A flight of worn steps, looking older than they are, and I’m on the bridge. The asphalt glistens with this evening’s rain. I shouldn’t have left without a coat. I shouldn’t have left without shoes. I shouldn’t have climbed out the kitchen window. Above the river, a cutting wind blows. Mist blurs the city lights. I hurry across. On the far side, you wait for me.
You take me by surprise, your image on a poster hanging in the window of a music store. I miss a step, mumble, “Hello, Tess,” move on quickly, around the shop’s curved frontage, only to find you again. Another window, the same poster, street light throwing shadows across your face, washing out the colours. You have one eyebrow raised in silent interrogation.
Where am I?
I don’t know. I can’t say. Honestly. Near, perhaps. I have a vague inkling, narrowed it down to a Square Mile. I know where to look. I’ll find the two of you.
Didn’t he introduce himself? That’s unlike Tim. No, not like Tim at all.
“You’re an acquaintance of Mr Timothy Greene?” asked the first office, the big guy, greying hair, probably early forties but still in uniform. He filled the doorway when I answered the bell, a smaller colleague in his lee. They apologised for the late hour. Now they filled the living room.
I thought briefly about how I hated Tim with every fibre of my being.
“He’s my best friend,” I told them, instantly regretting choosing such a childish phrase.
“When did you see him last?” No notebook out. It was that urgent.
“A couple of nights ago. Tuesday. We met for a drink.” I didn’t volunteer any more, didn’t tell them about the box or the bag.
“And since then?”
“No. Well, we’ve spoken on the phone. Yesterday.” And I made the mistake of looking at my phone, where it lay on the coffee table. Where it still lay when, a few minutes later, I left through the kitchen window.
I thrust my hands into my pockets, turn my back on you, Tess, and cross the road. The phone would have made this easier. I wish I had a memory for numbers, wish I lacked a memory for everything else.
You really want to know, Tess? I suppose you do. I suppose I can’t blame you. Why is this happening to you? Do you have time for me to tell you a story? I guess you do. I guess that wherever you are, you’ve got nothing to do except wait, pray. Maybe a story will help pass the time.
Let me tell you about Siobhan.
We met during our first week of university, during a very dull lecture. I couldn’t even tell you what the subject was. I can only remember that it was a very dull lecture because as it ended, Siobhan, black-haired and beautiful, who I’d somehow ended up sat next to, turned to me and said, “Christ, that was a dull lecture. I need a drink.”
We made the trek to the Student’s Union, which since this was London meant a walk through city streets. It took us a good fifteen minutes. A great fifteen minutes. Bishopsgate to Whitechapel, via Petticoat Lane. We compare the families we’d both abandoned. Siobhan was from Cork. She could dial the Oirish up to eleven when she wanted, but most of the time she spoke with a gentle, lilting accent, like sea breeze through dune grass.
At the end of that fifteen minute walk I was smitten. We found a table in the bar with a few people I half-knew from halls. I went to get a pitcher of cheap larger. The bar was packed, three or four deep. It was all over by the time I got back.
“Ess aitch ee … vee?” Tim stalled, a confused look under the mop of beach bum hair.
“No! Ess eye oooh just give it here,” and she snatched the phone from him, deftly entered her name and number, stuck out her tongue as she tossed it back to him. Somehow I put the drink down without spilling it. The afternoon wore into evening. The ambient noise increased. Tim and Siobhan had to lean in close to hear each other, his rugby player physique looming over her. I was stuck on the other side of the table, a million miles away. Eventually, inevitably, they left together. I followed shortly afterwards, turning in the opposite direction, to walk the City’s nighttime streets alone.
I stop outside the Starbucks on Gracechurch Street and press close to the window. The glass is cold. My breath quickly fogs it. Inside all is dark, ordered, displays neat, chairs stacked on tables. Not here, then. I walk on. You’re by my side again, looking out from another window. A fashion spread this time. Is that a trace of interest I detect in that studied, bored expression? Shall I continue? Very well.
Tim had a car, a beaten old Volvo which smelt of wet dog. A ridiculous extravagance for a student in London. But we made good use of it, Siobhan and Tim and me. Siobhan and Tim, the couple, indivisible, and me, tagging along. I should have walked away. The first morning I found her in our communal kitchen, wearing one of Tim’s rugby jerseys, I left quickly, backing out and silently closing the door. I don’t think she saw me. The next day I was braver. Soon it became routine, the chat while she made coffee to take back to their room, to him.
