‘I’m sorry, Kath.’
I whisper this as I press publish on the story that leaks her affair with Bateman online. It was always the plan, a big enough shock story to grab the attention of the Inner Zones and get them onsite when we had the film up, but I thought I would still be anonymous. Now, I’m using it to bring in people to tell my story to. Now, Kathy will always know me as the friend who fed her to the wolves. The betrayal will plunge so deep into her back I doubt she’ll understand why I had to do it. Instead, everything we shared will become shards of glass running through her until the black ribbons of her heart find their way to her throat.
Sickened, I leave the maisonette to walk the streets of my new home trying to taste the salt in the air from the flesh of the thousands more who suffer worse betrayals every day. But on each corner I see Kathy, strung up to my easel with heavy chains around her arms and legs. I see myself flying overhead with huge, white-tipped wings and blood dripping from my curved beak, black eyes fixed on the gaping hole in her abdomen.
Will must have called Mags because when I get back she’s sitting at the table monitoring the site statistics. She could have done it from home but I don’t stop to think whether he’s being kind or patronising and instead settle myself next to her watching the numbers creep up too slowly. The story’s not getting enough traction.
I cut a huge corner, hating the sight of myself in the darkened reflection of the computer screen, and send the fucking link to Milo. Then they come rushing in.
The next day’s headlines are devoted to our piece after it went viral, and the ‘alleged accusations’ made by ‘wanted broker’ on ‘radical website’ who ’claims to be the ‘artist’ Red’. Both Bateman and the Chancellor refuse to comment but Kathy fucks up. She is quoted as saying: ‘I hate her.’
I am now the one and only face of the ‘movement’ as the press have taken to calling it. I sympathise - it’s difficult to name something when it morphs and transforms and adapts every day. The air has become lighter, almost, at the Zone meetings I’m attending. I thought I would be quelling anxieties perpetuated, or even created, by the Mail’s original story but instead they commend me for my bravery, for taking the press head on, for refusing to be silenced. They are galvanised.
After a week we hear rumours that journalists and plain-clothes policemen are closing in on Zones Five and Six as the epicentre of the action, much like I did just three months ago. I agree to lie low in the maisonette, bouncing a tennis ball off the wall as I sit flogging my imagination for the next move, the next story, to get people back onsite. After the initial explosion, the numbers dropped when The Telegraph released a piece saying computers were contracting viruses from visiting the page. It was a brilliant counter-move, and I feel like I played my queen too early. Our only hope is to get a pawn deep behind enemy lines and turn it into a queen; but our reality is not a table of neat, checkered tables and colour-coded teams.
The flagon of coffee I refill endlessly always turns to ice before I’ve taken a sip, my sight lost among the resurrection of my crimes, both false and true, that crowd the landscape of my mind like blocks of steel and glass primed for demolition. I can’t see past their asbestos-filled cavities and the flags that drip from their windows that bear my face.
I shudder when Alice and Davey report from their Six meeting that a group of men and women arrived with shaved heads - something about making the hunt for me a little more difficult. Like children crazed with sugar, the trend catches on across the Outer Zones and soon I can walk the streets again without fear, just another cloud among many gathering before a thunderstorm. The news tells people to be wary of a network of ‘thugs’.
Late one night after painting in High Barnet to throw the scent off of East, I come home to the sound of buzzing coming from the bathroom. I push the door fully open and find Hunter bent over Will’s skull, her feet planted on a lawn of short, blonde hair. They spot me in the mirror and Hunter turns to face me with a grin.
‘My turn next,’ she says, laughing at my dropped jaw.
‘Want to finish it off?’ Will asks, swivelling around on the stool with both hands stretching his knees far apart.
‘Oh, yeah, go on - I’d love to get a beer in before bed.’ Hunter thrusts the shaver at me, wiggling it insistently. I take it from her, looking at the small patch around Will’s ears and the front of his head that needs finishing and wink, playing with the speed dial on the shaver.
‘I can’t promise I won’t do any damage,’ I joke as Hunter wriggles past me to grab her shoes from the living room. In the mirror I see her flash past pulling on one of Will’s huge winter jackets to face the cold in.
’I just put my trust in that,’ he laughs as she slams the front door violently. ‘I’m sure I can handle you.’ I walk forward so I’m standing between Will’s knees and tilt his chin up with my finger, turning it to the left slightly so I can get at the hair around his right ear. The uncovered skin on his scalp is white as bone and I can see the tiny little green and blue veins criss-crossing over the soft inside of his ear. It looks like a map of forests and rivers and deserts. A pain spasms in the left side of my chest, like another fist broke through my ribcage to clamp around my heart, when I think he will never be able to see such a thing in my ears.
