"Hello, Casualty Department?”
“Hello? Is that Casualty?” Now, please don’t think I’m being stupid, I know the woman said Casualty. But I am double-checking. To be sure. If you were in my predicament then you would check too.
“Yes, this is Casualty, how can I help you?”
“I have a problem.”
“What sort of problem?”
“I have a condom. Stuck.”
“Stuck where?” she asks politely.
I glare at the phone. Now who is being stupid? “In my, er . . . my, er . . .” I frantically search for the appropriate medical term, “. . . whatsit.”
“Vagina?” she asks.
I cringe at the blatant use of the word. “Yup. That.”
“Please hold,” she says briskly.
Please hold? PLEASE HOLD?! That’s the bloody problem, HOLDING. Holding doesn’t seem to be the issue, letting go does.
Actually, maybe I ought to explain something here. I don’t have a condom stuck. Anywhere. Absolutely not. No way. I would know if I had.
So why am I on the phone to Casualty? Well, it is sort of true. It’s just not me. It’s Lizzie, my best friend, who is sitting on the sofa opposite me, crying into my kitchen roll.
“I’m holding!” I say brightly over the top of the mouthpiece. I think about telling her she ought to try and relax a little and the condom might just slip out but wisely decide against it. You would have thought that at the grand old age of twenty-five we’d have grown out of these sort of dramas and moved on to the bridesmaids’-shoes-don’t-match-the-dresses ones instead. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mind, I was just expecting something different. At least it’s an excuse to eat Jaffa Cakes at nine in the morning (me) and quaff medicinal brandies (Lizzie).
Lizzie was utterly distraught when she turned up on my doorstep this morning. I thought something absolutely awful had happened, but obviously this isn’t so great and probably won’t be up there on her “Special Days” list. Poor Ben, my boyfriend extraordinaire, was shoved out so quickly he was still carrying the spoon he was trying to eat his cereal with.
I won’t go into gory details because presumably you can guess what’s happened. Lizzie’s boyfriend of six months, Alastair, has in the meantime sodded off to work, pleading an important meeting, leaving little old moi to sort it out. I didn’t have the heart to make her telephone Casualty herself and then I really couldn’t be bothered with the whole “my friend has” stuff when they always presume it’s you with the problem anyway.
Lizzie and I have been best friends since the age of thirteen and grew up together down in Cornwall. Two friends couldn’t come from more contrasting backgrounds. With Lizzie’s family it’s all doilies and the best dinner service. Nothing like my Bohemian family, where not one plate matches the other and all the dogs eat off them anyway. We love each other’s families, probably for the differences. I used to revel in the coziness of her household. She similarly loved the chaos of my home—we would sit on the stairs, eating apples and watching them all (I have three brothers and a sister to boot) charging about in the midst of some drama or other. I would tut and raise my eyes heavenwards, but she would be sitting forward slightly, avidly watching the proceedings, simply soaking up the atmosphere.
It would be much easier if the condom thing really was my problem and not Lizzie’s because I am very comfortable in a crisis situation. I mean, how many families do you know who have the number of the local hospital on the speed-dial of their telephone? It is in there at number six, after Auntie Pegs and before my father’s first wife, Katherine. She and my father are still on speaking terms. Katherine and my mother are downright pally and I send her Christmas cards for goodness’ sake! I have had this pointed out to me as peculiar.
The lady from Casualty comes back on to the phone. I sincerely hope she has been talking to a sage, condom-removing professional and has not instead rushed through to the staffroom shouting, “Come and listen to this! I’ve got a right one here!”
“Hello?” she says.
“Hello!” I answer in a bright, I’ve-got-a-johnny-stuck-and-I’m-OK-with-that kind of way.
“I’ve been to talk to one of the nurses . . .”
“Yeeesss . . . ?” I say encouragingly, unwittingly imitating her rather annoying habit of traversing an octave in one sentence.
“She says you should come straight down to Casualty and they will remove it for you.” “Thank you so much. I’ll do just that.” I hang up gratefully.
At least they weren’t going to talk me through a DIY removal course. I was wondering how Lizzie and I were going to deal with that.
Lizzie stares at me questioningly. “We’ve got to go down there, Liz,” I say in answer.
She buries her face in her hands and breaks out in a fresh bout of weeping. I pat her back rather ineffectually for a while, then say, “Lizzie, are you all right? Don’t you want to go?”
OK, OK, stupid question to ask, but we have to start somewhere and we don’t look like we’re moving toward Casualty.
“I . . . I . . . I might meet someone.” Her shoulders heave with the effort of getting the words out.
