That morning she stood waiting underground for the long, thin tube that would whisk her and the countless others through the filthy labyrinth and into Zone One. Except, they weren’t countless others, but watching them stretch out across the seemingly endless platform, shifting their briefcases between sweaty hands, it was far easier believing the count to be an impossibility. Except, the platform wasn’t endless - it simply curved outward, hiding the opposite end like the rotund belly of one particular moustached passenger whose body odour they collectively tried to ignore in the utmost British fashion if it assaulted them in the carriage.
Other characters included a short, slim man whose tendons stretched taught in his forearms like violin strings when he rolled up his shirtsleeves. He was preternaturally tanned and carried a mess of curly black hair atop his large forehead. His head was rather big and so his face was unusually both long and wide, and his big, round eyes sat one third of the way down above a broad, bumpy nose. His top lip barely curved but was as puffy as the one below it, both skewing diagonally down the left side of his face ever so slightly. In profile, his Adam’s apple protruded significantly in the middle of a long neck causing it to seem almost curved. He wasn’t conventionally good-looking but he was animated, radiating his heterosexuality like a peacock does its bright tail, making him more magnetic than his taller, broader friend with the high cheekbones and waxed blonde quiff.
Standing near to them was a short, pale woman who forcefully kept her eyes on the ad screen across the track and away from the two men and their shadows. Her hair was so dark it appeared almost black and framed her white skin and bright green eyes in shocking contrast. Her features were pretty but rather large and combative, giving her face a squarish look despite her pointed chin. She wore a constant frown in a bid to fake the natural confidence of the man with the Adam’s apple, but her painted brows gave her away as they twitched at every sound, threatening to shatter her stony visage as easily as a hairline fracture does glass.
The man standing beside her seemed to have lost his sight in her plump cleavage. He turned down the corners of his mouth, one eyebrow faintly raised, nodding a rather indifferent approval of her breasts to himself before looking at the screen clutched in his hand.
She groaned upon seeing him. Not only was this a face she recognised, but one she knew well. Milo had studied Economics with her at Cambridge and had also landed a job at SM. They quite famously didn’t get on, swapping polite discourse for catty slander long before they graduated. However, she had been granted something of a reprieve from his insidious whispers after suffering through a particularly revealing journey home together after work the previous year.
Beforehand, Milo had happily started a rumour that she worked late and didn’t attend the weekend parties because she ‘struggled with the workload that frankly became too much for her by second year at uni’. 15 months ago, while she was still his favourite topic of conversation, they had bumped into each other at the exit of SM; she was pulling another late night and he was tying up loose ends before buggering off on holiday for two weeks. His eyes had narrowed when she stepped through the exit ahead of him, his gaze piercing into her back through his short dreadlocks, which she knew to be a weave. She walked quickly but at six foot his long legs easily caught up with her. When she rolled her eyes to the left, refusing to turn her head, he flashed her a grin that exposed his two large front teeth and not much else.
‘You’ll have heard I’m going to Vegas,’ Milo assumed, moving his eyes upwards from the crown of her head to hungrily search the quiet street for any final adverts on mounted screens. She could see his jaw swinging in her peripheral vision as he roved his head from side to side like a vampire seeking out a throbbing artery. His whining, nasal voice painted him as a mosquito in her mind and, desperate for stimulation, he fumbled in his pocket for his phone, the harsh light sparking in his pupils and casting the hollows in his cheeks into darkness. He drew it closer to him, sating his thirst on the cascading waterfall of information swiped under his fingers. She turned her head briefly, squinting at the artificial light that would keep his attention for a few more minutes. Smiling, she mentally sketched feelers poking out of his skull and extra limbs tucked underneath his grey suit and bulking out his shadow.
When they entered the station Milo placed his phone back into the inside pocket of his suit and stuck out his thumb for the barriers while shamelessly picking up his monologue. He spoke at her through their descent underground and through the national greeting - ‘Thank you for your time’ - when they boarded the tube. They had their pick of seats but he chose to sit opposite her, spreading his legs wide as he leaned back and pushed his shoulder blades into the fabric one at a time. He then stuck out his jaw to stroke the pad of his thumb under his chin while he lapped up the displays above her head for a minute before setting his eyes on her.
Why do you always finish work this late?’ he smirked, pointedly tapping his watch that flashed 11:01pm, three and a half hours after most left their desks. She stared at him, imagining a second pair of eyes hanging on limp stalks protruding from his forehead. Face-on she could see his cheeks beginning to round and the flesh of his jowls seemed puffy. Not a good look for a mosquito.
‘Do you get credited time and a half for the extra hours?’ he ploughed on.
‘No. Why? Struggling to budget for a gym membership?’
‘I wouldn’t want to choke,’ she hissed.
‘You’re mad - working overtime without a credit value increase. I wouldn’t,’ he yawned, interlacing his fingers over his stomach. ‘Craaaazy fucking women.’
