‘Ugh, I hate her. She’s so dense,’ said Why Bird. She sat back in her chintzy armchair and finished her third glass of wine. It was barely past noon. ‘She’s my best friend.’
Peggy Patch blanched at her passerine friend.
It had been over decade since either of them had been on television, and longer than that since they’d been in front of a camera, and Why Bird had grown fat. A few years ago there would have been pictures in the papers — at least a paragraph on Popbitch — of Why Bird clanking back from the newsagents for the second time that morning with a blue carrier bag, fags and a bottle of wine, feathers a mess.
But not even the tabloids were interested now.
Peggy knew Why Bird needed help. She felt bad that she laughed whenever Poppy referred to their friend as Wino Bird behind her back. Poppy had always had a dark sense of humour, masked by a relentless, almost maniacal optimism.
Why Bird shook the dregs out of the bottom of the bottle. Red wine stained the mouth of her beak.
‘All gone,’ she said. ‘Shall I open another?’
‘Not for me,’ said Peggy, indicating the green juice she had brought with her.
She was a vegan now, after all, and red wine could be tricky.
‘I just don’t know if I can stand another evening of it,’ said Why Bird, pouring herself another glass. ‘She’s delusional. I think she even believes it herself.’
‘Didn’t she have a thing with him back then, though?’ asked Peggy.
Why Bird shrugged, as much as any bird could shrug.
It was Peggy’s flat. Always the sensible one, she’d bought it back when they were doing alright for themselves. She’d let Why Bird take it on when she was having a hard time, told her not to bother with the rent until she got back on her feet.
It had been almost eight years.
Why Bird had always been a hoarder, and the flat was a mess. There were clothes everywhere, hats and wigs that had half-formed costumes over 20 years ago, the occasional piece that might fetch a penny on Ebay after a few rounds in the tumble dryer.
A tatty, rag tag collection of increasingly thread-bare armchairs that Why Bird flapped between during the day to give the impression she’d moved around took up most of the room.
Peggy’s eye was drawn to the shelf in the alcove that needed fixed, warped under the weight of Why Bird’s collection of yellowing annuals.
Peggy realised she was already fixing the place up, in her mind.
At the end of the shelf, a photo of Why Bird, Peggy and Poppy at work. Peggy had barely changed.
This visit was part of her fortnightly routine, checking in on the friend she wanted to help but didn’t know how to, but this time there was an ulterior motive. She had to do it. Had to start charging her, or to kick her out. Peggy’s various business interests — organic soaps and candles, vegan cakes and artisanal breads they delivered to a few local cafes by bike, a coffee stand at the Sunday morning farmers’ market — weren’t doing as well as she would have liked, and her wife had told her to put her foot down.
It had become something of an ultimatum.
Her or me.
‘Who didn’t have a thing with him?’ fussed Why Bird. ‘We were all at it, back then.’
Peggy wasn’t sure why Why Bird included her in these things. Perhaps so she didn’t feel left out, as she had done when they were younger. If she wasn’t tucked up in bed by early evening, she was standing in the corner at parties, afraid to speak to anyone, or else holding back Lizzie’s braids as she vomited into a plant pot. She never could handle her drink, that one.
Peggy was the first to realise Lizzie had an eating disorder.
Always the sensible one.
‘Ugh, here she comes,’ said Why Bird. Her feathers ruffled as she peered over her shoulder out of the window.
Peggy joined her, watched as Poppy got out of a sports car. She was wearing a red Marks & Spencer’s coat Peggy had admired for herself but knew she wouldn’t be able to afford.
Poppy leaned into the car window, gave him a kiss, then tottered towards the door, dizzy and ditzy, giggling and waving as he honked his horn and drove off.
Of course he’d have a sports car.
‘What an arsehole,’ said Why Bird. ‘What a total arsehole.’
Peggy knew she had to tell Why Bird it was time to move on.
But she couldn’t get the words out.
And she was running out of time.
‘Oh, hey, I love this,’ said Poppy, her voice deeper, her whiskers frayed at the ends, but otherwise exactly the same. ‘All us girls, back together. We should have a party, eh. Bit of a celebrashe.’
Peggy was never sure how much of Poppy’s dizziness was an act. Why Bird had always insisted that no one could be that stupid.
Poppy only ever broke character when she and Peggy were alone. That’s when the barbed comments would come out, the mean undertones, always delivered with a smile.
Poppy always landed on her feet. Why Bird had been the longest-running of the three of them, around since the beginning, but Poppy was the most fondly-remembered. That fondness had become a nice little earner on the nostalgia circuit — there had even been talk of Poppy dolls and a line of memorabilia in Claire’s Accessories, before the deal had fallen through — though Poppy still wasn’t making enough to pay rent.
Peggy, of course, had never asked.
‘I have to get going,’ said Peggy.
‘No, no, no,’ said Poppy. ‘Settle down, eh, stay a bit. It’s your flat, after all! Let me make dinner. We never see each other together.’
They did most of their communication by Facebook these days.
Poppy was always out whenever Peggy called, shopping with her girlfriends or visiting with her boyfriends or else what she referred to as ‘meetings’ with a grin that meant you were supposed to be impressed but weren’t supposed to pry.
Peggy sometimes wondered what these ‘meetings’ were about, whether they occurred at all, and where Poppy went when she wasn’t with Why Bird or her boyfriends.
‘You still a vegetarian, eh?’
She said it like it was an insult.
Because it was.
‘That was delicious, thank you, Poppy,’ said Peggy, wiping her mouth with a napkin. It hadn’t been. Cheap pasta in a sugary, watery tomato sauce. Peggy was sure Poppy had thrown a couple of chunks of chicken into it, though she would never ask. Always the sensible one, she didn’t want to rock the boat.
