The door slammed shut with the deadened finality that comes with the emptying of a living space. Silence filled in behind her, flooding the rooms with despair. The air in her bedroom, thick with deodorant, hairspray, floral shower gel and perfume, settled into scented layers around the debris of her work clothes. The cat, nonchalant about her absence now it had been fed, climbed onto the front room window sill, looking out on its domain of kebab shops and off licences. Endless traffic piled the corners, hooting and groaning as it snuffed along, pouring stink into the already sickly late afternoon air. It felt more like the middle of September, than that of April. The cat preferred the view over the back windows, endless roofs, tantalising birds and other cats to snarl at. It would wait until the acrid chemical smells in the other room faded, before proceeding to settle in its usual spot, angled out to the inner square of the backs of the houses. It would mewl and scratch fruitlessly on the glass at the outside wild life: desperate to be free to attack, to chase. Or so it thought. Once, a pigeon had settled on an open window sill in the summer’s heat, and the poor cat, comfortable and safe in its window glass world, had hissed in fright. It was so big, so aggressive, compared to the small fluttering victims of its day dreams, tiny and fragile on the roof spars opposite. The bird had eyed him coldly, without fear. The cat had hissed and growled its warning, but it had had no effect. It was a stand off until the bird flew away, unruffled. Since then, the cat went into a frenzy any time a bird landed on the other side of the window. The other side of the closed window.
Had she known it was the last time she’d abandon both the cat, and her flat, she might have washed the dishes. As it was, she had rushed around the flat, ignoring the smell from the sink. That morning, as she’d fallen out of bed to find that only her best suit was wearable, she’d planned to come in tonight and clean, ridding her life of the guilt the week had scattered around her. The resolution had been spurred on by the blissful thought of a Saturday morning lie in. A pristine flat all around her, requiring no effort on her behalf. Her change of plans, however, had left her with less than twenty minutes to bathe and change: she had once more ignored the chaos. Stopping only to throw some biscuits in the bowl (tinned food stank the place out) she vowed her allegiance to the hum drum of living; tomorrow. She’d do it all tomorrow. Clean out the cat litter, empty the bins, do the laundrette run and find her bedroom carpet under the skin of peeled off clothes that she kicked out of her way to find a matching shoe. Tomorrow would be good enough, and Sunday morning would be the sweet spot, as she lay in bed wondering how to fill a lazy day. She grabbed her keys and ran, heading off down the stairs at full pelt.
After four days unexplained absence, during which all answer phone messages had been ignored, her boss finally called the mother of her erstwhile assistant. Mrs Maitland, to the embarrassment of all concerned, exploded into tears at the thought of her only child’s fate. A day later, after some hemming and hawing, the police were called, forcing open the flat in absence of anyone with a spare key. They found the dishes partially in the sink, partially on the floor, courtesy of an exceptionally hungry cat. The cat took its revenge on the probationary policewoman, leaving a trail of claw marks across her cheek. The sergeant, who had cautioned against such inappropriate action, handed a clean handkerchief over and called in the RSPCA. Their elbow length leather gauntlets would handle the animal, which had conveniently hidden itself inside the fold down couch in the living room cum kitchenette. He had never had any truck with people who took free ranging creatures and locked them into tiny fourth floor flatlets, or patted them as if human sentimentality could mitigate a completely empty stomach. He left his charge dabbing at the blood and had a good look round.
