Authors: Neil Cross
Bliss was a neat, rotund and discretely salacious man with a sparrow’s quizzical, orbicular head. He was perhaps five feet four inches in his stockinged feet. He was charming, deferential, effeminate. Clipped, militaristic diction.
Holloway poured sugar into strong tea. For a long time he stirred it, using a brown-stained teaspoon.
He explained what he wanted.
Bliss was to follow Kate and report back to him every week, advising him of where she had been and who she had seen.
By which he meant who she had slept with.
Two weeks later they met again. Bliss stood in Holloway’s doorway. He wore Farrah slacks and a police-style sweater over a checked shirt. He handed Holloway a video cassette.
Holloway’s stomach went cold and his bowels loosened.
He asked Bliss inside.
He sat and put his head in his hands. He said: ‘Oh God.’
Tenderly, Bliss put the tape in the VCR and turned on the television. His shallow breathing accelerated until it synchronized with the muttered profanities of Kate’s approaching orgasm. She ground her pubis against the boy in a slow sickle motion, moaned as if in pain. The boy muttered something. Slapped her thigh. The tinny impact registered shockingly clearly. Kate hung her head and brushed the wet fringe from her eyes.
In the grey half-light, the boy’s exposed cock shone like Vaseline. Kate lay on her back. Muttered something humourless when the boy slid inside her. His response was too low for the microphone to register. He buried his face in the crook of her neck. He arched his spine and the cheeks of his ass tightened like a fist. Kate’s eyes rolled white, like a predating shark.
Holloway asked who the boy was. It took him three attempts to get the words out.
Bliss smiled with fraternal sadness.
‘He’s a student. David Bishop. University of Leeds. First year, engineering.’
Bliss said he must go. He excused himself to go to the lavatory. Then, in the hallway, Holloway counted cash into his smooth palm, fragrant with soap.
Bliss left him a business card. He shook Holloway’s hand, wished him luck for the future, and left.
Holloway closed the door. He wiped the palm of his hand on the wall, screwed up the business card in his fist, and dropped it into the kitchen bin.
Later, he found beads of semen on the toilet seat.
Some months later, Holloway had occasion to go looking for Derek Bliss. He found that he lived alone in a pretty, stone-built cottage on the edge of Harrogate. Holloway arrived at his bedroom window under cover of darkness. Up the sleeve of his jacket was concealed a tyre-iron.
Shortly after he broke in, it became apparent that Derek Bliss was gone.
The wardrobes were full. There was milk in the fridge, dating to the previous week. Last Monday’s
. Junk mail had massed like a snow drift on the coarse mat beneath the letterbox.
Perhaps Bliss had intuited that Holloway would not tolerate having him around, knowing what he knew. Perhaps not. For whatever reason, he’d gone and he never came back.
A full winter passed before somebody, a neighbour, grew curious about some unattended snow damage to the cottage and called the police.
Through the cold, dark months, Holloway’s necessarily tentative efforts to locate Bliss had failed. It was summer before he learned via some offhand copper’s comment, that Bliss had died shortly before Christmas. He had been several weeks into an extended Australian vacation.
Holloway never learned the full story. Soon, he relocated to Bristol. Since then, he’d thought about Bliss at most infrequently. Sometimes, not often, he truly believed him to be dead. Other times, he imagined him, leering and reddened and glazed like a suckling pig, smirking at girls on Bondi beach.
But Derek Bliss was not dead. And Derek Bliss was not in Australia.
Derek Bliss was back to get him.
His mind was blank. He sat there, clicking the file open, clicking it closed.
Eventually, he hit
, he tapped,
is that you?
He listened to the squeal and pop of the modem.
But although he checked his inbox every few minutes for several hours, there was no further communication.
On the morning of the massacre in America, Shepherd confessed his precognitive nature to Lenny.
