Will and I walk in silence back to his, winding through the narrow streets, eyes fixed on the high rises that dominate the view ahead and leave pockets of darkness between them like swords thrust into the earth. The streets are crammed with low, dilapidated houses that crumble with age but once we cut into Eastbrookend Concrete Park the flats spring up around us like jenga towers. As we press through the litter I see more people smoking in five minutes than I did all year in Hackney. The glowing ends light guarded and haggard faces with puffy eyes and dark bags painting unnatural shadows. My fingers twitch when a young couple walk by sharing a rollie, each noticing the cigarette more when their partner holds it than when they do. Their faces reveal no satisfaction from the influx of nicotine; even the small pleasures are gradually taken from us. Even the pleasures that will kill us. I curl my twitching fingers into fists after they pass.
A couple of kids in the distance are kicking a ball between them and I jump when Will suddenly bounds off towards them, yelling and holding one arm in the air. They kick it to him and he rolls it onto a foot, bouncing it in the air a few times before delivering a fierce kick at the makeshift goals. It bolts into the night past the kids and he sprints after it, returning with a smile to pass it back to the young boys. By the time he jogs back to me his face is once again inscrutable but under a blinking street lamp I see his engorged pupils glistening.
Once through the field of high rises it’s only a few minutes until Will silently turns off the pavement towards the front door of a brick maisonette. I follow as my heart flutters with thoughts of radiators and a mattress and a hot meal. A shower. A tear pricks my cheek; one in six days - not bad.
The door opens onto a narrow flight of stairs and Will leads me up to his upper half of the building. From the small landing he points out the bathroom on our left, living room through the door ahead and the bedroom on our right. My gaze must have lingered on the bathroom because in seconds he’s pushing a towel into my hands and telling me to ‘go wild’.
The hot water is so heavenly I laugh and sing as I lather my hair with shampoo. Then I sit down and weep, hugging my knees to my chest as the foam sluices over my limbs and twirls around the plughole before being sucked into the drain.
When I step out there’s a pair of large joggers and a jumper thrown over the radiator. I blink - they weren’t there when I stepped in. The wet hairs rise on my arms like fragile warriors but when I reach out to touch the clothes they surrender to the soft, warm cotton instantly.
Within minutes of leaving the bathroom Will has sat me down at the table in the living room and shoved a huge bowl of pasta under my nose. I wolf it down, barely registering him putting my Zero clothes in the washing machine. Ravenous, I swallow pockets of air in my haste to finish the bowl, belching my way through the meal; it is more precious and delicious than any fine dining experience at the top of the fucking Shard.
‘There’s more,’ he nods at the small kitchen leading off the living room as I’m scraping the bowl clean. I don’t need telling twice - my hip bones are starting to protrude like two cysts and my ribs look like you could drag a wooden mallet over them to make music. As I eat my second bowl I try snatching glances at the man sitting on the sofa but defer to his unashamed open staring at me. He has strung no more than two words together at a time since we left the meeting, mostly in the form of instructions, and it’s this silence he keeps around him, like a moat surrounding a castle, that suggests an underestimated intelligence mans the canons.
‘I can do that!’ I squirm when he removes my bowl to clean it after I’ve finished. He ignores me, turning the tap on in the kitchen. As the water runs I study the plain room. It reminds me of my own place - my old place - in that it favours the bare essentials of a sofa, dining table and chairs and a shelf of books over comforts. In the far corner by the window is some kind of huge plant threatening to take over the glass looking out onto the street. There is nothing on the walls.
‘So, Will,’ I call loudly, ‘do you have a second name?’
I frown at the ajar door. ‘Not exactly.’
‘Well, then.’ I can hear cupboards being opened and a drawer rattling.
‘If I did I’d give it to you, though.’ I try. He says nothing. The silence stretches on and I press the backs of my hands to my cheeks as my stomach clenches and tongue flicks between my molars.
He kicks the door fully open and comes back in carrying the biggest mug of tea I’ve ever seen. It’s more of a flagon than a mug, and I smile gratefully at him when he sets it in front of me, taking the opportunity to study the broad man leaning over me. The lines of his body seem hard and carved under his thick jumper, like rocks under heather. His eyes sit high on the planes of his face that look like the snug, streamlined boulders of a riverbed, pebbled where shockingly dark stubble pushes through despite his blond hair. Above his chapped, curved lips sits a nose broken, it seems, at least three times, although I can’t imagine the fist that would have managed. He is noticeably taller, even when sitting opposite me, and when he wraps his thick fingers around a coffee, the porcelain steaming in his fierce grip, I can see a white patchwork of scars.
‘Self,’ he says, raising the mug to his lips.
