Book: Black Wings

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Michael Marshall Smith

 

Michael Marshall Smith is a widely published British author of novels, short stories, and screenplays. His novels include Only Forward (HarperCollins, 1994), Spares (HarperCollins, 1996), and several novels published as by Michael Marshall. Among his short story collections are What You Make It (HarperCollins, 1999) and More Tomorrow and Other Stories (Earthling, 2003). He is a five-time winner of the British Fantasy Award.

 
 
alfway through unpacking the second red bag I turned to my wife—who was busily engaged in pecking out an e-mail on her Blackberry—and said something encouraging about the bag's contents.

  "Well, you know," she said, not really paying attention. "I do try."

  I went back to taking items out and laying them on the counter, which is my way. Because I work from home, I'm always the one who unpacks the grocery shopping when it's delivered: Helen's presence this morning was unusual, and a function of a meeting that had been put back an hour (the subject of the terse e-mail currently being written). Rather than standing with the fridge door open and putting items directly into it, I put everything on the counter first, so I can sort through it and get a sense of what's there, before then stowing everything neatly in the fridge, organized by type/nature/potential meal groupings, as a kind of Phase Two of the unloading operation.

  The contents of the bags—red for stuff that needs refrigeration, purple for freezer goods, green for everything else—is never entirely predictable. My wife has control of the online ordering process, which she conducts either from her laptop or, in extremis, her phone. While I've not personally specified the order, however, its contents are seldom much of a surprise. There's an established pattern. We have cats, so there'll be two large bags of litter—it's precisely being able to avoid hoicking that kind of thing off supermarket shelves, into a trolley and across a busy car park, which makes online grocery shopping such a boon. There will be a few green bags containing bottled water, sacks for the rubbish bins, toilet rolls and paper towels, cleaning materials, tins of store cupboard staples (baked beans, tuna, tinned tomatoes), a box of Diet Coke for me (which Helen tolerates on the condition that I never let it anywhere near our son), that kind of thing. There will be one, or at the most two, purple bags of frozen beans, holding frozen peas, frozen organic fish cakes for the kid, and so on. We never buy enough frozen to fill more than one purple carrier, but sometimes they split it between a couple, presumably for some other logistical reason. Helen views this as both a waste of resources and a threat to the environment, and has sent at least two e-mails to the company about it. I don't mind much as we use the bags for clearing out the cats' litter tray, and I'd rather have spares on hand than risk running out.

  Then there are the red bags, the main event. The red bags represent the daily news of food consumption—in contrast to the contextual magazine articles of the green bags, or the long-term forecasts of the purple. In the red bags will be the Greek yoghurt, blueberries, and strawberries Helen uses to make her morning smoothie; a variety of vegetables and salad materials; some freerange and organic chicken fillets (I never used to be clear on the difference, but eleven years of marriage has made me far better informed); some extra-sharp cheddar (Helen favours cheese that tastes as though it wants your tongue to be sad), and a few other bits and pieces.

  The individual items may vary a little from week to week, but basically, that's what gets brought to our door most Wednesday mornings. Once in a while there may be substitutions in the delivery (when the supermarket has run out of a specified item, and one judged to be of very near equivalence is provided instead): these have to be carefully checked, as Helen's idea of similarity of goods differs somewhat from the supermarket's. Otherwise, you could set your watch by our shopping, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor—and this continuity of content is why I'd turned to Helen when I was halfway through the second red bag. Yes, there'd been spring onions and a set of red, green, and yellow peppers—standard weekly fare. But there were also two packs of brightly coloured and fun-filled children's yoghurts and a block of much milder cheddar of the kind Oscar and I tend to prefer. And a family pack of deadly-looking chocolate desserts. Not to mention a six-pack of thick and juicy-looking steaks, and very large variety pack of further Italian cured meats holding five different types of salami.

  "Yum," I said.

