The Bath Novel Award 2016 Runner up
Friend Request by Laura Marshall (Opening Chapter)
The email arrives in my inbox like an unexploded bomb. Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook. For a second I miss the Facebook reference, and just see “Maria Weston wants to be friends”.
Instinctively I slam the laptop shut. It feels as though a sponge has been lodged in my throat, soaking up water, swelling and clogging, making it almost impossible for me to breathe.
It’s been an unremarkable day up until now. I’m working from home on some initial plans for a client who wants everything from walls to carpets and sofas in varying shades of grey and taupe.
I attempt to breathe deeply, trying to get myself back under control. Perhaps I was mistaken. I must have been mistaken because this cannot possibly be happening. Slowly I lower myself back into the chair and raise the lid of my laptop. Hands shaking, I go back into the email and this time there is no denying the bald fact of it. Maria Weston wants to be friends with you.
It must be someone’s idea of a sick joke, surely. But whose? Who could think this funny? Who even knows the effect it would have on me?
There’s an easy way out of this of course. All I have to do is delete the email, go to Facebook and decline the request without looking at the page. There’s a part of me that’s screaming out to do this, to end it here; but another part of me, a quiet and buried part, wants to look, to know. To understand.
So I do it, I click “Confirm Request” and I’m taken straight to her page. Maria Weston’s Facebook page. The profile photo is an old one from a pre-digital age which has obviously been scanned in. Maria, in her green school uniform blazer, long brown hair blowing in the wind, a small smile on her face. I scan the screen, searching for clues, but there is very little information on the page. She doesn’t have any friends listed or photos uploaded other than the profile one.
She stares at me dispassionately from behind my computer screen. I’ve not felt her cool gaze for twenty-five years, not been the recipient of that look that tells you she’s sizing you up, not in an unpleasant way but appraising you, understanding more of you than you want the world to know. I wonder if she ever realised what I had done to her.
I can see the red brick of the school buildings in the background, familiar in a way but strange too, as if they belong to someone else’s memories, not mine. Odd really, how you spend five years going to the same place every day, and then it’s over, you never go there again. Almost as if it never existed at all.
I find I can’t look at her for long, my gaze roaming around the kitchen, wanting something familiar to look at, a break from this bewildering new reality. I get up and make a coffee, gaining comfort from the ritual of putting the smooth shining pod into the machine, pressing the tip of my finger onto the button in the precise way I always do and warming the milk in the frother.
I look around at the trappings of my very comfortable, very middle-class, nearly middle-aged life. The kitchen gadgets and the photo on the fancy fridge of me and Henry on our first holiday alone last summer, a selfie taken by the pool: our skin salty and sun-kissed, a grey shadow around Henry’s mouth where the dust has stuck to the remnants of his daily ice cream.
Through the French doors from the kitchen I can see into my tiny courtyard garden which is wearing its bleak winter clothes, paving stones slick with the earlier freezing rain. Chipped plant pots trail the dead brown remains of my doomed summer attempt at growing my own herbs and the darkening afternoon sky is a dull uniform grey. I can just see one of the tower blocks that loom here and there like threatening giants over the rows of Victorian terraces all turned into flats like mine that make up this part of South East London. This room, this home, this life that I have built up so carefully. This little family, with only two members. If one of us falls, then what is left is not a family at all. What would it take to tear it all down, to bring it tumbling and crashing to the ground? Perhaps not as much as I thought. Maybe just a little push, a nudge in the back, so slight that I would barely feel it.
The kitchen with its muted dove-grey walls and bleached wood worktops is warm, uncomfortably so. As the coffee machine hums its familiar tune, I half-listen to the news on the radio, which chatters all day every day in my kitchen: a sporting victory, a cabinet re-shuffle, a fifteen year-old girl who has killed herself after her boyfriend posted naked pictures of her online. I flinch at the thought of it, sympathy for her mixed with a shameful gratitude that were no camera phones around when I was that age. I move over and open one of the French windows, feeling the need for fresh air but an icy blast slams it shut again.
My coffee is ready, and I have no alternative but to sit back down at the laptop, where Maria has been waiting for me: steadily, impenetrably. I force myself to meet her eyes, searching futilely for any hint of what was to happen to her. I try to see the photo as a casual observer might, just an ordinary school girl, an old photo that’s been sitting on some mother’s sideboard for twenty-five years, dusted and replaced weekly. It doesn’t work, I can’t see her like that knowing her fate as I do.
Maria Weston wants to be friends with me. Maybe that had been the problem all along, Maria Weston had wanted to be friends with me, but I let her down. She’s been hovering at the edge of my consciousness for all of my adult life, although I’ve been good at keeping her out, just a blurred shadow in the corner of my eye, almost but not quite out of sight.
Maria Weston wants to be friends with me.
But Maria Weston has been dead for more than twenty-five years.
Heard Sophie talking to two of the glamour girls at break today. They were sitting on that bench at the far edge of the playground, you could practically see up Sophie’s skirt, don’t know how she got that past Miss Allan. Sam Parker was watching them from the other side of the playground and I could tell what he was thinking. It was that day today, the first one of the year where you can smell spring in the air. I was sitting alone on the next bench along from them, alone but actually not minding, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face. The sky was the most amazing blue, and Sophie and the other two were sort of shining, their impossibly glossy hair reflecting the sunlight, their smooth golden skin glistening. Of course they were aware of the effect they were having, they’re not that stupid.
