HE NEEDED TO SEE HER. Desperately. Yes, he did remember they’d promised not to get in touch, but this was different. They were following him again … Of course, he was sure. There was a man standing at the corner of the street. He could see him from the phone box. The man was pretending to read a newspaper, but kept glancing up the road towards him … Was she calling him a liar? … No, it wasn’t the same man as last time. He hadn’t seen this one before. He would tell her more when she came …. He had to be quick, they were closing in on him … She should write the address down before his change ran out … Tobago Street number forty-seven … The tall house at the end. It was easy to get to … the other side of the river, New Cross. She could be there in less than half an hour … Okay, okay, it could wait till she finished work that evening. But she would have to promise … No, promise.
Howard’s voice strained painfully through the earpiece. Pitched slightly higher than Gail remembered, his confused ramblings threatened to break down into tears at any moment. He begged her to come. She weakened. She felt her heart wring out for him. She would try to be there, but she couldn’t promise. Though chain-smoking had lent his tones a throaty edge, the same melodramatic degree of paranoia she’d heard so often remained, demanding she see him straightaway… She had to be there. It was them. Of course he was fucking sure it was them. Different man, maybe, but it was the same outfit … How could he not be sure? … Who the fuck else could it be? Hadn’t she been listening? How many times did he have to tell her? He was watching one of them from the phone box as he was speaking. Why did she think he was lying all the time?
Still the unending accusatory questions, forcing her on the defence. No, he wasn’t messing her about. They’d managed to find out where he lived again. Who could’ve told them? … How could he know how they found out? Someone must’ve told them; that’s how … No, he wasn’t blaming her, but it had to be someone … Yes, he was absolutely sure he’d told her his new address. Why wouldn’t he?
Yes, he did remember something about agreeing not to phone, why did she keep having to remind him? He hadn’t got time for all that now. Besides, she said if it was really important he should ring. If this wasn’t really important, what was? … Yes, he knew he’d said the last time had been really important too, but he managed to deal with that himself without any of her fucking help. This time was different … No, he couldn’t tell her over the phone, all sorts of people could listen in to phone calls. He couldn’t say anymore, the man was folding his paper and looking like he might head his way. He would see her back at the house. The phone went dead.
Her misgivings strengthened the moment she replaced the receiver. She cursed herself for giving in so easily after all the time it had taken to come to terms with breaking up. How could she let herself throw it all away in the space of one phone call? Running back to him at the drop of a hat.
Beaten into submsission by his continuous harrassment she’d surrendered once more. He had cajoled, he had threatened and he had begged her to come. And she had weakened. Against all the warning sirens in her head, she’d heard herself promise to go over and see him as soon as she closed the gallery that evening.
Now, she began to feel anger. It wasn’t fair, calling her just as she was beginning to get used to life without him. She resolved not to go, then changed her mind in the same instant. She couldn’t leave him like that. Say he was telling the truth this time and someone was watching him. Say something dreadful happened. If anything bad happened to him she’d never be able to forgive herself. She’d have to go and see him whatever the cost.
Gail went over the seven months that had passed since she’d last seen him. Seven months of torture. For the first few weeks she’d hardly slept. In the wild imaginings of night she’d pictured him with other women. She’d torn away the hand that strayed towards the telephone. She’d steered herself from the places she knew they might run into one another. Often going miles out of her way simply to avoid the memories they held. She thought she’d never be able to get over it.
But gradually, as time expanded the rift between them, she resigned herself to lives apart. And now, he had to go and phone her again, the sound of his voice ripping open wounds she thought healed. How could he do such a thing? Evidently, the years of his infidelities had toughened her much less than she’d supposed.
Yet, as the reality of seeing him again percolated her being, she couldn’t help her stomach from churning excitedly at the prospect. She began to think of all the times they’d spent together. Her heart started to race and she found herself willing the day away to six o’ clock.
A FEARFUL WAILING cut through the birdsong, quelling it instantly. As swiftly as a conductor’s baton might. Gail swivelled her head slightly to pinpoint its source before hurrying across the fresh-mown lawn to a shrubbery at the far end. The ghoulish aria continued alone for some moments. Suspended on the barely moving air, it was almost as if the gently quivering telegraph wires in the adjoining field were acting as its score. In an instant, the wailing subsided, and the birds took up their refrain once more.
Her father stood hidden amongst some shrubs, transfixed beneath a lilac tree. His head in his hands, he was blubbing softly to himself. A soil-encrusted trowel lay awkwardly at his feet. A few inches further the body of a dying crow; jet plumage flashing myriad tiny rainbows in dappling sunlight. Out of a black bill oozed a globule of startling crimson. Limp, black claws let life slip from their clutch as a vacant bead stared up at the skies that had forsaken it.
Taking him gently by the crook of his arm, Gail led him slowly back across the lawn towards the limestone cottage huddled against the hillside.
Once inside, she sat him down in one of a pair of chintz-covered winged armchairs either side of a black kitchen range.
“Mummy!” she called, hardly betraying the suppressed impatience gnawing inside, “There’s another crow down by the lilac.”
His head still in his hands, her father rocked back and forth moaning softly to himself, till eventually, his moans ebbed away. He peered through the gaps his fingers made, and groaned in a muffled voice:
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s just…”
“Sh, sh, it’s all right, Daddy, it’s all right.” Patting his shoulders, Gail slipped her arms round his neck. “You mustn’t think about it. It’s all right.” And yet, something about her eyes said that it wasn’t all right, that even after so many years, her father’s strange behaviour towards death still disturbed her deeply.
Gail’s mother, a small package of a woman, whose soft, white curls permanently fell out of perm about her soft, pink face, bustled into the room wiping her hands on the starched apron she’d just removed. Without sparing her husband so much as a glance, she strode across to a window overlooking the garden.
“I’ll see to it,” she said in a businesslike manner. “Where is it?”
“Behind the shrubbery at the bottom of the lawn,” Gail told her, “under the lilac tree.” There was something of the well-rehearsed military manoeuvre in the exchange.
“It’s that damned dog from next door!” Gail’s mother threw her apron onto the unoccupied armchair. “I swear it is. The little devil gets through that gap in the hedge. You can see where it is; he’s squashed all my seedlings. He’s nothing but a damned nuisance. Really, he should be put down. I wouldn’t mind so much if he was our dog.”
“You can’t blame the dog, dear,” Gail’s father breathed wearily. “He’s only doing what comes naturally. It’s me. It’s my fault. If only I didn’t make such a fuss all the time.”
“It’s not you who squashes my seedlings.”
“Shush, Daddy, you’ll only upset yourself even more.”
Against the yielding pressure of his daughter’s restraining arms, Mr Southerne heaved himself up and out of the armchair.
“I think I could do with a drink,” he said throatily. “Anybody else fancy one?” Gail and her mother traded anxious glances of reproof.
“It’s only half past ten, Daddy,” said Gail taking her cue.
But Mr Southerne was quite aware of what time it was; he’d just been having a silent dispute with himself about it. “It’s only half an hour before I usually have one,” he said, giving voice to what he’d been saying in his head. “I nearly always have a small one at eleven on a Sunday.” He’d already reached the dark oak dresser where the drinks tray stood. “Besides, I could do with one,” he said, as much to himself as anyone, as he unscrewed the top from a bottle of Gordon’s gin. He proceeded to pour himself a large one, totally oblivious to the emphatic silence boring into the back of his neck.
“Any ice, Win?” he asked.
Ignoring the request completely, Mrs Southerne composed herself in a stiff breath, before stomping off into the garden to dispose of the dead bird, taking inordinate care not to slam the door behind her.
Mr Southerne raised his eyebrows and, watching her stride angrily across the lawn, he turned to his daughter to ask:
“Sure you won’t have one?”
Mindful her mother was out of hearing Gail relented.
“Oh, all right then.” But she managed to make it sound as though she was being coerced. It was an act her father understood only too well. “If you’re going to get pissed on my last day I might as well join you.”
It was the last day of spring half term. Early next morning she would take the train back to Brighton. After a week at home she was in two minds whether she wanted to go back to university at all. There had been an argument with Howard. As usual, it had stemmed from him going off with some girl he’d picked up at a party just before the break started. Gail had ended up getting very drunk with a friend of his. Next morning, she’d woken to find they had slept together.
Since then, she’d tried to phone Howard every day. She kept on getting his mother, a frosty woman who maintained she didn’t know where he was, or when he was expected back.
Gail was sipping the drink her father had mixed for her when her mother came back into the house. Mother and daughter paused for a moment. Even though she couldn’t see the eyes of the silhouette framed by the doorway, Gail could feel them brand her traitor as the shadowy head turned from issue to spouse sensing conspiracy.
The ensuing guilt she felt swiftly turned to anger with both her parents and, to a lesser extent, herself, for having let one get at the other through her. In mitigation she protested,
“Daddy asked me if I wanted one.” But it sounded feeble and spoilt. She glowered at her father over her glass.
For her part, Mrs Southerne didn’t say a word. To have done so would’ve ruined the effect. Picking up the apron she’d discarded earlier she pressed on into the kitchen, where she’d been preparing lunch. Then, remembering Gail was going back to university the next day, she forgave her.
“Would you like some of that homemade strawberry jam to take back with you, darling?” she called out. “There’s plenty in the larder.”
Strawberry jam was the furthest thing from Gail’s mind. The last jar her mother had made her take back had broken in her suitcase on the train, covering a couple of library books, which she’d ended up having to pay for. It would’ve been cheaper had she bought jam when she got there.
“I’ve still got loads left from last term, Mummy,” she lied. Her mother made a mental note to slip a jar into her case before she left.
There came a dull and lazy ring from the hall. The antiquated phone her parents insisted on keeping. Gail rushed to answer it.
“I’ll get it!” she shouted, believing it to be Howard, as she’d believed every phone call that week to be him. But she hadn’t reckoned for the speed of her mother, who liked to answer her phone herself. Gail just managed to stop herself from glaring at her crossly, mouthing noiselessly instead, “Who is it?” as soon as she caught her mother’s eye.
Averting her gaze, Mrs Southerne waved away the unwanted distraction. She began nodding somewhat pointlessly to the caller, and making the odd murmuring sound of agreement that gave no clue to the identity of the caller. Gail waited until she replaced the receiver.
“Who was that, Mummy?” she asked in a whine, her hopes still faintly alight.
“It was your Aunty Peggy. She wants your father to try on a pullover she’s knitting for him,” Mrs Southerne answered, despite a building resentment at being drilled about every phone call that came into the house. The thought that her mother might have a private life of her own never seemed to occur to Gail. But then the young always were far too wrapped up in their own lives to worry about those of others.
“Oh,” Gail remarked dismissively. With that she walked slowly back into the breakfast room, just in time to catch her father in the act of screwing the top back on the gin bottle.
“Who was that?” he inquired, not really interested, but hoping to deflect attention from what he was doing. He needn’t have bothered, for even had Gail noticed she was too preoccupied to say anything.
“Oh, only Aunty Peggy going on about some flipping jumper or other,” she answered irritably, almost as if her father might also be anxious for Howard to ring as well.
“She’s finished it then?” her father went on, feeling obliged to continue the sham.
“How would I know?” Gail shot back at him. “Ask Mummy, she’s the one who answers the phone all the time.” It was as though her mother had somehow managed to metamorphose Howard into Aunty Peggy simply by answering the phone.
Her father plucked a newspaper from the canterbury by the television and dumped himself back into his armchair with a weary sigh. Shaking the paper open he settled down to read it. Gail’s eyes stalked his every move transferring all the resentment she felt onto him.
“Why do you always have to get The Telegraph?” she asked spitefully. “It’s so right-wing.”
“What’s that, dear?” her father replied in the familiar sing-song that meant he was busy, and annoyed his daughter so much.
“Nothing,” Gail droned.
“We’ve always taken The Telegraph.” So he had heard after all, “Haven’t we, dear?” he called out to the kitchen.
“What’s that, dear?”
“In the magazine rack by the television. I put it there this morning. Unless somebody moved it.”
“I know that, I’m reading it.”
“I can’t help it if somebody else has moved it. I have to tidy up. Nobody else in this house will.”
“It’s all right, I’ve got the paper.”
“Then why on earth do you keep on asking me for it?”
“I wasn’t. I was just telling Gail how we’ve always taken it, that’s all.”
“I can’t worry where the paper has got to each time one of you puts it down. I’ve got lunch to worry about. I haven’t even had time to put the potatoes on yet.”
“Oh, do shut up about the fucking Telegraph!” Gail shouted, somewhat more nastily than she’d intended. There followed a significant silence, and so she added, with what she thought to be a fetching giggle, “You two are getting more and more like a couple of old fogies every day.” But the remark had rather more truth in it than was funny.
Mr Southerne folded his paper thoughtfully, leaned forward, and placed it carefully back in the canterbury.
“I suppose we are,” he reflected a touch sadly. Draining his glass, he rose from the chair and straightened his back with a groan. “I suppose this right-wing old fogey ought to see if he can’t get a few more seedlings in before lunch,” he grunted. “Call me when it’s ready, will you, old girl?” And putting his empty glass on the dresser, he went back out into the garden. Gail felt her nostrils prickle and her eyes mist over. Nobody understood her, her parents least of all.
It was late afternoon when the phone rang again. Lunch was long over, and Gail was upstairs in her bedroom searching for a dress she wanted to take back with her. She swore under her breath and carried on looking. If it was Howard, he could bloody well wait for a change. He had kept her waiting long enough. Anyhow, doubtless her mother would answer it like she usually did. But the dull rings went on, four times, five times, six times. Gail was seized by a sudden panic.
“Will somebody get the fucking phone, for chrissakes!” she shouted. It was only the second time she’d used the ‘f’ word on her parents. Both times on the same day. Throwing the jeans she was holding down to the floor, she rushed out onto the landing. The ringing stopped and she could hear the measured tones her mother used whenever speaking on the phone to strangers. Against all the forces pulling her in that direction, she turned and walked slowly back into the bedroom. She flung herself onto the unmade bed and buried her face into the pillows. With her heart thumping against her ribcage, she called his name over and over again into the pillows, where she knew it would go no further.
An age seem to pass before she heard her name being called.
“Gail!” her mother cried, “Gail! It’s for you.” And Gail was out on the landing barely before the summons had finished. Thumping, almost tumbling down the stairs and into the hall, a broad grin stretched across her face.
“Who is it?” she hissed, her hands and fingers fidgeting impatiently, waiting to snatch the receiver as soon as it was offered. Mrs Southerne hated her in that moment.
“It’s some boy,” she said, barely able to conceal her disdain. “He’s in a kiosk.” She handed her daughter the phone, “at a station by the sounds of it. It’s not a very good line.” For a moment, she stood watching her daughter as if waiting to be dismissed. Gail had turned her back on her without realising it.
“Howard!” she bubbled, “You rat! Where have you been? Did you get my messages? I’ve been ringing and ringing. Though the voice on the other end was indistinct, the south London inflections were unmistakable.
“Gay-ooh,” it crackled, “’ow you doin’, girl?” Her whole world sank to the pit of her stomach, and she felt the colour rise in her cheeks.
Recoiling with inward revulsion at her daughter’s familiarity with this boy she didn’t know, and knew she would never want to meet, Mrs Southerne slid off into the kitchen. Such outward displays of emotion towards the opposite sex dismayed her. It would never have done in her day.
“It’s Phil,” the voice crackled on, “remember?” the crackle became a cackle. “’Course, you do. What a party, eh? You weren’t arf pissed, girl. Mind you, I weren’t much better meself. Thought I’d give you a bell to see ’ow you’re goin’…’ello. You still there?” Gail could hardly speak, her mouth had dried. Then, as swiftly as she had felt hurt and pain, she felt anger.
“What do you want?” she spat cruelly. No amount of distortion on the line could have masked her contempt.
“’Ave I rang at a bad time? You expecting somebody?” His voice seemed to get even further away.
“What do you want, Phil? I’m in the middle of packing. Is it something important?”
“Oh, I geddit, you’re old lady’s listening in, ain’t she? Just say, yes, or no.”
“Don’t be so stupid! Of course, she isn’t. It wouldn’t matter even if she was.”
“If it’s a bad time, I can always ring back later.” No, she didn’t want that; Howard might be trying to get through.
“No, don’t do that,” she blurted out, adding in a modified tone, “Just tell me why you rang, so I can finish packing.”
“All right.” But he was suspicious now. “It’s just that there’s this party tomorrow night. I wondered if you fancied it?” A party she fancied, Phil she didn’t. On the other hand she couldn’t allow Howard to think she spent all her time waiting for him to call. It was all too confusing.
“’Ello, you still there?” She was miles away.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Oh, I dunno, five, ’arf past. I ain’t got a watch.”
“The party, you idiot! What time is the party?” If Phil knew of a party, then Howard was certain to. How could she be seen with Phil and keep her options open at the same time? “Only, if it starts too late, I won’t be able to go. I’ve got an early tutorial on Tuesday. I daren’t be late for that.”
“Look, I ain’t got anymore change. I’ll see you in the canteen tomorrow. I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Wait a minute…” but it was no use, he was gone. She hadn’t been allowed to say she didn’t want to have lunch with him; that it was the worse thing she could think of. She felt cheated; the device had conspired to commit her to a date she’d had no intention of agreeing to. Well, she would just not turn up, that was all.
“Who was that, darling?” her mother asked on her way through the hall again. Gail was holding the phone against her chin and staring emptily into space.
“Nobody,” she said quietly setting the phone back on its cradle. “Nobody,” and climbed slowly back up the stairs. Nobody.
Mrs Southerne slipped two jars of strawberry jam into a suitcase by the door.
GAIL COULD NEVER FORGET the moment she first set eyes on Howard. There was something about his presence that insisted itself on her consciouness in a way she’d never known. Nobody had ever had that effect on her before. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.
An Indian summer had lingered long into October. Stubborn, green leaves still clung to trees all over the campus, refusing to turn yellow or brown, as though the seasons had revolted. Windows that hadn’t been opened for years had had to be forced open against the university heating system. Which, programmed, as it was, to come on during the first week of October, and not for the perversity inherent in the English climate, had taken no notice of the stifling heat. It gave the freshers something to whisper about. They were far too new, and far too intimidated by the unfamiliarity of their surroundings to think of complaining officially. Besides, it was one of those shared experiences that would bind them together for the rest of their years as undergraduates, some of them well beyond.
It wasn’t anything Howard did that made Gail notice him, it was just him. Standing at the edge of a group of other students watching a game of rugby from the other side of campus pitch. Not that he seemed much interested by it.
He was a lot slimmer in those days, the remnants of a summer tan still discernible on his lean face. He wore a shabby T-shirt with the name of some punk band, or other fading from it. His washed-out jeans were torn at the knees. A touch on the large side, they brushed the ground where they hung over the sloppy pair of dog-eared espadrilles on his unsocked feet. His hair was uncut, rather than long, hanging over his face in the oily corkscrews that always made it look as if he had just been for a swim.
She hadn’t meant to stare at him for so long. She hadn’t meant to stare at all. There was just something about him; an invisible aura drawing her gaze in his direction. Even then, though he was standing with a group, he didn’t appear part of it.
Something always seemed to distance him from other people. An indefinable quality she couldn’t quite put her finger on, and liked to believe was a positive, rather than a potentially negative aspect, to his character.
And then, almost as though he had felt her gaze pierce the aura, he turned to look through the threequarters of a scrum straight at her. Later on, she always liked to think it was the moment they fell in love, even though his eyes didn’t dwell on her for more than a few brief seconds before quickly moving away.
From then on she would see him almost every day in the way one does at schoools and universities. Their paths would cross between lectures, at the canteen, or in the Union coffee bar. Occasionally, they would exchange, what appeared to Gail as tentative glances from a distance. But that was as far as it went in those first few weeks.
It wasn’t until about a month later, as she was returning from an errand in town, she literally bumped into him. It seemed a timely coincidence, coming at a moment she was thinking she hadn’t seen him in quite a few days.
If summer had lasted well into autumn, winter had come early that year. A grey, November afternoon, and there was the smell of snow on the air. Icy blasts blew piles of dead leaves from here to there. Spiralling them into the air before dumping them down in doorways, round ankles, in gutters, and along roadsides. Where, if they were not swept away, they would be pulped into a rotting, fibrous mulch, heavily scented of the earth they were destined to become in the eternal cycle that would one day make them leaves again.
She had been to buy an obscure Ian McEwan novel her English lecturer had been on at her about, and was hurrying to get back into the warmth of the Union Building for a cup of coffee. Her head was wrapped in a long, red, woollen scarf that reached right up to her nose. As she arrived at the main door a hand shot out to open it for her. She looked up. It was him. His grey eyes smiling into hers. She smiled back, forgetting for a moment that most of her face was still masked by the scarf. Mumbling a muffled, “Thank you” into it before realising. And then laughing at her own stupidity. Once inside, he helped her unwind it, and she thanked him again. And then again, and again. Rather too many times really, but she could not, for the life of her, think of anything else to say in the excitement of that first real contact. Neither did she want it to end there, so she had to fill the vacuum with something. She was getting herself hot and flustered. For his part, Howard hardly spoke a word, his gentle eyes smiling with amusement. Finally, he asked her to join him for a cup of coffee.
“That’s just what I was about to do,” she told him.
“Then I’ll join you instead,” he said.
Never again did he tell her as much about himself as on that first occasion. She learned that he and an elder sister had been brought up by their mother in a large, old, Victorian house in the Yorkshire Dales. His parents had divorced whilst he was still a baby, his father returning to his native Canada, where the family owned several large paper mills. Howard couldn’t even remember what he looked like. He virtually never heard from him, except for Christmas and birthdays, when a cheque in an envelope bearing a Canadian stamp would always arrive. Usually not even accompanied by a card.
His mother hardly spoke of him, and Howard learned early on in life not to bring the subject up. It was as if he never had a father at all. But the school fees were always paid on time, and the family never suffered material want.
Through all this, it was obvious to Gail he resented the absence. As to which parent he blamed, it was hard to fathom. Though she got the distinct impression it was his mother he held responsible, but felt it would be unfaithful to say so directly.
He went on to tell her how he had only managed to scrape into university by the skin of his teeth. Had it been left up to him he most likely would not have bothered. It was his mother’s wish he should get himself a degree, as she had done. His true love was his guitar, and he wanted to record in a studio as soon as he could get enough money to hire one. That was unlikely to happen if he stayed at university. He was even thinking of trying to tap his father for some cash,
All the time he spoke Gail looked into his face. He had the faintly, ruddy complexion and pale eyes of a Celt. He spoke very softly in a breathy sort of way, like he was afraid of waking someone asleep. She noticed he smoked continually; one cigarette after the other. Puffing each one as though it was his last with short, sharp intakes of breath, and stubbing them out by grinding them into the ashtray. He smiled a lot, his eyes crinkling and sparkling, spreading his joy outwards to her. His face creased making his young cheeks round and fleshy like a baby’s. She hardly managed to tell him anything about herself whatsoever. There would be time for that later.
One coffee had led to another and then on to bed. As simple as that. Nothing like it had happened to her before. It seemed the most natural progression of events she’d ever experienced. As though she’d been looking for him all her life without knowing it until the moment he arrived. His body fitting hers to become the one they were always intended to be. And with this realisation came the shocking premonition of the pain any parting might bring. Her being made whole, life without him would be unbearable. They had only met hours beforehand, yet she knew this as much as she had known they would come together when their eyes first met across the playing field.
And so it had been; and so did it become. Time and time again over the years of their relationship. Nor did the pain lessen the more he deceived her. If anything his mounting infidelities served only to increase her suffering with the growing frequency they occurred.
The first time he went off with another girl she literally believed she would die. She had never felt so miserable in her life. There was no point to living. She couldn’t sleep at night. Her insides became so knotted she forgot all about eating. All the time she imagined what Howard might be doing without her. Without him the future became such an impossible notion her mind no longer considered it, dwelling only in the past; their short past; those few months they had spent together. It only made things worse. At night she would pace up and down her tiny room in the hall of residence, talking aloud to herself; going through the same events over and over in the forlorn hope she might find some reason to it that would somehow make her feel better.
For three days and three nights she never left the confines of that room; attending no lectures; reading no books; seeing no one. There no longer being any point to any of it. In the short time they had known each other Howard had become as much a part of her as her most vital organs. Without him she could not function. They had become indivisible in her mind. The fact he might see it any other way was completely and utterly beyond her.
When he finally called at her door she fell upon him weeping as she had never wept before. And then they were back together again, just as if nothing had happened. She too happy at having him back to feel or show any anger, he seemingly incapable of showing remorse. Both behaved as though he had never strayed. Neither of them mentioned that first time ever again. They simply and conveniently forgot about it.
There had been too many times to forget since then. Each time longer; each interval between shorter. And still she couldn’t get used to them; each one more painful and as unexpected as the last. Each one feeding on her, driving her to the brink of madness. Forcing her to ring his number late at night just to hear his voice; to know he was there; that he existed. Only to cowardly replace the receiver as soon as somebody picked up the other end. In the event, too afraid even to listen. The short vicarious thrill the power of anonimity gave, swiftly supplanted by depression and self-disgust.
There were the trips to places she thought she might see him. The endless waiting; the constant cigarettes; the poisonous taste of nicotine in her mouth; the disappointment; the disbelief when he failed to show.
And then, each time he did return, the feeling that yet another piece of her had gone; another piece of him. Soon there would be nothing left. Gradually, he was withdrawing into himself; becoming perceptibly more distant, not just from her, from everybody, everything. He became distracted far more easily. His powers of concentration waned. He drank more, smoked more, and experimented with more drugs. And yet, she still loved him. No more, for that would have been impossible, but no less than she had done from that very first day, that Indian summer. That day of youth that lay so far behind them, so far out of reach. Though she realised things were never going to go as she had first believed they might, not for one moment did it occur to her they could get even worse.
FROM BLOWING AWKWARDLY upwards, Gail turned to sweeping the few greasy hairs sticking to her forehead and across her tired eyes, with growing frustration. But nothing would make them stay put. Only when she combed her fingers through her hair several times did she manage.
It was then she realised just how greasy she’d allowed her hair become. She couldn’t have washed it in days. Yet another indication of the extent she’d let herself go fretting over Howard. If her hair wasn’t annoying enough, the insane rattle of cutlery against crockery competing against the scarcely believeble din of junvenile babble and giggling, echoing all about the university canteen were driving her to the verge of insanity.
Neither hungry nor thirsty she was standing in the queue with a tray in her hand seemingly waiting for nothing. Her real purpose being to scan the refectory tables for signs of Howard, or the girl she’d seen him with at a party before half-term. Having hardly slept all night, her nerves were worn to tatters. Weren’t universities supposed to be places of learning? Did the simple act of eating have to involve making so much fucking noise? Could not even one person get it into their thick skulls there might be others present who actually wanted to think, or even eat in peace and quiet? Evidently not.
Now, her eyes were green. Cold green. They could transform from one minute to the next, from blue through grey to green, according to her mood and the light refracted from within. Their pupils dilated for an instant, catching sight of the girl Howard had been with on the night of the party. The girl was sitting at a table amidst a crowd of male students, all smoking far too many cigarettes, drinking cups of coffee, and shouting inanely at each other. The girl seemed oddly at ease for a solitary female amongst so many self-possessed males. All vying for her attention, while pretending not to. Though virtually indiscernable, Gail thought she detected faint signs of amusement playing about the corners of her bright red lips. Nevetheless, in the strive to feign boredom, the girl’s gaze succesfully imparted the impression of a disinterested butterfly randomly flitting from here to there and back again. But it was all a game. Unlike a butterfly, she was intensely aware of the animal restlessness her presence engendered amongst her unwitting audience, at the same time as not wanting to appear to be paying it any regard.
Despite her own pretensions to detached student rebellion, Gail’s middle-class girdle of emotional propriety couldn’t help telling her how common the girl looked. It was only lunch time and she was already made up like a whore. Dyed black, frizzy hair, teased into wisps, hung like a pall of thick smoke over the pale death mask she had made face into. A pair of hairy-legged spiders clung to it where her eyes should’ve been. Gail ran her own eyes over the short, black sack pinched tight at the waist by a studded black, plastic belt And then over the folds flouncing out again to reveal long, shapely thighs, knees, calves and ankles, also swathed in black, and suggestively splayed either side of a table leg.
The girl began lighting a cigarette dangling from a corner of the scarlet lipstick slash in her face. Lighting it in a way that made it look as though she had never struck a match in her life before, clumsily. The match held by the very tips of long, tapering fingernails, pointed and painted bright scarlet too. At the same time as making her appear somewhat vulnerably feminine there was something in the contrast of the process so pointedly vampirish it verged on bloodlust. She could make the simple act of lighting a cigarette almost appear like performing an act of fellation.
Though entirely predictable, Gail didn’t expect the girl to look up through the match flame and directly into her eyes. The scarlet slash cracked into a grin, revealing she’d known Gail had been staring at her all along. Lowering her eyelids before exhaling luxurious clouds of smoke she leaned across to whisper in the ear of a favoured goth acolyte. They both laughed out loud. The boy turned to look at Gail with an undisguised smirk.
Gail tore her eyes away from them in utter humiliation, her heart racing. How could she have let herself stare at the girl for so long? Howard wasn’t even with her. She felt a nervous sickness well up inside.
After a few dark moments of not knowing where to look passed she managed to regain the ragged remnants of her composure enough to scour the room for Howard again. He was nowhere to be seen.
Now the floor became the only refuge for her gaze. Standing in a queue she realised she no longer felt any desire to be part of, she knew to leave would amount to some sort of an admission of surrender. The girl would have won
From somewhere behind, she became vaguely, and uncomfortably, conscious of a disturbance of sorts. A heated exchange was taking place. She turned. Someone was trying to push forward. The commotion was moving in her direction. Then she heard her name being called. Oh, no! Turning her eyes swiftly back to the floor, she closed them against it. Not Phil, please God, let it not be Phil. Her prayer unanswered, the figure calling her name drew ever closer, coming ever louder, the more it was called.
“Gail!” But Phil’s gruff cockney lack of consonants rendered it as ‘Gay-ooh’. “Gay-ooh! Gay-ooh! Over ’ere!” over and over again. “Gay-ooh! Gay-ooh! ’S’me!” She wouldn’t turn. She wouldn’t. Even though she knew he would soon be at her shoulder she wouldn’t. But then she did. And there he was, his narrow frame squeezing ever more narrow against the chrome rail processing them all along the brightly-lit, bright piles of steaming food beneath their lids of shining plexiglass. She saw him flapping the brown, laminate tray in his hand. She saw the desperate expression on his face. The carefully combed hair she knew he purposely ruffled slightly, and that irritated her beyond all reason. She felt her hate at the the outsize leather jacket with its proliferation of unnecessary zips and buckles, she could swear his mother had bought him. Too big at the shoulders, she could imagine the dominating woman persuading him he would ‘grow into it’ even though he was twenty-two. She could almost smell its cheap newness fill her nostrils. She could almost feel his painful thinness closing in on her. That thinness which seemed to cry out for nourishment of any sort. That thinness which belied the voracious appetite of its owner. The same thinness which lent an effeminacy contradicted only by the Michael Caine accent he cultivated so assiduously, and reminded her of black and white films from the 1950s and 60s TV stations used to put on telly late at night as fill-ins.
“Scuse me, squire,” she heard it grate, “just wanna squeeze by to see the lady.” He was almost right behind her, “We’re togevver.”
“No, you’re not.” A fat student barred his path. “Get to the back of the queue.”
“But I’m wiv ’er!” Phil protested, “She’s been saving my place.”
“Any arrangement you may have made between yourselves is totally irrelevant. You’re not pushing in front of me and that’s final.” The student turned his attention back to the food counter.
“Aw, come on, mate,” Phil wheedled, “She’s my girlfriend. I ain’t seen ‘er for a week.” Girlfriend indeed! She couldn’t bear it. “I promised to buy ‘er dinner. Chill out, for fuck’s sake.” Catching Gail’s eye, he grinned and gave her a wink. She quickly turned her head. “Gay-ooh, tell ’im willya? Tell ‘im you’re saving my place.
The fat student turned round again to look Phil in the eye
“If you do intend to buy her ‘dinner’, as you call it.” He lay undue emphasis on the word. “Then may I suggest it can be bought just as easily from that position.” He pointed to where Phil was standing, “Though a tad more tardily, I own, as it could had you arrived early enough to be in that position.” With a flourish he changed the direction of his finger to point at Gail’s side.
“Ah, for fuck’s sake! Gay-ooh, tell this daft twat who I am, willya?” Phil implored. The fat student turned to her
“You’re boyfriend’s after me,” he said.
“You should be so lucky, dear!” a voice yelled from further down the line. It was quickly followed by a burst of laughter. All this in front of the girl in black.
As well as Gail, it was becoming too much for the fat student, so he caved in to let Phil squeeze by, while murmuring his dissent.
By this time, Gail was almost in tears. But, in her eyes, all she could do was suffer, as to complain would’ve only drawn even more unwanted attention. As for Phil, he seemed to be enjoying it.
“What a twat,” he said, loud enough for the fat student to hear.
“You’re the twat!” came back.
Gail was staring abstractedly at the back of the person directly in front of her. She noticed he had scurf all over his corduroy jacket collar. It reminded her that her own hair needed washing.
Phil looked down at the tray she was pushing along the counter. He saw it was empty. “You’re not going to get fat on that lot,” he said. Gail was wondering how often the man with scurf washed his hair. It looked disgustingly greasy, and he had a cluster of tiny red spots on the back of his neck. One of them had a yellow head of pus.
“You listenin’?” Phil asked.
“What? Oh, Phil, why can’t you leave me alone, I’m thinking.” She felt a sudden urge to squeeze the spot and release the trapped poison within.
“I was saying how you’re not going to get fat on that.” He nodded at her empty tray. She determined to ignore it, keeping her eyes on the red spot with the yellow head.
“I don’t want to get fat.”
“Go on, ‘ave something. I’ll pay, I don’t mind.”
“I’m quite able to pay for my own lunch, thank you very much. And all I want is a cup of coffee.” But wasn’t true, she was saying it to just spite him. In reality, the smell of the food had suddenly made her realise she couldn’t remember the time she last ate, and she was in fact famished. “Now, if you’ll kindly let me get on with it.”
Phil shrugged his shoulders.
“Makes no odds to me. Only I ’ad a bit of luck on the ’orses. Just thought you might like a good dinner, that’s all.”
“Lunch.” Gail corrected.
“Lunch, the term is lunch. Only proles have dinner in the middle of the day.” It was unforgivable snobbery. But she didn’t care. She wanted to be cruel to somebody. His very presence made Phil the person she probably hated most in the world at that moment. That in turn made him the most suitable candidate for her ire. “Besides,” she went on, remembering how a phone conversation between them of a few days previously had been cut off prematurely. He had been asking her out then. “I didn’t get a chance to reply to your invitation the other day. You ran out of change, remember? So the answer I didn’t get a chance to give you then is no.” She suddenly wondered how he had got hold of her phone number.
“What’s that got to do with the price of cheese?” Phil was getting riled. Then it dawned. “Oh, I get it.” That she was in some sort of mood hit him. He assumed it was a woman’s thing. “Somebody upset you, eh? So you thought you’d take it out on one of your proles.” She’d achieved her he purpose of hurting him. “Fair enough.” But it was obvious he didn’t think it fair at all. He helped himself to a large portion of steak and kidney pie. Gail felt her stomach move at the sight of it. It made her even more angry with him.
“Look here, Phil!” she let fly, “let’s get this straight, I’m not your girlfriend, right?”
“So you’ve got no right to go round telling everybody I am.”
“That’s right, get it off yout chest, gal.”
“And we didn’t arrange to have dinner, right?”
“I thought you said lunch.”
“Lunch, dinner, tea, whatever you want to call the fucking thing, we didn’t arrange to have it, right?”
“It’s not what I want to call it. I’m just a prole, remember?”
“Phil, listen to me, will you? As far as I’m concerned, we’re not having lunch, dinner, tea, or any other meal you care to name, together, ever, right? For as long as I remain on this earth.”
“All right, all right, keep your ’air on, gal. No need to get your knickers in a twist over it.” It was quite obvious Phil liked to provoke her. In some ways it instilled in him the very proprietorial feelings she was trying to deny him. He pointed at some baked beans, and then some mashed potatoes. Mindful of his thinness, the dinner lady ladled extra large portions of each onto his plate. “I don’t know what’s got into you, ’onest, I don’t,” he said.
“Nothing’s got into me, thank you very much,” Gail snapped back, “I just don’t feel like talking at the moment. Satisfied?”
“I suppose that means you don’t want to come to the party tonight?” Phil asked a little pathetically.
“I never said that. What party? Stop putting words into my mouth, will you?”
“So you’re coming then?”
“I never said that either. Phil, stop being so fucking pushy all the time.”
“Make up your mind, gal, you coming or ain’t yuh?”
Gail slammed her tray on the counter and turned to face him in a rage.
“Phil!” she shouted, “for the last time, leave me fucking alone, can’t you? I don’t like sneaky, little turds who rummage round in people’s bags when their supposed to be looking after them.”
Now Phil’s eyes lit up with anger.
“Who went through your fucking bag!” he spat, “I never touched it!” The sudden burst of temper caught her unawares. She hadn’t expected it.
“Well, how did you get my home phone number then?” she lowered her voice, suddenly aware people were looking at them. “I certainly didn’t give it to you.”
“Howard gave it to me,” Phil explained softly. The unexpected revelation came as a shock. She had no reason to disbelieve him, other than she didn’t want it to be true. For a moment, words deserted her. And then she managed to say, in a rather hurt whine:
“Howard gave you my home number? Why?”
“I asked him for it.” This created another possibility.
“You saw Howard over half term?” she asked slowly.
“No, he gave it to me at the party. I was talking to him when you went off for a whizz, and left your bag wiv me.”
“Giving my phone number away like that. He’s no right!”
“If that’s how you feel, I’ll give it you back.”
“Don’t be stupid!” With a quick downward flick of her eyelids she changed the direction of her gaze.
Neither of them could be quite sure how long he had been standing there, so neither of them could guess at how much of their conversation he might’ve heard. Howard seemed to have materialised out of thin air, announcing his presence, once it had been detected, in the soft, breathy voice he so often used in company.
“Hi, folks,” he beamed. Gail felt her chest constrict at the sight of him. Her knees weakened and almost gave way. Howard just stood there, continuing to beam munificently at them both.
“Howard! My man!” Phil exclaimed, doing a little dance and clapping his hands. He was as genuinely pleased to see him as he was for the diversion his arrival created. “My main man! Just the man I want to see, she might listen to you.”
“Hi, Gail.” Howard said, taking virtually no notice of Phil’s antics. Gail didn’t answer, she was looking down at her feet.
“Just tell Gay-ooh who gave me her phone number, willya?”
“Who?” Howard asked, his voice and face full of intrigue.
“You remember, at that party. I was sitting on the stairs, and you were with that girl. You gave it to me then when Gail slid off for a whizz.”
“Did I?” Howard didn’t take his gaze from Gail, his grey eyes shining with gentle amusement.
“You must remember, I gave you a toke of my joint, and… ” Phil tailed off abruptly, suddenly aware Howard might be trying to make him look foolish in some way. Somehow, he’d managed to turn things round so it almost sounded as though Phil was questioning Howard’s honesty, and that appeared to bring into question his own. It was best to keep his mouth shut.
Gail’s eyes were fixed to the floor, fully aware Howard was still staring at her. Not a word passed between them.
“Which party was that?” Howard asked, knowing full well Phil had decided to drop the subject. Phil was beginning to have doubts whether it was Howard he had spoken to after all.
Placing each of his hands on their shoulders, Howard drew them together, almost as if uniting them in some sort of ritual through him, like a priest might.
“You two okay?” he asked breathily. But he directed the question at Gail. She couldn’t tell if he wasn’t mocking her in some way. She glanced up at him, unable to speak, her mouth too dry. So she nodded. Feeling the tears start to prick, she looked back down at her feet. “Will we be seeing you at the party tonight?” Howard asked. To save herself the embarrassment of any answer Phil might give, she managed to blurt out in a throaty voice:
“Phil’s taking me.” Flashing moist eyes bitterly across at him she saw Phil’s face widen with pleasure.
“Sure we’re comin’, ain’t we, gal?” Phil grinned. And to compound it, he encircled her waist with his right arm, drawing her towards him even further. She felt her body stiffen at the contact, but did nothing to resist, even though, the combination of this and his use of the collective pronoun tore at her very soul. In those combined actions he seemed to be depriving her of the chance of ever being with Howard again. It was all over. And, as if to confirm it, she felt Howard lift his hand from her shoulder as though relinquishing her. She looked up at him in hurt surprise.