  I was genuinely pleased, and a little touched. Normally I source this kind of stuff—on the few occasions when I have it—from the deli or mini-market, which are both about ten minutes' walk away from the house (in opposite directions, sadly). Seeing it come into the house via the more socially condoned route of the supermarket delivery was strangely affecting.

  "Hmm?" Helen said. She was nearing the end of her e-mail. I could tell because the speed of her typing increases markedly as she approaches the point when she can fire her missive off into space. She jabbed send and finally looked up properly. "What's that you said?"

  "Good shop. Unusual. But I like it."

  She smiled, glad that I was happy, but then frowned. "What the hell's that?"

I looked where she was pointing. "Yoghurt."

  She grabbed the pack and stared with evident distaste at the ingredient list. "I didn't order those. Obviously. Or that." Now she was pointing at the pile of salamis and meats. "And the cheese is wrong. Oh, bloody hell."

  And with that, she was gone.

  I waited, becalmed in the kitchen, to see what would unfold. A quick look in the other bags—the greens and purples—didn't explain much. They all contained exactly the kind of thing we tended to order.

  Five minutes later I heard the sound of two pairs of footsteps coming down the stairs. Helen re-entered the kitchen, followed by the man who'd delivered the shopping. He was carrying three red bags and looked mildly cowed.

  "What it is, right," he muttered, defensively, "is the checking system. I've told management about it before. There are flaws. In the checking system."

  "I'm sure it can't be helped," Helen said, cheerfully, and turned to me. "Bottom line is that all the bags are correct except for the red ones, which both belong to someone else."

  When I'd put all the items from the counter back into the bags I'd taken them out of, an exchange took place. Their red bags, for ours. The delivery guy apologised about five more times— somehow making it clear, without recourse to words, that he was apologising for the system as a whole rather than any failure on his part—and trudged off back up the stairs.

  "I'll let him out," Helen said, darting forward to give me a peck on the cheek. "Got to go anyway. You're all right unpacking all this, yes?"

  "Of course," I said. "I always manage somehow."

  And off she went. It only took a few minutes to unpack the low-fat yoghurt, sharp cheese, salad materials, and free-range and organic chicken breasts.

 

...

 

funny thing happened, however. When I broke off from work late morning to go down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I lingered at the fridge for a moment after getting the milk out, and I found myself thinking:

  What if that had been our food?

  I wasn't expressing discontent. We eat well. I personally don't have much of a fix on what eating healthily involves (beyond the fact it evidently requires ingesting more fruit and vegetables per day than feels entirely natural), and so it's a good thing that Helen does. If there's anything that I want which doesn't arrive at our door through the effortless magic of supermarket delivery, there's nothing to stop me going out and buying it myself. It's not as if the fridge or cupboards have been programmed to reject non-acceptable items, or set off a siren and contact the diet police when confronted with off-topic foodstuffs.

  It was more that I got a sudden and strangely wistful glimpse of another life—and of another woman.

  I was being assumptive, of course. It was entirely possible that the contents of the red bags I'd originally unpacked had been selected by the male of some nearby household. It didn't feel that way, however. It seemed easier to believe that somewhere nearby was another household rather like ours. A man, a woman, and a child (or perhaps two, we're unusual in having stopped at one). All the people in this family would be different to us, of course, but for the moment it was the idea of the woman which stuck in my head. I wondered what she'd look like. What kind of things made her laugh. How, too, she'd managed to miss out on the health propaganda constantly pushed at the middle-classes (she had to be middle class, most people in our neighbourhood are, and everyone who orders online from our particular supermarket has to be, it's the law)—or what had empowered her to ignore it.

  We get steak every now and then, of course—but it would never be in the company of all the other meats and rich foods. One dose of weapons-grade animal fats per week is quite risky enough for this household, thank you. We live a moderate, evenly balanced life when it comes to food (and, really, when it comes to everything else). The shopping I'd seen, however foolishly, conjured the idea of a household which sailed a different sea—and of a different kind of woman steering the ship.

