Whilst crossing the road James was distracted by an impressively lifelike picture of the actress Debbie Markey, tattooed upon the midriff of a young woman wearing a top so small it could almost be considered a bikini; and, in truth, James’ attention was not any sexual desire he might have had for the young woman or for Debbie Markey, but instead was an expression of concern for the amount of bare flesh subject to the elements, for although it was a summer’s day the weather was unusually inclement and the wind was chilly and blew so hard against Debbie Markey’s tattooed face that the ink seemed to ripple; he stopped; he stared at it; a car ploughed straight into him and he was killed instantly.
And ever since, his widow Angela had always held a grudge against Debbie Markey. She didn’t like her movies. She wouldn’t read a fashion magazine that had Debbie Markey on the cover. She actually booed during the Oscar ceremony that year Debbie Markey was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and then toasted the TV screen when Debbie Markey lost the award to Judi Dench. Angela kept her grudge hidden – she’d watched the Oscars alone, she and James had often watched them together, or the edited highlights at any rate, James had always said it’d help them to decide what to rent from the video store, the range on display was so bewildering, and he could never work out what was what and time after time he’d come home with something shit – but now Angela had no one to watch the Oscars with any longer, she didn’t even bother with the popcorn that she and James had always shared, James saying, “It’ll be like we’re really there!”, though Angela didn’t think any of those Hollywood stars ate popcorn. No one knew about Angela’s grudge against Debbie Markey, and had anyone known to ask about it, Angela would have admitted it was unfair (probably), that the photogenic beauty of Debbie Markey that so lent itself to distracting tattooed tributes was hardly the fault of Debbie Markey herself. But Angela needed someone to blame. Sometimes when she got up in the morning, all alone, that need to blame was a bitter taste in her mouth. Someone to hate. Debbie Markey would do.
So it happened, Angela’s sister Noreen hated Debbie Markey as well – although she did not know who Debbie Markey was, Noreen had little interest in the cinema. Had Angela ever confessed her Debbie Markey hatred to Noreen, Noreen would have made no connection to the Debbie Markey hatred of her own. There was no name she gave to the object of her hatred, she was just the woman whose giant face had leered down on her that moment she’d weakened and fallen into temptation.
And it’s a shame, perhaps, that Angela did not try to tell Noreen regardless – because ever since James’ death Noreen had found her sister increasingly hard to relate to, Angela seemed to glory in being a widow in a way Noreen could never quite put her finger on, it wasn’t as if Angela mentioned her dead husband all that often, nor did she ever seem to ask for pity – she was coping, that was it, and Noreen thought there was something rather smug about all that coping, and she hated herself for minding she had a sister who coped. But Noreen wasn’t coping. Noreen couldn’t cope even with a husband who wasn’t dead, because she was bored with Frank, she was bored with him in a numb way that came over her every time they ate dinner together, shared a conversation, shared the bed – she wanted to cry out at him sometimes, for God’s sake, don’t you see that you’re losing me! Don’t you see that you’re pushing me away! – And into the arms of John, who worked with her at the library, who’d smile at her over the stacks of books and monthly periodicals, who one day said to her, “Let’s both take the afternoon off!” Not suggestive even, not even a hint of that, but naughty, like he was a naughty schoolboy, and here was Noreen, invited to be a naughty schoolgirl! – it had been so many years since Noreen had been a schoolgirl, naughty or otherwise, what else could she say but yes?
