‘This morning I imagined breaking up with Alice. We’re standing under a plane tree in Ruskin Park and it’s raining hard and she’s staring at the black edge of a storm front coming in–’
‘That all seems very specific.’ I tried to keep my face neutral.
Connie frowned before she remembered to look lost in her revelation. ‘I look down at raindrops kicking up the dust and that’s when I say it.’
I shot a pointed glance at the sparkling waves, the tan and black-striped cliffs as the boat hugged the coast of Lanzarote. ‘Doesn’t seem like today’s the day then.’
Connie scowled at me.
For the fourteen months they’d been going out I’d told Connie to break up with Alice roughly once every three days. It was usually in the wake of an incident like the one last night. Alice had spent much of the evening perched on a barstool in whispered conversation with the moustachioed restaurant owner as he plied her with drinks. When we’d tried to take her home she’d screamed at us to let her go then lain face down on the smooth black tarmac of the road by the harbour.
‘Just let me finish, Jem. I’ve come to realise over the last few days, you know, getting some headspace out here, that it’s something I need to do. But this tree in the storm is not actually how it’s going to happen, is it?’
‘So I’m going to break up with her tonight.’
Nausea surged through me. Had she found out? I wanted to hang my head over the edge of the boat and spill the contents of my stomach into the glassy blue water but instead I gave Connie a long, slow look from behind my sunglasses. Often when she talked about Alice she’d stare down at her feet but now she sat, chin at a noble angle, her black hair pinned up in elaborate loops, staring out as if in the glint of the sun on waves she saw a challenging but ultimately worthwhile future, free of Alice. No, she clearly hadn’t found out. Breaking up was her own inspiration.
The sea wind slapped me in the face as we rounded a headland to catch a glimpse of the rocky coast of La Graciosa. Guilt spread inside me like octopus ink when I thought about what Alice and I had done yesterday evening while Connie was out buying more beers.
‘Are you sure, Con? You have been together a fair while now.’
‘Are you fucking kidding me? I thought you’d be delighted. You hate Alice. You’ve been nagging me to break up with her for months.’
‘But how’s she even going to survive on her own? You told me she couldn’t sleep alone without the lights on.’
Connie’s face hardened. ‘She’ll have to learn. I’m going to tell her tonight.’
‘That’s going to make for a super fun last day of the holiday.’
‘I’ll do it after we go out for dinner, stupid.’
As our boat ploughed on through the choppy water towards the tiny port of Caleta de Sebo, I decided I would have to tell Connie. Once she split up with Alice there would be nothing to stop Alice telling her the truth about what had happened yesterday. The very thought of what this would do to our friendship made me feel sick all over again.
I imagined Alice now on the narrow terrace of the apartment, sunbathing on a plastic lounger in that stupid yellow bikini. She had long, colourless hair which hung down her back and always looked artfully salt-tangled, like she might just have stepped off a beach. She was tall and slender with a cat’s narrow face. If she wore make-up I couldn’t really tell. I wasn’t sure why I’d let Alice bumping into me last night – her coming out with another beer, me coming in for a shower, us awkwardly too close in the doorway – become arms locking, skin scraping, fingers digging in, biting at each other’s mouths. Her breath had tasted of whiskey overlain with mint chewing gum. It wasn’t clear until we lurched backwards together onto the sofa inside that this was fucking rather than fighting.
When Connie and I disembarked on the tiny island nothing stirred in the streets of low, white buildings. We spotted a bakery, a couple of restaurants and a scatter of private houses before this gave way to a sandy, unpaved road. There were some attempts at marking out rocky fields but quickly agriculture and the flapping plastic-sheeted remains of polytunnels petered out into uneven, scrubby heath.
I should tell her now, I thought, every time we stopped or Connie turned to me to speak, but I didn’t. When we reached the beach on the opposite side of the island we scuffed around disconsolately. I felt like I should be enjoying myself more. Blazing sunshine alternated with the deathly shadows of huge clouds. Other couples spaced themselves out along the vast sands. No one looked like they were thinking of swimming. Two smug women had taken shelter from the nagging wind in the dunes and were picnicking.
I nodded in their direction. ‘Aren’t those the posh women who were on our boat?’
‘Were you eavesdropping on what they were saying?’
Connie gave me a steady, green-eyed look. ‘Of course.’
‘What did you think?’
‘Of what bit? It was pretty endless.’
‘When she said that her therapist said that no matter what you consciously think you want, you usually want the opposite?’
Connie shrugged. ‘Makes a kind of sense.’
‘Really? So whatever we think we want, we actually want the opposite? So you’re going to break up with Alice because actually you want to stay together with her forever?’
Connie bent to pick up a whorled shell but dropped it again when she saw the spiral point was chipped off. ‘Yeah, probably.’
