It was too cold for the clothes she was wearing; a smart black skirt and a tight white top under a thin grey coat. She’d chosen the skirt because of the way it was cut. It emphasised the shape of her hips. They were rounded and full, not like the square, hard hips she saw on the skinny bitches in the magazines these days. She’d chosen the top for the same sort of reason; she had good boobs and they were looking even better of late. The tight white turtleneck showed them off. The new seamless bra underneath made them look fantastic. And black and white felt right. She was glad that she’d picked the long leather boots too, but she knew now that the coat was a mistake. It was quilted and stuffed with feathers but it was too thin. The autumn wind whirling along the road cut right through it. The cross wind that ran along the river and over the bridge made it worse. She could hide from it by standing close against one of the pillars on the bridge and pulling up the hood of the coat. He’d said he’d meet her here anyway, at the pillar with the plaque on it that said something about Richard Hawley. So here she was.
She was early though; much too early, really. He’d said he’d be here at three and it was only half-two now and he was always running late anyway. It might look like she was a bit too keen, getting here this early. But he knew that she was keen; very keen, absolutely mad keen in fact. She couldn’t wait to see him and tell him her news. So she stood, in the cold wind, on the old bridge, and she waited.
They’d only met a few months ago, up in the little park off Devonshire Street. She’d got sick of sitting in her dingy little council flat waiting for something to happen. She’d put on a pair of denim shorts and a white lace top and gone to the park to sunbathe. It wasn’t really sunbathing weather but it was warm and dry. Anything was better than being in that crappy little flat on her own. It was Wednesday and she was always skint by Wednesday. The only things she could do were things that didn’t cost anything. Like this; sitting in the park and watching people. The little park was called Devonshire Green. It was a good place for people-watching. All sorts passed through here on a summer day. There were students, residents from the nearby flats. There were workers from the offices and shops in that area. There were boozers getting tanked, and lovers getting petty.
She always tried to imagine where all these people came from. She tried to picture what happened in their lives. Where did the bearded drunk in the unfit suit go to sleep? Did the too-pretty blonde girl sitting reading on the bench clean her toilet properly? Did she scrub it and bleach it and scent it as she did herself? What about the two lovers on the grass beside the path? Were they a couple or did they have other partners, ignorant of their cheating? She made up answers to her own questions as she sat on the grass. Her knees hugged tight to her chest, her head rested on her arms. Sometimes her own answers made her smile or even laugh out loud as all these other lives meandered past.
Looking at other people was a way of avoiding looking at her own life. She had only arrived in the city last year. She had trailed up here from Nottingham to be with her mother. Thast didn’t last long. She was abandoned again when her mother had found a new man and buggered off to Brighton with him. The council in Sheffield wouldn’t let her stay in the family house that they had been living in. They had shunted her into a flat in the city centre. It was handy for the nightlife but she didn’t have a job and so she didn’t have the money to make the most of it. She’d tried to get a job a few times but she didn’t have a great employment record. She’d always had to follow her mother everywhere she went. And there were hundreds of other people after every job anyway, so she’d decided to give up trying for a while. She’d given up on her mother, too, now. She was sick of being deserted every time she managed to snare a new man. She wasn’t going to go running all the way down to the south coast to mop up the tears and the blood this time. Stuff her.
She’d been watching a little old couple. They’d been having one of those silent fights that couples have when they’re in public. It was all snatched hands, held glares and spat whispers. It had been so funny that she’d laughed out loud again. They’d looked at her and she’d looked away and that was when she’d seen him.
