A beautifully poignant and poetic debut about love, loss, friendship, and ultimately, starting over.
Twenty-something Holly has moved to Brighton to escape her grief. But now that she's here, sitting on a bench, listening to the rolling waves, how is she supposed to fill the void her boyfriend left when he died?
She had thought she wanted to be on her own. But after a chance encounter with retired, part-time baker and book-club host, Frank, she is soon adopted by a new circle of friends, and the tides begin to shift. Beautifully written, Let Me Be Like Water is a moving and powerful debut about loneliness, friendship, the extraordinariness hiding in everyday life.
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|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Let Me Be Like Water
If you were here still,
I’d curl into your ribcage,
my concave lover.
I was sitting on a bench staring at the beach when Frank told me I’d dropped my keys. I was watching this little girl playing with a kite. She was quite a long way away, but she gave me something to look at. I can’t give you any details: maybe that her front teeth were missing, or that she had tangled hair. I don’t remember what I was thinking about, although I know I was wearing my red gloves.
I’d decided to get up and go, ready to continue walking. I was cold and sore from sitting, and at that precise moment I needed something that wasn’t the sea to be in front of me. I was about to stand up when Frank – who I didn’t know was Frank at the time – told me I’d dropped my keys.
He’d been watching the girl too, it turned out.
He pointed at the kite.
‘I have days where I’d like the wind to take me up like that. Some days it’s wanting to escape, I think, but on others, I’d just like to be a kite.’
I smiled. He handed me my keys.
‘Thank you. I didn’t know I’d dropped them.’
‘That’s OK. I dropped mine on a train track once, between the door and the platform. They had to be hooked back up again by the man from the ticket office. It turned out his name was Noel and he lived down my road. Funny world. What about you; would you like to be a kite, or would you pick something else?’
I stripped our bed the night before I left and sat on the floor while the washing machine spun. I watched the sheets twisting round. The bulge of the bowl made me think of a belly with a baby growing inside it. It hurt so much I thought there must be bruises. I needed to find something to hold that felt like you, so I pushed my fist into my mouth and bit down and cried into my knuckles.
It took me nine days to pack. When I got lonely I’d sit on the floor of the shower with the water switched on. Sometimes I’d feel tired, and I’d put down the jeans or the pants or whatever it was I was trying to put into a suitcase, and I’d slide into our bed. I’d lie still and think about how much I miss you. Other times I’d just cry, and my body would shake in that small way that starlings do when they fly together and their wings shudder like sadness in the sky.
I lay awake for most of the night and thought about the woman who was moving in in the morning. I put my suitcases into a big van, and it drove them from our little place in Hammersmith to the sea.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Maybe I’d be a yo-yo.’
‘That’d be good,’ Frank replied. ‘Kites get to fly though; a yo-yo would be more like a permanent bungee jump.’
‘You were about to get going. Are you walking towards the pier?’
‘I thought I’d walk to the sailing club. I like the sound the boats make.’
‘Me too: the clinking,’ Frank said, and he smiled.
I’ve always loved London, so when I started to hate it I knew I had to leave. I didn’t want to lose the feeling the river gives me in the morning – even on mizzly days – dispersing the early light on the Southbank as it waits for the sun to get a couple of centimetres higher; or the way the smell of rain gets in between taxis; or how wet, bitter grass springs up outside offices and in parks; or the glow the city gives me at 5 a.m. when I’m dirty from the night before and edging into the day with dry shampoo and muscles still tight from dancing and smoke. But I heard you everywhere: our residue on pavements and the seats of buses, reminding me of a conversation, a look, a half-hour I’d spent waiting for you, or sitting in the office counting down the conversations until I’d step onto the District line to find you. And I walked past grubby doors with newspaper headlines ringing in my mind, hearing the arguments we would have had about them, dissecting the nitty-gritty until you laughed and pushed me up against a street wall, stopping our debate under a pile of bitty kisses.
And without you, the boating lake, and the pub gardens with their wooden benches and fairy lights, and the wind tunnel when a tube pulls away and you tip on the edge of the tracks, and the lines of commuters in walking queues with frowns, clutching coffee in cardboard cups; they all seemed empty.
‘I feel like some company and Harris isn’t quite cutting it.’
Frank pointed at his dog, who was running across the beach. ‘Would you mind if I walk with you?’
His voice sat on the wind like they were friends. He was maybe seventy, I reckoned, and there was something solid about him.
‘That would be good,’ I replied. ‘I thought I wanted to be on my own but I don’t think I do anymore.’
‘Blame the kite,’ he said. ‘It’s made you feel wistful.’
I thought about you: holding my hand and watching me up in the sky.
You were in the middle of the dance floor at a university club night; a song I hadn’t heard before was playing, and I’d never seen anyone I wanted to talk to so much. My friend was off snogging the DJ, and I was standing by the bar feeling awkward and wishing I was back in my room with a cup of tea. But then there you were, dancing, covered in sweat – amongst a group of bodies that seemed to take up more room than the club could hold – all spiralling arms and beautiful, grinning eyes.
You were laughing at something a girl had said in your ear and then the song wound down, and you started to head for the bar where I was standing in these stupid shoes that were too tight and which made me feel overdressed and clumsy. You never got to the bar though; the first beats of the next track – I can’t remember what it was, some indie anthem with too much electric guitar – sucked you back into the bodies, skanking and laughing.
I didn’t see you again that night but I sketched your face on my eyelids as I lay in bed falling asleep.
‘I often see people sitting in their cars just watching the water,’ Frank said. ‘It makes me want to climb in there with them. I’m sure most of them are fine, but I always wonder if they’re sitting there because they’ve got no one to be outside with. I don’t think people should be alone by the sea.’
‘Unless they have some very good music playing.’
Frank laughed. ‘Yes. Are you a musician?’
‘I don’t know what I am.’
‘Ah, you’re in the best possible position. Would you like a ginger nut?’
He got a packet out of his coat pocket and offered it to me.
I didn’t think you’d noticed me that night in the club but you told me afterwards you had. I never knew whether you were just saying that because you were being nice. I wonder if I’d been looking the other way, or if we hadn’t got on the same number 254 bus from Holloway Road to Whitechapel a week later, we’d have found another place to collide.
I was sitting upstairs and you were behind me. The bus went round a corner a bit too fast and I fell off my seat. You burst out laughing and I turned around and saw you, the man I’d drawn on my eyelids.
‘How did you manage to fall over when you were sitting down?’
Frank and I start to walk. The sea is the colour of pigeons. I can smell September in the sky: leafy and salty and ripe. Two seagulls are bickering over something they’ve found on the stony slope down to the sea and they hoot at each other before taking off.
I ask Frank if he lives here. He tells me he does, that he’s a retired magician, and when he and his partner Ian stopped working they’d moved to the coast.
‘What kind of magic do you do?’ I ask.
‘All kinds,’ he says, and he smiles. ‘These days I earn a bit of money baking cakes for a friend’s coffee shop. Her name’s Jackie; you’ll meet her soon enough I’m sure. You can smell her shop three miles away so everyone gets sucked in sooner or later.’
Then he pulls a £10 note out from behind my ear and laughs at my surprise.
I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but one of the first times we hung out I was working, I only had an hour free at midday, so you came to see me and said you’d bring lunch. We met in the little park in Stratford and all you’d brought was chocolate cake. There were no sandwiches but you had paper plates and plastic cutlery and little napkins and I laughed, and you didn’t understand why I was laughing because you didn’t know how else anyone would eat cake except with a fork.
You’d only just moved back here from Paris and you called the cake ‘gâteau’, and your voice curled around your words like you were cradling them.
I think about that, four years later, when we share a bed and a flat and you curl round me, squeezing into my knees and the small of my back the same way your accent holds your words, the same way that books made of leather squash into the shape of the bookshelf they sit on.
After we’d eaten you took a kite from your pocket. You unravelled it slowly and we watched it climb into the sky. I remember feeling it tug on my hand, jerking like it didn’t know which way to fly. You had the night sky in your eyes: somewhere between navy and black, and you said we should let it go and we did, and it took off over the grey buildings like a firework.
You kissed me then, and I walked you back to the underground and watched you slide through the ticket barrier to the Jubilee line. You walked away, not looking back, like you knew exactly where you needed to be. You texted me later: Where do you think our kite got to, Holly? Let’s go looking for it soon.
‘You’ve just moved here?’ Frank asks.
‘Yeah, two weeks ago; I’m staying in Kemptown.’
‘Ah, excellent. You can join our book club. We’ve been hoping for a new member.’
Frank asks how long I’ll be around for and I say I don’t know. He says he hopes I’ll stay long enough to learn to bake. I tell him I don’t make cakes but I do like eating them, and I ask him what he thinks about cutlery when doing so. He says fork or no fork, as long as you leave it in your mouth long enough to taste it, it doesn’t matter.
