Books of Blood: Volume Three | Chapter 8 of 9

Author: Clive Barker | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10789 Views | Add a Review

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Human Remains


 


Some trades are best practised by daylight, some by night. Gavin was a professional in the latter category. In midwinter, in midsummer, leaning against a wall, or poised in a doorway, a fire-fly cigarette hovering at his lips, he sold what sweated in his jeans to all comers.


           Sometimes to visiting widows with more money than love, who'd hire him for a weekend of illicit meetings, sour, insistent kisses and perhaps, if they could forget their dead partners, a dry hump on a lavender-scented bed. Sometimes to lost husbands, hungry for their own sex and desperate for an hour of coupling with a boy who wouldn't ask their name.


           Gavin didn't much care which it was. Indifference was a trade-mark of his, even a part of his attraction. And it made leaving him, when the deed was done and the money exchanged, so much simpler. To say, 'Ciao', or 'Be seeing you', or nothing at all to a face that scarcely cared if you lived or died: that was an easy thing.


           And for Gavin, the profession was not unpalatable, as professions went. One night out of four it even offered him a grain of physical pleasure. At worst it was a sexual abattoir, all steaming skins and lifeless eyes. But he'd got used to that over the years.


           It was all profit. It kept him in good shoes.


           By day he slept mostly, hollowing out a warm furrow in the bed, and mummifying himself in his sheets, head wrapped up in a tangle of arms to keep out the light. About three or so, he'd get up, shave and shower, then spend half an hour in front of the mirror, inspecting himself. He was meticulously self-critical, never allowing his weight to fluctuate more than a pound or two to either side of his self-elected ideal, careful to feed his skin if it was dry, or swab it if it was oily, hunting for any pimple that might flaw his cheek. Strict watch was kept for the smallest sign of venereal disease - the only type of lovesickness he ever suffered. The occasional dose of crabs was easily dispatched, but gonorrhoea, which he'd caught twice, would keep him out of


 


service for three weeks, and that was bad for business; so he policed his body obsessively, hurrying to the clinic at the merest sign of a rash.


           It seldom happened. Uninvited crabs aside there was little to do in that half-hour of self-appraisal but admire the collision of genes that had made him. He was wonderful. People told him that all the time. Wonderful. The face, oh the face, they would say, holding him tight as if they could steal a piece of his glamour.


           Of course there were other beauties available, through the agencies, even on the streets if you knew where to search. But most of the hustlers Gavin knew had faces that seemed, beside his, unmade. Faces that looked like the first workings of a sculptor rather than the finished article: unrefined, experimental. Whereas he was made, entire. All that could be done had been; it was just a question of preserving the perfection.


           Inspection over, Gavin would dress, maybe regard himself for another five minutes, then take the packaged wares out to sell.


           He worked the street less and less these days. It was chancy; there was always the law to avoid, and the occasional psycho with an urge to clean up Sodom. If he was feeling really lazy he could pick up a client through the Escort Agency, but they always creamed off a fat portion of the fee.


           He had regulars of course, clients who booked his favours month after month. A widow from Fort Lauderdale always hired him for a few days on her annual trip to Europe; another woman whose face he'd seen once in a glossy magazine called him now and then, wanting only to dine with him and confide her marital problems. There was a man Gavin called Rover, after his car, who would buy him once every few weeks for a night of kisses and confessions.


           But on nights without a booked client he was out on his own finding a spec and hustling. It was a craft he had off perfectly. Nobody else working the street had caught the vocabulary of invitation better; the subtle blend of encouragement and detachment, of putto and wanton. The particular shift of weight from left foot to right that presented the groin at the best angle: so. Never too blatant: never whorish. Just casually promising.


           He prided himself that there was seldom more than a few minutes between tricks, and never as much as an hour. If he made his play with his usual accuracy, eyeing the right


 


disgruntled wife, the right regretful husband, he'd have them feed him (clothe him sometimes), bed him and bid him a satisfied goodnight all before the last tube had run on the Metropolitan Line to Hammersmith. The years of half-hour assignations, three blow- jobs and a fuck in one evening, were over. For one thing he simply didn't have the hunger for it any longer, for another he was preparing for his career to change course in the coming years: from street hustler to gigolo, from gigolo to kept boy, from kept boy to husband. One of these days, he knew it, he'd marry one of the widows; maybe the matron from Florida. She'd told him how she could picture him spread out beside her pool in Fort Lauderdale, and it was a fantasy he kept warm for her. Perhaps he hadn't got there yet, but he'd turn the trick of it sooner or later. The problem was that these rich blooms needed a lot of tending, and the pity of it was that so many of them perished before they came to fruit.


Still, this year. Oh yes, this year for certain, it had to be this year. Something good was coming with the autumn, he knew it for sure.


Meanwhile he watched the lines deepen around his wonderful mouth (it was, without doubt, wonderful) and calculated the odds against him in the race between time and opportunity.


 


It was nine-fifteen at night. September 29th, and it was chilly, even in the foyer of the Imperial Hotel. No Indian summer to bless the streets this year: autumn had London in its jaws and was shaking the city bare.


           The chill had got to his tooth, his wretched, crumbling tooth. If he'd gone to the dentist's, instead of turning over in his bed and sleeping another hour, he wouldn't be feeling this discomfort. Well, too late now, he'd go tomorrow. Plenty of time tomorrow. No need for an appointment. He'd just smile at the receptionist, she'd melt and tell him she could find a slot for him somewhere, he'd smile again, she'd blush and he'd see the dentist then and there instead of waiting two weeks like the poor nerds who didn't have wonderful faces.


           For tonight he'd just have to put up with it. All he needed was one lousy punter - a husband who'd pay through the nose for taking it in the mouth - then he could retire to an all-night club in Soho and content himself with reflections. As long as he didn't find himself with a confession-freak on his hands, he could spit his stuff and be done by half ten.


 


But tonight wasn't his night. There was a new face on the reception desk of the Imperial, a thin, shot-at face with a mismatched rug perched (glued) on his pate, and he'd been squinting at Gavin for almost half an hour.


           The usual receptionist, Madox, was a closet-case Gavin had seen prowling the bars once or twice, an easy touch if you could handle that kind. Madox was putty in Gavin's hand; he'd even bought his company for an hour a couple of months back.   He'd got a cheap rate too - that was good politics. But this new man was straight, and vicious, and he was on to Gavin's game.


           Idly, Gavin sauntered across to the cigarette machine, his walk catching the beat of the muzack as he trod the maroon carpet. Lousy fucking night.


           The receptionist was waiting for him as he turned from the machine, packet of Winston in hand.


           'Excuse me ... Sir.' It was a practised pronunciation that was clearly not natural. Gavin looked sweetly back at him.


           'Yes?'


           'Are you actually a resident at this hotel. . . Sir?'


           'Actually -'


           'If not, the management would be obliged if you'd vacate the premises immediately.'


           'I'm waiting for somebody.'


           'Oh?'


           The receptionist didn't believe a word of it.


           'Well just give me the name - '


           'No need.'


           'Give me the name - ', the man insisted, 'and I'll gladly check to see if your . . . contact... is in the hotel.'


           The bastard was going to try and push it, which narrowed the options. Either Gavin could choose to play it cool, and leave the foyer, or play the outraged customer and stare the other man down. He chose, more to be bloody-minded than because it was good tactics, to do the latter.


           'You don't have any right - ' he began to bluster, but the receptionist wasn't moved.


           'Look, sonny - ' he said, 'I know what you're up to, so don't try and get snotty with me or I'll fetch the police.' He'd lost control of his elocution: it was getting further south of the river with every syllable. 'We've got a nice clientele here, and they don't want no truck with the likes of you, see?'


 


           'Fucker,' said Gavin very quietly.


           'Well that's one up from a cocksucker, isn't it?'


Touché.


           'Now, sonny - you want to mince out of here under your own steam or be carried out in cuffs by the boys in blue?'


           Gavin played his last card.


           'Where's Mr Madox? I want to see Mr Madox: he knows me.'


           'I'm sure he does,' the receptionist snorted, 'I'm bloody sure he does. He was dismissed for improper conduct -' The artificial accent was re-establishing itself' - so I wouldn't try dropping his name here if I were you. OK? On your way.'


           Upper hand well and truly secured, the receptionist stood back like a matador and gestured for the bull to go by.


           The management thanks you for your patronage. Please don't call again.'


           Game, set and match to the man with the rug. What the hell; there were other hotels, other foyers, other receptionists. He didn't have to take all this shit.


           As Gavin pushed the door open he threw a smiling 'Be seeing you' over his shoulder. Perhaps that would make the tick sweat a little one of these nights when he was walking home and he heard a young man's step on the street behind him. It was a petty satisfaction, but it was something.


           The door swung closed, sealing the warmth in and Gavin out. It was colder, substantially colder, than it had been when he'd stepped into the foyer. A thin drizzle had begun, which threatened to worsen as he hurried down Park Lane towards South Kensington. There were a couple of hotels on the High Street he could hole up in for a while; if nothing came of that he'd admit defeat.


           The traffic surged around Hyde Park Corner, speeding to Knightsbridge or Victoria, purposeful, shining. He pictured himself standing on the concrete island between the two contrary streams of cars, his fingertips thrust into his jeans (they were too tight for him to get more than the first joint into the pockets), solitary, forlorn.


           A wave of unhappiness came up from some buried place in him. He was twenty-four and five months. He had hustled, on and off and on again since he was seventeen, promising himself that he'd find a marriageable widow (the gigolo's pension) or a legitimate occupation before he was twenty-five.


 


But time passed and nothing came of his ambitions. He just lost momentum and gained another line beneath the eye.


           And the traffic still came in shining streams, lights signalling this imperative or that, cars full of people with ladders to climb and snakes to wrestle, their passage isolating him from the bank, from safety, with its hunger for destination.


           He was not what he'd dreamed he'd be, or promised his secret self.


           And youth was yesterday.


