Get Away with Martha Hall
Last time I forgot to warn you about the strong language. There is strong language throughout, and in this bit there’s some sex too.
“Dad, I’m going out for a bit” Lauren had promised her father that she would spend the day stock taking but no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t settle. She was a fool; even inanimate objects knew what an idiot she’d made of herself. The step ladder opened its mouth and laughed at her; numbers, names and titles danced around mocking her; row after row of books giggled behind her back. Ha ha, Lauren Ray. She knew of only one sure fire way to quieten her head, and hands deep in her pockets she set off for the pier.
Pushing the swing door open, she was hit by a wave of noise: screaming tyres, automatic gunfire, the clatter of coins as they hit metal, the truncated theme tunes of video games, and digitised voices exhorting her to come and play. A hundred two pence pieces weighed down her pockets but she could feel her head starting to clear as she dropped the first coin into the hole and pulled the arm of the slot machine. She worked steadily, falling easily into a well rehearsed rhythm: coin, pull, wait, coin, pull, wait, watching the wheels whirl around and eventually slow to a staggered stop. Three cherries gave her fifty pence, the coins splurting out into the metal cup level with her fly. She fed the coins back into the machine, pulled and waited. After an hour, the last coin fell into the belly of the machine, she pulled the arm and the wheels span round. When they stopped she had an orange, a bell and a melon and her mind was empty.
She snapped out of her trance and was suddenly aware of her surroundings, blinking as she looked around. The arcade was busy: a group of teenage girls were on the dancing game, two jumping around to Saturday Night as their friends laughed at them, a group of boys roughly the same age were pretending to ignore them but were showing off on the air hockey table hoping the girls would look their way. Next to the bank of two penny slot machines was the Grand National, five tiny horses and jockeys who jerked their way down a slotted track. Surrounded by small children eager for their first taste of betting was a young woman who stood holding her chin in her hand and frowning at the game. Lauren stood behind her watching as the woman tried to decide which horse to bet on.
“Which horse won last time?”
The woman didn’t turn around, her eyes fixed on the runners and riders.
“Then bet on white”
The woman managed to place her bet just before the tinny bugle blast launched the horses off their line. Red and blue lurched out in front nearly neck and neck, closely followed by yellow and then green. White was lagging at least a length behind. The woman scowled as she watched.
“So much for white”
Lauren grinned at the back of her head.
“Have a little faith”
In the final inches, red and blue shuddered to a sudden halt, white slipped up a gear and heaved past them in an unprecedented burst of speed and took the race by a head. The woman whooped and finally turned round to face Lauren, seemed to do a double take and then in an attempt to reclaim her cool raised an eyebrow.
“How did you do that?”
“I’ve followed the form”
The woman gave a short bark of a laugh. Lauren couldn’t help but smile at her.
“Actually the green horse wins very rarely and when it does, it’s always the white that takes the next race. I’m a local; I’ve spent way too much time in here”
“So tell me, native girl, what other special skills do you have?”
Lauren pretended to think about it for a second.
“I can get you a teddy on the mechanical grab first time every time and I know when to judge it just right on the penny cascade to win one of those stylish digital watches. Or a key ring at the very least”
“Awesome. Why don’t you let me buy you part of an ice cream with my winnings?”
“O alright then”
They sat on a bench facing the sea watching a red sailed dinghy clip the waves. The woman had tucked her knees up under her chin and was licking at her ninety nine with long strokes. Lauren sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankle and was scooping the soft ice cream out of the cone with her Flake. She turned to face the woman and took her first proper look at her. She had the shiniest hair Lauren had seen outside of a shampoo advertisement. A rich brown, the bright sunlight brought out all the tones from almost black to almost blonde; she wore it in a short bob that she tucked behind her ears. Like Lauren, she was wearing shorts, the khaki variety Lauren’s father called Empire Builders, they stopped just above her knees, there was a brief gap of tanned leg and then a pair of eight hole cherry red Dr. Marten boots. The arms that were wrapped around her knees were wiry but strong, her hands delicate in comparison. She took another swipe at her cone with a very pink tongue.
“I’m Kirsty by the way”
“Lauren. So are you here on holiday? Day tripper?”
“No, I’m actually working. I’m a sound engineer, down with a TV crew”
“Really? You’re not working on Matty’s thing are you?”
