As his lyrics tumbled over chipped, dirty whites, the South London lines cracked around his eyes and the cigarettes rocked rhythmically in their cardboard beds, humming to the hardcore lullaby of an inner city estate. A loud tinny sound seeped through but he spat every word like he meant it, like he was delivering the bible. Tiny blood cells trying to escape, commuters breaking free of the Northern line, cutting deep down the centre of his face and below it, his mouth grinned on the off beat, plastered with the intoxication of music.
Desert Island Discs, on the journey to Sunday roast or to Josh’s football, Lauren’s parents always had their records firmly locked-down. Van, Bruce, Leonard, Tom. The driving turned into a serpent’s trail when someone picked Frank, Lauren’s Mum crooning at the wheel while Lauren’s Dad, lost in the days of heavy buckle boots and pin badges, of Clash and Pistols, rolled his eyes with the tires. They hardly ever agreed, but at least they got it. And Lauren had it too, all blonde attitude, sat with Jenny, sucking sugar and spinning a Faithless Fatboy Beastie mash up on their little Tip-Xed walkman, dancing like mad cows.
Lauren knew that intoxicated grin, that energy, but like it was something from another universe, another time-frame or dimension. It was something on Chipped White’s lips, locked behind the divide of the newsagent’s worktop. There’d been no blink at Adam Yauch’s death, Lauren couldn’t say for sure if the Beastie Boys made music after 2009.
There were two other bodies in the shop, one pressed killer platforms, all neon laces and thick shiny soles around the wine bottles, moving an arse like sex to something that Lauren guessed might be an Ibiza club mix, but what would Lauren know? There’s no acceptable answer that says “I can give you my Desert Island Discs from 2009”. We’re in 2014 love, where the fuck have you been?
And Platforms wasn’t just 100% spunk and legs, she had it too. In her walk, in her soft hum, making deafening hot love in her ear holes, and when she came behind, Lauren could hear the heartbeat of the club mix, it sounded like a club mix, right up inside her ear, pounding, drumming.
Chipped Whites, continually spitting lyrics with the power of grenades, looked across at Lauren for the briefest of seconds, let’s get you over with, as his eyes moved past her and onto Platforms. He scrawled words on the back of receipts, denting them into the work surface, feeling every syllable and vibration as he pulled something out of the air.
The second body, with a cap pulled low, stuck under a dark hood, on the low-down, a face indistinguishable but slumping figure not unlike Lauren, in her baggy oversized hoodie and jeans, fringe and sinking eyes. The Hoody moved past her, so she never saw his face, swinging the door violently closed, leaving Lauren still staring at the cigarettes with a realisation that something was wrong.
She hesitated. “Lucky Strike, please”.
Chipped Whites, who should have looked younger, threw over the packet, at no point stopping for an intake and then he was on to Platforms with a flick of his finger. Now get the fuck out of my shop. You’re lucky I even bothered to serve you, to be fair.
Outside, Lauren’s mind raced. The XX. I like The XX. They’re cool… in a sort of non-offensive everyone would say that sort of way. Ollie likes The XX.
Lauren watched the back of The Hoody as he disappeared into the darkness. She clicked at the lighter again and again, feeling it hard every time the wind whipped the flame in the face and then just stared at the fag, a pathetic naked soldier with its feet barely singed.
That’s his move, sitting and watching the smoke curl up to The XX in that ultra-cool stripper way it performs for him, but only him and those French films, falling asleep in a sexy mess of brown hair on dog hair on ash. And Lauren realised, with harsh reality, what a lame attempt to make Ollie angry this was, how feeble, how pathetic. Ollie would Febreze Lauren in the face after her first inhale and smoke the whole packet himself. And seeing as she couldn’t even get the damn things to light, she totally deserved it.
Lauren had never felt weaker, slumped down against the newsagent’s side, wrapped up in homeless and pitbull piss, while the little concrete eyes ahead of her blinked, taking that piss right out of her middle class problems.
The New Year was barely broken in, a fresh new start and suddenly Lauren couldn’t breathe. New Year always pulled time into clear focus, a reflection on the best years of your life, the years you’re meant to discover yourself, find out who you are, have an orgy, drop acid, be exciting, five of ‘the good years’, your early twenties, and Lauren felt sick.
The newsagent’s door swung and Platforms bounced out, an exotic bird. Chipped Whites could be spied, rapping and leering behind her. Lauren straightened up on the floor, pulling a limp sleeve over her watering eyes, but there was no need. Platforms didn’t even look down, didn’t even shiver in the winter air, but turned, clinking her vino against her tiny buckle bag, all the time to the rhythm in her eardrums.
“What’s this?” Ollie had demanded fifteen minutes ago, holding up something Topshop pink and playful, and Lauren meant ‘playful’ in the very conservative way that five years with Ollie would have meant it.
“It’s a going-out top.”
“When are you going-out?” Ollie was all tense in the shoulders.
“I told you already, it’s Jenny’s birthday this weekend, I said I’d go out for it.”
“I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“Why bother then? She never calls you, what’s the point…”
Ollie had been cleaning dog chews in the sink. He knew Lauren hated that, all chunky fat and jelly and tails of fish biscuit. His head was bent so his brown hair flopped over his eyes.
Lauren imagined Platform’s response, ‘What’s wrong with you? This top was made for a nun and you’re gonna wear this with jeans and pumps? Who are you? Are you even a woman?’ And Ollie would stand next to her, laughing, ‘I know right? I only asked her what it was and said her friend’s an idiot who never calls her…what did I actually say about the top, huh? HUH?’ And they’d both laugh together at how utterly pitiable and depressing it was that Lauren had thought that crossing the road to buy a packet of cigarettes would punish Ollie in any way, even put a dent in his evening.
‘If a man disrespects me, tells me what to do, I cut off his dick, I shoot him in the face, I bury him in the ground.’ And there’s Ollie laughing along, ‘Yeah I could actually respect you if you cut off my dick.’
Lauren’s wardrobe of jeans, hoodies, jumpers, knee-length skirts and one LBD, it didn’t stand for little and looked like a vampire’s ball gown, offered nothing for Jenny’s. Lauren needed something, anything, save the one outfit of jeans and a patterned black top, or that same top with her one passable skirt, both on repeat since 2009. And all the girls would be buttoned in sequins and sky highs, lippy and lashes and she’d look like a skinny, butch lesbian.
In their underage days, Lauren had worn black knee-high boots with fur rims, fishnets, ripped denim and lacy tops. Black bra totally on show, knickers peeking up and being just above average height in flats, she and Jenny had charmed their way past bouncers with blonde flicks and pouts.
That was the Lauren that Ollie met, in their suburban upbringing in Surrey, a little bit off from the capital’s lights, but with their own slightly dimmer ones, where he’d picked her out of the hundreds he could have picked. A rough-cut that he said was perfect, but got in a vice to chisel smooth, soon enough.
Then Ollie remained quiet, because quiet is what kills. Quiet is what gets in under the blood cells, and goads the mind and riles up the internal voice to its maximum volume until it’s screaming. Ollie had just one more thing to add, placing the dog chews next to the dinner plates, eyes still not meeting Lauren’s, still seeming very busy as he brushed past her to the living room, not touching her but making her suck in his cold.
“You hate dance music anyway.”
She shivered. It was an unremarkable Thursday evening in January, Christmas was over, the trees were just getting used to their naked arms again as the lights had left them.
Lauren’s mind skipped double time as she crossed back over the road from the newsagents, blowing white air as if she’d been able to light it, clawing the edges of her brain for something she must have missed. Something that must be there, desperate to any minute stumble unexpectedly on a band or piece of music that she did in fact love, that she loved. And then she’d skip back over to Chipped Whites, humming that tune, looping it in her ears, smash money on the counter for Marlboro Lights, because they were her smoke.
Their peeling door of suspect safety was almost directly diagonal from the newsagents, the entrance hall lined with dirt-trodden take away leaflets and red bills for tenants who had long since legged-it. Flat One’s smoke flaked the outer door frame yellow and reggae often shook the ground under a doormat, which read ‘Oh Shit, It’s You Again’ and was covered in two-inch dust. Lauren and Ollie lived sandwiched between this and the unknown entity upstairs. Zone 2, South London, Wandsworth Road, living the dream. It was Ollie and Lauren’s first big adventure, the first story for the grand-kids. You know, when your grandfather and I first lived together we slept only on a single mattress and ate cold baked beans from the tin, sex was our central heating and we watched the television play in each other eyes. Chapter One in ‘The Great Adventures of Ollie and Lauren’.
She knew the minute her key touched the lock that something was up, that Ollie wasn’t there. Ray gave the game away. He was standing right up against the door, as if Ollie had just left him and Lauren pushed past, a little too firmly. Ray, a pencil shaded stocky mound, eyes like peaches, whimpered, tail down low where his balls had been and Lauren imagined Ollie, slamming the door only minutes after she had, leaving Ray trembling in a puddle of piss and flashbacks. The television was still buzzing but Ollie’s keys, wallet and phone were gone from the kitchen side. Lauren started to chew her nails, then she let out a huge growl of frustration, a tiger’s purr, that made Ray retreat immediately to his bedded corner.
Ollie was doing it again, making her feel vomit in her mouth, controlling the situation. She slammed the Lucky Strike on the worktop. Breathe. Breathe. With shaky hands Lauren scrolled her phone through people she hardly spoke to, let alone knew, take away numbers, health clubs, taxi services, Jenny, who knows what that girl is up to these days, it seemed so futile…
Ray’s deep sunset eyes stared at Lauren from a safe two-meter distance away, all full up with pity. But even Ray was telling her to grab some balls. Did anyone ever put you on a treadmill for ten hours straight? Or make you eat crack? He was a rescue that stayed a few nights a week from the kennels where Ollie volunteered and Lauren sometimes dog walked. Ollie always felt too bad, leaving them there and there was always one, litters like brown ants, bred in local tower block colonies, then given a kick when they outgrew the farm. Ollie had a soft spot for them all, he couldn’t help it, and this week’s excuse was that Ray needed extra TLC because his brother Sting had just been put in the cold freezer. It was one of those qualities that everybody else saw in Ollie, what a caring guy, what a really genuinely decent guy he is.
