I’m used to eating breakfast alone, a bowl of cereal propped on my knees as I half-listen to the BBC news. A cup of instant coffee within reach of my left hand, a glass of orange juice close to my right. Every morning, the same routine, the same bowl, the same spoon. The same cat stood by the back door (I really should get a cat door installed) waiting to be let out when I’m finished. Everything in its place, everything perfect.
Nothing is perfect today, nothing controlled. Today I’m in Suffolk. About to climb a mountain that doesn’t exist.
The maître-de, a forty-something woman with short black hair, stops me as I enter the dining room. She raises an eyebrow, expecting a name.
“Grace Kelly.” I say, instantly regretting using my full name. She traces a forefinger (with immaculate nails) down the list of guests on an expensive looking clipboard. “Room 402. I think the room was booked under Bronte.”
She nods, taps twice on the paper, and points to a table in the far corner of the room, hidden beneath a beautiful painting of a beautiful woman long dead. Hunched over, chin resting on intertwined fingers, her lips moving in a silent conversation with herself, is the person who once hated me more than anyone else in this world, Siobhan Bronte.
“Your friend has already ordered her breakfast.” I can’t stop looking at Siobhan. She hadn’t arrived when I did last night, and I locked myself in my room. I didn’t want to talk about what I did. About who I did it with.
I wonder what she sees when he looks at me. I’m thirty-three, looking ten years older, wearing grey jogging bottoms and a baggy sweatshirt adorned with a sports team I don’t know anything about rescued from a charity shop. Walking to the hotel’s restaurant I’d been aware of the noise my blue flipflops were making, but I hadn’t thought about how they looked.
Even my toenails look awful.
I pause for a second, wondering if I should ask for another table. Would dining alone offend Siobhan? After all, until last week we hadn’t seen each other for twelve years.
I look forward to Saturdays. In the summer, without exception, I head to The Big Essex Car Boot, just outside Colchester. There’s something about the bustle of the place, the sound of people haggling over pennies for junk that they don’t really need, the smells of the burger van grilling sausages, bacon and burgers.
I have a stand. I sell curried chicken wings, made using a marinade that I describe as top secret, but in fact I took from a Jamie Oliver cookbook. I bring out a George Forman grill with the branding scratched off and heat them through, charging three pounds for five. Cheaper than Asda.
Last week I was grilling away, a couple of people in the queue and a family waiting for their wings, when I saw her, floating near a van selling knock-off workout DVDs. I rubbed my eyes, forgetting for a second I was wearing my blue latex gloves, and felt the burn of the chilli I added to the marinade.
By the time I’d torn my gloves off, washed my eyes, and handed the family their wings, she wasn’t there anymore. I took two more orders and tossed the wings onto the grill, convinced I was going mad. Had I seen her before I rubbed my eyes, or after? She’d looked different. Different hair colour, different clothes. Maybe I’d not seen her. Maybe I’d seen a ghost.
It had been twelve years. She’d forgiven Him, not me, moved to Japan, taking Him (or rather, to give him his full title, Cheating, Lying, Thieving Him) with her. Why would she be in north Essex, at a car boot sale, dressed like a goth, checking out DVDs?
The line moved as I handed a customer a portion of wings. In front of me, a sad smile on her face and an A4 piece of paper in her hand, was Siobhan Bronte.
“The coffee’s good.” Siobhan says as I pull the chair opposite her away from the table. She doesn’t move anything but her eyes. Her black hair is pinned away from her face with bright pink hairclips, the only colour I can see her wearing. Everything else is black. It’s a touch melodramatic, but who am I to say anything? Both of my parents are alive and well, sitting on a beach outside their timeshare in Granada.
“I’m not drinking caffeine,” I reply. Why did I lie?
“Are you pregnant?” she mutters. No chance of that.
I say, “I just don’t like caffeine.”
