Reversed Forecast / Small Holdings

Two novels from Nicola Barker, published together in a single volume. ‘Small Holdings’: it’s all go in a little oasis of nature, in this stirring tale of subterfuge among the shrubbery – plus ‘Reversed Forecast’, the prize-winning first novel from England’s greatest female comic novelist.‘Small Holdings’ is set in an attractive park in north London. The protagonists are Phil, a chronically shy gardener; Doug, his imposing and unpredictable supervisor; and a malevolent one-legged ex-museum curator called Saleem. Phil strives nobly to maintain his equilibrium despite being systematically mystified, brutalised, drugged, derided and seduced. But when he loses his eyebrows, he decides to fight back.‘Reversed Forecast’ is a novel of gambling and allergies, music and dogs, set in some of London’s less scenic locations. Its characters select each other and try or don’t try to make winning combinations. But, as Ruby, this story’s soft-centred heroine, observes: ‘Losing, that’s the whole point of the gamble.’
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Reversed Forecast / Small Holdings


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   NICOLA BARKER

   Reversed Forecast

    and Small Holdings


   Reversed Forecast

   For Ben Thompson,

   who’s always liked a bit of a flutter

   At night she breathed through her mouth, which would have been fine, if unerotic, except for the fact that her loose lips and sagging tongue spilled out copious quantities of saliva on to her pillow. Sometimes she woke up in the morning to find that the side of her mouth and chin, as well as portions of her lower cheek, had become damp and chapped from her sloppy expulsions.

   She slept on her stomach – her breasts, soft pillows; her face, crushed against the bedclothes, misshapen by sleep, like the face of a pug, a boxer or a pekinese: inelegant but charming.

   This morning – a Saturday – too, too early; she slept and she dreamed. In her dream she saw the wings of a large black bird. Some people are frightened by wings, she thought. And feathers. Some people are afraid of moths. The way they flutter. This fear – she didn’t know the word for it – a nameless fear.

   One instant the bird was at her shoulder, but the next it was outside her window, holding on to the sill with its strong claws, tapping, tapping.

   Christ! she thought, suddenly feeling her body, her face, crashing into consciousness. Something is there at the window.

   Ruby turned over and tried to open her eyes, both still gummed up with remnants of liquid eye-liner and mascara. She lifted a warm hand to wipe them clear, but this rapid movement, the whiteness of motion from her bleached hair, her pale skin, made the bird – if indeed it was a bird – fall from the sill, as though shot by an arrow of whiteness, a white lightning. When her eyes could properly focus, all she could see through her tiny bedroom window was a pinkish hue, reflected from wall to wall on the buildings outside – diluted light like a weak pink gin. She sniffed, still thinking of the bird. ‘It was probably only a pigeon,’ she said, calming herself, then she opened her eyes wider, registered the reddish atmosphere outside and muttered, ‘Bugger. It’s going to rain.’

   She turned over, relaxed, opened her mouth to inhale, and in a single breath was gone.

   It didn’t rain immediately. Several miles away a small dark woman stood alone on an open piece of roof-scape. She was still, rooted, like a tree, but her leaves were feathers, which quivered and vibrated in the slow, smouldering, morning light. The mass of birds on her outstretched arms were shrill, excitable, ecstatic, and called, ‘Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia!’

   They were heavy, but Sylvia waited, remaining benign and impassive until one, last bird had arrived. It landed on her shoulder, gently brushing her cheek with its great black wing.

   ‘Hello,’ she said quietly, her voice low and rasping. ‘I could see you coming from miles away. A minute ago you were only a tiny speck on the horizon.’

   ‘Cor!’ it replied, tipping its head, fixing her with a single, black eye.

   She grinned and then dropped her arms, feeling the weight of many birds instantly lift, turning her head, hearing the whirrrr of their wings as she watched them ascend.

   At ten-forty-five, Ruby ran across Wardour Street and made her way down towards the main bulk of the Berwick Street fruit market. Here she bought a bag of apples and smiled hello to various stallholders. She was late for work, but didn’t seem concerned. From the far end of the market her peroxide hair was clearly visible amongst the bright cuts and smashes of different fruits – the casualty of colour.

   To any incidental observer, standing attentive at the end of the market, watching out for motorbike couriers, the wasps, the fruit skins, Ruby painted a diverting picture.

   She’s bold, she’s tall. When the men on the market call her a Big Girl, and they do, she spits out her tongue. Her short, unruly, badly bleached hair initially distracts attention from her large, red lips and black-lined eyes. She never tans, but she does wear tinted make-up to stop her skin from looking too pale, too insipid. She has a long nose which is rounded at the tip – not snub – and which suffers the indignity of a slight dent in the middle. She has a big but good body and her clothes are fashionable but not showy. (This is no place to be showy. Soho is cheap-showy.) She has green eyes and five hooped earrings in each ear. Until recently her nose was pierced too. On the palm of her right hand she has a tattoo, which depicts, somewhat clumsily, a small, blue bird in flight. This doesn’t irritate her too much now – she tries not to regret things from the past – although sometimes it surprises her when she puts out her hand in shops to receive change.

   Occasionally, as she walks, the market men send teasing whistles in her direction, which make her smile, check her tights and pull down her skirt. Her skirts are usually short but not excessively so, because her legs, although long, are also thick and muscular. If asked what part of her body she hated most, she would probably slap her thighs. She is resolutely curvy: a pear-shaped peach.

   Close up, in focus, beyond the hair, the nose, the thighs, hides another essential, unmistakable, uncosmetic detail. It reveals itself physically, although it is not physical. It shows itself in her half-smiling, bright red, cherry lips. In her eyes, which see everything, are concerned with every small detail. You can hear it in her flat, soft voice. You can tell by the way she holds her arms, loose at her sides, informal and approachable. It hits you. It hurts you.

   The main thing about Ruby is that she’s obviously, unashamedly, determinedly nice.

   Nice? And what does that mean?

   One word. She laughs at it. Trouble.

   Dawn was heaving a limp body through the shop doorway and swearing for all she was worth. Ruby paused and watched, unable to gain access while Dawn pushed and shoved. When Dawn paused for a second to draw breath, Ruby asked, ‘What’s he done wrong? He’s just drunk. Leave the poor sod.’

   Dawn frowned. ‘Grab his feet will you?’

   Ruby ignored her. ‘What’s he done?’

   Dawn stepped over him and tried another angle, pulling now instead of pushing. He moved a couple more inches.

   ‘He stinks. He’s smelling out the fucking shop and he’s putting off the punters.’

   Ruby peered into the shop. It was empty. But what did that prove? It was still early. She bent over and perused the man’s face more closely. She recognized him.

   ‘I’ve taken bets off him before. He’s not doing any harm. Can’t you just leave him?’

   ‘No.’

   Ruby crouched down and tentatively nudged the man’s shoulder. ‘Come on, stand up and get out before she drags you out.’

   He half-turned his head and grunted. His eyes were unfocused and he was drooling. She was uncertain what to do. Her impulse was to leave him alone, but Dawn was still pulling his feet from the other end. One of his shoes came off and she threw it into the street. It landed in a puddle next to the flower stall.

   ‘Go on, Dawn, just leave him. It’s still wet outside and he doesn’t really smell.’

   Dawn wasn’t convinced. ‘I’ve rolled him this far,’ she said, ‘and I’m not stopping here.’

   The man began a half-hearted attempt to drag himself back into the shop, but collapsed after a couple of seconds. Ruby stood up, sighed, stepped over his body and left Dawn to it.

   Jason, the manager, smiled at her through the glass partition and then stood up to unlock the door. He said, ‘There’s no stopping Dawn once she gets going.’

   Ruby grimaced. She took off her coat and went into the back kitchen to make a cup of tea.

   ‘Tea, Jason?’

   ‘I only refuse blows.’

   She plugged in the kettle. After a minute Dawn wandered in.

   Tea, Dawn?’

   ‘Nah, I’m on the One-Cals today.’ She opened the fridge and took out a can.

   Ruby watched her. ‘Were you early?’

   She shrugged. ‘Ten minutes. Jason was late. He’d only just opened up anyway.’

   ‘I overslept again. I feel like hell.’

   ‘You look like shit.’

   Dawn opened her drink and flounced out, smirking.

   Ruby waited for the kettle to boil. She felt bad about the dosser. When things like that happened they could undermine her whole day, and things like that happened all the time. She felt as though she hadn’t had enough sleep, had a slight headache and wasn’t happy at the notion of spending yet another day sitting by her till taking bets, helping Dawn with the clues in her crossword puzzle book.

   The only positive aspect to working on a Saturday was the morning coverage of dog racing from Hackney. Sometimes, when she had a day off during the week, she worked as a kennel maid at the Hackney track, parading the dogs before their races and putting them into their traps. It was a good way of earning extra cash, and when Hackney was covered in the shops she had some familiarity with the dogs, the track and the personalities that worked there. It was, at least, a diversion.

   The kettle came to the boil and switched itself off. She made the teas and strolled back into the shop just in time to see one of the punters – who was he? not a regular – approach the counter and smash his head into the glass partition next to the pay-out where Dawn had stationed herself and her can of One-Cal.

   Ruby had long speculated whether the partition – which extended from the till to the ceiling with only a three-inch gap through which punters could push their betting slips and money – was glass or a type of reinforced plastic. This mystery was immediately resolved. The entire screen, whose purpose was to protect the working section of the shop (but chiefly the money), exploded into motion. It cracked, shattered and fell in a mixture of large random chunks and tiny, pebble-shaped splinters both inwards and outwards.

   Ruby slammed down her hot drinks on Jason’s desk and raised her arms over her head, protecting her eyes with her hands.

   Jason had half-risen from his swivel chair, which spun behind him like a waltzer. A few of the smaller fragments of glass showered the back of his desk and nestled into the curls of his hair and moustache.

   Initially, Dawn had thrown both hands forward, as if to catch the entire partition in her arms, but was now drawing them in again to protect her face and neck from the larger pieces which were descending from above.

   Vincent (not a punter, not a regular; merely, for the time being, an aggressor) pulled his head back from the impact of the blow while his face composed itself into a violent snarl, which Ruby felt, in all probability, anticipated further damage. His forehead was cut directly below the hairline and blood was already pouring down to his eyebrows, through the funnel of his frown and on to the bridge of his nose.

   After the few seconds of initial shock, Vincent began to scream obscenities at the three people standing behind the betting counter. By now his face was almost entirely awash with blood. Some of it ran on to his lips and into his mouth. He spat it out as he shouted, spraying out rude blood like an aerosol.

   Jason ignored his yells and dialled the police. Ruby lowered her arms and glanced sideways at Dawn to check that she was all right. Then she turned towards Vincent. ‘We’re fine, but your head’s all split.’ Vincent squinted at her, surprised at being spoken to.

   Jason placed his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. ‘Is anyone hurt? Dawn? Does he have a gun?’

   Dawn shook her head. Small pieces of glass rattled down on to the carpet. She stood up. ‘I don’t think he’s got a gun. He’s too bloody stupid. If he’d had any brains, he’d have worked out that the side door’s still open. He could’ve come straight in.’

   She adjusted the collar on her blouse and then stalked off to the toilet.

   Vincent had lost his initial impetus. Blood was streaming into his eyes. The first few punters of the morning were coming into the shop and standing around in clusters by the door. Jason picked up his keys and tossed them to Ruby. She caught them and made her way around the counter, encouraging everyone outside. ‘Sorry. Looks like you’re all going to have to find somewhere else to spend your money this morning.’

   She grinned to herself. They were bound to close up for the day, and if she could get out quickly, she might be able to make it down to Hackney Wick in time for the second race. They always needed help on a Saturday.

   When she closed the door she didn’t lock it. Instead she walked over to Vincent and said quietly, ‘Why don’t you get out now while he’s still on the phone? He’s called the police and they’ll be here any minute.’

   Vincent glared at her. He looked like a red gargoyle. ‘I don’t need any favours from you.’

   ‘Suit yourself.’

   She walked back around the counter and into the kitchen, where she moistened one of the cleaner tea-towels in hot water, wrung it out, then returned to the shop and threw it at him. Vincent caught the towel and sank his face into it. Jason had finished with the police and was now deep in conversation with his area manager.

   When Vincent lifted his head from the towel, Ruby noted that his face was square-shaped, with generous features but smallish eyes. It was a Celtic face – pale skin, reddish-brown lashes, stubble and brows – but his accent wasn’t Irish or Scottish, only rough and vaguely rural. He was of medium build and stocky. Solid, she thought. And stupid. Like a ginger tom. She said, ‘Some of our other shops don’t have glass screens any more. Maybe you could go into one of those next time.’

   He leaned up against the counter and appraised her. ‘I was supposed to be meeting someone in here this morning, but I fell over him outside. He was lying in a pile of old fruit and cardboard. They told me on the stalls that you’d thrown him out.’

   I didn’t even do it, she thought; only let it happen.

   ‘I didn’t do it. Someone else did,’ she said.

   He blotted the towel against his forehead. ‘Did you bother to take his pulse? Did you check he wasn’t having a fit?’

   Her eyes widened. ‘He wasn’t, was he?’

   Vincent smiled. ‘Who’s to say?’

   ‘He wasn’t, was he?’

   ‘Fuck you.’

   The police arrived, pushed through the door and strolled in.

   Ruby held out her hand to Vincent. ‘My name’s Ruby. I’ll try to explain things if you like.’

   Vincent slapped the damp, bloodied tea-towel down on her outstretched palm and said calmly, ‘You’ll pay for this.’

   She backed off but was not afraid. She was tough enough. He was shorter than her by a couple of inches.

   Oh yeah, she thought, walking back into the kitchen to make some more tea. Just another bad dream.

   He left cuffed, but quietly.

   When younger, Sylvia had been something of a diversion, a novelty, an idiosyncracy – eccentric but endearing. Now she’s just a problem. And she knows it. She knows it well, but she doesn’t care.

   The general consensus on talent is that it is something that everybody appreciates, something that people want to share. Talent is just another commodity. No matter how obscure the talent may be, it’s powerful, it’s positive, it’s something good.

   Sylvia is nineteen. She thinks that she understands most things, and the things she doesn’t understand she knows are of no interest to her. When she was fifteen she looked up the word ‘talent’ in her dictionary and saw that its origin was in the Greek talanton. The rough definition of this particular word was ‘a weight’.

