Chapter Forty: Body Pictures

I felt happy and light as I skipped down the steps, and I broke into a run as I hit the warm tarmac.  The exercises I’d been doing at home had really started to pay off; I lasted longer than Katy at kickboxing, and was sure that I would keep up at aerobics the next day.  It would be my first lesson, but I was feeling confident about it.  I felt almost euphorically happy.  The sounds and scenes of Victoria flew by in a blissful, sunny blur as my trainer-clad feet pounded the roads and pavements, and I beamed.  I felt so alive, so up…

  It was about half six by the time I reached Juvenile Hell.  Nat was outside on the warm pavement, opening up.  As she turned around to face me, I took in her red eyes and pale face.  She was chewing her lip as she tried to prevent fresh tears from falling.  I pretended not to notice.  “Hello,” she said quietly, her expression was mixed as she commented, “Interesting look… sort of grungy ‘Flashdance’, I don’t think I’ve ever seen denim leggings with a lacy slip and legwarmers before.”  She raised her eyebrows as I giggled, a few heads turned across the street, and her expression became faintly nervous as she said, “Come in, help me set up.”

  The evening sun picked out the gold glitter on the walls inside as I slid ten one pound coins into the jukebox and ran through the selections, picking out all the old Madonna records and cheesy eighties records.  Nat bustled about, getting ready for the show at ten as I danced.  Amber was the only other person around, and she ignored me as well.  When I had run out of records, Nat took hold of my arm and steered me over to the bar.  The light from outside was fading a little as she sat me down in front of a big, cold glass of lemonade.  “Drink,” she commanded in steel edged tones.

  I obeyed.

  As I drank, I saw Amber pass a glass of Bailey’s to Nat, and as she reached out to take it, I saw her fingers close around Amber’s.  A second later, she let go, but I hadn’t missed the look in her eyes when she did so.  Amber met it with her own bland, open expression, which seemed to say nothing but, if you knew what to look for, said everything.  I found myself recalling the week before, when Nat and I had gone to the Filmworks to see ‘Party Monster’.  It had meant breaking my promise to Fergus and, in retaliation; he had gone for a boozy night out with his mates the next night, knowing that I was ready to stay in.

  “You wouldn’t want him to stay every night,” said Nat, bitterly, as we drank our drinks.  Her face bore a sour expression as she added, “It’s one thing dating them, it’s quite another thing living with them and waking up to them wandering around in their underpants every morning.”

  I rolled my eyes impatiently, “I do know that”

  She shrugged, “Well then.”

  We lapsed into an unhappy silence.

  We met up nearly a week after that night, on a wall by John Rylands University Library on Oxford Road.  The last rays of sunlight were disappearing in a pinkish haze as I joined her, and we gazed up at the red brick of the Humanities department where, if the light was right, you could still read the faded message ‘FIGHT AIDS, ACT UP!’ Nat was eating salad from 8th Day, she offered me some as I sat down, but I shook my head.  “Did you get the stuff?” she asked.

  I nodded, and then reached into my bag, drawing out two spray cans and several marker pens.  The bag was light cotton, black with fluorescent coloured squiggles; it had been my school bag when I was six.  She grinned as she got to her feet, smoothing down the too small, too tight t-shirt, a transfer design, advertising The Period Pains ‘Spice Girls (Who Do You Think You Are?)’.  Her jeans were baggy, and had been tie dyed green over the original light blue, they were being held up by a black leather studded belt.  She was wearing a safety pin bracelet, the kind Flora sells in her shop, and had written ‘Boy’ on her right hand set of knuckles and ‘Girl’ on the left in eyeliner.  I was wearing an equally tight Bis t-shirt, with a khaki a-line cotton mini skirt and leather studded wristbands. Nat had, at my insistence, scrawled the phrase ‘Prick Tease’ across the flat of my stomach.

