The stunning new novel from the award-winning Claire North, one of the most original voices in modern fiction
At the beginning and ending of all things . . .
She had not seen the man called Theo in the cards, nor did they prophesy the meaning of her actions. When she called the ambulance they said they would come soon, and half an hour later she was still waiting by the water.
And when she called again they had no record of her call, and gave her the number of the complaints department.
* * *
The sun was down and the street lights distant, their backs turned to the towpath. On the other side of the water: an industrial estate where once patty-line men had loaded lorries with bikinis and bras, pillows and sofa throws, percale fitted sheets, gold-plated anklets and next season’s striped trend-setting onesies for the discerning customer. Once, the men who laboured there had worn tags around their ankles to ensure that they didn’t walk too slow, or spend too much time taking a piss. If they did, there were worse places they could be sent. There was always somewhere worse.
Now there was black spew up the walls, and the smell of melted plastic lingering on the winter air.
A few white lamps on the loading concourse still shone, their glow slithering across the high barbed- wire fences down to the canal. The light made the frost on the bank sparkle like witches’ eyes, before being swallowed whole by the blackness of the water.
Neila thought of calling out for help, to anyone in the night, but didn’t have the courage and didn’t think anyone would answer. People had their own problems to deal with, things being as they were. Instead she wrapped the man up as best she could in old towels she wouldn’t miss, hiding her nice, fluffy towels under the bed. She felt a bit guilty about that, and alleviated her doubts by making him hot tea, which he could barely sip. Not knowing what else to do, she sat beside the man on the thin, mud-sunk grass by the gate of the lock and dialled 999 again, and got someone new who said:
“Oh my oh yes now of course yes bleeding by the canal do you have an address for that – no an address – how about a postcode, no I’m not seeing you on my map do you have premium or standard service support for an extra £4.99 a month you can upgrade to instant recovery and full rehabilitative therapies for the – oh you’re not insured . . . ”
The call ended there. Maybe a timer cut them off. Maybe there wasn’t much signal at the moment. A pair of ducks waddled uneasily over crêpe-thin ice, now slipping into the water below, now lurching back up onto the transparent surface above, now flapping at the sound of an eager seagull looking for a snack, now quiet again beneath the thickening blue- brown sky, paddling in listless circles.
at the end and the beginning Neila spins in circles too
The man mumbled, through lips turned blue, “You’ve been very kind very kind I’m fine I’m sure I’ll be fine it’s just I’m fine . . . ”
He’d tried saying this before, and fainted, only for a few seconds, then woke and picked up where he’d left off, and she hadn’t had the heart to tell him that he’d passed out while trying to be so stoical, so she let him talk until he stopped, and they stayed there, waiting, and no one came.
She decided to leave him.
At the precise moment she reached that decision, like a truck driving into a concrete wall she knew that she wouldn’t. The universe crumpled and blew apart, and at the centre of it she exclaimed, “This is fucking ridiculous.” She creaked to her feet, pulling him by a limp limb. “Get your backside inside the fucking boat.”
She had to help him walk, and he nearly hit his head on the low door at the stern of the narrowboat as she guided him in, and was unconscious, bleeding out on her white faux- leather couch, before she had got her boots off.
Time goes a little peculiar
when you’re not feeling so
so sometimes you wake and you remember that you will be an old, old man and that the one you love will die and you can’t work out
if they die
or you first
which would be more scary? Who will be
strongest without love, alone, loveless, devoid? What is worse – for you to lose the one you love or for the one you love to be destroyed by losing you?
The man on the couch is vaguely aware, when he’s aware of much of anything at all, that he’s hit his head and that’s making things a little . . .
* * *
Neila wrung out blood-red water from her third-favourite tea towel into the mop bucket at her feet, and the bleeding still wouldn’t stop, and there was silence on the canal, and silence on the water.
In the early years when she had first started sailing, Neila had thought she’d love the quiet, and for a week after buying the Hector she hadn’t slept, in terror at the roar of whispers over still water. The creaking, the lapping of liquid, the insect-hiss of thin ice popping before the bow of a passing boat, the roar of a generator, the chug chug chug of the engine, the beating of wings, birds not really built for flight hounding each other half in sky, half on land for food, or sex, or maybe just something to do.
