Beyond Criticism

1

The man across the aisle from Claire was no longer reading poetry. He had put down the book and picked up his phone, inserted one ear bud and turned to lean against the window, hiding his screen from passers-by on the way to the buffet car, but he had not thought of the way it would reflect on to the window behind him, the girl who was sitting on a low sofa and moving her hand between her legs in a room that gleamed with the green light of California.

Claire had seen this sort of pornography before. In her last days with David, when he avoided having sex with her, she had asked him to show her what he watched when he was alone, what it was that got him off. But David said he didn’t watch porn. Well, only very rarely. Sometimes, obviously, but mostly out of anthropological interest. Honestly? Did she really want to see?

There would be no judgment, she insisted. This was the id. Desire was beyond criticism.

Mal Issue 4: Real Girls

Real girls was what David liked, women about the age of the undergraduates she taught, when they were persuaded to take their clothes off and masturbate on a sofa as part of a screen audition which they hoped might win them work as a ‘calendar model’. He liked to see their suspicion supplanted by arousal but never fully allayed, to watch the way the women surrendered to their own corruption, the dawning truth of their ambition, like it was, in the end, a relief.

This, she presumed, was how he saw it, though they never talked about it again after that night so she might have been putting words into his mouth. The man behind the camera in these videos liked to begin the series of crises that broke the woman’s resistance by stroking her cheek before slipping a finger into her mouth to see whether or not she would suck it.

Before the man on the train had begun to watch pornography he had been reading a debut collection of poetry which Claire had been intending to buy for herself. Before he started to watch pornography on his phone she had imagined beginning a conversation with him; she had taught for six hours that day, the last of term, and the idea of reading for pleasure that afternoon, or ever again, was implausible; she wanted to talk and to drink with other bitter adults, to hear her own voice becoming improper, for hours and hours, until she was dead. Perhaps the man watching pornography had been teaching too, and what he was doing now was only a practical wind-down routine to get him back in the mood for reading poetry. To concentrate on anything these days required constant improvisation. After each orgasm he could probably read for another hour before he was tempted to look at more pornography. You could read a poetry collection in that hour. Perhaps she should be watching pornography too, her own female-friendly pornography, sensitive gangbangs, sympathetic ravagings at the hands of men dressed as soldiers, which she could monitor with her own single ear phone and ineffective discretion. Perhaps we could all court each other in this way now, revealing our trespasses in reflections which we were only pretending were accidental. This is my niche. Is it tolerable? We need never acknowledge the part of me that isn’t.

He looked up at her and away as though the sun was in his eyes. Then he looked back and smiled. She was wearing a new dress and no tights; it was a hot Friday in May, and he had not been the first man to look in the direction of her legs that day. His bag was on the seat next to him, artfully obscuring his crotch. The girl on the screen stood to turn away from the camera, and pull down her –

‘Is it good?’ she asked him, surprising them both.

It was good. The man flinched backwards.

‘The collection,’ she said. ‘I’ve been meaning to buy a copy.’

He had turned his screen off immediately and was blinking at her. ‘Yes, it is,’ he said.

‘You didn’t look like you lasted long before you put it down.’

The man gripped his bag and pulled it further over onto his lap. ‘Oh, you know. Social media. Twitter. I’m one of the great distracted morons of the present.’

His smile was actually rather nice. You couldn’t write off a man for looking at pornography: not unless pornography had completely turned you off from being heterosexual. You couldn’t write off a man just for enjoying the degradation of women.

‘You too?’ she said. ‘I seem to have forgotten how to read today.’

He put his bag on the floor and turned his knee to point to her.

She said, ‘I suppose I should just download some pornography and have done with it.’

‘Ha ha!’ And then he said ‘ha ha!’ again. He had scruffy hair and a big beard, was only a few years younger than her.

‘Do you know any good sites?’ she asked.

He did his best to put his smile back on. ‘I mean, I don’t know what you’re into.’

