When J. said – texted - come to his place in the city I was glad of it because Manda was on at mum to chuck me out anyway. She would have done it too because she does everything Manda wants. The trouble between us was sex of course, me with her boyfriend, who was useless anyway. The opposite of J. It just happens, I said to her, Sloppy Joe was drunk and horny and so was I, and she sneered 'irresistible are you?' and called me the usual, and immature as well, when she's only 19 herself.
I'd met J. in a pub, didn't know he was lying low then. I was with 'friends' in the hometown, kind of a re-united thing, a year after school. He was on his own in the corner. He didn't respond to our bantering (we all instantly fancied him) but I could see him watching us, and how he zoomed in on me. I felt his stare on my neck and below as I drank. Later I found him walking me home. The sex was good, considering the booze, he took his time. He took my number.
He visited me a few times and then phoned and emailed when he went back. He sent me pictures of his cock, said it was pining for me. Then the text inviting me to move in, help him settle in his new place in the city, just when I'd had enough of Manda.
So I packed in my first ever job at the dentist's, packed what I had and came here where there are no fields. Just runs and runs of grey houses, criss-crossed with roads. I was fine for a while. I walked to the shops and bought stuff, I met people to say hello to, I read the new graffiti on walls and bus stops. On one terrace end, some artist had come and spray-painted a beautiful, larger than life lion. The lion stood and watched people pass, a pride in the background. All the forest leaves, his mane, were flecked with painted yellow sunshine.
I got used to the life here, his friends who come round and stay for days, clutching bags of weed or pills and stolen mobiles and bags and boxes of electrical goods that pile up in the kitchen. Doing them all Pot Noodles or handing round delivered pizza. For real munchies marshmallows and ice cream, Magnums of course, but they like different ones: almond, classic and white chocolate. They show me their scars and muscles. Their new tattoos, flames and women and knives. Their just nicked Nikes. None of them seem to have girlfriends. It is never said but it is clear J. is the manaround here. He always gets first hit of the bong, first swig of the bottle, his opinion on football and music sought. The instigator: he'll lead them to the offie and keep the assistant busy, smiling, interested, while the others work among the shelves. Even when he was temporarily crippled in a fight, on half crutches, he'd be stood in the centre of the room, doing a Scottish sword-dance imitation, pointing his bandaged foot, or 'shakin' all over' like old people. His torso and arms shown off. His men grouped around him smiling and stamping their feet. I sit back too, on an E usually, and admire him, the strength that could pick me up like I was a cat, his fine-cut face that can't yet grow a beard, something else I like about him. He looks Swedish or something, high cheekbones, not blonde though, well cut brown hair, good through my fingers. He flicks me smiles. I bask in the attention I get, from him and them. He has me sit on his lap while he talks through the latest plan, what they should do next, who should do what, and seems to like them looking at me with his hand on my leg. He says later he plans to video me with them, spice things up a bit, it's sex talk to get himself going, he says he'll get another girl in, but I've never seen another girl.
I sit next to him while he plays mind games with some of them like Terry the geek with the long twisted nose who tampers with the mobiles to make them re-sellable. J.'ll ask him about his ideas, 'let's hear yr flossophy,' he'll say imitating the way Terry talks, handing him beer and spliff. Then he'll encourage him while Terry twists his legs and tells us all about computers, war and mathematics. How everything comes down to a number or a set of numbers.
'Really professor,' J. will say, pressing his leg against mine, repeating part of a conversation we'd had in bed, how he'd get Terry to this point again. '12, 24, 48?' Him saying those numbers deadpan will make me snort the laugh I'd been holding.
J. himself, though, if on the right drug, will talk of how he sees things. There are rages in the universe, and their ripples hit Earth. That's tornadoes, volcanoes, hurricanes, but they're also inside you, they go through you too, you can feel them coming. He says we are microbes, germs and our little rages, the violence we create are nothing.
As if to prove it I saw him beat a man once. I was out with them in some pub on the outskirts. The man was big, unafraid and picked on the youngest of our crowd, still at school. After all we were on his turf. Didn't worry J., who set about him with fists and feet and a determination that won through, the bloodshed not bothering him, nor the pain. He had cuts and stuff but it was the other one that limped off. I licked J's wounds after.
He will talk a lot some nights and I like it because we get undressed and get to it slowly, we slow it right down and try to get our blood to go round in harmony. The drug lets us hear our blood course like tiny streams inside us both, and we listen to get our different flows synchronized with each other and the music we play, then we slowly fuck. Everything then feels good, right: he is in me and around me, he seems like me.
After, if he hasn't gone to sleep, if different drugs kick in, he might talk of what he will do, how he'll give up robbing one day. Stop sending me out shoplifting. Lower the amount of drugs; get a job, a proper one. He even talks vaguely of having kids eventually.
