The way to get where Zillah goes is written in a book. Zillah keeps the Book hidden in a bookcase, slipped in amongst the others. Sometimes she loses the Book, and then she has to search through the bookcase, turn her room upside down, and squeeze her hand down the back of the bed looking for it. Other times the Book stands out, a bright red stripe glowing among the black and brown and cream-coloured spines.
It’s easy to lose the Book because it’s always changing. There isn’t an author’s name on the cover. And every time Zillah opens the Book it’s different. Everything is different, even the title.
Today, it starts like this.
The ballroom of the Grand Hotel by candlelight is amber and sepia, drifting into darkness at the edges like an old postcard. It smells of stale water, tallow, and dust. The ruby carpet is threadbare and shiny, and the plaster has been knocked off the walls, leaving bare brick in places, water-stained and sick. But in the candlelight the room still has a certain romance.
Hanging from the ceiling is a skeleton of a chandelier; the crystal gone, the bronze peeled away. But tonight, as if for a special occasion, there are candles in all the empty holders, and they glow pale yellow, smelling of scorched hair as they burn away the cobwebs on the steel bones.
Under the chandelier, a horse flicks her grey and silver tail, stamps her feet and snorts. Steam pours from her nostrils and rises up to the ceiling in billowing white clouds. The horse is made of fragile, wavering lines, which soon dissolve into the shadows.
Zillah has never told anyone about the Book, but she thinks that she might one day tell Joy. If there is anyone trustworthy in the whole wide world, it must be Joy.
After school they sit in the library together, their knees touching under the thick wooden desk, and scour history books and comic books for lesbian heroines. They find very few, but they know they are there, somewhere, hidden behind the flourished capes, buried beneath the piles of burnished trophies and medals won by men.
“We could be lesbian heroines,” says Zillah. “We could be in a comic book.”
“Artists are all sicko pervs,” says Joy.
“You’re an artist,” says Zillah. She shows Joy what she’s reading, pushing the book over the table.
It is Ursula Bluethunder, Zillah and Joy’s favourite comic book. Ursula Bluethunder is a radical black, woman-loving superheroine, whose mission is to establish a lesbian separatist nation with money that she steals from banks using her superior intelligence, strength, and martial arts skills. She likes hanging out in libraries, too.
Joy sighs. “I want to live in New Free Lesbiana. I wish Ursula Bluethunder was in here right now, browsing in the reference section.”
“She might want one of these books.” Zillah leans forward, over the desk. “She’ll come over and say, hey you women, have you got . . . this, er,” she flips over a book to read the cover, “Women in England, 1760-1914, and we’ll be like, sure, take it. . . .”
“No, she’ll be like, hey are you two lesbians? I’ve got my horse outside, let’s go!”
“Yeah, and then you’ll be all like, stop, stop! I need to get my passport . . .”
“And she’ll go, no need young lesbian, for New Free Lesbiana is open to all women who love women!”
“Women who love women,” says Zillah, smiling.
And the librarian raises her head and tuts at the two girls, who giggle, covering their faces with their books.
Joy’s drawings are full of character and strong, confident lines. Even Zillah’s mom, who doesn’t believe in giving the girls any praise in case they become conceited, has to admit that Joy’s got talent, although she doesn’t understand why she wastes it drawing comic books instead of proper pictures.
Sometimes Joy draws Zillah. She draws quickly, soft pencil flickering over the creamy paper, and in a few strokes she manages to capture Zillah’s likeness, her way of sitting, the frown line between her eyes when she’s thinking. Zillah blushes red under Joy’s appraising looks, gets hot cheeks and sweaty palms. When Ursula Bluethunder is attracted to someone, she never hesitates for a second. She makes her feelings plain. Zillah can’t imagine what it would take to be like Ursula Bluethunder. She doesn’t have the guts.
And Joy says, “What’s up with you?” and Zillah says, “Nothing.” But then the drawing shows her all lit up in a hot flushed energy field, and Zillah can’t meet Joy’s eye.
