“I’m worried I’ll have to get my cats incinerated,” says Laura, apropos of nothing. I take the bait immediately; she’ll only sulk until I gave in anyway.
“Why? Why will you have to get your cats incinerated?”
“Well, they keep attacking me, really quite viciously. I think they hate me,” she says breezily, pulling up her sleeve to reveal two long scratches down her forearm, near the elbow.
“Have you had them fixed? I hear its all the testosterone that makes them flip out like that.”
“They’re girls, Anna, you know that. They have girls names.”
“Well, alright then, maybe they do hate you. Why would you need to get them incinerated?”
“Well that’s what Carl had to do with his snake, wasn’t it? When it was sizing him up to eat him?” A bark of laughter, loud and manly, escapes from my diaphragm.
“That’s just an urban myth,” I say. “Carl never even had a snake.”
Laura looks a bit put out. “Well, I still don’t know what to do. The little bastards keep trying to flay me. I can’t walk around barefoot in case they try to bite my toes.” The four gin and tonics have gone straight to her head and I can see she’s walking on autopilot, bent forward, her tiny little legs propelling her unthinkingly forward. I grab her by the shoulder and pull her back before she can walk into the road.
“Christ. You’re not in London anymore Laura,” I scold. “Cars actually move in Newcastle.”
“Yes yes, very funny. Anyway, what should I do about the cats?”
“Oh fuck your fucking cats, can we talk about something else? How’s work?” Laura’s face brightens at the mention of work and she struggles upright.
“Oh shit, yeah, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I’m reviewing that film you liked for the Guide.”
“I like a lot of films.”
“Oh you know, the Korean one about the vampires. I’m doing a feature about the director.”
I let out another hearty bark.
“Chan Wook-Park? Have you even seen any of his films?”
“No,” she replies sheepishly. “But I said I was a big fan and they liked my piece in The Weekend about Krumping so, you know, I thought I’d just go with it.” My blood boils as I imagine how much better at her job I’d be, but I push that down. Proctor and Gamble pay me better than Laura’s intermittent freelance jobs, but the jealousy is still there, hot and insistent. I like Laura too much to say anything.
“Ok, we could make an evening of it, his stuff is great, you’ll love it,” I say. She taps me on the arm triumphantly.
“Great, I knew you’d come through for me, you’re really good at this type of thing.” Another little pang: I desperately want Laura’s stupid, easy job. “Well anyway, I’m fucking starved. Let’s get some chips!” Laura says, stopping outside the Munchies on St Mary’s Place.
I scoff, but Laura pulls me through the door.
“Just drag your arse along the carpet like a cat. Shit, did I tell you they’ve been doing that as well? It’s disgusting.”
Munchies is pretty much dead save for two men sat at the table next to the window, staring drunkenly into their kebabs and avoiding eye contact with each other. Laura bounces over to the counter. “Chips and gravy please,” she says, the knackered-looking guy behind the counter asks for two pound twenty in croaky broken English and Laura hands him three coins and walks over to a seat next to the window. I sit down opposite her. “Not getting anything?” she asks hopefully; I can hear the pattering of rain on the window at the other side of the room.
“God no,” I say. “I’ve got some chilli at home.”
“Oh come on!” she says rather too loudly, and with a hint of panic in her voice. “I can’t eat this shit on my own!”
“You’ve made your bed,” I grin.
“Oh come on, I assumed you’d be getting something as well,” she says, lowering her voice and glancing self-consciously over at the fry cooks.
“You assume too much. I told you, I don’t want to get some sort of parasite.” I notice the two guys sat next to us are extremely pallid, swaying a little in their chairs.
The door opens behind me and lets the rain in; it’s got very heavy suddenly, striking the pavement in long, vertical, translucent spears. A storm. Two young guys come in and walk over to the counter, ordering something and then talking quietly to one another; the smaller of the two keeps looking over his friend’s shoulder to check his sopping wet hair in the mirror at the other side of the room.
“Where the fuck are my chips?” Laura asks under her breath, looking over at the counter and the two boys, as if addressing them. I’m starting to feel a bit hungry now and I’m about to give in and ask Laura if I can share her chips with her when the door flies open and three men and a girl squeeze in. The men all look like they’re in their early to mid twenties, the girl, however, looks about eighteen or nineteen. The men are all wearing grey tuxedos strained over their huge biceps and beer-pregnant bellies, their hair expensively highlighted and waxed, seemingly impervious to the heavy rain outside. The girl, however, looks like a wet rat, her dead hair sticking to her face and neck, while her tiny purple dress shrinks to the contours of her body. They are all outrageously drunk. I can practically hear Laura’s sphincter tighten, I turn to look over at her but she’s now staring hard at the table. The two guys at the counter move instinctively closer to the wall, even the two zombies sat next to us are looking nervous. True to form, two of the big guys start leaping around, slapping each other about, one of them throws the other into one of the tables, very near the two boys at the counter. The girl and the third man are stood in the doorway, arm in arm. He breaks away and walks over to the two zombies.
