Cold air stung her cheeks and her fingertips, icy tendrils wound their way around her hands and up her arms. She dug her hands hard into her pockets and hunched her shoulders close, hugging in the small amount of heat that remained within her coat. Her pupils stretched to fit in the darkness of the side street and she let out a deep sigh.
It was a sigh familiar to those released from hours spent bent over a laptop, staring in frustrating, into its bright screen. Happy to have made it through three thousand words, but yearning to lie down, and pretend to herself that this wouldn’t happen again. But no university student ever learnt that ever. And Annie wouldn’t begin to regret what she hadn’t learned until over a decade later.
She heard the noise of the house before she saw it; another shambled, neglected student house. Victorian, not that anyone noticed, front garden filled with random yet familiar strangers. A girl, already too drunk, too early, fighting on the pavement with a half boyfriend who clearly didn’t give much of a shit about her or the fight she insisted they have. More convenient for him if she just ditched him. Less convenient if she walked off into the night, vulnerable, on his conscience.
Annie eyed them all as pushed through to the front door, a couple in her way, neither indicating they would move for her. Inside the hallway she recognised people from her course, they nodded to each other, detached but respectful. Although Annie believed that didn’t like her much at all, which always made any acknowledgement they made to her, sting.
Her thick winter coat felt suddenly very heavy in the drunken sweaty fug of her peers, she stood out. She felt uncomfortable, unusual. She backed herself into the empty space under the stairs. An unknown mature student, a hairy bloke, was passed out in a mound of coats. She took out her mobile, and frantically typed out a short text to her friend Amy. ‘Where are you?’
Her chest constricted with anxiety as she waited, her phone clutched tightly in her hand, waiting for the reassuring vibration. She shouldn’t have come, she thought. She didn’t know anyone, not really, except for Amy. Who said she’d be there, reassured her she’d be there. Asked her explicitly to come to keep her company. Why wasn’t she there? She shouldn’t have come. Her nerves hackled and her breathing increased. But then came the flood.
The flood of endorphins, relaxation, a vibration shooting through her fingertips. Amy was here, she was upstairs. Annie breathed a sigh of relief, unzipping her coat, she came out from her hiding place and made her way up the stairs. Again, no one moved. She took the weight of her body on her hands and swung herself around the people who littered her way. Teenagers, twenty-somethings; rude, inconvenient behaviours were standard, for the time being at least.
When Annie got upstairs she found her way to the sound of Amy’s voice. She was sitting on the floor of a bedroom, all smiles, and hands, and talking. Annie collapsed on the floor beside her. She was tired, too tired, why was she here? Because it would be good for her, so Amy said. A girl who now barely stopped to acknowledge her, instead just offering a bottle of some kind of alcopop faux margarita, but no bottle opener.
Annie stared into the conversation Amy was having with two sleepy, probably high, nearly men. She was already bored. She’d started wondering how she could slip away when a figure tugged at the corner of her vision. Something tall, purple, long. A girl moved across the room and sat on the end of a double bed. She was annoyed, and waved her arms with disgust to anyone within earshot.
Annie turned to look at her properly. All long limbs, dark honey glowing skin, curly dark hair, a flowing purple top that belonging to a time before theirs. Brown eyes, hypnotic even, that seemed to grasp at the gaze of all those around her. She was what they would have called exotic in another time, her mystery only belied by her clear Surrey accent rising above the din; clear, precise, and pissed off.
The room dulled in comparison, the forms of each dowdy individual conscious of the girl they could hear or see. But the longer Annie watched her the emptier the girl’s attraction seemed. She watched the girl’s legs as she uncrossed them, paused, then crossed them again. Long, dark, denim clad. Her hands worked their way around her body, adjusting a bra strap, scratching her back, her stomach, her top seemingly pushed up by accident, an orchestrated reveal. It was all empty, all on purpose
There was something to her, that much was certain. But what she was saying, and what she wasn’t saying, was nothing. Nice to look at, not very interesting. It was attention she was after, that was clear, and she was succeeding to be sure; this purple haze of a girl, all beauty and no definition. Annie allowed herself a stab of jealously, and also a pang of bitterness, that she wasn’t someone else.
Before she could succumb to her self-loathing Annie’s bum became sore and a kind of creaking echoed through her lower back. She rocked back and forth, looking for the feeling she had lost in her lower body. She stood up, searching for relief. As she stood she turned to face the room, the girl in the purple was watching her.
Her gaze was considered, not critical or rude. But it had something like a cold observance to it. Which Annie could forgive, she had been staring at her the same way. Observing her enemy, her competition, an unknown stranger. Annie was no threat, and she didn’t feel threatened. She even liked it. The girl who everyone was looking at, was looking at her.
The moment passed and as the girl turned back she realised she had lost the interest of those around her. Seeing that she was no longer central to the moment she got up lightly and feigning interest in something not heard in the distance, she walked out of the room. Annie sat back down and the girl brushed past her, making her presence felt.
As Annie woke up to the noise in the room she looked over at her friend. Amy was still thick in her conversation, Annie was surplus to requirements. She sat and stared toward the bed, recollecting, admittedly there was something about the girl in the purple. She felt like a dupe for thinking it, girls like that are only after attention, and they get it. She had gotten it from Annie, like she would get it from everyone else.
Her boredom sinking into the core of her Annie got up carefully, ready to make excuses before she realised no one was noticing her. She picked up the bottle of warm margarita and found her way between the people sitting on the floor and back to the top of the stairs. As Annie placed a foot on the top step she felt movement and a warm figure pushed up behind her, their fingers lightly touching where Annie’s coat had ridden up her back.
