Authors: Richard Burke
ADAM GLANCED OVER at me and smiled gently. He set his shoulders firmly, his hands square on the wheel as though his grip could squeeze an extra few minutes from our journey.
I was numb. Horror takes time to sink in.
I was nervous too; I didn't know what to expect. It's not an experience that I can easily describe. There was only one thing I could think of, but I knew nothing about it, so I couldn't really think, and my mind spun round and round. I picked out strange rhythms in the ticks of the air conditioning and the sights of passing cars:
let it be over, let it not be, let it be over, let it not be…
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The names, incidents, dialogue and opinions expressed are the products of the author's imagination and are not to be constructed as real. The events in this book are entirely fiction and by no means should anyone attempt to live out the actions that are portrayed in the book.
Copyright © Richard Burke 2015
California Times Publishing, Los Angeles
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions. All rights reserved.
Richard Burke was born in London. He is a multi-award award-winning producer, director and writer of TV documentaries and screenplays. Visit his website at
This book is for Valerie, who believed.
SOMETIMES THEY COME, sometimes they spin it. When the hoop spins, the pictures move —
—and I am alive again.
Spin it and—
—yes. There, yes.
—a girl in the sunlight, a leap, a joyous scream. And later—later, screams again: yes, screaming, pressing in, and the darkness—
—and it stops.
They come again, it spins again—
—and oh, but the summer was endless, and swifts screamed, and the chest-high grass, and the warm boards of the treehouse under me, and the games, and the waiting—
Shadows moving. Voices.
It spins and —
—and later he will come to me, and we will lie together, and the moon will turn the clouds to quicksilver, and the leaves will stir and whisper to each other—
—and we will kiss.
And then I will slap him, and run home in the moonlight, laughing.
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING, if you want to. But, frankly, it would make as much sense to start anywhere. Perhaps it makes no sense wherever you start.
Why did Verity end up drooling at the walls in a hospital, with the nurses occasionally spinning her beloved zoetrope, and she herself blank and saying nothing? Why did I lose her all those years ago, and why have I lost her again now? Perhaps the answer is: that's who she always was, just as I am simply myself. We can't help it. Call it destiny, call it justice, call it life—does it really matter? It all happened, and I can't unmake it. The same questions go round and round for me—cause, effect, cause—and I'm back where I started. So begin where you want to.
You could even say that it began with those photographs, with an impossible, wild idea that Verity, being Verity, made happen—and I couldn't prove you wrong. She realised that if you took lots of photographs, all of the same thing, all at the same time, all from different angles, then the shots would make up a three-dimensional picture. You would see a single moment of time, but from every perspective. It was brilliant. It was mad. It was wonderful—and it worked. In many ways, I wish it had remained a fantasy—but then I wouldn't be here, would I? Verity would still be Verity, and I'd be someone else entirely.
It all connects, you see. It was just a piece of fun, but it has haunted us ever since. I could have said no—we all could have—but the madness of it swept us along, and so the wheel began to turn.
That was only one of many beginnings—and, anyway, it's done. And here we all are—well, some of us. And you must be wondering who I am and what I'm on about. I'll tell you.
My name is Harry, and if it's all the same to you, I'll begin my story at another beginning, another of the moments scattered through my life when, for me, it all started.
I'll begin with Verity's fall.
I WASN'T THERE.
I heard about it the next day, and by then it was far too late. But, as I said, perhaps the idea that we can change things is only a comforting illusion. Perhaps I couldn't have stopped it even if I'd been there or even if she'd told me what was going on beforehand.
