The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg

by Cora Ruskin

Tempting Fate

Here is a list of stuff I’ve done that could’ve caused bad luck:

• Broke a mirror.

My parents didn’t think to have a “No football inside the house” rule because I had no interest in football, much to my dad’s annoyance. I just never saw the point of it. You play football, and everything is exactly the same after the game as it was before. It’s not like drawing, when there’s a new thing in the world after you’re done. And it’s not like reading, when there’s a whole new book in your head after you’re done. Anyway, I couldn’t articulate this as a kid and my dad didn’t want me to be a marshmallow (I’m not sure what he meant by that, but my guess is something squidgy and pink) so he never told me off if he saw me kicking a ball around inside the house. Consequently, I shattered a mirror on a rainy Saturday, which apparently carries a sentence of seven years bad luck.

• Picking up pennies that are facing tails up.

Oh, cruel twist of fate. I’d grown up with the rhyme “See a penny pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck” so obviously, if I ever saw a penny on the floor and no-one was looking, I picked it up. Not in the school playground, because people would think you were poor, and rumours of poverty led to rumours of head lice. So anyway, one day I was going down to The Boathouse with Mitch to get an ice cream when I stopped to pick a penny off the pavement. Mitch responded to this with a shocked “Mate, what are you doing?! That was tails up!” then proceeded to tell me how I had doomed myself to bad luck for all eternity. Or one week. He couldn’t remember which.

• Letting a black cat cross my path.

I have two pet cats, Pippi and Tiger. Tiger is a tabby, but Pippi is mostly black. Like all cats, she doesn’t care if she gets in your way, so there’s a fair amount of path-crossing.

• Killing a spider.

Usually I go for the tried and trusted “pint glass and piece of paper/card” method, but I remember at least one occasion when I stamped on a spider to prevent Tiger from eating it.

• Pissing off Jimmy Dowland.

I got on the wrong side of Jimmy Dowland on the day he claimed to have fingered Lydia Ward. He was telling a bunch of other boys in the middle of a noisy maths lesson. They were all listening with rapt attention, while I was sitting at the desk in front and quietly seething because I fancied the pants off Lydia Ward and had been hoping to get into said pants before anyone else. So I turned around and said “There’s no way she’d let you. I bet you’ve never fingered anyone. I bet you don’t even know how many fingers to use.” Then I turned back and ignored the indignation that resulted from these scandalous accusations. This was around the time he went goth and bought a Ouija board and tried to put curses on everyone, so I guess there’s a small chance that the curse directed at me actually worked.

Obviously, I’m not supposed to believe any of this stuff. Optimists, particularly ones with good jobs and nice houses, are always saying you make your own luck. I always feel like telling them to go to a cancer ward so they can share their secrets. Idiots.

Mystery Woman

It was shaping up to be a pretty shit night out. Not even half past ten, and Mitch was already throwing up in a bin outside Sticky’s. Sticky’s is the only nightclub in East Twithering, and its actual name is S.W.M.B.O. Since its floors are always sticky and nobody knows what S.W.M.B.O. stands for or how to say it (Swumbo? Swimbo? Esdoubleyouembeoh?), everyone just calls it Sticky’s.

You’re probably thinking Mitch is a lightweight, but it’s a bit more complex than that so I’m not supposed to take the piss. About six months ago, he got sick. It started out as some bog-standard virus, like a bad cold, but then apparently the virus spread to funny places. Somehow his balance nerves got screwed up, and now he gets dizzy at the drop of a hat. Any more than two drinks and he can’t walk in a straight line or keep his dinner down. A sensible person with this condition would stop at two drinks, but Mitch is not a sensible person.

“Shall we call it a night?” I suggested.

Mitch pulled his head out of the bin and groaned in a way that sounded like a reluctant yes, fishing pointlessly in the pocket of his jeans. I handed him half a pack of gum, because Mitch is the kind of person who never has gum, or spare change, or his own fucking keys.

Mitch is the kind of person who has an answer for everything, and he has that answer ready before you’ve even asked the question. Mitch is the kind of person who has the energy of a Duracell bunny but never has trouble sleeping. Mitch is the kind of person who is always chasing after something (a girl, a new gadget, something shiny in a claw machine, etc.) but never seems that bothered if he doesn’t get it.

I watched him straighten up and run a hand through his ginger-ish hair. He took a few experimental steps, then wobbled and said “Nope, that’s not going to work” and held his head in his hands like he was afraid it would fall off. I considered just leaving him there – serve him right for being such a rubbish drinking partner.

“Um, Oscar?”

His face was the colour of maggots, and he looked embarrassed. I caved. “Right, you better not puke on me.”

“I’d never puke on you.”

“You puked on my trainers two weeks ago.”

“I puked near them. Maybe they got splashed a bit, but that’s not the same.”

We started the unsteady walk back to Mitch’s house with his arm around my shoulders for balance, trying to stay on the pavement and not weave into the road. Easier said than done, because Mitch is six foot two and not exactly skinny. I’m five foot six and not exactly made of muscle, so whenever Mitch started listing to one side, it was a struggle to keep him upright. I had a horrible premonition that I’d end up in the path of oncoming traffic, trapped underneath fourteen stone of dizzy fucker.

It was late August, and a warm, starless night. It had rained for most of the day, and the wet roads looked oily and slick in the grubby orange light of the streetlamps. Even on a Saturday, with the last of the summer tourists out celebrating the last of the summer heat, Main Street wasn’t crowded. People seemed to move slowly as we passed them – drugged by cheap booze and close weather. All I wanted was to get home, shower away the signature fragrance of Sticky’s (sweat and Snakebite) and sleep for a good ten hours.

Maybe ten hours sleep was never an option, or maybe if we’d taken a different route back to Mitch’s house, it would’ve been. Either way, we turned left down Beachcomber Lane and met Nina.

We almost bumped into her, actually. She was leaning against the wall of The Chandler’s Arms and checking her phone. She didn’t look much like the kind of girl who leans against pubs and checks her phone, though. She looked like something from an old movie, or the cover of a schlocky noir detective novel. She was wearing a green cocktail dress (I think. I’m still not entirely sure what makes a dress a cocktail dress. It was a fancy party sort of dress rather than a sleazy nightclub kind of dress, is what I’m getting at) and she had dark, wavy hair spilling over her shoulders.

We carried on walking, but we slowed down an embarrassing amount, like we were driving past a car crash. A sexy car crash. She looked up and said “Hi”, dropping her phone into an oversized handbag. That kind of seemed like our cue to stop.

“Is your friend hurt?” she said, presumably because Mitch was leaning on me like a wounded soldier.

“Nope, just an affectionate drunk,” he said, then nuzzled me inappropriately. Mitch is one of those weirdos who doesn’t get nervous around hot women.

“That’s the best kind of drunk. So are you guys local?”

“Yep, born and bred,” said Mitch.

I just nodded, trying not to stare at her cleavage.

“Ever been to the casino?”

“The Happy Mermaid?” I piped up, trying to remember if I’d ever been there. Maybe once, on a friend’s eighteenth. A fuzzy, fragmented memory of electronic noise and obnoxious colours.

“Oh yeah, many times,” Mitch lied smoothly.

“Ah, so you’re a couple of gamblers. I would’ve thought you were too young, look at you – you’re only puppies.”

“Ahem, we are both nineteen and a half years old,” Mitch pronounced in a dignified voice, trying to stand up straight and stumbling a bit in the process. “How old are you anyway? Twenty-two?”

She laughed – not a giggle, but a sharp, dry cackle. “I’m old as dirt. So what’s your game?”

“Poker,” said Mitch, though his best game is actually Shithead.

She nodded, and slid her gaze from Mitch’s face onto mine with a smoothness and directness that spooked me. The only card game I’m any good at is Kalooki (my Gran taught me) but I didn’t fancy telling her that. It had been a rubbish night, and if this girl was going to laugh at me, it was going to be on my terms.

“I’m damn good at Snap. They call me the Snapdragon.”

She cackled again, and her laughter went right through me. I swear I could feel it in my bones. “All right, Pokerface and Snapdragon – let’s go gamble!” She pushed herself off the wall of the pub and started marching down the road. Me and Mitch looked at each other.

You know when you’ve been friends with someone a really long time and you can have whole conversations without words? Well, I gave Mitch a look that meant “We’re not seriously going to follow her are we?” and he made a gesture that roughly translated as “I’ve a strong suspicion it will be physically impossible not to follow that arse.” I frowned at him in a way that meant “You have a girlfriend, remember?” and he non-verbally pointed out “You don’t.”

It was settled – we would go with her to The Happy Mermaid and just try not to lose too much money. I would try my luck with whatever her name was, and Mitch would try being my wingman but end up flirting with her himself. That was the plan.

“Hold on!” Mitch yelled after her.

She whirled around, looking expectant and impatient. She had flat shoes on. We had no chance.

“Unless you can give me a piggyback, you’re going to have to walk slower than that,” said Mitch, who at this point had one steadying hand on the wall of the pub and another leaning heavily on my shoulder.

“So you are hurt?” There wasn’t a trace of concern in her voice as she walked back towards us.

“No, but my balance nerves are screwed. I shouldn’t drink at all really, it messes me up.”

Then a weird thing happened. A little line formed between her eyebrows and her voice took on the tone of someone who has to sympathise with a friend who is upset about their hamster being ill. “You poor thing, that’s horrible.”

Then she hugged him. Her face was up against his chest, but she reached a hand up and stroked his hair. He hugged her back (managing to stay upright) and looked confused and delighted.

She dropped her arms abruptly, then said “Right, let’s get going. People with fucked-up balance nerves set the pace.”

Mitch, unsupported, walked gingerly at first, but managed to stay on course.

“How you getting on?” she asked, looking at him sideways.

“Good, actually. Nothing’s spinning, at least.”

“Everything in the world is spinning. It’s just that most people don’t notice it.”

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #39

So, I’m sure you’re wondering why an obviously intelligent young man such as myself is wasting the tail end of his teenage years in a small, ramshackle seaside town that is gradually falling into the sea due to coastal erosion. Clearly, I ought to be at university, living in a city with actual culture and actual stuff going on. I ought to be meeting new people, having new experiences, broadening my horizons, etc. I ought to be having thoughtful debates with philosophy students and arguments with my roommates about whose turn it is to buy the milk and collecting stolen traffic cones. That was the plan.

Things rarely go to plan for me, and my A levels were a prime example. I had to get decent results and go to university because neither of my parents went so they really wanted me to go. I never quite understood that logic, but university seemed as good a chance as any of escaping East Twithering, so I studied a lot. I’m not saying I studied like a little Chinese girl whose mum is threatening to burn her teddies if she doesn’t get an A, but I worked hard.

All that work was for nothing, though, because during the week of final exams, I got ill. It was a pretty mysterious illness because I didn’t cough, sneeze, vomit, get spots or experience any actual pain. I remember sitting in my Business Studies exam and just feeling … weird. I felt boiling hot, as if my eyeballs were cooking in their sockets and I could have fried bacon on my tongue, but I wasn’t sweating and my skin felt normal. Answering the questions was trickier than expected, since all my thoughts kept melting in the heat.

It was even worse during my History exam. I suppose I was a bit delirious because at one point, I thought I was in the trenches of World War 1. Mud everywhere, cold and slimy, and a lingering sense of dread. I think there was a bloke who kept trying to read me his poetry. Perhaps, if there was an essay question on life in the trenches of World War 1 I could’ve written something really vivid. Unfortunately, the questions were on the French Revolution.

By the time I got round to seeing Dr Thompson, my mystery bug had disappeared. The fever had broken over the course of one uncomfortably sweaty night, and I was lucid and inconveniently healthy. I wanted a doctor’s note so the examiners could take this illness into account whilst marking my papers, but Dr Thompson was having none of it. I might’ve faked a few illnesses to get out of school when I was younger. I might’ve faked meningitis on one occasion and caused a bit of a panic.

Anyway, needless to say my A-level grades were significantly worse than expected. Without a single offer of a university place, I sank into a deep depression. I was convinced that nothing would ever go right for me and I would be stuck in this town for the rest of my life, achieving nothing and experiencing very little. Naturally, I listened to a lot of emo music and drew sketches of dead pigeons.

The days dragged their heels and it felt like months, but now that I think about it, it was probably more like three weeks. Then Mum started on at me to go and get a job, like that’s so easy for a teenager with no qualifications. I was annoyed at her for forcing me out of my comfortable cocoon of disappointment, so I got a job at the fishmonger to spite her. She hates the smell of fish, so I figured I’d come home reeking of it every day and then she’d regret nagging me. Unfortunately, I soon realised that I hated the smell of fish more than she did, so I quit my job and managed to get one at Shoreline Angling instead.

Not exactly a bold and risky career move, but at least it’s only fishing tackle I have to sell these days, so I can go about my life without being surrounded by a fug of fish stink. The shop is quiet as the grave most days, so I can read or sketch a bit, which is nice. I try to look on the bright side.

I try to do that a lot but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Ever since I was a kid, I always had the sneaking suspicion that I was cursed. I never had any detailed theories about how this might’ve happened – just a general sense of bad things waiting for me around every corner and behind every door. Bit melodramatic maybe, but it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark.

The Happy Mermaid

You wouldn’t believe the effort it took to get a name out of her. When Mitch asked her name, she said “Does it matter?” which I took to mean she wasn’t planning on staying in touch with either of us after our little gambling adventure. It seemed like the kind of thing someone would do if they were planning on having a one night stand, so obviously I got all excited. Then I remembered that I’m not the type of person who has one night stands. I’m rubbish at flirting and pulling and keeping the concepts of sex and love properly separate.

Anyway, Mitch insisted that we needed something to call her, and she suggested Lady Luck, since we were apparently Snapdragon and Pokerface.

“Oh, come on. Look, my name’s Mitch – short for Mitchell.”

“And my name’s Oscar.”

“And I don’t really care, to be honest.”

A sudden flash of inspiration came to me. “OK OK, if you win any money at The Happy Mermaid, then obviously you’re Lady Luck, and you can call us any ridiculous names you want. But if you lose, you have to tell us your real name. Deal?”

“Deal. I never lose.”

I kind of ignored the last three words because I was already hatching a plan. If she lost and told me her real name, I could hopefully add her on Facebook (assuming she was on Facebook – I wouldn’t put it past her to be one of those people who don’t use social media yet somehow maintain manic social lives). With a means of staying in touch casually, I could make advances at my usual glacial pace.

The Happy Mermaid didn’t quite match up to my vague memory of it. Its blue neon sign, leaking cold light into the darkness, was as familiar as it was tacky. Inside, though, the colours were richer and less bright than I’d expected – lots of green and gold. The ringing noises of the fruit machines sounded almost musical. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but I could see how people could get seduced by places like this.

I expected Lady Luck to want to start gambling straight away, since she seemed in a hurry all the way to the casino. As soon as we were inside, though, she seemed to calm down a bit and the three of us hung out in the bar. Mitch, still remarkably steady on his feet, concluded that all the alcohol must have gone from his system, so he set about replenishing it with a mojito. Lady Luck and I followed his lead.

“So are you guys students, or working, or what?” she asked, sipping her drink delicately through a black straw, through strawberry-red lips.

“Working. I’d rather be earning than learning,” Mitch replied.

Mitch has been saying this since he was fourteen. Employment opportunities being what they are in East Twithering, he is currently working at The Olde Sweet Shoppe – maybe not his dream job, but he’s very good at it. I’ve seen him at work and it’s an impressive, faintly disturbing sight.

The Olde Sweet Shoppe is one of those places with the big glass jars lined up on shelves behind the counter, and people get lured inside by the colours and the cosy old-fashionedness of it. They hardly ever want to buy stuff – they want to have a look around, shake their heads and wish it was the olden days, when childhood obesity was less of a problem.

I saw a woman come in with the obvious intention of nostalgic browsing, and watched Mitch persuade her to buy coconut kisses, flying saucers, a giant lollipop and two large slabs of fudge (one chocolate-flavour, one rum-and-raisin). I don’t know how he did this because he spoke so much and so quickly, it was hard to tell which techniques he was employing. As he motor mouthed his way through the sales pitch, I caught little snatches of what he was saying, like “What I love about these”, “Do you have kids?”, “Here, have a free taste of this one” and “Practically fat-free – Nah, I’m only kidding it’s proper naughty, but that’s kind of the point isn’t it?” Apparently, profits at The Old Sweet Shoppe have significantly increased since Mitch started working there.

When Mitch mentioned the sweet shop, Lady Luck took a keen interest and I watched them chatting away, with Mitch speaking at about 500 words per minute like he always does when he’s trying to sell something. I thought of April (not exactly a rare occurrence, but we’ll get to that later) and started to get that uncomfortable, prickly feeling. Like I said, Mitch isn’t nervous around hot women, and consequently he isn’t careful. The drunk blonde at Sticky’s two months ago. That bunny boiler who got the wrong idea. Those two forty-something cougars who were “just up for a laugh” and he “just wanted a laugh” and it was always just a laugh, with Mitch.

He finished his mojito and stood up, not even swaying. That was weird, he should’ve been getting dizzy again. “Next round’s on me,” he said, looking at Lady Luck and grinning crookedly at her. “What do you fancy?”

“I’ll have a beer, thanks,” I butted in.

He looked at me, all surprised like he’d forgotten I was there. Bloody charming. “OK, a beer for Oz. And for Lady Luck?”

“Surprise me. But make it a nice surprise. Not the kind where I pass out after two sips and wake up in a hotel room with my knickers inside out.”

“Jesus, you’re dark!” he said, and headed over to the bar.

She turned towards me and I swirled the crushed ice around my glass, fixing my attention on it as though it held all the secrets of the universe. Maybe she had shifted closer, because suddenly I could smell her. She smelled like Lilly of the Valley – cold and clean and poisonous. It turned me on a little.

“I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover,” she said, “but you don’t look like the type of guy who works in a fishing tackle shop.”

“Yeah? What type of guy do I look like?” I managed to keep my voice casual, like I didn’t really care about her answer.

“Honestly, you look like an art student.” OK, not the worst thing she could’ve said. “Just out of curiosity, why are you working there instead of … I don’t know, something else?”

“Well, to be” partially “honest, I didn’t get the A level grades I was aiming for so I missed out on my first choice uni” and second, and third “so I’m just working at the shop while I figure things out. I might not” probably won’t “go to uni anyway, it’s so expensive these days.”

“Mm-hm.”

A phone buzzed against the table top, and she picked it up so casually that I didn’t notice it was Mitch’s phone rather than hers until she read aloud, “Don’t get too wasted tonight will you?” She looked up from the phone, frowning slightly. “Is April his girlfriend or his mum?”

“His girlfriend. Who calls their mum by her first name?”

“I don’t know, people with bohemian parents maybe. Do you know April? She nice?”

Her gaze was pretty intense. She had eyes the colour of a fresh bruise. I assumed she was asking because she fancied Mitch and wanted to know if she was in with a chance, or maybe whether or not she should feel guilty about flirting with someone who has a girlfriend. Probably the former. I was only going on first impressions, but she didn’t strike me as a very moral person.

Regardless of why she wanted to know, the question “Is April nice?” was not an easy one for me to answer with a yes or a no. I wanted to tell her that April is nice to everyone except bigots, bullies and people who say the Harry Potter books are overrated; that April is freckled and giggly and very opinionated, though not many people know that because she’s shy and keeps most of her opinions to herself. That April collects sea glass and wears a lot of cheap, colourful jewellery, which she fiddles with when she feels uncomfortable. I could have talked about April all night.

“Yeah, she’s nice.”

“I like her text. Look, she starts out all bossy and then loses her nerve.” Lady Luck put on a cross face and wagged her finger, before letting the expression dissolve into something meek and timid. “Don’t do this! … Err, will you? Please?”

“Well, she tries to be assertive, but she’s not exactly a domineering kind of person. Mitch isn’t the best at being in a relationship so you can’t blame her for being insecure.”

Lady Luck nodded – her face softening a little. “Poor kid.” I watched in horrified fascination as she replied to April’s text, muttering, “Don’t worry gorgeous, I won’t drink too much. Love you more than anything. Kiss kiss kiss … kiss kiss.” She looked up at me and smiled a shark’s smile, full of sharp teeth.

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #37

Phones are dangerous, especially if you have less-than-awesome social skills and shitty luck. I actually had my first break-up due to autocorrect.

A little background. I was sixteen, and going out with Holly Blake. I could hardly believe this, because Holly was just delicious. She was tiny, which made me feel like a normal-sized person instead of a short-arse. And she was pretty, and had a spiky sense of humour, and was the first girl who ever let me touch her boobs, so she’ll always have a special place in my heart.

Since there’s nothing to do in East Twithering, we used to hang out a lot at her house. We had the place to ourselves most of the time, since it was just Holly and her mum, Shirley, who worked long hours. When Holly’s mum did show up though, things tended to get … weird.

I don’t remember what Shirley’s job was. Holly must’ve told me, but at that age, words like “admin” and “human resources” just washed over my head. Still do, to be honest. Anyway, it must’ve been something that paid decent money because her house was full of nice furniture. She would come home from this mysterious job and shout “Holly, have you eaten?” from the kitchen. Those are the only words I remember her saying to her daughter.

Holly and her mum didn’t seem to get on well. It might have been something to do with the fact that Shirley wasn’t your typical, mum-ish mum. She was … sorry but there’s no other way of putting it – she was a MILF. Not that I really thought of her that way, because I was too preoccupied with trying to F her daughter, but she was undeniably sexy. Long, wavy blonde hair, legs up to here (I know you can’t see me but I’m holding my hand at eye level) and low cut tops. We only spoke a few times, and we only spoke properly once.

Holly and I had been watching When Harry Met Sally in her bedroom, and I was kind of bored with it. Holly said I reminded her of Billy Crystal and I didn’t know what to make of that (we’re both Jewish, I guess), then sent me downstairs to get popcorn. I thought maybe I could feed it to her, piece by piece, and she would lick and suck my fingers and hopefully that would get something started.

In the kitchen, I went straight to the pantry (that’s what Holly called it), and started searching for the popcorn.

“Have you and Holly eaten?”

I flinched with slightly guilty surprise, then turned around. Shirley was leaning up against the counter, glass of red wine in hand.

“I was just looking for the popcorn,” I said, avoiding the question.

Shirley put down the glass of wine and reached into the cupboard above her head, retrieving a large bag of popcorn. She held it out, smiling slightly, and I practically tiptoed towards her to take it. She made me very nervous, since she had the unholy trinity of being an attractive woman, an authority figure, and a possible influence on how soon I would lose my virginity. Nobody ought to have that much power.

“So is it all roses and butterflies with Holly these days?” she asked, before I had a chance to grab the popcorn and bolt.

“Um, I guess.” I hadn’t ever bought her roses, and I had no idea what butterflies had to do with anything, but I figured she was speaking metaphorically.

