Chapter 1

Tuesday

 

The car coughed and wheezed as it wound its way through the baked backstreets of Holland Park. It was over-heating just like its driver, whose damp shirt had been stuck to the seat all day. He had fantasized about buying a new car with air-con, but that would’ve meant sending less money home for the ‘war effort’, and his sister would’ve been very angry. She had no idea what air-con even was, but if he’d described the icy air-blower to her, she would’ve slapped him and said, “Pravinda, you’ve gone soft,” which he had.

But it had been hot (for London) – the hottest day on record, as pronounced by every wilted shopkeeper he’d bought an iced lolly from as he crisscrossed the city.

As the sun glided below the horizon it gave everything that golden glow. What did filmmakers call it? Magic hour? There was something magical about it. Kids in the street were having water fights, although it must’ve been hours past their bedtime; no one was in the pubs – they were all outside the pubs on the street, drinking, laughing, dancing and snogging. It was the kind of summer night on which a normal person might think it was good to be alive. In Pra’s case, if he compared his childhood in Sri Lanka to the ‘civilization’ of West London then it was okay to be alive, but he wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt he could describe it as ‘good’.

His delivery job didn’t help – dealing with desperate/angry callers saying, ‘Please come now’/’Where the fuck are you?’ as he zigzagged Kensington and Chelsea, pinball fashion.

“Almost there, you’re next. Ten minutes.” was his stock response. It was like dealing with spoilt children. His next drop was Sammie, then he’d do the North Pole, circle back past Trellick, and down to Queensway. John Peel was playing something unlistenable on the radio, and he was considering turning over when his phone rang, so he pressed the button on his earpiece.

“Pra, it’s Murf.”

“Hi Boss!”

“Oh, wait,” said Murf, “another phone’s ringing. Hold on.”

Pra drove under the flyover then took the next right into Cambridge Gardens, looking for the bus stop where he usually parked. Sammie hadn’t called recently, so Pra had sent him a couple of texts on the pretext of finding out if he was okay. It always worked; Sammie had finally texted back (on a new number), asking for a visit. They couldn’t stay away for long.

Murf came back on the line.

“Are you almost out? If so, don’t come back here with the money tonight; we’ll settle up in the morning okay?”

The moment Pra stopped the car, Sammie jumped in behind him – or Pra thought it was Sammie until he felt the cheese wire around his neck. He screamed briefly, before it pulled tight and muted him. He grabbed it and tried to loosen its grip. It cut into his fingers, but he knew this was his only chance. He felt something clamp painfully around his left thumb, but he didn’t let go, then the same on his right, literally crunching bone. He then realized that the cheese wire was no longer strangling him, just holding his neck firmly. He released his grip but couldn’t drop his arms to his sides and the pain in his thumbs didn’t stop. He could turn his head just enough to see that his thumbs were clamped in some type of lockable pliers.

He tried wrenching them out, but it tightened the wire around his neck, so he gave up and tried to relax. Relaxing – that was what had got him into trouble in the first place, relaxing his guard and opening the windows. Murf was alternately listening, then shouting in his ear. A voice behind him whispered,

“Where are the drugs?” Pra spat a balloon on to the passenger seat.

“Where’s the rest?” Pra nodded downwards and the wire went tight.

“Don’t fuck around.”

“It’s up my butt!”

The wire slackened.

“Where is the money?” Pra nodded to a large bum-bag in a compartment between the seats. The hand reached forward and took the bag, and the phone, almost pulling the wired earpiece out; but unfortunately, Pra could still hear Murf shouting and sobbing.

“And who do you work for?” the voice said.

What did he care? If he was going to die tonight, he’d take that fat fuck with him. Murf shouted “No!” so loud it would have hurt, if Pra hadn’t already been in excruciating pain.

“Murf.” Murf was not happy about this.

“Where does he live?”

Pra told him the address in Dollis Hill. Murf sounded like he was having a fit.

“Do you want to live?”

“Yes.”

“Then leave London tonight, without talking to Murf.”

“Okay.”

Pra heard the door open, then his earpiece was torn from his ear. The last word Pra had heard Murf say was ‘Motherfucker—’

The door shut and Pra was alone. He was still trapped, and bleeding badly, but he was alive, and in that moment, it was good to be alive. Everything would be okay if he could just get the clamps off his hands. Excruciatingly, he started working his thumbs back and forth to ease them out; but every time he moved, he heard a tiny click and the cheese wire felt ever so slightly tighter around his neck. What was it going to be? Sit tight and wait to bleed out, or risk strangling himself by working himself free? He sat for a moment and thought…

 

Art was riding home on his old Honda dirt-bike, through the balmy London air, while his new favourite song played in his headphones: The Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ really suited his mood as he cruised the city.

