They stood in the hallway and looked at one another. Pick a room, any room, he said. She took the attic as if it were a birthright, carrying one suitcase up after the other. Life was a making do and she stood on the bed and stretched to place both hands flat on the ceiling, leaving her prints in dust.
Until Salma turned thirteen the house was just a house. It was too big for the two of them, an up-and-down warren of rooms neither of them had the compulsion to fill. She did not have friends to invite round, did not like those girls at school, their careful observations of one another, the way they moved and talked.
She liked to think it was because he could not imagine there being anybody other than her mother. She liked to think he thought of her by the minute, her dark hair wrapped around his fist, her angry words in the crevices of his mouth.
Sometimes she dreamt of doors eyeing out from walls, stairs descending in quiet conversation towards the floor. Sometimes all the cupboards in the kitchen were open. What do you want? Why are you playing up? He went round the kitchen and closed the cupboard doors one by one. She shrugged, not knowing quite why she was lying but doing it all the same. I was looking for cereal. Salma got her period in year eight English class.
Folded a line of toilet paper into her underwear and ran home across the field, along the road, down the canal. She imagined the blood flooding across her, darkening her grey skirt, climbing her torso to murder the white of her shirt, soaking her cheeks.
The house felt her coming. Before Salma was halfway there—worrying about how she was going to wash her underwear without her father seeing—the house churned from top to bottom, ached across its spine, made a sound that could almost have been: She took to catching the bus out to the city. If she left at lunchtime she could catch the afternoon film and nobody seemed to notice her missing lessons. Her brain had been almost quiet before, occasional half-formed thoughts that gave her little or no trouble.
She could feel something at the back now, working the way a scarab beetle must do. That year was the year January Hargrave directed her fifth film. Salma watched the trailer for the new film enough times to know it would be a length of air against the dull iron of living.
She went alone and sat at the back so she could watch who came in. There were girls who were, like her, alone but old enough to come with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.
They sat with their shoes off and their feet up on the chairs in front. They did not read while they waited or look at their phones, only sat and drank, and she wished she knew them or was them. There were no trailers and when the lights went down someone who smelt of perfume came in loudly and pushed past her legs and sat down a couple of seats away. At the end of the film the girl was standing, an empty beer bottle in each hand.
Salma brought her knees up to her chest but the girl just looked at her and after a bit Salma got up and they went out together as if they were friends. In the lobby they sized one another up. Looked each other up and down, feet to breast, ignoring the face, as if the face was only a thing that had fallen accidentally onto what was really important. Bodies were what mattered. Her name was Margot and the next night they came to see the film again, sat holding tubs of popcorn they did not eat.
Or if only the art cinemas will put it on, and only twice. Salma shook her head. They caught the train back together and at the Fox and Hound Margot knew the pregnant woman behind the bar by name.
In the pub Margot said a lot of things about the underground film industry and actresses and then she stopped. Salma sat there and thought that there must be moments which were the beginnings of ends; that life must be a line of train carriages and she had just reached the jerk at the end of the first one.
They were at the house. She did not think it was a good idea for Margot to go in with her and told her so. You not sneaked in before? Margot said, eyeing the tall stretch of dirty white with suspicion. It means we are unashamed of everything we do.
They went up the stairs on the balls of their feet, arms waving for balance. The house dreamt what they would do before they did it. In the morning Salma woke to hands moving across her. She opened her eyes.
Margot was busy with a sort of fierce intent, did not notice. Salma closed her eyes. When it was done Salma lay and thought the house must feel the way she did; that nothing had ever happened this way and nothing ever would again. She was certain she could feel the pressure of it in her hands, a brilliant pulse in her belly.
She had bite marks on her neck and on her knuckles and on her feet and around each nipple. She saw Margot most days. Hours were swallowed whole, gulleted smooth. Any time Margot was not there she spent in the bath; water hot enough to burn her clean, windows clammed shut around her. She did not care. Sometimes they talked about Hargrave films or lay and listened to the soundtracks or argued with strangers on fan sites.
Margot said—a line Salma was certain was stolen—that it was a form of worshipping. Something, even, in the slow act of it, secretive enough perhaps it was a thing you would only ever talk about in a confessional.
Salma had read books where couples kissed, spoke in platitudes or come-ons; something about to happen, hinted at. Beyond that there was always only a white space on the page.
A gap between paragraphs. She had thought often about what went on there. On the other side, when the letters appeared once more, couples smoked or drank tea or dressed one another or themselves. If there was a book to be written about Margot it should be blank; it would be those sex spaces between lines, sucked clean of words. Salma wanted, more and more, to tell someone about Margot.
Something had happened and it changed the way the fields looked and the way she moved at school. She imagined, on the fen, the flood water was starting to rise back across the flats so it could hear her confess. She felt the heavy words pressing at her mouth—at the till in shops when asked if she needed a bag; at school when Ms Hasin asked them to run round the field. She wanted one of them to push her against a locker or trip her going in or out a room and for her to rise up and tell them with pride about the girl she loved.
She had to tell someone. The words scalded her insides. In the end there was only the house. But in the morning she would wake with bruises shaped like curtain hooks, half- blind from the detonation of a light bulb into a tiny, pained sun.
She would find wall chips in the lasagne, pick shards of glass from the soles of her feet in the morning, walk into suddenly closed doors, trip on the raised ridge of a step. It was a jealous answer. This is what Margot did to you. At night the house felt it worst: It had seen her going silently, balanced, up the stairs, seen skin coming from beneath clothes. The house did not love the way a dog would love, unthinking, beating back up after a cuff to the nose; or the way a child did, through lack of choice and necessity.
It loved her darkly and greatly and with a huge, gut-swallowing want that killed the hive of wasps that were building hard in the wall and cut the electricity for odd, silent hours: When the lights came back on, the radio and television and washing machine jerking into action, he raised his hands in mute applause, but it was not him who had done it. The house did not have the human complication to worry that its love spun often into hate.
Or to think that the shape of Margot beneath the blankets, or the rise of mosquito bites as if they were curses on her skin, was not her speaking back, not words or a signal, only an oblivious living.
Look, she said—look the bloody hell at this. They were in the attic; the wallpaper bellying down. Margot held her to the spot until Salma cried out and then let go. When she looked at her hand, the palm was red from the heat of the wall. She stepped back, out of reach, her hand wedged beneath her armpit. Margot was up close to the wall, fingers pressing until the heat became too much and then withdrawing.
Returning with insistence, withdrawing. What do you think it is? Margot dropped her hands and approached the spot with her mouth, tongue out to taste the heat flicker on the air. Come on, Salma said.