It struck me in the night that it might have started earlier. I sat up in horror and, in the darkness, used my fingernail to scratch the word ‘BOOKSHOP’ on the inside of my forearm. It has gone now: the skin is inflamed due to an infected insect bite, which I must have further scratched at in my sleep. Still, the act of writing did the trick, as it tends to. This morning I can remember well enough.
I suppose what I am saying is, how much do we collude in our own destruction?
Hudson & Co: the secondhand bookshop in Charing Cross Road. I have been assuming it began there – that none of it would have happened if my eye hadn’t been caught by that silly little shop assistant’s red hair. But am I wrong? Were the forces already in motion, in the weeks and months before that? Does the trail of poison lead back, long before the bloody girl’s disappearance, to university? Or before then, even – to school, to childhood, to that moment in 1973 when I struggled, puce-faced, into this unforgiving world?
I suppose what I am saying is, how much do we collude in our own destruction? How much of this nightmare is on me? You can hate and rail. You can kick out in protest. You can do foolish and desperate things but maybe sometimes you just have to hold up a hand and take the blame.
It was a wet day, one of those grey, drizzly London afternoons when the sky and the pavement and the rain-streaked buildings converge. It’s a long time since I’ve seen weather like that.
I’d just had lunch with my oldest friend Michael Steele at Porter’s in the Charing Cross underpass, a wine bar we had frequented since, at the age of sixteen, we had first discovered the discretion of both its location and its landlord. These days, of course, we would both have much rather met somewhere less dank and dark (that chic little bistro on St Martin’s Lane specialising in wines from the Loire, par example), but nostalgia can be a tyranny. Neither of us would have dreamt of suggesting it.
Usually, on parting from Michael, I would strut off with a sense of groin-thrusting superiority. His own life restricted by the demands of a wife, twin boys and a solicitor’s practice in Bromley, he listened to my tales of misadventure – the drunken nights in Soho, the young girlfriends – with envy in his eyes. ‘How old’s this one?’ he’d say, cutting into a Scotch egg. ‘Twenty-four? Saints alive.’ He was not a reader and a combination of loyalty and ignorance meant he also still thought of me as The Great Literary Success. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that a minor bestseller written twenty years ago might not be sufficient to maintain a reputation indefinitely. To him I was the star of ‘Literary London’ (his phrase) and when he picked up the bill, which he could be depended upon to do, there was a sense less of charity than of him paying court. If an element of mutual bluff was required to sustain the status quo, it was a small price to pay. Plenty of friendships, I am sure, are based on lies.
That day, however, as I returned to street level, I felt deflated. Truth was, though I had kept it to myself, life had recently taken a downward swerve. My latest novel had just been rejected, and Polly, the twenty-four-year-old in question, had left me for some bum-fluffed political blogger or other. Worst of all, I had discovered, only that morning, that I was to be evicted from the rent-free flat in Bloomsbury I had, for the last six years, called home. In short, I was forty-two, broke and facing the indignity of having to move in with my mother in East Sheen.
As I have mentioned, it was also raining.
I trudged along William IV Street towards Trafalgar Square, dodging umbrellas. At the post office, a group of foreign students, wearing backpacks and neon trainers, blocked the pavement and I was pushed out into the gutter. One shoe sank into a puddle; a passing taxi soaked the leg of my corduroys. Swearing, I hopped across the road, wending my way between waiting cars, and turned up St Martin’s Lane, cut through Cecil Court, and into Charing Cross Road. The world juddered – traffic and building works and the clanging of scaffolding, the infernal disruption of Crossrail. Rain continued to slump from the sky but I had made it doggedly beyond the Tube station before an approaching line of tourists pulling luggage thrust me again out of my path and against a shop window.
I took trouble over my appearance, though the desired result was to make it look as if I didn’t.
I braced myself against the glass until they had trundled past, and then I lit a cigarette. I was outside Hudson & Co, a secondhand bookshop specialising in photography and film. There was a small fiction section in the back where, if I remembered rightly, I had once pilfered an early copy of Lucky Jim. (Not a first edition, but a 1961 orange Penguin with a Nicolas Bentley drawing on the cover: nice.)
