Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Friends Like Us’ by Sian O’Gorman.
FRIENDS LIKE US
Of course the crash was her fault. Melissa wasn’t concentrating on the road when she whammed into the back of a Mercedes, as she was too busy having an out-of-body experience, thinking about herself; this woman who should have been all grown-up but was as unsorted as a tube of Smarties.
She was driving along the Grand Canal in Dublin, had just arrived back in the city after an unsuccessful weekend in Paris. It was a busy road at the best of times, filled with the usual battered and beaten up vehicles, the odd articulated lorry, the cyclists who only look up to raise two fingers to traffic that skims too close.
And there was Melissa in her orange Beetle thinking about Alistair and the fact he had just given her the old heave-ho. In the airport. After a weekend in Paris. So that was nice, wasn’t it? At the age of thirty-eight, shouldn’t she have achieved a little bit more, relationship wise?
But what was really bothering her wasn’t just the fact that she had been dumped – again – but because she had persisted in pursuing a relationship which had, if she was entirely honest, lacked lustre from the very beginning.
I should have children, she thought, buckets of them. Mr Perfect in the corner, smiling, as one child smears Nutella on the sofa, while the other saws away tunelessly on a violin. Isn’t that what women should have? Isn’t that what we’re told life should look like?
But there was no getting away from it; Melissa had had a truly terrible weekend, the least romantic since her school leavers’ do when Tony Tierney puked all over her dress and she walked home crying and covered in vomit. However, being an imaginative type, she preferred to think the weekend’s failure was because poor old Alistair had been under the weather and not at his sparkling best. But, come to think of it, she had never seen him at his sparkling best. Maybe he didn’t have one.
Flu, Alistair had muttered darkly – and kept re-tucking his scarf, sniffling and snuffling throughout the weekend. She had managed to steer him away from Molly Malone’s near the Champs Elysée and instead they ate in a restaurant in the Marais. However, he complained about the steak (too bloody), refused to be amused by the grumpiness of the waiters and blew his nose in the napkin. Crimes on the lower end of the scale and ones Melissa had been certainly determined to overlook.
She remained stoic. Remember Stalingrad, she had kept thinking. It was colder then, surely, and they were hungrier. But although she may not have been actually freezing her arse off in a Russian winter in 1943 and fearing for her life, those soldiers at least didn’t have to put up with the snufflings of Alistair. Amazingly, he was able to reach out for his pint of lager and shiveringly bring the vessel to his blue lips. Undeterred, she threw back the red wine and the whole weekend became not a romantic cliché but an alcoholic blur.
You can’t have it all, she had thought, consoling herself. And it is Paris; he’s ill and no one can help that. Maybe she just had to try harder, be funnier, nicer, attractiver. With a little helping of Florence Nightingale on the side.
Okay, so it may not have been a success but even if he was a slight hypochondriac, she hadn’t actually expected him to finish with her. At the airport. They were heading through arrivals, both pulling their little wheelie cases, him still snuffling and she smiling winningly, hoping he would say he had had a lovely time, but instead there was silence from Alistair. Well, apart from the sniffing and the sneezing.
‘How are you feeling now?’ she said, trying to prompt a response. ‘Glad to be home?’
‘Going to go straight to bed,’ he mumbled. ‘Sleep this thing off.’ She wondered if he was confusing a hangover with flu. Whatever it was, he was in Garbo-mode.
‘Good idea,’ she said, masking devastation. ‘You do that.’ An awkward silence hung in the frozen air. And then she realised her smile was full of hope and desperation but she knew how transparently pathetic she was so instead tried to look frowny and concerned. And, crucially, grown-up.
‘Melissa… listen.’ He dropped his voice. ‘Listen, um…’ A taxi had pulled up… it was as if he had actually planned the swift getaway.
She realised, finally, that he was going to finish with her and that his shortcomings were in fact hers and that she was the unlovable one. Please say something nice to me, she inwardly pleaded. Just want me again. Just like me. Please like me.
‘Melissa, it was a fun weekend.’ (It hadn’t been. They both knew that.) ‘But I… I don’t really feel able to have anything serious at the moment. I’m so sorry…’
She was motionless, heart thumping now, blood coursing around her brain, sirens going off. She was being dumped. You’d think she would have got used to it by now. Searing pain that soon numbed to a throb, the pulsations of which were a reminder of her own essential unloveableness. This was how her life was meant to be, a catalogue of failed flings.
‘Melissa, are you okay?’ He was looking around now for the taxi.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Totally. I agree, I’m so glad you said it. I’ve really enjoyed our time together.’
