was November when Raz was moved from the lifers to the dead. The
probation officers little joke, that was, falling flat in the
silence between them as Raz signed the papers for the halfway house,
signing away his right to drink, get high, or have any control over
his own life.
I dont think, he said, when
the smile had finally faded from the fat mans fat mouth, Ill
notice any difference.
He did, of course. He noticed the sky.
The management took care to keep him well away
from the grieving relatives. The Summerhill Crematorium and Gardens
Of Rest prided itself on its dignity, or so the plaque
by the doors said. The mourners, loitering in the porch, cupping a
cigarette in white-knuckled hands until the sound of the organ
summoned them, ignored it and its coded message for them.
They had no dignity, no pride; just emotions
that they didnt know what to do with, that burst out in
sobbing or fainting fits, that glazed their eyes and deadened their
tongues as they mumbled through the carefully inoffensive service.
From the safety of the flower-beds or the
lawns, an invisible man in his overalls and GROUND STAFF jacket, Raz
tried to guess their stories. Thirty-something blonde in furs,
flanked by a litter of teenagers: second wife, her mind already on
the will. Cardiganed ladies bussed in by the old peoples home
to say goodbye to another of their number. Sometimes a child in a
fussy party dress, wandering neglected among the heather beds. He
kept well away from them.
Hed never touched a child, those
perverts made him sick; but all the probation department needed was
some misunderstanding, some wild accusation, and hed be
trading all this for a concrete ceiling again, and he didnt
He was getting used to the sky.
It was thunder-black the day she came to him:
cloud moving in fast from the east, turning the fading daylight the
colour of a new bruise. Hed been late, just five minutes,
thanks to the bus, and the manager had scowled and sent him out to
scrape mould from the Wall of Remembrance.
The Wall disturbed him. Reminded him of
history lessons, of Berlin and dead babies in camps and old gits
marching in red with poppies. Raz felt like he ought to bow every
time he came near it, like his mother in church; and that brought
back memories, and the tight feeling in the pit of his stomach, and
made him wonder if the house supervisor would really notice if he
had a couple of beers at lunch, just to steady him.
It was white marble, the Wall, with the names
carved out in gold. Carved so they werent quite flush, and the
grime and the mould built up in them. He had to use a sponge, so he
wouldnt damage the names. And a spray to stop the moss coming
back, but it made him cough and mostly he didnt use it - which
made the whole thing sort of his fault and just made him more
Hed just worked his way down the first
column - old names in peeling gold, unvisited, their wives and
siblings probably named further along by now - when he realised she
was watching him.
She was young, to be coming here alone. His
age, maybe, behind a mask of mascara and a high fur collar. She was
too pale to wear black, and her hair was up, which made her look
like a movie star. Maybe she was. The Summerhill was expensive
enough. Raz straightened up. Feeling her eyes on him, the way he
looked at women and liked to imagine theyd look at him, though
he never caught them doing it.
Its so sad, she said. All
these people. Raz bowed his head. Not them being dead, I
mean. But thinking theyre remembered. Thinking that, by
getting their names on this wall, theyve achieved something.
Its bad, he heard himself
say, to be forgotten.
She was looking up into the sky, where the
clouds were closing over the last of the sun. The wind sharpened
suddenly, slicing through the tatty donkey jacket, reducing him to
Ill leave you alone, he
said, without looking her in the eye. Polite as ordered.
Dont, she said.
I came to you for a reason, Raz.
Her name was Naomi, and she had silk sheets on
a big bed in a studio flat half a mile away. And now it was one a.m.
and he was lying face-down on them, breathing her cigarette smoke
and wondering what reason anyone would have to bring him here,
unless they were desperate or psycho or picking up a one-nighter in
a graveyard turned them on.
I need your help.
She blew smoke into the empty air: the whole
flat seemed empty, hollow, despite the books and the old newspapers
and the jumble of toiletries in the bathroom. Her voice rang like an
actors, like someone whispering in a cave to hear their echo.
The thing is, Raz: I killed someone.
She took him down the fire escape, a comedy of
clattering ladders and lights coming on in distant windows, and led
him to the end of the alley. It terminated in a high wall that
smelled of piss, and two big dumpsters, the kind American TV cops
always found bodies in. Both were full to overflowing with black
sacks and soggy cardboard. Chinese food was scattered in the
Lifting the corner of a sack, Naomi showed him
a white hand, fingers upturned like a man-trap. Blood had dried in
splatter marks on the palm.
