I met Emily on my first day in the office. She had a smile like a blackout, like a switch got flipped and all above London the stars shone clear for the first time since the Blitz. She shook my hand like a man, teeth and eye contact, and my tongue stuck skin-dry to the roof of my mouth. I felt a familiar lurch and to my mortification, a deep, creaking growl rumbled out from my stomach. I cringed, cheeks burning, but Emily just laughed, the sound of it strawberry pink.
She showed me to the canteen, an uncomfortable, liminal place that reminded me of motorway services and airports — bright lights and unreality. The people working there had non-stick expressions, protection against the constant swarm of strangers. I liked to sit sometimes where I could see the masks fall, catching glimpses of friendship through the swing doors to the kitchen, bursts of bright affection between one heart and another.
Most days, though, I spent lunchtime with Emily and a blur of charming, gregarious young women, each of them witty and vibrant and kind. But despite a carefully-curated range of fashions and interests, I found myself struggling to tell the difference between them. Their names fell flat on my tongue without any flavour to distinguish them — Katie, Sophie, Rosie, Lizzie, Lottie; all of them seemed identical under the hair, the clothes, the skin.
Their uniformity was beautiful, like facets of a window interlocking. Beside them, I felt discordant and misshaped. They all rushed to reassure me that no of course I was pretty too, no really, no really I was. If you’ve never heard the voice that girls who know they’re pretty use to reassure girls they know are not, I cannot possibly describe it to you.
Emily was different. She seemed apart from it all, even as she sat at its centre. The others would pick at their food, scraping hummus up with carrot sticks the size of children’s fingers. And Emily would watch it all unfold with the passive eyes of an icon, gold in her hair.
After work the first day, I took the tube to Oxford Street, my reflection shifting strangely in the dark glass. I’d arrived in London with almost nothing and had immediately stocked up on blouses, pencil skirts and blazers. A child’s idea of what women wore in the city. I felt hot and stupid at the thought of them. I needed slouchy ankle grazers, brogues, men’s shirts, a messy bun. I shopped until I ached, and came in the next day with red-touched eyes perfectly done in smudgy brown kohl.
I shrugged off the morning’s compliments, claimed this was what I always wore. All the while, the pristine, plastic smell of newness hung round me like an accusation, jarring with Emily’s warm, vanilla scent.
There was a girl in the office, an intern whose contract ended a week after mine began. A small constellation of freckles littered the bridge of her nose, a memory of summer on her skin. She wrinkled her nose when she laughed, freckles twitching. For a week, I tried not to see, swallowed hard and averted my eyes. Emily lent me peppermint tea to settle my stomach. The smell still reminds me of freckles on tanned skin.
Emily took me along to the girl’s leaving drinks. She left on a Friday. On Monday morning, I examined myself carefully in the mirror before getting out of the lift, baring my teeth to check the cracks, plumping my hair and unstraightening my jumper. I went to Emily’s desk and thanked her for the invitation in the easy, smiling way I had practiced all weekend. She said it was nothing and the bass notes of her smile vibrated in my chest.
I think that was when Emily decided to take me under her wing. Perhaps she sensed the loneliness that underlay my gratitude. Whatever the reason, after that she made a point of including me whenever she and the girls (as they were invariably called) spent time together.
I’d never had female friends before. We moved around a lot when I was young, never staying in one place more than a few months and boys were easier to fall in with. They had fewer rules, fewer lines to memorise. When I got older and boys became difficult and strange in their own ways, I let myself drift out of tune with people altogether.
At all the schools I went to, the girls loved more fiercely than I knew was possible. They laughed so loudly at each other’s jokes, hugged one another so tightly when they cried. I stood in the corridors in my never-quite-right uniform, back pressed hard against the wall, watching the intricate, unparseable language of their bodies. My tongue pressed against my teeth, thick and wet, and I remembered the story of doctors in the First World War who sewed their patients’ tongues to their cheeks so that they wouldn’t choke on them. I swallowed, tasting iron.
Being with Emily and the girls left me giddy with rebellion. I was a trespasser there, among those laughing, loving women. Together we sat at high tables and pushed our food around our shiny tiffin tins with biodegradable forks, each of us playing in turn the confessor, the priest, and the prayer. My stomach twisted with hunger but I was so happy that I swallowed water from my steel canteen and let the coldness numb me. We swapped stories about bad dates, bad sex, bad bodies behaving badly, absolving each other of guilt with offerings of our own. And always, at the centre of everything, sat Emily, the light striking her cheekbones like an altar bell.
It was someone’s birthday – Lizzie, perhaps, or Lottie, or maybe not. We lined up in the bathroom after work and Got Ready. It was my first induction into the ritual of Getting Ready and I fairly flickered with excitement. The smell of perfume and creamy foundation filled the air. I had my own small bag of cruelty-free products, confident in my use of them after a long weekend in front of YouTube tutorials. Emily caught my eye in the mirror and smiled.
“You’ve got such beautiful skin,” she said. “I’ve got a lipstick here that’s just your colour, do you want to borrow it?”
I could have taken it from her. Instead, I stood still and begged myself not to tremble as Emily laid her fingertips on my jaw, holding me in place. The thin skin of my lips caught and pulled against the surface of the lipstick as Emily dabbed it gently into place. I scarcely breathed. The tip of her tongue rested at the corner of her mouth, shining wet in the bathroom light. After a century or so, she stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“Have a look,” she said.
In the mirror, I avoided my reflection’s eyes with childish superstition. My lips were bruise-red, a bloody purple that made my skin bright and golden. I thought of children crushing handfuls of blackberries into their mouths, the wet burst of skin between teeth, sweetness swallowed and coating tongue and tooth and throat.
“I look like a vampire,” I said, and when Emily laughed, so did I, making fine wrinkles across the bridge of my nose.
