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Authors: Simon Ings

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Painkillers

BOOK: Painkillers
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Painkillers by
Simon Ings is licensed under a
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PAINKILLERS

© Simon Ings

first published 2000 by Bloomsbury Publishers Ltd, Registered in England No. 1984336 Registered Office: 36 Soho Square, London W1D 3QY

PROLOGUE

Hong Kong

1997

I remember them. Their mouths, and their needles.

There were ten of them, that I recall. Not one of them was out of her twenties, and most were younger. They'd not worked anywhere else, you could tell that. There was nothing usual about them. Nothing used. Armed as they were, they were immune to wear.

I never saw them on the street. Entering the respectable-seeming fabric wholesalers in whose attic they worked, I cannot remember once passing a girl on her way through to the outside. The godowns and junks, the coconut sellers of the wholesale market, the men sorting clams, the cranes loading trucks parked along the Praya - did they ever see these things? Were they even aware of them? Did they know this was Kennedy Town?

Inside, I never saw them dressed. Perhaps they had no real clothes. I never saw any. I remember sea and flame-tinted silk; rich brown lace against white skin. That is all. That, and their painted eyes. Their mouths. They never spoke.

They wielded their machines with the cold proficiency of nurses, screwing their needles through your skin as easily as they might puncture the rind of an overripe fruit. Then they would straddle you. Hose scratched your hips, or the buttery heat of flesh slid there, and already it seemed too much to bear. As though, even without the machines, something obscene had taken place inside you: a tumescence of the nerves. So, for a second, you were tempted to pluck out the needles, be done with all of that, and lose yourself instead inside the girl: a comforting, proletarian fuck.

But you never did.

They clipped fine plastic-sheathed wires to the needles they had buried in your stomach, pubis, thighs, and plugged the wires into a box by the side of the bed. Sometimes, as they leaned and twisted, sorting wires, turning dials, you stroked their breasts. You weighed their breasts in your hand as they hung, straining the embroidered cups of a bra or sliding wetly about against a silk slip. You could gently pinch a nipple, or maybe tug a strap free, and the flesh would slip like mercury out of its sheer container and into your sweating hand. You could do that, but it wouldn't make any difference. Sooner or later, she would turn that dial.

They were merciless.

Eva thought I was having an affair. Someone from work, she thought: a young ambitious business graduate, arcing her taut body so her hips met mine a clear foot above the sheets, and her well-thumbed mobile phone purred rhythmically beneath the damp pillows of our motel bed. In the day, alone with her imagination, Eva wept. In the evening, when we went out, fashion shades hid the pinkness of her eyes.

She did what she could to keep me solely hers. She went through my pockets while I was in the shower. When I made a phone call from our apartment she would hover behind the door, listening - and she ordered itemised bills that told her nothing she didn't already know. She dressed up for me. Gucci. Donna Karan. Alexander McQueen. I remember the night I came in pissed from Frank Hamley's birthday party. She stepped out of the bedroom in a new Stella McCartney slip dress and let me take it off her, very slowly.

She did not make love to me. She simply couldn't. The shame had eaten too deep. It had ruined her. She made home instead. She studied World of Interiors and House and Garden. She hired designers. She bought expensive originals. She browsed for homewares in Seibu and Daimaru. (What would her grand-daddy think, whose head had rolled on Stanley Beach some fifty years before, as he surveyed all this Nipponese extravagance from his frame by the kitchen door?)

She rang me late at the office to ensure I was really there. I always was. Kennedy Town was a very occasional, and strictly daytime, affair: the single release I allowed myself. Anything more ordinary, more human, would have probably finished me off.

Sending Justin to the Higashi school in Tokyo was costing me about £70,000 a year. Then there was the luxury to which Eva was accustomed. Her mother had been swaddling her in Chanel since her fourteenth birthday, and had substituted cash for compassion the moment our son was diagnosed. 'Why can't you treat him properly?' she'd say, and more: unmothering the daughter she had never loved. To start with, Eva used her allowance to help pay for his therapy. But when at last I threw her mother out the house, the cheques dried up. Justin was still living with us then. He was in the room with us, that evening of the final row, banging his head steadily and with increasing force against the leg of a Franck Evennou chair.

The last I saw of the Kennedy Town girls, they were on TV. I was sitting at the bar in the Big Apple on Luard Road, trying to tune out an early-evening Mr Bean rerun, when the picture on the heavy JVC

hanging above the optiks yawed and span and the TVB Pearl newsroom came up; and after that a shot of Kwai Chung.

The camera was looking inland from the anonymous centre of the container port. Smuggler's Ridge was a grey line above Kwai Chung's brutal grey apartment blocks. In the foreground, police boats were gathering around an antique Saab junk, retrofitted for salvage work. The junk swung about. The gears at the top of the derrick juddered spasmodically.

It was lifting a container from the shallow water: one of those long steel boxes you see being loaded here by their hundreds onto ships bound for Taiwan and Nagasaki. When I looked again they had lowered it onto a concrete jetty. There were no markings on the box's sides; no identifying plates. Trapped sea-water sprayed from the door's seams, drenching the four policemen who were hammering away at the latch. When the door came free the outflow knocked one of them over. I grinned, ordered another bourbon. Then they opened the door.

Horror isn't dressed up here; it's an ordinary part of life. On Reclamation Street, men chop live turtles to pieces. Calves' heads bleed into the gutters. Later, on the portable TV at a nearby dai pai dong, I once saw a policeman slipping the dismembered remains of a shark victim into individual plastic bags. Once, a car had burst into flame on the Eastern Corridor; the tabloid photographer used a telephoto lens to capture the way the driver's hair, caught in the searing updraught, ballooned and sprung away from her crisping scalp.