  I was just a little intrigued, that's all.

 
 
couple of days later, I was still intrigued. You'd be right in suspecting this speaks of a life in which excitement levels are relatively low. I edit, from home. Technical manuals are my bread and butter, leavened with the occasional longer piece of IT journalism. I'm good at it, fast and accurate, and for the most part enjoy my work. Perhaps "enjoy" isn't quite the right word (putting my editing hat on for a moment): let's say instead that I'm content that it's my profession, am well paid and always busy, and feel no strong desire to be doing anything else, either in general or particular.

  But . . . nobody's going to be making an action movie of my life any day soon. And that's perhaps why, sometimes, little ideas will get into my head and stick around for longer than they might in the mind of someone who has more pressing or varied (or viscerally compelling) things to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

  I was still thinking about this other woman. This different girl. Not in a salacious way—how could I be? I had no idea what she looked like, or what kind of person she was (beyond that spoken of by her supermarket choices). That's the key word, I think—difference. Like any man who's been in a relationship for a long time (and doubtless a lot of women too, I've never asked), every once in a while you beguile a few minutes in fantasy. Sometimes these are sexual, of course, but often it's something more subtle which catches your internal eye. I've never felt the urge to be unfaithful to Helen—even now that our sex life has dropped to the distant background hum of the longterm married—and that's partly because, having thought the thing through, I've come to believe that such fantasies are generally not about other people, but about yourself. What's really going on, if you spend a few minutes dreaming about living in a scuzzy urban bedsit with a (much younger) tattooed barmaid/ suicide doll, or cruising some sunny, fuzzy life with a languid French female chef? These women aren't real, of course, and so the attraction cannot be bedded in them. They don't exist. Doubtless these and all other alternate lifestyles would come to feel everyday and stale after a while, too, and so I suspect the appeal of such daydreams actually lies in the shifted perception of yourself that these nebulous lives would enshrine.

  You'd see yourself differently, and so would other people, and that's what your mind is really playing with: a different you, in a different now.

  Perhaps that insight speaks merely of a lack of courage (or testosterone); nonetheless, the idea of this nearby woman kept cropping up in my mind. Perhaps there was also a creative part of my mind seeking voice. I don't edit fiction and have never tried to write any either. I enjoy working with words, helping to corral them into neat and meaningful pens like so many conceptual sheep, but I've discovered in myself neither the urge nor the ability to seek to make them evoke people or situations which are not "true." With this imaginary woman, however—not actually imaginary of course, unless it was a man, it was more a case of her being "unknown"—I found myself trying to picture her, her house, and her life. I guess it's that thing which happens sometimes in airports and on trains, when you're confronted with evidence of other real people leading presumably real lives, and you wonder where everyone's going, and why: wonder why the person in the seat opposite is reading that particular book, and who they'll be meeting at the other end of the journey that you, for the moment, are sharing.

  With so little to go on, my mind was trying to fill in the gaps, tell me a story. It was a bit of fun, I suppose, a way of going beyond the walls of the home office in which I spend all my days.

  I'm sure I wouldn't have tried to take it further, if it hadn't been for the man from the supermarket.

 
 
week to the day after the first delivery, he appeared on the doorstep again. This was a little unusual. Not there being another order—Helen considerately books the deliveries into the same time slot every week, so they don't disrupt my working patterns—but it being the same man. In the several years we've been getting our groceries this way, I'm not sure I've ever encountered the same person twice, or at least not soon enough that I've recognised them from a previous delivery.

  But here this one was again.

  "Morning," he said, standing there like a scruffy Christmas tree, laden with bags of things to eat or clean or wipe surfaces or bottoms with. "Downstairs, right?"

  I stood aside to let him pass and saw there were a couple more crates full of bags on the path outside. That meant I had a few minutes to think, which I suddenly found I was doing.

