If Angela is not in, then it makes sense to Neely that she must be out. Basic logic, common sense. Any idiot could figure that out, and Neely thinks herself more than a scratch above any idiot, and so she locks the door and hits the pavement in the evening chill. Neely does the Harrow Road door-to-door, a tour of the pubs and their yellow-lit insides. Why might Angela be in the pub? Again, logic: she might be in the pub because she is definitely not in the flat, and if she is not in the pub, then that will be one less place left to look afterward. Simple as.
A peek in the Barlby Arms: no Angela. Not on either side of the wrap-around bar, which splits the pub evenly down the centre and gives it the only bit of charm to be found within its walls. She is not sitting by the old men watching the cricket, nor is she among the tracksuited wasters around the snooker table. The Windsor Castle: no sign of Angela Archer. No sign of anybody in particular, because the clientele right now certainly count as nobodies. Neely recognizes them. The gingery one with the broken nose and the fingers shakily looking for something to scratch is called Rob, a fitting name for someone whose only useful skill seems to be thieving. His girlfriend, Alex, another Alex like Neely’s brother Alex and Angela’s brother Alex and so many others born in unimaginative years to unimaginative parents – well, strictly speaking, not Neely’s parents, they came up with fucking Neely – sits across from him. Her lips are split again. Rob isn’t responsible for that. He’ll bust anybody except his girlfriend, and he’ll especially bust anybody who looks at her sideways. Neely knows this. She’s seen it happen on the corner of Harrow Road and Elgin Avenue just around kicking-out time. Alex has spoken three words to Neely in all her life: “Black don’t crack,” with a cackle, when she saw Neely staring at a scrape on her cheek one night during a pub quiz. But it just did, Neely thought back, smiling only to be polite. Rob and Alex weren’t playing. They never did.
The pub quiz tonight isn’t at the Windsor Castle, though. It’s down the road. Rob and Alex always migrate pub to pub, wispily, like Neely is doing now, and as she leans her full weight into the door of the Hope and Anchor and grunts it open, the heat and the noise rush to meet her. Melanie the barmaid’s eyes do, too. Her face registers relief for a split second before she covers it with an asinine grin. On this night, she serves as quizmaster and ringmaster of a human circus with far too many coked-up amateur clowns and no safety net beneath the trapeze. Mel is in fact younger than Neely, Angela’s age, but her overall appearance is that of a once-stunning outfit that has been put through the wash twice as often as recommended, and on a turbo spin cycle at that. She has both faded and sagged considerably from the last time she and Angela Archer shared a classroom at Sion Manning School. Her ankles are too thick for her high heels, which are too high for any practical purpose and make her wobble on the carpet. The broad, inexpertly-applied highlights in hair pulled tight against her skull give the impression her head had been burnished by a sculptor who quickly lost interest and moved onto the next project before finishing the first. The overall effect screams, from every curve: I will grow old here and I will die here and when that happens I will be doing the exact same thing I am doing now. And right now, she is verbally wrangling a speeding skinhead who has greeted Neely’s arrival with nothing less than the facial equivalent of a raging hard-on.
“Is that the stripper? Told you, we should have a stripper in here, not a fucking quiz.”
“Shut up. No, it’s the encyclopedia. We’ll ask her. Her decision is final, OK?”
“Could still be the stripper if she’s up for it.”
“Fuck off! Her missus will poison you for that.”
“Her missus! Girl-on-girl? You’re sitting on a goldmine here, Mel!”
The barmaid-turned-emcee snorted and turned to the newcomer. “Neely. Question. Settle this for us: is Pluto a planet now or not?”
From the same stubble-ringed mouth, on the same tirade: “Why can’t we just fucking Google it?”
“I said no phones! Neely?”
She glances from the man to the barmaid and back. “Well, that’s the thing, it was, and then they got rid of it, and maybe they’ll bring it back, but not yet.” And then she gave them what they had asked for: “No.”
“Ha!” Mel hoots. “Sit down, Jim, Brainbox says I’m right, Pluto’s not a planet anymore. The correct answer is that Venus is the smallest planet around. Goddess of beauty. Small but perfectly formed. Like this girl here. You’re wrong, you’re wrong.”
“It’s Mercury, though,” Neely blurts, unaware her time to contribute is up.
“Mercury’s the smallest planet, not Venus.”
The room breathes; first, a silent inhalation before a burst of laughter.
“Change of plans, Mel! Let Shorty here run the quiz and you go get your kit off, get on top of the bar!”
“Fuck you. OK, that question is a freebie. Everybody gets a point. So that means…alright, the standings are, it’s Great Western Wasters with 6 points, Doctor How with 7, and both Quizlamic Jihad and I Wish This Microphone was Jim Newlands’ Cock have 8. Happy now?”
