Handing it to Billy she begins the inane pleasantries that mark out conversation between people who have known each other intimately but whose lives no longer touch. But for Bex there would be no contact. "So how are things in the wild west?" she asks.
"Same as usual, really", Billy replies, "got a few weddings booked up, private parties, Lord Lieutenant's charity bash. Monthly slot in Barnstaple, so not too bad. Hardly the big time, but mustn't grumble. And you?"
Billy spots what he thinks is a new toaster on one of the kitchen work surfaces. "New?" he asks pointing at it.
Carol laughs. Typical man. The toaster isn’t new. "You'll never change, will you! Never were very domestic. No, Billy, it's the same old toaster. The kitchen…" she says sweeping her arm through an arc. It sinks in. Painted. The toaster looks new because the work surface has changed. The cupboard doors are different. Subtle. Clean.
"Sorry". Billy smiles again. That apologetic voice.
They have found the essential point of entry. Carol continues, "Dave, he's a friend, sells kitchens, bathrooms, that sort of stuff. Hand built. He had some stuff left over when a client changed their mind and baled out. He thought of us. Very kind".
Billy looks more closely. Solid wood doors. Granite surfaces. Properly finished, no half measures, no filled angles. The boots in the hall are the type used by workmen. Riggers. Dave. Just a friend or is he in residence?
Although he knows that it’s irrational, that there’s no possible point to it, Billy feels jealous. Despite the evidence and the logic, he still feels as though he has unfinished business here. The heat of the tea in his hand, in his gullet, makes him sweat. "This is stupid", he tells himself.
"Good job", he says, running his hand over one of the work surfaces. The tile grout is white and uniform. The silicone sealant around the sink is perfect. "Very good job".
Billy struggles to think of something else to say, something complimentary, and is saved by the bell. Feet clatter down the stairs. Elephant feet. Something scrapes along the banister. There’s a dull thud on the hallway floor, and skipping, freewheeling, Bex hits like a goose winter.
Arms around his neck. Seventeen. Alive. Bright and fresh. Billy's heart skips a beat. Suddenly, and despite the aching weariness that he has been feeling all morning while driving up to Oxford, he feels that every single second of his life has been worth the struggle. He wants to pick her up in his arms just like he used to do when she was five years old. Bex. His darling, his princess, his blessing.
They kiss. Bex babbles on about bags full of books, about school, about Mandy Hollins, about a party the previous Saturday, about anything and everything, jumping to and fro between subjects like a fire cracker. The discomfort evaporates. Carol relaxes. The conversation and the smiles between the three of them are, for a few simple moments, genuine.
As he puts her bags into the boot of his car and waves to his former wife, Billy thanks God for the love of a daughter like Bex. She is a single child, mature beyond her years, who holds the green line between adults who have forgotten what the war is about. What would he do without her? All thoughts of Dave and his boots are vanquished. Billy settles down in the driver's seat and kills the car radio. Depending on the traffic, on the caravan hell that holidays bring to the South West, they have three, maybe four hours on the road.
Bex fills the airwaves. By the time they get to the motorway, Billy knows more than he could ever wish to know about Mandy Hollins, her boyfriend, Rashid, and their doomed love affair, consummated, as far as he can tell, all too frequently behind the college bike sheds.
Billy and Bex are cruising across North Devon, curving across the edge of Exmoor, lights on, wipers clearing rain from the windscreen. They are at the end of a pulse of traffic. Tail lights snake red as the road bends, dips and rises. The light is failing, the world is turning and colours are assuming that natural state of daily decay, grey-black, under rolling banks of cloud. The wind whips in, buffeting the car, pushing it towards the centre line. It’s Sunday evening and homeward bound weekenders flood out of the county, heading for civilisation. Grockels. Love them or hate them, Billy's livelihood depends on them.
As far as Billy and Bex are concerned the only weather relevant to their existence is inside the car. They are bathed in sunshine, soaking up ultra-violet, warm and safe. The rhythm of the wipers mimics the gentle rush and draw of soft waves on a perfectly white sandy beach. Blue skies. Bex has introduced Billy to her friends, to her teachers and to a world of gravel voiced young men and their crying guitars.
They stopped for coffee and petrol at one of the motorway services and she spotted a radio adaptor for her iPod on special offer.
“Please? Pretty please!”
How could Billy resist? In between stories she selects tracks by bands and artists from another universe. They laugh. Billy points out where these youngsters are going wrong, where their craftsmanship is lacking. Bex calls him a Muppet, a dinosaur, and as she does so she holds his hand tightly.
Ordinarily Billy would be watching the streams of oncoming traffic, dodging in and out, overtaking slower moving vehicles, but tonight he is in no hurry. He wants this time, wants to enjoy Bex without interruption, but it’s a wonderfully lost cause. Bex bubbles along beautifully beside him, fielding a seemingly incessant stream of teenage exuberance on her mobile. Texts, messages and calls fly through the rain-heavy air, bouncing off cells and masts. Holding a conversation with her is like trying to herd bees, and Billy is in seventh heaven, even when the conversation gets round to her mother.
"You should try a bit harder, Dad, she's not a monster", Bex says quietly as they reach South Molton.
