Brighton. 6 April 2019
The nightclub smells revolting. The last time Sally went clubbing the air was dense with cigarette smoke and the heady stench of poppers. Now all she can smell is sickly male aftershave, body odour and sulphurous drug farts.
Sally sips her lemonade self-consciously. She knows the music, it’s the same tracks she danced to 20 years ago on the Sheffield trance scene, but she doesn’t dance today. Sally knew she never belonged in the nightclubs, not really. She tried her hardest to be one of the cool kids, she took all the drugs, gate-crashed all the parties. Now she is 41 and dealing with significant mental health issues and premature arthritis in Brighton nightclub called Revenge. Sally hopes the name of the club is a sign she will finally get her revenge.
She weaves her way around the various bars and dance floors, pushing awkwardly through the throngs of muscular half-naked men gyrating indecently against one another. The things you do for love.
It is dark in the club and Sally wishes her eyesight wasn’t so bad. She squints at the two women downing tequila shots at the bar, her heart racing with the possibility that one of them is her. They are both shrieking with laughter. Could Sally slip something into their drinks without them noticing? That would be fun, but too risky.
There is someone else looking at the couple too. A man? Or maybe a woman. It’s hard to tell in this light. Whoever the person is they don’t look happy. Sally wonders how many other victims there have been.
The younger one with the short, blonde hair pulls the older woman’s hand and leads her to the dance floor. And then they are kissing, two women pashing in the middle of the nightclub dance floor for all the world to see. Sally winces. The couple are smiling as they kiss. She would know that smile anywhere. And then Sally spots the tattoo. The metallic, sphere covering the woman’s back and shoulder. It’s her.
Brighton. 7 April 2019
Well this is awkward. The stranger is fast asleep on my arm, trapping me between her ribcage and the memory foam mattress. She passed out around 4am and it feels like I’ve been lying here for hours, waiting for her to wake up. It’s hot in here. Her duvet is heavy and luxurious, stuffed inside crisp, white cotton bed linen. Very gently I kick it aside and breathe in the musky scent of her bedroom. The stranger is facing away from me so I can’t see her face, just a mop of thick blonde hair that smells of expensive hair products and cigarette smoke tumbling across her pillow and onto mine. She has a lovely face, I remember that much at least.
If I knew the stranger’s name I might be bold enough to stroke her hair, I must have asked for her name last night before I kissed her, but the tequila shots have washed it clean away. This behaviour is very unlike me, I have never had a one-night-stand before and I can’t wait for Harri’s reaction when I tell them the story later.
Seeing as I’m unable to move I scan the room, searching for clues about who she is. It’s an impressive bedroom, a loft conversion complete with en-suite bathroom. There is a chaise longue underneath the window piled high with clothes. The bed itself is made of soft, white leather. Real leather. There are no books, no photographs, nothing on the walls apart from a snazzy TV. She’d got us both a bottle of mineral water before we went to sleep last night, rather than a glass of tap water. She’s not troubled by single use plastics. I run the fingers of my free hand along the grooves of the bed and decide the stranger must be rich and at least in her mid-thirties, maybe older. The leather makes me suspect a meat eater. She is not my usual type. I’m having a flashback to last night, the two of us laughing together as I pull off her white lacy knickers and fling them over my shoulder. Another surprise is I don’t feel any embarrassment or regret.
A black and white cat pokes its head into the bedroom and pads over to the bed, jumping up and curling around the stranger’s head. I reach my free hand out to stroke the cat’s chin and spot a name tag attached to its collar with the word Dorothy inscribed on it. I tickle her chin and scratch between her ears making her purr loudly. The stranger and I must both like cats, so we have that in common at least, although what queer woman doesn’t?
The stranger stirs in her sleep and my numb arm is finally released from its trap. She shrugs the duvet away and I notice she has a large tattoo on her left shoulder and upper back. Very carefully, I move the duvet slightly so I can see the tattoo. It’s a mixture of metallic blues and greys, and I make out a woman’s face blending into a sphere that looks like a planet. I wonder what it means.
The stranger must have sensed me awake behind her as she gives a little sigh, rolls over and opens her eyes. The cat, disturbed by her movement, jumps off the bed and stalks out again.
‘Morning Dorothy’ she says in the cat’s direction before registering my presence. Her face is just as pretty as I remember, her eyes dark with smudges of yesterday’s makeup. She blinks and looks surprised to find me wide awake and looking at her.
‘Oh hey there, you’re still here.’
