Alice

A night out on the town takes a strange turn for Alice as she falls deeper down the rabbit-hole. Contains content which may offend.

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© 2006 Epytome / Used With Permission

They hadn’t been out long when they realised they stood out like fairies in a farmyard. Hair bouncy and flicked like Farrah Fawcett’s; maxi dresses. They’d gone over to Broadstairs on the bus, light-headed and giggling after two glasses of Martini. They’d had a smoke already – Neil had rolled two when they were there – which they’d shared over the heads of the kids in the living room. He was full of himself as being the good dad, ‘letting’ Laurie out whilst he minded the kids. But Spurs were on, and two beers and an eighth of Moroccan were all it took to keep him happy.

On the top deck of the bus Laurie lit a John Players, and moaned about Neil all the way along the Ramsgate Road, what a skank he was and how all week she couldn’t wait for Friday. Alice nodded, she too; what a week, what a boring week, up in the mornings, kids to school, hoovering, nursery, tea.

They talked about how long it had been since they’d been out, before Christmas, with the guys, sitting in the Royal at Ramsgate chasing tequilas. Sandy had got them into that lark, fresh back from Spain and showing off. Neil and Sam had lapped it all up, making plans for them all to go over in the summer, then slagging Sandy off later, what a wanker he was.

They got off the bus in Queen’s Road and headed down Broadstairs High Street. Below them the sea glittered. It was late spring and getting lighter in the evenings. They’d poked their heads round the door of The Albert, and just as quickly pulled back. There were only old people in there, guarding their pints. At the corner of Albion St the wind caught them, whipping their maxi skirts around their ankles.

‘I’m flipping freezing, wish I’d worn my coat!’

‘Yeah, me and all! Where shall we go?’

‘The Rose?’

‘Dickens?’

‘Dunno, s’a bit early, don’t get going till around nine.’

‘Yeah but I couldn’t wait to get out the house!’

‘Me too!’

‘How about one in the Tartar Frigate to start off?’

‘You’re on.’

They headed down to the harbour, through the York Gate. A blast of sea air blew them in. Couples were sitting at the tables, a bunch of guys at the bar turned round as they entered. That was the main problem with the pub, you couldn’t enter discreetly. They headed for the Ladies, taking turns to use the mirror, brushing their hair back into place. At the bar, Alice stood back and let Laurie take charge.

‘Right, what you having?’

The guys, business-looking types, moved aside with open smiles on their faces. One said ‘All right ladies?’ Laurie ordered a shandy and a Martini, and they made their way to the table in the window. It was a good clocking spot, just by the door. The wind blew in young girls, laughing. College types, expensive tapered straights and Levi jackets. Alice shifted in her seat.

‘Did you think any more about that job?’ Laurie shook her out of thinking about the Vogue magazines she used to buy.

She shrugged. Factory work was all she was good for.

‘The Co-op are opening a new superstore up by Haine Road.’

‘Yeah I read something about that. There’s even talk about closing down Haine Hospital.’

‘What? Blimey, me mum used to work there and Jill … my sister Jill, she … they admitted her there after the first time, you know …’

‘Oh yeah, I’m sorry, where is she now?’

‘Chartham Hospital.’

‘Oh.’

A burst of laughter broke from the men at the bar as a head, wearing a green Mohican, poked round the door and just as quick withdrew.

‘Did you see that? Ninja Turtle!’ The guy wise-cracking looked in their direction and winked.

Alice and Laurie giggled.

Shall we have another one here or do you want to go somewhere else?’

* * * * *

It was ten deep at the bar in the Dickens. Laurie pushed Alice forward, telling her she was skinnier. She ducked under the armpits of guys raising jugs of beer to their lips. There were strong wisps of Brut aftershave. Some let her through, one or two called her ‘babe’. Another, an older guy, said ‘Young Lady’.

She felt lightheaded already. Laurie had given her a slice of cannabis cake before they came out. She’d been a bit hesitant but she’d insisted. ‘Go on, it’ll relax you.’

Well it was doing something, she felt very giggly. The guy who called her ‘young lady’ suddenly looked like a walrus. She was just about to say something when she realised she was at the bar. The guy serving was giving change the same time as asking her what she would like. She might have been cold outside but here, leaning on the bar, her bare arms were alive. She didn’t know why, they just tingled with nakedness, even the impression of her elbows on the wood sent messages up her arms.

