Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2013
Raptors by Conrad Williams
We fucked once. Early on. An uncomfortable, desperate collision, in the driver’s seat of my Fiat 127. It was rushed, fumbled, delicious, over before we were properly naked. I don’t know what triggered it; the discussion had been pretty morbid, truth be told. We’d got on to the subject of dead bodies, for some reason. I told her that I’d witnessed a boy being killed. I’d watched him turn into red mist when a train hit him, an express hurtling through Bank Quay station. I’d only been five or so. I didn’t even remember it. She just stared at me as if she knew the story back to front. Then she was reaching for my zip and coaxing me greedily into her.
All that summer, that red, red summer I was with Dervla, I didn’t see her undressed. She was always partially clothed. A not-quite nakedness. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
She had guitarist’s fingers. The nails of her left hand were very short, so she could fret chords; the fingernails on her right hand were long and filed into almond shapes. They were painted crimson. ‘Good for picking notes, Warrington,’ she said. She often called me by my place of birth. I was used to the funny looks. Her voice bore traces of an accent. Something mid-Atlantic-ish, sometimes vaguely eastern European. I had no idea where she was from. ‘And also…move over a little…good for this.’ I loved her fingernails. She was a much better guitarist than me.
It was good, that first time, that only time. I don’t know why we didn’t have sex again. The chemistry was there. It wasn’t as if we didn’t see much of each other. And by sex I mean ‘intercourse’. There was plenty of other stuff. The sweaty, frustrating gropes and rubs and palpations you endure and enjoy at the start of things. But it never led to anything but blue balls and headache. She’d give me one of her little smiles, cocked eyebrow and dilated pupils, blades of that amazing red hair chopping her face into slivers…and I’d have to let it go.
That summer was hot. Much of the time, when we weren’t working, we went out together. We stared at the expensive guitars, the Fenders and Gibsons and Washburns, in the window of the music shop on Sankey Street. We listened to live music at the Red Lion. We walked. We talked about guitarists and who we liked. Clapton and Hendrix and Page. Joni Mitchell and Johnny Marr. The Edge. We were a couple of eighteen-year-olds on the periphery of adulthood, waiting to be sucked into the gyre and spat out the other side. Over there was a university education and a well-paid job and a family and a semi-detached house. The next year would shape us like no other. Neither of us were ready for it, but when are we ever ready for anything?
For the time being we had part-time jobs at a busy town centre pub called Night Owls; we spent hours winding around each other in the narrow bar space during the same shifts. She was a new girl and she commanded instant attention from the half a dozen guys who were eyeing her when she was being shown how to pull pints and change the optics. She moved like a cat. Every shift of her slender limbs seemed pre-planned to garner maximum erotic effect. She knew the power that the taut area of T-shirt fabric between her breasts exerted. She understood the impossible beauty in the sine wave of a relaxed calf muscle. Backlit, her hair seemed to bleed into the air and her skin was borderline translucent, a peach fuzz giving off scents that could put you in prison.
You were allowed to wear shorts if the weather was good. The management never turned the air conditioning on because they wanted the punters to overheat and buy more drinks. Dervla wore shorts that were more like broad belts.
Behind that bar I spent a lot of time watching her when I should have been watching the heads on the pints of Guinness. Even when we became an item I couldn’t relax. I was always making mistakes. Overpouring, undercharging, breaking glasses as though it was part of the job description. The manager didn’t care. The take on this place at the weekend alone was so phenomenal that it didn’t matter if I’d handed over too much change on a couple of transactions.
It was a pretty grim pub. A ‘fun pub’ it, and its ilk, were called. I don’t know if they still are. This was before gastropubs became such big business. They were sparkly drinking dens, no jeans, no trainers. High polish meets low life. Lots of levels. Lots of monitors. Lots of speakers. Video and vodka. Tequila and Top 40. That summer, all they seemed to play on the screens was BVSMP’s I Need You, The Only Way is Up by Yazz & The Plastic Population, and Kylie doing the loco-fucking-motion. Awful, awful synth pop. The great ‘‘80s crime. Sometimes the music was so loud it was difficult to hear the orders as the herd of weekend bingers piled against the bar.
I was an all-right barman. Despite the foul-ups I was quick and I recognised many of the regulars and anticipated their needs. What more does a customer want? I fixed good, basic cocktails—black or white Russians, Blue Lagoons, Sea Breezes—this was all before the appetite for cocktails became more sophisticated, certainly in my town. In my town, you were ordering a cocktail if you liked a dash of lime added to your pint of Labatt’s. I asked for as many shifts as I could get and told the manager I was willing to cover for anybody calling in sick. In this way, I was able to avoid the atmosphere thickening at home. My grandmother on my father’s side was dying and he wasn’t dealing with it very well. She was suffering from problems associated with type-1 diabetes and a scan had revealed that she was riddled with cancer. She was still in hospital, but she was diminishing almost by the hour and she wanted to spend her last few days at home. When I wasn’t at Night Owls, or with Dervla, I was sitting by Gran’s bedside.
Much of the time, Gran was asleep. She was tucked up beneath so many blankets it was a wonder she could breathe. By her bed was a table upon which was stacked a pile of magazines. The dust on the top one was evidence that they remained unread. A glass of water. A box of diabetic chocolates. A hairbrush that was clogged with tufts of her silver hair. That hair had been a beautiful deep red, once, the colour of horse chestnuts. I had seen the photographs. She had been a looker, my grandmother. Hard to believe, watching over this shrunkend, wasted pixie in her massive bed, but she had once been gorgeous. Occasionally, while I was there, she would wake up. Or rather, it was a sort-of wakefulness. Her eyes might open and she’d look around, but she wouldn’t necessarily register my presence. Sometimes she would mouth something as she stared at the open doorway, as if she could see someone there. Then she would turn over and go back to sleep. On the days when she did see me, she would smile and reach out her hand for mine. Her hands were thin and white, laced with pale blue veins. They were terrifically soft, though. It was like touching a baby’s skin. She’d offer me one of her God-awful chocolates—I never saw her eat any—and ask me questions.
‘How’s your photographing going? Why do you have to take so many ruddy pictures of those horrible birds? How’s work? Are you courting yet?’
This last question was the most frequent. I usually shrugged and shook my head; I didn’t like talking about my girlfriends. Often, when pressed into deconstructing them, or my relationship, it would highlight to me just how little common ground we shared. On the few occasions Gran had met any of the girls I was seeing, she’d be polite and inquisitive, but would pull me to one side before we left and say: ‘I’m sorry to say it, Eddie, but she’s not a Mellish match.’
