Pond Dippers

In the pub Martina lifts someone else’s glass from the cluster on the table, passing over her own full one, and pretends to drink. The office party. It comes with the territory: the graduate scheme job in the City that her parents wanted her to get, ‘so that you’ll meet a nice man, and settle down.’

She is weary of straining her ears to listen to Aaron from IT trying to flirt with her, and raising her voice above the tipsy shrieks of the women to parry his advances. He’s presentable enough, good at his job, must be making some money, perhaps he’s the ‘nice man’. It’s a relief when he goes to the bar but then he comes back with two glasses, putting what looks like a white wine in front of her.

‘Cheers,’ he says, lifting his glass.

She is obliged to do the same, and sips politely. The wine tastes strange: sweet, cloying, undrinkable. She feels that she cannot bear to spend another moment in this place, talking to this man, drinking this vile wine. She puts the glass down.

‘I have to go back to the office.’

‘What? Now? You haven’t finished your drink.’

‘I, um, I left my umbrella behind.’

‘Hey, I’ll walk you back, wait…’

Before he can rise, she shakes her head and steps out into the rain, pulling the hood of her waterproof low over her eyes. Despite the street lighting it’s dark in the greasy alleyways of Southwark, close to the suck of the river. Soon she will be on the bridge with the familiar skyline of the City glittering across the Thames. She feels dizzy; it can’t be the wine, she had only half a glass. A feeling of sleep, of loss of balance, she closes her eyes for an instant and then rights herself, her hand against the steel shutters of a shop. It’s just fatigue, too many late nights and early starts.

There is a pale face staring at her, from low down in the dark pool of a doorway. A woman’s voice amongst the huddle of a sleeping bag.

‘Martina?’

The creature knows her, but at this time of night, she can’t stop. She hunches down further into her hood, her heart suddenly hammering, pretending she hasn’t been recognised.

‘Martina? Don’t you know me?’

She hurries on.

‘Martina! It’s Lorna!’ Fainter now.

At Alcott Revers Group Martina swipes herself into the shelter of the bright, warm foyer. She is dripping water on the marble floor. Tomas, apparently dozing on reception, lifts a finger slightly in acknowledgment and then tucks his chin back down to his chest.

The lift door opens and she steps into the mirrored box, thinking how her mascara has run and how bad her skin looks in the harsh light. She presses 8 as usual.

There is her desk amongst the rows of others, the screensaver pattern on the monitor whirling and twisting, She feels dizzy again, but it passes. There is her umbrella in the stand by the coat hooks. She hangs up her coat and sits at her computer.

She remembers Lorna, all right. So that was what became of her. She played with Lorna when they were kids, spending sweltering summer afternoons at the pond on Wanstead Flats with fishing nets and jam jars, feeling the shock of cold water around the ankles, their feet slipping on weedy pebbles, their rolled up jeans getting soaked around their knees. Laura’s mum would have a rucksack with sandwiches and fruit juice and the two of them would sit side by side on the picnic rug, bare shoulders nearly touching, and despite the heat she would shiver and then the down on her skin would stand on end.

But in high school Lorna, struggling with the work, went into the lower sets with kids who wanted to mess about and play truant, while Martina took double maths and economics and computer science and got a place at Queen Mary’s.

The screensaver switches to a password prompt; she has left work unfinished; the problem was stretching and twisting in her brain all evening, a few lines of C++, something wrong with the code. So simple and she hadn’t seen it staring her in the face. IF THEN. If she could just set it right. She just needs to log in and make a few corrections.

Her head is still reeling as she types, and in the end she pushes back her chair in disgust; she’ll try it again tomorrow. She takes her coat and the brolly and makes her way out past a sleeping Tomas.

Outside the rain is still sheeting down, but there is no mistaking the voice.

‘Don’t pretend you don’t see me. You see me alright. You saw me well enough when it suited you.’

The street seems like a dark abyss after the brightness of the office foyer, but Martina makes out a thin figure in front of her, shoulders bundled in a sleeping bag.