I can feel his gaze on me like an upturned buttercup and he moves his thighs together so they meet mine. The fist squeezes my heart so violently I jump slightly. The shaver nicks his ear slightly and the rivers on his soft skin run red.
‘What the fuck have you done to your head?’
‘Just tryna help you get a better idea of what your baby’ll look like.’ Hunter flings herself down on the floor in front of the girl who sits with a puckered mouth staring at Hunter’s ginger stubble. ’Don’t tell me you don’t like it?’ Hunter gasps in mock horror.
Clarice Lispector strokes her huge belly protectively. ‘I hope to fuck it doesn’t come out looking anything like you,’ she sneers. I loiter beside the front door of her flat that opens onto the tiny living room, trying to establish the girl’s health. But beyond the greasy, blonde hair I looked down at when she opened the door and the swollen ankles that had me wincing when she waddled back to her chair Clarice looks the same as she always does - a chubby hobbit.
‘Orite, Red, haven’t seen you in a while.’
‘How you getting on?’ I ask, moving to lean against the wall near the window and the horrible, grey lace that weeps over it. I make sure not to touch it.
‘Never been so fucking bored in my life - honestly, if I wasn’t pregnant I’d be getting pregnant cos there’s fuck all else to do.’
‘No harm in trying,’ Hunter deadpans. Clarice ignores her.
‘I’m stuck here - can hardly lug this thing up twenty flights of stairs, can I?’ I nod sympathetically.
‘Worth it for the view, though, eh Reece-y?’ Hunter rolls quickly out of the way as a swollen foot aims for her knees. I glance through the lace and make out the blurred, concrete horizon of Seven - the compact, square towers of flats towering into the sky and the crumbling, potholed roads that allow for a war-zone aesthetic. I suppress the urge to go over to Clarice and stroke her pregnant belly, too.
‘If you want a fucking cuppa you’re gonna have to make it yourself. Can’t bloody wait for this bit to be over,’ Clarice grumbles. I decline, but Hunter jumps to her feet and starts raiding the cupboards in the small kitchenette tacked onto the living room.
‘Are you in pain?’ I ask.
‘Twenty-four-fucking-seven. Honestly, babe, don’t have kids.’ Her hands smooth over the exposed flesh between her joggers and shirt, and I see her veins - monstrous caricatures of Will’s ear - climbing up the pink skin like ivy.
‘I’m sorry - that’s crap. I just wanted to come by and see how you are, in case I don’t get a chance to before the birth.’ On the table next to her is the camera we gave her and I smile when I see it, trying to notice any signs of use before dragging my eyes back to the girl’s shrewd smile.
‘Thanks. I’m still making the video, too. Just in case you were wondering.’ I bow my head at her in thanks. ‘Got over twenty-five hours on there. Good luck to whoever has to edit it.’
I laugh and relax my head back against the wall, looking up to the ceiling and rasping a palm over my scalp. ‘So - ready for the birth? Who’s gonna be there?’
‘My mum and fucking Hunter - dunno how she talked me into it.’ Hunter turns with a mouth full of Custard Creams and mimes shooting a video.
‘Cos you know I’m the only one who won’t make you look fatter than you already are.’ The TV remote flies through the air and smacks Hunter between the shoulder blades.
‘Fuck off, you bald cow.’
We leave Clarice’s and the ground feels like a trampoline beneath our feet. I think we might be more excited about the birth than she is - certainly more than the father is, according to Hunter. The finish line feels closer than the horizon, now, made up of Clarice and all the other pregnant women we know. In four weeks, the cutting of an umbilical cord will be the cutting of the red ribbon unveiling a different future.
When the raids stopped after coming up blank time after time again, the government’s efforts have been focussed on the site and blocking it from the national servers. What they don’t realise is we’ve moved past the virtual and into the world around us. The meetings are smaller, now, and more frequent, and headed up by anyone and everyone. The centre isn’t made up of the eight of us anymore - we’re focused on seeking out more and more pregnant women individually to give them all the information we have and offer them another option for their child’s future. Many of them have already made the decision without ever meeting us.
With everyone communicating face-to-face Westminster is more than welcome to rip down our site because it’s not longer the origin of our ‘movement’. In fact, there is no origin, just the gathering and building of reactions. Even as Hunter and I walk through Seven, we are just two of many shaved heads.
