She shrieks, and the noise echoes through the vast space and up towards the high, glass roof. She is half running, half tottering through Glasgow Central Station wearing a pair of siren blue stilettos. They clatter. A huddle of lads, all pastel shirted up for a night in the town, look over and stare. She throws her arms around me as if it’s a feckin lover’s reunion. ‘Bernadette. Oh My God,’ she squeals. ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
This puts me on the defensive. ‘Is that right?’ I say, disentangling myself.
‘I’ve booked Pizza Hut,’ she says. ‘That okay with you?’ The wired teeth of childhood have been replaced by a dazzling, white smile.
‘Sounds grand to me, Maria,’ I say, mirroring the smile.
Outside the station there’s a sharp bite to the air, and Maria with her short skirt and bare legs begins to shiver. She makes a ‘brrrrr’ sound, exaggerating, trying to be funny. I know this is for my benefit and I give her the expected response of a friend and laugh. ‘Bloody freezing,’ she half shouts. ‘You know, Bernie,’ she says, looping her arm through my own, ‘I nipped into the Station Bar before meeting you and downed a double voddy. I was so nervous.’
‘Is that right? Well, no need to be nervous.’ I shrug my shoulders. ‘It’s just me – good, old Bernadette.’
‘But all that stuff when we were –’
She doesn’t get to finish because one of her stiletto heels skids on the black frosty pavement, she unbalances, and for a few seconds tries to find her footing, torso contorted, arms flailing, almost pulling us both to the ground.
She’s all apologies. ‘Oh shit. Bernadette…I am so sorry…’
‘It’s fine.’ I’m still holding her arm tight to make sure she’s got her balance, but I’m wondering how hard I would need to squeeze for it to leave a bruise.
‘I am so embarrassed…what a fanny,’ she continues to ramble.
‘They things are treacherous,’ I say, nodding at her shoes. ‘You need to be careful.’ I don’t want the reunion to end short with something as simple as a twisted ankle.
‘You’ve always been so sensible Bernie,’ she says.
Aye, that’s me. Sensible Bernie. Boring Bernadette. An image to cultivate.
Pizza Hut is full of romantic couples sitting in booths or large rowdy groups eating out before hitting the bars and nightclubs later. Maria orders a bottle of South African Sauvignon Blanc on the recommendation of the specky waiter whose name tag says ‘Brian’.
She takes a sip of wine. ‘Fantastic recommendation Brian,’ she says, raising her glass. Brian’s face turns lobster pink.
Then we catch up. She’s working as a Beauty Consultant for Debenhams but makes ‘a wee bit of money on the side’ from doing eyebrow waxing and nail extensions.
‘Now your eyebrows Bernie,’ – she munches on a slice of pizza – ‘I could work miracles with them.’ Her eyes drift over my hair and face, lingering on my eyebrows. ‘Thick eyebrows are all the rage at the minute. They just need tidying up a wee bit. A wee wax and then some plucking will do the job.’
‘Is that right?’ I say, throwing a smile in her direction.
‘And with your magnificent, red hair…’
Magnificent, red hair – I almost choke on a slice of Pepperoni.
Are you okay, Bernie?’ she asks, looking all concerned as I cough and splutter. ‘Here, take some water,’ and she pours a glass of water and hands it to me across the table.
‘I’m okay now,’ I say, once the spluttering stops. ‘Drama ended.’
She tells me that she recognized me straight away on Facebook, and just felt a powerful urge to ‘reach out.’
‘I’m so glad you did,’ I say, pleased at my smooth delivery.
Then she begins a litany of Do You Remembers:
Do you remember at the school talent show we danced to Mama Mia and I got scared and ran off the stage crying and you danced on your own and you ended up winning?
Do you remember you used to let me copy your Maths homework? Then Mr O’Flaherty found out and we both got detention.
Do you remember one summer we put Crisp ‘n’ Dry on our face and then lay on the grass round the back of our close to try and get a suntan and lots of wee flies were sticking to our faces?
Do you remember you made me cross that dual carriageway because you wanted to see a dead cat’s guts? Then my dad found out and he was raging and I was kept inside for a week.
Blah, blah, blah. I nod. I smile. I laugh on cue.
‘I’m loving all this catching up,’ she says, smiling at me fondly. She nods at the empty wine bottle on the table. ‘Should we get another bottle? Sauvignon Blanc again?’