  I held the door open while he came up, re-ladened himself, and tramped back downstairs again. By the time he trudged up the stairs once more, I had a plan.

  "Right then," he said, digging into a pocket and pulling out a piece of paper. He glanced at it, then thrust it in my direction. "That's your lot. Everything's there. No substitutions."

  Before he could go, however, I held up my hand. "Hang on," I said, brightly. "You remember last week? The thing with the red bags?"

  He frowned, and then his face cleared. "Oh yeah. That was you, right? Got the wrong red bags, I know. I've spoken to Head Office about it, don't worry."

  "It's not that," I said. "Hang on here a sec, if you don't mind?"

  I quickly trotted downstairs, opened one of the kitchen cupboards, and pulled out something more-or-less at random. A tin of corned beef—perfect.

  Back up in the hallway, I held it out to the delivery guy.

  "I think this should have gone back into the other person's bags," I said. "I'm not sure, but my wife says she didn't order it."

  The man took the can from me and peered at it unhappily. "Hmm," he said. "Thought most of the delivery goods was branded. But it could be. Could be."

  "Sorry about this," I said. "Didn't notice until you were gone. I . . . I don't suppose you remember where the other customer lived."

  "Oh yeah," he said. "As it happens, I do. Vans in this area only cover a square mile each day, if that. And I had to go through the bags with her, see, in case there was a problem with it, what with you already unpacking it here."

  "Great," I said. His use of the word "her" had not been lost on me.

  "Didn't say nothing about something being missing, though," he said, doubtfully. He looked down at the tin again without enthusiasm, sensing it represented a major diversion from standard practices, which could only bring problems into his life. I looked at it too.

  "Hang on," he said, as a thought struck him. He gave the tin to me. "Be right back."

  I waited on the doorstep as he picked up the crates on the path and carried them back to his van. A couple of minutes later he reappeared, looking more optimistic.

  "Sorted," he said. "As it happens, she's next but one on my list. I'll take it, see if it's hers."

  I handed the corned beef back to him again, thinking quickly. I was going to need my house keys. Oh, and some shoes.

  "Don't worry about bringing it back, if it's not," I said, to hold him there while I levered my feet into a pair of slip-ons which always live in the hallway.

  This confused him, however. "But if it's not hers, then...I can't just . . . "

  "It's just I've got to go out for a while," I said. "Tell you what— if it's not hers, then just bring it back, leave it on the step, okay?"

  I could see him thinking this was a bit of a pain in the neck— especially over a single tin of canned meat—but then realising that my solution meant less disruption and paperwork than the likely alternatives.

  "Done," he said, and walked off down the path.

  I trotted to my study, grabbed the house keys from my shelf, and then back to the front door. I slipped out onto the step and locked up, listening hard.

  When I heard the sliding slam of a van door, I walked cautiously down the path—making it to the pavement in time to see the delivery vehicle pull away.

 
 
here followed half an hour of slightly ludicrous cloak and daggery, as I tried to keep up with the supermarket van without being seen. The streets in our neighbourhood are full of houses exactly like ours—slightly bigger-than-usual Victorian terraces. Many of the streets curve, however, and two intersections out of three are blocked with wide metal gates, to stop people using the area as a rat route between the bigger thoroughfares which border it. The delivery driver had to take very circuitous routes to go relatively short distances, and bends in the street meant that, were I not careful, it would have been easy for him to spot me in his side mirrors. Assuming he'd been looking, of course, which he wouldn't be—but it's hard to remind yourself of that when you're engaged in quite so silly an enterprise.

  Keeping as far back as I could without risking losing him, I followed the vehicle as it traced a route which eventually led to it pulling up outside a house six or seven streets away from our house. Once he'd parked I faded back forty yards and leaned on a tree. He'd said the stop that I was interested in was not this one, but the next, and I judged him to be a person who'd use language in a precise (albeit not especially educated) way. He wouldn't have said "next but one" if he meant this house, so all I had to do was wait it out.

