Kate was sleeping when he knocked on her door. It was early, not yet six, and the sound of banging continued until she was out of bed. She glanced in the mirror over the basin as she passed: her skin was paler than usual, puffy from the cheap wine she had been drinking in her room the night before. The banging started again and Kate pulled the door open. Standing outside was a boy wearing only a towel, his skin still wet from the shower.

‘Shit,’ the boy said. ‘Shit. I’m so sorry. Were you asleep?’

‘I mean, it is the middle of the night,’ Kate said. She didn’t recog- nise him, but if he lived in this building then he must also be in his first year. ‘What time is it?’

‘Let me check my pocket watch?’ The boy patted his towel. ‘Oh, wait. I’m naked.’

‘A comedian,’ said Kate drily. But she kept her foot on the door so it wouldn’t swing shut.

‘Can I come in? It’s kind of an emergency.’

The boy’s name was Max and he’d locked himself out of his room when he’d gone for a shower. He came inside, letting the door slam behind him and adjusting his towel.

‘Do you think you could go and get the master key for me?’ he said. ‘It’s just I can’t walk across college in a towel. I’ll frighten  the tourists.’

‘Why are you up so early?’ Kate said, ignoring his request. ‘I thought lectures didn’t start until tomorrow.’

‘I was with a friend,’ Max said. ‘She’s across the river. I just got back.’

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‘I’m comfortable with my masculinity,’ he said. ‘Let’s do it.’

Kate was annoyed by the disappointment she felt; she tried for a playful tone to disguise it. ‘How about I lend you some clothes?’

Max shrugged. ‘I’m comfortable with my masculinity,’ he said. ‘Let’s do it.’

Kate gave him a pair of black jeans and a hoodie, looking at her phone while he changed. ‘What are you studying?’ she said.

‘Languages.’ Max had gone to her shelf, and was examining the books she had taken all summer to read. They barely seemed to occupy any space. ‘Same as you. Don’t bother with this, it’s bullshit.’

Kate glanced up at the book he was holding out to her.

‘I’ve read it already,’ she said. ‘And it’s not. Some of it’s feminism. You  have to wash those jeans before you give them back to me, by the way.’

Max shoved his hands in the pockets and grinned. Her jeans were way too short for him.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’m very clean.’

After he left, Kate got back into bed but she couldn’t sleep. Now he wouldn’t come back straight away to return the jeans. She hadn’t asked which room he was in, or what time he was leaving for their first French lecture the next morning. In the whole of her long first week at university he was the first person who’d been in her bedroom. Lying there she was aware – as she had been on the day she’d moved in – of the silence of her building, the empty corridors, the sense of new lives beginning elsewhere. Her room, with its wide windows, felt vast and strange compared with her bedroom at home.

That first day Kate had overheard a mother telling her daughter that these halls had been built in the 1960s when the more elite universities were made to widen their access. Walking behind them, dragging her suitcase, she’d caught a glimpse of the girl’s profile and wondered if she was living near her; perhaps she would come to her room later, they’d go together to the bar. But then her mother steered her through an archway into the next court and towards the river, where Kate had since discovered the majority of her year were living, in the older accommodation blocks with their winding stone staircases and creeping ivy.

Kate rolled over: she needed to get up and have a shower. She’d been avoiding the canteen but wondered whether she might find Max there. She heard another knock on the door, a light tap this time. It was him, wearing a soft black jumper and his own jeans, his dark hair almost dry.

‘Kate Quaile,’ he said. ‘I like your name.’

Kate frowned. ‘How do you know my name?’

‘It’s above the door.’ Max pointed up at the door frame, and Kate saw that on the little finger of his right hand he wore a gold ring. ‘So,’ he said, smiling brightly. ‘What shall we have for breakfast? I’m paying. To apologise for waking you up.’

The following morning he came past on his way to their first lecture and banged on her door until she let him in. She’d only just got up, but he didn’t mind that she made him late, showering and then sitting on the floor in the patch of sunlight under her window to put on her make-up. He sat at her desk playing tinny music through her laptop, and came by the following day, and the next.  As they walked together Kate observed that he spoke in tangents, so that whenever she asked him a question he would always take the conversation elsewhere without answering her. Other students were always stopping to talk to him, and she soon came to realise that she would not have him to herself for long: he was never alone, always busy, on his way to meet an old school friend or girlfriend. He seemed to know everyone. But she began to listen out for the sound of him bounding up the stairs two at a time to slump in the armchair at the end of her bed, drunk or high and filled with gleeful loathing for the people he’d spent his evening with. On those nights, they would talk until Kate fell asleep, at which point Max would leave, slipping softly from her room. Sometimes, when the door shut behind him, she briefly woke, and wondered if she had dreamt that he’d been there.

