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YOU KISS ME, AND FLAMES shoot across the ceiling. Your breath smells of burnt rubber. “I love you.” Tiles crack, and the walls begin to melt. You look at me, your eyes like dark tunnels, and say again, “I love you.”
I wriggle clear, and look away. “I’m sorry,” I say.
There have been others like you before. They’ve tried and, sometimes, I’ve tried too. But it always ends the same way, with those dark tunnels threatening to suck me down into the inferno. I push away, pleading impotence, and they tell me it’s okay as their minds plot an escape. You are trying harder than most. Six months now and still you try. More candles, perhaps, or some soft music. Massage oil and incense, lace and leather. Patiently, night by night, you try out all the different possibilities, as if you’re flipping through the pages of a catalogue. I could tell you it won’t work, but why bother? You know already. You see that something in me has died, and that it will take more than a nurse’s outfit to seduce me back to life. You know it’s because of me, not you, that my impotence lies lifeless on my belly, inert and used up, like a cigarette butt in an ashtray. You only keep flipping the pages of the catalogue because you don’t know what else to do.
In your bedroom there is a chest of drawers, and in the chest of drawers there is a scrapbook. I knew exactly where I would find it: second drawer down, left hand side, beneath casually-tossed heaps of underwear. They always keep it there: somewhere secret, but close to them. Some mornings, when I’m in bed feigning sleep, I sense you lingering too long in that drawer, and I know you are letting your hands run over the crumpled pages, perhaps closing your eyes and picturing the faded newsprint inside.
For a while I wondered if you would show it to me. I hoped you wouldn’t: I prefer to look at it alone. But there was something about you, something so trusting. You seemed to have a need to open yourself up to me completely, to let me penetrate every corner of you. I kept waiting for you to say “I have something to show you” and lead me by the hand to the old scrapbook in the chest of drawers. I pictured you turning the pages, explaining to me the things I already knew, crying on my shoulder and wanting me to tell you it was okay. But you never did: this one thing, at least, you held back. I was relieved, but also curious. I began to provoke you by leaving the scrapbook at an odd angle in the drawer or the underwear deliberately disordered, but you never said anything. You’re interesting like that: you seem to be telling me everything there is to tell, but you can make yourself completely inscrutable when you choose to. Perhaps that’s why it’s lasted longer than it usually does.
When we’re out, we look like a loving couple. We go for walks along the canal, arm in arm, rosy-cheeked, breath billowing out in front of us and mingling as we walk through it. I buy you flowers so often that you laugh, embarrassed, and ask where you’re supposed to put them. For your birthday I bought you two dozen new vases of different shapes and sizes, but still you say the same thing. I take you out to dinner, to the theatre, the cinema, the opera. I ask about your favourite bands and mark in my calendar the day that tickets go on sale for the next gig, so that I can get the very best tickets. I ask where you’ve always dreamed of going on holiday, then book it. I work overtime so that you don’t have to any more. I mine you constantly to unearth every secret ambition, every unsatisfied desire, and I make it come true.
I’m the perfect boyfriend, you say, but I don’t believe you. I know you don’t believe it either, no matter what your friends say. I know that everything I give you is worthless because all you really want to do is give something to me. But how can you, when I won’t let you? You want to satisfy my desires, but I don’t admit to having any. So you’re stuck, having everything you could possibly want and still feeling dissatisfied because I withhold the one thing you really want. I give you flowers because they’re all that I can give, and you smile a little less each time.
It all began with a joke. This was long before I met you, long before I met any of them. I was just a teenager then, my small body bursting with impatient anger. The joke was directed at me, but I couldn’t tell what it concerned: my face piercings, my spot-scarred cheeks, my over-sized charity-shop brown leather jacket with cowboy tassels down the back, my tight jeans, my bad breath, the hair gel running down the back of my neck, the awkward way I was holding my cigarette, the Doc Martens knock-offs blistering my feet, or one of a hundred other things that I hated about myself at that particular time. All I saw was the two of them whispering, looking my way and laughing. I’d seen them from the bottom of the escalator, slowly coming down towards me as I moved up towards them. Among the dark-coated businessmen, it was hard to miss two girls with bright makeup, big hair and hoop earrings glinting in the fluorescent lights. As we rumbled closer to each other I attempted a smile, and that’s when it happened—the unheard joke, the glances, the giggles. Furious with them, I glared back, blew smoke at them disdainfully, and threw what was left of my cigarette on the ground.
