by Debz Butler
Kate inhaled deeply, held it and exhaled slowly. Just like they taught in yoga. She was sure her yoga teacher would be ecstatic with the cigarette between her fingers and the doner kebab waiting for her inside. She stood outside the bright lights of the Caspian kebab shop, ignoring the girl round the corner who was emptying her stomach onto the high street pavement whilst, somehow, simultaneously calling her boyfriend a ‘knobhead’. It was the time of night where the vodka jacket was wearing off just enough to make you wish you’d worn your big coat, but not enough that meat on a stick seemed like a bad idea. The music from the nearby club was still pumping into the street, making those outside stumble to a kind of rhythm. Like zombies who knew the exact beat to ‘Freed from Desire’.
‘Kate!’ Laura yelled from the counter. ‘Kate! Do you want garlic mayo?’
Kate leaned her head into the kebab shop, keeping the arm with the cigarette extended away from the doorway. ‘Yeah, loads. Don’t be stingy it with it.’
She took another drag on the cigarette and flexed her feet, first the left then the right. What had been a dull moan in the balls of her feet a few hours before was now a full scream. She was tempted to take her high heels off but one look at the floor changed her mind. The pavement was littered with plastic cutlery, chewing gum and cigarette ends. The bin near the curb was over flowing with peach, polystyrene containers. She looked down to the end of the street to the taxi rank. A guy in a yellow high-vis jacket stood at the top of the queue, filling the taxis as quickly as possible to avoid a kick-off. Girls in short skirts and sky scraper heels huddled together, laughing loudly and calling to their mates further down the line. Lads, hand in pockets, getting more aggravated the longer they wait, taking the piss out of the weak one in the pack.
‘One nutritious meal delivered,’ chimed Laura as she bounced through the doorway. ‘Get it while it’s hot!’
Kate flicked her cigarette into the gutter. ‘Cheers, queen. How much was it?’
‘Not much, you get the next one. We’ll be even by the time we’re dead.’
Kate pulled the fork out of the top and opened the carton. The garlic mayo was already congealing from the heat of the kebab. Perfect. Something to cancel out the taste of cheap vodka shots, cigarettes and sweat that sat on her tongue.
‘Eat and walk?’ asked Laura through a mouthful of cheesy chips.
Kate nodded as she spooned a ribbon of doner meat into her mouth and set off towards the taxi rank.
The queue was down the pavement to the next junction. It was 5.15 AM –kicking out time for the last of the late clubs – and everyone was ready for home. Kate and Laura made their way to the back, being careful not to spill their food onto the floor as they ate and walked. The sun was starting to come up, chasing the darkness across the sky and reminding everyone they had beds to get to.
‘Fuck me,’ said Laura as they found the end. ‘How long’s this queue?’
Kate looked down to the front. ‘Very fucking long. Told you we shouldn’t have stayed for the last song. We’re too old to be in there when the lights come on.’
Laura gave her a gentle nudge and smiled. ‘Fuck off. You might be thirty but some of us are still in our twenties.’
‘Only just. That stick you’re pushing thirty with is getting shorter, babe.’
Laura stuck her tongue out but said nothing.
The girl in front of them seemed to be on her own. She scrolled through her phone with one hand, cigarette in the other. Kate saw she was in flats –good choice – and what is commonly known as ‘jeans and a nice top’.
Kate tapped her on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me, I like your top.’
The girl looked over her shoulder, worried, then relaxed when she saw it was a woman who had tapped her.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Thanks. Primark. Think it was only about two quid.’
“All the bravado and defensiveness, disappeared. Now, she was just a girl in a nice top, in the taxi rank queue, alone.”
Kate nodded in appreciation. ‘It’s lovely. I don’t go in Primark much anymore. Why is everything either cropped or see through?’
Laura sniggered. ‘Alright, Grandma. Wind it in.’
The girl in the top smiled. ‘I know what you mean. Same reason I give Topshop a wide berth now. Think I’m old enough to be the staff’s mum.’
Kate held out the carton in her hand. ‘Want a chip? Can have those last few if you want.’
‘What’s on it?’ the girl asked.
The girl took a couple gratefully, being careful not to spill the mayo on her top.
‘You out on your own?’ Laura asked her as Kate tossed the empty carton into the nearest bin.
The girl sucked some garlic mayo off her thumb and shook her head. ‘No. Well, I suppose I am now. I was out with my boyfriend but we had a row and now he’s fucked off home.’
‘He left you on your own in town?’ Laura asked, shocked.