   Talent, she decided, isn’t always a good thing. It can’t be. She pictured it as a weight around her neck, something heavy, choking and burdensome. She remembered Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

   Sylvia is very ill, and it’s all because of the birds. She suffers from a rare condition known as Bird Fanciers’ Lung. This condition is caused by excessive contact with birds, their feathers and their dirt. Eventually you get allergic. Eventually it can kill you.

   The first time Sylvia suffered symptoms of this rare disease was at the age of thirteen.

   The birds had always loved her, she was always the apple of their beady eyes, but when she reached puberty (she reached it late and never seemed to get over the shock) the birds just couldn’t resist her. She became a magnet for their tiny, fragile, feathery bodies. They simply couldn’t bear to keep away.

   And Sylvia grew to love them.

   Her relationship with the birds isn’t a silly or a dramatic one. She can’t talk ‘bird’ for example; she certainly isn’t a Dr Dolittle.

   This makes her talent somewhat redundant. She can’t put on a show with the birds – a circus show or a freak show. It is simply that they love her and she has grown to love them. Possibly the attraction is just hormonal – hormones are complex things – but possibly not.

   Steven John had wasted a good part of the morning driving up and down Mare Street, Hackney, trying to locate the relevant turn off for Jubilee Road. He didn’t know the area well and his sense of direction was abysmal. He’d tried perusing an old, dogeared copy of the A to Z, but had been unable to work out which way up to hold it, which was left and which was right. Eventually he had managed, through sheer coincidence, to find the right road, the correct building and a handy parking space. The space, he thought; that at least must be a good omen.

   Before getting out of his car he straightened his lapels and adjusted his collar.

   He looked smart. His clothes were always of a high quality – hand cut – but slightly loud. He had a problem with colour. His suits were invariably too beige or too blue or too black. He usually wore a tie, a silk tie, and today was no exception. Peeking out from the inside pocket of his jacket was a gold-plated Parker pen and matching pencil. He found some difficulty in forming the letters correctly in real ink but preferred the classic charm of an ink pen to the bald, cheap brashness of its modern-day equivalent, the Biro. Biros, in his book, had no style and no class.

   Steven John has always believed that the little things in life count. Sometimes he thinks that they count more than the big things. This small, almost mediocre philosophy of life is part of the reason why, in his own eyes, he has always been such an absolute failure. He feels insecure, lacks confidence and is devoid of panache. Even his name – this cuts him to the quick – is like two Christian names jammed gracelessly together. Of course it’s a name that could easily be imagined on the front page of Variety magazine. The kind of name someone on the cabaret circuit might have. The kind of someone who makes a break in the chorus of a West End musical. Probably homosexual.

   It was as a consequence of his belief in the importance of detail that Steven resolved, at an early age, to gravitate towards the world of showbiz management. He was not made of the stuff of stardom, he knew this full well, but he was a pretender, a trier, a people person.

   He sees himself as a fighter, an endurer, someone who battles manfully against all odds. The fact that he battles, suffers and invariably loses is incidental. He makes a living. Some people, he often thinks, correctly, can’t even do that.

   He entered the block of flats and, on discovering no lifts, began to climb the stairs. On reaching the third floor he became aware of a strong, musty flavour in the atmosphere – a smell akin to damp, but stronger. The brickwork was newly painted and the hallways seemed clean and well maintained. He put a hand to his throat and wished he was fitter, that his lean body was more athletic, so he wouldn’t be compelled to breathe in this nastiness so deeply, so completely. He cleared his throat, although this didn’t help matters, then continued his ascent.

   The smell grew stronger as he reached the fifth floor. Restraining an impulse to sneeze, he raised his fist and rapped gently on the door of the top flat, which was painted a bright, fresh evergreen.

   Within seconds the door was pulled open and Steven beheld Samantha, who was looking absolutely radiant and whose first response to his restrained nod of greeting was to smile and say, ‘We thought you’d gone and stood us up.’

   She took hold of his hand and shook it. Steven appreciated this small touch.

   ‘Come in, we’re just having breakfast. We were waiting for you, but it got so late we’ve already started.’

   Her face was like a punch, a slap. She was so perfect that it set his teeth on edge. Like a madonna, a princess. Radiating something – an inexplicable serenity – from her black hair and her black eyes. Everything about her just so. A terrifying neatness, a rightness. Her lips, a cupid’s bow; her lashes, so long that he could have plucked them and used them to string a viola.

   He forgot to say anything. He could have apologized for his lateness, but he found it impossible to contain anything else in his mind during that instant but her face – the glow of her. Words melted and turned into honey.

   She led him through the flat. He followed, still numbed by her. If you had a relationship with a girl like this, he thought, you’d spend all your time trying to find some one thing wrong with her, and when you found it you’d be devastated.

   Sam turned to say something to Steven as she led him along the corridor, and caught him staring at her bottom. She forgave him his indiscretion immediately, expecting no better than this from your average man. Steven blushed and continued to stumble down the corridor behind her, keeping his eyes to himself.

   The flat was bright, clean and well decorated, but it stank. Steven couldn’t understand the smell. He was momentarily worried that the smell might be his fault, and furtively checked the base of his shoes before following Sam into the kitchen.

   The kitchen was painted a meticulous white and filled with red utensils. Sitting at a large red table in the centre of the room was Sam’s mother, Brera, who was thirty-eight, had long auburn hair, fine features and slightly jutting teeth. She beckoned Steven towards the table without standing up. He found her grandly matriarchal.

   The table was set with butter, jam, percolated coffee and a half-eaten plate of hot croissants. Steven noticed four settings and hesitated over where to sit. ‘You’ve not gone to all this trouble on my account?’

   Sam sat down on the chair to his left. ‘Of course we have.’

   She picked up a croissant and ripped it in two with her fingers. Steven sat down and nervously unfolded his napkin.

   Brera poured him a cup of coffee. ‘You’re over an hour late, which is hardly an auspicious start.’

   Sam grinned. ‘Ignore her, she’s only trying to frighten you.’

   Steven felt daunted by these two women, both so vibrant and voracious. So different. A black daughter, a white mother. Could you get more different than that? He picked up his coffee and placed it close to his nose so that its steamy aroma would cut out the smell of the flat which was starting to make him feel nauseous. He looked at Brera over the rim of his cup and said, ‘I’m very pleased you agreed to meet up with me like this. When I saw the two of you last week at the Bull and Gate I was bowled over. It’s not often you see two such attractive women on stage together who can actually sing, I mean really sing, let alone write their own music’

   Neither woman seemed especially impressed by this. Sam reached over for the coffee jug, scattering bits of pastry across the table in the process. She said, ‘We’ve got lots of ideas, if that’s what you mean.’

   She poured her coffee and then licked her fingers clean. Steven watched her small pink tongue darting in and out of her mouth. It reminded him of a lizard’s tongue or a hamster’s. That’s odd, he thought. I’ve never even seen a hamster’s tongue before. He wondered why she had to talk, why she couldn’t just sit. Just sit.

   Brera said, ‘Sam’s in charge of this venture. She imagines everything, how we should be and so forth. She’s fussy.’

   Sam nodded. ‘I am.’

   Steven laced his fingers together. ‘I can deal with that.’

   ‘We’ve got a fairly pure vision. It’s complex, but we can discuss all the details later.’ Brera picked up a croissant and then spooned on some jam. ‘We’re bullies. We don’t like being told what to do.’

   Sam added, ‘We’ve already decided that we won’t put up with too many changes musically. We like doing some of our own stuff, well, my sister’s stuff. We know it’s eccentric …’

   Steven began to look sceptical, but he kept in mind the fact that his latest client, a snooker player, had recently thrown in the towel to go back to his day job. He said, ‘Obviously, the fact that you don’t just do cover versions stands in your favour. Although my ideal image of the two of you is more as a mother-and-daughter soul and country duo. I prefer the country songs to the new-wave stuff.’

   Sam mouthed the words ‘new wave’ at Brera and smiled. Steven was insulted. He thought, five years ago the term new wave was perfectly respectable.

   Brera frowned at Sam and then said, ‘Of course we’d be willing to consider some new songs for the act, so long as we don’t lose all our own stuff.’

   Sam leaned towards him and whispered, ‘You think our own songs are crap, don’t you?’

   Before he could think how to respond she added, ‘Well, that’s OK, we think so too, sometimes. The problem is that they aren’t written according to the standard musical scale.’

   Brera interrupted. ‘It’s complicated, that’s all.’ Then she added, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of us.’

   Steven was struggling to keep up. He said, ‘So you both want me to manage you?’ They nodded.

   He felt as though he was missing out on something crucial, was bemused, but threw caution to the wind and said, ‘Then I’d be delighted to.’

   He held out his hand to Brera. Brera hesitated for a moment before taking it. She had the strong yellow nails of a long-time guitar plucker. After pressing his fingers for a second she let go and picked up the plate of croissants. ‘Take one. They’re nearly cold.’

   Sam laughed. ‘They are cold.’

   Steven was secretly irritated that this courteous gesture on Brera’s part had deprived him of the opportunity of shaking Sam’s hand again. Sam didn’t seem to care though. She was sipping her coffee and looking over at Brera as though they were sharing some kind of private joke. He hoped emphatically that he wasn’t it.

   Sylvia had been asked by both Sam and Brera to attend the breakfast meeting. She had agreed to go. ‘After all,’ they’d said, ‘whatever the outcome, it’s bound to affect you.’

   She had agreed to go but had never had any real intention of attending, although this didn’t dissuade her from standing outside the kitchen and listening to the on-going conversation inside. Occasionally she was forced to scamper back to her room to stifle her coughing, which was dry, hacking, and came in short bursts every few minutes.

   She had watched Steven get out of his car and walk towards their block of flats from her window, and had disliked him, on principle, instantaneously. What she overheard from outside the kitchen didn’t improve this opinion.

   She was glad that she had kept out of the way. She was sure that her presence at the breakfast table would have spoilt the success of any joint venture.

   Why should I care anyway? she thought furiously. I have my own bloody life.

   She sat down on her bed and stared blankly at the carpet. She felt constricted. Things kept changing. Things always changed.

   A sparrow flew in and landed on her shoulder. The pigeons cooed.

   ‘How long have you been waiting?’

   The policeman glanced at his watch. ‘Five minutes.’

   Ruby found him moderately attractive, for a policeman. He was tall but thin and had a deep dimple in either cheek and in his chin.

   ‘I’ve come about the bail,’ he said, stepping out of the doorway so she could get to her door.

   ‘Why?’ she said. ‘What did I do?’

   He smiled at this. While he smiled, it dawned on her. ‘For him? You must be joking. He expects me to pay his bail?’

   ‘He told me that you were the closest he had to a relative.’

   Ruby’s startled expression made him laugh out loud.

   ‘You’re just a sadist,’ she said, ‘in a bloody police uniform.’

   ‘In case you wondered, I got your address from your manager. He said this was a company flat.’

   Ruby felt around in the pocket of her jacket for her keys. ‘I’m not paying his bail. I don’t even know him.’

   ‘That’s up to you. He’s got no money of his own.’

   She put her key into the lock. ‘I never even met him before today.’

   ‘You must’ve made a good impression.’

   ‘How much is it, anyway?’

   ‘Two hundred.’

   She pushed the door open. ‘He can sing for it. You can tell him that.’

   ‘I will.’

   ‘Is that all?’

   He nodded.

   ‘Thanks, then.’

   She stepped inside, then turned. ‘Where is he exactly?’

   ‘The local nick.’ He began to grin. ‘You’re going to pay it, aren’t you?’

   ‘Even I,’ she said firmly, ‘am not quite that stupid,’ and closed the door behind her.

   Two hundred, she thought, climbing the stairs. He’s crazy.

   She’d almost reached the top when she heard the doorbell chime inside her flat. She swore, turned round, and walked back down again to answer it. Outside, instead of the policeman, whom she’d half-expected, was her friend Pablo. Everyone preferred to call him Toro. She didn’t know why. He was holding two bottles of cheap lemon vodka. Ruby took a bottle from him and inspected the label. ‘What’s wrong with Martini or a crate of lager?’

   Toro smiled, his cheeks bunched up and the pressure of them squeezed his eyes into almonds. ‘I saw you at Hackney,’ he said, ‘on television.’

   ‘Yeah?’ She turned and started to walk upstairs again. ‘Where? In Ladbrokes? How did I look?’

   He slammed the front door and followed her. ‘Completely beautiful.’

   ‘Thanks.’

   Once inside, Ruby took off her jacket and slung it over the back of the sofa, then flung herself into an armchair and scraped her heels across the floor to pull off her shoes. She wriggled her stockinged toes and said, ‘Maybe I should grow my toenails and paint them, then I could wear sandals and my feet wouldn’t sweat as much.’

   Toro looked slightly disgusted. ‘Why was the shop closed this morning?’

   She didn’t answer immediately, so he searched for the volume percentage of alcohol on the label of one of the bottles he was holding.

   Ruby’s flat was comfortable but shoddy. It consisted of a small sitting-room and adjoining kitchen, with an old Baby Belling, a sink and a fridge, a tiny bathroom and a small box-shaped bedroom. The walls were painted a uniform creamy yellow which gave the place a distinctly institutional feel. The furniture was old but solid. Ruby had few homely or ornamental possessions, but a lot of clothes and records. The records lined one wall of the sitting-room and items of clothing, clumps of accessories and numerous pairs of boots and shoes had been tossed about with general disregard. The room was dusty.

   Toro unscrewed the top of a vodka bottle and asked for some glasses. Ruby picked up a couple of dirty mugs and went to the sink to give them a wash. She couldn’t find a clean tea-towel to dry them with so used a bathroom towel instead. Toro grimaced at them. ‘The mouth of these mugs is too thick.’

   ‘Not mouth, lip. You should know. You’re the wine waiter.’

   She banged the mugs on to the floor next to his feet and sat down again while he poured. He half-filled both mugs and then handed her one. She took a sip, pulled a face, but said nothing. Two hundred quid, she thought.

   Toro was over fifty and poorly though smartly dressed in a grey suit and old shirt. He was small and slightly overweight, with dark black hair, greased back, and sallow cheeks. His eyes were hooded, red, but lively. She’d never seen him clean-shaven, but often smelled aftershave on him - a whiff of cinnamon and spearmint. He worked in a restaurant, but spent most of his time gambling.

   Ruby told him about Vincent and he listened intently. She concluded, ‘I’ve never even met him before, but now he expects me to fork out two hundred in bail money.’

   ‘That Dawn’s a bitch.’

