Monday, 28 January 2013

Journey XIV – The Competition

We made it to what they called “The Independent Zone” by early evening next day. Once we’d passed through a dark and desolate neighbourhood on a hill, retail activity began to pick up once more and there were people sitting out in the street with their boom-boxes, folding chairs and barbeques, chatting and smoking and sometimes even dancing. We were observed with suspicion but not hostility. Further on, van-loads of all sorts of products were being hauled out, checked over, money changing hands. Small shops and stalls in hastily erected mobile malls were arranged seemingly at random over a huge area that looked like it might have been a vast car-park, or possibly an industrial complex, where the buildings had been razed but the concrete footings and roads left in place. We wandered around, looking at the goods. Nicky of course had to try something on. Shamim and her mother were also tempted and I heard them laugh for the first time since they were reunited at the hotel.
By nightfall we were concealed in the shell of a building near the border. We hadn’t previously known there would be a border, and we didn’t know what would be involved in crossing it. The cops were armed, but that didn’t mean anything – they were always armed. We decided to take a walk along the perimeter in the morning to see if there was a better place to get across.

We spent all day wandering about. Nowhere seemed promising. There was no fence as such, but cops with guns and dogs patrolled everywhere. Nicky, in her girliest voice and curviest demeanour went up and said she was new around here and what was going on? We watched whilst loitering by a fast food van, hoping we’d not have to use our weapons. We watched the men eye her up and begin to make lewd suggestions. I hoped she didn’t think we needed a “special favour” too much. This heroic streak she seemed to have developed lately could get her in trouble. I watched her push her boobs at them and one of them grabbed a handful. I was ready to leap out but Shamim caught me and glared at me. ‘Give her a chance to work’ she hissed at me through her teeth.
Nicky came back thoroughly groped but said she’d had worse. ‘Wanted to know if they were real, cheeky bastards. Anyway, there’s some sort of embargo going on – traders trying to get in, dump cheap goods here. They’re not letting anyone through in either direction.’
‘Any idea what’s on the other side?’ I asked, looking across the border. From where we were sitting the buildings belonging to the competition were not more than a quarter of a mile away.
‘Warehouses and shops as far as I can tell. They’re not going to stop us getting in. They want our money.’
Then Muriel comes back with some useful information – she’s been chatting to men in bars apparently. We look at her disapprovingly but listen to what she’s got to say. Apparently there are occasional break-outs and it can get very nasty. The one good thing is that the cops in each sector would rather go to hospital than call for reinforcements because apparently it comes out of their wages. ‘It may pay them to let us through if fighting looks like it’s getting expensive’ she says.

We try to think – the tension from the anticipation of getting out of this place making us impatient and jittery. In short we can’t stand the suspense. We had realised, looking at the prices of things that we actually had a lot of money on us, and the temptation to just go shopping was immense, even for me, but we thought we might need it on the other side so we restrained ourselves. Even so, Nicky got herself a very nice scarf and I found Shamim a necklace.
Night came and half the patrol went for their break and we decided the only thing for it was to shoot our way through. There was little in the way of flood-lights, and we could maybe shoot those out, or Nicky thought she could anyway. We were all feeling fit enough to run, and all but Amireh had a weapon. Nobody else seemed to be trying to get through so they wouldn’t be expecting it. The only tactic we came up with was ‘Don’t lose anyone’.

We crept forward among the buildings closest to the line. The remaining cops were about ten feet away. Nicky was the only one with a silencer and any real experience with a gun. She shot the light out with her second shot, but the first ricocheted around, alerting the cops that something was up. She aimed and felled one of them but then all hell broke loose and we just got up and ran.
Looking at it before hand it hadn’t seemed all that far. Now it seemed miles, and our hope for keeping together fell apart completely. I had Nicky on my left and Muriel somewhere behind me but the others could have been anywhere. True, the cops could hardly see us dressed as we were, but we couldn’t see each other either. More cops were coming and setting up another light. There was nothing for it but to run again and hope the others would be able to keep up. A hostage situation was unthinkable.
There were bullets ringing all around us on the concrete when we found cover behind a mound of earth. I crawled up and watched as they got the light working and three cops were set in sharp contrast for us. We waited a moment for them to get closer and then shot all three between us, and then the light. It felt absolutely amazing.
Of course I’d never shot anyone before. It was like a drug. I wanted to dance and cheer and snog the girls, Muriel too. Then they started firing back and I remembered what it was like to get shot and that made things seem a lot more businesslike suddenly. We fired back but couldn’t really see anything. Then there was more firing from the left and we just kept our heads down.
There was a lull. We saw them moving about, but nothing conclusive. I heard Enayat shout were we alright from a wall a little to our right and behind. We said yes and how were they. He told me Amireh shot two of them. ‘She has better eyes than me’ he added cheerfully.
Apart from a few random shots we stayed like that for the remainder of the night. Every time we tried to move we got shot at. Morning came and all that had changed was the huge crowd of on-lookers watching from both in front and behind, careless apparently of their own safety.

Midday came and we heard one of the cops yell ‘This is getting boring’ and I shouted back ‘How do you think we feel?’ and they sent a couple of bullets our way to liven things up.
A little later they used a megaphone. ‘Look, you don’t want this. We don’t want this. If you come quietly this can all be over and you can go about your business.’
‘Come and get us copper...’ shouted Muriel. More shots.
Silence. I look blankly at Nicky. She just looks pissed off.
‘How are we for ammo?’ says Muriel.
‘Short’ says Nicky.
Next I hear Shamim’s voice shout ‘Can we make a deal?’
‘What have you got?’ shouts the cop.
‘Nine hundred and fifty dollars’ she replies.
‘It’s a deal’ says the copper without hesitation.
‘Have we got that much?’ I ask Nicky.
‘More’ she says.
The copper shouts ‘Are you going to bring it out or what?’
‘No’ says Shamim. ‘I don’t trust you. I’ll leave half here and the other half when we get to the other side. Ok? I’ll hold it up, see?’ And we watch her tear the notes in two and place half on the ground under a brick in front of their refuge. The cops all begin to emerge from cover and we do likewise. It’s a horrible moment. I can almost feel the bullet whistling through my brain. Everybody’s standing up with their weapons held to the side. The crowd stands with their mouths open. We back slowly away, crossing the no-man’s land, stumbling occasionally on a brick or exposed cable. It seems an incredibly long way and it’s not until I feel people behind me that I know I’ve made it. I quickly duck in amongst them but, sensibly, they all move away from me. I watch Shamim carefully place the other bundle of half notes on a low wall and then we all make a break for it through the crowd and don’t stop until we’re sure the cops aren’t following us. We hear no shooting behind us, just a thousand people cheering. We sit together and look around and grin. There’s a lemon tree, a real, fruiting, flowering lemon tree. It’s a scruffy thing but it’s a real live plant. I cry with relief.

Afterwards it occurred to me that my relief might have been premature, but it was not. The landscape was not exactly verdant here – it was a wasteland of half derelict tin farm buildings and polluted ditches and ragged fences, but it was open and the sky was white and there were weeds and insects. Several people from the crowd walked with us for a while but most just watched us go.
At the edge of the cultivated land we followed the fence along until we met a road heading up into the hills and we left the weapons and the rest of the money there in a little cairn and started walking.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Voyage XIV – Darling Nicky

