Kate says they need to get out of London. Judy is told to pack a sensible bag and be ready to go in the morning. She knows it’s something to do with Dad. With getting away from Dad.
She packs two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks, two t-shirts, one jumper. She packs deodorant and tampons taken from Kate’s drawer in the bathroom, just in case. She is eleven now – who knows when it will happen.
In the night Kate comes and curls herself around Judy in bed. Judy has been staring at the little yellowish stars on the ceiling, running her finger along the big peeling sticker on the wall. It had been a big heart once and she had gotten in trouble for sticking it on the wall and then in more trouble for trying to peel it off. Now she feels the ruinous, thinning skin of it. She feels Kate’s breath on her neck and the ghost of a recent cigarette covered with a swig and spit of mouthwash. The heavy trust of Kate’s body, Kate’s small, square fingers resting lightly on her.
And then it is happening to Judy for the second time, though she doesn’t remember the first. A searing between her eyebrows. Incandescent white and then fullest black. She sees a man making a cup of tea in a kitchen she doesn’t know. Dressed like her father might dress in jeans and a fleece and the kind of shoes good for a walk. She does not want to be in this kitchen with this man. Underneath deodorant and aftershave and the metallic scent of cars, a deeply feral smell. Both feared and fearful. She wants to get out of the kitchen. Where is Kate?
Kate’s voice reaches her. Judy is back in the bed in the house they will soon leave. The main light is on now and Kate holds a tshirt to her nose, gently tilting her head back. Judy tastes iron, thick and wet. Can see red in her lower periphery.
Judy realises she should respond. “Mum?”
In the morning, Kate swings the car around the roundabout, listening to Fleetwood Mac as though they are on the school run. When Judy glances up at her, Kate feels her eyes and breaks her face into a smile, reaches over and pats Judy on the thigh. That doesn’t make this feel normal. Kate has put an old t-shirt on Judy’s lap in case she has another nosebleed.
After a couple of hours they are still not there. They stop for sandwiches and coca-cola and Judy wonders what her friends will think when she doesn’t show up at school.
“Roger will take care of us,” Kate says, as if answering a question.
Judy stands at her mother’s bed. In her pocket a train ticket to London where she remembers she once had a home. She’ll get a job. Maybe she’ll find Dad, find him and ask him questions.
She strokes Kate’s hair. Kate, whose brow now ripples like a pond. Kate, who barely leaves this room. Right now Kate is a baby, breath heavy on the pillow, a little dribble. This is what it must be to leave something you love.
The stress of you, flitting from cloud happy to terminally sad, I wish I could but I don’t know how to help you.
“Where you off to then?”
Roger in the doorway makes the room feel dense.
Judy kisses her mother and rises. Like he is nothing, she tries to brush past, avoiding his face. He grabs her wrist. She stops and looks right into his pupils and sees that he was not always vacant and mean, sees the flash of a childhood bruised and tender. He let’s her go. She promises to Kate that she will return.
In her flat in London Judy knows, simply in her bones, that someone is coming, someone who will need to know her answers.
When she opens the door she smells antiseptic on freshly grazed knees, the floral heat of bath water, cotton laundry, dewy woods and a wet hairy dog, burnt skin from rite-of-passage travels to far away countries, lovedness. Sam has a normalness about him that is breath-taking.
Sam is looking at an ineffably strange young woman, leaning in the doorway, gazing straight back into him with no embarrassment.
“Who told you to come here?” she asks.
“A friend of mine. Said she met you and you knew stuff,” he smiles. Flash of white teeth, almost expensively good and straight, except for one slightly crooked one at the front. She likes this one best. He’s handsome too, says Kate’s voice somewhere inside her, laughing. At first it would seem he has never been hurt that bad.
“I was expecting you,” Judy looks past him to the sky, a grey London classic. He laughs at this because coming from a fortune teller, or a seer, or whatever the fuck she is, it sounds like a cliché.
“Come back tomorrow, but don’t wash so much before you do.” She closes the door in his face.
Alone in her flat Judy has enough of the smell of the good looking boy to be visited repeatedly. The pain between her eyebrows is never so bad now. She lies down on the sofa and it begins –
Your mum works at the university in an administerial role. She does as many classes after work as she can. Your friends used to make jokes about her, especially when she wore very tight jeans. It used to make you blind with rage but you were too smart to show that.
