In which Helen and Carla meet and are watched
The girl clings to the splintered slats of a bench, part of a row of ghost seating victimised by the town’s vandals. She wipes sweat from her forehead, leaving jagged streaks of grey, and despairs as the Superbus pulls away without her, belching burnt engine oil and exhaust.
The oppressive afternoon air slowly suffocates her as the pain intensifies, gripping her overstretched belly, so that even breathing must wait.
Not now, oh God, not here, not again. She is afraid for the baby: like the other, it will die.
Her face muscles threaten to crush her cheekbones. Her mind starts to fracture.
The Preacher fades in, his waistcoat violent, his monotone too high for comfort, the same old words, rehearsed to perfection: He who shuts his ear to the poor will be ignored in his hour of need…will be ignored in his hour of need…
The girl snaps.
God, I AM the poor, will you hear me? You said the past was over but it isn’t, it’s here – it’s coming too soon…
She moans faintly. The deity is distant, impersonal. The Preacher, likewise, fades into darkness with the relaxing of the spasm, and the girl unclenches her eyes. She is relieved to find she can still breathe, still move. When she looks at her left hand, it is deeply marked where the slats resisted her.
She goes limp.
Emerging from the Priory Centre escalator, the woman feels an intense chill through her middle-aged body despite the sticky heat of late afternoon. For seconds she stands under a bistro canopy, replaying snatches of the phone conversation in her befuddled brain: The job’s ours, he’d said. Moving in six weeks… no problem with the bridging loan… glad to be out of the town, frankly. Expect me home at 5.30… yes, promptly please, darling… ravenous… damned secretaries…
Directorial, as ever. Careless of others.
Like a sponge, she randomly absorbs newspaper vendors’ headlines, exhaust fumes and aromas of bolognese and beer.
Suddenly, inside her, a spark of anger flares. Was she always to be ruled by his hunger? For promotion, for status, for success, for that larger house, even for more frequent–– the word sticks in her mind and refuses to form. That other thing.
The spark is fanned by this last idea into a flame. Briefly, she straightens her jacket and pleated skirt, replaces the mobile in the portfolio and stands on the brink of a fight. Then she sees the town hall clock, tries to focus on the whereabouts of her BMW – and extinguishes the flame before it can singe her ordered and comfortable existence. Her lips compress to a thin line and her face closes into its usual aspect, somewhere between exasperation and guilty acceptance. She hasn’t time to argue.
If she hurries up past the art college she will have the chicken and the wine on the table, the music soothingly low, before Malcolm’s car noses through the twin stone statues at the driveway entrance.
The man stands, taut, intent, his cigarette smoke rising through the black metal nostrils of the sculpted horse towering over him. His craving for drink abates with each drag. Bloodhounds don’t get pissed.
Dark T-shirt and jeans camouflage him from his prey. His falling lock of hair masks him from inquisitive eyes.
He watches the girl as she grabs the bench slats, her face twisted in agony, the hump of her dress moving.
So. It’s that close.
His eyes stray to her slim bare legs spread-eagled towards him. He breathes out slowly. Not the girl, the baby. Another calming drag.
Then he extracts the digital camera from his back pocket and records the evidence.
A woman appears, trips on the girl’s outstretched foot, recovers, speaks briefly to the girl. The lock of hair is in his way. Pushing it roughly back, he clicks again, reviews both images on the back screen, making certain, then goes to start his car in the nearby parking bay. The scent is strong in his nostrils. He flexes his muscles against the steering wheel and waits.
Helen knows she must not be late. But even as she moves to leave the girl, she knows that something serious is amiss. She runs her fingers back through her hair and addresses the girl again with practised assurance.
‘Can I do anything?’
In her particular charity work, individuals rarely surface in a definable way but a primeval instinct draws her to help the pregnant girl. She winces at the thought of entanglement. But maybe she can supply the girl’s need with her usual efficiency, perhaps even quickly, she thinks, glancing at her watch.
The girl raises her eyes slowly as if emerging from somewhere else. ‘My baby’s coming.’ Her voice is strained. ‘Can you get me to hospital?’
It is difficult to help the girl to the car – she seems conscious of nothing but increasingly frequent spasms and pain. Then her waters break over the front seat of the BMW. Helen wishes the girl’s baggy dress were of better quality cotton: thin, cheap stuff rarely absorbs to any degree.
The journey is filled with tension. The girl is hunched and awkward in her distress, clenching the door grip, beads of sweat on her forehead. Helen can see the spasm moving the girl’s hump, feels the urgency in her own quickened heartbeat. But she is ignorant of the entrance to the newly opened maternity unit, even though the road is only a few minutes’ drive away. Vital seconds are lost as she circles the site.
She dials the emergency services and receives directions on her mobile; the porters are waiting with a stretcher. A paramedic snaps, ‘Straight to delivery.’
‘Name?’ the porters ask Helen over their shoulders as they hurry into the vestibule.
‘Carla Martin. She didn’t tell me her address.’
Carla tries to rise at the sound of her name and looks back at Helen. ‘Thanks–’ Another spasm catches her breath and strangles it. Then they are gone.
A messy business, Helen thinks, driving north through the suburbs. And now she is late for Malcolm.
The man keeps his green Fiat Uno exactly two cars behind the woman and copies her every manoeuvre. Fiats are ten a penny in every rush-hour traffic queue. He chose well. And she’ll have hospitals and babies on her mind now, not paranoid fears of being followed. While he drives, he makes a note of the BMW’s number plate on a notepad. Three, maybe four, miles pass.
He notices the cul-de-sac sign, intuitively refrains from following.
Slowing to increase the distance between him and the car in front, he cranes right as she enters the street, imprints the position of her house on his mind, calculates the number, and speeds up again, taking the next fork away from the area.
Suddenly he guffaws out loud. Today has been a lucky day – long overdue. The prey will taste good indeed after such a long fast.
He drives with one hand, his other holding the cigarette out of the window. Weed replaces drink but he still needs oxygen. This summer is too hot by far.