I wasn't there when she fell two hundred and twenty feet through the air from the cliffs near England's most famous suicide spot; she hadn't even made it to Beachy Head, just to a lower spot nearby. I didn't see her crack her shoulder and the side of her face on a chalky outcrop halfway down. I wasn't on the stony beach another fifty feet below to see her crunch into the loose flint with little more sound than a footstep. I didn't wait with her as she lay misshapen and unconscious on the shingle, her body cooling and her life ebbing with the retreating tide. (If the tide had been coming in, the sea would have taken her; sometimes I wish it had.) It wasn't me who found her half an hour after her fall; it wasn't me who called the police. I didn't witness the rescue—not the helicopter that picked her up from the rocks, its blades sweeping perilously close to the cliffs; not the frantic rush of the gurney across the helipad; not the clipped, urgent voices of the men and women who struggled to save her—and succeeded. It seems unfair that these ghosts haunt me, because they are not my own. But perhaps that's why they do: Verity needed me, and I wasn't there.
I was eighty miles away, sitting in Jim's in London, wondering where the hell she had gotten off to.
Jim's is a pub, hidden in a narrow side street a few blocks off the unfashionable—and therefore, in Verity's perverse reasoning, trendy—end of Battersea. It's not actually called Jim's. It's the Dog and Duck, but it's in one of those areas that prides itself on having a village atmosphere; everyone is supposed to know everyone else. The Dog and Duck's landlord is Jim, so Jim's it is.
The area is comfortably middle class, but it has retained a suggestion of grime and roughness, which Verity loved. The streets smelt of the leather interiors of open-topped cars, of perfume and the expensive cigarettes of the chattering classes, but Verity detected an old, faint whiff of the gutter in the mix. She liked to say that the thrill of living there was the feeling that anything might happen to you if you walked up the wrong street. Alongside the successful thirty-year-olds who were something in the City or insurance or the media, there were garage mechanics made good and older men and women who were well off from letting out houses they had bought thirty years before for a few grand. Now, the original natives served to add a little spice and the odd scandal to the newcomers' too-tame lives. Verity adored it all. She always said that the common touch was essential in her job. She needed real people about her, an antidote to the pseudery of the fashion world. Jim's quickly became the centre of her life—and therefore of mine.
I always felt a little out of place there, but she never noticed and I never told her. We met there every second week on Wednesdays (Thursdays, Fridays, and the weekends were “hot nights” when Verity might get lucky; she didn't want me anywhere near her). Seven-thirty on the dot, with her always twenty minutes late, table in the corner by the fireplace under the mounted shove-ha'penny board; first one there—always me—to line up the drinks, a pint of Kronenbourg for me and a tequila for Verity with a Pils chaser (it was a dead rough area, honest); last person to need a piss chose the restaurant. But the twenty minutes before she arrived were always uncomfortable. The place would be quiet, only four or five people in there, a couple playing pool, the others hunched over the bar exchanging silences. Every time I stood at the bar and ordered the drinks, Jim would stare through me for an uncomfortable moment, and the silence of the other drinkers suddenly seemed less companionable.
I might have been imagining it. I have never been entirely at ease with myself. I think of myself as clumsy, affable, mildly inept, likeable in an amusing way—but charming, confident, magnetic… these things I am not. If I had been, then perhaps I wouldn't have waited for two hours and four pints, plus one tequila and a Pils lined up and waiting, before I finally decided that I'd been stood up.
I'd phoned her every half an hour or so, ringing off just before I had to leave a message, because it was embarrassing in an otherwise silent pub. No reply. Eventually my battery gave out. So I'd made excuses for her. She was on her way. She'd been late from the studio but she'd lost her mobile so she couldn't ring. She was caught in traffic. By my third call, the excuses were getting strained. She was still at the studio, but stuck on the phone, sourcing fabric she could only get from Brazil perhaps. She'd lost my mobile number, she didn't have Jim's, she couldn't ring.
That night, as during all twenty-plus of the years I'd known her, there was a small whisper inside me that I very much did not want to hear. She'd forgotten me; she didn't want to see me. She never had. Not ever. She hadn't noticed that she was supposed to be with me, she was off with someone else, having
The police say she fell at eight-thirty, give or take half an hour. Alone.
