P. O. Box 136 – Part 3
However she had appeared in the club, she was nothing like that now. She was shorter than he remembered, probably as a result of the black canvas trainers, and almost entirely covered. Her multi-pocketed black trousers cascaded to the floor from her hips and gathered around her feet like puddles, criss-crossed with chains and belts and little sewn on patches, and over her black T-shirt she wore a loose-fitting zipped hoodie crawling with cobwebs. She was fatter than he remembered, but that was often true of women he met for the second time when sober.
Her black hair fell forwards over her face, so at any point he could only see a sliver of it, but all the time her cracked black lips were in view. They were as full as he remembered, moist and jet black with a delicate white cobweb pattern overlaid on them in some mysterious make-up. It was as though two damp leeches had crawled onto her face and had their insides shattered due to some great internal heat, he thought. She wore thick black make-up on her eyes, but she had applied foundation she’d don eit well enough that he couldn’t discern it.
She laughed when they reached the shoe desk, when it turned out her feet were larger than his. He would normally have been offended, but a mischievous smile sat on her lips all night and utterly disarmed him. She smiled rather a lot for a Goth, he thought. Or was it Emos who were meant to be miserable all the time?
The inane chatter flowed easily, if not always logically. The intricately curled tattoo which flashed on her forearm as she bowled turned out to be just an eyeliner doodle, but the spiralling metal ring she wore was handmade.
‘I did a jewellery course in college.’ She explained.
‘So do you do that full time now?’
‘Oh no. It was just an evening class.’
‘Ah yes, I did one of those once. Photography. I wasn’t very good at it!’
‘I’ve always been dubious about photographs. They so rarely show what’s actually there, don’t you think?’
‘I think you have to be very good to catch the meaning behind an instant.’
‘Even then I don’t think you can ever get all the layers of a person, can you? Especially with children. It’s so easy to think they’re all the same, but even their mothers have no idea what they’re thinking or afraid of most of the time. I much prefer art.’
‘Painting or sculpture?’
‘Sculpture, mostly. It’s always useful to have an extra dimension.’ She stuck her tongue out between her lips slightly as she concentrated on aiming the ball.
‘I’ve always found sculptures fascinating.’
‘Have you been to the new exhibition in the town hall?’
‘Oh, no. Not yet. I was intending to.’
‘You really should. They’ve got some wonderful Hepworths…’
She spoke with great passion, although he wasn’t really sure what points she was trying to make. It didn’t seem to bother her, and he listened with all the interest he could muster until suddenly she said:
‘Why did you pick the bowling alley?’
‘To meet me. Why the bowling alley? I mean, you’re dreadful at bowling.’
‘You’re hardly fantastic yourself!’
‘You weren’t to know that. I’d have thought a man would want to show off his skills to a pretty girl, after all. I’d have thought you’d have picked something you were better at.’
‘I hope I’ve surprised you on behalf of the male population then.’
‘Hmm.’ She replied thoughtfully.
‘So what do you do now? Concert organising, you said?’
‘That was just a little project I had on. It finished ages ago. I’m glad it did, really; it’s given me much more time to focus on my dancing.’
‘You do ballet?’
‘That’s right; along with some other things. Do you dance?’
‘I’m a bit rusty, but I used to be very good.’
‘My instructor always said I was naturally rhythmic.’
‘Rhythm’s very handy, but I find it can only go so far. I do a lot of tap.’
‘Ah, that was never really my thing.’ He said, trying to drag the name of the class he’d been forced to take at high school from the recesses of his mind. ‘I preferred salsa and ballroom.’
‘Sexual opposites.’ She replied, the hair parting to flash a coy eyebrow.
‘Surely all dance is sexual?’
‘Really? I prefer to see it…’
They talked through their low-scoring game; Andy stood by the side of the lane as she bowled and chattered and stuck out her tongue slightly and jumped up and down with glee when more than half of them fell. It was only when they retreated to the Wimpy for flat, lukewarm burgers and over-crispy chips, which she insisted on calling ‘fries’, that he summoned up the courage to ask her.