“I’ll see you later then, folks,” Howard beamed.
Had his eyes lost some of that former sparkle? Was there a new sadness she saw in them?
Later that afternoon, with her own sad grey eyes staring out of her study window she would torment herself wondering if he’d been trying to tell her something. Or whether there had been some subtle, hidden message in the brief, silent exchanges. Something in his look, perhaps. Something that had eluded her. He hadn’t gone over to join the girl in black as she’d expected him to. There was still hope.
ONE HAND TIGHTLY CLUTCHING a bottle of cheap red wine, Phil breathed heavily from the effort of almost having to drag Gail up seemingly endless flights of stone stairs with the other. As all local alcohol outlets had shut for the night, and his testes were set in overdrive, he didn’t intend to lose either. Most light bulbs on the landings were missing or broken, leaving Gail only able to make out the silhouette of his face by the glowing ember of a joint dangling from the lip to which it was glued. At each pant of breath it glowed a little brighter and quivered slightly.
Her senses distorted by the weed, the long climb appeared to take forever. Upwards and upwards, drawn by the echoing blare of some half-forgotten, redundant, punk band sneering one of those anthems; those raw dirges that had once inspired a generation to pogo on club floors veneered with lakes of spit. Tumbling into the nakedness of the hollow stairwell, it sounded like a bunch of ravenous psychos, holed up in an abandoned warehouse, howling into empty buckets being savagely beaten with hammers. Inherent rage morphed into incoherent rant, the unkindness of time had cruelly tainted the song with a certain impotence born out of the nostalgia it now evoked in those its protagonists had sought to stir into a cosmetic revolution fuelled by saliva, safety pins and apathy.
She liked Phil now. A shared joint, and a glass of wine, having stripped away her usual inhibitions, leaving her not quite so in thrall to the deeply-embedded class-consciousness she was so unaware of.
But the closer she drew, the more the weed and noise filled her head with confused excitement. For the nearer they got, the more she became elated at the growing prospect of seeing Howard. She tried to hurry more. At the same moment, the transient insanity the spliff had introduced to their senses, combined with the dimness of their surroundings, garbled all images so as to render them virtually meaningless. They could hardly see where they were going. Her stilettos further hampered their progress. Clattering and colliding clumsily against indiscernable steps they almost had her stumbling at times. Gail giggled at the absurdity of it all. Then, her mind even more muddled by the cocktail of conflicting intoxications, she began to feel a growing paranoia at the blatant hypocrisy of arriving in the company of Phil while fully intending to leave in the company of Howard. Her discomfort swiftly turned to annoyance.
“Where on earth is it?” she asked. “These bloody stairs go on forever.”
“It’s outside, up on the roof,” Phil squeezed between compressed lips. Gail yanked him to a halt.
“On the roof!” she shouted, “It’s bloody freezing! I can’t go out onto the roof dressed like this. I’ll fucking freeze to death!” She had put on one of her shortest dresses, her shoulders bare apart from a long and flimsy, chiffon scarf casually draped several times about them.
“I’m winding you up, girl,” he said. “It’s in the top foor flat.”
A door opened somewhere above them, stopping them in their tracks. Light and noise careered down the stairs like a couple of drunks sent to greet them. Gail’s face caught in the glare, Phil drew a short breath. Taking the joint from his lips, he placed it on hers hoping she would see it symbolically as some sort of kiss. He did.
“Ugh!” she spluttered, “it’s all wet.” Taking her hand from his she brushed her mouth, spitting dryly. The door closed, plunging them back into darkness and muffling the noise.
Unable to stop himself, Phil grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her towards him, forcing his lips on hers, sucking greedily, his body trembling like a tiny, captive bird’s. In that moment she felt sorry for him. The feeling, accompanied by a bizarre sensation of an obligation to equal his passion, she opened her mouth to beckon his tongue, and pressed her body against his. She felt a hand snake a path beneath her armpit to her left breast. Her nipple tautened. Suddenly, filled with revulsion at her own unexpected and unwanted arousal, she jerked away.
“Don’t,” she said, wrenching his hand from her breast.
“What’s up?” he asked, “I thought you were enjoying it.” She did, and that was the point. By now, she was already climbing the steps ahead of them.
“Oh come on, Phil,” she said, “we haven’t even got to the party yet.”
It had been four and a half flights by the time they arrived on the top floor, panting. Both deflated, physically and metaphorically by the very brief sexual interlude.
Inside, the punk’s anthem had given way to the throbbing bass and drum of dance. Overlaid with strains of synthesised strings, punctuated by piano, and wailing sirens, they conjured up visions of contemporary urban life in a bleak and severe aural mural.
Phil and Gail pushed their way through the crowded hallway towards the kitchen at the rear, trading greetings all along the way.
Even more crowded than the hall, the invited and the uninvited, thronged round a table filled with bottles and tall stacks of clear, plastic beakers. Piles of cold food were being plundered and hauled away on paper plates from an adjoining table. Phil fought through to the first table and placed his bottle amongst the others. Grabbing a couple of beakers of red wine, he handed one carefully over the congregated heads to Gail.
All around the air was filled with chatter and tobacco smoke. Like industrial rolls of sticky tape unwinding, rubber soles ripped at the growing cocktail of spilled beer, cider and wine covering the linoleum flooring. Made uneasy by the sudden company of so many, Gail squeezed her way back through to the hall, and into the room that was the source of the music.
Not as crowded as the hall or kitchen, the room was much darker. It took some moments for eyes to adjust. As soon as they had, her head swivelled from side to side restlessly, as she cursorily examined each face before moving on to the next. Howard was not there. Three couples and two solitary figures gyrated to the rhythms. Other partygoers had arranged themselves in the shadows at the edges of the room on chairs and settees, or just on the floor. His face was not amongst them. He was nowhere to be seen. She stayed only as long as it took to make sure before going back out into the hall and across to another room with Phil stalking her every move.
The people here were all seated on the floor in a circle. They were talking and smoking joints against a background of trance. The chill-out room. There was almost something of an exclusive English gentlemen’s club in the ritualistic manner each joint was rolled, lit, and passed from hand to hand. Not unlike a decanter of port being passed round the table after dinner, it seemed designed to intimidate the uninitiated. Phil crouched down amongst them, expecting Gail to follow. But Howard was not in this room either. She bent over, whispering into Phil’s ear that she was dying for a pee. At last she could get away from him.
The bathroom was on yet another floor. Inching past the short queue on the stairs, she went on to look in the bedrooms. The first one was empty save for a bed piled high with coats. In the second, a boy strummed guitar to two girls staring up at him in apparent adoration. Not one of them spared her so much as a glance. Howard was not upstairs either.
Out of the room she came, and back down the stairs to join the queue for the bathroom. She’d been waiting for almost five minutes when the door unlocked, and the girl from the canteen emerged, Howardless. Still dressed all in black, her spider eyes even blacker, her soot hair frizzed out even further, her chalk face even whiter. Almost as though she had dipped it into a bag of flour.
The canteen girl was sniffing, as if she had a heavy cold, brushing the tip of her nose with the back of her hand to remove traces of a line. She swished by, only to part her scarlet slash into a smirk at the sight of Gail as she passed, revealing yellow ivories smudged with lipstick. Desperate to avoid her glazed stare, Gail looked down, and, in doing so, could not help but notice the canteen girl’s tits were bigger than her own. She waited until the girl reached the bottom of the staircase before deciding to follow her. But the canteen girl had already disappeared.
Gail went back into the kitchen in pursuit. The canteen girl was not there either.
A drunk, young man with curly, blond hair down to his shoulders, and deep brown irises floating in pools of pink, refilled her beaker from the bottle he was swigging whilst trying to get her to dance with him. Unsteady on his feet, and following the direction of her sweeping gaze, he managed to tip some wine on her hand. Gail squealed, fearing it might spill onto her dress, but seeing it had not, she smiled at him and licked her fingers clean.
Another long-haired man tapped her lightly on the elbow to pass her a huge joint, filling her nostrils with the gagging richness of hashish fumes. She drew long and hard on it several times, lowering her eyelids as she did, before handing it on to the drunk. Almost straightaway her head started to reel, and she was filled with an urge to throw up. The kitchen swimming about her, and its voices seeming to recede, she half-staggered into the hallway, out of the front door, onto the landing. Propping her back up against a wall, she stood for a few moments sucking in the much cooler air. She was sweating profusely, colours spinning before closed eyes, afraid to open them lest the world slip from under her feet.
Gradually, the acrid taste of bile leaving her mouth, the colours slowed to a stop and had faded back into darkness, before she dare open her eyes. The hash had left her body feeling drained of blood, and her knees a little shaky. Her forehead was cold and damp but, despite the previous distress and discomfort, she now felt pleasantly, and overwhelmingly, stoned. Her throat was dry. Realising she still held a beaker of wine, she drained it in one, long draft, before chucking the empty container into the stairwell.
With most of her senses thoroughly distorted, Gail coasted mesmerically back into the flat towards the music now filling her head. Into the room becoming overflowing with dancers. Silhouettes bounced to electronic laments oscillating above an incessant, deep throb reverberating up through the floorboards and into her body. Enslaving her to a slow, rhythmic, rocking movement, she began to sway gently with her arms above her shoulders. Yet more dancers filled the room impossibly. Bodies pressed tighter to bodies, swaying with hers, swaying against hers, Always in some sort of time to the relentless, driving thud of the drum. And now it became unthinkable to move as anything other than one body; an intangible coalescence of primeval instincts.
She closed her eyes in an act of surrender to the new entity, relieving herself from the burden of conscious thought.
Heated breath caressed her nape, his breath. A body insinuated itself against hers, his body. His arms snaked about her waist, his hands moved softly up and down her stomach. His groin pressed against her buttocks, penis hardening, encouraged by the gently grinding motion of her hips. She groaned as a comforting warmth suffused itself deep inside her, transforming her whole body once more, now into consummate, erotic sensation.
“Oh, Howard,” she breathed, her words drowned in the welter of sound. And his hands kneaded her fevered belly the more. She tilted her head back to rest it on his shoulder, and raised her arms to clasp her hands behind his neck submissively. “Oh, Howard,” she breathed again.
Taking the small cigarette dangling from his mouth, his dry lips brushing her ear, he placed it in hers. The damp-ended, marihuana joint might have been a lighted squib. She coughed. Straightening with a start, she removed her arms and opened her eyes. They began to water. Through a veil of tears, on the other side of the room, she could make out Howard. His face lighted by a lamp next to the turntable, he was looking directly at her, smiling, his expression made strangely ghoulish by the glare of the upward beam.
The canteen girl in black hung from him; her white arms draped about his neck; her bleached face partially masked by the throat it melted into. She looked up. Crimson smeared her chin and Howard’s neck where she had been sucking at it.
For the fleetest of moments Gail stood looking at them in disbelief. Suddenly aware of all the alien bodies chafing and rubbing against hers, she felt a desperate urge to escape. The music had become unbearably loud, and she could no longer breathe the stifling air. The heaving mass she had previously been so happy to be at one with, now dragged her into itself, and she fought to keep still. Rivulets of perspiration, she had hardly noticed before, stung her eyes and ran uncomfortably down her cleavage. Elbow and knee joints jabbed sharply into legs, waist, and arms. But, worst of all, she could feel the warm gristle of Phil’s erection pressing into her. She dug her fingernails into the back of the hands holding her stomach to wrench herself free of him. Treading on feet and toes, she pushed and pulled against the rip-tide of limbs and bodies tugging her back into their midst. Phil was yelling at her, but she could not make out his words above the din. She did not want to hear him. Slowly, she grappled her way past all the faces now transmitting threat, through the cloying humidity of so many; their sweat, their breath, their stink; through to the door. All now revolted and scared her.
Eventually, having reached the foot of the stairs, she slumped herself down onto the bottom step. Everything had transmogrified from dream to nightmare, and she was made miserable by it. After a while of gathering her senses, she made her way to the kitchen to get drunk.
She could not remember how long she had been there, or how many drinks she had had, when she went to the bathroom again. There was no queue this time. She went in locking the door behind her. She knew she was drunk and kept talking to herself as though she was with somebody else. Looking at her image in the mirror, she first scolded, and then laughed at herself for having drank so much. After relieving herself she lowered the seat lid and sat on it, leaning her back on the cistern. Opening her bag, she took out a cigarette, lit it, and expelled clouds of smoke with a long sigh. However hard she tried not to, she could only think of Howard. Visions of him flitted through her mind. Neither could she prevent herself from being aroused by those same visions. Laying a hand on her thigh, she began to caress herself. With her eyes shut, it was almost as though he was touching her. Delicious waves washed over her, comforting yet exciting then all-engulfing. Now she could glimpse the half-forgotten dreams, now the immensity, the eternity, and yet the brevity, which seemed to hold it all … so impossibly … so … A sharp rap on the door brought her swiftly back to earth, followed by a muffled cry:
“Hurry up in there! I’m bursting!” She swore, and stood up, brushing her skirt down, glancing in the mirror for some tell-tale sign she half-expected to be revealed. Not allowing herself to be hurried, she rearranged her hair, took another drag on her cigarette, and flushed it down the toilet. Like every one before it that night, it refused to be flushed away.
She opened the door to find the drunken student leaning against the jamb, leering at her. She scowled at him and went back downstairs. Glancing in the room she had danced in earlier, as she passed, she saw there were now just a few couples mooching around the floor to much softer music. Phil was among them, his face buried in the neck of a rangy, black girl. He did not see her. She left quickly before he did.
Feeling hungry, she went back into the kitchen. There were far fewer people there as well. The party was breaking up. The food and drinks tables that had looked so enticing on arrival were now in a sorry state. She picked at the soggy remains of a bowl of salad, and looked about for some bread. Everywhere, paper plates lay sodden in wine. Bent cigarette butts floated in pools of the stuff. Sad, empty, green bottles, at attention, or fallen on their sides, lay on grubby paper cloths littered with discarded chicken bones, crumbs and bits of cheese. On a shelf above the tables she spotted a baguette that had somehow escaped the mayhem. She reached for it and broke off a large hunk.
When she turned round it was to meet Howard’s grey eyes smiling into hers. In his hand he held up a piece of cheese. Biting off a chunk, he placed the rest into her opened mouth, neither of them speaking, just standing staring at one another.
And then the canteen girl swept in, swept him up, and swept out again. Now he was just fleeting apparition, a figment of her imagination. Only the cloying cheese in her mouth to say he had really been there.
Phil found her moments later. He was as drunk as she was. She did not argue when he directed their taxi back to his place. Nor resist his fumbling hands later on. She went to bed with him in the certain knowledge Howard would go to bed with the canteen girl in black.
And as she lay beneath Phil, she smiled at the dark and empty ceiling, made believe it was Howard she was with, and they were both a million miles away.
THE PLACE 2B was one of several new art galleries the formerly rundown Blenheim Place had spawned during the mid 1980s. Once a scruffy side street off Portobello Road, rocketing rents, booming property prices, and smooth-talking, heavy-handed estate agents had successfully managed to winkle out an old greengrocer, a secondhand clothes shop, a Polish deli and a shoe repairer within a time frame that would have impressed the mafia. There was only the old record shop to go to make the transformation complete.
Gail assumed the position of managing the trendily named gallery at number 2B, soon after graduating from university. Through connections, of course. Not that she particularly wanted or needed employment of any sort. Like all trustafarians of her generation she already had a sufficiently large unearned income. A job, or career, was an excuse for moving away from Mummy and Daddy to London. Jobs, as such, were not things girls like Gail had to go out and get. They came all by themselves. In the days before emails, she didn’t have to spend hours scouring newpaper columns then writing endless letters begging to be given a chance. She obtained them like everyone else born of privilege; through a friend of the owner, Cecil Court. It was to be a job between jobs. One of a series of stepping stone across ordinary people’s heads that might lead to a good marriage.
Cecil Court was a self-made man who had almost managed to cross the class divide by making a pile in the property boom. He had been one of the main winklers of Blenheim Place. And now sought further to strengthen his credibility amongst the upper classes by moving up into the art world. The only way he knew how: through buying his way up. He had reached the point where he felt the need to be surrounded by people like Gail and her circle, and had become rich enough to afford wasting money on employing her.
As Cecil boasted to an old friend, with her impeccable credentials, the right upbringing, a poor enough university degree for an affordable salary, and smashing legs, she was the perfect candidate.
Her actual duties were never made clear. She could never quite work out whether she was there to manage it, or just to answer the phone and make cups of coffee. Her salary was that of a manager, but she did seem to be making an awful lot of cups of coffee.
She was under no illusion as to Cecil Court’s other motives for employing her, and spent considerable time trying to convince him the salary certainly wasn’t near enough to guarantee him safe passage into her underpants. By the time they’d got that out of the way she’d already been working for him for a couple of weeks. From that moment, he came to regard keeping her on as an act of charity he wasn’t quite so keen on affording. But she was good with clients, and that was enough to earn her her pay till he found someone with smashing legs that were easier to prise apart.
Danny DeMorgan wandered into the gallery shortly after she first started. He’d come to size it up for a proposed show, hoping to find Cecil. But Mr Court had been called away at short notice to view an office block in the city. There had been no time to postpone his appointment with the artist, as he was already on his way and mobile phones were yet to become ubiquitous. Gail could see DeMorgan was put out by the change in arrangements. She’d been briefed to treat him well, as other galleries in the area were interested in his work.
In a world where art used to be regarded as a bit of a luxury, Danny DeMorgan’s paintings had managed to achieve the relatively new status of being essential acquisitions by newly-moneyed people anxious to be seen buying the right pictures, by the right people, in the right places. Places like The Place 2B. They were the sort of people Cecil Court liked to count as his friends, the sort of people like himself, who felt they had finally arrived.
He cut an impressive figure for a man of barely average height. His stocky peasant build gave him a solid, dependable air, but stylish. He wore his curly, blond hair long enough to touch the collar of his green suede jacket. Gail couldn’t help but notice his hands. They seemed immense. Thick, gold hairs bristled from under his watchstrap and along the back of his wrists. They looked the hands of a farmer, or garage mechanic, rather than a painter’s. They reminded her of her father’s hands.
He had the ruddy complexion of someone used to the outdoor life. His eyes were an incredible shade of the darkest brown, almost black, giving the impression of two large pupils without irises. Gail realised women could drown in eyes like that. And she could easily be one. She tried to avoid his gaze.
She showed him the current exhibition describing each canvas at great length in the hope Cecil Court would soon return. All the time, she could sense those same dark eyes staring at her, making her feel uncomfortable. By the time they got to the fifth painting she decided she would have to say something.
“Do you mind?” she ventured as politely as she could manage.
“Do I mind what?” he returned. She thought she detected a remnant of the northwest in his accent.
“You’re staring, and I can’t help finding it rather off-putting.” For her own part, she had taken to speaking in a peculiarly careful manner, measuring her sentences in short, clipped syllables.
“Sorry,” he said, and turned to face the painting in front of them.
“Where on earth has Cecil got to?” Gail wondered out loud, glancing at her watch. She was running out of things to say, and felt sure she’d repeated herself on more than one occasion. Not that Danny DeMorgan seemed to be taking much notice of what she was saying.
“Oh, don’t worry about me if you’ve got something else you can be getting on with.” He was staring at her again. “I’ve only popped in to get some idea of the light and space I’ll have to work with. You don’t have to show me round.”
Fearing she might have offended him, Gail smiled and apologised.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make it sound like that, only Mr Court did tell me he wouldn’t be long, before he left, and he was so looking forward to meeting you again. Let me show you the lower gallery, there’s as much space there again, perhaps even more.”
“Any chance of a cup of coffee instead?” he asked, “I’ve got a blinding hangover, and looking at all these primaries isn’t exactly helping.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” she laughed, “I had no idea. I couldn’t understand why you weren’t looking at them. He’s been so popular. We sold almost sixty per cent of this show in the first week.”
“No need to keep apologising,” he said, “You didn’t paint them. I know the man. We were at The Royal together. I tend to avoid him if I can.”
“Why is that?”
“Pure, undiluted jealousy, I suppose. His paintings fetch about three times as much as mine do. And I hate him for it.” As yet, Gail was unused to the way so many painters feel little reticence in making their prejudices public. To her surprise, she found herself taken aback by it.
“How silly of me,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of artists having feelings like that.”
“Having? Or expressing?” he commented. “Everybody has feelings of all sorts. It’s just that most of us choose not to express them. Art is about expressing impressions and emotions. It’s what I do for a living. It’s my passion.
“Now, when I look at work like this,” he swung his arm out in an expansive arc, “All I see is cold, calculated exercises in intellectual elitism designed for a gullible marketplace awash with too much cash. There’s no emotion. They’re like computer-generated images to me, titillating and clever, but with no depth to them. Every time I see one of his paintings I start feeling a tiny bit sick in the pit of my stomach. I can’t help it. I can’t help feeling that whenever one of his shows is successful, that it’s some sort of rejection of me. Of my work. Totally irrational, of course, and egotistical to the point of being certifiable. But that’s the way it is.”
Something about his directness had begun to interest her. Now, it was her turn to stare at him. Something about him reminded her of someone she might once have known, but could no longer place.
“You can’t mean that,” she said, “you’re almost as famous as he is yourself.
“Almost,” he said, “And that’s what it’s all about. I’m almost as famous as he is. It’s one of my greatest failings; not to be able to see how far I’ve come. I’m always looking at those in front of me, rather than those I’ve left behind. And with each year’s new crop, there are always so many more, it seems. In that way, I’m no different from any other artist, actor or even musician, for that matter. I suffer from this deep-seated sense of insecurity that grows rather than diminishes the more successful I become. Eventually, it leads to a constant, overwhelming fear of rejection, they tell me. Artist’s agents like to keep us in that state. It’s just one more aspect of a market-driven economy. They think we can’t paint unless we’re unhappy or hungry. We need to be kept feeling as insecure as possible. Just one small step behind suffering a nervous breakdown and slashing our wrists. Though even that has been known to boost sales.”
“Can you paint when you’re happy?”
“I can’t remember.”
“You’re not unhappy now, are you?”
“You’d better ask me that when I haven’t got a hangover,” he said. “I have this problem. And it’s that I know that I am where I am as much through luck as talent.”
“Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that?”
“Luck’s for the horses. There are plenty of painters out there, just as good as I am, who have yet to sell a picture. I don’t want you think me ungrateful, but neither do I want to kid myself. The people who buy my paintings aren’t interested in art; they just want fashion to hang on their walls. Markets have next to no taste by their very nature. In order to appeal to the greatest number of people you have to offend the fewest. Only the bland and mediocre can do that. Art is about freedom of expression; market places are about freedom to exploit. There’s always an inherent contradiction wherever the two meet. A good salesman soon learns never to express an honest opinion.”
“You make it all sound so terrible,” Gail said, “as though you’d be better off doing an ordinary job.”
“Unfettered capitalism is terrible, and perhaps I would,” he mused, as much to himself as her, “but I’ll never know that now. That’s the trap they spring on you. By the time you realise, it’s too late. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as unlearning, just more learning.
“And once you’ve had a taste of the good life, there’s no turning back. Fish ’n chips never tasted so good as that day you were really starving. Try them when you’re only peckish, you’ll never finish the chips. Besides, when you’ve got a few bob, smoked salmon seems much more satisfying.”
Gail examined his face curiously. He appeared to be looking at a painting, but she could see he was looking through it. Through the painting and through the wall it hung upon. He stood like that for almost a full minute before either of them spoke again.
“I’ll go and make that coffee,” she said, as much to break the uncomfortable silence as anything.
“Coffee? Ah yes, coffee. I was miles away. What were we talking about? Food, weren’t it? Let’s get back to food. How about dinner tonight?”
“We haven’t even had coffee yet,” she laughed. “I’ll have to think it over while I make it. Who knows? I might be one of those people who rejects you.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. You rejected me once before.”
“Before? Before when? Surely, we’ve only just met?” That nagging feeling they had not, having returned, she screwed up her eyes to scrutinise his features more closely. He was right, they had met before. But, for the life of her, she couldn’t remember when.
“You don’t remember, do you?” He would have to be one of those men who seem to be right about everything. She found the tendency to milk such situations for all they were worth so irritating in them. It left her feeling inadequate for no good reason. They both knew he was going to tell her at some point. Nevertheless, she carried on with his annoying little game, adding a touch of her own.
“I know I’ve seen you somewhere before, but I just can’t remember where. You weren’t at The Beaufort on Boxing Day, were you?”
“Do I look like the sort of bloke who gets invited to jump on horse just to chase poor, furry, little animals about the countryside with packs of rabid aristocrats frothing at the mouth?”
“No. It was supposed to be a joke. In rather bad taste, I’m sorry to say.”
“Brighton ring any bells?”
“You come from Brighton?”
“With this accent? No way. I was at art college there. You were at the university about the same time, weren’t you?” He seemed to know everything about her while she knew nothing at all about him. “I remembered you the moment I set eyes on you.”
“So that’s why you kept staring at me all the time?”
“Not entirely, I was staring at you, the word seems a bit harsh the way you say it, but staring I suppose it must’ve been. I was staring at you because you’re still as beautiful as you were back then. More beautiful, if that’s possible.”
“Now, you’re making me blush.”
“Not nearly as much as you used to make me blush. I’m surprised I ever managed to pluck up the courage to ask you to dance.”
“You must remember all those sleazy Saturday night dances at the Union Building? All that groping and fumbling that went on after a couple of pints of cider?”
“Ye-es, well, I remember the dances, but I’m not so sure about the groping and fumbling. And I don’t drink cider”
“I don’t mean us. Not together, at least. I was rejected, remember? Ungropable, unfumblebubble, or whatever the words are. I only got as far as asking you to dance.”
“And I rejected you,” she finished for him.
“Sounds brutal when you say it, but, yes, you rejected me.”
“And you still haven’t got over it?” She had to bite the corner of her lip to keep herself from smiling too much. He was being too serious about something that happened such a long time ago.
“Of course, I have.” He sounded rattled. “It was you that asked. I’m just reminding you, that’s all. Reminding you, you rejected me once before.”
“That’s not fair,” she protested.
“Exactly what I thought at the time,” he countered swiftly. Despite the obvious prickly streak he was displaying, against all her natural instincts, she was starting to like him.
“I mean it’s not fair for you to remember all that when I can’t.”
“Degrees of importance,” he said. “It was far more important to me than it was to you at the time.”
“Well, how important is it to you now?” Cocking her head to one side, the urge to tease him further was proving irresistible.
“That all depends on whether you choose to reject me or not a second time.”
“Then, perhaps I should, as you remember me so well from it.”
“Touché,” he said, dragging his eyes from her to feign sudden interest in one of the paintings he had earlier affected to despise so much. She could see he hurt rather more easily than he liked to make out.
“I’ll go and make that coffee,” she said. An invisible wall had sprung up between them, and she began to regret having teased him at all. “Do you take milk and sugar?”
“Milk and two sugars,” he replied without looking at her.
Gail went downstairs to the kitchen in a corner of the basement, leaving him to brood alone.
It took just a few minutes before she returned bearing two mugs of instant coffee, the dark stains of spilled granules running down their sides.
“Here you are,” she announced, flashing her eyes at him whilst handing him one of the mugs in an awkward fashion so that neither of them would burn their fingers on it. “I was involved with someone while I was at Brighton.”
Danny DeMorgan was still pretending to look at paintings.
“Yes,” he deigned to say eventually, “I remember that as well. We used to share the odd joint now and then. Howard, I seem to remember him being called.”
“You have got a good memory.”
“Not really.” He half-turned. But seeming to think better of it, kept his gaze fixed to the wall. “As I said before, it’s all down to degrees of importance. I used to watch you both. Your relationship fascinated me. I wanted one just like it. A girl like you to be mine. You, in fact. It was so perfect. You were so happy together. You made all other relationships seem childish by comparison. Dirty, little adventures in juvenile sexual exploration. It was as though the rest of us were still playing while you two had the real thing.” He couldn’t help himself from turning to look at her now. Just to catch her reaction. She was staring thoughtfully into her mug of coffee.
“Nothing is ever quite what it seems.” There was an emptiness in her words. “Anyway, it’s all over now,” She breathed the words out wearily. “All over.”
“What happened to him?” Danny probed. “I seem to remember he was a bit of a weirdo. Didn’t he have some mental problems after smoking too much of the puff.”
“He had nothing of the sort!” Gail snapped back angrily. And Danny DeMorgan knew it wasn’t over at all. “He’s just quiet, that’s all.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said you’d finished.”
“We have,” she said huffily, moving away from him, “I just told you. Not that it’s any business of yours. We split up quite a while ago. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see each other occasionally. We’re still friends.”
“Sorry,” he apologised, knowing for a second time she would not regard the apology adequate. He couldn’t resist, just for the sheer spite, “How very grown-up and adult of you both.”
So, their relationship had lasted the years following university. Deep down, he knew it would. Long enough for mere mention of it still to cause her pain. What was more, he could see that she didn’t see it as being over yet, despite what she kept on telling everybody and, above all, despite what she kept on telling herself.
From that point, their conversation became more subdued. Somehow, Howard had managed to insinuate his unseen presence between them, and she had retreated before it.
But Danny DeMorgan had learned the value of persistence since his art college days. Before he left the gallery he had managed to get her to agree to dinner that evening.
HOWARD STOOD BENT BY THE WINDOW, peering through a very narrow gap he had made by carefully holding back the grimy, dark green length of chenille serving as a curtain with his forefinger. His profile highlighted gloomily enough for her to make out by the orange glow of a sodium street lamp at the corner of Golborne Road. The light in the room switched off, it was doubtful if there was anyone in the street below they would able to see him.
“They’ve been watching the house for two weeks now,” he said, speaking slowly in a subdued, monotonous tone. “They keep on changing, so I won’t know who they are. But I know it’s them all right.
“Yesterday, one of them was sitting in a car over there. Sometimes there’s two of them They sit there, chatting and smoking like nothing’s going on. All day sometimes. Occasionally, one of them looks over his shoulder, up at this window. Just to see. And if they think I can see them, they quickly turn away, and go on talking, as if nothing had happened. Sometimes they laugh, as though it’s all just one, big joke.” He paused for a moment, as though his mind was wandering sometimes, making it difficult to maintain his train of thought. “Except if there’s only one of them. If there’s only one of them, he walks up and down the street all day long. And when he gets tired of walking, he stands in the shadows of the doorway of the newsagents over there. Sometimes, I can see the red glow from his fag. All day, and all night, there’s always somebody out there.”
Gail sat perched on the edge of the unmade mattress lying askew on the floor. She was watching his silhouette intently.
“The other day, one of them followed me onto the tube, so I changed at Tottenham Court Road, and took the Northern Line to Balham. Just to check. Sure enough, when I looked back, I could see he had changed trains as well. He was standing by the doors, ready to jump out at the same time. If I did it again. To take him by surprise. He just stood there, pretending to read his paper like an ordinary commuter. We both knew what was happening, though.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. “I managed to lose him outside Balham station by hopping on a bus that was setting off from some traffic lights. He didn’t make it. I didn’t get off until it reached Charing Cross.
“Next day, the same man was standing under that lamp post over there, looking up at my window. I think they were trying to tell me something. I think they were trying to tell me, that whatever I do, wherever I go, they’ll always find me. They’ll always be there.
“I’ve got so used to them, that sometimes, as soon as I wake up, I rush over to the window to see if they’re still out there. And if they’re not, I get scared, I worry. I needn’t though. Sooner or later, one or two of them turn up. They’ve probably just been for a cup of tea, or a piss, or something.” Letting the curtain fall, he turned back into the room. “You can switch the light back on now. The one by the mattress.” She could see there were flecks of white spittle at the corners of his mouth. Sometimes, they would form little threads like tiny stalactites as he spoke. He waked across to the low table by the mattress and ground his cigarette into an ashtray.
“Often, when I’m out, they come in here and look round. Somehow, one or other of them has managed to get hold of a key. They go through my things. I know that because they put some of them back in the wrong place. They try to put them back how they were, but there’s always something they forget. They don’t put a record back how it was, or they leave a drawer slightly open.” Gail glanced round the filthy mess that was his room. Unwashed clothing lay wherever it had been dropped. A collection of half-empty mugs, grey skins afloat on remnants of brown liquid, stood by the mattress. Nothing appeared to have a place. A team of burglars could’ve turned the whole room over, and it would’ve been almost impossible to tell the difference. The way Howard lived it’d be virtually impossible to know if anyone ever entered the room in his absence. He walked over to the window again, but stood with his back to it.
“Small things,” he went on, seemingly unaware of it all, “nothing big, they’re too clever for that. I’m never quite sure whether they do it on purpose or not, to actually let me know they’ve been here. To keep me on my toes. Leaving little signs on purpose. Searching, they’re always searching. I know what they’re looking for, but they don’t. Not yet they don’t.” He smiled a secretive smile. “And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to find it. But what worries me is,” his face took on a serious expression, “if they don’t get it soon, they might start to get impatient.”
Gail stared up at him, wondering if he had finished, or whether it was just another of his erratic pauses.
“Howard,” she said at last, “you haven’t been dealing, have you?”
“What?” he exclaimed.
“You haven’t been selling hash, have you?” she asked. “If you’ve been dealing in dope, it might be the police.” Howard laughed dryly, and took a cigarette from the tattered pack lying on the coffee table between them.
“Dealing?” he asked contemptuously out of a corner of his mouth, lighting the cigarette and blowing out a match in rapid succession.
“What would they care about dealing? This thing’s far bigger than piddling bits of dope.” Gail had her eyes fixed on the coffee table. It was covered in ash and cigarette papers. A saucer overflowed with stubs and roaches. A piece of broken mirror, tell-tale chalky smears and a razor blade on its surface, lay conspicuously by it.
He’d only been living in the room a few weeks. A house just off Golborne Road in Notting Hill. Up until a couple of months before they’d shared a flat off Ladbroke Grove. Then they’d rowed, so she left to stay with a friend. A first, Howard went to live with his mother at the house she bought in Barnes, in order to be closer to her family. Then one of his friends told him about the vacant room.
It was doubtful he’d be there long, as he rarely bothered to pay rent on any of the places he lived. Gail had called by on her way home from the gallery just to see how he was.
He pushed the cigarette pack and papers across the table to her.
“Roll a joint,” he demanded. “It’s ages since we smoked a joint together.”
“I don’t have any dope,” she said. He pulled a film wrapped pellet from his jacket pocking and tossed it down onto the coffee table.
“Use that,” he said.
“I don’t smoke anymore,” she said, for the first time noticing his nostrils were peppered with tiny specks of white powder. “And nor should you. It’s making you paranoid, along with all that speed you’ve been sniffing. You’ve changed, Howard. Look at you. Look at this place, it’s filthy.” He took no notice, just sat down cross-legged on the other side of the table, where he began to stick three papers together and take a cigarette apart. He perched the one he was smoking on the edge of the table alongside a series of burn marks where other cigarettes had been rested. Unwrapping the hashish, he lit a match to soften it before crumbling some into the tobacco. He sniffed, and wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
“You should smoke,” he said, “it makes you see things.”
“I don’t want to see things,” Gail said, but knew he wouldn’t be taking any notice.
“All sorts of things,” he said.
“And how about the speed,” she persisted, “how does that help? What does that make you see?”
“I have to stay awake, he said, “Can’t you understand that? Things are too important. A lot of people depend on me.” If what he was implying was true, there could be all sorts of dangers. He might’ve got involved with some heavy dealers; he could even owe them money. She began to feel very uncomfortable.
“Howard, what have you got yourself mixed up with? You must tell me.” Her increasing agitation seemed only to instil him with calmness.
“I can’t,” he said. “Not yet.” He was more interested in the joint he was building.
“If you’re in some kind of trouble, I may be able to help you,” she said. He stopped what he was doing to look across at her. She saw the whites of his eyes were reddened from lack of sleep, the dull, grey irises bereft of emotion.
“You!” he cried incredulously, “Help me? You must be joking. It’s me that’s doing all the helping. I’m helping all of us, can’t you see that?” She couldn’t see it at all. She couldn’t even see Howard anymore, just a stranger inhabiting his skin. But she would not let hold of him. She had to have him back; back the way he was before the changes.
“We could go away together if you’re in trouble. Anywhere you like, France, Spain, Italy. Brazil even. Howard, you always said you wanted to go to Brazil. We wouldn’t have to worry about money; we could live off my private income. I know it’s only small, but things are really cheap out there.” Howard had turned his attention back to rolling the joint between his fingers. He licked the edge and stuck it down before twisting one end, and stuffing a rolled card roach in the other. When he finished, he held it up to admire it. Gail would not give up on him. “If we needed any extra, we could always work. I could get a job in a bar, or café. Don’t you see, Howard?” she implored him, “Perhaps this is just what we need. It might get us back together how we used to be.”
“This is what we need,” he replied, putting the joint between his lips.
“Let’s go away. Please, Howard.” Her eyes pleaded with him, but he was looking elsewhere. He lighted the joint and a yellow flame flared from its end, which he extinguished in billows of blue-grey smoke.
“There’s nowhere to go,” inhaling almost immediately again and holding his breath for a moment. “They’ve got eyes everywhere,” he exhaled, and coughed. The smoke filled words blew straight into her face. She screwed up her nose and flapped her hand.
“But what if you go to prison?” she asked him. “I don’t think I could face it, if you went to prison.” Without realising, she was feeding him fuel he desperately needed. Her belief in his words gave them a newer reality. A more confident one they hardly possessed when he was alone. When he was alone he became unsure of everything.
“They can’t,” he said, taking another draw before offering the joint to her. She shook her head. “They wouldn’t be so stupid. If they sent me to prison, they wouldn’t be able to get what they’ve been after all this time.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Are you hiding dope for somebody?”
“How many times do I have to tell you it’s got nothing to do with drugs?” he snapped. “That’s just a cover, a false trail. It’s what I want them to think. We’re talking about something worldwide here. The police are being used just as much as anybody else.” His eyes began to light up as he got into stride. “There’s no way we can let them know what’s going on. They’ll blow it for everybody. This thing has been building up too long to let anybody blow it all like that. There are too many people involved. We can’t let anybody get in the way. It’s too late.” He turned to glare at her. “You must understand that, Gail, nobody’s going to be allowed to get in the way. Nobody, not even you.” The menace in his eyes at that moment made her suddenly aware of a cold draught she hadn’t noticed before. She shivered.
“I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, Howard,” she said, “you ought to know that by now.” He had turned away.
“No,” he said. “No, you wouldn’t.” But he said it in a way that made it sound as though he would make certain she would not be able to. She opened her mouth as if to protest. Thinking better of it, got to her feet, brushing her skirt down.
“I’ve got to go now,” she said. “I only came by for a minute. I said I’d pick Mummy up from Paddington. She’s coming up for a few days to do some shopping. Perhaps we could all meet up for dinner, one evening. I’m sure she’d like that.”
“Sure,” he answered, but she knew he would’ve said that to any suggestion she made at that moment. He just wanted to get rid of her. She stood where she was for a minute.
“Shall we do that, then?” she asked, hoping for a more positive affirmation this time. He was licking his finger and wiping the film from the broken mirror. “How about Saturday?” she persevered, “We could meet up for tea first, and then go for dinner later? Is that all right?”
“Yeah,” Howard breathed, sticking his finger into his mouth and sucking it.
A SUGGISH RIVER TIDE was busily tugging the River Thames out of the North Sea, and back into place. It bore the faint beginnings of an evening chill on it, which could be felt from time to time, as though someone had left a greenhouse door open. It was unseasonably warm for late spring. And even though the heavy air had turned hazy, as it often does during late afternoons by the river, she could still feel the heat of sun’s rays, filtering through the haze to tingle the backs of her bare arms. The break-up took place in May.
Fresh, green leaves, almost transparent with newness, had begun to cloak trees lining the river bank. They shivered against the occasional chill breath from the sea, whispering anxiously to each other before being tossed back carelessly, raising twig and branch and scattering puddles of pale sunlight into the shade. Clouds of tiny, black flies shimmered like mirages above the pathway, only to feel uncomfortably like broken spiders’ webs as they passed through.
Howard and Gail strode side by side along the old towpath. Making sure not to touch one another they walked in silence. They had been for a rare Sunday lunch with Howard’s mother at her riverside house in Barnes.
As on the few previous occasions, it had been a disagreeable affair, served in silence by the grim housekeeper. The three of them sat at a table big enough for a dozen or more. Howard’s mother hardly spoke directly to Gail throughout the ordeal, preferring to address her through Howard instead, with comments such as: ‘Are you sure she wouldn’t like some more carrots, Howard?’ And, ‘I wonder if Gail might want to take a walk by the river before tea?’ Anything to get away from the old bitch, Gail had thought.
Shortly after half past six, and way after tea as it happened, they had set off to walk along the riverbank to a pub in Putney. Howard fancied going there for some reason. They had walked for almost half a mile before she gave voice to what she had been meaning to tell him all day.
