An Acquisition

An Acquisition was first published by Shooter Literary Magazine, in 2017.

 

The day before Laila disappeared, this is what I would have told you about her: Laila is rather stupid. I acquired her for this very reason. Back then I made it a habit to acquire friends who were less intelligent than me, because it made life easy. If I needed an equal, I confided in my sister. The rest of the time, I wanted simple.

There were many signs of Laila’s stupidity. Firstly, she was racist. Laila being a racist took most people by surprise, because she was Asian, but the experience of prejudice is neither cure nor inoculation.

‘I just don’t like them,’ she would say of the women around the mosque door, when I dropped her off for prayers. ‘They’re so dark.’

They wore headscarves, these women, kept their sleeves long. Laila wore pedal-pushers and V-neck vests in summer, in a variety of tropical colours, and put on Factor 50 to keep her skin light. Her accent was pure Scouse, and outside of mosque she only covered her hair when it rained. Some Fridays she went to prayers, but every Friday she went out to the local bars where she took numbers from white men.

‘I don’t like dark meat!’ she’d say, laughing as always at her own joke as we sat on the balcony of our little flat on Saturday mornings. I didn’t say anything about this, because I didn’t care enough about her to want her to be better. Here is what I did: watched the boys doing bike stunts on the corner, checked the earth in the plant pots for dampness, wondered if it would rain. Here is what she did: transferred some guy’s number from the scrap of paper in her hand onto her mobile phone, sighed, picked at her bare foot.

Occasionally the men would come home with her. Some mornings I would walk into the kitchen and find a stranger there. Once I found a man wearing only a pair of baggy grey underpants, going through the kitchen drawers. He was opening them cautiously, one by one, and he jumped when I pulled out a chair.

‘I am sorry,’ he said in accented English. ‘I look for a spoon?’

He called our landline a few times afterwards, and I grew tired of passing on his disjointed declarations of love.

‘Are you going to call him?’ I said. Laila shrugged, applying a black pencil to her eyebrows.

‘I’m not taking any more of his messages,’ I said, and the next time he called I told him she’d moved out.

*

Some further signs of Laila’s stupidity: she spelt Ireland ‘Eyeland’; she thought that pasta was made of rice; she once asked me where Europe was.

I realise that this sounds like I don’t like Laila. I don’t now, of course. But back then I liked her enough to share my flat with her, and disliked her enough for it to work. To share your life with someone you need to care about them just enough, and no more. I liked to drink wine with her on Friday, and I liked to let her paint my nails. But I didn’t like her so much that when she left the front door unlocked again, I felt betrayed. I didn’t feel the loss when I asked her to wash the grill pan and she hated me for a day.

*

I acquired her at the bookshop. She came in looking for a TV tie-in book, and within a few minutes she had told me that she was looking for a place to live. I met her for coffee first, a little date to see if we had potential.

‘This cake’s gone hard,’ she said, holding up the biscotti in its little plastic packet. ‘Should I complain?’

She was perfect. ‘I need a lodger,’ I said. ‘My sister’s moved out. I don’t suppose you’re interested?’

‘Can I come and have a look round?’ she asked.

We went straight there after our coffee. ‘I like your pictures,’ she said, pointing at my wall. ‘Where did you get them?’

‘They’re limited edition prints,’ I said, omitting their value. She probably thought I’d got them from Homebase.

‘Nice,’ she said, turning away to look into the kitchen.

*

She moved in in May, and I cut my hours at the bookshop and spent more time on my screenplay. She asked to read it once, but I refused. I didn’t want her opinion.

‘What’s it about, then?’ she asked, and I said, ‘It’s about a man who kills an old lady with an axe.’ It’s not, of course. It’s about a girl whose brilliance goes unrecognised by society.

‘Sounds grim,’ she said, making a face.

‘Thanks,’ I said. I considered putting her in it, but she wasn’t complex enough. She wouldn’t have mixed well with my other characters, who all had hidden depths.

It wasn’t expensive, our place, but it wasn’t cheap. It was the best I could afford on my wage. It was in a big, brick-built nineteen-thirties block, stylish enough to be desirable, ex-council enough to keep the prices down a bit. There were three bedrooms, all the same size. I gave Laila the one on the dark side of the flat, and kept the south-facing one for my writing room.

