She liked art. She liked paintings and video art and photography. She liked to read about artists and she liked to hear them talk. She had been to all the big London art museums already, and she had been to some small ones, too, and some galleries. She wanted to be an artist, she thought. She liked how the world looked and felt one way when you looked at it or breathed or walked about, and looked another way completely when you looked at art, even though you recognized that the art was about the world, or had something to do with the world—the world you looked at or breathed or walked about in. She didn’t mean realism. She didn’t like realism very much, really, because usually there was no room in it. She would look at it, and everything was already there. But she liked abstract art because it was empty. Sometimes it was only empty a tiny amount, and it was easy for her to see what the artist was trying to say or make her feel, and sometimes that was OK, but she usually liked the art that had lots of empty in it, where it was really hard to work out what the artist wanted, or whether the artist wanted anything at all, or was just, you know, trying to look like he had amazing ideas. But really good artists had lots of empty in their paintings or whatever they did. They left everything out, or most things, anyway, but suggested something, so that she could take her own things into the painting (or the installation or the video or whatever), and the best art of all was when she didn’t really know what she was taking in with her, but it felt right, and when she looked at that art and took herself into it she felt amazing.
She wanted to be able to do that. Make that.
Photography was a bit different. She hadn’t worked out why yet.
Her Dad was having a text fit. She put her phone on silent and stuck it in a drawer.
She was trying to finish her history essay but Beth kept on popping up on MSN asking her stupid questions. She didn’t answer her for a while and then set her status to away and tried to think about why Churchill lost the election after the war.
There were some artists that she couldn’t really understand. She could see that they had left her lots of space, but she didn’t know what to fill it with. Sometimes, if they were not very well known or respected artists she decided that they just weren’t very good—that they were faking it and they didn’t know what they were doing really. But if they were famous and supposed to be amazing, then they just made her feel stupid. It was easier the farther back in history you went, because art became more realist and you could just like something or not like it. More or less. Though sometimes when you didn’t like something and then read about it, or read about the artist, you could start to see things you didn’t notice before, or you could feel things differently, and start to like it. Unless you went back to when everything was sort of cartoonish, like Fra Anelico, and then she didn’t really understand what was going on there either, because it just looked so sloppy and bad. But apparently it was amazing.
On her laptop the wallpaper was a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. She liked it. She thought it was sort of funny, because it looked so serious. She liked this woman. She had seen a film about her. That wasn’t why she liked her though. She liked the way she made people fit her world, and be a bit ugly, but still made them beautiful. And funny. There were not enough women artists in history. She paid them extra attention when she came across them. She wondered if that was fair, and then wondered why she wondered that. It was not a competition. She was not a judge. So she decided she could pay them more attention if she wanted.
On her wall she had some small postcards lined up in a grid. There were quite a few now. It was useless to look at any one of them really, because the prints were so small, and you could get only the vaguest sort of idea of what they were really like. She had seen some of them for real. But there were thirty-eight now, in seven rows of five, and one row of three at the top. Two more and then she’d start another grid. Her Dad had sent most of them. Or just given them to her. But there were ones from her Gran as well, and from friends, and her mother had picked up a few when she’d gone to the National Gallery in Edinburgh on her weekend away. She suspected her mother had just gone into the shop.
The grid was really neatly spaced and aligned. She didn’t like that now. She wished it was more disorganized. She’d made it look like a chart. But she’d decided to leave it as it was and make the next one messy in contrast. She thought that would be interesting. It had started by accident, when she just stuck her first postcard, of the Thames, by Turner, on the wall above her desk. It was only when she’d added the third that she lined them up properly. And then she told people she liked art postcards. So more came. She’d only been doing it about a year. She wondered how long it would take to fill all the empty space on the walls.
She had a Francis Bacon exhibition poster that her Dad had bought for her. She had a really nice print of a young Rembrandt self-portrait where he looked mad and sort of handsome. She also had a poster of van Gogh’s Starry Night, which she hated, but which she had to leave there, at least for now, because her mother had bought it for her. She didn’t hate it. But it was so clichéd that she couldn’t help deciding not to like it. Her favorite print was the one over her bed. It was Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. Her mother didn’t like it at all. She said it would give her nightmares. All that blood. But it didn’t. It was very violent, but it was like that wasn’t the point. The point was something else. It was the way Judith gritted her teeth. It was good.
Her mother was calling her. She shouted back. She opened the drawer and looked at her phone. OK. No new texts from her Dad. She read the last one. He was panicking about the summer holidays. It wasn’t even Easter yet. If they talked to each other and left her out of it everything would be sorted in about ten seconds. She hated clichés. Except maybe it would be a cliché if they got on really well and were all mature all the time and made sure she never felt like a football or whatever, and were super civilized and cool. That would be another cliché. At least it would be a more pleasant cliché. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it wouldn’t because it would feel forced and unnatural, whereas at least this was them being honest.
