I hung the phone up and looked round for a smoking area. Not much to do but smoke at Heathrow Airport when you've got your luggage picked up and you're waiting for your ride. I followed the arrows on the signs, noting again just how British everyone looked. I want to say "how ugly everyone looked", but there's a certain charm to us (sorry to sound arrogant for a minute, here) that is completely lacking in America. The overly-stereotyped bad teeth (they aren't that bad, but, you know, they're not that great), the pasty skin, the pink cheeks and world-weary demeanour, you know? Americans are stunning for the most part, but there's this cookie cutter quality to them. You snog one American bird, you've snogged them all, know what I mean? They're gorgeous, though. Very gorgeous, really.
I retrieved a dodgy pack of Camels from my backpack and settled down to wait inside the plastic-walled smoking area. Cancer heaven, really, smoking areas. You don't even need to light up to get more than your fair share of nicotine. Regardless, I'm a Londoner, so I did light up, and inhaled victoriously. Another thing about Americans is their intolerance for smokers. Talk about culture shock, eh? All this healthy lifestyle wankery, their yoga and pilates and sushi, such bollocks.
Five cigarettes later, I headed towards the exit to wait for Ashley. I made further use of the waiting period by pushing the time on my watch five hours ahead and buying a pack of Polos from the vending machine. I accidentally bit my tongue when I saw her car, in my rush to get my bags in order.
"I can't kiss you yet, my tongue's bleeding," I warned her, pulling her into my arms. She looked lovely. Her hair was shorter and blonder, and she'd done something different with her make-up, but she was still the girl who used to surprise me with Indian takeaway when I was bogged down with schoolwork.
"Flynn, don't be a cunt," she said simply, and kissed me in that Ashley way of hers, little pecks making way into full-on tongue action. It suddenly struck me that I'd missed her very much.
"My sister's living with me now," she told me, head thrown back, eyes squinting in concentration. She always refused to wear glasses or contacts, which made her something of a danger on the road. "So you can't spend the night anymore, unless you take the sofa."
"Your half-sister?" I replied, half asleep. The English countryside zoomed past, a refreshingly familiar sight.
"Yes. My only sister." Ashley gave me a look. I shrugged. "Her mum topped herself, don't you remember?"
"Oh. Right. Shame, that." I thought it was a suitable reply, but I must have thought wrong. It was greeted with a heavy sigh.
"You're a twat, but I missed you, you know," she said, turning her eyes from the road to study me.
"I. Missed. You." I lunged at her neck and covered it in kisses, pleased that I managed to make her swerve off the road and squeal like a teenager.
I threw my luggage down on her bedroom floor and immediately fell on to her bed, somewhat perturbed that the typical long-distance relationship (hereto referred to as LDR) reunion sex drive hadn't kicked in yet. Normally, I'd be gagging for it, all over her like an octopus as soon as I'd tossed my boarding passes in the rubbish, but I hadn't felt even the slightest stirrings of lust, and this was highly disconcerting.
"Are you hungry, love?" Ashley called from her cramped kitchen. We used to cook pasta there, usually stoned, and eat it in front of the television. Top of The Pops, normally.
"You got any Pot Noodles?" I tried thinking of Gwen Stefani. Nothing.
"Bless you, is that all you eat at uni? Chicken & Mushroom all right?"
"That's fine." Winona Ryder wasn't doing it either. I blamed jetlag.
"Fine." I blamed the little bottles of British Airways vodka.
When Ashley came in with the noodles, I'd been filing through my memory catalogue. My sex life had flashed before my eyes, and this had never once occured before. I looked up to see her studying me.
"So, how's the band doing?"
I began running my (noodle-filled) mouth as I told her about Rick, and Travis, and Rob, who'd just replaced Alan, when Ash started doing that thing where she sort of nibbled my earlobe while going "uh huh" every now and then in my ear. I was still talking, but she was making it difficult.
