The DVT troops had arrived.
Across the nation, testing units were being assembled in community halls and churches, schools and hospitals. Citizens would be tested at the unit closest to their work address, even if off shift that day. The time and date was allocated through employers in advance. The registering process for the self-employed was a headache in itself, and enough to ward off many from that path.
The testing was a quick, ruthless process and every citizen passed through the system in the seven days and seven nights. Holidays were not permitted during that week and the only exceptions made were for heavily pregnant women and mothers with children under three months old. They, along with children and students, were tested later in the credit year. Those who were unemployed had no way of being tested. They were the Zeroes.
Strangely enough, the sun was shining on Friday as the government employees unloaded the numerous body pods from their flashing lorries and into Christchurch on Commercial Street. The church was rarely - if ever - frequented throughout the year but during the week of DVT it felt the stamp of the thousands who worked in and around Spitalfields trundle through its doors. None of them stopped to admire the tall, narrow stone church fronted by pillars with a huge spire that reared into the sky. It was long and rectangular, like the body of a horse, and despite London’s grime it still somehow gleamed white. Not the kind of white she saw for lack of colour, but a pure, thick white like whipped cream. It stood proudly amidst the steel and glass and brick, obstinate in its difference even though its bells hadn’t rung in years. It was a piece of the past, jutting out into the space of now, causing the same jarring as finding a torn-out page of the wrong book tucked inside another.
Through its stiff iron railings a long line of identical machines were being transported inside. The machines were shaped like pods, each eight feet high, four feet across and four feet deep. They were built to allow for a single person to stand inside without touching the walls. Built into the hollow were scanners, transmitters, needles and electrodes, all automated to take blood samples, monitor brain activity, and perform X-rays, MRIs and ultrasounds. The science behind the all-in-one pod was phenomenal; it provided not just a full-body, but a full-person, check-up without the need for staff.
In fact, none of the units were manned by anyone other than the twenty-four hour security staff who protected the expensive machines. Results were logged by a computer that then calculated the individual’s DV using the incoming medical results, the information from the personal piece of software it scanned in the drawer below the screen, individual financial history, and previous trajectories that were pre-loaded onto the database. The only thing the subject had to do was place their phone or laptop in the drawer and log in with their fingerprint. In this way, they were also a part of the automated process - despite it being unmanned nobody questioned the DVT and everyone showed up at their allotted time.
The results were sent directly to the individual and their employer. It was easy to discern from how tightly those exiting gripped their phones as they read their results to know whether or not that person would be pulled into a meeting later.
The long walk to HR after bad results was known as the Death March. She had only seen it once at SM. An older colleague had returned from the DVT pale and shaking. The woman sat at her desk with a stupefied expression for less than five minutes before the email came through demanding her attendance. She had flinched as it was automatically dictated into her ear. Her walk out of the Arena was slow and painful - it was a walk so different to the normal parading that everyone stopped to watch the unmistakeable drag of the Death March. The woman’s chest had buckled inwards and her shoulders hunched around her dropped chin. As the woman passed her desk, she had seen red staining her balled fists. Unnoticed by anyone else, the woman was digging her nails deep into her palms to stop herself from crying out. No one went to her, and the silence broke like a spell when the double doors swung shut behind her.
She disappeared. No one knew what had happened to her. She was probably just demoted, or told where else to find work. Work a little less demanding, perhaps, with shorter hours or less responsibility. Probably. Perhaps. No one wanted to know.
When they parted later that day, she gave Kathy a kiss on the cheek. She had been filling her ears with distractions about National Pride and the party they were hosting that she had promised Kath could have full autonomy over. But her jibbering was met with silence. The only sound Kathy made on their way out of SM was a small gurgle in the back of her throat as Bateman stormed past them.
‘I just want to get into Two,’ Kathy had whispered when they walked out onto Brick Lane. Kathy’s fears may not have been the nightmare of losing her job, but they threatened her identity with the same finality a noose - or a zero - might.
The tube home was so tightly packed even breathing was an effort. The people were squeezed in so desperately that they sweated onto one another. The air was just as panicked as if the carriage had been filled with hens, but narrowed by that delicate British politeness that ensured no one share their burden, or another’s.
