The End

“Do something incredible” I looked up from my phone at the sound of her voice “anything in particular?” I asked, mock in my voice. “Anything” she confirmed seriously “it doesn’t have to be big or incredible to anyone else, just as long as it’s incredible to you” she smiled at me. “Just think Becs, if we both did one incredible thing a year, and we started now, by the time you’re 60 and I’m 90, we’ll both have done 30 incredible things each. And by the time you’re 90, you’ll have done 60 incredible things! Think about that! A lifetime of being incredible” she took a sip of wine and looked at me over the rim, “ok” I answered.

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‘Can she do it? I don’t think the old bags got it in her! She’s going to stumble at the final hurdle! No, no she’s trying! She might have this! She’s going for the zip! She’s got it! She’s got it! The Brit has just made history! She has zipped the bag shut and the crowd has gone wild! We have a new British hero folks, the first person to ever zip an overstuffed bag shut! We’ll I don’t think we’ll ever see such an achievement in our lifetime again!‘ I was spread eagled across my suitcase, sweating and swearing at the challenge to fit a years worth of travel into one bag.

Blonde and Geo had departed a week earlier; with a goodbye meal we toasted cocktails to the trip and tried to laugh off the fights. They left the next morning for Costa Rica before Geo returned home and Blonde went on to Europe to visit family. We made promises to meet up in London but the approaching winter was too cold for her summer blood, she cut the trip off early and returned to Oz before we were able to reconnect.

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As soon as the door clicked shut a wave of nostalgia washed over me, the room felt suddenly very empty, I missed them instantly. Alaska however bounced up and down on the bed “they’re gone!! Now it’s just you and me! You and me. You and meeeee” he burst into song and jumped to the floor, trying to spin me into a kiss which I rejected, unaffected he danced around the room.

We moved back up the coast to a hotel where we spent our final week in a tango of affection and fire, flaring up before finding tender moments to promise each other the future was possible.

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On our final day, Alaska left for the airport with the waking day, a sleepy departure full of hugs and whispered ‘I love yous’. And with the click of another door, he too was gone, leaving me alone once again. He flew to the UK for Christmas however unbeknown to me, he’d already slept with a girl back home by then. We broke up pretty soon after that.
I sat in Cancun airport a few hours after Alaska had flown out; plugged into a pillar, I watched the world go by from kneecap level, a sea of flip flops, wheelie bags and whining kids. I didn’t know what I was going home to, all I knew was that there was no home to return. No one would be at the airport and I was under no illusions that there was some fairy tale happy ending waiting for me.

What I did know however, was that although the world hadn’t changed, I had. Before this all began, I’d never done anything on my own, never travelled alone. I relied on someone to hold my hand through everything. I avoided confrontation, convinced if I said ‘no’ people might not like me and what could possibly be worse that being liked?

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The fear of loneliness hovered in my mind for just a moment on that airport floor, but it didn’t hold the same power it once had. I’d see the Facebook posts of parties, the groups of people giggling over lunch, couples squishing their faces together in pictures, family picnics, holidays; on and on it went and with it, I’d compare, always coming up short, feeling much worse for it. The truth was, everyone has those things, but those moments are only a snapshot, behind them lies all the insecurity, despair, heartache, frustrations and loneliness that make up being human. I wasn’t adrift from the rest of society, I just couldn’t see through the fog to realise we all feel alone sometimes and what’s more, that’s perfectly normal.

I stepped off the plane to the grey skies of Britain. There is was, exactly two years to the day of her death, the entire grief cycle having spun its course. Two years sounded like an awfully long time to the rest of the world, for me it was but a blink of the eye. Just because time has passed and it gets easier to breath, doesn’t mean the pain clears, I’m not sure it ever will but you learn to live with it. It changes you that kind of pain, making you question things, things that were lost like boyfriends and friendships, dignity and confidence. It makes you lash out and act like a jerk at times in unexplainable outbursts that you’d like to be forgiven for.

But through it all, you learn and grow and hope that somewhere your mother will be proud of you. After all, you are your mothers daughter.

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I’d love to say I walked through those airport doors with my head held high, but this is real life and it was raining. I sat on the floor, jet lagged and cold, waiting an hour for the taxi I’d luxuriously booked as the last treat to end my trip with.

According to the psychologists, grief takes two years to get over. I don’t believe you ever truly get over the loss, but the waves get more manageable and those intense emotions aren’t so all consuming as they once were. For awhile I walked around London like a ghost in the background of other peoples happy lives, unsure of my own footing, the London life I’d once inhabited having died with my mother.

My mother and I arrived in this world with the beginning of spring, she left at the end of a September, never a fan of the cold, preferring to burn out with the summer. After my return to England, through the bitter adjustment of winter, finally the leaves began to bud and with it, little by little whispers grew louder, confidence returned and happiness started to warm my edges once again.

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I’d been fighting myself for so long, this journey was never really about my mother, it was about myself, about accepting who I was for every hormonal, difficult, embarrassing flaw and accepting that. I wasn’t perfect but then no one but myself ever said I had to be. And I was finally ok, being the multilayed, pain in the arse but mildly amicable person I was.

I will always mourn for my mother, I’ll crave for the relationship we had and the one I’ll never know. For the moments we won’t share, the grandchilden she’ll never know, I’ll look at the person walking me down the aisle and just for a moment I’ll feel a lump in my throat. I won’t know who to call in the middle of the night when things go wrong. I will miss her forever but that’s ok too because she taught me to face the storm and to trust myself. It might have taken a trip around the globe, Santa Claus and perhaps one or two meltdowns but I got there eventually.

My mother always said people never know how to end well. Perhaps that’s because stories never truly end, strong characters will always live on in our hearts. And after all, down the rabbit’s hole, at the back of the wardrobe, through the platform, after the second star on the right or at the end of a kites tail,…there is always another adventure just waiting to be had.