“It’s not working anymore,” she said. The hollow cliché had almost been rendered bereft of meaning, so often had she run it through her mind in the moments leading up to its utterance.
“Yeah,” Howard exhaled the word as if he was setting down a heavy load. “You’re right.” In the conversation Gail had been having in her mind, she hadn’t bargained for him agreeing with her.
“I’m saying I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” she said, shooting a brief glance across at him. He unloaded another, ‘Yeah’ and she realised he must have gone off for a joint when he left her for ten minutes just before they came out.
“It’s good to get some space for a while.”
“I’m not talking about awhile. I mean for good. I think it’s time we went out separate ways.” She was trying to control the hurt she felt welling up inside.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Howard observed, “It’s all too easy to get into a rut. It does your head in thinking about it. Why not have some fun, screw around while we’re still young? Who wants to end up like their parents, eh?” On that she could agree with him.
A lone cyclist hove into view, bumping along the rutted path.
“I’m talking about us, Howard, or are you too stoned to realise it?” She had stopped walking. Howard stopped a couple of paces further on. She raised her voice. “Us, you and me. You haven’t even got a job, or tried to get one for that matter. We don’t even live together anymore.”
“It’s good,” he said in that maddeningly breathy way.
“What’s so good about not being able to earn a living?”
“You don’t earn a living,” he said, “You just get one. It’s what you do until you stop breathing, so why worry about it? Live and let live, get on with it. Go for it.” His hands were in his pockets, and he was drawing little circles into the earth with his foot, as a child being scolded might.
“You’re not listening to what I’m saying, Howard.” She had started walking again.
“Of course I’m listening,” he said. She stopped again.
“Tell me what I said then,” she asked him. He stood and thought for a moment, as though she was asking a trick question, and he wasn’t sure of the answer she wanted.
“You said we should split up for a while, not see so much of each other. Didn’t you?”
“Forever,” she emphasised, “Split up forever.”
The cyclist had drawn closer now, and seemed to be glaring at them to get out of his way.
“Okay,” Howard said, as if he was making the decision at that very moment. “Forever.”
Gail was still getting the impression the full meaning of the word was not sinking in.
“And never see each other again.”
“If that’s the way it goes.”
“Do you want that?”
“I thought it’s what you wanted,” he said. “I want what you want, we’ve had our good times, and we’ve had our bad times. Sometimes we’ve had some really good times. I don’t mind moving over if some other guy wants a crack.”
Gail had no time to feel the coming explosion.
“Wants a crack!” she yelled, “Wants a crack! You patronising bastard!” The lone cyclist rang his bell. “What do you think I am? You bastard! You bastard! You bastard!” She fell upon Howard pummelling his face and chest with her fists. He drew up his arms to shield his head. “You fucking bastard! How dare you!” she screamed. The cyclist rang his bell once again, more urgently this time.
“Get out of the way!” he shouted at them. Gail turned all her fury on him.
“Fuck off!” she spat at him. “You fucking cunt! Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?” As the cyclist wobbled even closer Howard reached out an arm to pull Gail from his path. “You shouldn’t be cycling on the fucking path anyway!” she shouted as he pedalled past them as fast as he could without falling off. “You fucking pervert!” her parting shot before turning back on Howard. “Let me go!” she yelled, struggling to free herself. “Let me go!” the tears streaming down her face. “You’re all bastards! The whole fucking lot of you!” she cried. Howard loosened his grip. “I want a family while I’m still young!” she whimpered, slumping to the ground before him.
“Gail,” Howard entreated pathetically, a hand still on her sinking arm. “Gail.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Leave me alone!” she sobbed. “Leave me alone, can’t you? You bastard!” She began to wail, he released her, and she finally collapsed onto the grass in a heap. “Leave me alone, you fucking, selfish bastard! I never want to see you again! Ever!”
Howard stood impotently by her for a few moments longer, watching, his head hung low, before turning, and shuffling off back the way they had come.
As she saw his back retreat she knew it really was over this time. Her mind could only wish things could go back to the way they had been.
MRS SOUTHERNE STOOD by the kitchen stove before a pan of bacon spitting delicious fatty odours cheerfully upwards, filling the cottage with its quintessential atmosphere of English breakfast time. She glanced down at the Jack Russell curled up in the old wooden box that was his bed and smiled. His dark, glassy eyes looked back into hers expectantly, his stubby tail thudding dully against his blanket.
“It’s not for you, Guinness,” Mrs Southerne sang, “you’ll have to wait; I’m doing yours in a minute.” But the sound of her voice only encouraged the dog further, and he began to shift restlessly around on his haunches. Deftly removing one from the pan, she tossed him a titbit, which he caught mid-air and downed in a swallow.
The tall fridge in the corner of the room shivered into one of its sporadic bursts of life to begin humming tonelessly, rudely awakening the cat that had been dozing on top of it. Arching its back, and stretching out its paws luxuriously, the cat blinked in a shaft of strong sunlight. She sat staring at the dog for a moment before leaping to the floor and padding softly across the terracotta tiles to a saucer of soured milk lying on a mat by the door. Taking a couple of laps, she shook her head in disgust, then swiftly departed through the open door, and into the garden beyond.
Mrs Southerne glanced at the clock on the wall. She made a disapproving clucking sound. Ten past nine already. She’d seen neither hide nor hair of Gail since she, and the slovenly boy she’d brought back from university, arrived unannounced late the previous evening. She cocked an ear for murmurings of life in the bathroom, but heard nothing. If they didn’t get up soon, she would have to go upstairs and start making loud noises. Laurie’s breakfast was already late. Mrs Southerne liked to get it out of the way before nine on a Saturday morning. If he didn’t get it soon her husband was likely to be grumpy for the rest of the day. Thw omens for a peaceful weekend were not looking good. She’d have to get the vacuum cleaner out to do the upstairs landing. That made enough sound to wake a bear in hibernation.
Turned the electric hotplate for just a faint, contented sizzle to rise from the pan, she covered it with a lid. It would not do to have Laurie mooning about the house all day long. She bustled into the hall to fetch the Hoover from the cupboard beneath the stairs. Several letters lay on the front doormat. That was funny; she hadn’t heard the letterbox flap. Then again, there were a lot of things she didn’t hear any longer. She must be going a bit deaf. Shaking her head, she sighed, grunting wearily as she stooped to pick them up. Riffling quickly through the bills and circulars she came across a letter for Gail. That’d do the trick. With a cup of tea left in the pot, it was perfect excuse for getting Gail out of bed. Her inquisitive nature regarding the letter would soon get the better of any irritation at her mother waking her. Placing all the other letters on the hall table, Mrs Southerne hurried back into the kitchen to pour her daughter that cup of tea.
Despite knowing she would ignore it, Mrs Southerne still tapped gently on Gail’s bedroom door out of politeness. Without waiting for an answer she pushed it open, her brow creasing into tiny furrows at the mess she saw greeting her. Gail had not been home twelve hours, but the room was already in turmoil, dirty clothes and underwear strewn all over the floor.
With Gail at university, her mother had got used to the room reverting back to her charge, as it had been whilst Gail was still a child. Empty of the grown Gail, the room became filled with the presence of the little girl she had been, whose stuffed toys still sat undisturbed on the bed’s counterpane in her absence. Teddy, Ollie and Jennifer, the one eyed rag doll, her remaining bead eye eternally regarding the world around her with such malignance. That little girl of the past, whose books of children’s stories stood in neat stacks upon the shelves next to the bed. Those same stories Mrs Southerne had read out loud so many times before, now sitting side by side in such sad, unknowing obsolescence.
But there was no time to dally over fond reminiscences today. With Gail home on one of her unexpected, lightning, weekend visits, Mrs Southerne was made to feel an unwelcome intruder in the room again. The unwelcome intruder she felt herself becoming as Gail reached teenage years.
Transfer of dominion had been achieved by a subtle process of osmosis, rather than began at any particular point in time. Mrs Southerne only becoming aware it had taken place once it was complete. With the door more or less permanently closed she and her husband had been declared persona non grata in their own daughter’s bedroom.
She placed the cup of tea and letter on the bedside table. Sensing Gail was only pretending to be asleep, she touched her lightly on the shoulder whispering:
“Wake up, darling, it’s already gone ten o’clock, and your father’s crying out for his breakfast,” adding with measured deliberation as she crossed the room to draw the curtains back a little and let some light into the room, “There’s a letter for you.”
Her news having the desired effect, Gail groaned and the duvet shifted perceptibly, as a naked arm emerged. Mrs Southerne asked, “Shall I take your friend some tea? I’ve left yours on the table. Try not to spill it, there’s a dear.”
Gail responded with sleepy noises in the back of her mouth, before smacking her dry lips.
“What time is it?” she murmured, stifling a yawn with her arm.
“Getting on for half past ten,” Mrs Southerne told her falsely. “And your father’s starting to make angry noises about his breakfast being late.” Another little fib wouldn’t hurt.
Gail sat up abruptly.
“Oh, God, he’s not in a bad mood already, is he, Mummy?” she whined, “I haven’t even had a chance to get out of bed.” It would have been pointless for Mrs Southerne to explain that this could be the reason for his mood, the mood being a figment of her own imagination in the first place. More than likely, Mr Southerne would be down in the garden below, working happily away, completely oblivious to the passage of time, and the mood his wife would have him in.
“Not yet, dear. But we thought we might go into Swindon later on this afternoon. And so we were planning an early lunch.” Like a lot of older people, Mrs Southerne had fallen into the habit or arranging her life around her meals rather than the other way round. She had not considered how pedantic this might appear to those younger than herself.
Gail was already beginning to suspect her mother of harbouring ulterior motives for getting her out of bed, and so she slumped back onto the pillows.
“You needn’t worry about us,” she said. “I can make breakfast for Howard if you two want to go into Swindon.”
But the thought of her daughter turning the kitchen into a similar state to the bedroom, filled Mrs Southerne with dread,
“I’ve got a lot to do this morning,” she said irritably, “I can’t have the kitchen upside down all day long.”
Gail let out a noisy breath to signal her displeasure, picked up the cup at her side, and sipped from it moodily.
“Oh, no!’ Mrs Southerne exclaimed suddenly, “I’ve gone and left the bacon on. It’ll be burnt by now. Everything’s going wrong since that boy arrived.” With that, she turned and fled from the bedroom.
On her way downstairs she paused briefly to rap her knuckles hard on the door of the room she had put Gail’s friend in, calling out:
“Breakfast! It’s almost on the table,” adding, as she recalled an unpleasant, sweaty odour clinging to him the previous evening, “There’s plenty of hot water for a bath when you’re ready.”
There was no answer. Raising her eyebrows, and shaking her head slowly, she went on her way.
There was something about the young man. Something, aside from his unpleasant smell, she had not taken to from the moment she saw him. Something about his eyes, something unnatural in their brightness. Something vaguely unnerving.
THOUGH ALREADY LIGHT, Gail felt it very early. She’d woken from one of those dreams that appear to be composed of vague memories strung together with fantasy. She had been in what resembled the old orchard with her sister. More or less as it used to be when they were very young, when Gillian was still alive.
Gillian and Gail had been squabbling. It was all Gillian’s fault, Gail was sure of that, but felt a bit frightened. She had only given Gillian a little hit, but still Gillian had run off to tell Mummy, like tell-tale-tits did. It had only been a little hit, and now it was going to be big business. Gail had already made up her mind to say she didn’t do do any hitting because she knew it was naughty. And then to burst into tears, saying it was Gillian who had given the first hit, but she hadn’t wanted to tell on her. And now look what had happened. Tell-tale-tits won all the time. Though she knew it was a lie she felt a sense of justification, simply because Gillian was a tell-tale’tit.
The way if happened had been that Daddy had given them some sweeties. Gillian had gone and saved all hers without telling Gail. it was spiteful, If Gillian had told Gail she was going to save hers, Gail would have saved hers too, but she had eaten them all up instead, and not saved even one. They were all gone, and when she asked Gillian for one of hers. Just one tiny one. Even if it was a green one. Gillian would not give her one. And then she said Gail was a greedy little girl for eating everything up. Just like Mummy did. It was not fair, and it made Gail cross, so she hit her.
It was only a little hit but it made Gillian’s sweets all drop in the dirt. Gail was glad. It was not fair. But then Gillian started to cry and Gail got scared. So Gail picked some sweets up to show Gillian how they could blow them better and brush the dirt off. But Gillian wouldn’tt listen. She just cried and ran off to tell Mummy. It wasn’t fair.
When Mummy came Gail was picking up the sweets. She tried to tell Mummy she hadn’t done anything worng and was trying to help, but Mummy saw Gail had one of the dirty sweets in her mouth. Hiding it under her tongue it as quick as she could, Gail said she hadn’t. “Look.”
Mummy slapped her hard and shouted at her to spit it out because it was dirty from falling on the ground, and not to be a dirty little girl. That made Gail cry. Mummy was not nice then, and Gail did not love her anymore. She hated her. She hated Mummy and Gillian and Daddy as well. Nobody loved Gail,and she didn’t care. Mummy made her go up to her room all by herself, and it was not even bedtime yet.
She was in her bedroom for ever such a long time. She could hear Mummy crying downstairs; Daddy as well. Just over a few sweets. Nobody came up to tell her a story and see if she had her nightie on properly. They didn’tt care anymore.
Then she though it was Mummy coming upstairs, and she got in to bed quickly, but it was Aunty Peggy instead. It was dark and Aunty Peggy said she didn’t need to have a bath that night.
When Gail asked where Gillian was, and why she didn’t have to come to bed, because it wasn’tt fair, Aunty Peggy cried. And then Gail cried a bit as well. She said she was sorry for being so naughty. Aunty Peggy stopped crying and told Gail that Gillian had gone to God’s house. Gail knew it was because she had hit her and made her drop all her sweets. Gail said she wanted to go to God’s house as well. Aunty Peggy started crying again. It was all Gail’s fault and she started crying even more.
When Gail woke up next morning Gillian was still in God’s house,. And the day after that. And the day after that as well. Every day.
Then one day Gillian came back when Gail was all by herself. But Gail did not tell Mummy or Daddy. Gillian told Gail off for dropping all her sweeties in the dirt. Gail said sorry, but God told Gail what a naughty little girl she was and took her back to his house, which was like a castle. Gillian cried instead. Then God brought Gail back to Gillian and told them not to be naughty again. God told them not to squabble and not to hit Gillian or anybody else because it wasn’tt nice. Then Gillian and Gail made friends again and played in the garden like good little girls. But Gail didn’t tell Mummy and Daddy.
‘Mummy and Daddy were always sad after God took Gillian to his house, but they did not tell Gail off and never smacked her. Mummy and Daddy told Gail it was not her fault, but Gail knew it was really.
Then Daddy started to cry a lot. Sometimes he made Gail sit on his lap when he cried. He hugged her so tight until she could hardly breathe. Gail did not like Daddy when he did that. She told Gillian.
Then Daddy got a little bit better, until Guinness got run over. Guinness was Daddy’s little dog. He had a black body and a bit of white on his head. Daddy said that he looked like a pint of Guinness but Gail did not know what one was.
When Guinness got run over, it was a car. It did not stop. Daddy ran out after it, and then so did Mummy, and Gail did as well. Daddy fetched Guinness back in his arms. Guinness was all floppy and bleeding. He went to God’s house as well.
Daddy cried every day after that. Even when Gail told him that Guinness was in God’s house and Gillian was as well. They played together. Gail had seen them, but she did not tell Daddy that.
Daddy cried even when Mummy fetched the new Guinness. He was not Guinness really, just pretend. Then he grew back into Guinness.
Gail asked Mummy to fetch a pretend Gillian so she could change into Gillian. Mummy said you could not fetch little girls just like that. Even if you could they would not turn into the proper Gillian. Then she said to stop asking silly questions all the time. So Gail did not tell Mummy she played with Gillian sometimes.
Daddy stopped going to work when Guinness got run over. Even when Mummy fetched the new Guinness. He just stayed at home and cried all the time. Gail did not like it when Daddy cried. She didn’t look. Then he didn’t get out of bed anymore, not even in the daytime. He was a very lazy man.
Then Doctor Baxter came to the house one day with a very serious look. Gail asked Doctor Baxter if he was taking Daddy to God’s house. Doctor Baxter smiled like a nice man and said, no. Doctor Baxter gave Gail a mint.
Daddy came downstairs with his pyjamas on. He had not even combed his hair. Gail laughed and said it was not Sunday morning and why he had not even got his clothes on. He did not even take his slippers off. Mummy did not even tell him off. Daddy looked ever so tired.
When Daddy got into Doctor Baxter’s car Mummy kissed him and stroked his face. Just like she stroked Gail’s face when she put her to bed.
Mummy cried a bit when Daddy went in Doctor Baxter’s car. She said Daddy had gone for a bit of a holiday. Then when Daddy was away, Gail slept with Mummy in the big bed. Gail said she wanted to go to the seaside where Daddy was. Mummy said, not now dear I’m busy.
‘Then Daddy came back after a long time.
Gail did not like Daddy anymore when he came back. He slept in the big bed with Mummy, and Gail was not allowed. Mummy was all nice to him and she said for Gail to be quiet all the time. Not to make so much noise even when she did not make any even. Daddy had come back just to spoil everything.
When Daddy came back he did not stay in bed all day and he was not a lazy man anymore. His hair was all nice and combed. He had his proper clothes on downstairs. Gail was glad when Daddy went to work again. So was Aunty Peggy.
Then Daddy did not cry all the time anymore when he went to work. Just when he saw some dead animal, she cried. Gail thought he was silly but didn’t say so.
GAIL CRINGED at the sound of her mother knocking on the spare room door. How dare she? Waking Howard so rudely. What would she make Gail look like? Howard was tired. They both were. That was the whole point of them coming home for the weekend. That, and for him to meet her parents. After all he’d told her, she wanted to show him what life with a functional family could be like. Now what would he think of them?
He had taken her to an all-night party on Thursday evening. Half a gramme of speed cut with lousy coke meant they hadn’t slept, staying up to watch dawn break over the sea. And then making love beneath Brighton’s delapidated West pier. The very outrageousness of it all. The thrill of almost being caught in the act by a man walking his dog, followed by a disgustingly big fry-up in a greasy, little café off a side street in Hove. It had been one of the most wonderful experiences she’d ever known. She was alive, and what was most surprising, she knew it.
Then she thought the most fantastic idea would be to go home for the weekend;; to share Howard with her parents. They would love him.
It was almost dark again by the time they set out in the little car her parents had bought her when she passed her driving test. They were both very weary, but extremely happy, in the way only lovers can be. A few more snorts of speed along the drive to Wiltshire and she was telling him how well they would all get on together. How free and easy her parents were, in spite of their ages. They were more like brothers ans sisters than anything. it they knew the truth about dope they would be smoking it all day.
And now her mother had gone and decided she did n’t like Howard for some perverse reason. Insinuating needed a bath in that way of hers. A pointed sniff followed by the offer of a pile of clean towels. How could she? It was despicable. She was making it all so obvious. There would have to be words. She would have to straighten things out with her mother, before Howard got up; before she ruined the whole weekend.
Her mother has always possessed that knack of expressing opinions without actually stating them. One way or another, she would soon make people, she did not take to, feel uncomfortable in her presence without them knowing exactly why. More often than not, by concealing her barbed comments beneath a welter of feigned interest in family and background. She would load her questions wit innuendoes. Emphasise particular points, here and there, with carefully placed nods; the odd raised eyebrow. All for the benefit of her immediate initiates. At least, those well-versed enough in her ways to understand.
Gail would have to put a stop to it before it started. Jumping out of bed she stuffed herself into a pair of knickers, T-shirt and jeans. She crept downstairs and into the kitchen, taking care to close the door quietly behind her.
“Mummy,” she began in a scarcely controlled, but quiet, voice, cracking at the edges with suppressed emotion, “how could you?”
Her mother stood by the sink, up to her elbows in suds, gazing thoughtfully out of the window towards the blue, wooded hills on the horizon.
“What’s the matter, dear?” she asked in an unintentionally patronising way.
“You knew very well Howard was still asleep when you banged on his door like that. How could you? You make me look as if I’m still a schoolgirl.” Gail stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, her knuckles clenched tight at her sides, exactly like a petulant schoolgirl.
“I’m terribly sorry, dear,” her mother said, “but it can’t be helped.” She began to load the dish rack on the draining board with crockery dripping sudsy water. “There’s an awful lot to do on Saturday mornings, and I wanted to get breakfast out of the way, so that we can all get on with things. I’ve already ruined one lot of bacon taking up tea.”
“I didn’t ask for tea in bed!” Gail snapped back, her limited amount of patience running out fast.
“I thought it would be nice for you. So you could have the whole day ahead of you.”
“We came here for a rest,” Gail protested. “We’ve been working hard all week, and we thought we’d have the weekend off for a change.”
“I’m afraid that doesn’t alter the fact that I have a lot to do. There’s extra shopping for tomorrow’s lunch, for an start, there are the horses to attend.. And I expect you’ll want that pile of filthy clothes ou dumped all over the bedroom floor washing. Not to mention the pile of rags your friend brought with him.”
“Howard hasn’t got lots to do.”
“Well, not unless he makes a start on that dump of filthy rags leeching smells from his old bag he hasn’t, Nevertheless, I’m sure he won’t mind mucking in with the rest of us. I’m afraid he’ll have to take us pretty much as he finds us, this weekend. You should have warned us. I mean, really, darling.” Mrs Southerne felt it was time to move even further onto the attack.
She had not bargained for Gail’s deep sense of injustice.
“If that’s how you feel, we might as well go back to Brighton now. And get out of your way,” Gail said.
“Don’t be silly, Gail.” She turned her head to see how serious her daughter was, or whether it was just another case of the spoilt child in her. It was not her way to create too much of a scene. “You do say the most ridiculous things at times,” she said, having reassured herself it was a case of the latter. “You know very well I don’t mean that. Your father and I love having you home. Heaven knows, we see little enough of you as it is.” She was looking out of the window again. “And we’ve always said you can bring home whoever you please. All I ask is a bit of notice, that’s all. After all, we can hardly be expected to abandon all our own plans at the drop of a hat, can we? Be realistic, dear.” It all sounded so reasonable put like that. Perhaps it was. All Gail knew was that her mother had a way about her that always left Gail feeling inexplicably guilty.
“We weren’t expecting you to,” she said defensively. “We can always look after ourselves, if you’ve got things to do. We only came here to get away from the campus for a couple of days. All we want is a bit of rest. We weren’t expecting to be entertained.”
“Well, you’ve both had a bit of a rest. It’s already gone half past nine. I’m sure…” the name stuck in her throat, “I’m sure…”
“Howard,” Gail prompted her, “his name’s Howard.”
“Of course it is. I’m sure,” this time she paused to lay undue emphasis on the name, “Howard hasn’t come all the way out here just to lie in bed all day.”
But something had started to seep through to Gail.
“Only just gone half past nine?” she asked. “But upstairs you said it was after ten.” The extent of her mother’s petty deception had only just dawned on her.
“Did I?” Mrs Southerne mused with a thin air of innocence. She had finished the dishes and was drying her hands. “I don’t remember saying that. I must have read the clock wrong. Anyway, it’s too late to worry about that now. Why don’t you go and help your father lay the table. I’ve told him to use the blue gingham tablecloth. The one Aunty Peggy gave us after Granny died. It’s in the sideboard. But you know what he’s like. He’ll have the whole place upside down, and still not find it. After all, we want it looking nice for when Howard comes down.”
Gail felt fit to burst.
“Mummy!” she exploded, “You’re trying to spoil everything! You always do! And I’m bloody well fed up with it!”
The kitchen door opened behind them.
“Temper, temper,” said Mr Southerne shuffling in from the breakfast room, “What’s upsetting Daddy’s little girl, then?”
Gail turned to face him
“It’s Mummy!” she mewled, her eyes brimming tears, “She’s trying to spoil everything! Just like she always does!” Mrs Southerne was still wiping her hands on a tea towel. Looking over Gail’s shoulder at her husband, she gave him the sort of expression she used to give in the old days; the sort of expression that used to signal it was time to put Gail to bed.
“There, there, old girl,” Mr Southerne comforted, putting his arms round Gail and patting her on the back, “I’m sure it can’t be all that bad. Why don’t you come and help your silly old dad look for that tablecloth you mother keeps going on about. I’m darned if I can find the blessed thing, for the life of me, I can’t.”
Suddenly, they all felt a shadow fill the garden doorway. All their faces turned to it at once.
“Howard!” Gail exclaimed in surprise.
“Oh, you’re up already,” said her mother in a way that made it sound as if she was disappointed.
“Morning, old boy,” Mr Southerne greeted. It was all together; all in a family jumble.
“Hi,” breathed Howard in return, stepping inside. “It’s such a great morning, I just had to get up at six and go for a walk. it was still dark. Didn’t wake anybody, did I?” His inquiry was met by a chorus of shaking heads, and quietly shameful ‘no’s’. ‘I went up the lane to see the sun come up. It was fantastic.” He smiled beatifically upon them. Gail could tell by his eyes he had been smoking a joint.
There was a short, uncomfortable silence, until Mr Southerne filled it.
“Yes it’s lovely,” he said. “I’ve been out in the garden all morning, myself. Unseasonably warm for early March. Far be it, for me to complain, mind. Does the garden a world of good.”
“Stop rambling, Daddy,” Gail grinned, digging him good naturedly in the ribs whilst flashing sparkling, moist eyes at Howard.
“You know you were,” Gail said, freeing herself from him, and moving towards Howard, “You’re just in time for breakfast, Howard.” She held her hands out to him, “Come and help me lay the table.”
Mrs Southerne said nothing. She stared at them unnoticed; her fact set hard, feeling strangely as though she had been cheated in some way.
IT WAS ONE of those rare, beautiful, English spring days that are a foretaste of summer. A clothes line of tiny, cotton frocks fluttered briefly in the warm breeze.
Winifred Southerne sat in the favourite Windsor armchair she carried to a sheltered corner of the patio. A cup of cold, grey tea stood untouched on the weather bleached wicker table at her side. On her lap a pink and blue copy of Woman’s Weekly lay unread, its pages turning slowly in the breeze, as if the work of an invisible hand.
Through the sleep gently washing over her, she could hear the distant gurgle of childish laughter wafting across the lawn. Rippling like wavelets on the surface of a pond disturbed by the stray summery draught. She smiled to herself.
It had been quite the warmest week in late March anyone could remember. Warm enough to have sat outside without a cardigan. Mrs Southerne wore a cardigan. Looking after the twins all the time made her constantly tired. More tired than all the forewarnings, she had had to endure, could have ever predicted. A tiredness that in turn made her feel cold, even on the warmest of days.
But, as she had so often remarked to her sister, Peggy, twins were not something you could choose not to have. Although, given that choice, she doubted she would have chosen any differently.
As Winifred Yates she had come into marriage late in life. Laurie Southerne was not a local man, having moved into the area shortly after the war. He turned up in reply to an advertisement for a storekeeper at the rambling department store her father had built up in the sleepy, Wiltshire market town near the village where Winifred had been born and raised.
He’d arrived the end of the war during the autumn of 1946. Winifred was barely nineteen. She had just started working for her father herself, helping out in the store’s wages office. The war had left many firms with a shortage of manpower. Everybody was expected to do their bit, including the boss’s daughter.
Laurie was twenty-nine. He’d spent two years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Winifred had never seen anybody quite so thin before. Apart from his hands; they were huge, almost as though they alone had been fed whilst the rest of him starved. They fascinated her in a physical way she had yet to become accustomed to. They were the hands of a labourer rather than a gentleman.
But, in the new mood of the classless society the war had supposedly ushered in, her father didn’t even ask him about his background and took him on straightaway.
Laurie proved to be a fine choice; he was honest and hard-working. It wasn’t long before he was put behind the counter in the menswear department. Within two years he was running it. Two more and he had become the manager of the whole store.
All along the way his progress brought him in closer contact with her father. Few begrudged him his success as he rarely made enemies, far from it. And over those same years there developed a warm, personal relationship between Laurie and his employer. He was often invited back to the house for dinner, and occasionally, Sunday lunch.
After their meals the two men would often sit drinking oldmalt, talking business well into the early hours of the morning. Whenever her father would let her, or didn’t notice her presence, Winifred would sit in the same room, listening to them whilst pretending to read or crochet. As time went on, she became more and more attracted to this taciturn man her father placed such trust in, though he, for his part, hardly seemed to notice her. Only her mother was able to guess at her daughter’s growing feelings towards him.
It was after her father’s sudden, death from cancer that they found themselves thrown together unexpectedly. There being nobody else in the firm capable of running it.
And it was Laurie who came up with the radical proposal of closing the store down in order to develop the site into space for shops and offices. He alone had foreseen small town stores were bound for irreversible decline as more people bought cars, and drove them into the cities where bigger choice was on offer at lower prices. It was he who had stood his ground against the board of directors, with her hesitantly backing him. And he who had been made managing director of that same board when he was proved right, and the company began to prosper again.
And so things went on over the years with both Winifred and her mother despairing of him ever proposing to her.
On her thirty-fourth birthday Laurie had had to take some papers over to the house for her to sign. He was invited to join them for afternoon tea. Her mother had gone into the kitchen for some fresh hot water for the pot.
Winifred had noticed Laurie seemed rather more nervous than usual, and she began to fear he might want to leave the firm. It came as such a surprise when he blurted out he wanted to marry her she could not believe she had heard him properly, and had to make him repeat himself, just in case.
They were married six months later.
A further three years elapsed before she became pregnant. The news coming at a time she had resigned herself to being forever childless. That it was almost certain to be twins filled her with trepidation. She wondered whether she would be able to cope at her age.
When Gillian and Gail celebrated their third birthdays Winifred was already forty years old. With Laurie ten years her senior, his fine, silken hair turned prematurely white by the years of deprivation at the hands of the Japanese, she often thought they would make more suitable grandparents . By the time the twins reached their mid-twenties, both parents would be pensioners. The prospect terrified her.
Already, the sight of young men with hair down to their shoulders filled here with an indignation she hadn’t believed herself capable of. Loud pop music played on the radio drove her to distraction. She couldn’t understand what on earth such young girls found so attractive about these roughly spoken youths from Liverpool and other dirty cities. As young as they were, even Gillian and Gail seemed besotted by them. She hoped it would turn out to be a fad they were going through.
And even knowing these things to be normal signs of encroaching middle age didn’t comfort her. If anything it seemed to make matters worse. For what would it be like when the twins grew up? The mens’ hair still longer? The music still louder? How would she cope then? Though there was little point in thinking any of these things, she couldn’t help herself.
Warm, orange sunlight filtered through her closed eyelids making her aware of the world beyond them again. Those childish voices once more, their timbre more harsh now. Perhaps a quarrel had begun. Ah, well, no doubt it would resolve itself. She shifted her position in the chair slightly, and tried to banish the disturbance from her mind. It would not go; the raised voices invading her little sanctuary further, thoughtlessly cutting across the more restful sounds of birdsong and breeze surrounding her. And then the heart-rending bawl of a child carried on the wind. Not a moment’s peace would she have. She opened her eyes with a sigh to be blinded by bright sunlight for a second. A child’s silhouette was running across the lawn towards her. Gail, of course, Or was it Gillian? She blinked, and half closed her eyes, as she shaded them with her hand. Why, of course, it was Gail. She was crying. She could recognise those miserable tones anywhere. But then she saw it was Gillian.
They were so alike, there were times it became impossible even for her to tell them apart. As they had got older she had expected little differences to appear, and gradually accentuate themselves, as time wore on. But they hadn’t. And she found not always being able to tell her own children, one from the other, extremely disturbing.
Some bathtimes she would search their tiny bodies minutely for proof of identity. A distinguishing freckle; a dimple. And each time she thought she found one there was a sense of relief. Only to discover, the following evening, she had been mistaken. Either that, or even more disturbing, the other twin to have mysteriously manifested, or mimicked the same detail somehow, the exact same mark.
Gillian ran across the patio and tumbled into her mother’s arms, her cheeks streaming tears. She had to pour out a long, indecipherable tale of woe. Mrs Southerne gathered her up onto her lap, comforting her with soft sibilations. But the sobbing would not be hushed. Freeing herself from her mother’s embrace, Gillian tugged at her cardigan, pleading with her to come to the spot where the children had been playing. With a long sigh, Mrs Southerne pulled herself up and out of her chair. It was no good, she would get no rest until things were settled. Allowing Gillian to drag her across the lawn, through a gap in the hedge, and on, into the orchard beyond, they came to where Gail was crouched on the ground playing with something.
Then Mrs Southerne saw what she was really doing. She was picking things up from the earth, and putting them into her mouth. Letting go of Gillian’s hand Mrs Southerne rushed up to her shouting:
“Spit it out! Spit it out!” Gail turned round abruptly. Her small, round face; its chin streaked with mud, registering guilty surprise. Rising swiftly to her feet, she opened her chubby little hands to show they were empty. Revealing them to be caked in soil at the same time.
“It’s in your mouth! Spit it out at once! It’s dirty!” Mrs Southerne made a spitting sound, “Quickly, now!” She saw Gail’s throat expand and contract in rapid succession as she swallowed.
“Empty,” Gail said, “Look.” And, opening her mouth wide, she put out a tongue strained bright mauve. Mrs Southerne grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, and pulled her sharply towards herself. She shook her wildly.
“You naughty, naughty girl!” she shouted, “You dirty,” she slapped the back of her legs once, “naughty,” twice, “little girl!” her hand fell for a third time and final time.
Gail burst into such violent tears, her mother didn’t, know what to do for a moment. Releasing the tight grip she had held her with, she stood staring at her in bewilderment. All she seemed capable of was to stand there, telling her that a dirty, little girl she was. Over and over again. She couldn’t understand what had come over her to make her hit the child so hard. It was all too, too tiresome. Now she could feel Gillian’s silent stare accusing her. The other twin having swapped sides faithlessly. And, in doing so, conveniently shifted all blame onto her mother. Mrs Southerne started to have the strange feeling she had punished the wrong child.
Careful not to let her guilt show, she stomped back to the house dragging the sobbing Gail reluctantly behind, making little allowances for the tiny legs struggling to keep up. Gillian trailed in their wake, her dark, grey eyes stabbing at her mother’s back.
Back at the house, Mrs Southerne wiped Gail’s face and hands harshly with a damp cloth, as she might have scoured a dirty pan. She could not afford to show the regret gnawing at her insides. Excessive displays of emotion betrayed weakness. And weakness bred yet more weakness, and so on, until it finally culminated in dissipation and immorality. With that in mind she sent Gail straight up to her room.
Ignoring the hate still smouldering in Gillian’s eyes, she went back out to the garden, dumping herself down into the armchair again, to see if she could not get half an hour’s peace and quiet before it was time to get their tea. Gillian had followed her at a discreet distance, her head hung low. But then, having got bored, she had wandered off to play by herself somewhere.
A sudden chill rousing her, Mrs Southerne realised she must have dozed off. Upon opening her eyes she saw a big, black cloud ominously blocking out the sun. A brisk wind had got up, and she saw the cloud was one of many filling the sky rapidly from the east. It looked like rain. She would have to get the washing in before it started tipping down. Raising herself up from the chair she called out the twins’ names. Then, remembered having sent Gail up to her room. She glanced at her watch to see she had been asleep for over an hour. The poor girl. Normally, she only sent them up to their room for half an hour at most.
She called out Gillian’s name, and waited for an answer. None came. Surely she could not still be sulking? More than likely, she had gone to join Gail upstairs. Heaven knows what mess they would have made. Mrs Southerne smiled to herself as she shook her head. Picking up the red, plastic, washing basket lying on the lawn she hurriedly unpegged the drying frocks just as a few big drops of rain began to spatter down all about her.
Laurie Southerne pulled up into the courtyard by the side of the cottage, his car window wipers losing the battle against the spring downpour he had been caught in on his way home. Large raindrops drummed deafeningly on the metal roof like hundreds of tiny feet stampeding across it. He switched off the car’s engine, the wipers making a loud sucking noise as they came to rest.
Momentarily marooned behind the steering wheel, he watched the rain stream down the windscreen like an oncoming tide: wave upon wave. Knowing it would soon die away he thought he might as well stay where he was, until the storm passed, rather than get a soaking. There was something rather comforting in the temporary isolation. Sitting alone in the cosiness of his metal and glass capsule, its windows steaming up from the heat of his own body, he felt a sense of security he could not easily explain, and could vaguely remember from childhood. He couldn’t think why.
Gradually, the rain eased off into a barely discernible, damp mist through which he could observe the world outside. As the sky began to clear, shafts of golden sunlight broke paths through thinning cloud, illuminating patches of faraway brown and blue hillside, here and there, like heavenly limelights sweeping an empty stage; dimming and lighting up again in delicious random, seemingly searching out absent players before moving on elsewhere.
His reverie was interrupted by a throaty yapping at the car door. Wiping some of the mist from the side window, he peered down. Guinness was pawing at it. Having recognised the sound of the motor above the downpour, the little Jack Russell had ventured out to meet him. He had only to open the car door a fraction before the dog squeezed in, hopping onto his lap, its cold, wet paws seeping dampness through his trousers. Guinness shifted around restlessly, filling the car with his dank, doggy smell, licking at his master’s face and hands excitedly.
“All right, all right, old boy,” Mr Southerne said, rubbing the dog’s head and ears, “I expect you want walking, eh?” Guinness leapt across to the passenger seat and back in eager anticipation. “I really ought to go and say hullo to the girls first.” The dog cocked its head to one side. “But seeing as I’m home a bit early, and you’ve come out specially to see me, I don’t see why we shouldn’t take a stroll up the lane for ten minutes. I daresay it’ll do us the world of good before we hurl ourselves back into the fray, eh?” The dog wagged its stub of a tail in frantic agreement.
Mr Southerne loved his daughters dearly, and spoiled them mercilessly. They were the fulfilment of his life. As soon as he arrived home from work each day he would go in and see them before anything else. At the first sound of his footfall they would rush to greet him with cries of joy. To the accompanying squeals of delight and childish fear, he would sweep each one off their feet in turn, twirl them around in the air above his head, and plonk them down; back on their feet again, as they both clamoured for more, over and over.
But today he felt particularly weary. Almost as though he had not slept for a week. Fatherhood exerted a heavy toll on a man of fifty. He reached over the back of the driver’s seat for his walking stick, and opened the door. Guinness was out as quick as he had been to jump in.
“Only up the lane, though,” his master told the dog as he stood panting up at him, “I haven’t got my wellies, and we mustn’t keep the ladies waiting, must we?” The man and his dog set off up the lane at a leisurely pace.
By the time they reached the brow of the hill Mr Southerne was ready for a rest. Leaning against an old, wooden stile, he surveyed the familiar surrounding countryside. On the far side of the valley he could see more banks of clouds building up. Fantastic, towering icebergs, tinged salmon-pink by the late, afternoon sun, floated on a sea of blue haze. Then, they billowed out into fairy-tale palaces, gleaming atop snow-capped mountains; magically, before his very eyes. Amorphous, creamy giants piling, one upon the other, up from the valley floor below; moving ever westwards; shedding their water loads all along the way.
At any other time he would have had to stop and gaze in awe at their beauty a few moments longer. But with the pangs of guilt he felt at having neglected his daughters, and the implicit threat of another storm the clouds bore upon them, he decided to turn back.
“Come on, old boy!” he called out to Guinness, as a gust of wind whipped at his jacket. The dog was snuffling around in the hedgerow on the other side of the lane. He took no notice, he was far too busy. The familiar scent caught in his nostrils exciting him all the more, coupled, as it was, with the less familiar, but far stronger stench of human fear and violence clinging to it.
Mr Southerne saw the dog had something between his jaws, and was tugging at it, growling softly to himself.
“Drop it!” he ordered, ‘There’s a good fellow. Quickly, now! Or we won’t get home before that lot starts coming down.” Guinness did not seem to hear him; whatever he had in his mouth demanding his full attenttion. It seemed like a tangle of gaily-coloured rags somebody had carelessly tossed away. People from the cities were always doing it. “Drop it, boy!” Mr Southerne ordered more harshly. But still the dog refused to obey. Mr Southerne strode over to the other side of the road, and pushed the dog aside with his boot. Guinness let the rags go gladly for his master and wagged his stump furiously. “What have you got there, eh? Certainly not a rabbit. Looks like the townies have been chucking away their rubbish again. Messy buggers.” He poked at a piece of the rain-sodden material protruding from under the hedgerow with his stick. “Hullo,” he said, “haven’t I seen this somewhere before?” As the words left his lips recognition dawned. A panic gripped at his intestines. Letting go the stick, he dropped to his knees and into the ditch as though felled by a sharp blow to the stomach. He tore at the cloth caught in the briars like a madman. Till, drawn by primeval instinct, he put it to his nose and sniffed a piece, as Guinness had done. His eyes filling with tears and terror, he began to tear at the thorny undergrowth itself with his bare hands,as it tore back at him; scoring long, crimson threads into his flesh. “No!” he screamed unearthliy, as he tore, ‘No! No!”
