Rain is pouring, and multiple police sirens wail.
JOHN: The police, four of them, leaping out of two cars clustered around the bloody-headed, brain-leaking lout I’d left by the wall of the public toilet. A sight, one could tell from their exclamations, that was beyond the customary challenges of a Blackpool policeman’s beat. I crept deeper among the headstones and (…). The cemetery’s broad expanse offered any number of points of escape onto a range of neighboring roads, so long as I headed swiftly and directly towards the far end; I began doing that, but these were provincial English graves, mostly modestly-scaled headstones, and the only way to stay totally concealed would have been to crawl on my knees…and I am not a man to crawl.
POLICEMAN: Oy! You there!
JOHN: The beam of the policeman’s torch caught my shoulder. I started an onward dash.
POLICEMAN: Stop, stop! Police!
JOHN: I heard them starting their cars, swerving up the broad main drive of the cemetery. I ran faster. Within seconds the blue flicker from their flashing lights was falling around me. I swerved into the thicket of gravestones at the left of the main path. The police car closest behind pursued too enthusiastically and crashed into one of the bulkier headstones. I ran on, weaving in and out of the headstones. The other police car drove past, but only to swerve onto the nearest of the side paths, keeping parallel to myself.
POLICEMAN: Stop there!
JOHN: The police from the crashed car had leapt out and started running after me. Looking over my shoulder I saw one was so overweight he couldn’t have caught up with a snail on the pavement, but the other was leaner and fast and making a (…) job of closing the distance. I ducked behind a monument, my toe knocking a chunk of broken masonry in the grass: I grabbed it. The lean fellow drew near. I swung around the monument, smacked the stone into his face, his skull burst bloodily open and he dropped to the ground. I ran on. The other car was close alongside me, but the fence neighboring that side of the graveyard was also not far ahead: it skidded to a stop, its occupants leaping out. On the near side of the fence were tall trees, the nearest one with its branches overhanging the garden on the fence’s far side. I leapt to the lowest branches and started dragging myself higher. One of the police was dragging himself up after me. I tried to kick him off, but he kept clambering.
POLICEMAN: Get him! Get the bastard!
JOHN: He threw himself at me, grabbed me, the two of us almost flipping from the branch. I grabbed the back of his neck, tried to fix my kiss upon him; my lips had barely brushed his face before the first shock of contact hit him and, flesh only just beginning to seethe, bubble, and melt, he slipped from the tree, thumping other branches on the way down and landing with a contorted thump and bounce like a carcass in a slaughterhouse slipping off its hook. I heard one of the police below scream, a woman from the sound of it. I continued on, leapt into the darkened garden on the other side of the fence. Before me lay a child swing on a frame, a small trampoline around the house itself, its windows darkened, though a light came on upstairs as I started to move through the narrow gap along the side of the house, a high gate at its far end. I’d only gone a step or two when I heard the fence rattling at my back, and looked around to see that fat-ass policeman clambering after me. Of course I could easily have been along the side of the house and over the gate before he finished climbing into the garden, but as I moved to make that so, a grand floor light came on behind the couple of sliding doors, its glow hitting my features as I glanced back at him. Reckoning he might have got his best glimpse of me yet, I crept instead out of the line of the light and into the dark by some bushes, out of sight of whoever might come to that window but not of the policeman. Now I wanted him to come to me, and come he did.
POLICEMAN: Who the hell are you? What the hell happened to that lad back there? What did you do to my mates? Who the fuck are you?
JOHN: I told him, quietly, to come the fuck across and see. He hesitated a moment, then charged with all his waddling weight. I kicked the feet out from under him. He dropped back, his bulbous skull hitting the a-frame of the child’s swing, the second swing swaying on its chain. He hit the ground. I sat astride him. I fixed my kiss.
The policeman struggles with choking, dying breaths, the rain falling around them.
