Summer had turned to September and so it was time for my mother to bring a new man home. I could hear him on the other side of the wall, but his breathing didn’t give much away about his personality. On the other hand, I could hear my mother’s whole soul by listening to her sleep. She had a spectacular snore. It evaded every obstruction, rumbling across our house and, I imagined, through the thin walls to the neighbours next door. Sometimes I thought the whole road could hear her, and I imagined myself as one of a long row of neighbours in a line of beds, all of us tense and silent, waiting for the beginnings of my mother’s next note. She lived her whole life with the same fervour as that snore. Her bedside drawer was full of disposable leopard-print earplugs for her suitors, and condoms that she ordered in bulk from Amazon, an empty teabag nestled among them that she’d filled with lavender stolen from the neighbour’s hedge and a few drops of vanilla essence. I checked the contents of this drawer throughout my childhood, fingering the sharp foil packets, squeezing the earplugs small and stretching them back out again. Love was in that drawer, and sex, and these are the only two things in the world that have ever interested me.
My father left when I was nine. He had another family kept tidily hidden an hour’s drive up the motorway, and when the two women found out about each other, the other one forgave him and my mother did not. After this she told me very clearly that she was done with men in a serious way, but she knew herself well enough that she could not do without some male attention from time to time. ‘Is that okay?’ she asked me, the only time the question was ever posed. I didn’t really understand but I nodded and said, ‘Okey-dokey,’ which was the way I agreed to serious matters at the time. She kept her promise. She found her niche with men on the brink of divorce and brought one home for about three months each year, usually just after summer, when sun and skin convinced them to stray. She liked big, sad men. She took care of them for this brief confused time in their lives and then, more often than not, sent them back to their wives in time for Christmas, both exhausted and refreshed by her kindness and her coldness. I didn’t mind the men. They sat at the kitchen table and stared at me as I ate cereal, smiling to themselves and blinking a lot, like someone who couldn’t believe their luck and had to keep checking they weren’t dreaming.
Since I’d finished school, I’d been working in a cafe in town called The Tea Room. It was in the basement floor of a failing shopping centre that had been there for decades. A jazzier, shinier American-style mall had been built on the other side of town, with a cinema and a fancy burger place, the kind where they sealed the two buns with a toothpick to contain the overflowing contents, and an H&M. I never saw anyone I knew at work, which suited me.
One morning I was on the opening shift alone, and had to be in by eight. I pulled on my white work shirt from the back of the chair, and rolled up the sleeves to hide the ketchup stains at the cuffs. I found the tights where the ladders were highest up, with only a hidden, gaping hole across my left butt cheek. I stuffed my shirt into them, then pulled on my elasticated black skirt that held in my belly and just covered my crotch. I sprayed myself all over with Impulse deodorant, a scent I had decided was my signature. It was called Vanilla Musk. I probably associated it with my mother’s sex drawer, though I did not make this connection at the time. I covered my skin and neck in a BB cream that I’d bought a few shades dark to try and make myself look tanned, striped some glittery bronzer across my bones, rubbed rose Vaseline into my cheeks and lips and then ran a mascara wand through my eyelashes until they came together in dramatic clumps. My hair was greasy, and I pulled it into an aggressive topknot that elevated my eyebrows into two quizzical arches. I glared at myself in my mirror. I blew myself a kiss. I turned to the side, sucked in my stomach and pushed out my bum, following the curves with my hands, undulating them like little fins.
I didn’t know what I was doing but I figured it would be attractive to someone, this aquatic dance, this bare and bold admiration. I loved looking in the mirror. When I looked at myself it was like I couldn’t think at the same time. I was all body in there, enclosed in the glass, like a girl in a peep show. I didn’t even care if I was beautiful or not, it was a body to look at, and it was mine, and I could move it in so many interesting ways. It was a secret life I led in the mirror. I joined in with the other girls at the pub when we discussed our faults, girls much more beautiful than me complaining about jutting bones in their noses or thin lips, but I didn’t really believe what I was saying or agreeing with. All I had to do was imagine the mirror girl, like a mistress I kept secret, average and willing, brimming with unfulfilled desire.
My shopping centre, and I thought of it as mine, was a ten-minute walk from my house, straight past the shuttered high street with the DIY store, the newsagent, the pharmacy, the launderette, the bakery, the pub. It was one of the first cold days, the light white and crisp, full of back-to-school possibility, the return of order after the summer chaos. I was eighteen. I felt thrilled by the lines September drew, even though nothing tangible was going to change in my life that year. I liked the feeling of expectancy anyway, all tucked up inside me.
