MR F WAS short and squat, well dressed, with the sort of small, dry hands you might expect of a bureaucrat. I was horrified to observe a tiny spot of tomato sauce on his striped tie. At least I hoped it was tomato sauce. He entered the hotel room quickly, before the door was even fully open, slipping inside with more agility than I’d expect of someone of his age and build. What we were doing was highly illegal; the appointment had been complicated to organise, and arranged through an intermediary. I’d never met anyone like him before – anyone who did what he did, I mean – and I was anxious. Besides that, I didn’t even know his real name, so, without thinking, I stuck out my hand and said, ‘You must be the abortionist.’
I heard Juliet’s swift intake of breath behind me.
Mr F closed the door carefully, put down his bag, closed the yellow curtains and turned to me with a sour little smile. Juliet sat on the end of the bed and rested one hand on her stomach before quickly removing it, as if scalded.
‘Why don’t you go and get yourself a drink or something?’ Mr F said to me with great forebearance. ‘Some chips, perhaps? We won’t be too long.’
Strangely, neither of them uttered a word when I put on my coat. I kissed the top of Juliet’s head and told them I’d return in an hour.
I’D MET JULIET about four months earlier at a party in Dalston. She was dancing by herself to an ancient techno song in a dingy hallway. As people arrived, they watched her enviously or indulgently for a moment, then sidled past towards the music and dope smoke at the back. My friend Donald introduced us. She was dark haired, scrawny and not very attractive, but her English accent really did something for me. She shook my hand and said awright?
I ran into her on the street late one afternoon a week later. We exchanged awkward hellos. She looked better in sunlight, but fragile, like her legs might give way at any moment. She was wearing a dark overcoat and, beneath it, a cream-coloured dress patterned with red flowers. We chatted about the weather, exchanged some gossip about mutual friends. Her eyes were blue and her voice was husky. There are times in life when you’d do almost anything to get into a girl’s pants, so when she asked me if I wanted to see where Nick Cave had been murdered, I shrugged and told her to lead the way.
To be honest, I only dimly remembered Cave, but Juliet reminded me he was a crooner beaten to death by a crazed fan during the war – a long night on the booze, a misunderstanding, a hammer within reach. Violent death was so common in those long years that such events passed almost unremarked. The woman who’d killed him, Juliet said, was still in a psych ward somewhere. She told me you could still see the bloodstains on the carpet through the window of the flat, as if this were explanation enough for our curious pilgrimage.
We walked in silence for a while. I was acutely aware of the tap tap tap of her heels on the cracked footpath. The afternoon was hot and a greasy slab of pollution hovered over our heads. We passed a roadside stall selling computers, another selling fruit. Donald had told me Juliet had been to Paris before the war, so I asked her about it.
‘Oh,’ she said with obvious fondness, ‘it was so great.’
‘Is it true what they say about the Eiffel Tower? You know, how beautiful it was?’
She stopped to light a cigarette, then tossed away the match, like she was considering whether I was worth entrusting with a secret. Then she looked at me with her moss-green eyes. ‘Yeah. It was pretty beautiful. And Notre Dame. I can’t believe what those fuckers did to that city. Although the Eiffel Tower was only supposed to be temporary,’ she said, as if this exonerated those who had destroyed it.
She continued walking, but paused at the top of some concrete stairs. ‘We’ll go down here,’ she explained when I caught up with her, ‘and walk along the canal to Islington. That way we’ll avoid the checkpoints.’
The canal smelled muddy. An oily slick coated the Coke-dark water, full of rubbish. We passed an elderly man fishing from a small rowboat on the canal, although I found it hard to imagine anything living in that water; all I’d ever seen were bicycle wheels, dozens of empty bottles and cartons, and numerous deflated soccer balls. Weeds sprouted through cracks in the path beside the water.
We stopped and sat on an old wooden bench by the canal. It was strangely peaceful and I’ll always remember her lovely knees, the crease along the side of one of her burgundy Mary-Janes, the way she fidgeted with her cigarette. A bird hopped about on the grassy bank in front of us and I wondered if normal life was like this; sitting by a canal on a mild afternoon with a pretty girl, smoking cigarettes and chatting. I sensed, suddenly, that I would never leave London again – a sad realisation made pleasurable by the accompanying understanding that it was merely my ration of the melancholy we all shared during that war.
‘It’s hard, isn’t it?’ she said suddenly, as if reading my thoughts.