‘Will Self. That’s my full name.’
‘Oh.’ I wrap both my hands around the giant mug, flinching at the heat. ‘Thank you.’
He nods. I can feel my tongue creeping towards my bottom teeth, pulsing, so I use it before it has a chance to wrap itself in silence against the bone.
‘Where did you meet everyone?’
‘Through the meetings.’
‘But you set the first ones up?’ My eyes dart over his face but I may as well be looking at a Latin dictionary for all I can glean from it.
‘Yes, with Mags.’
‘How did you two meet?’
‘Psych ward at the local hospital.’ My knuckles stiffen around the mug, but for the first time I see the hint of a smile directed towards me.
‘I gotta ask….’
He nods. ‘Mags - she weighs eight stone on a good day.’
‘And you?’ He takes another sip of his coffee, looking at me through the steam that curls up into his eyebrows and then places it down on his right, pulling at the sleeve on his left arm. He pushes his jumper past his elbow, revealing ribbed tendons under the skin, and then stretches it out on the table for me to see.
‘Ex-junkie,’ he says flatly. ’Or, ‘recovering drug addict’ as the literature goes.’ I blink at the collection of sunken white dots collected around the inside crease of his elbow and scattered down his forearm. In the middle is a long, raised white line as if someone tried to join them up. His skin is tough and the veins barely visible and I shudder thinking of how much he would have had to dig around with his needles.
‘Fuck,’ I offer. The sleeve comes down and the scars disappear. ‘How long have you been clean?’
‘Six years. About half the time I was using.’
‘Shit.’ There’s a pause and I take a mouthful of tea, then blow on it.
‘That’s weird,’ he frowns at me. My mouth hangs open momentarily digesting the dissection. No one ever noticed, I’m not sure even my mother realised what she was doing. My chest tightens at the thought of her and another tear rises wishing I could get in touch.
‘So, that-’ I say quickly, nodding at his arm. ‘That’s why you’re in Six?’
‘Five now, technically. And I don’t know - I doubt there are any painter decorators in One.’
‘Or Two, or Three, or Four,’ I mutter, narrowing my eyes at him. He stares at me unblinking. We both know he didn’t answer the question.
‘What about the others? What’s their background?’
‘I don’t think it’s my place to-’
‘I don’t think we have time for this game.’ His eyes flash at the interruption but I meet his gaze without flinching. The food has kicked in and I’m starting to feel more able, more like Red. He takes a breath and starts talking in a fast monotone.
’As I said, Mags is anorexic - mental health. Davey broke his leg as a kid and it never healed right, tough guy, though. Sammy, although you should stick with Samuel, isn’t too bright but his wife, Alice, is brilliant and prone to cancerous lumps. Art’s a sensitive soul, very good with people, Type One diabetic. Hunter was streamed for school in Three ’til last year when her parents told her they didn’t like her fucking off and she should be with them earning money for the house and that they didn’t want her going off to university anyway. She acted up, got herself expelled and got a job pulling pints in her local.
’Her parents did that to her?’
‘It’s not rare. Even parents get jealous. There’s plenty more like her who fuck up the jump to the Inner City when they’re young.’
‘Poor kid.’ I take another loud sip of tea trying to drown my privilege. Will pauses for a moment.
‘I wouldn’t feel too sorry for her.’
‘Oh, I saw enough fire in her to stop me.’
‘Saw a bit of yours, too.’ The air snaps and pulses between us like the skin of a far-off drum. We both take a drink, looking at each other.
‘I think you should do another painting tonight,’ he says eventually. ‘Somewhere in the park. Two in the same neighbourhood and people will guess you’re staying put. They’ll get excited.’
I nod even as my body weeps at the thought. ‘That’s the idea.’
‘I’ll come with you, show you a place. Maybe take some photos while you’re at it for the site.’
‘Not a bad shout. Anonymous, though.’ He nods and drains his coffee.
‘Let’s get a couple hours kip first. This neighbourhood doesn’t shut up til after three anyway.’ He picks up both our mugs and puts them through in the kitchen. Coming out, he taps me on the arm, indicating for me to follow him.
In the bedroom I fall face-first onto the double bed and drag my body under the covers as sweep swallows me like a python that has been lying in wait. I’m passed out before Will clambers in beside me.
Twenty minutes later a car alarm erupts on the street and sends me bolt upright like an electric shock leaving me shaking and confused, staring at the unfamiliar shadows on the ceiling. As my eyes adjust and I remember everything my shallow breathing becomes heavy, laden sobs. Will sits up beside me and pulls my curled silhouette into his chest, wrapping me in powerful, silent equanimity.