She connected best with her body in winter. It was not quite here, but soon, the leaves already fallen and pounded by shoes. Life more night than day, she liked her torso wrapped, candlelight, birds that withheld, car tyres blurting through puddles. She’d picked up a copy of In Cold Blood and managed to read it studiously. Felt, suddenly, that she understood the world. The book made her feel aware of herself, her own breathing, like a genius, the words swept along in her blood’s tidal movements. And if she was a genius, this was the season for it. Mysterious in an ex-boyfriend’s bomber jacket. His thermals, too, she liked the bunching of the crotch against her pelvic bone. She’d also wanted to steal his scarf, which had a smell worth possessing, not out of love but a sense of transference, as if his masculinity was an altar easily prepared.
At work she scrubbed a counter and played over this missed opportunity. He’d been nice enough that he might just have given her the scarf had she asked. She could have framed it as a request for a memento. That would have delighted him. To think of her thinking of him, face pressed into the wool, his fantasies had always been exactly that dull.
It was the beautiful hour before opening. A folded darkness through the cafe’s display windows, she loved to slip between it, turned on only one light in the backroom. Worked happily in the shadows. She took down the chairs, refilled sugar, salt and pepper. It was difficult to see, grains tipped to the floor, she swept them up again. A few people walked past. Commuters. Burrowed into their heavy coats. To them she would appear only in flashes. Maybe they wondered about her.
She checked the time. The first interruption would be the delivery van, bringing imitation French pastries, cakes, breads. The cafe was a franchise, one of plenty in these richer, smaller towns. People wanted things they could only poorly pronounce. If she hurried, and if the driver was on time, there might be a spare five minutes she could use for her book. Otherwise she’d have to wait until her lunch break.
Fingers warmed in her armpits. The heating took at least an hour to make a difference. Double-checked the long, stainless steel coffee machine. Blasted steam out of the tubes that frothed the milk. The needle on the pressure gauge flickered and then steadied.
Heard his horn. He was on time. She took latex gloves from a box, following the freakish hygiene guide given to all employees. With the driver she’d worked out an attitude. Spread her legs slightly, folded her arms across her chest, pulled on her chin as they talked, leaving behind a residue of latex. He was very strong, he carried the plastic trays of baguettes, chocolate tortes, croissants, able to talk all the while. His wingspan twice as big as hers. It drove her crazy. The handsome vein in his neck, eugh, she found and pinched her own. She’d begun a routine of press-ups before her morning showers, an attempt to bring more of herself to the surface. Noticed only the strengthening of her wrists, no thickening, her muscles otherwise unchanged. A success so mild she’d most likely invented it. So she carried the trays with pretend gusto, two, three at a time. Looked down so he would not see the effort across her face.
They finished stacking. That’s it today. He dusted flour from his hands. Thanks. She positioned her body opposite his, liked the small talk. You getting on OK? Yep, ready for spring but it feels miles away. I don’t mind this time of year. He raised his eyebrows. Really? Then yawned like a lion, it was large and alarming, forced her to think of his sleeping habits, how he left his sheets, what time he had to wake up for work. Afterwards he swallowed chunkily. Wrapped his tongue around his front teeth. You must be the only one. He looked up at the sky, no stars, hoping it would prove his point. Faint moonlight moved quick as steam, clouds fast. More rain later. Yeh most likely. Handed her the invoice and opened up the van door. Saluted as he reversed out onto the quiet road.
“She made the sandwiches at speed. Baguettes split and buttered. Nothing French about the vats of margarine.”
She made the sandwiches at speed. Baguettes split and buttered. Nothing French about the vats of margarine. She always tried to continue working in the dark, until she inevitably cut herself, running the bread knife across her fingernail. Brie and cranberry. Wet ham and cheese. From plastic bags she pulled handfuls of rocket like cut hair. Keys turned in the front door and she knew it would be the manager, the atmosphere soon to be spoiled. Crack of the switches, the brutal overhead lights of the cafe came on. Felt the sound of her sigh as the manager appeared in the doorway. Honestly, why do you insist on standing around in the dark? It’s calming. Please, are you serious, it’s work, it isn’t supposed to be calming.
