What if you woke up one morning and everyone you ever knew thought you were dead?
She giggled. She couldn’t help it. She’d been doing it a lot recently, and couldn’t decide whether it was down to the shock, or just the freedom. Sally scratched her head, just above her eyebrows, and winced. She wandered into the bathroom and stared into the cracked mirror that hung like a drunken executioner. The skin on her forehead was red, and flaky, and she poked at it, sniffing. She dug around in her wash kit and emerged triumphantly with a face cream sampler, the entire contents of which she splurged on to her hands and then slapped onto her forehead. Some vigorous rubbing later, and the redness looked at though it were buried beneath a mountain of oily snow.
With another sniff, she ambled from the bathroom and stared out the window. The place only had one, which was lucky, because she’d run out of clothes a couple of days ago, and had no intention of getting dressed. Unless, of course, it was absolutely essential, which, she realised as she peered out into the dirty London dusk, it was.
With a huge sigh, she cast about the room, finding jeans bearing no obvious stains, a bra and t-shirt. Suitably ready for the outside world, she grabbed her jacket off the chair, slipped the thick leather over herself, and stopped. Her head was spinning, and her stomach rebelling again, threatening to toss up the remains of last night’s chinese. Unless it was the night before’s? It had been on the table this morning, and smelled OK…
She staggered back to the bathroom and turning on the tap, received only a sound like a car farting, and she punched it. Swearing and sucking her bruised knuckle, she turned the other tap and was rewarded with a gush of water which she scooped into her mouth. She’d forgotten to remove her other hand, and the first lot went down her jacket and onto the floor, but she got the hang of it after that, and felt a little better.
The wind bit into her, finding the gaps in her jacket before she’d even managed to say, ‘sure, come on in, cop a feel.’ Just like dad, then, really. Her stomach turned again, and she leaned against the wall, taking deep breaths until it passed. Where was he? Was he sad, was he mourning? Was anyone?
She took slow, unsteady steps down the pavement, turning the corner into Greek street and the market. She received a couple of looks, but no more than usual. She’d have to lose her hair, it was the one thing people could use to identify her. The thought made her shudder, and put the back of her hand to her mouth. She hadn’t cut it since she was born, but now she’d died, it was, in a way, fitting.
She giggled again. She needed something to eat, something sensible, and ducked into the co-op. Emerging a few minutes later with sausage rolls and those little sherbet sticks that made her tongue go funny, she paused, shoving pastry and meat into her mouth until the spinning stopped. Opposite the co-op was a comic shop. It hadn’t been here last time she was in London, and she wandered in, spending a few blissful minutes forgetting everything.
But she couldn’t hide forever and the wind welcomed her back with a searching grope, grabbing chunks of hair and dragging it around. She hauled on it at the roots, pulling it close and over her shoulder. She tucked it into her jacket, shoving it in until it was like having a second layer on, a hair-lined fleece. Hadn’t old-time priests or vicars or someone worn hair-lined tops as penance. That was fitting, too.
She found a hair dressers, and went in, taking a deep breath as she released it from the jacket and it spilled all over the floor. Twenty seven years of growth, never trimmed, never touched. ‘How much?’
‘A trim is forty pounds, madam, though it depends how much you’d like off.’
Sally shook her head. ‘How much will you pay me for it?’
The stylist deferred to the lady behind the counter, who narrowed her eyes as they began bartering. Half an hour, and no few tears later, she emerged looking like Liza Minelli, her pockets heavier to the tune of two hundred pounds. She imagined the shampoo she must have got through. She could build a house with it, a house of beautifully coloured bottles, designed to the hilt, and live in there, away from everyone, and everything. But then, there was no everyone, not anymore.
She paused by the newsagents, staring in at the papers. The headlines were the same on all of them, still asking the same questions. What had happened? Why would anyone do this? Others just threw stats at her. ‘More people killed in this one terrorist attack than in every other ever.’ ‘More than a thousand innocent souls snuffed out, without cause, without mercy.’
She sneered and caught sight of her reflection in the window. She could still feel the heat. That was the weirdest thing, like a wall that punched her, knocking her off her feet and stealing her oxygen, until she was puffing and panting and thinking she was going to suffocate, until it suddenly went, and the cold rushed in, and the screaming began. She was the one screaming, but there were so many more.
She looked down at her hands, turning them over and over, searching for the blood that was surely still there. She walked away, strolling toward Oxford Street, taking it in. She was free, free like she hadn’t imagined she could be. Just being allowed to come down to London for a day had been amazing, unbelievable, really. But it was nothing compared to this.
What was her name? She needed a name, one that worked, and sounded real, but not like the old one. She’d never felt like a Sally, not really. Sally’s didn’t get felt up by their dad on their sixth birthdays, or stab their little brothers with scissors when they got bored.
