Note: An extract from a novel in progress
When Kendrick left the car it was just barely raining, more a wetness felt in the air than rain. There were sirens in the distance. He wished he’d brought his coat – he felt too exposed in his grey suit. It was before five pm, but already the streetlights tinted the roads orange. From the car the tower block had just one window lit up yellow; he wasn’t sure whether it was Silvia’s flat. He felt like Jack approaching the stem of the beanstalk. As he came closer to the entrance he was glad to see some other lighted windows, on different faces of the building. At the intercom he struggled to remember the number of Silvia’s flat. He pressed five-seven before hesitating. The red LED display had an industrial quality, as if its buttons could do more than simply ring a handset in a flat. He pressed DIAL, and dreaded he had the wrong number. He winced in the rain and there was no answer – just a click as the door unlocked. Surprised, but relieved, he grabbed the metal handle and pulled it open.
He glanced at the caretaker’s office ahead, but there was only a fleece draped over a chair and the dull noise of a television. Walking towards the lifts, he jumped as the door slammed shut behind him. The lift smelled faintly of urine. The doors stayed open uncomfortably long. There were loud voices somewhere above. Kendrick only hoped they were not on Silvia’s floor, which he did remember: floor six.
Leaving the lift he could hear the voices, closer, but still somewhere up above – angry, and shouting, but laughing also, aggressive speech and spirited cackling. The hallway was empty. Kendrick noticed for the first time the grey steel barricades over some of the doors. He must have assumed they were some kind of security feature, like the barred gates that were installed on some of the flats; only now was it clear that these impenetrable grey barriers permanently stopped anyone going into the flat. Silvia had told him that the place was condemned. He tried to avoid discussing her home, in fact he avoided thinking about it at all if he could. So he only realised now that the next time anyone would go into these sealed flats would be to remove everything inside, including the windows and copper wiring. For a brief time the wind would breathe through the glassless tower. And then there would be nothing there but sky.
He recognised Silvia’s door, making a mental note of the number this time, and knocked. The bell had been broken for years; since before Silvia and her mother lived there. As he waited for her, there was an eruption of laughter above. The echo seemed to linger in the hallway. Kendrick knocked again, louder. He began to worry that Silvia had forgotten about him and gone out somewhere, or left intentionally before he arrived.
A voice came through the door. ‘Who is it?’
‘Silvia, it’s me, Ken.’
As she opened the door slowly she looked almost annoyed, ‘You didn’t buzz, was the door open?’
‘Yeah.’ As he walked in, he added, ‘Some other people were coming in.’
Once inside the flat he felt safe, though he was always alert for the return of Silvia’s mother.
‘How was work?’ she said, as he took off his jacket and draped it over the sofa. He gave an uncommitted shrug. He was going to ask how her day was, but didn’t want to refer to school. Instead he sighed. He had developed a relationship with Silvia wherein he was overworked and unsatisfied, and in need of rejuvenating, in need of her youth, which she gladly provided. In his moments of honesty with himself, Kendrick couldn’t say quite what he provided for her. He had assumed it was the glamour of sleeping with a television producer – but she didn’t even want to be a TV presenter. Perhaps she enjoyed the idea he was married, and older, or maybe it was somehow convenient, to be sleeping with someone far out of her own social circle, mostly disconnected from her life. In truth that was what Kendrick enjoyed too.
‘It can’t be that bad.’
He struggled for something to say. The reality was far too bland. He couldn’t admit that he’d simply left the office out of boredom, after making a few token, and pointless, telephone calls. As much as it spoke of the authority he held, it didn’t quite maintain the illusion he wanted.
‘I was in a meeting today, and it just confirmed that actors are arseholes.’
Silvia grinned. She enjoyed discussing actors and behind the scenes, especially treating these extraordinary things as bland or, even better, outright deriding them. She sat next to him. ‘Was it anyone famous?’
Propelled by her question, he eased into the sofa and continued, ‘No, that was the worst part, but they all think they’re so important. Obviously he’s convinced he’s the next Brando – ’
‘What was he being a dick about?’
He took his time picking a topic for his character’s disdain. He inhaled her curiosity. ‘The script, like always. Wanted to change it – to enlarge his part obviously. Add a few scenes, stuff like that.’
‘What an arse.’
He was pleased by how willingly she took his side. His wife would do the same, but she didn’t have the same attentiveness. She tended to accept his stories with bored compliance, even when they were true.
‘But that’s TV. That’s just the way the industry is. It’s an industry of arseholes.’ He smiled at his own aloofness. Then the nagging dread of Silvia’s mother resurfaced in Kendrick’s mind. ‘How’s your mum?’
She frowned comically at the implied connection between the two thoughts. ‘She’s fine.’ Sensing that wasn’t the information he was after, she continued, ‘She’s on a double shift today. So she’s got tomorrow off.’