And they’d went off to a cafe and had lunch, and conversation had been hard, there were no jokes they could make there about the ugliness of library patrons or the Dewey Classification System, but at least it wasn’t hard like Frank was hard, awkward and fumbling at least wasn’t boring. “Let’s go and see a movie,” John said, because it had started to rain, and they both ran there beneath his umbrella, and there was nothing suggestive about that either, but there also was, quite. All the while John had been the perfect gentleman, and he even bought her ticket – she tried to object, but he said she could pay for the tickets next time, and the promise of a next time thrilled her – and they didn’t even sit at the back, they were just two friends innocently watching a movie together in the middle of the theatre where all the world could see. What was it, some awful romantic comedy, oh, it didn’t matter. She wasn’t thinking about the film, she was thinking about John, and trying not to think about Frank, and wondering whether he might brush against her in the dark – John, not Frank – and getting a bit cross with herself because she was a married mother, not a little girl – and then, and then he was touching her, he’d reached for her hand, and she’d grabbed on to it a bit too eagerly – and she watched the pretty actress on the screen being smart and cute but didn’t listen to a word she said – and then, and then she moved their hands, together as one fist, she moved them on to her lap. And he began to flex his hand. He began to rub at her. And she hadn’t meant for that to happen, or had she? And she thought of Frank, Frank came back into her mind then, Frank with his usual bad timing, thank you, Frank. And John made a little whimper noise, and she didn’t know why, it wasn’t his lap that was getting such attention, and the whimper ought to have put her off, but it was really rather sweet. And up on the screen Debbie Markey’s giant face beamed down on her, and there wasn’t a freckle on it, not a hint of a single blemish, it was as if her whole skin had been airbrushed, and Noreen beamed up at her in turn, for a moment there was a whole lot of beaming going back and forth, one face so large and so perfect, the other small and a bit plain and flushed with guilt and joy in the dark – and then, and then Debbie Markey turned her back on Noreen, she was talking to Joaquin Phoenix now, and Noreen felt dismissed. And John moved his hand away, and she realised he’d had enough, he was done, he was spent, and she’d barely got started yet.
And they watched the rest of the movie, and at the end of it the giant woman found true love, good for her.
They went back to the library. And as the days passed, Noreen wondered whether John would ever discuss what had happened, but he never did, and she never did, and she began to wonder whether it had even be real, and John would still make jokes about the Dewey Classification System and sometimes Noreen would almost laugh. Noreen would think about John some nights in bed; she’d think about Frank; she’d think about Angela who was free to have anyone she wanted; she’d think of the no-named Debbie Markey and hate her. If only she could have told Angela of her hatred. They would have had something in common, it would have been nice.
Some days Aidan would hate Debbie Markey, and some days would love her with a passion so hot it made his cheeks burn bright red and his parents would wonder if he was having an allergic reaction to something – and the funny thing was, even Aidan couldn’t predict how his feelings towards Debbie Markey would shift, some days he’d wake in bed and lie there for a minute trying to work out which of the two extremes he had today; and he’d get up, brush his teeth, go to school, and whether it was love or hatred she was in his head always. He couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t cared about Debbie Markey, although he knew there had been one; her first film had only been released seven years ago (Look Who’s Flirting – Debbie Markey makes a spirited debut in this ensemble comedy – she’s one to watch), and Aidan was nearly fourteen, so that was a whole half of his life he had never even known there was a Debbie Markey in the world. Those years seemed impossible now. He wondered if he had been happier then. He suspected he had been.
