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When she first heard the cries, she thought it was dogs.
Suddenly it was silent, just the hiss of light rain, like any other night on her quiet street. It was late. Simon wasn’t yet home from his double-shift at the hospital. The dogfight unsettled her. That strangled sound had pitched itself into the house. Julia went upstairs to check on the baby. She smoothed the blanket, fragrant, warm, patting it down to calm herself. Snug in his onesie, James slept on; an undisturbed purr hummed under her hand. The spindly hairs on his tender head caught the light from the streetlamp as it cast raindrop-shaped blisters on the wall behind his crib.
Whose dogs, she wondered. On her block there were only the Henderson girl’s Sniglet, a Yorkshire terrier, and Mr. Snee, an ancient Scottie owned by Aubrey, a retired Naval officer. They were all gone to the country, waiting out the lockdown. The houses on her block were empty.
Returning to the kitchen, Julia distractedly wiped the clean stovetop. She heard the dogs again: Sharp yelps knifed the grind of their growls. The rain spitting against the windows picked up. Julia went to the front of the house to look out and, as she did, heard the crush and hump of body on body. Another scream rang up the street with a punctuating “Fuck!”
Julia retreated into the hallway, wishing the lantern over her front door was not lit.
The fight went on with howls, then a thud, like dumped earth, and someone running away, shoes slapping the pavement.
The rasp of her breathing filled the dim hall. Julia watched the front door, studying it like a screen, as if waiting for breaking news.
Three slammed doorknocker raps shivered her shoulders.
She waited. The refrigerator behind her ticked.
The doorbell rang.
“Hello? Is there anyone, please, anyone? Help! Please.” The voice, timid, a woman’s voice, was frightened. The doorbell rang again.
In the belligerent banging, Julia had sensed a large man. She leaned back toward the kitchen to grab her phone off the counter, but the woman’s voice trembled on, leaking over the transom, unpicking Julia’s hold on herself. She felt her feet take her to the door and her hand on the lock opening it onto the night.
In the light from the lantern, she looked down into the wet face and pale grey eyes of a small woman. She seemed close to Julia’s age. Julia checked past her into the street and saw no one.
“Please, I’m so…Can you help?”
“What happened? What is it?” Julia asked.
The woman didn’t move. She stared up at Julia with a look Julia could not read until she realised it was apologetic.
“I’m so, so very sorry,” the woman said in a conspiratorial whisper, as the Ficus tree on the stoop crashed down and a man swelled up over the threshold. He hustled his arms round both women, surged into the house, and slammed the door shut with a kick of his boot.
Roaring with pain, he let them go. Moving as if he had been there before, as if he owned the place, he strode into the kitchen, turned the sink taps full blast, and cupped the rushing water in his hands to flush his face. Julia watched a blood-pinked swirl spin on the porcelain and circle the drain.
“Fuck!” he yelled. It was the voice from the street. “Syl!” he commanded. “Get me a towel, ice, something for fuck’s sake!”
“So sorry,“ the woman said to Julia. “Would you mind? Sorry.” She grabbed the dishtowel from the rod on the stove and held it out to Julia. “Might we have some ice?”
Julia stood in the centre of her kitchen and didn’t move.
The man turned his face toward Julia and with a greasy smile said, “Madam, if you would. Some ice.”
That was when she recognised him. Many months ago, he’d appeared midday, at her door. He had smiled and called her Madam in just that way. She was pregnant then. As she remembered this, she felt a twinge in her back where she used to press her palm those last weeks carrying James. The man had been holding a dingey plastic tub filled with milk-eyed fish frozen into a twisted block of heads, tails, and fins. He had prattled on, “…fresh off the dock they was.” He’d run out of petrol money, truck around the corner, and this was her lucky day, a whole catch of prime sea bass, hers for a pitiful £40: “Two twenties will do the trick,” he had said. She’d be a winner, a great lady, and as the world could see, about to be a mum. “Nothing more lovely than a woman with child,” he said, adding that he “had a little sprog,” so he should know. And what a thing to show them, the sprogs that is. You can get something in return for doing someone a solid, like getting him home to his family.