He turned into Cambridge Gardens and popped a little wheelie just for the hell of it. Life was good – the breeze in his face, the thunk of the engine, the music in his ears – but then his heart skipped a beat as he spied Pra’s car ahead. Art would have recognized purple Skoda anywhere, with its Mini-Cab stickers, as he had sat at his window innumerable times waiting for it to show. Ten minutes? Yeah, right!

Art slowed and saw Pra sitting in the driving seat. “Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” he said to himself, as he did the opposite.

Pra was leant back in his seat, his hands up by his ears. What was he doing? Putting on headphones? Straightening his collar? Neither. As he peered in, Art realized something was seriously wrong with him. Music still blaring in his helmet, he jumped off his bike, opened the door and saw the elaborate wiring around Pra’s neck pulling him back. Art opened the rear door, found the wires on some kind of ratchet mechanism tethered to the seat rails and unhooked them. Pra sunk down in his seat, and that was when Art realized that he was actually dead.

Ever curious, Art moved closer and saw the mole wrenches clamped onto Pra’s thumbs, his hands and neck shining black with blood. Art was not repulsed nor shocked, but he was strangely moved. It had been ages since he last saw Pra and they’d had the classic junkie/dealer, love/hate relationship in which, at times, Art had wished him dead. But now, someone had done more than wish it. Who though? A disaffected user who’d reached the end of his tether; some junkie trying to burn his bridges; or maybe a rival ‘deals on wheels’ service?

That was the moment Art saw the balloon lying on the passenger seat and his heart fell out of his bottom. He could see the smaller bags inside, some brown, some white. He instinctively reached in for it, then stopped, frozen. He was suddenly very aware of himself, crammed into the car while still wearing all his biking gear; the song thundering in his ears; his elbow leaning on a dead man’s chest.

He backed out, straightened up, unplugged his Walkman and looked around. How long had he been there by the car? Had anyone seen him? He tucked his ponytail under his collar as he scanned the windows for onlookers. None; most windows were obscured by the trees. So as long as no one had walked or driven past he was in the clear. But he’d done nothing – why was he even thinking like that? It was instinctual. He still always felt guilty whenever he saw a blue flashing light behind him and still shuddered at the sight of a Black Mariah.

He took one more furtive glance over his shoulder, then shut the car doors, went back to his bike and rode away from the scene of the crime.

 

From there it was less than a minute’s ride to his flat, in a long terrace, just off the Portobello Road. Art revved the dirt-bike, then rode it up the stoop and into the ‘front garden’. He locked it to the railings then climbed the four flights of stairs to his flat, hoping his nine-year-old daughter Aji was asleep and not still playing Tomb Raider.

Dasha looked up from reading the paper and smiled when he entered. Miles Davis’s ‘All Blues’ was playing.

“Apparently Arthur,” she said, “as your balls drop on the year 2000, all the planes will fall from the sky, the internet and the power stations will shut down, as their computers crash and there will be anarchy.”

Art pondered whether to correct her use of his balls, while he took off his biking gear.

“Sorry Dash, but it’s not my balls that will drop on the new century, it’s the ball.”

“Thank you Mr Pedantoid. My English is not so good and I need to be corrected.” she said, getting up from the sofa and slapping her own bottom.

“Your English is brilliant Dash,” he laughed, “but if you need to be corrected, then I’m your man.”

Dash, as he called her, often babysat as she lived close-by with her partner (Art’s old school-friend), William. Aji and Dash had come up with the name Mr Pedantoid together, as they both found this trait in him worthy of a title. But however pedantic he was, he didn’t have the heart to correct her about his name, which wasn’t short for Arthur.

Art examined the contents of the fridge for things to eat. He chose the remnants of a cold roast chicken, a cucumber and a jar of Hellman’s and put them on the table.

“But, don’t you think,” he said, “if they haven’t fixed this Millennium Bug in the coming months, it’d probably be best if the planes weren’t actually flying on that night—”

“I’m afraid enough of flying on a good day,” said Dasha, “and I’m supposedly flying home for the holidays.”

Dasha was from Saint Petersburg, having arrived the previous summer, and William had been smitten. Art understood: She looked extraordinary with her punky haircut (platinum this week) and her luminous eyes: An iris edged in dark blue encompassing a galaxy of bright stars, spiralling into the black hole at its centre. At least that was how Art described them in his head. In public, he’d say they were blue.

She sat at the table with him and picked at the chicken.

“Well a little anarchy is no bad thing. Look at my country – I used to be a Soviet, and now I’m a Russian.”

