From Nicholas Royle, Antwerp:
The day Johnny Vos first laid hands on a woman’s body started out like any other.
Johnny took the PATH train from Hoboken, New Jersey into New York City. He listened to the song of the grinding rails and rushing walls, his mind’s eye full of the last thing he saw before heading underground – the castellated Manhattan skyline, like Bruegel’s vision of the Tower of Babel. He travelled on an empty stomach, as always. On arrival he would get coffee and doughnuts from a street vendor.
The two places – Hoboken and Manhattan – were only fifteen minutes apart by train, yet divided by the Hudson River and a state line. So near yet so far, was pretty much how Hoboken residents tended to think of New York. Some kids growing up in the New Jersey town were frustrated by Manhattan’s tantalising proximity: they became resentful. For Johnny Vos it worked just fine. It meant he could lead a double life. One thing in one place, another in the other. So in Hoboken he kept himself to himself, was no trouble to his folks, head forever buried in some art book, but then he would skip school and take the train, sex-tourist with fake ID, tall kid with five o’clock shadow. He’d carry the price of a few beers and haunt the strip joints around Times Square and 42nd Street, where he would sit in the dark and watch from under the curled rim of a Yankees baseball cap. He preferred the Mets, but actually wasn’t that bothered, and a Yankees cap meant you didn’t stand out.
He was rarely challenged and on the few occasions when his fake ID had to be produced it was barely glanced at. Around Times Square and 42nd Street no one really cared. This was 1980. People gave a shit a lot less than they do today. Especially around Times Square and 42nd Street. Johnny Vos was seventeen.
He came out of the station on 34th Street and cut across to 5th Avenue. There was a used bookstore at Fourth and 12th where the proprietor was happy to let people sit and read stuff. He had a good selection of art books and Johnny could pass a whole morning there. He regarded it as a form of education lacking at high school, where art class began and ended with Norman Rockwell. He gazed in wonder at Bosch’s hallucinatory depictions of hell – a pretty good guess, he figured. His eyes were drawn to Grünewald, Friedrich, Ensor. He could tell the difference between the three Bruegels – Peter the Elder, Peter the Younger and Jan – he knew which one was cool and which two were not. The sense of history made him feel he belonged – somewhere, if not here.
He didn’t pretend to be an expert, but he knew what he liked. He liked the old stuff. He was just looking at the pictures.
He checked out Rubens. The guy had seen some action. Johnny wondered if he’d used a different model each time. The thought was enough to make him look up from the book and check his watch. It was after 12.30pm. He always tried to leave it till at least one o’clock. It made him feel less seedy.
Without particularly hurrying, he covered twenty blocks in a half-hour. Ducking his head, he entered the Blue Zone at Broadway and 42nd. Waited while his eyes grew accustomed to the gloomy interior and his chest tightened in reaction to the smoke. Took a seat at the back. A waitress came by to take his order. On the wobbly stage, a girl with flabby thighs worked out a routine with leather chaps and a cowboy hat. It was tired stuff but it worked. Kind of.
Johnny got another beer, slipped lower in his seat. He figured three beers, maybe four, would be enough, but after two he felt no braver than when he’d boarded the PATH train. In his pocket was a matchbook with a handwritten address on the inside flap. He remembered how he’d felt when the girl, another girl in another bar, had written down the address the week before. He felt the same excitement now, mixed with a sharp anxiety. Watching the dancer on stage, he tried to convince himself this was enough, but he knew it was not. The writing down of the address had taken things a stage further. Where he was right now was not a place he could stay.
He left the bar and walked two blocks on unsteady legs until he reached a row of tenement houses. He was done rationalising and justifying. Too shy to work anything out with those girls at high school who might not have run away screaming, Johnny had got left behind. He missed the experiences his contemporaries took for granted, but soon was working on the basis that his own life was more adventurous, his world more real. He lived his life on the streets. This afternoon would be a rite of passage. No shit. But the nearer he got to the address on the matchbook, the more he wished he were dating Esther Balinski or Rachel Leibowitz, even with the compromise either would entail. He came to a halt outside the last house and examined a series of buzzers. He saw the one he wanted and leaned on it. Nothing happened. Johnny didn’t even draw a breath.
