The following short story, A Bright Young Thing, by Jessica Andrews, is taken from Somesuch Stories’ third print issue, which is out now. More info available here. We have 3 copies of the magazine to give away on tomorrow’s newsletter – make sure you’re subscribed for the chance to win.
I come from a wet and dirty place. To be born by a river forms something deep and green inside of you. I ache for the water when I am away from it. When I feel chaotic, I picture the riverbed, calm and quiet in the swell. I think of the smooth, round stones beneath the current, unchanging anchors in the rippling dark.
A woman is missing. There are divers in the water like misplaced seals, dredging the riverbed for her body. This is a regular occurrence. Students come up north from other places and are thrilled by the cheap pints and treble vodkas. They go out in their boat shoes and Topshop florals and down shots of Jäger to dubstep remixes, slamming their bodies into the drops and grasping at a roughness that is too coarse for them to handle. They walk home along the river and slip in the mud. The darkness swallows them quietly and they choke on murky water, condoms floating around their bodies like spectral jellyfish.
Her face is the first thing I see when I get off the train from London, squinting from the front page of The Chronicle. Her hair is falling into her eyes and she is reaching up to brush it away, frowning slightly at the person taking the picture.
‘Such a bright young thing,’ says the man in the newsagents as I pass dull coins across the counter. ‘What a terrible loss, eh? They haven’t found the body yet, but I’m not holding my breath.’ I make a small noise in agreement. ‘So far from home, as well,’ he continues. ‘What a waste.’ My coins jangle as they hit the till and I walk out of the shop and into the city.
The train station is on the wrong side of the river. I wander streets crammed with takeaways and charity shops. Fat and grease make patterns on steamed-up windows, and women in mini dresses skitter in front of taxis, their limbs neon illuminated in the dregs of the afternoon. I pass old men sucking cigarettes in Wetherspoon’s doorways, the tattoos on their forearms blurring into blue. There is an Iceland boasting multipacks of cocktail sausages and a bus station where teenage boys linger on Saturday nights, leaving fag burns on the plastic seats. I walk with my hands in my pockets, scanning the revellers for familiar faces, but there is no one here I know.
I cross the bridge over the water to the other side of town. Concrete slabs shrink to shiny cobblestones and white-walled cafés prickle with cacti. Students sip silken coffees in ceramic mugs, rolling syllables luxuriantly between their lips. Mothers in Boden florals linger in bookshops, spearing olives with cocktail sticks over glasses of Rioja. They do not go to the bus station, where men in short- sleeved shirts drop midnight kebabs then scoop them up and eat them anyway.
The wrong side of the city is known as The Dark Side. ‘Going down The Dark Side?’ the locals ask each other, exchanging knowing looks. I grew up on The Dark Side, but then I moved away and turned into something different. I shed fake tan like sunburnt skin and left it between bed sheets in rented rooms. I do not fit The Dark Side, but I’m still not quite right. I have all that dark inside of me, but I am bright.
People are defined by the shapes of their cities. The curves of the streets are imprinted in their calf muscles. The buildings reflect the dispositions of their inhabitants. Paris is ornate and curly, intricate like poetry and romance, and Berlin is logical and geometric, like startups and techno. New York is tall and imposing, but dirty, too. Fire escapes cling to the sides of buildings; perpetual reminders that it could all go up in smoke.
There is a café on a corner steeped in six o’clock gold. I do not see my father often, but I know he goes there after work. He sits outside in his big brown boots, his clothes streaked with dust. He orders a large latte and puffs on endless cigarettes. As I approach the corner, my stomach clenches. I search the seats for his shape, elbows on the table, shrouded in smoke. I think that a sunny café with a father outside of it would be a nice thing to have. I used to think that certain people were connected to you in ways which could never be broken, but now I know that is not true.
The face of the missing woman is taped to the lamp posts. I learn that she is twenty-one and a philosophy undergraduate at the university. She has long, dark curls and gold sleeper earrings. She was last seen heading towards the river after leaving a nightclub in the centre of town. It is obvious that she has drowned. I wonder why they bothered to put up the posters at all. We want to believe that our cities will cradle us, but our bodies are fragile and concrete is cruel.