‘Well. This.’ And she gestured around feebly with her half-smoked cigarette. ‘I fear that my heart has grown small and mean. It used to have more room for things. Those unnecessary things. Beauty. Love. A sense of wonder. It’s all been squeezed out by desperation and the fear of imminent death, worrying about fresh food. All that’s left are such thin pleasures.’
A stark analysis, but true. I looked around and made a sound of agreement. ‘Are you afraid of death?’
She thought about this for a long time before answering. ‘You just hope it’s quick, don’t you? After all, as the Duchess of Malfi pointed out, we are sure to meet such excellent company on the other side. I would see my mother and father again. My friend Alice. She died early on. She couldn’t take it. Can’t say I blame her.’
‘Do you really think there’s another side?’
She sucked hard on her cigarette and when she spoke again, grey smoke jetted from between her lips. ‘I hope so. You know, I spent three hours last week helping a young girl find her cat. The poor creature was missing after an air raid and I foolishly offered to help.’
‘That’s not so foolish, is it?’
‘I say foolishly because I saw the poor creature dead under some rubble almost as soon as I started looking, but I didn’t have the heart to tell the girl. You have to give the kids some hope, don’t you? Youth is the season of hope and all that. Even if it’s just a black cat. It’s something, at least, isn’t it? I can’t remember the cat’s name now. Poor thing. Poor girl.’
Then Juliet and I heard the wail of air-raid sirens, almost detected the collective groan go up, followed by the scraping of chairs on lino floors as people stood from their kitchen tables, took a final sip of tea and headed down to the cellar or nearest shelter. I flicked my cigarette into the canal – half expecting the water to ignite, there was so much oil on top of it. But Juliet didn’t move.
‘I hate those fucking shelters,’ she whispered.
I knew what she meant. There was something abject about crouching in the near dark with dozens of strangers, listening, identifying the types of bombs, trying not to pay attention to those eager to speak the names aloud, as if in so doing they were afforded some sort of occult protection. Whistler. C10, I think. Pause, a collective flinch. That’s a…Scrambler. I preferred not to know the names of the missiles seeking me; I hoped my own death would be a surprise. The ground shuddering, plaster trickling from the roof, a child coughing. Close one, that.
I stood. ‘Well. We probably shouldn’t stay here,’ I said to Juliet eventually. My body was fizzing with adrenaline. It was not an entirely unpleasant sensation. Indeed, one of the stranger aspects of the bombings (and I’m not alone in this, for others have written of it, too) was the millenarian carnality it fostered.
The sirens wound down, then started up again. We had perhaps ten minutes before the bombs would start to fall. Juliet stood and held out her hand. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I know a place.’
JULIET LED ME through the dimming streets to the Prince George. I thought the pub was long closed, on account of its boarded-up windows, but it had in fact become a venue for bacchanalian air-raid parties. My chagrin at not having been initiated into this little secret was more than compensated for by what I discovered inside. It was hot, sweaty and smoky. Condensation dripped from the ceiling. The atmosphere was charged with a desperate sort of pleasure and, best of all, the music was loud enough to drown out the noise of all but the closest bombs. People danced with abandon, a woman spilt liquor on my shirt, laughed and then kissed me hard on the mouth by way of apology.
Someone clapped me on the back and called my name. It was Donald, red hair sticking up all over the place, his face aglow. Juliet slipped from my grip and melted away into the throng. I lost sight of her. I tried to shake Donald but he would not be fobbed off and he insisted I open my mouth.
‘Why?’ I yelled.
‘Because acid,’ he said, and placed a tab of it on my tongue. ‘Micky got hold of some of the old-school stuff…’
And it was done before I could think better of it, the hallucinogen washed into my body with a slug of beer. From there the night lurched away, spinning closer, then further, again closer, like a monumental carnival ride, all lights and frenzy, thrown gloriously off its axis. If the world were to end tonight, I thought, oh please, take me with you.
IN THE MORNING, or perhaps it was even the morning after that, I staggered from the Prince George into the street. My jaw ached and I felt like I’d smoked a thousand cigarettes, which, quite possibly, I had. So much had happened but I could recall almost none of it with precision. A conversation about clouds, I think, the intricacy of the broken bathroom tiles and a fellow dancing naked on a table.
Outside, the air was dusty and smelled of acrid smoke and smashed mortar. I heard a police siren drawing closer, voices yelling, shots. Not an uncommon sound in those days. Probably the police firing at looters; they had orders to shoot on sight. I listened some more. Nothing. Even the birds had abandoned the city. Things shimmered at the corners of my vision, glimpses of people, of leaves fluttering in the breeze.