   Ruby wasn’t receptive to this. She didn’t want to feel implicated. Even so, she said, ‘I’ve still got the money I won on the National. I’ve got at least two hundred left. I wanted to use it for something sensible, to invest it … I dunno.’

   Toro bent over and screwed the top back on the bottle. ‘You were lucky for me this morning. I bet on the two dogs you were with at Hackney. Won both times.’

   He indicated the two bottles with a smile. Ruby smiled too; not at him, but to herself.

   They were Donald Sheldon’s dogs,’ she said. ‘He came over and had a chat. He said he’d offer me a job full-time if he got the chance. Took my number and everything. I told him I’d sooner be a trainer than a kennel-girl. Lots of women do it, you know.’

   Toro chuckled. He said, ‘A big dog in a place like this?’

   She scowled. He offered her the bottle again. She gulped down her vodka in one go and passed him her cup. While he poured she visualized Donald Sheldon. Top trainer at Hackney, she thought, remembering how he’d put his hand on her arm as he’d spoken to her. Creepy. Sexy. Too old for me, and too flash.

   Toro was watching her face. ‘Don’t pay that bail,’ he said, misinterpreting her thoughtful expression.

   ‘What?’

   ‘He’s taking you for a fool.’

   She stood up and went into the kitchen, took a coffee jar out of the cupboard, opened it and removed a bundle of notes.

   ‘Toro,’ she said, suddenly feeling lively and quite purposeful.

   ‘What?’

   ‘You’re full of bull.’

   In the bathroom, she applied a thick coat of bright red lipstick, licked her teeth to ensure it hadn’t smudged on them, stared into the mirror at her own simple, stupid face, and mouthed the word moron.

   Sam was peering through the kitchen window, trying to see if Steven was outside yet and what kind of car he drove. Brera was clearing the table. Sam said, ‘He drives an old Jag. I wonder what that means.’

   Brera piled a cup on to a plate, a cup on to a plate, a cup on to a plate. Spinal column, she thought, vertebra, disc, vertebra, disc. She carried them carefully over to the sink, slipped them into the soapy water and then peered out too. ‘Your problem,’ she said curtly, ‘is that everything always has to mean something. I like him.’

   ‘That’s simple enough,’ Sam said, wondering what Brera meant exactly.

   Steven was debating whether it would be possible to get an old girlfriend of his to do some promotional shots of the Goldhawk Girls. (Bad name, he thought. That’ll be the first thing to go.) She wasn’t professional, but she was cheap.

   As he drew closer to his car, he noticed that the side mirrors had been pulled off and that the aerial had been twisted into a heart shape. ‘Curse the bastard,’ he muttered. ‘Curse the bastard that did this.’ He grabbed the aerial and tried to straighten it.

   Sylvia walked out of her room and into the kitchen. ‘He makes me want to spew,’ she announced.

   Sam and Brera were doing the washing up. They both turned to look at her.

   ‘He liked your songs,’ Sam lied. ‘You should’ve come in and said hello.’

   Sylvia removed a strand of her hair from the confines of the pony-tail she was wearing and twisted it around her finger. ‘He hated the songs. I heard him.’

   Brera pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘He thought they were good but unusual.’

   ‘Don’t make me laugh.’

   Brera crossed her arms and stared at Sylvia as she stood in the doorway. ‘Grow up.’

   ‘I’m nineteen. That’s old enough.’

   For what? She didn’t look nineteen. She looked twelve. Like a scruffy, ill-adapted pre-teen.

   ‘And by the way,’ she added, ‘I vandalized his car.’

   Brera continued to stare at her. ‘You appal me.’

   Sam leaned on the window-sill and peered out again. Steven was still there, yanking at his aerial.

   ‘It’s only the aerial,’ she said. ‘Anyway, it’s an old car.’

   Sylvia glared at her. ‘Who asked you?’

   Brera threw herself forward on to the table and banged her forehead against it. Thump. She did it again. Thump.

   Sylvia was furious. ‘Stop it!’

   Brera stopped and straightened up. ‘Are you happy now?’

   ‘Yes!’ Sylvia shouted, and the shout turned instantly into a cough, into several coughs, whooping coughs.

   She couldn’t breathe. She clutched her stomach and leaned against the side of the door, bent double.

   Good, she thought. Punishment for everybody.

   She coughed carelessly, loosely, so that the unrestrained force of her hacking might rip up her throat and bring out blood. She visualized the cough as two tiny beings playing volleyball inside her throat, passing the tickle back and forth, catching it, returning it, blocking it, holding it. If only, she thought desperately, seeing their impassive faces through her streaming eyes, if only they could enjoy my illness as much as I do.

   She turned, still coughing, and staggered back down the corridor.

   ‘Go!’ Brera shouted after her. ‘I’m sick of the sight of you!’

   Sam began washing up again. After a minute or so she said, ‘I think she feels left out.’

   Brera rubbed her eyes. ‘She’s such a little bitch. She never does anything for herself and she resents everything we do.’

   Sam ran a finger across the bubbles in the sink, watched them burst on her skin. ‘She’s bound to feel threatened by Steven. She might feel like she’s losing us. Losing something.’

   Brera’s lips tightened. To hell with what she thinks.’

   Sam glanced towards the open door and then walked over to shut it. As she turned back she said, ‘Perhaps we should’ve explained about her to Steven. I’m sure he would’ve understood, and if he hadn’t, then we wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with him anyway.’

   ‘You think I’m ashamed of her?’

   Brera’s eyes filled. Sam found the sight of her mother’s imminent tears disagreeable and unsettling. I shouldn’t feel that way though, she decided, and tried not to. She pulled off a piece of kitchen roll and handed it to her. Brera blew her nose and then looked up. Her eyes were bloodshot.

   ‘I’m frightened, that’s all. I want to protect her.’ Her eyes exuded tears: large, fat tears like transparent slugs, slithering down her face. ‘She’s such a little shit.’

   Sam watched the tears. If I taste one, she thought, then everything will be all right. She put out her hand and brushed a tear from Brera’s chin on to her finger, then let it fall from her finger on to the end of her tongue.

   ‘She’ll be fine,’ she said.

   Vincent had been staring at his hands with unswerving concentration for almost five hours. During this time there had been no perceptible change in their appearance.

   After his initial statement to the two police officers – ‘I fell over. I banged my head’ – a short period of speculation about bail payments and a perfunctory medical check, he had refused to involve himself in any further interaction. This hadn’t really worked to his advantage, but he hadn’t honestly expected it to.

   Within the previous couple of weeks he had been detained on two occasions and charged on one of these for breach of the peace. He was hardly a novice in the cells, and, as such, no one paid him much attention.

   While he stared at his hands his mind ran over a variety of subjects. Larson. Arson. Willie Carson. Occasionally he slumped into an unthinking daze, but when he came to and refocused on his dirty nails, fingers and the pale hair on the back of his knuckles, his mind raced on with as much enthusiasm as if it had never paused. Blood in my nostrils, dried blood, like paint.

   He often lost all track of time. His life was a strange mixture of time-using (demonstration) and time-wasting (remonstration).

   He has many opinions, his own opinions, and he has many faults. The chief one is intolerance. He sees himself as an anarchic bob-a-job man – doing favours, splitting hairs, trading down. Always down. He is unusual in that his intolerance and his pureness of vision haven’t made him into boot-boy, a Tory or a fascist. He is the opposite of these things; is ceaselessly, peacelessly contrary.

   My life. What fucking life? No life. Low life.

   He has a terror of involvement, of commitment – to places, to things. He won’t be held culpable or responsible, will only represent one view: his own view. He thinks the world, everything, is stupid.

   Stupid!

   During the course of his twenty-nine years, he has never seen any purpose in dedicating himself to traditionally worthy or helpful occupations. He refuses to give over his considerable powers to anything specifically useful. His prime, twin attributes of determination and energy have never been expressed constructively. If they are – and of course he thinks that they are – he has a definition of ‘constructive’ which is all his own.

   He survives on a diet of grand gestures, obnoxiousness and guile.

   Only one thing blots his anarchic copy-book. It is a simple thing. He is full of love. So full of love – indiscriminate, luminous, pulsating, unremitting – that it threatens to make him weak, to make him burst, to make him give in, completely. To what, though? He doesn’t know.

   The strange thing about love, Vincent decided, studying the white flecks on the pink moons of his nails, is that it starts off as one thing, and comes out as something altogether different.

   His arresting officer pushed open the cell door and walked in. ‘Your bail’s been settled.’

   I love this man, Vincent thought, but it’ll come out some other way.

   He looked up from his hands. ‘Fucking bail. What a joke.’

   ‘Yeah, very funny.’

   He stood up. ‘Can I go?’

   ‘Sign a couple of papers and you’re a free man, for the time being, anyway. So long as you don’t behave like a lunatic again before your court case.’

   Vincent smiled. ‘Well, that’s hardly too much to ask for, is it now?’

   When he caught sight of Ruby she was leaning against the reception desk reading a pamphlet about the police cadets. She looked up as the door swung back and slammed behind him. He thought, My God, she’s a push-over. The best kind of girl.

   He pulled on his canvas jacket and said, ‘You can get me something to eat if you like.’

   Ruby picked up the pamphlet and stuffed it into her pocket. ‘I don’t think so.’

   His eyes, she noticed, were like two blue marbles. He adjusted the collar on his jacket, grinned at her and strolled outside. Ruby nodded to the constable behind the reception desk and followed him.

   She stepped into the afternoon sunlight and saw him disappearing into a burger bar over the road. She crossed cautiously and followed him in. He beckoned to her from the counter. ‘How about buying me a burger and a drink?’

   ‘Why should I?’

   ‘Because you’re loaded.’

   She scowled at him. ‘How did you work that one out?’

   ‘I want a burger, a Coke and some chips.’

   The counter girl flinched at the mention of the word ‘chip’ and then looked to Ruby for her order. Ruby sighed. ‘I’ll have a medium coffee please, with cream.’

   Vincent sauntered off and took possession of a plastic table next to the window. Ruby paid, and while she waited for the order, counted the remaining small coins in her purse. Vincent was sitting at the table and running his fingers over the cut on his hairline. The cut stretched across a bluish lump and glimmered like a red mouth. Ruby supposed that he must have been given a stitch, although it didn’t look like it from where she was standing.

   Her order arrived. She picked up her tray and made her way to the table. Vincent looked up at her. ‘I haven’t eaten all day.’

   She sat down, removed her coffee and then pushed the tray towards him. She felt light-headed.

   ‘Your hands aren’t very clean. I don’t think you should touch that cut. It might get infected.’

   He shrugged. ‘I’ve had worse. It’s given me one hell of a headache, though. I could do with a proper drink.’

   ‘Maybe you’re concussed. What did the doctor say?’

   ‘I don’t know. Some crap. I might get gangrene of the brain.’

   He was joking. Ruby gently removed the lid from her polystyrene cup. You’ve already got it, mate, she thought.

   He noticed the tattoo on her hand. ‘What’s that? A name? A bird?’

   ‘A swallow. I did it when I was seventeen.’

   He wiped some ketchup from the side of his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Let’s see.’

   She opened her palm and showed him.

   ‘You did it yourself?’

   She nodded. ‘Pen and a pin.’

   ‘Ouch.’

   She sipped her coffee. ‘What did you tell the police?’

   ‘I told them I tripped.’

   ‘Did they believe you?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘Was your friend all right? The epileptic’

   ‘I only met him once before.’

   ‘What do you mean?’

   ‘He wasn’t my friend.’

   Ruby tried to understand this, but had trouble doing so.

   ‘Was he an epileptic?’

   ‘Might be. He didn’t say he wasn’t.’

   ‘He was unconscious.’

   ‘Exactly.’

   She said, ‘You’re not from London, are you?’

   ‘Why?’

   ‘You don’t sound like you are.’

   ‘Nope.’

   ‘Where are you staying?’

   He thought for a while. ‘Wembley.’

   ‘Really?’

   ‘On someone’s floor. Before that I was in Amsterdam. Squatting.’

   She visualized him, squatting, in a field full of tulips. A windmill.

   He was eating his fries and his fingers were greasy. He said, ‘In case you’re wondering, I’m not naturally a violent person.’

   She smiled at this. She could see no reason to deny being violent unless you actually were violent. He noticed her smile and was indignant. ‘Give me some credit.’

   ‘Two hundred quid,’ she answered, ‘that should do you.’

   He continued to eat in silence. Eventually she said, ‘Will I get it back?’

   He thought about this for a while. ‘You shouldn’t have paid it.’

   ‘I thought I’d get it back.’

   He offered her one of his fries and she shook her head.

   ‘What were you planning to do with it?’

   She shrugged. ‘I dunno. Save it.’

   He squinted at her. ‘Well, saving it isn’t doing anything.’

   ‘I was going to do something.’

   ‘What?’

   She tried to think. ‘Something. An investment. I don’t want to discuss it.’

   ‘Why not?’

   ‘It’s private.’

   ‘You could give it to charity.’

   ‘Haven’t I already?’

   He gulped down his Coke and then licked his teeth. ‘It’s kind of like …’ he said thoughtfully, ‘I’m your investment.’

   He was pleased by this. He couldn’t imagine a worse investment. And I’m me, he thought. Fuck only knows how she feels about it. He chuckled to himself.

   She drank some more of her coffee. With her free hand she felt underneath the table, touched something soft, instinctively stuck her nail into it and then realized that it was chewing gum. She quickly withdrew her hand. The table was a startlingly bright yellow. All along its edge were melt marks, brown stains from cigarettes.

   ‘I was going to invest it properly,’ she said, after a pause, ‘in a small business.’

   ‘Two hundred,’ he said. That’ll get you a long way.’

   ‘I was intending to.’

   ‘I bet you were.’

   She glared at him. She dealt with men like him every day at work. One day, she knew for sure, she would do something constructive and she wouldn’t have to deal with men like him any more.

   She turned and looked out of the window, into the street. She saw pigeons, people, grey buildings. This city, everything in it, including me, is a big lump of grey muck, she thought.

   ‘I’ve got a headache now,’ he said. ‘Do you live near here?’

   ‘Why?’ She stared at him again.

   ‘I only wondered.’

   ‘Why?’

   ‘I just need to put my head down for half an hour.’

   She started to laugh. I’m pissed, she thought. I’d rather die than invite him home.

   Eventually she said, ‘You think I’m a bloody push-over.’

   ‘You are.’

   She was.

   Sylvia’s room always seemed dark, although it had no curtains and the windows were usually open. The walls, which had once been white, were now a shabby grey. Bits of wallpaper hung in strips where the birds had ripped at it to secure lining for their nests.