Today we’re out in the air, Ned, Lou, Olly and I. The sun is shining, the sea is a cool glassy green like broken bottles. Tropical birds and something that looks like a bat with a beak are swooping and skimming and diving, bringing up fish and squid in such quantities it’s hard to believe there can be so much down there. Lou tells me there’s probably a predator below too, driving them to the surface but there’s no sign of what it might be.
Once the spectacle has passed we go back to the table where Olly and Ned have the chess board out. We all have margaritas and wear Bermuda shorts and shades. I have to say we all look quite cool.
‘Fun over?’ says Olly, turning to us as we cast a shadow over the board. He looks past me at Lou. There’s something going on between them still – a funny atmosphere, although they’re civil to each other.
‘Quite extraordinary.’ says Lou and sits down opposite. I notice him look at Olly over his glasses trying to catch his eye but Olly either doesn’t notice or ignores him. He’s busy moving his rook anyway.
‘Ooh, are you sure you meant to do that?’ says Ned. Olly shrugs. We sit and watch, and wait. Eventually Ned muses that he (Olly) should have known what was coming. I assume at first he’s talking about the game but Olly says ‘She gave me no choice. I was backed into a corner.’
Lou looks curious but evidently doesn’t feel he can ask, so I do it for him. I want to know too anyway.
‘Who’s this we’re talking about?’ I say.
Ned looks up as if he’d forgotten we were there. ‘One of Olly’s parishioners.’
Olly shakes his head and looks at the board sadly.
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to pry’ says Lou. Olly smiles at him a little and straightens up. He’s got a particularly striking Hawaiian shirt on with blue and red macaws. ‘It’s ok’ he says. ‘One of many naïve blunders into the dreary world of the underprivileged I’m afraid – a tale of sex and drugs and woe.’
‘Is this seat taken?’ says a girl’s voice. We all look up and there’s the girl from the library wearing a particularly flattering white swimsuit. Four pairs of eyes pop out and roll around among the chess pieces.
‘Certainly not, my little meadow saffron’ says Ned, the perfect gentleman ‘It’s all yours’. He stands up and makes room for her. She appears to have been in the water.
‘How come you’re wet?’ I say, unable to handle anything subtler.
‘Oh, didn’t you know? There’s a net thing they’ve put out at the back you can lie in and be dragged along. It’s brilliant. Bloody cold though.’ She pulls her towel up around her shoulders and goes brrr.
‘Can I get you something from the bar miss?’ says Ned, suddenly suave and charming.
‘If you’re going’ she says, eager and breathless. ‘Can I have a hot chocolate? And some chips and mayo?’
‘Absolutely, anything you like my dear. Anyone else? No, excellent, fine.’ And he’s off. The girl glances up at me, her smile unreadable. Lou and Olly try to look relaxed.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’ she says.
‘You never told me your name.’
‘Oops, sorry. My bad. I’m Nicola... Nicky’ and she holds her hand out to shake and we all say ‘Hello Nicky’ or words to that effect. Ned appears laden with food and drinks soon after. ‘So you’ve met’ he says, significantly.
‘In the library the other day’ she says, letting the towel fall to her hips ‘He was very sweet. I wasn’t having a very good day.’ She looks at me intently. I guess she doesn’t want me to elaborate.
‘Actually, could you...’ and she mouths to me that she needs a word, somewhere else, more private and then stands up clumsily, knocking one of the drinks all over the board and the food. ‘Oh God I’m sorry’ she says, flustered and panicky, flapping her hands. All the men go to help and calm her down and she apologises profusely. ‘Sorry sorry sorry. Oh I’m so sorry. I’m so clumsy’, playing the silly bint. I’m watching her, wondering what she’s up to.
Eventually she extricates herself, comes over and grabs my arm and guides me conspiratorially toward the rails.
‘You haven’t told anyone have you?’ she says.
‘Told anyone what?’ I say, joking, because of course it’s obvious. How could I forget? She doesn’t think it’s funny. ‘You know’ she says under her breath and punches me, quite hard, in the ribs. ‘The porn thing. You haven’t said anything, to anyone, have you?’
‘Really? Oh. Ok, I believe you. Now you mustn’t. Promise?’
‘Ok’ I say but she doesn’t look convinced. Her wet swimsuit top is almost completely transparent at this range. I can see her nipples quite clearly. It’s impossible to concentrate.
‘Ok. We can talk about it later.’ She heads back to the table. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask to talk about it at all but I’m intrigued none the less. Olly looks over her shoulder at me with raised eyebrows and a comical smile. Ned is concentrating on his chessmen, wiping them with a cloth. Lou is looking strangely at Olly. I watch her slip through to her seat again, her plump bottom wobbling nicely. I grin at Olly.
‘Where were we?’ says Ned eventually when we’re all settled again.
‘Sex, drugs and woe’ says Lou sideways in his best theatrical voice and goes back to looking at the sea. Olly looks embarrassedly at Nicky but she looks even perkier than before if that’s possible. ‘What have I missed?’ she says breathlessly.
‘Oh, there was a misunderstanding about some heroine. You don’t want to know’ says Olly, wearily.
‘You can tell me’ she says, as if confiding in her will be good for him. He looks around at us a little despairingly. Ned nods. I wait. Now I want to know too.
‘A member of my flock, for want of a better word...’
‘Baah!’ bleats Ned quietly. Nicky punches him playfully in the leg. She seems to like punching people.
‘...decided to go on the game to help finance her son’s drug habit.’
‘Oh I’ve seen that’ says Nicky, eagerly. ‘A friend of mine did that. Except it was for her boyfriend... Anyway, carry on. Sorry.’ Olly glares at her. Lou evidently thinks it’s funny. Ned has his head down.
Olly continues. ‘She got a tip-off that he was going to get busted and she asked me to hang on to some stuff for him – didn’t want it lying around the house and I stupidly said yes.’
Nicky looks at him disbelievingly. ‘Weren’t you a vicar or something?’ she says.
‘Or something’ he says.
She’s speechless.
‘She was trying to wean him off. I truly believe she was working hard to get him off the stuff. Otherwise I wouldn’t have.’
‘What happened?’ asks Ned.
‘Well, of course they found some in the boy’s bedroom anyway...’
‘Probably planted’ says Ned.
‘Possibly. I wouldn’t know...’ Olly looks very fed up of the whole sad story. Lou has turned around now and looks as if he wants to help but doesn’t know what to do.
‘I had a friend got done for two kilos of crack’ says Nicky. ‘Mind you he was a shit-head’ she adds. Olly looks at her sympathetically, not, I suspect because of what she’s been through but because she seems so dim. She assumes he feels her pain though and grabs his hand.
‘Anyway’ says Olly, leaning back, getting his hand back as politely as he can. ‘He dobbed me in as they say.’
‘No!’ says Nicky, outraged. ‘Bastards. You were only trying to help.’
‘I know, but I suppose he wasn’t thinking straight. I don’t blame him. The police weren’t so forgiving of course, although they knew the situation.’
‘Was that how you came to be er... between jobs?’ asks Ned.
‘It didn’t help. The boy ended up in care. He was only thirteen poor kid.’
‘What about methadone? Surely that’s the normal...’ says Ned. Nicky, I notice, shakes her head.
‘That was the thing. He’d have been straight into care if the authorities had known about it. It was the last straw. She was a lovely girl too, his mother, only twenty-eight. She looked like she might have been his sister. She didn’t have anybody else, and they put an exclusion order on me so I couldn’t go round and check on her.’
‘What happened?’
Olly looks round at him. ‘I don’t know Lou’ he says unhappily. ‘I got transferred. I never saw her or the lad again. I kept an eye on the papers and there was nothing in there, but...’
‘You poor thing’ says Nicky with feeling.
‘Oh don’t worry about me. I survived, well... unless you count...’ and he smiles and indicates our situation. We all take the opportunity to laugh a little. Nicky doesn’t look so jolly. ‘I’m going in to get dressed’ she says suddenly. ‘See you later?’ she adds, ostensibly to all of us, but more to me (and possibly Ned) in particular. Everyone notices and after she’s gone I can tell they’re all wondering how to broach the subject tactfully. I put the moment off by going to get the drinks in and see what’s on the menu this evening. In the bar I notice she’s been distracted by the surf dudes and is sitting, still in her costume, smoking, as they brazenly invade her personal space. She doesn’t notice me.

