What she did last night

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            I reach for my phone, unlocking it under the desk. I find the group chat for the friendship circle (the one excluding her) and begin to type:

            ‘So you’ll never believe what Ellie did last night—’

            But now I’ve paused. I think I’m feeling guilty. Why are these groups of culty allegiances called friendship circles anyway? Who’s there drawing up the blueprints? I’m doodling circles in my lecture right now, sketching little columns of them down the corner of my notes...

             Is it the perfection of a circle that serves the metaphor better than, say, a friendship oval or a friendship oblong? And what about friendship clouds? I like the idea of something that’s less clear-cut, accessibly whispy at the edges. Easier to draw too. I create a few of these clouds in the page corner, collapsing the abstraction of them into cheap and shorthanded caterpillar curves. Would parents warn us about the wrong type of friend by saying ‘steer well clear of the stormy forecasts, the rain clouds that threaten drug-use and teenage pregnancy?’ Would we nod like good boys and girls, gazing up at the fluffy money-makers shaped like careers in STEM and wealthy love interests?

            I’ve finished the message now. My thumb’s been wavering over the blue arrow for a while, but I’m going to stop being stupid and send it.

            To try and begin explaining the situation, I’ll start by saying there are so many differences between Ellie Baxter and me. For one, I’ve never disappeared on nights out. Ellie’s always loved running down dramatically unlit footpaths, or leading you on shortcuts through the woods. These run-offs usually happen after she’s sparked some form of drama, which could be something to do with the possession of a guy, or perhaps the follow-up to a bitchy comment. Either way, one of the group would always feel duty bound to follow her, to make sure she got home safe.

            That was until we realised that she was, in someone else’s words, a psychotic-boyfriend-stalker.

            But the circling, the encircling of the friendship group we were in at the time, it felt so binding. We never had much in common; her personality alone was the centrifugal force pulling us together. It whirled us around into her all-encompassing and Ellie-shaped eddy, until it was collective knowledge that you had to perform her games of hokey pokey when you made it into the circle. You put your right leg in, right leg out, and have a good old bitch about the girls on the other side of the proverbial playground.

            I also want it to be clear, before anyone judges me, that I’ve never reached access-all-areas in any kind of clique. I was never at the core of this particular circle— I’ve always skirted around the circumferences of groups like this at uni. I guess you could consider me a friendly enough but quite distant afterthought.

            The night I’m messaging about was just after the accusations against her began. Most of the girls in the old group were at the same club, and Ellie just happened to be there too. The place was hot and heavy with sweat, crammed and feeling like it’s shrinking with every hammer of drum and bass. So we resigned quickly to more alcohol than we could take, four am hit and everyone pretended they didn’t see Ellie slip out on her own. Everyone except me. I said my quick goodbyes. I don’t know why I wanted to follow her, I guess I was just on autopilot. I caught a few raised eyebrows under the flashes of neon light, clear gestures to the conclusion that I was wasting my time. I would still follow her though, I told myself, despite the non-verbal laments to my social standing. My mum taught me to hold back the hair of anyone, be they attention-seeking drunks or borderline sociopaths.

                        I unwrapped my jacket from my hips and turned away, double checking the pockets for my things. Nights like this always made me think the same thing, all we do is suggest boring echoes of the good time that we’re supposed to be having. I probably wouldn’t have fun if I stayed and, besides, we really did use to worship Ellie— she made the nights exciting in spite of how bad they were, in spite of how easily they sunk into shamefully bright mornings. Commuters and gym-goers would emerge from their front doors but Ellie’s disciple would always listen obediently until she finished her rants. Then the disciple would intervene with whichever men-are-trash epithet was relevant, shivering and clutching at the remnants of an oil-drenched cheesy chips box.       

            I did look back, just once, just to see if anyone was watching me go. Not that I cared. I think a group of guys had already merged into the space I’d left. I pushed between the last huddle in my way, avoiding the clammy hands and sweat-smeared waistlines before looking back again. There was still no-one watching me- the group had turned away, ponytails bobbing, absorbing the men into their entity as they pushed toward the throb of bodies by the bar.

