The morning Maggie returned from America she hoisted her suitcase up onto the top of my wardrobe and brushed her hands together, those silver bangles she always wore jangling on her wrist.
“I’m sorry to hear about your grandma,” I said, watching as Maggie stared blank and unblinking at the wet Euston skyline. The clouds were pushed down, ripe and stuffed with water over a city that longed for spring.
She looked at me and smiled with teeth whiter than I remembered. “Thank you, darling. She probably would have lived longer if I’d got her out of this bloody climate. God, I don’t know how you can live here.”
I grinned. Maggie could never understand why I wanted to live in London. When she arrived home from work, the shout of “I can’t wait to leave this country” would often be out of her mouth before the front door had closed behind her – that’s when we’d lived here together, of course. Southern California had been the ideal seducer for Maggie. She used to send me postcards littered with exclamation marks and telling me how fabulous it was to feel the sun on her skin every day. She worked on a vineyard for three months, harvesting grapes swollen from the heat, enjoying the changing tones of her English skin.
But now she was suddenly here again, standing on the horrible oatmeal carpet we had picked out together at Homebase six years before and clutching a green plastic jar of ginseng tablets. When she lived here, all she clutched were chunky mugs filled with strong instant coffee, which I always found, cold and congealing, at the side of our bath. She used to pay her rent in brilliant, rose-pink fifty-pound notes, handing the money to me on Friday evenings, on her way out, when she was dressed to the nines and smelling of tuberoses and gardenias.
“I forgot how dreary it feels here… everyone looking backwards, you know?” She was eating from a supermarket tub of olives whilst I made her tea in the kitchen. “There’s nothing that looks to the future in this country. The UK is finished. London is a closed chapter to me, anyway.” She speared an olive onto a cocktail stick. “Can we go to Soho tonight?”
“God, I don’t know how you can live here!” She tipped up a bottle of beer and the base of it caught the red light behind the bar. Now we were out she was all teeth and hooded eyes. “But thank you for bringing me here – such a great idea of yours.” The upward Californian inflection made her statement a question, suggesting disbelief, as if she had never thought me capable of a good idea before.
We were in a cavernous underground bar at the shabby end of Oxford Street. I had known that the only thing guaranteed to get Maggie into a good mood was live music. Perched above us, London had held back its rain for the evening, sending instead a windless, damp chill through the streets. From the bruised lino floor to the gaffer-taped light fittings, nothing in this room had changed since Maggie’s relocation to the New World. London’s old world boomed and echoed through the floors. The band were half built from the 1990s and half from the 1960s, with their twig-like legs draped in corduroy, and their mouths muffled by an ancient sound system. Maggie’s copper-coloured bob swung in the half-light.
“I just adore the expanse.” She curled the word out, baring her teeth at the end. “California has the absence of history, you know? An unbridled optimism; anything can happen there.”
Looking back, I’m not sure whether to blame Maggie’s relentless positivity about a new life unencumbered by the past, or the disorientation created by the sticky glasses of vodka and coke we’d been knocking back. Either way, nine o’clock saw me in the gloomy stench of a toilet cubicle, with its marker-pen tattoos of grisly acts and musical idolatry, calling Louise. It had been a long four years since Maggie had borrowed Louise’s much-loved boyfriend and not given him back. It had been me left behind to put the broken pieces of Louise back together again when Maggie had flown off to a grand new life in America.
I got Louise’s answerphone. “It’s only a four-day visit, I just wondered – it would be odd if I didn’t let you know she was here, so…” As I left the cubicle, a girl who was having her make-up drunkenly applied by her friend at the sinks let out a shriek.
Heading back to our table, I saw Maggie slip a compact out of her bag and smooth her hair in the mirror, tucking a lock of it behind one ear. She smiled and waved at me. Gone was the curly-haired maelstrom, with eyes circled in crumbling kohl and hands tipped with chipped silver nail polish; the Maggie of early-morning telephone calls full of grotesque imitations of spurned lovers abandoned in the night, calls that left me laughing and gasping for air on the other end of the line. As I sat down beside her, I saw there were two icy vodka and cokes on the table in front of us. Maggie suggested we use them to toast to new beginnings.
The evening raced towards the second wave of Friday-night drunkenness. “What? What?” I kept shouting whilst Maggie spoke, and then she would shriek with laughter and repeat herself.
Caught up in the noise and dazzle, I didn’t at first notice the figure standing beside me.
“Louise! I can’t believe it! You came!”
“What? I can’t hear you, it’s too loud in here.”
Maggie shot a coy look towards her. “Louise?”
Suddenly I felt nauseous with panic. For a few moments, I half expected something from a melodrama: a thunderbolt, a primal act of revenge, the insistent drumbeat and stuffy atmosphere of the club exploding up and out into the hardened West End night.
“It’s great to see you,” Maggie shouted, a large smile sliding up her face. “It’s been so long, hasn’t it?”
“Four years. It’s been four years,” said Louise, slowly and sternly. “And five months.”
“Yes, of course. I know. Louise, I – look, let’s go to the bar and get a drink. Come on, please – come with me.”
I sat and watched them walk together, side by side, until the dancers swallowed them up.
“There was another guy, Pete – do you remember Pete?”