I sat drinking and trying to look at ease, as though it was the most normal thing in the world for me to be there—which, on alternate Wednesdays, it was. I started on fantasies of what would happen when she arrived. Righteous and sarcastic anger was top of the list, along the lines of “Oh, never mind me. I mean, how could I
be upset? Sitting in a strange pub being stared at for hours on end is what I
to do with my evenings.” But I never could stay angry with Verity. She knew that I'd forgive her and I knew it too. So I moved on quickly to reconciliation. She'd rush in. She'd be so concerned.
“Harry, sweets, what can I say? Nightmare at work.”
Down goes the tequila and a slug of the Pils. “Mmm. Lifesaver. Look, I'll make it up to you. Let's go back to mine, have a takeaway. More relaxing, yes? Only promise me, you're not angry, are you? Forgive?”
She widens her wounded eyes, looks so fearful and expectant. I laugh masterfully and reach for the remains of my pint. She puts a dainty palm over the top of my glass and presses it back on to the table.
“Let's go now,” she whispers. Then she links arms with me and chatters gaily, without stopping, all the way to her flat. What happens later in this particular scenario I'll leave to your imagination, and to mine. It kept me going for most of a pint, but then reality crept back to sit at my table. My glass was empty and there was no point in getting another; she wasn't coming. I dumped it on the counter, muttered a “thank you” to Jim, and left, imagining that behind me the joyless place would immediately burst into life.
I couldn't believe that she had stood me up. I was hardly blind to her faults, but I also knew
. She was generous (sometimes), thoughtful (likewise), energetic and enthusiastic, half-mad, inspirational. Loyal. There were people she would drop without a moment's notice, but not me. We were part of each other's lives. She'd have rung at the very least. Surely. She was my friend. Of course, that line of reasoning didn't stop me brooding. It takes more than reasoning to banish self-doubt—a truth Verity frequently had to remind me of.
love you, Harry,” she'd say. “I do. You
I do. Lots of people love you.” She would lean forward to reach my hand and the soft darkness of her cleavage would tug at my eyes. “
love you. And you'll find someone, you'll see.”
Of course I couldn't ever tell her the truth. Instead, I would stare into her face, narrow with large brown eyes that could drip sincerity or glow with mischief in a blink. Her complexion was olive-pale, her skin flawless. Her mouth was a little too large for her face, so generous. Her lips were full, wide, and parted; her teeth were fine and delicate, and the front two were broad and flat enough to give the impression that she was caressing them with her lower lip. And her hand, absently stroking mine where it lay unresisting on the tablecloth, carelessly familiar, told me as always that what she meant was not what I secretly hoped, not at all. In the low, late light of whichever restaurant we'd chosen that week she would let her eyes melt and crease slightly with friendship and naughtiness, and she would say it again: “I love you, Harry.”
And love me she did, in her own dizzy way—she
love me, and she would never have stood me up, not ever.
I rang her from a phone box opposite the pub. It smelt of stale breath, piss, and failure. There was no reply from her mobile. After two rings on her home number, a machine kicked in.
“Hi-i-i-i-i, this is Verity.” Her voice was a rushed drawl, the words fast but relaxed, the syllables drawn out breathily. “Hi... look, I'm not answering the phone. Obviously, so... leave a li'l message and I'll get back. G'bye, y'all.” Her giggle was cut short by a high beep.
They were the last words I heard her say.
“Where were you?” I mumbled sulkily. I paused for a moment, thinking what else to add. Then I put the phone down, feeling helpless and rather silly. I wanted her to know that I hurt. I wanted her to feel remorse. If she didn't feel guilty—
she didn't care, she hadn't even tried to ring
—then I had just made a fool of myself. Poor little Harry, clinging to Verity's coattails. Sad, hopeful, dependent, dependable Harry. Well, alcohol does that to you. So does rejection.
But however much I hurt, her injuries were worse. She couldn't feel them because she was unconscious. She was on her way to hospital, a tube pumping air down her throat, her crumpled skull gripped tight against a head-brace, her hair leaving fine blood-smears on the orange plastic.
And I wasn't there.