"Fuck me." Paul Me is blown left across Blackwall Tunnel underpass and wobbles to a standstill after scraping along the wall.
"Go any slower, toss?" The driver of an overtaking people carrier calls back. As its final threatening honk echoes on, Paul tries but fails to make a note of the registration plate. After regaining his composure and checking for damage, he starts his secondhand scooter and continues along.When he emerges from the tunnel, the night has opened out into day. The mottled teal clouds are tinged underneath, and a new light is eyeing out between south side office blocks. He places his hand on his crash helmet, accelerates and sighs.
---A shot flies past my head as I dive at the fence behind Blackwater Shopping Centre. I sling open the Enrage backpack, remove a sausage sandwich folded carefully in cellophane and a pink Valentines card, ‘Love Is Magic’.
I don't have time. Several motorcycles attempt the embankment I have just climbed, one topples backwards. I run as steadily as I can towards a line of trees and can hear the buzz of an engine on the plateau behind me, orientating, gearing. Acceleration, daybreak. Something closing.
I cannot outrun them, throw myself against the first bough of a tree and hoist myself up. Another, I climb. At the height of the fence, as bikes brake below me, I see a rifle being prepared.
I edge along this branch, clutching loops of nearby berries for balance, almost fall as I drop the backpack over the fence's edge. I notice the rifle pause to consider. Other bikes are gestured to leave the scene and as the branch begins to buckle under my weight, but the valet aims again.
The bullet whistles through the space my face just vacated. I hit Blackwater hard. My knees give way, I roll from another shot which bounces beside the backpack and into the sky. I lie there watching all the wasted balistique.
Behind her sunglasses, she watches the diminishing city give in to fields. Suburbs give way to the occasional, worn-looking Norman church between feint pylons that pass under her.
The private helicopter had casually snaked across the motorway until it reached Blackwater, and the better light allows her to recognise the familiar face of a premature crowd. It’s shifting mass, the unformed edge, risky but somehow beautiful. Even from here, as she hovers over, looking down at strangers’ children looking up, the popular soul singer and rapper Carlie Reward feels able to give herself a modest second to thank her ascendant popularity. And she prays, as she does, in descent. And Tash, her nicotine gum-chewing publicist, also in shades, folds a mobile phone, recognising and respecting Carlie’s need for space.
I clear the steps up to what looks like a store room and fling open the door. A sign informs me The Exchange - Goods In and Damaged Goods (Bads)
Shone concrete and lines of stacked boxes. I make my way towards a door, which I assume will lead me to one of the upper levels of this emporium. Then – voices, and sports on a portable radio. I retreat behind an open box of clothing - several neatly pressed Christmas outfits.
"It's crazy, yeah? Once you do that there's no turning back." I peer between boxes. Two security guards are pointing at a newspaper headline. LESBIANS TO BE GIVEN SPERM. "Once you start doing that, that's it. That's just the beginning." His colleague shakes his head.
"Would you let that sort of thing go on in Nigeria? I don't think they would."
His colleague continues to look on, sadly, then returns to some CCTV monitors. I edge in the direction of the door but a grip is immediately placed on my right shoulder.
"Lost in the supermarket, brother?"
His father’s advice came in fits and starts but, when it came, it came in the morning, stressed with a shaking hand hovering like a thunder bug over a soldier-poked boiled egg. "Always carry a snooker ball in a sock, Paul. It’s a compelling offensive weapon." The yolk would then be dabbed away from his lips. An unconvinced crowd in the clubs, last night, perhaps. "Both components can be separated. There’s nothing illegit about an adult in the free world carrying a snooker ball and a sock. Ask any lawyer."
Supping the milk around some glistening cereal, Paul Me wanted to protest, since the notion of removing a snooker ball from a sock, deep in one’s pocket and in front of assembled officers, did sound offensive in some ways.
Paul, waiting at a zebra crossing, watching out for strife. You’re in luck, Paul. We've got door work. Doing doors. He'd given that a shot. Pocket money for threats to his life, stout promises to find his address. Bolshie crews. Loveless loners, unplugged from the national grid of empathy. No-one does a loner like the young male loner, a coal black mirror to his own accursed sense of drift. The late teens are a fork in one’s life and some fall into the suicide mission. Asking for help, admitting you’re little - never. Paul Me cried one night, just before he began to understand. This is the outside world now. One week in and he was out of that.
