It was Friday evening. I was home, getting ready to go out. Dad was out as usual so I was playing music loudly, streaming it from Spotify for free. It wasn’t the sort of thing I normally listened to but I needed to get in a happy, energetic mood for tonight. So it was a playlist of club anthems, repetitive beats and strong bass lines. It was seeping inside me and filling me with excitement. I needed a good laugh, to dance and forget everything, to lose myself in music. What to wear? I chose my tight black jeans and Converse boots, matched with a vintage Ramones T-shirt. I didn’t really have any jewellery except two plain gold studs in my ears and an ankh on a bootlace round my neck. I was retro. I layered on some make-up, worrying about the effect as I didn’t wear it during the day. Was it too thick? Was the foundation the right colour? Well it would just have to do. I finished with bright red lipstick and dark kohl round my eyes. I brushed out my long unruly red hair as much as I could though it still went it’s own way, curling in waves everywhere like spare corkscrews at a party. My look was deliberately from the past. It was what I liked. I kind of wished I had been young in the 1970s. Punk would have suited me just fine. I liked to think I looked like Chrissy Hynde, pretty but androgynous. I didn’t.
‘Damn this bloody hair,’ I said out loud.
I looked at myself in the wall mirror. Well I supposed I looked striking if nothing else. I liked the way the foundation smoothed out my skin so you couldn’t see the freckles. I liked the way the kohl made my eyes look mysterious and maybe even sexy. Yes, I would do.
I grabbed my phone and stuck the buds of my i-pod in my ears and then descended the stairs two at a time. I crawled in to my beloved leather jacket and headed out, slamming the door with abandon behind me. I headed up the road and across the arched bridge, aiming for the student area. I always walked. Buses cost money and I hated them anyway. I liked the feeling of freedom walking gave me. On your own feet you were in charge of your destiny, no-one else. It reminded me of the lyrics of that Marley song: ‘My feet are my only carriage.’ Yes, I could relate to that.
I passed the pub and there were two guys outside, loafing about without aim as usual.
‘Hey darling, come and have a drink with me,’ one said.
The other one flashed his white teeth in a big smile.
I didn’t actually know them but I had seen them around many times. This pub was a magnet for the layabouts of the neighbourhood. They came to talk and to buy and sell grass, mostly just to talk and watch sport on the pub TV.
I half smiled and said, ‘No thanks, I’m going somewhere urgently,’ I said.
Usually this worked. Today it didn’t.
He glared after me as I passed.
‘What’s the matter with me? Too posh to have a drink with a black man? Are you racist?’
I sighed and walked on faster. Me posh? That will be the day? It was just so irritating. Why did they have to bring race into everything? I didn’t want to have a drink with any man, whatever colour he was.
I reached the main road and crossed it, going into the student Indian take away. It was safer here in the student area here than in Hulme where I lived. Nobody would bother me inside. I ordered a vegetable curry and rice and sat in the corner on the plastic chairs. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, just £2.30 so a bargain. It would fill me up before the drinking began. The curry was mild, adjusted for the students’ taste but it was still good. I started to relax. There was hardly anyone in the place, just two male students in the opposite corner, deep in conversation. I scraped the remains of the curry from the plastic box making sure I got every last bit. The rice was sticky, just how I liked it. My phone rang. I checked the name. It was Abbie.
‘Hi Abbie, whats up?’ I said.
‘Everything’s great. Where ARE you?’ Abbie said.
‘I’m in the take away. Eating,’ I said.
‘Well stop eating and get yourself over here. Bring booze,’ Abbie said.
I laughed, too loudly so the guys in the corner looked over.
‘Ok, ok. See you in five,’ I said and ended the call.
The students were still looking at me so I gave them my best frown, got up and walked out. I checked instinctively that my wallet was still in my pocket and strode down the street, turning left past the Irish pub. I stopped in the corner shop and bought a bottle of vodka. The owner was an Asian woman who always looked grumpy. I waited in the queue. The woman in front was asking advice about painkillers. She was covered head to foot in black. Only her eyes showed.
The shop owner answered in her usual style.
‘How should I know? I am not a doctor,’ she said.
The black clad woman hurriedly paid for some paracetamol and left.
I plonked the vodka on the counter and put the money beside it. Shop owner woman looked at me like I was spawn of the devil and took the money, turning from me towards the till. I swiped up the bottle and exited the shop rapidly. Two minutes walk and I was at Abbie’s hall of residence. I pressed the buzzer and waited. Someone buzzed me in without asking who it was. I took the stairs and after one storey arrived at the door of Abbie’s flat. I rapped as hard as I could and after a minute the door was opened by a Malaysian student. Abbie shared with five other Malaysians, none of which she knew. They kept themselves to themselves and spent a long time cooking in the shared kitchen and talking in each other’s rooms. I realised with a jolt of guilt I didn’t actually know any of their names. The girl smiled at me and opened the door wide to let me through.