The manager was good-looking and tired. Hair in a tight bun. She would let it down once a day, now, after removing her coat, readjusting, hair-tie between her teeth as she swept it up again, pulling the bun even tighter. The office took up a tiny section of the backroom, next to the giant fridge, opposite the sink and food prep area. It had a lonely computer, ancient, an even lonelier peg for the keys. Only a metre wide, the manager was forced to shuffle inelegantly into her spinning chair, which, if actually spun, would slam her elbows into the wall, her knees into the desk. Once sitting she could hold herself precisely still, cross her legs, let one foot almost slip from her shoe.
She carried the finer cakes to the fridge and set them on stands. Wiped strawberry cream from her sleeve. Arranged beige pastries on a shelf above. They would open shortly. No time to return to her book. The sun arrived low and would stay that way, startling around certain street bends and buildings, reaching the cafe in slow-moving swatches of orange. She turned around the open sign and tightened her blue apron. The book stuck in a grisly locker, the radiators snapping with too much heat. If she was unlucky, her ex-boyfriend would come in, wearing his scarf, and order an espresso sullenly. A drink he didn’t like but insisted upon.
The manager wore ugly heels designed for a much older person, her arches supported. She clacked between the tables. Ready? Ready. The door was unlocked. A few women hovered on the pavement. Still fledgling despite their later years, eyelids patted sky blue, hair daring with streaks of pink. They linked arms, joked melancholically about age. Tried not to rush in once they realised they were allowed. Gazed into the fridges and began calorie counting, fussing over the tables though there were only a few to choose from. Each ordered a cappuccino. She watched them gently drag off the powdered chocolate and lick the spoon. Tore croissants into pieces. Asked for extra jam. Their little routine. The manager returned to the office to scroll through more lists, make her orders, send emails to who knows who.
Truman Capote was nicknamed Bulldog at school. Another thing she wanted for herself, a new piece of her past designed and introduced. To have spent her adolescence enjoying the fact of an angular, tense face, a pouted bottom lip. Named not only for the animal but after a journalist, notebook and pen always in hand, observing, even at eleven.
Another round please! More cappuccinos. One woman peered into the fridge, grey pushed at her pink roots. Maybe something else to eat and why not! Announced to herself, to anybody listening. She smiled, agreed, recommended the small fruit tartlets, only a mouthful after all! Made sure to echo the woman’s grammar. That was how to get tips. The jar sat pathetic by the till. Someone had turned the dot above the i into a smiley face. She fantasised, and weren’t fantasies part of her new genius, about the manager accidentally calling her Bulldog in front of the customers, then blushing, correcting herself. The women took the tartlets, her friends gathered around the plate, oh you shouldn’t have, oh but I did.
Unlike adolescence she was changing because she wanted to. But it seemed so insincere, to only be able to affect the immediate. She might never be a Bulldog. She had never been a Bulldog. She wiped up dribbled milk.
More customers arrived, anxious about space, would they all fit. A group of six, and one more, they chimed, one more will join us. She helped them drag tables together. Young, colleagues, in clean shirts. The weather had turned. They shook umbrellas, a few worked water out of their hair, shivered to make clear they were cold.
Sorry about all that. One broke away and came to the till. Simple make-up, a big mouth. A thick bob forced behind her ears. She knew her. Clouds parted around her face. Cheekbones swallowed a little by time, but still there. Elle. Her name had not been that far away, not really. Elle, who tugged at her collar, reached around to itch her back. Did not seem to recognise her in return, only looked at her expectantly, she wanted to order. Disarmed, she could not announce herself. Spoke slowly, took control of her voice. No problem, no need to be sorry. Really, we’re literally about to order a million coffees, so it will be a problem soon. Honestly, it’s fine. At the centre of Elle’s thumb was a bright bruise, burnt green, her nails bitten short. That word, million, the kind emphasis of it, was a tic from childhood – she betrayed herself. Or maybe Elle knew and sent a message, wanted her to be the one to say it first, to ask the devastating question: remember me?
Elle’s suit was ill-fitting, seams squeezed, one button missing, shoulders transported from elsewhere. Older, there was now the sense of a bear about her, like her humanness could be quickly cast aside. Hard to believe they had once shared a single plastic chair, tried to write their names while holding the same pen. She thought about her own body, the lack of Bulldog, the dire state of having no visible animal.
