By: Lauren Cadogan-Grealish
I hadn’t known Charlie for long, had first met him just two weeks before, at the opening night of a street art exhibition in Shoreditch. I had written an article for Time Out London about the growing scene in Walthamstow and its surrounding constituencies, and thought it would be nice to meet one of the artists I had written about. I found GHX to be personable – he offered me a bottle of Beck’s and we shared a short conversation. His wife arrived a little later with his baby boy. They made a nice little family – GHX, Claudina and baby Shaffi. It had made me ache, seeing their family unit. I wanted someone to love me, but I needed to love someone more. I excused myself when another fan cut in, wandered away from them under the pretence of wanting to browse the artwork.
I was zoning in and out of the event when I noticed him. Tall, slightly-ginger beard. He filled the space in his clothes nicely – ripped jeans tighter on the calves than the thighs, a black knitted jumper.
I made my way over to him and fearlessly asked him if he was enjoying the artwork. He introduced me to his friend Rado. Rado was slightly shorter than Charlie. I learned he was the assistant at a contemporary art gallery in Islington.
‘And what do you do, Charlie?’
‘I’m a freelance project manager.’
‘Nice,’ I grinned. He smiled back.
I told him I was studying, that I worked a few shifts at MNKY HSE in Mayfair.
All three of us had needed a toilet. We left the exhibition quickly, finding separate dark corners to piss in. Rado said he needed to go because he had work the next morning, and had already drunk too much.
Charlie was shy but he asked if I wanted to go back to his flat with him.
‘I live with my older brother,’ he told me in the Uber ride over. ‘But it’s kinda spacious so it doesn’t matter. He’s an Operations Manager for a restaurant chain – Josh – and he makes pretty decent money. He practically lives at his girlfriend’s place in Bethnal Green. I’m on my own a lot.’
I follow Charlie into his room. It’s just past eleven, and I’m tired already. I am overcome by a sudden feeling to leave, to get away from him.
The walls were painted a duck-egg grey. There was a small two seater sofa, as well as his bed, and a television mounted on the wall. He had a few film posters – films I’d either never heard of or hadn’t seen. But one caught my eye – a print of a white skull on a purple background. Underneath the skull were the words you, in another life. I started to feel hot.
‘Your posters are pretty cool,’ I said.
‘I screen-printed the skull one myself.’
‘Is it a reference to life after death?’
‘In a way… But I think it’s more the idea that if you were someone else, you’d still have a skull, literally. So the point is… That’s all there is underneath our skin, and since we’re us, we might as well carry on the way we are. We all have death in common.’
We stood awkwardly for a moment before he gestured that I should sit down. I sat on the sofa, and felt myself sink into it. He asked if I’d like a beer. I nodded, and he went downstairs. While he was gone, I stared at the skull print. It unnerved me. I felt a slight breeze – Charlie left his window open. I walked to it and leant over the sill. Would he come to the funeral?
‘Are you cold?’
I jumped. Charlie was back with my drink. He set the can down on his desk. Unsure of what to say, I nodded again. I stepped back and he closed the window. I returned to the sofa.
‘You’re shivering,’ he said. ‘Do you want a jumper?’
I muttered and he asked me to repeat: ‘Yeah, please.’
He crossed the room to his wardrobe and dug out a navy hoodie. He handed it to me and I stood to pull it over my head. It was a bit big. But it smelt like him, even though his scent was a new thing to me.
‘Better?’ He watched me.
‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘Thank you.’
He passed my can and I sipped it.. It stung my throat a little.
‘I’m going to roll a joint. Do you smoke?’ he asked.
Yes, Charlie – but if I get high as well as drunk –
‘Sure,’ I answered.
‘Great,’ he replied, taking a tin out from the top shelf of his wardrobe. I caught the scent of cannabis as he closed the door.
When he was finished rolling and roaching, Charlie lit the joint, inhaled a few times, then handed it to me. I took it, and breathed deeply. I got lost in the smoke.
I woke up in Charlie’s bed two weeks later. Charlie was gone, probably to work. The indent of his head on the pillow was the only mark of him having been here. That, and the musky smell of sex. I stumbled up, still drunk, still a little high. I picked a t-shirt and shorts of the floor, pulled them on, and lit a vanilla scented candle that Charlie had left out.
The room was warm – I opened the window and leaned on the sill, letting the air find its way into my lungs. I looked around the room, my eyes finding and settling on the skull print – you, in another life. I was caught, for a moment, in a spasm of panic – our lives had started to merge together. I considered leaning a little too far over the ledge, and dropping onto the concrete below. Any doubt about Charlie, or my ability in a relationship, would die with me.
I shook my head lightly. There is no need to go down that road, I told myself. For a moment, I traced the scars that marked my left wrist. I was tired, my body weighted by a heavy sleep. I moved slowly to the television. There was, as usual, nothing on that interested me. But I settled for a mediocre comedian’s stand-up show, and the joy-hungry audience roared with laughter at his mediocre jokes. I did not; I lit a cigarette, returned to Charlie’s windowsill and contemplated my sexual performance with Charlie – was I good enough?
Two days later, Charlie met me at work, since I finished at half nine. We walked from London Bridge to Southbank, found a quiet space on the grass and sat down. Charlie started rolling a joint and when he was finished, and it was lit, he took a long draw. I watched him, noticed the way the lighter flame illuminated his face, his eyelashes casting shadows across his nose. We laid back on the grass and got high. I looked at him. He was beautiful in the half-light too, eyes closed in the grip of the buzz. The air made my skin tingle and my eyes closed under the weight of the weed. Charlie’s hand found mine.
An hour or so later we made our way to a bus stop. A chill was settling, and it left goosebumps on my arms. He pulled me against him and I didn’t pull away. But I was scared. I was so high, and starting to fall.
The bar was packed and loud. It wasn’t very big, and it wasn’t long before I felt claustrophobic. We pushed ourselves towards the bar to get some drinks, and Charlie was patted on the back by several guys. He introduced me to two of them, and I stood in their company awkwardly sipping my rum and coke. One of them informed me his girlfriend was dancing but would be over here soon, as if my lack of interest had anything to do with a lack of female company. I excused myself and went to find Charlie.
He was outside, talking to someone on his phone.
‘Yeah, sweet Matt… See you soon,’ he said and hung up. He turned, saw me, smiled. ‘You ok?’
‘Um… Yeah. No, actually. I’m going to head off. I don’t feel well. I feel quite sick.’ I stumbled over my words. Charlie studied me for a moment.
‘I’ll get you an Uber,’ he said, unlocking his phone with his thumb. The smile had dropped from his face. I wondered if he knew I was lying. Act sicker, I told myself.
‘No – I’ll be fine. I think I’m going to walk to the station – it’s only a little way. I’ll have a cigarette. Go and enjoy the bar. It’s really cool in there. I’m sorry I can’t stay.’ I feigned sincerity. Not difficult, since I did it all the time.
‘You sure? I can walk with you – ‘
‘No, it’s fine. Really. I’m sure.’ I looked at him in the half-light and nodded weakly. I added a small smile so he thought I meant it. He placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezed lightly, before kissing me on the forehead. I watched as he turned and headed back into the bar. I walked away from the entrance, and the bass from the music faded into something sporadic. It was replaced by the thud of blood in my ears.
On the walk to the station, I rolled a wonky cigarette. It was smokeable. I inhaled so deep I coughed. My mind was everywhere but on the street. I let people walk around me as they needed, I kept to a straight line. Autopilot engaged. My mind flitted back to Charlie, and his skull print, and I thought of myself in another life.