“Sorry, Martha, Martha Hall’s thing”
“Did you just call her Matty?”
“Yes, well all do. Or we did. Martha seemed such an old lady’s name. Now it seems rather chic”
“You called her Matty, that’s so cute. Hey, wait you’re Lauren? Lauren from the bookshop?”
“Bookshop Lauren! Wow, we never thought we’d find you”
“You couldn’t have been looking very hard”
“To hear Martha talk we thought you’d be on the other side of the world by now”
“That was the plan. Funny how things turn out isn’t it?”
Kirsty looked at her watch and frowned.
“I wish I could stay but I’m afraid I’ve got to get back. We were only meant to be on a short break and I’ve been skiving off”
“Yeah me too. I’m supposed to be stock taking”
“Maybe I can see you again?”
“I’d say it was a betting certainty”
Kirsty stood up and slid her hands into the back pockets of her shorts, looking at Lauren with her head tilted to one side. Her smile was slightly knowing.
“I’ll see you then, Bookshop Lauren”
“Indeed you will”
Lauren blinked as the big lights came on; the shop was transformed as areas were thrown into illuminated relief, others cast into unexpected shadow. She was aware how run down the place looked, how in need of a good clean and a coat of paint it was. Maybe in September when it was cooler, she thought, biting at the skin on the edge of her thumb nail as she glanced at the strangers crowding the shop, but none of them seemed to have noticed any short comings. Their attention was focused on the job at hand: Martha Hall.
The door had opened onto an up swell of laughter, Kirsty Mendelssohn sitting on the edge of the old desk grinning down at Lauren who was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. When Lauren’s laughter suddenly faltered, Kirsty followed the direction of her gaze and met Martha Hall’s impenetrable stare, a slight frown crinkling the otherwise perfect eyebrows. But then the blue eyes had cleared as they moved away and her face softened into a look of such warmth Kirsty could see its heat reflected in Lauren’s face. She jumped down off the table and gave Martha the same knowing smile Lauren had seen on the pier.
“Well, good morning, Ms Hall. As you can see, everything is ready for you”
Martha’s smile lost ninety five percent of its warmth.
“Thank you, Kirsty”
Kirsty snorted and went over into the corner where her equipment had been stashed. Martha Hall wasn’t the biggest Prima Donna she’d worked with, not by a long chalk, but any attempt Kirsty had made to be friendly was met with cool detachment. That morning’s open hostility was new, however, as was the way Martha had looked at Bookshop Lauren. She’d never seen that before, not even with people that were considered close to the television presenter: certainly not with that prick of a boyfriend of hers, not even with Anya Wolf, her director. Kirsty had seen the two of them huddled together chatting and laughing, wondered about late night conferences in restaurants and hotel rooms, but now realised she was way off beam. Martha Hall never smiled at Anya that way.
Whatever was going on with Martha, Kirsty didn’t care; it was none of her business. However, the expression on Lauren’s face did cause her a momentary regret. She looked as if a public holiday had just been declared. It was a sunshine in your eyes, bucket and spade smile and Kirsty wished she’d been smiling it for her. Lauren was the kind of woman you took into your bed and you tried your damnedest to keep her there: easy in her skin, she had dark brown hair that flopped over her forehead only partially obscuring equally dark arched eyebrows and eyes the colour of the highly polished antique tables you saw in stately homes. Her slow smile and husky laugh lit a long fuse that kept you burning for hours; Kirsty didn’t doubt for one second that Lauren Ray was explosive in bed. Not that she’d ever find out, she thought as she dug through her tool box searching for a roll of black tape. More’s the pity. She slammed the lid of the box down hard and snapped the catches shut, trying to ignore that Martha was hunkered down next to Lauren’s chair with her hand on Lauren’s knee.
“Is your Dad not here?”
“No, he realised he had something far more pressing to do somewhere else. What about Marco?”
“He also realised he had something far more pressing to do somewhere else”
Martha paused, staring down at grey lino before glancing back up. Her eyes, when they met Lauren’s, were intensely blue. The hand that had been resting just above Lauren’s knee slid a little up her thigh; Lauren could feel the warmth through the cotton of her shorts.
