by Laura Mitchell-Ghafoor
Sweat dripped down the neck of wine bottles, clinging to the chill of the fridge from last night. The unforgiving glare of the sun was set to continue for another two weeks and we’d all been told not to wash our cars or water our browning lawns but kids were still charging around the small back yard with water pistols. I cringed as two circled the barbecue, glanced down at my phone – 16:10. I’d only been here twenty-five minutes, but it felt like more.
‘Sausages. Sausages?’ It was almost a pleading now. I was waiting for the veggie burgers and eyeing the salad.
The wine was sweet and slipping down my throat too easily. At the other end of the yard a woman I’d seen before but whose name I couldn’t remember paddled in the little blue inflatable pool with a toddler. The last time I saw her she was less wholesome and sharper at the edges, throwing her arms around in a club in Spain. Still annoying, but less so then.
Beyond the French doors another gaggle of mums coo over the again-expanding stomach of someone I went to school with who still always asks me my name at these now famous barbecues. They used to be raucous and last until the sun came up the next morning, and beyond. Now they simmer away at seven and last year my hangover kicked in before the day even bothered to roll into night. I squeeze past to escape to the toilet. ‘You next?’ They gesture at the rotund eruption around her middle.
‘Oh, no, I don’t think so. I don’t want kids.’ I scuttle past, my bladder already squeezed after the large glass of wine.
‘You’ll soon change your mind. When you meet Mr Right.’
Last year I brought my girlfriend. I wonder if they’ve forgotten or just think we broke up when I rumbled her on her true gender. Probably some of them think I’ve grown out of it. I continue up the stairs.
‘Are you alright, love?’ Intercepted again before the summit. I cross my legs and exchange more niceties. I’ve known Jen since we were eleven, climbing trees and grazing knees. We got drunk for the first time together at a sleepover at her mum’s house when we were sixteen, our tongues stained blue, like her bedsheets when she was sick in the night, begging me to stop the room spinning. I muster a yes and force a smile then gesture towards the toilet. I race to it and welcome the relief of the shady room, cool and quiet.
I open the dating app on my phone and check my messages. A match, someone asking if I’m free tonight. At this rate, I’ll be free in an hour. I type back: Possibly, what you got in mind? before shoving my phone back into my bag. The door knocks.
‘Sorry, we have a little bottom needing to toilet out here.’ Someone giggles through the door.
‘Won’t be a minute,’ I call back and hastily wash my hands. I quickly top up my lipstick and pad a piece of toilet paper cross my nose and forehead to blot the shine. I notice the colour catching across my clavicle but vow not to ask one of the mummies for any suncream, already tasting their smugness on my tongue. You’ve got to have these things when you’ve a little one around.
As I descend the stairs someone catches my arm. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you earlier.’ She smiles apologetically. ‘I always forget. You see, you don’t look–’
I cut her off. ‘It’s fine. Not offended! Congratulations, by the way.’ I flash a smile at the woman everyone’s cooing over and she cradles her stomach.
‘Thanks!’ she exclaims. ‘We thought it might take a while but it happened straight away.’ She glows at me. The line is rehearsed. I make my excuses and stop to refill my wine and grab an empty bread roll and some salad to nibble on and keep me busy. 16:30.
“The barbecues used to be raucous and last until the sun came up the next morning, and beyond. Now they simmer away at seven.”
My phone buzzes in the depths of my handbag. It’s small and light compared to the huge, grubby hold-alls the other women are hauling around, full of nappies and spare clothes and hats with a little extra material at the back to cover sensitive necks. I instinctively touch my own which feels warm. I hold my wine glass to my neck and savour my breath being stolen by the cool. The handsome stranger in the black-and-white photo has replied. I finish work at 6 – glass of wine and maybe some bar snacks?
I wonder where she works, I think. I avoid asking. I’ll need to slow down on the wine and find some suncream. Half six at Nelsons? The coolness of the cellar bar is already calling. I decide to grab some diet coke, sun lotion and body spray from the shop nearby. It’ll kill fifteen minutes, too.
‘Where are you going? You’ve only just arrived!’ Jenny almost pleads, catching me at the gate. Surely she can see that this isn’t fun for her only single friend?
‘Not escaping just yet!’ I laugh, ‘Just need some sun cream and something non-alcoholic! Feel like I’m the only one drinking!’ A sly dig, another reason to slow down; to cauterise my tongue.
‘Oh, it’s just,’ she lowers her voice, ‘not only Alexa with a baby on board.’ She gestures downwards with her eyes.
‘Oh amazing, congratulations!’ Surely I won’t be required to lick chocolate out of a nappy again in five months, I think behind my sunglasses remembering the agony of the last baby shower I’d endured.
‘Shh, we’re not really broadcasting yet. I just wanted you to know why I wasn’t drinking. And most of the others are driving so…’
‘Oh, yeah, sure. So anyway, do you need anything from the shop?’
‘I’m sure the kids’d love an ice lolly.’
My sandals slap at the uneven concrete and when I enter the store the relief of the air conditioning engulfs me instantly. I walk slowly to savour it and take in the baron shelves as I do; the sausages, burgers and bread buns have been ravaged but the toiletries aisle is a solace and I take my time selecting the right tube of sun lotion. I almost reach the checkout before I remember the ice lollies and turn around. The freezers are also bare. I reach in to retrieve the last of the artificially flavoured rockets.
I intentionally queue at the checkout, savouring every moment of cool. The damp patches under my arms have dried and the hairs on my forearms are standing on end. I pull my hair and tie it up, the openness a relief to the nape of my neck. It’s only then, as my self-curated survival kit for the afternoon draws towards her, that I recognise her.
‘Well, this is a turn up for the books,’ she smiles, rubbing the back of her neck uneasily despite the confidence in her voice. She is in her uniform, her name tag confirming that this is Abbi. She certainly is within a three-mile radius.
Her nails are short and neat as she scans the items through.
‘I’m at this barbecue,’ I stutter, offering an explanation for my purchase. My chest is dancing and the hairs on my neck are now joining their peers on my arms. My nipples harden against my thin dress.
‘But only until half six?’
‘Seems that way.’ My cheeks flush. I hover my card over the device to pay, ‘See you then.’
I strut out of the store and instantly miss the chill of inside as I step into the brightness. I turn the corner and feel around for my phone. It isn’t there. I turn to retrace my steps, fearful it’s on the till and any semblance of cool is collapsing second by second. I pick up my pace.
Before I reach the entrance, just outside, I see Abbi holding up my phone. ‘You left this.’
‘Thanks,’ I take the phone and for a moment our fingers brush against each other. Electricity courses through me.
‘Didn’t want to miss you later.’ She smiles, gesturing to the phone, just before she tenderly tilts my chin and leans towards me. ‘Is this okay?’ She pauses, slightly. I lean forward and our soft lips touch tenderly and briefly.
‘I can’t wait.’ I smile and turn and swing the tote bag full of melting ice lollies all the way back to hand them out to tiny hands.
Laura Mitchell-Ghafoor | @lghaf
Laura Mitchell-Ghafoor lives in Halifax with her wife and two pampered cats (she firmly believes she was a cat lover before the internet made it cool). She loves writing whenever she can – but still hesitates to call herself ‘a Writer’ – and dreams of completing a novel, if only so her two protagonists aren’t constantly on her mind. She writes a lot of gay characters and death, often unintentionally. Freud would probably have something to say about that.