  As we walked along Oxford Road towards Piccadilly, a few cars honked their horns, and assorted men leered out of car windows and made lewd or incomprehensible suggestions to us.  “Maybe we should have gone for boiler suits,” reflected Nat as we selected our first target, a bus stop advert outside the BBC.  This particular advert was a deodorant advert, featuring a man with sweat stains and a dog… you know the one.  After a few moments thought, Nat scrawled THE LYNX EFFECT: No amount of deodorant will get you a shag.  I couldn’t think of anything so I just wrote I feel sorry for the dog.  The toilets in McDonalds on the corner had already been covered in an earnest, and extremely thorough, critique of their food and business practices, so we moved along to Portland Street, where a well known sports drink and advert for the ‘Mail On Sunday’ (Hate and fear, seven days a week) received our clumsy attentions.  Ladyfest Manchester took place last weekend in Hulme, and one of the highlights of the weekend, for a lot of people, was a short, subtitled, Belgium film, ‘What Shall We Do Tonight?’ which showcased the graffiti and billboard sabotage activities of a group of young Belgium women.  It had cheered us up no end.

  “As much as I admire the sentiments, music, and activities of the riot grrrls,” Nat said as we walked down Oldham Street, “I’m always aware that I was a few years too late for it…” I nodded sympathetically.  There was a long, thoughtful silence, before she asked, “Are we feminists, do you think?”

  I shrugged, “I dunno, maybe… don’t you have to have read an approved booklist or something?”

  We sat down on the kerb opposite The Twilight and thought about this.  “I wonder if the riot grrrls were considered ‘proper’ feminists,” wondered Nat.

  I shook my head, “Probably not.”

  There was restlessness in us that night, and it kept us moving, kept us roaming the city streets.  At 3am we were sat on the steps outside Manchester Library, talking… neither of us ready or willing to go home.  “We ought to have more nights like this,” I smiled, “it’s been fun… we always used to have fun, when we went out…”

  “When we were young” sighed Nat. She flexed her fingers as though testing invisible restraints, and gazed at her wedding ring before forming her hands into loose fists.

  “When did it change, Nat?” I asked, quietly, my voice shook a little as I spoke, and shadows settled on the street in the pale moonlight.

  “I don’t know,” she murmured as she played, moodily, with the ring, “after school maybe… men… girls…” She smiled as she ceased her fidgeting.

  “Everything got spoiled when you went away, when I met Terry… it wasn’t the same after that.”

 She sighed, placed her palms down on the cold grey stone behind her, and shook back her hair, “We grew up; that’s all… we can still be close, we still are close…”

  “It’s not the same,” I muttered, and if she saw the tears in my eyes, she didn’t say anything.

  The next night was the night we went to the tattoo parlour.  It wasn’t the parlour we had originally used when we were eighteen, when we got our first tattoos (Nat’s eagle and my dragon) done.  That had been the White Dragon in Stockport, a parlour on Hillgate that had a clear sheet of glass between the walls of designs and the room where the tattooist worked.  It sold rainbow coloured cigarette papers, pipes, tobacco tins, bongs… everything you would need to smoke hash, but without the hash.  This time we went to a Manchester parlour, high up on Oldham Street, way above street level.  The rooms were spacious and minimalist, split level and sombre with black walls and thick white carpets.  A young Morticia handed us books of designs to look through as the early evening sun shone through the large windows.

  Nat was, partly at least, getting a tat done to annoy Dylan, who, despite “having more tattoos than David Beckham,” doesn’t “approve” of tattoos on women.  His least favourite tattooed body part on a woman is, apparently, the outer ankle, or ankles generally; he thinks it’s “slutty.”  “I’m going to get some kind of floral type bracelet thing done, I think,” mused Nat thoughtfully as she slowly explored books of designs, “Maybe more leafy than floral though, I don’t want anything twee…” she looked up, “How about you?”

  But I already knew what I wanted.

  When I showed it to her, her eyebrows shot right up, and she coughed nervously, “Are you sure?”

  I nodded, “Positive.”

  “But… don’t you think you should maybe think about it first? I mean, you are going to be stuck with it for life…”

  Surprisingly, the tattooist, who was a young, pale woman with long fair hair, a faceful of piercings, and a galaxy of multi coloured stars across her shoulders, agreed with her.  “I think it’s beautiful,” she said, in a voice that was both educated and velvety smooth, “but it’s very big, it’ll take me a long time to do, and the lower back can be quite a painful area to have done…”

  “I have got a tattoo,” I snapped, “I know it takes time, I know it hurts…”

  “When I have someone who wants something this big doing, I always ask them to walk away from it today, and come back,” she continued, calmly, “If you really want it doing, think about it some more, and come back, then I’ll do it.”

