It was a Friday evening, I think. It must have been, in fact, because that was the night I always went out, after a long week slogging away, plugged into the library stacks. I was a poverty-stricken student in those days (I was about to say a poor student, but I was never that – never a poor student. No, I was always the one at the front of the auditorium, jostling to ask the right questions).
There was a long route and there was a short route from my bedsit to the nearest pub, the place where I usually met my friends to plan the course of the night – whether on to the narco dens, the virtual reality palaces, or just getting shitfaced in some anonymous bar. The last was my secret preference, but I didn’t want the rest of them to see just how dependent I'd become on these regular debauches. For the most part they were rich kids slumming – waiting for some distant parental unit to take them safely back under tow.
She was waiting for me at the corner of the alley. Not for me, precisely, of course – for anyone who might come by. I could see at once the kind of girl she was. Big eyes, an emaciated body, ragged clothes – part of the fallout of the narcolepsy laws.
“Please,” she said. “Please.” Holding out her hand.
Normally I would have hurried on by. That was one of the unfortunate side-effects of taking the short way. One had to pass by the dark chasms of the forgotten city – the one gradually expanding and proliferating in the shade of all that was bright and glossy and endlessly renewed above.
This time, however, I stopped. I don’t know why. I’ve interrogated my motives a thousand times, and I still can’t come up with a clear answer. She was attractive, yes -- in a kind of fey, artless way – but that wouldn’t normally have been enough for me. I was very keen on intellectual stimulation and the true companionship of minds in those days, sombre little prig that I was, and wouldn’t have given the time of day to any mere party girl who tried to distract me from what I fondly imagined to be the dark intricacies of my midnight studies.
Not that any of them did.
“What’s in it for me?” I asked, roughly enough, imagining that would be enough to bring the conversation to an end.
“I … don’t know,” she replied. “What would you like?”
There was an indescribable delicacy in the way she spoke, as if she were some angel fallen into the midst of this desolation. There were sections of the city (still are, I suppose) where the very foundation stones had given away, opening up huge caverns and pools with waterfalls, framed by impenetrable fences of iron. She’d come creeping up from one of them, I supposed. How could she seem so clean, so unsullied by her bestial surroundings?
I suppose the worst romantics are those who pride themselves on their unrelenting realism.
“Who are you? What’s your name?”
“Celeste,” she said, letting her skinny hand drop to her side. I could see the emaciation of her body through a rip in the side of her dress – pitiful half-starved ribs protruding through the ivory skin.
“Well, Celeste, I’m going out on the piss tonight. D’you understand that? I’m going to spend all night getting roaring, fall-down drunk, and then I’m going to stagger home, possibly in this direction, possibly in another …” I’d already had a bit to drink before leaving home, which no doubt accounts for my elevated mood. I suppose I already felt something for her – a bemused half-contempt, mixed with a tiny tincture of pity and even (I suppose) some lust spawned by the sight of her skinny, half-starved body.
“Don’t call me sir. I’m not 'sir' to the likes of you, even if you are a little whore or a beggar … and you’re both, aren’t you, Celeste?”
She seemed honestly to find it more difficult to leave off the “sir” than to admit to her status in her eyes. Humble she always was, my little Celeste.
“How old are you?”
It might even have been true. God knows she didn’t look a day over fourteen, with her little screwed up face and those huge, childlike eyes, eyes like the saucers of a tea-set, but with depths of blue within them: eyes captured in a perpetual flash of surprise.
“D’you want to wait for me, Celeste? Wait for me right here?”
“If you like.”
I could see that she’d be off in a second if I didn’t increase the offer.
“There’s a bed for the night in it for you, little girl. There’s some late supper and possibly some breakfast tomorrow. I might even give you some money, though God knows I’ve little enough of that for myself.”
Silence. I could see her thinking it over, sizing me up. A little angel she might be, but to live this long she must have learnt at least some survival traits. Whether or not she waited was nothing to me, of course. I’d only suggested it to get out of making any immediate decision about her. Why had I stopped to talk to her in the first place? And yet those few instants when her eyes were playing over me were some of the most intensely felt of my life – it was as if I were before the Judgement Seat, with some incomprehensible deity scanning my very soul. Looking in and finding me wanting, I cannot but conclude.
“All right, I’ll wait,” she said, and it was as if she were conferring a favour on me by choosing to stay. How had she turned the tables like that? I’d still like to know that, I’d like to know that about you, about all of you ...
Anyway, the rest is quickly enough told. I met my friends, as I said before, and we agreed to hole up for the night in some gin palace. I was morose and touchy the whole evening through, though – little disposed to talk, as the one thing most on my mind was the thing I was most determined not to share with them – so they finally concerted among themselves to go off to the virtual palace, leaving me soaking grimly at the bar.
I was hardly in the best of humours when I got back to my section of town, then. It was a difficult climb around the rocks and thickets of rusty steel – old monorails and mars-rockets, scavenged for scrap by the underdwellers – and it shocked me further to find her still there.
I’d been wondering all night if she’d wait for me, hoping against hope that she would, but trying to deny to myself the whole time that that was what I was hoping for.
Accordingly I tried to make as light of it as possible when I saw her leaning against a broken railing – her eyes half-closed with sleepiness.
“Come then if you’re coming,” I barked at her, and hurried off as fast as I could stagger-shuffle (I’d had a bad fall earlier in the evening, which had left an oozing cut on my leg, and of course the huge amount of alcohol I’d drunk had left me only barely perambulatory).
She fell in behind me. And that, Eva, is how I met my future wife.