“It’s good you’re not pregnant.” I ponder the meaning behind her statement as Siobhan sits up, cracks her neck, and raises her hand. Across the front of her hoody a necklace falls. It holds a small silver cross, and I realise that I don’t know if she’s wearing it due to a resurgence of her faith, or because she thought it looked nice in Debenhams.
A waiter, an eager young girl with long blonde hair pulled back into a long ponytail, appears at the table and asks for my order. I ask for a full English breakfast. She notes it down, reassures Siobhan that her food won’t be much longer and skips away. I watch her go, envious of her youth.
“She looks like you,” Siobhan says. I cough. It’s all I can do to stop laughing. Her tone implies an insult – but whether it is aimed at me or the waitress I’m not sure. Siobhan tucks the necklace away, and with it my chance to ask about it. “You know, when you had blonde hair.”
I tilt my head back, taking in the wooden beams across the ceiling. My hair is still blonde, but I no longer have the money to colour it like I did when she knew me. The brightness, the platinum, has long since faded. I look back at her, and she avoids my gaze. “Remember when I dyed it pink?” I ask.
Siobhan nods to the memory, hiding a grin she doesn’t want me to see. She must remember helping me dye my hair in a cramped toilet, watching the pink dye streaking down my face, my white jeans stained pink and red – and the pair of us sharing embarrassed giggles for the rest of a train journey to Manchester.
We drop into silence again. I wonder what new memories she made in Japan, what friends she made over there, and whether she’s still with Him. Can I ask? Can we catch up like nothing happened, like our friendship didn’t end?
From behind the George Forman I stared at her. I didn’t know what to say. Siobhan Bronte. I was her best friend, her worst enemy, her Judas. She was in front of me again, barely looking a day older than when we last saw each other. What did she want? Why would she come back after all these years?
“We need to talk.” she said. Behind her two more people joined the queue. Closing the stall would mean losing money.
I pointed to the queue. “I have customers.”
Siobhan held the piece of paper out. I didn’t have my glasses on, but I could see the large font at the top of the page. The last will and testament of Niamh Bronte. Siobhan’s mum. The woman who was the life and soul of any room. The woman who helped me when my own mother was too busy. The woman who took me to the clinic after the incident with Archie Notley. Dead.
“Oh God,” I stuttered, a lump in my throat. “Siobhan, I’m so sorry.”
She shrugged. “We need to talk.”
Alongside Siobhan’s eggs benedict the waitress adds a fresh cafetière to the table arrangement. She doesn’t take Siobhan’s away – this was ordered in advance for me. For a moment I’m mesmerised by the steam escaping around the top, and the smell of the roast. It smells great, better than the instant I’m used to at home.
My old friend doesn’t stand on ceremony. She dives into her breakfast, grace with the speed of a starving barbarian. I lean back in my chair, impressed. The years of using chopsticks appear to have given her a level of dexterity that I could never achieve. I could have done with that dexterity on the train to Manchester.
With a gulp of coffee, she finishes her meal.
“Thank you for coming,” she says, tapping the top of her hair to ensure it is still in place. As she does, I notice tiny roots at where it is parted in the centre. Her natural red hair, a source of jealousy, hidden away under black dye. I wonder what made her do it, I wonder if it was Him. I wonder if it was a new boyfriend, a Japanese boyfriend.
The waitress arrives with my food. It’s a full Suffolk breakfast, apparently. The menu gives clues as to the difference between this and a standard fry-up – this has local pork, eggs and bread. No mention of the tomato sauce, which sits in a reassuringly familiar bottle. I pick it up and remove the lid, shaking it for good measure.
A blob of sauce falls out, missing my plate entirely and landing on the white tablecloth.
“I’m here for your Mum,” I say, trying to clean the mess with the white napkin on the table. I fail, instead smearing it across everything. Siobhan looks less than impressed. This is why I stay in, this is why I like my cereal at home with my awful coffee. I can’t do social situations. I can’t –
She stands. “I’ll meet you at the front door in fifteen minutes.” It’s an order, not a request. There is no room for negotiation. I nod, silently, feeling like I’m sixteen again and she’s telling me to go upstairs with Archie Notley. I feel my shoulders tighten. This isn’t Archie Notely. She walks away from me and I tell myself I’m a grown woman, with a house and and a love of curried chicken wings.