“Mm-hm. Something’s bothering you, though – I can always tell.”

Oh shit, was she one of those people who thought she was psychic? “Not really. I mean … there’s GCSEs coming up, but I’m not too worried.”

She reached a hand out and rested it gently on my shoulder. The shock that went through me wouldn’t have been any bigger if she’d grabbed my crotch.

“You’ll be fine,” she said. “You can get through anything, I’m sure of that.”

Despite the comforting words, there was something about her touch that seemed … wrong. Not in a dirty, Mrs. Robinson way. Just wrong. Like, I could feel the warmth of her hand through my tee-shirt, but my flesh felt cold where she touched. I mumbled something unintelligible and made my escape.

The next evening, I finally got around to studying for GCSEs, but was distracted by a promising text from Holly that read,

I’m so BORED!

Being sixteen, I assumed that bored was girl-code for horny, and texted back,

Why don’t you amuse yourself by telling me what you’re wearing?

Oh yes. Smooth as crunchy peanut butter.

Just my PJs.

Undies?

Pink knickers and no bra 😉


Mum!

OK, obviously I didn’t mean to type “Mum”. I meant to type “Mmm” – you know, a kind of appreciative noise to demonstrate how much I liked the fact that she was wearing pink knickers and no bra. Speaking of bras, this is the point at which our relationship went tits-up.

Mum? WTF? Are you thinking about my mum when you’re sending me dirty texts?

No!

So, what? You’re thinking about your own mum!

Eww! It was autocorrect! I don’t think about your mum like that.

My mum? I was asking about your mum, why you bringing it back to my mum?

Can we just stop talking about mums?

U can’t seem to stop thinking about mine : (


As you can see, there was no way of digging myself out of that hole. The next time I saw Holly, she acted all quiet and cold and kept her arms by her sides when I hugged her and didn’t invite me round to her house. She dumped me about a week later and never gave me a reason. I acted like it was no big deal and her loss and whateverwhogivesashitwhoopdeefuckingdo. Then I went home, fried up an entire packet of bacon, covered it in grated cheese and ate it.

Roulette

I don’t have a good track record when it comes to winning things, particularly money. Still, Lady Luck insisted that I have a go at roulette and she was a difficult woman to say no to.

“I don’t even know how to play.”

“Don’t worry, it’s easy. If you just place the bets that I tell you to place, I guarantee you’ll win something.”

“Right. And why should I trust you on this?”

She shrugged and smiled her toothy shark-smile. “You probably shouldn’t.”

I realised then that she might be the type of girl who’s generally considered irresistible, but that didn’t mean I was powerless around her. Sure, she was hot and mysterious and all that, but she wasn’t my type. The girls who turn me into a helpless, pliable mess are generally cute, girl-next-door types with big eyes and obscure knowledge of indie bands. This girl I could actually deal, with now that the initial awkwardness was over. I didn’t have to do anything she said. So maybe it was the alcohol, or feeling like I had nothing to lose or something.

“Fuck it. OK, tell me how to bet.”

At the roulette table, we watched a fat, red-faced bloke chuck his money away enthusiastically. Lady Luck stood very close and murmured instructions. I could smell her perfume again, and was glad of Mitch’s absence – the siren song of the fruit machines had drawn him away.

“You want to place a few outside bets first – that means you don’t bet on specific numbers. You can bet the ball will land on red, or black, or an odd or even number. Then bet straight up.”

“Is that when you just pick a number?”

“Yep. Odds of thirty-five to one, so that’s how you win decent money.”

The fat man, who had apparently suffered a heavy loss, took it all in his stride. “Ah well, tomorrow’s another day,” he said, winking at the croupier – a tall, thirty-something woman with short hair.

“Better luck next time,” said the croupier, giving him a flirtatious smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“Your turn,” said Lady Luck, nudging me forwards.

“Hold on, aren’t you supposed to blow on the chips?”

I held out my handful of chips expectantly. She rolled her eyes and blew, puffing her cheeks out like a small child blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.

“Oh come on, can’t you blow on them a bit sexier than that?”

“I could,” she said, in a voice that implicitly added “but I won’t, so there. Now get the fuck on with it.”

As I made my first bet – five pounds on red – she touched my wrist. It wasn’t an accidental touch. It was nothing more than a thumb and finger, light, as if she were taking my pulse. I thought I could feel some kind of energy flowing from her skin into mine. Something bright and warm and sharp. I figured it was a gambling buzz.

The silver ball whirled around the roulette wheel with dizzying speed at first, then slower and slower. Eventually, it went so slowly that it seemed to be toying with my nerves on purpose. Then there was a jump and a clatter and it landed on nineteen red.

Lady Luck turned towards me, smiled like the Mona Lisa and said, “Well, would you look at that,” in a calm, quiet voice.

“All right then, what next?”

“A fiver on evens.”

Once again, I tracked the ball’s progress around the wheel. Lady Luck wasn’t touching me this time, and I thought about grabbing her hand, pretending to be caught up in the moment. Didn’t do it though. The ball landed on five.

“Crap.”

“OK, now put a fiver on odds.”

The ball landed on twenty-six.

“Shit.”

She laughed, and it was an unmistakeably mocking laugh, but then she stood behind me and massaged my shoulders. Not in a sexy way – it was a boxer’s massage.

“Keep your chin up kid, your luck’s about to change. Pick a number and put as much as you can on it.”

A weird feeling distracted me from the obvious crapness of that idea. The bright, warm sharpness from earlier was back tenfold – I could feel it spreading from my shoulders, filling every cell. It was in my blood and bones and muscle and nerves. Every scrap of me was screaming that something very good was about to happen.

“Everything on number thirteen.”

The croupier nodded. Her face was a polite mask. This was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, because everything literally meant everything. Number thirteen was an unlucky number and I had an indisputable history of bad luck. I watched the ball roll, with Lady Luck’s fingers digging into my shoulders.

I don’t remember how I felt when it landed on number thirteen. Maybe I was numb with shock, or maybe I wasn’t surprised at all. I did the maths swiftly, in my head.

“Congratulations,” said the croupier, who looked as if her entire worldview was crumbling before her eyes.

“Well, that’s nice isn’t it? A bit of pocket money,” said Lady Luck.

“How the fuck did that happen? I suppose I have to keep calling you Lady Luck now.”

She waved a hand dismissively. “You can call me Nina, if it’s easier.”

Just then, Mitch turned up and announced that the fruit machines were a bunch of teasing little bitches and he wanted nothing to do with them ever again.

“I’ve just won £1,745.”

Mitch’s response to this was to cheer, pick me up like a rag doll, sling me over his shoulder and spin around three times. One of Mitch’s best qualities is that he doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body, so he gets genuinely happy for other people. One of his more problematic qualities is that he just can’t dampen down his enthusiasm, no matter how many people are staring.

He set me back down, and I was giddy and grinning because it had finally sunk in. “Almost two grand – I could actually do something with that.”

Mitch sighed, smiled indulgently and said “When are you going to learn? The whole point of winning money is so you don’t have to do stuff.”

I collected my winnings from a middle-aged, important-looking man, who handed me a neatly written cheque and said “I hope we’ll be seeing you and your friends again soon.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it or not.

I folded the cheque and slipped it into the pocket of my jeans. Having that amount of money in my pocket should have been awesome, but it actually made me kind of nervous. On the way out of the casino, I kept looking at people suspiciously, wondering if they could tell. Distracted, I tripped over the handbag of a woman with who was staring intently at a fruit machine.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, unsure of whether I was apologising to the woman or the handbag.

“That’s OK,” said the woman, looking at me briefly, then swinging her gaze back to the fruit machine.

She was probably about thirty, and looked as though she’d come to the casino straight from work – she was wearing a grey suit with one of those tight skirts that look like they’d be difficult to walk in. She had red hair, done up librarian-style in a tidy bun. I don’t mean ginger hair, I mean proper ketchup-red. Which was weird, because she didn’t look like the type of woman who’d dye her hair a non-hair colour. It ought to have looked ridiculous with the boring suit, but somehow it looked kind of intimidating.

Anyway, you should probably remember this woman. I forgot her as soon as I left the casino, and that turned out to be a mistake.

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #56

There’s a fair that comes to East Twithering every summer, usually at the end of July. When I was a kid, I used to start looking forward to it around the beginning of May. It was like waiting for Santa, especially since it always seemed to arrive overnight. It would just be there one morning, in the north meadow. Rides and inflatable slides and unwinnable games and the greasiest, saltiest, most delicious junk food ever invented. All the usual stuff. I loved every trashy, brightly-coloured scrap of it, apart from the Ferris wheel.

Last month, the fair arrived right on schedule, but I didn’t feel like going. Mitch decided this was unacceptable, and sent me a bunch of texts to convince me that the fair was a good idea/pester me into submission.

Come on, we go every year! You can’t break the tradition!

Tradition is overrated.

Inflatable slides!

I’m too old for inflatable slides.


You should make the most of being a short-arse. Just shave properly for once and you’ll look like a little kid. Go on the bouncy castle if you want!

Too old for bouncy castles.

He didn’t reply to that straight away, so I naively thought he’d given up. Then, a while later.

Haven’t seen you in ages. Everything OK?

Yes

So come with me to the fair! Bro-date FTW!

Ugh

What is ugh? “Bro-date” or “FTW!”?

Both are terrible.


Don’t try to change the subject, just come to the fair you grumpy old fart. I’ll buy you some candyfloss.

I tiptoed to the edge of the danger zone.

Aren’t you going with April?


Yeah, but I wanna see you too. So does she.

Oh shit. Was I actually going to cave at the precise moment of finding out that April might want to see me?

OK, fine, just for a little while.

I felt guilty, but I was used to that.

The fair was the same as it ever was. It smelled like summer – a mixture of fried food, sun cream, and grass. I was supposed to meet Mitch and April at the Hook-a-Duck stand, so I weaved my way across the litter-strewn meadow, trying to avoid being knocked off my feet by one of the hyped-up kids charging towards the dodgems or the sweets truck.

Sure enough, Mitch and April were right where they said they’d be. April was holding the biggest teddy in the universe. It was purple.

“Nice teddy.”

“Thanks. Mitch won it for me.”

Of course he did. Apparently he’d won it on that game where you shoot one of those fairground guns at a star on a piece of paper. It’s easier to win if you shoot around the star rather than aiming right at the centre. I taught Mitch that.

The four of us wandered around the fair and I got more and more sick at the sight of that fucking teddy. Also, Mitch and April were clearly having one of those days where they were MitchandApril rather than Mitch and April if you know what I mean. Either they were holding hands, or Mitch had his arm around April’s shoulders, or a hand on her lower back. It was very sweet. Too sweet. So sweet it gave me a stomach ache.

Looking around for an escape, I saw an unfamiliar tent. It wasn’t like the large, beige-coloured beer tent, or the slightly smaller one where they sold all the second-hand books and toys. This one was tiny, and round, and made of fabric the colour of a digestive biscuit. It had a peaked top that was a pale grey, and it sort of looked like a child’s drawing of a house but without a door or windows or a chimney. Just outside it there was a sandwich board that read “Palm Reading, £3.50”.

“I’m going to get my palm read,” I announced, marching towards the miniscule tent.

“See you later,” Mitch called after me.

I lifted the flap of fabric that passed for a door, and ducked into the tent. It was dim and stuffy and contained nothing but a small, round table, two plastic chairs, and a man.

That was a surprise. I suppose I’d been expecting a woman. Well, I know I was expecting a woman actually. I had a very precise mental image involving a colourful headscarf and large hoop earrings.

The man was probably in his fifties, with shoulder-length, scraggly hair, the colour of wild rabbit fur. He had a beard that was the same colour and just as ratty-looking, and deep-set eyes that I couldn’t see in the dim light.

“Sit down then,” he said, gesturing to the chair.

I realised I’d been standing there like an idiot, staring at him, for a good few seconds. I sat down quickly, feeling my face go red. At least he probably wouldn’t notice, since the tent was so dark.

“Hands out, palms upwards,” he said, gesturing towards the table.

I did as I was told. He leant towards me and I caught a whiff of faggy breath and stale sweat. He stayed perfectly still for a few seconds, staring at my hands.

“Anything in particular you want to know?” he asked.

“No, not really.”

He looked up and raised an eyebrow, like he didn’t believe me. “Are you sure? Sure there’s not a girl you want to ask about?”

My palms were starting to sweat. “No. I mean, if you see any tall, blonde supermodels in my future, you’ll let me know, right?”

He made a “huh” sound that might have been amusement or frustration, then returned his gaze to my hands.

“Your heart line’s stronger than your head line,” he said. “That means you’re more likely to follow your feelings and intuition rather than logic. You won’t admit to it, though, and you keep battling against it.”

That freaked me out. I’d been expecting something along the lines of “You will go on a long journey” or “You will meet a mysterious woman.”

He made a chewing motion with his mouth, making his beard move around like a scraggly bush in a strong wind. “See the way your heart line splits in two at this end? That symbolises choices.”

OK, now we were in more expected territory. “Well, everyone’s got choices, don’t they?”

I was going for casual/cheeky, but it came out more like “I’ve paid £3.50 for this palm reading, now tell me something a half-arsed con artist wouldn’t be able to.”

He looked up, stared at me for a second in a way that made my skin prickle, and said, “You lost your grandfather recently, didn’t you?”

In the spring. Did that count as recent? It felt recent.

“On your mother’s side” he added.

There was a fifty-fifty chance of him being right about that.

“He was a good man. Shame about the drink, but you don’t need to worry about turning out like him.”

How the hell could he know that? I felt seasick, like the ground was moving beneath me. I felt the need to take control of the situation, so I looked down at my palms pointedly and said,

“Which line is which?”

“That’s your heart line,” He pointed to a deep, clear line that ran across the top of my palm and ended just under my index finger. “And that’s your head line.” He pointed to a fainter, gently sloping line, just beneath the first one. “That one there, that curves down towards your wrist – that’s your life line.”

“Oh. So I guess you want that line to be a long one.”

“Yep, people do.”

I looked critically at my life line and waited for him to say something. He didn’t. My palms both had a definite sheen of sweat now. “It’s short, isn’t it? My life line?”

“Yep.”

Once again, I waited for him to say something and once again, he said nothing. Then he put his hands on top of mine. A chill ran up my arms, over my shoulders and down my spine. Was this normal? Was this part of the palm-reading process or was this bloke a total weirdo who was going to try molesting me or strangling me? I didn’t feel like sticking around to find out, so I wrenched my hands out from underneath his, stood up and bolted out of the tent.

The sunshine was dizzying after the darkness of the tent, and I blinked away black splotches that floated in my eyes. I saw the purple teddy before I saw Mitch and April, drifting towards me like a toxic cloud.

“That didn’t take long,” said Mitch. “So what does the future hold?”

“Fuck knows.”

“But what did she say?”

“It’s a he. And you know what they’re like, just blethering on about vague stuff.”

“It’s called cold reading,” said April. “They say things that sounds specific, but actually they apply to pretty much everyone. Like, you have a need for approval from others, or you sometimes get anxious in new social situations. Stuff like that.”

I nodded and acted unconcerned and tried to forget about the cold, dry skin of his hands. I tried to forget about my short life line, and when forgetting didn’t work, I told myself repeatedly that it was obviously total bollocks, invented to scam people out of their money. Then I remembered that I’d forgotten to pay him, but it wasn’t exactly an experience worth paying for so I was in no rush to go back to the creepy little tent.

“Let’s go on the Ferris wheel,” April suggested – green eyes sparkling with sudden enthusiasm.

“All right,” said Mitch, with a little less enthusiasm. He’s more of a roller coaster person than a Ferris wheel person. “Oz, can you keep hold of Professor Plum?”

Presumably this was the teddy’s name. A shit name for a shit teddy. I was in a rubbish mood, and when I’m in a bad mood I tend to make bad decisions.

“What if I want to go on the Ferris wheel too?”
“Yes, come with us!” said April. “It’s four to a basket.”

“He’s not good with heights,” said Mitch.

“It’s not the bloody empire state building,” I snapped.

It really wasn’t that high, I told myself as I stepped into the basket. At any rate, the ride only lasted a few minutes.

For the first time that afternoon, Mitch and April were separate entities. April sat next to me and Mitch sat opposite her, next to Professor Plum. As the wheel began its slow swoop upwards, Mitch gave me a look that might have been concerned or challenging or both.

I tilted my head back and stared at the sky, hoping I looked reasonably relaxed. As long as I looked up instead of down, it would be fine. When the basket started going down again, I told myself that the worst was over, and on the next cycle, I actually chanced looking around as we slowly climbed. Not down, obviously, but around. It was OK. I was OK.

Then there was a low, creaking noise, and the smooth motion of the wheel just stopped. I’m convinced my heart stopped with it, just for a second or two.

“Is this supposed to happen?” said April.

“I don’t think so,” said Mitch.

He leaned over the side of the basket, making it lurch sickeningly, and looked straight down. I had to close my eyes for a second. Why had I even got on the damn thing? Why did it have to get stuck when our basket was right at the top? My innards squirmed around like snakes and I had a sudden urge to grab April’s hand and squeeze it.

We were stuck there for almost half an hour. The basket tilted and made soft creaking sounds whenever anyone moved a muscle. I felt so ridiculously certain of being tipped out and falling to my death that I almost wanted to jump out just to get it over with. Maybe that’s what causes the mad impulse to jump from high places – the desire to just get it over with.

I sweated through my tee-shirt and tried to breathe slowly and wished I was a different person. One who wasn’t scared of heights and had a longer lifeline. Mitch kept asking me if I was OK. To his credit, he only asked out loud once, and the other times he asked with a raised eyebrow so April wouldn’t hear.

When the wheel finally started moving again, I felt all the tension leak out of me (or maybe it was just more sweat). Then instead of stopping the damn thing so that everyone could get off, the idiot in charge of the wheel kept it going for another three turns, during which time most of the tension returned.

Insomniac Dave’s Place

Outside the casino, the night air had turned cool and fresh. “Bit nippy out here,” said Nina. “We should get somewhere warm.”

Mitch took his leather jacket off and draped it over Nina’s shoulders. Bastard. I was literally just about to offer her mine, and it would’ve fit her better as well.

“Should we head home?” I suggested half-heartedly.

I was somehow less tired than I had been when me and Mitch left Sticky’s. I had just won a substantial amount of money, and couldn’t shake the idea that I’d won it through vaguely supernatural means. That feeling, when Nina dug her fingers into my shoulders. It was beyond strange, and somehow new and familiar at the same time, and it certainly couldn’t be blamed on alcohol or gambling or lust. It didn’t make sense. She didn’t make sense.

“We can’t go home after that, we have to go and celebrate!” Mitch insisted.

“And where do you suggest we do that? We can’t drag Nina to Sticky’s.”

I’ll admit, this was my attempt at being chivalrous. Since Mitch had given her his jacket, I had to level the playing field by protecting her from the stinky meat market that passed for a night club in East Twithering.

“Sticky’s is fine. Anywhere’s fine, let’s just stop hanging around here like a bunch of lemons,” Nina insisted, wrapping Mitch’s jacket tightly around herself.

“Oh! Let’s go and visit Insomniac Dave!” Mitch exclaimed.

“Sounds good to me. They say everyone should have at least one insomniac friend. Where does he live?”

We set off down Ruskin Walk. Nina seemed in a hurry to get out of the cold, and she walked a little way ahead of me and Mitch. Obviously, she didn’t know the way so she kept having to stop, spin around and ask which direction to take. At one point, she stopped dead in her tracks and just stood there.

“It’s straight on,” Mitch prompted.

She didn’t move or speak.

“Are you OK?” I asked, starting to feel spooked.

“I just thought I heard something.”

She still didn’t move. I strained my ears but heard nothing except the wind; it had picked up, and was making her hair whirl around like a nest of weightless snakes.

“Don’t worry, we’ll protect you,” said Mitch.

She laughed, not in a mocking way but not in a kind way either. She started walking again, but whatever it was that had fixed her to the spot, she obviously hadn’t forgotten it. She kept throwing quick little glances over her shoulders.

It was all very weird, since East Twithering is safe to the point of being unbearably dull. You should see some of the stuff that makes the front page of the local paper. Once, I kid you not, the front page covered a small protest about the owner of The Chandler’s Arms raising beer prices. And when I say a small protest, it was actually two men protesting. Two. They didn’t even have signs. Basically it was two men grumbling outside a pub, and it made the front page.

My point is, she had no reason to be nervous, because nobody gets mugged or stabbed or anything like that in East Twithering. Still, I got the feeling she was a city girl. Maybe the town was just too dark and quiet for her. We walked along the wet, glistening pavement, maybe picking up speed in the dark stretches between pools of light from the street lamps. Soon enough, we were at Insomniac Dave’s place.

I should probably explain Insomniac Dave. See, there are a lot of Daves in this town, and in a tight-knit community, you need a way to distinguish between Daves. In my year at school, for example, there was Big Dave, Skinny Dave and Northern Dave. Insomniac Dave wasn’t always insomniac Dave. He started out as Afro Dave, but then he got rid of his Afro and was just plain Dave for a while. But of course he couldn’t be just Dave forever, and when people started noticing that the guy is up at all hours of the night and literally never sleeps, there was a brief battle between Vampire Dave and Insomniac Dave. Insomniac Dave stuck, despite being less catchy, because Goth Dave would’ve been offended at someone else being called Vampire Dave.

We descended a short flight of faintly slimy steps (he lives in a basement flat, which is always damp and smells of cigarettes and sour milk) and Mitch knocked on the door. Insomniac Dave doesn’t mind having visitors in the middle of the night, especially when one of those visitors is a girl who looks the way Nina does. Still, you wouldn’t guess it from the way he opened the door.

“What are you after?” he snapped, looking all wide-eyed and dishevelled (which is the way he usually looks, but I worried it wouldn’t make a good impression on Nina).

“The pleasure of your company,” said Mitch, and Dave grunted and gestured the three of us inside.

Dave always scares me for the first five minutes. After that, maybe I get used to him or maybe he stops acting as though he is expecting burglars to break into his flat any second. Mitch tries to reassure me that he’s a total softie, and just a bit eccentric. That he’s only as twitchy as he is because of the insomnia, and he’s only an insomniac because he drinks too much coffee and reads too many thrillers. Still, I’ve always wondered whether the sleep deprivation will be too much for him one of these days and he’ll go proper, Fight Club-style bananas.

In the tiny kitchen, he put on a pot of coffee. In Dave’s world, drinking coffee in the middle of the night is perfectly normal. In Dave’s world, there is only one type of coffee – strong and black, with two sugars.

“Mm, that’s nice,” said Nina, taking a sip, “I like my coffee how I like my men.”

“Black, strong and sweet?” said Dave, with a raised eyebrow.

Nina shook her head. “Bitter, but in kind of a good way.”

“Each to their own,” Dave muttered.

