Dead Letters is alive!

DeadLetters

It’s always a thrill to receive a box of books in the post. And it was especially satisfying to open this parcel, if only because it meant it hadn’t gone missing (which I was convinced was going to happen). The books are lovely; Titan have done a beautiful job. It seems like such a long time ago that I first came up with the concept, but all the hard work was done by others: eighteen ridiculously-talented writers (and each one a pleasure to deal with) contributed wonderful stories. I was thinking with some sadness that the project was over, but really, with the book’s publication, it’s only just started. Because now you lovely readers get involved. I hope you love this anthology as much as I do.

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Advent Stories #22

CITY IN ASPIC

aspic

It was a place that needed people in order for it to come alive. In winter, the streets whispered with uncollected litter and nervous pigeons. The air grew so thick with cold that it became hard to walk anywhere. When night came, the water that was slowly drowning the city turned the darkness into an uncertain quantity. There was astonishing beauty here too, though, even where there oughtn’t be any. The crumbling structures, the occasional bodies dragged from the waterways, the bleach of winter that pocketed the city’s colour for months on end: all of it had a poetry, a comeliness. Massimo understood this skewed charm. Where others saw moles, he saw beauty spots.

Many times Massimo had wished he could simply drift away like the tourists at the tail end of the season, or the leaves that blew from the trees. It would be nice to spend the coldest months of the year further south, perhaps with his cousins in Palermo. But now that was not possible. He and Venice were stuck with each other until March.

He stood on the balcony of the honeymoon suite, smoking his last cigarette and enjoying the garlicky smells of chicheti that wafted up from the osterie on the Riva degli Schiavoni. One of Venice’s interminable mists had risen from the Canale di San Marco and clung to the façades like great sheets hung out to dry. Behind him, from deep within the hotel, the sound of the vacuum cleaners on the stairs competed for a short while with the toots of the vaporetto and the bell of San Nicoló dei Mendicoli. The last of the guests had checked out that morning and in a little while, Maria, the cleaner, would be finished and he could lock the great doors of the Hotel Europa until next year.

He could have his dinner here, on this balcony, every evening if he so wished. The corridors would be his alone to patrol. A different bed to sleep in whenever he liked, though such a choice disturbed him perhaps more than it ought. Deaths had occurred in some of the Europa’s rooms; children and divorces had their origins on a number of those mattresses.

He flicked his cigarette end in the direction of the canal and returned to the room where he smoothed the bedspread before taking the stairs down to the ground floor. His father, Leopoldo, had told him this was a job of great responsibility; if he went about it with professionalism, then he would be considered for the post of reception clerk. He was under no illusions. He was a security guard, no more. In the seventies, his father had run the Europa with a touch of élan and much warmth. Tourists who stayed at the Europa came back the next year and the year after that. And then the hotel had been taken over by men in suits with large bellies and eyes that gleamed when they assessed his father’s profits. They paid a hefty sum to take over the hotel. Massimo’s father was tired. A stroke had robbed him of his personable nature. Though the hotel was Massimo’s birthright, he agreed with his father that they should take the money in order that it should fund his senescence. But his father, though crippled by the stroke, clung to life and the money was running out.

Maria, who had been a cleaner here for as long as he could remember, patted his arm before she left and told him that spring would be here before he was aware. ‘Take advantage of the rest,’ she advised him. ‘You’ll be busy again too soon.’ Perhaps seeing the bitterness in his eyes, she smiled at him. ‘Your father would be proud of you.’

And now, alone. The magazines had been read and the puzzle books completed. The evening stretched before him like the interminable carpets on the five floors above. He took a cursory stroll of the ground floor, checking the window catches in each room and the locks on the doors. The furniture was shrouded with dust sheets that reduced everything to the same, lumpen shape.

He was about to return to the lobby and rewatch an old football video when he saw the single glove draped across the newel post. The stairwell reached up into darkness, those risers beyond the sixth step lost to a night that had fallen on the city as stealthily as snow. It was a lady’s glove for the left hand, made from black leather and scuffed with age. The interior smelled of perfume. Maria must have come across it while she was preparing the rooms for the winter. He pocketed it and drew the curtains across the front entrance but not before noticing that the street was empty. He didn’t like the way that Venice was abandoned each year. It was as if sunshine and long days were the only things of interest to visitors. Newly married couples ran the gamut of clichés before returning to their homes; the way the tourists clung to St Mark’s square or were punted around in boats suggested that Venice had nothing else to offer.

Irritated by this train of thought, Massimo turned off the television and went out into his city, a place where he could still get lost in the dark, a place that thrilled and comforted him like no other. The somnolent lap of the water against the gondolas was the beat of a mother’s heart. It was not merely a comfort. It justified him. It fastened him like a bolt to the earth and gave him substance.

He stopped for coffee and grappa at the trattoria al canastrello and watched from the window the black water as it ribboned beneath the Ponte di Rialto. One of his favourite occupations was observing people, but at this time of the year the only people around were the old and infirm. They drifted through the streets as if the weight of their experience was shoring Venice up, as much a support for the ancient city as the countless larch poles that cradled it beneath the waves. Venice, during the winter, seemed to run down like an old clock. Its streets and façades could still play a backdrop for anybody from any time over the last fifteen hundred years without them seeming anachronistic. He would not have been surprised to see Marco Polo himself hurrying along the Fondamenta del Vin. The people fastened Venice to the here and now. But when there were no people, it was as if the city were immune to history. Venice had the quality of an eternal ghost.

A woman with one hand paused at the apex of the bridge to look into the water, but then he saw how the light was absorbed by the dark glove on the limb that he thought had been missing, which made it seem invisible. She was moving away from the bridge, in the direction of the San Polo district, when Massimo remembered the glove in his pocket. He cast a handful of lire on to the table and burst out of the trattoria into the cold. The air was damp and settled heavily in his lungs.

By the time he was under the grand arch at the top of the bridge the woman was nowhere to be seen; she could have taken any one of the half dozen exits away from the canal. Frustration bled through him. He glanced back to the warmth of the trattoria and saw that somebody had already taken his place at the window, was hunched over a newspaper. Angry, he stalked in the direction she had taken, rubbing at the glove in his pocket. It was an old thing. Tomorrow, no doubt, she would buy herself a new pair, thus rendering pointless this little chase of his.

Massimo walked for twenty minutes, until the fog had drawn an ugly, persistent cough from his chest. He tugged at the collars of his coat but the damp was in him and around him now, settling on the thick black twill like dew. He heard a brief snatch of music from one of the pensiones but it was stolen away before he had the chance to place it. The absence of people disarmed him. During the day, this area was a hive of activity filled with erberia and pescheria, along with jewellers’ shops and clothes stalls. Now it was lonely and its voice was any number of echoes. The lack of physicality, of motion, had taken away his confidence. The street names were made indistinct by the quickening mist. He had grown up in this city, and understood that part of its charm was its complication of alleyways, but never before had he felt so lost. His home had turned its back on him.

Shutters closed noisily on the night. Venice was sealing itself against the hour.

He stumbled gratefully upon the Campo San Polo where he was able to reorient himself. Eager to return to the hotel, he lingered as he heard the skitter of heels clatter through the arches towards him. She was still nearby, or somebody else was. He bit down on his compulsion to find her and hurried back to the Europa. Once there, he locked the glass doors and threw on the lobby lights.

He placed the glove behind the reception desk and checked the phone messages. There was just one, from his father, who felt well enough to take lunch with his son the following day, if the weather was fair.

In bed, Massimo allowed the creaks and sighs of the old hotel to lull him. At least here, among these well-known and much-loved sounds he could feel at home, even if his city had shown him its inaccessible side tonight. He slept and dreamt of hands reaching out from the sacrament-black waters. They would not rest until they touched him. And where they touched him, a little part of his happiness, his warmth inside, was switched off for ever.

*

He wakened feeling hollow and feverish. He knew it was his blood sugar levels in need of a boost, but could not resist blaming the dream on his skittishness. He wished, as was so often the case with other dreams, that he had been unable to remember it.

He took breakfast in another of the suites, white dust sheets covering the furniture and brightening the room, while also making it cold through its lack of definition. The mist had disappeared. Feeble sunlight splashed across the roofs and turned the surface of the canal into the colour of watered-down milk. Feeling better, he set the timer on the central heating to ensure that each room would be warmed for a few hours, and switched on the television.

In the night, a murder had been committed in Venice, at the campanile near the church of San Polo. According to the reporter, who was standing by the Palazzo Soranzo in the square, his nose red from the cold, the woman had been found just after midnight by a man walking his dog. The camera switched angles to show the crime scene, which was dominated by a white tent erected by the carabinieri, a number of whom were standing around with machine guns hanging loose over their arms. Bystanders watched as a stretcher was shunted into an ambulance, a crimson blanket covering the body.

Shaken, Massimo switched off the bulletin and showered. He had picked up a sniffle after last night’s adventure and he felt too ropy to go out. He considered calling his father to cancel lunch, but the old man did not take the air much these days; he would be looking forward to spending a little time in the sunshine with his boy.

Massimo toured the hotel, desultorily checking windows and locks. He flapped ineffectually at the pigeons that had settled on the terraces and made a mental note to buy some disinfectant and talk to Franco, the handyman, about getting some netting to drape from the roof, to prevent them nesting. With a heavy heart, he locked the hotel doors behind him. It was not so much the emptiness of the old building that got to him, but its silences. Coming back to a quiet place, that over the years had known so much bluster and happiness, was saddening in the extreme. It was a different hotel to the one his father had run. It was as if, at the time of Leopoldo’s departing, its spirit had left too, perhaps clogged up with the gears of the old-fashioned fob watch he wore in his waistcoat, or bunched in a pocket like one of his maroon silk handkerchiefs.

Massimo spotted his father easily. His beard was a white strap for his chin and he wore the only tie he owned, a dark blue knot against a badly ironed white shirt.

‘Hi pop,’ he said, bending slightly to kiss the top of the old man’s head. The beard was not clipped as neatly as it once had been; his hair was haphazardly oiled. He smelled of burnt toast.

Buon giorno,’ Leopoldo said, formally. ‘Come sta?

Massimo ordered another glass of Prosecco for his father, despite his protestations, and a grappa for himself.

‘You heard of the killing?’ Leopoldo said, through the slewed mess of his mouth. He dabbed at the corner of it with a handkerchief every ten seconds or so. The left side of his face seemed to be sliding away from his head. It gave him a dismissive air that, Massimo suspected, pleased his father no end. He seemed distressed by the news, though.

‘This morning, yes,’ he replied. He could not help feeling guilty. His father’s stare still had the capacity to find some speck of fault in him, even when there was none.

‘A woman, they say.’

Massimo grunted.

‘They say her left hand was skinned, like a rabbit.’

‘I didn’t know that.’ Reaching for the glove in his pocket that, of course, was not there, Massimo betrayed more of his nervousness than even he expected of himself.

Leopoldo had noticed also. ‘Are you all right, son?’ He tried to reach out the withered nonsense of his own left hand but he could do no more than waggle it in Massimo’s direction.

‘I’m fine. It’s the hotel. Strange to be there with nobody else around.’

‘It is a good hotel. She will protect you.’

‘I know pop. I know.’

They were half way through lunch when Massimo thought of something.

‘How did you know about the hand?’ he asked. ‘You said it was skinned.’

‘So they say.’

‘Who are “they”?’

Leopoldo wiped his lips. His plate was littered with splinters of chicken bone. Much of the sauce patterned his shirt; he was having a good lunch.

‘I have my friends,’ he said. ‘Friends all over Venice. They stay in my hotel sometimes. Maybe when they need a little help. Polizia. I have friends there too. You don’t think your papa has his contacts?’

Sadly, Massimo understood that, like his father, the only friends he could lay claim to were friends of the hotel first. They were friends by extension.

‘It’s nice to see you again, pop.’

‘You too. We should do this more often. You should come visit me.’

‘I will. I will.’

Massimo walked his father to the vaporetto and waved him off before deciding to investigate the murder site for himself. The crowd had dispersed since the body had been taken away, but the white tent remained, as did the carabinieri. Police tape sealed off the area. By day, the campo did not seem capable of possessing the menace it had exuded the previous night. All of its shadows had been washed clean by the sunlight.

He wanted to ask one of the policemen, or perhaps one of the louche reporters leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes, if they knew anything more about the death and whether or not Leopoldo’s nugget of gossip bore any truth. Instead, he walked away. To say anything might be to incriminate himself. He could not help feeling in some small way responsible for the woman’s death. If he had caught up with her, he might have been able to give her her glove; his presence alone might have been enough to dissuade her pursuer from attacking.

On the Ponte di Rialto he saw a dark cat withdrawn into the shade. His father had loved cats and had kept many at the Europa over the years. Massimo beckoned it to him but it did not come. It was only as he drew nearer that he realised it was not a cat at all. It was another glove.

*

Massimo did not go out that evening. He ate his dinner in the hotel kitchen and played patience in the lobby while the television murmured. He paid it no attention, but its burble was of some comfort. He thought about calling some of his old friends, people he had not seen for many years, and asking them round for drinks but he did not possess the courage. It would be too much to find that they had moved away from Venice or worse, that they had remained but did not remember him. The hotel had nailed him to this city. He might be taking care of it at the moment, but he saw now how it had more than taken care of him. He stopped dealing cards and looked up at the paintings on the walls, the worn carpet leading from the door to the reception area, the sofas under their dustsheets, the ashtrays on the fake marble tables. He suddenly despised the hotel, and the way his father had shackled him to it. He envied the old man’s freedom. All of Massimo’s formative years had been poured into the hotel and while it had remained robust, fashionable even, he had found himself at the doorway to his forties, his promise, his potential dwindling like the hair at his temples. Venice was like an ill-matched spouse that one gets used to, that one learns to if not love, then abide. Its waters lapped slowly at one’s resolve; Massimo had been worn down by it. He had capitulated.

Evening had lost its ripe colours to the night. Faint drifts of cloud were scrapes at the bottom of a bowl of dark chocolate. A cold wind, a taste of winter, was coming in from the north, inspiring shapes among the twists of litter. Massimo sat back in his chair and reached for the bottle beneath the desk. His hand brushed against the gloves. He took two quick shots of grappa and picked up the telephone. His fingers remembered the number before he had fully mustered it in his thoughts. He was surprised by the readiness of this memory. She can’t still live there, he thought, as the line burred with the ringing tone. The lights in the hotel dimmed and then grew very bright. He was about to hang up, embarrassed by this asinine plot, he was startled into saying something when a voice leapt down the receiver at him: ‘Pronto!’

*

Adelina Gaggio remembered him. How could she not, she had argued? Though it had been thirty years since they had last spoken at length, when they were both at school, their conversation had been spiced and easy, as if they had never lost touch. Her voice had been a soft hand enclosing his, bringing him in from the cold.

Yes, she had eaten, but she was at a loose end tonight and would be thrilled to come and see him. She too lived in the Sestiere Castello, in Calle Dietro te Deum, and would be with him within the hour.

Massimo hurried around the lobby, stripping back the sheets to try to rouse some colour and warmth from the old building. He changed into clothes that were not so tired-looking and relieved the wine cellar of a few bottles of Bardolino. It was as he was wiping them clean and trying to remember which bunch contained the key for the dining room, where the glasses were stored, that he heard two very loud thumps above his head, as if somebody struggling to remove his shoes had managed to kick them across the room.

The spit vanished from his mouth. He had nothing in the way of a weapon, other than a broken snooker cue from the games room that had been waiting months for a repair that would never happen. He took the lower half of it, tight in his fist, and padded along the corridor to the stairs. Throwing the switches to illuminate the upper floors might scare the intruder off but the coward in Massimo could not bear to ascend in darkness. He was half way up the second flight, the suite of rooms where the sound had come from in view, when the lights went out again, staggered, as though a finger was deliberately flicking off each set. Massimo’s hand would not settle on the butt of the cue. He paused, his breath coming harder than this simple exertion ought to inspire, while his eyes accustomed to the fresh dark.

A pair of pigeons had flown into a window, confused by the reflections in the glass. The electrics, old and unreliable in such a building, had fused. Hadn’t they suggested their unpredictability to him downstairs just now? He clung to the possibilities like a child at the tit. But if the circuits had fused, shouldn’t the lights go out as one?

There were different sets of switches. The ones he had thrown at the foot of the stairs and separate consoles for each floor. If there was an intruder up here, then he was still up here. Where was the sense in breaking in, dashing downstairs and then killing the lights after the caretaker had gone to investigate? Massimo removed his attention from the inked out column behind him and forced his focus to gel on the shadows ahead. Nothing moved up there that he could see, but now he could hear the slam of a window in its frame as the wind increased.

He swept up the final flight and stood at the end of the corridor. The door to room 29 was ajar. Biting down on his fear, he approached it. He would swing first and ask questions later. The thought of violence encouraged his heart to beat faster. Six feet shy of the door a moan slipped out of him as the gap in the doorway shrank and the door snicked softly shut.

Downstairs, the entry buzzer rasped.

The torpor of fear fell away from him like a chrysalis. Refreshed by the promise of an ally, he hurried back down the stairs and unlocked the doors. Adelina was standing hunched against the wind, a smile fading. She had taken off one of her gloves to press the buzzer. Her eyes went from his own to the makeshift cosh he brandished.

‘Come in,’ he said, grabbing her arm roughly.

She stiffened under his fingers. He apologised quickly and told her what was wrong.

‘Call the police,’ she said, as if she were explaining something simple to a child.

‘I can’t. I’m not sure.’

She rolled her eyes, the first expression she had shown him that he remembered from their youth. Time had bracketed her face with a kind heaviness that nevertheless had fogged his recollections of her until now. She marched past him and took the stairs two at a time. He noticed that the lights had come back on.

‘Wait,’ he said, and hurried after her. Despite his anger at himself, he stopped in the same place as before and watched her open the door. He saw the shadows spring back as the light went on and then the counterpane on the bed diminishing, the narrowing of the watercolour on the far wall as the door swung slowly shut. He waited for her to cry out. A minute passed that felt the length of a season. If he went downstairs now, the frost would be gone from the car roofs and spring would have lent its freshness to the canals.

Adelina emerged, wiping her hands off against each other. She looked bored, as a person waiting for a bus in the rain might.

‘A window had come loose,’ she said simply, and brushed past him. ‘Do you have something to drink?’

*

His attention kept returning to those hands, even after the first bottle had been consumed, when his body had relaxed into itself and his earlier panic seemed distant and foolish. They were slimmer than the rest of her body, as if they had once belonged to another woman. She used them to help shape her words, which had loosened with the drink, and were accompanied with frequent laughter. It bothered him slightly that she refused to take off the left glove, but the wine was numbing him to his insecurities. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all.

It seemed absurd to Massimo that their paths had not crossed, even by accident, in the three decades since they shared classes at school. Since then, she had stayed in Venice for all but one of the following years, and had worked as a saleswoman for the Murano Glass Company since the mid 1990s. She had never married, but she had a teenage son, Bruno, who was currently travelling in England. ‘My life now, I want to devote to animals. And then find myself a good husband. Have some happiness before they put me in my pretty little plot on San Michele.’

Towards midnight, the two bottles drained, they suddenly became aware of the passage of time. The wind had become a constant howl but Adelina declined Massimo’s offer to take one of the rooms, gratis. She left with his telephone number, and promises that they would keep in touch now; that they had no excuses not to. Her kiss on his cheek stayed with him, like a line of poetry, or a new song that feels like an old favourite by the time it ends. He fell asleep in the chair.

When he wakened, he thought it was morning, but the light was the artificial spill coming from the brackets on the walls. His mouth was sticky with wine. He saw from his watch that he had been asleep a matter of two hours. It was cold, the heating having turned itself off, but that was not what had roused him.

Somebody had screamed. The wind was dead, so he couldn’t blame the sound on that. He rose from his seat and switched off the lights in order to see better when he pressed his face to the window. Two hours was more than enough time for Adelina to have arrived home safely; nevertheless, unease spread like indigestion through his chest.

On the ground six feet away from the doors, a suede glove the colour of the cement it rested on flapped at him, as if agitating for help. There were no blocks of light in any of the other buildings he could see, which suggested that he had imagined it after all, but another scream, this one deeper and somehow more liquid, stitched by frantic gasps, cut through his doubt. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cold glass, as if its chill might numb the distressed part of his mind. What could he do to help? The scream had been severed and originated from the maze of streets off the main drag. He could spend half an hour looking for its author, enough time for a body to be dumped in the canal and a killer to become a ghost. He might have opened the doors anyway, and tried his best, if it weren’t for the grate of heels on the pavement. He moved back from the window into the sanctity of shadow and watched as a shadow lengthened in the frame afforded by the Europa’s entrance. Something in its deportment rattled him. The shadow seemed too stiff, too jerky, as if the joints of the owner’s body had been fused together. It became, in the second or two when he realised the figure was going to pass into view, dreadfully important that he did not look at who it was, regardless of the fact that the other would not be able to see him in the gloom. He turned away, like a child from a bad dream, and sensed eyes burn into him, scorching him away layer by layer. He felt raped by their awful scrutiny.

An age later, he craned his neck and saw that the figure had gone. The glove, though, remained on the ground, fingers curled skyward, like a dead animal that had withdrawn and hardened. Was it the woman he had seen the day before? He could almost believe that her presence had given the glove that solidified, bereft appearance and was grateful that he had lost her on the bridge that night. Because for the first time, he suspected that she had been tracking him.

*

Signorina Sinistra. He heard the name a dozen times the next morning in the marketplace as he shopped for vegetables and fruit. ‘She takes the skin from the left hand’, a voice at his shoulder said as he was testing the ripeness of an avocado. Another, queueing behind him while he took coffee in a bar, confided: ‘They found another body this morning. Near the Arsenale. A man this time. His hand, oh my Lord, his hand!’

