unnoticeable to everyone but himself: a minuscule defilement of his sense of self, or a minor mutilation to a part of his body that would remain unseen.

He handed her the drink and waited. Why was he acting like this? What the hell was wrong with him?

“What’s your name?” He couldn’t stop looking at her eyes. He wanted to see that movement again, to try and discern what had caused it.

“Abby.” Her voice was cold and hard, the inflection flat. The vowels were truncated, as if she could barely be bothered to form the words.

“I’m Marc.”

“Oh.” Her thin lips twitched apart as she spoke. She took a sip of her wine.

“I’m not usually this crap with women,” he said, thinking that honesty might be the way forward. “You make me feel uncomfortable. Do you know that? The effect you have. Are you aware of it?”

“Do I look like I give a shit, Marc?” Those icy eyes, that tough voice.

“Listen… you’re obviously not interested. Enjoy your drink and I’ll –”

“No.” That was all she said. Just one word. But it was enough to keep him there, as if someone had applied quick-setting glue to the soles of his shoes.

“You don’t want me to leave you alone?”

She shook her head. “You can hang around for a bit. Talk to me. Nobody else does around here, not these days. It’s like they’re afraid they might catch something off me.”

Puzzled by her choice of words, he wondered if she perhaps had some kind of disease. She looked thin enough that something might be eating her away from the inside. The suit jacket hung loosely on her frame and her legs beneath the hem of the skirt were so thin that he was afraid they might buckle if she stepped away from the wall and put all her weight on them.

Cancer? Was that it? It might explain her demeanour, the way that she didn’t seem to care, and that faintly hostile coldness behind her eyes.

“It’s nice to see a new face around these parts,” she said, as if continuing some conversation the precise details of which he’d missed. “You get sick of these mardy bastards around here.” She twitched her head, indicating everyone else in the pub. “Sometimes I want to smash their faces in just to see what they’d do.” She smiled at last, but it was a bitter expression that didn’t quite suit her long face. “Do you know what I mean, or am I scaring you?” The question was a challenge. He could feel it. She was testing him, feeling him out.

“No, I knew exactly what you mean. Sometimes I get like that myself.” But it ran deeper than that. He knew it even if he was unable to vocalise his feelings. This place — it lent force to the everyday negative emotions people had, and it amplified them. He didn’t know how, or why, it happened, but here in the Grove bad thoughts took on substance, became even worse deeds-in-waiting. All it took was a trigger, and sometimes the finger pulling that trigger was the last one you expected.

There was a pause, then, and she looked around the room, her face resuming its previous set expression of mild distaste. Marc tried to judge the true shape of her body underneath her clothing, and he was left with the off- putting impression of skin and bones. Usually he was attracted to women with a fuller figure, and he failed to understand what it was about Abby that he found so appealing. Was he simply drunk and horny and had seen an opportunity here, or did the attraction run deeper than merely the possibility of a quick fix of empty sex? He couldn’t be sure; his thoughts refused to settle and his emotions were unfamiliar.

“How about another?” he said, draining his bottle. He’d abandoned the whisky in favour of sticking to beer. He was already too drunk to repair the damage, but at least he could prevent drinking himself insensate.

“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks.” Gratitude — this was new. He felt like he might be getting somewhere.

His journey to the bar this time was fraught with anxiety. Although the pub was quieter now, and he knew that he wouldn’t collide with anyone, he felt too exposed. His drunkenness was a badge of dishonour; it was difficult putting one foot in front of the other without stumbling.

He made it to the bar and clung on for dear life. He looked down at his hands. The knuckles were red.

“Yer in there, mate.”

He turned to his left and examined the owner of the voice. It was a short, fat man dressed in jeans and a ripped black T-shirt that was pulled out of shape and faded from being washed too many times. “Sorry?”

“The lass,” said the man. “She’ll go with anyone, her. Yer in for a shag the neet.”

Marc blinked. His eyes felt gritty. The man’s smile was wide and vaguely threatening, as if he were pushing for a fight.

“We’re just chatting,” he said, wondering why he felt the need to justify his actions to this stranger. “You know, a bit of harmless fun.”

The man shook his head. The muscles in his neck bulged and there was a blue tattoo of a swallow on his throat.

How witty, thought Marc, resisting the urge to grin.

The man turned slightly, so that he was facing Marc head-on. He was broad; his biceps were large and hard. More tattoos snaked down his wide forearms. “Don’t worry, mate. I’m only havin’ you on. Bit of a laugh, like. But, seriously, if you play it right she’ll take you home with her the neet. Game on, like.”

The barmaid — a different one this time; they must have changed shifts — came over and Marc ordered another bottle of Becks and a white wine and soda. He glanced back at Abby. She was slumped against the wall, her eyes heavy-lidded, starting to close, and her hips swayed gently to the music. She was even drunker than he felt. Now that she’d let her guard down, he could see how far gone she really was.

He carried the drinks over to the jukebox. Johnny Cash was singing about a Ring of Fire. Behind him, the short, fat man and his friends started to laugh. Marc was too tired, and too drunk, to even care.

“Ta,” said Abby, straightening her spine and attempting to smile. The expression was lopsided. Marc thought that it was an apt metaphor for how he felt.

“Listen,” he said. “We’re both a bit pissed here.” He glanced out of the nearest window. It was getting dark. “I haven’t a clue what time it is, but I haven’t eaten a thing since breakfast. How about going for something to eat? My treat.”

She slid a few inches down the wall and then forced herself to stand straight again. “How about a takeaway?” she said. “We could go back to mine and order one in.”

“Yeah, okay.”

The men at the bar laughed again.

“Come on, then,” said Abby. She gulped at her drink, draining the glass in seconds. Her eyes were glassy. “Let’s fuck off out of here.”


ROYLE SAT IN his car and watched the estate, hoping that he didn’t see anything nefarious go down. He was off-duty, half-drunk, and incapable of acting professionally if anything did happen. He watched as a couple of young boys made their way towards Grove Alley, laughing. They walked with the stylised gait of chimpanzees: bow-legged and with their arms bent and swinging as if they were carrying rolls of carpet under their arms.

Wannabe hard men; trainee gangsters. This place was full of the fuckers.

Royle switched on the police radio and listened to random call-ins: a possible burglary in Cramlington, a domestic in Near Grove… all the usual night-time scenarios. He switched it off again and stared through the windscreen. The boys had gone. The street was quiet and empty. It was late. Some of the lights in the houses were still on but others lay in darkness. He could hear the steady rhythmic thud of bass-heavy dance music coming from somewhere across the estate.

He got out of the car and nipped along Grove Street, then followed the Roundpath until he came to the gate in the hoardings that surrounded the old concrete tower block. He stood outside and stared in at the Needle, at its cruel walls and its boarded windows. There was a light on in the security cabin that squatted in the building’s shadow. He turned and walked a few paces along the Roundpath, stopped and bent low to the ground. He reached down and ran his hands over the loose gravel; small stones and wood chippings passed beneath the tips of his fingers.

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