Sally is a worried tiger because they are late. Her mother drives round the block and when they return Sally spies the perfect space — right outside the old church hall — but they cannot stop. When they come round again a dirty white van has taken the space, and this seems unfair, it was theirs. But then a parked car eases out and everything is fine.
Injuries, break ups, deaths of friends: these were normal, awful life events that Chris could have managed. If they’d happened over several years he might have coped. But it had been a year of four funerals and a poisoned cat. His flat had been burgled; his car stolen; he’d been punched in the face by a stranger. He had been a witness to his mother’s slow unmaking. She no longer knew his name. She lived, and she did not.
He had never cried as much, been so unable to sleep, and yet he was not depressed. He sometimes wished he were. There were pills for that, and therapy, the notion of a path that wound back to health. What he felt seemed permanent.
When Sally bursts through the double doors a tall girl squeals her name. All heads turn; they gather round; her tiger make up is praised.
‘I’ll see you later,’ her mother says. ‘Mrs Gray will bring you home.’
The sea of children parts for Lucas. He is wearing black jeans and a blue shirt with a green wool tie. On his head an orange paper crown has slightly split. Before Sally can say ‘Happy Birthday’ he has launched into the breathless, delighted speech only she evokes.
“It’s the last one I saved it for you it’s like mine do you like it?’
She takes the hat. She’d prefer green. ‘It’s lovely,’ she says.
Lucas bows and offers her his arm, and in this childish, gallant way, the party begins. Fifty years later, as he walks through an airport, one of the lights will drop from the ceiling and miss him by only a foot.
‘You look beautiful,’ he says and then the music starts. Sally can’t see where it’s coming from, knows only that it’s getting louder and keeps changing its mind.
The traffic is bad: the bus lurches; there is no momentum. But Chris is in no hurry. Being on the bus is no worse than being at work. In both he only watches things appear and vanish. At work these are mostly words on a screen, and though it is his hand that cuts and pastes, he is not involved.
He sees broken glass, a damaged car, policemen standing still. Then the traffic starts to flow and when he arrives at the offices of Conflict Resolution he is barely late. It is a small office of only six people, and yet only Adam answers when he says ‘Good morning’. He sits down and turns on his computer and soon the moving begins. He fixes bad text, but more arrives, as it always will.
‘Did you see the Botswana piece?’ says Adam. ‘That was a war crime. He used about ten commas per sentence.’
He nods and Adam makes a sound of disgust; for the next half an hour no one speaks. They click and type and maybe, in some small way, help to resolve conflict. He really has no idea. What was a passion is now a job he watches himself do. Even poor, jaded Adam is more engaged than that. After his kidnap, and his escape, he’ll do his job much better.
Sally holds Lucas’s small, damp hand as she sits on the wooden floor. They eat crisps and baby sausages wrapped in bacon. They eat cheese and pineapple on sticks. There is trifle, blancmange, three kinds of ice cream, green jelly with mandarin pieces suspended like fish. As they eat an old man plays the accordion. Sally doesn’t want the song to end. She wants to sit with Lucas till their hair is white.
But the song is changing, slowing down, becoming one she knows. With every note, the end comes closer, till there are the words. Hap-py birth-day dear Lu-cas. Happy birthday to you.
With that, the old man takes a bow. The children clap and cheer except for Neil Gray whose nose bleeds a lot because he picks it. He’ll continue this bad habit well into his twenties, right until he loses an arm while climbing Ben Nevis.
There is a fifty-pound note on the seat of the bus. It is not folded or crumpled, has not come from a pocket, it is cash-machine crisp. It looks to have been placed quite deliberately. Obviously not for him: it is one of those self-aggrandising acts of kindness that mean nothing because they are random. Fifty pounds will not change his life, or Rachael’s mind, will not bring back the dead. But it is just as easy to take it as not, so Chris puts it in his pocket and sits down. He looks at the traffic, its stop and start. When he was in America with Rachael they saw a sign by the highway that said New Traffic Patterns May Emerge. They didn’t know what it meant, and so it seemed funny.