“We are living in a golden age,” he agreed, “a far cry from my childhood with the shadow of the bomb looming over me—”

“So you feared you’d be vaporized by evil Soviets at any moment? I’m so sorry.”

“No, I always thought it’d be the American Idiots who’d do it, weirdly,” he said, chomping on a drumstick in one hand and the cucumber in the other, “probably something to do with watching Doctor Strangelove and Failsafe during my formative years, and I’m not just saying that because you’re Russian.”

“Formative years?” inquired Dasha.

“The early years of one’s life when you are moulded by experiences and events and—”

“Ah okay, because I would naturally think of one’s influences during those years as positives, not negatives.”

“I guess it depends on where and how one grew up? Of course, I have lots of positives, like other movies and music and books—”

“What happened to your gloves?” asked Dasha, “is that blood?”

Art looked from her to his gloves, then from her to his gloves again, in a guilty double-take.

“I ran over a hedgehog,” he said, and her face crumpled with grief, “so I carried it into the park and gave it a pagan burial.”

“You set it on fire?” she said, almost in tears.

“No Dash. I dug a shallow grave and laid it on its side with its head pointing west.”

She seemed reassured and he distracted her by offering her a cup of tea and asking about William. It was better not to tell Dash about the bloodied corpse he’d just seen. She was clearly quite squeamish, even about small animals. He made them tea, which he drank while eating a packet of Jaffa Cakes. Dasha declined even one, then announced she had to go. They hugged and she walked out.

“Thanks for sitting with Aji. She so wanted to see you before she went.”

“You’re welcome!” she said in her best American accent, then, “It’s a pleasure,” in her best British accent.

Art watched her from the window as she dodged the drunkards, then he quickly wrote ‘Formative Years’ on a pad, and below ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’. Under ‘Cons’, he wrote ‘The Bomb’.

‘All Blues’ finished so he went to the CD player and pressed ‘back’ again. Then he pressed the ‘repeat one’ button so it would play indefinitely. It had ousted ‘Windowlicker’ as his new favourite song.

He sat back down and thought of Pra. Why wasn’t he feeling more? He’d just seen a dead body. It had been someone he had known quite well and his death had been grisly. And yet he felt very little. Was it because it was Pra? The man who provided him with his much-needed anaesthetic – the heroin that had turned him into a robot in the first place? Doubtful. Maybe the close call with the drugs was having a bigger impact on him at that moment? Initially he’d been proud of himself for resisting, but a nagging feeling was emerging that it had just been his back-pack jamming on the door-frame that had stopped him from reaching the drugs…

 

Murf finally finished frothing at the mouth about Pra’s betrayal and waddled around looking for the remote control for the shutters. He only had about ten minutes, he calculated, before the Torturing Cunt could be on his doorstep. He wheezed his way into the living room where four TVs were stacked into a square, so he could watch multiple shows just like Elvis. Except Elvis’s room probably wasn’t packed with another 10 TVs in their boxes, along with 50 VCRs and 27 Compaq computers, ready for fencing.

He collapsed into his Lazy Boy and found about ten remotes on the coffee table. Having realized he’d forgotten his glasses, he pawed at each one to see what happened and various lights and sounds emerged from the TVs, Sky box, DVD, VHS, Laserdisc, and stereo. Finally, he heard the grinding sound of a bomb-proof shutter closing in the hall. He pressed the ‘All’ button and watched as the shutters dropped slowly from their hiding places, crushing whatever ornament or gadget happened to be in their way. When the grinding ratcheting sound finished, Murf felt so much safer. Nothing was getting in. That reminded him. He should also tell the other one not to come back tonight, but should he tell him the bad news? Definitely not. He dialled.

“Block, it’s Murf. Let’s not settle up tonight. Something’s come up. In fact, take the day off tomorrow. Turn the phones off and I’ll field the calls okay?”

He heard Block grunt, which he took to mean yes, so he hung up. Shit! Now he’d have to find someone else to replace Pra, and he’d probably have to fill in himself until then. What a nightmare, dealing with all those spoilt brats. No, it was unthinkable.

He was hungry and thought the girl might be too. He propelled himself towards the kitchen, wheezing heavily. He got a new box of Crunchie Nutters and a carton of milk and placed them on a tray. Then he added two bowls and spoons and carried it all to the stair-lift. He sat down and pressed go.

“What was that awful sound Murf?” came a girl’s voice from upstairs.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said, “just testing the security shutters—”

“You think they’re coming?”

The girl appeared at the top of the stairs.

“No, no – just can’t be too careful in my game—”

“They’re coming to steal from you?”

Murf watched her as the stair-lift rounded the corner. Freida was still cute, even in her bedraggled, skinny state. She actually looked happy at the thought of someone stealing from him. Her smile was annoying, but still beautiful.