He was laid out on the slope of grass to her right, hands behind his head, legs spread wide like a welcome. He wore jeans and a short sleeved shirt. The shirt was unbuttoned so that you could see his muscled stomach and almost hairless chest. He was wearing sunglasses. The sun was almost overhead and the angle of the light got behind the lightly coloured lenses. She could see that his eyes were on her. She looked away but he had seen her look at him. If she looked back again too soon he would know that she was interested. That would be something only common, easy girls did. She watched the furiously silent old couple again instead. After a little while she took off her sunglasses and made a show of polishing them. She was really trying to look at him in the reflection of the mirrored lenses. She couldn’t find him anywhere, no matter how she angled the lenses. Instead, she held them up to the sky and then polished them against her top. She held them up again and made a show as if a speck of dirt had fallen from them and landed in her eye. She turned her head to the slope of grass to her right and he was gone.
She stopped the show and looked all around the park and couldn’t see him anywhere. She put her sunglasses back on and folded her arms and scanned the park again. He was nowhere in sight. She had one more look around and then gave up and lay back on the grass. She closed her eyes and called herself a silly cow for not looking when she should have done. She had been lying there for a few minutes when the sun went in and she opened her eyes and he was the cloud. He was kneeling on all fours with his head above hers. He was blocking the sun, and all she could see were the blackness of his eyes and the whiteness of his teeth.
He said hi and she said hello. He said are you on your own and she said isn’t everyone. He said what’s your name and she said what’s in a name and he said do you always answer questions with questions and she said what do you think.
He smiled and said can I sit with you and she said it’s a public park, you can sit anywhere you want and he began to laugh. She said what’s so funny and he said you are; funny and pretty.
He’d laid down beside her, his head level with hers, his body pointing up the slope, hers pointing down. She’d turned her head to face him and they’d started talking. They spoke to each other for over two hours. She couldn’t remember anything they’d said, not even the subjects they’d talked about. It had been a tumble of words that fell from their lips and rumpled around them like a comfortable blanket. They’d just talked and talked and talked.
The park had emptied in the afternoon but it began filling up again as the working day ended. They could smell the food that was being prepared in the bars and restaurants around the park. He’d said he was hungry and asked her if she wanted something to eat. She’d said yes, she was hungry but that she didn’t have any money. He’d told her he would be happy to buy her something to eat and a drink or two. She’d said are you sure and he’d said yes, no problem and she’d said well, if you’re sure.
They stood up. He was six inches taller than she was and his hips were thrust so far forward that he seemed to slouch. She asked him why he stood like that and he said he just did. They walked over to the nearest bar. It had an outside space surrounded by white walls where people were eating. They both had beer and burgers. They kept talking the whole time. When they’d finished the drinks they moved on. They walked down Devonshire Street and called in at a few of the bars. They ended up on Campo Lane where they had more drinks and too soon it was late. He offered to walk her home but she said no. He looked hurt until she explained that her flat was horrible and she wouldn’t let anyone see where she lived. He said that he had a nice apartment down by the river. They both went quiet for a while. I could make you a coffee, he said. I’ve got a great little coffee machine. I could do you a nice cappuccino or something. She was still silent. I’ll get you a taxi when you want to go home, he said. I’ll pay for it. No problem.
She was a little bit drunk now and getting cold. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked into his eyes. I’m not easy, you know, she said. I’m not like that. He looked hurt again. Neither am I, he said, and they both burst out laughing.
His apartment was nice; not big but big enough, and with a view out over the river and the new buildings around it. He didn’t have much in the way of furniture. Everything was neatly stashed away in the few cupboards and drawers that he owned. She was glad that it was fully carpeted too. She hated this laminate stuff everyone had these days; too cold and noisy.
She stood in the little kitchen and watched as he made a big froth of cappuccino for her. He took a beer from the fridge for himself and they went into the living room. They sat down at opposite ends of the big brown leather sofa. He switched on the TV and picked a music channel and they began talking again. They talked about music and about the weather. They said what a lovely day they’d had and then he asked her about her family and it was as if he’d uncorked a bottle. It all came pouring out of her, all the upset and the leaving and the spoiled love; she just couldn’t stop herself. The absent and uncaring father. The blowsy blonde bitch he’d married who wanted nothing to do with anything that came from his past. The damaged mother who careered from bad boyfriend to worse boyfriend. The regular relocations. The moves were never about moving to something new and good. They were always about leaving something bad behind.
