Back at the house, I put a chair on the porch outside my room, and sit in the shade for the afternoon, transcribing the morning’s recording onto my laptop. I’m almost at the end of the interview – listening back, it sounds like a catalogue of suffering – when I’m joined by the two dogs of the house. One is a little white thing with smudged pink eyes, a miniature poodle of sorts whose name I can never remember. Her son is Alberto, a long, low, blond, the spitting image of a Dandy Dinmont. I’d find him hard to resist were it not for one particularly unpleasant habit he has, a daily indulgence often performed in front of me. Here he comes, sidling up to his mother, now cowering by the wall. He edges closer and closer then throws himself on top of her, proceeding to hump his hips against her head for several long and painful minutes, pausing briefly to catch his breath, then to slightly alter the angle of assault by shuffling his hind legs in a frantic pirouette. Finished, he trots off to the flowerbed and flops on to his ribs, panting and contented beneath the shade of a bush. His mother, now pitifully sad, is pawing at the dollop of semen between her ears and repeatedly sneezing. What I find most disturbing about this performance is that she never attempts to defend herself from her son, not even to run away. She simply crouches down, her stained tail tucked hard as a bullet between her hindlegs, and waits miserably for the business to begin.
‘My stomach was in my throat. In my throat. I thought I’d be, I don’t know now, sick, maybe. I just couldn’t go there, couldn’t think about it, that they’d been there when we were all here. And it must have been a couple because they took both of them. You couldn’t do that alone, could you? They must have been watching us. Waiting for it to rain.’
‘Oh they wait for the rain alright. It’s the same on the allotments. They wait for the rain. Or the snow. The moment it snows, it all goes.’
‘We’ve noticed our gate. Open in the mornings. Before the milkman’s been. Before the post’s arrived. Wide open. Last week we found a man in the garden. When we asked him what he was doing, he told us to mind our business, that he was busy sorting things out. In our garden!’
‘They do that.’
‘I found the basket half way up the street. They must have ditched it in the getaway.’
‘Should we keep it? Evidence? Won’t they want to fingerprint it? Have we destroyed the evidence?’
‘The suits won’t waste their time on this.’
‘We haven’t even got a station any more. They’re not going to bother with this kind of stuff are they.’
‘Well maybe we should bolt our gates. Get padlocks?’
‘Or cameras? Have you seen number 120? They’ve got two cameras. Not for the front door either. For the whole street. Won’t walk down that side any more. Makes me feel odd it does. I walk on the other side, on this side.’
‘But what will we tell them when they get back? It might give her another turn. Should we tell her? Should we warn them? What if she has a turn? How shall we tell her?’
‘We won’t tell her. She’ll see for herself.’
‘And what if she has a turn? Loses the baby? Then what?’
‘Then we’ll cross that bridge.’
Charity shops in some parts of London sell second-hand dresses for £149 and linen shirts for £30. The clothes are arranged according to colour — a white zone, an orange zone, a khaki zone, black, purple, red, blue and so on — and the shop manager’s entire being appears to be trained on vanishing the idea of shame from the second-hand experience. No one who comes to these areas need feel poor: you are philanthropic and possibly anorexic, but definitely not desperate. It is also likely that you donate to The Dog Samaritans.
Denise is down. Flat on the floor. A cop kneels near her head. Dee, can you hear me? Dee? I wonder if I know her. I’m local after all. Do I know her? I say to the cop. If you do, it would be great. We’ve got to lug her home otherwise. I reverse up a few paces and bend down over Denise’s head. I tip my own head to one side, like a dog trying to understand human language, but I don’t know Denise. Sorry, I tell the cop, she’s not one of my neighbours. A few feet away, another copper is leaning on a neighbour’s fence. As I pass him, he invites me to share in a joke. I turn left by the primary school. A group of nine or maybe ten teenagers is exhaling on the corner. The smell of weed is so strong, I wonder if there’s a fire. Beneath the street light on Cariscourt Street, a soldier is marching. One – two – three – four – five – six – and turn. He steps up and down on the spot, turning, knees high, and marches away. Six steps just as before. The soldier is dressed in combat gear. No weapons that I can see. He (possibly she) is marching up and down, up and down, beneath the street lamp. I stand and watch until my head starts to nod.
Through the glass wall they step, one after another, until the six of them are on the other side. One looks back. The young woman. Oozing anxiety, she searches for the shape of her reflection, a need to check her size. She pulls a leather jacket from her shoulder and ties it around her waist, thinking, I need to cover my arse with cloth. She turns again, searches again, and seems slightly less dissatisfied with the image that meets her. It’s a testament to the discipline in her self-loathing that she doesn’t fall to the floor and scream. The young men, all five of them, are enjoying the view. One pulls out a packet of cigarettes, offering them among his friends. Two accept. They huddle together to light up. A rush of smoke appears over their silky heads and they pull back in one choreographed movement, inhaling and exhaling as if they have just completed a particularly taxing task. The woman pulls at the pony tail that follows her spine to the small of her back. She’s searching for an opportunity to look away from the view of the City to glance again (and again) at her shape, her form, this burden of flesh around her hips that is hers that she wishes to carve off now with a knife. What if I don’t have a child? she asks herself. What will be the point of all this? She lines up beside the men and for a few quiet seconds they stare together at St Paul’s. Then a camera comes out. One of the men reverses out of the line, warning his friends to prepare. The men laugh and one pulls out a pair of sunglasses, the sort Hutch used to wear, then undoes his top button, flicking at his fringe and manipulating his collar. He uses the glass wall to check it’s all just right, delighted at the youthful thing before him, within him, springing out of him. He sucks on the cigarette, then launches into a hug with the man beside him, and — snap — the photo is done. His friends laugh. But the young woman is still twitching, eating herself up, hating being here, hating this whole period of her life, wanting desperately to be a man, hating her female self even more than even she is able to recognise. And all the while, the names of the works she’s just seen keep running through her head, over and over. Vision of the Tomb. Self-Portrait of Suffering. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1. The Last Sound. The words run over her like twists of rope and she stares at the rail upon which her friends are leaning.
