Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the Rain, Babel, Dreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.
She wasn’t coming. Nobody was coming. Nobody I wanted to see, at least.
All the lights went out. The departures board stuttered and died.
I felt my back bristle. I moved out from behind the ticket machine and heard the consternation of staff on the platforms, and passengers cheated of their information. A fire alarm went off. People began moving towards the exit. I stayed put, shrinking into the deep shadow of an entrance corridor. I heard the clatter of roller shutters as they crashed down.
About a hundred metres away, a figure moved out of a thick darkness that was wadded up against the far wall. I kept losing it in the gloom. It wasn’t Sarah, that was for sure. It was like a magnet shifting through iron filings. It coalesced and disintegrated. The absence of light, or of anything on the figure that might have reflected it – glasses, belt buckles, polished leather – meant that it sometimes shrank from view. I couldn’t track it. And then it would be over there to the left, a little closer now. It was ranging from side to side. I had the horrible feeling that it was trying to sniff me out. I imagined something blind, something monstrous with unhinged jaws sucking in the flavour of my warm body, homing in. But now I did see something gleaming, and it was a broad blade. I thought it might be a machete, but that could have been fear enlarging it. I was torn between running for my life and sticking around in the hope that I might catch a clearer glimpse of my stalker and put a face to the threat, level this playing eld. Maybe even disarm him, finish it tonight.
I got moving myself, but not before I decided to match the figure’s trickery. I slid my watch off my wrist and into my pocket. My wedding ring too. Buttoned my jacket and turned up the collar. I headed for the edge of Platform 1 and dropped on to the tracks as quietly as I was able. Hugging the wall under the lip, I made for open air, crouched low alongside the rails.
I passed under Bishop’s Bridge Road, and waited for a while in its shelter. The space under the roof of the station was utterly black. How hard could it be to replace a fuse? And then a footfall on track ballast; the harsh music of crushed stone. The weapon was fully brandished now; it swept the air before it in broad, slow arcs. I backed away, ready to run if need be. The sight of the steel made the scar on my face ache.
She poured and I drank. She held her glass with both hands, like a child, and closed her eyes when she took her first mouthful.
‘Oof,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’
‘That was the drink of a person who has just walked out of the desert,’ I said.
‘Feels like it. Had a tough couple of days.’
‘I know how that feels.’
‘So I watch football to unwind.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘It doesn’t relax me. I end up swearing at the set.’
She took another drink, leaned back in her seat. On the screen, ex-players in panic-inducingly expensive suits and fuck-me haircuts bantered around a pitch-side table.
‘That’s because you’re partisan. You’re invested.’
She shook her head. ‘Itinerant upbringing. Didn’t stay in one place for long enough to swear allegiance. I’m as neutral as it gets. I just like to watch. The patterns. The shapes. The flow.’
‘So what’s on tonight?’ Screens upon screens. Giant screens. Tiny corner screens. Personal screens on tables. So many screens you’d be hard pressed not to catch the match at all, even if you were a dwarf with cataracts. In a different bar.
‘Champions League semi-final, first leg.’
‘No idea.’ She looked at my clothes. ‘Red versus blue. France versus England. Expansive versus cautious.’
‘You could be describing us.’
‘Experience versus youth.’
‘Very good,’ I said. ‘Very funny.’
On the screens overpaid, oily-haired prongs stood in the tunnel. And that was just the match officials. Smoke from a flare turned the stands into a ghost-red battle zone. The bar management ramped up the volume and the Champions League theme shook our glasses.
I’d gone through my beer as if it were water. I realised I was nervous. She poured me another glass. ‘I’ve been looking into a death. Someone was murdered a couple of days ago. In Enfield. He knew my daughter.’
‘I don’t know what I can do to help.’
‘Possibly nothing. It doesn’t matter. But I was wondering if there was someone at the museum who could look at some documents for me.’
‘You mean me?’
‘Of course I do. I’m rubbish at being direct.’
‘What sort of documents?’
I pulled the pages from my jacket and handed them over.
She took another deep drink and studied them.
‘My uncle would have been all over this,’ she said.
‘He was involved in the Zodiac killings back in the sixties and seventies.’
‘Yeah. He was one of the team who studied the notes Zodiac sent to the San Francisco Chronicle.’
