"Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis's strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her."
The Merchant of Venice
The rain lashed down, as it had every other day that November. It had a distant quality. A dull thudding against the double glazed panes (the one improvement the council had made to these decaying flats this last decade). Damp seeped in through the plaster.
Furtive figures moved in the semi-darkness. The muted TV cast penumbric phantoms on the walls. Shadows which shifted with the camera, like a candle caught in a draught. A lone figure sat slumped in the single armchair. A scrapbook lay open in her lap.
She rarely went out anymore. The weekly grocery run an exercise in anxiety; fraught with peripheral fear. The cradled spirits glass was her reward, her relief. Dr Robson had told her it was rotting her liver, but she couldn’t care less. It was all she had left. Other than her cats, it was her only friend.
They were everywhere, her children. Rescued from shelters and the street. Fourteen in all. Through matted grey she regarded them. Curled up by the bar heater. Grooming in balletic poses. They sparred in the shadows, lounged on the windowsill, rubbed themselves against her swollen calves with a flick of the tail. Soon would come the nightly exodus and the local wildlife would fear for its existence. Where were they now? The ones she had named each in honour to. Tony, Harris and Miranda. Leigh, the ginger tom. It seemed another age, those days on the factory floor, everyone on speed to survive sixteen-hour shifts. They’d been happier times, ribbing each other to relieve the monotony. Egging each other on to wind up their line manager. Even he’d been phetted up. Was it Chris, his name? And when she could stand it no longer, she’d walked out one lunchtime and never went back. She’d been proper gam then. How had it come to this?
She was born the youngest of three children. Her brothers, Neil and Ryan, were ten and thirteen years older respectively. She suspected she’d been an accident.
Her parents were social workers. Senior practitioners, who worked long hours. For as long she could remember it seemed they were forever off with someone else’s neglected child.
The lion share of her childhood was spent in the care of her grandparents. It gave her the freedom to roam. She’d traipse the countryside, letting her imagination run wild. She was a tomboy, sat up her favourite tree, reading. She loved to read. Or sketching the landscapes about her and in her mind’s eye. She’d come home bloody kneed and filthy. The local kids thought she was a gypsy girl and she did little to shatter the illusion.
Puberty hit her like a seismic shock. At thirteen she discovered music; raided her brothers' record collections, spent hours listening to the radio. The novels of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stephenson gave way to biographies on Lennon, Bowie and Ian Curtis. It was the lyrics of the latter which most spoke to her soul.
At fourteen she was making herself up to look a decade older and sneaking out downtown. She’d get bought drinks and taken to clubs. Of course the men who picked her up expected something in return. They always went away disappointed.
She’d saunter in at five, six in the morning, to the refrain of her mother’s fury. No matter how tired she was, she always had time for one more argument.
Jason entered her life dressed in a leopard print t-shirt and drainpipe jeans, brandishing a guitar in each hand. Jason played lead in a local band, The Wandering Rocks. He had golden hair and eyes of sapphire.
Throughout the band’s forty-minute set her eyes barely left him. He caught her gaze and winked at her. Her cheeks blushed and drained of colour just as fast.
Jason approached her after the gig. Thin rivulets of sweat glistened on his forehead, the veins on his biceps stood erect from the exertion of playing. Jason was twenty-two. By day, Jason was a mechanic for the council. He’d formed the Rocks a year ago. He seemed unimpressed by the allusions to Greek myth the band’s name conjured up. He’d chosen it, he said, “’Cause it sounds like The Rolling Stones.” It only added to his charm.
After hours, Jason took her to the drummer’s house. Andy had scored a gram of coke and they both did lines while she looked on, nervously smoking one Berkley Red after another. And as the dawn chorus resounded across the estate, she gave herself to him on the bed settee. It hurt, but the pain was tempered with a kind of pleasure.
