Fiction | Balancing Act by Charlie Hinkley

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The following piece is published as part of our TLM Young Writers series, a dedicated section of The London Magazine‘s website which showcases the work of exceptional young talent aged between 13-21, from the UK and beyond.

Charlie Hinkley


Balancing Act

Ava has known for a year and a half that if she didn’t leave her home town she would sooner or later die there. Spending a summer indoors and alone made her realise how close it had been. When September crawls around, she is glad for her place at a former polytechnic, two buses and a walk away from her girlfriend’s city flat.

She meets her girlfriend, who in her first year of university went from farmer’s daughter through to every shade of goth, and now radiates effortless style. She limits her piercings to just three on each ear, and has nearly grown out the peroxide damage in her hair.

 She introduces Ava to her Russell Group flatmates; artificial-coloured hair, badly tailored – the uniform of a generation devoid of hope. The type of friends she desperately needs.

‘Have you read Capital?’ Says someone through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

‘I prefer Joy Division,’ answers someone else, some time later.

‘Siouxsie, Bowie, or both?’ They all nod.

The night starts to spiral, everyone moves to a different flat, then to the bar, then to another flat. Ava throws up outside a chicken shop.

‘I think I love it here,’ says Ava to her new friend, who sweeps back her hair as the booze fights its way up. They walk back, more drinks in hand, see the light of clandestine parties from the street and head inside to strangers’ flats. Ava hits her girlfriend’s bed, half conscious and laughing into the pillow.

She opens one eye, and then another. The walls are different — she’s in her room, in the small town growing out of the city like a tumour. Her first week at university had slipped past. Ava had spent it with her girlfriend, in the city flat with her city friends, neglecting her dinky campus’ accommodation. Now lectures are starting, and Ava shackles herself to her laptop for the week. She flicks between apps while her course mates waffle, deletes emails welcoming her to an ‘unprecedented year’, and breezes through the work being set. Friday comes, her bag is packed. Mask on, headphones up, back of the bus, alienating herself from the doomsday buyers outside.

***

It’s ten thirty PM. The bars have shut and Ava is walking back through town with her comrades. The road warps, Ava stumbles, saved from a bruising by her girlfriend. Arms interlinked, they follow the stampede of cars to the flat. The final embers of the city illuminate their backs.

‘It’s not a long walk,’ says someone.

‘Can we bus it?’ Asks Ava.

‘Hang on, need a piss,’ someone replies, dashing into a bush and leaving Ava’s remark hanging in the street. She doesn’t know the city, but this road is already familiar. Ava watches her reflection hiss to a halt, saying early goodbyes at the flickering bus stop. She’s expected at a party with her actual flatmates, the ones she knows so little about.

***

People sway a virus’-width apart to the latest track by whoever this is. Ava’s gaze darts out of contact with the overzealous sports science student trying to ply her with drinks. She’s rescued by the arm of her flatmate, dragging her in for a picture she knows she’ll be cropped out of. Another year of living with these people. She wonders if she’ll remember their names. She’s come to love the city, being lost in an ocean of peroxide induced personality. Despite the burden of gender preferences, she knows who she is. This is just shit.

‘It’s really biology and chemistry mixed with psychology,’ says the lad, pouring her another Carlsberg. Ava wonders if he knows his skin fade is uneven. ‘My dad owns a physiotherapy chain, so I’ll probably work there–‘

‘Is this your flat?’ Ava replies. ‘I need a piss.’ He leads her to the flat’s toilet, nearly following her in. She locks the door, sits down, thinking how long she can stay in there. She spies her girlfriend, dancing in the glow of someone’s Snapchat story and wishes she was with her, wherever she is. She finishes her drink and wakes up, unsure of whose wall she’s pressed against. She joins a seminar from the duvet, letting her girlfriend snore away a hangover beside her.

***

Saturday. At last, Ava can catch up on neglected deadlines. Now it’s Thursday, and she’s having breakfast cigs at two o’clock across town. Was this when she made plans for someone’s birthday? Or when she learned about the latest post-wave band to crawl out of the black country. She only just remembers arriving before it’s time to leave again. The bus comes down from one end of the awful, quiet city. It collects Ava, as it does two, three, six times a week. She isn’t sure anymore.

