I was out the other night with Liam, enjoying a quiet meal in a new restaurant I'd found last minute. Work had been extra tough on us in recent weeks, so we'd grabbed the opportunity for some 'quality time' together and snuck ourselves in the corner of the restaurant with a bottle of 'bring your own' white - nothing special, just the one on offer in Tesco. My phone beeped just as we'd tucked into our dim sum starter. Liam looked at me, almost daring me to spoil our time together by choosing to stare at my phone more than him.
"Are you Tweeting again?" He eye-balled me with suspicion.
"No!" I hissed, glancing down at the screen quickly.
I was tempted to check Twitter, but it was a text that popped up on my screen to save me from the sin. It was from my littlest sister, Kate, who incidentally, isn't so little. At thirteen-and-a-half, she is bigger and taller than I am.
Yano your GCSEs, wat ones did you do? Cos I'm picking mine at the moment. xxx
It took me about ten minutes to realise 'yano' meant 'you know' in thirteen-year-old text speak (honestly, she's worse than my Gran). But, I thought how sweet she was asking my opinion, and I set into writing her a text back, comprised of correctly spelt words describing why not to take History, but Graphic Design or Drama instead.
Liam was looking huffy, so I quickly finished the text with:
- I can call you tomorrow evening for a chat about them, if you like - or will that be too late? x
She replied a few seconds later.
No, you can if you want. :) xxx
The following afternoon, as my train pulled into Southfields and the doors slid open, I stepped onto the platform and took a few deep breaths, trying to exhale out the stresses I'd picked up in central London that day, before I took the usual ten minute walk home. I needed to clear my mind. Whether it was drinking half that bottle of wine from last night, or just because it was a hectic Thursday, I don't know, but the day had been a very long one. I thought i'd stop off at the Wine Rack to pick up another bottle to go with tonight’s meal, (or rather, for a sneaky glass when I got in) - well, it was on the way home...
The shop assistant appeared from nowhere as I stood in the middle of the shop looking at all the hundreds of wines on offer, mentally willing one to fall off the shelves (at the right price), into my hands.
"Hello! Good Afternoon! Can I help you?!" His voice was high, as if he singing the words to me.
Way too chirpy.
"Yes. I need cheap, dry and white please." I mumbled, my eyes still scanning the shelves.
"How about this new Pinot Grigio? It's on promotional offer at the moment." He held out a plastic cup half full of the suggested wine, which I quickly took.
I sipped and said, "If you've got a chilled one, I'll take a bottle."
I looked to the half a plastic cup of free wine still in my hand, and as an afterthought, I added, "Hell, can I drink the rest of this?"
Chirpy looked at me as if I had no class or self-respect, and reluctantly nodded.
"It's been a bad day." I said as if to justify, but there was no need, because the woman to the right of me looked sympathetic and promptly asked for her own cups-worth.
I paid for the bottle, and hurried down the road a little further to the greengrocers. It was already 6:30pm. Kate had finished school around 4:00pm, so I guessed she'd have already eaten her tea by now. I whipped my phone out and dialled her mobile number. Picking up a basket with my right hand, I shifted the plastic bag carrying my wine from my right arm over to the left, and tucked the phone under my chin as I fumbled over choosing the best potatoes, waiting for her to pick up.
She picked up quickly.
"Lizzie, I can’t talk." She whispered, talking through her teeth.
"Kate...? Is that you? Can you speak up? There are cars outside..."
"I've been suspended." She hissed, louder.
I wasn't sure I'd heard right.
"...What?" I put the basket down so I could hold the phone properly.
"I've been suspended... from school." She said. Then added, "For breaking some girl’s nose."
"You broke someone’s nose..?"
The man to my right stopped inspecting the vine tomatoes he had been turning over one by one and peered suspiciously at me.
"Yeah. But she gave me a black eye first." Her voice was defiant and a little louder than before.
I instinctively turned into her bossy big sister.
"Oh, and that makes it alright to break her nose, does it?"
I did pause and wonder for a moment if I could have broken someone's nose if they'd have hit me in the face. Now? - Perhaps. Then? - Definitely not. At thirteen, I wouldn't have had the balls.
Ignoring my question, her voice retuned to a whisper as she said quickly,
"Look, can’t talk right now. Mum took my phone away and she'll kill me if she knows I got it back again. Speak tomorrow or somethin'?"
"Ok, Kate. Seriously though, what were you thinking..." I drifted off, not really expecting an answer, as I dropped two red onions into the basket on the floor.
"Oh, and please don't tell Mum..." She added, with a hint of desperation, cutting me off shortly after remembering to add, "Love you!"
And then the line went dead.