Suddenly the door was no longer closed and a man had appeared. The man, only a few years older than Johnny, glanced at him and then was gone. Johnny caught the door and stepped into the hallway. The door snicked shut behind him. There was a sour smell. Something somewhere had gone off. A bare bulb failed to come on when Johnny pressed a switch. His breathing was shallow and wheezy. He thought about quitting but sensed that he’d never get even this far again. The stairs rose steeply. The effort and stress aggravated Johnny’s asthma, but he couldn’t stop now. On the first landing he scanned the doors to three apartments. Number six was ajar and Johnny could hear noise from within.
He checked the matchbook one last time and pushed open the door.
Once inside he could no longer hear the noise he’d been able to hear out on the landing. He could hear something else instead. A regular, muffled thump-thump, like a heartbeat amplified for effect on a soundtrack. It was a familiar sound, but he was too wired to work out what it was. Every object he saw, each sound he heard, it was as if he was sensing them for the first time.
He was in a narrow red-carpeted hallway. It was dark. Doors opened off it to the left and at the end. Coats were hung up on a series of hooks – a leather biker’s jacket, threadbare woollen overcoat, denim bum-freezer with sheepskin lining. A cosy, warm smell came off them.
Somebody lived here. A cheap Frieda Kahlo print, the artist’s heart exposed, hung by the door on the left, which led to a tiny shower room with toilet. The shower head was dripping, but that was not the noise Johnny had heard on entering the apartment. He could still hear it and it was coming from the room at the end. He advanced slowly, aware of the wheezing coming from his chest. The wall beneath his fingertips was warm and greasy. When he reached the end of the hallway he stopped.
He knew what the noise was.
As he turned the corner into the room at the end, the first thing he saw confirmed it. A record spinning on a turntable, needle stuck in the run-out groove. He saw it by the light of a lamp with a beaded shade standing on a bookcase. The diffuse lamplight also fell softly on to the body of a woman in her mid to late twenties lying on the unmade bed in the middle of the room. She was naked and appeared fully relaxed, as if deeply asleep. Johnny held his breath and watched her, waiting for her to move as she sensed his presence. He didn’t want to frighten her, but neither did he want to leave. A lump had formed in his throat. The tableau laid out before his eyes was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He’d seen this girl, Amber, before, of course, but partially dressed and in different surroundings. Here, in her own place, completely natural and totally naked, she was exquisite. She was lit like a nude in a painting, but not a Rubens or one of his contemporaries. The setting precluded any likeness to the Old Masters and the light was different. It was cooler, more modern, and the main difference was that painted nudes never aroused more than his aesthetic approval. The sight of Amber lying naked on her own bed aroused him in another way as well.
Taking deeper breaths, Johnny moved closer to the bed until he was standing right by it. He saw what he hadn’t seen before: that Amber’s right arm wore a tourniquet around the biceps. The tourniquet was a belt and Johnny felt a twinge of sadness that it wasn’t even leather. A syringe lay on the floor on the far side of the bed where it had been dropped. He looked more closely at Amber’s face. There were purple shadows under her eyes. So she looked a little tired – so what? It wasn’t an easy life. His hand came to rest on her forearm. He felt a tingle of electricity. Her arm retained a trace of warmth.
He looked at her body, gazing in rapt wonderment at her breasts, which rested on her ribcage but had not altogether lost their shape. The smooth skin around the nipples was the same golden colour as her hair, even if that colour was artificial, as evidenced by the soft dark furze nestling below her flat tummy. Her right leg was drawn up, the knee leaning over her left leg.
He held her wrist, but there was no pulse. He picked up an empty powder compact from the floor and held the mirror over her mouth, but there was no final whisper of breath to cloud the glass.
The heartbeat thump of the needle in the run-out groove seemed to grow louder. He walked around the bed and stared at the record, trying to read the label as it revolved. He couldn’t, so he lifted the arm and the record slowed to a stop. It was a single: ‘Dark Entries’ by Bauhaus. Johnny moved the arm back over the record and placed the needle at the beginning. Dust, hiss. Then the track began with a howl of feedback and a fusillade of guitars. Bass and drums thundering like a stampede of wild horses. A strange, hypnotic male voice sang of a hovel, a bed, pain, neon lights, avenues of sin. Johnny sat at the bedside and held the dead woman’s cooling hand. The urgency of the rhythm, intensity of the vocals. Something on the floor, half under the bed, caught his eye. It was the record sleeve. The front bore the name of the single and the band and an image: a female figure in a feathered hat, a human skeleton. Johnny turned the sleeve over. The reverse side featured a small, indistinct photograph of the band and a credit line for the picture: ‘Venus Asleep by Paul Delvaux.’