In the kitchen she had two of the eight cupboards, though she needed only one. She ate next to nothing. ‘I might go and get some shopping,’ she’d say vaguely. This meant she’d be going to Lidl round the corner, and returning with two plastic bags. One would hold the fish fingers off which she lived. The other would hold a big bottle of diet cola and a sliced loaf of white bread. Medieval sailors had more nutritious diets than Laila. She’d eat curry, but only if her mum made it.

As for kitchenware, she brought little with her apart from a collection of plastic-handled camping cutlery of which she was inordinately protective. If it was all in the dishwasher she would use my heavy old knives and forks, but if she found me applying the same principle to her items then she would remove them from my hands with a tut. ‘KA-ren!’ she would say, as if I were a naughty toddler. ‘These are not yours!’ It was at these times that I considered upping the rent. I should have done, of course. It would have been helpful now.

The summer was an easy one, as Laila spent most of her time out. There was a group of friends, but they never visited our flat, and I never asked her why. I liked it. It helped to keep her transient. My friends came over occasionally, when I didn’t need my time for anything else, and we watched films together or ate dinner. Laila seemed to them to be terribly cosmopolitan and daring, which I would have found disappointing if I’d cared that much about them. As it was, their behaviour was just what I expected. Claire from the bookshop, who wore trouser and skirt combinations like it was still 1998, giggled nervously when Laila swore, and Big Benny developed a crush. He developed a crush on any woman who paid him attention, which was one of the reasons he’d been so easy to acquire. Laila would play up to them, saying things she thought were outrageous to make them act shocked. ‘Your dweeb friends,’ she called them, half teasing, half not.

Laila worked part-time, thus the flatshare. There was no money for her own place. Before she lived with me she lived with Darryl, nickname: ‘The Unit’, an amateur boxer and professional cretin who came round once to shout through the intercom box about unreturned CDs. Talking to him through the handset, Laila sounded bored. ‘Go away,’ she said, then hung up and added ‘Fuckwit.’

Her job was in a cosmetics shop, not one of the big chains but a warehouse, an end-of-line, bulk-buy kind of shop in the industrial estate at the edge of town. There was always something new that she’d bought with her work discount. Shonky hair straighteners, non-brand mascara, perfume that reeked of bubblegum or fermenting fruit. When I opened the door to the flat after work there would usually be a smell: scorched hair perhaps, or the sweet stench of the oil she used to clean up after waxing. There were mishaps, too, because the products were cheap and unreliable. The dye labelled in Arabic that turned her highlights grey, for instance, or the time she left the hair removal cream on too long and burned her top lip. It didn’t put her off.

‘I like putting on my disguise,’ she’d say, turning her foot towards the light to make her painted toenails shimmer.

Every so often she would try and give me a makeover, and I would refuse.

‘You could be so pretty,’ she’d say, lifting a section of my hair and grimacing like it was a dead animal. ‘If you just made an effort.’  She was not, herself, beautiful, but she thought she was, which was almost as effective. Benny taught me, recently, that the word ‘glamour’ once meant a spell or illusion. Laila had glamour. The accessories of beauty seemed to conjure the beauty itself, and so people believed that sticky, glitter-coated Laila was lovely.

‘I am pretty,’ I would say, and she would make a face that said: Maybe. Kind of. At these times I imagined my life when the screenplay was sold, and the good reviews were coming in. I imagined my cultured friends, people who were not acquired but connected with. People worth connecting with. I imagined how clever I would be about this part of my life, how scathing. I imagined Laila as an anecdote, told to a dinner table of laughing faces, and this perspective diminished her to her true insignificance.

*

She surprised me now and again. I assumed she had dropped out of school at sixteen, but it turned out that she’d been to college, to study textile design. ‘I wanted to be a fashion designer,’ she said.

‘What happened?’ I said.

‘They said I nicked some stuff,’ she said, not realising that I meant what happened to her life, not just to her course. ‘If I did it was only because they treated me like crap. Fuckwits.’