Natasha. It felt good, sexy, real. Natasha what? Romanov? Nah, already taken. Berry? That could work. Natasha Berry. She giggled, and put a hand out to steady herself. Where was she staying? She’d been sleeping somewhere since it happened, but where? And why couldn’t she remember? She put her hand into her jacket pocket and pulled out a wallet.
Without looking up, she leaned against the wall and slid down it, pulling her legs in so people could still walk past. There were keys in the pocket as well, keys to the flat. Of course, the flat, with the broken tap and the dodgy mirror. She leafed through the wallet. She’d done this as well, already, the familiar driver’s licence, with the pretty girl on. Lucy Tenor, resident of the UK, now a bloody corpse, probably buried by now, it’s been six days.
She stuffed the wallet back in, then took it out again. She pulled the licence out, doubled it over so the plastic went all white, bent forward and slipped it carefully down the drain. The other cards went the same way, til all she had was a costa reward card, and a bundle of carefully folded twenties. She had a flat, and two hundreds pounds, and now she had a name. And she had no father, or mother, or little brother, or overly-concerned friends, or social worker or any of that crap. She sniffed.
It was dark, which wasn’t surprising because it was night, although she’d have been hard pressed to say when the day had ended. She was leaning against a wall, peering up and down Greek street and just deciding what to eat, when a man came up to her, baseball cap pulled down low over his face.
‘Ello love, how much for French?’
She stared at him for a moment, wondering what the hell french was, and where he got off calling her love, when she realised, and giggled. He scowled and she giggled harder. ‘Ain’t funny, just gimme the fucking price.’
Now her sides were hurting and she was bending over, sucking in breaths, and his panting was suddenly hot against her cheek. ‘Come on, love, don’t take the piss.’
She shook her head, gasping, and put a hand up, begging for the time to find her breath. He stepped back and she managed to blurt it out between heaves. ‘Sorry, I’m not a prostitute, sorry, really.’
He stared at her for a second, then scowled again and stomped away. She turned the other way and out onto Oxford street. What did she do? What could she do? She tried to remember what she’d come to London for, but there was a blank. Every time she went back, she felt the heat again, and the noise. God, her ears were still ringing. It had been like someone dumped a skip full of glass and crockery and bricks on the floor, from a thousand feet up, right next to her ear.
She hadn’t been able to hear the ambulance man when he spoke to her, just nodded as he led her over to the ambulance, and sat her on the back and checked her out, shaking his head in amazement. A stretcher had gone past, and the wind had lifted the sheet, and she so clearly remembered seeing the boy, maybe ten or twelve, but his chest was gone, just gone, and Oxford Street blurred suddenly and she wrapped her arms around herself until she stopped shaking.
Where was her hair? She patted her head frantically, finding the short ends and groaning. The tears came again and she bent at the waist, hugging herself. Oh, she’d cut it off, yeah, two hundred pounds and a snip at the price. Hah, that was good. Dad would be pissed though, he liked to have something to hold when he…
She sniffed, and stomped, her feet grinding the pavement beneath them. She was dead. She’d died, blown apart in the worst terrorist attack the UK had ever seen, and dad could just whistle for it now. She’d slipped away from the ambulance when someone who needed it more than her arrived and the paramedic turned away to help with clear masks and injections and things that should have been fine, but instead made her need to be far away. So she’d dived around the side of the ambulance, and almost tripped over Lucy.
Lucy must have crawled there, leaving behind a horror-movie-smear of blood and how no one had spotted it yet escaped her, except the air was still so full of dust it was like walking through clouds. And she’d been cold, so she’d taken her jacket, and keys, and left behind an unidentifiable woman’s body, that could just as easily be called Sally Picket as Lucy Tenor, and slipped away, ears ringing.
She was in Leicester square, and the noise was worse than on Oxford Street, like someone hitting a drum next to her ear. She winced, glaring around at the people pushing past, but the noise got worse, and she scampered into the centre, sitting on the big concrete kerbs. She was too short down here, though, and people kept hitting her with bags, so she stood again. It was all so bright.
She squeezed her eyes closed, rubbing them with the fleshy bit of her palm, trying to push away the thumping. It didn’t work. She opened her eyes and stared up at the nearest cinema. Some guy was glaring back at her, fifty feet tall and carrying a gun. She stared back at him, wondering why, in a world where something like Canary Wharf last week could happen, people still wanted to watch violence.
The tag line was ‘They went too far, they went for his family,’ which she could only assume meant he had a nicer family than she did. Or she had. She wasn’t alive anymore, so they weren’t her family. Natasha shook her head, wincing, but doing it anyway. It wasn’t working. However many times she said it, the truth was, he was still out there. She’d loved waking up with everyone thinking she was dead, but what she really wanted was for him to be dead.