Johnny went back round the other side of the bed and sat down, holding the dead woman’s hand as the needle once more went thump-thump in the run-out groove and the sky outside the tiny window turned deep red. He thought briefly about the man he had seen leaving the building. He tried to recall his face…
From Nicholas Rolye, The Director’s Cut:
The black Mercedes braked sharply on the hard shoulder a few yards ahead of them, its rear wheels spitting gravel.
‘Come on,’ Richard shouted, grabbing her hand.
He opened the rear door and bundled her in. As Harry Foxx pressed his foot to the floor and gave the power steering a nudge to get the big car back on to the road, with scant regard for the vehicles coming up behind, Richard performed a basic introduction.
‘Harry’s my driver,’ he said to Jenny as the acceleration gently forced him back into his seat. ‘He’s always been the driver, in a sense, right since the early days. Like Bruce Dern in The Driver, or Dennis Weaver in Duel, he’s very much the driver, if you take my meaning.’
Richard smiled at Jenny Slade to drive his point home. She looked from Richard to Harry’s rear-view mirror, then back to Richard.
‘So, Harry drives the car,’ she said, checking.
‘Harry has always driven the car. Harry probably has sex as well.’
‘No offence, but what the fuck are you two going on about?’ demanded Harry Foxx.
‘Sorry, Harry. Good drugs, that’s all. In fact – ‘ he smiled at Jenny again – ‘why don’t we have some more?’ Richard removed a wrap from the pocket of his jacket and unfolded it on a hardback A-Z that he asked Harry to pass him from the front passenger seat. Richard cut up the cocaine into two lines with a bank card he took from his wallet.
‘I’d offer you some, Harry,’ he said, ‘only it’s probably not safe to do drugs and drive. We don’t want to have an accident, do we?’
Harry made no response.
Jenny Slade nodded slowly as she made sense of it all. Then she accepted a rolled-up twenty from Richard and bent over the A-Z. She couldn’t have been unaware of the effect her bending over would have on him, especially since the loss of her Gucci top. Again, it was her obvious knowledge of the effect of her display that made it so powerful. Richard’s cock was hard even before the coke numbed the back of his mouth. He took the blue-lensed glasses from his top pocket and put them on. Jenny Slade was already grinning with the effect of the drug.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Harry Foxx irritably.
‘Just drive, Harry,’ replied Richard. ‘You’re the driver, Harry. You’ve always been the driver.’
For one heart-stopping moment it looked as if Harry was going to take the first left off the roundabout at the top – ‘For fuck’s sake, Harry, don’t leave London. I mean, I thought that was obvious,’ bellowed Richard – but then he swung the car round to the right and indicated left to join the Westway. As Harry burned into the middle lane and took the speed up to seventy-five, Richard turned to Jenny Slade once more and, leaning forward, said, ‘I believe we were interrupted, weren’t we? A little unfinished business?’
Jenny Slade grinned again. Would nothing faze her, wondered Richard gratefully as she unhitched her bra-top from one shoulder and reached in with a free hand to release her breast. She didn’t get both breasts out, because she understood how the male mind worked, or at least how Richard’s worked. For him, this was the pinnacle of sexual arousal. There before him was one breast, in itself an object of such extraordinary aesthetic and erotic beauty. But more powerful even than that visible breast was the deliberate withholding of the other, its invisible twin. It was the promise of its release that aroused him more than anything else. He knew that if he decided to, he could reach across that short distance and free it himself. He could touch if he wanted to, and he did want to, so badly, but his conscience knew it was wrong. He fingered the blue glasses.
He watched Jenny as she moved her fingers over her breast, catching the nipple on the upstroke. She was looking past him, over his shoulder, at a blurred panning shot of Ladbroke Grove.