With coffees and a can of Pringles in hand, we all drifted into the living room and settled in front of the telly. Dave had been half-way through some old black and white film, so he put it back on and we half-watched it, and chatted about this and that.

Nina, gazing thoughtfully into her mug, said, “Shall we make these coffees Irish?”

“Yes!” said Mitch, who is always up for making things Irish.

“How are you planning on doing that?” said Dave.

“I just so happen to have some Irishness in my bag.”

Nina rummaged around in her giant handbag, and I kind of expected her to pull out a lamp and a huge mirror and stuff, like in Mary Poppins. Instead, she pulled out a minibar-sized bottle, full of amber liquid.

“Just to warn you,” she said, dispensing it into each mug, “This stuff is pretty strong. A friend of mine calls it truth serum, because you can’t keep a secret if you drink enough of it.”

“I don’t think we have any secrets, do we?” said Mitch, looking at me questioningly.

It’s understandable that Mitch would think this, because for a long time, we really didn’t have any secrets. I got all queasy with guilt, so naturally I had to make a bad-taste joke to cover it up. “Well, I meant to tell you about that old lady I killed, but the right moment never came up.”

We drank. Nina wasn’t joking about it being strong, because she only poured a neat little slug of it into my coffee but I could feel the effects almost instantly. I felt more relaxed than I’d felt in a very long time. It was sort of like … like all my limbs had been held together with pins, and now the pins had been taken out and my joints were all loose.

“I’m gonna get a tattoo,” said Mitch. He was sitting on the floor, slumped against Dave’s shabby old recliner, which I was sprawled across. He had Pringle crumbs in his hair, somehow. I felt suddenly, weirdly paternal and brushed them out, onto the floor. Luckily Dave didn’t notice – he was engrossed in the film again. “Tell me honestly, did yours hurt?”

Mitch twisted around and gestured with his eyes to the tattoos on my forearms. They are blue and black snakes – sea snakes, to be precise, and they look awesome. They were done by a very talented Polish woman called Anouska who has a Master’s degree in Fine Art and somehow ended up working in a tattoo parlour in Weymouth.

“Yeah, it hurt sooooooooo fucking much. I thought I was going to pass out at first.”

“What the hell? You said it wasn’t so bad. You said it was like a cat scratching you.”

“Maybe if the cat was a tiger.”

We both laughed like this was the funniest thing ever.

“Can you draw me a black widow on my arm, so I can see what it looks like before I get it tattooed?”

“Black widow spider or Black Widow from The Avengers?”

“Um … spider.”

“A Mexican red knee would look better.”

He shook his head slowly, like he was afraid of dislodging his brain with vigorous movements. “Black widow.”

He’s stubborn like that. I asked Dave if I could borrow a biro, but Nina said she had one in her bag and handed it over. Then I got to work. Despite my voice being slurred and all my body parts threatening to come apart and drift into space, drawing a black widow wasn’t difficult. I used to do this all the time when I was younger, for the kids at school. I won’t go so far as to say it made me popular, because I was still the short, arty weirdo who was useless at every single sport. But it made me useful, at least, and I liked doing it. There were a few girls who wanted butterflies or dolphins on the insides of their wrists, where their skin was all silky and magic.

For a while, I wanted to be a tattoo artist when I grew up, and to eventually own my own tattoo parlour. Mitch said we could go into business together. He was already pretty savvy about money, so he figured he could handle the business side of things, and maybe he could do piercings. He couldn’t draw, so he didn’t think he’d be any good at tattooing, but how difficult could it be to put holes in someone?

“You got any tattoos Nina?” said Mitch, as the black widow slowly took shape.

“Just the one.”

“Can we see it? Or is it in a personal, private place?”

Nina smirked, then shifted her position on the settee so she was facing away from us. Then she gathered up her dark waves of hair and piled them on top of her head. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but I knew there were certain possibilities that could be ruled out. She wouldn’t have a butterfly or a unicorn or anything like that, and she definitely wouldn’t have someone’s name. I leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the random string of numbers.

Dave, who was sat next to Nina on the settee, craned his neck around to get a better look at the back of Nina’s.

“Seven, three, six, five, two, eight, A,” he read out. “What does that mean?”

“What do you mean?”

“What does it stand for?”

“Why does a tattoo have to stand for anything? Oscar’s got snakes on his arms. Do you think he got them because they’re all meaningful or because they look cool?” Nina didn’t seem as affected as the rest of us by the whisky. Her voice wasn’t slurred, and she seemed sharper. More awake. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you what it stands for, if you each tell me a secret.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” said Dave. His face was blank – all the creases in his face smoothed out by the booze. “I don’t trust you at all. I think you’re the type of girl who’d shoot a man in the chest and then stroke his hair while he died.”

Nina cackled, looking absolutely delighted. Dave seemed surprised, like he’d meant to say something completely different.

“I think lack of sleep is making you paranoid,” said Nina. “You just need to relax a bit. Do you trust me enough to let me give you a back rub?”

“Um, OK.”

Nina grabbed his shoulders unceremoniously and started kneading them. Dave looked bemused at first, but then his eyes got heavy-lidded and his head started nodding. I thought of her fingertips on my own shoulders at the casino, and how I had felt anything but sleepy.

When Mitch spoke, it was way quieter than usual and he didn’t seem to be talking to anyone in particular. He just stared into the middle distance and said, “I’ll miss you, when you’re gone.”

“What?”

He turned towards me and said, a bit louder, “You. I’ll miss you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” I was freaking out a bit at this point. For some reason, I felt like maybe I was going to die and nobody had told me.

“You’re not going anywhere yet, but I’ll miss you when you bugger off to wherever people like you go.”

“People like me?”

“You know, people who can’t just be happy where they are.”

“Oh.”

A small, important something clicked into place. I hugged Mitch clumsily and promised to always stay in touch and said that with my luck, I’d probably be stuck in East Twithering forever anyway.

Nina cleared her throat. “Sorry to interrupt when you’re having a moment, but I’m being crushed here.” Insomniac Dave, clearly asleep, had fallen backwards and pinned Nina against the arm of the settee.

“What did you do to him?” I said, as Mitch stumbled over to the settee and hauled Dave upright. He didn’t wake up, or even stir.

“A good night’s sleep. That’ll do him the world of good,” said Nina, smoothing her wrinkled dress and pretending not to hear me.

Mitch manhandled Dave until he was lying on his side across the settee. Nina perched on the arm and stroked his hair briefly. For a split second, I thought she looked maternal, but then I remembered what Dave had said about her.

“All right Oscar, what’s your secret? And you have to say a proper secret, not just a brain fart like these two.”

“Um …”

It was like a slow cough. I could feel the words I was about to say at the back of my throat but I couldn’t stop them. “I think I’m in love with April.”

My voice sounded light as air, as if I were describing a storyline on a TV programme. “I mean, obviously I fancy her because she’s exactly my type. And you don’t even have a type, you fancy everyone so you could’ve easily picked someone else. But I don’t just want to shag her, I want to kiss her for a hundred years and fall asleep in her arms and all that shit, so I’m pretty sure I’m in love with her. And we have so much in common, I genuinely think we’d be great together. You and her aren’t so great together and I think that’s mostly your fault to be honest – you’re always flirting with other girls, and you make these big romantic gestures to paper over the cracks but that’s no good in the long-term. And seriously mate, you’re the best friend I ever had, but sometimes I feel like you stole my soulmate. And I don’t know what to do about that.”

I watched Mitch’s face the whole time. Watched him turn pink and look shocked or angry or hurt or whatever – I was too far gone to tell, really. I tried to stop talking, but couldn’t. All my fucked-up thoughts just spilled out like they were nothing.

When the words finally stopped, I felt drained. Keeping my eyes open had become an epic struggle, so I closed them and rested my head against the back of the recliner.

“Shit,” Mitch hissed. He might’ve added, “I fucking knew it.”

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #41

I met April first – only by a few hours, but still. It was at the bus stop on Thrift Lane. I don’t usually talk to people at bus stops, except maybe to have a quick moan about the weather or how late the bus is, but here was a girl worth breaking a habit for. One of those hot-but-doesn’t-know-it girls, in tatty jeans and a pink hoodie, staring at the ground as if it fascinated her.

I was trying to think of something suitably nonchalant to say, when I saw the spider. It was a medium-sized brown one, hanging from its thread that dangled from the roof of the bus shelter. It was directly over April’s head, sinking gradually lower. Within a few seconds, it would be getting lost in her feathery brown hair.

Here was my chance. I would grab the spider’s thread (it was just about visible) and cup my hand underneath in case the spider fell. I would say “Sorry, there’s a spider,” sounding very casual. If she panicked, I would say “It’s OK, I’ve got it” in a calm and soothing voice. Then I would step away and put the spider in the hedge opposite the bus shelter, saying something like “There you go, little guy.” I would turn around and bask in her appreciation, and if she was embarrassed about freaking out, I would reassure her by self-deprecatingly telling her about how I used to be afraid of seagulls.

Stepping forward tentatively, I took hold of the spider’s thread, saying “Sorry, there’s a spider.” Then things went drastically wrong. Before I could cup my hand underneath the spider, it fell onto April’s face. She froze, green eyes huge with terror.

“Is that a spider on my face?”

“I’m so fucking sorry, I didn’t want it to fall on-”

“Just get it off please please please!”

I scooped the spider off her cheek and chucked it in the hedge, then turned around to see her rubbing at her cheek with the sleeve of her hoodie.

“Ugh. I hate spiders.”

“I used to be afraid of seagulls,” I offered lamely.

She didn’t seem interested. Too focussed on trying to get over the trauma of some lunatic dropping a spider on her face, probably. On the bus, I sat as far away from her as possible.

I chalked it up as just one more failed attempt to meet a girl, but of course things got worse. That evening, I went down the pub to meet up with Mitch, Tyler and Northern Dave. When I saw them, at the usual table in the corner, I almost turned around and snuck out because spider-girl was right there with them. Mitch had spotted me though, and was waving me over.

“Shit, it’s you!” said April, and giggled. She was sat next to Mitch, with a mouthwash-blue drink in front of her that he’d probably bought her.

“You two know each other?” said Mitch.

“We met at the bus stop earlier,” said April, turning slightly pink.

I took a seat and told the story.

“So there’s this big fuck-off spider dangling right over her head, and she’s just stood there cool as a cucumber. Doesn’t even notice. And I’m like oh shit, that spider’s going to fall in that girl’s hair, so I grab its thread. But then it falls on her face, naturally. And it was a massive spider and we’re both freaking out, but I managed to get it off her face and chuck it in the hedge.”

I told it carefully. Tried to make it seem like I wasn’t even looking at her before I noticed the spider. Downplayed her obvious terror. Made it seem like we were allies, maybe, united against the spider. It was no good though – any second meeting that begins with “Shit, it’s you!” doesn’t exactly bode well for a future relationship.

That evening, I had the uniquely painful experience of becoming acquainted with the girl of my dreams, whilst it became very obvious that she was attracted to Mitch, and he was attracted to her, and it was only a matter of time and alcohol before they hooked up.

Gone

I woke up in a struggling, panicked sort of way, like being underwater and thrashing my way to the surface. Nina was sitting on the settee, eating Pringles. There was no sign of Insomniac Dave or Mitch.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes maybe.”

“Where’s Mitch?”

“Gone. I think he left while I was putting Insomniac Dave to bed.”

Shit, shit, shit. Talking to Mitch was the last thing I wanted to do, after what I’d said about April. Still, it had to be done. I had to convince him that I hadn’t meant it. With everything going to the dogs, I felt the need to hang on to something positive, and slipped a hand into my pocket, looking for the cheque from the casino.

Wallet. Gum. No cheque.

I checked my other pocket.

Phone. Front door key. No cheque.

Fuck. Bastard pickpocketed me.

“Bastard pickpocketed me!”

“What did he take?” Nina asked – a little too calmly, I felt.

“Oh, he took half a pack of gum. What do you think he took? He took the cheque!”

“Wait, he literally pickpocketed you?” You’re sure you didn’t put it down somewhere?”

“No, he pickpocketed me. He does that sometimes. He always gives it back.”

He says he’s practising, in case he ever needs to pickpocket someone. That seems like a very unlikely scenario since he’s not a Victorian orphan, but try telling him that. Try telling him anything.

“What are you fussing about then? Just call him and tell him to give it back.”

I took my phone out and eyeballed it for a moment, trying to get my shit together. It was going to be a tricky conversation. When Mitch is pissed off or upset, he doesn’t leave a nanosecond between words. I would just have to bulldozer my way over him and get two very important points across:-

1. Give me my money back you thieving cunt.

2. Please don’t be angry with me for what I said about April. Yes, I have feelings for her but I’d never act on them because you’re my best mate and I’d never hurt you, not in a million years.

He answered the phone, said “Fuck off” and hung up.

“Right. I’m going for a piss, then I’m going to get my money back. You coming?”

“To the bathroom, or to help get your money back?”

“To help get my money back.”

“I thought I’d just stay here for the night. Dave’s not a rapist or anything is he?”

“Not to the best of my knowledge, no.”

“Good, that’s great. I should probably stay here. Shouldn’t be wandering around after dark. Is April the reason you’re still in East Twithering?”

“Huh?”

“At first I thought it was practical stuff, like tuition fees and not getting the grades for uni and all that. Then I thought maybe it was something to do with April.”

I should’ve told her it was none of her business. I wanted her to come with me, though, and she didn’t have any real incentive to do that. I wasn’t exactly going anywhere fun, and she hadn’t shown any real indication of being attracted to me. But for some reason, she seemed interested. Maybe she was one of those people who crave drama, so they worm their way towards the centre of every clusterfuck they can find, open the popcorn and enjoy the show.

“Look, I have to get going. So if you’re staying here … bye, I guess.”

“Nah. I think I’ll come with you.”

I went to the loo, and when I passed Insomniac Dave’s bedroom door I could hear him snoring faintly. When I came back, Nina hopped up off the settee, picked her massive handbag off the floor and breezed past me.

As I climbed the grotty steps out of Dave’s apartment, I realised – maybe this was her fault. That stuff she put in the coffee made me admit the most closely-guarded secret of my life to the very last person I wanted to find out. Can whisky do that? Then there was Insomniac Dave, currently sleeping like a snoring baby because of a two minute back rub. Mitch’s dizziness disappearing after she hugged him. Was she just some impossibly glamorous drifter, along for the ride, or was she making things happen?

The journey from Dave’s flat to Mitch’s house isn’t a long one – round the corner, then down Lavender Walk, then round another corner and you’re there. Lavender Walk is a ridiculously narrow road, with no pavement and no streetlamps. There are thick, untidy hedges either side, all full of bindweed.

The hedges acted like a windbreak, and the still, quiet air was eerie. I had to know.

“OK, this might sound like a weird question, but did you spike us?”

“Hm?”

“That stuff you put in our coffee. Was it actually whisky?”

“Of course. Mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Mostly.”

“What was the part that wasn’t whisky?”

She tapped the side of her nose. “Secret formula. And I couldn’t tell you what that is even if I wanted to because I don’t know. I just know it helps with getting the truth out of someone.”

I should’ve known right away. I should’ve known she was trouble. She looked like trouble. If you had a police line-up of girls and had to pick the one who most looked like trouble, you’d pick her, regardless of who else was in the line-up. Even if there was a girl with a shaved head and a huge nose ring and scary eye make-up and tattoos ‘til Christmas, you’d still pick Nina. I stopped walking and waited for her to turn around, hoping I looked as angry as I felt.

“Let me see the bottle.”

“No.”

“Yes. You fucking drugged me and now my best friend’s pissed off with me and he’s stolen my money. The least you can do is let me look at the label and check I’m not fucking allergic to any of the ingredients and about to go into anaphylactic shock.”

I’m actually only allergic to ragweed and all it does is make me sneeze. But I didn’t exactly feel guilty about lying to the girl who drugged me. She fished the practically empty glass bottle out of her bag and handed it over. She looked faintly amused, as if I were a little kid playing detective and she was humouring me.

The bottle was unlabelled, of course. Now that I could see it properly, it looked less like a minibar-sized whisky and more like the bottles they keep vaccines in before you get an injection. I opened it and sniffed cautiously – it smelled like whisky. Looking her defiantly in the eye, I upended the bottle and let the dregs of the liquid splash onto the road. Then I felt like a moron, because if I’d managed to get her to drink some, maybe I could’ve got the truth out of her. I hoped this realisation didn’t show on my face, but I think it did because her smile got a shade more malicious.

“Where did you get it from?”

“Work.”

“Where do you work?”

“I’m based in London, but I go all over the country really.”

“Not where geographically, I mean … who do you work for?”

“A big agency. You won’t have heard of it.”

“Try me.”

“You won’t have heard of it because it doesn’t have a name. We just call it the agency.”

The way she said it was like … it wasn’t like The Agency, it was just the agency. Like it didn’t need capital letters or anything because it was the only agency that ever existed, so there was no way you could get it mixed up with any other agency. Being bullshitted on top of being drugged was just too fucking much, and I felt the need to scare her, just a little. She ought to have been scared anyway – all alone in an unfamiliar town, on a dark, empty road, with a man she had only known for a few hours. What the hell kind of girl was she?

I threw the empty bottle into the hedge with all the force I could manage. I hoped it would smash against something, but it must have caught in some thick vegetation because it barely made a sound.

When I turned back to her, she looked disappointed. “Was that supposed to scare me?”

“No,” I lied. “I was just angry. For good reason.”

“And you throw things when you’re angry, right?” She rolled her eyes, and in a voice that was barely more than a whisper, said “So fucking predictable.” Then she turned around and carried on marching up Lavender Walk.

“What?” I called after her, pretending I hadn’t heard.

“I hate predictable. I’m done with it.”

I caught up with her because, after all, we both seemed to be walking in the same direction. “Well I’m not so keen on unpredictable, which you clearly are. But I’m not leaving you alone until I get some answers. Now tell me what your job is.”

She stopped and turned so quickly that I walked right into her. I stumbled and took a half step backwards. Her face filled up my field of vision and her eyes looked completely black in the darkness, like a BBC-budget vampire.

“My job is to make good things happen to people.”

“Like, you … reward people?”

She made a frustrated-sounding noise. “No, it’s got nothing to do with that. I work with a whole load of other people like me. When I touch someone, I can make good things happen to them, but it has to be done according to plan. The agency’s very strict.”

I wish I could simplify things a bit here. I wish I could say that at this point, I listened to Nina describe her strange ability and her job and the agency, awestruck but attentive. I wish I could say that I was sceptical at first, but then I pieced together the evidence and realised she was telling the truth. I wish I could say my worldview was instantly altered in a very profound, meaningful way.

“Oh my god, you’re so full of shit!”

“You asked.”

“Seriously, I’ve met some fucked-up people before but you take the biscuit. It doesn’t even make sense, I mean … what’s the purpose of this agency you supposedly work for?”

“God only knows. I’m very junior, and I’ve no idea what goes on at the other branch.”

“The other branch?”

“They make bad things happen to people.”

At this point, I think the weirdness of the whole night got too much for me. Since I’m both British and Jewish, the defence mechanism that kicked in was, of course, taking the piss. Because it was kind of funny, really, how demented she was.

“Wow. OK. So if I stub my toe on something, someone from the other branch of this agency is responsible for that?”

“Quite possibly.”

Now that I was starting to enjoy this, Nina was clearly annoyed. She folded her arms defensively and looked impatient.

“And why would they be interested in my toes?”

“How do you know your toes aren’t significant in some way? Maybe stubbing your toe sets in motion a chain of events that results in you becoming a doctor that develops a life-saving surgery technique. Or maybe it leads to you dying. I don’t know what the end-game is, all right? It’s none of my business. I just do my job. And it’s a difficult job, making the things happen that need to happen, because often we don’t have much information to go on. And that’s what the drink is for. Data collection.”

My brain exploded a bit. All I could think about was getting to Mitch’s house, getting my money back, then going home and sleeping. I made an exasperated scoffing noise, then turned away from Nina and carried on walking.

At Mitch’s house, all the lights were off. I looked up at his bedroom window – dark, with opened curtains – and knew where he was. “He’ll be at April’s. Come on, it’s only a ten minute walk away.” Most places are only a ten minute walk away in East Twithering.

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #23

Me and Mitch first became friends when we were eleven and had just started secondary school. At that age, Mitch was actually an inch or two shorter than me, and skinny as a twig. He talked a lot in class (though not to me, because I was quiet and moody and always drawing pictures of robots) and he’d been in minor trouble once or twice for being cheeky to teachers. None of them had him pegged as a proper troublemaker, though, until he set me on fire during a science lesson.

We had the Bunsen burners going, which was still a novelty. Instead of lab coats, we had these stained, over-sized aprons, and instead of normal safety glasses we had these chunky plastic goggles on strings of elastic. We got ready with a noisy buzz of excitement. The experiment involved dipping strips of paper into little beakers of water or ethanol, then holding the paper in the Bunsen flame (using tongs, obviously) to see whether or not they would burn. Mitch did this very quickly, scribbled down “Ethanol=burn Water=no burn”, then started playing with the Bunsen burner.

“Look at this,” he said, holding a biro in the flame.

The plastic melted, warping the end of the biro into a soft, irregular shape. There was something very beautiful about it (I think I was always destined to be an arty kid rather than a sciencey kid) so I said “Cool,” and grinned.

Mitch beamed at me, then started looking around for other things to melt. Maybe he wanted to impress me. Maybe he just liked melting things. A few minutes later, he took one of those squidgy plastic pipettes from a box on a shelf behind him and filled it with ethanol.

“Check this out. I bet I can make a flamethrower.”

It’s a good thing I didn’t take that bet because a pipette full of ethanol turned out to be a surprisingly effective flamethrower. The burning liquid travelled further than expected, and splashed onto my apron, which instantly caught fire.

Paralysed with fear, I heard Mitch yell “Shit!” and watched, dumbstruck, as he grabbed someone’s sweatshirt off the table (it was Felicity Cranston’s, whose parents later insisted that Mitch’s parents buy her a new one) and charged towards me.

Luckily our school sweatshirts weren’t flammable. Maybe whoever designed them had incidents like this in mind. In any case, the sweatshirt smothered the flames effectively and when Mitch took it away, my apron was no longer burning. I looked down to see a dark brown mark with a small hole in the middle, and suddenly I felt sick. I took the apron off slowly and examined my sweatshirt – there was a tiny spot of melted artificial fibres.

“You all right?” said Mitch – eyes wide with panic.

“Yeah,” I said, wanting to reassure him. “It’s fine.”

Mrs Hopkins didn’t agree that it was fine, and the two of us ended up in the head teacher’s office. It seemed horribly unfair that I was there as well, having recently had a traumatic experience. Now I had to recount the events to Mr Lee, which I did without embellishment or relish.

