All Else is Photographs- Ashley Stokes

A puma was tattooed across the shoulder of the man in the white singlet and black trilby hat. He’d stopped laughing with his mates and stared at her like he wanted to do more than just steal her coat. Paused on the bottom stair Emma wiped the steam from her new glasses and shook the snow from her hair. The music was raucous blues-rock. The posters in the stairwell advertised a band called Delta Skelta. They were tucked away on a cramped stage on the other side of the bar, playing a song that should have been her cue to leave. She ought to go. This time of night and this place, this crowd and the man with the puma tattoo and rude-boy look. She had walked a long way to get here though, despite what Marijah from work had said about Nitro. It’s a dive, that Nitro. Marijah had made a hiss like a cat warning a rival.

It was already some hours deep into Christmas Eve morning and still snowing outside. Ms Emma Sharkey was wide-awake. She would not sleep. This was a dive.

At the bar she pulled up a stool and waited for the barmaid. The puma’s stare had left a film on her she felt tighten across her bare shoulder as she removed her coat. She hadn’t felt a gaze cling like this for years. She could dwell on this. It would be a distraction, a game. The man with the puma tattoo couldn’t be him, could he?

The white wine she ordered tasted coppery and sharp. Delta Skelta were playing When Love Comes to Town. A burning sensation layered the pit of her stomach. Too much wine tonight already. She should go.

The barmaid wore a short denim skirt and low-cut pink vest. When she bent over to slide a rack of jittering glasses into the dishwasher the men behind Emma cheered. This was a dive.

It was not like the Chamberlain’s Arms. No one there had noticed her alone at the bar, trying to calm down and sending her excuses by text to the others. She was just a bit knackered, not in a moody strop.

Nor was it like The Anteroom where that boy with the girlish fringe had sidled up. When she asked him about his favourite restaurants he’d rambled on about some ray gun option in something called Nazi Zombies. It wasn’t impossible, she’d thought, that if she’d taken another path she could just about be his mum.

The Cypresses had been full of couples older than her. The women in their fake-fur collars pinched their faces at her. After last orders she still hadn’t drunk enough or worked it out of her system, what was said, implied. A mishmash of colours flickered across the optics and the spirit bottles. She could almost feel the purr of the puma on the nape of her neck.

She was sure he must be stood right behind her by now. In the mirror under the optics she could make out a triangular wedge of his lower belly and a black denim thigh that gently grooved to the beat. The man with the puma tattoo hadn’t strayed from where he’d been standing and staring at her paused on the step. It couldn’t be Marco but he would now be the sort of bloke who’d tattoo his shoulder and pose around like he was Mr Sex. She didn’t like the man’s lean and bony frame, or the bloodlust in the roaring mouth of the puma. Tattoos were chav. She always imagined them saggy and blurred on the loose skin of an old sailor. She didn’t like his spikes of black hair either, the tips of which were dyed a dirty gold, and the way they waggled from under the brim of his hat like the feelers of an insect. She didn’t like the greenish-grey colour of his face and arms, the same colour as the damp walls in the abandoned houses she used to stay out in when she was fifteen. Nor did she like the almost kohled blackness around his eyes and the twitch in the left socket there that so desperately wanted to upgrade to a full-scale, so-called ‘cheeky wink’.

It wasn’t him. Marco would have come over and said something crass. Surely.

She ought to go. It was Christmas Eve already. Her glass was empty. The barmaid was jerking her arms across her chest robotically and making a series of bleeps that the men behind lapped up and applauded. Emma waited for this performance to end and found she had ordered another drink. She was putting off the walk. The walk would be long. It was cold. It was snowing. She would never find a cab at this time. She thought of the flat and how she would curl up on the sofa and listen all through the night to the trains leaving the city for the airport. Weighed-down, bundled-up people, heading home for Christmas. Tagging along with someone just to see what happened. When she got in she could keep the curtains open and look out at the winking red light in the distance, the Crystal Palace transmitter that would flash up in the sky above the city forever.

Not tonight, though. If she went home she would soon hate herself for not letting stupid things go.

Earlier, in Isobar, at the Phillips Dewy Paving and Patios Ltd Christmas piss-up Marijah had said, ‘them glasses are really smart for someone with your bones.’ Emma had given her a ‘shut-up’ look she wasn’t good at out of the office. And Marijah had said, like she was joking, ‘don’t think you’re always going to be number one, sister.’

‘Frenemy’, that was the word the magazines now used for girls like Marijah. Emma had read features and articles, coping strategies for dealing with a ‘frenemy.’ No one needs another word for ‘bitch’, really, do they? Come on? Bitch would do. Marijah was a bitch. Yes, now she’d said it. Said it out loud in fact, maybe so loud that someone had heard. The barmaid came over to ask Emma if she wanted a top-up. Go on then. It’s Christmas. Bottoms up, bitch.

Marijah was a bitch and a frenemy, a fricking fritch. She was pretty, though, in a slappery way, and young and eager and a walkover, an executive toy. Emma was sure now that Mr Dewy was showing Marijah that old Newton’s Cradle of his, the one he’d shown her all those years ago. That must be why he’d seemed so unimpressed with her utterly impressive seven percent increase in area sales, in this climate, with what’s going on out there. And all that she had done over the years to work her way up to this position from nothing. The listening and learning, the night classes and qualifications, the learning to speak, to calculate margins, to pitch and to close. And that remark he’d made too, about the new glasses. They did not, she was sure, make her look like a Swedish social worker, or a bleedin’-heart liberal lezzer librarian.

‘Dolly do your dealin’,’ she remembered he’d said, not Ron Dewy but Marco B, when she was fifteen and he was unzipping her tracksuit top in one of those empty flats. She smiled at the memory. The way he used to jog on the spot before he made one of his moves. His horrible eyebrow stud. The sovereign ring. The tattoo of a shark at the base of his thumb that by now could have climbed the evolutionary tree to become a puma on the shoulder. She had been thinking about him before the issue of the seven percent and the glasses. Not that she wanted to see him again, or would know what to say if she did. Not that she’d ever been in love with him anyway. He was merely something that happened. And any smile or fond feeling now, about those days, that time, its kind of freedom, its mucky kind of freedom was a lie, a cold and callous untruth. It was late. This was a dive. He probably didn’t have the decency to be alone now, given what he was like.

The band had stopped playing. They were packing up their kit. The area around the bar was suddenly more crowded. Last orders, finally.

Two shot glasses of electric green spirit appeared in front of her on the bar.

‘One for the lady,’ said the man with the puma, ‘and one for the gent.’

His teeth were dirty. He was trying too hard to smile now. Something slipped away from her. Although she did not yet know what, something was going to happen. Whatever would happen would happen soon. Whatever it was, others would blame her for it.

Ashley Stokes’s first novel Touching the Starfish was published by Unthank Books in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in Staple, London Magazine and Unthology and he won a 2002 Bridport Prize. His first collection, The Syllabus of Errors will be published in 2012 by Unthank Books.