‘How are you so certain?’
‘Because I know what I want.’
‘Lucky you.’ Connie swooped on another shell. This time, it was a perfect ivory ice-cream cone.
There were restaurants on the island, not many but enough. We spent a frustrating fifteen minutes trying to get money out of the single ATM, using different cards and wearily selecting ENG as the language each time, before Connie’s battered credit card finally worked.
I had decided I would definitely tell her over lunch but every moment of Connie hoovering up the red and green sauces with half a loaf of bread and licking her fingers while she skimmed through the flimsy pamphlet, La Graciosa: The short but difficult history of an isolated island, now seemed painfully precious. She was someone I was going to lose. Someone who soon wouldn’t speak to me. Who would hate me.
As Connie kept reading from the guidebook I was flooded by the most intense sadness I’d ever felt.
‘Jem, hello, do you want that last bit of roll?’
‘Connie, I–’ I meant to confess but the words just weren’t there. Who would go for Tuesday night nachos with me? Who would I phone when I broke up with yet another girlfriend? Who would lie on towels with me in Burgess Park when south London got too hot in the summer?
She was waiting, head tilted, dark eyes like an inquisitive blackbird.
I nodded at the roll. ‘Go ahead. You have it.’
The waves had been flattened by a day of sun and the little boat rocked us gently back to Orzola. Connie was outlining how impossible it was to be in a relationship with Alice. She usually restrained from criticising Alice at all but now it was like she couldn’t hold back anymore. ‘And she’s selfish, she’s so fucking selfish. And I know this is an awful thing to say about your partner but sometimes I look at her Instagram, like that one today, and it just makes me… I can’t even.’
I’d already seen the post she meant. If a privileged white girl, tearful at the injustice she sees in the world, can add her voice to this cause, then I’d like to do that, Alice had written about a Black Lives Matter protest on Instagram. ‘She’s completely awful,’ I said, ‘Such an attention-seeker.’ But the memory of how strands of her hair had lodged in my mouth as we fucked came to me.
‘Why are you so fucking obsessed with Alice?’ my ex-girlfriend, Tam, used to say. I guess she thought I just liked complaining as it was obvious that Connie and Alice would never break up.
‘Come on, though, there must be some things you like about her?’
Connie tilted her head to the side. ‘When we first started going out I used to wake up in the night because she was clinging to me so tightly. She’d hold me in this special way with her arm tucked right around me and it totally used to melt my heart–’
‘Right, there you go–’
‘Yeah, but one night I got back late when her friend, Max, was staying over and they were curled up on the couch together asleep and she was holding him like that and I realised that this wasn’t our special thing at all, that I could have been anyone.’ Connie opened the Styrofoam shell we’d got from the bakery and took a bite out of one of the doughnuts. ‘Anyway, that’s enough about that. Don’t you want some airtime?’
I shrugged and helped myself to a doughnut. ‘What for?’
Connie left what was clearly meant to be a meaningful silence.
‘Did you want half of this or not?’
Connie took it off me and munched through to the cream filling, interspersing her bites with heavy, raised-eyebrow looks. ‘You don’t want to say anything about how you’re doing after breaking up with Tam?’
‘Damn, those cream ones were good.’
‘We should have got a couple more.’
I rushed into Alice’s room, so pleased to have got to her first that she must have thought it was good news. ‘Look, last night, I don’t think we should do this anymore.’
She paused with one magazine page held in the air. ‘Do what?’
‘Yeah, absolutely, I mean it’s never really been a thing even, has it, I mean? Not worth mentioning.’
The more flustered other people got the cooler Alice became. She let the glossy page fall flat. ‘Jem, do you agree with Vogue that socks and sandal pairings are the ultimate for city-dwellers with wanderlust?’
I left, closing the door softly behind me, but I was halfway down the corridor before it occurred to me that I hadn’t got what I thought I wanted out of Alice at all. Out of the window I could see another white-washed apartment with green railings buried in early evening shadow. It was beyond me, if I stopped to break it down, why I’d had sex with her. I didn’t actually fancy Alice, although I could see that many people found her beautiful. I wanted to pretend to be ill in order to miss tonight’s dinner but this would only draw more attention to me.
We had to haggle with the waiter for a table as most of the restaurants in Orzola seemed desperate to close before 8pm. He seated us reluctantly under an awning with wrap-around plastic windows, like we were in a caravan extension. It should have been a sea view, but the blackness outside only exposed the licks of salt left by the jumping spray. One German couple sat at a table at the back. His tucked-in shirt overhung his belly, she stayed resolutely silent. There was no eavesdropping to be done there.