I unlocked the centre doors with my set of keys, feeling grand and important, like I always did opening up, like one of those businessmen or minor celebrities cutting a ribbon with a huge pair of scissors. The centre was silent, the beige floor freshly waxed, a smell hanging in the air like chlorine. Only some of the panel lights had been switched on, the rest came on at eight. I walked past the dark bowling alley, the neon lights of the two arcade games still flashing. Sometimes I saw girls coming out of there because the owner was a creep who let anyone stay over for a lock-in, served pitchers of warm beer to thirteen-year-olds if they popped a button on their shirts when they leaned over to tie up their squeaky clown shoes. Someone was turning the lights on in the ancient greeting-card place, which had recently undertaken new management and started selling penis pasta and sashes that read things like bridal slut alongside the teddy bears and fake flowers. I drifted past the clothing store that had shown the same stock for twenty years, shapeless V-necks and slacks with diamanté belts, and then the kiosk where the blonde woman sold chocolate-covered strawberries, expertly dipping half-mouldy fruit into a stout chocolate fountain, handing them over to horny-looking men who practically ran home, their berries squishing in the box. But no one else was around that early.
The pet shop was dark, too. It was right opposite the cafe so I knew its rituals, its timings, as well as ours. He never switched the lights on before ten. I took the opportunity to creep up close to the window. There sat the joy of the shopping centre, what I thought of as its secret heart. A white rabbit. Her hutch took up the whole of the window, by far the finest display in the centre. Stuck to the exterior glass were two posters showing a slimy-haired magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat by the ears. The posters were faded, giving them the look of an old romantic film, and the pictured rabbit was small, fluffy and bright-eyed compared to the real rabbit behind the glass, who was larger with a glazed expression that made her seem as though she was always caught in the centre of a sigh. She did not look as though she would take kindly to being stuffed into a hat, or being pulled out of it by her long, silky ears. There were star stickers adhered to the glass too, and the marvellous magical f . . . written across the window in cheap red print that looked like lipstick. Often I thought it looked like something the rabbit had written on the window herself, like a cheap joke after a one-night stand. I had never been into the store, though I watched the rabbit often, and appreciated the novelty of the pet shop man’s commitment to her story, as an ageing celebrity past her prime. The rabbit had become imbued with this story for me: the way she shuffled through her sawdust, seeming to shrug, her bright red eyes aloof and seductive at once, her languid napping schedule, the way she nibbled at her lettuce, like a woman who’d been on a diet for fifty years. She wouldn’t have looked out of place with a cigarette tucked beneath her two long teeth, her water bowl swapped for the fizzing yellow of champagne. ‘Darling, I’m simply exhausted,’ I imagined her saying when she shuffled along sleepily to settle in one corner or another. She was somewhat famous in town. Kids with no hope of affording pets came to watch her for hours while their mothers blew on cups of tea at our tables, their eyes glued to phones, taking advantage of the free wifi. The children watched the rabbit with such hope in their eyes, but the pet shop man gave them nothing back for their devotion. There was a sign in the window in big black print demanding one child at a time, and if one brave kid dared go in to try and stroke her, I’d hear the pet shop man’s voice, sudden and bellowing from the dark of the shop: ‘No Buying, No Looking.’ So the kids stayed outside. I knew he still saw them, because whenever a crowd gathered he’d stumble over to the hutch, his hunk of a shadow hovering, and shove the rabbit around like some food on his plate he didn’t want to eat. He’d growl her name, the one he’d surely christened her with, Fatty or Fucking Fatty, when he cleaned up her neat pellets with a doggy bag, always loud enough for the kids and me to hear.
I’d only ever seen one brave girl protest his style of care, early in the summer. She had two tight braids and a voice high with a belief in justice when she called out: ‘Can’t you be a little more gentle with her?’ There was such a sweetness in the choice of the word gentle. It made me feel nauseous. I moved into the cafe door to watch, pretending to wipe the glass. The pet shop man picked up Fatty in one heavy palm, lifted her to the height of the girl’s head beyond the window, so the two were eye to eye, and then let the rabbit fall straight to the floor. She landed with a soft woomph back in the dust, her hair billowing around her like a ball gown. ‘Fuck you!’ the girl shouted out. But the kids all scattered, screaming with laughter, when the pet shop man bounded towards the door. It was the first time I’d ever seen him enter the shopping centre’s unforgiving fluorescent light, and it was only for a second before he disappeared back into his dark store. He had a name, and I know it, but for the sake of the story I prefer to call him the pet shop man. I’ve remembered him in so many ways. I’ve made him beautiful, disgusting, old, young, but my favourite costume to dress him in is the skeleton that was hung from the ceiling in my science class in Year 9, the one Lucinda Bailey was dared to give a lap dance to and did. I always remember that dumb joke of a skeleton as Lucinda rode him in a performance that stunned the boys into silence. It’s the most harmless form of a human I can summon, that loose skeleton, that stupid puppet of bones.
I set up the cafe that morning, following the same routine I always did, unstacking the chairs, wiping the tables, turning on the coffee machine and brushing the encrusted grinds free, changing the toilet roll and squeezing blue bleach in the toilet, clicking on the Spring Linen plug-in air fresheners. This all took about twenty minutes of my allotted set-up hour. The rest of the time I spent making myself an elaborate coffee that included hot chocolate powder, caramel syrup and a layer of marshmallows that formed a pink skin across the surface. Then I slowly and leisurely cleaned the front windows, climbing on the chairs to reach the corners, and I waited for the pet shop man to appear in the window to watch me.
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