The water is very still despite the wind; the waves aren’t breaking, just rippling in and dimpling the surface of the sea like bark. I don’t know what to make of Frank; he asks me questions like he cares a lot about the answers. He tells me that the book club meet every month to discuss a different book and eat together. He asks me if I’ve read Narcopolis; I haven’t but he says I can borrow his copy and if I read a bit I can come to their next meeting on the Wednesday coming. That his friend Gabriella will be cooking and it will be unmissable. That there will be cutlery but it won’t be obligatory. We both laugh at that.
I’m glad to get out of my head for a while; his voice is a relief. He speaks slowly, letting the air fill the gaps in our conversation and laughing at all his own jokes. Soon we are past the old pier and the boats, and we stop for some cider in a little pub on the seafront that turns into a club at night.
He tells me that on a Thursday he hosts a drawing class he used to go to until he realised he couldn’t draw at all. I tell him everyone can draw, they just need to practise, and he says that’s probably true but he prefers to knit, which is also very useful because you can never have enough socks.
‘I started when Ian died. I’d sit in the evenings and the room would be so quiet. I thought about how sad he’d feel to know I was just sitting there missing his noise in the room. Knitting needles make this sound, clinking together, and it made me feel like he was chatting to me. I think it’s why I like the noise the boats make so much; it’s similar; it’s like they have something to say.’
‘How long ago did he die?’ I ask.
‘Six years. Do you know, he is still the only person who made no sense to me at all the first time I met him. Completely haphazard.’ He laughs. ‘But he had red hair and he walked assertively, and he liked to drink tea in thin, cold china cups. I didn’t have a choice but to be with him in the end.’
I want to tell him about you but the words feel like cement in my mouth. Frank looks me straight in the eyes. It’s disconcerting, from a stranger. I ask something vague about him being a magician. He says it’s the best job in the world but that anyone can do magic and he can tell I have it in me.
He tells me to open my hand, I do and there’s a flower in it, and I shake my head and ask him how he did it. He says that it was me, and I really shouldn’t feel sad when I can make flowers grow out of thin air. I don’t ask him how he knows I’m sad; I just slip the flower into my bag and listen to the water swaying. ‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘when you’re by the sea everything works out alright.’
There are seagulls playing in the waves. It’s 2 a.m. and I’m sitting on the beach looking at the sea. The birds dart around and the night makes them glow like the round bits in Pac-Man. And I just stand there and I shout. And I don’t know if you can hear me, Sam, but if I don’t try to talk to you I’m scared my tongue will stop working and I’ll forget how to move my bones. I’m scared my skin will forget how to feel anything at all without your hands on my spine while I sleep.
A week after the date in the park you’re sitting on my bed. We’d been out to dinner; we ate Mexican food with our fingers. You’d told me about growing up in Cameroon and moving to be with your dad in London and then university in Paris. Now you’re studying in London again. We’ve got guacamole and chilli in our fingernails. I’ve told you I grew up on the edge of the city, that I still feel like I’m growing up now. I’ve looked at your hands moving to your mouth, and at your mouth, and we know that none of this stuff matters anyway, that we’ve known each other all along.
You tell me you’ve never seen anyone you wanted to talk to so much as you did when I fell off my seat on the bus. I tell you that although I’m studying philosophy, I want to write songs. You tell me how hard you find it being the son of your father. I tell you I like how you dance, although I don’t like indie nights and you shake your head at me and laugh. We walk home holding hands. Now I’m lying down next to where you’re sat and you say, ‘Sing me a song.’
‘Please, sing me something. I want to hear you sing.’
You lie back on the bed next to me. We face each other and I look into your sky-eyes.
You say, ‘If you sing, I’ll sing.’
I laugh at you.
‘What are you talking about? I don’t want you to sing.’
‘You want to be a singer; why are you so afraid to do what you do? You’re gorgeous too. Are you afraid of that?’
I can’t hold eye contact but you put your hand on my hip as I look down and you move my chin up with your other hand and kiss me. There’s chilli on my tongue.
‘Tomorrow,’ I say. ‘I’ll sing to you tomorrow, maybe. Let’s do this for now.’
I put my feet on yours and move in closer so our whole bodies are touching. When you breathe out, I breathe you in. The skin on my lips brushes yours and you pull me closer, move your hands under my jumper and hold the cradle of my back. I’m scared by how quickly I become part of you.
Frank and I arrange to meet the next day by New Steine Gardens so he can lend me Narcopolis. He’s waiting there with Harris when I arrive. It’s drizzling and the memorial statue splits the sky like broken wings. Frank has a flask of tea and he pours me a cup and hands me a ginger nut. We decide to walk along the front for a bit. The rain is heavier now but he tells me there’s no point living by the sea if you don’t like getting wet and I laugh and zip up my mac.
We go down the steps to Madeira Drive. The railings are the same kind of green as hospital overalls so I look at the water instead. It’s moving slowly, like the extra wetness in the sky gives weight to its rhythm. I take Harris’s lead from Frank and let him pull me along. When Frank lets him off to run ahead, the wind carries me instead. Little kite.
‘Is there anywhere you need to be today?’ Frank asks.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I was hoping you’d say that. I’m going to walk to Ovingdean for some cake. I’ve always found that cake in the rain is surprisingly good. Do you want to come?’
On the beach the stones shine like wet skin. It’s good to feel joined to something; when I breathe out, my sadness feels like part of the rain. I like cake, so I nod. Frank points at the ground and bends down to pick something up.
‘Look,’ he says. ‘A yo-yo. It must have been there waiting for you.’
About a month after the Mexican food I come to your house for dinner. It’s a Thursday evening. You live forty-five minutes west on the District line. It’s dark and I’m cold when I arrive, so you give me a blanket to sit in while you cook. In the kitchen you’re frenetic, chucking ingredients into the pan and making all your movements bigger than they need to be. Your housemates congregate round the table and you put the music on loud so we’re all laughing over it.
We’ve been exploring each other quickly. Tonight we are the opposite sides of a compass, looking across at each other as the room whirls around us. Other times, I’ve been the needle and you’ve been north: holding me there with nothing between us, not even a breath apart.
You pan fry us fish in a kind of peanut paste with lime. I’m held by the noise of the oil spitting and your friends talking over the drum beats. Whenever you walk past me to get something from the cupboard or to chuck something in the sink, your hands brush across my shoulders.
Later, my tongue brushes over your thighs and you tell me that you love me. You say it in French and Yemba and English. Je t’aime. Je t’adore mon petit cerf-volant.
Frank and I walk through the marina complex to the cliffs on the other side, where there’s a flat, wide walkway. The tide is in, banging against the wall where the path drops away to the sea. The waves spray up onto it, tearing themselves apart on the concrete. The energy of it makes me want to run, or roller-skate, or do something fast. We look at each other and laugh. Frank picks up a stone and hurls it into the water. I do the same and we keep going until we’ve run out of things to throw, and then we walk, dodging the waves as they rush in.
After a mile or so we find the cake shop – a counter cut into the side of the cliff – where we buy banana bread and Victoria sponge. We rest on the wall and look out across the sea.
‘How you doing over there, Holly?’ he asks.
‘I’m thinking I need to get a job. I can’t just eat cake and wander round all day.’
‘You’ll find something. That stuff always slips into place. Anyway, look at the rain,’ he says. ‘Sometimes falling for a bit is the right thing to do.’
He puts his palm out to catch the rain and closes his hand around a few drops of water. When he opens it again there’s a little piece of paper folded inside. I take it and read what it says inside: Go gently. I look at Frank but he shrugs, ‘Don’t ask me; it fell from the sky.’
Six months after the park date we’re at your house again. We’re running late for your friend’s engagement party and you’re making a speech. You’re tense because you don’t like public speaking and you can’t decide whether to wear your dinner jacket or your kaftan.
I say, ‘Sam, you would look amazing in a bin bag. Please put something on and let us leave.’
You snap at me.
‘That’s not very helpful is it, Holly? I obviously can’t wear a bin bag.’
You’re being ridiculous and it makes me love you even more. I don’t tell you this. I laugh instead and move into your body and put my arms around your waist, my head resting just under your chin.
‘You’ll be so good tonight. Please, stop worrying.’
You are hot, tense. Your muscles relax as I lean my body into you and we breathe together.
I say, ‘Wear the kaftan. I’ll make you a cup of tea for the taxi; it’ll calm you down.’
‘Oh really. And spill it all down me? Take a mug into the party?’
‘We’ll give it to the driver.’
‘Go away, you little weirdo; I need to finish up.’
On Wednesday it’s the book club and I’m nervous; I’ve only got through the first few chapters and I don’t know what to expect of the other people who’ll be there. I arrive first but Frank has told Gabriella I’ll be coming and she shows me into her kitchen. It’s thick with coriander and root vegetables and I say something about how good it smells.
