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Authors: Danny Wallace

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Charlotte Street

BOOK: Charlotte Street
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CHARLOTTE
STREET

DANNY
WALLACE

For Elliot

There’s nothin’ like the humdrum

Of life and love in London

Chasin’ girls out of the sticks

Changing worlds with twelve quick clicks

Girl in a Photo, The Kicks


As
good things go … she went.

Hovis Presley

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Epigraph

BEFORE

ONE:
Or ‘(She) Got Me Bad’

TWO:
Or ‘Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid’

THREE:
Or ‘The Woman Comes and Goes’

FOUR:
Or ‘London, Luck and Love’

FIVE:
Or ‘Everywhere I Look’

SIX:
Or ‘The Sky Is Falling’

SEVEN:
Or ‘A Lot of Changes Coming’

EIGHT:
Or ‘Getaway Car’

NINE:
Or ‘Next Step’

TEN:
Or ‘She’s Pretty’

ELEVEN:
Or ‘Lazyman’

TWELVE:
Or ‘Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her’

THIRTEEN:
Or ‘Who Said The World Was Fair?’

FOURTEEN:
Or ‘Southeast City Window’

FIFTEEN:
Or ‘Man on a Mission’

SIXTEEN:
Or ‘Goodnight & Goodmorning’

SEVENTEEN:
Or ‘And That’s What Hurts’

EIGHTEEN:
Or ‘You Burn Me Up, I’m a Cigarette’

NINETEEN:
Or ‘At Tension’

TWENTY:
Or ‘Cold, Dark and Yesterday’

TWENTY-ONE:
Or ‘Go Solo’

TWENTY-TWO:
Or ‘Adult Education’

TWENTY-THREE:
Or ‘Do What You Want, Be What You Are’

TWENTY-FOUR:
Or ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’

TWENTY-FIVE:
Or ‘Sometimes a Mind Changes’

TWENTY-SIX:
Or ‘Make You Stay’

TWENTY-SEVEN:
Or ‘Halfway There’

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

About the Author

Also by Danny Wallace

Copyright

About the Publisher

BEFORE

It happened on a Tuesday.

I suppose the noise it would make in a film would be
boom
, but there was no boom with this.

No boom, no bang, no tap, crack or snap.

Just a flash of glass, a moment in flight, a flicker of shooting star through a history lesson, and all the colder for it.

Things like this aren’t supposed to happen on Tuesdays. It’s history, then art; it’s not
this.

I shivered the second I saw him, but the strange thing is that I also noticed the weather; this weak, grey veil of rain beyond the chipped old railings, beyond the thin scarred trees.

It was like the moment in a dream where you see something happening, something bad, something that should never be, and your bones become heavy and your feet hard to raise, as whatever warning you try and call out through the fog of it all becomes too slurred and too blurred to be useful.

It would have been better, had it been a dream.

What would you call him? A gunman? Seems dramatic, especially this early in the story, but a gunman he was. There, on the other side of the street, maybe nine storeys up, pleased with his first shot, now cocking the rifle and snapping it back, reloading, finding his aim.

Gunman will do.

‘Right.
Up.
Let’s go.’

Calm. Short words. Quickly.


Now
, please.’

I’m suddenly in the middle of the room. It feels like I can do most good here but really, what
can
I do? I turn and scan the flats again, find him.

He’s
laughing.
His mate is, too.

‘What? Where to?’ said someone, maybe Jaideep, or maybe the one with the hair whose name I could never remember. You know the one – the one the teachers call Superfly. Instinctively I stood in front of him, his paid protector, like he’d made himself a target just by asking sir a question.

‘Hall,’ was the best I could manage, the back of my neck expecting attack, my faked calm fighting my fight or flight. ‘Up.’

‘Hey …’ said someone else. ‘Hey …’, and I looked at them, and right across their face was the terror I felt, as they struggled to understand what they were seeing, what it meant.

‘Okay,
now
please, Anna. Please.’

‘Sir …’

The waver in the voice, the fear; it would spread, and fast.

‘Out the DOOR.’

They moved, shocked, and quickly now, as quick as the news spread through the school. As quick as the police arrived, with their own guns, their cars and their dogs, their helmets and shields. The kids found their confidence again then, pressed up against windows, peeping through buckled Venetians, as eight or ten armed coppers made a heavy path up the stairwell of Alma Rose House while the others, tense and furrow-browed, stared the place out, willing our shooter to try something.

The kids applauded as they dragged him out. Applause was the first sign it was over. They applauded the vans, shouted jokes at the coppers and cooed at the chopper … but the kids hadn’t seen what I’d seen.

I was last out of 3Gc, I’d tell Sarah, later. She’d stopped at the offie for an eight-pack of Stella and a bottle of Rioja – the only medicine she had a licence to give – but she’d rushed home to be with me, her arm on mine, her head against my shoulder. The kids had been safe, I told her, and I’d stayed with them while Anna Lincoln and Ben Powell ran to Mrs Abercrombie’s office to get help, though Ranjit had already dialled 999 by then, and probably posted on Twitter too.

