All entries for Wednesday 03 September 2008
September 03, 2008
They treat me better than I could have believed. There’s been some violence, which was only to be expected, but I’ve kept my head down, never answering back, which helps. There was one other here - he was an ex-vicar - who kept trying to reason with them. That’s a mistake; these aren’t the sort of people you could ever reason with. His earnest face and his stammer were both provocations to them. I was lucky: he hanged himself the Tuesday after I arrived. He could have dragged me down with him. A glance or a plaintive appeal for support would have been enough.
Sam and the Nifter are playing a game of pong on the video-game system. All of our more recent games have been removed, as punishment. It’s amazing what lengths we’ll go to in order to entertain ourselves, I think.
“You were on the telly, Tiffany,” Sam says, without looking up. I skipped dinner; the sound of the chanting, the collected prisoners banging on their trays, was too much. I sit on my bunk, enjoying the silence. The lights go out. A voice bawls from the corridor,
“Into bed, all of you.” They ignore it.
“Did you ever hear about the old woman,” I ask, staring at the white dot, bouncing across the screen, “who died in a fire because she thought the smoke was from her cataracts?”
“Shut it, wanker,” says the Nifter. The Nifter always claimed he’d gone by the name of Blades in his street gang, a moniker which he failed to enforce inside. ‘Nifter’ came about because of his vivid Thames Estuary squeal.
“Leave him be,” Brian says from the shadows. Brian probably led the chanting downstairs. Now that the hour’s closer, his drooping, porcine face carries a measure of pity.
“Well, what’s he on about?” the Nifter whines. “Cataracts...what the fuck?”
“You frightened, Tiff?” Sam asks, glancing back for the first time.
“Would you be?” I reply. The dot bounces, to a steady, solemn rhythm. For some reason it seems vitally important that it should continue to bounce.
“Dunno,” says Sam, and then, simply, “Not frightened of much.”
“What’s he got to be frightened of?” the Nifter complains. “Already lost your jewels, ain’t you, Tiff?”
Brian is watching me.
“That scare you?” he said. “It true you agreed to let ‘em do it?”
“I’m not sure. I felt a little as if I had to; they all expected me to agree.”
“Fuck that...” the Nifter says, and dwindles into quiet. “Did it hurt?” he asks after a moment.
“Course it wouldn’t hurt,” says Sam. “They’re not allowed to cause you pain, that’s the point. Just like waking from an operation. Had my tooth pulled once. Like that.”
“Didn’t stop ‘im, though,” says the Nifter. He woke me this morning by spitting in my face and announcing, ‘You deserve this. You know that? You deserve this.’
“I don’t feel as though I can be stopped,” I reply. It feels good to talk. “It surprises me that they didn’t realise that...that this was something that could only be wiped out, or not at all.”
“It’s not right him bein’ in here with us,” Sam says all at once.
“It’s because they’ve never done it before,” Brian grunts. “Not in years...so they’re panicking, and they’re getting it wrong.”
“Would that scare you?” the Nifter asks him.
“What scares me,” Brian says, working his way across every word, “going back out there and finding kids like you running around with knives.”
The Nifter shifts on the carpet.
“You better be,” he says, without fervour. “You better be scared.”
“I remember something really got to me once,” Sam says, focused on the white dot. Nobody replies. He continues,
“My granddad- this was when I was little, causing trouble, you know- he told my parents he’d straighten me out. He was an old boozer, and good-for-nothing, but they sent me anyway. He drove me for miles and miles until we came to this village; and I remember thinking, nothing good’s going to come out of a day in this place.”
A warder whistles, furtively, in the distance, as if someone might tell him to keep it down. The white dot blips, and blips again.
“He took me to the church, and there was a wall, all painted and new, apart from a single stone, five foot up, and he had to lift me to look at it, and there was a hoofprint on the stone. He put me down, and all he said was, ‘Sammy, that’s the Devil’s footprint. What d’you think of that?’”
“Not much, was what I said at the time- I was a mouthy little bugger- and he drove me home. But that night I remember thinking of that hoof, and wondering, how’d it get up so high in the wall? And even though I knew it were just an old hoof some joker’d made a few hundred year back, I stayed awake all night. My leg kept shaking and I couldn’t stop it, and I knew then what real terror was. I knew the Devil’d be coming to get me, any second now- any second.”
The stillness holds for a moment.
“Didn’t stop you, though,” the Nifter says. Sam snorts.
“What, you think some bit of rock would’ve made me do things different ten year down the line? It was just a feeling I had.”
“They pass,” Brian murmurs, with satisfaction, from out of the darkness.
I dream Sam hangs himself in the corner. I stand over him, his body curving up to the heavens of the ceiling, and repeat,
Thank Christ. Thank Christ. Maybe they’ll give me another day.
-Christopher seems to have been met somewhere on the Islebury roundabout by four youths on bicycles. The youths and Christopher exchanged words. At 12.35 a.m., a bystander found the young man-
Oliver is heaving his middle-aged carcass over the VW’s front seats and into the shadows of the back.
“Another cup?” he asks. “We’ve just about enough left in the thermos.”
