Colette called the day I moved into my apartment, just as I had finished wiping down the last of the kitchen cupboards. The phone startled me when it buzzed awake. I had already spoken to my mother and knew it could not be her.
‘Hullo stranger,’ she said, her voice carefully light.
‘Colette,’ I said. Even though it was three years since we’d last spoken, I knew straight away it was her.
‘I was hoping you were still on this number. I only heard you were back yesterday.’
‘So, how was Arizona?’ she said.
‘It was brilliant.’
‘I bet it was,’ she said, her voice all grabby now. ‘You deserved that.’
It was, I realised, as close to an apology as I was going to get.
‘How is James?’ I said, even though I knew they had split long before.
‘James? God, that ended ages ago. Actually, you’ll never guess. I’m engaged.’
‘Thanks, sweetie. Hey, you won’t believe where I met him. Remember that awful coffee shop we used to go to when we were in college?’
‘You do. Remember the time you got shortlisted for that essay award in first year? I stood on a table in there and announced it. Remember, I’d printed it up and started to read it out?’
I knew she had brought that up to remind me what a good friend she could be. She probably hadn’t met her fiancé there at all. But I could not help feeling pleased by the memory.
‘You got us barred,’ I said. A hail of her laughter erupted, and relief seeped through me like sunlight.
‘So, sweetie,’ she said, ‘my hen night is next weekend. I thought, a villa in Tuscany, and the girls, lots of wine and tan topping up time. You’ll come. Won’t you?’
Early that evening, I walked across the city and into the pub where I had found them together. After the traffic and the warm light of the setting sun, it was dark and quiet in there, smaller than I remembered. Behind the bar, a woman folded napkins, while a man sat on a stool, a half-empty pint beside the paper he was reading. I ordered a gin and tonic. Then I sat beside the empty fireplace.
How casually his hand had lain on her thigh. How flushed her cheeks had been from the coal blaze. And how naturally she had smiled at me when I called around to her the next morning, that red flannelette dressing grown tied tightly around her.
‘I just came to tell you,’ I said, ‘that I never want to see you again.’ And then I started the speech that had been simmering inside me all night. ‘You are poison,’ I said. ‘All you do is hurt me.’
Her flatmate appeared in the hallway. Colette backed into it and I followed her, shutting the door hard behind us.
‘Colette,’ said her flatmate. ‘Is everything okay?’
‘All you do is hurt me,’ I said again. I was crying by then, hotly, and my throat hurt and my head felt heavy. I forgot all the things I wanted to make her remember. My violin recital at school, when she laughed throughout in the wings. Our holiday in Goa, where she disappeared with some guy, leaving me alone for the whole second week. My graduation day when she faked an asthma attack and later confessed she’d done it because she had been bored.
In her hallway, she watched me cry, her arms folded across her chest. Her flatmate had disappeared.
‘He never loved you,’ she said finally, her voice tinged with distaste. She shrugged.
There had been nothing left to do but leave.
The villa was on the outskirts of a hilltop town that looked down onto the city of Florence. It had seven bedrooms, each high ceilinged and barely furnished. Colette said it was 300 years old. Her dad had bought it two years earlier, with his second wife. They had since broken up and it was rarely used. There was a musty smell and one of the windows was broken. Weeds grew alongside the geraniums in the window boxes, and in the pots dotted along the steps to the pool. A vineyard met the fence that marked the edge of the garden. It was dusk when we arrived and below us, the city lights were like a reflection of the stars in the darkening sky.
That night, we sat on the loungers that surrounded the pool, drinking from the crates of wine bought from the neighbouring vineyard. Colette’s friends were loud and cheerful. They talked about how strange it was to be in their thirties. They talked about ghosts and destiny and whether or not there might be a god. One girl said she dreamed she met God, and the next day she felt extraordinarily happy. Ever since then, she said, she knew, deep down, that the whole point was to strive to be the best person you could be.
‘I wish I could believe in one,’ I said. ‘But it’s hard, doing what I do.’
‘Frances does medical research,’ said Colette. ‘She’s an atheist. Tell them,’ she said.