“I wanted to say sorry about the other night. Marco can be rather full on at times. A little overbearing, I guess, a bit possessive. I don’t think he realises he does it”
Lauren was finding it hard to concentrate on what Martha was saying; those eyes, a pale blue ringed with almost purple at the outside edge of the iris, the hand that was unconsciously smoothing the skin of her thigh. Blood flooded into her face and when she spoke, her voice was tight.
“He’s your boyfriend, Martha, you don’t have to apologise for him”
Martha looked away, her hand dropping from Lauren’s leg as she pushed herself up.
“Anya, maybe we should get on?”
“Right, everyone in their positions”
Lauren met eyes with Kirsty who looked at her but didn’t smile.
Lauren leant her weight on the table; it had been a long and surprisingly exhausting day of takes and retakes, Martha patient and professional as they took shots from every conceivable angle. At last Anya had declared that everything was done and now the crew were dismantling the lights. Kirsty was standing with Anya looking into the viewfinder of the camera.
“Lauren, do you want to come and have a look?”
Watching the rushes, Lauren felt the way she did whenever she saw photographs of herself: as if the young woman she saw was an impostor who looked and sounded enough like her to fool everyone else. Was that how the world saw her? The thought made her hot and dizzy but Kirsty and Anya didn’t seem to notice.
“Bloody hell, woman, you’re a bit of a natural, aren’t you?”
“It’s something of a cliché about the camera loving someone but it does seem to be true”
It was a truism, but if the camera loved anyone, it was Martha. Even on the tiny screen, Lauren saw her light up and fill the room, exuding an easy charm that put everyone at their ease. She was no longer the shy teenager Lauren remembered, and beside her she felt shadowy, insubstantial.
“Hey, Martha, come and have a look. See what a star Lauren is”
Martha stood just behind Lauren, so close she could feel the warmth coming off her, her hand resting on Lauren’s shoulder. When she spoke, her breath brushed Lauren’s ear.
“You look great. This is going to make a fantastic piece”
When she pulled away, Lauren felt the sudden absence like a rush of cold air and she shivered. She straightened up and walked off.
The second counter flicked over as the video tape continued to run on after Anya had called cut. Martha Hall was framed centre shot gazing off to the side where Lauren could be heard laughing; for the first time in her life she was unaware of the camera on her, and in that unguarded moment allowed herself to watch Lauren. Anya rewound the tape before wiping the shot.
Twisting spaghetti on her fork, Lauren prayed that the sauce would not slide off the pasta and on to the front of her shirt. Martha appeared not to be eating; she had her chin propped in the cupped palm of her hand, her elbow resting on the red and white checked table cloth. In the candlelight, her eyes had darkened considerably. Lauren’s throat tightened; she placed the loaded fork on her plate and took a sip of her Peroni. Martha was watching intently.
“Do you remember when we came here on your sixteenth birthday?”
“I certainly do. Dad persuaded your folks to let us go out on our own”
“I felt so grown up that night”
Martha slipped her fingers around the bowl of her wine glass, contemplating it for a moment before raising it to her mouth. The faintest trace of red marked the rim where her full lips clung slightly to the glass. Lauren wiped a bead of condensation from the beer bottle with the edge of her finger.
“That was probably the half bottle of house red Gianni slipped us”
“Yeah, maybe. But really – ”
Her voice faltered, and when Lauren shifted her attention from the bottle back to Martha, she found her eyes on her face.
“But really what?”
Lauren’s voice was low. Martha shook her head and gave Lauren a sad smile.
“Nothing. I just remember it being a lovely night”
“I seem to recall your dad not being desperately happy when you got home reeking of booze”
“It was only half a bottle!”
“You always were a lightweight”
“Lauren – thank you for today”
“Actually, it was my pleasure”
“I can’t imagine waiting around all day for me to finish my shots and having me ask the same question over and again could have been that much of a pleasure”
“O on the contrary, it was fascinating. And to be honest, it was nice having you in the shop. It’s been too long”
Red flashed across Martha’s cheeks and down her throat. She said nothing as she stared at the cooling risotto on her plate.
The two women leant against the railing and looked towards the fairy lights strung out along the front. A gust of wind pulled at Martha’s hair, a strand momentarily covering her face before she tucked it behind her ear. Behind them the pier was still busy; the lights from the arcade and the little funfair reflected on the smooth surface of the sea, the suck of pebbles in the tide barely audible above the noise of fruit machines and video games. Lauren shivered slightly.