The Pinstripes futilely contorted their bodies to shy away from each other, flinching whenever their clammy skin was met by someone else’s. It was a pointless ritual, for each shudder of the tube jostled them into each other’s warmth. Only the very slight twitches of disgust were revealed in their faces as they fixed their eyes on the strip of adverts above the seats, instinctively moving apart before coming together again, like jelly. Earphones twisted into each individual kept them separated from one another so that only their physical bodies relapsed into connection with one another.
Come the following Saturday, these self-same individuals would become a homogenous mass after being birthed from their pods, singing in the streets to celebrate National Pride as one. After the weekend was over and the streets attacked by the sorry workers who had to clean up after everyone, these individuals would again shutter their senses, once more adopting their passive roles as receptors in their aggressive, coded reality.
She was on her feet near the doors, hemmed in on all sides by these men and women. A few minutes before her stop the crowd was shoved into each other as the tube sped up and she felt an erection pressing into her hip. Unable to move and confront the man she chose to ignore it, pressing her lips together tightly as the rest of her body tensed.
He pushed his torso harder up against her, shuffling, and she felt his breath in her hair as he leaned towards her ear. Her mouth began to twist in a snarl when he whispered, ‘I’m sorry.’ His voice was strained and brimming with guilt. The snarl disappeared and without thinking she relaxed into him for a few seconds instinctively. Not to comfort him but to show that she, too, knew they were only human.
When she got home, Humbert’s package was waiting in the passage by the front door. Its torn paper showed it had been opened and resealed, as was common when items were sent between citizens. Picking it up, she noticed the first class stamp that meant it should have arrived on Tuesday, and realised they must have detained it for a few days to examine it. Her heart jumped and she squeezed the package to her belly. It didn’t feel like a book and there was the tell-tale tension of bubble wrap under the paper.
She carried it into the elevator using both arms due to its heavy weight and odd cylindrical shape. This is a thing, she thought as the doors slid shut. She looked at her reflection. A thing, nothing more and nothing less, its only identification is that it exists, she marvelled, gazing at the mirrored package that existed as pure potential. It was so rare to behold an object that wasn’t already labelled and identified, owned and known.
I am holding a piece of magic, she realised as the doors opened on her floor. This piece of the unknown was entirely different to the deliberate ignorance used as shelter in her age of information-tsnuamis. It threatened the very authority of her society; it belonged to the past. She trembled, breathing deeply. It reeked of discovery.
Entering her flat, she dropped her bag on the kitchen floor and placed the package delicately in the middle of the table. She stood back from it, hands on her hips, before bending down to fish for her cigarettes in her bag. Turning away from the thing, she put her smoking paraphernalia on the counter and hastily rolled one. Still facing away, she stuck it between her lips and lit it, taking a few draws before leaning over the counter onto her forearms.
A wave of responsibility coursed through her. She had a choice, a genuine choice, which was so rare, sitting behind her. To open it would be to bring the thing into reality but destroy its magic and potential. It would give it life in her world - she would birth it. But she could also refuse it by choosing not to engage with it and leave it as it was.
Her lungs flapped with her heart at the novelty of experiencing this marginal control over a sliver of her life. She racked her brain for a solution while the smoke from the cigarette curled around her neck. As she raised it to her mouth she knew by the tremor of her fingers eventually either her mind would unravel leaving the parcel untouched, or her life would by opening it and following through with whatever actions it demanded of her – for what mother can ignore the needs of her child?
The blood seemed to thin in her brain and her skull felt lighter. Dots marred her vision. Being faced with a choice caused a rush, if only because it was an impermanent state. But choice cannot simply disappear, nothing can - even a zero is still deserving of a shape - it must be transferred to some other thing or person, even fleetingly; it ricochets through the world directing the people by the pull of its fleeting visits.
Control ought to have that same pattern but in reality had been bought and blanketed by Westminster. Maybe in her seizing of it she could bounce it back to someone else, or pull hard enough that she tore a hole in the fabric that weighed over her and her fellow man. Yes, to leave the package would be to honour its magic, but her world already had a party of self-appointed gods who no longer believed in magic.