Another body. That made two. A little premature, he thought, to start giving the killer a moniker, providing a myth before its time. And how could they be certain it was a female murderer? But then he thought of the footsteps outside the hotel and he shuddered. He must hurry back and burn the gloves that he was keeping under the desk. God only knew why he had bothered to collect them in the first place. They had brought him nothing but trouble. He suspected his complicity in the murders had begun with the recovery of the first one, as if that simple act had been some kind of secret signal, a green light of sorts.

A police car was parked outside the hotel when he returned. A sombre-faced man with doughy jowls standing by the passenger door tried to smile at him but the curve of his lips only served to turn his mouth into a flat line. Massimo’s heart lurched when he saw that the entrance doors to the hotel were open. Two policemen were standing inside.

Massimo said, ‘I’m sure I locked that this morning.’

The sombre-faced man, who introduced himself as Inspector Scarpa, shrugged. ‘It was for the best we stay until you returned. You are Leopoldo’s son, yes?’

Massimo nodded. Inspector Scarpa aped him. ‘My first job,’ he said, ‘when I joined the police, was here, at the Europa.’

‘Oh?’ Massimo moved away from the other man, into the warmth of the lobby. The two policemen looked at him as if he were trespassing. He saw a third policeman now, standing behind the reception desk with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the television screen. A football match was playing.

‘Yes,’ said the inspector, following Massimo into the hotel. ‘A most terrible case. Your father must remember it. Some people staying here. Two men. They tortured a woman, a young girl in fact, in one of the rooms. But they escaped.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Massimo spat, horrified that his hotel could be guilty of such a secret. His father had never mentioned such a thing to him.

‘You must have been no more than a boy. It was in all the newspapers. Twenty-eight years ago. A big, big story. The girl died as I recall. A complication. She developed infections. Nasty business.’ He shrugged again, as if it was a game.

The policeman had grown bored of the football match and was picking through the coffee cups and notepads on the desk.

‘Do you have a search warrant?’ Massimo barked, and then smiled awkwardly at the inspector, hoping he would take the outburst as a joke. Inspector Scarpa’s eyebrows had raised.

Now the policeman had seen something; Massimo could tell from his expression what it was.

‘Well thank you, for looking after my hotel. I’m grateful to you. I’ll make sure I’m more careful in future.’

‘Careful in what way?’ Inspector Scarpa said as the officer lifted the gloves into view and all eyes turned on Massimo.

*

He asked for a glass of grappa and they brought him one. The inspector looked like an indulgent uncle who has caught his nephew watching a pornographic film. The face seemed born to police work. Tell me all about it, was its message. It was big enough and friendly enough to absorb lots of information. The inspector was a sponge.

Massimo told them everything, right up until the previous night when he had seen the woman in the street. The only details he changed concerned the checking of the second floor room: he could not admit to Adelina searching it for him. The inspector had made a barely imperceptible gesture with his hand when he mentioned Adelina’s name and thereafter his concentration was qualified with a slight frown, as if he couldn’t quite understand Massimo’s dialect.

When he was finished, Inspector Scarpa said, ‘Can we see the room?’

Massimo swallowed the last drops of the grappa; his ‘Sorry?’ was strangled slightly by its fire.

‘The room you checked. Where you heard the intruder.’

‘There was no intruder. Just a window that wasn’t locked properly.’

‘Can we see it?’

‘I don’t see why this is so —’

Inspector Scarpa held up his hand. In a soporific voice, he said: ‘Per favore, Signore Poerio. Please. Indulge us. We shan’t take up too much more of your precious time.’

The first sting of sarcasm. It hit home more acutely, coming from Inspector Scarpa’s affable mouth. They suspected him of something. Well let them.

‘This way,’ he said, brusquely, and set off for the stairs without waiting for them to gather. On the second floor he slipped the bunch of keys from his waistband and hunted for the relevant master. As he did so, the inspector ran his fingers along the slender knuckles of his opposing hand, eliciting cracks from the joints with little tweaks and twists. The sounds were unbearably loud in the corridor. Massimo dropped his keys. Nobody seemed to mind.

‘Adelina, you say?’ muttered the inspector, in a far-away voice. ‘Adelina?’

‘Yes. What of it?’

Another shrug. ‘It’s familiar. It’s familiar to me.’

Massimo opened the door and stood back to let the other four men into the room. In the mirror, before he could enter, he saw them looking down at a body. The crimson rug that it lay on had once been white. He reacted more quickly than he believed himself possible, closing the door and locking it before the police had a chance to stop him. Fists pounded the door yet still there was no rage in Scarpa’s voice. He sounded saddened. Perhaps he and his father had been closer than he let on. What was it pop had said? You don’t think your papa has his contacts?

Massimo hurried downstairs and pulled on his coat. His mind would not stand still for long enough to be able to formulate a plan. He should pack a suitcase. He should contact Adelina. Perhaps he should steal the police car.

Instead, he locked the hotel doors behind him and scurried west along the canal. Once past the Piazza San Marco he paused on the Calle Vallaresso, listening for sirens. In Harry’s Bar, he pushed past the lunchtime gathering and found a telephone. He dialled and let it ring for a full three minutes but his father did not answer. Then he tried Adelina’s number. An Englishman answered.

‘Adelina,’ Massimo said. ‘I need to speak to Adelina.’

Non capisco, amico.’ His Italian was frustratingly poor.

‘Adelina Gaggio. She lives there. Can you get her for me?’

‘Non. Nobody here by that name.’

Massimo had punched in the correct number. There was no doubt. ‘Please. You have to —’

‘Hey? You deaf? I said nobody here called Adelina. Testa di cazzo.’

Massimo slammed the receiver down. He could go there, to the street Adelina had mentioned, but without an address it could take hours to find her and even then she might not be in. She might be at work.

The glass company.

Excitedly, he dialled 12 and obtained the number from directory services. When he got through to the receptionist at Murano her contact list did not contain any reference to Adelina Gaggio.

‘Has she been with us long?’ the receptionist tried. ‘She might not be on our list if she joined us recently.’

‘Five years,’ Massimo said. A white, abject face stared at him from behind the bar. He was about to order a bellini from it when he realised it was his own, reflected in a mirror. ‘At least five years.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘She must —’

‘Very sorry, sir.’

What now? He struggled to keep himself from crying out. He had nobody to go to, other than the police, and they would not be patient with a man who had locked some of their colleagues in a room with a woman he had ostensibly murdered. But surely they would see that his panic was inspired by innocence. If he had killed somebody in his own hotel, would he not take pains to dispose of the body, rather than blithely stroll around Venice having left the main entrance unlocked?

How could Adelina have lied to him? The coolness of the woman as she came out of the room. How could it be that he had called her after twenty years only to find that he had invited a deranged killer on to the premises? The police would not believe him if he told them this, but it was all he had to offer.

He dialled 112 and was patched through. He tried to explain but every time he finished a sentence, the police operator would ask him to expand on every iota of information or ask him to spell the names he mentioned. Then the operator would fudge the spelling and get him to repeat it.

‘Adelina,’ the voice buzzed. ‘What’s that? A-D-A…?’

It dawned on him then, and he gently replaced the receiver. He glanced out of the front windows but how could he chance it? Then again, they would have any rear exit covered too. They would not expect him to leave by the front door.

He saw a group of suits standing to return to the office and he hurried after them, catching up with them, and purposefully barging into a middle-aged woman. He put on a big smile and apologised profusely as they filtered on to the street. He put his hand on her arm. There was wine in her. She was happy and forgiving. She covered his hand with her own and said it was perfectly all right. He asked her what she had had for lunch. He asked her the name of the perfume she was wearing. In this manner he passed along the street with his new friends. He didn’t look back until he was in sight of a safe alleyway he could move down. Only now were the police cars drawing up outside Harry’s Bar. He ran.

*

This time his father did pick up the phone. But he heard a click, as soft as a pair of dentures nestling together, and he understood that what ought to have been the safest house of all was now the most dangerous.

‘I’m okay, pop,’ he said. ‘I’m all right.’

‘Massimo,’ his father said. ‘I’m sorry.’

Massimo killed the connection hoping that even those few seconds had not been enough to expose him to the authorities a second time. He had been running for days, it seemed, but it could only have been a matter of hours. The sunlight was failing now. The light on the canals was turning the colour of overripe peaches. From the east, a wedge of flat, grey sky was closing upon Venice like the metal lid to a box of secrets. Freezing air ran before it, as though the weather too was trying to escape the city’s confused sprawl.

His thoughts turned to the inspector, who had seemed so understanding, yet had contained an edge as hard as the coming cold snap. His past seemed as caught up in the Europa as his own. He wished he had had the time to ask his father about the incident that Scarpa had mentioned. He would have been a ten-year-old when the hotel had provided a torture chamber for some of its guests. He couldn’t remember a thing about it, but then he would have been shielded from such an appalling event. He thought of the way his father had said sorry and did not like what his mind came up with.

With no better task to turn to, Massimo caught a vaporetto to San Tomà and hurried the two hundred metres or so to the Campo dei Frari. The woman at the reception desk of the Archivio di Stato looked as impenetrable as a bad clam but she was sympathetic to his needs, even if the five hour window for requesting materials had lapsed.

It didn’t take long. Once he had been shown how to access the microfiches and blow them up on the viewer, it was simply a matter of trawling through the front pages of Il Gazzettino from 1973. A photograph of the Europa’s exterior halted him before any of the words. The headline took up much of the page but this had no impact on him once he had noticed the small photograph at the foot of the page, the victim of the torture who had died. He didn’t need to read the caption to know it was the woman he had entertained in his hotel the previous night.

*

It was there, in black and white, and his brain had sucked it in even though he had averted his eyes, fearful of an image decades old. Yet he wasn’t happy. They could have got it wrong. They could have mixed up her picture. They must have got it wrong. The alternatives were too outlandish to swallow.

Everywhere he looked, there were gloves lying companionless. In the canal, sitting on windowsills, hunched on the floor near lampposts and benches. His panic mounted as he counted them. Nothing looked quite so dismal as a discarded glove. Did each one signify a terrible death in the city? Just because two bodies… three bodies had been found didn’t mean that more were lying in wait, stretching back to a time when the killer had set out on her spree.

Snow had begun to fall on the city. Already the narrow streets and uneven roofs were dusted with white while the canal absorbed the flakes and remained black. In some areas, where the light was poor, the canals escaped from view completely. They became plumbless moats that one could look into without hope of ever finding an end.

At Fondamente Nuove he persuaded a vaporetto pilot preparing to go home to take him to San Michele. The promise of ten thousand lire if he waited to bring him back was enough of a lure. On the short journey, Massimo watched the waters creaming at the bow while Venice fell behind them. A series of lights came on around the Sacca della Misericordia, as though people had opened their windows to watch his journey.

The island loomed out of the dark. More and more, his father had made references to this place, with its pretty cypress trees. It would be expensive to find him a plot here, but it seemed, even through Leopoldo’s oblique language, that his heart was set upon it.

Even from here, in such unsociable weather, Massimo could smell the perfume of cut flowers on the graves. As the vaporetto drew up alongside, the white stone of the Convento di San Michele seemed lambent in the murk.

‘You know the cemetery is closed, Signor?’

‘Just wait for me,’ Massimo ordered, and then: ‘Do you have a torch?’

The pilot sat back and rummaged for cigarettes in his jacket pocket. ‘Yes. And I might allow you to hire it, if you ask me nice.’

It was not such a difficult cemetery to break into. Beyond the entry archway, the cloisters marked the beginning of the graveyard proper. But Massimo ignored it. Adelina might well have been buried here, but she was not here now. The island could not take bodies indefinitely. Having gorged on the dead for so long, it had reached bursting point. Now the bones of the resting were lifted every ten years or so for another final journey to an ossuary on the mainland, in order to make way for the next wave of cadavers. If Adelina’s name was to be found here, it would be on a plaque, not a headstone. Massimo trained the feeble torchlight on the neatly arranged plinths, readying himself for a long night’s hunt. At least they were easier to read than the weathered slabs.

The snow that had begun to fall on the heart of the city found its way out here after half an hour. Massimo blew on his hands to keep them warm and tried to ignore the impatient hoots from the vaporetto horn. The pilot was going nowhere; his pockets would remain empty if he did.

He covered the cemetery in a slow strafing movement, his hopes lifting with every plaque that did not bear her name. Perhaps, simply, he was going mad after all. When he did not find her here, he could return to the mainland and find it had returned to normal. All he needed was this restorative jaunt to pick clean the tired crevices of his mind.

But then, of course, of course: Adelina Gaggio, 1963-1973. The characters were chiselled in marble as cleanly as if they had been formed that very afternoon.

He found himself back at the water’s edge with no recollection of climbing over the monastery wall. The pilot had turned his back on him and was eyeing the wink of lights across the Venice coastline. It was a pale comfort to Massimo, but the longer he stared at his home, the more he wanted to be back there. He would turn himself in and try to help the police as best he could, even if it meant being charged for obstruction, or worse.

‘Start the engine, friend,’ he said, as he clambered on board. The pilot did not move. A white glove lay on one of the seats. Massimo struggled to piece together a sudden scattering of jigsaw pieces in his thoughts, but none of the pieces would fit, they seemed to be from different puzzles and he knew they could not match the complete picture he was striving for.

‘I don’t —’ he began, but his words were coated with too much breath, too much saliva to complete his sentence.

He touched the pilot and watched as he toppled back in his seat. Massimo recoiled as he saw the pilot grinning at him, but the grin was too low on his face, and too wide and wet.

The glove was nothing of the sort. Or rather, it could only have fitted the pilot’s hand. It had been skinned with a surgeon’s precision.

‘It doesn’t fit,’ she said. ‘None of them ever fit.’

She solidified at his side, as if structuring herself from the particles of dark that helped to make up what the night was. Almost immediately it was as if she had always been there.

‘Don’t worry, Mass,’ she whispered. ‘When you called me, why, it wasn’t you calling me at all. It was the hotel. It was the Europa, bringing me home. Our true resting place is never the final resting place, is it? It’s where we drop. That’s what takes our essence. The rug in the room you were so afraid of. That has the flavour of my final breath in its weave. It’s an always place. More real, I suppose, than our city, trapped in a yesterday none of us believe in anymore. More real than I ever was.’

He was paralysed with fear and doubt.

He saw her hand come free of the glove, which she dropped over the side of the boat. What he thought at first to be tattoos of some kind, a weird graffiti that sprawled across her flesh, revealed itself to him as the veins and sinews of a severely damaged hand. The fingernails were warped with the aftershock of septicaemia. They looked as thick and twisted as ram’s horn.

‘They sliced my fingers as though they were bits of meat, Mass. They stuck splinters under my fingernails and set fire to my palm. They skinned me. For fun. For fun. And your father took money for it. Hush-hush money. He pocketed his bundle of notes and at the centre of them was my pain, wrapped so very tightly.’

Massimo was weeping now. ‘I didn’t know,’ he said. ‘You were my friend. I didn’t know.’

She gently rubbed his neck with her grotesque claw. ‘You saw what was happening. But you forgot. I called to you. The men shouted at you to go away. And your father gave you money to forget. But you saw all right. Every cry for help since, haven’t you chosen to ignore it? Haven’t you always turned your back and thought, “well, what can I do?” You’re like this city, Mass. You close your eyes to ugliness. And the blood that runs through you is as cold as the water in those canals.’

He had slumped against her. So exhausted was he, and enchanted by the Venetian lights, that he failed to notice what her hand was doing until it was withdrawing.

She said, ‘Your hand, when you held mine, Mass, didn’t they fit together so perfectly?’

His flailing mind saw that her hand, with its five gnarled horns, was sheathed by a new glove. A really quite beautiful glove that waxed and waned in his eyes like the beat of water in the canals. It was a deep, glistening red. He was going to ask her what material produced such a fine colour, but he was too tired to speak. The last thing he saw before he became indivisible from the night was the flash of a cleaver as she pulled back the deep corners of her cloak. And even that was beautiful.

Advent Stories #16

SLITTEN GORGE

forest

Ellis dreamt that night of the forest. He was treading through it in darkness, subtly aware of the conifers and the heather. His feet knew this territory well and he moved quickly, ignoring the sounds of the wildlife: the nightjar, the siskins, the snipes. He was trying to find something, or someone, but no matter how close he felt he was to capturing his quarry, some caprice of the dream would send it far away again. It made a creaking sound, this subject he tracked. Like old leather being twisted against itself, or of floorboards under continual stress. Now and again he thought he caught a glimpse of part of it through the crenellations of the ferns, or the splintered bole of a tree felled by lightning. But before his mind could apply itself to finishing off the picture, the scenery had moved and he was as blind as before.

He woke up, hungry, frustrated and afraid. It was that soft, uncertain time of morning when night and day argue over their own borders. Pale light hung in the sky like something too damp to ignite properly. Although it was late June, summer had failed to establish itself. The days were often a wash out, the nights cold enough for woollens. He sat trembling on the edge of his bed, blankets curled around his shoulders. The shower awaited him like torture. There had been no hot water in his flat for six days. At least after a cold wash his clothes felt so much warmer on his body. The colder you got, the less you felt it. The dead don’t shiver.

Through a window looking out on to the communal garden, he watched as a female blackbird chirped incessantly, playing a wild hopscotch upon the cracked flagstones of the porch, pausing a moment to shit what looked like the kind of electric white found only on artists’ palettes. He had never felt easy around birds since he read about how closely related they were to dinosaurs. He felt uncomfortable about their lack of weight, their thin, hollow bones. He disliked the way they moved so nervously, so spastically. How cold and alien their eyes. They seemed propelled by nothing more than instinct, and that vexed him, in a vague way that made him feel queasy.

His unease followed him to the kitchen where, despite his hunger, he was unable to eat one spoonful of the cereal he prepared for himself. Barely a sip of coffee made it past his lips without causing him to retch. He couldn’t remember the last meal he had consumed, yet he must have eaten within the last few days. Had he not, he wouldn’t have had the strength to turn the taps in the bathroom. He dressed without thinking, grateful for a job that didn’t demand a suit and tie. Then he went out, trying to avoid the bookcases lining the walls as he approached the door. But, as always, he had to look. The narrow space between them forced him to leave his flat sideways. The spines demanded his attention.

Birds of the Welsh Coast, The Red Kite in Wales, The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East, Birding in Snohomish County, Skuas and Jaegers, Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers.

There were so many books. He felt ill thinking how many he had, how much money he had spent on them. On the drive to work he wondered again if he might not be mad. That was the thing about insanity. You didn’t notice it yourself, only the people closest to you grew aware. But there was nobody who shared his life from day to day. What did being mad mean? Storing your own faeces? Posting letters to people long dead? Collecting books about birds when they scared you to the core? But you had to know about them, you had to have the knowledge. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.

At the gas works, he checked in with Reynolds, the site foreman, and Hinchcliff, the independent chemist who was to be attached to the demolition crew for as long as it took for the defunct purifying tanks to be dismantled. Ellis pulled on his overalls and checked the air line on his breathing apparatus. It was hot work, and while he was standing in the reinforced concrete tanks removing the spent iron oxide, he was grateful that summer was in abeyance. Hinchcliff had explained at the outset that six thousand tonnes of toxic waste had once filled these tanks – now transported to a secret, secure landfill site in north Wales – and the residue they were cleaning away might contain upwards of eight per cent cyanide.

At times within his mask, his breath amplified and alien to him, he imagined pulling off his protective headgear and sucking in a single, pure lungful of death.

*

—Death is painless, she said.

—Don’t talk wet, I said. —I seen them pictures of German tanks on fire, and the driver trying to get out, but his foot was stuck, or shot off or melted into the metal or whatever. He wasn’t whistling when he went, I can tell you.

—Well, I think it’s painless. The actual moment of it. Maybe not the lead up, but the moment you bow out? The body sheds all of its endorphins. Massive headrush. Absolute pleasure.

I laughed. She had this way of talking sometimes that was like poetry. Funny poetry. She had a killer line, Karen. It didn’t work with everyone, but she hit my spot and that was all I was bothered about.

She said —You never see birds dead, do you?

—Tell my mum that, next time she nips into the village for a chicken.

She rolled her eyes, thumped me. She was trying to get the ringpull off a can of cider but it was rusted or something, and wouldn’t budge. —I don’t mean like that. I mean you never see birds lying about on the road, dead.

—I suppose you’re right, I said. I was getting bored of this talk. I wanted some of that cider in me before I had to get back home for tea. The gorge rose up around us like a big green throat. I loved it down here. It was only just behind the row of shops on the main street in Lymm village, but it could have been some Amazonian ravine. It had everything, this place. Cool shadows. A heron that came to fish in the weir. Secrecy. You never had any grown-ups come down this way, either because it was quicker to take the village path, or they were scared of us yoofs, or they didn’t even know it was here, I don’t know. I snatched the can off her and used my penknife to ease the ringpull off. I had a big drink and passed it back, offering her a huge belch to accompany the ceremony. Karen drank too, tilting her head way back. Her shape changed. I found myself staring at her.

She said — Can you smell me? I’m bleeding.

*

Ellis did not join the others for a drink after the shift was completed. He drove through the centre of Warrington, trying to avoid the construction crews that were tearing through the heart of the town, slotting new department stores into the gaps left by failed developments. It all seemed like an affront to the faces of the old shops that clung jealously to the main streets. There was always a new generation of town planner, no doubt living far away from the place being redesigned, eager to leave a mark in history. Ellis was happy to leave it behind, but even though he pushed the Jeep hard until the soulless urban spread became rural patchwork, he did not find himself relaxing. So much green was a shock to him, even though he made this journey every weekend. It was as pervasive, as smothering as the threat of poison gas. But he could not understand how staying at home in his cloying flat could be any better for him. He turned on some loud music, but nothing could reclaim him from the slow panic filling his chest. It became so bad he had to pull over shortly after he passed the Ruthin signpost on the A494. His breath seemed to fail in his chest; he could not expel it properly. He felt as though he were recycling something old and stale, that any hope he had for a fresh start was stillborn.

