must run now, I can’t be late or everything will be late.
“Take out the trash,” mum calls, as I run downstairs – two steps at a time – and jump for the back door.
“Just get it done,” shouts dad.
Great. I haul the trash out into the snow, startling a few birds pecking at the fat on the bird feeder.
The neighbour’s cat swings by, peculiarly fluffy and black against the snow. “Leave those birds alone,” I growl. The cat is in a mad, springy mood, though, and hops off, appearing and vanishing, in drifts up to its ears.
Trash stored, I get the key for grandma’s house. The slender iron is freezing cold, where it hangs on the hook by the stairs. For its wards, a heart is cut through the bit.
I get my bag of cereal and cans from the washroom and then head down the wynd.
Why is it that wellies are so crap on snow? Dad’s car has carved the lane into awkward tracks and humps. I think I’ve jolted everything by the time I get to that tree-lined, ivy-shrouded, tunnel that leads up to grandma’s house.
My carrier bag hangs low, clunking against every stick, branch and mound of snow. My nose is running. Grandma would have something to say about that. Grandma was never late, never untidy, always had a good word to say about everybody; liked to keep me sorted, though. I think half the village was at her funeral – mums, dads, small kids; some of the farmers from one parish over. I found it really sad, but mum said, don’t worry: everything comes around.
“What do you want for Christmas?” was the next thing she said, staring at the rectangle of fresh sod, in the copse, where we’d planted grandma. We had to break the ground with a pickaxe.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe, maybe I don’t know.”
“That’s fine. You’ll think of something,” and she squeezed my arm.
The cottage is low and white and sits back in the trees, against an immaculate lawn, now sleeping beneath a deep, duvet of snow. A trellis, border plants, the old garage, stand darkly.
There has been so much snow, I’m dragging a furrow up to the front door.
Nobody else has been here. Once, I’d meet all sorts up here, asking grandma – old Mrs. Salter – for one of her ‘ha’penny cures’ as she put it, or a little, ‘silvery curse,’ that wasn’t so bad. Grandma didn’t do the bad stuff – she liked everyone too much.
The ice is riming everything, getting in under the eaves and the guttering. The outer surface of the snow is crunchy; the inner, soft and yielding, like marshmallow.
I practically have to break into grandma’s garage, even though I have the key – the snow is so insistent. Old tools, the smell of damp. A drip from my nose lands on the saw, creating a darker spot of rust. I dab it with my gloved hand, without thinking, and end up with a rusty glove. Bright, Suzy, bright.
More wading in my rubbish boots – toes cold as elbows – and some sawing at an evergreen in grandma’s garden. I don’t know if it has to come from here, but I think it probably does.
What is it? I hear grandma ask.
I dunno… birch?
Gods. No. Got your head on back to front? That’s holly, child.
They all used to look the same to me. I have the twig – dark, succulent, still with some green growth in it – and jumpity-runny-hop-drag myself to the front door.
Head down, watch the lintel. Grandma was tiny. Watch the little hawthorn men; the scratchy pictograms in charcoal, crumbly on the flaking white paint; the horseshoe nailed firmly upright, in a two-pronged salute to luck. To the left of the portico is the name of the cottage – ‘Dun Roamin’; grandma’s little joke.
Bang the door shut – sticking now. Flick the calendar to the 23rd, one page over: an awesome winter scene of muntjac deer grazing by Woburn Abbey.
I love the smell in here: wood smoke and age. I feel the damp coldness of an abandoned house. Grandma’s things are still here, though. I don’t feel sad, really.
I fire up the wood-burning stove, remind myself to pick up more logs, pull open the curtains – feel that wall of cold, from behind the window glass – and get to hanging that sprig over the fireplace.
I tie on the bells, salute the cardinal points, say the rhyme – I even rap a bit of it, ala Jay-Z (my own invention; it seems to work. Just don’t tell grandma) – and finally tack the thing above the hearth with a silver nail. There are plenty of holes here already.
Silver nails… tricky to get hold of now grandma’s not around. This is mum’s – a bit rough, a bit bendy. “I’m definitely not my mother,” she said, shaking her head. “I think you got the craft. It jumped over me like a forest jack.”
Mum says that quite often.
Buckled, or no, the nail holds.
Just to see what I’ve got, I drop a few crumbs of chocolate on the mantel and go crouch behind the sofa. The material is an old patchwork, re-sewn, and carefully re-mended. Feels like luxurious sail cloth.
Grandma is a shadow in a hospital bed. She has a two-pronged tube up her nose. She says, “You got to stay with them over Christmas, Suzie. And let them out on the twelfth day after.”
“Of course,” I say, crying even though I don’t want to – Salter women don’t cry. “What happens if you forget?”
“Nothing. Winter lasts forever.”
“Oh.” Are you joking? I wondered. But no, there was only a fierce grandma Salter staring back at me with that level expression of hers. Some kind of bellows was hissing up and down, keeping her breathing.
