I’m standing in the cash point queue on Deptford High Street when the guy at the machine turns to me and says “I hate finding out my balance, don’t you? In fact, I don’t want to know today.” He presses the screen option for cash without balance, throws me a warm, ruddy faced smile over his shoulder.
“I know what you mean.” I answer, trying not to let the surprise show on my face.
People from London don’t talk to each other in cash point queues. He looks like Will Self, all feral, gleaming blue eyes and ugly / beautiful strange striking features. As if he’s just crawled out of moist soil naked, fully formed baring his unevenly shaped teeth in daylight, dusted off and thrown on the first pieces of clothing he could get his hands on.
“Yeah, it’s always less money than you think it is.” My luggage, although not a large amount turns out to be somewhat of a hindrance; a plastic bag full of charity shop items with a broken handle I bunch at the top, a handbag containing way too much shit, a rucksack that keeps slipping off my shoulders. Its market day in Deptford, which means the smell of fish in the air, zig zagging through throngs of people would be more awkward than usual and potentially knocking into the coppery spare parts of stalls. The man stuffs notes in his pocket, moves away from the stunted line. Squirrel like, he has an erratic, restless energy that would be jarring in an uprooted white room, a tub full of mauve paint, your mother’s dinner table. On Deptford High Street, he fits right in.
At the machine, I prop up the plastic bag with my knee, punching in my pin as quickly as my numb fingers will allow. I spot him lingering on the side, leaning into his steps, trying to be more certain of something. He’s almost in the road at this point, almost in the windscreen of the battered Peugeot 406 stuttering round the curve. His blue windbreaker billows. I can’t tell if his corduroys are black or a really dark grey. He’s skinny. His bulbous head of thinning brown hair makes me think of an onion peeling in the cold, his head shedding layers that fall into spaces between silences, shoeprints, mouths of squirrels in the green church grounds, repeatedly eating it as a daily bread.
“What’s your name? What do you do?” he asks.
There’s slow curiosity and wonder in his face. As though he’s looking at me yet seeing something else. Maybe my rainbow coloured gills trying to pierce through an inadequate, checked coat, whispering against the lining, craving water, light, thin surfaces. The gills are a little damp under my buttoned black cardigan. And I can still taste a slither of salty, sea water beneath my tongue.
“My name’s Opal.” I pull the bank card from the slot, slip it into my handbag. “I do a bit of this and that.”
“Opal! Beautiful name, old fashioned somehow. Would you like to come for a drink?” he asks.
I can’t quite place his accent but he sounds as if he grew up on a farm somewhere riding tractors that doubled as sturdy accomplices under moonlight, chasing versions of himself from the pig pen. A couple of women in the queue eye us, unable to hide their disdain at his unkempt appearance. His large hands tremble a little, a patch of red crawls up the exposed skin of his throat. My friend wouldn’t be meeting me for a few hours. Between killing time with a stranger or wondering the cold streets in search of somewhere to vegetate, time with a stranger seems like the better option. Either he didn’t get the hint earlier that I wanted to be left alone or he did and didn’t care either way. His lopsided grin looks downright shifty at this point. There’s something about the judgement oozing from the pores of the women in the queue that rankles. My gills begin to whimper. My mouth turns dry. The hopefulness in his expression kills my last reservation.
“Sure, why not?” I say, grabbing my bag firmly, checking behind to ensure I hadn’t dropped anything.
We cross the street in a rush of movement, wind and unexpected crackling energy. It’s freezing. I’m so cold, I barely break step seeing the rasta man in the green flannel shirt with his arm around a silver fish almost as big as he is, the charity shop worker pricing his assistant up at £10 in the window, a train set at full steam bursting through the stomach of the inflatable woman by the basket at the pound shop entrance. We’re on the side of the station as translucent scales fall from my eyes. He misses this.
“What’s your name? Where are you from?” I ask, trying to shake bits of seaweed from my head.
“I’m Jody with a y.” He answers, catching a breeze in his mouth. “I’m from Shropshire, it’s beautiful. Not like here! I tell you, I’ve been here twelve months and still can’t get used to it. The people need to fucking relax.”
He sticks his hand out. I shake it wondering if he can feel the lines in my palm becoming thin threads. I hoist the rucksack further up my shoulder knowing if it were to fall and spill open, he’d be surprised by its contents, by the things you could mould, stuff and talk into silence.
“So where are we going Jody with a y?”
We pause momentarily outside some junk shop that sells everything including flip flops in winter and model double Decker buses. A grey cat slinks towards him. He bends down to stroke it.
“I love nature and animals, don’t you? Impressive creatures.”