Above him, the sky rumbled uneasily before letting its tears fall in abundance all over him. Running red-tainted rivulets down his face; matting his hair; swamping his tears; flailing his back; beating his legs, and spattering yet more mud-stained tears upon him.
“AND THIS IS ST MARGARET’S,” Gail pointed at a small, medieval church nestling in the shade of a large, copper beech. She was taking Howard on a tour of the village. “I think it’s about eight or nine hundred years old. Something like that, I should know, really, I was christened in it. So was my mother. And her parents. All that side of the family is from round here.”
She was proud of her family’s long history in the village, set in the Wiltshire dale that had been etched into the surrounding hillsides by retreating glaciers during the last ice-age.
The tiny church was of the simple, Anglo-Saxon style comprising nave and sanctuary. They had approached it from a bordering meadow, climbing over the drystone wall encircling the graveyard. Ancient, mossy tombstones sprouted at all angles from the unmown grass. Gail kept showing off all those bearing her mother’s maiden name, Yates. There had been Yateses in the village for centuries, she informed Howard. Some had died in the Great War, others had died in World War Two. Most had died at home in bed.
He wandered from the gravel path onto the grass, towards a secluded corner of the graveyard. Bored by all the talk of Gail’s deceased relations, he was about to roll yet another joint, when his eye was caught by a more recent, much smaller headstone.
“Gail,” he called out, “over here a minute.” She walked over to join him. He was kneelingin the long grass reading out an inscription carved into the weathered marble:
‘GILLIAN MARY SOUTHERNE
BORN 18TH MAY 1957
DIED 29TH MARCH 1961
SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME’
He seemed puzzled by it, “She must have been a relation of yours, as well?” he said.
“She was my sister.”
“Oh, I am sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she smiled reassuringly, “it was absolutely ages ago. I hardly remember her. She died when we were both very young.”
Howard frowned as he made a quick mental calculation.
“I don’t understand. She would have been exactly the same age as you.”
“We were identical twins,” she said. Howard’s eyes widened.
“But that must be dreadful for you,” he said. “How on earth did she die?”
“As I’ve already said, I don’t remember much about it. Mummy and Daddy don’t like to talk about her. I think she was very ill.” Howard stared at her with intensity.
“You must remember something about her.”
“Of course, I do.” But when it came to it, she realised she could recall practically nothing. “All sorts of things. It’s just such a long time ago.” She paused as she tried to recollect anything at all about her dead sister. “I can remember one particular thing,” she said, “No, you’ll think it’s silly of me.”
“Go on, tell me.”
“Well, I don’t like to, really. It makes it sound as though we didn’t get on together.”
“We all remember some unpleasant things from childhood.”
“Yes, I know that. But … I can’t explain, I just like to remember the nice things.” She could tell by the look on Howard’s face he was not going to be put off. “You’ll think it’s so stupid when I tell you. It’s just one of the stupid little things that stands out so clearly in my mind.”
Gail focused her eyes on the distant horizon.
“It was one day when we’d been given some sweets. I think Daddy gave them to us. We were in the garden. We must have been. I can remember the sun shining. Yes, that’s right, Gillian had eaten all hers, and I still had some left. She kept on asking me for one of mine, but I wouldn’t give her one. It’s pathetic really. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but she must have knocked them out of my hand, because I can still see them lying on the ground. I started crying, of course, like all children do at that age. And then she hit me. She didn’t mean to do it quite so hard, I can remember her putting her arm around me, but I wasn’t having any of it, you know what little horrors kids can be at that age. I was going to make the most of it.
“Next thing, I remember Mummy coming along, and being very cross with us both. She told us off for wasting things. And then, I seem to remember her sending us both up to bed. At least, I think that’s how it happened. I told you it was stupid, but that’s the sort of thing that sticks out in your mind.”
Howard had been hanging on to her every word.
“You were very close, though?”
“Of course, we were. We were twins. Her hitting me was just childish temper. I’m sure I must have behaved in exactly the same way to her at times. And, as you said, you don’t always remember the pleasant things about childhood. I just know we were very close for most of the time, and we didn’t have neighbours with children, so we had to be friends. If you see what I mean.”
Howard was absent-mindedly tracing the inscription on the tombstone with his fingertips.
“I don’t suppose you can get any closer than twins. She must have been your other half, your alter ego,” he said, “In some ways, I suppose you were almost like a single entity at times. The left and right hand sides of a whole. I wonder if he death affects your karma in some way.
“You should try and find out more about her.” He got up from his knees and crouched before her. “Just because her body died doesn’t mean to say her spirit died with it. She’s probably here at this very moment.”
Gail glanced around them involuntarily, an uneasy look on her face. Howard laughed.
“Don’t look so worried, you haven’t done anything to her, have you?” He got to his feet brushing dust from his jeans.
“Of course not,” she said.
“It must be quite weird, really, almost like dying yourself.”
“We were totally different people, Howard. It’s just that we were twins.”
“It’s not that, it’s just that you were so alike. I can’t see how two people can be virtually identical without them sharing a separate, single, spiritual entity that exists outside their physical selves. Especially when one of them dies like that. You suddenly lost an important part of your life.
“I mean, everybody spends half their life looking for something or other, wife, husband, lover, I don’t know, religion even. It’s part of the human condition. Almost like we’re not quite finished when we’re born. It might even be the driving force of life itself, the thing that keeps us going, the way we do.
“Say we were all supposed to be twins originally, after all, animals rarely come in ones. And somehow a faulty gene became predominant, so that twins became the exception rather than the rule. That would explain our feelings of incompleteness. In your case, it would mean your were born complete, but were made incomplete by circumstance, wouldn’t it?”
Gail grinned at him, and taking him by the lapels, drew him gently towards her till their noses were touching. Kissing his lips, she whispered.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about And I don’t think you have either.” Howard pushed her to arm’s length.
“No, listen,” he said, “it’s important.” Gail let him go. “What I’m trying to say is that death seems even more tragic when it separates twins. The rest of us see them as being different, in some way. It’s the way they make you think one always knows what the other is about to do, without either of them having to say anything. Do you know what I mean?”
“I can’t say I do,” she said thoughtfully, “as far as you’re concerned, I only became a twin about five minutes ago. Before that, you never knew I was. I haven’t changed suddenly, have I?’ She had turned, and was looking away from him, towards the church. Like so many things in the village, it seemed to have got even smaller since she had been away at university.
“No, I don’t mean that, you’re not a twin in that respect anymore, so there is nobody to… well, to conspire with. You only have to look at the research into twins that’s been done in America, to see what I’m talking about. There was a programme on TV about it. They had all these twins, who had been separated at birth, being interviewed. The funny thing was – even though none of them knew they had twins living miles away – they still ended up being the more or less the same as each other. They had the same sorts of jobs, had the same types of hobbies, shared the same tastes in foods and stuffs. Some of them were wearing almost exactly the same clothes. It was really weird.”
He took up her hand and they started towards the path again.
“You must have wondered how Gillian would have turned out, sometimes?” Howard asked, “If she hadn’t died.”
If the truth be known, she had never given the matter a thought. It just had not occurred to her. Gillian had always been dead in her mind.
“Sometimes, I do,” she lied. “But Mummy and Daddy never really told me much about her I haven’t got much to think about. I think it was too painful for them. She was only three when she died. Of course we both were. Still babies, really.”
Talking about it openly made her begin to consider the prospect of what life might have been like with a twin sister, for the very first time ever.
“Obviously, we would have looked alike, more or less, but there would have been little things to tell us apart. And they would have got more pronounced as we got older. I suppose our ideas would have been fairly similar as well. Bound to have been, as our influences would have been the same.
“But whether we would have been privy to each others’ thoughts, like psychics, I’m not so sure I would have liked that. Though I suppose it could’ve been hand at school during exams.” She smiled, but quickly turned more thoughtful. “Then I suppose if you had never known any different it would’ve seemed natural. Thinking about it, it might be have been quite comforting having somebody knowing just what it was like to be you as much as anybody else ever can. Yes, there’s something that appeals to me there.
“But there would be all those drawbacks, like wearing matching kilts, and twin-sets, and having our hair done the same. Oh! And marrying twin bothers. Ugh! The thought of it is enough to make me cringe.” She started to laugh, but seeing Howard’s expression was serious, she went on. “It does make me feel sad sometimes. I’ll never know what it could have been like now. And I suppose I do feel as if I’m always searching for something, some missing bit of me. But everybody feels like that, don’t they?”
The sky had darkened, as big, black clouds filled it from the west. Howard had started to walk more swiftly back to the path, and now had his hands stuffed deep into his pockets.
“Yes,” he conceded, “but the rest of us were never twins like you were. With us, what’s missing has always been missing, so we don’t know what we’re missing, so to speak. Somewhere, deep inside you, there’ll always be a living Gillian. When one twin dies, it must be up to the other twin to carry on living for both of them. You must have inherited Gillian’s Karma. It becomes your responsibility.”
Gail watched him slowly walking away from her. She did not like the thought of being saddled with a responsibility she had had no choice in.
“That’s just what you say,” she said. “It all sounds rather spooky, if you ask me.” A few large drops of rain had begun to spatter down on the gravel path. A sudden gust of chill wind whipped her hair viciously across her face. She caught up with Howard, and linked her arm in his. “Come on!” she shouted above the gathering wind, as she pulled him along, “we’d better make a run for it. It’s going to start pouring in a minute.” Howard seemed to be holding back, as though reluctant to leave the graveyard. “I’ll make us tea when we get back to the house. You can look through the family album, if you like. You’ll see just how alike we were from that. Aunty Peggy says that even Mummy had a job telling us apart sometimes. You can decide who you like best. And you better get it right, because I’m not giving any clues to which one is which.”
Howard finally allowed himself to be dragged along, his hands still in his pockets.
“Perhaps Gillian wouldn’t have fancied me,” he said, his words almost lost on the gathering wind.
“She would, that I do know. We would’ve had terrible fights over you.”
“WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT, I suppose that must be the last photo taken of us together while Gillian was still alive,” Gail had perched herself on the arm of the easy chair Howard was sat in. They were looking at an album of old photos resting in his lap. The black and white picture showing the twins in similar pose resembled one of those Victorian stereoscopic images that became three-dimensional when seen through a special viewer. It was a picture of innocence taken during a period of innocence. A faraway world of Beatles, corner shops and Vauxhall Crestas. Become alien as any foreign land, it was just as a still from a film now; a tale of other people in another place.
Howard stared at it intently.
“I can’t tell the difference,” he said.
“Nor can I,” said Gail. “Mummy says I’m the one on the left.”
“How can she be so sure?”
“You see the stain on the front of that dress?” She pointed at a grey smudge which looked more like a shadow. “There. Well, Mummy says I was always the mucky one.” She giggled self-consciously. “Do you want some more tea?”
Howard didn’t appear to hear her. He was going back through the album again, page by page, turning them quickly, pausing only to look at photographs containing Gillian and Gail together, or by themselves, as though mesmerised. Those he would study carefully for something more than a stain to tell the two girls apart.
Gail stood up with a groan, which swiftly turned into a full stretch and gaping yawn.
“Mummy and Daddy will be coming home soon. Shall we go upstairs before they arrive?”
“Mm?” Howard murmured.
“My God!” she exclaimed with mock-seriousness, “I was only offering him my beautiful body to ravish, and he turns it down.” Howard looked up. “I was just inquiring whether you fancied getting your leg over before mother and father return from town,” she said putting her face right into his.
Howard grinned broadly.
“Sorry,” he said, “I was miles away.” Closing the album, he got up from the chair, and put it down where he’d been sitting. Placing his arms about her neck, he drew her towards him, kissing her lips sloppily. “Let’s do it,” he whispered.
They had just reached the foot of the stairs when Gail heard the click of the back door opening.
“Yooh-hoo!” Mrs Southerne sang out loudly, “Anybody home?”
“Fuck it,” Gail mouthed silently. “Trust them to show up early,” she whispered, “Lucky we weren’t in the middle of it,” then more loudly, “We’re in the hall.”
“Guess who we bumped into?” Mrs Southerne said, as Gail and Howard walked into the kitchen. Similar in stature and appearance to Mrs Southerne, another woman came bustling through the door. If anything, she was a touch smaller and slightly older looking than her.
“Aunty Peggy!” cried Gail happily, and rushed over to hug her. ‘What a nice surprise. Come and meet Howard. He’s at university with me.”
“What’s all this in aid of?” Aunty Peggy said in a fluster. Unlike her sister, there was a pronounced West Country burr to her voice. “He must be something mighty special. You haven’t given us a chance to get my coat off yet.” Gail let her go, and she struggled to free herself from the light blue raincoat she was wearing. “I don’t want to get the young man wet, do I now?”
“I shouldn’t think Howard’s afraid of a bit of water, are you Howard?” remarked Mrs Southerne sarcastically, unable to resist it. Gail was already back at his side.
“You’re wrong,” Howard whispered in very low tones right into Gail’s ear, “I’m hydrophobic.”
“Suppose I ‘ll have to do the honours myself. Peggy Hornibrook,” Aunty Peggy introduced herself, offering an outstretched hand. “Pleased to meet you.” Howard took it in his, and smiling at her, shook it firmly, saying:
“As you’ve probably gathered, my name’s Howard, Howard Devlin.”
“Well, at least he’s got manners,” Aunty Peggy said, looking around her, “and that’s more than you can say for most, nowadays.” Then she turned to look right into Howard’s eyes. “I don’t agree with all this modern, casual stuff.”
“Aunty Peggy!” Gail laughed, “You’re terrifying him. Take no notice, Howard. She’s trying to make out she’s some sort of dragon, when, in reality, she’s as soft as marshmallow.” But Aunty Peggy was determined to have her say.
“Call me old-fashioned, if you like, but I don’t hold with all this free love, they go on about today. It’s not natural. We didn’t used to call it that in my day. That’s all I know. Well brought up youngsters knew how to wait in them days. We called it summat a lot stronger back then, and it weren’t for free.” She was referring to a conversation she had been having in the car with her sister. A conversation about Howard and Gail of which they were completely ignorant, and could barely even grasp the insuation of now.
“Free love? Who said anything about free love?” Gail asked.
“I expect your young man knows what I’m talking about, right enough,” said Aunty Peggy nodding portentously, “Don’t you, Howard?” Howard was still smiling.
“Oh, er, yes. Yes, of course I do,” he said. “No need to worry about any of that free love going on here. No chance.” Gail dug him the ribs.
“Don’t encourage her, Howard,” Gail admonished him with a grin. “Free love was yonks ago, Aunty. Howard and I were just children then.”
“Well, I don’t know, I just can’t keep up with it anymore. All I know is, we didn’t used to sleep with folks we weren’t married to in my day. It ain’t right, and I don’t mind saying so. Your young fellow knows what I’m talking about, all right.” Gail felt herself blush bright red, and glanced over at Howard.
If he was feeling any embarrassment, he was hiding it well.
At that point, Mr Southerne came into the kitchen, saving them both from things going any further. Suddenly, the room was filled to bursting. Guinness was scampering about the floor, yapping excitedly, completely unaware nobody was taking any notice of him.
“Got the kettle on, dear?” Mr Southerne asked, barely above the hubbub, and only adding to the confusion.
“I haven’t even had a chance to take my coat off yet, Laurie,” Mrs Southerne complained. Although her coat was already over the back of a Windsor chair, in fact. She removed the plastic hood that she was wearing, and shook out her limp, white curls, before attempting, unsuccessfully, to massage some life back into them. Then she picked up the coat, and was walking across to hang it up behind the door, when she almost tripped over Guinness.
“Guinness!” she shouted angrily, “You stupid animal!”
All faces turned to look at her.
“He almost had me over,” she explained a trifle guiltily.
“Guinness!” Laurie Southerne growled at him, “In your box! Quickly, now!” The little dog’s tail drooped between his legs, as he slunk off to sulk in his old wood orange box by the sink.
“I think it’s getting a bit too crowded in here,” Mrs Southerne said. “Why don’t you take Peggy into the other room, whilst I get the tea on, dear. I’m sure she’s dying for a cup. I know I am.”
“Are you sure you don’t need any help?” Aunty Peggy offered.
“No, don’t you worry, Laurie will give me a hand if I need it. You go and have a sit down.”
Gail led Howard and her aunt into the drawing room.
Aunty Peggy’s keen old eyes lighted on the old photograph album immediately.
“Oh, What’s that doing there?” There was more than a note of censure in the exclamation. “I see you must’ve been sneaking a look at the family album.” They might have opened Pandora’s box. “I can’t think what you want to go through those old things for.”
“Howard wanted to know what Gillian looked like,” said Gail.
“Well, let’s put it away before your mother comes in. If he really wanted to know what she looked like, he’s only to look at that photo of you on the mantelpiece.” She nodded in the direction of a silver-framed picture just above the fireplace. “They were as alike as two peas in a pod. I never did see a pair of twins more alike. I swear I could never tell them apart. And I don’t think Win could half the time.” She picked up the album from the armchair and it fell open. He eye was immediately grabbed by the image she hadn’t seen in so long. “Now, this must be you, Gail, judging by the state of that frock.” Gail peered over her shoulder at Howard and laughed.
“What did I tell you, Howard? They’re always telling me I was the mucky one.”
“It’s not only that,” Aunty Peggy said, “it’s the short hair. Neither of you had ever had your hair cut before… well, before Gillian passed on.”
“How exactly did she die?” Howard asked, sidling up to them. The question seemed to take Aunty Peggy unawares. Her eyelids fluttered almost imperceptibly.
“Come on,” she said, shutting the album abruptly, “let’s put it where it belongs before your mother sees it. It’ll only go getting her all upset.” She walked over to the bureau and placed it back in the open drawer it had obviously been taken from. But Howard was not to be put off.
“There’s no secret about it, is there?”
“Of course, there isn’t,” Aunty Peggy said, shutting the drawer with a sharp bang, making it quite clear that was an end to the subject, as far as she was concerned.
“Ah,” she breathed, as much with relief as relish, at the sight of her sister coming through the door.
Winifred was carrying a full tray, laden with china, cutlery, cakes and biscuits, before her.
“Here, let me give you a hand with that, Win,” Peggy offered, backing away in front of her, flapping her hands in the ineffectual manner of somebody afraid the whole thing might go crashing to the floor at any moment.
Only when they reached the coffee table, was she able to help. Clearing it, and steadying the tray with another pair of hands, as they gently set it down between them. The two women began fussing about one another unnecessarily, rearanging this and rearrranging that in the way elderly sisters so often do in company.
Gillian’s name did not come up again for the rest of the afternoon. But not mentioning her did not mean her newly-found presence had evaporated. The sluice gates of history, once opened, could not be closed against the pressure that had been building up so long behind them. The sleeping subconscious, having been disturbed at last, would not let Gail rest so easily this time round. A question had been raised. A question, so obvious, yet a question that had not occurred to her in all her life before. How did Gillian die exactly? And with it came the full realisation, for the first time, that she had ever had a sister. A real sister of flesh, blood and bone. A sister who had been as like her an any human being can get to another. A sister who had become a mere shadow, somewhere in her distant past. A sister whose presence on Earth once had seemingly been forgotten.
And now she could see just how much her parents had conspired to exclude Gillian from her life. Denied all knowledge, and spared the grief that was hers by right, she had come to think of herself as an only child; Gillian had been cast as no more than a character in a story she vaguely recalled.
The smiling people in those early photographs, they so rarely looked at, she had come to see as not being her family at all. A different family entirely. A younger, happy family, whose twin girls always smiled shyly at the lens intruding upon their lives so disinterestedly. Reacting as everybody used to, when cameras still possessed the power of intimidation. A family her own had known whilst Gillian was still alive; who vanished completely after her death. A family replaced by Gail’s own: her sad, gaunt father, looking out from the dark, sunken eyes that failed to hide the deep sense of loss and injustice within them; her small, self-contained mother, permanently tired and prematurely aged. So obviously fearful of showing emotion of any kind, her eyes had become as lifeless as small, grey pebbles.
And the mournful parents’ only daughter: always captured smiling or laughing; on tricycles, in paddling pools, on horseback. Through the endless cycle of birthdays, Christmases and holidays; eating ice creams, cakes and jellies; so oblivious to the pain staring from the eyes of those morose guardians of hers.
And then, the later snapshots, much of the pain having eased itself from their expressions, but still the odd unguarded moment revealing something of what had passed. Right up to the present day; those pictures still too close to the moment of having been taken to be looked at with any sense of detached objectivity.
And over that weekend, for the very first time in her life, Gail realised fully that both families were one and the same. Her own.
THE DAY HAD BEGUN to drag interminably. Not a soul had been in the gallery all afternoon. No one had even looked through the window. Gail had already drank three cups of coffee in the space of an hour and a half. With her already nerves ragged at the prospect of seeing Howard, after so much time, she was trying her very best to not to make a fourth. The only phone call since lunchtime had been from her boss, Cecil. Ringing from Frankfurt, his flight had been delayed due to fog and he would be staying in the city overnight. He’d be on the first flight the Heathrow to London the following morning.
With her boss of the way, she considered closing the gallery early. The weather was more than miserable, and it was unlikely anybody would feel like buying a picture. Then she remembered an important American client had promised to call by. He always bought something. As of yet, there had been no sign of him.
She lit another cigarette, and flicked through her copy of Vogue yet again without noticing the pages. Glancing at her watch, she realised it was the third time in last fifteen minutes she’d done it. Sighing noisily, she closed the magazine, and slapped it onto the desk. She stubbed out the cigarette she’d only just lit, got up from her chair, and started to pace the gallery floor. Perhaps she would have that cup of coffee now, after all. At least it would give her something to do.
Ever since Howard’s disturbing morning phone call she’d found it impossible to put him from her mind. He said he desperately needed to see her, but would not give her a reason. Most likely he wouldn’t have one. It’d be anothher ruse. Not the first. He’d led her a chase many times before.,But she could never be sure. Something could be seriously wrong. Whatever it might be, she hoped it wouldn’t involve the police, If it involved the police she’d have nothing to do with it. For some time she’d suspected he was seliing small deals of hash. That was a good enough excuse not to go and see him. But she had promised.
Visions of their past together had filled her mind for most of the day. Thoughts of him that still excited her as much as when she had first seen him on the edges of the campus playing fields. As they would always excite her. And once started, they tumbled through her mind in rapid, barely-connected, random disorder. Just like life itself. Which, having little meaning when viewed as the series of individual events it was, seemed to assume some sort of reason and order when looked at as a whole. She wondered whether that was just the way we look at things in retrospect, through inherent desire to impose order even where there was none. For only in retrospect was it possible to see how one thing appeared to lead to another, and even had things been different, she knew she would have looked for, and found, a thread running through them. Because, in the end, it had to make sense.
And with that knowledge it became all the more difficult to see how change could have been effected. In its own strange, contradictory way it was evidence of a preordained existence. The future would always be slave to the past; the present sandwiched somewhere between: constant, living proof of our impotence to affect either. We could never know the might have been had we done otherwise. We could only know what was; what had been. And that was the only part of our lives we knew for certain we were powerless to alter, for that was the past.
For every moment she could remember loving him, there was one where she hated him. That horrible afternoon by the river; the dreadful girl dressed in black. Too many to remember without reliving some of that hate. It made no sense raking over old coals, as he mother always told. And she was right, Gail would not be going back to him this time. It was too late. Howard was on a downward spiral from which he might never recover. It was enough for her to hold her own life together.
For several months now she had been seeing Danny De Morgan on a regular basis. Both Howard and he knew about one another. She had even re-introduced them. Unlike herself, Howard remembered Danny quite clearly from the Brighton days. It turned out they had been reasonably good friends. She had not meant for them to meet, quite the opposite.
Danny and she had been on their way to a party in Notting Hill when they ran into Howard near the underground station. He was unshaven, his clothes shabby, and had a distinctly furtive air about him. She suspected he might Hanging about in the hope of scoring drugs of some sort. Danny and he stood chatting amicably for what seemed twenty very long minutes. There appeared to be no animosity between them, as far as she could make out, but she knew it might be one of those machos acts: in an attempt to conceal their real feelings from each other.
That evening she faced the fact she didn’t love Danny. Neither would she ever love him. She didn’t want to love anybody anymore. Not in the way she had loved Howard, at least. But she knew she would marry him if he asked. She’d decided that fairly early on in their relationship. It was better to marry somebody you didn’t love. Easier. And if he loved her, so much the better. Love was like youth, Just as one thought they would last forever they were gone. It was painful to admit, but less painful than fooling oneself either would return.
At twenty to five she made up her mind to close the gallery. With the weather being so foul it was doubtful her American client would show. It was not until she had fetched her coat and was looking for her keys that the door buzzed. In the shadows outside, she recognised the tall figure of the American silhouetted against the misted glass door panel. Swearing at him beneath her breath, she smiled as she went to greet him.
By the time she had managed to get rid of him it was way past six. He had bought nothing for the first time ever on one of his visits. She wondered if her anxiety to close had been so noticeable. Never mind, she couldn’t do anything about it now.
It wasn’tt until she had put the alarm on, and had locked the door, she remembered she hadn’t phoned Danny to tell him where she’d be. It was too late. He’d have to wait. She muttered she’d ring him from the first call box she saw.
Darkness had fallen, and with it had come rain. That silent, all-pervasive rain that was so often London. A rain that seemed to seep from the city itself, rather than fell upon it. An oily, black rain coating its buildings and streets with the greasy film that, lighted by the glow of street lamps, lent the same, tawdry sparkle as tarnished Christmas tinsel spilling from a dustbin.
Though her car was not parked too far away, by the time she reached it, she was dripping. She drove a tinny, little French thing. When she first saw it she thought it’d reinforce the rather arty image she had of herself. On days like these she cursed such vanity. The canvas roof leaked onto the passenger seat. Something she always forgot about until the person sitting on it complained. She’d been promising to do something about it ever since she bought the bloody thing.
Once seated, she browsed through a dog-eared, street atlas looking for Tobago Street. Howard had told her it was somewhere near New Cross. It was bound to be one of those grubby, little bedsits again. Probably in some old, dilapidated squat stinking to high heaven of stale tobacco and old socks.
Worst of all, it was on the other side of the river. There was an irrational prejudice held by those living on the north side of the Thames – that living on its south side – was akin to living in the back of beyond. Both sides secretly believed London to be two cities. They were probably right.
She started the engine, and the car shuddered reluctantly to life.
WHATEVER THE DAY had been like in reality, it would always remain cold, damp and grey in her memory; the doctor’s waiting room, dingy and ill-lit. She floated in as if chancing upon somebody else’s nightmare, drawn towards a sign by a closed hatch announcing:
ENQUIRIES. PLEASE RING FOR ATTENTION
To the black and clear plastic bell push with its exposed wiring and light that dimmed when she pressed it. A tired electric bell sounded in an adjacent room. After a few long moments, she heard the unpleasant squeaky, sawing sound of the pebble glass hatch being raised. A pink face surrounded by a starkly bleached perm popped up, almost like a grotesque puppet in a Punch and Judy show. Magnified eyes swam maniacally behind absurdly exaggerated pink-rimmed frames with thick lenses. Gail felt the eyes strip her to the bone and peer into her body at the secret it held. The superiority those orbs transmitted, the condemnation they openly advertised and the violation they imposed, would stick out in her mind forever.
Then the mouth demanding her name and a series of poking pieces of information about herself. Whether she had a regular doctor, what infirmities she suffered, and why she wan’t consulting him instead of coming all that way. She recalled how the lips moved rapidly, covering and uncovering slimy, wet gums, and the gold-filled teeth. All seemed out of synchronisation with the words being uttered. Gail appearing to answer them by rote as a robot might. All as though she wasn’t really there, and somebody else was answering in her place. Finally, the endless questions finished, and the disturbingly exaggerated eyes directed her to take a seat with a flick of their gaze. As she turned, the hatch slammed down behind her, making her jump.
Having been startled out of her dreamlike state, she skirted the reality of two short rows of five moulded-plastic, orange seats on spindly, black, tubular steel legs. A mass of tiny detail stood out in her mind. The naked pearl bulb speckled with fly shit dangling at the end of a maroon, two-ply, cloth-covered flex. And swinging, swinging ever so slightly, in the unseen draught.
A faded and torn poster on the wall by the hatch, publicised the potential consequences of unprotected sex, more in reproach than anything. To avert its tardy warning she gazed at the tattered Sunday Times supplement lying on the greasy, red, imitation-marble, linoleum floor-covering, her nostrils wincing at the all-pervasive stench of clinical antiseptic. Worst of all, she recalled the deep sense of shame she felt at having to be there at all.
She had picked the small surgery on a nondescript housing estate on the outskirts of town, precisely because it was that. In the forlorn hope it might provide the anonymity she craved so desperately. The fact it seemed so squalid, fitted the squalor she saw in her mission.
A test she had conducted on her urine, the previous morning had shown positive. In other circumstances, had there been the slightest chance of Howard being responsible, she might even have been elated at the result. But she knew that to be impossible. It had too have been Phil who made her pregnant by the pointless act of jealous revenge she had initiated at his flat after the party. The thought of carrying his child filled her with self-loathing.
She desperately wanted rid of the alien life she swore she could feel growing inside her, the monster who would drive Howard from her forever. She had told nobody, especially not him. It was difficult enough to keep him from straying as things were. The moral aspects to termination didn’t even cross her mind; she was only doing what was expedient. A future life without Howard uppermost in her mind, the bitter taste of it fresh in her mouth.
What had she done? It was only much later, when the foetus had gone, she began to feel some strange, secret love for it. She had to imagine it living or she could not imagine it at all, the guilt became too unbearable. She pushed away from her mind that she had allowed it to be flushed away. Even knowing how insane it was, she liked to think of it being nurtured somewhere, deep on the ocean bed. Life was imaginable, death was not. It was crazy, that she knew, but she could not help herself from seeing the living foetus far beneath the surface of the waves. Tended by small fishes, and hidden by reefs of coral and seaweed, she saw it grow into a creature of the sea. It was stupid, but it was the only way she found she could cope with the terrible, nightmare experience she had nobody to share with.
She even thought of a name for her sea-creature child. Nicky, she called it, because Nicky could be either male or female. She did not want a gender for her love-child. For it was magic, and sex was all too human and real. Sometimes, she would lie curled up on her bed, and think of the faraway Nicky. She would map out a life for the child. These stories would change, to whatever suited her most at that particular moment. Certain favourites she would conjure up time and time again, until she tired of them. Nobody else knew of Nicky’s existence. Nobody ever would.
Nicky would have been six by now. With the passing of the years her sea-creature had taken on male human form. In her mind’s eye she could see him playing in the same Wiltshire garden she had played. He looked more like Howard might have looked as a child than Phil. Golden corkscrews falling about his ears and face. A child of nature, he was at his happiest in the woods and fields she herself had wandered as a child. Whenever she thought of him a comforting warmth suffused her entire body.
“What are you thinking?” Danny asked her in the unthinking way so many men did in the intimate aftermath of sex. Destroying the inseparable hiatus when she liked to let her mind float on a receding tide of pleasure. There was an inability to see it as the essential part of sex it is. A deliberate attempt to devalue the single entity making love created. Too soon, they became divided back into the individuals they were. It was as though admitting love was responsible for the feelings of weakness and revulsion making love so often left them with. For all lovemaking involved a form of surrender on both sides. Only on the side of men was there a reluctance to accept it.
They were lying on the bed in his studio surrounded by canvases in various stages of completion. A large, unfinished painting stood on an easel at the foot. An abstract composition, seemingly in a state of unnatural pause, it gave the moment an added timeless quality.
Gail did not answer him. Avoiding what she saw as the stare of the picture, she looked up at the ceiling instead, hoping the innate beauty of the silence enveloping them might begin to infiltrate his consciousness, and he would leave her to her thoughts in soundless peace.
“You were thinking of Howard,” he said quietly, in direct defiance of her unspoken wishes. But even softly uttered, the words were rough against the silence; scraping and bruising it. With the permanence of footprints on freshly-fallen snow, they impressed themselves onto her mind, defining the hiatus abruptly.
She breathed a lamenting sigh for it.
“I wasn’t, honest, I wasn’t.”
“You think about him too much. I doubt whether he’s thinking about you right now.”
Even though she sensed the hidden daggers in them, Gail did not let the words hurt her. She began telling him something else that had been increasingly occupying her mind of late. Something she rarely spoke of with others.
“If you really want to know, I was thinking about my twin sister,” she fibbed.
“Sister?” Danny raised himself up onto his elbows, “You never told me you had a sister.”
“I don’t,” Gail said, “Not anymore, I don’t. She’s dead. She died when we were both very young.” Danny sank back into the pillows.
“Oh, I’m awfully sorry.” He was all the more sorry because of the sudden excitement he had felt at the prospect of meeting her. The very thought he had felt such a thing so strongly made him experience an irrational feeling of guilt.
Gail smiled at him.
“I don’t know why everybody always apologises,” she said. “It all happened such a long time ago. I can hardly remember her. My parents don’t like to talk about it, her dying. Nobody in our family talks about it. It’s tabu.
“Lately, I’ve started having these strange dreams about her. I can see her very clearly in them. She looks exactly like me. As I am now. Only I know it’s her… ” She paused for a second before saying the name. And when it did come out, she said it slowly, as though she was reading a word strange to her. “Gillian.” She thought how odd it was she had hardly ever said the name before. “It’s like she’s trying to tell me something, something very important. But I can’t hear her. Only her lips move, no words come out. She’s the mirror image of me, just as she would most likely have been had she lived.
“I’ve always had this guilty feeling about her for some reason. As if it’s not right to talk about her. Like there’s something wrong somewhere. Do you know what I mean? Just like everybody else in the family. But it can’t be wrong.” She stopped herself short as if something had occurred to her that minute. As if an icy, invisible shadow had crossed her face, and she frowned. But Danny knew she would go on.
“And that’s got me wondering. Wondering whether I feel guilty because I might have had something to do with her death. That’s why nobody ever wants to talk about her.
“I always used to think, I don’t remember being told or anything, I always used to think she died after a long illness. But, then again, if she did, I can’t see the reason for all the secrecy.” She turned her face towards his and he felt her warm breath on his cheek arouse him again.
“Perhaps the memory of it is just too painful to talk about,” he suggested, wanting to put her mind at ease, and put a temporary pause to his inopportune erection.
“I don’t think so, I can’t see them not telling me for that reason. There must be more to it than just that.” She looked at him thoughtfully.
“You know, sometimes, if somebody does something really bad, their mind blocks it out. As if it never happened, and they don’t remember it. It’s a way of protecting yourself from things too horrible to contemplate. And sometimes, I wonder, well, I wonder if that might’ve happened to me. I might’ve done something so terrrible to Gillian that I don’t want to think about it. You see, no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to remember much about her at all. And I’m not at all sure the things I do remember weren’t told me by somebody else. Whenever I do try and think of her, there’s virtually just a blank. She’s not real to me, Danny, and it frightens me. She should be. She was my twin sister.” She moved closer to him and lay an arm across his chest. He was staring at the ceiling like she had been.
“There’s more.” She lowered her voice to the point where he could only just hear it. “The thought sometimes occurs, well, it goes through my mind that I might,” It was becoming difficult for her to give voice to her fears. “I might, well, I might have been more than, in some way, responsible for her death. I wonder, Danny, I really sometimes wonder if I might have killed her.” Despite the potential shock they contained, the words seemed a lot more ordinary once she had said them. Danny didn’t even flinch. She wondered what he might be thinking beneath the deadpan expression.
“It could have happened, couldn’t it? Little chidren sometimes do do terrribly evil things.” But he knew she didn’t want an answer to her question yet. She was still in the middle of her confession. “That’s why they wouldn’t tell me anything. The fact I can’t remember is because I don’t want to. It’s too horrible. It happens all the time to people who go through dreadful experiences. It’d go a long way to explain the feelings of guilt I’ve always had. I have to find out. Gillian wants me to know the truth. That’s what I feel she’s trying to tell me in my dreams.”
Danny didn’t say anything for a moment. He wasn’t able to. It wasn’t the sort of thing he was used to hearing every day. When he did speak at last, it was very slowly and deliberately.
“If you did find out,” he said, “and if, well, if, and I’m not saying you did. But just say, say you had, say you had killed your sister. Or even if you were responsible in some other way for her death, and your mind has been blocking out that knowledge for so long, do you think you’re going to be able to handle it after all this time? I mean, maybe your parents have been doing the best thing, letting sleeping dogs lie and all that.” He could feel Gail rejecting his suggestion as he was saying it, without her having to say anything.
“It’s a difficult thing to answer,” she said nevertheless, “without actually finding out what did happen. But say I had killed her, then presumably my subconscious would already know about it. So it wouldn’t exactly be new knowledge, would it? Just something I’d managed to suppress all this time. All I’d be doing, by trying to find out, is bringing that knowledge back to the surface. That could be a good thing.” She began to reflect on her own proposition. “I don’t know. Could I live with the knowledge I was a murderer? I really don’t know. But something tells me I ought to find out. Out of respect for Gillian’s memory if nothing else. Obviously, I haven’t been able to live with it so far, but that’s not to say I couldn’t. I mean, I haven’t exactly had the choice, have I?”
“You’re beginning to sound as though you already believe it,” Danny said.
“I think I may do. It’s the dreams; they’re so real. I really feel as if Gillian is trying to reawaken something inside me. Howard said something very interesting once.” At the mention of his name she could feel Danny’s body shift uncomfortably against hers.
“I should have guessed he’d manage to creep in somewhere,” he said.
“No, listen,” She looked up at his face and rubbed his chest with her knuckles. “it was a long time ago, ages before I even met you. That was what made me realise I didn’t know anything about her for the first time. We were in the village churchyard, where she’s buried. I didn’t want to show him her grave for some reason, probably for all the reasons I’ve just said. But then he found it by himself. I hadn’t even told him I’d once had a sister. I never used to tell anybody.
“Howard went very strange when he found out. He started asking me all these questions about her. It was that that first got me thinking about her properly. Up until then, I’d just accepted things the way they were. It hadn’t occurred to me before there might be something unusual about her death. The thing was, I didn’t have any answers. Imagine it, she was my own sister and I knew nothing at all about her. Apart from her name. And even when I tried to remember, nothing would come. I ended up making things up. I was so ashamed. My own sister. I mean, not knowing anything about your own twin. I didn’t want him thinking I didn’t care.
“And then he went on to say how he believed that when a twin dies, her life is absorbed into the surviving twin’s, somehow. In other words, she doesn’t die at all. I think he meant that twins are two separate parts of the same person, and therefore they don’t die in the same way other people do until both twins ar dead.” Although she was presenting the idea as Howard’s, it was obvious she’d taken much of it on board. “The more I thought about it, the more I began to see he might have a point. Maybe part of Gillian’s personality is living on in me and I’m only just becoming aware of it.” She took her arm away from him and turned on to her back. “Oh, all this must sound like a lot of rubbish to you.” Danny didn’t know what to think.
“No it doesn’t,” he told her, nevertheless. She took it as a sign to continue.
“Sometimes, I do feel like two people. I find myself agreeing with two opposing points of view at the same time. It’s not like not being able to make up my mind, though, heaven knows, I find that difficult enough at the best of times.”
“Don’t I know it,” Danny interjected.
“No,” she said, “it’s not like when I felt I had choose between you and Howard, for instance, because I liked you both for different reasons. Though I’m not really sure I like him at all, anymore Even as a friend. No, it’s actually liking something very much and disliking it at exactly the same moment. A complete contradiction, in other words.” Danny turned his head to look her in the face.
“A paradox,” he said. “Like not being able to tear yourself away from a horror film.”
“Yes, well, no. No, not like that at all, really. I don’t know, I can’t explain, it’s much more complicated than that, somehow. When you’re watching a horror film, you may not like what you’re seeing, but it has a fascination about it, which isn’t necessarily contradictory. With me, it’s more like having two different people watching the same thing. Where one might find it frightening, the other finds it merely boring. No, that doesn’t explain it at all. How can I put it? Perhaps it’s not so much me seeing things differently, as the things having two separate existences of their own. Like parallel dimensions existing side by side on separate planes entirely. With me having the ability to see both of them at the same time from different angles. Only seeing them as one. Does that make any sense?”
“A lot of very clever people believe there in parallel dimensions,” Danny said. “Not just two, but millions. All existing side by side at exactly the same moment in time.”