            She was already a few buildings ahead when I got outside. I could just about see where she’d tied her skirt roughly at the thigh using a spare hair tie. Drunk or not drunk, her posture was proud. She’s stunning— most people I know will admit to that. Eventually I wondered what she was upset about as I began to walk towards her, why in particular she'd left. I couldn’t help but hope it was juicy, whatever her reason was.

            It was raining and this pierced through my drunken haze, registering quickly through a body I’d numbed at its ends. Another terrible remix echoed out into the alley, impressing itself onto the graffitied rear walls of the shops on the main road. I could hear someone throwing up nearby, a group of sports lads crossing the road a few blocks behind chanting something about a pint. I sped up to try and warm up a little. We turned off of the main road, empty but for her and a few other groups of clubbers ahead. She was moving past them quickly— I imagined the adrenaline pumps of shots we took racing around the edges of her stomach. This would be another of her mystery tours-- I was sure of it.

            I’d got to an awkwardly close arm’s length when she finally turned and recognised me. I’d felt too shy to call out to her. She turned back to the road with what I assumed was apathy— perhaps a flash of irritation was in there too. When she slowed her walk to match mine I took this as a sign she was happy enough to accept my company. She spoke first:

            ‘Boring, aren't they.’

I couldn’t help notice that she’d bypassed the part where she thanked me for joining her.

            ‘Who in particular?’

            ‘Oh, all of them’

            I laughed. I couldn’t help it, I had to admire how badass she was. She just didn’t care. She thrust her shoulders backwards and the energy of this movement rippled through her shoulder blades, twisting her spine unnaturally. Turning abruptly, she led us down a steep and narrow fenced off alley I didn’t recognise. As long as the path was lit I thought, as long as I could see her feet guide me. She wasn’t the kind of girl to waste the last exciting scenes of the night on a taxi— I hadn’t even considered it. 

            ‘You didn’t enjoy the night at all then?’ I asked, prompting. 

            ‘No.’

            Her heels had come off, her bag was unzipped— I sorted her out at intervals where I could get in front of her. I was so sure she was going to take me somewhere exciting, somewhere she’d never taken anyone before. After all, wasn’t I the only one left who actually talked to her? I fixated on the route of her bare feet, smiling blankly at the blisters that had already begun to form around both of her Achilles.

            ‘You’re okay though?’ I asked.

            ‘I guess.’

I waited for her to elaborate, disappointed when she held back.

            ‘The club they chose, that was shite too’, she continued.

            ‘Yeah, it was shit music.’

            ‘To be honest everything was a bit shit, wasn’t it?’

            I continued to agree, hoping she’d eventually feel confident enough with me to rant. Then I might begin to get something interesting, something I could use.  

            But perhaps she was more sober than I thought? She was picking her way across the pavement quite well after all, jumping nimbly over its scattering of litter and ribbed manholes. Maybe she’d be more reserved than I‘d bargained for?

            Half of me began considering going back to the others. I wasn’t sure I was going to get anything interesting out of her, and I was beginning to zone out. Even though we were out of hearing of the strip, bass lines beat themselves something nasty through my head. It might be safer to go back, perhaps I could tolerate the others for a few more hours too. I could walk in and out of the club a few more times to feel the change, the switch of volume and pressure. Like the cycle of a beach-goer, I’ve always thought, from sunbathing in the hot sun to diving straight into the sea.

            Ellie continued to talk but it was pretty nondescript. Something about the club, the tiny dance floor, the gross loos:

            ‘Everyone seesaws between the two, they’re like bloody five year olds. Like why don’t people just dance? It’s so fake-’ 

            That word, fake, isn’t it always used to describe whoever’s being bitched about?

            ‘- and there were no fit guys either, just creeps. That’s why I left.’

            ‘Nothing else?’

            ‘Well, other than the usual bitchiness, no.’