He gives the cat one last rub for the road. It purrs, stretching. We’re on the move again when he finally answers.
“I’m meeting my mate Donny in the pub; salt of the earth that guy! I tell you, took me under his wing when I first got here. But, he’s full of surprises. We’re sitting on the train one day and he starts saying fucking spades this and spades that! I’m shocked by this because we all bleed the same in my eyes. Do you know what I mean, Opal? Anyway, we’re sat in the pub one day and in walks his missus. I nearly fell off my chair! She’s black like you. And I’m thinking, that fucker talking spades this, spades that, all the while he’s got a black missus. I tell you, I was astonished!”
He waves his arm about, stops before a betting shop where a couple of guys are shifting about slowly, sullenly, almost disappearing into their coats before the bored cashier.
“Well Jody, that is conflicting.” I say ruefully, swallowing the salt in my throat. “People are complex creatures.”
In the betting shop light, I notice the scar on his neck, a handmade bracelet sewn in.
“Good guy though.” He continues, bright and animated, beaming at me yet looking ahead. “How old are you?” He asks.
I want to tell him I’m a hundred, two hundred, a newborn in borrowed limbs. Instead, I curl my lips up mysteriously. “Lead the way Don Juan.”
The pub is dingy, all depressing dark décor and animated white men watching the football with beers in hand. There’s a Thai woman in a tight, corset like top behind the bar. The large, dominating snooker table is surrounded. As I stash my stuff in a corner booth, I hear balls rolling into pockets. A boy brandishing a snooker cue lunges at Jody.
“What’s she doing with you?” He says. “She’s pretty.”
He laughs, darting from side to side. Jody ruffles his hair playfully. “Get away, you little scamp!” He takes one last mock swipe at him before heading to the bar to order me a vodka and orange.
“Dad! You won’t believe this!” The boy calls across the room. “Jody’s got a girlfriend.”
He plonks himself in the stool beside me. Then, as if he’s been dialled down several notches says shyly. “Hi, I’m Mason.”
“Hi Mason, I’m Opal. Did your dad teach you how to play snooker?”
I glance up at the screen, still mystified by the level of emotion a game of grown men chasing a ball could evoke from other grown men. Mason nods, fishes a handful of sweets from his pocket and spreads them on the table. “Do you want one?”
“Thank you darling.” I lean forward, pick one in an orange wrapper, unwrap it before popping it into my mouth.
Jody and I are about ten minutes into our conversation when a handsome, dark haired, bearded burly man in his mid 40’s ambles over.
“Well fuck me with a toothpick! Jody, she’s a beauty. What on earth is she doing with you? Did you drug her to get her down here? Stop copy catting yours truly by getting a black girlfriend.”
“Fuck off!” Jody retorts, guffawing over his beer. “Am I ever, you and your spades this, spades that only to have a black missus, You’re wrong in the head.”
The man slurs his words. “I’m Donny sweetheart. You met my boy Mason earlier. Don’t listen to him.”
He angles his head at Jody.
“He’s a prick. Good heart but a prick.” He parks himself at the table studying my features, simultaneously, I feel the gaze of other men, aware I must be somewhat of a rarity in a place like this. None of this fazes me though. I shrug my coat off, leaning into Donny’s gaze.
“God, I wish I was twenty years younger looking at you.” He remarks.
He’s rakish and the gleam in his eye begins to circle the rim of my glass. He pulls out his iPhone, swipes it open to reveal several pictures of a striking, statuesque black woman who looks capable of catching all kinds of things expertly with her mouth.
“That’s my lady.” Donny beams. “She’s the boss and I like it that way.
“Lovely.” I mutter, sinking into the chair.
“Jody’s alright.” Donny continues. “But he’s an idiot. He needs training.”
“Training? What is he an animal?” I can’t keep the sarcasm from my voice.
“Yes!” Donny replies. “He’s rough around the edges and ugly as fuck! He looks like Gollum from Lord of The Rings.”
I grimace at that. “We’re all animals inside Donny. You’re not exactly being a good wingman here.”
“Ah, he knows I’m only messing. But seriously Jody, how the hell did you manage to pull her?” What did you say to get her down here?”
Jody sticks his middle finger up, smiles. “Charm, something you wouldn’t know anything about you munter.”
“How old do you think she is?”
“She won’t tell me. She’s got a young face but wise eyes. She’d make a good chess player I’m telling you! And she’s Nigerian, sneaky Russian.”
Donny shakes his head. “Be a gentleman. I told you, you can’t tell with black women. Leave it alone.”
Jody is visibly red faced.
“Why not? I told her I’m thirty eight. I’m no saint, done some bad things but I’m straight down the line me.”