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Mexico and the turtle

It was a three hour bus ride up the Mexican coast, Blonde was dozing in the seat opposite, Geo would be joining us the next day having messed up his flight bookings from Cuba and Alaska and I were leaning against one another. Alaska leaned in, pulling a headphone pod from my ear “our raccoon will be called Franklin” he smiled and turned back to the sunset beyond the window. I pressed my mouth close to his ear “no raccoon. A dog and I’m naming it!”.

He laughed “no, raccoon first, dog second. Franklin will be awesome! Especially when I dress him in a tux” he followed up his statement with noises “thrttttt” which sounded like a chirping bird despite his assurances they were entirely raccoon.

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“I am not staying here!” I snapped. The taxi from the bus terminal had dropped us off in a run down street in the back of Tulum. No one answered the door, it was dark and the mosquitoes had found me. I wrapped myself in whatever layers I could but they buried into my skin regardless, by the morning I’d have forty swollen bites to scratch.

‘I’m not staying here!’ I moaned internally once we eventually gained access ‘There is one lumpy bed and an old sofa. In the same room! For all four of us to share! The air conditioning is one tiny fan that shakes in the ceiling, squealing with every rotation and threatening to fly off at any second to decapitate us! The fridge doesn’t work, the freezer is about one degree cooler than the non functioning fridge. The living room is an oven, there are ants everywhere and OH MY GOD! WHAT WAS THAT! WAS THAT, WAS THAT A COCKROACH!!!! AGGGHHHHH I’M NOT STAYING HERE!!!! And we only have one key for four people! So we either stay in or all go out together. So much for space!’ I debated, trying to get the front door to shut, only to discover the net shutter was torn to shreds, allowing more mosquitoes to come feast on my arms.

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“Who booked this?!” I spun around to face Blonde and Alaska. “Geo and I did” Blonde determined. “Why?” I questioned, there had been so many options, places with sea views, balconies, private swimming pools, two beds! And all the prices were reasonable. “Because it had two bikes available for guests to use. Geo and I thought we might do some cycling” Blonde answered.

I sighed, dragging my hands down my face “What? You’re telling me we are in this shit-hole when we could have been in an apartment with two bedrooms, a pool, AIR CONDITIONING! Oh and working wifi! All so you two can have bikes….which appear to have flat tyres?! And you did realise four of us would be staying here didn’t you? We might all want to cycle….” I wasn’t surprised any more.

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“I’m not staying here” I insisted to Alaska the next day as we headed out to find a supermarket. The lumpy looking mattress  must have been made of concrete because my back from screaming from it! Unable to sleep I tossed and turned itching at the bites whilst mosquitoes continued to dive bomb for me. “I’m going to book somewhere else” I determined.

“But if I don’t come with you, you’ll just hold it against me and I can’t afford to pay for accommodation twice!” he retorted. “I feel trapped here! I can’t stay in a room with those two for two more weeks! And I’m getting eaten alive! Look at my skin!” I held up an arm, great welts broke angrily in the pattern of star constellations across my skin. “Well what do you expect me to do!” he snapped back.

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We yelled at each other as we walked back from the store. It irritated me that he wasn’t sympathetic to my cause and worse, that he was could only snap back rather than listen.

“Don’t follow me” I’d had enough, yanking my shopping from him into my arms and stomping off. Alaska followed “you’re going the wrong way” he called down the road after me. “Well you don’t have to follow me!” I yelled back stubbornly.

He had a point though, all the streets looked the same, I was completely lost. I walked into a random shop and asked for directions “four blocks over”. Alaska appeared at my side “see, I told you, you were going the wrong way”. “Ughh fuck off” I hated being wrong, I hated it even more when people pointed it out to me.

I let him walk ahead, turning off on a side street to get away from his over the shoulder glares. I contemplated buying a coconut from a street vendor until I realised I wouldn’t be able to carry that and the shopping, plus the machete looked rather dirty, the last thing I needed was the runs! Especially when the big sign above the toilet told us ‘do not flush paper’.

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Two blocks later, my bearings had all but given up when I turned a corner and walked straight into Alaska, it appeared he too was lost. I wanted to be mad at him but at the sight of me, he asked “you lost too?”. I tried to pull my smile down, determined to hold onto the annoyance but my eyes gave it away and he laughed. We wiggled our way around the streets until we came across the blue gates signalling home. Swapping the keys over, Blonde took off for a walk “it’s really easy to get lost, stick to the main road” we called to ignoring ears.

An hour or so later, a storm rolled into town, breaking down some of the closeness we’d all been suffering. Alaska had managed to persuade the gas on the stove into action, as I emerged from the shower he presented me with an egg sandwich he’d already taken a bite from. “We should dance in the rain!” he announced as we took bites from the sandwich – not exactly in turn, his two for every one of mine. I stood in the yard in only my towel, heavy rain splash on my closed eyelids as the sky rumbled above.

Alaska appeared with giant slices of watermelon. “Thanks but I don’t like watermelon” I reacted. “Try, it’s good” he handed it over, I held the giant wedge with two hands, unsure how to proceed. “What do I do with the pips?” I shouted over the arguing gods above. “Spit them out, or eat them” he yelled back.

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So we stood in the rain of the storm, under an umbrella sky of dark clouds, spitting pips to the ground and watching them swim to the gutter. The watermelon juice ran down our chins and I’d smile as he’d lean in to kiss the flavour from my face.

Geo arrived later that day, as did the apartment owner who showed us through to a secret second bedroom, built into the garage. It wasn’t any better than the first but at least we wouldn’t all have to share the one room.

Blonde and Geo booked an organised bus tour so Alaska and I rode the bikes to nearby ruins before finding a small beach fronted bar to eat seafood and drink Pina Coladas. We laid in hammocks, swaying back and forth watching the sun sink and moon rise over the ocean. “We should probably be getting back, it was a long ride to get here and it’s getting dark” Alaska advised.

