18th October 2021

Berwick Street – Soho, 14th July

10:05 am, 1978

Imagine a prison without bars: bars that might prevent a person from falling back into the world through the open window. Imagine wanting neither to live or to die. As Sue lay sleepless on her bed she envies the carefree dust as it swims in the sunlight like tiny fish in a fine, dry ocean.

The market outside is in full swing producing its usual concerto of noise that includes sellers selling, chattering, others moaning, buyers negotiating, submitting, winning and the sounds of lifeless objects filling pauses with orchestral pieces that most composers would be proud of.

‘Shame you cannot drown in sound.’

Sue needs to be up. Maggie will arrive soon and then there will be hell to play.

She peels herself from the bed and walks gently over to the full-length mirror standing vacantly in a corner of her dingy room. Sue examines her reflection as it stands and looks out at her.

‘I wish I had a body like that.’

She moves to the window and lifts the net curtains revealing her unblemished chest to the world. The world is too busy purchasing that evening’s meal and ignores the moment. Sue returns to her bed and finds the crumpled dressing gown she had removed the night before.

A door is opened and closed and Maggie appears. Maggie looks rather like a witch in a pantomime, always moving around as if she were on stage and conscious of an audience who could boo at any moment.

‘I thought you’d still be in bed. How am I to get this room ready? Go out and come back in an hour,’ she moans shaking her head. ‘The girl next door does better than this.’

Sue swiftly moves into the kitchen, finds a cigarette, a match and sits at the small kitchen table in front of an overpopulated ashtray. As the speeding smoke leaves her perfectly sculptured nostrils it takes with it the tormenting anxiety that has lay with her throughout the night.

Maggie has left a birthday card for her. Sue pushes it aside.

‘I thought you were going out?’ Maggie shouts from the bedroom.

The streets of Soho are full of busy shoppers, tourists, pigeons on ledges and pigeons pecking at imaginary crumbs on the dirty pavements. Some of the people make the streets appear untidy. These are the men who are waiting for prostitutes to pin scraps of paper to their unassuming doorframes: French model, second floor – or something like that.

During the summer months each and every fifteen-minute slot will be filled. Men come and go leaving their troubles behind, neat and tidy.

Sue walks to the small anonymous park that always appears to be waiting for the tall, overhanging buildings to swallow it up. She always sits on the same bench and watches people appear, reappear and disappear. The tall trees give shelter filtering out the harsh light as well as the sound of the traffic.

A regular visitor is the woman with fine features, nice shoes and a small child. Sue likes this young woman. She likes her because she comes back time and time again. She likes her because her face doesn’t yet hide its kindness. Most of all she likes her because she always sits on the same bench and always without fail, looks across the park to check the bench opposite where Sue sits. She smiles.

Just as a gentle breeze rustles the leaves above her head, a dishevelled man steps into the park and sits beside Sue. He looks as if he is a stranger to his suit. It fits him badly. All men remind Sue of the dad she once had. He cared for money more than he cared for love. In the village she knew as a child, he was disliked by all except his lovers and the mum she lost to bad kidneys and drink.

‘Maybe I could find a job in a shop or as a hairdresser or maybe I should go back to Ireland,’ Sue thinks.

The breeze suddenly wraps a cold scarf around Sue’s white neck and rustles leaves more vigorously. The man in the suit jumps up and walks towards the park gates. The young woman too.

‘If I see you again I will speak to you,’ whispers Sue.

Maggie has efficiently cleaned the flat, opened windows and filled the place with fresh, London air. When Sue arrives Maggie is sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea.

‘I thought we’d start early today,’ she says.

Sue shrugs her shoulders and sits at the table. Maggie gets up and fills the kettle. ‘I’ve got you a new outfit. The punters will like it,’ she says.

Sue lights a cigarette and Maggie places three sandwiches on a plate in front of her. Sue begins eating them but after a few bites pushes them away.

Maggie takes the sandwiches and throws them into the bin. She rinses the plate.

‘I could only get cheap bags so I hope you like the tea.’

Sue takes a sip and grimaces.

‘You know, Michelle used to talk. We used to have a good chat before the punters arrived, we’d have a good laugh in between and then a hug before bedtime but you rarely say anything and nothing most of the time,’ says Maggie. She looks out of the small kitchen window and sighs. She has worked with many girls and accepts that each will have their own way of coping with what they do.

‘You’re very popular with the punters,’ says Maggie, ‘they call you The Berwick Girl.’

This makes Sue smile.

‘I’ve lived and worked in Berwick Street nearly all my life and never known anyone as sought after as you.’ Maggie gently brushes her long unkempt fringe away from her eyes. ‘Keep it up for another five years and we’ll be able to retire.’

Maggie turns the radio on and sits down.

‘Another few minutes, eh?’

11:15 pm, 2018

Sue sits in the kitchen watching tears cut paths into the condensation on the windowpane. She feels wrinkled as if she had been soaking for longs hours in hot water.

‘I’ll leave the jar on the shelf, where it’s always been,’ she says to herself. Maggie had always kept the sheaths in the jar. For a time, Sue used it for toffees. ‘It’s filled with nothing now.’

The man in the oversized suit came back to the park. Several days later he turned up at Sue’s door. He paid with clean notes but couldn’t finish. He said he was nervous and felt guilty. He asked if he could try without a sheath. Sue said yes. Maggie was so angry.

Two weeks later the crumpled suit was found at the riverside near Greenwich. The police found a scrap of paper in a jacket pocket with Sue’s address on it. There were very few questions. ‘There was nothing you could have done,’ said the policewoman.

A door is opened and closed. It’s Kim, Sue’s new girlfriend. ‘We’re sixty together now,’ she says, kissing Sue on the forehead and handing her a birthday card. Kim pulls a chair up to the table and looks around at all the boxes in the kitchen. ‘Tomorrow’s a big day. Are you ready? This place must be full of memories for you.’

A body without a suit was never found.

Sue picks up a photo from the table and hands it to Kim. ‘It’s the only picture I have of Maggie.’ She allows Kim a few moments to examine the picture and then takes it back. She kisses it. ‘Memories are for the dead not the living. That’s all they have after all. We’ve life to live.’

Kim stretches her hand out and touches Sue’s cheek.

‘The flat has been a friend,’ says Sue. ‘I’ve not treated her well but she always looked after me. I’ll miss the sounds of the market and the people. I’m leaving the mirror you know. I don’t think it’ll cope with reflecting anything other than all the days I’ve emptied into that bedroom.’

Sue stands up and walks over to the sink and fills a glass with water. ‘I once tried to drown myself in self-pity.’ She drinks the water. ‘I used to smoke you know.’

Kim laughs. ‘Didn’t we all,’ she says.

A light flickers. A tap drips. Sue and Kim sit content in each other’s company. Night people are heard outside living their day. Voices shriek, cans are kicked. Eventually their noise fades into the darkness.  ‘To be young again,’ says Kim. Sue shakes her head. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I’m done with living in that prison. Give me the freedom that comes with age any day,’ she says.

Kim lifts her head and looks toward the window. ‘I love you,’ she says.

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