But I’d stayed in that room just a second or two longer, just to work out whether this could be real, whether he could actually be doing what he was doing, whether I was making a mistake raising this alarm.

And that’s when he’d laughed again. And taken aim again.

I’d never felt more alone. Never more aware of myself. What I was, what I wasn’t, what I wanted.

And another glimpse of shooting star flit its path inches from my face, to bounce against a wall behind and scutter and scuttle and skip on the floor.

And that, doctor, is when the damage was done.

ONE
Or ‘(She) Got Me Bad’

I wonder if we should start with the introductions.

I know who you are. You’re the person reading this. For whatever reason, and in whatever place, that’s you, and soon we’ll be friends, and you’ll never ever convince me otherwise.

But me?

I’m Jason Priestley.

And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Goodness! Are you the same Jason Priestley, born in Canada in 1969, famous for his portrayal of Brandon Walsh, the moral centre of the hit American television series
Beverly Hills 90210
?

And the surprising answer to your very sensible question is no. No, I’m not. I’m the other one. I’m the thirty-two-year-old Jason Priestley who lives on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone
thought
was a brothel, but wasn’t. The Jason Priestley who gave up his job as a deputy head of department in a bad North London school to chase a dream of being a journalist after his girlfriend left him but who’s ended up single and going to cheap restaurants and awful films so’s he can write about them in that free newspaper they give you on the tube which you take but don’t read.

Yeah.
That
Jason Priestley.

I’m also the Jason Priestley with a problem.

You see, just in front of me – right here, on this table, just in front of me – is a small plastic box. A small plastic box I’ve come to regard as a small plastic box that could
change
things. Or, at least, make them
different
.

And right now, I’d take different.

I don’t know what’s in this small plastic box, and I don’t know if I ever will.
That’s
the problem. I
could
know; I could have it open within the hour, and I could pore over its contents, and I could know once and for all whether there was any …
hope
in there.

But if I do, and it turns out there
is
hope in there, what if that’s all it is? Just a bit of hope? And what if that hope turns to nothing?

Because the one thing I hate about hope – the one thing I
despise
about it, that no one ever seems to
admit
about it – is that suddenly having hope is the easiest route to sudden hopelessness there is.

And yet that hope is already within me. Somehow, without my inviting it in or expecting it in any way, it’s there, and based on what? Nothing. Nothing apart from the glance she gave me and the fleeting glimpse I got of …
something
.

I’d been standing on the corner of Charlotte Street when it happened.

It was maybe six o’clock, and a girl – because yeah, you and I both
knew
there was going to be a girl; there
had
to be a girl; there’s
always
a girl – was struggling with the door of the black cab and the packages in her hands. She had a blue coat and nice shoes, and white bags with names I’d never seen before on them, and boxes, and even, I think, a cactus poking out the top of a Heal’s bag.

I was ready to walk past, because that’s what you do in London, and to be honest, I nearly did … but then she nearly dropped the cactus. And the other packages all shifted about, and she had to stoop to keep them all up, and for a moment there was something sweet and small and helpless about her.

And then she uttered a few choice words I won’t tell you here in case your nan comes round and finds this page.

I stifled a smile, and then looked at the cabbie, but he was doing nothing, just listening to TalkSport and smoking, and so – and I don’t know why, because like I say, this is
London –
I asked if I could help.

And she smiled at me. This incredible smile. And suddenly I felt all manly and confident, like a handyman who knows
just
which nail to buy, and now I’m holding her packages and some of her bags, and she’s shovelling new ones that seem to have appeared from nowhere into the cab, and she’s saying, ‘
Thank
you, this is
so
kind of you,’ and then there’s that moment. The glance, the fleeting glimpse of that
something
I mentioned. And it felt like a beginning. But the cabbie was impatient and the night air cold, and I suppose we were just too British to say anything else and then it was, ‘
Thanks
,’ and that smile again.

She closed the door, and I watched the cab move off, tail lights fading into the city, hope trailing and clattering on the ground behind it.

And then – just as the moment seemed over – I looked down.

I had something in my hands.

A small plastic box.

I read the words on the front.

Single Use 35mm Disposable Camera
.

I wanted to shout at the cab – hold the camera up and make sure she knew she’d left something behind. And for a second I was filled with ideas – maybe when she came running back, I’d
suggest a coffee, and then agree when she said what she
really
needed was a huge glass of wine, and then we’d get a bottle, because it made better financial sense to get a bottle, and then we’d agree we shouldn’t be eating on empty stomachs, and then we’d jack in our jobs and buy a boat and start making cheese in the country.

But nothing happened.

No screech of car tyre, no pause then crunch of gears, no reverse lights, no running, smiling girl in nice shoes and a blue coat.

Just a new taxi stopping, so a fat man could get out at a cashpoint.

You see what I mean about hope?

‘Now, before we go any further whatsoever,’ said Dev, holding up the cartridge and tapping it very gently with his finger. ‘Let’s talk about the name. “Altered Beast”.’

BOOK: Charlotte Street
13.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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