I sometimes sit on the edge of the jetty when no one is around and dip my bare feet in the river. The water billows around my toes like silk. I close my eyes and imagine how it would feel to go under. To forget all of the markers of the person I try so hard to be and to let the water take me. I would like to feel the weight of a solid identity and to fill my veins with the icy, brackish north. I want to succumb, and yet I do not.
We alter ourselves to tessellate with the angles of different places. When you are at home, packing a suitcase, it is impossible to imagine the herbaceous fug of elsewhere’s trees at the end of a warm day, and what that might that do to you when it seeps into your pores. Salt-strung hair and a dress with a hole feel fitting in France in the middle of summer, but are dirty and unkempt on London’s streets. The swell of rivers and the shade of trees and the squiggles of underground systems manipulate our thoughts. The sting of garlic and the peach of the sky and the moped fumes get under our skin and change our biological makeup. It is natural that we adapt to suit our environments. The success of these transitions depends on how rigid our outlines are.
I step into a clothes shop. It is about to close and the woman behind the till tosses me an impatient glance. I find the sharp smell of cheap polyester comforting. I move through tinny chart music, sliding my feet across the floor beneath callous strip lights. I run my fingers along crisp cotton and relish the rough of denim against their tips. I pick up nail polishes in muted tones, sating my palms with their solid weight.
High-street chains are mundane and predictable, which is precious when you are fractured and chaotic inside. The air is clean and air-conditioned and everything is arranged by style and colour. When there is chaos and confusion, it is reassuring to step into a place that has been curated to sculpt your desires into attainable things. I pick up a ruffled poplin shirt. It promises a sweeter version of myself. I could be a nice girl, the kind who gets her nails done and goes for brunch on Saturday afternoons. I might have fewer bruises purpling across my knees.
‘We’re closing up, now,’ snaps the sales assistant. I hang the shirt back on the rail, where it flutters in protest. I push through the hot bulb of air in the doorway, step onto the street and back into myself.
A dog walker finds the woman’s shoe in a bush on the riverbank. A grainy photo of it spreads on social media—a warning to students to monitor their drinking. I zoom in on the image on my phone screen, stroking the sad stiletto in a way that is almost tender. Black sequins poke through clumps of mud, and the heel is cracked and twisted. I wince. It is so hard to walk on cobbles in high-heeled shoes.
I think of her body, adrift; lost in the deep. I imagine minnows caught in her hair and driftwood grazing her cold, pale cheeks. I wonder how far the water will carry her.
I am ten minutes late to the restaurant. Grace is already sitting at our table, in a cloud of cream satin. She stands up to hug me and her body is warm and firm. Her hair tastes of musk and I want to bury my face in it. I want to swallow her smell in the hope that I too might exude a grown-up fragrance like hers.‘It’s so good to see you!’ she gasps and I look for myself in her eyes, hoping to divine the ways in which I’ve changed. She pokes at her phone on the table with a glazed expression.
‘I ordered gin and tonics,’ she tells me. ‘I hope that’s okay?’ I smile and hang my jacket on the back of my chair. A waiter appears with our drinks, which are adorned with sprigs of mint and slivers of cucumber.
‘Anything else, ladies?’ he breezes. I ask for a jug of water. As he removes the unused wine glasses from our table, I watch them dangling empty from his fingers.
Moving through each city requires a particular kind of face. In some places, you hold your chin up high, keeping your eyes fixed on nothing. In others, it is right to smile and greet people as you pass them. Arriving in a new location, I always feel exposed, as though the skin on my heels hasn’t hardened yet. Different ways of existing are strung between the lamp posts with delicate threads, impossible to notice at first, but soon enough you begin to find silver strands tangled in your hair.
It is dark when we leave. I hug Grace goodbye and she slides her body into the front seat of her boyfriend’s car.
‘Keep in touch, babe!’ She calls from the window and I wave as they drive into the night. I make my way to the bus station, sidestepping discarded chips, as teenagers in torn fishnets strum guitars on the kerb. The old shopping centre is being torn down to make way for an open-air walkway thronged with saplings and water features. Savers and the Pound Shop are struggling on through the scaffolding, marking time until they crumble into dust.