She was often right. I was like the mismatched jigsaw piece tossed into the box: my edges would not marry happily with any of those around me. I thought, maybe, that Dervla might, if not carry the tabs and hollows that fit mine, then perhaps provide some glue. She seemed to know me better than most people. She understood how I felt without having to grill me. She knew how to unlock my doors, how to put me utterly at ease. It was only when I thought more deeply about her that I discovered that I did not know her at all. We had fallen into such a comfortable pattern with each other, physically and mentally, that I hadn’t been questioning myself about how we’d come to find ourselves at such a point. It was difficult, even, to remember how we’d met. Presumably at Night Owls, but I couldn’t work out whether she’d been there when I joined the staff, or she’d landed a job afterwards.
Gran held my hand and coaxed information out of me. She seemed satisfied that I didn’t know as much about Dervla as I probably ought. ‘Not a keeper, then, it sounds like,’ she said. But I felt differently. I felt for Dervla like no other girl I’d ever met. It panicked me to think that any other women I forged relationships with in the future would not make me feel as feverish, excited and happy as her. If I lost this one…what if that was the best it would ever be for me?
But you can’t live your life like that. You can’t ensure that things won’t go wrong. There are no definites in love.
One night, another punishing night of airless heat on the heels of the most recent hottest day of the year, once the mountains of ashtrays had been emptied, the glasses washed and left to dry, I took Dervla for a drive in my car. We were sweating and stinking and tired. We had the windows open, trying to generate some cool wind. We nipped on to the M62 and went for a drink at Burtonwood services, the only place I could think of that would be open gone midnight. We were half way through a couple of so-called ‘hot chocolates’—tepid cups of mud that might, many years previously, have been in the vicinity of something vaguely resembling a product containing traces of coca solids—and we were picking light fun with each other, and the rest of the punters in transit, who were swigging coffee or trying to read newspapers while the inevitable miles unfolded before them like depression made tarmac.
Dervla said she had to go to the toilet. I watched her move away from the table. It was hard not to. She appeared borderline criminal in her tight, shiny shorts and a size-too-small Night Owls T-shirt. Her flat tummy, the soft, vertical indent—the linea alba (damn right I looked it up)—between her stomach muscles was like a dare, a line carved into sand. Her red hair shook and swung across her back; for a second like something alive, independent of the rest of her. Others watched too. As she rounded the corner, I saw two men in zipped-up bomber jackets exchange a few words, then rise from their unfinished meals and follow her into the corridor. Everything suddenly felt colder. The plastic chair I had been warming up now might as well have been made from ice. Minuscule hairs on my arms and nape lifted like the legs of a crippled fly reaching out towards death.
I felt myself move, despite an inner wrangle that had not yet been resolved. I followed the route Dervla and the two men had taken out of the cafe. The corridor was empty. Light and shade made a zebra of the stained lino. The hum of traffic from the motorway was like the bassline of a horror film score. The shops here were closed: metal barriers hemmed in yards of aisled darkness. Bags of ready salted crisps glimmered in a dumpbin. A cold shelf of sugary drinks gave off a vaguely radioactive glow. Light slid off the sealed skin mags as if they were wet.
‘Dervla?’ I called. Up ahead, on the right, the door handle to a utility room slowly dropped. The door opened a crack, and was still. I called her name again, but by then blood was drizzling from beneath the door and I was already walking back to the canteen. I don’t remember driving home, but sometime later, just before dawn, I got a call on my mobile. It was Dervla.
‘Where were you?’ she asked.
‘Where was I?’
‘I came back to the table and you were gone. You hadn’t even finished your hot chocolate.’ Her voice was struggling to remain level.
‘I thought you—’
‘I went to the toilet, that was all. I was gone five minutes, if that.’
I closed my eyes. My heartbeat suddenly made itself known to me. When I opened them again, the moon had shifted and painted a pale version of me across the mirror by my bed. It was full of black sockets. The shadows beneath my ribs were like the thin fingers of something clasping me from behind.
‘Those two men,’ I said. ‘They followed you. Didn’t they try to—’
‘Nobody followed me. I went for a pee. I came back. You were gone.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I didn’t feel relieved.
‘I had to thumb a ride home. At one in the morning. One in the morning.’
‘I said I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?’ The line was crackling, breaking up.
‘I want you to feed with me,’ she said.
‘I said I want you to be with me. That’s all. You left me. All alone. Jesus.’
I wasn’t working the next day, and I couldn’t get hold of Dervla. This was in the days before mobile phones and Facebook. I didn’t have a number for her; I didn’t even know where she lived. This induced a mild sense of alarm. When we went out, it was an after work thing, or we would meet at a pre-determined spot. She could leave this town and I’d never be able to track her down. She had that in her, that spirit of Wanderlust. I could tell it in her voice, her posture. She was always looking away to the horizon, or into the sky. There was distance in her. Sometimes it would be between us, sitting there like a third party, and it infected her words, or, it seemed to me, the temperature of the air.
I felt anxious, irritated. Often, when dogged by such a feeling, it was because I haven’t had enough ‘me’ time. Or I’ve spent too much time trapped indoors. Late nights in a smoky bar. Late mornings in bed trying to catch up on my sleep. In a car, or my bedroom with Dervla, talking or listening to her play guitar or trying to get my hands inside her bra and knickers. I grabbed my camera and marched outside.
It was an old camera, a manual Praktica SLR from the 1970s. I’d saved for months to be able to buy myself a telephoto for distance work. There were a few dings and scratches on the body, but the glass was clean. I left a note for Dad that I had borrowed the car and had the key in the ignition when I sensed a presence. Someone silent and still, staring out at me from the shadows cast by the Leylandii smothering the western edges of the garden.
I rolled down the window. ‘Dervla?’
She detached herself from the dark and slid in beside me. She brought heat with her. I felt it move against me, something she pushed before her like perfume. I smiled and told her I was glad she was here, that I tried to get hold of her but I couldn’t. ‘You’re like mercury,’ I said. ‘You’re like…I don’t know…wet cornflour.’
She tilted her chin at the steering wheel. ‘Save it for your juvenile poetry,’ she said. ‘Motion.’
I took the A49 south out of town. It didn’t take long to drive the fifteen miles to the Raptor centre. We didn’t speak.
