an extract from the novel
is a lovely idea for a book, and Dolley has got the pacing pretty
much right ... If he can keep on coming up with good novel ideas like
this, he'll produce some really spectacular books in the future."
- Emerald City
"An interesting novel with no shortage of
skill and the more it's read, the more you become involved ... A good
book, Mr. Dolley!"
"An engaging read with interesting characters
and intelligent action. This novel is among my most recommended!"
Slice open an author's head (not recommended)
and you will find dozens, sometimes hundreds, of ideas for novels fighting
for attention. During the late 90s I had three which were particularly
persistent. Each, I was convinced, would make a great book but every
time I tried to flesh them out, I had to give up. Something was missing
and the ideas were too good to waste on any old story.
Then, in 2000, something unexpected happened. I realised
that my three ideas were not three separate stories but three facets
of the same story. And from there, everything flowed. I wrote the outline
in an hour and the deeper I took it the more everything meshed--the
characters, the science, the plot--they were so right for each other.
None could have existed without the others. It doesn't often happen.
But when it does. You get Resonance.
Graham Smith locked the Post Room door, turning the key
clockwise as far as it would go. He paused, counting his breaths--one,
two--then turned the key counter-clockwise. Another pause, more breaths,
it had to be four this time, four was good, all even numbers were but
four especially so. He repeated the procedure, action for action, breath
for breath. Lock, unlock; breathe and count. Twice with the right hand
and twice with the left. Only then could he leave work, satisfied that
the door was indeed locked and all was well with the world.
Not that it would be for long. You can't create a world in seven days
without cutting corners.
"Are you going to the Princess Louise tonight?"
A woman's voice. Anne from Small Businesses? He didn't turn to find
out, he knew the question wasn't for him. People didn't talk to Graham
Smith unless they had to. Or they were new. Before someone took them
aside for a friendly chat, thinking themselves out of earshot, thinking
that just because someone was quiet they must be deaf as well. But he'd
heard them, heard the whispered warnings by the coffee machine. Don't
bother with Graham, he'll never answer. I've worked here fifteen years
and never got a word out of him. Don't get me wrong, he's not dangerous
or anything. Just weird. Weird but harmless.
The woman brushed past, not giving Graham a second look as
he turned and dropped the Post Room key into his jacket pocket. He'd
been right. It had been Anne, now deep in conversation with the new
girl from personnel, planning their night out, eyes flashing, words
dancing between them. Conversation came so easily to some people. A
tap they could turn on and off without ever worrying what would come
Something Graham Smith had never mastered. He'd barely spoken since
his ninth birthday and that was twenty-four years ago.
He followed them into the lobby, watched as they waved to Andy at the
door, barely breaking sentence as they wished him a good night and pushed
through onto the pavement outside.
Graham carefully placed the Post Room key on the reception desk with
his right hand--Mondays were always right-handed days--and smiled towards
the guard's left shoulder. Eye contact was unlucky whatever the day.
He stepped outside, blinking into the early summer evening. London
on a sunny day in June--bright summer clothes, red buses and black taxis.
Noise and bustle all around.
He turned right, striding out along the pavement, matching his step
to the paving stones, assiduously avoiding the cracks.
Don't step on the cracks--everyone knew the sense of that. One of the
first things you learned as a child. But too many people forgot. Or
didn't care. Graham Smith cared. He knew that paving stones set the
cadence of a street; that cracks regulated the stride length and set
the resonance that kept everything stable and harmonious. Step on the
cracks and the street slipped out of kilter. Imperceptibly at first.
Minute changes around the edges, a new person living at number thirty-three,
a strange car outside number five. Step on the cracks too often and
... well, anything could happen. He'd seen houses turned into blocks
of flats overnight. Parades of shops come and go. Terraces demolished,
office blocks erected. All overnight when no one was looking.
The world was a far more fragile place than people realised. And every
now and then a thread would work loose and something or someone would
A cloud of diesel smoke spilled out from a bus revving away from its
stop. Graham stepped diagonally to avoid it, stretching three pavers
over. A few steps more and he had to change lanes again, the pavement
filling with commuters and tourists. He sidestepped, jumped and picked
his way through the crowd. One eye on his feet and one a few paving
stones ahead, searching out the next obstacle.
Which was when he saw her.
She was walking in front of him--four paving stones ahead. Four paving
stones exactly, her feet studiously avoiding the cracks, just like Graham.
Except that she didn't have to dart back and forth to avoid the other
pedestrians--they moved aside for her. He watched, fascinated, as a
group of men split apart to let her pass, turning as they did so, their
eyes scanning every inch of her, their attention wandering so much that
Graham had to side-step quickly to avoid a collision.