The tone crashed and fell silent, while Ray kept his eyes firmly on Lauren, because he only ever trusted Ollie. Lauren’s childish phone voice cracked a little, as Emily’s sweet, sympathetic tones curled out from the receiver like furry arms, pulling Lauren into the teddy paws of a bear hug. Lauren felt like a five-year-old who had lost her favourite toy.
“Oh, L, that’s shit.” Emily sounded genuinely distressed. “Have you tried calling him?”
“Why should I? He wants me to call him, then he won’t pick up, and I’ll just be sitting here on the kitchen floor when he comes back, like his loyal fucking dog…”
Lauren and Ray stared at each other.
“Over going out for Jenny’s birthday?”
Emily must have known that there was more to it, the subtext of these conversations, these raging phone calls she sometimes got from Lauren. It was always something stupid and Lauren felt embarrassed, it’s why she didn’t always call, didn’t always tell Emily, and Emily never pushed it, she wasn’t that kind of person.
“I don’t want to be here,” Lauren moaned, extending out her words. “I need to get out of the flat. I need to get wasted.”
“I’d come over,” Emily said, “but it’s a school night.”
“And you’re really far away,” Lauren finished, remembering how simple it was to have Emily next door, in Halls and in their University house in Portsmouth. Sympathy right on tap.
“Yeah,” Emily finished. “I’m sorry.”
She sounded really sorry too, as she shuffled her school papers from inside her warm Kent flat, slippers on, and Lauren pulled a packet of whole-wheat burger buns down from the kitchen side, slumped on the cold floor and started to rip them open like a savage, shivering slightly.
“He’s just gone out to punish me,” Lauren said miserably with a mouthful of bread, mentally scanning her tiny phone book but there was no one else to ask.
“Hang on…” Emily replied and she disappeared, the air becoming muffled as she pressed the phone up against knitted stitches and crumpled fabric.
Lauren made a nesting spot on the floor and, with bread inside her teeth, raided the fridge behind her for an opened pesto pot and started scooping out great ladles of the green stuff, munching it down while arranging the fridge letters into swear words.
“You need to go out, right?” Emily said, reappearing, sounding a tad breathless as she uncovered the phone. “I dunno what it is exactly but Si’s going to this DJ thing, maybe you’d like to go with him?” She paused but Lauren didn’t reply.
“I know you guys don’t really hang out or anything but if you wanted to get out of the flat…”
Lauren sucked the wet sticky bread from between her teeth and stuck a finger in the pesto jar.
“It’s okay,” she said, swallowing the pulp, wanting to add, I’m not that desperate, but knowing it would sound too harsh.
“He’s got a spare ticket,” Emily continued, “completely free for you of course.” Emily could be heard getting up and moving, she had lowered her voice again.
“He was really looking forward to tonight,” she said, sounding a little worried. “And then his friend dropped out and I’d go, you know, if it wasn’t a school night.”
“Mmm,” Lauren said, still stuffing her face, she could hear Emily pulling a door shut behind her.
“He’s talking about going on his own,” she whispered. “I mean, he is going on his own.”
Emily’s breathing was a little shallow as the girls skirted dangerously on the edge of something.
“He’s got these friends,” Emily hesitated, “well people he knows from the Internet. They’re going to be there, apparently.”
Emily was trying to sound casual but it wasn’t really working, her voice was getting slightly high, “You need to get out right? I’m sure Si would buy you drinks.”
“I don’t know.”
But Lauren wasn’t hearing Emily anymore, as she heard another voice, a louder, stronger voice, the voice of Platforms, ringing her unavoidable tones right inside her ears. It was a din that drowned out Emily’s softer words in seconds.
‘I thought you wanted to make Ollie mad? Like really mad?’ Platforms demanded, as Lauren stared at the cigarette packet, her pathetic little revolt. ‘Well do something. Do something. Or maybe you haven’t got the balls? Go on,’ Platforms smiled, ‘do what I’d do. Cut off his dick.’
Bleached soles. Through all the accounting, he’d missed one thing. It implied naïveté. Simon kicked the milky rubber. He scuffed away the evidence. Rookie mistake, she’d said. From the door they smirked. Ink, coal and raven shoes. He looked like a novice. After all the accounting. The girl with the leopardy legs was chewing a shit load of gum. Simon’s eyes blinked, blinded by his feet. Got to break them in sometime, Simon thought. Yeah, got to break them in sometime. He looked up, opened his mouth. But her big hair was gone and the beefeaters were even more amused, ugly grins all round the gate. Gargoyle gatekeepers. Simon knew exactly what they were thinking. Rookie mistake, she’d said.
Simon was standing outside the Bussey Building. Peckham. Wondering whether he might have made more than just a rookie mistake. He was trying to blend into the wall. Was succeeding until his trainers had turned him in. He lent too casually against the brick. He shivered. Nerves. Anticipation. Bass? Maybe something else. It shook him from all the way out here. Rocked him. Shivered up his spine. He dug size 8 graves.
Every minute like sixty. He rubbed the print outs dry, fingering them inside his pocket. The massive warehouse was drenched in graffiti. Bass shook the dead air outside. No life. It felt like a wasteland, except for the gatekeepers. Straining he thought he could hear something else. That sound on the air that he was completely inept to describe… Rookie mistake, she’d said. He buried his paws.
The guy to his left was staring. Scuffed footwear. Ebony and stained with dust. He edged towards Simon’s, planted like roots. Simon’s insides jumped. Was this one of the guys?
“Spare?” The guy nodded. Nodded a few times too many.
“Sorry?” Simon said. Cursed his politeness.
“You got a spare, mate?” He sucked on his cigarette. It lit up like a flare. “For my girl.” He indicated his own ticket, as if Simon wasn’t entirely there. Pointed to his girl, loitering behind. Frozen pimples scattered her legs. She looked young. Looked like she was wearing a child’s dress.
Simon’s hand closed around his ticket, deep inside his jacket. The guy looked dirty. There was a slight tinge about him. Grey or yellow. Around his collar and hairline. He looked a little bit ill.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. Two hours earlier and he’d happily have sold it. That had been the plan. Now he shook his head. Tried not to stare at the guy. Tried to imagine selling him the ticket. All laid-back. Fake flexed muscle. Moonlighting as a ticket tout. Like he was in control. Like he’d made out to Emily he would be. Could easily bump along with this guy. Nodding dog guy and the pimply teen. They seemed all right. Simon’s eyes flicked across the yellow haze.
Yeah. Who was he kidding?
That was very hard to believe. It was just as hard to imagine himself crawling in there alone though. Trying to pick people apart from their screen names. Internet personas. What was he even looking for? People who looked like him? Floppy haired, nerd boys? Geeks standing on their own? He’d felt so sure about it, when he’d booked the tickets, but now the reality was hitting him. It probably wouldn’t be that easy.
“Will you still go in?” Simon asked. He uprooted his burial plots ever so slightly to his right. Simon didn’t know what conversation he could have with this guy. Wasn’t sure he really wanted one. Simon concentrated hard on keeping his own head still. He didn’t want to start nodding excessively. It looked weird.
The guy had stocky shoulders. His confident eyes never stopped dancing for potential tickets. He’s no rookie.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Can’t miss out on account of the bird, can I? Stupid mare shouldn’t of left it so late.”
The guy pulled the bird into his chest. Simon watched them say goodbye. A modern day Romeo, pushing his tongue into the gaps where her wisdom teeth would be. He’s saving some ash in there for later, Simon thought, when the nicotine runs short. He tried not to gag.
In front of his bedroom mirror Simon had looked the part, his dull coloured hoodie snugly under his dark jacket, jeans sagging, the perfect t-shirt. Layers, for the heat. But everything was newly washed. He smelled of fabric conditioner. Right then Simon wanted that yellow and grey glow, the aroma of unwashed skin and aura of sleepless nights. He touched each right angle of the perfectly folded tickets, stowed safely inside his pocket.
After all the accounting, after all the effort to blend and he wasn’t blending at all. She’d seen it at a glance. Rookie mistake.
The guy was leaving. Abandoned the search. He nodded up to the front line. Showed his crumpled printout. They pointed him through. An equal. Like someone born to be there. Not an impostor who had followed every line in the textbook, who was wearing the textbook. The bird stayed behind. Waved her handkerchief until he’d disappeared around the corner. Glanced at Simon. He looked away. She lit a cigarette.
Simon’s cheeks caught a little sunburn from his shoes. He’d bought two tickets. He’d always had two. He’d really screwed up there. With the whole entire point of this. He’d almost begged her. He’d been on the verge. One word from her and he would have tried it. Pushed it. She probably would have buckled. School or not. But then he’d told her he’d go alone. To see her crinkle and relent.
Simon wondered whether to call Emily. To see if she’d got all her schoolwork ready yet. Just to tell her he had arrived. That he was waiting.
The bird fluttered off. Chattering loudly on her phone, into the night.
A few more people passed him. Another nodding-dog guy. He must have mates on the inside. Mates that were waiting. Mates that were lining the walls for him already. He wasn’t going it alone. Of course he wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was braver than Simon was. But still, this revelation didn’t make Simon feel much braver either.
Two hours earlier, Simon was standing there. Ready to go. As they had planned. As had been arranged. Accounted for. A few quick beers beforehand. Billy had insisted. Down the King’s Head. Where else? Wet the whistle, then grab a few cans from the off licence. Board the train. The 8.46 to London Victoria.
“You can’t really compare the two,” Simon had replied. He was trying to be causal except there was nothing casual about it. Billy especially was always telling him to ‘take it easy’.
Billy shrugged, “It’s been a long week, huh, Si? They know what pint I want here and I don’t have to travel or pay London prices to get it. They got oldies on the jukebox and the quiz machine’s sweet on me.”