She had kept her promise and tried not to judge David on what it was that turned him on, though it was difficult from then on not to think about the extent to which the other image he presented to the world was fraudulent, this man who was always judging other men, the sensitive NGO executive who had worn with complicated irony a ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt on a stag do, who had read Irigaray and Butler, who had ‘done the work’, who cooked and cleaned, more than she did, and who liked to see women in their late teens as they were groomed by devious predators.

And then why shouldn’t a man unzip his principles then zip them straight back up again? Surely that was what the zip was invented for, to have one’s trousers on and off at the same time? Claire had tried to convince herself that the videos were probably staged in any case. That’s how she had watched the videos, with David that night and afterwards one time on her own: forensically, analytically. The women were too pretty. Too pliable. But the optimistic tattoos some of them possessed – the cursive profundities so difficult to read, along one side of the ribs or underneath a breast, the cute little animals’ faces, was that a squirrel? – they felt like the pointless blemish, the detail for the sake of detail, which conferred the presence of the real. She didn’t think the pornographers had read Barthes. And the actors were very good if they were only acting pensively.

To try to neutralise the mood that watching these videos with David had established, Claire had acted out a role herself that night. She played the corruptee, going to her bedroom to get changed and coming back in an old tartan mini skirt she had kept for emergencies from her dressing-up days as an undergraduate. She was a sexy student who had been missing his classes. David had tried to get into it, tried to spank her, but he was too embarrassed. The id made its prompts and so did his knowledge of workplace harassment. He was worried he was failing another test.

Claire looked back up at the man on the train. ‘I’m into, er, never mind,’ she said.

He smiled, put his phone in his pocket and picked up his collection again. ‘Thanks for reminding me I was enjoying reading this before I got stuck on Twitter.’

‘You’re welcome,’ she said, and she waited to see if he would become distracted by Twitter again.

2

Before David she was meeting Patrick in a club in Soho, one of the famous ones, which his work paid for, he said, when he suggested meeting there, as though he had forgotten that the last time they met there he had told her that he’d been given a free membership for being interesting. Could that be right? Patrick was only averagely interesting, after all. Perhaps he had been deemed more interesting once but had to pay now that whatever metrics they used had ascertained that he, like everyone else she knew, had become less interesting. Perhaps being averagely interesting was more than average these days, and the median was now soporific. Her mother would have had a saying refuting this sort of despair. Life’s as interesting as you make it. Only boring people get bored. But her mother’s second stroke had stopped her from witnessing the news coverage of the Brexit negotiations, or seeing the way that her mother’s feminist heroes were being vilified. Her mother had breathed oxygen in the days before the world had divided themselves into so many incompatible good and evils.

Anyway, she had no issue with Patrick paying for a private members’ club with his own money, if he wanted to, though it was funny to remember that their friendship had been formed while fleeing the police during a protest about globalised capitalism. It was the G8 summit in Birmingham and they were reclaiming the streets. As the techno lashed and the police closed in, they had bought speed pills from a dreadlocked hippy, swallowing them in spite of their mutual distaste when the hippy produced them by reaching down inside the crotch of his cargo shorts. After the police charged, and they ran, they found themselves kissing each other in New Street station, and when they got back to Oxford they stayed up having sex until daylight, their first and only time together. It had been the first time either of them had sex on drugs; they’d been amazed at how good they were at it; they were like professionals, they could have gone on for days. That morning they had taken their first-year exam paper and she had got a first and he a 2.1, after which they didn’t speak for the rest of the summer, and after which Patrick lost all interest in political protest and illegal drugs for the rest of his degree.

She had thought about bringing drugs into her relationship with David when their sex life had become so moribund. But by that time she was trying to conceive, and what might drugs do to a foetus? Perhaps the risks would have been worth the opportunity cost, adding to the once-or-twice-a-month vaguely around ovulation, which David often contrived to leave the country for. They were not making the required effort, though she was trying to. She suspected she knew what David was doing when he retreated upstairs. She sometimes turned off the music she was listening to and listened hard for very small screams of sexual delight. She had wanted him to bring whatever he did up there into the light so they could look at it together. To stop wasting his orgasms and bring them to her. He could degrade her if he had to, if male desire could only be roleplayed now that its evil had been universally agreed upon, if it could only be defused by exaggeration, by consensual pantomime, fetish parade. He could wear a black cloak and fangs and whip her if he had to. Did he have to? She feared he had been draining himself in the study not from desire but from cunning, a desktop curator of a low potency that was neither no potency nor enough to make a baby. His libido kept cool by a fan whirring in the inside of a computer tower.