   No attempt had been made to clear up the splatterings of dirt left by the birds on the floor, or at the bases of the thirty or so perches which had been erected on three of the four walls. Here it had formed into small, pointed, pyramidic piles.

   The perches varied in size and were nailed to the wall in a series of regimented lines. They were fixed at four heights, some ten or so inches from the floor, others only inches from the ceiling. They encroached on the room, making it seem much closer and smaller than it actually was. About a quarter of the perches had been enlarged and built into perfunctory nesting boxes, although the birds rarely hatched their eggs or brought up their young within the room’s perimeter.

   Pushed up against the only clear wall was Sylvia’s bed. The duvet was a dark green colour, stained intermittently by whitish bird droppings. There was little else in the room except for a large, grey trunk at the foot of her bed in which she kept all her clothes and the few other personal possessions that she valued.

   The room was rarely quiet. The air was constantly full of the sound of vibrating wings, of bird argument and intrigue, and underneath each sound, humming at the very bottom, the purring, cooing, singing of the pigeons.

   Wild birds are not naturally aromatic creatures, but the consequence of a large number of them inhabiting an enclosed space was that the room smelled something like a chicken coop. It was a strong and all-pervasive smell which was gradually taking over the top few floors of the block. During fine weather – in the heat – the smell expanded and could be detected over an even wider area.

   Sylvia was oblivious to the smell. Since she rarely ventured out of the flat, it never struck her as out of the ordinary. Sometimes she noticed it when she travelled back indoors from her dawn vantage point on the roof, but even then it smelled like something good and reliable, a heavy, dusty, musty familiarity.

   She knew that the dirt, the smell and the feathers were bad for her. Often she tasted this in her mouth after she had coughed. When she suffered from an asthma attack she would use her inhaler and hide under her duvet, somehow believing that the air under here was cleaner, free of the cloying thickness.

   During the long, solitary periods spent in her room, Sylvia usually sat on the trunk at the foot of her bed with her legs drawn up and her chin resting on her knees.

   She did very little, but was skinny. Her face was not thin, though. It was round and her cheeks were pouched and protuberant. Her father was a Cypriot. She had never met him, never mentioned him. Her mouth and nose were heavy and her lids and lips were thick and rich. Her eyes were a bright deep green: ironic cat’s eyes.

   Most people – apart from those who were expert in such matters – presumed her to be retarded. Yet it always grew increasingly difficult (with familiarity) to pinpoint exactly how this was. She was numerate, literate, articulate. Only her will was retarded. She couldn’t quite do anything. She couldn’t quite want anything. She had no real desire, except to be left alone. She didn’t even really want the birds that much, but she perceived them as though they existed in a different realm of being, a realm of necessity, of inevitability.

   Earlier on, Brera had supposed that external stimuli might renew Sylvia’s vigour, her will. She had tried psychotherapy, counselling, family therapy. But nothing had worked. Nothing encroached. She remained aloof.

   Sometimes Sylvia sat in her room and with a great deal of effort tried to summarize her life, to get her head around its totality. Whenever she did this, she could think only of nothing. Of a vacuum. The enormity of this vacuum terrified her. So instead she fixed things in terms of the birds, in a feathery cycle of birth, youth, age, death. This meant that after a time she couldn’t actually do without them. They were her.

   Straight after the argument she had regretted it. Steven John didn’t really matter, she knew that. He didn’t threaten her. He couldn’t change things.

   She sat on her trunk, pressed her chin into her knees and thought, I want them to leave me. I want things to be quieter and simpler. If they deserted me, if they grew tired of me, I could sit here for ever. I wouldn’t have to try any more and that would be good. I think that would be good.

   She knew it.

   Because he had forced himself to await a precise time before calling on her, Steven felt almost as though a previous arrangement had been made for this meeting. He felt confident. He waited for her to say something as he stuck his thumb into his belt and grinned.

   Ruby squinted out at Steven through the half-light, her expression a mixture of impatience and exhaustion. ‘Oh God.’

   His expression sank from cheerful to jowlful. ‘I’m pleased to see you too,’ he said.

   He watched as she pushed her hand through her hair. He thought, She’s still wearing too much make-up and her skirt is too tight. Paradoxically, these familiar flaws made him feel inexplicably fond.

   ‘Can I come in?’

   ‘Um.’ She thought about this for a moment. ‘Why don’t we go out for a drink? I can run up and fetch my coat.’

   ‘And put some shoes on.’ He pointed to her stockinged feet.

   ‘Yeah.’ She turned. ‘Wait here.’

   He ignored this and followed her, up the stairs and into her flat.

   Her jacket was slung over the arm of a chair. She grabbed it and frantically looked around for her shoes. He stood in the doorway and appraised the room, wondering what it could be that she was so keen to conceal. Someone was in the bathroom. He could hear a tap running. She pulled on a pair of boots. ‘That’s Toro,’ she said, ‘washing his face.’

   ‘Why?’

   ‘He’s drunk. He won on a couple of races this morning.’

   Steven stared at the bathroom door, waiting for it to open.

   She checked in her pocket for her keys. ‘Right, let’s go.’

   ‘Don’t you want to tell him?’

   ‘What?’

   ‘That you’re going out.’

   She stood in front of him, awkwardly, her eyes unblinking, hiding something. ‘No.’

   He looked not at her but over her shoulder.

   ‘How about that person on the floor?’

   ‘Who?’

   She turned. ‘Oh. Him. He’s fine.’

   Vincent lay on his back, spread-eagled across the carpet, his head hidden from view behind the sofa.

   ‘Is he sleeping or what?’

   She sighed. ‘It’s not a problem.’

   Before he could respond to this she said, ‘How do you manage to always make me feel so bloody guilty?’

   He shrugged. He just had that knack. They both knew the reason. He disapproved of her. He liked her, but he thought her capable of behaving, at times, stupidly and carelessly. She allowed her life to become sordid. He found this hateful.

   He walked over to where Vincent lay. ‘Who is he? Do I know him?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘Is he all right?’

   ‘I think so. He passed out.’

   ‘When?’

   ‘Five minutes ago.’

   ‘His head’s disgusting.’

   ‘He did it this morning.’

   ‘He must be concussed. Has he been drinking?’

   She smiled, unhappy. ‘He got shit-faced with Toro. One minute he was chatting away, the next, pop! Flat out.’

   ‘Is he breathing?’

   Ruby stepped across Vincent’s prone body and lifted one of his eyelids to reveal the white of his eye. ‘He’s out cold.’

   She stood up again.

   ‘You aren’t just going to leave him there?’

   ‘Yes, I am.’

   Some things she’d always disliked about Steven. He liked order and he didn’t often do dirty or grubby things. She believed that he thought them, but he wouldn’t do them, wouldn’t let them happen. So he disapproved of her for letting them happen. And I do, she thought, I really do.

   Toro staggered out of the bathroom, barely acknowledging them both, stumbled into the living-room and sat down on the sofa.

   ‘I’ll meet you in the pub,’ Steven said, his tone measured. The Blue Posts.’

   ‘Right. Give me five minutes.’

   There’s a line, he thought, heading down the stairs, a fine line between being soft and being stupid. She can’t see it.

   It was a moral flaw. He believed this. But morality didn’t interest him, only manners.

   Ruby wandered into her bedroom to find a blanket. After a short, fruitless search she pulled one from her bed and carried it into the sitting-room. She wondered whether it was preferable to let Toro stay or to make him go home, but by the time she’d returned with the blanket that decision had already been made. Toro was stretched out on the sofa, covered in his coat, fast asleep and snoring.

   She looked down at her wrist-watch. It was only eight-thirty. She made her way over to where Vincent lay and covered him with the blanket. She touched his hand, which felt stiff and cold, so she knelt down next to his head and put her ear close to his mouth. His breath touched her ear and tickled it.

   She turned her head to stare at him. His face was tense, even in sleep. He was frowning. She inspected the skin on his cheeks very closely: the pores, the paleness and the small, reddish bristles of his beard. Her eyes were drawn to the bump on his forehead which now appeared much angrier and tighter than before, and the cut, much purpler. A few of the hairs in his fringe had bent down into the mouth of the cut. She repressed the desire to move them, to pull them out, in case this should wake him.

   She moved back a fraction, still staring. He looked gruff but intelligent. He seemed troubled. She thought, I wonder what he does? She had a suspicion that he didn’t do anything.

   She frowned and then pulled the blanket up and tucked it around his chin.

   Steven had already bought her a drink.

   ‘Thanks.’

   She took it from him and sipped it. She had known him for six months. He was her oldest friend in London. He’d lived in London all his life. He was an expert at it. She’d arrived six months previously from Sheffield. They’d met at night-school on a photography course.

   ‘Would you do me some photos?’ he said.

   She grimaced.

   They’d bought a camera together, during their single month of intimacy. She’d kept it. He liked borrowing it. Borrowing her. Will he ask about Vincent? she wondered. Will he moan about Toro? Steven knew Toro of old and hated him. Not so much hates, she decided, just doesn’t have the time.

   ‘If we arrange it for Tuesday,’ he said, ‘that’d be good. Four, half-four.’

   The ceiling, she noted, was stained beige with smoke. In centuries to come, she thought, scientists will find this ceiling and they’ll have the equipment to analyse the smoke, to tell something about the lives of every single person that ever exhaled in this pub.

   Ruby. Unnatural blonde. Never wore matching underwear. A pushover.

   ‘Hang on,’ he said, ‘make it five, to be on the safe side.’

   Steven. Big hands. Nice face. Small ears. Gives Ruby a hard time.

   Steven wrote down the address. ‘They’re called Sam and Brera. Brera’s Irish. You’ll like them.’

   He handed her the slip of paper. ‘Don’t lose it.’

   She frowned at him.

   ‘Yeah, well, I know how you are.’

   She recognized several people in the pub. Punters. Where do they get their money from? she wondered. Not from me. Losing’s the whole point of a gamble.

   ‘Be professional,’ he said, slightly embarrassed to be asking. ‘Take the tripod and everything. Also, this might sound stupid, but, well, try and ignore the smell.’

   She tried to remember the last time she’d had a bath. Last night? Yesterday morning?

   ‘Did Toro go?’

   She shook her head. Here it comes, here it comes. I’m stupid, I’m useless.

   As he spoke she wove a fantasy out of different parts of the pub’s decor: the colour of the liquor in the bottles, the texture of the barman’s starched, white shirt. In this fantasy, she was very rich, she did what she liked. No one told her what to do.

   Vincent opened his eyes. Black. He turned his head to try to look around him. It was then that he realized that he had no head. He didn’t attempt to confirm or deny this possibility by touching his face. He said, ‘If I have no head, how can I touch my face?’ and then, ‘God, my voice sounds strange. Where’s it coming from? My armpit? My arse?’ Wouldn’t be the first time, he thought.

   After a moment’s consideration he said, ‘Why am I talking out loud? Maybe I’m not talking at all. Maybe all this darkness is only inside me. Fuck.’

   He staggered to his feet and banged his leg against the stereo. It rattled. The room wasn’t completely dark, but even so, he still had some trouble locating objects and moving without collision.

   He veered away from the stereo and smacked into the back of the chair. He paused and stared fixedly in front of him, making out the blurred shape of the sofa and a lump on it which seemed like a sleeping figure. Slowly he recalled Toro, although he had forgotten his name. Shortly after he remembered that he was in Ruby’s flat. I did it! he thought. That was a result.

   He made his way towards the left-hand side of the sofa, moved around it and located the small kitchen work surface with his right hand. He felt blindly for the sink, turned on the tap, then fixed his lips to the bright, white stream of water that poured from it. He drank for a few seconds and felt the water rush through his mouth and throat to his stomach and then through his temples where it banged and pounded.

   His head rematerialized. It began to hurt. He touched it and it felt hot. His hand discovered the lump on his hairline and it surprised him. He touched the lump again, very gently, then muttered, ‘How come I saw the water when I couldn’t see hardly anything else? I must be able to see everything.’

   He looked around him again and immediately the room was quite clear.

   He decided to go and study his lump more closely in the bathroom, although he couldn’t remember exactly where it was. He didn’t relish the prospect of stumbling into Ruby’s bedroom.

   Luckily both doors were ajar. Vincent couldn’t resist the temptation to peer around the door into Ruby’s room, and when he did was surprised to see that it was empty.

   Suddenly he felt an intense urge to urinate. He grabbed at the buttons on his trousers and rushed to the toilet. He produced very little liquid and felt vaguely dissatisfied, but before he was able to locate this dissatisfaction, a blast of nausea hit his throat and threw him forward, towards the toilet bowl. In a matter of seconds he had reproduced mashed burger, sloshy fries, a substance not unlike popcorn – my spleen, he thought – and a mouthful of phlegm.

   He was shaking. He was desperate. He crawled into Ruby’s room and climbed on to her bed. The blankets were in a state of disarray. He forgot to remove his shoes.

   Brera ate a yoghurt in front of the television and worried about Sylvia. She had gone out a few hours earlier and had not yet returned.

   It was eight-thirty. Brera rarely went out on a Saturday night. She had rarely gone out any night before the Goldhawk Girls. Sam, however, was excessively sociable.

   When Sam was away, Sylvia and Brera would sit in front of the television and watch whatever was on in companionable silence. Sylvia didn’t actually watch. She always kept her eyes closed. Brera supposed that this was because she had no interest in television, but the truth was that Sylvia had become too sensitive. She could either listen or watch, but she couldn’t manage both. She couldn’t cope with the noise of television – the conflict of voices, music, slogans – while taking in its speedy visual menu of flashing colours, signs and faces. It overwhelmed her, but she realized that she and Brera had little else in common except the television – sitting in front of it, together.

   Brera picked a raspberry pip from between her teeth. She knew that Sylvia’s trip out was a form of protest, but she didn’t want to consider Sylvia’s motivation too fully, couldn’t risk feeling implicated.

   Instead of wondering why she’d gone, she wondered where she’d gone. This seemed an altogether simpler proposition.

   The act of walking with purpose and the elimination of her usual close environment made Sylvia’s inhalation easier and reduced her coughing. She was in the process of considering this fact when, just after six-thirty, she made her way briskly down to the canal. She intended to follow it to Victoria Park. She fancied seeing the ducks.

   On Saturday evenings the canal was usually chock-a-block with fishermen. Each sat in a solitary daze, focusing only on the water. Each resented the presence of others, resented the casual purposelessness of the average stroller.