‘So... you and Nicky’ says Ned later on, after the others have turned in. ‘She’s quite a peach.’
‘Or fruit of your choice’ I say. He smiles and nods and takes a drag on his cigarillo. It’s very dark now. Ned and I are rather sleepily watching the sea move in the night. Tiny birds like little grey robins skitter across the surface.
‘You don’t think she’s worth a shot then?’ he says ‘She’s very erm...’ He mimes breasts with his hands.
‘Not the word I was looking for exactly, but pertinent, certainly.’
‘It’s not just me. She flirts with everyone. She flirted with you for God’s sake.’
‘Oh I know. I was very flattered but I think she sees me more as a father figure.’
‘I don’t know that that would bother her. Anyway, I’m nearly old enough to be her father. Did you know people here aren’t necessarily the age they look?’
‘You mean you didn’t? Ha! That’s funny. I suppose you died young so you don’t look very different, is that it?’
‘Not very, although it was obvious when I looked properly. I just thought I’d looked well since I arrived here.’
Ned nods and smiles. ‘I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours’ he says.
‘But you have to guess first.’
‘Ah, a catch.’
I look at him. He looks to be in his mid to late forties, but well preserved. His manner though has always seemed somehow old-fashioned now I come to think of it. ‘Forty-five’ I say.
‘You flatter me. Higher.’
‘Much higher.’
‘Add ten.’
‘Bloody hell’ I say again. ‘What did you die of?’
‘Ah, that shall remain a very dim and dark secret. Anyway, you were, let me see... You had just finished your degree, no, tell a lie, a Phd?’ I shake my head ‘No?’
‘It was a post grad project though, you’re on the right track.’
‘So that wouldn’t make you more than about twenty-seven. But ah... you said you were old enough to be her father...’
‘Nearly, I said.’
‘And she looks about seventeen or so? Am I right? So you must be at least in your mid thirties so you must have been a mature student. That changes everything, and of course I don’t know how old she was when she died, although she does seem very young. Could you give me a clue?’
‘She doesn’t appear much younger than she is.’
‘Ah. That helps a little. And you said you don’t appear much younger than you did either. Oh I’m confused. Did you mean you are old enough to be her father as she looks now or as she was when she died, or indeed as you look now or as you were when you died, if you follow?’
‘I’m not actually sure now you mention it. Both, I suppose, either way.’
‘Hmm. I think she is not more than twenty. You are not more than thirty something, but you don’t seem to be in your late thirties. You actually seem very much the way you look.’
‘It’s being a student kept me young.’
‘I give in. Tell me.’
‘I was thirty five.’
‘Good lord.’
‘And she claims to have been twenty. The thing is, I still feel thirty-five, and she looks and acts sixteen. It’s all a bit creepy.’
‘I know what you mean. I have to say she unnerves me too. What do you know about her?’
‘Sworn to secrecy. But I can tell you it’s pretty dark.’
He sits back and contemplates the sky and I do likewise. It really is very peaceful with just the sound of the waves around us, and the occasional bird noise. Sometimes there are other strange, almost sub-sonic moans and booms. They come through the hull at night, and sound like something huge is happening out there, or maybe down there, beyond our view. I’ve learned not to let it disturb me but it makes me wonder sometimes. Maybe you can actually hear God working here, or maybe not God. Maybe some other powerful being is on the move out there – some other God or giant devil. I might ask Lou about it in the morning – see if he has any theories.
‘It’s tempting though, you have to admit’ says Ned after a long time. I was almost nodding off.
‘What is?’
‘Nicky. She’s a good-looking girl. But you’re right. It would be all wrong.’
‘Also she’s mad.’
‘She’s young, insecure, demanding, and from what you tell me, damaged. I like her.’
‘Hmm’ is all I can say. I don’t know if I like her exactly, but she’s beginning to affect me. I feel jealous when I see her with the other men, and then I feel like I’m being unfaithful to Sophie. Was six weeks enough to really tell if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her or was it just infatuation? I felt like I’d known her for ever. Maybe we were together before, in a previous life. Who knows? Anyway she’s not here.
I like Nicky more than I did anyway. I can admit that much. I like Shamim more though.
Sophie, Nicky and Shamim. Bloody hell. What is wrong with me?