The young woman walked on, indifferent, not looking left nor right.
Graham was fascinated. She flowed along the road, cat-like, not walking
so much as dancing with the street, her feet matching perfectly the
rhythm of the pavement.
Who was she?
And why hadn't he seen her before? He walked this road every day, always
at the same time. Was she a tourist? He could see no telltale sign.
No camera, no map, not even a bag. Her hands swung loose by her side.
Elegant hands, long and slim, like her. Everything about her resonated
elegance ... except ... except now that he looked closer he could see
that her clothes were dirty--her short brown dress looked like it had
been slept in for weeks. Or was that the fashion these days? And her
hair was badly dyed, a metallic red streaked with black ... or was that
He followed her, couldn't take his eyes off her, as she cut a swathe
through the packed pavement. He watched her from her long, bare legs
to her streaky, tousled top. She was like a sinuous metronome, clicking
out an unchanging beat, looking straight ahead and not deviating an
Something else caught his eye. What was that above her right ankle?
A bruise? No, a tattoo. Something in blue. He quickened his pace, he
had to know everything about this girl. He closed the distance between
them to three paving slabs, two. He could almost make it out. A bird?
Yes, a bird. A tattoo of a blue bird.
He was so engrossed he almost missed his tube station. The entrance
loomed on his right like a deep, dark tunnel. The girl walked on. Graham
hovered by the entrance, hoping she'd stop or turn.
He had a choice. To take the tube like every other day ... or follow
the girl. Curiosity begged him to follow, instinct said no--he had a
routine, routines had to be followed, not girls.
He looked one way and then the other. He couldn't decide. He watched
her bobbing head disappearing into the crowd, he peered into the shadow
of the foyer; the turnstiles, the ticket machines. He looked back.
Forty minutes later, Graham was counting the paces as he
walked between the post-box on the corner to the near gate-post of his
home at number thirty-three. A ritual he'd started four years ago when
he'd first moved to Oakhurst Drive. A ritual that demanded he arrive
exactly on the sixty-sixth step. Sixty-sixth step, left foot, no room
for error or bad things were certain to follow.
Fifty-five, fifty-six, he passed next-door's laburnum dead on schedule,
his feet rising and falling on the dusty grey tarmac. A light wind kept
him company, swirling eddies of sweet wrappers around his feet.
He arrived at the gate exactly on the sixty-sixth step, his left toe
precisely in line with the inner edge of the gate-post. He turned, swivelling
on the ball of his left foot, unlatched the gate with his right hand
and walked through. Two steps and turn, breathe and reach, he took the
gate in his left hand and swung it gently back and forth--once, twice,
three times--then let it close.
He listened for the latch to click shut then gave it a gentle tug to
check with his right-hand--it was a Monday--then, satisfied, turned,
relaxed and ambled--not even bothering to count the steps--to the door
of his pre-war pebble-dashed semi-detached house.
He was home.
Another day safely negotiated.
He took out his key and pushed it into the lock.
It wouldn't turn.
He tried again.
It still wouldn't turn.
He tried with his left hand, both hands. He took the key out, counted
to four and tried again.
Was it stuck? Was it ...
A sudden intake of breath. Not again. Not so soon. He'd been so careful
A muffled sound came from inside the house. Footsteps on the stairs,
someone coming down, someone inside his house, the house he shared with
no one, the house no one ever visited.
A shape appeared, distorted by the frosted glass door. A woman's voice
on the other side, nervous, uncertain.
"Is that you, Rob?"
Graham froze, his hand still clutching the key in the lock. It was
The shape filled the glass door, he could make out a hand moving towards
"Who's there?" The voice was louder this time, a hint of panic. Graham
withdrew the key, trying to be quiet, trying to keep calm while he backed
away from the door. It began to open, he turned, ran, fumbled with the
gate, forced himself through.
A voice came from the doorstep. "Who are you? What do you want?"
He ran, flying along the pavement, his breaths coming short and fast,
his lungs burning, his eyes watering with the strain. And this time
he didn't count or care where he stepped. It was too late for that.
Bad things had already happened.
He turned right at the corner, dropping down to a fast walk,
turning his head every few seconds to check he wasn't being followed,
praying that the woman had given up and gone back inside.
It seemed she had.
But what if she'd called the police?
He crossed over, waited for a gap in traffic then hurried across to
take the next turning left. He had to get out of the area, stick to
the back roads and not look suspicious.
And he had to find his way home. Wherever that was.