“No one is going to steal from me.” he said, pulling his enormous bulk from the tiny chair, “Don’t worry, you’re safe—”

“From everyone, except you.” she said, running to the window in her bedroom, pushing open the curtains and peering out of the peep-hole in the shutter.

“A van’s just stopped in the alley. No one’s got out, but I can’t see the driver cos it’s behind the foliage.”

Murf pushed her out the way and pressed his face to the shutter. She wasn’t kidding. It was just sitting there. Freida had found another peep-hole and was excitedly giggling.

“Maybe they are coming to rescue me?” she mused.

“Who would ‘they’ be? Your inbred family?” he laughed, “You’d be being buggered by your brothers again in no time!”

“It would be better than this hell!” she screamed, bursting into tears and slumping on to the shag-pile carpet. Murf knew the answer to this problem: He picked from his pocket two small bags. One brown, one white, and rustled them under her nose.

Once she was ensconced with her smack and crack, he sat by the rear window in his bedroom and ate the box of cereal, occasionally pausing to look through the peep-hole. The van hadn’t moved. The house was much quieter than usual; a bonus from the closed shutters muffling the sound of the North Circular Road ten feet from the front of the house. Maybe he should keep them down all the time?

So whoever it was outside, it wasn’t the cops. Unless they’ve started torturing people in their cars recently? No, it must be a rival. They wanted his business. Was it worth fighting for? What did he actually do with all the money? He couldn’t really spend it, other than on mail-order gadgets and appliances, because he rarely left the house. Except to replenish supplies of course, or to go to the storage locker to drop off more cash. How much was in there? Millions? The amount had lost all meaning, because he wasn’t saving for a car or a house or an island. He just wanted more of it. He liked vacuum packing bricks of cash, then stacking it up in elaborate structures; and then sitting on it, like a throne…

 

Art peered out of his window. Portobello was still kicking: Directly opposite was a mansion block with a party just starting on the roof. A skinny girl (daughter of Janine from 5b) was dancing as she strung Chinese lanterns on the aerials. A boy (Lance from 2a) was lighting a barbeque while others lugged beers and ice through the maintenance hatch. One floor down a window framed a couple (Fran and Zoe) as they danced, strangely in time with Art’s song. Melvin, to their left, watched TV while devouring an entire pizza.

Below to the right, in the communal gardens God, Piss, Alf and Amy were settling into the sandpit in the playground. Nine two-litre bottles of White Lightning were arranged like pins in the bowling alley.

To the left, the junction of the Portobello Road was heaving with drinkers at the Black Cross pub, and Art tried to pick out some of his old drinking buddies. Was that Hew and Valentino in the seething mass? Were they having fun down there? Was he missing out on some great adventure? Doubtful… Anyway, Art was going nowhere as Aji was in bed.

In the morning, her mother was going to pick her up to fly to the Med for a few weeks, so they had spent the day shopping for swimsuits, sunhats and sundries; then packing. They finished the day playing the latest Tomb Raider game, starring Lara Croft. They had become obsessed with her and had played every day after school, and all the time during these few days of the holiday. When it came time to stop, there was always a scene, but he understood – he didn’t want to turn her off either. In fact, he wanted to turn her on right now! He was weirdly attracted to Lara, despite the polyhedroid tits; or was it because of the polyhedroid tits? or because she did exactly what he said, as opposed to every other girl on the planet? Yes, an hour with Lara would be therapeutic . . .

The phone rang. He suspected he knew who it would be (Nina, Aji’s mother) so was loath to pick it up. But then it stopped; and started again. That was a code and he did know who was calling and was still loath to pick it up; but knew he must.

“Artie Fartie! Did I wake you? If I didn’t, let’s hang up and I’ll call back in a couple of hours!” Art then heard drunken laughter and immediately picked up a pad and pencil to make notes. It was his agent Zal calling from California.

“So we looked at the roughs, and they’re good. Great compositions, good dynamics, but the magazine wonders if you could make them darker? More menacing? Er… Give her less clothes… and how about lots of snakes, and maybe a panther?”

“Really? but from the excerpts you sent me I thought I was illustrating a comedy?”

“Why’d you think that?” asked Zal.

“The laughable quality of the writing—”

“But I wrote this one myself,” said Zal with a wounded tone.

There was a pause. Long enough for Art to realize he might have shot his mouth off (yet again), when he heard Zal laughing.

“No I didn’t! Just kidding!”

Art stopped clenching.

“No, the author’s standing right next to me . . .” but Zal was still laughing so Art knew he was lying.

“Zal you crack you up!”