The two girls are in Zillah’s bedroom, which is in the attic. It has its own door with a little staircase behind, and then at the top of the staircase, an archway where Zillah has hung up a silvery beaded curtain, so that when you walk through the silver falls all around you in a tinkling rush. Zillah has painted the room in indigo and silver and hung up blue-violet tie-dyed throws she bought from the North Laine, and put candles everywhere, and crystal teardrops and coloured glass. There’s a big mattress with a patchwork throw and a limbless teddy called Tigsy that Zillah laughs at but secretly still loves.
Joy is sticking her pictures onto pieces of card. She’s making a comic book called The Hotel. The Hotel is full of ghosts, broken connections and failed love affairs. The drawings are murky and sepia, water-stained and shadowy. In The Hotel, Zillah is a Seeker. That means she can find ghosts, and talk to them. Her job is to seek out the lost souls of women who love women, and help them to find peace with her everloving kiss.
“There’s the horse,” Zillah says, pointing to one of the pictures, and Joy nods, concentrating on what she’s doing. All Joy’s drawings have horses in them. She and her mom have stables and they ride horses on the Downs at the weekends. Their favourite horse is called Andrea Dworkin. Joy’s mom named her after her heroine. Joy loves Andrea Dworkin best, but she rides all the horses. She has to, because people pay to keep their horses in the stables and have them ridden by Joy and her mom. It’s no hardship, because Joy loves horses.
Zillah doesn’t see the point of having a horse and paying someone else to ride it. On the other hand, she’s hoping that Joy will invite her over one weekend and teach her how to horse ride.
“I don’t get it,” says Zillah, after a while of looking over Joy’s shoulder. “Is it supposed to be like a fairytale or something?”
“I guess,” says Joy, her head bent over the pages, braids falling across her face. “I guess it’s kind of personal.”
“Oh. I liked the one where we grow gills and dive under the sea and free mermaids from the evil Patriarch Fish.”
“An artist has to grow,” says Joy, mocking herself and meaning it at the same time. “I can’t keep drawing Fish People. It’s boring.”
“I liked the Fish People.” Zillah flips through the stiff cut-and-pasted pages. “You’re not even in this one.”
“I’m in there somewhere,” says Joy. “Look harder. You’re the Seeker.”
But Joy puts down the drawings and Zillah lies back on the bed, putting her feet in Joy’s lap. Joy strokes the tops of her feet. She squeezes her toes and rubs her soles, pressing into the sensitive spots, and Zillah tries not to squirm, or breathe too heavily, like some kind of perv. Is this a friendly foot rub, or a sexy one? Do people give friendly foot rubs? Is there a cure for being in love with your best friend? She wishes she was Ursula Bluethunder. She wishes she was brave and fearless and never confused. She has her eyes closed, concentrating on the sensations that run up from her feet to her thighs and the feeling of getting wet between her legs, and she can’t help letting out a small sigh.
Then Zillah’s mom comes in with a tray of sandwiches and orange juice and Joy pushes Zillah’s feet from her lap and Zillah sits up straight. They both smile at Zillah’s mom, who puts the tray on the edge of the desk and picks up Joy’s drawings.
“Why don’t you ever have any boys in your drawings?” asks Zillah’s mom, who has probably never even heard the word “dyke” and would drop down dead on the spot if she knew her daughter was one.
Joy shrugs. “I don’t really like boys.” Zillah grins and Joy winks at her.
“Oh? Well, I suppose there’s plenty of time for that,” says Zillah’s mom. She puts the drawings down long before she gets to the one of Zillah the Seeker kissing a ghost in the Hotel lobby. In the picture, Zillah the Seeker is sitting opposite the ghost. Their knees are touching, and so are their lips, but only faintly. You can just see her tongue snaking into the ghost’s mouth. Later, when she’s alone, Zillah looks at the picture and masturbates quickly, effectively. It feels like this is what Joy intended, a message, a secret sign. Could it be? Ursula Bluethunder would know, but she’s not there to ask.