I peered in. It was a dusty shop, with an air of having seen better days – most of the upper shelves were bleakly empty.
And then I saw the girl.
She was staring through the window, sucking a piece of long, red hair, her features weighted with a boredom so sensual I could feel it tingle along my fingertips.
I pinched the lit tip off my cigarette, put the remainder in my jacket pocket and pushed open the door.
I am not bad looking (better then, before everything happened), with the kind of face – crinkled blue eyes, strong cheekbones, full lips – I’ve been told women love. I took trouble over my appearance, though the desired result was to make it look as if I didn’t. Sometimes, when I shaved, I noticed the length of my fingers against the chiselled symmetry of my jaw, the regularity of the bristles, the slight hook in the patrician nose. An interest in the life of the mind, I believed, was no reason to ignore the body. My chest is broad; I fight hard even now to keep it firm – those exercises I picked up at Power Pulse, the Bloomsbury gym, over the course of the free ‘taster’ month continue to prove useful. I knew how to work my look, too: the sheepish, self-deprecating smile, the careful use of eye contact, the casual deep-in-thought mussing of my messy blond hair.
The girl barely looked up when I entered. She was wearing a long geometric top over leggings and chunky biker boots; three small studs in the inside cartilage of one ear, heavy make-up. A small bird-shaped tattoo on the side of her neck.
I dipped my head, giving my hair a quick shake. ‘Cor blimey,’ I said in mock-Cockney. ‘Rainin’ cats and dogs out there.’
She rocked gently backwards on the heels of her boots, resting her bottom on a metal stool, and cast a glance in my direction. She dropped the spindle of ruby hair she’d been chewing.
I said, more loudly: ‘Of course Ruskin said there was no such thing as bad weather. Only different kinds of good weather.’
The sulky mouth moved very slightly, as if vaguely in the direction of a smile.
I lifted the damp collar of my coat. ‘But tell that to my tailor!’
The smile faded, came to nothing. Tailor? How was she to know the coat, bought for a snip at Oxfam in Camden Town, was ironic?
Perhaps she was a little too fresh out of school, not quite my audience. Even so. How dare she?
I took a step closer. On the table in front of her sat a Starbucks cup, the name ‘Josie’ scrawled in black felt tip.
‘Josie, is it?’ I said.
She said, flatly: ‘No. That was what I told the barista. I tell them a different name every time. Can I help you? Are you looking for anything in particular?’ She looked me up and down, taking in the absorbent tweed, the cords, the leaking brogues, the pathetic middle-aged man that wore them. A mobile phone on the counter trembled and, though she didn’t pick it up, she flicked her eyes towards it, nudging it with her spare hand to read the screen above the cup – a gesture of dismissal.
Stung, I slunk away, and headed to the back of the shop where I crouched, pretending to browse a low shelf (two for £5). Perhaps she was a little too fresh out of school, not quite my audience. Even so. How dare she? Fuck.
At this angle, I smelt damp paper and sweat; other people’s stains, other people’s fingers. A sharp coldness in here too.
Scanning the line of yellowing paperbacks, phrases from my publisher’s last email insinuated themselves into my head: ‘Too experimental . . . Not in tune with the current market . . . How about writing a novel in which something actually happens?’ I stood. Bugger it. I’d leave with as much dignity as I could muster and head off to the London Library, or – quick look at my watch – the Groucho. It was almost 3 p.m. Someone might be there to stand me a drink.
I have tried hard to remember if the door jangled; whether it was the kind of door that did. The shop had seemed empty when I entered, but the layout allowed anyone to hide, or lurk – as indeed I was now. Was he already in the shop? Or not? Do I remember the scent of West Indian Limes? It seems important. But perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it is just my mind trying to find an explanation for something that may, of course, have been random.
‘Paul! Paul Morris!’
