The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer
Valentine’s Day, 2000
JOHN MARVEL LOOKED at his watch.
It was eight thirty-seven, and he’d done the same thing less than a minute earlier. He had promised Debbie he would be home by nine. Normally it wouldn’t matter, but tonight it did, although he wasn’t sure why.
He felt the cold invade his lungs as he stared up into the dome of light that masked the stars. Frost hung in an ethereal ring around the streetlamp, waiting to settle, and Marvel could feel it fingering his shins through the thin material of his trousers.
He didn’t like to be outdoors. It was too … fresh. Even here, where London had sprawled south – overlapping the river and coating what used to be the Garden of England with its grime and its traffic and its smell of soot.
Marvel had started to sprawl with it: too much home cooking.
Too much home.
Comfort had always made him restless. He needed to be always moving on, moving up, otherwise he got frustrated.
Now he looked across the road to the King’s Arms. It was filled with warmth and noise and booze. It had been more than a year since he’d been there – been drunk – and he still missed it like a lover, with a yearn in his chest and a dry lump in his throat. He wouldn’t have gone in tonight. Or any night. It was a test – a game he played with himself. Driving past, slowing down, craning to look.
But tonight he’d stopped. He didn’t know why. He was no more thirsty than on any of the other four hundred days since he had had a drink.
And then he’d seen the woman.
And now it was hard to stand here, so near, and yet so far. The pub’s grubby stained-glass windows were lit from behind, like Christ in a cathedral, calling all sinners.
Marvel checked his watch.
It was eight thirty-eight. The second hand arced through the quadrant in a series of cheap jerks.
‘Look,’ he sighed. ‘Are you going to jump or not?’
The woman on the ledge flinched and her fingers pressed more tightly against the brick parapet. In the cold amber glow, Marvel could see the goose-bumps stippling her skinny arms. She was wearing indoor clothes. A thin, strappy top and skinny jeans and those stupid little ballet shoes women wore nowadays instead of high heels.
But then, she didn’t strike him as a high-heels kind of girl. She had a pinched, undernourished look to her face that made her cheekbones sharp and her eyes seem huge, but in a way that was less Audrey Hepburn, more eating disorder.
Marvel guessed she was in her early twenties, but she could have been seventeen. Or forty.
She glanced at him and shrugged one bony shoulder in apology. ‘I … I’m waiting for a train,’ she said. Then she looked back down between her shoes at the tracks.
‘Interesting,’ said Marvel, with a sage nod of his head – as if she had explained everything.
He stepped towards her and leaned briefly over the parapet to look at the glimmering rails. While he did, she gripped harder and watched him warily – as if he might suddenly lunge at her, grab her, pull her backwards over the wall to safety.
Heroically save her life.
Despite his name, Marvel did no such thing.
Instead he gave a humourless grunt and said, ‘Then you’re shit out of luck. The trains don’t go through here after eight.’
She said nothing for a long moment. Then, without raising her head, she said, ‘Wh–– what time is it now?’
Marvel lifted his watch again – tilting it so that the face was illuminated by the streetlight. ‘Eight forty.’
The girl nodded slowly at the tracks, her straggly brown hair veiling everything but her brow and the red tip of her nose. She wrinkled the brow and wiped the nose on the back of her hand.
‘Oh,’ she said, and Marvel could tell she was crying.
Crying was not his thing, so he decided against words of comfort or a pat on the back, which might open some kind of emotional floodgate. He just stood there while she sobbed quietly.
‘I can’t get anything right,’ she finally whispered.
‘Join the club,’ he snorted.
She only shook her head slowly, apparently declining to join the ranks of any club that would have him as a member – even in her desperate state.
‘What’s your name?’ he said.
She didn’t tell him and he didn’t care, but he had to pretend. It was expected.
Marvel wasn’t going to keep the nine-o’clock promise. He was glad. Promises were traps; shackles to be broken.
I’ll be home by nine.
I’m not in the pub.
I love you.
The girl was still crying a little.
He looked at his watch again. Eight forty-three. ‘Come on,’ he said brusquely. ‘Hop back over and I’ll take you home.’
She gave a long, shuddering sigh and nodded fractionally. ‘OK.’
Marvel was a little surprised. That was easy.
His jaw clenched with annoyance. She’d probably never meant to jump at all. He’d stood here in the freezing February night for almost thirty bloody minutes in full tortuous view of the King’s Arms, and the whole time she’d just been waiting for an opportunity to climb back over the wall.
His life was full of them and they made him sick.
Still, it had given him a good excuse to be late. Not that he’d really needed one. He often lied to Debbie about where he’d been and what he’d done, and it didn’t change a thing. What could she say? In his line of work you could make up any old bollocks and people had to believe you. Perk of the job.
He put out a hand to steady the girl as she swung her legs over the parapet, but she swayed away from him, so he left her to it. She slid awkwardly off the wall and dropped on to the road beside him. She was almost a foot shorter than he was, and Marvel was no giant.
She shivered and hugged her own arms for warmth.