Cooking work in Bahrain, Paul. Loves his grub, the bloody commis. State support for an evening class. Paul Me was cooking on gas when it came to a smooth blond roux, and his well-shredded rösti? Well. But, Bahrain. Mum looked numb and cold, like a million mums must’ve done, packing their son off to antique wars, for evergreen reasons. History is the history of goodbyes. Brutal and short. And what tales lie untold?
Eventually, after bending through waking suburbs, off the motorway, and some way into the countryside, Paul finds the ruddy track and gears down, to slow up beside Me Valley. A large and friendly-looking billboard, and workmen have begun to dismantle it.
"What's the story?" He points.
"Buy-out." Someone up a ladder offers. "It was all a rinse."
Suddenly a series of motorbikes pass by, the tail of the snake slowing to watch him. Paul believes that he recognises one of them. Dad's acquaintances. Dad's mad pals. Dad's pals – they never smiled. But this morning they looked serious as fuck. As they signal to one another and depart, Paul shudders something terrible.
Inside his jacket, against a patient heart quickening under some intuitive call, there isn’t a snooker ball or even a sock. There was, however, a French-made Catullus semi-automatic.
"Oh, I do apologise." The third guard is joined by both colleagues. "Mr Me. Wasn't informed."
One of them straightens his jacket and throws the paper under the chair. "Didn't see you in your civvies. Crowds are in for Carlie."
I am not sure why they think I am someone else. I find the door.
Blackwater itself is a boundless world of white. I look across and down. White marble and white escalators shroud near-white reflections on glass. A pointless heaven, which seems to stretch forward forever. At this point in the morning, only a few customers have arrived on the upper levels.
"Morning, Mr Me." The owner of Pamper World rolls up a shutter. I look in his window at Dewberry Bath Bombs and handmade candles. Instant Jacuzzi Sixpack. In my pocket, I still have his credit card.
I don't have time for Me Time. I quickly descend to the mezzanine, looking down at the fountain towards a security-chaperoned entrance. A few families have made it in. A blonde couple on an escalator, who could be brother and sister. They kiss as I pass and when I look back, one of them is talking on a mobile phone.
At the entrance I have to physically slam my way through exhausting children pouring in, but by the time I reach the doors I am glad of their presence. Sitting astride his bike, trigger-finger on a firearm, the valet. Bat bikes circle ominously.
"Where's the stage manager? Where’s sound? There’s more coordination in a can of spaghetti hoops.” Tash Hammell closes the door to what is serving as a dressing room.
"This is the test, Tash." Carlie is meditating while her friend screws her into silver boots. "To find soul everywhere is to be soul. Music knows this. We just strip back and obey the song."
"Interview mode off. Talk me to me like a human person, C. We’ve got two more today and then a Sony retirement. Someone made it past thirty-five. You’re getting America, girl."
"I have everything I need right here." Carlie visualised space itself. Unfolding vectors. They talked to her differently now. She could see it. Respect. And who didn't deserve that?
Chanting ‘fuck’ at some buckles, Tash Hammell begins to chew faster. Nina Simone once booked a meeting with her record company to enquire about missing royalties. "What do you want those for, Nin?" Someone leaned across the desk. "You got your arms, got your legs, got your fingers, got your blood, got your liver. Stop being greedy."
Retreating, I window shop some Olde English Chutney with cider in 'Condimental', for Madame Burgalat, and then my eye is briefly caught by a French magazine in the newsagents. Anne Renaud's father acquitted of murder. Pictured here with Julianne Glover, working on the English translation of Goncourt-nominated 'Les Amants Du 68'.
A hailer reverberates along the halls as I pass under a stretched tile of canvas and rope suspended above us, as a fan of sunlight catches ‘REWARD’. A sting for Radio Blackwater bellows forth, 'The Crispin McMunkie Show' enters like a strange growl. "She comes amongst us, Blackwater." The fans seem energised by the news. "Bag snatchers may operate. Struggling unwise."
I sit at the fountain watching security watch the doors and draw around my backpack. I may be somewhat hopeful but I cannot find the semi-automatic - and apart from the card and the sandwich all it contains is a rope, a torch, some maps of Paris. Above me, in a glass booth, an unkempt disc jockey rubs at his belly. Something catches my eye amidst the cast pennies and plastic amphibians paused at the bottom of the fountain. I reach in and hook out a credit card. Mine.
I wipe it dry, then try to read the Love Is card, my stress levels unreturned.