           Where was he to go now? The flat would feel like a prison tonight, even if he smoked a little dope to take the edge off the room. He wanted, no, he needed to be with somebody tonight. Just to see his beauty through somebody else's eyes. Be told how perfect his proportions were, be wined and dined and flattered stupid, even if it was by Quasimodo's richer, uglier brother. Tonight he needed a fix of affection.


 


           The pick-up was so damned easy it almost made him forget the episode in the foyer of the Imperial. A guy of fifty-five or so, well-heeled: Gucci shoes, a very classy overcoat. In a word: quality.


           Gavin was standing in the doorway of a tiny art-house cinema, looking over the times of the Truffaut movie they were showing, when he became aware of the punter staring at him. He glanced at the guy to be certain there was a pick-up in the offing. The direct look seemed to unnerve the punter; he moved on; then he seemed to change his mind, muttered something to himself, and retraced his steps, showing patently false interest in the movie schedule. Obviously not too familiar with this game, Gavin thought; a novice.


           Casually Gavin took out a Winston and lit it, the flare of the match in his cupped hands glossing his cheekbones golden. He'd done it a thousand times, as often as not in the mirror for his own pleasure. He had the glance up from the tiny fire off pat: it always did the trick. This time when he met the nervous eyes of the punter, the other didn't back away.


           He drew on the cigarette, flicking out the match and letting it drop. He hadn't made a pick-up like this in several months, but he was well satisfied that he still had the knack. The faultless recognition of a potential client, the implicit offer in eyes and lips, that could be construed as innocent friendliness if he'd made an error.


 


           This was no error, however, this was the genuine article. The man's eyes were glued to Gavin, so enamoured of him he seemed to be hurting with it. His mouth was open, as though the words of introduction had failed him. Not much of a face, but far from ugly. Tanned too often, and too quickly: maybe he'd lived abroad. He was assuming the man was English: his prevarication suggested it.


           Against habit, Gavin made the opening move.


           'You like French movies?'


           The punter seemed to deflate with relief that the silence between them had been broken.


           'Yes,' he said.


'You going in?'


           The man pulled a face.


           'I... I... don't think I will.'


           'Bit cold


           'Yes. It is.'


           'Bit cold for standing around, I mean.'


'Oh-yes.'


           The punter took the bait.


           'Maybe . . . you'd like a drink?'


           Gavin smiled.


           'Sure, why not?'


           'My flat's not far.'


           'Sure.'


           'I was getting a bit cheesed off, you know, at home.'


           'I know the feeling.'


           Now the other man smiled. 'You are . . .?'


'Gavin.'


           The man offered his leather-gloved hand. Very formal, business-like. The grip as they shook was strong, no trace of his earlier hesitation remaining.


           'I'm Kenneth,' he said, 'Ken Reynolds.'


           'Ken.'


           'Shall we get out of the cold?'


'Suits me.'


           'I'm only a short walk from here.'


 


           A wave of musty, centrally-heated air hit them as Reynolds opened the door of his apartment. Climbing the three flights of stairs had snatched Gavin's breath, but Reynolds wasn't slowed


 


at all. Health freak maybe. Occupation? Something in the city. The handshake, the leather gloves. Maybe Civil Service.


           'Come in, come in.'


           There was money here. Underfoot the pile of the carpet was lush, hushing their steps as they entered. The hallway was almost bare: a calendar hung on the wall, a small table with telephone, a heap of directories, a coat-stand.


           'It's warmer in here.'


           Reynolds was shrugging off his coat and hanging it up. His gloves remained on as he led Gavin a few yards down the hallway and into a large room.


           'Let's have your jacket,' he said.


'Oh ... sure.'


           Gavin took off his jacket, and Reynolds slipped out into the hall with it. When he came in again he was working off his gloves; a slick of sweat made it a difficult job. The guy was still nervous: even on his home ground. Usually they started to calm down once they were safe behind locked doors. Not this one: he was a catalogue of fidgets.


           'Can I get you a drink?'


           'Yeah; that would be good.'


           'What's your poison?'


'Vodka.'


'Surely. Anything with it?'


'Just a drop of water.'


'Purist, eh?'


           Gavin didn't quite understand the remark.


           'Yeah,' he said.


           'Man after my own heart. Will you give me a moment - I'll just fetch some ice.'


           'No problem.'


           Reynolds dropped the gloves on a chair by the door, and left Gavin to the room. It, like the hallway, was almost stiflingly warm, but there was nothing homely or welcoming about it. Whatever his profession, Reynolds was a collector. The room was dominated by displays of antiquities, mounted on the walls, and lined up on shelves. There was very little furniture, and what there was seemed odd: battered tubular frame chairs had no place in an apartment this expensive. Maybe the man was a university don, or a museum governor, something academic. This was no stockbroker's living room.


 


           Gavin knew nothing about art, and even less about history, so the displays meant very little to him, but he went to have a closer look, just to show willing. The guy was bound to ask him what he thought of the stuff. The shelves were deadly dull. Bits and pieces of pottery and sculpture: nothing in its entirety, just fragments. On some of the shards there remained a glimpse of design, though age had almost washed the colours out. Some of the sculpture was recognisably human: part of a torso, or foot (all five toes in place), a face that was all but eaten away, no longer male or female. Gavin stifled a yawn. The heat, the exhibits and the thought of sex made him lethargic.


           He turned his dulled attention to the wall-hung pieces. They were more impressive then the stuff on the shelves but they were still far from complete. He couldn't see why anyone would want to look at such broken things; what was the fascination? The stone reliefs mounted on the wall were pitted and eroded, so that the skins of the figures looked leprous, and the Latin inscriptions were almost wiped out. There was nothing beautiful about them: too spoiled for beauty. They made him feel dirty somehow, as though their condition was contagious.


           Only one of the exhibits struck him as interesting: a tombstone, or what looked to him to be a tombstone, which was larger than the other reliefs and in slightly better condition. A man on a horse, carrying a sword, loomed over his headless enemy. Under the picture, a few words in Latin. The front legs of the horse had been broken off, and the pillars that bounded the design were badly defaced by age, otherwise the image made sense. There was even a trace of personality in the crudely made face: a long nose, a wide mouth; an individual.


           Gavin reached to touch the inscription, but withdrew his ringers as he heard Reynolds enter.


           'No, please touch it,' said his host. 'It's there to take pleasure in. Touch away.'


           Now that he'd been invited to touch the thing, the desire had melted away. He felt embarrassed; caught in the act.


           'Go on,' Reynolds insisted.


           Gavin touched the carving. Cold stone, gritty under his finger-tips.


           'It's Roman,' said Reynolds.


           Tombstone?'


           'Yes. Found near Newcastle.'


 


           'Who was he?'


           'His name was Flavinus. He was a regimental standard-bearer.' What Gavin had assumed to be a sword was, on closer inspection, a standard. It ended in an almost erased motif: maybe a bee, a flower, a wheel.


'You an archaeologist, then?'


           'That's part of my business. I research sites, occasionally oversee digs; but most of the time I restore artefacts.' 'Like these?'


           'Roman Britain's my personal obsession.' He put down the glasses he was carrying and crossed to the pottery-laden shelves.


           This is stuff I've collected over the years. I've never quite got over the thrill of handling objects that haven't seen the light of day for centuries. It's like plugging into history. You know what I mean?' 'Yeah.'


           Reynolds picked a fragment of pottery off the shelf. 'Of course all the best finds are claimed by the major collections. But if one's canny, one manages to keep a few pieces back. They were an incredible influence, the Romans. Civil engineers, road-layers, bridge builders.'


           Reynolds gave a sudden laugh at his burst of enthusiasm. 'Oh hell,' he said, 'Reynolds is lecturing again. Sorry. I get carried away.'


           Replacing the pottery-shard in its niche on the shelf, he returned to the glasses, and started pouring drinks. With his back to Gavin, he managed to say: 'Are you expensive?'


           Gavin hesitated. The man's nervousness was catching and the sudden tilt of the conversation from the Romans to the price of a blow-job took some adjustment. 'It depends,' he flannelled.


           'Ah . . .' said the other, still busying himself with the glasses, 'you mean what is the precise nature of my - er - requirement?'


'Yeah.'


'Of course.'


           He turned and handed Gavin a healthy-sized glass of vodka. No ice.


           'I won't be demanding of you,' he said. 'I don't come cheap.' 'I'm sure you don't,' Reynolds tried a smile, but it wouldn't


 


stick to his face, 'and I'm prepared to pay you well. Will you be able to stay the night?'


           'Do you want me to?'


           Reynolds frowned into his glass.


           'I suppose I do.'


           Then yes.'


           The host's mood seemed to change, suddenly: indecision was replaced by a spun of conviction.


           'Cheers,' he said, clinking his whisky-filled glass against Gavin's. 'To love and life and anything else that's worth paying for.'


           The double-edged remark didn't escape Gavin: the guy was obviously tied up in knots about what he was doing. I’ll drink to that,' said Gavin and took a gulp of the vodka. The drinks came fast after that, and just about his third vodka Gavin began to feel mellower than he'd felt in a hell of a long time, content to listen to Reynolds' talk of excavations and the glories of Rome with only one ear. His mind was drifting, an easy feeling. Obviously he was going to be here for the night, or at least until the early hours of the morning, so why not drink the punter's vodka and enjoy the experience for what it offered? Later, probably much later to judge by the way the guy was rambling, there'd be some drink-slurred sex in a darkened room, and that would be that. He'd had customers like this before. They were lonely, perhaps between lovers, and usually simple to please. It wasn't sex this guy was buying, it was company, another body to share his space awhile; easy money.


And then, the noise.


           At first Gavin thought the beating sound was in his head, until Reynolds stood up, a twitch at his mouth. The air of well-being had disappeared.


           'What's that?' asked Gavin, also getting up, dizzy with drink.


           'It's all right - ' Reynolds, palms were pressing him down into his chair. 'Stay here - '


           The sound intensified. A drummer in an oven, beating as he


burned.