‘I didn’t quite hear - was that singular or plural?’ she snapped at the bait.
‘You must get around five hours’ sleep with the commute,’ he mused. ‘Unless you sacrifice a morning shower.’ He smiled thinly at her, shaking the line. She paused for effect.
‘Thanks for your concern but I actually get six hours a night, morning shower inclusive.’ She blinked slowly at him feeling the northbound Overground Line slow for Dalston Junction. ‘My commute is rather short.’ She smoothed down her skirt before standing and moving towards the doors, leaning ever so slightly to the left so as to combat the dramatic braking of the tube as it screeched onto the platform. Behind her, Milo had lurched himself upright and was holding onto a rail above his head with both hands.
‘But we must have similar DVs!’ he floundered, ‘I’m estimated another 18 months before I qualify for Zone Two!’
’God, I can’t imagine the burden of paying off tuition fees,’ she drawled, still facing the doors as the tube came to a halt. They locked eyes with each other’s reflection and she noted his lips were pursed like those of a denied child. The doors slid apart, breaking their contact, and she stepped out onto the platforms shivering slightly in the cold as the automated voice again thanked her for her time. The pride in his throat grated as he cursed, figuring it out just before the doors closed on him, carting him away to somewhere in Zone Three, perhaps.
She allowed a smile to dance across her face in the glory of the memory looking at him now. He had treated her with a jealous reverence after that - which mostly resulted in him ignoring her - in the knowledge her DV was far higher than his own. He didn’t need exact numbers because everyone understood the huge financial dichotomies between Zones; qualifying for (or being forced into) Zone Two meant her worth was far more than his.
Her smile faltered when she realised he was making his way through the crowded platform towards her. When he finally caught her eye he shrugged his shoulders under his ears and turned his palms upwards in mock surprise.
‘Scholarship baby!’ he trumpeted, pushing past a thin, older woman with a full fringe. ‘What a treat!’ He planted himself beside her, knocking her ribs with an elbow as he placed both hands on his hips. She mourned the passing of the silent treatment as her sinking heart passed the bile rising in her throat at the thought of the oncoming obnoxious onslaught.
‘I must say,’ he began, ’I owe this premature qualification to you. You remember I was meant to be based in Three for another three months by their estimate? Well, after I found out you lived here that night, I thought to myself, Milo, you gotta get there faster. I suppose I couldn’t stand the thought of someone I knew who didn’t earn it - no offence, scholarship, but it’s true, not in the same way anyway - who didn’t earn qualifying for Zone Two and having all that space - I have a walk-in wardrobe now, can you believe - for more things than me, who not only got the same degree from the same university - even though my tuition was deducted from my DV - but also has the same employer! So I worked my little arse off - yes, it’s little again, I’m sure you’ve noticed - and shaved twelve weeks off the estimation. I only got the phone call on Friday morning telling me the good news that I had a week to find a place in Two - of course they couldn’t have someone like me sitting on such a high DV in Three, now, could they - and I secured the warehouse flat on Saturday. It’s been empty for a few months so it needed gutting, but who cares when you can afford an army of Zone Two cleaners-’
The wail of the tube signalled its arrival and mercifully cut him off. He turned to her and laughed; it wasn’t just that he had rolled onto the balls of his feet in the excitement of regaling the story that made her feel he was looking down at her.
‘Thank you for your time,’ crooned the voice as they boarded, almost mockingly this morning, it seemed.
‘Well, aren’t you going to congratulate me?’ Milo preened, sardonically fluttering his eyelashes at her. She made a snap decision then to get the earlier tube in the mornings. Her time was worth more than this.
‘Well, aren’t you going to congratulate me?’
The Northern accent belonged to a long-limbed beauty towering over her work screens, gracefully clearing six foot two in a pair of stilettos. Kathy Acker draped one of her slender arms over the left-hand screen and placed the other on her right hip, raising it slightly to accentuate her waist in the tight bodycon dress that was questionably low-cut for the office. Kathy was built like a lollipop with long slim legs, narrow hips, a waist to match in inches, and surprisingly large breasts. She spent her spare time in the gym trying to ‘grow a booty’ with not much success, but her taut, lithe figure still brought men to their knees, as was her favourite game to play.
‘Congratulate you on what?’ she asked, looking up at Kathy, who would have been a knock-out even without a gym addiction with almond-shaped eyes that curved upwards like a cat’s and cheekbones built like the rest of her - high and slim. Beneath a small nose were her soft, full lips that curved in beautiful contradiction to the angular planes of her bone structure. In the centre of her bottom lip were two straight white scars rooted in the black skin, side-by-side and each less than an inch long. When they’d gotten horrendously drunk at university together Kathy had told her, crying, that they were from biting her lip as a child when the boys in her school bullied her for wearing dreadlocks and would pin her down every night, taking turns to pull on them. Eight-year-old Kathy didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of her begging sobs and so bit her lip until it bled to stop herself from screaming.
