When I was 15, I lied to everybody except for my mother.
“I’m going on a date,” I told her.
“Have fun,” she said, without looking away from the talk show rerun she was watching. The beautiful guest, an actress, I think, was demonstrating what she could fit in the gap between her two front teeth—dollar bills, cherry stems, a paperclip and so on.
“He’s 26,” I added.
She looked up. “Use protection.”
I was late to the station where we were supposed to meet but he still wasn’t there, so I walked in circles looking through the slatted doors of the closed-up tailors and the Pret until he showed. He looked different in real life. Younger, which was a relief. I’d told him I was 18.
He was holding a glass of white wine, which was swept towards me in an expansive hug; he said that he’d been waiting for me at a pub a few minutes away. I told him with immense confidence that the year before my grandmother had traipsed out of a restaurant still holding her port glass, and this had been taken as the first sign of a brewing senility. I loved to be precocious.
“Do you want some?” he said. I nodded. I felt confident, I felt like silver string in the wind. We set off for somewhere. “Oh,” a moment later, “I wasn’t expecting you to finish it.” He sounded genuinely irritated; I hadn’t tasted it, just swallowed. It was something like the second or third glass of wine I’d ever had in my life.
I don’t remember which station was our designated meeting place, or really what part of London we were in, but he took me around crescents and crescents of the white terraced houses that suggest Belgravia. It was late, and black like water out. The walk wasn’t designed to take us anywhere, just to impress that he knew how to stroll about walled gardens like these.
My palms felt slippery, but he took my hand and would not drop it. The night before he had stayed up until the morning with his ex-girlfriend, just sitting and talking. She’d found out that day that she had brain cancer, he told me softly.
“That was really good of you,” I said. “Is she going to die?”
I had a deep, teenage conviction that this had not actually happened to him; or that it had happened months ago, and he’d reframed it as ‘last night’ so that he could slip it into the conversation. Not to be outdone, I waited until it was appropriate, and then told him a story about a friend of mine who had gone to America to sell her eggs. She’d been paid $8,000, I told him, and she didn’t want to have sold her eggs for money, but she wanted something from the whole thing, just something. So she spent almost the whole $8,000 on a designer handbag (“an Italian designer handbag,” I specified, achingly 15) and whenever people compliment her on it, she says “thank you, it’s my egg bag.” This had not happened to a real friend of mine, but it was, I thought, a pretty self-contained little anecdote I’d turned over in my head long enough that it felt like it might have.
We stopped so that he could make up a cigarette. I’d never seen rolling tobacco before, and had a genuinely hard time acting blasé about it. He bent his gaze to the kit laid surgically across his lap and for the first time I felt that I could look properly at his face without being seen. He was not attractive, not at all; I’d known this from his profile picture but it was still a disappointment. But I watched the witchy cigarette paper flickering in the shadow of the stucco-front trophy houses and felt good, felt adult.
Throughout the strange, lamplit, residential tour I’d been kind of twitchy but once restaurants and bars started coming into view again the sense of danger mostly elapsed. A woman in a long red coat was turning over the insides of her bag in the middle of the street. It seemed so obvious to me then that she should have been wearing a long red coat. She came up to us—well, to him—and asked if he had a lighter. A moment later, her husband turned the corner.
They were called Teresa and Henry, were Dutch or Dutch-adjacent, were I don’t remember how old. At the time, they seemed to be my parents’ age; looking back, they could have been anything from 30 to 50-something.
“Is there anywhere around here good to eat?” asked Henry.
“The best Italian food in London is just around the corner. In fact,” —this delivered easily, looping an arm gently round my shoulder, “why don’t you walk with us?”
The fourth and fifth glasses of wine I’d ever had in my life I had at that little Italian place. It was getting horribly to my head. I put my hand over the mouth of my glass at one point, which I’d seen in a film and thought very pretty, but he removed my hand affably and topped me up. The conversation was lovely. “Prawns,” he said, with a muddling, alcoholic closeness, “are served with their heads on because it’s more thrilling.” He told stories with a confidence massively disproportionate to how attractive he was; he described a childhood full of “Bashers and Tads’ (Sebastians and Thaddeuses). Charmingly, he recounted my egg bag story to Teresa and Henry; we told them that we’d been dating for five months, and kept falling in and out of holes in the narrative of how we’d met. Henry seemed particularly shrewd. But lovely, lovely talk tripping over the close warm air.
And when the bill arrived, Teresa put her hand over the silver. “We’ll get this.”
I didn’t have a bank account yet, but I had a 20 pound note screwed up in a densely patterned coin purse and I began to object; but he smiled just as easily as he’d invited her and said, “Thanks.” It’d worked out so perfectly that if Teresa hadn’t been the one to approach us I would’ve suspected him of orchestrating the whole thing.
The wine slid, made the air roll. He took my hand again and tried to spin me on the street after Henry and Teresa had gone, and I told him that I thought I should be getting home pretty soon. The taste of old apples was in my teeth.
“Let’s just walk for a bit,” he said, smiling irregular. I shrugged happily, feeling older than 15; feeling 18 and a half even.
We stopped by a convenience store so that he could buy beer. I told him that my younger sister had taken my ID so that she could go clubbing; he went in alone. Outside I watched the cloud-cover split open and reform. The beautiful actress who had fit cherry stems in between her teeth later let the gap close up. It made the news.
Years and years after the night that I was standing outside this convenience store waiting for beer to be bought, I read an article about a woman who dreamt every night for a decade that her teeth fell out. One day, in real life, they all fell out at once. Scientists looking at her x-rays found out that the nerves going from her brain to her teeth were supersized from overuse. I can’t remember if they thought it was her teeth that had been sending warning signs to her brain or her brain sending command signals down to her teeth.
I watched the cloud-cover, and I looked across the road at the display window of a shop that sold Persian carpets during the daytime, and the guy bringing all the fruit in for the night from the wooden crates outside the convenience store had to move around me twice before I realised I was in the way .
We walked and drank. His beer was almost finished by the time we came to sit by the river; I had the sense to leave most of mine. I remember having to work to keep slightly out of step—I thought that being in sync was kitschy.
“So,” he said, almost as soon as we’d sat down, leaning back from the bench. He was broad. The visible machineries of his body, the hands and the neck and the jaw, were all big and constantly working in a way that was completely distinct from the adults I knew, the teachers and parents. “What do you think?”
It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what he meant, because he was leaning in before I could possibly have answered. I moved my head back. He came inexorably closer. I was laughing, I remember, awkward and ungracious and shrinking backwards until I literally caricatured recoil. He was smiling, too.
“Come on,” he said.
I shook my head, but I was still laughing and he was still moving forward. Before he came any closer, I jammed the mouth of my beer bottle rather ineffectually into his ribcage. He looked down disbelievingly at where it sloshed faintly at his Moncler. I held my breath. “Little psycho,” he said, and ruffled my hair.
He walked me back to the station. This didn’t feel like an egg bag story, I thought. It was not a discrete unit, easily tellable. I wasn’t sure about the ending and every precocious cell in my body felt slightly tired. But he kept the conversation spilling happily along:
“My ex used to air dry her hair walking along Battersea Bridge and when she came back it had always picked up the smell of sewage.”
“Is this the ex who—”
“—The brain cancer ex, yes”;
And there were the swans on the river.
(I was almost on the escalator before I heard him call my name; I almost didn’t turn around. The poor dear stupid thing was sticking his head over the wings of the ticket barrier for me to come back and give him his kiss.)