           'Please, please stay here a moment. It's just somebody upstairs.'


           Reynolds was lying, the racket wasn't coming from upstairs. It was from somewhere else in the flat, a rhythmical thumping, that speeded up and slowed and speeded again.


 


           'Help yourself to a drink,' said Reynolds at the door, face flushed. 'Damn neighbours . . .'


           The summons, for that was surely what it was, was already subsiding.


           'A moment only,' Reynolds promised, and closed the door behind him.


           Gavin had experienced bad scenes before: tricks whose lovers appeared at inappropriate moments; guys who wanted to beat him up for a price - one who got bitten by guilt in a hotel room and smashed the place to smithereens. These things happened. But Reynolds was different: nothing about him said weird. At the back of his mind, at the very back, Gavin was quietly reminding himself that the other guys hadn't seemed bad at the beginning. Ah hell; he put the doubts away. If he started to get the jitters every time he went with a new face he'd soon stop working altogether. Somewhere along the line he had to trust to luck and his instinct, and his instinct told him that this punter was not given to throwing fits.


           Taking a quick swipe from his glass, he refilled it, and waited.


           The noise had stopped altogether, and it became increasingly easier to rearrange the facts: maybe it had been an upstairs neighbour after all. Certainly there was no sound of Reynolds moving around in the flat.


           His attention wandered around the room looking for something to occupy it awhile, and came back to the tombstone on the wall.


Flavinus the Standard-Bearer.


           There was something satisfying about the idea of having your likeness, however crude, carved in stone and put up on the spot where your bones lay, even if some historian was going to separate bones and stone in the fullness of time. Gavin's father had insisted on burial rather than cremation: How else, he'd always said, was he going to be remembered? Who'd ever go to an urn, in a wall, and cry? The irony was that nobody ever went to his grave either: Gavin had been perhaps twice in the years since his father's death. A plain stone bearing a name, a date, and a platitude. He couldn't even remember the year his father died. People remembered Flavinus though; people who'd never known him, or a life like his, knew him now. Gavin stood up and touched the standard-bearer's name, the crudely chased 'FLAVINVS' that was the second word of the inscription.


 


           Suddenly, the noise again, more frenzied than ever. Gavin turned away from the tombstone and looked at the door, half-expecting Reynolds to be standing there with a word of explanation. Nobody appeared.


           'Damn it.'


           The noise continued, a tattoo. Somebody, somewhere, was very angry. And this time there could be no self-deception: the drummer was here, on this floor, a few yards away. Curiosity nibbled Gavin, a coaxing lover. He drained his glass and went out into the hall. The noise stopped as he closed the door behind him.


           'Ken?' he ventured. The word seemed to die at his lips.


           The hallway was in darkness, except for a wash of light from the far end. Perhaps an open door. Gavin found a switch to his right, but it didn't work.


           'Ken?' he said again.


           This time the enquiry met with a response. A moan, and the sound of a body rolling, or being rolled, over. Had Reynolds had an accident? Jesus, he could be lying incapacitated within spitting distance from where Gavin stood: he must help. Why were his feet so reluctant to move? He had the tingling in his balls that always came with nervous anticipation; it reminded him of childhood hide-and-seek: the thrill of the chase. It was almost pleasurable.


           And pleasure apart, could he really leave now, without knowing what had become of the punter? He had to go down the corridor.


           The first door was ajar; he pushed it open and the room beyond was a book-lined bedroom/study. Street lights through the curtainless window fell on a jumbled desk. No Reynolds, no thrasher. More confident now he'd made the first move Gavin explored further down the hallway. The next door - the kitchen -was also open. There was no light from inside. Gavin's hands had begun to sweat: he thought of Reynolds trying to pull his gloves off, though they stuck to his palm. What had he been afraid of? It was more than the pick-up: there was somebody else in the apartment: somebody with a violent temper.


           Gavin's stomach turned as his eyes found the smeared handprint on the door; it was blood.


           He pushed the door, but it wouldn't open any further. There was something behind it. He slid through the available space,


 


and into the kitchen. An unemptied waste bin, or a neglected vegetable rack, fouled the air. Gavin smoothed the wall with his palm to find the light switch, and the fluorescent tube spasmed into life.


           Reynolds' Gucci shoes poked out from behind the door. Gavin pushed it to, and Reynolds rolled out of his hiding place. He'd obviously crawled behind the door to take refuge; there was something of the beaten animal in his tucked up body. When Gavin touched him he shuddered.


           'It's all right . . . it's me.' Gavin prised a bloody hand from Reynolds' face. There was a deep gouge running from his temple to his chin, and another, parallel with it but not as deep, across the middle of his forehead and his nose, as though he'd been raked by a two pronged fork.


           Reynolds opened his eyes. It took him a second only to focus on Gavin, before he said:


           'Go away.'


           'You're hurt.'


           'Jesus' sake, go away. Quickly. I've changed my mind . . . You understand?'


           I’ll fetch the police.'


           The man practically spat: 'Get the fucking hell out of here, will you? Fucking bum-boy!'


           Gavin stood up, trying to make sense out of all this. The guy was in pain, it made him aggressive. Ignore the insults and fetch something to cover the wound. That was it. Cover the wound, and then leave him to his own devices. If he didn't want the police that was his business. Probably he didn't want to explain the presence of a pretty-boy in his hot-house.


           'Just let me get you a bandage - '


           Gavin went back into the hallway.


           Behind the kitchen door Reynolds said: 'Don't,' but the bum-boy didn't hear him. It wouldn't have made much difference if he had. Gavin liked disobedience.  Don't was an invitation.


           Reynolds put his back to the kitchen door, and tried to edge his way upright, using the door-handle as purchase. But his head was spinning: a carousel of horrors, round and round, each horse uglier than the last. His legs doubled up under him, and he fell down like the senile fool he was. Damn. Damn. Damn.


           Gavin heard Reynolds fall, but he was too busy arming himself to hurry back into the kitchen. If the intruder who'd attacked


 


Reynolds was still in the flat, he wanted to be ready to defend himself. He rummaged through the reports on the desk in the study and alighted on a paper knife which was lying beside a pile of unopened correspondence. Thanking God for it, he snatched it up. It was light, and the blade was thin and brittle, but properly placed it could surely kill.


           Happier now, he went back into the hall and took a moment to work out his tactics. The first thing was to locate the bathroom, hopefully there he'd find a bandage for Reynolds. Even a clean towel would help. Maybe then he could get some sense out of the guy, even coax him into an explanation.


           Beyond the kitchen the hallway made a sharp left. Gavin turned the corner, and dead ahead the door was ajar. A light burned inside: water shone on tiles. The bathroom.


           Clamping his left hand over the right hand that held the knife, Gavin approached the door. The muscles of his arms had become rigid with fear: would that improve his strike if it was required? he wondered. He felt inept, graceless, slightly stupid.


           There was blood on the door-jamb, a palm-print that was clearly Reynolds'. This was where it had happened - Reynolds had thrown out a hand to support himself as he reeled back from his assailant. If the attacker was still in the flat, he must be here. There was nowhere else for him to hide.


           Later, if there was a later, he'd probably analyse this situation and call himself a fool for kicking the door open, for encouraging this confrontation. But even as he contemplated the idiocy of the action he was performing it, and the door was swinging open across tiles strewn with water-blood puddles, and any moment there'd be a figure there, hook-handed, screaming defiance. No. Not at all. The assailant wasn't here; and if he wasn't here, he wasn't in the flat.


           Gavin exhaled, long and slow. The knife sagged in his hand, denied its pricking. Now, despite the sweat, the terror, he was disappointed. Life had let him down, again - snuck his destiny out of the back door and left him with a mop in his hand not a medal. All he could do was play nurse to the old man and go on his way.


           The bathroom was decorated in shades of lime; the blood and tiles clashed. The translucent shower curtain, sporting stylised fish and seaweed, was partially drawn. It looked like the scene of a movie murder: not quite real. Blood too bright: light too flat.


           Gavin dropped the knife in the sink, and opened the mirrored


 


cabinet. It was well-stocked with mouth-washes, vitamin supplements, and abandoned toothpaste tubes, but the only medication was a tin of Elastoplasts. As he closed the cabinet door he met his own features in the mirror, a drained face. He turned on the cold tap full, and lowered his head to the sink; a splash of water would clear away the vodka and put some colour in his cheeks.


           As he cupped the water to his face, something made a noise behind him. He stood up, his heart knocking against his ribs, and turned off the tap. Water dripped off his chin and his eyelashes, and gurgled down the waste pipe.


           The knife was still in the sink, a hand's-length away. The sound was coming from the bath, from in the bath, the inoffensive slosh of water.


           Alarm had triggered flows of adrenalin, and his senses distilled the air with new precision. The sharp scent of lemon soap, the brilliance of the turquoise angel-fish flitting through lavender kelp on the shower curtain, the cold droplets on his face, the warmth behind his eyes: all sudden experiences, details his mind had passed over 'til now, too lazy to see and smell and feel to the limits of its reach.


           You're living in the real world, his head said (it was a revelation), and if you're not very careful you're going to die there.


           Why hadn't he looked in the bath? Asshole. Why not the bath?


           'Who's there?' he asked, hoping against hope that Reynolds had an otter that was taking a quiet swim. Ridiculous hope. There was blood here, for Christ's sake.


           He turned from the mirror as the lapping subsided - do it! do it! - and slid back the shower curtain on its plastic hooks. In his haste to unveil the mystery he'd left the knife in the sink. Too late now: the turquoise angels concertinaed, and he was looking down into the water.


           It was deep, coming up to within an inch or two of the top of the bath, and murky. A brown scum spiralled on the surface, and the smell off it was faintly animal, like the wet fur of a dog. Nothing broke the surface of the water.