In the early light, with the news reports still coming in, Lenny didn’t laugh. He’d pulled on a pair of tracksuit trousers, and padded blearily about the kitchen, making tea. His torso was naked and it was cold. From the laundry basket under the stairs he removed a dirty bath towel and wrapped himself in it like a cloak. He hugged his knees to his chest. His naked feet were pallid and hairy. He was gaunt and unshaved, and his eyes were circled deep blue, as if bruised. His hair stuck up and out in all directions.
Like Dr Scobie before him, he had to accept the facts. Something terrible
happened in America.
Shepherd obviously wasn’t a deliberate fraud. Lenny had seen the state he was in. It had been a pretty Linda Blair moment.
But was Shepherd an
charlatan? Lenny had studied this stuff. Most apparently psychic phenomena, he said, were connected to the normal function of human memory. Memory contextualized experience, framing it within a person’s understanding and expectation. Psychics tended to play down errors in their predictions and greatly to amplify small accuracies. They probably didn’t even know they were doing it. You remember the times you just missed the bus, but not the times you just caught it. Chronic gamblers remembered the long-odds winner and forgot the many sure-fire failures. That was just the way the mind worked. Stuff happened: the mind filled in the gaps and inconsistencies. People who believed in ghosts saw ghosts. The rest saw shadow and reflection.
He set his feet on the cold, grubby tiled floor and began to roll a cigarette. He looked like a refugee.
When we lifted the receiver before the phone rang, he said, it was because our responsive, animal brain acted more quickly to a stimulus than our conscious mind. We only became
of hearing the phone after we’d picked it up. But it did ring first, and at some level we did hear it. Dream states, migraine or epilepsy could lead to visionary experience. The presence of God (or the Devil) could be invoked in a laboratory with a couple of grand’s worth of electrical equipment.
Just because you were really seeing weird stuff, it didn’t mean you were seeing weird stuff that was real.
Coincidence was another possibility. Statistical laws could be wildly counter-intuitive. What looked extremely unlikely might in fact be mathematical certainty. It was staggeringly improbable that a randomly selected individual would win the Lottery that week—but it was a practical certainty that
would win it. All Shepherd remembered was waking and saying: ‘Something terrible has happened in America.’ At any given time, there were millions—maybe billions—of people asleep all over the world. Enough bad things happened in America for
dream, somewhere, to correspond to one occurrence of it—just as somebody had to be dreaming of Diana the night her car slammed into a tunnel wall like a meteorite. (Lenny put the unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth and clapped his hands, to illustrate the impact.) Perhaps Shepherd had merely framed a conventional nightmare within his expectation of precognition.
Or perhaps Shepherd was a precognitive psychic.
Lenny wanted to know why that prospect should be discounted. Because there was no such thing? Who was to say?
Unrepeatability didn’t equal impossibility. And absence of evidence was not evidence of absence.
Solidity was a functional illusion. It was a perceptual deceit. It was wired into hominid brains produced by random mutation, and it favoured survival on African savannahs an evolutionary instant ago. Those who characterized the pursuing cheetah as separate from its surroundings had a far better chance of escaping its teeth and going on to produce the maximum number of offspring.
Solidity was an interpretation of reality. Every second, they were bombarded with invisible waves of information. They didn’t regard as miraculous the broadcast of complex data to distant radios, televisions or mobile telephones. Then why discount the possibility that such waves of information could be generated and received by biological machinery?
Lenny’s eyes burned with zeal.
Precognitive psychic experience made impeccable evolutionary sense. It had nothing to do with voodoo or spirit guides or whatever the fuck else. He urged Shepherd to
think about it
. What a superb adaptation it would be for a creature to detect its offspring’s distress when that animal was out of sight and earshot! What was supernatural about that? Couldn’t Shepherd see from a distance, and hear from a distance, and smell from a distance?
The arrow of time was an illusion. Time present existed in time past, and time past in time present. Matter was mostly space. Every psychic experience Shepherd described had involved the extrasensory perception of human pain and fear and violence. Pain and fear and violence were the Darwinian crucible: that was where the senses were forged.
The eye had evolved seven times in seven different evolutionary tributaries. Given enough time, something as awesome as the eye was biologically inevitable.
Was what happened to Shepherd more miraculous than that?