“Thank you,” Joplin replies. He fumbles for his mug, somewhere beneath his left foot, and the laptop almost over-balances. The entire quilted bunk-bed shakes a little.
“Christ,” he murmurs. Oliver takes the mug.
“Expensive, is it?” he asks, in a faint Somerset burr.
“Very,” Joplin says, and tries to concentrate on the screen. It glows with a pale alien light.
“Mind if I have a look?” Oliver asks. “I’ve always been interested in this sort of thing, you see.” Harriet clucks, from behind the steering wheel.
Joplin hands it over and begins to pour the tea himself. He tries faintly to recall when it first began brewing; possibly as long as five hours ago. The bottom of his mug is lost in thick, Bovril-like darkness.
“Harriet won’t let me have one of these,” Oliver says, scratching his balding head. “Will you, dear?” He taps once upon the keyboard.
Joplin’s phone thrums its way across the bunk-bed.
Biggins, ten o’clock, it reads. He checks his watch. It’s nine-fifteen. The wireless signal leaps and dies.
“Bad news, is it?” Oliver asks, without looking up.
“My editor wants me to get a move on,” Joplin says, driving the mobile into the depth of his pocket. “Would you mind...?”
Oliver hands the laptop back over and Joplin writes,
-At 12.35 a.m, a bystander found the young man with grievous stab wounds to the chest and stomach. An ambulance was called, and Christopher was admitted to Basingstoke General Hospital at 12.57. He died three hours later. Police are asking-
The hushed silence in the VW reminds him of a childhood church; Harriet coughs, behind her hand, as if forcibly muted. He begins to feel guilty at this and puts the laptop to one side.
“Finished, are you?” Oliver asks. He has been sitting, with admirable patience, his hands clasped in front of him.
“Just about,” Joplin says. With an unconcealed sigh, Harriet picks up the map and begins to rustle it across the dashboard. The mobile’s plastic corner is cutting into his thigh. He digs it out and replaces it on the bunk-bed.
“I don’t think it’s coming here,” she says. “We’ll try another spot. Last time we saw it was up by the Giant’s Chair.” She starts the engine; the headlights flicker up a spotlight of bracken and trees.
“Would you like to sit in the front, Mr Joplin?” she asks.
He scrambles into the passenger seat just as a nasty bump jolts the van forward. He allows himself one glance back.
“Don’t worry,” Oliver calls from the back. “I’ve got your laptop here, safe and sound. Used to the bumps.”
“I always tell him,” Harriet says, accelerating, “‘Oliver, the world may be the stem and the virtual world the flower- but we’re stem people, Oliver, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
“Very admirable,” Joplin replies. A corner of tarmac reveals itself ahead and he lets his tight grip on the seat slacken. “So how long have you lived in the West Country?” he asks.
“All our lives,” Harriet says, adjusting her round glasses, “’side from three years in Africa.”
A familiar sensation of weariness spreads through his stomach.
“So you’ve always been...big cat lovers?” he asks, watching her closely.
“All our lives,” she repeats, without a hint of guile. “It was what brought us together. We love watching the way they move; they’re like ghosts.”
“That’s why we were so surprised,” Oliver says, “when we saw her the first time. If there’s any place we’ll see her tonight,” he adds, “it’ll be up by the Giant’s Chair. That was the first place she visited, wasn’t it, Harriet?”
Perhaps Harriet has an ounce more sense than her husband, he thinks, because she remains silent for a moment and then says,
“Fifteen sheep found mutilated in a twenty-mile radius in the last year.”
“Experts said the bite marks were too big for a fox or a dog. You can put that in your article.”
She brakes, hard. A sheep gazes dully at them from the road ahead. Harriet turns the engine off and sits, quite still. Then the animal trots away into the gorse on the other side; another sheep emerges, and another. Then, in an instant, the spectral herd has vanished once again.
“They’ll make a good snack if she catches them,” Oliver says, with something like reverence.
Halfway down the turning hillside roads, Oliver leans over the seats and hands him a sheaf of blown-up black-and-white photographs.
“Took these last May,” he says, “and these in September.”
A shapeless black mass in a background of mostly black. Trees stand on the paper like charcoal lines. The figure might as well be a person on all fours, he thinks, or a sheep. He squints. The formlessness of it makes him shudder, and for a moment he imagines that it is a human, crouching on their haunches, leering at him.
“Phone’s going off again,” Oliver says, glancing over his shoulder.
“Must be an important article,” Harriet murmurs, sweeping around a corner.
“Stabbing,” he replies, accepting the phone from Oliver.
“Well, it’s the same everywhere now,” she says, with a breezy kind of carelessness. “Here we are.”
As he’s lying in his own London bed the next night, the picture lingers in his mind; Oliver and Harriet, peering forward through their binoculars into every turn of the moorland. It wasn’t a hoax on their part, he thinks, so what? Shared hallucination? Some sort of marital faith to the point of sheer absurdity?
The bite marks never make it into the article. But he surprises himself, days later, waiting for the Biggins inquest to begin, by saying aloud, to the crowded room,
“I’d have liked to have seen anything...just a shape.”