‘I know, it does, doesn’t it,’ Gabriella says. ‘It’s a new recipe and I’m pretty pleased with it. Tea? Wine?’
She pours me a cup from a thick brown teapot and passes me the milk.
She adds three teaspoons to hers.
‘Frank tells me you’ve just moved here?’
‘Yeah, from London. About three weeks ago now.’
The walls of her kitchen are red, like the inside of a stomach.
‘I commute to London every day for work; it’s a pain but it’s worth it not to live there.’
I think about your mum moving to York, her wanting to get out of the city too.
‘What do you do?’ I ask.
‘I trained as a dancer,’ Gabriella says. ‘But I did a masters in theatre production and now I work in film. So, bits of everything really.’
Gabriella looks like a dancer. She’s tall and compact. Her words are precise and soft, her accent clipped like Radio 4. She will tell me later that her parents were from Tobago but she’s lived here her whole life. She grew up in Birmingham but she doesn’t have a Brummy twang. She says they wouldn’t let her pick one up, and she spent hours listening to the BBC trying to learn the right way to speak.
‘Did you move to Brighton for work?’ she asks.
I don’t have an answer ready so I kind of shrug.
‘Why did you?’
‘I took my son to London when he was eight. We were living in Birmingham and we caught the train in to go to the Natural History Museum. We went down to the river afterwards and stood on Tower Bridge for a picture. After I took it, he turned to me with a bogey on his finger and asked why his snot turned black in London. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t live in a place where pollution turns your insides dirty.’
I laugh. ‘So you moved to Brighton?’
‘Yeah, we moved to Brighton. About nine years ago now. We’d only been here a few months when he got leukaemia. He died six months later.’
I look at her, remembering to breathe. It’s what you do when you’re still alive; I know this.
‘His name was Joseph. He was the one who taught me how to cook. He wanted to be a chef his whole life and at the weekends he’d spend hours making up recipes. I’d put the radio on in the kitchen and chop vegetables for him and talk to him about films and school and just things we thought about. He wrote down all the recipes in a big folder that tied together with a ribbon and we covered it in handmade paper. When he died I used to sleep with that book under my pillow.’
‘I’m so sorry, Gabriella.’
‘I felt like someone had pressed pause, like I might never move again,’ she says. ‘I’d go for these long walks and sip tea in plastic cups from takeaway shops. I wouldn’t go in the kitchen. I ate cold ready meals in our guest bedroom and drank water from the bathroom tap. Then – not long after the funeral – I just came in here, and turned on the radio and started cooking. I took out his recipe book and opened it on the first page and rolled up my sleeves, and I chopped and grilled and seared and fried and seasoned and sobbed for my little boy, and when I had finished sobbing I carried on cooking.’
My eyes are watery.
‘I’m no good at cooking,’ I say.
She smiles and passes me a tissue from a box next to the hob. The doorbell rings and she looks at me.
‘Oh dear, the others are coming. Are you alright if I get that?’
I nod. She squeezes my hand and says,
‘If you come here on a Sunday, I’ll teach you. See if you want to after you’ve tried the stew tonight.’
Your mum only speaks French and Yemba at home, you’ve told me; she doesn’t like speaking English because of your dad. He’d lived here for so long he spoke it perfectly, but she found the language hard. It was one of the things she’d felt had never been enough for him.
‘That stuff won’t matter with you,’ you say. ‘She knows how much you mean to me. Just be yourself.’
We’re on the tube on our way there, and I’m nervous. It’s the overground bit of the underground and normally you’d make a joke about that, but you keep giving me advice about how to be normal, which makes me feel even more uptight. We snap at each other. I fiddle with my scarf and look out of the window at the trees. They’re the colour of berries and lipstick and rust.
‘Ne te stresses pas, Holly.’
‘Relax. It’s not a test.’
‘Oh please, you’re hardly relaxed, are you?’
There’s silence. I’m anxious about meeting your family. You know this and it makes you angry.
‘You’re making this a big thing, and it isn’t.’
‘I’m making it a big thing? We’ve been together for a year and it’s the first time you’ve taken me home.’
‘Don’t be a bitch, Holly. Arrêtes. We’ve talked about this; she’s religious and I needed to be sure we were serious. Why do we have to have this conversation again?’
You stand up and I watch you walk away down the carriage. You wait by the doors and at Dollis Hill you get off the tube. I let you go but when the doors close I don’t feel angry anymore; I feel sick.
The tube starts to slow down again and I can feel my pulse fighting with it; I need to get off too. At the next stop the doors open and I swap to the other side of the platform. The adrenaline’s making it hard for me to stand up; my muscles are tight and panicky. The southbound tube arrives and I get on and close my eyes. At Dollis Hill you’re still sat on the platform.
‘Forget it,’ you say. ‘If it’s such an awful thing let’s not even go.’
‘I’m sorry, Sam.’
‘Fuck it, Holly, let’s just not do it.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I really want to meet them.’
A train pulls in, heading north.
‘Si te plaît, Sam, on y va. Je veux vraiment y aller.’
You stand up, and we get on the tube in silence. Your eyes are wet. We’re still fighting but I take your hand and hold it so tightly you tell me it hurts.
‘Please don’t cry,’ I say. ‘Don’t ever cry because of me.’
I think about this fight when I sit on my bed at night looking out at the sea, unable to sleep. I feel stupid for asking such a ridiculous thing of you. I want to pummel you with my fists; I want to see you bruise.
Gabriella’s stew tastes like home. It doesn’t taste like a home I’ve lived in yet; it’s a home in Tobago by the beach. It’s warm from the oven and warm all the way through: an initial sting of chilli, overtones of coriander, the infusion of ginger and nutmeg that sears the through the vegetables, the earthiness of cumin and something I can’t identify. Cinnamon, maybe.
It’s loaded with pulses and beans and vegetables from Gabriella’s garden, and rich tomato juices that seem thicker than passata and fresher than purée, with tiny lumps of cheese that somehow escape melting and stand firm against the other flavours, like little pockets of punch. And then almonds, which Gabriella tells me she fries right at the start with the onions and the spices; they absorb the oil and taste like crunchy sweets, packed with swirling tastes distinct from the liquids of the dish. She adds in a twist of coconut milk, lifting the heat with its creamy sweetness, and serves the finished dish with baby spinach leaves and fried, crispy plantain.
We wake up already tangled in each other. It’s Sunday and I’m hungover and I’ve been in love with you for more than a year. You make us spiced eggs. We eat them in your bed with coffee and Bloody Marys. You’ve added so much Tabasco I choke on mine and you laugh at me. We sit in bed all day, you editing your thesis, me writing songs.
There are seven members of the book club, including me, Frank and Gabriella. The others are Ellie, Noel, Danny and Jackie. Jackie is the one who owns the cafe where Frank’s cakes go, and I think Noel is the man from the train station who rescued his keys. Ellie and Danny are both my age, or maybe a bit older.
Danny really likes Narcopolis but Jackie doesn’t. She laughs at him because he keeps trying to persuade her it’s brilliant and she doesn’t agree. Frank asks Noel to read a bit aloud and everyone finds it funny. I don’t really get it but they’re all so happy it’s infectious.
We’re clearing the plates away, ready to go home, when Ellie corners me.
‘Me and Danny are going to the pub now. You should come. You need to help us to keep the excitement going after all these fuddy-duddies hit the hay.’
Jackie smiles. ‘It’s true, Holly; these two must be delighted Frank’s recruited someone still young enough to get tiddly on a Wednesday night. Don’t let them down.’
I look around at the others, all putting on their shoes and coats. Frank seems to hold everyone together, like they’re the leaves and he’s the branch, and no one wants it to be winter. As I leave he smiles at me.
‘You need to be more careful with your keys, Holly.’
‘What do you mean? They’re in my pocket.’
I look for them but they’re not there. Frank pulls them out of the air behind me and passes them back with a wink. I shake my head at him and we laugh.
Ellie, Danny and I leave together. It’s a cold night and it feels thick, like any moment the sky will crack again and pour with rain. I notice the air more now I’m not in London. It chafes my ankles between my socks and jeans and I sink my hands into my coat pockets to get warm. In my left pocket I find an old apple core I can’t remember putting there. I try to sneak it out but Ellie catches me and cackles as I go to flick it in the bin.
‘That’s really grim, Holly. How long has that been there?’
I throw it at her instead and we run laughing down the road.
I keep your big red cashmere jumper bundled up on the chair by my bed. I sleep in it every night. It makes me too hot.
We head into North Laine and duck into a pub. It smells of prawn crackers and there’s an open-mic night going on. Danny buys a bottle of red wine and some peanuts, and we sit at a table in the corner. Danny is tall, white and skinny, with eyebrows that really commit to his face. They move when he talks. He jiggles his leg under the table as he tells me he works for a record label with Ellie’s boyfriend, designing artwork for album covers. Ellie’s doing a PhD in neuroscience, and Danny asks her how it’s going. She turns to me, smiling.