She patted her pocket, feeling the wallet, fat with twenties and walked across the square and into the cinema. She got the next viewing of the latest Disney movie, another one-word retelling of something or other, then settled down with popcorn. She spent the entire move trying not to throw up. Why did her head hurt so bloody bad? As the credits rolled, and she leaned back with a sigh of relief, squeezing her eyes closed, the idea slipped in.
It was fully formed, like a baby delivered in the post, everything present and correct, and it made her shudder all over, so hard she gripped the arms of the seat until it stopped. She could do it, of course she could, she was dead now. No one would know it was her, no one would even suspect her. She giggled, and traipsed out the cinema, clutching absently to the empty popcorn tub.
There was something strange about the train. She was going home, just as she’d done before, only not. She laid her head back against the train seat and took deep breaths. She felt worse this morning; her headache was constant, however still she remained, and she hadn’t managed to keep breakfast down. Buying the right ticket had been a task requiring supreme concentration, and even then she’d dropped the twenty three times before getting it into the slot.
She’d done the trip just enough for the familiar fields, and pylons, and rows of gardens, to bring up that nostalgic feeling really crappy, manipulative movies gave you. Only, in the movies, every garden didn’t have one of those outdoor trampolines in. She giggled, and felt warmth on her lip. She touched it, and her finger came away with blood on it. The woman opposite, who’d spent the first five minutes staring until Natasha glared at her, pulled a packet of tissues from her pocket and offered her one.
She took it, nodding and trying a smile. The lady smiled back, one of those ‘well, well, isn’t it a shame’ sort of looks that made Natasha want to pull the knife out of her bag and have at her. She bit her lip instead, and scrubbed the blood off, before holding it to her nose. She never got nosebleeds, and neither did Sally.
‘Are you alright, deary?’
Oh god, she actually wanted to talk. Apart from her momentary career as a non-hooker, she hadn’t spoken in over a week. She wasn’t sure she still knew how. ‘Uh, uh, fine, yes, fine, uh.’
Turned out she did, sort of. The woman narrowed her eyes, but nodded, and came again with the smile. Natasha slipped her free hand into her bag and felt the knife, stroking the thick handle, the roughness of the string she’d wound around it. They never used string in murder movies, but why not? Worried about finger prints? Easy, wrap it in string, then burn it off.
She shook her head, and giggled again. The tissue was soaked, and the lady offered her another one, but she should probably go to the loo and have a look. God, the train’s bloody wobbling all over the place. She bumped her way down the aisle, hips cushioning most of the blows, hand still cupped over her nose.
What was wrong with her eyes? The mirror was one of those tiny, thin things, you couldn’t see you whole face in, but she could see her eyes, sunken and bloodshot. She looked like a druggy, which wasn’t a bad idea, way she was feeling. She bowed her head, staring in wonder at the short tufts of hair. They wouldn’t recognise her now, even if she did show up. And hey, she’d got two hundred pounds and it was a snip at the price. Hah, that was good.
She looked at her nose, taking her hand away, and blood seeped down and dripped into the sink. Natasha hauled reams of loo roll out and smothered her nose, then dropped it into the toilet and grabbed more. She stood, head tipped back, leaning against the door, until a knock on the other side made her jump, and shriek in pain as her head pounded and thumped.
She opened the lock, grabbed more loo roll, then staggered back down the carriage. The woman opposite was gone. She slumped in her seat, and tipped her head back, smelling smoke and charred flesh, and screaming. No, she heard the charred flesh, surely, you don’t smell flesh.
They were here, wherever here was. Home, not home, just another place. Only dad was here. She fingered the knife as she stepped down from the train. The bleeding had stopped, but now the world was spinning, and she had to sit on a bench for a while.
It was night time, which was strange, because she’d caught the morning train. ‘Come on, love, out you go?’
She peered up at the man in the uniform, and nodded absently. She stood, and saw the sign, and went cold. She was in Stevenage, why was she in Stevenage, he was here, she had to get back to London, where were the bloody trains? She grabbed her bag, feeling the hardness within, and her heart slowed. Of course, that’s why she was here. Just a flying visit, to pay respects. Heh.
The guy was doing everything except shoving her, so she concentrated on walking a straight line out of the station, and onto the wet pavement. When had it rained? The taxis were waiting and she flagged one, dropping into the back like a sack of potatoes. She mumbled her postcode and watched the same old streets amble by. The driver could probably have gone slower, but only if he got out and pushed.
Where was her money? She needed to pay for the taxi. She shoved her hand into the bag and found the knife. Of course, she didn’t have to pay for anything now, she was dead. She giggled, making faces into the rear view mirror. He couldn’t see her, you can’t see ghosts, everyone knew that. She patted her jacket pocket and felt the wallet and opened her mouth as wide as it would go, moving it from side to side, staring at her reflection with wide eyes.
‘Sorry, love, any chance you stop doing that please, can’t see the road?’