Back at Will’s, we find Mags and Davey playing on a laptop. They’re collating all of the news we originally posted on the site into another film with each of us narrating a different Zone. They are bickering about the speed of Davey’s accented speech and between the two of them, every second word is an expletive. It sounds like a choir to me.
‘How’s our favourite knocked-up fuck-up?’ Davey chuckles when we walk in.
Mags grabs his stick from him and whacks his foot.
‘Don’t fuckin’ talk about her like that!’
‘Children! Please!’ Hunter rolls her eyes at me and lies down on the carpet.
‘She’s grumpy and pissed off, if I’m honest,’ I say, taking the stick from Mags and bouncing it off the top of my foot.
‘Yeah - silly bitch doesn’t realise she’s the biggest news since fecking Mary.’
‘You plannin’ on belting her?’ Davey says to Mags, pointing a curled finger at Hunter.
‘Nah,’ Mags yawns, turning back to the laptop as I hand Davey his stick and take a seat at the table. ‘Got an email for you, Red.’
I nod. We’ve had more than a few addressed to me since my story went live. Some are supportive and interested. Many are not.
‘Good or bad?’
‘Can’t fucking tell,’ she says with narrow eyes, throwing the laptop at me.
I catch it and frown, curious, placing it on the table. Within seconds my heart pounds in my ears:
I’m a City girl, so you know how dangerous it is for me to send this, considering the reputation of you and your ‘thugs’.
I think what you’re doing is brilliant, especially with your artwork. It seems an awful shame for it to be kept to the Outer Zones, don’t you think?
I want to help. I can offer you one of the biggest and most visited spaces in One for you to do with what you will. I’ll stay with you as you work to keep you safe, I promise.
Meet me on Thursday at 10pm in Oxford Circus tube station. We’ll use late night shopping as a cover.
I’m sorry I can’t say more, in case you don’t show. I don’t want them to find me for no reason. And if we do pull this off I will have to disappear.
I’ll be standing under the sign for the Bakerloo Line. You’ll see me - we’ve met before.
‘It’s Monday today?’ I ask, breathless.
‘Yup,’ Hunter says, motioning for the laptop. I pass it down to her and watch her eyes widen as she reads.
‘Fucking dodgy,’ Davey nods. I shrug, and take the laptop back to re-read the email. My tongue flicks between my molars just as the words prod at my imagination. I can feel Mags watching me.
‘If you’re thinking of fuckin’ going-’
‘Of course I’m going.’ The front door shuts downstairs and I hear Will’s footsteps bounding up the stairs.
‘Evening,’ he barks, moving to the kitchen door. ‘How is everyone?’ He stops with a hand on the door when he notices the tension and turns back into the living room. I jerk my chin at the laptop and he leans over my shoulder. His knuckles turn white gripping the edge of the table.
‘Well, I assume you’re going,’ he says over my head before taking a few steps back to rest on the arm of the sofa next to Mags.
‘I think it’s genuine.’
‘Why?’ He crosses his arms and frowns at me.
‘Pretty stupid place for an ambush,’ I shrug.
‘Maybe that’s what they want you to fucking fink,’ Mags whines, neurotically picking at the flesh underneath her nails.
‘Or maybe it’s just genuine,’ I say softly.
‘Fine,’ Will says, shaking his head. ‘Who are you taking with you?’
‘In case it’s a trap,’ I grin.
Oxford Circus is rammed.
I really don’t miss this. Not for a second. The noise and heat and dogged resignation that flits past in the stream of endless, identical faces causes my heart to rattle more violently than the fear of being caught does. I search the eyes of those marching past for even a smattering of the passion I see every day in my home but most are glues to the shoulder blades of the people in front, shadowed and unseeing. Perhaps even dead.
I’m leaning against one of the walls on the opposite side to the Bakerloo Line sign, just managing to catch sight of space beneath it every few seconds as the crown undulates. It’s 9:48pm - I showed early just in case the mystery person does, too, and we can scamper out together before the CCTV reads our appointed hour. I’m wearing my running gear and a baseball cap to try and look gym-appropriate, the only authentic outfit I could pull together for the City, having squeezed my feet into Hunter’s trainers. The scarf wrapped around my neck is partially to hide the bald patch between my cap and fleece and partly a small ‘fuck you’ to this past life of mine. The Pinstripes lumber past like one blind beast as I shift the rucksack filled with spray paint and my balaclava on my shoulders. If only they looked up for just one second and opened their eyes. If only they had all had the pleasure of meeting Kilgore Trout.