After I’d closed the stand we moved and found two old plastic chairs half submerged in mud outside The CuP (with a capital P), a Citroen van converted into a mobile coffee shop. The owner, a hipster who would only let people call him Bank, watched me sip his too-hot tea, massaging his thin beard and adjusting his thick rimmed glasses.
“There aren’t any mountains in Suffolk,” I said. Then, catching myself, “Are there?”
“So why did she ask us to climb one?”
She still had her finger on the relevant clause in her mother’s will. The clause in which Niamh Bronte – the eccentric, mischievous and far too brilliant, Niamh Bronte – demanded Siobhan and I go to the tallest mountain in Suffolk to spread her ashes. Without evidence, taken on my phone and presented to them by me, the solicitors where not to release any of the inheritance.
Siobhan shook her head. “They agreed that the tallest point in Suffolk will do.”
On the plastic table between us she dropped another sheet of paper, this time with a Google map printed on it. One of those red pin things was dropped in the middle of green area with a few white roads criss-crossing around, but very little else.
“Great Wood Hill,” she said. “It’s outside Bury St. Edmunds.”
A third piece of paper appeared and was placed on the previous two. A reservation in her name for two rooms in an expensive looking hotel in Suffolk. I didn’t need to look at the date. As long as it’s not a Saturday morning I could do it.
Siobhan knocks her cup to the floor. The tea spills out of it. Behind her Bank stops stroking his beard as his mouth falls open in shock.
“I’m taking Mother there anyway, if you want to come along, that’s up to you.” Her challenge laid down, she turns on her heels and walks away, squelching in the tea-moistened ground, leaving both me and Bank staring after her as she left.
The girl still knew how to make an exit.
Great Wood Hill is as unremarkable as you would expect. There’s a tall telephone mast about two hundred feet tall, dotted with satellite dishes and antenna, a row of trees – hardly a Great Wood – and not much else. I’m grateful for the landmark, otherwise I think we would have driven straight past it, further extending the most awkward car journey of my life. I didn’t realise that it was possible for two people to be that silent. If it weren’t for the sound of the engine and the Sat Nav, I would have thought I was going deaf.
Siobhan has her mum’s ashes in her hands. The current residence of Niamh Bronte is plain and practical, a million miles away from the woman when she was alive. I take my phone from my pocket and open the camera app. There’s a slight breeze. I feel like the weather has let her down – it should have been a whirlwind, a hurricane, a tornado.
“Ready?” I say.
Siobhan doesn’t reply. Instead she walks towards the phone mast. I hold the screen up and hit record. But she doesn’t stop walking when she gets a decent distance away. She keeps going.
“Siobhan!” I shout, and start to walk with her. I’m careful to keep the camera on, in case I miss it. I wasn’t going to come this way and miss the big moment.
The mast is protected by a wire fence, but Siobhan doesn’t stop. I record as she finds a hole in the fence – a little too quick for it to be a coincidence – and ducks through. I shout after her again, and she turns.
Her eyes are full of tears. “My Mum. Needs a proper send off.”
I don’t move to her, I don’t try and stop her, even though I know what she’s going to do. I keep recording. She’s right. Letting her do this – it’s the least I can do after my betrayal.
She tucks the urn under her chin and starts to climb.
I wonder what the combined height of the tower and Great Wood Hill are, and if the lawyers will understand when they see this recording. I don’t wonder why Siobhan is climbing, and I don’t wonder why I’m letting her do it.
Niamh didn’t hide behind black clothes and hair dye. Niamh didn’t sit in her house and follow the same routine every day, just because it was easier. Niamh didn’t escape to the other side of the world when things went wrong.
If there are no mountains in Suffolk, for Niamh Bronte, two old friends will create one.