           Gavin peered in, trying to work out the form at the bottom, his reflection floating amid the scum. He bent closer, unable to puzzle out the relation of shapes in the silt, until he recognised the crudely-formed fingers of a hand and he realised he was looking at a human form curled up into itself like a foetus, lying absolutely still in the filthy water.


 


           He passed his hand over the surface to clear away the muck, his reflection shattered, and the occupant of the bath came clear. It was a statue, carved in the shape of a sleeping figure, only its head, instead of being tucked up tight, was cranked round to stare up out of the blur of sediment towards the surface. Its eyes were painted open, two crude blobs on a roughly carved face; its mouth was a slash, its ears ridiculous handles on its bald head. It was naked: its anatomy no better realised than its features: the work of an apprentice sculptor. In places the paint had been corrupted, perhaps by the soaking, and was lifting off the torso in grey, globular strands. Underneath, a core of dark wood was uncovered.


           There was nothing to be frightened of here. An objet d’art in a bath, immersed in water to remove a crass paint-job. The lapping he'd heard behind him had been some bubbles rising from the thing, caused by a chemical reaction. There: the fright was explained. Nothing to panic over. Keep beating my heart, as the barman at the Ambassador used to say when a new beauty appeared on the scene.


           Gavin smiled at the irony; this was no Adonis.


           'Forget you ever saw it.'


           Reynolds was at the door. The bleeding had stopped, staunched by an unsavoury rag of a handkerchief pressed to the side of his face. The light of the tiles made his skin bilious: his pallor would have shamed a corpse.


           'Are you all right? You don't look it.'


           I’ll be fine . . . just go, please.'


           'What happened?'


           'I slipped. Water on the floor. I slipped, that's all.'


           'But the noise . . .'


           Gavin was looking back into the bath. Something about the statue fascinated him. Maybe its nakedness, and that second strip it was slowly performing underwater:         the ultimate strip: off with the skin.


           'Neighbours, that's all.'


           'What is this?' Gavin asked, still looking at the unfetching doll-face in the water.


           'It's nothing to do with you.'


           'Why's it all curled up hike that? Is he dying?'


           Gavin looked back to Reynolds to see the response to that question, the sourest of smiles, fading.


 


           'You'll want money.'


           'No.'


           'Damn you! You're in business aren't you? There's notes beside the bed; take whatever you feel you deserve for your wasted time - ' He was appraising Gavin.' - and your silence.'


           Again the statue: Gavin couldn't keep his eyes off it, in all its crudity. His own face, puzzled, floated on the skin of the water, shaming the hand of the artist with its proportions.


           'Don't wonder,' said Reynolds.


'Can't help it.'


           This is nothing to do with you.'


           'You stole it ... is that right? This is worth a mint and you stole it.'


           Reynolds pondered the question and seemed, at last, too tired to start lying.


           'Yes. I stole it.'


           'And tonight somebody came back for it - '


           Reynolds shrugged.


' - Is that it? Somebody came back for it?'


           That's right. I stole it. . .' Reynolds was saying the lines by rote,'. . . and somebody came back for it.'


           That's all I wanted to know.'


           'Don't come back here, Gavin whoever-you-are. And don't try anything clever, because I won't be here.'


           'You mean extortion?' said Gavin, 'I'm no thief.'


           Reynolds' look of appraisal rotted into contempt.


           Thief or not, be thankful. If it's in you.' Reynolds stepped away from the door to let Gavin pass. Gavin didn't move.


           Thankful for what?' he demanded. There was an itch of anger in him; he felt, absurdly, rejected, as though he was being foisted off with a half-truth because he wasn't worthy enough to share this secret.


           Reynolds had no more strength left for explanation. He was slumped against the door-frame, exhausted.


           'Go,' he said.


           Gavin nodded and left the guy at the door. As he passed from bathroom into hallway a glob of paint must have been loosened from the statue. He heard it break surface, heard the lapping at the edge of the bath, could see, in his head, the way the ripples made the body shimmer.


           'Goodnight,' said Reynolds, calling after him.


 


           Gavin didn't reply, nor did he pick up any money on his way out. Let him have his tombstones and his secrets.


           On his way to the front door he stepped into the main room to pick up his jacket. The face of Flavinus the Standard-Bearer looked down at him from the wall. The man must have been a hero, Gavin thought. Only a hero would have been commemorated in such a fashion. He'd get no remembrance like that; no stone face to mark his passage.


           He closed the front door behind him, aware once more that his tooth was aching, and as he did so the noise began again, the beating of a fist against a wall.


Or worse, the sudden fury of a woken heart.


           The toothache was really biting the following day, and he went to the dentist mid-morning, expecting to coax the girl on the desk into giving him an instant appointment. But his charm was at a low ebb, his eyes weren't sparkling quite as luxuriantly as usual. She told him he'd have to wait until the following Friday, unless it was an emergency. He told her it was: she told him it wasn't. It was going to be a bad day: an aching tooth, a lesbian dentist receptionist, ice on the puddles, nattering women on every street corner, ugly children, ugly sky.


           That was the day the pursuit began.


           Gavin had been chased by admirers before, but never quite like this. Never so subtle, so surreptitious. He'd had people follow him round for days, from bar to bar, from street to street, so dog-like it almost drove him mad. Seeing the same longing face night after night, screwing up the courage to buy him a drink, perhaps offering him a watch, cocaine, a week in Tunisia, whatever. He'd rapidly come to loathe that sticky adoration that went bad as quickly as milk, and stank to high Heaven once it had. One of his most ardent admirers, a knighted actor he'd been told, never actually came near him, just followed him around, looking and looking. At first the attention had been flattering, but the pleasure soon became irritation, and eventually he'd cornered the guy in a bar and threatened him with a broken head. He'd been so wound up that night, so sick of being devoured by looks, he'd have done some serious harm if the pitiful bastard hadn't taken the hint. He never saw the guy again; half thought he'd probably gone home and hanged himself. But this pursuit was nowhere near as obvious, it was scarcely


 


more than a feeling. There was no hard evidence that he had somebody on his tail. Just a prickly sense, every time he glanced round, that someone was slotting themselves into the shadows, or that on a night street a walker was keeping pace with him, matching every click of his heel, every hesitation in his step. It was like paranoia, except that he wasn't paranoid. If he was paranoid, he reasoned, somebody would tell him.


           Besides, there were incidents. One morning the cat woman who lived on the landing below him idly enquired who his visitor was: the funny one who came in late at night and waited on the stairs hour after hour, watching his room. He'd had no ,such visitor: and knew no-one who fitted the description.


           Another day, on a busy street, he'd ducked out of the throng into the doorway of an empty shop and was in the act of lighting a cigarette when somebody's reflection, distorted through the grime on the window, caught his eye. The match burned his finger, he looked down as he dropped it, and when he looked up again the crowd had closed round the watcher like an eager sea.


           It was a bad, bad feeling: and there was more where that came from.


           Gavin had never spoken with Preetorius, though they'd exchanged an occasional nod on the street, and each asked after the other in the company of mutual acquaintances as though they were dear friends. Preetorius was a black, somewhere between forty-five and assassination, a glorified pimp who claimed to be descended from Napoleon. He'd been running a circle of women, and three or four boys, for the best part of a decade, and doing well from the business. When he first began work, Gavin had been strongly advised to ask for Preetorius' patronage, but he'd always been too much of a maverick to want that kind of help. As a result he'd never been looked upon kindly by Preetorius or his clan. Nevertheless, once he became a fixture on the scene, no-one challenged his right to be his own man. The word was that Preetorius even admitted a grudging admiration for Gavin's greed.


Admiration or no, it was a chilly day in Hell when Preetorius actually broke the silence and spoke to him.


'White boy.'


           It was towards eleven, and Gavin was on his way from a bar off St Martin's Lane to a club in Covent Garden. The street still


 


buzzed: there were potential punters amongst the theatre and movie-goers, but he hadn't got the appetite for it tonight. He had a hundred in his pocket, which he'd made the day before and hadn't bothered to bank. Plenty to keep him going.


           His first thought when he saw Preetorius and his pie-bald goons blocking his path was: they want my money.


'White boy.'


           Then he recognised the flat, shining face. Preetorius was no street thief; never had been, never would be.


           'White boy, I'd like a word with you.'


Preetorius took a nut from his pocket, shelled it in his palm, and popped the kernel into his ample mouth.


           'You don't mind do you?'


           'What do you want?'


'Like I said, just a word. Not too much to ask, is it?'


           'OK. What?'


           'Not here.'


           Gavin looked at Preetorius' cohorts. They weren't gorillas, that wasn't the black's style at all, but nor were they ninety-eight pound weaklings. This scene didn't look, on the whole, too healthy.


           'Thanks, but no thanks.' Gavin said, and began to walk, with as even a pace as he could muster, away from the trio. They followed. He prayed they wouldn't, but they followed. Preetorius talked at his back.


           'Listen. I hear bad things about you,' he said.


           'Oh yes?'


           'I'm afraid so. I'm told you attacked one of my boys.'


           Gavin took six paces before he answered. 'Not me. You've got the wrong man.'


           'He recognised you, trash. You did him some serious mischief.'


           'I told you: not me.'


           'You're a lunatic, you know that? You should be put behind fucking bars.'


Preetorius was raising his voice. People were crossing the street to avoid the escalating argument.


           Without thinking, Gavin turned off St Martin's Lane into Long Acre, and rapidly realised he'd made a tactical error. The crowds thinned substantially here, and it was a long trek through the streets of Convent Garden before he reached another centre


 


of activity. He should have turned right instead of left, and he'd have stepped onto Charing Cross Road. There would have been some safety there. Damn it, he couldn't turn round, not and walk straight into them. All he could do was walk (not run; never run with a mad dog on your heels) and hope he could keep the conversation on an even keel.


Preetorius: 'You've cost me a lot of money.'


           'I don't see - '


           'You put some of my prime boy-meat out of commission. It's going to be a long time 'til I get that kid back on the market. He's shit scared, see?'


