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Silence. I can hear the creak of cranes over King’s Cross and the rumble of cars on the Euston Road so it’s a funny kind of silence. Feels like you should be here with me. You should be putting your head round the door with a drying up cloth in your hand and smiling the wonky smile you used on me when I was upset. But you’re not here, so you don’t, I imagine it instead. This place is too full of you. You’re round every corner, in every cobweb and each bit of flaky paint in the bathroom and your shape’s still there on the bed and in the kitchen next to the sink making leek and potato soup. I sit down to eat my beans on toast and think about you as I push a mouthful of squashed beans and bread into my mouth.
Stop it stop it stop it, I tell myself. Slow down. Sex will make me feel better. I feel tense. I want to stop feeling tense. My erection hurts. My jeans are too tight. I stumble up from the table. I feel like Banana Man. I’m Eric and I’ve eaten the banana. Trying to keep my feet on the ground is all stupid when I’m this clever. Women in the street look at me because they want to have sex with me. The men are looking at me too. I walk faster. I hold my head higher. The sun breaks through the clouds just because I’m walking down the street. I see myself reflected in shop windows. I look great. Later I’m going to enrol at like some really big university and they’ll be pleased to have me. I’ll probably win a prize. Forget about work. They don’t care whether I turn up anyway. I go quickly down our road and onto York Way and stop outside a shop called EZ Video. Upstairs are bedsits where the girls are.
“Mate,” I say. I’m standing in reception. It reminds me of the minicab office. “Sort me out.” The guy behind the desk licks his teeth. I hand him some money and he passes me a pink ticket. I’m hopping from foot to foot like I need a toilet. I’m about to run upstairs holding my pink ticket when he reaches out and grabs my coat.
“Hey,” I say, wishing he would let go, hoping to calm him down. “What’s your name?”
“Mike,” he says. I prise his fingers from my collar. I can see he is on something strange from the expression he pulls.
“Whatever you’re taking it ain’t doing you much good,” I say. I’m getting impatient. “I’ve got to go now, if you know what I mean.” I feel like I’m going to burst. I imagine bits of myself all over the reception; pink and red and yellow bits of exploded me.
“Try the new girl,” Mike says. “Second floor. On the right.” The stair carpet is worn and smells damp. I run up and knock on the door. A young woman with long blonde hair answers. She has a sweet up and down accent like a thrush singing. She lets me into the bedsit. When I look into her face I feel calmer. She hasn’t got the hard look in her eyes you expect. I can see things in those eyes. Pictures. Her cheeks are soft like little pillows. I run my hand over her face. She knocks it away.
“Ticket?” she says. I hand it over.
“Shower first.” The hot water makes me feel a bit better. I dry myself and drop the towel on the floor. I walk back into the room naked. She is lying on the bed in her underwear.
“What’s your name?” she says.
“Harry,” I say. “You?”
“My name is Sophia,” she says. She looks at me without smiling. I climb on top, put my hands either side of her shoulders. Her hair is spread out on the pillow around her. She looks like a mermaid. I don’t touch her. I look into her face.
“What are you doing here?” I ask her.
“What are you doing here?” she says back. I shrug. I think about the weirdness of two strangers about to have sex, two people whose lives are crossing in that moment because of all the messed up things that have happened to bring them to this point.
“Sometimes I’m up. Sometimes I’m down. Today I’m up,” I say. I grin. “I’m superman today,” I add, in case she hasn’t got it. I am still looking down on her. Her cheap black bra is frayed. It annoys me. I don’t want frayed.
“Are you an angel?” I say.
“Whatever you want,” she says. She sounds bored.
“You haven’t told me where you’re from.” For some reason I want to talk and to look into her face for longer.
“Kiev. How long did you pay for?”
“Twenty minutes.” I sit back on my heels. She hands me a condom.
“Better hurry up or you’ll have to pay more.”
“Can’t we talk first?” I open the packet.
“OK. I’ll ask you a question. Why do you have to get it here?” I roll the condom on. I hold it in place so it doesn’t roll back up.
“My wife died.”
“Do you believe in God? Do you go to church?” she says. Sitting holding my dick, I suddenly get the feeling that I look like one of those water fountains of Eros pissing into a fish pond. An overgrown one. A monster. Not superman. Not banana man. A prat. I sit back so I’m kneeling at the end of the bed.
“You’re a prostitute,” I say, probably too defensively. “Why are you telling me about church? You a preacher in your spare time?” Sophia shrugs.
“You said you wanted to talk.” Her hair isn’t only blonde. There are tiny patches of auburn in it too. I think about it again: two strangers whose paths cross like lines on a map because things have happened to get them there. We’re both the same, I think. It makes me honest.
“OK. Yeah I believe in God,” I say. “I believe in life after death. Old lady downstairs from me? Medium, right?” I want to impress her. I don’t know why.
“You talk to dead people with the lady next door?”
“Yeah,” I say. I take her knickers off. She lifts her legs up to help me. I did the medium thing once, I think, nothing happened and it freaked me out, but I make out to Sophia I don’t care.
“So if you talk to dead people what does your wife think of you coming here?” she says, raising an eyebrow.
“Never asked.” Sophia smiles. I notice that her teeth are stained with tar.
“Tell me about the first time you met her,” she says. So I do.
The first time I see her I am in my big coat, the one with the woodpecker logo. I sit next to a tree in the bird sanctuary with my binoculars. I put my hand on the bark. On one side it is soft and damp and mossy and on the other side it’s dry and rugged. The morning smells new and the mist is hovering over the fields behind me like a ghost. I watch as the guy who has been stealing the eggs gets closer. He is wearing a balaclava. He hasn’t seen me. He is carrying a ladder, the tosser. He stops and looks around and then runs towards the tree where they are nesting. The police are ready but we have to wait until he has got his hands on the eggs. He puts the ladder to the tree. He is about two hundred metres in front of me. I’ve got a clear view. He knows where the nest is because he goes straight for it. He has obviously been here before. He is up the ladder and groping about in the hole in the side of the tree. He’s got a box with him. I can see it through my binoculars. He puts an egg inside it. My radio crackles. I wait for him to take one more and then I whisper into the radio “go” and the air is full of the sound of running police and he is surrounded. I come out from where I am hiding just as one of them shouts “Come down from the tree” and the birds nearby scatter and fill the air in panic. While he is arrested a police car drives over the field towards us. I climb up the ladder. I have to reach in a long way to replace the eggs. A woman sits in the front of the police car. I smile at her. She smiles back. I don’t realise how beautiful she is straight away. That doesn’t happen until I look for a second time, but when it happens it hits me like a cliché in the chest.
I stand next to the police car, signing some papers. It is the electricity of her eyes that gets to me. It is like the time my dad tried to put some shelves up in our kitchen and moved the light switch and I got electrocuted. She looks at me, wide eyed, as the egg thief is bundled into the back. I can feel myself being pulled towards her like I am a planet and she is a black hole. I try to keep my eyes fixed on the papers but she winds the window down.
“I’m doing a thing,” she says. She shoves a card at me and I pocket it. “Next week at City Books. You should come.” A policewoman shakes my hand.
“Good job,” she says and jumps in the car. The engine revs. Suddenly I am left alone with the birds.
Sophia’s pubes are shaved into a heart. A darker colour than the hair spread across the pillow. Nice touch I think. What you pay for.
“That was the first time,” I say.
“So she was some kind of writer, your wife?” she says.
“Illustrator,” I say. The word sounds strange in my mouth, like over-chewed gum. “But she came up with stories to go with the pictures.”
“Oh,” Sophia says. I do her slowly. When I look into her face she is blank. I wonder what she is thinking about. Halfway through Mike bangs on the door.
“Time’s up. You come out now or pay more.” When it is over, I feel stupidly embarrassed like the time I got caught wanking in the school toilets. Sophia puts her hand on my face.
“Come back again,” she says.
“Er, yeah. Whatever,” I say. I pull on my jeans. She lies on the bed in just her bra, watching me. I look back for a second. Yeah I will come back I think. I leave her twenty quid because I don’t know how much Mike pays them.
I get on a train and I’m thinking about you. I can’t help it. We go into a tunnel. I look at my reflection and my reflection looks back at me and I talk to you in my head. I’m not sure if I really am talking to you or if I am going mad or if this is what the therapist’s receptionist told me about: the psychological processes of grief. She ran the words together, like this: psychologicalprocessesovgrief, like she said it all the time. I don’t want that because it would mean your voice in my head is not real. I think: yeah but if the receptionist knows all the answers then why do I need to see the bloody therapist?
I tell you that I had sex with a prostitute called Sophia who had heart-shaped pubes and I wonder if you are listening. I want you to say “Don’t be stupid, of course I’m listening!” but you don’t say anything. Then I try not to think about you, but that feels dangerous, like an astronaut too close to the sun. I try to provoke you into speaking:
“Why did I fall in love with you so easily?” You don’t reply.
“What about those e-dating websites?” You don’t reply.
“Am I the kind of person who gets dates on the internet?” I ask you.
“Probably not,” you say.
When I hear your voice I get a spongy, soft feeling like eating a cake I’m not allowed to have and I know it will be bad for me. You watch me with your arms folded but you don’t say anything else.