She spun around to face the package and took a quick drag on the cigarette to finish it before throwing it in the sink.
‘You better not be a bloody ornament,’ she addressed the package, pulling a sharp knife from one of the drawers to her side. Standing over it, she sliced through the industrial tape at the top and around the sides and then ripped at the plastic with her hands. Throwing the sack aside, she was left with the bubble wrap shell that she easily sliced through like blubber.
Cocooned in the wrap was a sealed cylindrical tin that was only slightly taller than it was wide. She frowned at it and then noticed the note taped to the side. Tearing off the envelope with her name on it, she realised she had never before seen the professor’s handwriting on paper, only in the margins of books.
In small, messy uppercase letters he had written:
WHEN I PUT MY HANDS TO WORK
IT IS WORK, TRULY, THAT CLAWS
AND CARRIES TOOLS INTO BEING
WEIGHING HEAVILY ON MY HIPS,
DRIVING CLAY BETWEEN MY TOES
THAT BUCKLE UNDER THE USE OF SOME THINGS.
BUT YOURS HAVE THE POWER TO CREATE
- SOMETHING -
WITH A SEED THAT ENTERS
FROM WHERE MY BLACKSMITH FINGERS
CAN NEVER COMPREHEND.
But THEY ARE WARMED BY THE FIRE
IN WHICH YOUR TOOLS WERE MADE-
MY ONLY PURPOSE-
SO THAT YOU MAY DISCOVER THE PEAK
PAINTED ONLY IN YOUR EYES.
She lifted the piece of paper to her nose to smell the musty scent of books caught in sunlight, forgiving him. Putting it to the side, she broke the seal and strained at the lid of the airtight container, noticing its internal sway. The lid was tight but she was persistent. When she managed to pry the top off she dropped it again almost instantly. It clattered loudly next to the tin she was staring into with eyes almost as wide as it.
Unable to restrain herself she dipped a hand inside. When she lifted it back out, her hand was dripping with viscous yellow. The professor had made paint for her and, somehow, had ended up with the colour of her dreams despite his blindness.
She plunged both her hands in, her laughing and crying whoops coursing through the flat. She had long stopped fantasising about having other colours in her arsenal, being happy with the unflinching message caught in the faint smell of iron on her paintings. But now, having it in front of her, this wondrous, magical, golden pool of light, she saw in it her baptism: Artist.
Uncaring of the paint dripping onto her floors - they were hardly hers - she ran with the tin into her study and sat it on the floor, not bothering to set up the rest of the room. Dashing to the fridge, she grabbed a bottle of blood and seized two brushes and a sheet of paper from the chest.
As the brush stroked the first yellow streak across the paper she let out a little moan thrilled by its brightness. Another stroke, another moan that then gathered in her throat, making its way back down to her gut as a growl before bursting back up and out as a yell. She hacked at the paper furiously, holding onto the side of the easel to keep it from falling, gripping one brush between her teeth at a time as she painted with each colour.
Over and over again, unseeing of the room around her, she swept the fibres across the page with a kind of natural grace that cannot be replicated swiping at a screen. She held her nose to the paper to dab in the details without fear of burning her retinas. She moved with the creature being uncovered before her, taking time to nurture its orgiastic gestation. Every time she stopped her dance that high-pitched tone in her mind screamed louder than ever before. It was pouring out of the painting, out of her. It, too, was becoming something.
All the anger and destitution and hatred and voiceless refusal that had been suffocated as she had marched in her place suddenly flooded her like fuel. Her muscles twitched with the same urgency that had propelled her to dump her paintings, naked, wishing to be found. No more waiting. No more would she be the object wishing to be found. She was going to find him.
The man with the yellow scarf stared out at her from the page, his face wrapped in the garment so that only the impressions of his features were visible. Her obsession with him had boiled and retreated in waves like every other facet of her being as it violently oscillated between stillness and rage trying to find an escape from the debilitating routine structured around her. He would know. He had done it, had he not? The noise built behind her eyes with physical pressure as if a harpoon was speared between her brows.