‘Sure thing,’ I say, and she signals to Brian who comes trotting across to take her order with a big grin on his fleshy face.
‘Now, do you remember Hypnotica?’ I say, filling most of my wine glass with soda.
‘Oh My God. I used to love that place.’ She squeals and claps her hands. ‘There was a DJ there that all the lassies fancied – spitting image of Adam Ant.’
‘They’ve refurbished that place,’ I say, ‘opened it up a few weeks ago apparently, but kept the same name.’
‘Really? I bet they’ve changed the DJ though.’ She laughs.
‘Cheers.’ I lift my glass to clink against hers. ‘Drink up, Maria. The night is but young.’
She begins yacking on about her boss – a Senior Beauty Consultant – ‘a hippo with bad acne whose face no product can repair, and she has a foul temper into the bargain, the miserable cow.’
I respond like I’m offering condolences to a grieving relative. ‘Oh, that must be difficult,’ I say, my voice wispy. In the mirrored wall behind her my head is tilted to the side and my forehead creased with sympathy.
‘But what about you?’ she asks suddenly. ‘There I am babbling on about me, and you, Bernie, you’ve got the most amazing job of all.’ She reaches over the table and places her hand on my arm. ‘You. Save. Lives.’ She’s staring at me, her eyes wide and unblinking, like I’m Mother feckin Theresa.
‘Why are you smiling?’ she laughs, wanting to join in the joke.
I give her some gory anecdotes from inside the operating theatre. Scalpels, forceps, scissors and clamps. The need for a steady hand. That first incision. The sharp, coppery, sweet smell of blood.
Her mouth is agape. ‘I don’t know how you do it…’ and she shudders before pouring herself another glass of wine.
Surgical complications. Masked faces.
Outside the restaurant Maria is merry, and keen for the night to continue. ‘Hypnotica,’ she says. ‘We should check it out – I can’t believe it’s open again. C’mon Bernie, let your hair down – just for another couple of drinks.’
I let her badger me for a bit before agreeing.
She cheers and gives me a hug. ‘Oh My God. Hypnotica. This is going to be such a laugh.’
It is all smoke and mirrors inside the nightclub. The DJ is not an Adam Ant lookalike, but a bloke in his late 40s with a bushy beard and a baseball cap. Maria feigns disappointment. We get our drinks and sit on one of the velour sofas which looks out onto the dance floor. It is filled with bodies jostling for space, punching the air to booming House music. Strobe lights pulsate purple beams through the crowd. A damp, sour smell permeates the air.
‘Bernie,’ Maria says in a grave tone, leaning towards me and touching my arm. ‘I was such a dickhead at school…’
‘Hey – what?’ I shout, cupping my hand up to my ear – ‘Can’t hear you.’
But I can hear the chants and mocking laughter from the Secondary school playground, the corridors, unsupervised classrooms: El gingero, Agent Orange, Flame Cranium.
This bitch joined in.
‘I was such a dickhead at Secondary,’ she tries again, and the poor wee soul’s eyes well up. She is a bad actor in a low budget, soap opera.
‘Hanging out with those losers. They were bad news. We all thought we were cool but we were anything but. And I tried to get them -’
‘What?’ I shout again. ‘I can’t hear you.’
‘- to stop name calling you,’ she shouts louder, ‘I even went and told Miss -’
Then I surprise myself by doing that kind of thing you do when you’re a child and you want to shut someone’s voice out – I cover my ears with both hands and make a loud ‘Aaa’ sound until I run out of breath. She is staring at me like I’m mentally unbalanced.
‘Are you okay?’ she asks, pretending concern.
‘Let’s dance,’ I reply, standing up and tugging at her arm.
She hesitates for a second, looking puzzled, and then she shrugs, ‘Sure, Bernie.’
She dances with her eyes closed as if wanting to lose herself in the music, occasionally tossing back her blonde waves. In the dense fog from the smoke machine she sometimes vanishes, or part of her vanishes – her head, her legs, her torso, before she breaks through the curtain of fog and reveals herself again. At other times, hidden by fog, it is as if she has been erased leaving only a faded impression. At the edge of the dance floor a shady looking guy is eyeing her up, openly devouring her.
‘Toilet,’ she mouths halfway through the next song.