           'Look ... I didn't do anything to anybody.'


           'Why do you fucking lie to me, trash? What have I ever done to you, you treat  me like this?'.


Preetorius picked up his pace a little and came up level with Gavin, leaving his associates a few steps behind.


           'Look . . .' he whispered to Gavin, 'kids like that can be tempting, right? That's cool. I can get into that. You put a little boy-pussy on my plate I'm not going to turn my nose up at it. But you hurt him: and when you hurt one of my kids, I bleed too.'


           'If I'd done this like you say, you think I'd be walking the street?'


           'Maybe you're not a well man, you know? We're not talking about a couple of bruises here, man. I'm talking about you taking a shower in a kid's blood, that's what I'm saying. Hanging him up and cutting him everywhere, then leaving him on my fuckin' stairs wearing a pair of fucking' socks. You getting my message now, white boy? You read my message?'


           Genuine rage had flared as Preetorius described the alleged crimes, and Gavin wasn't sure how to handle it. He kept his silence, and walked on.


           'That kid idolised you, you know? Thought you were essential reading for an aspirant bum-boy. How'd you like that?'


           'Not much.'


           'You should be fuckin' flattered, man, 'cause that's about as much as you'll ever amount to.'


           Thanks.'


           'You've had a good career. Pity it's over.'


           Gavin felt iced lead in his belly: he'd hoped Preetorius was going to be content with a warning. Apparently not. They were


 


here to damage him: Jesus, they were going to hurt him, and for something he hadn't done, didn't even know anything about.


           "We're going to take you off the street, white boy. Permanently.'


           'I did nothing.'


           'The kid knew you, even with a stocking over your head he knew you. The voice was the same, the clothes were the same. Face it, you were recognised. Now take the consequences.'


           ‘Fuck you.'


           Gavin broke into a run. As an eighteen year old he'd sprinted for his county: he needed that speed again now. Behind him Preetorius laughed (such sport!) and two sets of feet pounded the pavement in pursuit. They were close, closer - and Gavin was badly out of condition. His thighs were aching after a few dozen yards, and his jeans were too tight to run in easily. The chase was lost before it began.


           The man didn't tell you to leave,' the white goon scolded, his bitten fingers digging into Gavin's biceps.


           'Nice try.' Preetorius smiled, sauntering towards the dogs and the panting hare. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, to the other goon.


           'Christian?' he asked.


           At the invitation Christian delivered a fist to Gavin's kidneys. The blow doubled him up, spitting curses.


           Christian said: 'Over there.' Preetorius said: 'Make it snappy,' and suddenly they were dragging him out of the light into an alley. His shirt and his jacket tore, his expensive shoes were dragged through dirt, before he was pulled upright, groaning.         The alley was dark and Preetorius' eyes hung in the air in front of him, dislocated.


           'Here we are again,' he said. 'Happy as can be.'


           'I... didn't touch him,' Gavin gasped.


           The unnamed cohort, Not-Christian, put a ham hand in the middle of Gavin's chest, and pushed him back against the end wall of the alley. His heel slid in muck, and though he tried to stay upright his legs had turned to water. His ego too: this was no time to be courageous. He'd beg, he fall down on his knees and lick their soles if need be, anything to stop them doing a job on him. Anything to stop them spoiling his face.


           That was Preetorius' favourite pastime, or so the street talk went: the spoiling of beauty. He had a rare way with him, could


 


maim beyond hope of redemption in three strokes of his razor, and have the victim pocket his lips as a keepsake.


           Gavin stumbled forward, palms slapping the wet ground. Something rotten-soft slid out of its skin beneath his hand.


           Not-Christian exchanged a grin with Preetorius.


           'Doesn't he look delightful?' he said.


Preetorius was crunching a nut. 'Seems to me - ' he said, ' -the man's finally found his place in life."


           'I didn't touch him,' Gavin begged. There was nothing to do but deny and deny: and even then it was a lost cause.


           'You're guilty as hell,' said Not-Christian.


           'Please.'


           'I'd really like to get this over with as soon as possible,' said Preetorius, glancing at his watch, 'I've got appointments to keep, people to pleasure.'


           Gavin looked up at his tormentors. The sodium-lit street was a twenty-five-yard dash away, if he could break through the cordon of their bodies.


           'Allow me to rearrange your face for you. A little crime of fashion.'


Preetorius had a knife in his hand. Not-Christian had taken a rope from his pocket, with a ball on it. The ball goes in the mouth, the rope goes round the head - you couldn't scream if your life depended on it. This was it.


           Go!


           Gavin broke from his grovelling position like a sprinter from his block, but the slops greased his heels, and threw him off balance. Instead of making a clean dash for safety he stumbled sideways and fell against Christian, who in turn fell back.


           There was a breathless scrambling before Preetorius stepped in, dirtying his hands on the white trash, and hauling him to his feet.


           'No way out, fucker,' he said, pressing the point of the blade against Gavin's chin. The jut of the bone was clearest there, and he began the cut without further debate - tracing the jaw line, too hot for the act to care if the trash was gagged or not. Gavin howled as blood washed down his neck, but his cries were cut short as somebody's fat fingers grappled with his tongue, and held it fast.


           His pulse began to thud in his temples, and windows, one behind the other, opened and opened in front of him, and he was falling through them into unconsciousness.


 


Better to die. Better to die. They'd destroy his face: better to die.


           Then he was screaming again, except that he wasn't aware of making the sound in his throat. Through the slush in his ears he tried to focus on the voice, and realised it was Preetorius' scream he was hearing, not his own.


           His tongue was released; and he was spontaneously sick. He staggered back, puking, from a mess of struggling figures in front of him: A person, or persons, unknown had stepped in, and prevented the completion of his spoiling. There was a body sprawled on the floor, face up. Not-Christian, eyes open, life shut. God: someone had killed for him. For him.


           Gingerly, he put his hand up to his face to feel the damage. The flesh was deeply lacerated along his jawbone, from the middle of his chin to within an inch of his ear. It was bad, but Preetorius, ever organised, had left the best delights to the last, and had been interrupted before he'd slit Gavin's nostrils or taken off his lips. A scar along his jawbone wouldn't be pretty, but it wasn't disastrous.


           Somebody was staggering out of the mêlée towards him -Preetorius, tears on his face, eyes like golf-balls.


           Beyond him Christian, his arms useless, was staggering towards the street.


Preetorius wasn't following: why?


           His mouth opened; an elastic filament of saliva, strung with pearls, depended from his lower lip.


           'Help me,' he appealed, as though his life was in Gavin's power. One large hand was raised to squeeze a drop of mercy out of the air, but instead came the swoop of another arm, reaching over his shoulder and thrusting a weapon, a crude blade, into the black's mouth. He gargled it a moment, his throat trying to accommodate its edge, its width, before his attacker dragged the blade up and back, holding Preetorius' neck to steady him against the force of the stroke. The startled face divided, and heat bloomed from Preetorius' interior, warming Gavin in a cloud.


           The weapon hit the alley floor, a dull clank. Gavin glanced at it. A short, wide-bladed sword. He looked back at the dead man.


Preetorius stood upright in front of him, supported now only by his executioner's arm. His gushing head fell forward, and the executioner took the bow as a sign, neatly dropping Preetorius' body at Gavin's feet. No longer eclipsed by the corpse, Gavin met his saviour face to face.


 


It took him only a moment to place those crude features: the startled, lifeless eyes, the gash of a mouth, the jug-handle ears. It was Reynolds' statue. It grinned, its teeth too small for its head. Milk-teeth, still to be shed before the adult form. There was, however, some improvement in its appearance, he could see that even in the gloom. The brow seemed to have swelled; the face was altogether better proportioned. It remained a painted doll, but it was a doll with aspirations.


           The statue gave a stiff bow, its joints unmistakably creaking, and the absurdity, the sheer absurdity of this situation welled up in Gavin. It bowed, damn it, it smiled, it murdered: and yet it couldn't possibly be alive, could it? Later, he would disbelieve, he promised himself. Later he'd find a thousand reasons not to accept the reality in front of him: blame his blood-starved brain, his confusion, his panic. One way or another he'd argue himself out of this fantastic vision, and it would be as though it had never happened.


If he could just live with it a few minutes longer.


           The vision reached across and touched Gavin's jaw, lightly, running its crudely carved fingers along the lips of the wound Preetorius had made. A ring on its smallest finger caught the light: a ring identical to his own.


           'We're going to have a scar,' it said.


           Gavin knew its voice.


           'Dear me: pity,' it said. It was speaking with his voice. 'Still, it could be worse.'


His voice. God, his, his, his.


           Gavin shook his head.


           Yes,' it said, understanding that he'd understood.


           'Not me.'


           'Yes.'


           'Why?'


           It transferred its touch from Gavin's jawbone to its own, marking out the place where the wound should be, and even as it made the gesture its surface opened, and it grew a scar on the spot. No blood welled up: it had no blood.


           Yet wasn't that his own, even brow it was emulating, and the piercing eyes, weren't they becoming his, and the wonderful mouth?


           The boy?' said Gavin, fitting the pieces together.


           'Oh the boy . . .' It threw its unfinished glance to Heaven. 'What a treasure he was. And how he snarled.'


 


           'You washed in his blood?'


           'I need it.' It knelt to the body of Preetorius and put its fingers in the split head.  'This blood's old, but it'll do. The boy was better.'


           It daubed Preetorius' blood on its cheek, like war-paint. Gavin couldn't hide his disgust.


           'Is he such a loss?' the effigy demanded.


           The answer was no, of course. It was no loss at all that Preetorius was dead, no loss that some drugged, cocksucking kid had given up some blood and sleep because this painted miracle needed to feed its growth. There were worse things than this every day, somewhere; huge horrors. And yet -


           'You can't condone me,' it prompted, 'its not in your nature is it? Soon it won't be in mine either. I'll reject my life as a tormentor of children, because I'll see through your eyes, share your humanity.