Billy had sunk into the corner sofa, a deepened groove, the same one as always, round table, flipping beer mats across at Lisa. She collected their glasses. Giggled like an idiot.
“Another night, yeah, Si? London’s not going anywhere.”
It was the same line. Again and again. London’s not going anywhere. No. But neither was anything else. Simon twitched. He rocked. Don’t do this to me Billy. Don’t fucking do this. He had no one else to ask. Who else was there? Even if there was anyone, everyone was poor. Too strapped for “London prices”. Said in an ominous fashion like you’d be rinsed the minute you crossed the M25. And anyway, London’s not going anywhere. It’d still be there after pay day. And still be there after the next one. And the one after that.
Simon offered to pay. He’d pay for anyone. He didn’t care. But that wasn’t Billy’s problem.
“Take it easy, Si, okay? We’re good here. And Emily’s only a stumble away.” He added, as if that settled it. He flipped a beer mat right at Lisa’s arse.
Simon tried to let it go. He stood still as a few more people passed him. Beat up Adidas and Converse. Two girls as loud as lads. Printed shoes. Chunky trainers. A blind refusal of the January cold. Two fingers up to the end of the year, the end of the holiday. That it was a Thursday. Grey fabric dotted with pink stars. Battered trainers. Dark blue pumps. Low heeled scuffed-up ankle boots. His brand new crystal whites stuck out like snow.
Right now his stomach was doing flips. Worse still he had no one to share it with. No one except his girlfriend’s mate. If she turned up. This wasn’t the plan. He hardly knew her. She probably listened to Coldplay. It seemed lame. It seemed desperate. And Simon hated desperate.
He’d really fucked this up. The whole point had been to squash that desperate feeling. The one that he thought would have gone away but lingered. He’d been unpacking. Back from a Christmas with Emily’s family. He’d been transferring his socks. Balling up his good socks. The toes hung out like two spunkless testicles. He always placed his socks in the right hand side of the top drawer. Underwear folded in the left. It was a tiny thought that elbowed him. Except it nudged him hard. Bruised his grey matter. Who the fuck has good socks at twenty-two? He’d thought about asking Emily but then he’d decided not to. She probably didn’t want to think about stupid stuff like that. Except now he couldn’t stop thinking it.
Lauren wasn’t late. In fact she was bang on time. Simon was early. Well, he was late really, according to the original time, but early against the time Emily had arranged with Lauren. Straight-legged, dark jeans, a dark jacket, smelling of perfume, apologising three times for making Simon wait. Which Simon assured her was no problem at all. She blended. She blended effortlessly in a way that she hadn’t really tried, rushing out of the house with her hair scraped up in a heap. She kept trying to pat it down. She was a lot prettier than Simon ever remembered noticing. Big blue eyes. Sky blue. She was wearing dark blue fake Converse pumps, with little white laces. They looked like sailor’s shoes, poking out from under the denim. Perfect.
Simon would usually have felt awkward. Do I hug her? Will she hug me? Is a handshake too formal? But Lauren took care of it, opting for a small half-wave, half-salute, half-smile as she stopped in front of him. She made it look natural. He was grateful.
Simon thought he detected a flash of crinkled nose. She squinted into the darkness. Then it was gone.
“Yup, this is it.” He shuffled his feet awkwardly out of their sinkholes.
“Okay, well let’s get inside,” said Lauren. It was something that Emily would say. Taking charge, seizing that half-second of battleground. No man’s land. The doubt when you first meet about who’s going to assert themselves. The alpha male. Lauren had put her foot right in there. Suited Simon fine. Simon still needed to be in control but her confidence made him feel at ease. It took the pressure off.
“I really need a drink,” she added.
Simon had both the tickets. Both in his name. Passed them into the tire thick fingers of one of the bouncers who was standing by the gate. One who had smirked at him. An act that said he was in charge. Was meant to be there. A façade, a trick. Lauren looked like she could blend. That was good enough. Simon doubted she even knew what ‘here’ was. Simon was tagging in for the ride. The impostor suddenly seemed more viable with this likely sidekick. Maybe Simon could blend in after all. His trainers now dulled from dirt. The big guy glared at him. He looked at Lauren. Glanced at the paper. Then shrugged, waved them vaguely in the direction of the darkened building. Around to the side. An alleyway.
Lauren led them across. A big heavy door was propped just slightly ajar. Lauren teetered on the edge of it. The soft sound was louder now. She gave Simon a look. Down here? He shrugged.
“Okay,” she said. She pushed the door open.
Every step down made Simon shake a little more. Now he could feel the bass line rippling. Immediate. It was under his skin already. Like a pulse. The vibrations were inside him. This was it. Suddenly he wanted to shake Lauren’s shoulders out in front. Suddenly the unsure feeling of earlier was gone. He ran his hands down the wall. They were covered in posters. Curling at the edges. Wet with moisture. His fingers flicked against the corners.
They reached the door at the bottom of the steps. Lauren hesitated again. It was already pretty loud. And the doors looked heavy. Sound crashing against them. Simon clenched his fists. Thought he should say something in order to prepare. He opened his mouth, she opened the door.
The rush of hot, sticky air punched him in the nose. And it was LOUD. The air was alive. Suddenly rumbling the atoms around his brain. He could hardly think straight. Just for a moment. Felt like every atom of his being was shaking. Felt like he suddenly couldn’t breathe. Like he just might puke. Or shit himself on impact. Just for a second.
Simon steadied himself. Started ripping off layers in the heat. His new t-shirt was jet black. Had a white chalk outline of a sound system on it. A Swamp 81 t-shirt. Lauren was shedding layers too, down to a bright pink top that stuck to her in the heat. It showed how skinny she was but she kept pulling it off her. He couldn’t see her face in the darkness.
The room was small, but packed. The noise was alive. Felt alive. The air seemed to have life too. It was moving. Felt tangible with the sound. Bellowing out from the speakers on his right. Pushing itself from somewhere in the darkness. Somewhere inside the mass of bodies. But it was way too dark, he couldn’t see inside the corners, couldn’t tell how many people were in here.
Simon stood on the edge. On the brink. He felt like one step forward would swallow him up. He tasted moisture on his lips. Wet with anticipation. Sweat in the air. Dripping off the cave-like ceiling. Pinches of smoke stung his eyes. They darted about, adjusting to the light. He edged a fraction closer. Wanting in, but stood as if transfixed. How was this noise level legal? It rumbled the solid stone pillars down here. It rumbled his organs.
There was far too much to process. People amassed on his right in front of the DJ. The memorised line-up told him Kaiju had just come on. He squinted to see. People heaped underneath the speaker. Their god breathing heavily across their heads and into their chests. A mesh of dark bodies in smoke and flailing arms. Drawing in now. It looked like some sort of cult.
The low rumbling cuts of bass shook him from the speaker. A guy with his shirt unbuttoned was standing directly in front of it. Fabric sucking and blowing with the force. Was he wearing earplugs? Simon blinked. Another guy looked like it was bending him over. Bending with the force.
A guy knocked into him. A group of guys were trying to flick their lighters. Hold them in the air. Except the flames kept blowing out. A guy next to him was attempting to roll what Simon guessed was a joint. Expertly. People all around him moving. Little bits of brown and green being swept up in the rush. How were there this many people hidden under here? Underground like this, on a Thursday night?
He recognised the track and something pulled him in. It was almost instant. He looked across at Lauren. She was moving away. She’d spotted the bar at the back. A bee-line. Moving quickly. Either that or she was running. Running away from the sound. The intensity. Simon felt torn but he couldn’t lose her. He’d be right back in a minute.
Simon followed. Trying hard to keep one eye on her, the pink blur weaving through, and one eye on everything else. To stare as he passed it. And all at once. But that was impossible.
Suddenly, nothing really mattered. Wearing the wrong shoes didn’t matter. Billy didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that he’d waited so long to be here. And it didn’t seem to matter in the slightest that he was here with someone he didn’t really know. Or that she wanted to go to the bar, instead of to the speakers. None of that mattered because those speakers weren’t going anywhere. And he was here.
Lauren reached the bar.
“Well, this place is mental,” she declared, yelling. Now they were a little bit away from the sound. She turned back to Simon for his drink order.
“Rum and coke please,” he was still looking around. “Yeah, I know. Thank you.” Simon couldn’t hide the huge grin plastered across his face. He wasn’t just thanking her for the drink.
“Yeah, no worries,” she smiled. Missed the emphasis completely. Ordered two rum and cokes. Doubles. Began necking hers before she’d even paid. Simon pushed some notes into the bartender’s hand instead. She had a buzz cut, nose ring and wore bright pink earplugs. He grabbed his drink. Followed Lauren even further back, along the side of the bar, away from the front. Away from the speakers.
Simon took a breath. He took a sip. He felt like he might have a hard time swallowing this up there. Like the liquid would rattle inside his throat. Like it wouldn’t go down. Here he could just about manage it. He glanced at Lauren. She didn’t seem to have any issue. Her glass was almost dry.
It was awkward to talk. Simon knew they should talk. At least a bit. It was the thing to do when you met someone. But the sound was way too loud. And all he wanted to do was stand and listen.
“I didn’t know you came to stuff like this!” Lauren yelled in his ear. She smelt of rum.
Simon didn’t know he came to stuff like this either. He wanted to say something like ‘this finally feels like home’ but knew he couldn’t say that.
Instead he shrugged. “Yeah. I’m new to it,” he shouted back.
“What is this, like heavy reggae?” Lauren was looking towards the DJ.
Simon swallowed. Heavy reggae? What did that even mean? Was that even a thing? And if it was, which he very much doubted, knew in fact, where was the connection to this sound? Simon tried to hide his face. Suspected it would give him away. Emily often told him he had to be more polite. Luckily it was dark.
If they were outside or somewhere they could speak Simon would have explained. He would have explained Kaiju. He would have explained this sound. It seemed like something someone ought to know. But it was too loud in here. He made a mental note to explain it later. Or some other time.