Fuckwit was one of her favourite words, and one I had introduced her to. She thought I’d made it up when she first heard me use it. There were many phrases she hadn’t heard before: ‘spoils of war’, ‘blunt as a ball’, ‘terra firma’. When she didn’t know a word she’d laugh, as if you were the odd one for using it. Some, like fuckwit, she adopted; others she never believed were real, and would remind me of as if I ought to be ashamed of them. ‘Oh look, we’re back on terra firma,’ she’d say as we got off the bus, rolling her eyes.

The strange thing about Laila’s simplicity: it invited confidence. As the months went on I found myself growing to trust her. My other friends might be stupid, but a part of them knew that they were; they wanted to pass for something else and so they were self-conscious, tangled in transparent concealments and dull pretensions. Laila did not suffer the same problem. She stood squarely at the centre of her universe, ignorant and fabulous, and it seemed impossible that she was anything more than you saw.

Sometimes, too, she would be kind. The kindness came in odd small bursts, like the week I had tonsillitis and she brought me orange juice in bed, or the day my bike was stolen and we searched diesel-streaked service entrances and back alleys for it, Laila tottering beside me in ludicrous pink patent-leather boots. An unexpected fondness grew in me, the kind you might have for a pet, or, at a push, a younger sibling. Now and again I talked to her.

‘What are your mum and dad like?’ she said, after a phone call from her own parents. I’d heard her talking to them, her voice teenage, making petulant demands for more money.

‘High-achieving,’ I said.

‘What does that mean?’ she said. ‘They earn a lot of money?’

‘I suppose,’ I said. ‘I meant that they have important jobs.’

‘What, like firefighters or something?’ she said, dropping herself into an armchair and tucking her knees underneath her.

‘No, they’re economists,’ I said. I wondered whether I needed to gloss this, but Laila was used to incomprehension. If she didn’t understand the first time, she would simply drop the topic and find another. I watched her peel a sheet of varnish from her fingernail.

‘My mum’s a cleaner,’ she said. ‘In a hospital. That’s a pretty important job.’

‘Important means that not a lot of people could do it,’ I said. ‘Like writing a film.’

‘I thought you meant important like if it didn’t get done then things would go wrong,’ she said, dropping the neon paint flake onto the floor beside her.

‘Cleaning jobs will always be done,’ I said. ‘Because there are lots of people who can do them. Not like the complicated jobs. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could learn how to be a cleaner. But a cleaner probably couldn’t write a film, or teach economics.’

‘So my mum’s not complicated?’ she said. I wondered if she might be offended, but there was only the same idle flatness in her voice that was always there.

‘She’s doing something very useful,’ I said. ‘The world needs people to do simple jobs. They’re just not as important.’

‘The people?’

‘The jobs,’ I said, though as I looked at her sitting in my armchair, picking her hand, I thought: And the people too.

*

As autumn turned to winter and we spent more time in the flat, issues of hygiene came to the fore. Laila’s room had always been squalid, but now the squalor leached out in the form of stale smells and garish clothes hung over the radiators. She was obsessively fastidious over certain matters, such as keeping a roll of toilet tissue in her room so that she didn’t have to touch a shared one, but she was repulsive in others. Her hair, brittle from a hundred dye jobs aimed at reducing its rich darkness to an artificial orange, would break off in clumps, and these I would find scurrying across the kitchen floor or banded together for protection beneath the sofa. She felt the cold and would never open a window. Those in the main body of the flat I opened when she was out, but the window in her room was always closed, though she hung up her laundry to dry in there. Even through the strong lily-scent of her washing powder, her clothes began to exude the musty breath of damp.

‘I’m not paying for a tumble dryer,’ she said. ‘I don’t need one. And in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have a lot of money.’

I bought the drier, then waited a few weeks and told her that our gas bill was a hundred pounds more than it was. A hundred pounds covered almost all of the price of the drier, which I considered fair. Although Laila complained, she paid it. ‘I’ve got nothing left,’ she said. ‘I wanted those new heels.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and meant a little of it. ‘You’ll have to budget.’

‘I need more money,’ she said restlessly. ‘I’m sick of this.’

I wonder, now, if it was a warning. I try to believe that it was. A warning means that there was a breaking point, a precipitation, an axial change in our relations. A warning means that I was not wrong, all along.