Billy acknowledges this simple, obvious fact with a monosyllabic grunt, concentrating on the looming chaos of the next roundabout. He has never spoken to Bex about the fury. She knows about the basics of it all, but she was eighteen months old when he left and she holds no direct memories of his wayward existence. Bex has heard at second hand most of the published stories. Billy is grateful for that, at least.
He has no reason to lie, although both he and Carol are complicit in the conspiracy of omission. By the time Bex was old enough to understand both he and Carol realised what their anger might do to her. Best interests. Bex knows just enough about the affairs, knows about the drugs and the personal battles, but not about the fury. Billy often wonders about it. When should he tell her the full story? He needs to.
"It's not always as easy as that", he replies eventually. "At your age things are black and white. When you get to my age history tends to obscure things. You get lost in the past".
"Grey areas?" Bex is teasing him.
"Something like that. Short term memory loss. You forget why you're thinking about something. Memory plays tricks. It wasn't…easy back then."
"It never is, Dad. If things were easy everyone would be happy all the time. All I'm saying is you've punished yourself enough. Why do you think I'm so hyper when you pick me up. Someone's got to lighten you two up. It stands out a mile"
Billy is touched. How can someone so young be so bloody sensible? The milkman's daughter? A changeling? Who cares.
"If you say so. It's just…there was stuff going on back then. We were in a bad place. I lost control and I'm never quite sure whether I've got it back."
"It doesn't matter. That's what I'm saying, Dad, it doesn't matter anymore. Mum is fine. She's over it. Dave is good for her. Be pleased for her and let it go."
Bob the builder, thinks Billy. Can he fix it? Yes he can. He holds the thought, trying to get back on track. Bex is right. Let it go. But no matter how hard he tries to bury the past it won’t stay six feet under. The freshly levelled soil starts to boil and broken bones jerk through. Boots. Kitchen work surfaces. Dave is all the things he could never be, will never be.
Bex holds the moment too. She turns to face him. He looks at her out of the corner of his eye. He sees a soft, pale, youthful face full of hope. He smiles.
"The way I see it we have a very short time on this earth. We have to enjoy it. We owe it to ourselves. And I've decided. For the next two weeks I'm going to make sure you enjoy yourself", she says.
"After your revision", Billy counters.
"Don't!" Bex grins.
Billy's hand is resting on the gear lever. She takes hold of it again. "I love you, Dad".
Bex disarms him totally. The car slides through the rain. "And I love you. You're right, Princess, but I still blame myself. Your Mum…well, she's done pretty well. Let's leave it at that. I'll try, for you, but I can't promise".
The conversation drifts a little. Billy is tired. That last haul up to Barnstaple always drags. He needs a drink. A proper drink.
Mornings, especially Monday mornings, are not one of Billy's strong points. By the very nature of his profession he is a night animal, having spent thirty years living and working after dusk. He wakes to the sound of the toilet flushing, which, while not totally outside his experience, is unexpected this morning. As far as he knows he is the only person in the house. He rolls over in his bed, dragging the duvet up and over his shoulders. Wiping crusts of sleep from his eyes he tries to focus on the alarm clock. Digital figures swim. He screws up his eyes, yawns, and as his sense of time and place returns he remembers.
He and Bex stopped off at Mister Hu's on the quay. It is one of her favourite treats. As far as Billy is concerned Mister Hu cooks the best Chinese takeaway this side of Peking, and he should know. One of the perks of living the light entertainment cavalcade is that you get to travel and you get to eat food out of cartons. Billy has a mental map of a thousand disposable towns which uses clubs, pubs and restaurants as points of reference. He has eaten Chinese meals the length and breadth of the country. The one safe place in a sea of grease and boiling chip fat is a Cantonese harbour. Mister Hu is, without doubt, the best Chinese chef in the world. Billy could eat his Hong Kong style sweet and sour chicken until he bursts. Bex too.
His head feels remarkably clear. A set meal for two. Drinking tea. Choosing tea.
Billy wanted a drink, a real drink, something that burns, but he chose tea. Instead of sitting on his own on a Sunday night playing records or grazing satellite channels, he enjoyed the simple delight of his daughter's company. They ate. They talked. They both went to bed before eleven. Billy feels self-contented and happy. He rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling rose. He can just make out the plaster pattern in the shadow world of early waking. He stretches, wiggles his toes underneath the duvet and breaks wind. Simple things.
Footsteps. The third step on the stairs creaks. Billy hears the kitchen door open, hears cartons being shovelled into a bin liner and he waits, luxuriating in the stuffy warmth of his bed. Cups. Water. The sound of a filter coffee machine brewing up. Eight o'clock. By ten past the smell of fresh coffee gropes its way under his bedroom door. Humming, Billy flings back the duvet, puts on last night's boxer shorts and grabs his dressing gown from the back of the door. He nips in to the en suite, plays tag with a stray hair in the toilet bowl and, doing a dreadful impression of Paul Robeson, starts to sing; "Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh, what a beautiful day..."
The kitchen is a classic example of minimalist, bachelor life. Billy is half way through Delia Smith's Learn To Cook video course, but has yet to invest in all that cooking paraphernalia. The work surfaces are largely bare. He has a kettle, a toaster and a white china pot inscribed in blue with the word 'Tea'. He has been stuck half way through the course for two years. His requirements in the culinary department are largely catered for by the places he works in. Part of the deal is a free meal. Billy is king of the sliced ham and ketchup sandwich.