After that it only seemed natural that we would end up sharing a house together. I should have walked away, but I didn’t. I crept closer. I was always there, the third figure walking besides them, watching patiently for the slightest crack in their partnership. Proximity to the happy couple fed my misery, my anger. I wallowed in it. If I smoked I would have pressed lit cigarettes into my palms. Instead I listened to their love-making through paper-thin walls. (Can you image that, Tess? Listening to the person you love moan in pleasure at the touch of another. What drove your performances, Tess? That dreadful soap opera. You in your bedroom, alone and moonlit, contemplating the thin blade. What did you use to conjure up those performances? Desire? Loss? Regret? Let’s not pretend it was any kind of talent.)
But I was telling you about the car, wasn’t I, Tess? Maybe it’s the shifting street lights, but now I see nothing but boredom in your look.
We had weekends and holidays in that car, home and abroad. Fridays would come and more often than not we’d pile in and drive somewhere. I played the role of faithful hound, filling in for Arthur, Tim’s childhood companion. He had passed on of old age just the previous year; his odour still clung to the car’s upholstery. Now it was me who came lolloping to jump into the back seat whenever his name was called.
Sat there, eyes never far from Siobhan, watching the dappled sunlight of country lanes, the orange glow of motorway lamps play across her features, I found myself wondered about this need for constant motion. We seldom visited the same place twice, working our way around the coastline, occasionally venturing onto the continent for rushed sorties to Belgium, Holland, France. Always going somewhere, always moving. I wondered what would happen if these two stopped still for too long. Would the relationship sink? Drown?
“No!” cried Siobhan. It was late at night, a Sunday. We were on the motorway, headed home, I couldn’t tell you from where. She leant over to stare at the dashboard. “The numbers went back to zero. I missed it.“
“It’s done that before,” said Tim, laying a hand on her neck. “It’ll do it again. Just wait.”
Tim has a cardboard box containing things cleaned out from that car — maps and guide books, gloves and glasses, mix tapes, photos. Crumpled brochures and tickets. He was out when I found it, had left me alone. I’m sure I had a pretext ready, should he have returned and found me, but the truth was I just wanted to wallow. I picked up one of the tapes, labeled ‘Car Songs #3’ in Siobhan’s looping hand. It took me a while to find something that would play it.
Do you remember tapes, Tess? As a little girl, did you ever pester your mother for a cassingle of the latest boy band, which you then played to death in some gaudy pink plastic deck? Do you have an opinion on the great vinyl versus CD debate? I guess that would be, after all, tangential to your current line of work. (As I cross the road and head for Bank, a night bus pulls alongside me. You watch me from its side, an advertisement for a fashion line I don’t recognise. Your expression is serious, impassive, unamused. Are you wondering where this is going?) The one things the audiophiles seem to agree on is that the cassette will not be missed. They know nothing. The cassette has a memory, and that makes it more alive than the even the warmest of records.
We were in Cornwall. Maybe. We were lost.
“This left?” demanded Tim. Rain lashed across the windscreen.
“I don’t know.” Siobhan’s hands clenched, tore the map. She reached out for the dash to steady herself as the car bounced along the rutted lane. “Will you fucking slow down!”
And Van sang, “Standing in the sunlight laughing, hiding behind a rainbow's — “
Tim silenced him with an angry stab. “I can’t think with this racket on.” The cassette popped out of its slot, sat there rattling for a moment in the opening, then fell away into the footwell. I watched silently. This was the first real argument I’d seen them have. I still remember feeling the thrill deep down in my stomach, remember feeling no remorse for feeling that way.
But we found the turning, and after it the B&B. Siobhan and Tim made up in front of the fire and disappeared upstairs soon after dinner. I stayed down there, drinking, until I wore out my welcome and was told to go to bed. The next day we walked on the beach; on the Sunday evening we packed up and drove the old Volvo home. We got on with our lives. The years passed. Then one day I pulled that tape out of a cardboard box and slotted it into the player and Van sang, “ — wall, slipping and sliding all along the water fall, with you.”