“But this is not believing in them, it’s like existing in them.” She was looking straight into his eyes. He stared back into hers. They were blue, but appeared to change at the very moment of looking.
“Is that how you feel about me? Liking me, and not liking me at the same time?” he asked, holding her gaze steadfast all the while, feeling that not to do so would betray his strength in some strange way. But then he felt his eyelids flicker slightly, and wondered if she would notice.
She saw him blink, and said:
“No, that’s different. It doesn’t happen in that way at all. What I’m talking about is an underlying sensation, a kind of shadow of another existence.”
Tearing his own eyes from what he felt to be the mesmeric stare in hers, Danny turned onto his back, and focused on the ceiling. He was beginning to feel unnerved by the conversation.
“I hope you’re not smoking too much dope when you’re with Howard,” he said, “I know he does. And I know you both still meet up sometimes.”
“It’s got nothing to do with drugs,” she said. She was rattled now. “You’re just like everybody else, you don’t believe me. Besides, I hardly ever see him nowadays.”
“I do believe you. It’s just difficult to take it all in, that’s all. Don’t forget you’ve only just told me you think you might have killed your own sister.” She had rolled away from him, and they were both staring at the ceiling now. “Anyway, he does smoke too much dope, doesn’t he?”
“Why is everybody always getting at Howard?” she asked.
“I’m not getting at him,” Danny said.
“I’m getting fed up with people trying to make out there’s something wrong with him all the time.” Her voice had begun to take on a childlike whine that came from somewhere in her sinuses.
“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that there might be?” Before he could stop himself, Danny found himself looking at her again. She was staring upwards, her face wearing a strange, hurt intensity. A lump formed in his throat. God, how he hated himself for the way he thought about her at times. Another hiatus followed. More of breach this time, during which they both nursed their wounds in silence. Finally, she said, rather thoughtfully:
“Sometimes, I think he’s acting a bit strange, but he’s always been like that. He’s eccentric.” She was trying hard to be objective about Howard, and started to draw a verbal picture of him, as much for her own benefit as Danny’s. “He’s very sensitive. His parents were divorced whilst he was still a baby. He never had a father to speak of. But if you’re asking whether I think he might be mad.”
“No, I’m not saying that, but I do think he has a problem. He should see a doctor, somebody who might be able to stop him taking all that speed. Apart from what it must be doing to his brain, think what the stuff does to his body. Nobody can keep it up the way he does. Year in, year out, without it having some sort of lasting effect. And if he is as sensitive as you say he is, I’m surprised he hasn’t had a nervous breakdown before now.”
Gail lay completely still. He could almost feel her body go rigid. She said nothing. But it was her very silence that shouted the truth.
In that moment he became stuck for words himself. When he did manage to speak, at last, it was very quietly. So quiet, it was almost as if he didn’t want her to hear, as though he didn’t want to know the pain giving an answer would inevitably cause her.
“He has, hasn’t he?” he eventually whispered. Gail just lay there, knowing she would have to speak sooner or later, but not knowing quite when to begin.
“It was when we were doing our finals,” she finally said, the words grating softly against her throat as they gently punctured the silence pressing in on them. “There was a lot of pressure on all of us. I didn’t help things. I was very demanding. Wanting to see him all the time when we both should have been working. I thought he was seeing somebody else. I’d had an abortion a few weeks earlier. I didn’t tell him. Because I knew it wasn’t his. That’s why I got rid of it. There was a night when he went off with this girl. I wanted to get my own back, so I slept with a friend of his. How stupid could I have been? The baby would have been his. It made me very weepy. And I didn’t trust Howard to be on his own. I was feeling so clingy. You know what he’s like. But then everything must have got too much for him. And so, one weekend, he decided to get away from it all, and go home to his mother’s. He often did things like that without telling me. We’d all been taking speed so we could stay up all night revising. Maybe that’s another of the reasons we were so wound up. Howard’s mother found some in one of his pockets. They had an almighty row about it. It was probably the last straw. Anyway, next morning, she found him in bed with an empty bottle of whisky, and an empty bottle of valium on the floor beside him. His heart was so faint, she thought it had stopped.
“Apparently, that’s what happens when you overdose on valium. Imagine how she must have felt. She thought he was dead.” She turned back to look into Danny’s eyes again. He had been staring at her all the time she had been speaking. She saw they were glassy with unshed tears. Her own were green now. Less intense; less hypnotic. They were asking him to believe what she was about to tell him. “I don’t think he intended to kill himself,” she said. “Not really.”
And yet it was more as though she was trying to convince herself than him.
“Suicides rarely do,” Danny said, “It’s supposed to be a cry for help.” She turned her eyes away from him, as if it did not matter whether the rest of what she was going to say was true or not.
“Yes,” she said. But she could have been agreeing with something else. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore, I won’t be seeing him again.” As though to emphasise the finality of the statement. She reached out for a cigarette from a pack on the bedside table. The duvet slipped away from her. Danny was filled with yearning at the sight of her nakedness. But with the false ring of her words still in his ears, he resisted the temptation to gather her into his arms.
“Yes, you will,” he said without emotion.
“No,” she was putting the cigarette in her mouth and lighting it, speaking all the while she did so. “I’ve told him it’s all over as far as I’m concerned.” The inherent, calculated drama in her actions, coupled with the unconvincing words, angered him.
“Why bother saying it, Gail? When you know it’s not true,” he said, “I might start to believe it, even though I’m enough of a realist to know Howard always comes first with you. He always has and always will. Whatever you say now.” He put his hands behind his head and lay back on the pillows. “Sometimes, I think I must be some sort of masochist, the way I always let you run to me whenever you two have a row. Especially when I know you’ll only go running back to him as soon as he drops whichever floosie he’s been screwing. God knows, I want to believe you.” He emitted a long and weary sigh. “Oh, I don’t know, sometimes I wish I’d never met you.”
“I’m sorry I make you feel like that,” she said, using her spoilt child voice again. “Perhaps I shouldn’t see either of you anymore.” She blew long, careless clouds of smoke towards the ceiling.
“You know I don’t want that, even if it is probaby the most sensible thing,” he said. “It’s just that I don’t think either one of you does the other any good. And I don’t know how much longer I can go on living like this.”
“And I’m telling you that this time it’s over. For good.” She was strident; saying it, was doing it. It would take far more than a tone of voice to convince Danny.
“I hope it is, for both your sakes. Honest, I do. Even if you were to walk from this room right now, never to return, I’d be a lot happier if I knew you wouldn’t be going straight back to him.”
By her failure to respond he knew she was sulking, but he continued, nevertheless.
“You behave like children together, weak and helpless in the face of the world. As far as I can see, you sap each other’s emotions, neutralising one another. He treats you like some sort of mother figure, and you treat him like a child. It’s as if you’re trying to make amends for the guilt you’ve saddled yourself with.”
“Why are you being so horrid to me all of a sudden?” she demanded in that nasal way of hers.
“I’m not being horrid to you,” he protested, his voice almost a parody of hers. “Most relationships are based on something like that. Why should yours be any different? I’ve already admitted that mine with you has more than a touch of the emotionally sado-masochistic about it. You might not see it that way, but then relationships are about more than one person, and that often leads separate views about the same thing. You, of all people, should be able to understand that.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the way you feel about Howard, I just don’t happen to believe he’s the right person for you. That’s all. And you needn’t think by that that I’m saying I am either. Look, Gail, we all spend half our lives looking for somebody or other. It’s as if we’re not quite finished when we come into the world. Like there’s a missing bit of us we seem to think we’ll find in somebody else. Most of us feel like that at some point of our lives. You just have to make sure it doesn’t get to be an obsession.”
Gail sat up suddenly.
“What did you say just then?”
“You’ve got to make sure relationships don’t become obsessions.”
“No, before that, you said something about all of us having missing bits.”
“Oh, that, it’s part of the same thing, really. I said that there’s a missing bit of us that we look for in other people.”
“It reminded me of something Howard said that day in the churchyard, I was telling you about just a moment ago. Strange, you should say the same thing when I was just talking about it. What a coincidence.” She fell back onto the pillows and blew smoke rings into the air reflectively.
“Extrasensory perception,” Danny said sarcastically. Gail was not listening. Her brow wrinkled, she was trying to focus on that day in the past, vaguely suspicious something about it had eluded her.
“Later on,” she began to recollect carefully as the thoughts gradually came back to her, “that very afternoon, Aunty Peggy came round. The three of us were standing in the sitting room, Howard, Aunty Peggy and myself. I can still see it, almost as though it was only yesterday. It had been raining heavily, just like it had on the day Gillian died,” she said remembering that first cloudburst, when she and Gillian were toddlers, for the very first time without realising. “Howard and I had had to run home. We got drenched. When we got back, I showed him some photographs of Gillian, and we forgot to put them away. And that’s how Aunty Peggy knew we’d been looking at them. She saw the album straightaway. She seemed angry. And I couldn’t work out why. And then, that’s right, Howard asked her how Gillian had died. She pretended not to hear him, so he asked her again. Then she became very evasive, not like Aunty Peggy at all. She put the album back in the drawer. She was fussing about guiltily, as though it was something we shouldn’t have been looking at. She never did answer Howard’s question. Mummy came in with the tea things, and we forgot all about it.”
Danny began brushing her shoulders lightly with his lips. Cupping one of her breasts in his hand, he stroked her nipple softly back and forth with his thumb, till he felt it harden.
“Later on, though,” she went on, “I started to think about it a bit more. And wondered what on earth could have happened to make Aunty Peggy clam up like that.” Danny had moved his head to kiss her chin.
“You know,” he said, punctuating his words with kisses, “if you really do want to find out what happened to Gillian, without hurting your mum and dad, it shouldn’t be that hard.”
“How?” she asked.
“Well, if anything unusual did happen to her, like there was a car accident, or she was kidnapped, or ran away and got lost, anything like that, there’s bound to be a record of it somewhere. There could be a police report. The local papers would’ve definitely written something about it. All you have to do is go along to their offices and ask for the back copies published around the time of her death. Failing that, you could always try Aunty Peggy again. She obviously knows something.”
Gail turned to look at him, a big grin on her face. And kissing him, she said into his open mouth:
“You are a clever clogs. Do you know? I never even thought of that, even though it’s so obvious.” Taking one last drag from her cigarette, she stubbed it out and turned on her side to face him. Wrapping a leg about him, she drew his body towards hers until she could feel their bellies touching.
“I love you,” Danny whispered.
“Mmmm,” she responded, pressing herself ever closer to him, moving her body gently up and down against his, egging him to enter her. “Fuck me,” she murmured.
“Do you love me?” he asked her.
She moaned, and closed her eyes. “Fuck me, Danny, fuck me,” she entreated him.
THINGS WERE NOT meant to happen like that.
By the time she reached Westminster Bridge she was angry. She was angry because it was raining. She was angry because she’d not managed to phone Danny. She was angry because she’d agreed to see Howard despite the deal they’d made. She was angry because there was so much traffic on the roads; because she had given in to him once more. She was angry because, because, well, she was just angry.
Once on the bridge, traffic was reduced to a bare crawl, and then to a halt. The heavy rain beating down on the canvas roof of the car began to close her tiny world in on her. Things were not meant to happen like that. She had not wanted to see Howard at all again. And yet was on her way to meet him at that very moment.
She rammed the first tape to come into her hand into the cassette deck, and turned up the volume in an attempt to drown out the thoughts flashing through her mind. By some cruel trick of fate it turned out to be a song she’d heard with Howard at their very first meeting, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. He was a big Dylan fan. She thought she’d lost the tape years ago. Things were not meant to happen like that. Later, they saw the film together at the university film club. Just about the only two people who had. She turned up the volume. She remembered Howard how had insisted on playing the track over and over again just before they made love in his room for the very first time. Even that was not meant to happen quite as it did.
Suddenly, a car horn blasting from behind made her jump. A gap had opened up between her and a van immediately in front. She felt the tears begin to prick her eyes.
“Fuck off!” she yelled. But it was pointless; the driver would’ve been unable to hear her above the din of music, the driving rain and the sound of myriad engines idling monotonously all around. She released the clutch, but the motor died. More blasts of horns. And then it failed to start. Things were not meant to happen like that. She had intended to spend her whole life with him. “Fuck off! Can’t you!” she screamed. She had to switch off the tape deck before the car would splutter back into life. Revving it mercilessly she slammed it into gear to move the few empty yards and close the gap. Things were not meant to happen like that. She had wanted to have children by him. Turning the tape deck back on, she switched up the volume so loud the little Deux Chevaux reverberated as if in sympathy with the sadness of the music. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks filling her mouth with the taste of their salt. Things were not meant to happen like that at all. From the first moment she had spotted him on the edge of the campus playing fields their lives should have been pure joy. Nobody could have predicted this. And then she knew in a way that she had. On that very first day she’d experienced a feeling there was something strange about him. An aura he seemed to exude. It was one of the things that had attracted her so much. But not this. Things were not meant to happen like that.
As the cars, lorries and buses surrounding her began to edge their way slowly forward, she realised she was hemmed in on all sides. She could not turn back now even if she wanted. She was being driven irresistibly towards Howard as she had always been. The blank-faced drivers of the vehicles she could barely make out through misted windows, were the dark, unknowing shepherds of her fate. Things were not meant to happen like that. Nothing was. They were supposed to be different. She was not meant to be driving to see him now. And yet she was.
IN THE MONTHS since her confession to Danny, Gail had been plagued with an overriding sense of guilt. Coupled with a sensation of impending dread, she became became convinced something terrible was about to happen. Each night she was hardly able sleep, for thinking she might’ve been responsible for her sister’s death in some way all those years ago. These thoughts were taking her down a path she knew might lead to madness, having already reached the stage where she found it difficult to concentrate on much else. She knew she would have to do something before she went completely round the twist. She was desperate to know the truth. Yet, at the very same time, there were growing doubts she possessed the strength to face it.
Finally, she told Danny she was going to take him up on his advice. She would drive down Swindon that weekend. After failing to dissuade her from going at all, he insisted on going with her. He had only himself to blame for putting the idea in her head in the first place. She was determined.
They set off for Wiltshire in her Deux Chevaux late that Friday afternoon. Saturday and Sunday they would spend with her parents. It’d give her the chance to introduce them to Danny. While pretending to set off back to London, they’d planned to drive into Swindon on Sunday evening to start researching in the local library first thing Monday morning. Danny had booked them into a hotel. Gail didn’t want her parents knowing what she was up to.
To her intense annoyance, Danny spent a good a part of the journey trying to put her off the idea, using the same argument he’d used when she’d first told him of her suspicions, saying she should ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. She began to hate the cliché. They squabbled, but it was nothing, as they often argued, neither of them putting too much store in their differences. In a lot of ways, despite the irony, squabbling helped them get on that much better the rest of the time. She rarely used to argue with Howard. If she thought about it. It wasn’t a particularly easy thing to do. When it came to points of disputation he always drifted off somewhere else completely, reverting to his maddeningly breathy way of exuding coolness.
They hardly spoke to one another for the second half of the drive, both of them continuing their side of the quarrel in their own heads.
As they drew up beside the low, stone cottage, to Gail’s surprise nobody came out to greet them. While Guinness was alive he’d always rushed from the house, yapping excitedly. But the Jack Russell had been gone for over two years. At moments like these she realised how sorely she missed him.
Suddenly, she was seized by an inexplicable panic. Say something had happened? Unable to bring herself to tell Danny of her fears, in case she was wrong, she jumped out of the car yelling at him to bring the bags. He assumed she was still angry at him.
Normally, the distinctive Gallic rattle of the engine shuddering to a halt, would’ve brought one or both of her parents to the kitchen door. After all, they were expecting her. Something must be wrong. That the door was not locked only added to her anxiety.
As soon as she opened it, she found her fears to be misplaced. There could hardly have been a more tranquil scene. She paused in the doorway to catch her wind and still her thumping heart. Her father sat sleeping in his winged armchair by a blazing hearth, a tartan blanket wrapped about his knees. She could hear his slow, comforting breaths above the gentle crackle of the flames. His mouth hung open, the lower jaw quivering slightly with each intake of air.
The taste of panic still fresh in her mouth, she almost felt her presence intruding on some previous existence, so little had changed. Not wanting to disturb the idyll, she turned to Danny coming up the path behind her and touched a finger to her lips. Creeping quietly through the kitchen they made their way into the hallway where he dumped their bags. Coming from upstairs, she could hear her mother in one of the bedrooms. Probably making up one of the spare beds for their guest.
Gail pointed into the sitting room, and whispered for Danny to go and make himself comfortable. Overcome by a desire to observe her father in repose by the fire, while he still remained unaware of her arrival, she returned to the kitchen. There was something about him; an unsuspecting innocence she rarely saw when he was awake.
Close to, she realised how much he’d aged over the few weeks since her last visit. Asleep, deep lines, time had etched onto his face, appeared as threads dragging his eyes and mouth downwards, rendering them unable to mask the sad gauntness they betrayed. The once-ruddy cheeks had sunk back leaving the pale hollowness she remembered so well from childhood. A wave of compassion swept over her, and she was loathed to disturb him.
In the event, it wasn’t necessary. The sound of her mother’s feet on the stairs nudged him into consciousness, and he woke with a startled look on his face. For a few seconds, she could see he didn’t know where he was. A fearful expression in his eyes gazed around the room as they established his bearings. As recognition of the familiar surroundings dawned, he saw Gail standing nearby. At once his features relaxed into a broad smile.
“Gail,” he greeted. By then it was too late. She’d seen what he’d been become so good at masking all those years: the same sense of loss and injustice so plain in the earliest photographs following the tragic death of the sister she’d almost forgotten she ever had.
“How long have you been standing there? You should’ve woken me.” His voice was weak and reedy; the effects of sleep still on it.
“We’ve only just arrived,” she told him, and went to kiss his forehead. She noticed him wince, as he raised himself up to receive her, and became aware he’d not got up from his chair as he usually did. Too late, she saw him register the concern in her eyes.
“Excuse me not getting off my backside. Mother’s orders.” He pointed to an outstretched leg. “Fell off the bloody step ladder, would you believe? It’s not broken, just twisted my ankle. Isn’t half swollen though. Only been laid up a few days. Feels like a bloody month.”
“Why didn’t mummy tell me when I rang?”
“Don’t suppose she wanted to worry you, old girl,” he said. “It’s not exactly serious.”
“Oh, Daddy.” She put her arms around him and kissed his forehead again, “I need to be worried about things like that, that’s what I’m here for. I would’ve come earlier had I known.”
“Doctor Baxter says he’ll be up and about inside a week if he doesn’t try and put any pressure on it.” Mrs Southerne had bustled into the kitchen virtually unnoticed, a stern look on her face. “And he ought to watch his language in front of visitors.”
“Why doesn’t anybody in this house let me know anything?” Gail burst out angrily, acutely aware her parents had always kept things from her. Even petty, stupid things.
“We knew you were coming down,” her mother said, matter of factly, “it seemed pointless letting you worry needlessly.”
“But I should know these things. What if something happened to the both of you? How would I know? Say you were dead.”
“Then neither of us would be able to tell you. So you still wouldn’t be any the wiser.”
Of course she was right. That was what was so irritating about her mother; she nearly always was.
“Anyway,” Gail said, changing the subject to avoid further confrontation, “I thought Doctor Baxter retired ages ago.”
“He did,” her mother went on to tell her, “He still pops in to see your father, though.”
At that moment, Danny came into the kitchen. Gail had forgotten all about him.
“Oh, I am sorry,” she said, putting a hand in front of her mouth, “how rude of me, I haven’t introduced anybody. Mummy, Daddy, this is Danny DeMorgan. He’s the painter I told you about.”
Mrs Southerne ran a practised eye over him, and then shook his hand tepidly. Danny grinned at her.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. Mrs Southerne nodded imperiously.
“So, you’re the artist we’ve been hearing rather a lot about lately,” she said, withdrawing her limp appendage. Danny was having a hard time preventing himself from laughing at the ridiculous hauteur in her manner.
“I paint for a living, yes,” he answered. To his mind, far too many of the middle classes seemed overstuffed with a sense of their own self-importance. As if anybody else cared. He hadn’t come to their house in order be judged like a pooch in a dog show.
“Used to paint a bit, myself,” Mr Southerne butted in. He knew his wife too well to allow her to begin one of her inquisitions. “Watercolours, never seem to get the time these days,” he continued. “Call me Laurie. Winifred’s my wife’s name, though I usually call her Win.”
“Mrs Southerne,” corrected Mrs Southerne.
Danny walked across to the fireplace to shake hands with Mr Southerne.
“Sorry, I can’t get up, old boy. I’ve been condemned to my chair,” Mr Southerne said. Danny smiled down at him.
“That’s all right,” he said, offering his hand, “pleased to meet you. You don’t look like the sort of man anybody can keep off his feet, for too long.”
“The doctor says he should rest for at least a fortnight,” said Mrs Southerne, contradicting what she’d said only moments before. Gail’s father chuckled.
“I don’t know about artist,” he said, ‘do you know, Win? He’s got the grip of a blacksmith, I’ll swear he has. And look at the size of those hands.”
“You can talk,” Gail laughed, “look at the size of yours.”
“My dad was a miner,” Danny said with the pride usually reserved for those who understood exactly what that meant. Mrs Southerne’s nose wrinkled slightly.
“A miner, eh?” Mr Southerne was obviously impressed. “What does he think of this Thatcher woman? Though I suppose he must have retired by now. Wish she would.”
“He was made redundant, ten years ago. Probably the best thing to happen to his health, but he hardly knows what to do with himself, these days.”
“Know the feeling only too well,” said Mr Southerne indicating his injured leg, “They keep on trying to slow me down. I keep on telling ’em they’ll have to shoot me first. I reckon the beggars are considering it. Why don’t you sit yourself down, old boy?” He pointed at the armchair on the other side of the hearth. “It’s a long drive down, I expect you must be tired.”
“To tell the truth…” Danny began, lowering himself into the chair.
“It was me who did all the driving,” Gail said for him.
“Still, I expect the boy could do with a drink.”
“You’ve already had one,” Mrs Southerne reminded him, just in case her husband was using their guest as an excuse for another one himself.
“See how they treat you, once you can’t get about. Women! Take some advice from me, never have anything to do with them. I wasn’t talking about me, I was talking about Danny, here. I expect he could do with a drink. Couldn’t you?”
“Yes, well, I wouldn’t mind.”
“There you are. Now stop fussing about me, and get the boy a drink, Win. What will you have? Whisky? Gin? Or perhaps you’d rather have a beer? There’s some tins of lager in the fridge.”
“Whisky sounds fine,” Danny smiled.
“Why don’t you get your friend a whisky, dear?” Mrs Southerne said, passing the request down the pecking order.
“What about me?” Gail protested, “I’m the one who did all the driving.”
“You can look after yourself, dear. After all, you know where everything is, and he is your guest.”
“I don’t mind,” Danny said, getting up again, “I can see to everybody if you let me know where everything is.”
“Sit down, Danny,” Gail told him, “I was only teasing. I’ll get the drinks. Anybody else want anything?” Her father’s eyes lit up in eager anticipation.
“Just a small one for your father, then,” Mrs Southerne relented. “I don’t know, he hasn’t even had his dinner yet. Well,” she sighed, “if everybody else is having one, I might as well have one myself. Could you get me a sherry, dear? Whilst you’re there.” Gail was already on her way to the dresser by the door. “I could do with one. I’ve put Danny in the spare room next to yours,” she carried on. “Hand towels are at the end of the beds, and there are fresh bath towels in the airing cupboard, should either of you need them.”
Gail was already beginning to find the sound of her mother’s voice tedious. It made her realise just how often she had listened to those stentorian tones go on at her to do this, or not to do that. There was no doubt about it, it was going to be one of those weekends when she would have to struggle not to lose her temper. Why on earth her mother couldn’t bring herself to just let people enjoy themselves for a change, she would never know. What was the point in trying to upset everybody the way she did? She seemed to get a perverse gratification out of it.
The weather did nothing to make her feel better. It rained the whole two days they were there. The normally pleasant countryside became damp, grey and uninviting. Danny seemed more than content to loll about the house. Whenever he wasn’t reading, he and her father spent hours chatting together. She couldn’t think what they found to talk about. She was never able to talk to her father like that. To be honest, despite loving him dearly, she often found him boring.
The worst of it was that it meant she was left to the company of her mother most of the time. The constant moaning about her father she had to endure almost drove her to distraction. He rarely went to work nowadays. He was always getting in her hair. He drank too much. He drove her mad in the house all the time. He should retire. He spent too much time in the garden. He was too old to work at his age. He left her by herself too much. She seemed totally unaware of the contradictions she was making.
If anything, Gail thought her father was drinking far less than he used to. He was much quieter than she remembered him, and appeared to tire far more easily. She noticed his attention wandering, from time to time, making him seem distant and uninterested. Age was creeping up on him. But not with Danny. With Danny he became lively, jolly even. Danny had a way about him that brought out the best in people. At one stage, he even managed to make her mother laugh a couple of times. He was far more patient than she’d imagined.
Nevertheless, she longed for the weekend to draw to a close. The anticipation of what she might find out in Swindon was making her ever more nervous. On more than one occasion, it was pointed out how tetchy she was becoming.
It came as a great relief when Sunday lunch was finally over, and they could set about preparing to leave.
ONCE ACROSS WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, traffic became much lighter on the south side of the river, and Gail was able to unwind a little. She started to feel a little foolish. She’d allowed herself to get in a state about nothing again. It was happening too many times of late. The slightest upset could bring her to the brink of tears. She often wondered what had gone so wrong in her life to make her like that. There always seemed to be so many loose ends nowadays.
As the rain eased off, the oppressive claustrophobia of the tiny car began to evaporate.
She turned off the Old Kent Road and into a street she had marked in her A to Z. It was much darker, the street either not working, or too dim to see properly. She noticed hardly anyone out and about. No wonder. The buildings appeared shabby and run-down. Most shops and factories had been boarded up long ago then left to fall into decay. Shadow and damp huddled in doorways and crevices, along with the occasional knot of down and outs or junkies.
Trust Howard to live in a neighbourhood like this. Slowing to a snail’s pace she strained through the gloom to catch the street nameplates. She’d worked out Tobago Street as being off to the right somewhere. But that must be wrong. There were no houses at all on that side of the street. Just derelict land where houses, shops and factories had once been, fenced off by great rusting sheets of corrugated iron topped with barbed wire. Ahead of her she could see a railway viaduct by the light cast from the windows of an empty passing train. She almost missed the street completely. A black gap in the fencing. A road cut short by the railway viaduct. A dead end. The dark silhouette of a solitary terrace hugged the gloom. Tobago Street. She turned into it. A pub stood on a corner at its near end in complete darkness. Very closed, its windows were covered by planks of wood. She looked for the phone box Howard had phoned her from earlier. There was none. It must be in another street. No chance of phoning Danny. She should have stopped at the last one she saw. That was more than a mile back.
Her car headlights picked out the rusting hulk of a burned-out car by the side of the road. Another empty train clattered by, kufic-like tags sprayed along the length of it. Illegible to all but initiates.
She caught the number of one of the houses. Sixteen. An even number. Number forty-seven would be on the other side of the road. All she could see there was more corrugated iron. A wooden sign proclaimed it to be the site of ‘Brittain’s Autos’. A scrapyard. An abandoned mattress lay on the pavement outside the gates to welcome allcomers. Then she spotted the towering, lone house beyond. That would have to be number forty-seven. From the outside it appeared unoccupied. She pulled up beneath the only working street lamp, and sat in the car for a moment wondering how safe it was to leave the car there for any length of time. There were no other cars in the street apart from the burned-out shell. She swore to herself she’d not stay long.
Opening the car door, she stepped into the road, her shoe grinding bits of broken glass into the asphalt. In the corner of her eye net curtains shifted in a window across the street, and she realised she was being watched. At least someone else lived there. But perhaps it was the car arsonist. Or arsonists. She made sure all the windows of her Deux Chevaux were shut tight, and the doors locked, before walking over to the large, dilapidated house in such sinister isolation.
Four floors, she counted, including the basement. Probably stuffed full of New Age travellers and drug addicts. Like so many other buildings in the area, the front bay windows of the lower floor had planks nailed crudely over them. Not daring to look round, she could swear there were even more eyes boring into her back. It was obvious the street did not see too many night-time visitors. Looking up, she could just make out a chink of light on the first floor. There were five steps leading to the porch and door. The leaded lights that would’ve once adorned it, had been torn out and replaced by yet more boards. The whole area seemed to be in a state of permanent siege. She looked in vain for a bell push, and then a door knocker. Nothing. At least she could see the numbers four and seven, crudely painted in red on the front door. It was the right house. How to get in? Her eyes alighted on an ancient, blackened bell-pull set into the wall. She pulled. To her surprise, she heard a clanging noise from somewhere deep in the bowels of the hall.
Several minutes seem to pass before she heard the hollow sound of footsteps echoing down uncarpeted stairs, and then clatter along the hall. She could see nothing not even a chink of light round the door frame. There followed the sounds of bolts being drawn and keys turning locks. The door opened on the security chain, and she saw the flicker of candlelight. A face peered over it.
“Howard!” She could scarcely believe her eyes. He looked terrible. Smiling out at her his open mouth revealed gaps where she remembered teeth. He had lost several since the last time she saw him. A few days stubble sprouted from his face. His hair was long and matted. He closed the door to remove the chain.
“Gail!” he cried, almost as though not expecting her, “Fantastic! You found it. You look great.” She was sorry she couldn’t say the same for him. He leaned forward for her to kiss him and she brushed his bristling cheek with hers. It prickled. The sour smell of strong tobacco and stale sweat clinging to his body and clothes filled her nostrils. He could not have had a bath or shower in quite some time.
“Come in, come in,” he said, opening the door wide and standing aside to let her pass. She entered.
As soon as she was through, he locked and bolted it behind them. She noticed there were two large padlocks to supplement the mortise.
“What’s with all the heavy duty security?”she asked, “It’s almost like a prison in here.” She looked around. Even by dim candle-light the place was a tip. Builders’ rubble littered the floor. “Don’t you have electricity?”
“Upstairs,” he said, “follow me. I don’t use this floor.”
“I’m not surprised.”
The stench was appalling. Food was rotting somewhere, and the pervading stink of urine wafted from a room they passed on the way to the staircase. Covering her nose with the sleeve of her coat, and hoping the smell would not foul her clothes, she followed closely behind Howard as he mounted the rickety, wooden stairs, each step sounding its own ominous creak of complaint. As her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, she could see large areas of peeling, yellowed wallpaper; the cavernous ceilings, their plaster cornices crumbling and flaking. She kept herself well to the side of the mahogany handrail swinging precariously from its few remaining balusters.
When they reached the first floor landing, Howard switched on a light. She could not think why he had not done it on his way down. Doubtless, he had his reasons. A solitary, naked, 40 watt, pearl bulb burned dim indifference onto drab, brownish walls.
He paused to reach for the bunch of keys he kept on a chain in his trouser pocket. Two more padlocks, and a Yale, secured the door to his room. No wonder it had taken him such a long time to answer the clanging. It puzzled her that he would find it so necessary to take such elaborate precautions whilst only answering the front door. What could he be keeping of any value in there?
“You must get awful lot of break-ins round here,” she remarked sarcastically. If he did hear, he took no notice. Perhaps he was stashing something illegal in the house. Dope, even. “Does anybody else live here?” she asked.
“No.” He didn’t care to expand.
The door eventually opened and a wall of warm, fetid air rushed out to greet them. He bade her enter with an outstretched arm. It was the worse place she had ever know him to live. So, he’d finally reached bottom. There was nowhere else to go save out on the streets.
The room measured about eighteen feet by twelve. A large, shuttered window, crude indecipherable symbols daubed in red all over it, stared her in the face. An unmade, double mattress lay against one wall. Grubby sheets and a few crumpled blankets in disarray, revealing two uncovered pillows, their black and white linings stained with circular yellow and brown spots. The old acoustic guitar from their university days leaned next to it. Across by the opposite wall stood a tabular steel, drop-leaf table. Laminated in yellow; one leaf extended. Strewn over it, half-opened packets spewed food, empty and full tins stood at ease, or suspended in mid-roll. A clear plastic bag of sliced, white bread demonstrated the domino effect. Next to the table, a gas oven, its burners alight, greedily traded poisonous fumes for life-giving oxygen. It was more than ably assisted by a battered paraffin heater under the window. A pile of dirty clothes lay festering in a corner. The whole house was a riot of bad smells. Stale, rancid smells of fat and feet; of gas and oil. Smells of filthy clothes; of tobacco and sweat; of cooking and damp. A cornucopia which she was beginning to find unbearable.
“There’s no air in here,” she complained. “Don’t you ever open the blinds and windows?”
“It’s fine,” Howard replied closing the door. “Cosy. You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to get this place as warm as this. I did it all for you.”
He walked over to the table and picked up a kettle.
“Fancy some tea? Sink’s across the landing, I’ll get some water.”
“I can’t stay long, Howard.” But he was already out of the door. She could hear him filling the kettle and swore under her breath. “Is there a phone nearby?” she called after him. There was no answer. Howard returned, kettle filled. He walked across to the cooker and set it on the hob.
“I have to make a phonecall, where’s the nearest phone?” He seemed not to hear.
“Got any dope?”
“I’ve told you before, I don’t smoke anymore. I haven’t had a joint in ages.”
“It’s all right, I’ve got some.” He reached for a tin on the table. “Why don’t you take your coat off and make yourself comfy?”
“I can’t stay long. I already told you. I’ve got an appointment. You said you had something important to tell me.”
“You must have time for a cup of tea.”
She doubted there was a clean cup in the place.
“Thanks, but I won’t, I promised to meet somebody.”
“I’ve got milk. I nicked some earlier, when I knew you were coming. From the supermarket. I often take my tea black these days. To save money. Milk doesn’t keep very long in here, so I put it by the sink whenever I’ve got any. It’s cooler in there, and it doesn’t go off quite so quick.” He looked across at her. “Why don’t you sit down?”
She glanced round the room.
“There’s nowhere to sit.”
“Sit on the bed. I don’t mind. I always do.” He strode over to it, and shook one of the blankets before spreading it over the rest of the bedclothes. “There you are,” he said smoothing it over. She lowered herself down on the very edge of it. “Now, how about rolling that joint whilst I make tea?”
“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t smoke anymore?”
“For me. I can have a joint, can’t I?”
“I never was any good at rolling joints. You do it.”
He sat down beside her.
“Got any fags?”
She rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a pack of Marlboro.
“When are you going to tell me what you dragged me all the way out here for? On the phone you said it was important.” He was sitting cross-legged, licking and sticking cigarette papers together. He slit one of her cigarettes and emptied it out into the papers. “Just how long is all this going to take?” she asked.
“How long is what going to take?” He patted his jacket pockets for a box of matches.
“This, the game you’re playing. The tea, the joint, the keeping me here.” At each question there was a pause, as he concentrating on the task of building a joint.
“Keeping you here? I’m not keeping you here. I invited you over, and you came of your own free will.” He was striking a match to soften a lump of hash before sprinkling some onto the tobacco.
“You know what I mean. You invited me over for a reason. You said you had something important to tell me. Something you couldn’t say over the phone.”
“Oh, that.” He carefully rolled the joint so as not to spill any, and ripped a piece of her cigarette pack for a roach.
“What do you mean, ‘Oh, that?’”
“What’s the hurry, Gail? We’re old friends. Can’t old friends have a jay and a chat, now and again?” Having licked the paper and stuck it down, he pushed in the roach.
“Of course they can. Only not tonight, I don’t have time. I promised to meet somebody.”
“No, not Danny, as it happens,” she fibbed. “Not that it’s any business of yours.”
“I’m not telling you, Howard. It’s just a friend, that’s all. You have friends, don’t you? Or at least you had friends when I first knew you.”
“Had friends, or was had by friends? These I’m not sure I know the difference. I used to think I did.”
“Don’t play that one, I’m still your friend, otherwise I would never have come all the way out here.”
“I met Danny once, in a street round here.” Holding the joint up, he admired his workmanship, before putting it between his lips.
“He never told me.”
“He wouldn’t have. He was looking for me. He was going to beat me up,” he said, speaking through pursed lips
“Don’t be ridiculous! Danny wouldn’t do anything like that. What would he want to beat you up for? He doesn’t even know where you live.”
“He found me, though, didn’t he?”
“Howard, why are you telling me things like this when you know they’re not true?”
He had lit the joint and was puffing at it. He waved the burning match in the air to extinguish it.
“Why don’t you ask him? If you don’t believe me,” he said, blowing out huge clouds of grey smoke.
Gail stood up suddenly.
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m not going to stand around here listening to anymore of your rubbish. I’m going.” She stormed from the room slamming the door behind her.
MEMORY WAS SO often just a rewrite. Too many times, inconvenient details were missed out, or forgotten entirely. Gail had only recently been made aware just how fallible it was when it became obvious she couldn’t remember the slightest detail of what’d occurred the day Gillian died. She was unable to recall anything about such a momentous event. How could that be possible? Even given her young age at the time. Surely there would’ve been talk about it for months afterwards? Yet, there was no particular day on which she could remember her sister dying. There was nothing at all. Not even a memory of her living.
The only thing she really knew was she once had a sister many years before. A few family photos told her Gillian had once lived. Like novels she read told her Jane Austen had once lived, it was an historical fact, nothing more. An historical fact that created little or no emotion.
Apart from that, what had also become so disturbing was the growing realisation that the very few things she did know about Gillian’s short life and death were most probably things she had been made aware of by others, not things she could actually remember. She wasn’t at all sure, that, without being told, she’d ever have known she once had a twin sister.
There were times, if she tried hard enough, she almost thought she could remember details of them being together. But even then doubts remained. She couldn’t entirely convince herself those thoughts really came from her own memory, or were just things that had been repeated enough times to make her think she remembered them. Truth was, she suspected she might’ve been pretending all along. She never really believed the memories were hers.
It was this uncertainty that convinced her she had find out as much truth as she could. If her own family weren’t going to tell her everything, she’d have to find out herself. Only then would she be able to place the tragedy into context, and hopefully put it to rest.
What surprised, and almost irritated her, about the weekend with her parents, was how much Danny had enjoyed it. It was as though they had spent it in completely different places. He even remarked she should make an effort to see her parents more often, now they were getting on a bit, adding that he would like nothing better than to join her next time she went. But he didn’t know the half of it. Had her mother the slightest notion of the real reason behind their visit, there would have been an almighty row about it. She would have worn Gail down until she convinced her not to do anything she might regret later.
From the outside, the hotel where Danny had booked a room, looked rather impressive. Its Georgian façade promised all the comforts of a bygone age. But once inside, it told a different story. Although the bars and dining rooms retained some of their original features, they had been wainscotted in oak throughout at some time during the 1930s, giving them that dull, uninspired and uninspiring, impersonal look so many provincial hotels seemed to strive for.
Their bedroom had been swept of any character it might once have had completely. Modernised to accommodate a tiny, en-suite bathroom a decade or so before, a uniform shabbiness had begun to establish itself, discernible in the odd section of peeling wallpaper, and the distinctive odour of leaky toilet, and general dampness pervading the air. The mismatched furniture was drab and scuffed. The wardrobe door kept swinging open each time they tried to close it, until wedged with a bit of tightly-folded paper that had obviously been left there solely for that purpose. The dark, brown velveteen curtains were imbued with the scent of years of stale nicotine.
Gail couldn’t have cared less, even had she noticed. Danny’s complaints went completely by her. He could’ve been in the next room for all she knew. The anticipation of what she might be about to discover, was beginning to make her feel sick. All she wanted was to lie down. Seeing she wasn’t up to it, Danny went for a walk round the town unaccompanied. The last few days had been a trying time for her, and it was far from over. When he got back she was asleep. Realising how overwrought she had become, he decided she needed sleep as much as anything, and dined alone in the hotel restaurant on a couple of slices of unidentifiable grey meat, mashed potatoes and overcooked brussel sprouts swamped in lukewarm gravy. After a couple of night-caps at the bar, he took her up a sandwich. She was awake, and staring out of the bedroom window. She couldn’t even bare to look at it.
The rest of the night she hardly slept, her reservations growing as the moment of truth, she was coming to dread, drew ever closer. By the glimmer of first light, things didn’t seem quite so bad. Slipping quietly from under the bedclothes, so as not to disturb Danny, she showered away the grubbiness she felt clinging to her body, soaping herself over and over, before rubbing her skin almost red raw with a cloth. Even though it left her feeling somewhat better, she knew it to be mere ritual.
Danny could only get her to eat some breakfast after threatening to take the next train back to London. By that time, she knew she needed him more than ever. If he hadn’t been there it was doubtful she’d have been able to go on. She struggled to force down a few bites of buttered toast, for his sake, her mouth and throat so dry she found them almost too painful to swallow.