It pained me that I didn’t live sufficiently out in the wilds to be able to take pictures of birds of prey without going to falconry schools. Once, when I was a child, I’d been off school with a bad stomach ache. I remember rising from my bed and opening the curtains to look out at the garden. A hawk was standing on the fence post separating the lawn from next door’s patio, tearing into the belly of a rat it had caught. It bent to rip off another red strip or two, then drew upright, keen, alert, aware. It jerked its head towards me. It was as if it were gauging my threat. Little or none, apparently, because it went back to its meal. I watched until only claws and the segmented worm of the rat’s tail were left. I ran to the bookshelves in my Dad’s office and found his Collins bird guide. A few flicked pages and I had it. A buzzard. When perched this bird of prey looked as if its head was hunched into its shoulders. A buzzard had been eating its lunch in our garden! My stomach ache was gone, fascinated out of me. I spent the rest of the day reading the section in Collins about raptors and pestered my Dad for days after until he relented and took me to see some birds of prey at the zoo. After that I was hooked. When I was old enough, I went to the zoo by myself and photographed the birds from every angle. I studied their anatomy. I studied their ancestry. I studied their behaviour. My photograph albums filled up with basilisk stares, cuneiform poses, talons. I recorded every nature programme I could find that was devoted to raptors. My room filled with VHS tapes and books and copies of fierce magazines.
I wanted to tell Dervla all this, but she wore an expression of barely constrained impatience. Maybe she wanted to spend the day inside. I thought I’d perhaps broken some unspoken agreement. That she was the person who called the shots and this impetuosity of mine, this jumping in a car and fucking off, was somehow a failure in her eyes. I wondered if she expected me to be doing nothing, to be thinking of her, when we weren’t together.
I parked the car in the grounds of an imposing mansion. Fields stretched off in all directions. The falconry was contained within a converted orangery near a walled garden leading off from the main building. You could hear the birds as soon as the engine was switched off. Horror sounds. The kind of noise that you thought was locked down at nightmare depths. It didn’t seem right here. It was too shrill, too alien. The sound was scorched scrubland and bodies everywhere. It was the scent of hot iron and fear. I got out of the car and trod in something hard and soft at the same time. A tiny claw, bleached white by the sun, or fear.
‘This is lovely,’ Dervla said, slamming the car door shut. ‘We should have brought a picnic.’
I didn’t notice her hand inside mine until she gripped it. Her skin was smooth and bloodwarm.
I checked I had everything I needed and we angled up the greensward surrounding the grand old house. Sombre stone. Inscrutable windows. There didn’t seem to be anybody about. The birds were in a large caged area. Arches and columns formed perches from which they peered and glared. Now there was a sound of water: someone was hosing the gravel floors. I hadn’t seen her because she was wearing a dark green coat and she was lost in the thick shadows of the aviary.
She nodded to us. ‘Be a minute,’ she said. She looked hunted, cross. Bad start to the day, maybe. Or maybe that was the look you grew, hosing bird shit off the stones.
I checked my camera, made sure thereir was a film loaded and that the settings were optimised for high speeds. There was a mist coming in from the lake, fine rain rising on the slimmest of breezes. It would not make for good photographs if I had to keep wiping a film of moisture off the lens.
‘Did you book?’ a voice asked. A girl, who looked like a younger version of the woman with the hose, wearing the same kind of coat but with her hair long, coloured purple, approached us from a side gate. She was maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. She was very chirpy, despite the weather. I gained a sense of someone who loved her work. I thought maybe she had roped her mum—if that was who she was—into this life.
Dervla was still gripping me with the kind of urgency a shy child will hold the hand of a parent in a room filled with strangers. I didn’t look at her. I was staring at the birds. But I could see the steady plumes of her breath entering my field of vision, as if she was desperately trying to obscure my view.
The girl, Beth, went through her introductory spiel—I’d heard it a dozen times before—and told us all the information that anybody would either ignore or listen intently to and then forget about within an hour of leaving this place. I didn’t care that this hharris hawk was called Emily, or this European Eagle Owl was called Gryff. I knew all about the feeding and mating habits, and I wasn’t interested in how this bird didn’t get on with that bird and made romantic sounds at its owner instead. I just wanted to see the beasts doing what they did best. I wanted a little savagery on the wing.
‘I don’t want to hold it,’ Dervla said.
Don’t I know it, I almost said. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t have to. But would you mind taking some photographs of me holding the hawk?’
Rain shushed against our jackets. I showed Dervla how to pan after the bird. The camera was set to auto-focus and it would constantly track the motion so that the shot should turn out sharp. ‘Just concentrate on getting it within the frame,’ I said.
I slid on the cowhide gauntlet and Beth released the hharris hawk. It took off for the trees a couple of hundred yards south of our position on the grass. Beth tucked a couple of chick heads into the crook between my thumbs and forefinger. Dervla made a noise and Beth smiled. ‘It’s the worst part of the job,’ she said. ‘Kids who come here are more interested in these dead chicks than the birds we’re displaying. These are all males. Euthanised a couple of days after they hatch. No use for them, they don’t lay eggs. So they become owl fodder. Males of the world beware.’
I laughed, a little nervously. The heads on my hand were damp, eyes closed, beaks open. I could see the pink tongues, like tiny furled shoots. And then beyond that, blurred, far off: movement. There was a single, piercing cry, pure despite the dampening mist, and the shadow in the corner of my eye grew so fast it was like unconsciousness coming on. I looked up in time to see the hawk sweeping low across the grass, its head fixed, eyes dead on me. It was going too fast. Surely it would overshoot, or plough straight into me. But at the last moment, just as I was about to take evasive action, it spread its wings and reared up, landing on my outstretched hand so smoothly it was as if it had been drawn there by some invisible cord. It blinked its oil black eyes and set upon the chick, tearing into its soft, unformed skull. I could feel my heart slamming in my chest. I wanted to laugh out loud. I wanted to grab the bird and hold it close.
‘That was unbelievable,’ I said. ‘That was…that was life.’
I turned to Dervla. Her face was hot with colour. ‘Did you get some pictures?’
‘You have a go,’ I urged.
She bit her lip. She was staring at the bird. ‘Okay,’ she said.
It was strange. She sounded reticent, but her expression was reading from a different script. Beth instructed me to cast the bird back to the treeline. The harris hawk climbed and swooped deep into the shadows and branches. You could only tell it was still in the vicinity because of its falconry bell. Dervla slipped on the gauntlet and passed me the camera. Her breath was shallow and shaky. Before she stepped away from me, she hooked her free hand around my neck and drew me to her. She kissed me hard on the mouth. I felt her teeth, a flick of tongue. I was embarrassed by her intensity in front of Beth, but she didn’t seem to mind. Maybe being around raptors all day kept you at in some state of arousal. All that aggression, that naked hunger. All that wildness. It couldn’t fail to transfer, surely, at some level.
Beth tucked some more body parts into the glove, and hoisted Dervla’s arm high. I heard the shriek of the hawk, but the sound was all wrong. The bird was still in the trees; I could hear the jangle of the bell attached to its ankle. But the shriek had been closer. Beth appeared confused too. It couldn’t have been one of the other birds: that would have meant the noise rising behind us, and anyway, owls and peregrine falcons didn’t make sounds like this.