A bewildered-looking girl walked past me calling for her cat. I watched her shrink into the distance. A girl looking for her cat. Just a girl looking for her cat. She would never find her pet, I thought, and this dead-end realisation filled me with sudden and acute despair. That’s how it went: your friends would be killed, you’d hear of so-and-so vanishing, your house would be destroyed and you’d manage to contain all that terrible grief until a girl looking for her lost cat broke your fucking heart like glass.
‘What’s the matter?’
It was Juliet, standing right beside me on the pavement. I’d hardly seen her during the night – or nights – of the party and yet her presence then seemed so inevitable and right.
I wiped tears from my cheeks. ‘A girl looking for her cat.’
Juliet shrugged into her coat, fag hanging from her lower lip. With smudged eyeliner and her hair tousled just so, she looked wretched, beautiful, immensely desirable.
‘Really?’ she said in that husky voice I’d already begun to love. ‘Where?’
I pointed along the street, towards Graham Road. ‘Gone now.’
She stared down that way, then looked at me suspiciously. ‘Did you take some of that acid, by any chance?’
‘Ah. That explains it.’
She laughed. ‘Do you have anywhere to go?’
That summer I was living alone in the basement room of a bombed-out squat in Richmond Road, quite near London Fields. My water came through a garden hose hooked up to the place next door and electricity was sporadic, to say the least. I could have found better accommodation, but I lacked the wherewithal to do anything about it. In any case, it was hard to defy the superstition that a bomb wouldn’t fall twice in exactly same place, and I felt strangely protected there. Sometimes at night I watched the war on TV, eating Indian takeaway, drinking Special Brew, a blanket bunched over my shoulders.
I could have explained all this to Juliet but instead, mercifully, she threaded her arm through mine and I was spared the agony of articulating what she doubtless sensed anyway. She tugged me away from the corner. ‘Come over to mine for a cup of tea, then.’
‘Puckle,’ I said, without thinking.
‘The girl’s cat is called Puckle.’
She stopped. ‘You’re right. It was called Puckle. How did you know that?’
AFTER LEAVING JULIET with Mr F that day in Brighton, I found myself pacing the boardwalk, trying not to think of what exactly he was doing to her. The strange, intimate violence of the ‘procedure’ – as the intermediary had referred to it – made me feel queasy. I bought a chocolate ice-cream but was unable to take more than a few bites before tossing it into a bin.
The boardwalk was packed with couples and children. The ice-cream van played its sad, tinkling song. The air was mild and still, discoloured with a milky haze of smoke. I could smell burnt rubber on the sea breeze. All week there’d been rumours of a riot in the nearby Russian sector, dozens of people were beaten and shot, but no one was talking about it in public. Life was hard that year, and not only for me.
Eventually, I stood at a rusted railing and stared out over the Channel. The water was grey. The wreck of the gunship HMAS Elizabeth still lolled on a sandbank a couple of miles from shore. Gulls stalked the pebbly beach like twitchy, energetic derelicts, picking up and discarding cigarette butts and empty wrappers. Above the hubbub of the waves and the crowd milling on the sand, I heard a kid screaming in the distance, the rhythmic tap tap tap of a hammer. Life going on, despite everything.
An elderly man standing beside me gestured out over the beach with his yellowed fingers. ‘Terrible, isn’t it?’ he said.
Unsure whether or not he was actually addressing me, I merely nodded in a way intended to discourage him from including me in whatever prognostication he was preparing to make. My lack of enthusiasm didn’t stop him, however.
‘I remember when there used to be mermaids out here,’ he said, waving his bony, nicotine-stained fingers towards the few blackened struts of the pier still poking up through the water like stitches through skin. ‘Swimming in the shallows, lounging about beneath the old pier. Mermen, too. Whole families. At night you’d see them. So beautiful. So very beautiful. Their tails, their soft voices. Just incredible. Doesn’t seem that long ago, really. Makes me cry to think of them gone, although I still expect to see them someday. I come down here most evenings, you know. Such a shame.’
I followed his gaze, unaccountably disappointed to see none of the creatures he had described. ‘They’ll be back,’ I said.
He turned to face me. ‘You really think so?’
I had no idea why I’d encouraged his preposterous fantasy, but his obvious delight at the thought of the mermaids’ return obliged me to persevere with it. ‘Yes. I do think so. Why not?’
‘Why not indeed!’