Actually, it’s not the brain. It can’t be. I fall asleep, or think I’ve fallen asleep, and when I wake up I can’t distinguish the dream from the text. I can’t remember whether I really was down on the tracks in blinding orange, shoulder to ankle, Bono specs and a blue plastic helmet. It was the helmet that knocked me off. I kept thinking of Patrice Lumumba, then the United Nations (remember?). Then Postman Pat, going on an anti-privatisation demonstration. Then I was back on the tracks, walking beside a female engineer, who knew everything about the railway network across the entire south-east. She spoke in language I half understood: spex and secs, four-metre and six-metre, up and down, f’wd f’wd f’wd f’wd. We walked together, the two of us, among men, like we were acting out our childhood fantasies and, in some extraordinary coincidence, had all managed to converge in Tottenham today, between vast tracts of water too still even for mosquitoes to breed. Then Anna comes back. I call her mad Anna because she reminds me of an Anna I know. I think she is that Anna. She’s looking into a glass room, where everyone is masturbating. And then my neighbour is there beside me. Again. “Come on,” he says, again, “come on, girl, be reasonable. It’s not right the way they put their ting in the other man’s batty hole.” I get angry. Again. We argue. I say things like, “What’s the difference between a man’s batty hole and a woman’s batty hole?” He looks at me, all stressy. “What d’ya mean by that?” I shake my head and wonder if Fat Antoyne couldn’t explain it better. And then I’m asleep again. The cat’s come back. I can hear loud noises coming from Lidl’s. Hooting and shouting, hours of it, on and on and on. A champagne cork fires from a bottle. A woman shrieks with laughter. I remember the other woman, the one who saw the killing. Then a Le Creuset frying-pan has filled my head, like it’s been wedged in, dripping in dripping. There’s a phone ringing in someone’s back-garden. The cock is crowing…
No one ever called Avril on the landline apart from her father, and he’d been dead for over a year. So she surprised herself when she picked it up. A moment of terror — could it be him? — was followed by the sound of a chirpy female at the other end: ‘Is this Paul’s wife?’ Immediately Avril felt panicked. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘this is Paul’s wife. What’s happened to him? Is he alright? Has something happened?’ She thought she heard the woman holding back a laugh, then she heard her say: ‘He’s fine as far as I know. He was the last time I saw him anyway.’ ‘Oh?’ said Avril. ‘Look,’ replied the woman, sounding suddenly serious, her voice deep and authoritative, ‘there’s no easy way for me to put this so I’m just going to be completely straight, OK?’ ‘Do I have a choice?’ asked Avril. The woman didn’t answer. ‘I’m what you’d probably call a prostitute,’ she said, ‘an escort, a sex-worker, a call girl, whatever you like, and I’ve been servicing your husband on and off for the past two years. We all have.’ The words seemed to slip over Avril. Like hot liquid injected into her blood stream, she felt herself changing temperature inch by inch. Hotter, she thought. She wanted to tell the woman that she knew it was a joke, but she knew it was not. ‘So why are you calling me?’ she asked. ‘I mean, if Paul’s your customer why would you want to put your business at risk?’ ‘Because he talks about you, Avril –’ the woman paused ‘– he talks about you all the time. That’s how I know your name. Awful things, he says. He even compares us to you and you to us. What we’re all like in bed.’ Avril grew hotter. ‘Do you mind if I sit down? Will you hold while I pull a chair over?’ The woman waited, expecting to hear Avril’s tears, but there was only silence. Then she heard the chair being dragged across the floor, the groan of wood on wood. When she heard Avril’s heavy breathing again, she continued: ‘We all agree that he’s a nasty piece of work and we wanted you to know. It does happen with certain clients. You get to know too much about them and after a while, you can’t even open your legs. Too much info for a fuck, the girls call it; others are too nice or too naive; and in-between you have the lonely, the miserable, or just the bored and that’s where we make our money.’ She paused again: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘I’m here,’ said Avril, ‘I’m here.’ ‘Good,’ said the woman. Then, ‘Sorry.’ Then she added, ‘We just thought you should know. We don’t think they should speak about their wives, and the ones who do, we dob ‘em in. D’you see?’ ‘I do,’ replied Avril, a little wobbly with the news, ‘thank you.’ ‘There’s something else you ought to know about Paul,’ she replied. ‘Oh yes?’ said Avril. ‘What’s that?’ ‘He’s kind of kinky. He likes us big. I mean really big. Quite unusual that.’ ‘Yes,’ said Avril, ‘yes, kinky.’ ‘Oh, and one other thing,’ said the woman, ‘he’s always insisted on there being a duvet the colour of mustard. Took us ages to find one.’ Avril remained silent. All the woman could hear were her deep breaths heating the mouth-piece. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘then I’ll say goodbye.’