Jess Bird is a 27 year old, London-based writer whose work has been aired on BBC Radio 4. She works part-time in an advertising agency and lives in Camberwell with her cat.
FRANCES PHONES HOME
Frances steps out into the night, letting the cool air lick the gathering sweat in her hair line. Behind her, the music pumps low and viscous. She pulls her phone out of her pocket, opens Uber and taps in her postcode. A voice calls after her –
“Hey, Frances, you’re going?”
Shoes join her on the doorstep. She surveys the man’s docksiders; shoes that would get up early to boil an egg for you (6 and a half minutes – just right) every day without fail. Shoes made for gentle, repetitive acts of service that build love over years like pebbles collected on a beach.
Frances looks at Paul – patron saint of missionaries and public workers – standing breathless in front of her.
“Can I come home with you?”
“Errr – sorry, home with me? Why?”
“Because I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met. And the smartest. In fact I think I may be in love with you.”
‘Your Uber is 3 minutes away’. She considers him. “Fuck it. Come on then.”
Paul stands in his shirt and boxers, comical, indignant. Looking very tall in Frances’ room which is low – designed for sprawling and lying around watching flies bat against the skylight.
“What’s wrong with the shoes!”
Frances laughs – surprising herself with the sound. It is real, guttural – gurgling up from her stomach, not pushed out of her wind-pipe in the usual bark. She feels like it belongs to someone else and this thrills her.
“They’re too ‘nice guy’. You’re the guy whose gonna come once all the f**k boys have made me cry and spoon me into submission.”
Paul sits down on the rumpled bed, looking at her with a precision that makes her want to pull the sheet up to her neck. “Maybe I really am nice, Frances. And maybe you are too.”
Frances feels a prickle of something in her throat. A tug. It reminds her of being lost in a French supermarket as a child – a sudden unmooring and a need for home.
Frances takes a gulp of cheap red wine, singed with a metallic taste from the bottom of the tin mug. Paul’s palm rests flat on the ground behind her, as he leans back next to her. Bill is turning sausages on the fire with a serious expression. Bill is a writer, and you can tell he is already creating an intellectual commentary around the primal nature of fire-gathering in his head. Leah raises a beer in toast. She is wearing a ring on every finger, and they make her hands look like strange aerial devices whirring around in the air. “Here’s to my friend San Miguel! If it hadn’t been for him, I would never have gone out with Bill.”
“Don’t be a bitch, Leah.” Bill points his greasy tongs at Paul. “Paul, how did you get Frances to go out with you? Love you to bits but I can’t even get you to commit to brunch.”
Frances feels Paul shift as he leans forward to answer, but cuts in wryly, “He told me he loved me on our first date.”
“That wasn’t our first date!”
“Yeah, we had a pre-first date shag to break the ice.”
Leah’s lip curls slightly. “Was that after ‘I love you’?”
Frances looks sideways at Paul, “Yeah. But before the first date.”
Paul is bent double in their sagging tent, fumbling inside his backpack. It smells mildewy – of boot rooms and cold stone floors and rain that got folded away with the canvas. He staggers and swears under his breath. Frances, removing her bra through the armpit of her t-shirt whispers, “Jesus, careful! This tent is literally missing half its pegs.”
Paul sits down and looks at her in the darkness. She cannot see his eyes, but she feels them on her, through her – she feels the energy of his words as he draws in breath. “Why do you have to be like that with them? Why do you have to be all wanky like Leah and Bill? I dunno what’s so hard about just being yourself.”
Frances feels the prickle again, the criticism landing exactly where it’s meant to. “You mean like when we’re alone? You want me to fawn all over you when we’re with my friends?”
“Urgh, Frances – you’re twisting it on purpose. I’m just saying – I guess – why do you always make us into a joke?”
Frances can hear the low tones of Bill and Leah as they spit out their toothpaste by the fire. She delivers the fatal blow. “Stop being so wounded, Paul.”
Paul pushes his sleeping bag down to his feet and starts tugging on his jeans. Frances snorts, fear fuelling the sound. “Where are you off to?”
Paul hisses furiously. “I know you think this is crazy but some people actually like guys who say what they feel and don’t take the piss and are consistent,” he unzips the entrance and scrambles out. “You’re not doing me a favour going out with me, if that’s what you think.” He walks towards the car. Frances waits for him to come back. He doesn’t. “Shit.” The tents are sitting in a bowl of dampness. She lies awake, floating in the bowl, waiting for dawn.
Frances sprawls on the burnt grass – her hair shaved, making her look beautiful but stark and aggressive. She tunes in to the radio of chatter around her; Bill and Leah are considering another beer. The sky is heavy with summer clouds and anticipation.
She looks up and sees Paul’s docksiders – then the rest of him. His arm is around a girl. She stands up clumsily, brushing the dust roughly off her jeans – leaving Bill and Leah sprawled awkwardly at their feet. They face one another, hungrily taking in every alteration, every change audaciously marked in each other’s absence.
“Hey! ThisismygirlfriendSophie.” He says it all in a rush, at once.