‘Where are you?’ she said to the painting. ‘Who are you?’ She repeated these two questions louder and louder, shaking the easel with both hands. The pressure behind her eyes became more painful. She relished it, her face twisting into a growl.
She ripped the painting from the easel with enough force to knock it over. Pacing the room, she held the paper in her outstretched arms, promising the hidden man she would not be bleached by the morning sun this time. Her heavy breathing seemed to scorch her nostrils and expand her ribs that vibrated like an accordion. Her tongue pushed through her clamped teeth and flicked at the wet pink of her lips.
All that was static and silent - the easel, the walls, the city - seemed ugly and toxic to her. She cast the painting away and bent over, putting both hands on the wall, panting. She was hot, so hot, and the noise and the pressure and the fire on her skin - she felt like she was carrying a nuclear bomb in her womb, inevitably decaying. She thought of the nursery rhyme the woman with the witch’s eyes had sung to her and whispered it.
‘London’s burning, London’s burning, fetch the engines, fetch the engines, fire fire! Fire fire! FIRE FIRE!’ She yelled ‘FIRE’ over and over again with her eyes screwed shut, still pushing against the wall.
She paused to take a ragged breath and only then did she hear the doorbell to her flat ringing. She laughed, imagining it was a neighbour come to complain about the ‘noise’, as any unwanted sound was delegated to. Not music or chatter or cries, simply noise.
She had stripped off her shirt as she painted and her bra and exposed torso was flecked with red and yellow. But whoever it was wouldn’t see that, so she stalked to the door as she was with a smirk, humming the rhyme low in her throat.
Her jaw dropped to see Robert standing on the other side when she opened the door, just as his did when he saw she was half-naked.
‘You’re getting closer to feral each time I see you,’ he joked, stepping past her into the hall. ‘Suits you.’
She shut the door and racked her brain for plans they’d made. And how did he get into the building?
As if reading her mind, he said, ‘You sounded stressed when we talked yesterday so I thought I’d surprise you with a Friday picnic. Best way to end a shitty week.’ She turned around to face him and, sure enough, he was carrying a big shopping bag with a baguette sticking out of the top.
‘One of your neighbours let me in as she was leaving…’ He trailed off, watching her. ‘Are you ok?’
As the shock quietened the burning rush returned. She wanted to share it with him, to show him her. She dragged her gaze across him with such force he trembled underneath it. The heat pulsed between her legs as she took a step towards him and savagely pulled his mouth down to meet hers. He stumbled forward, the bag banging against her thigh. She used the momentum to drag him forward until her back was up against a wall. She moaned on his lips, tugging at the flesh with her teeth and pulling hard on his curls with one hand as the other clawed at his chest. Every time she pushed into his mouth she was met with no resistance, only the wetness of his tongue.
He dropped the bag finally and put both hands on her waist. She pulled his hips towards her and bucked into them so that her shoulders rolled on the wall, but he moved back with hers. Her breathing came as fast and heavy as her kisses in a bid to ignite him so that they could burn together. He put both hands on her jaw and pressed his elbows between them. The fire waned in the space that opened up. She twisted her head so that his hands threaded in her hair and tugged on his own in instruction, but they hung entangled until he maneuvered them free only to place back at her jaw.
The cold air between their bodies seemed bright as a winter’s morning and unbearably present. It cooled her torso and legs. She fought to close the space, seeking warmth from him by wrapping a leg around his waist and pulling his jaw with her fingertips tightly before locking an arm around his neck. He moved his hands to her breasts and massaged.
She stopped moaning and their dissonance sounded like the muffled tussles of the dead. A steady grief rose in her, clamping around her organs like the frost between them. Desperately, she released his mouth and forcefully dragged her canines across his jugular flicking the salty surface with her tongue. He twisted away sharply.
‘Calm down,’ he smirked, rubbing a hand over the bite, the other still dangling from her breast. The clumsy way he was manhandling her body for himself and the smugness of his features sparked something in her and she thrust more space between them making the air hot again with anger.
‘What did you say to me?’ Her voice was hard and vibrant like a steel drum. ‘Calm down? The hell!’ He had stumbled back from her and his smug features gave way to confusion.