Elle grinned, made easy eye contact. I guess I’ll get things going, cappuccino please. Sure. In Elle’s presence she felt pathetic. Agreed to the cappuccino and turned her back to make it, grabbing the large white cup, setting down a saucer, feeling a pulse in her lower spine, her tailbone, some murky and resonate piece of skeleton. Hoped that when she moved back to the counter Elle would be gone, lost to her colleagues, all matching from a distance.
Yes, she was back in her chair and did not look up. She chatted to the woman next to her. Both had their palms stuck to their faces. Nodded in turn. Others queued now, asking for their cappuccinos, double shot, single shot, extra chocolate, don’t be shy with the chocolate.
An older woman, part of Elle’s group, clapped her hands. Announced RIGHT, FOOD, make your choices ladies! Waved a silver credit card and winked. Breakfast is on the company!
Safe behind the counter she busied herself. Handed out danishes and palmiers. Remembered Elle’s fine hair, braces. Fine hair but lots of it, braces like snagged starlight, but at school she’d been ashamed of them, sealed her lips, even when smiling. She paused by the coffee machine, pretending to recycle empty milk bottles so she could bend towards the ground and catch her breath. Checked the time. Stalled at 9am. Minutes, seconds, turned solid as sculptures. Hours until an escape, back to her book and her bad men. Capote’s bad men. The dark pleasure of his searching, love bloomed like mould, he made you wait for the murders. She was motivated, infuriated, her opinions soared.
There Elle sat. She listened while another colleague told a long story, a petty scandal in their office. Finally, the punchline. When Elle laughed she rolled back her lips. A bear with perfect teeth. She missed, with a pang, the braces, their slicing shame.
The manager opened the connecting door a crack. Motioned for a coffee. She liked a latte three times a day. It had to be piping hot otherwise she’d request, with great sadness, to have it remade. Once when she was still new she’d tried to reheat it in the convection oven. The tall glass cracked, the milk burned to the machine in brown bubbles. A furious smell. Like torched fur.
More customers. Disappointed at the lack of space. The latte would have to wait. It made her happy, to keep the manager waiting. A man and woman squeezed themselves onto the remaining seats. Huffed, put out by the large group. Wanted tea, wondered why there were no scones, took ham and cheese baguettes. The husband, she noticed the wedding rings, was bossy but tried to hold it back. His expression puckered. Knew where he wanted to sit but insisted his wife decide. She dithered. His trousers hoiked as he lowered himself into a chair. Revealed slumped socks, skinny chapped ankles.
She slowly swept the floor to delay the latte as long as possible. Rain streaked the windows. Her ex-boyfriend’s scarf had been red, as if from a cartoon, wool but softened slightly, like felt. His scent, embedded in the fabric, had been very good. Memorable, high seas and shrubbery, he had money, his cologne international and hard to find. She had tried for a while, in lieu of the scarf, to track it down. When they fucked he’d move her face, believing in eye contact, that he could shift her deeper waters. Did not understand how easily he gave away his own, that he believed in himself, that he was the protagonist in his own, agonising truth. Men knew nothing about masculinity. It thrilled her.
The manager’s face appeared again, she raised an eyebrow, tapped her wrist where there was no watch. One sec. She finished her pointless sweeping, edged the brush into pristine corners. The manager did not like games. Stepped into the cafe. Hissed, it’s clean enough, my latte, if you wouldn’t mind, if I’m not disturbing you. Her high forehead, her height, turned the customers’ heads, she rolled her eyes for their benefit, you just can’t find the staff these days! Elle’s group, her colleagues, nodded empathetically. The manager leaned next to the coffee machine. Watched closely as she warmed the milk gently, packed in the coffee. Took a sip. Not bad. Lifted it to the room, triumphant, as she left.
Elle came to the counter. Ran her eyes along the food, chose nothing. She seems like fun. Very. Always like that? Yeh. She spoke in an exacting whisper. Shoulders bulged beneath her polyester. I know the feeling. With her head made a tiny gesture at the table behind, isolating, she assumed, her own boss, most likely the woman with the silver credit card.
For a second, maybe two, they dared eye contact. There was no hint of a before, only a consideration of the immediate present, Elle chewing her lip, thoughtful. She tensed her forearms, gripped the cracked plastic countertop. You at least spit in it? Oh, there’s never enough time for revenge. Elle snapped her tongue against the roof of her mouth, another piece of her past self that had survived, the small shock of this signal sounding across a decade. No, I suppose there isn’t. Tragic, really. Yeh.
