Alone in the kitchen, Amanda held her inflamed hands beneath the scalding tap for ten counts of ten. After drying them with a tea towel, she eased open the door and descended blindly down the murky bluish stairwell. “Crikey,” she said, when her feet finally touched carpet. It was cold as a crypt and discordant electric guitar music leaked from somewhere, an eerie hymn of tuneless bleeding chords. And beneath the music, a low rhythmic whirring: a small air conditioning unit wedged into a window. Who had such things in England?
A fluid red form across the room caught her eye and she squinted to make out the mutating blobs of a lava lamp oozing like jellyfish on a bookshelf. And then she saw him. There, way over there in the far corner reclining in a berth of black satiny bedding, fully clothed, eyes sealed, lazing like a majestic lizard below the aquamarine beam of a theatrical spotlight.
“Hey,” said Clay with an arch, drowsy smile. “I was just having a dream about you.”
“Were you sleeping?”
The silky sheets on her skin were deliciously cool and slick. “Is this alright? Your mum—”
“Ma’s cool. In fact, I bet she’s the one who told you to come down here.” “That’s a point.” As she reached down to remove her shoes, the neck of her blouse slid off one shoulder, causing her to shiver.
“I can turn off the air if you want.”
“That’s alright. I quite like it, actually.”
“In that case,” he said, unbuttoning her blouse.
His eyes remained fastened on her face even after her top was off and he was falling on top of her, kissing again, but wetter now, rawer, and she felt his hands caress her back and bum as his hardness pressed through the flimsy layers of sheets and clothing. (An entirely different entity, this, from the twiggy thing that sprouted from Mick’s scrawny flank on an irritatingly regular basis.) But then, all of a sudden, the room was raided by a loud banging, something smashing against glass.
Jolting up in bed, she hugged her exposed chest. “What’s that?”
“Relax. It’s only Louis and Lestat.” He flicked a finger towards a corner of the room. “My fish.”
Then her eyes found the large, luminous fish tank across the room; inside of which were two of the most hideous little creatures she had ever seen. The two beasts— with their monstrous, bulbous eyes fixed on her—continued to ram themselves against the glass. “What in God’s name are those?”
“You’re joking! Whatever possessed you to have a pair of piranhas for pets?” “They’re cool.”
“Do you really think so? What are their names, did you say?”
“Louis and Lestat. I named them after two characters from the Anne Rice vampire books I told you about.”
“Well, that’s quite fitting, isn’t it? But why on earth are they bashing against the tank like that? They’re going mental, poor things.” “Maybe they’re jealous.”
And then the fish were forgotten as the couple entangled themselves in one another again—staring, trembling, touching to the soundtrack of the rumbling air conditioner, the mournful guitar music, the two piranhas banging against glass.
“Hey,” he said, sitting up. “You haven’t said anything about the music.” “The music?”
He nodded at the stereo.
“Oh, this music. Well, it is unusual, isn’t it? What is it?”
“It’s the song I told you about. The one I wrote for you.”
“Oh!” She had expected something a bit more melodic, actually, something along the lines of U2 perhaps. Or the Cure even. “So, have you thought up a name for it yet?”
“The song is called ‘Mine’. Because I want you to be mine, Mandy. Mine and only mine.”
“I am all yours, Clay. Yours and only yours.”
“God,” he said, tearing off his shirt. “I’m so totally obsessed with you.”
And then it was her fingers’ turn to explore his hairless chest. Smooth and solid as marble, a sculpture of cool, hard clay, he was. As she stroked his skin, she had to control her fingers from digging in, from probing too deep.
“I love you,” he said, as his hand crept down the waist of her jeans.
She trembled at the words, the delicious shock of his icy fingers. “I love you too.” “But listen, Mandy.” He—maddeningly—withdrew his hand.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this? Cause I can hold out until you’re one hundred percent ready. It can hurt a lot for girls the first time, you know.”
“Oh, it didn’t really hurt so much, actually.” “What?”
“Oh, well, you do realize this wouldn’t be my first time?”
He recoiled to the far side of the bed. “You just said you were mine.”
“But I didn’t realize that that’s what you meant. I’m yours now though, Clay. I had one other boyfriend before, but it was nothing—”
“The thought of you doing that with another guy makes me feel totally sick.”
“But I can’t help what happened before I met you, now, can I? And it really didn’t mean a thing to me, nothing at all. He was always more of a friend than a boyfriend, Mick was.”
“Mick, huh? I wouldn’t have pegged you as the kind of girl to do that with someone you didn’t love. I took you for the type of chick who would hold out for the right guy.”
“But how could I have known that you were the right guy before I’d ever even laid eyes on you?”
“Would you keep your voice down please? My mom and sister are trying to sleep upstairs.”
She swallowed back tears. Most unfair, that.