This was bloody nice, in fact. So much that I stopped talking and worrying and realized that while Winona and nostalgia had failed me at a crucial moment, Ashley hadn't, and it was nice, lovely, honestly, that a girl you loved could do this.
Fuck it, I'll own up. I spoke too soon. And that wasn't the only thing I'd done too soon.
"You know those little bottles of vodka? The airplane ones?"
"It's all right, Flynn, really," Ashley said, giving me a kiss and putting her bra and pants back on.
"And also, you know, I'd be in bed right now, in the States," I continued. "Asleep. It's like seven in the morning there."
"Flynn, please, do shut up." She threw herself at me, pinning me down by the wrists and biting the tip of my nose, the bitch.
"Ashley, do we have any Jaffa Cakes left?"
I stifled a quite unmasculine laugh. Ashley's little half-sister had marched purposefully into the living room, and she was, for lack of better words, a character. She was wearing (what I assume was) some of Ashley's lipstick and fake Hollywood starlet eyelashes.
"Nope, I finished them last week." She darted a glance at me. "I was PMSing."
Why do women feel the need to share these things with men? The world may never know. "Well done," I said, for lack of a better response.
The little girl bit her lip and looked frustrated. Her eyes came to rest on me and raised an eyebrow. "Is that him?" she demanded.
"Don't be smart. Zac, this is my boyfriend, Flynn."
"The one with the band?"
"Right. Flynn, this is Zac, my little sister."
"Half-sister," she added. "I like your music."
I blinked. She brushed her fringe out of her eyes impatiently, waiting for an answer. "Thanks," I attempted. "I didn't realize Ash had shown you."
"Oh, she never stops bloody talking about you," she said flippantly, striding back to her room and slamming the door. For the first time, I noticed the Pulp Fiction poster on it. Ashley gestured at it, rolling her eyes fondly. She leaned over, far over, for the remote.
"Apparently, she and her cousin saw the film, and she's wanted to be Uma ever since."
"Cute," I noted, staring distractedly at her figure. She pulled back up, and caught me looking.
"Remember those pictures you took of me at school?" Ash’s eyes were dark, communicating that same message that I'd never been able to understand, not since I met her. That indecipherable message was probably to blame for every single falling out, every time we split up.
"Yeh?" What on earth was she talking about?
"I've still got 'em. And I've still got the outfit."
In a flash, I remembered the day we'd cut out of class to get fish and chips, a day which had ended up with us pissed and a little stoned in Staines, and furthermore, a day which had led to my one and only venture as an erotic photographer.
"Ah. Well," I went, experimentally. She smiled, slowly, and I let her take my hand and lead me to her bedroom.
A few days later, it was Hallowe'en. It was all right, except for the break-up. A few friends from school invited us to a fancy dress party, and we went as Madonna (circa 1980s) and Adam Ant in his dandy highway man get-up. My make-up looked better than hers, I'm pleased to report.
"All right, Ashley? Hello, Flynn, it’s been ages,” smirked this bloke we used to buy weed from.
"I heard your band, it's fuckin' bollocks,” laughed an ex-girlfriend. “Where can I buy the record?"
"I'm trying to decide who looks like the bigger tart, you or Ashley," said the class clown, now a law student at Edinburgh. "How's Am-er-ee-kah treatin' ya, mate? You’re finally able to drink there legally, well done!”
It was wicked, being back home. I felt like a victorious warrior or a Beatle or something. I kept my arm tightly around Ashley's shoulder.
"I am too allowed to drink, Mum used to let me help myself to her wine collection."
"Zac, don't fib, your mother wasn't posh enough for a wine collection." Ashley tossed an irritated glance over her shoulder. Ash's dad had decided going to a party, having a social life in Windsor, would be good for little Zac. I don't think he quite realized the kind of parties eleven-year-olds were supposed to frequent.
"So what are kids like you into, Zac, the Teletubbies? Bananas in Pyjamas?"