In the bar, we ordered sweet potato fries that nobody would eat and more bottles of wine than we could afford. We spent hours there, drinking and laughing. A man started to talk to me and I let the flattering wash of his conversation drift over me — his photography, his degree, the books he was reading. His teeth flashed, small and sharp. He had nice lips, I thought, the same pink as the tips of his ears. When he asked me if I wanted to grab a taxi together, I figured, why not?
I turned to say goodbye — most of the girls had slipped home by then — and with a start I saw Emily watching me, unblinking. She wasn’t smiling. At first I thought she was angry, but then I realised it wasn’t that at all. I knew that look. I’d seen it in the eyes of every woman I’d ever known.
She looked hungry.
I licked my lips. Swallowed. Emily’s eyes darted to follow the movement of my throat. Then the young man’s hand was at my elbow, leading me towards the door.
In the taxi, I leant my head against the window and willed the streetlights to stop streaming. My stomach rumbled so loudly that the young man heard it from his seat beside me. I couldn’t even bring myself to be embarrassed. The night had lost its glamour, leaving behind the stale taste of inevitability. He asked if I wanted to get something to eat. I was fine, I told him. I’d wait.
I woke up sticky and exhausted. My mouth was dry and tasted foul, and my head was ringing. I’d hardly slept, though I’d crawled under the covers as soon as the young man was gone.
I showered using the same soap Rosie and Ellie used — vegan and organic, packed with dried flowers. I don’t think it smelled as good on me as it did on them. My skin didn’t warm the scent in the same way, didn’t waft it into the air so I left sweet ghosts of myself behind me. I’ve never wafted in my life.
Afterwards, I stood naked in front of the mirror, trickles of water creeping down my neck. I ran a hand over my stomach, flat and taut between the jut of my hips. It rose and fell as I breathed, the only sound in the room. I wet my lips, and practiced smiling.
I got to work on time and even looked half-presentable. But the night still had its teeth in me, and my day was dogged by an unpleasant, slippery feeling, like looking into deep water and seeing something far below moving against the current. I steeled myself, nursed a Berocca and laughed weakly at people’s jokes at my expense.
At lunchtime, we straggled out of the office, determined to treat ourselves. The hot smell of the noodle bar made my mouth water. The girls fell to, all thoughts of vegan, keto, 5:2 forgotten, sauce flicking from the tips of their chopsticks as they slurped. They were ribald and raucous and much too loud. My young man had not gone unnoticed, and at any other time I would have relished their amusement and attention. But I could feel the weight of Emily’s eyes on me, the reaching smell of food, the lifelong habit of shame. I folded my arms around myself and tried to smile, but it came out watery and thin.
The conversation turned to the topic of guilty pleasures. From music to films to books to bubble baths, there was hardly any pleasure the girls couldn’t feel guilty about. When we got into specifics, a masochistic strain emerged. One girl admitted to a penchant for men almost twice her age, the thrill of their desire made sweeter by the salt of her revulsion for them. Another said she loved to cry – to sit on the sofa for hours at a time sobbing her heart out. She laughed at the thought, high and sudden, then quickly snuffed it out.
“I get it,” said Emily. It was the first thing she’d said for almost an hour. I raised my eyes. She was looking straight at me, shadows under her eyes and at the hollow of her throat. “Catharsis. Just letting yourself… go.”
The way she said it reminded me of my mother, a sharp-angled woman with a voice like violins, citrus sharp and yearning. I saw her in the tautness of Emily’s expression, the lips pressed thin and tight against things better left unsaid. I hadn’t thought of her for years.
Late that night, I stood in the kitchen in the dark and swallowed my shame. I had left the lights off, pretending that if I couldn’t see what I was doing then it didn’t count. The tiles were cold, but I hardly felt it. My fingers trembled faintly as I reached into the bowl. They were cold too, always, and the heat of my lips was startling as they brushed against them. My eyelids fluttered shut, heart skipping at the taste. My tongue ran decadently over the sweet, hard morsel, exploring the shape and pressing it against the roof of my mouth, small and sharp. I shivered at the touch, illicit and delicious. I began to suck the thing smooth, my tongue a wave against its shore, soothing the edges before I swallowed it whole.
Lost as I was, I almost didn’t hear the knock. The edge of it caught my attention and I froze, listening hard. It came again, a little louder now. I swallowed hard, the lump catching in my throat. She’d found me.
I drifted dreamlike to the door, keeping the lights off as if to keep myself from waking. The streetlight framed her hair in golden halation. She was tired, high points of colour in her cheeks.
“Come in,” I said, and she stepped inside without looking me in the eye.
I led her into the living room. She wore a coat and scarf, and her hands shook as she unbuttoned, unwound, revealed herself in drifts. I could hardly breathe for wanting her. She smelled of night air, warm skin, vanilla.
When she sat down beside me, the heat of her body made me shudder. I tried to apologise for my t-shirt and underwear — it was the middle of the night, after all — but Emily wasn’t listening. She was looking at her hands, fine-boned and fragile. I fell quiet. Waited.
“I’ve always wanted…” she began, and trailed off. She laughed, a breathy little thing. Something like a shrug. “I’ve always wanted.”
I reached out, tilted her chin to make her meet my eye. She was numinous in the blue-dark.
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
Tears sprung to her eyes and she let them fall, collapsing under her relief. I leant close, my hands cold against her wrist. I knew. I’d felt it ever since I was a child, the thick, surging hunger rising from the very pit of me. I pressed my face to hers, cheeks wet though I didn’t know whose tears they were. Emily held me tight, her fingers pulling at me but with no strength behind them. I opened my mouth, red and wanting. She tasted sweet as iron, and when she screamed it sounded like the Agnus Dei.