It was a Thursday, six months after we had met, that I came home to find the door open. At first I thought that she had left it like that by accident. Then I walked into the flat and found everything gone.

The marks on the walls showed where my pictures had been. Odd: I thought of the paint as fresh, but it had been years since I applied it. Where the dust had lain on top of the frames, faint grey lines underscored my loss. The lamp. The sofa. On the floor a square of dust, a single footprint in it.

In my bedroom the divan had gone, uncoupled into its two sections and carried away. My bedclothes lay in a heap on the floor, saying: Sorry. We couldn’t do anything. There was no wardrobe. There was no jewellery. Only the walls had been left.

I did not look for Laila. I think I knew, as soon as I walked in, what had happened. I looked into her room only out of interest, really: to see if there was anything left behind. It was dull in the north light, and empty. The window was, as always, tight shut, and the air retained the familiar stuffy Laila scent of damp towels, artificial flowers and unwashed bedclothes.

In the kitchen I found that she had, at least, left our dining table. It was a little folding wooden contraption, no more than a picnic table really. On it lay my manuscript.

I have been unable to open it ever since. I am not sure I will. I am too worried that I will find a certain word written inside it, over the top of my vain and laborious dreams. Nowadays I go to work and do my simple job at the bookshop, come home and cook my simple meals, and that is all. I cannot bring myself to advertise for another housemate. I cannot bear to see my friends. I cannot write. Not until my equilibrium is restored, and not until I can think of Laila again and be sure, quite sure, that I know which of us it was who was acquired.

Nowheresville

Nowheresville was first published by Prole magazine, in 2014. 

 

My sister christened it, when she was twelve and I was ten. It was November, and we were standing inside the glass vestibule of the service station lobby, watching the rain come in horizontally across the dimming car park. Beyond the tarmac there were the petrol pumps, then the dark hump of the bund separating the buildings from the motorway. The road itself was invisible, just a ribbon of reflected light on the clouds and a roar of white noise. Caro pulled her cardigan down over her hands and wrapped her arms around herself, stretching the pink wool over her thin shoulders. She gave a little sigh, and said, quietly, ‘Nowheresville.’

It was the first word we had spoken to each other in half an hour. It was the first word we had spoken to anyone in half an hour. One of the first things we learnt about Nowheresville was that we were invisible. We might loiter in the lobby for an hour, getting cold, peering without hope into the car park, and be ignored by fifty people, a hundred, maybe more. Nowheresville was understood to be ugly, therefore you did not look at it too closely. There was no point.

The place frightened us more than a little. It was big, and lonely, and strange. We wanted more than anything to be at home, or even at our father’s new house, damp and hopeless though it was. We felt affronted at being expected to associate with Nowheresville, when we so clearly didn’t belong there. Yet at the same time each of us wondered, privately, if we didn’t deserve it.  It was during that first hour in the vestibule that we explained Nowheresville to each other for the first time.

‘Nowheresville’, I said tentatively, ‘is built on an old graveyard.’

‘And every night, at midnight,’ said Caro,  staring at her own white reflection in the rain-spattered glass, ‘vampires get up and look for living people to eat.’

‘And when they get eaten,’ I said, slipping my hand into hers, ‘the new people have to be dead, like the others, and always live in the night.’

The first week, we spent a lot of time by the doors. We didn’t cry: we had already learnt that our sadness was of a lower order, tiresome and rarely justified. We just stood and stared at the cars, waiting for the right set of headlights.

We never thought to mention that our father dropped us at Nowheresville at eight, and our mother picked us up at nine. We had a simple faith—not a virtuous one, but one born of practical experience—that adults were taking care of us. We would no more have questioned travel arrangements than we would have written a shopping list, or paid an electricity bill. After the separation, our father picked us up from school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. At the end of these evenings he would drive us halfway home to the service station, bundling us hastily from the car lest he meet our mother. She came an hour later, happy each time to have missed our father. We never considered that there might have been a simple misunderstanding.

Other children, through the long evolution of adolescence, would try freedom and responsibility a step at a time, always able to return to safety. We, though we did not know it until years later, stepped neatly, unwittingly, straight from childhood to adulthood. Our faith had become passivity. We were expected to speak up, to discuss, to arrange. But we did not. And that was how we ended up in Nowheresville eight until nine, three nights a week.

