• Zara Baig


I wanted there to be blood. Not a distasteful amount. After all, we were only seventeen. But enough to prove a white-hot rage was present. The kind of intense, unrestrained anger reserved for adolescence. Perhaps she would tear into the café and our eyes would instinctively lock the way they always did. The way best friends’ do. She would wordlessly indicate she knew of my betrayal as I began to splutter, “Dalilah, I’m so sorry, I-” just before she punched me clean in the face. Red would trickle from my nose as conversations around us thinned into piercing silence. Internally, a quiet feeling of triumph would simmer as I realised, I had finally riled her. I was finally worth more than her indifference. Then the scene hazed out; my imagination refusing to cooperate any longer.

I revisited my act of treachery. I had just wanted to feel a power I had never known in this friendship. To, for once, have the upper hand and hurt her like she could so easily hurt me. To say something and for it not to be met with her apathy. It had happened in fourth period Maths where I knew I could capitalise on my seat next to Amy, the school’s most ardent gossip. And so, I slandered Dalilah’s name in a clinical manner. I allowed my tongue to deploy its sharpest weapons, as words, possessing an effortless spite, tumbled out of my mouth in unfamiliar intonation. Viscious truths spilt messily from my entire being until I didn’t recognise the person saying them.

I waited, until Amy’s eyes were suitably widened with shock, to stop speaking. Paired with her slightly open-mouthed expression, I was convinced I had said enough to ensure it would get back to Dalilah. But in the sobering wake of my actions, a quiet corner of my mind harboured the bleak reality that, of course, nothing was going to change. That my attempt to rectify our enduring power imbalance was useless. That I could try and set alight the architecture that had sustained our friendship for so long, but our roles and scripts were too well-learnt for anything significant to burn down.

Blossom was a riverside café and the loyal backdrop of our teenage years. Even as we teetered on the edge of adulthood, it remained the well-loved seventh member of our group. We were meeting up to coordinate which university open days we could all attend together and as I entered, my eyes landed on Zian, who was already seated at the table by the bay window. I waved at him and began half-shrugging off my coat as I walked over to the counter to order.

“Hey, you ok? Arun and Cassie can’t make it. I have no idea where Mira is,” he said as I settled opposite him and precariously placed my cup down.

“What about Dalilah?”

“She said she’s going to be late. Didn’t you see on the group chat?” I didn’t fully hear his response as my voluntary mention of Dalilah’s name intensified an uneasiness within me. I forced tea down, as if to drown my internal disquiet, and winced as it seared my throat.

I quickly changed the subject. “So, has Cassie told you about the Gatsby party she’s thinking of doing for her eighteenth?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s literally the world’s most overdone theme. Plus, the American Dream is actually a very problematic concept. I read about it in The Guardian. About how George Bush used to mention it all the time to justify all the mess he made. Personally, I don’t want to be celebrating that. See, if Obama talked about the American Dream all the time, then fair enough. I could get behind that. He was just cool.”

I raised my eyebrows and opened my mouth, ready to query whether anyone aside from him would legitimately believe Cassie’s party to be an endorsement of American Foreign Policy, when a woman interrupted and asked if she could take a chair.

“Yeah, of course,” I replied to her as Zian caught sight of the lanyard around her neck.

“Oh, you volunteer for Amnesty? I’m starting an internship there next month,” he asserted. Without skipping a beat, and armed with the carefully considered charm of a politician, he began asking her a stream of earnest questions about her role, and whether she enjoyed it and what she thought about the wider impact of human rights charity work. I was always perplexed by his willingness to engage in small talk because I struggled to even hold conversations with people I knew.

When their chat was over, Zian began ridiculing how she didn’t have an opinion on whether Amnesty was too pro-West.

“I mean, surely you have to take the time to understand the nuances of your work, no?” He asked me what I hoped was a rhetorical question whilst I craned my neck to check she was out of earshot. I had learnt to ignore the self-congratulatory worldviews Zian could afford to have from the comfort of his family’s sprawling Kensington residence. He often spoke about global issues in a very cavalier manner. As if every conversation was a stage that was awaiting his presence, and held an adoring audience who would remark that his biting commentary was really quite impressive for such a young man.

