The kind of rain that soaks you to the bones, that gets right into you and chills you, the kind that makes you shiver. The kind of rain that would kill you if you were a delicate maiden in a Victorian novel. Not that I was a delicate maiden. Anything but. I thought of myself as tough or at least that was what I pretended to the outside world. Everybody was scared inside but I didn’t want anyone to know it. I had been tempered by this city into cold steel. It was the kind of rain that made me want to up sticks and go and live somewhere sunny: anywhere. Spain or Greece or one of those places you see on TV. I hadn’t ever been abroad. One day, one day I would manage this. Leave Manchester behind. Become an export.
So what else was new in Manchester? It seemed to be always raining that year. Being me I had come out unprepared. I had no waterproof coat, no umbrella, no hat. The rain had saturated my dark red hair, flattening it to my head and was dribbling down my neck. I raised the collar of my battered black leather jacket ineffectually against the deluge.
I bet I look a right mess, I thought.
How did I look? I looked well, like Molly. I was tall, almost six foot and very thin. Most would say skinny. My figure was quite boyish then. I didn’t have curves. I had red hair that was long and quite curly, though I preferred the term auburn. I just let it hang there wild and unruly. My eyes were green and I had lots of freckles on my nose in the summer. I suppose you could tell I was of Irish heritage from ten paces away. I was classic Irish redhead.
I couldn’t face the library looking like this. It was going to be horrible, sitting there, steaming away in my soaked clothes. I needed to go home. No, I needed to drink something warm first. Grasping this thought I headed for the university coffee bar that was in the basement of a tower block on the University of Manchester campus. I was studying computer science. It was boring as hell but I had high hopes my degree, if I ever got it, would stand me in good stead for a job, a ticket out of here. I wasn’t really friends with any of the nerd crew as I thought of the people on my course. The arts students were more fun, devil-may-care, more like me.
The coffee shop was not exactly pleasant but cheap and full of my own kind. It was safe and there wasn’t much chance of being chatted up by passing chancers trying their luck with me. I might bump into one of my fellow students to talk to, one of my so-called friends. Company would be good today.
I made the lift before the doors shut. There were two young male students in there and an old grey haired lecturer who avoided my gaze. The boys eyed me up in that leering way some males of the species have about them. Cocky. I stared straight ahead and was relieved when the doors opened at basement level. Being in enclosed spaces with the opposite sex made me feel uncomfortable for no real reason. Nothing really bad had happened to me, but I was wary. I had learned to look out for myself, to avoid gazes, to appear more confident than I felt. I had had to. I had grown up in this city, right in the centre, in Hulme, which until recently had been widely regarded as a no go area. Hulme, where the flotsam and jetsam of Manchester lived, those washed up on its shores, too feckless to get anywhere better. It was a place of immigrants but not new immigrants, really a place of second generation incomers, West Indians and Irish. It made me think of those signs you saw on TV, on pubs in the sixties: No blacks, no Irish, no dogs. Well Hulme was the opposite: plenty of blacks, Irish and dogs. Hulme, where even the cabbies wouldn’t go after dark, making you get out at the corner and walk the rest of the way home. Hulme, where the idiots I went to school with drive around in four by fours with blacked out windows, pretending they were Al Capone though they still lived with their mothers. They were making more money now than I probably would in a life-time. Now Hulme was gentrifying, changing with a new wave of immigrants, gay men in spick and span apartments who wanted to be close to the centre and the gay village they adored. It was changing. Everything was changing.
At the counter I ordered a hot chocolate and looked around for someone I knew. Thankfully, I spied Abigail sitting on her own staring into her mobile phone. Abigail, Abbie, was the closest I had to a real friend at university: Best mates.
Her face lightened when she saw me.
‘Molly, Oh my God you are here. You look SO wet. You have saved me from terminal boredom.’
I smiled back and pulled one of the orange plastic chairs from another table over. I wiped away someone else’s muffin crumbs and collapsed onto it. I took a swig of the hot chocolate and felt grateful for the warm richness sliding down into me. It was just what I needed. I inhaled the pleasant smells around me: fresh coffee and baked goods. I spread my legs wide in that unladylike way I had and settled back into the chair.
‘So what’s new in Abbie world?’ I said.