            ‘Anything in particular?’ I prompted again.

            ‘Just the usual. Apparently I look a bit like an up-market hooker tonight? If that isn’t backhanded, I don’t know what is...’

            I noticed a slight slur in her voice, the slow drawl of alcohol. She said she’d wanted to slip off subtly, but I doubted this. I told her I obviously couldn’t leave her to walk home alone.  I continued to hint that she was welcome to have a good bitch about the others to me too, if she liked:

            ‘Thanks,’ she replied. ‘Honestly though, when did everything about being smashed get so boring, right?’

            She dragged out those final syllables in a long whine, swaying dangerously as she jumped over a clump of muddy grass. I knew what she wanted- something exciting, maybe a sudden storm to hit so she could have a kiss with a stranger under an umbrella. Or maybe she’d like to be jumped and robbed at gunpoint. Probably anything than a boring conversation with me.

            ‘Cuz, like, I want to be the drug for other people, I don’t want to actually do the drugs, you know?’

            ‘No wonder they call you crazy.’ I replied, laughing. ‘Sounds like something a reformed hippie would say’

            I took another of her dangerous sways as an opportunity to grab her waist with my right arm. I hoisted her weight onto my hip.

            ‘Why is everyone so fucking unoriginal on this planet except me’ she groaned.

            ‘Okay a little less like a hippy there.’ 

            She laughed, a laugh like champagne. I felt her relax slightly into my hold while I told her to watch herself with the insults, that I had my self-esteem to look after too. She pinched my cheek playfully, closing her lips on that laugh of hers and rolling her head back. She let out a long and high-pitched mmm at the back of her throat and mumbled something very quietly into my neck. I didn’t hear it at first—

            ‘What did you say?’

            ‘I said you must think I’m such a bitch.’

            Her voice was still muffled, she’d spoken this act of self-hatred straight into my skin. I was a bit taken aback at first, but quick to conclude that she must be manipulating, fishing for a denial. I said ‘you’re not’ then paused, aware I’d been unconvincing, unsure of what else I could say without sounding too doting. So I gave her a friendly squeeze and tried to downplay it, settling on saying that words were a minefield when you were drunk, that she shouldn’t take mine too seriously—

            ‘But then I guess just bitch is better than what the others think, they think I’m a bitch and a whore’

            ‘You don’t care what they think though do you?’

            She said nothing.

            ‘You don’t though do you?’ I asked again, firmer this time.

            ‘No. Yeah, you’re right’

            ‘It’s hardly for them to judge anyway. I didn’t see any of them martyring themselves and their potential shags to come look after their friend tonight—’

            ‘Friends in the past tense. They hate me—’

            ‘But that’s okay. You have me. You don’t need friends like that.’

            Another squeeze. She exhaled slowly and let me continue to drag her along. Her eyes looked down at a road that I thought was looking more and more like a dead end. She giggled again and tried escaping my grip. I was stronger. I held her fast, curving at the waist to keep her upright and laughing at her sloppy attempts to slip under my arm. 

            ‘We do need them though, don’t we’ she finally said.

            She escaped my grasp and stopped to catch her breath. I stopped too. I looked at her, sternly.

            ‘Why do we?’ I replied. ‘Why exactly do we need them?

            ‘Without them, what else would we talk about?’ 

            I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I’ve known Ellie two years, is that really the only thing we talked about? I tried to ignore her, to pretend I didn’t care. All the physical exercise was sobering me up anyway— really I was mainly thinking about my bed. My spare hand got out my phone and tried to work google maps; I focused on trying to fix my eyes on the direction of the blue circular haze that materialised from our location spot.

            ‘Can I confess something secret?’ Ellie asked.

So perhaps she was aware she might have offended me.

            ‘Is it about the others?’ I replied after a pause.

            ‘No’

            ‘Ok then. Is it about the fourth year ex?’

            She was the one to hesitate then.

            ‘You know about him?’

            ‘I mean, who doesn’t’ 

            She took a few steps back, her eyes on the road.