I cross over to The Dark Side and stop for a moment to watch the lights on the cranes and the men in yellow jackets clambering over scaffolds like fluorescent alley cats. They start a machine and a shower of white sparks spills down into the river, glowing red just before they hit the water and disappear. There is a shout and a clang as a metal beam drops from the sky, and I realise that the rivets that held the old roof together are being blasted away. I thought that heat fused objects together, but here it pulls things apart.
It is unsettling to look for traces of yourself in a place where another you once existed. You pace the streets searching for your fingerprints on door handles, but they have dissolved into smears beneath everyone else’s. The slight of a church spire against a darkening sky sends prickles across your body; the sloppy kisses of your youth and the impossibility of your dreams breaking out across your skin like eczema. It seems inconceivable that the city will not be altered by your return, but the buildings are stoic and impenetrable, as though you never touched them at all.
The house that I grew up in was built from brown bricks. Our clothes were piled in towers in the hallways, because we didn’t have anywhere to keep them. The walls trembled when the front door slammed, as though our lives were bursting out of them. I liked the feeling that our family could not be contained.
After I moved out, my mother remarried and moved to a new house on the other side of town. It has tall ceilings and big bay windows, and there are rules about what can be eaten where, and we all have to take our shoes off in the porch. The carpets are plush and my bare toes sink into them. I feel betrayed by these rules, as though she has turned her back on our personal chaos and chosen something else instead. But then I remember that I chose something different, too.
The place names and the colloquialisms will taste sour in your mouth where you expected them to be sweet, like a sip from a bottle of corked wine. You will stumble over words that used to hold you in their cadence and your tongue will feel fat and useless as you force it into forgotten shapes.
When my mother leaves for work in the morning, I go into her bedroom. There is
no clutter anywhere, but I open her wardrobe and sift through her clothes until I find something familiar, like the red velvet dressing gown she used to wear when I was a child. I slip my arms through the sleeves and move around her room touching jewellery boxes and hair brushes. The stuff of our lives is preserved in these solid objects, and I feel jealous of their impermeable shapes. The scent of her wet hair still hangs in the air and I ache for her.
The woman’s body has not been found. The posters with her face on them are stolen from lamp posts by the wind. The police say that she slipped in a patch of reeds, which would have looked like grass in the dark. People call for lights to be installed, to make the path brighter in the middle of the night.
‘We will address the issue of safety measures,’ say the police. ‘But these young people need to take some responsibility for their own lives.’ The woman’s parents make the journey up from Wiltshire and are interviewed by the local newspapers.
‘We just want to take her home,’ they say, through bloodless lips.
If you leave your home to build a life somewhere else, can you ever really belong again? You might refine your shape, but the street signs and bus stops of your past will lurk inside of you, invisible until they trip you up just when you think that your edges have smoothed.
I walk across the railway bridge at dusk. It is built from iron girders welded together, and the joints are visible beneath the black paint. The handrail is filthy with dirt from passing trains and I hold onto it tightly, in the hope that it might stain my palms.
I get on the train and go back to my other place. The divers do not find her body and they stop searching. They know she will reach the surface, eventually. I feel jealous when I think of her curls on the riverbed, flailing like strange sea creatures, held down by rocks and waterlogged crisp packets. She has become a part of my city in a way that I cannot. I imagine chunks of her skin decomposing, mingling with silt and algae, beetles hatching in her bones, her unused bus pass coming apart in her pocket.
I want a home with a singular definition; somewhere I have come from and to which I can return. I want to taste the river in my sweat and to name the things that made me. I want to be swallowed by the water and to feel accepted by the streets, but I have grown difficult. I tuck the newspaper cutting of the drowned woman into my purse and picture her earrings drifting in the filthy water, bright and gold in the dark.
Somesuch Stories 3 is available here, priced £11. Jessica — along with fellow contributors Eley Williams, Lucy Jones, Emma-Lee Moss and Tim Burrows — will read at the magazine’s official launch on 12 September, taking place at Quo Vadis in London’s Soho. More info and tickets here.
Make sure you’re subscribed to our mailing list for the chance to win a copy of Somesuch Stories 3 on tomorrow’s newsletter. The sign-up bar can be found in the top right-hand corner of this page.