‘He knows everything there is to know about music but try talking to him about acetylcholine and the basal ganglia and he’s completely useless. I don’t know why he’s bothering to ask.’
‘Shame,’ I reply. ‘I really struggle with people who can’t talk about ganglias.’
Danny chucks a peanut at her head.
‘I’m being polite, Eleanor. You ever heard of social niceties?’
Ellie laughs and gets out a pack of cigarettes, ‘Do you smoke?’
‘Thanks. I have rollies.’
We go outside, leaving Danny to guard the wine.
Ellie lights up and leans on the pub wall, breathing the smoke out in perfect rings. She turns to me and says, ‘Disgusting habit. We should quit. So what do you do; do you have a job down here?’
‘Sort of. I joined a cleaning agency; I have a trial shift on Friday. I put an ad up in the newsagent too, saying I could teach piano. I have an interview at the weekend.’
‘Cool. Do you sing as well as play?’
‘Yeah. It used to be what I wanted to do but now I don’t really know. Things are a bit up in the air.’
‘The open mic here happens every week. We should come back. I bet you sound great; you’ve got a really sultry speaking voice; I noticed when you were talking about the book.’
I laugh at her and choke on my smoke.
‘Not so sultry now, darling,’ she says, going cross-eyed and whacking me on the back. ‘Get some wine in you quick; we need to lubricate that throat.’
She stomps our cigarettes out and pushes me back inside the pub.
‘Quick, Danny, she’s dying. For Christ’s sake, give the girl some more vino rosso pronto, or we’ll never see her round these parts again.’
I just want you to be here.
We get through the wine pretty quickly and the first bottle becomes a second. The open-mic night is winding down and Danny decides we should play darts so Ellie says she’ll take us both on. He and I make a pretty good team but Ellie keeps missing the board completely. She blames the music.
‘I’m telling you, I know about these things. The rhythms in the stuff they play here just don’t provide a suitable environment for effective motor-neurone activity. You two must have some pretty weird brains to be doing so well.’
We laugh and abandon the game. We sit in the corner and talk about nothing, staying until closing. Outside I feel kind of warm, but the ground looks syrupy under the shine of the streetlamps and it’s raining again. It seems later than 11.30.
Danny hails a taxi.
‘We’ll do the rounds,’ he says. ‘Where do you need to go to, Holly?’
I’m the only one going east so they drop me off first, on the corner of Upper Rock Gardens. The lights are out in the house I’m staying in, and I don’t feel like going inside yet. There’s no colour on the walls of my room; it’s no one’s fault but it makes me angry. There’s a patch behind the bed where I’ve been peeling the wallpaper off when I can’t sleep. I feel guilty but it’s easier than screaming; it doesn’t wake anyone up.
I’m hungry now and I think about the apple core that was in my pocket. I want to eat. I remember seeing a kebab shop down the road; it was pink, with a man with a bird on his head painted on the wall. I don’t know what I’d order if I go there though; I’m tired. It’s still raining and I need to make a decision so I stand in the doorway of the church on the corner for shelter.
I think about phoning my parents but it’s late and I don’t know what to say. My socks are wet. I got some flowers for my room but I didn’t put them in water so they died. I feel so lonely. There are four days left this week and it’s been raining a lot. I’ve stopped brushing my hair but I think it looks alright. Every part of my body hurts. I don’t want you to tell me you love me.
That night I dream of brains that chase me out into the middle of road, and the sound of brakes and crumpling metal and the smell of burning.
I get a piano teaching job. It’s every Saturday with a little girl who’s about to turn eight and is working towards Grade 3. Her last teacher moved to Berlin, her mother tells me.
‘You’re not planning to do that, are you? It’s just terribly difficult for Louisa; she builds up such strong attachments.’
I assure her I’m not, and she gives me the job.
I can see you dancing from where I’m singing on the stage. It’s the first gig of mine you’ve been to and I thought it would make me nervous but I’d forgotten what you’re like when you dance. You’re in a big crowd with the rest of our friends and sometimes you sink into them but I can sense you feeling the beat with me and it makes me better. I move to the piano for the next song; it’s slower, and I get lost in it so when the set’s finished and I walk down from the stage, I’m surprised to see you there ready to wrap me up.
We sit – a group of us – at the bar while the next band sets up and then we dance together until we ache. You look so good when you’re dancing, and you make everyone round us seem better than they are. You feel music in the same place that makes me want to play it and you spin me round like the whole room was built for us to move in.
I can feel the moisture already drying in my bra as we leave and the autumn air hits us. It’s dark and cold outside, and you push me up against the wall and take a handful of my hair and kiss me.
‘I’m so proud of you, little kite. Dancing to your voice is almost as good as waking up next to you in the morning.’
We walk home that night; it takes over an hour but we want to be outside. You say you can’t imagine standing still on a bus. Whenever there’s something to crash into we do; we let the streets’ walls hold us up and our mouths open round each other.
At home you push me into the door as I close it. You kiss me, your head nuzzled into the back of my neck. I turn round to face you and you lift me up and I wrap my legs around your waist. You try to take my top off but you can’t balance me at the same time. You put me down again and we take off our own clothes. We both try to do it quickly, and it’s kind of funny. I’m naked first. It’s a bit cold and I watch you take your socks off and then we’re both there, standing with our clothes next to us. You smile at me and I laugh. You put your arms around me and we kiss.
‘Where are we going?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. The floor?’
We lie down facing each other. I put my leg up over your thigh and you push your hips forward and move into me. You hook your arm under my leg and use your hand too, and I curl close into your body. We move like that, and I hold onto your back and push my fingers into your shoulder blades, curling them around you like the bend in a river. I don’t close my eyes. You find my hand and we hold on, hanging together, moving through the space that’s between us until there’s nothing there, and we only exist like water.
It’s suddenly Sunday again. It’s been raining for forty-eight hours and where I’m sat on the beach it feels like it will never be dry again. The stones are all different colours and I wish I knew more about why. This is the kind of thing I would ask you. Instead I throw them into the sea, as hard and as far as I can, over and over again. I stand up to do it. I know you can wish on stones, so I hurl them into the sea wishing for things like an end to global warming and new trainers and you.
I’m glad it’s raining because it means there’s no one outside to see me. I’m making strange guttural noises every time I throw a stone. It’s making my throat sore but the stones don’t break when I throw them and I want something to hurt. I sound like a tennis player at Wimbledon. Or someone with terrible constipation. This thought makes me laugh and then I can’t stop laughing, and my knees bend as my stomach starts to ache and I lie on the ground laughing and laughing at the horizon and the rain clouds and the strange little woman shouting and hurling rocks into the sea.
Back in my room I put on dry clothes. It’s not even lunchtime yet but I think about getting into bed, letting the day roll into the night in sleep. Then I get a text from Frank saying he’s going to take the car down towards Haywards Heath, for a walk by the viaduct at Balcombe, and do I want to come too.
You found it frustrating how hard I found it to drive, and how complicated I made maths. These are things I’m trying to fix. We fought – me fierce, you more amused – over the Monty Hall Problem, the one where you’re on a game show and you’re offered the choice of three doors. You know that behind one door is a car, and if you pick the right door you’ll win it. But behind the other two there are goats. So, say you pick a door, maybe No. 1, and then the host, who knows what’s behind all the doors, opens another one, let’s say No. 3, and this door is one of the ones with a goat. The host then asks you if you want to change to door No. 2, and the Monty Hall Problem is whether or not you’re more likely to win if you switch doors, or keep it the same.
During my first ever driving lesson I was so nervous I couldn’t breathe, and I had to keep stopping for little air breaks. I’d drive a bit and then I’d pull over to take some breaths before getting going again. The first time I tried driving round a roundabout I was so nervous about stalling I concentrated everything on the clutch and the gear stick and completely forgot to steer, so I just drove straight into it.
You found this ridiculous. You told me you didn’t understand how someone so steady on their feet could be so dangerous in a car.
You told me you liked the fact I’m dangerous. We’d laugh and find ways of making our bodies move even closer together.
That day, on the way to Balcombe, Frank tells me driving is just mind over matter so he gets me to drive the country lane part, after we’re off the main roads. We wind down the windows and he puts Bob Marley on at full volume.
I ask him what to do about L-plates and he shouts back over the music that no one should ever stop being a learner and it’s a stupid distinction to make. He tells me to put my foot down and relax. He flicks his chair back and starts to sing along in a booming bass as I turn the key. ‘Just don’t tap your foot along,’ he says. ‘And if you see a roundabout, try not to drive through it; the clue’s in the name.’