“Are you cold?”
She shook her head, shifting slightly so she looked out to sea. On the horizon she could see the outline of a ferry.
“I’m surprised you’re still here”
“On the pier?”
“No, still here in town, in this country. I thought you’d be on the other side of the world”
Waves broke against Victorian wrought iron, white spume flecking the dark water splashing the shingle. Lauren sighed, resting her chin on her arms. A tentative hand touched the edge of her shoulder and ran along it until the tips of Martha’s fingers brushed the hair at the back of Lauren’s neck. Lauren felt another shiver shudder over her. The fingers withdrew.
“Are you sure you aren’t cold? We could go inside if you’d rather”
“No, I like it just the way we are”
The finger tips were back on the nape of her neck, gently stroking. With her other hand, she touched the plain silver band Lauren wore on her right hand.
“You’re still wearing it”
“Yes, I’ve never taken it off”
At the land end of the pier was a collection of small stalls selling hot dogs and hamburgers, candy floss and donuts. The smell of hot fat and frying onions hung in the air. Lauren and Martha walked so closely together their shoulders brushed, and Martha slipped her hand down Lauren’s arm until their fingers were linked.
There was no doubt the man by the chip van was Marco, distinctive in his leather jacket and black rimmed glasses. Lauren felt Martha’s hand drop hers the same moment she saw a scowl tighten Marco’s face. Irritation built to anger with each step they took towards him, each inch that Martha increasingly put between them. By the time they reached Marco, Lauren was seething but said nothing. He didn’t bother to disguise his aggravation.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking all over”
“We were just having dinner”
“You might’ve said. I would’ve joined you”
“It was a spur of the moment thing”
Fury flared in Lauren: why was Martha deferring to this arsehole? Had she no self respect? She thrust her hands in her pockets, and twitched her head to one side, glaring at Marco through narrowed eyes. He sneered at her.
“You squaring up for a fight, Butch? You want a piece of me?”
“For God’s sake give it a rest will you? You might intimidate Martha, but you don’t intimidate me. Lord knows, your sexual inadequacy must be massive if you have to get your kicks out of keeping a woman down. I almost feel sorry for you”
“You little – ”
“What, Marco? What am I? Why don’t you tell me?”
Fingers dug tightly into her arm, the edges of nails digging into her skin. Martha’s voice was a whisper.
“Please don’t – ”
Lauren threw Martha’s hand off and turned her back on the couple, moving away quickly.
“Lauren, wait, please”
Martha caught up. Lauren refused to face her.
“Lauren, you don’t understand –”
“You’re right, I don’t. I never have understood. You asked me before if I remembered Jemma’s party. Of course I do. You made your choice then and you’ve made your choice now. As far as I can see, nothing’s changed, Matty, nothing at all”
This time Martha didn’t follow her and Lauren didn’t look round to see her standing by the entrance to the pier, watching as Lauren broke into a run and kept running until she turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
“Steady on, mate, watch where you’re going”
“I’m sorry – I’m really sorry”
“Hey, Lauren, it’s me. Are you okay?”
Kirsty regained her balance and held Lauren by the shoulders, her hazel eyes concerned. Lauren shook her head, but to clear it, not to answer Kirsty’s question. She smiled weakly.
“I’m fine. Honest”
Kirsty was unconvinced but let it drop.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“From rather than to”
“It doesn’t matter. What about you, where are you going?”
“Ah – erm – well – o what the hell, I’m looking for a gay bar”
She gave Lauren a sheepish grin.
“Well, there’s Dorothy’s just up the front. Should be quite busy tonight”
“Do you – that is – do you fancy having a drink with me?”
“Actually, I think that would be a fantastic idea”
“Yes, I think I could do with a drink. I think I could do with a lot of drink”
“But I’m not sure I really fancy Dorothy’s. Could you stand going somewhere straight?”