“At-ta girl, Liz! That’s the attitude! There’s nothing like a new boyfriend to get you over the last!” I leap up and grab my bag; Lizzie stops crying and starts glaring at me. I sit back down.
“Oh, as in someone you know. Sorry.” I bite the inside of my cheek to stifle a giggle and try to study my shoes.
“If my mother finds out, she will never forgive me.”
I look back up. “How would she find out? She lives in Cornwall, for heaven’s sake!”
“What if someone sees or overhears us, and it gets back to her?”
Lizzie just gives me a long, hard look. I sigh. “Oh.” We went to school in Cornwall with a girl called Teresa, who now also lives here in Bristol and unfortunately makes a great show of doing volunteer work down at the hospital. She pretends to be terribly Christian and has an awful lot of those little fish symbols everywhere, but in actual fact she is one of the most horrible people I have ever met. When Lizzie and I were at school, Teresa’s sole aim in life was to land us in as much hot water as possible, an ambition which used to be regularly met. If anyone could take this particular little incident back to Lizzie’s mother it would be Teresa the Holy Cow, and my how she would feast on it.
“I’ll register for you in my name. My parents probably wouldn’t get to hear about it.” Not that they’d care if they did. My mother would doubtless mishear anyway and think it quite an achievement to have London stuck up me, and if my siblings found out they would wink and say “Nice one” as they passed me in the hallway. My father? My father wouldn’t look up from the newspaper.
“Will Alastair tell your work that you’ve had to go to the hospital if you don’t turn up?”
Lizzie works with Alastair. In fact, he’s sort of her boss. She nods miserably.
“Do you mind if we pop into the paper en route? It is on the way and I ought to tell them where I am. We could be hours in Casualty.”
“You won’t tell them why, will you?”
“Lizzie, I may work as a reporter but discretion is my middle name.”
I escort Lizzie out of my flat, carefully holding her elbow. She is walking gingerly and looking a little bow-legged. She couldn’t catch a pig in a corridor, as they say. We stop suddenly.
“Off. We. Go!” I cry, urging her in the general direction of the hospital just in case she has got cold feet again. I look across to find her glaring at me.
“What?” I ask.
“I am not ill, an OAP or pregnant! Please let go of my arm!” Narky or what? I drop her arm and we start off once more on our snail’s journey toward the car. Now and again we both look over our shoulders in the vain hope that the condom may have dislodged itself and is lying on the pavement. No such luck. Never mind! I quite enjoy trips down to Casualty. It’s the drama queen in me.
Lizzie has a tricky time getting into my car, but then everyone does because it is quite tricky to get into. There are only two ways to get in and out of an MG Midget sports car—the elegant way or my way. The elegant way is how you see the film stars do it on TV when they arrive at the Oscars. To get in, put your bum inside first and then swivel legs round. Similarly, to exit, swivel legs out, bum last. My way is to get everything but bum in first, leave bum out in the cold for a bit while struggling with other appendages, and then bum can come in. To get out, I simply fall onto the pavement.
I call my car Tristan. I know it’s unbelievably naff to give inanimate objects names and I don’t normally, but he has so much character and such delicate sensibilities that I feel depersonalizing him might be an additional hex on his already rather volatile nature.
I try praying to Allah this time that Tristan won’t let me down (God wasn’t feeling terribly benevolent on the last occasion). I hold my breath as the starter motor chugs over and exhale as he suddenly growls into life. Relaxing completely is out of the question however, because Tristan can stop at any point for absolutely no reason. I have spent many a happy evening on the hard shoulder of the motorway en route to Cornwall, waiting for the RAC to turn up. Because I am a lone female, I am a priority call for the police to sit with. I know all the boys on that particular beat quite well now and they all cheat appallingly at gin rummy. I think I would be quite sorry not to see them if (a) Tristan ever starts to behave or (b) I replace him with a reliable Volvo called Brian.
Lizzie reads the rabid gleam in my eye correctly and straps herself in. She plants a foot firmly on either side of the passenger well and hangs on. I rise gleefully to the challenge of an “emergency” situation and at last have the excuse to stretch my wings and drive in a manner akin to The Dukes of Hazzard. We bounce over speed bumps, go the wrong way around roundabouts and have a distinct tendency to maneuver, signal, mirror.
Ten minutes and several road-rage incidents later, I pull up at the paper’s offices with a screech and, saying to Lizzie that I won’t be a sec, skip through the front doors of the Bristol Gazette. I fight my way through the jungle of trifid-like plants to the lifts and give a cheery wave to one of the security guards (who I think are also there for aesthetic purposes only as I have never seen them do anything of a security-minded nature).
Excerpted from Playing James by Sarah Mason. Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Mason. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.