There was a strong whiff of cat in the air. Cat sick, and well developed litter tray. Having scoured both rooms of what little food there was, the cat had evidently chewed through the motley crew of long suffering pot plants scattered awkwardly around, subsequently throwing up with abandon. Splotches on the carpet and furnishings tracked its comings and goings, mostly goings. It was a very annoyed cat, he had no doubt of that. The smell was one that the sergeant could easily stomach, was greatly relieved by, given what else there might have been in evidence, both of the girl’s disappearance and the cat’s subsequent hunger. As it was, there was no sign of the girl. The usual clutter of single living met his eyes; the fridge testament to the overall lack of care, or comfort, this young woman had afforded herself. Diet drinks, weeks’ dead salad, a dehydrated lump of cheese, rancid low fat spread and half a mouldy loaf. Two bottles of white wine and half a carton of milk, long turned to cheese. The bin, before it had been dragged around the floor, had been stuffed with various take away containers and two empty bottles of wine. She preferred Chinese, apparently, as the Chinese was six doors down, after the chip shop and the kebab house. On the other hand, the Chinese was first if you were walking back from the tube. The cupboard had several packets of fat free powdered soups, all well past their sell by date. The usual collection of tins and half a bottle of cheap vodka. The vodka had dust on the edges: no clues there then. The bread bin was stuffed with chocolate biscuits and crisps. The cramped and musty shower room gave evidence of the usual obsessions with creams and lotions, all feminine in nature. Nothing in the cabinet to suggest any other bad habits, not even the pill. The toilet bowl itself was clean and shiny, which confirmed his opinion. Make up was scattered out over the tiny table that served for a make shift dressing area, but that could have been the cat. The bed was single, unmade and rented out old. The sheets looked clean and the duvet was brightly coloured and newish looking. The clothes spread out on the floor were the formal side of business casual, the shoes impeccably heeled and well cared for. All the used knickers were in a laundry basket, but the bras were spread around. She used panty liners.
An ironing board filled up the tiny space on the other side of the bed, with an expensive iron on the floor beside it. Not the cat this time, as it had been carefully placed to cool out of harm’s way. For all the chaos in the room, an expensive jacket in dark blue hung impeccably on the back of the door. A matching skirt had been hanging in the shower room, obviously left to steam out its wrinkles. The tiny fragrance bottle by the bed was pricey but affordable enough to have been a present to herself. A secretary, the report had said. The flat screeched up and coming PA at him; with three daughters of his own, he was wise enough to know the difference. The probationer sniffed around after him as he called in the details, heeding his warning to touch nothing. She crumpled her nose in disdain at the mess, and smell. She’d learn. She’d learn bloody fast. A double duty of nights in the riot months of summer and her no doubt currently pristine room back at the police house would look the same. He logged the time and complete lack of evidence in any direction. Her suitcases were on top of the wardrobe, and the drawers filled with underwear, clothing and two sex toys. A vibrating egg and slim finger sized vibrator. This made it extremely unlikely she’d just walked away. He finished his report and sighed: this didn’t feel a good one, not at all.
A week of searching saw Joanne Maitland’s neatly typed details logged and filed, the case unofficially closed. She was lost somewhere in the mystery that the city became at these times, her disappearance overshadowed by a sensational libel case and another marital dispute over at the House of Windsor. Mrs Maitland, crumpled and creased from the jostled and chaotic trip South, shed her tears for the camera, wailing a little at Fleet Street’s seeming indifference. Had a paparazzo photograph of a distraught Princess of Wales not stolen the morning headlines, a little more might have been made of her one shot appearance on the evening news. As it was, London lifted its head in grief for a split second, returning to business as usual by close of trading. Jo, oblivious to the future of her good name, left behind a less than fitting epitaph in the form of her last confirmed sighting. Breathless, half in her jacket, red from the run, she had stood and watched the tube she had just missed hurtle down into the depths of Archway station.
‘Shit!’ is what she had said, loudly, as she stalked up and down the platform. ‘Shit!’