‘Oh Molly, I’ve been so stupid AGAIN. You know how I really like Jack. Well I went to Rockworld, you know to see if he was there, and like of course he wasn’t. So I just thought what the fuck let’s just get drunk so I did. So Jason turned up. I mean, my God, I don’t even like Jason but I was like so drunk. So of course I go back to his flat and all his mates are there in the living room drinking Jack Daniels and pretending they are in a band. Well, they are all losers so of course we go in the bedroom and I am SO drunk. So I’m lying there and he says to me he wants me to walk down his back with red heels on. He actually got these scarlet stilettos out of the wardrobe. I mean, really. So I actually did it. Can you believe? How much of an idiot am I? I mean that was the foreplay, we won’t talk about the main act because it really was NOT that memorable.’
She paused for breath and stroked her hair down waiting for my opinion, her hands fluttering around betraying her nervousness underneath the veneer of brash confidence.
I laughed but with affection. This was typical of Abbie. She was in deep love with Jack who already had a girlfriend, but slept with her occasionally when the mood took him. He was a grade A user but I didn’t tell Abbie this. The way I saw it, it was up to her what she did. Actually, I had tried to tell her a few times but it had always ended in an argument so I had given up. Abbie was loud, sweet and full of fun but she had a neediness in her which men took advantage of. She was tall and thin with long frizzy hair that was almost blonde. She was always trying to straighten the frizziness out of it but the damp weather meant it always managed to outwit her and make a comeback. She was stopping just short of being conventionally pretty.
‘Well at least you have learned you don’t like Jason. Just forget it and if you see him again ignore him. Anyway, if you didn’t like such shit music you wouldn’t end up in these situations. I mean, come on, Rockworld, it’s so passé. They are all meatheads with no manners. You need a better class of guy,’ I said.
‘A better class of guy? Like round here. Where exactly am I going to meet one of those?’ Abbie said.
She rolled her eyes for effect.
‘We could try the student union. It’s supposed to be okay on a Friday.’ I said.
‘You are not serious. The fucking student union? Come on! Nerd central,’ Abbie said.
I laughed again.
‘Don’t be so harsh. At least they’ve got prospects. Nice boys who’ll treat you like a lady,’ I said.
‘I don’t want to be treated like a lady. I want to be a crazy cool rock chick you know like what is she called? That blonde girl in that band. You know. That kind of thing. I am not into all that cheesy rubbish you dream about. All that hearts and flowers bullshit. It doesn’t exist, Molly. This is it. This is what’s real. You have to take your good times where you can find them. Anyway, I love a real man, a grungy guy, all down and dirty,’ Abbie said.
‘I am NOT into hearts and flowers. I don’t want any kind of love right now, dirty or clean.’ I said.
I was saved from arguing further by Abbie’s mobile phone ringing. I could tell by her panicked face it was some guy. She went into full flow, talking at one hundred miles an hour at the top of her voice. Everyone in the coffee bar would know Abbie’s business in ten seconds. Not that Abbie cared for anyone’s opinion. A few people looked over curiously, but turned away again when they saw my frown.
I took advantage of the break in conversation to glance around the room. It was pretty full, lots of people sheltering from the downpour. Some were talking, huddled conspiratorially in groups, others poring over laptops or phones, permanently plugged into cyber space. It seemed to me there was too much of this. They would miss the love of their life walking past while they were staring at a screen. Poor souls.
A large group of Asian students had managed to commandeer the only comfy sofas. They looked to be Indian or maybe from Pakistan originally or somewhere like that I reckoned. I observed them with interest. I loved to watch people, to try to work out what they were like, to guess from their appearance what made them tick. There were equal numbers of boys and girls, all well dressed in the latest fashions, designer labels probably unless they were fake. I wasn’t very good at telling. I couldn’t afford designer labels and to be honest they didn’t really interest me. I tended to shop in charity shops or looked for bargains in the supermarkets. I like to think I had my own style: a little quirky. I had a knack of putting odd things together quite well so I didn’t look the same as everyone else.
There was one girl who was beautiful. She had long sleek hair, almost black, and lots of make-up, kohl emphasising her wide eyes. She had a patterned scarf tied round her neck like people wore in TV sitcoms and a black leather jacket twinned with black jeans and long boots. Her nails were long and painted bright blue. I assumed they had been done at a nail bar, artificial. She was glamour personified, the exact opposite of me. I could just make out her accent as she talked. It went with everything else about her, the long vowels of received pronunciation suggesting an expensive, private education. I felt myself recoil somewhere inside like an instinct.
‘I mean honestly. At my school we were always engaged in political debates. Everybody knew about politics. There was a very vibrant debating society. It is so important to be aware, don’t you think? What is wrong with these people?’ she said.