‘Lorna? What are you doing here?’ Her heart gives a single slow, heavy beat and seems to pause; the giddy feeling returns.

‘Look…’ Lorna pulls back her wet sleeve. She smells musty. ‘Look. Look at my arm.’

‘What. What am I supposed to see?’

Lorna extends her forearm under a streetlight, soft side up, and Martina sees the white parallel scars, like slits on a roasting joint. Razor cuts.

‘You did that.’ Lorna’s tone is so factual that Martina checks her memories.

‘Are you crazy? I never did anything to you.’

‘That was the whole point. How could you hurt me so bad? After what we did. You made me feel so beautiful, so in love. I wanted you so much. And you felt nothing. I wanted to die.’

It was at someone’s hen party that she’d re-connected with Lorna; it didn’t seem to matter that she was in her second year at University and Lorna was cleaning floors. They could have been pond-dipping again. They’d chatted and laughed and ended up in the West End looking for a taxi together just as the theatres emptied out.

‘It’s hopeless,’ said Lorna. ‘Let’s get another drink.’

Beneath a restaurant was a cellar bar.

‘ID, Miss.’ A bouncer stopped her, but stepped back when he saw Lorna.

‘She’s with me,’ Lorna said, her high heels clattering down the iron steps.

It was quiet in the bar, with soft music and only a few tables occupied. Lorna ordered gin and tonic and as they sipped and chatted, Martina’s eye strayed to a couple of men sitting nearby, gazing into each other’s faces. She looked around.

‘Is this a gay bar, Lorna?’

‘Does it bother you?’

Martina looked back at the men, now locked in a long embrace, one twining his fingers through the blond curls at the back of his partner’s head. Lorna leant forward.

‘Does it interest you?’

Martina did not reply. She was looking at Lorna as she had never allowed herself to look. The calm, pale face, the lips, the pale eyes. Lorna’s dark silky eyebrows and the beautiful noble shape of her forehead, the sculptured cheekbones, the graceful jaw with its dimpled centreline. The white skin of her cleavage and the elegant legs with the killer heels. She placed her hands on Lorna’s shoulders, feeling the bone and muscle beneath the thin top. And then she was engulfed in a wild embrace and felt the strength of the arms that constrained her and the warmth of Lorna’s face, of her mouth, the sharp taste of gin, and all the air crushed out of her lungs.

‘I couldn’t carry on, Lorna. It was my parents.’

‘”Disgusting,” that was the word you used. “Unnatural.” You hated me as soon as you loved me.’

Martina feels the tears building, the tension in her throat.

‘Look, we’ll go to an ATM,’ she says, ‘get you some money, you can check into a hotel, get you warm, get out of those wet clothes and…’

‘Will you come to the hotel with me then, Martina?’

‘No!! Not what I meant. You know that’s not what…’

‘You want to. I know you want it. Remember when you kissed me?’

Her hand twining in Lorna’s hair, as they kissed like the men. Say it. Like the gay men in the bar. Lorna’s hair that smelt like Johnson’s baby shampoo.

No. NO.

‘No, I don’t remember.’ But her throat swells against the lie. She swallows, coughing on her own saliva.

‘You got a boyfriend, then, Martina? Settling down with the nice man your parents wanted?’

‘No. I don’t need anyone.’

‘Everyone needs someone, Martina.’ Lorna’s hand closes around her wrist. Even on that cold, rainy night, the iciness of it sends a shock through her body. As cold as the pond on Wanstead Flats.

‘I’d best be getting home,’ she says.

‘Just for a little while.’ Lorna is freezing her wrist; she thinks her pulse will fail. The musty smell of Lorna’s clothes is overpowering.

‘No,’ Martina says, ‘I’m going home.’ She twists out of Lorna’s grip, puts up the umbrella, and carries on down the street, wondering if she is following, not daring to look back.

