Because I am stupid.
Because I like to be in balance with some risk of scarring
I hitchhike to wherever and back every Wednesday night. Each time I wear my pink hoodie from Bath Spa (2009 Paris Survivors!) so that my body, found in some ditch, mudded and cut, will be easier to trace.
Because they might find me naked, I also write my name along the inside of my elbow in pricked red letters. The pathologist would spot these as he inched his light across skin blackened by fist impact, rope pinch, belt beat. Perhaps strangled by hand, or with my own hair, which is just long enough. I know this because I’ve tried.
Of course, the flesh-writing is tenuous. I might be burnt to ash or eaten by pigs. I’d like to watermark my bones, but can’t think how to manage radiation, insert microchips. But I’ll get there in the end. Be a fast turnaround, between their sandwich bites, emails, detachment. An apology for my foolishness. For taking such a risk.
The first car to stop was dirty red, the driver so very old. As I opened the door, the action illuminated his pullover, irregular swirls of primary colours. How could I be scared of this? A run-over paint box. An off-duty clown.
The engine was quiet yet throaty. His hair thin. ‘Got any bags?’
‘Only one.’ I showed him my stripy tote, name and address sewn, discreetly, into the lining. ‘You going far?’
‘Up the line some.’
I was already in, buckling the belt. My ride clicked his tongue, as though urging on a horse, and then said, ‘So. How long’ve I got you for?’
‘I’m not sure.’ My phone was flashing. ‘Let’s find out.’
Because I am lonely.
Because worst cases are statistically more unlikely than best-plus-fine-plus-I-can-cope.
Because I want and because everyone else wants their wants met
I joined an online dating site. The profile I wrote is measured and playful in turns. It offers some superficial insights into my character (well-travelled; novel reader; slow-running pasta fan; nail varnish addict heh) with a hopefully judicious use of emoticons, smiling and winking as I welcome, encourage, dissuade.
My profile picture is from the Christmas party. A glass of fizz, a half-smile in my blue dress. I’ve tweaked it, of course, with a filter makes my eyes fake-bluer, but my body, when scrutinised in this dimension, appears more-or-less accurate in its curves and flounces. I want these lines evinced, not outlined. Someone once said I’m a better-in-the-flesh girl, and flesh is all I have, really. When you get down to the meat.
Because I am often smaller.
Because I cannot punch without breaking knuckles
I do this when running in the woods. The track is narrow, mudded and tyre torn, with hopping-stones and roots that ask for leaping. When he comes, (and there is always a he-who-comes), we will exchange a lip curl, a nod, and I’ll run on, bass line pounding in my headphones, curtailing the animal sense that manifests in pricklespine and hairline creeping. Then, six to eight paces on, I do it, that thing, that action, the same quick-flick, behind-you check cyclists are taught for when they change lanes. The lifesaver glance.
And because I am stupid—repeat-it stupid—the one time I should have kept running I stopped. Turned back. Because he had also stopped. Had something metal in his hand, half-hidden up his sleeve.
I removed one of my earbuds. Snapped at him. ‘What’ve you got there?’
He showed me. Long blades. Red handles. Scissors.
Because I nodded and ran on without running away. I’d actually wanted to wait, to give him time to speak, to describe what was happening so I could process the silver flash, the handle colour. Weigh up the best outcome. We’d needed to connect more, perhaps some light chat about possibilities.
Plus I’d wanted to know where the knife was. Keep my eye on the prize.
I’ve since worked out he was stealing holly to make Christmas wreaths. Because it must have been winter. I remember thinking my fingerless gloves would have helped me grab at the blade. And it must have confused him. Maybe he went home and told his wife about the strange woman in the wood. How she had frightened him with her pounding approach, her holly-sharp question. Her lip-curled hello and goodbye.
Coffee with KrunchyPB001 was going well. He had bright teeth, clean nails, and hadn’t spat his cake into my hair or mentioned a ‘Muslim crisis’. As for me, I was soon doing that leg-curl thing—part bent up, part tucked under—that’s been my body’s way of signalling attraction since I was fifteen. I tilted my head. Pushed back my hair.
