The view of the city is breathtaking from this height.
I always thought its beauty was in the way the buildings reached out like fingers towards the sky. Entwining with the atmosphere. The sky used to fascinate me as a child. It felt so untouchable especially for people like me. Not anymore. Now, I feel like I could stretch out my hand and caress it with my fingertips. If I wanted to.
I’ve been given one of the guest bedrooms to use for the morning. It is much bigger than any I’ve been in before. I survey my surroundings, taking in every spectacular detail. I never imagined that one room could contain so many fine things. I could fit everything my family owns in here and still have room to spare. The room is square and large, with a high ceiling. The penthouse has four more just like it. There is a glass wall, on one side, that overlooks the Kensington borough.
The only pieces of green earth left in the entire city, now cover the rooftops of skyscrapers like this one. If you’re rich, you get your very own private piece of laboratory produced paradise and ample amounts of clean air, courtesy of Eden Incorporated. But if you’re poor, like my family, you live close to the ground where nothing grows. So the more money you have, the higher up you live.
I think of our old flat, in Islington, with its pokey rooms and damp smell. We lived on the third floor. I shared a bedroom with my brother, Liam. It was barely big enough for two single beds so that was all the furniture we had. The mottled walls and curtains dripped with the stench of stale cigarette smoke; I used to get up regularly in the night to vomit. I hated it. It was like that when my parents moved in but they couldn’t afford to decorate; Paint is an unnecessary luxury. ‘A modest living,’ my mother called it. What a joke. I can still hear my father’s response every time she said this. ‘And living is expensive these days.’ My father worked as an Air Filtration Engineer for Eden Inc. His job involved maintaining the Filtration Systems on ground level. They always needed repairing. He died when I was eight. One day, a dodgy unit exploded and took him and his modest income with it.
The silk of the dressing room pedestal feels soft and smooth beneath my feet. I grip it with my toes. Wonderful. I am standing in front of a three-sided mirror. Its silver frame almost reaches the ceiling. I gaze at my reflection. My curling blonde hair hangs about my shoulders in lazy waves of golden honey. I run my fingers through it and twist from side to side appraising my young body. My hair is definitely my best feature.
I feel a sudden sharp pain in my lower leg.
‘Ouch!’ I look down and scowl at the woman kneeling on the floor behind me. She is clutching the hem of my dress, looking shocked and apologetic. But I don’t care. ‘That’s the second time you’ve done that. Are you intentionally trying to make me bleed?!’ I spit at her.
‘I’m so sorry miss,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to see through all these ruffles.’
‘That’s not my fault. Your stupidity is not my problem.’ I drop my voice to barely more than a whisper. ‘But if you stab me again, I will personally see that you don’t get paid, Okay?’ I smile at her, ‘Now hurry up and fix my dress then go away.’ I don’t wait for a response.
I turn back to the mirror and run my fingers through my hair again, pulling the sides up and out of my face. Up or down? Up. Or. Down? I still can’t decide. I sigh heavily and start to chew the inside of my cheek. It’s a bad habit but I can already feel a calmness washing over me.
‘I’ve always liked your hair up.’
I glimpse my mother in the corner of my left eye. She is sat in an armchair next to the wardrobe, out of the way, champagne glass in hand; it’s almost empty.
‘You could pull it back into a bun? Show off that pretty face of yours.’ Before I can utter a reply, she crosses the room and scoops my hair up with both hands. She combs the loose strands with deft fingers, working through to the ends. She is well-practiced in the art of styling hair. Although, cutting hair was never her forte. We couldn’t afford to go to a proper salon so my mother used to trim my hair with the kitchen scissors. Every time it reached my shoulders, she would cut it back up to my chin. It was uneven for years.
I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t looking. Suddenly, I’m six years old again, sat on a chair in the middle of our living room with a towel wrapped tightly around my shoulders. Sheets of newspaper cover the floorboards beneath me. I can hear the snip of the scissors as my mother works her way round my head. The loose trimmings scratch my neck as they fall to the floor in a dull, blonde ring.
When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot. I note how content she looks and how focused she is. She rarely feels useful, now that we’ve gone up in the world.
‘There,’ she says when she pins the knot in place. She steps back to assess her work. Looking satisfied, her mouth breaks into a wide smile. Her eyes catch mine in the mirror. I look away quickly, feeling agitated. Whenever my mother tries to help me, I am overcome with an irrational feeling of annoyance. She makes me feel like an incompetent child.
A voice in the back of my mind scolds me. It’s not her fault.
I know it isn’t but I can’t help it. I reply.
‘What do you think?’ My mother is looking at me; hopeful.
I hesitate then say, ‘no.’ I say it a bit more tersely than I meant to. But instead of lingering on it, I immediately pull out the pins and shake my hair loose. I ignore the disappointment in her eyes so I can avoid feeling guilty. Today is about me. Today is about what I want.
The voice scolds me again. You’re a bad daughter. All she wants to do is help.
I ignore the pang of guilt in my chest and use the pins to secure my hair up on one side, leaving the other side down and loose. I check my appearance again. That’s better.
There’s a sharp rap on the door.
‘Yes?’ I call to no one in particular.
