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PART OF THE Heart Notes ISSUE

A Story taken from We Were Always Here

‘It felt like I was suddenly free to be someone without her, I remember.’

We Were Always Here is a brilliant, vital anthology, championing writing from the LGBTI+ community. The stories and poems gathered in the collection look at living and loving in the 21st century, and as author Garry Mac instructs us in the Foreword: ‘Read it and recognise that we were always here, and you are here, now, and so are they, and we are all in this, here, together.’ It’s good advice. Here we share Christina Neuwirth’s story, ‘Sequins’.

 

‘Sequins’, by Christina Neuwirth is taken from We Were Always Here
Edited by Ryan Vance & Michael Lee Richardson
Published by 404 Ink

 

The first time Robyn invited me round I must have been about twelve or thirteen. I distinctly remember it because she normally asked a group of us to come over, but this particular time she only asked me. She said, ‘What are you doing after swimming on Thursday?’

‘My Mum is picking me up.’

‘You could come home with me and we could pick out summer camps in the brochure my dad got.’

‘Okay,’ I said. I didn’t want to ask further questions because I was worried it might scare Robyn off.

That night it was hard to get to sleep after dinner. I couldn’t stop thinking about the next day.

After school, Robyn and I walked to swimming together. Heather was there too, and Robyn was talking to her. She hadn’t really looked at me all day, not since I’d told her that I was allowed to come over — she’d said ‘Fun!’ and then proceeded to ignore me. I was used to it, but it still tied my stomach into knots.

Heather and Robyn giggled and splashed around the shallow end of the pool while the rest of us did our warm-up laps. Miss Feever told them off, but then concentrated more on timing the rest of us on our butterfly laps.

Robyn didn’t even look at me.

I had brought a change of clothes but Robyn always left quickly after training so I knew better than to try and get completely cleaned up and changed now. She was wrapped in a towel and smiling when I came out of the changing rooms with my bag and my dripping hair.

‘Quick, let’s get to mine,’ she said.

‘Yes.’ I wasn’t sure if we were back to being friendly so I figured I’d better stay quiet for another little while. In the car, her mum asked us a few questions but Robyn was always quicker to answer. It was only a ten-minute drive. At the end of it I felt suddenly cold in my stomach. I checked the time. It was three. I was meant to be home by seven.

When we arrived, Robyn ran to the bathroom and I could hear the shower through the closed door. Robyn’s mum kept asking me questions in the front room. I sat on the edge of the sofa.

When Robyn was done she came out wrapped in a number of big towels. Steam drifted from the open door of the bathroom into the hallway.

‘What are you waiting for?’ asked Robyn and called me to her room. ‘Are you not going to shower?’ she said without looking at me.

‘Um.’ I didn’t know what the right thing was.

‘You know you need to shower every day now. Leave it any longer than that and you’ll start to smell, like Gary.’

‘Of course. I’m going to shower,’ I said. ‘Can I shower here?’

‘Of course, silly! That’s why I asked. Ask mum for a towel, we’ve got loads — they’re so soft. Much softer than the ones at your house, I bet!’ said Robyn. She’d never even been to mine.

Their bathroom was huge. It had a shower and a tub, separate, and a warming towel rack. I put the towel Robyn’s mum had given me on the rack. It was turquoise and extremely fluffy. I took my clothes off, folded them, and put them on a little wicker stool by the sink. Then I got into the shower and turned the tap on. There were several big bottles of shampoo and shower gel in there, and I used small amounts and took care to put them back facing the right way. I tried to do everything as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to take too long, but I also didn’t want Robyn to think I wasn’t showering properly. I wiped the floor of the shower with my feet to get rid of any hairs I might have left behind, and dried myself off, then put on my clothes again.

I felt better.

Robyn met me outside the bathroom and said, ‘That took forever. What makes you think you can use up all our hot water?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What?’ She came closer.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Maggie, darling?’ Robyn’s mum interrupted. ‘Are you staying for dinner?’