—Is he annoying you?
—You’re sighing at your phone. You always sigh at your phone when he’s texting you.
—I don’t. It’s not him. It’s Michele.
—Why are you sighing at Michele?
—Oh, she thinks she’s pregnant. Again.
Her mother stared at her for a second. And relaxed.
—Jesus, Cath, don’t do that. It’s not funny. I am . . . God almighty. Just don’t.
Cath smiled. Her mother stood in the doorway.
—No, I put it all in the basket.
—What’s that then?
There was a pair of socks on the bed.
—They’re clean. They’re today’s.
—All right. Come down for a cuppa.
—I will in a minute. I’m doing an essay.
—Well I’m putting the kettle on. Come down and have a cuppa with me. I’m bored. Do you want to go to the shops?
—No. I’ll be down in a minute.
She waited until she was alone again and then replied to her father. Yes. No. I did. There is. It will be all right. Shut up. She knew that if something terrible happened to her, her parents would have to meet in casualty or the morgue or something and they would break down and cry and hug each other and all the dumb fighting would be forgotten and they would love each other again, because she was dead or a vegetable and that was all they had. And then she imagined herself thinking that if she really loved them she’d kill herself and she laughed. Then she thought that if something terrible happened they would blame each other and spend the rest of their lives tied together by hatred and her death.
Everything was a cliché.
Sometimes when she was out with her Dad and they were talking with other people, he would refer to her Mum as my ex-wife. One day she asked him if he ever referred to her as his ex-daughter. They had a row. But since then he referred to her Mum as Catherine’s mother. Which made it sound like her fault.
Churchill lost the postwar election because people were tired. When you have a fire in your house you want the fire brigade to come. When the fire is out you want them to leave. She wrote this in her essay and was really pleased with it. She thought it was a brilliant analogy. But when she got it back she’d been given 65% and there were no comments at all, and the bit where she said that wasn’t even ticked or marked. She didn’t know why she bothered.
He waited for her sometimes in a coffee shop near her school. She’d get a text at exactly 3:30 saying fancy a quick coffee? even though she never actually had a coffee, she had one of their herbal teas, or sometimes a smoothie. Sometimes she couldn’t meet him because she had something on, or was going somewhere with Beth or Michele. Sometimes she pretended she had something on. Well, just once or twice. Usually it was fun to see him. He was usually in a good mood. He’d tell her funny things about work. About people at work or people he’d met. Sometimes he’d get a call and have to leave in a hurry. She liked that. He’d say what into his phone and then listen and grunt or say yes or no, and then he’d sigh and say all right ten minutes, and he’d stand up and kiss her on the forehead and whisper that he loved her and he’d be gone.
The coffee shop was at a crossroads. She had to walk past it on the way home. Down the road from the school. Then the zebra crossing. One time she was walking past it and she glanced in and her Dad was sitting there. He hadn’t seen her. He was reading a newspaper. She just looked at him. She was with a couple of people. Stuart and Byron and Felice. Or something. So she couldn’t really just stop. But she lingered. And looked at him. He was reading. Every so often he’d look up. But he was looking out toward the crossing. He’d missed her. He looked worried. He looked sad and worried and tired. He looked the way he always looked whenever she caught sight of him before he saw her. Then when he saw her he’d light up, or, well, not light up, but his face changed. He would smile. And yeah, he’d brighten up a little. And she liked that. But his face when she wasn’t in front of him worried her. He sat slumped. He looked old. Older. Did he fake it when he saw her? Or did seeing her just make him happier than he really was? She didn’t like either idea. She caught up with the others. Later she got the text that he must have sent at 3:30. It had been lost somewhere. She replied immediately and he texted back saying it didn’t matter, it was no big deal, he’d just been passing. Love.
She and Stuart had sort-of-sex in his bedroom one Saturday afternoon. Everyone thought he was gay, and he never really cared one way or the other about that and never denied it or got angry or anything, so she had thought he was gay too. And he liked books and art, so . . . and he wore a scarf in a sort of gay way, and he was good friends with Byron, who was actually gay. But it turned out Stuart wasn’t gay. Or wasn’t very gay anyway. He was a really good kisser. Kissing him was . . . really good. She talked to Beth about it, and she wanted to describe what the kissing was like; and she wanted to tell her that kissing Stuart was like being inside a Jackson Pollock painting. She really wanted to say that. She was determined to say that. But when it came to it she just said that it was really good, and bare sexy. It made her think that maybe Beth and her weren’t as close as she had thought. Because why else would she not say what she wanted to say? It was just stupid.