Annie paused midstride as the girl in the purple carefully pushed by her and made her way down the stairs. Annie froze in the moment, connected there by a touch long gone. It took her a second to catch up with what she was doing. She took another step, then another. Mechanically she moved to the bottom of the stairs, not quite able to shake the memory of the hand on her back.
As she passed the living room she saw the girl again, leaning against the wall. She flicked her eyes over, monitoring Annie’s presence, then returning to the conversation around her. Annie carried on past the door and to the kitchen, her mind still on the girl, exactly as she wanted it. There she saw a guy she recognised from her course. He was having a characteristically loud conversation with another guy, someone Annie didn’t recognise from behind.
Annie slumped into one corner, abandoning the bottle of margarita and leaning against the worktop, taking out her phone just to give herself a moment to think. The men turned to acknowledge her presence. The guy off her course gave her a cursory nod of recognition, the other guy, was different. Their eyes caught for the briefest of seconds, and there was pause in which they acknowledged something in each other.
Her heart seemed to stop for the briefest of seconds. She tried to make her body soften, she tried to smile, but it was all lost in the moment as the guy turned away. Annie burrowed her interest into the phone, pretending there was something important to be done. The guys continued talking but Annie was not done. She followed every word, her eyes flicking up and taking in each movement in the profile of this mysterious man.
The guy seemed to move his position. He was facing Annie and she felt herself exposed to his gaze, and she liked it. She gulped down her panic as he noted details from her. Her jumper, her shoes, her hair, which she now self-consciously pushed at, trying to remain relaxed. Trying her best to remain nonchalant, but alert all the same. It wasn’t working.
The guy from her course became distracted by some music in the other room. He left, his friend stayed. They were quiet for a moment, both of them looked down, acknowledging each other’s presence. Then they glanced up, in the same instant, catching each off guard. Annie felt his eyes looking right into her and she couldn’t help but smile, he smiled back. An awkward pause passed between them and they looked away again.
Annie’s thoughts bubbled up in her stomach, it was all nerves and butterflies. Words began to form and she opened her mouth before she even knew what she was going to say. ‘You’re not on my course are you?’ she said gently, questioningly, even though she already knew she was right. The guy turned to look at her. Her chest tightened and she did her best to mask the intake of breath with a small seemingly suppressed yawn.
He gave a small smile, ‘no’. He played with the long neglected beer bottle in his hands. ‘You’re English Lit right?’ Annie gave the briefest of nods. She hoped it looked cool and non-enthused. Her heart thumped with anticipation. ‘I’m engineering,’ he said, easily, taking a relaxed gulp of his beer. Annie took in the softness of him, the gentle moment of his hands, he was lovely.
They smiled again at each and then small words turned to small talk, and eventually an unstoppable conversation erupted in the space between them. It was great, it was perfect. Then it stopped, abruptly, as quickly as it had started. The guy glanced, only for a second, over Annie’s shoulder. She sensed someone walking into the room, and she saw the way his eyes rested on something far away from her.
A purple haze, all golden skin, and smooth movements, passed between them and went to the fridge. A steady hand pushed past a bare elbow and he was gone. Annie watched her small special moment evaporate as someone taller, prettier and less her took up the space. She felt a familiar grip on her chest and a weight settle in her stomach.
As conversation broke out between the two Annie saw her flirting game was no match for what was unfolding. While she was working out what should come next the girl took the bottle of margarita from the worktop, and as if on cue the guy produced a bottle opener. Annie stared in disbelief, thinking at some point this would stop, or someone would apologise, that something would happen. But it didn’t.
She was torn between upset and anger. She was suddenly a stranger, an intruder, in someone else’s story. Neither of them acknowledged her presence, they had moved on. She left the room. Her eyes welled for the briefest of seconds, and she thought about how little kids throw tantrums and are led away from the rest of the grown-ups. She felt awful.
She walked up the hallway, in no mood to pick around drunk party goers but gently doing it all the same. She headed towards the stairs, she’d talk to Amy, she’d come back, she’d… no, she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to draw any attention, she didn’t want to stand out, she just wanted to leave. She propelled herself towards the open front door and out into the street.
The cold hit her nose first, then her lungs, then her fingers. She zipped up her coat and plunged her hands into her pockets, walking away quickly from the scene of her misfortune. She could get on, it wasn’t a big deal. There would be other guys, other days. Maybe if she looked different? Acted differently? Maybe she would get better at this? Maybe she would do better when there wasn’t better competition? That’s what Annie thought then, but she wouldn’t realise the truth of it all till much later.
This wasn’t about her. It was about that girl. A girl who probably didn’t even want that particular guy, but she needed to know she could get him, and she wanted Annie to know she could have him. Annie was just collateral. Preyed on, kicked away when a more rewarding scenario presented itself. Annie had just fallen for it, fallen for another girl’s bullshit.
But Annie didn’t see it that way right then, she just wished she were better at this. She wished she were prettier, easier going, something or someone else. Because what she was, wasn’t working. And this was all too much for her. She shouldn’t have come. She pulled her coat tightly around her and started the walk home.
This story was inspired by three words given to me by my friend Rupes: indigo, hypnotic and margarita. I would have gone with indigo, except at some point it seems the colours got turned around in my head and I wrote the whole thing using purple and it would have been difficult to change.