Of course, you don’t know that’s where it started. You think it started in a rainstorm on the Seven Sisters Road, when a hooded figure loomed out of the night and made a grab for your handbag. You were so startled, you said, that you held onto the bag until your nails began to rip and your shoulder felt loose in its socket. “What an idiot,” you say, shaking you head. “He probably had a knife—I saw something glinting, but it was all such a blur. If you hadn’t’ve come along …” Your voice trails off. There’s no point in telling me the rest—I know the story already. It’s been told a thousand times, by you and by those who came before you, and it doesn’t improve with age.
I don’t tell you that the youth wasn’t feral, that there was no knife, that I only paid him on condition that he wouldn’t hurt you. I don’t tell you about the nights and days in the shadows, watching you with a notebook and pen. I leave you to bask in the warm memory of my bravery, my kindness, my concern for you. “You’d forgotten your umbrella,” you say with a smile, remembering how you clung to my arm through the dark, wet night, your heart still galloping, your breath still ragged, your eyes still searching dark corners for lurking hoods, remembering how scared you felt at the prospect of a dark, empty flat, how I came in with you to make sure everything was alright, made you tea, then brandy, then stayed for wine and Chinese takeaway. Six months on and still you’re clinging to my arm.
You think I’m accident-prone. There was the time I was helping you move a chest of drawers and let it fall on my toe so hard that the nail cracked, blackened and dropped off in pieces over the following days. Another time I was teaching you to chop carrots the way they do on TV, and managed to slip my finger beneath your slicing blade. It was only a paper-thin slice, almost unnoticeable in the pile of chopped carrots, but you fussed and fretted and cried guilty tears. I’d have liked to put my finger to your cheek, to let my blood pulse for a few seconds onto your unmarked skin while your salty tears stung my wound. But before I could act, you’d produced a plaster from nowhere and slapped it on my finger, sealing off the unsightly red flesh. Below the plaster I could still feel the blood pulsing impotently until, unable to escape, it stopped—or at least I stopped feeling it.
Then, a few weeks ago, I took a casserole dish out of the oven with my bare hands. “Poor sweetheart,” you said as you patiently bandaged the burnt skin. “So absent-minded—what were you thinking?” You didn’t know that I’d held onto the dish for as long as I could stand it, closing my eyes and feeling the intensity, the flaying of skin, the disintegration of cells. When I finally had to let go, the clatter was not one of relief, as you thought, but of disappointment. I should have held on for longer, until the dish seared through to my bones. I was weak, as usual.
You wanted me to go to the hospital, poor thing. “They won’t heal properly otherwise,” you said. “You’ll have scars.” I refused, without explanation. You know anyway, or you would if you thought about it. You’ve seen the other scars—you run your fingers over them when you think I’m asleep. It’s kinder not to explain, not to make you realise that you knew all along. So I just refused, irrationally, and you bandaged my hands with an expression of stoic victimhood. “A little tighter,” I said, and you complied. Did you know, I wonder, that my raw flesh would attach itself to the bandages? Could you imagine the pain when they were removed, chunks of red flesh clinging to the blood-soaked gauze? I like to think not. I ripped the bandages off when you were out, so that you wouldn’t hear the sounds that escaped from my mouth.
Come to think of it, you must have known. You father was one of those who survived for a little while afterwards. You were only a child then, but you must have overheard something. I can picture you standing there, small and pale and mute, helpless as grim-voiced doctors and nurses discussed percentages over your head. You’ve never talked about it, but I know you must remember. Children always know far more than their parents imagine. Perhaps you even sneaked in to see him in the hospital bed, his skin melted and his hair burnt off, his raw flesh attached to wires and tubes. Perhaps you tried to speak to him, and still don’t know whether he heard. Or perhaps all you got was a glimpse through a window before a mother’s firm hand jerked you away. Perhaps it was that glimpse that turned your eyes black. It must have been. It’s impossible to imagine eyes of such dark intensity in the face of a child. There must have been a sparkle there once, a reflection of light, snuffed out by the sight of red flesh on white sheets where your Daddy used to be. Now your eyes are two black tunnels with no light at the end, and whenever I look at them I feel myself being pulled down into the darkness.