By the third week we had become accustomed to abandonment, and our minds started to wander. We felt lost and uneasy in the noisy, adult, purpose-built spaces, and so, to begin with, we hid.

Nowheresville was full of small, warm interstices, spaces created by the presence of other larger and more important forms. It was simplicity itself to slide into the building’s cracks: the cubbyhole beneath the car insurance stall, the dusty gap behind the tray cabinet in the food hall, the flimsy cardboard tent at the centre of the confectionery stand. At first we simply curled up as small as possible, but as Nowheresville’s enormous, noisy rhythms evolved slowly from alarming to familiar, we diversified. Our habits developed. We spent hours in the ladies’ loos testing our skills of concealment, Caro hiding in the cleaning lady’s handcart amongst the oversized toilet rolls, I wedged beneath the long bench of washbasins. Success bred elaboration, and we used several weeks to hone our skills of mimicry until, perched on a toilet lid inside a locked cubicle, we could replicate almost any small, accidental noise from our neighbours. We stuck at this for four, maybe five weeks, until one of our victims located us and banged on the door, demanding to know where our parents were. We huddled together, watching the flimsy bar of the lock bounce in its moorings, praying that she would leave, but she was persistent. By the time she gave up it was ten past nine, and we were late for our mother.

We invented a ghost, and believed in him for a while. ‘He was an old man,’ said Caro, by now thirteen years old and squashed alongside me in the gap between a photo booth and a grab-a-toy machine, ‘and he came here every day of his life to play on the fruit machine. And he used to make his wife wait in the car. Then one day she got really cross with him and they had a fight in the car on the way here, and the car went off the road and crashed.’

We tucked our legs in close to our chests, and looked at the flashing forbidden land of the amusement arcade, across the corridor. ‘And his ghost got out of the wreck,’ continued Caro in hushed tones, ‘to walk the last mile here.’

I shivered, imagining the determined transparent figure working his way across the exhaust-driven grass towards Nowheresville. ‘What does he do now?’ I asked, though I had heard the story a dozen times.

‘He stands by the fruit machine and weeps,’ said Caro. ‘And when he sees a couple come in, he gets into the car with them when they leave.’

‘And makes it crash,’ I finished, as I always did. ‘Boom.’

‘Boom,’ echoed Caro, and the bright flashing lights refracted in her eyes.

We would make forays into the arcade, partly in order to try and see the ghost, partly because we weren’t allowed in. Most times we would be shooed out by an adult: someone’s dad, or a member of Nowheresville’s ever-changing cleaning staff. If we were lucky, it would be someone new. Most of them were not much older than us, interested in each other and whatever they were saving for, uninterested in the integrity of Nowheresville and its rules. Coming in to pick up crisp packets and receipts off the multi-coloured carpet, they would spot us and wave wearily for us to leave.

If we were unlucky, it would be Norbert. Norbert was not his real name, but a name I chose for him because it fitted him so well. He had a name tag, but neither of us dared to go near enough to him that we could read it. He was the only member of Nowheresville’s staff to have been there ever since our visits started, shuffling round with a white plastic bag and a dustpan and brush on sticks. We were frightened of him from the start because of his eyes, which were black.  We had never seen anything like them, the whole iris glistening dark and pupilless, until we went to the aquarium with our mother and saw a shark swim by. This only served to confirm our fear. Being found in the arcade by Norbert meant having to walk past him as we left, which was closer to him than we cared to get.

By the time I turned twelve we were emboldened by adolescent energy, and developed a new game. We tracked Norbert around the clamorous food hall and through the concourse as he picked up litter and put it in his bag, seeing how close we could get to his yellow-jacketed back. When he turned we would flee, meeting one another, panting and exhilerated, at a pre-ordained spot by the magazines in the newsagent’s. He never seemed to notice this, but eventually we began to feel sorry for him, and to regret our unkind games. We left him alone, then, and even said hello when we passed him. We felt so bad about our prejudice that it came almost as a relief when he offered me sweets and asked me to get into his car.