  Whoever lived here was either catering for a party or simply ate a lot, all the time. It took the guy nearly fifteen minutes to drag all the red, green, and purple bags up the path and into the house—where a plump grey-haired man imperiously directed their distribution indoors. This gave me plenty of time to realise I was being absolutely ridiculous. At one point I even decided just to walk away, but my feet evidently didn't get the message, and when he eventually climbed back into the van and started the engine, I felt my heart given a strange double thump.

  She would be next.

  I don't know if the delivery driver had suddenly realised he was behind schedule, but the next section of following was a lot tougher. The van lurched from the curb as though he'd stamped on the pedal, and he steered through the streets at a far brisker pace than before. I was soon having to trot to keep up—all the while trying not to get too close on his tail. I don't exercise very often (something I take recurrent low-level flak from Helen over), and before long I was panting hard.

  Thankfully, it was only a few more minutes before I saw the van indicating, then abruptly swerving over to the curb again. The funny thing was, we were now only about three streets from my house. We were on, in fact, the very road I walked every morning when I strolled out to the deli to buy a latté to carry back to my desk—a key pillar in my attempts to develop something approaching a "lifestyle."

  I waited (again, taking cover behind a handy tree) while the delivery man got out, slid open the van's side door, and got inside. He emerged a few minutes later carrying only three bags. They were all red, which I found interesting. No frozen food. No household materials. Just stuff to go straight in the fridge—and probably meats and charcuterie and cheeses that were a pleasure to eat, rather then feeling they were part of some obscure workout.

  There were only two front paths that made sense from where he'd parked, and I banked on the one on the right—sidling up the street to the next tree, in the hope of getting a better view. I was right. The man plodded up the right-most path toward a house which, in almost every particular, was functionally identical to the one in which Helen and Oscar and I lived. A three-story Victorian house, the lowest level a half-basement slightly below the height of the street, behind a very small and sloping "garden." I was confident this lower floor would hold a kitchen and family room and small utility area, just as ours did—though of course I couldn't see this from my position across the street.

  The man had the bags looped around his wrist, enabling him to reach up and ring the doorbell with that hand. After perhaps a minute, I saw the door open. I caught a glimpse of long, brown hair. . .

  And then a sodding lorry trundled into view, completely obscuring the other side of the street.

  I'd been so focused on watching the house that I hadn't seen or even heard the vehicle's approach. It ground to a halt right in front of me, and the driver turned the engine off. A gangly youth hopped down out of it immediately, busily consulting a furniture note and scanning the numbers of the houses on the side of the street where I was standing.

  I moved quickly to the left, but I was too late. The supermarket delivery man was coming back down the path, and the door to the house was shut again.

  "Bollocks," I said, without meaning to.

  I said it loudly enough that the delivery man looked up, however. It took a second for him to recognise me, but then he grinned.

  "You was right," he called across the street. "Was hers after all. Cheers, mate. Job done."

  And with that he climbed back into his van. I turned and walked quickly in the other direction, thinking I might as well go to the deli and get a coffee.

  Maybe they could put something in it that stopped middle-aged men being utter, utter morons.

 
 
hat evening Helen had an assignation with two of her old university friends. This is one of the few occasions these days when she tends to let her hair down and drink too much wine, so I made her a snack before she went out. After she'd gone and Oscar had been encouraged up to bed (or at least to hang out in his bedroom, rather than lurking downstairs watching reality television), I found myself becalmed in the kitchen.

  I'd got almost none of my work done that afternoon. Once the feelings of toe-curling embarrassment had faded—okay, so the supermarket guy had seen me on the street, but he'd had no way of knowing what I was doing there, no reason to suspect I was up to anything untoward—I'd found myself all the more intrigued.

