
I watch as the one with bunches runs up to you and grabs your leg. You flash her a half-smile, the other half swallowed by smoke, and stroke her pigtails. The girl with plaits stays in the distance, a hand to her mouth, watching. And then you usher her over, calling her a silly girl, and tell her what she’s missing out on. I can tell - maternal love.
The girl with bunches says something and this time you throw your head back and laugh. Really laugh. I see you at seventeen living for each day, secretly praying that I wouldn’t leave your side.
And then you turn to face the crowd and our eyes meet: two girls who were on the verge of something strange and exciting, failing to hold the other’s gaze. I take out my phone and pretend to read an incoming message.
I recall that moment regularly. I don’t know why. I just do. I can be on the bus home or about to turn out the bedroom light when I picture us at the bus shelter, the sky like dirty water, and the clouds like something a dishcloth had smudged, drizzle crying down the perspex shelter. When you, Charley, lean over, lean close to me, without saying a word, and kiss me full on the mouth. I am too stunned to speak.
You lift a hand to my hair and trace your fingers through it, the same action you now perform on your daughter’s hair. We sit, two mute figures, each one trying to guess the other’s thoughts.
I turn to face you and mutter, ‘Charley, I’m not like that.’
The former light in your eyes dissolves, leaving pure understanding. You shrug and say, ‘I know. Still, it doesn’t hurt to try.’
You move your hand away from mine and stuff it in your lap as though it is a rotten flower.
But seeing you now, so changed, with crimson curls and two adorable daughters, I feel like I know you again and that we should resume our friendship.
Your bus pulls into the stop and you huddle your girls before you, prompting them to get on the bus, when I am about to call your name.
But on closer inspection, I can see that I’m wrong, very wrong; you are not Charley at all but some stranger who looks like her with her own life to lead, and I wonder what on earth happened to my best friend.