“Alright lads, having a good night?” he says, sitting down next to one of them and taking one of their chips from the cardboard container. I look over at Laura, she’s petrified, still staring down at the table, sat on her hands in the way she does when she’s nervous. The girl in the purple dress is still stood at the doorway, looking on adoringly “You make such a lovely couple. Which one’s the wife, then? Or do you like to take turns?” the man asks smilingly, his victims look away, scared and embarrassed.
The girl in the purple dress leans over and slaps his arm. “Stop it Charlie, stop being such a bully.” She says it without any conviction whatsoever. Charlie turns in his seat and smiles beatifically at her.
“Don’t worry babes, we’re just having a laugh, aren’t we? Eh?” he says, nudging the guy next to him in the arm, the guy nods in a quick, tight movement, swaying away from Charlie. He nudges the guy again, the guy looks the other way, his face scarlet. Charlie leans in a little. “Just having a laugh,” he repeats, in a slow, breathy tone, staring hard at his victim, daring him to turn round, to give him some flimsy pretext. The guy doesn’t move, continues staring stupidly out of the window. Charlie gets up. His two friends have started singing one of those strange, childish rugby chants, their backs to the counter and their hands all over each other. The two boys are practically pinned to the wall now. I want Charlie to come over here, I want him to try his shit with me but I know he won’t. He walks over to the counter and loudly orders a cheese burger. His two friends, still singing their rugby song, walk over to the two zombies, sit opposite each other in the tiny plastic booth and begin bellowing the song into the ears of the two terrified, drunken men. I can’t even catch the lyrics, but it has a strange, diminutive quality to it, like a nursery rhyme, quite apt really as the singers themselves resemble giant babies with their red, dimpled faces and stubby hands. Laura’s shoulders are rising and falling in long, shuddering motions. I look over at Charlie, who’s noticed the two young guys at the counter; he walks over to them and says “You alright there lads?” leaning in again, trying to provoke a response. He’s hoping one of them will be as drunk and quick to anger as he is. Purple Dress has sat herself down in a seat against the far wall and is watching Charlie intently. The two other guys are still singing. The one checking out his hair earlier gives a curt
“We’re fine.” Then after a brief pause: “Just waiting for our burgers.” Charlie continues to stare at him, Purple Dress continues to stare at Charlie, his friends continue singing.
Laura nudges my foot under the table. “Lets go,” I think she says, but the rugby songs from the next table drown out her words, the singers begin slamming their fists down on the flimsy wooden table, inches away from the arms of their terrified captives. I pretend not to hear her she gives my leg another little kick.
“You’re alright though, yeah? You’re alright?” says Charlie, louder now to be heard over his friends, leaning in even closer, forcing the two boys against the wall, one hand gripping the counter-top for support. Purple Dress is shamelessly leaning forward to hear what’s being said. Charlie is still staring deep into the large, panic-stricken eyes of his prey, he’s aware that he’s gone too far, the raised voice, the breaching of personal space the eerie, violent mantra of “You’re alright, you’re alright, you’re alright.” He’s in serious danger of looking like the bad guy, if no reason to take action presents itself in the next few seconds he’s fucked and he knows it.
The singing has stopped; his two friends have forgotten about their victims and are staring with unnerving, doe-like serenity at the violent scene about to play out in front of them. Charlie edges a little closer, raising a hand to his tiny pink ear he says: “What did you say to me?” The two boys look at each other. “What did you say?”
“We, we didn’t say anything,” says the gangly one. Charlie moves closer in one quick movement, practically mounting the smaller one.
“Say that again! Come on!” he shouts.
“Charlie, Charlie no, please Charlie,” says Purple Dress, with genuine fear in her voice this time; Charlie’s blown his wad, he’s gone off too early, this isn’t what she wanted. Lost in his own embarrassment and drunkenness, Charlie continues staring hard at the two boys, his face contorted into a rictus of awkward rage.
“Chips and gravy!” shouts the fry cook, gesticulating wildly at Laura and slamming her food down on the counter in between Charlie and the two boys with deliberate gusto. I imagine striding over to the chips, confident, tall and strong, grabbing them, steaming hot and dripping with fat and throwing them hard in Charlie’s face. I imagine him clawing at himself, screaming, molten gravy in his eyes, in his mouth, burning his tongue and gums, burning his lips and forehead and cheeks. I imagine standing over him, staring down his two friends, showing them I’m not afraid.
“Oh! Yeah, that’s mine!” Laura shouts, and gets up, still pale and shaking, and walks over to the counter, grabbing the small paper carton. She has to squeeze in between Charlie and the two boys, giving a quivering little “’scuse me” as she does so. Charlie steps back and looks over at Purple Dress.
I just wish he’d look over at me.