She isn’t smiling. Oh no. Does she want me to leave?
I nod and hesitantly lean in to kiss her on the mouth, but she turns her head away so I peck her cheek instead.
‘I haven’t brushed my teeth,’ she says then gets up and goes into her en-suite, closing the door behind her. Was that my cue to go home? If I leave now then I will probably never see her again. I’m surprised at how much I want to see her again. What is it I am drawn to? It isn’t her money or even her looks, there is a chemistry between us I haven’t felt before. It’s intense. There is something both vulnerable and dangerous about her that I want to uncover, I can feel it in her energy now and I sensed it last night. Harri always says I have superior intuition.
The stranger is in the bathroom for a while so I move over to her side of the bed, resting my head in the same warm groove she’d recently departed, trying to feel her essence some more. She eventually comes out wearing a white dressing gown and smelling of toothpaste and roses and I shift back over to let her in.
‘You can put the TV on you know, you don’t have to lie here in silence.’ The stranger leans over and picks up the TV remote, flicking through a million Sky channels on her wall-mounted flat screen. I get the sense she’s not a morning person.
It would be bold of me to kiss her, I feel the urge to, but am self-conscious now she has brushed her teeth and I haven’t. I go to her en-suite and give my teeth a good brush with her toothbrush. I was sure she wouldn’t mind seeing we spent most of last night swapping saliva.
I splash cold water on my face and then, just in case, wash between my legs too. She doesn’t have a spare dressing gown for me so I attempt to walk back to the bed as gracefully as I can while stark naked, but manage to trip over her handbag and have to catch myself on the side of her chest of drawers. She giggles and I dive back into the bed red-faced.
‘What’s your name again?’ she asks me. Her voice is lilting and northern, still husky with sleep. I’m glad she asked first.
‘That’s a pretty name.’
‘Thank you. What’s yours? I’m sure you told me last night but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.
‘Is that short for Rachel?’
‘It’s my surname.’
‘What’s your first name?’
She looks at me and frowns.
‘Why do you need to know?’
I blink, surprised at the tension in her voice.
‘I guess I don’t.’
She smiles and the awkwardness dissipates.
‘Everyone calls me Rae.’
‘Good morning Rae.’
‘Good morning Elodie.’
Her lip curls slightly in a way that’s hard to read.
‘Who is everybody?’ I ask her.
‘You said everybody calls you Rae.’
‘Oh. The guys at my work.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a Regional Sales Director for a Merchant Bank.’
I have no idea what this means but it sounds impressive. I want to ask her more about her job but she’s moving to get out the bed.
‘I’m starving. Want a bacon sandwich?’
I shake my head, ‘No thanks, I’m veggie.’
‘Oh,’ she says shrugging. ‘Cup of tea then? Or toast?’
I don’t want tea and toast, I want to have sex with her again. What has happened to me? Yesterday I woke up in my tiny bedroom having not slept with anyone for over a year, and today I wake up with the raging horn next to a mysterious, northern goddess. Sod it, I’m going for it. I lean forward and kiss her softly on the lips.
At first she keeps her eyes closed and doesn’t respond to my kisses but she doesn’t pull away either. I run my finger through her hair, then untie her dressing gown cord and slip it off her shoulders, pulling her towards me so our breasts are pushed together. Hers are smaller than mine, and feel so sexy up against me I’m tingling with desire.
She starts to move her lips against mine, responding to my kisses. I reach down, desperate to touch her, but she wriggles away.
‘Oy,’ she said, but not unkindly and strokes a stray bit of my hair behind my ear. I feel warm inside from the unexpected tenderness.
‘How do you have your tea?’
It was going to be hard work to try and seduce her again, I decide to give up for the time being.
‘Do you have anything herbal?’ I ask her. I don’t usually drink caffeine.
She looks surprised. ‘You want a spliff?’
I burst out laughing. ‘Herbal tea.’
‘Oh right’ she says, as if she’s never heard of herbal tea. She was from up north, maybe they didn’t drink it up there. ‘No’.
‘Just as it comes then,’ I say, not wanting to be difficult.
Rae ties her dressing gown cord up tightly and leaves the room. It is tempting to have a little poke around her things to see if I can learn anything more about her but I resist the urge and turn the TV over to Sunday morning politics instead.
Rae is soon back holding a tray with two cups of tea, a bacon sandwich for her and white toast for me.
‘Wow breakfast in bed, I could get used to this.’