She was getting her money out when a voice behind her said, ‘Here, I’ll get this.’ A fiver flashed like a bird’s wing. It was Walrus Head. She protested, he waved a hand saying, ‘Fine, Fine.’ She grimaced to herself but gave up the fight.

She mumbled her gratitude, squeezed her way back through the crowd to Laurie, standing by the DJ. She leaned over and tried to communicate the news about the free drink but the music was throbbing, so gave up.

In the interval she spotted Walrus Head looking over in her direction. She quickly adjusted her gaze, coming to rest on a guy in a denim jacket. He was a pony, grey, dappled. She liked ponies. She smiled. She thought about sex with Sam suddenly, knowing he’d be waiting up for her. He liked to see her ‘done up’ as he called it, liked the thought that guys looked at her like that but she was his only. He liked the smell of cigarettes and drink on her too; weird.

They ended up staying in the Dickens until eleven, then got the last bus back to Ramsgate, getting off at the harbour. They started the walk along the promenade to Nero’s Nightclub. They’d considered going to The Moonlighters at Pegwell, but too many of their friends went there. Alice remembered grinding to James Brown there with Alfie, whose long blond hair she’d always fancied, but she’d married Sam so that was that. She was ashamed to remember snogging Alfie though, at the back of the fire escape. God, what a slut. Just as well he moved away.

The boats were singing against their moorings in the marina, the moonlight dancing on the water. Alice could hear the fish in the chorus. Cod, she reckoned. Cod harmonies. They fished for cod, didn’t they? Or was it herrings? Laurie pointed out the fancy yacht that belonged to that actor from the General Hospital TV series. It had been in the paper. They walked past the old Customs House, the odd spill of music still coming out from a lock -in at The Queens Head. A drunk sat on the concrete boulders singing and eating fish and chips. The fishing boats slumbered silent by the pier. She remembered hearing something about the industry dying. About cod wars. She hoped not. She and Sam liked to watch the boats come in, the gulls escorting them like pissed bridesmaids. The lights were out by Harrison’s Restaurant. Pleasurama too. A pong of seaweed came from the outgoing tide.

‘Here, have one of these,’ Laurie pressed a tablet into her palm.

‘No Laurie, not pills, no.’

‘C’mon don’t be a spoilsport! It’s only speed!’

‘No.’

‘You really need to lighten up Alice …’

‘Lors I’ve had lager, three Martinis, a blow and a slice of your cake! What do you think I am, a flaming druggie?’

Laurie laughed, and lit up a joint. ‘Okay Miss Prude, have a blow then. Here, Neil did us one.’

Alice looked around, there was a small group behind them, a couple of guys ahead. She slowed and waited for the group to pass. They clip-clopped past like ponies.

A few cars passed them; one slowed and a fat guy hung his ass through a back window.

‘Fucking creep,’ Laurie shouted. The pungent aroma of hash anointed the air.

She passed the joint to Alice.

‘Hope nobody smells this,’ Alice said nervously.

‘Sure beats shit outa the smell of seaweed,’ Laurie laughed, then bent over, doubled up with laughter.

‘Sure beats shit … sure beats shit…!’ Her laughter rose up into the night air, and Alice’s joined hers. She wasn’t cold any more, and felt strong enough to face the sharp guys with their New Romantic clothes and the girls with their mini London clothes. Damn them. Maxi dresses weren’t going out, they were coming back in.

The lights from the Bingo Hall went out as they passed, and giggles came from the helter skelter and the waltzer.

‘Sounds like someone’s getting their skirt lifted!’ Laurie laughed.

‘Would you ever…?’ Alice put the question.

‘Screw someone else? Ah that would be telling wouldn’t it?’ She took the joint from her and laughed at Alice’s face under the street-lamp. ‘Lordy you are one gullible chick!’

‘No I’m not!’ Alice was suddenly afraid. Her feet appeared to be floating by themselves over the pavement.

‘What’s this stuff we’re smoking?’

‘Black. Moroccan. Good innit. Neil got an ounce from the Donoghues.’

‘Umm.’ She felt her arms grow light. ‘I don’t think I should have any more.’

‘You’ll be fine, get a couple of drinks down you.’

* * * * *

The queue for Nero’s went round the block. Cars were double-parked across the road by the boarded-up swimming pool.

‘Shame about that, innit? Me and Sam met there.’

‘What, the pool?’

‘Yeah, it was great on a sunny day. Don’t know why they had to close it.’

