One Friday when all the work for the week was done, the dangerous chemicals locked up, our supervisors brought out dark bottles of wine as usual. We drank it together out of thick plastic tumblers that marbled the light, sitting on the wiped-down benches and swinging our legs. It was my favorite part of the day, of the week. We had waited for it all through the afternoon. The wine was sustaining as a soup, dark and rich in our mouths, and I could feel it benefitting me from the first sip, setting the wheels in motion, sparking the wildness up or dampening it down.

We changed in the bathrooms into our going-out clothes. My tights were laddered already. They were always laddered. The tiles of the bathroom were deep green edged with white, and the lights were weak. In our reflections, bouncing back at us from long mirror, from vast stainless-steel sink, we belonged to the night. The small window of the bathroom high up on the wall let in a sliver of the sky where it was a clear ultramarine, deepening. 

Girlhood was gone. Girlhood was over and dead for us all. We didn’t miss it. In its place, anything could happen. We envisioned parties studding the city, people we were destined to meet waiting for us in pools of streetlight, in the places we expected it least. If you were a blue ticket your life could change at any time, you could make it change any time, and we were alternately complacent and anxious about the possibilities contained with that freedom. 

After doing our hair we helped each other with our makeup, shared a lipstick around like a cigarette and then shared real cigarettes around after that, walking to the bars, still passing a bottle of the wine from hand to hand. I tilted it to the sky and drank deeply. Some ran down my chin and I wiped it off with my fingers. I loved the ritual, the film of the alcohol on my lips, the hairspray smell, how we lifted up each other’s hair to spray perfume at the soft skin where the neck met the jaw. I even loved how sometimes I fell before we had reached the bars, curb coming up to sky, and my friends rallied around me to pull me back up, a skinned knee maybe, my shins permanently bruised. No judgement. Bringing me back up to where I should be.

There was a man in the third bar we went to, drinking beer from an unmarked glass. He was over a head taller than me and that was the first thing I noticed, and the second was his long broad shoulders in black cloth, the shoulders of a kind person, as if he was aware of the space his large man’s body took up and while not apologetic for it, he did not walk unthinkingly through the world. That will do, I thought.

The other women fell away. Me and the man drank short, honey-colored cocktails that sent out a halo of warmth in the darkness of the bar. His name was R and he was older, but not by too much. He paid for the cocktails with a flourish. A roll of notes kept in his back pocket; his shirt bleached white. It was hard not to touch him. Much later on, when we had moved to a table in a corner, and when we were drunk, very drunk, I showed him the blue ticket in my locket, but only for a second. Snapped it open then closed, like a hungry mouth. Some men would have been put off, but not him. He flipped a beer mat between his fingers. Good, he said. I prefer it that way. 

I took a mouthful of the golden drink to stop me saying anything rash. He put his hand on my knee and left it there. Desire turned up in me with a kick, a skipped heartbeat. All of my colleagues had gone, and I hadn’t even noticed. Outside the bar he gathered me into a lightless corner and onto him. He kissed me hard on the mouth and I put my fingers through his belt loops and pulled him against me for a second, several seconds, before pushing him away, both my palms against his chest, running to the train station over the street covered with rain, exultant, my body full of the dark feeling, not turning back, though I knew he would be looking.

The dark feeling by then was a shimmering, liquid thing, like a pool of blood or a black opal. It was a kind of raging joy, is how I can best explain it. I sobbed while I waited for my train, but I wasn’t sad.

On the way home the train was too bright and there was one other woman on it, a woman with red hair and a long skirt, two spots of color high up on the bones of her face, who met my eyes dead on and then stood up and walked down the train carriage to sit elsewhere, and I thought perhaps it was my weakness that had repelled her, that she had sensed it inside me and she wanted no part of it. Or maybe we were just two drunk women on a train, and she wanted to be left alone.

So I met my own eyes in the window instead, the sheer dark as we passed underneath a tunnel, and my face was pale and drawn, my hair was a mess, and when I got in I walked straight into my bedroom and lay down fully clothed, a thick taste in my mouth. And I knew very well what sort of woman I was, and I did not want to be that woman any more—not the sort you would move away from on the train, not the sort that would allow herself to be kissed by strangers, crudely, amongst where the empty bottles from the night were set out in boxes—and I thought please, I thought please, please, please, like a charm, until sleep took me over.

* * *

He looked up at me. You’re very pale, he said. I can read your mood in your skin. Think about what your body is telling you.

He passed me a tissue and I held it in my fist, let my eyes water a little.

That’s good, he said. Get it out of you. He handed me the piece of paper. See you on Thursday, he said, and then the session was over and I almost ran out to the car, pressed my head against the steering wheel once I was safely inside it.

*

Excerpted from Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh. Reprinted by arrangement with Doubleday Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Sophie Mackintosh.

Sophie Mackintosh

Sophie Mackintosh is the author of Blue Ticket and The Water Cure, which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and won the 2019 Betty Trask Award. In 2016 she won the White Review Short Story Prize and the Virago/Stylist Short Story competition. She has been published in The New York Times, Elle, and Granta, among others.

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