Joanne Grayling had not been heard from since going on a date five days earlier. She always took the time to call home and her flatmates were worried. Joanne’s car, a black Volkswagen Golf cabriolet, was found later that day, double-parked and clamped near the Quadrant pub in Clifton. Her handbag was still in the glove compartment. It contained her purse, credit cards, mobile phone and housekeys. A small spray of blood was found on the dashboard.
Had she been a street-corner prostitute, the police investigation might have quietly wound down when she wasn’t found after a few days. It was seldom easy to track the pattern of movement and stasis in a prostitute’s life, let alone her disappearance and death. Such murders were not easy to solve and there were questions of budget. Nobody cared much, even about butchered whores dumped by roadsides.
But Joanne was attractive, Joanne was intelligent and Joanne was middle-class. She was easy for an ABC1 target audience to identify with and made for good copy. The
Bristol Evening Post
splashed the story on the front page.
Where is our Joanne?
Dolorous grandparents were pictured in the kitchen of their Cheltenham home, the grandfather clutching Joanne’s graduation photograph.
The local television news made the missing girl their lead item the same evening. The next day, she made the nationals. No mention was made of how she was paying her way through university. She was just a brilliant, beautiful, missing graduate student.
The Avon and Somerset Constabulary admitted they were ‘very concerned’ for Joanne’s wellbeing; Jim Ireland, the senior investigating officer, made a televised appeal for information relating to her disappearance. In the hope that a student might provide crucial information, an incident room was set up on the university campus. A dedicated hotline number was publicized on radio and television and in the newspapers. Student volunteers distributed leaflets bearing Joanne’s photograph, the hotline number and a plea for information.
Many called the number—senior citizens who had seen a girl who looked like Joanne boarding a coach to Glasgow, a train to Wales, or shopping in Top Shop. A minicab driver remembered dropping her in Shakespeare Avenue, Horfield. Calls were logged from violent sexual fantasists; heavy breathing in damp bedsitter silence. There were hoaxers and religious bigots. Three different calls identified Joanne as a millennial sacrifice to the Annunaki, the reptilian masters of the world, whose numbers included Queen Elizabeth II, the Rothschild family, Bob Hope, Rex Dryden, George Bush and Kris Kristofferson.
, they were assured.
I will personally ensure the matter is looked into.
All potential leads, however tentative, would be followed up. The violent fantasists and the hoax callers were reported and logged. They too would be followed up and one or two would successfully be prosecuted for wasting police time.
The campus incident room was the focus of a psychic maelstrom. Around it seethed misplaced love and ancient hatreds. The television had shown a brief clip of videotape; Joanne as bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding. She passed briefly before the lens; threw back her head and laughed. The media settled on this image as the abstract of Joanne Grayling. A young woman: blurred, smiling. The quickly established familiarity of the clip led strangers to believe themselves connected with her. She was a blank that crackled with the projection of wayward daughters; of successful children who didn’t call or write; of careless, beloved grandchildren; of unattainable women whose very existence seemed to spurn angry, lonely men.
The Joanne Grayling investigation was big news: there would be cancelled leave and a great deal of compulsory overtime. But Holloway was not chosen to be part of the investigating team.
For the first two days he stayed calm.
There was nothing else he could do. No course of action was available to him.
Instead, he brooded on the possibility that Joanne was Bliss’s accomplice, rather than his victim. Holloway was aware that his powerful abhorrence for the idea, his reluctance to accept it, was rooted in vanity. He’d seen it a thousand times in other men. It was an act of discipline to acknowledge it in himself.
This is what Joanne did. She fucked people for money.
He wondered where Bliss had been and what had brought him back. He invented means by which he and Joanne had come to meet.
He thought of them. Sitting down somewhere. Planning this. Laughing at him. Bliss’s eager, probing little cock in her painted mouth, his ejaculate mixing there with the ghost of Holloway’s.
He searched the internet for any reference to Bliss. Found nothing.
He wondered how many people were out there, trying to get him.