Things you wouldn't dream of doing - shoplifting, having near sex with him in front of his friends, stealing from your mother, or your virtual mother, her online account, (you guess the password is Manda's middle name) - you end up doing as if in a dream.
I'm one of the gang, though I don't go on the big jobs, the more-than-one-day jobs. I shoplift in Boots and Woolworth's, the old shops the easiest, bus trips to the centre in the big coat he gave me, especially for the job. I move through the shoppers quietly, I could be anyone. I come back with stuff like the rest, some sellable, some for the house, ornaments for the side that get broken, and we, me and him, or a whole crowd, crack open booze and get the drugs out.
I've got an eye for the put-down iPod, the open bag. I spot open windows, report back when I see a family load up a car for holiday, I notice alleys and doorways and gates set back from the road where you could hide or wait. I break into neighbours' houses, flats are better, slip the catch like he showed me, to see if they have anything lying around, cash, mobiles, laptops, DVD players. It seems like my own decision.
But when he's away on jobs for days the house noises lodge in my head. At night the house creaks and groans like a ship at sea, how I imagine a ship at sea. In the day there are the neighbours through the walls or out the back, giving me the evils as I come and go, or the wind down all the alleys moaning and whistling. Sometimes there's nothing, no cars or calling across, no taps running next door, no strange humming that comes down from above, no shouts or dogs, nothing, and I try and have a drink or a smoke to enjoy it more, and think back to the quiet of the hills folded around where I came from.
I'm never sure which drug to take when on my own and take the wrong one, the wrong colour, the wrong shape and end up shaking in corners, or crouching on the floor, holding myself in. I've learnt that it ends but until it does anything, the sound of ash dropping into coffee, the spill of goods and packages in each room, putty fingerprints on the window, will set me off. I can't put the telly on because the news seems to be my fault: the wars, starvation, bombs, people burnt, the missing and murdered all because I didn't pay enough attention, I got myself distracted somehow.
We once visited his family across town, he usually didn't want to but something forced him across the Sunday roads, driving as if to catch up with himself (we would have a car and then we wouldn't), checking his chin in the rear-view mirror, checking my legs sliding on the seat. I couldn't find a seatbelt.
The family were all sat out the back, as it was hot, though it was March. I could see through dusty windows into their living room, on a wall mounted screen huge statues of Buddha were blown up like unwanted tower blocks. His mother stood at the back gate, black hair forced back, her mauve top rolled up to just under her breasts, griping loudly to two women in the lane behind.
A man, who looked like J. might look in ten years, his hair beginning to fall out, dominated one conversation. As at home the others grouped around him holding beers and fags and turned to spit in the waist high hedge beside them. 'Imagine: 20 grand in five minutes. Right, you're saying, great, go for it, but you've got to take into account the downside, haven't you, the possible downside..'
J. tapped me then and turned me round and kissed me in front of them, did a kind of Latin thing, Strictly Come Dancing, bending me back and making sure they all saw where his hands were. Whistles and shaking of heads. One of them came up after with a drink for me, bowing like I was royalty, so I could see the stitches in his bald patch.
Later an argument, a bit of pushing around, was broken up by a voice from an upstairs open window. The father, or grandfather, who I hadn't known was there, continued to shout out now and then. Orders for drink or food, and comments – I apparently was OK, better than J.'s previous, and would have to meet him later, but J. got me out pretty soon after that.
That night I tried to picture my family, while I listened to J.'s thick breathing. It was hard to get the pictures right, they all got mixed up. My mother's head - her thin platinum hair, her lined mouth held tight - on Manda's neck or the other way round. I pictured them not missing me.
He has jobs sometimes, some kind of benefit problem otherwise, night shifts at the shopping centre, or something in a factory but he always picks a fight or refuses to do something, and gets sacked and comes home again. Can't stay away from me, can't get enough of me. He comes home with his cock ready. His cock: I look forward to seeing it again each day. I like to hold it in my hand while I fall asleep, feeling my grip go. Or else hold him in tight after sex and feel him shrink inside me, and then revive. I don't like it when it isn't working properly, when the drugs are wrong.
Sometimes I have to remind myself why I like him, he does such weird stuff. Something gets into his head and that's it. Like pushing the furniture around and into unlikely places, found an armchair squashed in the under the staircase cupboard. He tore the gas fire out with his hands to put in a coal one, he said, but left the hole instead. Pots of paint will line up against the walls but nothing gets painted. He'll write things on the misted up mirrors in the bathroom, hard to read when I go in, the letters running with condensation. Something Was Coming. The Sun Would Dim.