There is scratching on the mantelpiece – rats you might think – or noisy mice with clogs on, until you hear the tittering. You don’t see anything, but you feel it. Nom. Nom. One chocolate flake, then the next vanishes.
The sprig rustles once more with a jingle of bells and everything goes quiet. Just the pop and soft roar of the burner; a drop of snow, falling from a bush outside.
“Keep it warm, Suzy-girl. You’ll do it proud. But don’t forget – it has to sling its hook on the twelfth.”
“I got it.”
She is quiet for a moment. Then a hand, cold as old bone, touches my arm.
“Oh, and take chocolate. They bloody love chocolate.”
I stoke the fire some more, keeping us all warm for the winter. I can’t get what I really want for Christmas – that part has gone now – but a spring thaw will be just fine. Fine enough, I guess.
December 10, 2010 16 Comments
started a myth today. I told my friend Elwood about the old house you can find if you walk up the hill and out of our town and keep walking for a few miles, where, on the right-hand side, along a line of trees, you’ll see an old house next to an overgrown orchard. If you walk there, you find a lake amongst the trees, with a sluice that is nothing but corroded machinery, and the house itself which has empty windows, and doors, and is full of tumbled plaster; and the orchard, where damsons grow, yellow and sweet, if you care to harvest them as summer turns to autumn.
I drew the house – it was similar to one I discovered next to my own home village – and I gave Elwood the picture.
He asked, “Who is the old woman in the window?”
I pretended to be surprised, and said, “Eh? What woman?”
Of course, he pointed, and we both looked together – both, it would seem to him, for the first time.
There is a definite old woman in the far window. She is a blue smear, but she is there.
Elwood is thrilled by this ghost in the picture, and shivers. “That’s amazing! That old woman just appeared in your picture! We should give it to a museum or call Ghost Busters or something.”
I downplay this, a little, saying that there is a curse attached to the old place, and maybe that applies to the picture. “You aren’t supposed to go there, and you’re not supposed to take photographs.”
“But your picture is drawn in crayons,” points out Elwood.
“Yes, but, the old woman is there, isn’t she – in the picture.”
This circular logic is self evident and Elwood agrees to keep the mysterious apparition quiet; just between us. We don’t want to annoy the old lady; make her curse us. That would be really, really bad, we decide.
The next day, Laura asks me about the picture. Her best friend, Clara, was talking to Rachel, who got it from Neil, that Elwood said I had a haunted picture.
I sigh dramatically, and say I cannot show her the picture on account of the curse.
“Curse?” she says, eyes wide, nervously – but excitedly – turning the ball in her hands.
I tell her what I say Elwood told me. “At first, I didn’t believe it either.”
“Oh,” she says, looking around nervously, head bobbing, as if the old lady will come to school right there and then and take her away.
I am intrigued by this idea, so I tell her this happened at another school with a similar picture of the house: that a kid who looked at it – just like her – got kidnapped by the old lady.
Laura is too scared now to look at the picture. Faced with my theatrical fumbling at my satchel to find it, she screams and runs away.
She comes back five minutes later.
“Who drew it?” she asks, her head touching mine, as she examines the picture I have reluctantly produced – having had it ready all morning, waiting impatiently for someone to ask.
“I don’t know. Some boy I think; from another school.”
“The one who disappeared? The one who got taken by the old woman?”
“Maybe. That’s probably right.” I shake my head and bite my lip. “It would make sense.”
There is a picture, which, if you look at it, an old woman will come and take you away. The fruit in her garden is children’s heads – those are in the picture too.
My yellow damsons look a little like heads, I guess. Because that is what Laura tells Clara.
Some bigger boys come to ask me about the picture in the afternoon break, saying they think I made it all up; that stupid, magic pictures with ghosts in them don’t really exist. But they are furtive and keen to look.
I realize these older boys won’t believe the story if they see the picture. It is not powerful enough.
I tell them that the picture has vanished. I mean that I lost it. This is greeted with derision. One of them wants to search my bag, another to punch my face in, so I offer to tell them the story instead; of the old woman, as it was told to me by another boy. Not me.
This is met with immediate interest. I tell them they can’t tell anyone. They have to promise. They solemnly swear this, crossing hearts and hoping to die.
There is a woman who lives in an old house, on the outside of town, who has a garden of children’s heads and whenever one is ripe, she plucks it and eats it. And that same day, a boy or girl will be taken from school – kidnapped – but not one of the younger kids; one of the older ones, if they are naughty or punch faces.
“Kids just like you have already vanished,” I say. “Nobody knows where. She’s a cannibal…”
A boy one year down from me left to go to another school, but some kids think it was the old woman.
There is no picture now; she doesn’t need a picture.
Five kids came up to me today and said, they heard this story which is totally true about this old woman who comes to schools and takes children away and has a garden with kid’s heads in it, and she eats them! “We even found her house!”