I let the tape play on and fished photos from the box. Photos printed on paper, Tess. Can you believe that? Still in their wallets, fresh from the chemists, small strips of brown film tucked neatly at the front. I opened them, started to flick though the prints, paused. There was a fourth face there, smiling alongside ours. Short blonde hair, tousled and spiked. A brilliant smile. I spent a minute trying to recall here name, gave up, moved on to the next set of photos. A party. Someone’s birthday? A different woman this time: red hair, a serious expression, my arm around her. Mary? Molly? She didn’t seem to be enjoying herself.
Yes, Tess, there were other women. None of them were Siobhan, and nothing I could do would turn them into her. It wasn’t their fault, but nevertheless I punished them for it, for every divergence from my idea of perfection. None of them eased my longing. None of them lasted long.
“The nymphs are all… gone… home. Bye bye. Nymphs?”
Tess, let me introduce you to Peter. I found him a minute ago, leaning against the wall of the Bank of England, pissing down his trouser leg, and now it seems he’s decided to follow me. He weaves along the pavement, trying to declaim and occasionally treading on my heels. I think he’s harmless, but it means that we no longer have these empty streets to ourselves. You watch me from across the road, from a wrinkled poster plastered incongruously on the monumental limestone, and I can see you are not impressed, although whether with Peter or me I just can’t tell. Peter sways, veers towards the road. I catch him, steer him to safer ground. I have had some experience of this.
I became Tim’s best friend. Consciously. I manoeuvred myself into the position. And when Siobhan had one of her girls’ nights in, it would be time for one of our legendary boys’ nights out. I would return Tim safely to her in the small hours, barely able to walk and a hair’s breadth away from vomiting. My attempts to get him to go home with one of the girls who would inevitably gravitate to that rugby player physique would just as inevitably fail, but still I tried, a little devil sat on his shoulder. There was always a chance he would disgrace himself. I tried.
In time I would become Tim’s Best Man. The incident with the photos from the stag night was unfortunate. I had no idea how they came to be published on-line like that. Yes, Tess, I staged each one, paid the strippers, framed the shots, culled those that showed Tim protesting, bashfully turning away. It was a half-hearted attempt, little more than a prank. A gesture. It was all I had left in me. At the time I felt crushed, defeated. I can’t imagine why I thought that their marriage would make any really difference. My memory of the service, in the tiny church in Siobhan’s home town, consists of my own dread, the fear of what I might do when the Priest asked if anyone knew of any just cause. But of course they don’t do it like that, as Siobhan’s sister explained to me later that day, drunk in a corner of the local pub. I’d missed my chance. “They give you weeks to file your objections over here,” she explained, giggling. She was another woman who wasn’t Siobhan.
Our boys’ nights out continue, irregularly. Less raucous, shorter, but nonetheless eventful. Let me tell you about the last one. Let me tell you what I didn’t tell the police. Let me tell you, Tess, about the box and the bag.
The box was made of pale wood, held shut with a little brass latch. It may once have contained cigars or paints. Tim held in under his arm. Neither of us mentioned it.
The bag was from a boutique I’d never heard of. A name in gold against dark blue, thin golden rope for handles. Tim placed it under the table when we met, left it there when he excused himself later. Of course I looked. It contained silk scarves, maybe half a dozen of them. One was tied in experimental knots.
(Does this sound familiar, Tess? Move your arms, your legs, twist your body. How are those knots holding? How does the silk feel against your skin? Do you appreciate the thought which went into choosing them? Say what you like about Tim, he was always a thoughtful one.)
When Tim returned the bag was back under the table. “Time for a last one,” he announced. The box was gone from under his arm. We talked carelessly, I forget about what. Tim checked his watch with a studied casualness. When he paused mid-sentence I knew to brace myself.
The explosion was a single simple crack from outside, muffled by distance, by bodies and conversations. A moment’s pause and then a car alarm began to shriek. Voices rose, pulled by the backdraft to fill the vacuum. We followed the crowd out into the street, hanging back. A Starbucks was ablaze, its window spread across the road before it, a river of diamonds with islands of matchwood. Thick smoke billowed from the gaping hole. It smelt wonderful.
Tim kicked idly at a scorched lump of sofa wadding. “I think I’ll call it a night,” he said. That was the last time I saw him.