Mrs Hopkins – a battle-axe who seemed about sixty, but was probably closer to forty (I hadn’t hit puberty yet, so I couldn’t tell the difference) – was livid. She towered over Mitch and made a list of his sins: Being extremely irresponsible; endangering another student; ruining the apron, which was school property; spoiling two sweatshirts, which were the property of other students; swearing in class. I actually thought she was being a bit harsh. The apron didn’t look any worse than it did before, with its multitude of stains. My sweatshirt was OK, even if Felicity’s wasn’t, and you couldn’t really blame him for saying the s-word when realising he’d just set someone on fire. I kept my mouth shut though – it seemed like the sensible thing to do.

When she finally stopped ranting, I listened to Mitch try to talk himself out of trouble for the first (but not the last) time. I couldn’t help but be impressed. He explained that he’d been experimenting to see just how flammable ethanol was, because the experiment we’d been assigned used paper soaked in ethanol, and he couldn’t be sure how much flammableness was due to the paper and how much was due to the ethanol.

Mr Lee listened impassively the whole time, then told Mitch he was suspended for a day. I wasn’t happy about this. I’d been expecting Mitch to get detention, but instead he was getting a day off school rather than having to spend more time at school. It probably cemented my belief that life just wasn’t fair.

The next day, when I got home from school, I logged on to Facebook and found a friend request waiting for me. It was Mitch. Maybe it’s weird to want to be friends with the kid who just set you on fire, but I didn’t have many friends so I couldn’t afford to be picky. The first message he sent me was

Really sorry I set fire to you! Will never do it again promise!

and the next was

Want to come over for tea?

I’m an only child, and at the age of eleven I’d pretty much given up on ever getting a little brother. I think my parents tried for another kid, because I remember Gran telling Mum to put her feet on the headboard, though I didn’t understand that at the time. I figured it was some kind of game. Even if Mum finally got pregnant again, I’d be practically a grown-up before my brother was old enough to be any fun. Mitch, though, was a tiny bit smaller than me and had the impulsiveness of a little kid. Maybe that’s why I wanted to be friends with him – here was a fully-formed little brother, and how can any self-respecting only child say no to that?

Of course, it didn’t entirely work out. Within two years, Mitch was already five foot ten and getting off with girls, which, as his non-biological older brother, annoyed me no end.

April’s House

April’s bedroom light was on and my heart was going like the clappers. We trudged down the gravel drive, and the crunching noise of each footstep threatened to wake the dead.

“Do you believe in soulmates?” I asked Nina, on a whim.

“I don’t know. That’s beyond my pay grade.”

I stood under April’s window and called her mobile, suddenly wondering why I hadn’t called beforehand to check if Mitch was here. Maybe I sort of hoped he wouldn’t be.

“Hello?”

“Hi April, it’s Oscar.”

“I know.”

“Um, I’m looking for Mitch because he’s stolen something of mine, and I was pretty sure he’d be here. I’m actually here in your garden. With a friend.”

She opened the curtains, then the window. I would’ve felt like Romeo under Juliet’s balcony, if not for three things: The crazy woman stood beside me, the fact that Juliet was unfortunately my best friend’s girlfriend, and the look of intense and unmistakeable anger on Juliet’s face.

When she looked down at us, Nina gave a friendly wave, which April did not return. Instead, she said she was coming downstairs to talk to me through the living room window, then snapped the curtains shut.

“Somebody’s in trouble,” muttered Nina, as we made our way to the big bay window of the living room.

I waited for April to appear for about a century, but finally she emerged out of the darkness and came up to the window. She was wearing tiny pyjama shorts with little cupcakes on, and a pale blue vest top with (God help me) no bra.

“Don’t stare at her nipples,” Nina whispered unhelpfully.

She struggled with the window for a moment before it opened with a creak. Then she put her palms on the windowsill and leaned towards me, frowning.

“I got a call from Mitch,” my heart sank, “saying some very weird things. He sounded drunk so I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but apparently you said you were in love with me, and thought we were soulmates.”

The most awkward silence in history was mercifully interrupted by Nina, who said, “Hi April, it’s great to meet you,” and stuck her hand out.

April shook it, looking bemused, then turned the full force of her glare back to me. “So is that true? Did you say that?”

I felt disgustingly helpless. I’ve never been a good liar. “Yeah. Yeah, I said that. Um, is Mitch here?”

Her face crumpled. “No he isn’t. And why would you say that?”

“Because someone who shall remain nameless gave me some very strong whisky, and apparently I just talk shit when I drink whisky.”

“So it’s not true?”

I felt reckless. I’m not used to feeling reckless, so I had no idea how to suppress the feeling. “Yeah, it’s true.”

“What the hell? I have a boyfriend who happens to be your best friend, so stop it.”

Obviously, that was like a knife to the gut. “I can’t just switch it off, all right? And don’t pretend you and Mitch are blissfully happy together, you fight all the time.”

“That’s none of your business. And you’re not my fucking soulmate, we just like the same fucking music.” I’d never heard her use more than one swear word in a sentence before. “I can’t even believe you’d do this to Mitch. You’re a shit friend.”

With that, she pulled the window closed and disappeared into the darkness again.

“You OK?”

It was the first trace of genuine sympathy I saw on Nina’s face.

“No. Let’s head to the beach, I need some fresh air.”

“Sure.”

I took a cigarette from the inside pocket of my jacket. I don’t really smoke, but I keep a few emergency cigarettes for shitty situations. This was my last one.

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #45

Mitch has a rich uncle named Peter. I don’t know how he became rich and I’m not sure I want to. All of Mitch’s family is slightly dodgy. His dad deals a bit, though he doesn’t sell hard stuff and he won’t sell to kids. With two kids of his own, he doesn’t think it’s right to sell mind-altering substances to under-eighteens, though he’ll happily sell them little bags of oregano and let them think what they like. He figures it’s no different to selling candy cigarettes. Mitch’s fifteen-year-old sister recently scammed an American “entrepreneur” out of almost £900. I’m not sure how exactly, but apparently she didn’t have to take her clothes off, so Mitch is immensely proud of her.

So anyway, Mitch’s rich uncle Peter has a villa in Sardinia, and last summer he told Mitch he could borrow the place for a week. Mitch went nutty with excitement at the prospect of his first non-family holiday, and maybe I should’ve been nutty with excitement too since I was, obviously, invited. However, the situation was far from ideal.

Mitch and April hadn’t been together long, but he invited her anyway and she said yes. I wasn’t madly in love with her at this point, but I still fancied her, and this probably influenced a very bad decision of mine.

I’d been seeing this girl called Eve Reynolds for two weeks, and asked her to come with me to Sardinia. In retrospect, this sounds ridiculous – I could have easily invited a friend instead. I could have invited Tyler or Steph or Northern Dave or Doctor Dave (Not an actual doctor. Long story.), but I couldn’t stand the thought of Mitch and April, surgically attached to each other’s faces all week, and me having no real distraction from this.

Eve was happy to come to Sardinia at first, but as soon as she had agreed to come, things started to go south. The thing is, I’d been tricked into thinking she was interesting and artistic because she had purple hair (I know, I know, I was very easily fooled back then), but it turned out she never read anything but Heat magazine and she thought Andy Warhol was a band from the 90s. We started getting on each other’s nerves – so much so that when she unceremoniously dumped me and told me she didn’t want to go to Sardinia anyway, I was actually kind of relieved. For about five seconds.

Then I realised that this meant I would be spending a week with Mitch and April as a total third wheel. I couldn’t really invite Tyler or Steph or Northern Dave or Doctor Dave because they were all kind of pissed off with me for inviting a girl I’d been seeing for a fortnight on holiday instead of friends I’d known for years. Apparently I’d broken some kind of bro code, and I was too embarrassed about Eve dumping me to apologise.

The whole week-and-a-half was excruciating. Mitch and April were in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, which meant that if they weren’t making out they were cuddling, and if they weren’t cuddling they were holding hands, and if they weren’t holding hands they were fucking. The walls in the villa were pretty thin, so I could hear way more than I wanted to. Hearing them having sex was a uniquely unpleasant experience. Obviously, hearing couples have sex when you’re trying to sleep and you’ve recently been dumped is annoying. Then there was that queasily jealous feeling and the unsolicited thoughts of April’s naked body that gave me hard-ons I couldn’t really do anything about.

Mitch and April were easier to deal with individually. April sometimes wanted to go to bed at “boring o’clock” as Mitch called it, so he would kiss her goodnight enthusiastically, then me and him would stay up drinking and watching all the shitty, free-with-a newspaper DVDs Mitch’s uncle had left in a drawer in the kitchen. I thought that if I persuaded him to stay up really late and get properly drunk, I could go to bed secure in the knowledge that he was in no condition to wake up April and shag her. This worked fifty per cent of the time.

April turned out to be more of a morning person. Usually, when I stumbled out of my room, she would already be up and dressed and eating toast with strawberry jam in front of the telly. I would make myself a coffee and join her.

Conversation didn’t come easily, because April isn’t particularly talkative and it’s not easy to talk with a mouthful of toast and jam anyway. For my part, I was worried I’d say something that would make her think I was stupid or boring or unpleasant. I had to say something though, or I’d never get over the awkwardness of being alone with her.

After a few false starts, I finally found the key to unlocking April’s conversational mechanism, and it was the lamest thing ever.

“Do you like music?”

I know, right? It’s one step away from “Do you like weather?” but somehow it worked. Because April is obsessed with music. Within five minutes, she told me that she was learning to play guitar (specifically a Squier Hello Kitty Stratocaster), informed me of the existence of a dozen bands I’d never heard of, and even confided in me that she secretly quite liked Taylor Swift.

“That’s all right. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like her, but I don’t hate her as much as I should. Given that I should hate her with a burning passion.” She giggled at that, and all my innards did a stupid little victory dance. “So what’s your favourite band?” I asked, praying that it wouldn’t be one I hated.

“It changes every couple of weeks,” she admitted. “But at the moment it’s Zoey van Goey.”

I inwardly debated whether or not to pretend I knew them, but decided against it. “Never heard of them I’m afraid.”

“Hold on, I’ll get my phone and show you a video.”

From then on, mornings were spent YouTubing various musicians while listening to April evangelise about her favourite bands, and watching her giggle and fiddle with her jewellery whenever she admitted to liking something uncool. We didn’t always like the same stuff, but we tended to hate the same stuff, which was perhaps more important. They were warm, bright mornings, with the sun’s rays reflecting off the beads around April’s neck and lighting up hidden colours in her hair. Falling for her was so easy. Almost impossible to resist, like stretching after a long sleep.

It was all very innocent though. I was careful and she was oblivious. I started to get the feeling she saw me as … not a brother exactly, but maybe a cousin. Somebody nice and sexless and safe. Obviously I didn’t want anyone to think of me as nice and sexless and safe, but at least it kept things simple. Then one evening, things became a fraction less simple.

Mitch found a DVD of Heat under a bunch of old takeaway menus in the kitchen drawer. You know Heat, the one with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. April protested at having to watch a “boy movie”, but Mitch insisted that it was a classic and talked her round.

We turned the lights off and squeezed onto the too-small sofa, with April sitting between me and Mitch. I was acutely aware of her hip against my hip for the first few minutes of the film, and kept wondering why Mitch’s rich uncle hadn’t bought decent furniture for his villa.

“I like Val Kilmer’s hair,” April said, as if she were making the best of having to watch a boy movie.

“He gets it cut off later,” said Mitch.

“Hey, spoilers!”

Mitch and April spent the next five minutes arguing about whether a character getting a haircut was a spoiler, in that sickening flirty way that newish couples argue. I had to pointedly turn the volume up before they took the hint and stopped talking.

Mitch fell asleep about half-way through the film. I didn’t notice until April tapped me on the knee, then gestured towards Mitch, smiling. His head was tipped back against the settee cushions, eyes closed and mouth slightly opened.

“Should we wake him up?” I whispered.

“No, let’s let him sleep,” April murmured.

“He can fall asleep anywhere, it’s crazy. He once fell asleep in Sticky’s.”

“I know.”

The fact that she already knew that gave me a weird, dull ache that I couldn’t explain and tried to shake off.

“Do you want to watch something else?” I suggested, remembering her initial reluctance.

“No, this is pretty good actually.”

So we sat there and watched the rest of the film together, and even though Mitch was right there, the fact that he was dead to the world made it feel like we were alone. Sitting so close in the darkness, it felt horribly intimate, and that gnawing ache just wouldn’t go away.

When the film ended, I was more than ready to turn the lights on, wake Mitch up and go back to reality, but no such luck. April brought a hand up to her face and when I turned automatically to look at her, I saw that she was crying. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and kiss the tears off her face, but obviously I couldn’t do that.

“Seriously? Girls aren’t supposed to cry at this movie.”

“I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she said, wiping her face with the edge of her sleeve. “If he was going to be all upset about Robert de Niro dying, he shouldn’t have shot him, should he?”

There’s no arguing with girl logic, so I kept shtum. Then she put her hand on top of mine. I twisted it automatically, until we were holding hands. Her palm was damp, or maybe mine was. My mind raced along these lines:-

This doesn’t mean anything, how could it? Mitch is right there, it’s not like we’re doing anything wrong. It’s just holding hands, that’s nothing, it’s not a sexual thing. Al Pacino and Robert de Niro were holding hands a second ago, granted one of them was dying so maybe that’s different, but anyway, I bet she holds hands with her friends all the time and that’s why she doesn’t think anything of it.

It was no good though. If you want something to mean something, it’s impossible to convince yourself that it means nothing. The credits rolled. April gave my hand a tiny squeeze, then let go. She stood up and left the room, never looking at me. I stared at my hand as if it belonged to someone else.

The next day was crazy hot. The sun was so bright, and everything was outlined so vividly in its fierce light, that it seemed almost impossible that April and me had ever sat together in the darkness, hand-in-hand, while Mitch slept beside us. Maybe it didn’t happen – maybe I dreamt it. April certainly wasn’t giving me any clues – she acted totally normal around me.

As the heat started getting oppressive, going for a swim seemed like the obvious solution. At first, it was all three of us, splashing about aimlessly in the shallows. The sea was so different to the sea at home – clean and turquoise and tepid. Now and then, a small silver fish would swim near us and April would yell “Shark!”, then giggle her arse off as me and Mitch failed spectacularly at catching it. After a while, we decided to head into deeper waters for a proper swim.

I started to feel pretty good. So what if I fancied April? It wouldn’t last. It never did. I would meet someone else soon and start obsessing over her instead. And so what if April and me had really had a moment last night? Moments happen all the time, and they disappear into the past as quickly as they arrive, and there’s no point in trying to hold onto the slippery buggers. Pretty soon, I would start to think of April as a friend, and if her and Mitch stayed together for ages, I’d probably end up thinking of her as a sister, or close enough. Then me and her and Mitch would all be one happy family.

I stopped swimming and trod water for a moment, worried I was leaving the other two behind. When I turned around, they weren’t swimming. April had her legs and arms wrapped around Mitch like she was a monkey on a tree. He was holding her up and saying something too quietly for me to hear. It made her smile.

I wasn’t jealous. God knows I’d experienced enough jealousy over the past few days to know it when I felt it. It was more like that feeling when you’re a little kid and the other kids make a secret club and won’t tell you the password to get into the clubhouse. The feeling of being on the outside, looking in.

On the Run

The beach. Sea air. Throwing stones into the dark water. I flicked my fag end away and focussed on walking towards the beach because my head was a bombsite.

I’d set a quick pace but Nina wasn’t having any trouble keeping up with me. As she walked, she fished around in her bag and pulled out something that looked like a large, silver USB stick.

“Look at me for a second,” she said.

I did, involuntarily. She held the USB stick thing in front of my face for a moment, then examined it. It seemed to have a tiny lens on it, so I thought maybe it was a camera.

“Sad, angry, anxious, hungry,” she muttered. “Why anxious?”

“What are you talking about?” She shook the USB stick/camera, like that was an explanation. “What’s that thing?”

She turned the thing over in her hand. I’d been expecting the back of it to have a screen, but instead there were a lot of little LEDs, four of which were lit up.

“Just think of it as a mood ring,” she said. “Except instead of skin temperature it uses cutting-edge facial recognition technology to work out what someone’s feeling. Also it actually works, instead of, you know, being a scam to take twelve-year-old girls’ pocket money.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Work.”

“Right. Another data collection tool?”

“Exactly.”

“So this agency you work for gives you chemicals to get the truth out of people and gadgets to read their emotions. They don’t seem to value people skills much, do they?”

“Why are you anxious?”

“Does it matter?”

“No. Just curious.”

I didn’t want to say it out loud, but it kept bubbling to the top of my mind, eclipsing all the other weirdness and sadness and general fucked-upness of this Godforsaken night. “Where the hell is he?”

“Mitch?”

“Obviously Mitch. He wasn’t at home, he wasn’t at April’s. He’s on his own and he’s angry with me and he’s so fucking stupid and he’s not scared of anything.”

“OK, I think we should sit down for a bit,” said Nina, steering me towards a bench.

I sat, hunched over, staring at the ground.

“He won’t stay angry with you,” Nina said, in a tone of voice that was more matter-of-fact than reassuring. “He’s not like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, he knew, didn’t he? At least on some level, he knew that you’d fallen for his girlfriend. It happens, and he understands that. You, you’re more of an optimist.”

“An optimist? Have you met me?”

“You expect the best of people. You expect people to be good and honest all the time, and not to make mistakes or fall in love with the wrong people. Or get angry with you when you’re professing your love for them.”

I wanted another cigarette. “Why don’t you stop psychoanalysing me for a minute and tell me what the hell your problem is? You’re the fucking batshit fantasist here.”

She sighed, and put a hand on mine – not holding it, just resting it there. “What’s your favourite ice-cream?”

“Cornetto. Strawberry. Why?”

Keeping one hand on mine, she groped around the inside of her bag with the other, then pulled out a strawberry Cornetto. She handed it to me. “Eat your ice cream and shut up.”

The ice cream was very cold and very delicious. This was different somehow. The energy that seemed to flow from her fingertips – that was a feeling, and as vague and confusing as all the rest. Winning at roulette could have been chance, and Mitch’s disappearing dizziness and Insomniac Dave’s deep sleep were things that happened to other people, so I couldn’t be sure of them. But a strawberry cornetto, sweet and tangible and just what I wanted, emerging from a strange woman’s handbag, was… proof? Evidence.

An agency, then, controlling people’s good luck and bad luck for no better reason than that it was part of some big plan. I ate the ice cream and felt like I could feel the world spinning on its axis for the first time. Nina didn’t take her hand off mine, and when she curled her fingers a little, I twisted my hand so that our palms were together. Why not? It was something solid to hold on to.

“Eat quickly. We should really get moving,” she said, without looking at me.

We were both looking across the road, at the little shop that sells plastic buckets and spades and cheap sunglasses and shit like that. To the left of the bench there was a cycle path leading down to the beach, and to the right there was the road.

I could hear the car before I saw it. Even with the ever-present rustle of the sea, East Twithering is dead quiet this time of night. The car’s faint hum made me think, fleetingly, of being a little kid, driven home after dark and dozing peacefully in the back of the car.

It obviously didn’t have that effect on Nina. She sprang up, muscles tensed like a deer about to flee. As the car rounded the bend and came into view, I only had a fraction of a second to see that it was a big, silver, innocuous-looking people-carrier. Then Nina grabbed me by the shoulder and hissed “Move.”

She dragged me up from the bench and I stumbled and dropped the remains of my ice cream as pulled me onto the cycle path. Out of sight of the road, she started to run and for a moment, I seriously considered not following her. I could just go home and go to bed and never know what she was running from.

I ran after her. Catching her up wasn’t easy – she was sprinting, dark hair flying, green dress in a frenzy around her legs. She had that massive handbag clutched against her chest but it didn’t seem to slow her down. The smack of shoes on the cycle path mingled with my own laborious breathing. When she finally slowed a little, I grabbed at her elbow and she dropped her pace to a walk, looking back over her shoulder.

“Where does this path lead?”

“Down to the beach,” I gasped.

“That’s not good. We need to be somewhere with people around. She won’t risk making a scene.”

“Who’s she?”

“We should hide out in someone’s garden.”

“Who’s she and why are we running from her? Is she dangerous?”

Nina stopped, hands on her hips and bending forward as though she had a stitch. She breathed heavily for a moment, then straightened and looked at me.

“It’s me she’s looking for. But now she’s seen us together she’ll want information out of you if she finds you.”

“Is she … should we call the police or something?”

Nina laughed – not her usual eerie cackle, but something weaker. She shook her head. I looked for something solid to hold on to in the wreckage of my brain. A garden. We had to find a garden to hide in. At the top of the slope to my left was Kingston Road, with its neat little houses and shadowy gardens. I pointed up the slope. “Up there. There’s houses up there.”

“We have to watch out for that car. Is there a road?”

“Yes. It’s only a little narrow one though.”

She frowned, obviously less than satisfied with this plan. “We’ll have to keep our heads down. And we need to stay quiet, OK? Keep your ears open.”

She stepped off the path and into the undergrowth, where the weeds grew thick and tall. We mostly avoided the claws of brambles, but nettles were more difficult to see and I was grateful to have my arms and legs covered. Nina must have been getting stung all over but she never stopped. She moved stealthily, bending over to stay closer to the ground. When the slope got steep, she practically crawled – moving in a slow, sinuous way between the clumps of grasses and patches of horsetails. My heart beat painfully fast.

We stopped at the top of the slope, flush against the ground. I looked at Nina. Her face was turned towards me but she didn’t seem to see me; maybe she didn’t see anything. She was listening, that much was obvious. The effort of it showed on her face – it looked like she was trying to grow bigger ears, or more auditory nerves or something.

She looked different to when we first met. Her arms were scratched, and I noticed dark circles under her eyes that I had previously mistaken for shadows. The wind and the running had messed up her hair, and it had a few stickyweed seeds in it. In the watery moonlight, they looked like small, silver-green jewels.

Looking back, I wonder if this is why my dad tried so hard to toughen me up when I was a kid. Maybe all the wasted effort he put into trying to make me play football willingly and learn how to make campfires and pitch tents, instead of just letting me draw and paint and read Jacqueline Wilson books, actually wasn’t anything to do with traditional gender roles. Maybe he somehow knew that one day I would be running from a potentially dangerous adversary and would get distracted by the way the moonlight shone on stickyweed seeds in a woman’s hair.

Nina raised her head slowly to peer over the top of the slope. “All clear,” she whispered. “We’re going to have to move very quickly and very quietly.”

“Which house are we aiming for?”

“That one, straight ahead. We have to get round the back, into the garden as soon as possible – no dicking around.”

“That house has a gravel drive though, it’ll crunch.”

“Fine then, the one to the right.”

“And how are we supposed to get through to the back garden? That gate’s about ten foot tall, there’s no way we could climb it. And I take it you don’t want to faff around picking locks.”

Nina scowled at me as if to say “Why are you making this more difficult than it already is?” but I returned her stare.

“You know, you’re not very detail-oriented.”