The others all had that same look, to one degree or another. In the planning stage, I could never get close enough to see their eyes. I discovered everything else about them, and wrote it down in my notebook under neat, underlined headings, but their eyes remained hidden until that moment when the feral youth was safely dispatched and they turned to me with gratitude. I never really listened to the words they spoke in those first few moments; when I admitted it later, they’d laugh and say it was understandable—I’d just risked my life to save a stranger. They didn’t know that I was searching their eyes. Not all were dark, of course: they ran through all the shades and combinations of blue and green and brown and even, once, pure slate grey. But the colours were not what I was looking at. I was looking for what lay behind. Even in a moment of overwhelming gratitude, there was always something behind there, something hard and immovable.
After establishing contact, I set about my task with patience, purpose and method. The lists in my notebook became longer, acquiring new headings and subheadings as a life sprawled across the pages, its every secret dream and guilty pleasure noted and categorised in my neat schoolboy script. As needs and desires were identified, I met them, and placed a tick next to the relevant entry in my notebook. Of course I could not buy a Ferrari or a house in the Caribbean. But surprisingly few of the dreams were so extravagant. The pages of my notebook were overwhelmingly filled with simple things like fresh cut flowers, incense sticks, a trip to the countryside, the latest electronic gadget, a painting for the bedroom wall, an evening class in ceramics, a new suit. Luxuries, yes, but not unattainable even for me. They could have got all those things without me, but they never did.
The first one was the hardest. I had no idea what I would do or whether it would work. She was a small, slim blonde, about my age, with eyes like a startled deer. Even before the attempted mugging, in the days when I was just watching her, I noticed how she darted nervously from place to place, her head always flitting around, looking for danger. I never saw her smile. I almost lost my nerve, but then I thought of the girls giggling at me, the cigarette falling onto the wooden escalator, and I knew why she saw danger everywhere. I thought of my former self standing impotently behind a barrier as smoke billowed from the ticket hall, watching others duck under and rush into the flames to help. Perhaps if I’d ducked under, I could have saved him, and this girl wouldn’t have such fear in her eyes. But I stayed obediently behind the barrier, secretly grateful to the forces of authority for telling me to stand back.
When I finally stepped forward a year later on Electric Avenue, I knew it was already too late. But I did what I could, because it was all I could do. I saved her from the mugger, I felt her collapse shaking into my arms, and after that I did everything I could possibly do for her. Of course it was no use. The more I gave, the more confused she became. She asked me what I wanted; I told her nothing. She tried to kiss me, and my mouth turned to ash. She told me she didn’t need any more stuff. It made her uncomfortable, she said, accepting so much kindness and not giving anything in return. What did I want, she pleaded. I told her nothing. Finally I went into debt to buy her the most expensive thing in my notebook, a pair of diamond earrings she’d seen in the window of Ratner’s. She refused them, folding her arms so that I couldn’t force the box into her hands. “What do you want from me?” she asked, her voice shaking. I told her all I wanted was to see her smile again, and she burst into tears.
When she stopped answering my calls, I bought a new notebook, pulled out my scrapbook and began flipping through the newspaper clippings. I thought the next one would be different. Surely accepting kindness is not such a difficult thing to do? I soon discovered that it is not only difficult, but an impossible thing to do. I’ve tried it with men and women, young and old, and always it’s the same as the first time. They like to receive a few nice things, but then suspicion starts to build. What do I want? Sex is the first thought, of men and women alike. After that their mind strays to friendship, and they try to find out some things about me, but I tell them nothing. They try to give me things, but I refuse. “I’ve already taken too much,” I say, and of course they don’t understand. All I want is to be their guardian angel, their fairy godmother, their djinn. But people don’t believe in fairytales any more. “What do you want?” they insist. It’s not just suspicion, or cynicism. It’s a strange feeling of being cheated—I give so much to them, but won’t let them give anything to me. To give is what they want, even if they don’t know it. They think they’re selfish, but the things they get pleasure from are buying Christmas presents, family holidays, school uniforms. They work for others, not for themselves. Even the loners get a secret pleasure from taking their few friends out to a restaurant, slapping a credit card down and saying, “I’ll get this.” That’s why, although they’re grateful at first, they always end up resenting me.