JOHN: Within seconds his weight of fat was melting away into the grass, his uniform deflating, the mess stinking of his last drive-through from McDonald’s. I raised my head from the milky fizzing of what was left of his jawbone. At that illuminated sliding-glass door, I could see a young man and woman, both in their nightclothes, peering through the glass and into the darkened garden. I drew back further, confident that other than the narrow lit strip cast across the grass, all that they would be able to see would be their own reflections. Sure enough they retreated swiftly into the depths of their own beyond. I made my own start to climb over the gate, only to glimpse, sidelong, a pajama-d child stepping to the glass, a teddy bear under one arm. As I moved off, I caught a sidelong glance from her and wondered if her wide gaze caught me darting through the glass. I wondered at the life I might lead in her nightmares, and for the rest of her long life, but what life was longer than mine? I had my own nightmares to worry about.
JOHN: I ran, clambered, quick over that fence and hurried up the quiet residential road beyond. I had walked briskly through a couple of these streets, all the time tensed from the sound of the sole remaining cop, the woman, attempting a run after me. But what I heard instead, after a while, was the siren of her car. I broke into a run; ahead, facing me across the T-junction, a fence (…) a car park, and a cluster of industrial buildings, the Burton’s Biscuit factory. I clambered over the fence, heard the car skid past, heading for the factory gate. It sounded its horn at the closed gate, trying to alert whoever was on security duty. I ran off across the car park and through the narrow alleys between the factory buildings. I had gone some way before I heard the police car again, now audibly screeching my way among those same buildings. I ran into another gap between tall buildings, the thick smell of sugary biscuit bulk. Past the far end of the buildings a short embankment climbing up, and at the top of the embankment…train tracks, leading straight back towards Blackpool North. I ran on. The gap I ran through was narrow, but not narrow enough: the police car was following me, its wheels barely avoiding the scrape against the walls to either side, the blue flashings from its lights blazing through the shadows. Still, I was almost at the end of the two buildings, almost at the embankment, which no car would be able to drive up-
A VOICE: Gotcha!
JOHN: Out of nowhere came some great bald lump of what I took for a security guard, grabbed me from behind, wrapping densely-tattooed arms around me. The car drew near.
SECURITY GUARD: I’ve got him!
JOHN: I grabbed the guard by the collar of his shirt and pulled him clean over my shoulder. He dropped to a sitting position before me. I wrapped my own arm around his thick neck and seized his skull with my other hand, and as he tried to struggle up, I snapped his neck. The car was very close, beginning to skid to a stop. I hurled the guard’s weight directly into the windscreen.
John grunts with effort; something heavy crashes through glass. The police car swerves with its tires screeching on the pavement.
JOHN: The car skidded into the wall to my right. Sparks flew. Something under the bonnet caught light. The driver seat door flapped open, the figure inside, the police woman, tumbled out onto her hands and knees, her face and eyes full of glass. As she groped about on the ground I thought of finishing her off as thoroughly as I’d finished off the others, but more police cars were approaching, and I could see by the blue flashings from her own vehicle how sorely she was bleeding, slumping flat on her face in a carpet of shattered glass and lying quite still. Perhaps she was dead already; perhaps I was full enough with stolen life; perhaps I was a rather merciful fellow, all-told; perhaps those other police cars were sounding a little close. I turned, I sprinted up the embankment. At my back I heard the crashed car explode. I dropped onto the railway low and began skulking my way back into the town by that route.
KATE: I hate that sound. Nights when I’m home alone, Tom out on shift, police cars wailing up and down the prom. Some fight outside a pub, some backstreet drug deal rumble, somebody’s escape to the seaside turned into the tightest kind of trap. Blackpool, perched between what passes for civilized England and the wild ocean night; things happen round here, faster and more surprising than things that leap out at you on the ghost train. I didn’t feel like going to bed. There was nothing on TV. I stood at the window, catching the most recent of the police cars flashing by. Further away, back down towards the central pier, it looked like a helicopter was shining a search light around the seafront. I stepped back.
