We're delighted to present an extract from None of this is Serious, the debut novel by Catherine Prasifka, published by Canongate.
Dublin student life is ending for Sophie and her friends. They've got everything figured out, and Sophie feels left behind as they all start to go their separate ways. She’s overshadowed by her best friend Grace. She’s been in love with Finn for as long as she’s known him. And she’s about to meet Rory, who’s suddenly available to her online.At a party, what was already unstable completely falls apart and Sophie finds herself obsessively scrolling social media, waiting for something (anything) to happen.
The taxi splashes water over the pavement as it pulls up to the house. I pay the driver and get out, pulling my coat against my skin, and duck for cover under a tree by the gate. I check the time on my phone and scroll through the group chat. No one has said anything since Grace messaged:
Can someone pick up some extra paper cups?
The house looks warm. Its bay windows flood light onto the grass. There are deep grooves in the gravel driveway, channelling water to a puddle at the gate, which I jump over. The house is one of the older ones on the street; Grace's parents bought it during the boom. I can’t imagine the fortune they spent. A fortune they’re still paying off, Grace tells me sometimes, after a few glasses of wine.
As I approach the door I shake these thoughts out of my head as if they are cobwebs clinging to my hair. I take a deep breath, smile, and knock. A beat thumps through the walls of the house, and I wonder if anyone will hear me outside. I open the group chat again.
can someone let me in
Grace’s om theway
*on the way
I refresh Twitter as I wait and check my lipstick in the camera of my phone.
After a minute, Grace opens the door, a drink in her hand. Noise from the party pours out. I don’t recognise the song. Multicoloured balloons roam free-range on the floor. People are dancing in the kitchen beyond the hall, some of them well. It all washes over me.
'Soph! I’m glad you’re finally here!’ Grace spills a few drops of Prosecco as she hugs me, and they splash down my leg. She looks effortlessly glamorous, something I know she puts an incredible amount of effort into. She’s simultaneously chic and casual, and it makes me feel both overdone and underdressed. I smile at her and hug her back.
‘God, you look like a drowned rat, come in come in come in, I didn’t even notice this rain starting.’ She pushes me through the door. ‘Need a drink?’
I wave my bag. I’ve picked up the second cheapest bottle of wine from the off-licence before heading over. ‘Well, that’s all right then, but there are G&Ts in the kitchen if you want any. I cut up some limes as well. In the big bowl – better get to them fast, Dan’s already dared several people to eat the entire thing, and some of us are drunk enough to start trying.’
I nod and someone calls her name from the kitchen. She tells me I can dump my stuff wherever and that she’ll see me in there. She skips down the hallway. Instead of shoes, she’s wearing fuzzy slippers.
Other people are chatting in the hall. They don’t notice me coming in or taking off my jacket, even though I give them ample opportunity to. I watch myself in the mirror as I slide it off, feeling as though I’m slipping off my skin and revealing myself to be entirely formless beneath.
I open the door to the study and leave my bag in the corner, after taking my bottle of wine out. It’s quiet inside, and I take a moment to look at myself in the darkened mirror. When I try out a smile, I see that lipstick is smudged onto my teeth. I straighten out my damp hair, contemplate my shoes before kicking them off, and return to the hall.
I squeeze past the crowd, nodding to the people that I know or recognise. Some of them nod back. Finn is amongst them, but he’s deeply engaged in conversation with a girl I don’t know and he doesn’t see me. He keeps laughing and touching her shoulder. I can see the bubble of personal space around her pop every time he does it. I bite the side of my cheek.
I find the others sitting at the dining-room table, and I join them. Dan says, ‘Nice hair,’ and I shake off rain droplets at him in response. A stray balloon brushes against my leg, and I pick it up and hold it in my lap.
They’re playing a drinking game of quick-fire questions, where the only way to avoid answering is to respond with a question directed at someone else. The game appeals to me in the same way that a cliff edge does.
I take a gulp of wine straight from the bottle and angle my face so I’m visible from the hallway. I picture the scene from the outside and imagine I look like a regular girl having a good time, and it fills me with delight.
