‘ It has your hallmarks of great atmosphere, a strong central character to identify with, a clear and powerful sense of place and a moving emotional journey. But what makes it really fantastic is to see how expert you have been at mastering your own voice and writing with confidence and success….a joy to read.’ Ali Reynolds former editor at Random House.
‘Nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good life.’
‘This is it. Whatever this is.’
Pulling the brush through her curls, trying to untangle them, she stopped, drew her hair back sharply from her face, and stared at the black smudges beneath her eyes, the hollows in her cheeks, her pale skin like a cadaver. Then she took a pair of scissors from the drawer and began to cut. And when she’d finished she swept her hair up, tipped it into the bin, watched it fall, loop and coil and settle. Then she pulled on a tight skirt and black vest top, the one torn at the seam, her brown leather jacket and cowboy boots. No stockings or tights, just her bare legs. And went to the coffee shop.
Jimmy gave her a double take but said nothing he just placed her coffee on the counter and gave her the change.
‘Lovely day’ and he nodded to the reams of blue sky outside the window. ‘Aren’t you hot in that?’ And this time he nodded to her heavy jacket.
‘No I’m cold.’ And she took her cup and sat down.
Of course it hadn’t happened over night, she just hadn’t wanted to look. She picked up her coffee cup; her fingers were shaking but nothing new there. Her nose was dripping too. She smeared away the snot with her finger and wiped it on her skirt.
‘Jesus you look terrible.’ It was Larry. ‘And what the fuck have you done with your hair?’
‘Leave me alone.’
But he was already sitting down. ‘Looks like you could do with something.’ And he was reaching into his pocket.
She pushed her cup away, slopping coffee into the saucer, ‘I said leave me alone.’ And she got up and left.
She stood on the kerb and impatiently waited for the green man to flash. Glancing over her shoulder she half expected to see Larry following her. Fulham Palace Road was crammed with people but clear of him.
Letting herself into the flat she was hit by the smell of rank food and stale nicotine; the kitchen sink was full of debris. She looked for a clean glass in the cupboard but had to take one from the sink and wash it. She ran the cold tap trying to get some chill into the water then drank two full glasses one after the other.
How had she got to this point? So out of control. She felt like shit. And there were all these black holes; her life in London had become a series of blurs. She tried to remember the night before but her head was muddy and thick, everything was a blank. Her body ached and felt battered and bruised, the cold of the metal sink bit into her exposed midriff. The doorbell rang it was shrill and insistent. She knew it was Larry. She put her hands to her ears and sank to the floor. He’d have to go away some time.
She’d no idea how long she sat there, her hands clamped to the side of her head, but when she removed them the ringing had stopped. She knew he’d be back. The floor was filthy, the seams of the tiles black with dirt, but she couldn’t move. What would Sarah say? My little sister fucked up again. The flat had been pristine when she’d moved in now look at the place.
Her mobile began to ring; some Mexican dance tune, ridiculous and inappropriate considering how she felt. She took it out and checked it. It was Monique.
‘Evie are you alright?’
‘How can I be? Are you?’
‘No but you sounded so awful and your phone went dead. Then you’ve had it switched off….’ There was a silence. ‘Evie? …. I’m just worried about you.’
‘You don’t need to be.’ Suddenly Evie felt unbearably weary. ‘Look Monique I’ll be in touch.’
‘There’s the funeral.’
‘I know.’ And Evie closed her phone.
Her head was full of the conversation she’d had with Monique first thing that morning, it had been so early and with her massive hangover it had felt like a bad dream.
‘Something terrible has happened.’ Straight in like a knife.
‘What?’ Monique had begun to cry. ‘Monique, what’s happened?’
‘What about Suzy?’
‘She’s dead.’ Monique was sobbing hard, great painful sobs tearing down the phone.
Evie couldn’t speak. Didn’t know what to say. At last she said, ‘How?’
Monique took a breath to steady herself, ‘Last night, she was standing in the middle of the road trying to wave a black cab down and it ran into her. One minute she was there and the next she was under its wheels.’
‘Oh my God.’ Evie put her hand over her eyes as if to block out the picture.
But Evie’s voice had become a whisper, ‘I’m sorry.’ She had to close her phone and try and breathe.
It was then that she’d cut her hair.
Now, slumped against the wall, she again put her hand over her eyes as if she could block the image out but it was impossible.
It was last night and she was back outside the club, Monique was pulling on her hand wanting her to come on somewhere else. A group of her other friends, including Suzy, had spilled out behind her and were crossing the road going in the other direction. She could hear Suzy’s laugh, could hear her calling out to someone across the street. As they’d moved towards the tube station Evie had heard a thump and a screech of breaks. She’d half turned but Monique had tugged on her hand urging her to hurry. Where had they been going? She couldn’t think, her head hurt.
Suddenly she had to run to the toilet, she was retching uncontrollably. The thud had been Suzy. She’d never see her again. When she stopped being sick she sank down against the bathroom wall and began to sob. It was too much to bear. Her body shook and she gave herself up to her grief; let it consume her.