A few weeks into term, after the summer had given way to autumn, Kate felt her sense of loneliness begin to lift. It was not so hard, now, to make other friends; she was starting to feel more confident. But when she went out without Max she had to check herself, in case she referred to him too often in conversation, or became preoc- cupied by the texts that would arrive from him in intermittent bursts, wanting to know where she was and what she was doing. On one such evening, Max had found her just before midnight sitting outside a kebab shop in the centre of town, delicately dissecting her lamb shish. She had been coerced into a night of structured drinking with the other students on her floor, and had managed to give them the slip during the migration from bar to club. Max crouched down beside her.

‘This is almost inedible,’ said Kate, her mouth full, offering him a plastic fork.

They took the kebab back to Kate’s room where she placed it on her shelf next to her cereal: her head was swimming and she was already anticipating a difficult breakfast. Max sat up on the window- sill, pushing the window half open to the cool night air. At the time he was refusing to listen to anything except a single Frank Ocean song, which he started to play now; Kate took his phone from his hand and connected it to her speaker. Max rolled a cigarette.

‘You know, a bouncer told me to “get to fuck” tonight,’ he said. ‘It’s been so long since anybody has told me to actually get to fuck.’ He sounded almost wistful.

Kate tried to focus. ‘Why did he say that?’

‘I don’t know. I was trying to help with his queueing system. Streamlining it.’

‘Oh, Max,’ Kate said. ‘I’m sure he really needed that.’

‘Obviously. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had to let people in the side door.’

Kate lifted herself up onto the sill beside him and took his cigarette between her fingers. She was really drunk, she realised, only hazily aware of the window latch digging into her back as she leaned against the frame.

Max sighed. ‘This is always the best part of the night, anyway,’   he said. ‘I don’t know why we ever go out.’

‘You should have followed my lead.’ Kate blew smoke out of the window and turned towards him as she did so. ‘If you’d stayed in quarantine for the first fortnight you wouldn’t be stuck with so many friends.’

‘I know,’ Max said. ‘I have no one to blame but my abundant charisma.’

‘Nothing.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing to blame, not no one. Charisma isn’t a person.’ Kate was slurring assertively. The cigarette had made her light-headed.

‘It is when it’s this abundant,’ Max said, as she started to clamber back down. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Getting ready to go clubbing,’ Kate said, crawling under her covers.

‘Oh come on – you can’t abandon me. It’s not even midnight.’ Kate reached for her phone to verify this.

‘OK,’ Max said. ‘It’s a little bit after.’

‘You can stay but you have to be quiet,’ Kate said.

‘Can I borrow some  pyjamas?’ he said,  closing the window. ‘You can,’ said Kate. ‘But not because I’m nice. I just don’t want you to be naked. They’re in my top drawer.’

Wearing Kate’s checkered pyjama trousers and a T-shirt, Max got into bed and kicked at the duvet, wriggling down next to her. She shuffled up against the wall to make room for him and Max put his arm around her and nestled into the pillow. He groaned.

‘Oh my God. This is fucking blissful.’ They lay there quietly, neither of them quite able to relax.

‘Kate,’ Max said after a while. ‘What?’

‘You know when people tell you to “get to fuck”?’

‘No, but go on.’

‘Well, where is it?’

‘What?’

‘Where is fuck? How do you actually get to it?’  She couldn’t tell if he was dozy now or just drunk. ‘In your dreams,’ Kate said.

Before she’d got into bed she’d felt exhausted, but now the unfa- miliar presence of another body had put her on alert, and while Max’s breath slowed to the heavy rhythm of sleep, she lay there not wanting to move in case she disturbed him. For a moment, she wondered what he would do if she turned towards him, so that her cheek was on his shoulder. Her chest tightened, and she didn’t know if she was more afraid that he would stay sleeping, or that he would respond.

-

In the morning, Kate woke feeling irritated by Max’s invasion. She climbed over him, careful to knee him in the thigh as she did so, and went to shower. He still wasn’t up when she returned, so she reheated her lamb shish, confident that the smell would drive him back to his own room. She loaded up a forkful and wafted it in his direction. Max groaned, turned his head away.

‘You sleep in a girl’s bed and don’t even have the decency to accept her kebab scrapings the next morning?’

‘I’m going out for breakfast,’ Max said, squinting and lifting his head from the pillow. His phone started to vibrate, and he scrabbled for it under the covers. ‘Hello – are you here already?’

‘Who are you having breakfast with and why haven’t you invited me?’ Kate said, when Max hung up.

