by Cate West
Content Warnings: Alludes to suicide ideation
There is a convention about sharing café tables. Anywhere, I mean, not just at the Royal Academy. You avoid it unless you have to. In which case, you approach at a slant, like a bishop, bow your head slightly and raise an eyebrow. ‘May I…?’ you whisper, your voice trailing off apologetically. And then you slither into the empty chair, make like a haunting. You do not look at or speak to your unwilling host again.
‘It is hard, this waiting,’ she says.
An anarchist. Just my luck. I eyeball the foam on my cappuccino, feeling a spurt of rage flicker inside me like a pilot light.
Go away go away go away.
‘So very painful. This waiting.’
‘What are you waiting for?’
She looks at me. I can feel it. I can feel my skin prickle.
‘Well, a train.’
You wouldn’t normally wait for a train in the coffee shop of the Royal Academy, but I won’t ask any more questions. Leave it there. Enough is enough. It is my table. She joined me! She started it, this talking. I can end it. Even if she carries on talking to herself.
‘I booked a hotel,’ she says. She enunciates precisely. An ‘otel.
That hooks me. I look up from my report. Yes, she is telling me this. A stranger. She isn’t going to beg, is she?
She doesn’t look like a beggar.
She seems about thirty. Thin. Sharp shoulders wrapped in a fluffy, black coat. Backcombed hair and shiny, purple lipstick.
Is she pissed?
No. She doesn’t seem to be.
Just mad, then.
The café is crowded. More so than usual. There is a big Monet exhibit on, and everyone flocks to those. The polite word is accessible, although there’s a lot more to Monet than meets the eye.
‘Oh,’ I reply. Take that and run with it, bitch.
The table next to us is rammed with men in suits poking at their smartphones. Their shoulders ripple in the mirror, infinite isosceles. Monet was obsessed with reflections. Monet was faithful. It was Manet who played tricks. I could see her face in there, too, if I tried.
‘Yes, indeed. I booked a room. I shouldn’t even have to be catching a bloody train at all, should I? I was supposed to be in London tonight. Now all I can do is go home and start again. Sucks!’
Hmm. The façade slips, there. She is not all she seems.
At the table by the window is a family, three generations by the look of it, the granny feeding cake to a wispy-looking child in a high chair. The high arches let in a milky light, as if the world is simply made of fog.
It seems that I am stuck. Customers are still queuing by the counter, and no one is in a hurry to leave. I am damned if I’ll be pushed out of my only bit of refuge the whole working week by this provincial oddball.
‘So, what happened?’
A mistake. I shouldn’t encourage her. But it hardly matters now; she’s troubled the water. She has a train to catch, is my thinking. She’ll be gone soon. And the weekend is coming. Perhaps, by contributing, I can hurry things along.
‘How long will it take you to get to your station? It’s busy on the underground today.’
Like it isn’t every day.
‘Well, I got there,’ she begins, completely disregarding the travel advice, ‘and I went in, and the receptionist said she’d never heard of me! Can you believe? I booked the room literally months ago. Here!’
She reaches into her black, fluffy pocket and thrusts a folded sheet of A4 across the table.
Earls Court Garden Hotel is printed at the top, and sure enough, a booking for a Miss Emma Mae Barrass tonight.
‘Looks fine to me,’ I say. ‘Sure you went to the right hotel?’
‘Oh, yeah. I definitely went to the right hotel. The pretty one that overlooks the square. Earls Court Gardens Hotel. With an S. What I didn’t do was book the right hotel! I booked the Earls Court Garden Hotel. Without an S. And it’s fair to say it was without a whole other lot of stuff, too. A crime scene in the making, believe me. Wasn’t safe to put your bags down, never mind sleep the night. The room was literally a dungeon, no phone signal, a French window that opened onto a stairwell full of empty vodka bottles and fag butts. No. No way.’
It’s true there are a lot of hotels around Earls Court, many with similar names, and some of them sleazy.
‘I could have been raped in my bed! Or killed! No one would know! I will not allow myself to be murdered. So it’s back to the drawing board. I tell you, I planned this trip for months. I could kick myself. They have a room tomorrow, for what it’s worth. But nothing tonight.’
‘Isn’t there anyone you could stay with?’
‘The one and only man I know in London is living with a partner who makes him wear a chastity belt and sleep in a dog’s bed.’
‘Does that bother you?’
‘If Steve has this bloke installed in his bed, in his ONE BEDROOM FLAT, and Steve’s stark bollock naked in a dog’s bed in the sitting room, where do you suppose there’s room for me? The kitchen? Anyway, it’s no good. He’s not allowed visitors.’
‘Yes, yes. It’s a whole scene. Their owners take them clubbing on leads. Never heard of it, have you? Neither had I.’
‘Steve who?’ I say, hoping it might be my boss Steven, who lives in Nevern Square. Steven is always on my case these days. A portrait of Steven playing fetch in the communal gardens would be worth its weight in gold.
‘So, you see my predicament. Here I am. Waiting.’
I’m not going to feel sorry for you, I think.
I hope I haven’t spoken it.
It’s hardly worth going back to work, I decide. It’s the last afternoon of the week, after all. I text a brief excuse to the secretary – administrator – Sue, about a friend needing help, then I switch my phone off and bury it at the bottom of my briefcase, with my report.
‘Coming, at all?’ I call over my left shoulder.
Reader, I take her home with me. That’s how much of a mug I can be.