It had been another vile day. Too much work, not enough time. Fridays were always her worst day, not the usual Blue Monday of office worker fame. Friday was the day she’d be in such a rush that she would skip breakfast completely, her Monday good intentions on sensible eating abandoned sometime around Wednesday. Friday breakfast usually joined Thursday dinner as a non-event. Friday break would find her stuffing chocolate biscuits down her throat as quickly as she could, her now up and running body desperate for anything that looked and acted remotely like a calorie. If she was lucky, and this Friday she hadn’t been, lunch was a sandwich and a doughnut, washed down with lukewarm coffee. Every Monday she began a perfect routine of fruit for breakfast and break, with peppermint tea to wash her virtue down. She would smile sweetly at the others as they moaned about the coffee machine being broken again, as she waited for her tea bag to infuse. By Wednesday she was beginning to think maybe she should phone through for a new machine herself, as she waited for the damn thing to gurgle out more tepid caffeine. Friday always found her deciding that she’d damn well put the order through as urgent as soon as she had a minute on Monday, as she sent out an order for a massive triple mocha from the coffee shop on the high street.
Minutes were Friday’s real problem: there were not enough of them. Work that had not seemed too important and could be put back for a day or two, suddenly had to be cleared and logged out of the office before the weekend. Logged and cleared by her, for she’d learnt, as had her boss, that if she didn’t do it personally, it sometimes wasn’t done. Friday nights usually saw her pegged on the couch, having missed the soaps again, picking the topping off an extra large pizza, a bottle of plonk for company and a tub of ice cream melting in the sink, awaiting her pleasure. Fridays she was fit for nothing but collapse and retreat.
This Friday had been a Friday from hell. The end of financial year accounts about to be closed and set. She hadn’t even got to the chocolate biscuits ‘til after 2. The phone never stopped, the fax machine had over spilled twice and her boss had looked at her with one of those looks. The ‘I know you are so very busy and you are so very competent, but can I please have the report on my desk now’ looks. Yes, she loved the bustle. Yes, she was good enough to do everything well, no matter how busy it got. Yes, it was great fun. Sometimes. But it wasn’t really her job to do all of it and it was about time someone recognised that. They’d almost had words, Jo backing down at the last moment when the phone had rung once more, embroiling her in another minor crisis in the photocopying room. She had sent out for coffee and a sandwich, but either they had never arrived, or she hadn’t noticed them in the mêlée.
She had felt defeated when it was all sorted out, not exultant so, when the usual shout had gone up about where and when the office was congregating for party mode, she’d listened. She rarely joined in with the Friday night extravaganza that the bosses actively encouraged the staff into. She was always late, always tired, and found getting it down and boogying with the others a waste of time. Today, however, had been different. All she wanted to do was go out and get absolutely smashed out of her skull. Forget it all and start the weekend in bed, too past it to care about anything. She may even get laid, or try to. The safety of getting drunk in the company of her fellow workers stood against her managing a little horizontal jogging. Embarrassed encounters over work areas on Monday mornings were not her idea of fun. Not that she’d ever had such an encounter, but it might happen yet. There was a Northern chill to her backbone that usually saw to it that nothing squidgy happened, despite her fantasies. Perhaps tonight, she’d shuck off the puritanical streak she hadn’t realised was part of her until she moved to London.
Unprepared for a night out, she’d made the decision to leave some of the work undone and rush back home to change. With luck and the right connections, she would meet up with the others as they made their way across London to catch a boat that was going to let them drink themselves sick as it drifted along the Thames. Experience had shown that this was very convenient, both for throwing up discreetly, and for controlling who had access to you in a ‘fragile’ state. With the train now hurtling away from her into the darkness, there was a good chance she was going to be late. Thankfully, the next train popped up quickly, although she was going to have to change at Leicester Square, which suited her well enough as she didn’t have that much cash on her. Her temper had cooled as she stopped off to pick up money from the hole in the wall. Folding the notes into her purse, she allowed the chiming of the nearby Swiss Centre to register the time with her, bursting the bubble of her self-delusion. It was too late. She had missed the launch, they’d be heading downstream by the time she got there. She didn’t have one jot of a clue as to where it was picking up along the route, should have listened better as they all chattered about who was wearing what, who was gunning for whom.
