Sally is trapped. This house is her prison and the bricks are her captives. She has studied these walls more closely than any archaeologist could eye an ancient prize, or scientist could strain fervently to see an atom split. She has gazed harder at their cracks and hollows than those with stars in their eyes could drink up the sky; and yet, her reluctance to leave their embrace is evident. Her butterfly wings tremble at the thought. Her hands stroke the inside of the door almost lovingly; tired fingers caressing weathered wood. Either side of it, the sickly lavender paint is starting to peel away and crack like old, sore skin. To her, this house is the Universe. She casts a sullen look across the hallway; the furthest possible point of permitted orbit, save occasional brave spurts to retrieve sweating milk bottles from the doorstep.
She knows she has to leave here soon, and she longs to grab that whore Fate, that bastard-child of Creation, and shake her ‘til she’s sick for the sheer injustice of it all. She looks again at the letter: technical, medical nonsense: all stamps and signatures, dates and times. It seems deliberately confusing. It tires her.
She runs her bony fingers through her hair: a lank, grimy blonde. It is dead-looking; grown long and untamed in unintentional imitation of a corpse’s. Gloom settles around her like an aura, filling even the corners of the room, keeping the cobwebs company. She cannot see it; she cannot see herself. The mirror in here is broken. Every mirror in the house is broken. She likes it that way. Without them, she is unaware of how small and awkward she looks, still barefoot, already in her raincoat. Her exclamation-point eyes keep darting to the door, and back quickly, in case it catches her looking. Every step towards it is like wading through treacle; blood; tar; self-restraint; a turning tide… she is a slave to their persuasion, and her feet are heavier for it.
She wastes time, delaying the inevitable, fixing herself a lousy, bitter coffee. The mug she uses is cracked and stained through years of abuse. There are ants in the sugar, so she drinks it without. She grimaces at her reflection in the stewing dregs, mined from bottom of a jar of own-brand, economy coffee. Her eyes wander over the nearly-empty shelves to the gravy granules; their consideration is brief, but present… the coffee would take little improving.
It is time to leave: 9.11. An unfriendly time, cursed, full of odd numbers.
She opens the door, seeming to brace herself for an impact which doesn’t come – the world’s problems fail to come flooding into her safe-haven along with the autumnal leaves and wind-shook raindrops. She winces at the sky, an ugly expression on such a weary face; the apologetic squint-sneer of a sleeping tramp disturbed, of an old dog that doesn’t want to die.
“Come on,” she whispers to herself, in an attempt at self-motivation: talking to herself is a bad habit she has struggled to lose. “You have to, so come on.”
She forces herself out the door and locks it before she can change her mind. Her face is set in reluctant resolve. In the light of day she looks smaller, somehow; shrunken. There is only one way to find out if her worries are a molehill or a mountain, but it is plain that she would rather cower in their shadows than look upon their faces.
Those shadows seem to linger over her, follow her on her journey. She takes small, rapid steps; a frightened near-jog. Her feet scuff and shuffle as she walks. She checks her watch, childish and moon-faced, compulsively every few seconds. As she lowers her hood, the wind mocks her for her hope that an isolated ray of sunshine scrabbling to escape the rainclouds might provide some warmth; November smiles and spits icicles in her face for good measure.
Her foot slips off the curb into a grimy-looking puddle. “Not today”, she pleads with it, “Please, not today.”
She reacts to others in her path with fear, shrinking away, even backing away from a cheery teenager passing out flyers offering cheap international calls. “No, no, thank you”, she whispers to the wind. Exhaustion is etched into her face. She hurries to join the crowd amalgamating at the mouth of the Underground station. As Sally melds with the writhing machine, the all-mighty swarm of combined commuters, a woman pushes past her without apology, barking into a mobile phone.
“Lorenzo? Serena. Hi. Just got the latest figures in, and we are on the up, baby. Didn’t I say you could trust me? You always were a smart one, Mr Martinez. Now, let’s talk money: I suggest at least a couple of thou into New-Ronix, the Taiwanese electronics firm I told you about last week… it’s guaranteed money, baby…”
Her smile spreads better than an oil slick. She is well-equipped for the task of greasing up clients for the cold, hard sell: Sally could hear it dripping and glooping into the receiver, lubricating the airwaves, helping her charm her way into his wallet.
Time appears to be the only thing she doesn’t have. The subtle earrings she’s wearing are unmistakably diamonds; the watch is a genuine Rolex. Everything about her, from the strict-politician glasses and the sleek leather briefcase, to the death-black power-suit she wore that would make Thatcher proud, screamed power.
Sally shrinks away from her as the woman forces ahead of her and melts into the chaos of the jostling masses; her sickening, false flattery, combined with the neon power-glow Sally sensed around her, repelled her. She was bad news, this one. Her energy is artificial; deceptive; temporary. With a single glance Sally already knew she would not age gracefully; she would rot and sag like bad meat.