Bex is struggling. She opens a cupboard and finds assorted, mismatched pieces of crockery. In the next cupboard there is a jar of marmalade and a jar of strawberry jam. The marmalade will have to do because the jam is two years out of date. Bread. Billy has forgotten to buy fresh bread. She finds a pack of crumpets in the bread bin. The coffee flask sits steaming on its hot plate. Billy walks in.
"Hi, Dad, bit early for you, isn't it? Where are the knives?"
Billy thinks. Where are the knives? It takes a second or two. It jars him slightly that his daughter doesn’t automatically know where he keeps his cutlery, but he has to let it pass. He isn’t entirely sure where the cutlery lives either.
The morning is too bright, too glorious, to waste. "Second drawer along, by the sink". He sits at a small pine table, rubbing his knuckles through his hair. "Sleep all right?"
"Like a log. This place is a disgrace. As soon as you've showered we're going shopping. If I'm stopping here for two weeks I'll need some decent food. You can't revise on an empty stomach". Bex fills two mugs of coffee, puts them on the table and starts searching the cupboards for sugar. Neither of them take milk. "Sugar?"
"Oh, probably not. Stopped taking it." Billy pats his stomach, holding it in as much as he can. She takes a sip of coffee and makes a sour face, as if she has swallowed diesel. They laugh. She drinks it anyway.
Bex stuffs four crumpets into the toaster and gets a tub of margarine out of the fridge, which is, save for a small lump of Cheddar with a hard rind, and a couple of half cut lemons, almost empty. When she peels the lid off the margarine tub she discovers mixed-in toast scrapings.
Billy looks sheepish. The toaster pops. Bex puts two crumpets each onto side plates and dumps them on the table. "Hail fellow, well met", she says, levering off the lid of the marmalade jar. Breakfast is a brief affair. Father and daughter bicker amiably about the state of Billy's culinary supplies and of his being a total boy. At his age he should know better.
With the second, slightly stewed cup of coffee Billy asks, "So, what's the plan? How much work have you got to do?"
"Quite a lot, really. Chemistry, physics and biology. It's not like English. I wish. I actually have to know this stuff. I reckon I ought to work most of this week. Boring." Bex makes big brown cow eyes at him. "What about you?"
"Easter holidays. The clubs are ramping up. I've got gigs in Taunton, Paignton and Bristol, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Nothing else till then. I've kept next week free apart from the Saturday, though. Figured we could do something." Billy sips at his coffee, which is just turning bitter.
"Like what?", Bex asks.
"I thought Padstow, Rick Stein's, the bistro. Or we could head into Exeter for a bit of shopping, whatever you want to do. It's your break. We can sit on the beach at Instow for a week if you want. I'm your slave, within reason." He grins. Billy has been many things but never anyone's slave. "Is there anything you want to do?"
Bex considers her options. Better come clean. She has already made plans. "Well, apart from work, I'd like a quiet week. Could we stay in, watch a bit of telly, play a few records. You could teach me stuff. It's really cool having a Dad who's a singer, even if your stuff came out of the ark. I thought we could we go and see Maggie at the club on Wednesday. When you're away I'll do my revision and play house."
Everything comes out in one long stream. Bex pauses, takes a breath and before her father can interrupt she lays out her plans for the following week.
"Next week, I'd love to do Padstow, Tintagel, maybe the Eden Project. Definitely the Eden Project. And Newquay zoo. Vet stuff." Billy looks impressed. Organised. He has yet to visit Cornwall's indoor jungle.
Now for the big one. "And then I've invited a couple of mates down for the last weekend. I want to go surfing. Tod's wicked. And Lizzy, you know Lizzy, they're both from school. Westward Ho or Baggy point. Bigbury, yes Bigbury. A night out on the town. That club in Bideford. And the pub with all the moon boots. Lobster Jack's. Tod and Lizzy need some relaxation as well. You don't mind, do you? Say you don't?"
"Tod?", Billy gasps, quite out of breath with the sheer rapidity of his daughter's suggestions and orders.
"It's cool. He's just a mate, nothing heavy, none of that deflowering stuff. You'll like him. He plays guitar and the piano. Please?"
Billy makes the usual parental sounds. He asks a few questions, knowing that the answers are irrelevant. He listens to his voice as if it is coming from another room. It is a tone of voice, an act that all parents learn to some degree. How can he refuse?
"Yeah, yeah, Bex, all right". The sound of her voice in his kitchen is better than Vic Damone's lullabies, is better than ambrosia. "Actually, it'll be good to have some people in the house. I'd like that."
Bex stands up, skips around the table and plants a huge kiss on his forehead. "Brilliant. I'll call them, let them know we'll meet them at Tiverton. Thanks." She trails one hand across Billy's shoulder and makes a pumping fist movement with the other, the one that Billy cannot see. "After you’ve showered", she says, "you can take me shopping."
As Bex takes the stairs two at a time Billy smiles. Little girls. All grown up and hell in the bathroom.
The first migrant house martins are skimming the rooftops, fattening themselves up before finishing their journeys to summer homes, to familiar eaves and overhangs. With the steel shutters permanently closed, Arbnor Jasari works by electric light. He has no interest in the beauty of the morning. He takes a brief walk around the courtyard when he wakes to clear his head and then tries to settle into his routine. This morning he is distracted.
The cells opposite his desk are open. The one formerly occupied by the blissed-out girl is now empty. The camp bed has been made and, apart from some scuff marks on the wooden floorboards, there is no sign that the cell has recently been occupied. The second cell, the one which the doctor normally sleeps in, is occupied by the last of the lab rats. She is awake and curled up under a threadbare blanket on the camp bed. There are two MP3 players on a wooden chair next to the bed together with the spent casings of two tea lights. On the floor lie two empty bottles of cheap, screw top red wine. Beside them there is a crumpled plastic sachet. The girl's naked shoulder is covered in bruises. Her knee aches. The doctor talks to her while he works.
"No repeats, please, it’s no use", he says, counting out empty sachets and putting them in lines of ten on an old, painted wooden tray. The painted outlines of fat, red hens on the tray are flaking with age.
"Enough yesterday. I told you, the other girl has gone home. If you scream, I’ll have to hurt you, but if you’re a good girl, I’ll make more powder for you. You do want to be happy, yes?"
"I think so. You’re very young, very pretty. You don't want me to make you unhappy. I think it’s really very simple."
The doctor finishes with the sachets and takes the tray over to one of the tables in the middle of the room. He picks up a set of kitchen measures and selects the one marked up as tablespoon sized. He scoops up a full measure of yellow powder from a stainless steel bowl and carefully fills the first sachet. Then he runs his finger along the grooved seal at the top and places it in a plastic Tupperware box next to the tray. There are two Tupperware boxes.
The girl stares straight ahead and says nothing. Her hair, which is shoulder length and mousy brown, is matted and dishevelled. She is too thin to be healthy, a sign of the times, of squats, drugs and the occasional meal.
"Not so loud today? Good. Face the facts. You live a shit life, yes? Sleeping in doorways, begging, thieving, getting bad stuff. This is a chance to clean yourself up. You’re dirty, your hair is a mess. After a shower I’m sure you’ll look much prettier. So, we’ll make a deal. You won't scream or try to run away. I’ll feed you, and I’ll provide drink and free happiness. You help me, I help you. It’s lonely here sometimes."
Arbnor Jasari looks up from his work and grins. He is not seeking permission. This is a one sided deal. The house wins again.
"If you make me mad it will be very bad for you. I’m sorry I hurt you last night, but it was necessary. It’s like training a dog, you have to learn the rules. A dog is only as good as its trainer, and I’m a good trainer. You understand? You help me, I help you. We make money, we go away, far away, no more shit."
The girl rolls onto her back and pulls the blanket up under her chin. She is slowly getting to grips with the slight modulations and vowel deflections in the man’s voice. In another place, at another sunset time, with sangria and the sound of waves breaking on clean white sand, she might even find it attractive. Holding the blanket in place she raises herself up into a sitting position, adjusting the pillow so that her back is protected from the cold stone wall. She watches the doctor as he continues to fill sachets with yellow powder. There are needle scars along her right forearm. Waking is agony. She needs a fix and there is something gnawing away at the back of her mind; this man, a strange taste in her mouth, lights, sounds and the smell of unwashed bodies.
The doctor carries on chatting, making small talk. "In my country I also had a very bad time. I was a bright student, expected to do well, but for me it was drink. Then drugs. I was a doctor in a small town, Gjirokastër, built by farmers. It’s an old Ottoman town and I hate it. Very boring. So I drank and made good drugs. Then I had bad day. I was performing a minor operation, a wart on a woman’s neck, and I had a muscle spasm." He mimics his right hand locking and makes a slashing movement. "Big mistake. They arrested me, locked me away in prison Three Hundred Two, Tirana."
He has the girl’s attention. In spite of an urge to bury her head deep under the covers, to run and run and run, the girl is fascinated and she finds herself listening to his story. Self-preservation. So long as he talks, so long as he works, she can keep him at a distance. She tried screaming for help last night. She tried to fight him, tried to make a run for it, but the door was locked. He looks like an eight stone weakling, tall and weedy, but he is strong and sinewy, like a cat. He plays with you. His eyes are cold and calculating. Sudden movements, she has learned, make him extend his claws.
"But prison wasn’t so bad. I have skills and I sold them, making simple drugs for the other prisoners." The doctor stands up and looks at the girl. He has a far away look in his eyes. He is homesick. Nostalgic. Then his face darkens. "This makes news, underground news. One of the local bosses bought me and took me away to Vlore on the Adriatic. They gave me a proper lab, good ingredients, and told me to make fine drugs for the tourists in Croatia, Italy, you know. You’d think I should be happy, no? Well, I wasn’t. Things were still very bad for me. I had no freedom. I had to make drugs or I die, but one day I chose another way. Now I can't go back. You can’t go back when you’ve killed members of the family, when you steal a load of dollars and run away. Omerta, as the Sicilians say. So, here I am. Homeless, like you."
The girl speaks softly. "My name is Helen".
Arbnor Jasari looks at her, making an assessment, regarding her as once he might have watched a patient, reading between the lines of described symptoms, looking for a signature.
"Good. Helen. A nice name. I am Arbnor. Arbnor Jasari. Doctor Arbnor Jasari." He walks around the table and enters the cell. He sits on the edge of the camp bed, takes the girl's left hand in his and raises it to his lips. "Pleased to meet you, Helen".