I don’t take it personally. It’s a job for me. I compile my lists and tick off the entries, and it means no more to me than ringing up a purchase and counting out change. It’s just a job, and I do it thoroughly, efficiently and with no expectation of a reward. For them it’s different. Danger creates a bond that’s hard to break. My mugging scenario may be foolproof as a way of establishing contact, but it evokes strong reactions, and people can often confuse strong feelings with love. This has its advantages—a “relationship” provides a plausible reason for my generosity—but on the whole it makes things too messy. After one particularly unpleasant incident, I went through a phase of targeting only men or married women, but this created difficulties of its own. The men were more resistant to being helped, more reticent about their secret desires, more resistant to generosity even of the blokiest kind. And the married women sometimes found the bond of shared danger to be stronger than their wedding vows, creating a situation messier than anything I’d imagined.
With you, it’s different. I look at you sometimes and feel something stir inside me, something almost unrecognisable. I’m not afraid of the mess any more. I think about it sometimes, at night, when you’re sleeping beside me, and I wonder what it would be like. I know I’m making the same mistake as all the others, confusing strong feelings with love, confusing work with a relationship. Perhaps I’ve been doing this too long. I’m getting sloppy, forgetting the rules. Or perhaps it’s just those eyes. When I look into those eyes and see what’s burning just behind the blackness, I wonder. I want to let myself be sucked in, down, under. I want to go beyond the cracking tiles, the melting paint, the smell of burnt rubber, to force myself to keep looking, to go deeper into the darkness. It’s too intense. I always look away.
Then, one day, we are lying in the grass on Primrose Hill. London is spread out beneath us like an infinite cemetery, but we are on our backs, looking up at the blue sky, the clouds passing across. You are holding my hand. An empty bottle of wine lies in the grass at our feet, and in the hamper beside us are the remains of cheese, grapes and fresh-baked bread. This was on your wishlist. You let it slip one dark March evening, this fantasy of yours, and I’ve been waiting three months for the weather to turn warm enough. You specifically mentioned spending “the whole afternoon” gazing up at the sky, which is why I ignore the ache in my back and lie hand in hand for hour after hour, seeing an empty sky and wondering what you see. A soft breeze plays across our faces, and the sun warms my body. If I could, I’d let my eyelids close and I’d sink down into the earth, down into the oblivion of sleep. But you want to gaze, so I keep my eyes open and gaze with you.
It’s a shock when you press down sharply on my hand, using it to lever your body over mine, your legs straddling my belly, your other hand grabbing my free one and pinning it to the ground. “Why do you never look at me?” you say.
I don’t answer. I’m marvelling at how easily you overpowered me, how quickly it happened. Perhaps you’ve been planning it since March. Perhaps you’d invented a desire, knowing I would fulfil it. You’d waited for this moment of drowsiness as I’d waited for warm weather, and all through the cold, dark evenings you’d been planning the manoeuvre with which you would pin me to the ground like a butterfly in a case.
“Why do you never look at me?” you say again, moving your face closer to mine. Your face is flushed, your eyes dark and searching. I try to look beyond you, to gaze up into the sky, but you move in closer, your nose lightly touching mine, your mouth breathing into my mouth. Burnt rubber and ash. Your hair hangs down around my face like dark fronds, blocking out the sun and the sky and the grey buildings and the people and the dogs. I’m enclosed in your world now. I feel the weight of your body on mine, your clammy palms pressing down, your fleshy thighs clamping my belly, your breasts brushing my chest. Above all I feel the heat. The breeze has died, or your dark hair and hot body has blocked it. All I feel is intense heat, sweat erupting through my skin, the weight of your body pressing me down into the earth.
“Look at me,” you whisper, tenderly this time.
I do it. I stop my eyes from darting frantically around your red face, and let them settle on your eyes. I let myself fall down into those two dark tunnels, resisting the urge to shut my eyes and block it all out. I let you suck me in and down. I feel the tiles cracking, the walls sizzling. I smell the burning rubber, see the flames, hear the screams, and I let myself feel it all. I don’t look away this time. The fear is gone.
The next moment, you are no longer on top of me. I am gazing up into a huge, wide blue sky, with white clouds scudding across and a soft breeze playing on my face. In the distance, children shout and scream. You are sitting next to me, eyeing me cautiously. I can’t tell what I said or did, whether you’re afraid of me or sorry for me or, perhaps, still in love with me. I edge greedily towards you, but you stand up. “It’s getting dark,” you say. “We should be heading home.”
