By Lewis Carter

We’d been drinking for hours when he asked me about her. Normally we talked about rugby or pussy. It’s not that we didn’t have anything meaningful to say to each other; it’s just that when most guys get together they need an hour or two to talk shit before getting to anything real.

I’ve known Johnny since university, he’s the kind of friend with whom you can sit in a room for hours and not say a word to—the best kind. But when you only see someone once a week, conversation seems mandatory.

A favourite waitress of ours, one who wore her blouse with maybe one too many buttons unfastened, was away that night, and there had been no rugby worth dissecting. I imagine that’s why he asked me, “What ever happened to that girl you got with in final year?”

As soon as it was out of his mouth I knew he meant Matylda.

“You know that girl; you introduced her to us in that tapas bar in the city. She had beautiful long brown hair and even longer legs. You know the one!”

I did indeed know the one. There had been no one important after Matylda, and she did have long brown hair with soft curls and a stunning pair of legs. However, Johnny’s description did her no justice at all. As he tried to remember her name, I recalled the way her brown hair smelt best first thing in the morning when we woke up sharing a pillow, and the way I felt when she wrapped those legs around me, needing me to be as close as possible.

“Matylda!” He howled as if he was having some kind of seizure.

I was forced to concede now, of course. “Ah yes, Matylda. Lovely girl.”

“Lovely girl! That’s not the way you used to talk about her. I remember a weekend in Prague where you wouldn’t shut up about her. It made things really weird in that absinth bar.”

“Yeah well, things change. We’ve all had experiences with girls like that right?”

“Nope.” He folded his arms as if he’d just won one of our old arguments. “I’m telling you, the way you talked about Matylda back in the day, I’ve never thought about a girl like that. What happened with you two?”

“What happens to every couple after a while. We grew apart.”

“That’s it?”

The cliché seemed to have the opposite effect I was going for, as he leaned in a little closer, blocking out the background music of the pub. “There must be more to it than that. When did you last see her?”

I sipped my pint to give the impression of trying to remember the exact moment I had last seen her. “Paris,” I answered.

We’d been together for just over a year when work took me to Paris. It was only a twelve-month contract, but it demanded a decision from our young relationship nonetheless. Neither of us were exactly believers in long distance, but we didn’t want to see it end this way, and more importantly, this soon.

We decided that we would cool it for a few months while she finished her masters then meet for a weekend in Paris.

The months had dragged, and my work had suffered. So I was glad to hear that after finishing her dissertation, she had booked a flight out to see me.

When she arrived her plane was late. I spent a daunting forty minutes in front of the double doors marked ARRIVEES, wondering if she had thought better of the whole thing; or if she had slept with anyone during our months apart. But when the doors opened, and she came scampering through the throngs of tired travellers into my arms, I knew things were right where we’d left them.

“Well, what happened in Paris?”

“It was good.” I felt the urge for another drink.

Three things stuck out in my memory. Firstly, the sex; we made love in a way only possible for two people who have been apart for too long. Secondly, the familiarity of it all; the months apart had eroded nothing of our unique identity as a couple. Our in-jokes remained intact; her minute facial expressions designed to tell me exactly what she wanted at a certain time remained decipherable to me; and I was happy to find that we were still fluent in the secret language we had created for people, places and even feelings. Basically, the whole mythology of our relationship was alive and well. The last thing, and the most memorable of all was the goodbye. Back at the airport, in front of another set of double doors, this time marked PORTE D’EMBARQUEMENT.

“So you fucked and saw the sights then?”

“We didn’t have much time for sights to tell you the truth.”

“Sounds like fun, you got her number?”

“You think I’d be here talking to you if I did?” The joke did what I hoped for, and soon we were back on the topic of something familiar. Johnny was a good friend, but that night he had picked at my scab, my Matylda-shaped scab, and I had no choice but to call it a night earlier than usual.

He surrendered after some light appeals for at least another round. “You know we can do this at mine one night if you like. It’d be wine instead of beer, but the girls would love to see you.”

“One day. Give my love to them for me. How old is Maisy now?” I knew how old Maisy was.

“Threeee.” He beamed as he said the number, elongating it in his mouth in the same way I had heard Maisy say it herself.

“Jesus, that’s flown by.”

“Look mate . . . me and Jenny, we’re having another one, and you know my one rule is that tonight is lads night, but when Maisy has a brother or sister it might be a little more difficult to . . .”

“It hasn’t been lads night since Mike stopped coming, buddy.” I cut him off so he didn’t have to do what all the rest of them have over the years. Mike, Baz, even Gyppo, who we thought would never settle down and pop one out.

“Anyway, same time next week?”

“You know it.” But already I’d planned to call in advance pretending to be sick. I didn’t imagine I’d need an excuse for the following week. Jenny would be happy of the extra help and for her husband to stop coming home smelling like a student once a week.

I grabbed a few more pints of something cheap and rough in a pub around the corner. It felt like a rebellious act. Against my friend, against Jenny, and their two sticky-fingered brats now that I think about it.

I used the pub’s shitter to puke. When Johnny and me were younger, it used to be cool to drink too much and throw up in toilets on nights like these. Of course I never did that with Matylda. She upchucked on our third date. When I got her home she told me it was the most she’d ever drank in a single night; then she tried to suck me off. I didn’t let her. Not because of the sick, that didn’t bother me, she could roll in shit, and I’d still want to spend time with her. She cried for a while when I said no, and then she fell asleep. I spent the night on the floor of her student flat and she lay still for hours. The next morning she told me she loved me, and then I cried. Jesus. But at least I never had to sleep on the floor again.