As soon as we get back to Cricklewood, I open the gin. I’d been thinking of it all morning, sweating away to itself in the fridge without me.
‘Like a drink?’
‘Oooh, yes please.’
I tilt the bottle, silently assessing.
It’s like she can read my mind.
‘Do you have an offie round here? I bet you do. I’ll get another bottle to keep us going. Least I can do. And what about eating? Shall I find a takeaway? There are lots of curry houses on that main street. Let me treat you. Please. You’ve been so kind.’
Off she dashes in her fluffy, black coat, leaving her bag on the chair. As soon as I hear the flat door bang, I take another gulp of gin and pull open the zip. You can never be too careful.
Inside – not much. Spare knickers, tights, a toothbrush, a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea in paperback, and a kitchen knife.
I used to drink for enjoyment. These days I just drink. Sometimes when I’m walking to the tube on my way to work, I notice blood seeping up from the cracks between the paving slabs, as if this murderous city floats on a crimson blood plain. Blood that no one acknowledges. The woman did well to find me. She must have a sense for these things. I think, It’s like poetry, and I move, with my gin, to the CD rack. Well, we shall have music wherever we go. Sibelius? Too solemn. Sinatra? No. The Spice Girls? Really. Sonny Rollins, Silver. That will do. My rack got muddled. So what? So bloody what? It hardly matters in the scheme of things, does it?
Or maybe it does, maybe I should check it over so that when they find my body, they’ll remember how neat I was. Almost perfect. They’ll think, He kept his secret well. I’ll be tragic. Quick, to the M’s. Maria Callas!
By the time I buzz my new friend back in, I’m on my third. I feel stupidly optimistic now, and when she holds up carrier bags full of gin and tikka masala, I feel we really are going to have an amazing evening.
‘Music’s a bit dramatic,’ she says, marching over to the kitchen area. ‘Where are your plates?’
We sit side by side at the breakfast bar, forking curry into our mouths. She’s changed the music, and now we’ve got Hotel California.
Hotels! That’s it! That’s what I was going to ask her!
‘Why do you need to be here overnight? Is it for work?’
She looks at me.
The curry is beautiful, but I’m getting full. That’s another thing gin does for you. It becomes your food, your everything. It leaves no room for anything else.
‘Ah. And where is home?’
‘My landlord’s flat’s been repossessed. No one’s moved in yet, and I kept the door key, so that’s where I’ve been sleeping.’
The level in the bottle seems to be sinking fast.
Drinking for two, I think, remembering I am not alone.
‘Can I smoke in here?’ she says, pulling out a packet of Marlboro from her pocket and flipping at a Zippo.
‘Sure,’ I say as she lights up.
Why not? My tenancy forbids it, but who gives a shit, right?
The last supper.
Might as well face it.
‘Are you planning to kill someone?’
‘Kill someone?’ Emma coughs out a lungful of thin, blue smoke. ‘Why would I do that?’
We stare into each other’s eyes. Between the kohl, hers are a clear blue. Bombay Sapphire.
‘Ah! You mean the knife in my bag?’
I nod, still gazing. She holds my eyes a moment more, and then she starts laughing.
‘No, no. That was for me.’
‘Is. Was. Bloody mix-up. I was planning to die somewhere nice.’
‘Is this nice?’ I ask, scanning the tripe-coloured Artex, the fraying curtains, the sagging floorboards.
‘Hardly. Aren’t you supposed to discourage me? Hit me with the plus points, the things to live for?’
‘Your friend the dog?’
We both double over laughing.
‘Emma Mae. What if I asked you to kill me instead?’
‘Don’t be daft.’
‘Will you? Friday’s a good day for it. The office is closed. No one will miss me.’
‘Dear God, no.’
‘Jesus, man, why?’
‘This,’ I say, waving an arm at the frond of wallpaper unfurling from the cornice , and then I tip back my head and drain my glass. I feel like I want to cry.
‘How did you find me?’ I say.
‘You were supposed to be the odd one,’ I say.
‘You can have my mother’s jewellery,’ I say. ‘I’ve still got some of it left. I’ll make a will and everything.’
When I wake up, I wonder where I am. My eyes find a pattern I struggle to make sense of. Little black specks, like thunder flies. Ah, yes, I am face-planting the fake granite breakfast bar, with a half-empty plate of chicken tikka at one elbow and an entirely empty bottle at the other.
I sit up slowly.
‘Where are you?’ I call, as loud as I can bear. This doesn’t look like the afterlife is supposed to. When I turn my head, I feel like I am going to be sick.
‘Where are you?’
It looks like someone had a fight in here, but that is nothing unusual.
The flat is small, you can see into every corner. No one could hide here. Not even Manet could refract a leering stranger from the morning light. The flat is empty. No coat, no bag, no woman. There’s a kitchen knife on the counter, but one I know is mine. Soon, I must find my phone and check if I’ve texted anyone.
You never know what might happen on a Friday.
Cate trained in Fine Art and graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2019. She was shortlisted for York Festival of Writing’s Friday Night Live Competition and long listed for Mslexia’s Novel Competition in 2019. Cate teaches Creative Writing and is passionate about outsider narratives. She lives and works in the Midlands and was selected for Writing West Midlands' development scheme, Room 204, in 2021.
Publications: ‘The Blue Pool’ in ‘The Invisible Collection’, ed Nicholas Royle, Nightjar Press 2020; ‘Imbolc’, Lunate, 2021, ‘Underworld’, Janus Literary, 2021.
You can find her on Twitter @c8west.