by Kerry Hadley-Pryce
THE SIGN FLASHED “Chimera” and you both made your way down the steps, and the first thing you saw was a couple, or maybe even three people, having sex against the wall opposite the bar. You were sure of it. You looked away, but she did not. She said something, but the music was so loud, you wouldn’t have heard her. The tables were sticky to the touch, and you did touch them, didn’t you, to navigate through? And the barman stood polishing a pint glass with a white tea-towel whilst watching football on a giant TV screen. She felt in her handbag for her purse, and leaned awkwardly against the chrome of the bar. The DJ pressed an oversized earphone to one ear, and swayed in the way of a tiger in a cage. His t-shirt said something unreadable from that distance. She had to lean right over to order the drinks and her small breasts pressed down against the bar. The barman rolled his eyes at something she said. You’d stopped noticing the detail of her, as people do a painting that’s been hanging on their wall for too long. But you noticed her then. You noticed the way she walked back, balancing the two drinks like it was a magic trick of some kind and you were impressed.
You sat, the two of you, at a round, wooden table that rocked because one leg was shorter than the rest. The drinks jerked as if about to tip over. You picked yours up and held it. When you tasted it, there was a feeling of pepper and dirt and some kind of acid, at the back of your throat.
Beneath you, the floor vibrated, because of the music. You could feel it in your breast bone and wondered if it was good for your heart, never mind your hearing. You were sweating, and you were sure the place was sweating too, from the walls, from the ceiling. You expected that at any moment, there would be a deluge, like a sprinkler going off.
She picked up a laminated menu from the table and you watched her study it. It might have been the drink, but you thought, you fantasised about asking her to marry you just then.
‘Are you hungry?’ she mouthed, or maybe you thought she did. Maybe she just looked like she’d say that kind of thing just then.
‘Is there vegan?’ you said, trying to impress.
‘Are you mad?’ she definitely said.
Fair enough, it was Digbeth, after all.
In each dark corner, something like smoke rose, or so it seemed to you, unpeopled, and vaguely medicinal. Spectral. Had there been windows, you’d expected headlights to have shone through and illuminated disparate images of women, mostly, in various poses and states of undress. A man in a long skirt seemed to just appear, with a small dog on a piece of rope. The way he moved made you think he was begging for cash, or was about to, and you looked away. When you looked again, he was gone.
‘Did you see him, that man?’ you said.
She nodded, vaguely, said, ‘You have to be really thin to pull that look off.’
The barman materialised from a shadow, adjusting his belt, and took your glass, even though you hadn’t yet finished your drink.
‘You look old in this light,’ she said, ‘Older.’ And her face was close to yours, or you wouldn’t have heard her, and her hand was on your thigh, and it felt like you’d expect mercury to feel inside a thermometer. You realised that opposite, a man sat alone, his stare persistent and challenging. His head so bald, it shone like a halo, his fingers intertwined beneath his chin, the buttons of his shirt opened low, something like a crucifix glistening. When two semi-naked girls passed, he didn’t seem to notice until they kissed at the bar and muscles of their tattooed legs, like dolls’ legs, strained in their high-heeled shoes.
‘What do you want to do?’ she said.
You thought for a second, said, ‘This. All this.’ And your voice ululated.
But she didn’t mean that though, did she? And when she laughed, even that couple, or threesome having sex, or whatever, stopped—you’re pretty sure—momentarily.
And they all looked at you, just then, didn’t they?
You needed the toilet, but she said it was time to go. You’d never been in an Uber before and she kept checking her phone all the way. You asked to see what she was looking at but she said it was none of your beeswax, and to get your own phone, and you said yours was better than hers but it was charging, and she said, ‘Of course it is.’
You got home in time, and she sent you to your room. ‘Sssh,’ she said. ‘They’ll be back soon.’
You’re frightened of the dark, she knows that, but she turned off the light.
The excitement had made you tired, so you never even heard your parents come home, did you?
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a British writer and academic. Her first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. Her second novel, Gamble, also published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award 2019. She is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University researching Psychogeography and Black Country Fiction, teaches creative writing, and has contributed to Palgrave’s ‘Smell, Memory & Literature in the Black Country’ anthology as well as having had short stories published in Fictive Dream and The Incubator and read by Brum Radio:
She is currently completing her third novel, God’s Country.
Learn more at: https://kerryhadley-pryce.weebly.com and: