Have You Ever Been to Edinburgh?
The bag was heavy, causing her to shift her weight from side to side. She didn’t want to put it down because that meant stopping, waiting. She needed to be in motion. She had been sleepless the night before, dozing for minutes at a time before opening her eyes, her mind rivers and streams of words, her stomach growling, a different kind of hunger. At 5:00 a.m. she rose, turned on the light and went to the mirror. Her face, a puffy canvas waiting to be filled. Searched it, of course, for blemishes, blackheads, stubborn crescents of red around the nose. You could always find something if you looked hard enough.
She had moisturised and primed. She had contoured, just lightly. It was the fresh look she was going for, the not-done, spontaneous look, as if she had made no effort at all. That was the point of the trip, spontaneity. It was wild and what no one else she knew was doing, taking a train on a weekday morning to somewhere far away with a man, deciding it all on the phone just the night before. She looked about her at the men and women trudging to work in suits, eyes sagging like her parents’ did, bland and responsible. Some glanced at her. She imagined how they might see her, a girl with her foot resting on a weekend bag as if someone might take it, eyes trying not to dart too much, not really knowing what she wanted her face to do. She reapplied her lipstick, coral pink.
She tried not to look at every entrance to the station, to peer into every approaching face. She still had the feeling of being up to no good around proper adults. They might think she was a runaway. She knew she looked young for her age. Any moment one might ask her what she was up to and she would say she was fine, just waiting for her boyfriend. She hadn’t used that word about him yet. They had said the other thing, though, the important thing. A concerned woman, perhaps, would ask if she was ok. The thought made her lips pout in readiness, sucking her cheeks in to look older, less reproachable. But no one stopped. Something made her turn, and she saw the boy working at Burger King a few feet away watching her, leaning on the counter, his chin in his hands, his shirt baggy and unironed, hat loose around his ears. He raised his eyebrows at her. A child. She turned away.
Dad had woken up as she left. His tired eyes ran over her as she stood there erect and bright in her boots, miniskirt, leather jacket, big bag. She knew she was a constant ache, a pain he had chosen and that she couldn’t help him with. And Mum’s voice, slurred with sleep coming from their bedroom, where is she off to now?
Just text us when you get there, Dad said. She left him, unworldly in his pyjamas, crawling back into sleep. And out she went into the deep blue morning, the sun still hiding, breath short and jagged, the bag causing a sharp pinch between her shoulder blades.
Yes, she had been early, but it was nearly 7:15 a.m. now and he had said be there at 7:00. It was like him to be late, though. It was silly to wonder if he would come, so she didn’t let herself wonder. He would come.
He had been late on their first date. Working her bar shift, electricity in her skin, jittery like before an exam and stumbling over words while speaking to customers. Shy and blushing in advance. Men were more leering than usual, working harder to get her attention as if she were floating away in a bubble they wanted to reach up and break. She was suspended, turning slowly in the air, heart punching. He had said he would come just before 11:00 p.m., close to when she finished her shift, so he could have a drink at the bar while she worked. That had thrilled her. That he would come and sit at the bar just to watch her. She had tensed every time a customer took a barstool. If they were all taken, where would he sit?
But he didn’t make it in time. A text came to say he would be a bit late and sorry. It didn’t matter. She still tingled all over, her body a conductor. She put away glasses, took out the bins, swept and mopped behind the bar slowly, enjoying the slowness. Soon she would see him, soon she would be seen. She was living in the soon and it tasted like prosecco. She sat at the bar and poured two rum and cokes, sipped one, opened her book and tried to read, the words running into each other. And when she heard him, felt him come in, she didn’t look up. His voice said her name.
The station was getting busier and she was a speed bump for the marchers. And now she needed the toilet. At 7:20 a.m. it was probably ok to text him and not seem needy. I’m here, just going to the loo, see you soon? X.
Did she have 20p? She tried to reverse herself to find her money, but a woman sorting her own change, tired face not smiling, leaned over and put 20p in for her. Thank you, thanks. Then through the turnstiles, nearly getting caught in the metal arms with the heavy bag. Lift it over, said the woman who looked after the toilets, looking at her like she was an idiot.
