Short Fiction by Leon Craig
‘It’s not an orgy without five people, minimum. Everyone knows that.’
Livia watched Roland crushing the cube of brown sugar into his espresso with the back of a teaspoon. Every time she visited his basement flat, there seemed to be another horse painting. The bachelor uncle who had left this place to him had been a proud member of the household cavalry.
‘I thought you said we should avoid having an orgy because it would precipitate the destruction of our friendship group.’
Livia poked a finger the molten pool forming in one of the pillar candles Roland habitually lit against the gloom, then withdrew when it went numb, wax hardening pleasantly around the digit.
‘I did say that once … but if there are fewer people at a Black Mass than at an orgy, that’s not very pleasing to Satan, is it?’
He sniffed the coffee and put it down. The horse Livia could see over his shoulder had a manic expression, like it was considering biting someone in uniform.
‘Fine. I’ll ask Bonnie, but I don’t think she’ll be keen. She was confirmed, you know, she takes that sort of thing quite seriously.’
‘All the better – James was an altar boy, having two proper Catholics makes it much more blasphemous.’
In the end there were six of them: James’s wife Yu-Jin was always pleased by novelty, and Alexa, as a former goth, told Livia she simply had to be there.
Roland had come to collect them from the station in a Peugeot so old they’d had to drive with all the windows down in lieu of air conditioning. Gazing out of the window at the Wiltshire hills, Livia shifted in her seat to support the pleasant weight of Alexa’s sandaled feet resting on her bare thighs. A large, dark bee drifted into the car for a moment and then flew out. Soon they were chuntering up the drive towards Rakeswood, with two ornamental lakes on either side of them. The left-hand lake had swans paddling rather listlessly across its surface, while the right was empty. Closer to the house, a vast cedar tree spread its boughs over the lawn, the branches almost touching the walls at their furthest extent. Some of these branches were so long and so old that they had to be supported by wooden crutches, something Livia had otherwise only seen in Vietnamese mausolea. She fell into a reverie of what the evening ahead of them might contain – perhaps it would alleviate the boredom that grew ever harder to shrug off with each new and outlandish experience.
‘Why didn’t you tell me Roland lived in a mansion?’ Alexa asked, lighting a cigarette.
No comment came from the driver’s seat.
Livia said ‘Oh sorry, I thought it was sort of implicit. Do you not remember that picture of Roland and his dog in front of the ha-ha?’
‘It’s a kind of fancy ditch. Anyway, you’d only do that if it were too tacky to take a picture in front of your actual house.’
Alexa gave a choking little laugh, and Roland pulled the car into its spot just round the side of the house. Bonnie had been leaning against a column, waiting for them. She came over to the car and took the cigarette right out of Alexa’s hand, getting in two drags before Alexa made it out of the car door. Roland’s other girlfriend was up in Scotland and so had had to regretfully decline. Livia lugged her suitcase into the hall, past the cases of taxidermy puffins and four generations’ worth of walking sticks, and dragged it up the spiral staircase to her room.
Apparently, Roland’s father was on a convenient fishing trip in Germany and the housekeeper had been sent back early to Little Raking. Due to her absence, Roland was making liberal use of the hotplate, which Livia felt it necessary to keep a watchful eye on, so the veal didn’t get tough. Some of the group had yet to be entirely won over and she’d determined that everything had to be just so. Why should she continue to keep her two lives separate, when she could have company in hell?
They caught each other up on the various triumphs and failures of the week. Yu-jin was trying unsuccessfully to wiggle out of going back to Kiev to be maid of honour for a childhood friend’s wedding. Bonnie was in the middle of casting her new production of Peer Gynt and so had to contend with unreliable actors, unrealistic demands by the venue and uncertainty over why she was putting herself through this yet again. Livia had been banned from cast parties on the basis that she couldn’t stop sleeping with Bonnie’s actors.