Afterwards she became very still as if cleansed, she pulled some toilet paper from the roll and scrubbed her eyes dry. Well if Larry came back she wouldn’t be here and she wouldn’t be here for Sarah’s return either. She pulled herself off the floor and walked into the bedroom.
Reaching across the crumpled sheets for her wallet on the bedside table she stuffed it into a bag along with some clothes. Then she went to her handbag thrown loosely on the sofa the night before and half buried under cushions. She pulled out a packet. Her whole body was shaking now, she sat down and tried to steady herself; she could do this.
She got up and walked to the bathroom. Standing over the toilet bowl, stained brown with use, she gagged once, twice. She leant against the wall to recover. Then she emptied the packet of white powder down the toilet and flushed.
Evie was standing at the side of the road, dusk turning to dark, lights reflected in black winter puddles. Each time a car sped past it whipped her with its spray but she didn’t stand back from the kerb’s edge and she kept her thumb hooked in the direction she was travelling. The rain had sifted into fine drizzle and her hair was plastered to her skull, her clothes were saturated. She’d lost track of how long she’d been standing there. No one would pick her up in this.
She looked up at a street lamp and watched the rain falling, trapped in a haze of light. She was back dancing in the club and she was holding Suzy’s hand, they were whirling around and around under a huge glittering silver ball suspended from the ceiling.
‘Oh my God I’m dizzy,’ and Suzy had dropped to the floor. With her head bent forward Evie could see the swallow tattooed at the nape of her neck beneath her black bobbed hair.
A car swept past and covered Evie in icy spray. She turned her attention back to the road, and tried to will someone to stop. So fixed was she on the traffic speeding towards her she almost missed seeing the truck pulled up some yards down the road and had to run to catch it.
She pulled the door open and was hit by a smell of diesel and sweat. The truck driver was stripped down to a soiled white vest and his stomach was pressed against the wheel pushing out rolls of fat.
‘Where’re you going?’
‘I can take you as far as Bristol.’
Evie hesitated, almost thought twice then swung herself up. ‘That’d be great.’
‘There’s a towel in the back if you want to dry yourself.’
He wasn’t offering, he was telling. Obediently she turned around and searched, at last she found it screwed up on the floor. It was stained and smelt sour but she towelled her hair dry then pulled off her jumper and put it near the heater. She caught the truck driver glance appreciatively at the curve of her breasts against her damp T- shirt, her narrow waist, and wished she’d left her jumper on. He leaned over and put on a CD. Country Music filled the cab.
Evie watched the wipers swish back and forth and listened to the cars splash past. It was getting dark and every time the wiper cleared a patch on the windscreen, making the road visible, within seconds it had disappeared under heavy rain. All she caught now and then were glimpses of taillights speeding into the distance. She wanted not to think, tried to tune into the music and blank out her mind.
She could see Suzy’s face so clearly. She thought of a night recently when they’d all made it back to Marcus’ flat. He’d been leaning over the coffee table, mirror laid across it, concentrating, cutting coke. Evie had been resting against Jack and she could see Suzy across the room, laughing at what some guy was saying. At that moment she had looked up and caught Evie’s eye and grinned. Just that. But it was everything. The intimacy of all they held between them, their knowledge of each other. A look across a room.
Evie’s hands were sweating, her head hurt. She stole a glance at the driver his stomach squashed, his hands like hams on the steering wheel and remembered how he’d looked at her. This was crazy, she’d hitchhiked before but never alone and never at night. But then what was crazy anymore.
She tried to remember how she’d got home the other night. She had a bruise on the inside of her thigh the size of an egg. How had she got that?
She stole another glance at the driver. So what was rape in the scheme of things or even death? Something she thought. A big something. She was running away to survive, not to die on a motorway with some psychopath. She drew her legs up onto the dashboard and looked out at the road. And yet it was a relief to be going somewhere, anywhere, no matter how black and wild the night.
A red taillight fused in front of her, blurred and distorted by the rain, she shut her eyes and tried to recall the night before. There had been red lights then too, when she’d entered the club, stretching all the way down the corridor to the room beyond. She remembered Jack holding her hand, and she’d been reluctant, strangely reluctant. She remembered that.
It was a new club. They’d sat around on cushions Middle Eastern style and eaten couscous and tagine, drunk green tea; she remembered the couscous had a delicate taste of lemon and saffron and contained slivers of pale almond, hidden, like a secret.
Faces: smiling, chatting. Marcus had been there and Anna, Monique and Charlie. And of course Suzy surrounded by a group of adoring men, friends of Marcus.
There was something about Marcus that irritated like a piece of grit, Evie could see him lounging back on a silk cushion pushing his hand through his hair catching her eye, his lazy smile with its hint of malice. His sense of entitlement, ‘We should have more champagne,’ and he raised his hand to signal the waiter. Marcus always got what he wanted. She remembered he’d made some barbed comment about the waiter that had sent everyone into peals of laughter, and she could see him grinning at Jack waiting for him to laugh. He liked a target. Apart from Jack, he never said anything about Jack. Marcus was self serving and manipulative, had bought his way into the group, but it was Jack with his easygoing nature who let him stay.