Because it doesn’t matter what we are talking about, as long as it is not disagreeable. I can keep going for hours in the vein of light interest, gentle mockery. The drier spots of my life’s stepping stones are pointed out. The murky, stickleback-nibbled depths are not. Because we are trying to impress. Because we have the right to edit our pasts. Because not everything that I have done, or had done to me, is relevant to the person I am at this moment, leg-curled in a coffee shop.
I tune back in: ‘So it’s been about three years now, and I’m still as keen. Getting better all the time.’
Some sporting pursuit. A clean kit for Thursday nights. A pint with the lads. Etcetera.
‘And I stopped using the books and just chuck it all in now. I’m well known for it. Expensive knives. Coriander.’
Some cookery skills. An interest to be shared. Pride in preparation. Etcetera.
Because it’s all just health (exercise, good food) and confidence (education, job) but never the moments written in tiny letters, redly, on the inside of a limb. He, whoever he is at this point, will pay for our coffees and I will pay for our next. He will demur. Someone will concede. And our secret information remains covered.
This is the definition of politeness.
Because this isn’t meant to hurt.
It was my first lorry. Long distance driver, typically tubby but sweet-smelling. A picture of a horse in a silver frame on dashboard. Loose hands on the wheel, loose questions to pass the time. I’d climbed three steps to enter his kingdom. It made me feel safe.
‘Music?’ He stabbed a finger at the stereo, and I saw a cut on the back of his hand, raised like a cat-scratch. ‘You pick.’
I fiddled with buttons, but didn’t press anything. ‘What do you like?’
A nothing reply, coffee-tongue worthy. There was no coffee here. ‘Do you really like everything?’
‘Prefer the quiet, truth be told.’
‘Yeah.’ I got that. I really did. A smooth rumble massaged my bones. It would have been a shame to hide it under beats and the failings of a flawed lyric. ‘Let’s leave it off and talk.’
‘What do you want to talk about?’
I leant my head back, kicked off my boots. Brought my knee up to my chest.
Because he lied about signs.
Because scissors are everywhere.
Because I am free Wednesday, I decide to meet
DarkSky00, five feet eleven, council worker, team sports and cooking. He had wanted take me for pizza, but I never agree to mealtime durations. Exit routes need to be kept clear. After some smiley-icon lying from me he’d agreed to tea and cake, placeholder ideas that realised into a glass of wine for him and a coffee for me.
‘It’s not that I have anything against her. It’s just she didn’t tell me why.’
His marriage, ended in shattered glass and bare feet. His need to talk about it. I didn’t mind. There was no harm here, in this lack of attraction. Motorbike admiration. Questions of helmet safety. A road with clear white lines to follow.
‘So I am having fun just getting out there. What do you like to eat? Curry?’
‘It’s just that my ex was sensitive to spices. We ate a lot of bland food.’ He had another wine. I stirred my cold coffee, thought about the phone in my pocket. Plenty More Men, tapping at the glass. They have eclectic taste in music. They like my pics, my pix, my picks.
I brought my cup to my lips, poked my tongue into the settled dregs. I thought it’d be bitter, but it’s actually not bad.
‘Do you want another?’
‘Oh no, thank you. I’ll be climbing the walls. Shall we go?’
Cheeks pink and lightly sweating. Tight tuck of shoulders as he slid the leather back on. Bent for a kiss. Took two.
I used to pat these men on the arm when I said goodbye, promising to have a think before I got in touch. I don’t do that any more—the patting, I mean. It seemed a little unkind, as I am usually writing their but-I’ll-think-you’ll-agree brush-offs in the car park. Quick and clean.
Because it won’t hurt as long as I say it doesn’t hurt. And that goes for them as well.
Lawrence drove either a black or dark green Volkswagen. Hard to tell in the orange light, in the drizzle that made the streets shine like polished glass. As I opened the door he was brushing the seat free of McDonald’s straws and Twix wrappers, knocking them into the foot well. ‘Cleaner’s day off.’
I laughed. ‘She’s a lazy cow. She’s been promising to do my kitchen floor all week.’
‘Don’t know why we put up with it.’
‘Shall we fire her?’ My boots, solid soles good for running away, for kicking at fists and faces, crunched plastic packets, found a soft something that could have been the crust of a pie.
‘Perhaps.’ He exhaled, and I smelt his sour-belly breath. ‘But then we’d have to do it all ourselves. And we’re too messy, aren’t we? We sleep in dirty sheets.’
