A single cab at the Abbey rank. The driver reading his folded newspaper by the interior light. Darkness lacquers the wet pavements and traffic lights flash colour splashes on black asphalt. The sugar candy buttresses fly past shadowed tracery to the stars, while I gaze upwards… into the vastness.
Another empty Friday night. At midnight, the pubs and clubs moderately busy, swaying with too much bare leg and midriff. Glasses scraping on tables ringed with spilt beer. I’d pushed through the crowd, on the hunt, my silence a secret among the shrieks and screams, the thumping music and the waves of hubbub crashing my skull. On the hunt. On the watch, for that lost sheep on the edge of the flock. The one the rest would leave.
But maybe I’m losing my touch, my scent, my night vision. Or maybe I’m sick… I couldn’t find what I wanted. So now I hang in the shadows of the buttresses, and time ceases. It’s the hour of the wolf.
And then I hear. The shoes; light, impractical, clicking on stone. I guess at thin white straps, bare toes, stilettos and ankle bracelet. There’s usually a bracelet of some kind, tagging each sheep. I’ve got a collection now.
The sound approaches. She’s heading for that one taxi. She’ll be feeling in her tiny bag for money and keys, rehearsing her own little script. And I rehearse mine: the converging of two hopeful people on the last cab; the deprecating shrug, offering her the safe ride home – but in my face the hint of pain and a limp - wounded 'What's wrong?' 'Just a knee injury. Football.' And I'll name a team – far away and lesser known but some glamour. And perhaps she’ll ask whether we’re going the same way, and I’ll say, ‘Where? Oh, yeah. I live just a little way on past there. Tell you what – the taxi can drop you off first, don’t worry, I’ll pay.’ I’ll smile – sheepishly - and confide, ‘Expense account…. ’ And she’ll smile thinking she might have struck lucky and she is lucky. We are going the same way, though she doesn’t know it.
In the taxi, we’ll chat, I’ll get her number. See where she lives. Easy. I’ve a gift. Call it what you like: spinning a line, making sheep’s eyes or animal magnetism. It’s a gift.
So I wait, a vertical column of blackness, blacker than the shadow I am in. And the buttresses are trees, a vast forest, and I am hungry, and the footsteps are very near now...
I leave the shadows and time it just right. Her red dress bursts upon me like a shock and we collide – she slips – her arm flies out – I reach – and gently hold. A cheap charm bracelet tinkles. A confusion of ‘Sorry’s’ and meaningless, placatory, small, surprised bleats while I steady her. The bag she’s carrying slips in slow motion and rolls, unravelling its guts on the wet stone.
‘I’m so sorry! Let me help you.’ I say, scrabbling for the spinning tube of something, while she stoops, in tight red dress, to catch and save, not knowing she’s the one who’s caught.
But something’s changed – I hear more hurrying steps and laughing voices and car doors open and slam as someone takes our taxi. I rise with the last small box in my hands, to see it drive away. We turn to face each other; she in dismay, I in feigned innocence. I notice fresh red lipstick: as glossy as the splashed blackness under our feet, where, it seems she stands in a pool of traffic light red. Yet around and beneath the paint, dull, limp hair, the face plain and sallow.
We walk to the empty rank, avoiding looking at each other. We scan the street, make polite conversation such crap luck it was to miss that taxi my fault, I say. No she says, I should look where I’m going, blind as a bat that’s my trouble, lost a contact lens in the pub (a little apologetic closed mouth smile) too vain to wear glasses she simpers and now look what’s happened.
Yes. Too vain. Now look what’s happened.
I don’t speak.
Just act concerned: got far to go?
Not really she lives a stone’s throw, just the other side of the river, but she usually takes a taxi it’s safer.
Sensible girl, I say. I live quite near there myself. I’m just lazy. And I spin her the football injury story.