“I know!” shouted Zal, “so make them darker. Er… how’s about lots of snakes, and maybe a panther?”

Bzzt! Repetition, thought Art, imitating Radio Four’s ‘Just a Minute’, while he sketched.

“And for the cover, make a snake be slithering up between her thighs, okay?”

“Like a massive cock with fangs?” Art asked, adding it to his sketch.

“Exactly, except bigger and more menacing! and a panther!”

“Are you sure Zal? This is 1999, not 1969—”

“You’re not illustrating for the New Yorker – This is for a much bigger seller: Sex-Doll-Horror-Monthly.”

“Yeah, I realized that, and you seem to have forgotten I told you I couldn’t work for them anymore.”

“Oh sorry Art, that was six months ago and I guess it just slipped my mind. Please just do these one’s for them and I won’t ask again, okay?”

“Okay Zal, I’ll get on it this week,” he said as he sketched another panther.

“Alright Artful Codger. I’m going to get properly drunk now, sleep well.”

Art continued to doodle, watching his hand move and create the lines almost sub-consciously. He loved his job. Being an illustrator was perfect for him as it gave him free rein to block out his time. He could never do a nine to five job. He’d tried it as a teenage copywriter at McCann’s and had failed: always late; invariably stoned after lunch-break; often asleep at his desk; and finally caught receiving a ‘handy’ from Andi the Photocopy Girl. Needless to say, they were both instantly dismissed, so went to the Yorkshire Grey, where she finished him off in the Ladies.

His sacking had been the catalyst for the move to Amsterdam, with his old friend Hew. There, hidden in a fog of joint smoke, he’d miraculously produced some illustrated articles about sub-cultures and scenes which he sold to various big music and style magazines under the pen name of Artemis Grime.

His cult status came in the years that followed, from his longer ‘gonzo’ pieces about the calloused, pock-marked underbellies of the cities he holed up in. They were gritty and horrifying first-person travelogues of the underworld, the drug-dens, the warzones and the forbidden. Art wrote fact blurred with fiction. But where was the line? Only he knew; if he had any memory (of the facts) at all.

When he came home from his travels, sporting a new scar or broken limb, Hew would say,

“Oh my god, what have you done to yourself?”

He’d then spend a month ‘recuperating’ (drinking heavily and taking many and any drugs), then fly to wherever, where his handler would say,

“Oh my god, what have you done to yourself?”

When the anthology came out, the book tour almost killed him. Wherever he went everyone wanted to buy him a drink, stuff coke up his nose, drop acid under his tongue and pump smack into his arm. In fact, the tour did kill him.

In Detroit, he hit up a snowball in the green room then went onstage and greeted his fans. His plan to read the story of him in Beirut overdosing and projectile vomiting onto a bunch of strangers was thwarted by him actually re-enacting the scene instead. He was pronounced dead by a doctor from the audience; a big fan apparently – but not big enough to resist demanding money from the PR girl for his dry-cleaning bill. A local reporter caught the whole thing and syndicated it immediately. It wasn’t until 20 minutes later, when everyone had gone, and he had almost crossed the Styx, that the paramedics paddled him back to safety. But by then the news of his death had traversed the globe.

His publishers dropped the tour (as book sales had gone through the roof, and they didn’t need him alive and screwing things up), and then dropped him when the long-awaited ‘posthumous’ novel never materialized.

The birth of Aji should have been a wakeup call, and his near death a year later should have too, but he had obstinately continued his sleep-walk for another few years, shooting his royalty cheques into what was left of his veins. Finally, the deepest of all his rock-bottoms had been the catalyst that forced him to change. He’d abandoned his pen name, got clean, grown his hair long and become an illustrator. He liked it, it was easy for him, but drawing someone else’s ideas like snakes and panthers could never give him the buzz that he got from drawing and writing his own stuff. But as a gonzo journalist what could he write about? His life as a single parent wasn’t particularly interesting except to him: “Took Aji to school, drew, collected Aji from school, went to Holland Park, fed and put Aji to bed, drew . . .” Not very ‘gonzo’.

Maybe he should be writing fiction? If Zal could do it (or whoever wrote this shit) . . .

Art had occasionally had ideas for stories and somewhere in the wall of LPs and CDs was a folder full of them.

The phone rang. Probably Zal to suggest more snakes and panthers. He picked up.

A girl’s voice made his heart sink…

 

Hannah sat on her balcony smoking a cigarette. The traffic below had died down as had the heat, but she was still boiling. She couldn’t remember a summer like this. People were certainly behaving strangely: The Leather Boys across the road in the pub weren’t even wearing leather! Except for their chaps… Ah, the Colherne: She’d spent many a night in there, drinking and flirting with the only boys in London who didn’t want to screw her. They were one of the main reasons she’d bought this flat on the Old Brompton Road. Them, the Troubadour and the All-Night Pharmacy, where she could seduce any number of prescription drugs from the sleepy men behind the counter.