As best he could, he avoided the newly jammed and overrun corridors. It was easy to evade notice while a high-profile, highly mediagenic investigation was under way.
He caught up on paperwork and other administration. He collated the documentation that detailed the disappearance of Andrew Winston Taylor. He set it alongside other casework.
Forthcoming inquests and court appearances blurred and merged.
He strained to catch passing snippets of conversation.
For lunch he ate egg mayonnaise sandwiches from the newsagent on the corner, washed down with Coca-Cola from a two-litre bottle.
Returning home on the evening of the second day, he found a new message waiting in his inbox.
It was a photograph of a screwdriver.
Later, he went for a walk. Stopping off in a number of pubs on the way, he passed through Redland and Horfield, down Gloucester Road and into Broadmead, the ugly concrete shopping centre. Broadmead had been caused to rise from the ruins left by the Luftwaffe. On a single night in November 1940, most of Bristol’s town centre and ten thousand houses were obliterated. Hitler spoke of the city’s eradication, and had not been far wrong.
Holloway hailed a taxi. It took him back up Park Street, along Whiteladies Road and into Clifton.
The Parragon was a monumental crescent of Bath-stone mansion blocks. Palest yellow in the darkness, their front aspect reared high over Bristol. Gardens went down in tiers towards Avon Gorge. The last house on the crescent belonged to Adrian, Kate’s partner. They shared a penthouse, whose long balcony overlooked the suspension bridge. Adrian’s income as landlord of the remaining properties greatly surpassed Holloway’s full-time salary.
Holloway wore a butterscotch mac from Marks & Spencer and a navy-blue suit from Next. Copper’s shoes with Dr Marten soles. The stripy purple and blue socks Caroline gave him one Christmas. She’d bought him underwear too: Homer Simpson bellowing ‘D’oh’.
Caroline had been in the first year of her degree. She was excited by ideas and philosophies she soon would forget, or which would come to bore her. She told him: ‘D’oh is the
cogito ergo sum
of the postmodern era.’
He didn’t understand what she meant and didn’t feel qualified to ask.
The door was glossy black, like Downing Street. Alongside it was set an eight-button intercom and grille. He pushed the top button.
Dot dot dot. Dash dash dash. Dot dot dot.
There was a long wait, broken by a tinny crackle and a familiar man’s voice, bleary with sleep.
‘Adrian. It’s Will.’
A longer pause.
‘Will, it’s gone midnight. It’s ten to one. What do you want?’
‘To see Kate.’
‘Call her tomorrow.’
‘Adrian. Please. Come on.’
‘You sound it.’
‘I’m not. Listen. Really.’
‘Jesus, Will. Is this about Caroline? She’s not here.’
‘I know she’s not fucking there.’ He calmed himself. ‘Five minutes,’ he said. ‘Come on. Five minutes.’
‘Go home, Will.’
There was a faint clunk as, gently enough, Adrian replaced the handset.
Holloway pulled back a foot to kick the door, thought better of it. He took a mobile phone from his pocket and dialled their number from memory. Twice he heard out the answerphone message. The third time, Kate lifted the receiver. He pictured her running a tired hand through her hair. He could smell the sleep in the crook of her neck, the musky warmth behind her ear.
She said: ‘Give us a moment.’
He sat on the cold stone step until the latch buzzed behind him. He pushed aside the door and stepped into the hallway, where he passed a communal cheeseplant and a wooden bureau upon which was spread what remained of the day’s post, before taking the carpeted stairs two at a time, his coat billowing behind him. On the landing of the fourth floor, he paused to catch his breath. He was breathing heavily when Adrian opened the door.
Adrian was a big man, blond and burly. Wavy hair receding from the temples. He was barefoot in untucked white shirt over faded 501s.
‘Adrian,’ said Holloway.
Adrian barred the doorway. ‘This is my house,’ he said.
‘I want to talk to her,’ said Holloway. ‘That’s all. Just for one minute.’
Adrian waited for a moment, sighed, removed his arm. Holloway passed through.
It had high ceilings for a penthouse apartment. The master bedroom, Holloway knew, was about the size of his entire flat.