You hid in the thick of the school dinner hall. Sandwiches coming out of colourful boxes. Pinkish brown turkey twizzlers, pale golden chips. Hunger tight in the air, nail varnish, hairspray, deodorant over body odour under nylon and cotton, blood. Unclean teeth, not-washed out mouths, dehydrated and stale and happy and new. A big stew.
You weren’t on the side of the bullies. They just didn’t bully you.
You’re just the right thing, the right combination of things, to get by. The right clothes, the right hair, the right smile. Good at football. You bounce along.
Sometimes now you feel guilty about it in the shower, or on the train, flick over the newspaper and suddenly remember one of those kids that the bullies didn’t like. You played football nearby, turning a blind eye. What else could you do? You think, fuck that. Fuck feeling guilty. But you do remember. You remember that kid looking at you, appealing, right before they dragged him around the corner. You were helpless. You ran it off. Went home and Mum made your favourite dinner and you played your Playstation and it was already the past. Someone else’s drama, someone else’s problem. That kid, the one that got beaten up, he works in Sainsbury’s now. You always say hi to each other, sometimes you even chat. He’s really nice. His niceness scratches at you.
You were drunk and you crashed into the house. You stumbled through the hallway, in the dark, forgetting to turn the light on. You were vaguely worried about waking up Mum. Then you fell into the living room, the lamp was on, and there she was. With a man. A man sat there, his top off, like a teenager, but covered in wiry grey hairs with a sallow chest. Sad nipples. His face a blur. She jumped up, knocked over the wine. You can still smell it. His expensive aftershave, like desperation and pride bottled and mixed together, squirted on his blotchy neck. She thought you were staying at George’s! As if that explains anything. And you think finally you might be sick from all the booze. In some way you’re kind of happy for her even though he looks like a right prick.
Judy knows there’s more to Sam than this.
A pretty dead girl smelling like tarmac and blood and lavender is standing smiling at Judy in the bar where she works.
Sam’s second visit.
“I’m back,” he smiles, sheepish. There is more to him. A little sweat in his armpits and a whole lot on his lower back. Hint of his mother’s perfume squashed into the side of his neck from a quick hug. Saltiness, but then not just from the sweat. He has cried. He has ached. At some point since she saw him yesterday he has touched the raw inside. She takes his hand and feels a brief limpness and then a conscious firmness. Moist palm.
“I cycled,” he says. “Warm, isn’t it?”
In the flat she brings him tea. It looks healthy like mud in water.
Judy sits down in front of him. She’s wearing a summer dress. Red with white daisies. Her black hair is pulled on top of her head.
“Is your hair natural?” he asks suddenly,
“It grew out of my head, yes”
“No, sorry, I mean the colour,”
“I dye it,” she says simply. The twitch of a smile at the corner of her lips. He feels relief. He doesn’t know why but he wants her to like him. Then the smile is gone and she says,
“Who is she?”
“Fucking hell,” He’s shocked. But he recovers. Anyone could guess that there’s a girl. Whoever you are, there’s probably a girl. He doesn’t know why he’s here with this mad person yet something makes him say, “there was someone very. My girlfriend, for a bit. Her name’s Amy.”
Judy takes his cup. He doesn’t remember drinking the tea.
The first time you saw Amy, it was just the curve of her cheek. She was leaning over a book in the university library. Then she turned as you walked towards her, as if she knew you were coming. She came out of thought and unfurrowed her brow and looked right at you and smiled like she knew you. Big, intelligent eyes, dark and shining. Then she frowned a little again, realising she didn’t know you at all. Wave of embarrassment. You looked away, she looked away. You felt a thing like blood in your cheeks, a thing like hunger in your stomach, gentle and shameful. You forgot about it.
And then the next time you saw her was on the campus grounds, walking towards you. She had a stride with an edge that looked intentional, her hips hitting out left and right like firm little fuck yous. And when the car hit her she was cycling and just realising that the thing she could smell was lavender, wet and awake. That was it really. All blackness, then. Black upon black. Silence upon silence.
On Sam’s fifth visit he asks Judy,
“Would you like to come for a drink? I’m meeting some friends at the pub.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Not even for one drink? A game of pool?”
“I work in a pub. I’m there all the time. Get sick of the smell.’
“You’ve got a keen nose,”
She smiles just enough but then she’s distant, distracted. Like she has more important things to think about.
