the rain the rain is falling on the bridge that runs over the river; and Emily is cradled under its cold white span; and the boy in her lap is bleeding, the red inside seeping out into the grey water that laps and pools in the gutter; and the red keeps coming and coming and she cannot stop it, no matter how hard she tries. It seeps and bleeds and Emily is crying O my boy o my beautiful boy do not leave me my beautiful boy.
But he says nothing; he only looks at her with eyes that are growing blank, their blue draining like the red into grey. And it is too late: too late for him, too late for her, it is done and the boy is dying, the unicorn is dying, too far from the meadow, too far from the field of flowers and it is her treachery, her deceit that brought them here, that brought them within reach of the enemy.
O my beautiful boy.
The red seeps out. The rain comes down. The boy lies bleeding.
And Emily weeps.
SIX MONTHS EARLIER
It is cold, a crisp morning over London town, the kind of day that makes it feel good to be alive even though you are going not to places that you love, or to the warm home of your family, but to the cubic grey office where you spend the hours of your days and where you hope, day after day after day, to make a connection, to find someone who might just, perhaps, one day, be your comrade, your friend, perhaps even your lover, but every day all that there is is the same corrugated carpet, the same dull panelling, the same shallow exchanges. The faces are always the same, the questions always the same, the blankness always the same. And with every step you take you draw a little closer to it.
Emily can feel the warmth of the air trapped in pockets inside her coat, the snugness of her woollen jumper as it hugs her body. She relishes its embrace, the way it slips and slides slightly across her body with every step she takes, its contrast with the cold nipping at the tips of her nose and ears, gnawing at her fingers even through the leather of her gloves. She wishes she had worn a hat: she can feel the wind’s cold fingers in her hair, its unwelcome caresses on her scalp. She can feel mens’ eyes on her as they pass, but doesn’t meet their gaze. They’re looking, but not seeing, she thinks – but she only barely thinks it, because she is wrapped tightly in her coat, in the moment, taking step after step after step across the bridge across the river.
But the south side of the bridge is drawing near now, and Emily can feel a heaviness growing deep inside her chest, as though something dense has taken up residence above her heart, pressing down upon its vitality, crushing every beat smaller and smaller until it must surely fade away into feeble pitter-pattering. It is ridiculous, she thinks, but perhaps that’s how it’ll happen. Perhaps she will just take ever-smaller steps, walking an asymptote towards the end of the bridge, her heart beating ever more faintly until eventually she crumples to the ground in a heap, her red coat, white skin and black hair making bright primary stains against the grey of the concrete.
And if she did, she thinks, they would just ignore her, all these people, all these faceless people going to and from work, crossing the bridge. Places to go, people to visit. She imagines, for a moment, how they would simply walk around her, the stream of people seemingly oblivious but coursing to one side like water round a rock at a river-bank. And as the end of the bridge draws into view, she sees them doing just that: but she cannot see why until she draws a little closer. Closer still, and then she can see him, a boy with dirty blonde hair, sitting slumped tumbledown on the ground by the rail of the bridge. And the thought comes to her unbidden:
O my beautiful boy.
She blinks, shakes it off. Instinctively, she begins to veer away. Changing course, routing around the rock. But as she draws closer, she can see how he, too, is hunched against the wind: but his only protection is a muddy brown blanket drawn over his knees. His face is pale, pinched, set. The blanket is not enough, she thinks. It’s too thin. He’s cold. And in that moment, her heart flutters for him. Perhaps she can help, she thinks. At least give him some change.
But she can’t see a polystyrene cup, a hat or any of the other expected receptacles. There’s a bag tucked by his side, but it’s closed. He seems just to be sitting there, staring blankly into space. Drugs, she thinks reflexively. He’s a junkie. Not even together enough to ask for money. It would be wasted on him anyway. She’s irritated to find herself taking this line so easily, but is it any less true for its laziness? He probably won’t last much longer, whatever she tries to do about it.
