Auburn

He met her in the autumn. Mid-October. A bright, clear Saturday in south London.

They first met online, on a dating site affiliated to a left-leaning daily broadsheet. He’d long given up on the hope of meeting someone on a random night out in the city. In those noisy, crowded subterranean spaces where the Darwinian rules of attraction prevailed, and the possibility of exchanging meaningful glances, much less meaningful words, were impossible. He was tired of being single. Tired of being alone. 

They had been chatting online for a short time when she suggested meeting up. She called herself B-Movie. It signaled a level of self-deprecation and self-awareness, a tacit acknowledgement of her limitations, which he fancied matched his own. He liked her tone, the cut of her jib. He hoped they would get along.

He spent an hour in the bathroom in preparation, clipping his hair, trimming his stubble and eyebrows, exfoliating his skin and clearing his pores. He chose a short sleeved pink shirt with subtle stripes and a brown jumper, navy jeans and cream Converse.

He suggested meeting in Greenwich. When he arrived at the station he had a text from B-Movie to say that she had arrived, yet he couldn’t see her on the concourse, or on either platform. Eventually he found her in the underpass between the DLR and the main platform.

She was wearing a pea-green pea-coat, cotton scarf and an uncertain smile.

As they climbed the stairs out of the station and began walking down the sun-streaked high street towards the park, he noticed that the auburn hair tumbling down over her shoulders glinted gold.

They walked through the park and up the hill towards the observatory, talking at length about those things they had noticed or heard, or read about and reflected upon. The night prior she had been to a party at a house-share in Hackney. She went as a farmer’s wife, wearing wellies and heavily-rouged cheeks to impart a certain ruddiness, and he thought that very apt, being able to picture her trudging across a soggy field, lamb clamped to her breast, auburn tresses tangled with straw.

She had a pleasant air that he immediately liked, an easy way about her, a nice niceness that he wanted to keep from harm. He felt that because of her openness, she would be always come to be hurt by those closest to her.

As they began to cross the heath he saw in the near-distance two figures. He could scarcely believe his eyes. It was his flatmate and another friend who lived a short distance in Westcombe Park. They had spent the evening there, and were now making their way to Greenwich for some unspecified purpose, most likely involving alcohol. After the briefest of introductions and some awkward small talk, his friends continued their journey towards Greenwich, and he and the girl with the auburn hair walked towards Blackheath village.

It was one of those freakish events that only ever seemed to happen in a city. You could go years walking the same streets and never see the same face twice, and yet here was an encounter so completely fortuitous, serendipitous even, that it had could only have been manufactured, as if he had organized this chance meeting so that his friends might give their assessment of her.

It was no small irony that his choice of Blackheath village was hardly neutral ground for a first date. They were to spend the coming afternoon drinking in the very pubs and bars where only a few years before he had spent all his time, and his wages, in the Bukowski-obsessed, booze-soaked early days of his life as a Londoner, with his friends from home or university, or from the pub where he first found work, or later with a girl who broke his heart badly.

Consciously or not, he has chosen to take her to those old haunts, to relive those scenes from a former life. Wherever they went, he felt uncomfortable and they only stayed for one drink. It had all changed, imperceptibly, irrevocably. He missed those happy times, being new to the city, carefree and careless nights stumbling from bar to bar and back to the flat on Lee High Road, smoking and typing in his bedroom, a half-drunk bottle of wine on his desk. Living a writers life, he imagined at the time, rolling his liquorice cigarellos and sipping a Guinness by the open fire in the Prince of Wales, poring over his copy of The Ginger Man for a couple of hours, before returning to The Railway to work, pouring pints and collecting ashtrays.

They stayed in Blackheath until night fell. He was talking to her in the bar where he had worked for almost a year, listening to the faint Scottish burr of her accent and contemplating whether he should kiss her or not, before resolving that he would, finally asking her if he could as they stood on the platform of Blackheath rail station. They shared a long, deeply satisfying kiss in the chill October night, before she boarded the train and sat alone under the harsh, unflattering sodium light of its interior, and he thought how tired she looked, as the train drew away into the darkness.

They met again a few days later, and went to see The Departed at the Odeon in Leicester Square, as vast as it is vastly-overpriced, holding hands in the most uncomfortable position for the duration of the film. Waiting for a bus, they bought a drink in the Yates’ bar on Charing Cross Road and kissed again in the semi-dark of the street.

He next saw her on Bonfire night. They met at the Barbican for an exhibition of European photography, then crossed the city to Battersea Park, to watch a precarious pyre of wooden pallets burn, while the sky exploded in a billion shooting stars. He asked her if she would come home with him, and she said yes.

He was overwhelmed by the smoothness of her skin, the firmness of her flesh. Her corporeality. The contours of her body. The eager kisses which met his own.

She stayed with him the next day. He cooked a roast and they read the Sunday papers in the still hush of his flat.

The following weeks fell into cycle of proximity and distance, intimacy and absence. Solitude and domesticity.

He didn’t feel ready for a serious relationship and almost broke up with her, resolved to do it one evening and bade his flatmate make himself scarce. But when she came over that night after work, standing beside him as he stirred a pan on the hob, resting her auburn hair on his shoulder, he knew he couldn’t do it, that it would break his heart to break hers, and he knew then that he loved her.

Lying in his bed one morning she told him that she loved him, and he told her not to be so stupid.

They had been together a few months when he developed a rash, though not the type of rash new lovers normally encounter. It first began in the corner of his eyes and was profoundly itchy, like eczema. At first he put it down to the stress of his job. Within a couple of weeks the rash had spread down to his cheekbones. For almost a year he put up with it, knowing others endure far worse, applying ointments and moisturizers and hydrocortisone creams which only seemed to anger it.

In the spring she asked him to accompany him to a friend’s wedding in Inverness, and he said no. She went on her own, and in the company of a kidney infection which left her in tears of discomfort on the hard sleeper. He spent the weekend in the pub with his friends, and didn’t call. He knew she’d be angry and upset, and didn’t care. Now it was her turn to contemplate breaking up with him.

They reconciled and that November, on their anniversary, went to Paris. Feeling unwell before they left, upon arriving he became feverish and, after walking from Gare du Nord to Place de la Republique, collapsed into the bed of their hotel room, spending the rest of the day there while she walked the Parisian streets on her own. La fille aux cheveux auburn.

They went out for dinner and he could barely eat, barely raise his gaze from the table. Ever the self-saboteur, now he was spoiling her weekend. The next day, feeling better, he refused to hold her hand because he abhorred cliché. Because of Robert Doisneau’s artificiality. Because he was a selfish arsehole.

The interminable return to London on the Eurostar. His unsmiling face at her persistence in taking their picture in the carriage. He refused to pose because of the rash on his face, which he didn’t want recorded for posterity. What he wanted, at that precise moment, was to be single again.

Christmas came and they returned to their families. Almost overnight the rash on his face disappeared. When he saw her next in London, they pondered what had caused it. Then they realized it was her hair dye. Her hair upon his pillows had left a trace of the toxic dye, which when it came into contact with his skin, burned it. Her beautiful hair of burnished gold which blazed in the sun on their first meeting. He was allergic to it.