On the Sunday, he drove her out to the suburbs. He’d seen a 1963 Triumph Bonneville for sale in Exchange and Mart. It needed a lot of work, but to Jason, who’d already renovated the shell of a ’55 Vincent Black Shadow, the potential was obvious. He loaded the chassis into the back of his car and drove her away.
Exams came and went and life at home became intolerable. It was impossible to be in the same room as her mother without their exchanges deteriorating into a shouting match. With school ended, it happened all the more. Jason would save her. One afternoon he loaded her meagre possessions into the back of his car as her parents watched from the driveway:
"Oh Frank, why does she always have to be such a disappointment?"
"Come away Joyce. She’s old enough to make her own mistakes now."
It was bliss. Jason got her a job in the office at his works. Through the window she could watch him all day. At weekends he would drag her around the breaker’s yards looking for parts. Piece by piece, the transformation took place.
Jason would bring her to rehearsals and gigs with such frequency that Andy took to calling her Yoko. It was said with good humour. The Rocks adopted her as their mascot. At her seventeenth birthday party they performed ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ as their gift to her. Andy championed her suggestion that they perform it at the up coming Battle of the Bands. Jason objected, but the others talked him round. They were always kind to her.
It went down a storm. A blistering version as their finale ensured victory. The band carried her shoulder high through the streets. Jason, coked to the eyeballs, declared it had been his idea all along. They were all too exhilarated to argue. That night he entered her with an urgent intensity. Red welts marked her arms from his touch.
First prize was a day in a recording studio. The Rocks cut a five-track demo. They sent Red Rose Radio a copy and the Joy Division cover was chosen as their record of the week.
The Wandering Rocks went from strength to strength. They could now play venues twice the capacity as before. It could only be a matter of time before a major label offered them a contract. But even moderate success had gone to Jason’s head. His cocaine use, which had always been occasional and recreational, was fast becoming a habit. The transformation complete, he’d been forced to put the Vincent and Triumph up for sale to pay off his dealer. It didn’t help lighten his mood. He’d swing between sullen and arrogant, taking his frustrations out on her. He’d accuse her of flirting with the other band members, scream at her that she was worthless.
"Look at me when I’m talking to you, bitch."
Grab at her as she backed meekly away. When the put downs no longer satisfied him, he took to slapping her in the face. But even this wasn’t enough and with the advert placed in Exchange and Mart, the punches began.
It came to a head one fateful night. He’d got into an argument with their singer over something and nothing. It became more and more heated, until Jason hit the vocalist in the face. Rick cradled his swollen jaw and spat his resignation at the guitarist. But the rest of the Rocks had had enough of Jason’s irrational moods. They stood behind their singer and demanded Jason made way for a replacement.
"You can’t throw me out. he screamed. I am this fucking band. It’s named after me. You’re no better than session players. Get the fuck out. All of you!"
The Clashing Rocks formed the very next day.
He was higher than ever that night, pacing the floor like a caged beast. She never knew what she did to unleash his wrath; he probably didn’t, but the blows rained down nonetheless. He punched her repeatedly to the ground, kicking her prone body until it went limp. Then he grabbed her by the neck and propelled her head first through the glass partition door.
She was a fortnight in hospital. Mercifully, the shards embedded in her torso had not cut too deep. Her face went unscathed too. But the doctors told her there’d be some scarring to her limbs and belly. Three of her ribs were broken.
At night she silently cried herself to sleep. She couldn’t believe she’d let him humiliate her for so long. Through the pale blue glow of successive morns her resolve slowly strengthened. She took her revenge soon after discharge. Poured sugar into the petrol tanks of his Black Shadow and Bonneville and sand into the oil. A court injunction and a beating from her brothers ensured no recrimination. It was less than two years since he’d first introduced himself.
The bronze liquid trickled down the back of her throat as she took another hit. There was a defibrillaric shock that coursed through her body, jolting her senses. What was that odour? It had been there a while now and was getting stronger. The stench was vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.
For a decade after she'd drifted. One job after another. One home after another. Falling into the next relationship before the previous one had ended. She swore no one would ever get the better of her again.
