Authors: Robert Bryndza
For Ján, who shares my life through the comedy, and now, the drama.
he pavement glittered
in the moonlight as Andrea Douglas-Brown hurried up the deserted high street. Her high heels click-clacked in the quiet, frequently breaking rhythm – a result of all the vodka she’d consumed. The January air was sharp, and her bare legs stung from the cold. Christmas and New Year had been and gone, leaving a cold aseptic void. Shop windows slid past, bathed in darkness, broken only by a grimy off-licence under a flickering street light. An Indian man sat inside, hunched in the glow of his laptop, but didn’t notice as she stalked past.
Andrea was so fuelled by anger, so intent on leaving the pub behind, that she only questioned where she was going when the shop windows were replaced by large houses set back from the pavement. A skeleton of elm tree branches stretched above, vanishing into the starless sky. She stopped and leant against a wall to catch her breath. Blood roared through her body, and the icy air burned as she pulled it into her lungs. Turning back, she saw she’d come quite far, and was halfway up the hill. The road stretched away behind, a slick of treacle bathed in sodium orange with the train station at its base, which was shuttered in darkness. The silence and the cold pressed down on her. The only movement was the stream of vapour as her breath hit the freezing air. She tucked her pink clutch bag under her arm, and, satisfied no one was around, lifted the front of her tiny dress and retrieved an iPhone from her underwear. The Swarovski crystals on the cover glittered lazily under the orange street lights. The screen showed there was no signal. She cursed, tucked it back into her underwear and unzipped the tiny pink clutch. Nestling inside was an older iPhone, it too had Swarovski bling, but several of its crystals were missing. It too showed no signal.
Panic climbed in Andrea’s chest as she looked around. The houses were set back from the road, tucked behind tall hedges and iron gates. If she could reach the crest of the hill, she’d probably get reception. And screw it, she thought, she would call her father’s driver. She’d think of an explanation why she was south of the river. She buttoned up her tiny leather jacket, wrapped her arms over her chest and set off up the hill, the old iPhone still cradled in her hand like a talisman.
The sound of a car engine rumbled behind and she turned her head, squinting into the headlights, feeling even more exposed as the bright light played over her bare legs. Her hopes that it was a taxi were dashed when she saw the roof of the car was low and there was no ‘for hire’ sign. She turned away and carried on walking. The sound of the car engine grew louder, and then the headlights were on top of her, casting a large circle of light on the pavement in front. A few more seconds passed, but the lights were still on her; she could almost feel their heat. She glanced back into the glare. The car slowed, and crawled along a few feet behind.
She felt furious when she realised whose car it was. With a flick of her long hair, she turned back and carried on walking. The car accelerated a little, drawing level. The windows were tinted black. A sound system boomed and fizzed, tickling her throat, making her ears itch. She stopped abruptly. The car came to a halt seconds later, then reversed the few feet back so the driver’s window was now level with her. The sound system fell silent. The engine hummed.
Andrea leaned over and peered at the inky glass of the tinted window, but only her face reflected back. She leant down and tried the door, but it was locked. She banged on the window with the flat of her pink clutch bag and tried the door again.
‘I’m not playing games, I meant what I said back there!’ she shouted. ‘Either open the door or . . . or . . .’
The car remained motionless, its engine humming.
it seemed to say.
Andrea tucked her bag under her arm, gave the tinted glass the finger, and stalked away, climbing the last of the hill to its crest. A huge tree straddled the edge of the pavement and, putting its thick trunk between her and the car’s headlights, she checked the phone again, holding it out above her head for a signal. The sky was starless, and the browny-orange cloud seemed so low that her outstretched arm might brush against it. The car slowly inched forward and came to a halt beside the tree.
