I like to think I proved them wrong; when it came to the crunch my grades were just about decent enough to scrape into my first choice of uni. Truth is that I was lucky; I’ve been gifted with a near photographic memory, so those textbooks and theories only needed to go in once and they stayed there. With that and an ability to talk crap to anyone, I’ve done okay. Though for some reason my ability to talk doesn’t seem to extend to Laurie.
‘So, Laurie. What else should I know about you, besides the fact that you’ll beat me black and blue if I hurt your best mate?’
She looks startled by my question. I don’t blame her. The last time I asked anyone a question like that was my one and only hideous attempt at speed dating. What am I doing, interviewing her?
‘Umm …’ She laughs, music-box light. ‘There’s not really very much to tell.’
I try to bring it back to normal, shooting her a ‘try harder’ look. ‘Come on, throw me a bone here. Sarah wants us to be best buddies. Give me your three most embarrassing facts, and then I’ll give you mine.’
She narrows her eyes and her chin comes up a little. ‘Can we take it in turns?’
‘Go on then. As long as you go first.’
I tell myself that I’ve suggested this because Sarah is so keen on me and Laurie being friends, and that honestly, genuinely, is partly the reason. Partly. But the other part just wants to know more about her, because she intrigues me, and because I’m comfortable here on the other end of the sofa, and because I find myself relaxed in her company. Maybe it’s the wine she’s drunk, and it’s probably the beer I’ve sunk, but I think I could be good friends with this girl. That’s okay, isn’t it? I know some people don’t believe that platonic friendships can happen between men and women.
I’m going to trade truths with Laurie, and we’re going to become the best of friends. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my grand plan.
She drums her nails against the edge of her glass, thinking, and I find I’m really interested to hear what she’s going to say. She looks down into the dregs of her wine, and when she raises her eyes, she’s laughing.
‘Okay, I was fourteen, fifteen maybe.’ She breaks off and presses her hand to her red cheek, shaking her head. ‘I can’t believe I’m going to tell you this.’
That giddy laugh again, and she lowers her lashes, making me duck down to catch her eye.
‘Come on, you’ve got to tell me now,’ I cajole.
She sighs with resignation. ‘I was with Alana, my best friend at the time, and we were at the school disco trying to pretend we were super-cool. I think we might even have had a box of cigarettes, although neither of us smoked.’
I nod, wanting to hear more.
‘And there was this boy, as there always is, and I really fancied him. Half the school did, in actual fact, but by some miracle he seemed to like me too.’
I want to butt in and tell her that it’s not a miracle or even a surprise really, but I don’t.
‘So he finally asks me to dance at the end, and I nonchalantly accept, and it’s all going really well until I look up sharply just as he looks down at me, and I full-on headbutt him in the face and break his nose.’ She looks at me, wide-eyed, and then laughter bubbles up in her throat. ‘Blood everywhere. They had to call him an ambulance.’
‘No way.’ I shake my head slowly. ‘Wow, you’re a really shit date, Laurie.’
‘I wasn’t even dating him,’ she protests. ‘I wanted to, but it never got off the ground after that. No surprise, really.’ Knocking her knuckles on her skull, she shrugs. ‘Iron hard, by all accounts.’
‘Okay, so now you’re a ninja mafia moll with an exceptionally hard cranium. I can understand what Sarah sees in you.’
She plays it straight. ‘I reckon I must make her feel safe.’
‘I’ll say. You really should think about charging protection money. Pay your student loan off in no time.’
Laurie puts her wine glass on the table and leans back, tucking her dark hair behind her ears as she settles cross-legged, facing towards me. When I was a kid we went on annual family holidays to Cornwall, and my mother had a thing for those tiny little pixies you could buy, usually sitting on toadstools or something equally twee. Something in the neatness of Laurie’s lotus position and the point of her chin when she smoothes her hair behind her ears reminds me of those pixies now, and for a second I experience a jolt of homesickness out of the blue. As if she is familiar, even though she isn’t.
‘Your turn.’ She grins.
‘I don’t think I have anything that measures up,’ I say. ‘I mean, I’ve never even headbutted a woman.’
‘What kind of man are you?’
She feigns disappointment, and even though she is joking, I consider her question seriously.
‘A good one, I hope?’
Her laughter dies in her throat. ‘I hope so too.’
I know she means for Sarah’s sake.
‘How about this one …’ I change the subject abruptly. ‘Let me tell you about my sixth birthday party. Imagine a small child who got buried in the ball pit and then got so scared that his dad had to navigate the jungle of slides and scramble nets to find him. I was three foot under the balls and crying so much that I threw up. They had to clear the place.’ I have a vivid flashback to the faces of the horrified parents of the kid whose party dress got splattered with my chocolate-cake puke. ‘Funnily enough, my party invitation rate dropped off sharply after that.’
‘Oh, now that’s a sad story,’ she says, and I don’t even think she’s taking the piss.
I shrug. ‘I’m a man. I’m made of tough stuff.’
She raps her knuckles on her skull again. ‘You forget who you’re talking to here.’
I nod, solemn. ‘Ironwoman.’
‘The very same.’
We fall silent and assimilate what we now know of each other. For my part, I know that she’s awkward with men and likely to cause injury. For hers, she knows I scare easily and am liable to throw up over her. She takes the empty ice-cream carton and spoon from me and leans sideways to slide it on to the coffee table, and despite my best efforts, my man brain observes the movement of her limbs, the sliver of breast I can see under her arm, the inward curve at the base of her spine. Why do women have to have all of that going on? It’s really not okay. I want to be platonic friends with Laurie, yet my brain is filing away her every movement, storing her up, building a map of her in my head so I can visit her every now and then in my sleep. I don’t want to. When I’m awake, I really don’t think of Laurie in that way, but my sleeping brain doesn’t seem to have received the memo.
In sleep, I’ve observed that her skin is creamy pale and that her eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Laurie’s eyes are a fucking summer hedgerow. And now I can add that pronounced curve at the small of her back, and that she gets giddy after wine, and how she bites her bottom lip when she’s thinking. Times like this, my photographic memory becomes more an impediment than advantage. Of course, Laurie’s not the only woman I have dreams about, but she seems to warrant a more regular walk-on role than most. Not that I’m dreaming of other women all the time. I’m going to stop now, because I’m making myself sound like a closet sleazebag.
‘Right, I guess that makes it my turn again,’ she says. I nod, glad that she’s derailed my train of thought.
‘You’re going to have to go some to top the headbutt story.’
‘I started too strong,’ she agrees, chewing her lip again, struggling to dredge up something suitable.
To help her, I chuck out a few prompts.
‘That embarrassing incident when you went out in high winds without knickers?’ She smirks but shakes her head. ‘Poisoned someone with your cooking? The time you accidentally snogged your sister’s boyfriend?’
Her features soften, a sudden study of nostalgia and other emotions I find hard to read as they slide over her face. Christ. I must have said something really wrong, because now she’s blinking hard, as if she has something in her eyes. Like tears.