I haven’t told him about the roundabout I drove into. But I haven’t told him about you either, and when we arrive at the viaduct he says, ‘You drove well, Holly. You’re fixing it.’
I said I’d stick to my guns: stick with the door I’d chosen in the first place and see the decision through. You said it wasn’t a matter of commitment but of probability and I’d have more of a chance of winning the car if I switched.
I said that if there was a one-in-three chance of all the doors having a car behind them and the car doesn’t move, then just because one of the other doors doesn’t have a car behind it, doesn’t make it more or less likely for the one I’d picked in the first place to be right? I said that it didn’t make sense because nothing’s changed; we already knew that one of the doors we didn’t pick had a goat behind it, and now all that’s happened is we’ve seen the spare goat, which we’d already known about anyway.
And I was really angry that you couldn’t make me understand why you’d switch doors. You even started telling me a theory someone had made up about a little green woman. You wanted to prove the point that I was making to disprove your point, because you wanted to show me that what I was saying actually proved that you were right. And I didn’t know what you were on about and I wanted you to draw a probability tree to help me understand, and you started laughing at me and that made me even angrier; and I told you that I hate not understanding things – like how everyone expects you to use pi all the time, as though it shouldn’t even matter to you that they can’t possibly know for sure that it goes on and on forever without repeating itself, because if it does go on and on forever they couldn’t possibly have seen all the way to the end and checked that it never repeated, and if it does go on and on forever then how can they also know that it’s the exact right number to do all the sums with circles with – and you were laughing even more now, which made me even more enraged. Then you asked me exactly who it was that wanted me to use pi all the time, and told me I was just getting cross because you’d told me I’d end up with a goat and not a car, and I told you that I couldn’t even drive anyway so I couldn’t care less about whether I got a goat or not, that I don’t like how cars smell of metal and moths, and that I was just annoyed because it didn’t make sense, and that you had to know you couldn’t just tell me things if you couldn’t explain to me why they were true.
Frank told me the viaduct was made of 11 million bricks and opened in the summer of 1841. The bricks were imported from Holland and shipped up the River Ouse, and then a team of people slotted all 11 million of them together to build the tumble of arches we were walking under. He said he’d always liked magic because it was one of the few things that made people happier when they didn’t understand it. That coming to a viaduct constructed from 11 million bricks made him feel how he hoped other people did when he made things float in the air.
As we turned our backs on the viaduct and started our walk back to the car, Frank stopped.
‘I wish I knew the name of one of the builders,’ he said. ‘It’s such a shame they weren’t able to sign it or something; they spent so long building it. Do you think one of them might have been called Edward?’
‘I think Edward is a strong possibility.’
‘Me too,’ Frank replied. ‘I think I’d like to thank him. What do you reckon?’
And then louder, ‘Thank you, Edward; I think you’re great. We think you’re really great for building this viaduct. Hello, Edward!’
I joined in.
‘Hello, Edward! Thank you! Thank you, Edward!’
We must have stood there for two or three minutes, laughing, with Harris running around us in figures of eight and barking, and us calling backwards for two hundred years to a man who may or may not have been called Edward. We tried out a bunch of other names too, all vaguely Victorian. Frank started to dance: waving and sort of jumping and whooping, ‘Thank you, Edward! Thank you, Archibald!’ at the sky and the bridge. I joined in, spinning around on the spot and whirling my arms until I was dizzy from moving and breathing and shouting.
‘You’re not driving home,’ Frank muttered when we’d stopped and were standing still again, listening to Harris and to each other, panting. ‘You’re clearly erratic and dangerous. I think it’s best if we let Harris drive so that we’re free to yell at strangers through the windows.’
‘I think that’s probably wise. He looks like the kind of dog who could get us home safe.’
Darkness was closing in, and as we walked back to the car Frank started to sing again. I started running a bit with Harris, jumping around and dancing. A passerby going the other direction went past us with a nervous grin as Frank waved and sang at her. I jumped up a little too eagerly and slid over in a patch of mud. I pushed myself back up and Harris rushed over. I looked at Frank and started to cry. He walked over quickly.
‘It’s OK, Holly,’ he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Do you want a ginger nut?’
He started to get the packet out of his pocket but I shrugged him off and shook my head.
‘I don’t want a biscuit, Frank.’
I wanted to be a long way away from him. This strange man, with his cakes and his dog and his collection of broken people, who knew more about me than I’d told him. I needed to be away from everyone.
‘I want you to leave me alone,’ I said.
He looked at me.
‘Shout it,’ he replied.
‘Shout it; “I want you to leave me alone,” as loud as you can.’
‘What are you talking about?’
I wanted to hurt something; I was full of you, full of something, shaking.
‘I want you to leave me alone,’ he shouted. ‘I want you to leave me alone.’
‘Leave me alone!’ I shouted it back, and then again and again up out of my body and I was crying and shouting and I needed the pain to stop.
‘Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!’
Then I was just hungry, and tired, with nothing else to say.
‘Better?’ Frank handed me a hanky. ‘Come on, let’s go back to the car; you’ll feel OK in the warm. Let’s get you home.’
‘I’m so sorry, Frank,’ I said and I turned to him, and remembered he was kind and had bought me banana bread and was helping me make friends.
‘Don’t apologise, Holly. Rage is healthy. You’ve got to let it out.’
He offered me the ginger nuts again and I accepted one, and he took my arm as we walked back to the car.
‘Where did you come from, Frank?’ I asked. ‘How do you know so much?’
‘I’ve been here all along,’ he replied. ‘I’m a magician.’
Danny texted me in the week to see if I wanted to join him and Ellie for a pub quiz: It’s on Wednesday at the Sidewinder right by your house. We’re going to the St James before for Thai food and rum. See you there?
I had two houses booked in for cleaning and a piano lesson in the evening. Rum sounded good. About ten minutes after I’d said yes I got a text from Ellie: Heard Danny invited you to quiz. Need your best fun fact before you get my approval. Make it a good one. Ellie x
I replied: The longest recorded flight of a chicken was 13 seconds and 301.5 feet long. Hope you’ll have me, my general knowledge is not what it could be but I’m a solid team player.
She came back to me straight away: Chicken-based facts are my favourite. See you there at 7.30 x
One of the houses I clean is filled with china ornaments: all pastoral scenes with inane grinning animals. They sit on rows of shelves that line the hallway and the stairs. It takes me an hour to dust them, and they smile at me like they know how obscene I find them. There’s one – a particularly perky shepherdess in a blue frilly skirt and bonnet – that gets to me more than the others. She’s trivial, and she puts on this glazed-over smirk to taunt me. Today, when I get to her shelf, I hurl her at the floor. She smashes instantly. It’s satisfying, and I think about smashing them all.
Later on – when the owner of the house comes home – I apologise; I tell her it was an accident and offer to pay. Then I hoover it all up and go home.
When I get back to my room there is a packet of ginger nuts on my bed with a handwritten note. Go gently H. When I turn it over there’s a picture of a sheep on the front. The sheep looks pretty grumpy though, which is a relief. I laugh. I guess Frank finds chirpy farmyard scenes irritating too, but that’s the only part of it I can make sense of.
The first night at the book club was the first time I’d seen someone as thin as Ellie. Her fingers were like twigs and where her knuckles made them a little wider her skin was saggy and dried, as though this was the only place on her body where there was any excess. Her clothes were all too big and her hair was falling out slightly in places where the skin on her scalp was too fragile to anchor in the follicles. She looked like a cross between a bird that had just been born and an old lady, and you could see the hunger cramps and the resilience and the pain cutting into her eyes and her skin as soon as you looked at her. I think that’s why I was so surprised by how funny she was, and when she’d sit shivering from the cold of not eating while arguing vehemently about international development policy or the relevance of twentieth-century French philosophy to modern-day Marxism, I’d wonder how it could be the same mind that drove these different sides of her, and how someone so completely dynamic and vital could be living out her own destruction.
We came second to bottom in the pub quiz – mostly because we’d saved our joker for the picture round, which turned out to be an error – but also because we’d drunk too much rum.
We know better the following week. Ellie brings a friend from her department at the university: Duane. He is witty, sharp and tells me he loves comic books. He says that some people find it surprising in a Jamaican man, but he enjoys the exposure of social constructs through irrational incongruity. I don’t really know what to say to that, so I talk to him about Doctor Who. I know that’s not the same as comic books but he doesn’t seem to mind, and we argue over whether it’d be worse to be stuck on a desert island with a Dalek or a Zygon.
Ellie’s boyfriend Sean has a wide, angular face and a voice that slides out gently when he speaks. He’s lived in Brighton all his life and met Ellie at school. They’re both white, and his accent is less clipped than hers is. He works with Danny and Mira, who they’ve brought along from the record label. Mira says ‘fuck’ a lot. She is tall, trendy and acerbic. She sits next to me, taking the piss out of the table next to us who have matching team T-shirts. We decide to get some printed for the week after, and I don’t even think she’s joking. We rise to a respectable fourth place and feel smug.