Fear began to trickle through Andrea’s body. Staying in the shadow of the tree, she scanned her surroundings. Thick hedges lined the pavements on both sides of the road, which stretched away up ahead into a blur of suburban gloom. Then she spied something opposite: an alleyway running between two large houses. She could just make out a small sign, which read:
‘Catch me if you can,’ she murmured. She took a breath, and made to run across the road – but caught her foot on one of the thick tree roots bulging up under the pavement. Pain shot through her ankle as it folded under her. She lost balance, her clutch bag and phone skidding away as her hip hit the corner of the kerb and she tumbled into the road, her head hitting the tarmac with a hollow thud. She lay dazed in the glare of the car headlights.
They blinked off, plunging her into darkness.
She heard a door open and tried to get up, but the road under her lurched and spun. Legs came into view, blue jeans . . . A pair of expensive trainers blurred and became four. She put out her arm, expecting the familiar figure to help her up,
but instead, in a swift move, a leather-gloved hand clamped over her nose and mouth. The other arm encircled her upper arms, pinning them against her body. The glove’s leather was soft and warm against her skin, but the power and strength of the fingers inside shocked her. She was yanked up, dragged swiftly to the rear door and slung inside the car, landing lengthways on the back seat. The cold behind her extinguished as the door slammed shut. Andrea lay in shock, not quite comprehending what had just happened.
The car shifted as the figure climbed into the front passenger seat and closed the door. The central locking clicked and whirred. Andrea heard the glove compartment open, a rustle, and then it was snapped shut. The car swayed as the figure clambered through the gap in the front seats and sat down hard on her back, pushing the air from her lungs. Moments later, a thin plastic strip encircled her wrists, pulling them tight behind her back, biting into her skin. The figure shifted down her body, quick and lithe, muscular thighs now pressing on her tied wrists. The pain in her twisted ankle intensified as thick tape was unfurled with a juddering sound and her ankles were bound together. An overpowering smell of a pine tree air freshener mixed with a coppery tang, and she realised her nose was bleeding.
A flash of anger gave Andrea a surge of adrenalin, sharpening her mind.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she started. ‘I’ll scream. You know how loud I can scream!’
But the figure shifted round, knees now on her back, forcing the air out of her. A shadow moved in the corner of her eye, and something hard and heavy came down on the back of her head. Fresh pain and stars burst in front of her eyes. The arm rose and again came crashing down, and then everything went black.
The road remained silent and empty as the first specks of snow began to fall, twirling lazily to meet the ground. The car, sleek with its tinted windows, pulled away almost soundlessly and slid off into the night.
ee Kinney emerged
from the small end-terrace house where he still lived with his mother, and stared up the high street at the blanket of white. He pulled a packet of cigarettes from his trackies, and lit up. It had snowed all weekend, and was still falling, purifying the churn of footprints and tyre tracks already on the ground. Forest Hill train station was silent at the foot of the hill; the Monday morning commuters who usually surged past him, bound for offices in Central London, were probably still tucked up in the warm, enjoying an unexpected morning in bed with their other halves.
Lee had been unemployed since leaving school six years ago, but the good old days of languishing on the dole were over. The new Tory government was cracking down on the long-term unemployed, and Lee now had to work full-time for his dole. He’d been given a fairly cushy work placement as a council gardener at the Horniman Museum, just a ten-minute walk from his house. He’d wanted to stop home this morning like everyone else, but he’d heard nothing from Jobcentre Plus to say that work was cancelled. In the blazing row that had followed, his mother had said if he didn’t show up, his dole would be stopped, and he’d have to find somewhere else to live.
There was a bang on the front window and his mother’s pinched face appeared, shooing him away. He gave her the finger and set off up the hill.
Four pretty teenage girls were coming towards him. They wore the red blazers, short skirts and knee-high socks of Dulwich School for Girls. They chatted away excitedly in their plummy accents about how they’d been turned away from school, whilst simultaneously swiping at their iPhones, the signature white headphone wires swinging against blazer pockets. They crowded the pavement en masse, and didn’t part when Lee reached them, so he was forced to step down off the kerb into a murky slush left by the road gritter. He felt icy water seep into his new trainers and shot them a dirty look, but they were too absorbed in their tribal gossip, screaming with laughter.