‘You look rough,’ her mum tells her through the phone screen.

‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘busy week.’

***

Christmas. Ava is free, back in her comfy village, where sunset is half-past three and all the drama is seen through her bedroom window. The irregular country bus hurtles past her house, illuminated by the bright flashing billboard warning everyone to stay indoors. Ava holds her head over the bath while her girlfriend washes out the hair dye.

‘Did you tell your mum what you told me?’ Asks her girlfriend. Ava shakes her head. ‘Is it uncomfortable when she . . . you know . . . calls you . . . “she”?’

‘It’s weird,’ replies Ava, ‘I don’t feel comfortable here anymore.’  The neon water runs down her neck.

They get into bed, Ava picks up a book she should have read last semester, unable to understand anything. The characters all have their neat little paths. Their world is designed to make sense.

Ava’s girlfriend kisses her on the head, before falling to sleep. She drifts off soon after.

***

January. Ava, her girlfriend, and all of their friends are back in the city. They catch up on what’s new with their fickle personalities and malleable identities. The drip feed of university content doesn’t start for another few weeks, so Ava’s free to hide away in the last refuges of city life, where she can talk about obscure bands, old philosophers, and pretentious films. She slips into a new identity; a version of herself she always hoped to meet.

***

She alternates whose bed she sleeps in, taking the bus eight days a week, wolfing down all the major food groups in one meal before heading off again. The virus killed the city. Deader than the country ever was. Nothing’s alive except for Ava, her friends and the road in between; the road is a vein and Ava is one of the thousand warm blood cells that rush down it everyday. She keeps it pumping with a bus pass that now falls easily out of her wallet. Her relationships keep her going, making the ‘online-for-the-foreseeable-future’ university worth it, and the plague merely forgettable.

***

She doesn’t notice the days getting longer because the week is rapidly getting shorter. The constant need for something to do when the pubs are closed leads Ava to try all sorts of new things. Something to speed her up, something else to slow her down, her mind opening and closing like the sea eroding a shore.

‘Everything in moderation,’ says Ava, as if she has a solid memory from the last month. ‘What else is there to do?’ And the night speeds up. ‘I’ll call her tomorrow.’ Tomorrow, tomorrow. She can leave for a weekend or two at a time — her clothes are clean enough for one more day — have a quiet night in, a mind-altering experience, a friend’s birthday party, the most important haircut of her life, have no idea where the time went, and it’s still always tomorrow.

***

She gets home, unlocks and locks her bedroom door, finally burnt out. An evening alone could do her some good. Her clothes hang off her like her body was raptured, and every time she looks in the mirror she sees a different person. The ‘unprecedented year’ will be over soon, and the city will open up again. A few more months maybe. She opens a window and allows herself to breathe. Just get through this week, she thinks.

Her girlfriend’s flatmate walks in, greeting her.

‘Coffee?’ He says and, without asking, pours her one too, as if she’s in his flat every morning.

‘You okay? You look rough,’ he says to someone in the room. She watches through the amber window, before the shutters remind her where she is. Abandoned by the bus, she stumbles down unrecognisable alleys.  She took a wrong turn, went too far down one street, and now she can’t find the road she knows. It’ll be okay, as long as she finds it. She’ll remember where she needs to be. She wanders between the pools of sodium-orange light, breathing in thick, manure-scented wind that wafts from the countryside. The river trickles away somewhere underneath her, alive with the quacks of ducks all begging to be fed. The cracked paving stones let through the grass and flowers, pushing up into the soles of Ava’s shoes, straining as they lift her up. A headlight from up river startles her, and through the misty beams she can see the bus sailing towards her, rescuing her, before she tips herself over the edge.

‘I’ll be okay,’ says Ava, ‘I just need to get through this week.’

_

 

Charlie Hinkley is a 19 year old Creative Writing student at the University of Salford, Manchester.

 

 


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