“I’m lying in a patch of nettles.”

“The one on the left then, with the blue door.”

“OK. Ready?”

We crossed the road at a run, but it wasn’t the desperate sprinting of earlier. I kept my footsteps as light as I could, practically holding my breath so I made as little noise as possible. Probably looked a right twat.

We skirted a red Ford Focus and a cluster of terracotta pots full of nasturtiums, then clambered over a sturdy wooden gate. I silently prayed that whoever owned this house didn’t have any dogs.

The back garden was large, overgrown and very dark. People in East Twithering tend not to bother with security lighting or fancy burglar alarms. We crept towards the bottom of the garden, keeping close to the tall, ragged hedge that separated it from the garden next door. There were bushes and shrubs to hide ourselves in, and we crouched behind a shrub with leathery leaves that smelled faintly spicy. A beech tree to our left made us a roof of branches. If anyone in the house happened to look out of a window, we were safely out of sight.

There were dock leaves in amongst the weeds. I picked one, spat on it, then slapped it over a small patch of nettle rash on the back of my wrist.

“What are you doing that for?”

“Wow, you really are a city girl. Dock leaves make nettle stings less painful.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Nina grabbed a handful of dock leaves and began tearing them into manageable pieces, spitting on them methodically and applying them to the stung places on her arms and legs. At one point, she hitched up her dress to get at the nettle rash on her left thigh, and I had to stare hard at the ground. I couldn’t deal with that, on top of everything else.

I had to call Mitch. As I listened to the dial tone, I wondered what I would say to him. Something along the lines of,

“Hey, you know Nina? Well, it turns out she’s on the run from someone driving a silver people carrier, and now I think I’m on the run from them too, but I don’t really know why. We’re hiding out in someone’s garden. Oh, also, Nina has some kind of supernatural power that allows her to give people good luck just by touching them, and she works for an agency that controls the good things and bad things that happen to people but she doesn’t even know what the point of it all is – it’s just like, everything has to happen according to a plan. And she made me a strawberry Cornetto out of thin air. Also, can I have my cheque back please?”

I never got to say any of that because he didn’t answer his phone. If I was concerned about him before, I was doubly anxious now because he always answers his phone. Once I called him, half-asleep, at 3am because I had a confusingly vivid dream in which he’d been eaten by a shark. He answered, but didn’t help matters by muffling his voice and pretending he had indeed been eaten by a shark and was talking from inside the shark’s stomach. It took me a long time to wake up properly and stop panicking.

I put my phone away safely in the inner pocket of my jacket, then turned to look at Nina. This woman had changed literally everything and there she was, calmly tending to her nettle rash like it was just another day at the office.

“You do realise you’ve fucked everything up, don’t you?” There was no heat in my voice. All the running and creeping about had tired me out, and I didn’t have the energy for proper anger any more.

“Yes, I realise that. When you’re hiding in a stranger’s garden, covered in leaves and spit, it’s fairly clear that you need to re-evaluate your life.”

“I mean you’ve fucked everything up for me. I actually thought, when I met you, that you might make things better. It seemed like you’d make it a good night out anyway, and then I won all that money-”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” she interrupted.

“But then you just turned it all to shit. My money’s gone, my best friend hates me and I don’t even know where he is, and April probably thinks I’m a terrible person. If your job is to bring people good luck, you’re shit at your job. Seriously, they ought to fire you.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding,” she said, oozing with sarcasm. “Did you think I was here to help you? Did you think I don’t have my own shit going on?”

“Just fucking tell me. Maybe I can help.”

I was exasperated at this point. Exasperated and exhausted and exhilarated, with adrenaline still flowing through me, top to toe. Nina sighed deeply. “I am shit at my job,” she said, her voice steely and unapologetic. “And I’m pretty certain they’ve already fired me. Though they don’t use the word fired or sacked or anything like that.”

“OK,” I said, in a gentler voice than I’d intended. “Tell me what happened.”

And she did.

How Nina Got To East Twithering

Here is the story of how Nina got to East Twithering. It’s the story she told me, which is obviously a compressed version of events and who knows how much of it is true? It’s a story that’s been added to by fragments of conversation and vivid imaginings and what I remember the school counsellor referring to as “obsessive ruminations”. Basically, consider this a disclaimer. This is Nina’s story, not mine.

Supposedly, Nina has no memories from before the age of seven. She does not know who her parents are. She was raised in a sort of boarding school, full of other kids like her. That is, kids who had the power to touch people and make things happen to them. Good things. Bad things. Small, seemingly insignificant things. Momentous, life-shattering things. Sometimes things that broke the rules of physics.

If this is all sounding a bit like Hogwarts, or The Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (which is exactly how it sounded to me at first), apparently it wasn’t. Even for the really little kids, there were rules upon rules, strictly enforced. The days began and ended early. Every hour was scheduled and almost every minute was supervised. Little Nina, though, did not take kindly to this, and found ways of escaping. Not literally escaping of course, but finding temporary refuge in secret places that nobody knew about.

Imagine Nina as a seven-year-old. Dark hair done up in plaits with little pink bobbles. Grey, pleated skirt and grey jumper. Creepy, probably, like a kid in a horror film. She shared a small dorm room with three other girls her age, and felt pretty indifferent to all of them. One was a bully and one was annoying and one used to cry every other night, but none of that bothered her too much. It was just the fact that they were always there. She was never alone, and didn’t have one scrap of carpet that felt like hers.

So she started looking for that scrap of carpet. It was difficult, because the school (she did not know the name of the school, or if it even had one) was not a place you could go wandering around in. “Loitering” was against the rules, though it took Nina years to understand what loitering actually was, namely being in a place where the grown-ups did not want you to be.

It was a Friday lunchtime in winter when she found the door. A plain wooden door in a corridor of North Block with a triangular yellow sign on it that showed a stick figure falling. She did not know why the stick man was falling. He was on a flat surface, and looked as though his legs had been knocked out from under him by some invisible force. His arms were flailing wildly. Beneath the triangular sign was a rectangular one reading “KEEP OUT”. Much clearer than the mysterious falling man.

The corridor was empty. It was only ten minutes into lunch break and the other kids would be in the dining hall. Nina had slipped away though – she didn’t feel like eating. She looked both ways, like crossing a road (though she couldn’t remember ever having crossed a road before) and tried the door handle. Miraculously, it wasn’t locked, and the door opened a fraction. Nothing but darkness was visible beyond the door. Nina was afraid, but she was afraid a lot at that age, so she was used to it and it didn’t bother her too much. She checked over both her shoulders that no-one was around, then slithered around the side of the door like a buttered snake, closing it softly behind her.

She kept one hand on the door handle and used the other to pat the wall, looking for a light switch. It took her a while to realise that she was patting too low. The light switch wouldn’t be kid height, because kids obviously weren’t supposed to be here. Reaching a little higher, she found it. She blinked against the sudden brightness and turned around, disorientated.

When she saw how steeply the steps fell away from the small platform she stood on, she pressed herself back against the door for a moment, heart beating hard. Then she began the descent, because who knew what might be down there? There might be a huge, empty hall, perfect for cartwheels.

The steps were solid and sturdy and didn’t creak. North Block was the newest part of the school, and was plain and functional in comparison to other parts, which were all wood and stone with a smell like churches (though Nina couldn’t remember ever having been inside a church).

At the bottom of the stairs, a low, buzzing hum sounded. Nina went through another door – this one with no warning signs – and found herself in a boiler room. Enormous metal pipes, thick enough for her to crawl through, snaked up the walls and along the ceiling. The boiler itself was a huge, red cylinder, throwing out a fierce heat. At the back of the boiler room was another door. A miniature one, half the size of a normal door. Obviously, little Nina went through it – it seemed to be made for her.

Through this door was more darkness, and more groping the wall for a light switch. When she finally found it, harsh fluorescent lighting revealed a storage area, stuffed with junk. It wasn’t very interesting junk – electrical items mostly, like desk lamps and boxy old computers.

A tiny flash of blue caught her eye, then disappeared, like a bird that hops out of a bush and then hops straight back in. She searched amongst the grey plastic and dusty silver metal until she found it, stuffed under a chunky keyboard with a couple of the keys missing.

It was a notebook, small and blue. She picked it up and flicked through the pages. There were doodles – fish and mermaids mostly, nicely drawn. The notebook must belong to an older girl. There were also a lot of question marks, all drawn differently. It was a weird thing to draw, and it was weird how this girl could make a question mark look like so many different things. Spiky ones that looked like mechanical hooks. Curly ones that looked like wool unravelling. Two question marks facing each other, smushed together to make a heart that was dripping something from the bottom of it.

The pages of doodles were chaotic, but there were other pages filled with writing that was small and very neat. Nina could read well enough, but it wasn’t her favourite thing so she only read a couple of lines.

She said we have to think of ourselves as soldiers, and soldiers have to follow orders. I’ve heard that before, not sure how many times. I think the teachers started saying it after we got sorted.

It was warm in the storage space. Cosy, with the fierce heat of the boiler seeping in through the wall. She couldn’t stay long – she might not be able to hear the end of lunch bell down here, so it was best to get back upstairs – but maybe she could come back another day. She liked it here, and she liked the notebook.

A few days later – which, if you remember, seems like almost a month in kid time – Nina met the owner of that notebook. Her memory of this meeting is also her first memory of using her powers (or “abilities” as she calls them, which sounds boring to me but whatever, it’s her choice). It was lunch time, and little Nina had wolfed her macaroni cheese and was heading towards the library. In the corridor, one of the older girls was crying into a tissue and trying to pretend she was just blowing her nose.

This was nothing remarkable. A lot of the kids cried, even the teenagers sometimes. Still, Nina felt compelled to stop and stare at her. Probably in a scary-as-hell way, like those twins from The Shining. She asked the crying girl why she was crying, and the crying girl said she had lost a book. A notebook, actually, with personal things written in it. Nina had her suspicions.

“Do you remember where you put it?”

“Yes.”

“Then how it is lost?”

“I put it somewhere I can’t go back to. The caretaker … it doesn’t matter, I just can’t go back and get it, so it’s lost.”

Nina took her hand. She knew that she could probably go and fetch it for the girl, but there was an easier way. Apparently, she didn’t really know what she was doing – it was instinct. She led the older girl down the corridor, knowing that the notebook would be just around the corner. It would be there because the girl wanted it to be there, and Nina could make that happen.

Sure enough, when the two of them turned right at the end of the corridor, a small, blue notebook was lying on the ground. The girl pounced on it, then whirled around and hugged Nina.

“Well done, that was brilliant,” she said in her jolly hockey sticks voice, bright-eyed and beaming.

“What was brilliant?” One of the teachers had materialised (I don’t mean that literally. As far as I know, the teachers had the same superpowers as the kids, and no extra ones) and was looking at this spontaneous display of affection with obvious disapproval. A tall, grey-haired man with round glasses.

The girl got flustered, and mumbled something that Nina couldn’t hear.

“If you won’t tell the truth voluntarily, you know we can make you. So why waste time?”

The teacher’s voice was calm and dry, not menacing. Still, the girl was obviously frightened. “She helped me find my notebook.”

“I hope she hasn’t been wasting her energies outside of lessons.” Here the teacher bent down towards Nina and adopted a sickly voice that didn’t suit him. “We must make good use of what power we have, mustn’t we? When we’re little, it’s for lessons, so we learn how to use it properly. Then when we’re grown-ups, it’s for following The Documents. Making everything that has to happen, happen.”

He straightened up and took the notebook from the girl. Maybe she resisted and maybe she didn’t. Maybe she loosened her grip on it obediently but silently begged him not to open it. He opened it and flipped through the pages, looking faintly amused. Then he closed the book and hit the girl on the side of the head with it. It was a hardback, and it made a deep sound that the teacher seemed to find satisfying. The girl’s long, mousey-coloured hair fell over her face, hiding it.

“You’re a clever girl, Evelyn,” he said. “Try to stay focussed.” He walked off with the notebook.

“Are you OK?” little Nina asked.

“Yeah,” said the girl, whose name was apparently Evelyn. She smoothed her hair back into place, revealing flushed cheeks and glossy eyes.

“Is he going to give you your notebook back?”

“No, but it’s OK. I’ll just get a new one. Thank you for finding it for me, anyway.”

Nina shrugged, because there didn’t seem to be much point in having found it now that it was gone again. “Why did he hit you?”

“Because I’m a silly girl. Silly girls get hit sometimes.”

Nina, being seven, knew exactly what to do to make everything better. “I’ve got some gummy bears that I hid in my pillow case. They might be a bit squashed but they’ll still be good. I’ll share them with you, if you like.”

Evelyn smiled, sniffed quietly and said “Thank you, that’d be lovely.”

Nina and Evelyn ended up becoming friends, if you can call it friendship when one of you is seven and the other is fourteen. I think Evelyn was more of an older sister figure, or maybe even a mother figure. God knows a seven-year-old would need some looking after in that place.

At the age of ten, all the kids in Nina’s year group were separated into two groups, according to whether they were more skilled at causing positive events to happen, or negative events. Sort of like being sorted into houses in Harry Potter, except instead of having a magical hat put on their head, they were tattooed on the backs of their skinny, ten-year-old necks. I kid you not.

The nurse, or tattoo artist, or whatever faceless adult did the deed, tied Nina’s hair up in a neat bun and swabbed the back of her neck with alcohol. As the needle pierced her skin, Nina started crying. Not because of the pain, but because her number was 736528A, so she was destined for Branch A of the agency. She was good at making good things happen, especially recovering lost items and getting people to win games of chance (she still struggled with games of skill). Evelyn’s number was 735235B, so she was headed towards Branch B. She was very skilled at making bad things happen, particularly falls and minor natural disasters. The two of them would not be friends any more.

The kids were separated into different classes according to their tattoos and given a vague little lecture about the importance of balance. After that, lessons continued. Many of these lessons were about following The Documents, whatever those were. None of the students ever saw them, and their physical existence was always dismissed as unimportant. What mattered was that things had to happen according to how they were written in The Documents. You’d think the subject of human destiny and the illusion of free will would be a fascinating subject, but Nina assures me it was dull as drizzle. All the teachers had their own particular style, but they all seemed to agree that certain information was best withheld.

“Now, a goal can be broken down into a number of smaller goals,” said Mr Karpovsky. “For example, The Documents may state that a person is destined to run a successful business selling luxury soap. What fortunate events could we create to help him fulfil this destiny?”

Hands went up. “He could win a bet on the horses and get some start-up money for his business,” said a kid who wasn’t Nina.

“He could meet someone on the train who turns out to be really clever about business. Or soap. And they become business partners,” said another kid who wasn’t Nina.

“What if he doesn’t want to run a soap business?” said Nina.

“Then we have to make him want to,” said Mr Karpovsky. “Who can tell me what fortunate events might guide him towards his destiny?”

“Maybe if he gets lucky with a hot girl who smells of soap,” said one of the cheekier boys in the class.

After the lesson, Mr Karpovsky told Nina to stay behind for a moment.

“Nina, you’re free to ask me any questions you like after lessons, but try not to interrupt in class, OK?”

Nina thought best about how to phrase this so she didn’t get into trouble. Mr Karpovsky was all right, but a teacher was a teacher and you had to be careful.

“I just think it’d be easier to learn if we understood why everything in The Documents has to happen.”

Mr Karpovsky laughed softly – the sound seeping out from his chest.

“If I could tell you that Nina, I would.”

“So the teachers don’t know either?”

“Well, I certainly don’t. Not completely, anyway. But if you study hard, perhaps when you’re a grown-up you can work your way to the top of the agency. Then you’ll understand.”

So Nina spent her days in frustrated confusion. Her nights were filled with dreams in which she was tearing yellowed parchment to shreds or setting fire to libraries.

Obviously, Nina grew up. Imagine her transforming from a slightly creepy child to a slightly scary femme fatale-looking woman, and going out to work for the agency. The agents worked in teams or pairs or solo, depending on the complexity of what had to happen. They were unobtrusive, quietly bestowing good luck through a brush of the hand or a casual pat on the shoulder or bumping into someone on the tube. All around them, people won competitions and had successful job interviews and met future lovers and friends. Doubtless, Evelyn and her colleagues were making sure people lost their savings and got fired and maybe even died.

Still, Nina tried to understand. Perhaps winning a year’s supply of Walker’s crisps would allow someone to change the world. Perhaps it was more subtle than that. You’d think it’d be rewarding to have a job making good things happen to people, but I guess Nina is just not a nice person.

Anyway, the assignment that finally made her throw in the towel involved a man named Simon Fairbanks and a big promotion. She took a temporary admin position at the company he worked at, and was responsible for ensuring the following things happened:-

1) Simon has a “chance” meeting with his boss in the kitchen, when his boss is in a particularly good mood. This gives him the opportunity to mention that he is thinking of applying for the senior position.

2) Simon works on a project with Abrianna Dixon and Jamie Stone. Over the course of this project, Abrianna and Jamie realise that they are irresistibly attracted to one another. When the project is evaluated, they are conveniently getting off with each other in a stationery cupboard and Simon is able to take credit for pretty much the whole thing.

3) Simon interviews for the senior position. The interview goes very well.

Nothing too complicated. The only problem was that Nina woke up one morning and realised that she had no intention of touching Simon Fairbanks ever again.

You see, in order to make things go well for him, Nina had to find ways of touching him. She had done her best to come across as a naturally tactile person, casually patting arms and shoulders and generally being a bit continental. Simon, however, seemed to have developed a different idea.

He flirted with her constantly, if you could call it flirting. Apparently he was one of those guys who thinks that making a sexual innuendo in a low voice makes him sound like James Bond, when it actually makes him sound like a character from a Carry On film who’s not in on the joke. He used to touch her a lot too – hands on her lower back, tickling her sides and laughing when it made her jump. Standing behind her as he showed her how to format something properly in a Word document, hands on her shoulders and a thumb stroking the side of her neck.

Perhaps, if Simon were younger or better looking, he would’ve gotten his promotion. Perhaps if he weren’t married, with a photo of his wife and two sons facing outwards on his desk, he would’ve gotten his promotion. Perhaps if he were actually good at his job, or if he didn’t patronise all men under the age of twenty-five and all women under the age of fifty, or if he wasn’t one of those annoying people who put air quotes around phrases like “human rights”, he would’ve gotten his promotion.

Anyway, Simon Fairbanks didn’t get his promotion. On the day of his interview, Nina got out of bed at the usual time, said goodbye to Stuart (the medical student she’d been sharing a flat with) and Lisa (Stuart’s cat) and went down to the train station.

Come Here

“Wow. OK, so … I thought you must’ve done something worse. All you did was walk out on a job. Who stalks someone in the middle of the night for not giving three weeks’ notice and filling out the paperwork?”

She gave me a wry smile. “You don’t just walk out of this job. Nobody does.”

“So why did you?”

“I just told you.”

“No you didn’t, you just told me how you walked out. You never said anything about why.”

“Christ, I don’t know. Wanting to maintain the illusion of free will or something. Thinking … fuck The Documents, fuck how things are supposed to happen, I can choose who I help.”

She was peeling the dock leaves off her arms and legs. She seemed unselfconscious in the darkness. Almost like she was one of those hot-but-doesn’t-know-it girls who I have a tendency to fall crazy in love with.

With the last dock leaf removed, she looked up and caught me staring. She didn’t smile or look away shyly or anything – just stared back, like it was a competition. The distance between us seemed suddenly smaller, though she hadn’t leaned towards me and I don’t think I had either. Her lips were blood-red.

Her phone rang. My skeleton jumped out of my body for a second, then discreetly tucked itself back inside while Nina was frantically searching for her phone. When she answered it, she held it in front of her rather than up to her ear and I scooted closer to her, wanting to get a good look at it. Disappointingly, it looked pretty much like a regular phone.

At the touch of a button, the screen was filled with a woman’s face. A thirtyish woman, with red hair. I realised, with a sick little twist of the stomach, that it was the woman I’d seen at the casino – the woman in the grey suit who looked like she’d come straight from work.

“Hello, Nina,” said the woman.

“Hi, Evelyn,” said Nina, uncharacteristically stiff and awkward.

“Evelyn,” I whispered, “Is that the same Evelyn-”

Nina nudged me in the mouth with her shoulder.

“I’ll be brief. I’ve been tasked with retrieving you, so I’m requesting that you and your companion meet me at the specified location. I’ll send you a map.”

“All business, aren’t you?” said Nina. “You could ask how I’ve been or ask who my companion is.”

“I’ve no interest in either of those topics,” said Evelyn. “I have your companion’s friend here with me, as you can see.”

Here, the screen swung around smoothly and there was Mitch. I could only see his face and his shoulders, but he seemed to be sitting down. “Is Oscar there? Let me talk to him.” He looked confused. Clearly he was having an eventful night too.

I leaned towards the screen, saying “Mitch? Hey mate, what’s happened?”

He started saying something, but the screen swung back to Evelyn’s face. “As soon as the two of you arrive, this gentleman will be free to go. Nina, I trust you’ll explain to your companion why involving the police would be futile.”

The screen went blank. I panicked. My brain chewed through every hostage situation I’d seen in every film and TV drama, and all I could remember is that I always thought the people involved were schmucks for not calling the police, regardless of what the bad guy said. Wasn’t it basically just a grown-up bully’s way of saying “You better not tell a teacher or else”?

I got my phone out and dialled 999. No dialling tone. Nothing but a high-pitched whine.

“I was about to do as she suggested and explain why there’s no point in calling the police, but you’re obviously way ahead of me,” said Nina. She looked a whole lot less panicked than she ought to.

“Don’t just sit there! Did she send you the map yet? Where do we have to go? What’s she going to do to him?”

“Do you care what she’ll do to me if we go to meet her?”

“If? What do you mean if, of course we’re going. And I do care, and I’m going to protect you.”

She scoffed. “You think it’s just her? You think that twiglet managed to kidnap a six-foot-something man all by herself? You don’t even know what you’re up against.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ve got Mitch. I’ll go by myself if I have to.”

She looked at me as if I was sadly deluded, then turned the phone around and showed me the map. A red drop pin marked the spot. “You know this place?”

It was on the edge of town. I’d walked through that area plenty of times and there was nothing there – just scrubland with a couple of disused warehouses. “It’s not far.”

“Right then, let’s go.”

For a person as unpredictable as Nina, the only constant seems to be that she doesn’t leave.

An Unfortunate Event in the Life of Mitchell (“Mitch”) Carlson

At some point between the visit to Insomniac Dave’s flat and the call from Evelyn, Mitch went from being a best friend to a thieving bastard to a kidnap victim, and I’m guessing this particular journey would be more interesting when told from his perspective, so here goes. Once again, a brief disclaimer: This is my interpretation of Mitch’s version of events. Please remember that my imagination sometimes runs away with itself (occasionally marries and has babies with itself as well) and that Mitch had been drinking a lot. We take joint responsibility for any inaccuracies.

