The breeze releases Ceris’s hair. It tumbles down her back as the artificial wind subsides. Trains vanish into the miasma of tunnels and eyes adjust to a world not ruled by sex, absinthe and narcotics. Her world is private. Ceris exists between the setting of the sun and every new dawn. She’s separate from the smells of drying wool, from commuters who move around like water. Ceris tugs the fur tighter and strides the length of Hackney Downs platform. Adverts meet her eye line, maps for long-forgotten tube stops, overflowing rubbish bins and polystyrene cups live on the floor. Stuff that doesn’t matter. London offers anonymity. Somewhere to hide but no privacy. The freedom to be a nobody within its own contradictions.
And she loves it… like an infatuation with a terrible boyfriend.
The poison and
A boy shoots Ceris a curious glance from the British Telecom phone booth. She glides by with hands thrust into her white, fur coat. Ceris checks out his brown chin-length hair and needle-thread cords. He’s one of her people, somebody who wears second-hand coats and walks the streets with holes in his shoes. His brown eyes follow her slow walk. One knee-high boot in front of the other.
“Hey?” he says. Maybe into the telephone handle, maybe to her? Maybe they’ve met? Maybe not? Ceris ignores him and carries on. Night people vanish by now.
Stepping on the escalator, daylight, rain, headaches await. Two teenagers brush past in school blazers.
“It’s what’s-her-name? Courtney?” one says, over his shoulder. The other tugs his friend by the bag strap.
“Courtney Love?” he laughs but they’re up and away, barging past suits and up. Ceris ignores them and their stupid half-insults. She stares at every advert on the ascent: musicals, paper cups, televisions, and pure black T-shirts… Ceris smiles to herself, like a private joke.
There’s a newsstand at the top. Commuters buy chewing gum, tissues and cigarettes. They stand in a single-file line to pay the frowning Indian man. Sometimes Farrand says ‘hello’ to him but today the newsvendor is busy. He digs his hands deeper into the pockets of the stripy money belt.
“I can’t change that,” he says with a raised eyebrow at the fluted five-pound note waved under his nose.
“It’s money isn’t it?” says the suit. He slams down The Sun and runs to catch his train. Ceris catches the vendor’s eye. He shrugs.
“Prick,” he says. Her eyes become wide but she doesn’t smile back.
“Is he a prick for buying The Sun or not having change?” Ceris asks.
“Both,” he says. She gives him a half-laugh and turns towards the concrete grey of the early morning. “Wait,” he calls.
“Why?” she asks with a frown. She can do without the vendor’s ‘funny’ banter. Farrand isn’t with her so she doesn’t see why she should chat if she doesn’t feel like it.
“Don’t be an on-your-period little madam. There’s something,” he says gesturing to the overstuffed wire racks of papers. Out of habit, Ceris eyes gaze to the top row. The women with blank, pornography faces stare back.
“No thanks,” she says. Rudeness is a mode of defence. She turns on her heel.
“Oi, Ceris, isn’t it? Speak to your boyfriend, then. He got it already,” he yells after her.
“Farrand’s my manager,” she says under her breath and walks through the doors of the tube station. Taxi drivers try to park up, swearing escapes car windows in the nose-to-tail crush. She steps onto Hackney Road and its puddles, chalky dog-shit, potholes. For a moment, she looks up at the pigeon-coloured sky. She loves days like this, where she can do fuck-all and watch time pass. Ceris takes a turn home, south down the concrete road, avoiding splatters of multicoloured vomit and MacDonald’s cartons and watches newspaper dancing in the wind. She pulls fur. It’s freezing.
Ceris crosses the road, past a greasy café, past grimy Chinese takeaways and stops by the flat. Her keys have vanished. The shop underneath her flat is open. The yellow sign reads ‘PATEL’S POUND SHOP’. Another new blue-tacked advert sits in the front window. She fishes through her suede handbag and her fingers brush change, tampons, broken eyeliner pencils, loose matches, and gum. Her eyes study the advert as fingers hunt…
It’s not an advert.
Ceris sees something that looks a bit like her face. A shock of blonde, a crystal blue eye? There’s a weird moment of mental disconnect as she looks closer. It is her face. But she doesn’t recognise the person staring back. It looks too polished, too alabaster, too perfect than the everyday face she sees in the mirror. Ceris takes a deep intake of breath.
It’s the front cover of Knight– a soft porn mag.
“What the fuck?” she asks nobody. Lorries zoom and expel gas. Cars swish past. The world goes on but Ceris stands still. Nausea rises up from the feeling of surrealism. Is this shock? This is weird. So fucking weird. Ceris gawps at herself. Herself? On the front cover of Knight? Underneath her head and printed in bold capitals is the legend ‘AMATURE PHOTOGRAPHY SPECIAL’ and in smaller letters ‘COVERSTAR: CHERYL ‘CERIS’ LEWIS’. The wind blows her hair with waspish energy. Holy Fuck.