  She turned her attention back to Nat then, who had decided what she was having, and I sat down to watch in sulky silence, stubbornly resolved to have my own choice of work done, no matter what it took.

  A circle of ivy, red roses, and holly was circling Nat’s right ankle when we left, and I gazed at it resentfully.  It didn’t seem right that Nat should be allowed her choice, yet I was being deprived of mine, I’ll show them, I thought resentfully, grimly determined.  But it was more than that, I know now, I have a depth of insight about our motives now that I didn’t have that night.  Our original tats were done after Nat arrived back from London, and after I’d left Terry, and we were both in a bad place, emotionally, at that time, and… No, not the past… not the past… I can’t go there yet, not yet.  Whenever I close my eyes, he’s there, whenever I got to sleep, I remember… I don’t want to go there, but I can’t stay here either… this place I’m in right now is frightening too, and I can’t face it yet, I need to go somewhere else first, I need to work up to it.  There’s too much space in this narrative, too many gaps… I need to fill some of them in as best I can.  Where to start? With another night, and another adventure.

I was angry that night as we walked along Oldham Street, away from the bright lights and glitter of Juvenile Hell.  I was wearing my black P.V.C jacket over a super short black lycra mini skirt, and a light, black cotton backless top was being held in place by two thin strips of cotton that fastened, loosely, at the base of my spine.  The flesh between the P.V.C and the cotton was inflamed and a little sore as I strode along the street towards Piccadilly, muttering to myself in agitation and anger.

  Nat, clad in plain dark blue jeans and a shimmery, slinky top, made of smoky blue satiny velour and filmy gold chiffon, struggled to keep pace with me as I strode through the buzz, hum and lurid colours of Piccadilly, towards Portland Street and Oxford Road.  As I made to cross the road by the bus station, she took hold of my arm, and gently pulled me back onto the pavement.  Furious, I turned on her, “I’m going there!” I shouted, angrily, over the traffic, “And you’re coming as well!” my voice became an angry mutter, “…going to the ballet school, and I’ll dance for them, and they’ll be so impressed that they’ll give me my place back, and I’ll learn, I’ll learn from them, and…”

  Her expression was one of deep puzzlement as she asked, “What are you on about?”

  I started to mutter again, something about Katy, and the argument we’d had, about how she doubts me, and how she doubts my commitment to the band.  Then I moved onto Fergus, and how he doesn’t trust me, or thinks I don’t trust him, I found myself saying things I have never said, and should never say, aloud.  “Maybe I am frigid,” I muttered as we walked, her arm linked with mine, “maybe I’m really, really fucked up… I never enjoyed sex, even when I could face it, but I just can’t face it anymore, I get so scared, whenever he touches me now, whenever I know, whenever I can sense him wanting sex, wanting more than I’m willing to give…” It was only when Nat made me sit down on the wall that I realised where we were, “This isn’t the Northern Ballet School!” I exclaimed in surprise.

  “No,” she agreed, “It’s not. Now,” her voice was calm, “start at the beginning, and tell me everything.”

  So I told her about my row with Katy, and about the situation with Fergus.  We talked, quite frankly, about sex, and I began to feel a little calmer, a little bit reassured.  “Is it different,” I ventured, timidly, “with girls?” I paused, feeling a little shy and awkward.  “I mean,” I could feel myself blushing, “do they hurt you as much, are they as violent…”

  In the darkness, she smiled a bitter, wry little smile to herself, as she said, “Hhmm, yes… ‘Fraid so, girls can be just as nasty as boys, in every way that boys can.  He can hit you and break you, and so can she…”

  I shook my head vigorously, as though trying to clear the incessant chatter of words and images from my mind, my eyes were suddenly full of tears as I asked, “Then what’s the point?”

  Nat shrugged, her expression was one of sadness as she said “I suppose we all go on hoping… We hope we’ve got it right this time.”

  There was a long, thick, awkward silence, stifling with pain, melancholy, and regret, “I have got it right this time.”  I felt very definite and determined as I said it, and I still feel like that now; I have got it right this time, I know I have.

  Nat sighed, wearily, in the darkness; she yawned a little and rubbed her tired eyes, as she said, carelessly, “So let him fuck you then, you’ll have to at some point in any case.”

