“This is the pad!” Clarissa pushed her flat-door inwards to some sort of ante-chamber, walls painted in a sweet beige that surrounded my whole view with a kind of haze.
She pushed through a set of double-doors, glazed as they were, revealing to me a world full of everything that The Admiral was not: silvers and whites lay ablaze ahead of we two.
Though it told of an ice-chalet in some places, the flat was unanimous in its warmth, right from the literally-laid-back sofa of the open lounge that led through to a kitchen, the latter which looked as if it had been adapted to hold some sort of beverage bar.
Two closed doors led off elsewhere into the building, a bedroom and a bathroom disclosed, I presumed.
“You live here?”
“For the time-being.” Clarissa shrugged. “Sit yourself down, okay. Anywhere’s fine. Like, the sofa, or something.”
My eyes instantly zoned to a dark-leather chair, snug in the window-space that overlooked one of the busy London streets. Nevertheless, I fought the urge to rest my inwardly-aching body, turning my attention onto Clarissa, as if it was necessary to keep a full eye on her.
Her body was busy over in the kitchen area already. Standing above a readied bin, she spat out a globule of spittle wound around chewing gum.
Clarissa looked up, surprise dotting in her eyes. I hoped she hadn’t already forgotten my presence so soon.
“Yeah. I can’t stand manning the desk all day without having fresh breath.” The rattle of glasses and cans followed her speech. “Here, however, I can fix myself a strong drink to wash out the flavour of nothing. What can I get you? Gin? Vermouth? Vodka?”
“Umm,” I spluttered, aware how awkward this would sound. “I’m actually just thirteen.”
“Oh, god, you really are that young. Well, I’m sure I have some fizzy around here.”
Her face sunk behind a counter, the expression flitting between a mixture that I could not identify. Perhaps there was confusion hidden in the blend.
After the rattling, she came back out with a large grin on her face, ready to pour a can of Coca-Cola into a glass that had already been set aside for me.
“It’s only on the weekends that I actually drink alcohol. It’s my way of beginning the process of relaxing away from work.”
She had been teasing me all along!
“It’s a Friday?” I spluttered, as Clarissa slid the drink onto a table beside me, chuckling again. Her eyes portrayed none of the weariness that mine did.
“It is, yeah. Don’t tell me that you’ve lost tracks of the days too?”
I shook my head, though only that action denied my words.
“I’m living in myself at the moment. I just can’t keep a hold on any little things.” With a shrug, I stopped watching her, deciding my path across the room.
“So, tell me about yourself,” I said, settling into the leather chair finally.
“Oh, you don’t want to hear about me,” Clarissa mumbled through a mouthful of lime.
“No, go on. I’d like to hear.”
“Only if you tell me about yourself.”
I found myself grinning.
“You drive a hard bargain.”
We watched each other in deep silence; the lines on Clarissa’s face deepened for a second, as if she, too, was analysing my thoughts. Eventually, the silence became my restless peril.
“So go on…” I teased, pulling myself out of the furying cycle. “I’m sure your life isn’t as mad as my one.”
Clarissa chuckled nervously.
“Listen, I’m really not that interesting. You have to ask someone else, okay.”
“Hey! I’m in your flat. You can’t keep lying to me!”
“Lying? Since when have I...?”
“You’re not exactly the same person as the one I met guarding The Admiral.”
She sighed once again.
“London isn’t the same at night. We all lift off the work-face and put on a different face. I don’t want you to judge me, Miss Brooks. I need that face...to hide from my father.”
Her words caught me by surprise.
“What do you mean?” I choked. “You’re a desk-girl; I didn’t think there would be...”
“I’m not a desk-girl, I just work behind a desk…” She paused, slurping her drink. “It’s how I get all this: special treatment. You don’t think that I get all this through hard work, right? I’m only twenty. Oh, of course you do. The clause that comes with this sport of living is that I work for my father...”
“I don’t understand...” I muttered.
“In The Admiral. It doesn’t bear that name for no reason.”
I stared into my glass, already half-empty.
“Why do you bother?” I replied eventually. “Wouldn’t you rather live gritty, pursuing a career that you actually like? Why do you stay where you’re unhappy?”
