The back room of the church is echoey and cold. It’s dusty as well, and I curl my lips up as I wave a hand in front of my face to keep the dust away. This is the worst place for a warm-up, and in any other circumstances I would be demanding to talk to the manager.
“It’ll have to do,” I say.
Isabella comes in behind me and looks round. “It’s fine. Thank you.” Her voice is duller than I remember, and so flat that I worry about how well she’ll do today.
The door clicks shut and we’re left alone.
“Better warm-up,” I say and start jumping on the spot. Anything to keep the chill of the room out.
“Now I just need to remember how to do a warm-up,” Isabella says with a chuckle.
“Oh come on. We did so many of them. Remember that summer when we got the gig at the theatre? Every night for three months. We were wrecked by the end of it.” I smile at the memory as I shake my arms out. “It was fun though. Sleeping round your house every night cos my mum didn’t believe I was working and wouldn’t let me have a key.”
“All those nights of doing them and now my mind’s gone blank.” With a sigh that kicks up a cloud of dust Isabella swings her arms. “You were always better at them. You were always better at the whole thing.”
I give a bark of laughter, before clearing my throat. “You liar. I was leagues behind you when we started. You taught me everything I know. You could’ve been amazing if you’d just stuck with it.”
Rubbing her arms, Isabella’s lost in her thoughts. “Can’t remember a single warm-up.”
“Oh come on, Izzy. You’re sharper than this.” Then I look at her sunken eyes, the sharp lines of her cheeks, the tremor in her hands. “You were, at least. Okay, first step, loosen up.” I shake my arms out some more and start jumping again, but Isabella isn’t looking.
“Everything just feels so heavy.”
“That’s because you haven’t started warming-up. And of all the things that you’ve done to yourself, getting heavy isn’t one of them.”
“No. I can do this. I’ve got this.” Isabella shakes her shoulders out and rolls her neck, leaving me to watch the heavy contours of her collarbone over the top of her dress.
“Well, it’s a start. Then the face, loosen the muscles out.” I blow raspberries and trill my lips, letting everything warm up. After falling still for a second Isabella slaps herself in the face. “No! That… that won’t help.” She does it again anyway, before shaking her head viciously. Her bob haircut swings from side to side, catching cobwebs. “You used to have such lovely hair. I spent hours brushing it and playing with it while we practised, do you remember?”
Pressing her fingers to her forehead Isabella wobbles on the spot. Then she notices the dust in her hair and starts picking it out. “This isn’t the hairstyle I would have wanted for today.”
“Well you should’ve thought of that before you chopped it all off, shouldn’t you?” I snap. As she moves her arm though I spot tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s not like you thought today would happen any time soon.”
“Okay. Warm-ups. Scales. Sing some scales.”
“I mean, you’ve not really finished warming your body up. Or, you know, started warming your body up.” It’s no good though; Isabella is already running through her scales. With a shrug I join in, trying to pitch my voice to hers. Every third note or so is a dud, making me wince, and by the time she’s done I’ve dug my fingernails into my palms so hard I’ve left marks. “That’s fine,” I say nonetheless. “I’m sure you’ll make it work.”
“Slides next,” she says. I can see everything coming back to her. Her eyes are focusing more, although they’re still red and raw. Every now and then a smile creeps onto the corner of her lips, despite everything.
The passion is still there at least. After all she’s been through, all that’s gone wrong for her, she can still see the joy she used to get from this. Perhaps… well, I’m not going to say ‘perhaps this was a good thing’, but perhaps it won’t be all doom and gloom.
During the slides – where she picks a note and varies its pitch higher and lower – she gets more of her voice back, and with it comes her confidence. I can’t help it, I have to join in. When she stops to get her breath back, much sooner than I need to, I grin at her.
“It’s nice doing this again,” I say. “Even just doing the warm-ups. All those times that we did it out of habit, but now just warming-up with you is enjoyable. Pity it never would’ve paid our bills though, hey?” I laugh and rub the back of my neck, but Isabella doesn’t look up from her hands. I sigh. “I wish you’d talk to me.”
A single tear falls from Isabella’s eye. All my life I’ve been a talker, but now I don’t know what to say. This is the first time I’ve been lost for words around her.
“I’m sorry,” I say at last. My voice breaks, despite all the warm-ups, but I carry on. This is the only chance I’ll get to say this after all. “I’m sorry for everything I said the last time we met. That wasn’t fair. I… I know I was right, to an extent. What you were doing wasn’t good, you have to see that now. I mean, look at you. You’re a mess, Izzy. But I could’ve said it better. I didn’t have to be so mean about it. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Isabella takes a deep breath and I wait for her forgiveness. Before she can say anything there’s a knock at the door. She digs the heels of her hand into her eyes, getting mascara on her palms. “Yes?” she calls when she’s collected herself.
A voice replies through the door, the steady measured voice of a professional doing an unpleasant job. “Everyone’s seated. Do you need more time, or do you want to come and join us?”
“I’m coming. Thank you.” Isabella rolls her neck and starts to leave.
I shrug. “Might as well come. It’s not like there’s anything to do here.”
Isabella opens the door and heads out, and I duck out behind her, glad to leave the dreary room behind. There are a few short corridors, then we’re back out into the main hall of the church. About half the pews are full and I glare at the empty ones. Surely more people than that should have turned up?
