This is the first chapter from some fiction I’ve been writing. As always, everything is pure fiction, I can only blame my lack of imagination for placing it squarely in my own neighbourhood.
There’s a foot in the bin. It’s the heel she spots first, bulbous and cracked, surfacing between two tied plastic bags like an air bubble in dough. Angel stares at it, familiar and unfamiliar. It doesn’t look like her foot (pale, flat, nail painted black). There’s no particular smell to it, or nothing to out-reek whatever her neighbours have turfed this week (vegetable peelings, and no condoms whatsoever). She twists her neck to stare up at their expensive shutters, already inclined against the golden light. She’s spent whole hours longing for their lofty position, and the slanting evening sun that’s lost to her lower level hours earlier.
But you would shut your shutters, wouldn’t you, if you were dismembering people? She unhooks her fingers and lets the lid fall shut. This is, categorically, not her problem.
The park is filled with people lounging in fingers of light, silver cans crushed beside them. They are London’s lizards, peeling off their skins in the last hot flush of summer. She walks with small tight strides. Angel has never mastered the art of the stroll; she trots like a pony with its knees tied together. She once saw a video of herself walking the outer rim of a garden at a wedding she had attended alone, pretending to inspect the flowers, and felt horrified at how self-consciously awful she looked on film. She watched the video thousands of times, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to find it on her phone and watch it again. She thought about it at least once a day.
Finsbury Park is a comfortable place for her, though. Here, a man peeing openly against a fence; there is a 30-something in rolled shirt-sleeves lowering himself into a smear of dogshit. Finsbury Park is a waste dump of a green space, all the grass yellowed and dying, more rubbish bins than flowers. Even the teenagers who look her up and down don’t bother for too long. She rounds the bottom edge, continues up the promenade, watches the even tread of runners in black lycra streaming down the slope towards her. She used to dodge them, apologetic, until she realised it worked better if she pretended she was stationary, a rock diverting the flow of a river.
Her phone chimes from her pocket, and she answers it without looking. “Hey Flo.”
Even her sister’s intake of breath is flustered. “It’s Florence now. You know that.”
Angel rolls her eyes beneath her glasses. “I know, I do know. It’s just… long.”
Her sister is 5’2 and has never been able to bear up under the name Florence. Even at 32, with twin boys, a husband chosen for his suitable height (5’7, not so tall as to emphasise Florence’s short-comings, not so short as to be sexually nullified) and the title of world’s shrillest accountant to her name, she is still not quite a Florence, and she knows it. Angel is certain that the only reason her sister is insisting on upgrading to her full-size name is to distract from her new surname.
“So, Florence Villin, how are you?” She can’t keep the grin from her voice, but her sister lets it go, if only because 20 seconds has passed in the conversation, and she hasn’t bragged yet.
“Oh, you know. Busy as all FUCK.” There’s noise in the background. “Had a board meeting today, even though we’re going to hit profitability this year earlier than expected – that means the company’s making money, Ange – they’re still keen for us to lock down a few more deals before Europe packs up for the summer. Hey, Ange, how long do you think madeleines have to be in the oven before they’re done?”
“Is that a serious question? When’s the last time you think I baked a madeleine?”
Flo giggled. “I don’t know, shouldn’t you learn to cook? It really is fun. You might surprise yourself.”
Ange is nearing the top of the hill, where the park flattens out. There are teams of men playing football, some in blue vests, shouting at each other. Is this how men keep their friends?
“But then my oven would get dirty.”
Something bangs in the background of the call, probably the Aga. She pictures her sister, with her sleek platinum and her slim wrists, and her madeleines, and feels a weird tweak of love, like an electric shock to her middle.
Flo fills the silence. “Come for dinner?”
Ange silently thanks the expansive plains of London. “Oh babe, you know I wish I could. Take an hour on the Tube though! Your risotto would be ruined.”
Florence tuts then pauses. “Hey how did you know I was cooking risotto?”
“Five nights out of seven you cook risotto.”