When exhaustion kicked in, she’d slept like a log, and now she understood the silence of the canal wasn’t silence at all. If anything, it was a racket, annoying in its persistence.
Not tonight. Tonight the silence made her nervous, made her think too much. She’d come to the canal to get away from thinking. Alone, once you’d thought everything there was to think, there was only being quiet left.
She turned on the radio, and listened to Pepsi Liverpool vs CheapFlightsForU Manchester, even though she didn’t really like football.
At the beginning of all things . . .
The man lies on the couch, and dreams and memories blur in a fitful crimson smear of paint.
Maybe it hadn’t been the beginning, but in his dreams it seems that there must have been a point where it all started, where everything changed. Back when he had a job, back when “job” seemed like the most important thing ever, back in the Criminal Audit Office, before the winter and the snow and the blood, at the beginning there had been . . .
– it seemed ludicrously banal now, but it was perhaps the place where it all went to piss –
. . . a training weekend.
The weekend was voluntary.
If you did not attend you would be docked one week’s pay and a note put on your file – “BBA”. No one knew what BBA stood for, but the last woman to have these fated letters added had been given a job at a morgue, showing family members the corpses of their loved ones.
Besides, everyone knew that team players were happy volunteers.
The Teamwork Bonding Experience cost £172, payable at sign-up. On the first day he was told to put a cork in his mouth, stand in front of his colleagues and explain his Beliefs and Values.
“Come on, Mr Miller!” exclaimed the Management Strength Inspiration Course Leader. “Enunciate!”
The man called Theo Miller hesitated, hoping the burning in his face could be mistaken for the effort of not spitting out the dry brown bung, bit a little deeper into the cork, then mumbled: “I belef fat ul pepl arg detherfin of jusfic an . . . ”
“Project! Pro-ject. Use your whole mouth, use your breath to lift you!”
At night they slept in dormitories on creaking metal beds, and were woken at 5 a.m. for a group run. He enjoyed that part. He stood on top of a hill and watched an eyelash of light peek above the horizon, growing hotter, bending the sky, liked the way the shadows of the trees broke out long and thin across the land, the visible light and visible darkness in the air as fog burned away. The walls of London were too high for him to see this sight, and the places in the country where sometimes he’d gone as a child had fallen to scroungers, and the trains didn’t go there any more. For a moment he thought of the sea below the cliffs, and the memory filled his lungs with salty air – then someone told him to stop dawdling, Mr Miller!
So he ran on, and pretended to be out of breath and struggling at the back, where most of the senior staff were, even though he felt like he could have run for ever. It didn’t do to stand out.
* * *
Management joined them at 10 a.m. Management were staying up the road at a golfing resort, but wanted to demonstrate leadership and muck in with the troops. Edward Witt, 37, fresh from Company central office – personal motto “I achieve for me” – roared across the waving long grass, “Come on! Put some welly into it!”
Theo Miller did not smile, did not blink, but concentrated harder on the painted picture of the wooden man before him, drew the axe back over his shoulder and threw it with all his might. He was aiming for the head, but by chance managed to hit it in the nuts.
“Keep going, guys!” barked Edward, bouncing impatiently on the edge of the field as the Fiscal Efficiency Team ran up and down, one statistician suspended by ankles and armpits between two others. “Don’t let each other down!”
Theo wasn’t sure what all of this had to do with his job. He didn’t learn anything about the law, or finance, or governmental good practice. The only colleagues he felt any closer to were the ones he usually hung out with anyway, the hangdog dredges of the Criminal Audit Office who sometimes drank cheap wine on the seventh floor when the lights were out, and didn’t go to the pub because they couldn’t stand the noise.
If anything, the weekend only served to make office cliques tighter, as friends curled in for mutual support against the horror of the experience, shooting suspicious glances across the muddy field to ensure that everyone was suffering equally, losing all together. Edward Witt prowled up and down, encouraging competition, competition, get ahead, and one or two tried gamely, and Theo was always the third man eliminated in a contest, and penultimate man picked for a side.