Surprisingly, you cook dinner for me. You’re not much of a cook, and I’m sure I’ve never told you that liver and bacon is my favourite, but you’re making it for me anyway. Your face crinkles and your shoulders hunch as you force the knife down through the slab of liver. I watch you the whole time, saying nothing, just watching your face redden and the tip of your tongue squirm around inside your cheek. When you’ve finished, and the liver lies in neat slices on the chopping board, you look instinctively up at me, like a child. I smile my approval, and you look happy. You hold your hands up to show me the liver’s sour bloody juices dripping from your fingers, and I move in with a towel, taking your hands in mine and wiping them clean. I look right into your eyes, your hands in mine, and for a moment we are like a couple at the altar, pledging our lives away. I release your hands and you interlace them around the back of my neck, their cool softness calming me even as your smile entices me closer. After a moment’s hesitation I take your hips and pull your body towards me. You gasp slightly and I run my hands up your back, gently pulling you closer and closer until all I can see is the blur of your dark eyes and flushed skin framed by long dark hair. You try to tilt your head so that we can kiss, but I deliberately frustrate you, mirroring your movements and allowing only the tips of our noses to touch. After a while you give up and laugh, then just let me look into your eyes as my fingers trace light patterns on your back.
“This is nice,” you whisper. “What took you so long?”
I kiss you, but it’s too late. The words are in my head, and as my lips brush across yours I am remembering why it took me so long. A second earlier and perhaps I would have tasted the sweetness of the bright pink gum you’d been chewing on the bus, or even the stale remnants of wine and cheese. But instead I let you speak those words, and now my mouth is filled with the familiar dry taste of ash. I endure it for as long as I can, and then slip away to the toilet to spit up the contents of my mouth and flush away that ashy taste with ice-cold water from the tap.
When I return, you are chopping onions. “They always make me cry,” you say with a dry little laugh, mopping at your eyes with the edge of your sleeve. You look up at me with a wide-open smile, trusting me, inviting me back to you again.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” I say.
“It’s okay,” you say quickly. “You don’t have to tell me anything.” Your eyes plead with me, but I go on anyway. I tell you everything, about the girls with the hoop earrings, the dropped cigarette, about watching impotently from behind a barrier as the smoke from that cigarette billowed out into the dark November night. I tell you about Robbie, who’s now getting too old to pass for a feral youth except on the darkest of nights and beneath the biggest of hoods. I tell you about my notebooks filled with the desires of widows and orphans. I tell you I always fail them in the end, and I only keep flipping the pages of my notebooks because I don’t know what else to do. I tell you all the things I’ve never told any of the others. I tell you, and all the time you just stand silently at the kitchen counter, your hand slumped on the chopping board, the knife resting lightly in your hand.
Finally I run out of things to tell you, and I fall silent. You stand at the kitchen counter, and I walk slowly towards you, eyeing the glint of metal in your hand. I take you by the shoulders and look at your tear-stained cheeks. I have a brief impulse to shake a reaction out of you. The sting of a slapped cheek, the lightness of a kiss, the incomprehensible pain of metal sliding between my ribs. My fingers tense, pressing into your skin. You look up at me.
“Why do you want to hurt me?” you ask quietly.
This confuses me. I have hurt you, yes, but can’t you see I never tried to? Haven’t I bought you flowers, taken you on holidays, held your hand on Primrose Hill? Haven’t I just told you something I never told any of the others? Even with the cigarette, I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I was just a child, angry at a joke. I was expecting a lot of reactions, but not this. And then I look at your dark eyes and see my tiny reflection there, just a point of light really, a small glint. I see myself reduced almost to nothing in your eyes, and I realise. “You don’t believe me.”
“You saw the scrapbook—I know you did. You saw what happened to my dad, and now you want to hurt me by throwing it in my face and saying you did it. Do you get off on that, on making girls cry? Is that what all those ‘accidents’ were about? What are you?”
You look at me with penetrating curiosity, like a scientist seeing a new species under your microscope. I have no answer for you. How is it possible to prove the truth? Proving a lie would be easy—if accused, I could simply create a false alibi, or claim mistaken identity, or say that I didn’t even smoke in those days (my parents would naïvely back me up). But how to prove the improbable reality that of all the thousands of people rumbling up the wooden escalators that night, I was the one who threw a cigarette butt at his feet? How to convince you that I saw it with my own eyes, this spent cigarette, rolling with an unseen force to the edge of the step and slipping down a crack into the machinery below?