Over breakfast he told her something he’d managed to discover from the hotel barman the previous evening. Purely by coincidence, he’d worked in the printshop of The Evening Post, the local paper for a short time, having been made redundant when it folded in 1978. Before she had a chance to be disappointed, Danny went on to explain their records had been donated to the town’s history society, which was part of the library. Just as he’d always thought, it’d be one of the best places for them to start.
Gail was thankful he didn’t keep asking whether she still wanted to go through with it. If he had’ve done, she was no longer sure she did. She might even have broken down and begged him to take her back to London. Whatever little strength she had in reserve, would be needed for later on.
Once they found out it was a few minutes away at reception, they walked to the library in silence, he sensing she didn’t want to talk. For her part, she had never felt so strange in her life before. She experienced an eerie sensation she wasn’t present at all, but merely an apparition floating along the pavement at his side. A figment of someone else’s imagination, she was only distantly aware of the bustle of traffic and people passing them by. In that moment, she knew how close she was to breaking down completely; barely tottering on the brink of madness.
A series of loosely-connected visions flashed through her mind, and she realised she should’ve known about the ‘Post’ closing down. Her father took it every day. Funny, how the most mundane of thoughts struck in times of extremes. She remembered seeing the newspaper around her parents’ house all the time when she was younger, but couldn’t recall ever reading it. Yet another reminder of how much she had lost touch with her past. Yet why did these little things seem so important now? Like little anchors to reality, perhaps, they helped her cling on to sanity.
As the morning progressed her state became even more dreamlike. She was only dimly aware of entering the library building, most of what followed assuming an existence of its own, quite separate from hers. Danny asking questions at the desk, the two of them being led down a flight of stone steps to the basement below, along a dark, narrow corridor, and into a large room lined with tall, metal cabinets. A procession of greys, browns and greens intermingled with the smells of books, floor polish and boiled cabbage. The meagre spectrum of old-fashioned bureaucratic blandness evoked such powerful memories of school dinners within her that she began to feel sick again.
And in the middle of it she could feel her heart pounding against her rib cage; pumping blood through the arteries leading to her head and ears, seemingly so loud, she became afraid that others might hear it. Above it all, and its primary cause, the all too clear knowledge that the facts surrounding Gillian’s death lay sleeping somewhere close by; in a filing cabinet; in that very room, awaiting their imminent exhumation.
In spite of herself, she couldn’t help feeling she was doing something wrong by being there. But truth could never be wrong by definition, only her perception of it. Truth had to be disinterested by its very nature. Anything else was plainly lies. And lies were what she was trying so desperately to rid her life of.
They were shown to a large old table covered in imitation, green leather whilst the librarian went off to search the files. Danny took her hand in his and squeezed it tightly. She managed a weak smile, as the librarian swam back into view, bearing a large grey folder.
“Here we are,” she heard him say, as he slapped it down onto the table, laying a protective hand across it. It became obvious he wasn’t going to relinquish stewardship so easily. Not without a preliminary interrogation, at the very least. “These should cover the couple of weeks you’re interested in.” He turned the cover.”Not an awful lot seems to have happened in 1961. Nothing really exciting, at least. Dag Hammerskjold died in a plane accident, he was head of the UN. And the Russians started on the Berlin Wall. Cliff Richard was top of the pop charts most of the time. He released ‘The Young Ones’ that year. And Penguin released D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ That was a bit more exciting. There was big a big court case about it the previous year. Sex was frowned on in those days. The Profumo Affair and all that. He was the Secretary of State for War who went to all those sex parties with Christine Keeler in 1961. Not that it was in the papers then. That was in 1963.” He was talking to Danny, but kept throwing anxious glances across at Gail. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get some more? The Beatles started to get really famous in 1963 too. I had a quick browse whilst I was looking. 1961 was a bit 1950s, to tell the truth.”
“No, no, we’re looking for ordinary things with more of a local flavour.”
“Oh, I see,” the librarian said with a sudden loss of interest. He lifted his hand from the folder. “You’re teachers, then?”
Danny could not quite make the connection.
“No. Well, yes,” he said, “in a way we are. It’s for evening classes.” He was saying the first thing that came into his head to protect Gail from idle curiosity.
“Oh, those sort of teachers. I thought I hadn’t seen you in here before. You get to know most of the normal teachers round here in this job. Well, I suppose I better leave you to it.” He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. “Just let me know when you’re finished, or if you need anything else, and I’ll come back down. We don’t seem to get much interest in the sixties anymore. I don’t know why, they seem to fascinate everybody on the telly. And Margaret Thatcher. She blames everything on the sixties.” Gail had begun to move about in her chair restlessly. “To hear her go on about them you’d think nothing bad had happened over the last twenty years that didn’t have something to do with the sixties. Her and the rest of that mob. Sorry, I didn’t think, you’re not Tories, are you? You don’t look like Tories.”
Danny seized the heaven sent opportunity to get rid of him.
“As a matter of fact we are,” he said. “That’s what this is all about, in a way. We’re doing a series of lectures at the Conservative club on the effects of the sixties on local government and how things got worse right after 1961. But first we want to tell everyone how good things used to be. You should come. You might learn something.” The librarian’s face went red.
“Yes, yes,” he blustered, “er, I’d like that. You must excuse me, I’ve got other things to do.” With that he made a swift exit.
Gail could not help herself from bursting out with laughter as soon as he left. And once she had started, she found it difficult to stop. The release was palpable. A swift torrent of emotion that left her feeling drained, but infinitely more able to face the task in hand.
“Let’s get it over with.” she said in one loud, breathy sight, pulling the grey folder across the table towards them. “I don’t feel quite so bad about it, now it’s here in front of me.” Yet she didn’t seem over-anxious to open it. They both sat staring at it for a moment. Danny thought it best to say nothing. If she decided to change her mind now, it would be up to her. He didn’t want to be responsible for affecting her decision one way or the other at this late stage. She turned the cover.
That first issue was the Monday of the week in which Gillian had died. The lead story was about a motor bike gang that had gone on the rampage in a local pub over the weekend. Gillian would still have been alive then. Gravely ill, perhaps; but alive, certainly. Would she have known she was going to die? No, she would have been too young even to have understood what death meant. Gail quickly flipped to the next front page. There was a photograph of the mayor and his wife presenting somebody or other with a silver shield. Without pausing to read, she turned over the next couple of issues completely, bringing them to Friday.
Friday was the day Gillian had died. For a brief second she was disappointed to see nothing on the front page, before realising that it’d be unlikely for any story to appear on the actual day of the event, especially in a local evening paper. Unless it happened in the morning. Besides, she had yet to find out how Gillian had died. The death could just as easily have been recorded in the ‘Births, Marriages and Deaths’ column.
But there was still the nonsensical sensation there should’ve been some indication of what was about to happen. A warning of some sort. Everything appeared to be so normal. That was what made sudden death so terrible. Nobody ever knows what is about to happen. Except with terminal illness. She was beginning to accept Gillian had died as a result of illness, just as her parents had told her.
All of a sudden she wanted to go. What they were doing didn’t seem right. She felt she was invading her parents’ privacy. Her paranoia was making her behave in a despicable fashion, going behind her parents’ backs just because of a couple of nightmares. Surely, the best thing would be for her to see a doctor and get something to calm her down. Whatever had she been thinking? She must be having some sort of breakdown. What did it matter how Gillian had died? It was enough that she was dead, for heaven’s sakes. Her parents had only done what was right, under the circumstances. How else were they expected to explain things like that to a child of only three? It was best to let sleeping dogs lie. There it was again: that phrase she found so annoying.
In her reverie she didn’t notice Danny turning to Saturday’s edition until it was too late. The big, black headline banner across the top of the page could not be avoided.
‘GIRL AGED THREE FOUND MURDERED BY FATHER’
There was a terrible ambiguity about the headline. In the editor’s haste to get the story onto the front page he obviously hadn’t noticed.
Gail’s body turned ice-cold in an instant, and she began to shake uncontrollably.
Beneath the headline was a fuzzy, full-length photograph of Gillian taken in the garden. Gail could not recall having seen it before. And now she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She covered her mouth and nose with her hands. It was so shocking. So much of what she had suspected revealed as stark fact in one mindless instance. It was too dreadful. In her heart, she now realised she had wanted to discover she’d been wrong. But she had been right all along. Her nightmares vindicated, the possibility she might also be right about everything else, filled her with an overwhelming blackness.
She began to examine the photograph minutely, trying to absorb every detail of the slightly blurry image. As with so many newspaper pictures of those struck down unexpectedly, Gillian’s tragic destiny seemed to be written on her face. There was something in the unsuspecting innocence of such images that marked them out in retrospect. The shy smile of the bomb victim; the schoolboy lost in an air crash.
Nothing could have prepared her for the shock that followed. The small, grey smudge, which could have just so easily been a shadow, or fault on the negative. This second photograph was proof it was neither of those things. It wasn’t a picture of Gillian at all. It couldn’t be. The photo was of herself. She had no doubt about it. It was a different photo of her standing alone. Different to the one Aunt Peggy had pointed out in the family album to Howard and herself, where she was standing next to Gillian. She was wearing the same dress with the same stain. On the same day, it seemed. She couldn’t remember it because she had never seen it before. It’d been given to the newspaper never to be returned.
She couldn’t tell Danny because she didn’t know what it meant. All the possibilities had yet to filter through. Nothing could alter the fact one twin had been murdered on that day. She was confused. Speculation could be endless and, at the same time, meaningless. Could it have been the wrong photograph given in the heat of the moment? At the time, it wouldn’t have seemed important. A different twin in the same dress even? It wasn’t impossible. Or,more sinister, had she somehow managed to assume the identity of her dead sister in a desperate act of contrition? How would she ever know the answer? One tiny stain on a frock and she was no longer sure exactly who she was. Literally. She felt afraid. And more alone than she had ever known. At once, it seemed the most important thing in her life. And yet it couldn’t really matter at all. Or could it?
Rather than the freedom to grieve she supposed the knowledge would give her, she had ended up with even more questions. No longer, was it good enough, just to know she was alive; she had to know exactly who was alive.
She thought she could hear Danny’s voice asking if she was all right. Who was all right? It was as though he was in a different room. Everything had started to slip into a deep and dark void. She could not think where she was. She was vaguely aware of somebody putting an arm around her. And she saw a face spin before her eyes.
And then there was nothing.
THE WHOLE HOUSE SHOOK as she slammed the bedroom door behind her, emphasising its emptiness. Her hand scrabbled around the wall for the light switch. She was fed up with Howard acting up all the time. Locating it, she turned on the dim bulb, lighting the landing. He no longer had the power to fool her. She started to make her way carefully back down the rickety staircase. Each time her clean coat brushed against the dirty wall, she blamed him. What did he think he was doing dragging her out to a dump like this?
Reaching the bottom step she picked her way through the rubble, the hollow echo of her steel heels on stone tiles, unsteady and wavering. She covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve before passing the room which stank of urine. And then realisation dawned.
Taking her arm from her face, she shouted back up the stairs.
“Howard! I can’t get out. I can’t open the door. It’s locked. You know it’s locked!”
After waiting some time for him to appear, she knew he wasn’t going to. Determined to continue his little game by ignoring her. Pretending he couldn’t hear. She hovered between clambering back up the stairs to his room, and staying put. Damn it! He could bloody well come down to her, and let her out. He would have to, sooner or later, it was just a matter of time. Why should she have to go back up the stairs just to listen to more of his rantings? She wasn’t interested. Danny would be beginning to wonder where she had got to.
Suddenly the landing light went out, plunging her into darkness.
“Howard!” she screamed. “Switch that fucking light back on! Now!” But it was as if she was alone in the house. “Howard! Come down here this minute and open this fucking door!” Still there was no answer. “If you don’t come down this minute, and let me out right now, I’ll scream the whole fucking place down!” He didn’t come, the darkness seeming to swallow her shouts ever more greedily. With a sniff, she aimed a casual kick at the front door. She kicked it again, harder, this time. And then, in her frustration, she fell upon it, pounding at it with her hands and fists, shouting and screaming at Howard to come down and open the door, as loud as she could. But still he didn’t come.
Gradually, as the strain of sustained action tired her into submissiveness, her shouts and screams melted into sobs, before dying away. Pricking her ears, she listened out for any sounds of Howard moving about. Hearing nothing, she fell forward against the door, her head on her arms, and started to cry.
“Howard,” she sobbed into her sleeve, “please let me out, I want to go. Please, Howard, I’m sorry I shouted at you.” But it was just as though there was nobody to hear her, the entire building mocking her in its silence.
Stripped of any further regard for her expensive clothes, and ignoring the prevailing stench of urine that had disgusted her so previously, she slumped her back against the wall and slid slowly down to her feet, into the rubble on the hall floor. Her hands felt swollen, tingling painfully where she had beaten on the door with them. She was drained of energy and understanding. Sitting where she was, she began whimpering softly to herself, hiccupping uncontrollably, from time to time, for air and unrequited attention.
Time passing starting to have little meaning, she turned her notice to beyond the house, and began to listen to the sounds penetrating from outside. The air was laden with the noise of the metropolis at night. Every few minutes she would hear a train rattle across the viaduct at the end of Tobago Street.
In the distance, the plaintive bark of a lone dog called out to an aeroplane moaning its weary way through the clouds, high above the city. The ubiquitous, nocturnal hammerings of a handyman undulated on the night air. From a main road somewhere, the monotonous hum of unceasing traffic drifted lazily over rooftops and into the dilapidated cul-de-sac. But no cars turned into it, no footsteps clattered noisily along its flagstones. No tipsy laughter pierced the stillness of its air. It was hard to imagine anyone else living down there at that time of night.
Despite that, she gained a strange reassurance from the very mundanity of the various sounds. They told her people were still out there somewhere, they were awake, and she was not completely alone, stranded in the night.
Alternatively, the oppressive darkness and silence within the house, stifled her like a thick blanket draped over her head. Coupled, as they were, with the stenches she had become aware of once more. She could almost feel Howard listening for her every movement through the silence. She shivered as the cold night air crept into the old house; between door and jamb; window and frame; rattling and shaking; sighing and whistling; chilling its every corner and crevice; claiming it back as one of its own again. She drew her collar up about her neck.
What on earth could he want to keep her there for? Why was he being so unpredictable? Even for someone to become so alien to her, his actions seemed to have little point. She wondered how long she had lain slumped in the hallway. Though it seemd like an age, she calculated it couldn’t have been much more than around threequarters of an hour. With the ten, or so, minutes she might have spent in his room, it was doubtful she had been in the house for an hour. Nobody would be missing her yet.
She hauled herself to her feet.
And then, bending over, she tried to peer through the door by prising back the letterbox with her fingernails, so she would be able shout out into the street, in the unlikely event somebody might pass by the house. She broke a fingernail before realising it was nailed down. Bollocks.
Straightening her back, she stood up and blew out a long sigh. It was time to pull herself together. Sniffing, she wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She had to clear her mind and think. It’d be her only hope of getting out of the place as soon as possible. She needed a cigarette badly. Then she remembered having left her bag in Howard’s room. Fuck it! If she really wanted one that badly, she’d have to go back upstairs. Bloody car keys too. That left her no choice. Another long sigh, and she resigned herself to going back the way she’d come. Shuffling her way back through the darkness, and running her sore hands over the wall as she went.
As she reached the foot of the stairs she recalled seeing a door at the far end of the hall. She paused. Her cigarette could wait. That door must lead to somewhere else. There must be another way out of the house. A rear entrance, at the back. She listened for any signs of Howard again. Hearing none, she crept as quietly as she could past the staircase and on, until she felt her foot come into contact with a solid surface.
Running her fingertips down it she felt the wooden panels of a door. Locating its handle, she took it in the palm of her hand and turned, holding her breath all the while. The door gave. It was not locked. Thank God for that. She pushed the door agonisingly slowly, for fear of any noise it might make.
A low, unsympathetic groan sounded from its unused hinges. Again, she paused to listen for Howard. She thought she detected his footsteps padding faintly about his room. She waited until she could hear them no more. It was hardly possible for him to have heard her from up there. She pushed the door out further, screwing up her face and gritting her teeth, hoping he would not hear.
Finally, the door opened and she peered into the darkness. She could see absolutely nothing. Not even the slightest crack of light to give an indication of what lay beyond.
Sliding her right foot tentatively forward until it reached the edge of a step, she put it down carefully. Suddenly, her heart leapt into her throat as she felt her left knee buckle beneath her, and her body dropped like a sackful of potatoes. There was nothing there! Grabbing wildly for the door, she just managed to stop herself from tumbling completely into the void. A frisson of shock rang through her entire body as though she had touched a live wire.
When she regained her balance she realised she was shaking uncontrollably. It had all happened so swiftly. She had hardly fallen at all. It was the unexpectedness of finding nothing, more than anything else. At least, she had had the presence of mind not to cry out. Or had it just happened too quickly? For the moment, she clung on to the door as though her life depended on it. Her cheek pressed hard against it. Her blood drumming in her ears so loud, she felt deafened by it. Her left ankle throbbed painfully where she must have twisted it in the fall.
She stood where she was a while longer, gathering herself together, wondering whether she ought to attempt going on. The shock of the unexpected had thrown her completely. Without sight, she was made aware of how much she depended on it. Logic had told her there would be a floor, or staircase. There seemed to be neither. And yet, there had to be something in the darkness. A cellar; or a room, perhaps. But that was just an assumption. She could not know for certain without going on. The thought was enough to make the decision for her.
Whatever lay below, it could not be so far down she would not be able to drop onto it. There was always the chance she might not be able to get back up, but there was a risk she would have to take. There might not even be a rear door. Especially if it turned out to be a cellar. She could get herself trapped. There might even be rats. She quickly put that thought from her mind. After all, what was the alternative? To go back upstairs to Howard? Never! If anything happened to her – if she fell and injured herself – it would be his fault.
With renewed determination, she sat herself down on the step. And straightaway, her feet came into contact with something solid. How stupid of her. The floor had been there all the time. Just a few inches lower than she had expected. A higher step than usual, that was all.
Pulling herself to her feet again, she stood on the hard floor. She could feel dust and grit scrape beneath her feet. Far from convinced there would not be more surprises in store, she kept a firm hold on the door, and leaned forward into the darkness; waving an outstretched arm in front of her; trying to make sure there were no obstacles in her path.
Having reasonably assured herself, she let go, and regretted it almost immediately. It was so dark. Just as though she had shoved off in a boat across a black lake at the dead of a moonless night. She felt marooned. The blackness seeming to penetrate her eyes, until she might as well have been blind. Shutting her eyes, and then opening them again, making no difference, as far as she could tell. But she had to go on.
Sliding one foot forward and then the other, in the manner of a tightrope walker, she made her way gradually across the floor, her progress extremely slow. She was afraid of tripping up on the rubble. There was nothing to give her a sense of direction, and she had no idea if she was walking in a straight line or not. Her shins and ankles kept knocking against bricks and timbers, which she had to feel her way over with her feet, or work her way slowly round. Stray filaments of spider web swept her face and mouth, glueing themselves to her. These she would try frantically to brush, or blow away, slapping at her face and spitting dryly. Even when she did succeed it was to be left with the unbearable sensation they were still clinging to her.
Suddenly, her attention was seized by a scratching nose that seemed to be coming from somewhere to her right. She turned her head instinctively, willing her eyes to see. Oh God, not a rat! Please, not a rat. She didn’t think she could cope with a rat. Careful not to make even the slightest of sounds, and without so much as a breath drawing past her lips, she lowered herself to her knees, and began to scrape around the floor for a piece of wood. No sooner did she want one, than there was none to be found within reach. All she could feel was the dust and bits of grit gathering beneath her nails. Eventually, by stretching out behind her, her fingertips alighted on a sizeable piece of timber, large and heavy enough to use as a club. She eased it towards herself by the ends of her fingers until it was close enough to clamp her hands to.
Rising back to her feet, she stood and swirled it about her head in the manner of a medieval knight wielding a broadsword. Though of little practical purpose it made her feel, at once, angry and brave. Carried away on this wave of valour, she allowed herself to be swivelled round by the weight of her weapon. Too late, she realised the movement had completely disorientated her.
Now, she really did not have the slightest notion of which way she was facing. She started to panic, thrusting the wood into the empty void in a frenzy, jabbing at it, as though the very air held a threat.
But she soon tired of that. Things were going from bad to worse. It was no good, she just had to pull herself together. Her ears were playing tricks on her. There was nothing to be afraid of, it was all in her mind. She repeated the words over and over to herself: “There is nothing to be afraid of, there is nothing to be afraid of.” Rooted to the spot she slowed her breathing, measuring each intake until she’d calmed herself. She could always shout out to Howard. No, that would be giving in too easily. If she stood where she was, for long enough, she might eventually be able to work out which direction she was facing.
And then she thought she saw a faint glimmer of grey in front of her. Or was it just her imagination, playing tricks on her again? She strained her eyes towards it. It was definitely there. As she had not noticed it before, she could only assume it most likely to have been behind her, in the direction from which she had come. She could not be sure, nevertheless, she turned about face and started to shuffle on again.
The room seemed to be going on forever when she stubbed her toe on something painfully solid. She swore, and realised she had reached a wall at the same time. Running her hands over the wall, they registered a chill condensation. If only she had thought to work her way round the perimeter of the room in the first place. Why could she never stop to think things through before going ahead with them?
Her fingertips searched for a door or window. To her immense joy, they tripped upon an architrave almost immediately. Only to have her hopes dashed when her tough told her the doorway had been bricked up. Little wonder no light managed to get in, the whole of the ground floor, and probably the basement, was either boarded, or bricked up. There was no way in or out of the house save for the front door. And that was locked, Howard possessing the only keys. She was trapped.
He must have planned to keep her there from the outset. Even as he phoned her that morning it would have been on his mind. But why? The question would not go away. She could only suppose it was in order to frighten her; to exercise some sort of control over her.
In a lot of ways, that was what relationships were about. Power. The power to control another being. He had been able to control her for many of the years of their relationship. And, in some ways, power had been the glue that had held them together for so long. Once both of them realised he no longer had that power, the relationship was over. Strange, that she’d never thought of it like that before, but that was what it’d been like.
Up until the moment she’d entered the house at Tobago Street, his waning power had been all but extinguished in her mind. His realisation at what he’d lost, had made him seek not only psychological but physical power. What better way than to lure her to the old, dilapidated house where she’d be unfamiliar with her surroundings? It was so obvious. It was his last desperate attempt at keeping her.
And, knowing that, allowed her her own piece of power. But she would not give in to him. To give in at this point would allow him the power over her he needed in relationships. She would be back at his beck and call once more.
Gail sank to the floor. Too worn out to make her way back across the room, her mind filled with the most morbid of thoughts. She wrapped her coat tightly about her. She was not going to allow him to win. After what he’d done, he didn’t deserve to.
THE RUSH TO HER HEAD was a terrible, electric surge, transforming her state of mind instantly, as had she smoked crack. It left her no time to decide whether she should cry or not, though she felt that that was exactly what she should be doing.
The message at hotel reception had been brief and to the point. It couldn’t have been delivered in any other way than the impersonal manner it was. Yet there had been an unintentional, giveaway, expression of sorrow in the face of the Parisienne hotel receptionist, as she handed Gail the envelope. Gail opened it hurriedly. It simply read her father had been rushed to hospital, and she should phone home as soon as possible. Typical of her mother. Gail felt anger towards her. But she wasn’t there to be angry at. The feeling was quickly supplanted by anger towards the receptionist. How dare she feel sorrow? She didn’t know him. She was a stranger; her unsolicited sympathy an unwanted intrusion. Any empathy she tried to convey was purely a matter of form, part of the job. She could almost hear her mother telling her It wouldn’t be fitting to break down into tears in front of a mere hotel employee, whatever the reason. So she thanked her in emotionless French, almost dismissively, and turned away before anyone at the desk could see her eyes fill with tears. How cold the Frenchwoman would see her as being.
She’d often wondered how she would take the news when it came. For soon come it surely would. She’d realised that ever since her last visit. Now it was here, to her surprise, apart from the few tears she managed to brush away, within seconds she’d regained her composure completley and seemed hardly to feel anything. It wasn’t how she expected, at all. Perhaps it was what they called delayed reaction. At least, he wasn’t dead. Instantly, she hated herself for even thinking the word. Yet she must go and see him. If anything happened … well, she no longer wanted to think of the likelihood.
She had come to Paris at the invitation of Danny. A major French gallery was holding an exhibition of his work. A couple of days before the opening he had sent her a plane ticket. More than anyone else, he wanted her to be with him.
Almost as soon as she had finished checking into the hotel she had gone to see him at the gallery. It was a mistake, he was right in the middle of hanging the pictures. Her presence was not needed. She kept feeling she was getting in the way, so she walked back to the hotel to shower and get some rest.
When the hotel receptionist first told her there was an urgent message, she thought it might be Danny phoning to apologise, thinking she had walked off in a huff. It was not. To her immense shock, as she sat on the hotel bed. she couldn’t help herself from thinking: ‘Why now of all times?’
She tried phoning her parents’ home. There was no reply. It was after that the tears came. But even then, there was a tiny part of her that wondered if she was crying out of self-pity, or because she felt she had to. It was this she found so difficult to come to terms with about herself. Had she grown so hardened that all her reactions were completely self-centred? It had to be delayed shock. Whatever the answer, this was no time to be thinking of herself, her mother would need her.
She phoned Air France and managed to book a seat on a flight to Heathrow late that evening. So she would not be able to attend the opening after all. When she phoned the gallery to let Danny know, he couldn’t be found. She left a message for him. Where was everybody when she needed them?
She looked for her suitcase to pack, and quickly realised she had not even unpacked. Strangely enough, that pleased her. It showed the news had affected her more than she had supposed. But the feeling there should be more, still remained. It was not enough; he was her father; he might be dying. For God’s sake! Cry, Gail, cry!
A long delay due to fog, meant her flight didn’t land at Heathrow until three in the morning. Back at her flat, she decided it would be pointless to drive to Wiltshire before dawn, as her mother would most likely be sleeping. She mustn’t panic. It’d be best to try and get a few hours sleep herself.
In the event, sleep proved impossible. She just lay in her bed, staring up at the darkened ceiling in a quandry. Though she worried about her father all the time, she was afraid of waking her mother unneceassarily. On the other hand, was she behaving callously by not trying to phone again? Finally, she got up and showered, as a pale grey dawn broke over the London skyline, before setting out on the drive to Wiltshire.
Her mother was standing by the kitchen door, waiting, having heard the sound of the car driving up the lane. She appeared more tired and vulnerable than Gail could ever remember, her eyes sunk deep into dark rings. The women fell into a silent, tearful embrace. All other emotions dissipating into tears of compassion at the sight of one another.
Over a cup of tea Mrs Southerne told Gail there had been a mild heart attack. She had phoned for an ambulance at once. The main thing was, he was all right, and would soon recover fully. The hospital doctor had not thought it necessary to keep him in for more than a couple of nights. It was then Gail realised the news had been kept from her, her father having fallen ill before she had even flown to Paris. Once again, her mother had not seen fit to tell her something important. But now was not the time to argue.
Gail went up to see her father alone. Mounting each step with increasing trepidation, as she became more fearful of what she might find in her parents’ bedroom.
The curtains still tightly drawn, the room was unnaturally dark for that time of morning. Her nostrils filled with the strangely sweet, close scent of age and physical sickness. Through the dimness she could make out her father propped up in his bed by a mountain of pillows. Seemingly more substantial than he, they swamped his frailty with their plump whiteness like a large, over-attentive nurse fussing over a favourite patient.
She tiptoed softly across the oak floorboards, painfully aware of her footsteps against the slow, relentless tick-tocking of the longcase clock out on the landing. Each swing of the pendulum bringing them closer to some, as yet unknown, moment in the future, when he would be with her no longer. She could hear the growing feebleness of his breaths in the race she imagined him to be losing to the swing of the pendulum.
He lay asleep. For the second time in less than a month, she found herself examining her father in repose. His face grown almost reptilian in appearance, she noticed his eyes were barely concealed by eyelids that seemed to have become virtually transparent. The yellowy eyeballs made more protuberant by the gauntness of his face. It was almost as though the lids themselves had shrunk, becoming too small to cover his eyes completely. From time to time, they fluttered pathetically like tiny shutters in a storm, lending unnatural life to the faded green irises they failed so miserably to shade.
His sunken cheeks gave the impression of a man permanently sucking at straws. And his head hung from his scrawny neck like a partially deflated balloon; the toothless, puckered mouth, a knot that had been tied. A small trail of clear liquid ran from it and onto his chin.
Close to, short, gently groaning noises emanated from deep inside the empty caverns within him, complaining with all the ceaseless regularity of a rusty bicycle at the mere effort of having to breathe.
She saw the dark eyelids quiver more perceptibly, and he cleared his throat. Even though there was little overall change in his appearance, something about him told her he was awake. She sat herself on the chair at his bedside, neither of them speaking.
Eventually, to show she was by him, she lay a hand on the one he had resting on the counterpane. Wasted away to mere skin and bone, the blue-grey veins showing through starkly, it bore scant resemblance to the large, strong and sinewy hands she remembered so well from childhood.
“Gillian,” she heard his voice rasp thinly. And it was as if he was already receding from her. “Is it really you?” the thin, purple lips scarcely moving. Gail gripped his hand tighter, and felt it stir beneath her own; the once-powerful fingers attempting to grasp her weakly. “I thought you’d come back some day,” he wheezed. The words costing him as dear, as had he shouted them, they came out weak and muffled, like someone calling from a distant and empty room.
“It’s me, Daddy,” Gail whispered softly, her eyes blurring with tears.
“I missed you,” her father soughed, his short sentences clipped further by painful gasps for air, “missed you awfully, old girl… wanted to come… come… and join you… couldn’t leave the others… couldn’t leave… leave them behind…”
The tears began to stream Gail’s cheeks.
“Should have … should have taken ‘em with me… thought about it… God knows… thought about it enough times… Even got myself… shotgun,” he smiled weakly. “Me … a shotgun. Silly old fool that I am.” Suddenly, his eyes opened wide, and he beamed. Almost as though he could see somebody moving towards them from the far side of the room. But then he looked saddened again. “But Gail… Gail… she was so young… so young.” He moved his other hand to place it on top of the one Gail had resting on his. “You know all about that… never… never could kill a thing… not after… not after… you know what I mean…”
For a moment, she thought he had dropped back off to sleep.
“She was lonely…” He started up again. “when you left…Caught her talking to you… couple of times. She was… thought you… still there… who knows… maybe… you were…” He looked up at her. “Had to cry…” A single tear fell from his eye, and rolled slowly down his face. “Couldn’t help it… always was a weak sort of chap.”
The tear ran on into the clear trail of liquid at his mouth, and then dribbled into the short, white stubble masking his chin. Trickling and weaving its way awkwardly to his jawbone, it stopped short of dripping onto his pyjamas. His difficult breaths were becoming even more audible.
“Sh, Daddy,” Gail implored him, “don’t talk, please don’t talk. Save it for later.” But he went on as if he could not hear her.
“Don’t know what… done… without mother… lot to put up… with…” He smiled again. “Always knew… you turn up one day… Gillian… my Gillian… No, no,” His breaths became snatched and uneven, “Don’t go… don’t go… I’m coming… coming…” Suddenly, he sat bolt upright and reached out an arm. “Hullo, electric’s gone again… any candles, Win?”
He fell back onto the pillows, and his head nodded forward. His mouth fell wide open. In that second Gail knew he had left his body forever.
Her own body convulsed into tiny spasms as realisation set in. A scream tried desperately to find a way out. But there seemed no means of escape. A deep, unearthly silence gripped her instead, pressing in on her. And there was nothing within that silence save for the tick-tocking of the longcase clock out on the landing. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick. She was trembling uncontrollably as her emotions struggled to free themselves. Tick-tock, tick-tock; in the same way he had struggled to hold on to life. Tock-tick, tock. Her hand still on his; tick-tock, tick-tock. Gail slumped forward onto the bed, her face drained.
“Mummy!” she finally erupted. But the voice that left her was barely a whisper. A chill draught penetrated the room. “He’s dead!” she cried. But still her words would hardly make a sound, seemingly swallowed back into herself. The tears flowed freely from her eyes onto his inert hand, their very testimony to life already at odds with the body he had departed.
He had bought her chocolate to cheer her when she had been sad. He had sheltered her in his strong arms when she had been alone and afraid. He had made her smile even through his own pain. He had come to drive away her nightmares whenever she cried out in her sleep. He had offered her clumsy, but welcome words of comfort whenever she had confided her childish problems in him. Rarely wanting worldly goods for himself, he had worked long hours to send her to the school her mother thought it so important she attend. He had been her father.
And now she had been deprived of any chance to show her gratitude, or say goodbye properly. It was cruel. Cruel, unforgiving fate had taken him from her. To leave her stranded for the rest of her days without him.
At least she had been with him for those last moments, even though he had not recognised her. His fading mind preferring to substitute the presence of his other, dead daughter.
But had he?
From out on the landing came the unremitting tick-tocking of the longcase clock.
AT THE SOUND of footsteps coming down the hall, Gail wiped her nose on the back of her hand and looked up. Through the gloom she could see the flicker of approaching candlelight projecting the grossly enlarged shadow of Howard wavering on the wall behind him.
With the click of a switch she was blinded by light flooding the room. She hadn’t thought there might be a working bulb.
“You should’ve turned on the light,” Howard said.
Her eyes becoming accustomed to the glare she saw the room was much smaller, and far less threatening than it’d seemed in the dark. There were signs it’d been a kitchen at some point in its recent past. Runnels of burnt grease round a rectangular patch of yellowing cream paintwork indicating where a cooker had once been. The ragged ends of lead pipes were all that remained to show a kitchen sink had been ripped out from beneath a bricked-up window. The ashes of a sizeable bonfire stood in the middle of the floor with empty cans and spirit bottles strewn around it. Squatters had obviously camped out there once. Alcoholic down and outs by the look of things. It might go towards explaining all the locks and bolts; Howard could be trying to prevent them from returning.
He stood on the stone step in the doorway, staring down at her, she looking back up at him. The raw contempt in her eyes made plain for him to see.
“Are you going to let me out now?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. But something in the way he stood told her he was only waiting to escort her back up to the bedroom. After some moments, she got to her feet and walked towards him with an air of reluctant resignation. Turning off the light, he led her back down the corridor to the stairs. Whatever his plans, it was obvious he had no intention of letting her out for the moment.
Back in the room, she dumped herself down onto the mattress, observing his every move.
“Why are you keeping me here?” she asked in a low, controlled voice.
“Keeping?” The concept seemed to puzzle him, “I’m not keeping you,” he said. “You came to visit me.”
“Words, Howard, just words. You know what I mean. You’re just playing with words. All I want to know, is why you’re imprisoning me here. Why you won’t let me out.”
“I’m not imprisoning you.”
“Howard, the front door’s locked and padlocked. All the downstairs windows are boarded or bricked up, so how am I supposed to get out?”
“They’re that way to stop people getting in. Not to stop people getting out. That’s just an unfortunate consequence.” He was standing over the table playing with wax dripping from the candle.
“And the unfortunate consequence for me is that I can’t get out now I want to.”
“You should have thought about that before you came in.”
“You begged me to come!” she flared, “You pretended you had something important to tell me, and I believed you. How could I possibly have known you were going to lock me in once I got here?”
“But you’re not locked in, the way you say it. I have to keep them out. You make it sound like you didn’t come here of your own free will. Like it was pre-ordained in some way. Or somebody out there forced you to come. You’re with me. I’m here to protect you. You’re free to go wherever you want. I didn’t prevent you from going downstairs when you wanted to, did I?”
“I wanted to leave the house, Howard.”
“We can leave when we’re ready. I’ve got the keys. I’ll open the front door and we’ll both walk out of it together. As soon as they’ve gone.” He blew out the candle and pointed to the window. “If anyone’s keeping you here it’s them. They’re to blame. Neither of us can leave the house until they withdraw. It’d be far too dangerous.”
“Who are they?” she challenged, “There’s nobody out there, Howard. It’s all in your head.”
“Surely you don’t except them to show themselves just because you ask?” he laughed. “To prove to you they exist. Why on earth would they want to do that? I know they’re there and that’s enough. They’re far cleverer than you could ever believe. They’ve got all the time in the world. They’ve been doing this sort of thing for years.”
“Maybe, you’re right,” she said. And found herself trying to remember whether she had noticed anybody on her way in.
There had been the shifting net curtain, she was sure she’d seen. And then the feeling she was being watched. But she’d not actually seen anybody. It could just as easily have been her imagination. No, she mustn’t go down the path he was trying to lead her. That was exactly what he wanted her to do. He’d behaved the same irrational way at the squat in Golborne Road, trying to make her believe he was being spied on. Who could want to spy on him? What possible reason would they have?
“There’s nobody out there,” she said. “Not unless you mean the people who live in one of the houses across the road.”
“Ah, so you did see somebody.”
“I didn’t see anybody.”
“Then how could you possible know people live in one of the houses opposite?”
“I don’t know anyone lives in any one of them, for a fact. But at least one of the houses looks lived in. It has curtains. I thought I saw one move. But it could just have easi;y been a draught. Or a trick of the light. Or even my imagination. It’s so spooky round here. This is getting us nowhere, Howard. All you’re doing is trying to mix me up.”
“You said you saw somebody.”
“No, I didn’t!” she shouted. “I said I thought I might’ve seen a curtain move, that’s all. A curtain, Howard, not a person. But it doesn’t matter what it was. It’s a house. People live in houses, sometimes they look out of their windows, I don’t know, you live here. You must know if anyone lives there. If someone moved a curtain, it must’ve been the people who live across the road.”
“You know who they are, don’t you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I don’t. How could I? I’ve never been here in my life before.”
“Well, how did you know it was them, then?”
“Who, Howard? I don’t know what we’re talking about anymore.”
“You just told me you knew it might’ve been the people who live across the road. You couldn’t have known it might’ve been them, unless you knew there were people living there before you came.”
“You’re twisting my words, Howard. I didn’t say that. I’ve already told you I didn’t know. I don’t know. Whoever they are, if they exist, I don’t know them. I don’t even know if anybody lives there. I don’t. Honest, I don’t.” His constant interrogation was unnerving her. She no longer knew what to believe.
“Then I’ll ask you again. How could you posssibly have known there were people living across the road if you’ve never seen them before?” He kept coming back to the same question. It didn’t make any kind of sense she could understand. She din’t even know what he wanted her to say. She’d even started to become confused about what she had seen, if she had seen anything at all.
“I haven’t seen anybody. I don’t know. I don’t know. Stop confusing me, Howard. If there was anybody, who else could it be? I don’t know, I don’t know anything, anymore!”
“That’s my point exactly. Don’t lie to me, Gail. I always know when you’re lying. I can see right into your mind.”
“I’m not lying. We just don’t seem to be talking about the same things, that’s all. You haven’t been taking speed, have you?”
He walked across the room and crouched on the other side of the upturned wooden box that served as a coffee table. She tried to look into his eyes, but he purposely averted her gaze, looking towards the window instead.
“You told me you weren’t seeing Danny tonight,” he said slowly. “That’s a lie isn’t it?” He turned swiftly to face her, his eyes suddenly boring into hers, narrowing into slits, catching her unawares. She couldn’t bear the examination. With a flick of her eyelids, she looked down at the floor, confirming her guilt. How could he possibly have known she was meeting Danny? Who could have told him? Unless, unless, unless he really was able to see into her mind.
“It’s not true!” she cried. But what wasn’t true? That she hadn’t arranged to see Danny? She had. Only she hadn’t been able to confirm it. Or that Howard could not see into her mind? Perhaps he could. “Even if I was going to see him, I don’t see how that has anything to do with me being here, or the people across the road. Stop it, Howard! Stop it! You’re beginning to make me think I’m going mad. I don’t understand any of this anymore. I keep on telling you, I don’t know the people across the road, I don’t know them. Can’t you understand that? I don’t know them! I don’t know them! I don’t know them!” she shouted.
Howard’s face broke into a smile, and his features relaxed.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” he breathed, “So you don’t know them. No need to keep repeating yourself, I heard you the first time. What’s all the fuss about?”
It was unbelievable. Or was it? Why was she getting so upset? Was it because he had caught her out? He had been right about her going to see Danny.
Now he seemed perfectly calm. Normal even. She’d done all the shouting. She was unable to think properly anymore. Why was she causing so much fuss over a few people living across the road she didn’t even know? But hadn’t he suggested they might be watching the house? She was no longer sure. It was all too confusing. She tried to run their conversationback through her mind, to the point where things had started to drift. She’d said something about being locked in, and he’d told her she wasn’t locked in; that they were both locked in together. He had the keys, and they could leave whenever they wanted. But only when whoever it was outside left.