Times had changed though, and the area didn’t hold the same appeal, but she had no intention of moving. She loved this flat and she’d got it for a song – commission on one day’s work: She’d sold double glazing to a factory owner for all his buildings, by showing him how much money he’d save on heating in the years to come. Her maths was irrefutable, as was her allure.

Sweat prickled her neck beneath her hair so she gathered up her mass of dark curls, spiralled and knotted them into a bun on top of her head then locked them in place with a chopstick.

Before she stubbed out the dying cigarette, she instinctively reached for another to light, and was reminded of her childhood.

“For fuck’s sake Hannah, smoking will stunt your fucking growth!” her potty-mouthed Palestinian mother had screamed every time she’d caught her lighting up; but it hadn’t dissuaded her – it’d actually encouraged her.

On reflection, though, her mother had probably been right, as Hannah stood five feet tall… on tip toes.

Too late now: At twenty-nine (again) she was hardly likely to have a growth spurt, so she lit another.

She was obviously smoking too much again. It was because she was alone. Stupid Nelson. Stupid her for believing his promises. She was alone again, and lonely.

What was the acronym of feelings to beware? Those feelings that might make you behave inappropriately? H.A.L.T. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

Well, she was still angry with Nelson, even though it had been a few weeks since she threw him out; but she wasn’t tired, and she wasn’t hungry. Horny maybe, but not hungry. Lonely and horny. The old Hannah would have gone out, and in moments, found a man. The new Hannah would reach out and phone an old friend. The fact that the friend was a man, and a beautiful one at that was beside the point:

She dialled his number.

“Hello Art,” she said, and heard a groan, “it’s Hannah,” and then a sigh of relief, “who did you think it was?”

“Oh I thought it was Nina for a moment,” he said, “long time, no see.”

“I’m sorry about that—”

“No problem, as long as you’re alright?”

“I wasn’t, but I am now.”

“What happened?” he asked.

“Me and Nelson split about a month ago. So I was in a state, but I’m over it now. He’s an idiot.”

“He is an idiot. Sorry.” Art agreed.

“You should be.”

“No, I’m sorry for you, not sorry for doing anything wrong—”

“But you did do something wrong.”

“What?”

“You introduced me to him—”

“Well I knew you only date black guys, so I thought . . .”

Art went silent then mumbled something vaguely reminiscent of an apology.

Hannah laughed and decided to change the subject.

“So what’s new with you?” she asked.

“I just saw a dead body. A grisly murder—”

“Eeuw, I wanted to change the subject but not to that – listen, are you free for a couple of hours tomorrow? Wanna meet for lunch? Say one at the Orange Café in Pimlico?”

“Good timing,” said Art, “Aji flies to the Med with Nina tomorrow morning, so yeah, why not.”

“Good timing for you, but it means I don’t get to see her.”

Hannah could hear a sax playing and asked what it was.

“Miles Davis, All Blues,” he replied.

“Didn’t you give me a cassette of this?”

“I did,” he said, “of the album ‘Kind of Blue’, stick it on, its perfect for this weather.”

“God, it is hot, isn’t it?” she waited for him to agree then remembered he was almost always cold. He was probably wearing gloves at that moment.

“Well I’m hot, and I’m lying on the sofa in my birthday suit.” She wasn’t in her birthday suit. But she was lying. She heard Art chuckle quietly so took that as encouragement,

“and I’m spritzing myself with my plant-mister, so my nipples are like little Jelly Beans,” she heard Art laugh again, “and there’s chocolate crumbs falling on my glistening boobs because I’m eating a Fla—”

She heard the phone go dead and smiled.

Well, reaching out, instead of doing something inappropriate hadn’t been at all successful. But Art must’ve realized she was fooling around?

She found her mobile and texted him:

‘Soz I wnt 2 far?

LOL tho?

Can we stil meet 4 lnch tmz?

Orange caf 1pm x’.

He replied with a terse ‘yes x’.

She smiled. It would be good to see him. She found the Miles Davis cassette and put it on, then peeled off her dress and walked to the kitchen to find the plant-mister.

 

Art hung up the phone and thought about Jelly Beans. Were there some in the kitchen? He’d like to think so. He put down his pencil and went to look. The sketch he’d done during their conversation was too much: Hannah in her birthday suit…

The Tiny Temptress must be horny. By her own admission she’d flirt with a bed-knob (or broomstick!), but in the years he’d known her, she’d never come on so strong. Maybe it was the heat. He normally loved flirting with her, but he couldn’t handle the imagery that evening, as he was really-really trying to avoid thinking about sex.

