Salt

This is another extract from a novella project…

Chapter 1

The girl is sitting cross-legged on the concrete. The sun is passing behind clouds and occasionally warms her face, rendering her features flat in doing so. Showing up her imperfections; the grainy craters of acne scars smoothed over with too much foundation, a shade too dark. A hole punched into her nose. A lime green stud sparkles in the sunlight. What is it to be perfect?

The music she is listening to leaks from her headphones which are hidden inside the curve of her ears and the beat is tinny and weak to everyone passing her by. To the girl it’s like a heart beat. Imperative.

It’s not the first time she’s been left outside to wait and watch. While her eyes look closed they’re actually slitted. Open just enough. Her head is cocked back, leaning against the wall, at the right angle to see if Jay is coming back. The good thing about Jay is that he walks with such swagger you can tell it’s him from a long distance. Giving you time enough to react. To get out of the frame. For someone who makes a lot of trouble for himself you’d think he’d try to be more discrete. But no. Jay rolls. Back and forth on his heel, pacing from side to side like he’s got his own rhythm. He looks breezy. He walks like a laugh might look, rolling and rising and falling forward.  Mocking.

Crystal thought it was special. About a year ago. Things change though don’t they?

Nothing seems special – not around here. The blocks are regularly spaced.  Thirty-four floors in each. Small square windows and the long shaft of stairs that streaks down the surface. Brickwork interrupted by plastic panels. Symbolising the way up. And the way down, of course.

All the faces round here are the same too. Are equally bored. Equally over-compensating with make-up. Equally protective. And inside? Everyone has the same dreams. The same hopes and hopelessness. Today, in the stifling city heat dreams press against everyone’s skin like a sickness. Something you can’t peel off or wash away. They cling to you like sweat and dirt.

The girl has one too.

Everyone she knows from college is anticipating the letters. When they are delivered in the brown envelope will they change her life? Or will she still be sat here in three months time when the rest of the world is off buying their first saucepans and moving out of home for the first time? She doesn’t have a crystal ball, but she can pretty much predict the outcome. It’s like the track she’s listening to. On repeat. Round and round it goes. Should she have worked harder? Does any one care to hear her excuse? Does it even matter? There’s no way she can afford university now. And no job to go to at the end of it. She puts a protective hand on her bag and just for a moment shuts her eyes and imagines a way out.

Behind the high rise there’s fields. If you walk high up enough in the estate you can see the Heath. There, like a green border. Countryside, or the concept of it, is the stuff that concentrates all the concrete and crap into individual patches. The girl hasn’t been in a plane before, but can imagine England from above, trees looking green like fresh broccoli, with cities rising like rotten patches of grey and black. The parts you chop off and throw away.

Her phone beeps. Music interrupted by  a snapchat from her sister. The baby. Thea. Smiling. “I love you auntie S.”

Jay would have arrived by now, if he was coming at all. Once upon a time he’d have lolloped his way toward her block of flats and made a comment about her mum, or her sister. Possibly a comment that puts all three of them in a porn movie. Most of Jay’s jokes involve putting porn in the frame. All he’s got time for in-between making trouble for himself. He’s a twat. Really and truly. Once upon a time he would have teased her then walked on by, looking for someone else to hassle, not now. Jay’s got beef.

Senita has been busying herself chipping off her nail varnish with the edge of her thumb, blowing away the bright blue flakes into the hot air where they disappear. Waste of time really, nail varnish. That’s what her form teacher would say. But actually you can make some pretty good money doing people’s nails. She’s been looking into that. Don’t need qualifications for that. Just practice. Can charge £20 a mani. That’s not bad. Ten of those in a day. Could make a living.

“What you doing sat there littering up the place?” Mr. Watts, one of the oldest people she knows, is doing his daily, circular walk around the cement, cigarette butts and rubbish bins, with his Spaniel in tow who seems to take piss or shit every five minutes. Jay calls it the worst kind of dog. Pathetic. Most people have bulldogs or pitbulls. For protection. For their street cred. There was that time when a pug got ripped apart. Stolen from some lamppost. Don’t see any of those round here unless they’re pitched for a fight. They’re everywhere in Swiss Cottage though – which sounds like a whole other country.

“Waiting for me mum.”

“Well mind how you go. And say hello to her for me too.” He looks at her, noticing a dark shadow under each bloodshot eye and pauses. “You know, if you’re looking for a job to do you can come walk this mutt next week – I’m going away but can’t take her with me.”

“How much?”

“I take that as interest in the position then?”

“Maybe. How much?”

“Give you twenty quid for the week. If you can feed her, take her out for a walk. That kind of thing. Once a day?”

The girl makes eye contact with the Spaniel, who is slobbering and panting heavily in the heat. Eyes glazed. She doesn’t look bothered either way. She looks stupid, really, tongue hanging out on one side like Miley bloody Cyrus.

“Ok.”

She takes Mr Watt’s number down and spies a dark shape rolling toward her in the distance. She gets up, walks slowly around the corner then runs up the stairs to the fifth floor. Lift’s not working.

She bangs on the door, heart popping with adrenaline that’s spilled like poison into her blood stream. She can hear someone on the stairs, the shuffle and squeak of track suit and trainer on concrete and her mind flashes back to the blood on the floor, circular droplets and a small red pool of it, vivid against the blue kitchen lino, like some sort of modern art painting.

She falls through the door, finally. Stumbling toward her mum. Knees crumpling as she crosses the threshold. Bag thrown to the floor. Safe suddenly, among the familiar sounds of TV competing with music from different rooms in the flat.

“What’s got you all excited then?”

“Don’t mum. It’s Jay. He’s on his way over.”

Her sister who has been sat on the sofa breast-feeding looks up suddenly and her face falls.

Her mum seems to grow, hair suddenly bigger. She reminds Senita of a cat about to get into a fight.

“He’s not coming in!”
They turn the lights off. Lock the door – top, middle and bottom. Mute the TV, leaving the picture for something to look at. They plug the gap under the door with jumpers and breathe, collectively, very quietly, waiting for Jay to arrive and start banging. The girl has her mobile poised to call the police. But you can’t ring until there’s a crime. Something to report.

The girl’s sister keeps the baby clamped to her nipple with a prayer that she’s extra hungry right now. Now is not the time for tears.

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