Patrick was sitting in a corner of the upstairs bar with a glass of beer in front of him. He was looking at it with great concentration, and though his face was still as unwrinkled and boyish as it had been when she met him, the expression he was pulling would begin to put some dints in it soon. When he stood to greet her he went to kiss her on both cheeks but she held on after the first kiss and felt his restraint relax as she hugged him.

‘Oh, Claire,’ he said. ‘Thanks for that. It’s nice to see a friend who’s not repulsed by me.’

Which she was only a little repulsed by. He asked what she’d like to drink and she ordered a glass of wine – ‘No,’ he said, ‘let’s have a bottle.’

She cast her eyes around for celebrities as she sat down – it was that sort of place. She didn’t recognise anyone, though she was out of touch and a lot of the old ones were probably ankle-tagged and under house arrest by now. ‘How are you? Where are we with everything?’ she asked Patrick, but he didn’t want to talk about that yet.

‘It taints everything. I want to know how you are first. What are you doing in town? You’re not here just to see David, are you?’

Patrick and David had never liked each other. Patrick knew David judged him: the centrist who lacked faith in Corbyn-era Labour politics, who argued during dinner one night that the diversity initiatives installed at his workplace were superficial and weren’t making things any fairer. ‘Are you an actual racist or just being provocative?’ David had asked him, before Patrick put his coat on and walked out of the restaurant. Claire had stood up for the complexity of his argument when they got home and David had lectured her on how two privately educated people could never understand the ways that structural oppression worked. ‘What does that twat know about the working class?’ he asked, before stomping up to the study and banging the door shut behind him. Earlier that morning, when they had been lying in bed together, Claire’s app had pinged to tell her she was ovulating. ‘Tonight,’ he said, leaping up. ‘I’m going to be late for work if I don’t move now.’ And then dinner with Patrick and the argument. The convenient moral outrage. She waited ten minutes then crept down the corridor. Behind the closed door she could hear the sound of a woman crying out in pain, and she listened to that noise for a few seconds before she burst into the room. He had his headphones on and was watching –

‘What’s that?’ she said.

‘What are you doing?’ he said, startled.

‘What are you doing? Are you into women in head scarves?’

‘What?’ he said, looking back to the screen.

‘What are you watching?’

‘It’s a documentary about the occupation of the West Bank!’

He was thinking of such different things to her. What did it mean that at that moment she would have preferred him to be watching porn for men who were turned on by women in hijabs? Anything to show that living with her hadn’t put him off sex forever. Anything to taint one of his good causes and bring him down to her level, the baby-hungry function she hated becoming, the bourgeois woman willing to let her mind and principles be rotted by her hormones.

‘I’m not just here to see David,’ she told Patrick. ‘I’m staying with my sister, taking my nieces to the theatre tomorrow, just going to wind down and walk around, see some exhibitions.’

‘Good. I was worried you might be considering getting back with him.’

‘Maybe I should. I haven’t found anyone else.’

‘You can’t have been looking hard enough. Any single man would be mad not to want you.’

He was not convincingly smooth. What she had liked most about him when they made friends was his abrasiveness, his willingness to argue against the consensus. But this was not a quality which would serve him well in his current predicament. Nor would any other qualities he possessed or didn’t. ‘Are you serious?’ she said. ‘I have my eye trained on every eligible model. It gets me into situations.’

She told him the story about the man on the train and how she had surprised him.

‘No!’ Patrick kept saying. ‘That’s brilliant. Well done, you.’

She waited to see if he would offer her the opinion that he didn’t really like porn. Casually, as an afterthought. As men had offered to her before. Sitting back in their chairs and looking her in the eye with an unnatural amount of care.

‘Do you watch porn on trains?’

‘No, I do not. I’d be worried about my data plan. Look, do you really have to meet David later? Blow him off and hang out with me.’