He looked hugely relieved. ‘Thanks. I mean you are great and everything but you know…’ Ah, there it was, the taxi! He swung his case into its open boot.
‘I know.’ She smiled again, this time to show what an incredible sport she was.
She waved bravely as the taxi sped off. Was that him waving from the window? She couldn’t quite see. And had he promised the driver extra to vroom away as though on a heist? Regardless, she was left alone.
This was how it always played out: the ascent as she was desired, and then the drop, an ignominious free-fall through the air. However attractive she was, she was no girlfriend material. Not the marrying kind; she was too weird, too needy, bordering on neurotic. It never took long, usually around three months for them to realise… and Alistair had got out in a record-breaking two months.
There was nothing else she could do except to recover her little orange Beetle from the car park and start driving home, allowing the shame and humiliation to embed itself. No one knows, she thought, as tears streamed down her face, no one knows who I am. I am nothing, no one, worthless.
Other people found relationships easy but Melissa found them torturous. It was always full-on and then over. Keeping her deep unloveableness a secret was taking a strain.
Never again, she thought. No more. A life of spinsterhood loomed. Well, anything had to be better than watching a man blow his nose on a napkin.
And now, here she was, wending her weary, woeful way home along the Grand Canal and about to crash into a Mercedes.
A swan flapping its wings gave her a jolt, granting Melissa a look in his beaky, beady face, as if to say, who do you thing ye are? Gallivanting again? Well, you’ve only yourself to blame.
She saw the bumper of the Mercedes whizz towards her; the swan having a good gawp. ‘You were right!’ she wanted to shout. ‘You were right. I do have only myself to blame. It’s all my fault. All of this. Everything!’
In the very short journey from uncrashed to crashed, she heard the screeching of her own brakes (her body had gone into action, as least it wasn’t letting her down), and then the terrible crunch, the breaking of glass and the sound of her head hitting the steering wheel. A nice Mercedes, she imagined, would have air bags. An old Beetle wouldn’t. And didn’t.
Her head against the wheel, Melissa wondered what to do before she heard voices and someone trying to help her out. She staggered, stunned and blinking, out of the car, resting on the arm of an old man, who in different circumstances, would have been leaning on her.
‘Terrible traffic,’ he was saying. ‘There’s always accidents along the canal. Too many cars. I always walk into town this way and I say to meself that it’s a miracle there aren’t more prangs or pile-ups. That’s what I always say.’
He led her to the wall alongside the canal. Bloody hell, she thought. Jesus Christ. I’ve just been in an accident. The dizziness was beginning to clear and she looked around. Her head was hurting but she was, she realised, still alive.
‘Now, love, are you all right? No broken bones?’ said the man. ‘Everything in perfect working order?’
‘Just a broken heart,’ she said, unable to resist the temptation of the drama.
The old man laughed. ‘Oh, now,’ he said. ‘Lovely woman like you. Surely not?’
She managed to smile so as not to scare him off entirely. She put her hand to her head and felt it carefully. A huge lump was forming underneath, bubbling Vesuvius-like. But it was her car she was most worried about. She noticed two men had managed to push it up onto the pavement, its bonnet buckled and forced open, bumper hanging off.
And people – passers-by, good Samaritans? – were helping the Mercedes driver out of the other car, a blonde woman, expensive highlights glinting in the rare late-afternoon winter sunlight.
Oh God, Melissa knew this type. Better just hand over her life savings to pay for the dent in the back of the Mercedes. Although it looked perfect, well perfect enough, apart from that teeny-tiny-titchy scrape. The woman looked perfect enough too, with her swishy blonde hair. Melissa looked away, still shaky and not quite ready to face the inevitable confrontation, and began rifling in her bag for her phone. She wanted to call Cormac. He’d be nice to her.
She was aware of the woman coming towards her and Melissa braced herself. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she blurted out, looking up into the sun. ‘It was all my fault. I just wasn’t concentrating.’
The other woman was open-mouthed, ‘Melissa!’ She was laughing now. ‘Oh sweet Jesus, Melissa!’
‘Steph! Oh my God, Steph!’
It was Steph, looking exactly the same since they’d last seen each other. Blonder, perhaps, her straight hair in a long bob, her face the same, just slightly older, perhaps, minimal make-up. Polished, groomed, she was working the glorious trinity of the jeans-Converse-Breton just like any other thirty-something mother, but on her, it was smarter, newer, and expensive.