“A real snake-charmer, that one”, Sally murmurs to no one in particular, “I bet the world never shits on her.”
No one hears. There is shouting up ahead.
Serena, the diamond-studded snake charmer, is on the ground. Her face betrays her thoughts: she had never before entertained the possibility that she may, one day, become a victim of the system that served her so well. You can tell she had not expected the sudden violent lunge made towards her, or the fierce, clumsy grab of the hand round her briefcase. Not in such a large London crowd, in daylight, with so many witnesses. She had not expected a scruffy, spindly man-boy to be able to overpower her so easily, not after all that Pilates. She had been deceived by his age, the slightness of his frame, his slim physique, his acne-ridden face.
Her attacker is already fleeing with his prize.
“N… No… Stop!”
The crowd does not even slow. A disgruntled, dripping-wet office worker, wearing a suit the colour of aubergines, steps over her with a disinterested sneer.
“Stop! Thief! My briefcase! He’s got my fucking briefcase!!” She is shrieking now, pointing, near hysterical.
Her disbelief of the fact that no one cares, and her perceived betrayal by her social counterparts, is dripping from her face. It is acidic, genuine in its disgust. Her fury spits like an electric field – when ignorant passers-by cast raindrops into her lap from their newly-collapsed umbrellas, they seem to fizz and hiss on impact with her.
People in the vicinity unashamedly gossip, giggle and speculate, standing on tiptoe to gawp and gaze at another’s misery. They lose interest almost immediately afterwards, once they realise the incident is not fatal.
Sally’s savage joy, however, seems to have deserted her. Distressed and graceless, she falls to her knees beside the fallen woman, panting as if she has run for miles. She grasps one of her hands in both of her own, forgetting herself temporarily.
“Oh my God,” she gasps, “Are you alright? You got mugged! Are you OK? Did he stab you?” The words splutter from her before she remembers the woman before her is a snake charmer.
Serena recoils in horror at this dreary, misshapen hippy, with dirty fingernails and straggly hair, wearing a coat three sizes too big, pawing her and sweating all over her hand.
“Do I look like I’m fucking bleeding?” Serena does not waste a smile on this woman. She does not even attempt to hide her immediate distaste for her. Up until now, she had been outraged that no one had come over to help and comfort her. Now, it appears that solidarity can come back again, all is forgiven.
“Are you OK?” Sally repeats stupidly.
“Are you deaf? I said I’m fine.” The venom in her voice is unmistakeable. She climbs to her feet and dusts herself down; the fag ash from the discarded cigarettes in the doorway leaves dirty smudges across her knees. She tries to rub them away, but every stroke forces the dirt deeper into the fabric.
It takes a moment for Sally to follow her to her feet. She looks dazed; a victim of sympathy. She asks, rather shyly, “Um… do you… do you need anything? Like, a phone? Do you want a friend to come pick you up? ‘Cos you can use mine, if you want.” Silence from Serena. She perseveres. “I said, do you…?”
Serena bites through her sentence and severs it in half. “I heard you the first time. And no, I don’t want to use your phone to call someone, I haven’t got any…” She visibly bites back the word ‘friends’, “… anybody’s number, that little shit nicked my fucking phone. FUCK!” She exclaims to no one in particular. It makes Sally jump a little.
“I need my fare home.” She states this without shame. “That dickhead took my wallet, too.” She holds out her hand under Sally’s nose, mirroring an insolent child demanding pocket money.
Sally falls over herself to oblige, fumbling with her purse. In her haste, she tips copper coins all over the floor. Serena rolls her eyes as Sally squirrels around on all fours, her rump in the air as if she were a barnyard animal, gathering up her change. She finally drops it into Serena’s palm, still sweaty from her fingers.
“Thanks.” She avoids eye contact as she puts it into her breast pocket. It is obvious that she is eager to depart from this place and this bedraggled woman’s company. She finds her weakness sickening; the stench of it is like sweet, rotten fruit. Sally continues to watch her closely, hypnotised. Without her briefcase she looks rather lost. Her hair is no longer held in an elegant bun; random strands of it are attempting an escape. One of her expertly-manicured nails is broken, its edge now jagged.
Sally had always thought of people like Serena as being better than her somehow. “But they’re not,” she murmurs to herself.
“What was that?”
“Nothing… erm… it was nice to meet you…?” She pauses, waiting for Serena to provide her name.
She doesn’t. Instead, she spits, “I wish I could say the same.” Her parting gift: a final, verbal slap round the face.
This woman is poison… but she is human. The world had shit on her, too, and to Sally, that meant something.
Without another word, Sally turns her back and walks away. Her back is a little straighter now, and her feet avoid the puddles.