The ballroom of the Grand Hotel is dimly lit and cold. The chandelier makes a pale sun in the centre of the ceiling, radiating a little light around the middle of the floor, but Zillah the Seeker pads silently into the dark corners, carrying out her intricate search. All of her senses are alive, sending wavy tentacles of feeling into each corner, nook, and crevice. Right now, she doesn’t know exactly what she’s looking for, but she’ll know when she finds it. She won’t have any doubt. She knows everything that happens in the Hotel; and when someone checks in, it’s her job to find them in the dark.
There, now; there is something in a trembling shadow behind the door. She picks it up and holds it in her palm: a small flat stone, on which a picture is painted in faded blues and greys. A cloud swirls above a derelict pier, over a flat grey sea. Zillah the Seeker knows the cloud is supposed to be a thousand starlings, circling around and around.
“I’m getting soaked,” says Joy. Rain streams down her face, runs in rivulets between her cornrows, hangs in fat drops at the end of her braids. They are leading horses along the beach at Littlehampton. The sea is the colour of wet slate. Zillah’s horse, Edmund, has his head down, and Joy’s horse, Andrea Dworkin, is licking water from Edmund’s neck. Zillah is looking for treasure. It’s not like Brighton, where you find nothing but stones and shells and tin cans and crisp packets. This is a real beach. She picks up a small flat stone and licks it, scraping it over her tongue.
“Tastes of the sea,” she says.
“Freak,” Joy says, and brushes the rain out of her eyes. “Pebble-licker.”
Zillah shrugs and puts the stone in her pocket. “A souvenir,” she says.
“A souvenir of this rainy, miserable day,” says Joy. “That’s sweet, Zills.”
Zillah can’t work out if she’s being sarcastic or not, so she doesn’t say anything, just keeps her head down. But Joy grabs her hand and squeezes, and says, “I know, let’s play Ursula Bluethunder! I’ll be Ursula, and you can be my new lesbian recruit.”
They’ve played this game before, but never with real horses. It’s stupidly exciting to watch Joy galloping along the water’s edge towards her, splashing through the surf, shouting slogans at the top of her voice. Zillah tries to keep her face straight and not laugh, because she knows that would spoil the game for Joy, but later, as they canter across the beach towards New Free Lesbiana, Zillah shouts over to Joy, “I bet you play this all the time, don’t you?” and Joy laughs, throwing her head back in the rain. Zillah thinks, if she really were Ursula Bluethunder, she would have kissed Joy by now.
In the late afternoon, when they get off the train at Brighton station, the weather is worse. It is raining hard and the sky is dark, and the streets smell of chip papers and salt, stale beer and drifting tobacco smoke. Zillah swears. She’s left her jacket at Joy’s house, and the cold rain is making her shiver.
“You idiot,” says Joy. “Can’t believe you forgot your coat in this weather.” And then she grins and says, “Come on then! I’ll race you.” She starts running before she stops speaking, calling back to Zillah over her shoulder. Joy’s a fast runner, but Zillah’s faster, and by the time Joy gets to the house, Zillah’s already waiting under the porch, shaking her head and sending showers of rainwater arcing out around her.
“You run like a superhero,” says Joy.
“I am a superhero,” says Zillah, striking a superhero pose. “SuperZills!”
“GodZillah,” says Joy, and laughs at her. “Let us in, then.”
Zillah’s mom isn’t home from work yet, which is probably a good thing because she wouldn’t be impressed with the girls tracking rainwater all through the house as they make their way upstairs to Zillah’s bedroom. They empty their pockets of stones and shells, making a little messy puddle of beach in the middle of Zillah’s homework, and get changed into T-shirts and dry their hair. Zillah’s hair is very short, cut close to her scalp, and dries quickly, but Joy’s cornrows are starting to frizz and unravel. She sits cross-legged in front of the mirror trying to fix them.
“You should get one of those plastic rain caps that old ladies wear,” says Zillah.
“You should shut up.” Joy turns back to the mirror and tugs at the ends of her braids, which are starting to curl up. “I should just get dyke hair like my girlfriend.”
Zillah has never heard Joy use the word “girlfriend” before. She feels hot and hopes she isn’t blushing. “It’s not dyke hair,” she says. “It’s superhero hair. How am I supposed to save the world with an asymmetric bob?”
“A what now? Forget it,” says Joy, pushing the mirror away. She means, forget trying to fix her hair. “It’s ruined. Have to get my mom on the case.”
Joy’s mom is great at hair. She was the one who cut Zillah’s hair short, even though it sent Zillah’s mom totally batshit. Joy’s mom doesn’t ever listen to the other mothers. She does her own thing, which is probably why Joy is that way, too, not really seeming to care what people think. Zillah has a slight crush on Joy’s mom, which she’s never mentioned to Joy. It would make things weird. And she can’t take the risk of Joy actually spilling the beans. Sounds crazy, but Joy and her mom don’t believe in having secrets.
Zillah believes in secrets. Zillah has secrets that would make your head explode, if she ever told you.
The two girls stand at the attic window and look over the rooftops towards the sea. The old pier is silhouetted on a grey and gold sky, and thousands upon thousands of starlings are dancing over it. They look like iron filings, following the pull of a magnet in long sweeping spirals.
“It’s beautiful. I’m going to paint it,” says Joy.
“It’s so beautiful I want to eat it,” says Zillah. “It would taste of salt and . . .”
“Fish . . .”
They look at each other, and laugh. Joy says, “Mmm, gamey.” They’re standing so close, pushed up together in the narrow window bay. Now would be a great time to go in for the kiss, thinks Zillah, if only this were some kind of television series or corny story. She can feel her lips tingling, and the proximity of Joy’s mouth. What if Joy doesn’t kiss her back? What if this ruins their friendship forever? Joy doesn’t look away, not even for a second, and the moment stretches out into infinity: unknowable, unbearable, delicious.
At midnight, Zillah the Seeker blows out the candle and climbs under the blanket with the telephone. She sits with her knees pulled up to her chin, the blanket over her head, and can’t tell if her eyes are open or closed. The telephone’s bell jingles slightly as Zillah the Seeker pulls it towards her. She picks up the receiver and holds it to her ear.
The receiver is heavy, made of black bakelite, and there is dust in the curved mouthpiece that she disturbs with her breath when she speaks.
The silence inside the phone washes up against her ear, wave on wave, until after a while, she can hear sounds. Voices, music, a distant soundscape that makes her think of a television left on in another room.
“Hello,” she says again, as loudly as she dares, which is not very. This time there is a crack, like a bone breaking, and then clear as anything, Joy’s voice.
“Hey Zillah, is that you?”
The sound of Joy’s voice, with a smile in it, makes Zillah the Seeker’s heart beat a little faster.
“Where the hell are you? I’ve been calling your house all morning. Your mom thinks she’s got a stalker. And your jacket’s still at my house. Aren’t you cold?”
“It is cold here,” says Zillah the Seeker. “But I don’t really feel it so much.” She tucks her feet in and curls up tighter under the thin wool blanket. Once upon a time, she lived in a house that was warm even in winter. But it’s hard to remember.
“When are you coming over? I miss you. Stupid or what?”
“Not stupid.” She pictures Joy sitting on her bed, big jumper over her pyjamas and fluffy bed socks on her feet.
“I wish you’d come over. Ride horses.” Joy’s voice becomes quieter, a little despondent. This conversation always ends the same way. Like all conversations on the dead telephone, fading into the past. “Hey Zills, remember that day we went riding in the rain.”
“Sure,” says Zillah the Seeker. But Joy can’t hear her, anyway.
And then there is the click of the receiver going down, and for a few moments there is the wire humming, a nostalgic and beautiful sound. Zillah the Seeker listens closely, imagining a world where you could pick up any phone and hear that noise, and in the background would be your mom, cooking rice and chicken in the kitchen, and your homework would be on the floor in the living room and the TV on. But the humming grows quieter and fades into silence, and eventually Zillah the Seeker puts down the phone. That is the curse of a Seeker, to always be alone in the dark.
Zillah finds she can’t stand being in love. She gets angry. The infuriating uncertainty. The not knowing. She mutters that it’s not fair. If only she could know what Joy feels; if her thoughts were written in bubbles above her head, or spelled out in capital letters under every scene. Zillah has nothing, no proof of love. Only the nearly moments: hands brushing together when they walk, a certain lingering closeness when they hug hello. Zillah feels she is going mad with the nearness of things.
When Joy telephones to ask her to come out to the stables that weekend, Zillah only says she might, and then says ‘bye and puts the phone down quickly before Joy has a chance to say anything else.
She doesn’t know why it’s suddenly all Joy’s fault, but it is. She’s so angry that she can’t bear the thought of her anymore, but at the same time she wishes she could take everything back, ring her up and say sorry, and laugh. They could spend the weekend riding horses, drawing comics, and getting their hair cut by Joy’s mom. All weekend Zillah is imagining what they would be doing right now, if she was over at Joy’s place. The imaginings turn into passionate speeches, where Zillah tells Joy how she feels and demands to know where she stands with her. She cites every ambiguous moment, every paralysing look, everything Joy has ever done or said to make Zillah question herself. As if Joy is to blame for all of that. And then Zillah is sorry, and they both cry, and then, at last they kiss.
She knows she is being stupid and unfair. But she can’t help herself, until on Sunday afternoon, her anger finally fades, leaving her sorry. She sends Joy a text message, taking half an hour to come up with the words in the right order. The text says, sorry. Luv u. C u tmz? Xx.
But Joy doesn’t text back, and Zillah cries herself to sleep.
Someone is riding a horse through this story. Zillah the Seeker can hear the sounds of hooves under her sleep, and the colours of her sleep are all horse colours: tan, sable, palomino, Black Beauty and sorrel. The horses throw her and she wakes up with a headache like stallions charging back and forth inside her head.
She is shaking. The bed is so cold that there is hoarfrost on the blanket. The dead telephone is like a black iceberg in the middle of the bed, too painfully cold to touch.
She has never fallen asleep in the hotel before. That was a mistake. A very bad mistake.
The word stammering in her mouth is “No.” She says it over and over to herself, out loud, her voice shaking and her teeth buzzing together, again and again until the room is full of no, and no is in her hair and when she takes a big gulping breath, she inhales particles of her sorrowful no into her lungs.
She has never before lost the one she sought. She cannot contemplate failure now.
Someone is riding a horse through this story. Probably Joy. She’s one of those girls who always loved horses, and her mom encouraged her. She gallops over the downs on Andrea Dworkin, who was once magnificent, and still runs hard and fast but not so strong, because she’s old. And Joy, trusting her horse to be bold and brave, keeps riding her harder, pushing her over the sucking mud and along the wet paths. Joy’s head is full of Ursula Bluethunder stories.
Ursula Bluethunder is a talented horsewoman. It’s said that a horse taught her to ride, and that she communicates her intentions through her strong muscled thighs and her shifting weight, so subtly that she and her horse are like one fluid being, one horsewoman hybrid. Joy aspires to this mastery, imagining herself so connected to Andrea Dworkin. But the old horse is too nervous, not trusting enough. When they canter along the road, her hooves hesitate on the smooth surface. And when a car drives by too fast, wheels spinning in the wet, horn blasting out loud and wild, Andrea Dworkin rears and slips, and throws Joy off her back onto the slick black tarmac.
It’s Joy’s mom who comes to the house to bring Zillah’s jacket back. She doesn’t have to do that. She walks right past Zillah’s mom to get to Zillah, and folds her into a deep hug. They stand together like this for a long time, Zillah’s arms pressed to her sides, Joy’s mom pulling her in tighter and tighter until Zillah can hardly get her breath.
When she finally lets go, she looks Zillah right in the eyes and tells her, “They had to shoot Andrea Dworkin. Her leg was broken. I’m really sorry. I know you loved her.”
“You loved her too,” says Zillah.
“That’s right,” says Joy’s mom.
When Joy’s mom goes home, Zillah runs upstairs to her attic bedroom. She goes to the bookcase and runs her hand along the titles, bump bump under her fingers, touching every book. It’s not there. She tries again, going backwards from the bottom shelf. But the Book is hiding. Zillah jumps up and grabs the top of the bookcase, spilling the books onto her bed. She picks up each book and throws it to the side, until she is crying so hard that she can’t make out the titles, and she kneels down at the end of her bed with her face pressed into the covers.
“I don’t want to be in this story anymore,” says Joy.
Zillah looks up. Joy is sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed. Her hair is in cornrows again, neat and pretty. “I don’t want to be yet another dead lesbian in some stupid story. You can do better than this. Think of Ursula Bluethunder. She would never let this happen.”
“It’s your story,” says Zillah. “Your hotel. I thought this is what you wanted.”
“You’re the Seeker, Zillah. I thought you should work this out for yourself.”
The horse looks too insubstantial to ride, made of pencil and crayon and pastel, but Ursula Bluethunder sits astride her, as solid as anything, her powerful thighs clasping and controlling. She stretches out a hand to Zillah the Seeker, and lifts her onto the back of the horse in one smooth, flowing movement.
Zillah the Seeker wraps her arms around Ursula Bluethunder’s waist, and the horse walks out of the ballroom at a sedate pace. But once she gets to the lobby doors, the horse rears up and leaps right off from the top of the steps. Zillah the Seeker wants to scream, but the air is whipped out of her lungs as they plunge towards the ground. There is a clatter of hooves and Zillah the Seeker flies up from the horse’s back, but holds on tight to Ursula Bluethunder, who is laughing. They gallop through the narrow, twisted streets, charge through the Laine and along the cobbled alleyways towards the promenade, leap over the sea wall and canter along the path, and then they stop.
The pier flickers black against the indigo sky, haloed by a spiralling charcoal cloud. Zillah the Seeker reaches up and scoops a handful of birds out of the sky. They taste of salt and fish, wood and metal, sugar and cigarettes; they taste of Joy’s mouth, her tongue, circling and circling around hers.
It is not an infinite, unending moment of bliss. Their teeth clash and their tongues are too wet and Zillah keeps her eyes open the whole time, not quite believing this is happening. She’s expecting fireworks, a transport of ecstasy, thundering hooves, or something. But it’s nice. More than nice.
“About time,” says Joy, and laughs at Zillah’s expression. The rain falls harder against the window, making everything outside look impressionistic, like a painting. The dark pier with the intricate broken dome, and the smoke curl of birds drifting above, are blue and grey, blurred with rain.
“I thought you were never going to kiss me.” She slides her hand around Zillah’s neck and they kiss again, and this time it’s better, sweeter, deeper, and Zillah feels the warmth snaking down her throat and into her veins. They kiss for a long time, standing in the attic window, whilst outside the starlings dance and turn and twist into shapes, even briefly forming the shape of a heart, before disappearing into the night.
At least, that is what it says in the Book.
When Zillah’s mom finds out that Zillah and Joy are dating, she’s inconsolable. It’s the twenty-first century, everyone says. Chill out. But Zillah’s mom is just nuts about that kind of thing. No one else cares. Even Zillah manages to get over herself. She finds out that the world doesn’t end when she gets up the nerve to kiss a girl. If anything, the opposite.
Zillah hides the Book in the bookcase, and for a long time it stays hidden. She decides that life is more interesting than stories in a book. Eventually, she forgets the Book altogether, and it gets truly lost, bought and sold and shipped overseas and back again. Zillah wouldn’t know the Book today if it landed in her lap.
Today, it ends like this.