The soft din of the television abruptly cuts off with a metallic pop.
KATE: All the lights, all the power in the place went out. Ugh, I hate it when it does that! Bloody cheek-chiseling invisible bloody landlord with a building full of dodgy wiring, heat and lights popping off and on all kinds of odd hours, not to mention how dodgy the gas is. Could hear the dope-head couple in the bedsit next door start to freak out. How the spiders in their minds must have been climbing the walls. They’d be chucking stuff around before long, making the evening complete. I opted to risk a walk downstairs to the fuse box before things got really freaky here at night in the towers, but I barely stepped out into the ink-dark landing before the lights flickered on again. I was about to creep back into the flat when I heard someone coming up the stairs. I think I sensed who it would be. His shadow came first; the man himself appeared soon after, a smile as gentle as his shadow was dark.
JOHN: Oh, nothing to be frightened of, just a fuse as usual.
KATE: He said. I wasn’t frightened, I replied, which maybe wasn’t the entire truth. Just a little pissed off about it happening every time you’re trying to watch a film on TV. That last bit not being true either. I wasn’t sure yet how honest I wanted to be with it.
JOHN: Well, I fixed it.
KATE: Thanks! Through the wall might be a bit quieter if they can see to stick a needle in.
JOHN: Sure you’re not frightened?
KATE: He said, and it was like he was looking, there on that shabby landing, clean through to the part of me most fragile there in the night, being gentle with what he found there. Well you know, I said, you know this place and its shipwreck clientele.
JOHN: I do, yeah. Your, uh…partner…?
KATE: Tom? Tom works nights.
JOHN: Oh yeah?
KATE: At the Pleasure Beach. Security guard.
KATE: He works nights, I work days. Perfect arrangement.
JOHN: Is it?
KATE: No, but life wasn’t perfect last time I looked. You make the best. I mean, listen out there.
KATE: The sirens. Police wouldn’t make that kind of racket in a perfect world.
JOHN: I suppose they wouldn’t.
KATE: What do you reckon it is? That’s more than the usual commotion.
JOHN: It’s Blackpool. Sometimes the fun gets a little out of hand.
KATE: I’ve noticed. Maybe it’s that kid you thumped this morning.
JOHN: The kid?
KATE: You had his blood on your knuckles, remember?
JOHN: Oh yeah.
KATE: Well, I’m just saying. He went down with a lot of anger in him, got up angrier still. Maybe he got himself into a little more trouble out there.
JOHN: Maybe he did. Well, there’s more than him out there to cause that kind of racket.
KATE: Of course. Did you catch her up, by the way?
JOHN: Did I…?
KATE: The old girl.
JOHN: Yeah. Yeah, I caught her up.
KATE: Well, I hope the rest of your day was less eventful.
JOHN: Quiet, really. Yours?
KATE: At the café? Oh, a whirlwind of delight. Like afternoon tea at the Ritz, only we’re baking (…) cakes instead of cucumber sandwiches.
JOHN: And now you sit alone, listening to police sirens.
KATE: If I had a palm tree outside me window, it’d be paradise.
JOHN: I’d better let you get back.
KATE: I still owe you.
JOHN: Owe me?
KATE: For knocking that kid down before he did worse to me. The going rate on ‘thank you’ was tea and a donut, remember?
JOHN: Yeah, I remember, I… I thought we could do better than that.
KATE: Just as well, maybe. I’m clean out of donuts. I can buy you a cuppa? Come through, we’ll listen to the sirens together.
JOHN: We can do better than that. I’ll knock at your door in five minutes.
KATE: Five minutes?
JOHN: I need to, uh…change out of these things. It’s been a long day.
KATE: Well while I’m putting on the kettle, should I be getting into a ball gown, or…?
JOHN: You don’t need to put on the kettle. Five minutes.