‘Hello boys!’ comes the uninhibited and now familiar voice of Nicky behind us. I look at Ned who appears to have dropped off in his lounger. I look around at her. She has on a long clingy strapless red dress, with a black lacy shawl over her shoulders. I try not to focus too blatantly on her décolletage but it’s just mesmerising. Lou told me I shouldn’t feel bad about it – it’s called sexual selection apparently. Breasts don’t need to be that size just to feed infants he said. (‘Look at the miserable droopy things other apes get by with.’) No, he said, they’re like that to attract a mate – as subtle as a peacock’s tail or a baboon’s bottom. The only real mystery is why human females, alone among animals as far as he can tell, are as preoccupied with their appearance as the males, or more so.
The evidence stands provocatively before me. She’s got a hibiscus from somewhere and has put it in her hair. She stands there, hand on hip, pouting.
‘Shh’ I say gently and point at Ned.
‘Oops. Sorry’ she says. Her glamour evaporates and there’s that worried, flustered look on her face again, like she’s going to get into terrible trouble. I smile at her and tell her she looks fantastic, to make her relax again.
‘I came to see you anyway’ she whispers and comes and stands there, as if waiting for me to do something.
‘Shall we go for a walk?’ I suggest, but she doesn’t look keen. She looks down at her feet and I see she is on at least four-inch heels. ‘Maybe not’ I say.
‘Come over here’ she says, and leads me, tottering over to a couch for two in the shadows at the prow of the ship. I sit down as she stands and looks at the dark sea ahead, lighting her cigarette. Then she comes and squeezes in beside me. She smells of smoke and booze and sex. It’s not unpleasant. I can’t think of a single thing to say. I think of Sophie. We always had something to talk about. I want to apologise to her in advance, just in case. It’s going to be a very long time before I see her again – an unimaginably long time. Thirty-five years or more. Sorry babe.
‘So, do you like my dress?’ she says eventually, turning to me. I take the opportunity to look at it very closely. It seems to be made of something shiny and metallic like the stuff tinsel is made of but soft and silky. It accentuates every curve of her.
‘It’s wonderful’ I say, truthfully. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Oh they were here when I arrived. I have a whole wardrobe full of them. Did you like the swimming costume?’
‘Er, yes. It’s very, er...eye-catching.’
She smiles broadly at me. ‘You mean see-through. I know, but I think, what the heck. If you’ve got it... You should come for a swim tomorrow. I’ll introduce you to Don and the others.’
‘Ok’ I say. Actually I’d wanted to do that today – when she mentioned it but it seemed too late then. The chance of actually getting off the boat and into the water sounds too good to miss.
‘Then you can see me in my bikini’ she says. ‘It’s magenta.’
‘Ah’ I say.
She prattles on for a bit longer about clothes and make-up and the men she’s met here. I nod and pretend to be interested. My arousal is rapidly deflating. I decide I’m going to ask about the other day. I’m going to pass out from boredom if I don’t.
‘What was all that about, the other day in the library?’
She springs up and goes to the rail. I wait for a possibly dramatic reaction.
‘Which part?’ she says, quietly, to the sea.
‘Any of it. Why did you say you were last happy when you were sixteen for instance?’
She turns and stares at me. Well this is at least more interesting than her wardrobe.
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ she says at last.
I watch her. I wonder what the best thing to say is. I decide to try a strategy, like Keith said, and see what happens.
‘There is an obvious reason, yes, but it seems a bit of a cliché. I’m not sure I accept it.’
I watch her look at me. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about but she doesn’t want to look stupid. That’s my theory anyway.
‘I don’t care what you think’ she says petulantly.
‘So why did you tell me?’ Good answer.
‘I don’t know’ she shrugs. Another blocking move.
‘Great’ I say, a little dismissively, and turn as if I might leave.
‘I thought you might be able to help’ she says in a small voice, as if close to tears. I turn and raise my eyebrows sardonically but realise there are actual tears there. Great. I’ve never been any good at playing the hard man. I get her to come and sit down and I find her a tissue that seems reasonably fresh. I still don’t want to leave myself open however. All those years with Mar evidently taught me something.
‘Tell me’ I say as forcibly as I feel safe to. She looks about as if not knowing where to start.
‘What do you want to know?’ she says.
‘About whatever you wanted to tell me.’
‘I didn’t do anything really bad.’
‘What was it like?’
She leans forward, elbows on thighs and begins to pull the tissue apart.
‘You think it’s horrible don’t you, even though you use it – the porno.’
‘Not really.’
‘But... ok, you’re nice to me here, to my face but you think I’m a slut, don’t you.’
I look at her. I think about what I thought when she first told me. ‘Actually I thought it was kind of interesting, but then, you seemed really upset about it, so you worried me a bit too I have to admit.’
We sit together for a while. It’s getting really late. The place is deserted, except, up above there’s a dim smoky light in the windows of the bridge. There’s music from somewhere too – Irish music, coming from one of the cabins below us.
‘It was ok’ she says eventually. ‘We made films too, and I didn’t mind it. Sometimes it was even fun. Can you imagine that?’
‘It’s always the men put me off. They mostly look like jerks to me to be honest. It’s weird to imagine you being... But then, I never wanted to have anything to do with anybody else’s penis.’
‘Maybe you should try it.’
‘Maybe’ I say, unenthusiastically.
‘You don’t know ‘til you’ve tried it, as they say.’
‘I think I’d know by now.’
‘No but I could do you if you like’ she says, like she’s offering me a manicure. ‘I’m sure they could find us a strap-on. They seem to be able to get hold of most things here.’
‘No thanks’ I say, a little breathless. ‘Not today.’
She sits and smokes for a while. Finally she says ‘You know I was kidding about the strap-on don’t you.’
‘I never know with you’ I say.
‘I never really got into anal’ she adds, matter-of-factly, as if we’re discussing board games.
We sit and look at the sea for a bit longer.
‘What was the most adventurous thing you did then, sexually I mean?’ she asks and I tell her about my forays into exhibitionism. I expect her to laugh but she nods approvingly and says ‘Cool.’
I want to know more about the porn industry though. I can’t resist it.
‘So, isn’t it all kind of sexless, really? Kind of repetitive – loads of lubricants and fluffers? I’m sure I’ve heard of fluffers somewhere.’
She laughs a little at that. ‘No, it’s not as sexy as I thought to be honest. I was quite naïve to begin with. Actually you’re right. It’s not really sexy at all.’ She turns and observes me, cigarette waving lazily between her fingers. She climbs up and perches on the rail. I’m afraid she’ll topple backwards into the water but her shoes are kicked off and her bare toes curl around the steel cables. Her toenails are painted cerise. I am afraid for her and I guess it shows in my face. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going. Not just yet anyway’ and again I see that very sad too-much-too-young expression.
‘You know, I really thought it would be, sexy I mean. I thought I’d just get paid for doing what I like doing anyway. Then I’d just stop when it wasn’t fun any more. I was a total exhibitionist. I loved taking my clothes off, shocking people, so I thought “What the heck.” I could be getting paid for this.
Back then, early on, it was just amateur stuff and it was really quite exciting – honestly, me and some friends doing stuff, messing about, dressing up, taking our clothes off in the woods and playing with ropes and masks and stuff.’
‘Wasn’t that really risky?’
I can’t believe I have to explain this to her ‘Supposing someone found you. Anybody could have been out there.’
She looks down at her feet, watches them for a while. She has the defiant guilty smile of a child who knows she is in trouble but is going to do it anyway. Not looking at me she says ‘My friend Mandy said it’s like hang gliding or bungee jumping or something. You don’t think about what might happen, or not in detail anyway. You just enjoy the rush.’
‘Did you ever get caught?’
She nods ‘They never did anything, just gawped at my tits, made stupid comments... I was never out on my own anyway. I always had friends with me.’
I have nothing to say to that. I’m both hugely turned on and concerned for her safety at the same time.
‘But then, later on...’ she continues, looking up at the sea. ‘Then it was just a job, and the money came in handy, and believe it or not the people were actually ok, most of them. They looked after me. I didn’t have a drug habit or anything, and my mum was tolerable so I could go home and I could choose when I worked. It was ok, as jobs go – not that I ever had any other sort of job. But then... I don’t know... I guess I lost something along the way.’
‘Well I’d guess sex must have lost a lot of its appeal for you, I mean relationships.’
‘True, I went off sex a bit, you know, when I was working a lot, but afterwards I went back to normal. And I was never any good at all that relationship stuff anyway.’
‘Did you have boyfriends at all?’
‘Loads, if you can call them that. You know what? You should be a guide next time. My guide is useless. She just giggles when I talk about this stuff.’
‘I did wonder why you chose to tell me all this.’
‘Does it make you feel special?’
‘No, it makes me feel suspicious. But I don’t mind.’
I look at her appraising me. This cool guy act of mine is beginning to wear thin. Does she notice? I’d prefer being honest but I sense she wouldn’t know how to deal with that.
‘I just had a sense you’d be alright to talk to. I don’t know why.’
‘I see you talk to a lot of the other men here though don’t you?’
‘Have you been watching me?’
‘Of course.’
She smiles mischievously. ‘Are you jealous?’
I don’t know what to say. I’ve left myself a bit too open. But I can’t lie. Bugger. ‘Yes, ok, I am, a bit. So what?’
She grins broadly. ‘You said you didn’t see me that way.’
‘I know. I guess you’ve grown on me.’
‘Was it the swimwear?’
‘No, actually, it was something about when you were talking with Olly about his drugs bust today, like you cared about what happened to him.’
She looks totally taken aback, turns and sucks on her cigarette. Hah! That did it. Honesty is underrated. The right piece at the right time is unanswerable. I get up and stand beside her, looking out to sea.
‘I mean, you’ve got a gorgeous body and everything, as I’m sure you’ve been told many times, and I’m sure the whole girlish charm thing is very appealing to a lot of men, but up until that point I couldn’t really relate to you, as a human being. I still can’t most of the time, but still...’
She looks down at her cigarette, watching the breeze burn it down.
‘Thank you’ she says. ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.’

We’re like that for a while longer, her sitting, sideways on the rail, her toes gripping on, and me, leaning, chin resting on folded arms beside her, watching the waves.
‘Do you mind me smoking?’ she says.
‘I always thought it made women taste funny, you know, down below.’
Without a word I watch her tread out the cigarette and scuff it into the sea. I don’t think I ever saw her light up another all the time I knew her.
‘I need to sleep’ she says at last and I offer my hand to help her down
‘What did you do with your shoes?’
We pick them up from behind the couch and carry them down below to our cabins. I kiss her on the cheek at her door and carry on along to mine.
All in all I thought I handled it all rather well.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Journey XIII – On the Streets

We crouch in a basement stairwell and wait, catching our breaths, clearing our heads. I notice that the bleeding stops quite quickly which bodes well for our healing. Enayat is still grinning at Nicky and bleeds from his shoulder. ‘Just a flesh wound’ he says. ‘Did you see that?’ he keeps saying. ‘Did you see what she did? Magnificent.’
Nicky shushes us and holds the gun on her lap, looking out through the railings. ‘We can’t stay here’ she whispers, ‘and we need more of these.’ indicating the gun. She suddenly rises and goes over to the cop who is groaning on the pavement. I hoist myself up to have a look. There’s a lot of blood coming from him. I watch her tear a strip off the leg of her shorts and use it as a gag. Then she searches him. She’s absolutely brutal about it.
‘Did you see what she did?’ repeats Enayat.
‘What? No, I didn’t see.’
‘She was behind him when he started shooting – I guess he’d forgotten about her or thought she was harmless. Maybe he was saving her for later. Anyway, I see her come up behind, push him over, kneel on his back and garrotte him with some wire. She almost took his head off. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
She comes back with a handgun and gives it to Enayat along with some more ammunition. I can see the bloody wire she used still in her hand and her cuffs are soaked with blood. She must have used them to protect her hands.
‘Where did that come from?’ I say, sitting myself up, pointing at the wire.
‘From their stupid piano’ she says and we all take a little time to consider how badly we have misjudged this girl. I look at her and realise she doesn’t look too good. I guess the adrenaline is wearing off. Enayat takes over.
‘We must move’ he says. ‘Can we walk?’
Muriel squeezes in next to him and says ‘Any suggestions where to, chief?’
He points to a doorway a hundred yards further along the street that seems to be ajar. ‘I’ll have a look’ she says and before we can stop her she runs sideways, keeping close to the wall and peers in. She’s gone for what seems like far too long then reappears and comes to get us. ‘It seems ok, for now’ she whispers and we all do our best to move in that direction. I’ve been so caught up in the threat of further attack I’ve forgotten to look at Shamim and her mother. They had their backs to the cop when he fired so they took most of it and neither looks well. We get them up as best we can and support them along the pavement to the door. Inside, all is in darkness and we lay them gently against a wall away from the door. Muriel says ‘We can’t leave him out there – they’ll see.’ Muriel and Enayat head back out to where the cop is lying and drag him in with us. Once in he begins screaming through his gag. Enayat calmly goes over to him and stomps on his face until he stops. Then he looks at us guiltily and goes to tend to his wife and daughter.

