When I woke, I was drenched in sweat and my heart was thudding. I had been dreaming, but the dream was breaking up and sliding away. I tried to hold on to a corner of it. Something about drowning. Drowning, not in water but in a substance that was slimier. Thrashing around and looking up at the bank and there were people sitting there, talking to each other and smiling. Lots of faces: my mother’s face; an old friend from school whose name I no longer remembered; and my own face too, suddenly there on the bank. I lay in bed, my skin prickling, and tried to draw more of the dream back into my conscious mind. Something about Troy. I saw his face in my mind now, chalky-white and his mouth calling something, except no sound came out.
I sat up in bed, drawing the duvet around my shoulders. It was just past four, but there was still orange light from the street lamps and blue light from the moon shining through the half-open curtains into my room. I waited for the panic to subside. It had just been a dream, I told myself. It didn’t mean anything: random images flickering in the night. I was scared to go back to sleep again because then I’d see Troy shouting for help in my head.
I hauled myself out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown and padded into the bathroom. In the mirror, my forehead looked shiny with sweat and my hair was damp, though I was now shivery with clammy cold. I rubbed a towel over my face, then went into the kitchen and made myself a mug of hot chocolate, which I took back to bed with me, along with an
I had to be in Bloomsbury by eight-thirty, so I got up at half past six, pulled on my shorts and singlet, and put a sweatshirt over the top. I had two glasses of water and then went out to my van. The traffic wasn’t thick yet, so it only took me fifteen minutes to drive to Seldon Avenue in E8. It was a broad road, with apartment blocks and terraced houses on either side, not really like an avenue at all. I parked directly opposite number 19. I looked at the
I looked at my watch. 7.04. A deep breath and I set off, quite fast: halfway down the road, right on to a parallel road, right again and then up through a small alleyway with scrubland on one side and houses the other. It led to a housing estate, and I dodged round the fire gates, into the parking space and out the other side. Along the small road with lock-ups and a railway bridge; left on to a cul-de-sac, through a narrow cutting that led on to a pedestrian bridge over the railway line. I knew exactly where I was now. I’d been here dozens of times. Hundreds of times. I sprinted along the street, turned right and stopped, panting for breath. Kirkcaldy Road. Laura’s road. Laura’s house. I gazed up at her window. The curtains were not drawn, but no lights were on. I looked at my watch. 7.11. Seven minutes.
I waited for a minute or so and then ran back, retracing my footsteps. This time it took just over six minutes. It would take around twenty minutes, maybe, if you followed the streets, which went the long way, along a railway embankment, across a bridge and round a series of builders’ yards. But the direct pedestrian route, the alley, cutting through the flats, the one you couldn’t see if you were driving around in a squad car, that was a quarter of the distance at the most. Not twenty-five minutes in any way at all.
I arrived at eight in the morning at the flat in Bloomsbury, letting myself in with the key I’d been given. I was going to sand the floorboards. It wasn’t my favourite job: it’s noisy and stirs up a storm of dust. I covered the shelves with sheets and put on my ear protectors and mask, and for three hours I moved steadily up and down the spacious living room, planing the dark grot of decades off the wood and seeing it turn honey-coloured and grainy again.
At last I was finished. Squatting on the floor, I ran a finger over the wood, which was full of new patterns and knots. Once it was varnished, it would look beautiful. I stood up, pulled off the ear protectors and mask, and shook myself, like a dog coming out of water. I opened the large windows to let in the spring air and the buzz of traffic. I swept up the sawdust and then vacuumed the floor, making sure the nozzle got into all the corners. I pulled all the sheets off the bookshelves and started to vacuum them too, running the nozzle up the cracks between each volume, sucking up the fine layer of dust that lay over their tops.
This man had strange books. The first shelf was full of general things – two thick atlases, several dictionaries and encyclopedias, a tall book about birds of prey, another one about remarkable trees. But as I lifted the nozzle up to the second I saw titles such as
I heard a movement behind me. I was surprised in different ways at the same time. I had assumed the owner was at work. Not only was he not at work, but also he was wearing striped flannel pyjamas of the sort that I hadn’t seen since visiting my grandfather when I was a small child. How could anybody have slept through what I’d been doing in that flat? He looked as if he had just woken up after several months of hibernation. He had long dark curly hair and ‘unkempt’ was an inadequate word to describe its state. He rubbed his hand through it and made it worse.
‘I was looking for a cigarette,’ he said.
I reached down a packet from a bookshelf.
I found a box on a loudspeaker. He lit the cigarette, took a couple of deep drags on it and looked around him.
‘I hope you’re not going to say that I’ve got the wrong flat,’ I said.
‘You’re not Bill,’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘He subcontracted the job.’ I looked at my watch. ‘Did I wake you? I didn’t know you were here.’
He looked puzzled. He didn’t seem entirely to know that he was here either.
‘I had a late night,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to get to work at twelve.’
I looked at my watch again.
‘I hope it’s nearby,’ I said. ‘You’ve got thirty-five minutes.’
‘It’s very nearby,’ he said.
‘Still, you’ll probably be late.’
‘I can’t be,’ he said. ‘There are people waiting for me in a room. I’ve got to talk to them.’
‘You’re giving a lecture?’
