“You know what? I never even liked the Cranberries.”
“Oh, sure,” I laughed. “That’s why we practically wore out the CD. Heck, I remember you singing it in the car, on the street, in the shower…” Dolores smiled. “Yup, every night when I got in from work, I’d hear ‘Dolores doing Dolores’ and I’d think, that’s a sweet thought I don’t want to dwell on too much. Not ‘til I get my boring-ass, accountant-girl clothes off anyway.”
She laughed then, full-throated and open. A couple of customers at the bar turned round to look at us and it felt like it was back then. You were always assured of a crowd with Dolores.
“It’s true, I guess we did play it a lot. I think,” she paused, as if she was running through the list of tracks, one by one. “I just didn’t know how to get that album out of my head, you know? And her vocals … no matter how I tried, I never could get the right mix of strength and vulnerability.” And she stared at me over her half-empty beer glass.
Did it feel good to see her that day? You bet it did. Good and bad in equal measure, as if the greasy-haired Prize Show compère had waved the curtain aside and said, “And this is what you could have had, a beautiful, happy Dolores who laughs at your pathetic jokes … But you chose the devoted husband and two kids instead! Give her a round of applause, Ladies and Gentlemen!”
Cue lights, cameras. Shots of the crowd. Cut to commercial break.
She must have known I’d come to see her. Even out of the blue like that. Back from Africa for a week in London before flying off again. Aid worker from war-torn somewhere-or-other meeting part-time accountant from Chiswick. She must have known I’d come. Because I always did. Even twenty years later it seems.
It could have been my imagination, but the pub seemed to go quiet after she laughed. I fumbled for my phone.
She frowned. “Leaving already? I thought maybe we’d get something to eat first?”
“Sorry, just checking. Thought I felt a buzz. Si said that Lucy seemed unwell today, but I didn’t want to be late to see you.”
Another pause as the bar filled up with office workers flooding in for their Friday night fix. We looked them over, then back at each other.
“God, Nicki. You married him.” She shook her head. “I still don’t get it.”
“What’s to get, Lo?” I tipped the last dregs of wine down my throat. The Chardonnay was bitter and too warm. “Fancy another?”
Dolores was cute, Dolores was popular, Dolores was the kind of girl everyone liked to be with, and Dolores picked me. When we first met, she was discussing twentieth-century literature with some other students, but the only thing I saw was the blue of her eyes. I recognised a few faces in her group, so I paused at their table. Dolores stopped talking and said hello. She patted the seat next to her, and I sat down.
After the others left, she started telling me about the bunch of charlatans who were in charge of the faculty, and how the whole place needed shaking out of its torpor.
“It’s like, there’s this revolution going on in critical thought, but all they care about is getting the numbers for the courses, not finding new ways of seeing. We’re not here to get spoon-fed pro-establishment tripe and regurgitate it out again. What’s the point of that?”
I shrugged. I was studying accountancy. I didn’t have these kinds of problems.
Dolores smiled at me. “You know, I couldn’t help but notice your, er … beauty spot.”
I must have looked blank, because she pointed at my chest. I was wearing a plain white shirt unbuttoned half-way down, so a small brown freckle at the top of my left breast was showing. It was almost unnoticeable. I was dressed in frumpish accounting-student mode, an office type, a nerd before nerdiness was cool.
“I think if I were a baby,” she went on, “I’d love to lie there, suckling milk and stroking that spot.” Before I could reply, she told me more about the shortcomings of the faculty.
But I forgot almost every word she said after that.
“Dolores! Wake up! Dolores!”
It was 1am. We’d had a get-together with some friends –drinking wine, goofing about –and now it was just the two of us.
At first, it was still fun. Dolores could keep a party going –the wisecracks, the wit, the jokes and sly digs at people we both knew –but at some point, she had just stopped.
She sat in the chair by the desk and wouldn’t move. Her eyes were fixed on something, nothing, on invisible space. The expression on her face was frozen, as if she was wearing a mask. Her pupils were pinpricks, black dots, in the vast blue oceans of her eyes.
“Dolores! Please, wake up!”
The word ‘catatonic’ kept going through my head along with an internal movie-reel of horror flicks with asylums and unsympathetic white-coated doctors and locked doors. I shook her, feeling her arm underneath my hands: unresponsive and dead.
I didn’t know how to reach her.
I had to call an ambulance.
Next day at the hospital, she was like nothing had happened and I was relieved to see her eyes were normal again. She sat up in bed and quizzed me.
“You called my mother?”
“Next of kin. I had to. I’m sorry,” I said. “They said it would sound better coming from a friend.”
“So, you’ve spoken to her at last,” she said. “How did she sound?”
“Concerned. Worried. As you’d expect, I guess. I tried to reassure her. She said she’d try and come over later, but it was difficult—”
“It’s always ‘difficult’ for Mother.” Dolores swung her legs out of bed and pulled open the bedside drawer.
“What are you doing?””Getting out of this godawful place. Wanna help me get dressed?”
“Lo, you can’t just discharge yourself. You need to be signed out or something.”
“The hell with that.” She stood up and yanked her nightdress over her head. It was the first time I’d seen her naked, and I couldn’t look away.
“Nicki, I don’t believe it, but you’re here.”
“In my home. And you met my mother. And you didn’t run kicking and screaming from the premises.”
“Nope. Well, not yet anyways.”
“And, what’s more, we just knew each other. In the most Biblical sense…”
“You knew me, and I knew you, yes.”“…and it was the ‘love that dare not speak its name’, wasn’t it?”
“Somehow, I doubt that.”
“…but will just have to shout itself from the goddamn rooftops instead.”
“Well, that sounds more like the Dolores I know… in all senses of the word.”
She giggled then, making me feel like I was made of raspberry ripple, about to melt into her arms again.
And then my head caught up and said, what the hell are you doing, Nicki?
For five years, I ignored the voice in my head. We moved in together, started a CD collection which included The Cranberries amongst others.
Dolores cut her hair off, dyed it blonde, wore Doc Marten boots, and I told her she was a walking-talking cliché. She just looked at my office clothes with a glint in her eye and started humming the tune to ‘Ridiculous Thoughts’ until I kissed her mouth to make her stop.
“We were happy for a time, weren’t we, Lo?” I plonked the drinks down on the table and sat next to her, wishing I still smoked.
“Happy? Yeah, I guess,” she said, reaching for my hand.
I paused. “Have you ever had any more of those … episodes?”
“Never,” she said. “That was all the bad shit coming out. Because I felt safe with you. That’s all it was.”
I squeezed her hand, moved by her generosity, riven with guilt.
After I left her for Simon, she’d gone off the rails a bit, I knew. But I had to get away. We were suffocating each other. I always went to her when she called, but not as a lover. That was over.
“You look beautiful, Lo,” I said. “I’m sorry for all the bad stuff. I hope you forgive me.”
“Hey, it’s all in the past, and we’re still here, so what’s the problem?” and she leaned over to wipe the tear from my cheek.
I watched her down the tube steps and it was like losing her all over again, disappearing into the jaws of the tunnel. But somehow, I didn’t think she’d call next time.
It felt like all our ‘next times’ were used up and we’d finally moved on.
Native to Northern England but brought up in Wales, Anne Lawrence Bradshaw was a nurse and charity co-ordinator before deciding to go back to school. She graduated with a First in English Literature in 2013, and since then her work has been published in a couple of UK literary magazines, including Orbis, Acumen, and Artemis. Married with three children, she now lives and writes in remotest Northumberland, is Writer Liaison at Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things, occasionally blogs at shrewdbanana.wordpress.com, and tweets @shrewdbanana.