It was a warm night in the city walking home.

“Nice blazer, you cunt.” The kid turned triumphant and continued walking as his friends congratulated him on his creative way of insulting a stranger. I had started wearing blazers for about a year, just after Gyppo stopped coming to our weekly piss-ups. He lives in Spain now with a Chinese woman he met in a Zumba class. What a cock.

“You open, mate?” The question was optimistic at best as the barman was stacking chairs outside his pub.

“Best bet’s an offie now, fella.” The closest off-licence is a five-minute walk past my flat. I walked it anyway. They sell Bavaria lager there that’s actually brewed in Holland. We used to buy crates of the stuff in uni for parties. It tastes worse than Matylda’s tongue did after our third date, but nostalgia controlled the purse strings that night and I picked up three cans. “Threee!

I took a crate of the stuff to Maisy’s baby shower for a laugh, Johnny handed me a champagne flute when I arrived and told me to leave the crate in the kitchen. You can say what you want about cheap lager, but it tastes better than that shitty bottle of bubbles did.

I burped and threw my first empty can off the same old bridge we used to visit as students. I didn’t hear it land, but I got a nice tight spiral on it. Which one is Zumba anyway? Is it what they do in that ‘call on me’ music video? Maybe I’d marry a Chinese woman if I saw her doing what they do in that ‘call on me’ music video.

Chick-O–Land was still there after all these years so I popped for the usual. Johnny laughed at me on one of our weekly sessions when I suggested we grab a bite there, even though he used to insist on going there every night back in the day. He’s fat now he’s a dad anyway. Why do dads get fat? It’s not like they go through the same stuff as the mother. Jenny’s fat, too, although she was never much to look at anyway. That was mean, Jenny’s all right. No Matylda; but all right. Probably nothing a bit of Zumba wouldn’t fix. Whatever that is.

In the glass counter of Chick–O–Land, my reflexion looked the way I felt, all wobbly and distorted.

“Nice blazer you cunt.”

“You what mate?”

“Sorry nothing, just talking to myself. Curry, chips and cheese please.” It tasted the same as it did twelve years ago. Matylda would never go to Chic-O-Land; she was basically a veggie anyway. Although there’s nothing to say that veggies can’t eat curry, chips and cheese. I could be a veggie if I could eat curry, chips and cheese every once in a while.

Halfway through the late-night meal I felt better. Better enough to justify another can of Bavaria—no champagne flute for me.

No wonder Johnny was so quiet in the pub that night, I bet he was sat there all night thinking of how to tell me he was too busy to drink beer and eat curry, chips and cheese now he’d knocked Jenny up again. Hope he has twins this time. I hear threee are a real handful.

People were staring at this point in the night, so I knew I was basically pissed. People shouldn’t stare. Not unless it’s for good reasons, like if they see a celebrity, or a dead body, or if someone is wearing a nice blazer. I stared at Matylda the first time I saw her. It was in the union bar, and she was playing pool with a group of friends. She was shit, but she didn’t care she was shit. That’s a good quality to have—being shit and stuff and not caring. I’m shit at lots of things like having a proper job and talking about the stock market, but people don’t know that because I wear blazers. Johnny knows though. Matylda knew too, although she didn’t seem to mind.

I’ve never said goodbye to anyone since Matylda, not even Johnny, although he won’t begrudge me that now he’s got another on the way. That goodbye in front of those doors marked PORTE D’EMBARQUEMENT was enough to put me off goodbyes forever.

It didn’t go the way I’d imagined. In my mind she would have hugged me and asked what Porte D’Embarquement meant; ‘Departures,’ I would have said. Then she would cry. No, we’d both cry, but she wouldn’t see me because I’d hug her again. Then she would scamper off towards the plane in the way she scampered everywhere, turning at the last moment to wave at me once more.

It’s hard to wave when you’re in a box, though, or scamper for that matter. I didn’t go with her back to her family, and they sent no word about the funeral. Anyway, back then I wouldn’t have had a blazer to wear, and you sort of have to wear a blazer at a funeral.

Like I said, her hair smelt the best first thing in the morning when it was draped across my pillow. That’s why I laid there for so long when she didn’t move. It was so warm and comfy, not like the floor of her student flat.

When can number two was empty, a woman shouted at me for drop kicking it into some bushes. Threee points for a drop goal! I tried to teach Matylda the rules of rugby once; she wasn’t having any of it and laughed at my attempt to explain the points system. It was okay though because we made love after. I didn’t stop her from sucking me off that time.

Johnny doesn’t know I drink every other night of the week as well as our weekly pub trips. He doesn’t know Matylda died in my arms on a French hotel bed either. I thought I’d tell him once the others stopped coming to the pub, but now he’s gone, too. He’d probably just say something about the statistics of seemingly healthy people suddenly dropping dead if I did tell him.

I’ve heard enough of those already. Then he’d probably tell me to start doing more than drinking to take my mind off things. Maybe take up cooking or knitting . . . or Zumba. Whatever that is.

IMAGE Carter DeparturesLewis Carter is from Bridgend, South Wales. He has recently completed an MA in Writing for Performance and Publication at Leeds University, under the tutelage of experienced television writers and playwrights such as Garry Lyons and Adam Strickson. On that course he was awarded the prize for the best project thanks to his novella Memoria Manor. Lewis has submissions pending with various writing competitions, such Aesthetica magazine. As well as publishing stories with independent minded publications such as Empty Sink, he is writing and directing his first short film.