Her mouth snapped shut, and she put her finger to her lips, shaking her head vigorously. She giggled, rocking back and forth.
‘Eer, love, you alright? You want me to drop you at the hospital?’
She felt her nose, and the blood that had just erupted from it. She shook her head, and he shrugged and kept going. He might have mumbled, ‘well, keep it off me bloody seats then,’ but probably not. He definitely did mumble. ‘Bloody ghosts, can’t trust em with nothing, these days.’
They entered her street and she piled out, shoving some money across the front seats. She almost left her bag, but he grabbed it and handed it to her. She snatched it from him, cradling it to her chest like a baby, and smiling. The blood was dripping from her lip, and she scrubbed it off with one hand, and stomped down the street.
She could smell smoke again, and hear noises, the crash of the glass and the screams. The hedge in front of her old house was made of huge fir trees and she crawled beneath them and closed her eyes.
She was cold. It was cold. It was, in fact, bloody freezing. She thought she had a headache, but she couldn’t be sure, because she couldn’t actually feel her head. She lifted it, and groaned, and threw up. Nothing in there except bile, but plenty of that came out, pooling on the grass. Smelled funny.
She could barely move, the thumping so insistent the rest of the world meant nothing. No sounds, nothing coming through. She rolled out of the hedge, and staggered around, until she stood at the foot of the driveway. She clenched her vagina so hard she thought it would close up permanently, but it made no difference. She could still feel him.
The bag hit the floor. Her hand came up, knife wrapped in whitened knuckles. She was dead. She was about to be free. She giggled, and stared at the knife. Where had she got it from, and why the hell did it have string around it?
She was standing in front of the door, round the back of the house. The cat flap cracked open and a small grey cat emerged, sniffing the dawn air. She knelt, holding out a hand, and it sniffed it, before mioawing peacefully and twining between her legs. She knew its name. Somewhere. Not now though.
She tried the door. It was locked. She bent, lifting the flowerpot, and pulled out the spare. She went inside, closing the door softer than a feather behind her. Not a peep from upstairs. Maybe. All she could hear was thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump drip. There was blood on the floor, what was that doing there?
She stepped into the house, sniffing through the blood. She could smell it, the absence of her. And cold, and the smell a house got when it stopped being a home. It hadn’t been home for years, even the social worker had said so. ‘This just isn’t a home anymore, Tom, Sandra, you need to make it a home, just for the kids, at least.’
Tom. He’d never let her call him that, even after she refused to call him dad.
She knew the route up the stairs, missing out the creaking steps, and across the landing to his bedroom door. They slept in separate beds. Even when she was really young she knew it was weird. Handy though, now.
She lifted the knife, staring at it in the dim light creeping through the curtain. It was so simple. Why hadn’t she done this before she died? Oh yeah, she’d have gone to prison. Now though, well, they couldn’t send a ghost to prison, could they? Who was Lucy Tenor? Why did that name sound so familiar? Was she a friend, back when she was alive?
The bedroom door whispered open, and she slipped in, closing it behind her. He was a lump in the bed, asleep, helpless. He wasn’t threatening. He couldn’t be, not now, not now she was a ghost. A ghost with a knife. She giggled.
She was beside the bed, staring down at his face. He looked so young when he slept, all the lines gone, even the angry ones that never seemed to leave his forehead. Would he know why she did it?
The knife came up, and then down, and his eyes shot open, but she raised it again, and one of them vanished, replaced by a splash of red. She wiped her nose, and brought the knife down again, and again, and kept wiping her nose, as more blood appeared. She should apologise, she was going to ruin the sheets.
Someone was screaming and she smelled smoke.
The light was so bright, she didn’t dare open her eyes. But the throbbing was gone. She smiled, beatific, and sighed. She must have gone up, gone to heaven. She’d imagined she’d haunt somewhere, his grave maybe. But she couldn’t complain, heaven was a just reward for what she’d done…
Voices, coming closer. ‘He’s alive, Mrs Picket, but there’s very little likelihood he’ll be the man you knew. I’m sorry, the brain damage will be too severe.’
Silence for a moment. Was she, her? Who else would it be?
‘She should make a full recovery, but the police will want to speak with her, of course.’
‘Of course. What happened to her?’
‘She had concussion, very bad concussion, and I would guess, some form of post traumatic stress reaction, triggered by the explosion.’
‘She cut off her hair.’
‘Yes, Mrs Picket, though I’m not sure that’s the most extreme thing she did.’
More silence. Mum knew, she knew everything. ‘Actually, nurse, I think you’ll find that was. I’ll wait with her.’
‘Yes, well, the police will be here soon, I’m sure.’
A hand touched her face, stroking her brow. ‘Sally, my love, what did you do?’
Her eyes cracked open, and a smile crossed her face. ‘I’m not Sally, my name’s Natasha.’