His hand reached instinctively into his jacket pocket, searching for
the piece of paper he knew it must contain, his lifeline whenever the
world and his memory became detached.
He took it out slowly and unfolded the note.
Home Address: 47 Wealdstone Lane
Wealdstone Lane? He couldn't believe it! He'd left there six
years ago! He remembered packing, he remembered waiting all morning
for the removers to turn up. He'd moved to the flat in Pierrepoint Street
... until that had unravelled four years ago and he'd found himself
at Oakhurst Drive.
Had the last six years unwound?
He read the rest of the note.
Job: Office Messenger
Work Address: Post Room (Room 001), 12 Westminster Street
At least his job hadn't changed. He'd worked at the Department of Trade
and Industry since he'd left school at sixteen.
He stared at the note, rereading every line, hoping the words might
magically alter in front of his eyes and give him back the life he remembered.
A group of children pushed by, running out into the road to pass, laughing
and shouting and seemingly unaware of the fragility of the world they
were growing up in. A lawnmower engine started up a few doors down,
a car cruised by. Normality all around, seeping in to cover the cracks.
Graham slipped the note back into his pocket and took a deep breath.
Wealdstone Lane was about three quarters of a mile back the way he'd
come. Back through Oakhurst Drive if he wanted the shortest route.
He took the circuitous route instead, settling back into his walking
ritual, looking for landmarks when the streets weren't paved, markers
he could use to pace between, counting the strides and making sure he
always finished on an even step. Finding comfort in the simple ritual
and the hope that, somehow, he was helping the world bed down and the
healing process begin.
It was nearly seven o'clock by the time he turned into Wealdstone Lane.
The street looked much the same as he remembered it. The house on the
corner had a new drive. Number thirty-five had been repainted. But beneath
the trimmings the structure of the street remained unchanged. The same
red-brick semis, tightly packed. The same undulating pavement of cracked
and badly laid paving stones.
And there was his home, number forty-seven, just coming into view.
He'd been born in that house. He knew every inch of it. Nothing had
Except the wrought iron gate.
It was black. The old gate had been silver. He'd thought about painting
it black but had never gotten around to it.
He unlatched the gate and stepped through, keeping his feet cleanly
positioned in the centre of the patio paving stones--one, two and turn,
breathe and reach, switch hands and swing--once, twice, three times,
release and click. He smiled, he couldn't help it. The beauty of ritual
and the unexpected joy of seeing an old friend. The gate could have
performed the ritual by itself, all those thousands of times it had
swung back and forth to his touch. Every caress, every motion, ingrained
into its fabric.
He took a deep breath and felt for his key as he walked the few yards
to his front door. Would the key fit? He counted to four then slowly
slipped the key into the lock.
The key turned, smooth and unchecked. He counted to two, relaxed his
grip and let the pressure of the lock slowly force the key back to its
original position. Another count, another turn, left, right and push.
The door swung open.
Inside, it was like stepping back six years. The carpets, the stairs,
the furniture--all exactly as he remembered. Only his face in the hall
mirror had aged, everything else looked straight out of a time capsule.
He walked from room to room, picking up familiar objects, opening cupboard
doors, fingering ornaments. He recognised them all.
Even the ones that shouldn't be there. Like the sofa he'd sold when
he moved to Pierrepoint Street. And the electric kettle he'd bought
only six months ago.
He walked upstairs, slowly taking in his surroundings. Everything familiar,
everything clean and orderly. He crossed the landing into his bedroom
at the back. Again, everything was present and in its place. His small
pine bed, his blue quilt, his dressing table, lamp and clock.
And his notice board. Covered as usual in yellow Post-it notes. Everything
he needed to know would be recorded there. The name of his doctor, his
dentist, any appointments he had or addresses he needed to know. Everything
he'd need for times like this, when the world slipped a thread and became
detached from his memory.
He read them one by one. All were written in his handwriting and yet
he had no recollection of writing any of them--even the one dated yesterday.
He crossed the room to his bookshelf and ran a hand along the spines,
checking the titles. A few he didn't recognise, a few that should have
been there weren't. A story repeated with his clothes. The new jacket
he'd bought last week was missing and there was a pair of black jeans
he'd never seen before.
Another thought hit him. How far had this thread unravelled?
He stepped uneasily onto the landing. His parents' bedroom door was
closed. But then it always had been. At least, since the last time,
the time his mother had disappeared.
He stopped in front of the door, unsure, his hand hovering over the
door handle. Should he knock? Call out?
He knocked tentatively, the word 'mum' lodged in his throat.
He closed his fingers around the knob, twisting and ever so slowly
easing the door open. The door creaked. He peered in. Not sure what
to expect. Would he see his mother, his father, an empty room?