Crumpled in his pocket, the letter from Pippa postmarked a few days previously helped him to refocus. Cav reckons he saw a lynx coming down across the scarp near the caravan late last night. He’d had a few though. Ha ha. The only lynx he’s seen lately is in the can he sprays his armpits with.

There had been several lynx sightings reported in the Clocaenog forest over the years. It was also one of the last bastions of the red squirrel. There were other animals too that benefited from the area, forty square miles or so of natural, native woodland. Deer, black grouse, pine martins, Welsh mountain ponies, polecats. Others that he could not bring himself to think about. But having begun a list that he daren’t finish drew the fear from the shadows into the real meat of him. It lay against his skin like sweat. He put the letter back in his pocket and felt his hunger deepen. He scrutinised his eyes in the rear view mirror while his hands played against the corrugation of his ribs. His breathing steadied. The sky over Wales was bruising, as if siphoning the resentment from the earth and describing its colour. A flurry of birds blurred the edge of his vision and were gone before he’d had chance to identify them. He started the engine and got back on the road. His hunger was so keen it wouldn’t allow him to envisage any kind of meal that might assuage it.

*

The caravan was empty when he arrived, just under half an hour later. Pippa and Cavan must have gone to the local pub, a mile or so further along the main road. He felt slighted, as if his arrival was nothing for them to get worked up about. Maybe it wasn’t. But they were the nearest he had to friends and it pricked him that they hadn’t waited; they could all be sinking pints now. What did they want to talk about that was so important it couldn’t wait? He thought about catching them up, but he didn’t want to be seen behaving like an eager puppy. He could give as good as he got, they’d see.

Quickly, he unpacked – he hadn’t brought much, just a change of clothes and a couple of books, his old Nikon, a long lens and some fast film, a pair of binoculars – and checked the small cupboards, but every tin he picked up made his stomach roll. He drank some water and paused, bent over the sink, waiting for it to come back with interest, but this time it didn’t. He washed his face, and tried to swab the angry red nubs on his shoulder blades with cotton balls soaked in witch hazel; he would have to have a word with Reynolds about the ill-fitting protective gear they were issued with. He switched on the radio and settled down with one of the guide books from his holdall.

Ellis saw straight away, from the uneven blocking of its pages, that the book had been damaged. He turned to the section that had been torn out, a few pages between the Orioles and the Corvidae. It was not immediately clear from the contents list which birds had been removed; only a general heading – Family and Species Descriptions – was provided. He had to trawl through the weighty index before he spotted the relevant page numbers. And then he closed the book carefully, almost reverentially, and placed it back in his bag, deep enough so that he could not see its cover.

Someone was trying to tell him something. He thought about who might have had access to his bag, his books, but nobody ever visited him at his flat. He had ignored the opportunities to stop at service stations along the way; he shied away from hitchhikers. He stared at the bag as if it alone was responsible for the vandalism. He would mention it to Cavan and Pip when he saw them; they were the only ones who knew of his passion, and his fear. Yet even as he gave credence to his suspicion, he was questioning it. They respected his love of books, and shared it to some extent. He had seen them handling volumes in the secondhand bookshops they occasionally visited, and approved of the care they displayed. Cavan had even warmed up a brand new hardback by gently opening the book at various points to prevent the kind of immediate stresses that can damage the spine.

Ellis tried to read about the grasshopper warbler but hunger worked on the words, sucking them back into the cream paper. Music was of some comfort now as he lay back on his bunk, but he found before too long that it distracted him as he strained for the sound of his friends returning. He turned the radio down to a level where there was really no point in leaving it on, but it meant the illusion of company remained. Wildlife inched around the caravan, its sound as natural as weather: the miniature crash of mammals in bushes, things taking flight, or coming home to roost. Something cried out, as he trembled at sleep’s door. He tried to identify it but it was beyond him. For a dreadful second before he sank, he thought its author must be human. The screams went with him, lifting out of the confusion to find a clarity in the night of his own mind. Fear puddled out of Ellis. He was weak. The caravan had melted away and he was in a clearing with trees rearing up before him as if startled. He felt light, weightless. The pain in his shoulder blades was gone, he felt free and easy there, somehow disburdened; his hunger had been sated. The screams were coming from his own throat, a dry, desperate sound that seemed to make the uppermost leaves shiver. Something lay ahead of him, beyond that line of trees. Something waited.

*

Ellis showered, wincing as he knocked his sore back against the walls of the tiny plastic cubicle. He wondered if his anger at not being woken by his friends when they had returned from the pub was misplaced. Was it fair that he should react to them for what, on their part, must have been an act of charity? God knew he needed his sleep. But he craved some company too. Already the weekend seemed chewed away. Tomorrow he would have to return to Warrington and the skeleton of the gas works. Nevertheless, pride would not allow him to go to them now. He crashed around the kitchen preparing a phantom breakfast, and noisily exited. He wondered if Pippa and Cavan were fucking, and why it didn’t bother him if they were. Hunger prevented him from remembering if he and Pip had ever been involved – he dimly recalled a long embrace, hair in his face, a heartbeat within her warm breast filling his hands – but it might have been several lifetimes ago. A different woman, even.

Good luck to them, he thought, glancing once at the curtained window of the bedroom. This weekend was about fauna, not fornication. He laughed bitterly, a blast of air through gritted teeth, and plunged into the forest.

*

The light changed down here. It became green. I couldn’t back that kind of claim up in the physics lab at school, but I swear that was how it looked to me. It was dappled light, and it lay around your feet like coins furred with verdigris. The air was different too. It stuck in your chest, but in a good way. It was as if it were heavier air, cleaner, and your lungs didn’t want to give it up. The spaces beneath the trees seemed to fizz with darkness; you could see it moving around, and I was sure that if the trees were to suddenly leap away, exposing it all to hard sunshine, it would remain, squat and earthy, like the ghost of a giant toad.

The red in the green, the red against the milky square of Karen’s exposed thigh, was some contrast.

— Fucking hell, I said. — Doesn’t it hurt?

— No, she replied. — Some people get period pains but I’ve had none of that.

— What does it feel like? Is it like having a nose bleed? Do you feel it trickling out of you?

— Don’t be a mentoid. There’s hardly any flow. Enough for a dessertspoon, my mum says.

— Mmm, yum. Raspberry Angel Delight. So there’s no danger you’ll bleed to death?

— The worst case scenario is that I’ll leave a tammy up there, forget it and die from TSS.

— TSS?

— Toxic Shock Syndrome. Not a nice way to go.

— Well no, but, as you said, death’s a top pastime.

— I didn’t say that. I don’t have a death wish.

— Me and you, suicide pact? What do you say?

— I say have some Angel Delight.

And so on. We spent all summer like this, every summer I can remember, ribbing and teasing and flirting, although we didn’t know it, couldn’t have put that word to it at the time. But that day was different. Suddenly I was aware of Karen as being someone with an inside as well as an outside. She was a girl-shaped blood bag, barely contained. Walking home for tea after that weird, green-red evening, I couldn’t pass anybody by without thinking of them as taut balloons, ready to explode. Something had turned, maybe just the world, maybe some switch in my mind that had never been touched before, but things were irrevocably new now, and I couldn’t understand why.

That night, I thought of Karen, the way she had filled out as she stretched, her body dipping and curving. I thought too of that slick of blood on her thigh, her fingers smearing it to show me how dense it was, and the way her knickers were eased to one side, the material tight against her bottom. I ejaculated in my sleep – my first wet dream – and I woke to feel my own thighs sticky and warm, and things, I felt, were set now. My life had been propelled in one direction. One only. There was to be no divergence. No turning back.

*

He lost all sense of who he was after a while. He kept thinking about his name, Ryan Ellis, how ridiculous it sounded the more he repeated it to himself. The sun’s intensity was lost beneath the tightly meshed canopy. It might have started raining; it would be hours before any of the water broke through. He felt protected. He felt utterly at home. In this bubble he slowly became more than he believed he was, an incremental adding or improvement. Doing physical activity in such raw surroundings pumped you full of hormones. It created a sense of the self as immortal. He felt he could achieve anything. It was seductive to deem this euphoria a result of the fresh air, or the overload of natural green, or the plain, animal sounds concerned with territory or sex. He felt a part of it, his reptilian brain itching with lost or distant connections. He was a member of that natural order, one of billions of everyday miracles. The knowledge that his existence was a fluke, the odds stacked heavily against him, was an inspiring and exhilarating epiphany. He mattered, in his own small way, and what he brought to the proceedings was as relevant as that from anybody else. He was real, and his name was something like rya nellis.

The trees seemed to solidify ahead, yet whenever he reached a point where they must crowd him out, there was the same strange sense of space. A visual anomaly, he thought, but once he’d witnessed it, it was difficult to shake off quite so easily. The ground underfoot was becoming more spongy. He guessed there must be some kind of stream, or that the water table passed close to the surface here. Beyond that thick mesh of shrubs and branches, Ellis thought he saw movement. It was desperate, trapped movement, the spasm of something that knows death might be the only release it will see. He wondered if a deer had been caught in a poacher’s trap, perhaps, or a person, shocked to silence by the pain and the outrage. He fought through the weave but the clearing beyond it moved only with occasional ferns or tall grasses. Dizziness piled through his head, as if someone were bending his mind. He saw a spiral of patterns: the trees, the star-shaped tunnel of sky above them, the ground as it met him coming the other way. He tried to get up but the vertigo relocated itself each time. After three attempts he gave up and let himself be cradled by the earth. The cool, cushioning moss and the comfort of a deep blue sky fringed with cloud helped to right his thoughts. He thought of the hide at Foel Frech where he had observed birds in the past. He had seen an owl take a grasshopper warbler in mid-air there last December. He remembered the sudden release of the smaller bird’s cloaca as the talons raked through its body. Blood was a black rip in the silver sky. It had dropped like something solid, and he had exited the hide, convinced the blood had frozen as it fell to the ground. He had failed to find the blood, but had searched for it until the light diminished and the other birdwatchers had gone home. He found something else that night, though. He was about to give up, feeling foolish at his mad conviction, and had turned at just the moment that the moon eased out from behind a bank of high cloud.

Something had gleamed.

He closed his eyes now, and remembered the fragility, the lightness of the skull. It was like holding folded paper, like holding nothing at all. Every shred of flesh had been picked clean from the boss, the orbits, the maxilla: the bird grinned at him, the shadows of its ghost eyes so black it was if the memory of blood and the method of killing was still fresh within it. The beak, the sharpness of it, the colour of ash, emerging from the bone like a creeping stain. It was its own whetstone. The shredding of bodies, the atrocities it had committed. How many? So much blood had gushed through those calcium chambers that the bone itself was tinged mahogany.

He still had it, that skull, secreted away in a little wooden box at the back of a drawer. Sometimes at night, when loneliness curled itself around his shoulders, he took it out of its box and inhaled whatever breath lingered in the fossae of its nasal cavities. He had never believed that something so dead could smell so alive.

*

He caught sight of his eyes in the mirror when he returned. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was late, it was dark all over the sky, no pallid edges to suggest that the evening had just left or that dawn was close. For a moment he believed his eyes contained some inner luminescence, as if the humours of his eye had ignited like paraffin. They reflected orange; he resembled something startled, something unnatural. An image came to him, of his body pushed into clothes and then into a metal box. Keys turning, an engine leaping into life. At the end of that routine was another called work. Another set of clothes. Another metal box. The sweat and steam and stink of decayed tanks. Chemical salt extruding through concrete. The heat of it through his protective suit. It all seemed a dream, an illusion. He looked down at his naked body, bathed in a diffuse glow from the moon. His life was so many layers of the same thing but at this moment, his blood up, he couldn’t recognise who he was or what he did. There didn’t seem to be any room for ritual. Instinct crowded him like a smell you couldn’t escape from. All he wanted to do was run through the tall grass and feel the cold mud suck at his feet. He sensed the warm bodies in the undergrowth frozen at his approach, watching him go by with perfectly round eyes, perfectly black. Heartbeats filled the air like rain.

He slept hard and deep and wakened to a light drizzle. He moved through it to the Jeep, feeling it misting his skin. He sat in the driver’s seat waiting for knowledge. Eventually it came to him and he turned the key, pushed the gearstick to D.

He didn’t remember the journey back. Too often his eyes strayed to the rearview mirror; the forest filled it all the way home.

*

In the gorge. She showed me how dark the blood was as she poured it from the warm body.

— Venal blood, she said. It’s almost the colour of chocolate.

The wood pigeon had been trapped in the crook of a tree, its mangled foot – injured in some previous accident – stuck fast in the fork of a branch. The harder the bird fought to get away, the more it twisted its leg into the crevice. By the time we got to it, following the sounds of flapping, the strangled sob that sounded almost human, it had broken the leg so badly that it was close to wrenching it off completely. A nictitating membrane was a momentary film of milk across the brilliant black bead of its eye. Nothing could be read in that speck. It looked the same alive as it would dead. Black, bleak code filing through the lens one way or the other.

Karen gently pulled the bird free and, holding it upside down, threaded its thin neck through her fingers, pulled and twisted it away from her body. The sound of bones powdering drew my skin into pimples. She coughed and spat, wiped her lips, the dead bird hanging limp from her fingers like a thin bag. Her eyes were bright, filled with a fluke light that had snaked its way through the green and sat fatly in her eyes.

I slept that night and the wood pigeon came back to life, spreading its wings. The pattern of Karen’s irises was woven into the soft grey span. The bird, stretching out against the sky, was more like Karen than its own species. It opened its beak to sing and blood drizzled from it, freezing in the air like a necklace of rubies that has been snapped.

I found myself back on New Road and I couldn’t remember how I had got there. Karen had kissed me. Her tongue had moved against my own, her eyes open, locked with mine. We didn’t hold each other. The bird hung between us, emptying itself on to my shoes. My hands were similarly useless, growing cold as she moved her face into me. I tasted blood in her mouth. I felt the dark at the very centre of her eyes seeping out to join with the shadows of the gorge.

I remember walking home, having to look back every few steps because I was sure the depths of the gorge were somehow rising, plateauing, sweeping into the streets to pursue me. When I got back I avoided the tea that had been laid out for me and went straight up to the bathroom. I vomited about a gallon of what looked like mulligatawny soup into the toilet. The smell and taste of copper was all over the place. She was in my mouth, she was in the crevices of my fingerprints though I couldn’t remember touching her. The flutter of her heart in her breast. The fragility of her bones. She unfolded like a flower, like a chick fighting against the membrane of an egg.

The colours around me were dull, despite the sunshine. Life existed in the shadows. Everything you needed was there. True meaning was in the word undergrowth. It was no coincidence.

Her finger in the bird’s crop. The elegance of something without life to prop it up.

*

The heat was so great that small puddles of sweat were forming at the base of his goggles. He had not eaten for so long he felt he was in danger of forgetting how to. His hands held the tools that scraped at the walls of the redundant gas chambers and he could almost believe that the work would never be done, that his hands would never be turned to any other task. His landscapes were filled with tars, nitrates, sludges and phenolics. He lived in toxicity. An hour later and he was pulled away from the face by Hinchcliff, who wanted to give him a spot check. He traipsed back through the rubble, the ceramic retort fragments, the clinker and scurf, broken bricks and ash. Hinchcliff tested his blood and his breathing. They talked about his diet and his exercise regime. Ellis lied steadily. At the end of the shift he bundled his clothes into the sealed laundry skip and took a hot shower. Hinchcliff waved a sensor over him in the changing rooms and he was given a green pass. The day was over. Ellis felt as though he were wearing contact lenses fashioned from lead. He drifted home and the colours of his work followed him down into sleep. Lampblack. The glitter of ash. Spent lime was known as blue billy. Cyanide trembled in the waste as Prussian blue.

The green of Slitten Gorge moved like scarves of weed caught in deep current. Sometimes its colour grew so concentrated that it was indivisible from black. You could survive a nuclear winter down here, she said. This is a place forgotten by time. The mapmakers keep missing it. Die here and your body would turn to dust before you were ever found.

Her thighs in his hands had shivered as he lowered his face to her cunt. She blooded him. Her hands fluttered at the apex of his shoulder blades, the bird turning in her fingers; he felt its dead weight flop against his back. He thought she was losing control, but she was performing magic.

Faces grew out of those forbidden colours. Hard-bitten profiles of his grandfather. He unbuttoned his shirt and swept it open; his skin came away with it. His lungs glowed in the pit of his chest, the pleural cavity thickened by plaques. His grandfather had contracted misothelioma, a rare, insidious cancer, the result of a decade of unprotected demolition. Ellis had seen photographs of him dismantling a factory during a blizzard, but the snow had been black asbestos.

Wanna bang on this? his grandfather had asked him, lying in his hospital bed, pulling off his oxygen mask and offering it to him. The mask had been stippled with bloody sputum. His breath came and went in staggered clouts, like an assault.

He had not seen her again after the end of that sultry, fractious day. He remembered a storm had climbed the sky that night as he lay in bed with his metallic flavours and erased the heat from the land. He didn’t know where she lived, but even if he had he wouldn’t have gone knocking. He understood that there were reasons, there were patterns. The storm might well have swept her away too. He had nothing tangible of hers to fasten her to reality. As the years went by, he started to question his reading of those events, and of the gorge itself.

An instinctive twitch of the steering wheel. He sent the Jeep on to Kingsway. At the swing bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal he turned left and followed the road into Thelwall. Memory scraped at the walls of his mind, trying to make itself known. He remembered these streets, although he hadn’t set foot on them for the best part of two decades. They had cadged drinks off the locals in Grappenhall village. They fished for perch in the Bridgewater canal. They sucked and blew on mouthfuls of hot, greasy chips from the fish bar by the Dog and Dart. Summer nights when the gorge waited for him and the sky contained a pale, soft grain that prevented complete darkness. The sodium lamps bleached the street of colour. Her lips were grey when he kissed her. It’s all right, because so are mine. She tasted of red and green. He dreamed of flight after she left his life.

He parked the Jeep outside the stationer’s at the point where the road sweeps left into Lymm village. Behind the rank of shops – the butcher’s, the greengrocer’s, a hair salon, an estate agent – the land forgot how to be level and plunged into black. People had been hurt here over the years. The sound of the weir was a subdued roar. Ellis gathered himself at the rails. He felt his hair move although there was no breeze. It felt as though the gorge was sucking his flavour into its depths, tasting him, remembering him after so long away.

He thought of Clocaenog, and the way its trees seemed compressed. Running through them, he had never tripped or jarred a shoulder against a trunk. He seemed to know their patterns, he understood the physicality of the forest. What he couldn’t work out was why he was running, or what he was running from. He felt the same paradox here; he knew Slitten Gorge as intimately as he knew himself yet he had not been as close as this in twenty years. He had loved this place, but associated it with decay, and an end to things.

He knew he would slip through the gateway and descend those treacherous stone steps furred with moss and moisture, as if they were sweating at their proximity to the place. He gripped the rails more tightly, looking down into the area where he had once observed a heron frozen as it waited for something to swim past. And then he was sinking into the strata of greys and blues and greens, his hands still clenched as if in an attempt to fool himself into thinking he was still at street level.

Someone else had appropriated this sacred space. Beer bottles and polystyrene cartons littered the floor; graffiti referred to Helen smoking cocks, and doing anybody who happened to be here next Monday night. Ellis looked around for something that might bolt him to a sultry evening in 1987, but only the colours remained. He felt the cool air move in his chest and wondered if his grandfather might have benefited from some time down here.

There was a shock of movement in one of the trees. Ellis turned to see a hand snatched up, or snatch itself up, into the higher branches; the leaves in its wake glistened with a colour darker than the shadows within which they shivered. He watched the tree, his heart beating hard, unsure of what he had just witnessed. Kids larking about. Some bruised fibre of memory. He didn’t know. He called out, but nothing responded.

He walked deeper, until the shadow of the slitting mill rose out of the darkness. The sun struggled to illuminate it, the dark ivy and moss growing on its stone absorbing the light. Nails had been produced here, and then the cutting of steel bands for the cooperage in Thelwall during Victorian times. The windows were scarred with dust that no amount of polishing could now hope to remove.

Hunks of Wilmslow sandstone peeked out from the greenery. Ellis pressed himself back against some; it was cold against his palms. She had led him into that place and scratched the end of a nail, a six-inch piece of iron perhaps as old as the village itself, into the hard curves of his shoulder blades.

If you had wings, she said, this is where they’d be.

She withdrew his prick and he felt it both trying to shrivel in the cold and thicken in her tight grasp. He felt his own blood trace lines across his back.

I want to show you blood that isn’t dark. I want to show you blood so bright that it lights up a room.

She had leaned close to him, her thighs bracketing his own. The nail in her fist traced a line along his throat. Fear had him at the point of vomiting, but before he could protest, she slid his penis inside her. Her eyes seemed to reduce somehow, as if she had a contrast button that had been turned right down. She fucked him hard and fast, hard enough that he thought she was going to damage him if he slipped out. Her movements were so violent that he missed the winding up of his orgasm. He was climaxing almost without realising. He cried out and she yelled his name.

Spread your wings, she said, and buried the nail into the side of her own neck.

*

Time jagged around like vicious pieces of broken glass. It was too dangerous to stop and try to pick them up. Ellis was in the Jeep. He might or might not have tried to call Pip and Cavan on his mobile phone. He might or might not have charged the battery before leaving work. He might or might not even own one.

He said, ‘As Ralph Hoffmann suggested, in Birds of the Pacific States, from 1927, “One cannot have too many good bird books.”’ He said it once, maybe one hundred times. By the time the eastern shoulder of the forest was muscling up against his car, it was dark. Breathing was becoming difficult. He thought of himself tearing pages from his books, trying not to focus on the photographs of Lanius excubitor. Death was easy around him. People dropped as if they were born to it. He wished he had been able to help his grandfather to spread his wings.