He was standing on the other side of the bookcase, only his head visible. I took a brief physical inventory: close-set eyes, receding hairline that gave his face an incongruously twee heart shape, puny chin. It was the large gap between the two front teeth that sparked the memory. Anthony Hopkins, a contemporary from Cambridge – historian, if I remembered correctly. I’d bumped into him several years ago on holiday in Greece. I had a rather unpleasant feeling that I had not come out of the encounter well.
‘Anthony?’ I said. ‘Anthony Hopkins!’
Irritation crossed his brows. ‘Andrew.’
‘Andrew, of course. Andrew Hopkins. Sorry.’ I tapped my head. ‘How nice to see you.’ I was racking my memory for details. I’d been out on a trip round the island with Saffron, a party girl I’d been seeing, and a few of her friends. I’d lost them when we docked. Alcohol had been consumed. Had Andrew lent me money? He was now standing before me, in a pin-stripe suit, hand out. We shook. ‘It’s been a . . . while,’ I said.
I spoke as loudly as I could so the little scrubber would realise the opportunity she had passed up.
He laughed. ‘Not since Pyros.’ A raincoat, pearled with drops, was slung over his arm. The shop assistant was looking over, listening to our conversation. ‘How are you? Still scribbling away? Seen your byline in the Evening Standard – book reviews, is it? We did love that novel you wrote – my sister was so excited when you sold it.’
‘Ah, thank you.’ I bowed. His sister – of course. I’d hung out with her a bit at Cambridge. ‘Annotations on a Life, you mean.’I spoke as loudly as I could so the little scrubber would realise the opportunity she had passed up. ‘Yes, a lot of people were kind enough to say they liked it. It touched a nerve, I think. In fact, the review in the New York Times said—’
He interrupted me. ‘Any exciting follow up?’
The girl was switching on a blow-heater. As she bent forward, her silk top gaped. I stepped to one side to get a better view, caught the soft curve of her breasts, a pink bra.
‘This and that,’ I said. I wasn’t going to mention the damp squib of a sequel, the disappointing sales of the two books have had that followed.
‘Ah well, you creative types. Always up to something interesting. Not like us dull old dogs in the law.’
The girl had returned to her stool. The current from the blow-heater was causing her silky top to wrinkle and ruche. He was still prattling away. He was at Linklaters, he said, in litigation, but had made partner. ‘Even longer hours. On call twenty-four seven.’ He made a flopping gesture with his shoulders – glee masquerading as resignation. But what can you do? Kids at private school, blah blah, two cars, a mortgage that was ‘killing’ him. A couple of times, I said, ‘Gosh, right, OK.’ He just kept on. He was showing me how successful he was, bragging about his wife, while pretending to do the opposite. Tina had left the City, ‘burnt out, poor girl’, and opened a little business in Dulwich Village. A specialist yarn shop of all things. Surprisingly successful. ‘Who knew there was so much money to be made in wool?’ He gave a selfconscious hiccupy laugh.
I felt bored, but also irritated. ‘Not me,’ I said gamely.
Absent-mindedly, he picked up a book from the shelf – Hitchcock by François Truffaut. ‘You married these days?’ he said, tapping it against his palm.
I shook my head. These days? His sister came into my mind again – a gap between her teeth, too. Short pixie hair, younger than him. I’d have asked after her if I’d remembered her name. Lottie, was it? Lettie? Clingy, definitely. Had we actually gone to bed?
I felt hot suddenly, and claustrophobic, filled with an intense desire to get out.
Hopkins said something I didn’t completely hear, though I caught the phrase ‘kitchen supper’. He slapped the Hitchcock playfully against my upper arm, as if something in the last twenty years, or perhaps only in the last two minutes, had earned him the right to this blokeish intimacy. He had taken his phone out. I realised, with a sinking horror, he was waiting for my number.
I looked to the door where the rain was still falling. The redhaired temptress was reading a book now. I twisted my head to read the author. Nabokov. Pretentious twaddle. I had a strong desire to pull it from her grasp, grab a handful of hair, press my thumb into the tattoo on her neck. Teach her a lesson.
Turning back to Hopkins, I smiled and gave him what he wanted. He assured me he would call and I made a mental note not to answer when he did.