After the quiz is done we buy pizzas from the bar and sit for a bit, laughing about the questions we got wrong. Danny buys my pizza for me because I’m out of cash and insists I have to try turkey and ham with Worcester sauce and gherkins. The man behind the bar thinks we’re idiots but it tastes better than I expect.
‘You see,’ he says. ‘I know a lot about pizza.’
‘Shame you don’t know more about current affairs,’ Mira says. Danny is indignant.
‘You shouldn’t be laughing at me, Holly; I just bought you dinner!’
We get pissed, and it’s Duane who suggests we walk down to the beach. We get our stuff together and go outside. It’s a quiet walk. The town is asleep and the noise of the waves makes the silence feel padded, like we’re under the sea or something. I don’t know, we’re pretty drunk.
On the beach, the big wheel looms up and there’s a little bar flashing lasers out onto the stones. To my right the pier glitters. It’s only really dark when you look out to sea and – under the surface – it could be hiding anything.
Duane and Mira walk down to the water’s edge to paddle and check out the temperature. Soon we’re all down there, kicking water at each other and laughing. I don’t know who does it first but we pull off our clothes and run in properly, the shock of it wearing down to a numbness, and then I’m floating on my back laughing as Sean tries to pull Ellie in.
I stay like that, trying to hold my body as still as I can. It’s dark and I can’t see the water around me. When I put my ears under the surface I hear nothing except the rustle of my blood moving round my body. It sounds like someone rolling over between clean, crisp sheets in bed at night. The coast, which has drifted further away is sprinkled with yellow and white, and outwards – to the edge of the sea – there is only heavy, sooty sky. I think about what would happen if I decided to stay here, where the water would wash me to. I feel calm so I breathe all the way out and let my lungs fill back up slowly. I don’t need to be anything here; I am held by the salt, and the sea, and the thick, black sky, and none of it minds who I am. I let the sadness in slowly, as the cold eases out of my bones, and my body fills up with everything I’ve been pushing away. I start to cry, and it makes my body fold, so I roll over onto my front and put my face into the water. I cry straight into it, holding my breath, but then I start to shake so I open my mouth and I choke on the sea. I’ve lost the thread of the conversation and the others are laughing at a joke I’ve missed. I push myself deeper under the surface and open my eyes into the sting of it. It’s dark inside the water: just empty space and the place in my throat where I choke on memories of you. I am somewhere it hurts to be but it would be such an effort to drown; my body wants so much to keep me up and I’m tired, too tired to keep myself out of the air. I don’t know when I got cold but my head breaks the surface of the water and my teeth are chattering. Mira swims over to where I’ve been floating.
‘Holly? Come on; you’re freezing. Let’s go get dry.’
She takes my hand and pulls me onto my back, kicks us towards the shore. I don’t say anything but I’m still crying a bit. It’s cold enough to pretend I’m just shivering but she doesn’t let go of my fingers, like I’m a child and she knows I’m scared. In the shallow water I stand up and cough out some of the salt. She puts a hand on my back.
‘It’s OK, honey, let’s get you out. Let’s get you warm.’
The boys have followed us back, laughing; they haven’t noticed what’s happening. We’re all shivering, we scrabble up the beach to where Ellie’s sat with our clothes and get dressed. I need to get it together: repair the edges where you crept in and pushed me apart.
‘You OK, pal?’ she asks.
I nod, and flop back onto the stones to look at the sky. She lies down next to me and puts an arm around me. Mira hugs the other side and Danny spots us,
‘Look at these three having a little cuddle. This calls for a bundle.’
Everyone piles on top and I’m crushed under them. The stones push into my back and I’m part of the beach, sinking into it, into them: soggy and laughing.
We sit back up, huddling together, and Duane goes with Mira to get coffees to warm us up before we walk home. They’re easy, flicking stones into the sea and swatting at each other’s jibes like the sugar spill from a doughnut. I feel safe with them. I play the game, say the right things, laugh at the right moments. Sometimes I feel happy in the places I’m supposed to. I wonder how much they’re hiding too.
Before we go, Mira says she thinks she knows someone else who’d want me to teach them piano and takes my number to pass on. I watch her and Danny chatting and wonder if they’re together. Ellie hugs me when we leave. I guess she knows this game too. I say, ‘See you soon.’
When I was a child I made houses out of Duplo. I spent hours thinking about where the fridge should go, so that my little Duplo families wouldn’t be in the way of one another if someone was washing up and someone else wanted to open the fridge. Where to put the beds and the bathroom and the flowers in the gardens and which colour bricks the different rooms should be, and when I was sure that I’d made the perfect house, I’d move everyone in and spend days giving them lives, and they’d become completely real until – one day – I started to believe that maybe I was a little Duplo person and God was just someone playing with her toys like me, and that we weren’t real but were dolls or something, just in someone’s head; and then I found myself completely amazed at the size of that person’s imagination that they could hold the stories of so many of us as well as our toys, in so many countries.
Then it’d be time to put the Duplo family away and I’d actually sob at this point because I felt like I was killing my little Duplo people and I was so worried that one day the girl in heaven who was playing with us would stop wanting to, and then the world would end. And that idea was so painful for me that I’d draw pictures of the trees and close my eyes and pretend to be sitting on a cliff or be a bird or something, and I’d always calm down again. This was just when I was a child, so I think with that level of worry over Duplo, I was always going to find sad things overwhelming.
There’s a roof terrace on the top of Frank’s house where I go on Thursday nights. That’s when he hosts the drawing class downstairs so I know I’ll always find him there, and I sit in the sky and wait for him. Frank’s building is buried into the streets that climb up from the shore so there’s only a slip of the coast in view, but you can feel the salt in the air and hear the seagulls and the waves.
I sit wrapped up in a blanket reading John Ashbery, or listening to the news, or practising the French grammar I’m trying to re-teach myself from school. When everyone’s left he comes up to join me and tells me stories: about magic tricks where he’d make Ian fly over the crowd, or the little nifty ones that were his favourites, like conjuring ice into a drink or turning scrambled eggs fried. He always catches me unaware with a little flourish of magic mid-story; tonight he pulls candles out of the air as it gets dark and blows on them to light them.
It’s cold, and he’s brought me up an extra pair of socks from a huge bag he keeps on a hook by the ladder that leads up and outside, and a box-baked camembert, and we sit huddled by a big heater, pushing through the cold until our bodies get warm and sleepy in the way that makes your mind wander to ideas you wouldn’t think of if you were inside or it was daytime.
We’re sitting up there in deckchairs and he points out the stars. He tells me to come here whenever I feel full of holes, because from this far away the stars look even smaller than it’s possible for a person to feel.
He knows all the names of the constellations but not which is which, and sometimes he makes the names up anyway. Tonight he tells me I should take this approach to my life: point at it and give it a name. He says, ‘What matters is making a decision. Now tonight the important decision is mulled cider or ginger tea. But don’t worry, because whatever you choose, we can always have the other one later on.’
I choose the ginger and stir in a spoonful of honey.
‘Ah, we need a fork for the camembert,’ Frank says. ‘Keep stirring for a bit, Holly. A little longer. And stop.’
I pull the spoon out from the tea and it’s turned into a fork.
‘How did you do that?’
I don’t want to get sentimental about Frank, Sam, because he does have really bad road rage and a tendency to drink too much and fall asleep in the middle of an argument when he knows he isn’t making any sense, and actually he is really bad at drawing, and he and I quite often disagree about books, and in many ways Frank is just another Frank. But he really knows how to listen and to answer and he just laughs the whole time and really cares about people and tells really good stories that go with red wine and cheese. He does magic too, and these days I need to have something to believe in.
Frank asks me if I believe in God. I say I’m not too sure and we speak about how he’s a Jew and a little bit about my Duplo idea, although I don’t think that at all anymore and we laugh about it but we’re a bit sad too, maybe because the world does sometimes feel like it’s going to end. We talk about you; I’ve told them now, and he gives me another blanket and a piece of cake.
We sit quietly for a while, and around 10 p.m. Danny arrives. He’s come straight from work and brings a newspaper he’s picked up in the Co-op. Sometimes Ellie comes too; sometimes it’s just me and Frank. I slot into his evening along grooves that feel much older than just a few months. I say, ‘You shouldn’t work so late, Danny DeVito. You’ve missed the sunset.’
‘I always miss the sunset,’ Danny replies.
‘Well exactly!’ says Frank. ‘Have a beer.’
Frank reads us the headlines. Perched on the top of a building it feels like we could see the other side of the world if we tried hard enough. We talk about whether it’s possible for peace to exist anywhere. The paper is full of the Middle East and revolution in Egypt. Firing has intensified rapidly in Gaza, and Frank’s face is sad in a way I rarely see on him.