“Ceris, babes, it’s too early. My bones feel like fucking glass,” says a voice. She doesn’t turn around. She doesn’t have to. Farrand seems to just know when she can’t find her keys.
“Did you do this?” she asks, staring at the picture.
“Nah, nah. Mrs Patel stuck it up first thing,” says Farrand.
“No, I mean… Knight?” she asks.
“Knight’s reputable, it’s a photography mag,” he says. Farrand’s warm hand touches her shoulder and she turns. Ceris looks up at Farrand’s androgynous, cat-like face. She shrugs his hand away.
“Fuck sake Farrand, what if my mum sees this?” Ceris says pushing the door to the Pound Shop. Sitar Tabla and incense warm the skin. Farrand follows her, holds the door to stop the tinkling wind chime.
“Ceris, baby, you said ‘modelling’,” Farrand says, running a hand through crude-oil coloured hair. Twiddles it. Mrs Patel’s in deep haggle with a local landlord about the price of tiles. She pays her upstairs tenants no attention.
“I said no porn. Singing yes, modelling, ok. This can’t stay,” says Ceris striding to the window and peeling BluTack off the glass. Farrand’s hand lands. He pins glossy front covers down.
“Baby, you’re not topless,” says Farrand. His tone implies boredom.
“That’s not the point,” Ceris says, pulling at the paper. Farrand’s hand remains. A huge tear rips across Knight– Ceris’s eyes.
“You’re being stupid. Where you been, anyway?” asks Farrand. He knows Ceris had a date. He knows where she went and who with. He knows everything. He’s trying to humiliate.
“I’m not embarrassed by the number of men I’ve slept with,” Ceris says through a yawn. Her eyes yearn for sleep.
“Babes, I’m embarrassed. By the fucking quality of them. You’re giving it away. Try escorting,” says Farrand. You. Cannot. Believe–
-the shit that comes out his gob.
“A singer, not fucking porn! You said you’d find me a band, a recording contract,” Ceris says. Farrand told her it would be ‘fun’. It’s not the first time he’s lied to her.
“Hey, hey? No swearing. No trouble,” says Mrs Patel, looking up from tile-based conversations. She waves her fingerless gloves to waft Ceris and Farrand out of her shop.
“Sorry, Mina baby. Ceris’s annoyed” shouts Farrand with a smile designed for Mina Patel alone. Mrs Patel says something in quick Hindi to Farrand and they laugh. Ceris’s face feels flushed, reddened, shameful.
“Pretty white girls use looks to make money. Won’t be around forever,” Mrs Patel says, she makes a face, wraps tiles in a newspaper, and rings prices through tills. Ceris looks up at Farrand’s achingly green eyes. He’s so serious. Too serious.
“C’mon, babe,” he says and grabs. Ceris shrugs him off. Mrs P raises an eyebrow but says nothing. Hindi sitars whine but give no answers.
“Nah,” Ceris says. Farrand raises his palms up. He grins from ear to ear, looks at Mrs Patel and says:
“White girls?” to laughter.
“What do you think you are? Some sort of pound-land Pimp?” Ceris spits, blood thumping through her temples, crimson spreading cheeks and chin. Farrand aims his fixed Cheshire cat smile. All teeth and nails.
“Baby, your choice. Let hysteria pass and then we’ll talk,” he says, spins heel. Gone. The smell of unwashed sweat, patchouli and spice linger. Ceris shreds glossy paper into confetti shoves Knight-trash deep into pockets of her second-hand fur. Mrs P and the landlord whisper behind hands, firm eyes glued to her long, tall figure. Ceris feels like shit stepping out in the brittle-cold street, confused but never alone.
Sabrina Mei-Li Smith is a PhD scholar, writer, lecturer, and researcher in the discipline of creative writing. She lectures on De Montfort University’s undergraduate Creative Writing B.A. Her first play, The Holy Bible, received Arts Council funding In 2019. She specialises in writing with marginalised individuals, and challenging accepted narratives, through writing residencies with Writing East Midland’s Elder Tree project, and Leicester City Council’s Memories into Healing Words project which documents the narratives of Leicester’s elderly, street-homeless, and Irish Traveller communities. She runs specialised and mainstream creative writing workshops for Leicester City Council’s Adult Education College and has been a writer in residence for Coalville Writes 2019. Sabrina was part of De Montfort University’s National Writing Day Creative Writing and Practice Research Conference in 2020. She writes for Feminist Trash Store on topics such as intersectional feminism and is a reviewer for the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction.