Best-selling author and Women's Prize for Fiction nominee Naoise Dolan has written a two-part short story exclusively for us. Part I is available here.
‘You can believe me or not’, Mia said. ‘But I’m telling you she asked me to.’
They had been talking at the station for ten minutes now, five left until Mia’s train. Their initial small talk had been painful but this was worse.
‘I didn’t think Noreen would leave you’, Mia said. ‘Really I didn’t. I thought, you know, we’re not kids anymore. I thought you’d deal with it.’
‘How did she even ask you?’
‘Noreen saw us talking. She saw us linking arms. So she came to me and said, look, if there’s something between you and Sophie, I need to know. And I said there wasn’t and she kept asking, is there someone else though, do you know if there’s someone else, and I couldn’t lie. So I told her about that woman at the party.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You “don’t know”. Perfect. Fine.’
‘Listen’, Mia said. She clutched Sophie’s arm.
Spit, tug away, that was Sophie’s instinct, escape this woman, but she would disrupt the order then, disrupt that they were acquaintances catching up. She needed to believe in that scenario as much as Mia did. And didn’t you have those conversations as often as the ones you wanted? The ones that wedged you in ‘til the talking took you.
‘I don’t want to hear about it’, Sophie said.
And she didn’t. Mia had told Sophie’s last partner about a minor infidelity, not Mia’s business, no-one’s business, and then of course Noreen had left her. Sophie wasn’t sure if she believed this new story that Noreen herself had come to Mia and asked. She hadn’t even realised that Mia had seen her go off with that woman to begin with. What she did know was she had snapped.
‘I deliberately haven’t spoken to you for two years after what you did’, Sophie said. ‘I don’t need an inquiry and full report on why you did it.’
‘I’m sorry’, Mia said.
That had never happened before. Mia had said a million other things, but never sorry. Sophie had been waiting to hear that for two years.
What happened those years ago was this.
Sophie had for some time been seeing Noreen, the most stable person she had ever enjoyed proximity to. Sophie had been still in her stupid flower shop job then, and Noreen had been programming computers in an office with high-end water coolers. ‘They have five different switches and I’m still deciphering what each one does,’ Noreen said. Sophie had enjoyed a specific, never-to-be-realised fantasy of coming with Noreen to the office and trying the buttons together, and seeing.
Noreen only lived with one other person, a man whose boyfriend was in Rome, and she and her flatmate drank cappuccinos on the balcony. Sometimes Sophie joined them.
Sophie had met Noreen online. Noreen had one of those faces that change a lot depending on the angle, so Noreen’s pictures hadn’t prepared Sophie for their first in-person encounter. They met by the canal, Noreen had arched eyebrows and curly hair, and they talked and talked, and Sophie knew.
Then the time came to introduce Noreen to Mia. It had to happen at some stage, just as Sophie had to meet Mia’s men. Sophie did not take to Mia’s men and Mia did not take to Sophie’s women, so it mystified Sophie why introducing their partners was a shared ritual. But Mia had been prying — ‘You keep telling me about her and it’s boring if I don’t know her, so introduce her or stop going on about her’ — and after a few months Sophie took both women for brunch. She sat between them.
Later she asked Mia how she felt it had gone.
‘I can see why you like Noreen’, Mia said. ‘I can see why she’s good for you.’
For the rest of the month Mia ignored Sophie’s texts, cancelled plans, and said she was busy with Jake — the Clive before her present Clive.
Then it was their friend Greg’s engagement party and Sophie came alone. The first thing she did was drink a bottle of champagne on an empty stomach, and the second thing she did was fight with Mia.
‘You don’t want me to be happy’, Sophie said in the bathroom. Someone knocked on the door. Mia was checking her teeth in the mirror.
We can’t do this here’, Mia said. ‘Is there lipstick? Be honest.’
‘You can see yourself if there’s lipstick.’
‘I want to be sure. Come on, it’s not the time or place.’
‘You see me doing well with someone and you want to turn me against them.’
‘“I can see why you like Noreen. I can see why she’s good for you.”’
‘Those are nice things to say.’
‘Not from you. And not the way you said it.’
The door banged again and a man asked what was going on in there, a court summons?
Later that night Sophie wound up talking to a woman with a sharp jawline and musk perfume. She couldn’t look the woman in the eye, but stared at the movements of her head — how fine and firm the bones were. When Sophie asked the woman’s name, she said Carla, and when Sophie made jokes Carla laughed, and they leaned in and Carla said, how about another bottle. Sophie said, yes, that she could do. When Carla asked if Sophie was single, Sophie said yes again, or the drink said it for her.
Eventually they went to the bathroom upstairs, the same place she’d fought with Mia earlier. She could see everything ahead, and it was all happening as she kissed Carla’s neck — real to her already — committed.
‘Take it’, Carla said.
‘No, it’s fine’, Sophie said, but it was Noreen, so she couldn’t hang up. She’d let it ring out.
‘Take it’, Carla said again.
‘Who is it that you can’t take it?’
It stopped ringing.
There was nothing they could do now since the moment was ruined. Sophie said, ‘See you around’, and left with the private sentiment that she would rather be John F. Kennedy and see Lee Harvey Oswald around.
Nothing had actually happened. She’d talked to a woman, they’d gone upstairs, then she’d left. Nonetheless Noreen found out.
‘Your friend Mia told me there was a woman at a party’, Noreen said. ‘I feel like I don’t even know you.’ And Noreen left.
Sophie had stopped speaking to Mia then. She had lost everything. There was no more Noreen and no more balcony. That was entirely Sophie’s fault, but she still could not forgive Mia, because Mia had not told Noreen for Noreen’s sake. Mia had done it for herself, for the part of her that couldn’t let Sophie be happy with someone else.
Mia was still talking when her train pulled in. ‘I thought I was doing the right thing’, she said. ‘Even when you wouldn’t reply. Even when I thought I’d never see you again.’
‘Good for you’, Sophie said. She looked at the train until it was clear Mia would not board it of her own volition, then added: ‘I’d better let you go’.
‘Right’, Mia said, and took two steps away. She stopped again. ‘But I need to tell you. I know now why I did it.’
‘We’ll talk later’, Sophie said.
‘We won’t. You need to know — it was always you for me. It’s only been you. That’s what you need to understand.’
Then Mia did board, since Sophie refused to acknowledge the possibility of her staying. There was now a sporadic, instant, but final bargain: to be a normal, acceptable person, Mia had to get her train, could not delay it in mere service of a conversation. The other passengers hurried in until their bruised knees and backpacks filled the carriages. Mia stood by the window and her outline was clear. Sophie kept staring as the doors closed but Mia looked down at her phone.
A smile spread on Sophie’s face.
It changed everything to hear it from Mia. Sophie had always known Mia cared for her, would never have otherwise excused her wild swings for as long as she had, but now Mia had aired it and Sophie was not mad for having sensed it. They’d known each other most of their lives and at every turn, Sophie had wondered: How can love compare to this? Is there something wrong with me that this is the biggest feeling? Now it had a name.
What everyone around her played out with their nervous texts and clasped hands, that was Sophie’s, too. Their tanned legs and iced drinks and laughs were hers as well.
Sophie paced along the platform, urging her own train to come. Her limbs could not keep up with her and she shook her hands to get the tremors out. Here was new hope and purpose: she’d been right about Mia all along.