‘This is how I like it,’ she continued, stabbing a finger into her chest. ’So do not tell me to ‘calm down’ because this just is me.’
He looked at her and laughed suddenly. ‘What’s with the feminist angst? Chill out, it was just too much. You don’t need to do that over the top shit - you’re not in a porno.’ His smile wavered when she took a threatening step towards him.
’Are you telling me what to do again?’
‘Hey,’ he said, raising his hands in defence, ‘I just thought you were trying to please.’
’Ha! No, Robert, I was ‘trying to please’ every other time I’ve held back and done it your way.’ She prowled around him into the lounge so that he was the closest to the front door, and turned, standing guard.
‘You enjoyed yourself,’ he said flatly. His fragile ego peeked like the ring at the opening of his shirt.
‘Couple things,’ she said briskly, folding her arms. ‘One - more often than not us women make ourselves come; and two - we are all guilty of faking it.’
‘Some feminist if you’re faking it,’ he snapped, crossing his own arms, ready to defend his masculinity.
‘Some man if you don’t know how to satisfy,’ she shot back. He trembled under the attack of words she didn’t particularly mean. But she felt betrayed. The man he promised to be had never arrived.
’What the hell is going on?’ He ran his hands through his hair. It looked clichéd. ‘I come over with dinner to surprise you and we’re making out and-’
’Making out?’ she sneered.
‘-and then we’re having this stupid fight and you’re supposed to be meeting my mates next week-’
She stopped listening and frowned, thinking of the screenshot he’d sent her. Suddenly, she knew what had bothered her about it. She ignored him, moved into the kitchen and grabbed her bag that was still sitting on the floor. She pulled out her phone and brought up the picture. Her body coiled like a spring when she finally saw it.
‘I thought you said you didn’t have Facebook, Robert?’
‘What?’ he exhaled, eyes flicking between the phone and her face.
‘You told me you don’t have Facebook,’ she repeated.
‘I- I don’t.’
She walked over and raised the screen to his face, tapping at the bottom left corner of the screenshot where the upper curve of the Facebook logo was just visible.
‘Then what’s this notification?’ He recoiled from the screen and put both hands in his pockets, looking at the floor. ‘You can’t have the app without an account, Robert.’
‘I don’t-’ he tried again. She pitched her phone onto the sofa and held her hand out at him.
‘Give me your phone,’ she said sweetly, like a menacing doll.
He looked up. ‘What? Are you bloody cra-’
’Don’t you dare lie to me and then call me crazy,’ she cut across him, locking his gaze. They waited it out. Her hand was steady as he shifted on his feet.
‘Ok fine,’ he said eventually, ‘I’ll tell you-’
‘Phone,’ she interrupted, wiggling her fingers.
‘Phone.’ He opened and closed his mouth a few times before slowly pulling his phone out of his jacket pocket, unlocking it and handing it to her. Within seconds she was on his profile.
’You call yourself Pilgrim Bobby?!’ she scoffed. ‘Why in god’s name did you say you were a journ- Oh.’ Her face darkened and she raised her eyes to meet his. ’Works at the BBC as a social media assistant editor? Jesus. I am such a damned fool.’
She spun around and went into the kitchen, putting his phone beside her on the counter as she rolled another cigarette. He was silent behind her.
’What else, huh? What else, Bobby,’ she said, licking the paper and flattening it along the tube. She lit it before picking up the phone again and turning back to lean against the counter. She wanted to hurl it at him, or shove it up his arse so that it melted in his stomach and flooded his insides. She went into his texts.
‘Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,’ she said, reading quickly to herself before clearing her throat: ’Hi Bobby, sweetie, lovely seeing you last night, as always. Have a good day at work and we’ll see you next Thursday. Mum.’
She took a hard drag on her cigarette, watching him. ‘I’m guessing your parents aren’t in Aberdeen.’
He kept his eyes on the floor. ‘No.’
‘I’ve seen enough.’ He looked up and caught his phone as she tossed it to him. She turned her head to look out over London as she had done thousands of times before. All she could see were lights, as truths hid in the shadows. The rhyme tolled in her head and she nursed the flames licking her peripheral vision.
‘Have you not left yet?’ she said with ice on her breath, still looking out the window.