Fuck it, he thought, reaching across the expanse of taupe leather upholstery between them, and with two hands took hold of the bra top and pulled it up and over her head. Jenny Slade’s breasts, straining upwards as he pulled at the grey Lycra, swooped back to their natural position with a grace that reminded him of the pantograph of an electric locomotive falling from an overhead wire back to its cradle. Jenny Slade offered neither reproach, nor encouragement. Instead, she turned her head to the front and gazed through the windscreen as Richard moved his hands slowly and firmly over her body. He moved forward and kissed her breasts. She leaned back against the door.
Richard kicked off his shoes and wriggled out of his trousers. He reached into his jacket for another wrap and cut four more lines on the road atlas. He held out the twenty to Jenny Slade. As she leant forward to snort her share of the drug, he caught her swinging breasts in his hands and massaged them. He accepted the rolled-up banknote and snorted up the crumbs.
‘Harry,’ he shouted. ‘Harry, I haven’t got anything.’
Jenny Slade and Richard Charnock collapsed into fits of giggles.
Harry Foxx muttered: ‘Jesus Christ.’ But he pulled out his wallet and extracted a condom, which he tossed over his shoulder into the back of the car. Richard tore open the pack as Jenny pushed down at her combats and moved into a more comfortable position. As he rolled the condom into place, Richard looked up and saw the curved lines of the cream-tiled former BR building at Warwick Avenue slipping into view. The Mercedes swept past its curiously rounded tower and shattered, graffitied windows at 100 mph.
As they sank into the dip before the Edgware Road flyover, Richard looked up and happened to glance into the rear-view mirror where his brain registered a fact so disorienting that his mind took several seconds to catch up: Jenny Slade and Harry Foxx were watching each other in the mirror. The extreme alienating effect of this caused Richard’s lust to dwindle, and he moved away from Jenny Slade, somehow managing to be half-dressed before they reached the bottom of the flyover on the other side. As the car slowed for the lights on Marylebone Road, Richard reached across and opened the door on Jenny Slade’s side.
‘Please,’ he said simply.
She looked at him as if he’d hit her across the face.
She shook her head, more in disbelief than a refusal to cooperate.
The lights turned green and the inevitable angry chorus started up from the cars behind. Harry Foxx watched in the rear-view mirror, his loyalties divided, and did nothing.
‘You have to leave the car now,’ Richard insisted.
Jenny Slade gathered her clothes under one arm and stepped out into the road. She shut the car door with a flourish, dropped her stuff on the pavement and stood with her hands on her hips as Harry Foxx, under orders, burnt rubber to get across the junction without colliding into the cars that were already crossing from both sides.
Richard twisted his neck to watch Jenny Slade get smaller and smaller as their speed climbed. He could still hear traffic horns, but now they were more of a fanfare than a rebuke.
When he stopped at the next set of lights, Harry Foxx switched off the engine and stepped out of the car. He turned and leaned back in, resting one hand on the headrest of the driver’s seat, looking as if he was about to toss the keys into the rear of the car, but then seemed to change his mind and turned and walked away. Richard then watched in open-mouthed dismay as Harry Foxx dropped the keys down a grate on the far side of Marylebone Road, stuck his hands in his trouser pockets and sauntered off down Gloucester Place.
From Nicholas Royle, First Cut:
Asleep, he lies there for hours, then rises from the bed and walks to the kitchen. The newspapers are piled high in a cupboard under the sink. He takes an armful and returns to the bedroom. He spreads them out and they cover the floor, several sheets thick, in a semi-circle around him as he perches on the edge of the mattress. He sits there without moving for some time as if deep in thought. But he’s still fast asleep and not thinking at all.
The razor blade hovers like a guillotine. The fingers holding it tremble slightly, as if reluctant to begin. Sweat causes the blade to slip. It dips and turns, flashing, before landing with a little crash on the paper. He wipes his fingers, picks up the blade and slices into the flesh.
The blood comes first, followed by the pain, which he blocks in his sleep. Now he carefully inserts a double thickness of paper tissue into the cut to stop it knitting.
Then he blacks out.
An hour later he rises from the floor, his forearms and thighs stained with blood and newsprint. He collects the newspaper into a single pile and buries it in the dustbin. Back in the bedroom he straightens a small table and picks up the paperback thriller which had fallen off it. He gets into bed.