When a new girl – Trinny – starts the same afternoon, she confirms this, saying that it totally happened at her old school, and two kids have already gone missing. “All they found were wet footprints – from the lake.”
December 3, 2010 20 Comments
’m third floor up in an Edinburgh tenement. My breath is steaming and it’s cold on this doorstep. A bunch of geraniums are wilting on newspaper next to the railings, and a girl’s bike is chained up amongst the leaves.
I rap twice with the doorknocker, trying not to trap the ends of my stripy gloves. Thumping base, shrieks of laughter and a hundred voices are crashing on the back of the door. There is no immediate response to my knock. I slip off a glove and scratch just below my right eye. Looking down at my fingertip I find a thin film of crimson. I blot my cheek and absently suck away the salty-tasting smear.
The door bangs open with a jangle of Tibetan bells, juddering five inches into somebody’s foot. Coarse, hacking laughter come from within, along with a woman’s hand running up and down the door frame, as if attempting to lever aside the gates of hell, though these claws have diamond-pink nail varnish. There are some bodily rearrangements, the clunk of a forehead on hollow planking, and, on the second attempt, with a few more bells, the door lurches wide. I’m looking at Shazme, who’s quite pissed by now, leaning on her equally obnoxious friend, Karol, with a capital ‘K’.
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘This the party?’
They look at each other, plucked eyebrows raising in unison before Electric-Boutique No 7 eye-shadow squints kind of evil.
In their hands are cans of cheap-bitch larger and cigarettes. Behind them is a crowded hallway, a choppy red light, and dancing gibbons, which are also my classmates, throwing their arms around like sparklers. Shazme has a little bit of white streamer in her hair – the only virginal touch.
As Karol shakes her head at Shazme and looks back to give me a verbal slap, she spots ‘the support’. Her eyes widen and her head kinks back to get the full view, and I feel a wave of pure conquest shoot up and down my spine. Conversely, I know a damp electric shock has just gone straight to her crotch, ‘cause that’s what happened to me the first time I saw him. Unfortunately, I’m playing it cool, so I don’t get the full expression, but what I can pick up from under my fringe is an ‘o’-shaped mouth, forming an emotion so raw and breathless, it’s only just jumped from the tank and is flopping around on the welcome mat.
Karol nudges Shazme. Shazme is staring at the gorgeous hunk of manhood standing behind me. I dare another squint. Both girls have this unfathomable look. I realize they can’t understand why this guy is here. Shazme is already twisting a finger in those tight, Sunny-delight curls she made with a Boots voucher. Her tongue and lips have gone as plump, wet and red, as a half-sucked strawberry lolly.
‘Can Azazel come in? He’s with me’, I say, just a little breathlessly. There is a scrape of grit under Azazel’s boots, just behind me. I presume he’s introduced himself with some sort of laidback nod.
‘With you?’ says Karol, giving Azazel a measured look up and down that could peel and undress an iron bar.
Azazel, I know, is ignoring her sudden splash of hormones. Azazel is with me; I know this. There is no danger of losing Azazel to this harpy.
I pop off my gloves and shrug out of my red coat with its faux ermine trim. Unfortunately, despite the season, I have neither the legs nor pixy-like good looks to pull off a sexy Santa with this jacket. ‘Thanks, then Shaz. I’ll just come in then, shall I? Be a doll and hang that up.’ I thrust the jacket into her arms and sweep on through the doorway. Grinding industrial two-tone and sweaty red light swallow me up. All credit to Azazel’s impossible good looks – Shazme takes the coat, mouth agape. She doesn’t move with it though. I don’t think her legs work. I wouldn’t be surprised if I leave this party in five hours time and find that Karol and Shazme are still there – so shocking is the revelation of my joining the sisterhood.
‘He – this – I mean, with you?’ says Karol in my wake. A month ago, that ‘shit wouldn’t stick’ tone would’ve had me running back out the door. In fact, lets be honest, I wouldn’t have let myself go up the stairs, to open the door, to do it to myself all over again in the first place; or even left my flat on a Friday night, to make it to the stairs, for that matter. That was, of course, before Azazel.
I glance back. Azazel is bringing up the rear with my poly bag full of mini-Bacardi, Diamond White, and pre-mixed Long-Island Iced Tea. His other hand is still embedded in the face of his crash helmet; despite the fact we didn’t ride here.
My bag – the Patch Puppy – comes with me.
Looking for the biggest audience I can find, I head instinctively for the kitchen.
