A fictional story from the weekend. Same time, same characters, different place, come back every week. Catch up here.
Jay is confused. “I performed on this stage when I was a kid.”
“You’re chatting shit.”
“What, as a tree?”
“Nah.” He looks over solemnly. “I was a plant.”
So, it might help to rewind a few hours. We’d gone for a “quick drink” at Jack’s local, but the landlord is this raggo Scottish guy with a taste for pub grub so that had spun out into a lock-in, and then somehow we’d hit 2am and Lacey had received a text about this house party nearby. Then, when we’d tumbled out of the Uber, we were on a quiet residential street – not a single lit window – and in front of us was this electric gate, royal-blue and impenetrable.
Jay had shaken his head and said quietly, “this is a school,” and everyone else had laughed at him, but I could see the recognition in his eyes.
Lacey rang the guy who’d invited her – ready to go off on one – but three rings in there was a far-off shout, some footsteps, an iron click behind the gate and a familiar face had appeared. I say “familiar” – I recognised him from festivals, mainly because he’s 6’3” and known for walking around with a lampshade on his head. He’d told us “Yes, this is a primary school” and “No, it’s not a squat, it’s a guardianship.” And I’d thought, not sure how well you’re guarding this.
And then we’d stepped inside and back in time.
So we’re inside this classroom, but it’s as though it’s been abandoned halfway through a class. The walls are still covered in children’s artwork; papier-mâché insects still hang from the ceiling; and streams of pink and gold chiffon are crossed from one corner to the other, like they’d left a birthday party behind.
In one corner there’s a pretty spectacular seascape, a proper Art Attack special, glossy with PVA glue. A flood of emerald-green tissue paper and purple glitter – the chunky kind that’s choking fish in the actual ocean.
On a sofa beneath it, a girl-gang are spread out like mermaids, posing for the ‘gram, and I know we’ll be piled up there later, Maya shouting “ANGLES!” at whichever poor bystander has been designated photographer.
Anyway, cut back to the stage. There’s a bearded guy in front of us now, and I’m guessing by the concerned what-have-we-got-ourselves-into look on his face that he lives here too.
“Hey guys, would you mind getting down? Apparently there’s asbestos up there.”
“Sorry Sir,” purrs Maya, and there’s sex in her voice. He does sort of look like a teacher – the substitute who isn’t actually that old and is trying his best not to fancy his student.
Jack’s not having it though – he just smacked his head on a giant bumblebee and has some pride to regain. “What do you mean there’s asbestos up here? Surely if there’s asbestos here, there’s asbestos everywhere.”
“Right, but –”
“What even is asbestos?” interrupts Jay.
“It’s so dangerous.”
“Yeah it can kill you.”
“But what actually is it?”
“At least we’d die happy,” muses Fizz.
“You don’t die straight away you dickhead.”
“What? It takes like twenty years. It scars your lungs, kills you slowly.”
A pause. “No point worrying then.”
The substitute’s getting annoyed, and Jay’s looking increasingly pissed off, so I grab the girls’ hands and drag them to the dancefloor.
Before long my hair is slick with sweat and there’s a warmth in my body, a kick of energy I haven’t felt in a while. It helps that the DJ is killing it, that the music seems meant for us: garage through to jungle, drum ‘n’ bass to liquid, even some old-school dubstep. Some of these tracks get Maya proper misty-eyed, ‘cause though they were still big when we were teenagers, she was actually there the first time round.
I dance until my back starts to hurt, and then I find a space at the wall to watch. Through the window – and past a tagged-up NO BULLYING sign – I make out Jack and Lace sat on the climbing frame outside. They look like they might be arguing.
Jay’s slumped in one corner, subdued even for him, and I think about going over to ask if he’s alright, or what this means to him – to be thrown back into his childhood – but I see Fizz making her way. If anyone can pull something out of him, some drunken, heartfelt truth, it’s Fizz.
It’s just me and Maya, and she looks like she needs a moment. She’s reached that wild, electric high when you’re running on nothing but the light inside of you, and her eyes are skitting around the room, feline and slightly frantic.
I ask if she wants to do some K, which is my way of offering that moment, and she nods gratefully. We find the Girls toilets, a row of three doll-sized cubicles, so tiny that if you stood up straight you’d be head-height with the person next to you.
Not that we’d ever need two cubicles.
Maya gives me her shit to hold – a bejewelled iPhone and the cherry-red MAC lipstick she’s famous for – and hovers expertly over the toilet. She’s wearing Lacey’s lingerie body thing – a black and gold number that pops together at the crotch – and she has to pull it over to the side to pee. It’s a delicate operation.
There’s a pop – “Fuck, one of the studs has come off” – a second pop – “Fuck!” – and then the whole thing has sprung up to her waist, and we’re laughing so hard I nearly piss myself.
It takes at least fifteen minutes to put her back together but the level of concentration required appears to have at least levelled her out. So when she pours her K out on the back of the toilet, and the line she racks for me is a molehill and hers is a mountain, I can’t help but say something.
“You sure about that one?”
