The Upstairs Window, by Nina Allan
artwork by Aurelia Milach

I remember a conversation I had with him once, at the private view for his first major commercial show.

“What would you say was the difference between a spy and a secret agent?”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “There is no difference, surely?”

“Perhaps not,” he said. “But did you ever hear of anyone being shot as a secret agent?”

He had this idea that although in theory the words shared a meaning, in practice the term secret agent made you think glamour and heroics whereas spy was a dirty word with connotations of treachery. He reckoned it was a put-up job, that your role was decided for you by whoever got to write the history books.  

“Think about it,” he said. “That Melita Norwood woman was branded a spy, but James Bond has always been a secret agent.”

It didn’t seem to occur to him that James Bond didn’t exist. I asked him what the big deal was, but he’d gone all deadpan on me. Niko was a pain like that sometimes. He had this habit of holding forth on heavy subjects, and once he got into his stride there was no stopping him. Try to make a joke and it was like walking on eggshells. 

“You wouldn’t be asking that question if it was you facing the firing squad,” he said.

We were standing in front of a painting of his called The Tower. It was typical of his stuff back then: when you stood away from it it was like looking at an abstract mass of colours but if you looked at it up close it was a lot more complicated. There were all these tiny squares, painted one above the other like a giant stack of matchboxes. In each box there was a different object: a pink plastic radio, a Princess Diana mug, a Barbie doll with only one arm, the kind of old rubbish you find stuffed away in the attic or in the cupboard under the stairs. When I asked him what the things were supposed to have in common he wouldn’t say.

Some of the critics reckoned it had to do with the Tower of Babel, that the disconnected images were symbolic of a lack of understanding between people or nations or whatever. As far as I was concerned the theory didn’t hold water because although they had different titles all of Niko’s paintings looked the same.

Time Machine, Fortress, Meridian – whatever the paintings meant the show sold out. People didn’t seem to mind that his work was weird. They called it playful or ironic. I saw one newspaper review where the journo in question had described it as having ‘all the freshness and vitality of a particularly well-drawn comic strip.’ Whenever Niko was interviewed he was asked to spill the beans on what the pictures were supposed to mean but he always refused. He said the meaning of any painting always depended on who was looking at it. I’ve never had time for that kind of talk and I didn’t pay it much attention. Niko was doing all right back then, whatever the paintings meant.

I admired him and I liked his work. What I hated was what went with it, the trappings, the bullshit, all that art world hype. As far as I’m concerned good journalism is all about saying what you mean in as few words as possible. Arts journalism often seems to be the exact opposite.

We never really discussed Laura Plantagenet, and in any case my friendship with Niko was purely a coincidence. We met more than a year after Laura and I split up and it certainly wasn’t Laura that introduced us. I think Niko understood her even less than I did. The mistake we all make with beautiful people is to expect them to be something more than the sum of their parts.

I can’t remember whether it was me or Laura who first suggested we get married. Whoever it was we were a disaster waiting to happen. But because of the Angola brief and the film that came out of it I was seen as a name in the making and I even had the money to go with it. What with her beauty and my success people must have thought we were the perfect match.

After Laura I stayed single. I don’t mean I didn’t have women. I was even serious about some of them. I just made a deal with myself never to try and live with one again. Work and women don’t mix. When I come back off a job I’m exhausted. Sometimes I’m not fit for human company. I like to unpack my kit, junk the worst of it, steam-clean the rest, lie in the bath for hours just listening to the pipes grumble. I like to enjoy the sensation of feeling safe. Sometimes, in London, I used to ask myself whether I did what I did precisely because there was always that illusion of safety at the end of it. That was rubbish of course, it was simply the tiredness talking. If all I’d wanted was some uninterrupted downtime I’d have found a job that was less likely to get me killed.