He found Pip and Cavan an hour later, once the forest had settled coolly in his thoughts. His hunger was something animal in him, turning his pupils black, filling his mouth with juices. Other animals had visited this place, this shrike’s larder, but had been put off by the stink of their survival. He stood before them and flexed his shoulder muscles. Shadows leapt away from them, into the shocked heights of the trees. They were trying to reason with him, clinging on to hope. Ancient nails rammed through their wrists and ankles had become encrusted with blood and sap. Their lips were white and cracked. Ripe tongues swelled in their mouths.

I fly, he might have said. Karen’s blood was orange behind his eyes. He could smell her, like something forged in a foundry.

He reached out and tore off some wet strips of meat for his belly, even though the bodies providing it begged him, haltingly through welling throats, not to. The screaming was so close to that of his own voice, and so loud, that he was not aware until much later of what had arrived, and was amassing on the branches.

Advent Stories #15

O CARITAS

OC

Monck realised he had been here too long when he glanced down at his hands to find the knuckles turned blue. The flyover fled off to the left and right of him. Everything else was just scenery. An acid blue sky was crocheted with vapour trails. There were half a dozen jets up there right now, scraping the troposphere, edging 600mph while their inhabitants grazed on plastic trays of trans-fats and overcooked starch. The air shimmered with particulates. Blue tremors made the surface of the road uncertain. He stared at his hands, clenching and unclenching them, watching the tendons crawl beneath the skin. He remembered, when he was active in this city, that he had suffered from narcolepsy. He wondered if, now he was back, it would return too. Then he pulled the scrap of paper from his pocket and stared at the name. COLLEEN MALLORY.

He headed east. This section of road between Marylebone and Kings Cross had always been busy, as long as he had lived here, as long as he had been aware of the capital. The buildings that muscled against it were scorched with product: advertisements, tags, fliers, exhaust. Monck moved like something set free from a cage. His lungs burned. What passed for fresh air up top seemed much cleaner than anything he had sampled below stairs for the past five years, although he knew this was not the case. The pollution in Beneothan was oil-based, natural; not this chemical cocktail that twinkled in the lungs for a lifetime.

The tiny screws on his sunglasses were weak; he kept having to press his fingers to the frames to ensure they did not fall off. Midwinter, the sun like a torch fuelled by a failing battery was still strong enough to cause white-out and tears. And he must see; he must not be caught napping.

The city had healed, much better than he had ever imagined it might. Everything seemed sealed, glossy, like scar tissue. The rich had risen. Structured gossamer, the new form of transport among the moneyed, was sailed between buildings hollowed at their summits to receive it. Ground level was becoming ghettoised, a grid of poverty being redrawn in tar and carbon monoxide and soot.

Where is everyone going? Monck thought. The cars ground and bit and squealed around the peeling tarmac, surging along the Euston Road like some Roman army with its shields raised. Fewer people than he remembered were walking, perhaps because of the dangers. As the city grew taller, the light went with it; the depths were gloomy all the time now, lit up only by the ochre stabs of headlights or some reflected glory chicaning down from the heavens. Though he was tempted to stop and stare, Monck kept moving, remembering that he had a job to do.

Despite his years away, and the changes that had occurred, he still loved his city. There was enough of the old face left behind to offer reassurance, comfort even. Occasionally he happened upon ghosts. Bends in the road that he had swept down in a car with a girlfriend. Zones that pricked at him with meaning until he realised that he was standing where a park used to be, where he had read a novel, or eaten a sandwich in the sunshine, or met someone for a chat and an ice cream. The idea of food found a mate in his gut; he was suddenly ravenous. He hurried along a huge street, wishing for some of the old London kebab shops to still be around, but there was nothing but glass and resin and high-tensile steel. There were no doors. No neon. No human buzz. There was no way in.

Skimmers had delivered reports to Beneothan of gangs roaming these streets. There were horror stories connected to the elite in their penthouse acres high in the clouds. They were hiring muscle to rid the streets of old Londoners, the people who had existed here before the cataclysmic earthquake that collapsed forty per cent of the capital. With the streets cleansed, the rich could spread out, move into some of the big piles that sat idle in the suburbs, regain control of the roads and engage with the earth once more, instead of drifting around like chancing spiders. The rich liked their penthouses, but they liked their mobility too. They did not like to feel restricted in any way.

Monck could care less. Silk linings or age-shined viscose; it made no difference to him.

‘In here, quick.’ The voice was panic-scarred, and frothy with nicotine. Monck spun towards it and saw the grey blade of face sink back into the dark like a shark’s fin. Monck remembered when he had teetered on the brink of discovery: his true identity, his connection with the tribe that lived beneath the city, his talent for melting into the scenery. Fear had been behind it all back then; had partially fuelled the epiphanies he experienced. His scare threshold had receded much in the intervening years; when you spent your life scurrying around in true blackness, this twilight, this daylight, was hardly a place for nightmares to exist.

It was Jermyn, one of the Skimmers. He smelled of burnt grease and air fresheners. Monck saw him flaring his nostrils, perhaps in yearning for the underground. ‘Your shift over soon?’ Monck asked him.

‘Another twelve hours. My tripes are sweating, being in this shit pit. I’ll be glad to be back in the soil.’

Monck nodded. ‘Have you an in for me? Is there anything doing, this area?’

‘This used to be Marylebone,’ he said. ‘Very swish. Very Swedish, in its day. Over there, where the road bends off the main drag, Homer Street. There was a very good bar on the corner. Overpriced, but good.’

‘Anything doing?’ Monck pressed. ‘Anyone who’d look good in white?’

‘You think I’m here to grade skirt for you? I’m a waterboatman, Monck. Not a matchmaker. I’m here to make sure Beneothan remains beneath. Unsullied.’

‘I’ll cover for you. Last twelve hours of your shift. Go boating up the Fleet with your sweetheart. I just need a lead.’

‘You’re on,’ Jermyn snapped. ‘This arterial road is cut off at the top by what used to be Edgware Road. It’s grim as graves that way now. There’s a possible breach at the mouth of the old tube station. You have to make sure nothing gets in. I’ve got a few dogs on it at the moment, while I check the other weak point at the corner of Once Upon a Baker Street. Old video shop boarded up and ostensibly sterile. But don’t fall for it. There’s a storage room underneath. Something’s been at the foundations. Anything enters those hotspots means Beneothan is compromised.’

‘What about below stairs?’

‘Facers are working on the inner sanctum as we retreat. Strengthening the important sections to make sure we aren’t pierced, weakening others at strategic zones to ensure major kapow should any spelunkers get too warm.’

‘Do you really sense a threat? Aren’t we beyond that now? We’re burgeoning. Population’s on the rise. Slowly, I admit, but stil… I doubt anyone up here even knows about us any more.’

‘As long as Odessa breathes, there’ll be a garrison at the limits. No harm ever came from being cautious.’

Monck smiled. ‘You say that, but you’re getting chilblains.’

Jermyn touched his hat. ‘When you’re done, you might consider taking a shower before presenting yourself at the alleyways behind what was once Park Lane. The great hotels are all bandaged up like sore fingers, but you’ll find what you need inside them. Go tall. Enjoy the view. There’s nothing happening below the fifteenth floors.’

He was gone, then, as if the shadows had dismantled him. Monck thought he heard something by way of a farewell, but he couldn’t work out what it might have been. It sounded too much like Ivy for it to be anything like a goodbye.

Monck breathed into a stiff bowl made by his fingers, tried to work some feeling back into them. The light, such as it was, was failing, but still it was too painful to remove his sunglasses. As the dogs were on guard at Edgware Road, he decided to check on the video shop first. His mind filled with confetti, he headed east.

*

A darkness in waiting. A darkness with poise. The air here has not changed in half a decade. It sags like the final breath in a dead man’s lungs. A shoal of post lies on the welcome mat. Shelves prop up cinema ghosts. Anime. RomCom. Adult. Faded labels stained with perished Sellotape: Video Box Sets Half Price. Sopranos Season One Five Pounds!!! A different kind of shadow where the cash register stood. A corner of the poster carousel taps gently against its mate, spurred on by a draught, the only sound this space has known until the jemmy splits the halves of the entrance and pops it open.

Monck moves into this, knowing this species of dark as if it were something that might be alive, kept in a vivarium. The rods and cones on his retina spring awake: recognition of a friend. He breathes deeply and tastes air that would have fresh when he too was known to these streets more readily than the tunnels gouged beneath them.

He freezes, his hands behind him, pressed firmly against doors he has closed again. It’s as if no change has occurred. Behind him, cut-up voices in the street. A mish-mash of questions, challenges, rejoinders, but he can’t apportion them to separate mouths:

one seventy/scalpel/over/get that light close in/twenty/fifteen ccs/incision/clamp that/prep/black lung/reinflate/city boy, this is a city boy/bleeder

Street code. Gang slang. A patois of the pavement. He struggles to understand it while his eyes take in the denuded stacks. A few discarded DVD jackets lie on the floor. A price gun. A box that once contained deep fried chicken. The darkness deepens in the south-west corner of the room.

Stairs lead down to a tiny staff area: a sink, a chair, a counter. A box of PG Tips and a bowl of fossilised sugar. Fingers of mould wrap around the edges of a mini fridge. On the wall is a calendar from 1998. A stock room behind this is contains a single, empty pallet in the far corner. It is cool in this room. There is a padlocked fire door. A staff whiteboard bear the words Return stock by April 9th and Jenny says yes to Jake!!! and Someone else get the biscuits this week, please. Monck moves cautiously to the pallet and toes it aside. Here lies the breach, or one of them. A narrow blue-black throat sinking into another place. Top to bottom. Head to toe. Monck ducks to the edge and breathes. There is a smell of home, but of danger too. This tunnel is being used for something other than access. What was Jermyn playing at? Had he not been inside this building? Did he think, just because the main entrance was sealed, that there were no other crevices? He had lived for long enough in the city’s bowels, Monck thought he might have taken on some of the skills of rats by now.

Carefully, with the green stick of chalk he used to indicate area of danger, he ringed the fissure and scratched a line on the wall above it. He made another mark on the wall outside the shop too, after closing the doors.

*

Back along the old Crawford Road. He remembered many of the shops along here, and the people who lived in the flats. There had been a chemist with stained glass windows, a Middle Eastern sandwich shop that advertised FRESHLY SQUIZZED JUICE. A man with dreadlocks in his beard pushed a shopping trolley filled with televisions and cardboard; he drank chocolate milk from a carton and smelled of turpentine and plaster dust. London was coming back into Monck, reanimating him. He was almost running by the time he reached the Westway again. Ahead, the dilapidated entrance to Edgware Road’s Bakerloo line was a riot of broken masonry and lurching, concertina steel. He saw three dogs sitting on the pavement and knew there was something wrong straight away. These were not Beneothan dogs. They were bullets of muscle, all jaw and forward motion: bull mastiffs, bred nasty. They spotted Monck as he was backing away; they tore after him immediately.

Monck hit diamond link and climbed savagely, feeling the snarl of salivating chops at his trouser legs. He swung his leg over and dropped into a basketball court. Painted lines ruptured by tectonic upthrust, the aftershocks of the quake. The mastiffs were trying to chew through the fence and Monck spent a panicked few seconds checking for gaps they might have missed. He ran to the far end of the court and climbed the fence there, then doubled back in a large arc, hoping that he was downwind of the dogs and that their stubborn idiocy would keep them at the fence, waiting for him to return.

Inside the station, he slid over the ticket barriers. The lifts were buckled and powerless. The Beneothan dogs had been strangled, hoisted up on their leashes and left to hang on the exposed strip lighting cables. Monck took the spiral staircase into pitch, his mind thick with foam and bulging eyes. It was as if he could taste the secretions of foreign bodies in the air; feel the heat from their footsteps through the soles of his boots on these cold, stone steps.

These tunnels had not known trains for half a decade. On the southbound platform, Monck found discarded briefcases and handbags, umbrellas and newspapers fluttering in the breezes that funnelled through the underground network. How old was this air? It had no way out. It was being constantly recycled, a stale miasma, a memory. Monck stood and listened to its song, trying to detect something more sinister within it. His mind wandered. He thought of his long dead mother, and of his father, of women he had loved: Nuala, Laura. He had to bite hard against a sudden compulsion to cry. You could not live in Beneothan and entertain thoughts of visiting friends and family. It was too dangerous. It was too uniting. This city beneath the capital was insular, jealous and proud. It was the hypochondriac fearing infection.

From the tracks, a sudden sizzle of intent. A mechanical exhalation. A death rattle snaking its way along the dust-clogged tiles. Monck steeled himself for revelations, but none came. Only half-formed sentences, techno-babble, more of the argot he had eavesdropped at the video shop.

Swab/Clamp/Suture/I need 5 milligrams/

Frustrated by a lack of stimulus, Monck checked the other platform and the staff only zones, before repairing to the spiral staircase. He ascended swiftly, mindful that the mastiffs might return. He chalked lines on the ticket barriers and entrance and left a mark to convey that basic checks had been undertaken, but a more thorough search was needed. How many failed pressure points like this across the city? How many were accidental, unknown? How many had been created by invaders?

The constant burble of traffic on the flyover. The scurry and rush. Where was everyone going? Why was anybody still here?

At a Skimmer node – the private park for residents in what was previously Connaught Square – he passed on the details of his search. It was out of his hands now. The Skimmers would contact the Web, at the heart of Beneothan, and sealing manoeuvres would be coordinated within 24 hours.

‘Jermyn,’ he said, as he was leaving. ‘Have any of you seen Jermyn?’

Goldhawk and Frith shook their heads. Delancey suggested he might be in one of the midway zones – a central tunnel, platform or storage unit – catching up on his sleep before his next shift began.

Monck nodded, unable to shake off doubtful feelings. He hurried into what had once been named Stanhope Place and crossed the old Bayswater Road into Hyde Park.

The sudden vastness screamed into him and he felt afraid for the first time in so many years that it was almost crippling. Tired as he had grown of the enamelled feel of the new buildings, their brutal aloofness, that claustrophobia was preferable to this. He had forgotten about space. He began to sprint, unable to stop himself, like some newborn animal having found its legs. It was directionless, terrifying, thrilling. He ran until he saw a massive blade separating the park, glittering in the moonlight. He tore off his sunglasses, disoriented. Time was important up here. It was something that could be measured. Underground there was just the work and the sleep and the love. The compression of time up here, the compulsion to follow it, to be dictated to by it, reminded him that all those things he enjoyed now, he had to place into little boxes before. Life had been a series of tasks. Shape, format, rules, laws, all had been imposed on him. Time was all of those constrictions, and more. It ate through your mind from birth. Your first kiss was defined by how long you mashed your lips against someone else’s. We were at it all night long. How many years did you devote to the company you worked for? How many birthdays? How many anniversaries? The watch. The clock. The time, sponsored by Accurist.

The blade gleamed, clean and long, like an arrowhead that has fallen free of its spear.

Serpentine. He had boated on this with Laura in a year he couldn’t begin to give a number. They had drunk cappuccini and watched children chase pigeons. Looking back, you forgot about how time controlled you. You could erase it from the scene, but it was always there, tutting at you, pointing a finger at its own face.

He angled across the park, conscious of how conspicuous he was under this brilliant moon. He saw a fire up ahead, and shadows pass in front of it, running fast. He would have to negotiate the broad drag at the west edge – Park Lane as was – before he could search The Dorchester or the Hilton. There were enough distractions. A family had taken refuge in a black cab; the father was jabbing something like a poker out of a hole in one window, trying to ward off the pack that were trying to get at them. Someone ran through the wall of fire and gave the flames a piggy back. A horde took off after the screaming figure, although it was gone before Monck could discern whether a rescue was taking place.

OC2

He hurried across the road, dodging overturned vehicles and grinning cracks in the tarmac. A trio of children were sitting by the entrance to The Dorchester, playing with dice, or teeth or pebbles. He slipped past their upturned, hollowed faces and into the hotel lobby. He could hear music. There was a signal of some kind, too. It sounded like the pips of a timecode, or the indecipherable beats that untangle themselves from surges of static on a shortwave radio.

As with everywhere else, the lifts were no longer functional. He put his head down and trotted up the first seven floors before he had to rest. His breath came ragged and hot, deafening him. He crouched in the corner of the stairwell until his lungs had calmed, and then proceeded more carefully, rattled that he should have made himself vulnerable at the end of his search. At the seventeenth floor, he found corridors festooned with crepe decorations, silver and blue balloons, the mineral hit of champagne. At the other end of the building, as he turned a corner, he glimpsed a blur of white, heard the shush of silk rubbing against itself. Music came from an unknown source: it crackled with the warmth of vinyl. Cat Stevens, Sitting.

…if I sleep too long, will I even wake up again…

He pushed a door open and saw a room that could not be there. It contained a pine wardrobe with thin metal handles. Inside, the smell of the wood had been lost to time, and the things that were stored within: magazines and bottles of malt whisky; old sweet tins brimming with photographs; a cardboard box of births and deaths and marriages. A cricket ball. A tin of Kiwi boot polish.

A dressing table against which his mother had died writing a letter. Her perfume. For a moment, in the triptych of mirrors, he thought he saw her. The arm of her bottle green bathrobe swung clear of the door, stiff enough to contain her. He stepped back, his throat constricting. Those photographs. He could remember them without having to look again. Mostly from when he was a baby, a toddler. For some reason, his father stopped taking pictures once he had grown beyond the age of four. Maybe he was too busy. Maybe his camera had broken; they weren’t so easy with money that such luxuries could be replaced. The novelty of children wearing off; but he couldn’t believe that. His childhood had been happy, secure, until the seizure that carried off Mum. Cat Stevens was singing about a boy with a moon and star on his head. If he were to move deeper into the room, he might find his father reading a book about hostas, sipping at his Laphroiag.

A cork popped from a bottle.

‘Colleen?’ he called. He wondered where they had found her, and why they thought he would be a good match for him. Odessa had warned him of the population’s mismatch. Seven men for every one woman. Beneothan would die out within a couple of generations if they did not attract more females.

A door paused in the shutting. He hurried towards it. Inside, the hotel room was a riot of decorations. A partially devoured wedding cake stood on a pedestal. The window gave a view of Hyde Park that made Monck feel dizzy. He had to put his hands flat against the wall; he felt his toes try to dig through the soles of his boots into the carpet.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. She was sitting on a bed large enough for a small family to share. Her face was slashed shut by shadows.

Monck shot a look at her before his gaze was dragged back to the window.

‘Long way up,’ he said.

‘Long way down, too,’ she said.

Spanish guitars were still playing from the hotel room further down the corridor. Cat Stevens sings Latin. He imagined his dad nodding his head to the hand claps, the insistent pulse of the strings. Give me time forever, here in my time.

‘Will you come with me?’ he asked.

‘I’ve been with you all day,’ she said. ‘I’ll be with you for as long as it takes.’

Monck watched lights coil around the vast body of the park. Occasional fires burned at its perimeter. Gossamer drifted past the window: a man was pouring wine for two female companions while a Spider steered them towards some penthouse or another.

Colleen approached him, but the shadow would not slip from her features. He smelled apples on her, and her breath was spiced with nothing so exotic, or so intoxicating, as fresh air. It was as if she had drawn a lungful of the winter countryside into her and transported it here to pollution’s carbon-scorched heart. She plucked the piece of paper from his fingers and a shift occurred in that knot of darkness, a stretching, a settling. She was smiling.

‘You need to remind yourself who I am?’ she asked.

‘This is unorthodox, I know,’ Monck said.

‘Well, I’m here, ready. My big day.’

She returned to the bed and sat down, patted the area next to her. He stumbled towards it, certain that his vertigo was going to tilt the room as well as himself, and spill him through the glass. She did not reach for him, nor him her. They sat together like would-be lovers in the presence of a chaperone. His eyes would not grow accustomed to her darkness. But he felt very strongly that he knew her. The way she sat, the way she talked, the way she moved. Her fingers were busy with the paper. She folded it and refolded it. Sometimes it disappeared between her fingers, but then she unfolded, and the square grew. At one point, busy with it again, it fell from her hands. She didn’t pick it up.

‘We ought to go,’ he said. ‘Places like this, they’re vulnerable. Easy for street levellers to come up here.’

She leaned forward. It was only at the last moment, as her lips found his, that he realised she meant to kiss him. He thought she was about to share some grim secret. Shock reeled around his body.

‘Nuala?’ he said. But Nuala was dead. She had burned in a graveyard for trains. Everyone from his past died or faded away. He was like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle whose interlocking parts had become torn off.

When he pulled away, the kiss becoming at once too cloying and too insubstantial, the dress was lying on the bed, old and scarred. The walls of the room were peeling, the window starred with concussions from rocks or metal bars, which lay on the floor before it. Red paint had been sprayed around the walls. Outside, Hyde Park was a mass of smoking bodies, a disaster scene trying to be contained with man-sized pieces of charred tarpaulin.

The static in his head resolved itself into a sequence of beeps, of beats. He looked down at his arm and saw his blood’s motion, synchronous in the raised bulge of a vein. As if he had just drawn his arm clear of water, he saw it gleam, saw the shift of his face reflected in a glint millimetres wide. He was reminded of the Serpentine, but when he lifted his head to search for the water, everything went grey. He turned, his heart thrashing, and knew he had to get out of the hotel. It was a trap of some sort. Jermyn’s shark fin face leered somewhere out there. Monck was on his knees, scrabbling for the door, when his hand brushed against the paper Colleen had been playing with. Its folds seemed unfinished; her name was obscured. Well, part of it. The initial letters of her given and family names were mashed together. As he was cloaked by the strength of his own astonishment, he saw the word: COMA.

*

A tube leading from the cannula sunk deep into the meat of his forearm snaked into the soil. Wires turned the shaved mass of his head into a study of fractures. Trying to move, he noticed he was naked. A monitor beep measured the strength beep of his life and played beep along.

Colleen shifted into his line of sight. He knew it was her because of the smell. He wanted to ask her how she managed that, how she could retain the freshness of the surface after so long in the stale belly of the city.

‘Are you smiling?’ he asked.

‘Shh,’ she said. ‘Don’t speak. I have to give you something.’

