Her name is Ida, and even her tears are beautiful. With fingers outstretched I catch them peeling across her cheeks, little rivulets swimming through the crisp morning breeze.
Ida is one of those wild girls that float around at parties, always out of it, with smudged lips and a talent for demanding the attention of men. She had absorbed me there, too; in all her glorious promiscuity, chain-smoking, body writhing in the centre of the room, hands clasping at indiscriminate limbs around her. Her dress, short and silver, adorned with wreaths of bright beads which would clatter around her neck and wrists as she swayed to the music. She’d stolen a jacket from somewhere, oversized black faux-leather, probably plucked from one of the boys trailing all night after her.
It’s 6.35 now and the sun’s sleepy warmth grows and catches at us, stood here below the overpass, casting our bodies into long shadows across the concrete. Her full, wide lips contort as she sobs gently into my hand, a gesture which I take to be some kind of symbol of newly established trust. Her tears stream into my palm forming salty pools as I brush the hair away from her eyes.
Sleep prods at me from somewhere, reminding me of the time, how long I have been awake, that I have a shift starting in a few hours. I’m sure my eyes must be bloodshot; I blink a few times, trying to smooth this unruly mane of hair with my free hand. She’s already seen me at my worst. I want nothing more than to go back with her, melt together into dawn-lit bedsheets, but I continue to stand with her arm gripped into mine, rocking back slightly on my heels.
I am the girl stood to the side at parties, watching the others, wondering again why I am there. Mark had woken me last night by snapping on my bedroom light and dragging me out from beneath folds of duvet. ‘Party at Jennifer’s!’ his voice, as unremittent as the sudden light: ‘I’ve scored pills. No excuses. We leave in ten.’
Mark’s the kind of guy that people love and hate in equal measures. His ability to make friends of enemies instantly by offering them a complimentary line of whatever drug he has on his person at the time is a quality I strangely admire. His brashness often borders on insulting. In as many months I’d witnessed him in three fights; two of which he had won.
When things had got too difficult at home Mark had invited me to live in the spare room of his tiny flat on the East side of town (an uncharacteristically brotherly gesture). The traffic’s cadence drums at the windowless walls, which are painted in peels of olive-green. The hours that I have spent staring into those cracked, empty walls have tinted the exteriors of my new surroundings – the cloudless sky, the acres of concrete, Ida’s skin – in a strange wash of blunt olive shades.
Her eyes are now closed fully, and the weight of her body, nearing sleep, leans into mine. Lofty shadows of vehicles passing over us waver in the light, workers driving in their cars to early shifts, HGVs shaking the pillars as they thunder along. The burn of cheap whiskey lingers at the back of my throat.
That night had been briskly cold for mid-September, and as Mark swigged from the whiskey bottle and I trailed behind, a solemn full moon hung low in the black sky, seeming to watch us. The city, neon-lit, teemed with the typical Friday-night slew; droves of messy girls in short skirts tottering along the kerbs; loosened ties and shirts untucked on the men clutching plastic pints; smiling vendors on the side-lines flogging light-up hats and fake flowers to the logic-impaired; lone dogs appearing from nowhere, sniffing for scraps amongst the whirlwinds of discarded fast-food wrappers. I wondered just how far adrift the lost souls in those streets had floated.
The sense of disorder in the air was almost transparent, the veil loosening. A violent detonation was as inevitable as packed tubes at rush hour; somewhere in the vodka fumes and cigarette smoke, a brawl began. Pieces of glass bottles crunched beneath our feet as we dived to avoid the fray. Mark loped ahead, casting a glance back now and then to check if I was still there. ‘Keep up, tyke!’ his voice called through a cloud of cold breath and masked concern, as his long figure disappeared through broken mesh. He’s always taking short cuts.
By the time we had reached the party, spreading across the upper floors of a dilapidated house, it was long past midnight. The leady boom of a bass drum emanating from the bricks of the building seemed to shake the cars lining the street. We were like snakes sensing vibrations in the ground as we found our way to the front door. The high-pitched shriek of a girl rang out from a third-storey window; a party’s piercing clarion call. Volumes of conversation and fractured laughter bounced from behind the house’s façade. I stood in the shadows of the porch as a guy pissed on the front lawn, bleary-eyed and bending in the wind.
Inside, wooden doors hung off hinges and a mirror lay in shards on the floor at the foot of a long staircase. In the smoky light I could make out ghoulish faces, transients that had gathered there, as Mark pulled me through into a dank kitchen lined with stained tiles and empty bottles. Through the cracked back window a bonfire licked the sky. He gathered others, a handful of scanty girls along the way and we each were slipped a small, orange pill in the shape of a soap bar. I swallowed it down dutifully with the warm canned beer passed around by the circle of hands. In the murkiness Mark’s face beamed.
‘So we agree, yeah? Free energy is being suppressed. It’s the oil companies, the government…it goes all the way to the top. There are revolutionary technologies we don’t even know about…’
His voice: long and dull and never-ending.
‘…biofuels, solar, geothermal. You think we know anything? Imagine…if we didn’t have to pay for oil, coal, power…boom! The end of capitalism!’
