Excerpt from Thirst by Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus - July 2014)
She stood on Bond Street, tourists and shoppers moving on either side of her. A small cluster of young girls left the shop, swinging their handbags, spindly tanned legs wobbling in impossibly high-heels, giving them the impression of over-accessorised fawns. Alena ran over the rules, it was good to have rules. Rule 1: Always lunchtime, there are less shop girls and the ones who are there aren't looking; they're hungry, resentfully waiting for their sixty-minutes of freedom.
Rule 2: the clothes don’t matter. Her plain yellow cotton sundress might have been the kind of simple that was very expensive. Except that the shoulder straps were very slightly digging into the soft flesh between her armpit and breast, no one would know she’d found the dress in a rag box at a woman’s shelter. Anyway, she’d seen people in old, awful clothes leave Harrodswith glossy bags on each arm and get into Bentleys, as though money excused them of usual standards.
Rule 3: Assume The Face. No matter how nervous, The Face was something she could believe in. Something she could conjure and it cost her nothing. Because she was someone without the usual money and entitlement bubbling through her veins like a particularly golden champagne, it confused people; it didn’t go with her strangely cut hair, her scrawny, undernourished looking shoulders. She raised her eyebrows fractionally, along with her sharp chin, set her eyelids to a disinterested half-mast and surveyed the shop front.
But for all the work The Face was doing she couldn't control her body with its growling stomach, her heart thunk-thunk-thunking enough to displace a rib, her underarms growing sticky; responding instantly to the adrenalin as she pulled the heavy glass door and felt the air conditioning cut through the thick outdoor heat.
There he was; the usual sort of handsome, useless security guard these shops always had. This one, dressed in a smart black suit and tie, looked like be belonged in a whiskey advert, lounging by an open fire, or maybe a holding a kitten to his bare, oiled chest like that poster she’d had on her bedroom wall when she was fifteen. She paused just long enough and smiled her best uppity smile, a cold, ‘little person’ greeting, that she'd once seen a woman in Chelsea use. Rule 4: Always draw attention to yourself, never let it seem as though you’re sneaking in.
Was he calling her beautiful? The Face dropped for a second and the guard made a sound that might have been part of a laugh, rubbed his forehead, Alena thought he might be blushing.
‘The afternoon...it’s beautiful. Sorry, I mean it’s a beautiful afternoon.’
She noticed he had a proper London accent, a bit rough. She could tell these things after all this time. Not what she expected from that pretty boy face. She wouldn't have expected the shyness either, the way he rocked lightly on his heels. Still, she gave him a disdainful stare and swept up to the third floor to commence her long, tense examination of the luxury shoes until she found the ones in the torn-out magazine picture getting soggy in her left bra cup. Rule 5: she must never, ever get caught.
He hated this. Especially hated having to do it at the table in the gloomy basement, the stockroom, where he'd just been about to have lunch; at the same table the girls walked by on their way back up to the shop floor with stacks of shoe boxes balanced up their fronts and tucked under their chins. They slowed as they passed to give the girl hard, disgusted stares as though she had stolen their own shoes from their feet. She was really pretty, and not in the painted, tired way the girls from the shop were either. He knew that would get their backs up.
Her shoulders were uncovered, and he could just see the shine of sweat glistening in the crooks of her elbows when she stretched her arms across the table. He was nervous. Her pale eyes dropped to the open foil of a sandwich between them, right by the offending shoes.
‘Wha- no, I was about to-’ A nervous stutter crept in, the very slightest fuzziness at the beginning of words, and he tried to disguise it with a cough.
‘Do you mind? I thank you’
He couldn't think what to reply and watched as her bony hands snatched his sandwich from the table, corned beef, lots of pickle, his sandwich that he’d been looking forward to all morning, and took several hungry bites, leaving a red crescent around the ghost of white teeth in the bread. 'What is your name?'
'David, Dave really.’ He smiled and then pulled himself up, ‘but that's not really the point is it? What is your name? Yeah,' he nodded, like they were finally on track, ‘that’s the point.’
‘I go tomorrow.’ She said, half-chewed sandwich just visible.
‘What? Go where?’
‘I say, I go tomorrow.’ She exhaled through her nostrils noisily.
He raised his voice a little, ‘And last night where did you sleep?’ He enunciated every syllable, left large pauses in between the words and she lowered the sandwich for a moment, gave him what his Mum would’ve called ‘daggers’.
‘I speak English for God sake. Is houstel in Peckham.’ She matched his raised voice and left even bigger pauses.
‘Hotel? You’re on holiday here?’ Now he was getting somewhere.
‘No, houstel. I live here. Tomorrow I go find room to live.’
She’d ripped off a piece of tinfoil and was rolling it into a ball. He couldn’t stop watching it.
‘Where was your home before London?’ Dave asked.
She was using the palm of her hand to roll the ball back and forth across the table now. He felt stupid and he couldn’t stop looking at her hand hovering back and forth like that. 'It is Russia.’
‘Yeah, I know that.' Though it would have been a guess at best. 'Can you stop please.’
He leaned across and snatched the tin foil ball; in return, slightest raise of a mocking eyebrow, a very slow smile.
‘Some people do not.’
The girls kept thumping extra hard up the stairs, whispering to each other. Later those same girls would sit at that same table and gossip about the red-headed shoplifter and how she ate poor Davey’s sandwich, the cheeky little bitch. The nearly stolen shoes, silver high-heeled brogues made of slippery, soft leather, lay between Dave and Alena, and as she crumpled the last bit of crust into her mouth she fiddled with one of the shoelaces. Her eyes batted up to Dave, he noticed she had a childish smear of pickle at the corner of her mouth and wanted to reach across and wipe it, almost did, then clasped his hands in his lap.
‘Right. Well I can see there’s no straight answers here. It’s store policy to call the police. So. Is there anything else you want to say before they get here?’
He couldn't say if it was her mouth, eyes, or the tilt of her head but somehow her whole face changed then. She gave him a single word.
She looked down at her hands and when she looked up her face was softer, one hand brought to her neck.
‘I’m apologise to you. I am confused.’ As she spoke she counted off each point on her fingers. “I am new, I try on shoes, I am confusing about taking off.’
The rise and fall of her accent put him in mind of seagulls swooping for scraps. His stomach knotted up. Just his luck to get indigestion from the sandwich she had eaten.
‘You tried to walk out of the shop wearing them.’ He pulled out a curling pair of dusty blue flip-flops, ‘You dropped these because you were going so fast. You set off the alarm and still tried to leave the shop. Honestly, I wish this was my decision but…’
She straightened then placed her forearms on the table, looked at him and met his eye for the first time, a jolt, then spoke quietly, so quietly he had to lean forward and he could smell the curdling sweetness of drying sweat on her skin.
‘I am apologising to you. Please. I say I feel sorry. I make mistake. I am new and it is easy to be confusing. This city it is big and people don’t like friendly talking and it is so much money for toilet even. 30p in Victoria! I'm asking you to understand. Make this just…stupid mistake. Shoes are here still and nothing losing. I am asking. Please.’
His body angled forward and he allowed himself to really look; hair the the shade of old brick, her tap water irises, thin lipsticked lips bitten redder. He saw her nervous thin hands; her fingers pressing at the soft dip between her collarbones. Dave knew it was no use pretending, he’d do whatever she asked.