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“Oh no, we’ve stayed out too late” I realised as we walked back to the bikes “the mosquitoes are out!” I screamed, swiping four off my thigh “quickkkkkk to the bikes!!” I ran. We peddled as though our lives depended on it, Alaska laughed behind me as a cloud of the blood biters formed behind me if ever my peddling slowed. It was getting dark and the bikes had no brakes, I tore around corners unable to slow, it was only once I’d reached the accommodation that I realised I’d left Alaska far behind.

We arose early the next day to go swim with turtles but Alaska announced he was sick. So we napped and laid around instead, I made smoothies and searched for jobs on the computer, tortured by intermittent wifi. “Even though I’m sick, I’m glad I’m here with you” Alaska rolled over on the bed, speaking in that feeling sorry for yourself kind of way that men do when they catch man-flu.

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With Alaska a little more perky the following morning, we hired a scooter “why can’t I drive?” I enquired when Alaska insisted on being the named driver “because I don’t want to die today” he responded. “Err, I just drove you around all of America!” I pointed out. “Exactly, I’m amazed any of us made it!” he smiled. “Hey! I’m a great driver” I declared. “Didn’t you crash the car and get a speeding ticket?!” he laughed, which was technically true but I felt justifiable.

I sat on the back of the scooter feeling far less stable than if I’d been in charge. Alaska revved the engine, we lurched forward, and abruptly stopped. He tried again, we sped down the street, my hands only just managing to hold on before I fell off the back. He raced through the gaps in the speed bumps as we headed to the beach, the wind tore at my face so I buried it in his back.

He sped up on the open highway, less careful until the wheels slipped from beneath us. We spun to one side as he tried to correct the steering, over compensating as we skidded to the other. The scooter veering dangerously low either side as I pictured my skin being torn from knees. We flew across the road, I screamed before he managed to gain control. “WHAT THE HELL!! YOU ALMOST KILLED US!” I yelled when we finally reached the beach. “Well I wasn’t doing it on purpose!” he snarled back “it’s not like you would have done any better” he stated meanly.

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The beach wasn’t quite as idyllic as I’d been hoping, a bit dirty, a lot of tourists, grey coloured sand plus a ring of seaweed on the shoreline that made crossing into the water a slippery path of crustaceans and litter. But Blonde and Geo assured us there were turtles to be found, and therefore slippery crustaceans would have to be abided!

We swam out into the murky waters, waves slightly too choppy for any clear visibility but no turtles could be found. Disappointed we returned to the apartment, dogs flying out of yards to chase the scooter “faster” I screamed as they tried to nip my heels.

“You didn’t see any turtles?” Blonde asked that evening over dinner “we went yesterday, there were loads. Geo gave one cancer!”. “What?” I questioned. “I touched one” Geo added, I turned to Blonde confused “apparently if you touch them, you can give them cancer because they’re allergic to humans” she informed.

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“Can I drive today?” I enquired the next morning. Alaska sniffed, still suffering from his cold “no, you’re not on the insurance”. Despite my reluctance to risk my life again by his driving, I climbed on the back of the bike.

“Ooh these are cool!” I announced when we’d arrived at the cenotes, large pools of water in limestone sink holes. “You go in first” Alaska nudged me forward. The water was cool but not unpleasant “come on” I called swimming further away from the dock, the dark overhanging caves disguising the crystal cut clearness of the mirror in which I’d entered. “Oooh” Alaska giggled at the change of temperature to the humid heat we’d been suffering all day.

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“Oh wow,  there are fish in here! And bats! Look up there!” we stayed mostly in the light where the sun drifted through the trees and showed the bottom of the pool, far deeper than it seemed. The dark parts of the cave scared us a little, unsure how deep we could swim into the black and if we’d ever come out again. “Shall we try another pool?” Alaska asked after our skin began to pimple and teeth chattered from the cold.

“This one is even bigger!” I squealed, my t-shirt billowing around me as I jumped into the water. Despite our modest diet in Cuba, I was still feeling uncomfortably heavy from our American diet; my skin had a strange puffiness to it, I was convinced I’d grown cellulite on my knees and calves, and even my feet felt fatter. I tugged at the t-shirt, trying to keep it from floating up in the water whilst Alaska’s words from months before floated through my mind ‘well you have got a fat ass‘ ‘you’re not attractive’have you got any pictures from when you were thinner?‘.

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We were having a nice time in Mexico but my legs met in places they hadn’t used to, my hip bones were much more cushioned and I was pretty sure I once had a collarbone!

You’re doing this to yourself, you’re ok, it’s not like you have to wash yourself with a stick on a rag! And look, he loves you, so what if he doesn’t find you physically attractive, who needs that?’ I asked myself ‘Ummm I do!’ I answered. ‘No, it’s fine, I’m totally self assured, I’ll just be content in my fleshy, flabby self and be happy for good health and a positive outlook. Yes. I’m having a lovely day. This is fine. If I feel too self conscious to take the t-shirt off and reveal my bikini body, fine, but let’s just enjoy these beautiful pools and not worry about it’ and just as I gave myself a prep-talk an eruption of chatter burst the stillness and drew our attention.

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I looked up in time to see a horde of diamanté covered wedged heels wobbling down the wooden stairs to the pool. Long, slim, tanned limbs followed until an army of Valley Girls stood before us.

I’d never seen people like them, Barbie come to life in all her various guises. Tiny bodies with stuck on boobs, waists that looked sculpted, bums usually reserved for fitness models in magazines after a lot of photoshop. They each wore a face full of carefully contoured make-up and hair so big, they might topple over if they leant too far to the side. I yanked at my t-shirt and wished the pool really would swallow me up. All the insecurities I’d ever had raising to the surface. I felt mortified and so self conscious I almost couldn’t move.

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I treaded water for awhile trying to plan an escape route whilst the girls removed tiny denim shorts and cropped tops to reveal even tinnier bikinis, more dental floss than swimwear and yet magically, everything on their body seemed to be supported, remaining in place. I glanced at Alaska, the big jerk looked like all his Christmases had come at once! A massive smile was spread across his face as I deemed he too had never seen creatures such as these in real life.

Whilst Hugh Hefner’s wives descended into the water, squealing at the cold and running back up the steps to “Ohh Tiffany, it’s soo cold, you go first” “No, you first Courtney” I swam around to the other-side and escaped the water, pulling my t-shirt away from my skin with that annoying suction sound.

I went and waited by our bags for Alaska to join me so we could head to the safety of another pool. I waited. But soon I was surrounded by Valley Girls, who’d decided they needed sun-cream for the shaded cave. I stood in the middle whilst models lathered each other up, trying not to listen to their conversation but unable to avoid it “What are you talking about? You look so slim! You do not have a belly! Why am I so white! I feel pasty! You have amazing boobs, mine aren’t as good as yours” they swapped back and forth.

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Alaska had taken the route to leave the pool through the busy side of the dock where the girls were all entering, of course he had! I watched as he took great delight “after you” “Do you need a hand, here…” “it’s not that cold, I’ll help you”. By the time he’d joined me I was a beating myself up for every Teddy Graham ever consumed and had convinced myself I was the most hideous creature to ever walk the planet.

“I knew you’d be feeling self conscious” was the first words he spoke, a look of amusement twinkled in his eyes. It kind of angered me, if he knew that, why hadn’t he come straight out of the water and hugged me or something? I don’t know? Made me feel special rather than the weed in a garden of roses? Perhaps I expected too much?

In reality, I knew I didn’t want to look like those girls, and I was perfectly fine as I was, no matter what size or shape but I seemed to construct rejection, loneliness and self confidence into physical appearance. In some warped logic, I was convinced everything would be better if I was thinner, prettier, smaller ass’d.

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For some reason, right at the very bottom of it all, I thought that if I was prettier, people might like me more and then I’d be accepted and good enough. This went beyond the grief; that had only dialled things up and I could never quite get control of my self esteem during the whole grieving process. Instead, I’d worn those insecurities like a sign around my neck, inviting the world to chip away at them and telling myself every word was true.

I thrust it at Alaska to take swipes at and then blamed him for doing so. I guess these things go back to childhood, classic Daddy issues anyone? You don’t get the attention from one parent so you cling to the other but it’s not enough so you develop this extroverted, attention seeking persona that’s tells you, you’re only as good as the next male figure thinks you are. Grief dug it all up and made those buried issues more vulnerable and exposed to the seasons.

We moved on to another pool but the Stepford Wives in making only followed, I tried to swim between caves to escape but succeeded only in bashing my head on a low hanging stalactite. “Can we go soon?” I begged Alaska, my fingers tracing the bump in my hair.

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We returned to the apartment just as it was getting dark, as I curled up on the bed, Alaska was about to head out for water when he paused in the doorway “why the hell am I getting water! I’m the one who’s sick!” he sniffed for good measure, apparently his bug hadn’t stopped him from swimming in cold pools all day but when it came to going five minutes around the corner for water upon an evening, well, he was a dying man!

“I can’t go out when it’s dark, look at me! I’m covered! No offence but my concern for your dehydration is out weighed by my fear of gaining another hundred or so mosquito bites!” I cut my reply. The fight escalated as they always did with us until Geo and Blonde walked in.

They gave each other knowingly looks and smirked “we were just saying today we wondered if you two would be fighting or having a good day. We settled on fighting” Blonde sat smugly. “You know, if you were sick, I’d go get you water” Blonde turned to Geo, her legs draped over his lap.

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“Oh, I’d get you water too” he dazed back adoringly. I felt ganged up on, Alaska informed the room I was selfish. “How is me not wanting to get water because I’m the only one the mosquitoes seem to go for and as soon as I step outside I’m covered in them, making me selfish!” I screamed back. “Because I’m SICK!” Alaska yelled. Blonde laughed “oh this is fun, I like watching you two fight, you’re both always yelling at each other” she looked at Geo bemused who only draped an arm around her shoulder and stroked her in sickening longing.

Ughhhh it was too much to take, Blonde smiled like a cat ‘get out! Get out now you smug, stupid bitch‘ I yelled internally wishing I could go for a walk or get away but the mosquitoes buzzed at the windows trapping me in. Blonde laughed “You guys are always fighting. I don’t think we’ve had one fight have we?” she looked at Geo again for confirmation who was smart enough to smile back, all the approval needed. I wanted to scream.

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Alaska and Blonde were trying to sort out money the next morning “you’re a smart guy, I’m sure you can work it out” she informed him. “Oh my god! You’re being so patronising” I butted in. “No I’m not!” she said defensively, I repeated her phrase back to her.

“No, I’m just saying!” she countered. “Well it’s hard to keep track of everything when you keep all of these hidden costs with 15 dozen bloody receipts for everything!” Alaska stated. “I just keep track of things” Blonde lifted her head defiantly. “Yeah, every single cent!” I pointed out; Blonde seemed to forget the numerous coffees brought for her but made sure to charge back every bottle of water or stick of chewing gum she bought for others.

Alaska laughed at my comment. “Ughh you two are hard work sometimes” Blonde informed, shaking her head. “Ha!” was all I could manage before Alaska tore into her, before I knew it, both were in full screaming mode, Geo trying to cool things down but being pulled in every direction by his childhood friend and the girl he’d fallen for.

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The stress of the apartment combined with the growing anxiety of going home and what might happen had been triggering mum dreams. She just kept dying. Over and over again when ever I closed my eyes. ‘Please don’t die!‘ I’d beg in my sleep, tears crystallizing on my cheeks in the dark whilst Alaska snored alongside. It had been nearly two years, the world had moved on, but for me, she still died for the first time in my arms every night.

I swam out far into the waters, Alaska had given up, returning to the sand to sleep under a palm. The waves rose and fell gently, I let them submerge me, my snorkel mask providing all the air I needed ‘please let me see one, a hint of shell, the edge of a fin, something’ I called into the gloom, desperate for a sighting.