Beth whistled and again there came that explosion of smooth movement out of the boughs. It was like watching smoke from a volcanic fracture. It was somehow not there and then suddenly there, solid yet sinuous, moving too easily to be encumbered by anything as crude as bones, muscles, sinew. As before, it arrowed straight at the meat, its eye utterly, horribly focused. I almost forgot that I was supposed to be taking photographs. I panned after the bird and tried to keep any vertical shake from the camera as I released the shutter. I kept shooting. Here was the moment when the hawk must apply its astonishing air brakes. Now. Surely now.
The hawk was not interested in the shreds of chick meat dangling from Dervla’s fist. Inches away, it flung its talons up into an attack posture and drove them into Dervla’s face. There was no cry of shock, other than an angry exclamation from Beth, who went immediately to Dervla’s aid. I ran too, conscious that I’d continued to take photographs while the assault was in progress. I was apologising even as I tried to put myself between my girlfriend and this flapping, ferocious beast. Cries shot up like piercing sonar. I caught slivers of action as it whirled around me, like images caught in the shards of a broken mirror. But it was only later, when I saw the photographs, that the truth of what had happened was confirmed to me. I saw: feather stripped back to flesh. I saw: flesh carved open to the bone. I saw: Dervla smiling. I saw: Dervla, her mouth agape, mimicking the cry of the bird that was attacking her.
We didn’t talk about these evenings or days. These episodes of madness. It was part of love. The intensity. The screaming lilac spaces in your head, far too big for any part of you to contain. L’amour fou. I tended her wounds for her, none as bad as I had thought. Superficial scratches. I kissed them better. Even when I had the pictures developed and I saw the thrill in her face on those shots that weren’t blurred…well, some people react to shocking events in different ways.
We carried on at Night Owls as if nothing had happened. She wore her short shorts and tight T-shirts; the male punters chatted her up and asked for items they didn’t really want but that she had to bend over to retrieve. Some of them asked her out; better looking men, men better off than me. She rejected all-comers.
Busy, busy nights. Something about drinking in the summer; people start their evenings earlier. Drink more. Drink more quickly. The crowds spilled outside on to the pedestrianised concourse that linked Mersey Street with Buttermarket Street. All the men wore Ivan Lendl Adidas T-shirts with Farahs and trainers. The women were in short skirts and high heels, blouses that seemed inflated by the gallons of perfume hanging around their throats. Perms. Peach blusher. Cerise lipstick. Pints of Labatt’s, the occasional Guinness. White whine spritzers. Bacardi and Coke. And one for yourself, mate. Keep the change.
The bouncers—Nous and MacCreadle, one on the north door and one on the south—were dressed in black. Cropped hair so nobody could grab hold in a fight. Clip-on ties, ditto. Trapezoid muscles so developed it looked as though they’d left their coat hangers in. The memories of dozens of fights fresh in their eyes. Lads on the prowl, getting the pints in. Afternoons spent on uneven football pitches, emptying themselves of aggression, a vacuum to fill with something a little less testosterone led this evening.
I kept half an eye on Dervla, who was flirting with a couple of drivers who had finished their shifts at Crosfields buses and were on their way home. I thought of her naked. Her white body. Her nipples so pale they were almost lost to the skin that contained them. The rash of freckles between her large breasts. It seemed almost indecent that she was so tiny, so slender. I wanted to take her by the hand, lead her out of the door and into my car, drive her somewhere dark and either fuck her or kill her. My feelings for her were suddenly so desperate and deep that either course of action seemed utterly acceptable. I didn’t know her. I knew her so well. I loved her. I despised her.
The moment passed. Hundreds more filled its place. The bell for last orders rang. I went out into the throng and collected empties. Once the bouncers had dumped the stragglers outside, I drew off a half of lager for myself and pulled the plug on the music. Silence burst through the pub.
Dervla was unselfconsciously leaning back against the bar, her foot up on the rest, chatting to Steve, another barman with cheeks so badly pitted with acne scarring his teeth ought to have been visible. I went over and asked Dervla if she wanted a lift home.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Like always.’
But when we got in the car she had something else on her mind.
‘Let’s drive up to the reservoir,’ she said. ‘I’m tired, but I’m not, if you know what I mean.’
I was the same. Sometimes you worked so hard you could have fallen asleep standing up, waiting for Colin, the manager, to unlock the doors and let you out. But sometimes the buzz of the evening swept into your veins and jangled there, keeping you alert even though your muscles had turned to sponge and your face was grey with fatigue.
The echoes of the evening sat thick in the car as we drove up Chester Road, the River Mersey to our right, the Manchester Ship Canal up ahead. The lights on the road seemed unable to pin back a night that was dense as oil. It seemed so close that if you were to wind down a window and stick your hand out, it would disappear into it.
Dervla sat deep in the passenger seat, her bare feet resting on the dashboard. In this weird unlight, her toes seemed to be painted the exact same colour as her hair. I kept my eyes on the road, but in my mind she became it and I had to reach out a hand and let it follow the curve of her thigh as I pushed the old Fiat up the steep, winding roads to the reservoir.
I could hear the chomp and smack of her mouth on a stick of gum. I could just about, in my periphery, glimpse the shining comma of her right eye. Her hair smelled of apples. I could hear her breathing. The lift and separation of her breasts. She fiddled with the seatbelt where it cut across the soft centre of her. In profile, the plump mound of her mons through those shorts spoiled, minutely, the perfect sweep of her underthigh. I bit my lip with the tension of it all. She seemed utterly unaware of what she was doing to me. And I wasn’t even sure what she was doing to me. I couldn’t have put it into words, but it wasn’t just me and her in that car. There was something else, growing and pulsing and dangerous.
We got to the water and there was a line of cars parked alongside it. Windows fogged. Lovers’ Lane. I parked the car and turned on the radio. I felt her hand touch my thigh. She leaned over and kissed me, once, deeply, for a couple of seconds. She kept her eyes open at such moments. She’d kept her eyes open all the while we fucked that first, that only time, her neck craned so she could watch me plunging inside her. The scratches on her face were scabbed over, healing fast. She dipped away, silver unravelling between us as if she’d unblocked something vital within me.
‘Back in a sec,’ she said. Suddenly she was gone, pushing through the mist coming off the reservoir and only the chill knife of wind to suggest she’d opened the door to get out. Her hair was theat last I saw of her, like St Elmo’s Fire shivering in the dampness. I sat in the car, aching and cursing, for thirty minutes, turning the engine back on whenever the cold seeped in. I thought she’d gone home, payback for the episode at the motorway services, and I was gearing up to follow suit when she reappeared.