Stuart had talked to her about art. She knew more than he did. He had seemed interested in listening to her. He sent her an e-mail saying he’d looked up Francis Bacon online and thought he was mad and brilliant. But she thought he was faking it a bit. And it was the first she’d heard from him since the sort-of-sex, and he didn’t mention that at all, or her really either, or mention anything about meeting up again outside school or whatever. He had film posters on his wall. Watchmen and Superbad, and an old Finding Nemo one that she thought was cute but which made him blush when she mentioned it.
When he took off his jeans she saw a big scar on his leg. Just above his knee, on the back of his leg. She wanted to know what it was, but she didn’t ask.
She read about horrible things on the news. She read about fathers who killed their kids because they hated their ex-wives. They strangled them or poisoned them or drove them off a cliff. She read that stuff all the time. Just when she had forgotten about one case, a new one would turn up. Or she’d hear them on the TV or the radio. Her mother always went dead quiet when stuff like that came on. And sometimes she’d mutter something. Something like the poor things, or what a bastard. And Cath would think about her father. About him slouched over his coffee without her. She could scare herself for a short while thinking like that. But not for very long. Her father was very gentle. Very kind. He had never smacked her, even when she was little and screamed all the time. Her mother had smacked her. He’d never even shouted at her. Or not that she could remember. Or not in a way that made her remember. He was always gentle. He would say nothing, just open his arms, and she would lie against him and he would wrap her up and she would stay like that for ages. That was when she was little. They hadn’t done that in a long time. But she would do that again without even thinking.
She wanted to ask him whether he had ever had a case like that. A father that kills his kids. Or anything like that. But he never told her any of the bad stuff. She knew he had to investigate all sort of things—murders and everything. She’d seen him on the news once. The London news. Detective Superintendent Mark Rivers. It was weird, seeing his name like that. And him asking for witnesses after a boy was stabbed somewhere. He’d been really good. He talked about the boy like he’d known him, about his family and stuff. It was all good—the way people are after they’re dead. It had made her nearly cry, because she was proud of him she supposed. But he only ever told her about the funny stuff.
—No, Dad, that’s Pollock.
—Watch your language.
—Pollock. Jackson Pollock. He does the ones with the paint all over the place, all scrambled and splattered and stuff.
—Do you like them?
—Not so much though?
—Well, I like them. They’re fun. I’d like to see them for real, because the paint is meant to be really thick and that would be amazing to see them up close. But they’re like . . .
—No. They’re like the idea of having an idea, instead of having an idea.
She laughed at herself. Her Dad made an ooh noise. They turned a corner.
—Is that art teacher of yours any good?
—Yes she’s OK.
—Are you smarter than her?
She laughed, thinking yes!
—Have you told her you want to go to art college?
—I don’t know if I want to go to art college.
—Oh. I thought you did.
—Well I want to do art, but I don’t know if I want to go to an art college or do art history. First.
—Well. No hurry.
He pulled in to the curb in front of the house. She leaned across and kissed him. She knew he wanted a hug. But it was awkward, hugging in the car, and she didn’t like it.
—Will you call me during the week?
—How’s your mother?
He always left it to the last minute. So that she could only say:
—OK. I love you.
—I love you too.
He waited for her to get to the door. As if something might happen to her between the car and the front door. Then when she put her key in the lock he drove off, as if nothing could happen to her then until the next time.
She liked Tracey Emin, even though everyone else she knew didn’t like her, and some people seemed to hate her. She liked her voice best of all, and she loved to hear her talk. She saw her once, walking through the Smithfield Market looking really hungover. She’d wanted to talk to her, but she’d been too shy, and her friend Michele didn’t know who she was and there was no one else to be excited with. She didn’t like Damien Hirst at all. She thought he was an idiot. And his work was ugly and full of boyish things, like he was a permanently horny boy trying to get some, and everyone was just embarrassed to have him around. She thought Sarah Lucas was like that too. But she didn’t say it. She just said that Lucas didn’t really move her. It was a way she had of dismissing something without sounding judgemental. She had learned it from a documentary about Francis Bacon. She couldn’t remember now whether it was Bacon who said it about some other artist, with a smirk on his face, or whether it was someone else who’d said it about Bacon. She liked Jake and Dinos Chapman. She liked the way that they could make her feel a bit sick, but that she kept on peering at their models and their pictures anyway because all the detail had something in it that was important but it kept on shifting somewhere else, like when you have a floater in your eye. She liked Grayson Perry. She liked his voice too, and she liked hearing him talk about art, and she had some podcasts of a radio show he’d done. But she didn’t really know his art. She liked the way he shocked his mother whenever he turned up on the telly in one of his mad frocks. She’d been to the Turner Prize exhibition for the last three years. She had liked Zarina Bhimji most in 2007. In 2008 her favorite was either the photographer or Goshka Macuga’s wooden things like people trees. In 2009 she hadn’t really liked any of them. They didn’t move her.