We talked for a few minutes more before I bade the old man farewell and walked to a dingy pub, where I drank a pint of lager. By the time I returned to the hotel it was almost dark. I saw very few people, and the narrow streets had gathered about themselves a menacing air.
In the room, Juliet was lying on top of the narrow single bed. Her face was very pale, but she smiled when I walked through the door and the sight filled me with almost inexpressible relief; part of me had expected the worst of the whole encounter. There were stories of rogues, after all – sinister tales of infection and malpractice.
‘Never fear,’ she scoffed with a thin smile, evidently sensing my relief. ‘I do not plan on dying just to provide a catalyst for your emotional narrative.’
‘I can’t fool you, can I?’
She sat upright with one hand on her brow but I could sense her energy building, a little roiling storm about to break. She began to cry and I comforted her as best I could.
‘There’s nothing to say,’ she sobbed, and I was relieved for, indeed, I could think of nothing to say.
I remember the faint smear of blood on the back of her hand, her fingers digging into my shoulder and, outside the window, streetlights rippling through the glass. That these details should form part of my final memories of her fills me with tender grief, and is a bruise forever on my heart.
THE NEXT MORNING we took the train back to London. Although the city had not been bombed in some weeks, the streets were a mess. Debris, wrecked cars, the ruins of buildings and the smell of torn electrical wires. A woman on crutches made her way along the footpath, singing a hymn. A boy sold newspapers.
It was warm. A beautiful day, almost. Juliet and I made our way – by bus, then on foot – to our now familiar spot by the canal, where we sat on what we thought of as ‘our’ bench. The silence was immense.
After a while, we became aware of a curious, siren-like mewling. We peered around, searching for its source. There, among a pile of rags, was a black-and-white mother cat with a brood of four kittens clambering all over her. A strange sight.
We watched the little feline family for some time until, eventually, I opened my mouth to speak. I was preparing to say that we could take two of the kittens and perhaps give one to the little girl I’d seen searching for hers after the night of the air raid. The other we could keep for ourselves. We could take it home and look after it. All these thoughts in a split second, accompanied by fantasies of our kitten rolling about on the floor, tangling with a ball of wool, sleeping. It’s soft fur, tiny ears.
But before I’d spoken a word, Juliet shook her head. ‘No,’ she whispered.
And she was right, of course, for how could we, really, expect to care for anything else when it was so hard even to look after ourselves? Foolish, sentimental thoughts.
We sat in silence for a while longer, watching the kittens.
And then – inevitably, it seemed – the moan of air raid sirens echoed through the late afternoon, but for the first time I felt no urge to escape, no desire for shelter. It seemed too difficult, too pointless.
Neither of us made a move to stand. After a few minutes, Juliet rummaged through the outer pockets of her overcoat, eventually producing two coins, one of which she offered to me. ‘Put this under your tongue,’ she said. ‘Just in case.’
I stared at the pound coin gleaming in my hand. I heard the drone of planes, blasts rolling nearby like approaching thunder, the tinkle of glass on a road. The mother cat had jumped up at the sound of the first explosions and was pacing about, her milk-heavy belly dragging on the ground, ears pinned back. Her kittens meowed tremulously. Two of them had also leapt up, and staggered drunkenly about. Another blast – this one much closer – and they shrank down, cried. Such tiny eyes, sodden fur, no idea of what was happening – just their terror. It was a heartbreaking sight, one of so many in those terrible years.
‘Do you remember that morning when you first took me back to your place?’ I asked Juliet.
‘After that wild party at the Prince George? Of course I remember.’
‘And you made me tea?’
I shook my head, fearful that, if I tried to say anything else, I would only weep. What could I say, anyway? How could I even begin to explain how the tea and the sight of its steam rising from the cracked cup in the morning sun restored me in ways I would never truly be able to fathom? Her skin so pale and warm, the distant sound of traffic.
The bombs were falling quickly now, arriving in crackling flurries, as was the usual pattern. Falling all over Dalston and Islington, to judge by the sound of them, and almost certainly getting closer. Shortly it would be sheer carnage – fire and blood.
Eventually, I was able to speak. ‘Thanks. That’s all I wanted to say. That’s all.’
And then, as if acting on a prearranged signal, we each placed our coin beneath our tongues. A little damp clink of metal against teeth. Juliet took my hand and squeezed it. I felt the action of her bones beneath the skin of her fingers; I felt my own in response.
And by the canal we sat, so hopeful, so very hopeful, with coins in our mouths the flavour of blood.