‘That sounds obscene.’

‘I suppose I should feel lucky you haven’t reported me to the sex police.’

‘“He said, bitterly.”’

‘I am bitter!’ he said.

‘I know you are,’ she said. ‘I know.’

3

It was nine when she met David; she was half an hour late; each time she refused to acquit Patrick without charge another argument sparked and needed to be stamped out. He was prepared to forego his complete innocence in the abstract but not on a single specific instance of wrongdoing. Despite the rhetoric she kept hearing from men that they ‘had to learn from women’, most still had the idea that they had to be innocent to be loveable. Impeccable. When it was the contortions they made to convince everyone that they were blemishless that made them most ugly.

David, always frugal, had suggested a Pizza Express on the South Bank. It’s fine, he texted, when she told him she was late but on the way. I’ve got a book, and she could picture it, something published by Verso that he would tell her about. Full of underlinings and annotations. What was happening to her to make her understand David’s intelligence so negatively? That he read philosophy purposefully enough to summarise and argue with it and apply it to public policy should have been a seductive thing about him, so why had she once dreamed of him ejaculating dusty pencil shavings over a white conference table?

As Pizza Expresses went, David had picked a nice one; it looked out on the Thames, on the bankside tinselled with fairy lights. Perhaps, she thought, he had chosen the place to be romantic. She worried that the reason he annoyed her so much was because she still wanted something from him, still believed he was reformable. They were both thirty-eight years old and knew they could live together in something like peace; they had done so for four years in her long breaks from teaching, in amiable semi-seclusion, on a sofa together with their books or in their separate working spaces. But what had seemed civilised then was no longer the type of peace she wanted; she was ready to sacrifice peace, even though she loved the peace she no longer wanted. How unfair that he had only ever had to acquiesce to her suggestion that they tried for a baby, that it was he who had forced her to bring it up, and that the first thing he had suggested when she admitted that their relationship was floundering was that perhaps this was because it was too soon for them to have a baby. She had been thirty-five then and it was not too soon for anything.

He was sitting upstairs on a little table by the window, tapping a pencil against the book he had open. And he looked just the same as she remembered him, his hair at the longer end of the length he let it get to, his beard a bit thicker than it had been, but still tidy, and his face had not cracked up, she saw no great scars left by her absence, just the slight crows’ feet and wrinkled brow that all sentient people their age had. She watched him read something that disturbed him and he squeezed his brows together, scribbled something down. And then he smiled and let out a little laugh, and she remembered his sense of humour, the pithy accuracy with which he put down their shared enemies, and how she had loved him because of who he was, and not in spite of it. Without a baby they might have been happy.

She was swilling that thought around her mouth, looking for the note of poison in it, when he looked up and saw her. His smile dropped for a second before he put it back on. That was understandable. She had probably not been smiling herself before he noticed her. But she smiled now, and he stood up and came out in front of the table and hugged her, and it felt natural to press their bodies against each other.

‘Hey, how are you? You look great,’ he said.

‘I’m good,’ she said. ‘You look great too.’

‘Stop being polite. You really do look great. Like a French actress. I don’t remember that dress.’

‘I only bought it yesterday.’

‘I should be honoured you’re wearing it first for me.’

‘I’m not wearing it for you.’

His face fell. ‘Of course, of course, how silly of me to say that. I don’t mean to imply –’

‘Calm down, David. I’m teasing you. Sort of. Let’s sit down. I’m sorry I’m late.’

‘Yes. Patrick’s having an emergency?’

‘Yes, a little bit.’

‘What is it?’

‘Oh, let’s not waste our evening talking about that.’

‘He’s not?’

‘What?’

‘Well, all this Me Too stuff. I wouldn’t put it past him.’

‘Let’s not start on Patrick. You’ve always hated him.’

‘Hate’s a strong word. I just think he’s an arrogant, Eton-educated twat.’

‘But for you twat would always follow the words “Eton-educated”.’

‘With good reason. Have you been watching the news? I suppose I might give George Orwell a break.’

‘You must remember Patrick didn’t enrol himself there.’

‘Must I? Who says I must?’