Absolute madenss. He had the keys all right. Only he didn’t want to leave. Neither did he did want her to leave. She wanted to go. She’d demanded to go. It was him who was stopping her. That’s what it’d been about all the time. He had some reason for keeping her there. And now was trying to take over her mind. Despite the continuing nonsense, he was holding her hostage. She’d said so from the beginning, asking him why he was keeping her there. That was when he began all the nonsense.
Best not to say anymore. She couldn’t bear to go through it all over again. As long as she kept things straight in her own mind everything would be all right.
All the time she was thinking he chattered away to her. Or perhaps it wasn’t her he was chatering away to at all. Perhaps he would’ve been saying exactly the same had she not been there.
“You see, it’s all interwoven,” he said, “each little thing leads neatly onto the next. Once you can see it, everything fits into place, like one huge, universal jigsaw, all interlocking, each piece virtually meaningless without the next. You have to be able to stand an awful long way back in order to see the whole picture. An awful long way.
“It’s like travelling through time. Each second you travel has to be faster than the second that’s just gone. Otherwise you’d just be standing still in time. Standing still in time,” he pondered. “In time. In time to what though? I’m sure I’ve thought of that somewhere before. Perhaps I’ve been here before. Right here, here in this very moment of time. And it keeps on coming around again, like a gigantic carousel.”
If he had not been talking to her before, he was talking to her now. “That’s probably what it is, you know. At first I thought it was all just a huge coincidence, but now it’s beginning to make sense. It’s a roundabout, a roundabout way of saying things. The sun goes round …no, no. First the earth goes round on its own axis. Then the moon goes round the earth. On;y then the earth goes round the sun. That’s right, round and round and round. They’re all round anyway. Excellent. All round. Spherical. Just like everything all around us,” he laughed. “See how it all fits together? One thing slotting into the next, just like a giant jigsaw. And then it all comes round again. Just like it did then.”
“Let me go, Howard,” Gail said. “Please let me go. It’s getting late.”
“And, in a way, if it is a jigsaw, I suppose we ought to be looking for the next piece. Now, say there was a bit of sky missing. No, not a bit of sky because we’re inside a house. It’d have to be a bit of ceiling. That’s white. They’re the difficult bits, because they all look the same, and you have to go by their shapes. Sometimes they look the same as well, but they don’t quite fit. You mustn’t force them.” He paused. “Did you talk to them?”
She was starting to see a strange sort of logic to his ramblings. But it was the logic of intoxication. The logic of drink or drugs. Or even insanity. She sensed an imperative desire to appear profound, a deep need to impress. Although his question was as irrelevant as her answer would be, he really did expect an answer.
“I asked you if you talked to them.”
However crazy things were becoming, she had to say something.
“What? Talk to who?”
“Whom. The people outside, your friends.”
“Oh, please let’s not start all that again. I’ve already told you I didn’t see anybody outside, and I don’t know anybody out there either. So let’s drop it, eh?”
“How did you see the signal then?”
“Signal? What signal? Who said anything about a signal?”
“The curtain. You must think I’m stupid or something. You’ve already told me about the curtain. Anyhow, I watched you arriving from the window, when I heard your car. That’s when I knew you were in on it. You made the mistake of looking back over your shoulder. But don’t worry, Gail, you’re with me now. They can’t get at you here, so you don’t have to do what they tell you anymore. You don’t have to pretend. Everything’s going to be all right from now on.”
“I believe you, Howard. Just let me out of here, that’s all.”
“And let you go back to them?”
“I might be able to talk to them,” she suggested, in the same instant knowing she was almost certainly making a mistake. Howard stared into space, as though considering her proposal. On the other hand perhaps it was the right way to go. “Yes, that’s it,” she continued, “I could go and talk to them. Persuade them that you’d managed to escape through a hole or something. And when they’ve gone, I could come back, and we could get away together. Let me go, Howard. Please. I promise I’ll come back.”
“And what if they take you hostage?” he asked. “Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
“What would they do that for? They’re ordinary people like you and me. I know they are.”
“There you go again, saying you know them. You keep slipping up, Gail. Just when I was starting to believe you were on my side.”
“I don’t know them. Honest, I don’t. How many times do I have to tell you before you believe me? I am on your side. I want to help you. I’ve never met them in my life before. I don’t even know what they look like.”
“You just told me you knew they were ordinary, didn’t you?”
“But everybody’s ordinary, that doesn’t mean I know them.”
“Precisely!” Howard shouted triumphantly, “Everybody’s ordinary. You said it. And that’s why it works the way it does. Because everybody in it is ordinary. That’s why we don’t notice them. Can’t you see that? They get the milkmen, the postmen, the shopkeepers. You name it. They get them to watch us at the same time they’re doing their jobs. Even you, Gail, without you knowing it. But I can see into it all. I see everything as it happens. We have to break the circle, Gail. That’s what it’s all about. We have to break the circle in order to join it again. You can’t join a circle that isn’t broken. If we don’t break it, nobody will. Once the circle is broken there will be renewal, a second coming. That’s what the Bible says, that there’ll be a second coming. He’s coming again, Gail, and we’re going to be here to welcome him.”
He had moved around the wooden box to sit by her side on the mattress.
“Stop it, Howard! Stop it!” she yelled, covering her ears with her hands. “I can’t listen to any of this rubbish anymore. It’s making my head spin. All I know is, I want to get out of here, and go home. Go home and go to bed. You’re frightening me, Howard, and I don’t like it. I’ve told you loads of times that I don’t know anybody across the road, and I don’t know anything about anybody watching you, or this house. I don’t want to know. I don’t care about any circle, or who’s coming. I’m frightened and I want to go home, can’t you understand that?”
“Gail, Gail,” he entreated, taking both her hands in his. “Of course I can. I don’t want to frighten you. I had to know, that’s all. Surely, you of all people, should know that. It would have been so easy for them to have set me up by sending you in here. I had to find out. Even if it meant upsetting you. You can understand that can’t you? I’d never want to hurt you.”
Gail looked at him, mystified. He appeared so normal now, she seemed to be making fuss over nothing. Was she going mad? Her head falling against his shoulder, she broke down into tears.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Howard,” she sobbed. “I think I must be going crazy. It’s this house, it frightens me. I don’t like it. There’s nobody out there really, is there? Tell me there isn’t.” She was looking up at him, her eyes filled with pleading.
Letting her hands slip from his, Howard rose to his feet. He walked across to the window, and peered through a crack in the wooden shutters, out into the dark street below.
“HE ALWAYS WANTED to be buried next to Gillian.” The gentle sound of her sister’s softly spoken words was enough to break Winifred Southerne’s trance-like state, as Peggy took her gently by the elbow, and led her from the graveside.
Gail stood for a few moments more; her watery eyes, red and swollen; fresh, tears still damp on her cheeks. She would never see her father again, and wanted to stay by the mound of fresh earth, beneath which he lay, just that while longer.
The weak, autumn sun playing silver lights in her hair, a stray breeze whisked several, silken threads across her face, catching them between her lips. She raised a hand to pull them away, tossing her head back, and running her fingers through the long, wheaten strands.
A lone bell tolled misery over the valley, as the few remaining mourners drifted slowly towards the lych gate.
“He was a very good man, your father.” A familiar voice floated across her shoulder. “It’s not always the easiest thing for me to say about anyone, in these circumstances. Though I always feel the need to. Even when it’s not true. That’s the lot of a doctor. But, in your father’s case, it happens to be true.” A tall, dignified-looking man drew abreast of her. His height emphasised by the long, black overcoat he wore, he was holding a bowler hat with both hands, which he kept on twiddling round and round by its brim. “He had a lot to contend with, but you know all about that, of course.” He glanced sidelong at her, his sharp, ice-blue eyes shaded by bushy, grey eyebrows, giving him an undeserved, stern appearance. “Neither of your parents were ever the same after Gillian died. He always thought he had failed you in some way, because of it. You have to forgive them for that, Gail. Nobody ever comes to terms with something like that.”
“But she didn’t just die, did she? She was murdered. Why didn’t they tell me, Doctor?”
Doctor Baxter let the question hang in the air for a moment, whilst he considered the best way to deal with it. No easy answer forthcoming, he shook his head.
“I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that,” he said. “Who knows how these things happen. Perhaps they always planned to tell you, but thought you were too young. And then, before they knew it, time passed without them ever getting round to it. And suddenly, it’s too late. They’ve left it too long. You’re too old for them to know how to put it, or explain why they never told you before. It’s one of the hardest things there is, to know the right time to tell anybody something like that. Who knows the reason? I’m a doctor, and I certainly don’t. It’s too easy to judge people. All I know is that your father was a good man, and he would never have wanted to do anything he thought might hurt you. Maybe that’s the answer, he just didn’t want to hurt you.”
“But I always felt so guilty about her. In our house, it became taboo to even admit she’d lived, so I sort of forgot. The way things were always covered up, and she was never spoken about, made me put her almost completely out of my mind. Like everyone else, I denied her existence. Except, somehow, somewhere deep down inside, guilty conscience made me suspect I had something to do with her death in some way. I just couldn’t face up to it.”
The doctor was visibly shaken by the revelation.
“Oh, no,” he murmured, putting an arm across her shoulders, and drawing her towards him. “Never, never. You poor, poor girl. That’s the last thing your father would’ve wanted you to think. He loved you so much. You were his only reason for going on. Things were never the same between your mother and he after Gillian’s death. You know that don’t you.”
“I always thought as much, but I thought that was something to do with me, as well.”
Doctor Baxtor was shaking his head slowly from side to side.
“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It was nothing to do with you. Your mother blamed herself for it. She felt as though she should’ve been there to prevent it. And, secretly, I think she believed Laurie did as well. Though nothing could have been farther from the truth.
“No, when something like that happens, it’s often hard to show love for anybody again. It’s almost as though the very act of loving is somehow responsible for the death. You see, they were already quite old when you two came along. So it was a bit of a shock for them, and that made them love you both all the more. When Gillian was taken away so suddenly, your mother became afraid of demonstrating her love ever again. She was terrified of showing too much love for you or your father, just in case either one of you also got taken away from her. She wouldn’t have been able to stand the hurt. Her heart had already been broken enough. You mustn’t be too hard on her, Gail. Especially, not now.”
“That’s more or less what Daddy said, just before he died. Only he thought I was her. Gillian, he kept on calling me.”
Gail put a hand to his coat collar.
“No, there’s more to it than just that,” she sniffled.
“What do you mean, more to it?”
“There was the photograph in the newspaper, I saw it.” Tears had begun to well up in her eyes once more.
“What photograph? Which newspaper?”
“It was me, don’t you see? It wasn’t a photo of Gillian at all.”
“What photograph are you talking about?”
“That’s how I knew she was killed, it was all in the newspaper, but it wasn’t Gillian at all, it was me!”
“Calm down, Gail, calm down. You must tell me which newspaper the photograph appeared in, and what was in the photograph. Or I won’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” she blubbed, “it was me, the photo in The Post, you remember, it closed down in, oh, I can’t remember when. It was ages ago. Danny and I went to Swindon to look in their files. It was my idea, well, his really. I wanted to know, that’s all. It was something Howard told me years ago, right here, by her grave. I’d never really thought about her until then, you see, it just hadn’t occurred to me. I’d always heard it was an illness. Oh, Doctor Baxter.”
“There, there,” Doctor Baxter patted her back awkwardly. He was not at all sure what she was talking about, but expected it would make some sense the more she went on. “Just tell me, all about it, that’s all, let it all come out.”
“She was my sister, and I felt as though I’d never really loved her. I couldn’t have because I’d never given much thought to her until Howard asked. I didn’t want to, even then. But, I don’t know, these thoughts kept on coming back to me, about her being my twin, and I dreamed about her a couple of times. She must have been so like me. Why her, and not me? I kept on asking myself, I just felt I was the one who should have died. If we were so alike, it could have been, couldn’t it?
“And then I began to wonder more and more about it. I sort of knew it couldn’t have been any ordinary illness she died from, because nobody could tell me anything about it. Whenever the subject came up everybody would go quiet all of a sudden. I soon learned to shut up about it, even though I was so young. There were questions I knew not to ask any more. But I still didn’t know why.
“And then when I told Danny, he said I would be able to find out in an old newspaper, if there had been anything unusual about the death. I’d never thought of doing anything like that before. Maybe I didn’t really want to know. But I thought what a good idea it was, and we went down to Swindon. I wish we hadn’t, it was a horrible weekend. It rained all the time, Mummy was in a foul mood, and Daddy looked so ill. He was so pale and weak. I should have known there was something seriously wrong with him then.”
Doctor Baxter put a reassuring hand on her arm,
“Stop blaming yourself all the time, Gail. I examined him only a couple of days beforehand, and I didn’t know. Only God knows these things.”
“He was my father. I should have realised. I was too busy thinking about Gillian all the time, like I am now, too busy thinking about myself.
“But when I saw the photograph, I couldn’t believe it. I fainted. Danny had to carry me to an office upstairs.” She saw the professional look of concern appear on Doctor Baxter’s face. “Oh, it wasn’t just that, I hadn’t been eating properly because of all the worry. Danny told me the rest of the story in the office, that she had been murdered. He thought I’d read it, and that’s why I’d fainted. It was too much for me. But it wasn’t that at all, it was the photograph, I couldn’t believe it.”
“What couldn’t you believe?”
“Don’t you see? It wasn’t a photo of her at all. It was a photo of me.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“The little girl in the newspaper wasn’t her. It wasn’t Gillian who was killed. Don’t you understand? If it wasn’t Gillian, it had to be me, I mean Gail. It was a photograph of Gail. She must be dead, and I must be Gillian. That’s why I thought I killed her. I became her. Somehow, Daddy knew that, and that’s why he called me Gillian. He knew.”
EVERYTHING STARTED TO JOLT uncomfortably. Up and down, up and down. For some unknown reason, she was in a small, horse-drawn trap hurtling down a lane into the village. It was a part of the village she couldn’t remember having been before. That was odd, she used to know its every nook and cranny. Well, perhaps she had been there, but something had definitely changed. A different style of architecture, from an age she couldn’t recall. Maybe it was Gothic. But not quite. She felt disturbed by the revelation. There was something sinister about the new look. Something vaguely threatening.
She searched to see if there was any way to slow the horse. If there’d ever been any, the reins had gone. The further they hurtled along the lane, the narrower it became; drystone walls closing in on either side. Any narrower and the trap wouldn’t pass. It would be crushed. And she with it. A sharp bend loomed into view. She could see the church tower. She knew where she was now. The drystone wall, the wall around the churchyard. They were approaching the its gravestones from an unusual angle. She could see Gillian’s, her name picked out in gilded letters. Her mother and father were standing over it, weeping tears of silver. All of a sudden, the horse swivelled its head round completely and stared in her face. The eyes bulged and its head began to grow in all directions, blocking her view. The animal couldn’t possibly see where they were heading like that. Bared rows of chipped, brown teeth widened into a malicious grin. And then the head began to move towards her, expanding until she became swallowed up an enormous dark hole with soft, red light permeating the outermost edges.
Someone was shaking her, but she didn’t want to wake, preferring to be swallowed by the horse again. Sleep had become too valuable to surrender easily, and she willed the nightmare to return. But it had gone forever.
Eventually, she opened her bleary eyes, reluctantly, smacking her lips and murmuring groans of protestation. Instead of the familiar bed she expected to find herself, she was somewhere she didn’t recognise for a moment.
Then it all came back. The grubby mattress; the smelly room: Tobago Street. One cheek, and a half-open mouth, pressed hard against the uncovered pillow. She could feel her own dribble wet her face.
As her eyes began to clear, she made out the silhouette of Howard’s dark face hovering above her, framed by the nimbus of a single electric bulb hanging from the ceiling. He was staring down at her.
“Leave me alone, Howard,” she managed to croak. “I want to sleep, I’m tired.”
But she could not fight the consciousness seeping back into her. Before long, she was fully awake, and fully aware, once more, she was still a captive in Howard’s filthy squat.
Now he was standing, chatting away, flying on wings of amphetamine. She’d seen him swallow the little pills over the evening, popping them into his mouth whenever he thought she wasn’t looking. And heard the incessant, senseless chatter they stimulated. Talking all the time, talking, talking, talking, his words devoid of all reason. Talking so much, that in the end, she had relented and smoked several joints with him. It helped make everything just that little bit more bearable. She had listened to his low, monotonous tones until she could stay awake no longer, and had literally fallen asleep.
Of course, the hash was the cause of her fogginess. She would have to pull herself together a quickly as she could. She needed fresh air, and some cold water to splash her face.
“Gail, Gail,” Howard implored her in his excited breathy voice, “it’s almost dawn. It’s time. We have to break the circle so we can join it again. We have to be ready for when the sun comes up.”
His hand was on her shoulder, she shrugged it off.
“Go away, I’m too tired,” she complained, closing her eyes again. “Let me go back to sleep again, please let me sleep.”
“The two sides must come together,” she heard him wittering, “they must be joined again to make one. Twin sides of the whole. Left and right, together, as they were before and as they are destined again to always be. It is written.”
Gail raised her head from the pillow and squinted up at him. He couldn’t have slept a wink. Perhaps not in days.
“Howard,” she said. “What are you going on about? You should get some sleep. You’ll feel a lot better after you’ve had some sleep.”
“There’s no time for sleep, I’ve got too much to do. As the sun comes up in the east, good and evil will become one. The final balance out of which is born the third child. The return of the prodigal daughter. Good will triumph. Only when they are one can there be a second coming. That’s what she’s been telling me. First, second, third. A triangle inside the circle. Two triangles within the circle. Now, I see it all. There must be two triangles within the circle.”
Stifling a yawn on the back of her hand, Gail leaned back on her elbow.
“What time is it?” she asked, looking for a clock.
“The time is now. Now is the time. Get up, Gail, we have to get ready.”
“Where’s my bag? I’ve got to go to work. But I must go home and have a shower first. What’s the time? I have to know the time. There must be a clock somewhere round here.” She dragged her tongue round her dry mouth. “I’m dying for a cup of tea, smoking those joints last night has made my throat really dry.”
“She’ll only come when everything’s properly prepared. I’ve already marked out a circle. But I forgot the triangles. I must do the triangles.”
Gail could see he had cleared a space in the middle of the floor by piling things up around it. In its centre, he had painted a large, red circle.
“It’s very nice, Howard, but what’s it for?”
“It’s the circle. Nobody can go in it except for you. Only when you’re ready. But I have to paint the triangles. Two. Inside the circle.”
“Why would I want to go inside the circle?”
“You have to. It’s the only way we can be saved.”
“You’re not still going on about that, are you? I’ve no time for all that, this morning. I have to go to get to the gallery, or I’ll lose my job.”
Pushing aside the blanket Howard must have placed on her while she was asleep, she stood up. Her clothes stuck uncomfortably to her body. She smoothed them down, and spotted a small clock at the end of the mattress. It read twenty past four. Surely that couldn’t be right. It must have stopped. But she could see the second hand sweeping slowly round. He’d been saying something about time going round last night. Or something going round. And now he was going on about circles. She had to find a way out.
He was standing by the shuttered window again, peeping through the crack, puffing nervously at a cigarette, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger, whenever it wasn’t in his mouth.
“Open the window, Howard, there’s no air in here. I need air.”
Taking no notice, he moved slowly across to the table, taking elaborate care to avoid going near the circle. After grinding his cigarette into a cracked plate, he pulled another from the pack next to it and lit it with a match.
“Just a tiny bit. I can hardly breathe.” She walked across to the window, remembering the circle too late. She wasn’t quite sure whether it was ready to step into yet, and didn’t want to upset him. But Howard didn’t notice, he was staring into empty space mumbling to himself. Gail put her eye to the crack he had been looking through. It was still dark. The little light there was, reflected off the road. It’d been raining. Tobago Street shone black as molasses. Nothing moved.
She went over to the cooker and lifted the kettle from the hob.
“It’s empty,” she said shaking it. Without thinking Howard took it from her and went to fill it from the sink out on the landing.
Once he was out of the room she tiptoed back to the window. Gently lifting the metal bar holding the shutters in place, she folded a leaf back. From then it was easy to slide the window up a few inches. Cold, damp air rushed in, delicious on her face and bare forearms. She stood in the icy draught, drinking it with her palms as though from a mountain stream.
“Get away from that window!” Howard’s voice screamed from behind. In a moment, fingers were digging into her shoulders, pulling her back and pushing her aside. “You stupid, fucking bitch! They’ve seen us!” He banged the window shut and slammed the shutter, swinging the restraining bar into place.
“I was only getting some air,” she said weakly. As he raised his hand, she winced he slapped her face so hard she reeled, almost falling over. He’d never hit her before. She stood cowering before him, trembling from shock. For a moment he stood staring at her. Tears of hate filled, then leeched from his eyes.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” he cried. “You made me walk in the circle. I told you not to open the window. I told you not to. I don’t know what to do now.” He covered his face with his hands. “It has to be done right. Nobody is allowed to see us. That’s what they keep on telling me. I must think, I have to think.”
He turned away from her. Her eyes fixed on his retreating back as he left the room once more. He was muttering to himself, but it sounded as though he was arguing with someone she couldn’t see. Perhaps someone else lived in the house. She looked around, and then over to the door.
“No,” she could hear him saying out on the landing, “I won’t do it, I can’t.”
She was becoming more frightened of him, or them, by the moment.
When she had first woke it was without fear, her mind having glossed over the events of the previous evening. Now she was made abruptly aware again. He had shown violence towards her, she could still hardly believe it. She touched her cheek where he has struck it and felt a stinging warmth. It was now even more imperative that she leave the house at the first opportunity.
DOCTOR BAXTER LED GAIL back into the tiny church, and sat her down in a pew at the rear. Shady and cool, she found something reassuring in the timeless quality of the ancient building.
“Now, Gail,’ he said, parking himself next to her, “You were telling me about a photo you saw in a newspaper. I didn’t quite understand. Try to tell me exactly what happened. Take as much time as you need, I’m listening.
“It was how I found out how Gillian died. It wasn’t much more than a month ago. Danny came with me. He couldn’t come to the…” the word stuck in her throat. It would be a final recognition of her father’s demise. Somehow that seemed like surrender, giving up; almost betrayal. Even though she knew he wouldn’t be coming back, it didn’t seem quite right. Nevertheless, she had to face up to reality, the word had to be said. “To the …” again she stalled. “The funeral because he had to go to Germany.
“For years I’d never thought much about it. It was something I’d always accepted. Things had never been any different. There didn’t seem a need for questions. Gillian had always been dead for as long as I could remember. But then, I can’t remember when, but I began to recognise these feelings of guilt about it, as though I’d had something to do with it. Nobody had really told me anything. I was bound to start wondering one day. I even felt guilty that I hadn’t questioned it until then.
“But then I started to think I might have killed her. So, you can understand why I had to find out the truth.” She glanced across at the doctor. He was nodding his head. “But I didn’t want to ask Mummy and Daddy. Just in case it was true. I couldn’t see how they would be able to tell me.
“When they brought the newspapers to us in Swindon library, I wondered whether I wanted to go through with it after all. What if I was right? How would I cope? But Danny had already turned the page over by that time. And I saw the photograph. It made me feel really strange. I suddenly realised I didn’t want to know anymore. At that moment I still thought it was Gillian who’d died. You can imagine my shock when I realised it wasn’t a photograph of her at all. It was me. I was looking at a photograph of myself. That’s when I fainted.
“Danny told me the story behind it later. I couldn’t have killed her. It had to have been an adult, as the body had been dragged some distance before it was dumped at the side of the road. I didn’t want tell him about the photograph, because I didn’t know the full significance. I was so confused
“It didn’t take me long to work out what must have really happened. Oh, Doctor.” She gripped his hand. “It wasn’t Gillian who died at all, it was Gail. I know it shouldn’t matter, because I’m still me whatever happened, but it does. I don’t know how or why we changed places, but we did.” She buried her face into his coat.
“You poor, poor girl.” The doctor stroked her hair. “You mustn’t worry, really you shouldn’t. It’s all right, I know who you are.”
“But I don’t,” she said, looking into his face.
“Of course you do,” the doctor said. “You’re Gail. You always have been.”
“You’re Gail. And I can prove it to you.”
“Easy. Twins have always been a fascination of mine ever since I was at medical school. I even thought I might do research into them once I graduated. But then the war came along, and like a lot of people at the time, I didn’t have much of a say in what I wanted to do. That’s not important, but it meant I ended up with a practice round here instead. They weren’t exactly handing out research grants to all and sundry back then. Things were very tight. But I was content enough, I was a doctor, and that’s what I’d always wanted to be.
“Nevertheless, you can imagine how excited I was when you two turned up. It was a perfect opportunity for me to indulge my passion. I was so excited. I’d kept up with all the research into twins through the journals I took. There was a lot of work being done in America at the time. Being a friend of the family made it a lot easier for me. For your parents it meant having me to keep a close eye on you both and your health.
“You were such beautiful babies, I used to pop over whenever I could. Mainly just to observe, I used to watch how you did things, to try and see whether there was much difference in the way you learned things, if one picked them up any quicker than the other.
“At first, the differences weren’t that discernible, but gradually I began to see them develop. Gillian tended to be the leader. She would tend to go off by herself more. You were a bit more cautious, and didn’t like to stray to far from your mother.
“But there was one thing, to separate you, that stood out from about eighteen months. Well, that’s when I first started to notice it. It struck me that it might be quite unusual for identical twins.”
“What was that?”
“Gillian was left-handed.”
“She started showing signs of being left-handed. I wasn’t sure at first, so I asked your mother and father if I could do some tests. They agreed. The tests were conclusive. In Gillian there was a left-handed bias which was beginning to show itself as there was a right-handed bias in you. I still have the notes at home.”
“Couldn’t I have just made myself left-handed? Pretended to be her because of all the feelings of guilt I had?”
“At that age it would have been so difficult as to be almost impossible. At most ages, in fact.”
“You say almost impossible.”
“Well, being left-handed is not just a preference for one hand above the other, it’s to do with the different sides of the brain. A left-handed child has a right-handed brain, so to speak. I won’t go into what the different sides of the brain do, save to say they control opposite sides of the body. That’s something you’re born with.
“Now, although it’s quite possible to train yourself to use your left hand instead of your right, or vice-versa, it takes a great deal of time. It would be noticeable. Especially in a child of that age. Besides, there were other differences.”
“But everybody’s always telling me how they were never able to tell the difference.”
“Of course they are. It’s a long time ago. It’s just the way our memories work.”
“But Aunty Peggy, Mummy? Aunty Peggy is always saying how Mummy used to search for bodies for little marks at bathtimes.”
“Let me tell you something. Imagination and memory are two quite separate things that tend to get confused with the passage of time. We have difficulty in distinguishing one from the other.
“Now, I have notes of your mother telling me how she washed the same twin twice on more than one occasion, whilst you were both in the bath. She never used to notice it until it was pointed out. More often than not, by you yourselves. By the end of the day, one small baby is enough to wear a mother out, let alone two. You have to remember, she wasn’t exactly young. She got very tired at times.
“But, believe you me, there is no such thing as completely identical twins in that respect. One twin’s hair is always slightly more curly than the other’s, or one weighs more. There’s always something. I remember, in your case, your eyes being a touch greener than Gillian’s.” He was looking directly into them. “Admittedly, you two were about as alike as any twins I have seen. Nevertheless, not identical. Not by a long chalk. I wouldn’t telling you this if it wasn’t true.”
Gail believed him.
“Thank you so much,” she said, squeezing his hand affectionately, and kissing him lightly on the cheek, “you can’t know what a relief this is to me. I was almost thinking I might be going mad. I only wish I’d known all this before Daddy died.”
The doctor sighed long and weary.
“I should have realised something like this might happen. If only I’d thought, I could have saved you all that needless suffering.”
“No more guilt, please, Doctor. That’s what this is about more than anything, guilt. My mother’s, my father’s, my own. And now yours.” She smiled at him. “All of us taking the blame for Gillian’s death when it was none of us. I suppose it might have been a lot easier had they caught the killer. They never found him, did they?”
“There was a suspect, but they didn’t have enough evidence to bring him to trial at the time.”
“Who was it?”
“Nobody you would’ve known. You were too young. You must promise not to tell your mother this, because I don’t think it would do her much good, bringing it all out in the open again. But there was a young man from Swindon, he’d been in trouble with the police before, hanging around school gateways, trying to entice small children to go off with him, according to some. Offering them chocolate and the like. In those days things were a bit different, people didn’t want to face up to things like that. He was never actually caught in the act, and he he’d never succeeded in tempting a child, as far as anyone knew. It was all circumstantial, complaints from mothers, and that sort of stuff. But none of them wanted to press charges. Nevertheless, the police did think enough of it to go round to his house and have a word with him, even though they had so little to go on. And then the investigation ran to a standstill.
“But some years later, a little girl was abducted from a playground in Yorkshire. Her body was found in a ditch a few days afterwards. The details were virtually identical to Gillian’s. It turned out, that after all the trouble down here, the young man who lived round here, had moved to Yorkshire with his family. They lived a few streets away from the playground where the second little girl disappeared. He was arrested and taken in for questioning. But Gillian’s murder didn’t come up at the trial as it wasn’t admissable. The fact he lived near here was subjudice, so the newspapers couldn’t mention it even had they known.
“Nevertheless, week or so after the discovery, a couple of detectives from Swindon were sent up there to interview him. Though they were convinced he was responsible for both murders they never got him to confess. I spoke to one of the local officers interviewed him shortly afterwards. He told me he knew the same man had killed Gillian. In his estimation there were just too many similarities between the two cases for them to be coincidental. But not enough hard evidence. The files on Gillian’s murder were closed soon after.
“He was convicted of the second murder and given life imprisonment. A few months later he was found hanging in his cell. Suicide.” Doctor Baxter groaned as he lifted himself from the pew.
“I can’t say I’m sorry,” Gail said.
“No, neither can I,” said the doctor. “Though, as a doctor, I feel I should be against all forms of killing, in this case I was too involved with the victim not to feel anger.” He took her by the hand and pulled her to her feet. Now come on, we better be getting back to the house. Your mother will be needing you.” He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. “You know, sometimes, it seems tragedy only ever goes on to spawn yet more tragedy. Who knows what drives men to commit such heinous crimes?”
“Surely you can’t feel any sympathy for him.”
“Sympathy is not the word I would use. As I said, I was angry, and wanting revenge, at the time. But I’m an old man now, and have had plenty of time for reflection. In my job you see far too many dreadful things to go round pointing fingers all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying these things to you. After all, it was your sister who was murdered. But people aren’t born murderers, you know. It’s only what some go on to become. There might be those born with more of a proclivity to kill than others, but there’s nothing to say that one person will become a murderer and another won’t. Not yet, there isn’t. Psychological profiles are not certainties when it comes to prediction. If they were it would make the job of the police a hell of a lot easier.
“No, there are no more born murderers than there are born victims. More often than not it’s just down to being in the wrong place in the wrong time. But there are societies that have more murders committed in them than other. That’s a fact. You can draw whatever conclusion you like from that, but I know what I think.”
They walked out of the little church and into glaring sunshine.
“I hope I haven’t said anything that might upset you?” Doctor Baxter asked, “According to my wife, I talk far too much at times.”
“It’s all right,” Gail said shielding her eyes. There was something in the doctor’s manner that reminded her of Danny. “I can’t remember enough about Gillian to feel real anger towards anyone. That’s another reason for feeling so guilty. I virtually have no feelings at all about her. I never knew her, and it feels wrong. I thought I should have some feelings of love towards her, and I didn’t. You’ve helped me a lot more than you realise.”
LEFT WITH NO CHOICE, but to face the fact Howard had no intention of freeing her, Gail needed to think of a way she could escape the house. The only way she could see so far was to attempt the seemingly impossible task of getting hold of the keys he kept on the end of a chain in a pocket of his trousers. The chain was attached to a belt. As there was no way he was going to give them to her of his own accord, she would have to work out a method of tricking, or persuading him.
Howard returned from the washbasin in the toilet off the stairs, with a full kettle and placed it one of the burners of the hob he kept constantly lit for heat. If only she could make him believe she was on his side, and get him to trust her. Then he might lower his guard long enough for her to do something. But what? He was hardly likely to allow her to put a hand in his trouser pocket.
Observing his every little move she saw his face had creased into furrows of concentration. His mouth was shaping words without emitting any sound. She appproached him with caution.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, “Tell me what’s wrong and I might be able to help.”
“Stand away from me,” he told her, “Leave me alone, I can’t think with everybody talking to me all the time. Why don’t you all shut up and leave me alone, for chrissakes!” He put his hands over his ears. “Go away! I tell you, go away!”
“Howard,” she pleaded, “There’s no one else here. Listen to me, you must tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s them,” he said. “One of them has put something inside my brain. They use it to talk to me. All at once. That’s why I can’t sleep. They make stay awake. And even if I do fall asleep they’ll put another one of these things inside my head. They must be tiny transmitters of some sort. They only do it to drown her voice out. I’ve got to get the rest of them out of my head. Find a way of closing them out so I can just hear her. I need to jam them somehow. She’s the one who can free us. Only she can tell me what to do.” He began pulling at his hair viciously, tearing out a few strands with his fists.
“Stop it, Howard! Stop it!” Gail shouted, gripping his wrists and trying to pull them away from his scalp. “You must stop it, you’re hurting yourself!”
The suddeness of the physical contact, and the brusqueness of her voice, took him by surprise. Snatching his hands away sharply, he raised his elbows to shield his face from her, as if he feared she might attack him. His eyes were filled with terror. Just like those of a small animal caught in a corner. She’d never seen him so scared. A wave of sympathy broke over her. Taking his head in her arms, she drew him towards her.
“Oh Howard, Howard. Sh, sh, it’s all right, it’s all right.” She felt his breast rack against hers as his heart pounded pitifully. Leading him over to the mattress, she sat him down next to her.
She began stroking his head gently, whispering soft words into his ear as she rocked him back and forth like she would a child. “Hush, hush, it’s all right, it’s all right, I’m here, I won’t let anybody hurt you.”
Yet all the while, she thought how she could coax the keys from him. “You mustn’t worry, there’s nothing here to harm you.” Gradually, she subdued him. “Maybe, if I went out I could find a way of blocking the transmitters. I could go to an electrical shop and ask. First, let me make us some tea. Then we can talk about it. You must tell me everything you know. That reminds me, have you got enough milk? I can easily pop out and buy some if you haven’t. Where’s the nearest shop?” She brushed the hair from his eyes. After a few seconds of looking her in the face, he shook his head slowly from side to side.
“No need for that, there’s some in a bowl in the sink,” he snivelled, wiping his nose on the back of his hand.
“I’ll just make sure. You stay here. I’ll be back in a minute,” she reassured, and got to her feet to go out on the landing.
Just across from his room lay another tinier room with nothing but a hand basin in it. Propped up in a plastic bowl, half-filled with water to keep it cool, was an open carton of milk. Lifting it to her nose she sniffed at the contents. It seemed fresh enough. She glanced back out the door to check if Howard had followed her. Seeing he hadn’t, she tipped the contents of the milk carton down the plughole. Crossing the landing carrrying the empty carton on her way back into his room, she paused to see if she what was on the floor above. It was too dark to make anything out. Anyhow, it would be unlikely there’d be a safe way out from there. It was two floors above the street. Too high to jump from a window. The only way to leave was by the front door. And the only way to open it was to get hold of the keys.
“There’s no milk left,” she said from the door, shaking the carton, “I’ll have to go out and get some. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. Oh, I’ll need the keys.”
“It’s all right, I’ve got some dried milk in here,” Howard called back, “We can use that. I’ll get some fresh milk later.”
“Damn!” she whispered under her breath, as she walked into the room.
Howard was still sitting on the mattress, his head in his hands. Clouds of steam poured from the kettle spout. As she looked for the dried milk on the table she realised how hungry she was. She hadn’t eaten since the day before. None of Howard’s food looked remotely appetising. Perhaps she wasn’t so hungry after all. Scanning the room for mugs her eyes alighted on the ones they had used the night before. Turning the gas burner down till the kettle simmered, she went back out onto the landing to rinse the mugs. She began to wonder what kind of drugs Howard might’ve taken to get him into the state he was. Though he’d been bad before, it was never this bad. Perhaps he was tripping on LSD. She’d heard of people taking Ecstasy or acid and never being able to come down. They ended up in the psychiatric wards of secure hospitals. Others suffered ‘flashbacks’ for months, or even years, after they had taken the drugs. But just too much speed or coke could wire people up, making them extremely paranoid and susceptible to hallucinations. If that was the case with Howard, then all he would need would be sleep, with a bit of luck. Lots of it.
Sleep seemed to be the answer to everything. Sleep would make him better, and sleep would enable her to get the keys from him to unlock the door. Though the signs had been there for years, and Danny had suggested as much, she had never really allowed it to sink in, Howard might be suffering from something far more serious.
When she returned again he was smiling, his mood having swung completely. Picking out a couple of tea bags from a pile on the table she plopped them in the mugs before filling them with boiling water. As she stood over them, allowing them to brew a few minutes, she found herself battling against the feelings of helplessness threatening to overwhelm her. Stirring one spoon of dried milk and two spoons heaped with sugar into the mugs, she took them over to mattress.
“There you are,” she said, handing one mug to him, “a nice cup of tea, that should make you feel better.” How stupid the words sounded once they had left her lips. The English answer to all disaster: a nice cup of tea. Howard appear not to hear. He took the mug from her; smiling all the time; chuckling to himself as though he remembered a joke they’d shared earlier. She knelt beside him.
“What’s so funny?” she asked with a smile.
“She talks to me, you know,” he said.
“What does she say?” Gail asked, thinking it best to humour him.
“She talks a lot about you.”
“She knows who I am? Do I know her.”
“She tells me what you were like as a little girl.”
“A little girl? How could she know that? What does she say I was like?”
“She says you were possessed by the devil, and you needed to be cleansed.”
“What?” It was impossible to disguise the shock she felt.
“It was her who told me to bring you here.”
“That’s crazy. What and who are you talking about, Howard?”
He looked up at her, a look of incomprehension written across his face.
“Gillian, of course. Who else?”
The sudden anger and hurt she felt welling up inside her was impossible to conceal. He was just playing with her. How deliberately cruel of him to bring up Gillian’s name. He couldn’t possibly know anything about her, beyond what she and Aunt Peggy had told him. And that was ages ago. He’d only seen her gravestone. Why was he making things up all the time? She took a deep breath to keep her emotions from spilling over from fear of his mood changing abruptly once more.
“How do you know it’s Gillian?” she asked, her voice pregnant with the strain of control.
“She’s always around. She’s the only friend I have, all the others are against me. They’re the ones responsible for all the fuck-ups. Gillian’s the only one who can change things.
“She’s the one who told me about breaking the circle, and explained how it could be joined. In order to be reborn, death has to occur. That’s what she said. I have to work out exactly what she means sometimes. She speaks in riddles. It’s like a code only I can understand. She leaves signs as well. Out in the streets. If I get it right, everything’s okay. But whenever I get things wrong, they all start talking at me at the same time. They fill my head with their voices. They start to get louder and louder until it’s like my head’s going to burst open. She’s here now, talking to both of us. You can hear her if you listen carefully.”
Gail examined his face. Unshaven and dirty, he appeared as broken as any old engine where the drive belt has become disconnected. The motor keeps on turning and turning until eventually it runs out of fuel, its motions having no obvious purpose.
“I can’t hear anything,” she whispered, putting her mug on the floor and taking his hand. “And neither can you. There’s no one here apart from you and I. You have to understand that. Drink your tea, and then we’ll go downstairs. We’ll open the door and go out into the fresh air. We’ll both feel a lot better, as soon as we get out of this horrible place.”
“DO YOU LOVE DANNY?” Gail was so tired as to be virtually unaware she’d been thinking of him. She’d should’ve phoned. He’d be worried by now. Then again, it was more like a dream than a thought. Perhaps she’d nodded off. Perhaps she’d even wake up from this nightmare. Perhaps.
Having slept a only few hours it was difficult to concentrate. Yet she needed her wits about her more than ever. How could Howard have known what she was thinking? He couldn’t. She mustn’t even entertain the idea. She watched the second hand sweep round the face of the clock on the floor by the mattress. To think he could read her thoughts would be a step towards madness. She wondered whether it was possible to detect any movement in the clock’s minute hand. Theoretically it must be possible if she looked long and hard enough. But it was one thing knowing it must’ve moved and another actually being able to see it. It was the same with the sun and moon. You knew they moved but you couldn’t really see them moving in the same way as you could see a plane moving across the sky.