Sophie was talking about a boy she got off with on Saturday night at Claire Barnes’s 16th birthday party.
“Basically, we were kissing and all that, and then – well, you know the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a boy? That happened.”
Glamour girls one and two shrieked obediently.
“Oh my God!” one of them said. “That is so embarrassing! You know I got off with Mark? Well we went down the Fields and I was down there, you know, giving him head, and nothing much was happening and I looked up and guess what? He was asleep!”
Sophie and her mate fell about laughing, and then the other one leaned in to the other two as if about to impart some great piece of wisdom.
“I’m actually getting a bit bored with sex you know. It’s all Dan wants to do. You know sometimes I’d like to go into town or go to the cinema or something?”
The other two nodded knowledgeably.
I moved away then. Please God don’t let the others find out I’ve never even kissed a boy, although obviously Sophie knows. Thank God I wasn’t involved in the conversation. What did happen to Sophie’s boy? Obviously it’s to do with sex, but I don’t really know what she means. I think I know what giving him head is, although why it should be called that I have no idea. Most of what I know about sex I’ve learned from the pages of Just Seventeen magazine, although God knows they could be more helpful. The problem page woman seems to assume you have a basic knowledge, so there are always phrases and words I’m not sure about. You’d think maybe sex education at school would have covered this, but no, so far it’s been that ancient 1970s video of the woman giving birth, and some embarrassed talk about penises going into vaginas. Well, even I knew that. The only lesson that promised to be interesting was the one where Mrs Cook was going to teach us how to put a condom on a banana but guess what, Mrs Cook was ill that day so we had to make do with hearing from the other class in our year who’d done it the week before.
That new girl started today, Maria something. She looks OK, sort of normal uniform, not trendy but not square either. Miss Allan made Sophie look after her, but Sophie basically showed her where the toilets were, and the lunch hall, and then ignored her for the rest of the day. Esther Harcourt tried to make friends with Maria, but you could tell that even a new girl could see that Esther, in her hand-me-downs and thick-rimmed glasses was not the route to social success in this school. Funny to think now that I used to hang out with Esther all the time at primary school. I loved going to her house because her mum let us go off into the woods for hours, although they were vegetarian hippies, so we got some odd stuff for tea. I sort of miss her in some ways, we did used to have a laugh. Couldn’t be friends with her now though, nightmare.
Anyway, so at lunch Sophie didn’t even sit with the new girl, and Esther was already staying away by then because this Maria had been so cold to her at morning break. As I got closer to the tills, I started on the daily task of scanning the cafeteria trying to work out where I was going to sit. Maria was sitting on her own on the end of a table with a group of real swots at the other end, including Jocelyn Griffiths (or as Sophie calls her “Face and Neck” due to her very orange foundation and very white neck). Face and Neck was holding forth on the subject of her English homework and how brilliant Mr Jenkins said it was, and how he’d asked her to stay back specially after class at the end (I bet he did, the old perv – it’s not just me, everyone says it. Apparently he’s been seen looking in through the windows when the netball team were getting changed). Anyway, I was about to pass Maria, wondering whether it was going to be OK to sit with Sophie today (she was with the glamour girls on the far left corner table which for some reason is the cool table – basically unless you are only having a yoghurt for lunch it’s quite embarrassing to sit there), when I caught Maria’s eye. She was eating her jacket potato and listening to Jocelyn banging on about her Shakespeare essay and smiling like she could already tell how full of crap Jocelyn is, and something made me slow my pace.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
“No, no one!” she said, moving her tray to make room for me. “Sit down.”
I unloaded the shameful fat-filled lasagne from my tray and sat down, pressing the sharp end of my apple juice straw into the little silver disc until it popped, a bead of amber liquid oozing from the fresh hole.
“So, how’s your first day going so far?”
“Oh, you know, good, of course it’s difficult … you know …”
She trailed off.
“So, crap basically?” I grinned.
“Yeah,” she smiled in relief. “Total crap.”
“Where did you go to school before? Did your mum and dad move?”
Maria looked uncomfortable. “Yes, we lived in London.”
“Oh right,” I said. It seemed like a funny time of year to move, two-thirds of the way through the final GCSE year.
She hesitated. “I was having a bit of trouble with some of the other girls. There were some … rumours. About stuff I’d done. None of it was true.” This last was said quite forcefully, as if she was willing me to believe her. As I didn’t know what the rumours were, or whether they were true or not, I couldn’t reassure her. It didn’t sound like something I wanted to get into, not on the first day of knowing her.
“Well, everyone’s really nice here,” I lied. “You won’t have any trouble like that. In fact there’s a group of us that goes into town most days after school, you should come.”
“I can’t today, my brother’s picking me up outside school to walk home. But I’d love to another day.”
First lesson after lunch was maths, and Sophie swung into the seat next to me, freshly made-up after a bitching session in the toilets and reeking of Christian Dior’s Poison. We were doing algebra and she started copying me as usual which was pissing me off, so I told her that I’d been talking to Maria and that I’d invited her to come into town with us.
I think I’ve made a huge mistake. Sophie didn’t speak to me all afternoon at school and then when the bell went she scooped up her stuff and went off into town with Claire Barnes. She must have taken against Maria for some reason, God knows what it could be though. I came straight home, I didn’t want to risk bumping into the two of them in town. I’m so frightened that I’ve ruined everything with Sophie. Shit shit shit. What am I going to do?