Headlights approach along the street, their light dazzling and unbearable, flooding her eyes, her brain, her skull. She closes her eyes. She sees the dark pattern of her blood vessels on her inner vision and the two black blobs that are the reverse of the lights.

When she opens them it has stopped raining and the wind has calmed. She glances behind and Lorna is not there. She folds her umbrella and walks on. It seems it is nearly dawn. The last of the night buses growls past, empty. She hails it half heartedly; she is not at a bus stop and she does not recognise the destination, but it would serve. The bus wheezes on, spraying water up from puddles. She thinks she is at Aldgate and heads in the direction of the Whitechapel Road. Maybe she can walk home.

After that the sun comes up, the colours bright and vibrant, the dullness of the city streets replaced with sunshine. She is not sure what day it is; maybe her parents will be worried. She tries to phone but her mobile has no signal. She catches a number 10 bus; others jostle past her and the driver does not notice when she swipes her Oyster card. The people look strange, clouded as though the bus is full of soot, and a fat old woman tries to sit on her lap, unaware that she’s there, grumbling and re-shifting her bulk; Martina edges away so that she is pinned between a fat haunch and the wall of the bus, turns her head away and wonders fearfully if she still exists.

At her parents’ house, she rummages in her bag for her keys, overturning irrelevant objects: leaflets, receipts, a pocket calculator. She has left the umbrella on the bus. She rings the doorbell, and hears the familiar chime. The door is opened but her mother, her face tear-stained, peers out unseeing, and then steps outside.

Martina has to back away to avoid a collision.

‘It’s me, Mum,’ she croaks. She can smell the perfume: Shalimar. She is that close and yet her mother does not know it.

‘Mum?’ she pleads.

Her mother looks up and down the road.

‘I could have sworn there was someone,’ her mother mutters and goes back in, pausing on the doorstep to look back.

‘Mum!’ she shouts. Her mother does not hear.

‘Is it the police?’ Her father is in the hall. ‘Is there any news?’

Her mother shuts the door.

She wanders the streets of the City, feeling no hunger or thirst. All the people look dead, the women with their powdered skin and harsh unhappy mouths, the men broad-faced, pompous; death is in their faces. Enslaved to the corporations, shopping after work for their small vanities in the little expensive shops and sleeping at night in their dormitory towns after their nightly diet of television. How will she know if she is alive or dead?

She must find Lorna; she has sent her to this place and perhaps may release her. Of course, the bar. She wanders on through the streets of London.

‘Lorna’s downstairs,’ says the bouncer.

Lorna is alone in the far corner of the cellar. She stands as she sees Martina, holding out her arms in hope.

The redness of Lorna’s mouth, the gin taste on her tongue, the touch of her hands, Lorna is warm and alive in her arms and their kiss is eternal.

When Martina wakes there is a plastic tube under her nostrils and she hears a hiss of oxygen and the beep of her pulse. Polished rails are either side of the bed. She shifts; sweaty inside the starched sheets that slip over the rubber mattress. She heaves herself on to her side; there is a drip in her arm. She struggles to focus on the figure by her side.

‘Lorna,’ she says. ‘Lorna?’

‘It’s your Mum, Martina.’ Her father’s voice.

Her mother gives a sob and then reaches out to her, running her hand over her shoulder and her hair, as if she were still her little child.

Martina smells the familiar fragrance. ‘Shalimar’, she says.

‘We thought we’d lost you.’ Her mother wipes her eyes and nose with a hanky. ‘They found you down by the Thames. A rough sleeper raised the alarm.’

‘I don’t know,’ she says.

‘The doctors found drugs in your urine,’ sobs her mother.

Arron, she thinks, the vile wine.

‘What happened to you, Martina?’ Her father stands at the foot of the bed, his face crumpled and worn. ‘We rang your office. We called the police. You’ve got to tell us what happened.’

She remembers: pond-dipping, all the dead people, Lorna’s kiss…

‘Yes…I’ve a few things to tell you,’ she says.