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to leave. I wanted, desperately, to not be rude.

‘Of course she’s staying!’ said Robyn, her face suddenly kind again, throwing her arm around my shoulder and pulling my head closer until it touched the side of hers. She didn’t mind that my hair was wet, or that I had used a lot of hot water to get clean. Her arm around my shoulder felt warm and soft.

Robyn grabbed my hand and we went to her room. When we were there I asked if I could phone home to let my Mum know I was staying for dinner. She said I didn’t need to do that, and that using the phone would cost money. Then she said we should both cut our hair.

‘It would be so cool! We could both have the same haircut. My mum cuts my hair all the time. It’s easy.’

She said the best way to cut hair was to tie it into two pigtails and then snip them off. She tied up her hair first: it was long and ginger and still damp. It smelled lovely. I wondered if she could smell her shampoo on me. She brushed my hair very carefully with a large-toothed comb. It was long and bushy, and normally my Mum and I would detangle it as quickly as possible, which always resulted in tears and shouting. When Robyn did it, it didn’t hurt at all. She was very careful. Then she tied it into pigtails. We looked cute already, and the same, which made me feel warm and gooey. She stood me up and we looked at ourselves and each other in her full-length mirror.

‘I’ll get the scissors. This is going to be so fun!’ she said. She arrived back with the pointy hairdressing scissors, which were packed in a plastic case that said they were indeed made for that purpose.

‘Shall I go first? Or do you want to?’ she asked. She unzipped the case, took out the scissors, opened them and held them to her pigtails.

‘Um,’ I said.

‘I can go first if you’re scared!’ she said, and gripped her own pigtails.

‘No, it’s ok, I’m not scared.’

I cut off my pigtails.

She didn’t cut off hers.

That was the first time I was round at Robyn’s.

 

I arrive at the venue and I know she’ll be here. It would’ve been weird if Jenni hadn’t invited her. We are all each other’s friends, after all. I try not to crane my head in case it’s too obvious, but I want to see her before she sees me. There aren’t many people here — it’s still early. I know Jenni wouldn’t have put me and Robyn at the same table, but I check the chart just in case. At least we won’t have to watch each other eat. We won’t have to make conversation over a plate of food. We won’t have to clink glasses.

I still have a small hope that I will be asked to stay overnight at the hotel, even though I helped Jenni with the booking and she mentioned that those rooms are for family and out of town visitors, and that I, living 45 minutes away, can just sleep at home. I don’t mind, right? I don’t mind.

Robyn has a room at the hotel. So she’s out of town, now.

My stomach is flipping.

I see Jenni has seated me next to Thomas who is recently single, so maybe I can flirt with him and that’ll distract me.

Weddings have sort of stopped being exciting after I’ve been to so many, of colleagues and friends and cousins, but Jenni’s is different, because we’ve known each other for fifteen years. And because I can tell she is so happy, and Tabby is happy. They got married in the back garden this morning at 8am when the sun was still pale and the dew was still on the grass, and other romantic things like that.

‘Jesus Christ, what a day,’ says Jenni, rushing out of a side door and nearly running me over.

‘Is everything okay?’ I say.

‘Yes, yes, it’s fine. It’s just non-stop.’ She waves off my offers of help, points me to a corner where others have already left their bags and coats, and leaves me to look for my seat.

‘Maggie! Hi!’ says a familiar voice. I turn around and I feel my face get hot. Not her. Not yet. I scramble for the right name.

‘Danielle!’ I say.

We stand for a few minutes talking, but the hallway is starting to stress me out — the confined space, how exposed I am, the big poofy shoulders on my dress, so I ask her where the bathroom is.

The bathroom is cooler than the rest of the hotel. It’s also surprisingly quiet. Except, there she is: Robyn.