She looks down at the blanket, down at where it rests between her thighs. Now that the fog is lifting she remembers him there. She looks up and forces a smile. Selling herself to live, to get a fix is something she has done before. This time, she thinks, the stakes are higher.
"I'm sorry. I was scared yesterday. Confused. Maybe we've both been fucked by life".
"By life…yes, but things change. You help me, I help you.” He gestures back towards the tables full of basic brewing equipment. “All this stuff makes good money, and our colleagues are not so bright. Mostly they’re full of shit. Big muscles and little brains. They think they own me, like before in Albania, but maybe it is not quite so cut and dried. If you’ll work with me, here, now, then when I decide to go I could take you with me. We could both be free. That’s a real deal. What do you think?"
Helen doesn’t move. She makes no sound. She stares into Arbnor Jasari's eyes. He stares back. Somewhere in the back of her head, remembered from a time long ago and a place far away, she hears the opening bars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It seems appropriate. "Can I have a shower?" she asks, "and my clothes?"
The doctor holds her hand tightly for a few seconds more then lets it fall back into her lap. They appear to have an understanding. They’re both in a place of need. He doesn’t trust her, and he knows that she doesn’t trust him, but so what? The world is far from perfect.
"Yes, yes, of course. There are some clean towels in the little cupboard by shower. Your clothes, too. Dirty, I'm afraid, but I’ll ask the stupid Scotch men for new clothes. They’ll bring them soon.”
Inwardly he chastises himself for burning the other girl's clothes. Then, with a moment of reflection, he decides that new clothes will be much better, much safer.
"Shampoo, soap, it’s all in there. Please…" He stands and helps the girl up from the bed. She wraps the blanket around her body, but not before the doctor sees a flash of perfect white buttock and the naked snake of a young woman's soft-skinned back. He steps back to allow her free passage out of the cell. A gentlemanly gesture. She manages to smile weakly at him and trots down to the far end of the room where the shower, toilet and kitchen are located. As she passes the open kitchen door she makes a mental note. Cutlery.
The doctor returns to his work. As he fills the remaining sachets he talks loudly so that she can hear over the sound of the boiler as it wheezes into life, telling her how he bought a ride on a smuggler's boat to Italy and how he worked his passage on various ships, until, after some weeks at sea, he made landfall in the little white town of Bideford. He had been expecting Bristol or Southampton.
"So, when they come back, you say nothing, yes?"
The taps are on. There is a toothbrush in a chipped mug on a ledge above the sink. She shudders, thinking about where the toothbrush has been, but her need to clean herself, to descale her mouth is greater than her distaste for the strange, thin man in the laboratory. She can just hear what he is saying. Her mouth is full of toothpaste. It feels wonderfully sharp and hot on her breath. She makes a noise in the affirmative.
"And no more funny business!"
The doctor hears the shower gurgle and kick in. Pipes rattle. The wall mounted boiler in the kitchen rattles and groans as it heats the water. It is one of the two concessions that Jock has made towards home comfort for his pet scientist. The other concession is two gas heaters, both of which are on permanently. The sachets are ready. One hundred perfect packets of extreme pleasure in a plastic food box. Next to them is the second box. It contains fourteen sachets. They look identical to the others but they are not the same.
These sachets were made up early on the Sunday morning, straight after the good doctor and his spaced out good time girl had played their little game of fair damsel and evil ogre. He was high on adrenalin after her screaming fit. He was bruised. She was confused and battered. He had no choice but to force feed her yellow powder and lock her away. He has the scratch marks on his upper arms and chest to prove how strong and forceful she had been. To calm down he mixed up a little potion and drank red wine.
In the excited aftermath he misread his own notes and spiced up Jock Cascarino's mixture just a little too much. He was going to throw the batch away, but, on mature reflection, he decided that having a little stock of something criminally mind-bending might prove useful. If the girl tries to cross him again she will regret it. When the time comes to deal with Jock Cascarino and his hired thugs, what better way could there be than to make them crash and burn with their very own rocket fuel.
He leaves the two plastic boxes at the front edge of the table and walks to the far end of the room. The shower door is closed. He leans against the wall, shuts his eyes, and draws mental pictures of his good time girl washing herself down in the shower.
The girl stands under the hot stream of water for twenty minutes. She washes her hair three times before attacking the bar of soap. She wants to be clean. She wants to wipe away every last trace of that thin bastard. She wants to cry but knows that she cannot allow herself the luxury of emotion. She scrubs herself raw and then lets the water flow over her body for another ten minutes. She counts the bruises on her arms, legs and abdomen.
First thing of a Monday morning means different things to different people. Davie McCoist is scrubbed, dressed and on the road by twelve noon. The sun is shining. Early April. The Easter weekend approaches. Billy Whitlow and his daughter are in the kitchen unpacking the shopping. Davie is just setting out on his principal errand of the day and there are days when he hates his job.
The journey out to the farm takes longer during the day, especially in the school holidays. Cars, laden with bags, kids and panting dogs clog the roads. Motor homes squeeze down narrow lanes. Caravans snake their way up hills and inclines, slowing as supermarket rigs coming from the opposite direction scrape along the hedgerows, devouring tarmac between their trailer wheels. Davie has no desire to rush anywhere this afternoon. Doctor Albania gives him the creeps. He tries to think of other things, of trips out with his mother on sunny days in East Kilbride when he was seven or eight, of sunlight on leaves through a bus window. The trouble with these long distant memories of innocence is that they inevitably involve Ken, big brother Kenny, Chinese burns and rabbit punches, making him do the dirty work, nicking chocolate bars and making smaller kids cry.