The scars stretched as she grinned. ‘I got a space on the lunchtime MadSpin class,’ Kathy sing-songed. And rightly so - you had more chance of finding a pot of gold at the end of a black and white rainbow than you did getting a space on the latest fitness craze.
‘Yu-huh, and I got you one, too. Come on, it starts in 10 downstairs,’ Kathy ordered while reaching forward and clicking the disconnect button on her headset.
‘I didn’t bring my gym gear!’ she said, squirming as the earpiece retracted from her ear canal. Kathy kicked the bag at her feet.
‘Thought of that.’
‘You’re a legend,’ she smiled at Kathy and quickly shut down her screens. ‘But why didn’t you message me?’
‘Only got the confirmation at 9am,’ Kathy leaned over to pick up the bag without bending her knees, ‘Been bringing this in just in case for the past couple of days.’
They hurried to the fitness suite in the bowels of the building, although for Kathy every hallway was a catwalk, passing faces from all levels either going out for lunch or also heading to the gym.
‘So, Milo qualified for Two,’ Kathy said as they dove into the changing room.
‘Yeah, I was treated to the pleasure of his company this morning on the commute.’
‘I’ll bet he was an insufferable prick.’
‘New heights, Kath,’ she said, struggling to pull a sports bra over her head. ‘Jesus, how do you get your boobs into this?’
‘Narrow back,’ Kathy responded, twisting her ankles into her trainers, ‘I take it you won’t even consider going to his flat warming on Saturday night?’
‘His what?’ she mumbled, holding one sock between her teeth and pulling the other over her toes.
‘You heard me. He sent an email round this morning inviting everyone.’
‘Well, are you surprised?’ Kathy pulled her long, smooth hair into a ponytail. She combed it at least six times a day.
‘Not even a little bit. I wouldn’t have noticed it anyway among the fucking mountain of emails I’ve got from Bateman today,’ she said angrily, jerking her laces tight in one shoe. ‘That man hates me so much he makes Milo look like a schoolboy with a crush.’ She waited for Kathy’s laugh, peering up at her friend when she swapped to tie her laces in the other shoe. Kathy had her arms crossed and was surreptitiously checking out a blonde woman in the mirror above their coat hooks.
‘He’s just trying to get the best out of you,’ Kathy said eventually. ‘Hurry up, we’re going to be late.’ Laces tied, they crossed the changing room to the suite entrance.
‘Kathy, do I need to have you checked out for Stockholm syndrome?’
‘It would explain why I put up with you and your sarcasm.’
She laughed as they pushed through the second set of double doors into the expansive gym with a daunting number of chrome machines and matted areas.
‘I thought gay women hated gay men, and vice versa?’
‘Ssshh!’ Kathy hissed at her, nodding at the group of men refilling their bottles at the water fountain. When they looked up appreciatively both women giggled, jogging to the opposite end of the gym and through another set of doors into the class.
After MadSpin they bolted to the café on the top floor to rejuice. They nabbed a table by the outer glass wall with views that stretched West into the city by throwing the gym bag at it as the previous lunchers left. She left Kathy gazing lovingly through the pane as she ran to the food court to grab them both lunch.
‘If it’s green, it’s good,’ Kathy had said to her when asked for a meal preference. She wondered if Kathy even recognised that she’d spouted a slogan for a popular diet plan from two years previously.
When she returned with a tray she found Kathy propping her chin up on a hand and undoubtedly moping.
‘Do you think we’ll ever qualify for the Inner City?’ Kathy asked as she pulled the tray towards her and took a too-delighted-to-be-real sip from a spinach and kale pulp.
‘Would you want to? You’d never leave Zone One.’
‘That’s the point,’ said Kathy, tearing open the chicken salad box and blanching at the pomegranate seeds. ‘Although I should probably get to Two before I dream too big.’
‘You will,’ she said taking a sip from a vitamin water.
‘I better considering that twat Milo made it in.’
‘And you’re still going to his flat warming?’
‘I RSVP’d already on the email,’ mumbled Kathy through a mouthful of chicken. She swallowed. ‘You sure you don’t want to crash?’
‘I’d rather stay in and watch videos of people being beheaded.’
‘Suit yourself,’ Kathy shrugged, spitting out a pomegranate seed and then pausing. ‘How did you feel,’ she asked, wiping her mouth, ‘when you got the call to say you’d qualified?’
‘I quite liked my place in Seven Sisters.’
‘Yeah but that’s in Three! Eat your lunch or you’ll crash later.’
‘Well,’ she said as she dutifully picked up her wholegrain sandwich, ‘it was pretty rushed - you remember - and I didn’t feel much, if I’m honest, because it was completely out of my hands.’
