A yellow and blue single decker bus turns a corner off a main road and circles around a semi circle of houses, mostly 1950s council semi detached houses and bungalows, with a modern build block of flats at one end. It stops at the bottom opposite an alley leading to fields. A large house can be seen in the distance, along with waving yellow rapeseed plants and a wood. The door opens with a hiss and the entrance lowers with another hiss for a woman with a buggy and an elderly lady struggling with a heavy shopping trolley. Behind them a tall young man with long, matted black hair showing dark brown roots and smudged black eyeliner gets off, one hand firmly on a wooden walking stick and the other, equally firmly, holding hands with a small child of about five or six, with blond hair in bunches and wearing a green and white check primary school dress and green cardigan. She has a bandage over a pink plaster on her other hand. Sighing, he leads her through the alleyway.
In the bleak corridor of a remand prison a man in the blue uniform of an inmate is on the payphone. He is tall, broad, with spiked blond hair and a hard but not unattractive face, and speaks hurriedly in Polish. Behind him a shorter man stands, picking at his teeth and twirling a cigarette between his fingers. He appears to be an older, more compact version of the man on the phone.
A woman in a short black skirt and high-heeled boots is staggering down the middle of a 1960s open air shopping precinct. Over half the shop units are empty, many boarded up. She talks rapidly into her mobile in Polish as she pulls her white puffa jacket around her with her other hand.
The sun shines onto the yellow walls of Merton opposite as the Fellow stirs his tea thoughtfully. He is listening to his phone as he stares out of the window, sun shining on rain and college and meadow, making a rainbow that appears to end in Deadman’s Walk.
Hathaway shivers as he shelters under an oak tree on the edge of the Cherwell in Christchurch Meadow, smoking a damp cigarette. The rainstorm had come from nowhere and now the sun was out. Lewis approaches him, carrying an umbrella and bearing a Styrofoam cup, hopefully containing coffee.
“There you are,” Lewis smiles.
“You’ve nothing to say sorry for. I’m sorry for pushing the issue again.”
“I want you to push,” Hathaway says fiercely.
“Not like that. No you don’t. I really thought we were done with this love?”
Hathaway’s shoulders droop and his head drops as he turns away and mutters, “So did I.”
Dumitre sighed again as he unlocked their mobile home. Behind him the gutted outline of the old cottage that Mick was supposed to be doing up cast shadows in the sunshine. He had to walk a mile from the village, cutting across the rape fields and wood to get to their lane and walk past old Mr. and Mrs Haycock’s lovely white cottage with its well-maintained garden and then into the fields and ruined cottage that had belonged to Mick’s granny. The other two caravans, who rented the land from Mick, were both occupied. Tim and Sarah were not often home at this hour, but he could see the bedroom curtains were closed and it was about a year ago they moved in, wasn’t it? Si’s TV could be heard, some movie with lots of gunfire, drifting across the long grass. He really hoped they couldn’t hear it inside.
“In you go Crina, darling.” He spoke in barely accented English, but he always spoke in English, often with a much more ex public school boy/Estuary accent than his own Romanian one, which sometimes he felt might even be an affectation these days because it was expected. Crina had grown up with a mixture of Romanian, Polish and Russian with a little English until he found his sister and made her send his niece to school. Ten years it took to find his sister, and only one year together before he’d lost her. He and Mick always spoke in English.
“Can I watch TV Uncle Dimi?”
Dimi shrugged. “Only Cbeebies, okay?”
In the small living room of their trailer Crina flopped on the floor in front of the TV after fetching a rag doll and a floppy rabbit from her small bedroom. Dimi put on the kettle and some water to boil for pasta. What was he going to do? He asked himself for the fifth time. In one year five schools had decided that Crina’s special needs were beyond their ability to cope with.
His phone buzzed angrily, vibrating in his skinny black jeans pocket.
It was Waleria – Walli, as she was known – his sister’s friend.
“I get advice,” she snapped immediately. “I tell people what you do, that you no better than me and Tatiana. I speak to men who bring you. I speak to man who pay. He had videos of you.”
“Do what you want Walli. I have done nothing to be ashamed of. I’m clean; I’ve always been clean. I have a home and Mick.”
“I tell them about illness. I tell them you too sick. Tatiana and me, we were two together, when we get away from them, we stay, we promise each other. She wanted me to have Crina.”