Julia had said no, thank you, then no again. With each no, he had wheezed and prattled on, ratcheting his pitch like wind in a pinwheel, until spun dizzy, she had fetched her purse, slipped him £40 to go away. Closing the door, she had been surprised to see that he had actually left the tub of fish dripping on the doorstep.
Julia couldn’t tell if he remembered. Now, dingey like that tub, he was in her house, dripping onto the polished floor of her gleaming kitchen, sputtering pathogens into her purified air. Since lockdown she’d kept the kitchen as clean as an operating theatre. Simon checked when he got home. He liked it that way. He wouldn’t be back for hours, having volunteered for double shifts at the Cromwell Hospital Covid ICU, doing a “solid” for others, leaving her alone again with the baby.
Julia looked over to a box of masks, thought to put one on, then heard something faint, a static chirp. The couple hadn’t heard it. She glanced past the man to the baby monitor, sitting like a playschool walkie-talkie on the windowsill, and prayed it stayed silent.
Julia took the towel from the woman, filled it with ice from the freezer, and handed it back to her.
The woman went to the man. He lifted himself away from the sink and let her gingerly pat the towel against his cheek. Under the cloth Julia could see a long, curved cut, from his ear down the jawline into his neck, open and slowly bleeding. It looked like a sliced flap of skin, a gill revealing a crimson, pulsing underside.
“Not like that,” Julia said.
“What?” the woman asked.
“Wet the cloth so the cold comes through. And don’t pat it. Press it. Keep pressure on it.“
“Do what she says, Syl.”
“Do what she says? That’s nice. Of course, Declan. Do what the lady says.”
“Don’t start now. It’s been a day, it has,” Declan said.
“And whose fault would that be now?” Syl asked as she soaked the cloth in the sink, reached up, and held it to his cheek.
“Ian. He’s the one. Eddie sent him. Put him up to it.“
“Eddie?” Syl laughed. “Don’t flatter yourself. Eddie doesn’t even know you exist. You were lucky it was Ian onto your bloody freelancing and your collection money three weeks late. Then you fucked yourself by getting into it with Ian, my bloody cousin, instead of letting me handle him. Nearly killed him. Now he’s off to Eddie for sure and you’re fucked.”
Julia wanted them out, fast, before the monitor betrayed James sleeping upstairs, before they permanently fouled her house. But the man’s wound was weeping blood and not being addressed properly.
“Here, let me,” Julia said. “Sit down.” She pulled a chair from the table for him, took the wet cloth, expertly pressing it to his face, as Syl looked on. “You need to get to a doctor, right away, this needs attention, disinfecting, and stitches. You need to get to the hospital.”
“That’s not happening,” Syl piped in with a snort as she paced around the kitchen.
Declan looked up at Julia as she tended to him. For a slovenly brute, a lug, her mother would have said, Julia couldn’t miss his disconcertedly pretty eyes. It wasn’t their blue; it was the lashes, long and full, feminine. The rest of him bulked in her chair. In his look she saw he remembered her. He shook his head once to say keep mum about it.
“Got your National Health Service card on you, do you, Declan?“ Syl chimed in, again with a laugh. “We’ll be just fine here for a bit.”
“I’m telling you,“ Julia repeated, holding the cloth tight to his face. “This is a serious laceration. You need 10 maybe 12 sutures, minimum. How did this happen? A knife? You need an antibiotic. And it needs to be properly cleaned. You should go now.”
While Julia was speaking, Declan kept his eyes on her.
“You a nurse, Madam?” he asked.
Julia felt a fool for going on, showing off. Simon pointed out, not always kindly, that she did just that, when no one had asked, telling them what they ought to do for their own good health. He said she was prone to it more now that she was home all day with the baby. Easy for him to say, he wasn’t the one home, was he?
“Yes,” Julia said. “I am a nurse. But I can’t help you here. You need to go to the surgery.”