‘What did he say?’ said fifteen-year-old Caro, sitting in the shade of the trees at the edge of the car park.

‘It was just like in the film,’ I said, meaning the safety video I’d been shown the previous autumn, when I started secondary school. ‘He came up to me in the picnic area and asked me if I’d like some chocolate. But I was really shocked he was talking to me, so I didn’t say anything. His voice was all thin and scratchy and he sounded scared.’

‘He didn’t touch you or anything, did he?’

‘No,’ I said, more thrilled than frightened. ‘And then he said he could give me a lift if I wanted to go home early, and he said Dad had said it was OK.’

‘Dirty old bastard,’ Caro said, and I was doubly thrilled to hear her swear.

‘Shall I tell Dad?’ I said, pulling at the grass between my feet.

She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. I didn’t need to ask her what she meant.

It was not long after that that our father moved in with his new girlfriend and changed our visiting times. There were no communication breakdowns this time, and our long visits to Nowheresville were over. We spent only thirty minutes a week there, if that; barely long enough to saunter round the food court and riffle the magazines. Our visits became nostalgic, and we would reminisce about old adventures. Norbert remained, but never troubled us again. Caro had perfected her hostile teen stare, and pinned him with it whenever he happened within our range. ‘Perv,’ she would hiss, as he came into view.

Whe Caro went to university, my Nowheresville visits stopped altogether. ‘It’s not right for you to be left on your own at a service station,’ my mother said, little realising we had spent hours of our childhood there, crouching in toilets, hunting ghosts and perverts. ‘Get your dad to drive you straight here.’

He did, but refused to drive down the street to my mother’s house. ‘This is close enough,’ he would announce grimly, pulling up at the pavement by the turning, leaving me to open the door of the car and lug my school bag out into the drizzle.

Caro learned to drive at university and bought a car, a broken-down old thing which I found impossibly glamorous. ‘A car,’ I said. ‘You’re going to drive to see me in your car.’

‘Not all the way,’ she said.

My father was bemused. ‘Why can’t she come and see you here?’

‘Maybe this is close enough,’ I said, and he gave in.

Nowheresville had changed a bit, but its essence was the same. There was a new coloured canopy over the petrol station, but as it hadn’t been part of our core territory it didn’t concern me much.

‘Look,’ said Caro, ‘they’ve changed the picnic tables.’

‘They wrote to me,’ I said, ‘and asked if it was OK. I said I thought so, but they should really check with you as well.’

‘Ah, yes,’ she said, putting on a serious face, ‘I recall the letter. Most appropriate. I recommended the blue.’ She ran her hand proprietorially, fondly, over the fresh smooth surface of the painted wood.

‘Shall we go and see if Norbert’s still here?’ I said, and we walked into the food hall side by side.  He wasn’t, and though Caro was keen to find out what had happened to him, we didn’t know his real name and so couldn’t ask anyone. Instead we bought tea and took a tour of our old hiding grounds, Caro covering for me as I bent down and stuck my head into dusty, long-vacated voids.

We took to meeting there about once a month, and so it was at Nowheresville, a year later, that Caro told me she had a girlfriend.

‘What?’ I said.

‘A girlfriend,’ she said. ‘I like girls.’

I thought for a moment. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘What’s her name?’

‘Tasha,’ she said. She smiled when she said the name, and I liked the sound of it. I looked around at the yellow trees and the rows of cars, and said ‘You should bring her here.’

Nowheresville’s population grew to three. Caro must have explained to Tasha about it before they got there, because she didn’t seem at all puzzled about being driven to a service station. When she got out of the car she was a tangle of bright colours and jewellery, the brilliant red of her nails matching the advertising banners which snapped in the wind above us. We walked her through the concourse and the food hall, then found in the ladies’ loos that we could just about fit all three of us into a cubicle. We stood together, shaking with laughter, jammed against one another’s bodies, belonging absolutely nowhere else.

I went to university a year later, and studied anthropology. I didn’t miss home at all, but for months I visited Nowheresville in my dreams, sometimes nightly. In my sleeping hours I would walk through the nondescript glass doors and across the car park, towards the sound of the motorway. Cresting the bund, I would find that the murmur was not of cars but of water: there, where the motorway had been, flowed a river. In the clear, warm water were people swimming, and they waved to me.