It was during one of these furloughs that Niko turned up at my flat. To tell you the truth I hadn’t expected to see him again. He’d made a mistake, and a bad one. Such actions have inevitable results. I mistrust idealism. I’ve seen enough of it in practice to know that it’s rarely about the other man. You might even call it the ultimate expression of arrogance and whatever it is it isn’t worth dying for. It was eight months since I’d seen him and he looked awful. He stank like he hadn’t washed for days and there was an ugly cut just below his right eye that had only partially healed. I wondered if he’d been beaten up while in police custody but it turned out he’d got himself into a fight in some pub in Soho. Looking at it made me feel tired. It was one stupid thing after another with him.

I’d kept abreast of the case, of course – his girlfriend Mica had emailed me all the press cuttings – but I was in Kuwait while it was actually going on and pleased to be there. I didn’t want to get mixed up in it, least of all as a witness. Mud sticks. The last thing I needed was to draw the wrong kind of attention to myself. A journalist who draws the wrong kind of attention to himself soon finds that his sources begin to dry up. For all his talk of spies and secret agents Niko never seemed to grasp that.  

I wondered if I’d be able to lie convincingly enough to tell him he couldn’t stay.

“You’d better come in,” I said. “Let me pour you a drink.” I reasoned I could let him have a couple of hours’ sleep and then tell him I had a plane to catch.

“A drink would be great,” he said. His arms were limp at his sides, and I noticed he had some kind of grime under his fingernails. It looked like motor oil. I wondered what it had been that had finally made him begin to give up on himself: the threat of execution, the crap they printed in the newspapers, or the public destruction of most of his works. I poured him a Scotch. He held the glass up to the light, and when a moment later he put it down on the sideboard I could see his greasy fingerprints on the crystal.

“I’m going to make a run for it,” he said. “I know someone who can get me out.”

“For God’s sake, Niko,” I said. “It’s not worth the risk. If you jump bail and they catch you you’ve had it. Sit tight and you get five years, maybe less. It’s hardly the end of the world.”

“If I stay here I’m finished,” he said. “I’ll never work again.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. Nobody gives a damn about these things. Get some commercial work, at least for a while. The whole thing might pan out in your favour so long as you’re careful. People like notoriety. Some of them are even prepared to pay for it.”

“I’m not like you, Ivan,” he said. “I’m not going to play their games.”

“I resent that.”

“You’ve always gone by the book. That’s how you get by.”

“I make sure nothing gets in the way of my freedom, if that’s what you mean. If I have to fiddle with a paragraph here and there then that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

“I can’t have anyone telling me what I can or can’t paint.” He picked up his glass and sniffed at the drink inside, inhaling deeply as if smelling a rose. His hands were trembling, though whether from anger or fear I couldn’t tell.

“So long as they leave you alone, who cares?” I said.

“And when they don’t?” he said. “What then?”

I thought of all the examples I could give him of people who’d had to make the same kind of compromise just to keep working, just to keep the thugs off their back, people like Pasternak and Shostakovich and Boll and Winter. I bit my tongue, though. I was too tired myself. I couldn’t face seeing the look on his face if he thought I was comparing myself with Martin Winter.

“Let’s talk about this tomorrow,” I said. “You look like the walking dead.”

*

Laura managed to extricate herself, of course. She stopped seeing Niko on any kind of a regular basis about six months before the whole thing blew up and that worked well in her favour. She barely appeared at all at the trial and when she did it was via a video link. Her lawyers maintained she had no idea of the use that had been made of her image and to do her credit that’s probably true. Laura is blind to anything that bores her. The reason she finished with Niko was that he spent more time with his art than he did with her.

I ran into her on the street not long afterwards. I was just coming out of Green Park tube as she was crossing Piccadilly, most likely hoping to pick up a taxi outside the Ritz. I’m lucky I suppose. If Laura was bored with Niko then God I was bored with her. The fact that I can recall that feeling precisely, a tedium so intense that I sometimes toyed with the idea of murder just so I wouldn’t have to hear her voice again, means I can now stop in the street and have a civilized conversation with her. Niko hadn’t reached that stage of release. Perhaps he never will.