The bedroom door opens and a tall athletic woman enters carrying a large silver case. I catch sight of her in the mirror as she closes the door again.
‘Abby!’ I blurt out. I jump off the pedestal and run towards her. I throw my arms around her neck; she is a few inches taller than me so I have to stand on tiptoes. She gives me a quick squeeze then pushes me away. Still holding my hand, she looks me straight up and down, then gasps and smiles sweetly.
‘You look gorgeous.’ She beams at me.
‘Really?’ I blush. ‘Do you think so?’
‘Absolutely.’ She grins at me showing dazzling white teeth.
I’ve always liked Abby. If I could be more like anyone, it would be her. She’s so cool and confident and has an opinion about everything. She is also very attractive. The dark chocolate tone of her hair, which hangs straight at her waist, enhances the dark hues of her almond shaped eyes. She has a creamy copper complexion with a straight nose and high cheekbones.
She twirls me around as we walk back towards the pedestal. It was Abby who picked out my dress for me.
‘Okay, madam. Let’s do your makeup.’ She pinches my chin gently and leans in close to my face. Her breath smells of fresh peppermint. I can’t help but look directly into her eyes. She studies my features for a moment as if hoping to find a secret or two hidden amongst them.
She releases me, and then clicks open her case and sets to work.
It’s almost time. In twenty minutes, my life will change. But it’s for the better. Right?
I give my head a little shake. Of course it is, don’t be stupid. Would you rather go back to that dump?
I gaze out the glass partition as the minutes tick by. My stomach feels strange and uncomfortable. It feels like I’ve swallowed a batch of live snakes. I can feel them writhing around inside me, trying to escape, but they can’t.
The snakes are wriggling up towards my throat; I can feel them beneath my ribcage.
I grab a half-drunk glass of champagne off the dresser and gulp down its contents. I rest the empty glass against my lips and close my eyes. I suck in a few deep breaths through my nose.
Rap, rap, rap.
The sudden noise makes me jump. I replace the glass on the dresser, but it slips and falls onto the floor. I can see a few droplets on the ivory carpet. I leave it there.
The door opens and a dirty blonde head appears. It’s Liam.
‘Is it time? Is everything ready? Is everyone waiting for me?’ I blurt.
‘Woah!’ He enters raising both arms. ‘Calm down. I just came to see how you are but I don’t think I need to ask. Although…’ He looks sheepish.
‘What is it?’
‘Well…the florist brought red roses instead of white ones.’
‘WHAT?’ I shriek.
I glower at him fighting back a smile. I grab a pillow off the bed and aim for his head. He tries to duck but I catch him right between the eyes. He falls back bracing himself with his hands.
‘Ow! Now, is that any way to treat your older brother?’ He rubs his forehead.
I sit on the floor in front of him. ‘Don’t tease me then.’
He smiles then a serious crease appears between his eyebrows. ‘Leni,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to do this, you know. You’re only fifteen.’ He rests a hand on my shoulder.
‘Don’t be stupid, of course I do.’ I say. ‘And besides, Nadia from school got married when she was 12. I’m practically a spinster compared to her.’
‘Yes, well, she’s an idiot and you’re not. I know why you’re doing this.’ He gives me an accusatory look.
I consider him. My brother has always been handsome. The girls in our building constantly hung around him; expectant. I want to tell him that I won’t do it. That we can go home. But I can’t.
I finally speak. ‘Stop worrying.’ I lift my hand to his cheek. ‘Now, tell me I’m beautiful and let’s get this over with.’
It’s evening now. I’m sitting on the edge on the bed, wiping my palms on the covers.
The door clicks open and in walks…my husband.
I can’t breathe.
He takes off his watch and cufflinks and sets them on the dresser. He unbuttons his shirt then walks towards me, slowly.
I stare up at him, frozen. He smiles down at me. That smile looks hungry. Ravenous.
He presses his mouth to mine, forcing my lips apart. I thought I would be able to forget. Become hollow. I was wrong; he makes everything else disintegrate.
His fingers find the straps of my night dress and tug them off my shoulders. I didn’t think I’d be so afraid. I thought I could do this. But all I feel is blind panic.
I try to push him away but he’s too strong. I push him harder. Suddenly, he pulls back. For a moment, I think he realises I’m not up to it. That he might leave and go sleep in another room.
His hand catches me right across my cheekbone. My eye feels like it might explode. Tears fill my eyes. I touch my cheek. The skin is hot and raw. I can still feel the impact of his hand on my face. He hit me.
I try to think but I’m too stunned.
He grabs my wrists and forces me onto my back, climbing on top of me. He ignores my pleas. I look towards the window and try to trace the skyline with my eyes. I’m not here. He slides a hand down my arm. I’m not here, I’m at home. He gropes my chest and squeezes. I blink back more tears. I feel him wrench up my dress, he squeezes my hips, his fingers sliding over the skin just above my knickers, and I shiver.
When he’s finished, he rolls over and quickly starts to snore.
I press my face into the pillow, trying to stop the tears from coming. It’s no use. I sob silently.
Liam was wrong.
I am an idiot.
I am a stupid little girl.
This isn’t what I wanted.