She fought back the irrational prick of tears that threatened to engulf her, concentrating on what she wanted to do now. She was dressed for fun, she was in the right part of town. She had money in her purse and the night, if not the evening, was still young. She couldn’t face returning to her flat so soon after rushing out of it, all caught up with the idea that she had somewhere to go. Unnoticed by the crowds she slipped into the first decent looking pub she found. A quick glass of wine, some time to calm down. A meal, maybe a movie. Something of the evening would be salvaged. Besides, she’d be so much safer on her own.
Restlessness had brought him out onto the streets earlier than usual. The day had been hot; sticky and close. There was a fine drawing of his nerves building; a faint twitch. He cruised the bars from Soho down to the Square, scanning the eager young faces he passed. It was too early for the true desperates to be abroad. He wondered where they went in the city centre bustle between the hours of the commuter’s rush and the emptying of the bars. The young and helpless, tricking the night away to fill their bellies and their veins. The air was grey and stale, not heavy enough to call with it rain. Deep and dark enough that it lay in layers around him. The scents caught by each step forward drummed the sense of city into his bones. Sweat, concrete, cheap perfume. The sharp and noxious odour of urine, splashed carelessly behind bins and crates. Dark alleyways completely overlooked by the tourists. Rotting vegetables and rubbish caught in the trap of the gutter, wind brushing all to the corners of the streets. Noise assailed him from the edges of Chinatown, ancient spices and herbs drifted out to him from the apothecary’s shelves. Tonight was not a night for easy prey, swift endings. Tonight, he was in the mood for fun.
The pub was packed and she’d found her way to both the bar, and an empty table, with a lot of pushing and jostling. The table was crowded with bottles and had an overflowing ashtray. She edged it away, wrinkling her nose in distaste. The table was tiny, a fake hardboard top over a fake beer barrel. There was only one stool but she’d be nearer the door where there was a sense of fresher air to be found. Squeezing into a gap in the heaving bodies around her she settled into the seat, ruefully reflecting that the fresher air from outside was just as cloying, if somewhat drier than the sweat and lager laden fug around her. She scanned her somewhat sketchy memory of the area for rememberings of a good restaurant. One with air conditioning.
The street was a small one, lined with pubs and wine bars. The prices in each varied greatly. He’d learnt that such a range offered interesting possibilities. He took his time, savouring the appearance and demeanour of everyone around him. There was a tow-headed young man, a boy really, sitting on one of the cheap plastic seats outside a cafe. He looked as if he’d just been jilted, his eyes staring intently at the label of the bottle he held. He almost didn’t fit the new jeans he was wearing, his shoes scuffed and rather more worn than looked cool. Promising. Next door, a wine bar with pretensions of glamour. The woman taking advantage of the dim light of an alcove was in her late forties. High quality make up sought to cover the lines and wrinkles of excess, powder clogging her pores, eye shadow making pretence of much younger looks. Good clothing, bag and matching shoes. Expensive perfume barely masking stale body odour. Dark roots just peeping into view. There was a harshness, a nervousness about her. Eyes constantly roaming, searching, eager. Her hands were never still, the rings surrounding her fingers twisted and turned this way and that. She brought her hand up to her face regularly, hiding, entreating. He savoured her plight, how easily she would be caught. He shook his head, not for this evening, although he may return at a later date, not doubting that this was a favourite haunt.
The boy had gone when he returned to the street, his place taken by three giggling girls, their almost skirts not quite matching their almost tops. Make up applied with more enthusiasm than skill, their flesh tones lost in a jumble of clashing shades and colours. Long gangling limbs embraced in cheap bangles and bracelets, shoes all bought in a sale. A vestige of some shared shopping spree no doubt. He smiled at them as he passed, evoking shrieks of delight and raucous comment on his intentions. The smile was genuine as he savoured the raw scents they spread around him. Musk, heat, and the fresh tang of just washed flesh exerting its own perfume over that of soap and deodorant. He mellowed into the chase, thoroughly enjoying the pace and selection the evening had so far offered. He tipped them a wink and moved on, relishing the sounds as he passed them by.
