I’m sitting on Jessica’s bench looking for men. I’m not fussy so there should be a lot of choice.
It’s hard to pinpoint what does attract me to a man exactly, but I guess ankles would come near the top. It’s that little band of flesh you can spot sometimes between the trouser leg and shoe. Or a sock-covered bump that can be so vulnerable, so suggestive that I have to force myself not to gasp, to rub my finger along a stranger’s curves.
Now a large man is looming over me. I think he must be a football player because he’s dressed in the full Celtic kit.
“You’re a bitch in heat,” he says.
I can’t deny it but does he have to say it so loudly? I’m turning round to see if anyone else can hear when he repeats himself. But this time he talks slowly, very slowly, as if he’s talking to an imbecile.
“Your bitch is in heat.” He points to where my dog is standing, lifting up her leg so a tall thin greyhound can lick her. If dogs can look dreamy, she does. It seems a shame to drag her away, but I can see another dog, less attractive than the greyhound, queuing up for a sniff too.
There are limits, Mata, I whisper as I pick her up, holding her wriggling body tight under my arm as we both make our way out of the park. I can’t help feeling we’re both in disgrace. We’ve been drummed out of polite company. We’re skulking home, thwarted, with our tails between our legs. It’s as if everyone can read what’s going on in our minds.
I once loved a man who had a whole parallel life going on in his mind. It was so happy for him in there. When Tim walked through the door of the pub, people would cheer and buy him drinks. Everyone laughed a lot. He was good at his job too, and was often called away for top-secret meetings with cabinet ministers. Once he had to cancel an evening we’d planned because he was being flown to Washington on Air Force One to give his views on economic development to the president of the United States.
I went along for the ride.
The ride with him. Not to Washington. That was top secret. A mission. He wouldn’t even tell me what happened when he got back. He kept his papers in a locked briefcase in my bedroom cupboard though. I’d stroke it sometimes. Try to read what was inside through the soft grain of leather under my fingers.
I’d find words that way sometimes. Letters would swim up through my fingertips and into my brain and make something whole.
Secret. Me. Special. You. Adviser.
I imagined these in a shiny, curvy script, circling round each other inside the bag, knocking into the leather sides, bumping up against the top until they were released.
It was a perfect relationship. Being the girlfriend of a special adviser is more interesting than being someone who couldn’t pay the rent, and if Tim once thought I was a prostitute paid by Rus- sian spies to satisfy his every need, well, he asked for nothing I wouldn’t have given him anyway. Two
How did you meet?” People always ask you this when you became part of a couple. It’s throat-clearing, before they get to the really inter- esting stuff, which normally involves what they think about things, or how they met their partners, or just anything about them really.
Miranda was different though. She was only about a year older than me, but was already a hairdresser in the salon near the stationery shop where I worked. We met in the street where we were both forced to smoke our cigarettes. We were furtive, trying to look as if we didn’t mind being outside. “We’re fag hags,” I said to her when we got to know each other better, but she never found this as funny as I did.
“You’d look lovely with your hair thinned,” she said to me the first day, after we’d been shuffling round and nodding at each other from our respective doorways for a bit.
I stubbed my cigarette out quickly and went back inside. I hoped I smiled at her, too, but I’ve been told that sometimes, when I try too hard or am taken by surprise, my attempts at a friendly expression come out as grimaces. Ones I can’t get rid of for a long time afterward. My mouth gets so dry, it’s as if my face has frozen with all my teeth bared.
Her words stayed in my head though, and a bit later I nipped into the toilet to check myself in the mirror. I brushed the hair away from my face and practiced looking normal. I swung my face round to take myself by surprise and see myself as others did. I pinched the ends of my hair with my fingers to try to understand what she meant.
Eventually I began to look like Miranda must have thought I could look.
Someone else. Someone different.
And, let’s face it, that’s always an attraction.
After lunch, my cheeks were aching with all the smiling but I made myself go out for my usual afternoon cigarette and I hung around until she came out, although I could see Mr. Roberts gesturing from inside the shop. A customer had come in and although it was Mr. Roberts’s shop and I’d only been working there for a week by that time, I already knew he didn’t like face-to-face customers. They might ask him something he didn’t know the answer to and that would put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day, but, as he said, it was water off a duck’s back for me. Apparently he’d never known anyone who knew less than me. He said it was restful for him.