“Yeah? And you smoke too much skunk and weed.” Donny says.
They go back and forth. I’m amused by their hearty exchange, oddly warmed by the lack of pretence.
“I don’t want to find out she’s some fourteen year old,” spat Jody.
“Oh she’s not fourteen Jody, come on!”
They’re unaware that the lines in my palms have changed colour, silver in the subdued pub lighting, curling stealthily over the rim of my dwindling glass, or the sand in my zipper. I look up. The Thai barmaid is in the middle of the snooker table, shooting glass mouths into the side pockets instead of balls, Mason is in the TV screen on the football field, legs folded Buddha style scoffing the rest of his sweets. Several footballers from the game are behind the bar, searching for a ball that went offside an hour ago. By the time I drain my glass, I hone back in to the tail end of the conversation and Donny saying. “She’s age appropriate. God! I wish you knew what to do with a woman, you idiot.”
I discover several things as time progresses. Jody is down on his luck. He has two kids his ex won’t let him see. He doesn’t tell me why. The scar on his neck is from being bottled in a fight by a guy he calls, “That fucking all time loser.”
He lives in one room, shows me the stitching on his knee from leaping off a wall drunk. “This is going to be my year, I tell you. Something’s going to change. I’m going to grow my own weed in that room, make some money.” There’s an urgency in his tone that un-sticks the cork I swallowed from a white wave, till it’s floating between my organs. I recognise the pain in his voice, the fangled thing roaming across his irises intermittently. He doesn’t realise that I have no silhouette. It’s not something a person would notice. My silhouette travels through coloured sea shells dotted around the city, filled with foreign noises inhabiting it unrepentantly.
Every now and again, he brings the conversation back to his one gripe. “For Christ’s sake will you tell me how old you are?”
I continue toying with him about it. “I’m sixteen.,” I answer, “I’m carrying my broken hymen inside that rucksack.”
“Pfft!” He responds, half intrigued, half horrified.
Jody is from a place called Whittington. “It’s beautiful, you’d love it.” He confides.
“My ideal day is at the beach, maybe with a nice lady like yourself or game fishing. I might buy a caravan, travel around. I like the idea of upstarting? You know? Taking old things and revamping them. I reckon that chair over there would go for a fair bit. It’s like a sixties barber’s chair.”
He sidles up to me; the smell of alcohol lingers on his breath. His eyes are wild, intense.
“I’m telling you Opal, it’s going to be my year. Got some family in Australia who know a few people into metal detecting, made a shit load. Might go up there, do that for a bit. Gonna get my kids back.”
He runs his tongue over his lips. I’m somewhat distracted; lines of sand have made their way onto the pub floor.
In the next hour, Jody explains the difference between sympathy and empathy, calls me a twat for not revealing my age then apologises since he thought “cunt” was much more offensive. He measures my hands against his, tells me they’re older than my face. He’s never met his father. His only sister runs a stable. Midway through my fifth drink, I hold his hand; place my finger over the pulse on his wrist. “One of these days, you’ll go fishing. You’ll catch something at the end of the line you never expected.”
His eyes crinkle; I feel his heart rate increasing. “You’re a funny woman you know that? Peculiar.”
I don’t take anything from Jody. After he scribbles his number on a piece of paper, he nips out for a smoke. I head into the toilet, call my friend off a mobile I’d taken from a guy I’d left in his own blood at an alleyway the night before. He wasn’t like Jody. The thing I took from him sat beating at the bottom of my rucksack. My friend is apologetic about the wait. If someone were to listen in to our conversation, it would sound like static and gibberish. I say goodbye to Donny. Since Jody hadn’t come back, I grab my things and slip out discreetly.
Outside, a hollow faced man is hollering about spotting Jesus holding a pint on the roundabout, the homeless black woman who asks you for money at least three times is being silenced by a blue plastic bag, a cocker spaniel in a priest’s collar searches for its saint in dank corners. The dark is sly and full of possibilities. I think of Jody. This year’s going to be my year, I’m telling you. I think of his moist eyes when he said this, how he seemed to suck the air out of the room. I hope so I say aloud, blinking against the image of him losing his fist in a mouth in the river, a metal detector on his body, unearthing all the hidden things locked inside. I hoist the strap of the rucksack up my shoulder. It digs into my skin, grooves in the cold evening air. I can feel my gills crying out the alcohol I’d consumed, shrinking beneath my coat. It’s always like this. I talk to them silently. I tell them tomorrow we’ll drink water from a bridge, liquid is coming.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and author of the forthcoming novel Butterfly Fish (Jacaranda June 2015). She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, and the Caine Prize. Her writing has also been featured in the Guardian and the Observer. @irenosenokojie