‘Look, you’re going to think I’m an idiot, but can I ask you something?’
‘You can ask.’ She held the milkshake straw delicately between the entrancing lips, still unsmudged in spite of the tongue-poking and the food.
‘That club where we met was really noisy, you know, and I had had a bit to drink…’
‘Oh really? It didn’t show.’ She wrinkled her nose and he pulled a face in return.
‘It’s just that I never quite caught your name, you see. It felt stupid to ask before, but I can’t leave here not knowing it!’
‘That’s probably because I never told you it.’
‘Oh! Well, I suppose that’s my fault for not asking. What is it?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Is it something really embarrassing?’ He teased. ‘Like Ethel. You could be an Ethel.’
‘Not at all. I just don’t see why you need to know! We’ve been here for an hour and you haven’t once needed to use it, have you?’
‘Well, what if I’m talking about you with someone else?’
‘Have you ever done that?’
No. He hadn’t realised it before, but it was true. He hadn’t mentioned her to anyone else. At first, he just thought he’d get ribbed for writing a letter to some mysterious P. O. Box, but even after that he’d never brought her up with anyone. Of course, they might have continued to mock, make jokes about him conversing with some obese naked man (anyone unseen always had to be naked, at all times) but he didn’t think that was the reason. Really, he wanted to keep her to himself. She was strange and exciting and new and he didn’t want to share her with anyone. She occupied a weird part of his life, the part where he wrote letters again and attempted bad poetry and actually spent his time thinking about exactly what to say for once. It was separate from everything else, sort of like having a guilty secret, which if explained to anyone else would just sound ridiculous. But even saying that aloud sounded ridiculous, so instead he said:
‘I suppose not.’
‘See? You don’t need it. It’s not as if you need to add me to your phone book anyway, is it?’
‘I’ve got to have something to call you by! If I don’t have anything, I might just have to make up a nickname for you.’
‘How would you know that the name I gave you wasn’t a nickname I made up for myself?’
‘That wouldn’t matter; plenty of people use names not on their birth certificates. It’s a case of how they want to be referred to.’
‘I think I’d like it much more if you did just make up a nickname for me.’ She said with her chirpy little smile.
‘Fine! Then I’ll call you…’ He wheeled his arms in a caricature of inspiration. ‘Pob!’
‘Because that’s where I send my letters to. P. O. Box 136. Hence, Pob!’
‘I’d prefer Boxie. It makes me sound less like a learning aid.’
‘You don’t get a say in the matter now. You had your chance, Pob!’
He waited with her at the bus stop, even though his bus would be going in the opposite direction.
‘I might be a bit slow in replying to your next letter.’ She said casually as she stared down the road. ‘I’ve got a lot on and won’t be able to check my P. O. Box as often as I’d like.’
‘Do you have an email address? We could always chat on MSN.’
‘Oh no; I don’t have the Internet.’
‘You don’t? Not even at work?’
‘Not all jobs are in front of computers.’
‘I don’t know how I’d survive without the Internet! You really don’t use it?’
‘How else did you think I had the time to do so many other things?’
‘I’ve really enjoyed meeting you.’ He said after an awkward pause, then took a deep breath to force the words out. ‘I suppose a kiss is out of the question.’
‘I don’t want to ruin my lipstick.’ She replied. ‘Maybe some other time.’
She seemed distracted and nervous until her bus arrived, but before she got on it she turned quickly on her heels and pressed her glistening leech-lips against his cheek. He knew it must looked ridiculous, but he didn’t wipe it off until he had got home, had a good look at the crisp cracked-black impression in the mirror, and taken a number of very bad photographs of it with his mobile phone. He saved the best one with the file name ‘Boxie’.