‘I spent a year in Israel; I went to practise my Hebrew,’ Frank says. He puts the paper down and stands up. He walks to the edge of the roof and looks out over the town.
‘My family survived the Holocaust, and now there’s me – Jewish and gay – a double whammy. But my life is filled with all this joy. What can I do with all that, of surviving, when a generation later there’s another people, another family being jerked apart by power and bloodlines. It makes me so angry.’
He turns back to us.
‘Peace isn’t as effective as bloodshed,’ Danny says. ‘You know that, Frank. Real revolution means we all have to kill or die and that it isn’t a choice of ideology but of survival.’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ Frank says. ‘It’s easy for you to say things like that when you’re sat here safe with a beer in your hand, Danny. It would seem less impressive to be a radical if you had a gun in your face or soldiers attacking girls on your street.’
I read a lot of stuff I get from Danny: articles and commentaries and poems. I sit in the Jubilee Library, or in the internet cafe up by the station, and read the emails he sends me with bits of stuff in. I send him things back. We disagree a lot of the time but I find it interesting. Sometimes the things he says remind me of you. Now he’s shaking his head at Frank.
‘The West is too embroiled in the power games and armament of so-called terrorists for me not to already be complicit in that. I’m not trying to be a radical but to acknowledge my part in what’s happening. Sometimes we have to challenge our own complacency.’
I don’t know if this is something you would say. I don’t feel complacent but my toes are cold.
We celebrate our second anniversary on the balcony of your new flat. You’ve paid the deposit with the advance from your new job and you haven’t got furniture yet, or had time to unpack. We kiss on the bare mattress you’ve put on the floor.
Your mum calls while we wait for a takeaway to arrive and we put her on speakerphone.
‘Ta propre maison: ça m’a rendu très fière. And how is your music, Holly Moon? Have you written me that song yet? Sam, dites-lui. Tu as ta propre maison; je voudrais ma propre chanson.’
‘It’s written. Has Sam not played it to you yet? I’ll give it to him next time he comes home.’
‘Quoi! Ce n’est pas juste. You’ve never written a song for me.’
Your sister chimes in, ‘Come home with him, Holly. You can sing it to Mum yourself.’
We say goodnight.
‘Bisous. Fais de beaux rêves.’
The food arrives and we sit outside to eat it with plastic cutlery straight from the silver-foil containers. We have noodles and crispy beef and chicken in black-bean sauce and we eat slowly. I love this game we play, eating in tiny bites, swallowing, stretching out the time until we take off our clothes on your bed. It surprises me sometimes, that even after this long we still take mouthfuls of each other so urgently.
That night you tell me this is the beginning of the future. You own a little piece of the city now, and one day you want to own it with me. You tell me you want to have children: twins, a girl and a boy. If not here then in another house: a family we can watch fly. I laugh at you.
‘Not now,’ you say. ‘I know not now. But we have forever to dream about, don’t we? I love this forever with you. You are so beautiful, little kite.’
Later, I walk halfway home with Danny. I ask him about work.
‘What kind of music do you do the artwork for?’
‘It’s a mixture,’ he says. ‘I mostly work on garage and grime. But lots of different stuff really. You’re a singer, aren’t you? I found some of your stuff online.’
‘You googled me? Danny that is stalker activity.’
‘I liked it; you have a great voice. And I google everyone so don’t be flattered.’
‘You’re an indiscriminate stalker, sure, like that makes it better.’
‘How are you doing, Holly?’ he says. ‘Stuff must be tough.’
I don’t know the answer to this, so I smile, and shrug, and offer him a mint.
Every time I think about the future I feel like I’m inside out, and my skin gets clammy. I know I can’t run away to the sea to live in a rented room with a single bed and a kettle forever. But I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and it feels like all the things I knew for sure are falling away.
There are moments where I sit on the floor between my bed and the wall where I’ve scratched the paper away, and I can feel a hole pushing through me from the carpet to the ceiling, like I’ve lost this dream and lost all this stuffing that the dream had filled me with, and I’ve lost you too.
And that’s the bit that makes me feel as though the hole going through me doesn’t exist, because I don’t even feel like I have a body anymore. I sit here on the floor of my room below the window and the view of the sky and feel like I am nothing.
It’s Noel’s turn to host the book club and we do it at the end of October. Noel has seven shirts that are exactly the same and he wears one of them every day. He lives in a little flat with his partner Joan, who cooks for us but doesn’t stay for the discussions. I’ve slipped outside onto the patio for a cigarette halfway through the conversation and meet her there, smoking too. She nods as I light up and says, ‘You ever been fishing?’
I tell her I haven’t and she says that she and Noel go at the weekend sometimes. She says to let them know if I fancy it, that it’s a nice way to pass the day: smoking and fishing. I thank her, say that’d be nice and go back in to finish talking about Moby Dick. I’m playing that game again, the one where I smile and move my hands to show I’m having a good time.
Frank sits next to me, muttering a commentary in my ear. He watches as the argument gets more and more heated and only joins in when it reaches the height of controversy, pushing Noel and Gabriella’s disagreement over the edge.
She and I wash up together in the kitchen afterwards.
‘When are you coming over to learn how to cook?’ she asks. ‘Sundays. Any Sunday. Come every week if you want.’
I haven’t seen Gabriella since the first book club. I look at her and she smiles, and I wonder if she’s known about you all along, or if Frank did anyway, and he told her.
‘OK,’ I say. ‘Thanks. That sounds good.’
We leave together, planning recipes for the weekend. She offers Frank a lift home, but he shakes his head.
‘I need the walk to calm me down. These nights get me very excited.’
I watch him pace down the street away from us with Harris, and think about how he found me at exactly the moment I needed him to.
Autumn has sapped the trees of their chlorophyll and stained them with dying colours: beautiful bruising as they fade away. It’s Halloween next week and we’re making buckwheat pancakes with caramelised onions and goats cheese and a rich beetroot soup in Gabriella’s kitchen. At first, I sit on the surface of her kitchen worktop and watch her cook. She starts to give me tasks, and soon I’m helping her with cutting and peeling.
I’m in charge of making sure the soup doesn’t burn, tasting it for flavour. I sing along quietly to her radio and she dances as she chops. When we sit and eat together she tells me stories about Joseph and I talk about you. It’s like uncorking a bottle of champagne. Neither of us can stop; memories trickle out in bubbles and we talk until it’s been dark for hours. She drives me home with a Tupperware full of soup in my lap.
On Bonfire Night we watch the fireworks from Frank’s roof. Noel heats up jacket potatoes on a little gas stove we’ve taken up there and hands them round in silver foil. Jackie’s brought the leftover cake from her cafe and we eat it after the potatoes, pushing sweet sticky lumps of brownie into our mouths. Frank’s wired a little CD player up, and Frank Sinatra bellows out over the rooftops until the night takes over and fireworks start shooting round us in all directions. I stand there and think about you. Last year we spent Bonfire Night at different parties and at exactly the same time we texted each other: I love you. I remember thinking it was because the same sky was stretched over both of us. Tonight I want to peel it away and fall off the earth. I get my phone out to text you again but I don’t know what I’d say.
I think about the way I used to feel you breathing when you held me, my cheek against your ribcage. I think about your fingers in my hair and the way you’d always stand next to me to clean your teeth, watching me clean mine in the mirror. I think about waking up in the morning to your open mouth and the space between your thighs where I’d hook my leg, and then I can’t think about it anymore, and I turn back to today, and I slowly eat another jacket potato.
Frank comes and stands next to me, and puts an arm around my shoulders.
‘I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed,’ I say.
‘Yeah, I know,’ he replies. ‘But the thing to remember about fireworks is they’re just colourful farts that someone’s set fire to.’
He flicks his hand at the sky and a rocket explodes, settling in the shape of a heart before disappearing.
‘It won’t always be this hard.’
Last autumn, I didn’t take the bins out enough and you were always home late and it was stuffy in the flat with the heating on and too cold without it. I’d be asleep when you got home in the week, and I was mad at you, but now I missed you and that made me even angrier.
I hug Frank, and we shuffle closer to the others but I’m still somewhere else. Noel’s telling a story about going skinny dipping as a teenager. He and his friends had made a bonfire, and chucked their clothes down next to it as they’d run into the sea. When they got back he realised he’d thrown his straight into it. He’d had to walk back home stark naked and endure weeks of being called Burnt Nuts Noel.
I laugh again because everyone else is laughing too. I think about what we all look like from the sky, tiny people making noises no one hears. Ellie slips round next to me and fills up my glass. She smiles and says, ‘Come and stay at mine tonight. There’s something lurking in your eyes that makes me think you should be tucked up with Auntie Ellie and not on your own in that cramped room.’