Alexa had been busying herself with the seduction of her new boyfriend’s best friend’s girlfriend. Her boyfriend had given her his approval, but it was as yet unclear how much the best friend knew or was prepared to know. Livia entertained herself by speculating on the degree to which the girlfriend must resemble her (and the girl before her, and the girl before that).
Although it was Roland’s house, James was to be Master of Ceremonies. He sat turning his wineglass, watching how high the legs reached up the bowl.
‘It seems a shame to have gone to all this trouble and still not be able to procure ourselves a virgin. I know Livia is serving as altar, but, no offence intended, she’s been depucelated for over a decade.’
Livia’s hair was sticking to her face with the June humidity – and her growing anticipation. James could always be relied upon to escalate matters. She attempted to sweep it back in one motion and, having failed, replied, ‘it is a shame, but short of heading into Little Raking and requesting to borrow one of Roland’s tenants’ daughters, I think we may just have to make do.’
Roland had finally rescued the veal from the hotplate and was holding the dish while Yu-jin helped herself ‘Oh yes, I can imagine that going over well. Good evening Mr Moore, I trust your fence hasn’t been giving you any trouble. We just need Sophie for a couple of hours, and we promise we’ll return her mostly intact.’
Yu-jin passed on the dish with shaky arms and said, ‘I am not getting back in the car with you, James, you’ve been drinking since lunchtime.’
Alexa asked, ‘Surely at least one of the boys must be a virgin in the arse?’
James scoffed and drained his wineglass.
Bonnie said, ‘I’m pretty sure you’ve still got that virginity, don’t you?’
Roland, in a sudden hurry to dispense refills, reached all the way across the table for the decanter, speckling the tablecloth with rosy droplets.
Livia swallowed a mouthful of veal. It had survived its wait reasonably well. ‘But you boarded for seven years, what’s wrong with you?’
‘I was very Christian. I could barely masturbate without feeling guilty,’ said Roland.
‘Are you sure we can’t tempt you to join in, Bonnie? Just think of it as a piece of immersive theatre. It’s a harmless bit of fun and you might get some new ideas to play with, ’ said Livia.
‘Unlike you, I know the difference between art and life.’
‘That’s a failure of imagination.’
After dinner had concluded, Bonnie went off upstairs to write grant applications and James set to work on a batch of French 75s, dropping a pink pill into each one as a garnish. He and Alexa then slunk off to prepare, leaving them to wait in the drawing room though it was still light outside. The room was large and filled with Meissen shepherdesses, Victorian hair art in glass-fronted cabinets and dark wood netsuke of copulating deer. Yu-jin was playing with an engraved fan case, slapping the palm of her hand with it every time she made a point about the pointlessness of jealousy. Roland sat in an armchair bouncing his knee up and down and smoking with gusto. Livia watched as the cogs and levers under the glass hood of the clock on the mantelpiece guided them ever closer to midnight.
Livia had recently received a phone call from her first serious girlfriend during which Annie apologised for raping her. She had been very drunk and upset on the phone, and when Livia told her it was ok, it turned out the call was a precursor to inviting Livia over to sleep with her again. It took Livia a while to get her off the line, and before this had been achieved, she’d told Livia she was still in love with her. She was drunk enough that this seemed sincere, rather than an attempt at cack-handed manipulation.
The night Annie was referring to had been a long time ago, during the final months of their relationship. Livia had never thought of it before she’d been reminded. They’d been in Livia’s parents’ country house, arguing in bed together with the lights out. She and Annie had agreed that she was Annie’s possession and Livia wore a ribbon round her neck to signify this, but her two best friends were in the room next door and she didn’t want them to hear. Annie didn’t hold her down, but she had known Livia didn’t want to and did it anyway. She’d known that Annie was perfectly capable of breaking up with her on the spot, so she lay there crying in the dark as Annie grew more and more frustrated that Livia’s faked enjoyment was not sufficiently convincing. The most vivid part of this newly excavated memory was Livia’s annoyance that her teardrops were running directly along her cheekbones and into the cups of her ears. She hated getting water in her ears.
