What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Philippa Dickson (University of New England, Australia)
‘Mum, can you get that? Mu-um?’
She must be out. I rise from the couch, leaving an imprint. It’s the first week of summer holidays. The portable air conditioner is running full ball, and I’m binge watching Game of Thrones. The bell rings again. Geez, all right already, I’m coming!
I’m dumbfounded to find Veronica Johnston standing on our front veranda.
‘Um… Veronica, what can I do for you?’ I ask.
‘People call me Becks now, because I look like Victoria Beckham.’
With her bleached blonde hair, thick make up and puppy fat, someone is obviously having her on. She’s oblivious.
‘Okay. What can I do for you, Becks?’
‘My mum wanted me to come and hang with you. She threatened to take my phone away if I didn’t. I dunno, it must be some kind of punishment or something. She said she’d spoken to your mum about it?’
I tense at the insult. Thanks, Mum. ‘Not that I’m aware of.’ I want to tell her to leave. Instead, I hear myself utter the words, ‘Come in.’
‘I’m wearing my bathers so we can go for a swim,’ she says as she barges past me.
I watch her walk through the house. She doesn’t look back. ‘I’ll go and put my bathers on and grab us some towels. You know where the pool is,’ I say, mostly to myself.
It is no secret that Becks has fallen out with her group of friends, the ones she dumped me for two years ago, when she decided to become cool. The reason for their falling out was unclear. I’d heard a rumour that she slept with Stephanie March’s boyfriend, come to school drunk the next day, and tried to get her homeroom to sing ‘Love is a Battlefield.’ I was sceptical; it sounded like someone’s overactive imagination.
By the time I reach the back door, Veronica has already opened the safety gate and dive bombed into the deep end of the pool. As her head bobs to the surface she yells, ‘C’mon, slow coach, jump in already.’
I drop the towels over the back of a pool chair and do a surface dive into the shallow end, the kind of dive Veronica had never been able to master. She always ended up doing a belly flop instead. I glide under the water, and my lungs begin to tighten. I touch the wall at the deep end and come up for air.
‘Show off’, she says cheerfully from atop the inflatable black swan. I realise that in the space of ten minutes, and after a two-year absence, Veronica has reinstated herself in my life. Only I’m not sure my life is big enough to include Veronica “Becks” Johnston in it. I’m not sure I want the drama.
I climb up on the poolside banana lounge and lie down, closing my eyes against the harsh summer sun, and let my left-hand trail in the water.
‘Do you ever feel like just packing your bags and nicking off?’ The sound of Beck’s voice brings me out of my daydreams.
‘Not really; I mean school’s school, but overall, I have it pretty good with my family.’
‘You are such a geek,’ she said irritably. ‘What were you doing before I came over?’
I am annoyed, but decide to leave it be. Thoughtless jabs are part of the cost of Veronica’s friendship, and I don’t really feel like I have many alternatives in the friends’ department. My options are my much younger siblings and Stephanie, my one school friend, who makes a block of wood look like it has a personality. All of them run a distant second to the vibrant friendship I once shared with Veronica. Without her, my life had become black and white; now, it held the promise of colour. But I didn’t know if I could trust her.
Veronica and I been friends since kindergarten. We were at school together all day, then spent every afternoon together. We became so enmeshed in each other’s lives it was like having a twin sister. Veronica was the dominant one. In kinder and primary school if I was asked a question, she would jump in and answer for me. When I was asked to do something, she’d race to do it first. By late primary school I was practically mute, except when I was with my family, Veronica, or her family. Our sixth-grade teacher became worried about me missing out on ‘learning opportunities’ and called our parents in for a talk. When they came home, Mum, visibly upset, pulled me aside and asked me if Veronica bossed me around. I shook my head, ‘No, she just does things for me that I don’t like doing. Like talking in front of class.’
My mum responded by having us separated in high school. The night before high school started, I lied in the dark and cried. I was enraged with Mum and freaking out about facing the next day alone. It turned out alright. I started learning how to speak up, and started making friends. But none were like Becks.