“Laura,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” she said. “Do you fancy some lunch?” She took off her sunglasses, a pair of Versace shades that would have set me back a month’s earnings in the old days. Her eyes are a soft powder blue shading to violet along the margins of the iris. It was always a mystery to me, how the luminous transparency of those eyes could conceal such deep reserves of banality and self-obsession. I don’t mean that Laura was stupid. She was sharp as a razor and could grasp a situation in a couple of beats. It was simply the way she had of discounting at a glance everything and anyone that didn’t directly concern her.

Being watched turns her on like a spotlight, but it was in those rare moments when she thought herself alone that I was most in love with her. Moments in which she might scrape distractedly at the edge of a fingernail with a piece of worn emery board, or lie on the sofa with her ankles crossed staring up at the ceiling, her mind elsewhere. I used to wonder what passed through her at such moments, whether I would see her differently if I were able to read her mind. Probably not, and in any case her reflective moods never lasted. As soon as she knew I was watching she began to perform, and in so doing she became something else, the thing I had grown tired of and in the end couldn’t stand.

We went to a pub at the far end of Curzon Street. Once I’d got the drinks in she asked me straight out about Niko.

“Did you know he was going to jump bail?” she said.

“I was still in Kuwait,” I lied. “I had no idea.”

“Simon says he’s a fool,” she said. “We could have found him a decent lawyer if only he’d asked.”

You’ll know about Simon Caultham, of course. He directed that incomprehensible techno-thriller, Feet of Clay, and also Amber Furness, based on Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta. Laura married him at the end of the year she spent living with his first wife, the actress Aurelie Pelling, who played Amber Furness in the film. A lot of people assumed that she and Laura had a sexual relationship of some sort, but even if this was so I know for a fact that all the time she was with Aurelie Laura had other lovers. I know because I was one of them. In my opinion the only thing she really wanted from Aurelie Pelling was Simon Caultham.

The miracle there is that they’ve stayed together. You’d think that with two egomaniacs like that it would be a marriage made in hell but somehow they seem to suit each other. Perhaps it’s a kind of mental arm wrestling: two evenly-matched opponents locked in a perpetual stalemate.     

“Niko didn’t have that kind of money,” I said to Laura. “Not any more. You know that.”

“Isn’t that what friends are for?” she said. “That’s half the trouble with Niko. Always so insistent on his pathetic principles.”

“Have you heard from him, Laura?”

She glanced down at her plate and I thought how that is the one thing that will keep her looking young once her looks begin to fade: her touching inability to lie without being detected.

“I’ve no idea where he is,” she said. “I’ve not laid eyes on him since the trial.”

I didn’t pursue it. There was nothing to gain, and in any case I was sick of them both. Later on that day I admitted to myself it wasn’t just them I was sick of but everything. I was even sick of my apartment in New Cross, with the musty airing cupboard and the leaky bathroom tap. I fingered the travel documents I’d picked up that morning, the stamped visa and boarding pass for the Dubai shuttle, and a wave of relief swept through me. I felt that as long as I could get on that plane I’d be able to sleep, that my current bout of exhaustion would begin to end.

For the first time ever I began to give serious consideration to Sallie Stowells’s offer for me to join her bureau in Melbourne. I’d known Sallie for years. We’d stayed in the same hotel in Baghdad during the third Iraq skirmish. She kept pressing me to join her, saying that her junior reporters either left after six months to work in TV or else got themselves kidnapped or killed.

“I could do with a safe pair of hands,” she said. I’d always turned her down up till now.

*

The breakthrough show, the one at the Marlborough, was so successful that Niko could have painted full-time if he’d chosen to, but he kept his post at Central St Martins. It was just one more facet of his naïve idealism. He taught his students with a missionary zeal.

“They have a raw energy about them, you’d see it if you met them,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be a part of that.”

“There’s already too much bad art in the world, Niko,” I said. “If I were you I wouldn’t encourage it.” We were in the Pillars, on Greek Street. He had yellow paint under his nails and some kind of plaster dust all down the back of his sweatshirt. He looked like the van Gogh in that made-for-TV biopic, the one starring the German actor who went on to become an expert on UFOs. That was when I found Niko most tedious, when he felt the need to start preaching. If he hadn’t been my friend I would probably have despised him as a matter of form.