But even as she thinks this, he turns his head, looks at her, and her breath falls short. His eyes are blue, and clear, and looking straight into hers. For a moment she is startled by how hard they are, how cold and unforgiving. But in the next moment, as they lock on hers, his face softens, gladdened: his is the expression of someone who sees coming through the crowd an old friend, a friend feared lost but now returned. And Emily, before she can stop herself, feels her own expression soften, a smile breaking out across her face.
But then he vanishes from view, masked by the walkers hurrying towards the end of the bridge. No, not passing: slowing, stopping. She looks up. He is surrounded. A group of teenagers; no, young men. She thinks, for a moment, that perhaps they are his friends, that it was their approach that made his eyes sparkle, not hers at all, and she feels unreasonably disappointed. Then she’s embarrassed: is she really so hard up as to need the approval of a down-and-out?
But in her next glance she sees that they are not, after all, his friends; not his friends at all. They’re striking deliberately casual poses, but there’s something in the angle of their shoulders, the planting of their feet, that speaks of something very different to friendship.
Surely not in broad daylight, in the pure morning, thinks Emily. Surely they wouldn’t dare.
But as she draws closer, she sees that one of the youths is separate from the rest, standing a little way removed from the others, bending over the boy on the ground. The others, she sees, are the mob. He is the leader. His hands are in his pockets, out of harm’s way, but she can almost see them balling into fists. And she is afraid for the boy, though she can’t hear what they’re saying. All that’s in her ears is the whistling of the wind.
The stream of people is diverting still further, coursing around the rocks. She can see heads angling slightly – ever so slightly – towards the scene. People curious, but trying not to become involved, not to draw the gang’s attention to themselves. And in that moment, she hates them. Do something. Do something, you callous bastards. And without even knowing it, she starts to walk faster, heels clicking, face flushing.
But she stops as she sees someone else stepping in. A tourist, she thinks, by the look of him: multi-coloured netted backpack, baseball cap. He’s a big man. But as she watches, the leader of the gang turns. She can see him leaning towards the big man, his head protruding. His features are ugly, angry. The big man has his hands out, conciliatory. But the younger man has thrown his shoulders back, is crowding the big man, their faces only inches apart.
The big man steps back. That’s the signal, the admission of weakness. The younger man puts out his arms, pushes the other man hard in the chest. Startled, the big man stumbles backwards and the other youths surround him – jeering, shouting – and the leader shoulder-barges the big man. The big man takes a few swift steps back, out of range. He pauses for a second, then looks apologetically at the boy on the ground. Turns and walks towards the end of the bridge. He does not look back.
And then the youth leans over the boy, says something, snarls something. The boy does not change position, but seems to grow smaller, to shrink. There is no bravado in him, no fight: only terror and defeat.
Emily is paralysed.
And the youth snatches the blanket – the boy shrinks back – and the youth wads up the blanket into a ball, turns to the river, puts his arm back and hurls the balled blanket high over the rail, out over the river. It opens, a grubby parachute, and spirals slowly to the river below.
The boy on the ground looks sick. Sick and small and cold.
The youth laughs. Steps back, into the company of his mates. They are laughing.
Emily takes one step forward, her blood boiling.
But it is too late.
The leader sees her, a new rock dividing the stream of people.
“What are you looking at, cunt?” he spits.
Emily has no answer.
“Better not be looking at me,” says the youth. “Better not be looking at me, bitch.”
Emily says nothing.
The youth eyes her for a moment. Emily is suddenly afraid, afraid of the mixture of aggression and desire in his eyes. There is a crossing of the ways there that she does not want to imagine.
“Cunt,” he says again, then laughs, turns away, his mates around him, and they swagger towards the end of the bridge. They do not look back.
Now it is just Emily and the boy. The broken boy on the ground. He looks defeated, and yet relieved.
It could have been worse. But Emily is heartsick. Sick that people find such sport in casual cruelty; sick that the boy should be grateful for such small mercy; sick that she stood by and did nothing.
The moment yawns.
The boy eventually realises she’s there, looks up. This time, she sees neither the steeliness of his first glance, nor the warmth of his second. This time, his eyes are plaintive, beseeching. She cannot bear it.
“I’m – sorry,” she says, and in furious sadness starts walking briskly, hurriedly, away, towards the end of the bridge, head down, incandescent tears starting to burn at the corners of her eyes.