 


           It stood up, its movements still lacking flexibility.


           'Meanwhile, I must behave as I think fit.'


           On its cheek, where Preetorius' blood had been smeared, the skin was already waxier, less like painted wood.


           'I am a thing without a proper name,' it pronounced. 'I am a wound in the flank of the world. But I am also that perfect stranger you always prayed for as a child, to come and take you, call you beauty, lift you naked out of the street and through Heaven's window. Aren't I? Aren't I?'


           How did it know the dreams of his childhood? How could it have guessed that particular emblem, of being hoisted out of a street full of plague into a house that was Heaven?


           'Because I am yourself,' it said, in reply to the unspoken question, 'made perfectible.'


           Gavin gestured towards the corpses.


           'You can't be me. I'd never have done this.'


           It seemed ungracious to condemn it for its intervention, but the point stood.


           'Wouldn't you?' said the other. 'I think you would.'


           Gavin heard Preetorius' voice in his ear. 'A crime of fashion.' Felt again the knife at his chin, the nausea, the helplessness. Of course he'd have done it, a dozen times over he'd have done it, and called it justice.


           It didn't need to hear his accession, it was plain.


           'I'll come and see you again,' said the painted face. 'Meanwhile - if I were you   - ' it laughed,' - I'd be going.'


 


Gavin locked eyes with it a beat, probing it for doubt, then started towards the road.


           'Not that way. This!'


           It was pointing towards a door in the wall, almost hidden behind festering bags of refuse. That was how it had come so quickly, so quietly.


           'Avoid the main streets, and keep yourself out of sight. I'll find you again, when I'm ready.'


           Gavin needed no further encouragement to leave. Whatever the explanations of the night's events, the deeds were done. Now wasn't the time for questions.


           He slipped through the doorway without looking behind him: but he could hear enough to turn his stomach. The thud of fluid on the ground, the pleasurable moan of the miscreant: the sounds were enough for him to be able to picture its toilet.


           Nothing of the night before made any more sense the morning after. There was no sudden insight into the nature of the waking dream he'd dreamt. There was just a series of stark facts.


           In the mirror, the fact of the cut on his jaw, gummed up and aching more badly than his rotted tooth.


           In the newspapers, the reports of two bodies found in the Covent Garden area, known criminals viciously murdered in what the police described as a 'gangland slaughter'.


In his head, the inescapable knowledge that he would be found out sooner or later. Somebody would surely have seen him with Preetorius, and spill the beans to the police. Maybe even Christian, if he was so inclined, and they'd be there, on his step, with cuffs and warrants. Then what could he tell them, in reply to their accusations? That the man who did it was not a man at all, but an effigy of some kind, that was by degrees becoming a replica of himself? The question was not whether he'd be incarcerated, but which hole they'd lock him in, prison or asylum?


           Juggling despair with disbelief, he went to the casualty department to have his face seen to, where he waited patiently for three and a half hours with dozens of similar walking wounded.


           The doctor was unsympathetic. There was no use in stitches now, he said, the damage was done: the wound could and would be cleaned and covered, but a bad scar was now unavoidable. Why didn't you come last night, when it happened? the nurse


 


asked. He shrugged: what the hell did they care? Artificial compassion didn't help him an iota.


           As he turned the corner with his street, he saw the cars outside the house, the blue light, the cluster of neighbours grinning their gossip. Too late to claim anything of his previous life. By now they had possession of his clothes, his combs, his perfumes, his letters - and they'd be searching through them like apes after lice. He'd seen how thorough-going these bastards could be when it suited them, how completely they could seize and parcel up a man's identity. Eat it up,, suck it up: they could erase you as surely as a shot, but leave you a living blank.


           There was nothing to be done. His life was theirs now to sneer at and salivate over: even have a nervous moment, one or two of them, when they saw his photographs and wondered if perhaps they'd paid for this boy themselves, some horny night.


           Let them have it all. They were welcome. From now on he would be lawless, because laws protect possessions and he had none. They'd wiped him clean, or as good as: he had no place to live, nor anything to call his own. He didn't even have fear: that was the strangest thing.


           He turned his back on the street and the house he'd lived in for four years, and he felt something akin to relief, happy that his life had been stolen from him in its squalid entirety. He was the lighter for it.


           Two hours later, and miles away, he took time to check his pockets. He was carrying a banker's card, almost a hundred pounds in cash, a small collection of photographs, some of his parents and sister, mostly of himself; a watch, a ring, and a gold chain round his neck. Using the card might be dangerous -they'd surely have warned his bank by now. The best thing might be to pawn the ring and the chain, then hitch North. He had friends in Aberdeen who'd hide him awhile.


But first - Reynolds.


 


           It took Gavin an hour to find the house where Ken Reynolds lived. It was the best part of twenty-four hours since he'd eaten and his belly complained as he stood outside Livingstone Mansions. He told it to keep its peace, and slipped into the building. The interior looked less impressive by daylight. The tread of the stair carpet was worn, and the paint on the balustrade filthied with use.


 


           Taking his time he climbed the three flights to Reynolds' apartment, and knocked.


           Nobody answered, nor was there any sound of movement from inside. Reynolds had told him of course: don't come back - I won't be here. Had he somehow guessed the consequences of sicking that thing into the world?


           Gavin rapped on the door again, and this time he was certain he heard somebody breathing on the other side of the door.


           'Reynolds . . .' he said, pressing to the door, 'I can hear you.'


           Nobody replied, but there was somebody in there, he was sure of it. Gavin slapped his palm on the door.


           'Come on, open up. Open up, you bastard.'


A short silence, then a muffled voice. 'Go away.'


           'I want to speak to you.'


           'Go away, I told you, go away. I've nothing to say to you.'


           'You owe me an explanation, for God's sake. If you don't open this fucking door I'll fetch someone who will.'


           An empty threat, but Reynolds responded: 'No! Wait. Wait.'


           There was the sound of a key in the lock, and the door was opened a few paltry inches. The flat was in darkness beyond the scabby face that peered out at Gavin. It was Reynolds sure enough, but unshaven and wretched. He smelt unwashed, even through the crack in the door, and he was wearing only a stained shirt and a pair of pants, hitched up with a knotted belt.


           'I can't help you. Go away.'


           'If you'll let me explain - ' Gavin pressed the door, and Reynolds was either too weak or too befuddled to stop him opening it. He stumbled back into the darkened hallway.


           'What the fuck's going on in here?'


           The place stank of rotten food. The air was evil with it. Reynolds let Gavin slam the door behind him before producing a knife from the pocket of his stained trousers.


           'You don't fool me,' Reynolds gleamed, 'I know what you've done. Very fine. Very clever.'


           'You mean the murders? It wasn't me.'


           Reynolds poked the knife towards Gavin.


           'How many blood-baths did it take?' he asked, tears in his eyes. 'Six? Ten?'


'I didn't kill anybody.'


           '. . . monster.'


           The knife in Reynolds' hand was the paper knife Gavin himself


 


had wielded. He approached Gavin with it. There was no doubt: he had every intention of using it. Gavin flinched, and Reynolds seemed to take hope from his fear.


           'Had you forgotten what it was like, being flesh and blood?'


           The man had lost his marbles.


           'Look ... I just came here to talk.'


           'You came here to kill me. I could reveal you . . .so you came to kill me.'


           'Do you know who I am?' Gavin said.


           Reynolds sneered: 'You're not the queer boy. You look like him, but you're not.'


           'For pity's sake . . . I'm Gavin . . . Gavin - '


           The words to explain, to prevent the knife pressing any closer, wouldn't come.


           'Gavin, you remember?' was all he could say.


           Reynolds faltered a moment, staring at Gavin's face.


           'You're sweating,' he said, the dangerous stare fading in his eyes.


           Gavin's mouth had gone so dry he could only nod.


           'I can see,' said Reynolds, 'you're sweating.'


           He dropped the point of the knife.


           'It could never sweat,' he said, 'Never had, never would have, the knack of it.   You're the boy . . . not it. The boy.'


           His face slackened, its flesh a sack which was almost emptied.


           'I need help,' said Gavin, his voice hoarse. 'You've got to tell me what's going on.'


           'You want an explanation?' Reynolds replied, 'you can have whatever you can find.'


           He led the way into the main room. The curtains were drawn, but even in the gloom Gavin could see that every antiquity it had contained had been smashed beyond repair. The pottery shards had been reduced to smaller shards, and those shards to dust. The stone reliefs were destroyed, the tombstone of Flavinus the Standard-Bearer was rubble.


           'Who did this?'


           'I did,' said Reynolds.


           'Why?'


           Reynolds sluggishly picked his way through the destruction to the window, and peered through a slit in the velvet curtains.


           'It'll come back, you see,' he said, ignoring the question.


           Gavin insisted: 'Why destroy it all?'


 


           'It's a sickness,' Reynolds replied. 'Needing to live in the past.'


           He turned from the window.


           'I stole most of these pieces,' he said, 'over a period of many years. I was put in a position of trust, and I misused it.'


           He kicked over a sizeable chunk of rubble: dust rose.


           'Flavinus lived and died. That's all there is to tell. Knowing his name means nothing, or next to nothing. It doesn't make Flavinus real again: he's dead and happy.'


'The statue in the bath?'


           Reynolds stopped breathing for a moment, his inner eye meeting the painted face.


           'You I thought I was it, didn't you? When I came to the door.'


           'Yes. I thought it had .finished its business.'


           'It imitates.'


           Reynolds nodded. 'As far as I understand its nature,' he said, 'yes, it imitates.'


           'Where did you find it?'


'Near Carlisle. I was in charge of the excavation there. We found it lying in the bathhouse, a statue curled up into a ball beside the remains of an adult male. It was a riddle. A dead man and a statue, lying together in a bathhouse. Don't ask me what drew me to the thing, I don't know. Perhaps it works its will through the mind as well as the physique. I stole it, brought it back here.'


           'And you fed it?'