I wore a different dress when I met HolderPZ, one that slipped from the shoulder and showed my bra strap. I hiked it up, said hello, wondered aloud about the merits of the long black over the americano, and for five minutes he wouldn’t meet my eyes. I wasn’t bothered. I’d had shaky-hand starers, dribble-lip coughers, open-mouthed mannequins and tight-smile haters. He’d settle down.
In the meantime, I made the most of looking. A lithe man in heavy cotton shirt, expertly pressed. Light eyes that trickled over my body then slid to the corners of the room. A watcher, then. A weigher. Maybe money, maybe not, but a whiff of status. That confidence that comes with good shoes. When we finally, fully looked at each other something hiccupped in my gut.
‘So how’s the dating treating you?’ This as he picked out a brown sugar lump from the bowl. ‘Are you having fun?’
‘Everyone’s been very nice. But, you know.’
‘Yes. Sometimes I think we’re in a holding pattern.’ He crunched the sugar between his front teeth, gave a granulated smile, then found a way to compliment my hair.
I bought the second coffee and started my routine—hobbies to siblings to taste in film—but he wouldn’t let me lead, wanted to know about me. Answers led to more questions, and I became aware of a version of myself manifesting between us. She was big-smiler, socially alive, sexually assured, and her skin was covered in red letters, descriptions of what she did for work, her home routines and thought patterns. How living alone pleases. Favourite drink, best name for a dog if she owned one. All of those individualities. She was colouring herself in, arms up over her head as though being stroked, being undressed.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I have to take this call.’ He patted my arm. ‘Shall we have a think and message?’
Sandy didn’t know it, but he was taking me home. I’d mentioned meeting friends at The Harvester, as I could walk it once he’d pulled away, probably giving that two-beep salute that makes me wince. All those babies, once deeply asleep. But for now he was happy prattling, making a life for me out of his own impressions, his resonant experiences.
‘I expect you’re one of them artists, aren’t you? Pulling plastic bottles out of the recycling and making puppets with them.’
I knew a girl who use to do that. She ended up on heroin and her feet smelt so bad they wouldn’t see her in the bank. Kicked her out.’
‘That’s very sa—‘
‘That’s what you get when you don’t pay your council tax.’
After this Sandy lost me, somewhere in the rumblings of his stomach (skipped his tea for me, didn’t he) and the mutterings into his not-sandy beard. The white lines were yellowing. The edges overgrown and blurred by shadows.
‘You’re a beautiful girl,’ he said at last. ‘You shouldn’t be doing this on your own. Where’s your boyfriend?’
A breath like running in the woods. ‘I don’t have one.’
‘No?’ He rubbed at his hairy chin, sending white flakes into the space between us. ‘Why not?’
Because we are not afraid of scissors, and because sometimes we tell the truth, but mostly because he asked, I told him, Sandy-with-the-dark-hair, that I break the skin on the inside of my elbow with the tines of a fork. That I am allergic to kissing. Then Sandy told me about the woman he’d left, her addict life too much, in the end, even through her sobriety. He described her monthly sorrow, the lining up of eggs in the morning, hoping they wouldn’t roll from the counter before she’d dipped them in the sink. ‘Floating is bad,’ he said. ‘Like for them witches.’
Then we had to stop because of workmen building a roundabout. Their hi-vis coats shot laser beams. Sandy dipped his lights. ‘Not much left to do now, surely. Been going on for months.’
‘More like years.’ I picked up my bag from the floor. My phone was glowing. ‘But there’s always something else.’
The Harvester windows were dark, the bar obviously closed, so Sandy insisted on dropping me at my door. ‘Not safe for young ladies,’ he’d said. ‘Never forgive myself.’
He didn’t double-toot; must have known I wouldn’t like it. We’d talked about the quiet, about hiding in houses, about living alone. Waiting for something to happen.
Because it goes like this: double unlock, kitchen light, glass for wine, knife for cheese. Kick off firm-soled boots, check dating app.
Tap, tap on the glass. Tap tap. Let me in.
Over the shoulder, a lifesaver glance.
Because he’s there.
Annabel’s prize-winning writing is published by Litro, The Manchester Review, 3:AM and others. Her current project is novel in the voice of London Bridge, for which she is seeking representation. See annabelbanks.com for more.