The North Devon roads close in on Davie's thoughts, the high banked hedgerows limiting his vision. Green rolling fields extend all the way to the cliffs that run round Hartland Point, but all that Davie can see are tailgates, stands of daffodils and plastic bags snagged in hawthorn branches. Opposite ends of the country. Same old shit.
Brake lights. The tail of traffic comes to an abrupt halt. Ahead of him, obscured by a bend in the road, he hears the hiss of air brakes. They wait for a few seconds. The cars in front of him pull away again slowly. As Davie rounds the bend he sees fresh road kill. The remains of a cock pheasant glisten in the sun. Feathers blow on the slipstream from the accelerating cars. It reminds Davie of the purpose of his visit. Dead bodies. He opens the driver's side window to let some fresh air into the car.
Ten minutes later Davie pulls into the farm courtyard and parks next to a piece of old farm machinery. There are hundreds of metal tines on a large, circular wheel, and the entire contraption is pitted and brown with rust. He has no idea what it was used for. To Davie the thing looks like an instrument of torture or the skeleton of a defeated alien invader. He gets out of the car, careful not to snag his jacket on the beast's ragged teeth. Everything seems idyllically peaceful underneath the dilapidation of decaying human ingenuity. He glances up at the top floor windows of the dairy but makes no sign of recognition. He is sure that they have heard him pull up. Instead, he walks round to the back of the car, opens the boot, takes off his shoes and puts on a pair of Wellington boots. Then he walks round to the back of the barns and the milking parlour, treading carefully through pools of semi-liquid mud and loose gravel. The place is a mess, covered in abandoned building material and rapidly shooting clumps of dock and nettle, which are spreading across the broken and barren ground.
Rotting timbers lay scattered across the old pig rearing area. Concrete breeze blocks are covered in lichens. Lengths of scaffolding stick up at odd angles from water filled trenches. Orange safety netting hangs from a metal spike at the edge of a half dug pit. In the middle of the yard, surrounded by uneven piles of earth and the fresh green heads of pernicious weeds, there is a black plastic manhole that shows signs of recent, repeated use. Next to the manhole is a crowbar. Davie wedges the crowbar into a slot in the manhole cover and levers it up and off the septic tank.
Davie begins to heave as soon as the lid moves away from the tank. The stink of stale air and decomposing green matter mixes with rat piss and the decay of human flesh. Davie is engulfed in an invisible cloud, the unsubtle aroma of rotting meat. He has no need for a torch. The chamber of the glass reinforced plastic tank is full of naked skin. Scratched and broken. Sucked dry of colour. Marbled with mortification. Arms, legs, a bloated stomach, he can see them tangled together a couple of feet below the manhole pipe. There is no room at the inn. The eyes of one of the homeless kids are open and they stare up into the bright spring sky beyond Davie's shoulder. He vomits, adding his own foul odour to the already putrid air.
"Fuck", is all that he says, repeating the word again and again, whispering it so as not to disturb the boys and girls beneath his feet. He feels faint. He has seen bodies before, but nothing like this. Davie has ended lives on Glasgow's heavy, swollen streets, but he has never observed death as part of an industrial process. It has always been personal, a thing done between individuals, usually on behalf of someone else, and always in the company of Ken. Davie has always known the names of the people he has killed. What he sees now perverts his sense of honour, twisted though it is. It’s like being in a class-room at school where someone is repeatedly scraping a fingernail down a blackboard. He wants to end this now. Davie steps back, wiping saliva from his chin with the back of his hand. He breathes deeply, swears quietly once more, and promises himself that he will never work for foreign bloody bastards again. They are animals.
There are traces of quicklime on the bleached arms of the fermenting corpses. Outside, on the ground and on the manhole cover, the rains have washed away any residue. Davie slams the manhole cover back into place and stamps it down to keep the dead from rising. He checks the surrounding area for scraps of torn clothing, for personal items, but finds nothing other than puddled boot prints and the tracks of a wheelbarrow tyre. Police forensics might find enough to hang a man, but to a casual observer there appears to be nothing amiss. It’s a derelict building site, nothing more, nothing less.
Roof slates lay smashed beneath the overhang of the main barn roof, and on the opposite side of the yard are the rib thin remains of pig units. The old boiler room still contains a series of unconnected pipes that radiate out from the centre of the back wall like the arteries and veins from a transplanted heart. Davie guesses the boiler was sold for scrap. Sheep bleat in the distance, beyond Davie's line of sight. A seagull wheels away to the west, and disappears beyond the roof line of the old milking parlour, while crows mob a buzzard above the tree line that runs the length of the field below the farmhouse. Davie hears the buzzard's high pitched squeal of annoyance and imagines the bodies in the pit, in their death throes, pleading for light. The crows caw incessantly. Life is like that. He wonders if the kids were dead before they were dumped in their plastic grave. He hopes they were.
Davie makes his way back to the car. Just below his knees, where his trousers have brushed the sides of his Wellington boots, there are damp, muddy stains. He changes his footwear and puts the boots into a plastic carrier bag, which he drops into the rear passenger foot well. Spotting the mud on his Chinos, Davie raises his eyes to the heavens and swears. He is not happy.
