Just because you imagine yourself doing something and enjoy the way it makes you feel, doesn’t mean you actually want to do it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. Of course not. Because sometimes the very opposite is true and something you never in a million years could imagine yourself doing is done in the blink of an eye and changes your life for ever.
So if, in my head, I’m grabbing a handful of her braids and slam‑ ming her head into a brick wall till her skull’s smashed in, it doesn’t mean that that’s what I’ll do. It doesn’t make me a bad person just thinking about it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s normal to have the odd violent fantasy about someone you hate so much every muscle in your body contracts when you think of them. I mean, everybody does it sometimes, don’t they? Don’t they?
Seven slams, if you’re interested. That’s how many it takes till her braids run red.
I smell him first, or rather the aftershave he used to wear. Joint by Roccobarocco. A 90s vintage scent – masculine and woody. A discontinued line.
I spin round, but no one’s there. Only a girl in a puffa jacket squatting to tie her laces. I almost trip over her. Then I see him, sprinting towards the sea, the furry flaps of his trapper hat flying in the breeze like a spaniel’s ears. Simon.
My knees give way. I stare after him, but he’s disappeared into the night. That’s if he was ever there in the first place. Maybe it’s all in my head. A hallucination. I’ve had a few of those in the past.
Whatever it was, I scurry home. A small, frightened creature, suddenly afraid of the dark. Afraid of him.
Mum pounces on me like a sniffer dog the second I walk through the door.
‘Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick.’ Her fingers dig into my arms and I have to shake her off.
‘It’s only ten o’clock, Mum. You can’t keep doing this. You’ve got to trust me.’
The snort is out before she has a chance to think better of it. ‘Trust? You’re talking to me about trust?’
She crumples on to the bottom stair with her head in her hands, and something inside me crumples too. I kneel down beside her and bury my head in her lap.
‘Sorry.’ My voice is muffled in the folds of her dressing gown and the years roll away. I’m in my first year of secondary school and someone has upset me. Mum is telling me to rise above it.
Now, as then, she rubs her hand in a circle between my shoulders.
‘I just don’t understand why you have to walk when it’s so late,’ she says, and I want to explain that if I have to come home and sit in this dreary little cottage night after night without drinking, my head will explode. I want to tell her that I walk to stay alive, that I have to keep on the move, doing things, going places, even when I’ve nothing to do and nowhere to go. Especially then. But all I can do is shed hot, silent tears into her lap.
It’s been five months since I woke up in hospital, Mum standing at the foot of my bed with ‘That Look’ on her face. A fortnight since my spell in rehab came to an end. It was she who suggested this arrangement. If she hadn’t, I might have been forced to ask, wouldn’t have had the luxury of indignation.
‘Move in with you? In Flinstead? You’ve got to be joking.’
Simon and I had laughed about the place on the few occasions it cropped up in conversation. Said the day we ended up somewhere like Flinstead was the day we gave up on life. It’s got this reputation as being somewhere you go to die. Like Eastbourne, only smaller and with nothing to do of an evening.
‘What are your other options?’ Mum said. That must have been the moment she decided to adopt the dispassionate tone of a counsellor. She’s been using it ever since, when she can remember. Open questions. No hint of disapproval. I’m not fooled for a second. It’s just another of her strategies. All that anger and frustration, all that disappointment – it’s still seething beneath the surface, ready to boil up and spit in my face like hot fat.
It’s gone midnight now. I’m lying in bed, curled on my side, facing the window. My braids feel tight and itchy and I have a sudden urge to unpick them all, but they cost so much to put in, money I can ill afford, and besides, it’ll take ages. I don’t have the energy for it.
A sliver of moonlight seeps in through the gap in the curtains. I roll on to my other side and hug my knees against my chest, finally allowing myself to think of Simon. My mouth goes dry. There’s a strange whooshing noise in my ears and a prickling behind my cheekbones. It couldn’t have been him earlier. It was just my mind playing tricks on me.