“Happier now you’ve finally admitted it!” the Jim in question yells, and the room hoots as if they haven’t heard this play out every week since time immemorial.
“OK, five minutes, everybody go have a piss or a wank – in the actual toilet this time, Martin! – and then it’s the picture round,” Mel snaps, dismissing her audience before turning to Neely. “Alright, Neely? The shitshow’s in full force tonight. Ignore Jim. He’s pissed but he’s harmless.”
Neely straightens her face. “I’m alright. It’s just, has Angela been in today?”
“Nah. Haven’t seen her. Everything alright?”
“Can’t find her. She’s not answering her phone.”
“Ooh. No, haven’t seen her since yesterday. You two fall out?”
“No. Why? Why was she in here yesterday? When?”
Mel leans back dramatically. “Jesus, cool your boots. Just saying, she was alone yesterday, and you’re alone now. Haven’t seen that since before the two of yous were together.”
“Why was she here?”
Mel’s patience seems to deplete faster than the average pint of beer on this particularly wet weekend night. “Neely, leave it out. She was here, you were elsewhere, you both have your own lives. If you two are having problems, I’m not getting involved.”
Neely ignores the fact that, as barmaid, Mel already is involved, inadvertently or not. “We’re not having problems. I just…I’m sorry. I’m just worried about her. This isn’t like her.”
“Maybe her phone’s broken. Maybe she just needs a little time on her own. Relax.”
“For what it’s worth, she looked happy enough. She had a pint and she left. Let her tell you about it. Just don’t smother her. She’s been smothered her whole life by people worried about her. Alright?”
“Cheers,” Neely says, with no conviction and even less gratitude.
“Sure everything else is alright? The two of you really didn’t fall out? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Of course everything’s not alright, she thinks. I just told you. I can’t find Angela. How do you think that’s alright? In what solar system would that be alright? But she holds her tongue to retain an ally. Laughs at herself. “Yeah. Everything else is fine.”
“I swear I’ll send her home quick-style if she shows up.”
“Great. Great.” Lying is easier than she expected. Neely doesn’t bother to look around, to survey the scene for herself. She takes the frightened, startled face and the body to which it is conveniently attached, turns, and faces Harrow Road once again.
* * *
It takes Neely a moment to register that it isn’t the cold making her eyes sting. At her back, she can hear the men hollering in the Hope and Anchor, with Mel’s strident local voice shouting them down, and her body shakes with shivers. A bit of her stomach has dropped out and she is not entirely sure how to stuff it back in, and all she can concentrate on is her sudden need to be back indoors, alone, someplace quiet and safe. She shuts her eyes as she waits for the traffic light to change and Angela is there behind the heavy lids, curled up on the settee, paging through this week’s Heat and absently wrapping blonde curls around a painted fingernail, waiting for Neely to come home and not the other way around. Put the stereo on, she’ll say. Come on, play some of your misery music and tell me about last night. And snuggled up next to Angela, Neely will feel like the most interesting woman in the world, not an office manager but a storyteller, the one tasked with passing along wisdom on a planet of disposable idiocy, someone who’ll change one world and that one world belongs to a lucky Miss Angela Marie Archer of London W9. And that’s enough. And the boiler is humming and the radiator is blazing and the pills in the little compartment marked SATURDAY are gone, with their bellies full and their little hearts beating with tidy, unthreatening love. But then Neely remembers the smell of blood and bleach in Ridley Road Market the night before, with the butchers’ stalls long shut but she and Sam far from sleep, and the whisper’s rush of air into her ear as she let fingers touch her waist, then lower.
Guilt prickles up and tickles Neely’s back as its buzzing wings try to poke their way through. She opens her eyes and waits for the walk signal and hates herself a little more.
In certain situations, Neely can turn back time quite easily. She presses the button at the last pedestrian crossing before her flat, and a decade drops away.