She does not look back.
NINE HOURS LATER
Dark now, and the rain is falling plish-plash into the puddles along the Embankment, punching holes through the reflections of the white halogen lights strung out above. And still the trains are rolling over the bridge above, their wheels groaning down the tracks, cracking electric sparks as they go. And Emily is walking – slowly, despite the rain – her head bowed, her arms weary. Another day has wound its way to an end, its promise broken on the rocks of circumstance. Another day of silence broken only by murmured chat, clacking keys and chiming telephones. Emily is tired with the world. With herself.
The boy is still there.
It’s late, by commuter standards: the stream of pedestrians has dwindled to a trickle. As they pass, they hardly bother to avoid him at all, making no more than minor deflections from their paths. Emily can’t quite believe it. Perhaps it’s not him. She can’t see his face: he’s curled up, his head pressed into his knees. But even in the darkness, she can see that his jeans are darkened with water. She’s sure it’s him.
She stops dead, takes a few faltering steps forward, stops again. He looks in a bad way. Should she try to help? Should she try to get help?
Inspiration. Emily turns, starts walking quickly back the way she came. After a few steps, she breaks into a run, as best she can in her heels. A man looks at her; it is a hungry look, and she doesn’t like it. She ignores him, runs on, up to the Festival Hall doors. They are heavy: she has to stop, begrudgingly, and put both her hands on the handle, then lean in with all her weight to creak it open. She pushes through the crowd of concert-goers, wine glasses in their hands; darts across to the glass-boxed shop on the far side of the foyer. From outside, she can’t see anything useful: ties, books, jigsaws. Inside -
“Do you sell blankets?” she asks the attendant, aware that the drenched ringlets of her hair are sticking to her face, that she’s breathing too fast and her hands are shaking. The shop assistant – Slavic cheekbones, blonde, beautiful, poised – looks at her curiously. So slow, so slow: Emily is so frustrated that she wants to jump up and down. Or slap the assistant. Perhaps both.
“Blankets?” says the shop assistant, puzzled, and Emily feels a pang of guilt at her impatience. Of course the shop in a concert hall doesn’t sell blankets. What had she expected the poor girl to say?
“I don’t know – do you do picnic rugs, or something?”
“No,” says the assistant uncertainly. “We have these?” She points to a display of shawls, hanging from hooks along the back wall. Delicate. Ornate. Expensive. And thin. Some are big enough to cover a person, but they’re made of silk, satin, cotton – nothing warm or durable.
Desperate, Emily looks around. Perhaps there’s something else she can take him. She needs to show him somebody cares, that he has a right to hope for more than indifference. A scarf. It’s not a proper winter scarf, but it’s something. Off-white cashmere with the Skylon logo picked out in grey embroidery. She pauses. Will this seem ridiculous? Offensive, even? An ineffectual luxury garment for a kid freezing in the rain?
She doesn’t give herself the opportunity to think about it any further: takes it to the till, pays for it. It takes all the money she has in her purse, bar a few coins. Calmer now. The assistant smiles, glad that everything has worked out.
Emily is cold. The water from her hair is dribbling down her neck and down her back. She’s beginning to feel the chill in her bones, is tempted for a moment to wait and warm up. A cup of coffee? But then she thinks: what must he feel like? He’s been out in this all day. She sets off, at a trot, rehearsing what she’s going to say. It’s not much, but I wanted to give you something. I saw what happened. I saw what they did.
But as she exits the Hall, approaches the foot of the bridge, she sees that she is already too late.
Once again, he is surrounded.
Emily’s heels stutter to a halt. This is not the picture she had imagined: what are they doing here? Can’t they leave him alone for just one minute? She’s uncertain again. It’s dark now, and there are few people around. She remembers the expression on the face of the ringleader when he looked at her: that feral, hungry look. It makes her feel even colder inside, as though she has ice in her stomach.
But she can’t stand by. Again.
The gang are more mobile this time, looser. Drunk, she thinks. This time, the leader is leaning over the boy, jabbing at him with a finger, shouting. She can’t make out the words, but she sees a spray of spittle glitter as it catches the light.