‘It’s sort of a new field,’ I said. ‘Using evolution theory to improve medicine. Like slowing antibiotic resistance in the body. That kind of stuff.’
‘How does that make you an atheist?’ someone said.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘There’s no blueprint for the body, is there? It’s just lots of different genes adapting so it can survive. That’s why it makes mistakes when it’s trying to get better from something. Like when you get diarrhoea to flush out a toxin, but then that can make you dehydrate and die.’
No one said anything. Around us, the cricket song seemed to grow louder.
‘Tell them about diseases,’ Colette said.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Diseases. Some need the person to move about so they can spread. So you’re sick and you don’t even know it. And then ones like malaria need you to be so sick you can’t even slap the mosquitoes anymore. So you feel sick. It’s all genes fighting other genes to survive. Where’s your God in all of that?’
‘I guess he’s doing a good job of hiding,’ someone said.
‘Bloody hell,’ said someone else, ‘way to take the kick out of being drunk.’
We all laughed.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
We opened more bottles of wine. We drank them. It must have been close to dawn when Colette and I wandered into the vineyard and picked some grapes. When we got back, the others had all gone to bed. We stood at the fence, staring down at the city.
‘Like a magic carpet,’ I said.
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘That’s what I missed.’ She put her arm around my neck. She had to stand on tiptoe to do it. Then she kissed my cheek. ‘My bestest friend,’ she said. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’ And relief spilled over me again.
The next day, Colette’s cough could be heard everywhere. The heavy dust in the villa had woken her asthma. I hadn’t seen her have a proper attack since we were in college, but a girl called Natalie had. She told us, in front of a frowning Colette, how they’d called an ambulance in the end. Someone suggested we have another night around the pool instead of going out, just in case. But Colette said she was fine. She was not staying in on her hen night. What kind of girl did we take her for? In the early evening, three taxis came as planned, and wound us down through the hills, until we met the lights of the city, and entered them.
We were dropped at a cocktail bar recommended by Colette’s dad, on the corner of a brightly lit square. The waiter showed us to a table on the terrace and we ordered our first round. When it came, Colette swigged from her drink and slapped her thigh and said damn. Later, she chatted with a group of American boys at the bar, even though it wasn’t the kind of place you chatted to people at the bar. She was dressed to fasten eyes on her, in a fire engine red dress that gathered in flower shapes over her chest and ended with a fat satin border midway up her thigh. Her engagement ring caught and shone back the light. At one point, she looked at me and said,
‘Honey, you didn’t think of getting those old roots done before coming away with us girls?’ She pouted. Someone tittered.
‘No bitching allowed. That’s the rule,’ said someone.
‘The rule,’ said someone else, and everyone laughed this time. Everyone except Colette, who sniffed daintily before sipping her cocktail.
‘I just thought if a girl was invited away on a weekend to glam it up with an old friend, she’d make a bit of an effort,’ she said.
‘Frances is a bookworm,’ said the girl who had just spoken, who already looked and sounded drunk. ‘They don’t care what they look like. Frances, you look lovely. You’re a little angel.’
There was more tittering.
‘I was just kidding, sweetie,’ said Colette, smiling brightly. ‘I know you don’t have time for silly stuff like that with all your important work in the laboratory.’
I went to the bathroom, where I surveyed myself in the mirror. An inch of dull brown hair topped the rich red I had dyed it a couple of months earlier, just before I left Arizona. A crescent of mascara cradled each eye. The skin on my nose was shiny. In the bright lighting, I could see how ill-suited my mustard top was to my pale skin. It was also too small for me; the long sleeves clung to my upper arms.
Natalie came in.
‘That sounded worse than she meant it,’ she said. ‘You okay?’
‘Sure,’ I said, my voice shriller than I meant it to be.
When we got back, the Americans were sitting at our table. Colette was smoking a thin cigar and laughing loudly.
‘Drink up, sweetie,’ she said. ‘You’re falling behind.’
I took a large gulp. It was delicious – frothy and sweet with a hot, dark undercurrent of alcohol.