Everything about her exuded confidence as she sat leaning back on the sofa with her legs crossed and her arms stretched wide, gesticulating as she talked.
My attention was drawn to the man she was addressing. My eyes widened as I looked at him. I had to admit he was probably the most attractive man I had ever seen in real life, not in a magazine or a film. What was he doing in the basement coffee bar of the University of Manchester? Why wasn’t he doing a photo shoot on a beach in St Tropez or something? Why wasn’t he walking down a catwalk in Milan enclosed in an over-priced suit? I felt something contract in me deep down inside and a deep sense of longing overwhelmed me. I was in lust at first sight. He was dark skinned, a walnut brown, and very tall and thin, over six feet. I couldn’t see his eyes because he was wearing big sunglasses, even though he was indoors. I thought the sunglasses made him look a bit of a prat, posing too much. Who did he think he was? A rock star? He also had on a black t-shirt and skinny jeans with red Converse boots. His mouth was shaped into an almost cheeky smile as he listened to the girl opposite him. His hair was longish, slightly curling around his shoulders and his seated position was relaxed, lounging in the space. Like the girl he exuded confidence. I wondered if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. His eyes wandered away from the girl and he saw me watching him. Our eyes locked for a fraction of a second and then I frowned deliberately and looked away.
My gaze returned to Abbie who was smiling at me delightedly.
‘Aha, I SAW you. Looking at him. MOLLY! You do not want to get involved with him,’ she said, waggling her finger at me like a strict school-teacher.
‘What are you talking about? I don’t want to get involved with him. I just glanced over for goodness sake. Anyway, even if I did why would you say that? What’s wrong with him?’ I said.
‘Oh nothing. I don’t know him. It’s just Asian men. You know. It doesn’t work out with white girls. It’s well known,’ Abbie said.
‘Abbie. You can’t say that. It’s racist. You are a shocker.’ I said.
‘I am NOT racist. It’s just I had this friend at school a few years above me and she married this Pakistani guy and he was like really horrible to her and wouldn’t let her go out or anything. In the end he made her go back to Pakistan with him. Yeeurrgh!’ Abbie said, looking earnestly at me.
‘Well that is sad I suppose. Anyway, what are we going to do on Friday. I need fun.’ I said, deftly steering Abbie away from the subject I did not want to dwell on.
‘Well,’ Abbie said, ‘We could try your idea and give the Student Union a whirl. I need a change.’
‘You’re on. See you Friday. I’ve got to get home and get out of these wet things.’
I beamed at Abbie. She did cheer me up. I gathered my nylon laptop bag from the table and walked out towards the lift, being careful not to look over at the table of the Asian guy.
Outside, it was still raining. What was it Mum used to say? Raining stair rods. She wasn’t wrong there. I hurried down the treeless streets towards home eventually arriving at our little house. I didn’t pass any greenery on the way, just tower blocks and pavement. It was about as urban as it was possible to get in the centre of the city. I was so used to it I didn’t think about the lack of nature then. It was all I knew. The wind funnelled between the blocks and nearly blew you off your feet. Our house was modern, red brick with a little railed front garden and white UPVC windows. Dad had put some pots out the front with red geraniums, but he hadn’t looked after them so now they were brown. The house was owned by the council. They had given it to us when our old tower block got demolished. It was all part of a regeneration project. It was great, a lot better than the old flats. I liked the way it looked like a private house if you didn’t know any better, all new and shiny.
I turned my key in the lock and went in shouting, ‘Dad, I am home! Are you in?’
There was silence. He wasn’t in. Probably in the pub again. I sighed heavily and pulled off my boots. In the kitchen I scoured the fridge for edible food. There was virtually nothing. I ended up dipping two sticks of celery in the mayonnaise pot and munched on this while I figured out what else I could eat. I went upstairs and showered, stripping off all my wet clothes. The shower was set up over the bath but the water flow was good and the force of it warmed me up again. I loved the shower. It was so much better than the old flat with the avocado coloured bath. I smiled at the thought of going out with Abbie on Friday. It would be good fun. My thoughts drifted back to the guy in the coffee bar. I imagined who he was. I decided he was a rich kid from the Home Counties and his father was a Harley Street doctor. He was going out with the glam girl and they were deeply in love. One day they would marry but before any children arrived he would die in a motorcycle accident. I admonished myself for giving him a mean end and laughed at myself for thinking of him. I wasn’t into men right now. I wanted a career and independence. I had seen too many girls go down that route, get pregnant and end up with no life. That was not for me. I was on my way up and out.