“C’mon then, I’ll take you to the worst pub you’ve ever been in. You’ll love it”
It was karaoke night in the Boatman. The only time Big Tony’s wife Sharon
made an appearance was on karaoke night. As Lauren and Kirsty pushed through the swing doors, Sharon was standing facing the giant screen, microphone in hand as the lyrics to Hit me baby one more time darkened in time to the music. Not that she needed the words: this was her party piece and the crowd packing the public bar were whistling and shouting their encouragement. Sharon started to stalk the room, trailing the microphone lead behind her; Mickey Flynn caught her attention and she slinked over to him, draping an arm around his neck and shimmying down his body to loud whoops from everyone else. Mickey flushed crimson. Big Tony sat at the bar drinking vodka and smoking a cigarette, his back turned to the whole show. Kirsty’s eyebrows were raised up near her hair line.
“Wow, that’s a tough act to follow”
“I find it’s best to not even try. I fancy doing Dusty tonight, care to join me?”
A grin slowly broadened across Kirsty’s face.
“Yeah, why not? Let me get you a pint in”
Thirty minutes and two pints of Stella later, Lauren was watching as an animated Kirsty took the microphone from the DJ and nodded her head to the introduction. When she opened her mouth and sang, a voice of almost heartbreaking sweetness filled the entire pub, taking Lauren by surprise.
“Being good isn’t always easy, no matter how hard I tried”
Kirsty sang and looked directly at Lauren before winking and turning her attention to the crowd who were singing along with her. Lauren laughed into her glass before draining it and going to the bar for more.
Another two pints later, Lauren wiped her palm on the leg of her shorts before taking the microphone, listening to the sweeping introduction, her own voice husky as she started I close my eyes and count to ten, hairs prickling up her arms as she swung into the high drama of the chorus. Half way through, she realised her eyes were closed and she opened them to see Kirsty watching her, her eyes hot, her smile easy. The jolt of it made her falter for a second, but she grabbed back the tune and managed to finish the song before her knees gave out.
“That was brilliant”
Kirsty’s voice crackled in her ear, her breath warming her jaw. Lauren felt a flush rise up her body and flood into her face.
“Thank you. Not as good as you”
“O I don’t know. I think you gave me a run for my money”
“I, erm , I need the toilet”
Smooth, Lauren, very smooth. She splashed water on her face and looked at herself in the mirror over the sink. Well, she’d wanted to get drunk and she’d managed to achieve her goal. If only everything else in life was so easy.
When the door opened, she saw Kirsty reflected in the mirror, and turned to face her. Kirsty said nothing, walking up to Lauren to slide a hand around the back of her head and pull her into a kiss. Lauren wanted to protest but couldn’t think of a single good reason why. Instead she opened her mouth under Kirsty’s, letting Kirsty’s tongue slip in; moved her hands so that they were on Kirsty’s back, easing themselves up inside her T shirt to brush warm, smooth skin. A small alarm rang at the back of Lauren’s otherwise completely wiped out mind, an alarm that increased in intensity until with a gasp she pushed Kirsty away from her. Kirsty stared, red faced and open mouthed.
“O shit, Lauren, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have – I didn’t mean to upset you”
She looked as if she might cry. Lauren laughed shakily and placed the palm of her hand on Kirsty’s chest.
“No, no, you don’t understand. If Big Tony catches us, he’ll bar us and I can’t afford to get barred from the Boatman. I’d have no where else to go”
Kirsty narrowed her eyes, her expression slightly confused. Lauren quickly pressed her mouth against Kirsty’s in answer.
“Let’s just get out of here before we get caught”
Outside the air was cool on their skin after the closeness of the pub. Lauren saw Kirsty shiver and she took her arm and pulled her in close, slipping her hand into hers; Kirsty stared down at their linked fingers with something resembling astonishment. When she spoke, her voice broke a little.
“Do you want to come back to my hotel?”
“In a bit, maybe, but right now I want to go and look at the sea. Are you alright with that?”
“Whatever you say, native girl”
The pier had closed for the night, but the lights still burned, drawing them like a beacon. Lauren climbed over the railings and jumped down from the sea wall, crunching the pebbles as she landed; her head level with Kirsty’s boots. She grinned up to her.
“Come on, it’s not as bad as it looks”
Kirsty looked sceptical.
“I’ll catch you, I promise”
She had a softer landing than either of them had expected. Lauren was sprawled on her back with Kirsty on top of her, both women shaking with Lauren’s laughter. Before Kirsty had a chance to catch her breath and register the body underneath hers, she was flipped over and pinned down, Lauren astride her, pushing Kirsty’s shoulders into the stones.