On the Tuesday after the Saturday when they’d had sort-of-sex and Stuart had sent her an e-mail about Bacon, and a couple of texts about nothing, he came up to her in a corridor in school and, blushing very red, asked her did she want to go for a coffee after school, just the two of them. She didn’t know why he was blushing. Well, she did, and she thought it was funny, but it made her blush as well. The two of them just standing there going red. She rushed out a yeah, OK, see you after as casually as she could and walked off. It was completely stupid. They’d had about six million conversations in the school corridors before.
One time in the café two men came in and sort of stood there looking at her Dad. He stared back at them.
It was the same voice he used on the phone.
—Sorry to interrupt, sir.
The one talking was a really good-looking black man with dark-framed glasses and hair shaved close to his head. He was wearing a dark gray suit, with a black V-neck jumper under the jacket and his tie done up. He looked really interesting. The other one was a white guy with a funny face. Like he was peeking through a keyhole. Or maybe it was normal. He had a stupid smile and was carrying a big envelope and he was looking at her. He was wearing a neat suit too, but he looked more like he was going for a job interview. They didn’t look like cops.
—Need you to have a look at a couple of things. Somewhat urgent.
He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked at Cath and nodded.
—I’m very sorry to bother you.
She smiled and felt herself blush.
Her Dad went outside with them. She looked through the window. The three of them hunched over the envelope, and stuff was pulled out of it, and her Dad peered at it. She thought maybe it was photographs. She couldn’t see. Her Dad made a call on his phone. The black guy made one on his. The white guy came back in and bought himself a bottle of water.
—Sorry about this, he said.
—He’ll be back in a minute.
He seemed nice. She wanted to ask him stuff. About her Dad. What’s he like to work with? Is he tough? Does he beat people up? Is he a racist? Does he curse all the time? Is he good at being a detective? Is he clever? Is he sexist? Does he have a girlfriend? Do you do cases where fathers kill their kids? What does he think about them? But she couldn’t form any sort of question at all before he had gone back outside. The two of them walked to a car and drove away and her father came back in and patted her shoulder and apologized.
—That’s the first time I’ve ever met anyone you work with.
—No, it’s not. Is it?
—Yeah. You’re very rude to them.
—I am not.
—You didn’t say anything to them. Just what. You should have asked them to sit down.
—They should have called me.
—They seemed really nice. You should have introduced me.
He smiled at her as he sipped his coffee.
—They are not nice. Really. And anyway, one of them is married and the other is gay and they’re both old enough to be your father. And if your mother and I agree on anything then we agree that you should never, ever, ever get involved with a policeman.
They went up toward Muswell Hill to a place Stuart knew where there’d be no one from the school. He bought her a strawberry tea, and got himself a cappuccino. He talked about music and kept on wiping his lips. He was into all these bands that she had never heard of. She thought he was trying to match her art talk. Trying to balance it. That was OK. He said he’d send her a playlist and they talked for a while about the best ways of sharing files, and about the computers they had and about stuff on Facebook, and she was sure they’d had all these conversation a dozen times before. It was like he’d forgotten that he’d known her for about two years. On and off.
They walked down the hill and he held her hand for a while. When they got to a bus stop that was good for her, he kissed her again, and it was great. He leaned against her and she could feel his body warm against her and she liked it and she thought about his scar. When the bus came he smiled at her like he was shy again, and she liked that too, and he said, See ya, gorgeous, in a stupid voice and they both laughed, and they were laughing at themselves, at how stupid they were being and that it was all right to be stupid, it was fun. On the bus she dozed and held her phone in her hand and leaned her head against the window.
She didn’t know what to do about Rothko. She didn’t understand Rothko. Everything about Rothko made her want to like him. All the things people who liked him said and wrote made her want to like him. They talked about warmth and love and comfort and feelings like religious feelings. She wondered about herself, about what was wrong with her that she couldn’t feel those things. Or not feel them when she looked at Rothko. She had been, twice, to the Rothko Room in the Tate. And her Dad had taken her to the big exhibition of lots of his stuff. But she didn’t get it. Soft focus blocks of dusty color. One of them made her think of sunsets on summer holidays in Cornwall, so she liked that one, a bit. But Rothko. He did not move her.
Whenever her father took her to one of the Tates, or to the National Gallery or something, she could sense his boredom make his back straight, and his eyes water. She would forget he was there sometimes and then turn to find him looking at his phone, or looking at a woman, or yawning. She’d laugh at him and they’d go for a coffee and he’d get her something in the shop. Some postcards usually, or a book. She didn’t like him spending much. She didn’t know why. He wasn’t hard up.
Her mother was jealous of these trips. She didn’t want to be, and she battled with herself to cover it up, but you could feel it, in the kitchen. It was like she was plugged into something.
