Nemea by Eliis Scott
I smelled fryer oil and my rank shoes. Hunched over in a scarlet shell seat at a Wimpy in South Kensington, I averted my eyes from the manager and nursed a small orange crush in a waxed cup, feeling the glares of casual disgust from the diners in the far corner. Hooked on Classics blared from the ceiling speaker.
The bathroom door opened, and Marc — holding the wall — limped toward me in his sagging leather pants, olive flight jacket loose at the waist and soaked through, cap pulled down low on his face to hide the tumours on his eyes and nose, and a paisley scarf hiked up to cover his mouth. I helped him sit down, facing away from the other customers. One crimson-faced patron had already walked over to the manager.
“I’ve not seen anyone since we came in,” I said. “No one followed us.”
I tugged on the scarf and put the plastic straw, with a visible dent from my teeth, to Marc’s swollen lips.
“See if you can get down the rest. We’ll head over to Contessa’s.”
Marc reached for my palm underneath the blonde Formica.
“Did you know there are 27 bones in the human hand?” He stroked my wrist and giggled. “About half are in the fingers. What are the most important fingers not to lose, do you reckon?”
My shoulders relaxed. I slipped my hand into his and felt for the ossified bump on the joint of his middle finger.
“The index and thumb,” I said. “They’re the strongest. That’s my guess.”
“The thumb is obvious, but, surprisingly, the little finger is the other most important digit for dexterity.” Marc squeezed my hand. “The index can be the first to go, with limited impact on ability —”
“Excuse me.” The manager had snuck up from the side. “But you are both going to have to leave. You are upsetting the other customers.”
I looked up at his deep-set eyes under a yellow visor, then down at his pudgy hands.
“By drinking an orange?” I asked.
“We can’t have you in here. It’s a health and safety issue.”
“Ours or theirs?”
I grabbed the tied bedrolls, our duffle bag and Marc’s arm as we got up.
We passed the High Street’s neon signs for letting agents, off-licences, pawnbrokers, and shops selling discount shoes, portable cassette radios, and the latest early 80s pulp books, taking shelter on the stoop of a shuttered Ladbrokes betting shop that someone had used as a urinal. Marc caught his breath and put his head on my shoulder. I could tell by the way he grabbed my elbow that Marc struggled to see in the twilight. I leaned back on the folding metal gate secured over the door. Across the road in the lit windows, figures drifted in and out of the frames. The air tasted of exhaust.
“No stars tonight for us, I guess,” he said. I’d been pointing out the constellations to pass the time on clear nights.
“They’re still up there.” I wrapped my arm around his waist.
“Remember the night we met? We walked all the way to Battersea Bridge to watch the sun come up,” he said. “You told me the morning and evening stars were Venus, and you could see lightning storms illuminating its dark side with a telescope. You were so serious. I fell for you right away, of course.”
“Your first mistake.”
“I’d like to go back again in the morning. But at the same time, I don’t ever want to return.”
I wondered if seeing less made things easier and pulled him closer.
“It’s called ashen light,” I said. “But it’s just a myth.”
We went to a shop on Gloucester Road, bought a jar of lamb and courgette baby food and ate as we walked in the fog — Marc humming between swallows — turning into the darkness of Ashburn Place, the bag and bedrolls hanging from my shoulder, darting puddles in our wet Pumas. As we passed a red phone box, I heard a thud on the pavement behind us. I clenched my fist and spun around as I had done a hundred times before but saw no one on the sidewalk. Marc instinctively moved behind me, gripping the small of my back. The jar shattered on the pavement.
Straining my neck, I looked down the line of Georgian porch columns in the fading light, then to the black perimeter fence of the Gloucester Parkette across the street. A row of mature oaks stood like sentinels to Cromwell Road. I detected no movement, no shifting shadow, and heard only the crunch of the broken glass under my foot and the endless din of the city.
The blinds were up — the all-clear sign. We descended the stairs by the latticed window. Contessa answered the door in a sea-green kaftan and yesterday’s make-up, shaking the blush lacquer on her nails dry.
“Oh, lovelies, there you are! You can’t stay tonight, I’m sorry. I have back-to-backs until dawn. I can’t even invite you in for more than a few minutes — the first is coming at eight. But come back tomorrow — I have no one yet in the day.”
Contessa lived in a dingy basement flat on Hereford Square and let us take baths, shave and stay the night on her sitting room floor when she wasn’t working. She lived in her girl clothes almost full-time now: vintage Balenciaga gowns, embroidered Thea Porter jackets, Patou shift dresses, all found at auction.
“I’d let you in the back, but that rotten cow is home upstairs, and he will complain to the council again. If anyone sees you, that’s it for me.” Contessa looked up at the ceiling and curled her pink lip. “That traitor will get what’s coming to him, mark my words. I’ll have his feathers clipped.”
We asked for anything leftover in her fridge. Contessa took Marc’s hand and told him to rest on the porch step, out of the damp. She took me to the galley kitchen, the sink piled high with dirty dishes. Four faux Doric columns stood in the bedroom corner, given to her by Derek Jarman in 1976 after working on his film Sebastiane. She had stencilled Greek Key patterns at the top and bottom of all the walls with silver paint. “As if clients would notice I mixed my antiquity trim,” she once said. “This is for the off-hours, dear — purely for us sybarites!”
“When did that growth appear in his eye?” she asked.
“A few days ago. It exploded under his lid, and now he can’t see out of it.”
“And his mouth is worse, poor darling.”
“We can’t go back to St. Thomas’s after what happened.”
Carefully — to avoid smudging her nails — Contessa took a slip of paper from her hidden pocket.
“They found a young willing doctor, a new immunologist at St. Mary’s — Anthony Pinching. I spoke to him today about these awful things, whatever they are — he left word at the desk and said to come anytime tomorrow morning and ask for him. I warned him.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the note. “He won’t go in alone.”
We returned with a Tesco salmon sandwich. I pulled the plastic covering off, took half out, tore it roughly down the middle and gave Marc the quarter. He chewed on his left side, avoiding his right molars. I remembered him prostrate on the hospital’s bronze linoleum — all five-foot-seven and, like me, barely twenty years old — as they tried to separate us, and I threw myself over him. Marc’s flatmate had been held in the isolation ward against his will with no explanation for months and allowed no visitors — none of us ever discovered where the hospital had discarded the body. Their landlord changed the locks when Marc became ill. A hired goon cracked three of his teeth with an iron bar, then threw him down the stairs.
We hugged Contessa, and Marc turned to leave. She watched him take the steps up into the pearl-grey drizzle.
Contessa squeezed her eyes shut. I took her manicured fingers in mine.
“Did you know the hand has 27 bones in it?”