It’s quite some time before things settle down. We all sit in the dark in a daze, waiting to be discovered. Nicky looks exhausted and sits slumped by the wall, holding the semi-automatic like a baby. It has a silencer attached – that’s why we didn’t hear gunfire.
I sit with Shamim’s head on my lap as she drifts in and out of consciousness. The bleeding has stopped at least but I can’t bring myself to look at the wound. It feels horribly soft and baggy. Her mother is sitting up but slumped against her husband. Muriel watches the door. If anyone comes we are in terrible trouble.

Night comes. Shamim seems to be asleep. I get up and look around. Nicky looks more awake – she smiles weakly at me and I sit down beside her.
‘You’re quite scary – you know that?’ She nods happily. ‘Where did all that come from – with the garrotting and the combat training?’
‘I did a lot self-defence classes. I thought it would come in handy, you know, in my line of work... Plus I always wanted to be Buffy Summers.’
‘What’s that?’ says Enayat.
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer. American TV show’ I say.
‘Oh yes’ he says ‘We used to get it on Sky’
‘He used to like Anya’ says a small voice from Shamim’s direction. I go over to see how she is.
‘What a woman’ says Enayat dreamily.
‘I’m not totally unconscious’ says his wife.
‘I preferred Faith myself’ I say. Enayat nods appreciatively.
We sit silently and look about.
‘We should move if we can’ says Nicky ‘now it’s dark.’
‘I can hear sirens and guns.’
‘They’ll look for us here.’
‘They might not look for us at all’ says Muriel. ‘I’m sure I heard the cop say he was going home after this. They’re probably not expecting him back today.’
The mayhem outside steadily escalates and we jam the door shut with a piece of wood to avoid inquisitive eyes. The cop begins to yell again and Enayat threatens him with his boot again. He shuts up.
None of us know what else to do.

Finding it impossible to sleep we discuss tactics for much of the night. Shamim moves to curl up with her mother and they watch as we attempt to come up with a plan. First, we don’t know whether we fear the cops or the street people more. At night we’ll be less conspicuous but it sounds like there have been violent incidents kicking off periodically since dusk. It’s been mostly yelling and what sounds like vandalism, but there was gunfire quite close at one point, and some pitiful pleading in a building near by.
On the other hand, by day they’ll see us walking along (if we can all walk by then) covered in blood and it’ll be obvious something’s happened. And anyway, there’s police cars cruising past and the CCTV. Anyway, we know we must move out as soon as possible, but Shamim and her mother are in no fit state to go anywhere. We discuss the chances of finding some other less conspicuous clothes, or a vehicle, or maybe some more weapons. Nicky has a wad of money she took from the cop but we’re not sure what we can do with it. Eventually the running out of ideas and the exhaustion take their toll and one by one our heads slump and we pass out.

We’re abruptly roused early next morning by the steel shutter doors opening onto the street and the light flooding in. Three men stand silhouetted there.
‘Not again’ says one of them. ‘Who left the bloody door open?’
The lights go on and the door closes. We are all sat or lying there, rubbing our eyes. Nicky grips the gun.
The man who spoke comes over and looks at us. ‘Bloody losers’ he says. ‘Minute my back’s turned... What’s that?’ One of his men is pointing at the cop lying there bound and gagged. ‘That’s all I need.’
‘One of Rit’s men’ says the second man. We look at each other and expect the worst. I wonder how many of them Nicky could take out if she tried.
‘You got a cop. What’d you do?’
‘We didn’t do anything. We’re not criminals’ I say. ‘Are you going to turn us in?’
‘You must be new here’ he says and all three of them have a laugh. ‘Cops here aren’t interested in crime. They don’t employ a single detective – you know that? No, they’re only concerned with what the competition gets up to. They’ll have forgotten about you chumps already.’ He looks down at the cop, looking up at him, gives him a little kick. ‘Put him with the others’ he says, and adds, with exasperation ‘I really don’t need all this.’
‘Won’t they miss him?’ asks Muriel.
‘People disappear here all the time, and like I say, they don’t do detecting.’
‘Where are you going to put him?’
‘Forget about him. Now, I think it’s time for you to do a disappearing act too. Get out, go on, scram, vamoose.’
We look around at each other and begin to get up. On the one hand we’re relieved to be let go, but on the other we don’t feel equipped to be out there in the street. Shamim, Amireh and I are still in considerable pain and have to be helped up and we’re all covered in blood and other grime.
‘You can’t throw us out looking like this. Give us one more day, please’ says Muriel.
‘Have you seen yourselves lately? You’ll blend right in, now go.’ And we all stagger out into the yellowing daylight.
The back street is relatively quiet but once we find our way round to the front we see what he means – the place is a mass of humanity in all life styles and incomes, from some very sharp suited business men with body guards pushing their way through the throng, down to mutilated and often naked grimy figures barely conscious in the gutter. Losers are very much in evidence, begging or queuing for work. No one notices us at all. We slowly weave our way past several hundred yards of solid, shining offices and department stores (Nicky can’t resist looking at the frocks and whimpers a little to herself). We dodge scooters and vans and buses (all massively overloaded), pass buskers, fast food stalls, and people sitting on the ground trying to sell what appears to be everything they own. We keep going. After about three miles the shops have less of that corporate sheen and more of them are up for sale. We pass slot machine emporia and fast food joints, and shops selling everything for a dollar. The towers above them are lower and older and darker and less megalithic. A mile further on and it’s a tired mixture of weird specialist shops (Cards ‘n’ Cams, Old Willy’s Latex Products, Fish for All), run down hotels, seedy bars and a range of other, even less salubrious outlets in the side streets. Nobody is well dressed, nobody moves very quickly. A lot of people appear to be going nowhere at all. The pavements are fringed with drifts of refuse and the smog seems to be worse here. There’s a brightly lit canteen just off the main drag with long yellow Formica-topped tables. We find seats near the counter and sit in silence for a while, looking at each other, at the sticky table top, at the menu, and take in the desultory company that occasionally barges into us. I look at Shamim across the table, clasped to her mother and I try to give her a hopeful smile. She doesn’t look hopeful. I reach over to take her hand but she grips mine only briefly and then pulls back and hides among the folds of her robe as if she’s cold. Amireh holds her closer and they sit together with their eyes closed, shutting out our surroundings. I know it’s selfish but I wish I wasn’t shut out. I turn to look at Nicky and she gives me a sweet reassuring smile and I see her hand move a little, as if I could take that one, but we both know that wouldn’t be right.
‘Coffee?’ suggests Enayat. He rises a little and looks over the counter. He makes an appreciative expression and says ‘They’ve got a real Italian machine over there. Someone has his priorities right.’
‘There’s eggs and beans’ says Nicky, looking at the board ‘and chips. They have chips and mayo.’
‘I don’t know about their standard of hygiene’ says Muriel, but we need something and we know it’s not going to kill us so Enayat and I take orders and head for the counter.
Back at the table, waiting for our food to arrive, the guy next to us leans in and says ‘You’re new here aren’t you’ and I wonder, if it’s this obvious, why we haven’t been stopped yet. Maybe the cops really don’t care.
‘How can you tell?’
‘Because you still look like you give a crap about each other. It breaks my heart, really.’ I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic. I suspect not actually. Nicky is nearest and turns to look at him. He’s a hunched, unshaven, unhealthy looking little man, but still takes some trouble to be civil and to wash and dress properly.
‘You’re getting out aren’t you’ he says. ‘I can tell. I was going to get out this year. I keep saying to... Oh why thank you.’ He grabs one of our coffees as the waiter brings it as if we’ve bought it for him. Enayat gets up to get himself another.
‘Where was I? Oh yes, I keep saying to myself one day I’ll leave, give it up, but then every year I think maybe this time, you know, I’ll get lucky. Ah well.’ He slurps the coffee appreciatively. The food arrives and actually doesn’t look too bad. ‘Is that for me?’ says our guest and Nicky says ‘No, but would you like something?’ and after much ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly’ and ‘I wouldn’t dream of it’ he asks for a steak sandwich and she goes and orders it for him. We do have quite a lot of money on us after all. Our main problem has been keeping that fact to ourselves so we’ve split it between us in small quantities and hidden the larger notes in Amireh’s clothes. We sit and eat and look about and the man devours his sandwich.
Once we’ve all finished I ask him if he knows the best way to get out of the city. He takes a moment, fiddling with his teeth. We all look away. ‘Keep going this way’ he says. ‘You’re more or less in the city centre here. Pick a direction and stick to it.’ Then he gets up and looks at us. ‘Good luck’ he says, and then ‘You might want to keep your women covered up more, this one especially.’ He indicates Nicky. ‘You don’t want the cops doing you any special favours, not unless you really need a favour anyway...’
‘I can take care of myself’ says Nicky, with her new quiet self-assurance.
‘I’m sure you can dear’ he says ‘but you don’t want to attract attention do you? Now you keep going the way you are’ he makes a cutting motion with his hand, following the direction of the main street outside. ‘You’ll be on the northern perimeter in two days tops, that’s where the competition hang out. You’ll need to wear something different, less, er, colourful. Once you’re on the other side they won’t be interested in you and you can just walk out. I’d come with you but...’ and he shrugs as if to say who knows, this could be his lucky year. This time next year he could be rich. We watch him head out into the street and disappear.
‘Probably gone to rat on us’ says Nicky quietly. We all sit and drink our coffees in fatalistic mood.