            ‘Then I guess you’ll be of the same opinion as everyone else—’

            ‘Well unless you have any other evidence for me Ellie—’

            ‘Oh no of course not. I’m batshit crazy of course. I have nothing for my defence.’

            She began to laugh again— but this time the bubbles had disappeared from her throat. A few of the words that had circulated about her entered my head— obsessive, probably has mental health issues, needs to be cared for. These were all the kinds of thing he’d said. The ex.

            She collapsed back into my arms, telling me between giggles this secret that she’d suggested, that she knew the boy at the house over there. She pointed urgently at the house on the opposite side of the road—

            ‘I think I want to kill him’

            Her voice was loud.

            But she couldn’t be serious, could she?

            ‘What the-- what did he do?’ I said.

            ‘Oh the same as all the others, had sex with me, fucked me over—’

            ‘That’s not what everyone else said about your ex—‘

            ‘I know that’s not what everyone else said--‘

            ‘Well, what’s the truth then?’

            My interest was waning to be honest— I was too tired and too ill to listen to her try to explain herself. Ellie had known where we were all along. It wasn’t a secret forest or a haunted house, why had I thought it would be anything as interesting as that? The destination was another dull student apartment with the lights still on and a ‘to let’ sign out front. Two bin bags overstuffed with cans were standing guard on the front door step, gracelessly welcoming Ellie in for another of her booty calls. How predictable.

            ‘So maybe when I have this particular guy wrapped around my psychotic little finger I’ll just set fire to his house. Maybe then I’ll avoid the rumours, right?’

            ‘You really are a psycho.’

            ‘Thank you’

            ‘You know what Ellie, I think I’m just about done looking out for you’

            She let out a large laugh and fixed her gaze on me. 

            ‘Is that what you think you’re doing? You don’t think I’m aware you’ll report all this to the others, like a good sheep?’

I  tried to interrupt, but she wasn’t having it.

‘I wonder, would you still be such a good friend if I killed all my ex’s as well as stalking them? Would your sympathy extend that far? I’ll go on a killing spree and poison them all. One. By. One—’

            I worried that the neighbours would come out and see me with her. I needed to shut her up or get myself out of there, quickly.

            ‘I’m leaving’, I stated.

            ‘I’ll take back all their jumpers they lent me and put them back on their cold, dead bodies, stuff them and make a museum of stuffed ex’s—’ 

            ‘Bye’

            ‘Do you know what they’d call it?’

            ‘Please—’

            ‘The ex-tinction’.

            She was yelling as much as laughing now, the tears squeezing out of her eyes as she cackled at her own joke.

            ‘Fuck you Ellie.’

            I matched her volume.

            ‘Oh I intend to be fucked. Fuck you all. Thanks for walking me, hun.’

            I called a taxi and left. I didn’t even see her go in.

            This is all in the text. As soon as I pressed send someone in the group reported her to the police. Two accusations— death threats and stalking. It was all strictly anonymous of course, but Ellie must have known it was one of us that told. 

             So it was a bit of a surprise for us all when we realised her ex had cheated on her. Not just a few times either, we all met multiple love interests in the police interviews. If she was a mentally unstable stalker, like the ex had so convincingly circulated, I guess they’d all felt more okay sleeping with him. His word against hers I guess.

            As for the other guy she threatened, I don’t know what happened to him. Like I say, I don’t even know if she went in there that night.

            No-one heard from Ellie after that. We assumed she left Uni.

            I still remember coming back from that walk though. I remember tuning in and out of the taxi driver’s chatter with his girlfriend or wife or whatever over the phone—

            ‘Oh but you’re different, you’re special. Don’t worry about her, she’s just a bitch—’

            How fitting, I’d thought. But then again, maybe not. Maybe everyone everywhere is talking about everything and everyone else being false and fake, everyone who isn’t them and the person they happen to be talking to at that moment. Maybe no one stands a chance among these friendship circles that are more like lines-of-best-fit. The evidence seems to be pointing that way, anyway.

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