Rae raises her eyebrows as if to say ‘don’t get yourself too comfortable’ and climbs back into bed.
‘So you work in finance?’
‘What’s it like?’
‘Male dominated and lots of cocaine.’
‘Wow. I’m not sure I would enjoy working in that kind of envirnment.’
Rae shrugs, ‘Oh they’re harmless really. I prefer men to women.’
This was a strange thing for her to say with a naked woman lying next to her.
‘Are you bisexual then?’
‘I don’t like labels.’
Fair enough, many people don’t.
‘Why do you prefer men to women?’
Rae looks at me thoughtfully, licking tomato ketchup from her top lip.
‘Men are simple creatures with simple needs. Most of the men I know just want to have a laugh and have a bit of banter. Women ask too many questions and are a lot more dangerous and unpredictable.’
‘You think women are more dangerous that men?’ I asked, surprised.
She smiles at me wolfishly, ‘Yup. In my experience anyway.’
I carefully finished my toast, taking care not to get any crumbs on Rae’s pristine bed. She’s scrolling through her phone, giving off a vibe she’s not so keen to chat any more.
‘I’d like to see you again, Rae. Can I take your number?’
She looks up from her phone and frowns at me.
‘Sorry, Elodie, it’s been fun but I’m not up for meeting up again.’
Her directness is hurtful and feels like a slap in the face. I know my pride should make me get up and leave but the pull I feel towards her is too strong.
‘Why? I think we could have a lot of fun together. I’d like to get to know you more.’
‘I’m sorry Elodie, I don’t do dating.’
‘Well maybe you could give it a try, just one date surely can’t be so bad?’
Rae sighs, then gets out of bed and goes to peer out of the window. She seems agitated.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way but you seem really nice. Really normal. You wouldn’t want to be involved with someone like me.’
Someone like her? Whatever she was worrying about I couldn’t imagine it was anything too terrible.
‘You don’t know that unless you give me a chance. I’d like to know what has happened to make you think that way. Maybe I could help you.’
This was all getting a bit deep for a Sunday morning and Rae fidgets uncomfortably.
‘I am, I have…’ she begins.
‘I have issues.’
I laugh, ‘that’s okay. It makes life interesting.’
‘I think someone is following me.’
‘Oh God, nobody. It doesn’t matter.’
‘You have a stalker?’
That sounded feasible. Rae could pass for a celebrity.
Rae doesn’t answer and we are silent for a moment.
‘What have you got to lose by having one date?’ I ask eventually.
Rae laughs. ‘You’re quite persistent aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I suppose I am. I want to know all about you and your past.’
‘You really don’t. It will give you nightmares.’
Rae gestured for me to pass my phone to her and I tried to feign nonchalance as she keyed in her number. Ridiculous really, it was a bit late for me to start playing it cool.
‘I’ll be off now then’ I said, pulling on my clothes. Rae was smiling. My God she’s beautiful. She even let me lean in to kiss her goodbye.
It was impossible not to swagger as I left Rae’s flat and turned the corner to walk home along the seafront. There was nobody around so I couldn’t help but jump up in the air and kick my heels together in a little bell kick. As soon as I’d done so I sensed someone had seen me, I turned around to catch a woman outside Rae’s apartment watching me with interest. I blushed and scurried away.
Sheffield. 19 May 2000
‘Taramasalata, taramasalata, taramasalata.’
Grace’s eyes were closed beatifically as she spoke in tongues to the Lord. She was clearly putting it on because Symon spoke in tongues at last Friday’s church group, making it a thing. Symon and the church leaders smiled at Grace encouragingly while I surreptitiously checked my watch and felt squirmy with embarrassment.
The church organisation I go to is called ‘Second Chance’ and we are what’s known as charismatic Christians. We sing, pray and have the Holy Spirit pass through us. I’m a sucker for endorphins and found it all very exciting when I was a young teenager, but as I’ve got older I’ve began to feel more uncomfortable about what the Second Chance leaders were teaching us.
This Friday Symon was leading the debate on whether HIV and AIDS were God’s punishment to gay men. There was an ice cube of unease in my stomach as he proclaimed that God couldn’t have given a clearer message that homosexuality, drug taking and sex outside marriage were sinful, as these were the people He had afflicted the disease on.
‘Accepting homosexuality is just another dangerous comfort blanket,’ Symon was saying, ‘we may think we are being kind towards these misguided souls but by telling them their actions are normal and acceptable, but by condoning their disregard for God’s will we are setting them up for damnation.’