He crosses the courtyard, walks down the passageway by the old milking parlour and sees Saturday night's padlocked stable door flung wide open. He pokes his head inside the makeshift prison, where faint slivers of light shine weakly from the edges of the steel shuttered windows. The room has been swept. Doctor Albania has been busy. Davie trots up the stairs, knocks and waits for the good doctor to unlock the door to his temporary laboratory.
The good doctor's little reverie by the bathroom door is broken by the rap of knuckles on wood. He checks the closed circuit television monitor on his desk and sees one of Jock's goons standing at the head of the stairs. He sighs. All work and no play makes Arbnor Jasari a very tetchy boy.
The door is unlocked and Davie enters the lab, still brooding over the novel use that the waste disposal system is being put to. The doctor moves to the centre of the room and stands by the two tables.
"You here for the samples?" he asks, abrupt and sharp.
"Aye, and for a look round. Jock wants some reassurance. Any more bodies for the morgue?" Davie can hear the shower running. Doctor Jasari is fully clothed. He looks like he needs a good scrub, but Davie doesn’t think the doctor is preparing for his ablutions.
The doctor cuts in immediately. "Morgue?" As he says it he remembers. An American word. Mortuary. "Oh, yes, I understand. No more bodies. They’ve all gone home. Very cosy." The sound of the shower cuts out.
"So I saw" says Davie with marked ill humour. He checks out the room, approaching the tables in the centre of the room on which the sachets are being stored, all the while watching the far end of the laboratory and the bathroom door. "These the ones?" he asks pointing to the Tupperware boxes on the table.
The doctor moves away from the table, carefully keeping sufficient space between himself and the hired muscle. He stands beyond the table, between Davie McCoist and the door to the bathroom. "Yes. You want to try some?" He laughs. "Good stuff. It’ll give you big balls."
Davie nods, picks up one of the sachets from the box containing the bad mix and turns it over in his hands. Rough hands. Heavy and powerful. "That good, huh?"
Nerves betray Doctor Jasari. He starts to move forward. It is an overreaction and he is telegraphing anxiety, thinking too quickly to be certain of his next step. Betrayal. "No, no, not that one. The other box, please! This is for later."
Davie looks at him quizzically. "Later? What do you mean?"
Arbnor Jasari tells himself to breathe, to slow down. The doctor tries to smile, buying time. "What I mean is this is for the next batch, for next week. The full box is for you. One hundred sachets, just like Jock asked." He makes a movement with his head indicating the closed bathroom door. "The girl from room downstairs, like the ones you’ve seen this morning. She’s the last one. I’m going to keep her for a while, like a pet. I get lonely out here on my own all day."
"Big balls, eh?" Davie sneers. "You dirty little shit."
Davie checks his natural sense of disgust and tries to focus on the job at hand. Be professional, he tells himself, rise above it. "It takes all sorts. You don't mind if I hang around, check her out. Can't be too careful, can we."
Sweat breaks out at the doctor's temples. He can feel a trickle of perspiration running down his side, making the material of his shirt cling to his damp skin. He feels hot and uncomfortable. He runs a hand through his hair. Lank. Greasy. The bathroom door opens. The girl appears wrapped in a bath towel with her hair piled up in a hand towel. She is playing the game, but the rules have changed. She sees Davie and stops dead in her tracks.
Davie recognises her; the girl from Saturday night, the screamer. He remembers holding her. She felt so fragile and small. Now she is awake and stone cold sober, briefly free of any substance. Davie sees the bruises on her arms and shoulders. He knows that he probably caused some of them when he dragged her up the stairs, but cannot believe that he caused them all. Too many of them are vivid purple and fresh.
The girl recognises Davie, too. He is the son of a bitch who tricked her into the van. He had a friend. They drove them all out here and now the rest of the poor lambs are gone. She remembers the boy coughing up blood in the room downstairs, remembers how heavy he felt in her lap.
"What the fuck is he doing here?" she hisses. She looks at the doctor. Davie stands quite still. The doctor is trapped between them, playing piggy in the middle.
Davie bats the ball back into the doctor’s hands. "Your new best friend? Not sure Jock will be too happy. Does she know what's going on?"
"She’s seen all this", replies Arbnor Jasari, "but it’s no problem. She understands. Her friends have gone home and she’s going to stay for a while, keep me company. As I said, it’s not a problem."
Stalemate. No one moves.
"Gone home?" Davie feels like a second rate cop in a sick situation comedy. His world is full of questions, but very few answers. "Does she know where home is? Does she know that mum, dad and the rest of the fucked-up Brady Bunch are waiting for her with open arms? Shame about the digs. Does she know that, doctor?"
"Know what?" Helen asks. There is something she is missing, something important. All this talk of home makes her uncomfortable. She left home two years ago and she has absolutely no desire to see the place again, especially not her step father and his wandering hands. Sweet talk when the lights were out.
The doctor ushers her towards the cell, keeping between her and Davie, the interrogator. "I’ve told her what she needs to know. And she will help me. I have keys and I have drugs. She knows what will happen if she upsets things."
Helen walks slowly, warily back towards her cell, treading with bare feet on the rough wooden floor boards. She edges past the table and makes a dart for the cell door. The doctor follows her and closes the cell door behind her.