Apart from a sojourn in a surplus store, the next day or so goes quietly enough. We slouch along trying to look as if we don’t care very much about each other and as if we don’t have anywhere in particular to be. Shamim and her mother recover surprisingly quickly but are still in pain. I long for the opportunity to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her but I realise it would not be appropriate – indeed none of us says much to each other, even at night when we huddle together in an alley and try to look like a pile of trash, which is not difficult. The fatigues we bought are in various shades of black and brown but are too new-looking so we deliberately roll in some filth to wear them in.
On the second day the cityscape becomes even drearier, with what look like bombed out blocks and fenced-off areas, with hovels of board and tin set against the gigantic legs of flyovers and viaducts. Various industrial complexes are under armed guard and interminable lines of losers queue at the gates, all in their orange overalls, hoping for work. Buses stuffed to the doors with women carry the day’s contingent of cleaners, factory workers and shop assistants into the centre, the direction we’ve just come from. Curbs and steps are blurred by even more garbage, and, for variety, every so often a group of usually young men dash past yelling and laughing or swearing, pursued by other young men or by cops. Bricks are thrown and are answered usually by night-sticks or sometimes by bullets, occasionally by attack dogs. We cringe in the doorways and try to be invisible. At one point I’m stupidly caught in the open and take another bullet, this time in the arse as I turn and run. Once the drama has passed we gather and try to find some cover. I can’t walk until dusk and then we break into a shed where some other losers have holed up. They don’t seem that bothered about sharing.
‘How can they exist like this?’ says Enayat. ‘Why doesn’t everybody try to leave? It’s incredible.’ I look for Shamim but she is preoccupied with her mother’s wound, which is bleeding again. Nicky comes and sits with me and holds my hand. It saddens me that Shamim and I don’t seem to be there for each other at a time like this, but I soon fall asleep on Nicky’s soft shoulder.

Morning comes and we keep going. The man’s ‘two days tops’ seems a little over-optimistic. The streets are now filled with vendors of all sorts, selling cheap plastic tat and knock-off fashions, but among them we find samosas, fried chicken and refried beans for sale and eat a hearty breakfast, hoping we’re not about to be condemned. We get up and move on as quickly as we can.
Toward dusk we encounter our first muggers. There are two of them and they chat us up seedily at first, backing us into an alley (like anyone would try to stop them plying their trade in the open). Then the threatening starts and one of them sticks the muzzle of their semi-automatic in Shamim’s belly and she cries a little. I try to leap in and do the chivalrous thing but my leg gives out. I look up and the gun has a new target – my face. Then that rapid pft sound comes from behind and the muggers crumple before us.
‘There’s something ever so therapeutic about shooting bad people’ says Nicky cheerily.
We gag them as before and throw them in a ditch, still struggling. Shamim and I get their semi-automatics and Muriel gets a handgun. We go to a piece of waste ground among the ruins of some warehouses and shoot up a lot of cans and bottles, getting used to the feel of the weapons, then we move on up the street.
At nightfall we come to a place where the road begins to slope downwards and the cityscape is arrayed below us. The locals bustle about trying to get home before dark because there’s a curfew in this area for some reason. We stand and look at the rapidly dimming view picked out in streetlight and fire stretching away into the distance, and contemplate the ordeal to come next day.

It was Amireh noticed it first. The lights did not stretch on as far as the eye could see. They stopped – some miles away certainly, but they definitely came to a halt out there. And, further more, it was still possible to make out, black against darkest purple, the jagged silhouette of mountains in the distance.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Vincent IX – Sophie