“I want to know more about you,” Sam almost says.
Sam sits opposite Harry watching the bubbles disappear in his pint.
“It’s not that she’s anti-men, I don’t think. She just doesn’t seem that interested in me although the other day she looked at me different. She’s hot in a weird way, but really hot in that way, if that makes sense?”
“Yeah,” Harry pauses. “Didn’t you say she does fortune-telling or something?”
“Something like that, yeah,”
“Is that… that’s not why you’re seeing her, is it?” he tilts his head back to get a proper, lengthy look at Sam who meets him dead in the eye with a smile and says,
“Nah, of course not,” then glancing away, “I was thinking about Amy last night…”
“Look, pool table’s free! Sorry mate, can we just grab it?” Harry lurches from the bar towards the table.
Harry and Sam head to the pool table, put their money in, get their balls. Sam thinks about bringing up Amy again but since Harry hasn’t, he doesn’t. He feels the loneliness whirring, deep in his stomach, like a bad thing that hasn’t happened yet. He overheard them once, Harry and a couple of the other boys talking about him and Amy after she died, pointing out they had only been together three months. “Not saying it’s not bad! Just saying it’s not as bad as it could be, do you know what I mean?”
They would never understand someone like Judy.
“Well, good luck with trying to bang this Judy chick,” laughs Harry, “I think it’s your turn to break.”
On Sam’s 10th visit he asks,
“What is happening when you see stuff?”
“I’ve always wondered. I don’t know,” Judy says. It can’t happen with Sam there. It’s too messy.
“Tell me about what you see right now?”
“I see that I need to go to work soon and I see that you still owe me for some of our sessions,” She laughs. She does that more now and he likes to think it’s his fault.
“Can we go over it again?”
Judy feels boredom inside her. A restlessness. She feels Kate. She tries to concentrate on Sam.
They always come back, the clients, and need so much. They want to see which bits of their past she sees because that must mean these are the important bits. As if they don’t know themselves that they care about things so deeply. Tell me what matters and tell me what I should do with it, they seem to ask her, tell me what I love. Tell me who.
“We can’t go over it again, we’ve been over it so many times. Amy loved you, that’s it.”
“So, she’s definitely gone? She’s not even in, like, another dimension?” Sam feels his face redden, like he’s trying to speak a language he doesn’t know, “but you said you saw her, tell me about that again. In the purple dress.”
“I might have only seen her because I met you, it doesn’t mean that she, in some form, exists somewhere. Plus, it might not have been her at all. Might have been another dead girl in a purple dress.”
“You’re cruel,” he murmurs.
He wants her. Every time she looks at him, her eyes seem to say next time.
“Ok, can I have my money back?” he says.
She turns to look at him. He’s smiling but the petulance is there, brattish beneath it.
Kate finds Judy on the floor of Roger’s bedroom, in a ball, with the blood flowing from her nose.
Kate say you have to stop this to Judy like she is cross and the overpowering smell of him in the room makes Judy want to retch.
Kate says to Judy, maybe they’re right, maybe you are weird.
Kate gets so sad she can’t get out of Roger’s bed for days. And Judy has to be alone with Roger, who says don’t worry, I’ll look after you, with his hand on the small of her back.
Judy loves Kate.
Sam eleventh visit.
He knocks on Judy’s door. He stands on the balcony and waits while a little girl from next door sits on her doorstep watching him, eyes calm and wide, ice lolly dripping over her hand.
He thought he would have a chance to lie with his head on Judy’s bare stomach taking in the pores, the very fine hairs. To have her small square fingers with their chipped black nail varnish resting on him. To be together, properly. He’s thought about it a lot. It seems like the natural conclusion for all these sessions, one she must want herself. But she doesn’t answer the door. She’s not at the pub, the one he’s pretty sure she works at, even though she didn’t tell him.
Judy is riding a fast train heading north. For the first time in a long time, her head is clear. Hot coffee, tuna sandwiches, body odour, a soiled nappy, a few broken hearts, both a pyro- and a kleptomaniac. And it’s still quieter than where she was before. For now. Until she finds Kate.
Sophie Renouf is a writer of short stories from Southeast London currently working on her first novel. She likes to write stories about complicated people who want simple things. She has previously been published on Below the River and Dear Damsels. Twitter: @sophierenof Instagram: @iamsophierenouf
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