‘What were you doing before I came over?’ she repeats.
‘I was watching Game of Thrones. ’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘It just shows you’re a complete geek,’ Becks says with a laugh.
My feathers are ruffled again. She spoke without malice and she could still get under my skin. Why do I care so much about what she thinks?
Not long after that Mum arrives home. She comes down to the pool area and leans on the fence.
‘Hi, Veronica, it’s good to see you. How are you feeling?’ I notice an inflection in Mum’s tone, as though Becks has been sick.
‘Fine, thanks. How are you?’
‘Oh, you know, busy, busy. I’ll leave you both to it. Sally, help yourselves to what’s in the fridge when you get hungry.’
As soon as Mum leaves, Becks wants to raid the fridge. We wrap ourselves in towels and head for the kitchen. While she is taking the ice cream out of the freezer, I notice nasty looking cuts on her wrists. The scars look like they run deep. My horror must show on my face.
‘They’re nothing, alright?’ she says angrily. ‘I get lectures from everyone who sees them. Just shut up about it.’
With that she turns back to the fridge and continues her rummaging. This was what it was like to hang out with the old Veronica. I was always on eggshells.
‘How good is this?’ says Becks as she sits opposite me at the dining room table, eating our finds. “I’ve missed your house. It’s always so well stocked!”
‘Nice, Becks. You’ve missed the food, but you haven’t missed me.’
‘That’s not what I meant and you know it. Stop fishing for compliments,’ she says smiling and I smile back. This was the flipside of the old Veronica. The ease, the charm, the good days.
She leaves after that, with no word of if or when I’d see her again.
That night, I ask Mum why Becks had come over.
‘What arrangement did you make with Becks’ mum?’
‘Becks didn’t tell you?’ she asks.
‘No, that’s why I’m asking you,’ I say pointedly.
‘Her mood swings are getting more and more severe.’
‘What do you mean mood swings?’
‘Sorry, she was meant to tell you herself.’
Frustrated, I demand, ‘Tell me what?’
‘I can’t say. Her mum made it very clear that it was important for her to tell you. It’ll help re-establish her sense of agency.’
‘So, what am I in all of this, some kind of pawn?’
‘No, of course not. If you don’t want to hang out with her you don’t have to. I just thought it would be nice for you to have a friend over.’
Infuriated at my mother, Becks, and everyone, I go to my bedroom.
Becks arrives the next day, and then the next, and every day for the next week. She is not forthcoming about the mood swings. But we have fun: we eat hot chips in the local park on top of a climbing frame. She asks me questions about my non-existent boyfriend from the latest Cleo magazine. She rolls around laughing as my answers become more and more ridiculous. We go to the cinema, pay to see Instant Family, then sneak into an R-rated movie instead. She tells me all the gossip from school, which helps me feel like I belong, if only vicariously.
It’s during the middle of the second week that she says, ‘I’ll bring round some ganja and rum for tomorrow?’ I knew the simple fun wouldn’t last, I think to myself. How could I let myself get so comfortable?
‘Please don’t, my parents will smell it from a mile away.’
The next day comes and she turns up drunk and smelling of marijuana.
‘Hi, Sal,’ she says when I open the door, giving me a hug for the first time since we’ve reconnected.
‘Um, are you high, Becks? And drunk?’
‘Moi?’ says Becks, theatrically pointing at herself. ‘Can I come in, or what?’ she says, bowling past me. I follow her inside and towards the pool, feeling like a doormat.
‘I’ve invited over some guys I met down the street; they should be here in the next half hour or so. Derek and J-someone. James, John, Jonah, something like that, and Paul.’ I feel a combination of shock and outrage. How could she ignore what I told her yesterday and on top of that invite strangers to my house?
‘Veronica!’ I exclaim. She gives me a look of undisguised contempt, as though I’m the most uncool person who ever lived.