KATE: And then he was shifting up the stairs, taking that slender, elegant shadow with him, and I was stepping back into the flat, softly closing the door, wondering what the hell I’d just said yes to.
KATE: Exactly five minutes later, there he was: his suit jacket pulled over a black sweater, the man himself nicely combed and freshened up and looking like he’s the kind of man who’d come to your door in an old movie. You know the type. Offer you the world and a ribbon wrapped around it, in elegant black and white. It was a kind of a shock to how handsome he looked with that old overcoat and shabby-looking hoodie stripped away, tall and lean and carved strong around the face and shoulders, all soft, dark shades and a smile gentle as a candle lit in some dark corridor you’d get lost in. Silly cow that I was… Silly cow that I was and, maybe just the mood he’d caught me in, but that’s how I felt. And he had a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses, and that was nice too. I asked him in.
KATE: He said.
JOHN: Lock your door, follow me.
KATE: So what was I to do but follow him? Follow him down the stairs all the way to the ground floor, to that great, shabby, shut-up nothing of a place that had once been the hotel lobby back in the day, when the Toledo was an elegant holiday destination, not the end of the road for us who had barely got enough wages or benefits to get through the wet week at home. On the back wall, past the chipped, moldy bulk of what had once been a reception desk, there was a great line of towering folding doors in dark, worm-eaten wood, doors I’d never seen unfolded. Doors that weren’t just locked but padlocked where the two halves met. He put the bottle and the glasses on the corner of an old desk, then drew out of his jacket pocket a great bunch of keys on a ring. You’ve got a key? I asked.
JOHN: I’ve got a key.
Keys jingle as one of them is selected and slipped into the lock.
KATE: He replied, unlocking the padlock on the lock of the folding doors themselves. He told me to stand back and then began heaving the doors open.
The doors are opened with a heavy metallic creak.
KATE: Dust rose off them. Behind, well, I’d seen those great door shut so long I’d have expected to see King Kong on the other side, at the very least, picking his fleas, but there was a line of glass doors, French window-type things, the panels all dusty with darkness on the other side. With another set of keys he unlocked the central door, rattled it open. The smell reached me from beyond, dusty yeah, but kind of sweet too, a smell like old dreams shut away.
JOHN: Step through. Don’t worry, I’ll put my light on. You might get a pleasant surprise. Bring the wine over.
KATE: As I followed him through, he stepped to one side in that dark and clicked a switch: a light came on, or several lights, the bulbs set in some kind of chandelier that hung from the ceiling, a chandelier with a white sheet draped over it so the light came out in a dusty glow like a ghost was floating up there. And the glow showed, well…I suppose it was some kind of dance floor, all laid with wood that showed a dull kind of reflection, the edges of the floor lined with one snazzy carpet heaped with jumbles of furniture all covered in the same kind of sheets.
JOHN: You don’t mind if I close those doors after us? We don’t just want anybody wandering in, do we, it’s a place full of anybodies.
KATE: I know the anybodies you mean. Go ahead. So I let him go ahead and clunk those great doors shut, sealing us in together. Did I trust him? I’m not sure I’ve ever trusted anybody, not really, and maybe not trusting him wholly gave the whole thing that extra thrill I could feel tingling my skin.
JOHN: There, that’s cozier. Come over here, let’s really make ourselves at home.
KATE: He was stepping to the far corner where there was what was left of a bar, empty optics lining the wall behind, a framed painting of a bullfight hung just above. He pulled the sheet off one of those sheeted heaps, stirring thicker dust into the air, revealing a table with upside-down chairs heaped on top. He began lifting the chairs off, carrying the table out onto the dance floor, setting it down.
JOHN: Give the dust a moment to clear. Bring over the bottle.
KATE: What is this place, a ballroom?
JOHN: Yeah, of course. This rabbit warren of bedsits was once a rather classy hotel, didn’t you know.