Frances responds too quickly, her voice overlapping with the ‘ophie’. “Hey! Great to meet you!”
The pause gathers space and depth between them. Paul wades back to safer waters, grinning over at Bill and Leah. “Hey guys! You waiting to see Ceramica too?” They nod. Pause again. Questions are posed and answered silently, crueller than reality.
“Sophie reads Tarot!” Sophie nods impassively – Frances finds it impossible to tell if she knows who Frances is. “Why don’t you do a reading for these guys? I’ll get some beers.”
Trapped, they lower themselves into a new circle as Paul walks away – attentive, straight-backed, cautious.
“Who wants to go first?” She has her own answer ready. “How about you, Frances?”
Frances nods helplessly. Sophie splays the cards out face down on the bumpy surface and studies them. Then she picks a card from the arc, turns it over and places it in front of them all. There is collective embarrassment as they stare at the horned figure.
“It’s the Devil.”
“What does it mean?”
Sophie shifts in the grass. “A lot of things really. It’s to do with powerful emotional energy.”
Paul walks back with the beers and Frances forgets herself momentarily; “I got the Devil, Paul!”
Leah is enjoying herself. “Is she cursed forever now?”
Sophie clears her throat profoundly. “It signifies an energy stream frustrated in its path. A huge channel of emotion that’s gotten blocked. There’s a lot of resistance around this card. Often the strength of the force represented has turned inwards – I think you may have some sort of emotional block.”
Frances feels an invisible scratching on her skin – thinking bitchily how stupid Sophie’s pentagram tattoo looks. A low flush of shame moves up her.
The music pounds out of the speakers, making Frances’ bones rattle, rocking the earth. She feels it pushing something up her chest, breaking open that feeling of lostness. She tries to shout over the music to Bill –
“Bill, I think I love him.”
But Bill has his eyes are shut, moving with the murmuring crowd. “Huh?”
“Nothing”. She stands buffeted, bewildered.
Frances is swaying drunk, looking impatiently at the locked door. She takes out her phone and hovers a thumb over Paul’s number, considering. The door opens and Paul steps out of the Portaloo. He shakes his head in disbelief, but neither of them are really surprised.
“This must be the cosmos or something.”
Frances laughs bitterly. “Maybe Sophie’s card started something.”
Paul ignores the reference. “I bet you were freaking out at how long I was spending in the loo.”
“I never understood what you were doing in there. You were like eight minutes. You don’t even have to wipe anything!”
Paul forgets himself for a moment as they slip back into their old dynamic – enjoying the fit. “You timed me – of course. So Frances.”
He looks at her hair. Frances wants to ask him what he thinks but doesn’t know how to say it without sounding like she’s looking for validation.
“It’s good to see you.”
She swallows. “Don’t say that.”
“Why not? It is.”
“No, that’s what you say to people from your past that just pop up randomly. It’s like – nostalgic but in a bleak way. Like I’m dead.” She feels like a child. She’s being petulant, but she can’t stop.
“Aw c’mon, Frances, what do you want me to say? That I still love you? Guessing you’d like me to put all my cards on the table and be left hanging as usual.”
“Why are you being such a dick?”
Paul’s eyes are cold. “C’mon, Frances – you wanted to know I was a sure thing, but you gave me, like, zero reassurance that you were ever into me.”
“You never gave me time to acclimatise. It was scary I got freaked out.”
“What are you so afraid of?”
She is caught and her real answer escapes, whipped out of her before she can stop it.
“I was – I was – afraid of being humiliated! It’s embarrassing – the whole thing. I couldn’t handle it.”
“What’s embarrassing? Being vulnerable?”
“No! Not vulnerability so much as – well – yeah. I guess a bit.” All the mystery and the wit and the performance is extinguished in this final concession.
Paul struggles to keep the regret out of his voice. “Well, I guess that explains why I was so embarrassing to be with.”
Frances feels the tug. This something inside her, desperate to get home. “You weren’t. I was just scared….But I’m not scared now, Paul, I’m not.”
He flares up. “Yes you are, Frances. Otherwise you wouldn’t have left this” – he gestures at them – “to chance. You would have called me like a grown up. It’s been three months!”
“But this feels like something though don’t you think? That we’d see each other like this?”
“Not really, we both love Ceramica – and you only feel safe to say this because you know I’m not available. You’re good with tragedy – it means you don’t have to do anything.”
His bitterness hits Frances and she starts to cry. Great big child tears. Realising he’s gone too far, he pulls her into a hug. She clutches him back tight and they sway.
“I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. A scared idiot. And you’re probably right – you were what I needed.”
Paul speaks into her shaved head. “You’re a good person, Frances. You don’t need to be scared. I liked what I saw. And” – he wonders – “maybe I was too full on.”
“Not for someone normal.”
He laughs into her head. “You’re not normal. But you’re totally great.”
There’s a stench of finality in their embrace. But it doesn’t feel so hard now. Frances’ tears are drying. They realise they’re blocking the queue for the Portaloo.
She whispers, “Shall we go back?”
“Yeah. Let’s get back.”