“No,” he shook his head so she could see. “Dubstep,” he mouthed.
She crinkled up her nose again. Oh Jesus, Simon thought.
“UK Bass,” he tried again, “I guess you could call it bass music.” He felt frustrated. Genres didn’t help sometimes. She wasn’t listening anyway. She nodded politely.
Lauren squinted against the smoke. “Emily mentioned that your mates were here. Where are they then?”
Simon squinted inside the blackness too. The mass of bodies. The moving mass.
“I don’t know what they look like.” It was instantly hopeless. Simon tried to imagine starting a conversation in here, even if he knew what any of them looked like. He felt embarrassed.
Simon immediately wanted to change the subject. Lauren didn’t seemed like a girl who would understand that. Wouldn’t get it. His online network. The lifeline he had found to validate him. An escape. He had stumbled across it while looking for music. For weeks he’d only observed. Worked out the etiquette. Watched what people posted. Learnt the screen names. Learnt the lingo. Before he’d found it Simon didn’t even known about this Converge night. Didn’t know anything about dubstep or UK Bass or Instrumental Grime. Didn’t know any of the DJs. Never questioned The King’s Head on a Friday. Or Billy. Or having good socks. Often he felt closer to the people on there. Inside his screen. They seemed more real to him. Everyday in the office they were characters who danced about his desk. While his real life colleagues sat wired in and silent. He just made up what they looked like. It was a detail that had never really mattered.
Lauren was laughing. She snorted. Coughed on her drink.
“Sorry,” she spluttered. “But that’s funny.”
“You came here to meet some people and you don’t know what they look like.”
Simon shrugged. A little irritated. He knew it was. But it had seemed ridiculous to ask. When it came to it.
He shuffled. Switched the subject quickly.
“What kind of music do you like then?” He shouted. Deflecting away the heat. She didn’t answer straight away. Rummaged inside her bag. Checked her phone. Then she swallowed the rest of her fluid in one.
“Oh, you know, a bit of everything really. Dance music. I’ll get the next one.” And she moved quickly back to the bar.
Dance music? What does that even mean? A bit of everything. Simon was glad Lauren hadn’t caught his face again. He wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding it. He shook off the annoyance. Turned back to the sound. Forgot about it quickly.
Simon watched the little population mass and swell below the speaker. Like a tribal dance. Flies buzzing on fruit, except the speaker had become the flypaper. Once they were pulled close they were gone. Sucked in, swallowed up. They looked like they were dancing in a swamp. Feet all sticky, pulling them low to the floor like toads. Every bone in Simon itched to go join them. He wanted to dance in the mire with them. He knew that’s where they’d be. All around the speaker. Signed up. Subscribed. Fully immersed. It didn’t matter if he didn’t know what they looked like. He’d be with them anyway.
Lauren returned. Three drinks balanced in her palms. One for Simon. Two for her. She was really on a mission. He’d normally be worried. Couldn’t deal with drunk girls. Especially not emotional ones. When Emily had too much wine and cried, he could just about cope. But only just. Eight years. That said something. Emily said she’d had a fight with Ollie. But it wasn’t his place to ask. Didn’t want her to bring it up. Didn’t want to have to ask if she was okay.
“I had some shots at the bar,” Lauren said. Spilt a bit as she handed him his drink. “I couldn’t carry them over.”
Simon stared at the sound.
“You want to go over there?” Lauren’s eyes followed Simon’s to the gathering.
“It’s pretty loud,” he yelled back. “We won’t be able to talk.” They had to talk inside each other’s ears even here. Every fibre in his body was working its hardest against the urge to run full pelt in that direction.
“You didn’t come here to talk, right?” Lauren shouted.
This girl was brilliant. On her own drunken mission and yet she understood perfectly why Simon was here. That all he wanted in the world was to stand near the sub for a while. Catch some vibrations in his chest. Stand there until every atom of his being shook like mad. Till his vision went blurry with that sound.
He nodded. Nodded like nodding dog guy. Like he’d caught the bug already.
“Bet all your Internet mates are over there,” Lauren grinned. A tiny trace that she still found it funny. She put out her arm. Indicated for him to lead them in. He should have felt guilty. She was still gulping down the drink. Trying not to spill it. As they squeezed right into the thick of it.
Now there was no telling who was here with whom. Surrounded by people and everyone together. Single bobbing heads, pairs of moving arms but no one was alone. Inside the music, in a mass of others, it didn’t matter. It felt good. It felt like enough. No one came here to talk. They came here for the sound. Even if they came alone. He thought about nodding dog guy. He almost laughed.
But Simon felt a rush of gratitude towards Lauren then. Because, without even knowing it, she had got him through the door. If it weren’t for her, he’d be miserably slumped down against Emily’s knitting. Or maybe he’d have calmed down and gone back to the pub. Leaving Billy on the corner roundabout now, staggering his way back from the King’s Head. Eating Cornflakes and watching Top Gear. Feeling the beer hangover begin to creep on top of him. He only really drank beer. He didn’t know what had possessed him to order a rum and coke. He’d seen someone order it in the pub once. Thought it sounded good. And it had tasted good. He wasn’t even much of a drinker, not really.
Not much of a dancer either. But they were inside now. Clashing elbows, rubbing shoulders. Sticky in sweat. Jumping with everybody else. Because there was no other way to move. No option not to. He was moving with them. Dancing. Like a toad stuck in a swamp. And Lauren was doing it too. Lifting her feet up. Copying the guy to her right. She was smiling. Really smiling. Her hair all heaped on her head, jostled playfully up and down. Up and down, to the sound that crashed against them. His skin was rippling, his insides rattling. On every side faces grinning from out of the darkness. His own spread across his jawline. Cracked his face completely.
“I have to go back,” she was saying, “That was probably his plan, you know? Integrate the two designs, I get a new bit every time I go from Mao. You go, smoke a chillum with him, hang out, talk, then a few days later he’s seen what he’s meant to do, you know? I mean seen. He never gets it wrong, never. Dude’s so old, honestly, over a hundred I reckon.” Lauren wondered if she was meant to be contributing something vocally, as the butterfly girl tumbled out more and more words, pulling her hair back from its sweaty mess, embracing the heat, while Lauren pulled hers out, agreeing like an idiot. “It’s the coconut water,” she looked very serious for a moment. “Even if you’re dropping tabs like every day the coconut water gives you life, know what I mean?”
Lauren didn’t but continued to nod then stared into the scratches, as the tiny girl with the butterfly back jumped around, trying to see the black bit in her compact mirrored square. She pulled out a tube of Bepanthen Nappy Cream and started rubbing some on the top of her back, across the raised bit, all the time talking, Lauren not sure whether the words were meant for her or just the air.
“You see what it is, right?” The girl demanded, angry.
“Yes,” Lauren replied, dumbly nodding, she leant against the sinks to steady her weight and blink away the spots, twisted the tap, took a few deep breathes of piss-soaked air between her teeth.
“It’s a butterfly,” she croaked, gesturing vaguely, tracing wings in the air, tips hovering just above the clothing line, then she gripped the wall again, tight, felt the scratches from other nails with hers.
“Thank you,” the girl exclaimed loudly to the air, except there was no one else to hear them, the toilets empty. “It’s totally fucking obvious, right?”
Then she stopped, very suddenly, paused for a fraction of a second, as if seeing something, staring into the newly creamed bit for a whole muted moment.
“Can you rip it?” She fluttered furiously, reaching her arms around her back, tugging at the fabric.
“What?” Lauren blinked.
“Can you rip it?” the Butterfly demanded, and then she added, “Oh fuck it, never mind,” and dramatically pulled her top off over her head, standing there in only a bra, her whole back on show, etched in something that made Lauren catch the air. The cloth tore easily under the Butterfly’s aggressive nails, digging inside it as she shred it to pieces.
“I could just wear this,” she shrugged in the mirror, holding the tatters, admiring her body, “What do you think?”
Lauren didn’t know where to put her eyes. “I think the bouncers might not like it and make you put your top back on,” Lauren offered, cursing her stupidly slow response, but the Butterfly laughed.
“Exactly. These legal venues don’t half get funny, don’t they?” She sighed. “We’re not in Goa anymore.” She pulled an angry face, shoving the black top back over her head again, her back now completely torn, “Much better,” she declared. “Got to let it breathe.”
She moved her skirt up, unthreading her belt from its loops and placed it over the top to keep the pieces of fabric up, while Lauren couldn’t help her stare.
The water was boiling between them now, steam curling and flushing her cheeks even more as Lauren tore her eyes away and busied herself, checking her phone again but still there was nothing, the empty screen.
Indicating the steam that had now clouded their reflections, the Butterfly smiled. “I hate buying water too,” she passed Lauren a bottle of it through the mist as Lauren turned off the tap, mumbling confused, “Thank you.”
“No worries, don’t want you to dehydrate and die,” the Butterfly winked, “the bar’s often quite good on tap water though,” she passed Lauren a chewing gum. “Sorry, I got back Monday morning,” she grimaced apologetically, “four days back and I’m already fucked again. It’s stifling, you know how it is. And what gets me is people can’t see that it’s a fucking butterfly!” she breathed again, looked up at the ceiling, “But why am I surprised? They should be grateful I came back at all-” she kicked the sinks, a foul taste suddenly sparking on her lips, “I will fucking kill someone I swear! I mean, I wasn’t even meant to come back, you know? That’s not enough time to go to India!” She looked hysterical again. “Christmas and New Year isn’t enough time and like clients even care, you know?” She took another deep slow inhale. “But thank god for this,” her face broke in a smile, “this, sorts everything out.”
A burst of noise made the wall shiver and the Butterfly put her arm up like there was nothing left to say.
“I mean I was meant to stay there, you know? Do you need some hair grips?”
Just then a figure loomed out of the music, a ghost through Lauren’s misted vision, going on tiptoes, avoiding the puddles of sweat that had collected from condensation and bodies and piss.