‘Were you ever diagnosed as having any kind of autistic tendencies – Asperger’s syndrome, er...?’ says Vincent just as I enter.
‘Good day to you too’ I say, laughing a little. I’m getting used to this now.
‘Good day’ he says, not looking up. I sit down. I wait.
‘Hmm?’ he says, looking up at last. I pretend not to have heard, just to piss him off – make him repeat the question.
‘Were you ever diagnosed as having autistic tendencies such as Asperger’s syndrome at all Gabriel?’ he says again.
‘I looked into it, you know, out of curiosity, did a questionnaire...’
I shrug. ‘I don’t know. Some things... My mum said because I couldn’t relate to people and spent all my time in my room. But I thought, because people with Asperger’s aren’t supposed to be very good with emotions and imagination, and my whole life was all emotions and imagination, probably too much... I thought she was probably wrong. What about you?’
I expect him to be irritated with my impertinence but instead he says ‘It was my father’s opinion yes. I never really fitted in with his idea of what a boy should be – always reading, sitting alone, always thinking about things, seeing things differently.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I became a civil engineer actually. To be honest it always seemed to me that “autism” is just the technical term for being a misfit.’ I tell him I worked with autistic teenagers at one point, and about some of their “challenging” behaviour.
‘It’s a spectrum of behaviours’ he says. ‘I looked into it too. At one end you have some very difficult people, or you have Rainman of course. But then, at the other, you simply have people who are merely somehow, er... inconvenient.’
He stops then, lost in thought. I watch him, observing the emotions flickering across his face, unreadable.
‘Are you angry at your father?’ I ask at last. He shakes his head, not to say ‘no’, but to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Anyway’ he says, ‘enough about that. I think we are coming perhaps to the end of your story. We’ve talked a little about your marriage and the post graduate project, and the period leading up to your time at college...’
‘There’s something else.’
‘You wanted to know about friends. I wasn’t sure what to say. I had another friend, at the end.’
‘Someone special?’
‘I think so. I met her when my relationship with Mar was really... I didn’t know what to do. The atmosphere at home was terrible. That last trip to Spain was a bit... I don’t know...’
‘Hopeless? Did she know this too?’
‘I don’t know. She just kept on trying to get me to change, to be more “business-like” as she put it – more of a man. I just didn’t know what to do. It was like the video project all over again. And then, one day, it was just too much and I just went out – I just had to get out and I was going to go up to Devil’s Dyke, up on the Downs near Brighton. It was a beautiful sunny day I remember, around midsummer I suppose, and I was going to get in the car and go, but instead I just started walking and I ended up down on the sea front and I was just walking along, I mean I was this close to tears. I knew it was over but I didn’t know what to do about it. It just felt like the end – not just of us, of everything, everything I ever dreamed of. I just wanted a way out. The fact is I was terrified of her – of what she’d say when I told her I wanted to move out.’
‘What were you afraid of, precisely?’
‘I’ve been thinking about this, since... and I don’t know – her fury? Her judgement? Her contempt? It doesn’t seem enough somehow.’
I look at him. I look away. The memory is so close. I can feel it, just beside me. If I let it in...
‘So anyway, I’m just near the Palace Pier there, near the entrance and I see this woman there with a little girl and I’m sure I know her from somewhere and somehow I know her name is Sophie and I can’t help looking at her. She’s by the doughnut stand, and her little girl is getting into a mess with her doughnut so she’s crouching down in front of her, trying to clean her up, and suddenly she looks around and sees me there. Later she told me I looked like I’d just been hit in the front of the head with a bat.’
‘You spoke to her?’
‘I probably wouldn’t have except she was looking at me and I looked back at her and smiled and... Actually I’ve got Mar to thank for that.’
‘How so?’
‘While I was with her, the first couple of years, when I was still in love and I honestly never seriously thought I’d ever be with anyone else, I slowly realised that women were looking at me, and I could tell they were actually interested, and I’d never really realised that before. I used to think that expression meant “Get away from me you freak.” Actually, have you noticed, if you look at photos of models for example, or pop stars, trying to look sexy, the expression is almost indistinguishable from apprehension or contempt? I wonder why we find those expressions erotic.’
‘I can’t say as I have noticed to be honest’ he says.
‘Oh, you know, that wide eyed sideways glance, or the heavily lidded eyes and flared nostrils thing.’ I give him a little demo, which makes him laugh.
‘Anyhow, it took me a long time to spot the difference. I always thought attracting women was a really hard job that involved pretending to be someone other than myself. But no, suddenly there I was, getting attention.’
‘Because you were relaxed and confident now.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I just think I didn’t look desperate any more. I told Mar about it – she couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised this before. She thought it was funny.’
‘So how did this help, with this new woman?’
‘Well it was just that I’d got used to seeing women looking at me and having the confidence, I guess, to look back. It was all totally new to me.’
‘But you never intended to be unfaithful.’
‘No way. Right up until the end I really thought we’d be together, Mar and I. Even then I wasn’t looking for anybody else. I wasn’t looking for it at all.’
‘And your eyes met...’
‘They did. I’ll always remember she had this full, bottle green hippy skirt on and flip-flops and one of those thin strappy tops and no bra. She had very cute breasts...’ Lost in the memory I suddenly realise who I’m telling this to and try to look more serious. He’s grinning at me, steepling his fingers.
‘Go on’ he says.
‘Oh well, to cut a long story short...’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. What happened next? Did you ask her out?’
‘We went for a coffee. Well, she had Emily with her so we went down on the beach, got an ice cream. It was like I’d known her forever. It was amazing. We just chatted for ages.’
‘You told her your situation.’
‘Everything. I even cried on her. It was weird.’
‘What did she say?’
‘I don’t know. Nothing specific.’
‘She didn’t advise you to leave your wife?’
‘No. She was just really... comforting?’ And now I can feel the tears are close – it won’t be long. ‘She just listened, and she understood. I told her everything, about how crap I was with money, and how difficult I was to be with and I never...’ That’s it. I’m in floods of tears and I can’t do anything about it. Vincent offers me tissues, crouches beside me, puts his hand on my back.
Slowly I pull myself together. I can’t believe I’ll never see her again. What crap luck. I think of her wondering what happened to me, why I never called her. She only ever had my mobile number. Nobody even knew she existed to tell her about my death. Probably she was really pissed off I never called... I pull myself together a bit. I picture her in that little house she rented, in her bed with her book or sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee, watching the birds and I know that’s not how it would have been. She wouldn’t have been pissed off at all. She’d have been worried and sad, but she’d have assumed there’d be a good reason for me not coming back and she’d have been happy for me. I know this. That’s what she was like. My tears ease up but still come, steadily filling my eyes.
‘You never...?’ he prompts
‘You were going to say you never something.’
I think about it. What was I going to say? Oh yes.
‘I never felt she judged me and I never felt she was there just because she thought she ought to be. She always thought the best of me – explained what I’d done as if I’d had good reasons, rather than because I was lazy and difficult, which was what I usually felt. I’d never felt that before, except in my dreams and then I never really felt I deserved it.’
‘Like the optical illusion.’
‘With her, different things about the picture came to the fore. You saw yourself differently.’
‘And perhaps given time you might have lost the ability to see the old, negative picture.’
‘Maybe. I could hardly believe anybody could see me like that, could know me like that.’
‘Maybe in a previous life.’
‘You think so?’
‘You can’t think where you knew her from?’
‘Ok. Did you see her again?’
‘Yes. Several times – as often as I could really. I was always out anyway, even before. Mar never knew when I’d be in normally, and frankly I don’t think she cared, so it wasn’t a big problem.’
‘What did you do together?’
‘Well, at first we went out to the cinema or to the woods, but I was paranoid about us being seen together so she took me round to her place. Mar had her spies everywhere.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘She had a lot of friends, so...’
‘But you enjoyed your time together.’
‘Oh it was wonderful. We didn’t do much, just ate and walked in the country and watched videos, did things with Emily, and we just did silly things and laughed. I’d never laughed so much before. She lived out in the middle of nowhere just the other side of the Downs, in an old council house with views across the fields and a garden and rabbits and ducks, and Tilley, her dog. It was all so peaceful. It was just like heaven really.’
‘Did she work?’
‘Mostly from home – she did proof reading, translating, some reviews, stuff like that.’
‘What language did she speak?
‘Spanish and Italian fluently.’
‘And she didn’t mind living alone like that, working from home.’
‘She said she was used to it. She used to joke that she must have been a nun in a previous life.’
‘Was she religious then?’
‘Nah, hardly. She was a bit into witchcraft actually. Her house was full of weird pagan stuff, herbs and crystals and so on.’ Images of the house come fresh to mind – a rich chaos of fabrics, incense, books and fruit, plants, crayons, fluffy toys and plastic farm animals like an intricately crafted nest. She took me in and immediately made me a place where what I was, was loveable, and what I’d done suddenly made perfect sense.
‘And you made love.’
I have to smile at the memory ‘We tried not to... honestly.’
He smiles and nods. ‘And it was good?’
‘It was so easy. So natural.’ I can’t say any more. I assume Vincent doesn’t want the gory details. ‘It was like coming home’ I say at last, by way of summing up.
Vincent takes a little time to think. Then the question I’ve been dreading comes ‘How long did you have before that trip to Spain?’
I look at him. This is it. The worst. The expression on his face tells me he understands.
‘About six weeks. I was going to tell Mar when we got back. I should have told her before, I know I should. I was so stupid. I couldn’t tell Mar I wasn’t going with her, and I convinced myself it was ok because I wanted to see Riqui and Carmen and I loved Spain and so on... I was such a coward – a stupid coward. I can’t believe it.’ And I feel myself overflowing again – bitter lost tears giving no release. Wasted feelings, lost love, utterly lost, useless, pointless. Oh Sophie...