He is almost home when he remembers he has nothing for dinner. He goes into the Bamboo Palace take away aand orders three dishes. Liu Jianqing says thank you then goes into the kitchen to give the order to his brother Liu Xiaoguo. He comes back out, says, ‘fifteen minutes’ then smiles in a way that seems apologetic. As if having to wait any length of time is unreasonable. As if he and Chris are friends despite knowing nothing about him except his liking for fried tofu. Jianqing asks him for money in the same sheepish manner, and at first Chris is about to hand over the fifty pound note, but then puts it back in his wallet and offers his debit card.
Later, at home, he will take the note from his wallet and stick it to the wall by his bed. He will look at in the half darkness as Xiao Guo and Jianqing clean the kitchen, count the takings, speak of their mother’s health. She has a lump in her breast, and they are so worried. But the tests will be negative.
At most birthday parties the old man and his accordion would have been the climax. But Lucas’s father has big hands covered in rings. He owns nine restaurants and drives a long grey car. They live in a mansion with a swimming pool. No son of his will have an ordinary party.
The food is quickly cleared away. Cages are brought in. There are six of them, too large for hamsters, each shrouded in cloth. They wait on tables while sawdust is scattered, fences erected, expectation built. Sally puts her lips to Lucas’s ear, whispers, Tell me, what is it?
‘It tickles!’ he says then rubs his ear and one day they’ll get married. They’ll stand on a big white cake and she’ll—
Baby rabbits. Grey, with neatly folded ears, or just black. A darkness in the shape of a rabbit.
The children crowd round the enclosures. They listen to a woman in blue overalls explain how to pick up a rabbit properly. First she strokes its back, then ears, then slides her hand under it. ‘You have to be gentle,’ she says.
Lucas goes first, as is only proper. He picks up a black one without any problem, but puts it down quickly. ‘It’s very warm,’ he says.
Juliet goes next because she has a chinchilla and two gerbils at home. She wants so much to be a vet, but although she’ll try her hardest, she’ll never succeed.
It is Sally’s turn.
Reluctantly, he opens his eyes, and then the light is inside. It is the sun of the first day of June and it pushes through his brain, from the retina, along bundled pathways, all the way to the back. It is a neural detonation. It is a leap of flame.
He sees the bank note. He showers. The water is so hot and forceful that after a few minutes he sits down. He closes his eyes, tries to retreat, but the light is still in there, a demented spark.
The bus is slow and he has to stand and a pushchair keeps jabbing his leg. The father could fold it, the girl could stand, be carried, but no, despite the looks, the sighs, the man remains defiant. There is no way to escape. He is surrounded, pressed against people, and though some of them will not outlive their parents, this doesn’t empty the bus.
When the doors next open a breeze enters the bus and without intention or even choice he is saying, Excuse me, excuse me, and then just pushing through. He is on the street and moving north. The pavement is crowded but at no point are there obstacles during the next half hour. Sometimes he must slow, wait, but even then he isn’t stopped. He is a long fuse burning down.
The spark of him reaches the office. He passes Alan — who will win £100 in next week’s lottery — then goes to his desk. He turns on his computer, opens his email, and there, amidst the war and rape, is the shock of her name.
Sally is sure it will bite. Teeth will puncture her finger like the stapler that went into Ivan’s. Two tiny holes, then blood.
The rabbit sniffs her hand. It whiskers do not tickle. It is like a scrape of velvet when it shifts an inch. Her hand trembles. The rabbit opens its mouth. Then her hand is smoothing its ears. They are almost as long as its body; every time she strokes them down they prick up again. After a minute it is what she has always done. Sally strokes the ears of the rabbit that doesn’t bite, and never will, and although it is definitely Maggie’s turn, she suffers in silence.
It is a terrible, wonderful message.
Hi Chris, hope you’re ok. It’s been so long since we talked. Can we meet tomorrow?
Even for Rachael, it’s brief: she has always written in tweets.
The message is either completely straightforward or totally opaque. She just wants to talk, a perfectly reasonable request but for the fact that nothing between them was reasonable during the final weeks. What is there to talk about? Will she now explain why she broke his car windows and put the glass in his shoes? Why her keys were wedged between her fingers as she ran at him?