Stuck up rich bitches,
he thought. As he reached the brow of the hill, the clock tower of the Horniman Museum appeared through the bare branches of the elm trees. Snow had spattered against its smooth yellow sandstone bricks, sticking like clumps of wet toilet tissue.
Lee turned right onto a residential street which ran parallel to the iron railings of the museum grounds. The road climbed sharply, the houses becoming grander. As he reached its summit, he stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Snow flew into his eyes, scratchy and cold. On a good day you could see London spread out from here, stretching away for miles down to the London Eye by the Thames, but today thick white cloud had descended, and Lee could only just make out the imposing sprawl of the Overhill housing estate on the hill opposite.
The small gate in the iron railings was locked. The wind was now blowing horizontally and Lee shivered in his trackies. A miserable old git was in charge of the gardening crew. Lee was supposed to wait for him to show up and let him in, but the street was empty. He looked around to make certain, and then scaled the small gate into the museum grounds, taking a thin pathway between tall evergreen hedges.
Sheltered from the shrieking wind, the world around him fell eerily silent. The snow was deepening fast, refilling his crunching footprints as he made his way through the hedgerows. The Horniman Museum and its grounds covered seventeen acres, and the sheds for gardening and maintenance were set right at the back, against a high wall with a curved top. Everywhere was a dazzling blur of white, and Lee lost his bearings, emerging deeper than he had expected in the gardens, beside the Orangery. The ornate wrought-iron-and-glass building took him by surprise. He doubled back, but after a few minutes was again in unfamiliar territory, finding himself at a fork in the path.
How many times have I walked through these bloody gardens?
he thought. He took the path to the right, leading into a sunken garden. White marble cherubs posed on snowy brick plinths. The wind gave a low howl as it blew among them, and as Lee passed, it felt as if the blank, milky little eyes of the cherubs were watching him. He stopped and held his hand up to his face against the onslaught of snow, trying to work out the quickest way to the Visitors’ Centre. The garden maintenance crew weren’t usually allowed in the museum, but it was freezing, and the café could be open, and screw it, he would warm up like any other normal human being.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out. It was a text message from the Jobcentre Plus, saying that ‘due to adverse weather he would not be required to attend his work placement’. He stuffed it back in his pocket. The cherubs all seemed to have their heads turned towards him. Were they facing him before? He imagined their pearly little heads slowly moving, tracking his progress through the garden. He shook away the thought and hurried past the blank eyes, concentrating on the snow-covered ground, and emerged into the quiet of a clearing around a disused boating lake.
He stopped and squinted through the whirling flakes. A faded blue rowing boat sat in the centre of a pristine oval of snow that had settled on the frozen lake. At the opposite end of the lake was a tiny decaying boat shed, and Lee could just make out the cover of an old rowing boat under its eaves.
Snow was seeping into his already-wet trainers, and despite his jacket, the cold was spreading around his ribs. He was ashamed to realise that he actually felt scared. He needed to find his way out of here. If he doubled back through the sunken garden, he could find the path around the perimeter and emerge onto London Road. The petrol garage would be open and he could buy more fags and some chocolate.
He was about to turn back, when a noise broke the silence. It was tinny and distorted, coming from the direction of the boat shed.
‘Hey! Who’s there?’ he shouted, his voice emerging high-pitched and panicky. It was only when the noise ceased, and seconds later, began to repeat, that Lee realised it was the ringtone from a mobile phone, and could be coming from one of his co-workers.
Because of the snow he couldn’t tell where the path ended and the water began, so, sticking close to the band of trees that lined the edge of the boating lake, Lee carefully made his way round towards the sound of the ringtone. It was a desperately light tune, and as he drew nearer he could hear that it was coming from the boat shed.
He reached the low roof, and, ducking down, saw a glow illuminating the gloom from behind the tiny boat. The ringtone stopped, and seconds later the light went out. Lee was relieved it was just a phone. Druggies and dossers regularly scaled the walls at night, and the gardening crew was always finding empty wallets – dumped after the cash and cards were removed – used condoms, and needles. The phone had probably been dumped . . .
