My heels jab the pavement like knives. Any other girl would be balanced precariously in these boots, tottering unsteadily even without the influence of any illicit substance, but I wear mine like weapons. One of the tools of my trade.
It’s cold out tonight, the wind lashing my thighs under the hem of my ridiculously short skirt. Another tool. For practical purposes as well as image; it makes for easy access. The other women are lined up the road like soldiers, each inhabiting their own particular spot. We all look the same in the dark; interchangeable.
And then I see her. Tottering down the pavement looking lost.
From the distance she could easily be one of us; same outfit, same big hair, too much make-up. Only when she comes closer can I see that she isn’t one of us after all, that she doesn’t have that grubby hollow-eyed look about her, or any faded bruises not quite covered by cheap concealer, or tell-tale marks in the crook of her arm. And anyway, it’s her walk that gives her away. She looks like she’s going somewhere.
I don’t know why I do it. The other girls are looking at this stranger in our ranks as if she might be a threat, a new worker trying to find a patch, or as if she could be prey, with a well-padded purse to plunder. There’s no reason for me to care.
Yet I go up to her, smiling in a way that I hope looks friendly.
‘Got a fag?’ I say, in my most non-threatening manner. She looks at me, her eyes a little unfocused, swaying on her part-time stilettos. Her lips are glossy, her teeth white and even. If I was in any doubt, the teeth give it away. None of us have teeth like that.
She reaches into her bag and pulls out a half empty packet of fags and a lighter.
‘Are you OK?’ I ask. She looks at me in surprise, then looks around and frowns. I see a light dawn in her eyes as she takes in her surroundings and the faces looking at her. She takes a step back, the fag packet still held out in front of her. I take one before she changes her mind.
‘I was looking for the taxi rank,’ she says.
‘It’s back that way,’ I wave my arm vaguely. She doesn’t take the cue to leave but just stands there staring, then passes me her lighter. I light my fag, glancing back over my shoulder to see the others looking in our direction, having all moved a little closer together. Them and us. I belong over there. Yet something in the girl’s face gives me an urge to make sure she really is okay. There is something unsullied about her, in spite of the condoms in her bag and the smell of cheap wine coming off her.
A car crawls past, its headlights sweeping over me, and I wonder what she sees in its lights. It carries on, equally slowly, and I don’t need to look back over my shoulder to know that the others will have stood to attention, forgetting about us for the moment. I make my decision.
‘Come on, I’ll show you the way to the taxi rank.’ I walk past her and she follows me, falling into step so that we’re walking side by side, both in our short skirts, pulling on our cigarettes. Normal girls.
She keeps giving me little sideways glances, both nervous yet curious. Like she wants to ask questions but is worried I might turn on her, steal her handbag and pretty jewellery and disappear into the shadows with the others, who will of course have seen and heard nothing. On another night that might be my intention but for reasons I can’t explain, that’s not the case tonight.
‘I don’t know my way around here,’ she says unnecessarily, then more surprisingly, ‘I’ve not been out clubbing before.’
‘Why are you on your own?’ I shouldn’t ask, shouldn’t get involved, but I find myself wanting to know.
‘My friend Hazel left me. She went off with some guy.’
‘Shit friend,’ I say. She nods.
Then she starts to talk, and we stop walking for a bit and I listen. I’m good at listening, always have been, but the things she tells me I’m not expecting. It feels like the night is listening too, the very air holding it’s breath to hear the rest of the story, and I almost want to interrupt her and move her on. I’m losing money playing counsellor.
But I don’t. I listen, and the night listens with me, and for a moment I really wish I could help her, but I can’t. It’s not such an unusual story, really, just a terrible one, and I realise that in spite of the posh shoes and the shiny teeth she’s a lot like me, more so than I thought. Maybe not-so-normal girls after all.
I tell her, a bit. I tell her, ‘Me, too,’ and she just nods, like she kind of expected it. Well, let’s face it, I’m not selling my cute little ass on cold street corners ‘cos my life is all moonlight and roses am I? Then we stop talking and just walk in silence for a little while. I feel like I know her now, and almost don’t want to watch her go. I think about what she’s going back to,that life so different and yet not so different from mine, and I don’t know if I’m jealous of her or terrified for her.
But I don’t say any of that. We get to the end of the road that will lead her back to the taxis and I point out the way.
‘You’ll be okay from here.’
‘Thank you.’ She looks like she means it, her eyes all wide and grateful, like a rescued puppy. I shrug. It’s no big deal.
Then her face crumples a little.
‘My dad’s going to kill me,’ she says, ‘I’ve got school tomorrow.’
I try not to laugh. I dropped out of school last year. I would have been taking exams this summer.
I walk quickly back to my spot, heels jabbing at the pavement. I’ve still got her lighter. I pause, about to run back and give it to her, then shrug and put it in my pocket. It might come in handy. I get the vague feeling I might see her again one day.
In fact, it’s the last time I see her. Alive, anyway.