Steph clinks her glass against my bottle and takes a big swig. I feel small, like a puzzle piece clicking into place. I don’t want them to leave me behind for their shiny new adult lives. Nearly everyone is emigrating somewhere: London, New York, Sydney. Part of me wants to go with them; it would be nice to abandon my past life for a state of constant present. I watch the game and encourage the feeling with my tepid wine.
‘Lucy, who do you like better: Mike or Ross?’
‘Dan, who do you like better: Mike or Ross?’
‘Ouch. Steph, who was your first kiss?’
‘Sophie, what’s really going on with you and Finn?’
The question startles me. I wasn’t expecting them to direct anything my way.
Steph wiggles her eyebrows at me. ‘Too slow, drink.’
My mind is blank as I answer. Absolutely nothing. I hold the wine in my mouth for a moment before I swallow it. It’s bitter. The image of the regular girl departs, but I don’t look away from the game. It feels like everyone’s looking at me, and no one is.
‘If you say so, but I think you should drink again,’ Dan teases me. He always teases me; it’s part of how he shows affection.
I raise my bottle in cheers. I suppose to them it seems like nothing’s happened. I’m not conscious of the words I say to get them to move on, but eventually they work.
The game continues buzzing, but I’ve lost interest. I take my wine through to the kitchen table and look at all the snacks that are laid out. I watch one of Grace’s friends pick up a handful of popcorn and eat without thinking about it. She’s so skinny, too. I sip my wine and walk away from the table, my thighs brushing against each other as I go. I feel as if I’m made of butter, just congealed lumps stuffed into an outfit that’s too small for me. I look at myself in the mirror across the room. Maybe all anyone can see when they look at me is butter.
I flit between social bubbles, each one with a slightly different rhythm. The girls I know from school are the same as always, each personality moving against the others in a well-practised dance. They welcome me into their group, but I have nothing to say to them. Niamh asks me, ‘What are you up to now?’ as though we’ve not spoken in months, and I remember that we haven’t. I wonder at what point I became an outsider and if it’s their fault or mine. They don’t try to convince me to stay when I stand up and mumble an excuse; they are too engrossed in each other’s lives.
The debaters Grace knows from college are exchanging proper nouns at a speed that makes me dizzy. Sentences lose their meaning. There’s someone arguing for free speech, and someone else explaining the difference between that and actively platforming someone. I hear the phrase ‘the marketplace of ideas’. One of them tries to engage me in conversation, I think to help bolster his point, but I haven’t been paying attention.
I’m watching the party as if behind glass, each person totally estranged from me. I’m repeating ordinary party questions in my head over and over again. Hi, what are you up to now? Hiya, oh yeah, I’m fine. How were finals? It’s giving me a headache. Every time I try to force words out of my mouth, the timing feels off and I choke. No one notices except for me.
As I’m making my way to the bathroom, Grace appears, grabs my hand and pulls me inside. I feel as though I’m being pulled through syrup. ‘I’m glad I found you.’ The bathroom is a huge white marble and faux-concrete thing. There’s a claw-footed bath against one wall, and the opposite wall is lined entirely in mirrors. I’m not sure Grace understands that I actually have to pee.
‘That’s fine, I won’t look.’ She sits herself down by the sink, resting her head against the porcelain. ‘F**k, I’m drunk. Not in a f**ked-up way, in a good way, I think.’
I’m not sure there is a good way, but that’s never stopped us before.
‘Look,’ she says, ‘I need to tell you something. I just heard it, and I don’t want you to be upset or anything, and I didn’t invite her, by the way, it just happened, but I thought I definitely had to be the one to tell you. But finish peeing first, please.’
My insides go cold and squirm inside me. I already know what she’s going to say. I can only be confronted with so many Instagram stories and rescheduled hangouts before it slaps me in the face. I flush the toilet, wash my hands and sit down next to her. I run my fingertips over the grooves between the floor tiles.
‘Okay, so, I only heard this third-hand, so maybe it’s not true but, you know, it might be. Anyway, that girl here with Finn? Apparently, they’re dating.’
I nod slowly and look her in the eyes to prove I’m unmoved by this information. The girl’s face is familiar; I’ve seen her pop up as a suggested friend more than once. ‘You’re not upset? Because you know he’s a pr**k, right? He’s a stupid pr**k, and I wouldn’t have invited him if I thought I could get away with it, but you know how these things are – it’s more trouble not to.’