“Eugh, you sound like Henry.”
Ange smirks into the phone. “Well, tell him to bloody cook something.”
Flo sighs. “You know as well as I do that that would be worse. He’d burn it and ruin the pan, and I’d have to cook anyway. It’s easier this way. Besides, he works so hard.”
Ange knows better than to retort to this. They’d find themselves stuck in the endless conversational loop that saw Ange defending Flo, Flo defending Henry, Flo attacking Ange, Ange attacking Flow. Rinse, ruin, repeat. It was better just to agree. One of the football men was on the ground clutching a shin to his chest while the game moved around him. Ange wondered what he would do if she ran to him, put her hands on his leg, asked him where it hurt. Probably kick her in the face.
“Yeah no, of course he does. So hard.”
She walks for a few more minutes with the phone pressed to her cheek, comfortable in the ambient noise of Flo serving up dinner, running the tap, calling for her kids. The sounds echo around the big, basement Tufnell Park kitchen. Flo is the only person she knows in London who owns her entire house, all six floors of it, right up to a giant loft conversion. It makes Ange sick to think of the stairs, but the sounds are good, the flags of the kitchen. She feels like she’s listening to a podcast, an ASMR rendering of an ordinary life. Flo ruins it.
“So, when can I come over? See the renovations?”
Ange sighs exaggeratedly. “I’ve told you, you can come over anytime you want!”
“You always say that. Just pick a date, tell me a time. You know how many people’s schedules I have to work around.”
“I know, I know. I’m heading back home now. I’ll look at my calendar when I’m back, OK?”
“Who has a paper calendar these days? Do they even make them anymore?”
Angel doesn’t. She doesn’t know anyone who does, unless it’s a crappy Christmas gift, hung for the pictures, and never turned over at the right month. “I’m traditional.”
She listens to the traditional sounds of her sister, a scraping of chairs, reverberating silence from Little Henry, who does not approve of either Ange or the presence of phones at the dinner table. A click of glasses. Water, not wine; neither Flo nor Henry drink during the week. Flo thinks about the half bottle of rosé in her fridge and quickens her pace.
“OK, I’ll let you go,” she says.
“OK, love you!”
“Love you, too.”
“Awwww, we love you too,” smirks a tall teenager in a blush-coloured two-piece, flanked either side by a posse with impossibly glossy hair.
“Fuck you,” says Ange, walking into and through their incredulous silence. If they say anything back her ears shut it out, blurring all sound beautifully into the ambient human fog. Kids are so dumb. She stops herself from turning to see if they’re looking at her, and focuses on her walk. Even and steady, smooth and sexy. Untie those knees.
As is her tradition, she stops by the corner store and picks up two cheap bottles of red wine on her way home. One has a fox on the label, and the other is the one with the biggest discount. As she queues she picks up wasabi peanuts and peanut M&Ms. The spicy peanut and the sweet peanut. If the woman at the till with the perfect eyebrows and the aggressive nose ring recognises her, she doesn’t say anything. Ange keeps looking at the vegan chocolate bars. She looks at them every time she queues. It makes no sense that anyone would buy them, unless they were dying.
“Get the Vego,” a voice behind her says.
She turns. The owner of the comment is blonde and slim, clearly vegan from the way his ribs stand out under his shirt.
He continues, “The others aren’t as good. They’re more expensive too, trust me.”
She picks up her wine and leaves without speaking to him. He gives a half-laugh behind her. She doesn’t understand – has never understood, rails against – why people are always talking to her. Whether to insult or merely to remark, there’s something about her that invites comment. If she could figure out what it was, hair, stance, height, she would find a way to change it. At home, on her worn black couch, she drinks both bottles of wine, plus the half bottle of rosé from the fridge, but leaves half the peanut M&Ms for breakfast. She wakes up still on the couch at 3am and drinks water from the tap without turning on the lights. The street lights catch the ivy leaves from her window, beaded with rain she didn’t hear fall. She feels her way to the bedroom and it’s only in the morning that she remembers the foot.