And here, Tess, we must say good bye to Peter. I leave him arguing with a taxi driver — Peter insists on being taken home, while the driver insists he doesn’t know where Peter’s home is; they’ve been around in this circle twice already — and head up Moorgate. The Starbucks in Eldon Street is empty save for shadows and ghosts. I avoid Liverpool Street — too many people (a crowd’s a good place to be alone, but not to be alone with your obsession) — and head back towards London Wall. Where are you, Tess? Where has Tim taken you?
I should finish the story of Siobhan and Tim, shouldn’t I. After all, I lived the years of their happy marriage waiting for its end, now that the last line’s been written and the book closed it would be a shame to leave it gathering dust on the shelf. They had a good run, as I believe its customary to say. They were both happy, successful. Tim’s career progressed apace, as you’d suspect. The fates would never be kind enough as to let me witness him fail. His job brought with it foreign travel. Frequent and extensive. The constant motion of old returned, but for Tim alone. Siobhan, left stationary, began to drown.
(Yes, Tess, I see them. How could I fail to notice police cars screaming past me, sirens wailing, lights flashing? I start to run.)
I watched the distance start to take its toll on Siobhan, carving out dark hollows under her eyes, draining the lustre from her skin and hair. I increased the frequency of our get-togethers, the weekend coffees and quick drinks after work. I’d always lead with questions about Tim, to set the tone. I made it perfectly clear that my shoulder was her’s whenever she needed it. But she was brave. It wasn’t so bad, they still had a great time when they were together, there was talk of impending promotion which would bring greater stability, bring Tim back to her permanently. I sat across tiny tables from her, watching her tell herself these pleasant lies and contemplating the fearful asymmetry of our feelings for one another.
I guess that ultimately the child was meant to bring them together.
“I’m enormous,” said Siobhan.
“You’re not. Tell here.”
“You are…” I gave it a moment’s thought. “… bloody huge. Do you know what you’re having yet? Elephant or whale?”
She laughed and threw a cushion at me. Tim glowered. This was the last time I’d see them together. Siobhan looked radiant — it’s a cliche, I know, but it was true. She glowed; her eyes sparkled. The life had returned to her even as the new life grew within. Tim called in favours from work, travelled less often. I hated him more than ever. At night, I would try to image what it was like, to be able to lie there, able to wrap your arms around everyone you loved. Then came Tim’s last trip. The baby was still weeks away from due, it was only for the one night, maximum of a couple of days with travel time.
Siobhan tried to call him, first, when the contractions were less than an hour apart. I’ve never asked him where, exactly, he was. On route, on schedule, or waylaid, delayed, diverted. It doesn’t matter, not now.
Siobhan called me.
And now, Tess, you ambush me. I run across the lanes of traffic which wind under the sodium-lit railway arches and run into you. Your face covers an entire wall, the posters repeated again and again, an unintentional artless Warhol pastiche. The new single, its title, its date of release, long gone. The look which asks, what about me?
Alright, Tess. Let’s talk about you. You were Tim’s obsession, kindled in the weeks where all he had left was his sofa and daytime television, but I’ve studied you, too. He knew my woman so well, why shouldn’t I get to know his? Let’s see what I remember. (You’ll tell me if I get something wrong, won’t you, Tess?)
Your background? Unremarkable. A provincial town, a couple of nobodies as parents. You studied a little drama. “I always knew I wanted to be an actress. Or a singer.” You and a million other young girls. But it’s a good story, the kind to give hope to a nation of talent show contestants.
Your first big break? One of those teen soaps where impossibly beautiful people lead impossibly complicated lives. Your background role evolved into a Storyline, something wretched given a fairytale gloss, something which would make best use of your signature expression, that look of wide-eyed desperation.
(And so you caught Tim’s eye. I found the messages he had composed but never sent. You cried yourself to sleep again last night. It broke my heart. I helped him out there, helping them on their way. Did you get them? Any of them? Or were they caught before they reached you, to be passed around the production office and laughed at? When were they first handed to the police? Before tonight?)