When the sun wakes him a few hours later he recollects nothing.
He chose Hungerford Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, attracted by the curve in the river. Drawing a straight line between them would create a geometry which might stimulate his performance.
Gargan disembarked at Temple and walked by the river, down Victoria Embankment and on to Waterloo Bridge. He looked across at Hungerford and watched a train scuttling through the mesh of iron. Not yet ready yet to walk it, he sized it up. How far was it? Three hundred yards, maybe, from centre to centre.
It had surely been further in East Berlin slanting diagonally over the River Spree. The walk had gone well, the wire behaving perfectly, the wind a mere breath sufficient to dry his sweat. Crowds had gathered on the banks. The appearance of the police had spurred him on to walk faster, but they failed to see the joke and arrested him. Dissatisfied with his statement, they decided to contact his embassy, but when Gargan explained he was of dual nationality they seemed to lose heart and simply ordered him out of Berlin.
The restaurant was just filling up. Its mix of features-European menu, informal atmosphere, West End location, low prices-had endeared the restaurant to an interesting cross-section: students, American tourists, provincial families, fashionable young people, and a steady trickle of commuters. Gargan shared his table with two women with lacquered hair and Daily Expresses; and three expensively dressed Italian boys, groomed, smoking and talking loudly in Roman accents.
Gargan ordered. His food arrived within minutes and the Italians, upwind, lit up fresh cigarettes. The two women followed their example and the stuffed aubergine became smoked aubergine making him wish he’d ordered fish.
Born in Czechoslovakia to an Irish mother, Gargan’s father, as far as anyone could be sure, was an Australian Aboriginal from a touring theatre group on the last leg of a ground-breaking tour.
His early years were spent on the move from city to city in Eastern Europe. He vaguely recalled the frequent presence of a man, though not necessarily the same one from week to week. While their backdrop shifted from Prague to Budapest, to Sofia and Bucharest, his mother’s activities remained lively but mysterious. There was usually a separate room for him, often with a washbasin and a window to piss out of. When there was no window he would climb on a chair and piss in the washbasin. Occasionally he shared with his mother, in which case he often found himself having to go out and play in a rear courtyard. Growing tired of his own devices he would wait at the door to his mother’s room until the man left and his mother brought him in, making a fuss and drawing him into her bed for the night. Sometimes the man stayed and the boy was given blankets and a corner. He always used one of the blankets to cover his ears, indeed his whole head, one night resulting in near asphyxiation, coitus interruptus and a week of abstention for his mother.
He was 13 when they went to London and lived in a small flat near the Archway, a steel bridge arched over the A1 which the boy came to regard with almost religious awe. Gargan would spend hours, with the patience of an old man, standing in different places on or under or alongside the Archway. A solitary figure, he rarely sought company, and his only contact with people his own age came on the few occasions when crowds of youths would pass under the Archway and shout abuse at him to impress themselves and the girls who walked behind them. He felt nothing: no anger, no fear, no wish to be like them. He just let them mouth off and pass on under the Archway like particles of grit carried in a river.
His mother was now working ostensibly as a dancer, though he never saw her perform. She had regular engagements at a theatre in the West End, which was never named when spoken of. One evening he followed her to work, feeling like a private detective, always 50 yards behind on the street, one carriage down on the tube, several steps lower going up the escalator. He trailed through the dirty, gaudy streets of Soho and watched with dismay as his mother disappeared through a doorway hung with plastic strips. DANCING GIRLS DANCING GIRLS DANCING GIRLS, the sign outside announced.
He supposed that was the evening he became a man, at 14. His mother’s familiar back swallowed by the mucky swish of clinging plastic, he stood in the middle of the pavement not knowing where to go, how to feel or what to do with his hands. He walked back to the tube, looking over his shoulder and up side streets. In the train everyone stared at him. They all knew where he’d been and what his mother did for a living. Half of them got off at his station and followed him up the escalator. He dodged through the barrier and sprinted out to the street, taking a circuitous route home.
He never told his mother what he had learnt that evening, so that she took his sullenness to be a symptom of adolescence and did nothing to alter it. Instead, she began to stay out some nights, coming home drawn in the morning, taking her make-up off at the time when she used to put it on.