She smiles again, closed mouth, as if hiding orthodontic braces and I sense she is beginning to feel more at ease. Softly… softly. And in this way the clock clicks unwatched through ten minutes of small talk and the traffic lights turn red and yellow and green and red and the street is still silent except for cars hissing past. She begins to shiver slightly. Her bracelet tinkles as she moves her arms and I sense my moment: No point in waiting here, I say, think I’ll go round the corner to the taxi office, see what they’ve got.
As I speak the words I can read her thoughts. She’ll be left alone, in limbo, here and although she hadn’t bargained for human warmth, now she’s felt it, it’s hard to let it disappear into the empty night.
Mind if I tag along? I mime the words in my head while she bleats it aloud and my blood sings a game of tag, tag, rag, tag, catch-me if you-can.
Only I don’t fancy standing here on my own all night, she says – it’s getting cold.
At this, I know I am allowed a brief look at the bare flesh she displays. She expects it. Wishes it. After all I am only human. Aren’t I?
My eyes travel upwards from bare legs to the curve of thighs and stomach and upwards to padding, bare shoulders and to the red lipstick slash in the plain, almost featureless face. The kind of crowd-face you wouldn’t know again. A bit like mine.
I feign off-hand older-brother kindliness: diffident smile, Ok yeah (I’m doing her a favour) Come on then. We walk towards the river and by now I know her, inside out: out on the town with workmates, dull job, shabby one-room flat. No boyfriend. The red dress a disguise, just for a night, borrowed. Sad. I resolve to put her out of her misery. Soon.
But then things change again. She looks at her watch and doesn’t think there’ll be any taxis. She might as well walk it’s not far. Maybe we could walk together she says. I can’t believe my luck.
I notice how white and sallow her skin is under the bleached street light, as her brow wrinkles over the self-conscious pleading orthodontic smile and I can’t believe my luck or her stupidity but I suspend my disbelief.
I feign hesitation. Let her think it's a chore, a detour, a kind favour ok not that far after all. And the scent of her fills me... just the scent of prey. So we tread the shining pavements to the bridge and cross the dark swollen water, hear it rushing engorged towards the weir and we enter broken street-light blackness where trees overhang.
I could do it. Here. In this dark damp place. But there’s a car coming - headlights glance at fence and pavement and at us. Her eyes watch me and I am slightly nervous but for no reason that I can fathom, because I know where we are. After all,I have learnt the paths of this new town, as I will learn the next town and the one after that.
We reach the railway bridge and, as if on cue, a train thunders metallically overhead while another car shines a brief spotlight on our one act play. Her eyes seem for a second to glint with gold; but maybe it’s just the headlights. And now she leads the way and I know her game. Poor cow. She leads the way past a gingerbread cottage among trees, towards a dark tunnel with steps upward through foliage; just the kind of place I like. You can smell the walnut scent of dead leaves and feel the drip from seeping bricks. And again I think, I could do it here. Shrive her save her scour her inside out leave only white bones and transparent soul. But I hold myself tight because I know she’s leading me to a better place.
We cross another bridge over a narrow, still canal, Lethe- dark. The street is long, a dead end. No passing cars or footsteps here. My kind of territory. The last house when she stops at the door is all dark and all the better to see her with...
And when she unlocks the door, there is a smell, familiar yet unsettling and exciting, that I cannot place. I feel my hairs one by one rise to stand on end in anticipation or... fear? And surprisingly the words of an excuse form in my mind – I'd like to slink away and prey and pray another day - but I've come so far and I'm famished for flesh. I follow her into a soft cushioned pink and red room, where she lights candles and where red wine is waiting and she pours me some, her body too close to me, her eyes pleading. So I drink deep to celebrate our holy communion, giving thanks for the body and the flesh.
But as I drain the wine, the pink room seems to darken and turn more red. My hand opens and I see the glass fall, tumbling, a slowly spreading red stain on the carpet and the room turns on its axis and then I am sinking into a deep red lake. And I am looking up at her face – her white face far above against the rosy vault of the pre-dawn sky. And before I enter the darkness, I see her red lips finally part in a smile, showing her lovely white teeth.