‘What?’

He heard rumbles move over his head from left to right, dull, distant, but onerous. Trickles of soil fell from the ceiling. A large bang from somewhere. The room, and Colleen, shivered in his eyes.

‘You shouldn’t have woken up.’

‘What do you mean?’

Other figures crowded around him. He recognised one as Odessa. ‘Put him under, quick,’ she said. ‘Jesus Christ.’

He found strength to fight her as she made to release the seal on the anaesthetic. He tore the needle from his arm with his teeth and spat it out. He sat up. The others shifted uneasily, moving away, unsure.

Odessa said, her voice softer now, imploring: ‘Don’t leave us. We’re nothing if you go.’

‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘We captured you.’

‘I’m with you. There’s no need to hold me prisoner.’

‘We captured your narcoleptic… other. The you that exists when you have an attack, when you sleep.’

Monck tensed himself for another rush at him, but everyone was keeping back. He wished they would attack him; it was something he could at least try to deal with.

‘Why?’ he asked, barely able to summon the breath required by the question.

‘We needed you up there, but we need you here too.’

‘Why?’ he asked again. He felt he might never be able to say anything but.

‘Storage. We’re in trouble. We’re under attack. We need to keep our functioning males safe. We’re building special, sealed hives. We have cryogenic technicians…’ Odessa’s voice petered out.

‘And what about this… other?’

‘Reconnaissance. We could read what was happening up Top without needing to imperil ourselves.’

Monck rubbed his face. ‘I remember a ruined hotel. Colleen was there. Hyde Park was burning.’

Odessa nodded. ‘We know. The city is dying. After the quake, well we hoped it would divert attention. But there were breaches. People came looking. There were deaths. No order after a cataclysmic event. No law to speak of. It was required elsewhere. Scum poured in. We were caught napping. People who lost everything in the trauma up Top found succour in the stores we had built down here. We are being routed and reamed. We are retreating so hard we’re meeting ourselves coming the other way.’

‘I have to go.’

‘No, we’re not finished. We need to find the other breaches. We have to repel and seal.’

‘Get Jermyn to do it. Or one of the other Skimmers.’

‘Jermyn’s dead. They’re all dead.’

‘I have to go. I’m going. I have to see for myself.’

‘Come back, then. Soon,’ Odessa said, and then something else, as she moved out into the tunnels.

He was pulling on his clothes, wiping his needle punctures with sterile tissues, when he realised what she had said.

At least one of you.

*

London was like a model for tectonic realignment, for climate change, for urban terrorism, all rolled into one. Fires and gangs roamed, seeking fuel. Monck noticed his lack of shadow, but it was night; what light there was came as a jittery, uncertain thing. He chided himself for allowing himself to be spooked, and chivvied himself along the old Oxford Street, with glances into the vandalised acres of glass and steel that flanked him, where at least his reflection – a pale craquelure – kept pace.

He approached the Dorchester from the rear, feeling strange at the knowledge that this was his first visit to the hotel, despite what his dreaming self had suggested. He felt light, reduced somehow, and wondered how long he had been lying on the bed. His legs were foal-weak.

He entered via a staff door that linked to the kitchens. The refrigerators had been raided. All of the knives and cleavers had been stolen from the hooks above the work surfaces. Dinner orders were still clipped to a carousel. A waiter’s bow tie hung limply on the back of a tea box filled with mouldering potatoes. He knew that there was no hope for Beneothan. You couldn’t put a finger in every hole; blocking it up only increased the pressure elsewhere. London was too big to police. It had accrued breaches for millennia. It was sieve city. It was groaning with collapse.

Monck methodically checked every corridor off the fire escape as he rose. On some levels he was unable to open the doors because of bodies or barricades. At the seventeenth floor he found cold sterility. Any evidence of the party had been cleared away, or had existed nowhere other than in the crevices of his sleep-brain. All of the rooms were open. All of the rooms were empty. He found the shadow of what might have been a wedding dress across the counterpane of a neatly made bed but when he pressed his fingers against it, shadow was all it was.

He heard something back down the corridor and turned to see a hand slide out of view, leaving a track of black in the wall that its nails had gouged.

He hurried after the figure, Colleen’s name on his lips, gritting his teeth against the feeling of faintness swarming around him. In the stone chasm of the fire escape, he heard hard, fast footsteps ascending. Monck stared at the risers as he pursued, expecting to see craters. Someone crashed through the emergency exit at the top of the hotel. Monck arose into a silent span of stars. Smoke smudged the horizon. London reared away from him, a mandala of fire, a thousand square miles of potential being forged in the flames of creation. It seemed. The truth was more prosaic, more dangerous. Distance did that for you. Whether temporally or physically. It prettified. It defused.

He/Monck said, ‘Long way up.’

Monck/He said, ‘Long way down, too.’

He was sitting on the edge of the world, a figure so utterly dark it was as if it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. It seemed to tremble, on the verge of sucking itself inside out. It felt strange, saying the things that this narcoshade was saying, yet it didn’t for a second make him feel as though he were being manipulated.

‘I’m tired,’ He/Monck/Monck/He said. ‘I’m so tired.’

There could be no trickery here, no surprise ending. He knew what was coming. So no need to ask the reason they had come up here. No need to ask what kind of future they might share. No more why. No more who. No more where. No more when. The how of it was the easiest part. Monck/He reached out his arms and began to run. Like a mirror made of oil, He/Monck opened up for an embrace. It lasted for as long as it took Monck to wonder if they would create one impact mark on the road, or two.

Advent Stories #14

63˚07’N, 52˚34’W

comp

Stars wheeling at his back, Captain Low comes on like bad weather, like something separated from Nature, a different kind of force, one driven by rum and pain and vengeance. Steel in his teeth. Blood on his hand. His own? He’s not sure. He doesn’t really care. No time to stop and think about injuries, men felled, kills made. Two weeks out of Liverpool on The Pride o’ The Mersey. The stink of gunpowder raking his nostrils, the sour taste of fear in his throat. Madness rising.

Fetter’s in his brain, scouring it out with smoke and shadow like a smithy’s iron. Jacob Fetter, the ocean’s bowel, the bottom-feeder, the shitehole. One month previous, on a rain-sodden November night, some dark harbour south of a moon they couldn’t see, north of wherever, hell most probably, Jake Fetter and his crew slithered in and butchered Captain Low’s men. All good men. All hard, mahogany men, weathertan and muscleknot, able to take their grog, maybe they’d have taken a keelhauling with barely a grunt.

Seven and thirty of us. Now we are but one.

That harbour ground, that battlefield… ice chased off by hot blood, turned to brown syrup by morning. Barrowloads of sawdust wheeled in. The corpses wheeled out, some of them in pieces. Fetter had stolen every man’s tongue, and done for every eye with a wooden fid.

Low had chased Fetter’s shadows from Plymouth to Portugal, from Brest to the Bering Sea. His new crew, a ragbag of scurfy rats handpicked from the dregs of humanity, fallen from a brothel half-cut, eager for work, know his name. Know his past. He has that pull. No strong men left. So he has to invite wraiths on board his ship.

Seven and thirty of us… still we are but one.

The crew talks and he drifts among them, learning, understanding, finding out. First Mate, Mr. Gray, makes his introductions while Low tries – and fails – to avoid the noxious blasts of air that shoot from between his teeth.

‘See Mr Kidney there, Captain, with the ulcerated leg that will not heal? He won’t have it taken off. He might be on his way out but he throws himself into every battle, first man up, first man in, a red flag wrapped around those weeping sores. “Shoot me,” he cries. “Shoot me and have done.” He wants his gold from you for that leg off, see. Amputation means no pay. Anything else, death for example, would be a bonus. This man has a great debt of pain to his past. And mark my words, Captain. He’ll never fall. He’s weak, but he’ll fight till his seams part. That dog’s drenched in bad luck. His leg will rot with him still using it before he gives up the ghost.

‘Mr Tamsin next, Sir, at the quarterdeck, folding the colours. Made of tar and wood and salt. Cut him, he’ll bleed seawater. Been a brother to these waves since he were a nipper. Survived a fall into shark-infested waters, once. Big one bit him in the chest, ripped his breathers open. He was so close to death he could have touched the ragged hem of Its cloak. Came back though, somehow. Came back and now you know whenever he’s near, for there’s the sound of the ocean as he pulls in another breath. Some round here won’t have it. They steer clear of him. Reckon he’s a ghost, or a warning.

‘This is all fascinating, Mr Gray,’ Low says, closing his eyes. ‘All fascinating and of great help to a man who likes a bit of character. But, see, and don’t take this the wrong way, Mr Gray, but, see, only man I care about, asleep, awake, only man I think about is Jacob Fetter.’

And Mr Gray slinks back, bowing his head, as they all do. He knows how they mutter behind his back; the deep corners of the ship’s waist contain a fug of gossip and concern.

He’s obsessed, he is. It’ll be his undoin’. Fetter’s won afore a vengeful blow’s been aimed.

He doesn’t mind the chatter. No crew of his have ever dreamt of mutiny. As long as they keep the decks swabbed, keep their eyes on the horizon and their hearts cold. Low claps his hands. Heads turn. Tired, soulless eyes, dogs’ eyes. Sharks’ eyes.

‘Word has it you lot are worthless,’ Low says. ‘Word has it your best days were ten years back. A shambling crew, you lot, now. Sleepwalking. Readying for your final bed. Well I’m not having any of that. You come work for me, there must be some steel left in your blood. Youth? Muscle? Means nought to me if there’s no fire to fuel it. And I know all about fire. I can see it in you. You might be tired, ready to drop even, but I know rage when I see it. I won’t ask you to do anything I’m not ready to take on myself. I’ll wash with you, eat with you, fight with you. And when we fight… Oh Lord, men. When we fight, it’ll be with the force of the Atlantic at our backs. I promise you ten gold doubloons each and a lifetime of rum, a ship to rival Queen Anne’s Revenge, if you help me run Jacob Fetter to ground. One last, great task. A defining time. History is upon you men, each and every one of you. What say you to that?’

He turns on his heels as the cheers pile against the sails, yet as swiftly as a mask torn from a face, his smile is gone. His heart has a fathomless chill.

*

The water, at night. Might be oil. Might be black ice. Might be blood. A gruel of dreams. A froth of souls, of brave men too afeared of showing the truth of their feelings. Men who died hard and did not cry. Did not scream for their mothers. As you will, Jacob Fetter. As you will.

*

33°09’N, 24°06’W

We hit glass. Sea becalmed. I can see the reflection of the gleam in my eyes when I lean over the side and look into it. I give the order for the powder room to be cleaned and the sails to be taken down for repairs. These men might be damaged, but I’ll not need to talk to them again; they don’t need me telling them where to put their noses when there’s no foam at the bow.

‘Those sails down, Cap’n, there’s going to be a lot of hot necks in an hour or two.’

I stare at the man addressing me. I don’t remember where I dragged this one from. Some cobbled street running with wine and blood in Lisbon? A beach filled with nets and bodies on the toe of Italy? His skin is like stewed tea. His voice marks him out from one of the ports of the south-west of England. Plymouth, perhaps. Or Bristol. His eyes will not fasten on me.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Robert, sir. Robert Greenhalgh.’

‘Mr. Greenhalgh, I’m grateful to you for your concern. At midday, the crew can go below decks for two hours. You, on the other hand, will stay here with me, monitoring the weather and watching for raiders. Do you understand?’

‘Clear as this water we’re sitting in, Cap’n,’ he said, though again I couldn’t shake the feeling that his pronunciation of the word was muddied with sarcasm or disdain.

I was about to take my leave of him when he shifted his stance. He squared up to me. I felt the hairs prickling at my neck; my wrist brushed the handle of my cutlass. He was unarmed. He wore a curious smile, though that might in part be helped by the scar that wormed up from his jaw across his left cheek.

‘The men are with you,’ Greehalgh said. ‘For now. But already there’s talk. How’s he know, this Captain Low, where Fetter is? How’s he know which way to turn?

‘I’m captain of this ship,’ I said. ‘That’s all you need, by way of an answer.’

Greenhalgh closed his eyes deferentially. I was unnerved by the sight of open eyes sinking into their position. A tattoo, not uncommon among pirates. I had seen it before. A reassurance, that they might continue to keep watch, even as they slept. Greenhalgh nodded, backed away.

‘Mr Gray!’ I shouted. I was angered by the nervousness this man had unearthed in my gut. I did not like him. ‘Mr Gray!’

It turned out Greenhalgh was not a direct acquisition of mine. I tried to keep my temper in check as Mr Gray explained how he had come to be on board at the time of our casting off from Liverpool. None of the men knew him. He’d been asleep in the crew’s quarters and gained favour by handing out pieces of dried mango.

‘He sailed with Captain Rainey out of Hull a dozen times,’ said Mr Gray. ‘He’s brought back heads from the Barbary Coast and some say he has a fortune in Chinese silver. He’s an experienced salt. He could be of help to us.’

‘He’s a stowaway,’ I said. I stared at the horizon, flatter than the underside of the rulers I used on my waggoners. I imagined Jacob Fetter out there, smoothing the water with his hands. ‘Watch him.’

*

Do I fear him? I sense him sniffing the waves at some dark prow, all the light from the stars hurtling into his eyes, giving him the vision of angels. And no matter how many miles divide us, he can see me. He can see the loose threads on the scarf at my throat, the beard, the long hair and the tricorn. He can see the tremor in my left hand, where the ligaments and nerves never quite healed after the brawl in Sour Heart’s Hollow. He can see the sweat in every pore. He can see the cloud over my eyes. He can see deep into the chambers of my heart where the blood moves cold and sluggish as slob ice in Antarctica. He sees me better than I see myself.

*

Doldrums.

The turtles we brought on board have all been devoured. We’re having to eat hard tack in the dark of the hold so as not to see the weevils in our food. Mr Tamsin caught an old porpoise. He argued that it wasn’t bad luck because it had risen to the surface to die anyway. He boiled it in the cauldron but it was bad eating. All other attempts at fishing have been in vain.

I cornered Mr Greenhalgh and asked him if he had any of his mango strips left. ‘No sir,’ he said. He offered me a piece of coconut.

‘Quite the larder, aren’t you sir?’ I said.

I challenged him about his illicit boarding of my ship. He apologised fulsomely and said that it had been an ambition of his to sail with me. ‘You are gaining a reputation throughout Europe,’ he said. ‘A fair man, a good Captain. A brother in a fight.’

‘You served under Captain Rainer?’

‘Yes sir. For eight years.’

‘And did you make good hauls in that time?’

‘Yes sir. In 1794 we overwhelmed a crew of seventy-five belonging to The East Wind, a schooner from Baltimore returning from the Orient. Spices. Silks. Ivory. Wine and olive oil. There were twenty of us in Captain Rainer’s sloop.’

Red Freedom, no?’

Greenhalgh smiled. ‘Yes sir. You know your history.’

‘I’m impressed,’ I said. ‘And flattered. Where is Captain Rainer now?’

Greenhalgh smiled again. I was irked by it. The man was able to convey his emotions without making them explicit in the things he said. He was patronising me. ‘I can’t tell you that, sir. Captain Rainer swore us all to silence.’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘And anyway, it’s Fetter I’m interested in. No clues there, I expect?’

A shake of his head. ‘The last I heard regarding Captain Fetter, he was alternating between the Mediterranean and the north-west coast of Africa. He works hard, sir.’

I nodded. ‘I work harder.’

I was about to take leave of him when he touched me gently on the elbow. I swallowed the urge to lash out at him.

‘Pardon my tongue, sir. I don’t mean to speak out of turn, nor to sow a seed, but Jacob Fetter captains a warship, the like of which has not been seen since Blackbeard’s day. He has a crew of one hundred and fifty. Young, hungry men. Fit men. You might well be obsessed with catching Fetter’s tail, but I suspect you occupy merely a tiny portion of his brain.’ He sucked his teeth. ‘You’re a memory. Not a concern.’

His heavy-lidded eyes. Eyes on eyes. Scar or no, the maddening suggestion of a smirk at his lips. I leaned in close. ‘Be careful, Mr Greenhalgh. As a stowaway, you’ve contravened the law. And I might, at any moment, decide to punish you for that.’

‘I am here to serve you, sir,’ he said. ‘If I have spoken out of turn, then I apologise. My words, always, are intended as an aid, nothing more.’

I sent him with Mr Horrocks to the cannon. ‘Prepare the ship for battle,’ I told them.

*

End of the fifth day in sleeping water, Captain Low, alone on the poop deck, watching the stars, remembering a day on a bluff overlooking Port Kincaid. His father teaching him how to find the Pole Star. How to navigate across oceans using only those points of light in the sky. They had built a fire together, Low impressing his father with his knowledge of tinder, of siting. He had knelt close to a knot of dry grass, sheep’s wool and down. Breathed gently upon the centre of the heat he had driven into the wood with his whittled stick. The barest tremor from his lips, a ghost’s kiss: the smoke thickened, its core a sudden yolk.

He feels that tremor now. Low opens his eyes to the fingers of air touching his face. The stars in the water turn suddenly indistinct, like chalk marks softened by a thumb.

‘Mr Gray!’ he calls, pulling off his shirt and unlashing the great halyard of the mainsail. ‘All hands on deck!’

*

They left us for dead, and Death had His fill. He took His time and picked the boat clean. But some of us He missed. The ones you’d have thought were first on His list: the crippled, the diseased, they slipped through His fingers. Fetter had six days on us. Six days before we got the sloop repaired and making a wake. We buried many dead. We swabbed the decks of a lot of blood. We put our brothers in the water. We drank ourselves to oblivion singing their names under a storm.

*

48°18’N, 29°47’W

The ship plunges on. The wind in our faces. A mist of spray in the air. Getting colder. The sweat of the lads on the ratlines. The occasional hit of tar, of strong wood, of spanked sails beating out our intent across the sea. Dolphins glint like bodkins sewing our route into the water. Hunger has sharpened our minds. No cloud. No land. Five days adrift, as still as corpses, a long time to lose yourself, to let him get away. But I was on to him. I knew we were heading the right way. North. Always North. He had no other direction in him. I saw his face in the powder of the stars and the strange rash of light in the deeps. Even as my hands and feet grew numb, my breath shocked to white, I could sense how he would feel as I crumbled him under my fingers. There was nothing to him. He was akin to these icebergs muscling up against my ship. He had an intimidating air, but he was drifting. And if I chipped away at him, bit by bit, one day he would collapse, reveal his cold, blue heart.

A noise from up in the nest. All eyes turned to the north-west. From the horizon, after a minute or so, a pale red colour bled into the night.

‘Mr Gray! A change of course if you please. Thirty degrees port.’

The light was dying by the time we were able to identify it. A ship on fire, its bow blasted into burned, black fingers. It was leaning hard on its starboard side, the keel lifting out of the water and all I could think about was an old, diseased whore I had visited in Rangoon when I was a young man, hauling herself out of a stinking bath. I sent out a party of six to investigate, led by Mr Gray.

They returned just after the sun slipped the horizon. Mr Gray was standing at the prow, his hands cupping his mouth. No survivors. No survivors. A report of what he had seen. A prediction for all of us on board The Pride. I don’t know.

All of the heads had been emptied of tongues, their eyes dashed out. I imagined a man in a room unfolding a sopping, crimson handkerchief.

*

In the dark and the rain. The swell and bottoming out of the ship. The fists of iced wind. Nothing to do but huddle and think. Sup the ladles of rum and gunpowder. You piss where you sit to keep yourself warm. You wonder how life might have gone had you made another turn as a boy on the shadow-line. The fingers of your hands are task-hardened, so calloused you can slice the ball of your thumb with a blade and you will not bleed. No chance of such luck with the heart. Still tender as a lamb’s. No great love arcs to strengthen it. No matrimonial blows. A novice in romance. You never married. You never had sons. Well, not that you knew of. Down in the bilges, away from the crew. Through the maggot-infested seams of the ship. Into the stench-black pits of wood and saline. Here you feel it is almost safe to cry.

*

Morning emerges. An albatross keeping pace off starboard. Stiff breezes from the south-east. Mist. A bone-coloured sun. Clean air. Mr Tamsin cooks one of the turtles rescued from The Clarion. We convene beneath the mainmast. I thank the men for their efforts. For their trust. I tell them the weather will not hold and that conditions will deteriorate. Some of the men are smiling at me as I speak, with genuine affection. I know these lads will follow me to the waterfalls at the edge of the Earth if I were to ask. Some are expressionless, determined. Others cannot meet my gaze, but they nod their heads. They know me. They believe in me. Their belief in me props up the sagging belief I have in myself. Was it ever there? Was it ever there?

The ship turns. The soft shadows realign themselves on deck. A black hand skids elongated over the devil’s seam, fingers splayed, unGodly, as if reaching for something it never deserved. A cry. A surge of bodies. Men grappling at the broken body of Mr Lerner tied against the bowsprit.

‘Cut him down,’ I call out, needlessly.

He spills to the deck. Somebody says, Mosey’s Law. Mr Lerner’s eyes are squint-tight shut. The tan in him has turned the grey of whaleskin. His teeth are clenched, protruding from the peelback lips as if making an attempt to escape. Perhaps it is a scream behind them that has created the shape. You might almost lever the ivories open, reach in and pluck it from the tongue. A glassy, fragile thing cast from the branches of the lungs: the outline of terror.

‘Turn him over.’ Your voice, but you’d swear you never opened your mouth. Mr Greenhalgh scoops his bare foot under the cadaver and flips him on to his guts. You bite down hard on a rebuke at the man’s insensitivity, because here’s madness. Mr Lerner’s back has been so thrashed by the cat that his spine shows through his swollen, lacerated flesh.

‘This was done after he died,’ Mr Greenhalgh says, picking at his teeth with a bent nail.

‘I’d have thought God the only being who might divine that knowledge, Mr Greenhalgh. Or are you keeping secrets from us? Do you want to tell us something? Do you want to confess?’

