New Short Fiction: Oh, You Should Have Been There by Salena Godden
As I slipped into silk underwear and dabbed perfume behind my knees, you should have been there. As I hurried to dress and skipped down the stairs, I remembered the first time you kissed me. I remembered us being sweethearts, my puppy love. How you surprised me when you contacted me on the internet after over twenty years. For months we wrote to each other, each teasing email, a little more flirtatious, revealing. Finally this provoked me to invite you to meet me, I typed: Saturday at 8pm at Trafalgar Square, meet me by the lions and wear a flower in your lapel.
Oh, you should have been there, as I rode the tube to Charing Cross, I was smiling to myself. You didn’t reply, you didn’t promise anything, but I saw you had read the invitation. I said to myself, oh you funny tease, how you keep me guessing, maybe you’ll just show up, what if you just show up. I planned to hold your hand down Villiers Street, to drink with you on the balcony of the Oxo Tower, walk with you along the Southbank. It was such a beautiful rose evening, it was the perfect night for losing your head and letting go of the side.
The train was hot with skin, stinking of sweat and grease. There was a gang of noisy exuberant Dubliners. They stared hard at my cleavage and legs. They gaped at me, they made gestures and talked behind their hands. I found a pamphlet and studied the words so I could ignore their hungry gazes. Although funnily enough, there was one that looked like you, so I gave him the smallest of smiles. He grinned as though I looked good enough to eat. I briefly caught my reflection in the glass and thought that maybe you’d look at me like that too. That Irish boy had your twinkling eyes, when he smiled he had your dimples, the hairs on his tan freckled arms were pale as hay.
I raced up the escalators, I was wearing knee-high boots in case I might have to run away from you. You see, it had occurred to me you might be a murderer. I had flashes of fear picturing my assasination, how you’d shoot me like a sniper from the roof of The National Gallery. I imagined you slitting my throat. I imagined that in your home there was a dungeon wall-papered with pictures of me with the eyes scissored out. From that extreme to the next my head raced, until I settled on the notion that when we met it could be awkward, that perhaps we’d find we have nothing in common, but then again, imagine if we felt the same.
Imagine if we felt the same! I took the stairs two at a time in haste and started chuckling, I was out of breath and rushing as though I thought you’d be there. I laughed out loud at the ridiculous joke. Then I looked up at the time and I was seven minutes late. What if you had waited and left already?
I hurried towards Trafalgar Square and saw a handsome fellow in a crisp white shirt coming from the opposite direction. It was startling and compelling, I thought it was you, that maybe you really had waited and given up. When we passed each other, there was a moment in that glance, a sense of longing, something mutual and familiar. I was wearing sunglasses and wondered if you didn’t recognise me. For a good few seconds I turned back. The man had slowed right down, he was walking backwards and gazing back at me. My heart pounded for he was the same auburn and chestnut colouring as you. But surely you’d call out my name, take me in your arms and say, my love it’s me, have you forgotten me? No my love, I would beam up at you, how could I ever forget? Then we’d be sweet and quite shy, we’d laugh and embrace. I walked into the sunlight and crossed the road knowing we might not even recognise each other after all these years.
Oh you should have been there, to see me arrive in Trafalgar Square. I looked up at Nelson’s Column protruding into a June blue sky, there were scoops of vanilla and raspberry clouds. The lions teased me and said, look at the hapless romantic, the nostalgic, look at the believer in old flames! I lit a cigarette and walked among the pigeons.
Were you there hiding from me behind a tree? Were you photographing me? Were you laughing to yourself – Ah ha, look how I can make her wait, look what a fool! Can she not see she is far too old for giddy girlhood daydreams? Would you later email these photographs to me so I would know you were there? Then in these creul photographs would I see the sad portrait of a desperate woman chasing bubbles? I span around, I tried to have eyes in the back of my head to catch your lens. The lions taunted me, what an ego she has, they said, what vanity, does she think she is that interesting?
I was about to give up, but then I saw you on the other side of the Square. It was your walk, that swagger and you were wearing a baseball cap. I walked very slowly through the crowds. I was sure it was you this time, I wanted to approach you and put my hands over your eyes and say, guess who? But that boy was hugged by a pink and strawberry blonde. They kissed with a flourish of young heat and I realised he was like you, but when you were fifteen. I had to remind myself we are older now, I told myself to look for a man not a boy.
So, I continued searching for you among the older men, the bald, the fat or bearded men; there were freckled men, sunburnt men, crippled men, hairy men, tattooed men, drunk men, short men, gay men, homeless men, exotic men, sick men, men in hats and sunglasses, men hiding behind cameras… I studied all the men that seemed to be alone and waiting for something. A cross dresser on a park bench stared at me for a very long time and I even thought that might be you too.
There were couples, families on day trips, some with young children and babies which chased pigeons clapping their hands. Then I thought, are you married? I imagined your wife, and a chill ran through me with the image of a furious woman storming through the crowds towards me to scratch my eyes out having discovered and read our emails.
Silly sentimentalist, I must have made this date with myself to remind myself of something. I had set myself up. I sat on the edge of the water fountain, the spray was cool on my skin. I looked into the blue water and saw my refelection and I saw the truth, the reflection of time and the clouds above me. I saw I was alone and I looked into my eternal reflection in my sunglasses and in the surface of the water, mirror to mirror.
A yellow Puerto Rican boy sat beside me and asked me for a light. He told me my dress was pretty. He sat so close to me and for so long it was awkward. Then I wondered if he had been writing the emails. I searched his face to see if his eyes would give him away, to see if he was enjoying this trick. He asked me if I had a boyfriend. I nodded. I was thinking, I am waiting for love. He walked away, my eyes followed him to see if his shoulders were shaking with laughter. They didn’t and he walked alone circling the Square.
Big Ben was bronze, coppery with sunset. An hour had past and the bells tolled nine times and I knew you were not there. I walked back towards Charing Cross wondering if this lesson had been learnt. At home that same night, the curtains wafted in the perfume of night-blooming jasmine. I ran a bubble bath and wiped the steamed-up mirror and took a good long hard look at myself. The girl and the dreamer inside me grinned at a womanly face, my dilating pupils were filled with stars and mischief. I wondered if you would believe that I waited for you in Trafalgar Square. Do you know I believe I met myself there. I will never tell you that I waited for you there, because, oh, you should have been there.
© 2008 Salena Godden
Salena Godden can often be found in the salubrious salons and private members bars of London’s Soho. She is an heady cocktail of Jamaican and Irish, lives in North London, and has no pets, husbands, or children.
Her articles, stories, and poetry have appeared in a diverse array of publications including Nude, Le Gun, The Illustrated Ape, Salzburg Review, and The Gay Times. Her fiction and poems have also been published in many anthologies including The Decadent Handbook (Dedalus), IC3 (Penguin), Fire People (Canongate), Croatian Nights (Serpent’s Tail) and Oral (Hodder & Stoughton). She has regularly read and performed on BBC Radio 4’s Bespoken Word and BBC Radio 3’s The Verb.
Under the name Salena Saliva she became renowned in the 1990s for ‘taking poetry into clubs’ and recorded with Coldcut, Alabama 3, and Simple Kid. She is now the lead singer of SaltPeter, whose acclaimed album Hunger’s The Best Sauce (Fred) was released in October 2007.
Springfield Road, Salena Godden’s memoir of growing up in Hastings in the 1970s, will be published by Harper Collins in April 2009.
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