Stone The Crows

Synopsis Tom Bishop knows something is happening. But when The Horror begins, it will be too late for everyone else. The crows outside Bishop’s flat have destroyed the morning birdsong. A vicious, aggressive black cloud of razor-sharp beaks and talons begin to taunt then attack him, a stark warning that the delicate fabric of daily life in the commonsense world is about to be altered forever. The woman, the Japanese assassin, is pursuing him through the snaking dark streets of London. No matter how hard he tries to shake her off, she is always there waiting for him like a spectre. Is she some kind of shape-shifter morphing into familiar surroundings, lulling him into some false sense of security before she attacks him again? What does she want? Why him? But she is only a small fragment of this apocalyptic puzzle. He knew they existed. The Inorganics. Flickering around him, as if on the extreme border of his consciousness, corporeally invisible, Bishop felt their presence as strongly as any worldly creature. It was as if energy had seeped into his existence and acquired a predatory soul. He knew some Inorganics could be harmful, but through his training he could defend himself  so far. Roulla Mavromati, the enigmatic woman he meets one day on the train, craves his knowledge. But these will not be the lessons found in any university surrounded by the leafy comfort of academia. She will be pushed to the very edge of pleasure and pain to discover they spring from the same source. As her thirst for Heaven and Hell intensifies, Bishop has to find new extremes where the boundaries of flesh and consciousness dissolve. Roulla possesses a power Bishop has never encountered in any woman he has known. Unleashed, the potential could be devastating. As Roulla excels in her studies, Tom Bishop realises this is the woman he was always destined to meet and that these are not merely games of master and slave but a frightening prelude of what is to come. Then it begins It is during one of the many conversations with another resident of the house, his philosophical sparring partner, the Red Yank, an out-of-work actor with a passion for classical music, pipes and women. His flat is cluttered with chaotic displays of his theatre and film work, and he shares it with the love of his life, a politically incorrect parrot called Louie. At first it seems like a simple car accident in the street outside with the two drivers in an angry stand off  maybe an exchange of blame, then insurance details? An axe swings, bullets spray from a gun and a man lies dying on the floor. A hate-fuelled mob floods the neighbourhood charged with insanity and chaos as Bishop and the Red Yank unbelievingly crane their heads out of the window to watch as the police, outnumbered and helpless, disappear beneath a tidal wave of blood and anarchy. It could be the beginnings of a long overdue revolution. But this is what Bishop has always known. The Horror had begun. The landscape has dramatically changed overnight. Dismembered corpses hang from trees, the dead litter the streets as the crows and rats feast on the banquet. At first it seems that the only living creatures are the crows. Patrolled by armed guards, huge razor wire pens have been constructed. Inside, a new breed of animal is being broken in and conditioned to obey their new masters. Naked and dehumanised, the filthy rich, the ex-rulers of the people and the upper echelon, have become the primary fuel as they pull the new order around in makeshift chariots. Whipped into a pulverising subservience, these scarred and tattered people scream out for a system that has crumbled into the bloody filth and human detritus of stinking London streets. Animals with reborn primal savagery hunt in packs, tearing apart anything in their path and adding to the growing carnage. The Horror is engulfing everything, not just people. The earth is in revolt. Tom Bishop and the Red Yank find to their amazement they can walk around without drawing attention to themselves while watching the blasphemy of deconstructed humanity at their leisure. But the crows see them. The crows always see them, and the crows haven’t forgotten. Then Bishop hears The Voice and learns why things are the way they are. Why they always will be. Why The Horror has to exist.

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1. Chapter One

STONE THE CROWS

 

                     The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow – William Blake

by

 

     Bill Bailey

CHAPTER ONE

Tom Bishop took steady aim through the partly drawn curtains of his back window.  He slowly squeezed the trigger.  The “pop” of the target air pistol was followed by the slow motion fall of the crow.  It tumbled end over end, hitting two branches before disappearing into the ferns at the back of the garden below.  With the noise of the air pistol, the rest of the crow flock lifted as a single unit from the branches of the tree.  Bishop counted swiftly.  Seven of them.  He watched from behind the curtains as they rose over the terrace of houses at the back of the garden and wheeled to the left.

Abruptly, one of the crows – the biggest – detached itself from the flock, tightening its turn sharply as it soared with its wings as vertical as a passenger jet.  Then it dived.

 

At the same time as the big crow’s feet dragged sharply across the window frame, the deep yellow beak opened wide.  The loud, angry squawk shredded the silence of the room as Tom Bishop reeled backwards in surprise.  The shrieking continued as the bird wheeled away and circled again for another attack.  It’s eyes were angry dark opals.  Sucking his breath in fury, Bishop cranked back the pump and drove more air into the gun, then flicked open the loading mechanism.  His fingers searched for another pellet, but his eyes were on the crow.  He realised he was going to be too late.  The pellet dropped on the floor, and he impatiently scrabbled for another one.

The crow shimmered in the light.  It was coming straight towards his window now, the ugly beak open.  The noise was ear-shattering.  The pellet finally went home, and he snapped the loading mechanism closed.  But as he swept back his curtains for a better view, the big crow suddenly climbed, just brushing the window with his wings before disappearing sharply upward.  The squawking stopped as if the sound had been clipped off with shears.

A smell of decay filled the room as Bishop searched the skies for the black bird.  Then he saw it gliding high over the top of the terraces.  He sensed it was staring at him mockingly.

He aimed the pistol and fired.  Both he and the crow knew it was just a gesture.  The bird was too far away and moving swiftly.  It didn’t even flinch as the pellet passed harmlessly beneath its wings.  Then it disappeared from view behind the trees.  It was gone.

 

There was no point in reloading.  He knew the crows would not come back now, so he rearranged the curtains.  But the stench was now overpowering, and Tom Bishop was very nearly physically ill when his eyes dropped to his shirt.  It was everywhere, and he was overpowered by the disgusting wetness.  His shirt was sticking to his skin.

How could he have not noticed it?

 

There were solids clinging to his shirt too, but it wasn’t like normal bird shit.  It was smelly, an ugly brown and blackish smear.  It had splattered inside his shirt, too.  On his skin.  Throwing the air pistol aside onto the sofa, he tore off his shirt and rolled it up, inside-out before stuffing it into a plastic bag.  He raced to the bathroom, tearing off the rest of his clothes as he ran.  The shit on his belly stung.  He could feel it – or thought he could.  Kicking off his old tattered trainers, he literally jumped into the bath with his socks on.  It didn’t matter.  The smell was of fresh, diseased dung, and it triggered his nausea reflex so profoundly that he could not react.  Projectile vomit hit the black and white tiles as Bishop’s hands found the shower attachment and turned on the water.  He retched again.  Nothing but milky fluid.

Fresh, clear, clean water.  That’s what he thought as he held his head back and let it flood over him.  But it wasn’t that fresh or clear or clean.  It was city water, modern water, industrial water, market forces water - cheaply filtered sewage pumped back endlessly through hundreds of thousands of homes every day.  If homeopathic principles were true, then…  His mouth snapped shut, and he slowly opened his eyes. 

“Breathe,” he said out loud to himself.

Standing up straight underneath the shower he closed his eyes and breathed through his anus, purifying his body with the breath as it travelled upwards through his heart and his head and finally out through the crown chakra.  Only then did he allow himself to look down at his stomach.  Several morsels of shit still clung to his skin, and it almost made him sick again.  Because he didn’t want to touch it with his fingers.  It was too foul, too alien, too viscerally disgusting.  He didn’t want it underneath his fingernails.

 

There was the bath brush.  He reached for it and tipped some shampoo into the bristles before dragging the brush across the remaining smear of crow shit.  Finally it was all gone.  He dropped the brush and breathed again with his eyes closed, water flowing over his eyelids as it streamed down from his wet blond hair.  When he finally opened his eyes, the brush was lying at the bottom of the bath.  The shit was gone, but he washed his body carefully anyway, all over.  Soap and suds were everywhere.  He turned the shower head onto the tiles and cleaned the remaining vomit off the wall.  Then he stood again underneath, his eyes closed as the water, now hot, drummed on his head.  He breathed again through his anus.

Drifted out.  Or up.  It was like the snap of an anchor chain as the tide rose sharply and cast him upward and beyond, like a twirling three-master spinning beneath turbulent heavens.  Heavens?  Was heaven a word defined by its relationship with hell?  That harsh, angry furnace which his body was tethered to like Prometheus as the carrion birds searched for his eyes.  That broiling mass of screams coiled and slithering like red snakes as the arterial blood of life was pumped and sprayed by the zombie vandals into the heaving, overheated, slippery flesh.  He fought for elevation above and beyond the words, where he could glide like the soul of a condor without wings or feathers.  Because words were fetters, too.  They held him down, pulled him back, defined him like heaven was defined by hell.  Beyond words he could reach far past the restraints of existence – perhaps to the lair of the Sex Goddess.  But no, this time he plunged beyond her, too, and all else which formed the distant horizons of being.  All the way to the axis of creation.  That’s what he called it, because it wasn’t like the Sex Goddess and did not introduce itself to him.  The Axis of Creation was where the polarities of north and south, yin and yang are formed.  Where myths are born and disgorged or else sucked back into the black hole of that which precedes being.

 

This was Tom Bishop’s frontier.  The frontier of his consciousness.  Where his spirit found its centre.  Many nights were spent here.  He fancied himself an explorer and something of a sorcerer, but sometimes connections disappeared before they were successfully made.  One reality would dissolve in the afterbirth of a new one.  Nothing could be captured or tamed.  It was a wild frontier, and the stakes were high.  He knew it.

He threw his head back and pressed both hands against his forehead, moving them slowly backwards to squeeze out the water from his hair.  Then he opened his eyes and blinked before turning off the shower.  He unscrewed the flexible shower hose, and laid the head on the bath.  Then he dried his body thoroughly and combed his hair while staring at himself in the mirror.  He held his eyes in the reflection without blinking as the comb moved slowly across his scalp. He was lean almost to the point of emaciation, covered by fair - almost translucent – skin.  A pale blue map of veins lined his arms and legs.  His eyes were limpid grey.  Even wet his hair was the colour of straw.  An Aryan.  No doubt about it.

