In a Spanish Supermarket
I try to put last night into a straight line. We’d been looking forward to it for ages. Let’s go out dancing, we said.
Some bits line up easy; your red sandals, the long queue, twirling together beneath those coloured lanterns. But other bits are hidden behind floating silences; the contents of your handbag scattered on the pavement, walking home on my own.
This morning, a feeling like I have slipped out of place, like a strap on a bare shoulder you keep wanting to put right. As I move about the flat, putting on clothes, filling the kettle, I keep snagging on it. You’re upset with me about something.
How are you feeling this morning? I text you.
Two green ticks light up.
Broken bits fall out of me and smash like crockery on the floor.
It’s already raining when I get on my bike. All down the high road the pavements shine like mirror glaze, wrecked umbrellas lie abandoned. People in suits run with sodden newspapers over their heads; girls with nice hair and incredulous faces wait under shop awnings. I glide along like a sheet of rain, the cold blanching me clean. As I cross Waterloo Bridge, the wind from the river hits me sideways. My raw hands grip the handlebars to keep the bike upright. And then there it is, floating to the surface like an empty bottle; your face staring at me, all red and sweaty on the dance floor. Your freckles under the UV lights.
Later, sitting on the toilet floor at work, I remember. I told you my secret; I confided in you about Paul. My eyes follow the lines of grout between the floor tiles, hundreds of tiny, dirty hexagons fan out before me.
I lie to Charlie about where I am again and get back to the flat late. Charlie’s in bed, sprawled on his front, the lamp he’s left on for me casting his left side in a gentle red.
‘Are you asleep?’, I whisper. I take my clothes off quietly and throw them onto a pile.
‘Yes’, he says, turning away from me.
I get under the covers but I’m not ready to sleep. My chest is tight with anxiety and excitement. The quiet has become my best friend and my enemy; it lets me dream and hate. I switch the light off and lie there with my eyes open. Shadows erase our room of its clutter and detail. Boxes join bookshelves; chairs join clothes-rails; forming the outline of our life together.
Tim invites me to his birthday party. I go because I hope you might be there too. It’s been weeks since we spoke. On my walk over it starts snowing, big chunky flakes. I stop and look up at them miraculously emerging from the blackness.
The party’s in a first floor flat above a shop on the Camberwell New Road. It’s heaving with people I don’t recognise; Tim’s art school friends in their vintage knitwear and gold hoops. It’s so crowded people give up trying to get to the kitchen or find the host. They pick a square of carpet and just camp there; lots of little party islands making up a sea of people.
I get stuck on the stairs with Michael. He does the usual routine of trying to get back what he never wanted.
‘Who is this Charlie person?’, he asks.
‘You know who he is, we’ve been together nearly two years.’
‘I know, it’s just that I’m feeling…protective of you all of a sudden, like I don’t want you to be with other people.’
I laugh. ‘Since when have you been interested in me?’
And then we get into an argument about whether I turned him down in first year.
‘You’re thinking of Kirsty,’ I say.
‘I think I’d know the difference between you two,’ he says, already looking beyond me. ‘Where is she tonight? You’re normally joined at the hip’.
‘It seems not anymore,’ I say.
Paul is in a black t-shirt and jeans waiting for me round the back of the pub. I watch him leaning against the wall, head tilted in the street light, blowing cigarette smoke upwards. Looking at him, the inside of my mouth hurts, blood rushing to it, tender and sad.
‘She can’t have been such a brilliant friend if she drops you like this,’ he says when I tell him about you.
‘Well, she was,’ I say, defensively.
‘I’m just saying, you have other friends, people who are supporting you regardless,’ he says cautiously.
‘I don’t like everyone else.’ I start to cry.
Paul draws me close to him; my face rests in his t-shirt, damp with beer and sweat. I can’t make him understand so I say nothing and watch as a group of punks, all piercings and theatrics, walk into the pub.
‘Want to come in? I’m on ’til three’ he asks.
I shake my head ‘I should be getting back.’
I dream a fox comes into my bedroom. She wakes me by scratching at the bedpost. She’s got something in her mouth, I don’t know if it’s a cub or a piece of rubbish, the room is dark and she moves quickly. Whatever it is, she dumps it on my bed, and sits, folding herself neatly on the rug, looking at me expectantly. It feels like we stay like that for a long time, just looking at each other, but it’s hard to say how long. After a while she jumps onto the foot of the bed and curls up asleep. When I wake, I keep my eyes closed for a while pretending she’s still there.
Paul and I go to Paris for the May bank holiday weekend. I tell Charlie it’s a work trip. It all comes out so easily now, my words pre-written.
On our last day we stumble across a street festival, full of musicians, puppet shows and dancers. We get caught up in a processing samba band. A wave of orange-clad drummers wash us down the street, their fast rhythm feeling urgent and exciting. I lose Paul in the crowd at one point. I feel panic prickle in my stomach; I don’t speak the language and I’ve left my phone at the hotel. I retrace our steps hoping he’ll do the same. Something about the strangeness of the costumes, the deafening drums, the sinister puppet shows, makes everything feel unreal. How did I get here? To this city, with this man who isn’t my boyfriend? I think about the little yellow figure you drag around a Google map, uprooted, feet dangling apprehensively; navigating a new life severed from everything that came before it. My breathing takes control of me and there’s a ringing in my ears.
I see a little girl sitting on the pavement with a butterfly painted on her face and I sit down next to her. She’s watching a puppet show with total absorption, her mouth ajar, her whole body stilled. I envy her simplicity and how her life is a perfect straight line.