She started going to museums and galleries with Stuart. They went to the Whitechapel Gallery together—the first time she’d ben there. They had to stand on the Tube and he held her hand. She liked when they had to let go for some reason and then she’d wait to see how long it took him to reach out for her again. Sometimes it wasn’t quick enough and she grabbed his hand, and she liked that she felt able to do that, and liked that it made him smile. She liked the fact that they were turning into a really annoying couple who held hands all the time and that their other friends, if they knew, would dedicate their lives to taking the piss.
They went to the National Gallery and spent a couple of hours wandering around. Stuart wasn’t scared of stuff that other boys were scared of. He stood in front of a picture of a naked man and said out loud to her that it was beautiful. He looked at another picture and wanted her to tell him whether it was supposed to suggest a vagina. She blushed and he didn’t. When she used a word he didn’t understand, he told her he didn’t understand it and asked her what it meant. She had to admit once that she didn’t really know what crescendo meant. He laughed at her and put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a little kiss on her cheek.
She had told her mother that she and Stuart were sort of seeing each other now. Her mother took a couple of minutes to work out which of her friends she meant. Then she told her that he was welcome to come over to the house whenever Cath wanted. That made her laugh. Not whenever Stuart wanted, but whenever Cath wanted. She liked that. She wondered if he’d be allowed to stay the night. Maybe. In the spare room. She wondered if he’d even want to. She wanted him to. Sometime. For some reason. She wanted to see him first thing in the morning. She imagined bringing him a cup of tea in bed. She imagined him lying asleep in the spare bed in the spare room. She imagined it for ages.
Her Dad was obsessing now about the crossing outside the café, near the school.
—Some kid is going to get run over there one of these days.
—Cos you lot never look. You just walk across. And cars come up that road too fast. There should be traffic lights there. Not just a crossing.
She looked. Most of the younger kids were gone by now. There were a few people she recognized outside the shop on the other side. She’d never seen anyone even come close to getting run over.
—You should be careful.
—Don’t laugh. I worry about things like that. They may seem stupid to you but there you have it. I can’t help it, I’m your father.
He was in a mood.
—You need to be careful. The number of teenagers killed on the road on London is horrific. You know? Never mind knife crime and drugs and all the stuff you get warned about all the time. Well, do mind them, but you know about that stuff. It’s the traffic you might just forget about. Forget to look out for. You’re to be careful about that.
A group of uniforms passed the window. She looked up and saw Byron, who gave her a wave. And Stuart’s head appeared from behind him, smiling at her. Her Dad looked.
They walked on. Stuart looked back, still smiling. She found herself smiling and blushing.
—How’s the flat, she asked, to cover it.
—Do you have a boyfriend?
He was smiling at her. She was so obvious. She was a cliché. Her cheeks burned.
—Which one? The black boy?
He was turned around in his chair now, looking after them. Stuart noticed and looked away, and then they disappeared.
—The one who looked back?
—They’re just friends.
—So why are you blushing like a berry?
—Like a berry?
—Like a strawberry.
—People don’t blush like berries.
—Which one was he then? What’s his name?
So she told him a bit about Stuart. But nothing like as much as she’d told her mother. He smiled at her and nodded but she could tell he was sad. Because she was growing up and all that clichéd crap.
She imagined walking from school one day and hearing a bang and a scream, and another scream, and seeing something happening at the crossing. She imagined running up, and as she got closer her friends trying to hold her back. She imagined seeing Stuart lying on the ground, pale, a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth. She imagined kneeling beside him and holding his head, and looking into his eyes and him looking at her with the most intense eyes that she had ever seen, and dying. She imagined a girl screaming and sobbing, and Byron crying and holding her hand, and she imagined her Dad arriving with the two men from the coffee shop, and her Dad helping her up and moving her away, and the good-looking black man and the other one trying to restart Stuart’s heart, and the black guy looking up at her Dad and her and shaking his head, and Stuart being beautiful.
Then she imagined that she was the one hit by a car, and Stuart holding her, tears running down his face. She preferred the idea of him dying. She laughed and wondered whether she could tell him about all this and knew that of course she couldn’t.
She told Byron that she’d met a gay cop.
—Cop’s a cop, he sneered. Then he remembered her Dad was a cop, and smiled and touched her arm.
Byron told her that Stuart was really happy about, you know. Them. The two of them. Byron said it was a really good thing. He said they were two of his most favorite people, and he was made up to see them together. He said Stuart deserved some happiness. She laughed and asked him what he meant.
—Oh you know.
—More than me?