Without knowing what she’s doing, without even knowing she’s doing it, she starts up the steps towards the gang. She starts walking faster, running.
“Hey! Hey, you! Hey!”
They turn towards her, and the ice in her stomach freezes into a single solid block. But she keeps going.
“Why don’t you just leave him alone?”
There’s a moment of silence, then the leader turns towards her, elbows his mates aside. One of them laughs. He’s probably trying to seem casual, Emily thinks, but it comes across as nervous, broken. Suddenly, she’s aware of how young they are. Not that that means much any more, if it ever did: it’s teenagers that she looks out for when she’s crossing the bridge, and on the darkened paths that lead the way home. But somehow she feels better. They’re really little more than children. Lost children.
The leader steps towards her, cocks his head to one side. And she realises that he had thought to impress her with his toughness, his dominance. And she sees him realise his mistake, sees his eyes turn cold, flinty. He, too, is reduced. Simplified. She knows, as she looks at him, and he looks at her, that he knows he could never have her. And she knows she can use that. She looks at him: dispassionate, disinterested.
It makes him angry. He bounces towards her – bounces, on the balls of his feet, like a rapper in a video. It doesn’t have the effect he’s presumably hoping for. She smiles a little, and that makes him angrier.
“What you going to do about it? What you gonna do? What, is he your boyfriend? He your boyfriend, bitch? You scared we’re gonna mess him up? Well, what if I do? What if I mess him up? And you? You want some? Cos don’t think I’m not gonna hit you cos you’re a woman. I ain’t no gentleman, ya get me? You want it, y’ask for it, I’ll mess you up too.”
The gang murmurs.
She’s still holding the scarf in her hand. Suddenly, she’s conscious that one end is trailing on the ground. She doesn’t look, but she can imagine the white cashmere growing grey, stained with gutter water, with the thousand million footprints of the commuters who’ve walked this way, across the bridge and round the rocks and away, striding carelessly to the brightly-lit homes of their families, cocooned in their coats, huddled in their warmth and security, heedless, careless, knowing nothing, seeing nothing, doing nothing -
- and before she knows it she runs forward – she later thinks she might have shouted, doesn’t know for sure – and she leaps up the final step of the bridge and towards the leader and she puts out her arms and hits him in the chest so hard that the shock runs up through her body and makes her teeth clack together – and he stumbles, tottering, backwards, his face fracturing with surprise, and he goes over, and there is a sharp crack as his head hits the ground.
There is silence.
“Fuuuck,” says one of the kids, quietly.
Emily stands, trembling, her arms still half-extended, palms still facing out. One of her nails is broken. The scarf is at her feet.
The kid doesn’t get up.
“Oh fuck,” says another of the kids. “Danny? Danny? You all right?” They really do look very young now. And scared. Pale faces in the lights of the bridge.
Danny doesn’t answer.
The wind blows up, gusts. The scarf twitches, billows, a loop rising into the air.
“Come on,” she says to the boy, who through all this has not moved, his face still pressed into his knees. The wind howls along the bridge, blows her hair back. She’s glad: he will be able to see her, to see her face. But he doesn’t look up, doesn’t move.
The scarf catches the wind, is picked up, blows over the railing, fans out over the river and vanishes into the black waters below.
The kids are still frozen, standing around their fallen leader. But they won’t stay that way, she thinks. And they are blocking the way off the bridge.
“Come on,” she says again, more urgently this time, and grabs the boy’s arm. “Come on!”
“Bitch crazy,” mutters one of the gang. Another kneels down. “Danny?” He reaches out tentatively, shakes his fallen leader’s shoulder.
The boy finally looks up. This time, his eyes are clear, ancient.
“I knew you would save me,” he says.
What? But Emily realises they must move, soon. Even if the kids don’t do anything, there will be other people soon. Ambulances. Police. Is the leader dead? Can he be dead?
“Okay,” she says. “We’ve got to go. Come on, come on – ” and she practically pulls him to his feet – she is surprised at how tall he is, as he unfolds – perhaps six inches taller than her – and some part of her momentarily notes the pleasing squareness of his shoulders, the shape of his hands – and then they are walking down the bridge, away from the tableau, her hand on his arm, faster and faster until they break into a trot, then they are running, running as hard as they can to the end of the bridge and clattering down the steps and away.
