Vicky pushes her breasts up and glances around again. Sean still hasn’t arrived. She adjusts her top and grins at Martha. ‘Dollface, if you’re the one who came top of medical ethics, you’re the one who can buy the drinks.'
‘If you can construct that kind of sentence, you should probably take the course again, Vicks. Anyway, I’ll be nice. You’ll have—'
Karen looks dreamy tonight, but she’s quick off the mark. ‘I think I’ll just have water, shall I?’
Vicky bites back whatever remark she was about to make, which is lucky because Martha is still too pumped post-exams to play the mediator. She stands up, almost knocking Karen, who must have put her arm around the back of Martha’s chair when Martha wasn’t looking.
The pub is loud, and grottier than usual. At the bar, there is a grotty bloke to match, who is pushed aside by his rather cuter friend as Martha orders. Martha and Mr Spiky Brown Hair smile at each other.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Yeah? They call me the Marthafucker.’
Martha gathers the three drinks as quickly as she can with two hands, and, turning, her ears hot, hears the grotty one say, ‘The fuck was that, man?’
This just spurs his not-so-cute friend on. ‘Whatever,’ he spits out after her. ‘I prefer my black girls with actual arses, anyway!’
Vicky wants to know if she saw Sean while she was up. Martha wants to tell Vicky to shut up about stupid Sean who will never love her back or even look at her twice. Karen knows better than them both. ‘What happened, Martha?’
‘Bloke with the carefully messy brown hair over there made a joke about marthafucking I definitely haven’t heard a million times. And then something about black women’s bottoms.’
‘Oh, Martha. What an arse— I mean scumbag.’
‘That,’ says Vicky, ‘is nothing, white girl. White boys treat the rest of us like crap, use us up and then go back to your lot.’
Karen puts on a kindly face and Martha thinks oh no, sweetie, don’t, it’s really not the time. Karen, all earnestness and blonde ponytail, grips the back of Martha’s chair again and leans in close to Vicky. ‘This is what Martha and me have been trying to tell you about Sean. He might not be using you up, but keeping you hanging around for a bone — scuse the pun — like this isn’t on, either.’
The dim lights turn dimmer, and then Martha realises that it is not the pub but her, because she is viewing the top of her drink through her eyelashes, and suddenly she is very, very tired in the way she never got during all-night studying, but in the way she got when she was fifteen and Jason Ashley’s eyes flicked past her to the leggy girls in the front row of the lab, and she briefly got really bad at science. She cannot look at Karen, who is sweet, but doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she’s never felt it. Martha definitely cannot look at Vicky. Something comes out of her mouth in a quiet monotone, and after a second she identifies it as, ‘Gorgeous white boys aren’t going to swoop down from the sky and save you.’
‘Me and Sean are not like that, okay, Karen? And you wouldn’t know, anyway. Methinks someone wants to be saved by a gorgeous black girl.’
Martha looks up at a stricken Karen, who mutters that she is going to go outside for a bit. Shit, shit, shit.
Vicky looks a little guilty. ‘As long as we were handing out a few home truths.’ Not guilty enough to shut up.
It is time Martha took this in hand. ‘We’re going to go outside and you are going to apologise for outing Karen or whatever just happened there.’
They pass Grotty and Not-So-Cute on the way out, and Vicky, who is in truth a good friend, just mostly so during daylight hours, gives them the meanest look in the universe. By the time they’re outside, of course, Karen is gone.
It is too warm a night, and, as her head clears, Martha feels like throwing off the company as well as her coat.
‘I’ll give her a bell in the morning,’ says Vicky. She gives a brief agitated bounce of her knees. ‘Look,’ she adds. ‘I know what you’re both getting at. It’s not just about me and Sean. It’s not even just about pursuing the boys who are taught girls like us aren’t good enough. It’s about self-respect, and not trying to fit yourself into being the kind of person they want you to be. I can change my name and everything, but I’m still Mizrahi. You can’t get white.’
‘What’s your real name?’
‘Vered, means rose. Not an English rose at any rate.’ She raises her eyebrows with a forced smile and starts to walk away. ‘Tomorrow.’
Martha, meanwhile, has been repressing the image of Vicky’s smile on a blonde head and a feeling like déjà vu, except there is a world-bending idea in her head, the idea that whatever is causing the déjà vu has not yet happened. She shudders with a brief violence.
‘You okay, Martha?’ Great timing, Sean. ‘Where are the others?’
‘They’ve gone home.’
Sean ruffles his hair. ‘Right. Well, serves me for being late, I guess. Long story?’
‘A short one, but we’d better let them sort it out before it becomes any longer.’ She feels tired again.
‘Come on, I’ll walk you home then. If I’m lucky, Vicky might even be asleep by the time I’m back at ours.’ They walk away from the pub, the street smelling like sick, and when Vicky’s gorgeous white boy takes her hand Martha thinks she might prefer taking her chances in the gutter with the sick. Instead, Martha firms her hand in his and lifts her head to the stars.