At first, I thought it was a matter of time before I was brought to justice. I imagined teams of detectives sifting through the wreckage, interviewing survivors. I imagined SWAT teams and sniffer dogs pouring through the streets, gradually getting closer and closer until one day they surrounded my parents’ house and shouted through a loudspeaker that I should give myself up. I imagined the girls with the big hair and hoop earrings picking me out of a line-up: “He’s the one. He’s the one who did it!” and shaking their heads in disgust as they were led tearfully away. I imagined standing in the dock and being handed thirty-one life sentences by a judge who called me the embodiment of evil. It was only after a month or two that I realised they would never find me—that, in fact, they weren’t even looking.
Soon I came out of hiding, and began to accumulate something like a normal life: a job at WH Smith on the High Street, a crumpled old Ford Escort, a Post Office savings account, occasional drinking bouts with the other cashiers. But whenever I handed customers their change and put their Mirror and Mars Bar in a little plastic bag, I felt like a fraud. I let their skin brush mine, let them smile at me and mouth a pleasantry, without telling them what I had done. Mothers of school-friends came in to buy magazines and told me what a nice young man I’d turned out to be, and I hated them for it. The CV my father had proudly typed out for me seemed like a lie, because it omitted to mention that in the blank few months between school and WH Smith, I had killed thirty-one people.
One bright spring afternoon, I took the Underground to King’s Cross, rode up the gleaming new metal escalators and out into the sunshine. A few minutes later I took a deep breath, had one last look around, and walked into the police station on Kings Cross Road to give myself up. The sergeant on the desk took my details reluctantly, filled in a form and told me they’d be in touch if they wanted to talk to me further.
I stared back at him. “But I killed thirty-one people. Aren’t you going to arrest me?” I could feel people’s eyes on my back, but the sergeant was unruffled.
He leaned forward, breathing coffee and cigarettes over the counter. “Listen, son,” he said in a kindly menacing tone. “Stop talking like that. There’s no evidence that you did anything. People used to stub out their cigarettes on the escalators all the time—it wasn’t a crime. And there’s no way of knowing which one started the fire, so there’s no way to prosecute you. What happened at King’s Cross was a tragedy, an accident.”
With those words the lives of thirty-one people were written off. Their deaths were placed in the category of a “tragedy,” that word which erases cause and effect, which makes us revert to an older faith in the sudden whims of a cruel god. There would be investigations and reports, and safety improvements would be implemented, but the relatives of the dead would never have “satisfaction” in the old sense of vengeance. They would sit impotent in the empty living-room as the lives of husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, were written off as a tragic accident. Just one of those things.
In the ticket hall at King’s Cross, as you walk from the Northern Line to the Circle Line, you might see a small clock in the wall on your left, with an even smaller plaque underneath. I say “might” because most people rush past unseeing, thinking of train schedules. That small clock and small plaque is all the relatives of the dead ever got. Thirty-one people died on this spot, or close to it. Most suffocated as the black smoke filled their lungs; some were poisoned by the gases that escaped from paint and plastics; some were burnt alive by the ferocious sheet of flame that shot across the ticket hall, the “flashover” as the newspapers called it. People still kept coming up the escalators, unaware that they were riding into an inferno—some managed to scramble back down, others didn’t. In the dark tunnels below, trains rolled through without stopping. For a few moments their eyes met, the commuters in the safety of the train and the unlucky ones trapped in a burning station. People began to bang desperately on the windows, and the train picked up speed and moved on. One woman jumped on the tracks and ran after it into the darkness. When the firemen arrived, some bodies couldn’t even be removed because they were too hot to touch. One man ran out into the street screaming, his face black, his hair on fire. A group of people thought they had found safety but were trapped behind locked exit gates and had to turn back into the blaze. Others hid in a toilet, praying the door would hold against the smoke and flames. All of this happened because of me, because of the girls telling a joke, because of the cigarette that rolled into the crack. But when I tell them, nobody’s interested. Nobody cares. They just want to put up a clock, replace the burnt-out escalators and move on. Life is for the living; forget about the dead. Thirty-one lives for a clock. I spit on it in the bustle of rush-hour, and nobody pays attention as I watch my saliva dribble down over the plaque that doesn’t even give the dead the dignity of names.