Zac looked bored. She fluffed her Uma bangs and kicked her shoes off into a closet. "I mainline heroin and fuck people for twenty quid, Flynn, what about yourself?"
She'd got me, so I ignored her and nuzzled my head into Ashley's shoulder. "We should go and find something decent in their record collection, I can't take this garage shit."
"Daniel!" she screamed, which I found a rather odd reply, unless she meant the Elton John song, which would also have struck me as an inappropriate reply. I followed her line of sight, and my blood chilled.
"Ah. Daniel," I said, standing up and staring him dead-on. Zac sat beside Ashley on the couch, smirking with amusement.
"Hello, Flynn! Hello, Ashley!" He turned to me jovially. I wanted to rip the Nine Inch Nails T-shirt off his patronizing shoulders. "I thought you were off in the States, bein' a rocker." He took a swig of cider.
"Yes, I am. It's tough, being away from Ashley, but oh well." I made one of those gestures, you know, a universal 'I'll be back once I get more beer' gesture, and swung an arm over Ashley's shoulders, but she shook me off.
"You're writing a book, is that right?" she cooed. Yes, she fucking cooed.
"About AIDS," Daniel said darkly, casting his gaze downwards. "And, right, I know, I haven’t got it, of course, but there are just so many sufferers out there... I wanted to spread the message. I wanted to, how should I put it, make it real to people?"
"Ash, let's go look for Tom's record collection, come on."
"Flynn, I am talking to Daniel." Her Madonna make-up served to enforce her aggravation. I gave up, swiped a Stella from the refrigerator, and went to look through Tom's music myself. I was wondering to myself whether I could ever forgive him for owning Dolly Parton on vinyl, when I heard a light tap on the bedroom door.
“So, who inspires your shit?” Zac was nursing what looked like a screwdriver, but could have just been orange juice.
“You have a foul mouth for such a little brat, you know that?”
“That’s what happens when your mum offs herself. You develop all sorts of bad fucking habits.”
I eyed her with a mixture of guilt and impatience. Yes, right, boo hoo, her mother had killed herself. On the other hand, she was a complete pain in the arse.
“I’m a fan of The Who,” I said, shuffling through Tom’s collection. “The Kinks. The other guys, though, they’re into shit like Saves The Day and all that.”
“Fair play,” Zac said, still at the door, her eyes on the party. “You know, you’d think my sister would want to come up for air once in a while.”
“What’s this, then?”
“That Daniel twat’s got his tongue so far down her throat she prob’ly needs an inhaler.”
How bloody predictable. I threw aside a Boyzone album and stormed back into the living room. While Ashley wasn’t lip-locked with Daniel, as Zac had implied, they were getting a little too touchy-feely for my tastes.
“Oi, Ashley, come on, let’s go, this party’s shit.”
“Loosen up, mate, we’re just talking about school.”
I feigned ignorance. “Oh, right, and what part were you talking about, uh, Daniel? The part where you slept with Ash on my birthday, while I was covered in sick in the toilet? Or how about the part where--”
“Flynn, christ, what are you bloody doing?”
“Ancient history, bruv,” Daniel stated easily. “I wasn’t trying to pull, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m here with Linda.”
“Ash, come on, I’ve got an early start tomorrow anyway,” I tried.
“For fuck’s sake, it’s only eight. You can go ahead and bugger off home, but I’m not leaving just because--”
“Just because what, exactly, Ashley? Because I don’t want to watch you and Daniel--” I trailed off. Just because Daniel was having a perfectly innocuous conversation with my girlfriend, and I couldn’t let go of a five year grudge? I certainly wouldn’t admit to that! “Because you’re acting like a fucking whore!”
To cut a long story short, Ashley refused to leave with me, and I didn’t want to stick around, so I called for a taxi and smoked and drank outside the flat for about forty five minutes, until the cab showed.
“Ash said to go home with you,” Zac said. Her face was flushed and her eye make-up was running.
“Oh, I’m going back to yours, am I?”
“S’pose. Where else would you go?”