‘Oh, hi!’ she says. Her hair is bobbed and more auburn than ginger now. It suits her, makes her neck look slender and elegant, swan-like. Her dress is blue, and shiny all over, and the pleats running down the side of it will look lovely when she dances.

She shows me her teeth.

Is she smiling? I can’t tell.

Yes.

It’s a friendly, Oh hi.

‘Hi, Robyn! Fancy bumping into you here!’ I say. It is a really weird thing to say but it is what comes out of my mouth.

‘So,’ she begins.

‘Listen, I’m sorry, I’m bursting. Lots of tea this morning. I’ll just see you in there, yeah?’ I add a little laugh at the end, and she indulges me and laughs too. I push past her and into the first cubicle I can find. I sit down, but can’t even start peeing until after I hear the door shut.

I try to remember whether she is angry with me, or am I angry with her? It was all such a long time ago. A searing memory of a kiss — one-sided, sloppy — comes back to me, but I push it aside.

Not now.

 

I remember the first time I chose my own outfit without consulting Robyn. Normally Robyn and I would be on the phone to make sure we didn’t match, or to make sure that we did, but for some reason at this particular party, we hadn’t. We were sixteen. I was wearing a loose-fitting black dress, with casual flare and pleating at the skirt. The top bit was covered in black sequins that were arranged to form small roses. My Mum had bought it for me and I thought I looked very casual goth.

I’d put eyeliner on and pinned back my black hair.

Robyn was already at the party when I arrived. It wasn’t anything fancy, just at someone’s house on a Saturday, with three Bacardi Breezers to last a room full of people for the night. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and I instantly realised that I was wearing the wrong thing. Some other girls were in dresses, and some of them looked more dressed up than others, but seeing Robyn there in what she was wearing, and the way she looked at me, I knew I was in trouble.

She said Hi like normal, and we went and got a drink and stood in a corner to assess the party situation together, and when she’d been nice to me for long enough it started.

‘You’re shiny today,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said. I didn’t even try to defend myself. I was wrong. I looked stupid.

‘Did you think it was fancy dress?’ she said.

‘No,’ I said. She was looking me full in the face, and I was looking down at my cup.

‘Because we could’ve both dressed up as old ladies if that was the idea,’ she said.

There was no use trying. I just let it wash over me.

‘Listen. I can help. I have a scarf. If you wear it over your front like this, maybe — oh, shit, is it on the back too?’

I nodded as she walked around me looking at the intricate sequin roses.

‘There’s nothing for it. They’ll have to come off.’

I looked down at my stomach, at the floral pattern.

‘Come on,’ she said, like we were co-conspirators. She took my hand and led me to the bathroom, where we found, after rummaging in our friend’s parents’ medicine cabinet, some nail scissors. They were bent to follow the curve of a fingernail.

‘It’ll be tricky but it’ll have to do,’ she said. Before she made the first cut, she tipped my face up by poking my chin with her finger. ‘You’re okay with this, right? I mean, you didn’t want to be a shiny granny all night, did you?’

I nodded. I tried not to think about how excited both Mum and I had been when she’d bought the dress.

‘Okay,’ said Robyn. She giggled. She came really close to me, pulled on one of the sequins, and cut the tiny thread of stitching that connected it to the fabric of the bodice. It took a long time.

There were a lot of sequin roses on that dress.

Robyn’s seamstress work wasn’t very accurate because the scissors were bent, so in the end I had lots of small holes all over the dress. The fabric was loose enough so they didn’t show up flat against my body but I could still see them, and, standing in a circle of sequins on the bathroom tiles, I felt like she’d clipped my wings instead.

After the operation was over, Robyn and I knelt on the cold tiles together and cupped our hands to sweep up the sequins that were all over the floor. We put them in the bathroom bin, downed our sickly sweet drinks, and went back to the party.

Robyn was laughing again, rubbing my back, reassuring me that the dress was great now and I looked amazing. I laughed, too.