Mitch left Insomniac Dave’s place with my roulette cheque in the pocket of his jeans. In Mitch’s mind, it made perfect sense to steal the cheque from me because he figured I was planning to steal April away from him. I wasn’t, but whatever. Who makes good decisions under the influence of Jägerbombs from Sticky’s, mojitos from The Happy Mermaid, and truth serum from a shadowy organisation that controls everyone’s good and bad luck? Probably no-one.

He trudged down the road, still not dizzy. He was sleepy though. His eyelids seemed to be spring-loaded, and kept snapping shut every few seconds. His arms and legs and head and everything in between felt heavy with exhaustion and his mind was foggy. April, he had to call April. The conversation went something like this:

“Hey babe, are you awake?”

“I am now. What’s happened?” She sounded groggy, but worried.

“Did you know that Oscar’s in love with you?”

Silence.

“Are you there? You’re not saying anything, does this mean you did know?”

“What? No. Why do you think Oscar’s in love with me?”

“Because he told me. He’s in love with you and he thinks the two of you are soulmates and that I stole his soulmate away from him.”

“Why would he tell you a thing like that?”

“I think you’re focussing on the wrong thing here. Look, you don’t seem surprised. Did he ever try anything on with you?”

“No, of course not.”

Then Mitch mustered his energy and said a lot of things, very quickly. I won’t tell you all of it because it would take up about three pages and because he wouldn’t want me to. Here are the key points:-

• You don’t have any feelings for him, do you?
• Do you feel like he’d be a better boyfriend than me?
• I know we’re not perfect, but I love you. So much.

April gave her answers, told Mitch that she loved him, and that she would talk to him tomorrow with a clearer head.

A few seconds after he hung up, my number flashed up on his phone and he answered the call with an impulsive “Fuck off.”

At the corner of Ruskin walk, he paused and sat down on the wall of someone’s front garden. It was a wall made of very neat bricks – cool and smooth. It took him a moment to notice the voices.

He could just about see the people they belonged to if he leant backwards and craned his neck around a bush, but that was uncomfortable so he didn’t look for long.

They were two men, in suits, standing in the light of a street lamp. One of them was smoking a cigarette or an e-cigarette – something that sent a thin trickle of smoke or vapour into the air, like the plume of cordite from a just-fired gun. They were both very tall. I’d imagine it’s difficult to tell at a distance, but Mitch insists he could tell straight away.

So. Two big, scary-looking blokes, looking like they’re dressed for work, but like they’d never be able to fit inside an office cubicle. For some reason, Mitch thought it would be a good idea to stay and eavesdrop on them rather than slip away quietly. Amongst the scraps of low-pitched conversation he caught, were these:

“… then what does she need us for?”

“Legwork … you know how it is. People don’t listen to … without people like us standing behind them … eyes open, mouth shut. Best advice I ever got.”

“Someone to learn from, then?”

“She’s good … hell of a reputation … Something a bit off about her, though.”

All very intriguing. Can’t blame him, really, for being nosy given the circumstances. But then things got weirder.

“… The Happy Mermaid, with those other two.”

“Heh. Feeling lucky I guess.”

They could’ve been talking about any three people at The Happy Mermaid.

“… and snake tattoos on his arms. The other one’s tall. Big guy, but they’re both just kids really.”

That narrowed it down a bit. Mitch hunched his shoulders and tucked his feet closer to the wall, feeling the importance of staying hidden more than ever. Why the hell would those two be looking for him and Oscar? Did they work for The Happy Mermaid? Had Oscar cheated at the roulette wheel or something, and now they were after him? No, that was stupid. Casino bosses wouldn’t send heavies in suits to track people down in the dead of night because they’d cheated the casino out of £1,745. Besides, Oscar had never even played roulette before, so how would he manage to cheat?

Nina. It must be something to do with Nina. She was a funny one, that much was certain. Maybe it was because she was a few years older, but she had this look about her as if she’d seen and experienced a hell of a lot. Something in the eyes. Mitch didn’t envy this – his goals for the future could be summed up in eight words: “Make some money, have some fun, be happy.” But Nina seemed to belong to a different world, and what if it was a dangerous one? What if she was a master criminal and these two were plain-clothes policemen or private investigators? He couldn’t picture Nina as a murderer. Maybe an accomplice to a bank robbery. Or a jewel thief, he could totally picture her as a jewel thief.

When he had left Insomniac Dave’s flat, she had been putting Dave to bed. Jewel thief or not, there was something nice in her. Something caring. He wouldn’t let these two get their grubby mitts on her until he knew the whole story.

They were still talking, but quieter now. He needed to hear what they were saying, and he needed to get a good look at them and see what exactly Nina was up against. He took a deep, steadying breath, then stood up slowly. If he could just get around the corner. He would stay in the shadows, out of sight.

No such luck. When Mitch sidled round the corner and got his first proper look at Nina’s adversaries, they were looking straight at him. A blonde one and a bald one, equally big and menacing. Blondie tilted his head towards Baldie and muttered something inaudible. Then they began walking towards Mitch. Blondie slipped his hand into his pocket. Was that…? Nah, couldn’t be. But what if it was?

Mitch took a step backwards and they walked faster. He started to turn back around the corner, never taking his eyes off them, and they walked faster still. Mitch walked as quickly as he could without running, and when he heard their footsteps behind him, he ran.

Everything blurred. The houses with drawn curtains, the scruffy front gardens filled with the lumpen, dark shapes of shrubs. Familiar cars and patches of colour where flowers glowed faintly in the darkness. It all flew away behind him because the only thing that mattered was that two men were chasing him and one of them seemed to have a gun. All he had to do was keep running as fast as he could. Keep filling his lungs, keep propelling himself forwards with all the strength he could gather.

As he hurtled round the corner of Birch Road, a desperate glance showed him how close they were. If he stopped or fell or stumbled, they would have him in a couple of seconds.

That’s when he knew he was wrong. He couldn’t count on his legs and lungs and hope for the best – he needed an edge. He needed a strategy. Fleeting visions of rugby matches slipped through his mind. Sprinting through slick mud on a familiar pitch.

Home-field advantage. That was it. He knew every inch of this town, but those two – with their rhythmic footsteps so close behind him – were most likely from somewhere else.

With his feet numb and tingling from the force of slapping the pavement and his lungs beginning to protest, he considered his options. Luckily, the adrenaline had cleared the last of the fog from his mind.

Up ahead, Birch Road curved around to the left. On the right side of the road, opposite the bend, was a half-hidden footpath. It led down to the beach, but it also led everywhere else.

The shortest route possible. Don’t give them any clue where you’re going before you have to.

Just as Birch Road began to curve, he swerved to the right and charged down the footpath. Trees and shrubs grew thick on both sides of the path, and hardly any light filtered through the interlacing branches above. The ground was muddy and full of tree roots. He finally allowed himself to slow down, but not by much. He could hear them again.

A frantic glance behind showed nothing. Perhaps he had gained himself a little time, or perhaps it was just too dark to see them. Either way, he couldn’t miss the turning.

There – on the left, just before the bend in the path. It was a kind of tunnel, through the gorse bushes. Sharp spines either side and overhead, like something you have to get through in order to rescue a princess. It was familiar, even in the dark, but damn it was easier before he got tall.

Shielding his face with his arms, he pushed forwards until the tunnel opened out into a leaf-strewn clearing. He tried desperately to quiet his breathing so he could listen for sounds of the men coming through the tunnel. Even his heartbeat was making a din.

“You go on ahead, I’ll look down here.”

Mitch prayed that “down here” didn’t mean down here, but then there was a rustling of gorse and some muffled swearing and he knew he was fucked.

Time for a change of tactics then. There was only one of them now, though he didn’t know which one. He hoped it was Baldie. That guy looked like he had a softer belly.

As soon as the guy emerged from the tunnel of gorse, and before he’d even had time to straighten up properly, Mitch took a mad rush at him and rugby tackled him to the ground. Not a soft belly at all – must’ve been Blondie.

The man moaned in pain and Mitch scrambled to his feet. Down the tunnel, then back up the footpath to the street, leaving these two to poke about in the bushes all they wanted.

No such luck. Baldie, apparently having changed his mind about continuing down the path, grabbed a handful of Mitch’s hair (which also contained part of his right ear) and brought him up to eye level. Before Mitch could recover from the shock and the sharp pain in his scalp/ear and the sense that something fundamental about the world was rotten in a way he could never have imagined, Blondie had pulled himself together and taken hold of Mitch’s arms.

“Right then,” said Baldie. “We won’t hurt you, so long as you don’t struggle.”

“I’m not struggling and you are hurting me,” Mitch forced out through gritted teeth.

Baldie couldn’t argue with the logic of this, so he let go of Mitch’s hair/ear. Then he took a pair of handcuffs from the inner pocket of his jacket, and slipped them onto Mitch’s wrists, locking them tightly.

“Who the fuck are you?” said Mitch, justifiably shitting his pants. (Not literally, I’m sure he’d want me to point out).

“Never mind that. You’re coming with us to meet our colleague.” He had a London accent. Not an Eastenders accent – maybe South London?

“Why?”

“Never mind that. Get walking and stay quiet.”

Baldie stood behind Mitch and gave him a little nudge to get him to move. Mitch, being a stubborn bastard, showed no intention of walking anywhere. Then something hard jabbed him, right in the centre of his spine.

“Is that a gun?”

“Do you want to find out? Move.”

“Does that mean I should move or I’ll find out if it’s a gun, or if I move I’ll find out it’s a gun?”

“What? Just move for fuck’s sake.”

Baldie sounded aggravated. The possibly-a-gun poking him in the back told Mitch that it was best not to annoy him any further.

The three of them picked their way back through the tunnel of gorse and along the footpath, then down a couple of backstreets. As they walked, Mitch tried unsuccessfully to talk himself out of this undesirable situation.

He didn’t have much to offer these two in exchange for his freedom. There was a cheque for £1,745 in his pocket, but he suspected that might not be as much money as he thought it was. Anyway, there was no harm in saving it for later.

He would have to go for the sympathy vote. A long shot, but he had to try. “This has been the worst night of my life,” he whined.

Blondie and Baldie said nothing.

“You want to hear about it?”

“No,” said Baldie.

Mitch was undeterred. “Well, first I got sick from Jägerbombs at Sticky’s. Then I found out that my best friend’s in love with my girlfriend. Then I got chased by you two, obviously, and now I’m in handcuffs. Real ones.”

“Your best friend’s in love with your girlfriend?” said Blondie.

Yep. Before this night, nobody knew I had a thing for April. By the end of it, Mitch, April, Insomniac Dave, a woman with supernatural powers and two heavies with guns were all fully aware of it. Fuck my life.

“Yep, I think he’s properly in love with her. Not just a crush. Then again, it’s hard to tell with Oscar because it seems like he’s incapable of wanting to shag someone without falling arse over teakettle for her. Did you two ever fall out over a girl?”

Blondie made a snorting sound that might’ve been a laugh, and Mitch felt something like relief. They might be armed and enormous, but they were still human.

When they got to the car (a silver people carrier), Blondie went through Mitch’s pockets. His phone was handed over to Baldie and a couple of sweet wrappers were discarded on the ground. They fell into a puddle and Mitch watched them float across the surface like tiny boats, feeling suddenly hopeless.

“Hello, what’s this?” drawled Blondie.

It was the cheque. Blondie showed it to Baldie, who muttered “Could be useful, if this doesn’t work.”

Blondie slipped it into his pocket, then put a gigantic hand on Mitch’s head and forced him to duck into the car. There were three seats in the front, and Mitch shuffled along to the one furthest from the driver’s seat. There were child locks on the doors. Blondie drove and Baldie sat in the middle, not saying anything and giving off menacing vibes. The car moved smoothly and quietly through the night.

“So who’s this colleague I’ve got to meet?” Mitch asked, trying to keep his voice steady.

“That’s a stupid question,” said Baldie, causing Mitch to mutter “Rude.” under his breath.

“Think about it,” Baldie continued. “Would a name mean anything to you? No. She’s not a bloody celebrity.”

“I wasn’t asking for a name,” said Mitch, “Just give me a hint about who I’m meeting. It can’t do you any harm, can it?”

“Do yourself a favour and shut your trap.”

“If you two don’t stop arguing,” Blondie interjected in a stern voice, “I will stop this car and we won’t go anywhere until you can be nice to each other.”

Mitch stared open-mouthed at Blondie until he smiled a slow, reptilian smile and Mitch realised he was joking. Baldie huffed an irritated little sigh and pressed his lips together, like he was 100% done with everything.

“Her name’s Evelyn,” said Blondie. Baldie shot him a dirty look and Blondie responded with “What? It’s just a name, not like it matters.”

“Evelyn,” Mitch repeated the name and could hear the fear in his own voice, warping each syllable so that the name sounded weird and alien.

“Used to call her The Leg Breaker, a few years ago. Not to her face, obviously. Now no-one even calls her that behind her back – it’s just Evelyn.”

“Why did they call her The Leg Breaker?”

“Have a guess.”

Mitch was just about holding it together at this point. He was visibly shaking, though, and Baldie said, “Come on, you’re being cruel.”

“I’m bored,” said Blondie, and he did sound bored.

“Put the bloody radio on. Not Radio One though. Or Radio Four. Or Heart.”

It wasn’t a long drive. When they got to the warehouse, Mitch’s mind flooded with horror-movie images. The urge to run was so strong that it must have shown on his face, because Blondie and Baldie were even more careful now – standing shoulder to shoulder as Blondie opened his door, so that he couldn’t slip past them. They took him by the arms and frogmarched him to the door of the warehouse. Baldie knocked sharply, and they waited. They waited for a very short time that felt like an eternity, and the door opened to reveal a woman who wasn’t what Mitch had expected.

She looked Mitch up and down, then nodded, then made another gesture with her head that seemed to mean, “Bring him inside.” The heavies obeyed this silent command and took Mitch to the side of the vast space inside the warehouse.

“Have a seat,” said Blondie, as he and Baldie pushed him onto a battered old computer chair.

Baldie started fiddling with the handcuffs, as Evelyn’s voice rang out, echoey but still clear. “I trust you were discreet.”

“We were,” Blondie assured her.

“Good. Anyone for coffee?”

Rescuing Mitch

My legs were starting to ache. A thin drizzle was falling, and me and Nina were silent. I tried not to think of what Evelyn might do to Mitch if we didn’t show up soon. I tried not to think of what she might do to Nina when we did show up. I tried to think, instead, of how to get the best possible outcome from the situation – namely, freeing Mitch and ensuring that any workplace discipline meted out to Nina consisted of a written warning or being put on probation or something.

“Why do you think the agency got Evelyn to come and get you?” I asked, reasoning that I ought to find out more about this woman.

“No idea. I don’t know her anymore. Probably just because she’s good at her job and gets results.”

Nina’s phone rang. We kept walking as she answered it, never dropping our pace.

“Just calling to check in,” said Evelyn. “What’s your ETA?”

Nina shot me a questioning look.

“Fifteen, twenty minutes,” I said, leaning towards the phone.

“Is it fifteen or twenty?”

There was the slightest trace of impatience in Evelyn’s voice, and it wound me up.

“What, are you on a tight schedule? Do you have other people to kidnap tonight? Let me talk to Mitch.”

“What’s the magic word?”

“Please!”

The screen moved from Evelyn to Mitch. This time I could see that he was seated on a computer chair with his hands behind his back – possibly handcuffed.

“Hey, sorry for pickpocketing you earlier.”

“I really don’t care about that right now.”

“Well the thing is, they went through my pockets and took the cheque. So, err…”

“They? How many are there?”

“Three. There are two big blokes over there.” Mitch gestured with his head.

“That’s right,” Evelyn’s disembodied voice confirmed. “And I can have more back-up here within minutes if I feel the need for it, so I sincerely hope you aren’t planning any funny business.”

Mitch leaned forwards, looking properly scared for the first time. “You have to get me out of here, these people are crazy. Like, they made me a coffee but they won’t let me hold it. The woman just holds it in front of my face asking me if I want it or not, and I’m ninety nine per cent sure that if I say yes she’ll throw it in my face. Also, her two heavies have guns.”

“That’s enough of that,” said Evelyn. “Just to re-iterate – no funny business. We’re in warehouse two.”

The screen went blank.

“Did Mitch say something about guns? After all that bollocks about the coffee?”

“Yep. He said Evelyn’s heavies have them.”

Nina’s mouth was set in a grim line, as if she’d expected as much. I sure as hell hadn’t. Why would anyone have a gun in East Twithering? It was so fucking inappropriate. If I’d been scared for Mitch before, I was terrified now. He can talk his way out of most situations, but clearly not this one. He was going to get properly scared, and on the rare occasions that Mitch was properly scared, he got reckless. The chances of him doing something incredibly stupid were about fifty-fifty.

I explained this to Nina, but she just looked at me quizzically and said, “What’s it even like to know someone that well?”

The question threw me. “We’ve been friends a long time,” I said, as if that was an answer.

For a fragment of a fraction of a second, I thought Nina must be very lonely, and I felt bad for her.

Warehouse 2

People say the darkest hour is just before the dawn, but I always thought they were speaking metaphorically. Out in the scrubland, with no streetlamps, the darkness was thick as soup and the feeble light from my phone hardly made a difference. All around us, the shrubs and stunted trees, deformed by constant coastal winds, seemed to whisper malevolent things. I had that cold, slimy feeling of being watched.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got any weapons in that handbag?” I said, half-jokingly.

Nina held my wrist with one hand and used the other to open her bag and peer inside. “What do you want?”

I thought of what Mitch had said about Evelyn’s heavies. “A gun.” The word tasted bad.

“Can you be more specific?” said Nina, still holding my wrist and staring into her handbag.

I thought of every shoot ‘em up Xbox game I had ever played, and every movie and TV show where people got shot. Names and images of different guns drifted through my brain but I couldn’t match them up. I imagined actually pulling an actual trigger. Watching someone fall with a hole torn through him.

“It’s not working,” said Nina.

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t want one.” She sounded pissed off – like it was very inconsiderate of me not to want a gun.

I picked up a fairly large, sharp-edged stone from the ground and stashed it in the pocket of my jeans.

The warehouses loomed in the distance. My mum used to work in one of them before it got shut down and everyone was made redundant. I’d walked past them before and reflected that if they were in a city, they would have been turned into art galleries or something, but here they just rotted away unused. Still, there was something beautiful about them, with the vines growing through broken windows. Like they were being reclaimed by nature. I’d thought about sketching them but never got around to it.

Warehouse 2 was easy to spot, since it was the one with light spilling out of the windows. Nina quickened her pace, like she wanted to get it over with.

“You can still get out of this, you know. He’s my friend, not yours. You could just turn around and run and keep running.”

“I know.”

She knocked on the door – five quick, harsh knocks. I could feel my heart beating in time with her fist.

The door opened, revealing a man who was probably over 6’5”, and looked like a Viking. Well, he didn’t have a horned helmet or anything, but he looked like he had those kind of Scandinavian genes. Blonde hair, slicked back, and very pale blue eyes. He was wearing a suit, and I noticed the handle of what might’ve been a gun protruding from his pocket. People didn’t keep guns in their pockets, did they? What if they accidentally blew their balls off?

“Come in,” he said, and stepped aside.

The warehouse was flooded with fluorescent light, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust. It was a vast space, and our footsteps echoed on the bare concrete floor. Looking back, Evelyn and her heavies didn’t have much of a flare for drama. They could’ve put Mitch, handcuffed and helpless, in the centre of the room, then emerged menacingly from the shadows as me and Nina rushed forward. That’s how it would’ve been in a movie.

Instead, Mitch was positioned (still seated on the old, battered-looking computer chair) at the side of the room, handcuffed to a radiator. To his left was Evelyn, straight-backed and blank-faced. To his right was a man who was about as tall as the Viking and just as wide in the shoulders, but with a soft, paunchy tummy. His bald head and the way he stood there with his arms crossed made him look like a bouncer.

“Oscar Goldberg, I presume?” said Evelyn.

Nina and I exchanged confused glances. I hadn’t been expecting Evelyn to talk to me, and her attention was an unwelcome spotlight.

“Who wants to know?”

“Please don’t talk like a drug dealer.”

To Evelyn’s left was a table – the kind with the folding metal legs that they use in school halls at lunch time. Sure enough, there was a coffee pot and a couple of mugs on it (Mitch didn’t look wet or scalded, so I guessed she hadn’t used it as a weapon like he thought she might) along with a small, black briefcase.

She opened the briefcase and pulled out what looked like a Kindle.

“I’m perfectly aware that you’re Oscar Goldberg. Your friend here is quite the expert at talking around a subject, but no matter. I have a lot of information on you right here.”

I felt light headed as she read aloud, her voice as calm and even as if she were reading a shopping list.

“10th August 2006, Oscar Goldberg falls out of a tree he is attempting to climb and breaks his collarbone. 22nd April 2011, Oscar Goldberg vomits on the school football pitch during a PE lesson. 03rd February 2013, Oscar Goldberg’s mother drives him to St. Anthony’s Hospital to say goodbye to his dying paternal grandfather. Finding a place to park takes seventeen minutes. When they arrive at Oscar’s grandfather’s room, Oscar’s father informs him that the old man passed away five minutes ago. Why do you think these things happened, Oscar?”

I could feel their hands on me. People in crowds, or pressed against me on a bus, or bumping into me in some corridor, quick as a pickpocket.

“Your people,” I said, though the words didn’t come easily because it was difficult to breathe. “You lot made them happen.”

“I was asking why, not how.”

“How should I know? I only found out you lot existed a few hours ago, I’ve got no idea what your fucking Documents are all about.”

She closed her eyes. I got the impression she was counting to ten, trying to keep her temper.

“Perhaps I phrased that wrong. Before tonight, Oscar, why did you think those things happened? Did you think you were being tested? Or punished, maybe? Did you think, perhaps, that all the negative experiences you went through had a purpose – to teach you something, or make you stronger?”

I risked a glance at Mitch, who had a “What the actual fuck?” look on his face. I gave him a look that hopefully said “I’ll explain later.”

“Well?”

There didn’t seem any harm in telling her. “Actually, I always sort of thought I was cursed.”

She sighed. “How teenage. Age and religion please.”

“Nineteen. Jewish.”

She had picked up a small notebook from the briefcase and was writing something down – my answers, presumably. “Did you take a Philosophy A level by any chance?”

“No.”

“Right.” She put the notebook back in the briefcase and turned to look at me like a cat looks at a mouse.

Actually, looking back, I’m not sure she did. It doesn’t sound like her. Like Nina said, she was all business and didn’t seem to take any pleasure in what she did.

“Sorry about the note taking but I don’t usually get to ask these questions. Most of our work is covert.”

“Seriously? You mean you don’t tell people you’re going to make shit things happen to them?”

I shouldn’t have got snarky with her. Her body language changed in an instant – before, it had been all prim and proper like she had a stick up her arse, but now she seemed to be made of steel.