He could barely breathe. His hand began to shake. He pushed the door
wider. Their double bed came into view; the pink bedspread, the fluffed
pillows, the two bedside tables.
His hopes fell. Both tables were empty; no book, no glass of water,
no open box of tissues. No sign of occupation.
He forced himself further into the room and checked behind the door.
His mother's dressing gown was still there. He opened the wardrobe.
It was full; dresses and suits; skirts and jackets. All their clothes
were there, wrapped in the smell of mothballs. He wondered if he should
call out. Was there a chance they'd hear? Was there a chance they were
still alive? Somewhere?
He didn't call and no one answered. The story of Graham Smith's life.
The next day he set off for work at his usual time, walking
to the tube station at Harrow-on-the-Hill, waiting on the platform for
the Baker Street train. The train came and he jumped on, quickly moving
inside to take one of the few remaining seats. He liked to sit and gaze
out the window on the opposite side. To while away his journey by looking
out for landmarks. He'd tick them off as they flew by; that school,
the big fir tree, the funny shaped tower. They gave meaning to his journey.
He wasn't just travelling from A to B; he was helping preserve the fabric
of the world.
A fabric in need of constant reinforcement. The more something's observed
the stronger it becomes. Its edges become sharper, its colours brighter.
But ignore something long enough and it always goes away. That's the
nature of the world. One day you ride by and it's gone.
The train pulled into and out of stations; people got up, sat down,
walked by, hung from straps, the train filling with every stop. A large
man carrying a suitcase shuffled in front of Graham and grabbed a strap.
Graham shifted in his seat, looking for another unobstructed view of
the window. A girl stared back at him. He looked away, gazing hurriedly
at someone's back while watching the girl out of the corner of his eye.
She was still looking at him, her eyes fixed. Had he left some remnant
of breakfast on his face?
He moved his tongue in a wide sweep around his mouth, checking for
crumbs. The girl did the same and smiled.
Graham reddened and slid along his seat as far to the right as he could,
away from her line of sight.
The train entered a tunnel; there was a sudden whoosh of noise and
a momentary blackness followed by the stutter of the carriage lights.
Graham leaned even further to the right, trying to catch his reflection
in the blackness of the window opposite. Was there something strange
about him today? Had he cut himself shaving? He strained his eyes, peering
at the badly focussed image. He ran a hand through his hair, over his
face. He found nothing. No breakfast, no blood, no enormous spot.
He looked down at his clothes. Had he misbuttoned his shirt? Was there
There was nothing, nothing that he could see.
He checked the other passengers, was anyone else looking at him? He
slowly scanned the carriage, watching people's faces in his peripheral
vision, never looking at anyone directly, never giving anyone a chance
to take offence.
No one appeared to be watching him.
Except the man by the doorway! He was looking. Wasn't he?
The man looked away.
The train lurched and swung, tunnels came and went in quick succession.
Graham was confused. He was anonymous. People didn't look at him. Ever.
Even if the man by the door was a coincidence there was still the girl.
She'd smiled at him. No one ever smiles on the tube.
He glanced back towards the girl, with her face hidden behind the ample
body of the man with the suitcase he could watch her in safety. She
was wearing jeans, her legs crossed, her right foot bouncing up and
down with the motion of the train, her shoe loose and flapping, her
No, it couldn't be!
She had a tattoo, just above the right ankle, just below the hem of
her jeans. A tattoo of a blue bird.
Graham's mind raced. Was it the same girl? Her hair wasn't red, was
it? It was more orange from the brief glimpse he'd had. But that didn't
mean anything these days. It might have been dyed. Or a wig.
And if it was the same girl ...
He was intrigued. And panicked at the same time. Intrigued by the possibility
that here was someone who saw the world as he did. Who appreciated the
danger of stepping on cracks. And panicked by the fear that she didn't;
that it was all an act, a joke primed to explode in his face. He'd been
the butt of too many jokes to trust the first stranger that smiled at
him on a train.
And even if it wasn't a joke what could he do about it? He wasn't like
other people. Any attempt at casual conversation would end in disaster.
He'd learned that lesson a long time ago. The rest of the world was
on a different wavelength to him, anything he said would either be laughed
at or cause offence.
The train began to brake hard. Graham looked up, was it Baker Street
already? The train continued its long deceleration, commuters grabbed
hold of straps and hand rails, newspapers were folded, bags picked up.
The train stopped. Graham stayed in his seat, watching for the girl
as an endless stream of people filed between them. He caught glimpses
of her between the bodies. She smiled, he looked at his shoes. She was
attractive in a street urchin sort of way, her features angular, her
hair bright orange and unbrushed. What was she; twenty, twenty-two?
