An extract from Too Close and Not Close Enough, a collection of short fiction about women in London, by Gemma Seltzer.
Sadie wants the bagel with salt beef and plenty of mustard. She wants it hot, but not so hot she’ll burn her mouth. She says she wants the bagel sliced in half, do they do it sliced? Can she have pickles, and also can she have two shakes of pepper?
‘Two shakes?’ asks the woman behind Beigel Bake's counter. Her hand hovers near the pile of fresh bagels. Each is open and plump, layered with tongues of meat. ‘I’ve worked here for fifteen years,’ she says, ‘and no one ever said exactly two shakes.’
Sadie whoops and clasps her hands together as though she’s won a prize. Her necklace catches Brick Lane’s sunlight shining through the glass doors. People along the queue comment and smile. Two men in high vis jackets call to her.
‘What can I say?’ she replies, scrunching her hair on one side. ‘I know what I want.’
I’m sixth in line and, like everyone else, like everyone always did, I’m watching her. We haven’t seen each other since school.
I’d arrived in the middle of term, moving from my parents’ house in Luton to my cousin’s place on the edge of London. I was small, shy and played the violin. Unexpectedly and swiftly, lots of girls singled me out as their friend. Many wanted to be in plays or on television. I would watch them arrange their hair by their lockers and listen to their complaints about others. When I first saw Sadie, I thought she was beautiful. She noticed I was from out of town. ‘I like new things,’ she said, linking arms one day. We were fourteen when we started to spend time out of school together.
Sadie liked to create alternative versions of me. I remembered one time in particular. We sat in my front garden and she spat into a palette of mascara, the kind they made in the sixties, to mix a black paste with the tiny brush. She drew the wand along my lashes. ‘The trick is to work slowly,’ she said. ‘It builds up with each application.’ After blowing on my eyelashes, she said, ‘I have five layers on today.’ She held up a mirror to my face. ‘Do you like it?’ I nodded, turning my head from side to side. ‘You look amazing. You look like a different person.’
The woman says, ‘Two shakes.’ Opening the bagel, she adds the pepper and the pickles, then spreads mustard on top. Sadie steps backwards from the counter, digging around in her purse. Her eyelids are pastel-coloured with a meticulous dark arch of eyeshadow in the socket crease. She has radiant red lips. We’re both in our late thirties, and she’s tremendous with it.
‘Hey,’ I call over as casually as I can. ‘Sadie?’
Sadie snaps her purse closed and looks at me. She says nothing.
‘Your hair looks great,’ I say. I didn’t think I’d see her again but if I ever imagined the moment, this was always my first line.
‘You really think so?’ She tucks a strand behind her ear. ‘Juliet,’ she says. ‘Been such a long time since I thought of you.’
I was dedicated to Sadie. I kept notebooks of everything she liked (pink lipstick, peonies, greyhounds) and what she didn’t (rabbits, strong tea, eyebrow piercings). On weekends, it was the two of us. We played her parents’ vinyl in her bedroom, listening to every song. Or, we’d watch videos. Her favourite was The Graduate. It wasn’t only the mascara: we loved everything from the sixties. I’d read Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow and made us watch the film version again and again. I wanted to be like the main character Joy, who pushed her pram across London pavements with her backcombed hair and a sad, but hopeful, internal monologue. ‘All any woman wants is a man and a baby,’ says Joy in the film.
Sadie’s eyes drift across my body. She is searching for something to say. ‘You know, I like your top,’ she says. ‘Classic styling.’
My shirt has a toothpaste stain on it, which I’d tried to wipe away with a fraying tissue. An embroidered design over the pocket may have once been a fruit basket. I say, ‘Well, that’s a lie and we both know it.’
Sadie bursts into laughter. ‘Yeah, it’s horrid. Where the hell did you get it from?’
I smile and we hug, and she tells me all the things she has done and all the people she still knows from school. No mention of a family. She is head of marketing for an independent clothes label and teaches young fashion designers as part of a community entrepreneurship scheme. There is pride in her voice when she speaks.
‘Sounds amazing,’ I say. I watch her talk, her small mouth stretching in all directions. It’s fair to say I loved Sadie and she loved me. It’s equally true that I spent a large proportion of my teenage years hating her, while simultaneously wanting to be her. After twenty years, nothing has changed.
‘What about you?’ asks Sadie, shifting her bag on her shoulder. ‘What do you do?’
As I’m about to answer, the woman behind the counter waves for my attention. ‘Planning on ordering anytime soon?’ ‘Hi!’ I say to her, glad for the interruption. ‘How are you?’ I ask but she’s already looking down the queue. I smile brightly. ‘I’d love a peanut butter on poppy seed.’ The woman grimaces and holds out her hand for my money. She’s already raising her chin for the next person’s order when I thank her.
Sadie and I agree to stay a while and catch up. We take our bagels to the high ledge in the shop. She leans back, I stand by her side. Mirror tiles screwed to the wall hold the reflection of her hair. The shop is busy with a constant flow of people queueing for bagels. I tell her about the work I do and where I live.
‘You know, I remember at your cousin’s house the garage always smelled of sweat,’ she says. ‘Why was that?’ I shrug. ‘Such a weird thing to remember.’
She bites her bagel. She bites again. Mustard oozes from the sides. ‘So good.’
We’re talking about the teachers we remember when the men in the high vis jackets appear next to us and want to know if we’re enjoying the bagels. Both have shaved heads and wedding rings. There’s a high volume of winking.
They’re staring at Sadie and I stare at them. They’d travel across London for these bagels, they say. Best in the world. Sadie asks them how old they are.
‘I’m in the neighbourhood of forty,’ one says.
‘You should move to a different part of town,’ grins the other.
They all laugh and chat together while I pull off bagel pieces and chew them with my mouth open. One of Sadie’s arms now tucks under her chest, the other holds the bagel aloft. She isn’t eating it anymore and she probably won’t eat it now.
‘My cousin exercised in there, that’s why,’ I say, cutting into the conversation. ‘Weights and press-ups, that kind of thing.’ The three of them stop talking. Sadie looks at me as if remembering I’m there. She is so close I can smell her: fresh bedsheets and vanilla.
Sadie nods. ‘Makes sense.’
One of the men opens his mouth to speak, but I jump in again. ‘I changed my name. I’m not Juliet anymore.’ She raises an eyebrow to her new friends. ‘Really?’ I squeeze the remains of my bagel in its paper. ‘It’s actually…’ I find I can’t say the words.
Sadie smiles but her tone is sharp. ‘You may as well tell us now.’
Our younger selves are like dogs on leads, straining to reach each other, barking into each other’s faces. We’re holding on tight, but I’m about to set mine free. ‘Okay, fine.’ I raise my voice. ‘It’s Sadie.’
She stops grinning.
‘Are you serious?’ says Sadie.
A man in a flat cap at the counter is ordering three dozen bagels. It’s his twin sons’ birthday, he tells everyone. He’s excited. The bagels will be piled high like a cake.
‘Sadie,’ I say, louder than I planned but there it is, out in the world.
‘Nice name,’ says one of the men.
‘I think so. I’ve had it for a few years now. There was quite a bit of paperwork to do, but once it’s done, it’s done.’ Sadie puts her sandwich on the ledge, gently, as if it is precious. To the men, she says, ‘Nice name? Of course it is. It’s mine. She’s changed her name to my name.’
‘What?’ say the men, now uncertain of their position in the conversation. They only wanted a post-bagel flirt.
‘Yeah, I’m Sadie now,’ I say.
You can read the rest of Too Close and Not Close Enough in Ways of Living by Gemma Seltzer. Available to buy now on Influx Press, RRP £7.99.