Caro and I wrote to each other regularly. ‘Nowheresville,’ I wrote in my final year, inspired by my dissertation research, ‘is a liminal place. It is the wilderness, a place on the edge of things where any being can transform into another.’

‘You are very serious,’ she wrote back. ‘It will wear off.’

Caro married Tasha as soon as it was legal to, by which time I was twenty-two.  My mother didn’t go to the wedding.

‘She’s still telling people that you went to university and ‘came back gay’,’ I said, as we drank champagne and threaded pearls into Caro’s hair.

‘As if I caught it there,’ said Caro, and we laughed.

‘It used to matter to me,’ she said after a pause. ‘But I don’t think it does any more.’

They were married at a registry office, in the spring. I had briefly, and half-seriously, lobbied for a Nowheresville wedding, but Tasha pointed out that it wasn’t licensed for ceremonies. ‘Not that it isn’t lovely,’ she said, reaching out and touching me on the arm. ‘And it would be very convenient for parking, obviously. It’s just the catering, you see.’

‘I see your point,’ I said, imagining a Nowheresville wedding breakfast: cardboard-packaged sandwiches, oversize packets of crisps, energy drinks.

Tasha’s family cheered when the couple kissed, and threw dried rose petals over their heads. The womens’ arms flew through the air, clattering with bangles, and the men made trumpets with their hands and whooped until the ceiling rang.

‘They’re lovely,’ I said afterwards, as we ate cake in the marquee.

‘Don’t worry,’ Caro said, hugging me, ‘I’m not leaving you for them. They are lovely, but I’ll always love my little sister and my hometown.’

‘Nottingham?’ I said, surprised to hear it referred to with such affection.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, planting a kiss on my cheek.

When I got serious with Nathan, we discussed whether he needed a visa for Nowheresville. ‘Tasha’s OK because she’s married to me,’ said Caro. ‘She has citizenship. Nathan doesn’t.’

‘Tasha went to Nowheresville before you got married,’ I objected. ‘And I’ve been seeing Nathan for a year. You’d only just met Tasha when she crossed the border.’

In the end we made him a visa from a petrol receipt. ‘It’s not from Nowheresville,’ said Caro, ‘but it’s in the right spirit.’ We both signed it at the bottom, and ceremonially rubbed chips on it. ‘So that it smells like the food hall,’ I said.

‘Perfect,’ she said.

It was early winter when the four of us drove to Nowheresville together.  Nathan, small, slim, limber, a pursuer of the outdoors, took one look at the landscape and declared that we should all climb the bund. ‘I shall call it,’ he said, taking my hand, ‘Mount Nowhere.’

‘We never went there,’ I said, thinking of all the hours we spent staring at its distant bulk.

‘Then we’ll need a flag,’ he said. ‘We’ll use your scarf.’

We set off across the grey concrete, a band of explorers bound for a peak in Darien. The bund was coated in rough turf and peopled with little leafless trees , dusted lightly in snow. It took us minutes to reach the top.

Nathan shook out my scarf and tracked across the ridge to its highest point, where he ceremonially attached two corners of it to a sapling. It whirled and flapped out in the cold wind, a patch of startling colour against the dull winter grass. ‘I claim this bund,’ he called, ‘for the Crown of Nowheresville.’

Caro and I watched him strike a bold pose against the sapling, whilst Tasha, giggling, recorded the moment in a photo. Behind us lay Nowhereseville, in all its compact mundanity; ahead of us and below ran the motorway. The sun broke suddenly through the white haze and rang off the tops of the cars beneath us, and in the pure light it seemed for an instant that every one was a shade of silver, like waves on choppy water.

Beside me, Caro shivered and rubbed her hands together. ‘Do you want to go in?’ I said. ‘We could get some tea.’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, smiling. ‘What about the ghost?’

Voices blew over to us on the wind, calling to us, waving us up to join them on their flagged peak.

‘It’s the strangest thing,’ I said, pushing my hand through the warm crook of her elbow, ‘but I think that he might have gone now. Don’t you?’

‘Oh, ages ago,’ said Caro, and, arm in arm, we stepped forward.