Her green eyes flashed at me as she curled herself into the seat. That maddening smell was back, honey and apples and woodland, but it had never really gone away. Her tummy rose and fell in the gap between her top and her shorts. Her breath whitened between us. Whenever I opened my mouth to speak to her, the instinct, always, was: Who are you? But I was able to avoid that. Now I said, ‘Did you get lost?’
‘You could put it that way, yes.’ And any irritation I might have felt at the usual ambiguous response was chased away by the ripple of giggles, the hand on my arm. She seemed luminous, as if being in the mist and the moist light within it had somehow infected her skin. I touched her and it was an act of proof, that she was real, that I was real. When I was with her there was always this kind of weird shift, a challenge to what was palpable. You began to question your surroundings. It was like being sober in a room full of drunk people.
We sat in the car. I switched on some music. An old tape of Clapton. She held my hand between both of hers. I closed my eyes and it was like being caressed by two different people. Her nails scored the tender part of my inner arm.
‘You’re a minor chord, Warrington,’ she said.
‘Minor?’ I asked. ‘That’s nice. Why can’t I be major?’
‘Because major chords are happy sounding. Positive. Minors are fragile, sad things.’
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Thanks a bundle.’
‘E Minor,’ she said. ‘The saddest of all chords.’
‘Christ,’ I said. ‘I’m glad my name’s not Morris.’
We got back to my place. My parents were in bed. I was glancing at the sofa, wondering, hoping, but she went to Dad’s drinks cabinet and poured me a glass of Glayva and ice. She lifted my guitar from its stand. Tuned it by ear, properly. She played me something gorgeous, very soft, very sad. Her fingernails caught the light and fed it to the strings; for a marvellous few seconds it seemed as though they were a part of her. I was envious of her skill. The same guitar in my hands sounded dulled.
‘It’s a song for you,’ she said. ‘No words. Not yet, anyway. Mainly E Minor. So you’re the saddest chord. But, you see, you’re beautiful too.’
She played me something else, something I didn’t recognise. Her voice was breathy, fragile but confident. She was note perfect. ‘And now we rise,’ she sang, ‘and we are everywhere.’
‘Nick Drake,’ she said, when the song was finished. ‘Beautiful. Sad.’ She put the guitar back, her hand stroking its body and neck before she came to sit next to me. We shared the whisky. I was hers and we were close, but I didn’t feel I knew her well enough to tell her what it was I wanted. I touched her, tried to play her as expertly as she had played the guitar, but she didn’t relax into the moment.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked.
‘If by that you mean why don’t I fuck you…well, we’ve done it, haven’t we?’
I stared at her. ‘Once, yes. A while ago now.’
‘Yeah. At the start of things.’
My face felt frozen despite the heat from the radiators and the spirit in my belly. ‘Aren’t we…?’ I forced the question, willing her to fill in the blanks.
‘Aren’t we?’ she cut across me. For the first time I felt a spike of anger.
‘What do you mean by the start of things?’ I asked.
‘Just that. There’s a start to things and an end to things. Everything else is just gravy.’
‘What do you mean by an end to things?’
She shook her head and snapped her gum. ‘Start and end. Everything finishes. Everything dies. Pretty basic concepts. Did you go to school?’
I shook my head too: wipe the blackboard of this mess. ‘Are you busy tomorrow?’
It was a rare Saturday when neither of us was working. I wanted to spend the day with her.
‘What do you have in mind?’
I told her about my grandmother, that she was dying, that I thought a little of Dervla’s energy might do her well.
‘Oof,’ she said, eyebrows arching. ‘You know how to treat a girl.’ She plucked the end of her chewing gum between two of her fingers and pulled it out until it quivered, thin as a top E string. I watched the pulse in her wrist. She said, ‘Yes.’
That yes. The way she’d uttered it. It had me sitting bolt upright in bed later, sweat wicking off me. I tried to persuade myself that it was dreamplay and her natural carnality, the hot ball of plasma in the girdle of my pelvis that had turned that ‘yes’ into something unpleasant and hungry. In reality she had seemed to pause for a while, hesitate before answering in the positive. But now I wasn’t so sure. Obscene haste, my mind whispered to me. Did you see her teeth? Did you see the clench of her jaw?
I smiled involuntarily, an awful rictus that drew proud the tendons in my neck. My mouth felt unnaturally wide, a shape I did not know. It was as if she had put it there, or had somehow placed herself behind my skin and was forming the cast of my lips with her own. I wrestled in the dark with a sudden horror that I did not recognise myself any more. Everything seemed alien: the beat of my heart was too soft, irregular. My eyes were too large. My skin too thin, or my bones too angular. My sweat felt like grease. Morning caught up with me far too quickly and when I looked at myself in the mirror, it seemed that my real self dragged something unspeakable back from view just in time, before it sent me spinning off into unrecoverable madness.
We didn’t get to see my grandmother that day, or for three days afterwards.
‘I’m sick, Warrington,’ she said. She had called me from a public telephone but couldn’t remember how she’d got there. In the end I had to get her to call the operator to tell her where she was. ‘Come quick,’ she said. ‘I’ve got something bad deep inside me.’
I found her eventually. She was sitting on a low wall, bent over, her forearms crossing her belly, and my mind was filled with swollen stomachs and badness and things growing where they ought not. I thought of the boy at our school who had undergone an operation to cure his hiatus hernia. Surgeons had tightened his diaphragm to prevent stomach acid from leaking back into his oesophagus, but they had gone too far. He was unable to vomit. He was found close to death, suffering from toxic shock, his abdomen inflated into a grotesque purple bladder.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Maybe something I ate.’
‘We should call an ambulance,’ I said. Her face was pale, the skin around her eyes grey and sunken. Her mouth was cyanotic.
‘No,’ she said, and she managed to smile. It was the most horrible thing I’d seen her do. It was as if she changed from being the most energetic, lustful creature I’d known to something on the edge of death. At that moment I questioned my sanity. I thought I was staring at the face of my grandmother as she clung to an illusion of normality, as she tried to show me that everything was all right. There’s nothing worse than a smile that is not heartfelt. Horror’s all over it.
I helped her to my car and got her inside. My hand fell against her breast but there was no cheap joy to be gleaned from that. She was hotter than the Fiat’s engine after an hour on the motorway. But it was bad heat. Unstable. Churning.
‘Where do you live?’ I asked her, but she didn’t respond. ‘Where are your parents?’
I drove back to my place and got her upstairs. By this time she seemed unsure of where she was or who I was. This is the wrong thing to do, I said to myself, and to her. But she was no longer capable of listening. I was fearful she might die in my bed. How was I going to explain that to Mum and Dad? I had crazed visions of driving her out to the woods past midnight, her body wrapped in bin bags, a spade gleaming in the passenger seat footwell.