‘And you got into palaeography because of him?’
‘Kind of. But I’m more involved with manuscript dating.’
‘You just haven’t met the right man yet.’
‘Very good,’ she said. ‘Very funny.’
‘Joel, I think you need help.’
‘I need help? I’m not the one who killed in cold blood. I’m not the one who took photographs of naked women in changing rooms and then tossed off over them back in his sad pad.’
‘No. But it’s a sunny day. And you chose to come and sit in a cold room in a prison miles away from where you live. Shepherd’s Bush, isn’t it? Or did you move? I’m guessing you would have moved. Somewhere smaller. You’d have been rattling around that old place, wouldn’t you, Joel? You and perky tits… what was her name?’
I’d stood up without realising it. The guards in the room stepped closer. One of them rested his hand on the Taser in his belt. I’d come in here determined to control myself, to control him, to control the situation, and within seconds he had the upper hand. He was playing me like a knackered trombone.
‘What did you think you could do, Joel? Why did you even come here?’
‘May I offer an hypothesis?’
A peeping Tom. A guy who scraped shit off toilet bowls. A coward. A thief. I remember word for word how the judge had referred to him just before passing sentence: a pathetic, tragic alien living among us, the antithesis of everything good in his victim.
‘I think you came here because you consider me the strop that keeps your edge keen. You came to see me because you’re losing your grip on who you are and what you feel your point in life is. Rebecca was your anchor. She kept you grounded. And now you’ve been cut adrift, there’s nobody to steer you into safe waters, is there?’
He licked his lips. His face hosted boles of deep shadow, like the cross-hatchings in a bleak political cartoon. His eyes were pale crucibles of cold flame. In the dock he had stood bowed, like an S, like something defeated, burdened with a weight only he could feel. A grey man, his hair thinning, apparently being eaten away by something more deleterious than the most aggressive of cancers. Now he was loose-limbed and lissom. Muscles shifted like oiled rats against each other under his clothing. His skin was pink. He gleamed.
He rubbed his hand over his mouth. His nostrils flared. His fingernails were like polished slivers of almond.
‘So Joel, how’s the search for your daughter going?’
I was on the M6 within twenty minutes. The motorway was uncommonly quiet, just a smattering of lorries and cars, maybe a dozen or so in total. It was getting on for seven o’clock. Clouds were piled like wet grey towels.
My dad died when I was twelve years old. He dropped dead in a car park in Southampton while he was attending a conference, some work-related training course; he was an office manager for a stationery business based in Penrith. Aneurysm. The technical name for it – subarachnoid haemorrhage – gave me nightmares. I thought his head had split open under the weight of a skull filled with spiders. I bore the fear of that for years; a time bomb in the brain he had carried from birth.
I remember little things about him, although I suspect I’ve also dreamed some of them into perceived reality. The way he drank instant coffee exclusively with hot milk and lots of sugar; his penchant for big coats with big pockets so he could line up his pens in a row; a love of Dylan and Mitchell (I remember singing along to Blue in a Christmas living room smelling of vinyl seat covers and tangerines and Harveys Bristol Cream). I remember going to the swimming baths with him, and clinging on to his shoulders in the deep end, where the water was always colder. He would buy me crisps and chemical-green pop from the vending machines afterwards, and we’d sit on plastic chairs while I ate and he tied my shoelaces.
What’s the difference between a duck?
I don’t know, Dad.
One leg’s both the same.
My foot on the parapet. The crack of stone. The drop.
How fast you’d go. A sense of freedom, of flight. Shackles off. A release for ever from worry and fear and responsibility.
I bore down on the accelerator.
70… 80… 90…
I lifted my hands from the steering wheel and closed my eyes.
My story Rosenlaui has made it on to the shortlist for a prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Dagger award. I’m shocked and thrilled. The nominees were announced at CrimeFest this weekend. The awards ceremony will take place later in the year.
If you’d like to read Rosenlaui, along with a bunch of many other fine tales by many other fine writers, you can get hold of a copy of the anthology, edited by the redoubtable Maxim Jakubowski (who is also responsible for getting my PI Joel Sorrell on the scene, by the way), here.
Congratulations and good luck to all the other finalists.