You go on holiday with Suzy and the others. Spain, they tell me later. Your parent’s place. There’s a photo of you on Instagram by the pool reading a book. It could have been taken on any of our trips there together over the past ten years. I think about how you told me you could quite happily spend your life with me, that our friendship was your grand romance. We were in the local supermarket buying cheese and cheap red wine, our clothes sodden and sticking to our wet swimsuits. You’d been so low at the start of that trip. It was soon after that stuff with your parents and all the light had been taken out of your face. My little blanched almond, I called you.
We’d talked it all to death, Forgiveness and The Value of Commitment. Round and round we went; you wanted to keep picking at it, examine the sadness from every angle. After a few days we’d run out of words and sunk into a contented silence; drowsy with sun, thoughts erased by the sea air. We made a lovely dance out of cutting fruit for breakfast, watching lizards dart up walls and walking up and down the narrow lane to the beach. You laughed again in that supermarket, at my ridiculous impersonation of an old senora. You had that silent, tears running down face kind of laugh, and I knew you’d keep getting better from that moment.
On the walk home, I looked at you with your burnt nose and strands of hair stuck to the back of your neck and told you what you already knew, ‘Don’t tell Charlie,’ I said, ‘but I love you more than I love him.’
Charlie and I are in Vauxhall Park, lying on our backs between rows of lavender. Sleepy bumble bees fly lazily around us. I do what I should have done months ago. I tell him about Paul. Charlie shifts to lean on his elbow and looks down at me. There are so many things you can easily come back from in a relationship, you get used to it, all the shit you can say to each other. But when there’s no going back, something drops, like a penny falling down a well. Intimacy in freefall. I’m surprised by how little there is to say and how empty I feel.
Back at the flat we agree I’ll move out.
‘You stay, I’ll find somewhere else,’ I tell him ‘I might go home for a bit anyway.’
I’m awake but I don’t want to get up yet. I lie face to the wall and trace the textured wallpaper with my hands. As a child this pattern felt like a whole landscape to me, over here I’d imagine continents with jungles and there an island drifting alone at sea. Downstairs the breakfast shows are on full volume, dishes clatter on the table, drawers open and close in search of something. Underneath it all a purring of wood pigeons and the ticking of the wall clock.
Today me and mum are going to pick blackberries, you know the lane round the back of school? It’s a bit late for it but we saw people picking there still last week. I roll the day out in my mind. The hole in the fence we’ll climb through, empty lunch boxes rattling in our rucksacks. The bench in the clearing where we’ll stop for tea from the flask and Mum will ask me if I slept any better. The musky smell of late summer; warm nettles and bramble. Me leaning up and scratching my arms to get the good ones just out of reach.
At the train station I ask the man by the barriers if I can get through without a ticket, I’m collecting someone off the London train, I explain. He looks me over then lets me through with a wink. On the platform I hop from one foot to the other to stave off the cold.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been this far north,’ Paul says teasingly as he drops his bag to give me a squeeze.
‘Well, you pretty much invited yourself,’ I smile.
‘So you’re alive then,’ he says as we climb the hill towards the house.
And I laugh, ‘yes I’m alive.’
I choose the flat because it’s on a steep hill, rare for south London. It reminds me of Sheffield. There was a time when I wouldn’t have wanted to live this far out, worried I’d have missed out on something, probably.
If you stand in the middle of the street, you get a sense of the size of the city with it all laid out before you. I feel like I can breathe again up here. Something in my brain slots back into place when I look at the horizon; life has perspective and scale to it again.
On firework night the whole street piles out into the road in their coats, drinks in hands, to watch as the city explodes with colour.
I make a new friend at dance class, Jessie. The others tease me that she’s my rebound friend. We’re very polite with each other. We go to an exhibition at the Tate and courteously listen to each other’s opinions. It feels good to be liked again, for someone to think I’m a good person. Afterwards we walk along the river. I’m so happy with the buzz of fresh friendship I break into a little trot towards the railings. The tide’s out and together we traipse along the river’s thin foreshore. Jessie talks about how she used to come down here looking for treasure with her dad growing up.
‘The river carries these tiny bits of history,’ she tells me, ‘everyday it brings more beautiful fragments.’
She points out small shards that freckle the mud, and in her hands they become a glass bead, a clay pipe, a silver halfpenny.
Walking back to the tube, she asks about my boyfriend. I consider telling her the simple version, worrying the truth will change things between us. But I find myself launching into it all. About Charlie, how it started with Paul, about you and the panic attacks.
Her face becomes serious, ‘It sounds complicated, a lot to keep in the air,’ she offers me kindly.
On a blue day in November I see you on Electric Avenue. You look the same. Still the same coat and that old scarf. Your hair is longer, all piled up on the top of your head. The market is heaving, the procession of people through the stalls is slow. I get stuck behind a group of women and practically fall over a child in a pushchair. I don’t want to lose sight of you. You emerge from the crowd again near Jamaican Joe’s. I follow you. I guess you’re headed home because you turn left down Coldharbour Lane. I walk a few metres behind you for a while, keeping my distance, heart hammering.
Of course I’ve thought about what I’d say if we did bump into each other. I’ve run the scenario through my head thousands of times. I want to tell you that I finally told him, that I’ve done the right thing. And I’m sorry I lied to everyone, most of all to you.
But you seem happy in this moment; you’re in your own little world, with your headphones in, and yellow roses poking out of your blue plastic bag. And I don’t want to ruin it for you, I don’t want to make you say it, or make you have to explain.
Holly Challenger read English at Cambridge University. She started writing fiction last year. The themes that occupy her writing are female relationships, feminine identity and how technology is impacting modern relationships.
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