“Why, Grandma, what big eyes you have”
If there was a smart response on the tip of Kirsty’s tongue, she never got the opportunity to share it: Lauren’s mouth was on hers, forcing it open with a quick dart of her tongue. Then just as quickly, Lauren was on her feet, pulling Kirsty up by both hands, and dragging her, laughing, towards the shoreline.
“You’re crazy, has anyone ever told you that?”
“Once or twice”
They hit the edge of a ridge of shingle that sharply dropped away to a strip of sand and beyond that was the endless black of the sea. Lauren sank down, pulling Kirsty with her and sliding an arm around her. They sat in silence, Kirsty resting her head against Lauren’s shoulder. She could feel the heat of the other woman’s body where it was pressed against her; it ticked and shimmered like a field of stubble on fire. “Kirsty, why has Matty got such a dead set against you?”
“I’m buggered if I know. I used to think it was homophobia”
She shot a glance at Lauren’s profile silhouetted against the lights from the prom.
“But now I’m not so sure. I don’t really want to think about her, though. I’d rather think about the way you just kissed me”
“You started it”
“Fair enough, but you carried it on”
“Lauren, have you got a girlfriend?”
She cupped the back of Lauren’s head and pulled it towards her, meeting her halfway, enjoying the firmness of Lauren’s lips against hers.
“I have to say I’m surprised. A woman like you, they don’t know what they’re missing”
Lauren withdrew, picking up a pebble and throwing it in the direction of the sea where it landed with a faint splash.
“I never wanted one”
“You never wanted a girlfriend?”
“Not a serious one, no”
“When did you know?”
“That I liked girls?”
“When I was seventeen”
“And in all that time you’ve never had a proper relationship?”
“As I said, it wasn’t something I ever wanted”
“But I’m guessing you’ve had sex?”
Lauren’s laugh had a self mocking edge.
“O yes, never fear, I’ve had sex. You won’t be disappointed”
Kirsty’s felt the tops of her ears burn.
“I wasn’t – I hope you realise – I mean, I wasn’t assuming”
Lauren arched an eyebrow as she looked at Kirsty.
“You asked me if I wanted to go to your hotel”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean you have to”
The tips of Lauren’s fingers stroked down the line of Kirsty’s jaw until they held her chin; with a gentle tug, Kirsty’s mouth met Lauren’s.
“You’re a real sweetheart, aren’t you, underneath the butch sound engineer front you put up”
“I’ll have you know, I’m very good at my job”
“I don’t doubt that for one moment”
Martha woke, unsure what it was that had disturbed her. She lay in the dark of her hotel room, a little dazed. Had it been a sound? Yes, because there it was again: the sound of a woman sobbing, but not with sadness, quite the opposite. The walls weren’t thick enough to block out the soft murmurings and laughter, the sighs and moans of at least one woman having sex. Now more awake, Martha could pinpoint the source of the sound. The room to the right of hers. Kirsty’s room. Great, Kirsty had got lucky. It wasn’t so much that she would go on about it, she never did, but she would slink around all day like a relaxed cat: all loose limbs and sleek coat.
Martha rolled over on to her back. Next to her, Marco hadn’t stirred since he’d switched off the light. His heavy, rhythmic breathing usually calmed her, comforting in its regularity, but tonight it was an intrusion. She considered wrapping the pillow over her ears, burying herself deep in the duvet, but it was too hot for that and she was too awake to easily go back to sleep.
Suddenly, a voice cried out one word, a name that Martha didn’t quite catch; a sound with an edge so plaintive it made her gasp. Dismayed, she realised the hairs on her arm had risen, her stomach had tightened, and a need to stretch tormented her spine.
She turned on her side, her back to Marco. Curling up, she clasped her hands tightly between her knees and willed herself not to listen.
Kirsty Mendelssohn lay in the middle of the double bed, aware of nothing beyond Lauren Ray’s head between her legs. Disbelieving joy surged through her as she raised herself up to look at Lauren, reaching out a hand to grip Lauren’s hair in her fingers, partly with affection, partly to make sure she was really there. Lauren glanced up.
