Authors: Emily Barr
I sipped my wine and screwed up my face, yet again, at the vision I could not dispel. I was obsessed with the idea of Steve and Miles having penetrative sex. Although Steve hadn't been interested in my body for quite some time, I had managed to force him into some token sex the week before Halloween. I had been on the pill for years, so of course we didn't use condoms.
When I thought about this, I wanted to throw things and scream and shout and curl up into a foetal position and cry for my mummy. This was unfortunate, as I didn't have a mummy, and my father, even with my stepmother in tow, just did not quite cut it. Part of me, too, looked back on the seduction with a glimmer of hopeless hope. I wondered whether I could have got pregnant. The chances were low: not only was I on the pill, but I'd had a period since. There was no chance at all, in fact.
It was taking steely self-control, and it was taking pills, but I was getting through so far. I was, I felt, presenting the outside world with an unusually dignified façade. I had always been strong, because I had never had much choice about it. Therefore, and thanks in part to the pills, I had managed not to have a dramatic haircut. Nor had I joined a gym, telephoned a sperm bank, left blank or abusive messages on Steve's voicemail, or sat around with my girlfriends listing his bad points (not least because my girlfriends were probably sitting around with him, ticking off my faults on their fingers). I had neither gorged myself on chocolate nor starved myself down two dress sizes to show him what he was missing (that would have been a perverse strategy, under the circumstances). I had not cruised online personal adverts, nor picked up random strangers for a shag. I had not ambushed him outside his office at lunchtime.
And tonight, I had not been able to stay at home on my own, because if I had, I would have felt myself teetering on the brink of various of the above courses of action, and to do any of them would make me stupid, a fool. So, here I was: a single woman, in a London bar, having a civilised glass of wine by herself. Here I was, relieved of the pathological liar who had been holding me back for all these years. I imagined myself in various locations around the world where I wouldn't be able to sit here like this, on my own, with a drink. In much of the world, I would be a grandmother by now. In many places, I would still be married to Adrian. All things considered, I was privileged to be doing this. I took a deep breath and tried to feel good.
The wine was reacting with the pills. My head spun gently. I leaned back on the sofa and sighed. I had never felt so alone in my life. This felt a bit like rock bottom.
When the woman smiled from across the room, I smiled back, dizzy and unfocused. I told myself that there was a connection between us. We were two single women. Thanks to the discreet lighting, and thanks, perhaps, to the state I was in, I could not make out her features, but I could see that she was pretty, with long dark hair. I had always made myself blonder than I naturally was, but, looking at this woman's glossy hair hanging darkly down her back, I thought that perhaps I should try life as a brunette. I might seem intriguing that way. I shook my head. That would be classic 'dumped' behaviour.
Suddenly, she was above me.
'Hi,' she said. She seemed more confident than me. She swam as I attempted to focus on her. I made an effort and moved my mouth in what I hoped was the shape of the word 'hello'. Someone had come to talk to me. That was good.
I pointed to the other cushion on my sofa. 'Ungh?' I managed to say.
She sat down, crossed her legs, and finished her drink in one gulp. I made an effort to pull myself together. I was certain that if I closed my eyes, I would pass out, so I opened them wide.
'Drink?' she asked.
I nodded, and tried hard to sound rational.
'Something to wake me up a bit,' I said carefully. She looked at me, laughed, and disappeared.
She came back with a foul liquid that I hadn't tasted for years.
'Fernet branca,' said my new friend. This woke me up enough to start talking, at least.
'... and now I'm thirty-seven,' I slurred, close to the end of my story, 'and it's all looking a bit ... what's the word? ... Stark. I am thirty-seven. Single. I'll never have a child. Or a partner. And my fucking boyfriend's fucking gay! But I still love him! How stupid?'
She narrowed her eyes at me. She was beautifully dressed, and her voice was low. When I spoke, I found myself trying to make my own voice husky too. She looked young, but she seemed wise.
'Forget about him. Loser. Do you
a child?' she demanded.
want one. Not any more.'
'Because most women, if they'd wanted a child, and if they'd been with someone for — how long were you with this "Steve" tosser?' She made quote marks with her fingers when she said his name, distancing herself from him as if he were a nasty infectious disease.