‘I want to explain-’
‘I don’t care.’
‘It’s not what it looks like-’
She cut across him with a bark. ‘I see your cliché and raise you another: It’s exactly what it looks like.’
‘Come on, kid-’
‘That’s not my name.’
‘You would have never taken the time to fall for me if you knew the truth,’ he pleaded. She turned back to him with a raised eyebrow, annoyed.
‘Am I meant to feel sorry for you?’
Robert ploughed on. ‘My family’s here, ok? My parents have good DVs. I was raised in Three-’
‘I didn’t ask.’
‘-I’m just the disappointment, the bad genes who isn’t half as good as his parents and never will be-’
‘Keep your privileged sob story for reality TV, Robert.’
’Exactly!’ His hands shot into the air, startling her. ’I knew you were different, I knew you wouldn’t have time for that - but I was so desperate to get to know you I said the first thing that came into my head.’ He took a hesitant step towards her into the kitchen, looking at her like a pouting mistress. ‘Come on - broker, Zone Two already. Normal me didn’t stand a chance.’
’Out the kitchen,’ she hissed at him. He moved back, beaten. ‘Everything we discussed, about politics and the system and the injustice of it all… It’s not because you’re passionate about change - it’s because you resent it for taking your silver bloody spoon away.’
‘Technically- technically the system works,’ he spluttered, ‘especially for someone like you.’ His face crumpled under the abhorrence shooting from her eyes. He looked down at his feet again and shuffled, before saying quietly to himself more than her, ‘I’m no trailblazer.’
Tears pricked her eyes and washed away the superimposed image of him leaving only the soft, fragile edges of the real man in her sight. Her brow creased for this person who would spend his life crippled by doubt and a bastardised self-worth.
But stronger than that was her heart beating furiously with its war cry. She was angry at him for polishing his image with despair and lies, and for thinking they were justified. She was livid for believing them against her better intuition and for losing entire weekends in his arms, forsaking passion for comfort. She seethed thinking of her other passions she had sacrificed thinking herself unable to harness the rage that drove them outside of her room. She had underestimated herself, just as he had; she was furious with them both, and all the other people who did the same.
She noticed Robert creeping towards her again with baleful eyes and held up a palm to stop him.
‘Your notebooks,’ she said, ‘What was in your notebooks?’
‘Um, some ideas and notes and creative stuff.’
He sighed. ‘But mostly my notes from digging through old newspaper archives. Remember I told you about that on our first date?’
She puffed on the cigarette. No poems or novels, then. ‘Get out,’ she said calmly.
‘Now, Robert. Piss off.’ Her face was impassive as she casually smoked the cigarette but the rage radiated from her like a force field. He nodded sadly and picked up his bag of food in the hall as he retreated. He thought she looked incredible, looking out the window and smoking a rollie in her bra and skirt with her hair slicked back from sweat. She seemed as foreign to him as she always did: Feral, yes, and too much for him. Because of that he loved her.
‘Can I just say something before I go?’ She turned to look at him. He shivered at the wildness in her stare. It made his breath come tight, attacking his jugular just as she had not twenty before.
‘I’m worried you drink too much,’ he said softly.
The bread bin came flying at his head from the kitchen and he had to duck to miss it, scurrying to the front door. She ran to it and kicked it shut behind him shaking with adrenaline.
‘Wanker’s probably right,’ she said to herself before walking back into her studio. She righted the easel and put the painting back on it, looking at the hollows of the man’s eyes through the scarf. She was already consumed by too much to be worried about her drinking.
Rocked with yet another bereavement and loaded with a rampaging wrath she found herself pulling on her running gear in her bedroom, bewitched by the sound that resonated once more in her skull.
Then she was outside and running towards the Wick. Driven by the ethereal wailing she barely noticed when she reached the canal, automatically running over a bridge and turning left to follow the water North. The path was dark save for the occasional beam cast across from the other side of the canal and the odd street lamp huddled over a lone bench every five hundred yards.