One bedroom was known as ‘Caroline’s room’, although she stayed there only rarely. Adrian, divorced, had no children of his own. The third bedroom they used as an office and gymnasium. Adrian lifted free weights and ran half-marathons. He played squash and the occasional game of rugby. Kate practised pilates.
The sitting room was palatial. Recessed lighting. Wooden flooring, elegantly aged. Enormous sash windows with peeling sills. Three sofas. A rustic oak dinner table. There were no curtains. The room reflected back on itself. There were framed photographs on a lead fireplace: Kate. Kate and Adrian. Kate, Adrian and Caroline: arms round each other’s shoulders, leaning forward, smiling and squinting in the sun.
Cuba. Adrian had taken them to Cuba.
Something classical and soothing was playing at low volume. He didn’t know what.
Kate stood in the centre of the room. A worm shifted within him. She too was barefoot in jeans and a clean blue shirt a size too big for her. Her arms were crossed. He imagined a giant hand lifting her by the hair like a bath plug: the room turning liquid, spiralling away.
‘Well?’ she said.
He cupped an elbow and pinched the bridge of his nose. Reflected in a mirror above the fireplace, Adrian shrugged and jutted his lower lip.
Holloway said: ‘Can we talk? In private. Just for a minute.’
She said: ‘You reek of booze.’
Adrian went to a cabinet, removed a whisky bottle and heavy tumbler and poured himself a large measure of Laphroaig.
It seemed to Holloway that the house might collapse under its own weight and bury them all. And that would be that.
Kate said, ‘Come on,’ and Holloway followed her into a kitchen that looked like a spread from a mid-market Sunday supplement. He ran fingertips along the cool black granite of its work surface.
He remembered the first time they made love. Leeds, 1979.
This woman shared not a single cell with that lost girl. Each of her constituent cells had divided and died, divided and died. She was a different person, an incremental and deteriorating copy of who she once had been. Knowing this, he didn’t understand what he felt, although he knew it to be love.
She put the kettle on to boil.
‘Whatever happened to Sam?’ he said.
Sam. Boyfriend Sam.’
She looked confounded.
‘God knows,’ she said, eventually.
He took the steaming mug of black coffee from her hands.
‘Careful,’ she said. ‘It’s hot.’
‘Did you ever see him again?’
‘What? No. I just
. Not for years. Is that what this is about?’
‘For God’s sake. Never.’
She tore Kleenex from a roll and uselessly rubbed her hands dry. He knew her anger as intimately as her passion. Perhaps better.
‘But you thought about him?’
‘What do you mean, thought about him?’
‘Nothing. You thought about him. He crossed your mind.’
‘Of course he crossed my mind. Of course I
‘Whatever happened to him?’
She shrugged. ‘How should I know?’
He sipped, scalded the tip of his tongue and the roof of his mouth. ‘What about Dan Weatherell?’
She fixed him with a stare and her voice took on a warning note.
‘What about him?’
‘Are you two still in—,’ he set down the mug ‘—contact?’
She pursed her mouth. ‘Fuck you, Will,’ she said.
He falsified it slightly, monitored her reaction.
‘Somebody sent me photographs,’ he said. ‘Of you having sex with a man. In Leeds, by the look of it. In the flat you shared with Penny. Well, I say man. Boy. He looks about twenty.’
The moment froze, setting them in a stark tableau. Kate facing away from him, squashing Kleenex into a ball. Holloway looking at the floor. A helix of steam rising from the surface of the coffee.
Kate turned to him.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Somebody sent me photographs,’ he said. ‘Of you having sex with a man. In Leeds.’
‘I don’t know. How many were there?’
A gleam of contempt flickered across her eyes.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I told you, I don’t know what man. That’s the point. I don’t know what man.’
‘Who sent it to you?’
‘I don’t know that either.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘Who do you
Acid raged in his stomach.
‘He was very young.’
She put a hand to her mouth.
‘I don’t believe this,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand. How can this have happened?’
He said: ‘That’s what I came here to ask.’