CHAPTER ONE — New Year’s Day

My name is Joplin Jones — please don’t laugh. I like Jo instead, Jo suits me better. Only my Dad calls me Joplin, when he does it in public I go bright red and cringe. On the subject of cringing, I woke up this morning feeling the familiar sting of shame. Why does New Year’s Eve always end the same way — completely plastered? I have no idea how I got home but I know I was alone when I got there (boo hoo). My best guess is that Big Dave hustled me to the front of the taxi line. He’s a bald, black love-bubble, easily the best mate I have. We both studied philosophy at King’s College, which is how we met. Yep, Big Dave is a good man to know. Today I came-to with a pounding head and remembered I’d left my coat at the club. Is today Friday? I lose track of the days at this time of year. Anyway, I managed to drag myself up just after dusk and forced myself out of the house during a gap in the rain. I knew mine would be the last coat in the cloakroom, hanging there looking sad, waiting for me. At about 5:00 p.m. I started the half-hour walk from my flat on Denmark Road to Corsica Studios to fetch it. I passed under the naked plane trees of Camberwell Road, past the chicken shops and 24-hour newsagents that had kept their promise and stayed open all the way through, even last night. McDonald’s on Walworth Road was packed with teenagers taking photos of each other on their phones and screeching. Some of the shops in Elephant and Castle had opened but were closing by the time I walked by. Life was continuing. I felt like I was dying.

At the club, a couple of people were cleaning up the remains of the after-hours party. I snuck in the back door and was hit with glare of lights and the stink of man-sweat and regret. Glitter and broken plastic cups covered the floor and under my feet I could feel spilled sambuca that had dried into tacky glue. Even worse, in more than one place I could see the remnants of vomit. What a catastrophe that lot is to clean up. A girl in a pair of Marigolds was trying her best to mop. I asked her if I could help myself to a glass of water from behind the bar.
 ‘I don’t have English’ she said, almost with sorrow.
 ‘Sorry,’ I said, which she understood because she nodded and frowned before she went back to cleaning up sick. I was parched. I considered going somewhere for a pint but I stopped myself because it’s about time to cut down, I’m thirty next year — Oh man! It’s 2016 now, I’m thirty this year.

Last night started well. I was out with a girl I’d been seeing for a couple of weeks and she showed up looking as-hot-as. It was a rager, we laughed like idiots every time we heard a new bassline rolling in because, in the magical mode of New Year’s Eve, every single track the DJ played was a cracker. At the countdown to midnight I put my arms around her neck. There was sweat and static between us as she looked at me, all smiles and fake eyelashes under the lights. It felt like we were in an indie film and that was the beginning of our mad, emotional story. We had definitely been into it and into each other I thought, until about twenty minutes after midnight. By then she’d wandered off. Apparently she ended up going home with a fella. I sent her a message when I woke up, “I suppose this means your new year’s reso is to be more straight?” I regretted it afterwards. I always text first.

I helped myself to my huge waxed Barbour from the cloakroom, zipped myself into it and stepped back out into the dark. I text Big Dave and went in search of coffee instead of beer. I decided to keep on walking north to get some air in me, to filter out the hangover and the disappointment. I stalked up Blackfriars Road and over Blackfriars Bridge in the dampness, with my hands shoved in my coat pockets. I put my hood up against the drizzle that was trying to start up again. I walked for another half an hour, maybe more, getting choked by bus fumes. Even that felt better than the cloying central heating of the flat and the suffocating emptiness of the unmade bed. It worked out. Big Dave text back to say he was having a kebab in Farringdon. He said that later that night he was doing door security for the Fabric New Year’s Day Party and did I want to go. I didn’t but I needed a hug from my best pal so I went to find him.