She felt her feet then, cold toes through her sandals. Sam. Why was she here, when Sam was at home minding the kids?

Don’t be pathetic. Who minds them all week, and on snooker nights?

She shook her head, trying to free her thoughts.

Around them groups of girls, dolled up to the nines in fashions Alice hadn’t seen in Chelsea Girl or Dorothy Perkins, smoothed their sleek hair in the mirrors of small compacts. Their conversation was all guys and work. Alice didn’t know what she would find to say to girls like that. Bet they didn’t work evenings in a lousy factory.

The baby walked today, took two steps. He came up behind me suddenly in the kitchen like a walking doll. Gave me a fright. Like Chuckie. Christ, how can you say that about your own baby?

‘Here we go!’ They watched as the two guys ahead of them got turned away for wearing jeans and trainers, then smiled as they got given the thumbs-up.

Music thrummed, underground rhythms snaking their way up the spiral staircase. The cloakroom girls stood waiting for coats. They stood very still behind the counter, Alice guessed their bottom bodies were lobsters, you could tell by the sharp way their red fingernails clutched at the tickets. She and Laurie hadn’t come out with coats so moved on down to the Ladies, full with flocks of starlings and parakeets, fingers fluffing hair, unrolling tubes of crimson lipstick. What is ‘in’? Alice tried not to stare at her own self in the mirror. She stood behind the younger girls as if giving way. I have a man. I have a man at home.

Laurie sprayed some perfume on her without asking and poked her in the back.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘You’re wasting good drinking time, dancing time, and pinching bums time!’

She floated down the spiral staircase. Her head was beginning to feel large, very large. She tried to shake the feeling away, her hand gripping the rail as she descended. A young guy in a blue Hawaiian shirt was blocking her way. He was coming up. He stood and waited for her to move, smiling.

‘You don’t half look like Stevie Nicks,’ he said.

Her fingers let go of the rail and she wobbled. His arms stretched out in a flash and caught her.

‘Oops!’ he said, winking at Laurie. ‘Looks like someone’s had a few!’

‘She’s fine, let her go,’ Laurie snapped. She linked arms with Alice and marched her down the stairs.

They entered a wall of sound and blood red decor, Roman columns, reclining sedans, plush carpet, mosaics that looked as if they had been lifted from Vesuvius. Psychedelic patterns splattered the dance-floor from a revolving glitter-ball. Duran Duran wailed around the walls.

‘God, I love this place!’ Laurie hugged her, then dragged her to the bar. She looked in her purse after she paid, and screwed her face up. ‘They really rip you off in here! Twice the price of the pub! Oh well we’ll have to get some poor sucker to buy us a drink. Come on.’

‘Where are we going?’ Alice was reluctant to move. She was happy to stop right here and stare. Stare at all the beautiful people in their trendy clothes, listen to their breaking laughter, watch the watchers circling the dance floor, bare but for a few, hungry to move before it was cool to. They were amazing to watch, even those who were hardly moving. The light dipped and fell on their bodies making them look like fluorescent fish. One girl was spinning round and round, her elbows like fins. It was like looking in an aquarium, like the one at Palm Bay. Well maybe not Palm Bay, Brighton. She wanted to join them, those discordant girls. That’s where she wanted to be, to let her hair down, fling her head back, free her body from the sameness of everyday. She wanted to spin and spin like a whirling dervish, to have the unexpected possess her.

But Laurie was tugging at her arm: ‘C ’mon.’

They were going ‘for a walk’ she said. Alice limped behind her, her feet hurting. She must have twisted it on the staircase. Or maybe the long walk up from the harbour. They squeezed through groups and couples, some with heads back laughing, or with eyes roaming. Some dropped and fixed on her and Laurie, some swiftly looked past them, their eyes like torches.

Some of the girls were wearing gold lame and Lycra, exposing bra straps and bellies, slinky in tight-fitting jumpsuits, like Hot Gossip off the telly. She should have known that Ramsgate wasn’t that far behind when it came to fashion, why didn’t she pay attention? She could have walked round Etam yesterday. Her maxi dress skirted her ankles, as if to taunt her. She wished she could rip it off, be left standing there in something tight-fitting and sparkly. Her face began to go hot and cold.