The matter of fact tone in the doctor’s voice makes Davie’s blood run cold. He struggles to keep a lid on his anger, hissing at the man through clenched teeth. "I can see that. Nice set of bruises, miss."
Safe behind bars Helen turns and spits at Davie. "You should fucking know", she yells. "Kidnapping. That's what this is. That's what you are. Bastard."
It’s water off a duck's back. Davie has heard it all before. He ignores her. It’s Jock’s call, not his, and if she wants to play with the Devil, then that’s up to her.
The doctor stands with his back to the cell door, hands in pockets and shrugs. "So what? If Jock wants the drugs, he’ll give me the girl. No girl, no more work. You got that?"
Davie can take any amount of shit from working girls, pissed-up lads on the lash and fellow travellers on the dark side, but he doesn’t like taking Class A crap from the third world. He goes quiet. His voice drops, low and monotone. "Yeah, I got that. You'd better hope Jock is in a good mood when I tell him."
A fake American accent. "Whatever".
The doctor watches Davie as the blood rises, colouring the goon’s cheeks and forehead. He, the doctor, blessed with natural gifts that spin beyond the other man’s low orbit, is back in control. He likes the feeling and lets it show. The doctor likes to rile people.
"Unlike you, Davie, I can count to more than ten. I have a brain. It doesn't matter if Jock is unhappy. I’m the one making drugs for him. One day, maybe, when this is simple enough for a monkey to do, he'll give you the job.” The doctor points at the first plastic tub full of sachets of yellow powder. ”Until then you fetch and carry and right now I want you to carry those to your boss. You can fetch her some new clothes as well. Understand?"
Davie has had enough. The bodies outside, the stink of vomit on his breath, the girl’s bruises, it all wells up. He takes a step towards the doctor, who shrinks back against the cage but doesn’t take his eyes off Davie. The doctor grins. It’s a come on. Davie's thigh catches the corner of the table and the whole thing lurches with the impact. Dull pain. Another bruise. Davie’s leg burns. He stares at the doctor with pure, unadulterated malevolence. The pain in his leg digs down to the bone.
The girl in the cell watches the two men intently, not at all sure what is going to happen next. Will they stand their ground, will the doctor win through sheer bloody-minded goading, or will he be nursing a flat nose and broken ribs? What about her own immediate future? Shit.
Doctor Jasari stares at the plastic boxes on the table. The impact of Davie's leg carries sufficient force to make the boxes slide forward with enough lateral thrust to tip them over the edge of the table and onto the floor. The carefully segregated sachets, the good and the bad mixtures, scatter across the floor boards. The Doctor lets out a howl of anger and pounces on the debris, desperately trying to identify the different batches of powder.
"Fucking ape!" he hisses.
Davie's momentum carries him around the table and he grabs the doctor's collar, yanking the man’s head back. "Serves you right, prick. Shut up and put the shit back in the box. Fuck you!"
"Leave him alone" Helen screams from the cell. "He spent all morning on those". She chooses her team. The weird man. Looking after number one. There is no future with thugs, but there might be a way out of this mess with the drug maker.
Davie slams a flat hand against the cell bars to make the girl shut up and it works. She steps back in fright. "Why are you so friggin' worried, pal? What's the story?"
The doctor has to think quickly as he wriggles out of Davie's grasp. Kneeling, he looks up at his assailant and smiles thinly. He holds his hands up, making the universal sign of obeisance. "Different batches. Quality control. We have to see if batch one is good. Then we can use batch two as the control when we get into full production. If it’s all okay, we’re on the road, but now I don't know which ones are which."
He scrabbles through the sachets, but there is no way to tell them apart. Fortunately the second box, the one containing the brain-fry mixture, hit the floor and tipped to the left and the doctor thinks that most of the bad sachets have fallen to the left of the skewed table leg. He scoops them up and counts them back into the box. There are only eleven sachets. He has no choice. He has to guess.
"Just sort it." Davie moves back to the far side of the table. He has shown the gook. No one calls him an ape and gets away with it.
The doctor fills the first box, counting out one hundred sachets, and puts the remaining three with the others from the second box. There's probably a killer or two in the batch that Davie will take with him, but there’s nothing the doctor can do about that. They will just have to live with the bloody mess. What does it matter, he thinks. Some poor kid has a bad trip. Shit happens.
He hands the box to Davie, who looks at the doctor and then at the girl. "You'd better be careful", Davie says and turns to leave. As he reaches the door he adds, "I'll be telling Jock about this".
The door closes. Doctor Jasari goes over and locks it, returning the key to his jeans pocket. The girl sits on the camp bed and he goes over and sits next to her. His heart is racing. He touches Helen’s arm and feels little tremors running through her bones. Goose bumps.
"You see what I have to deal with. It’s always the same, but this time I’ll take enough money, take enough of everything."
He rests his head in his hands. He is shaking. Now that the muscle-man has left the building, now that the threat is gone, he is in a state of shock. Adrenalin pumps through his system. The girl puts her right hand on his shoulder. He shivers.
"I am tired of being alone", he whispers.
She stands, pulling the hand towel from her damp hair and shaking it loose. She lets the bath towel drop. "You don't have to do it on your own. I'm here now."
He looks up and lets out a long, slow breath. "I must take a shower. For you."
Helen takes his left hand in hers and pulls him up from the bed. She leads him out of the cell and towards the bathroom.
"I'll scrub your back", she whispers.