It was hard to refrain from writing the next day without the collective willpower of his friends, but he managed to wait three whole days before posting the letter. There was no reply for 2 and a half weeks, not particularly unusual for Boxie, but it seemed like an age. When a response did come, it was on a postcard from New York, written in blue biro and with a tiny picture of Stuart the ladybird holding an American flag at the bottom. The writing almost intelligible as she’d crammed the words in horizontally then rotated the card by 90 degrees and continued in a cross-hatched manner over the top. He was forced to transcribe it in the end, to guess at the harder to distinguish words. It turned out to be a short story about a bagel.
He started to draft his letters on the computer, but somehow being able to shuffle about the text felt as though he was somehow cheating so he quickly went back to paper. After one regrettable letter, he promised never to write whilst drinking again, and to wait at least a day before posting anything. Her replies continued to give the merest flashes into her life. He was now pretty certain that she danced professionally, although he supposed not erotically, but from time to time she seemed to do other things too. He knew she had done a degree, but he didn’t know what in or where, and the poem she wrote him about a terrifying baby implied she had a sister who was recently a mother.
It took great willpower to ensure he was not the one to suggest they met again, but when the postcard arrived suggesting it he was glad he’d done some forward planning. It was just an address, a time, and the next day’s date. He had to do some hurried laundry and move an appointment, but he concentrated so little at work that day that it didn’t really matter.
Now he knew what to expect, he felt a little less worried about it. He had decided on a black T-shirt with a witty little cartoon on it, and his new black multi-pocketed trousers which had just arrived from the Internet. He’d been meaning to get some for a while anyway, he told himself. A handy addition to any wardrobe. The experiments with spiking his hair nearly always ended in disaster, so he just left it floppy.
The address was in a part of town he didn’t know very well, but when he arrived it turned out to be full of bars and the seedier sorts of shop. In spite of intending to arrive only just on time, he still managed to reach the bar ten minutes early and decided that getting himself a drink and a table. He dithered for a bit, but didn’t risk buying Boxie one seeing as he still had no idea if she drank.
It wasn’t unusual to feel self conscious when sat alone in a bar, but in his new outfit he felt more out of place than normal. Some women at the bar stopped talking about him to kiss, which pretty much confirmed his suspicions that the rainbow flag outside meant that this was a gay bar. He pointedly browsed the food menu and wondered if they were going to eat. He’d had a light meal so he could easily manage without, or polish off something else.
His panic about whether he had completely messed up the address was just about to break into actual action when a tall blonde woman picked her way across the floor towards him. Her naked legs were lean and tanned, balanced on tall baby pink stilettos. The dress she was wearing was the same pink, clinging to her heavy breasts and the barely-covered arse, and pinched in to accentuate her trim waist. As she walked she swayed her hips and tilted her head forward so the blonde waves of her hair bounced and tumbled from her shoulders. She stood next to him until he could ignore her no longer, a slight scowl visible over the pink-rimmed sunglasses and the full, vivid pink lips pouting in consternation.
‘I thought you might at least say hello to me.’ She said as she slid onto the bench besides him.
‘I thought you’d decided on ‘Pob’?’ She removed the sunglasses to reveal eyelids smeared in pink, with a cluster of small loveheart gems glued at the ends of arched eyebrows.
‘What’s happened to you?’ He tried not to sound panicked. ‘Why are you dressed like that?’
‘It’s how I chose to dress today.’ She said with a shrug and a little smile, and shook her mass of blonde waves. He could see all the way down to the roots on her forehead.
‘But you look so different. No bad, I mean, just… I didn’t recognise you.’
‘Well, this is only our third meeting, and I don’t imagine you remember much of the first.’
‘How often do you dress like this?’
‘Whenever I feel like it. Is the way I look really that important to you?’
‘Well, no. Of course not. I was just…’ He shook his head with a smile. ‘Good to see you again!’
‘You too. Now, you’ve almost finished you a drink. Shall I get you something?’
‘Oh no, I’ll get these…’
‘You can get the next ones. Back in a minute!’
She bounced back onto the ludicrous shoes and walked slowly over to the bar, swaying her hips and back in an exaggerated manner, showing off every inch of her pert flesh through the tight pink dress. How had he ever thought she was fat? She was curvaceous, certainly, but her thighs were taut and her stomach trim, and he couldn’t see an ounce of fat she’d be better without. When she gave him a little wave he realised he was staring, and hid his blush behind the food menu.