‘Anyway,’ she lied, ‘it’s nothing like that.’

When the waiter came, David showed him a voucher he had downloaded to his phone, two-for-one pizzas, which the waiter said he would take later, and then David ordered the cheapest bottle of red without consulting her beyond the colour, as though there was nothing to consult, which was something else she liked about him, his common-sense stinginess.

She refilled her glass when he was half through his and topped up his as an afterthought. They had navigated past Patrick’s danger to women, and now David was talking to her earnestly about the work his NGO was doing, and about his new promotion to head of strategy, and why was it, she wondered, that she had lied to David about the circumstances of Patrick’s current crisis?

‘So,’ he said, eventually, ‘What about you? Any news? Are you seeing anyone?’ There had been a Victorian a year ago. A Romantic the year before. They gave her injured looks when they passed her on the corridor. And there was a lesbian colleague she wondered about sometimes.

‘Do you fancy her?’ he asked.

‘Look at your eyes light up. No, not really. I think she’s attractive. I like her company. I wonder how she feels about me sometimes. But, anyway, I haven’t given up on the conventions of a heterosexual life yet. On motherhood.’

He looked away and changed the subject. ‘You don’t mind Pizza Express, do you? I don’t eat out that much these days. I didn’t know where to suggest.’ ‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘You picked a nice one.’

They looked out at the Thames together. The tourists walking past made her think of the city breaks they had taken together to coastal cities, the waterside restaurants, the swimming, the reading, the galleries.

‘I seem to remember the Tate Modern’s open late on a Friday,’ she said. ‘We could be two tourists sightseeing.’

They watched the river, thinking what she thought were the same thoughts. The waiter showed a couple of young men to the table next to theirs.

‘So,’ she said. ‘It sounds like you’re not dating if you’re never in restaurants.’

‘Well, yeah, my online dating days are over, anyway.’

‘You were on dating apps?’

‘Aren’t you?’

‘No. Can you be on a dating app at our age?’

‘Of course. Though maybe it’s different for a man. Women probably enter an older age-range than men do with women.’

‘Women probably do. Men probably do. Which did you do, David?’

‘You know. A couple of years above. A few years below.’

‘A couple and a few.’

‘Well, anyway. I didn’t like the thing. It felt artificial. The conversations could be hard work.’

‘Hard to find women who cared about changing the world?’

‘Don’t be sarcastic. It was hard to find women who were curious about the world, who thought about it much at all. I certainly never met anyone like you.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic.’

‘Don’t become cynical.’

She smiled. ‘The world offers provocation.’

‘I can’t argue with that.’

‘These dates you went on. Did they never lead to sex?’

‘They sometimes led to sex.’

‘Despite the conversation.’

‘In spite of the conversation.’

She realised she wanted him to tell her about them. Perhaps somewhere private. ‘One-night stands?’

‘Er, yeah. Sometimes two- or three-night.’

‘Sounds fun. And being single doesn’t tempt you back there?’

He looked down. ‘Ah, well.’

‘Oh?’

‘I’ve sort of been seeing someone.’

She had been curling her hair with her right hand and she gently returned it to rest on the table. ‘Oh. Good. For you.’

‘Yeah, thanks.’

‘Who is she?’

‘Someone I met during the council elections. We ended up door-knocking together.’

‘Right.’ She pictured the sort of shouty Corbynite she saw on Twitter. Down with capitalism. The right opinions, those which she shared, theoretically. Good and evil. David would get bored of her. ‘What’s she called?’

‘Isla.’

Which ruined the image. Now she was thinking of the Australian actor, those dark eyes and red hair, a woman anyone would want to …

‘Is she … Australian?’

‘British.’

‘I see. I was thinking of Isla Fisher.’

‘Oh, no. She’s Ailah. A-i-l-a-h.’

‘I see. Interesting spelling.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Is that … Scottish?’

‘It’s a Pakistani name, I guess.’

‘Ah. It’s a Pakistani name. Of course.’

‘Of course it’s a Pakistani name?’

‘Tell me about her. Tell me about Ailah.’

‘If you change your tone I will.’