That’s when I started living it, this life I’ve been living. That’s when I began seeking out the relatives of the dead, to give them what they had been denied. I may not have succeeded, but at least I tried. At least I didn’t just put up a clock and plaque to help me forget. I bought a tiny one-room flat around the corner from the station, above the pub that was converted to a makeshift first aid point on that November night long ago. I felt at home there, walking home through the dirt and needles, passing the time with the girls on the corner as they waited for the Jaguars and BMWs to slow down for them. Now the streets are clean and the train brings tourists from Paris. The cars don’t slow down, and neither do the new street-walkers with their sharp suits and mobile phones. My flat is worth a fortune, but I refuse to sell. The abandoned pub juts up, an ugly fragment of red brick among its shiny glass neighbours.
I look at you now, sitting there with your lips pursed obstinately, and you are just like the bored sergeant on the desk, or the mothers buying magazines, or the blank faces conducting public inquiries. You just want to move on, to move forward, to forget. You resent me for bringing up the past. You’d prefer to lock it away behind the face of a clock. “I don’t want to make you cry,” I say.
You burst into tears, half-laughing at the irony of it. Your tears and laughter together sound like hiccoughs, and I want to pat you softly on the back, or give you a paper bag to breathe into, but I can’t. I can’t bear to touch you. I thought you would be different: you were so open, so trusting, that I thought you would believe me if nobody else didn’t. I thought you would give me what I wanted. But instead you’re just like all the others.
“Just suppose,” I say carefully, “Just suppose it was me. What would you do?”
You stop crying, and stare seriously into the corner of the room. You look like a child again, pouting and staring into the corner, tears staining your slightly swollen cheeks. You are silent for so long that I begin to think you have forgotten my question. I follow your gaze to see if anything has distracted you: a spider on the skirting-board, perhaps. You’re fascinated by things like that, by the smallest things in life. But there’s nothing there.
I open my mouth to speak again, and you say quietly, “I’d forgive you.” You turn to me and smile, and immediately I understand why you took so long to answer. Vengeance, the oldest emotion in the world. I had hurt you, and in those long moments of stillness you were thinking of a way to hurt me back. You were thinking back over the six months of togetherness, looking for patterns, realising all the things you knew all along. You found out what I wanted, and you denied it to me. Your smile now is a smile of triumph. There’s a sneer to it I don’t like.
As I leave the brightly-lit flat and walk out into the night, you call softly after me. “My name’s Cally,” you say. “You never once said my name. It’s Cally.” I walk out without looking at you, and close the door quietly behind me. Tomorrow morning I will buy a new notebook on employee discount, but for now there’s nothing to do but walk through the streets of London, finding my way slowly back to King’s Cross, back to where it all started with a joke and a cigarette. I will walk through the unfamiliar streets, along the walled-off building sites where they’re burying the past under glass and steel. I will push past the tourists and ignore their jokes about my outdated look, my battered Doc Martens knock-offs and brown leather jacket with cowboy tassels down the back. I will shoulder-charge the businessmen and make them spill their lattes. I will return to my London, an older London, a one-room flat above a pub, with damp spreading on the walls and the ceiling flaking off like dandruff. I will force the sash window open and jam a book under it to keep it in place. I will let the cold air flood in and I will light a cigarette and smoke the night away, looking across the street at the entrance to the Underground station, and beyond it the clock, and beyond it the maze of tunnels through which people struggled and scrambled and stampeded and choked and screamed and died. I won’t allow myself the luxury of a plaque and a platitude. I will stand at the window until the gates are drawn across and the commuters disperse, and I will stay there until even the drunkards go home and the cabs no longer roll along the Euston Road. I will stay until the darkness swallows everything, and the only thing moving is the end of my cigarette, a tiny red beacon glowing faintly behind cracked glass above an abandoned pub. I will stay until the dawn stirs and the cabs and the people return and life begins to rush forward again, putting distance between the present and the shadows of the past. I will stay, an ugly, unwanted fragment, jutting up into a world that wants to move on. I will stay until one day I too am crushed underfoot, and the pub is bulldozed, and all that remains is a plaque. I will stay, and I will watch, and I will smoke my cigarettes and flick them out into the unseeing night.
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About the Author
ANDREW BLACKMAN is a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now living in London and concentrating on fiction. His first novel On the Holloway Road (Legend, 2009) won the Luke Bitmead Award and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, and his second, A Virtual Love, was published in March, 2013. — andrewblackman.net
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