“No, thank you,” Lauren faltered as the butterfly continued scrunching her hair, a beautiful dark red that looked like flames and the figure emerged from the steam cloud behind her, a girl with silver leopard-print legs up to her ears, bending over the watering hole, craning her giraffe neck forward.
She wasn’t admiring herself in the mirror though, more she was examining the Butterfly’s back, staring them both down, chewing hard on a plastic bottle top, running her tongue along its serrated edge. She shook out her bright blonde hair like a mane, while the Butterfly did nothing to rein back in her pieces, her territory, splashed across every surface.
“What is it then?” the Leopard drooled, chewing hard. The Butterfly sighed, shot Lauren a sideways glance, “Look here,” she tried to point to her back in the mirror, “see that, right there,” the Leopard bent her long neck down, closer, fluttering camel-like eyelashes almost against the skin, “you see it?” Both creatures were in their element and Lauren stood, awkward and nobody, fading into the scrawled up background, trying to busy her hands. This was the place that the Leopard thrived, the butterfly belonged and all Lauren could do was continue her silent attempt to fix her hair.
“What am I looking at?” the Leopard snapped after a moment.
It felt like something more than Lauren could grasp or capture, as the intricate patterns of ink fell off her back like sand and water. They scattered off the edges but were perfectly placed too, tiny triangles, pin pricks spun out in ripples, a cluster spiralled at the top, fanned out to look like wings, open, flying, licking near the neck.
The Leopard was examining the raised up part, the blackest bit, not yet seeped in but placed on top, crusting off in little specks of charcoal, looking slightly out of place.
“There,” the Butterfly prompted. “Can’t you see it?” she squinted closer, trying to stay balanced but focusing too hard and becoming dizzy, now Lauren saw in specks, like a magic eye she’d honed in amongst the pattern and lost herself. “Right there. That’s your mum getting fucked by a goat.”
Lauren let out a stifled giggle, despite herself and the Butterfly grinned, flicked away a curl.
“You hear this shit?” the Leopard cracked, sprang back but she was smiling, twisting her soles into the wet plastic floor, dancing, chewing in time to the vibrating walls. “Our girl here thinks she’s funny.”
“Yeah,” the Butterfly nodded, “guess I kind of am,” and she started moving her own feet too, four shoes weirdly shuffling towards one another in a kind of ritual dance, the Leopard started twisting her spidery legs.
“What is this?” the Leopard indicated the shreds of fabric.
“My style is… progressive,” the Butterfly took a twirl mid-shuffle. “Right?” she addressed Lauren with a catwalk pout, “it’s a trend, no? And before you answer you should know I work for the biggest skinny-bitch media agency in London, darrrrrling.” The Butterfly started strutting the toilets, as the Leopard rolled her eyes, “I’m going in your bag,” and she pulled out a tiny bag full up of white powder, which she dug the corner of a card inside and put straight up her nose in an instant. The butterfly gestured for the card, which seemed to wipe the bitter taste clean off her face and Lauren tried not to stare, not knowing where to look, as this amazing fireball, blazing and crashing into the walls, started up her crazy rant again, about acid-spiked coconuts and warm sand at night, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
The Butterfly’s lips moved like a hummingbird, everything about this girl worked at triple pace, making Lauren feel incredibly slow, her mouth made Lauren dizzy.
“Where’s Liam?” the Butterfly asked vaguely.
“Fuck Liam,” the Leopard answered.
“Exactly,” the Butterfly skipped. “But where’s all my girls at? We’re especially outnumbered tonight,” the Butterfly checked her nose in the mirror, “Raff’s in Goa.”
“There’s one right here,” the Leopard indicated Lauren who became stiffer at the mention, realised she was staring.
“You’re here with your boyfriend right?” the Butterfly asked, “Tall dark haired dude, kind of cute.”
“God no,” Lauren said quickly and the two girls looked at her with a mild amusement. “He’s just a friend.”
“Just a friend yeah?” the Leopard stuck out her tongue.
“He’s my best friend’s boyfriend.”
“Huh,” the Leopard said, stumped for a moment. “Well perfect!”
“I do have a boyfriend,” Lauren blurted, before she could stop herself.
“Ah,” the Butterfly said, threw a glance at the Leopard which said she knew it, would have put money on it, and it caught Lauren in the back of the mouth as a wave of sudden sadness. The Leopard shook out her hair, gave a heavy shrug and sidestepped into the cubicle, leaving the Butterfly to turn back and re-gloss her lips for the fifteenth time because she couldn’t stop them moving. The toilets were tiny, the volcanic eruption of coloured powder and pots an explosion across it.
Ollie would hate this girl and the tacky mistake marked up across her back, say it was why you should never, ever get one. Lauren had always wanted a tattoo, a design picked out, a tulip with a twisted stem and curly leaves, shadow on the petal, blue tint, designed for her lower back, but Ollie had branded it a tramp stamp, cheap, and who else was ever going to see it, apart from him? What about when you’re a completely different person, it isn’t you Lauren, that just isn’t you.
“I’m actually here to piss him off,” Lauren said, in a tiny miserable voice.
“Oh?” the Butterfly twitched, Lauren had her interest again and the question was right on the edge of the her lips, as Lauren braced herself for a reality check from someone so far removed from the picture they were seeing it in high definition.
“How’s that work then?” she twisted a red strand of hair around a finger.
“We’ve been together a long time,” Lauren mumbled, she looked away. She’d never spoken about it to anyone, her and Emily played chase around the topic a few times but it was never in any danger of getting close. She added weakly, “You know how it is.”
As soon as she’d said it she wished she hadn’t because of course this girl wouldn’t know how that was. She would never have this problem, a boyfriend clawing and scratching his way inside her mind, while Lauren tried to keep him far away except he was all she could think about. While Lauren was here, trying her hardest to get right underneath his pale freckled skin, he was under hers, inside her blood, bobbing about in the cells.
“Well watch this one,” the Leopard said darkly as she emerged again, checking herself in the mirror, “she’ll get you into trouble.”
She bounded towards the door as if something strong and invisible was pulling her that way.
“Oh fuck it,” the Butterfly said loudly as soon as the Leopard was gone, tipping her entire bag back out on the floor again, “I’m out of smokes,” and she started to rummage around more frantically, “And there’s no machine in here,” her voice began to rise as she let out a groan. “Oh mannnn.”
“I have cigarettes,” Lauren said very suddenly, rather dumbly, pulling them out, as if she’d stumbled upon her voice box by accident, she held them in her hand, the brand new pack, only one with its feet slightly warmed now safely slotted back between the rest.
“Shall we have a smoke then?” the Butterfly answered, as she skipped towards the door.
“You’re lovely,” a guy in a sticky white t-shirt yelled in Lauren’s ear as she passed him on the stairs, eyes rolling like golf balls and Lauren tried to ignore him.
He stopped, blocking her, his hot manic breath on her neck, transfixed with the way the light was dancing across the pink of her top. Lauren’s heart flipped a little as she calculated the brute of this guy, he brought his hand up to touch the pink.
“Oi mate, what are you doing?” the Butterfly had climbed back up from her leader’s position, was standing behind him, much smaller on a lower step but she sounded ten feet huge. She rummaged in her bag until she found one of her bright pink pots, “hold out your hand then,” she demanded, and she tipped a little pile of the shimmering shade across his palm.
“There you go,” she patted his arm like a child, “there’s your own patch of pink to play with.”
The guy stared at his hand.
“Men are so one-dimensional,” the Butterfly muttered and she carried on walking, leaving him on the stairs, tiny in heeled boots but she skipped the steps in twos.
Didn’t this count? As something Lauren liked, that Ollie didn’t? This girl, and everything about her, fabric falling off her back, her sign, like some big fuck-off arrow, this girl, this girl was Platforms. And Lauren followed that arrow, that butterfly, like Alice, as it darted through the people outside, fluttered to find them a space, sparking the cigarette in one clean click and asking, “So your boyfriend’s a bit of a dick huh? Well that just isn’t on mate, is it? Wicked top by the way, it really suits you, love the pink.”
She looked like a pixie. Wore heeled ankle boots but still she was small. A pocket rocket. She bobbed erratically around for no reason. Simon glanced at Lauren. Can we go back to the speakers now? Would you really care if I just went back to the speakers and left you here by the bar?
People change the course of events regularly. It was not something Simon was really into doing. But he’d learnt to deal with it. It was how life worked. Simon had far less patience for those individuals who changed the course of events mid way through. Who were ‘spontaneous’. Loose cannons. Simon wasn’t very good at any of that. Never had been. He liked to account for things. Know what to expect. Know what was coming. He didn’t like surprises. And he didn’t like being spontaneous. He liked to tell himself he booked tonight’s tickets in a spontaneous fashion. And maybe it was the most spontaneous thing he’d ever done. But it was a lie to say he hadn’t already thought it through. His brain was wired that way.
Emily wasn’t spontaneous. He loved her for it. A teacher. She planned out every lesson like her life. And Simon’s IT-mind thought logically too. Thought with his head. But was there any other way? He didn’t understand how anyone could think with the heart. That expression made no sense.
He glanced around. Away from her. Over her head. Despite himself he was still looking. Staring into faces. Checking people out. Wondering if he knew them. He wanted to ask. Didn’t know where to start. What to say. It was impossible past the passing glance. He didn’t want to damage it with words.
And the bass track kept on calling. He was about to bolt again. The pressure on the ball of his foot. Insides plummeting. She’s talking to you. She expects an answer. An interaction. Some sort of engagement. He shifted awkwardly.
“Er, sorry what?”
“You having a good night?” she shouted it. Murdering the sound. Twitching, springing on her toes.
I was. One girl that doesn’t know the music was bad enough. Now there were two. Gossiping, drinking. Talking. Too much talking. He should just leave them to it. Just leave them here.
“Yeah, it’s good,” Simon replied. Didn’t really look at her. He was staring over her shoulder. She was small. Too small. An unpredictable entity. Probably highly spontaneous. The worst. She was talking way too fast. But Simon wasn’t listening. Simon wasn’t good with girls. That wasn’t strictly true. He wasn’t great with people.