“She made me promise to look after Crina on her deathbed,” Dimi hissed in the phone. “Social services agree. Do your worst.”
He hung up and threw the phone on the counter. He felt dizzy and stumbled to the dining table and sat down heavily.
“Just tired darling. Oh, Charlie and Lola. I like that. I’ll watch it with you before I make tea.”
Si stared out of the window as he answered his phone. A job. A bit of enforcement. Good. He liked hurting people. He left, locking up the wagon and climbed into his van and sped away, rocking Dimi’s caravan as he did so.
The Fellow, one Professor Anton Milyutin, visiting professor of sociology of criminal behaviour, here for a three year contract at Nuffield had found rooms, bizarrely, in Merton Street, just around the corner from Oriel Square. He had made a famous study of people trafficking and the use of drugs to control people and the general ignorance and avoidance of the situation by various Western governments, which in his later award winning book, The Lower Depths, he argued was for convenience, that there was a demand for prostitution and hardcore porn that was better met by illegal immigrants rather than citizens. His papers had been well received and he had to turn down Harvard and Yale for here, despite the larger salary. He had loved the idea of coming to one of the oldest colleges in Europe and besides; he had personal reasons to come to the UK.
He looked at the time. He had agreed to a meeting in Abingdon but now he doubted himself – could he get there and back by public transport and be in time for his public lecture on Poverty, Addiction and Prostitution in the Post-Modern West. Swearing under his breath, he discarded his black gown and snatched up a battered grey leather trench coat and umbrella and left, stuffing a much needed cigarette into his mouth.
A white van revved away as Milyutin walked up the street to the girl’s flat. Inside was mayhem. She sat in the detritus of her small, poverty stricken bedsit, in tears, mascara and eyeliner streaming down her face. She was most unattractive.
“Anton!” She jumped to her feet and wrapped her arms around him. “Darling! Thank you for coming. I need some money, badly.” She spoke in Russian with a heavy Polish accent.
Milyutin removed her arms with distaste. If he didn’t need girls like this for his research, he would never bother. But this girl knew too much from his past, how he had funded his degrees in the early years.
“Yes yes, I know. How much? But this has to stop, I have finished my research, I no longer need you.”
“I know about you.”
“Yes, I know. And I know about you.”
“I know about you and Dumitre. I know about the money and the movies.”
“So?” he said coldly, feeling panic seep through his skin.
“I know Dimi. He has my friend’s little girl and I want her. I need money and a home to have her. I need to pay debts.”
Si parked up just off the A34 junction, having visited the Maccy D’s drive through. He was stuffing his face with a double cheese quarterpounder with extra fries when his phone rang. He’s been waiting for hours for the call but he guessed his bosses were finding it hard to get to the phone whenever they needed.
“Scared her. She told me where to find the boy. Couldn’t get any cash though.” Si had been very surprised to find out where the boy was, who indeed he was.
He listened. “Sure. London. Ring us tomorrow morning, give me the addresses then. Money. Sure.”
He listened some more, his appetite going. “What the fuck? No! No way man! I’ll hurt anyone, but I don’t kill! And certainly not a –”
The line went dead. He guessed a prison guard had interrupted his old boss’ brother. He finished his burger and fries and drained the cola before starting the engine to go home and have an early night. He had a long day ahead in London, enforcing to pay for the boss’ lawyers.
Waleria was grateful to find a taxi driver to give her a ride for a ride, as it were, and she ran barefoot, holding her heeled boots, across the back of the fields behind the crumbling cottage to Dimi’s caravan.
“Dimi! Dimi!” she shouted, banging on the door.
Tim and Sarah looked out of the window. Tim’s heart flipped. Shit, he knew that girl. He pulled Sarah away from the window.
“None of our business,” he said. “Let’s not gawp.” He kissed the back of her neck. She giggled. “Come back to bed,” he whispered in her ear.
“I’m sorry!” Walli went on. “Sorry. I not mean to tell them. They are closing all their loose ends. I not mean to tell them...”
Dimi sat on the floor hugging Crina tightly, rocking them. Crina was crying.
“Mama didn’t want me to stay with Auntie Walli. Make her go Uncle Dimi. She is bad when she can’t get the medicine, very bad. Mama stopped it didn’t she? When she was sick and they gave her proper medicine?”