The ‘walk’ included intermittent pauses around the dance-floor. Strange creatures posed by the columns, some in hats and bright clothes, with elongated ears and mirrored eyes. Their eyes spotlit each other, those approaching, those on the dance-floor. Their limbs alternated between beats, in the beat, became the beat. Movement, light, hot bodies. Laurie was shouting into the ear of some guy, then disappeared. Alice forced herself back to lean against a pillar. The room had begun to shrink right before her eyes, the creatures around her becoming rodents and turtles, all scrambling around her ankles and circling her voluminous skirt which floated out into the room like a tent. She squeezed her eyes shut.

‘Hey Stevie, how you doin?’

An arm snaked around her shoulder. From the slit that were her eyes flowers danced.

‘You fancy a dance?’ Hawaiian shirt.

Laurie swung round from the bar with a huge smile on her face. She plunged a glass into Alice’s hand. ‘Here, grab this. Complementary.’

‘Complementary?’ Alice looked vague. Laurie smiled and nodded at the guy standing next to her. It was Walrus Head.

Alice suddenly felt sick. She wandered off and found herself on the dance floor. Hibiscus flowers were floating in front of her eyes. Bodies were morphing into odd shapes, hemming her in. She pushed her arms out into the heady surf. Lips brushed her cheek. Words tried to reach her ear. She allowed herself to be led.

She sat on one of the red chaise longues. Hawaiian Shirt disappeared and came back with a coke.

‘Here drink this, you look hot.’

She held the glass against her face. Cool. She caught her breath.

‘You ok?’

She nodded.

‘You want to get some fresh air?’

‘No. No. Thank you, but I’m married.’

‘Married girls can breathe too!’

Despite herself, she laughed. She looked closely at him. He was actually quite cute, dark curly hair and blue eyes. He peered closely at her.

‘You’re stoned,’ he said smiling. ‘Not good for you, really.’

Was he for real?

‘Oh well, what’s good for us really? Maggie Thatcher? The Falklands War? Alar on apples?’

‘Woah!’

‘Alice!’ Laurie appeared at her side. ‘Alice, come and have a dance!’

‘No I’m having a break, you carry on.’

‘OOO! Hark at you!’ She pulled a face, and in the flickering light her face looked grotesque and bright red, her hair like antlers. She crossed her arms and looked down at Alice crossly. Then turned and stamped off.

‘She’s a bit of a drama queen!’ Hawaiian Shirt said.

Alice shrugged. ‘She’ll get over it.’

Her eyes were drawn to the dance floor. An old woman had joined the dancers but stood there, watching, dressed in wellies and a grey raincoat. She had very long, thin grey hair.

As Alice watched she began to copy the moves she was seeing, following one dancer and then another, wide arms circling like a helicopter. She might have been practising Tai Chi. She began to move faster, her hair spinning like a plastic windmill fringed with feathers. The glitterball poured down fragments of coloured rain. Her hips jerked spasmodically, laden by the stomping rise and fall of her wellies. The other dancers began to notice her, and moved aside, not wanting her to pollute their youth and energy, interrupt the flow of their sinuous and sexually-charged movements. Those near to Alice were laughing, raising their glasses like goblets, banging on the sides of them with cigarette lighters and car keys. They began to chant ‘Go, Go, Go !’ and their chants soon raised above the music, adding another level to the drum bass vibrating from the floor, up and along the Roman columns and shivering the overhead revolving disco balls to spin faster and faster, spraying their hallucinogenic lights like the Snow Queen’s splintered shards of glass.

Alice knew it was time to leave. She rose with a sudden gravitational pull that helped to propel her through the throng, changing shape as she squeezed under arms, breaking through inter-locked couples, the bow-and-arrow curves of satin-clad backs, the laces of culottes, the eyes of diamantes. Her feet became a fawn’s, small-hoofed and dainty as they negotiated the mosaic floor, her elbows morphing from bone to feather, giving her flight up the spiralled stairs and out into the foyer where the bouncers turned and opened the door where the wind was waiting. Waiting to guide her along the dark streets, over the tops of houses, the invisible presence of the silent sea, the boats chorusing in their moorings. The moon offered a slice of herself, just enough to grant her vision, not enough to make her prey for those sad and lonely men who had waited so long on the sides of dance floors to pluck up the courage to ask girls to dance and who now prowled the streets in rusting Ford Escorts for girls like her. Her maxi skirt became a sail, buffeting her along the seafront and along the London Road into the solid arms of her house, her waiting husband, her sleeping child. She turned the key and floated upwards, blinking free of the dark.

Maggie Harris is a poet and an author. Regional Winner, Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014. Winner, Guyana Prize for Literature 2014.

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