And next? A minor species of Celebrity, and all that that entails. There are a couple of footballers, a game show host, and then the rock star. You become a Couple. You (plural) are photographed attending things. You (singular) realise another dream, release a song, three minutes of over-produced, auto-tuned drivel. You must excuse me, Tess. It’s my turn to look bored. The inevitability of it all is soul-crushing. I hear that the ghost are writing your autobiography even as we speak, the space on supermarket shelves already reserved.
What else? What have I missed? Your musical influences? Favourite author? Movie? Colour? Tess, what are your thoughts on Middle East peace? But enough of the catechism, let’s get to the apocrypha. The good stuff. Let’s talk about the boyfriend you left back in the sticks, or the man who whisked you away to the big city but then made the mistake of introducing you to the right people. We’ll gloss over that first audition, on your knees in the filthy bathroom stall. Let’s talk about the hothouse where they taught wannabes to be actresses both on- and off-screen, to smile for the cameras and mouth meaningless nothings to the reporters. What do you think of your co-stars? “We get on really well. We’re like one big family.” (The cat fights; the bitchy asides; the cries for help which went unheard.) Tell use about your forthcoming plot line. “It’s going to be very intense and demanding, but it will give my character a chance to really grow.” (Acting out the writer’s twisted phantasies, pawed by the drunken lech cast as your father, playing the role of old man’s fantasy.) How do you keep in such good shape? “Exercise and healthy eating.” (Cut to your Chelsea flat, where you measure out your life with blackened coffee spoons, wondering if the rock star will be able to tear himself away from the groupies long enough to call you tonight.)
How does that life look from the inside? It’s everything you ever wanted, isn’t it? (We know the awful truth, don’t we, Tess? We know that when fate hands you everything you ever wanted, you should decline, turn away, run, hide. We learnt this the hard way, didn’t we?)
And then one evening, running home in the rain, you’re stopped by a man with a rugby player’s physique and an expensive shopping bag. Don’t look at me like that, Tess. It wouldn’t have helped you any if I’d told all this to the police, instead of offering to make them tea and then climbing out the kitchen window. They were already on to Tim. But I still have to find him first.
Because Siobhan called me.
Because Siobhan called me and I didn’t answer. My phone was in my trouser pocket, my trousers strewn with the rest of my clothes across the floor of the bedroom of another woman who wasn’t Siobhan. I found the message soon afterwards, as I dressed in the bathroom, preparing to slip away. I called back then and there, got no reply. I called the hospital from the cab. The maternity ward put me on hold. Eventually they transferred me to A&E.
The next month was a blur. They tell me I was a rock, that they don’t know what Tim would have done without me. I don’t know what I would have done without the cocktail of prescription meds and supermarket booze, my waking coma conveniently mistaken for strong, silent support.
A lorry had jumped a red light and hit her car, Tess. Tim’s old Volvo. A Starbuck’s delivery lorry, it’s driver oscillating between tweaked on speed and fast asleep. No, Tess, I’d never seen a Starbuck’s delivery truck before, either, but you’re right, they must exist. Where else would the coffee beans come from?
I finally find a break in the wall of St Katherine’s Dock and slip inside. Police cars are parked there, lights still flashing, an occasional crackle of conversation from their radios, but otherwise empty. I head for the maze of walkways and bridges, dark water lapping between them. Already there are onlookers, gathered at the railings. Lights are on in some of the surrounding apartments. All eyes turn towards the rotunda on the central island, the patina of verdigris on its dome glowing in the spotlights, its bulk like a fortress on a headland, the Starbucks logo above its doorway.
Am I too late, Tess? It looks like I am, like it’s all already over. Inside, visible through the glass walls, a figure unfolds itself from behind the counter, moves unsteadily towards the door. At first you push where you should have pulled, and then you’ve got the door open and you’re outside. Someone calls your name. Camera flashes flare; you instinctively run towards them, and then the police have you, an officer wrapping you in a blanket and leading you quickly away. Goodbye, Tess. Good luck.
But a figure still remains within. Tim. I see him for the first time, another shadow behind the glass. He’s moving towards the door, slowly, hunched, defeated. The police move in, telling him to stay where he is, to lie down on the ground. He ignores them. Maybe he doesn’t hear. He’s at the door now, opening it.
And then a shout, a voice yelling, “He’s got a gun.” And even before the shots have finished echoing from the surrounding walls, I realise that that voice was mine.