‘Atta girl,’ she said. Her skin glittered. Her eyes seemed to burn. ‘Poor Frances doesn’t get out much,’ she said to the boy sitting beside her.
‘That’s a shame,’ he said. Then she turned her back to me. I finished my drink quickly and went to the bar to order another round, to have something to do. One of the Americans followed.
‘So how do you know the fabulous Colette?’ he said. His voice sounded older than he looked.
‘From school,’ I said. ‘She was a good place to hide behind.’
He laughed, his eyes lingering slightly longer than necessary on my face. He was so clean, so wealthy clean, with his short-sleeved shirt over a white t-shirt and glistening short hair and the musky smell of aftershave. When we got back from the bar, Colette was watching us. She ignored my smile.
‘Back to the villa,’ she said. ‘Drink up, folks. Party time.’
In the taxi, I sat on his knee. His hand rested on my thigh. I leaned my back against his chest, his breath warm on my neck all the way to the villa where Stevie Wonder was already knocking out song after song from someone’s I-pod and people were dancing around the pool. Natalie pulled me into her room, where she fixed my make-up, made me change into a dark blue dress of hers, a pair of heels.
‘Look at you,’ she said, and we looked at my reflection in the mirror, my blue eyes turned up, my body long and curvy.
‘Who’s a bookworm now?’ she said, and we ran back out to the pool.
But now, my American was nowhere to be seen. And there was no Colette. I sat on a lounger, talking to no one, anger drumming through me like pain. I kept my gaze on the flat surface of the water. When Teresa tried to pull me up to dance, I told her to leave me alone.
I was still sitting there when my American ran out of the house, bare-chested and frightened looking.
‘She can’t breathe,’ he shouted.
We all ran inside. Colette was lying on the bed, her mouth and eyes wide open. Each breath she took was a high-pitched wheeze that made you think of an injured animal. She reached an arm towards her bag on the ground and opened and closed her fist. She glared at us, then at her bag.
‘Her inhaler,’ said Natalie. And she emptied the bag. A mobile, lipstick and a notebook clattered against the ground.
‘I’ll check her bedroom,’ I said.
‘And someone call an ambulance,’ she shouted.
It took over an hour for the ambulance to arrive.
‘Her breathing’s gone quiet,’ someone said. ‘Her lips have turned blue.’
Natalie went with her in the ambulance. The rest of us followed in taxis. The Americans had already left.
In intensive care, a doctor told us Colette was stable. She had suffered a minor brain injury from lack of oxygen. She would probably make a full recovery, he said, eventually, but they could not tell how long this would take. It could be months. It could be years.
As it has turned out, Colette hasn’t fully recovered, at least not yet. It is one year on and she went back to work last week but to a new, less demanding position. She gets easily frustrated with herself, because she has lost her quickness. She can no longer demand the attention of everyone in a room, or reduce everyone around her to laughter. She is quiet. I know this because I visited her every second day for three months in the rehabilitation unit, and because now we meet up at least twice a week. She is very grateful to me for this.
After a few months, things ended between her and her fiancé. We are two single ladies, and should be proud of it, I tell her. One of these days we will travel the world and leave this stupid country where it belongs – in the middle of a freezing, jellyfish infested sea. She laughs at this and her eyes grow wet and big.
Sometimes, when I wake in the night, or when I’m travelling somewhere on a bus or a train, I see myself standing in the middle of the vineyard the evening we returned from the hospital, when everyone else was sleeping. I see it very clearly; it is like looking at a film. The woman in it walks slowly and purposefully along an avenue of trees, warm light from a low sun filtering through the branches. She stops and takes the inhaler from her bag. She hunkers and places it beneath the leaf of a weed. Then she walks back to the villa and up the steps to the pool. Sitting on its edge, she lets herself fall in. Submerged by the water, she wraps her arms around her knees and pulls herself to the floor. A moment passes, and then she opens her body and the water pushes her back to the surface. She looks at the red roofs of the city below her, and sucks in the summer sweetened air.