“We don’t want any bad habits here mate– know what I mean?” Ray’s eyes glitter at me under his cap. He looks like a bad habit himself rather than a saviour, but I can’t refuse his offer of a roof over my head on a wet night.
“Yeah,” I say. It takes all my breath to keep up with him on the uneven paving and it’s raining – that drizzle that gets you in every crevice.
“Down here,” he turns into a side street and I wonder what I’m walking into but what’s the point? It’s two in the morning and even now the back streets of Liverpool aren’t quiet. The dispossessed are ever roaming but down here it’s as still as it gets. Nevertheless, I’m nervous. There’s that don’t walk alone kind of menace you get in an empty street.
He stops at a peeling door and a shadow slips out of the doorway. My heart jumps in my throat but its just some old junkwoman collecting for charity and one look at us tells her she better look elsewhere.
“Go on, fuck off,” he mutters and waits for her to slope away, her face hidden in the shadow of a hood.
“Here,” he points down an alley. I wonder why me? What made him pick me up off the street tonight, when I’m at such a low point, pain throbbing through my hip, breaching my defences, letting the memories push through? Maybe I’ve read him wrong but I’ve got nothing to lose if he turns nasty. No point in doing me except for the pure psychopathic pleasure of it and he doesn’t look that type.
We go into a back yard with no gate and through a pathway lined with bags of rubbish. I think of our house; of Corinne and Angela. Corinne used to nag me about the garden. I wouldn’t have a gardener but never had time to look after it myself. I wonder who lives there now.
This house has boarded windows. Ray gives a series of knocks on the back door, which still looks fairly sound, despite the scabby paint. I’m still back at that other house, my home, standing under the flowering cherry by the pond, until the door opens.
“What’s your name?” Ray says, distracting my attention so I don’t look at the person behind the door, only the shadow as the door closes after me.
“They call me the Hermit.” There’s a dark room that looks like a kitchen and a hall that smells of cigarettes, candlewax and damp. He’s leading me up bare stairs and I can see into doorless rooms below, full of shadows thrown by guttering candles. It’s a fire trap waiting to happen except you can smell the whole place is so rotten damp it would never ignite. There are dim shapes: murmurings and mutterings like a mutinous crowd. We come to a landing, go up another set of stairs. The room he brings me to is dark and empty.
“You’ll have to share.”
Even without light I can see there’s nothing here except an empty fireplace and something that might be a mattress or bedding against one wall.
“Okay by me.” I slide my pack off my back on to the floor. What a relief. There’s a door in one corner of the room, a built in wardrobe or something.
He’s watching me. “Got a bad leg?”
“Yeah.” Right now it aches like fuck.
I go over to the cupboard and open the door. A great hiss comes out at me and I jump back quicker than I would have thought possible. All I remember when I’ve shut the door is a pair of eyes rolling black and white like spotted eggs and a lot of teeth that looked sharp.
“Jesus, what is it?” I almost lose my balance and my hip screams as it twists when I jump. The wall stops me from falling. Ray’s laughing at me.
“It’s okay. It’s Cupboard Girl.”
‘Calm down,’ I’m telling myself. I get the primus stove out of my pack and set myself to the familiar routine of making a brew.
“Organised aren’t you?” His voice sounds mocking.
“You didn’t say I had to share with a fucking she-wolf.” My fingers shake as I light the stove.
“She’s okay. She’s just scared. She’ll be all right when she gets to know you.”
I settle myself on the floor. There’s a circle of light from the stove. It’s dark and peaceful after the watchfulness needed on the streets, but there is fear in the room, mine and hers, and that stops me relaxing. Stirring the water in the pan is soothing. I don’t have to stay here, I could be on my way right now, but it’s cold and wet outside, I’m tired and my leg –
“What’s your story?” He rolls a fag. I look at the tobacco tin and he looks at my pan of water. I get out the milks and sugar sachets I picked up in Mcdonalds earlier in the day and find two squashed paper cups in my pack that are reasonably clean. He offers me the tin. I don’t smoke much but I take it and roll up.
“I dunno,” I say, “Haven’t got one.” I’m too tired for parlour talk.
“Everyone’s got one.” He squints at me as he lights up. “What happened to your leg?”
“War,” I accept a light and drop a tea bag in the pan. It’s one I used earlier but he won’t know that.
“It doesn’t matter.” I can’t be bothered elaborating the lie. I just don’t want to tell him the truth.
“It’s permanent then?”
“Yeah.” I pour the tea.
He keeps asking things but I don’t answer. We smoke our fags and drink our tea then the silence gets awkward and he goes away. I settle myself in my sleeping bag but let the stove burn for a few minutes. The blue flame takes my mind off the shadows and the thing in the cupboard. I keep staring at the door, straining my ears but not a sound comes out. Is it - she - asleep or like me, sitting motionless, listening? I turn the stove off, listen to the clicking noises as the metal cools. Other noises float up from below but can’t dispel the silence in the room. I can’t sleep. Her eyes are in my mind. I try to think of something else and then the nightmare begins. I can see Angela. Her face is white; her hair is matted with blood. I can see Corinne. Her face is grey; her eyes are blank. Her fingers claw hate on my shoulders. I’d give anything for a Glenfiddich, but that’s a door that I’ve shut in my face. Corinne is shouting. I can’t make out the words because someone is screaming but I know she’s saying that it’s all my fault and then someone comes and gives me an injection and I slip....