The official gestures for Isabella to take a seat before he turns to leave the church. She picks a space a row behind everyone else, and some of them turn to look at her. None of them come over and comfort her, or even smile at her. The sudden whispered conversations are impossible to ignore.
“What the hell?” I mutter with a glare. Then I remember where we are and cast a look skywards. “Oops. Sorry.”
Given no one else is going to come and join Isabella I slip past her and sit next to her. I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to be doing right now anyway.
Music starts up from a scratchy sound system hidden somewhere in the rafters and I wince. It’s classical, one of those pieces that you recognise but never learn the name of. It is also definitely not a piece I would’ve chosen. My mother’s choice, I would guess, and my father wouldn’t be bothered to argue with it.
The procession starts coming down the aisle and everyone stands. I stand as well, if only so I don’t have to look at everyone’s backsides, but I don’t watch the march. I don’t care what’s going on there. Instead I spend the time checking out what everyone’s wearing. ‘Sunday best’ all round, though very few of them are church regulars. Half with hats as well. I hate hats, but that’s mostly because they never look good on me. We had a gig once where they wanted us to wear bonnets, and I remember Isabella laughing the second I put mine on.
I lean over to whisper to her, to see if she remembers that as well. Her shoulders are shaking and her face is hidden by tissues however. I guess now isn’t the time for that.
The procession makes it to the front of the church and everyone sits down. I stand for a moment longer. My body itches to make a scene. To cry out and wail, to shout and scream, to do something other than just sit here like another one of the crowd. With a huff I drop into the seat and let the words wash over me.
It’s awkward, not going to lie. Some of the words are honest, but a lot of them feel too rose-tinted. Is this what people really thought and felt, or is this just what they think needs to be said? By the end I’m drumming my fingers on my knees and staring round the church like I’ve never seen one before.
After lots of droning on, the official gets up again. “And now,” he says, “Isabella would like to say something.”
I lean over to her with a grin. “Knock ‘em dead.” I hiss as soon as I realise what I’ve said. It used to be our good luck charm but now… Well, poor taste, to say the least.
Isabella walks up the aisle with her head high. It doesn’t stop anyone from eyeing her up and down though, and more than one mouth dips in disapproval. At the end she turns to face them, clears her throat and swallows heavily before starting.
“I know a lot of you don’t think I should be here today,” she says. “I know a lot of you think badly of me. But today isn’t about me. It’s about my best friend, Samantha. I want to start by thanking her family for inviting me.” Isabella nods over at my family, all crowded on the front rows. No one nods back though. They’re all too lost in their thoughts and their tissues.
“Samantha.” Isabella says and I jump. I think she’s talking to me and I smile, until she carries on talking to the room. “Samantha was my best friend. She made my world so bright, and she gave me the greatest chances of my life. The fact I threw those chances away, and the fact I did what I did is my own fault. I could’ve asked for no better friend by me than Samantha.”
“You really could have,” I mutter to myself at the back of the hall. “A better friend wouldn’t have let you go so easily.”
“I wish that I’d listened to Samantha more, and today I want to say thank you.” Isabella turns to the box next to her. “Thank you, Samantha. For being the best friend I could’ve asked for, and the most wonderful person I’ve ever known.”
My eyes fall to the box for a split second, but the sight chills me too much. I look away again, and by the time I look back Isabella has wiped her face, smearing mascara down her cheeks.
“As everyone knows,” Isabella says, “Samantha loved singing. She and I were stage partners for years, and turning my back on that was the worst mistake of my life.”
That admission makes my stomach churn. Things would be so different if she hadn’t walked away.
We would’ve kept talking.
She wouldn’t be an outcast from our community.
She would – probably – be lying next to me.
Perhaps it isn’t as clear cut as what is best and what isn’t.
Isabella folds up her notes and looks out across the room. “In honour of everything Samantha and I did, her mother has asked me to sing today. I’ll confess now, it’s been a few years since I did this, and Samantha was always better than me–”
“Still lying,” I mutter.
“–but… well. It’s the only way I can think of to send her off properly.”
Isabella takes a step back, so she can sing to the box as well as the rest of the room and nods at the official standing off to the side. The ancient sound system kicks in and my breath catches. I know those chords, know them like the back of my hand.
This was our song. We made a pact to never perform it, because we didn’t want to show that much of ourselves to people. It was the song of our lives, all those years ago. Teenagers hollering into our hairbrushes, oblivious to half the lyrics, determined to find fame and fortune because we thought that was all that mattered.
Twenty one seconds in the words start, and Isabella mumbles out the words to Fast Car. She makes it through the first chorus with tears in her throat, but on the second she finds her stride. Every line comes out stronger. For all the damage she’s done to herself and her voice over the years, singing our song brings out all her passion again.
When she hits the chorus I join in. Standing at the far end of the aisle I sing to Isabella, while she sings to me and my box. We’ve sung it better before, but we’ve never sung it so honestly.
The song ends and my face is soaked with tears. The crowd stands and applauds, quiet, respectful clapping rather than the cheers we always wanted. This performance wasn’t for them though. This was for us.
I watch Isabella as she takes it in. There’s a light in her eyes again. Just remember this, my dearest friend. Come back to what makes you happy. Come back to what makes you you.
She looks down the aisle and her mouth goes wide. I swear she sees me, but then she blinks and I must be gone again. No matter. We got our last performance, and that’s all I wanted.
I close my eyes and let myself go.
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When it dawned on me, I got chills.