‘Thanks,’ I said smiling back and stepped inside. I wondered if I had known her too long now to ask her name. Probably. I decided against asking and walked past her to the kitchen. Abbie was sitting at the table deep in concentration painting her nails a metallic blue. This made me realise I had omitted to paint mine any colour at all. Damn! I had failed again in the glamour stakes. I banged the bottle on the table.
‘Beware of Molly bearing gifts,’ I said.
‘Get that bottle open girl. I could murder a drink. In fact I could stab it in a park and bury it,’ she said.
I took two glasses from the draining board and decided on wiping them out with the cloth first. Cleaning wasn’t Abbie’s strong point. I sat back down and poured two generous shots into the glasses. I didn’t bother with a mixer and glugged down the liquid enjoying the searing sensation in my throat.
Abbie regarded me as if I was a specimen in a petri dish she had just found.
‘Molly, you are an animal,’ she said, getting up and retrieving some orange juice from the fridge.
She poured a glug into her glass and offered some to me. I demurred and took my second swig. I felt more relaxed and looked around the kitchen. I had been here a thousand times. It was about as basic as it was possible to get with the cheapest units round the walls and a big plastic table in the middle. It was always grimy feeling in spite of the fact that the university sent a cleaner in every day. The surfaces were littered with the detritus of someone’s meal and there were two rice cookers belonging to the Malaysians with half their contents spilling out.
‘ I am an animal. I like that. Look at the state of this dump. You are all animals,’ I said.
‘Yeah, right, whatever. So are you up for manhunting tonight?’ Abbie said.
‘No. I am up for getting drunk, dancing and having a good time. No men,’ I said.
‘Cool. That will do for me,’ Abbie said.
After several more drinks we wandered out down the street. I felt pleasantly serene from the effect of the alcohol. Everything was good. I took Abbie’s hand and we waltzed down the road together laughing and tripping over each other’s feet.
The next thing I knew we had arrived at the Student Union building, another monstrosity from the sixties with no architectural merit. The door guy leered at us. He was a student but puffed up with his important role of being able to decide who did and didn’t get in. Local boys were often chancing their arm trying to get some university totty.
‘ID ladies,’ he said.
I showed him my card. He actually laughed at my photo which I was rather proud of as I thought I looked mean, moody and magnificent in black and white.
‘That’s never you,’ he said, ‘Far too pretty.’
I couldn’t actually decide if this was some clumsy attempt at a chat up line or if he was just a total asshole. I snapped the ID back in my wallet, glowered, and hurried into the room ahead of me. Abbie propelled me to the bar and ordered two vodka and cokes.
‘What a fucking jerk!’ said Abbie in my ear, having to shout above the din.
I shrugged and downed the vodka in one and then dragged Abbie to the dance floor. It was wonderful to dance, to let go. I felt my cares disappear as my body moved. Nothing mattered except the music and me. I was lost in a trance, in a dream. I felt totally free. I didn’t care what people thought of me or how I looked. I danced and danced with no sense of time. After who knows how long I suddenly felt tired so looked for somewhere to sit. There was a corner of a sofa free so I perched on it, catching my breath. Abbie was nowhere to be seen. I became aware of someone looking at me and turned my head towards the feeling. It was the Asian student from the other day staring at me intently, the one from the coffee bar. He smiled when he saw me look back. I snapped my head away from his direction as fast as I could and scanned the room for Abbie. I STILL couldn’t see her. I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes, feeling suddenly nauseous. I would just have to go home. I had had way too much vodka. I opened my eyes again but the room began to spin. It was better to close them again. I became aware of someone holding onto my hands. I flicked my eyes open again in shock and saw it was him, the guy from the coffee bar. He smiled and leaned in to speak to me.
‘Hi I’m Taj. Are you ok? You seem a bit drunk,’ he said.
I felt myself stiffen in shock.
‘Yes I am fine. Absolutely fine. I’ve lost my friend,’ I said.
My mind registered the fact he was called Taj.
It suited him.
‘Come dance with me. It’ll make you feel better. I promise,’ he said.
He didn’t wait for an answer and I felt myself being dragged to the dance floor. Taj was holding me up and I was very close to him. As he was taller than me I could just see his shirt and my face was pressed against the hairs coming out of the top of it. I could smell his aftershave, something spicy and expensive smelling, subtle. We were swaying around together as if there was old-fashioned music playing when really it was fast, thumping dance grooves. Normally, I would have pulled away by now but I suddenly felt safe and warm and I had no need to free myself. Everything was okay. I had no idea how long the dancing went on but as he gripped me ever tighter I realised I had never been this close to a man before apart from Miles. He felt completely different to Miles though. I could feel myself attracted to him in spite of inner resistance as if something animal was rising within me, something I had never allowed myself to let free rein to before.