‘Dead men don’t sing songs,’ Mr Greenhalgh said, then turned his back on me, began scooping rope into his thick arms. ‘We’d have heard him squeal like a harpooned humpback. We’d have been able to do something.’

‘Then how did he die?’

Mr Greenhalgh turned around, that maddening ghost of a smile. The slow unblink of his eyes. The pale, staring tattoos. ‘I’m not the ship’s sawbones,’ he said.

‘Mr Lievesley!’ I did not take my eyes off that insubordinate rat.

The ship’s doctor assessed the body, and, nervously twiddling with his pince-nez, told me there were flecks of pink, bloody froth around Mr Lerner’s mouth, consistent with death by drowning. ‘I can’t confirm whether it’s salt water or drinking water.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. I called the men together. I told them that the person responsible for this murder would escape the death sentence if they came forward immediately. ‘In that case, my trust has been abused, as has that of the rest of the crew. Mr Gray, organise a watch. On deck and in the sleeping quarters. When the cuprit is unearthed, it will be Davy Jones’s Locker for him.’

*

Did my voice break, a little? As I was standing there, my hand shaking like some old man with the palsy, as I voiced my hard threats, was part of me trying to tell me that the murderer would never be exposed? That it was Fetter who had somehow transported his evil, by way of a storm cloud, perhaps, on to The Pride, and walked among my men without being detected. Perhaps the crew felt a prickle of cold as he passed, or a jag of pain behind the eyes. Perhaps they found they could not focus on his shadow as he moved. Their gaze slid away, repelled by his monstrousness. I had never set eyes on him. But he filled my mind like some inoperable canker. Sometimes I imagined him beneath the sea; its surface nothing but the vast acres of a billowing black cloak. When the storms began to blow, he would rise and, at some awful moment, he’d swing around and show me how the features sat on his face. And I believed upon seeing him, my eyes would simply turn to dust and trickle from my head.

*

Two days since we buried Mr Lerner at sea. The food is all but gone, save a stinking batch of coconut husks already gnawed to the quick. I gave the order to bring down any seabirds, but the skies are emptying, this far north. When the albatross returned, none of the crew were prepared to lift their muskets at it. My own misfired in the cold. I was barely strong enough to lift the weapon in my hand. Another two bodies were found in the evening by Mr Greenhalgh and Mr Rees. Rees told me that he had spent the whole day with Greenhalgh, making nets to see if they could catch some fish. Mr Rees is a good man, too thick for deviousness. I believe him, which lets Greenhalgh off the hook for Mr Lievesley timed the death at some point that afternoon. The dead men, Mr Abbott and Mr Lucy, were naked, their ribs gleaming through the mess of their chests like pieces of ivory buried in rubies. They had frozen to the cannon they had been draped over. Mr Horrocks had to use an axe to release them.

*

63°28’N, 29°47’W

While I was discussing weather systems and charts with Mr Carver, Mr Gray sidled up to me, in that way he has. He drew me to one side. I covered my mouth and nose, pretending be disgusted by the grisly show. I smelled Mr Gray’s carious words, regardless.

‘Mr Low. Sir. We’ve drifted a little. Down to this hard patch of weather I suspect. But we’re still on course. Give or take.’

I nod. Look at him. ‘All very good, Mr Gray. But there’s something else stuck in your throat. And it’s not ship’s biscuit, I’ll warrant.’

‘No sir.’ He appeared nervous, embarrassed even. ‘This Fetter, sir. Jacob Fetter. I don’t know him. I wondered if you might tell me a little about him.’

‘No reason why you should know him, Mr Gray. He’s my rogue, not yours.’

‘With respect, sir, we’re on this ship chasing his shadow. All for you. He’s as much a part of our nightmares as yours now. We deserve to know the shape of our quarry.’

I chewed on this for a while. But I could not disagree with him. ‘Jacob Fetter was born at sea. His mother was a shark. His father was a raft of dead coral. Some January night, in that unreserved glacial darkness that smothers the Earth perhaps once a year, the coral gave up its unHoly seed and the shark drifted through it. By the time she emerged from the fog, she was dead, and Fetter was fully formed in her belly. His mother, the shark, did not give birth. Fetter devoured her inside out. He has gills, Mr Gray. He is cartilaginous. His eyes roll back into his head when he takes a bite of his supper. If you get close enough to him, while he sleeps, and look into his black throat, you’ll see row upon row of serrated teeth reaching back into his gullet. He cannot eat anything that is dead. At the first hint of night, he must slip into the water. He must constantly be on the move. If he stops, he sinks to the sea bed and dies of suffocation.’

‘Mr Low…’

‘When he makes love, he rips his women open with a razored penis and slakes his thirst on their blood. When he prays, the moon turns red. If you see his shape in the clouds at midnight, you will go to sleep in fever and wake up blind. His breath is carrion. The wake of The Iron Mantis churns so mightily that typhoons emerge from the sea. I have it on good authority that when Fetter relieves himself overboard, the steam of his piss turns into phantoms that dissolve the skin.’

‘Mr Low…’ Whispered now.

‘I don’t know, William,’ I said, and he seemed more shocked by my use of his Christian name than anything previously uttered.

He stepped in closer to me, as if we were spies conspiring on a street corner. ‘The men, they are with you,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know how strong your credit with them will prove. They… we are pirates. We live for the chase, for the fight, for the silk and the sovereigns. We want to get drunk, and not on this watered-down piss. We want to fornicate and eat fresh food. We’re not stupid, Mr Low. We know this life, it’s either feast or it’s famine. But our pockets are deep. And there’s nothing at the foot of them. And you telling me you don’t know this man. You don’t know his size or his colour. His creed or his needs. It doesn’t put steel in my heart.’

‘He is where we are going,’ I said. ‘The burning ship must convince you of that.’

‘There are more pressing matters, sir. In my opinion. We have a killer on board. Where are the investigations? Where are the suspects?’

‘We are all suspects, Mr Gray,’ I said, staring into his sun-blasted face. ‘At least the body proved to me that at least one of us has some bite, some animal in him.’

‘Murder?’ said Mr Gray. ‘You condone it? Among our own?’

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘But this is no treasure hunt. This isn’t a year of festivities, all mates together drinking and whoring all the ports of the western seas. This is a blood hunt. This is vengeance.’

He was about to protest, but this time it was I to duck into his space, to drive the point home. ‘What would you have me do, William? Spend a day or two rooting out the bad apple? Mete out some brutal justice? And then back on to a cold trail, the men more resentful, more hungry? You say they’re with me, for now. Then let me strike while I have a backing. We can rootle through the muck after the deed’s been done.’

‘A backing, you say?’ Mr Gray’s voice was suddenly tired, breathy. ‘How many of us will be left once our bow is chopping at Fetter’s foam?’

‘One body, Mr Gray. One murder. There is no guarantee there’ll be more killing.’

‘And, Captain, there is no guarantee there won’t be.’

*

He comes for me, but not at night, not when I am alone, struggling to sleep. He comes when I’m in the middle of my toilet, or pinching my nose to drink down the slime of our water in the galley’s barrels. He comes when I’m sharing out the hardtack or stepping in to halt a squabble between shipmates. I see his shadow slide across the wall of my quarters like tar drawn into spiderish lengths. His breath is scentless; the cold has burned out all traces of his interior. He touches the skin of my throat and I feel every shred of me become the chill sludge of every dead thing found on the ocean bed. I can’t wake up screaming. No such relief. I have to bite on the panic. I have to force the smile. The men see one speck of this madness in me and we are all done for.

We go on. We must go on.

*

Mr Gray is up aft with the ‘bring ’em near’. He’s convinced land is less than a day away. Clouds on the horizon. I’m too weak to get off my bunk. I can no longer tell which of my hands is the damaged one; both shake like fury. Another body this morning. Mr Tamsin, frozen so hard to the deck that even Mr Horrocks’ axe would not shift him. Red splinters flew out at every blow. I saw Mr Kidney drooling.

Mr Dendy, in the crow’s nest, calls out. There is a clamour for the port side. Mr Gray points a confirmation. A little while later, a white line trembles above the horizon. Land. I’m barely able to hold myself upright, but now I’m cheering with the other lads. Where there’s land there’s food. Where there’s food, there’s scavengers. And where there’s scavengers, there’s Fetter.

It takes an agony of time to reach that solid, icy bluff, and another hour or two to find an access point where we can drop anchor. I order the armoury to be opened. Muskets for everyone. I doubt any will work in this cold, but the men deserve to have their courage bolstered. I feel only the slightest pang of doubt when I realise a gun is being passed to our secret killer. But events have overtaken us. Gun or no, the bodies will pile up.

I choose a landing party. Myself, Mr Greenhalgh, Mr Dendy, Mr Burbidge, Mr Taylor and Mr Horrocks. I am tempted to take Mr Lievesley with us, but again I must think of those left on board. I pull Mr Gray to one side.

‘William, I apologise. I know you would want to come with us, and God be my witness I wish you were at my side, but the truth of the matter is that I need you to be my eyes and ears back on The Pride. I trust you with my life. And it vexes me to say that you’re the only person I do trust right now.’

‘Then if that’s the case, we ought to turn around and sail back to Liverpool. Forget all this. Forget about Fetter. We are dead men, Captain.’

‘If I go back without facing him, death would be the least of my worries.’

‘Sir…’

‘My decision is made, Mr Gray. You have command of The Pride. If we are not back within a single arc of the moon, you may cast off.’

I do not look back. Mr Greenhalgh and Mr Taylor take up the oars and row us into a cathedral of ice. The hollows of the bergs flicker with the palest blues and greens. A pirate’s eye is well-trained for prettiness; yet all the treasures he has plundered over a lifetime of robbery and violence cannot prime him for these sights. The bluster and blague of the ship has been shed; we drift in awed silence. I wonder about Fetter, about his eyes trawling these same lofted ceilings and glittering buttresses. I wonder if his soul might have lifted. If he might have felt the cold splinter of his own mortality.

Is he running away or drawing me in?

The colours change. Blood frozen into the snow as we clamber on to the ice shelf. Something has been ripped apart here: blood has hosed in lines over twelve feet away. No man was the author of this atrocity. We fan out.

Mr Burbidge finds what remains of the corpse a little while later. His tarred petticoat breeches had been torn open. A blue and white checked shirt was similarly ravaged; a few feet away, a woollen cap and some shoes contained a mush of blood and fat and bone. Mr Horrocks is copiously sick. I order the men to follow me.

I feel panic that we might have arrived too late. I don’t want my confrontation with Fetter to be nothing more than my feet scuffing through his remains. But some glint in the clean knife of the air tells me he lives on. Two hours of tramping through snow, the cold numbing our edges, and we find his ship. We stand in shocked silence. There is a hole in the hull and the mainmast has been downed. The ship leans against the ice shelf as if pausing for breath.

‘Careful, lads,’ I advise. We watched the ship for some time, but there was no movement. A hundred and fifty men. Nobody on board? I couldn’t swallow that, yet I bid my companions follow me and approached that crippled vessel.

Once we had found a way on to the listing deck, we quickly searched for food. There might have been crew below decks, but the smell of fresh meat and bread was too great to resist. The doors hanging off their hinges, the blood on the ropes, told us that if any crew were on ship, they were no longer alive.

A wet, growling sound rose into the torn sails.

‘Bear,’ said Mr Greenhalgh, as if he were casually describing something passing along the harbour in Hull.

I followed his gaze down to the ice. Two large polar bears were circling, wagging their heads this way and that whenever they reared up on to their hind legs. Their muzzles were sopping and pink.

We ate quickly, but sensibly. Too much and we’d suffer stomach cramps which would be the death of us out here. We packed as much as we could carry for our mates on The Pride. And then, as we were preparing to leave, Mr Burbidge touched me on the arm.

‘Begging pardon, Captain. I thought I heard something below.’

With the food inside me, I felt my daring return. I bid Mr Taylor accompany me. He unsheathed his musket. My instinct was to examine the captain’s cabin first, to see if any trace of Fetter remained. I wanted to inhale his stink, top up the hatred, but the cabin was empty of anything to damn the man. It had the air of a room seldom used; perhaps Fetter’s disdain for the British Navy ran to a refusal to inhabit the quarters of the officers he had usurped. In that, I felt a grudging admiration.

‘Captain Low!’

It was mr Horrocks, although I hadn’t recognised his voice: it was crippled with shock. I found him leaning over the officer’s padlocked water barrel, trying to keep his gorge in check. The cold had prevented the bodies from decay, but the carnage here was worse because it appeared stylised, rehearsed, even. It did not possess the randomness, the savage fingerprint of nature. There must have been a dozen men entangled. I could not work out where they began or ended.

‘Pull yourself together, Mr Horrocks,’ I said. ‘What did you expect to find down here? Tea and cake?’

Mr Greenhalgh on the stairs, calmly picking his teeth. ‘No polar bear did this,’ he said. ‘And those outside have been planted. Bite marks post-mortem. Not the cause of death.’

‘Mainsail mast was taken down with an axe, sir,’ called Mr Dendy from midships.

‘And that hole was blown from the inside out,’ Mr Horrocks observed, rising palely from the belly of the vessel. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. ‘No cannon fired upon this ship.’

‘This is a trap,’ said Mr Dendy.

‘No,’ I said. ‘This is a diversion.’ I gazed at the bodies before me. The ship’s hauls were scattered about them. The coins, pearls and emeralds were densely coated with the eructations of the dead. It was like some ghastly confection, something one might be served in the dining rooms of palaces in Vienna or Versailles.

‘I for one,’ said Mr Horrocks, ‘would be happy to be diverted. Can we go back to The Pride now?’

‘Not yet,’ I said. And, suspecting that his body would not be here: ‘We must find Fetter’s remains.’

I don’t know why I passed this profane, unactionable order. I had no more idea of what Fetter looked like than the others. But I reassured them that I would identify his corpse, should the others’ doughty redistribution of the bodies unearth him.

We worked hard and fast, unknotting limbs, stacking the dead like firewood. We none of us touched the loot; they seemed unreal, unimportant, although there was enough wealth here to see the crew of The Pride, and their families, into dotage and beyond.

We moved through the ship. The gold and the gore strewn with equal abandon. By the end of it, Mr Horrocks was whistling.

‘Fetter did this,’ I said. ‘He did all of it.’

‘Why?’ asked Greenhalgh, his cool little smile suggesting he knew the answer.

‘He’s afraid,’ I said. ‘He’s been looking over his shoulder fo so long he’s got a crick in his neck.’

‘Afraid of you?’ asked Greenhalgh.

‘He’d be wise to be,’ I said.

‘Our time’s almost up,’ Greenhalgh said. He blinked slowly. Time turned into something ice-coated. The tattoo became his gaze became the tattoo. I know longer registered which was which. Maybe he had eyes in the back of his head. He could see me at all times.

‘I’m sending the crew back to The Pride,’ I said.

‘What about you?’

‘Us,’ I corrected him.

‘Us? I don’t follow.’

‘That’s right, Mr Greenhalgh. I’ll be following you. We go on alone. Until Mr Fetter turns up.’

I sensed the others staring at us.

Despite the cold, the breath from our throats furring the air, the temperature in that cabin felt tropical.

‘Sir?’ Mr Dendyburbidgehorrockstaylor said. I don’t know who. I didn’t care. There was just me and Greenhalgh and his butterfly eyelids.

‘Go back to the ship,’ I said.

The light might have faded. The others might have gone. We might have frozen to death and what I was looking at was the last thing the back of my eyes registered. But then…

‘After you, Captain.’

‘No, Mr Greenhalgh. I insist.’ I waved him to the door with my musket.

Once upon the ice, he hesitated. He did not look at me when he asked: ‘Which way, Captain? I see no footprints to tell us Mr Fetter passed this way.’

In his shadow, I looked down at the snow. ‘Oh, but I do, Mr Greenhalgh,’ I said, and prodded him. North.

 

Advent Stories #13

TIGHT WRAPPERS

tw

Mantle stopped a taxi on the Edgware Road and piled in. He was breathless and, as always, a little panicky that he’d dropped something, that he was missing some essential part.

‘Holland Park,’ he said, patting the pockets of his raincoat. The hand of another pedestrian, cheated by Mantle’s claiming of the cab, slapped against the back window as the taxi moved off, leaving behind an imprint that took some time to fade.

Mantle had stolen the coat from a theme park staffroom a couple of decades previously, attracted by the numerous deep pockets, the better for storing his lists, address books, notes and clippings, his maps, an urban disjecta membra, the city in leaves. At times he felt as though he were a disorganised filing cabinet on the lam. Occasionally he fell asleep on his bed in his coat. He felt naked without it, or more specifically, that special form of insulation that his papers provided.

The day was a blur in his thoughts, as most were. He struggled to remember what he had breakfasted on, only that it had been in a coffee shop on Old Compton Street, half an eye on the newspaper, his notebook with its codes and descants, the phone in his fist. He had gone on to sell a couple of Fine/Fine Iain Sinclairs, doubles from his own collection, in a sandwich shop at the north side of Blackfriars Bridge before scuttling along the Jubilee Walkway to the National Film Theatre where he met Rob Swaines, his ‘Southwark Mole’. Over the years Rob had fed him some great information on the underground book networks of SE1. He had learned of a Graham Greene first sitting forgotten in a plastic washtub of an Oxfam in Stamford Street, an early Philip K Dick in a Fitzalan Street squat, a news vendor by the tube station at Lambeth North carried in his pocket a copy of HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau containing an inscription to its recipient from the author not to read it at night.

The rest of the day was a smear of motion, of buses caught at full pelt, of observations written in the corner of a fried chicken cesspit, of phone calls, hot and cold leads, rumours of a Bradbury unclipped, Dark Carnival, in a Battersea pub that came to nothing, hastily scribbled ideas for a book hunt in Edinburgh, catching up with the tracings of his route on the OS maps, marginalia he had forgotten about but that, freshly discovered, sparked more calls, more possibilities; there was no such thing as a closed door in London, he had learned. Every shelf was a display for him; it was just a matter of time before he got round to cherry-picking the best of the best from each one.

He’d received a text from Heaton, his main bloodhound, his in, not five minutes previously, alerting him to a rare Very Good/Good in W8. It was pleasing that he was already in the area; if the traffic favoured him he could be on Aubrey Road within minutes. He pulled out his battered Moleskine and slipped off the elastic binding. Inside he flipped through alphabeticised jottings, references to books he had in his sights, rare tomes, the jackets of which he sometimes felt under his fingertips in the moments before he became fully awake. Here was his file on Mick Bett, the thriller writer whose first two novels, Black Iris and One Man On His Own, published in the early 1960s, had been turned into quirky cult films starring George Kennedy. Bett had killed himself in 1967 when he had become blocked on his third novel, working title The Mummer, at a time when the James Bond franchise had hit its stride and a year after Adam Hall’s first Quiller novel, The Berlin Memorandum, had been turned into a successful film. Mantle wondered if the Sunday Times encomium on the front cover of the Pan paperback of One Man On His Own (“The best, after Deighton and Le Carré”) might have contributed to Bett’s decision to leap from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mantle owned a signed first edition, first printing of Black Iris that he had bought at a Brighton book fair in 1976 for a wallet-bruising thirty pounds. The very same book was now worth seven thousand pounds. Mantle’s assessment of a book’s future worth was rarely off the mark. He had no compunction about spending a lot for a Fine/Fine now if his hunch whispered that there’d be a few more noughts on its value a decade hence. Heaton’s digging had led to this evening’s revelation; a copy of OMOHO sitting on a shelf in west London, its spine having probably never known any strain.

The traffic was snarled around Marble Arch; Mantle felt blisters of sweat rise on his forehead. He couldn’t relax despite the knowledge that the book, having occupied its place on the Aubrey Road shelf for the last twenty years, wasn’t going anywhere in the next ten minutes. His gaze was snagged on a criss-cross of scaffolding clinging to the face of an Edwardian house facing Hyde Park. Light snaked along the tubes and died on the dirty orange plastic netting. The house seemed diminished by the complexity, the aggressive sprawl of the construction. Scaffolding bothered him, it pulled at his vision like a scar.

‘What are you reading?’ Mantle asked the driver as he shoved the notebook back into its nest. A thrillerfat paperback rested open-bellied on the dashboard. Mantle had learned to quell his disgust at the way other people treated their reading matter, forced into supine positions they did not deserve.

‘That Dan Brown guy,’ the driver said, eventually, predictably. Mantle could dismiss him now. Him and his Very Poor, his Reading Copy. But it was something he had to know. He had to know what was on the cover, what was being sucked up into the eyes. On the tube he would crick his neck to catch a glimpse of any title. He was about to return to his notes, to trace the latest leg of his years-long journey through the capital on his OS map, when the driver came back with a question of his own.

‘No,’ Mantle said, trying to keep the bristling from his voice. ‘I’ve never read “The Da Vinci Code”. It’s… not my thing.’

He’d been offered a signed Mint in April, but he wouldn’t have forgiven himself, could never have allowed it to rub shoulders with his Lovecrafts and Priests, his M.R.s and his M. Johns. It was snobbery, to be sure, but the very act of collecting, serious collecting, was snobbery anyway. Mantle was too old, too alone to care what anybody thought of him or his obsession. All that mattered to him were the pencil webs he spun across his map of London, the treasure he was tracking from Shepherd’s Bush to Shoreditch.

The taxi disgorged him on the corner of Aubrey Road. A light rain, so insubstantial as to be barely felt, breathed against him. He looked back at the Bayswater Road and saw it ghosting across the harsh sodium lighting like the sheets of cellophane he wrapped around the jackets of his hardbacks, to further protect them. He darted away from the main drag, patting his pockets, fretting over the corners of reminders, receipts, appointments, all the clues that frothed dangerously at the lips of his pockets.

He found the address he needed and rapped hard on the front door. He smoothed down his hair and hoped the occupants wouldn’t be able to smell his odour, a mix of stale sweat and old paper, not really that bad, but perhaps offensive to those who were not used to it.