           Reynolds stiffened.


           'Don't ask.’


           'I am asking. You fed it?'


           'Yes.'


           'You intended to bleed me, didn't you? That's why you brought me here: to kill me, and let it wash itself- '


           Gavin remembered the noise of the creature's fists on the sides of the bath, that angry demand for food, like a child beating on its cot. He'd been so close to being taken by it, lamb-like.


           'Why didn't it attack me the way it did you? Why didn't it just jump out of the bath and feed on me?'


           Reynolds wiped his mouth with the palm of his hand.


           'It saw your face, of course.'


           Of course: it saw my face, and wanted it for itself, and it couldn't steal the face of a dead man, so it let me be. The rationale for its behaviour was fascinating, now it was revealed: Gavin felt a taste of Reynolds' passion, unveiling mysteries.


 


'The man in the bathhouse. The one you uncovered - '


           'Yes . . .?'


           'He stopped it doing the same thing to him, is that right?'


           That's probably why his body was never moved, just sealed up. No-one understood that he'd died fighting a creature that was stealing his life.'


           The picture was near as damn it complete; just anger remaining to be answered.


           This man had come close to murdering him to feed the effigy. Gavin's fury broke surface. He took hold of Reynolds by shirt and skin, and shook him. Was it his bones or teeth that rattled?


           'It's almost got my face.' He stared into Reynolds' bloodshot eyes. 'What happens when it finally has the trick off pat?'


           'I don't know.'


           'You tell me the worst - Tell me!'


           'It's all guesswork,' Reynolds replied.


           'Guess then!'


           'When it's perfected its physical imitation, I think it'll steal the one thing it can't imitate: your soul.'


           Reynolds was past fearing Gavin. His voice had sweetened, as though he was talking to a condemned man. He even smiled.


'Fucker!'


           Gavin hauled Reynolds' face yet closer to his. White spittle dotted the old man's cheek.


           'You don't care! You don't give a shit, do you?'


           He hit Reynolds across the face, once, twice, then again and again, until he was breathless.


           The old man took the beating in absolute silence, turning his face up from one blow to receive another, brushing the blood out of his swelling eyes only to have them fill again. Finally, the punches faltered.


           Reynolds, on his knees, picked pieces of tooth off his tongue.


           'I deserved that,' he murmured.


           'How do I stop it?' said Gavin.


           Reynolds shook his head.


           'Impossible,' he whispered, plucking at Gavin's hand. 'Please,' he said, and taking the fist, opened it and kissed the lines.


           Gavin left Reynolds in the ruins of Rome, and went into the street. The interview with Reynolds had told him little he hadn't


 


guessed. The only thing he could do now was find this beast that had his beauty, and best it. If he failed, he failed attempting to secure his only certain attribute: a face that was wonderful. Talk of souls and humanity was for him so much wasted air. He wanted his face.


           There was rare purpose in his step as he crossed Kensington. After years of being the victim of circumstance he saw circumstance embodied at last. He would shake sense from it, or die trying.


           In his flat Reynolds drew aside the curtain to watch a picture of evening fall on a picture of a city. No night he would live through, no city he'd walk in again. Out of sighs, he let the curtain drop, and picked up the short stabbing sword. The point he put to his chest.


           'Come on,' he told himself and the sword, and pressed the hilt. But the pain as the blade entered his body a mere half inch was enough to make his head reel: he knew he'd faint before the job was half-done. So he crossed to the wall, steadied the hilt against it, and let his own body-weight impale him. That did the trick. He wasn't sure if the sword had skewered him through entirely, but by the amount of blood he'd surely killed himself. Though he tried to arrange to turn, and so drive the blade all the way home as he fell on it, he fluffed the gesture, and instead fell on his side. The impact made him aware of the sword in his body, a stiff, uncharitable presence transfixing him utterly.


           It took him well over ten minutes to die, but in that time, pain apart, he was content. Whatever the flaws of his fifty-seven years, and they were many, he felt he was perishing in a way his beloved Flavinus would not have been ashamed of.


           Towards the end it began to rain, and the noise on the roof made him believe God was burying the house, sealing him up forever. And as the moment came, so did a splendid delusion: a hand, carrying a light, and escorted by voices, seemed to break through the wall, ghosts of the future come to excavate his history. He smiled to greet them, and was about to ask what year this was when he realised he was dead.


           The creature was far better at avoiding Gavin than he'd been at avoiding it. Three days passed without its pursuer snatching sight of hide or hair of it.


 


           But the fact of its presence, close, but never too close, was indisputable. In a bar someone would say: 'Saw you last night on the Edgware Road' when he'd not been near the place, or 'How'd you make out with that Arab then?' or 'Don't you speak to your friends any longer?'


           And God, he soon got to like the feeling. The distress gave way to a pleasure he'd not known since the age of two: ease.


So what if someone else was working his patch, dodging the law and the street-wise alike; so what if his friends (what friends? Leeches) were being cut by this supercilious copy; so what if his life had been taken from him and was being worn to its length and its breadth in lieu of him? He could sleep, and know that he, or something so like him it made no difference, was awake in the night and being adored. He began to see the creature not as a monster terrorising him, but as his tool, his public persona almost. It was substance: he shadow.


 


           He woke, dreaming.


           It was four-fifteen in the afternoon, and the whine of traffic was loud from the street below. A twilight room; the air breathed and rebreathed and breathed again so it smelt of his lungs. It was over a week since he'd left Reynolds to the ruins, and in that time he'd only ventured out from his new digs (one tiny bedroom, kitchen, bathroom) three times. Sleep was more important now than food or exercise. He had enough dope to keep him happy when sleep wouldn't come, which was seldom, and he'd grown to like the staleness of the air, the flux of light through the curtainless window, the sense of a world elsewhere which he had no part of or place in.


           Today he'd told himself he ought to go out and get some fresh air, but he hadn't been able to raise the enthusiasm. Maybe later, much later, when the bars were emptying and he wouldn't be noticed, then he'd slip out of his cocoon and see what could be seen. For now, there were dreams –


Water.


           He'd dreamt water; sitting beside a pool in Fort Lauderdale, a pool full of fish. And the splash of their leaps and dives was continuing, an overflow from sleep. Or was it the other way round? Yes; he had been hearing running water in his sleep and his dreaming mind had made an illustration to accompany the sound. Now awake, the sound continued.


 


           It was coming from the adjacent bathroom, no longer running, but lapping. Somebody had obviously broken in while he was asleep, and was now taking a bath. He ran down the short list of possible intruders: the few who knew he was here. There was Paul: a nascent hustler who'd bedded down on the floor two nights before; there was Chink, the dope dealer; and a girl from downstairs he thought was called Michelle. Who was he kidding? None of these people would have broken the lock on the door to get in. He knew very well who it must be. He was just playing a game with himself, enjoying the process of elimination, before he narrowed the options to one.


           Keen for reunion, he slid out from his skin of sheet and duvet. His body turned to a column of gooseflesh as the cold air encased him, his sleep-erection hid its head. As he crossed the room to where his dressing gown hung on the back of the door he caught sight of himself in the mirror, a freeze frame from an atrocity film, a wisp of a man, shrunk by cold, and lit by a rainwater light. His reflection almost flickered, he was so insubstantial.


           Wrapping the dressing gown, his only freshly purchased garment, around him, he went to the bathroom door. There was no noise of water now. He pushed the door open.


           The warped linoleum was icy beneath his feet; and all he wanted to do was to see his friend, then crawl back into bed. But he owed the tatters of his curiosity more than that: he had questions.


           The light through the frosted glass had deteriorated rapidly in the three minutes since he'd woken: the onset of night and a rain-storm congealing the gloom. In front of him the bath was almost filled to overflowing, the water was oil-slick calm, and dark. As before, nothing broke surface. It was lying deep, hidden.


           How long was it since he'd approached a lime-green bath in a lime-green bathroom, and peered into the water? It could have been yesterday: his life between then and now had become one long night. He looked down. It was there, tucked up, as before, and asleep, still wearing all its clothes as though it had had no time to undress before it hid itself. Where it had been bald it now sprouted a luxuriant head of hair, and its features were quite complete. No trace of a painted face remained: it had a plastic beauty that was his own absolutely, down to the last mole. Its perfectly finished hands were crossed on its chest.


 


           The night deepened. There was nothing to do but watch it sleep, and he became bored with that. It had traced him here, it wasn't likely to run away again, he could go back to bed. Outside the rain had slowed the commuters' homeward journey to a crawl, there were accidents, some fatal; engines overheated, hearts too. He listened to the chase; sleep came and went. It was the middle of the evening when thirst woke him again: he was dreaming water, and there was the sound as it had been before. The creature was hauling itself out of the bath, was putting its hand to the door, opening it.


           There it stood. The only light in the bedroom was coming from the street below; it barely began to illuminate the visitor.


'Gavin? Are you awake?'


           'Yes,' he said.


           'Will you help me?' it asked. There was no trace of threat in its voice, it asked as a man might ask his brother, for kinship's sake.


           'What do you want?'


'Time to heal.'


           'Heal?'


           'Put on the light.'


           Gavin switched on the lamp beside the bed and looked at the figure at the door. It no longer had its arms crossed on its chest, and Gavin saw that the position had been covering an appalling shotgun wound. The flesh of its chest had been blown open, exposing its colourless innards. There was, of course, no blood: that it would never have. Nor, from this distance, could Gavin see anything in its interior that faintly resembled human anatomy.


           'God Almighty,' he said.


           'Preetorius had friends,' said the other, and its ringers touched the edge of the wound. The gesture recalled a-picture of the wall of his mother's house. Christ in Glory - the Sacred Heart floating inside the Saviour - while his fingers, pointing to the agony he'd suffered, said: This was for you.'


           'Why aren't you dead?'


           'Because I'm not yet alive,' it said.


           Not yet: remember that, Gavin thought. It has intimations of mortality.


           'Are you in pain?'