The few people in the shop, delighted by the unexpected drama in the greengrocers, suddenly became engrossed in the kind of fruit they were buying, as I shuffled past them towards the counter to pay.
The geek within me could not believe Kate had got suspended from school. I'd never even got a detention or been asked to stay behind at school. In fact the worst telling off I'd got was in Year Three, where I'd leant on the painting table after being told not to - twice - and Mrs Nicholson had shouted at me. I'd nearly wet my knickers at the time, I was so upset. I just wasn't brave enough to bend the rules, and I don't think it had ever really crossed my mind to do so. I used to wear too much mascara, and often had my skirt too short, but I hadn't smoked around the back of the swimming pool, taken drugs in the changing rooms, hit anyone I didn’t like, swore at a teacher or stole anything. Boy, my Mum had it lucky first time around.
Aged thirteen, my arms were so skinny, if I had tried to punch anyone, they might have snapped. I was, in short, a weed. My little sister, on the other hand, is not one to be messed with. She plays football for the local under-fourteen's girl’s team as their number one striker, and she is built stronger and sturdier than I ever will be. With two older sisters over twenty one, that girl knows a thing or two, and uses the whole lot to her advantage. In short, she's thirteen, going on thirty.
Because of this, I was slightly more worried about how my Mum was taking the news, rather than Kate.
As I got back to my flat, I dumped the shopping bags on the coffee table and fed the cat, who wrapped herself tightly around my legs before taking one look at the open door and darting for freedom. Our phone is seriously ‘vintage’ and attached to the wall so you sort of have to sit cross legged on the rug and shift every five minutes so you don't get a numb bum when on it. I shuffled about to find a good spot for a few seconds before dialling the familiar number that is Mum's home.
"Hello?" Mum's breathless voice, sounding a little tired and quieter than usual echoed from the receiver.
"Mum. It's me." I said quietly.
And then I let her tell me the story right from the beginning. How she'd got called at work. Asked to come to the school right away. Sat in the Headmaster’s office with a red-faced, black-eyed, Kate. Then took her home in the car. She told me how she'd listened to Kate tell her story all the way home. How the other girl had hit Kate first. (She'd been sneaky - rallied some older girls to threaten Kate. They'd all teased her - saying she wasn't brave enough to fight back after socking her one in the eye.) 'It probably wasn't all her fault really, it seems she was just defending herself...' Mum had thought. I listened to how she was so disappointed. And I let her remind me more than once, how, 'under no circumstances was I to tell Granny'.
After I'd put the phone back on the hook, I pottered into the kitchen to pour myself a much needed glass of wine. What a day.
Although I hadn't time to sip it before my mobile rang. I thought it might be Mum again, or even worse, Gran. I couldn't deal with having to lie to my Gran about Kate and was hardly in the mood for another long conversation, so the person on the other end of the phone got landed with the brunt of my exasperation.
"Oh, hi, darling, how was your day?"
It was Liam. About the only person in the world who knows exactly how I'm feeling from the tone of my voice, and he'd already cottoned on to the fact my day probably hadn't been good.
As usual, I just blurted it all out. Right from the leaky sewage pipes at work to my sister getting suspended, to my worries about how Mum was feeling.
"Is your Mum really upset?" He asked.
"Yes." I said, slightly surprised that he chose to answer my dramatic piece with an obvious question. "She's wondering what she could have possibly done wrong..."
"Oh." There was a pause for a moment, as he took the time to think before he spoke.
That's where we differ enormously, me and Liam. He thinks; I just speak. I was impatient and was ready to declare this conversation over, to be finished and resumed only once I'd had a glass of wine and he'd got home from work. But he carried on.
"Well, suspension really isn't that bad. I mean, you do get over the initial shock of it all." He paused again. "I mean, well, I did."
I was suddenly all ears.
"Excuse me? You got suspended...?"
In the five years we'd been together, not once had Liam mentioned he'd been suspended from school. He was always smug about the fact he was in the top sets for all subjects, getting good grades for his GCSEs and A-Levels, and even boasted about being a school prefect, just like I was. Since we’d achieved the same 2:1 grade in our degrees, I imagined that we were painfully sad, like two little geeky, academic lovers.
"Um, yes, I was." He almost skimmed over the words, before hastily adding, "I don't think we should tell Kate, but if it would help your Mum to know..."
But before he could finish, I cut him short.
"Are you serious?! What did they suspended you for?!" I was expecting a reason like, 'swearing at a teacher', or 'skipping class'. I waited just long enough for my straight-laced boyfriend to say (and, may I add, ever-so seriously),
"Alleged drug use."
I couldn't contain myself any longer. I hung up the phone shrieking with laughter and instantly dialled Mum’s number.
Bless him, I thought. This will cheer her up.