“I know darling.”
“Don’t let her in! Don’t open the door. I don’t want to live with her!”
Waleria was shouting now in Polish. “They will get you Dimi. You can testify. The police will get the videos and make you testify!”
James Hathaway also sat hugging his knees and rocking. What the hell had he done? His phone rang and rang, only pausing to let him know he had yet another text. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do! He was too broken. Robbie Lewis should give up and dump him.
Perhaps he was?
No, Lewis would never dump anyone over the phone. He was worried for him.
He’d panicked. Again. That was it. And it wasn’t even his childhood, was it? Robbie had just moved his hand and put it – there – as he’d kissed him deeply and suddenly his senses had been hit by the memory of someone else’s tongue, someone else’s teeth, someone else’s hand, to the smell of foreign cigarettes and skunk and bad meat and boiled cabbage and male sweat. And he’d done what he’d done in the back of the cab, even though he’d been drugged – he’d punched!
He got up and walked around his flat, still hugging himself tightly. What a stupid twat he was. He could go back and he’d have someone to hold him tightly. He did want a hug. He was pretty sure he wanted more, too. Just his brain kicked into survival mode or something.
Stupid. He punched the fridge door and then stared at his collection of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir and then reached for the Glenfiddich and poured himself a generous glass and went back to the sofa and curled up tightly.
Lewis paced the flat, trying and trying James’ number, stopping now and then to send yet another reassuring text, bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel over one eye.
The other phone rang. It was Lyn. She phoned so much since she had moved in with her new bloke. He had this inkling she was pregnant but too embarrassed to tell him. He could sense she was hiding things, that she wasn’t as happy as she should be in a new relationship. This time he found himself pouring his heart to her, which he hated himself for. He was the parent; he should be there for her, not vice versa. He had already told her about his feelings for James, about their very slowly developing relationship. For some reason he had needed to reassure her that nothing too physical was happening as much as he needed to reassure he had never hidden anything from her Mam, that he was and always had been in love with her Mam, that he’d never cheated on her, but likewise, he had always been bisexual, there had been lads as well as lasses before her Mam. To do this he had dropped hints that James had issues, that James had had an unhappy, difficult childhood.
Tonight was different, he poured out all that had happened back in May, only a couple of months ago after all.
That James had panicked.
And punched him.
Lyn told him to give him space and invited him to stay with her as soon as he could get leave.
He said he’d think about it while thinking, yes, love, you are pregnant, I knew it, and I’m going to be a Granddad. A Granddad!
And then hoped for a murder. He’d have to speak to him, then, wouldn’t he?
Crina and Dimi fell asleep on the floor watching her Peppa Pig DVD for the umpteeth time. He awoke stiff and cold and carried her to bed then forced himself to wash up. He then remembered the text from Mick. He’d left the water on in the cottage. Dimi grabbed the torch and opened the door.
Tim suddenly remembered the presentation he was supposed to be working on at home and Sarah had marking to do. Both brief cases and laptops were still in the cars. Their little unofficial ‘sickie’ holiday had come to an end. He picked up the torch and headed for the old cottage drive where he and Sarah parked their cars.
Tim put his hand over his mouth. He didn’t even think people did that in real life with shock. Bile rose in his mouth. Dimi was standing there next to – her! Next to Valerie. The girl from that ‘massage parlour’ he and some of the lads had gone to that time. He had dropped his torch and he was standing there weeping, muttering something over and over again. Tim thought it was probably Russian, Polish, Romanian, whatever, for God.
Dimi was in shock. He’d not let her in earlier. He thought she had gone home.
Waleria was stretched out on her side, her straight black hair fanned out, greenish in the torchlight, making her look like a mermaid, except mermaids heads were not usually lolling at strange angles. Her neck was probably snapped, Dimi thought numbly. Who could do that? Could he do that? Mick probably could, if riled, if defensive. But Mick was in Devon, wasn’t he?
There was blood too. Lots of blood. He couldn’t see where it came from.
“Don’t touch the blood,” he said to Tim, numbly.
“I’ll phone for an ambulance,” Tim said equally numbly.
“Police,” whispered Dimi. “Police. She needs police. An ambulance will do nothing for her now.”
“Yes. Yes. Oh God.”