“The manager wore ugly heels designed for a much older person, her arches supported. She clacked between the tables. Ready? Ready. The door was unlocked.”
They had become friends in school unexpectedly. Elle had been gentle. Unlike her. On reflection, she suspected that she herself might have been unnecessarily cruel at fourteen, never outright a bully, but she liked to roam about with the boys, hint at being a slut, and back then, without actual sex, it meant putting other people down. They’d bonded over English. Accidental, not dissimilar to now, shared a look across a room occupied with other business, and in that one look they’d formed a privacy. Held the silence of monks. Solemn, intense. Hadn’t it been during a lesson on First World War poets? Even at fourteen, with a fourteen year old’s scale of disaster, they’d felt it together, the bitterness, the hot blood, bodies bent and blown by chaos. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, hags, sludge and scraggy knees. Boys dead, what was the line, and God would not give them antlers through their curls, nor talons for their feet. She hadn’t forgotten, not really. Until now there had been no reason to remember. Could be her genius had started elsewhere. Sooner. A technicolour found and then abandoned.
Elle returned to her seat. Watchful now, though, she could sense it, eyes down on the table until she turned around to make another coffee, and then she could feel her, tunnelling between the tendons of her neck.
She collected plates, started with the couple, then down towards the larger group. Moved behind Elle’s back, reached over her shoulder to take her empty coffee cup. Actually I’m not quite finished. She put her hand around her wrist, loosely, released her fingers slowly, absentmindedly. Stayed in the conversation that happened around her. She watched Elle’s bruised thumb touch her index finger, then move millimetres north to round her mound of Venus. The table gleefully discussed a colleague’s birthday while she was in the bathroom. Wanted a slice of cake they could sink a candle into. They solicited her suggestions. How about the ganache? Considered it amongst themselves. Fabulous! Perfect! The candle, pink and already used, was handed to her, she was charged with lighting it, with beginning the song. Elle returned her gaze to the tabletop. The woman with the unoriginal voice added AND PUT IT ALL ON THE CARD.
Her genius had led her here. She lay the candle beside the credit card the woman had given to her. Lunch a million miles away. On her haunches, lowered to the cabinet, she cut a piece of the cake. Then cut another, for herself, to be eaten later. She would put it on the card. Did not wear her latex gloves. Dragged her pinky through the cake’s edge, icing piled up, and right there she sucked it clean. Lifted her eyes and saw Elle was back to watching her, this time unafraid, she wanted to be caught. Kept her face placid, as if she had seen nothing. She straightened and watched Elle in return, felt the thud of those solid seconds, twisted pieces of brass knocked her skull, her shoulders. A mouthful of them.
For a while she’d had no memories at all, it took determination, to wipe the slate clean and start again, to feel a self finally rise out of the blankness that had been her life. When her ex-boyfriend came, still inside her, he’d sob softly, as if someone at the foot of the bed had held up an autocue (NOW SOB SOFTLY). She’d felt then, if she’d only clamped her thighs hard enough, that she could remove his dick and keep it for her own. Did all geniuses think like this? The charged altitude of her thoughts. She knew that fantasies lasted, that reality forced them into confession, the nasty sort of eternal, etched into stone. The only place fantasy left a trace was the body. Allowed to change, to breathe, to animal.
Neither she nor Elle gave in. She stood still. Let the watching churn through her chest like a water mill. Thought of antlers sprouted through her curls, talons pushing at the heels of her trainers, the murders that would happen at the end. Ganache in her mouth – it was the most expensive thing you could order, the chocolate they used was virtually a delicacy, gold leaf strayed across the dark surface. The woman emerged from the bathroom. Wiped her hands on her navy blue skirt. The table looked at her urgently, washing out Elle’s stare. Now was the time. She lit the candle. Started the opening notes of Happy Birthday as she walked past the till. Elle, along with the others, looked at the woman, whose hands had sprung to her cheeks, turning left and right, saying you shouldn’t have, really, my goodness, you shouldn’t have, the catchphrase that haunted the cafe. Surrounded by her colleagues who cheered and clapped.