My eyes swam as the fog slowly lifted, leaving behind a grim chill and faded notions of fake bliss. He was standing over me. A circle of people seated on the floor. He was glaring in my direction with wide, black eyes. Behind his head, crudely sprayed red lettering spelled out ‘BOYCOTT OIL’ on the bare plaster of the wall.
‘Bethan’s with me. Xanthe? Jules? Steven? Come on, man. It’s time to take action! Rattle some cages!’ This induced nods from the circle. I slowly lifted myself up, eyes still swimming, taking a swig from the plastic cup in my hand and reeling slightly from the abrasive scald of straight whiskey. I found my way to my feet and stood shakily, steadying myself with the edge of a door frame.
‘Yeah, Bethan!’ a member of the circle laughed, fist in the air. He was pale and skinny with a ragged brown beard and grubby tattoos around his neck, legs crossed. His acclamation was followed by a bout of uncontrollable coughing which seemed to last minutes. A chorus of whoops and laughter followed me as I groped out of the room. I wondered how many half-started conversations there had been.
Pockets of people lingered in the corridors, squashed in doorways and corners, spilling from rooms. A long queue emanating from a locked door stretched into a shadow, a string of irritable-looking girls united in their impatience, casting glances, raising voices above the thud of music which seemed to pour from the walls.
‘Bethan!’ A smiling face came out of the dark. ‘I saw you in there, sat with the weirdos!’
Polly, one of Mark’s on-off girlfriends, was wearing some kind of skin-tight Halloween costume, streaked with fake blood and neon paint. Her hands and forearms were scribbled with Sharpie penises and Buddhist symbols; lotus flowers, peace signs, the wheel of life. Her cropped hair looked raven-black in the dull light. She hugged me warmly.
‘Polly,’ I tried to speak loudly but my voice became lost in the din, ‘it’s good to see a familiar face. I’m not sure what happened…where is everyone?’
‘Mikey’s fallen out with Lauren because he caught her sending pictures of her vagina to her dealer. They stormed off together somewhere. Such jokes. Everyone else…’ she waved her pen-covered arm towards the stairs, ‘lost in this hole. Where’s Mark?’
‘I thought you would know.’
‘Fat chance. That brother of yours! Probably off chasing some skirt. Or fighting. I don’t know how you put up living with him,’ her voice carried a hint of worry, latent insecurities unconvincingly glossed over.
‘It’s not so bad.’
‘You’re too nice. Maybe when you’re a little older and wiser you’ll see. Who knows? He’s just lost. He has no control over his life. Top up?’ Her voice slurred a little as she held up a glass bottle a quarter-filled with brownish liquid. Without waiting for an answer, she proceeded to fill the plastic cup still in my hand.
We went outside to sit near the bonfire, which was crudely contained within an old metal drum, bits of furniture and broken branches of trees scattered about for kindling. Coloured in flushes of pink, we became lost in the twisted blaze of blacks, blues and oranges as they popped and spat at us. Strange faces around the fire wavered in the depths of the flames, and we were all silent. Silhouetted trees spoke in hushed currents carried on the breeze circling the garden. The fire, like some mystic star, hung between us in the bitter air with its proud crown of smoke, entrancing us all like flies.
Minutes seemed to stagger. A skylark chirped and morning threatened. The stillness of the garden was broken by the smashing of glass – a bottle or window pane somewhere in the house. I looked around, but Polly was gone. A girl with a tangerine face, wrapped in a boy’s arm, stared from across the bonfire. I rose from the ground, brushed ash from my jacket and went back inside. The flames crackled after me, as the temporary sense of belonging, the fire’s unconditional acceptance, faded into the waning night.
I came across Mark in one of the back rooms on the ground floor, wide-eyed, hands milling in the air and head nodding along to emptiness. A girl in a silver dress was pressed against him, her pale arms draped around his neck like a thin scarf. Another girl to his right stood proud and Amazonian in lacy underwear, glitter streaked across her face and limbs, her hands pawing at his. They all carried a similarly glazed expression. As I stood on the outskirts of the spectacle, I could feel the fog returning, a prickly sensation at the back of my neck, the functioning paralysis sweeping in. I took another sip from the cup. From below my feet, a stew of jumbled energies began to rise. The chaotic pulse of the bass drum rumbled through my fingertips. In the near-distance, her silver shimmer floated like a firefly.
The brightness of the morning brings with it a sudden clarity. Ida’s eyes open, a wavering light contained within them, bluey-green and tear-stained. I place my hand gently on her cheek and trace the lines the tears have laid. The echo of cars swishing over gives the sense we are standing inside the eye of a giant wave.
She rests her head against my shoulder for just a moment. I wonder what kind of journey lead us to this. Vaguely I’m unravelling what came before, in the fog of long corridors and crush of strangers…and from nowhere pops Polly’s angered face like a twisted painting, and Mark, his fallen form on the stained carpet, girls scattering and drinks spilling. He always said she was crazy.
And there had been Ida, reckless and crying in the night. I had held her hand and pulled. Into dark halls, dry smoke, bare streets. The rising light had led us here, to waves of glittering cars and pillars of white concrete in the morning glare. The party long left behind. Notions of a new day, a new thing.
Ida’s body straightens. The sobbing has stopped. She pulls her jacket tight around her, hands grasped around skinny arms. A gleam of a smile crosses her face.
Her small voice croaks, a blip in the wave’s eye: ‘Home?’