The Claw

Ramsey Campbell


It took Joanna Marlowe almost an hour to cross from the mainland to Lagos. Beneath a sky the colour of sandy mud the bridge was jammed with cars and bicycles, blaring and ringing and hooting. A few canoes sprouting umbrellas glided across the lagoon, past a lone bedraggled yacht stranded in the drizzle without a hope of wind. Joanna's car was boxed in by a bus called God Save Us and a boastfully shiny black car, driven by a Yoruba man who kept leaning on his horn and chewing a cigar almost as fat as the exhaust pipe. She felt trapped by the thick, muggy heat and the traffic, yet she wasn't anxious to move. Her talk with Isaac had made her afraid to go home.

Beside her, Helen was sulking because she'd been slapped for trying to sound the horn. The little girl crossed and uncrossed her long bare legs, tugged restlessly at her shorts, rolled the window up and down. Now she was snapping the glove compartment, over and over again. Joanna was about to slap her when the bus in front lurched forward. The driver of the shiny car leaned on his horn at once, and Joanna barely restrained herself from walking back and screaming obscenities at him. She no longer felt at all like an anthropologist's wife from Oxford. She wasn't even sure whose wife she was.

Helen was jumping up and down, her seat-belt twanging. 'Look, there he is, mummy,' she pleaded. 'The boy with the toys.' He was one of the traders who plied the narrow strip between the road and the parapet, waiting for traffic jams. Joanna haggled half-heartedly with him for a set of plastic quoits, and wished she could be distracted as easily as Helen was now. She stared across at the Carter Bridge.

Yes, it was jammed too. At least it would mean that David couldn't be home before she was.

When she drove off the bridge at last, the traffic was still crawling. Shoppers in robes of all colours were swarming along the Marina, lorries groaned up from the quay alongside. Beyond the mass of stores, outside which women sat in makeshift shelters, selling matches or buttons or single cigarettes, cars choked the road around the hospital. A plane sailed up from Murtala Muhammed Airport on the mainland and vanished through a gap in the clouds. She felt a sudden wish to take Helen home to England, but suppressed it. She was as afraid of leaving David here as she was of staying with him.

By the time she reached the end of the Marina, the clouds had parted fully. As she drove onto Victoria Island, sun streamed over the exhibition centre and the embassies, the beach scattered with prophets in praying sheds built out of palm fronds and individually signposted for tourists. She'd left the jabber of shoppers behind, she was in the open at last, and yet if anything she felt even more boxed in.

In a few minutes she was at the bungalow. The long front lawn was steaming; beneath the trees the grass was already dry and bright. Perhaps a shower would make her feel better. Thanks to the Foundation for African Studies, they even had a shower in the house.

She drove into the open garage – and jumped, stalling the engine. David's car was already there. Seeing his new friend off at the airport hadn't taken him as long as she'd expected. Joanna cursed. She wasn't ready for a confrontation with him, with this stranger who muttered and clenched his teeth and wouldn't look at her. She dragged at the stiff door of the garage, while Helen swung on it and waved her legs as it jerked downward. Perhaps he'd left the car and gone out for a walk – she hoped so; anything, so long as it gave her time to prepare herself. But when she came round the house the front door was open, and he was waiting in the doorway.

He seemed bigger than ever. He had never looked like an anthropologist, but that hadn't used to matter; he had just been David, huge and red-bearded and gentle, who would carry baby Helen about on the palm of one hand. Now it was a stranger who stood blocking the way – except that a stranger couldn't have made her innards twist and tighten so painfully. She felt Helen draw closer to her as he stepped forward, and that was the worst of all.

But he was smiling, so widely that his lips were trembling. It was the first time in weeks that Joanna had seen him smile. 'Hello there,' he shouted at both of them, so loudly that the Alsatian began snarling next door at the Dormers'. 'My God, you look roasted. I'll bet you're ready to sell your souls for air-conditioning. Where have you been?*

Before Joanna could answer – he was trying so hard to be his old self that it was as if someone was performing a parody of him – he saw Helen's quoits. 'Did mummy buy you those? Aren't you the lucky girl? Come and see what else I've bought you.'

He went into the house at once. When the little girl hesitated, Joanna found it difficult to breathe. If Helen trusted him again, perhaps the past wouldn't matter any longer… Helen was following him, but Joanna could tell it was only out of obedience. She followed her daughter quickly.

He was in the living-room. The sky was clouding over again, but he hadn't turned on the lights. A watery glow filtered through the windows and gathered on the carved toothy masks above the cocktail bar, the ivory Benin figurine at the centre of the Scandinavian table, the collected editions of Dickens and Trollops that came with the bungalow. David was holding up a black box. 'Here you are,' he said to Helen. 'High-Life music whenever you want it.'

It was a portable radio and cassette recorder. They'd always told Helen she could have one when she was old enough. He was holding it out to her, his smile wavering in case she wouldn't go to him. But she ran to him, pleading, 'Show me how to work it, daddy.'

He hugged her and stroked her long auburn hair as he showed her which buttons to push. But he must have felt he was trying too hard to wipe out the effects of the last few weeks, because he patted her bottom and sent her away as soon as he'd finished demonstrating. 'And what can I give mummy? You look as though you could do with a long cool alcoholic drink. In fact, let's both have one.'

Was that a good sign? In these last few weeks – in fact ever since he'd managed to track down a survivor of the old outlawed secret society – he'd hardly touched alcohol, as if he was afraid of losing control. He came back from the kitchen, shaking ice in tall glasses in time with Helen's Nigerian cassette. As he brought Joanna her Bacardi and Coke he squeezed her shoulder and gave her an apologetic, hopeful smile. She managed to smile in return, and clasped his great hand on her shoulder.

When he moved away to his chair – he moved as if he was sore inside, in his mind, perhaps – she said 'Was your friend in time for his plane?'

'In time? Joanna, you know you've got to be at least a day late to miss a plane in Lagos. He wasn't really what you'd call a friend, anyway. Though I suppose almost anyone's a friend at a party when you've had enough to drink. I just gave him a lift to save him from having to pay the earth for a taxi, that's all.'

So he had been drinking at the party. Early this morning when he'd fallen into bed and had gone straight to sleep, she'd been so relieved that she had slept soundly herself. It was the first night for weeks that he hadn't started pacing the room in the dark or stumbled out for a walk. Both of them had slept until late morning, when he'd woken crying, 'Oh God – Alan Knight! I've got to run him to the airport,' and had driven away, haif-dressed and unshaven. Had he been drinking last night because his problems were over, or in a desperate attempt to forget them, whatever they were?

Now he seemed anxious to explain away Alan Knight and change the subject, as if it made him feel guilty somehow. 'Where did you go today?' he asked for the second time.

Before Joanna could think of an appropriate lie, Helen told him: she loved saying the name, which always made her giggle. 'To see Mr Banjo,' she cried.

'Dropped in on old Isaac, did you?' He went quickly to the bar, and Joanna couldn't see his face, only the dark grinning masks around him. 'What did he have to say for himself?'

'Not much,' Joanna said.

'What, our favourite Yoruba from Oxford with nothing to say? Not even a proverb or two? I'll have to have words with him.' His jollity was shrill, almost hysterical. All at once she knew she had been right: the reason Isaac had been so unforthcoming was that he knew what was wrong with David. He'd sat beneath the creaking electric

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