All this came out of her in a gush of words and tears and then her head was on his shoulder and his arm was around her and they were lying together and kissing. He told her it would be alright, everything would be alright, she just had to relax and so she relaxed and then they were naked and he was inside her and he said it was so good, so good. She was overwhelmed by her own response. She felt a warmth come from somewhere inside herself. It spread throughout her body, a pulsing warmth that melted her constructed tension. She actually felt light-headed and dizzy. She became untethered, like a leaf drifting on the surface of a lazy river. They wrapped around each other and met and moulded like clasped hands; they came together.
She laid awake for a long time afterwards. The bedroom was lit by the faint red glow of the alarm clock display. She watched him sleep beside her, smiling. She felt happy and relaxed, comfortable, wanted. She felt good. This was a feeling that she couldn’t remember ever experiencing before.
In the morning they made love again when they woke. Then he got up and made coffee and toast and they ate it together in the rumpled bed. He asked her if she was happy and she said that she was and he nodded and smiled.
She went into the bathroom and showered. He joined her and they made love again under the jet of clean warm water. They dried and dressed and he asked her if she wanted to go for a walk. She said yes, she’d like that very much. They walked out into the summer sunshine and on to the towpath that ran beside the still water of the canal. His phone rang and he stepped away from her to answer it. She sat and looked at the big fish swirling around in the water. When he came back he said he was sorry but he had to go somewhere. They arranged to meet again that evening at the white-walled bar. They kissed and he took her hand and pressed it on his crotch and whispered later. He jogged off towards the city centre and she smiled back at him when he turned to wave goodbye.
She walked home slowly. The day seemed to have an unreal quality to it, as if she were dreaming. She felt it must be the contrast, the difference between her dark, lonely mood of yesterday and her light and happy mood today. When she got home she cleaned the whole flat so that there was not a speck of dust or a stain or mark in the whole place. She couldn’t do much about the fact that the blinds and curtains were cheap, or that the furniture was second-hand, but she could make sure that what she had was clean and cared for. He might not come here tonight, he might not ever come here, but she wanted the place to be as good as she could make it in case he did. She scrubbed the pokey little bathroom and placed scented tea-lights around the bath but then changed her mind and put them in the bedroom instead.
It took a few hours to get the place into a condition that she was at least comfortable with, by which time it was the middle of the afternoon and there was still some time to kill before she met him again. She decided to call her mother. She realised that she didn’t have much credit on her phone and so she sent her a text instead asking her to call. The reply came back a few minutes later. She was a bit busy right now and didn’t have much credit either so she’d call later today or maybe tomorrow or something. Why do I bother, she said to herself. Just why do I bother.
Her mother hadn’t called that night or the following day. She hadn’t called for a couple of weeks. When she did it was just a text to ask her how she was and to tell her that everything was fine now that she was out of hospital. There was no need for her to worry. Her mother said she was moving to a new flat and she’d send her the address as soon as she’d moved in. Why didn’t she come down? It was so nice by the seaside and the air would do her good.
She just shook her head when she read the message. She could already see the signs. A stay in hospital; a midnight flit; a plea for a visit. Her mother had only been in Brighton for a few weeks but it was happening again already. She put the phone down on the table and stared at the screen as the power save dimmed it to black. No, she said to herself. Not this time.
By then she knew that she was in love, hard in love. When he arrived, they just went straight to bed and made love in the glow of tea-lights. She saw him almost every day after that. Not every day, though. She didn’t want to come on too much and smother him. But she saw him most days and every time they were together was as good as the first. He listened to her; that was the thing. Even when she didn’t have much to say he was looking at her and listening. She loved him for that more than anything else, for hearing what she had to say.