It wasn’t that he was inept, or even disliked. There wasn’t enough personality in Theo Miller for people to love or hate. A psychic had once attempted to read his aura, and after a period of frowning so intense she started groaning with the effort of her grimace, announced that it was puce. Like everyone else from the mystic to the mundane, she too had failed to spot that his life was a lie, or that the real Theo Miller was fifteen years dead, buried in an unmarked grave. So much for the interconnected mysteries of the universe, Theo thought.
So much for all that.
* * *
At the end of the weekend they got into a coach.
The coach sat in traffic, covering twelve miles in an hour and twenty minutes, and Theo dozed. One time he saw a woman standing on the hard shoulder, waving frantically at the passing cars for help, but no one stopped, and tears rolled down her face. People didn’t like to stop on this stretch of the M3. The security fence kept out most of the screamers, the scroungers and the children from the surrounding enclaves, but Company Police signs reminded all that YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY, and no one doubted it for a moment. You heard rumours of tax dodgers breaking in through the fence and rushing down into the lanes when the traffic got too slow, to crack open boots and steal anything they could, until speed picked up again and they scuttled to safety or were mown down where they stood.
After four hours of snoozing to a soundtrack of inspirational speeches by Simon Fardell, Company ExO, the coach dropped them off at the office in Victoria. The pavements were too narrow for the tired, baggage-slung commuters waiting for their buses, leaves tumbling from the last of the shedding plane trees.
Though it was late, and they were tired and muddy and sore, Edward treated them to a sandwich dinner, held in the semi-sacred and barely used Large Media Suite, access usually limited to executive grade 2A and above. As they ate thin slices of cucumber between wet pieces of white bread, lights were dimmed, and Edward presented his PowerPoint of Vital Lessons Learned and Where We Go From Here, including a comic montage from the weekend of people alling into mud, dropping their axes and spraining their ankles to lighten the moment and boost team morale.
And when he was done the lights came up
and there were little pink pots of Angel Delight with a single
half- strawberry on top and there
was Dani Cumali.
* * *
On the canal the man called Theo groans in his sleep and holds the blanket tight, and Neila sits with her head in her hands and wonders what the fuck she’s even done
And in his dreams
and in his memories
Dani is watching him, and that’s where it all went wrong.
In the past
These things are a little blurry but he thinks, yes, in the past, but not that past, the more recent past, the past had
already happened, the less important yet more urgent bit of the past that is
(Neila wonders if she should try and give him a blood transfusion, but where the fuck do you even start, times being what they are?)
Dani Cumali stood at the edge of the Large Media Suite in the Criminal Audit Office, and stared at Theo Miller, and that was where the world changed.
Her black hair was cut to a pudding bowl around her ears, her skin devoid of make- up, lines around her mouth, grey and thin, lines between her eyebrows, a cobweb face. Her nails were scrubbed down to thin ridges, she wore the navy blue one-piece of the catering company
and she looked at him
and he looked at her
and they knew each other immediately and without a word.
On the screen was a picture of that time during the weekend when he’d been punched in the face during the self-defence training session and his nose had bled everywhere and wasn’t that hilarious our Theo Miller give him a hand
everyone clapped and Dani saw and knew the truth.
And she knew that she could destroy him, bring down the house of lies, fraud and deceit that he had built around himself, around his name that was a lie, around teamwork bonding experiences and work reports and progress assessments and pension plans and rental deposits
and and the whole lie of his whole fucking life.
She could tear it down with a single word.
And in her eyes was the fire of the righteous and the sword.
In the beginning.
The man whose name was sometimes Theo Miller had been twenty-two years old when they abolished human rights. The government insisted it was necessary to counter terrorism and bring stable leadership to the country. He’d voted for the opposition and felt very proud of himself, partially because he had a sense that this was the intangible right way of things, but mostly because it was the first time his new name had been tested at the polling station, and held up to scrutiny.
The opposition didn’t have any funding, of course, and everyone knew that the Company was backing the winning team. But any fleeting disappointment he may have felt when they crumbled to a crushing defeat and the prime minister declared, “Too long our enemies have hidden behind human rights as if they were extended to all!” was lightened by the fact that his identity had held. He had voted as Theo Miller, and it hadn’t made a difference, and no one had called his bluff.
He’d still somehow felt it would work out all right in the end.
When they shut down the newspapers for printing stories of corruption and dirty deals, he’d signed the petitions.
