She watched from the window. One leg perched on the chipped ledge, the other outstretched, her hot foot pulsing in a black pump and hovering above the tiled floor. She saw a woman gather a handful of children under her arms, glide past a baby screaming into a breast and offer a smile the new mother would muster in the dead of night.
Two grunts: fish, and chips. She did what she was paid for, watching impatient fingers wrap around sticky sauce bottles, pushed into salt-hungry lips before offering a greasy tip. Crisp flaps of paint flattened under her thigh as she returned to her vantage point to watch people smear the streets with the things they thought they kept secret.
The city became a cacophony of life and lights whenever it rained, and with every drop another world floated closer to the surface, contained in the smudges of expanding puddles until she didn’t know where the lies bled and the truth began. Men held umbrellas over the heads of their women, hiding in double page spreads filled with airbrushed legs. Suited commuters, ordinarily curled around desks with hunched shoulders and sore necks, spread their bodies and glided to the puddle’s end.
And when the daylight began to fade she watched eyes open up like sun-starved wildflowers at the suggestion of spontaneous after-date drinks. Women with structured shoulders talking into one phone and texting on a second, air-kissing friends into restaurants and emerging three hours later as red wine stain-lipped sisters who belonged to a world where technology didn’t exist.
Her shoulders dug into the wall, weighed down by an absence of pleases and of people to please, though they were as similar in weight as milk and cheese. She took sips from a can of coke through a straw, and jumped up whenever she was required to listen to lonely stomachs tilting their heads back and roaring for some warm company for the night.
She recited the day’s two-for-one deal over angry batter as bits of hands brushed the window, carrying portfolios, poems, lipsticks and guitars pointed towards stadiums. A girl who couldn’t bear to hear something as funny as whatever she’d just heard turned her head away from the city, lifted her closed eyes and open mouth to the window with flared nostrils and hair dancing across her face like the dirty napkin sitting in the fan’s line of fire. Sometimes, someone looked at her looking, and she felt satisfied that they, too, took her home and wrote her story.
But they, the real ones, they always returned. She knew their faces, their orders and how they poured change onto her hand. Those who counted coins out loud as they fell from fingers were the same ones who ate their chips one at a time. She watched them hug their food like wrapped-up babies, rocking it home and eating with teary eyes; one day they’ll put on less vinegar, she thought, and maybe one day I’ll be too busy to worry about people’s clumsy hands.
Just as steadily as life continued under the 30-year-old menu harbouring aged and changeless routines of fish supper on Fridays, a flash at the window would freeze in her mind; good news falling on nervous ears and unfolding worried wrinkles, a fight spilling out of the pub and sending an eruption of empty chants down the road.
With every handshake and punch and kiss and donated cigarette, every bag of vegetables spinning in the air as it moved from market stall to handbag, she felt a million micro connections break down and build up like the flux of the city itself, moving people around above and underground, putting them in place for another day of exchanges.
Another customer filled the sad silence of fish being fried with mock outrage at the weather as she longed to sit back down and watch furrowed brows and thin lips hail taxis and discuss the economy. Every day was a parade of design and architecture, carved by the same hands as those closing in on the wooden forks in front of her.
She watched from the window, looking past her reflection at the one-armed hugs and fake goodbyes, ugly, naked laughs and children gathered under warm wings; to the blurry city staring up from wet ground, and finally, back inside, to outstretched, hungry hands, pointing towards the woman with the vinegar eyes.
Jessica Brown is a writer living in the UK, where she writes about people, places, and the stories sparked by their coexistence.