Time and space thawed her relationship with her parents. Eventually she could be in the same room as her mother with only the occasional shouting match. It could still turn nasty in a moment though. Like the morning her mother gave her a lift to work and such a row had ensued, she letting loose a torrent of four letter words, that she’d found herself abandoned by the roadside. But at least she’d got the last word in.
It was while they were both temping for Perma-temp that she met Paul. They’d both been sent to some generic law firm to work on a ‘special project’. It meant the crap the permanent staff got paid too much to do. However, they had an office to themselves and little supervision.
Paul had recently finished a degree in photography. He was a few months younger than her, had come to education late and was working to pay off some debts. They were fast friends. Paul possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of comedy and kept her in hysterics, reeling off any number of routines and sketches he’d memorised. They shared a love of music. She brought in a stereo, taking it in turns to play their favourite albums.
There was also a mutual love of the bizarre. They spent an entire afternoon inventing ridiculous superheroes. There was the shorthand typist with the gift of precognition. And Why?Boy, a prepubescent crime fighter who defeated bad guys through the power of incessant questioning. Why?Boy kept her giggling for days.
Most lunchtimes, they’d take a stroll. She just wanted him to push her against a wall and kiss her passionately. Sometimes they’d hold hands as they worked or he’d massage her neck to relieve her cramps. Once, she caught him looking down her dress and wasn’t shy about confronting him.
It was Jan the Perm's birthday and they’d been invited out for drinks. So deeply engrossed were they in conversation that it was hours before they noticed the party had long since moved on. An excess of alcohol lent her courage and as they stepped out into the night air she swooned with intent. He caught her by the elbow and drew her close. A flicker of understanding passed silently between them and he pressed his lips against hers. Through the drunken haze it felt right. Without a word she hailed a taxi and took him back to hers. It was two days before either of them got dressed.
They barely left each other’s company from that moment on. He was staying with his parents to save some money, but increasingly only went home for fresh clothes. They’d stay up ‘til dawn, talking and laughing and making love. He convinced her to show him some of her artwork and they discussed working on a project together. A combination of forms. Photographs with sections cut away, drawn in in pencil. Or watercolours, cut out in shapes to reveal black and white prints beneath. She spoke passionately about the life of Ian Curtis and he of his love of sailing. He told her he loved her and she said she loved him too. She’d never said it and meant it before. He asked about her scars. She tried to tell him. The words got stuck in her throat.
With a few days off, Paul took her to stay with his old flat mate. Ben was also a photographer and had moved to London to set up his own business. He asked Paul to be his partner. Paul said he needed time to mull it over, but talked of little else on the train back north. It was a wonderful opportunity. Ben’s parents were fairly well off and the capital Paul would have to invest would be minimal. A graduate loan would more than cover it. She knew the question that was looming:
"Why don’t you move down with me?"
At first she accepted. Even gave notice on her flat and stashed her stuff at her parents' place while Paul took care of the formalities. But over the weeks, the doubts seeped in. At night she’d lie awake, staring at the ceiling hour after hour, her shins aching from the tension. And when sleep did claim her, the darkness came pouring in. She dreamt she was small. A panther treaded the pavement at the end of the driveway. It snarled.
A paw tentatively touched the concrete path, body low, back arched. The creature stared deep into her soul as it stalked her. With a hiss, it pounced. Paul twitched in his sleep and she emerged, as a diver from the depths, gasping for air. She was disoriented and sweating. Paul slept contentedly on. She resented him for that.
She could neither avoid nor delay the inevitable any longer. With the lion share of two bottles of wine inside her, she became hysterical and told him how she'd end up living in a bedsit, surrounded by cats. Then she calmly told him she wouldn’t be coming to London. An explanation was demanded, but she felt one was unnecessary. Her mind was made up. She left him red eyed on the doorstep and drove home, well over the limit.