It was calm beneath the waves, I didn’t feel like I was drowning any more, I knew I could resurface whenever I needed and there would always be air waiting for me. But the stillness, the cloudy waters, shapes in the dark, I was at peace with them at last. It was almost two years and finally I could fall beneath the surface without being consumed.

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I felt suspended for a moment, peace washing over me at the acceptance, the world a frozen dream, alone in the gloom but finally ok with it. The world hadn’t changed, but I had learned to live it it.

And slowly, another miracle. A face appeared out of the dark. Swimming directly towards me, a slow dance of graceful wings glided into the light as the turtle and I came face to face. He turned at last and nodded I follow, together we swam further out to sea, he dove down to the sand beneath us, introducing me to his wife who winked in reply to my smile. I watched from above as their neighbours popped around, my own private street party. When it was time, I surfaced, I surfaced back into the day, to a clear sky and promises of tomorrow.

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Cuba and ongoing battles

I lay watching the ceiling fan, silently trying not to rupture the storm that was Alaska. We’d reunited at the airport in Mexico; Alaska flying in from LA and Geo from San Francisco. Blonde and I, who’d arrived a day earlier, spent the night in separate hotels, keen to avoid each other. It was the first time I’d been alone in over three months; I awoke rested and dare I say…almost optimistic! A good nights sleep really does do wonders!

I’d arrived at the airport excited; Blonde and I chatted incessantly, almost clinging to one another whilst relaying every detail from the few days spent apart. Our conversation was manic in the speed of exchanges, our smiles frozen, both of us in fear of mentioning the fight in LA. We were all jubilant at the prospect of reaching Cuba and being together once again, well, all except Alaska who snapped from tiredness at every turn.

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Alaska paced back and forth that night, complaining about anything he could grasp, exhausted from not having slept for 30 hours due to an overnight flight, he tore up the world in frustration. We were staying with his extended family, the grown children of his aunts husband; Alaska felt responsible for organising the group, showing gratitude and entertaining, all of which he was too tired to manage but carried the burden regardless.

After an oddly satisfying breakfast of boiled eggs, hard bread, mayonnaise and tinned spam the next morning; Alaska and I laid on the bed, his irritation not having improved from a nights rest. “What can I do to help?” I asked. “Just tell me you love me” he returned blindly.

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We stayed talking awhile, I thought he was perking up, I was wrong. “You don’t get stressed like I do” he stated out of the blue. “What? You know nothing of my stress” I jarred.

With it drawing close to the end of the trip and approaching the two year mark of my mothers death, I’d been thinking a lot about how things had turned out and how they might have if she hadn’t died, or had I made different choices.

Somewhere in an alternative reality, if I’d have kept the baby, my toddler daughter would be running up to Granny right now asking for white chocolate buttons, there would be a home with pictures on the wall, a partner, a family. I’d have a job, security and with that, a sense of belonging. I’d have known nothing of how deep and dark emotions could run, of how quickly things could be stripped away and the awful loneliness that consumes. I silently longed for that other world.

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I didn’t regret the journey or how my life seemed to be working out; embarrassed and ashamed from my behaviour at times, yes, but generally, I thought I’d held up kinda well, in that, car crash, what the hell am I doing kind of way. But it had also been the hardest, most challenging period I’d ever know and probably ever would. I’d felt raw and exposed, so stripped back a gust of wind might have broken my fragility. There were times, when I wanted to sleep and never wake up again. When every breath was hard to swallow. And the utter desperation of loneliness sunk so deep into my bones, I ached from it. So when Alaska told me I didn’t really ‘get stressed’, I could only stare at him.

“You know why I have grey hairs coming through at 26?!” he shot at me in that aggressive, direct way he had when something was bothering him and he wanted to lash out at whoever was nearest. “Genetics?” I smiled. “Because a childhood of heartbreak. Grey hairs come from stress caused by love” he answered as if it were scientific fact. ‘Does this mean I didn’t really love my mum, or Bridezilla or anyone else because my hair remains a satisfactory shade of mahogany?’ I pondered.

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“Then why am I not grey?” I couldn’t resist. “A childhood does not compare to a year” he explained and I wanted to smack him for it. “Ummm” I was trying not to rise to it, keen to avoid another explosion like LA “you know nothing of how I’ve felt, you can’t compare it” I couldn’t help the anger rising. “I have a reservoir of sorrow” he explained “you only have a well”.

Alaska’s tiredness darkened his mood for the rest of the day, short with everyone except me, I suspect he knew I’d pull away if he had a go at me again. Blonde got the worst of it, she couldn’t help herself, asking perfectly innocent questions that if she only thought for a second, would have been able to answer herself. It wasn’t her fault but she wasn’t reading Alaska’s temperance “do you think your cousin will drive us to Havana tomorrow? Are they cooking us dinner? We were thinking of going to find a beach, will you cousin give us a lift?”. I was avoiding her, partly embarrassed of my own behaviour in LA, partly sore from the exchanged words of that argument but mostly I’d had enough, the initial reconnection at Mexico airport was short lived. Alaska vented about everyone else’s idiocy and then got agitated by anything I said. He fell asleep with the fans whirling. I was cold, he stole my sheets and refused to be disturbed, yelling in his sleep when I tried to pull them back.

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“I’m going to have to babysit the other two all afternoon” he moaned the next day when I expressed my preference to avoid them. The cousin took us into Havana that morning. We walked the rubble streets, still being cleaned after a recent earthquake. Old Spanish buildings, statues with faces worn away from years of sun, eye sockets glazed over with dust, bicycle taxis, eyes of the locals on us “where you from, where you from” they called hoping to engage in conversation for spare change.