“All right then,” she said, “Full disclosure – something bad is about to happen to you, Oscar Goldberg. I’m sorry for all this fuss, but you weren’t where you were supposed to be earlier tonight so I had to make the best of the situation. Come with us out to the car please, we’re going for a drive.”

“He’s not going anywhere with you,” said Nina.

“I think you’ll find he is,” said Evelyn. “I’m not deviating from the plan because of some sloppy amateur’s feelings for a mark. And by the way, you’re coming with us too.”

“Feelings?!” Nina spat.

I felt kind of offended that she objected more to the idea of having feelings for me than to being called a sloppy amateur.

“Is anyone planning on un-cuffing me?” said Mitch, shaking the handcuffs and sounding annoyed that everyone seemed to have forgotten him.

“Of course. You’ll be free to go, you’re of no concern to me,” said Evelyn.

“I’m not just going to bugger off home while you drive away with my best mate am I? I’m coming with you.”

In a less frightening, possibly life-threatening situation, I probably would’ve got the warm fuzzies at this point. This was prevented by mental images of the guns in the heavies’ pockets.

“None of us are going anywhere with you,” I said, trying to sound firm.

“All right. If you don’t come out to the car with us, I will hurt your friend.”

I saw Mitch look doubtfully at her. She was tall for a woman, especially in her sensible heels, but skinny and frail-looking.

“What, literally you? Not your … henchmen?”

Evelyn ignored him and carried on speaking to me. “You know I can hurt him in ways a normal person never could. Do you want to see that happen to your friend, knowing it’s your fault for being so uncooperative?”

Once again, I resorted to ill-advised sarcasm. It’s a defence mechanism. “What are you going to do exactly? Make him get food poisoning in two weeks’ time? Make him cut his hand on a bread knife next month?”

She took a few slow, measured steps towards Mitch. When she spoke, she didn’t bother turning around to face me.

“It’s understandable if you think our powers are that limited – you’ve been spending time with someone very inexperienced. Perhaps I should show you what I’m capable of.”

She reached out and put a hand on the top of Mitch’s head. Instinctively, he pulled away and I saw him bare his teeth like an animal, but she grabbed a handful of his hair and held on.

“Interesting tattoo,” she mused, sounding perfectly calm. “Not a real one, is it?”

Mitch’s eyes went wide and he made a strangled noise at the back of his throat. I followed his gaze, down his arm to the picture of a Black Widow spider I’d drawn earlier. It was no longer a picture.

The spider was dragging its fat, black abdomen up Mitch’s forearm and for a second, all I could think was why didn’t the idiot let me draw a Mexican red knee instead? All I knew about black widows was that they were venomous. Could a bite kill you? Could a bite kill Mitch?

Obviously, I wasn’t keen to find out so I charged forward with the intention of knocking the disgusting thing to the ground and stamping on it. The Viking stopped me. Stepped swiftly in front of me and grabbed my arms. When I tried to knee him in the balls, he slipped behind me and put me in a headlock.

“Settle, Petal,” he drawled. At this point, I went a bit mental, thrashing about and kicking at his shins and trying to get at the sharp stone in my pocket. I think I would’ve gouged his eyes out given the opportunity. His response was to flex a muscle in his forearm, which cut my breath off almost instantly. I struggled, frantic, hearing that shrill ring you hear when you’re going to pass out, and I thought – Is this the something bad? Is this my last bit of bad luck? Am I going to be killed by some fucking gym bunny’s fucking forearm?

The bright room darkened. I heard Mitch shouting under the ringing noise, then a sharper voice that might’ve said “Enough.”

The pressure against my throat disappeared and I flopped forwards before being pulled upright again. The Viking shoved his hand in my pocket and pulled out the stone. I heard it clatter on the floor. As my vision gradually returned, I saw Mitch straining against his handcuffs like a mad dog on a chain. The black widow that had crawled along his arm was just a doodle again.

Nina. Where was Nina? The Viking had his arm across my chest, but I could turn my head at least. The Bouncer had her by the arms. Her body was rigid and her face gave nothing away. I tried to say “Let her go” but my voice was a scratchy whisper.

Evelyn stood in front of me, and said, “Why make a scene, Oscar? Just accept this and it won’t be so bad. Now let’s go and get in the car.”

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #71 and #72

Exactly a week after I bought my first car, I had a minor crash. It happened at a blind junction, where Hopkins Road joins Landy Lane and the hedges are overgrown. The other driver involved was an eighty-two year old man. Fortunately, both of us were driving pretty slowly – me because my car was brand new (well, second-hand, but brand new to me) and him, presumably, because he was eighty-fucking-two. So neither of us were really hurt, but the front of my car was destroyed.

I had escaped with nothing worse than a sore neck and a sudden awareness of my own mortality. After a couple of days, though, I started to wish I’d received some minor injury rather than the mortality thing.

It became the first thing I thought of when I woke up each morning. Well, the second thing because the first was always about finding the snooze button without opening my eyes. So mornings went like this:-

Where the fuck is the fucking snooze button? … I could die today. I could get run over crossing the road or fall down the stairs and break my neck.

It took a few drinks, and the cosy familiarity of The Chandler’s Arms, but I eventually admitted my new-found paranoia to Mitch.

“Why don’t you just try thinking of something else?” was his inspired suggestion.

“Oh wow, I never thought of that!”

Mitch assures me that when I get totally and completely wasted, I actually lose the ability to be sarcastic, no matter how stupid someone is being. I have to take his word for this because if I get totally and completely wasted, I can never remember anything in the morning. This obviously wasn’t one of those occasions.

“No, seriously. Every time you start thinking about death, just switch it around. You have to purposely think of something nice, like … boobs.”

“I don’t want to be thinking about death and boobs all the time, it’ll mess me up.”

At this point, Mitch started making some really bad-taste necrophilia jokes (not that there are any good-taste necrophilia jokes that I know of) and my brief attempt at a serious conversation was buried.

Mitch dug it up a while later, when the alcohol-induced dizziness had got to him and he was resting his head on the table, looking all pale and forlorn. “If you did die tomorrow, what do you think you’d regret?”

I thought, automatically, of April. They say you always regret not telling people how you feel about them. Still, that whole business of living each day as if it’s your last one is obviously bullshit. If each day was your last day, you probably wouldn’t even bother brushing your teeth, let alone going to work.

The next day, I woke up with a hangover and two resolutions. The first was to get an organ donor’s card, and the second was to get a tattoo. The organ donor’s card was easy enough, but tattoos were trickier. Deciding on a design was the first hurdle – I spent about a month drawing all over myself with different coloured biros, just testing out ideas. When I finally settled on sea snakes, the logistics of getting tattooed became an issue. East Twithering is too small and full of old people to have a tattoo parlour, so I had to go to Weymouth to get it done. I also had to pretend I was going to Weymouth to meet up with friends, because if my mum found out I was planning on getting a tattoo, she would’ve gone apeshit.

The bus ride was about forty-five minutes and I was bricking it the whole time. I’m not too bad with needles so it wasn’t really the pain I was worried about. I was more worried that I was making a mistake and that this mistake would be right there on my arm, every day for the rest of my life. What if I ended up hating the tattoo, and hating my arms by extension? Which was more important? Having no regrets if you got hit by a car and died young, or having no strong negative feelings about your arms if you lived long enough to get wrinkly?

I did what I usually do when having a mental crisis, which is text Mitch and give him an opportunity to take the piss. Then I either realise I’m being daft, or I get annoyed with him and it takes my mind off whatever I’m obsessing about.

Am on bus on way to tattoo parlour but thinking of backing out.

It’s just nerves, you’ll be fine.

It’s not the pain, I’m just worried it’ll be crap.

Stop worrying!

You might as well say stop breathing.

Carp diem!

It’s carpe diem. Carp is a fish.

Whatever : P

Since Mitch wasn’t taking the piss like I’d hoped he would, I had to sit there and stew for the rest of the bus ride. By the time I got to Weymouth, I’d decided that no regrets if I died young was more important than being free from dodgy tattoos if I got old.

The tattoo parlour was called “Hawthorn & Son Tattoos and Piercings” and I’d chosen it mostly because the idea of a dad handing down a tattoo and piercing business to his son was funny. Inside, it was reassuringly clean, and though it sounded like a dentist’s surgery, at least I couldn’t hear anyone screaming.

I took the folded piece of paper with my agonised-over design on it out of my jeans pocket and gave it to a woman called Anouska, who traced it swiftly. Then she took me into a tiny, windowless room and cleaned my arms with things that looked like wet wipes but smelled like cheap vodka. Her fingers were very cold. Then she stuck a vibrating needle in me and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been worried about the pain.

When it was over, I was euphoric with relief. The snakes actually looked how I’d hoped they would, and they would probably look even better when I’d stopped bleeding. Anouska cleaned my arms and wrapped them in cling film, then sent me on my way. Leaving the tattoo parlour, I felt light-headed and happy. Then I crossed the road too near the corner, without looking properly, and got hit by a car.

The car had been crawling around the corner, so it only bumped me. But being bumped by something made of metal that weighs about twenty-five times as much as you is no joke. It slammed into my hip and knocked me sideways onto the bonnet. The driver was a freaked-out looking girl, about my age. I shouted “Watch where you’re going!” at her as I stumbled off the bonnet of the car. She seemed to be shouting the same thing at me.

As I made my jittery, unsteady way back to the bus station (via a newsagents, because a combination of blood loss and shock had put me in dire need of a mars bar), I started fuming with frustration.

If that car had been driving fast enough to kill me, having seized the day and got a tattoo wouldn’t have made a shred of difference. OK, so that’s one less regret, but dying at eighteen has got to be such a massive, all-encompassing regret that any non-regrets are pretty pathetic in comparison. So that was it – I was now certain there was no getting over my fear of death.

On the bright side, I no longer felt any pressure to go skydiving or hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu or do any of those “things to do before you die”. Because death makes worm food of us all, regardless of how much crap we’ve ticked off our bucket lists. It’s a great equaliser. Like Gran always says, “Everyone shits themselves at the end. Even royalty.”

Drive

We all piled into the people carrier. Viking drove, and Evelyn and Mitch sat with him in the front. Evelyn wanted Mitch there in case I wouldn’t co-operate – basically he was someone to threaten, and less than thrilled with his role in the proceedings. Me and Nina sat in the back, either side of Bouncer. The doors were child-locked. Bouncer seemed to have an identical gun to Viking, judging by the handle that protruded from his pocket. He touched it lightly, every thirty seconds or so.

Mitch was talking. He couldn’t accept the fact that nobody would tell him where we were going, so he kept making suggestions, like it was a game of Twenty Questions. “Can you just narrow it down a bit? Is it an inside place or an outside place? Is it outside East Twithering? Is it a pub? Please say it’s a pub because I need a drink more than I’ve ever needed a drink in my entire fucking life.”

Nobody said anything, but at some of the more ridiculous suggestions I could see Viking fighting his facial muscles, trying not to smile. After a while, I twigged that Mitch was trying to get the guy to like him. I didn’t expect that to help our situation, but it sure as hell couldn’t hurt it. Maybe I should try getting Bouncer on my side.

“How long have you been working for her?” I nodded at the back of Evelyn’s head, trying to look sympathetic, like I knew how it was to have a psychopath with supernatural powers for a boss.

“I don’t work for her, I work for the agency. So does she.”

Well, that backfired.

“What’s your name?” asked Nina. “I don’t think we’ve met before.”

“Dave.”

Too many Daves. I decided to keep calling him Bouncer in my head.

“Don’t get too chatty back there, please,” said Evelyn.

With her hair done up like that, I could see her tattoo clearly: 735235B. How many of them were there? Was there once a 1A and a 1B? For how long had these people been manipulating other people’s lives, and how did it all start? Were there agencies like this all over the world? Was there anywhere you could be safe from them?

I had a metric fuckload of questions and the bone-chilling feeling that I had a very limited amount of time in which to find out the answers. Still, I actually felt weirdly calm. Detached, maybe. There was a coldness seeping through me that left no room for panic.

If this was my last night on Earth, what would I regret? They say you always regret not telling people how you feel about them, so it was pretty clear what I had to do. I moved slowly but obviously, so Bouncer didn’t get spooked or trigger-happy. He watched me take the phone out of my pocket with a look of mild curiosity, then stared at the screen as I texted, reading out the words for Evelyn’s benefit.

“Mum I love you sooooooooooo much and tell Dad I love him loads too and hug the cats for me and I’m not drunk. But he’s spelt drunk d-r-n-u-k.”

From Bouncer’s other side, Nina shot me a quizzical look. I shrugged, and sent the text.

“They’d get suspicious if I didn’t seem drunk. And there’s no sense in worrying them, in case…”

In case they woke up in a few hours and I was tucked up in bed, sleeping off the weirdest night out in the history of nights out.

“See, I told you you were an optimist.” Nina said, smiling. I didn’t have the energy to smile back.

We drove in silence for a couple of minutes. Even Mitch had given up his charm offensive on Viking. When Evelyn spoke, her voice was very quiet, but still clear.

“I know we’re not exactly friends these days Nina, but I have to say I’m a little disappointed in you.”

“Disappointed?” Nina continued looking out of the window, though we were driving along a road with no streetlamps, so there was nothing to see but darkness.

“You were always talented. If you’d only been more focussed you could’ve worked your way right to the top of Branch A. You could’ve done amazing things. Made so many wonderful things happen to people.”

“Well, you’re making bad things happen to people, so what’s with the whole employee-of-the-month thing you’re doing? I know your side have good counsellors but they haven’t convinced you it’s all worthwhile, I know they haven’t. You’re not that stupid.”

“Thank you,” Evelyn said, in a voice that contained the tiniest smidge of sarcasm.

“So why don’t you do something? I’m not saying start the revolution; I’m just saying … I don’t know, do something. Prove you’ve got a mind of your own, because I know you have.”

For the first time, Evelyn twisted round in her seat. She looked at Nina, and if looks could kill… well, this wasn’t a killing look actually. It was a take-you-by-the-shoulders-and-shake-you-until-you-see-sense look. “Don’t you want to understand it all? The Documents, the things we have to do. Don’t you want to know?”

I could see Nina digging her nails into her palms. She seemed to be shaking slightly – whether with fear or anger or something else, I didn’t know. She leant towards Evelyn and spoke very deliberately. “They will never tell you. Never.”

“You think I expect them to?” Evelyn turned herself slowly to face forwards again. “I’m doing my own research. And in the meantime, I do what I have to.”

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #49

When I was a kid, I had a new idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up every other week. Amongst other things, I wanted to be a spy, an astronaut, a dentist(!), a detective, a guitarist and a cartoonist. In Year 9, when we had to pick GCSE options and have meetings with the careers adviser and all that, imagining the future suddenly became less fun. I had no real idea of what I wanted, except that I didn’t want to be bored for eight hours of the day for five days of the week for forty-five years of my life. I also didn’t want to do something useless, like selling people shit they didn’t need.

This was all I had to go on until I was seventeen and decided I wanted to be a medical illustrator. Not the most obvious choice (that was kind of the point) but I had a couple of beautiful old anatomical prints that I’d found in a charity shop, and I liked the mental image of some mysterious artist sketching them by candlelight in a garret.

When I say they were anatomical drawings, that’s not a euphemism. They weren’t naked ladies – they were skeletons and a man with an exposed chest cavity and a gorgeous scale drawing of the heart.

“When I was your age I had a big old poster of Kate Moss on my wall,” my dad once said, looking at the pictures on my bedroom wall with a “Why is my son such a weirdo?” expression.

“Models are even skinnier these days,” I said, pointing at the skeleton picture while Dad shook his head with a “Well, at least he’s got some chutzpah.” look.

I had it all planned out. I would work freelance, so I’d be free to travel wherever, and maybe I could specialise in something cool like forensic reconstruction. I mentioned this to Mr Hobbs, my Biology teacher, and he got all enthusiastic about it.

I had sort of a man-crush on Mr Hobbs. Usually with teachers, either I liked them but they didn’t like me, or they liked me but I didn’t like them. But me and Mr Hobbs actually clicked. He was in his early thirties, I think, and he had heavily pierced ears and wore tee-shirts with geeky slogans on them. He taught our class the chat-up line “If I could be any enzyme in the world, I’d pick DNA Helicase, so I could unzip your genes” and promised a fiver to anyone who used it successfully (though he never defined what “successfully” meant).

Mr Hobbs said that medical illustration was a competitive field, but an interesting one. “It’s all about communication,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t make the right connections in someone’s mind with nothing but words.”

For the first time in three years, I felt really positive about career stuff. But then events transpired to make my plan seem as ridiculous as wanting to be an astronaut.

When Mr Hobbs said we were going to be dissecting rats, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I wasn’t squeamish, and we’d already done plenty of other gross stuff in his class. We’d dissected locusts and drawn diagrams of their innards. We’d dumped handfuls of maggots into plastic trays divided into different sections, to see whether they preferred light or dark places. Once, Mr Hobbs brought a pair of pig lungs into class and used a balloon pump to make them inflate. So at this point, it seemed like just another biology lesson.

The rats were handed out, and I examined mine dispassionately. It was on its back, with its front paws up in the air and its long belly exposed for the first incision. With no particular feeling, I wondered what this rat’s life had been like. They were bred in a laboratory, I knew that much. It would have eaten pellets and had its cage cleaned and maybe bitten the odd researcher. Was that it?

It occurred to me that I didn’t know much about rats. Could they … could they choose to do things? Simple things, like where to scamper to or when to eat or which other rat to fight with or mate with? Because other mammals could make choices, that much was obvious. A cat could choose to come up to you and nuzzle your legs, or turn away disdainfully and show you his arsehole. That wasn’t just instinct, surely. And if this rat had any choices, they’d all been taken away so I could cut it open.

“Had a big lunch?” said Mr Hobbs, looking over my right shoulder at the untouched rat.

“I think I’m having an ethical dilemma,” I admitted.

“Shit, it’s always the rats.” He pulled a stool out from under then bench and sat next to me. “This never happens with the locusts.”

“Well, rats are different.”

“Why?” Mr Hobbs was a big fan of learning-by-doing, and he didn’t like people sitting out practical lessons.

“They’re more intelligent.”

“Sentient.” He corrected. “Intelligence is what makes one dog quicker at learning tricks than another dog. Sentience is what makes dogs different from insects.”

“OK, so rats are sentient. They’re not just little furry machines, they’ve got, like, free will and stuff. And we’re taking all of that away so we can cut them open.”

“And learn about their anatomy and become better scientists. Look, are you a vegetarian?”

“No.”

“Then I hate to break it to you, but you’re eating sentient animals all the time. How is this different?”

I could feel my face heating up. If there was one thing Mr Hobbs hated, it was lazy, sentimental thinking about animals. So I hated it too, and I hated not being able to explain. “I know it’s not different, but I’m not dissecting it.”

“You’re going to have to get over this if you want to be a medical illustrator. You have to learn to be more detached.”

I was pissed off now. I think I was more pissed off with myself than Mr Hobbs, but all that frustration needed a place to go. “I don’t want to be detached. And I’m not dissecting this bloody thing, just put it back in the freezer. Someone else can have it.”

He held up his hands with a ‘Well, I tried” look, then took the rat away.

So that put my goal of becoming a medical illustrator on ice. I tried becoming a vegetarian, but only lasted two and a half weeks because, you know, bacon.

Well, We Tried

It wasn’t a long drive. It seemed longer because of all the terror, and the fact that the people carrier was practically crawling along narrow, unlit roads, then something that was more of a dirt track than a road. Still, it was dawn by the time we got there. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but it was already diluting the darkness with its weak, watery light. You can never tell, at that hour, whether it’s going to be a nice day or not, but my money was on not. A dripping dampness hung over everything and it looked like summer was over.

We were at Teasel Cliff. Not far from home actually – about a fifteen-minute walk. I’d been here before, a few times. Picnics when I was a kid.

I felt totally helpless. I felt nothing. When Evelyn told me to get out of the car, I did as I was told without hesitation. No need for Bouncer to take that gun out of his pocket. No sense in making a fuss. Bouncer followed me out of the car, then ushered me round the back of it and to the other side, where Nina was emerging. Our eyes met, and something weird happened. I think it was like one of those telepathic conversations you can have with someone you’ve known for a really long time. Only there were no words, just a feeling. We silently agreed that we needed to take something for ourselves. Destiny might be out of our hands, but we needed some tiny, insignificant part of it.

So we kissed. If you can call it a kiss – it was more like a clumsy mashing together of faces. I pushed her against the car and she held the sides of my face and her hands burnt my cheeks.

“None of that,” said Bouncer. He dragged me away from Nina by my collar, like we were a couple of thirteen-year-olds caught snogging behind the bike sheds.

Mitch looked gobsmacked. Viking was smirking – he seemed to find everything amusing.

“If you’ve got that out of your system,” said Evelyn, with a withering look, “I suggest you walk. Exactly where I tell you to, and don’t dawdle. If you try to run, I will break several of your friend’s bones. You wouldn’t believe how easy a broken bone is, compared to creating a venomous spider from a two-dimensional drawing.”

We walked. Me and Bouncer in the lead, with Nina and Evelyn behind, side by side. Mitch and Viking trailed behind, and I could hear the clink of metal from Mitch’s handcuffs. We walked through the tangled grass and the mist that was drifting in from the sea. We walked towards the edge of the cliff. 26th August, 2017, Oscar Goldberg falls from Teasel Cliff. I could see it, as clearly as if it were carved into the rock.

They all stopped. Nina stood between Evelyn and Bouncer, perfectly still except for her hair and dress swirling around in the wind. Viking caught Mitch by the shoulders and held him.

“Keep walking, Oscar,” said Evelyn. Her tone was almost encouraging.

“Just run!” yelled Mitch. The desperation in his voice was like a punch to the gut. “Just run, please! I’ll be OK.”

I could have run. I could have easily outrun Evelyn in her sensible heels, and the heavies would have their hands full with Mitch and Nina. I could have escaped. But I decided not to.

“Keep walking,” said Evelyn. Her eyes were black buttons. She put a hand on Mitch’s throat. “I could kill him with one touch, you know. I might have to, if you don’t keep walking.” Her voice trembled. Her face was pale.

“You don’t have to do anything.” In that moment, I actually believed it. And for a couple of seconds, she looked at me like she might actually believe it too.

Slowly, finger by finger, she took her hand away from Mitch’s throat. Then there was a sound like the world ending and the ground beneath me crumbled. By the time I thought of running, I was already falling.

The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg #13

I almost drowned when I was five. Well, I’m not sure how close I actually came to drowning. Maybe I was only underwater for a couple of seconds at a time, but every mishap feels like the end of the world when you’re that young.

I was playing hide and seek with my dad on Lizard Heath, and obviously winning. My dad had a habit of standing behind trees that were much thinner than him.

“One, two, three …”

My turn to hide again.

