I’m sitting on the train heading north and I’m watching a squaddie in the seat in front of me chatting up a twenty-something in power suit. He’s chunky and solid and healthy, with cropped hair and an open, eager smile. She’s small, and she’s glowing; not obvious or pretty-pretty, but fresh, and the glow makes her attractive. She is impressed with him. Impressed enough to write down her number for him before he gets off. The romantic thing is, she uses an eye pencil to write it with, on a sheet torn from her diary. He is impressed too, though whether with her or just his good fortune, I don’t know.
I don’t catch the detail of his chat but I get the general idea. It’s ten past seven in the morning, rain is pattering against the windows. I’ve got to spend the next two days in Leeds.
I really hate Leeds.
The train rocks me back to sleep.
The next thing is that I’m stepping blinking onto the platform, looking for Kirkland, who’s supposed to be waiting to pick me up. I step away from the door and allow the other passengers to break around me like waves, until I’m standing alone on the platform, then I spot her: black coat, blonde hair, six months pregnant.
‘Hey Kirks,’ I say and she smiles and says ‘hello’ or something as I shoulder my bag. I follow her and we leave the station together, only to stop a moment while she lights a cigarette. She inhales with a look of deep satisfaction that I’ve never managed to put on a woman’s face. She coughs, once, looks at me. ‘Why don’t you ever drive?’
‘For you maybe.’
I check my phone; it’s closer to nine than eight.
We walk to her car.
‘Do they know I’m coming?’
She shakes her head as she takes her car keys from her purse, but doesn’t look at me until we’re pulling away into the traffic. So they know I’m coming. So fuck, I think. I’m just good with numbers, and good with concepts where numbers are involved. I know most of the tricks, and the ones I don’t know, I know enough to recognize when I come across them. I’m a hunting dog: head office set me on people, set me on companies, when they think might be doing something that’s not quite correct. When head office think there’s something amiss, they send me in. Sometimes it’s all good and I write up a glowing report. Sometimes it’s not, and I write that up too. I’m a forensic accountant and I work for the Inland Revenue.
Try saying that at a dinner party.
When we reach the office I’m greeted with forced smiles and dark sideways glances. I’m shown to a desk and a given mug of fresh coffee. A plate of muffins. And a pile of paperwork. I drink the coffee and browse a bit, and then I start. Sorting, organizing, turning the big ugly pile into smaller, user-friendly packets of information. And this is just the start. I’ll work through all the paperwork today and tomorrow, and then I’ll get started on the computer records. I keep working through lunch but I top up the excellent coffee from the canteen, and add the odd muffin into the mix.
At quarter past five I finish my preliminary notes, slot them into my battered leather briefcase and prepare to leave for the hotel. A guy whose name badge says “Griff” comes over, ‘Everything alright?’
‘Seems fine,’ I tell him.
A lot of people feel guilty when they see the cops – they think maybe there’s something they’ve done wrong but weren’t aware of. Similar sort of thing when I arrive, everyone feels a bit worried, even if they’re only worried about an inadvertent mistake. I don’t want to make them feel like that but it’s the nature of the job, I suppose. I’m paid to be sharp and focused and to burrow down to the marrow.
Back at the hotel room I get a call from Kirkland.
‘Want to go to the pictures?’
‘Yeah. What’s on?’
‘How should I know?’ she says, a touch irritated.
‘Alright,’ I say, asking, ‘Won’t your bloke mind?’
‘The one you live with, you know, the father-to-be of your child.’
‘He doesn’t count. I’ll call for you at eight.’
At eight I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt I go down to meet her in the foyer. ‘You look like an off-duty accountant,’ she says, and before I can argue she adds, ‘At least you’re not wearing jeans and a blazer.
We walk out together into the late summer evening.
‘I prefer you in a suit,’ she says.
She’s wearing a gingham dress with a soft woolen shawl.
‘How far is the cinema?’
She shrugged, ‘Ten minutes walk, maybe. Come on,’ and she sets off.
I follow her.
This time in the evening, most of the shops are closed, the streets are quiet, a cyclist whirrs by; the odd car passes. The sun is turning the sky a soft red that darkens to blue and then black at the edges. Street lamps are beginning to come on.
We get to the cinema a while later.
‘What’s showing?’ she asks.
I looked at the board, ‘Well, what do you want? Chick flick, super-hero, Pixar…? They all seem to have started about ten minutes ago, but we’ll only miss the adverts…’
She’s studying the board.
‘I’m not going in,’ she decides. ‘We’ve missed the start. Come on, let’s go back to you hotel and get a drink. ‘
She walks back out of the multiplex.
I stand and watch her go.
‘Kirk,’ I say, ‘Hold on, shit…’
I walk out after her. If I didn’t know her I’d think it was the pregnancy making her erratic. But I know her. It’s how she is. The sliding doors shush behind me as I hit the street and I see she’s already ten paces ahead.
As she turns to look and wait for me I see a man approaching me at a weird tangent; he’s walking in a straight line, but he’s turned slightly sideways. ‘Hey man,’ he says.