In the phone call, Annie had given what passed between them a name, and in doing so, invited it back into her mind. Livia had been so successful at forgetting she had not even known it was there to be forgotten. Annie’s reminder felt more irksome than the event itself. Of all the women she had loved, Annie had been the only one to love her back. She was trying hard to find this irony amusing.
When the gong sounded, they re-joined James and Alexa in the folly at the far end of the lawn. A sound system had been concealed in a nearby box hedge and the air was filled with a low liturgical chanting. James had changed into a black cassock, with black rubber gloves covering his hands. He handed out black hooded robes for the other two to put on. Alexa was already naked under hers, save for a black harness strapped around her breasts in the shape of a seven-pointed star, and two great curling horns that rose from her hair. In her left hand, she held a censer which gave off sickly sweet smoke. A raised marble slab lay at the centre of the folly, with tufts of moss growing from its veins. The slab had absorbed none of the day’s heat, and Livia was already tensing her body as she undressed to lie upon it. The cold tickled, but she was supposed to be stiff as a board. She must not laugh; the others needed this pageantry. She felt James spread her legs and place a chalice brimming with wine between them, and on top of that, she saw him lay down a folded red silk handkerchief which she guessed must contain the host.
Alexa lit two black candles from one of the many which were guttering on the steps and alcoves of the folly, then placed one in each of Livia’s hands. James stood between her legs and began to recite: ‘In nomine magni dei nostri Satanas, introibo ad altare Domini Inferi…’
James motioned for them to be still, and then took a tiny vial from his sleeve. He poured out its contents into a silver bowl that was already filled with water and swirled them with his gloved hand, flicking droplets into the faces of the others until half the liquid was gone. Then he leant over Livia with the bowl and poured some of the mixture down her throat. It was bitter and soapy tasting, though no thicker than normal water.
Standing a little way behind her head, she heard James say ‘Domine Satanas, ut placatus accipias dies ue nostras in felicitate disponas.’ Livia watched from upside down, as Roland bent low before the inverted cross they’d placed at the back of an alcove, his chin flat on the alcove’s edge, arms prostrated on the stone. She saw Alexa put down the censer and lift his cassock. Alexa proffered a little red enamel box to James, who moistened two gloved forefingers in the box, then held Roland’s neck down with his left forearm so he wouldn’t struggle. Livia was pleased to find that it was still easy for her to muster the icy, unintrusive interest she usually felt watching other people have sex. When James was done, he said ‘Hail Satan’ in a loud voice, and the others responded ‘Amen’, including Roland, who was at this point kneeling on the floor, trying to collect himself.
Sounds became deeper and the flames brighter against the darkness. Livia felt flushed with warmth, her nipples stiffening as the air moved over them. Yu-jin’s face looked mask-like in the candlelight, stilled by total concentration. Behind Yu-jin, she could see the branches of the cedar swaying and twisting very slightly in the breeze and finally felt the delicious whisper of fear she had been waiting for. Even if she wanted to, it was too late to back out now, whatever James had made her drink was beginning to take effect.
Alexa said, ‘Now that we’ve made an offering, we should ask for something in return.’
There was silence for a moment. They had been so caught up in planning for the ceremony that they had not agreed upon an object for their prayers. It took Livia a significant effort to speak, as if she were carrying the words across a huge distance, ‘Ask Him to prove that we have souls to sell.’
Without acknowledging her words, James took the red silk cloth and removed the host. ‘Hoc est corpus Jesu Christi,’ he said, touching the wafer between Livia’s breasts and then between her legs. Where it touched her, she felt a flash of heat, as if it might burn her skin.