They do not look back.
FIVE MINUTES LATER
Once they’re off the bridge and into the station, Emily stops, breathless. She realises she still has her hand on the boy’s arm, clutching the fabric of his sleeve. The boy. He’s breathing hard, too, but not panting the way that she is. In fact, he looks remarkably robust: hardly the pathetic figure he cut a few minutes ago. She feels a pang of irritation: if he could have run earlier, why didn’t he? He’s bigger than her, faster than her: why did he just sit there and take it?
She knows she’s being unfair: there was only one of him, and what – six? eight? – of them. And they wouldn’t have hesitated to take him down if he had resisted. And they would probably have been carrying knives. The thought makes her tremble, suddenly aware of how badly things could have gone. But it passes. Relief cascades through her. The familiarity of the station, with its staff and fixtures and fittings, makes the events on the bridge seem hazy, forgotten. Now that she’s no longer terrified, she’s angry. She feels like shouting at him, the way that she might shout at an errant boyfriend.
But her hand is still on his arm.
He turns to her, and his blue eyes fix on hers as his gaze drifts across her face. Something in them is still a little wild, a little panicked. She’s not sure what to say; now that the immediate danger has passed, she realises that she’s standing here with her hand on the arm of a complete stranger. He could be anyone, she thinks. An alcoholic, or a junkie. He could be mentally ill.
Or he could just be a scared kid.
Either way, she doesn’t want to do anything that might spook him out. She’s too burnt out to think of anything much to say anyway. After all, she doesn’t know anything about him, this coltish boy that she has somehow rescued. So she says nothing for a moment and lets him appraise her: the dripping black rivulets of her hair; her arched eyebrows; her straight nose; her oval face and back, again, to her eyes.
“Thanks,” he says, and smiles nervously. His eyes roll as he says it, checking the entrances to the station, the gates, the people coming in and out. His smile is hesitant, shy, and it makes her oddly sad. It looks as though he might have a nice smile, if he only felt able to let it out.
“You’re welcome,” she says softly. And her hand is still on his arm: perhaps she should move it? But she doesn’t. Another moment passes. She shuffles her shoes a little, aware that they are still looking directly at each other. Finally, she clears her throat, slowly drops her arm – searching his face, quietly, carefully, for signs of disappointment – and wonders what this mania is that has suddenly overtaken her.
Careful now, Emily, don’t get carried away.
But he is a beautiful boy. She had expected him to be grubby, to smell sour, but he doesn’t. Not from here, anyway, and she resists the urge to move a little closer and be sure.
“I’m Emily,” she says. Then she laughs. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Peter,” he replies, extending his hand. “Under the circumstances, I think the pleasure’s mine.” She takes it, they shake. His hand is large, warm, strong. Smooth skin.
“I think maybe I should go,” she says. “I don’t know what happened to him. It sounded bad when his head hit the ground.”
“Yeah,” says Peter. “But it wasn’t your fault. He had it coming.”
“You sound like you’re glad.”
“Not really. But I think you did the right thing. It wasn’t your fault he fell over.”
“Do you think -” she hesitates – “do you think he’s really hurt?” Or dead, she thinks. Newspaper stories flash into her head. Men – all men – sent to prison by a punch that turns into a fall and then into a murder. Murder.
“I don’t think he’s that badly hurt,” says Peter. “There was no blood and he didn’t hit his head that hard.” There’s a level of assurance in his voice that soothes and unsettles her at the same time. How does he know? Perhaps he knows more about violence than she wants him to. She’s torn. Should she go to the police, explain? They’ll understand, won’t they? Or home? She’s done her Good Samaritan bit. Let him fend for himself now. She can’t go around picking up waifs and strays. Or else … or else what?
She wishes vaguely that she hadn’t taken her hand off his arm.
The moment is fading.
Their connection is waning.
“Well,” she repeats, “I think I had better go.” She hikes her bag onto her shoulder, sets her feet together, smiles with false brightness at him. “Good luck. Maybe you should go to a shelter or something? Like the one at St Martin’s?” She wonders if she should offer him some money. But that seems weird. Impersonal.