I gave her water and pressed cold flannels against her forehead. She steamed them dry within minutes. Fever, I thought. What’s good for fever? I went downstairs and dug through the drawer in the kitchen where Mum kept the plasters and TCP ointment and safety pins. I found a box of paracetamol. I crushed three into a glass and added Coke. Drugs and sugar. What else did you need? I drew her upright and managed to get her to swallow most of it. She was intent on unconsciousness now, though, and would not be denied. I pressed her gently back into the pillow and watched as she sank towards sleep. Her face sagged, revealing her white teeth. The sharp canines, top and bottom. I wondered if she’d contracted something during the incident with the harris hawk. An infected scratch, maybe. I made to call the family GP but put the phone down. If he came here he might decide to get her into hospital. She’d be mad at me. Break-up mad, I was sure. No. Leave it. See if she could butch it through. If it got any worse, I’d call 999. I’d stay here and watch over her.
Dad was either working or at the hospital; Mum too. I’d occasionally hear them come in and have a shower, grab a change of clothes and a bite to eat. Sometimes Mum would call out to me but I didn’t answer. She never came to my room to check. I was hardly ever home; she was calling my name out of habit. She probably wasn’t even aware she was doing it. I felt that I ought to be with them at the hospital; Grandma’s condition was obviously deteriorating, but what could I do? I couldn’t leave Dervla. She had nobody, ostensibly.
I stayed and watched her. And I read, waiting for Dervla to come back. I read a novel by Dashiel Hammett, cover to cover. I was amazed just how much text you could absorb when you had little else to do. I poured water through the dry crack of Dervla’s mouth. She wouldn’t take a spoonful of rice, or soup or custard.
‘Me…’ she gasped. ‘Me…’
The only food she’d accept was meat, chewed almost to a paste in my mouth first and then passed through her lips. At night-time she’d become restless, fighting against the sheets that I’d wrapped her in. She’d claw at me and cry out. I tried to clamp my hand over her mouth to keep her quiet, anxious that my parents might walk in and hear us, and she tried to bite my palm. Weird moments when I nipped out to the toilet and came back to find her so still—no rise and fall in her chest, no pulse visible in her throat—I thought she’d died. But then I noticed that her eyes were open and she was watching me. She moved her head when I shifted position, keeping me in view. There was eyeshine in her; reflected light from the streetlamps outside. It was like being observed by a corpse with pennies on its eyelids.
Come evening, she started convulsing, as if in terror of something very near that I could not see. A shadow fell across her face and I looked behind me but there was nobody else in the room. The greyness of her skin, then, deepening. She was wrestling with the sheets, with herself, it seemed. She tore at her clothes, trying to tear them off her, and then she dug at her own skin with her sharp nails. I had to force her arms back over her head to prevent her from inflicting serious harm.
I need you to feed with me. I need you to be with me.
‘What was it you said?’ I asked her, as she tensed and shuddered, her hands clutching fistfuls of air, her nails clicking together like busy knitting needles.
Somehow I dozed a little, that final night, once she’d calmed down. A last spasm and the fight went from her. Sweat polished her body. She whispered: ‘No point fighting. Still here. Won’t leave.’
I wondered if she was talking about me. I felt—very strongly—the presence of another, but could not bring myself to search the house.
I dreamed that she rose while I was keeping watch over her, and that she hovered before me, staring intently, mere centimetres away from my face. Her eyes were hooded and black and angry. She stared so hard I felt as if my skin were dimpling under the pressure. It was as if she were looking, as I had been, for signs of life. Pretend you’re dead, I told myself in my dream. For God’s sake, pretend you are dead. She left me alone then, but I didn’t dare open my eyes or turn around in case she was trying to trick me, and was standing just at my shoulder waiting for me to give myself away. What would she do? What could she do? But my mind kept sliding away from her potential.
Eventually, I stirred, and she was there again, in bed, and of course she hadn’t moved. It was just the dream. But she turned her head and smiled at me and there was a shadow in her teeth. I smiled back, wanting to say something, that she had a scrap of food in her mouth, but she hadn’t been chewing anything. A shadow was all it could be, then. I hugged her and she smelled fresher than she ought. It was stale and sweaty in the room, muggy in the way only a room where a sick person has been can feel. Her hair smelled of clean air, her clothes too, as if she had been moving at speed through windswept meadows. I went for a shower and when I was dry and dressed, I found her in the kitchen, picking at her mouth with a toothpick.
‘Can I make you something to eat?’ I asked.
She shook her head. ‘I’m not hungry. I feel fantastic.’
‘Maybe your body flushed out all the toxins we collect over time. Clean blackboard. Fresh start.’
‘How about you?’ She reached out a hand and I almost flinched. I was exhausted.
‘I’m just glad you’re all right.’
Her eyes narrowed a little. My voice was flat. I thought I meant it. I did mean it. I was just flaked out, hollow. I needed some proper, deep sleep, not the kind of fear-tranquilised unconsciousness that I’d inhabited these past few days. And now I had to see Gran. I’d been selfish, despite my charity towards Dervla. Because underpinning that charity was the hope that she’d take me to bed again. She’d see how kind and caring I was and want to reward me for it. I’d not brushed my teeth for days, but toothpaste and mouthwash wouldn’t be able to strip away the taste of my own disgust.
‘Will you come with me?’ I asked her. There was the tiny hope that my parents and Gran would understand everything, if only they met this girl.
‘I said I would, didn’t I?’
She was different. She’d changed in that last night. I was fixating on my dream, and the impossibilities it might have generated: she’d fed off the fear in it. She’d tapped into my panic and my restlessness, my insomnia, used them as fuel. She’d used some arcane form of hypnosis to drain me. Telekinetic vampirism. Parasitic osmosis. Dream trepanning…
‘What are you doing? Are you okay?’
I was rubbing my head, searching for holes. ‘I’m fine. Let’s go.’
It was hell trying to find a parking space at the hospital. Most of the cars belonged to staff, it seemed. Visitors stood at the entrance, smoking, staring at the ambulances in the A&E bay, scowling at disabled drivers whenever they parked on yellow lines. Inside, people moved like zombies around the cafe, the shops, perhaps not quite understanding what was going on. We go from vertical to horizontal so quickly. We go from strong to weak. We go from the comfort and warmth of a bed to the cold metal gurney.
We walked through the maze of corridors to the ward where my grandmother lay dying. It seemed that death came easily to some people, whereas others died awkwardly, or with difficulty. Strange somehow, as it was the one immutable thing that everyone was born to. I wondered if I would be plucked, as easily as something ripe on a stalk, or if there would be a battle. I caught a spike of cold when I thought that maybe it wasn’t that we fought to repel death, but that we were struggling to persuade it to claim us. Maybe it was difficult to die only if you were rushing towards it, arms open. Maybe Death liked it a little better if you played hard to get.