Neither of his parents knew about Debbie Markey – Aidan kept all magazines and press cuttings carefully hidden in the secret space at the back of the wardrobe – and they certainly didn’t know about Debbie Markey Time, no one knew about that, no one must ever know, Aidan would die of shame, or maybe just kill himself, whatever worked. Noreen wouldn’t be back from the library until half past five, and Frank for home even later still – and if Aidan ran straight home from school, if he didn’t stop and talk to any of his friends, then he could be in his bedroom by quarter past four, he’d lock the door behind him, he’d turn himself into Debbie Markey. He’d put on the lipstick first – at the beginning he’d experimented with his mother’s, but mother never wore much make-up and whenever she did it was always beige, and Debbie Markey’s lips were plump and blood red. (They were even blood red in Pride and Prejudice – Debbie Markey lends firm support as the flighty Lydia, acting with great gusto and making this most wayward of the Bennet sisters rather loveable – and Aidan wasn’t sure lipstick like that could be historically accurate, but never mind; Debbie Markey looked good even in a bonnet.) Aidan would put on eyeliner, mascara, nail varnish too. He often didn’t bother with the nail varnish because it was hard to get it off before his parents got home, but sometimes they would both work late, or go on a shopping expedition at the weekend, and then Aidan would let rip and give himself the glossiest Debbie Markey nails he could – and he liked the way that even after he put on the remover his nails still seemed shinier to him, and he’d rub them with his thumb and they were so smooth – he bought his own make-up now, and that had been embarrassing at first, but no one in the chemist’s ever seemed surprised – maybe they thought they were presents for his mother, maybe he wasn’t the only one, maybe all the men the whole world over were painting their faces and pretending to be Debbie Markey. He’d be aroused, but he wouldn’t do anything dirty, that would be an insult to Debbie – and he’d say some of her lines, and pout at himself in the mirror, and when he lit a cigarette it wasn’t Aidan who was smoking, it was Debbie Markey in Bad Girl Feelin’ Good (Debbie Markey does her best to make this depressingly stupid romantic comedy watchable, and at times almost succeeds), he’d puff the smoke carefully out of the window and make sure there was lots of lipstick on the filter. He hated Debbie Markey. He hated Debbie Markey.
Some days Frank would look at his son and say that he was becoming quite the man now, he’d have to start shaving soon, look at that stubble! – and Noreen would laugh, and brush her fingers over his chin, and say it was so soft and fair, like teddy bear fur, and she hoped it always would be – his parents were great, they had such a wonderful marriage, they were always smiling, Dad was such a Man, Mum was such a Woman, where did that leave him? Because he didn’t fancy boys, none of the boys in his class, it was Debbie Markey he fancied, he worshipped her, he loved her completely – but sometimes to get right inside her head he became Debbie Markey, and she fancied boys, so maybe he should too, maybe he should try. She wouldn’t fancy him, though, he knew that. Not some lipsticked pervert standing naked in his bedroom pushing out his breasts. She’d laugh at him. She’d snap on her bonnet and walk away. How he hated her.
Aidan’s cousin Mark had once snogged Debbie Markey, or some girl who looked like Debbie Markey; Mark never believed it was the real Debbie Markey, what would some Hollywood starlet be doing at all night service station in Peckham?; and had Aidan known that, it might have made the fantasies in his head harder to hold on to, it might have meant that each time he posed for the mirror he would suddenly picture the boy who six years ago had put stinging nettles down his trousers being stuck to the other end of his blood red puckered lips. It might have put him off for good. Possibly. Mark hadn’t been working at the service station for long, and he didn’t much enjoy it, but it meant that he got a bit of cash, and had a reason to sleep during the day – and that meant he didn’t get to see so much of his mother, and that was good. That was good because Mark didn’t think she was dealing as well with his Dad’s death as everyone else seemed to believe; oh, she put on a bright enough smile when people were around, but she didn’t bother for him, some days she’d look at Mark with frank disgust, as if she were annoyed to find he was in the house, as if annoyed that he hadn’t been the one knocked over whilst ogling some girl in the street; he heard the way she sometimes cried in the bedroom; she sounded so angry. Mark didn’t know how he felt about his father’s death, but when Nathan had said there was a night job going at the service station he’d jumped at it, and that surprised him – he didn’t want to work – he hated work – maybe, he thought, he was growing up at last, maybe that’s what a dead parent had done to him, and he couldn’t but help feel a little proud.
It was boring in the service station. But if no customers were there, and there rarely were, Mark could play his music pretty loud, he just had to keep an eye on the door to make sure no one came in, and that the manager didn’t make a spot inspection, but otherwise, yeah, it was cool. And he could steal free chocolate from the stock room. When the girl who looked like Debbie Markey came in Mark wasn’t paying attention, she came in so quickly that he hadn’t got a chance to turn the music off; he apologised, but she didn’t seem to mind. “I like it,” she said, so Mark turned the volume up again, though not as loud as before, that had been taking the piss a bit. Debbie Markey bought a Snickers bar and a can of Pepsi Max and ten Marlboro Lights. “Thanks,” she said, and Mark said she was welcome; “Can I stay here?” she asked. Mark didn’t know what she meant by that – “Can I stay here for a little while? It’s so dark out there, and cold. I want to stay here.” Mark said he supposed that would be all right, for a while at least, and the girl nodded, walked down one of the aisles, looked idly at the stack of breakfast cereal boxes. She ate her Snickers, she smoked a cigarette, and Mark didn’t have the heart to tell her she wasn’t allowed to do either, not really – but it meant he didn’t feel so bad about the music. He watched her on the security monitor. She looked so thin, but she was beautiful, she might be eating sweets and smoking fags but there wasn’t a blemish on her face like all the other girls had; and it was as if she realised he was looking at her, she turned to the camera and smiled straight into it.
She came back to the service desk. “Is there anywhere I can lie down?” she said. Mark said there was a staff area, but she couldn’t go there, because she wasn’t staff, he didn’t have the authority. She looked sad, though, and she said she was so tired, and Mark supposed it would be okay if she lay down on the couch out back, just for a bit; “If anyone comes, though,” said Mark, “you’re my sister, right?” Debbie Markey thanked him. He showed her to the staff room, he showed her the couch. He moved all the crap off it so she could rest. “You look like that actress,” he said, and she said, “I get that a lot,” and she put on a proper American accent, it was pretty good, it made him laugh. “What’s your name?” she said, and Mark told her; “What’s yours?” he said, but at that she just smiled. He wondered if she were drunk or stoned or something, but she didn’t seem to be, maybe she was just what she said she was, a girl who was tired of the dark and the cold and the night. “Would you hold me?” she asked. “Just hold me for a little bit, I want to be held.” Mark explained that he’d already left the service desk for too long, there might be a queue of angry motorists out there demanding to pay for petrol and snacks; “Come here,” she said, and he obeyed, and she kissed him on the mouth. “Look,” said Mark, “look.” She raised her eyebrows at him expectantly. “Look,” Mark said, “you seem nice. Maybe after the shift. Or. I don’t know.” But Debbie Markey was smiling, shaking her head, and then she gave a yawn, it made her look like a little girl. “You don’t have to be Debbie Markey,” said Mark suddenly. “You know? You can be your own person. You don’t have to look like her. You don’t have to try so hard. You can be anyone you want to be.” Mark was so surprised; Debbie Markey made no reaction, she just drank the words in, then nodded. “I want to sleep now,” she said.
Mark turned off the light and left her. He didn’t get another customer the rest of his shift, and at five in the morning Nathan came to relieve him. Nathan stank a bit; Mark thought Nathan had been drinking. “Hey, there’s a woman in the back, sleeping,” said Mark; he tried to say it lightly, not to make too much of it; Nathan laughed, “She some sort of skank?”, and Mark laughed too, and felt a bit guilty, because the girl had been nice, hadn’t she? And the kiss had been just that, nice. “I’m going to take a look!” said Nathan, and Mark laughed again, and told him not to, let her rest, just let her be for a bit. Nathan said it would be okay, he just wanted a peek. “Come on!” said Nathan, like this was the biggest adventure, “let’s see what she looks like!”, and Mark followed behind. “Well, where is she?” said Nathan, because the room was empty; “She must have left,” Mark said, “yeah, I remember now,” although he hadn’t seen her leave, and the back door didn’t work, it was jammed, it had been jammed before Mark had started working there, the only way he could imagine she had got out was through the window in the staff toilet. “Whatever,” said Nathan, and he put on his overalls, and went to the counter. Mark said he’d follow him out in a moment. But first of all he went to that toilet, and sure enough, the window was open, but it was a lot smaller than he’d thought, could she really have got through it, even as thin as she was? And he pictured her now, scrunching in her shoulders, standing on the bog bowl so she could crawl through that tiny space, covered as it was with dirt and dust and shit, the girl who looked like a famous Hollywood actress, who was on the cover of magazines, who was on the cover of magazines they sold out front right now, most probably. Mark felt sad. He felt sad she hadn’t wanted to say goodbye, that she’d wanted to avoid seeing him again quite that much. But mostly he just felt sad, for no reason at all, just the same sadness he’d had when he’d arrived for the shift six hours ago – and he got his crap together, put on his jacket, and went home.
It was all over the news that Debbie Markey was dead, killed by an overdose of drink and drugs. No one could say whether it was misadventure or suicide, but why would it have been suicide? – she was young and successful and brilliant, and quite blemishless, she was beautiful, she had her whole life ahead of her. But who understands how these Hollywood stars behave? They’re not people like you and me.
When Mark heard the news he was actually glad, and not just because he was high. He hadn’t thought of that girl in the service station for months, and now he did. She would be free. She could be herself, and not just a lookalike of someone luckier and more talented. – And if she had been the real Debbie Markey after all, well, there was an end to it now. There was an end. And he didn’t think her about her again. Literally, he never thought of her again.
Aidan was at school when he heard his alter ego was dead. The headmaster used her death in assembly as a warning to them all of the dangers of pleasure and excess. Aidan wanted to throw up right there and then, but he held it together – by morning break he’d swallowed down the nausea, by lunchtime he was quite composed. He didn’t run home for Debbie Markey Time. He walked back thoughtfully. He went to his bedroom as always, locked the door as always. He looked at himself in the mirror. “We’re on our own two feet now, baby,” he said; it was the tagline for the Debbie Markey movie that had been named, appropriately enough, Own Two Feet (a wretched mix of whimsy and sentiment, do yourself a favour, avoid). He smiled, and in the reflection it was Aidan who smiled back, not Debbie. And when he put his lipstick on, it was in his own unique style.
“What’s the matter?” Frank asked Noreen that night. As if it wasn’t obvious, as if what had happened to Angela hadn’t been enough, let alone Debbie Markey – because Noreen now knew Debbie’s name, she couldn’t escape it, the giant face was everywhere, on every news bulletin. No Angela, just Debbie, but that was the way it should be. Because just look at that girl’s career, how many movies she had appeared in, the wonderful luck she had had – Noreen should never have hated her, she should have been inspired by her, and it was all over now, it was gone. But it wasn’t too late. Because Debbie had died at twenty-six, and that was tragic like all the TV people said – and Noreen was thirty-three. Noreen knew her life had to begin right here, right now, Debbie Markey had died so Noreen could live, Debbie Markey had packed a lifetime of achievement into such a tiny space and Noreen had to meet that challenge. She wouldn’t be like her sister, what had her sister achieved? She would leave the library, quit a job full of people who sniggered at her behind her back, with a man who changed shifts just to avoid her. She would leave Frank. “What’s the matter?” Frank said, and Noreen said, “Nothing at all.” – She thought maybe she would get a tattoo. Something for all the world to see.
Angela had heard the news on the car radio. And for a moment she felt jubilation, true jubilation. The bitch was dead. And it was as if a cloud had passed overhead, a cloud that had been there so long that Angela hadn’t realised the sunlight was obscured – and now the light was there, and it was warm, and it was dazzling. And all the grief of the last years just falling from her. All the hatred was gone, there was no use for it any more. And she thought maybe this was shock, maybe at last this was the weight of James’ death catching up with her, maybe this wasn’t a good thing after all, maybe the joy in her heart wasn’t relief and the laughter in her throat was hysteria, and who would she hate now? Who would she hate? Who would she hate? James’ memory? Mark? Herself? Maybe herself? And she was still laughing as she drove straight through the red light, she saw no red light, only this brand new blinding sunshine, and it was only the sound of the pedestrian smashing into the front of her car that stopped the laughter dead, and she watched the body as it flew upwards, high into the air, like magic, like a shooting star.