“No,” he says. “I’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, then.” She half turns away. She’s irritated, but she’s not sure why. “Hope things go well – well, better – for you.” She starts walking towards the gates, rummaging furiously in her bag for her travel pass.
“Hang on! Hang on.” Peter has run over to the gates. And now his hand is on her arm. “Won’t you let me buy you a coffee or something? As a thank-you?”
She looks up at him, wary. Does he even have the money to buy her a coffee? She can’t offer: she spent all her money on the scarf. But there’s nothing written in his face to prompt suspicion. She considers, but there is too much to think about: too many conflicting impulses. Finally, she stops, gives in: “Okay.”
They walk, in more or less complete, mutually complicit silence, up the narrow street that runs from the station towards town. Emily pauses outside the nearest coffee place to the station – an undistinguished representative of one of the big branded chains – but Peter glances nervously backwards towards the bridge. Emily doesn’t think it’s overtly for her benefit, but it does remind her that they should perhaps find somewhere a little further away and less conspicuous.
They turn a corner, into a narrow street that runs parallel to the Strand – almost an alleyway – and Emily is momentarily worried again. But it seems rude to object now. She doesn’t want to look at him too directly, but she’s very aware of his neighbouring presence. She wonders how they look to the other people around. Is obvious that he’s homeless? For that matter, is he even homeless? And given the ruined state of her hair, the splashes of mud up her tights and along the bottom of her coat, how obvious is it that she herself isn’t?
There’s a café here: not a coffee shop, an old-style Italian café with plastic moulded furniture and laminated computer printouts for menus. But there’s seating around the back, shielded from the street by the service counter. There are few people passing, in any case, and the only other customers are what Emily guesses to be an Eastern European couple.
Are they on a date? she wonders. This isn’t where she’d go for one, but it’s easy to construct a story about them. She works in a bar, he’s in construction, they’ve each just finished their shifts and gone for sausage and beans at one of the few places nearby that’s both affordable and still open. He’s poking his fork into the food on the plate with one hand: the other arm is stretched out across the table. Her hand is resting on top of it. Emily looks away, embarrassed.
Peter comes back from the service counter, an open polystyrene cup in each hand. The coffee smells too strong, and is a slightly off-putting biscuity colour, but is nonetheless welcome. The ice in her stomach starts to melt away. He draws back the chair opposite her and sits down. She wonders how old he actually is. It’s apparent, now that she sees him here, under the strip lights, that he’s not as young as she thought when he was huddled on the bridge. He might only be a couple of years younger than her. Perhaps not even that much.
Now the silence is not companionable; it is uncomfortable. The café owner has discreetly made himself scarce; the only sound is the Eastern European couple talking softly to each other in their own language.
Finally, Peter speaks. “You know, that was pretty amazing,” he says. “The way you just … flipped out.” He grins.
She can’t help but grin back, although even as she does so she sees a brief snapshot of the youth’s head hitting the pavement, hears a brief echo of the cracking sound it made. “It’s not something I make a habit of,” she says.
He looks at her steadily for a moment. “No?” he says.
She doesn’t really know what to say. “No.”
“From the way you handled yourself I thought maybe you knew something. Like, I don’t know, martial arts or something.”
She laughs. This time there’s more sincerity in it. “Hardly. I don’t know what got into me. I just got so mad. I nearly did something this morning, when I saw them throwing your blanket, but …” She trails off. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I should have.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he says quietly. “Most people don’t even stop to look.”
She shivers. “It’s happened before?”
“Not that, exactly. But they’re always trying. They’re always after me.”
Something about the way he says this is worrying: a little paranoid, perhaps? Emily tries not to let her concern show on her face. The café owner is still fussing about in the back room. “The same gang?”
“Yeah, they hang around there quite a bit. Started out, y’know, just names and stuff. Sometimes they push me about a bit, but nothing too bad. Getting heavier recently, though. There are others too. And there’s always the random stuff.”