Seeing the dancers bouncing around the walls in here, blocking the way, Azazel politely puts a gloved hand on my shoulder. I feel a small clench in my gut. His fingers, ivory white and bare beyond the cut-off gloves, smooth across the halter of my dress and tweak the looping strap of material. The leather spatula of his palm cups the ball and socket of my arm. I acknowledge the flash of silvery studs hammered into that oily, preserved cow, as much as I acknowledge the enquiring pressure. The dead skin creeps slightly as if alive. I look up at his razor-sharp cheekbones, youthful goatee, and statuesque nose. His eyes are inscrutable behind round, black shades that shimmer like drops of oil. Despite the lack of illumination into his soul, there is a definite note of inquiry. Head slightly tilted, the bug eyes are paused. His sharp fingernails tug at my flesh.
I nod permissively, bunches bobbing.
Of course there is no answering smile, but he steps up in front. A waft of some spicy, Babylonian musk, dancing on spear points, leers on past, just behind him. As Azazel cuts his way through the press of bodies, I follow in his wake, watching as first one ‘don’t give a shit’ dancer and then another pulls a convenient, back-first crash-pogo, and then impacts a muscled brick-wall. One shift in Azazel’s blank-faced attention, and they immediately suck themselves in, as if he’d touched the heart of a sea-anemone. Maybe they think Azazel is gate-crashing the party. He certainly looks different from all of us in his elaborately painted, Celtic leathers – as dark and red as polished liver – the A-frame of muscle, and his twin disks of photo-reactive glass. The worst of the worst – the really scary kids from my school – offer muttered apologies, dropping almost instantaneously from stabbing a delirious finger at the Artex ceiling, to a meek, foot-to-foot shuffle. As Azazel belongs to me, I feel quite justified in soaking up this fear-injected respect second-hand. It bubbles in my veins like a strange type of alcohol.
We pass the phone nook. Abigail Watson is hunched inside. Abigail is the take-charge, schoolmarmish one, with absolutely no sense of humour. Bum on radiator, phone to ear, she’s giving the receiver the kind of wild-eyed look that sends a jolt into your head: something is wrong. Her eyes glitter with tears.
I creep past, following along in the motorway Azazel is leaving for me. At the kitchen door he steps aside. I hoist up the strap of my ‘ultra pink’ backless number, and swan on in.
On the underground radio Azazel rates a seventeen out of ten. Somehow, Cherri, Evelyn and Gwynn already know. They are needling each other with elbows, but none of them come up to talk. Words are flashing back and forth, but their eyes are facing forward. Urgency belies the importance of verifying the impossible. There is no subtlety here – they are all looking at me, teeth bared, as gossip dribbles from suddenly stunned mouths. Finally, Evelyn pushes Cherri forward but stays sitting on the window sill. Her shoulders have erased a wrinkly space into the condensation on the glass. Cherri scolds back, but lets herself be pushed.
The strap of my Patch Puppy bag is digging into my shoulder. These days I don’t go anywhere without it. The Patch is kind of small, made of cheap, purple, sofa-plastic, edged in white piping, with this patch-eyed puppy on it. It’s all kind of Manga pop-art. S’cool. All the kids have ‘em. I drop the bag next to my even cooler, pink bumper-pumps. Under the music, it collapses onto the tiles like a bag full of spanners, with an after-note of hacksaw. Unperturbed, I reach down to a knee-high table, scoop up a handful of Twiglets and pop them in my mouth. I realise once again that I still don’t like them.
‘Hey, Stoney,’ Cherri hallos in my ear. I twist away to reply in hers. She ducks in obligingly. ‘Hey, you’, I hallo back with a mouth full of Marmite goo. ‘Great party. Crazy’. Cherri greets that with a wrinkled smile. She finds my ear again; her cupped hand tickles my earlobe. ‘Evelyn wants to know if that guy you was with in the street, was really with you. We saw you, like, from the taxi.’ I look at her with a frown, but don’t say anything. She returns to the cupped ear, presuming I haven’t heard a word. ‘The taxi. We saw you and some –‘ but she stops. I’m getting used to the female litmus paper in front, when Azazel is behind. Cherri grabs my arm hard, pinching skin. ‘That’s him,’ she hisses, losing some of her voice, as one hand leaves the ear funnel to make it to her mouth. A length of my blond hair gets trapped, so I tug it free.
I turn and drag The Patch out of there.
An hour has passed.
‘You seen Cheryl?’ says Claire. We’ve been chatting in the toilet queue, but at the mention of that name I suddenly want to forget my pouched bladder and escape into the crowd.
‘Haven’t you heard?’
‘Her mom like phoned a million, million times or something. Cheryl left to come here; didn’t turn up.’
I turn The Patch ever so slightly into my thigh.
‘Her mom’s ringing, like, every half hour. It’s really pissing off Abigail; she’s the one answering.’ Claire rolls her eyes, and pats my arm, ‘Like, you know, Abigail aaalways takes charge. It’s not even her party. Anyway, she’s waiting for all this Bacardi and Dominos from Tim and Gaz and their cutie pal – you know, Michael with the red Honda – they’re on a shop run and, like, she keeps thinking they’re phoning for help carrying shit, instead, it’s, like, Cheryl’s mom crying. She wasn’t crying the first few times, so Abigail told her to freakin’ chill. But now she is.’ There’s a pause. ‘Wasn’t Abigail that made her cry, though.’