“And where would your husband be at this hour, Madam?”
“He’s at work. Will be home any minute,” Julia lied.
“Well, which is it? He wouldn’t by any chance be a doctor, would he?” Syl asked.
“No,” Julia lied again.
“Well that’s not very nice. Not very nice at all,” Syl barked. She had her back turned to them, running her fingers across the shelf by the fridge, through the debris of daily life: keys, shopping lists, coins in a cereal bowl, the box of COVID masks, a bent tube of L’Occitane hand cream, and the mail.
Without turning, scratching a leg with her opposite foot’s shoe, she lifted an envelope up over her head and through her teeth said, “Dr. Simon Russel-Cobb, 7 Ansdell Terrace. That would be here, wouldn’t it?” Then she looked at Julia with such abject dismay that Julia saw the apology at the door and this display were all a feint.
“Don’t, Syl,” Declan said.
“Don’t what, Declan? Don’t what? Don’t let the lady know we’re onto her? That’s rich coming from you, that is. You got us here in the first place. For once, for maybe the first time in your sorry life, maybe you did get lucky. Lucked us into a nurse’s house and doctor hubby home any minute to see you right.”
“I lied,” Julia said.
“We know you lied. Don’t think…”
“No. I mean, he’s not coming home. Not for hours. He’s in the ICU and can’t leave for hours. Please, you need to leave and get real help now.”
“Now that’s either very, very considerate of you or just really, really stupid,” Syl muttered.
Julia closed her eyes for a moment, then looked from one to the other. Where were their masks? Dumb question. Where were her mask and gloves? Their wet breath and sweaty, bloody selves had broken the hermetic seal on her home; the only people who had been inside since the lockdown. Lockdown? Or was it everyone locked out? For months the greengrocer and Ocado left food on the stoop. Julia dutifully wiped down all the bags with sanitizer, wore the blue gloves Simon poached from the ICU. Often she felt more locked-in, like the young woman in the fairy tales. She kept an extra box of masks by the pram for her once-a-day walk in Hyde Park. In the park, everyone stayed well away from each other, tilted an acknowledging nod with a side glance that silently asked, “Are you safe? Infected?” Julia remembered that look from an old flick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Are you one of them? She sometimes found the walk more lonely than staying home. But the air was good, and there was the diversion of watching the odd clutch of teens, maskless, kicking a ball on the grass. Lunatics on the grass, like Simon’s all-weekend repeat-play Pink Floyd. Now the lunatics were in the hall, in her home, bleeding into the sink, exhaling whatever they brought in with them, James upstairs breathing the same polluted air, and Simon, somewhere he wanted to be, free to nobly join the battle.
“You need to leave. And now,” Julia declared.
Syl turned the ends of her lips all the way up in a beatific smile. “No. We are going to stay. And you or your hubby are going to see him right, Sister Nurse. Get him fit for travel. Look!” Syl yanked the cloth in Julia’s hand away from the gash in Declan’s face and as she did it seeped blood, bleeding along its length down his neck into his collar.
“Syl! We have to go. Eddie or Ian are looking for sure, going to be back. Here. I…”
“You let me worry about them,” Syl said. ”She’s right. You’re in no condition. She will fix you up and we’ll go.”
“I cannot help you,” Julia protested.
“Oh, yes you will,” Syl said not smiling this time.
“I’ll give you some money. You can get a taxi or an Uber…” As soon as she had said this, Julia felt the foolishness of the Uber idea, but before she knew what to do next Syl asked, “Where is the loo?”
“The loo. Where is it?”
“It’s up half a flight, on the landing.”
“Ok then,” Syl said. “I’m going to the loo. You think about it. Maybe change your mind. Get whatever you have here at home, you being a medical couple and all, and you think about how you’re going to fix him. May I borrow your phone?” She didn’t wait for a reply as she took Julia’s phone off the counter. “You won’t need this till you’re done with Declan. Wouldn’t want you to lose focus. “She lifted the sash of the back window, threw the phone into the night, and banged the window down.