I took to sunbathing to get out, to feel light and heat on me after the dark cool house. The summer started off warm and got hotter. I'm going to get brown, I said, would you like me brown? He watched me take the red recliner out, never offered to help. Watched me instead from an upstairs window, told me he was thinking of what the neighbours could see from their upstairs' windows, 'watch your flesh frying,' he said. They'd see my bikini-ed form splayed out amongst the paving stones, the tufts of grass, my freckles slowly merging as I went red first, then tan under the sun cream.
For my birthday he took me to a Beefeater, he hated dealing with the waiters though and I had to order. I chewed on the steak he insisted I had, saying how he liked it bloody, with mushrooms to mop it up, he put some proper 'shrooms in it too, when it came. I watched a family behind his back settle around a table with menus and napkins lined up. They were like mine in that there were two girls, but a lot younger, and there was a father too. I watched them talk together quietly, just above the old music from the PA, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, sang a woman, and they offered each other tastes of prawns and bites of steak on forks, and touched each other's sleeves for them to look, look at what Betty or Jill was doing. The waitress to one side took down their wishes. There were paintings of mountains behind her. I watched all the courses arrive and how they smiled when each came, especially the creamy desserts. J. wanted me to suck on my banana split, give a demonstration to the people in this warm brown room, under mock chandeliers.
I come in through the front door after an unsuccessful shoplifting trip, it's too hot for the coat, and I know there's something up, there's another smell about, and, alert, like I'm on a break in, I open the front room door quietly. There's a man smiling, but I know he's dead straight away. He's sat in the chair staring at me but underneath his shoulders are all wrong, the angle. He's got a colourful tie on I thought was spilt blood at first. He has a little moustache, ginger, grey at the ends, and as I'm looking his chin sags and his tongue is black.
Then J. comes in, looking hot and as if breathing water. Gurgling almost. He's got a cloth laid over his arm, carrying our green bowl, steam coming up, he's concentrating on not spilling it, and for once his arms look weak.
'Ah, you're here,' he says, ' just in time.' Trying to keep his voice normal, a cough leads him there. 'Here take this.' He nods down to the cloth.
Two Jehovah's Witnesses knock on the door during our clean up and I answer mopping my hands, the clean, iron smell of blood up my nostril and in my mouth. They have leaflets illustrated with children hugging lions and a feast of fruit on a table behind them. The older man, with a white patchy beard and eye whites that are grey puts the leaflets in my hand and I feel the callouses on his fingers brush my palm. I wonder they can't smell the blood, and when the dogs passing will head for here.
J. comes and stands behind me while I see them off, listening to what I say though he sent me to the door in the first place. All I manage anyway is 'No thanks, no, no, no thanks.'
The reason he killed the man he says is because he wouldn't go away. Some kind of won't-give-up salesman who somehow got inside while J. was on the crest of a high, thinking he'd got his foot in here and sat down and got out his glossy brochures for gas fittings and fireplace surrounds, looking with joy at J.'s unfinished hole in the wall. 'How about a whole new central heating system?' and J. says he was stood in front of him 'my breath going in and out wrongly.'
'My head started to flip with it. I went and got that.' He points to the remains of a paving stone scattered around the chair, on the man's lap. He brought it in from the yard. It's the one that I put my romance books on when I sunbathe. A thick triangular chunk of grey on the carpet has a circle made by my coke glass.
The sun must have been beating down in my corner; he must have lifted it with difficulty, even with his strength, and carried it in as the visitor rummaged in his briefcase waiting for his return. Before the ginger man could speak, or maybe he was talking into his briefcase, J. swung the slab one way, he shows me twisting his torso round, his cheek bones catching light that comes in from the back, to gain momentum and then round across the head, the bent neck, taking bits with it and grinding grey and yellow flakes of concrete into the brain matter.
'He got up almost completely,' J. says, 'turned to carry on the conversation, but then sat down again. So I just banged it down hard on his head from above, like this. Until it all broke up.'
I made him go away, he says. Only he's still here.
We move him, chair and all, (most of the blood has soaked into the chair) into the cleared out cupboard under the stairs, its old home. He just fits in sideways but I have to get into the space with him, J. is too big, to move him in enough to close the door. Head to head I see close up the ginger in wavery lines in his moustache, the neck chafing at the collar, the concrete dust and bits in his hair and clothes, one large pink and chunky ear split in a V, the fillings glint in his blackened mouth while I push and wiggle the chair, having to bend right into him. J. pushes from outside. A sour - or is it sweet - body odour comes up from him, any deodorant he may have worn worn off. He seems wet all over, soaked in something invisible. Or perhaps it's me – I have a sheen of sweat. I know it would look good in a photo, the sweat highlighting my tan. My hair drops all over the baldness I never saw at first, him getting first view of my wet neck and tits, blouse open to his dead eyes. He has grey and ginger little stripes, more orange, the colour of fish fingers, in his irises too. I push him to one side accidentally and his head that seemed stuck with the blood leaking into the chair goes forward and I can see more how the hair frames a jagged deep wound, a gap as big as a baby's fist, and around the little cuts and wide red scratches greyed with dust. Flesh bits, concrete bits on his shoulders. I put his head back when I can and he looks like he might say something and I can picture him talking and wonder what everyday phrases finished him off. J. says he probably didn't know it was going to happen until right before it did.