‘What are you thinking?’ Dervla asked, as we entered the ward. Her voice was a shock. I smiled sourly and shook my head. I gestured to the section where my grandmother was housed and we turned into it. I asked Dervla if she wouldn’t mind hanging back a moment, while I squared everything with my parents and had a private word with Gran. She seemed sceptical, and my stomach clenched. It was the first proper indication to me that we might not be meant for each other. Gran was right, maybe: perhaps she wasn’t Mellish material after all. There was no space in any relationship I wanted for suspicion.
I expected, as always, to find Gran’s bed empty and freshly made, or inhabited by some other person. But Grandma was still there in the same position she always assumed: turned away from the ward, towards the window, her hair short and scruffy at the back where it had tangled against the pillow.
I didn’t know what I was doing here with Dervla. We should have been in a park somewhere, or sharing an expansive lunch, or boating on the lake. But no, I was introducing someone extraordinarily alive—someone so vibrant it was as if they possessed the energy of two beings—to someone on the brink. What was I thinking? Or maybe that was exactly the point. Did I really believe that Dervla, gorgeous and sparky Dervla, could somehow reanimate my grandmother? I suddenly felt tired to my marrow, all the long nights, all the sexual energy catching me up. Part of me just wanted to throw my hands up and get into the nearest vacant bed and fall asleep for a thousand years.
Feeling conscious of Dervla close at my shoulder, I leaned over and touched the painfully sharp nub of my grandmother’s shoulder. She stirred immediately—perhaps she hadn’t been asleep—and turned. She smiled at me, but there was something haunted, or hunted in her face. The smiled barely touched her mouth, let alone reached her eyes.
‘Where’ve you been?’ she asked, and her voice was thinned out, slow. Death had a grip of it. I could almost imagine Its filthy, skeletal hands down my grandmother’s throat, retuning her vocal cords, stripping the spirit from them.
‘I’ve been busy,’ I said. ‘Working. You know.’
‘At that pub? What’s it called again? Night Badgers?’
I laughed. I could tell she was teasing me. Drugs ran through her blood. Her eyes were syrupy and wet. ‘Night Owls,’ I said.
‘I know, silly.’ She lifted her hand slightly from the thin, pressed cotton of the bed sheet, the signal that I should take it.
‘Where’s Mum and Dad?’ I asked.
‘They went to get some dinner,’ she said. ‘There’s a pub across the road does a good evening meal. Better than the slop they serve here. I told them not to come back, that I wasn’t going anywhere, but…well…they’re good people.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘So are you. I love you.’ I felt the prick of tears. I hadn’t meant to say any of this, but it tripped from me as if the words were autonomous.
‘I should think so,’ she said. Her other hand strayed to the bedside and rested on top of a thick hardbacked book.
‘What are you reading?’ I asked.
‘Oh, it’s you. You’ve infected me with all your bird nonsense. I suppose I was just trying to do some homework so we could have a chat about it. But I can’t concentrate. The words move. I’m too tired.’ She passed me the book, a handsome volume from the 1950s. The jacket was a deep, plain green broken only by the small black shape of what looked like a kite in the top right hand corner, wings thrown back, talons raking forward: the classic attack aspect. The book was called The Red Shadow and subtitled The Predator in All of Us. The author, Laurence Curran, had been a professor at Warwick University. His photograph on the sleeve showed an ageing man in a dark suit. He wore an eyepatch, the consequence, according to his biographical notes, of a raptor attack that occurred when he was a boy trying to steal the eggs of a Sea Eagle in north-west Scotland. He had been fascinated by—and terrified of—these birds ever since.
I opened the book to the page Gran had marked with a paper napkin. We all of us carry a bit of the beast in us; we are all animals. Some of us are much more, and carry only the faintest shreds of what it is to be human. The merest trace memory of ourselves.
‘You can borrow it if you like,’ Gran said. ‘Keep it, in fact. I don’t need it. I don’t like it. I’ve been having dreams.’ Her voice faltered and she glanced at me, gauging my reaction. I couldn’t remember Gran ever volunteering intimate details about herself before. She seemed uncertain, unconfident. I didn’t say anything. She went on, in a rush as though determined to get it out of her before propriety tripped her up.
‘Something chasing me. I’m…it feels like I’m a rabbit, or something. I don’t know. But I’m little, near the ground, and very quick. I’m alert, always looking about me, like I’m expecting something bad to happen. It’s night and there’s a full moon and I’m in a field and everything is silver. And there’s this shadow, and it’s racing over the ground and it’s like…you know, oil, or something. It’s a shadow, but it’s got something to it. It’s real. And then there’s beaks and claws and feathers. And I feel it come right at me. I can feel the wind change at my back. And it doesn’t matter how fast I run, I’m like something stuck in glue for this bastard…language, sorry…and then I’ve got pain all around my shoulders and neck, like when it’s cold and you’re not dressed right for it, only this is much, much worse. And everything…behind my eyes, everything is red. It’s all your fault. You and those ruddy birds.’
I was shocked, embarrassed. It was like finding out, as a child, that your parents had sex. I was appalled by her candidness, but excited by it too. It encouraged me. I could make things better. Dervla would wipe her mind clear of all this bad stuff just with a kind word, a smile, a touch to the back of the wrist. She was an angel.
‘I brought someone to see you, Gran,’ I said, but Gran wasn’t listening. Her mind was still clouded with the aftershocks of her dream. I turned and gestured to Dervla.
‘This is my girlfriend. Dervla. Dervla Conn.’
Dervla stepped into the shelter provided by the curtains. ‘Hello, Mrs Mellish,’ she said.
Gran stared at Dervla for a second. Then she cried out and her heart monitor flatlined.
In the dark Dervla turned to me. Her white body was at the point of translucency. Inside her, blood vessels were visible, the filaments of her capillaries resembling some complex system of acid red coral. They ran through to her hair and her hair was wet with blood and there was blood all across the sky and it was calling to itself and being answered by all the millions of warm bodies sleeping around the globe.
She was opening herself to me in every way. Her eyes, her mouth, every kink and crinkle and pore and aperture. And every single one of them was armed with a jet black beak.
The telephone drew me out of it. I checked the time before answering. Three in the morning. Nothing good could come of answering, but of course I did.
They had managed to resuscitate Gran, but she didn’t regain consciousness. She fought for hours. It was all just words. Platitudes. The clichés we cling to when the blow lands. I wasn’t even sure who had delivered them once the line was closed. For the best. Painless. Good life. Happy. How she would have wanted it. I lay back on the pillow and became acutely aware of my heart and the speed, the shallowness of my breath.