When Mum picked me up I told her Robyn didn’t like the sequins. She gave me a row, saying it didn’t matter, that I should only care what I liked, but I tuned it out. I’d heard it too many times before. She didn’t know anything.

 

I check my face, wipe the inevitable mascara smudge from the side of my eyes, and rearrange the poofy top bit of my wedding reception dress. I remind myself again that this is the dress Jenni wanted me to wear, and this day is about her. Not about impressing Robyn, or about anyone else.

I reach the hall again, which has filled with more people, so I go to my table and take a swig of water.

A couple of people are sitting here already, so I say Hi, and we giggle about how excited we are for Jenni and how she always used to say she would never ever get married.

I look around the room and find the table Robyn is sitting at. She is facing away from me. Her bare shoulders look soft and there are freckles on them. I can see a bobby pin in her hair.

There is a commotion near the door when the newly married couple come in. The band plays the wedding march, and Jenni sticks out her tongue towards us. Both her and Tabby are wearing a little veil on a hair clip. They hold two bouquets and throw them across the room, not backwards and coy, but front-facing, like a javelin. One lands on one of the cousins I am sitting with, who picks it up gingerly and keeps it in his lap. The other one gets caught mid-flight by one of Tabby’s co-workers. Then they walk up to the top table, both grinning from ear to ear. Jenni is looking straight ahead in a daze, Tabby’s eyes fixed on her. I think she might cry. Robyn is watching them too.

 

Much, much later, outside the hall, I queue for the taxi. Robyn stands outside too, hugging her arms to her chest against the night chill. She is talking to someone else, but hovering near me, and I know she has a room at the hotel so she isn’t here waiting for a taxi.

Finally, in a vacuum of chatter, she turns to me and says, ‘We didn’t get a chance to talk all night!’ in a tone that is all cream and strawberries. It’s the way our mothers used to speak to each other when we were little. I smile and touch my finger to my mouth. I worry my lipstick has bled.

‘Are you heading back into town or sticking around?’ she says, because I still haven’t answered. I look up at the wall of the hotel, where a few of the windows are illuminated.

‘Just grabbing a taxi, yeah,’ I say. I want to kick myself.

‘Ah, right.’ She is still lingering. I can see she wants to talk, but I don’t know what about. Suddenly I worry I might cry.

‘So, did you have a nice wedding?’ I ask.

‘I’d say. One of my favourites.’

‘Yeah, it was really good, as weddings go!’ I feel self-conscious saying that, as though I was asking her to marry me; I also worry Jenni is nearby and will overhear, although the last I saw of her, she was playing the grand piano in the lobby with her dress bunched up around her knees.

There is a silence and I fiddle with my phone.

‘I like your hair,’ I say. It looks soft.

‘I like your hair.’

‘Hey, it’s not a competition,’ I say.

She looks at me like a door has closed behind her eyes, but she blinks and then the expression is gone. ‘So, how have you been?’

‘Pretty good, you know. Can’t complain.’

I want her to tell me what she’s been up to so I can make a face like I don’t already know, even though I’ve been watching along, on and off, on Facebook. She has a child. The child is two years old. She shows me a picture on her phone.

I don’t know what to tell her about my life. There is too much.

 I start talking about an event I hosted a few weeks ago and I realise that every single person there is someone who has come into my life after Robyn and I broke up. Everything that matters in my life has crystallised afterwards. It felt like I was suddenly free to be someone without her, I remember.

My taxi arrives, and she says goodbye. We hug, and, probably due to the copious amounts of wine I’ve had, I say that we should catch up properly sometime. I know that everything speaks against this, but I can’t take it back. She agrees, but I can’t read her eyes. She takes my phone and puts her number in it.

When she hands it back to me, our fingers touch briefly; the sequins on her dress reflect in the darkness of the screen.

 

‘Sequins’ by Christina Neuwirth is taken from We Were Always Here, edited by Ryan Vance and Michael Lee Richardson, and is published by 404 Ink, priced £8.99

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