A Shooting

Friday, 27 July 2007

Last night I dreamed I killed a man.

It was in the old market place. The sun shone on the striped awnings with that migraine intensity that comes after a summer downpour, blinding rays lancing off the wet rooftops and refracting from the droplets that clung to the leaves of the horse chestnuts. The street was crowded with shoppers and people were spilling from the open front of a pub.

The gun was in my hand. I didn’t pick it up, nobody gave it to me, it was just there. It was short and stubby and its heaviness astonished me. It felt harshly metallic and as soft as velvet and it nestled in my palm like a hamster, begging to be stroked and caressed.

He was just an extra in the crowd. Of moderate height, slender, bespectacled and vague. Short-sleeved white cotton shirt, trousers of burgundy corduroy. An assistant bank manager perhaps. Or a publisher’s slush-pile reader.

My right hand rose; I didn’t raise it myself. The fingers tensed. The trigger was stiff, tight. The muscles of my index finger strained and began to cramp. I shut my eyes and clamped my teethed together, and clenched my fingers as hard as I could manage.

The afternoon was full of starlings. A space opened up where people had been walking, talking, shopping, drinking. Around the rim of the space faces stared; blank, stupid and uncomprehending faces. The man lay on the wet road with a stain spreading across his white shirt to match his trousers. I lifted my hands to my face, palms forward, fingers spread, and they were pink and scrubbed. The gun was gone, it had never been there. I turned and melted into the crowd, steering a contorted path between the bodies, but I felt the burning of the stares and the jabbing of the pointed fingers. I knew it was only a matter of time before I felt the hand on my shoulder.

I woke trembling, convinced that the game of life was now over. Through the window, barred against its basement vulnerability, leaves of birch and black poplar danced and quivered in a stiff breeze against scudding clouds and a watery sun. I lay still and in my head I turned over what I had been doing the evening before and satisfied myself that nothing untoward and nothing eventful had occurred. Only then did I permit myself to emerge into full wakefulness.

I swung my legs from the narrow bed and padded across the room to the sink. There were two teaspoons of coffee left in the container, enough for one mug. I pencilled ‘coffee’ on the notebook leaf Blu-tacked to the cupboard door, then emptied what remained of the brown powder into the coffee maker and set it on the hotplate. It occurred to me to check the meter. It was very low. A cobweb was anchored to the picture frame on the wall beside the meter, with a predatory spider watching over the opened-out dust-jacket of a book under the glass.

Brushing away web and spider together with the back of my hand, I contemplated the jacket with its photograph on what would have been the inner flap. A photograph of a young woman, backlit hair flaring, wide bright eyes over high cheekbones, a broad smile full of perfect white teeth. Eighteen years old, in her first year at Newnham, the golden girl of British literature. There had been the press conferences and the interviews for erudite magazines on Radio Three, the champagne and the endless flashing of cameras, the glowing reviews and the prurient gossip.

Washed away on a tide of literary adulation, the young woman failed to complete her degree. The second novel had been five years of agony in the writing and emerged to luke-warm notices. The third had piled up in the remainder shops. No fourth has yet been published.

I pulled a length of toilet paper from the roll squatting on top of the radiator, put the door on the latch, and made my way upstairs. On the way I picked up the pile of mail that lay in the musty hallway, extracted the three that were addressed to me and tossed the rest on the table. As I sat on the loo I glanced at the envelopes. A credit card bill. A phone bill with red printing clearly visible through the window. A long, anonymous envelope, neatly typed address, franked with a WC2 postmark. It was Saturday and as a matter of principle I don’t open bills at weekends. As for the the third envelope I could guess what that was; it was too thin to be interesting, it could wait.

Back downstairs I rinsed the worst of the muddy debris from a mug and filled it with coffee. Rummaging in my handbag I found no pound coins amongst the shrapnel; the meter would just have to hold out until I got some change. I pulled from the bag the bubble pack of Premarin (yellow, plump), a brush laced with hairs (rancid butter mixed with grey), a Body Shop lipstick (‘Pomegranate’), a packet of Rizlas (blue), a throwaway Clipper lighter (cherry-red) and a pouch of Old Holborn (25 grams, nearly empty), laying them on the bed beside me. I sipped at the coffee, washing a pill down on the way, and gazed upwards through the barred window at the dancing leaves of poplar and birch while blowing lazy smoke rings from cracked lips.

The bus was held up; traffic was being diverted around the town centre. I got off a stop early and walked the rest of the way to the shops. As I turned into the market place I could see that the roadway was cordoned off with blue and white tape. Two patrol cars stood inside the cordon, blue lights flashing, and uniformed constables were milling about fending off curious onlookers. A young woman was crouched over a part of the road where a shape had been outlined in chalk wielding a big boxy camera with a crank on its side. An older woman with cropped honey-coloured hair stood by a scarlet motorcycle holding a matching crash-helmet under her left arm, in animated conversation with a lean sandy-haired man with freckles.

I turned on my heels to walk away, and as I did so I turned up my palms to examine them. The lines on the right palm seemed to be ingrained with grime. I lifted the hand to sniff it. There was something metallic about the scent, and something oily, and something else which I couldn’t place for a moment. Fireworks; yes, that was it. The smell of Guy Fawkes Night.

A man outside a pub grabbed his friend’s shoulder and pointed. Both turned to stare. Others around them picked up the line of their gaze and stared too. I quickened my step, slipped into Marks & Spencer which I knew I could leave by the back entrance. I darted amongst the racks, the skirts and blouses and bras, fearing at any moment the fall of a heavy apprehending hand on the shoulder. I could see flashing cameras again, from under a Burberry mac hastily flung over my head. I could see the prurient headlines. I could see my long last days counted out in phonecards, in snout, in dismal routine and boredom and the stench of drains and boiled cabbage. I could see the butch screws and the dyke cons feeling me up with their eyes.

A woman who’s killed a man, they say, enjoys some status in prison.

From the back door of Marks & Spencer I knew where to go. With a determined step I turned left, and then right. Only when I came to the entrance did I waver. I walked past, and then I walked back a way, before swallowing hard and striding up the ramp. At the top of the ramp the pneumatic doors of the police station hissed apart, opening like the jaws of a great locust, ready to swallow me up.

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