Alaska disappeared down an alley, he’d moaned about being stuck with the other two but he left us all. I felt abandoned, he’d been complaining that everyone would get lost but he left me. As though seizing the opportunity Blonde and Geo took swipes as we walked on “Why’s Alaska so grumpy today?” she asked without looking for an answer. “You never get frustrated” she smiled at Geo. “No, neither do you” he smiled back, they both looked at me so I played along, hating it “yep, me neither” I gave them the tools. “Oh yeah, you’re such an angel aren’t you Becky” Geo looked at me pointedly, him and Blonde exchanged a smug look, the sides of their mouths curled up. ‘Oh you’re both so wonderful aren’t you’ I swallowed.

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“Chica Chica” a man called as we passed. “What’s he saying?” Blonde asked Geo, even my lack of Spanish knew Chica meant chick. “He’s talking about you” Geo gave her a doe-eyed look. I literally saw her ego grow, she baited him “oh he’s talking about Becky” she said with a sly smile waiting for Geo’s reply “no, he’s talking about you” he corrected “everyone’s looking at you” he added to her beaming face. My eyes rolled “we should really be getting back to the car, can you check the map?”. “Oh, we’ve been walking in the wrong direction” Blonde realised, tilting her phone.

We sat by the river drinking mojitos, Blonde and Geo finally finding a drink they liked despite not being fans of alcohol. Alaska laughed as Blonde and Geo slurred their words, playing up to the attention. The coolness of the evening blew in on the breeze. Alaska didn’t catch my annoyance whilst Blonde and Geo made drunken hints about how they never fight in comparison to Alaska and I.

My period arrived in the outhouse with the crooked door hanging off one hinge so you could look out to sea from the toilet seat. I felt low and weepy returning to the group, watching them laugh as the alcohol warmed their spirits, I felt left out and cold. I sat back down, watching the scene through a pane of glass, not really part of it.

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Blonde and Geo continued to drink “Tango! We should go tango dancing” Blonde announced, her elbow slipping from the table to everyone’s amusement. “Geo, you can dance because you can dance with me” she lent in, smiling at me as she said it as though it were a challenge. “I don’t have any rhythm” Geo answered but looking like the cat that got the cream at the prospect of Blonde dancing with him. “Oh you will when you have a few more drinks” Alaska laughed. “We will find it, the rhythm, in the mojitos” the cousin stated in broken English.

A few drinks down, Alaska and I concluded the other two were too drunk to do anything other than trip over each their own feet. Blonde leaned out the side of the car window, resting her spinning head on her arms “he’s got a machete” she called as we passed a man on the street. “Nothing wrong with that, a man with a machete is an awesome thing” Geo deemed. “Why am I talking like an idiot” Geo uttered a while later when his words weren’t falling into order. “Why isn’t the dog waving back at me!” Blonde yelled. “Hey dogs are people too” Geo insisted. Alaska leaned over from the front seat laughing at the exchange of conversation. I sat in the back, sandwiched between the two drunks, never feeling more sober in my life. Geo was sick in the toilet bowl as soon as we got home “go rub his back” Alaska instructed to Blonde.

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We were sitting with the family the next morning when Blonde walked in wearing a strappy vest top, her hair unusually piled up top of her head, displaying a map of love bites all over her neck. “We’re going to the mountains today” she declared, making a show of walking around the table, twisting her head back and forth as though looking for something. “Do we have to stay with them? They took swipes at me all day yesterday, I thought we were suppose to be having space” I leant into Alaska as Blonde continued to walk about like a peacock.

We laid around on the bed again, no hurry to get up and nowhere to get to. Conversation turned to Alaska’s ex girlfriend and with that, sex. “Well how often did you and your ex have sex then?!” I enquired, he’d been excited that Geo might finally have seen some action, expressing how hard it was to meet girls back home and even if you did manage to get a girlfriend, the girls were always bitches who used sex like a weapon. “Three times a year” came the reply. I was shocked “what do you mean? Three different people or actually just three separate times?” I tried to clarify.

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“Just three times” he looked away. “How can that be? You were dating your ex-girlfriend for what? Three months? Don’t tell me you only had sex three times in three months! She lived around the corner from you!” I was confused.

He clammed up “well yeah, we did it once, then I went away for a few weeks, then we did it again but she said it wasn’t comfortable so we waited awhile, tried again, then we ended”.

I thought for a moment “but, but that barely sounds like a relationship” I wasn’t being terribly tactful. He closed his eyes and refused to look at me. “Why is this so hard for you to talk about?” I pushed. “I put it in a box and left it behind” he deflected. “Why do you find relationships so hard to talk about? I find it hard to admit when I was wrong or apologise or when I’m embarrassed or insecure. But I still talk about that stuff, I don’t always want to but I try ” I explained, wondering if we had it in us to be really open with each other.

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“I know you find it hard to apologise” he stated “speaking of which, you never apologised for taking your stress out on me at Yosemite”. I pushed my head into the pillow and let out a sigh “I don’t feel I need to apologise”. “Yes you do!” he sat up, ready to explain his standing on that fight once again. “But I don’t feel I do! We’ve been through this already, why are you dragging it up again?!” I stared at the fan, tired of fighting but he continued to push until I found myself revisiting the memory once again and listing all the points where I felt I was right in it “….we’ve already discussed all this, we moved on” I concluded.

“I need you to apologise to me” he laid back down and closed his eyes whilst he waited. I stared at his face, tracing his features with my eyes, the shape of his lips, the constant angry crease between his eyes, always giving him a slight look of annoyance. It would have been so easy to kiss him, instead I let the silence draw out, finally speaking one word “no”.

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His eyes snapped opened but I spoke before he could argue “I’m not apologising when I feel it would be a lie.. It’s not genuine, I won’t be forced into saying something I don’t mean! Stop trying to control me!” he’d got my back up, I’d switched from wanting to lie on the bed and hug him to fighting the urge to march out the room. “I’m not controlling you!” his voice began to rise. “Yes you are, why do you always orchestrate a fight between us? We were having a nice time and now look where it’s heading?” I was so tired of fighting but the old buttons were being pushed.