He can’t think while sat at the computer. He goes outside, passing Sue on the stairs, and if she doesn’t respond to his nod it’s because her back is giving her trouble, except that the problem isn’t her back. It’s the growth of something she can’t feel, will never see, but maybe she has an inkling of it, just as he has a suspicion that he is in the early stages of being infected with something as dreaded.
He goes outside and walks. Through the streets, into parks, along the canal, pausing only when traffic or construction allow no other choice. The smart thing is not to meet. Even if she finds him — he’s moved twice since they broke up — she will only scream and throw whatever’s to hand. However embarrassing or painful, it will only be one wound. Not that fearful checking of every moment they are together. Someone that has hurt you badly never forgets how.
But the simple, smart decision resists being made. Every indisputable reason has an answering image. Yes, she is crazy, but not always. Not when she slept on the deck of the houseboat as the water tugged them along so surely there was no need for an engine, or worry, only a corkscrew and contraception.
Not when she baked him twenty-seven cakes with candles.
Yes when she slapped a girl who said he was boring. But that time, he liked it.
By the time he gets back to the office, the diagnosis is clear. He has contracted hope.
Time is up, the rabbits are caged. It’s the end of the party, the return of homework, not enough TV. Only Lucas seems unconcerned.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he says to each of them as parents start to appear. He shakes the boys’ hands, kisses girls on the cheek, but Sally is not jealous. Once everyone but Neil Gray has gone (he sits on his own, picking his nose) Lucas takes her hand. ‘Did you like the party?’ he says with great concern.
‘What was your favourite?’
‘They were lovely. We’re keeping two.’
‘Can I visit them?’
She throws her arms round him, and they hug, until he gives her a squeeze that makes her yelp. He lets go and they giggle. Mrs Gray is here.
‘Look at you two,’ she says. ‘I thought this was a birthday not a wedding. You stop that,’ she says to Neil. ‘You know what’ll happen.’
Guiltily, he removes his finger.
‘Are you ready Sally?’
‘Yes Mrs Gray,’ she says and stands. Lucas looks hurt, almost close to tears, until she says, ‘See you tomorrow.’ He recovers enough to smile and then her shoes are going clip clop on the floor. They turn corners, are out the door, and Mrs Gray says, ‘Oh no. What did I tell you?’ Her voice shifts to anger. ‘I told you, and you still did it. Why?’
Neil’s blood drops from his nose, to the ground, onto his sleeve, his fingers, then he is pinching his nose. ‘Sobby,’ he says, and his mother takes his other hand.
‘Sally, stay here a minute. We won’t be long, I promise.’
Mrs Gray and Neil go back inside, leaving Sally with her piece of birthday cake wrapped in a damp napkin. She looks at the drops of blood, and after a moment, smears one with her shoe. She doesn’t look up when a car door shuts, nor when footsteps approach.
‘All on your own?’ says a man and she hesitates because she does not talk to strangers. Except that he is not. ‘Mrs Gray is coming back,’ she tells the man who brought the rabbits.
Chris is good at reading faces: hers has a new chapter. It has been written by her, on her, during their time apart. The crow’s feet of her eyes spread further; her lips are lacking blood. Things have happened in her plot that she did not expect. Otherwise she wouldn’t be eating lunch with him at this French place where the tablecloths are viciously white, the cutlery too large. She has picked this place because it is safe ground: she can cook most of the things on the menu; her French is so good that when she speaks to the waiter he doesn’t reply in English.
But she isn’t eating. She is talking about people he doesn’t know, her trip to Chile, her recurring problems with her phone, everything but the fact that they used to fuck and be in love and once she tried to stab him. They could just be old friends catching up.
He eats and sprinkles words on hers and he has been so stupid. He’d prefer it if she’d lunge at him with this dagger of a fork. At least that would be clear. He’d go to hospital, get bandaged, wring the neck of hope.
‘Are you seeing anyone?’ she asks then takes a sip of water.
‘No,’ he says, and her only reaction is to dab her lips with a napkin. And it would definitely be wrong, and weak, to ask the same question.
‘What about you?’ he says and her response is swift. The corners of her mouth twitch up with what must be contempt. She takes another sip, looks at him, says, ‘There’s been no one since you.’