There is a slit in Neely Sharpe’s trousers, the ones she wears to school. She has five identical pairs hanging in her wardrobe but these are different because these have got the slit. A bit smaller than her little finger, which, like the rest of her, is stubby and not entirely straight. Right on top of her left thigh, a bit closer to the knee than the hip. A slip of the scissors trying to hack open the packaging of a new pair of headphones – why do they always make it so impossible to cut? – and through the stretch black polyester the blade had skid, taking a thin path of skin with it. Neely had watched the tiny blood beads rise from the inch-long scratch, purely out of curiosity; she had pressed her finger over the blood when the specks had stopped growing, wiping them away only to watch them reappear seconds later. Again and again she did this, waited until the dots looked ready to congeal and clot, then rubbed them away. It is not clear to Neely, a fortnight later when the scab is gone and the line of fresh skin it left behind invisible to everybody but herself – because at fifteen, there is nobody looking at the goldish curve of her thigh except herself – that she had no idea what she expected to achieve. Realistically, she could not have expected that her repetitive action could have ever led to her body suddenly changing its most basic biological reactions. Neely understands this on a theoretical level. She’s good at science. She understands the importance of methods, of testing hypotheses and making sure she has eliminated all realistic alternative explanations before she dares make a claim of causality. On the empirical level, she remembers what her uncle Roger once said, some throwaway quote from a scientist or a comedian, one of those quotes dull people repeat in hopes of sounding slightly less dull, but which always backfires because every other dullard in your postcode is saying the exact same thing: Madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Neely knows that it isn’t madness at all: it is confirmation, it is checking one’s work, it is bullet-proofing. She hadn’t the heart to say that to Uncle Roger, though. Ruin the humour he found in feeling clever, or the cleverness he felt in getting a laugh – however forced – from the people around him who still had lives more exciting than middle management and a mediocre Sunday roast, a halfway (but only halfway) competent football club (Luton Town; he’d made himself useful teaching Neely the offside rule), a wife who wasn’t a munter but also (let’s face it) not one wining any prizes in the oil painting division of an amateur art show held in a nondescript community centre on a day when it might rain or it might not, and everybody browsing this display of average, the middle of Middle England, can speak of little else other than whether the weather will indeed be nice for ducks.
Little Neely has higher hopes.
Little Neely also has plans. They are nothing all too earth-shattering, but she knows they are less dull than most because she is sharper than most. Neely knows that the reason most plans fail is because nobody ever tells the planners they are wrong. No, you are not going to be the next Pamela Anderson. Not because you’re ugly (even if you are) and not because one of your fake tits is bigger than the other (though it is, though, it is), but because of simple maths. Probability, specifically. It is simple for Neely because she is brighter than most. Say there are 2000 young women in Stevenage alone who aspire to be paid on a regular basis for getting their tits out on demand. Now, the population of Stevenage is approximately 84,000 (she Googled it). One in forty-two residents wants the job. The population of England – only England – is a touch over fifty-three million (ditto). Approximately half are women. Maybe lop one-third off that to account for kids, grannies, and puritans. That leaves you 17,666,666 women of the appropriate age (she did it in her head). Set up the fractions and solve for X and you get 420,635 souls (ditto). Meaning, one aspiring glamour supermodel sitting in history class at Fenlands Comprehensive has up to 420,634 potential competitors for the fame, not including the desperate Welsh and Scottish counterparts, and the odds of that dream coming true look pretty fucking dire indeed. Boob jobs, Neely concludes, are just another form of an idiot tax. Uncle Roger is always calling the National Lottery the idiot tax, which he finds hysterical, and luckily his own braying laughter at his own jokes insulates him from everybody else’s embarrassed silence. But because Neely is brighter than most, she recognizes the subtle differences. You can play the lottery and lose nothing more than a few pounds. Fake tits, at their cheapest, are several thousand quid, and it’s not like buying pasta where the value brand is essentially the same as Extra Finest. Bad fake tits are subject to leakage, to infection, and to a curious phenomenon called breadloafing in which the implants migrate toward the centre of the chest, forming one shelf-like protrusion known colloquially as the uniboob. Neely has Googled this extensively, and, as for most of her forays into the obscure and clinical and slightly bloody, she is unable to explain why exactly she did so.
Curiously, considering predilections which have been clear to Neely for quite some time, the sight of these galleries of flesh-gone-wrong (and, more importantly, gone right) evoke little to no reaction in her, whether emotional, visceral, or otherwise. Neely does not know why this is the case. She is fond enough of her own breasts and has no objections to those of others. But she feels no revulsion upon viewing clinical photographs of unfortunate instances of encapsulation, where the body rejects its silicone additions and, unable to kick them to the kerb, reacts by forming a rock-hard enclosure around the intruder, thus passive-aggressively (but more aggressively) forcing those who introduced the implant to come back and take it the fuck out and make amends. To Neely, these pictures are no worse than those of meat, and she dutifully eats her auntie’s Sunday roast every few weeks with no objection. (Uncle Roger will die in a pile-up on the M1 while Neely is at university, and at his funeral, she will feel bad for paying so much attention to how fat his children, her cousins, have become since the days when they played garden football in their green enough, pleasant enough, corner of the Home Counties. And then she will feel bad about not feeling worse.)