Syl went up the few steps and disappeared at the turn of the stairs. Julia heard the bathroom door open and close.
All she wanted, needed, was for them to leave. She didn’t want to help, knew that wouldn’t get them out, yet when she looked at him and saw the gash glisten red each time she lifted the cloth, the blood insistently flowing down his throbbing neck, she couldn’t be sure there wasn’t an artery cut. Declan’s face twisted up as if asking a question, and the intimacy of his need drew her to him. She remembered that pull from when she was on duty, before James: A patient, lifted from stretcher to gurney, bleeding from the belly, would cry out at her touch, pulling her in like undertow, flooding everything except the hurried rush of soothing his pain.
Julia pressed the cloth tenderly but with pressure against his face.
“Madam, I’d be very grateful if you would patch me up.”
“If I do, will you leave?”
“Out like a flash. You do me this solid, and I know a fine woman like you will, I’ll talk with Syl. Get us out of here in a flash.” He smiled at her. She recognised the same cadence in his patter he’d used at her door and knew it was a con. Syl called the shots.
“How did this happen? Who cut you?”
The heavy hulk of this man sank further down in the chair. He put his hand up covering hers, holding it as she pressed his cheek.
“Was Syl’s cousin I was tussling with.”
“He cut you?”
Declan closed his eyes.
“So Syl cut you to stop it?”
His opening eyes said yes.
Julia shuddered, let him hold her hand, then brushed his wet, lank hair off his brow and away from the cut. She had him keep the cloth in place as she opened a cabinet above the sink, took down a leather bag, removed four vials of saline, alcohol, scissors, Lidocaine cream, tape, and three dressing pads. She rummaged in the bag for arterial dressing and, finding none, thought to ask Simon to bring some home.
Simon. Home. What are we doing here? This house. Julia never wanted to live in Kensington. Lovely but no village, and she was so alone these days, Simon away being the hero at all hours. He chose it. He called the shots, told her it was respectable and safe. Safe. Every night at 8 p.m. Julia stood on the steps of the house, the only person on her dead-end, abandoned street, applauding solo, in ghostly community with rest of the country honouring the heroes of the NHS. On these evenings, in the heart of a great city, as she waited for the clock to strike, in that pause, she heard the terrifying silence. No traffic. The only sound in the vacant air was a discordant songbird. Finally, when she banged on her pot, it was to fill the void, to send a drum beat across the rooftops to Simon, signalling, “I am here…please…come… home.” But he didn’t. They could hardly communicate all day; he was so busy, and each morning when he left, as the lockdown dragged on and she had less and less planned for her day, he filled their conversations with more and more unsolicited advice, directives really, for how she should live her life. But now, in the kitchen, in this moment, she didn’t need Simon to tell her anything. She was glad to be doing something she knew how to do, first do some good, like her friends in the nursing staff at the hospital. They were on the frontline, at risk, while she was home, ashamed of her bubble of happiness with James, of the envy she felt in the dead afternoons while he slept. So do it. Help this man, get him fit for travel, maybe do him a “solid” after all, and get them both the hell out.
Julia washed her hands, pulled on two of the blue gloves, gently held the cloth under his jaw as she irrigated the cut with saline solution. He winced but held. She said, “That’s all right. Just a bit more.”
Up on the landing a phone winkled a trill. Julia and Declan looked over to the empty stairs and heard Syl say, “Yes. Yes, Eddie. No. I can’t. We left. Yes. I know, but let me handle… Sorry, I can’t, but…Yes I understand…Hello? Hello?”
Syl took the steps down one by one, lips clenched, eyes fired, one hand holding her phone, the other cradling Winne-the-Pooh-onsied James, swivelling his sleep-damp head searching his mother. A dummy pulsed over his trembling chin.
“What are you doing? How dare you!” Julia screamed. James burst into a wail. Syl jiggled him, smiling as she swung around. Julia ripped off the gloves and lunged at Syl. Saline and alcohol vials rolled off the counter, smashing with a pop on the floor as she tried to pry James away.