Laura was right about the legal side of things. There’s a Cromwellian fury in these islands that serves as an outlet for bigotry and score-settling and leaves little room for justice. You might almost say it’s a calling, that our damp and chilly climate has infected our souls. The Bishops call it a theocracy and claim there’s no higher form of government; as far as I’m concerned the revolution was founded on envy, superstition and the good old fashioned lust for power. But Niko’s work had its effect, even on me.

I always knew he painted portraits. He never showed them, of course, but he had sketchbooks and portfolios full of them, everything from pencil sketches to finished oils. His students were all eager to sit for him. One of the first was a stringy dark-haired eighteen-year-old called Joanna Newbis. He painted her naked, elongating her arms and fingers and coarsening the texture of her skin. He showed me some stuff by Egon Schiele and I could see where he was coming from. After the figure studies he painted her face in close-up, and after that he painted her cunt, over and over again. It looked so raw you could almost smell it. In the end you got so used to seeing it you forgot what it was. It became a thing in its own right, a ragged reddish-brown ellipsis, slightly puckered along its edges, like a split fruit or the mouth of a cowrie shell.

I saw him do the same trick with a rose tattoo on a girl’s buttock and with the lace edging on a silk camisole. He highlighted colour and texture, emphasising the abstract qualities that lay dormant in the most concrete of subjects. His paintings reminded me of a time in childhood when I lay ill in bed for three weeks with pleurisy. I became delirious for a while, and the most ordinary words stopped making sense to me. The more I repeated a phrase in my head the less meaning it seemed to have. In the end the words broke up entirely, dissolving into a soup of abstract sound, like some ancient alien language all its own. Niko’s paintings were like that, enthralling and disturbing at the same time. To dismiss what he did as pornography is simply inane.

If you get the wrong judge, though, sometimes even the right lawyer might not be enough to save you. There’s a lot of whispering about corruption but in my opinion the most terrifying judges are those that actually believe in what they’re doing. In a way they’re just like Niko. There’s no reasoning with absolute faith.

*


I left him to make up the bed and then I sent out for food. When it came he ate everything. It was as if he hadn’t eaten for days. He looked better after his bath but there was still that unmistakable air of defeat about him, that panicky look people get when they realise there’s nowhere to run. He lay back in his seat, his closed eyes flickering beneath the lids. He looked exhausted.

“Where will you go?” I said. I briefly considered what might happen if the morning came and he refused to leave, if he simply postponed his departure from one day till the next until finally they came to collect him. I dismissed the thought at once, not because it seemed far-fetched but because it was something I couldn’t bring myself to contemplate.   

“I’m going to Leipzig,” he said. “Uwe Kaestner has a train ticket waiting for me in Brussels. He says I won’t have a problem, so long as I can get on the Eurostar in the first place. But I’ve got that sorted, too. Stefan Rogers up at the college knows some guy who’s meant to be going to Maastricht at the weekend for a conference on pharmaceuticals. He reckons I’ll be able to buy his seat.”

“But this is madness, Niko. What are you going to do once you get there?”

“Teach, I suppose. As I do here.”

“You know that’s not going to happen. I’ve been east of Frankfurt and they just haven’t got that kind of infrastructure any more. The universities are a joke – just glorified military academies. Unless you feel like teaching maths or ecology to twelve-year-olds there just aren’t any teaching jobs. And in any case, you don’t speak a word of German.”

At best he’d get some sweeping up job in a canteen or a factory. At worst he’d end up doing manual construction work on one of the sites. That’s just about the only thing you can say for Eastern Europe these days: there’s always plenty of building work going. He knew this as well as I did. I think that’s partly why he looked so tired.

“I’ll manage. At least I’ll have the freedom to work.”

“In one of those high rises with the concrete cancer? Or some basement that fills up with sewage whenever it rains?”

“If I have to.”

“Have you been to see Mica?” It was my last ditch effort to persuade him against leaving but it was the wrong thing to say. He shuddered.