I’m struck by the way Claire looks like a bug-eyed marsupial as she’s telling me all this. ‘Um, wasn’t Cheryl coming with the rest of the Exclusives?’ I suggest.
Claire shakes her head. ‘She’ll be off with her cardio man or something, or down at that skank’s disco, Universal Espionage, or something.’
‘Must be it,’ I say encouragingly.
Claire frowns and moves out of the way as two guys push their beer glasses between us, following just after with a yaaaa of tongues and open mouths. When they linger, she shoves the closest one violently in the face; ‘Piss off!’, then continues conspirationally, ‘People are, like, coming to these parties in twos and threes now. Kind of scary.’
‘Look fogedaboutit. She’ll be fine. The girl of gold is always fine. They all are.’
‘Right, she nods. Right.’
I point. ‘Go get a drink.’
‘Eh? Sure. Uh, you still waiting to go pee?’
I’ve already scooted off.
Later, after Claire is well and truly stuck to the dance floor, I double back to the toilet.
Then I get the nibbles and go hunting buffet.
In the living room, I sidle up to a wallpapering table done out with a white cloth. It features a punch bowl (undoubtedly spiked to the point of being a fire risk) and trays wrapped in foil, full of pizza, pita pockets, pastry parcels and other p-foods. I gather up some liquids and solids.
Cheryl was a goddess. She was all gold and sunshine, and blond hair, and legs from here to there, and skin as smooth as milk and honey, and eyes like… and friends like… I wrinkle up my nose and shake my head. She was like this… popularity black hole, sucking in the other kids.
Where is Azazel? The problem with a long leash is that you can’t find the dog when you bloody well want it. He’s probably over in some corner somewhere making a sixth-former highly uncomfortable.
I take a bite out of some rubbery quiche and try to carrel a tapeworm of onion that just comes and comes. As I do so, I make eye-contact across the room. There’s a small spark and a whiff of brimstone.
Shit! Carmen is on her way over.
I quickly drop the quiche out of my mouth and onto a paper plate, swig down a mouthful of Pepsi, junk the remaining mess amongst a load of open CD cases, and wipe my hands on my dress.
As the drill-sergeant-meets-Judy-Garland stomps to a halt in-front of me, I give her a dazzling smile. Carmen is quite small, so I’m nose to forehead. Her own, perfect, button-nose has been dabbed onto her face amongst the most itty-bitty, freckles you ever did see. Thankfully she doesn’t give me any of that ‘air kisses’ crap. The room is rapidly cooling, but these days, I’m used to that. I hold out my hand graciously, but she doesn’t seem to see it.
Carmen looks me up and down – mostly up – face twisted.
Okay, so I may not strictly be invited.
‘What the hell are you doing here, Katie?’
What the hell indeed.
I let my arm flop back. I look round, feeling surprisingly calm – jovial, in fact. I shrug. ‘Y’now, having fun, hanging out, doing the… party.’ I nod at the plate; the party animals; …a lamp stand. There is no reaction. I shrug again, tailing off: ‘Y’know, the party…’
She’s so connected to the party pulse that (A): she didn’t know I’d shlumped my way in here and (B): she has no idea whatsoever about Azazel. I’d know if she had any idea about Azazel, because I’m pretty sure Azazel would have some pretty interesting ideas about her. She’s breathing and marginally less frigid than a donut of liquid hydrogen – so fair game really.
Unless she’s lost something down my cleavage, which would be hard, something small and shiny has just attracted her attention.
Nope, she’s looking at somebody behind me – no swoon reaction, so not Azazel.
‘What’s that?’ booms an unmistakable, fifty-burger-a-day voice.
Oh God, one of Carmen’s Munchkin followers has made it across the yellow-brick carpet: oh for the stripy tights, some flying monkeys and the ruby slippers!
‘What’s what?’ I mumble from beneath my fringe. As yet, there is no sight of Samantha ‘Samzy’ Barron, but her voice is nebulous. That kind of makes her the Wizard of Oz.
I turn to find ‘The Samzy’ tugging the strap on my dress. Actually no; she’s roughly fingering my Electric Voodoo. I think she’s just crushed a feather or two.
‘Hey, leave it.’ I swat her plump hand away. ‘I made that.’
Eh, he, he, he, he! I’ll get you and your little rat dog, too!
Even more st –
‘Okay, it’s badge.’
Technically, it’s an Amuletum.
‘Looks kind of creepy.’
Sure thing fatso – no mean feat from pipe-cleaners, feathers, glitter and a couple of bobbly eyes I stole off the teddy I had when I was three. But it does look kind of Lichtenstein-Frankenstein, if I do say so myself – I can watch Art Attack with the best of them. Bit disappointed I couldn’t get the double-sided sticky tape, though. Luckily I did find a blackbird’s skull.