They always ended up at her flat, though. After that first time, he’d said that his neighbours didn’t approve of him bringing girls back to his place. She didn’t get that. It was his apartment and he could surely do what he wanted in it, but she supposed that was up to him. They’d got into a routine by then anyway. A meal in a bar or restaurant somewhere in walking distance. A few drinks around the city centre, and then back to her place. It was nearer to the centre of town anyway, so she couldn’t really argue. And she loved it, being with him, wherever it was.
Summer faded into autumn and the weather turned cooler and wetter. It rained almost every day. He said it was this global warming thing and she said it was more like global wetting and he laughed with her; with her. She loved that.
One day he’d said some business opportunity had come up that meant he might not be able to see her quite so often for a while. It felt like he’d accidentally stabbed her in the heart when he said that. She asked him what business he was in and he said it was just buying and selling. He had to be where the people who bought and sold were, which could be anywhere. She asked him what he bought and sold and he looked at her and then at his fingernails and said anything, really. Anything that people want to sell, anything they want to buy. The trick of it was making sure that you bought low and sold high, he said. How do you do that, she said. He said by being in the right place at the right time, which was why he was going to be a bit tied up for a while. So she smiled and said okay but inside she quivered like a frightened dog.
True to his word, she saw him less frequently in the weeks that followed. Twice, at most three times a week. It was late in the evening when he’d turn up at her flat, usually later than he’d said, usually with a bottle of wine and a takeaway. They didn’t go out into the town any more. He said he preferred to have her all to himself anyway, in the peace of her flat rather than pushing through the crowds and shouting over the noise in the bars. She’d got to like this too; it meant she could get things ready; the candles and the coffee and the clean sheets.
Once or twice he didn’t turn up at all. She’d called him but his mobile was switched off and so her worry was wasted on voice mail. She’d lain awake into the small hours, imagining the bad things that might have happened to him, chastising herself for such imaginings, talking herself out of running down to his apartment just to see if he was there, to make sure that he was okay. She knew he would hate her for doing that. He’d call the day after to say that he’d got tied up on a deal that went on late and that he was sorry and that he’d make it up to her the next time he saw her. And he did; one time he brought champagne and some out of season strawberries. He’d stacked the fruit on his bare stomach and dribbled the champagne over them and let her eat the fruit and lick the champagne. She’d never had strawberries and champagne before. He told her that this was what the posh people eat at places like Wimbledon and she was really surprised that posh people were such kinky bastards.
The days when she didn’t see him seemed to get longer, or perhaps it was the nights; they were getting longer. Sitting in the flat on her own she’d got sick of watching the TV. She switched it off and started listening to the music that they liked instead: Motown and soul. She danced with herself and sang along, sometimes smiling and sometimes crying. She’d listen to the lyrics, feeling them and understanding them for the first time in all the years she’d been hearing the songs. One night when he didn’t turn up again she woke in the small hours with words of her own burning in her mind. She found a scrap of paper and a cracked plastic pen and wrote a poem for him. She laid it flat on the kitchen table and read the words and thought, yes, that’s the truth. That’s the real god’s honest truth about how I feel about him. She picked the piece of paper up and went back to bed and propped it up against the lamp on the bedside table so that she could read it over and over until she fell asleep.
One night he didn’t turn up and he didn’t call her the next day. She kept calling his mobile but there was no answer. She called so many times that she had to go and top up her credit. She’d finally decided that she had to go down to his apartment and was just putting on her coat when he called back. She asked him where he’d been and he said he’d had to go out of town and it had been a long trip and he couldn’t get a signal. He said he was tired and was going to bed. He sounded like he wasn’t paying attention. She told him that she needed to see him, that it was important that she saw him. She was crying. Okay, he’d said. Okay. And that was when he’d told her to meet him on the bridge at three.
She turned around and looked at the water streaming over the weir. The river was full and ran slowly but implacably between the overgrown banks. The water was clean and clear and streamed down over the weir to a bank of pebbles and a froth of white foam. The surface of the river reflected the fading grey light of the day. The greyness seemed to be spreading, as if all colour was being drained from the world into the dark, swirling water. For some reason she felt calmed by the scene and the shush of water.