'Since you were twenty-seven. So, if you'd actually wanted a baby, you'd have pushed the issue with him about five years ago, wouldn't you? He'd have given it all this "but I'm not ready" crap, you'd have been able to ditch him and meet someone else. Or maybe he would have said, actually I might be swinging the other way, sorry.' She twiddled her hair around her finger. Anyway, you're thirty-seven. Not fifty-seven. It's hardly impossible.'
'Mmm. Tricky, though. A man my age who wants a family looks for a woman who's about twenty-eight. A nice little breeder.'
I bought Rosa another vodka and tonic, and knocked back two more fernet brancas, pleased with the effect they were having. I realised that I should be asking Rosa about herself, and I tried, but she waved my questions away and said that I was more interesting than she was, which I doubted was true. Still, I returned, gratefully, to the subject of myself.
It was good to talk about it. I talked and talked, glad that she was a stranger, pleased that I would never see her again. I could tell her anything, and I did.
'I don't even miss him all that much,' I confided. 'But sometimes I miss him so much that I want to find out where he's living and go and throw rocks through his window. But most of the time I can manage without him. Which is just as well.'
She took out a red lipstick and used the window as a mirror. A passer-by stopped and stared at her. Rosa stuck her tongue out.
'Of course you can,' she said. 'You can do more than manage. It's his loss, not yours.'
Two or three drinks later, I tried to leave. I had work in the morning and was already dreading it. If I turned up with an obvious hangover on a Tuesday, everyone would mutter about me. Being hungover on a Friday or even a Monday was cool: my colleagues and the kids would have been pleased to see I was officially 'not moping'. Being the worse for wear on a Tuesday would reek of solitary drinking and desperation.
Rosa smiled and pushed me back down on to the cushions. For the first time, I noticed that although her nails were beautifully manicured, her hands were big and knobbly.
'I'm drunk enough now,' she said, raising her immaculately plucked eyebrows, 'to tell you my little secret.' She gave me a piercing look. 'Unless you've worked it out already. If you have, you're good at covering up. Normally the eyes go straight from the hands to the Adam's apple, and then they try to glimpse my legs. At which point, shiftiness kicks in.' She smiled a wobbly smile. 'Normally, once people work it out, they stop looking me in the eye but at the same time they can't let me go until they've made me confirm it, so they ask all sorts of leading questions about my early life.' She shuddered, waving the inept people away with her large hands. I was proud that I was so wasted I wouldn't have recognised my own father, had he walked into the room. There was no way I was noticing Adam's apples, not tonight. Thanks to this, I had clearly passed the test.
'Well,' I said, hoping that I was jumping to the right conclusion, peering at her neck, 'I can guess what it is
but I didn't before. I really didn't. You should give yourself more credit.' I looked at her hands, and her legs. 'I would never have known. Honestly. You look just wonderful. You have amazing legs.'
She leaned over and kissed my cheek, her hand resting on my thigh. Her perfume was subtle and musky. 'You're very kind.'
'So.' I knew I had to follow up with an intelligent question, but I couldn't think of anything to say. 'Um,' I muttered. 'What stage are you at? May one ask?'
She smiled broadly. 'Gearing up! Hence, out here trawling around for drinking partners. Dutch courage. I've been Rosa for two years. That makes it very nearly D-day.'
I interrupted. 'Who did you used to be?'
She winced, shaking her head at my tactless question.
'Ross,' she whispered. 'We don't talk about him. But the day of reckoning is at hand. It all starts for me next week. Hormone treatment, and then surgery. Then I'm truly Rosa, for ever.' She looked nervous. 'What do you think of that? That for the past couple of hours you've been sharing your secrets with ... well, with someone like me?'
I laughed. 'Great!' I told her. 'I think it's cool. I do! It's brilliant. I mean, you're only young. Aren't you?' This wasn't what I'd planned to say, but it was what came out.
'Jesus. Much younger than me.'
'But I'll never have babies either.'
'Adopt one? From China or something? Maybe I'll do that ...' I tailed off, pleased with this new train of thought.