His relief was visible as he relaxed into the sofa. Silvia smiled at him.
‘D’you want a drink?’
Kendrick gave a sideways nod. ‘That’d be great.’ Silvia bounced off the sofa and went into the kitchen. Kendrick looked at her buttocks as she was gazing into the fridge.
‘Is a beer all right?’
Still looking at her buttocks he said, ‘A beer would be nice, thanks.’
She turned with a blue tin in each hand, elbowing the fridge door shut. They smiled at each other, Kendrick eyeing her as she walked back to the sofa, the fabric of her trousers gripping her thighs. She sat down, and immediately he was aroused by her proximity. She handed him a tin, and they cracked them open, Kendrick taking a nervous sip.
As he jogged down the stairwell he observed the details of the tower’s disrepair, rejoicing to be leaving. On the fifth floor the wall paneling below the window had shoeprints, as if someone had tried to kick it out entirely. For what reason Kendrick couldn’t imagine. Further down, a window had a large radial crack, roughly head height. He dodged past dubious wet patches before a loud shout slowed his pace. He nearly stopped completely, before there was another noise, a murmur, and then loud laughter again.
Just below him a group of black boys entered the stairwell, laughing and shouting. Kendrick was caught at the top of the flight of stairs overlooking them – no way to disappear, no way to turn and walk away without causing offence, or drawing attention. He nearly froze as one of the boys looked at him, and looked at his clothes and shoes. He continued down the steps slowly, trying to seem casual, and unconcerned. Another of the boys glanced at him, before all three of them began walking down, speaking loudly with sudden exclamations.
‘He got jooked up, boy! He got jooked up!’
Kendrick slowed almost entirely, waiting to give them a sufficient head start, just in case they changed their minds and came back for him. His heart was beating loud in his head. When he could hear that the boys had gone he continued down the stairs, elated by the hormonal surge, his fingers shaking and light. He nearly laughed to himself at his foolish paranoia, taking each step slowly to the bottom.
Outside the sky was now completely dark. It was nearly eight. His phone told him he had missed three calls from his wife. He started constructing the bare bones of his alibi as he made his way to the car, still invigorated by his close encounter with danger in the stairwell. The slow rain had stopped. The ground was slick. He decided on a simple lie: he would transpose his meeting yesterday afternoon to this evening. It saved on having to create the smaller details, and fundamentally reduced the extent of his lie. As he got near his car he went over the conversation in his head, in preparation for his wife’s curiosity. Kendrick’s return home was often late, and he never knew what it was that prompted his wife to question him on some nights and not others.
He aimed the remote key at the car, but the single flash and hoot indicated the doors were now locked. As he was cursing himself for forgetting to lock the car he noticed a face. His stomach tightened as he recognised it was one of the black boys from before. There were two of them, across the road. The one closer by looked at him, the other seemed less interested. There was a manic intensity to his gaze, though Kendrick couldn’t see him clearly under the orange light. Maybe it was the car’s chirrup that had caught his attention. Kendrick pressed on the key again, and the car gave a double flash and cry to attract further scrutiny. He fumbled with the door handle, made unresponsive by his nerves, finally managing to pull open the door. The boy looked away and said something to his friend, who kicked a plastic bottle aggressively across the road. It bounced and hit the rear bumper of the car. As Kendrick started the engine he glanced at the boys, in case they should make their way over to him. One of them looked at him as he pulled away. He kept his eyes on the road and concentrated on driving safely away. As he put the boys behind him and reached the end of the road he heard one of them yell loudly, ‘Joker!’
Turning onto the High Street, he felt sheltered by the other cars, and pedestrians, but a certain dread lingered in his mind. He turned on the radio to distract him from his nerves. Though he wasn’t listening, the sound of the DJ’s voice soothed him. He began to feel the relief of escape for the second time that night. But he couldn’t escape the feeling of danger. Perhaps it was just a heightened state of awareness, the awareness of how thinly he was protected from the outside. The street felt close. Maybe this was his dread. He tried to distract himself by thinking of what he’d say to his wife when he got home. As the traffic crawled forward he ran through a menu of questions, to proof his alibi for cracks. He reminded himself of the conversation he’d had with another producer, trying to remember one of the jokes he’d laughed at, if there’d been one.
He slowed at a traffic light, and seemed to sense the terrible realisation before it happened, as if his subconscious had suppressed the awful and bizarre truth up until this moment. Maybe he had noticed, but somehow not registered, the shape in the backseat when he got into the car. First it was the voice.
‘Don’t fucking stop driving.’
Kendrick nearly gagged. The boy’s face seemed to rise up from nowhere in the rear-view mirror. The car jolted to a stop.
‘Don’t fucking stop driving!’
Shaking, he pushed down on the accelerator, bouncing the car forward, nearly colliding with the car ahead.
‘Don’t fucking stop!’