They had kissed only once. Chaste, alone in the classroom, Elle’s braces slashed her bottom lip. The same monastic silence. Love, then, only a mild creature. What do you think, she’d asked afterwards. I guess I would do it again. On the blackboard in front, the names of poets, their ages, their themes. Me too I think. They could not have known that they had been seen, through the square glass set into the door, by the teacher. Everything dealt with in a caring and terrified way. Not like that, they’d insisted through a meeting, it’s not like that, not when you’re older, when you’re old enough you’ll realise. She had stayed at the school and Elle had left that Christmas, in January she was nowhere to be seen. Remembered relief and lust. Did not try to find her and felt no regret. Waited, instead, for the kind of future that had been promised.
The table tucked a million tiny forks into the cake. Closed their eyes in a shared ecstasy. It was finished quickly, chairs dragged across the floor, they had to get back to work, what a shame. The woman studied her bill but did not notice the extra slice. Surprised to find she tipped generously, a note tucked into the jar. Thank you. No, thank YOU.
Elle took her time. Slipped off her jacket with the missing button, dusted the front, put it back on again. Pulled a pen from an inside pocket and scribbled something down on a napkin. The others were already outside, chatting on the pavement. Did not make her eye contact until the final second, looking up from her shoes only inches from the till. Really, thanks for putting up with us. No problem. She grinned again, and how new, how unnerving it was, to see her mouth, those perfect rows of teeth, no glimmering metal. It was nice meeting you. Same. Yeh? She raised an eyebrow. Yeh. Good, that’s good. She glanced out the window at her colleagues, who danced a little in the wind’s chill, absorbed in gossip, husbands, sick days, missing items from the office fridge.
Elle cracked her knuckles. She noticed a ring, thick and gold, around her pinky finger. Elle rolled her shoulders forward. Hunched, receded a little. Took a shallow breath before she spoke. There was no memory of this particular mannerism, but it was surely teenage, a kind of anticipation, toes curled over a cliff-edge.
This is maybe cheesy, and I don’t usually do this, but if you fancied getting a drink sometime, I know a place. Elle twisted the napkin in her hand. Released her shoulders. You seem cool, I wasn’t totally sure, you know? It can be hard to tell. Elle looked at her not with recognition but a strange kind of empathy, her pupils contracted. Elle searched her body like a galaxy, looking for a lesser-known constellation. She tried to return the look, flickered over Elle’s face, but did it too quickly, made it suspicious. Should she just say it now? Announce herself, announce them both, commit each other to stone? Before she could decide, Elle handed over the napkin. She reached out and took it from her. A number written in blue and a looped sentence that read, It’s me, E!
That January, after Elle had left school, hadn’t she seen her a million times? All it took was a particular footstep, a stray hair tucked behind an ear, a certain pitch of laughter. For months afterward, she thought most girls were Elle when they weren’t. She could barely bring herself to look into their faces, did not want to feel the slide of disappointment when she didn’t see what she wanted.
Elle reached over the counter, pointed clumsily at her name. E, it’s what my friends call me, I mean my real friends, I mean they’re not bad people, it’s just work. She wanted to discount her colleagues. Give some sense of another self, the one she had grown into and exceeded. Elle had made a decision. They didn’t have to speak about before, the way things had gone, effortlessly she offered a re-write. E, it suited her. She’d made a new shape for herself.
A drink sounds good. Yeh? Nice one. E bumped her fists, bigger and lovelier, against the countertop. I’m Max, by the way, I don’t think I said. No, you didn’t. She chose her ex boyfriend’s name. Out of her mouth before she could think. It’s been good meeting you, Max. E went to extend her hand and then hesitated. Put it back into a fist. You too, E. She waved instead, despite only standing a couple of feet apart, the counter between them.
E waved back. See you. Max watched her big back move through the door. She paused, held it open and grinned. Don’t forget to call yeh? I won’t. Outside E clapped the back of the nearest colleague. They moved in a slow pack down the street, unhurried despite the rain, conversations unfinished. She hoped she would turn around one last time. Kept her eyes on the window. But E walked out of sight. She turned back to the coffee machine. Would pick a task. Heard the manager swear through the door, the disobedient computer, she pulled down a glass for her second latte. In her mind, she pressed the napkin in the pages of her book, between the introduction’s final words and the first chapter. For now she slipped it into her pocket. Lunch break soon.