A few more people filed past. He looked for her again. She'd gone.
He was still thinking of the girl on the tube as he performed
his morning unlocking ritual on the Post Room door. He'd looked for
her on the platform, he'd looked for her on the Bakerloo train, he'd
half-expected to see her walking ahead of him on Westminster Street.
But he hadn't.
He pushed open the door and switched on the lights. The Post Room flickered
into life. He walked over to the terminal in the near corner and switched
it on, waited for the screen to come to life so he could log in and
print off the staff list.
"Morning, Graham." A young Indian girl came through the door. Graham
smiled and nodded in her direction. Sharmila smiled back and hung up
"Oh, I nearly forgot, Mr. Anton was in the lobby. He wants you to
call round at three this afternoon. Something about a large batch of
documents that need to go out on the afternoon van."
Graham picked up a Post-it pad on the desk and searched for a pen.
Which room was Mr. Anton in these days? 336? He browsed the staff list
on the screen to make sure. There it was, U.S. desk, room 336. He carefully
wrote out the details and stuck the note to the side of his in-tray.
A dozen other Post-its ringed his in-tray like an early Christmas decoration.
Another twenty adorned the notice board above. They were his memory
made tangible. Whatever happened to the world outside, however dislocated
his memory became, he knew that here was one place he could trust. One
place that kept pace with an ever-changing world.
He didn't know how other people coped. He used to ask--his parents,
other kids--but they'd look at him as though he was stupid or swiftly
change the subject.
His father had taken him aside one night just before his eighth birthday.
"Sit down, Graham," he'd said. "We need to talk." Graham had sat down,
shuffling along his bed to sit back against the headboard.
"Children can be cruel," his father had said, smiling and making room
for himself on the edge of the bed. "They pick on kids who are different.
They'll pick on you if you keep asking these questions. See?"
Graham had nodded, bouncing his head up and down in exaggerated agreement,
his arms clenched tightly around his bear.
"Good," his father had said, looking relieved. "We'll never talk about
this again. Right?"
And he hadn't, though it hadn't stopped him thinking about it. It was
obvious people didn't want to talk about unravelling. He understood
that now. It made them uneasy. So they pretended it never happened.
And hoped to God they were somewhere else, safe and untouched, whenever
the next thread worked loose.
Graham pushed the mail trolley along the short corridor
back into the Post Room.
"Well, if it isn't Mr. Post-it."
Graham's heart sank. Surely it had gone eleven. He always timed his
rounds to be out of the Post Room whenever Ray was driving the mid-morning
van. He glanced at the clock on the far wall, just the slightest of
glances, enough to confirm the time--eleven fifteen--and then quickly
turned the glance into a deferential nod towards Ray.
And added a smile, his shield against the world.
"Shut up, Ray, you know he doesn't like it."
That was Sharmila, undoubtedly the reason Ray was still hanging around
the Post Room. She was sat at her desk, probably trying to work, while
Ray hovered behind her, looking down her dress.
"Of course he does," said Ray. "Look at him, he's smiling."
Graham turned away, retracting his smile and pushing the trolley over
to the sorting stacks. If only he could push Ray away so easily.
"I'm surprised he hasn't stuck one of those notes on you, Shar."
Ray laughed. Sharmila hissed something inaudible. Graham started sorting
the mail from the trolley. He picked up the first envelope and looked
for the name; G Stevens, 5th floor. He didn't recognise the name, not
that that in itself was unusual. People had a habit of coming and going.
He checked the list for G Stevens, and found her in room 510. She must
have taken Jerzy's old job. He checked the list again. What had happened
to Jerzy? He wasn't anywhere on the list and he hadn't heard anyone
talking about Jerzy leaving. There'd been no collection or leaving card.
At least not that he remembered.
But then that's what often happened. Sometimes people just disappeared.
Their name would be removed from the staff list and all record of them
having worked in the building would be erased. They'd never existed,
never worked for the Department and no one would ever talk about them
again. The office taboo; you don't talk about the unravelled.
Even when they came back.
Which Graham couldn't understand at all. How could you not talk to
an old friend who'd disappeared for six months? But it happened so many
times. They disappear, they come back and everyone treats them as strangers.
Even close friends, people they'd gone drinking with every lunch time,
would pass them by in the corridor without a second look.
It was like they'd broken some unwritten rule. They'd come back. They'd
made people face up to something they preferred not to. So they had
to be punished, made to start over as though it was their first day
and everyone was a stranger.