I take a step back and try and reason with her, ‘I will get in a lot of trouble for this. I’m not allowed to drink or have guys over when my parents aren’t home.’
‘Sal, chill. They’ll be gone before your mum and dad get home from work. What do you think of my new bikini?’ she says, abruptly starting to undress. ‘You wanna know how I got it?’ I was pretty sure I didn’t. ‘Same as the booze I have in my bag – with a five-finger discount! I can get you a bikini too if you’d like.’
I don’t say anything, just watch as she runs and dive bombs into the pool. When she comes up for air, she swims lazily towards the banana lounge, clumsily climbing on board.
The bell rings.
‘Shit, that’ll be them. Can you let them in?’ She asks as she flicks her hair out of her face and arranges herself on the banana lounge.
‘No, you go and send them away.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’ll go,’ she says.
Realising she’ll just let them in, I tell her I’ll answer the door.
I am convinced that I will tell the guys there has been a mistake, and they need to leave now because my parents are home and they don’t allow me to have guys over. I even practice the words I’ll say in my head, Sorry guys, there’s been a mistake, you can’t come in, my parents are home.
What actually happens is that the three boys introduce themselves, and despite myself, I move aside and invite them in.
They strip down to their board shorts and jump into the pool. Within minutes they’re tossing the beach ball to each other while Becks draws attention to herself by screaming every time, she gets splashed. My panic turns to anger and starts to mount. I’m the only one left clothed. I sit on the edge of a pool chair my head in my hands, wondering how the fuck I am going to get these people out of here before my parents get home.
Becks gets out of the pool and produces a bottle of rum from her bag. Getting back into the shallow end of the pool, the boys gravitate towards her, and each takes swigs from the bottle. Robert holds out the rum to me. I shake my head and he shrugs before passing the bottle on to Becks.
‘Wowser!’ she says with a giggle. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll drink enough for both of us.’ Her words slur.
Between them, they finish the bottle. I’m worried one of them is going to drown and it will be my fault.
‘Are you guys hungry?’ I say enticingly. ‘You can eat whatever you can find in the kitchen.’ They hurry out of the pool. Seething, I slowly follow, hoping the worst is over.
When I get inside, the guys are digging into some salt and vinegar chips they found in the pantry. Becks is nowhere to be seen. Worried I’ll find Becks unconscious in her own vomit, I ask Robert and Paul where she is. It’s then I realise Derek is also missing.
‘Dunno,’ says Paul sniggering, his hand still in the bag of potato chips.
I quickly go to my bedroom. The door is closed, and I hear grunting sounds. Oh, shit! She’s throwing up in my room! I rush and open the door.
Derek is lying on his back on my bed, his board shorts on the ground beside him. Becks is on top of him, moving up and down, her bikini draped on the bed head.
‘What the fuck?’ shrieks Becks, a look of indignation on her face as she looks over at me.
This is the limit.
‘Get the fuck out,’ I scream. ‘Get the fuck out of my house.’
The rage in my voice leaves no room for argument. They fumble to get their bathers on. I follow them down the hall and into the kitchen like an avenging angel and repeat the sentiment to Robert and Paul.
‘All of you out, now,’ I say pointing to the door.
Becks is the last person out the door. She turns to me and says with venom, ‘You always were a prude.’ I fight the urge to slap her across the face.
‘Veronica, or Becks, or whatever you want to be called, fuck off, and don’t come back!’
I shut the door. My hands are shaking. I go to the lounge and pace back and forth. I go outside to the pool, find the rum, and tip what remains down the toilet. I bury the bottle in the recycle bin, so Mum and Dad won’t find it. Then I go back to the T.V. and watch an episode of Game of Thrones. What the fuck would she know anyway!
She doesn’t come over the next day, or the next. On the third day. Mum asks where she is.
‘I don’t know, and I don’t care.’
‘Did something happen between you two?’
I sigh, ‘No, Becks was just being Becks.’
‘Well it would be good if you could remain friends. She is the oldest one you have.’