A year went by. She was in the newsagents one day when something caught her eye. It was a copy of the Financial Times. There was a photo of a power station on the front page. Something made her bow her head to read the strap line. It was Paul’s name attached to the picture. She smiled. He’d made it. Surreptitiously, she slipped the pink sheets into her bag and made her escape.
Before she was caught and banned for theft of library property, she’d scour copies of the dailies looking for more of Paul’s photographs. Over the years his work was more and more in evidence. For a while he continued in partnership with Ben, snapping the great and the good. But, as she’d read in an interview years later, he found the whole experience soul destroying.
What it did do was enable him to build a reputation for himself. He was offered the opportunity to fly out to Uganda with Oxfam. Their latest campaign was focussing on the street children there. The original photographer had been stricken with a bout of malaria during a previous assignment and Paul was approached as a possible replacement. Apparently someone at head office had seen his portfolio and liked his style.
"That experience galvanised my whole approach to photography. It made me accept something I had known all along: That I was for the underdog."
He never looked back, cementing his reputation by portraying the darker corners of the world in grainy black and white. Whether it was the Palestinians or Romanies; the Aboriginal slums of Australia or Death Row, Texas, there was an intimacy in the portraits Paul framed that seemed to draw the viewer in.
Those who worked with him spoke in eulogy about Paul's ability to blend seamlessly into his environment. At times he seemed invisible, always refusing any kind of body armour that might draw attention to his presence, even when there was a very real danger of being shot at or blown up.
His reputation was such that the Barbican was about to host a major retrospective of his work. He was thirty-seven. Paul flew out to Corfu and joined the crew of a yacht for a few days relaxation, navigating the islands. They were caught in a storm, a freak wave hit the boat and Paul was swept overboard. His bloated body washed up on shore several days later, camera still slung about his neck. He’d discarded his life jacket for a better shot.
The news devastated her. There was a memorial service held at the Barbican, surrounded by the images taken in his short life. Open to a select few, she slipped in and stood, unnoticed, at the back, hiding her face from those who might recognise her. His body was buried at sea. Returned to the waters he loved.
It had been years since that night on his parent’s doorstep, but she felt his death acutely. Not long after, she moved away. Home held too many memories, some good, some bad; all painful. She told no one she was leaving. Broke all ties with everyone and everything she knew.
Little changes when you live for the past.
The scrapbook sat, propped against the side of the armchair, the outside covered in scratches. The room stood empty. All except Freya. She lay still on the window ledge; hadn’t moved in some time. What was that smell?
Her eyes flickered, a yawn broke lose and she succumb to the gloom. The drained tumbler slipped from her fingers and came to rest in her lap. Her head lolled forward, gave a start and settled on the back of the chair. And after a few minutes, there was the gentle purr of a drunken, numbing sleep. The fire in her belly would hold the darkness at bay ‘til dawn. Snowblind, the TV kept its peace. The rain lashed down, unabated.
The wind ripped up Georgia Street West. It was early. She stood in the doorway, caressing the locket about her neck. Her mother was wittering away in the background. Something about goals. She regarded the box on the driveway in front of her. Through the holes in the cardboard the black mass of the creature could be seen pacing within. It mewed gently. Oh you bastard.
An envelope protruded from the side of the box. Maybe a forwarding address. She could drive down this weekend and tell him she'd made a mistake. She tore the back open and removed a card. Typically tacky. No address, only a message:
You embrace old age too soon. Still, here’s a start to your collection. Perhaps you should call her Fatalistic!
She smiled thinly and nodded. Her resolve strengthened by the note of bitterness.
"Will you come in. You’re letting the cold in."
Back arched, she yawned. He would of tired of her eventually. Grown bored and gone off with someone else. His camera will protect him. It wasn’t meant to be. Que sera sera.
"Did you hear me young lady? You’re letting the cold in."
She picked at a fleck of lipstick at the corner of her mouth. I hear. Tore the card to pieces and offered it to the air in sacrifice. She gripped the box by its handle, rough against her skin, and carried it inside. The door slammed shut behind her.