Stuart’s parents were still together, but his father was always away and his mother worked in the city and Stuart had the house to himself most of the time and she would go there and they would end up kissing, of course, and they would do various things, but they still hadn’t had actual-sex. She wondered whether he was really only interested in sex. And was really clever. And by not ever pressing her into stuff, he made her want stuff that she might not want if he suggested it out loud. Maybe he was devious like that and everything, all his niceness and his calm and the way he looked out for her, they were all a disguise for the fact that he was just a horny boy like other horny boys and that he was following some sort of Plan and every night he called his friends to bring them up to date about the progress of The Plan.
And even though he never blatantly pushed her into doing anything, he had a way of making her do stuff anyway, by getting the two of them arranged in such and such a way and leaving the opportunity open for her to do it if she wanted to, but to not do it if she didn’t want to. Which was how she ended up giving her first ever blow job for example. In her life. Which was something that even a year ago she thought she would never do. But now she’d done it. And she had liked it. And it had been completely different to what she had expected, and it had not been gross or embarrassing or weird tasting or any of the things she had thought it was going to be, and she was doing it even before she’d decided to do it, she was just suddenly doing it, because of the devious way Stuart had arranged their bodies on his bed, with both of them still mostly dressed and the album by Micachu playing that he’d got for her and that she really liked. Stuart had to stop her almost as soon as she started. He gasped and wriggled and pushed her head away from him and came all over his T-shirt like he’d been shot, and she couldn’t help laughing, and then worried almost immediately that he would think she was some sort of expert. But all he could say was wow, and he laughed too, and they both giggled for a while and he kissed her, and then he took off his T-shirt and mopped up and they hugged and kissed under the covers and laughed at each other and chatted for ages.
He said that no one had ever done that before.
He said that Byron had offered, but that was all.
He said that he and Byron had kissed once, and he had liked it, but he had stopped because he didn’t want to do anything else and Byron did, and Byron had sulked for a while, but they were OK again now.
He said Byron was his best friend. Him and Byron talked about everything.
He said she was a better kisser than Byron.
He said he loved her skin and he loved her breasts and her neck. He said he wanted to hold her every time he saw her in school. He said he’d wanted to kiss her from the first time he met her. He said that he had never done anything because she’d seemed uninterested in him, in that way.
He said he really wanted to have full sex with her, but there was no hurry.
He said he wasn’t a virgin. But he’d only had sex once before and it had been a real mess, a disaster, and he wouldn’t tell her who it was, and she didn’t know her anyway, and they had both been drunk and it was all a sort of horrible blur of a bad memory.
She told him that she was a virgin. He asked about other boys and she told him about some of them. He stroked her hair and smiled at her and they wrapped their legs around each other under the duvet.
She liked him so much that she couldn’t do any work.
Her Dad came to the house on a Tuesday. To speak to your Mum, he said, which made her immediately suspicious. Something was up. Something had happened. They talked in the kitchen, and she couldn’t hear a thing. It was good, she supposed, that they weren’t shouting at each other. But it was creepy too. There wasn’t a sound. She tried to work out what it was. He had seen her with Stuart and didn’t approve. He was worried that she wasn’t doing as well as she had been, at school. Maybe it wasn’t about her. He had lost his job. He couldn’t afford to pay maintenance anymore. He was leaving London. He had prostate cancer. She sat on the stairs and thought about Stuart having cancer.
He wouldn’t tell her what it was about. He seemed impatient. He wanted to be gone.
—See you Saturday?
—It’s not about us. Ask your mother what it’s about. She can tell you if she wants. Up to her.
So she had to nag. Her mother was sitting in the kitchen looking at the wall. She had put out mugs but she hadn’t filled them. She didn’t want to talk about it. Cath whined at her. What? What’s going on?
All Cath’s breathless wondering stopped. And then restarted, and she tripped on relief and shock and a new fear.
—Who? What happened?
—Misha. You don’t know her. She used to . . . I was at college with her.
—I don’t want to, Cath.
And her mother started crying.
Cath didn’t know what to do. She gave her a sort of hug. She got her a box of tissues. She made a pot of tea. She sat at the table and listened to the story. She caught herself wondering if it was made up. Invented by her mother and father together to warn her of how badly wrong everything could go. Because it was that story. About the pretty clever girl who everyone knows is going to turn out to be a genius but she starts to drink, and then she meets the wrong boy, and then she drinks too much, and then she starts taking other stuff, and before anyone knows what’s happened she’s living in a junkie squat somewhere in King’s Cross and she’s got a string of arrests and all her old friends and her traumatized parents are really just waiting for the police to show up at the door to say she’s dead. Then she goes away and disappears. She goes to Spain. Years pass. She comes home and she’s OK. She’s sober and she’s done some courses, and everyone thinks that she’s better, she’s through it. She’s not the same, but at least she’s not a mess anymore, and even if she is a bit fragile, a bit pathetic, she can hold down a sort of office admin job and she can pay a rent and it’s OK. But she’s never what she was. And she’s never what she might have been. And they notice that she’s probably still drinking. Secretly. And eventually, after everyone stops thinking about her and she has become just a sad friend who doesn’t have much of a life and who they never see unless they have to, then she hangs herself in her kitchen.