“You been here before, or is this your first time too?” she chattered away brightly. Chewing on his ear.
“Yeah, it’s his first time,” Lauren answered for him.
“Lucky fuckers!” The girl raised her drink to chink an imaginary glass that Simon wasn’t holding up. “We’re celebrating! My girl here’s independence!”
She put her arm around Lauren. Lauren put her arm around the girl. How could they be so friendly? They didn’t even know each other.
“Yup, my independence!” Lauren said. She slurred the words slightly. She stumbled into Simon. Great. Just brilliant. Simon moved to his right so Lauren couldn’t lean on him. Lauren was forced to either carry her own weight or fall. She chose to straighten up. Continued to sway dangerously.
The speakers shook with an extra injection. The track shifted. An immediate eruption from the room.
The girl shouted. Let out some high pitch squeal that Simon reckoned could make dogs mental. She nodded towards the speaker stack. Simon didn’t react. He was lost over there, about to leave. Lauren was nodding like this ‘heavy reggae’ was her new favourite thing.
“You know Kaiju only released this track on limited vinyl press, yeah?” she yelled. Still jumping. “Well, I got a copy.”
Simon’s eyes refocused. Like he was only just noticing her. Her hair was very red. She was a hyper drunk. Couldn’t stand still. But maybe it wasn’t just the drink. She wasn’t swaying like Lauren was. Moving but moving to the sound. Like she couldn’t stand still.
“Yeah?” Simon said. Slight disbelief etched his tone. He was aware of this track’s rarity. “How?”
She was still bobbing. “Record Store Day,” she grinned. Then stared at Simon’s blank expression. “You’re not from London, are you? Maaaaate, what’s the matter with you?”
Simon stared at her blankly.
“Do you play records?” he asked her. He felt a little stupid. But had to know.
“Nah, just have a few, a tiny collection,” she was bending her knees with every spring. “Do you?” Then she paused, “You know what? Fuck this chat, no offence, I just need to go in there for this one. It’s kind of a big deal.”
Simon nodded. He could see that from the room. He turned on his feet. Almost fell in his hurry to follow her. They pushed towards the raucous.
“Are you from the forum?” he yelled. Down into her ear. She strode out in front. Please say you’re from the forum!
“Sure,” the girl yelled back.
“What’s your name?” he shouted again.
She shouted back across her shoulder. Then turned and he saw her back. Tattered fabric hanging loose. An opened wing butterfly underneath. Made up of hundreds of patterns. Thousands of shapes. Darkly inked. He’d never seen anything like it.
“I’m Simon,” he shouted. “Nice butterfly.”
She turned around. Extended her hand, somehow through the bodies. He shook it. He felt a shock as he touched her skin. Later he’d try to explain it in logic. Later his logic would fail. It was the same vibration. Electric that shot up his arm, straight to his heart.
It was the same one he’d been feeling all night. The one where, just for a second, he thought his heart might stop. That jolt. That little injection of life. Just for a second. And she was shutting up now. Like she felt it too. She understood. As she grabbed Lauren’s hand and they squeezed through the crowd. Right up to the speaker. He couldn’t have picked a better spot. She was tiny but she led them all the way.
* * *
The sky was changing. Tinges of dawn licked and sucked at the edges. Simon had never seen it look so pretty. He took out his key. He held it in his hand. All around him feathery beaks began to yawn and stretch their vocal cords. His mind was singing, humming with a particular tune. It went like, dum, dum, dum. It was hard and full of bass. And there was the other sound like, wub, wub, wub. His heartbeat pounded the backdrop beat. He pressed his key and palm flat against it. He’d never felt it before. Not like this. The air was still. Simon stood with it. Right on his doorstep. Breathing in the moment. Everything was still. Everything was right. He hadn’t accounted for how he’d feel afterwards. He couldn’t even explain this to himself. But it was fine. Everything was fine. It was more than fine. It felt like a penny had dropped. Everything was exactly where it was meant to be.
He’d got the train home but instead of a normal train-like chug, it had cruised. The first morning train. No clogged up effort and wasted time. It had flown to the beat, dum, dum, dum. It had cut the black countryside in a deep, dark incision, wub, wub, wub. Leaving behind the urban glow. Snaking between clusters of concrete blocks, dum, dum, dum. Simon had his electronic sounds plugged right into him. No pregnant office girl stopped to grill him. No ear-to-ear briefcase lawyer telling him to turn the volume down. DUM, DUM, DUM. The train was his and he’d play that track as loud as he liked. Constant repeat.
Charlie. What a girl. As far as he had seen, she’d been there on her own. Was she from the forum? He didn’t think so. For one, she was way too socially able. She wasn’t a geek. She wasn’t awkward or strange. On the contrary. She had a record collection. Though, self-confessed, it was small. She knew about music. God, she certainly knew how to chat.
Maybe her friends had left early. But what did it matter to her? She was a complete unpredictable entity. Not his usual cup of tea. Not at all. But perfect none the less. He’d gone there to meet someone who was as much into the music as he was. And he had done. Mission achieved. Not exactly someone from the forum. But a real person. It was almost like she was meant to be there. Words spilling from her lips like they did from the forum, but from flesh. She knew what she was saying. She wasn’t miles away. She wasn’t trapped inside a glass box. Letters on a screen.
Simon twisted his key in the lock. He opened the door. Emily’s workbag was laid out on the table. Coloured pens. Stickers of farmyard animals. Her packed lunch sat neatly to the right. A space where her sandwich would rest, when she got it out of the fridge. A tin of cupcakes to the left. Simon found the icing tube in the kitchen. He licked the blue frosting. He could smell Emily’s shampoo mixed with butter, eggs and flour all over it. The flat was silent. Calm in the magic hour. It wasn’t night. It wasn’t day. The colours peaked in through the kitchen curtains, casting friendly shadow puppets. The stick figures, from primary school kids, danced on the fridge. Danced to his rhythm, dum, dum, dum. The fridge hummed in harmony and satisfaction.
Simon, without any further hesitation, pulled off his jacket. Emily lay in her normal chaotic sprawl in their bed. A tangle of covers. Simon got under them. He was still fully clothed. He pressed himself against her. Her breath was like a heater from the outside cold.
“How was it?” she murmured. Half-asleep. She didn’t open her eyes. “Was it fun?”
Everything Simon could think of was inadequate. He just didn’t have the words.
Simon searched his mouth for the answer. He wanted Emily to really understand. He wanted her to see what he saw. Feel it from him.
“There was this tune, it was so gooooood, it went like dum, dum, dum, wub, wub, wub,” he breathed every note right into her hair. It was all wavy. Unbrushed. Untamed. In the new light it was the colour of autumn leaves. Of earth. Wind. Fire. It reflected the new born day outside.
Simon kept the tune going in her ear, until she wriggled away, laughing softly and saying, “Si, shhhh. Seriously, what is that?”
“The track. It went like -”
“Tell me in the morning…” she whispered.
Simon had already started to rip off his clothes. He pushed his socks off with his toes, it took three beats, dum, dum, dum, other sock, also three, dum, dum…dum. Everything in perfect timing with the beat. Everything in harmony. Everything in rhythm. Now he was completely naked. The song still rocked in his brain. He wanted Emily to hear it. He wanted Emily to listen, while he told her all about it but he still didn’t have the words, just that one beat, on loop.
He started to pull at Emily’s pyjamas, all pink and warm and fluffy. The little faces of bears looked up at him in mild confusion. Simon pulled them down, dum, dum, dum, until they were around her ankles. Reached his hand up. Stroked her knees. Her knees felt perfectly round. Her thighs. Emily stirred.
“Si, what? What are you doing? I’m asleep…” Simon moved his hand up, slipping his fingers, dum, dum, dum.
Emily’s eyes opened a little further. “Okay Si, hang on –” But she started to gasp and swallow, even before she could finish her sentence. Emily had her eyes open fully now and Simon pulled her close to him. Her short hot breath was like fire on his cheeks, dum, dum, dum. It came in bursts. Everything to the beat. Nose to nose. Every fibre was singing this new rhythm. And Simon pushed Emily deep into the bedsprings, until she was scratching his back. Until she was moaning in his ear. Except all he could hear was that track and the beat, looping in his mind.
Four crisp white sheets, individually wrapped, tucked like stiffly washed hotel linen, rubbing shoulders inside their paper jacket, but one was absent, chewed in an ocean of sticky saliva, thrown about that mouth like she wanted her tongue to be. The packet lay as evidence, untouched by Lauren, sitting on the kitchen side among the savage remains, the crumbs, the colourful letters of ‘bastard’ and ‘w8nker’ splattered across the fridge. Ray, who had swallowed the other A’s, now sat eyeballing the side of Lauren’s head as she fixed the gum with her eyes.
Lauren watched that tiny parcel as if it might move, then trod slowly over to the kitchen bin, about to uncover the body, terrified at what might be discovered as Ray hung his tail and ears down low beside her. Lauren opened the lid and there it was, a small rectangle of foil and paper, gloating on top of another cardboard square, the price tag for the Topshop pink, her insides granite.
She strained her mind and her eyes around the kitchen, as the dull thump of a hangover made looking and thinking in unison more than an effort, light battering right inside her irises. Everything was exactly where she had left it, right down to the tiny smears of green, scraps scattered across the work surface, but the gum… that chewing gum… It was the only clue… She scrutinised it as if the answer was scratched up along its paper shell.
Wouldn’t she have noticed that gum, while sitting on the floor, pulling down pieces of bread, talking to Emily on the phone, wouldn’t she have pulled it down by accident? Wouldn’t she have seen it as she smacked her cigarette pack beside it? The last thing, she put in the bin before she left was that price tag, cut out and thrown, except it wasn’t the last thing in there now. All the pieces were fitting together, her mind working slower, her body reacting before her brains had got there and she began to shake.