   Sylvia kept her head down on her way to the canal, through the complex assortment of streets that led from the flat to the water’s edge. But it was dusk, a quiet time. Most people were at home by now. Most birds were thinking about roosting.

   She reached the canal in good time, but before following its curvaceous route to the park, she paused on its brink and stared at herself in the black, polluted water. Her face shimmered as a tiny fish swam under the surface and breathed a bubble of oxygen to the top.

   The canal was silent and eerie. For the first time since leaving the flat she felt fully a sense of the hugeness of her environment. She envied the birds their more acute understanding of space, their capacity to fill it and use it.

   She turned and began to walk. Her eyes watched her own feet, the beginning of each step and its completion. The pathway was covered in a golden gravel substance which threw up a light dust in front of her and behind her. The old sandals she wore gave it access and she felt it settle between her toes.

   The rhythm of walking calmed her. It made her mind empty itself of all things except the single task of consuming distance. The birds were rarely a problem when she walked at this time of day. Had it been earlier, they might have flocked, massed and pestered her, but in the late afternoon they were dozy and dazy. Just the same, she thought it best to move rapidly, quietly and to stare at her feet.

   When she had covered a good three-quarters of the route, her concentration was interrupted by a small group of boys who were hunched in a bundle by the edge of the river. One of them was passing a fishing net to and fro in the water. As she walked by, the boy with the net looked up and stared at her. He was a mean-faced child of eight or ten – thin, petulant and aggressive. Sylvia sensed him watching her. She walked until she was directly adjacent to him and then caught his eye. This was foolish. He grinned and said, ‘You’ve got a face like a pig. You look like a monkey. You’re stupid.’

   She continued walking, her eyes returning to the ground. She sensed the other boys staring at her too, their eyes making the skin on her back crawl. One of them (larger than the others) said, ‘She’s from a funny farm. She’s an old woman. She’s got no tits.’

   The other boys laughed in unison and then pored over the net to see if anything was caught in its mesh.

   Sylvia flinched but did not falter. She walked on determinedly, reached the park and entered it through its grand wrought-iron gates. The benches in the park had been painted an ostentatious blue and gold. She sat down on one which was close to the lake. Everything felt too big. She stared at the lake through a tangle of hair that had formed into a long fringe over the top half of her face.

   A tiny finch fluttered down from a nearby tree, landing on the back of the bench, only a few inches from her. Sylvia noticed the bird, but did not move her head or body towards it, only her eyes. They stared at one another and then Sylvia’s eyes returned to the lake, which looked still and grey-green. Its surface was dotted with pieces of white fleecy down-feathery remnants. She wondered absent-mindedly whether the geese had been fighting or moulting.

   The finch pecked at her T-shirt, trying to procure himself a strand of fabric. Sylvia offered him her index finger. He jumped on to it. She felt the tiny weight of him and watched the breeze ruffle the millionfold feathers on his chest. His feet were scratchy and dry. They itched the eczema on her hands. She moved him closer to her face and whispered, ‘Hello Dry-foot. Hello Dry-foot.’

   The bird blinked, cocked his head and then reached up and grabbed hold of a single strand of her hair. He jerked it from her scalp. Sylvia laughed, and the sound of her voice propelled him skyward.

   The park was quiet. Fifteen yards to her left she noticed a young girl and a woman standing by the lake’s edge. The girl was eating a sandwich. She looked about five years old. The woman, who Sylvia presumed to be the child’s mother, bent down to talk to her and then walked away. Sylvia decided that she must be going to the seafood stall on the park’s perimeter. She frowned and thought, That girl looks too young to be left alone. Everything’s big. There are so many possibilities. None of them good.

   Her attention was distracted by a tatty flotilla of Canada geese who were gradually making their way towards the edge of the lake. She stood up, pushed some hair behind her ears and strolled over to them. They crowded around the bank as Sylvia squatted down and smiled at them. A couple of them honked their admiration. She reached out a slow hand and rubbed the edges of the closest bird’s beak. This was a form of caress that most birds usually understood.

   As she petted the geese Sylvia noticed that the girl was moving towards her. She was small and skinny with wide blue eyes and yellow curls. She sidled up to Sylvia with her sandwich in one hand and a fold of her skirt in the other, which she pulled and twisted with tiny fingers.

   Some of the geese turned their heads to stare at her. One or two backed away, but a couple of them noticed the bread in her hand. Sylvia saw the bread too. She stood up and looked down at the child. On her sandwich was a mixture of cheese and luncheon meat. She said, ‘Birds like cheese. It’s full of fat which is good for them.’

   The girl gazed at Sylvia and gave a small laugh. She seemed too young to make conversation so Sylvia stood in silence for a few seconds and stared at the geese and the water. The girl let go of her skirt and tossed a piece of cheese from her sandwich on to the ground by her feet. It landed at least half a metre from the edge of the lake. One of the geese stretched out its neck to try to reach the cheese, but it was too far away. Sylvia frowned. ‘If you’re going to feed them, then place the cheese closer. They won’t bite.’

   The girl looked up. Her face seemed very tiny to Sylvia, and yet everything about it was adult, especially its expression, which was puffy and petulant. Even so, it was a child’s face. She looked straight into Sylvia’s eyes and said, ‘Why should I?’

   Sylvia paused and contemplated this question. ‘Because you have to treat other animals with respect. If you don’t, then they won’t respect you.’

   The girl moved forward slightly and pushed the cheese closer to the edge of the lake with her toe. As she did this, the pressure from her shoe covered the cheese with sand and dirt. Nevertheless, the goose reached for it again, stretching its neck thinly across the bank and opening its beak to try to grasp the cheese. But before it could do so, the little girl had lifted up one of her feet and had kicked at the gravel and dirt in front of her, blinding the goose with a spray of soil and stones.

   It only took an instant. Before she knew what she was doing, Sylvia had grabbed hold of the girl and had thrown her, arms waving, legs kicking, into the lake. When it was done, she thought, Maybe she can’t swim. What if the lake is deeper than it seems?

   But it was too late. She was running.

   She didn’t turn back to look at the lake or the geese or the girl. She thought she heard screaming, but by then she was right by the park gates and on her way home. Not a scream, she decided, panting already, struggling to breathe. Not a scream, but the call of a crow.

   Ruby unlocked the door and automatically reached out her hand for the light switch. She stopped herself just in time, feeling the switch with the tip of her finger but applying no pressure. Instead she paused in the doorway for a moment in order to adjust her eyesight to the room’s darkness. After a few seconds she could make out the shape of a figure on the couch – Toro, still snoring – and she could also see, if she stood on tip-toe, beyond the sofa, where Vincent’s blanket was bundled up into a deceptively large pile.

   Very gently she closed the door behind her. She fancied a cup of coffee but didn’t want to wake her guests, so she settled for a glass of water and then padded quietly into the bathroom.

   It smelled. She closed the door and switched on the light. She was positive that the smell was of vomit, but could see no sign of it. She inspected the toilet bowl, which looked clean, but squirted some bleach down there for good measure.

   After completing her ablutions, she switched off the bathroom light and made her way blindly into her bedroom. Before she closed the door she felt under the handle on both sides for the keyholes, located the key on the other side, took it out, pushed it in on her side, pulled the door to and locked it.

   The small window in her bedroom let in just enough light. She pulled off her clothes and hunted around on the floor for something suitable to wear. Eventually she found a large T-shirt which she put on and pulled down.

   She climbed into bed. Her blankets were rucked up and jumbled. She put out a hand to pull one over and then gasped as she touched something warm and bristly.

   There lay Vincent in a state of irritable semi-wakefulness. He opened one eye and stared at her. ‘Get your hands off my neck.’

   She sprang out of bed. ‘Christ! I locked myself in here and you’re in here already.’

   He pulled himself up on to his elbows, thought about saying something, opened his mouth to say it, but no words came out, only liquid.

   Ruby was almost sick herself, but not in sympathy, not exactly.

   ‘Get out of my bloody bed! You could be anybody!’

   ‘I am anybody.’

   He rolled over, stood up and staggered towards the door clutching his stomach. He pulled at the door handle with his free hand but it wouldn’t open, so he threw up against it, then fell to his knees and inspected his handiwork.

   ‘That’s my kidney, liquidized.’

   Ruby snatched a cardigan from the floor and wrapped it around her.

   He groaned, ‘You really think I intend taking advantage of you when I’m crippled by some kind of chronic gastric disorder?’

   She pushed past him and switched on the light. They both blinked. Ruby’s eyes adjusted. Vincent’s wouldn’t focus. He removed a hand from his gut long enough to touch his forehead and then clutched his stomach again, leaning forward. Ruby, fearing more mess, looked around for something he could vomit into, but didn’t have a rubbish bin in the room or anything like a bowl or bag. Instead she grabbed hold of an old broken guitar without strings that was leaning against the wall. She thrust it towards him. ‘Don’t you dare be sick on the floor again.’

   Vincent stared at the guitar. ‘If you’re expecting me to vomit into a musical instrument, I’d prefer a trumpet.’

   He leaned even further forward and put a hand across his mouth, speaking through his fingers, ‘Just open the door.’

   She dumped the guitar, turned the key in the lock and pulled the door wide. He crawled through, and, after a moment’s hesitation, dragged himself into the bathroom. Ruby glanced over at her bed and saw that his vomit was a particularly strange colour: a harsh taramasalata pink.

   When Vincent crawled back out of the bathroom a short while later, he paused in the doorway and watched as Ruby stuffed all affected linen into a refuse bag. She scowled at him. ‘This pink stuff is like something you’d serve with crackers.’

   She went and found a cloth in the kitchen and began to scrub at the door and the carpet. Vincent made no attempt to help her or to arrange himself comfortably. Instead he lay in a clumsy heap next to the wall.

   She walked over to inspect him. He looked pale and sweaty. She prodded him with her toe.

   ‘Are you asleep? The floor’s rock hard.’

   She touched his hand. It was wet.

   She went into the living-room and leaned over the back of the sofa. ‘Toro? Wake up.’

   He grunted. ‘You think I could sleep through that?’

   She kicked at the back of the sofa. ‘You got him pissed in the first place. Come and give me a hand.’

   He sat up, rubbed his eyes. ‘It smells like a hospital.’

   She picked up the blanket from the floor and moved back towards the bedroom. ‘Dettol. I cleaned everything.’

   He followed her, lounged in the doorway and stared down at Vincent. ‘Leave him. He’s OK.’

   She remade her bed. ‘Lift him up. I’ve half a mind to call a doctor.’

   Toro bent over and grabbed hold of Vincent’s shoulders, then dragged him towards the bed, rucking up the carpet. They lifted him together and dumped him down on the blankets. He emitted a loud groan as his head hit the pillow. She arranged a couple of sheets over him, then perched on the edge of the bed and felt his forehead. Soaking. His lips were dry though. She peered up at Toro who was standing, looking bleary, feeling his own forehead.

   ‘What’s your game?’ she said.

   ‘What’s the time?’

   ‘Eleven-ish.’ She looked down at Vincent. ‘He couldn’t throw up while he was asleep could he, and choke on it?’

   Toro shrugged and went to find his coat. She heard the kitchen tap running, and then, a few seconds later, the front door closing. She looked down at Vincent. ‘Fancy joining him?’

   The room seemed very bright. She stood up, strolled into the living-room to check that the latch was down on the front door, then returned to the bedroom and switched off the light. The darkness soothed her eyes. She sat next to Vincent on the edge of her bed and stared at him. His eyes were flitting around under his eyelids. She said quietly, ‘Are you dreaming? Do you want some tea? An ambulance?’

   She yawned and looked over towards the window, bringing her legs up on to the bed and leaning her back against the headboard. The streets were still lively. Outside she could hear people talking and laughing. Inside everything was silent. She pulled one of the blankets over slightly so that it covered the top of her knees and thought, Isn’t it strange how a place can be both noisy and quiet at the same time?

   Samantha stayed out all Saturday night and returned to the flat shortly after midday on Sunday. The intervening time had been spent with her latest flame, Connor, who was tall, with a curtain of long brown hair that swung across his face, a slim body and smooth skin. They had known each other for several weeks. They had met at a charity benefit in Kentish Town. Connor had been performing with the main band, his own band, Stirsign. He was a drummer, and he sang too, in a scrappy, scraping, tuneless voice.

   Sam had laughed at him from the side of the stage. She thought he looked ridiculous, smashing away at his drum-kit, bare-chested, his hair a mess, flying everywhere, his neck craning upwards towards an artfully placed microphone.

   He spotted her immediately. She was the only girl there who found him funny. Girls didn’t usually. When he’d introduced himself, later on, she’d said that she’d never come across a drummer who also sang. Connor had then proceeded to list every singing drummer he could think of. The way he saw it, the longer the list was, the longer she’d stay and talk.

   ‘I just remembered, the drummer with Teenage Fanclub sings sometimes, and there was a band called Blyth Power a while ago whose drummer was the main vocalist, like me.’

   Sam had smiled up at him, taking in every visible detail of his face through the silk-screen of her lashes. His voice was sexy, she decided, vaguely American, his tongue embracing a kind of cultured Southern twang. She appreciated the fact that he was self-assured. Confident men were the only kind she ever bothered with. Less brash, less aggressive men took one look and ran a mile.

   She had been a late developer in the game of love. It was a game. Love was a diversion, but not an interest.

   Men had never been at a premium in the Hackney flat. Her father, a Somalian student, a law student, had left home when she was three. In the long term she’d decided that this was a good thing. She had no silly expectations or preconceptions. She was beyond all that. Men couldn’t disappoint her and they couldn’t rule her.

   Initially she had been too shy to push herself forward, preferring instead to think about things, to theorize and rationalize. But eventually she had learned to assert, if not herself, then a good approximation of herself – she always saved something, kept something back, which was the secret with men – and had learned how to flatter and to flirt. Love could be fun. You could get something out of it: sex or attention or ideas.

   Connor had stared down at Sam’s lips as he spoke to her, focusing on these instead of her eyes. ‘What do you do? I don’t want to bore you to death with talk of singing drummers all night.’

   Sam smiled. ‘I’m a singer too. A different kind of singer.’

   An exotic singer, he thought, her hair drawn back, scraped back like a seal’s. ‘How different?’

   ‘I sing in a band with my mother. We played the Bull and Gate last week.’

   He grinned when she mentioned the venue, then said, ‘I’ve never met anyone who played in a band with their mother before.’

   ‘You have now.’