~ Corbeau - give this to the main lady. Mandy Dearest, remember how you said you seemed to pick the wrong men? Hey and I always pick the wrong women, I told you. So a match made in heaven, we said. We proved the doubters wrong, on and off, for twenty six years. When you get this I’ll be part of some foundations I myself designed. I can't pay a guy back. Should've taken you on holiday, Mandingo. CC will take you to Paris. Sincerely, Leopold ~
McMunkie cuts across a song. "Lost person announcement. Would a Christophe come to the carpark? His friends can't wait any longer." Teens seem to turn to look at me, whispering at phones. I stand. I sit. I see some men in crash helmets eventually make their way through the crowd.
"Well, well. The good listener." She had called him this before.
Paul Me had followed the flow of bikes cautiously, and not very far, to a carpark entrance. And he’d been nudging his way in and around the back when a voice spoke to him from a tree. She was up sitting there, a bow and arrow loose in her hand and two legs hanging.
He rests dead, steadying his secondhand scooter by standing, and he looks down and away. Honestly didn’t know what he was doing here. Goodbye was enough. Bahrain. Out of his depth. Paul hears them drop from a tree and approach him while, ahead, the black scrambler bikes circle against the entrance to a mall. He admires the almost military choreography.
called the real
world." She says. "But I wouldn’t do it if I were you."
Paul Me closes his eyes.
"Are you sound?" Tash seems relieved.
Two men in black crash helmets have been following me through the arcade. My brisk walk back up the escalators transformed into a run, back up service stairs to what I misjudged to be an exit. Now I watch down, one foot in the doorway to a makeshift dressing room.
"Goodo. Can you check it's not toppy?"
I push her inside and make my way in and around a very bare space with no exit. "Whoah. Whoah." I dart back to stop her leaving and lock us in with my shoulder.
"Who.." She is jabbing buttons. I can hear feet turning on the metal steps outside. I tell her to shut up and remove the phone.
"They're here." Reward, who hasn't moved, appears to be smiling.
"Security." A voice outside barks.
"They're not security." I back away. "Far from it."
Someone tries the door but refuses to enter. I think they've heard us.
"Is everyone alright?"
I look into the wood. Both of the women are looking at me. I make brief eye contact with the one who isn't sitting on the table.
"No, we're not." She says eventually. "We need the stage manager."
I exhale. My heart is pounding. "Ah, Ms Reward. It's you. Could I have a signature, for my nephew? Only he's in hospital and it'd do him the power of good. It really would."
"What's he got?"
There is a brief discussion. "Muscular. Trophies. Atrophy." "He's shrinking to nothing, Carlie. It's a terrible sight."
Tash approaches the handle. Turning it, she asks for a pen, then invites the men in.
Hidden snugly, I hold the door against me with one finger tip. "You should see him." "He's no bigger than a pretzel."
Cerys speaks, as if in his ear. "If you want out of the family trap let me know. It's plain narcissism. There's a stronger bond, that makes you feel less alone."
Paul Me sits back down on the scooter, but doesn't turn. "What you mean?"
"Group strength. The policeman knows it. The government know it. And the media who exist to warn you off? They really know it." He can feel her hand on his shoulder. "We're all slaves, sonny boy. Who've seen what love between slaves can be."
The sun had fully risen, and was fully caressing the side of his face. He watches the languid curl of a family estate turn into its resting place. The bow sets down on his left shoulder, and her right hand passes across his chest.
He grabs her wrist and twists it when she tries to take the gun. She punches the side of his head with her elbow. He rolls off the scooter and threatens her. She curses him and, by the time she backs off to prime an arrow, he levels the gun at her.
"You wouldn't. You couldn't. You can't. Go ahead. Get it done. Come on."
Tash Hammell's sense of smell, which had been absent for so long that any genuine response surprised her, seemed to be returning. As she absent-mindedly chews some long extinguished gum she observes the badgeless security look around the space they seem unfamiliar with, with sweat on their foreheads and, somewhere, the tang of burnt engine, petrol and earth. Something didn't add up. And when she backs against the door, one of them uses a crash helmet to nudge his companion.
"Step aside, madam."
"Who are you?"
"When people do vanishing acts we find out why."
Carlie Reward opens her eyes to see the men brush her companion into a wall and yank the door. They manhandle me out and apologise for the intrusion, and I watch the floor sweep beneath me as I am carried down the steps, both arms behind my back.
"Calm down, she's here. Who's this little McMunkie Junkie?"
The view down from the mezzanine. At least a dozen crash helmets ring the horde. My arms remain twisted behind me and, despite the energetic backing music and promotional flags, it feels like a long march to some medieval scaffold. Below us, a jester in the shape of a McMunkie Roadshow.
"Chloe from Basingstoke. You've only gone turned seven today, haven't you?"
"What do you make of Carlie's new ditty?" Silence. "Bit shy, petal? It's alright, McMunkie's here."