She took a breath. ‘I’m sorry if I seem combative, David. I don’t mean to be. I’m interested though. Who’s Ailah?’

‘Like I said, I met her doorknocking. She’s a party member, an activist.’

‘Is she our age?’

‘Yeah, a bit younger.’

‘Right.’ She wasn’t going to ask.

But he couldn’t resist. ‘She’s not far off thirty.’

‘Not far off?’

He had not been drinking but now obscured his face with his wine glass and poured some more for both of them when he put it down. Not far off. He hadn’t even been able to say nearly. Was he really bragging to her?

‘And what does she do?’

‘She’s a social worker.’

‘A Muslim social worker.’

‘What does that tone mean? What is wrong with that?’

‘Everything is right with that. Who doesn’t love a social worker?’

‘I doubt you know any.’

‘As close friends? You’re right. It’s my failing. I’ll go and find a social worker to marry straight away.’

‘Oh, come on.’

‘Does she wear the hijab?’ she asked.

‘What has that got to do with anything?’

‘Nothing. I’m just curious. It just helps me imagine what kind of Muslim she is, what kind of woman she is.’

‘Oh, really? A headscarf would tell you what kind of woman she is?’

‘Does she wear the hijab?’

‘None of your business.’

‘Are you going to convert?’

‘Listen to yourself. I’m an atheist. Anyway, none of your business.’

‘This is so typical of you. Everything’s an authenticity contest. Well, congratulations. You’re at the centre of things now. It’s a good job you got away from me before I forced you to make me pregnant. Imagine, I could have given birth to someone as boring as us.’

The two men on the table next to them were glancing over at them without moving their heads.

He reached over the table and touched her hand. ‘I really am sorry that didn’t work out. I know how hard it was for you.’ He was speaking as if to a difficult child on public transport.

‘I knew what you were doing up there, you know,’ she said, ‘when you were in the study.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Tunnelling away. Scraping out your escape route. Exhausting yourself on porn, then you can redeem yourself with a member of the historically oppressed, someone who can prove your credentials, cast my conventional aspirations into the starkest light.’

‘Oh, Claire, come on.’

‘Does she wear a hijab?’

‘You’re obsessed! No, she doesn’t. And the idea that I’m with her out of some kind of virtue signalling is so fucking offensive. I’m with her because she’s not jaded, she’s not bitter, she believes in things, she’s not defeated.’

‘How old exactly is she?’

‘I don’t have to answer your interrogation.’

‘How old is she?’

‘You want to know? She’s twenty-seven.’

‘Well, of course she’s not jaded! Of course she’s not defeated! She hasn’t been defeated yet. She hasn’t wasted enough time with sanctimonious hypocrites like you.’

David stood up. He was gripping the edge of the table and enunciating carefully. ‘There were things that frustrated me about you when we were together, but I never realised how fucking reactionary you’ve become. You sound like a fucking Islamophobe, do you know? No wonder you and your racist mate Patrick get on so well. I thought it was the decent thing to tell you in person about Ailah, sensitively, but I should have known better.’

And then he left. The two men next to her didn’t know where to look but the rest of the room was looking straight at her.

She looked out the window and saw David striding down the south bank. He had left no money to pay the bill. She couldn’t stand to be there a second longer, but she had no cash to leave on the table, and so she sat and waited for a waiter to come near, but the waiters had seen what had happened and were steering clear, out of fear or misguided kindness.

She caught the eye of the two men next to her. One of them smiled at her sympathetically.

‘That man,’ she said to him. ‘Who called me Islamophobic. I used to live with him. I caught him once. Watching videos … Of Muslim women.’

‘That’s awful,’ said the man. His partner nodded. ‘Awful. Are you all right, love?’

‘I’m not racist,’ she said. But if you ever had to say that, then you were racist – everyone knew that. The whole restaurant knew what she was.

4

She paid for the pizzas which they hadn’t eaten and took possession of them in two pizza boxes so she could at least give them away to someone who needed them. She was far too angry to eat now. David had taken his voucher with him when he left so she had been charged for both pizzas. He was the type of man who would have suspended hostilities to send her a screenshot of the voucher, if she had asked, but she was not the type of woman to ask.