Laughter broke out behind him. Ray again. He had an unpleasant laugh,
more sneer than humour.
"Shush!" hissed Sharmila. "He'll hear."
Graham tried to block Ray out of his mind as he filed the first envelope
in 510's pigeon hole. Not that he understood why Ray was still employed
by the department. He'd been arrested last year for abducting little
girls. Even used the department's van. Or so Graham had heard. You hear
a lot when you keep your mouth closed and your ears open.
Though he'd never heard what had happened to the charges against Ray.
Dropped most likely. The legal system was in a mess. Everyone said so.
You only had to read the papers.
"Well, nice talking to you, Graham."
Ray's departing shot, loaded with sarcasm and fired in Graham's direction.
Graham ignored it, as he always did, lifting a hand in acknowledgement
and keeping his eyes on his work.
"See you tomorrow, Shar."
Ray whistled into the distance, the delivery bay doors swinging shut
"He's all right really. Once you get to know him," said Sharmila looking
almost wistfully towards the door.
Graham had known many Rays over the years. None of them had improved
The cloakroom door swung closed behind him as Graham stepped
out into the second floor lobby. He liked to use the men's room on the
second floor on Tuesdays -- it was part of his rota; five men's toilets,
five working days. Visit them in turn and keep them all functioning.
So easy for a room to lose cohesion without regular use. Once you took
people out of a room anything could happen. Store rooms were notoriously
He pressed the button for the lift and waited. The seconds ticked by,
he checked his watch, rocked back and forth on his heels and counted
the first row of ceiling tiles.
The lift bell rang as he counted the twelfth tile--always a good sign.
Lifts that arrive on an odd number never feel right. They're either
packed or stop at every floor or there's someone inside you don't want
The lift doors opened and Graham walked in, carefully avoiding eye
contact and turning to face the doors as soon as he could.
"Hello, Graham, haven't seen you today."
Graham beamed. He hadn't noticed Brenda in the corner. He turned and
grinned and gave her his 'maybe this afternoon' sign--a shrug and a
fist rotated clockwise, one of the half dozen or so signs he'd developed
over the years.
"I'll look forward to it."
He liked Brenda--always had--they'd joined the department at the same
time, Brenda as a clerical officer, Graham as a messenger. She made
him feel almost normal. She didn't treat him as deaf or stupid, she
didn't slow down her speech or raise her voice or talk about him as
though he wasn't there. She wasn't brusque or patronising. She made
him feel visible, something that Graham Smith appreciated more than
He waved goodbye to Brenda on the ground floor and slipped back into
the Post Room to pick up his jacket and sandwiches.
And found something unexpected.
There was a second note in his jacket pocket.
Do it now. They're on to you.
He read it again, shocked. What did it mean? He flipped it over--blank--flipped
it back. Do it now. They're on to you. Do what now? Who was on
And who had written it? He didn't recognise the handwriting. Which
was odd. He was used to finding strange notes in his pocket but they
were always in the same handwriting. And it was always the same note--even
if he never remembered writing it--it always contained the same basic
information--name, address, job, place of work. All the information
he'd need to get home or find his way to work. But this?
Had someone slipped it into his jacket while he'd been out of the room?
Or maybe before that--on the street or on the tube? It hadn't been there
when he'd left this morning, had it?
Not that he could trust his memory.
Best to ignore it, he decided. Ignore it and it will go
away. It'll be a joke, probably Ray. He stopped at the kerb and waited
for the lights to change. People milled all around him; the noise of
lunch time traffic and conversation, music spilling out from the shops
and passing cars.
The lights changed and a wall of people surged over the road. Graham
hung back and let them flow around him. Then he was back on the pavement,
his mind free of strange notes and soothed instead by the calming mantra
of ritual. Left and right, back and forth, one foot after the other,
each step preordained and symbiotic. Streets were like pets--they loved
to be stroked. They loved the repetition, the constancy, the daily caress
of a well-measured stride.
He noticed her shoes first, walking alongside him, matching his stride
and avoiding the cracks. Her blue bird tattoo rising and falling to
the amplitude of the street.
Then she spoke. Her voice low, soft and, unexpectedly, American.
"Don't look around. Look straight ahead. They're watching."
Graham wobbled momentarily, his eyes swivelling nervously from the
girl on his left to whoever might be lurking in the shop doorways to
"Pretend I'm asking for money."
She walked a little ahead of him, her body half turned towards him,
her face boring into his. He kept on walking, not sure what he was supposed
"Did you get my note? Look, I don't know what it is you do but whatever
it is you better do it soon. They're on to you and they're gonna stop
you. Any way they can. You know what I mean?"