Then he crushed the host in his fist and sprinkled the fine dust over her stomach, while Alexa withdrew a small pouch of cocaine and mixed the two together in a pile. Livia held her stomach taut, as Alexa raked it into lines and each member of the congregation inhaled their portion through a silver straw, washing it down with wine from the chalice, before kneeling to kiss Alexa’s bared left buttock. As the altar, she was exempt – besides, she had done far worse with Alexa in private. Livia tried to count each person’s line as it went, so she would know when to relax, but there seemed to be more lines than she’d reckoned, or else she wasn’t counting properly. After James was finished with his line, he began the final prayer,
‘Our Father which art in Hell, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom is come, Thy will is done on earth as it is in Hell. We take this night our rightful due…’
Livia was lying under the world, in her little sarcophagus, as the seasons continued above her. She saw the earth as if in cross-section, the roots of trees snaking down towards her and colonies of ants living and dying in seclusion. Processions wound their way over the grass, rivers branched and flowed into the sea. She was a dolphin, coming up from a deep dive beneath the waves. She broke the surface, back into her human body, which felt ice cold, with something heavy weighing it down from above. It hurt to be alive.
Then the dolphin dived again, and she went back under reality. Her sarcophagus and the world were painted on one side of a double-sided canvas, on a rail full of similar paintings, and there were infinite rails, all stored underneath a vast gallery with such extensive holdings no one would ever be shown them again. In the gallery she was simultaneously walking alongside an unknown companion through a long high-ceilinged room, filled with glass cases, and in every case her mummified body was laid out with its leather-brown face and collapsed nose, thin hair still clinging to its skull. Even though she closed her lids she could still see herself looking back with yellowed gummy eyes. Both she and it were crumbling to dust and she tried to focus on the horror of their annihilation, but even that diminished faster than she could hold on to it. And then there was no her, no world, no separation.
A month or so after these events, Livia met Belle in what was called the High Protocol room of a night she favoured in South London. She was well known at Plinth for her willingness to put on a show. This was her world and she was wanted here. People knew her, though she would have hesitated to call them friends. Livia sat on the floor in seiza, staring off into the middle distance. In this room, no one wearing a collar was allowed on the sofas, or to speak unless spoken to. Most of the women present were only interested in submissive men, though they would periodically use her shoulders as footrests. Belle was small and dark and wearing heelless boots which made her feet resemble hooves. She wanted to know how long Livia had been waiting, but Livia said she wasn’t sure. Every movement Belle made was so purposeful that Livia had to wonder if she were a former dancer, or perhaps ex-military. Belle drained her champagne flute and took up the flogger that had been resting by her side on the banquette, trailing its falls up Livia’s bare arm, before whisking them away and asking if this was what she really wanted.
‘Yes of course it is.’
‘You’re absolutely sure?’ A smile was beginning to form about Belle’s lips.
‘I want to.’ Livia shuffled closer on her knees, numb from waiting, eager to be punished.
‘Tell me again’
Livia was getting annoyed now, but not unpleasantly so. Belle said nothing, so she eventually she snapped
‘I’m not exactly new on the scene, you know. I’m old enough not to mess you about and too young to deny myself anything. I know exactly what I want.’
Belle leant in and kissed the centre of her forehead. Her lips were cool and soft.
‘That’s more like it. Get on your feet and come with me.’
There were two St. Andrew’s crosses soldered to a black metal frame in the centre of the club, and as they walked together towards these, Belle’s hand resting gently on her shoulder, they passed another structure, not unlike an open-sided iron trellis. Inside that was a row of five men lying shirtless on the ground and two petite women in stilettos walking across them. The women gripped the trellis roof above them to vary the amount of pressure on the men. On the cross opposite, Livia, a beautiful queen in full pageant drag was having hot wax dripped onto her chest by a woman in a red latex cheongsam. Belle raised Livia’s hands up by their heavy cuffs and clipped them to the cross one after the other, so that she was facing away from her.
Livia felt the rush of panic she always experienced just after giving up control. What if she had finally put herself beyond rescue? Belle started slowly, hitching up her dress to slap the backs of her legs. Occasionally she felt Belle stop and run her hands along her inner thighs, getting bolder as she became more certain Livia would let her do whatever she liked. She often broke the rhythm of her slaps, so that Livia would remain in suspense rather than being able to relax into the sensation. Every few minutes, she wondered if she could bear much more of this, and then told herself to wait it out before it started to feel pleasurable again.