He took a drag of his cigarette and winced and nodded his head.
‘Interesting book?’ he said.
‘I was just…’ I gazed down at the book in my hand, then pushed it back into its space on the shelves.
‘Coffee?’ he asked.
‘I meant, could you make some for me? While I’m getting dressed.’
I was tempted to say that I wasn’t his butler, but this was obviously an emergency.
He flinched as he took his sip of the coffee.
‘You’ve got twenty-five minutes,’ I said.
‘It’s only across the square.’ His eyes were more widely open now. ‘You’ve done a good job,’ he said, looking at the boards. ‘Not that I’d know the difference between a good job and a bad job.’
‘It’s the machine that does it,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry I was messing with your books.’
‘That’s what they’re there for.’
‘Are you a doctor?’
‘In a way.’
‘Interesting,’ I muttered inanely. I was thinking about Brendan pushing dog shit through the car window. And then about my dream; fragments of it rose in my mind, like the mouths of small fish nibbling at the surface of the water.
‘My name’s Don.’
‘I know. I’m Miranda.’ I sipped at my coffee. It tasted chocolatey. ‘Do you deal with mental illnesses?’
‘I know you must get really pissed off with people asking you stupid questions, but can I ask you a stupid question?’
‘It’s about someone I heard about. A friend of a friend.’ I put a shortbread into my mouth. ‘Of a friend,’ I added thickly.
‘Yeah, right,’ he said with a faint smile.
‘I just know little bits about him, really.’ That was true anyway.
I started to tell Don about Brendan. I began with the dog turds and then I went on, and when I got to the bit about the bath flooding and was saying: ‘And then she went back and found that her bath was overflowing when she
‘Hold on,’ he said. He lit a second cigarette.
‘This is you, right?’ he said. ‘The woman?’
‘Well, yes, in fact.’
‘I was worried you might be the one who put the dog shit in the car.’
‘That was a man.’
‘You could have changed the sex. For purposes of concealment.’
‘This is pathetic, I know,’ I said.
‘Go on with the story.’
So I did. Even though time was getting short before his lecture, I told him everything. I even backtracked and told him about Brendan whispering to me about coming in my mouth. And then, at the end, I told him about Troy and Laura – but very quickly, so I wouldn’t start weeping again. When I finished I picked up my mug and took a last gulp of stone-cold coffee.
‘So what do you think?’ I asked. For some reason, my heart was hammering.
‘Fuck,’ he said.
‘Is that your considered verdict?’
‘You’re well rid of him.’
I gave a snort.
He held up his hands in protest.
‘It’s a bit early in the morning,’ he said.
‘It’s actually very late in the morning.’
‘I don’t want to be pompous and say that I would have to conduct my own investigation before making any comment like that. And I don’t want to start throwing technical, clinical terms around. The point is, it doesn’t really work that way round. I can’t say that this pattern of behaviour means that he is a murderer
‘The way it would work is if someone were found to have committed certain types of violent acts, then I wouldn’t be surprised to find the kind of behaviour you’ve described.’
‘So there we are,’ I said.
‘No, we aren’t,’ he said. ‘The majority of murderers show earlier signs of dysfunctional behaviour. But a very large number of people display dysfunctional behaviour and the vast majority of them don’t cross the line.’
‘But if he has crossed the line, which is what I think, even if nobody else agrees with me, is that it? Is he finished? Is he still dangerous?’
Don sipped at his coffee.
‘You’re piling assumptions on assumptions here,’ he said.
‘I’m not in court,’ I said. ‘I can pile anything I want on to whatever else I want. I want to know if he could have burned himself out.’ I heard the wobble in my voice and coughed to cover it up.
Don shook his head.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘This is all about hindsight. When people have acted, when they have committed a crime and been caught and imprisoned, then the psychologists and the psychiatrists come out of the woodwork and do their tests and pronounce their verdicts with great authority. And you’ll be able to find experts to argue for or against any issue you want.’
‘Thank you,’ I said dully. I turned to face him. I noticed he had a thin face and auburn hair and he was looking at me kindly.
‘Keep away from him,’ he said.
‘Are you all right?’
‘I don’t know.’ I pulled the window shut sharply and the room became quieter. I looked at my watch. ‘You’ve got four minutes.’
‘I’d better go,’ he said. ‘You don’t look happy.’
‘It doesn’t make it all right that it might be just a stranger, does it?’ I started to gather up the sheets. ‘You can’t just sit on the bank and let people drown.’
Don looked as if he were going to say something, but had changed his mind.
‘What are you going to talk about?’
He frowned for a moment.
‘A very rare psychological syndrome. Very, very rare. Only about four people have ever had it.’
‘So what’s the point of lecturing about it?’
‘If I started asking myself questions like that,’ he said, ‘then where would I be?’
I went to see the therapist, Katherine Dowling, again. I sat for a long time in silence, trying to come to a decision. Was I going to deal with the world or with my own head? I looked at my watch. It had been over ten minutes. I told her my dream.
‘What does that mean to you?’
‘I’d like to continue with you,’ I said, ‘but in a few weeks. Or a few months.’
‘I’ve got things to sort out.’
‘I thought that was why you were coming here.’
‘I can’t sort them out here.’
I left after half an hour. They still charge you the full amount, though.