He shook his head. He didn't have a clue what she was talking about.
"It's all right, you can talk to me. I'm a friend. Probably the only
friend you've got at the moment. Trust me, there is some way serious
shit going down and you're right in the middle of it. People want you
dead. Important people with a lot of money and a lot of friends."
Graham swallowed hard and kept walking. This had got to be a joke.
He was invisible to the world. No one could possibly have any interest
"Trust me, it's for real. You don't have much time. And burn that note
I gave you, they go through your garbage."
She peeled off and immediately latched onto a middle-aged couple walking
in the other direction.
"Spare some change, lady?"
Graham spent the rest of the afternoon in turmoil. What
the hell was going on? Was the girl insane or part of some elaborate
He couldn't fathom it. If it was a joke, what was the point? To frighten
him, to make him do something stupid? He could imagine Ray setting him
up, he could imagine Ray persuading a girlfriend to play along. But
he couldn't imagine Ray not being there to watch. That wasn't Ray. He'd
have to be there and he'd make sure he was seen to be there.
But if it wasn't Ray?
It had to be mistaken identity. The girl had mixed him up with someone
else. That or she really was insane.
He looked out for her on his journey home that evening. Once or twice
he thought he caught a glimpse but either he was mistaken or she didn't
want to be seen.
Gradually he pushed her out of his mind, burying himself instead in
ritual and extra counting. Nothing like monotonous exercise to cleanse
Graham performed his ten o'clock door locking ritual; lock,
unlock, breathe and count, right-handed for the front door, left-handed
for the back. He latched the chain on the front door and bolted the
back. And then did it all again.
You can't be too careful about home security.
Or overlook the fragility of memory.
He scribbled 'Tuesday' on a Post-it note and pressed it firmly to the
front door, burning the image into his memory--front door locked,
Tuesday. He repeated the process at the back door. He knew only
too well the fear of lying awake in the middle of the night, unable
to remember if he'd locked the doors, unsure if a memory came from last
night or the night before.
Peace of mind was always worth the extra effort.
Which made him remember the girl's warning about the note. He stood
for a moment at the foot of the stairs, wondering. What if she was right?
What if people were going through his rubbish?
He went back to the kitchen, picked up a box of matches and set the
note alight, holding it between his finger and thumb before letting
it fall into the ash tray by the cooker. He watched the note crinkle
and blacken then took the ash tray into the cloakroom under the stairs
and flushed its contents down the toilet. Let someone try and piece
that back together.
He awoke suddenly in the night. Everything black except
for a grey veil of light at the bedroom window. Something had woken
him. He wasn't sure what. A noise, a voice--something--nearby.
The girl's warning flew into his head--people want you dead.
He froze. Listening. Everything quiet. Everything except the
thud of his heart in his chest.
There it was again! A scraping noise coming from his back garden! He
threw back his covers and fell out of bed, landing on the carpet on
all fours. He stayed there for a second, ears pricked like a dog. Unsure
what to do.
The noise returned, not so loud this time. What was it? Was someone
trying to break in? Or was it a cat?
He inched towards the window, fighting his fear. The curtain rippled
slowly in the cool night air. His window was open. Just an inch, he
liked the fresh air. Had that been a mistake? Should he have heeded
the girl's warning and kept it locked? Maybe he should close it now,
pull down the sash and lock it tight? Or would that draw the killer's
Calm down, Graham. Why does it have to be a killer? It could
be a burglar, a twelve year old kid on a dare, a scavenging dog.
He rose to a crouch and crept towards the window. Everything
seemed lighter as his eyes gradually became accustomed to the dark.
He moved to the side of the curtain and stretched up on tip toe. Slowly
he pulled the edge of the curtain back, an inch--no more--just enough
to peer down at the garden.
Nothing. The small back lawn, the flower beds--everything grey and
He eased the curtain wider and leant further in. Still nothing. No
movement, no noise. He could see all the back garden now, all except
the area immediately below the window.
He stepped gingerly across the room and out into the corridor, the
carpet cold and soft against his bare feet. He'd check the front, the
box room curtains were open, he'd have a good view from there.
He tip-toed towards the window. The houses across the street stared
back, grey and silent, not a single light in any window.
He edged closer. He could see the street now, two lines of parked cars,
his front wall ...
His gate! It was open. He never left it open. And no one had come to
the house last night, no one had knocked at the door or pushed anything
through the letter box. He'd have heard, he'd have seen.
Someone had to be out there, now. They'd left the gate open for a quick
getaway. They were around the back trying the windows. That's how they
worked, wasn't it?