‘Yeah, well,’ she drawls, ‘I thought your five year old cousin must’ve made it.’
I didn’t want to break his little heart by not wearing it, eh?
‘I guess you’re into art then,’ she adds.
‘So, your badge sucks. What you got in that stupid bag?’
‘Pardon?’ That girl is pointing at the Patch Puppy. I look back quizzically. ‘You want to know what’s in my bag?’
‘Yeah. Sure.’ Samzy and Carmen exchange a meaningful glance.
‘Well, yeah. Everybody talks about it at school. It’s annoying.’
I can’t really believe what I’m hearing. You can’t just walk up to someone and ask what’s in their bag. I blow out a slow breath and shake my head. ‘I don’t think so.’
Her inquisitiveness – and the rest of her – ain’t getting any smaller, though. She shakes her head. ‘You better show us or I’ll punch your face in.’
A hooded look passes between her and Carmen – it’s definitely a set up; probably a ‘bitch dare’.
I consider this. Looking round, there’s only folk glutting themselves at the buffet table – all pawing at miscellaneous pastry parcels crafted with Carmen’s own lily-white hand.
Fuck it. I unzip the bag. Top of the bag is damage limitation. Bottom of the bag is just raw damage – blades, knives… Okay, top of the bag, not so bad. Bottom of the bag is a bad bottom of the bag. Bad bag.
Top it is.
I draw out a slim volume. Like my dress it is covered in a totally fake velvety material. If you rub either of them the wrong way, against the flock, you get scuff-slugs.
The Samzy and Carmen are both agog – ‘The Patch’ is famous. It never leaves my side and nobody, but nobody, knows what’s in it. I guess that’s why I’m showing off right now: I’m nothing if not unpredictable.
The book is one of those day-glow blue velvet ones you get from the kids section of a New Age store. Carmen draws a wholesome finger along the gold, embossed writing, and mimes the words: ‘A Spell a Day’. For good measure, a couple of Valentine’s-style devils are embossed next to the title in electric blue foil; totally tongue in cheek.
‘Man, what a stupid book!’
I’m slightly affronted. I stroke the cover the other way to get rid of Carmen’s impolite fingering, or perhaps to offer reassurance.
Carmen shakes her head. ‘Ugh. What a stupid bag. You’re such a freak. You’re like Sabrina the Teenage Twat, or something.’ She stabs a finger at the book. ‘I bet you use that to make lesbo love potions.’
Maybe; with a light-up wand with a springy witch and feathers on the end – give me some credit.
A fat finger prods me in the ribs. ‘Need a bucket of potion for her,’ says Samzy.
Okay, where is Azazel?
Speak of the Devil … Over by the door, I clap eyes on the blondy teeny-pop girl that Azazel was with earlier. Then she was all ‘explorational’, draped on him like a fresh fall of virginal snow. Now, not quite so wind-blown and interesting, she’s looking pale and sniffly. She’s got her coat on and she’s begging away from three friends who are trying – nay desperately pleading – to get her to stay for more quiche; perhaps a drink with a plastic palm tree in it. She mimes back that she has to go. They mime back: noooo, staaaay. Then she sights beyond them and a look of wretched terror seems to make her implode. She snatches her arm from surprised hands, and makes a sideways dash out of the door trailing hood and jacket. At least one friend stumbles back. The thwack of her trailing draw strings and toggles on the door frame makes half the room look over.
Azazel oozes in, with more teeth on display than a shark. He exudes darkness, and the sexual whip-crack of a horse crop made of g-strings. The music in the room appears to go up a notch, or go down in base, or the room itself has become more cavernous. Has it gotten hotter in here? The room, like every woman in it, can’t quite decide how to react. I imagine a needle dragging across a record in a western saloon, although the CD of the Prodigy keeps playing ‘…you’re no good for me, I don’t need nobody…’ There is a pause, and then conversation sputters back into life again. Azazel still exists in the corner of every female eye, though.
Forget the ‘nice guys’ shit; the more dangerous the man, the more feminine interest there is. This being the case, Azazel could cause a stampede in a convent, or get more than passing interest from Katey Perry’s plaque. The most banal small talk starts as nine tenths of female brain-power cuts over to Azazel’s ass in those biker pants. Conversation stumbles. Right now, they’re just saying ‘ya, ya, ya, ya, yaaaa’ to each other.
Reduced to simple misdirection, I use the ass-moment to stuff the grimoire back into The Patch, and escape Carmen et al in a cloud of ultra pink flock.
Truth is, Azazel is really starting to get under my skin tonight. I’ve only had him out, what, twice, and already he’s starting to piss me off. God, if only my parents could hear me now, or anyone in my class. ‘Go out with a nice boy,’ they said.