I flopped down on the bed in my tiny bedroom and waited for the water drops on me to dry off. I reached over and turned on the computer to listen to music. Heavy dub reggae filled the room. My favourite. I closed my eyes and almost fell asleep. The bass of the reggae mixed with another kind of banging, a regular beat. In my drowsy state it took a minute for me to realise that this new noise meant there was someone at the door. I grabbed my grubby fluffy bathrobe and headed downstairs. When I opened the front door it was Miles. Miles was my best friend not at university. I had known him since primary school. He was charcoal black with short, neat dreads. He was wearing baggy jeans and a corduroy brown jacket. He was artfully dishevelled. I smiled broadly.
‘Hey, Molly, I got chicken,’ he said.
‘You’re the best, Miles. The best friend in the whole wide world,’ I said.
I headed to the kitchen with Miles trailing behind. I put one portion in the oven to keep warm for Dad whenever, if ever, he returned tonight and then got two forks for Miles and me. We didn’t bother with plates and headed upstairs to eat straight from the cardboard. We lounged on my bed and chomped through the chicken without speaking for several minutes. Miles leaned over to the computer and switched the music to Bob Dylan.
‘Oi, I was listening to that! I like reggae better. Bob bloody Dylan. You’re lost in the sixties Miles,’ I said.
Miles just grinned and said nothing. He had finished the chicken and was working his way through the chips. I ate ravenously. At that time I could eat anything and never get fat. I was thin, no actually skinny, so I just ate what I liked. I had never had to diet. I still didn’t like my body though or think I was attractive. I was too angular, everything bony and sticking out, no curves. I wanted big breasts and curves like that TV chef. I thought she was so beautiful, so sexy and sensuous. What wouldn’t I have given to look like that? What did it matter any way? I didn’t need a man. I had Miles for company as a friend. That was enough. We both laid back on the bed with Bob Dylan whining in our ears. I liked Dylan really even though I teased Miles about it. There was something really relaxing about his music.
‘So what’s new, Miles?’ I said.
‘Nothing,’ said Miles.
‘Come on. Give,’ I said.
‘I wrote a song,’ Miles said.
‘Oh Miles, brilliant! Play it to me.’
‘I haven’t brought my guitar.’
Silence for a while.
‘You’ll be famous one day. I know it. More famous than Bob Dylan, you know. I can feel it,’ I said.
Miles gave a small smile.
‘Naw,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We’ll go and live in LA in a huge mansion like on that show what is it? Best cribs or whatever. We’ll have a personal gym and a butler called Reginald. I’ll have a little dog called Milo who will go with me everywhere and bite people. I’ll run a huge software company and you’ll be a famous singer songwriter. You’ll write the soundtrack for films.’
‘Naw,’ said Miles but he was smiling still.
We snuggled together on top of the bed and I could feel his breathing getting deeper. We were almost asleep when there was the sound of the door banging open and shut again. There was swearing and grumbling coming from the kitchen. It was Dad back from the pub.
I leaped up and went to the top of the stairs.
‘Dad! There is chicken in the oven. I’m with Miles. We’re listening to music. You don’t need to come up.’
I could hear him gurning to himself in his drunken state.
‘Fucking women. Fucking women these days. There was a time I would have had me tea on the table so I would. What’s wrong with the world? No respect. That’s what. Toiled and slaved all my life for what? This shit. Fucking women. Fucking Molly. Pissing about at that la di da university when she should be looking after me.’
‘Dad, just get the chicken out of the oven. I’m busy,’ I said safe from my position at the top of the stairs.
I went back into the bedroom and locked myself in. Dad could be unpredictable when drunk. It was best to avoid him until he fell asleep.
Miles was frowning.
‘You should move out, Molly. Go and live in halls. You shouldn’t have to put up with that. You do everything for him. He’s a wanker,’ said Miles.
‘I can’t leave him. He wouldn’t be able to cope on his own. Look, Miles, it’s fine. He’ll be all right again in the morning,’ I said.
Miles lay down on the bed and closed his eyes, listening to the gentle music. I lay down as well. Crashing and banging sounds were still coming from downstairs and then the sound of the television: voices and canned laughter.
‘We’ll always be friends won’t we Miles? You’ll never leave me will you? Promise,’ I said.
Miles flicked open his eyes and smiled.
‘I promise,’ he said.
Miles had never made a move on me. He didn’t have a girlfriend. Sometimes, I suspected he was gay but he had never admitted it to me. Anyway, it didn’t matter to me. I just loved having him there for me, a true friend.