Melissa managed to stand up and the two hugged each other for so long it turned into a kind of dance as they began to rock together. The crowd gave a cheer and there was even a round of applause.
Steph, her old, old, old friend. How sweet the vagaries of life. Who said that? Someone, anyway. Oh. She felt strange and had to sit down again.
Once upon a time, Melissa and Steph were inseparable. School friends and then friends into their twenties when something happened – life? – and they drifted. Like a swan on the old canal, especially the type of swan who predicted bad luck… or in this case, maybe the swan was a signifier of good luck. Drifting back into each other’s lives again. Or rather crashing back in.
‘I don’t believe it!’ Melissa said. ‘We haven’t seen each other in years and then this happens.’
‘Of all the backsides in all the world, you had to run into mine.’ Steph was still smiling and Melissa grinned back, but she felt embarrassed. Here was Steph, all gleamy and glowy, and there was she, dusty and dishevelled. She pushed her hand through her brown hair that refused to either lie straight or curl. She was wearing an outfit (skirt and ankle boots) that had been meant for Paris, but now, in Dublin, seemed over the top and ridiculous. She’d plastered herself in make-up too, full foundation, the works, and she felt like a drag queen that hadn’t mastered the act of dressing like a woman.
But Steph was still smiling, seemingly not noticing or caring that her old friend was a mess.
‘So, what do we do now?’ Melissa asked. ‘You know about this…’ she gestured to their cars. She actually wanted to get herself home and changed and into something more like her. She was feeling a bit ridiculous in her Parisienne non-chic and, she was thinking that maybe they could meet up again later, once she had her jeans and trainers on again. But Steph didn’t seem to notice what she was wearing and was too busy thinking about sorting out the car situation which, Melissa had to agree, was the more pertinent of the tasks.
‘Well, I think mine is driveable,’ said Steph. ‘But we can always get yours towed. We’ll get it sorted.’
And Steph did, even though the accident was technically Melissa’s fault, Steph took charge and phoned a garage to arrange for them to pick up the Beetle while the crowd, slightly disappointed that there wasn’t any blood or more carnage, dispersed, leaving them alone.
‘You’re white as a sheet, Mel,’ Steph said. ‘And you’re shaking.’
Melissa could feel her teeth chattering as though she was Bugs Bunny eating an invisible carrot. She suddenly felt terrible, as if she was going to be sick.
‘I think Melissa, that we’d better get you to hospital,’ said Steph. ‘Get you checked out.’
Melissa began to shake her head, no, which, she soon realised, was exactly the wrong thing to do.
‘Come on, we’ll go down to Vincent’s… to A&E, just to be on the safe side.’
Melissa could only nod and allowed Steph to lead her to the car. She lay back in the seats and immediately felt better. It had to be admitted, what the Beetle gained in cuteness and character, it lacked in the comfort department that the Mercedes had in spades.
They pulled out into the traffic and made their slow progress along the canal. Melissa looked at Steph as she indicated and smiled at the drivers who let them out. She hadn’t changed at all, same old Steph. One of life’s good people, the kind of person you wanted on your side.
‘I’ve just had a thought!’ said Steph suddenly. ‘Eilis!’
‘Oh my God, yes!’ They both laughed. ‘Imagine!’ said Melissa. ‘She could be there, you know?’ Eilis was their old school friend, part of their tribe of three. She was a consultant, as far as they knew, at the A&E in Vincent’s hospital. ‘Ouch!’ Melissa pressed both her hands to her head. ‘Shouldn’t have laughed. That hurts. Major headache.’
‘You poor thing,’ said Steph, glancing over. ‘You must have given it a huge whack. I hope they test you for whiplash too.’
‘I hope they won’t think I’m wasting their time,’ said Melissa. ‘You know, when they have really ill people to deal with.’
‘You are meant to go to A&E after a car crash,’ said Steph. ‘You could be walking around with a head injury otherwise. No, of course we are not wasting their time.’ There was silence between them for a moment.
‘Are you… are you still in contact?’ Steph said. ‘You know, friends? With Eilis?’ For a moment, Steph looked so vulnerable, so easy to hurt; it was a look that Melissa had never seen before. It’s true, she realised slowly, people don’t stay the same, even if they look the same and behave the same. Life always, always changes us. Something had happened to Steph which had made her insecure, or scared. It was hard to tell but Melissa had never seen that look in her eyes before. She was always so together, so happy. And then she had married Rick and she disappeared into wifedom and motherhood, as so many do. Melissa had been sad about it but she had her own life, other friends. It had seemed a natural parting. Melissa was single – still! – and marrieds socialise with other marrieds, and singles with their own kind and never the twain, et cetera.