“I can’t face it,” he said. “I’ll write to her.”

“Does she know you’re here?”

“God, no.”

Mica Esperanta lived on a decrepit house boat on the Regent’s Canal. Not the park end of course, but the eastern stretch, over towards the King’s Cross basin. Her studio was a sub-let, part of some warehouse co-operative in Camden. She taught art part-time at a local primary school but even so I think she found it hard to make ends meet. Once during the summer I saw her stacking shelves at Tesco’s. In certain lights she looked haggard and crazy like one of the bag ladies that camp out on the sidings at Waterloo station, but then she’d turn her head and smile at you and seem fragile and appealing as a child. She had a beautiful body but she dressed it so badly you’d hardly notice. I have the feeling she’d known Niko since childhood but I might be wrong about that. As far as I knew she had always lived alone.      

She worked in ceramics, building small sculptures using rolls of clay that she later scraped smooth with a flexible steel kidney. The things she made resembled beach flotsam, or artefacts from some ancient burial site. She had a review in Scene once that compared her with Louise Bourgeois. I don’t know how she coped with Niko’s women. It was something none of us talked about, least of all her.

The strangest thing about Mica was her sympathy with our esteemed Prime Minister, Chamberlain Rouse. I don’t mean that she was in favour of the Bermondsey Statutes – she was as enraged by the reinstatement of the death penalty as Niko was – but as far was her own work was concerned she said she found it easy to comply with them. She and Niko were always arguing about it. Mica had done a lot of research on tribes in Papua New Guinea who were terrified of having their photographs taken so she knew all about the sanctity of the human image. Niko accused her of believing in voodoo. When his work was going well he seemed to thrive on these discussions and we all drank a lot of wine, but when he was having difficulties he could get quite aggressive. Mica seemed to have her ways of calming him but to do her credit she never backed down in an argument.

I’d seen some of the stuff he was working on of course, the Laura paintings, but I didn’t know the half of it. If I had done I’d have told him not to be an idiot. It was like he had a death wish or something. But then again that’s hardly uncommon among artists.

He worked up the portraits of Rouse from the photographs in the Mackinnon biography. That book was hard to come by, even then, and I can only guess he had a copy imported illegally from Europe. In any case, the likeness was unmistakable: those frilled shirts and velvet blazers he used to wear in his Cambridge days, the heavy horn-rimmed spectacles, the blond hair flopping forward into his eyes. He had developed a house style and he stuck to it: the studied nonchalance of the outcast intellectual. That’s something I’ve noticed about revolutionaries: they always seem to have one eye on the camera, even in the years of obscurity before they start setting the world on fire.

Laura he painted from life. I have to say it was a shock, seeing her like that. I suppose it was seeing those images that made me finally realise she no longer belonged to me, that I truly had lost her for good. Most of them were charcoal drawings and oil sketches, little more than studies really, but there was the full-face portrait of her with the puffed-up eye and the cut lip, and the main canvas of course, with Laura on her knees in front of Rouse. Niko called it The Magdalene. He might as well have called it The Suicide Note.

*

He went out like a light. I dropped off to sleep OK but woke again in the small hours, full of that sense of foreboding you get when you know that something is wrong but can’t immediately remember what it is. Outside it was raining hard. I listened to the water streaming down the faulty guttering and hoped that the window seal in Niko’s room wouldn’t begin to leak again.

I had traded the Fulham place for the New Cross flat more or less as soon as Laura moved out. Laura loathed South London of course and if I’m honest that’s partly the reason I moved there: I knew she would never be tempted to try and come back. She referred to my place in New Cross as the roach motel, although I never had cockroaches, at least not as far as I was aware. The flat was too damp for them, too close to the river. The money I had left over I salted away. I lay in the half-dark with my eyes wide open, wondering if Niko would take any of the money if I offered it to him. It seemed like a waste to me. I imagined him getting off the train in Leipzig and knew he would stand out a mile. He could easily be mugged in the first five minutes if his comrades hadn’t sent someone to look after him. I didn’t have much in the flat. I wondered how it might look later if the police came looking, if they discovered I’d withdrawn a huge wad of my savings on the very day my old friend Nicholas Shilling had jumped bail and fled to Europe under a fraudulent identity.