“Anyway,” he droned, “you could have waited.” He reached over and removed something from a drawer in his bedside table. A pack of cigarettes.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“That’s because I quit. This is the first cigarette I’ve had in weeks, thanks to you.” Biting her lip, she found her blouse on the floor and, after numbly slipping into it, turned back to him sprawled staring glassy-eyed at the ceiling.
“Last tube leaves in twenty minutes.” His mouth seeped an impossibly long thread of smoke. “Unless you want me to call you a cab.”
She forced herself to stand and step into her shoes. Jolly good idea, child. Run for it. Please God, let him stop her. But when he merely stubbed out his cigarette and shut his eyes, she turned away to start the miserable journey up the stairs, out of his house, away from him.
Aboard the Northern Line, she crumpled into her seat and surrendered to the sorrow, the sheer agony burning through her throat, exploding from her mouth in massive sobs. Until she became aware of a hovering male presence. Oppressed beneath his unrelenting gaze, she stopped crying and focused on her own fuzzy reflection in the opposite window. Bloody nutter. London was crawling with them.
As soon as the doors snapped open at Stockwell, she sprang with relief from the carriage. She was dismayed, however, to sense the man still behind her on the platform. Surely just a coincidence, she thought, hopping onto the escalator. When he actually trailed her out onto Clapham Road, though, she halted and changed directions several times, trying to shake him. But he just weaved about mutely behind her like a menacing marionette.
Bloody hell, what to do? What in God’s name to do? She scanned the street for shelter. There: a neon-lit chippy across the road. Next thing she knew, she was running right into the street, dodging traffic and storming through the door of the café.
Once inside, she took in the several other customers, tucking morosely into their fish and chips. She’d be alright now, touch wood ten times. And ten quick blinks for good measure. Best stay put for a bit, she decided, walking over to the till to order a tea from a young black woman with a mop of orange corkscrew curls sprouting from her scalp.
But just as Amanda took hold of her tea, the back of her neck went hot. Turning her eyes to the door, she saw that yes, here he was again, here inside the café, sliding into a seat barely two feet from the doorway, staring at her. And now, for the first time, she took him in: he was a tall, middle-aged man with stringy hair and an odd, infantile sort of face. Though dressed quite nicely, in a crisp black suit, white shirt, blood-red tie. There was something familiar about him as well. He smiled and opened his mouth to speak. But no sound came out. He just sat there, silently, urgently mouthing something at her.
Tearing her eyes from his, she surveyed the café again—completely useless, this assemblage of elderly couples and vagabond loners—then stood on tiptoe and craned her neck to peer behind the counter. Brilliant: an unobstructed pathway leading through the kitchen, straight out the back door.
“Pardon me,” she loudly bid the lady at the till. “But could you tell me where the ladies’ toilet is, please?”
The woman grunted, indicated a door at the back of the café.
“Cheers,” said Amanda, setting off towards the toilets. But just as she was about to enter the ladies’, she turned and bolted through the passageway into the kitchen. The only person there was a grizzly guy in an apron, smearing margarine onto a row of bread slices spread across the counter. Bugger! But he merely muttered something and reached out to push open the back door. “Thanks very much,” she croaked, sprinting past him, through a dark alley and out onto Stockwell Road. Feeling exposed here, she dodged into the silent, tree-lined shelter of St. Michael’s Road and zigzagged through a series of side streets until she was finally racing down Hackford Road. Leg it, she willed herself through the sharp stitch in her side. Nearly there.
It wasn’t until she was standing on her doorstep, panting for breath, house key in hand, that she dared look behind her: no movement, no stirring presence in the shadows. Thank God. She stabbed her key in the door, shoved it open and leapt into her front hallway.
Shattered, she trudged into the kitchen to find Lydia sitting at the table in her shabby pea-green dressing gown, packet of chocolate digestives before her.
“Alright?” said Lydia.
Amanda marched over to the sink, turned on the tap and submerged both hands beneath the burning water for exactly—her eyes trained on the wall clock—ten seconds. Then she sat down and helped herself to a biscuit.
“Mind you keep an eye on your figure, Amanda. That lovely new boyfriend of yours won’t fancy you, will he, if you put on any more weight.”
Sod you, thought Amanda reaching for another biscuit.
“What are you like, greedy gob?” Lydia snatched away the biscuits, then swooped over to push her nose into her daughter’s hair. “Have you been smoking?”
Amanda jerked away. “The club we were at earlier was quite smoky, is all.” “He’s lovely, isn’t he, that boy? Bringing sunflowers round for us and such.
They’re a dying breed indeed they are, the likes of gentlemen such as that.”
Amanda’s red raw hands—blimey, they looked sunburned—trembled in her lap.
Most peculiar, how her mother had claimed joint possession of the flowers. Another odd thing: Lydia still hadn’t said a word about Clay being an American.
But then they were startled by a sudden loud rapping coming from the front of the house. Not the door, from the sounds of it: more like someone pounding on a window.
“What in God’s name was that?” said Lydia. “Could it be that boyfriend of yours, do you think?”