‘Mmm,’ grunted Why Bird, non-committal, as she pushed herself up onto her feet and flapped over to the drinks cabinet. ‘Night cap?’
It was half past four.
‘No thanks,’ said Peggy. ‘I better get going.’
‘Go on, just one,’ said Poppy, pulling two greasy-looking wine glasses from the kitchen cupboard. ‘For the road, eh?’
‘I’m a vegan,’ muttered Peggy, but no one heard. No one was listening.
‘Oh, hey, this is nice, isn’t it?’ said Poppy. ‘Just us girls.’
‘Just us girls,’ said Why Bird, tipping back too much wine. It ran down her chin, staining her yellow and green breast red. She didn’t seem to notice.
‘Hey, we should get back together,’ said Poppy. ‘Lot of money in nostalgia, these days.’
The idea had been floated before. Poppy had always seen it as the solution to their problems.
Peggy knew Poppy saw her as the barrier. She’d always been against it.
She’d always said that wasn’t her any more, that she’d moved on. And she had. But it was more than that. It was the intrusion. The questions, about her, about her wife, about what she’d done since the show went off air. The thought of taking Why Bird out on the road, rattling with booze and hen-pecking anyone who got too close for comfort.
And, no matter how much she needed the money, it was the thought of being stuck on the bus with Poppy for another round.
‘No thanks,’ said Peggy, quietly.
‘See? She doesn’t want to do it,’ said Why Bird, twisting her head to face Poppy. It was a look that said, I told you so. Peggy knew they talked about it when she wasn’t there, knew they talked about her. She wondered what they said, but put the thought out of mind.
She’d bet it wasn’t kind.
‘So,’ said Poppy, looking eagerly at Peggy. ‘How’s married life, eh?’
Why Bird’s head twisted around to face Peggy, now. She blinked, heavily.
Peggy knew it was coming. It was like Poppy could read her mind. Whatever she didn’t want to talk about, Poppy would bring it up.
Truth told, married life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and things hadn’t been the same since the show went off air, since the repeat fees had dried up. A string of failed and failing businesses followed, and they were only just scraping together enough to keep their heads above water.
Money wasn’t the only thing that was in short supply.
Peggy would have called it lesbian bed death, if her wife didn’t screw her face up at the term ‘lesbian’.
‘I don’t like labels,’ she would say.
‘Ironic that you make preserves, eh?’ Peggy joked.
Her wife didn’t laugh.
When marriage equality came along, it was a fight they both believed in, and they threw themselves into campaigning with a gusto neither of them recognised. It gave them a focus, a purpose, something to do together. The protests, the leafleting.
Her wife had even made a video.
On the night they made the announcement, the sex was better than either of them had ever had. A week later, they rushed up the aisle, drunk on equality.
But the stress was starting to take it’s toll, and they’d settled into a routine, bickering over which bills had been paid and complaining that they could never afford so much as a weekend away.
Her wife deserved better. And so did she.
Peggy had to start charging Why Bird for the flat.
Her or me.
‘Why. I need to talk to you,’ said Peggy. ‘Both of you, actually.’
‘Why?’ said Why Bird, feathers ruffled.
There had always been an edge to Why Bird, especially since they had gone off the air, and Peggy had always sensed an unease with their arrangement. It was like she knew it was coming, like she’d always known it was coming. ‘What is it?’
‘Here, she’s not messing you about it, is she?’ said Poppy, her voice a sly whine. ‘That wife of yours. Because we’ll sort her out for you.’
‘What?’ said Peggy, mind reeling. She was used to this, but it always caught her off guard. Poppy making assumptions. ‘No. No. God, no. Of course not. It’s great. Things are great.’
‘Good,’ said Why Bird, head still turned in Peggy’s direction, beak still ripe with red wine. She was intense.
She had always been intense.
‘Is it not being on the telly, then?’ said Poppy. ‘Because we all get like that, sometimes. Comebacks are hard. You’ve just got to get on with it.’
‘It’s not that, either,’ said Peggy.
‘Then what is it?’ asked Poppy. ‘Spit it out, eh.’
‘I’m trying!’ said Peggy, tiny voice rising to a squeak.
‘Eh, well. No need to shout,’ muttered Poppy, loud enough for everyone to hear.
‘I need to start charging you,’ said Peggy. ‘Rent, I mean. I need to start charging you rent. To live here.’
She sighed, her shoulders slouched. But the worst part was over.
Or so she thought.
Why Bird’s feathers ruffled. She hicoughed, wiped her red wine beak with the back of her wing.
‘Why?’ she asked.
‘It’s just, things have been difficult, recently,’ said Peggy, her voice tiny again.
She took a sip of wine. Cheap, vinegary wine. Tesco’s own.
‘We’re struggling. With money, I mean,’ said Peggy. ‘I mean, things aren’t going as well as they could be. Should be.’
‘Why?’ said Why Bird, blinking heavily again.
She was drunk.
‘I don’t know,’ Peggy stammered.
A long silence followed.
‘This is typical, this is,’ said Poppy, piercing.
‘You,’ said Poppy. ‘You’re selfish. You know Why’s been struggling.’
‘I’ve been struggling!’ said Peggy. She meant it to be forceful. It came out as a whine.
‘Why?’ said Why Bird.
’Eh, I don’t need this,’ said Poppy.
Peggy knew she should.
Poppy grabbed her Marks & Spencer’s coat off the back of the chair and stormed out.
Why Bird’s feathers rustled as the door slammed.
‘Look what you’ve done,’ she said to Peggy.
Peggy saw herself out.
As she unchained her bike from the garden fence, she caught sight of something in the living room window.
She looked up, just as Why Bird snapped her head around to stare at her, dark red stains on her beak.