As the sea crashed on the concrete wall across the road, it was easy to look at Alice, huddled in a jumper in the ugly light of the restaurant, as if she were still just my best friend’s girlfriend, no one I’d ever be interested in. I’d hated her for so long. But even as I looked, I remembered the way we’d grabbed and pinched and pulled at each other as we fucked, that I’d been wetter than I’d been in a long time.
We ordered apathetically. Alice perked up when a carafe of local wine arrived and poured for everyone. It was bound to be shocking. I took a mouthful. It was. Tension crawled up my spine when I looked around the table and even Alice seemed jittery. ‘I think we should all go water-skiing tomorrow. There’s a place that does it in Arrieta.’
‘Alice, no one wants to go water-skiing.’
‘But that’s the thing about water-skiing, you never think you’re going to like it before you actually go. The first time I ever went water-skiing on the American River–’
‘The American River’s not a thing. What’s that? A river that runs through the whole of America?’
‘Shut up, Connie,’ I interrupted. ‘It’s a river in California.’
Connie looked surprised but Alice didn’t even bother to give me a grateful grin.
‘My friend, Max, had a motorboat so most weekends he’d just throw a bunch of water-skis in the car–’
Alice made Connie self-important. That had been my earliest and most bitter objection to her. Connie started talking about staying in Alice’s father’s empty flat in the Barbican when they went out in Shoreditch one weekend and the next thing I knew they were going skiing in Klosters. It was the ‘no big deal’ tone in Connie’s voice, her shining eyes as she dropped these names that made me want to shake her and tell her that anyone who genuinely took it in their stride wouldn’t sound like that. But now it seemed to me that going out with Alice had lit Connie up and I felt another wave of sadness.
Alice was still talking. ‘And then all the guys were like, “Genuinely was that your first ever time water-skiing?” and I was like, “Duh, um, yeah–”’
I could see Connie getting more and more annoyed as she snapped the heads from her prawns and piled them up on the side of her plate.
‘I think because I’d been so adamant I was going to hate it and that I didn’t even want a go but when I actually got up there–’
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’ Connie’s tone, as she got to her feet, was too loud like a theatre director calling a halt to an appalling rehearsal.
Alice’s grey eyes widened. I shot Connie a look that said what the fuck?
‘Sorry, sorry but I really can’t do this any more.’
Connie swivelled towards Alice, one hand on her hip. ‘No, Alice, not the water-skiing. Everything.’ Her face looked suddenly gaunt in the harsh light of the restaurant. ‘I don’t think this is working between us. We’re just really different people. I need to break up with you. Sorry to do it in such a public way but there we are.’ Connie pulled her cardigan off the back of her chair. ‘Right, I needed to say that and now I need to leave.’
I became very still in my chair, convinced that if I didn’t move I would be forgotten. Alice stared across the table at Connie, her face blank. I reckoned she’d already had three glasses of wine on an empty stomach. This was close to when the demonic, screaming version of Alice usually kicked in.
‘Fuck, where are the apartment keys?’ Connie patted her pocket, her expression stranded between defiant and sheepish.
Alice did look upset but unexpectedly she nodded. ‘I think that’s a good idea,’ she said calmly to Connie. ‘We really haven’t been getting on well recently, have we?’
Connie and I could only stare. Alice had clung to Connie, begged her forgiveness again and again after her drunken outbursts. To see her taking this so calmly was frightening. What was she building up to?
Connie stood there. I could see from her frown that she felt she should say something more but didn’t know what.
Alice gave me a cool smile. When I swallowed and tried to grimace back it hurt. Was she about to tell Connie about yesterday evening? I pressed the edge of the rivet on my denim shorts so hard a line of blood appeared on my thumb.
Alice took a calm sip of wine. ‘If you need to go, Connie, then just go.’
I handed my set of keys to Connie and she left the restaurant, shoulders bunched, her walk stiff and artificial under our watching eyes. ‘Thanks,’ I said, once the dim blur that was Connie had disappeared past the plastic awning. Relief thrummed through me. ‘For, you know, not mentioning.’
‘Thanks for what?’
I pushed the scales of my cooling fish with my fork but the idea of eating now seemed ludicrous. ‘Well, anyway. Right.’ I got slowly to my feet. ‘I’m not super hungry. I should probably go and see how she is.’
Alice beckoned for me to lean across the table towards her. Reluctantly I did. ‘I haven’t forgotten what happened between us yesterday.’
Where I thought I’d see her expectant gaze on me, her narrow cat’s face waiting to pounce triumphantly on whatever reaction I showed, a sad appeal shone from her grey eyes.
‘I know you think you hate me, Jem,’ Alice whispered, her breath heavy with wine, ‘but you don’t.’
And in that moment my head emptied of everything except that perfect ivory shell Connie had found on the beach.