“No, I don’t love Danny,” she answered Howard’s question rather belatedly. “Why do you ask?” Her eyes shifted to the mug next to the clock. Half-filled with cold murky, grey liquid that had once been tea, a couple of cigarette ends floated on top. There was a print of Peter Blake’s Babe Rainbow on its front. Apart from the lip stain on the rim, there were the remains of two dribbles of tea running into Babe Rainbow. Gail never did like Peter Blake’s work much. Unoriginal, derivative and unashamedly commercial, was the way Danny had described it at an opening of a retrospective exhibition of his. To his way of thinking, most of it had dated incredibly quickly compared with the work of Andy Warhol and David Hockney. She was back to thinking of Danny again. She should’ve phoned him and told him where she was going. Sooner or later he would’ve come looking for her.
“He loves you.” Howard said.
A plain, white plate stood by the mug. Apart from the dirty knife and fork crossed on it, more cigarette ends lay in a dried-up swamp of baked bean sauce, egg yolk and tomato ketchup speckled with ash.
“I know he does,” she said, “and that’s why he’ll be on his way here by now.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to, but it won’t alter the facts. I was supposed to meet him, I rang to let him know I’d be late before I left the office.”
“He doesn’t know where you are.”
“I gave him the address. Besides, you, yourself, told me he’d been round here looking for you.”
“I didn’t mean looking round here, it was somewhere else.”
“And so are you. You asked me if there was a phone box near here yesterday because you had to phone someone. Someone you were going to meet.”
Gail was too slow in responding, having had to pause the shortest of split-seconds to think. But though only split-seconds, by the time she opened her mouth, she could see by the smile forming at the corners of his mouth it was already too late. This time he did know what she was thinking. And she knew what he was thinking. Closing her mouth without issuing a word she averted his gaze by staring down at the plate again. Nothing had moved.
“I don’t mind you seeing him, you know,” Howard took up, “I like Danny.” Gail said nothing, even though they both knew it was a lie. True enough, he hadn’t minded her going out with other men on the odd occasion before. But not staying out. Yet, given his own record, he could hardly have complained if she had. Nevertheless, despite the fact she never slept with any of them, except for Phil, in Howard’s mind, he had all the excuses he needed to sleep with any woman he wanted. But that was up till she met Danny. Before she met Danny he’d almost encouraged her to go out with other men.
She dragged her eyes from the plate to look at his face. Completely drained, all she wanted now was to go home and crawl into bed. Even then, though she was exhausted listening to his amphetamine rantings, she felt the need to keep him talking.
“He likes you,” she said. It was true, to an extent. But Danny liked most people in his own way. He wasn’t judgemental if he felt some sympathy towards them. He didn’t feel the need to blame all the time. He had every justification for disliking, or even pitying Howard, but if he felt either, he didn’t show it.
“He wanted to fight me once,” Howard said, in an a feeble attempt to bait her.
“So you keep saying,” Gail replied in a yawn. “Surely we don’t have to go through it again. When are you going to let me out of here, Howard? You can’t keep me here forever.”
“He was drunk,” Howard continued heedless, “Came at me with a knife.”
She felt her insides tighten, and in an instant she was wide-awake. The entire room appeared to shrink away before her and into a space of its own. She shut her mind against his talking to stop the anger rising. But she could still hear him drone on in the background, not seeming to care whether she listened or not.
Though they’d known each other for years, only now, was she beginning to realise she had never known him at all. She hadn’t understood the full extent of the power he’d been able to exert over her for so long. He’d played her. The worst of it was, he’d played her using her own subconscious connivance. Her deep-rooted insecurity had made her want it that way. When he’d phoned the day before, he’d done it knowing full well she would come at his bidding. From the lengths he’d gone to, it was obvious he’d planned it all along. And, if he’d planned that, what else did he have in store?
As she thought about it, she recognised there’d always been the feeling he was keeping something back. The subtle distance he maintained between himself and others. Just close enough to make it not so obvious. The rugby match where she caught first sight of him with a small crowd he didn’t quite seem part of. Were they standing away from him? or was he standing away from them? Or had time distorted her memory? Whatever the answer, since she’d first known him there’d been a distance she’d never been able to breach. He was never quite hers. At the start, it was one of the things that’d lent him the air of mystery she found so intriguing and attractive. Later, she began to find it a little disturbing. It wasn’t his lack of real commitment, which was bad enough, it was the way he always left her with an uneasy sensation of wanting.
She wondered if that was how most relationships functioned: one partner constantly exerting power over the other. If that was the case, it didn’t say much for love.
With Danny, she was the one who held the power. And whilst she found the thought of that trait disagreeable in herself, at the same time, she knew it wouldn’t stop her from exerting that power if she felt the desire. Once tasted, the appetite for power became insatiable it seemed. The ability to make another person perform at one’s whim was addictive. And, if she became bored with Danny, she could always move on to somebody else. She could hardly believe she was thinking such things. She reminded herself of her mother.
She stared at Howard again. Hunched up on the mattress he was mumbling to himself. She wondered what desperate urge had driven him to lure her to Tobago Street and imprison her there. Could it be a result of the longing to exercise his will over her once more, now she was no longer his prisoner the way she had been before?
And although she believed, somewhere deep within, she still harboured a love of sorts for him, the passing of the years had slowly drained her of compassion. Love without compassion, was it possible? It seemed a contradiction. But she wanted to believe she still loved him, for some reason. Without that there would never have been any point to any of it. She needed to convince herself she still possessed the ability to love, even if it meant loving the Howard of the past. The Howard that had been. And if he no longer existed in the Howard in front of her, that Howard lived on in her. A Howard of memory, who she could love for ever.
That Howard had metamorphosed into the present Howard. Knowing they were not the same, made it possible to separate them. The present Howard solely evoking memories of the one Howard. Only by trying to get her head round the concept could she hope to retain any love for him. The Howard, who had become her gaoler, was fast losing all substance.
“It’s time,” she heard him say. “Time to prepare.”
“Thank God for that,” she said, “I thought you were going to keep me here forever.”
“We’re not leaving,” he said. “It’s time to get ready to break the circle.”
“What circle?” she demanded. “You can’t mean that stupid ring you’ve painted on the floor. Come on, Howard, if you let me out now we can forget any of this happened.”
“We’ll forget it all right, because we’re starting again. There won’t be a before for us to remember. Just imagine, no past, only the present. The whole world will be ours. There won’t be anything to be afraid of anymore.” He got to his feet. “Don’t look so worried all the time, nothing can harm us now, the time is too close. You’re both going to be reunited, reborn as one. that’s why the circle must be broken. If it isn’t broken, it can’t be rejoined.”
“So you keep telling me, over and over again. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to. I don’t have time to play a part in your stupid game anymore. I have to go to work. otherwise, I’ll lose my job, and I can’t afford to. Jobs are difficult to come by. Not that you’d know.”
“You won’t need a job.” Howard smiled at her, shaking his head. “There won’t be any jobs. We’ll live without work. Nobody will have to work.”
“Somebody always has to work.” she said.
The smile swiftly left his face.
“No more talking,” he ordered. “There’s no time to argue. You must do everything I tell you. If you don’t …” he stopped himself short. “If you don’t, well, if you don’t, things could get very dangerous.”
“You’re not threatening me, are you?”
“Nothing can harm us if you do exactly what I say. It’s important. Everything has to follow the right order. First, you must bathe thoroughly, whilst I paint a pentagram within the circle. The five points of the pentagram represent Earth, water, fire wind and spirit. Once that’s done, everyone within the circle will be protected from evil. After that, I’ll perform the ceremony to break the circle, so that good and evil can become one. That’s where the ultimate power will come from.”
“Bathe?” she ridiculed. “Where? If you think I’m going to wash myself in that sink on the landing when I’ve got a pefectly good shower at home, your’re bloody insane!”
“There’s a bathroom upstairs.”
“I’m not going to, Howard. This is going to have to stop. I’ve been patient with you up to now, but you’ve gone too far. You’re going to let me out.” She was standing inches from him, her eyes challenging his. He held her gaze for a few moments before turning away and going over to the kitchen table. At last she felt she was making some progress. When it came to it, he’d backed down. “What do you say?” she asked him, “Shall we finish with all this nonsense now, and get out of this house?”
When he turned to face her again, he was wearing an altogether different expression. She stepped back in a sharp intake of breath. In the right hand dangling at his side she could see the glint of a blade. He was clutching a butcher’s knife. She raised a hand to her mouth.
“You have to believe I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, at the same time moving towards her. The knife contradicted the words. She could only stand transfixed by it. “Don’t you see how important this is? All you have to do is follow her instructions. It’s the only way to bring her back. Good and evil reunited, Gillian and Gail. Twin, opposing forces.” He was moving slowly forward, slicing the air around him with the knife. “Ever since you first told me about her she’s been in my mind. I know how much you need each other. It’s going to be amazing.” Gail backed slowly away from him. “It was only when I moved in here and really began to think about it, that I knew we could bring her back.”
“Keep away from me!” she yelled at him.
“Gail.” He paused, a look of bewilderment about him. “Don’t be frightened, they can’t get at us in here.”
“Keep away from me! And I’ll do as you say. Just keep away from me!”
He advanced no further.
“All right,” he said, “you’ll feel a lot better after everything’s ready. But you really ought to be getting upstairs now.” He indicated for her to go ahead of him with a swish of the blade. Gail took a step to her side, her eyes not leaving it for even a second.
“Stay back,” she said, “I’m going. Just don’t come too close.” He began to follow her. “Stay back!” she shrieked. He shrugged his shoulders, and she made her way to the stairs.
And then she stopped.
“I want my bag,” she said, hardly knowing why.
“You won’t need that.”
“I want my bag,” she insisted. She was testing him in some way. Her most basic instincts were establishing where the boundries lay.
“All right,” he relented, “get your bag.” She went back over to the mattress where her bag was lying on the floor. Picking it up, she gripped it to her chest, as she drew beside him Howard snatched it from her to rummage around inside, before thrusting it back at her, and pushing her towards the landing.
PRESSING HER into moving backwards, by waving the knife about erratically, and jabbing it towards her, Howard forced Gail up the staircase to the upper landing. Once she reached the top, he nodded to the left. Glancing briefly to her side, a door stood at her right shoulder, Gail pushed it open with the heel of her shoe, not daring to take her eyes from the knife for more than a second, and backed in.
Once Howard was through the door, he switched on a light by pulling a cord. He stared at her. For a moment he seemed perplexed, as though he wasn’t entirely convinced of what he was doing, or even that it was him doing it. Then he appeared to calm slightly. He looked completely exhausted. The effects of the amphetamines might be wearing off. Lowering the knife till it hung loosely by his side, his mind had wandered somewhere else. Gail used the opportunity to appraise her surroundings.
Ancient, brown linoleum, with a flowered trellis design, covered a floor gently sloping from the door down to a cast iron bath supported by four ball and claw feet on the far side of the room. Patches where the linoleum had worn through years of use, revealed a pinewood floor. The long chrome spout of an old, enamel geyser hung over the far end of the bath. Next to it, beneath a small pebble glass window, probably big enough to squeeze through, stood a basin on its pedestal. And next to that, a dirty toilet bowl without a seat. An old-fashioned cast iron cistern on rusting iron brackets moulded into cherubs, hung above it. Cistern and brackets were slowly easing themselves away from a wooden mount screwed into the supporting wall. Gail walked over to the bath and peered down. A pile of dirty old laundry lay at the bottom. Mostly grey. Judging by the sharp, irregular folds it had been left to soak a long time ago and dried out. The plug was still in the waste. Slowly receding sudsy water had left an accumulation of tide marks, lime, and dust. Flakes of paint and little pieces of plaster lay where they had fallen into the bathtub from the ceiling each time a train rattled across the railway viaduct at the end of the road. Brown and green stains stretched from a single, tarnished brass tap to the waste. Nobody had used the bath in months.
“I can’t get in there,” she protested, “it’s absolutely filthy. I’ll be even dirtier than I am now if I get in there.”
Howard stood in the doorway, fingering the lock. She noticed there was also a bolt.
“Then you’ll just have to clean it,” he said.
“What with?” she asked. “It’ll take ages to clean all that dirt off.” His eyes narrowing to virtual slits Howard scanned the room nervously. Things were not going as planned. Everything seemed so different from what he’d been expecting.
Seen from Gail’s perspective, he had no real plan. There was just something roughly sketched in his mind driving him on to somewhere he wasn’t entirely convinced he should go.
Howard’s eyes honed in on a plastic container of toilet cleansing powder on the floor by the lavatory pan.
“There,” he announced, pointing at it with the knife, “use that.”
“But that’s for the toilet,” Gail complained.
“Use it!” he shouted.
“Use it!” And before she realised what was happening he’d strode across the room, grabbed her by the shoulder, and put the point of the knife to her throat. He looked her in the eye for a brief second before pushing her away. His moods were transforming by the second. One moment, he seemed weak and tired, the next, strong and violent. He was behaving completely unpredictably. What made him most dangerous, was his paranoia. He was more scared than she’d ever known. He turned away, putting his fists to his temples while still holding the knife, whining softly to himself. When he turned back his eyes were brimming with tears. Why had she been in such denial for so many years? It was so obvious he was ill, and had been ill most, if not all, of the time she’d known him. She, his family, her family and their friends had all refused to see it. They’d ignored his cries for help. Only Danny had seen something was wrong. And she’d ignored him too.
“Why won’t you do what I say,” he pleaded with her. “Why do you keep on arguing with me all the time? This is not how it’s supposed to happen. I want everything to be right.”
She looked up at him, her own eyes filled with terror, no words coming. Howard walked over to the toilet, picked up the plastic container and walked back to place it on the floor beside her.
“There you are,” he said gently, as if nothing had happened. “You can use one of the rags in the bath.” With that he moved a couple of paces away from her. Bending over the bath, she removed the old clothes, holding them at arm’s length between thumb and forefinger, before dropping them onto the floor, her face screwed up in disgust. She sprinkled so much powdered bleach all over the sides of the bath she began to cough.
And then, after examining the geyser carefully, to make sure it was alight, she turned the tap a touch. A faint gurgling sound issued. She turned it a tiny bit further. Water trickled from the spout. There followed an almighty bang as the main jets caught fire. She jumped. The whole room shook. The window and door rattled furiously. A roaring, blue flame sucked air greedily inwards. The spout shuddered and spat viciously; it clanged and spluttered; before eventually gushing forth a stream of steaming, hot water. Picking up one of the rags from the floor, she began to scour the enamel surface thoroughly. If Howard was going to force her into the bath, she’d make sure it was as clean as possible.
He stood in front of the basin, bending over to look at his reflection in the cracked mirror perched on the window sill, as he muttered quietly to himself.
She had been finished cleaning the bath for some moments before he noticed, and was watching him staring at himself. The mirror kept misting over, and he kept wiping it on his jacket sleeve, only to see it mist over again.
“You’ve turned the tap off,” he finally said, as it registered.
“It’s hardly clean,” she said. “But it’s a lot better than before.”
“Turn the tap back on.”
“You haven’t filled the bath yet.”
“Do we have to go through with this?”
“Turn it on!” he ordered. Gail turned the geyser back on. Another explosion of gas igniting shook the room wildly for a second time.
“I’ll need a towel,” she said.
“What?” The slightest request seemed to throw him into paroxysms of indecision.
“A towel,” she repeated. “If I have to have a bath, I’ll need something to dry myself on. I’ll need a towel.” His eyes darted round the room searching for one, as though half-expecting a large bath towel to suddenly manifest itself from thin air.
“Towel, towel,” he mumbled to himself, scratching his bristles thoughtfully on the blade of the knife. “Where’s the fucking towel got to? I know, the bedsheets. We could always use a sheet. Two sheets, one to dry on, and one to wrap round. Like a toga. Cool, that’s what she’d want, a toga. I’ll get you a sheet. And candles.” He smiled at her. “We need lots of candles.” Halfway out of the room he appeared to think better of it, Turning back towards her said, “First, you ought to start getting undressed.”
“But, Howard, it’s freezing in here.”
“Stop wasting time. I’ll fetch the sheets once you’re in the bath. You won’t be so cold in there.”
It was no use arguing. She could see that now. As the room began to fill with clouds of steam, she unzipped her skirt, letting it drop to the floor. Stepping out of it, she picked it up, before folding it neatly. She was on her way to hang it over the rail of a painted old chair by the basin, when he told her to hurry up.
“There’s no time for all that,” he said. Nonetheless, she carried on. Pulling her jumper over her head, followed by her slip, she placed them on top of her skirt. She felt a strong need to try to exert some control, however small. She sat on the chair to remove her tights. Working them carefully down each leg in turn, she could almost feel Howard’s eyes watching her every move. There was something disturbing in the way he looked at her. The countless times she’d undressed before him, she’d never experienced anything like it before.
Finally, she stood up, wearing only her bra and pants. The clouds of steam filling the bathroom gave the scene a mystical, ethereal quality. Strangely enough, she felt it to be a protective screen between them. Though almost completely naked, it offered the sensation of meagre cover. She hoped he wasn’t expecting her to perform the indignity of stripping off completely at knifepoint. For some reason, that would make things far feel far worse. From the blank expression on his face, it became evident he was. He had no intention of going anywhere until she was in the bath.
She switched off the geyser. It juddered and died, the water dribbling away to a slow drip. Dipping a hand into the bath to test how hot, she withdrew it in the same instant. The water was scalding.
“It’s too hot!” she screeched. “I’ll have to run some cold water into it.” Howard stood by fidgeting impatiently with the knife. She turned on the cold tap. A rush of icy water tumbled from the spout, which she stirred in with her arm until the bath was cooler. Turning the water back off, she glanced across at Howard.
“Get in,” he said, gesturing with the blade. It was obvious he wasn’t going to look the other way whilst she took off her underwear. She hated him for it.
Though he had seen her undress on countless other occasions, it’d never been under the threat of violence. She shivered as she peeled off her pants and bra, clasping her arms about herself, as much to stop him seeing her nakedness as against the cold.
Stepping over the side of the bath she lowered herself gently into the water. Oddly enough, despite the circumstances, the sensation of hot water, just a degree or two away from pain, was pleasurable on her skin, filling her with a sensuality she thought out of place. She wondered if it was always the case; no matter how dreadful the situation, it could still be possible to enjoy the physical sensation of some things.
“The sheet,” she reminded him, “you said you would get sheet from downstatirs for me to dry myself on.”
Once again a puzzled look flashed across his face.
“It’s not as if I’m going anywhere,” she said. “Look at me, I’m completely naked.”
“Yes, of course, the sheets,” he breathed, “I must get the sheets.” But he was unsure again. He couldn’t be certain whether it was safe to leave her alone or not.
“Go on,” she urged him, “we can’t do anything without the sheets.” He hesitated a second longer, before making up his mind and turning to go, taking care to make sure he left the door wide open behind him.
Gail listened intently to his retreating footsteps, allowing him as much time as she thought it would take to reach the bottom of the flight of stairs to the landing below. Reasonably assured, she stood up in the bath and climbed out as quietly as she could, screwing her face into a frown even though her naked body made hardly a sound as it dripped onto the bare linoleum floor. Gliding across to the door, just as she’d hoped the key had been left in the lock on the inside. With the door wide open, Howard hadn’t noticed. She closed the door very slowly, fearing the hinges might squeak. Once shut, she turned the key, and shoved the bolt into place. Though she couldn’t be sure how long it would hold, it least it’d give her some time to think.
Back by the chair where she’d parked her clothes she dried herself on her skirt the best she could. Then she dressed. After stuffing her damp legs back into her briefs with great difficultly, swearing under breath as she did it, she carried the chair, over to the door and wedged its rail tight beneath the doorknob as added defence.
Putting an ear against a panel, she tried listening to any sounds coming from the rest of the house. Then, tilting her face towards the heavens, while closing her eyes, she whispered a heartfelt prayer for the first time in years.
The sound of his footsteps bounding up the stairs, two at a time, interrupting her, she paused momentarily before hurriedly finishing her prayer and retreating from the door. She sensed the sudden pause of Howard reaching the landing and stopping short. He’d ponder for a moment on whether he’d left the door open or not. But not for very long. She heard the rattle of the doorknob on the other side as he tried to turn it, only to discover he couldn’t open the door. It wouldn’t take him any time to work out why.
Her eyes transfixed, she backed even further away. Afraid. Afraid for what she had done; afraid for what Howard might do; afraid of the knife he had with him. The doorknob rattled again. More vigorously this time. She trembled, fancying she saw the chair shift. Covering her face with her hands, she felt her breath warm on her palms; short and erratic. The rattling ceased.
A light tap came on the door. She jolted.
“Gail,” she heard him call out softly, “it’s only me. The door’s stuck. Do you think you can give it a pull from that side?”
She didn’t answer. She wouldn’t, in the vain hope he might think she’d somehow managed to escape, and was somewhere else in the house. But, all the time, she knew it was far too much to expect.
“Gail, open this door, will you? I know you’re in there. Can you hear me?” His voice sounded as normal now, so reasonable, it was hard to believe what was happening. The constant changes of mood were too much. She kept backing away from the door till the back of her calves touched the enamel rim of the iron bath. Howard rapped on the door more loudly. She whimpered involuntarily. “Gail,” he said more stridently, “open this door, will you?” Still, she wouldn’t answer. She couldn’t, even had she wanted. “Are you in there? Open this fucking door!” She heard him aim a kick at it. “I’m telling you to open this fucking door!” And then she heard him pound it with his fists. Crouching down by the bath she stuffed her fingers into her ears.
“Don’t let him in!” she whispered frantically. “Please, God, don’t let him in.”
Suddenly, there was a crashing sound, and she realised he must’ve thrown all his weight at the door. It held. She hoped it hurt. And then there was silence. She steeled herself for a second crash, but none came. Knitting her knuckles together, she held them in front of mouth.
There followed a long period of silence, when she wondered he’d gone back downstairs. Keeping her ears pricked for the slightest sound of movement, she could do nothing other than wait.
WHEN HOWARD spoke again his voice sounded weak and imploring. Yet another dramatic swing of mood.
“Gail,” he said, “Can you hear me?’ She didn’t answer. “Help me, Gail. Please help me.” She wanted him to go away. “I love you, Gail. You know that, don’t you?” It was more than she could bear. She covered her ears for some seconds, and then uncovered them to see if he had stopped talking. He hadn’t. “I’m so alone without you. I need you. We need each other. We can help one another.” His voice slowly got louder and more confident, to the point where, however hard she tried to block the words out, she couldn’t stop herself from hearing his pleas.
“I wish things could be like they used to be. Do you remember? Do you remember the day when we first met? When I opened the door for you? It was freezing outside. You had that huge, red scarf wrapped round your head. I hardly knew it was you.” He laughed. Gail stuffed her knuckles into her mouth and bit hard on them. “I’d been wanting to get to know you for ages, then there you were before my eyes, just like I’d predicted. Gift wrapped.” The pain of memory mingled with confusion. Why couldn’t he understand she didn’t want to hear this? At the same, she couldn’t resist listening. “I’d been trying to pluck up the courage to talk to you from the first time I ever saw you. But you made me feel so painfully shy. I think I fell in love with you as soon as I set eyes on you.” Her eyes began to blur with unshed tears till they flooded, then overflowed, streaming down her cheeks, over her knuckles, and into her mouth, filling it with their warm, wet saltiness. “I remember that rush to my head, after I thought a girl like would never want someone like me. Then when you ‘yes’ to coffee it felt as if I was going to lift off. Like a rocket, right there and then. You seemed so beautiful and full of confidence. You made me feel clumsy and unsophisticated.”
She took her fist from her mouth.
“I wasn’t,” she croaked in a low voice, even though she knew he was leading her down a path she shouldn’t go again. She had to keep a clear head and think of a means to excape.
“I wasn’t confident,” she said a little louder. “And I certainly didn’t feel sophisticated.
“What? I can’t hear you properly. Where are you?”
“I’m sitting by the bath,” she said, raising her voice a little.
“I still can’t make out what you’re saying properly. You’re sitting where?”
She lifted her head, and called across the room.
“By the bath.” Then she sniffed. “I’m crouched down by the bath. I feel so silly sitting down here by the bath tub.” She giggled in spite of herself. “You frightened me, Howard.” Perhaps she shouldn’t give too much away.
“Come over to the door,” Howard said. “I’ll be able to hear you better by the door.”
“No,” she said, “you’ll only try and break it down again.”
“I won’t, I promise I won’t. I was angry with you then. I’m sorry, I won’t do it again. I just want us to be nearer to each other.”
Even though she knew she could no longer trust him, she seemed unable to prevent herself from talking to him. They had been so close and so intimate. That was a different time and an altogether different Howard. Yet, if she thought about it, even then there had been signs something was wrong. Small things. But she became so infatuated with him she’d chosen to ignore them.
“All right.” She got to her feet. He’d tried to commit suicide, that alone should’ve told her something.
“I said, all right, I’m coming over to the door.” She walked cautiously across to the door and sat down about a foot away from it. Seeing how stout it was, he’d have difficulty break it down. Nevertheless, she looked for something to use as a weapon, should he try and succeed. There was nothing.
“I was so stoned that day,” he said.
“Stoned? I never knew that before.”
“I’d just had a joint. I didn’t want to tell you just in case you didn’t approve of smoking dope.”
“I should have known. I remember looking in your eyes and thinking there was something unusual about them. You rat! You never gave me any.” She smiled as she said it. She’d heard of an student at Brighton, who’d spent his days smoking hash and dropping acid. One day he jumped off the cliffs at Newhaven. Someone told her too many drugs could trigger schizophrenia. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t want to believe it. Howard couldn’t be schizophrenic. No way. But, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t think of any other explanation for his increasingly erratic behaviour. If only she’d taken more notice, it’d been there from the beginning. At that time she only saw it as an endearing eccentricity.
“I didn’t know you smoked then.”
“I didn’t, but I was dying to try some.”
“I didn’t dare let you know because I thought it might’ve put you off me.” He seemed so rational now. Maybe she was the one going insane.
“I would have liked you even more, you silly goat. If that was possible. Couldn’t you tell? I was besotted by you. You could’ve done anything to me, and I would’ve let you. I did. We went to bed that very first day. Remember? I’d never done that with anyone before.”
There followed an awkward pause. Perhaps she was getting too intimate.
“Where are you now?” he asked.
“I’m on the other side of the door,” she said.
“Are you sitting down?”
She crawled closer to the door. Leaning her back on it she said:
“I’m leaning with my back against the door.”
“My shoulder’s on the other side,” he said, “so we’re almost touching.” The realisation made her straighten up abruptly, so that her back was no longer in contact with the door. “We shouldn’t let a door come between us, Gail. Not after all we’ve been through together.”
“I’m scared,” she said quietly.
“I can’t hear you.”
“I’m scared, Howard. I don’t know what you’re going to do, anymore.”
“Don’t be scared,” Howard implored her. “I’m nothing to be scared of. Please don’t be scared, Gail. There’s only you and me here. We’re nothing to be scared of.”
She said nothing.
“Gail?’ he called, “Are you still there?”
“Of course.” She spoke softly, almost as if she was talking to herself.
“I can’t hear you again.”
“Of course I’m still here,” she said more loudly. “Where else would I be?”
Another awkward silence. She was beginning to find something strangely embarrassing about the situation. It was Howard to broke the silence again. She was perplexed. How could anyone sound so normal one minute, and so crazy the next?
“Do you forgive me?” he asked timidly. Though the interlude that followed the question was so short as to be virtually unnoticeable, it was far more significant than the answer she gave.
“Yes,” she said wearily, “I forgive you.” But in reality she didn’t know if she’d be able to forgive, or trust him, ever again. There followed yet another pause. The strain was almost palpable.
“You don’t love me anymore, do you?” Once again she didn’t answer immediately. And before she could, he went on, “I don’t blame you, I’m not worth it.”
“Don’t say that, Howard. You mustn’t think like that.”
“But I’m not, or you would. And you don’t.”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t say anything, and that amounts to the same thing. If you loved me, you would’ve said so.”
“I have said so, many times.”
“But not now.”
“This is hardly the time, or the place. Look at us, you on one side of the door and me on the other. How can I talk about love when we’re like this? You wouldn’t let me out of the house, Howard. Or have you forgotten?”
“If you loved me, you’d help me.”
“I want to help you, but I can’t. I think you should see someone.”
“You won’t even open the door. If you wanted to help me, you’d open the door to be here with me. Then we could talk about seeing someone.”
“I am with you. We’re talking, aren’t we?”
“But you’ve locked me out.”
“For heaven’s sake, I haven’t locked you out. I’ve locked myself in.” The irony of the fact she was using the same argument he’d used the previous evening didn’t escape her.
“Why, Gail? I don’t understand why. You’ve changed, I don’t know you anymore. You’ve become so hard, so aggressive. You used to be so kind. I could always talk to you.” He began to wail. “It’s because you don’t love me anymore, isn’t it? You don’t think I’m good enough for you, do you?”
The words came out unconvincingly slowly.
“I do love you.” In that instant, she knew she no longer did.
“No, you don’t. I know you don’t. I can hear it in your voice.” He was crying unashamedly. She couldn’t bear it.
“Howard,” she said. He seemed unable to hear her above the sounds of his own sobs. “Howard,” she persisted, “Howard, if I open the door, will you promise not to do anything, and let me out of this place?”
“Of course I won’t do anything,” he snivelled.
“But will you promise?”
“I won’t do anything, I’ve told you I won’t. What would I do?”
“That you won’t do anything. And you’ll let me out.”
“I’ve already said I won’t.”
“You’ve got to say the words, Howard. You have to promise.”
“All right,” he said, “if that’s what it takes, I promise I won’t do anything.”
“To harm me.”
“To harm you.”
“And you’ll let me out. No more silliness.”
“Yes, I promise I’ll let you out.”
“Drop the knife then.”
“Okay,” he said. And then: “I’ve dropped it.”
“No you haven’t, Howard I didn’t hear it.” She heard the knife clang onto the wood floor. “I have now,” he said.
“Now move away from the door.” She got to her feet. “Have you moved away yet?” she asked, both her hands on the chair rail. To give herself time to slam the door shut if need be, he’d have to be as far away from it as possible. Yet the thought of him injuring her with the knife was starting to seem ridiculous. She had never seen him use violence.
“Yes.” Howard replied sullenly. And she could tell by the sound of his voice he must be a few feet away from it.
Moving the chair aside, she slipped the bolt back, and turned the doorhandle. The door a fraction, and she peered through the crack into the murkiness beyond. Over in the shadows she could dimly make out Howard’s silhouette standing by the banisters. He had two sheets draped across his right arm.
“Where’s the knife?” she demanded. “You said you’d dropped it by the door.
“The knife, Howard. This is no time to mess around. You promised, remember?” He showed her his left hand. It was empty. “What about your other hand?” she asked. “You picked it up again didn’t you?” He held up the sheets. “Come on, Howard, under the sheets. What about under the sheets?”
Removing the sheets, one at a time, and dropping them onto the floor, revealed he was still holding the knife. But in the palm of his hand, the blade pointing innocuously inwards. It looked so harmless, held like that. Exactly what it was, in fact: an ordinary meat knife. The sort that could be found in countless kitchen drawers up and down the country. Though appearing somewhat smaller held in that fashion, it was still a nasty, little thing that could so easily be used for sticking into people.
“Now, put it on the floor. I’m not coming out until you put it on the floor,” adding swiftly, so he would not move too quick and startle her. “Do it slowly, so I can see you.”
Bending at the knee, he lowered himself gradually to the floor, his eyes fixed on hers. When he was able to touch it with his fingertips, he let the knife gently slip from his palm, onto the bare floorboards. And then raised himself up again.
“Kick it over here,” she ordered. He did as he was told and sent the knife skidding across the floor. Reaching an arm out, she bent down to pick it up. In that moment he leapt across the landing giving only giving her time to slam, but not bolt and lock the door. She put her shoulder to it, but wasn’t able to hold it closed, and reach for the bolt or the key at the same time. With his weight and shoulder to the door she stood no chance. Finally, he barged at it, sending her sprawling across the lino floor. She caught a glint in his eyes. How cold they had become. Then her head hit the side of the cast iron bath and the lights went out.
WHEN SHE CAME TO, she was lying by the bath tub, her head pounding. She had difficulty focusing and couldn’t think where she was. Or even how she got there. The presence of Howard seemed to figure in it somewhere. An acrid smell hung in the air. Smog, an autumn bonfire, or something. The window must be open.
Her eyes blurred even more, and stung sharply, as though her tears had turned to acid. She could hardly see. She blinked several times. And then rubbed them. Both made things worse. It wasn’t her eyes blurring at all. It was steam. There had been something about having a bath. So clouds of steam had filled the room. She pulled herself to her feet by the bath rim, and put a hand to her throbbing temples. The touch felt odd. Something slimey. There was oil on her face. Where had that come from? She coughed and struggled to breathe. No air.
Stumbling through the haze, she made her way to the basin, to look at herself in the mirror. The surface was covered in condensation. She wiped some away, leaving dark trails in their place. She looked at her hand. Blood. It must be bleeding. There were no signs of a cut. Glancing at her reflection, she saw blood trickling from her forehead. Red and swollen where it had bashed against the side of the bath.
The steam was getting thicker. She could hardly make out her surroundings. Her head ached. There was something terribly wrong. The roar of the geyser in the background. No wonder there was so much steam. Making her way to turn it off, she saw it wasn’t on. Thick fog must be seeping through an open window. She must close it. No wonder she was coughing. She put a hand to her mouth.
There were voices. She wasn’t alone. She could hear voices. People shouting. An argument going on somewhere. One of the voices was Howard’s. Suddenly, memory flooded back. She was in Tobago Street. Number forty-seven. The tall house at the end. At the end of Tobago Street. It was easy to get to, just across the river, New Cross. She could be there in less than half an hour. Okay, okay, it could wait till she finished work that evening. But she would have to promise. No, promise. She had come to see Howard. That was it: she had come to see Howard.
The fog was getting thicker. She began coughing intermittently. The air was choking. Her eyes now watered continually, and stung like mad. She’d have to open a window. But surely, if it was fog, the window must be open already? She couldn’t think straight. She coughed again. It was getting even more difficult to breathe. Only then did it hit her. It wasn’t steam or fog at all. It was smoke. The bathroom was full of smoke. The house must be on fire.
The events of evening and morning came tumbling back at random: the locked house, the pentagram, the bath and the knife. The voices she heard were just one, Howard’s. Now he was yelling. She must make her way to the door. In a dazed state she meandered haphazardly in what she assumed was its direction. When her hands finally reached it, though it was closed, it didn’t appear to be locked. She could just make out some of Howard’s words.
“No! I won’t…” he was shouting, “…not listening to you anymore! Leave me alone! … can’t make me hurt her. I promised … you don’t understand! … Gail! … Help me! Please help me!” There seemed to be someone with him.
She opened the door, and stepped back immediately. A wall of heat and thick smoke rushed in, hurting her eyes so much she couldn’t keep them open. Thick, rolling smoke, filling her nose and mouth, choking, choking, choking.
“Howard!” she called down the stairwell. And straight away her lungs filled with the suffocating fumes. She coughed again and again. “Howard!” she rasped thinly, swallowing yet more smoke, till she could hardly breathe “Fire! she croaked, her voice almost gone completely. “Somebody, call the fire brigade,” nothing but a hoarse whisper.
She struggled to go forward. But it was impossible; the heat and smoke forcing her back. She screamed. Not a sound passed her lips. There was no air. She could see nothing. Again she fought to go forwards. And again she was forced back.
There came a muffled explosion.
And then she felt it. A second, far greater wall of scorching heat, followed by a ball of flame seemingly rolling in slow motion, up the stairs, towards her. Even before it reached she could feel her hair and eybrows singeing. The skin on her exposed hands and face began to melt, peeling away like a pair of kid gloves. She felt the force of the blast lift her body off the floor and drive her back into the bathroom, before casting her down again. She struggled to her knees.
“Howard!” she mouthed. No more voices from below. “Howard!” But just the crackle, roar and crash of burning timbers falling came back, as she sucked desperately for air, only for a searing pain to enterher lungs. No more tears at last, she thought, her eyes completely dried. She collapsed to the floorboards, as she felt herself floating, floating.
THOUGH CHILLY until midday, way after the spring sun had swung south, the conservatory gave Gail the solitude she had come to crave, as few other patients used it. Most mornings she’d get one of the nurses to wheel her there, as soon as breakfast was over.
Gazing across the fields at a herd of grazing cows veiled in morning mist, her mind kept straying to the day of the fire. What still astonished her was how mundane the thoughts flitting through her head had been. As her memory had it, in the instant the explosion occurred, she was wondering if she’d paid the phone bill, among other things. Probably the brain shutting down when it could no longer cope.
At least she’d survived, most visitors told her. She was sick of hearing it. Not that she did so much since the number of friends still finding time to visit had declined considerably with the passing months. And knowing the feigned piety of the ones who continued to arrive out of some mistaken sense of loyalty, to say she’d rather have perished, would’ve been greeted with the kind of bloated silence bursting with unspoken accusations of ingratitude. Yet truth was, she would rather have perished. Unfortunately, at the point of seemingly imminent death, no life appeared so wretched or miserable that most human beings would not cling to it for all they were worth. She’d been no different. It was only with time she’d began to wonder if life in a wheelchair was really worth living. For expressing the same opinion to a doctor one day she’d been condemned to two hours counselling a week.
Though the two floors caving in beneath her would have normally killed anyone, by some strange chance, some luck of the draw, it had saved her from certain death instead. At the expense of shattering the bones of both legs severely in the process. It was doubtful she’d ever be able to walk properly again. She’d only survived because the very timbers that gave way, had protected her skull from falling masonry once she crashed onto the ground floor. That, and the fact a fireman had risked his life by entering the blazing building to rescue her.
Danny would be coming soon. He’d kiss the side of her cheek lightly, still unsure of whether the skin graft hurt or not, despite all her reassurances it didn’t. And for that reason alone she’d never be totally sure that he wasn’t suffering some sort of physical revulsion at the contact.
She’d have to stop him coming. The sooner the better.
And, as if in direct defiance of her wishes, she heard his voice calling her name at that very moment, and turned her head to see him striding towards her. The light kiss, followed by a warm embrace. She scrutinised his face for the slightest giveaway sign. But, as far as she could tell, the smile on his face was genuine. Maybe she was wrong.
“I’ve missed you, Gail,” he whispered in her ear.
“You mustn’t,” she said, frowning as she pushed him gently away from her.
“When you get out of this place we’ll go somewhere faraway. Somewhere, you’ll be able to forget.”
“Forget I can’t walk? Forget what I look like? How on earth do I do that? Don’t they have mirrors in the place you’re thinking of?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound insensitive, I just want to get you out of here. To take you to somewhere I can look after you.”
“For how long?”
“What do you mean?”
“How long will it take before you tire of looking after someone, who can’t even go to the loo without help? Who can’t dress themselves properly? Who can’t take a shower or bath without help. How long before you become revolted at seeing my face? And how long before you think you’re missing out?”
“Why are you asking me all this?”
“Because somebody has to. How long will it be before you meet somebody else? These are the things you ought to be asking yourself.”
Danny didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The guilt written across his face said it all.
“It wasn’t your fault, Danny, so stop bloody torturing yourself. You don’t owe me anything. You didn’t do anything. And you don’t have to do anything now. If you’re seeing me out of sympathy, I’d rather you stopped visiting. I don’t need your sympathy, and I don’t need your pity. So why don’t you fuck off?” She hadn’t meant to say it like that. But once the words had been issued, she felt no regret. She was only saying what she was thinking. Better out in the open.
For a few minutes he stood by her side, as if waiting for her to retract, or apologise. She wouldn’t even look into his face, but stared out of misted windows at the cows grazing in the field beyond. She heard him turn and walk away without saying anything.
She tried desperately to hold the tears back, but the trickles she felt warm her cheeks soon became torrents.
A forensic scientist giving evidence before the coroner said there must’ve been more than a hundred lighted candles arranged on the floor. So many, their drips formed large pools of molten and semi-molten wax. Once the bedclothes caught light, the pools reacted as though petrol had been spilled over the ancient pine boards, and the entire floor erupted into a sea of flames. In his panic to escape, Howard had stumbled heavily against the gas oven, fracturing a rusting pipe. He didn’t stand a chance. Most likely half-stunned, he’d been overcome by fumes just as he reached the door. The fact he managed to open it led to the explosion that brought the entire house down, as oxygen rushed in to feed the flames. At the inquest it was recorded as death by misadventure. A strange term Gail realised she would no longer ever be able to understand.
Danny had explained it was unlikely Howard would have felt any real pain, as he would have suffocated, rather than burned to death. It was supposed to be a comfort.
THE END of Tobago Street
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming