Bella, Chapter 1

Chapter I: Cambridge

I MET BELLA on a freezing cold Cambridge night in early February. I’d taken the bus up from London at the invitation of an old university friend who had the brilliantly alliterative name of Max Massey. Max was notoriously difficult to hold down for any event, but he had said he was going to meet his friend (and my ex-girlfriend), Rosie, and our mutual friend Christina, and had asked if I’d like to join the three of them. It was a sort of university reunion, I guess, and at any rate I couldn’t come up with a convenient excuse not to go, and so I arrived at Cambridge at about six o’clock on a Saturday, and made my way to our old haunt: a low-ceilinged, old-school sort of pub called The Fox and Hare.

I was––typically, I have to say––the last one to arrive. Through the throng of students standing around clinking beers and chatting happily I spotted Max, laughing loudly and looking a little more round that he had the last time I’d seen him, and Christina, her cheeks still slightly pink from the sun-bed she had no doubt visited in the afternoon and, next to her, looking annoyingly but unsurprisingly beautiful, my former flame, Rosie Hall. Enough time had passed to eliminate most of the awkwardness (or should that be resentment?) that normally arises when you see an ex and Max, who was prone to being a miserable drinking companion especially if his evening game of online poker hadn’t gone to plan the night before, threw his arms around me when I approached and told me that I was “looking trim”.

We had a couple of drinks at the pub in a tiny circular space we carved out for ourselves near the bar. Max had beer and Rosie, Christina and I shared a bottle of white wine, and once we’d finished and were all feeling a good deal more cheerful than we had been the hour before, Rosie suggested we go down the road to a bar that had recently opened, and the rest of us agreed. The four of us strolled down George Street, pointing at pubs and bars and reminding ourselves of all the stupid, reckless things we’d done at this place and that (most of the stories involved me) and stopped outside a bar with “Lantern” emblazoned above the door in purple neon. Rosie spoke to the bouncer for a minute or two and then waved us over, and we nodded at the burly security man and went inside. The bar was largely empty––“it’ll fill up,” said Rosie confidently––and Max and I offered to go and buy some drinks while Rosie and Christina found a table.

The bar didn’t fill up, though maybe it’s more accurate to say that we didn’t get to find out whether it filled up. The reason for this was that as the bartender charged me for our order I heard raised voices behind me and turned around. It later turned out that Rosie had been dating, or had recently stopped dating, a local crook called Naz. He was a coke dealer, which explains how Rosie knew him, and was, Christina told me severely, something of a “big deal” in Cambridge. (That, by the way, really isn’t saying much). Naz had been sitting in the corner booth of the bar at a table littered with half-finished bottles of cheap champagne and rough women like a poundshop rapper, and Rosie––this is one of the reasons why we split up, incidentally––couldn’t resist going over to show how just how tough she was. Needless to say it hadn’t gone the way she would have liked it to. It almost never did. I don’t know what, exactly, she said to him, but soon enough the pair were on their feet and she was crying, and shortly after that Christina was shaking her head and telling me sorry, but I really should take her home. And then, just to complete the set, Max’s mood promptly slumped, and he said he didn’t feel like staying out, and all of a sudden I found myself standing in the cold, in the middle of Cambridge, and––alone.

I pulled my jacket tighter around my body and wished I’d worn something warmer, at the same time knowing full well that I almost never learned my lessons. A fog had descended on the city since we’d entered Lantern, and through it I could make out the various lights of the bars and pubs and clubs along the high street in the direction of the city centre. I stepped aside to let a group of students, drunkenly swaying as they sang their college anthem, pass by. I had no desire to go home. To do so would be to concede that the trip had been wasted, but Max, it seemed, had forgotten he had offered me his spare bed and would no doubt be unreachable by now. I wondered briefly if any of my old university friends had stayed in the city after they’d graduated, but decided on reflection that it was unlikely, and anyone who had probably wouldn’t feel charitable enough to give me somewhere to sleep at such short notice. I sighed and, anxious to get out of the cold and have something alcoholic in front of me, I started towards the city centre. It began to rain. Thick, heavy chunks of sleet and ice stung my face and I dug my hands into my pockets and squinted through the gloom. On the other side of the road, the word “Metamorphosis” stood out in giant neon letters. I could make out bodies huddled together in a covered area outside and the red pinpricks of lit cigarettes. It seemed as good as any other place, I thought, and at any rate I’d long given up caring where I went so long as they served alcohol. I looked left and right, paused to let a car pass by and crossed the road at a jog. A bald bouncer wearing a bomber jacket and a high-visibility armband glared at me and I offered back a raised eyebrow and a bored expression as I walked past him into the building.

I was grateful for the dryness and the warmth. I handed over a five-pound note to the unsmiling woman in the booth next to the door with numb purple fingers. She looked at me for a moment and rolled a stick of gum around her mouth. She held the note up the light. Then she grabbed my wrist, pulled it towards her with such force that I nearly stumbled, and stamped my hand with an ugly green design that only partly took.

“Thank you,” I said sweetly, and pushed through the double-doors into the bar. Thumping, bass-heavy house music filled my ears as I walked into a wall of heat. The room was packed. In the centre of the room was a large dance floor filled with students. Surrounding the dance floor, along the edges of the room, were booths and tables, all occupied as far as I could see, and on the furthest side of the room opposite the door through which I had entered was a long bar where bartenders with tattoos and face piercings shook metal cocktail shakers and poured pints. I took off my jacket as I went over to the bar and squeezed between two muscular rugby types to get my arm on the counter. One of them gave me his best attempt at an intimidating look and I raised my eyebrows at him. He looked away. The bartender working nearest to me pretended not to have noticed my arrival, and took his time serving every girl around me in order of attractiveness. I hid my annoyance when a girl in a navy dress appeared next to me and was served right away. She was tall––taller even than my five feet and eleven inches, though only by a little––and was broad, too, like a swimmer. She was wearing a figure-hugging dress with a gold neckline and matching gold heels which flattered smooth, olive-skin legs that were already muscular and toned. Various bracelets and bangles and rings sparkled in the light from above the bar. She pushed a thick, dark-brown lock of hair behind her ear with two long fingers and turned to catch me looking at her. She had dark eyebrows and thick eyelashes. There was something indescribably mysterious about her face. I guessed she was Italian, or maybe Greek. I smiled and she smiled back.

“Do you want me to get you anything while I’ve got him?” she asked, leaning over.

“Oh no––thanks,” I said. “I’m in no rush.”

“O.K.” she said cheerfully. I looked ahead. I caught her eye again the mirror behind the bar and she smiled again. A moment later the bartender came back with her ordered drinks, and she paid, told me “see you later” and left. I was on the verge of tears when the bartender promptly served another girl further down the bar, only for the girl in the navy dress to appear next to me and put a glass of wine down in front of me.

“I got you one anyway,” she said, smirking. “I hope you like wine. You didn’t look like the beer ‘type’.” I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean.

“Thanks,” I said. “I thought I might grow old and die here.” She laughed, looked over her shoulder and leaned in conspiratorially.

“Do you want to know a secret?” she said. “They’re dicks here.” I started to laugh.. “Especially”––she indicated at the man who had served her––“that one. I’m convinced he thinks that if he serves a girl quickly she’ll fall in love with him or something.”

“That’s an interesting approach,” I said.

“He’s a moron,” the girl said. She paused. Then she held out her hand. “I’m Bella, by the way.” I shook her hand. It occurred to me briefly that her fingers were as long as mine.

“Alex,” I said. “Thanks again for the wine.” Bella waved her hand dismissively.

“Oh, shush. My friends are boring me,” she said. “Want to entertain me?” I was grateful she hadn’t asked where my friends were. The thought must have occurred to her.

“I am very entertaining,” I said.

“Cool,” she said. Bella walked past me and led me along the bar and to the double-doors to the smoking area. She kicked it open with a heeled foot and surprising grace and stopped at a wooden table under a heater. A man standing nearby opened his mouth as if to complain that it was his table, but Bella looked at him with an unamused expression written across her features and he quickly shut his mouth again. She sat down, and I sat opposite. She shook her head at me. “No, no. Come this side,” she said. “I won’t be able to hear you.”

I got up and sat next to her and she offered me a cigarette. I lit it and took a long drag. It had been a while since I’d smoked.

“It’s bloody cold, isn’t it?” she said. I took another long drag on the cigarette and savoured the taste.

“Too cold,” I said. “But I draw the line at going out dressed like him.” I indicated to a man stood across from us. He was wearing such a large overcoat he looked at risk of disappearing entirely beneath its folds. Bella laughed.

“It looks like he’s wearing a sleeping bag,” she said.

Every now and then, you meet someone who is––if I can put it this way––on your wavelength. Bella and I just seemed to click, to use an overused expression. I made her laugh and she made me laugh. She laughed easily and every time she did so she would lean over towards me and grab my arm with both her hands and her head would roll forward slightly. And she had a wicked tongue.

“That shirt,” I was saying, sipping what was now my third glass of wine. “Should be burnt. Or banned entirely.” Bella laughed.

“That one?” she said, pointing. I pushed her outstretched arm down.

“Well, now he knows we’re laughing at him,” I said. “Oh well.”

“Whatever,” said Bella with a dismissive half-wave of her hand. “We’re doing him a favour.”. She shrugged and took a drag of her cigarette. “So how would you rate my outfit?” She held her arms out theatrically. “Would you burn this, too? Since you have such strong opinions.”

“You look gorgeous,” I said.

“Oh, come on, Alex,” Bella said. “You can do better than that. For example”––she put her glass down on the table––“I’d say that your outfit was tasteful, fashionable, quite androgynous …”

“Androgynous?” I said. “Do you think so?”

“Oh definitely,” Bella said. “I mean, I would wear that in a heartbeat. In fact, I might have to steal it.”

“And then I’d wear––what? Your dress?” Bella smiled at me mischievously.

“Sure,” she said. “Why not?” I paused. I couldn’t tell if she was joking. All I could tell was that all of a sudden my heart was racing and I didn’t want to change the subject.

“I’m game,” I said casually. I took a sip of my wine. “I could pull it off.” Bella studied me. She pushed a lock of hair––it was a bit long, I guess––out of my face and behind my ear.

“You know, you probably could,” she said. “We’re probably the same size. And your skin’s so good. I’m slightly jealous.”
I raised my eyebrows. “And you’ve got a big bum for a boy.” I smiled.

“How dare you,” I said blandly. She leaned in and whispered:

“It’s a good thing.” Bella sat back. She took a sip of her drink, then turned to me slowly. She had a twinkle in her big brown eye. “Come with me.” My heart raced even faster. I stood up compliantly and took her outstretched hand.

“Where are we going?” I said, as Bella led me back through the doors of the smoking area and into the bar.

“They host cabaret nights here,” Bella said, leading me down the corridor towards the bathrooms. “And I’m sure there’s a changing room for the girls at the back here somewhere. I doubt it’ll be unlocked but if it is…” If it is then what? I wanted to ask. I tried to appear to be cool and calm but I was giddy with excitement. Bella stopped at a set of double doors next to the fire escape. She pushed one tentatively. It gave.

“It’s unlocked!” she said. She turned to beam at me and went inside. I followed her in, and felt along the wall by the door for a light switch. My fingers fell on something and I pressed it. The room lit up. It was barely wider than the corridor. Two long counters ran the length of each side of the room, and along the wall above them were ten or so mirrors framed with circular lights. In the space in the middle of the room were chairs and a number of clothes rails and racks from which dangled several unused coat-hangers. On the counters were open makeup bags and brushes caked or stained with powder in shades of brown and pink either stood in pots or were strewn nearby. At the very end was a door that led, presumably, to the stage, and next to it a small cubicle separated from the rest of the room only by a thick red curtain that finished a couple of inches from the floor and hung from a rail. Bella led me to it and pulled the curtain to one side.

“You stay outside here,” she said. “And change quickly. Unless you don’t want to––?”

“I can be quick,” I said. Bella stepped inside the cubicle, tugged the curtain and disappeared from view. I heard her unzip her dress and I started to strip. I lay my leather jacket across the back of one of the chairs and took off my t-shirt. Then I kicked off my boots and pulled off my socks, peeled off my skinny jeans and then, at Bella’s instruction––“everything, Alex”––let my briefs fall to the floor. I felt giddy, but it was a pleasant sort of giddiness. It was more a sort of heightened awareness of things, I suppose: I felt shackled to the present moment, and acting in complete spontaneity without consideration for the past or the future. Or maybe it was the booze. At any rate in the dreamlike state in which I presently found myself the thought that I was standing naked and drunk in an unlocked room in a strange city, mere metres away from hundreds of even drunker students who might stumble through a door marked “private” at any moment never even occurred to me. I guess I know why my friends call me reckless. With a slender foot, the toenails of which were painted white, Bella pushed a heap of clothes towards me from behind the curtain. I picked them up and put them on the counter beside me. Then I pushed my clothes under the curtain.

“Last chance to back out, babe,” teased Bella.

“Please,” I said dismissively. I took a moment to let my breathing return to normal. I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror and smiled in spite of myself. Then I took a pair of lace black knickers from the top of the heap of clothes, paused briefly, and stepped into them.

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