‘I thought you might like to try this.’ She said as she placed a lurid cocktail in front of him. ‘It’s not quite Fosters, but I love them.’
It looked like traffic lights, tasted like syrup and made his teeth tingle slightly. He had bought them both another before he realised that it was extraordinarily alcoholic syrup. He held out the cocktail stick for her to slide the cherry off with her perfect white teeth.
‘So, how was New York?’ He asked.
‘Fine, nothing special. I got one of those Macy’s brown bags. You know, the famous ones? It seems so strange to think that something so normal is craved all over the world! It’s like Coca Cola. Did you know that in some parts of Russia having even an empty Coca Cola can is an enormous status symbol? There are children who hide in the sand dunes near the tourist beaches, and when anyone abandons their picnic rubbish they all rush down and fight amongst each for the empty cans. Just imagine them; all crouched there waiting for the tourists to get far enough away that they won’t think they’re about to be mugged, but still trying to be the first one who breaks. It must be exhilarating!’
‘I’ll make sure to take a bagful next time I go to a Russian beach.’
‘That’s a very silly idea.’ She said seriously. ‘It would be much easier to just buy them out there.’
Boxie drank just as fast as he did, slowly stroking her glass with pink-tipped fingers and each time sliding cherries from their cocktail sticks without letting them touch her lips. She had picked up a slight American drawl, and held her eyes wide and her lips slightly open in an expression of quizzical surprise. Whenever he tried to ask about her transformation, she just shrugged.
‘They’re only clothes.’
‘But did you dye your hair? Or were you wearing a wig before?’
‘Does it matter?’
He found he was subconsciously slowing his speech for her. At times he wondered if he was part of some strange trick, that the woman in front of him was actually Boxie’s sister and she was hiding behind raven hair around a corner, laughing at his gullibility.
‘We must look ridiculous!’ He said rather too loudly when she returned with another round of lurid cocktails. ‘Just look at everyone else in here! Then there’s me sat here all black and dark, and you all blonde and pink! It’s like an American sitcom!’
‘Oh, we can’t be in a sitcom. If we were, we’d have to have our backs to the room to give a better establishing shot, not be sitting against this wall. Those two over there might be in a sitcom though; they’d be ideally placed if it weren’t for that enormous flower on their table!’
‘But I mean, just look at us! We look like weirdos!’
They’d drunk quite a lot, and rambled on about even more, when Boxie eventually slipped away to use the startlingly unisex toilets. In spite of the drink she still walked with the grace of a dancer on the shoes which caused her to tower over him.
‘Your girlfriend must be a bit of a handful.’ One of the men at the next table said with a wink.
‘She’s not my girlfriend.’ Was all Andy could think to say, and the thought brought such a wave of drunken melancholy that he didn’t realise why the man decided to give him his phone number.
‘I should get home.’ Boxie said when she emerged. ‘I don’t want to miss the last bus. When’s yours?’
It had already left.
‘I thought I might walk tonight.’ Andy replied. ‘Get a bit of exercise. I’ll wait with you for yours though.’
‘Thanks!’ She said with the chirpy little smile. ‘It shouldn’t be more than five minutes.’
He offered her his coat when they got outside, but she refused on the grounds that it wouldn’t match.
‘Will I see you again?’ He asked.
‘Oh yes, I should hope so! I’ve got a little surprise for you.’
‘What is it?’
‘You have a very strange idea about what constitutes a surprise, Mr Andy. Don’t worry; I’ll send you all the details!’
‘I suppose a kiss is out of the question?’
Boxie just tapped her cheek next to the baby pink lips and winked. Andy didn’t remember most of his journey home, apart from the various locations his stomach forced the thick alcoholic treacle back out of his mouth, but that night he dreamt of red lips and pink lips and cracked black lips, all whispering promises of surprises before getting up to all manner of things.