The Root of it All by Charlotte Newman

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Pavements slick from rain and a market at night, risen dripping from the oily roads like a brand new continent. Brunch alongside nails alongside jerk fish alongside brooms, alongside bright, bright Iro skirts and sweet and sour £2 and Dark & Stormys £8 and hair removal calls to Russia kale juiced with yogurt is better rubber soles plastic spoons but at least the beans are ethical. Two little boys sit with faces blue from a screen cupped in four warm hands and there’s plenty of music seeping from the decks but it’s the sound of the sirens that makes the little ones dance.

‘London brings out a madness in me,’ she says.

She’s eyeliner-theatrical, tights from last week, teeth brushed vigorously. Bracelets alongside bracelets alongside bracelets.

He doesn’t mind the madness, and when it flies in at the window, he helps it nest and when it’s calm, he helps it sleep. He’s only known 1am chips doused in salt and the way she makes him laugh and the ease at which she puts him and blue mornings nosing at the skylight while the neighbours make their beds, their breakfasts, their lives.

‘What do people see in brunch?’ He asks. ‘Why not just breakfast? Why not just lunch?’

He’s seven-years-abroad, he’s gum in his pockets. His voice is soft and his teeth, white by nature. He favours a tropical shirt.

She replies:

‘Brunch is for those who missed breakfast but love eggs.’

They share a love of filling their bellies. Tonight, it isn’t the subtlety of whitefish or the herbal tang of the Holy Land and it isn’t 2 for 1 at the pub either. Tonight, it is hamburgers, straight from the stall, taste the smoke, washed down with beer. Tonight, it is: sitting on what you can eating as much as you can while steadily slurping from beer cans.

They sit on a cart. Produce-free.

She swings her legs, finds it hard to stop.

They share a love of jokes.

‘What do you call an Icelandic pig?’

Checks her teeth are slaw-free, checks with him, he nods.

‘Pjork.’

‘Awful,’ she says, shaking her head. Laughing. ‘Awful. I love you.’

She does. She loves him pushing his bike so they can walk together in the rain. She loves his hand on hers when he delivers the awful, awful punchlines. She loves the copper of his skin, a new penny she would keep. He is the gentlest of men in the loudest of shirts – she loves his love of palm trees. Of toucans. Toucans mate for life. He told her that.

Little crescendos from passers-by keep them entertained –

Jen’s on here, Sarah’s on here, I can’t find any woman who – oh Christ, ANGE is on here!

Do you remember when we –

Can I just stop you there? No.

They stay later than they should, later than she’d planned.

‘I should go,’ she says, at half past ten.

They talk about the Americas – he’s been and she’s curious – they talk about wet jungle leaves and they talk about the money that they don’t have and then they buy a round at a themed cocktail bar and the bartender gives them the full-lipped smiles you extend to those who are young and floppy arms around each other drunk with it all – ‘Merry,’ she says, ‘just a bit merry’ – and they sit with a cushion between them. The cushion would be hot pink in the light but it’s dark now and they’re the only ones in this Himalayan lean-to in Zone 2.

‘I should go,’ she says, at ten past eleven.

They sip their citric drinks.

‘We should dance,’ she says, at quarter to twelve.

The DJ slows things down a notch and they look at each other in wide-eyed horror mirth and they cover their mouths and they wobble, giggle, squeal, burst. It’s the end of the night, the rubbish bags are piled up and their smell is in the damp air and a rumba takes place just in front of them. There is a woman and there is a man. The woman struggles to see through her black mascara stalks and the man is losing his hair and his rhythm as he rubs against her and mouths wetly in her ear I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry and maybe the BeeGees go some way to mending what is broken between them but that isn’t clear.

They watch each other watching the couple and she considers taking his hand.

He reaches for his phone.

He disappears for a minute or two, and when he comes back, she asks:

‘Hannah?’

And he says:

‘Yeah.’

To which she says:

‘So, are you…?’

And he confirms:

‘Yeah, I am, mate, I am. I should go.’

It’s twelve o’clock and she’s missed her train.


By Charlotte Newman