One afternoon she sat him down at a table in the kitchen and, seating herself opposite, talked in a serious voice. ‘Have you got a girlfriend?’ she asked him. ‘No,’ was the honest answer. ‘I think you should find one,’ she said.
He didn’t, and instead he spent more and more time at the Archway, usually standing in its shadow, occasionally on top, on its back, looking down at the cars rushing beneath up and down the A1. It swooped in a graceful arc from one steep bank to the other. A rise and a fall, from whichever side you approached. Instinct drew him back time and time again, to share the security of the architecture, the certainty that once begun the arch would finish, symmetrically. A pattern, a representation of order. Looking at it, standing under it, walking over it.
He recalled one occasion in his mother’s room in Bucharest. Perhaps believing the boy to be asleep his mother had submitted herself to a great passion with a Romanian man (who lasted two weeks, just before mother and son went to Britain, by which time Gargan had begun dimly to understand the nature of his mother’s activities) and it seemed that her reward for once was not purely financial. The Romanian heaved and pushed and his mother responded, flinging her back into an arch. The man arched the other way, stretching upwards. They held the position for a long time, the stillness interrupted only by rivulets of sweat running down his mother’s body. Her face cooled to a calm the boy had not seen before and the archway began to ease down. The man shifted to one side; the arch melted and with a final quiver was gone.
The boy silently buried his head in the blanket and slept with the image behind his lids of his mother at peace. It didn’t leave him, not even the following morning when he was woken by the Romanian fleeing from the room.
He still had that peaceful image of his mother when he watched her walk into the DANCING GIRLS place and it compounded his distress.
Smoked or not, Gargan finished his aubergine and Rada came to take his plate away, asking, ‘Something else for you?’ He’d spoken very few words to the Yugoslavian waitress beyond those on the menu, but he was obsessed by her. In moments of abandonment he thought he was in love with her. As he chewed on the lumps in his custard he thought about another woman, the one he had seen the day before: her face had seemed unsettlingly familiar.
He had set up a practice walk, preparing for the River, between two large trees in one of the Royal parks. People gathered as soon as he began fixing the wire and Gargan exchanged casual remarks with them, even enlisting help with a leg-up to the wire. He set off, joking at first, then becoming serious as he passed over a path where people were walking. He was just coming to the end of the wire when a face detached itself from the crowd watching him. There was a niggling familiarity about her but he couldn’t make an identification.
Who was she, where had he seen her before, and would he see her again?
Without knowing why, he felt sure that he would.
He didn’t remember all of the dream he had in the early hours of the next morning. He was woken by a bottle being smashed in the street below his window and then became aware of a need to evacuate his bladder. The dream was left behind in his bed like a sloughed skin, destroyed and lost at the point of tearing.
Once fully awake he was no longer tempted by his damp sheets and so found a jumper and a pair of trousers. Stepping into his Chinese slippers he left the house and returned five minutes later with a pint of milk, a roll and a newspaper. After the quick crossword, the roll and a coffee, he sat down with a second coffee to try and reassemble those fragments of his dream he could remember.
He was walking along the top of the Berlin Wall. Although much thicker than a wire it felt like one. He was either drunk or half asleep and would have benefited from having a pole. On his right was West Berlin, on his left no-man’s-land and beyond that the East German Wall. He couldn’t remember how he’d got up on the Wall. It felt as if he’d always been there. People on his right watched with admiration. Perhaps it looked more difficult than it was. Scattered applause reached his ears. On the Eastern side nervous border guards followed his progress with automatic rifles. Beyond them, knots of East Berliners were tightening on the streets.
Warning shots were fired and he kept on walking careless of the danger. The people in the East had raised their voices in a chant. Gargan could not make out the words but their message was clear. From a concrete watchtower rifles were pointed in their direction and the volume of their protest swelled in response. Gargan speeded up. Within a few yards the numbers of people on both sides of the Wall had increased tenfold. He felt an inexplicable rush of joy, then a shot was heard and he felt himself falling.
As he fell a jumble of images and sounds passed before his eyes. Huge crowds of people pressed towards the Wall from both sides. A line of tiny cars stood waiting on a congested road. Jets of water played on happy revellers. Night fell but arc lights maintained a permanent glare. Flashguns strobed tear-streaked faces.
He’d fallen, it seemed, into no-man’s-land.