"Bloody off the hook." The people cheer.
After a swift gesture from the balcony to the ground floor, the valet notices us and begins to quickly sidle towards the foot of the escalator.
"And who are you, big lad?"
"Chieftain Ringer, Smashing Fascism."
"And you're a paid-up member of Carlie Youth?"
"Formerly. But the servoid backing dancers are over-potent symbols of a will to power. However post-modern the times, if Carlie feels so strongly about her own iconography she should die young."
I am hustled aggressively along the mezzanine.
"Hey-hey. Alright. Is the correct answer. Ooop. I feel a poll coming on. Who thinks Carlie should die young then, eh?" A cheer wavers though the central atrium.
"That's a massive eighty-nine percent think Carlie should be found swinging at the top of her game! You lot are criminal." The cheer turns to a roar.
Chloe from Basingstoke is jumping. "Catapulted.. like a crap ragdoll. Through the windscreen.. of a.. of a.."
"Let it all out." Suddenly yet another hand grabs my shoulder and pulls me back.
".. helicopter going.. bang into a cliff."
Carlie Reward steps between us and the top of the escalator, waving over the ornamental balustrade. Her publicist ensures that the crowd notice by cueing Carlie's entrance fanfare to the stage manager below.
McMunkie casts his arm past a teetering hierarchy of boxes bouncing on scaffold. "Carlie is sponsored by Me Valley Construction. And Pamper World Bath Bombs. And, stone me, she's here."
People start pointing and shouting. The mass begins to flex like a muscle. Carlie puts her arm across my shoulder and tries to guide me away, but the valet is ready. As he rises at the top of the escalator, he miscalculates our importance.
"He's got a gun!" McMunkie dives. The crowd frenzy as a well-aimed shot is taken at me, which nevertheless only serves to rupture glass in the distance, and sound several alarms.
Paul Me turns to watch the flood, the exodus. Cerys vanishes. He revs up and makes for the mall.
Inside, real security run up the down escalator while the valet is running down the up. I swing and trip the rider into his companion, and flee. Some fans rush past the Blackwater staff and get pushed back. The valet rises up a second time and takes a new shot at the fans. Below, men in crash helmets are swinging chains at schoolchildren.
I stop fleeing, turn on a heel. Corbeau? In many ways, which we'll never admit, because we've always got you and yours here making things so damn drawn out and chaotic, all we do is hide.
I return for the singer. "Thank you." They need safe passage, and I have a job to do. I kick one of the riders right in the face and push the other over the balustrade and onto the boxes. In the pits, bikes have begun to skid through into the mall, and an all-out war has started. Screams, and more shots. Linked chains. British Bulldog.
As the publicist guides our way back to the service exit, pursued by a wave of protective kids, someone mentions a helicopter, and I begin to sense my way to the safety of London. "This way." I guide them down steps that I should have taken previously and we burst free, into the far end of the carpark. Children rush us and bikes are quick to follow. "Allez!" I warn them back as we make for the helicopter.
And still they dance over cars towards us, only to get battered back by racing boots. A good push is enough to remove some riders. Trying to hook a passing arm drags one to the ground. The riderless bike thumps into a child, rattles to an abrupt end between parked cars, scattering wing mirrors and the contents of a school bag. Yells elsewhere as an engine slides hard into the legs of a defensive chain. Once stripped of the machine, riders are dealt with ruthlessly. Swarm stomping.
A gunshot. So close behind me it feels like a slap to the head. The valet is clutching Carlie, and waves the rifle at me, then at her. "Trade off, Corbeau." He seems eager to escape, cornered and fearful. He had to kill his way out. Of this I have no doubt.
I am not even sure what he wants. Cerys slides across a bonnet and lands on Chloe from Basingstoke who all this time has been laughing uncontrollably. The valet could take a head off, but he is gesturing for the backpack.
It's only memories. Christ. So, I reach them out to him. And drop it.
Even travelling at full speed, Paul Me manages to scoop everything from the tips of my fingers. The valet releases Carlie and Chloe from Basingstoke races towards her arms. A rifle is prepared but a bike chain catapults him into a pit of the injured.
The valet scoops a laughing Chloe under his arm. He approaches the young man as he rises onto a painfully twisted all fours and tries the safety catch on the Catullus. "Pass that here, Paul. You don't understand." The valet offers a hand while bikes flank him. Carlie Youth trot around us, encircling the scene. "Come, old fellow."
"Are you safe?" He looks directly at me, but his voice is so light that I cannot hear words.