Belle leant in and said, ‘I’ve been enjoying your reactions, but if the pain gets too much, tell me to stop. We’ll just wait and savour it together.’
She unzipped Livia’s dress to lay her shoulders bare and graduated to the whip. This was the good stuff, the pain so pure and clear that it didn’t hurt at all. The frozen fire, the burning ice. She would have let Belle continue until the bones poked through her skin.
At some point, Belle stopped by herself and let down Livia’s hands, leading her over to a low couch by the wall. One of the house slaves, identifiable by the roses pinned to their outfits, stopped by with two glasses of water. She lay, still half undressed, with her head in Belle’s lap, the cool leather of the couch tingling against her bared back, as Belle stroked her hair and told her she’d done well, and that there would be more pain next time.
Livia’s mother had spent a decade trying to persuade her she should spend her life getting fucked by some wealthy man she could not love, before giving up and deciding to view her as a failure. She remained uncertain whether her mother had thought that she could change Livia’s desires or just hoped to break her will. Between this battle and her insistence that Livia should be thin, pretty and demure, except when tolerating the flirtations of her friends, it became clear she thought she owned her. That Livia was something which could be owned.
‘How could you know what you want, you’re far too young.’
‘You’re just saying that to be difficult, you’re trying to get a reaction out of me.’
‘Don’t you know that everyone who loves you will leave you in the end?’
Later, she was told both that these things had never been said and that if they had been said, it was only out of concern. That she had worried her mother so much she’d had no choice but to hurt her and keep on hurting her and wasn’t it time she stopped going on about all that, it had been such a long time ago and Livia had turned out fine.
Her mother did love her, Livia knew that with certainty. But in the world for which she had been intended, you were either a prodigy or a disaster. By the time she was twenty-two, Livia had known three people who had killed themselves after failing their exams. Yet more had needed to go into rehab or experienced severe breakdowns. When she’d still believed in therapy, it had been impossible to go to her therapist’s office without encountering either a schoolmate or the children of family friends.
She was a generous parent in her fashion; for the most part, Livia wanted the things she had been taught to want and she gave those things to her or helped her to get them. But the one thing Livia couldn’t have was a genuine apology, because her mother still believed she had been right.
The only way to dissuade her of this would have been to show her the full extent of the damage, which Livia was afraid to do, in case this put any further privacy out of reach entirely.
And yet she had more freedom than most women who had ever lived.
The basement at ArteMs was heaving with girls in mesh tops, with blue-powdered brows and shaven heads. Gold lycra, tight polka dot dresses and ironic sportswear were the other popular choices. Livia, Alexa and Bonnie had made a solid effort, but Watered-Down Club Kid was a hard look to get right. Bonnie, in fishnets and a sleeveless men’s shirt held together by one button and a safety pin, was probably doing best out of the three. Yu-jin, having got out of the wedding party on the basis that she was too busy, had now gone on a secret holiday to Naples to make video art in the catacombs.
ArteMs had been established by Oxford grads and was one of two rival lesbian club nights that ran every few months in East London. The Cambridge version was called Merkin and played slightly more R&B. Exactly the same crowd of women went to both nights, except for their respective DJs, who maintained a bitter and lengthy feud nobody could quite get to the bottom of. Most of the regulars had been children the first time plastic chokers were trendy, but increasing numbers of even younger women were now filtering through. They looked lustrous and untouched, like butterflies with the bloom still on them. It occurred to Livia that soon the girls who’d been in school after Section 28 was lifted would legal to drink here, and at that point she would have to stop coming.