“… four, five, six …”

Over there. A patch of tall grasses beyond that little green lawn.

“… seven, eight, nine …”

I charged towards it, giddy with the weird joy of being chased.

“… ten, eleven, twelve …”

The little green lawn was not a lawn. Duckweed. A pond, deep and steep-sided.

“… thirteen …”

I couldn’t swim.

“… fourteen …”

I was going to drown.

“… fifteen …”

I kicked desperately. Tried to shout but my mouth filled with duckweed and dirty water.

“… sixteen …”

Dad had to count to twenty. Those were the rules.

“… seventeen … Fuck!”

I saw him running towards me and went under.

Gran says that God is a card shark. Sometimes he bluffs, sometimes it’s a double bluff. I don’t know what she means.

Not Dead Yet

Right, where were we? The edge of Teasel Cliff had collapsed and fallen into the sea, taking me with it. Maybe I hit my head on something, or maybe I just blacked out. Maybe I actually, literally died for a bit. Whichever it is, there is some blank space after the fall. I must have been out for quite a while, because Mitch would’ve had to make his escape from Viking, then run down the winding path to the beach. He was there when I woke up or came back to life.

My senses returned slowly. Salt was the first thing I noticed, though I didn’t know if I was smelling it or tasting it, and if it was salty air or salty water. Then I was vaguely aware of being cold, and then my hearing started to come back. Mitch’s voice, quick and frantic.

“… breathe, come on mate, breathe, please breathe, just breathe, fucking breathe …”

I opened my mouth to say “I am bloody breathing” but nothing came out except sea water.

Next, I was manoeuvred into a sitting position and held upright like a small child while I brought up half the Atlantic Ocean. Seriously, if I’d coughed up a shark it wouldn’t have surprised me. During this coughing fit, my vision slowly came back into focus. I was sitting in a few inches of muddy sea water, with little waves breaking over my legs. There were chunks of cliff in the water.

Finally, the coughing subsided and I slumped back against Mitch. I could feel the chain of the handcuffs against my back, and I could feel him shaking. I thought he was shivering at first, then he got even shakier and it felt like he was having a fit or something so I twisted around.

He was laughing silently. Laughing and crying at the same time, or maybe just laughing so hard he was crying. Either way, there were tears, and there was snot on his upper lip, and he was in more of a state than I’ve ever seen him in. “How the fuck are you alive?” he said, in between giggly sobs.

Nina. She must have kissed enough luck into me to survive a fall from a cliff. Impressive.

“Does it matter?”

“No. Are you all in one piece?”

I was, amazingly. I felt sore all over, but none of my bones were broken and I managed to stand up and stay vertical. The beach was unrecognisable – a jumble of rock, piled high at the base of the now concave cliff, then sloping downwards towards the sea.

Nina stood on a large, flat-topped rock at the water’s edge, and when she saw that I was OK she smiled like the shark that got the biggest, juiciest tuna. A smile of triumph. Behind her, I could see Evelyn and her heavies advancing towards us. Evelyn had taken her shoes off and was holding the pair of them in one hand as she picked her way through the rocks. She moved as if she were drunk, and I even saw her wince in pain as she got closer. I wasn’t afraid of her anymore. Superpower or no superpower, I was still alive and she was getting her feet cut up by her own handiwork.

Me and Mitch walked towards them, splashing through the shallows. Seaweed wrapped around my ankle and I kicked it away. “Take the cuffs off,” I said, gesturing towards Mitch, as soon as we were close enough.

Evelyn nodded almost imperceptibly at Viking. He didn’t seem eager to un-cuff Mitch (he had a red patch on his cheek that I assume was something to do with Mitch’s struggle to escape from him) but he did it anyway.

Then Evelyn gestured wordlessly at Bouncer, who reached an enormous hand into the inner pocket of his enormous jacket and pulled out the Kindle-type thing Evelyn had been reading from earlier. He passed it to Evelyn, who stared at it intently.

“Please,” said Nina. Her voice was small and she sounded drained.

“26th August, 2017, Oscar Goldberg falls from Teasel Cliff,” Evelyn read aloud.

She looked up, and her eyes seemed to be looking right through to the back of my skull. I still wasn’t afraid though. There was something there – maybe it was a long-buried shred of compassion or maybe she just felt secure in the fact that she’d done her job. I had fallen. The fact that I was still alive – maybe that was irrelevant to her.

“You’re free to go.”

“OK. Great. Um … will I be seeing you again?”

She pursed her lips, like a mother whose kid has started asking awkward questions about babies or death, and who doesn’t know how much of that stuff needs to be known.

“You won’t,” she said eventually. That was the last thing on your list.” She turned towards Nina. “You look tired.”

“So do you.”

“I’ll deal with you at a more civilised hour. Do you have somewhere to stay and rest?”

“She can stay with me,” I said.

Evelyn nodded, looking uninterested. I was no longer her concern. Viking stepped towards Nina – one huge stride. He pulled the gun from his pocket and held it to Nina’s ear. I screamed. I hurtled towards Viking and tried to knock the gun from his hand, but it was already done. No noise. Viking laughed at me after pulling the trigger.

There was a tiny bead of blood on Nina’s earlobe. That was all. “Relax, it’s just a tracking device,” she said.

“We can’t have her running off again,” said Evelyn.

I must have gone pale or something, because as Evelyn and the heavies made their laborious way up the beach, Nina stood very close to me and murmured “It’s OK. It’s all OK.”

Home

Me, Mitch and Nina stayed rooted to the spot until Evelyn and the heavies were out of sight. I started to shake. Everything had changed – absolutely everything.

Not quite everything though, because home still existed. “We’re not far from my house,” I said. “Everyone OK to walk?”

“You’re the one who just fell off a cliff – are you OK to walk?” said Mitch, looking incredulous.

I was. Just about. My feet squelched as I hauled my aching, shaking body over the wreck of a beach. The sun was just beginning to rise, and smearing its pale gold light over everything.

When we finally made it to the road, Mitch reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, folded piece of paper and handed it to me without saying anything. It was my cheque from the casino.

“I thought they took it off you.”

“They did, but I took it back.” I guess all the pickpocketing practice paid off. “Sorry I nicked it in the first place. I was just pissed off because of…”

“I know. But you know I’d never…”

“Yeah, I know. More importantly, what the fuck just happened?”

I looked at Nina. She looked back impassively.

“Let’s just get home first.”

By the time we got home, it was light and the street had that expectant air, like it was anticipating the first joggers and dog-walkers any minute now. I dug out my keys – there was a scrap of seaweed in my pocket – and opened the door with a surge of relief that was practically orgasmic.

I discarded my soaking shoes, and while I was peeling off my socks, the cats decided to join us. They ignored me and Mitch completely, wrapping themselves around Nina’s ankles like living legwarmers.

“Pippi and Tiger, this is Nina. Nina, this is Pippi and Tiger.”

Introductions made, the three of us were obviously at a loss for what to do.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Mitch.

“I’m gonna have a quick shower,” I said.

There it was – normality. I went upstairs and showered, rinsing sea salt from my hair and traces of Nina’s lipstick from my face and thawing out my frozen muscles. I counted seven bruises. I felt lucky.

When I went back downstairs and into the kitchen, Mitch and Nina were seated at the table drinking tea and eating chocolate digestives. Well, Nina was. Mitch was holding his mug of tea with white-knuckled hands. There was a chocolate digestive with a bite taken out of it discarded on the table in front of him.

“I’ve just been explaining things to Mitch,” said Nina, looking slightly guilty.

Mitch swivelled his head towards me and stared. He looked distressed and confused and in need of a vodka (no chance of that though, since my mum doesn’t drink these days and my dad only likes cider). It occurred to me that while acceptance of the way things are crept up on me bit by bit, it had obviously hit Mitch all at once.

“I need the two of you to keep this quiet,” said Nina. “I’m in enough trouble already.”

“We won’t say anything,” I promised. “Even if we did, it’s not like anyone would believe us.”

Nina nodded. She drained the last of her tea, set the mug down and stifled a yawn. I pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. “Listen, I feel like I kind of sidestepped what the agency had planned for me, so I just need to know … does that happen a lot? Or am I the first?”

Nina sat there with an elbow resting on the table and her chin in her hand. Her half-closed eyes regarded me lazily. The most subtle of all the subtle smiles danced around the corners of her mouth.

“It happens,” she said, still resting her chin on her palm. “Not a lot, but it happens. People make mad decisions that don’t make any sense, people fall in love with people they never expected to fall for. I suppose there are just things nobody can control, even the agency.”

“And those people, the people who avoid what’s supposed to happen to them … are they OK?”

“I haven’t met enough to generalise, to be honest. But from what I’ve seen, they tend to lead interesting lives.”

“Interesting?”

“Interesting.”

I looked nervously at Mitch, who still looked dazed. I looked back at Nina, who still had that half-sweet half-smile on her face.

“Better get some sleep,” she said, pushing her chair back. “I’ll take the settee if that’s all right.”

Me and Mitch followed her out of the kitchen and into the living room, where she flopped onto the settee unceremoniously and kicked off her shoes. She pulled the fluffy grey throw from the back of the settee over herself as if it were hers. Pippi and Tiger took this as their cue to join her, and they leapt on top of her joyfully. She gathered them both against her, as if they belonged to her as well.

“It’s funny,” she said, eyes already half-closed. “I kept wondering why you were still treading water in this town. I’d forgotten that happiness comes into the equation now and then.”

I watched her close her eyes, and something about her softened, like she was already falling asleep. And just for a moment, I felt all the happiness I’d ever felt in my not-so-crappy life hit me like a wave. There was a surprising amount of it. Growing up by the sea. Parents who actually give a damn. Friends. Love, of one sort or another. Maybe not the kind people are always chasing after, but the other kinds that are just there in the background, making everything better. When I came back to earth, Mitch was looking at me quizzically.

“Weird girl, isn’t she?” I whispered.

“Just a bit. You coming to bed?” The fact that he didn’t even wiggle his eyebrows suggestively showed how exhausted he was. I just nodded and followed him up the stairs. I felt like I could sleep for a hundred years.

The Dream

It might be worth mentioning a dream I had, a couple of months after all this craziness. Mostly I just dream about being naked in public and having to take exams and all the usual stuff, but this was different. It was detailed and vivid and I remember it as well as if it actually happened.

It began with me and Mitch struggling back to Mitch’s house, with Mitch all dizzy and leaning on my shoulder, heavy as a sack of potatoes. Sound familiar? We trudged down Beachcomber Lane, past The Chandler’s Arms, then turned down Catch Road. Halfway along, a silver people carrier slowed to a crawl beside us, tucking itself neatly into the curb. The tinted window rolled down, revealing a thirty-ish woman with ketchup-red hair. I assume you know who this is, but in the dream I didn’t recognise her.

“Are you OK?” she called, presumably to Mitch.

“Yeah, just dizzy.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Wilson Crescent.”

“I’ll give you a lift if you like.”

Me and Mitch looked at each other, as I estimated the likelihood of him throwing up in this woman’s car, and he estimated the likelihood of my strength and patience giving out, causing me to leave him at the side of the road until he sobered up enough to get his balance back. We both came to the same conclusion, and clambered into the woman’s car – me in the front, Mitch in the back.

“Thanks so much,” I said.

“Not a problem,” she said, in a cut-glass accent.

The drive back to Mitch’s was quick, so there wasn’t really time to get chatting. I think the woman introduced herself, but I forgot her name the moment she finished saying it. She said that she had grown up in East Twithering but moved away with her parents at the age of twelve, and now she was back for a few days on business.

“What kind of business?” I asked.

“Do you live nearby?” she asked. “Because I could always drop you off as well if it’s not too far.”

“I live on St. Nicholas Street”

“Lovely. Not far at all. It’s strange, driving around a place you’re so accustomed to walking around. It makes you realise how small it is. Very short roads.”

A minute or so later, we were at Mitch’s. “Thanks for the lift, you’re a real lifesaver,” he said to the woman.

I’d forgotten her name already.

“Don’t mention it,” she said.

“See ya, mate,” he said to me, and ruffled my hair.

He started doing that years ago, literally the minute he got taller than me. I watched him stagger to the front door, then fish around in his pockets for his keys. Miraculously, he actually had them. He disappeared into the darkened hallway.

“Oh dear, he’s messed your hair up,” said the woman. I was about to say that it was always messy, and he probably hadn’t made any significant difference to it, but she was already trying to smooth it down. I wondered if she was a mum. “I always wanted curly hair when I was a child,” she said, sounding absent-minded. As she started the car again and pulled out of the drive, a wave of drowsiness washed over me. It was warm in the car, and the engine purred in a soothing way.

Then there is a gap. Maybe I fell asleep in the dream, or maybe it just jumped to a different place, as dreams are entitled to do. Anyway, the car was parked on the narrow road that leads up Teasel Cliff and the woman beside me was peering out into the darkness. She sighed. “I must have taken a wrong turning.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not far. If you can do a three point turn, I’ll direct you.”

The woman turned the key in the ignition and tried to start the car. There was a whirring, wheezing noise, but it wouldn’t start. “Oh dear,” she said, in a mild voice. She made another attempt at starting the car, then another. She might have tried for ten seconds or an hour – I wouldn’t know. I felt weird. Sleepy, without feeling tired. Like my body could have walked for miles without a pause, but my brain was too knackered to remember my own name. I sat there and waited for something to happen.

Eventually, the woman gave up on trying to start the car. “Right, I’ll call the AA,” she announced, and reached under her seat where she’d stashed her handbag. A brief, business-like conversation. Then she dropped the phone back into her bag. “They’ll be a while. Shall we get some fresh air? You look awfully drowsy.” I’d never heard someone say the word “awfully” before. It made me think of boarding schools.

The two of us got out of the car, and walked side-by-side along the road, then along a footpath, then through the long, wild grass of the clifftop. The woman lit the way with a torch she’d produced from her handbag. I didn’t know which of us was leading and which was following.

We stopped, not far from the cliff’s edge, and sat down side-by-side, looking out to sea. Moonlight shone on the water and made a road leading into the sky. East Twithering might be small and dull and falling in the sea, but at least it has things like this.

The woman pulled a thermos out of her handbag – seriously, what else did she have in there? And poured herself a cup of coffee. It smelled amazing. She handed me the thermos without me even having to ask, and I drank deeply.

“Interesting tattoo,” she said, holding her little plastic coffee cup in both hands and nodding towards my wrist. The head of one of my snakes was peeking out from the sleeve of my jacket.

“I got them done about a year ago. I like them but I’m not sure if they suit me. Mitch says I’ll grow into them, and I can’t tell if he’s taking the piss – you know, ‘cause I’m a short-arse – or if he means they’ll suit me more when I’m older and I look like a proper grown-up.”

My voice sounded slurred, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t meant to say all that. Maybe it was the moonlight. Maybe it was being alone in the moonlight with a woman – not a teenage girl, but an actual woman – and not understanding what was happening.

“Tell me, Oscar, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Had I even told her my name? While I was casting my mind back over our previous, pretty limited conversation, my mouth answered the question for me. “I don’t know. I wish I did, but all I know is that I want to do something. Not just drift along doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do in the order you’re supposed to do it in because that’s easier than thinking. I’d like the world to be different somehow, when I’ve left it.”

“Different in a good way?”

“That’s for other people to decide, isn’t it?”

She sipped her coffee and looked thoughtful. “Troublemaker. Maybe that’s why.” The words were very quiet, and she seemed to say them without opening her mouth. Not that weird, really, since it was a dream.

I stared at her, as she drank her coffee demurely and pretended not to notice. When she finally looked at me, she smiled. I think it was a sad smile, but it was difficult to tell in the darkness. She put a hand on my knee and squeezed it gently.

Cold. Cold all over, so sudden and so intense that it took the air out of my lungs. Something was badly wrong. I had to get away from her. I scrambled to my feet and ran.

“Where are you going?”

Anywhere. Home. Just away. I tripped on the uneven ground but stumbled on. The darkness had thickened – all I could see was the stripe of moonlight, leading up into the sky. I ran towards it until the ground disappeared beneath me, and woke up halfway through the fall.

The Morning After

I only slept for a few hours, because it was actually still morning (just about) when I woke up. The first thing I was aware of was Bohemian Rhapsody drifting up through the floor from the kitchen radio. The second thing I was aware of was that I felt fantastic for no obvious reason.

The bed had gotten pretty crowded. Besides me and Mitch (still asleep and snoring lightly), the cats had decided to join us for a late morning nap. I stroked Pippi and contemplated waking her and Mitch up simultaneously by picking her up and dropping her on Mitch’s head, but then my phone buzzed. I snatched it off the bedside table – it was April.

“Hello.”

“Hi. It’s April.”

“I know.”

The bed suddenly seemed even more crowded. I kept an eye on Mitch. He was sleeping on his side with his back towards me, but he hadn’t stopped snoring. I suppose I should have taken the call somewhere else, but I wasn’t ready to get out of bed yet. All the same, I felt like I should let April know that this wouldn’t be a completely private conversation. “I’m in bed with your boyfriend. I hope that’s OK.”

She giggled. And her laugh made me smile, but it didn’t light my insides on fire like it used to do. “I hope you’re keeping your hands to yourself.”

“I am, it’s the cats you’ve got to worry about.”

“OK, this is a very strange mental image you’re giving me. Um… I just wanted to talk to you. I feel like maybe I was a bit harsh last night.”

It took me a moment to remember what she was on about. My mind kept crowding with images of cliff edges and spiders and red-haired psychopaths and giant henchmen. And Nina. “Trust me, you’re not the worst thing that happened to me last night.”

“Yeah, well… look, I don’t owe you an explanation but I’m going to give you one anyway.”

“Go ahead.”

I felt pretty calm. No matter what she said to me, it couldn’t be that earth shattering. Once your world has been shattered and re-built in a night, it sort of puts things in perspective.

“OK. Um. Look, I don’t know anything about soulmates but Mitch didn’t steal me away from you, I chose him. I know we’re not perfect together, but I don’t want perfect.”

“Fair enough.”

“And for the record, even if I’d never met Mitch, I wouldn’t be with you.”

That should have cut me to the bone, but somehow it just made me curious. “Why not?”

“Honestly, because I always got the feeling you’re not going to be around for long. I just mean you seem kind of restless, like you’d rather be somewhere else.”

“Yeah. That’s fair.”

“You probably think I’m a massive bitch.”

“I’ve met way bigger bitches than you.”

No giggles. Just a silence that should have been awkward. I rolled onto my side and looked at the back of Mitch’s head. He’d stopped snoring, but he still looked asleep somehow. I kept my voice just above a whisper.

“You’ll look after Mitch, won’t you? If I go away, like move to a different town or something, you’ll keep him out of trouble?”

A long pause.

“If he gets into trouble and you’re not around, I’ll probably be in trouble with him.”

“Yep, that makes sense. Well… good luck. Seriously, I want you two to be happy together.”

“Me too.”

“OK… I’m gonna go now, so take care.”

“You too.”

I put my phone back on the bedside table, then gave Mitch a little kick in the back of the knee. His reaction was muffled and sleepy enough to suggest that he really had been asleep throughout the conversation.

“Morning, sunshine,” I said, deliberately a little too loud.

“Ow.”

“How’s your head?”

“Feels like there’s a tiny little Keith Moon playing the drums inside it. How’s yours?”

“Fine, actually.”

Mitch turned over to face me very slowly and very heavily, like an elephant seal. “How much did I drink last night?” He gave me a stare that managed to be pretty piercing, despite the just-woke-up blurriness. Obviously he wasn’t just asking how much he’d had to drink.

“You didn’t dream it.”

“Fuuuuuuuck,” he sighed, with an expression that was mostly just wonder. He rolled onto his back and stared silently at the ceiling for a minute or two. Then he said, “You’re getting bagels from The Boathouse, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“Least hungover person gets the bagels. Rules are rules.”

“I fell off a cliff last night!”

“You just said you felt fine!”

I argued a bit more and attempted to push Mitch out of my bed – a process that failed in getting Mitch to move an inch, but succeeded in waking up both the cats, who did not take kindly to the disturbance. Since my bed was rapidly becoming a hostile environment, I admitted defeat and got up. I pulled a hoodie on over my PJs and threw a dirty sock at Mitch as I picked my way across the sea of junk that is my bedroom floor.

It wasn’t until I was on the stairs that my mind went back to Nina. Evelyn and the heavies would be coming for her today. I had to get her out of the house – the thought of those psychos talking to my mum (who would inevitably invite them in and offer them tea and biscuits) made my skin crawl. As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about this. There was nothing on the settee except the fluffy grey throw. It had a tiny red lipstick smudge on it.

So they had come for her already. I decided, almost on a whim, that this was unacceptable. I would have to find out where they had taken her, then find her and make sure she was safe. Weirdly, I felt perfectly capable of doing this. Once I had a chicken, bacon and cream cheese bagel inside me, of course.

In the kitchen, my mum was sat at the kitchen table in a Sudoku trance. I put a hand on her shoulder and kissed the top of her head. She reached up and patted my hand automatically. This was reassuring. Mum looked as though she’d been Sudoku-ing for hours, which made it seem highly unlikely that she’d had a trio of strangers come to the door and shatter her entire worldview. Nina must have slipped out to meet them at a safe distance from the house. I was grateful for that.

“Going to get bagels,” I said, and went out the back door.

It must have rained while I was asleep, because everything was wet. The sun was bright, though, and it shone through every raindrop so that everyone’s front garden sparkled like it was full of treasure.

I walked the three and a half minutes to The Boathouse, which had a fair few people in it, looking for a very late breakfast or an early lunch. I ordered a chicken, bacon and cream cheese bagel for me, and a falafel, cheddar cheese and sweet chilli sauce bagel for Mitch (a weird combination, I know, but he swears by it as a hangover cure). When I took the two paper bags, I got the sudden feeling that I really ought to savour this bagel. That it might be the last Boathouse bagel I would eat for quite a while.

As I left the café, something caught my eye. Something out of place. I looked to my left and saw a flash of green. Almost automatically, I walked towards it. A green dress. A bit of dark hair. A laminated menu being held in front of a face.

I reached out and took the menu and placed it on the sticky table-top. There was a drop of blood on the table. I stared at it for a second, then forced my eyes directly upwards until they rested on Nina’s ear, which sported a beige plaster.

Wordless and expressionless, Nina bent her head underneath the table and dug around in her bag. She brought a closed fist up to the edge of the table, then opened it to reveal what looked like a tiny computer chip, stained with blood. I looked from the chip nestled in her palm, to her ear, then I just looked at her.

She was scared, I could tell. But she still smiled like a shark.

Cora Ruskin is a lab technician who lives and works in Oxfordshire, UK. She is also an enthusiastic writer of poetry and fiction. She has had a poetry chapbook published by Dancing Girl Press, short fiction published in Fiction365 and even shorter fiction published in 101 Words. She blogs at www.corastillwrites.wordpress.com.