She’d tumbled against an empty bed, passed right out, Ray hadn’t been fed and she’d had to assume, in her unfocused state, that Ollie had not been home.
Lauren wasn’t sure which scenario was worse, a plan failed or a plan that had half worked, except if Ollie had been home why hadn’t he called to see that she was okay, to see where she was…? She’d expected him to call and call and text and text, demanding an answer, anger turning to worry, to hear him suffer.
But maybe the gum had been there all along? Who really notices a tiny packet of chewing gum? Or maybe I bought it last night, put it on the counter when I got in, she strained her memory, chewed that one strip and she lurched forward to check the bin again, but all that was in there were pasta bows, chocolate wrappers and ripped up dog sheets. Lauren glanced at Ray, desperately willing him to speak, but all he did was dip his eyes submissively, break their contact and slump back down.
The phone in her hand and the first digits of Simon’s number, she felt insane, why would she call him? She stared at the number. Why would he remember me buying gum? But she had to squash this feeling, had to know, had to be sure. She felt dizzy, I could ask Chipped Whites, excuse me, was I in your shop early this morning and did I buy any gum? Lauren started to pace.
Maybe she was still drunk? She felt hazy, like her outline was blurred, but there was also that very familiar feeling rising, and it was only going to get worse once she sobered up and grasped the situation.
The chewing gum winked at her, the secret hidden just inside the foil, as Lauren picked it up, pulled out a piece, undressed and stripped it down, stuck it in her mouth, bending its curvy body with her tongue.
She stared at her phone again, obvious now, hating herself but knowing it was inevitable, to stop this rising feeling. The cold hand tickling her insides, familiar fear and dread, the long spidery fingers of guilt that got right up inside the organs. All Lauren wanted now was to hear Ollie’s voice, for him to shout at her or even give her the silence, if she knew he was breathing on the other end. It was getting worse, she felt nauseous and the tone was the longest she’d ever heard, hoping as well that it would never end. Her throat felt tight and she wasn’t sure her voice was going to do what it was supposed to, wanting to apologise but she bit her tongue to stop it.
“Hey, this is Ollie. Can’t talk right now so, yeah, leave a message.”
Lauren swallowed then choked on his tones.
The first speck of morning light, blurry as fuck, hung as the ash coloured stuff sifted back in, Goan warmth across her skin, the slight itch of sand, a waft of Charas, coconut milk and a smile that crept across her soul. Solus papilio inter mille tineis. It was inside her, an ache in the head that began to scream, wailing out for her saviours, her lifelines of nicotine and caffeine, a shot in each arm because her veins were dry. Her throat was lined with gravelly molecules, breathe and breathe, scraping the windpipe UGHHH feels like hell and where’s the water? A black hair between her lips, a fur ball, and Lucky Strike looking coy, always trying to kill her, a suffocating choke, while Nescafé licked her toes, one killer, one sexy minx, her head cracked with the irony.
Charlie took a gulp from last night’s bottle, retching, no really retching, duck flapped against her tongue at the liquid drugs with a hint of H2O. Her eyes stuck closed but the dream was gone, any thoughts now snapped against her skull with every coffee stroke and she kicked Nescafé until he yelped and undertook the quest too of scraping pieces of grey matter and memories up from the carpet. The hunt for cigarettes began, but Nescafé found her bag beneath the bed and inside was just crushed cardboard, chemical smells and exploded glitter and he clawed them all.
She was running almost half an hour late but she sat on the side of the bed, letting her eyes open slow, the tiny fur-balls dancing around her ankles, blinking, stinging, trying to order her thoughts as they sprawled and sprayed themselves across the inside of her mind. Thank Fuck for Friday, the one tiny shiny fringe across the bullshit that would be today, as Media Thursdays were an early gunshot to drink your body weight in pitchers, with clients or at media parties, and a hangover standard practice.
Charlie let her lateness clock forty-five before pushing her arms through a dress, while Lucky Strike had the tights, a tiger’s talon down to the knee, a fight already tapped. Violence simmered under Charlie’s stare, squaring down that bitch on heat, I must get you to the vet and sort you out, before you sit on my face again and bleed in my eye. Sometimes it was Lucky Strike’s fight, her win, her ally cat spit with spiky tufts, pretending she wasn’t soft, and Charlie would growl and grab a second pair. But not today, as Lucky Strike crinkled and curled underneath her owner’s stare DON’T PUSH ME BITCH and the paws let go, but not before punching a tiny claw inside the knee.
“Jesus Fuck,” Charlie said loudly, making Lucky Strike dart behind the bed, right down inside the dust crack condom wrappers, curvy grips and long lost copper. Charlie pushed her flesh roughly inside, a rape that ripped it wider, longer, the ladder snaking its way from dress hem now to where her leather-topped boot would be.
“Fucking hell,” she screamed, finding a replacement inside her drawers, jamming in her toes again, throwing the laddered tights to the lions INHALE EXHALE white woven lines entangled with colourful scales, heaped up and covered in tiny specks of gold, light rust and coppery glitter that reflected off the sun. Solus papilio inter mille tineis.
Charlie opened her eyes and curtains onto the pitch-black January sky, trying to keep that smile inside her soul. Deodorant and dry shampoo, she sprayed it leaning forward, adding body to her fiery hair while Lucky Strike and Nescafé danced in the grey flakes that snowed in their pre-adolescent manes. Three licks to each eye, forty-seven less than the office average, as she kicked her bag past Raff’s empty room, door still open, floor strewn with colour, their great escape still clinging to the walls.
Holding her breath she fed the pair chunky jelly at the sink, her mind half sludge, half-smashed up star-shaped biscuit, crumbs, little jagged edges and bits of her evening, now elbowing their way back into focus. She still hadn’t cleared out the timer, solidified leftovers stuck to the sides and she piled in the fresh stuff on top, as the felines wolfed it almost off the fork, making Charlie want to gag INHALE EXHALE the nets were placed alongside a faded wooden belly, blue and red and yellow peels of paint and a patchy dog, scratching up its nose. It sat half-soaked in a ripple, half-baked in a sun-kissed dry expanse, green crawling up the edges but with an overlay of bass as lashings of memory and light and sound were creeping back. She cracked the unbreakable steel against the sink, harsh smacks to discipline her mind, making whiskers quiver as it echoed off the sides of her skull and kept on ringing.
Charlie slammed Raff’s door but it wasn’t as if their whole flat wasn’t full of hanging beads, stubs of chillum and spice rack powders. An actual hand-woven fishing net was strung up across their door but, with no sunlight glinting through, no fluorescent fins, no fisherman’s boat, no mongrel with an itchy nose, it was just old rope, sat shivering in the chill of bitter wind.
Outside the freezing air smacked her and usually Charlie hated it, whipping up her hair, except this morning she was glad, her brain felt like it needed scooping out with a big metal spoon, her stomach too, she needed to vomit, cum and shit just to purify all the areas. She bought a pack at the end of her road, sat outside on the wall by the tube, letting the hand on her wrist tick on, letting her fingers turn white in the January ice. Charlie focused on the suited and booted drone ants, collecting the Metro at Go and swarming the little shuttle, pretending to blow thick, grey hurricanes, hoping to spin them in a ‘fuck the colony’ rage of confusion.
She let the madness dash past, briefcases slapping her thighs, as she stood on the escalator, three licks to each eye, most people in work by now but Carnaby Street was still Friday busy with early shoppers and this was where she got the other, dark and strong. She fired out insults at the pointed edges of bags that nipped INHALE EXHALE blowing smoke as if from a chillum out across the the haze solus papilio inter mille tineis but it was worst surrounded by people, as she held onto her Pret coffee, a balancing act perfected, threw ash to the curb and pushed her way inside.
Gary was chuckling from reception security, the only misshapen fronts, only genuine grin in the place, as he winked at the clock above his head.
“Still running on Indian time?” he scoffed.
Munching pastries, he waved his hands, I’ll sign you in, don’t worry, as Charlie headed for the lift and Gary scrawled in the book, buttery flakes patching up the page.
“Trying to get yourself sacked?” he asked.
“I wish,” Charlie scowled, the lift button flashed and the corners of Gary’s mouth curled up in amusement.
“God I look like shit,” she stared at herself in the lift doors, waiting for them to open. “My tongue feels like a cat’s arse.” She stuck it out, trying to shift the dry.
“You look fine to me,” Gary shrugged, then, adding gravely, croissant shedding like skin from his lips, “but hey man, I don’t live up there.”
She was forced to meet her inadequately dressed eyes, mirrors everywhere, both carrying too much luggage, from only four days back and how had that happened? How had the coconut-watered skin evaporated so quickly? It was as if this place knew exactly where to pick a hole, right inside her soul so INHALE EXHALE full of coconut water, brushed across the tan, none seeping out and she envied Gary, never having to venture any higher, his policy, unless it was a matter of life and death and that depended on the life.
Gary chuckled away, below the CrissCross Media signage, the gateway for hell, it’s curving C’s in that offensive pink, reminding anyone who entered to check their soul at the door, if they had one.
“Smoke in thirty?” Gary offered as the lift doors began to close, Charlie not ready to be pulled away, dragged upwards, away from the only sane one here, wishing to stay, chat shit and chain smoke because cancer was a better alternative.
“I’ll be straight back down,” she promised.
The doors opened upstairs on Rachel, flicking her eyelashes about, never giving anyone her full attention but always noticing way too much, as she tapped her Marc Jacobs Rock Chronograph Rose Gold watch, with a, “Charlie!” extension on the e, clicking her tongue as if Charlie was a horse.
“Where have you been this morning? Naughty, naughty.”
Rachel hugged Charlie like a best friend, as if they hadn’t seen each other in over a month, Charlie mumbling as Rachel’s glance hovered across the naked nails.
“Is this a new bed-head product I don’t know about sweetie?” she went to touch Charlie’s hair but then decided to retract, as Charlie felt her first wave of real sickness, heightened by the annoying shrillness in Rachel’s voice, after two hours sleep and it’s piercing properties threatening to double her up.