Jo found her glass of wine soothing. It had a sour taste, kept overlong in a bottle behind the bar, but the alcohol warmed her blood. It was a stupid thing to do, get so frazzled, just for another pointless office party. She studied those around her, making guesses at who they were and what they did for a living. The main performer in a tightly woven pack of young men looked over at her and winked. She smiled, dropping her head to look at her glass. When she looked up he was engaged in another tall tale, his mates well on the road to joining him in a night of excess. A small part of her was disappointed that she’d been dismissed so easily, laughing the slight off with a quick toss of her head. A gesture for a mythical companion who was at the bar buying the next round, or weaving his way back from the Gents. A clear signal for the one who’d passed her over so quickly. It didn’t make her feel better; it made her feel worse, more aware of how vulnerable she was feeling. It was stupid to take it to heart, she was alone after all. No matter the attraction, the guy who had winked would have only broken ranks to approach her if she had been surrounded by her mates. Something for them all to get their teeth into. Shares for everyone, that was the pack rule. As she drained the glass her stomach announced its immediate rebellion. She must eat, must fill the void. Collecting her jacket and bag, she rose to leave.
The glimpse of white caught his eyes as he scanned the packed pub from outside. Too many people was as dangerous as too few. He preferred to analyse the opportunities from the large display windows theme pubs were beginning to build into their decor. She was in her early twenties, fading tan bought from a machine. Hair an untidy mop of curls, a better perm than it looked, dried with less care than the style demanded. She’d had it trapped up all day, released it without washing, the ridges from the clasps still evident. Her hair and eyes were the same warm colour of earth. Nothing too exciting, but a nice complement to her facial skin, which was paler than the rest of her. She read the magazines, this one. Knew to keep sun away from her face, even as she allowed it domain over her body. Make up had been hastily applied, the dress showed signs of a recent hanging in a crowded wardrobe. The single ring on her right hand was no more than a cheap silver memento of a Greek package tour. There was a drowsiness around her: fatigue. Her head came up and eyes made contact with someone else in the crowd, her smile warm and inviting. The movement of dropping her head to coyly study her glass entranced him. She was both naive and aware, testing her way along the path of the evening. Her face hardened as she realised she’d been overlooked, her head shaking away the slight. Look what you’ve missed, she was saying, look what you passed up. He smiled.
The air was slightly clearer as she left the bar, although it was still too warm, too old. As if it had been used too much that day, been dragged in and out of many sets of lungs. The greying light was losing its unequal battle with the electric lights all around, the street leached of its colour. It left a chill on her, made her feel transient, transparent. She really had to get some food. She perused a series of windows, ostensibly checking prices, really having a good look inside to see who was sitting down, what sort of feel the place had. Too many places were packed, overflowing with good cheer and heated bodies. Almost in desperation she headed for the Steak House on the other side of the Square. It was a tourist place, overpriced and stuffy. It would not be cool to have admitted eating there from choice but the green velvet booths would give her some space, the air conditioning respite from the now expected early summer. There was a small queue, which she didn’t mind. Other places had far larger queues and she quite enjoyed the wait, watching the life and colour return to the Square as natural light retreated and the neon took over. As she reached the head of the queue the maitre’d raised his head and smiled to the right of her.
‘For two, sir?’
Startled, she turned to find a man standing slightly to one side. His face registered his own confusion at the question. Flustered, he looked first to Joanne, then back to the maitre’d.
‘The lady is not with me.’ He caught her gaze again and smiled at her. ‘Unfortunately.’
She grinned back at him in thanks for the compliment. He raised his arm, to allow her full access to the head of the queue and the now impatient staff.
‘A single, madam?’
The voice betrayed his feelings on one of his precious tables being given over to a single occupant on a Friday night. She nodded. He looked past her again, to the gentleman whom he’d mistaken for her companion.
‘And you, sir, a single also?’