"Don't be stupid." He looks at me again. Like he was asking what he should do. Like he doesn't know if he is stupid.
The valet lunges for the pack but Paul arches so fast that a stray round goes off against the ground. Chloe from Basingstoke cracks down, laughing freely. The berserk fighting reignites, unstopped by shots. I am hit hard with a chain. Someone trips my assailant to the ground and I rise up to punch someone else. The valet limps away with the backpack, rummaging through it, to the distant spin of police sirens.
I stoop to help Leopold's son. "Where's my -?"
The Enrage rope is placed around my neck and - nnn - pulls me away with such force it embosses the eyes from my head. "Is this some kind of joke?" The memories in my backpack scatter out, the valet's rifle is in my stomach, and a Love Is card tumbles in the breeze towards Paul Me. Now on his knees, he turns it around. In front of me, my hands extend as if for pity. I am dragged further back, going numb in the brain. As if through water, the boy begins to find narrative, stand, and for some reason lobs the gun towards me. I reach but the throw is short. I watch its parabolic swing into the hands of Chloe from Basingstoke who stops laughing long enough to breathe, and then scream, and, before I finally blank out, she tugs the trigger so uselessly but with such frenzy that the valet turns us in a dance, to look. He stiffens before the child and the resultant discharge blows him off his feet.
Somehow I bundle Paul onto the back of the fallen scooter, wrench the backpack off a souvenir-hunting Chieftain Ringer before the Shadow Bank batter the fans with better authority and turn their attention and chains to us. The singer is back on the rails of her helicopter.
A long, silent journey out to Orly. They couldn't take the Lexus Argento. So Brigitte watches a perfect succession of thin trees passing beyond the window of Monsieur Dix's 2CV.
She closes her eyes briefly at the sun, its light flashes regularly against her eyelids.
Anne Renaud returns her spectacles to the bridge of her nose and checks to see if both sleeves of her white shirt are rolled up equally. As her laptop powers up she gazes through the window into the garden, sucking a sweep of breakfast crumbs from her fingers.
Sequel. Never the equal, they say.
Equal. A theme in the sequel would have be - she suggested to herself - the ability of romantic love to let us meet one another eye to eye. Equality. Set against the backdrop of something a long time ago and important.
Relations with her daughter had taken a turn for the worst. They rarely spoke these days, except for bouts of reproach and recrimination. The parent and child who are most alike tended to fight. She wasn't sure if she was looking for ammunition or simply found it quietly fascinating to read her daughter's weblog - which she was informed of and subsequently bookmarked last Tuesday - and was gradually working her way through. Must you sit in that room alone? She used to ask.
Alone. Anne shuddered to think about the motivations of those who might be reading.
She concluded that she had mixed feelings about the form, and about la toile in general - diaries used to be the most private of affairs. Abbreviation, hint, curiously unfinished opinion. She drew down a list of favourites and clicked on www.mavieestcompletementstank.fr - then waited for layers of a somewhat grainy, almost spectral image of her daughter to fill a box on the left of the screen.
Eventually worked out how this webcam works.. boarding again round Parc Balthus.. Double maths first thing tomorrow.. I am off the hook bonged.. this entry should be pretty shallow - fuck you, why am I apologising? Also bored. Bored to the bones, like pain I can actually feel.
Her daughter's life, she seemed eager to stress, was 'stank'. And who did she think she was talking to? In this .. this .. Anne tried to find a phrase.. emotional pornography.
A single chime. The inbox. Mail. From .. nothing's simple.
~ Fait accompli, ma chatte. One Goncourt is having your name grilled to it - even as we speak ~
Anne smiles and looks across the garden again. 'I hope my success encourages those who would never normally tell their story to do so.' Mdm Renaud, are you reverting to your maiden name?
~ You are the natural successor to the Highway Code. x ~
Low, dark clouds were moving in. Stop it, Anne X.
But.. this was business and history was re-written by the winners. True - the critics had used the term populist to damn her - but as she unscrews the top of a Martini bottle she recalls Karl Marx saying that every revolution started by converting the majority. Democracy was populism. But this book had been a revolution in her life - and she was confident that dusty little corners full of detractors could be.. swept out - brightened up - one by one.
She smiles again - and reaches towards the laptop to terminate her internet connection - she catches this:
I sit here for one reason alone - boredom. I'd scream or cut myself otherwise. At least it's me writing something. Some are just too drunk to do any research (cut paste and jigger whatever they pulled off the net). Some might even get so far up their own ass they'd make a drunken threat in the middle of the night to have their ghost-writer silenced for good.