‘Can I give you some hope Gabriel?’ I hear him say after some time. I look up slowly. I can hardly bring myself to move but I peer at him sideways, through my brows, still snivelling into a sodden tissue.
‘It seems possible to me you recognised her from before, although I cannot be sure. Therefore it is entirely possible that you will see her again, if you go back.’
‘Do you know anything about what happened before?’
‘I don’t, nothing specific, but there are indications. Tell me, did Sophie say what made her go to the pier that afternoon?’
‘Yes, that was funny. She said she hadn’t been into Brighton for months, and she was supposed to be working, but somehow she just thought it would be a nice thing to do. Do you think she knew?’
‘I can’t say. The indications are often subtle and ambiguous but they mark turning points.’
‘Such as?’
‘I recognised that evening of the party...’ and he consults his notes briskly, almost impatiently ‘...with Gill?’ he says. I nod. ‘When you were eighteen. That was another pivotal moment. I suspect all your moments tend to involve a special woman. You must meditate on those moments, now and during the coming journey.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then you may be better equipped to deal with the next life. These moments are a kind of a doorway, or a spy hole perhaps. I know you have come a long way and made many changes already. You should not waste the opportunity.’
‘Could I be an old soul do you think?’
‘Perhaps but we need to talk about this at greater length. Next time?’
I nod. I feel I should shake his hand or something. I feel like we’re on a mission now.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Journey XII – Exit strategy

In the morning, that last morning in that room, I tell Shamim what her mother said.
‘Your mother said she thinks we should get married, or at least engaged.’
‘She said what? You have got to be joking’ she shouts, leaping out of bed and stands there in her night dress, looking at me, gesticulating ‘I can’t believe it. That’s ridiculous...’
‘Well, I understand she’s concerned...’ I say, trying to act like a nice understanding son-in-law
‘But she shouldn’t expect... In this place? It’s crazy.’
‘But maybe when we get out of here.’
‘Oh, she’s got to be joking. She’s insane.’
‘Ok’ I say, and look at the fish going past. A large blue fish the size of a small motorbike has come to look at the camera. I feel Shamim looking at me.
‘You quite like the idea, don’t you’ she says. I try to shrug non-commitally. Actually I didn’t especially like it, but I didn’t appreciate her outrage at the idea.
‘I’m sorry’ she says, coming over and taking my hand. ‘You do know it’s crazy though don’t you?’
I nod. ‘Of course’ I say. ‘Ridiculous.’ Evidently lying isn’t totally impossible here – probably because I do know it’s ridiculous, but still...
‘Let’s get breakfast’ I say cheerfully.
We have the rest of the day to get through. I want to enjoy it with Shamim as much as I can.

We gather for dinner that evening in the function room. The window shows an English cottage garden complete with gardener in smock and breeches. I wonder where they dug him up. On the table there’s places set for all of us but we’re not really hungry. In the corner the pianist is playing some old show tunes quite badly. The piano seems to be in desperate need of tuning.
Agnes bustles up in a formal frock and tells us about the beautiful house she’s seen, and the fitted kitchen and sunken bath. Apparently she’ll be running a hospital ward. ‘Well, not so much a hospital as just somewhere those poor beggars can lie quietly and heal. Need to keep the workforce on target don’t we’ she says brightly. Mike is also excited about his new job in engineering. Apparently he’ll be in charge of a small team. ‘Bit of a step up from what I used to be huh?’ he says gleefully.
After the meal there’s a brief speech from one of Large’s minions and then we are urged to share our feelings about how we see our futures here, since some of us apparently have not come to a decision yet.
‘Suppose we don’t want to stay?’ asks Shamim.
‘I think that would be a grave mistake’ says Large, trying to sound concerned but actually sounding threatening. ‘The opportunity of a life time, so to speak’ he says affably. ‘Surely there must be something we can tempt you with?’
‘Mutilation?’ she says. ‘Degradation, sickness, poisons...?’
‘But you’d be fully insured my dear’ he says. ‘Most of our valued workforce, people like yourselves, lead long and uneventful existences here.’
She stares at him. There is a face-off for a moment between them.
‘I am truly disappointed’ he says eventually, ‘about you in particular Ms Sadeghi. You could have done great things with the environmental regeneration team I’m sure.’
‘The environment wouldn’t need regeneration if it wasn’t for you messing it up. It’s all to make more money. You destroy the environment making money and then you make money fixing it up again.’
‘Of course. I have nothing to hide Ms Sadeghi. It is all part of the game.’
‘And the losers? Are they part of the game?’
‘It’s a free market Ms Sadeghi. We are all here of our own free will. You know this. They came because they saw rich rewards, and no doubt they were all once upon a time talented, hard-working, ambitious people. But for every winner there must be a hundred losers. You know your economics Ms Sadeghi. And in the long run, well, we are here for all eternity.’ He leaves his seat and walks pensively along behind us, speaking all the while in that lofty tone he has. ‘Who knows what will happen? Who know who might take my place? Any one of those wretches in the shanty could be here one day. Our competitors may find a way to move in on our market and it will be we who are quite literally up Shit Creek. Make no mistake Ms Sadeghi, there is no inequity here – no racism, no sexism, no ageism. If you can do the job you can have it and reap the rewards. It is not in any of our interests to discriminate arbitrarily.’
Finally he resumes his place at the front. ‘But of course you are all free to leave whenever you like. No one is stopping you’.
We look at each other. It’s got to be a trick.
Enayat stands and says he can’t imagine finding any place for himself here and that he wishes to leave. His wife stands beside him. I follow suit.
‘Well. Is that all?’ says Large, failing to act convincingly surprised.
‘Well, I’m disappointed I have to say. You are all talented people. I had high hopes.’ He walks around pensively a bit more. It’s really starting to get on my nerves. ‘Still... fifty percent...not a bad yield’
Nicky stands up. ‘I can’t live here’ she says.
‘Oh but now I am disappointed. I had imagined such an exciting position for you.’
‘I can’t do that’ she says, controlling her tears. ‘Not any more...’
He smiles smugly. ‘But what makes you think you are good for anything else my dear?’
She glares at him as he passes. He ignores her. ‘Anybody else wish to join them?’
We all look at Muriel. Muriel looks back at us with wide eyes and tight zipped lips.
‘What did you have in mind for Muriel?’ I say. He shrugs and spreads his arms.
‘That is none of your business Mr Fortune, surely. We can talk later’ he reassures her, touching her shoulder. The touch makes her wither. I mouth ‘come with us’ at her. She looks at her plate.
‘Is that all?’ No one moves. ‘In that case I shall ask one of the officers to escort you from the premises. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to take anything with you other than that with which you came. I’m sure you understand’ and he clicks his fingers and an armed cop follows us down to our rooms. On the way we hear a small commotion in the dining room and Muriel runs after us and joins us at the lift. She stands, small and resolute among us, eyeing our guard suspiciously.

In our room we pack in silence. We each had only a small pack and the clothes we came in are still filthy from the journey. Then we assemble in the hall by the lift and see Large in the doorway giving us a little wave. Agnes and Mike are there with him holding champagne glasses. To be fair Mike doesn’t look at all comfortable.
The armed cop gets into the lift with us, the doors close and we feel ourselves drop. At the bottom we find ourselves back in the underground car park. The cop takes us out through a side door and waits as we stand there in a huddle, wondering what to do. It’s worryingly quiet.
‘Oh’ he says, beckoning us over. ‘A word of advice’ and I see him lift his gun.

People describe being shot as like being punched very hard. The pain doesn’t come until later. There was just a sound like air escaping, over and over, and then some swearing and a gargling noise. I remember the ground coming up and hitting me in the head and wondering how that had happened, and then the warm liquid feeling in my trousers like I’d pissed myself. Someone’s leg was under my nose.
It took a while to come to my senses. Someone was slapping my face and telling me to get up. I remember thinking ‘How dare she?’ and trying to strike out, and then the terrible pain in my arm. I looked up and it was Nicky, dragging at my shirt, trying to get me to move. Behind her I could see Enayat hunched and covered in blood but smiling at her. Amireh and Shamim were on the ground behind me, and Muriel was sitting stunned beyond them.
‘Come on’ said Nicky insistently and I got up as best I could, with a terrible tearing pain in my leg and began to move where she pointed. Amireh seemed to have been hit in the chest and Shamim in the belly.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.