My best friend Grace and Symon both work at Second Chance by providing free bibles and spiritual counselling to vulnerable adults such as drug addicts and the homeless. The strapline was ‘Better a bible than a blanket,’ the idea being it is better for a homeless person to freeze to death having found God, than remain an atheist who is warm and alive.
One night I’d asked Symon why they couldn’t provide both bibles and blankets to homeless people, but all I got was a pitying look and a lecture from Grace that I’d completely missed the point.
Tonight Grace was earnestly leading the subsequent prayer, thanking God for his never-ending compassion, but Symon’s talk had unsettled me.
We queued up to have the Holy Spirit pass through us but as usual I felt nothing, God never wanted to reveal himself to me and I was the only one from church who hadn’t yet spoken in tongues.
‘I’ve got something exciting to tell you,’ Grace whispered to me as we moved to the church annexe for singing.
Symon and the team at Second Chance need a house-keeper for the centre. They have all been praying about it. Anyway guess whose name came up?’
Grace looked offended, ‘no of course not, I can’t be a house-keeper I’m the Vulnerable Adults Co-Ordinator.’
‘Oh. Who then?’
‘You silly! We all think it would be a perfect fit for you. Especially as you would finally be able to move out of home.’
I thought about Grace’s offer. Second Chance was based at an impressive fifteen bedroom mansion in fifty acres of land on the north side of Sheffield. As lovely as it was, I had no interest in cleaning it for free. I’d much rather rent my own place.
The couple who set up Second Chance, who comically happened to be called Mary and Joseph, had recruited a team of volunteers from various church groups to renovate the building and turn it into a space to run Christian workshops and retreats. Their aim was for everyone to leave having been born again into the Christian faith. They’d both given up work and lived in an apartment within the main building with their twelve-year-old twin sons. Apparently their apartment was the first section to get renovated by the volunteers and was pretty plush, but I’d never been allowed up there.
‘I don’t want to be a house-keeper.’
Grace looked surprised, ‘why not?’
‘Well, for starters I won’t get paid.’
‘You get free food and accommodation, you don’t need any money.’
‘I don’t really want to live in a Christian commune.’
Grace scowled at me, ‘it’s not a commune, it’s a worship centre. The work is so rewarding, you would love it Amber and we would get to live together for the next year while which would be really fun.’
‘I think I’ll pass.’
This seemed to infuriate Grace.
‘Golly goodness Amber. You are just bone idle. I can’t believe you would dismiss such an amazing opportunity without even praying about it.’
Grace always said ‘golly goodness’. I think she thought it sounded cute.
‘Shall we go out and do something fun tomorrow evening?’ I asked her, to change the subject. ‘We could go and see a film or have tea and drinks at the Forum?’
‘I’m running Saturday club with Symon,’ Grace said shortly.
‘After that? We could go for a meal in town?’
‘I’ll ask Symon if he fancies it.’
‘I was thinking it could be just me and you, a girls’ night.’
Grace was looking at me, tilting her head with a slight frown.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Where’s that top from?’
Since beginning my barmaid job at the Posthouse Hotel, I could afford to buy myself some decent clothes and I’d hoped Grace would notice.
‘Oh, I thought you must have picked it up at a charity shop or something, it’s very strange.’
‘I like it,’ I said defensively, knowing it was unlikely I would wear it again. I decided to persist with persuading Grace to hang spend time with me tomorrow, I didn’t want to spend my birthday weekend alone.
‘We could even go to a club or something, it would be fun to hang out outside of church?’
Grace looked doubtful. ‘A nightclub?’ she said, wrinkling her nose. ‘I’ve caught Symon’s cold, I don’t think I should be going to a nightclub.’
Grace said it proudly, as though harbouring Symon’s germs was a great honour.
‘Don’t worry, forget it, it was just an idea.’
Grace had obviously lost track of the date, she would probably be embarrassed when she realised.
I didn’t feel like staying at church with Grace any longer so decided to pass the time by walking home rather than catching the bus, leaving the leafy suburb of Fulwood and its big gardens, fancy cars and Conservative voters and walking down towards the more modest terraced houses of Crookes where I’ve lived all my life.
As I walked I had the creepy feeling that someone was following me, hiding in the shadows and peering out at me between trees and bus stops. I primed myself to do a karate chop if anybody grabbed me from behind but when I turned around there was nobody there. Perhaps it was God himself, reminding me He was always watching.