  There was the matter of the corned beef, for a start. I knew damn well that there had been no error over it. I'd bought it myself, a month or two back, from the mini-market. I like some corned beef in a sandwich every now and then, with lettuce and good slather of horseradish. I'd fully assumed that the tin would make its way back to me. And yet, when presented with it, the woman had decided to claim it as her own.

  I found this curious, and even a little exciting. I knew that had Helen been in a similar situation she would have done nothing of the sort, even if the item in question had been totally healthy and certified GM-negative. This other woman had been given the change to scoop up a freebie, however, and had said "Yes please."

  Then there was her hair.

  It was infuriating that I hadn't been given the chance to get a proper look at her, but in a way, just the hair had been enough. Helen is blonde, you see. Really it's a kind of very light brown, of course, but the diligent attentions of stylists keep it mid-blonde. A trivial difference, but a difference all the same.

  Trivial, too, was the geographical distance. The woman lived just three streets away. She paid the same rates, received cheery missives from the same local council, and would use—probably on a more frequent basis than we do—the services of the same takeaway food emporiums. If she went into the centre of London, she'd use the same tube station. If it rained on our back garden, it would be raining on hers. The air I breathed stood at least some chance of making it, a little later, into her lungs.

  This realisation did nothing to puncture the bubble which had started to grow in my head over the previous week. I can't stress strongly enough that this was not a matter of desire, however nebulous. It was just interesting to me. Fascinating, perhaps.

  Difference doesn't have to be very great to hold the imagination, after all. Much is made of men who run off with secretaries twenty years younger than their wives, or women who ditch their City-stalwart husbands to get funky with their dreadlocked Yoga teacher. Most affairs and marital breakages, however, do not follow this pattern. Helen and I knew four couples whose relationships had clattered into the wall of mid-life crisis, and all amounted to basically the same thing. Two men and two women had (in each case temporarily) set aside their partner for someone who was remarkably similar. In one case—that of my old friend Paul—the woman he'd been having a semipassionate liaison with for nine months turned out to be so similar to his wife that I'd been baffled on the sole occasion I'd met her (Paul having had the sense, after two months, to go back to Angela and the children, tail between his legs). Even Paul had once referred to the other woman by the wrong name during the evening, which went down about as well as you'd expect.

  And this makes sense. Difference is difference, whether it be big or small, and it may even be that the smaller differences feel the most enticing. Most people do not want (and would not even be able) to throw aside a lifetime of preference and predilection and taste. You are who you are, and you like what you like. Short of being able to have their partner manifest a different body once in a while (which is clearly impossible), many seem to opt for a very similar body that just happens to have a slightly different person inside. A person of the same class and general type, but just different enough to trigger feelings of newness, to enable the sensation of experiencing something novel—to wake up, for a spell, the slumbering person inside.

  Difference fades quickly, however, whereas love and the warmth of long association do not, which is why so many end up sloping right back to where they started out. Most people don't end up in liaisons with barmaids or other exotics. They get busy with friends and co-workers, people living in the same tree. They don't actually want difference from the outside world. They want it within themselves.

  I realised, after mulling it over in the quiet, tidy kitchen for nearly an hour, that I wanted to be someone different too, however briefly. So I went upstairs, told my son that I was popping out to post a letter, and went out into the night.

 
 
t was after nine by then, and dark. Autumnal, too, which I've always found the most invigorating time of year. I suppose it's distant memories of changes in the school or university year, falling leaves as an augur of moving to new levels and states of being within one's life.

  I didn't walk the most direct route to the house, instead taking a long way round, strolling as casually as I could along the des erted mid-evening pavements, between lamps shedding yellow light.

  I was feeling . . . something. Feeling silly, yes, but engaged, too. This wasn't editing. This wasn't ferrying Oscar to and from school. This wasn't listening to Helen talk about her work. The only person involved in this was me.

  Eventually I found myself approaching the street in question, via another that met it at right angles. When I emerged from this I glanced up and down the road, scoping it out from a different perspective to it merely being part of the route to my morning latté purveyor.