The second nod of the head sent him in a scurry of disdain as he searched through the room for evidence of two small tables about to come free.
‘It may be some time... unless...?’
The maitre’d allowed the word to hang in the air, hoping the two dim and sad people cast upon his restaurant on a busy evening would come to their senses. Joanne started to fidget, unprepared to deal with such complications. The man stepped into the breach, silencing the sighs of exasperation that were beginning to make their way up the ever lengthening queue. He stood forward, side by side with her, acting as if both the maitre’d and the queue had disappeared.
‘I would be honoured if you would join me for dinner.’
His smile won her, the touch of self deprecation in his humour, the secret he was sharing with her that anything was worth getting out from under the eyes of the officious man whose evening they were disrupting. Even so, she hesitated.
‘I promise I will not bite,’ he whispered to her, as she looked around for good reason to turn him down, ‘not unless you ask me to.’
The humour in his voice reached her again. She looked at the crowding room, the maitre’d, the queue. She was hardly at risk. Smiling what she hoped was gracious acceptance, she allowed them to be seated together. Where was the harm?
She soon came to see that harm might have been preferable to the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment that settled between them as they sat opposite each other. The sensible solution that appeared so practical in front of the maitre’d soon gave way to confused silence. They each studied their menus in mock concentration. Joanne was aware that the man was probably more embarrassed than she, wishing he had not been so gallant. She racked her brains, trying to think of something witty and interesting to say.
‘You live in London?’
God, what a trite thing to say! She swallowed hard, sweat breaking out on her palms.
‘Yes, yes I do. And you?’
He had smiled in relief at her, obviously pleased she had opened up the communication. She felt a little better.
‘Yes, oh yes.’ She nodded too enthusiastically. ‘For a few years now.’
She trailed off, out of even trite things to say in response. He smiled at her again, reassuringly. He had nice eyes she mused, a light brown, not dissimilar to her own.
She realised he had spoken to her and she had missed it.
‘Drink. Would you like a drink?’
With a start she realised that the waiter was standing next to her, order book in hand. He was looking at her with the disdainful sufferance of one dealing with the doltish. Had he spoken?
‘The lady would like a glass of white wine. No, bring a bottle, let me see...’ He rifled through the wine list.
She was relieved he had spoken up, taken charge; it was nice to be taken care of for a change. The waiter wrote the order down with a sigh and hurried off.
‘I hope you do not mind my presumption?’
He was looking at her again with those eyes, those beautiful dark brown eyes. She smiled back, shaking her head.
‘No, no, not at all. I must... I must be more tired than I thought.’
She fumbled to unfurl her napkin to cover her confusion. Had they ordered yet?
Oh, it was going to be a fine night. He studied her with pleased indulgence. His original assessment of exhaustion had been wonderfully proven by how easy she had been to enthrall. After he had ordered the food, enjoying the opportunity of filling her up with all the enticing scents and aromas of alcohol, she had prattled away, filling up the table with her chatter and youth. She was a delight. Half little fox, working away cannily at her job, sorry, her career, half a total innocent, lost in the big wide world. Her loneliness intrigued him, made a joy of her catching. She was so utterly childlike, unable to guess that she could have had many of those around her if she had only played a better game at being chased, and caught. He even liked her voice, which was soft and rhythmical, a legacy no doubt of the voice lessons she had taken to rid her of her working class tones. It was going to be a fine night, a slow and even one. As she finished her dessert he asked for the bill.
‘Oh no, of course not, I’d be delighted.’ she stared into his eyes as he paid. ‘Just don’t expect me to be able to dance much.’
She laughed, entranced by the darkness in those eyes. It was so flattering, after all, for him to keep looking at her in that way. As they rose, collecting their things, she wondered if she’d ever seen eyes that dark, almost completely black. Yet they glimmered so, were so very seductive. She smiled as he opened the door to her, sweeping her out into the street, oblivious to the blast of heat that enveloped them.