Every year it’s the same and every year I swear will be my last. The first weekend in October is our reunion weekend. The weekend when Cheryl and I travel to York and meet up with Cathy and Arabella in order to pretend we’re all great friends. If we were being truthful about the whole business though, we were friends for a brief window of time in our early twenties. It’s been over twenty years however since we could call ourselves friends in the truest sense of the word and, for me, these weekends only serve to emphasise that.
“Sorry I’m late,” Cheryl’s breathless apology cuts into my reverie. “Traffic was so bad, I’d have been better off taking the bus but Dom insisted on driving me.”
“It’s okay.” I’m already starting to tune Cheryl out, which is not a good sign given that she’s only just arrived. “I think we’re platform three,” I mumble.
“That’s right, it’s always platform three. It’s the same train I get to Leeds when I need a Harvey Nic’s fix.” Oh God, I silently plead to any benevolent force that may be out there listening, strike me down now. A minor stroke suddenly seems like a small price to pay if it means avoiding another reunion weekend.
Walking slightly behind Cheryl, I surreptitiously take in what she’s wearing. These weekends are all about who’s doing best and, predictably, she’s looking amazing in a stylish black dress coupled with a leather jacket. All no doubt courtesy of her dear friend Mr Harvey Nichols. The train is in and she totters on board, effortlessly finding us a free seat.
“I could kill for a coffee,” she says, eyeing my latte as soon as we’re settled in.
“Sorry,” I grimace, “I should have got you one. Do you want me to find the buffet?”
“No, they’ll be round soon enough with the trolley.”
Taking another sip of my by now luke warm latte, I immediately feel guilty that I didn’t get her one. Turning to apologise once more, I find her face thrust forwards just inches away from mine.
“I’ve got some terrible news,” she whispers.
“What?” I bluster, hoping to buy some time. I hope to God she’s not going to confide something truly awful, like she has breast cancer. Cheryl’s always so melodramatic though, it’s just as likely to be some hideous titbit about her sex life. She loves to boast how she and Dominic, her husband of twenty five years, are still at it like a couple of teenagers.
Struggling to compose my own face into a mask of earnest curiosity, I gaze at her expectantly.
“It’s Cathy,” she pauses for dramatic effect, “Neil’s left her.”
“Really?” I say, having a hard time picturing dreary Neil doing anything so decisive.
“Yes, it’s just awful. He’s left her for one of his students. By all accounts, she’s young enough to be his daughter. Poor Cathy’s in bits.”
“I’m not surprised.” No, the big surprise as far as I’m concerned is that, after twenty years of being treated like a doormat, he’s finally made a move. Good old Neil, I think, resisting the urge to smile.
“She’s going to need all our support, poor thing,” Cheryl continues.
Nodding my agreement, I open my mouth to speak but Cheryl raises her hand peremptorily.
“I’ll take the helm, if you don’t mind, where Cathy’s concerned. No offence, but you’re single so you can’t really understand what she’ll be going through. You’ll have to keep Arabella at bay.”
“Yes, you know what she’s like, me, me, me. I mean, I love Arabella, you know I do, but she’s very self obsessed. It comes from being born into money.” Mercifully, I spy the refreshment trolley about to enter our carriage.
“Oh look, I can get you a drink,” I say eagerly.
“You know it’s all going to be about her latest holiday.”
Hurry up, hurry up, I silently urge the young man pushing the trolley slowly in our direction. Looking over, it’s as if he’s able to read my thoughts but there are still about ten rows of potential customers between us.
“She thinks she’s so well travelled,” Cheryl continues, touching my arm lightly to reclaim my attention, “But I’m sorry, I don’t call a month all-inclusive in Dubai travelling.”
“She did do the Cuba thing,” I murmur half-heartedly.
“Everybody does Cuba. No - take me, Dom and the kids, we do the real travelling. Did I tell you we travelled around Borneo this year?”
“No, do you want a latte?”
I smile weakly at the trolley boy as he hands me two lattes. Eyeing the miniatures he has lined up in rows on the bottom shelf of his trolley, I wonder what Cheryl would think if I asked for a double gin.
“I don’t brag about where we’ve been but we’ve probably explored all the most un-touristy parts of the world. Now, that’s travelling but you know what Arabella’s like.” She pauses briefly to take a sip of her latte. “Yuck!” she shudders, “I wish someone would teach these people how to make decent coffee.”
Looking quickly at the trolley boy, who’s only moved forward by a couple of rows, I hope he can’t hear Cheryl’s strident voice. I’m starting to feel hot and bothered as she leans into me, encroaching onto my space. Gazing into her expertly made-up eyes, I’m almost overwhelmed by a stabbing feeling of dislike.
“You can bunk up with Arabella, just in case Cathy needs some support during the night. It’s the same hotel we had last year with the gorgeous spa. It’s going to be so relaxing.” Nodding, I can feel my face tingling, opening my mouth slightly to unclench my jaw. “I can’t believe it’s been a year since we last met, especially when we’re in the same city. I’m just so busy though. I told you I’d been promoted didn’t I - deputy head? Then there’s the kids. I swear sometimes I feel like a chauffeur. And Dom, you know what an old romantic he is - he insists we have date night every week no matter what.”
Draining my latte and trying to ignore the queasy feeling hovering in the pit of my stomach, I fantasise about going to the toilet and getting off the train at the next stop. How long would it take Cheryl to notice I’d gone? I wonder absently what she’d do and realise with a jolt that I don’t actually care. I don’t care if I never see this ghastly woman ever again and yet, here I am, about to spend the weekend with her.
“God, I haven’t even asked what you’ve been up to, Liz. Come on, fill me in, I want every juicy detail.”
“Oh you know - this and that.”