Road trip

About Raj Bilkhu

Raj Kaur Bilkhu is a BBC journalist with a keen interest in travel, food and dance – although not necessarily in that order. She has worked across TV, radio and online news and often blogs about cultural issues that have made a personal impact.

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The sun was setting in the summer sky. The motorway was clear with endless fields of trees surrounding them. The plan was to set-off later to avoid the traffic but also because Priya loved the sunset. The cloud formation over a colourful sky gave her butterflies in the stomach. And just as she was immersed in this thought…

Da da da da da da da –I need you. Da da da da da da da – I miss you. Da da da da da da da – and now I won-der!

Neelam was shaking her head to the beat and singing from the top of her lungs as she blast the music up. Her favourite road trip song had only played seven times so far in their journey. Priya grinned as she could see her best friend’s hysterical dancing from the corner of her eye while she tried to concentrate on the road.

“C’mon Priya, almost the chorus again!”

“They’re the only lyrics you know in the song.”

But I still need you…”

And so they went on until their singing and dancing built them an appetite.

“That service station looks decent. KFC…Subway..?” suggested Neelam.

“Why didn’t you just let me make sandwiches,” whinged Priya, “I hate fast food.”

“Alright Posh Spice. You can see if they have an M&S here with your posh sandwich.”

“It’d be Hot Spice with the amount of chilli I like,” said Priya.

“More like Scary Spice with your scary face.”

Priya rolled her eyes. It was true she had built a reputation for having a resting bitch face but she couldn’t exactly walk around with a smile constantly on her face, could she?

They pulled up at the service station and before Priya had even got out of the car, Neelam was talking to a man who was getting into a van parked next to them. From his overalls he looked like a construction worker. Young but sun-aged skin. His high vis jacket accentuated his orange complexion.

“Neelam, I’ll see you inside.”

Neelam turned to wink at Priya in acknowledgement. Priya headed to the loo.

How does she do that, wondered Priya. Talk to any guy; just approach him without fear of rejection. Priya used to admire this about her friend but now she just found it annoying. It was different in college but you’d think she would’ve grown out of it at 25.

As Priya looked around the service station for her lunch options, Neelam jumped on her from behind.

“How fit was he? Did you see those biceps?”

“I didn’t see his biceps but I’ve noticed Sanjay’s and they’re not so bad,” said Priya.

“Oh please, don’t start with the Mother Teresa speech. Sanjay knows we’re not exclusive. It’s just a bit of fun. I can’t keep all my eggs in one basket,” shrugged Neelam.

“The way you’re going, I’m surprised you have any eggs left!”

“Piss off, bitch!” Neelam playfully slapped Priya on the arm and headed towards the KFC counter.

But Priya wasn’t joking. She loved her friend but she couldn’t help but question her morality when it came to men. Picking up men anywhere, one night stands, and meaningless flings was all she appeared to care about. When will she grow up, wondered Priya.

Priya joined Neelam at her table with a Subway sandwich.

“I better call Mum,” said Priya. “She was worried I’d be driving so much this weekend.”

“Bless Aunty, she worries too much,” said Neelam.

Neelam’s parents were never concerned about where their daughter was or who she was with. Her father was part of a bhangra group that reached limited success in the 80s, but he still considered himself a superstar. Her mum was more into pampering and socialising with her pretentious friends than caring about her only child. This always upset Priya, who was very close to her parents and thought it was sad that somebody would be denied that relationship. It also explained why Neelam craved attention from men because she wasn’t getting the affection at home – or so Priya had concluded with her psycho-analysis cap on.

“Hi Mum…Yeah, we’re fine. Just stopped off to get some food…Yeah, don’t worry, we’re taking it in turns to drive…Okay, I’ll call you later.”

As Priya hung up, she noticed Neelam eyeing up a man. Priya rolled her eyes. Another prey, she thought.

“So, how’s Sanjay.”? Priya teased to bring Neelam back to reality.

“He’s fine, I guess. Haven’t seen him for a few weeks.”

“Why not? What about date night?” asked Priya, genuinely concerned.

Neelam had set aside Wednesdays for Sanjay as ‘date night’, which was  the biggest commitment Priya had seen from her friend for any man.

“If you’re not serious about him, why don’t you just end it,” probed Priya.

Neelam’s frustration was now visible.

“Priya, why are you so concerned about who I do and don’t see? Just because you’re too stuck up your uptight arse to be in a relationship doesn’t mean we all have to be that way.”

“I’d rather be uptight than loose,” snorted Priya.

“See what I mean! You’re so judgemental. Act like you’ve got the moral high ground all the time. When will you just let me be?!” Neelam was shrieking by this point.

“And you think throwing yourself at any Tom, Dick or Harry is the best way to be? We’re not at uni anymore. When will you grow up and realise the men you attract have no respect for you?” Priya was calm but her heart was racing.

“What if I don’t want to grow up? What if I like my life as it is? Just because you do something doesn’t automatically make it the right thing to do.”

Priya tried to reason with Neelam who she knew was at the verge of crying.

“Neelam, I question your choices because I care about you. My sister did it to me and it kept me grounded. We’re like sisters, isn’t it right to challenge each other if we don’t agree with something?”

“That’s fine Priya but you need to realise I’m no kid. I don’t need to be parented by my best friend.”

“Nobody else seems to parent you.” As soon as the words escaped her mouth, Priya knew she had gone too far.

“Don’t you dare judge my parents. Who on earth do you think you are? Forget this; I don’t need to tolerate this crap. Carry on with your road trip alone!” And with that, Neelam stormed off, leaving much of her food untouched.

Priya knew she should not have said what she did but that didn’t negate from how true she thought it was. Neelam’s incessant need for attention stemmed from her lack of family attention. She knew her friend was good at heart but by living as she was, she had developed a reputation. Priya’s cousins referred to her as “360” because they claimed she had been out with every guy in college and then started over again to date them turn by turn again.

Priya headed back to the car to find Neelam leaning against it. Her eyes were red. Priya knew she  had been crying. Without saying a word, Priya hugged her best friend. Neelam was reluctant but then embraced her friend back. It was just what she needed.

“I’m sorry,”

“Me too,” said Neelam.

“I didn’t mean to say what I did, the way I said it,” reasoned Priya, “but I suppose we’re both just different in our outlooks because our upbringing has been different.”

“We’re just different Priya. If you can’t understand me after knowing me for 20 years, then I don’t know what I can do. I just don’t need you judging me all the time. I never judge you,” sobbed Neelam.

With that Priya felt a sickness in the pit of her stomach. She realised how words that seemed logical in her head were like daggers to her friend’s ears. They were different. And as such, what they considered right was different. But that didn’t mean either one of them was wrong.

“Come, we’ve got a girly weekend to look forward to. And it’s your turn to drive, but I’m the DJ now!” Priya tried to perk her friend up.

“Oh no, that means I’ve got an hour of old skool R’n’B to endure!” Neelam grinned.

They got into the car to continue their journey. Priya knew deep down this wouldn’t be the end of their tiffs – but no friendship was spared from differences. Yet she was confident that her best friend had a clean heart, and that was all that mattered.


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