Around six o’clock I got up and dressed. I didn’t want to wake Niko before I had to, so I washed and shaved at the basin in my bedroom. It was square and heavy, supported by a cast iron bracket held to the wall by rusty great masonry screws. There was a reddish-brown tidemark half way up the porcelain that never faded no matter how hard you scrubbed. Like everything else in the flat the sink had a pre-war feel, a robust ugliness that had disgusted Laura but for which I felt a grudging respect.

The basin seemed to insist on its rights. Perhaps that was why I had never had it removed, even though for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year I had no use for it.

When I went through to the kitchen to make coffee I found Niko already there. He was fully dressed and seemed more in control of himself than he had done the previous day but the sight of him unnerved me, all the same. If I tell you he looked like his own ghost you’ll think you know what that meant: that he looked gaunt and pale and nakedly preoccupied. You’d be right about some of it because he did look all of those things, but there was more to it than that. Looking at him, standing there at the kitchen counter in his tatty old Levis, I became suddenly aware of how irretrievably he had lost his place in the scheme of things. He could not go to the travel agent’s down the street and book a seat on an aeroplane, nor could he apply for a teaching post in another part of the country. He could not send mail or email without the risk of it being opened by the Home Office censors. He could not vote. He could not broadcast. He could not publish except under a pseudonym.

I felt a sudden twinge of vertigo, as if these things applied to myself instead of to him.

“I’m going to call Stefan Rogers,” I said. “It’s safer if I do that. Then I need to go out for an hour or so. Will you be OK here by yourself while I’m gone?”

He nodded. In the time that remained to us we barely spoke two words to each other that weren’t essential for basic communication. I downed half a cup of coffee then took the tube up to Whitechapel. I found a public phone box then rang Stefan Rogers and arranged to meet him in a burger bar on the Strand opposite Charing Cross station. I called in at the bank then went to a grubby little shopping mall off Cambridge Heath Road and bought a waterproof rucksack, a pair of Doc Martens and a selection of t-shirts, sweatshirts and jeans. Niko was an inch or so taller than me and I was a couple of pounds heavier than him but we were more or less the same size and I knew the clothes would fit.

It had just gone ten thirty when I walked into Jed’s Kebabs. Stefan Rogers was already there, sitting at a corner table reading his Times. I ordered myself a coffee and he asked me about the Kuwait job. Just before I got up to leave he handed me a paperback book, a dog-eared copy of Alistair Maclean’s The Guns of Navarone.

“Thank you for lending me this,” he said. “I’d forgotten how good it was.”

The train ticket was tucked inside, still wrapped in its cellophane seal and made out in the name of Rogers’s acquaintance, one Mark A. Kendrick.

Perhaps we’d gone a little over the top in our precautions but it was a routine we’d both agreed on instinctively, caught half-way between the excitement of some spy game we imagined we were playing and an unspoken mutual terror of exposing ourselves to risk on another’s behalf.

At six forty-five that evening I said goodbye to Niko on the concourse of St Pancras. It was still the rush hour. Streams of commuters pushed past us to either side. I looked at him and shrugged. We embraced. I never saw him again.

*

I went to the Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. They were showing Wendell Lavery’s Passover and I went in just as the film was about to start. I fell asleep almost as soon as the lights went down and woke up a few minutes before the final credits. I remembered the last time I’d seen the film, with Laura in Istanbul on one of our rare trips abroad together. We’d gone into the cinema because it was the only place the air conditioning seemed to be working. Laura had taken her shoes off under the seat then spent most of the film texting her friends back in London.

When I came out onto the street it was raining again. I walked down Charing Cross road with my head down and bought a Standard at the station entrance. There was nothing in the paper about Niko and my heart lifted at that, even though I knew it was far too soon to start feeling relieved. When I got back to the flat I wandered around closing the blinds and putting on lights before finally going into the spare room. Niko had made the bed, pulling the undersheet tight and folding hospital corners as if he’d been to the kind of school that put a value on such things. Perhaps he had. I realised I had no idea.