Now with her eyes closed, she could feel Jack’s arm slung loosely around her, the comfort of him. He hadn’t laughed but had leant towards her and whispered in her ear. What had he whispered? She stretched her mind to recall his words but could not.
Was it at that moment that Suzy had looked across at her and smiled? Step by step Evie moved through the evening, her last moments with Suzy as jewels stitched into a tapestry. She wanted to remember them precisely but could only recall flashes amongst a haze of movement and light.
People were slipping away in ones and twos and coming back with brighter eyes, laughing, animated and they’d got up and gone out too. She could feel Suzy’s hand as she’d reached out to pull her up, Evie could still feel the warmth of it, could see that wicked smile of Suzy’s when she was trying to entice her into something. ‘Come on…’ she’d say and grin. There was something so seductive about Suzy, Evie found her impossible to refuse.
They’d drunk champagne, glass after glass of it, pale gold bubbles fizzing up their noses, and danced wildly and madly. Suzy was wearing a dress belonging to Evie, it was red and very short, a low cut back. Evie could see her delicate shoulder blades, her tanned skin, her tattoo, the blue tipped wings swooping upwards into silky black hair.
Sometimes Evie had danced alone, whirled and spun on the dance floor, moved her hips in rhythm with the beat, her eyes closed, lost in her body and the pulse of the music, but mostly she had been with Monique and Suzy. She could see Monique twisting and twirling, laughing, her head thrown back, and she could see Suzy, her arms held out, calling to her. Evie strained to catch the words. She felt bitterly tired, exhausted with the effort of trying to remember, everything just out of reach; the shape of those words.
Now, in the warmth of the cab, with the judder of the engine and the strains of EmmyLou Harris in her ears, spinning on the dance floor with Suzy, arms around each other, the heat of her, Evie slipped into sleep.
She couldn’t remember getting the taxi that night after the party. She sort of remembered the party, drinking shots, glass after glass. Dancing, she could remember dancing. Whose house was it? Some friend of Monique’s: Pete that was it, or was it Dave? Suzy had been sick in the toilet and Evie had wiped her mouth with a tissue helped her up and straightened her dress.
‘I should go home.’
‘Not yet,’ Evie’d said. ‘It’s just getting started.’
‘No I should go home.’
But they’d gone back into the room and carried on dancing.
In the end Suzy and Monique had left the party before her. Later when she’d been in the taxi and hadn’t been able to tell the driver where she lived he’d taken her mobile and rung Monique’s number and Monique had told him the address. If she hadn’t, they’d all laughed the next day, Evie would still be circling in a black cab and getting nowhere.
‘You were lucky,’ Monique said. ‘Remember that shit taxi driver, the one that raped all those women.’
‘Just saying. You were lucky then.’
‘Hey don’t freak her out,’ Suzy had put her arms around her and held her close. Evie could smell the scent of her, jasmine and musk. Stay lucky Evie had thought. Those words in her head like some mantra. Just stay lucky.
She awoke in the lorry with a start. The engine had stopped. The driver was pulling on a checked wool shirt and had taken hold of his newspaper.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘Time for a break’ he said and he was already getting out of the cab. She rubbed her eyes and tried to get her bearings. A service station of some sort, one of the smaller ones, a row of lights strung out like pearls in the distance. She jumped down onto the wet tarmac and followed him in.
His name was Joe and he had three kids.‘That’s Emmy’ he said ‘the youngest.’ And he was showing Evie a photograph, a pile of others discarded on the table. ‘Bet you can’t guess who I named her after?’ He got up. ‘I’ll get us another coffee and then I’ll tell you all about Emmy.’
Evie watched him go to the counter and queue up. She was ashamed of herself, her earlier imaginings. He had bought her breakfast and arranged for another driver to take her as far as Exeter.
‘You shouldn’t be hitching at this time of night.’
‘I’m OK. I can look after myself.’
‘Really?’ And he pushed a steaming cup of coffee towards her. Evie concentrated on stirring sugar into her coffee. ‘I bet its boyfriend trouble.’
Evie shook her head and sipped her coffee. She didn’t normally take sugar and it tasted incredibly sweet. She put down her cup. ‘I wish it was as simple as that.’
‘What about your parents?’
She shook her head again. ‘I’m the family fuck up’ and she grinned but her eyes weren’t smiling. ‘Anyway like I said I can take care of myself.’
Awkwardly he pushed a ten pound note over the table. ‘Look, take this.’
Evie pushed it back. ‘I couldn’t, you’ve already been kind enough.’
‘I wouldn’t want my girls hitching.’
‘Yeah, well there’s lots of things we don’t want.’ Then trying to reassure him, and perhaps also to convince herself, she added ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.’
It was clear he didn’t believe her but he asked no more questions apart from where she got her hair cut. ‘At a London hairdresser, you wouldn’t be able to afford it’ she’d replied and he’d laughed.
Later driving through the night in a white delivery van she thought it’s true, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And she glanced across at Steve who was young and fresh faced in an open white shirt and clean blue jeans. He was delivering computer parts to some company or other. Evie settled back into the comfort of her seat and closed her eyes. This time she drifted into sleep with the sound of The Pixies in her ears and she chose not to remember, let it all stay out of reach.