When they’d closed the universities for spreading warnings of impending social and economic calamity, he’d thought about attending the rallies, but then decided against it because work would probably frown on these things, and there were people there who took your photo and posted your face online – saboteurs and enemies of the people – and besides, it rained a lot that month and he just needed a morning off.
By then, of course, it was a little too late for petitions. Company men would run for parliament, Company newspapers would trumpet their excellence to the sky, Company TV stations would broadcast their election promises and say how wonderful they were. They would inevitably win, serve their seven years in office and then return to the banking or insurance branches happy to have completed their civic duty, and that was that. It was for the best, the adverts said. This was how democracy worked: corporate and public interests working together at last, for the greater good.
When it became legally compulsory to carry ID, £300 for the certified ID card, £500 fine if caught without it, he knew he was observing an injustice that sent thousands of innocent people to the patty line, too skint to buy, too skint to pay for being too skint to buy. When it became impossible to vote without the ID, he knew he lived in a tyranny, but by then he wasn’t sure what there was left to do in protest. He’d be okay. If he kept his head down. He’d be fine.
He couldn’t put his finger precisely on when parliament rebranded itself “The People’s Engagement Forum”, but he remembered thinking the logo was very well done.
In the Criminal Audit Office, Dani Cumali clears away the remnants of a cucumber sandwich.
In the ancestral home of his family, Philip Arnslade stares at his mother’s dribbling form and blurts, “Well so long as she’s happy!”
On the canal, Neila is pleased to discover that she’s not actually squeamish about head wounds at all.
By the sea, a man who may or may
not be a father rages at the ocean.
In the past the man called Theo cycles home from a team bonding experience, and is terrified of the face he has just seen. He didn’t try to talk to Dani. Didn’t meet her eye again after that initial moment of shock. Fled without a word, chin down, expression fixed in stone. Half ran to his bicycle and pedalled away without bothering to tuck his trousers into his socks.
The queues at the Vauxhall Bridge toll weren’t as bad as he’d feared, and the walls of Battersea Power Station were a brilliant cascade of colour bouncing back off the clouds promoting the latest reality TV escapade, huge painted faces pouting brilliant crimson lips into the dark.
He went the long way round, past the giant glass towers of the river, then south, towards houses growing lower and cracked, overgrown front gardens, laundrettes with beige linoleum floors, churches in sloped-roof sheds proclaiming a new Jesus of fire and redemption, a criss-cross of silent railway lines and budget gymsabove kebab shops for the men with vast shoulders encasing tiny
He circled several times before pulling up at the stiff black gate in the crumbling red- brick wall. He couldn’t remember what Mrs Italiaander, landlady folded in fuchsia, had said to him when he came through the door – she’d said something and he’d even replied, they’d maybe even had a whole conversation – but the memory of it slipped away in a moment.
He sat on the end of his bed and looked around the room, and saw as if for the first time the paucity of character it contained.
A wooden figurine of a woman dancing.
A painting of light across a misty sea.
A couple of 1950s films where everyone knew what to say and exactly how to say it.
A fern that refused to die.
With Dani Cumali’s face overlaying his vision, these things suddenly seemed trivial, pathetic. The revelation jerked him almost to laughter, as the man somewhere beneath Theo Miller, who still faintly remembered the real name he’d been born with, and the hopes he’d had as a child, stared at the farcical illusion of Theo Miller he’d created and realised that in all his efforts to be anonymous he had in fact ceased to be a person whatsoever. The laughter rolled through him for half a minute, then stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and he stared again at nothing.
He sat in muddy clothes on the end of his bed, hands in his lap, and waited to be arrested. In the room next door, Marvin, Mrs Italiaander’s teenage son, wannabe rock star, wannabe movie star, wannabe private detective wannabe martial artist wannabe somebody in a nobody world, played drum and bass far too loud and wondered if his mum had known all along that he’d stolen that fifty from her purse.
Downstairs, Nikesh, the other flatmate, who did something for the Company, something in insurance or actuarial or – he was never very good at explaining – cooked chicken so spicy it could burn the top off your mouth and listened to radio with the volume turned right down, too low to really hear, but it was the sound of the voices that Nikesh enjoyed, more than the words they spoke.