She slowed her hurtling pace. The lights of the city glowed to her left, and to her right the woodlands of Hackney Marsh creaked and moaned, threatening in their invisibility. The water sang from its deep shadows and she lost her gaze in the black surface as if a siren gurgled in its depths. Despite the narrow banks and line of homes not forty metres away, she felt utterly alone, as a widow might at her husband’s busy funeral. Her breath escaped her as visible clouds, the clean imitation of the smoke in her kitchen.
Suddenly, she saw a figure up ahead sitting on the next bench under the cold glare of the street lamp. He was hunched over with his arms huddled around his body for warmth. As she neared, she saw the frayed trousers and dirt on his raincoat. Just when she was passing he looked up and their eyes met. She gasped and tried to stop so suddenly she tripped over onto her knees. Uncaring, she gaped up at him with an open mouth. Sure enough, around his neck and exposed only when he raised his chin, was a yellow scarf.
‘Are you alright?’ he asked without budging, looking down the path where she had run from, his eyes darting about madly as he twitched. She stood slowly so as not to alarm him and brushed the dirt from her knees.
‘Yes, thank you,’ she said. ‘Are you a Zero?’
‘I could be,’ he said carefully. She was amazed at the posh accent that could have cut glass and watched as he produced a bottle of vodka and a folded up Costa cup from inside his coat. He poured a huge measure of vodka into the cup and then dug inside an outer pocket, bringing out a can of ginger beer, merely topping up the vodka.
‘Would you like one?’ he offered when she sat next to him. She shook her head. Closer, now, she could see his teeth were broken and stained. The once white of his eyes had become yellow pools encircling irises that years before had been sky-blue but were now sullied with a gummy fluid. He blinked furiously, anyway. His beard and hair were greying red and she saw a droplet of saliva hang perilously from his bottom lip and rest in his beard. She couldn’t tear her eyes from it as it survived the cup’s numerous journeys to his mouth.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked, captivated by the little man.
‘Kilgore Trout.’ He couldn’t have been over fifty but the cup shook in his hand.
‘What do you do, Kilgore?’
‘As little as possible, my dear,’ he laughed in a minor tone. ‘We live in a secular society and I am quite happy with it.’ He grinned at her and she shuddered watching his pupils fading and reappearing in his irises.
‘You’re happy with this society?’ She looked down at the yellow scarf with a knotted brow. ‘But you’re not treated as a member of it.’
He giggled again, high-pitched. ‘Of course I am - I’m a prostitute, darling.’ He sucked at the drink in his cardboard cup, spilling some of it down his coat.
‘All your life?’
‘No, no. First I went to Oxford.’
‘University?!’ Her shock echoed down the path but the smiling man didn’t notice.
‘Yes! I wanted taken to the most decadent university possible, so I read Philosophy at Oxford for two years.’ He blinked at her, his focus occasionally settling on the air next to her head.
‘Then? Then I went to Nottingham and studied Art History for two years!’
She bit her lip, feeling caught in the spin of a double helix. She was confident Art History had been a dead subject for a very long time, especially in the more prestigious universities, but she wanted to hear more of Kilgore’s story.
‘Two years? So did you not finish the degrees?’
‘Darling, I got both!’ he shrieked. He finished his drink and immediately refilled it from the vodka and ginger beer at his feet. She flinched at the endless glug of the spirit.
’I was just so desperate to get here,’ he beamed, toasting his cup to the lights of London across the water.
‘Why?’ she asked, blowing into her hands to fight the cold. She shook her head when he once again offered her the vodka bottle.
‘Why? I can’t remember the first reason, now. I had never even heard of the word Soho, but when I came to London I dove into a homosexual orgy - dove headfirst into a swimming pool of drugs and sex - and didn’t resurface for a long time. When I did, I thought: What the hell happened?’
He giggled again and she turned to face him, sitting cross-legged as he cheerfully told her about the Underground Soho that had tried, for a brief period, to reclaim its former glory. Based on their DVTs, the boys of Soho were destitute and down-and-out, but they were trading in cash to cheat the Value system. He talked about his job at a nightclub and his good friend Cilla. She was entranced, even when his accent wavered talking about the fierce woman.