Her mother choked and spluttered on all her guilt and her grief, and she banged the table and cried so loud that Cath was terrified and called her father, but she couldn’t reach him, and left an angry message accusing him of being a heartless bastard. And her mother might have overheard, because she hugged Cath then and told her sorry sorry sorry, she was just so sad. So sad. And she went to bed, and Cath could hear her still, wailing, as if she’d lost everything and had nothing left, not even Cath. And then Cath was crying.
She called Stuart. He wanted to come over but she wouldn’t let him. She tried to be cold about her mother. She tried to tell him that she was being stupid, but he didn’t fall for it, and soon she was crying, and he told her he was coming over, and she told him not to, thank you, but she’d prefer if he didn’t, because it was her mother, her mother’s privacy, and he said OK.
Her Dad called. He didn’t give out to her about being called a heartless bastard, but he didn’t apologize for anything. She’s bound to be upset, he said. She’ll be OK. She accused him of not caring. That it was easy for him, it wasn’t his friend who had died. And then he was quiet for a minute and told her that actually it was his friend. That he’d known Misha as long as he’d known her mother. That they’d dated a couple of times. And that he’d seen more of her in the last couple of years than anyone else had. Cath apologized, and for no reason that she could understand other than having a dig, her father told her that he loved her.
Then there was someone at the door. It was her mother’s friend Heather, and then everything was OK. Heather gave Cath a hug, and went up to her mother. Then their other friends Sean and Lillian arrived. And then everyone was in her mother’s bedroom, and coming and going with cups of tea and she even heard laughter.
She called Stuart again. To say sorry. To tell him that everything was OK now. They talked for an hour, each of them lying on their beds. She wrapped his voice around her and made him promise that he wouldn’t let her become a junkie. He laughed. OK, he said. I promise. He thought it was a joke. But she knew they would remember it always, that it was a promise to look after her, and that it was made now and could not be retracted, and that even if they did not stay together there were things between them that would never be between her and anyone else. And that wasn’t being stupid or romantic or saying that it was special or anything. It was just the truth.
She slept late, was late for school. Her mother stayed in bed. Beth nagged at her. Stuart kept an eye on her. Byron asked her was she OK, and gave her a hug. She was fine. She was tired. She couldn’t remember most of the things she’d talked to Stuart about. She wondered what he’d said to the others. Whether she came across as needy, weepy, clingy. Those things. She ignored him.
She was still annoyed at her Dad.
He closed down when he needed to be open. That was what she thought. When there was something wrong he became efficient, busy. He dealt with it. Like a policeman. Like you’d want from a policeman. He would arrive and sort it out. Then he’d leave. And it was sorted. It was fixed. It was a closed case and he was closed and everything was shut off and quiet and finished and he forgot about it.
But when there was nothing wrong he was funny and kind and patient and open.
She thought it through again. She wasn’t sure what she was complaining about.
It was too hot. They took the Tube down through London, holding hands and allowing themselves to be pressed against each other. She had a sheen of sweat on her forehead. Stuart was wearing a T-shirt and kept on lifting and flapping the front over this stomach.
They hadn’t been anywhere together for a while. She’d been spending time with her mother, who was still wobbly. She’d sob in front of the television. She’d sit at the kitchen table just staring into space. Cath didn’t know why. Well, she knew why, but she didn’t understand how the grief was so intense. There was something she didn’t know about, she was sure of it. Something more to the story. This Misha. How it was that she had never been heard of before, and now she was all over Cath’s life, even though she was dead. Nothing, then dead, then everything.
Her father came around a few times. More than he ever had before. They would sit in the kitchen chatting quietly. She sometimes sat with them for a while. But it was too weird. They just talked to her, about her, while she was there. So she would go and watch television, or go to her bedroom, and she would hear them murmur together, for a long time. Once, after she had gone to bed and fallen asleep, the front door woke her. It was her father leaving. She heard his car start up. She looked at her clock. It was 4:30 in the morning.
She didn’t know what it was.
She tried to ask her father. He would not help. All he said was that they’d been good friends once, her mother and this Misha. That was it. She wondered whether they’d been lovers or something. She couldn’t imagine it. She wondered whether the three of them had been mixed up in some sort of love triangle thing.
Her father didn’t want to talk about it.
It was cruel. It was unfair. She was the one who had to live with her mother. And for a week now she’d been weird and silent and weepy. The day of the funeral Cath had come home to find her mother in bed still wearing her black dress. She’d had to call Heather again. What was wrong with these people? It was like they forgot she existed. As soon as their own stuff hit them, they forgot about her. She had to fend for herself, knowing nothing.