I pretended not to see the waiter wince over taking a fifty for three cappuccinos. After drunkenness, we had gone to Bar Italia, and sat outside, soaking up the alcohol with milky cups of coffee. The Soho sky was flooded in dark blue, and stretched out with all the voluptuousness and delicacy of a silk nightgown.
“Yes, Pete!” Louise’s voice was too loud. “He did a lot of double denim didn’t he? Liz used to put a chair in front of her bedroom door handle when he stayed over.”
Maggie nodded and slurped cappuccino foam from the edge of her cup. “He was a pervert. Total.”
“Complete arsehole,” said Louise. “He once asked you to join a threesome, remember?”
“Did he?” asked Maggie. “Really? Who was the third? Not Liz…”
“No – Adam.”
A muffled giggle came from Maggie.
“Yes, he asked you – remember? And then when you said no he asked Lucy Whitfield. Who, of course – ”
“Said YES!” Louise fell about. What larks, I thought.
Scenes of the past continued filling the air about us, spilling out onto Frith Street, as people I had thought of as fairly ordinary walk-on characters of the student years were now conjured up and reimagined. I just have to wait for Louise to wake up sober, I told myself. Then I’ll have the reassuring phone call with her expressing all the old anguish and misery, once Maggie’s magic has worn itself out. They were now buckled by their laughter, as if each of them had been punched in the belly.
I watched Maggie reach a hand up to touch her hair. I knew exactly what was about to spill out of her before she opened her mouth.
“Lou, he left me in the end, you know.”
“Oh, hon…” Louise offered, leaning forward over the table. Her voice became grave and exhilarated. “I mean, God – you don’t have to… I’m over that now… come on, it was a long time ago. We were kids, and we were all a bit crazy.” She flicked her hand in the direction of her younger self, as if batting away a fly.
A picture of Louise four years ago appeared in my mind; a cultivated neatness, a conscientious girl who opened her own pension plan at twenty-two.
Louise smoothed her hair and tucked a lock of it behind one ear.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said.
“Oh, shut up. Men are shits, aren’t they?”
“He was – it turned out.”
“And men are nothing like, you know…”
“Old friends?” asked Maggie, smiling.
“Yeah,” said Louise, smiling broadly.
Yeah, I thought. Old friends.
“It’s so wonderful to be back,” Maggie said, haloed by the bright electric light from the window behind her.
The next morning, Maggie wasn’t there when I woke up. There was a cooling cup of coffee sitting on the side of the bath, but no Maggie. Perhaps the bright sunlight that had replaced the rain that morning was the first sign that my city was conspiring against me. My mobile phone alarm had not gone off, so I arrived late to an accountancy meeting out in Belsize Park. On my way back, the Northern Line was disrupted, so I had to walk from Camden Town in the airless heat of the afternoon. By the time I closed the front door of the flat behind me, my eyes had grit in the corners and stung from the belch and smoulder of burning diesel.
Maggie was back. On the old wooden table before her was a large mug of lemon and ginger tea and a small selection of British Museum postcards. The postcards bore images of Egyptian mummies, Chinese jade, golden Inca figurines and destroyed Pompeii, and there was Maggie, staring down at the pictures like an empress surveying her dominions.
“Hello,” I said. I didn’t think she had heard me come in. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, fantastic, thanks. I’ve had a marvellous day.”
“Oh. Have you?”
“I’ve been out with Louise. We went to The British Museum.” She said the words like she was learning them for the first time, pronouncing them with care. The. British. Museum. “Then she wanted to go for a walk by the river, so we did – I actually walked for about four miles today. We went along the whole of the South Bank, until we got to this new place for lunch. We just discovered it. Very small dishes. Ciccheti?”
I wasn’t entirely sure what ciccheti was.
“We eventually went as far as Tower Bridge. I never knew about The Monument, you know? I never knew why it was there.” She faltered. “Have you ever climbed it?”
“Yes, years ago.” She seemed to forget I had suggested she go and see it years before, only to receive a particularly withering, mocking glance in response.
Maggie’s gaze moved up, forward and through to the ever-gleaming green of the park, as Euston offered its best stab at arcadia. North London beckoned, unfolding itself in the middle distance.
“311 steps.” She stood up. “There’s no way we could have done it today. We’ll have to go back.”
“Well, you won’t have time before you leave, will you?”
“Oh, I don’t think I’m going to go back to America.”
I lifted my head from the doorframe against which I had been resting it.
“I want to stay here.”
“But – you can’t… you can’t stand London.”
“Don’t be so stupid. I love it. I’m hooked, darling.” The gaze was blank and unblinking. She was waiting to see whether I would blink first.
London had lowered its bridges and done its worst. The city had reached out its tentacles and entrapped her. The words came quickly now as if her mouth was grabbing for them, or as if there wasn’t enough air in the flat, as she told me all about the layers of history she was suddenly keen to unwrap, of the London walks she would investigate, of the rolling, sloshing river she apparently had always loved.
Then she said she had to go to The Renoir to meet Louise. As I watched her descend the concrete stairwell, she smoothed down the copper-coloured bob and tucked a lock of it behind one ear. She came back only once after that – for the British Museum postcards. She never returned for the suitcase. She left it on top of the wardrobe, where it still remains.