We were like those weather-house couples, Miranda and I, that afternoon. As soon as she popped out of her door, I went back into mine to put Mr. Roberts out of his misery, but not before I managed to say, as casually as I could:
“Do you really think so then?”
“I should thin my hair?”
“Definitely. Come into the salon on Wednesday. It’s model night.”
Afterward, though, Miranda promised to work on my image a bit more gradually.
I was worried she might give up on me after that first time, model night, when I lost my nerve in the middle of all those other women and ran out of the salon halfway through with the soapsuds still in my hair, so when she came up to me in the street the following morning and asked me for a light, I was going to explain about how it all got too much hearing all those women’s voices, the words floating around me, clinging to me. I was even going to tell her about the biology teacher and what had happened but before I could say anything, she cut me off. She suggested that maybe the next time we should do it more privately. To take it easy. To change more slowly. As if it had been her fault and it really was that simple. As if there was nothing more to say.
So after that I started going across the road to Miranda’s most nights after I finished work, and she’d put on a selection of sad echoey ballads. They filled up the empty salon and would make us feel all full up and weepy too. We’d smoke our cigarettes inside in the warm muggy atmosphere, spinning round on the seats and flicking our ash into the basins as the street darkened outside. There was a female smell in the air; the chemical tartness of hairspray, a garden of roses and lilies from the shampoos and, underneath it, a dampness from the dying bouquets left just a day too long on the reception desk. While she leafed through magazines and read out horrific stories to me, I’d look in the mirror and try to see myself as Miranda did.
“See her.” She pointed out a photograph of an ordinary- looking, middle-aged woman smiling for the camera. “Left for dead, she was. Attacked in broad daylight by a man with a sharpened broom handle who split her stomach from throat to bum. Can’t do housework now. Says sweeping brings back nasty memories. There’s pictures of the scar too. Want to look?”
And in between murders and misery, she’d show me photographs of beautiful women she would say I was the spitting image of if only I would agree to put myself into her hands and let her transform me.
“You’re stunning,” she said. “You’re beautiful. I’d kill for your eyes.”
That was how we talked to each other, Miranda and me. As if we were practicing for one of those Sunday afternoon black-and-white films mum always used to watch. “I’d die with joy if I could have your nose,” I’d lie. “It’s like Doris Day. It’s sweet. If your nose was a person it would wear a frilly apron.”
“Oh, but your ears. They’d wear black berets with diamond studs on them. There’s something decidedly glamorous about your ears.”
“Do you think so?”
“And your cheeks. They’re the Kylie Minogue of cheeks. So, so, so . . . cheeky.”
I peered in the mirror, trying to read something more into the outline of my face than just that. An outline. What was it that Miranda could see?
“We should go out one time,” she said, “to the cinema or something.”
“Or to the pub?” I suggested.
“I don’t think so” she laughed. “Nasty loud places. No, we’ll find a nice romantic comedy. Something jolly, that’s the ticket.”
Neither of us had boyfriends when we first met.
We talked about men though, but always in that “oh, aren’t they hopeless” way we’d seen other women do. I would talk about Mr. Roberts, but I didn’t tell Miranda everything. To make her laugh I’d ham it up about how he got me to go up the step- ladder to fetch down boxes from the top shelf although we didn’t need anything. Miranda and I grimaced at each other when I demonstrated the way he’d hold on to my legs when I was up there, and how he said he did it because he was scared I might topple over but we both knew he was fibbing.
“I’m not surprised though,” Miranda said. “Your calf muscles are perfect. You should insure your legs. I’ve never seen such romantic legs. They’re perfect. Perfectly beautiful.”
“Oh you,” I cooed. This was something I’d learned to do from Miranda. Cooing, and saying, “Oh you.”
When I got back to my room though, I couldn’t resist lifting up my skirts and having a quick look at my legs in the mirror I’d set up against the wall. I turned this way and that, trying to see the romance Miranda must have read there. I flexed my legs as they would be when I climbed the ladder for Mr. Roberts, letting my fingers trail over where muscles should be. I shut my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see the dimples of fat. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Mr. Roberts always said he liked a girl you could get hold of.
Excerpted from Tell Me Everything by Sarah Salway. Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Salway. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.