Take this girl – Michelle. Perfect case study. At Barnsfield High she was phenomenal, the ignition of a thousand bang-off fantasies. She was also in the top sets for everything, which disturbed the town’s bizarre sense of zero-sum justice – people who are beautiful shouldn’t be intelligent, people who read books shouldn’t be any good at pool, the genius must not be allowed to tie his shoes. Yet Michelle was one of Barnsfield’s all-rounders.
She had been protective of her growing desires. Recalled the strategic loss of her virginity, in a hotel room at Manchester Airport after the prom and to a man who was not the ones she was particularly into but seemed like he should be the first – good-looking, sporty and precise. This restraint had been a mistake. Rather than killing time until the rest of her life began, she had allowed high school to become the peak.
Every year there were less and less people in the town. She recalled being a name of the pink ladies, the shining ones, and everyone else being a mass of unwanted desire specific only be deformity or aberration. Now all the geeks and salivators and outsiders – they were on six-figure incomes. They had gone away and become barristers or artists or web designers. They had gone through Oxbridge or Edinburgh and were now living in London or Fallowfield or Los Angeles. And she had stayed, reluctant to let go of the kingdom. Except that the kingdom had still fallen.
It had never occurred to her to leave town, despite the predicted grades and the pleadings of her sixth form teachers. University, it don’t mean anything, Ben had said. Ben was then her boyfriend, an exciting older man who had his own car and had dropped out of Manchester Met after one semester of business studies. They were in the Shiloh Arms one Saturday night talking about this. Everyone’s got a fucking degree these days, they expect to get a fantastic job out of it but it’s bollocks, the government should try n discourage people from going. He then said, You can learn more out a honest work than you can from books, and then leaned back with a smile curling at the ends of his lips. It had struck her that Ben had felt the remark to be one of profound wisdom.
She felt now that there was at least something you could learn from books that you couldn’t learn from the StuporStore. She had been at the StuporStore for years now, and felt she’d pretty much got to the end of what could be learned from it. Stock supervision required only a finite skill set.
Michelle walks from there now, with the kit from the mini-Boots. On her way to and from work, she saw people from her year, the shining ones who had stayed, and every time they shone a little less, weighed down with children and money’s absence. And there were fewer of them every time.
Back then Ben had been the answer to all her problems. The urge back then was an urge to get together with someone, to be settled down. It was a race against time. And looking back on it, it was weird that the thing that X Factor and the Pussycat Dolls called love never seemed to come into it. Of course, Ben always said that you shouldn’t get your head in the clouds about that stuff, but in the search for a life mate it seemed like lust never came into it either. In her rare free moments, she thought about that. Wasn’t lust what made the world go round? The reason we were all here?
So meeting him had ceased this anxiety which was so strong it bordered on the masochistic. Twenty years old, with a job and a guitar (nothing more than a personality prop, she later realised; he had never played the instrument in his life) it was what you needed.
So she had been married, then pregnant. Third one from her year. She liked to update the FriendsReunited page, but after a while she ran out of milestones and it got too painful, having nothing to report and having to read the adventures and achievements of the free, single men and women whom she had ignored and mocked as a child.
And now she gets home to an empty house. She has learnt to treasure the silence: they are currently lodging with Ben’s parents near the Railway, the property bubble has forced them out for at least the next two years. Ben’s parents will be at work until half six and the kid is at Sandy’s youngest’s birthday party. Turns on the telly out of reflex, and while she heats and eats a tin of Big Soup she took from work watches this thing about Iran. Voiceover says that in Iran women are enslaved, they have to be covered up at all times and aren’t allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied. Apparently they can be beaten and jailed for noncompliance. Shots of girls walking around in black sacks. Amazing. Couldn’t happen here, though.
She goes into the bathroom, takes the kit out and goes through the procedure, praying for nothing. Ben goes to church. He does not believe in termination. So nothing is the best hope.
After a while the line appears in the tube. She looks at it for a full moment. Then to the mirror. Eyes red from the Baileys at the Shiloh Arms and the half-bottle of rosé wine she needs daily, and settled in the dark sunken pouches of interrupted sleep. Hair washing out and graying at the temples. Lips chapped and peeling. There is a bruise on one cheekbone from the carpet that she hadn’t cleaned last night. There are lines in Michelle’s forehead you could roll coins down. They remind her of the machine slides in the penny arcades that her dad took her to when she was a little girl.
Stress, abuse, lack of sleep, a skewed work-life balance did this to her. But also marriage, motherhood, the pointless sacrifice of all she was and could have been. Michelle looks down at the line, then up at the trenches on her face. She closes her eyes. She is twenty-three years old.