  The road ended—or was interrupted—by one of the trafficcalming gates, and so was extremely quiet. There'd be very little reason for anyone to choose it unless they lived in one of the houses I could see.

  I stood on the opposite side of the street and looked at the house where the woman lived, about twenty yards away. A single light shone in the upper storey, doubtless a bedroom. A wider glow from the level beneath the street, however, suggested life going on down there.

  My heart was beating rapidly now, and far more heavily than usual. My body as well as my mind seemed aware of this break in usual patterns of behaviour, that its owner was jumping the tracks, doing something new.

  I crossed the street. When I reached the other side I kept going, slowly, walking right past the house. As I did so I glanced down and to my right.

  A single window was visible in the wall of the basement level, an open blind partially obscuring the top half. In the four seconds or so that it took me to walk past the house, I saw a large green rug on dark floorboards and caught a glimpse of a painting on one wall. No people, and most specifically, not her.

  I continued walking, right the way up to the gate across the road. Waited there a few moments, and then walked back the same way.

  This time—emboldened by the continued lack of human occupancy—I got a better look at the painting. It showed a small fishing village, or something of the sort, on a rocky coast. The style was rough, even from that distance, and I got the sense that the artist had not been trying to evoke the joys of waterfront living. The village did not look like somewhere you'd deliberately go on holiday, that's for sure.

  Then I was past the house again.

  I couldn't just keep doing this, I realised. Sooner or later someone in one of the other houses would spot a man pacing up and down this short section of street and decide to be neighbourly—which in this day and age means calling the police.

  I had an idea, and took my mobile out of my trouser pocket. I flipped it open, put it to my ear, and wandered a little way further down the street.

  If anyone saw me, I believed, I'd just be one of those other people you notice once in a while—some man engaged in some other, different life, talking to someone whose identity they'd never know, about matters which would remain similarly oblique. It would be enough cover for a few minutes, I thought.

  I arranged it so that my meandering path—I even stepped off into the empty road for a spell, just to accentuate how little my surroundings meant to me, so engaged was I with my telephone call—gradually took me back toward the house. After about five minutes of this I stepped back up onto the curb, about level with the house's front path.

  I stopped then, taken aback.

  Someone had been in the lower room I could see through the window. She'd only been visible for a second—and I knew it was her, because I'd glimpsed the same long, brown hair from that morning— starting out in the middle of the room, and then walking out the door.

  Was she going to come back? Why would she have come into what was presumably a living room, then left again? Was she fetching something from the room—a book or magazine—and now settling down in a kitchen I couldn't see? Or was she intending to spend the evening in the living room instead, and returning to the kitchen for something she'd forgotten, to bring back with her?

  I kept the phone to my ear, and turned in a slow circle. Walked a few yards up the street, with a slow, casual, leg-swinging gait, and then back again.

  I'd gone past the point of feeling stupid now. I just wanted to see. When I got back to the pavement, I caught my breath.

  The woman was back.

  More than that, she was sitting down. Not on the sofa—one corner of which I could just make out in the corner of the window— but right in the middle of the rug. She had her back to me. Her hair was thick, and hung to the middle of her back. It was very different in more than colour to Helen's, who'd switched to a shorter and more-convenient-for-the-mornings style a few years back.

  The woman seemed to be bent over slightly, as if reading something laid out on the floor in front of her. I really, really wanted to know what it was. Was it perhaps The Guardian, choice of all right-thinking people (and knee-jerk liberals) in this part of North London? Or might it be something else, some periodical I'd never read, or even heard of? A book I might come to love?

  I took another cautious set forward, barely remembering to keep up the pretence with the mobile phone still in my hand.

  With my slightly changed angle I could now see her elbows, one poking out from either side of her chest. They seemed in a rather high position for someone managing reading matter, but it was hard to tell.