I assume my eyes began to glaze over as he abruptly stopped his monologue mid-flow and swiftly asked, “Anyway, what’ve you been up to?” He nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose and swept his hair up in one smooth motion. I told him about an eventful train journey I had on my way into town and what I had bought once I was there. I traipsed around my words, careful not to say anything I actually meant. Careful not to mention the situation my entire mind was fixated upon, although my traitorous eyes kept flitting to the door, anticipating Dalilah’s arrival.

As I was speaking, Mira swayed through Blossom’s entrance as if the breeze had inadvertently blown her through its doors. in She waved and grinned as she saw us, before leaning over the counter to order. Her hair was wet and dripping down her canvas rucksack. Eventually, she joined us; sandwich and smoothie in hand. She gave me a sideways hug and the sensation of her damp hair against my cheek made me flinch.

“Sorry I’m late but look!” Mira pointed excitedly to a crimson area of her ear which housed two new piercings. We matched her enthusiasm and told her they looked really good, which was true. When she had finished relaying what sounded like a very painful ordeal, she asked whether we had managed to sort any dates for open days yet.

“Hmm? Yeah, no, not yet. Sorry, we’ve been useless,” I said as I scuffed my trainers listlessly against the table leg.

“We’ll just wait for Dalilah. There’s no point doing it without her. She’ll sort it straightaway. Her organisational levels actually scare me a bit.” Zian chimed in.

“Oh ok, fine.” Mira replied as she emptied the contents of her rucksack to find and show us a leaflet for piercing infections. Her belongings were soon scattered across the table; earphones attached to her phone, crumpled receipts, unused notebooks and a battered Rupi Kaur poetry book. She outstretched her arm against the table as if to collect all her items, but instead she just navigated her fingers in an attempt to reach the other side. She rested her head languidly against the tabletop and I wondered how she could do that when the surface was so sticky.

“Did you guys read that New Yorker article on cancel culture?” She questioned from her resting position. I took that as a welcome cue to bow out of the conversation.

I looked outside the window as the blue sky was fading into an unenthusiastic pink as though it hadn’t quite committed to relinquishing what was left of the day. Underneath it, I watched cars zip down the road and pedestrians bustle past each other on the pavement. I liked people-watching. I felt an inexplicable comfort knowing that every stranger I saw carried their own intricate and messy narrative. That they too had felt uneasiness and guilt, and euphoria and peace, and such big feelings could eventually be quietened and made to become just another line of their story. There was a reassurance in knowing we all innately existed in one another; perpetually bound by the joy and torment of experiencing human emotion.

Zian was flicking through the poetry book when he momentarily glanced up to say “Ah, Dalilah’s here.” The hum of conversation in the café seemed to dissipate as the gnawing sensation of uneasy guilt in my stomach deepened. My timid eyes would not allow me to meet hers. So, I chewed tentatively at the inside of my mouth and counted backwards from twenty in my head. The sour taste of blood pricked at my tongue. My jeans began itching against my skin and I suddenly became very aware of my sweatshirt’s label prickling my neck.

I knew the futility of expecting confrontation, but somehow, even my most logical mind had managed to foster gaps through which to cling onto tendrils of hope. Between the giddy anxiety that seemed to be physically encompassing my body, I was entertaining a quiet hope that my incandescent spark of betrayal could still set on fire all we knew about each other. That though there may be no violence, she could still scream and she could still care about what I said.

But as quickly as my eleventh-hour optimism had appeared, it melted away. She self-assuredly found my eyes and we exchanged habitual hellos. Her face did not harbour even the subtlest suggestion of hurt. Instead, her features displayed a defiant indifference that incited such an excruciating feeling of humiliation, I felt a physical pain. And I almost wanted to laugh that I had deluded myself that this would ever play out any other way.

“I love your hair like this, Kinza. So much nicer than when you have it all up.” Dalilah professed as she sat down; her hands re-enacting my usual hairstyle as her face scrunched up. My uneasiness was overtaken by a familiar hollowness as I recognised the worn-out script, the stage directions, and the lines I was being coaxed to follow.

“Thanks, yeah, thought I would try something different.” Her lips curved into a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes as her attention quickly latched onto Mira’s new piercings. There was no blood. There was no visceral fury. I dutifully retreated into the space she had so carefully arranged for me. It was neat and well thought-out. She really was excellent at organising.

By Zara Baig