[I would hugely appreciate comments on this. It’s my contribution to an anthology of stories inspired (in any way) by songs. This comes from INXS’ Beautiful Girl. My fellow contributors are unanimous it is too fragmented and unexplained. I’d love to know what you all think – by all means forget that it’s based on a song – that’s by the by. Thank you]
The tip of her smoke flares red and fades, and rises again from the ashes, syncopated from the beat of the neon flickering above her. A smack-pulse drum and bass floats up the stairwell through the chipboard doors, slamming off against the rain. I’ve left London and landed in a world filled only with rhythms. And her.
She takes the dead roach out of her mouth and flicks it into the rain where it’s lost. She opens her mouth and moves her lips and out comes a trail of smoke and steam.
“What’s it like in there?” I ask, taking two steps towards her, leaving her room to make a run to my side so she knows I’m no threat.
“You didn’t hear a word of that, did you?” I hear.
“Not a word.”
“I said spend the night with me.”
I laugh, and start to turn away, and then I stop. Her voice hooks me back, and I look at her, at black hair turning a hundred shades in the diffracted lights and sounds of the darkness, at lipstick the unchanging black-red of blood.
“By morning I’ll be dead. Spend the night with me.” The last words so soft they merge with a bass line from a club streets away.
I feel my finger burn and twitch where my wedding ring used to be.
“It’s OK. I’m not asking you to fuck me. Not unless you want to.”
“I have a daughter. I’m seeing her tomorrow at nine.”
A mote of something bright breezes behind her eye, or maybe it’s just the reflection of her lighter as she sparks and draws. “What do I care what you’re doing at nine? By then I’ll be dead.”
I see Ruthie’s face. Or rather, I try to find her face and end up leafing through photographs in my head, pieces of Ruthie three, six months apart. Nothing that adds up to anything as seamless as a life. Maybe from tomorrow. But that’s what I always say.
I won’t sleep. Maybe not sleeping with someone else will keep me sober enough Emma won’t turn away and take Ruthie with her the moment she catches my scent on the wind.
“I’m Simon,” I say.
“Don’t be down on yourself,” I say, taking my first hit of smoke.
“Who the fuck said I’m down on myself?” Not angry. Not upset. Just a question.
We smoke in silence, three puffs each, then she goes on. “You can ask me to put on a sharp diamond ring, and ram my fist inside your asshole. You can buy beer and smash the bottles and ask me to carve the fucking Mona Lisa on my arm. But you don’t ask who I am. By morning I’ll be dead and you’ll still be Simon and that’s the way it is, and why doesn’t matter and who I am doesn’t matter because the fact I’ll be dead before the conversation’s over makes me nobody. OK?”
When we’ve finished our cigarettes we leave the alleyway and head into the endless fractal streets of London’s night. Everywhere we turn the neon throbs the same blues beat half-lights. Every alley narrows to another that narrows to another that opens up to a garbage courtyard leading off to any number of alleys that narrow to other alleys, and in the background come drum and bass strafing the sky from turntable turrets we never see.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s all the same, but you can walk and walk and never get bored.”
“What about tired?” I reply.
“Sure, sometimes you get tired. But never bored.”
“I think I’d get bored if I traipsed around here every night.”
“Yeah, maybe you would.”
I don’t know how, but she makes me think of Ruthie. Maybe I imagine Ruthie being there in the night when I’m older so I don’t die on my own. Maybe I have nightmares of her telling some middle-aged man he can ask her to fist fuck him. Whatever it is, she makes me think of Ruthie, and I know it’s stupid but I tell her anyway. She says, that’s stupid, and I say I know.
She says we should get coffee and we take a few turns and head down some steps into a basement where a guy with bags under his eyes the size of his belly comes up and asks what we want. I look at the walls and the floors, the edges of the cracks and peeling posters gouting neon blood off the glass doorway at the bottom of the stairs; and I look at her and she says, two double espressos.
“So how come you have to come here to see your daughter?” she asks.
“I thought I couldn’t ask that kind of question.”
“That’s right. You can’t.”
“But you can?”
She watches the doorway. Her eyeballs hover, strobing, following the flicker of the lights. I wonder if she’s taken something but that’s not it. It’s like something inside her is beating the rhythm of the city, and it’s pushing its way to the surface, and out of her skin. Like it’s shedding her. I wonder if that’s what she means when she says she’s dying.
“My wife left me.”
“That’s not hard to figure.”
“There was an accident.”
“An accident.” She nods to the waiter who sets the coffees down with his huge hands so quiet they don’t make a sound.
“A man was killed.”
“A man was killed.”
“No.” I take a sip, look at the cup, and see it’s empty. “It wasn’t an accident. I killed a man.”
“A man was killed. You killed a man,” she says, her eyes still pulsing side to side and not stopping in my direction.
“I was late at a meeting. It was my daughter’s birthday. Emma was going to be so mad. I didn’t see.”
“And you were later than you ever thought you would be.”
“I made it home on time. That’s all I was thinking. Make it home on time. And I did.”
“And Emma was still cross.”
“Yes.” I put my hands to the corners of my lips to steady them, but the caffeine and the memory’s working against me. “But not that night. Not on Ruthie’s birthday.”
“You made her birthday,” she says. “And you missed all her others.”
She says we should get Danish to soak the caffeine or we’ll sit here and drill holes in the floor with our feet. We eat them in silence, and the waiter brings more, leaving the plates and forks on the table around us, and I think it must be morning and she’s not dead, and soon I’ll be with Ruthie and this toxic neon night’ll be gone. One more coffee, she says, and I say that’s a good idea, and she says,
“Turn your mobile on.”
I look at her. Her eyes go still and look back into mine, black and blank.
“Turn your mobile on.”
I put my hand into my pocket for my phone, and at the same time she reaches into her bag and takes out a thick, grubby fold of paper, and puts it by her coffee.
I press the button.
“This is what he was delivering,” she says.
The screen lights up.
“I was in the café, drinking guava juice and picking blueberries out of a muffin.”
I feel the buzz on my palm.
“I took it from his pocket before anyone came,” she says, sliding the paper towards me.
The noise in my ear makes no sense. It sounds mechanical, only it’s not. There’s something human. A click click clicking like heels in a corridor only over the top there’s the rush of wind.
“To protect his wife.”
It’s. It’s the echoing, gurgling, hollow tapping of a death rattle. I drop the phone to the floor.
“He was on his way to give her divorce papers. We had a flight booked. And a taxi. I stopped to cancel the taxi, to protect his wife. Because it was the right thing to do. I cancelled the taxi, and I walked two miles home, and I bolted the door, and then. And then I cried.”
The phone jerks on the floor like a cockroach flailing on its back, and London goes quiet except for the sound of the screams crawling up from the concrete, as though the only thing that exists in the whole world is Ruthie’s name.
I look at the cutlery in my hand and at the floor and at her face, and in the thousand sheening neon pulsebeats the only thing I see is the unchanging black-red of lipstick.