by Alice Slater

We sleep on the train, squeezed into a toilet with a homemade Out of Order sign taped to the door. Chloe perches on the lid and I settle in the drifts of cheap tissue paper on the floor.  

When we get to Manchester, we march to the station toilets as though we can’t get enough of miserable shit-stained bogs. We drag wet combs through our hair and change out of our crumpled clothes and dab waxy concealer under our eyes and spritz Charlie body spray like perfume over our necks.

Chloe, who’s already read Kerouac and Bukowski and Burroughs, gets a job that afternoon as a Christmas temp in a bookshop. No muss no fuss. They give her a red t-shirt and a Santa hat and a plastic card with her own special till number printed in copperplate on the back.

‘Once I’m in with the management, I’ll get you in too,’ she promises, although I’ve never really been much of a reader.

She settles with our holdalls and a highball of vodka and lime by the canal, in a cosy pub. She thumbs through her worn-out copy of On the Road, the pages soft as silk, and underlines a phrase with a dreamy smile.

I traipse from shop to shop and the cold wind smacks against my cheeks and my hair tangles into my scarf and finally, with one tattered CV left in my hand, I’m hired to slice fruit at the Bavarian Christmas market.

Chloe has a friend from the internet called Paulina who says we can crash at her flat in the Northern Quarter while we get together enough cash to buy our tickets. She’s older, and her flat is worn out and well loved, all flaking paint and threadbare carpets and haphazard stacks of books and clutter. She mixes us dirty martinis and we eat queen green olives stuffed with anchovies, almonds and whole cloves of garlic.

Paulina has spiky red hair and she paints acrylics of long-forgotten car accidents and she talks about Lacan with dramatic hand gestures. A slop of olive brine splashes onto the ink-stained floorboards. All the sodium leaves me thirsty, but I don’t ask for a glass of water. I excuse myself and lock the bathroom door and cup my hands and lap up fresh water from the cold tap instead.

The water tastes different; cleaner, strange.

When I return to the living room, to the Mapplethorpe prints and silk scarves draped over lampshades, they are curled up on the sofa and Paulina has her fingers in Chloe’s martini, helping herself to the olives at the bottom of the glass. Chloe is drunk and Paulina looks bored of me.

My headache in the morning is as sharp and salty as olive brine. The mizzle shrouds me in a cold sweat. The Bavarian Christmas market is already busy with shoppers. Pink-cheeked, they eat steaming German sausages and wrap their mittens around mugs of Glühwein. The stalls glitter with the fragile fancy of Christmas decorations: blown glass, carved wood and fat knitted Christmas puddings. The air is rich with the smell of melted chocolate, spiced wine and evergreens.

The fruit shed is cold and silent. The other fruit slicers work quickly in little Christmas hats, topping strawberries and skinning pineapples and slicing bananas into coins, to be threaded onto kebab sticks and dipped into liquid chocolate. The space is tight and sticky with juice, juice that runs down our arms and soaks into our clothes and hair. One girl, a corn-fed student with a southern accent, suggests we sing fruit-themed songs to pass the time, but the only one we can think of is Agadoo and no one wants to sing it.

‘I can’t wait for you forever, Fi,’ she whispers, eyes averted, someone else’s words on her tongue.

Over the following weeks, the skin on my fingers flakes and peels away. The acid, the sugar, the wetness, the cold. It takes its toll.

Paulina works on her paintings during the day and in the evenings she hangs around waiting for Chloe, who calls her name as she unlocks the door with the key Paulina had cut especially for her. She brings vegan cookies and postcards and poems she copies by hand from chapbooks in the library. They sit around getting stoned and talking about Frida Kahlo or Octavia Butler or Kathleen Hanna until one morning I wake up and find Chloe’s holdall has migrated into Paulina’s room.

I wake every day with a stiff neck. Paulina offers to give me a reprieve from the sofa, to see if her friend April Rose still has that futon or if Adam still has a spare bed in his studio, until finally she says, ‘Look, maybe it’s time you found your own place. It’s not like you don’t have a job.’

Chloe blossoms in the bookshop. She comes home with free paperbacks jammed into her bag like a school girl, and she makes friends with a punk girl who works in the café on the top floor. Leah starts to sneak Chloe stale muffins and out-of-date cheese toasties and little cardboard cups of hot coffee. Bread and roses, sustenance and art.

‘Paulina lent me her bike so I can save money on travel,’ she says to me one day as I wait for the tram in a brittle December wind. The ground is iced with thick white frost. ‘If I keep this up, I’ll have enough for my plane ticket by January.’

‘They might not keep you on after Christmas,’ I say.

‘How much have you saved?’ she asks, and I kick at the spiteful snow.

I earn less than minimum wage at the fruit stall, but it’s cash in hand so I save on tax. I can’t work out if this is a good deal. I keep meaning to squirrel something away, but then I find myself holding a cheap bottle of wine or a hot dog or a magazine and I think, oh yeah, oh shit.

The Bavarian Christmas market closes before the New Year and I’m back where I started, traipsing around town with dog-eared CVs, eventually landing a gig as a pot washer in a pub near China Town. The skin on my fingers continues to rot.

Chloe meets me after the lunch shift one afternoon, and we go to one of the Chinese restaurants nearby. She orders two bottles of beer and a portion of spring rolls to go, and she pays with a twenty. Even though it’s freezing, we sit on the wooden crates out back, surrounded by garbage juice puddles and binbags of scraps. She lights a cigarette and I think, that’s new.

‘Paulina says it’s a better idea to go to New York,’ she explains, twisting her beer bottle between her hands. ‘I’ve been reading all these books – The Bell Jar, Just Kids. I feel it in my bones, that’s where I need to be.’

‘What about San Francisco?’ I say. ‘What about Haight and Ashbury, and North Beach, and City Lights?’ I say this, but what I mean is what about me?

‘I handed in my notice and I booked my ticket this morning. Paulina says there’s a better scene in Brooklyn – and I think she’s right.’

Paulina says,’ I spit.

‘Don’t be like that. Once I’m over there, I’ll send you money for your ticket. I’ll get a job under the table and save up, just like I did here. I’ll sort you out, I promise. I won’t leave you behind for long.’

I tip my head back and drain my beer bottle, trying desperately not to cry.

‘Fi, I think I love her,’ she says. ‘It’s real.’

When I get home late, after the dinner shift, reeking of hot fat and cheap beer, she’s folding things into her holdall. She’s been shopping with Paulina, it seems, in the boutiques and vintage shops of the Northern Quarter, and her bag is full of second-hand silk blouses and head scarves and chunky knits and leather boots and the tiniest golden pineapple on a gossamer-thin chain.

‘I’ll wear this every day,’ she says, fastening the chain around her long swan neck and dropping the little golden pineapple under her shirt. ‘It’ll remind me of you, the way you smelled of pineapples all winter.’

‘Don’t go yet,’ I say, tears threatening to spill. ‘I can get a loan, I can scrape it together, I just need a bit more time.’

‘I can’t wait for you forever, Fi,’ she whispers, eyes averted, someone else’s words on her tongue.

‘My friend Mitsuko is going to stay here while we’re in Brooklyn,’ Paulina says, not unkindly, dragging her suitcase behind her. ‘It’s time for you to go home, love. Go back to your parents.’

Paulina takes Chloe’s hand, touching her smooth, soft, fragile, skin. Fingers used to flicking through books, writing poetry, digging olives from a briny glass.

‘But it was our thing,’ I say. ‘We were supposed to go together –’ but they’d already turned away.

Alice Slater |
Alice Slater is a writer from London, and co-hosts bookish podcast What Page Are You On?

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