A well-dressed woman with professionally styled hair answered the door. She was in her late-fifties, it seemed to Mantle, although the way she was turned out made her appear quite a bit younger. Her expression was cold; she was chewing something, a chicken leg, nub of white gristle gleaming, clutched in her hand. He cursed himself. She had been drawn from dinner. She wanted him gone; no amount of charm would work now.

‘I apologise for disturbing your dinner,’ he said.

‘Quite all right,’ she snapped. ‘What is it?’

‘A book.’

‘A book?’ Now her expression did change, to one of bafflement.

‘My name’s Henry Mantle. I’m a collector, a diviner of text. I’ve got friends call me Sniffer.’

‘You’ve got friends,’ she said.

Mantle’s smile faltered as he wondered if she were belittling him, but he pressed on. ‘Anyway, I understand you have a copy of Mick Bett’s novel, One Man On His Own, published in 1962. I’d like to make you an offer for it.’

A further change. The woman, consciously or not, closed the door a fraction. ‘How did you know I had that?’

‘A receipt in a ledger in a Bloomsbury hotel. A book fair in the ’80s. A purchase traced to you.’

‘But this is… this is invasive,’ she said.

‘Not at all, Mrs Greville,’ he said. ‘I can assure —’

‘How do you know my name?’ Needle in the voice now. An aspect of threat.

‘The receipt. The book fair.’

‘I’m sorry, but I don’t like this. Please leave.’

She was making to shut the door and in his desperation he shot out his hand to block it.

‘I’ll give you twelve hundred pounds,’ he said. ‘In cash, right now, if you say yes.’

She paused, just as it seemed her anger would overflow and she would start shouting. The breath seemed knocked from her. Mantle refrained from smiling; he knew he had won.

‘Twelve hundred? For a book?’

‘I’m a big fan of his work. And copies – nice, well-looked after copies – are scarce.’

She seemed to change her mind about him. Maybe she was thinking of all the other unread copies of books on her shelves, perhaps the result of buying sprees by a dearly departed, or something inherited that she couldn’t be bothered to take to the charity shop. She drew the door open wider and ushered him in, insisting sharply that he could have five minutes of her time, no more.

He barely took any notice of the hallway he was walking along; the smell of books was in his nostrils. He patted his pockets, felt the comforting scrunch of bus tickets, pencilled symbols and hints, directions and directives etched on paper napkins, beer coasters, cigarette packets. His whole life was in these pockets; he couldn’t bear to throw anything away. He supposed it described a weakness in him, a form of psychosis, but he was helpless. He felt emboldened by these layers, these graphite and ink ley-lines. His wallet was fat underneath all of this. He ached for something to happen.

She introduced him to a room whose darkness was penetrated only by a soft, low lozenge of orange light; a cat was curled around the base of the lamp, glancing up unimpressed at Mrs Greville’s guest.

‘Here’s the book,’ she said, reaching up to tip a volume into her left palm.

He winced as she handled the book. She wouldn’t pass it to him quickly enough, and kept hold of it, turning it around in her fingers as if searching for some clue as to why it was worth what he had offered. She gave him a look; her tongue worked at some shred from her rapidly cooling and forgotten dinner.

‘You know, this was my husband’s, my late husband’s, favourite novel. I really don’t think I would feel happy letting it go. It’s become something to remember him by.’

Mantle smiled. He had prepared himself for this. It always happened. ‘I fully understand. I’m willing to go to sixteen hundred. Which is way over the odds for a book of this sort.’

He could see her scrutinising him, wondering if she could wring out another hundred, wondering how to play the game. But she didn’t know anything. She was sold.

‘I suppose there’s no point in hanging on to the past,’ she said. ‘My Eddie would want his books to be appreciated by readers rather than gather dust on the shelf.’

Mantle pursed his lips. His mobile phone went off, vibrating against his leg.

‘Then you’ll take the sixteen hundred?’

‘I will,’ said Mrs Greville, in a voice of almost comical reluctance.

She passed him the book once the bills were in her hand. He was hastily wishing her good night, wrapping the book in a brown paper bag after a swift, expert appraisal of its jacket, boards and copyright page. ‘Very fine, very fine,’ he said, his little joke, his signature.

He barely heard Mrs Greville asking if there was anything else he’d like to look at. He fumbled the phone from his pocket and barked his name before the answering service could kick in.

There was no reply, just the sound of air rushing down the line, as if the caller had contacted him from a tunnel, or a windswept beach. There was a pulse to the wind; he was put in mind of the white noise of shortwave signals on his old radio.

‘Hello?’ he said, his voice thick in his throat. He heard the faint echo of his own greeting, that occasional anomaly of mobile phones. It sounded as though, for a second, he was talking to himself. He might as well have been; nobody replied.

That radio. He wondered where it was now. It had been his father’s, but Mantle had spent more time than he twisting its knobs and dials. He would zone in on the pulses and bleats of what he had believed were signals of intent from distant aliens, try to decipher their insistent tattoo. A few months later, after the violent death of his father, he believed they were the frantic, distorted echoes of his last breaths; scorched, impatient, encoded with a meaning he could not extract.

His father had worked as a builder’s mate, hod-carrying, mixing cement, making the bacon butty runs. One night he had met a girl in a pub and smuggled her into the site after closing time. Mantle had dramatized what might have happened on many occasions, running sequences and dialogue through his mind like a writer planning a passage in a novel. There were never any happy endings.

*

He lights cigarettes for them; she tastes the sticky residue of whisky and Guinness on the filter. She watches him lark around, his steel toe capped boots crunching through glass and plaster; the odd, metallic skitter as he kicks a nail across the floor. In here are great mounds of polythene wrap, packaging for fixtures and fittings, looking to her drink-addled mind like greasy clouds frozen into stillness.

He’s opened the windows. Outside, the sky is hard with winter. Goodbye cruel world as he lurches into the night. A breath catches in her throat. She rushes to see. Tricked you. Step into my office. He’s giggly, foolish, reckless. Unlike the man who skulks at home, the taciturn man, incapable of tenderness, of affection. The scaffold bites into the building’s face like an insect, all folded, fuddled legs. His steps shush and clump on the wood. The angles of metal look cold enough to burn. Come inside, she says. She’s nervous. This is an unknown, unknowable world to her. It’s a sketch of a home. There is no comfort here. She unbuttons her blouse, lets him see the acid white bra, the curve of what it contains. Come inside.

Fumbling. Stumbling. An accident. A flame from a match, from the smouldering coals of the cigarettes. A fire leaps, too swift and strong to stamp out. A drunken attempt. The surge of molten plastic. In the flickering orangedark, before she runs to escape, she sees him twisting in the suffocating layers, wrapping himself in clear, wet heat as it melts through his flesh. His fingers fuse together as he tries to claw it from his face. He stands there, silently beseeching, loops of his own cheeks spinning from his hands. The black fug from burning plastic funnels out of him and he staggers to the window, toppling on to that cold, black edifice.

*

He sees one now. Like an exoskeleton. A riot of violent shapes. His father had never been a great reader, unless you counted The Sun, which was never off his dashboard. He had always snorted his derision whenever he found Mantle leafing through an Ian Serraillier, or a David Line. There was always something else to do, in his opinion, as if reading for its own sake, and reading fiction especially, was a waste of time. The scaffolds were erected – that arcane, mysterious practice – and dismantled. They were the means to deliver repair, but Mantle could not, would not see that in them. Whenever he chanced upon them, he saw only his father cooling on the duckboards, black sheaves lifting from his face.

Bitterly, Mantle closed his phone and assessed the road. He couldn’t see any taxis but the bus stop across the way was busy; there’d be a 94 along any moment. He joined the queue and extracted the book from his pocket. He sucked in its brittle breath and traced the tightness of the head, the embossing of the title and author on the front cover. Twice what he’d paid would have still been a modest price. Quickly, before the cold air, or the pollution, or his excitement could have any adverse effect on the pages, he slid it back into the brown bag. Books and brown paper, well, there was a perfect marriage. Yet an increasingly unlikely one, in the bookshops he haunted throughout the capital. Flimsy plastic bags, one molecule thin it seemed, were used to package books these days. He’d talked to some of the booksellers, suggested returning to paper, that the books might sweat under plastic, that they could be damaged, but had only ever received blank looks. He liked the snug way the brown paper folded against, into the book it was protecting, as opposed to the slip and slide of the plastic, as if it were trying to shun what it sheathed. It was too much like smothering.

A sudden gust of wind; a smack and clatter in the deep dark behind him. He flinched. Nobody else seemed to notice. He stared again at the scaffolding as it snaked up the face of the church. The light was good enough only to see a treacly gleam trace the geometry of the struts and tubes and platforms. It waxed across the netting, creating the impression of a series of rhomboid mouths opening and closing against the night. Mantle mimicked them.

The bus arrived; he boarded, feeling the air condense at his back as if someone were hurrying to catch the bus before it departed, but when he glanced back there was nobody. The doors cantilevered shut. On his way home he noticed so many houses and shops masked by aluminium that he had to reach up to his own face to check it wasn’t similarly encumbered.

*

Mantle’s flat: bookshelves everywhere. He had the spaces above the doors adapted to take C format paperbacks. There was shelving in the bathroom, although he had spent a fortune on air-conditioning to ensure that the steam from the shower and bath were negated to ensure his books remained in pristine condition. The floor was a maze of literary magazines, reviews, photocopies of library archive material, letters from booksellers.

He unwrapped the Bett and placed it next to Black Iris. The covers hissed together as if sighing with contentment. A completeness there. A job done. He could imagine Mick Bett himself nodding his appreciation. Here was somebody who cared as much for the decent writer of bestsellers – and there were some around – as the leftfield scribes, the slipstreamers, the miserablists. There were writers he adored who had never sold well when people like Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, Martina Cole were coining it. Forget clitfic, or ladlit, this was shitlit. He’d rather stick with an arresting, original writer who deserved greater exposure, a writer who cared about the craft, a writer who lived for it – a Joel Lane, a Christopher Burns – than some twunt who could hardly write his or her own name, but whose name was gold because of some other supposed talent: Rooney, Jordan, Russell fucking Brand.

He drew a bath and pulled a bottle of Magners from the fridge. Food was nothing more than a thought. Already he was considering the following day; Heaton had mentioned possibilities in Crystal Palace: an 1838 Elizabeth B Barrett, ‘The Seraphim and Other Poems’, with an inscription. You were looking at 2.5K plus for that. He took the drink over to his desk and looked out at the city. Books under every roof. Most of them forgotten, badly looked after, unread. He felt the weight of all his own literature bristling behind him, smelled that all-pervading tang of ancient pages.

Something shimmered under the caul of city light. The reflections of red security lamps crept along the wet scaffolds like something alive, determined. Mantle was suddenly shocked by the mass of spars and supports cluttering the skyline. It seemed as if the whole of London was crippled, in need of Zimmer frames and callipers. The night breathed through it all, a carbonised, gasping ebb and flow. A miserable suck, a terrible fluting. He thought he saw something move through the confusion, shadow dark, intent, clumsy. Before it merged with a deeper blackness, right at the heart of the scaffold, he saw, thought he saw, deceleration, the wrap of a hand around a column, black fingers that did not shift until his eyes watered and he had to look away.

Mantle remembered his bath and stood up sharply, knocking over his drink and bashing his knee into the underside of his desk. His foot skidded on the open pages of a magazine and he went down awkwardly, an arm outstretched to stabilise himself serving only to swipe a cairn of novels to the floor. Pages riffled across his line of sight, a skin of words in which to wrap his pain. They wouldn’t leave him alone, even after he had managed to wrestle a way into sleep.

*

His alarm didn’t so much bring him out of sleep as rescue him from a desperate conviction that he was about to suffocate. He felt as though he were in the centre of a world of layers, and all of them were trying to iron him flat, as if he were some crease that was spoiling the uniformity of his dreamscape. He wore a tight jacket that was like a corset, pinning his gut back. The city was similarly constricted; he couldn’t see brick or stone for the weight of aluminium, slotted with mathematical precision into every available square metre of space. It caused him to feel sick at his own softness; he felt arbitrary, ill-fitting. The books he was carrying seemed to sense his otherness and kept trying to squirm from his grasp. Pages fluttered. He felt the bright sting of a paper cut in his finger. Blood sizzled across onionskin. He gazed at his hands and saw how the print from the books had transferred to his flesh, a backwards code tattooed on every inch. He was ushered into a series of ever-narrowing streets by faces smudged into nonsense by the speed he was moving at, or the lack of oxygen reaching his brain. A building up ahead stood out because of the presence of an open door, a black oblong of perfection among the confused angles. He was fed through it. Shapes, presumably people, gestured and shrugged and pointed. He was shown a gap in the heights, a section of hammerbeam that had rotted and was being prepared for repair. Ladders and platforms were arranged around the workstation like props in a play.

He was cajoled and prodded up the ladder until he reached the ceiling. He was manhandled into the slot, he screamed as his neck was twisted violently to accommodate the rest of his body. Great cranes positioned at either end of the hammerbeam slowly rotated a mechanised nut, the size of a dinner plate. The two ends of the hammerbeam were incrementally forced together. Pressure built in his body; he felt blood rush to his extremities. He bellowed uncontrollably, a nonsense noise, a plea. He felt bones pulverising, unbearable tensions tearing the shiny tight skin of his suit, his stomach. At the last moment, as breath ceased, he saw himself burst open, everything wet in him raining to the floor. It looked like ink. It looked like a river of words.

*

Coffee. It burned his lip but he was grateful for anything that reminded him he was still alive. His fingers shook a little as he replaced the cup in its saucer. Heaton’s last text was burned into his thoughts, helpfully chasing away the remnants of the dream. He spread out a fan of notes on the table, sucking up the gen on this new quarry. Tucked away in a Stoke Newington studio flat was a Mint/Mint of Bryce Tanner’s first novel, Noble Rot, published by Faber in 1982. According to Heaton, the studio had been abandoned by the occupant, some failed venture capitalist who had needed a temporary base while he searched for his Hoxton warehouse. Rumour was he’d drowned himself in one of the reservoirs in N16. The flat had been left as it was while his nearest and dearest were sought, a process taking longer than had been expected. Armed with a hammer, Mantle had cased the building an hour previously, and had been encouraged by the lack of humanity; the building seemed little more than a shell giving the come-on to the wrecking ball and the softstrip crews. The jitters Mantle was suffering on the back of his dream, and a need to be sure of what he was about to do, had driven him away in search of caffeine. Now, sitting on a hard metal chair outside a deli in Church Street, the call of the book too great to resist any longer. He tossed a handful of coins into his saucer and retraced his steps to the High Street. A block sitting back off that busy main drag contained more boards than glass in its window frames. Mantle negotiated the buckled front door and the inevitable climb up the stairs. Broken glass was scattered across every landing; dead insects provided a variety to the crunch under his shoes. The door he needed was padlocked – cheaply – and his hammer dealt with it after a couple of blows. Inside he paused in case his attack had brought any remaining residents to investigate, but either the building was deserted or apathy reigned. It didn’t matter – he wasn’t going to be disturbed.

The studio was well maintained, leaning towards minimalism but with enough books, CDs and DVDs to suggest that it was a life choice that wasn’t being taken seriously. There was nothing to suggest that its inhabitant was likely to take his own life, but Mantle was no psychologist. He didn’t care one jot. All that mattered to him was that couple of pounds of paper and board.

He located the book almost immediately. It seemed to call to him from among all the dog-eared paperbacks. It had presence, gravitas. He slid it clear from the shelf and hefted it reverentially.

The book turned to ash in his fingers.

He stood there for a while, as the air seemed to darken around him, his mouth open, trying to keep himself together. The notes in his pocket lost their insulating properties. He was in a cold room, bare but for a bucket filled with a dried meringue of shit.

The boards across the window had collapsed; wind flooded in. He moved towards it, the flakes in his hand rising up like angered insects. Scaffolding bit deep into the pebbledashed skin of the block. Through the shapes it created he could almost imagine he could see the muscular City architecture, the Gherkin, the old Nat West tower and, further afield, Canary Wharf. The aircraft warning lights they pulsed might shine in the tubing outside this very window, but also, deep within him, matching the insistent thrum of his own heart. He heard the creak of the broken door behind him and he acted upon it, not wanting to turn to see what had followed him up here. Falteringly, he clambered out on to the platform and edged along it until he had reached the end. His hands, coated with the dust of a book he could still smell, clawed at the brackets that kept the entire structure married to the block. They were so cold they scorched his skin.

He heard something struggle out of the window frame and on to the duckboards. Whatever it was had no grace, no balance. Its weight sent stresses and strains along the planks to his own feet, lifting them a little. The song of the wood might have been the keening that played in his throat. He smelled the high, narcotic smell of burned plastic. There were no books. There were no notes. No text messages. No Heaton. No wallet filled with cash. No Mrs Greville. No Mick Bett. No Gherkin. No past, no future. No nothing. Mantle’s love of books was desperate, a wish never to be fulfilled. He reached up to his eyes and pressed his fingers against the dry membrane that filmed them. Pockets of interior colour exploded. He could never know what it meant to be able to read a story, no more than he would ever learn what colour his own eyes were.

The lie these books contained. The fictions. It had a face, it had a fury. They infected your life, it was a contagion. You built up your own monster from the deceptions you invented. And Mantle was all about deceit. He’d managed the most horrid of them all, tricking himself. It was second nature, now. The blind leading the blind. Fear unfolded in every pore of his being. Nevertheless, he turned to confront what had chased him all this way, all these years. Not being able to see him gave Mantle a Pyrrhic victory of sorts. He was able to smile, his mouth finding an unusual cast even as the sum of his trickery leaned in close. The hand over his mouth was little more than crisped talons. He felt as if he were becoming infected by that alien flesh, growing desiccated, so sucked dry of moisture that his face might disintegrate. His chest muscles ruptured with the strain of trying to draw a breath. Millions of capillaries burst, flooding his inner sight with red. He heard the stutter and gargle of his own breath, or of the thing silencing him. White noise. Explosions of crumpled paper. In extremis, he managed to kiss the hand, to reach out and hold tight, to imagine that this was the hug he had craved for so long.

 

 

Advent Stories #11

KNOWN

Povey watched white paint unfurl in chains along riveted steel shanks bordering the tracks. The Network South-East from Lee had been late again this morning and there had been no unoccupied seats. He’d stood hunched against the door, slow fire moving through his back, looking out at a colourless skyline as veils of rain hung motionless against the thin wash of buildings.

One word — KNOWN — endlessly repeated, blurred by broken obliques of moisture on the windows. The capital letters formed harsh angles which bracketed the soft middle ‘O’. He couldn’t decide whether it was the result of a brainless ego, or an attempt to impart something more significant. Whatever, he felt drawn to the uniformity of the letters as they dogged the train across Hungerford Bridge.

Only since leaving the centre of London in favour of commuting in from the limbo of its outer districts had Povey begun to appreciate the ingenuity of its engineers and construction workers. Any available space was filled in with new flats, shops, entertainment arcades. Staying with his uncle, in a grim conurbation on the South Circular, he yearned to be in the heart of the city once more, to feel its pulse through his feet. He was looking forward to viewing the flat that evening. It seemed to call at him from over the rooftops, across the miles, like a desperate request from a distant lover.

Povey walked the Strand to Aldwych where he turned left. He liked the rain, the way it cleansed the buildings and turned them into glittering spires and domes. He imagined the city’s detritus being washed into the Thames. The rats drowning, the pissy alleyways and door recesses polished. All those channels and creases scrubbed clean.

But not the graffiti. Somehow it clung, tenacious as tattoos. Even in this fresh, burnished light, the crude slogans and signatures looked vital and new.

At work, the feeling fell away from him, as if this office was somehow insulated against the banal miracles of the city. He discussed layouts with Lynn and blithely complimented every letters page and fashion spread she showed him. He wondered if his apathy shone through. Lynn was the editor of a ‘secret’ magazine project. She had contacted Povey via a chief sub-editor from the parent company. He had done some work for her last summer and even though it was interminably dull — subbing real-life tragedy stories offset by ‘humorous’ articles and tips to make household chores that much bearable — it paid well. He’d leapt at the chance of five weeks’ employment, an opportunity to be nestled in London’s centre, even though Lynn’s overtures to him on the phone prior to his first day were almost comical.

‘So can we book you until the end of March?’ she had said, having explained that this was all hush-hush and that he would need to sign a document guaranteeing his lips to be sealed.

‘Certainly,’ he had said, ‘what will I be doing?’

‘Can’t tell you,’ she had replied, ‘it’s a secret.’

It turned out the magazine was a downmarket version of their market leader. Called Chinwag, it was aimed at a teenage readership, hence the appearance of words such as ‘shag’ and ‘willy’ and ‘cum’. The problem pages were a lifesaver amid grim copy-proofing and fact-checking. MEN ONLY screamed the banner in 108pt Soupbone. My little man bends the wrong way… am I abnormal? And the Top Tips: Clean venetian blinds with L-shaped pieces of crusty bread.

They were based at the top of a building in Holborn, in an office big enough to host a game of five-a-side. Golf. Along with Jill and Lynn, there was Yvonne, on features and Sally and Fran designing the pages. Friday lunch times they nipped down to the Sun Tavern on Long Acre and talked about dreadful magazines they had worked on in the past. All the same as this one, save the name.

An hour or so into his work, Povey received a phone call from Sutton, his best friend. He was in the Smoke for a few days, visiting from the south-west, but he sounded strangely on edge and asked Povey if he could meet him that evening — he’d be in the pub from about three-thirty. By four o’clock, the skittish nature of Sutton’s call had infected him and, in a mild panic, he went to the toilet, affecting a pained look and rubbing his stomach. In the mirror, he was surprised to find that he did not look well. The colour had fled from his cheeks, giving him a greasy complexion. His eyes seemed to have sunk away from the flesh of their sockets: red filled in the gaps. He felt as though the real version of him hadn’t caught up yet, that he was just a ghost, a sliver of the real Clive Povey. The real Clive Povey was stuck on a train staring at the codes and tag-lines sprayed on the portals to the capital.