She snorted. 'Yeah, right.'
I thought of something else.
'Tell me to shut up. But do you still have, you know, a willy?'
She paused. 'Not for long.'
I looked at her face. 'You must have been a gorgeous man.' She frowned, and shook her head. She pushed the idea away with both hands. 'I mean it,' I told her. 'If Ross was here I'd be trying to tempt him back to my flat. I would.'
'You can tempt Rosa. I'd like to see where you live.'
I looked around. The bar was about to shut, and we were the last people left. Matt caught my eye. His fringe was always hanging over half his face. I wished he would get it cut.
'Sorry, Liz,' he called over. 'Chucking out time. You too, mate. Lizzy, can you stand up OK?'
Rosa flicked a finger at him, and leaned over to me.
'So, am I invited chez Liz?'
I grinned and swayed. 'Of course you are.'
She stood up and pulled me to my feet.
The very last thing I had been planning when I went out for my solo drink was to bring someone back, so our flat — my flat — was not geared up for company Steve was a neat-freak, and without him there, I had let it descend into chaos.
In fact, through my blurred vision, I saw that it was a temple to miserable self-indulgence. The sink was full of dirty cups and glasses. The paint on the blue and yellow cupboards was peeling. As if for the first time, I saw the heap of washing, the ironing board with half—ironed blouse draped over it, the exercise books piled precariously on the table. Every corner seemed to be a repository for something. I hoped Rosa would notice that, beneath the mess, there was a homely flat with colourful walls, and polished floors, and mirrors with mosaics around the edge.
I could see that the decor was too studenty. The sitting-room walls were pillar-box red. I thought that, now I was on my own, and now that I was so old, I should probably update it and paint a few walls beige, like they did on television.
I tried to say something to this effect, but my legs started to wobble, and I quickly sat down instead. After a while, I noticed that Rosa was clearing up. She picked up all my clean washing from the other end of the sofa, and moved it on to the stairs. Then she sat next to me.
'Can I have a drink?' she asked. 'Shall I get one myself? What would you like?'
'Oh,' I said, and tried to think. 'Coffee? Tea? Water?'
'Gin?' countered my new friend. 'Or a
'Um.' I hauled myself up, pulling on the arm of the sofa. Together, we went to the kitchen, and I knelt, unsteadily, and looked through some kitchen cupboards. 'There's port here,' I said, as bottles dissolved before my eyes. 'And other things. Not quite sure what. Um. Tequila. Something from Brazil. Something from duty free.'
Rosa smiled and nodded. 'Tequila. What else? Can we line up a few in shot glasses? I haven't done that for months.' She looked around uncertainly. 'Do you have such things?'
,' I slurred. 'I'm a woman of the world.' I checked, clumsily, at the backs of a few cupboards, and managed to locate them. 'Look at this. Steve's
a selfish pig. Thank you, Steve. You fucked a teenager but at least you left the shot glasses.'
I moved some old newspapers from the kitchen table to the floor, and put six small glasses on it. I let Rosa do the pouring. While she did it, I thought about how stupid I was being. Even through the haze of Valium, wine and fernet branca, I could see that tequila was a terrible idea. There was no way I was going to work in the morning. I didn't think I would go to work ever again.
Rosa took the shots back to the sitting room, and I followed. I sat close to her, back on the sofa.
'I love you,' I told her, sleepily.
'Oh, shut up! And drink!'
We clinked glasses and gulped back our drinks. I shifted closer to Rosa. A small alert part of me was looking on, disgusted. I hated myself and I hated my life. I was sensible. I never got talking to strangers in bars. I certainly never invited them home with me. And I never did this, either.
I stroked her arm. 'Rosa?' I asked.
'Oh fuck it. Why not?' Tequila and my nagging had made her suddenly aggressive. She sounded male, all of a sudden. 'You want to know if it still works? Let's find out. You want a curiosity fuck? So have one. It's the last chance for me, I suppose. My ceremonial good riddance.'
She turned to me. I gazed at her. There was no trace remaining of Ross's facial hair. She had already told me that she had had everything but the most delicate of eyebrows removed by electrolysis. But her bone structure was masculine.