After a while – after the first twenty minutes of not being arrested – Theo lay back on his double bed, nearly always slept in by one, and stared at the ceiling. His room was five metres by six metres, luxurious by lodging standards. Theo had lived in it for nearly three years. He’d been renting in Streatham before, but his flatmate had got a job in something that paid more, been given a resident’s permit to Zone 1 and moved in with his girlfriend. Theo’s civil service salary didn’t stretch to a mortgage, not with prices being what they were. Not with times being so . . .
. . . besides, he didn’t have the papers to live in Kensington or Chiswick or anywhere like that, let alone the cash, so Tulse Hill it had been, two lodgers, a mother and a child pushed into a house built for three. Mrs Italiaander had never raised Theo’s rent. She liked the way he cleaned the oven once a month and the new shower rail he’d installed. He was a nice, quiet tenant, and that was a rare thing indeed.
It struck Theo as likely that in three years’ time he would probably be in this same bed, on these same sheets, staring at the same crack running to the ceiling rose. This made him feel
. . . nothing.
He was masterful in feeling nothing. It was what he did best. He had cultivated the art over nearly fifteen years.
He checked his bank balance for the fifth time in the hope it was something better.
Wondered why the cops hadn’t come for him yet.
Realised he had no idea what on earth he was doing with his life, or what the hell he was meant to do now.
* * *
Having no idea what to do with himself, he did as he always did and on Monday morning went to work.
* * *
The fact they let him through security was strange. He sat at his desk in the Criminal Audit Office, patiently expecting handcuffs. For nearly twenty minutes he slouched there, fingers hooked on the edge of the desk, staring straight ahead without seeing, and waited.
No one came.
After twenty-five minutes an automatic alert appeared warninghim that his productivity levels appeared to be slipping and that he was ten minutes away from being put on notice.
He stared at the pop-up message in amazement. In nearly nine years of working at the Criminal Audit Office, he’d never seen such a thing. He took a paracetamol, obvious and slow for the benefit of the camera on top of his screen, and set to work.
The cops didn’t come.
Men in black didn’t burst through his window.
Dani Cumali didn’t laugh like a banshee as they dragged him down, pointing and howling with mirth at the lie that only she could have broken.
Nothing changed, so Theo did his job.
* * *
This is the daily diet on which Theo Miller is fed:
Guidelines on rape vary depending on whether it is felt that the woman may have dressed in a provocative manner or appeared to be sexually enthusiastic prior to the act of penetration. A woman who does not dress modestly is more likely to be a victim of crime and as a consequence we recommend indemnity in the low-to-mid £30,000 as a starting point for assessing the . . .
assault on a corporation
anti-corporate profit activity
By acting against corporate interests, individuals show a complete disregard for society and are harming all, not merely a few. Starting indemnities of £400,000 are a viable place to commence negotiation . . .
Once he heard the minister for social responsibility explain: “Crime has huge financial cost on our communities. It is only right that we acknowledge its economic impact in a blue-skies thought-dynamic way that puts society back in the driving seat.”
Theo remembered that phrase clearly – “put society back in the driving seat” – because he found it inherently confusing.
“It is time to hero the narrative of personal responsibility!”
The Criminal Audit Office had emerged some seven or so years before human rights were judged passé, from the outdated monolith of the Crown Prosecution Service. This was when the Company was still trading under many different names, a mess of loans and investments, debts and boards, but after they’d started investing in security. Prison was a deeply inefficient way of rehabilitating criminals, especially given how many were clearly irredeemable, and despite privatisation efficiencies overcrowding and reoffending were a perennial problem. Rehabilitation through work was an excellent and scientifically provable way of instilling good societal values. The first Commercial Reform Institute was opened when Theo was seven years old, and made meat patties for hamburgers.
Shall we go, shall we go to the patty line?
I kissed my love, she swore she was mine,
But they took me to the patty line.
Theo hums a half- remembered tune from his childhood under his breath, doesn’t notice, reads a report.
Semen was discovered but the victim was unwilling to pay £315 for the DNA test and thus we are unable to say whether the semen came from the accused. In light of this we would suggest a reduced charge of sexual harassment.
Theo checked the database. Sexual harassment had various subcategories, but the most he could levy was £780 for a first-time offence.