KATE: I noticed! I mean, I know what it looks like from the outside, what it looks like to the door of my own bedsit slammed shut at my back.
JOHN: See the paintings on the walls? Picture’s (…), but it’s supposed to be scenes from Toledo in Spain, painted by some nobody who’d never been nearer to Toledo than a chip shop in (…) but was glad of the break from painting cartoon characters on the rides in the Pleasure Beach. We all dream of a better world elsewhere. Dust’s clear, more or less. Bring the bottle over.
KATE: I did, handed him it. He had an old-fashioned corkscrew bottle opener in his jacket pocket, popped out the cork, poured us two glassfuls, darkest red, encouraged me to sit, sat opposite me. I asked him how he knew this was here, how he had a key.
JOHN: How? Um... I own the place.
KATE: You what? You’re not the fellow I pay rent to.
JOHN: I pay that fellow, and it pays to delegate.
KATE: But you’re a tenant here.
JOHN: No, I live here. Quietly, discreetly. Owning the place and delegating helps me to do that. I’m telling you this, by the way, because I trust you. Hope you’ll help me maintain my privacy.
KATE: You hardly know me.
JOHN: I hardly know anybody; that also helps me maintain my privacy. But I know you just enough to think I can confide in you.
KATE: I’m flattered.
JOHN: I’m good at first impressions and acting accordingly.
KATE: You’re more confident about knowing me, maybe, than I am about knowing myself.
JOHN: No one ever knows themselves straight through, least of all all those who think they do. There is always some corner where the shadows fall.
KATE: Or a ballroom under the bedsits.
JOHN: There’s more than a ballroom; come! Bring your glass.
KATE: And he led me across the ballroom, through another set of glass doors at the back into some kind of hallway, all white arches and broad steps descending. I suppose I hesitated before following him down.
JOHN: I know how you feel. This is not the simple, friendly drink you were expecting.
KATE: It’s like a dream.
JOHN: You don’t like dreams?
KATE: Well, it depends on the dream.
JOHN: It’s no dream. We’re in Blackpool; nothing, nowhere is as simple as it would be elsewhere. The most ordinary building can hide a hall of mirrors, a Pleasure Beach. Come down here and see.
KATE: And so I did. He led me on down into some great echoing dark, and when he clicked on the lights down there, I almost gasped.
JOHN: Quite something, isn’t it?
KATE: It was a grander space than the ballroom above: white pillars lining the walls, a great swimming pool sunk into the floor, more of those paintings on the wall of fake scenes from old Spain, lovers canoodling in sunny meadows, a guitar or two getting in the way. Between the pillars on one side of the room were little cabinets like confession booths, all closed in with frosted glass panels, set up, I suppose, for swimmers to get changed in. Along the edge of the pool there were these lounger things for people to relax in, all sagged cushions and tassels. The pool itself, of course, was empty of water, except for a long, gray puddle lining the angle of the deep end. There was a rat or a pigeon lying there half-submerged too, too matted and rotted for me to be sure which it was. The mosaics on the floor of the pool showed a whole orgy of mermaids, gold against green; some of the green, I suppose, was the mold.
JOHN: More kitsch, of course, but in the old days, oh…those up-market sea sailors had a ball. Lads had their waltzes up above, leisurely dips and daiquiris down here before dinner in La (…) Room. But I haven’t shown you that yet. Sometimes rats get in there, maybe overcooked meals of ghosts too, attracting them.
KATE: You mean there are other ghosts here?
JOHN: Can’t you hear them?
KATE: What am I hearing?
JOHN: Nothing. Nothing, really. People came and they went, as people do, flesh and blood groping after a few days free of the grind elsewhere, play-acting life being a sweeter dream than it is.
KATE: How do you know?
JOHN: How do I…?
KATE: You sound like you were there.
JOHN: Maybe I was.
KATE: It sounds like it was a long time ago.