“Hmm – o don’t stop doing that”
She could feel as well as see Lauren’s smile.
“Don’t worry, I don’t intend to”
The field on fire Kirsty had felt on the beach was rapidly getting out of hand: whole hillsides were ablaze. It swept across her, threatening to raze everything to the ground, slash and burn scorched earth from which new seeds could grow, she could feel the green tendrils unfurl up her spine, in her head, through the ends of her fingers. And there was the seat of the conflagration: the tip of Lauren’s arsonist tongue moving slowly, slowly on her.
Sudden withdrawal elicited a yelp of protest, but then Lauren drew her body up between Kirsty’s legs until her hips were pressed into Kirsty, straightening her arms to lift her torso from Kirsty’s body. Reaching her hand again to Lauren’s hair, Kirsty let her palm rest against Lauren’s cheek, gazing into eyes that were almost black, almost on fire.
“Look at you up there, like the Queen of the World”
Grasping Lauren’s hair, she pulled her down into a kiss that quickly became deep, fierce; she moved her mouth to Lauren’s neck, biting almost hard enough to draw blood. Lauren groaned, and pushed her hips harder, making Kirsty gasp against her mouth.
“You keep that up and I’m going to spontaneously combust”
“That was the plan”
Kirsty let her legs fall open before wrapping them around Lauren’s back and thrusting her hips up into Lauren, her tongue in Lauren’s mouth.
Martha sat on the edge of the bath, shaking even though the small room was stifling. She’d pulled on the light over the sink and looked at her face as her eyes slowly adjusted to the change. There was always an initial moment when she didn’t recognise herself, as if she’d never grown out of a baby’s certainty that the reflection was another person. She reached out to touch the face and saw that other person mirror her movement. Slowly, there she was: hair the colour she’d always dreamed of but wasn’t born with; full mouth softer without lipstick, vulnerable, as if it thought it would never be kissed again; blue eyes, the thing that finally reconciled her to herself. They never changed despite everything stylists and make up artists tried to do. She held her own gaze, trying to steady herself. And then she had started to shake and couldn’t stop. The enamel was cold under her overheated skin; she bent so that her head was resting in her hands, her elbows propped against her thighs.
There was no point denying that she was turned on; slipping a hand between her thighs would provide material evidence, fingers coming back slick and warm. Lying in bed pretending not to hear the sounds from next door had proved futile. She’d turned and pushed her body into Marco’s back but he had grunted his protest in his sleep and pulled away from her. Marco never liked full contact in bed, only really cuddled after sex because he knew it was expected of him. He wasn’t so crass as to roll over and go straight to sleep, he was happy to lie and talk, but he liked strongly demarcated space. There was definitely his side of the bed and there was Martha’s. She’d slipped out of bed and gone into the bathroom; at least in there she would be away from the noises. If need be, the extractor fan would cover any noise from Kirsty and her conquest, any noise that Martha herself might make.
She tipped her head back and stared at the ceiling tiles; she was so keyed up there was no likelihood of her sleeping unless she did something about it. Marco was unwilling to wake up. Maybe she should take a shower. A cold shower. She started to laugh, the edge increasingly hysterical; she clasped a hand across her mouth to stop the sound from escaping. But who would she disturb? Marco never woke up and Kirsty and her friend were beyond hearing anything other than themselves, and anyway, the bathroom door was closed and locked.
Martha edged her legs apart, unconsciously, until she brushed against wiry hair, the contact shocking her. Finger tips slid lower, her other hand still clamped over her mouth, eyes screwed tight shut. Never in the time she’d known her had Martha thought about Kirsty Mendelssohn in this way, but she found it wasn’t Kirsty she was thinking about at all. Kirsty’s relaxed body and easy smile were quickly replaced by the touch of a shoulder, fingers that linked with hers; the softness of hair at a neckline, the warmth of the skin underneath it; the firmness of thigh muscle under the sliding pressure of her palm; and then an image so intense it was more like a dream than a memory: a mouth, nervous, soft, pressed against hers, a tentative tongue easing between her lips.