‘How do you mean?’
’I had to move, they said,’ she waved a hand in the direction of Parliament sitting on the edge of the river. ‘It didn’t matter if I wanted to stay in Three, they said.’
Kathy laughed. ‘Why would you have wanted to stay in Three?’
‘Like I said, I liked my place.’
‘But it was so much smaller!’
‘Yup, and now I have so much more crap.’ She stuffed half the sandwich in her mouth.
‘Nothing’s ever good enough for you,’ Kathy tutted, rolling her eyes.
‘Says the girl lusting after Zone One,’ she quipped, swallowing a hunk of bread and salmon to do so.
‘When I get there, then I’ll stop lusting,’ Kathy grinned, popping the top off her juice drink and poking at the solid bottom with her straw. ‘Speaking of which, I’ve got guest list for that new bar in Farringdon on Friday - wanna come?’
‘How’d you pull that on opening night?’
‘Oh, just a lustful man thinking a guest list will get me on my knees.’
‘These poor men,’ she laughed, ‘who will never understand why they’re not good enough.’
‘The less they know, the better, because what they don’t know can’t hurt them,’ Kathy explained.
‘And the less they know, the more you know, and the more games you can play?’
‘Exactly, and what they don’t know is that thing between their legs will always mean they lose.’
‘You’re making out like women always win.’
‘They do if they come home with me,’ Kathy winked. She crumpled up her salad box and tried to stuff it in the juice cup. They both pulled out their phones at the sound of an incoming email, which turned out to be a mass pushed alert to be ‘mindful’ that afternoon.
‘So why can’t you come?’ asked Kathy, absent-mindedly scanning the email.
‘Cos I’m not gay,’ she joked.
‘Dad’s retirement party.’
Kathy looked up from her phone. ‘I thought that was Saturday night?’
‘I said I’d go and help set up on Friday,’ she lied. ‘You only get to retire once, y’know.’
‘There’s only one retirement,’ Kathy corrected her, now flicking through Facebook.
’That slogan for that holiday home thing - it’s ‘there’s only one retirement’, not ‘you only get to retire once’. Woah, remember that chubby girl from halls? She got thin, man.’
‘Right - I wasn’t - never mind.’
‘How old is your dad now?’
‘Nice!’ said Kathy, putting her phone back down on the table, ‘He got early retirement?’
‘Yeah, he did well, and Mum’s only got another year and then they’re off to Edinburgh.’
’Apparently we have ‘Scottish roots’,’ she smirked making finger quotations. ‘Really I think they can’t stand the thought of not being in a capital, but obviously they didn’t qualify for retiring in London.’
‘London’s for the young and the working, not the retired,’ Kathy raised her phone screen signalling it was time to go back to the Arena. Kathy picked up the bag as she swept up their rubbish and threw it in the recycling on her way past.
‘It’s also for the not-working,’ she suggested as they made for the elevator that would drop them back down to the floor 20. ‘Did you see that man who was chased by security yesterday?’
‘The Zero-people? No, but it was all over my newsfeed. Anyway, he doesn’t qualify in any sense of the word.’
‘Qualify?’ They reached the lift and Kathy hit the down button with her hip before stepping back in front of the closed doors.
‘Zeroes are Zeroes because they don’t have DVs,’ Kathy checked out both sides of her profile in the mirrored doors. ‘All I’m saying is, if you can forget the underground is crawling with rats then you can forget those overground, too.’ She put both hands on her lower back and stuck out her chest. ‘Sure you don’t want to come out on Friday night?’
‘Positive.’ She never went out on both nights of the weekend because that would keep her from the one thing that stopped her from strangling her best friend - not that Kathy had any idea. The door to the lift gently pinged open.
‘I’ll message you the details just in case.’ They stepped in, their sole reflections reappearing as the doors shut on them. Kathy straightened her back and dropped her hands to her side again. ‘By the way, remember Anna?’
‘Your girlfriend Anna?’
’Ex-girlfriend. Didn’t you see my relationship status change?’ Kathy’s voice dropped an octave and she struggled to hide a smirk.
‘She moved in a month ago, Kathy.’
‘We might have rushed it.’
‘You don’t say,’ her reflection raised an eyebrow. ‘You ok?’
Kathy paused, shifting the gym bag from one shoulder to the other.
‘Bitch stole my cat.’
‘Yup,’ Kathy said, shaking her head. ‘Took her when I told her to pack up and piss off.’
Jesus.’ The lift slid to a halt on their floor. ‘What are you going to do?’
As the doors opened she looked to Kathy who had already transformed into a sex kitten for her entrance into the male-dominated Arena, lips gently parted in a sultry curve and one hand back on her waist.
‘Oh,’ Kathy laughed loudly, throwing her hair over her shoulder and strutting out. ‘I already bought a new one.’