We met in a bar. Where else? One of those cavernous London pubs with panelled wood walls and massive mirrors etched with the names of beers. Packed to the rafters on a Friday night, but depressing and sepulchral at four fifteen on a Tuesday afternoon. Was it a Tuesday? I don’t really remember. Back then, the days were all pretty much the same. They are now, of course, only in a different way.
I just walked right up to where he was sitting and told him he had an interestingly shaped head. That’s what drink does. Did. Gave me the gall to approach complete strangers, to bypass all the meaningless chit-chat and get straight to the point. Whatever point my fucked-up head was currently obsessing over. I thought I was being witty and flirtatious.
‘No, Astrid. You’re being foul and warped and ugly. Drink isn’t your friend. It’s your enemy. Your poison. Can’t you see what it’s doing to you?’ Jane’s words ring in my head. Jane, who was supposed to be my friend. My ally. I’d lost her by then, the latest in a long line of friends and acquaintances who couldn’t hack it any more.
Then I met Simon and none of it mattered. We drank cider till the men-in-suits brigade swaggered in and we slunk off back to his place. A dingy bedsit on Anglesey Road in Woolwich. His sheets were rank, but I didn’t care. He already had a girlfriend, but I didn’t care about that either. We weren’t just a couple of drunks hitting it off; we were kindred spirits. Soulmates. Two sides of the same coin.
Must have been a bad penny, then, says that little voice in my head. The one that sounds just like Mum.
He can’t have come back. He just can’t.
The next morning I get dressed quickly, determined to put last night out of my mind. I loop my key chain round my neck and go downstairs. It’s still early but Mum’s beaten me to it, as usual.
‘There’s a banana needs eating,’ she says. ‘If you want that with some toast.’
‘Not that black spotty thing that’s been mouldering in the fruit bowl all week?’
She picks it up and gives it a squeeze. ‘Nothing wrong with it.’
‘You eat it, then. Toast will be fine.’
‘There’s always porridge,’ she says. ‘I could make you some if you like.’
‘I don’t like porridge, I’ve told you.’
I take the last sachet from the box of green tea and pluck my favourite mug from the mug-tree. The one that says: I don’t like morning people. Or mornings. Or people. It’s one of the few things I haven’t lost or broken over the years.
Mum sighs. ‘Oh, Hilly, it doesn’t have to be like this.’
I rip the sachet too fast and tea-leaf dust spills all over the counter. ‘Mum, I haven’t been called Hilary in over seventeen years.’
She touches my arm. ‘Sorry, darling. Sometimes it just slips out.’ She opens the cupboard above my head and draws out another box of green tea. ‘Here, I noticed you were running low so I picked some up.’
With the flat of one hand, I sweep the spilt tea leaves into the cupped palm of the other. It’s gone everywhere, but I’m glad of the distraction. It’s something to focus on, something other than the horrible clogged sensation at the back of my throat. The one I always get when she does something kind.
Hilary. It comes from the Latin hilarus, which means ‘cheerful’. Mum said she and Dad chose it from the Pan Book of Girls’ Names. They opened that treasure trove of possibilities and stuck a pin on a page to give them the title of my life. I’m assuming, of course, that if the pin had impaled itself on Beryl or Mildred, they might have tried again. But Mum liked the name Hilary. ‘As a baby, you had a very sunny disposition,’ she once told me, a wistful look in her eyes.
I’ve since worked out that I was born on a Wednesday, so what chance did I have? Woe is my default. Anyway, Hilary sounds like something out of the 50s. Head girl at a posh boarding school in Surrey. Captain of the hockey team. All-round jolly good sport. By George, Hillers, you are a good egg!