This is it then. My chance.
‘I’ll watch the drinks,’ I shout. She smiles and moves towards the Ladies sign, disappearing into the thronging crowd.
I take it out from the zip part of my handbag, rip off the metallic foil, and drop it into her wine glass where it dissolves instantly. Odourless, tasteless, invisible.
When she returns, and begins sipping at her drink, it takes longer to get into her bloodstream than I thought it would, and I have to pretend interest when she’s rabbiting on about Secondary school, and how she went off the rails and how she’s full of regrets.
‘It wasn’t really me,’ she whines.
This is boring.
There’s a bit of commotion way over at the other side of the room, and to shut her up I suggest we go a wander over. ‘Drink up,’ I say, and watch as she tips her wine glass, swallowing the last of the drugged dregs.
The excitement on the opposite side of the room is due to a pole dancing competition, and the chance to win a bottle of Wildcat Cherry Flavoured Vodka. A line of skinny girls, all of whom have straight blonde hair, false eyelashes, plump lips and fake tans, wait their turn at the side of the stage. A slow, intense song begins playing and one of the clones steps onto the stage. She clutches the metal pole with both hands and hoists herself up. She falls straight back down. There is a lot of cheering and whistling.
‘Give it up,’ a voice shouts after her third attempt. Bursts of laughter from the crowd.
Squeezed up against Maria is the creep that was eyeing her up earlier on the dance floor. Now he is worming his way in, speaking into her ear, chatting her up. Maria stares into space with a vacant Barbie doll smile. The drugs have had their effect. Maria is finally mute.
Perhaps he is thinking that this Barbie doll smile is an invite. She is unable to resist when he puts his arm around her shoulders. Tufts of thick, dark hair poke out from under his shirt sleeve. He rakes the bristles on his face with dirty fingernails. He doesn’t appear to be with anyone. A lone wolf.
The bell rings for last orders.
On Argyle Street gusts of wind lift chip pokes and polystyrene boxes flying. Horizontal rain hits my face like an insult. Wolf man has Maria drawn tight to him like a possession. I walk alongside them.
A lad runs by with a Farmfood bag fitted tight on his head – each corner poked up so that it resembles horns. He catches a screaming girl from behind, pushing her so hard towards a puddle of water that she is unable to stop herself from running into it. ‘Cunt,’ she hollers as the water splashes up onto her shimmering dress. Drunken, rambunctious crowds cram under the overhang of shiny department stores, sheltering from the downpour. A willowy, long haired transvestite is being taunted by a couple of angry skinheads. He is boxed in a shop doorway. He tries to bolt, but they trip him up, and boot at his ribs as he lies squirming and moaning on the glittering black pavement. From somewhere amongst the labyrinth of streets and alleyways, a police siren wails.
I had envisioned leaving Maria on a pedestrian bench in the midst of this mayhem. Fate would have taken its chosen course.
But the best laid plans of mice and men…
We reach a taxi rank, and I grab Maria’s arm so she is forced to stop. ‘C’mon Maria, you’re coming home with me.’
Wolfman tugs at her. ‘She’s awright. Leave her alone.’
I grip even tighter. ‘No. We’re going to get a taxi,’ I exclaim so that a few people glance out from under their umbrellas. Wolfman pulls at her more forcefully, and I pull her back again.
‘Piss off,’ he spits, and pushes me on the shoulder. I stumble and release her arm. The Maria tug-o-war has terminated. A long line of taxi drivers have been watching the spectacle through their windows. It is enough.
The person that is Maria is trapped inside this vacuous lifesize Barbie doll. It is trying to speak. ‘Oh Bernie…’ it slurs strangely.
They move by the taxi rank.
He is leading her towards the River Clyde with its empty midnight streets and shuttered warehouses. A place where silence screams along lonely underpasses.
Maria’s head droops, and occasionally she staggers. One shoe slips from her foot onto the pavement and she hesitates. There is a bewildered expression upon her face as she turns around trying to reach for it, but the wolf is already hauling her forwards, holding her upright, as she now hobbles along. The taxi driver beeps his horn and shouts ‘Are you getting in or not?’
I climb into the cab, lean back, and look out the window.
Her shoe lies toppled on the pavement.
‘Hillhead, please driver,’ I say.
The stiletto gleams.
Image – Pixabay.com