My anger spikes. ‘If it matters so much to you, why don’t you be her fucking friend?’ I throw my book on the floor and go to my room. I’ve never sworn at my mum before. Amazingly, she doesn’t come after me, doesn’t rebuke or ground me. I find out later she’s rung Beck’s mum to get the other side of the story. She doesn’t ask about Becks after that.
The rest of the summer plays out with me watching Game of Thrones, taking dips in the pool, and reading. My time is either spent alone or with my younger siblings. I look forward to the distraction that school will offer. I dread having to see Becks in the halls, surrounded by friends. Strangely enough, it doesn’t happen. She is no longer to be seen with the Queen and worker bees. No one mentions her name, and I don’t hear any further rumours. It’s like she’s disappeared.
Easter Saturday, I’m home babysitting my younger brother and sister when the doorbell rings.
‘Does one of you want to get that?’ I ask the two bowed heads, studying a half-made puzzle. Both heads shake.
The bell rings again, ‘Fine, I’ll get it,’ I say.
When I open the door, Becks is standing there. She looks different: solemn, less make-up.
‘Hi, Sal,’ she says contritely.
‘Hi, Becks,’ I say coldly.
‘Please, don’t call me that. Call me Veronica.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Can I come inside? I really want to try and clear some things up.’
I take a moment, watching her fidget, then I tentatively agree. She waits for me to go in first, then follows me inside.
She sits up straight in her chair, as though she’s at a job interview. I wait for her to start speaking; when she does, her speech is slow and measured.
‘I have bipolar disorder.’
‘So?’ I say, unforgivingly.
‘You know what it is?’
‘Kind of,’ I say. ‘But it doesn’t make anything you did okay. You just use me and I’m sick of it.’
‘Please, let me explain what bipolar disorder is. I’m not using it as an excuse.’
I nod once and she starts talking.
‘It means I have severe mood swings. When I’m high, it’s called a manic episode; I become hyperactive, I lose my judgment, I have an increased sex drive.’ She looks down. ‘I do really stupid shit and I feel like it’s normal. The weed, the alcohol and those random guys, that was me on a manic high.
‘The flipside is the depression. Then, I just feel shit. Everything feels black and I want to curl up in bed and never wake up. It was during a depressive episode I did this,’ she holds out her wrists showing me the scars.
Understanding flickers within me. I don’t want to understand. I want to stay mad. ‘Is there anything that can be done?’
‘There’s medication for it, Lithium. And I have therapy once a week. Though it will be less often in the future.’
‘And it’s working?’
‘It is now that I’m actually taking the Lithium and going to therapy. I’ll keep on doing both this time. I was told a couple of years ago that I had bipolar. I didn’t believe them. Do you know how weird it is to feel like you’re acting perfectly sane, and all the while you’re being told you’re crazy? So, I didn’t take the medication.’
‘What made you change your mind?’
‘What happened the last time I was here. The boys and stuff. I thought what I was doing was totally fine. But after, I couldn’t stop thinking about how angry you were. I mean, you’re usually so reserved.’
‘You really pissed me off,’ I say honestly, ‘I’m still pissed off about it.’
Veronica raises her arms in surrender, ‘I know, I know, I get it now.’
She’s silent for a moment before she continues, ‘I know I have a long way to go before you trust me again. But do you think you might want to hang out with me some time?’
‘I’m not going to be your doormat anymore.’
‘I know. I promise it won’t be like that anymore. I’ll be different.’
I believe her. The thing about Veronica is even when she was being crazy, even when she was being mean, I knew she wasn’t acting out of malice. ‘Not too different, I hope.’
‘Course not. It’ll just be more of the good parts and less of the crazy bits. Veronica 2.0.’
I can’t help but smile at her characterisation, ‘What are you doing now?’
Philippa Dickson is currently a PhD candidate at the University of New England in Armidale. She is writing her first novel, Burning Bright, about mother-child sexual abuse.