“Oh, I’m not unhappy in London! Don’t make that mistake. There’s the glamour...” She spread her vowels out as she spoke, speaking the word in an accent tinged with French. “It’s the high-rise intrigue of London's ‘scrapers and the people I meet. Why anything! I can’t take that master standing over me, but London has undeniable appeal, a powerful pull that nowhere else exudes. Yeah... I’m not the only one. Others remain to raise a family. Or they leave once they’ve done so. I haven’t felt it yet, but I know that, one day, I’ll find a Londoner amidst the chaos to tie myself too.”
“I know what you mean...” I found myself saying. I hadn’t meant it to sound as if family was my primary matter; but I had already seen the way London shimmered, attractive, in spite of its layer of filth.
And, whilst her eyes glazed and unglazed, I fiddled with the rim of my glass, almost crystal in texture. She snapped back to reality, her expression forcing the end of a conversation.
“And you, Miss Brooks? I’ve fulfilled my half of the bargain.”
When the silence had descended long enough, I graced her with an answer, mindful of her position amongst society.
“My name isn’t Maria Brooks.”
“I don’t know my own heritage. I’m meant to be ‘Lily Highclere’, but…I’m on a mission to discover who that really is. I’m not a full person without an explanation.”
“Yeah. I’ve…left my normal house.”
“But what about the money you have then. How much- how long will that keep?”
“I have what I have,” I muttered.
“Why London?” Clarissa said, brushing away her hair as she sunk onto the sofa.
“Why not? You just said that London contains mesmerising glamour. It’s our capital.”
“Our heart,” Clarissa added, rolling back her head.
After a minute of floating on her cloud, she continued:
“You didn’t lie about life being mad. What do you need? I mean, you had The Admiral…”
“I’ve been hunting…” I replied, my voice almost a whisper.
“Hunting for what?” On the other hand, Clarissa’s was louder with each of her words.
“Not much,” I managed, swilling the dregs of my drink.
Clarissa’s tone was grating. I began to slide my glass along the tabletop, tersely watching its path as I fought the swift anger in my chest, before the sound of glass smashing made me jump. Guiltily, I wrenched my head up. But it wasn’t mine. Clarissa was knelt by her own shards, swearing from amidst the citreous flavours that still dotted her lips.
I stood, picking my way around the furniture.
“Your hands are shaking.”
She cried out as an edge of the glass sliced one finger. I should have helped. Instead, I stared.
“You hate your job, and you’re not coping with this living, are you?”
“It’s London,” Clarissa cried, jumping up. Her proximity to me meant that the smell of her breath, this time flecked with lemon, was just as pungent as before. She stepped forward, the savage glint palpable in her eyes. “You can’t just leave London. Once you’re here, the city lasts with you forever. It has bite. A nasty bite, in spite of the glory. I’m only at the beginning of my descent, but, there have been others whose lives haven’t exactly been…”
“I know!” I interrupted. “Those cursed in London…”
Clarissa shook her head; our conversation had met a certain end. I watched as she strolled away, that sliced finger kept held tightly to her body.
When my eyes refocused, this moment not into the space she had left, but on a clock that I had noticed hanging on the wall, the time seemed something ridiculous in comparison with what my heavy body had decided to feel. Here, in the summer, evenings were not meant to creep with their darkness. Seven thirty was meant to yield daylight hours still. Yet the last couple of days, out here in the city, had defied all spacial laws, where the world refused to turn but around the celebrity universe that resided here deep within the heart of the city. A city so mysterious that mere pieces of it I had glimpsed. And so, my body had bent to the crazy time, the same way that jet-lag twists a traveller’s mind to sleep.
Clarissa’s returning footsteps were so soft that it took an out-of-place floorboard to draw my attention to the girl. She held a dustpan and brush between her fingers, one of the digits safely tucked into a plaster. I watched as she set about cleaning up the mess of the shattered alcohol; her eyes would not turn to my direction.
A minute later, as Clarissa strolled back past, before steadily shoving the glass into a bin by the window, I cleared my throat and, this time, she eyed me, the hatred returned.
“I’m sorry…” I began, but her look cut me off again.
Tossing the dustpan and brush onto the table, she watched me. Both sets of eyes told of the anxiety to move on; we each wanted the conversation to change as much as the other. Finally, with Clarissa’s jerked movements, she indicated that I should be the one to continue.
There were no more ideas of the scene inside my mind. Instead, my question was a simple one, of logistics, but an important matter that I needed to sort instantly. Because, I still had to look out for myself.
“So, umm, I know this is weird, but where am I going to sleep?”
Once again, Clarissa turned her quizzical eyes onto me.
“On the sofa, of course. I hope you don’t mind.”