She became aware of a man standing a few feet away from her. She thought that he had stopped to look at the water too until he stepped closer to her and said how much. She turned to face him and saw that he was sweating. He wore shiny black shoes and a black wool coat. She guessed that he must have come from the court or one of the offices around the corner. He wasn’t looking at her but out along the river, with the occasional nervous glance along the road. They both rocked in the slipstream of a crowded bus as it roared past. She called him a dirty scumbag. He looked at her and flicked his head back to show that he hadn’t heard what she’d said. She shouted dirty scumbag at him again. He stepped backwards and looked around and began walking quickly away. She noticed that he walked with funny, tight little steps, as if his knees were tied together. Scumbag, she shouted once more as he disappeared around the corner towards the courts.
She stood trembling with anger, facing the direction the man had taken. A side door opened in the pub on the opposite corner of the junction and a pool of light spilled onto the pavement. A blonde woman stepped out, laughing. A man followed her out onto the pavement. He was laughing too. He stood in front of the woman, his back to her. She wrapped her arms around him. He took one of her hands and guided it down to his crotch and leaned back and whispered in the woman’s ear.
Another bus came rushing past in a stink of diesel. Through the steamed up windows she saw the faces of people on the bus, looking at her. She heard herself crying, snivelling and sobbing. She heard herself moan and it sounded like someone else. The couple started walking along the path on the opposite side of the bridge. They were staggering, holding on to each other and laughing. They were too tied up with each other to notice her.
The woman wore too much makeup but she was young and blonde and slim, just like her. As she watched she recalled how they were when they first met. She realised she had behaved in exactly the same way. The woman was a type. They were both types; his type. This woman was the next one, and she was now the last one. She was the used one; the finished one.
She stood on the edge of the pavement, all hollowed out, leaning on a metal bollard for support, not seeing the cars and buses as they swept past, not hearing them or anything else around her. The woman stumbled and he bent to help her and as he came up he saw her standing on the opposite side of the road. He did that thing that men do when they’re caught out. He put his hands on his hips and faced her but shook his head and turned it away. The look on his face not one of guilt but of annoyance, of anger at the fact that she was there.
In that look she saw her future. The crying nights and lonely days, the hate that would come in his eyes, the mewling child and the shabby house in a place she didn’t know. She knew this was her future because it had been her past. Her future was here again, already written. No money, no love, no peace.
She sees that he is saying something now, waving his arm at her, telling her to leave. She looks at him but can’t move. She hears a voice. It is her own voice telling him about the baby and he staggers again but she knows it isn’t the drink this time. He puts his hands on his head and says something again but she can’t hear it because of the traffic and then she hears her own voice again.
I love you, she shouts.
The blonde woman has been watching them and now she totters up to him and tries to pull him away. He brushes her off and the woman wastes some words on him and then steps backwards and leans against the bridge railings.
“I wrote you a poem,” she shouts. She waves the piece of paper at him, the piece of paper on which she wrote the poem that proves her love for him, that tells the truth about her feelings for him. The poem that says she can only ever belong to him. She is crying. “It begins like this.” She is speaking softly now, to herself. “I love you more than life,” she says. “I love you more than life,” she shouts to him. “That’s how it begins.”
The man looks at her. He takes his hands from his head and shouts something again. Blood is pumping like something drumming in her ears and she doesn’t hear what he says. The man looks to his left at the stream of evening traffic. He holds his hands up and waves both of them at her.
“This is how it ends,” she says.
A bus runs along the road, moving through the gears and gathering speed as it heads out of the city. She steps into the road towards the man and her love ends with screams and a dull, wet thud. The piece of paper flies out of her hand as it is caught in the traffic draught. It flies up and off the bridge, and then floats down and settles on the oily surface. It turns and twirls in the river eddies, and then slowly sinks into the implacable water.