‘Alright,’ I say.
‘Do you know when all the movies finish?’
I look at him.
‘You know, the features?’
I shake my head. ‘Check the display board,’ I say. ‘Just inside, on the wall.’
He looks at me, assessing his next move.
‘Can you give me change of a twenty?’ he asks, voice a wheedle now.
‘Well just give me a couple of pound? I usually sell the Big Issue. I’ll forward you a copy.’
‘Go on,’ and he bigged himself up now, tried leaning into me, tried to be threatening. If he’d just asked me for money straight out I’d have given him a couple of pounds, easy, I don’t mind giving to beggars. But this mix of wheedling and threat is the mental equivalent of apple-skin stuck between my teeth – seriously irritating.
I lean in too.
‘Fuck off,’ I say, my voice barely a whisper, ‘Or I’ll kick punch you in the face ‘til you fall over and then kick you in the head ‘til your eyes bleed.’
He steps back, shocked, ‘Fair enough man,’ and he’s backing away, a sad knowing smile that tells me I’ve just reinforced his personal sense of victimhood, and as he walks away he kicks at a bin and mutters to himself, ‘Should have brought my fuckin dog!’ I watch him walk away, my heart bouncing, half-expecting him to return with a couple of friends, but he doesn’t.
I catch up with Kirkland and the evening is settling in as we retrace our steps. People are sat on doorsteps, stood in groups, eating, drinking, chatting, smoking outside of pub doorways. I look over my shoulder a couple of times in case non-Big Issue man is coming up behind me with a couple of tooled up friends, or maybe he’s gone home for his dog. Maybe it’s a beast: an attack dog.
I’m fit and the thought of an attack on my trail gives me a shot of adrenaline, but I have to work hard to keep up with Kirkland. She’s peaking the second trimester, cruising on across town, her body ripe, and fueled by three billion years of evolution.
We pass a girl walking fast in the opposite direction. Despite the speed with which she passes, I can smell the booze and the sweat and the desperation leaking out of her; she walks quickly, like she’s going somewhere, but even as she passes she does a u-turn and sweeps round in front of me, turns and stops. ‘Hey!’ she says, almost shouting, like she’s declaiming to some invisible audience, ‘Can you spare five minutes?’
I barely pause and give her a body swerve but she races after me; I hear her heels click-clacking as she gives chase and spins to a stop square in my face.
‘Hey, can you spare me five minutes?’
I’m aware of Kirkland disengaging, gliding away from the whole scene; me and this crazed wine-cat. I look to the left and then look to the right. I look at her. She’s glaring at me. She’s wearing purple velvet trousers slung low at the hips and a grubby cotton wrap-around top that’s knotted above her belly. She smells of drink, but mainly of sweat. She’s wearing a woolen hat.
‘Just five minutes?’
‘For what?’ I’m exasperated.
‘Hey man, don’t talk down to me,’ she says. ‘If you’re going to talk down to me I’m fucking off, right now!’ And she storms past me, bumping my arm, like we already had a relationship and she’s just broken it off.
I take a slow, deep breath.
I really hate Leeds.
We could have been sitting in a theatre now watching Minions. Or a chick-flick about a kooky girl called Polly, or something with Iron Man, and tanks. Eating nachos and drinking Pepsi.
I walk fast to catch up to K and she’s waiting for me by the station.
‘I need to piss,’ she says.
‘My hotel isn’t far from here.’
‘I need to piss now.’
So we go into the station but the public toilets are locked.
‘Try the station bar,’ I suggest.
She nods and walks into the station bar, looking for the ladies.
I go and stand outside in the main street: there are two or three chavs lurking by the station door, and I watch them selling drugs to punters who sidle up and quickly walk away afterwards. They don’t approach me. A prostitute walks up to an old guy and they chat. They walk off together.
Night people, I think.
Then I think, I fucking hate Leeds.
A black guy is hanging round outside the door of the station bar, close by me, he’s looking aghast and then he shouts to himself ‘No! I can’t go in there!’
He walks off, still shouting.
‘Hey,’ Kirkland says to me, coming through the door, ‘Why the long face?’
‘Let’s get a taxi,’ she says.
The hotel is four hundred yards away.
‘Alright,’ I say.
‘I’ll pay,’ she says, opening her bag.
‘Put your purse away,’ I say, glancing at the drug-dealers and the whores and the night people, congregated over by the station door.
‘Put it away,’ I say again.
‘You’re not paying for the taxi,’ she tells me as we walk to the taxi rank. There’s no queue and we walk straight to the front.
Some shaven-headed chav with neck tattoos leaps to his feet and approaches us as we near the taxi at the head of the queue. My heart. Skips. A. Beat. But all he does is open the door of the cab for Kirkland, and he smiles at her.
She smiles back and says ‘Thank you.’
‘My pleasure,’ he replies, and he’s holding her bag as she climbs in, smiling benignly at her swollen stomach. He gives her back her bag and nods at me as I get in beside her.
I get the feeling I’m missing something.