“Dar-ling, you know Woven do a range of conditioner especially for your hair type.”
Charlie performed the smiles, necessary motions, air kisses towards her seat, one, two, oh YOU and how are YOU, a laugh, robotic as everybody smiled, studying the contours of her cheeks, counting the licks across each eye. Rachel, the worst, flicked her perfectly threaded eyebrows around, never missing a thing, never taking them off of Charlie, following her all the way, “What happened last night?” clicking her fuchsia nails against whitened teeth.
Through the slender rows of desks, slender hips and waists, they swivelled, MTV whispered softly as the girls clocked her look, good morning, hey, good morning sweetie, every arse perfectly sized, every nail perfected, manicured, perfectly coloured, fuchsia kisses in the air. Even in their hungover state, the post Media Thursday lull, a slip up on the eye count was unacceptable and Charlie threw open the laptop, a deck to finish and a trigger to pull, a finger on it, either that or she’d blast out Rachel’s brain.
“I was there,” Charlie said vaguely, busying herself with breathing and blinking at the screen, wanting to puke in Rachel’s heavily conditioned hair. “I was…speaking to the client.”
“I was speaking to the client,” Rachel corrected her, she was full on staring at Charlie’s nails now. “Which is how I know that INHALE EXHALE a palm tree flopped, submissive to the heat on the horizon, bent so low it mixed a leak of coconut water inside the turquoise where it cooled its feet. It was bending to a beat, all the heat inside its skin and a wrinkly woman was mopping up the shade, dry bark, a massive wicker basket between her bobbing knees.
“Were you with Pete?” Rachel was eyeing her suspiciously. Jesus fuck and Charlie gripped the table edge, saw a little crowd that was forming, shifting in the sun, brought in by the beat, by the trance, in a trance and “Is something the matter?”
Yes, Charlie said, very loudly inside her mind, a lurch in her stomach and she had to fight to keep it down.
“Did you catch something in, wherever it was you went?” Little clippings of irritation shot through but still every plastic feature worked in perfect unison, “There are a lot of poor people and diseases in India,” Rachel told her, remembering the place, wrinkled nose, heavy in the fake concern. “You didn’t catch something in a slum did you?” She moved a tiny fraction away and Charlie wished she’d keep on moving.
“I was in Goa,” Charlie corrected. “On the beach.”
“Or from those filthy hippies?”
Charlie sniffed and Rachel’s head cocked in an excited flutter, thirsting for tears, for drama but it was only her nostrils, clogged with frosting from the night before, an icing cold, and she thought about it now, her third saviour, the final C in a triplet of vices. She never took it at work, it was far too good to mix with this place, but BY GOD did she want some now.
Owen appeared, looming across Charlie’s desk, making Rachel involuntarily saunter away, flirting, wiggling her arse and keeping one eye behind her, always.
“Can you send over that deck Charlie?”
Owen, another smile plastered, except Charlie thought if she ever saw him really smile it would rock her to the core, and he stood while her fingers worked, shot by electric waves, under laser eyes, underlining words, bolding headings. It was far from finished but he didn’t move until she clicked on send, “and join me in my office,” INHALE EXHALE the party was swelling inside the sand, solus papilio inter mille tineis and all Charlie wanted was to be left there but Owen was following her in.
His office, a glass coffin, was splattered with blue-tit shit, a slap-dash perfectly-arranged quirky-try-hard space where nothing of any substance or value could ever be discussed. She’d learnt how to deal with him, mastered the skill, a skill that allowed Owen’s teeth to co-exist with hers, together, inside the same four walls for a forty-hour week, just about, except now, this week, she couldn’t remember how she had done it, how had she done it for almost six months straight?
As she waited for him to speak, knowing he loved the dramatic effect, that nothing made him happier than complete and utter control, tuning into every thirtieth word because that was more than was needed, “through client great trust anything everything…” loving the tones of his voice, flashing his grin about.
Charlie watched those superficial gnashers and wondered how Owen possibly found the time to fuck two women when he had to go to all these media parties? And how could he kiss those two women cleanly with a fine mouth, without lips red raw from sucking at the arses of all those media owners?
“Great work,” he smirked, casting an eye across the screen, not really looking because it didn’t really matter, the presentation a pile of substandard shit, not even finished, but Owen clicked through the slides, making some important-sounding noises that meant anything and also nothing. “Excellent work, as always,” just put it in fuchsia, that was all that was needed, he stopped, stretched out his hands, laboured everything like it was so…fucking… important, “Where were you last night?” leaning back on his chair.
He flashed his weekly-whiteners again, a good looking man in his forties, married but cheating, stinking head to toe of media bullshit, that smile burning her skin. Every thirtieth word reconfirmed what Charlie already knew INHALE EXHALE she saw the fruit seller instead, full up on mangoes, sweet and fresh and bananas that were fat and small and oddly shaped, like no bananas she’d ever seen before.
“Like Sanjay’s dick”, Raff giggled in her ear, “but god does he know how to use it!” Would the banana seller be up by now? Did she ever really sleep? “Is everything alright?” Owen nudged his row of pencils into their ultra straight line.
“Yes,” Charlie replied, she tried not to falter. “Everything is fine.”
Sanjay’s excitement at having two live monkeys that wore coloured jackets and swung across the jungle crowd was in her but “great potential” Owen’s voice cut through the sun as he gestured to his laptop screen, the air inside the transparent box cracking and he added, “Are we attempting something new with our hair today? Have you tried-”
INHALE EX- the lego-sized blocks now scraping acid strokes inside her throat and it was time to click it as she coughed, over the bowl and spilt it up, violently splashing up against the sides but feeling that relief, gasping, the downstairs toilet always empty and Charlie slumped against the side, her shaking fingers on her phone.
“Oh hey mannnn!” Raff sang out after several rings and Charlie could hear the soles of bare feet on wood, their creaking hut door, the kites jabbering in the low hanging trees, the click and suck of the first Charas spliff, she could feel the low hanging soon-to-be pink heat from the Indian sun.
“Raff I am done, I’m coming back, I can’t take this bullshit anymore.”
The wood beams creaked as Raff sat down on the wicker porch swing.
“Ah no what’s happening?” Raff breathed, getting slowly high. “What bullshit?”
“Here. Work,” Charlie stared at the plastic toilet wall in front of her, trying to feel the heat through the phone, willing it to extend right through, and she started scratching words into the white.
“Oh don’t stress about that,” Raff waved it off, relieved. “It’s exactly that, bullshit.”
“Mate, that’s easy for you to say. You’re there, in hidden-champora, our place and you’re stoned,” Charlie dug her nails inside her palms, “I’m serious, I’m done.”
“Mate,” Raff paused as she took another inhale, “it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it? And…” she blew out smoke, “we’ll need all that money you’ll be bringing over in September. We’ll be living like kings, set up in coconuts and drugs for life! That’s the plan right?”
Charlie surveyed her handiwork, she had scratched RUN several times in the wall with a pen.
“And what’ll happen with the flat and Nescafé and Lucky Strike, if you just drop everything now?” Raff’s voice rolled out of the phone with all the ease in the world, “Anyway, I’ve gotta be back in a few weeks haven’t I? Got to finish the year, can’t fail again.” She exhaled slowly, “They’re really on at me for like skipping classes right now.”
Charlie stood up slowly and left the cubicle, putting Raff on speaker, as it was the downstairs toilet that no one really came in, she stood in front of the mirror INHALE EXHALE staring herself down. The silence prompted Raff, “I know I fucked up mate and we should be here now, like done with Uni and here for good, but it’s only eight more months, that’s nothing.”
Charlie started to lick her eyes again, bringing up the count, listening to Raff tell her about what would very soon be their reality and forever, taking the bottle of nail varnish that was still in the bottom of her work bag out and staring at it.
“You just do what you gotta do, man,” Raff told her. “You know what’s important, you know it’s all just bullshit. Take their money and in September we-are-out.”
Charlie gave herself a sweet pressed smile of pearly paracetamol, not unlike Rachel’s as, very reluctantly, she started to coat each nail in the paint.
“Oh but Rafaela, I simply must have the latest Woven conditioner you know, it’s like totally designed for my hair.”
“Well of course sweetie, you must,” Raff replied shrilly, “What are you if not a mass of gorgeous red curls?” She clicked at her lighter. “What’s been happening? You been out? I don’t want to come home and find you in the bath, wrists slit, Nescafé and Lucky Strike eating your lonely ass.”
“I was out last night,” Charlie replied, she looked down at her phone. “Made a friend or two.”
There was a Facebook friend request from Simon, the two blue men and the little red flag and it had instantly made her smile, a real one, a genuine one that cracked against the numerous painted ones she’d been failing to pull all morning. He had a thirst and Charlie could hear it in the way he had typed his message, letters falling over themselves to find out everything, as if she could hear the words cascading all over each other from his mouth. It read as if he couldn’t quite contain it, a beautiful naïveté that made her mouth curl up so she couldn’t stop it, like he couldn’t stop it, but she knew how he felt and why would you ever want to stop that feeling?
Charlie touched her back and upper shoulder, took a deep breath and closed her eyes, saw herself dancing until the pink of early sun catches against the eye, smashing the edges of some abandoned warehouse or jungle leaves, creeping over brick or crawling over water. All this other stuff, it was just paper by comparison, it didn’t really matter, she knew that. Solus papilio inter mille tineis. She missed the sunrises now, even after only four days, sometimes it felt like the sun didn’t even rise here, that the sky became slowly white and then it was day, then it disappeared and it was night, but never truly black because you couldn’t see the stars, just different shades of grey.
“In the bread bin, usual place,” Raff said, “There’s two green beans, the Playboy bunnies… they’ll help you out.”
“And when are you back?” Charlie asked her. “When does term start?”
“A few weeks,” Raff said vaguely. She let out another long exhale.
Charlie touched her shoulder blade, stared down the Junior Account Executive in front of her, shaking out the fire.