There was an envelope on the bedside cabinet, one of the cheap white office variety I recognised as my own stationery. It was addressed to Mica Esperanta. The envelope had been stuck down, and when I tried it with the edge of my nail the seal held firm. I took it through to the kitchen and used the kettle to steam it open. The letter inside was written in blue biro on two pages torn from a ring-bound exercise book. His writing was cramped and spidery, a predictable mess. He crossed out liberally, making heavy indentations in the paper.

I put the letter back in the envelope without reading it. It was a simple curiosity I had felt, nothing more, a child’s longing to know the end of a story, but I knew it was wrong, all the same. Even if Niko never found out, it was a base impulse and I had no wish to succumb to it. I went to my desk and took out a tube of paper glue I had there. I resealed the envelope and once the glue had dried I went over the flap lightly with a steam iron. When I looked at it the next day it looked like it had never been touched.

*

It took me a month to deliver it. When Mica finally answered her mobile she was on a train somewhere between Stevenage and Euston. We arranged to meet at a pub we both knew not far from Warren Street tube. I arrived there before her. I bought a drink then sat down at a table near the door and waited. She came in carrying a navy zip nylon holdall and wearing a khaki anorak that leached her skin of colour and made her features look heavy and dull. It was as ugly and shapeless as the rest of her clothes and seemed both to hide and to define her. I tried to imagine how she might look in Laura’s red Rifat Ozbek trench coat but blanked the mental picture almost at once. It seemed to do both women a disservice.

Her reddish-brown hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail. When she wore it loose it suited her better but she seemed not to realise it. She came and sat beside me, slipping the holdall under the table. As she straightened up again I caught the smell of her sweat, musky and bitter, and realised she must have been running.

“Where have you been?” I said. “I’ve been trying to call you for ages.”

“I had to go away for a bit,” she said. “My brother was home on leave.”

I remembered she had family somewhere in the Midlands, a sick mother who had once been an opera singer, a brother in the army. I knew nothing about them. Nor did I want to.

“He’s gone, hasn’t he?” she said. There was a fierce light in her eyes but no tears, at least not yet. I thanked God for small mercies.

“Yes,” I said. “He has friends in Leipzig.”

“Uwe Kaestner.” She tore open the envelope. It opened all of a piece, without ripping. I wondered if she would notice such a small detail and that made me think of Niko, all his crazy talk about spies.   

She scanned the letter, moving her lips from time to time as if trying to memorize the words. After a couple of minutes she folded it back in its envelope and tucked it into the inside pocket of her anorak.

“Did you get him to take some money?”

“Of course.”

Her question startled me with its unexpected practicality. I looked at the dark bags under her eyes, her tired, somehow hopeless expression, the accumulation of years of worry and vague disappointment, pain she was so used to bearing it had become the norm.

“What will you do?” I said.

“I’ll wait,” she said. “It’s what he says he wants.” Her reaction surprised me at first and I couldn’t help wondering again what had been in the letter. I had expected her to flood me with questions, to demand to know the exact details of his escape so she could begin to make plans to follow him. But slowly I began to understand something of his decision to leave without telling her: he needed something to believe in, some last shred of hope. Times changed, after all, and so did regimes. What did the man in exile dream of nightly but a return to his own country, and how much the better if there was a light left burning for him in an upstairs window.

Mica Esperanta would know this. She would make sure the light didn’t go out.

She went into the tube at Warren Street and I walked away down Tottenham Court Road, wishing I had a plane to catch. It was a Saturday, and as I drew closer to the centre of town the crowds increased. By the time I got down to Goodge Street I was having to step off the pavement to avoid colliding with passers by. The latest techno-gadgetry sparkled from the windows of the multiple electronics franchises and I thought about a shop I had seen in Budapest once, where knocked-off digital cameras and portable DVD players struggled for space alongside hunting rifles and World War Two gas masks. The gas masks had been fitted with modern chemical filters, although they still looked like death traps to me. By Percy Street a bank of plasma TV screens in the window of the Sony Centre lingered over the same image: a middle-aged man in prison yellow being forced down a board ramp into what looked like an empty swimming pool. The man’s eyes were sunken and haunted, dark with fatigue. The policemen to either side of him each carried what looked like an electronic stun gun such as might be used in an abattoir and in fact that’s what they probably were.