Now she balanced the pizza boxes across one arm and wheeled her suitcase out to the lip of the Thames, breathing in and out, wishing she had a cigarette. When she reached the South Bank Centre, by the skate park, the top box slipped off the bottom box and landed flat on the floor upside down. She swore the correct amount for the situation. People looked at her and walked past.

A boy skated up as she struggled to put down the other box; he got off his board in a fluid movement, picked up the box and flipped it quickly upright. He was smooth-faced and as pretty as a whippet, his hair long and curly underneath a baseball cap.

He smiled. ‘That smells good.’

‘Thank you. Please have it. I don’t want it. I thought I’d give them to a homeless person, but I expect homeless people are probably too drunk and high by now to eat pizza. My god. That’s an awful thing to say. I’m worried I don’t realise how much of an awful person I’ve become. You don’t have a cigarette, do you? I’ll swap you a pizza for a cigarette.’

He reached into his jeans and pulled out a packet of rolling tobacco. ‘I bet you’re not an awful person. You do sound like you need a cigarette though. Shall I roll it for you?’

‘Please. That was an outburst.’ She took a deep breath and made herself smile.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Oh, no. Getting there. Who knows?’

He rolled the cigarette in a matter of seconds, offered it to her and lit it for her when she put it in her mouth. He looked at her without any challenge, just curiosity.

She took a long pull, watching the skaters roll down ramps and jump up to skid across rails. ‘Seriously, take the pizza, give it to your mates. I’ll give money to the homeless people instead. I’m going to sit here for a bit and smoke and watch. You’re all really good, aren’t you?’

‘They’re all right,’ he said. ‘They’re OK,’ and he gestured towards them with his head. ‘Why don’t you come over and share it with us?’

So she did. The boys were gentlemanly.

‘Why do you have all this pizza, miss?’ asked one of them.

She told them.

‘And he just left you there?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What a total jerk.’

‘Thank you. Do you think everyone there thought I was a racist?’

‘You’re too nice looking to be a racist.’ That was her boy.

‘I think there are many beautiful racists, actually.’

‘Maybe in photos. But when they move, they move racistly. You can see it.’

‘I bet he moves racistly, miss. We can spot a racist a mile off.’

‘Call me Claire. How do racists move?’

‘They scuttle. Like crabs. Not like us, miss. You never saw a racist who knew how to skate.’

They were a mix of ages, these boys, but the youngest was probably at least seventeen, and her boy might be twenty-three, twenty-four. The ‘miss’ they used was cheeky, flirty rather than serious.

Once the pizza was gone her boy offered her another cigarette. He took his hat off and shook his hair out, rolled the cigarette and handed it to her.

‘You’ve been very kind,’ she said. ‘But I’m in your way.’

He lit the cigarette for her. ‘You’re not in the way.’

‘I am. You get on with it. I’m going to smoke this over there and watch for a bit. Then I’m heading off. Thank you. You’ve made me much calmer.’

‘No worries, miss. It was good pizza.’

She walked back to the railing by the Thames and leaned against it, watching her boy as he rolled down a slope, flipped his board up so he turned and rode its edge along a platform. As she smoked she caught his eye after every trick he made. He was good, though his movements on the board, all of the boys’ movements, were not graceful. The way they contorted their bodies before landing, the balancing act so strenuous and fragile, the tiny distances their boards jumped that took so much effort to recover from. Reckless boys, so clamouring – she wanted to see them scrape against the concrete, get to their knees and pick themselves up. She could help. Her boy kept looking at her after each stunt he pulled. Every squeak and scuff. Perhaps, if he came over again, she would ask him if he wanted to come for a drink, she would take him for a bottle of champagne in one of the theatre bars. Could she do what they did, risk that leap, should she lean over and whisper something in his ear to make him lose his balance? Could she ever land that trick herself?

Luke Brown is the author of two novels, My Biggest Lie (2014) and Theft (February 2020). He lives in London and works at the Centre for New Writing at University of Manchester.

Real Girls

October, 2019

On projection in three stories, four poems and a sequence of poems. Featuring illustrations by Birdie Hall.

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