But why dump a phone . . . Surely you’d only dump a really crappy phone?
He circled the little boathouse. The posts of a tiny jetty poked through the snow, and the jetty continued under the low roof of the boat shed. Where the snow couldn’t reach, Lee could see that the wood was rotten. He eased along the jetty, ducking down under the eaves of the low roof. The wood above his head was rotten and splintered, and cobwebs hung in wisps. He was now beside the rowing boat, and could see that on the other side of the shed, lying on a little wooden ledge, was an iPhone.
Excitement rose in his chest. He could sell an iPhone down the pub, no probs. He gave the rowing boat a shove with his foot, but it didn’t budge; the water was frozen solid around it. He passed its bow, stopping at the opposite end of the jetty. Crouching on his knees, he leaned over, and using the sleeve of his coat he cleared away a powdery layer of snow, exposing thick ice. The water underneath was very clear, and down in the depths he could just make out two fish, mottled with red and black, swimming lazily. A string of tiny bubbles rose up from them, reached the underside of the ice, and rolled away in opposite directions.
The phone started to ring again and he jumped, almost slipping off the end of the jetty. The cheesy ringtone bounced around inside the roof. He could see the illuminated iPhone clearly now against the opposite wall of the boat shed, lying on its side on a lip of wood just above the frozen waterline. It had a sparkly jewelled case. Lee went to the rowing boat and swung a leg over. He placed his foot on the wooden seat and tested his weight, still keeping the other foot on the jetty. The boat didn’t budge.
He swung his other leg over, climbing into the boat, but even from here the iPhone was still out of his reach. Spurred on by the thought of folded bank notes, thick in the pocket of his trackies, Lee hooked his leg over the opposite side of the boat and tentatively placed his foot on the ice. Holding on to the edge of the boat, he pressed down, risking a wet foot. The ice held strong. He stepped out of the boat and placed his other foot on the ice, listening for the telltale squeaking sound of tension and weakness. Nothing. He took a small step, and then another. It was like walking on a concrete floor.
The eaves of the wooden roof slanted down. To reach the iPhone, Lee was going to have to get down on his haunches.
As he squatted down, the light from its screen illuminated the inside of the boat shed. Lee noticed a couple of old plastic bottles and bits of rubbish poking up through the ice, then something which made him stop . . . it looked like the tip of a finger.
His heart racing, he reached out and gently squeezed it. It was cold and rubbery. Frost clung to the fingernail, which was painted a deep purple. He pulled the sleeve of his coat over his hand and rubbed at the ice around it. The light from the iPhone cast the frozen surface in a murky green, and underneath he saw a hand, reaching up to where the finger poked through the ice. What must have been an arm vanished away into the depths.
The phone stopped ringing, and was replaced by a deafening silence. And then he saw it. Directly underneath where he crouched was the face of a girl. Her milky brown swollen eyes stared at him, blankly. A clump of dark hair was fused to the ice in a tangle. A fish swam lazily past, its tail brushing against the girl’s lips, which were parted as if she were about to speak.
Lee recoiled with a yell and leapt up, his head crashing against the low roof of the boathouse. He bounced off and landed back on the ice, legs sliding away under him.
He lay for a moment, stunned. Then he heard a faint squeaking, cracking sound. Panicking, he kicked and scrabbled, trying to get up, to get as far away from the dead girl as he could, but his legs slid away under him again. This time, he plunged through the ice into the freezing water. He felt the girl’s limp arms tangling with his, her cold slimy skin against his. The more he fought, the more their limbs became intertwined. The cold was sharp, absolute. He swallowed foul water and kicked and flailed. He somehow managed to heave himself away to the edge of the rowing boat. He heaved and retched, wishing that he’d reached that phone, but his thoughts of selling it were gone.
All he wanted now was to call for help.