  I got up from the wall and took a few steps forward, my mind, so full of words and images became vague and foggy as I moved towards the light.  Somewhere in the distance, very far away, I heard Nat’s voice, saying, uncertainly, “What… what are you doing?” The tarmac of the near empty car park was lit up like a Christmas tree, with all its security lights, and the glow reminded me of a warm and waiting stage as I stepped out into the light.  The music was swelling, loudly, in my head as I took up position and… and then… and then… and then… I really don’t know what happened.

When I came to, I was naked in the darkness, and I was in bed.  I could tell from the darkness that it was night time still, but which night? And what time? Fear wrapped itself around my heart as I began to wonder how long I had been away for.  Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Nat arguing with Fergus, she was shouting, almost screaming, at him, the emotion pouring into her voice as she yelled, “DON’T YOU DARE BLAME ME! I HAVE KNOWN HER, AND LOVED HER, FOR A LOT LONGER THAN YOU HAVE, AND I’M TELLING YOU, THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG…” She seemed to run out of volume, for the next time she spoke, her voice was calmer, almost pleading, as she said, “I’ve seen her like this before, and…” I closed my eyes, and drifted out.

Daylight was shining into my eyes as I blinked anxiously, and as I rolled over, I realised that I was still lying in bed.  Next to me, Fergus stirred and sighed a little as he opened his eyes, and the fact that I was naked suddenly seemed problematic.  Anxiety was racing through me like a drug as I quavered “Whwhat happened?”

  As he turned to face me, I saw that he was frowning, “You don’t remember?”

  Panic squeezed my throat as I said, “No, tell me.”

  “You fainted,” he told me, patient and quiet as he held me, “that’s all”  But he wouldn’t meet my eyes, and I sensed that something more than that had happened; something worse.  My heart began to beat faster, and I found it difficult to breathe.  “Shhh…” he whispered soothingly, “it’s alright, it’s alright… calm down now, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter…” he ran his hands, slowly and warily, down the garish, inflamed skin on my back.  As I began to calm down, he continued in that same quiet, soothing whisper, “You were dancing in the car park, and… I saw you, but I didn’t know what was going on at first.  I was so high up, and you looked so small, and you were moving so fast, you were like a moth in the light, flitting about, it was only when your hair caught the light that I knew it was you.”  I heard the pain in his voice as he continued, “I saw the tattoo when we got you home, Nat tried to tell me that she tried to talk you out of getting it done, but I wouldn’t listen to her, and Fliss told me that most of the rent money’s missing…” He cleared his throat awkwardly, before continuing in a very different tone, “I never knew that you could dance like that,” his hands gently stroked my hair “it was the most eerie, beautiful, eerily beautiful thing I ever saw.”  His tone lost its wonder and grew concerned as he said, “Maybe you hit your head, maybe that’s why you don’t remember, does your head hurt?”

  “No,” I whispered.

  He ran his fingers across my scalp, carefully and sensitively, “There’s no lump there.”  He said at last.

  “Then I can’t have hit it then.”

  He ran his hand along my shoulder, and then down my arm, “Do you understand what happened, if you can’t remember?” He murmured.

  I shook my head, and I sensed my heartbeat increase once again as I tried not to think about it.

  “Because when you came round, even when I got you home, you seemed to be looking at me without seeing.  It was like you weren’t there anymore, like you’d gone somewhere else.”

  “Lights were on but no one was home?”  My voice shook as I spoke.

  “Yes,” he frowned, “It’s happened before?”

  I nodded, and then closed my eyes and buried my face in his chest.  The rent money… I had forgotten about that.  It had been a big piece to do, and tattoos cost a lot of money… he told me later that Nat had given Fliss some money, and that he and Fliss had, somehow, found the rest.  They all know that I haven’t got any money.  I think it was at that moment that I realised the true nature of my behaviour of late, and the fear and sadness hit me like an avalanche of water. I tried to stand tall against the torrent, against the flood, but it overwhelmed me almost at once.  “All I want to be is a normal girl, with a normal life,” I said when I re-surfaced, “that’s all I want to be to you.”  He kissed my lightly on the forehead as I closed my eyes again, and I fell into a darkness that was something like sleep.

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