   He asked her what kind of music they played but she didn’t answer.

   ‘It’s more than that,’ she said, finishing her drink. ‘It’s more complicated.’

   ‘How?’

   He liked her. But he only wanted small talk. That was his way. That was the whole point of flirting. He had a suspicion, though, that she was the kind of girl who didn’t need to flirt.

   She cleared her throat. ‘Language is symbolic.’ He flinched. She didn’t notice. ‘In other words, language represents things. And the way I see it, sexual representations work in the same way. I’ll give you an example …’

   He was watching her lips, not her eyes, watching how her teeth appeared and disappeared. Her teeth, the white crest of her mouth’s pink wave. Rolling and rolling.

   ‘Father and son. If I say that, it has positive associations. Hierarchy, order, calm, a kind of quiet power …’

   He didn’t care what she said. She was exquisite. He would agree and agree.

   ‘But mother and daughter. I can say it, over and over, but it doesn’t work as a symbol. It has no power.’ She looked up at him. ‘Are you following me?’

   He nodded.

   ‘Freud said daughters hate their mothers because all a daughter really wants is to have sex with her father. Mothers get in the way.’

   Connor laughed. ‘He really thought that?’

   She nodded. ‘But I’m not very interested in why symbols work the way they do, only in subverting them. I want to change them. I mean, there’s such power between women. Mother and daughter. It should mean something. It does mean something, it just doesn’t work at a symbolic level. And that’s what I want to do, with the band. To help to create a new, positive, popular stereotype.’

   As she spoke she saw Connor’s face sag. She thought, I’ve blown my chances. He thinks I’m boring or strident or both.

   When her lips stopped moving, Connor pushed his hair out of his eyes and asked, ‘What does your mother think about all this?’

   Sam grinned. ‘She likes singing. She’s always played the guitar. In fact she was in a girl group herself as a kid. She came over here from Dublin as a teenager in a band.’

   He smiled at her. ‘You’re lucky. My mum has no fashion sense and she listens to Val Doonican.’

   Sam laughed. ‘Well, my mum wears Levis and she likes the Ronettes.’

   Brera and Sam had always been close. Sam loved Brera because she was tolerant and quiescent and never pushy or judgemental. Brera loved Sam but often worried about her, even though she rarely articulated these worries. Instead she confided to Sam her fears and concerns about Sylvia. Sylvia, her younger daughter, was, after all, her problem child. Sam had her flaws too, and Brera saw them, but she chose to hold her tongue.

   In fact Brera thought Sam slept around too much. She couldn’t understand her daughter’s promiscuity. Sam had ideas about things which she was forever discussing. Brera acknowledged the ideas but ignored them. She thought, Sam needs to need a man. She just doesn’t know it yet.

   Sam and Connor arrived at the Hackney flat shortly after midday on Sunday. Although Brera sometimes found the situation with Sylvia difficult where strangers were concerned, Sam was entirely devoid of any sense of embarrassment. She had explained the situation fully to Connor shortly after their first night together. He had been confused but intrigued. He remained intrigued as Sam unlocked the door to the flat and invited him inside. The smell was pungent but tolerable. He’d had an aunt who kept chickens. It was comparable.

   Brera was sitting on the living-room sofa watching The Waltons. She smiled up at them when they came in. ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘I’ll make you both something to eat when this finishes.’

   Connor had been told that Brera was Irish, but, even so, was unprepared for her pinkness, her whiteness, the red of her hair. Sam was so different. And her sister? How many colours in one family? What did it mean? It had to mean something.

   Sam linked her arm through Connor’s and led him to her bedroom. She closed the door, pushed him up against it and put her arms around his neck. They kissed. She slid a hand under his T-shirt. He pulled away. ‘The house seems so quiet.’

   ‘You want some music on?’

   Connor could hear someone coughing. He looked around the room, which was small but colourful. Above the bed was a large poster of the Judds. He walked over to it. ‘I guess the Judds must be a big influence on you. The mother-and-daughter thing. The mother is really beautiful. They could be sisters.’

   He sat down on Sam’s bed. Sam took off her jumper and her shoes. She put them in a small wardrobe next to the door.

   ‘I love the Judds, but sometimes I think they’re a little bit too perfect, too polished.’

   She bent down and pressed the play button on her tape recorder.

   Connor frowned, failing to recognize the music. ‘Who is this?’

   Before Sam could answer, Brera had pushed open the door and had carried in a tray with two cups of tea and a plate of sandwiches. She said, ‘It’s Laverne Baker. Jackie Wilson’s in the background. I hope you like garlic cheese.’

   Connor was too surprised to respond. Sam looked unruffled. She put out her hands to take the tray.

   Brera walked back towards the door. ‘Steven phoned. He said he’d lined up a photographer for Tuesday.’

   Sam offered Connor his mug of tea. ‘That was quick.’

   Brera nodded and closed the door behind her.

   ‘Who’s Steven?’

   Sam picked up one of the sandwiches. ‘Our new manager. We only met him yesterday.’

   ‘You didn’t tell me you were getting a manager.’

   ‘Mum likes him. He’s OK.’

   Connor put down his mug and lay back on the bed. He stared up at the ceiling. She’s so bloody secretive, he thought. Saves secrets like sweets. Eats them in private.

   Sam moved to the end of the bed and pulled off his boots. He looked around the room again from his new vantage point and then held out his arms to her. ‘Let’s get this over with before your mother comes back in with lemonade and biscuits.’

   Brera knocked on Sylvia’s door and waited for her to answer. After a minute or so and a certain amount of scuffling and fluttering, Sylvia opened the door several inches and peered out.

   ‘What?’

   Brera offered her a mug of tea and a plate of sandwiches. Sylvia slid her hand through the crack and took the tea. ‘I’m not hungry.’

   ‘You should eat. I haven’t even seen you since yesterday night when you went out. Where did you go?’

   ‘Nowhere.’

   Brera resisted the temptation to shove her foot into the crack in the door. Instead she said quickly, ‘Sam’s got her new friend around. Did you hear them come in?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘He’s in a band too. They’ve been on television. He’s called Connor. Sounds a bit American.’

   Sylvia’s face disappeared for a moment and then returned. ‘I’ll have a sandwich. Only one, though. Thanks.’

   Her hand darted out and took a sandwich. Brera smiled. Sylvia nodded and then closed the door. Brera swallowed down her irritation. She went into the living-room, picked up her guitar and started to sing ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’, strumming along in time.

   Connor was mid-way through removing his trousers when he heard the conversation commence between Brera and Sylvia. He thought, I can’t sustain an erection with those two chatting away like they’re in the same room.

   He pulled his trousers back on and did up the buttons. Sam groaned, exasperated, from her position on the bed and grabbed hold of her T-shirt. ‘Why don’t we go back to your flat? It was you who wanted to come here in the first place.’

   Connor had half an ear on the conversation in the hallway. He turned down the music on the tape recorder and said, ‘I didn’t mean for us to come here for sex. I just wanted to meet everybody.’

   He listened to their voices again. ‘Your sister’s voice is so hoarse. She sounds like Rod Stewart. Does she sing?’

   Sam laughed. ‘What do you think? She writes a weird kind of music. Like jazz but less tuneful. That’s her contribution to things. She likes doing it. It’s kind of methodical. She’s hardly even got a speaking voice, though, let alone a singing one.’

   As she spoke, Sam put on her T-shirt and picked up a book from her bedside table.

   Connor moved a few steps closer to the door. He heard Brera mention his name.

   Sam said tiredly, ‘It’s her allergy. If she tries to sing or shout her voice disappears altogether.’

   ‘It sounds amazing, though, really distinctive.’

   Sam looked up at him. ‘The only reason she talks that way is because she’s gradually choking herself. It’s a slow process of strangulation.’

   Connor felt foolish for being so enthusiastic. He turned towards her and changed the subject. ‘What’s that you’re reading?’

   She turned the page. ‘Something about Hélène Cixous. She’s this brilliant French intellectual. I’ve read all her stuff, but it’s difficult. She’s very controversial. She won’t even call herself a feminist because feminism’s too bourgeois.’

   Connor looked down at the plate on the floor. ‘What sort of cheese did your mother say this was?’

   Sylvia sat on the end of her bed and drank her tea. The weather was turning. The day had started off warm and sticky. Now the sky was clouding over, was grey, heavy, lowering. The birds – at least a hundred or so – had flown inside as a consequence, in anticipation of the storm to come. They lined the walls of Sylvia’s room, chattering and bickering. Several bounced to and fro across the carpet, scratching, preening and flapping their wings.

   Sylvia thought, Above the bird noise I can hear Sam talking with that man. What are they discussing? What are they doing?

   Sometimes she imagined what it would be like to have a male companion, but she couldn’t really conceive of herself doing the things that normal women did. She couldn’t imagine herself wanting the things that normal women wanted. She tried to feel pride in her abnormality, but she often felt as though her abnormality had become the only normal thing about her, the only relevant thing.

   She sat on the end of her bed and drained the cup of its last few drops of tea. As she swallowed her tea, the incident in the park popped into her mind. The tea turned into dirty water in her mouth. She tried to swallow in air as the tea went down but she could not. She gagged on the liquid and it choked her. She imagined herself in the lake, with the mud and the slime and the tin cans. She imagined that she was the young girl and that she could not swim. She did not feel remorse, just fear. She wished that she could tie a tourniquet around her imagination, a piece of strong rope or cloth that could effectively cut off all dangerous ideas and fanciful notions, stop the flow of her thoughts from streaming, frothing, flooding and overwhelming her.

   She could hear Brera singing in the living-room with her guitar. She tried to concentrate on this sound and to block out everything else. Then she heard Sam’s voice. Sam had been laughing and talking before, but now she too had started to sing. Her voice toned in with Brera’s perfectly. Brera sang in a higher register with a Celtic twang. Sam sounded very low and clear, like a soft, brown thrush – intense and lyrical.

   She heard Sam emerge from her room and walk towards Brera’s voice, still singing herself. She rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. They infuriated her. She found them unbearably smug and confident, like nuns or traffic wardens – self-assured and immensely self-motivated. Pure.

   She inspected the eczema on her hands and wrists. The skin here was bumpy and itchy, some of it moist and shiny. She pulled off a scab which covered the tender flesh that linked the space between her finger and thumb. Her eyes watered. She enjoyed this strum of pain, lost herself in it and savoured its tone.

   Suddenly she saw the little girl’s face in the chafed and pinky pattern of her flesh, imagined for a second how the cold water would have felt entering her nose and throat, covering her eyes.

   The sound of Connor’s hesitant tread in the hallway distracted her. She stopped breathing for a moment and listened out for the slight noises he made, her head to one side, eyes closed. He had a light tread. Must be thin, she thought. His step seemed tentative, well-meaning, self-conscious. She heard him enter the living-room and began breathing again. The air she drew into her lungs felt dry and coarse. It rattled in her throat. She coughed for a short while then swallowed down a mouthful of phlegm.

   Connor was singing now too. He was doing a comic version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Love is like a Butterfly’, in a low, brash voice. She could hear the two women laughing. She put her hands over her ears, imagined that her hands were like shells, and the noise of the blood, the compressed air in her ears, the wail in her head, was really the sea. She stood on a bone-pale beach. It was an airless place.

   Ruby awoke to the sound of the telephone ringing. She opened her eyes and tried to pull herself up straight. She’d been slumped over sideways on to her bedside table. Her face felt strange, like warm wax that had set overnight into a distorted, lopsided shape. Her neck ached, even her tongue ached and her body felt, in its entirety, distinctly askew.

   Vincent was there. Ugh! She looked at him. A horrible face. Dirty. Phlegm, mucus, special smells. Blood, dried. Everything inside spilling out.

   His face was a solid bruise. He was a car accident, still jumbled. She had no clear impression of him. Not mentally, not visually. It was bright in her room, a yellow-white brightness, reflecting unkindly off him.

   She sprang out of bed to answer the ringing. She was still wearing her cardigan, which she pulled close around her, and her T-shirt, which she noticed had coffee stains down the front.

   The telephone – it had a long extension cord – was situated in the centre of the draining-board next to the sink. She picked up the receiver. ‘Yeah? Ruby here.’

   She licked a finger and applied it, somewhat hopelessly, to the stain.

   ‘You sound rough.’

   She didn’t recognize the voice. ‘Hold on.’

   She put down the receiver, turned on the cold tap and stuck her head under it, inhaling sharply as the water gushed over her hair, into her ears and down her neck. She turned it off and shook her head, like a dog after a dip, then picked up the receiver again. ‘Hi.’

   She felt the water dripping down her back and her face. Eventually a voice said, ‘Hello, Ruby?’

   ‘Yeah.’

   ‘Donald Sheldon. Is it too early?’

   ‘I’ve been up ages,’ she lied. He’d never phoned her before.

   He said, ‘Actually, I’d like to see you. This afternoon if it’s possible.’

   ‘Oh. OK.’

   ‘There’s a café near Seven Sisters tube.’ He described its precise location. ‘We could meet twelve-ish.’

   Twelve was too early.

   ‘Yeah, that’s fine. Seven Sisters. Twelve-ish.’

   ‘See you then.’

   She put down the receiver and walked into the bathroom to look for a towel. She found one slung over the edge of the bath and wrapped up her dripping hair in it before putting the plug in the bath and turning on the taps.

   Back in her bedroom, she rooted out a pair of jeans, a black vest and some clean underwear. Vincent lay across the bed, his legs spread, his feet dangling off the end. His arms, she noticed, now held a pillow over his face. She said, ‘I wouldn’t do that. Someone might be tempted to press down on it.’

   He said nothing.

   She returned to the bathroom. While she undressed, she debated how soon it would be acceptable to ask him to leave. She tested the water with her hand, climbed in, then lay back and relaxed, staring abstractly beyond her breasts, her knees, her toes, at the taps and the steam from the water.

   Vincent felt like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. That inbetween stage. A pupa. His skin, hard, semi-impervious; himself, inside, withered and formless.

   He was not himself. His head bumped and pumped. The light, the morning, scorched him.

   During the night he had awoken, he didn’t know what time, and had found a girl, a stranger, next to him. Her hip near his chin. Wool, scratching; cold skin. He had pressed his forehead against her thigh. It had cooled him.

   And now it was morning. He needed something. Had to stretch his body – that crumpled thing – his mind, his tongue.

   Ruby picked up a bar of soap and started to build up a lather. What does Sheldon want? she wondered. What does he want from me? Her toes curled at the prospect. She stared at them and thought, Why am I doing that with my feet?