The queue for the bar was four deep all along and Red Stripes cost a fiver per can when they got there, but at least the shots were on offer. They did two each and fought back though the crowd. Livia was looking over at a tall, sullen-looking girl with a white streak in her hair. Alexa leant over and said, ‘I’ve been there and I can tell you that’s a bad idea.’ Livia had not been scoping out the girl in earnest. As she spent more time with Belle, she’d begun to recognise the comforting sensation of her will retreating, bundling itself up into the protective constriction of another woman’s desires, it almost didn’t matter whose.
The DJs had already played ‘212’ and ‘Anaconda’, so the playlist could only go downhill from that point on. After many long years of service, ‘The Only Girl in the World’ had finally been retired. When Alexa mimed holding a cigarette to her lips, they swaddled their tinnies in the deepest folds of their jackets to protect them from the zealotry of the door bitches and headed upstairs for the smoking area.
Girls were clustered in groups of three or four, hunched over and scowling despite the late summer heat. Although the three of them had promised before they went out that this time they really would make more effort to mingle, they found a corner and listened as Alexa began to tell them about her latest conquest, who was apparently very flexible and very discreet. Since Alexa did not date girls, she could be absolutely shameless in her pursuit of them – no romantic pride nor ingrown shame depended on the success of the encounter. She blew two plumes of smoke out through her nose before asking Livia,
‘And how is your mysterious older woman?’
‘She’s living up to expectations.. I’m being taken to the opera next week.’
Livia was already planning the ingratiating things she would say, the precise tone of her laughter and the expression she would wear as she got on her knees. The sting of Belle’s palm against her cheek.
‘Wait, how much older is this woman than you?’ Bonnie’s face was gleaming with sweat which caught the light as the doors to the club swung open again, spewing more women onto the tiny terrace. She passed a hand over her forehead, and two of the best-looking girls in the neighbouring group looked approvingly at her abundantly hirsute pits.
‘You know, I’m not really sure how old Belle is. At first, I thought she was only ten years older than me, but she keeps talking about the work she did in Russia in the nineties, so that can’t be right. I mean, however old she is, she’s very well preserved’
Alexa smiled, stroked Livia’s collarbone and said, ‘Please look after yourself. It’s supposed to be fun, you know.’ Unspoken between them was the night that one of Livia’s requests had resulted in Alexa taking her to A&E for stitches.
Bonnie lit a new cigarette with her old one and ground the stub out against the wall. She asked, ‘It’s getting a little tired, isn’t it, you doing the same thing over and over again? You’re going to get hurt.’
‘But it isn’t the same thing, this one likes me far more than I like her. She’s bought a flat in Shoreditch and wants me to live in it, supposedly so it won’t sit empty while she’s away in Leipzig.’
Livia couldn’t help smirking at Bonnie’s revolted face before she said, ‘You really think we’re going to find anyone in here? You wouldn’t rather be literally anywhere else, if you had anywhere to go that wasn’t full of straight people?’
‘You’re going to be a kept woman. In this day and age.’
‘I’ve never been anything but a kept woman. Nor have you, for that matter.’
Bonnie turned away and started talking to Alexa about her quest to work out who had been stealing the props from Peer Gynt. They kept going missing, but the venue had shown her their CCTV footage and nobody could be seen taking them. Bonnie suspected it was a prank on James’s part. Alexa made sympathetic noises while scoping out a curvy brunette girl in a halter top. Livia finished her beer, then crushed the can into a shiny silver disc under her foot and set off back towards the doors alone.
The bells of Paris were ringing nine and Livia had all of ten minutes to fold away the bed and get ready to help open the shop. She rolled over and almost out of the tiny rickety camp bed she had been sleeping on, which smelled distinctly of male sweat. Livia was in the poetry section again, not having been able to wangle a bed in the studio flat upstairs. Perhaps the sweat was Roland’s, since it was through his recommendation that she’d secured her place here. He’d often said that being too preoccupied with cleanliness was a bit tragic. Livia was more than a week into her stay, but she was still surprised to wake every morning and find herself extracted from muggy, doomed London, whose streets she walked continually in her dreams.