She’d told her father that she couldn’t see him that day. That she was seeing Stuart.
They arrived at Waterloo and walked along the river, strolling, holding hands. He looked so good. Byron had said to her a few days before that Stuart was always good-looking, but now that he was going out with her he was beautiful. He’d said it really nicely, quietly, with a big smile. Then he’d made her promise not to tell Stuart he’d said it, or he’d kill her.
The Tate was quiet. There were still tourists and some big groups of kids, but it was nice, it was OK, it was easier to stand and look at things than it usually was. They went searching for the Rothko Room. She had told Stuart about Rothko, a little. About how he did not move her. And he had wanted to see. He said he knew a song about Rothko, by an American singer that he liked. She rolled her eyes. The only things he knew about were things he’d heard in songs. He laughed at her.
They looked at the paintings. The room was almost empty. Large flat blocks of color frayed at the edges, set against the dark. It was gloomy in there. Why was it so gloomy? It was cool, at least. Cath sat on a bench and tried again with Rothko. Stuart stood at first. Then he sat beside her for a while. They didn’t say anything. She wanted to let him decide for himself. He stood up again and walked around the room. Then he stopped in front of one of them and his head dropped onto his chest. Then she saw him wipe his eyes and look up again. She thought he was bored. He didn’t get it either. She stood and went to him and took his hand, meaning to lead him out of the room so they could look at some other stuff or get a coffee. He turned to her. He was crying. Not sobbing. But there were a couple of tears running down the side of his nose, and his eyes were red. She stared at him.
—He wanted to stay in the room. He moved around. She watched him. He breathed deeply. He stood still. Really still. He sat on the seats a couple of times and just looked. She wondered if he was taking the piss. She went and sat beside him.
—What do you think?
—They’re beautiful. I don’t understand how they work. But they’re just beautiful.
He wanted to stay there for ages. He looked at the Rothkos, and she looked at him.
In the café afterward she complained about her parents. She told him that there was something they weren’t telling her about this dead woman, Misha. She told him it wasn’t fair. That they just weren’t thinking about her. He nodded.
—Maybe they can’t, he said.
—They could try.
—Maybe you had to be there. Some things you can’t share, you know?
He got a second coffee. He wanted to talk about the Rothko Room. He seemed a bit embarrassed now, that he’d been so moved by it. He smiled and shook his head.
—They’re so great though. I could look at those things all day.
She told him about her Dad and the eggs.
—I made my Dad scrambled eggs one morning, yeah? When I was staying in his place for a weekend. He sleeps late, you know. And I made him breakfast when he got up, you know—good little girl. And it was like, scrambled eggs on toast, and some bacon and a tomato. Stuff like that. And a pot of tea. Glass of orange juice. All posh. And he really liked it, and then he was trying to show off that he knew about art—he’s always doing this—and he said, Rothko eggs. Points at the scrambled eggs. Rothko eggs. I didn’t know what he was on about. They look like a Rothko painting, he said, all pleased with himself. And then I realized that he’d gotten Rothko mixed up with Pollock!
—So now he still calls scrambled eggs Rothko eggs. I never corrected him. He hasn’t realized yet. So he’s always asking for Rothko eggs. I bet he does it at work and everything. Trying to show off how cultured he is. Down the police station, you know? Pretending he knows his art. Had some great Rothko eggs this morning. And no one has a clue what he’s on about. It’s so funny.
And she laughed, to show how funny it was.
Stuart smiled at her. He looked at her and smiled and said nothing, and he rubbed his eyes.
Later that day she asked him about the scar.
—There. How did you get it?
He said nothing for a minute. Then he lay on his back and looked at the ceiling.
—A few years ago. I was swimming in a river. Sort of a river thing, near where we were staying on holiday in France. Me and a friend went swimming. He was a local guy. And we got snagged on some stuff under the water. There was some old farm machinery or something dumped in there. And we were kind of diving down and exploring it. It wasn’t very deep but we were trying to . . . I don’t know . . . pretending it was a shipwreck or something. He pushed a bit of it, I think. Or pulled it. Or maybe he didn’t. But it shifted.
—And some part of it caught my leg, some sharp edge. And cut it.
—Shit. Did it hurt?
—Yeah. Well. Yeah, after a bit. I didn’t notice at first.
—Cos you have arteries and stuff in there. You could bleed to death.
He said nothing. She looked at him.
He was quiet. He had drifted off somewhere. She traced shapes and words and pictures on his chest with her fingers. The sun lit the curtains and the music made her drowsy. She was lulled by his heartbeat into feeling nothing more than a vague wonder that nothing in her life had really started yet.
She went home. She thought about their day. Something had gone wrong but she didn’t know what.
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