The Things We Do to Our Friends
I’ve decided to look back and make some kind of sense of it all, and the initial idea of starting to put the pieces together in one place was because Tabitha’s mother asked me to write it all down so she had something of Tabitha’s—a tangible record of her life for the extended family—but I couldn’t quite bring myself to cobble together a fictional account where we were normal students who did normal things, so I ended up giving her a vague excuse, and she didn’t ask again. But the idea wouldn’t die down once she’d brought it up, and I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t I go back over what happened for my own purposes?
Then the question was, where does the tale begin, and although there are other places that may seem more logical, September 2005 feels right.
How very dramatic that sounds! But it felt dramatic at the time.
September is a month that has a special anticipation associated with it. As the leaves turn and the nights darken. The first time you open a book, cracking the spine and smoothing down the pages so they can’t spring back up.
It’s a month that means fresh beginnings, and that only happens a few times in life, when the slate is wiped clean and the story is ready for you to begin and tell it how you wish. The first day of a job when you’re cautious and rule-abiding, or with a new partner when you share appealing parts of yourself to test the reaction. At university, it is even more of an opportunity. Nobody knows who you are; there are no expectations or preconceptions. How you answer each question and how you position yourself is entirely up to you. But it needs to begin somewhere, and for me it was Edinburgh, at Waverley Station.
I was ready to move, so desperate to leave Hull for good, but it was hard not to feel a little discouraged when I stepped off the train and strode out into the city. I was expecting post-summer blustery days with the warmth still in the air, but the weather was particularly bad that year. I thought of my granny and what she’d say in that scornful tone: “It’s just a few hours away, Clare. I don’t know why you expected it to be so different.”
How gray the Old Town was. It was magnificent, but there was an underlying sense of squalor below it all. Steps led to alleys, weaving with possibility, where you could just as easily find a grand square as you could a dead end and a seagull gnawing on scraps of cold chips. I remember the magnitude of scale when I walked along to Queen Street and stared down to the New Town. The views went all the way to the Firth of Forth, a glimpse of water, but the winds were quick and soon a dampish fog obscured it all, like a bundle of laundry pulled dripping from the washing machine, then pinned up. I ignored the weather. I was determined to stay optimistic about the whole thing.
Enough wandering. I had a map printed, tucked in my bag, showing where I was staying. My new home was under a mile away, so I decided to walk. It was a battle through the streets alone with two suitcases, which contained everything I owned, and on the way I encountered a group of confused tourists. They blocked the entire road and craned their heads to take pictures of St. Giles’ Cathedral with bulky cameras hanging from their necks. Then there were the other students who bumbled alongside harried commuters. What a mix of people to get lost in!
I was a bubble of nervous energy, and I could have screamed out loud, right there in the middle of the street, but I held it in.
Everyone was starting a new life in that first week and there were structures to help us, because we were still children, untethered from our parents with no idea of how to live. There were social activities, stilted mixers and society nights, but during those early days, I struggled to fit in with the people I met.
We’d speak. They’d ask me questions and listen to my responses intently, almost running them through a checklist in their heads to see if I was like them. State school or private? Funny, a joker? Pretty? Boyfriend (yawn) back at home? Horsey? Medic? Sporty? Then there would be a pause, and I’d see their eyes dart behind me, looking for the next person to suss out, because it was hard to place me in a category. I didn’t make jokes because I don’t like them, and I often laughed too late or too quickly in the group—a forced, chaotic giggle even to my own ears. The conversations always petered out.
It was a clear case of not fitting in, and I was out of practice when it came to socializing with people my own age, so I told stories alone in my room, testing them on myself in front of the mirror—light anecdotes and stilted introductions that I tried to pull off breezily, but they sounded rehearsed, of course, my voice awkward and tense.
I felt observed in those first weeks. It sounds paranoid to say so, but it’s true. I felt eyes on me when I walked and would look back over my shoulder, but I saw nothing of note. I thought of what my granny would have said if I’d voiced my concerns: “You’re in Edinburgh! Why would anyone be interested in what you’re doing? For heaven’s sake . . .” And she’d have been right because not much happened at the start. The days were heavy with administration, form after form, and I brandished my chewed pen for each one. Sign here, sign here, now just here where we’ve put the “x” for you. Do you have a GP? Where’s that accent from? Would you like to pay extra for the insurance, or set up a direct debit, perhaps? Just a quick picture of you for this card. No, no, don’t worry about reading the terms and conditions, nothing important there.
There was a wave of dull paperwork. I made decisions when prompted, but after a while I stopped caring. I put my name down for lectures: An Introduction to Dutch Art; Garden Design of the Eighteenth Century. With little thought, I signed away my whole year on an impressive-sounding title, my name, today’s date, and it felt like I was “getting things done,” whizzing through the days in a blur, buying books and batteries and extension cords.
The memories that come back sharper and sweeter are when I think of the bar. That tight knot of anticipation high in my chest as I turned up for my first shift, the slosh of amber triple sec and tequila when I learned how to make a margarita, squeezing fresh limes into glasses as the juice stung where the skin around my nails was broken, leaving my hands red and raw. The bar was where it all began for me. First with Finn and then, later, with them.
Finn was a sign that things might go my way. He came about because of my more significant problem: money. A distinct lack of it. That was easily solved. I decided I’d work in a bar and that would be an answer to some of my problems. A job would give me a task to do and a way for people to understand me—I’d be a girl who works in a bar, who pours drinks and stays out too late. Perhaps I’d make friends with art students covered in tattoos and Australians with deep tans. It seemed like a good plan.
I’d heard about a place in passing that was looking for staff. It was hidden away down an alleyway in the Grassmarket, squeezed in between sandwich shops and newsagents, so you could walk past and barely notice it was there. I pushed open the glass doors, even though it seemed like the place was closed, and made eye contact with a tall man in a checked shirt who froze behind the bar when he saw me, as if I was an intruder. He had an ice bucket in hand and his brow was furrowed.
“Can I help you?” he asked in a tone that wasn’t friendly but wasn’t unfriendly. I took a deep breath and broke into a smile, one that hurt my cheeks it stretched so far. I hoped I was being inviting; I hoped my smile said, I’m easy and happy, but the skin felt too tight at the sides of my mouth and it probably looked more like a grimace.
The man smiled back at me. It reached his eyes and small crinkles came out around them. I asked him about the job, and he wiped his hand down the side of his jeans and took my CV. He had a soft Scottish accent that I liked straightaway. I gave the flesh of my tongue a sharp bite to remind myself how to draw out my vowels and clip my syllables. I’d watched television for hours each day in Hull to smooth out my accent.
He asked me what experience I had.
“Not much,” I conceded. “But I’m a quick learner.”
“Okay.” He raised an eyebrow and grinned. It seemed a little suggestive, but not seedy. I tried to work out his age, which I decided was around late twenties.
“So, no experience with cocktails? I mean, we’re a cocktail bar, which, to be honest, is a total pain. Endless mojitos, crushing ice for hours, all that kind of thing. We can teach you all that, of course.”
“No, no cocktails.” I kept it short. There was no point in mentioning I didn’t think I’d ever drunk a cocktail before either.
He seemed to be a man of okays. And I didn’t mind that.
A moment of silence, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. He looked at my CV again, which was a jumble. I didn’t quite know what to do, so I tapped my foot while I waited.