* * *
At first a lot of people had been excited by the indemnity system, until it emerged that the profits raised from prosecuting crimes were almost entirely eaten up by administrative costs from the various companies contracted to manage the cases.
Corporate Police, much more reliable than the tiny rump of Civic Police accessible by the uninsured or through NGO charity funding, had shareholders to consider when they invoiced for an investigation. The TV always showed the glamour, never the paperwork – forensics was expensive, best deployed only on really profitable cases.
Corporate rehabilitation centres had a similar problem. As corporations bought up local communities, transforming towns into Winchester by Visit the Soul or Bath Spa Deluxe Healthy Living, local judiciary fell under their purview and great savings were made all round and there was much rejoicing, except for the scroungers who were unable to pay their corporate community tax, clearly weren’t contributing to society and thus couldn’t ask society to support them.
Raising the price of manslaughter in line with inflation . . .
. . . a deduction in lieu of a promising corporate career . . .
Added fees: £480 for putting down victim’s cat.
£48,912 for the first offence, reduced to £38,750 for prompt payment . . .
The victim transpired to be illegally resident on a student visa, and thus the indemnity must be reduced by £4500 to reflect that it was assault on an alien, rather than a UK citizen.
Impaled on a garden fork added hospital costs of . . .
Theo audited the cost of murder, mayhem and destruction, and when 5.15 p.m. came, he cycled home as the sun went down, made macaroni cheese, and ate it in his room and listened to Marvin’s drum and bass through the wall, and waited for the men to come to take him away.
And no one came.
* * *
After the first three days, the failure of the powers-that-be to swoop down and arrest him left Theo slightly annoyed. The least you can ask when your life is about to be ripped apart is to get on with these things, rather than be left in suspense.
And no one came.
And a week became two.
And two weeks became three.
And for a moment Theo permitted himself to think that he’d imagined seeing Dani Cumali at all.
And at the end of the fourth week he was intellectually certain that it would be fine, absolutely fine because that was how these things were, and on the Tuesday of the fifth week, she found him.
* * *
They stood in the place behind the building where they chained the bicycles. Once he’d seen a rat scamper between the bins at the back. One early evening in summer he’d met a fox. The fox had sat and watched him, and he’d watched it, and neither had moved for a long time. Neither had been afraid. They had simply looked, to learn the nature of the other’s gaze. And when the fox got bored, it stood up and walked briskly away, and there was nothing more to it.
She was waiting by his bicycle. He saw her too late to pretend he hadn’t seen her, but didn’t want to leave the bike, thought it would be stupid to just run away.
Going to the bicycle forced him to stand a little closer than he would have wanted, face angled away from the security camera, one hand resting on the seat protectively. She wore a faded blue raincoat, white cloth shoes, a tiny moonlight smile.
“So.” This word seemed to take some thinking about, a gathering of the weight of the world, a slow orbit round the burning centre of the universe. “So,” she repeated, trying out new ideas, studying his face. “It’s Theo now?”
They stood a while, and Theo remembered the fox and felt almost relieved that all this would soon be over.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and he huddled against a wall, and for nearly a minute they were silent. Then she said, “I saw you at that party. Or whatever it was.”
“Team bonding experience.”
“Right. Well. There.”
They wavered, avoiding each other’s gaze. Finally Theo mumbled, looking at some place a few hundred miles above and a little to the left of her forehead, “Are you . . . ”
“The catering company bought my parole.”
“You’ve been . . . ”
“I’ve got a shift starting at 9 p.m., near Sloane Square. It’s a market. They’re selling the paroles of the pretty girls to rich geezers. Maids. Cleaners, nannies. That sort of stuff. If you’re rich enough, you get to pay less tax if you turn yourself into a company, and if you’re a company you can buy a parole. It’s all sex. I mean that’s why they . . . but I’m catering. I just clean the glasses.”
Her head bent down, then up, a curious cat not sure if the object before it is food or threat. The more he tried not to catch her eye, the harder she stared until finally his gaze met hers, and she held it with a frown. “We’re gonna talk now,” she explained, cold and flat. “That’s what’s happening. In case you’re wondering. It’s . . . that’s what happens now.”
He tried to look away, couldn’t, nodded once, mouth dry, and followed her.