`He attacked me, she said, but the words
In the dark, in his sleepy, sated state, the
whole situation had developed its own logic. The corpse required no
explanation. It simply was.
We cant carry it, Raz said,
and his breath misted in the stillness, blurring his vision.
I can get people to help, Naomi
told him. I just need a way to get rid of... it.
What if someone comes looking?
They wont look here.
The cloud was breaking, at last, and a few
pale stars had appeared in the gaps. Raz looked at her, hunched in a
jacket that would cost him a months wages, and wondered how
much she would miss the sky.
Tomorrow night, he said.
Her face was in shadow, but she sounded almost
hurt as she murmured, Arent you going to ask . . . ?
Ive worked it out for myself.
Client, working girl, a fight... Doesnt take Sherlock Holmes,
Naomi licked her lips, turned away. Right.
Which was good, because he needed to be right
- about her, anyway, he needed that to be right to justify it when
he said, Of course, youre going to owe me. Big time.
The sky was clear by dawn.
He went straight to work; far too early, had
to stop into the cafe down the road and have a breakfast he didnt
want just to pass the time. The TV over the counter droned about
closing steelyards and the Duke of somewhere filing for divorce.
Nobody dead, that he could tell. Nobody important.
The wind had cleared the lawns for him,
pinning the leaves against the chain link fence behind the Wall. Raz
finished cleaning the names before lunch; huddled low against the
marble, enjoying the sun. Enjoying the avenues opening up to him,
the possibilities. The nights in that hollow little flat, collecting
what he was owed.
Its a transaction, thats all. She
wants, she pays. Just like anything else. And that was the best way
with women. It was misunderstanding all those stupid signals that
had got him into prison in the first place, and he wasnt going
to risk it again.
The crackle of wheels on gravel startled him
back to the present. A hearse was pulling in, taking the road to the
rear entrance. Delivery time. Early funeral, relatives based too far
away to bother with the traditional procession; a nursing home glad
to shift a body to the Summerhills gloomy Chapel of Rest.
Either way: bingo.
Hed told her seven: later than the staff
ever worked, but early enough that anyone passing wouldnt
freak out if they saw a light. Hed even walked several streets
to find a pub to hang out in, just in case anyone recognised him.
And she still left him waiting, stamping and rubbing his hands
together in the cold, loitering round the gates for half an hour
like some cheap burglar.
Lights. No way to see past them, tell if it
was her and he hadnt even asked what sort of car shed
arrive in, but too late now. Raz pushed the gate open, and the car
Pulled right up to the rear entrance, like hed
told them; killed the lights, the engine, and opened the doors
gently, left them open, no slamming and banging.
And there was Naomi, in old jeans and a
pullover, looking out of place and worried and wonderful. And there
beside her was a whole lot of trouble.
The driver wasnt a problem. As soon as
he got close enough, Raz could tell what the deal was there. The
driver was big and brown-haired, but he had Naomis eyes, and
even her way of standing, weight on one hip like he was poised to
make a run for it. The driver was big brother, come to lend some
muscle, and along as he didnt want to play the hero, that was
It was the kid that really had Raz worried.
This, Naomi murmured, pulling the
girl to her like a disobedient pet, is Denise.
Hey, big brother said, looking Raz
over. He doesnt need to know that.
Hes not going to tell anyone
Not as long as I get paid, Raz
agreed, and saw Naomis shoulders hunch a little. Didnt
tell bro about the deal, then.
Denise looked up at him, dull-eyed, and asked,
Who is he?
Hes helping us, Den, Naomi
said sweetly. Too sweet. The kid was, what? Fourteen at least, and
if they wanted her protected from the nasty old world, they shouldve
left her at home. And maybe kept her away from her sister, and her
nasty habit of picking up ex-cons in graveyards.
Big brother said, Lets get it
done, and popped the clasp on the boot.
Give the man his due, he was strong. Taking
most of the weight by the time they got inside the Chapel, which was
fine by Raz, whod couldnt keep his grip on the tarpaulin
and wasnt exactly pleased by the smell.
If they get a whiff of this guy and open
up the coffin, all bets are off, buddy.
Bro just flexed his shoulders a little and
said, Where to?
The open one.