I see my reflection in the mirror stare back at me as I say the appropriate words aloud, and I watch my face make the appropriate emotions. It’s hardly ever worth being honest with Grace; she’ll just twist my words until she finds the meaning she’s looking for. It’s never important what I say.
Grace says, ‘Yeah, but he messages you all the time, he’s not fair. You actually just can’t trust men.’
Last night, Finn messaged me asking what time I was thinking of arriving, so he wouldn’t be the first one here. We stayed up late chatting about poetry and his parents. He didn’t mention anything about bringing this girl. I look at the messages on my phone now as Grace talks, and they take on new meanings. I was foolish to think they meant he wanted to spend time with me.
‘Okay, if you say so, but you shouldn’t put up with it. I wouldn’t put up with it if I were you. You need to say something to him, honestly.’
Grace is always telling me to say what’s on my mind because she can as good as read it anyway. I’m a science experiment to her, something to be figured out and dissected. She reads thoughts I’m not even sure I’m having. Someone knocks on the door and yells at us to get out.
‘Shut up, it’s my house!’ Grace yells back through the door, but we stand up anyway and she gives me a hug. ‘Well, let me know if you need anything, and I mean anything.’
I leave the bathroom and go to the kitchen. I drink two full glasses of water, standing at the sink by myself. Through the window, Finn smiles as someone takes a photo of him. I refresh my feed until he posts it, scrolling past photos of people’s dissertations and images of some war crime taking place somewhere in the world. When I see Finn’s face, I stop for just a moment and use my thumbs to zoom in. He’s captioned it boys’ night out, even though that’s obviously not what this is. I put my phone away without liking the photo and grab the bowl of crisps Grace left out on the counter. They’re not my favourite flavour, but I eat them anyway. The bowl shakes in my hand. I wipe the dust from my fingers on my jeans.
I pour myself another glass of wine, drink half of it, then bring the bowl outside with me and start chatting to the smokers. The second-hand smoke makes me dizzy. Steph offers me part of her cigarette, and I take it. I breathe in the smoke, and I want so badly to die. I hold the thought for a moment, letting it fill me, and then I exhale. It evaporates into the night.
Finn grabs a few crisps from the bowl and smiles at me graciously, then goes back to talking to the others. He holds his cigarette in his hand as he gesticulates, and I think I’m the only one who notices that he barely touches it. I watch it burn down to his fingers, the smoke emphasising whatever point he’s making. I asked him about it once, when I was too drunk, and he told me that sometimes he just forgets. I remember breathing in that moment and tasting the smoke.
Grace is beside me, and I hear her whisper, ‘Pr**k.’ I take another crisp and let it go soggy in my mouth before chewing it.
‘You can’t just lean into normative feminism, you have to subvert it first,’ Steph is adamant. ‘You can’t just go along with the whims of the hegemonic capitalist patriarchy and call it empowerment.’
‘But the only way we get empowerment is through the system, we’ll never actually break it down otherwise.’
‘What system? How are you going to break it down? There’s no self-destruct button.’
‘All I’m saying is get empowerment where you can, right? Life’s hard enough otherwise.’
‘All right then, so wearing make-up is empowering, is it?’
‘Could be.’ ‘Some people do find it empowering.’
‘Yeah, right. And by the way, what does empowerment mean? I don’t feel f**king empowered every time I use a f**king tampon.’ Grace’s voice is loud beside me.
‘You know full well what it means.’
‘Yeah, but it’s just a concept, it’s not like voting rights or the ability to afford food. Who cares?’ ‘Fine, well, maybe you’d rather we were all disempowered? That’s socialism, right?’
The discussion is making my head hurt. I’ve lost track of who’s saying what. I want to contribute, but the words are clunky on my tongue. I sip my wine and eat a crisp every time someone looks at me. The boys know to be silent, and it’s like I can hear them performatively listening. I want Steph to give me another cigarette.
Someone says, ‘Why do you girls always have to make these things so political? You can feel however you want about your tampons, right?’
‘Oh, sorry.’ Grace is cold. ‘I’d forgotten that politics only exists when it’s about women, otherwise it’s all just "normal", is it? It’s only political when you disagree?’