I miss my old job, even miss the bus journey through fields of wheat, past hills that swept down to the roadside, ponds glimpsed within coppices passing. I miss trying to ease the nerves of the dentist's patients, or slotting them into appointment diaries. It was up to me to soothe them after their surgeries, 'oh yes that will be like that for two hours now', or speak on the dentist's behalf, 'Mr Downing likes to follow up quickly. Next week at the same time?' I answered their hard-to-hear questions, mumbled through anaesthetic; I'd smile at them and bring them down to calmness.
I liked to speak to the dentist on the internal phone, listen to his phlegmy, deep voice. He did things a dentist isn't supposed to, smoked and ate spicy food deliberately to breathe over his patients. 'They've got no other dentist to go to,' he told me during a break out the back, 'captive audience.' I think he was building up to ask me, you could see it in his little leery glances, and despite his granddad age, or because of it, I would have, probably, just to see, but then I came here.
J. tells me to go out and get some fags, after I shower and change, he was going to think what to do. I don't know whether he is testing me to run away or go to the police. I walk down to Imran's how you might have anyway if you hadn't just helped tidy away your boyfriend's murder victim. Things aren't the same though: the people that pass seem like things about to sting, like stinging red substances walking, booted and belted. Each car that passes in the burning day seems to carry off a piece of me, caught in an open side window or behind a wiper, shreds of me going from here to all over the country.
In the shop I get out money and pay. The woman with the whisper of beard and wrong looking glasses knows what happened at our house, can see the body in my eyes, the under stairs, but takes my money anyway. Her face has lines within lines that I only now notice after months of coming here. I want a closer look. On the way out the shelves bend over as I walk by, but all the goods, the stock, the bars of chocolate and chewing gum and the tins with marker penned prices on them, the little jars of coffee and rolls of biscuits and bags of Bombay mix stay still as if glued on. Then they do up like a zip behind me.
Out on the street the pavement burns up through my trainers. The lion watches me with disdain. A couple of lionesses from the pride get up and pad out through sunshine from the bricks. They don't roar. I run a bit to get out of their sight. I think about ringing Manda when I stop and even get the number ready - she won't recognise who it is on this stolen mobile - just to hear her voice ask hello, hello.
I should just walk the other way, down the side street to the junction where I can get a bus to the centre and get a train, a train anywhere, not back home, and start again and be happy ever after without him. Get a cat or something, give up men altogether, sit at home and sing to myself.
I say when I come in, 'the sun has beaten me today,' examining the freckles fused now together across my shoulders and arms. At last the desired effect, I am a polished brown, richer looking, all touches of red disappeared. 'Eaten you,' he says.
He fucks me a lot through the rest of the day and night, on the sofa, missing its partner chair, the telly showing a riot going on not two miles away. We watch the cars on fire, the lines of police. J. says something about it being the ideal way of getting rid of the body, a riot victim. 'There'll be a few murders tonight', but we don't have a car to drive him there. J. says he'll get his cousin to bring over the van later and I think what about Stan's car, he must have had one.
I call him Stan, Stan Hodges. I could find out his real name, go through the briefcase on his lap for business cards. His wallet has been emptied of money and put back; J. did that, his wedding ring pocketed. J. is wearing his watch even though he describes it as 'crap'. I think Stan Hodges has two kids who sat on each knee when they were small and he kissed their heads, their cheeks and they complained about the scratchiness of his moustache, not grey at all then.
J.'s cock stays big for hours, I'm not sure if it's because he's taken Viagra or something similar or if it's a side effect of becoming a murderer that afternoon. During it, the long night of fucking, I think of how I might be mistaken, and that there is no one missing the man at all. How he was a loner, a divorcee. A widower maybe. How no one will report him missing.
But I'm sure by now his grown up kids with ginger and grey eyes, responding to their mother's distressed call, are organising search parties to go looking for him, Stan Hodges, who saw them through university, who liked bright ties, and country walks, and when he was younger went to the movies every week with them both, sat through every Disney and always remembered birthdays; through the night they'll look for him, before going to the police.