‘Lynn?’ he said, cracking his voice just right. Jill, the assistant editor looked up too, which was fine by Povey. He knew she liked him and the concern that darkened her face told him that he’d pitched this correctly, even though he was only partly acting. ‘I’m going to have to go home. Sorry. I feel dreadful.’

Lynn looked aggrieved that she was losing him, clearly of the opinion that freelances sold their souls when they agreed to work and had to sit at their desks even if they were to suffer an arterial bleed.

‘Okay,’ she sighed, finally. And then: ‘Hope you feel better, tomorrow’ with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Hardly reached her lips either.

Povey limped back to his workstation and closed the file he had been using before copying it back on to the server from his hard drive. The dummy lay-outs he returned to their trays.

‘See you tomorrow,’ he said. Sally looked at him acidly as if he had just stolen her plan for the day.

In the lift, Povey felt stitches of guilt about bunking off early and stared at the graffiti on the doors. He hadn’t taken his lunch hour, so that supported him in mitigation but didn’t stop him feeling like a school truant. They needed him; there was no need to worry about being sacked.

He seemed to descend too far, further than usual, but when the doors opened, there was the sliding glass entrance and beyond, Kingsway’s mad rush. Although it was barely half past four, the sky had blackened and the rain angling in over the forbidding roofs showed no sign of stopping. Bruised light loitered behind the thinnest junctions between clouds; the streetlamps were off and the cars on the road drove blind.

He plugged his ears with a pair of headphones and depressed the play button on his Walkman. A grim and epic loop of sound instantly drew something immanent from the deflated sky, the constant traffic. Holborn Tube was closed off; a huge scrum of commuters stood with their backs to him, staring bovinely at the concertina gates and the ticket barrier beyond. Two fire engines ticked over in the centre of Kingsway, lights flashing.

Povey made a series of turns into ever diminishing streets — High Holborn, Southampton Place, Bloomsbury Way, Bury Street, Little Russell Street, Streatham Street — until the traffic’s voice was toned down to an asthmatic gurgle. A crocodile of diners spilled out of Wagamama, thickening his sense of claustrophobia. Snazzy fucks in soft leather pants and white tee-shirts and linen jackets. Fifty pound haircuts. A woman fingering her pearl necklace while talking to some pin-striped goatee who made expansive gestures with his Nokia. Everyone seemed to be travelling somewhere and never arriving. He brushed past and ghosts followed: CKOne, Fahrenheit, Dolce & Gabbana. Stuff he recognised from the peel-off strips in his magazines.

He caught the Tube at Tottenham Court Road and travelled north, imagining his colleagues belittling him behind his back. His lack of spine. Such an insular man, a cold man. He bristled, imagining them, and jolted the arm of a woman reading a newspaper. She clucked her tongue and rattled the pages. He remembered acutely the embarrassment he’d known as a child when everyone’s attention had been reluctantly drawn to him. He pressed himself against the seat, reining in his claustrophobia as it tried to deal with their distance underground, the way the train was just big enough for the tunnel, the optimum exploitation of space.

At Kentish Town he surfaced, gulping air. At the Tube exit he watched the rain splinter the white and red exchange of car lights as people trundled home. A bus crawled by, its windows misted with condensation. Dark lumps filled every square of light. Each seat taken, every foot of Tarmac used, shoes secured pavement slabs as far as he could see.

The nest of lights on the underbelly of a jet shone through the barrier of cloud; through his feet he felt the chunter of trains worming north and south. By the time he crashed through the doors of the Academy Rooms, a hundred feet away, he was exhausted. It was as though there was no space for him to move. Every umbrella had wanted to do for his eyes; every briefcase clouted his knees.

He found Sutton squeezed on to a settee near the pool tables. He signalled: a pint. Povey bought drinks and moved unsteadily towards his friend, casting a glance at the pool tables where a woman was playing a leather clad boyfriend. Behind them, a huge screen formed a backdrop: footballers glistening under floodlights in a derby match.

‘Hello Frank,’ said Povey, ‘have a drink.’

Conversation tumbled around them. Povey perched on the edge of a stool that was being used as a footrest by a heavy piece of beef wearing sunglasses and combat fatigues. He heard the word ‘known’ used twice in quick succession by different people, and tried not to let his anxiety show.

The girl at the pool table pirouetted around her opponent, tipping him over with her thigh as he lined up his shot.

‘You sounded a little bit wired when you called me this morning,’ said Povey. ‘What’s up?’

Sutton flattened his lips together and shrugged. ‘I’m having a bad time of it, Clive. I needed to see someone I know. Someone who would look at me instead of through me. Jesus, one of those days I’ve had, when everyone tries to walk over you like you’re not there.’ He took a long swig of his pint. Povey wasn’t sure how many of the empty glasses arranged around him were his, but he bet it was a fair few.

‘Another thing,’ said his friend, staring blearily at the football match. ‘Perhaps the main thing. I tried to do a few things yesterday — simple things,’ he huffed what might have been sour laughter. ‘Sort myself a loan and find out why I wasn’t sent a voting form for the local by-election. Same response on both occasions. Didn’t know anything about me, couldn’t track down anything to do with my history. They were very apologetic but it sounded like they were talking to someone who wasn’t there. Who didn’t exist.’ Sutton leaned over and whispered the last three words conspiratorially.

‘Come on, Frank, you’re just having a shit day. I’ll send you an application form to join the club. You might have to hang on a while though, there’s a fuck of a long waiting list.’

Sutton was shaking his head now. ‘No, Clive,’ he slurred, ‘you are not yet in full possession of the facts. Today I opened the newspaper and found this bastard.’

He passed Povey a crumpled copy of that day’s Guardian. Sutton had ringed a section and Povey had to put his glass down before he poured it into his lap. Below the strapline Death Notices he read:

SUTTON, Frank Stanley died sadly on 31st March 19– aged 34. Fondly remembered by many friends and family. Beloved father of Gillian. Funeral at Broadclyst Parish Church, Exeter, 24th April, 2pm. Family, flowers.

‘My God, Frank. But this is a joke, surely?’

‘Yeah, I’m splitting my sides over it.’

‘This is awful,’ Povey said. ‘I’m really sorry. What are you going to do? I mean, you must go to the funeral, sort this out. Imagine their faces!’

Sutton seemed to have withdrawn from the animation of the crowd and Povey blinked to bring his edges back into focus. Too much smoke and heat. He watched the girl playing pool as she appraised the table. Standing over her shot, bouclée grip, her right breast collapsed around her cue like the slow unhinging of a snake’s jaws as it envelops a rabbit’s hip. She looked up at him through a dirty blonde fringe and took her tongue for a trip around the waxed O of her mouth. Flecks of white ringed her jumper sleeve.

‘Not sure if that’s a good idea, Clive,’ mused Frank. ‘I might turn up and spoil everyone’s day. But I suppose there are some advantages. If I don’t exist, I can’t be harmed can I?’

Povey smiled. ‘I suppose you’re right. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen though.’

‘Right.’ He drifted into his own thoughts and Povey had to reach out to steady him when it seemed he was about to lean back against a couple reading Time Out.

‘I don’t know how you stick it in this place, Clive, I really don’t. Everyone I see here looks pasty and frightened. They look like… you know those transfers we had as kids? You rubbed them with a pencil and they came off the tracing paper? Well it’s like that. People having their essence crushed out of them as they enter the capital so that all that remains are features, the husk.’

‘Yes, Frank,’ Povey smiled, patting his hand. ‘Have another drink, won’t you? I have to go and view a flat.’ Povey tried to affect nonchalance as he waved goodbye to his friend and forced his way into the teeming night but his hands were shaking. I know what you mean, he should have said. But he was worried that Frank’s left-field logic might insinuate itself. He felt vulnerable and unsupported. He didn’t like the drifting aspect to his life, the way he could sometimes believe he was a ghost trapped on the conditioning thermals of a dull prior existence, doomed to live every day as an exact replica of the one that went before. Commuting now took up so much of his time that his life seemed to be truncating. Every day was like standing on a succession of edges. His nerves were permanently tensed and shrieking: a slew of violins in a Bernard Herrmann score.

It was happening to everyone around him, this thing they labelled routine but which deserved a less innocent name.

Rain had slapped the city awake. It pinched her cheeks and cleared snot from her nostrils; showered the rheum from tired eyes, rouged her cheeks. London in a night-black cocktail dress: sleek and sexy and switched on. Eschewing the bus, Povey walked up Fortress Road past tired shops flagged with hopeful FOR SALE signs. Accommodation blocks sat squat in the misting rain; pale squares of light played hopscotch into the sky. Ceaselessly motile, the traffic zipped closed the tracts of the road, barring his view of the opposite pavement. He wondered if he should have asked Sutton to come with him.

Povey had received the details of the property — a converted one-bedroom flat — on Crayford Road that morning. The thought of moving back to north London spurred him on, despite his fatigue and the prospect of an awkward trip back to Lewisham. He paced the orange-blue street to Tufnell Park Tube where he turned on to its namesake road leading down to Holloway. The fifth turning on the right, according to the estate agent, was Anson Road. First left off that was Crayford Road. He wished he’d remembered to bring his A-Z.

The neon streetlamps fizzed, teasing his shadow. Broad streets spliced with the arterial road; Povey counted them off. It took longer than he’d anticipated, the blocks of houses between each turn-off proving to be substantial. Maybe he’d miscounted because this, the fifth, was Carleton Road, not Anson. He spent the next twenty minutes trying his luck down various side streets until, by chance, he found Anson Road. But the first turning on the left was not Crayford, it was Dalmeny Avenue. The first left at the other end of Anson, just in case he’d got it arse about tit, was Melvyn Close.

Okay, he calmed himself, you’re late now. Stop panicking and just ask someone.

But there was nobody to ask. Povey found his way back to the main road, intending to hail the first taxi he saw when he spotted an old man with a carrier bag walking on the other side of the street.

‘Excuse me!’ Povey called, trotting across the road. The man lowered his head, bringing the rim of his hat across his face, and hurried away.

Another man came out of his front door, saw Povey and hesitated, as if caught red-handed.

‘Do you know where Crayford Road is?’ asked Povey, before the man could retreat.

‘No, sorry,’ he said, ‘I don’t know this area.’ He slipped back behind the door.

Povey stared after him, confounded by what was happening. He returned along Anson Road, hoping he’d made a mistake and Crayford Road would reveal itself to him although he was late for the viewing now and the occupants might have gone out for the evening.

He rejoined Carleton Road and asked a woman wearing earphones if she could help. She seemed affronted, as if the earphones were a signal not to be disturbed, but waved vaguely in the direction of Tufnell Park Road with an umbrella speckled with white. Without bothering to thank her, Povey stalked away. It was as if he’d failed some test that prospective home-owners had to take before being accepted into the neighbourhood.

Now he could see how the estate agents had got it wrong. They had mistook Anson Road as the junction road with the main drag, when in fact it forked off Carleton. The fools. Here was Crayford Road, first turning off Carleton Road. Carleton. He dug in his bag, which was beginning to put a strain on his shoulder, and pulled out the property details. He underscored their false directions savagely. If he lost this flat it would be down to them. Should he hurry, he might catch the incumbent residents before they went out.

Povey ran past an estate on his right, all low, red-brick balconies and strip lighting. There was a figure moving slowly in the stairwell’s dark pools. Povey glimpsed a whitish inverted cone flicker past the frosted glass where a head ought to be. Then it was forgotten as he reached the row of Victorian houses where he might set up and be happy. The light was on; his hopes soared. A woman’s voice crackled over the intercom when he rang the bell. He tried to apologise when the buzzing of the lock drowned him out.

On the second floor he smoothed his hair and was attempting to dry his face with the sodden sleeve of his mac when the door opened.

‘I’m glad to catch you in,’ he said. ‘My name’s Clive Povey. I’m sorry I’m late.’

The woman blocking the wedge of light stepped back, although her eyes seemed to be fixed on a spot behind him. As he stepped through, her face set in a basic mode of recognition.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘the stairwell is so dark. I didn’t see you for a second.’ She led him into the living room where a swarthy man was drinking from a huge mug. Povey raised a hand and the man swivelled his eyes just as steam from his drink clouded the lenses of his spectacles.

‘As you can see,’ said the woman, who, Povey now saw, was heavily pregnant, ‘it’s quite small.’

I wouldn’t say that, he suddenly wanted to blurt, and clamped his teeth against a shock of laughter. It was very hot in the room; every bar of an electric fire glared. On a stuttering television, a news reader told of a Royal visit to Kuala Lumpur. It must be the faded screen that caused the cuffs of the waving Prince to appear stained white.

‘Through here,’ said the woman, ‘is the kitchen, which as you can see, is a bit tired but there’s a surprising amount of storage space. The bathroom’s just next door. Don’t worry about the cracks, they’re superficial. Nothing a dab of Polyfilla can’t handle. And here,’ she gestured with her hand; the other rested against her tummy, ‘is the bedroom.’

Giddy with the warp and tilt of the flat, Povey ducked into a bizarre room that seemed to taper away from him in terms of height and width; not so much the Cabinet as the Cubby-hole of Dr Caligari. The far end was little more than a sharply-angled recess. To sleep in this room, it would be necessary to quickly evolve a needle-shaped head. He tried to mask his disappointment and mumbled something about being in touch. The television mumbled something about ‘suicide’ and ‘train delays’ as the door snicked shut on him.

Outside, the rain was muscling more intensely against the houses. It stung his face as he returned to the main road. The figure in the stairwell was across the street from him now, the cone shape revealing itself as the peaked hood of a grey track suit. He was spraying white paint from an aerosol on to the side of a black van and had got as far as the middle ‘O’ before stopping, his head twitching at the sound of Povey’s gritting footsteps. Povey felt breath snatched from his lungs as the figure began to turn. He did not want to hang around to see the vandal’s face. He sprinted towards the road, trying to ignore the tattoo of following feet.

‘Taxi!’ he yelled, hurtling into the path of a black cab. The driver seemed to take an eternity to set off for Charing Cross once Povey had blundered into the back seat. As soon as they were away, he chanced a look behind him but the drenched street had diffused the light spilling from the lamps to such an extent that the entire avenue was concealed by a core of liquid fire.

*

He lay in bed listening to the uncertain squish of valves in his chest. It was hard to believe there was any blood in his veins for the coldness, the enervation he felt. He was scared to close his eyes in case he faded completely away. At least while he was awake he exerted some kind of physicality, despite the illusion of the blankets reducing his body to two dimensions.

His uncle was in the bedroom next to him; a muffled radio play moved through the wall by Povey’s ear. Over dinner his uncle had twice looked up startled, as if surprised to see his nephew sitting across from him. His uncle told him, as Povey had flapped his way out of his soaked clothes in the bathroom, that a body had been found by the deltoid spread of tracks leading into the depot at King’s Cross. There had been some consternation when the authorities had been unable to find its head, his uncle explained, somewhat tactlessly Povey thought. Initially, they believed it to be a murder. But then someone had discovered the head rammed deep inside the chest cavity, which suggested that the victim had been kneeling on all fours, facing the oncoming train. A witness had since confirmed this theory.

Povey slept fitfully until his uncle brought a cup of tea in for him at 7am. He had already decided not to go into work. Rather than wait until Lynn was in the office, he rang and left a message on the answerphone. If they wanted to find someone else to do the work, he couldn’t lose any more sleep over it than he was already.

After breakfast, tired of his uncle’s gory speculation as he scanned the newspapers and watched the morning news, Povey opted to go for a walk. He negotiated the lethal rush of traffic on the South Circular and headed north, the wink of Canary Wharf like a beacon ahead of him, pulling him into the heart of the city.

He reached Blackheath half an hour later and wandered without much conviction among the shops and across the fields where, even in the rain, kite enthusiasts attempted to launch their vivid array of wings, boxes and scimitars. At least here there was space to think. On three occasions he caught sight of that simple, wise word: an expression of vigilance or the boast of an omniscient entity. He saw it sprayed on the coping stones of a bridge wall, on the back of a road sign, a bench. Almost everyone he saw was streaked with white. What was going on? Was it paint? Those that weren’t daubed seemed to be like windmills without sails; all purpose drained from them. He saw faces in windows gazing at the totemic needle of Canary Wharf, flesh etiolated by a lack of association. Povey sat on a bench, numb to the seepage of rain through his trousers, and tried to remember what the word ‘community’ meant. Terrible thoughts were gravitating towards him since he’d heard about the suicide. He had once believed that the culmination of all his love and ambition would manifest itself in his nurturing of a child. But the compulsion behind this need had mutated recently. It might be because he had failed to establish any precious links with the women he met, but he suspected it was more a crisis of identity. The fear that he might look into the mirror one day and not recognise the face staring out came from the same black source as the voice persuading him that giving birth was nothing more than the laying down of an eventual death sentence.

The rain had stopped. He watched the band of mist retreat across the greensward and tear the wrapper of shade from the towers ranged across the capital. His jacket smelled musty and his shoes rested in a thin gruel of pigeon droppings. Maybe he would feel better if he took a long bath and rang some more estate agents. Invigorated with a plan, he caught the bus back to his uncle’s flat. There, he took the local paper and had a long soak, ringing possible flats with a red pen.

By the time his uncle returned from market, Povey was clean-shaven and dressed in a fresh suit, a list of addresses and accompanying times clasped in his hand. At the top, enclosed in a box, he’d written: Clive Povey — potential accommodation.

‘I’m off flat-hunting,’ he said, as his uncle pushed by, dropping an Evening Standard on his armchair. Povey saw the words: ‘TRAGEDY OF LOST SOUL’.

‘Right you are, lad,’ his uncle said, picking at a blotch of white on his coat. ‘Although, by the look of you, you might as well be off courting Royalty.’ He laughed thickly and set about making a pot of tea.

Povey was tempted to read the lead story in the newspaper, but he would be late for his first appointment. He trotted to the station and made the platform just as the train pulled up. At this time of day it was empty and Povey enjoyed the luxury of sitting wherever he pleased. In the aisle, the pattern of cleats from a pair of trainers took a journey in white paint towards the front carriage.

Soon, he was spotting fresh instances of the graffito. Now it was in black paint, now red. Sometimes it appeared with a suffix: a colon or an arrow flying away from the final ‘N’ as though an urgency had developed in the author’s craftsmanship, a need to convey the promise of something to follow.

It lifted Povey. His reading of the signs came as an epiphany, much like the sudden break in the weather. For the first time in weeks, his flesh seemed to sing and his nerves were attuned to every twitch of his clothes, each minute change of tack in the breezes that swept through the window vents.

Approaching London Bridge, he saw, plastered against the brickwork of a defunct printers, Known’s acme of achievement. An oblique of lemon-lime letters, each a foot high, parallel to the fire escape’s slant. The evidence of such industry seemed to match the sprawl of the city and the commitment to obliterate the concept of space. Povey had to believe that the word existed elsewhere in the country, and for many other people, not just the glut of girders and bridge panels here or the isolated jottings north and south of the city centre. He wasn’t sure he could cope with the possibility that the word was for his benefit alone.

At the terminus he passed through to the station concourse and checked the clock against his watch. He had half an hour to get to Finsbury Park. There wasn’t much of a wait for a northbound train. Quick change at Warren Street for the Victoria Line and he’d be at the first address on his list with time to kill.

He sat opposite a man in orange tartan bondage pants and wraparound shades. He was reading the Standard and Povey stared for a long time at the photograph on the front page. It showed, beneath the same headline he’d read at his uncle’s flat, a picture of railway lines. To the right was a cluster of policemen and railway staff in reflective clothing. To the left, stark and arresting, a white blanket failed to cover a body: its left arm poked out from beneath, the hand upturned and relaxed. It wasn’t this that shocked Povey, nor was it the faint but legible word punctuating the containers on a goods train as it travelled out of the borders of the shot. It was the inset picture of Sutton.

Povey couldn’t move his eyes from the page. When finally, the man folded his newspaper and stood up, Povey was left with the negative flare of the words on his retina, a red shriek of truth to jolt him from the black and white sobriety of the newsprint. A streak of white paint flashed before him as the train slowed for the platform; he’d overshot. This was Camden Town.

In no mood for the task he’d set out to achieve, Povey took the escalator, barely feeling the other passengers as they barged past him. On Camden High Street he was sandwiched by two men running to catch the same bus. His notes were knocked from his hand into a puddle. He watched as his name was washed away before moving off towards the Lock. Dusk was mottling the sky over the canal. He plodded down to the towpath, ignoring the street vendors as they plied him with stained glass light bulbs and kaleidoscopic knitwear. The buildings hunched their shoulders against him. Blocks of life piled on top of each other. No space left on the ground, take to the skies. High-rise and basement, purpose-built and luxury, maisonette and houseboat. Real-life soap in length and width and depth. If Povey had deviated by half a dozen steps from any roads he’d walked upon today he’d have ended up on somebody else’s property.

Further along the towpath, where the bridge on Oval Road passed over the canal, a hushed gathering moved against each other like a knot of snakes. He saw a grey hood slipping swiftly in between the limbs, keeping the crowd’s energy motivated. As he approached, he heard the people hissing, as though condemning a theatrical villain. But then he realised what it really was. He truffled around the drifts of litter at the towpath’s edge and grasped a thick blade of broken glass, in case he needed to defend himself. He moved forward and prepared himself for a battle against the tangle of bodies as they vied for position in front of the wall; there wasn’t much virgin space left on the brickwork. But as he tensed himself to enter the fray, the limbs unlocked and moved away from him, allowing him passage. Eyes assessed him, gracing him with a respectful nod to his physicality. His foot kicked against an aerosol and he bent to pick it up. For the first time in what seemed like weeks, he felt his mouth trying on a smile. Was there real blood surging through his veins after all? Might there be a portion of this tired, knowing city that could be his?

He clenched the glass and readied himself with the aerosol as white palms fed him to the wall. One way or the other, by God, he would reaffirm himself.