‘My mother,’ said Max, as he pulled off the T-shirt Kate had lent to him. Kate watched him from her chair. There were so many things she still didn’t know: Max hadn’t mentioned that his mother was coming to visit; in fact he had spoken about his family even less than she hadabout hers. When she’d told Max she lived with her mother in a Gloucestershire village called Randwick, he’d stopped her, surprised, to say that his grandmother’s house was only one village away. She sensed somehow that there was little else he wanted to share. She knew that the Rippons lived in London, and that Max’s mother was French-Moroccan and worked in film. Only recently had she realised that Titus was the name of Max’s dog, rather than a younger brother – an easy assumption to make from the way Max talked about him.

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Even more than Max, his mother seemed to Kate to be from another world.

After he left, Kate got up and put the kebab, which had finally defeated her, in the bin under her desk. The air in her room was stale and she went to the window to breathe. In the courtyard below she saw Max, walking in step with a dark-haired woman. She was wearing a long camel coat, tied at her waist, and she carried a leather bag in one hand. Kate watched Max turn round, walking backwards now, pointing up at their building, to where his room was. The woman turned too, and Kate stepped back a little. She was wearing sunglasses, so Kate couldn’t tell where she was looking, but after only a moment she turned away and linked her arm through Max’s.

Even more than Max, his mother seemed to Kate to be from another world. For a moment, she tried to imagine her standing among the other parents at her secondary school leavers’ night. Somehow she couldn’t see this woman making her son pose for excruciating photographs; neither could she see her making small talk with her own mother, Alison, who had arrived after all the other parents in the overalls she wore to her weekly pottery class. Probably Max’s school had thrown some glamorous party in London, rather than the ‘summer ball’ that had taken place in a local farmer’s barn. Later that day, when Kate asked Max how his breakfast had been, he gave her unnecessary detail, starting with the particularly streaky bacon he’d had with his eggs. This time, she interrupted, and asked him straight up.

‘What does your mother actually do, in film?’

‘She’s a director,’ said Max.

‘A famous one?’

‘She’s done some big films.’ Kate persevered. ‘Like what?’

Max paused. ‘Inheritance,’ he said, dropping the deflection. ‘L’Accusé, Miel, Blue Bayou.’

‘Shit,’ Kate said. ‘I’ve heard of those. I’ve actually seen some of them.’

‘You should have told her. She’d love that.’

Kate did not point out to Max that because he had not introduced her to his mother, she’d had no opportunity to tell her that she liked her films. She already felt as though her questions had become intrusive. But when she got to the library, instead of working on her essay for the next day, she searched ‘Blue Bayou director’. Zara Lalhou – it was a name Kate recognised. In the subsections of Zara’s Wikipedia page appeared Max and his older sister, Nicole; their father, William, a vascular surgeon; their west London home; her extensive filmography.

When Max texted to ask how her work was going, Kate closed the web page and cleared her history. But later, when he was out at a dinner, she closed her curtains, got into bed and watched Blue Bayou on her laptop. This was one of Zara’s later films, and one of her most commercial – English language and Hollywood-produced. Kate had seen it when she was fifteen, around the time that she had started going alone to the cinema after school, when she couldn’t face going home. Now that she was watching the film for the second time, she couldn’t believe she had forgotten the palm trees bent beneath a summer storm, the sea glittering black in the early hours, the force of the despair that drove the main character into the water. At the end, Kate shut her laptop without closing down the screen, and went to sleep thinking of the woman standing and looking at her reflection in the panoramic window of her Miami apartment, not knowing, not caring, who could be looking in.

 

  • What Red Was

  • *An Observer Hottest-Tipped Debut Novelist of 2019 and Elle One To Watch*

    A deeply necessary book, elegant and assured even as it burns at the centre with cool, clear-eyed rage’ Sophie Mackintosh, author of The Water Cure

    ‘Kate Quaile,’ he said. ‘I like your name.’
    Kate frowned. ‘How do you know my name?’

    Throughout their four years at university, Kate and Max are inseparable. For him, she breaks her solitude; for her, he leaves his busy circles behind. But loving Max means knowing his family, the wealthy Rippons, all generosity, social ease and quiet repression. Theirs is not Kate’s world. At their London home, just after graduation, her life is shattered apart in a bedroom while a party goes on downstairs.

    What Red Was explores the effects of trauma on mind and body, the tyrannies of memory, the sacrifices involved in staying silent, the courage of a young woman in speaking out. And when Kate does, this question: whose story is it now?

    'I think this is the best debut fiction I've ever read… If you like David Nicholls, Tessa Hadley, Elizabeth Day, Meg Wolitzer, Donna Tartt…it's exceptional' Pandora Sykes The High Low

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