‘Astrid’ was the perfect antidote to all that, the antithesis of everything I was running away from. It’s a rebellious, rock-and-roll kind of name that carries a hint of the stars, a wildness. There was Astrid Kirchherr, the woman who photographed The Beatles in Hamburg, and Astrid Proll, an early member of the Baader–Meinhof gang. Then there’s Astrid Lindgren, author of the super-strong and thrillingly outrageous Pippi Longstocking stories. The list goes on. Queens and princesses. Sculptors and shot-putters. Skiers and porn stars. Troubled fictional protagonists. The name means ‘divine strength’.
Changing my name changed me. It made me visible. Gave me the balls to get wrecked with the bad girls on Peckham Common. To suck Danny Harrison’s cock in a mausoleum in Nunhead Cemetery. To get my nose pierced and a tattoo of a flame snaking up my inner thigh. Sunny disposition, my arse.
The tide is way out this morning, beyond the metal markers, and it’s warm enough to believe that summer’s on its way. I take my trainers off and walk barefoot on the flat, wet sand, dangling them by the laces. I’ve counted five small jellyfish, like transparent fried eggs, before I see the guy in the wetsuit clambering over the slimy spit of algae-covered rock. The same guy I’ve seen swimming from here for the last two weeks. The one who’s nodded at me and said hello a couple of times. It’s what people do in Flinstead. For someone who’s spent most of their life in London, it takes a bit of getting used to.
‘There’s a whole ecosystem right here,’ he says, as if we’re in the middle of a conversation. ‘Sea squirts, limpets, barnacles. An-en-om-es too.’ His teeth flash white against his tanned face. ‘I have to really concentrate to say that,’ he says.
My laugh peals out before I can rein it in. Too loud. Too eager. Shut up, Astrid.
He jumps on to the sand. Pale, blond hairs curl at his ankles, where the legs of his wetsuit end, but they don’t extend to the tops of his feet, which are smooth and golden brown with evenly spaced toes.
‘Are you local?’ he says.
I hesitate. ‘Not really – well, kind of. For now, anyway.’
We’re walking towards the sea, squelching through shallow pools left by the retreating tide. ‘I’m between jobs at the moment,’ he says.
‘Me too. I’m keeping an eye on my mum.’ A gull screeches overhead – a harsh, mocking sound. ‘She’s . . . a bit depressed.’
Guilt snakes through me. I can hardly tell him the truth. Someone like him – so healthy, so wholesome – he’d run a mile. And I don’t want him to. Not yet.
We’ve reached the water’s edge.
‘Listen,’ he says. ‘If you fancy a coffee some time . . .’
‘Yeah, sure.’ It’s just his way of ending the conversation. If he meant it, he’d suggest a time. A place.
He turns away and strides into the water. I don’t know whether I’m disappointed or relieved. Relieved, I think. The last thing I need is the complication of a new relationship.
‘Eleven o’clock tomorrow all right for you?’ he calls over his shoulder. ‘In the Fisherman’s Shack on Flinstead Road?’
Nervous laughter bubbles up at the back of my throat. I feel sick. ‘Okay. See you then.’
I watch as he commits his body to the cold and pushes off into a front crawl. It’s remarkable, the distance he’s already covered, the relentless rhythm of his strokes. It takes courage to head straight for the horizon. I nearly drowned once, doing that. Got caught in a rip current. I screw my eyes shut and clench my knuckles, trying to block out the memory of my panic, the sour burn of seawater at the back of my nose and throat.
And that’s when it happens. The unmistakable scent of Simon’s aftershave in my nostrils. Just like last night. My eyes snap open, but by the time I’ve registered it it’s gone, carried away by the breeze. I twist my head over my shoulder, bracing myself for what I might see: the old donkey jacket, the faded jeans, the rage in his eyes. But apart from a smattering of early-morning dog-walkers and a jogger with earplugs, there’s no one else about. No one who looks remotely like the kind of person who’d be wearing Joint at half past eight in the morning. Or smoking one.
My gaze returns to the sea. Wetsuit Guy seems to have disappeared. Maybe I imagined him too.
Oh shit. I need a drink.