The man looked familiar and after a moment or two I recognised him as Noah Pinkowski, the author of The Rotterdam Club. I had read the novel in a samizdat carbon copy that had been doing the rounds in Vienna but had stopped short of trying to smuggle it through customs as one of the journos out there had asked me to. They had taken away Pinkowski’s glasses – most likely the reason I hadn’t recognised him immediately – and he was wearing leg irons.

It was ITN footage, a rerun of his execution. The sound had been muted but there were shots of people in the crowd, their mouths wide open, visibly heckling.

As I turned away I saw two women come out of the store. They looked like mother and daughter, the one a fast-wind-forward of the other. They each held a plastic carrier emblazoned with the crown-shaped logo of one of the new satellite companies.

“Let’s go to that place on Charlotte Street,” said the older woman. “I’m dying to take the weight off my feet.”   

The younger woman laughed and shook her head. “I told you those shoes would kill you,” she said.

I went straight home and made two phone calls, one after the other. The first was to the branch of Foxton’s estate agent’s on New Cross Road. The second was to Sallie Stowells in Melbourne.

*


There was no reason to tell Laura I was leaving but I called her anyway. When she said she was coming over to say goodbye properly I didn’t try to stop her.

“This place,” she said as she entered the flat. “I never thought you’d sell it.”

“You hate it, Laura,” I said. “You always have.”

“I said it’s a mess,” she said. “That isn’t the same thing at all.”

Her hair had been recently cut and clung close to her skull like some expensive silk headgear. When I helped her off with her coat her familiar scent drifted out: vanilla and roses, a sweet smell with the vague undertow of corruption.

She went to the window and stared out over the office blocks, renovated tenements and boarded-up garages of New Cross Gate. I went and stood behind her, pulling her against me, letting her feel how hard I was.

“You bastard,” she said. I began to unbutton the top she was wearing, a cropped-off cream-coloured cardigan in silk cashmere. We made it slow. At the end I sat on the edge of the bed and let her come sitting astride me in the way she liked, then once she had finished I rolled her on her back and climaxed in a single thrust. When I opened my eyes she was staring right into them, her blue-mauve irises darkened to the colour of lupins. “You bastard,” she said again.

We got dressed and I made tea. While going through my stuff for the house clearance I’d discovered I still had the Meissen a deux tea set that one of her girl friends had given us as a wedding present: two cups and saucers, a teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl in that kind of translucent white porcelain that always has an undertint of blue. If Laura remembered it she passed no comment. Her feet were still bare, her legs crossed at the ankles. The skin across the bone was taught, delicate, bluish-white like the porcelain.

“How will you stand it?” she said. “They say Australia is going down the drain.”

“I fancy a change,” I said. “If I don’t like it I can always come back.”

*

In summer you can lie on a hammock strung under the eaves and watch the lightning setting off the bush fires that sometimes burn for most of the season. For some reason and in spite of all the times I’ve come under fire the lightning terrifies me. One night in an effort to forget about it, I wrote the first six pages of a novel about a girl who had been disfigured in a bomb blast. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Hong Kong to report on the aftermath of the stock exchange shootings. I had a lot on my mind but I found I couldn’t forget about the novel. I’d never written fiction before. Once I’d checked into the hotel I hooked up my laptop and had another look at what I’d done.

The words seemed both mine and not mine; the feeling was strange to me and curiously exhilarating. I couldn’t help wanting to know how the story might end.




This story was first published in Interzone #230, edited by Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock.



wordpress twitter facebook 


      BROWSE BY:
   Volumes

   Writers

   Artists

   News

home

   About

   Contact

   Submissions

   Help us
   raise money
   for charity