‘Yes.’ Her voice gains volume. ‘Apart from people I fucked.’
The restaurant does not go quiet. All the other diners keep speaking, they are not bothered, all except a man sitting on his own who has not had sex for eleven years. He will eat dessert, have coffee, then take a leisurely walk to Waterloo Bridge which he will then leap off.
Chris needs a moment before he accepts what Rachael means. What had been a flicker is now almost steady.
She doesn’t want dessert or coffee. She seems nervous, in a hurry, when she asks for the bill.
When it arrives he pulls out his wallet; curtly she says ‘Don’t’. As if he were reaching for a gun and she the quicker draw.
They walk to the corner, where she stops.
‘I have to go to Vauxhall,’ she says.
Not this was lovely. Or good to see you. And the light flickers once more.
As for what happens next, if he were looking at the people around he’d see their alarm. Heads are turned, mouths taken from phones; hers is a savage attack. For those first few seconds it isn’t a kiss, more a mutual hurt. She is biting his lip and his teeth get bashed and he is sure he tastes blood. Then he is able to open his mouth. And her tongue is less of a weapon. Admittedly, for a moment he cannot breathe, but then their tongues are turning circles, establishing orbit.
She is the one who breaks the circuit. Closes it again. They kiss and for that instant nobody has died. No cat has been poisoned, no flat burgled; his mother remembers his name.
Rachael removes her mouth and looks at him. He is smiling, but she is not. Her gaze interrogates. She seems unsure who he is.
‘Chris,’ she says. ‘I’ll call tonight. I’ll explain.’
With that she is a back that weaves between people, crosses the street, descends underground.
He looks at his phone. 3 p.m. He won’t go back to work.
The rabbits’ faces press against the bars. The van smells of them, of paint.
In a playground children spin while a giant mouse keeps time.
A tall clear pipe traps a ball it fires into the air. Three or four storeys, rising, falling, endlessly propelled. Straining up towards the sky and never reaching it.
There are buildings too old to be standing.
And there is John Bunyan, who across centuries, and via stone, speaks of sleep and dream. The statue is on the corner of a building that evades attention. Its heavy wooden door is closed, and there is no number, no name.
Chris isn’t stopped by red lights or men or cars that kill pedestrians, cyclists, several times a week. He walks as if pulled by horizontal gravity. The only thing that slows him comes from people’s mouths. They speak of bitches, wankers, shits, having fucking had enough. They say this to their phones, their friends, themselves, and though this doesn’t stop him — he is too happy — it is a source of friction.
And so there is Brahms. For the next few minutes he walks with no more effort than it takes to fall. Then a siren wails, then another — scaffolding has collapsed onto four people — but the volume can go up. Although he sees the ambulance, then the fire engines, they are like a section of the orchestra coming in too late. It is regrettable, certainly awful, but ultimately no competition for Rachael, perhaps already in Vauxhall. Rachael who is not to be trusted, only to be loved.
Between buildings a flash of river acts as invitation. He turns to it, and the music swells, and as he reaches the bridge two police cars appear. Their sirens shatter his thoughts of her and for a hateful second he remembers holding the leather strap of his father’s coffin, the strap of his best friend’s. He is on the ground and bleeding, lying on a stretcher.
But the sirens pass and the view expands; first the Southbank, then the Festival Theatre, and soon there is a panorama that demands attention. There is no room for his past and who the fuck wants it anyway? He is Christopher Durham, 37, and he lives in the present.
Over the river, striking south, through the afternoon. Heading home, but in roundabout fashion, because evening, that time of phone calls, is three, four hours away. The sun is still high, not that it matters, because here the buildings are low. Take away the cars, the roads, and this is almost a village, that place where people’s cares were limited to hunger, disease, invasion, the attentions of wolves. In the present, with the lack of these, the place seems benign. Slow traffic and leafy streets and squirrels everywhere. Rachael, if transplanted here, might be a different person.
That it could be so simple. It might not be, but then again – it’s not impossible. She hates crowds and has always said pollution gives her a headache. Here, between the silver birches, she might acquire peace.