The coffin was already on the trolley, ready
to go through in the morning. Tilt the trolley end and slide it onto
the table with its carefully concealed conveyor belt: no
lifting involved, no chance for someone to realise Mr Grenville had
put on two hundred pounds overnight. He hoped.
Drawing level with the coffin, big brother
took a look inside and muttered, Shit. Poor old bugger.
Cancer. Hardly anything left. Plenty of
room for your boy.
Bracing himself, bro lifted; and suddenly all
the weight was slithering down towards Raz, the tarpaulin bulging
and sliding like something was alive in there. He lifted, but he
didnt have the grip right, and something hit him in the face
and he went over backwards, unable to hear his own cursing over the
Its all right, Naomi said,
slowly and clearly. Its all right.
Looking up, Raz realised she wasnt
talking to him.
The kid had her face buried in Naomis
chest, but now she was twisting against her sisters arms, like
she wanted to be able to turn, to look, but hadnt made up her
mind if she was going to.
The tarp had come open, and an old guy was
spilling out of it, one hand flung up by his face like he was miming
shock. His eyes were closed, but the way big brother was gulping
breath, the way Naomi held her sister so tight she might break, told
Raz who he was.
This wasnt what hed expected at
Big brother bent down and pulled the tarp over
the old man - their old man - and muttered, Just help me get
Wait. She said.
I said nothing, Naomi snapped, and
her voice was ringing, the way it did in her studio, and he
understood now that the emptiness wasnt in the apartment but
in her. Please. Lets get this over with. Think of
Denise.' Maybe you should have thought of her . . .
Big brother choked like he was fighting
laughter, and Naomi pulled the crying child closer and whispered, Why
do you think we did it?
The kid was hunched in the back seat when he
came out; not crying, not relieved, just sat there ramrod straight
and staring into the rear-view mirror like she thought someone was
creeping up on her.
Naomi was leaning against the car, blowing
smoke at the velvet-black sky.
You should have let me explain,
And, when Raz didnt reply; He was
messing with Denise. Tried it with me, but I left, I was old enough.
She isnt. So . . . Raz looked at her, wondering how he
could have read her so wrong. Look, wed like you to take
this . . .
Twenty-pound notes, fanned between shaking
fingers. Thats not what I did it for.
You said Id owe you.
Thats not what I meant.
Naomi just blinked; but she understood. He
could see it in her eyes. Just like hed seen a yes
in a girls eyes and pushed open the door she was about to
close, and suddenly he was unsure about that too, about the
innocence hed clung to all through his sentence, about women
and himself and everything.
Naomi threw the cigarette end down in the
gravel, drew breath, and said, I dont think we should be
seen together again. You know, in case anyone . . .
He didnt hear the rest. He didnt
have to. He knew all about excuses and brush-offs and changes of
heart. He would have grabbed her, hurt her, maybe taken what shed
promised right there, but the kid, the bloody kid was watching from
the back seat, watching with that dumb accusation in her eyes like
only a child can.
He turned instead; just in time to meet big
bro, back from locking the chapel doors, and it was easy to catch
him by surprise, a right hook that sent him sprawling onto the wet
grass. And then just walk away. Walk away with sore knuckles, his
eyes burning with tears, Naomi yelling behind him; not at him, not
even at him, but just urging her brother to leave it, forget it, get
in the car . .. . The car, that roared past him as he turned left
onto the lawns, screeching out into the night, leaving him with dew
seeping through his cheap trainers and the cold white marble of the
Wall under his fingertips, cold as a concrete cell.
It was dawn now. The sky was the colour of
ice-cream, and the cloud had cleared. It was going to be a beautiful
day, bright and winter-blue. The first sunlight was already stroking
the top of the Wall, and any moment it would pour down on him like
honey, evaporating the last of the night.
Hed thought about leaving the lid off
dear old Mr Grenvilles coffin, but that wasnt personal
enough, and anyway, the house would report that hed been out
all night and theyd find a way to blame him for it. They
Instead, hed carefully replaced the lid,
screws and all. After hed gone through darling daddys
pockets and found his wallet.
They hadnt been thinking, kid and big
bro and Naomi. They hadnt been thinking straight all along. Theyd
realise their mistake, after he paid them a little visit. Took what
he was owed. Later. Right now, he was tired, and happy just to sit
there, watching the frost melt off his jeans, and drinking in the