‘It’s just that I lost contact with Eilis,’ Steph was saying, ‘as well as you, but you two probably still hang out…?’
‘Not for a long time,’ said Melissa. ‘Not for ages. Years. D’you think she still works there?’
‘I don’t know… we can ask.’ Steph was looking normal, again, almost relieved. She glanced over at her. ‘It’s good to see you, Mel.’
‘It’s good to see you too.’ It was, it really was. ‘So how is everyone? Rick? Rachel?’
She waited for Steph to say that they were fine, everything was wonderful, Rick grand, work going well, and Rachel was brilliant, or what mothers usually say about their lovely children. But instead there was silence. Melissa looked over and saw tears rolling down Steph’s face.
‘Steph?’ she asked.
‘Don’t mind me. Must be shock. God, accidents always take it out of you.’ She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her cashmere cardigan. ‘Stephanie!’ said Steph to herself. ‘Stop crying!’ She tried to laugh. ‘I think I just need a cup of tea. Six sugars. That kind of thing. They’re fine, though, Rick and Rachel, before you worry. Both hale and hearty.’
Melissa was suddenly aware that something was wrong with Steph and after having to deal with her own mother all her life, she was highly sensitised to other people’s moods, their inner feelings. It’s partly what made her such a good journalist but also it made life difficult because you couldn’t shake others off, their emotions were always so tangible to Melissa.
‘By the way, you make it sound like you have lots of accidents,’ said Melissa, trying to make her laugh, bring some light into the car again and give her space to recover herself.
They parked in the car park and began to walk to A&E.
‘I feel silly now,’ said Melissa. ‘I’m sure I’m all right. No brain damage.’ She was looking carefully at Steph, who still hadn’t really stopped crying, her eyes still filling up with tears. What was wrong with her? ‘Well, apart from the usual.’ But Steph didn’t seem to be listening, she was miles away.
They went straight to reception and found two seats in the waiting area.
‘Steph,’ said Melissa. ‘I’m so sorry to have caused all this trouble. You know, the accident. And now I’m taking up all your time, having to sit here for hours…’
‘But Melissa,’ said Steph, still tearful, ‘I’ve nothing else to be doing… and I’ve thought about contacting you so many times over the last ten years… or however long it’s been… and then it gets too long and then you feel awkward and then you don’t think that the person would want to see you and then you literally bump into me. If I was a cosmic person, which as you know I’m not, but if I was, then I would say that you were meant to crash into me.’
‘Or maybe it was just an accident.’
‘Or maybe it was just an accident. A lucky accident.’
They grinned at each other and Steph took a huge breath. ‘Right, I think I’m myself again. Let’s see if I can get a cup of tea for us out of the machine. Keep your expectations low.’ They sat together, comfortably, chatting away, drinking tea, and it could have been ten years ago, twenty years ago, that old easiness between them had returned. It had just been dormant, ready to spring into life again.
Back home, later that evening, concussion dealt with by machine-tea, Melissa dialled Cormac, her go-to person, her fail-safe, never-let-you-down, best friend.
‘Busy?’ she said, trying not to sound plaintive. ‘Fancy some company?’
‘Who are you suggesting?’ He sounded suspicious. ‘Myself and Rolo are about to sit down to watch Supervet. So, it’d better be good.’ Rolo was his spaniel; bouncier than a squash ball and sweeter, believed Melissa, than an actual Rolo.
‘Me?’ she said.
‘Really?’ Cormac sounded exaggeratedly surprised. ‘I thought you and Basil were currently shagging on the top of the Eiffel Tower.’ He paused. ‘You’re not, are you?’
Basil was his deliberately-wrong name for Alistair. He always did this with all of Melissa’s flings, pretended not to know their name.
‘Alistair.’ They had been through this routine many times since Melissa began seeing the afore-mentioned. ‘And no, we are not currently shagging up the Eiffel Tower.’ This time it was Melissa who paused. ‘It’s too cold.’
‘Amateurs,’ said Cormac. ‘Why do I keep forgetting his name? Maybe it’s because he is just so forgettable.’
‘Anyway, we’re not seeing each other anymore,’ she said airily.
‘Come round,’ he said, suddenly. ‘Kettle is going on now and I am tearing open the Mr Kiplings with my teeth.’ There was a rustling sound and the phone went dead.
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/3btAjo3