JOHN: Then I must have been very young,
KATE: Seriously? What, you were here? You can’t have owned it then. This place was, what, in your family or something?
JOHN: Don’t have a family. Never had a family.
KATE: We all have a family, however tough it is to forget them.
JOHN: Maybe I’m very…very good at forgetting.
KATE: I had a family. Well, it worked out in the end it was just me and my dad, and that he…but I shouldn’t be talking about that, not to a stranger.
JOHN: We talked our way past being strangers, surely.
KATE: Maybe it’s the wine talking.
JOHN: We only brought one bottle down. Here, help me finish it.
KATE: Maybe it’s something more than the wine.
JOHN: Such as?
KATE: Well…you know? A feeling of stepping through the looking glass.
JOHN: Ah, the looking glass. In my experience, it only ever has one side; it’s a matter of having the nerve to face what you see there.
KATE: I’ve never had that kind of nerve.
JOHN: So few do.
KATE: What about you?
JOHN: Oh, I’ve seen things in that glass no one else would care to see.
KATE: I’m stood right next to you. What am I seeing?
JOHN: Nothing. I shouldn’t have brought you down here.
KATE: I’ve drunk too much wine to be afraid.
JOHN: I wouldn’t want you to be afraid.
KATE: Were you ever afraid?
KATE: Down here, I mean.
JOHN: Down here?
KATE: Did someone hurt you, all those years ago?
JOHN: Hurt me? Uh…not here.
JOHN: Not here, I said.
KATE: If we’re not strangers, can’t you tell me?
JOHN: Thought I just did.
KATE: Sorry. I’m trying to understand…
JOHN: Understand? Well maybe that’s what I’m afraid of.
KATE: You don’t have to be afraid of-
JOHN: Then the lights went off. Those damn fuses; the owner of that place ought to have been shot. And the dark down there was deep, (…). What did I think I was doing down there with her? After all that slaughter, that reckless taking of risks, rather than think about…think about her. I was, of course, more than (…), full of souls swallowed whole and white-hot yet within me, gifting me the spirit to…what? Take one more risk with her? What risk? She reached for me blindly and I found myself taking hold of her, and though it would have been so simple, so final to kiss her hard on the lips, crushing the life in her to ash, I found myself embracing that life with a tenderness to make me…sick. There, in that sudden dark, what kind of very different monster was I becoming?
KATE: It was such a darkness, so deep and sudden it was just instinct, I suppose, to reach out, take hold of him. And he held me just as sudden, and it was a hold warm and strong, wrapping itself right around me like a sweet dream on a cold night. I was crazy enough to try and kiss him, then something slipped.
Glass shatters on the ground.
KATE: It was the wine bottle: it must have been set down on the edge of the empty pool. He or I kicked it over, then my feet were slipping off that edge, slipping into the emptiness-
KATE: But then he had me, held tighter, holding me a moment over that drop with its mermaids and its dead rats before raising me up, helping me to get a footing on the poolside. And there, in that blackness, all made of soft, whispery sounds and warm, violent touchings, anything seemed possible. I felt him kiss at my brow, shift the kiss towards my cheek, and then slowly, slowly towards my lips.
JOHN: Yes, it would have been so easy: a kiss at her lips or the eyes or the ears, even, any of the usual portals lets this snake suck the egg dry, and the matter would have been settled safely enough if I cleaned up afterwards. Safe. I could have stepped above, settled back into my murderous solitude, locked the door in that loneliness no mortal soul is ever, ever allowed near, but no. No. That simple thing, her utter destruction, seemed suddenly impossible. Why? Who was she? She was alive, and suddenly…so was I.
KATE: He turned aside from that kiss. I tried to chase it with my own kiss, but we were shifting beyond kissing, anyway. Stumbling, fumbling over way down onto one of those lounger things by the side of the pool, shedding clothes as we went, and suddenly that dark was just as deep and dangerous as I wanted it to be.