He flew back to his bedroom. He had to find some clothes, he had to
get dressed, he had to get out.
People want you dead, her words wouldn't go away. He threw off
his pyjamas, searched the darkness for whatever clothes he could find.
He froze, one leg in a pair of trousers. The sound came from his back
door, he was certain of it. The sound of a lock being turned. He had
bolted the back door, hadn't he? Back door locked, Tuesday. The
memory came flooding back. But what day was it now? Wednesday? Thursday?
He hopped and pulled at his trousers, one leg was stuck and the other
was cramping. Shit! Shit! Shit! He fell over, still pulling and stretching.
He had to get out. He had to get out now!
A low thud came from downstairs. Then another. Graham swept the floor
with his hands, frantically searching for his shoes. He found them,
struggled with the laces, grabbed his jacket, his keys, his wallet.
He flew downstairs. People want you dead. He had to get out.
It was his only hope. There was no telephone. He wouldn't have one in
the house. He was alone, totally alone.
His hands closed on the chain at the front door. He held his breath
as he slipped the chain and slowly, noiselessly, opened the door.
A window smashed behind him. The kitchen! He pulled the front door
towards him and squeezed through, easing it closed behind him--no ritual,
no counting, barely a breath.
Had he been seen? He prayed not, he prayed that whoever was breaking
in had been too busy working on the kitchen window to notice him slip
out the front.
He stepped lightly toward the open gate, slipped through, glanced back
towards the house. A circle of light flitted alone in the darkness--a
torch light--ascending the stairs.
He turned away, head down, walking fast, trying to suppress the noise
of his feet on the paving stones. The night was so quiet. If he ran
they'd hear him for miles.
The moon shone through dappled clouds, its light haloed in a giant
circle. In the distance, the orange glow from a line of street lights
bled into the sky. He walked on, stepping through the moonlight. Was
the man alone, was there a lookout in a car?
He felt like he was wading through treacle, would the corner never
come? People want you dead. Was this what it was like to be at
the epicentre of an unravelling? Had all the others he experienced been
mere aftershocks? Was he about to disappear like his father?
A noise from behind. A door closing--his door--running feet. He ran,
no point being quiet now. A car door slammed, an engine started. Graham
ducked around the corner, tyres screeched behind him. He ran out between
two parked cars, racing across the road in the darkness. More tyre screeching,
the car had reached the corner and was turning, its headlights swung
round, light bouncing off the curving avenue of trees and parked cars.
Graham ran ahead of the beam, keeping low, the path ahead alive with
light and bouncing shadows. Trees loomed out of the night, twisted branches
dancing between grey and black.
The car was catching up. Seconds away. Graham ducked lower, keeping
to the shadows, praying he was hidden by the line of parked cars. There
was an alley up ahead, a footpath between the houses, too narrow for
cars. If he reached it the car couldn't follow. By the time the car
had driven around the block Graham would be gone.
Unless the driver stopped.
And followed on foot.
Graham ducked into the alley, praying his exit had been obscured in
the shadows, praying never to hear the squeal of brakes. The car flew
past. Graham ran. A deep darkness descended as the alley curved between
high wooden fences. It snaked left then right. Light appeared, the distant
glow of shops from the High Street about two hundred yards up ahead.
Still no sound of brakes.
A moment's optimism soon smothered. People want you dead.
He ran faster. The lights of the High Street drawing him onward. He'd
be safe there. There'd be people; witnesses, passing traffic, police
cars. The alley opened onto a cul-de-sac; more lines of cars and houses
in darkness. He pounded along the pavement, the lights of the High Street
bouncing closer, he could see them through the film of water that covered
his eyes. Pain was everywhere; his lungs, his chest, his legs. His nose
ran and his head hurt. But he kept running.
People want you dead. The High Street grew ahead of him, the
shops, the lights, the faint noise of traffic. He was nearly there.
A girl sat in a shop doorway opposite, a girl with bright orange hair.
He was running towards her. She stood up, waved. He was crossing the
road, barely glancing right or left.
She pointed to a huge cardboard box at the back of the doorway. Her
hands began to fold back the flaps at the mouth of the box.
"Come on! Inside."
He could see the darkness within, bright lights all around, safety
beckoning, could he trust her, was it a trap? Before he could answer
he was diving, full length, hitting the marble tiles of the doorway
on his hands and knees and sliding, scurrying across the cardboard flaps
and into the blackness beyond. The flaps closed behind him, darkness
descended and all around was the lingering smell of stale sweat.
© Chris Dolley 2005, 2006.
Resonance is published by Baen Books (November 2005, ISBN:
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