           'No,' it said sadly, as though it craved the experience, 'I feel nothing. All the signs of life are cosmetic. But I'm learning.' It


 


smiled. 'I've got the knack of the yawn, and the fart.' The idea was both absurd and touching; that it would aspire to farting, that a farcical failure in the digestive system was for it a precious sign of humanity.


'And the wound?'


' - is healing. Will heal completely in time.'


           Gavin said nothing.


           'Do I disgust you?' it asked, without inflection.


           'No.'


           It was staring at Gavin with perfect eyes, his perfect eyes.


           'What did Reynolds tell you?' it asked.


           Gavin shrugged.


'Very little.'


           That I'm a monster? That I suck out the human spirit?'


'Not exactly.'


'More or less.'


           'More or less,' Gavin conceded.


           It nodded. 'He's right,' it said. 'In his way, he's right. I need blood: that makes me monstrous. In my youth, a month ago, I bathed in it. Its touch gave wood the appearance of flesh. But I don't need it now: the process is almost finished. All I need now…


           It faltered; not, Gavin thought, because it intended to lie, but because the words to describe its condition wouldn't come.


           'What do you need?' Gavin pressed it.


           It shook its head, looking down at the carpet. 'I've lived several times, you know. Sometimes I've stolen lives and got away with it. Lived a natural span, then shrugged off that face and found another. Sometimes, like the last time, I've been challenged, and lost - '


           'Are you some kind of machine?'


           'No.'


           'What then?'


           'I am what I am. I know of no others like me; though why should I be the only one? Perhaps there are others, many others: I simply don't know of them yet. So I live and die and live again, and learn nothing - ' the word was bitterly pronounced, ' - of myself. Understand? You know what you are because you see others like you. If you were alone on earth, what would you know? What the mirror told you, that's all. The rest would be myth and conjecture.'


 


           The summary was made without sentiment.


           'May I lie down?' it asked.


           It began to walk towards him, and Gavin could see more clearly the fluttering in its chest-cavity, the restless, incoherent forms that were mushrooming there in place of the heart. Signing, it sank face-down on the bed, its clothes sodden, and closed its eyes.


           'We'll heal,' it said. 'Just give us time.'


           Gavin went to the door of the flat and bolted it. Then he dragged a table over and wedged it under the handle. Nobody could get in and attack it in sleep: they would stay here together in safety, he and it, he and himself. The fortress secured, he brewed some coffee and sat in the chair across the room from the bed and watched the creature sleep.


           The rain rushed against the window heavily one hour, lightly the next. Wind threw sodden leaves against the glass and they clung there like inquisitive moths; he watched them sometimes, when he tired of watching himself, but before long he'd want to look again, and he'd be back staring at the casual beauty of his outstretched arm, the light flicking the wrist-bone, the lashes. He fell asleep in the chair about midnight, with an ambulance complaining in the street outside, and the rain coming again.


           It wasn't comfortable in the chair, and he'd surface from sleep every few minutes, his eyes opening a fraction. The creature was up: it was standing by the window, now in front of the mirror, now in the kitchen. Water ran: he dreamt water. The creature undressed: he dreamt sex. It stood over him, its chest whole, and he was reassured by its presence: he dreamt, it was for a moment only, himself lifted out of a street through a window into Heaven. It dressed in his clothes: he murmured his assent to the theft in his sleep. It was whistling: and there was a threat of day through the window, but he was too dozy to stir just yet, and quite content to have the whistling young man in his clothes live for him.


           At last it leaned over the chair and kissed him on the lips, a brother's kiss, and left. He heard the door close behind it.


           After that there were days, he wasn't sure how many, when he stayed in the room, and did nothing but drink water. This thirst had become unquenchable.   Drinking and sleeping, drinking and sleeping, twin moons.


 


           The bed he slept on was damp at the beginning from where the creature had laid, and he had no wish to change the sheets. On the contrary he enjoyed the wet linen, which his body dried out too soon. When it did he took a bath himself in the water the thing had lain in and returned to the bed dripping wet, his skin crawling with cold, and the scent of mildew all around. Later, too indifferent to move, he allowed his bladder free rein while he lay on the bed, and that water in time became cold, until he dried it with his dwindling body-heat.


           But for some reason, despite the icy room, his nakedness, his hunger, he couldn't die.


           He got up in the middle of the night of the sixth or seventh day, and sat on the edge of the bed to find the flaw in his resolve. When the solution didn't come he began to shamble around the room much as the creature had a week earlier, standing in front of the mirror to survey his pitifully changed body, watching the snow shimmer down and melt on the sill.


           Eventually, by chance, he found a picture of his parents he remembered the creature staring at. Or had he dreamt that? He thought not: he had a distinct idea that it had picked up this picture and looked at it.


           That was, of course, the bar to his suicide: that picture. There were respects to be paid. Until then how could he hope to die?


           He walked to the Cemetery through the slush wearing only a pair of slacks and a tee-shirt. The remarks of middle-aged women and school-children went unheard. Whose business but his own was it if going barefoot was the death of him? The rain came and went, sometimes thickening towards snow, but never quite achieving its ambition.


           There was a service going on at the church itself, a line of brittle coloured cars parked at the front. He slipped down the side into the churchyard. It boasted a good view, much spoiled today by the smoky veil of sleet, but he could see the trains and the high-rise flats; the endless rows of roofs. He ambled amongst the headstones, by no means certain of where to find his father's grave. It had been sixteen years: and the day hadn't been that memorable. Nobody had said anything illuminating about death in general, or his father's death specifically, there wasn't even a social gaff or two to mark the day: no aunt broke wind at the buffet table, no cousin took him aside to expose herself.


 


           He wondered if the rest of the family ever came here: whether indeed they were still in the country. His sister had always threatened to move out: go to New Zealand, begin again. His mother was probably getting through her fourth husband by now, poor sod, though perhaps she was the pitiable one, with her endless chatter barely concealing the panic.


           Here was the stone. And yes, there were fresh flowers in the marble urn that rested amongst the green marble chips. The old bugger had not lain here enjoying the view unnoticed. Obviously somebody, he guessed his sister, had come here seeking a little comfort from Father. Gavin ran his fingers over the name, the date, the platitude. Nothing exceptional: which was only right and proper, because there'd been nothing exceptional about him. Staring at the stone, words came spilling out, as though Father was sitting on the edge of the grave, dangling his feet, raking his hair across his gleaming scalp, pretending, as he always pretended, to care.


           'What do you think, eh?' Father wasn't impressed. 'Not much, am I?' Gavin confessed. You said it, son.


           'Well I was always careful, like you told me. There aren't any bastards out there, going to come looking for me.' Damn pleased.


           'I wouldn't be much to find, would I?' Father blew his nose, wiped it three times. Once from left to right, again left to right, finishing right to left. Never failed. Then he slipped away. 'Old shithouse.'


           A toy train let out a long blast on its horn as it passed and Gavin looked up. There he was - himself - standing absolutely still a few yards away. He was wearing the same clothes he'd put on a week ago when he'd left the flat. They looked creased and shabby from constant wear. But the flesh! Oh, the flesh was more radiant than his own had ever been. It almost shone in the drizzling light; and the tears on the doppelganger's cheeks only made the features more exquisite. 'What's wrong?' said Gavin.


           'It always makes me cry, coming here.' It stepped over the graves towards him, its feet crunching on gravel, soft on grass. So real.


 


           'You've been here before?'


           'Oh yes. Many times, over the years - '


Over the years? What did it mean, over the years? Had it mourned here for people it had killed?


           As if in answer:


' - I come to visit Father. Twice, maybe three times a year.'


           This isn't your father,' said Gavin, almost amused by the delusion. 'It's mine.'


           'I don't see any tears on your face,' said the other.


           'I feel. . .'


           'Nothing,' his face told him. 'You feel nothing at all, if you're honest.'


           That was the truth.


           'Whereas I . . .' the tears began to flow again, its nose ran, 'I will miss him until I die.'


           It was surely playacting, but if so why was there such grief in its eyes: and why were its features crumpled into ugliness as it wept. Gavin had seldom given in to tears: they'd always made him feel weak and ridiculous. But this thing was proud of tears, it gloried in them. They were its triumph.


           And even then, knowing it had overtaken him, Gavin could find nothing in him that approximated grief.


           'Have it,' he said. 'Have the snots. You're welcome.'


           The creature was hardly listening.


           'Why is it all so painful?' it asked, after a pause. 'Why is it loss that makes me human?'


           Gavin shrugged. What did he know or care about the fine art of being human?  The creature wiped its nose with its sleeve, sniffed, and tried to smile through its unhappiness.


           'I'm sorry,' it said, 'I'm making a damn fool of myself. Please forgive me.'


           It inhaled deeply, trying to compose itself.


           That's all right,' said Gavin. The display embarrassed him, and he was glad to be leaving.


           'Your flowers?' he asked as he turned from the grave.


           It nodded.


           'He hated flowers.'


           The thing flinched.


           'Ah.'


           'Still, what does he know?'


           He didn't even look at the effigy again; just turned and started


 


up the path that ran beside the church. A few yards on, the thing called after him:


           'Can you recommend a dentist?'


           Gavin grinned, and kept walking.


           It was almost the commuter hour. The arterial road that ran by the church was already thick with speeding traffic: perhaps it was Friday, early escapees hurrying home. Lights blazed brilliantly, horns blared.


           Gavin stepped into the middle of the flow without looking to right or left, ignoring the squeals of brakes, and the curses, and began to walk amongst the traffic as if he were idling in an open field.


           The wing of a speeding car grazed his leg as it passed, another almost collided with him. Their eagerness to get somewhere, to arrive at a place they would presently be itching to depart from again, was comical. Let them rage at him, loathe him, let them glimpse his featureless face and go home haunted. If the circumstances were right, maybe one of them would panic, swerve, and run him down. Whatever. From now on he belonged to chance, whose Standard-Bearer he would surely be.


 




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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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