It wasn’t relief that came with climax but tears that rolled fat and hot down her face, splashing onto the naked skin of her legs as she bent her head, palm of her left hand pressed against her mouth, palm of her right hand pressed between her thighs. Sobs shook her chest and shoulders, breath heaving in and out of her lungs with the effort of keeping everything a secret. After a while the shaking subsided and the tears petered out, Martha sat with her hands hanging between her legs, swamped by a lassitude that left her simultaneously heavy and empty. Eventually she found enough energy to get back into bed and fell into a deep sleep the second her cheek touched the cooling pillow.
It was bright early morning sunshine that woke Kirsty, shining directly into her eyes, turning the lids pink. She frowned and opened them. For some reason she hadn’t drawn the curtains. It took her a further couple of seconds to realise that she wasn’t alone. Turning over, she came face to sleeping face with Lauren Ray, and the whole of the previous night flooded back leaving Kirsty breathless and a little light headed. She lay on her side open mouthed, just letting the actual fact of Lauren Ray in her bed sink in. There was no doubting it: she was the most beautiful woman Kirsty had ever known, certainly the most beautiful she’d been to bed with. In sleep, Lauren’s face was as open as a child’s; not exactly innocent but honest. She was breathing deeply through slightly parted lips; Kirsty could just make out the white of her teeth. The skin of her shoulders and chest was a shade paler than that of her arms and hands: an invisible T shirt. Lauren murmured, rolling over onto her back, arm thrown above her head. Kirsty lay still; Lauren’s changed position granting her a view of her breasts. The temptation to stroke the smooth, warm and sensitive skin was too great, as was the subsequent urge to kiss up delineated ribs until she reached the up swell, to flick her tongue against the hardening nipple. Lauren shifted and her eyelids fluttered. Kirsty propped her chin in her hand.
Lauren’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse.
“Morning. What time is it?”
“Early. About seven, I think”
Lauren rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, frowning.
“I should be getting back”
Kirsty tried to hide her disappointment.
“You don’t have to go just yet do you?”
“Dad won’t be worried where I am but he will want me to open up, especially as we were shut all day yesterday”
The sun had shifted making Lauren’s dark eyes unreadable. An overwhelming tiredness hit Kirsty, a hang over headache that gnawed the back of her skull and between her eyes. All life’s pleasures come with a price, her father had once told her, be sure you’re prepared to pay the bill when it comes.
“This is just a one night stand, isn’t it?”
“Well, you’re going back to London and I’m staying here”
“And you don’t do girlfriends”
“And I don’t do girlfriends”
Kirsty sat up, slinging her legs over the side of the bed, feeling the rough texture of the carpet with her toes. She turned and looked at Lauren.
“You know you could wait for her forever and she still might never come”
“It’s not like that”
“Really? Are you sure about that?”
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Kirsty rubbed her face before running her hands through her hair.
“You shouldn’t shut yourself off. You shouldn’t be afraid to let someone be in love with you”
“You’re not in love with me?”
Kirsty let out a short bark of humourless laughter.
“I’ve known you less than a week, how could I be?”
The two women dressed in silence.
Martha stood at the window trying to see the sea she knew was somewhere in front of her. Perhaps that was it, a thin strip in the gap between the buildings on the other side of the road. She’d been woken by the squabbling of gulls, and knew she was home. Logically she knew that didn’t necessarily figure: it could’ve easily been gulls following a tractor as following a trawler. She even heard them in the heart of London. But the high up wheeling and keening of the white and black winged, sharp orange beaked birds brought the salt tang of sea and seafront chip shops, hot fat, hot stones and hot bodies back to her whether she was on Bondi Beach, Brooklyn Bridge or driving past a landfill site.
Movement on the pavement directly below caught her attention. It was Kirsty. Brilliant sunshine shone on her chestnut hair, making it glossy, radiant; but even from her viewpoint Martha could see something wasn’t right. Kirsty was talking to someone that Martha couldn’t see, someone standing under the awning outside the hotel’s front door. Martha had expected the young woman to be open and expansive this morning, happy in her body. Instead, her head was bowed, her arms folded, her hands thrust into her armpits. An arm emerged from the awning, a hand rested on Kirsty’s shoulder and then pulled her so that both disappeared from view. Kirsty didn’t reappear but after a couple of minutes the other person did. Dark head down, hands shoved deep into the pockets of the shorts she’d worn yesterday; Martha watched as she walked away from the hotel without looking back.
Continued in part three
Return to the Academy