The next thing I remember we were outside in the street and Taj was making me drink a bottle of water. I could feel myself swaying and I had to concentrate on not falling over.
‘Oh no. How did this happen? You must think I am really stupid,’ I said.
‘No, not at all. You just had too much to drink. It happens. I don’t really drink myself,’ Taj said.
‘I need to go home,’ I said.
‘I can drive you. My car is around the corner,’ he said.
‘No, no. Please don’t bother. I am fine. I can get a taxi,’ I said realising that I had no money for a taxi but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
He didn’t reply but just steered me along the road until we reached a black jeep Cherokee. It was huge and very shiny and clean. It looked like something a rap star would drive, a little over the top for a student in Manchester.
Taj pressed a key fob and opened the door.
‘Isn’t this a bit pretentious? Is it really your car?’ I said and then instantly regretted it, realising I shouldn’t be antagonising my rescuer. A little voice somewhere deep inside of me was telling me I shouldn’t be getting in the car of a complete stranger but another voice was also telling me I didn’t have much option given the state I was in.
‘Do you think so?’ Taj said. ‘I think you might be right. My Dad bought it for me as a birthday present. I was kind of hoping it would be a babe magnet,’ he said.
‘I don’t mean to be rude. It’s very nice,’ I said.
I was bundled into the front passenger seat and started to feel a little more human. Everything inside was pristine. The dashboard was black and so were the seats. Taj turned to me as he started the car and the dash lit up.
‘Where do you live?’ he said.
I felt the usual stab of embarrassment that I was going to have to tell him that I lived in Hulme.
I took a deep breath.
‘Hulme. Rolls Crescent.’ I said, staring straight ahead.
‘Really. How cool,’ he said and started to punch the information into the satnav. I had never been in a car with one of these before. As we started down the road I was startled by the strident voice of satnav woman giving directions.
It didn’t take long until we arrived at my front door.
‘It’s a nice house,’ said Taj looking at our red front door and sounding as if he meant it. I was taken aback by his lack of snobbishness. Usually, people would make some disparaging comment about my area unless they were gay and then they would think it trendy. I had got used to it.
I sat with my hands in my lap and looked down. I was unsure of what to do. I still felt drunk but not quite as bad as I had been in the club. Normal consciousness was seeping back in.
The silence seemed to go on forever. I had to break it.
‘Thanks. For bringing me home I mean. It’s so sweet of you. You didn’t have to. And thanks for not slagging off my house.’
‘Why would I do that? I hear the parties in Hulme are the best in town. What are they called? Shebeens. Yes, shebeens the police daren’t raid,’ he said.
‘Yes, good parties,’ I said. ‘We know how to enjoy ourselves.’
I wondered if I should invite him in. I decided against it. I was off men remember and anyway Dad might still be up.
‘Thanks again,’ I said and got out of the car rapidly. I swayed up the path and fumbled in my jacket pocket for the key. Thankfully it was still there and I managed to open the door. I turned before I shut it behind me and waved at Taj. He waved back, smiling broadly.
I shut the door, relief flooding over me that I had finally got home safe.
Without knowing why I sank to my knees and started to cry. The tears ran down my face causing my eyeliner to run. I brushed my hand across my cheeks and saw the black come off onto my palm. There was no sound in the house. Dad must be in bed. That was a relief.
I crawled up the stairs using my hands to stabilise myself as I went. I crashed on top of the bed with relief and fell asleep almost immediately, not even bothering to take my boots off.
My dreams were vivid, more so than usual.
I dreamed I was going up winding stairs to a club door entrance. Taj was walking behind me, pushing me from behind, sometimes putting his hands on my butt to get me along. In the dream I was irritated that he was doing this. He shouldn’t be touching me. It seemed like the rickety stairs went on forever. I awoke abruptly from this dream and my throat was sore with dehydration. I stumbled to the bathroom for a glass of water. I downed the glass quickly, feeling much better and greedily poured myself another one.
My head was thumping with a regular beat. I scrabbled in the cabinet for some painkillers and quickly found them and swallowed two. I walked back to bed and undressed myself properly this time. I dived under the covers and felt better. Taj came into my mind. How weird that he had been at the club after I had just noticed him a few days before. He had been so unexpectedly nice. He hadn’t taken advantage of me or been mean at all. Was it fate that I had met him? No, Molly I said to myself firmly. You are not getting interested in a man. You don’t need a man. You need a job. You need to concentrate on your studies. You are going places.
But Taj stayed in my mind as I fell aback to sleep. This time I slept more soundly and I didn’t remember my dreams when I woke up the next morning.