I thank her and nod but then I feel selfish and ask, ‘Are you OK?’
She shrugs, ‘I’m a bit hungry.’
She laughs and takes my hand and we’re walking back to her house before I have time to reply.
We go to the pub for lunch one November Sunday and you push some swede around your plate. There is nothing to say. I try to make a few jokes but they aren’t funny. We look out of the window for a bit.
I want to tell you I feel lonely. I love you just as much as ever but I am bitter about the fact you don’t say thank you when I make you packed lunches and only seem to notice me when my hairs clog the bath.
On the way home from the pub you take a phone call from work, so we walk along the river while you talk to them and I play with the hole on the middle finger of my right glove.
We walk all the way back, you on the phone, me getting more and more wound up, having conversations in my head about how I never see you anymore, and the one time we have gone out you’re working again.
When we get back to the house you go straight into the living room – still on the phone – and close the door. I stand there for a moment, unsure where to go. Our bedroom has clothes on the floor and anyway, I don’t want to be on the bed, so I go into the kitchen. We’ve left some breakfast things out. I clear them away and start to clean. Half an hour later I’ve drunk two cups of tea and washed all the surfaces twice, and I’m pissed off.
When I go into the living room, you’re sat there watching TV.
‘You’re done with your call?’
‘Didn’t you think you could have come and told me? I’ve been on my own cleaning the kitchen!’
‘I don’t know. I just assumed you were busy. Holly, what’s wrong?’
‘Are you being serious? You close the door on me, don’t talk to me and then just leave me in the kitchen cleaning up after you while you’re in here watching Come Dine with Me!’
‘It’s not Come Dine with Me. It’s MasterChef.’
‘It’s the same thing!’
‘No it’s not.’
‘Seriously it’s not; it’s a whole different format –’
‘Are you joking?’
I can’t understand how you don’t get what I’m saying. I’ve just washed up your porridge bowl because you were using the sofa as your office, you haven’t talked to me for fifty minutes, and it turns out you’re just sitting here watching people chop up a fucking onion. I storm out of the room and slam the door.
My Sundays with Gabriella become something of a ritual. Frank’s been teaching me to bake cakes too, so sometimes I practise while she cooks dinner. If it’s a Sunday evening – rather than an afternoon – she puts on a film while we cook. Afterwards, I walk home clutching little parcels of food for the week ahead: soups and spicy chicken and these deep-fried goats cheese and beetroot balls. They’re my favourite; they fall apart in my mouth, sticky cheese infecting the earthiness of the beetroot with an oozing sweetness, coated in breadcrumbs, the creamy molten flavour dissolving on my tongue.
They’re the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Gabriella teaches me to cook them for my dad’s birthday, but the weekend I’m due to go home I change my mind. I don’t know what I’d do with myself there, in the warmth of my parents’ sitting room. Instead I send a text to wish him happy birthday and I drift here, to the shore.
There’s a fog in my head, matched by the wet haze clogging up the sky and making everywhere an effort to get to. I feel cold. I imagine picking up my phone and calling someone: Ellie or Gabriella or my parents or Frank. I know my mouth won’t co-operate though; my tongue is too thick between my teeth and my face won’t move.
For our November meeting we’re at Jackie’s house and we read The Collector. Noel tells us he’s a lepidopterist too; he has his own collection of moths and butterflies at home. He says he’s surprised by the way the book links collecting butterflies with imprisonment. He tells us that when butterflies die they become brittle and locked into a kind of rigor mortis that snaps their wings closed. The process used to collect them is called relaxing, and helps them unfold again. He says he’s always thought of this softening as a release, and that – in truth – in order to collect butterflies you have to understand how to set them free not how to keep them locked up.
‘But setting things free can be painful too,’ Frank says. I’m too tired to work out what he means.
You feel so real still that whenever my phone rings I look down and expect to see your name. I leave you a voicemail and feel ashamed. I’m starting to miss you in a new way that feels like I’m being ripped up into little pieces and hurled hard in your direction, only for the wind to pick up all the bits of me and fling them the opposite way.
I go to meet Ellie from the library where she’s studying. I’ve made fridge cake and it’s been semi-successful so I take her a piece wrapped in cling film. When I get home that night I pull it out of my bag and put it on the side: unoffered. I feel angry with myself; I see Ellie all the time and couldn’t exactly have failed to notice the gaps in her body or the fact that if I go for food with Sean or Danny she arrives after we’ve eaten. But I say nothing and pretend not to notice.
As my baking gets better I gain confidence, and with confidence I gain flair. Under Frank’s exuberant coaching and Gabriella’s expertise I mix beetroot and chocolate or apple and rum, and one day Frank decides that one of my cakes should go to Jackie’s cafe with his to be sold. I offer to go on the cake run before work the following morning. I often go anyway, popping in to say hi to Jackie on my way to my first house of the day. She always gives me a coffee she won’t let me pay for, so I put a pound in the tip box and slip away to drink it in the street as I weave through commuters and ironed shirts, and silently guess the names of the people I pass in my head: Becky, Aidan, Jennifer, Jay, Edith.
That morning – armed with the cakes we’ve baked – I arrive ten minutes early and sit inside with my coffee, smiling as I watch what we’ve made get sold to the breakfast crowd; Jackie’s wink as she hands it over makes me want to climb onto the table and jump off again cheering.
On the counter by the till Jackie keeps a huge glass sweet jar with little slips of paper in it, each of them with a word and its meaning neatly typed across it. I stick my hand in as I put my coffee cup back on the counter and say goodbye, and as I swing the door shut behind me and step out into the swell of people whisking themselves off to their mornings, I look down and read: ‘Sonder, noun: the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’
What I want to know, Sam, is will I ever run out of things I wish I could tell you? Things that sit in my fingerprints you’ll never get to read there. What about the things you know would make me laugh? Are they really just gone now?
At the following week’s pub quiz we come second. We celebrate with red wine, generously poured and drunk too fast. I’ve come straight to the pub from work without eating and the alcohol is quickly starting to flow in my blood. I start to feel my fingertips buzzing as I get tipsier.
The noise in the pub is heightened, and the temperature of the room is warmer because the outside is so cold. We’re in the corner: Ellie and I, sparring with Duane about something. Sean is listening – amused – his fingers drumming on the table to the song that’s playing through the speaker system. Mira is at the bar picking up another round and Danny’s gone to help her, me just conscious of my inclination to watch them together. I’m still unsure if they’re more than friends and I’m even less sure why it would matter to me either way.
Danny sits down next to me when they come back, and when I say I’m cold he puts his arm round me. I let him, but it doesn’t warm me up.
It’s 4 a.m. and I’ve been in love with you for almost five years. We’re lost in Soho on our way home from a party and we can’t find a taxi. There’s a sweaty woman in a doorway dressed in navy blue. It’s been raining and the pavement shines like her armpits. Someone walking past says, ‘We won’t be allowed in there again.’ The ground tips; my toes are numb. There’s a bouquet of flowers in the road. Its cellophane dances in the wind. I tell you I’m jealous of the rain on your face. You laugh into my mouth and I have never felt so happy.
My stomach hurts, partly from the wine, swinging like a magnet in the roundness above my hips. Partly from the laughing. We push our mouths together again. Waterlogged and clumsy. The sweaty woman’s gone. We find another street to swing down.
I teach four children the piano now. I like watching their hands move over the keys. Sometimes I open up the lid and get them to watch the little hammers at work while I play. I tell them it’s good to understand why the sound comes out like it does, and they watch it like it’s magic.
Sometimes Frank walks down to the sea with me and throws stone after stone into the water, like he’s playing a piano. He makes the splashes get bigger and bigger until the water dances in rhythm. I know it’s fine not to understand why it moves like it does, and I watch it because it’s magic.
In the last week of November we finally win the quiz and we go dancing afterwards to celebrate. The music is louder than I’m expecting and the bodies and the noise around me make me dizzy. I feel battered by the beat of the bass and I don’t know how much longer I can keep standing. I’m worried I’ll get trampled. Someone’s dancing right behind me now with their back rubbing against mine and I don’t want them to touch me. Someone else pushes into me as they jostle past. All these feet stomping to the music.
I look around; Mira is with Duane and Danny a little way away and I can’t see Ellie and Sean; I think maybe they’re smoking outside. I can’t remember how to breathe. I’m hot, so I try to get to the exit but there are too many people in here. They’re twisting their bodies into rectangles and boxes and shapes that bodies shouldn’t be in. A tingling starts in my fingers and I’m starting to get black dots in my eyes and suddenly your arms are round me; you’re holding me up and I start to cry, shaking all the panic out into your shoulder, but it’s a small hand that wiggles into mine and when you step away to look at me you’re not you; you’re Sean, and it’s Ellie saying, ‘It’s OK, Holly.’ And I tell her, ‘He’s dead, Ellie; he’s dead.’