Big Dave calls me an eyeliner-lady-lover. I never wear lipstick so I’m not ‘a lipstick’ but I always wear eyeliner and I do love the ladies.
 ‘You look like hell woman!’ Big Dave said as he bear hugged me. His face was smothered in kebab sauce. Oh my god, that man has a hug that makes me feel like a fetus. I could live in it. I’m a twig compared to Big Dave, which is funny because we’re the same height. I found him in a divey little kebab shop, which was empty except for us. Half the bulbs in the Christmas lights that framed the window were out and someone had drawn a moustache on the plastic Santa that guarded the counter.
 ‘What happened then?’ he asked me. ‘Where’d she go?’
 ‘I thought you might be able to tell me.’ I nicked one of Big Dave’s chips and realised I was famished.
 ‘Didn’t see her leaving. Was she with a fella?’ He asked.
 ‘That’s what the barmaid said.’ I ordered a large fries with just a finger point. The kebab man smiled sympathetically. Nothing else was going to stay down but salt and carbs and the need to stuff my gullet had just become urgent.
 ‘That’s a shitter. She was hot.’ Big Dave’s kebab was hanging out of his mouth, going everywhere. I tried handing him a napkin but he shook his head and went in for another massive bite. Just before Christmas I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the plight of Christmas turkeys and other festive meats, including the NYE kebab. I usually do straight news pieces — some local politics, some national current affairs. Most of my work is published online but I had a piece printed in the Guardian in October and my Twitter followers quadrupled overnight. Anyway, after writing the meat piece as a favour for a friend, I’d eaten my Christmas dinner quite happily but the humble kebab had now changed in my eyes. I decided not to tell Big Dave the gory details while he was eating one.
 ‘Did you shower?’ he asked. I hadn’t even looked in a mirror. I probably had eyeliner and misery spread across my face in equal measure. My choppy blonde hair was still scragged into a topknot, a sure sign I’d been lax with my exit from the house and I had just spotted a smear of hummus on the knee of my drainpipe jeans. ‘Sweets, you need to look out for yourself. Stop hooking up with these nutters that keep messing you about. Why don’t you settle down with a nice mumsy type. Let her look after you.’ He gave my head a pat and I made a face at him. He loves me like a brother, teases me like one too.
 ‘Fuck.’ I said, about life in general and hangovers and entering the year in which my twenties would start laughing and waving at me from a distance as I headed into the abyss of middle age. The chips appeared on the counter and I got up to pay the guy and wish him a Happy New Year.

When I’d finished my chips, I left Dave to his night and headed back out into the dark. I called my Dad to check he was still breathing and hadn’t accidentally killed himself the night before through poorly planned adventure. It was of course Dad who’d named me after Janis Joplin. I guessed he would have held his annual New Year’s Eve party at his house with his old rocker mates and a handful of single fifty-something women in cowboy boots. I had no idea what those women saw in him but I suppose fame is exciting when it’s novel and he has plenty of fame. If it was money they wanted they’d be barking up the wrong tree with Buzz Jones. He’d spent all of his money on crap he didn’t need, like drugs and a porsche, and there was very little left.
 ‘I’m fine Joplin darlin’, all good in the ‘hood,’ he said, ‘Happy New Year babe. I’ve gotta go, got people here at the house. You should come over.’
 ‘No thanks Dad,’ the last thing I wanted to see was Dad trying to get his end away like it was 1975, ‘Happy New Year’. I didn’t really fancy talking to my mum. She’d ask me if I’d managed to file a news piece on the Munich shutdown and I’d have to tell her I hadn’t got anything in on time. I decided I’d call her the next day, maybe.

I cut through Bart’s Hospital towards St Paul’s tube station. The next round of party goers had started gathering in the streets and pubs. Last night’s grime had barely had time to settle into its cracks and the revellers were back out and chanting for more. More booze, casual sex, weird meat in polystyrene trays, night bus fumes, swearing — the whole kit and kaboodle. What a city. I live and breathe it. London sets the rhythm of my pulse but I needed my bed ASAP and the back streets were the best way to avoid the throng. I touched in at the ticket barriers and had to step around a snogging couple to get to the escalator. I expected them to make me want to cry, instead they made me feel like there might be hope. Then, as I was going downwards, I saw her coming up the other side. Possibly, probably, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, on the upwards escalator with headphones in. She had a big fur collar and knee high boots over tight black jeans. Her hair fell on her shoulders in jet black waves and her blue eyes were so pale they looked fake — but they weren’t. I pegged her for straight but there’s no harm in looking. There’s this thing that lesbians do, a stare to test each other out. If you hold the gaze long enough, you know that there’s a chance you both want the same thing. I wasn’t even trying to give her the gaze, I was so sure she liked men but as we passed one another on opposite sides, me heading down towards the soot of the subterrain and her being lifted up towards the bright lights of the ticket hall, she was looking at me. She held me in her stare. It made absolutely no sense. My hangover was firing off booze-damaged neurons and I was all mixed up in the other-worldliness of my brain coming back to life. When I reached the end of the escalator, lovers’ hope made me bold. When opportunity knocks, my friend, open the door. It won’t knock a second time. I turned on my heel and stepped straight back onto the upwards-side. I took two steps at a time to catch up with her as she headed off into her life. It was a life I knew nothing about, except that I definitely wanted to become part of it.

Soap Novel is written by Odette Brady and edited by Gill Siddle. A new chapter is published every week. If you like what you read please check in next week and consider sharing it with a friend.

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Originally published at soapnovel.wordpress.com on January 4, 2016.