Good question. My mum had moved to London, and I wasn’t in the mood to take a train at this hour. Or pay the exorbitant cab fare to get there, for that matter.
“Though Ash did tell me to tell you that you were to be gone from the house by tomorrow morning.”
“That was the plan anyway, though, innit?” Zac looked suspiciously close to vomiting, so I edged away from her and settled back into my seat.
“Is this your little sister?” said the cabbie in a polished English tone, designed to disguise the fact that he was most likely an illegal immigrant.
“Fuck no,” I said vehemently. “I wouldn’t let my sister out of the house looking like that.”
Zac didn’t take offense. She was, in fact, suddenly looking very much under the weather. She rested her head on my shoulder and moaned quietly.
“She going to be all right? Do you need me to stop somewhere?” asked the cabbie.
“Nah, mate,” I said, resigned. I held on to Zac’s shoulder firmly, keeping her upright and talking to her so she‘d stay awake, and I even rolled down the window for her when she had to puke. When we got back to hers, I carried her in and even tucked her in bed. To tell you the truth, it almost made me wish I had a younger sibling, because there was a good degree of gratification in playing the role of big brother. As for me, I watched television in the living room until Ashley came home and broke up with me for the twenty-seventh time.
“Does everybody really drive on the wrong side of the road?”
Three years later, give or take a few months, my band-mate Rob stared out the airplane window with complete fascination as the pilot announced our landing at Gatwick airport.
“It’s not the wrong side,” I said simply, downing the last of my gin and tonic and unbuttoning my seatbelt (before the seatbelt sign had switched off, let me tell you, I am truly rebellious). “Come on, get your stuff together or you’ll be hours in immigration.”
I like Rob. Rob’s Canadian, very much so, and alarmingly good-looking. We call him The Bait; we’d take him with us to bars and clubs out in the States, and because he sort of looks like that bloke, the film actor, you know, wotshisname, all the girls would flock to us. And the funny part is, Rob’s the worst flirt in the history of failed Lotharios, so the rest of us would always end up going home with somebody, but Rob always wound up alone. He’s too-- well--
“‘Those comfortably padded lunatic asylums which are known, euphemistically, as the stately homes of England.’” Rob zipped up his travel-on case and looked at me seriously. “Virginia Woolf.”
“That quotation shit isn’t going to get you a shag, Rob, honestly. Do get a move on.”
“We’ll have two more pints of Strongbow and some of those prawn cocktail crisps.”
I carried the goods back to our table. We were at Haha’s bar, surrounded by the young professionals and underage slappers in short skirts and high heels. It was a Saturday, and closing time was approaching, so everyone had that hungry look on their faces, the blokes eyeing up the women, the girls hitching up their skirts to show off more skin.
“‘We are all of us living in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’”
I shot Rob a withering glance. “Fuck off.”
“Oscar Wilde,” he slurred.
“Can we please just come up with a set list?”
Rob and I were here on tour. The rest of the band and entourage would be flying out the next day. Unsurprisingly enough, I’d failed out of university, preferring to dick around on my guitar than attend classes. The real shocker was the fact that, once I had time to devote myself entirely to my music, the band became something of an underground sensation in our area. The split-up with Ashley inspired me to write this song, “Home For The Holidays”, which got a decent amount of radio play, and the gigs just started coming in. In fact, things were going so well for us that Rick and Travis, the other two blokes in the band, followed my lead and dropped out as well.
So we wrote up an hour-long set, with a couple of Britain-friendly cover songs in there. ‘Fairytale of New York’, for one, and a bit of Madness. We were in the middle of debating whether or not we should throw in an “ironic” cover of Dashboard Confessional, when Rob looked over my shoulder, then at me and raised his eyebrows.
I turned ungracefully in my seat and stared blankly at the bird who‘d said my name.
“Yeh?” I couldn’t place her for the life of me. She looked about sixteen or seventeen, nice little body and great big blue eyes, but fairly young. Young enough so that I felt pervy for staring at her tits, anyway.