“Me?” he laughed meanly “You’re the one always in a mood! Why do you think Geo said that yesterday? About you being such an angel!”. My fists clenched “because he’s got Blonde in his ear moaning about me losing my shit and taking the car, he’s so puppy dog in love with her, anything she says he’d go with!” I spat back. Alaska stared at me, any light in his eyes extracted, leaving only dead pools “yes but he’s also been on the trip half the time, he’s seen you be in a mood for most of it. You’re always moaning” for someone who wanted to move to England to be with me, who had started naming our children and insisted he loved me, he sure had a way to make me feel shit about myself.

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“Right that’s it” I was done, I got up and headed to the bathroom door, keen to escape the environment before I said something I might regret. “Don’t walk away!” he glared, more or a warning than a request.

“No fuck you, fuck all three of you! None of you know me, you don’t know what I’ve been through the last two years, you don’t know the person I was before all this, the fun happy me who was, generally, very positive and go lucky. All you know if the grief version and you judge me for it! The version stuck in a fucking car with Blonde asking a million stupid questions, copying every thing I do and then trying to compete at every turn. And you! You putting all your issues on to me, always asking for help like I’d be able to save you. And Geo, who’s 27 and never done anything, never lived away from home, had a relationship, lost anyone close to him, fuck, he hadn’t even kissed a girl since he was 15 before Blonde came along! No! None of you get to fucking judge me! Fuck you all!” I shut the bathroom door, stared at my reflection in the mirror and took a deep breath, steadying myself on the sink for support.

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“You know why, I like you the most when you’re like this” Alaska called through the door, I closed my eyes, wishing I could shut out the next manipulation that was sure to follow. “Because you think I’m being real” I replied, not wanting to hear him say it. “Yeah” he called back, I turned the shower on, letting the water drown out the rest of his words as I submerged my head in the stream.

His words, Blonde’s words, even Geo’s at times, they cut through like knives as the water tried to wash the wounds away, despair trickling down my back. ‘Was I nasty? I certainly had it in me but was that how people saw me? Was I always in a mood?’. It felt like it recently, I couldn’t remember the last time I was happy, I feared it had been years. I still felt like I was simply existing, not really living. Trapped in the now but nowhere left to run to, I couldn’t go back and yet I’d gone around the world and still hadn’t found the answers. I didn’t want to be the person they described me as ‘this isn’t who I am! I’m a happy person, I’m fun, I am, or at least I used to be. I think’.

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Alaska tried to grab my wrists when I finally emerged from the bathroom, appearing with a cloud of steam. “Why is it ok for you to expect an apology from me but I can’t get one from you?!” he was angry. I told him to fuck off, retrieved my hairbrush and returned to the sanctuary of the bathroom. He did, I heard the main door close with his exit, leaving me alone to fight my demons.

I found him on the beach a short while later, we talked over our difference, my feet digging a hole into the sand under the shade of a single palm tree, our words trying to balm the wounds. We spent the evening with the family sharing a meal of rice, pork, potatoes and plantain fritters, it was a simple meal but full of flavour and free from the corn syrup of America.

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Keen to avoid Blonde and Geo again the next day, this time Alaska and I headed to the mountains. We rode in the 1952 Chrysler, battered cream leather seats, no seatbelts, cigarette trays, wooden handles and chrome details. It was spacious and solid, six decades old and a credit to both the manufacture and the mechanic who kept it’s wheels turning after all those years. The old car rattled whilst warm breeze streamed in through the windows and caught my hair. Alaska closed his eyes, his curls flying around his face and a smile travelling across his lips, one arm hung limp out the window.

We sat by a waterfall that only the locals knew, kids jumped into the pools, swimming in and out of the caves. We snacked on the sweetest mangoes I’d ever eaten, I didn’t even like mangoes but I liked them, sucking the flesh from the skins, juice dripping down our chins, we smiled at each other.

We played dominoes that night with whoever dropped by the house, rum and cokes poured over ice, hot air and sticky backs, a ceiling fan offering the only respite from the heat whilst the sky turned pink behind the palm trees.

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Blonde was in a mood the next day, I didn’t care to ask why, happy to stay as far away as possible. She took swipes at Alaska over breakfast but left me be, too scared to say anything I might bite back for. After a morning round of tears to Geo, curiosity got the better of me and I asked the problem, concerned it had to do with me. I hadn’t said a word to the girl since we’d arrived in Cuba, actively avoiding her where possible, what had I  done now?!

Perhaps my avoidance was upsetting her? But after LA, I couldn’t be around her, I didn’t want to explode again but enough time hadn’t passed. Geo informed me she was crying about old text message arguments sent six week earlier in Vegas, I couldn’t care, I didn’t want to be part of it any more. ‘Friendships die sometimes, that’s what happens. Bridezilla taught be that’ and then I felt guilt and bitterness for thinking that lesson.

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“The food is really bland here” she complained, my eyes shot up from my plate, fork suspended in mid air, searching Alaska’s face, that blazed. I glanced at Geo who was watching us both, even he seemed embarrassed by the statement.

We were sat eating a meal of rice, potatoes, onion and breaded fish, simple yet delicious. A meal lovingly prepared for us. I’d felt humbled by the generosity of the host, sharing what little they had, every bite warmed my belly that someone had taken the time to make it for me. I looked at Blonde, probably for the first time properly since America. Had it been my family we were staying with, I’d have taken her aside ‘you want to be in a mood, fine! But don’t you dare act so rudely or insult this lovely family who have welcomed us into their home!’. Alaska was fuming, containing his patience only for the sake of his cousin but ready to pounce the next time she crossed the line.

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He didn’t have to wait long, the next day Alaska was sitting talking to Geo over lunch, asking for details of how to get the bus to Havana, Blonde walked into the room and interjected herself into the conversation “it’s perfectly simple,  if I can work it out and I’m was suppose to be the naive one of the group, then you should be able to manage the bus too” she flashed me a quick look to see if I’d caught it. I glanced over my spaghetti at Alaska to see if he recognised the slight, he nodded back.

