From about age nine I was in love with her. She seemed to me to be so exotic, with her clothes wrapped around her, those rich colours and fabrics. I was hooked. Taffetas, chiffons and shiny silks in azure, vermilion and deep emerald, with a delicate lilac gauze. I think that’s why I loved her. Something about her that I wanted to be part of, wanted to be with, even though I was a bit scared of it. Sometimes she looked at me, as if to appraise me, measure me up. Gauge my potential. That’s why I looked away, couldn’t meet her gaze.
I liked the night, the quietness, the solitude. I would take long walks through the empty streets of the city. There was a shop. Boarded up by day, but open in the small hours. Out late one night I came across it and saw the lights. Animal corpses hanging on display, skinned, unskinned, the blood dripping onto the pavement. Well, not much blood, I think they had dried a bit. Partridges, hares, pigeons, rabbits, even squirrels, hanging in stiff rows, blood on their noses. People came to buy: small, bent people out of the darkness. Wearing hoods and raggety clothing. Bandages. Came round street corners with a quiet shuffle and a dirty bag. I stood and watched, rapt and appalled.
‘One of those, no, two of those, the small ones with the dark flesh.’
I walked away. Told myself it was not a place for me. But I did recognise it, or something of it. I knew one night she’d be there. I wanted to meet her.
‘You’ve come,’ she said. ‘I knew you would. I’ve been waiting for you, listening to your dreams. I was always there, wasn’t I?’
‘Yes,’ I said, unsure. I said, ‘Are you happy? I mean, those clothes, the precious fabrics, the colours, the textures. What do you do? Where do you go?’
‘Come here,’ she said. ‘I can show you the world. I can make you immortal.’
‘Are you immortal?’ I said.
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘I don’t know. It’s been a long time. And my feet hurt. And the bandages around my fingers. Anyway, I don’t like it. But maybe I can save you.’
‘Maybe I can save you,’ I said.
‘Yes, maybe you can,’ she said.
Out on the street cruel shadows defined the darkness. Someone on an unlit bicycle; two people, side by side, subdued in the street lamp glare, carrying lumps in a string bag, wrapped in newspaper.
We stood across the road from the shop, opposite the hanging meat.
‘So, are you happy?’ I said, again.
‘I used to be. Now I don’t know. I could dream and be dreamed. Like you. You loved to see me in the night. Sometimes you wrote stories about me in school next day, or drew pictures.’
‘I did,’ I said. ‘But where are we now?’
‘You know where we are,’ she said. ‘You know this place. Why do you think you walk in the night?’
‘Is this what I want?’ I said. ‘Is this how you see me? Is this what I am?’
‘What do you think?’ she said.
I loved to see her. I loved her lovely face, the fabrics, the exotic encounter. But I knew it wasn’t for me. A cat ran across the cobbles, its shadows flickering over the stones.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Now let’s leave this place.’
I took her hand. I felt the grubby, grey bandages in my fingertips. Looked at her beautiful face, her eyes. I wanted her. I wanted the promise of her. What did I want? Maybe just that, the promise. She looked back at me. She saw me.
I began to unwind the bandages from her fingers. Underneath, clear, smooth, unblemished flesh. My hands began to itch, then the joints stiffened. Drops of blood appeared from cracks of skin in my knuckles. I felt tired. My feet hurt. She walked away, her shadow dancing in the lamplight. I watched her go, then turned back to the shop, the door still open. I stepped in, passed the hanging meat, took the key, locked the door. In the back room, the clothes are kept: taffetas, chiffon and shiny silks in azure, vermilion and deep emerald, and a delicate gauze. I knew they would be there. In my head an apricot moon, lifting over lilac hills. Someone was dreaming me. I can be patient.