Neely feels no arousal, either, at the site of the more-perfect-than-perfect specimens, the good made better through the wonders of science. In theory, Neely should like pneumatic tits because she likes what they’re attached to, as does her brother, who has pictures of Katie Price on his wall and stuffed under the mattress alongside the byproducts of his appreciation for those tits and the woman attached to them. But Neely is largely indifferent. At this age, she attributes this feeling, or lack thereof, to the fact that she has plans. Practical plans. Ones that are not only realistic, but also likely. Neely will go to university. This is a given. She has made the right plans and with those plans she will achieve Something Of Note. At the moment, she cannot be more specific about those things or those notes, but she has the implicit understanding that she will do more than what is expected and that this will be a foolproof way to remain above average. Those plans include relocation to London at the earliest possible opportunity. Stevenage, though a decent-sized town (particularly considering it has few attractions other than its proximity to the Big Smoke), has felt too small for some time. After all, a big fish in a small pond gets caught and deep-fried and eaten. Neely longs to get lost.
But at this moment, Neely is bored. She sits in a history lesson much like all other history lessons held since the occurrence of the historic events. The last notes in her jotter were put down 10 minutes ago, sometime in the late 17th century, elsewhere on this island. With more concentration than necessary for a girl who is brighter than most, she is deeply absorbed in the matter of turning goldish skin blue. Through that small razor-cut in the fabric of her trousers, she colours in the space where scabs once sat. There is, of course, the small matter of the trousers being black and her biro blue, but in the light below the desk nobody could tell the difference even if they wanted to look, and they don’t. What matters is that it is good enough. Neely, typically one to rail against simply being good enough, is perfectly content with this one slip, this one secret lowering of standards. It feels subversive and almost dirty. She moves the tip of the pen in cross-hatch motion, covering and re-covering the same bit of her ground. Just for good measure, she prods the edges of the split fabric, colours in beyond their borders, makes sure all possible views are covered. The blue ink would have resembled – if anybody had been looking, and they still weren’t – a small pool, a pond or a reservoir carved into the landscape by human hands rather than any kind of organic process. Neely isn’t thinking about this, but if she had been, she would have smiled to herself in approval. There is nothing natural about the landscape she is carving through this accident in her school uniform: this is a Neely-made structure for a Neely-made purpose. Neely will have plans for it, even if she hasn’t consciously thought of them, because Neely is brighter than most.
“Neely Sharpe? What did I just say?”
A jerk of the head, an apologetic face. “I dunno, Miss. Sorry.”
“Pay attention, or at least pretend to.”
She chooses the latter option. In her head, Neely is imagining music. Gigs in London. Places she only knows from between the covers of NME: Brixton Academy, Hammersmith Apollo, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the Garage on Holloway Road. She imagines all the people she’ll see, the songs she’ll sing along to, songs she hasn’t yet heard by bands that don’t even exist. There’s a life outside Stevenage, she reminds herself, and not for the first time this day. The five words live as a constant hum in her head, somewhere between maths and English.
But before that life, there is P.E. There are laps to be run around the flat playing fields of Fenlands Comp, efforts to beat the clock just for the sake of beating it. Neely doesn’t understand why she should put in the effort: There are no prizes. And the clock doesn’t give a shit what you do with it, but it has never done anything to hurt Neely and so she is disinclined to flog it half to death. She feels more offended by the landscape offered to her as a defining feature of her adolescence. On her mother’s side there is a bit of India; on her father’s, Italy. Both brought back to England after the war with the promise, never spoken but surely implied, of smooth sailing from that point on. Having never actually been to either of those countries, Neely imagines them as lands with drama neatly built into their bedrock, and life has dealt her the flatness of Hertfordshire. As breeze pulls errant black strands from her ponytail, she imagines the grass beneath her trainers as something with greater stakes. A hillside, a heath, a pockmarked bit of earth she can share with somebody else, somebody who wants to be close enough to touch her, and not just because they’re looking onto her exam paper for the correct answers. Somebody to trace the legs, the thighs, that one specific curve. And she thinks of her brother’s NME with PJ Harvey wearing nothing but her guitar and black knickers and the black T-shirt that commands Neely, or any other viewer, to lick her legs, and Neely thinks, it is really that easy. You go to London and you ask and then you get. She who dares, does. Then in the changing rooms afterward, swapping the regulation black jogging bottoms for the regulation black uniform trousers which are just like any of the others except for the little mistake she sliced into them, she lets the others see too much. Jesus Christ, Neely, what did you do to your leg?
The girl looks down at the smear of blue, the smudge that has strayed from its course. It has become the kind of stain that needs an explanation. It doesn’t become her at all.
She shrugs. “I fell.”