   Vincent stood on the other side of the bathroom door with his hand on the handle. He shouted, ‘You could’ve told me you were having a bath.’

   Ruby dropped the soap and covered her breasts. ‘Don’t you dare come in.’

   ‘I have no intention of coming in,’ he said scathingly. After a pause he added, ‘Why the hell did you bring me here? I’ve had the worst time.’

   She gasped at this, her expression a picture, and shouted, ‘I didn’t bring you here.’

   ‘Well, I didn’t get here on my own.’

   His voice sounded muffled, further away now. ‘Do you always live like this?’

   She stood up, indignant, and stepped out of the bath. ‘Like what?’

   Silence, then, ‘Forget it.’

   ‘Like what?’

   She grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her and pulled open the door. ‘Live like what?’

   He was standing in the kitchen, looking inside one of her cupboards. He glanced at her, in the towel. ‘For a minute there,’ he said, grinning, ‘I thought you were a natural blonde. But it’s only foam.’

   She yanked the towel straight. With his cut, his pale, white face, the bruises, the suggestion of a black eye, he looked like Frankenstein’s monster. But he didn’t frighten her. She said calmly, ‘Get out of my flat.’

   He grimaced. ‘Some hospitality. I have a migraine and all you can do is shout.’

   ‘Yeah?’ She smiled. ‘Well, I think you should go.’

   She returned to the bathroom, closed the door, dropped her towel.

   He said, ‘I have a blotch. I’m going blind. You expect me to go when I can’t even see straight?’

   She stared at the bath. ‘Well, whose fault is that?’

   She picked up her towel and started to dry herself. She heard the cupboard close.

   ‘Yours. You shouldn’t have paid my bail.’

   She rubbed herself vigorously.

   ‘And lunch. I only get migraines from gherkins.’

   ‘What?’

   ‘An allergy.’

   She laughed. She was glad that he had an allergy.

   He listened to her laughing. Smiled at it. He liked her flat. It was central. He sat down on the sofa, picked up one of the empty vodka bottles, sniffed the neck of it and winced.

   Eventually she emerged, fully dressed, made up, her teeth brushed and her hair gelled.

   ‘I made you some tea.’ He held out a mug to her.

   She took it from him. ‘Aren’t you having any?’

   He shook his head. ‘Couldn’t keep it down.’

   ‘Did you try?’

   ‘I had some water.’

   She sipped the tea. It was luke-warm. ‘How are you feeling?’

   He shrugged.

   ‘What are you going to do?’

   He shrugged again.

   ‘Will you go home? Are you up to it?’

   He cleared his throat. ‘May I use your bathroom?’

   ‘Of course you can.’

   Once he’d closed the door she shouted, ‘I’m going out in a minute. Should I trust you here alone?’

   ‘I wouldn’t.’

   She put down her mug of tea. ‘Only a trustworthy person would’ve said that.’

   Think what you like.’

   ‘I will.’

   She picked up her keys. She was insured. She needed a new stereo, anyway.

   Donald Sheldon – self-appointed king of Hackney Wick – was a short, squat man with thick, wavy hair and skin the colour of roasted peanuts. He was drinking a foamy coffee and wore an expensive business suit. Ruby was nervous, had thought too much about meeting him.

   ‘Am I late?’

   He shrugged. ‘Ten minutes. Coffee?’

   She nodded. ‘Thanks.’

   He maneuvered himself out from behind the table and strolled over to the counter. Ruby watched him. She regularly saw him down at the track. He trained mainly at Hackney, but she was well informed that he ran his dogs wherever he could. She’d often seen him interviewed on SIS, the racing channel.

   He returned to the table, carrying her coffee, holding on to its saucer. She looked down at his hands and saw that he wore rings on most fingers but none that seemed like a wedding ring. He sat down again. ‘I’ve seen you at Hackney a lot. You obviously enjoy the sport.’

   She nodded.

   ‘How old do you think I am?’

   This question surprised her. She stared at his face, his thick hair, his good tan. She wanted to flatter him. ‘Forty, forty-two.’

   He smiled. ‘Forty-eight. I’ve been racing dogs since I was fourteen.’

   ‘Thirty-four years.’

   ‘I first went to Hackney when I was five, with my dad. You might get to meet him later.’

   She stared at him, bemused, wondering where his dad fitted into the equation.

   He smiled fondly, but more to himself than at her. ‘My dad got me my first dog. He helped pay for it by putting his every last penny on Pigalle Wonder in the 1958 London Cup. A great champion: big, but well balanced. Really handsome.’

   Ruby put her teaspoon in her coffee and stirred away some of the foam. She felt obliged to say something but couldn’t think what, so she just said, ‘Betting on the dogs is a bit of a lottery.’

   Don looked irritated. ‘I tell you, the only important thing you need to do to win at the dogs, Ruby, is to rely on honest thinking.’

   She liked the way he’d used her name. She looked into his face. Did he want to employ her or to fuck her? Either way, she was flattered. He was saying, ‘Racing isn’t just about speed.’

   He paused. ‘Do you know what it is that makes a good dog?’

   Ruby focused on her coffee and tried to think. Eventually she said, ‘Speed and intelligence, mainly.’

   He shook his head. ‘Racing is all about negotiating bends. To negotiate a bend you need balance, coordination and muscular control. But it’s more than that. A dog must have the will to win. It has to have that primitive urge. Some dogs will always be chasers or chuckers. A dog must know how to place itself. It’s got to be crafty.’

   She looked at his hands as he spoke. Brown, clean hands. What did he want? What was he doing?

   He said, ‘I didn’t know anything when I got my first dog.’

   An image shot into her mind of how Donald Sheldon would look naked. She visualized him with an all-over tan and pinky-brown genitals. Not too much body hair. His stomach, slightly saggy, and his breasts.

   He said, ‘All this is leading somewhere.’

   ‘Is it?’

   Of course. He looked at her, grinned, then said, ‘And I think I have a good idea where you want it to lead.’

   His voice sounded suggestive, arrogant, even sensual. He was old. Not that old. She inhaled deeply and stared straight into his eyes. He picked up a fork and shook it for emphasis, ‘I’m willing to sell you that dog.’

   ‘Dog?’

   The one we discussed.’

   ‘Discussed?’ Ruby wanted to rewind this conversation in order to try to make sense of it.

   He dropped the fork, laced his fingers together and leaned forward. ‘She’s trained. She’s in good form. I mean, she’s out of season now and she’s in good nick. She’s registered. She has a race or two lined up at Hackney, but after that it’d be your business.’

   He was trying to sell her something! Donald Sheldon!

   I would never, she thought, holding in her gut, I would never have had sex with him. Never.

   He added, ‘It must be about her fourteenth week since she was in season. She’s probably got a bit rusty while she was rested, but that’s only natural.’

   Ruby tried desperately to remember what she had said to him, how this situation had developed. Had he confused her with someone else? I didn’t even want a job, she thought furiously. Not that kind of job.

   He frowned. ‘She’s put on weight, but bitches often do, even if they haven’t been mated. Her current grading figure isn’t very encouraging, but I’d be giving her to you for nine hundred.’

   She said carefully, ‘To be honest, cash-flow is a bit of a problem for me at the moment.’

   She wanted to laugh in his face. It was all so stupid.

   He shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t want the money straight off. A week would do. Six days. If we shook on it now you could take her immediately.’

   He was squinting with sincerity. He sincerely thought he was doing her a favour. If he’d employed her, if he’d fucked her, he would’ve worn that same expression. But he was selling her something.

   Selling her something.

   She had to admire him.

   He waited.

   It was her turn. To do. What?

   She took the easiest option, as was her nature.

   She nodded and shook his hand. His skin was warm and dry.

   He stood up. ‘The dog’s down at the kennels. Here …’ He handed her his card, which she took and inspected.

   ‘My dad’ll be there for most of the afternoon. He’s expecting you.’

   ‘Thanks.’

   I’m not doing you any favours. I’ve had very little luck with this particular bitch. But you expressed an interest and now she’s yours.’

   Ruby tried to smile as she placed his card in the front pocket of her jeans. He turned to go. She watched him as he walked between the tables and up to the door. He pushed it, it swung outwards and he stepped outside.

   She raised her eyes to the ceiling and noticed a large fan up there, turning rapidly.

   Which particular bitch? When had she spoken to him at the track? Had he been holding a dog at the time? Had she been holding one? Had she expressed an interest?

   She felt hot. The fan’s rapid movements were making her feel queasy. She pulled off her jacket and walked outside. It was hot here too. Things were fuzzy. She blinked, unable to tell whether this fuzziness was caused by heat, a heat-wave shimmering on the Sunday roads, or by movements behind her eyes, inside her.

   Vincent pottered around the flat, feeling no particular urge to leave. He tried to assess Ruby on the basis of her personal possessions, but there was little of interest to look at apart from her record collection and her underwear. The record collection was impressive.

   His headache was now a dumb whine at the back of his skull, but tolerable. He found an old Kraftwerk album and put it on – turning down the volume slightly – then wandered about, acclimatizing, inspecting things.

   He had a bath. It felt like ages since he’d had a proper wash. He picked up Ruby’s soap and sniffed it. It wasn’t strongly perfumed – smelled like Palmolive – so he used it freely, grinning to himself, imagining which parts of Ruby’s body it had lathered. The warmth of the water, the rubbing, the foam, gave him a slight erection. He stared at it for a while with a terse and serious expression, then burst out laughing. It bobbed down in the water, submissive again, mournful and flaccid.

   After drying himself, he went into the kitchen, still naked, did the washing up and then returned to the bathroom, where he picked up his clothes, dressed and surveyed himself in the mirror. His whole forehead was a pinky-purple colour. This bruising reached down to either side of his eyes. One eye was black. He inspected the cut more thoroughly. Most of the bump had gone down, but several strands of hair were caught inside the mouth of the gash. He pulled at them, very gently, wincing as some of them came out. He pulled a few more and then gave up, concerned that he might bring back his headache.

   He returned to the kitchen and inspected the cupboards to see what food Ruby had in. Tinned stuff, dried stuff. He’d cook something.

   While some beans were soaking he tidied up the living-room and then moved into Ruby’s bedroom. Her carpet was knee-deep in pieces of clothing. He kicked these into a large pile and then sorted out what was clean and what was dirty. He sniffed, looked, fondled.

   He liked it here. He’d stay for a while, but he wouldn’t ask. If you asked, people said no. Even soft people. Eventually.

   Ruby pressed the buzzer and listened out for barking, but could hear none. The building was a mixture of grandeur and delapidation. It was built in a square around a tarmacked courtyard. The entrance was barred by a large, black, metal gate.

   After several minutes a tiny old man staggered across the courtyard towards her. He looked like Mr Punch, all nose and chin with eyes like sultanas. He reached the gate, puffed out, and gazed through it at her. ‘You’ve come to get the bitch?’

   Ruby nodded and said, ‘I’ve seen you at Hackney before, haven’t I?’

   ‘Could’ve, but I’m usually at Walthamstow.’

   He started to unlock the gate before adding, ‘That bitch of yours wouldn’t run on the Walthamstow track for love nor bloody money. They’ve got a McGee hare there. You familiar with it?’

   Ruby frowned. ‘It’s smaller, isn’t it?’

   ‘Smaller than the Outside Sumner and doesn’t make so much noise. Stupid bitch wouldn’t run for it. Trap opened and she didn’t come out. Nice grass track but she wouldn’t have any of it.’ He shook his head. ‘Racing manager was about ready to kill me. Punters weren’t happy either. There again, she was still a novice, so she probably only had about fifty quid on her.’

   He pulled the gate open. Ruby stepped inside and he closed it behind her, then turned and led the way across the tarmac. She followed him, watching the back of his yellowy kennel coat, into the main building, through an unprepossessing passageway, which smelled of detergent and dog, and into a large, square, brightly lit kitchen.

   He pointed towards the big pine table that filled the centre of the room. ‘Sit down while I go get her. I’ll bring her registration booklet too.’

   Ruby sat down and rested her elbows on the table. The room felt airless, she felt aimless. Why was she here? She thought, I won’t think anything. Not anything. Nothing.

   When he returned, she said, ‘Don didn’t get around to telling me your name.’

   He grinned. False teeth. As straight as a die. ‘Stanley. Stan. I’m seventy-four and he still has me working a seven-day week.’

   Ruby pushed herself back on her chair and peered over at the dog. Stan was holding a lead and the bitch stood at the end of it, looking tense. She couldn’t help thinking how large the animal seemed. Not fat, just big.

   Stan leaned against the table and got his breath back. The dog stood still, not pulling on her leash, but managing to look on edge, padding from foot to foot. He stared down at her. ‘I like black bitches. This one’s related to Dolores Rocket. Won the Derby. Won the Puppy Oaks too, twenty-odd years ago.’

   He jerked the lead and brought the dog’s head up. Her face was skinny, scraggy and strangely petulant.

   ‘I’ll get a muzzle on her.’

   ‘Do you have to?’

   ‘She’ll chase anything if she feels the urge.’

   ‘Anything but the McGee hare, eh?’

   Stan fitted the muzzle over the dog’s face. ‘Well, they’ve all got coursing in their blood, but these dogs …’ He slapped her lightly on her rump and she stiffened her legs to take the slap. These dogs were bred from strains of dogs that didn’t so much care what they chased, they’d run for anything.’

   He brought the bitch around the table and handed Ruby her lead. Ruby hesitated and then took it. She felt a dart of terror in her chest that started between her breasts and shot up to her throat. She tried to swallow it, to keep it under.

   Stan looked down at her for a moment, then said conspiratorially, ‘How much is he asking for?’

   Ruby felt the leather of the lead between her finger and her thumb. ‘Nine hundred.’ When she said it, it meant nothing.

   He burst out laughing. ‘I’ll tell him you’ll give him seven. He had her down at Swaffham in Norfolk on Friday. Check her toes.’

   Ruby picked up the dog’s right foot. The pads all seemed fine. She picked up the left and he interrupted her, taking hold of the paw himself and parting the front pads. ‘Third pad’s slightly swollen.’

   ‘Is that a problem?’

   She knew it was. I know all this, she thought, I know this stuff.

   ‘I’ll tell Don you thought it was.’

   She smiled gratefully and stroked the dog’s back. ‘How did she do at Swaffham? I didn’t even know Don raced in that part of the country.’

   ‘How do you think she did?’