He looked again at the sketch he’d drawn of Hannah and groaned. It was relatively easy to avoid thinking about sex, if you eschewed porn mags and vids, as well as TV, internet, fashion magazines, advertising, and going outside. But what do you do when you can produce your own porn with just a pencil and paper? His left hand had a mind of its own!

The party was in full swing on the roof outside his window. Some of their dancing actually looked like they were having spoony sex right there, in front of each other! He was doomed. There was no way in the world not to think about sex. Maybe he should just succumb. After all, everyone else was doing it. How many couples were having sex right now in London? Thousands probably. Maybe Hannah was serious? Maybe he should call and invite her to come over right now?

But she texted, apologizing and asking to meet for lunch, so he replied, ‘Yes x’; then shut the curtains.

What was he doing? Oh yeah, looking for his ideas folder. It had been years since he’d seen it, but he eventually found it nestled between ‘Leftfield’ and ‘Who’s Next’ in the ‘Not One Duff Track’ section of LPs.

Art leafed through the ideas written on napkins, bills, fag packets, ticket stubs, and surprisingly, also a notebook.

He lay them out on the table, categorizing them. Some were rubbish: ‘A dog that just won’t stop growing’; ‘Killer Kettle!’; ‘Rocky10’; ‘Robo-sit-com’; ‘Despatch riders delivering live human organs’ (was he stoned when he thought of these?) Some he didn’t even understand: ‘Hands-free piss-test workaround’; ‘Feet with Teeth’; ‘Cracked Spangle’ (mushrooms maybe?) And some were indecipherable: ‘Flum vitArius Corbum’? ‘Belli-anterus dominai’? (LSD?)

Maybe he should go back to journalism? But not create stories starring him – look for real news; focus on thinking of subjects for news. He would go to bed and take his micro-cassette-recorder with him, in case inspiration struck in the night; but, he suspected, he’d probably end up dreaming of Hannah in her birthday suit…

 

Rachel stood in the centre of Piccadilly Circus, scanning the people as they passed by. It was late, no one was inspiring her, and the neon lights were starting to give her a headache. She walked down to Trafalgar Square, where she knew the night bus would soon be leaving for Heathrow – the last tip she’d been given.

There was a small queue of tourists with suitcases who would be making the legitimate journey to catch an early flight, and then there were a few teenagers, also with rucksacks or suitcases and some even younger kids milling around. Rachel felt slightly out of place, but nobody seemed to notice her. Anyway, who would guess her puffy black parka was made by Yamamoto?

When the bus arrived, a gaggle of ravers spilled out and headed for Heaven. She bought a ticket and without any luggage to worry about climbed upstairs. Even though she was the first aboard, some seats were already taken by sleeping figures with their hoodies pulled down over their faces. One was under a blanket, with an inflatable neck support. Two children snuggled into a sleeping bag on the floor below his seat. Rachel walked to the back row and chose the corner seat where she could get a good view of everyone. The teenagers streamed upstairs along with the kids and then the bus set off. Most who came to the back of the bus settled down and tried to sleep, while the ones who wanted to stay awake congregated at the front. One girl stood out, but Rachel hadn’t got a good look at her. All she could make out was she was dark and willowy, dressed all in black – hoodie and skinny jeans.

When they got to Hammersmith, the girl walked down the bus, lugging a rucksack almost as big as her, then sat a couple of rows in front of Rachel, who smiled – the girl was very pretty, the way her hair protruded from her hood made her look very cute. Maybe she wasn’t as beautiful as Rachel had been led to believe, but she was young and not yet fully formed; definitely worth approaching.

At Turnham Green, a tall boy came upstairs and headed straight for the back row.

“You’re in my spot,” he shouted to Rachel without hesitating, “get out of my spot.”

She didn’t move, but the other back row boys inched slowly away from what they obviously thought might end badly.

The boy advanced on her repeating the same words, and she contracted into her corner as he opened his jacket to unsheathe a long knife. As he loomed over her, Rachel saw a dark boot swing up between his legs and connect with his testicles. He shrieked and collapsed in pain. Standing behind him was the slight young girl dressed in black.

“Kew Bridge is next – this is our stop,” she said with such surety that Rachel immediately pulled herself up, then stepped over the sobbing boy and followed the rucksack downstairs, muttering ‘thank you’ repeatedly.

When they were off the bus, standing by the road the girl asked her,

“What were you doing on that bus?”

“Looking for someone,” she answered while trying to flag down a taxi, “what were you doing on it?”