I look over at Azazel plying his trade, schmoozing and buzzing in the ears of those other girls like a suave plague-fly, and I know – like I really know – that he’ll be leaving with me tonight.
I help myself to a white plastic cup, fill it with flat cider, and lean against the wall trying to act nonchalant. How long to wait before trailing over to Azazel’s side? Not so soon, that they think I can’t do without him; not so long that they forget we’re together, or think we’re fixing to split. To go? To stay? Who knows.
The reason I’m in this situation, is that I never did know what to do. Just goes to show: there’s a reason things are the way they are. You can be artificially elevated, luck out, whatever, but you are still you; just as ignorant – which makes me a love monkey with a machinegun.
My hand comes to rest on the Patch Puppy. I finger its piped edges, and only then, only at that moment – watching the party, the music, the people flowing by and the dancing, and the girls gathered round Azazel, as he laughs and jokes behind those little black, welding glasses of his – that I wonder if I’m wrong; that I am wrongness?
I sigh, blowing a heavy breath through my teeth, and bounce my shoulder blades off the woodchip wallpaper. The candles sitting on the mantelpiece are sputtering waxy smoke, and the incense is mixing with the smell of cigarette smoke and hash. My feet are sticking to the carpet tiles, which have absorbed the faint, tacky, sweetness of spilled alcohol. I rock my right foot a little, squitching the moisture.
Azazel is running his hand along the leg of some girl. The hand moves like a puppet’s limb – ivory white and just as unfeeling. The light from her cigarette is reflected in his glasses, like little upturned claws of fire. Meanwhile, the glass eyes take in every pair of legs in the room. She throws back her head and laughs.
The Patch weighs heavy on me tonight.
Maybe I should just get shot of the little fucker and toss it. I look over at the window speculatively: it’s half open – a Victorian sash window, tall as two of me. A cold breeze is wafting around the lace curtains, stirring the Indian throw on the couch, cooling the dancers.
Two trashy girls are fighting over which CD to play next: some Beastie Boys track rips into Gloria Gaynor, then stops, to groans, to be replaced by ‘I will survive’, before wrenching into silence. There are mutters and somebody shouts ‘Cummon, already!’ The Black-eyed Peas start ‘…wonder if you’ll take me home, will you still be in love, baby…’, and the feet start stomping too and fro once more.
God forbid anybody’d have to talk to someone else.
Girls in pretty, primary colours tinker-tink around the envelope of glass and elemental fire that is Azazel, fighting to see who can get closest. Silvery laughter is knocked free with each touch to his hot flame; with each word that kindles a little bit of heat or jealousy inside them. I want to look away. It’s getting late and I’ve still got to get Azazel back in his bottle.
Even in this light, there is something… off about him. He has too many teeth. Not the kind of American porcelain-perfect mouth full of teeth, but a big mouth full of big teeth. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear they were getting sharper between candle flickers. These teeth sprout from the skull of a carnivore – unfortunately, as without; as very definitely within.
In the time I’ve been standing here, plastic cup in hand, three women have shot me long, furious looks, as if I’m somehow to blame. It seems as if Azazel can do anything to a woman; make them love him or hate him with equal ease. Sometimes I suspect he starts them in one direction and then flips them around two or three times before the end of the evening – love, hate, love, hate, love, hate – until they fall off the ride.
This cider I’m drinking is making me sick. But I drink it anyway.
I shiver in the breeze. Azazel guffaws. Those women are right: I am to blame. I let Azazel have a long leash, because I don’t want him too near me. I don’t want him touching me. But I need him. He’s the membership badge, the right of passage, the bonafide club membership to the sisterhood, the little piece of paper that says ‘sex is being had’.
Jenna Ford sidles up to me. She is small and mousy, and definitely not in the in-crowd. She has a boy’s haircut. Hence we hang.
She sighs. Her hand is cradled under the bowl and around the stem of a brandy glass, like a 1920’s intellectual, but the glass is full of Pepsi, and maybe some alcohol. I guess in the kitchen, cuppage has finally gotten scarce and they’re down to using tea pots, washing bowls and plant pots.
‘I heard you had a run-in.’
‘The stupid dare?’
‘They were all witchy about it, high-fiving. Samzy said she’d rather do truth next time.’
‘And finally admit to having more dykes than a Dutch tulip field? Don’t think so. ‘Sides, that ain’t witchy, believe me.’
‘You hear about Cheryl?’ says Jenna.
I cough into my plastic cup, snorting like a small plastic hippo. ‘Err, no. Um, what about her?’
‘Oh, how’d you know?’
She shrugs. ‘Poliss at her house, apparently. That’s what Suzzana said.’
‘Suzzana the ‘Rut’?’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Rutledge got it from Abigail.’
God; I’m trying to keep any kind of brittle look out of my eyes. I’m looking around for Azazel. ‘Um, I’m sure she’ll turn up.’ I put the cup down, noting the shiver in the bubbles.