   He passed Ruby the registration booklet. She opened it. Little Buttercup. Black bitch … When she was born, where, the names of her parents, the size of the litter. Physical description. Tiny details. Times of her races, places. Swaffham – the latest entry.

   ‘Sixth.’

   ‘She’s got a race lined up at Hackney on Thursday. You’d better have a chat with the racing manager, though. He’s not happy with this bitch. Did Don tell you she’s in the E grade? Her actual running time at 525 yards was 30.40 on her last night out.’

   Ruby verified this in the booklet. It wasn’t a good time.

   ‘Just the same,’ he added, noting her expression, ‘there’s nothing wrong with her physically. The toe’s no problem. You’ve obviously got a good eye. She’s a fine-looking bitch.’

   Suddenly, at last, she remembered. A month ago, Hackney Wick, the traps were loaded. Six dogs. The hare, starting, the squeal of it. Some dogs, barking, whining. And then. She remembered it. Her trap. Number six. A tail, sticking out through the bars at the front.

   ‘She turned around!’ Ruby said. ‘In the trap. She turned around in the trap, and I thought …’ Ruby had thought, That’s only logical. She turned around because that’s the direction the hare’s coming from. And Don was furious. He said… and I said … and he said … and I said, ‘But she’s a fine-looking bitch.’

   Stan was staring at her, nervously.

   ‘Sorry,’ she said, almost laughing with relief, ‘I just thought of something.’

   ‘Don didn’t say what you were planning to do with her.’

   ‘I don’t know. He said she had a couple of races lined up.’

   ‘One race on Thursday.’

   Ruby was thinking now, planning. ‘I’d better get a licence.’

   He stared at her blankly. ‘She’s not your only dog?’

   ‘My first.’ She liked this idea. She’d been sloppy, before, admittedly.

   ‘Have you got kennels?’

   ‘No.’ She said this with great certainty, as though only saying it this way would mean it didn’t matter.

   ‘You won’t get a licence then. Not without proper kennels. Anyway, when the racing manager at Hackney finds out Don isn’t training her any more, he’ll drop her from the card. If she doesn’t get a place in her next race, he’ll drop her for the season anyway.’

   Ruby stared at the dog. The dog’s expression was docile but furtive.

   ‘You,’ she said, with sudden fondness.

   The dog licked her lips. Her whiskers stuck out of her cheeks – silver against her black fur – like needles in a pincushion.

   After a while Ruby said, ‘There’s no law against being too keen.’

   ‘There should be, though.’

   Stan leaned against the table. ‘You could run her at an independent track and you wouldn’t even need a licence. Swaffham’s a permit track. You could run her there for fifty quid. Or you could even breed from her.’

   ‘I could,’ she said. ‘I could, but I don’t want to.’ She was making decisions now. She could make them. ‘I want to run her at Hackney.’

   ‘You can’t.’

   ‘I can run her on Thursday.’

   ‘He’ll drop her if he finds out Don’s sold her.’

   ‘What if she got a place?’

   He laughed. ‘She won’t.’

   ‘But what if she did?’

   ‘He’ll drop her anyway.’

   ‘She deserves a chance.’

   Stan thought about this, looked unconvinced, but said, ‘If I come down on the day, and anyone asks, you can say you’re with me.’

   Ruby smiled. ‘I’ve got plans for her.’

   Stan stuck his hands deep into his pockets. ‘You’ll find out soon enough she’s got plans of her own.’

   Vincent scowled at the dog. ‘Where did that come from?’

   Ruby closed the door behind her and unclipped Buttercup’s lead from her collar.

   ‘She’s a bitch. I just bought her.’

   ‘Why?’

   She sat down. ‘I don’t know.’

   He stared at the dog as she walked around the room, sniffing furniture and poking her nose into corners.

   ‘Black’s a good colour. She matches everything,’ he said.

   ‘Yeah. I really needed to hear that.’

   ‘I made dinner.’

   ‘I thought you’d be gone.’

   ‘Sorry to disappoint you.’

   He went into the kitchen and dished up the food he’d prepared.

   ‘Don’t give any to the dog.’

   ‘I wasn’t planning to.’

   ‘She’s on a diet.’

   Ruby took the plate he handed her and started eating. Tuna, rice, sweetcorn, beans. The dog smelled the food and walked over. She sat next to Ruby, staring at the plate, her tail making a slight swishing sound against the carpet.

   ‘Does she bite?’

   ‘I don’t think so.’

   ‘Why’s she wearing that muzzle?’

   Ruby closed her eyes, stopped chewing and swallowed. ‘At Tottenham Court Road tube she chased a woman wearing a furtrimmed jacket up the escalator.’

   He laughed. ‘Did she get her?’

   ‘She caught her but she didn’t bite her. She was wearing her muzzle.’

   ‘You should’ve had her on a lead.’

   Ruby dropped her fork and showed him her hand. ‘Leather burns.’

   She continued eating. This is nice.’

   ‘I trained as a chef. In Dublin. They had a big dog track there. Shelbourne Park. I went once but I never won a penny.’

   ‘There are always plenty of jobs for chefs up west. Imagine what you could earn. You could pay me back in no time.’

   ‘I don’t think so.’

   He stood up and went to turn over the record he’d been listening to earlier, then ran some water into a pan and put it down on the floor for the dog.

   ‘Can she drink through that muzzle?’

   ‘Yeah.’

   He returned to the sofa, noting Ruby’s miserable expression. ‘I get the feeling you didn’t really think this through.’

   ‘Story of my life.’

   She continued eating, then added, ‘But there was a great moment back then when it really did seem like a good idea.’

   ‘She’ll chew this flat to pieces.’

   ‘I’ll keep her muzzled.’

   ‘What will you do with her when you’re at work?’

   The dog, suddenly, inexplicably, started to bark. Vincent jumped and dropped a forkful of rice on to his lap. He scooped it up with his fingers and crammed it into his mouth. Ruby craned her neck and stared over the back of the sofa towards Buttercup, who was still standing next to her bowl of water.

   ‘What’s up?’

   She called out her name but the dog didn’t respond, so she put down her plate and walked over to her, squatted down next to her and tried to attract her attention. The dog continued to bark, loudly, bouncing forward on her front paws. Ruby tried to force her to sit by pushing down her rump but the dog wouldn’t oblige. She tried talking sternly and then, finally, shouting.

   Vincent put down his plate and walked over. ‘What’s she barking at?’

   ‘I don’t know. She was fine when she came in.’

   The dog fell silent. They both stared at her, surprised. Then, after a five-second hiatus, she started up again.

   Ruby swore.

   ‘If the bloody neighbours find out I’ve got a dog, I’ll be evicted.’

   ‘Follow her eyes.’

   ‘Why?’

   She peered into Buttercup’s face. The dog’s eyes were glazed and purposeful. Her breath was bad.

   Vincent bounded over to the stereo and lifted the stylus. The dog stopped barking. He dropped it again. She barked.

   ‘She doesn’t like Kraftwerk, so she’s barking at the speakers.’

   He squatted down, took the record off and threw it on the floor, then put another one on.

   Ruby’s eyes widened. ‘Be careful. You’ll scratch them.’

   He turned the volume up and waited for a song to start. As soon as it did, so did the dog. He laughed and switched it off. ‘She doesn’t like Inner City either.’

   He took out a Ray Charles album and slung it on. It began to play. The dog cocked her head, listened intently and then sat down.

   ‘Look at her! She’s an old crooner.’

   He was preparing to change the record yet again when Ruby crawled over to the socket in the wall and pulled out the plug. She glared at him, still on her hands and knees. ‘If you’ve scratched any of my records you can pay me for them.’

   ‘I won’t scratch them.’

   ‘I bet you already have.’

   He picked up one and inspected the vinyl. Ruby squatted down next to the dog and stroked her. She said, ‘She’s all upset. Her heart’s beating like crazy.’ After a few seconds she added, ‘You can tell everything you need to know about a dog’s condition when you stroke it. She’s got strong, wide shoulders, a good, firm back …’

   I’ll get him to stay, she thought, at least for tomorrow. He can look after her while I’m out, until she gets used to this place. He can take her to Hyde Park.

   She continued to stroke the dog, who rested her chin on the carpet and closed her eyes.

   Vincent watched this. He realized something. They wouldn’t get around to sex now. That’s what the dog meant. He hadn’t really considered sex, planned it, wanted it. Even so.

   He snapped the record he was holding in half. It was a sharp, clean break. They both stared at him: Ruby, the dog.

   ‘You’re going to replace that record.’

   He smiled. Of course he would. He studied the two halves to see what it was.

   Ruby picked up the dog’s lead and attached it to her collar.

   ‘Where are you going? You haven’t finished eating yet.’

   She ignored him, pulled on her jacket, checked for her keys and then opened the door. He was a bastard. She wanted to punch him. She stepped out into the hallway, the dog at her heels.

   He stood up. ‘If anywhere’s open,’ he shouted after her, ‘You’re completely out of milk.’

   There was a painting in the living-room, a portrait, that Connor especially hated. ‘That’s her,’ he said, when he first showed Sam around his flat, ‘Sarah. I share this place with her.’

   Sam liked the painting. It was creepy. A female nude. Lips, russet nipples, ribs.

   ‘Does she really look like that?’

   He laughed. ‘She thinks she does. She’s so vain. You’ll meet her.’

   ‘Where is she?’

   ‘Los Angeles for a month. Helping to research a book on the paranormal.’

   Sam was fascinated. ‘Para-normal. Not normal.’

   ‘She’s a researcher.’

   ‘And you don’t like her?’

   The flat, she could tell, was the site, the centre, of subtle guerilla warfare. A picture; a wall-hanging; garish, orange hessian curtains. All Sarah’s contributions. Sam grew accustomed to spotting her in objects. Teapots, candles, cosmetics in the bathroom.

   Connor claimed to be an aesthete. He said he hated clutter. But his bedroom, his territory, was full of musical flotsam: a drum-kit, African bongos, symbols, a tambourine. His records, his stereo.

   Sam couldn’t learn much here, though. In the living-room, she inspected the bookshelves.

   ‘Henry James?’

   ‘Hers.’

   ‘Kurt Vonnegut?’

   ‘Mine.’

   ‘Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession?’

   ‘Hers.’

   ‘Dead Babies?’

   ‘Mine.’

   ‘Skinhead Escapes?’

   ‘Mine.’

   She picked this book up. It was a cheap, trashy novella. She didn’t like it. She found it distasteful. ‘I wouldn’t want to own something like this.’

   ‘It’ll probably be worth a fair bit in a few years’ time.’

   ‘It’s exploitative.’

   He nodded. ‘But sometimes that kind of stuff can be interesting.’

   ‘Oh.’

   She put the book back on the shelf.

   Connor. He was interested in everything. She’d learned this very quickly. He was pragmatic. And what was she? Idealistic. Full of ideals.

   Connor’s problem, the way she saw it, was that he was interested in too much. He was funny and gentle, but he was fascinated by stupid, sometimes even bad, things.

   ‘My parents,’ Connor explained, ‘rented this place to Sarah while I was at college. She’s always been here.’

   Sam liked her. I’ve been living with this woman, she thought, learning all about her.

   It was early morning. Connor was still asleep. She’d risen to get herself a drink of water. On her way back to bed she paused in front of the painting. Bones, white flesh, red hair, red eyes. It was hung on the wall adjacent to Sarah’s room. Connor, she thought, is still sleeping. She touched the door handle, shuddered, pressed it down. Pushed.

   Inside, the curtains were drawn. The bedspread was patchwork. She could smell patchouli oil. On the dressing-table, however, she noticed bottles of what appeared to be more sophisticated scent. She walked over and picked up a bottle of Rive Gauche, tentatively sprayed it into the air and sniffed. Next to the bed – she sat down and inspected it – was a book of women’s erotica. She opened it. Marilyn French. Anaïs Nin. She started to read, struggling in the half-light to focus on its ant-black print.

   ‘Hello.’

   Samantha gave a start, almost dropping the book and the perfume. A tall, very thin woman stood in the doorway, grinning sardonically. She had bright, hennaed hair and a gaunt, striking face. In her hand she held a suitcase.

   ‘What are you reading?’

   ‘You must be Sarah.’

   Sam stood up and quickly put the perfume back down on the dresser. ‘I shouldn’t be in here.’

   Sarah walked into the room, threw her suitcase down on the bed, strolled over to the window and drew the curtains.

   ‘What were you reading?’

   ‘Angela Carter.’

   ‘Were you enjoying it?’

   Sam nodded.

   ‘You must be Connor’s new friend.’

   Sam didn’t much like this description of herself, but nodded again.

   Sarah stared at her. Sam wore only a dressing-gown with nothing underneath. She tightened the belt self-consciously.

   ‘That picture,’ she said, confused and embarrassed, ‘in the living-room. It does look just like you.’

   Sarah laughed at this. ‘Connor’s been telling you about my monumental ego.’

   ‘No. I didn’t mean that.’

   ‘The print is by Schiele. He’s very famous. He painted male nudes too.’

   She opened her suitcase and peered at its jumbled contents.

   ‘How was Los Angeles?’

   ‘OK. I was working. Do you work?’

   ‘I’m a singer.’

   ‘Not with Connor’s group?’

   ‘No. I’m in a band with my mother.’

   That’s a novelty.’

   She started to unpack. ‘I’d rather strangle my mother than sing with her.’

   Sam closed the book she was holding and put it down on the dressing-table.

   ‘You can borrow that if you like.’

   ‘Thanks.’ She picked it up again.

   ‘Angela Carter,’ Sarah said, frowning. ‘You like her?’

   Sam nodded.

   ‘The way I see it,’ Sarah said, pulling out some clothes and shoving them into a wicker washing-basket at the foot of her bed, ‘there are two types of women. Those who think we’re the same as men, and those who think we’re different. Equal, obviously, but different.’

   Sam was delighted. A proper conversation! Connor’s idea of animated chat was a discussion of the intricacies of Gram Parson’s fretwork.

   ‘Which type are you?’ she asked.

   The first. But I don’t know about Angela Carter, and that makes me suspicious.’

   ‘I like her,’ Sam said, ‘I like that difference. Whatever it is.’

   Sarah considered this for a moment and then said, ‘Maybe because you’re culturally different, you have a looser approach to questions of gender.’

   ‘Culture doesn’t come into it,’ Sam said, vaguely defensive. ‘I might be a different colour, but I still know that sex is more complicated than race.’

   Sarah continued to unpack. She took some magazines from her case, some papers and a notepad.

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