“Excuse me! I wasn’t talking to you! I was talking to Geo, if I wanted your opinion or advice I’d ask for it” he snarled. She stepped back as if bitten, looking at each of us for support, even Geo seemed fed up, finding no solace, she retreated to her bedroom.

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Alaska and I spent the afternoon at the beach after returning from Havana, reading to each other from the book I was digesting. We looked like one of those awful couples, locked in their own world reading sonnets or some shit. Geo sat alone further down the beach, reluctant to join us, keen for the space as Blonde refused to leave her room.

That night Blonde discovered Alaska alone in the kitchen “I want a copy of those pictures tonight!” she demanded he instruct me. “What?” I questioned at the relayed message “I told her I’d give her a copy of MY pictures when we get to Mexico, we’ve got three weeks! Why is she in such a hurry now?! I said I’d copy them, why does it have to be done this second! She had a camera, we took the exact same shots!” she’d been trying to demonstrate some power over me all week, she’d pushed me to the wall but I was never going to let her win!

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Alaska only shook his shoulders and tried to hug me. “No! You think I’m being petty! I told her I was done with the road-trip and with her! I don’t want to make any effort any more, she infuriates me! The snide comments, subtle digs, the way she’s bossing every one around! Did you hear her earlier ‘I’m going for a walk! Geo, you’re coming with me!’ ‘We’re leaving early tomorrow to go to the town aren’t we!’. She’s not the boss of Geo but she’s horrid to him and he doesn’t even notice” I complained. “Oh he does, but what choice does he have. He’s desperate for her to fall for him” Alaska added. “She treats him appallingly! She’s been in a mood the last two days. I’ve not said one word to her, made no comments, not risen to any of her remarks or attacks and actively stayed out of her way” I stated.

“Oh I know!” Alaska offered looking at me kindly. “What’s that mean?” I enquired at the tone of his remark. “It’s been noticed, my family are starting to ask if you’re ill or something. You only leave this room for meals or if we’re going out! You need to be the bigger person, you need to make more effort”.

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“Why do you keep saying that? I thought I was being the bigger person, I’m staying out her way and not rising to anything. I’ve taken all her comments on the shoulder and not even rolled my eyes! I thought I was doing really well” I seemed to be failing again without knowing how.

You need to make more effort. Your absence is missed, people notice when you’re not around” Alaska pointed out, I started to smile thinking it was a compliment but then he added “and then it seems like you’re the one in a mood” and my smile faded again.
“But I’m removing myself from the situation. I don’t want the drama, the comments etc. I’m not acting like that, why do I have to put up with it? Why do you call me out but no one calls her out?” I asked, everything feeling unjust.

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Heading his advice I set about trying to copy the pictures onto her USB sticks, for five hours I sat trying to transfer the images “are you going to come downstairs, you’re being antisocial” Alaska stood in the doorway as I was half way through the transfer process “I’m trying to copy the pictures, I thought that’s what you advised!” I couldn’t win.

The disks were too small to fit the files, by midnight I gave up and fell asleep. We all headed to one of the famous beaches the next day, long white stretches of sand. I hid under a t-shirt, ashamed of my swollen body from all the American candy I’d consumed.

Blonde continued to make demands about the pictures right up until I’d gone to bed despite Alaska’s best efforts at explaining the USB’s simply weren’t large enough and it would be a much slower process of copying, uploading, deleting and repeating, all of which we didn’t have time for in Cuba. Blonde was having none of it and insisted she had the pictures the next day.

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Geo and Blonde forgot to bring money to the beach and as such, had on funds to cover the taxi home. We arranged a time to leave however when it came to it, Blonde decided she wanted another dip in the sea and stayed out in the water determinedly.

We waited until Alaska lost his patience and swam out after her, telling her we were leaving. She started to moan about the pictures again, I could see their discussion getting heated by the frequency of arm movements and splashing of water. Geo swam out to break up the fight whilst I remained with the bags, determined to stay out of it. All three of them treaded water, rising and falling with the waves yelling at one another, wild arms and sulking faces.

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Alaska returned “come on” he nodded his head angrily. We walked together to the taxi rank, no longer concerned if they followed. They did. Alaska turned to Geo, asking him to translate to find out the cost of the trip with the taxi driver in Spanish. Blonde turned to me “for future reference we wanted to stay the whole day!”. I glanced at Geo, recalling his preference to leave an hour earlier, it appeared she now spoke for both of them. Alaska stared at her blankly “don’t give a fuck!”. Blonde looked around for backup but with Geo busy, found none.

“The taxi said he’d take us” Geo returned. Alaska and I turned to leave but Blonde fought back “I want those pictures tonight! You have to give them to me today!”. I was fed up with the demands, spinning on my heels “they are MY pictures, taken on MY camera, by ME! I do not owe you anything! I tried to copy them for you yesterday, for hours! But your memory sticks are too small. I’ll copy them when I can but if you keep acting like a spoilt brat and making demands in such a rude way, I’m not going to do anything!” I stated, hoping that would be the end of it.

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“But you kept telling me to take pictures on your camera!” Blonde complained. “Yeah, when I was driving and couldn’t. You had two cameras and a mobile phone of your own. It’s not like I was stopping you taking your own pictures!” I pointed out. “I want the pictures today. And the edited versions too!” she insisted, climbing into the car. “I’m really sorry Becky, I know, she’s, she’s a bit wound up at the moment” Geo tried to explain “noooo! It’s not your fault. Sorry. Sorry you’re in the middle of this. Sorry, it’s not you, sorry” I tired to explain to Geo how guilty I felt that he was caught up in it all.

I sat in the taxi watching palm trees fly by, my irritation once again threatening the happiness of everyone else’s day. I’d drawn my line so clearly in the sand, but it was almost salvageable at the airport in Mexico, however, after a few days in Cuba, even Blonde could see any patience was at an end. I desperately wanted to be as far away from them all as I could possibly get, we might not have been in car any more but that tin can of claustrophobia still seemed to be over our heads.

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