  My scalp and the back of my neck were itching with nervousness by now. I cast a quick glance either way up the street, just to check no one was coming. The pavements on both sides remained empty, distanced pools of lamplight falling on silence and emptiness.

  When I looked back, the woman had altered her position slightly, and I saw something new. I thought at first it must be whatever she was reading, but then realised first that it couldn't be, and soon after, what I was actually seeing. A plastic bag.

  A red plastic bag.

  Who unpacks their shopping in the living room? Other people do, I guess—and perhaps it was this link with the very first inkling I'd had of this woman's existence (the temporary arrival of her food in the kitchen of my own house, in the very same kind of bag) that caused me to walk forward another step.

  I should have looked where I was going, but I did not. My foot collided with an empty Coke can lying near the low wall at the front of the woman's property. It careered across the remaining space with a harsh scraping noise, before clattering into the wall with a smack.

  I froze, staring down at her window.

  The woman wrenched around, turning about the waist to glare up through her window.

  I saw the red plastic bag lying on the rug in front of her, its contents spread in a semicircle. She was not holding a newspaper or magazine or book. In one hand she held half of a thick, red steak. The other hand was up to her mouth and had evidently been engaged in pushing raw minced beef into it when she turned. The lower half of her face was smeared with blood. Her eyes were wide, and either her pupils were unusually large, or her irises were also pitch black. Her hair started perhaps an inch or two further back than anyone's I had ever seen, and there was something about her temples that was wrong, misshapen, excessive.

  We stared at each other for perhaps two seconds. A gobbet of partially chewed meat fell out of her mouth, down onto her dress. I heard her say something, or snarl it. I have no idea what it might have been, and this was not merely because of the distance or muting caused by the glass of the window. It simply did not sound like any language I've ever heard. Her mouth opened far too wide in the process, too, further accentuating the strange, bulged shape of her temples.

  I took a couple of huge, jerky steps backward, nearly falling over in the process. I caught one last glimpse of her face, howling something at me.

  There were too many vowels in what she said, and they were in an unkind order.

  I heard another sound, from up the street, and turning jerkily I saw two people approaching, from the next corner, perhaps fifty yards away. They were passing underneath one of the lamps. One was taller than the other. The shorter of the two seemed to be wearing a long dress, almost Edwardian in style. The man— assuming that's what he was—had a pronounced stoop.

  In silhouette against the lamp light, both their heads were clearly too wide across the top.

  I ran.

  I ran away home.

 
 
have not seen that supermarket man again. I'm sure I will eventually, but he'll doubtless have forgotten the corned beef incident by then. Out there in the real world, it was hardly that big a deal.

  Otherwise, everything is the same. Helen and I continue to enjoy a friendly, affectionate relationship, sharing our lives with a son who shows no sign yet of turning into an adolescent monster. I work in my study, taking the collections of words that people send me and making small adjustments to them, changing something here and there, checking everything is in order and putting a part of myself into the text by introducing just a little bit of difference.

  The only real alteration in my patterns is that I no longer walk down a certain street to get my habitual morning latté. Instead I head in the other direction and buy one from the mini-market instead. It's nowhere near as good, and I guess soon I'll go back to the deli, though I shall take a different route from the one which had previously been my custom.

  A couple of weeks ago I was unpacking the bags from our weekly shop and discovered a large variety pack of sliced meats. I let out a strangled sound, dropping the package to the floor. Helen happened to be in the kitchen at the time and took this to be a joke—me expressing mock surprise at her having (on a whim) clicked a button online and thus causing all these naughty meats to arrive as a treat for the husband who, in her own and many ways, she loves.

  I found a smile for her, and the next day when she was at work I wrapped the package in a plastic bag and disposed of it in a bin half a mile from our house. There's a lot you can do with chicken, and even more with vegetables.

  Meanwhile, we seem to be making love a little more often. I'm not really sure why.

 
 

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