She looks genuinely offended. “I’m a big girl you’know –”
“I know, but –”
“I’ve literally been getting on it since before you learned how to dance.”
I laugh, concede the point – I think she may have even taught me how to dance. She snorts hers with added sass, and even cleans up the end of mine.
Five minutes later, we’re back in the classroom – and yes, Maya is teetering over the edge of a K hole.
I’m marginally less diagonal so I walk her off the dancefloor and plop her in the seascape – the mermaids have swum off and the sofa is free. She’s gripping my hand like a toddler grips the rim of a bathtub and is slurring out the “This is so unlike me” speech, when you try to convince someone that the depth of your inebriation is surprising even to yourself.
I’m trying to work out whether it’s safe to leave her on her own for a minute – dribbling – while I grab her a glass of water, when I see a quick flash. I turn round and there’s Risky, slipping his phone in his pocket, an overly confident grin on his face.
What a dickhead. Risky always makes this joke about setting up an exposé account called @MayaGetsSavage, which was funny at first – and fuck me, do we have some material – but recently it’s started to get to her. And this is way too far.
I smack the phone out of his hand. “Are you fucking serious?”
“What? She’s always filming everyone. Why can’t I?”
“Don’t be a hypocrite.” He takes great care to enunciate this and when he leans back against the wall, triumphant as a teenager, it’s clear he feels he’s had the last word. And this is why Risky is a cunt.
Just when I’m about to tell him so, Jay appears with Fizz – they’d seen me walk Maya off.
“She’s fine.” I glare at Risky. “She just needs some TLC.”
“Tender loving cocaine?”
“Tender loving care.” I pause. “Well, actually.”
Still pretty kestrelled myself and somewhat disheartened, I leave them to it – Jay preparing Maya a fuck-off livener, Fizz stroking her hair and telling her her name – and wander off on my own.
In the corridor, I breathe easier. I love that initial feeling of aloneness, the instant soft-close silence, the space.
Someone’s strung blue fairy lights down each wall but they must be broken ‘cause they’re blinking on and off, and they’re the only real source of light so it’s strangely ghostly. I feel like that too, like I’m twinkling on and off again – fading in, fading out.
On the school noticeboard, I discover that the Year Six’s are going to Wales for their end-of-year trip; that Mr Hall is leaving. I try to make out the names of the kids selected for the school play but they’ve been blotted out by graffiti, and I recognise some of the tags instead: one of Lacey’s cousins in a spray of silver, RISKY in an angry red.
A hand-drawn map of Hackney takes up an entire wall – floor-to-ceiling – eight A3 sheets of sugar paper sellotaped together, a patchwork project of many little hands. I know it’s old because there’s still a Woolworths on Mare St; there’s no Pret in Dalston. The paper is also whisper-thin and the paint is cracked, and in the muted blue half-light it feels like a treasure map, a record of a forgotten time. I’d love to take it home, keep it safe.
I’m debating whether or not this would be a hipster/wanker thing to do, when a kid on a skateboard comes cruising down the corridor. It’s very High School Musical, except he’s bunning a zoot and doesn’t look like he’s about to break into song.
The movement breaks the static, like someone’s pressed play on an old VHS tape and he’s set something into motion, scattering these little plastic balls across the linoleum, like a snooker player.
One comes rolling up to my feet, primary-yellow, sea-green in the light.
I follow the trail – there are hundreds of them – and at the end of the corridor I find a small, sketchy box of a room, taken up entirely by a deep multi-coloured ball pit, everything cast in the same blue glow. I’m amazed to find nobody in it – I give it a scatter with my hands to make sure, but there’s no one. Only me.
I lower myself down into the cool plastic. It’s a strange sensation, both weightless and supported, like lying in one of those zero-gravity tanks at a spa, except I don’t feel very clean and instead of eucalyptus and bergamot I smell only skunk and regret.
I close my eyes, settle in. We’ve been drinking prosecco tonight, so my mouth is filmed with sugar, and I notice, for the first time, that I am physically exhausted.
What is wrong with me?
It’s Monday morning now and I’ve had about two hours sleep, plus another seventeen minutes in the Uber back from Jack’s, which I’m guessing I was passed out in ‘cause I don’t have any memory of it other than being woken up by the driver. I leave Maya curled up in my bed sucking her thumb, and not for the first time I think, fucking freelancer.
I’ve run out of makeup wipes so I scratch off the ghost of my eye makeup with wet tissue, which leaves my eyes red-raw and burning.
Then I’m on the tube, which is fucking horrific. I can feel the sweat collecting under my shirt and I realise I’ve forgotten to brush my teeth, which makes me want to cry. I look up to see if I’m being judged, but thankfully everyone else has their eyes closed so I follow suit.
Why do I do this to myself? When am I going to be a real adult? I literally just went back to school…
At my desk – wounded, fragile, practically falling apart at the seams – I chuck three Berocca in a tall glass of water and open WhatsApp on the sly. There’s a message from Jay:
I beg you tell me what asbestos is.
And just like that, I’m smiling again.