The way it's all displayed so openly - you never quite get used to it. It wasn't much before eight when the TV displayed the contents of the container.

The police had cordoned off North Street by the time I got there. I stood watching over the heads of a curious crowd of restaurateurs and market traders as the police carried box after box, crate after crate, out of the fabric store. I guessed they were taking away the girls' effects. It couldn't have been anything other than perfume, lipstick, underwear, a little cannabis if they were lucky. Certainly no heroin, no small arms or haul of dirty money. It wasn't that sort of establishment.

I thought about their little black boxes: the dials, the pins and the wires. The scent of rose talcum. I realised I was crying.

Hamley wasn't at home and he'd switched off his mobile. I caught the tram into Central and crawled the bars pretending to look for him until I was good and plastered. I hoped he was safe. If he wasn't, then neither was I. The little black boxes, the women with their shiny, silent mouths. Hamley had introduced me to them, but he knew no more about them than I did. Less. Someone had decided to erase the experiment. Did the erasure extend as far as the punters?

I rang his flat again from a phone box off Citibank Plaza; this time I woke up his girlfriend. I was only making things worse. I crossed Garden Road and waved down a cab.

We lived above Magazine Gap, high up the Peak, where the Japanese had erected their Temple of the Divine Wind during the occupation. They never got around to completing it, the British eventually blew it up, and now, from an eighth-floor apartment in nearby Cameron Buildings, Eva's martyred grandfather looked out from his gilt frame on one of the most commanding views in Asia. I let myself into the apartment as quietly as I could, but I needn't have worried. Eva was out for the count. I swallowed a handful of vitamin B with a glass of tapwater and slipped under the duvet beside her. I lay there, stroking her, stroking her fingers, tracing the elegant curve of her nails, the slight dryness over her knuckles, the hot square of her palm. A little, childlike part of her came alive, just long enough to squeeze my hand. Then I lost her again.

It turned out Hamley had seen the same news report I had. The next day he phoned me at the office, from Macau. He had an onward flight already booked.

'Lisbon?' I said. 'What the hell are you going to do in Lisbon?'

He didn't know. He had no plans. He was just too frightened to stay. 'I mean, Adam, Christ, their fingers...'

'Yes,' I said.

'Why the hell would someone do that to their fingers?'

'They did it themselves,' I told him. 'Trying to force the door.'

'You reckon?'

'A school-friend of mine saw it once.' Dimly, it occurred to me that I was making it worse. 'A fire on board a ship he was serving on. The hatches lock automatically. Steam pours in. A rating got trapped in a compartment and tried to claw his way out.'

'I'll call you from Lisbon,' Hamley said. But he never did.

ONE

London

Spring, 1998

1.

The next time I saw Hamley - the last time - was last spring. Eva and I were back in London by then, running a small cafe by Southwark Market. If you weren't told about us, you'd never have found us; we were squashed in between on one side a specialist fabric wholesaler who opened maybe one day in the week if the elderly owner could be bothered, and on the other, a glorified garage full of broken barrow wheels and boxes of fluorescent tubing.

Nevertheless, the day had been hectic. A bunch of public relations people from the Tate's Bankside development had adopted us, and someone had put the word around about us at IPC tower, which housed something like a hundred magazine titles. Hannah had to go out twice to buy more bread. I thought we had enough chorizo and pecorino to last us the rest of the week, and we were left with about half a day's supply.

I kicked the last of our customers out around five forty-five. Hannah offered to stay and help clear up but it was her early night so I didn't take advantage. I was stuck here until seven anyway, when Eva arrived with the next week's stock.

I set about sweeping the floorboards clear of crumbs and dropped receipts. In the kitchen, hot water spilled from the tap into a bucket plashed with Dettol, and the antiseptic smell of it was just now cutting under the fug of coffee and burnt sugar and melted cheese. I reached for the handle of the front door so I could sweep the step, when it opened by itself. 'We're closed,' I said - then I registered who it was. I asked him where he'd been, what he'd been doing with himself, and he said he'd kill for a cup of coffee. The pressure had gone out of the Gaggia but I had a jar of instant in the kitchen. When I got there the bucket was overflowing and a fine skein of spray had fanned the polished plaster behind the sink. The floor tiles were sodden.

Hamley followed me in.

I reached for the mop. 'This won't take a second,' I said.

He closed the door behind him.

It was only now I saw how old he had become - and strange. His shoes, which had that weird, squared-off toe fashionable among the Italians, were scuffed down to the leather. His green wool pleated trousers had lost their crease, and there was a large grease-stain on the right lapel of his nasty brown-pink check sports jacket. A cheap blue-and-white stripe shirt was open at his neck, and white chest hairs poked luxuriously up through the gap. They grew so thickly, I imagined they'd run seamlessly into his beard, if he had one; but his face was so smooth and pink he might have shaved only an hour ago.

He said, 'You'd better pray I'm going to prison.'

'What?'

'The day I come out is the day I'm coming after you. Cunt.' The word sat clumsily in his mouth; he had no practice, saying that sort of thing.

'I don't understand why you're so upset,' I said.

He swallowed, broke eye contact. I thought maybe he was going to leave, as suddenly and inexplicably as he had arrived, but he just stood there, staring off into the middle distance like a bored life model. He had a face that had lost personality as it aged: his sunken eyes had nothing to say. His cheeks had grown jowly, and taken together with the unremarkable line of his chin, they leant him an air of weakness.

'Frank?'

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a letter for me to read.

It was from Hong Kong. The Top Luck inquiry had subpoenaed him.

I folded it up and handed it back. I said, 'This hasn't got anything to do with me.'

BOOK: Painkillers
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