“Back off, Sister Nurse!” Syl retreated behind the counter grasping James. “This sweet little lad is our insurance you’ll do as we say. None of us wants to see him hurt, do we?”
Julia imagined the knife Syl used on Declan sleeping in Syl’s jacket pocket, didn’t want to wake it, and quietly hissed, “What is it you want?”
“I want you to stop the bleeding on his fucking face. Haven’t you been…paying attention?”
Julia blanked. Dizzy, she focused on James. The alcohol stink on the floor hit her nose and crashed the high of caring for Declan. She waited.
Her precipitous pause sank the air in the room like a sudden drop in altitude. In the downdraft, James stopped crying and joined the two watching his mother. The women faced each other, the counter between them, Julia’s hands splayed flat on the marble.
“I cannot help you,“ Julia steadily said.
“Madam, please,“ Declan slurred. “Syl can get very angry and…”
“Give me my child. Now.”
“Insurance, Sister Nurse.”
“You have a child. You must know what I mean.”
“I have a child?” Syl laughed. “What gave you that idea?”
“Your, what did he say, your sprog?”
“What? When? A sprog. Our sprog?” Syl turned on Declan. “You stupid, silly man. Your sprog. And where would he be now, Declan, your blue bottle-eyed son? Off at Harrow? Can’t recall. Been here before, have you? You brought your bloody freelancing here when you’re supposed to be doing drop-offs and collections for Eddie. Put us all at risk for a side tip? That’s why you chose this house. And kept it from me. Me! I should cut the other side of your fucking neck and finish the job proper…I should. And you, Sister Nurse, you knew it. The two of you…I should off the both of you, throw you to the dogs, I should, to Eddie, walking these streets now looking for us – for you. Let him have you and you’ll never be seen again. I should give you to him, you stupid…”
“Let me call my husband,” Julia said coldly.
“What?” Syl laughed.
“Let me get him home. I can’t fix Declan. He can. I’ll get him here. Give me my son and hand me your phone.”
“Give it to her Syl, please,“ Declan said, the blood drenching now through the soaked towel, darkening his shirt, blanching his face.
“Fuck off, Declan.” Syl looked at Julia sideways: “Here.” She handed Julia the phone, but spun James to her other hip holding him away. “Be quick and have him get here. Quick.”
Julia took the phone, studied it, gave it a few searching taps with her thumb, and lifted it to her ear.
“Hello. You have to come here. Now. I need you here. They are here. Yes. 7 Ansdell Terrace. Please come quickly. Hurry. That’s right. Yes. Yes. Yes.” She put the phone on the counter and looked up.
Syl’s eyes went dead. Julia remembered seeing eyes just like that.
“What did you do?” Syl growled.
Julia didn’t answer and calmly held her arms out for James.
Backing away Syl seized her phone and scrolled the screen. “What did you do!”
When the doorknocker slammed this time, James burst a crying fit, but Julia ran to the door and flung it wide.
Wet, cold air sluiced in around their feet.
One was a “brick shithouse,” as Julia’s father would have said. He filled the doorframe when he came in. His head and hands seemed outsized for even his big body. He sniffed the room, wiping his nose with his sleeve. Peering left and right, he nodded to the man behind, indicating all clear.
The second man was tall, slender. An elegant rust-coloured raincoat draped to his shoes. It swung like a skirt as he entered the room. His thick black hair was buzzed short and softly held his skull like a pelt. His eyes, scanning over his black professional-grade COVID mask, clocked each person, one by one by one, and came to rest on Julia. He studied her.
“My apologies for the intrusion,” he said. Then turning to Syl. “What goes on here?” James screamed and wrestled in Syl’s arms. “Give this woman her child.”
“Eddie, you see…”
“Now.” Eddie interrupted.
Syl handed James to Julia. She hugged him close, breathed in a cloud of talc as he snugged his head in the crook of her neck. She shushed and soothed him. He closed his eyes, shutting down in a sputter of tiny hiccups.