The girl shrugged. ‘Yeah, that’s what usually happens. Too much coke, he gets dead aggy on it, can’t reason with him.’
Kate pulled a face. ‘Sounds like a nightmare babe. Best off out of it if you ask me. My ex was like that, one too many drinks or bumps and that was it for the night.’
Laura raised an eyebrow. ‘For the night? For the week more like. He was a nightmare.’
Kate nodded slowly. ‘Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Other times he was a babe though, could be really caring one minute then a psycho the next. Never knew which Paul you were gonna get.’
The girl frowned. ‘My fella’s called Paul as well. Paul Grosky.’
Kate felt like she’d been punched in the solar plexus. Suddenly the noise of idling engines and chatter was deafening, her head felt heavy and foggy like the beginning of a migraine. Fuck. She looked at the floor and tried to focus.
Laura dumped her chips on the floor and linked her arm through Kate’s. The warmth was reassuring. ‘You okay, babe?’
Kate nodded. ‘Yeah, just a bit light-headed I think. Too many shots.’
The girl stared at them. ‘Do you know my Paul? Who are you? Are you Kate?’ Her voice was getting louder.
‘Your Paul was my Paul.’ She replied. ‘Yeah, I’m Kate.’
The queue had slowly been moving forward and Kate was relieved to see only a few people left in front of them.
The girl stood, arms crossed, defensive. She looked Kate up and down, assessing whether she was going to be trouble or not, deciding whether to make the first move. Kate clung to Laura’s arm, afraid she was about to get a mouthful, or worse. God knows what Paul had told this girl about her. Paul loved a story, would spend hours droning on about people who’d got on the wrong side of him, always their fault obviously. Kate had lost count of the fights she’d dragged him out of, the amount of times she’d begged him not to start on someone, the amount of times she’d held her tongue so she didn’t end up the one getting slapped.
The girl still hadn’t said anything, the three of them tense, not knowing what to do.
Finally, Laura broke the silence. ‘You know, babe, I should probably mind my own business but if you need some help, you can tell us.’
The girl exhaled, her shoulder sagging. All the bravado and defensiveness, disappeared. Now she was just a girl in a nice top, in the taxi rank queue, alone. Her eyes filled with tears. She looked up the sky, trying to stop their inevitable fall down her cheeks. ‘Fuck.’
Kate stepped forward and rubbed her arm. ‘It’s alright, you know. It’s not you, you’re amazing. I promise you it’s him. I’ve been there babe and I promise it isn’t you.’
The girl’s tears were falling freely now, leaving tracks in her foundation. ‘You don’t even know me, how can you say that?’
‘I can just tell,’ Kate said. ‘Girls can tell these things, like in a club toilet and you know which girl to ask to hold the door closed for you. You just know.’
‘Are you getting in love?’ The slightly annoyed tone of the taxi rank attendant cut through their conversation. They were at the front of the queue, the taxi door open and waiting.
A look of panic struck the girl’s face. ‘Oh, erm, yeah. Shit. Yeah, sorry.’ She looked at Kate and Laura. ‘I’ve gotta go.’ She got into the backseat.
Laura grabbed the door before she could close it. ‘You haven’t got to do anything babe. Come to ours. Don’t go to him.’
‘Please,’ Kate added. ‘We’ll all get in this taxi, you can crash at ours and we’ll sort it in the morning.’
Kate could hear her heart thumping, her hands were shaking from the adrenaline. She couldn’t let her go, she needed the girl to come with them, to take the chance. Getting in a taxi with two strange girls was dangerous but Kate knew going home would be worse.
The girl tightened her grip on the door handle, looked at them then turned and stared at the road ahead. ‘I’ll be fine, girls. Not tonight, this isn’t the night. I’m sorry.’ She slammed the door and the taxi pulled away from the curb.
Kate burst into tears. ‘Fuck.’
Laura pulled her into a hug as the next taxi pulled to the front. ‘It’s alright, you tried.’
The taxi rank attendant gave an audible sigh and rolled his eyes. ‘Won’t feel as bad in the morning, girls. Time for home.’
Laura tightened the hug for the last few seconds, kissed Kate on the cheek and then let go.
‘Nice night, girls?’ the taxi driver asked.
Kate and Laura stared out of the windows, not speaking.
He turned the radio on.
Debz Butler is a writer and poet based in Chester. She is a graduate of the Write Like a Grrrl programme, has been published both online and in print and runs her own poetry open mic night, @testifypoetry .