“It’s me. Zac. ‘Member? Ashley’s sister?”
I nearly fell out of my chair.
“Yeh, it’s shit being fourteen here, you’ve really got to dress like a slag if you want to get into fuckin’ Wetherspoon’s, even, but there it is.” Zac drained the rest of her Bacardi Breezer.
“‘A person's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play,’” interjected Rob. “Aristotle.”
“What?” Zac seemed bewildered by this. Or just drunk. She lit up a cigarette and looked to me for translation.
“Ignore him, he’s a tosser,” I sighed. “Philosophy major.”
“No, it’s psychology now,” Rob proclaimed, then hiccupped.
A silence descended on the table. I looked over our set list, not entirely sure why I felt unsettled by Zac‘s presence. She just took a couple of slow drags on her fag, and Rob studiously examined the quote on his cardboard beer coaster.
“How’s Ashley doing?” Fuck it, you know? I figured I had nothing to lose by bringing her up.
“Not too bad,” Zac shrugged, glancing around the bar idly. “She’s with that Daniel bloke. They’ve been together for a few months now. I can’t stand him, he’s a pretentious bastard.”
The news didn’t bother me as much as it should have. I knew Ashley and Daniel wouldn’t really last, to be honest. Daniel had the smarmy good looks of a quiz show presenter, all gelled hair and shiny fabrics, and as Zac had mentioned, he was a total poseur, and narcissistic to boot. Ash was too good for him, and deep down inside, she had to know it.
“Why’d your parents name you after a boy?” Rob nodded at Zac and rested his head in his hands, looking a little worse for wear at this point.
“They didn’t. It’s short for Prozac.”
“Ha ha.” I stuck a handful of crisps in my mouth.
“No, really, I’m not joking. My name was Beth until I was four, and then me mum had it legally changed. She said that if it wasn’t for, ya know, happy pills, she never would’ve been around to watch me grow up, right? She used to say she would have been dead for ages.”
Rob and I let this sink in for a moment.
“But she wasn’t really around to watch you grow up, was she?” Note: when I went over this conversation the next day, I cringed at my audacity here. What a right prickish thing to say, but there it is.
To her credit, Zac didn’t seem fazed. She just smiled at me, and it was the first time I noticed any resemblance to Ashley. Her eyes kind of crinkled in the same way.
“You know, you should give me your e-mail address. I have ‘Home For The Holidays’ downloaded on my computer. It‘s well wicked.”
Rob perked up immediately. “What did you think of the bass line?”
“It’s a solid tune, through and through. You guys need a new web site, though, the design is shit.” She paused, stubbing out her cigarette vehemently. “I could redo it for you.” Another pause. “I don’t understand why Ash doesn’t like your music, you know? You guys have something really fucking tight.”
“Wait, what?” This was certainly news to me. “Ashley couldn’t have said that. I thought--”
Pushing her chair back, Zac stood up, slapping her pack of fags against the palm of her hand distractedly. “I’ll be right back, you two, I want another Breezer.”
Rob was blinking at me. He looked rather like a fish.
“She’s just a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl talking bollocks. Of course Ash likes our stuff,” I said, and leaned back wearily. “She’s just some kid.” And yet, I watched Zac make her way through the crowded bar, too-big vinyl platform shoes flopping on liquor-stained wood, and I felt every one of my twenty five years weigh down on me, and I didn’t like it, not one bloody bit.
As I watched my ex-girlfriend’s smile light up the face of the strange little girl-woman at the bar making a coquettish pass at one of younger bartenders, I thought of Ash again. It suddenly struck me that I missed her.
“‘He who is not contented with what he has, will not be contented with what he doesn't have.’”
Zac turned, elbows up on the bar, and winked at me, too much cheek rouge and lipstick and button-nose and age-inappropriate cleavage.
Yeah. I missed Ashley very much.
“Shut the fuck up, you prick.”