’She was one of the greatest influencers of my life. She was half-Hungarian and half-Swedish with long blonde hair down to her waist. She had a boyfriend called Rico who was an Albanian gangster and a Polish girlfriend called Michelle. She was secretly renting a flat in Hampstead and another in Archway she could send either her boyfriend or girlfriend to when they annoyed her.
‘She was an international dominatrix who charged men ten thousand pounds for one night. Her clients were the rich and famous, the powerful. Members of parliament, oh yes. Her life was like a film.’ He paused and turned to her, his lids blinking rapidly over unfocused eyes.
’In one of the darker days of my life, shall we say, Cilla came to my place for just twenty minutes. That was her style. But when she left there was five thousand pounds in fifty-pound notes sitting on my mantelpiece.
’I called her and asked: ‘Cilla, darling, did you leave anything?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘Of course - I didn’t leave a thing,’ she said. ‘Cilla,’ I said, ‘there was something in my fireplace-’ She interrupted me, ‘Look Kilgore, if you found something in your flat then it’s yours, but I didn’t forget anything.’ I said thank you. She didn’t like that. ‘What are you talking about,’ she said.’
She could see the man was completely mad but that didn’t mean his story wasn’t true - she had always been lied to by the sane. She let him talk, smiling, laughing and gasping loudly. He responded to her and became more animated as he talked, re-filling his cup again and giggling with her. A breeze crept past them, gently tickling their faces.
‘It’s Cilla’s spirit,’ he whispered, holding out a shaking arm and closing his eyes, waving his fingers through the air. She watched a leaf bounce along the ground.
‘Kilgore, I really like your scarf.’ His eyes stayed closed and he swayed his arm as if conducting the chorus of trees before them. ‘Where did you get your scarf, Kilgore?’
He bobbed his head as if floating in water and then tugged open his eyes to look at her, lowering his arm to finger the material.
‘Someone gave it to me. They said it was very special and I had to look after it.’ He looked at her suspiciously before saying, ‘You can’t have it.’
‘That’s fine, Kilgore, I want you to keep it. But can you tell me who gave it to you? And when?’
‘Well, I don’t know - maybe it was Cilla incarnate!’ He giggled again. She knew he was not the man she was looking for - but maybe that was her problem.
‘Kilgore, have you been in Zone One recently?’ she asked despite already knowing the answer.
‘Not since Soho died,’ he moaned, looking at the ground. Another leaf danced towards them and then he whooped with glee. She put her feet on the ground and leaned back against the bench, putting a hand over her eyes to massage the terrible noise that had crept back under her brow. She felt him shift on the bench.
‘Hey!’ she yelled, springing onto her feet. Kilgore was on his side and had kicked her thigh with his worn shoes.
‘I want to go to sleep,’ he said happily, stretching out as if the bench was the most comfortable bed in London.
‘What else can I do, darling,’ he slurred at her, gazing up through heavy lids. ‘I’m tired.’ He cackled with laughter one final time, using a hand to wrap the scarf around his head and then pull up his hood. The bottle of vodka was clutched to his chest in the other hand.
‘Open,’ he grinned, tapping his eyes. ‘Closed.’ His lids snapped shut and he tucked his hands around his chest. Standing with her back to the City, she looked over the Zero now snoring happily against the backdrop of the forest and smiled.
‘Closed, open,’ she muttered under her breath. And so she looked up and into murky violence of the woods, eyes open. Out of the darkness came a crystallized thought to meet her as if it had been waiting at the lip of the trees all this time for her to see it. Turning on her heel, she ran home hard and fast in the midnight hour.
When she got back she lunged for phone still sitting on the kitchen table. As the dial tone connected, the high-pitched noise in her skull pulsed against the bone almost unbearably. The phone rang and she picked up her cigarettes - all of them, lighter too - and threw them in the bin just as the phone connected.
’It’s me, it’s me! Listen, please, listen, I need to tell you something - I can see colours, real colours, I can’t see the colours you see. I can see the other things like people and the sunrise and green leaves and red blood and- and everything else - I can see the colour of your eyes-’ She stopped, gasping for breath.
‘I know,’ said her mother, the origin of the sound, of her nature.
In the glass of her balcony door she saw London burning.
END OF PART ONE