God willing! “Could be.”
And there it was again, another knocking on glass.
“Well, what’s he doing banging on the bleedin’ window? Why doesn’t he just ring the doorbell like a sensible person?”
“Perhaps he thought the doorbell would disturb you.”
“Well, I’d best go and have a look, hadn’t I?” And so, with a tight tug of her dressing gown belt, Lydia trundled from the kitchen. And then:
“Amanda! Get over ‘ere quick! There’s a loony outside!”
“Who is it?” Amanda ventured into the lounge, where her mother stood beside the front window.
“Turn off the lights, will you,” hissed Lydia, “and come and ‘ave a look!”
Amanda switched off the hallway light, tread to the window, pulled back a corner of the white lacy curtain and felt the telltale chill ignite her spine. For there, right there in the road: the psycho from the tube. He must have been in their front garden just then, knocking on this very window. Just a few feeble inches from the inside of her home. She let the wispy curtain fall back against the glass and faced her mother.
Lydia tugged at her daughter’s sleeve. “What do you think he wants, that man?”
“I don’t know,” said Amanda, wrenching her arm away. “He followed me off the tube tonight. I thought I’d got rid of him, but he must have followed me home somehow.”
“Why should he want to follow you home, Amanda, ‘less you was giving him ideas?”
“I honestly couldn’t say, Mum. Go on out there and ask him for yourself, why don’t you?”
Lydia began pacing about the lounge, tossing her head like a caged polar bear. “Now whatever happened to that little dog? You know, the lovely golden one?”
“Theo’s been gone ages now, Mum.”
“But now where did he go to, that dog?”
“I gave him away, Mum. Years ago.”
“Gave him away? What in God’s name were you thinking? We could have done with a good dog about the house, we could, a couple of defenseless women living on our own and all!”
Amanda swallowed back the words: we could’ve also done with a good man about the house, couldn’t we have? But what did you do with my two daddies, Mummy? Whatever became of the likes of them? Water under the bridge, child. More pressing matters at present. “Should we ring up the police, do you think?”
“No, no! We mustn’t! That’d really give the neighbors something to have a good gossip about, wouldn’t it, us having the coppers ‘round. Perhaps he’s gone now, Amanda. Go on and have another look, will you?”
“You do it, Mummy, please!”
Then, finally, Lydia stopped pacing. Squaring her shoulders, she tiptoed over to the window and peeked outside. “Still there.”
“He must have followed me from the café somehow—”
“Hold on a moment, Amanda. What on earth were you doing walking home alone at this hour? Didn’t that boyfriend of yours bring you back?”
Amanda miserably considered her hands. They were flaming and slick with sweat, like two lobsters just pulled from the pot. “We had a bit of a tiff to tell you the truth.”
That sent Lydia trampling into the hall towards the phone. “I don’t care if the two of you was beating each other to bits with rolling pins!
What sort of young man doesn’t see a girl home properly?”
“You’re not ringing him up now are you, Mum?”
“Well, why not? He got us into this blasted mess, now didn’t he?”
“But it’s after midnight, Mum, you’ll wake the whole house.”
“I’m not fussed. He deserves that and more, that boy, letting you take the tube home alone so some druggie pervert could get filthy ideas into his head and come mucking about in our garden. Now, are you going to tell me the number or am I going to have to ring directory inquiries?”
Closing her eyes, Amanda surrendered the seven digits.
Lydia pressed her lips into a thin, tight line as her right index finger danced deftly around the dial. It must have been Clay himself who picked up, because Amanda heard her mother’s voice sail an indignant octave upwards as she gave him an earful. Then Lydia grew quiet and Amanda’s heart sunk, assuming he’d hung up. But “Here,” her mother was saying, tossing the phone.
Amanda, fumbling to catch it, watched Lydia recede into the lounge. “Hello?” “Mandy. I’m so sorry, baby.”
“S’alright,” she said, twisting the telephone cord around her finger until it turned a lovely bloodless white.
“So tell me, baby, is that freak still outside?”
Lydia in the hall again: “Well, we can go to bed now. He’s finally buggered off.”
“According to Mum, he’s just buggered off, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“And what about your mom, has she buggered off yet?”
Amanda glanced up at the lumpy shadow lumbering up the stairs. “Nearly.” “Cause I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened tonight, and I decided to forgive you.”
“Under one condition. That you promise never to see what’s his face, that asshole ex-boyfriend of yours ever again.”
Had she heard him properly? Did he actually mean for her to not see Mick, one of her best mates in the whole world, ever again? “Alright, then.”
“I promise that I shall never see Mick Rummidge again.”
“Good. Now go get some shut-eye and I’ll call you in the morning. And baby?” “Yes?”
“Do me a favor before you go to bed and go around and make sure all the doors are locked.”
She hung up and did as she was told. Thank God for Clay, she would think five minutes later. The back door had been wide open.