“You have broken rule number three, Syl. It pains me to have to repeat it to you: Avoid.Involving.Civilians. Do you remember now? Do you remember rules one and two? I think I’ll have Colin here remind you.”
“Eddie,” Syl pleaded. “We were stuck, I had to do something.” She pointed to Declan, slumped like a boxing bag with the sand run out. “I had to put a stop to…Where is Ian? He’ll explain.”
“Your cousin Ian explained. Thank you very much. Been reeducated by Colin here on responsibilities in the chain of command. He’s indisposed at the moment. But he explained where my money and my time have been spent. Fifty-thousand missing quid. I like to know where my time and money are being spent. So let’s leave this lady alone with her little one, shall we? Declan, get up and get out. We’ll sort you out later. Colin, would you please escort Syl to the car?”
“Me? Eddie! It was Declan fucked up. I didn’t know it was so much! He was the one making collections, and freelancing on his…”
Eddie held up his hand. “I know, Syl. He done it. He’s dead to me. Out with the trash. Colin will sweep it up later. ‘Didn’t know’ makes it worse not better. Either way you’re going with Colin now, just the same.”
“But why, Eddie?”
“Why? Sometimes I just work that way. Never regretted it, I must say.”
Colin took a step forward sniffing at the two of them, turned, and headed out the door. Declan looked to Julia, started to speak, read nothing in her eyes, and stopped. Then he and Syl shuffled, almost trotted, heads down, following Colin into the street.
“Now, what do we do with you, my dear?”
Julia hugged James tight to her chest and sized Eddie up again. He was the same height as Simon and his coat, if white, could have been a surgeon’s coat.
“You’re wearing a mask,” she heard herself say.
“Of course. Daft not to. This virus is very good at killing people. If I’d known the benefits, I would have started wearing one years ago. You can imagine the sorry state of hygiene among the lot I commune with. And it suits me. Don’t you think?”
Julia did not reply.
“About you,” Eddie went on. “My instincts tell me you will be smart, do the right thing, and leave it as it is. Say no more. Would you like to know why I think that? I’ll tell you. I find it interesting that you called me. Me – not the police. Not your husband. Me. You had a good idea what would happen if you called me. You chose that option.”
For the second time that night, Julia woke to what had been set in motion.
“I will let this go. We were never here. And you will not want to do anything to bring us back. Are we clear?”
“Yes,” Julia said.
“Right. Do not fuck this up. Rule number two: Stick to plan A. Plan B is the road to regret.“
“Ok,” Julia said. Having gone so high and so low tonight, she was now dead calm, and asked, “What is rule number one?”
Eddie paused, cocked his head to the side, reading her again. “I thought so,” he said. “I thought this when I heard you on the phone. I said to myself, now here’s a civilian in a very stressful encounter, and she has the moxie to call me. Then I said, no that’s not it; she knows what happens now and she wants it.”
Eddie’s eyes smiled. They studied each other. In the quiet Julia realised the rain had stopped. For a moment she thought he would take off his coat. But he went to the door. Before he left, he turned and said, “Rule number one: Follow the plan, and get it done yourself. Trust no one else. They will only break your heart.” He stood there in the doorway watching her. “You found something new tonight. I’d be careful if I were you. You might find that you enjoyed it.”
“Well, you are not me. So get the fuck out of this house,” Julia said.
Eddie cocked his head, twitched his fists in his pockets, and swept out the door.
When he was gone, Julia put James to bed, cleaned the kitchen until it gleamed again. The windows, opened high, exchanged the piney disinfectant scent with the charged air of the night. She left the phone outside.
In the years to come, in another house, in a wholly different time, the cold clarity in the aftershock of seeing Syl clutch her child could wash over her, unbidden, and with it a rush thrilled up her skin as it had when Eddie came in the door, she saw what she had set in motion and was grateful for it.
Julia sat at the table, listening to the rain, and waited. She was determined to be there, right there in that chair, when Simon arrived, so the first thing he saw was her sitting contentedly in the unblemished kitchen, resolved, alone, and utterly awake.