She and the two young Swedes who had monopolised the studio, plus the taciturn Argentinian boy who slept in Art Reference, folded back the shutters of the shop windows, rearranged the books on the table displays and lugged the wheeled shelves outside onto the cobbles. After this she was felt about ready to go back to bed, but as her bed was stashed under a divan where young Americans were now sitting reading the best known bits of Hemingway to each other, she sloped off to the little park next to the shop and lit up a cigarette.
As she’d intended to do every day since she’d arrived, she unlocked her phone, ready to message Belle her final acquiescence. She’d been sent pictures of the flat: well-lit, without much in the way of decor. No hints of Belle’s taste. She had promised Livia could fit it out to her own requirements, since she would be the one to spend most time there.
Instead, Livia took a picture of the boxy Greek church at the edge of the park and posted it online, leaving the geotag on. Not half an hour later she felt her phone buzz against the zinc counter where she was drinking strong, overpriced coffee and turned it face up to see a message from Annie.
‘Don’t know what you’re doing here but would be good to see you. You free for a drink in the Marais this evening?’
It was still warm and light when she got there and Annie had bought them a carafe of white wine, perspiring gently onto the tablecloth.
She watched Annie turning the empty glass around and around in her hands. The same hands which had violated her and written her love letters (subsequently burnt) and had rebuilt an entire life away from London after Annie came out and was rejected by her mother for being an unrepentant sinner. The same hands which earnt Annie a living, though not much of one, as an opera dresser and which were visibly trembling so much that Livia feared she would drop the glass and break it.
While she was waiting for Annie to regain her composure, she couldn’t help but circle back to the unwelcome memory. It gained more details every time. The storm had wailed so loud that from inside their tightly curtained room, Livia could almost see through the walls to watch the air turning in great loops and tunnels over the lake. She was curled over with her back to Annie, who was also crying. They had been fighting because Annie had interpreted Livia’s friends’ decision to play Scrabble in Latin as a deliberate choice to exclude her and Livia had lost her temper. When Annie heard the howling, she’d laughed nervously and asked what the noise was, though Livia wasn’t talking to her. On being told that it was just the wind, she said,
‘I didn’t ask for any of this, I’m a city girl you know.’
Livia had pointed out she was from the city too and hadn’t understood that Annie was alluding to the differences between them.
Livia’s Scottish surname came from the architect who had designed Edinburgh New Town, while Annie’s Scottish surname came from the family who had owned her family and whose castle still stood on the Borders. Annie had once shown her a picture of it online. All Livia had said was that she hoped the cost of keeping the roof up would ruin them.
Annie pointed at the tight silver necklace Livia was wearing, with one fat black pearl strung through its centre, gleaming pink and green in the last of the light.
‘You’re seeing someone?’
‘Sort of. She wants a lot from me, and I don’t know if I can do it.’
Annie filled Livia’s glass, though her wrist was still shaking. By the time she pulled away, it was almost too full to drink.
‘That doesn’t sound so good. You’re usually pretty certain what you want.’
‘No, you’re usually pretty certain what I want.’
Annie looked down and breathed heavily for a few moments, wheezing like she might break out into sobs.
‘I’m so sorry … I was trying to feel close to you, but I should never have done it, I know that.’ Then she pushed back her chair, making a scraping sound on the pavement and stood up. She pulled out her rucksack from beneath her feet and dumped it on the table. Livia could see that the red leather had cracked apart down the centre and been sutured back together with a thick black shoelace, now going fuzzy. Annie reached inside the bag and searched around, spreading papers and cables and pots of half-used lipbalm over the tablecloth.
‘I have something for you. I should have done this years ago.’
Annie pushed a small green velvet box towards her. Livia thought for one mad moment that she might be about to propose, then wondered if there could ever be a world in which she would have accepted.
After Annie had rushed through her goodbyes and left, Livia took off the black pearl from around her neck and put it into the box, beside the ribbon.
It wasn’t even dark yet and she’d heard there was a friendly little place not far from there, where all manner of things were permitted.