I thought of the fear in her face and that awful, agonised cry. No. Not how she would have wanted it.
I went to the window and stared out at the unstable night. Wind was picking at the edges and threatening to tear it away. Nothing appeared secure; everything was up for grabs. I couldn’t get the thought of vultures out of my mind. I had seen some once, at a zoo in France, while on holiday with my parents. They were the ugly obverse of the birds of prey coin. I asked if we could leave when I saw them being fed whole chickens. They stamped and hissed at each other as they tore at the fowl. There was too much shining bone; the air was filled with the mealy stink of raw poultry.
Now, the sky like something thick and unpleasant being stirred in a cauldron, that smell came flooding back to me, pungent and unmistakable. I knew that smell. It seemed to be in my clothes, my hair, my skin. I rushed to the bathroom and vomited and, though I knew exactly what I’d eaten for dinner, I kept my eyes away from what I’d disgorged. I went back to bed dizzy with the slow revolutions of nausea and thought of Dervla.
A week later. My grandmother in the ground. And where was Dervla? I hadn’t seen her since the visit to the hospital. I eyed the entrance every time it flashed open. But it was just more punters. Droves of them, like vacant cattle clomping up for their daily feed.
Too much red. It was like viewing a photograph of a poppy field with the saturation cranked up too far. I was getting a headache.
‘Can’t you do something about the lights?’ I asked Colin.
‘Can’t you do something about the queue?’ he shot back.
I pumped pints and poured glasses of pinot grigio.
‘Isn’t Dervla supposed to be on this shift?’ I asked Carol, one of the senior bar staff, who wore so much make-up it seemed she was made of wax.
‘Like she’d make any difference,’ she said. I wanted to quiz her about that. I thought Dervla earned her pay. She didn’t ride on the hard work of others, as I had seen happen with other staff members in the past.
Colin leaned in, his fist wrapped around a great bunch of keys as if he was presenting a threat. ‘Stop jawing and quench some thirst,’ he said. ‘Dervla phoned last night to say she was finished.’
‘Finished? With what?’
Colin gestured at the bar, shrugged. Then he wheeled a skip of empty bottles towards the exit. A guy at the bar whistled at me as if I were a misbehaving dog. ‘Pint of lager, chief, when you’ve pulled your thumb out, hey?’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But you’ll have to hang on for a sec while I change the barrel and then piss in your glass.’
I took off. I raised the bar top and pushed out through the heave of bodies, ignoring the sound of Colin returning to the bar and his calling my name. The cold night air chilled the sweat on my face and back straight away. I felt my skin shrink. By the time I made it to the Fiat I was shivering. I fiddled with the heating, aware that I was just filling time with a pointless task because I didn’t know what I intended to do. Stupid heater. By the time the temperature in the ancient air-car reached an acceptable level, I’d have arrived wherever I was headed.
I realised, all summer, that Dervla had not told me where she lived. There had been no invitation to have lunch or to just hang out listening to CDs or watching films. She never talked about her parents. She deflected conversations about her life, sometimes using her guitar, sometimes her mouth or her fingers. I didn’t know where to start looking. So I decided to take a drive up to Hill Cliffe, where the cemetery looked out over the bowl of Warrington and where she sometimes directed me in order to frustrate me ragged with her off-limits curves. I’d at least be able to say goodbye to Grandma properly. I still hadn’t got over the guilt that somehow I had been instrumental in sending her on her final journey.
I got up there, the Fiat complaining in second gear all the way up the hill, and parked down by the graveyard wall. The lights were spread out before me like pebbles of accident glass scattered across a hard shoulder. The cooling towers at Fiddler’s Ferry pumped great clouds of water vapour miles into the atmosphere. I could just make out the town’s highest point in the dark, the spire of the parish church. I’d left the motor idling, but the smell of that old engine was coming through into the car, a hot, metallic smell that was making me feel sick. I switched it off and yanked open the door.
I heard her straight away. The maddening shush of her tights as her thighs whispered together. I knew it was her. She was coming up through the stones. I felt simultaneously excited at the thought of being with her again after the longest period we’d spent apart all summer…and sick at the thought of her proximity to my grandmother.
I headed towards the gate as her shape coalesced. High cheekbones, the soft black thumbprints of her eyes in the white clay face. That illegally red hair. She seemed a stranger to me at the same moment she was the most familiar face on the planet. I couldn’t remember how we had met. I couldn’t remember how we had gone from ‘take care’ to ‘take me’.
She said, ‘Predators hunt when they are hungry. Human beings can’t do that, you know. They have to eat first, before they can pick up a spear or a fishing rod.’
I must have said that I didn’t understand. I was shivering so hard I thought I might dislocate something. She appeared super-defined in the strange, ambient light of the town, like a photograph that has been digitally enhanced.
‘I get hungry,’ she said. She shrugged.
‘Where have you been?’ I asked. ‘I haven’t seen you for…’
‘A beginning must have an end,’ she said. ‘We had our beginning.’ She held up her hand. The half-moons of her enormous nails were packed with filth. Her mouth glistened as if she’d had it buried in something greasy. ‘This is our end. I have to move on.’
‘Where?’ I asked.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I’ll follow my nose, pick up a scent.’ She smiled, and maybe it was the light, but it made me recoil. It was too deep. Too loose. It was as if her mouth had been so keen on other tasks that it had lost its elasticity.
‘Don’t think bad of me,’ she said. ‘We don’t mean any harm.’
‘Me. And others. Not many. We edge-of-the-party people. We quiet-as-a-mouse types. We watch. We wait. She was going to die anyway.’
I felt used. Our beginning…well, it was just another word for an opening. An opportunity seized. I was her ‘in’. Sea eagles and vultures. There was a bit of them in everyone, as that writer had described. I felt an ache in my chest; a sudden hollowness. And she must have sensed it, because the animal in her hesitated and she regarded me with the kind of naked lust a wolf affords something crippled in the woods.
I turned to go, feeling horribly vulnerable, aware of how much of a target I was offering to her. The redness in her hair seemed to be staining the night around it. Bizarre memories hit me, of children who had eaten too many carrots, or drunk too many chemically-coloured soft drinks; how it changed the colour of the skin.
I didn’t say anything else. When I was in the driver’s seat, about to slam the door shut, she said something else. Her voice was faraway, dreamy. Something in the air had turned her head.
‘Every second, somewhere in the world, two people die,’ she said.
I drove away and caught myself in the rear-view mirror. I was thinking of Grandma. I was nodding my head.
I didn’t feel a thing.