‘Maybe in some alley,’ she speculates.
Not sure if she means that hopefully, or regretfully.
‘Like they’re still looking, since three weeks ago, since y’know, Gavin’s bash.’
I look at her sharply. ‘Yeah, like… look I gotta go and see what Azazel is up to.’
‘Oh, sure. Azazel? That guy you brought to Gavins? He’s really stuck it in to the whole ‘us and them’ thing, y’know…’
‘Sure, see ya.’
‘Yeah, you too sweetie.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that every time Azazel is around, somebody else from the in-crowd isn’t.
By midnight, it’s time to go do the pumpkin thing. The party is just hotting up, but I’ve lost my taste for it. To go; to stay; to be seen. Well, done that, been there, seen it all. Enough sleaze. Enough complaints. Time to go, Booboo.
I squeak over to Azazel. He’s chatting to some babe in a white dress, who’s sprawled on the sofa with her bare feet in his lap. A pair of stiletto boots is standing proud on the floorboards with heels like chopsticks. The material of her dress shows off all her curves and some of her outstanding qualities, while a scoop neckline cuts out an incredibly impressive cleavage. Ultraviolet light is revealing a tribal-tattoo pattern of luminescence on the otherwise white flesh, and hints at a designer bank balance. Her long blond hair, thin black lashes and black hair band all seem… perfect, somehow. She’s much more attractive than me, with a sweeping jaw-line and high cheekbones; like one of the mutants from Glamour or Cosmo. She matches Azazel perfectly. Compared to her, I feel like a piece of trash.
Azazel is stroking her tanned leg, brushing her with his fingertips. Her eyes are glued to his; heads are close. I cough. Azazel doesn’t budge, and the girl shoots me a stare, calculates a total non-risk, and kind of half shrugs in my direction. I’m instantly – or perhaps pointedly – forgotten. She laughs and tosses her hair at some intimate whisper from Azazel, then dips her head as his finger smoothes her bottom lip. Cute.
I guess this is where I say ‘time to go home son.’ Old before my time; I’m a parent with an errant monster child. Believe me baby, he’s a complete bastard. And he’s all mine.
I put my hand on Azazel’s shoulder and he stiffens. I stoop to whisper in his ear, and my hair falls like a curtain. I pull aside the fringe, looking straight back at her as I talk. I’m right here, I shout with my eyeballs: right frigging here! When I stand back, her attention flicks to Azazel: she scowls and cajoles, pleads maybe. But Azazel is already standing, robotically, to leave.
‘…should meet some time,’ I hear in her wheedling tone. Both her hands fall from Azazel’s finger tips. That’s the kind of appreciation I get – I’m three feet away and she’s trying to pick him up. To be fair, I guess it’s easy to confuse his slutty attitude with a lack of respect for his owner. Tough.
She’ll be next.
Out at last. My pumps squitch, squitch down the cold, hard steps. The white fluff on the cuffs and collar of my jacket wanders about in the draft as we drill down the landings. The skin on my face is tight in the cold. At my shoulder, Azazel click-clacks on those hard-soled boots of his – a dark unfeeling shadow. His glassy eyes are, as ever, black and reflective. I can feel pressure building in my chest. When I think about what I did to get him here and this, this, is what the piece of shit does to thank me.
Thank me? Or not thank me? What am I saying? That attributes caring and feeling to the back-side of a clock; an opinion from a cam-shaft; love from a gear wheel. I blow pointedly through the gap in my front teeth. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I stop on the first floor landing. Azazel stops too.
I reach a hand to The Patch, and catch Azazel’s head tilting inquisitively in my direction: there is a searing blade of attention there – as if I’m tugging on a string connected directly to a valve in his heart – and a mocking smile. His cigarette dances around on the tips of his fingers, and then multiplies in his shades as he takes a draw. He inhales deeply. I hear the paper and shreds of leaf rustle in a tiny, rushing inferno and then he blows the smoke into darkness. It’s almost a sigh.
‘Azazel, come here,’ I order.
He does so, obediently.
I drop this evening’s fetish – a pair of Prada uber-fem shades – on the ground, and grind them under heel. The earlier mischief pops out like a light bulb.
So does the jinx.
A wide grin shoots across Azazel’s face.
‘Back in the bag, you asshole!’
A wave of heat and the scream of motorcycle tyres, mixed with billowing howls of god-knows-what, blasts up in a wave of vertigo, and my nostrils are filled with the smell of burning flesh and petrol. Azazel’s Cheshire Cat grin – boiled down to the bone – blinks out, thrashing and snapping at the air like a cat chasing flies.
In an instant, there is only tenement stair.
I flick some white ash from my shoulder, straighten my dress, and press down the last few steps and out to the street. It’s freezing out; a night that reduces every movement to harsh lines.
It’s cold as hell.
November 15, 2010 2 Comments