I hear the smoker back down. Grace continues on a monologue I’ve heard so many times before that I barely register it.
Finn pulls at my sleeve and asks if we can go and chat somewhere. I nod mechanically. My mouth is dry, so I stop along the way to refill my wine glass.
We sit on the love seat in the corner of Grace’s sitting room. It’s cold inside, so I pull the blanket on the armrest over me. Without words, Finn grabs it too and gets under it with me. He pulls my legs over his lap.
I drink some of my wine, and he tells me that his parents are arguing again, and he doesn’t know who he can talk to about it. I hear myself say things like ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ and ‘I’m so sorry’. He doesn’t seem to be listening to me as he speaks. I wonder if he’s told anyone else this, and if I should feel guilty that it pleases me he probably hasn’t.
He rests his head between my breasts and I stroke his hair. I think about leaning down and kissing him, and I drink more wine. He can probably feel my heart beating under his head, if it isn’t obscured by a layer of fat. I hum gently as I listen to him talk. I could easily drift off to sleep. My hand is resting just below his chin, and he bends his head to kiss it.
Grace enters the room and asks me to help her clear up. It takes a moment for me to understand what’s happening. Finn moves and releases me. I follow Grace into the kitchen, and she shakes her head at me. When I look over my shoulder, Finn is looking at his phone as though nothing’s happened, and perhaps it hasn’t.
‘What, and I mean what, was that about?’ I don’t know what Grace means, but she pours me a glass of water and makes me sit and drink it. To make me feel better, she has one too. ‘Thank God that girl already left. I’ll kill him,’ she says, to herself more than me. We sit together in silence, nursing our water. Grace holds my hand when she notices a tear rolling down my face. ‘Things are going to change now, and change for the better, don’t worry,’ Grace says to me, but I find it hard to believe her. Things are ending, and yet I still feel the same. I’ll always feel this way.
‘Look, Soph, a shooting star. Make a wish!’ She points through the window, up to the night sky.
I look up and see a streak of light. I wish I wasn’t alone. The thought comes to me unbidden; it’s a secret between just me and the star. As if I’ve anchored it, the star refuses to leave me. It traces a long purple scar that disappears over the horizon. Someone yells, ‘Holy shit!’ from outside, and the deck is lit up by everyone’s phones.
We go outside and look up at the sky. Where before there was only light pollution, now there’s a hairline fracture spanning as far as I can see in either direction. It’s lit from within by a violet glow that seeps across the night sky.
I keep blinking, as though it will vanish as quickly as it arrived, but the light only grows stronger, outcompeting whatever stars have the audacity to still shine. My mind spirals through various explanations – fireworks, coordinated LEDs on drones, an overzealous night club – but the eerie purple light feels too alien to be man-made.
I’m struck by the fear that this thing will consume us. It’s like the jaws of a great beast, threatening to open and swallow the world whole. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told the Earth is dying, that we had to reduce, reuse, recycle. But I never expected it to happen so suddenly. There’s too much to take in all at once. I overbalance and fall backwards onto the deck, catching myself with the heels of my palms. I look at everyone around me, and in the purple light they’re all strangers.
Someone pulls me to my feet. My phone looks cracked, but when I click it on I realise it’s just the reflection of the sky in the screen. I can’t tell if it’s my imagination, or if the light is really pulsing. A phone goes off, and then another. No one is speaking, all I can hear are message tones and countless people typing.
I feel seasick; the only thing keeping me centred is my phone in my hand, which is alive with notifications. Someone vomits into one of the bushes.
My feed is full of photos, so many that they don’t all load at once. One by one, my phone presents me with different areas of the world lit up purple, blurred from how hastily the users took the photos. Most of them are too grainy to make out, but I find a gif someone’s posted of the star shooting across the sky. I watch it on repeat, each time feeling like something inside me is tearing apart.
Politicians and celebrities are beginning to tweet about it. They’re urging calm, but they don’t know what’s happening. A few of the posts look a little bit too prepared, and people are already speculating about why. I show the gif to Grace and she looks at me with wide eyes. Neither of us can say anything. She goes upstairs to wake her parents, and the party evaporates like so much smoke on the wind.
None of this is Serious by Catherine Prasifka is published by Canongate.