He starts to pay attention to the ‘For Sale’ signs. He can’t afford them, but they could. She and he could live happily ever after in one of these mock-Tudor castles. It could be their child (or even children) playing in this injury-proof playground. They could be the one’s climbing, swinging, flying down the slide’s silver tongue. There must be twenty, thirty kids in this playground, all of them seeking, most of them finding, their own kind of fun. Two of these will die in a fire; one will commit murder.
He reaches a crossroads. The traffic is thickening into rush hour. For the first time since he started walking he isn’t sure which way to go. All the roads are unappealing: gray, busy, lined with warehouses or an empty lot. He’ll have to take one to get home, to receive her call – she hates talking on mobiles – and what did she mean by ‘evening’? Most people would think this meant eight or nine o’clock; but if she decides it means six, he’ll miss her call. Something most people wouldn’t mind — they’d call back at seven, or eight, or nine — but then most people don’t try and stab the person they claim to love.
Sally tries to stand, but fails. She tries and fails again.
Cars pass in a metal line. Although she said ‘I’ll explain,’ he doesn’t see how she can. There are no reasons left. He knows her parents split up when she was nine; that she had an abortion when she was fifteen. At seventeen she ran away for three months with a much older man. He knows about the self-harm, the medication, the shoplifting. Each has been invoked as cause, as deserving of pardon. The only trauma yet to be invoked is some secret fatal disease, or, failing that, abuse. And how much does that excuse?
The evening will be warm: he won’t miss having a jacket or sweater at eight or nine or ten. He’ll walk and the phone will ring and so what if the light of hope goes out. Even before her message things were getting better. Admittedly, he wasn’t happy, but he’d certainly felt worse. The best thing is to stay away from her.
The street curves, and he follows it, and suddenly he’s tired. Everything around is dirty, the walls, the pavement, the mini cab office. The menu in Southern Fried Chicken has been sun-bleached white. It is one of those rare parts of London that can’t be gentrified.
He walks on, and as the road widens, the pavement starts to narrow. He’s closer to the passing cars, which are, or seem to be, going much faster, and this makes him angry. Why the fuck should he be in danger? All it needs is a trip, slip, the push of a stranger, and he will be dead.
As if on cue, three men appear, two of them white, one black. They are young and holding beer bottles and laughing very loudly. As they near, they fall silent. The pavement isn’t wide enough for the four of them.
He’s about to step aside, but the black one does first. The space he opens is not on either side of the group; it is in the middle.
They are looking at him, not talking. His heart punches his chest.
As he steps closer, the gap seems to narrow, but there is no good response. When he goes through, they’ll attack. If he looks scared, or tries to run, they’ll do the same.
He walks towards the gap. They will use their fists, their feet, the bottles.
One of the white men swallows; raises his arm; and yet Chris passes through.
He walks on, heart still hurting, till he reaches a junction. There he sits on a wall and closes his eyes and the darkness is kind for a while. He can see and think nothing as he quietly cries.
The sound of horns retrieves him. He opens his eyes and sees a queue of vehicles on the near side of the road. The closest is a white van so dirty no rain will trouble its filth.
The van moves forward enough for him to see its rear doors. Their windows are just as dirty, which is why he doesn’t notice the face at first. Small and mostly orange with black lines spreading from its mouth. Make up, he thinks, and the van moves forward, and though it is clearly a child he can’t decide on the sex. As if to help him, a hand rubs the window, but it makes little difference. A girl, he thinks, but it’s mostly a guess, though really, what does it matter? He would just as soon wave back to a little girl or boy, especially one waving so enthusiastically. He isn’t sentimental about children — they’re not innocent or angels — but neither is he indifferent. This little girl with her cute make up is exactly what he needs to see. Something so unambiguously joyous puts things in perspective.
The cars are moving faster but there is still time. Time to see her bang on the glass and — such is her excitement — shout something he can’t hear. Perhaps it isn’t even words, just her little roar.
And even as her face recedes, he’s reaching for his phone. He’ll call Rachael and she’ll answer. Things are going to be fine.
NICK HOLDSTOCK‘s first novel, The Casualties, is out now from St Martins Press. He is also the author of two books of non-fiction, The Tree That Bleeds and China’s Forgotten People.