“Going around and around; backwards and forwards.” Rachel detected a North American accent, but she couldn’t place it. Quite transatlantic.

“We feel safer on a night bus than taking our chances in ‘cardboard city’ or some alley.”

“You’re homeless?”

The girl nodded.

“Do you have a job?”

“Maybe soon, then I’ll get a flat.”

“There’s a room at my place for you tonight if you want it?” she said, “as a thank you for saving me. You can have a bath and an uninterrupted eight hours sleep, then maybe I can help you find a job too? I’m Rachel by the way.”

The girl looked sceptical, but as a taxi pulled over, she smiled and lugged her rucksack in through the door.

“I’m Eva,” she said…

 

Tony walked as fast as his damaged leg would allow. His weather-beaten face contorted at the pain, but he pushed on resolutely. He even cracked a smile. There was nothing quite like the anticipation of scoring. Sometimes it was even better than the hit!

He was sick and needed the gear, but he craved a lick of crack more. Weird, but quite common amongst the gutterati, as most of them had such long-term habits that any amount of heroin wouldn’t really get them high… just make them normal, whatever that was… or, not normal, just not sick.

What had happened? One minute he was on the straight and narrow, a cabinet-maker by trade, and the next he was back out scoring. What had changed? He couldn’t remember. Probably nothing. Just that fucking switch in his head had been flicked, and he was immediately on the phone and out the door. When was that? Long enough ago that he’d already got another habit, but not long enough that he didn’t get any pleasure from it. He hadn’t slept in how long? Days? A week? Two? Was he in permanent alcoholic blackout? Did blackout qualify as sleep? Probably not. You still walked, talked, operated heavy machinery (all incompetently), but with no memory afterwards. He had woken from blackout in the middle of fighting a man over… what was it? He’d woken from blackout on a jet to Marbella … He’d woken from blackout fucking a teenage hooker in Nairobi.

He’d woken from blackout ten minutes ago, not one hundred yards from here, and found a bundle of cash and a bank card in his tool-bag (with the pin written where you’re supposed to sign!). Where had they come from? no idea; didn’t care.

From the Trellick Tower, he turned the corner into Golborne Gardens and saw the block before him. Limping less, in his excitement he hopped the last few meters and pressed the bell. No answer. He tried again, before remembering the stupid ring. One medium, one short, one long. The door buzzed and he walked up, wiping blood from his hands. Oh, happy days.

The dilapidated flat wasn’t very busy for 1:00am: Maybe twelve crack-heads sitting at the crooked tables, a few junkies crashed on the floor. Porky was running the show, in Robson’s absence. He said nothing. Tony held up two fingers and slid into the seat opposite a black girl who he’d met before. She didn’t notice him, too busy loading a pipe.

Porky took his money and gave him one of each. He opened the crack, while looking for a spare pipe. Oh, he was blessed today, his favourite was free and there was spare ash. There was nothing worse than having to wait while burning down a couple of fags. Three whole fucking minutes. That didn’t count as anticipation.

Betty was scrabbling under the table, doing her usual thing, looking for tiny crumbs of anything white or cream. Crumbs. Crumbs of what? Well, supposedly crack, but 99% of the time, it was cheese, plastic, sand, flakes of skin, toenail, tooth or bogeys. Or something worse… what’s worse? Fossilized smegma? Betty didn’t mind. She was an eternal optimist. A ‘glass is half full’ girl. Tony, on the other hand was a ‘didn’t want your fucking glass in the first place’ guy; a ‘throw that glass back in your stupid face’ kind of man.

Betty glanced up at Tony, who was holding in his toke. She made the internationally recognized signal for “blowjob?” and then grinned to show she had even less front teeth than last time.

Once the rushing in his ears and the crackling of his brain had died down, Tony pondered the pros and cons.

Pros:

  1. He was horny;
  2. He could carry on toking;
  3. She was good at it – probably even better with her recent modifications;
  4. She had no gag reflex.
  5. She was cheap.

Cons:

  1. He couldn’t think of one.

Without cleaning the pipe, he knocked some more ash on top of the old, then dropped a small down-payment on top, and passed it under the table.

While Betty had her hit, he chased some smack: Just enough to stop him from coming instantly, but not enough to desensitize him, or stop him from coming at all.

Then he unbuttoned the fly on his bellbottoms and piped her aboard. The pain in his leg slowly diminished in inverse proportion to the size of his cock. He was in heaven. There was nothing that could harm him. The only sound he could hear was the gentle knocking of Betty’s head on the underside of the table. He wondered what a lick on the crack pipe would be like when synchronized with him coming? Surely got to improve his usually dismal orgasm. Why had he never thought of this before? He set to work loading two pipes: One for immediately, and one for then…

 

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