“Don’t you -” Emily pauses, wondering how to put this delicately – “Isn’t there someone you can ask for help? Somewhere you can go?” She’s about to ask about his family, stops herself. If he had family, he wouldn’t be here.
Peter says nothing at first; he’s looking at his hands wrapped around the polystyrene coffee cup. Then he looks up. “I do now,” he says.
Emily’s not sure whether to be alarmed or flattered. Is it a joke? But his eyes are soft: it’s an expression she recognizes. Trust. It’s the expression that her brothers used to give her when they were very little. With a jolt, she realises they had the same blue eyes. Not exactly, but very close. Peter’s are … deeper.
Still. Make light of it. Turn it into a joke, even if it isn’t meant as one. “Well, I won’t always be there to help you,” she says. “Don’t you think you’d be better off getting some -” she tries not to say the word, but it slips out – “help? From someone a bit better qualified than me?”
Peter says nothing.
“You’ve got to look out for yourself, Peter,” says Emily, and regrets it instantly. She sounds like a patronising cow. But she can’t stop. “Why did you just stay there, after the morning, if you knew they’d be hanging around? Didn’t you think they’d be back?”
“I thought you’d be back,” says Peter. “That’s why I waited.”
Despite herself, Emily’s definitely more flattered than anxious now. Though also confused. Does he mean … what does he mean?
“Well, I suppose you were right. But, you know, you can’t just hang around waiting for me…” The sentence hangs for an eternity. “I don’t usually even come back that way.” This last is a lie, and she regrets that, too: but she thinks perhaps a bit of disinformation would be prudent about now.
“I knew you would,” said Peter. “You had to. I just knew you would.”
And the balance tips back towards anxiety. She is slightly reassured by the café owner’s bustling, don’t-mind-me return from the back room.
“How did you know?” A quiet voice at the back of her mind is telling her she should be bringing this conversation to an end, she should be leaving; but a louder one is saying she needs to find out where this is going. She’s fascinated. A rabbit in the headlights, the quiet voice says.
“You’re here to protect me,” says Peter.
“Now hold on a minute. I’m not here to protect anyone. I’m not sure I can even protect myself. I’m glad I was able to help you out, but don’t make me regret it, okay?” Again: the crack of the skull on concrete. Dread overcomes her. She feels nauseous. Did she pick the wrong side here? Should she have stayed out of it? Has she injured, maybe even killed someone – okay, perhaps not one of the human race’s finest specimens, but still, a person – to preserve a lunatic? She realises that she’s entirely accepted Peter’s assurance that the youth will be okay, for absolutely no good reason. What do they say about psychopaths? That they’re charming, uncannily persuasive? Fuck. Fuck.
“You don’t understand,” says Peter. “I know it sounds … I know how it sounds. But. But I just know. Can’t you feel it? Don’t you feel like you’re here to protect me?”
And the thing is, she does.
A moment passes.
“Why am I supposed to protect you?”
“Because you’re the Lion.”
“Yes. Listen -” Peter looks upwards, twitches his head back and forth uncertainly. Then he seems to come to a decision. He sits up straight, folds his hands together, leans over the table towards her. “Listen. I know how this sounds. But just listen to me. You’re the Lion.”
“I don’t underst-”
He waves her to be quiet. “Please, let me finish. You’re the Lion. And I …”
“I’m the unicorn.”
Emily can’t help herself. She knows she should be genuinely alarmed by now, that Peter is clearly delusional and that she has committed a crime, an act of violence, for him. But the absurdity has gone too far. She laughs, a choked, explosive laugh that startles the Eastern European couple out of their reverie and makes the man behind the counter smile benevolently.
“You’re a unicorn.”
She searches his face for a sign – any sign – that he knows how ridiculous he sounds. But there’s nothing. In fact, when she reaches his eyes, she’s sobered into silence. He seems to be in deadly earnest: and his eyes are saner than anyone’s she’s ever seen.
“All right. You’re the unicorn. So where the hell is your horn?”
Peter looks around. Then he picks his bag up off the floor, holds it towards her, opens it up so that only she can see what’s inside.
And there, shining in the dark interior of the bag, unmistakeable in its simplicity, is a long, polished and extremely sharp knife.
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