On the toilet, she thought of last night. Have you ever been to Edinburgh? he had asked. He was going up to see a friend. She had never been to Edinburgh. It’s just like Harry Potter, he said. She said she didn’t like Harry Potter. That had impressed him, maybe.
And now, out of the cubicle and a quick scan of her body in the mirror. Still the same. Beautiful said Mum, who had that weird way of looking at things that older people do, everything flattened and simplified, not seeing the truth that she was odd-shaped, only almost right. But her body became right against his. Not like a boy’s body. It felt dense with experience and knowing. It felt heavy with life lived. The boys her age seemed to hold their bodies like she held this bag now, not sure where to put it.
The last time they saw each other he told her she must make everyone so jealous, not having to wear any make-up. She didn’t tell him she was wearing make-up, that she wore it nearly 24 hours a day. He had listened to her poetry then, even as she laughed at herself and said I know it’s bad. It’s not bad, not bad at all. What are we going to do with you, eh?
In the mirror the light was what they call harsh, practically making her haggard. Her eyes had shadows. She took out her make-up bag. Just a little more concealer here, a little more blusher there. Another woman now, washing her hands at the sink, flicking them dry, met her eyes. You look gorgeous, baby, you don’t need all that, I hope this is not for no boy. The woman was laugh-ing. She smiled at the woman, laughed to show she knew, she was already above all that. Checked herself once more. It would do. What was it with people always giving advice? She didn’t need help. And sometimes there was something clawing in their words, a sting. A woman said to her at a party once: I wish I felt like I do now when I looked like you. It didn’t make any sense.
Back at her spot, she put the bag down, folded her arms. When they got to Edinburgh they would go to a cafe and have coffee. Or maybe to a pub, where the bartender knew him by name, and they would drink beer. She would have a pint, easy going. He would tell her something that made him look down at his pint shyly. It would be a story from his youth, she liked those. The idea that be-fore she was even born he was out there on the front line of life. He had been reckless, he said.
The contents and weight of the bag comforted her suddenly. They must be going to Edinburgh because she had this bag to take there. It was definitive. She had packed and unpacked and repacked. Best underwear, a silk black top, several different outfits. All of her equipment for her hair. Make-up utensils rolled into a tight burrito. Heels in case they went out-out. In her smaller cross-body bag was her purse, her cigarettes, her lip balm, the coral pink lipstick, her book—he had the same one, she had pointed to it on his bookshelf and pronounced Jung wrong, phonetically, and he had laughed thinking it was on purpose.
He had not replied to her text. He must have opened it as he went down the escalator onto the tube, his hair still wet from the shower, fresh shaven and a little red from it, cup of tea left half drunk on the table. He must be on the tube now, panting a bit from the run, his shirt not buttoned all the way. He must be on the tube—it was 7:30 a.m.
Their first night together they sat on his sofa which sagged in the middle drinking rum and ginger beer. He shared his house with other people, men that came in and said hello good-naturedly and scratched and readjusted themselves in front of her, still, like the boys she knew. He let her choose all the songs, eyes creasing with appreciation, hand heavy on her thigh. She had felt like a perfect tangerine being unpeeled in his bed, even when he said, amused, that her bra was too big for her.
7:40 a.m. The platform was announced, the number was there glaring at her. She thought of walking towards the platform, walking towards Edinburgh. She put the bag down. She called his phone, listened to the resounding nothing of the tone. Her manager at work, shagging half the staff, had asked if she knew what she was doing, arms folded and big brotherly all of a sudden. She had laughed, don’t worry about me, worry about your own love life. She needed to turn in the bubble for a second longer, knowing as well as anyone else it just needed the lightest touch from a finger reaching up and pop. It didn’t matter about the next bit, just today, just now, if they could go to Edinburgh together, that was enough. And then the phone stopped ringing. He answered. Her face flushed as his voice said her name.