Someone drops a Metro at my feet and a photo of Bateman and Duke stares up at me with the word ‘DIVORCE’ stamped across their faces. I picture their two little boys tearing around my parents’ house and my tongue thrashes against my bottom teeth nine times before being calmed by the image of Clarice and everyone else kept safe by this headline for the time being, cloaked in the monstrosity of the Inner Zones’ scandal.
9:51pm. ‘Where are you?’ I mutter. ‘Come on, come on, come on.’ My eyes flick between the exits and the sign, my tapping foot the only sign of impatience. The air clogs at my skin like wet sand and I cringe thinking of the disease inhaled through my nostrils, trying to push it out almost as quickly as I take it in. My abdomen contracts with the effort and the racket in the station becomes muffled as sweat drips from my palms onto the dirty tiles below.
‘Come on, come on, come on.’
Then I see her.
I peel myself off the wall and press through the crowd as she does the same. She plants herself firmly underneath the sign and I smile at her stubbornness as she redirects the flow of people around her. She spots me when I’m just a few feet away, tears bubbling onto her cheeks by the time I’m by her side.
Adrienne hands me a ticket without saying a word and leads me to the barriers. We descend underground towards the Victoria Line. I allow a few people to cut in front of me, easily keeping my sights on the glamazon heads above everyone else in her heels.
We take the Victoria Line South to Green Park and then change onto the Westbound Piccadilly Line. Suddenly, it dawns on me where we’re going. She’s braver than I could have ever imagined.
We exit at Knightsbridge and fall into step on the pavement, moving apart to let laden shoppers pass.
‘God, I hate it,’ she finally says.
‘You know, they thought you were dead for a few weeks. Robert was in bits. So was I.’ She looks down at me and purses her lips. ‘I’m bloody glad you’re not.’
The streets are lined with shops and luxury brands, all twinkling in their twilight to lure in the last of the customers before they shut. I walk past a window displaying shirts priced at £1200. My face floats above the collar and I speed up to dismember the image twisting in my stomach as a memory.
Up ahead, the lights of our vast destination shine like the candles on a birthday cake, more alluring than anything else on the street. Harrods looks like a magical, frosted palace, gleaming in the night like a perpetual Christmas, gifting all those deserving of its warmth and comfort and finery. It looks like a mother ship, perfect and heavenly, as if its lights are the warmth of angels’ eyes caught and bottled in bulbs.
‘Hello boys,’ Adrienne rumbles at the security guards who are ushering out the last of the shoppers. ‘Lucky us got called in to do the display for tomorrow.’ They nod, recognising her and let me in without a second glance. We breeze past the exhausted staff and ecstatic consumers towards the escalators.
‘Give it an hour,’ Adrienne murmurs as we ascend to the top floor. ’Go through the clothes and pretend to be looking for something fabulous. We’ll work our way down and by then all the staff should be gone for the night.’
A few confused glances are shot my way as I prance about the designer wear in my rucksack and gym gear but Adrienne is utterly charming and easily convinces everyone I am the Royal Ballet’s set designer specifically hired for the night to inspire a display after a long list of complaints from bored customers. I have fun pretending to be whatever a Royal Ballet set designer is, exasperated by Harrods’ lack of ’charm, darling’, all the while hunting out the best surface for the piece.
By ten past eleven we’re the last people in the building and Adrienne leads me down to the ground floor.
‘I wasn’t lying, you know,’ Adrienne calls as she glides across the glittering floor to the front door. ‘I think it is indeed time for a new window display, don’t you?’ At the door, she sticks a small key in a locked cabinet and opens the box, turning to wink at me. When she flicks a switch my mouth drops as the shutters start to lower down over the stretch of twenty-odd huge windows looking out onto the main road.
‘We’ve got under six hours until the cleaners arrive,’ she roars over the noise, excitement bellowing her voice as it bounces off the marble. ‘How much damage can you do?’
I squeeze past some mannequins and step up to the window closest to her, pressing my hand against the glass as London disappears behind the shutters, leaving only my grinning face. A cyclone of ideas storms through my brain as I take in the reflection of the room behind me. At all of the props. One of the ideas bursts forward and thunders to my eyes like a lightning storm.
‘Enough. More than enough,’ I yell. ‘Will you help?’ The noise stops suddenly as the shutters clang on the pavement below and Adrienne flicks the switch off.
‘Ruin a department store filled with beautiful clothes they never make in my size?’ She laughs as I approach her, before ceremoniously flipping another switch to lower the shutters on the other side of the building.