He squeezed some lubricating jelly onto his palm, then scooped it up with a forefinger.  Carefully he found his anus with the finger and smeared the jelly outside on the rim before pushing inside.  Two joints of the finger disappeared as he swivelled his wrist.  Then he reached for the shower hose and squeezed jelly direct from the tube onto it.  He pushed the hose up into him a couple of inches.  It slid easily, but he winced a little at the coldness of the metal.  He reached up and turned on the shower.  The back pressure in his bowels was a sensation he looked forward to.  Beginners could complain that a douche made them feel slightly nauseous, but Bishop closed his eyes in pleasure as he felt the water surge past his sigmoid colon.  It felt fresh and clean.  He turned off the water, then sat down on the toilet.

He douched three times.  Maybe it was because of the crow shit.  He wanted to feel clean once more, inside and out.  After his douche he sat naked on the toilet seat to file his toe- and fingernails.  He used to finish off by rubbing expensive oils into his skin.  The oil was one of the first things to go.  When the luxuries are cut, the necessities remain.  Then the necessities are examined and re-examined before being, one by one, renamed luxuries and reluctantly cut.

*

The curtains were drawn in his kitchen because he liked to be naked.  He enjoyed feeling the little changes of temperature on his skin.  It gave him a sense of intimate immediacy.  He felt more at one with his surroundings, the textures of furniture, the differences in floor coverings.  It also made him more reactive to his environment.  He could feel – or sense – the presence of other things.  Like the inorganics.

 

The crows were worrying him.  They had worried him for a long time, but this was their first real attack.

He sat down in the cane chair near the kitchen window with his mug of strong instant coffee and meticulously rolled himself a very, very thin cigarette.  It was mid-afternoon, and he had not been up very long.  As soon as he woke he heard the crows at the rear of his flat.  They were testing him, flaunting their presence, daring him to shoot.  Their arrogance had cost the flock one crow.  He chuckled to himself.  Even their sharp, suspicious eyes could never have spotted the thin muzzle of his competition target air pistol.  The crows perched in one of the next door trees, not the ones directly behind his flat.  They were not that foolhardy.  But they were certainly calling for him, imposing their presence, flaunting their insolence.

 

The trees behind the terrace were large mature limes.  In spring their leaves and the height of the trees created the impression of living on the edge of a forest.  It nearly masked the terrace of shops and flats along Junction Road which backed onto those of Ptolemy Terrace.  During winter the trees were leafless, and Bishop could window-watch the lit back rooms of the flats opposite through the magical mapwork of bare branches.  Late night.  That was the best viewing time.  After 2.00am.  Only those devoted to serious night introspection were up after that time.

After three years of flirtation through her kitchen window opposite his rear window, Frenchie had finally moved out, taking her dopey, dull boyfriend with her.  But the flat had a new occupant.  Two nights before he watched with interest through the darkened sitting room window as she moved about without any clothes on.  She was singing Vissi d’arte from Tosca.  She certainly wasn’t as beautiful as Frenchie, but her tits were nice and trembled enticingly as she moved round the kitchen.  Nice voice, too.  Cooking.  At three in the morning.  With the curtains open.  They were usually closed.  Now what could that mean?

*

Bishop got up and flicked the switch on the kettle again.  Time for another mug of coffee and another ciggie.  Maybe then he could face the day and think about the fucking crows.  He put a heaping teaspoonful of instant in his cup and rattled his fingernails on the counter as he waited for the water to boil.

 

Returning to the cane chair, he put the mug down and reached for his tobacco.  Crows and magpies were on the swarm.  They were everywhere now.  He had first noticed it at Waterlow Park.  They drove out all the other birds but the pigeons.  Last summer they began to mass on Ptolemy Terrace, and Bishop watched in disgust as the corvids attacked songbird nests and devoured the eggs before scattering the remains of the nests with their dirty yellow beaks.  One nest of starlings in a hollow stump of an upper branch remained in the tree behind his flat, and he was determined to help defend it.

Tom Bishop hated killing animals.  It was bad medicine.  But this spring he noticed the pitiful dawn chorus.  It seemed there were only a few birds left to sing in the new days.  It was something he loved, waiting for the orchestral dawn chorus at the end of a night before he went to sleep.  It was joyful, restful to the soul.  Then the corvids began their invasion – slow at first, peaking late last summer.  When did it all start?  Bishop didn’t know, really.  It was hard to recall the ends and beginnings of a process.  He easily remembered a time when there were plenty of songbirds, a lot of them nesting in the big lime trees at the back.  Then the coming of dawn was a mighty experience.  The sounds connected him with the earth and forests of his ancestral past.  They soothed him after bruising encounters with the inorganics or explorations into the mythical horizons of his being.

 

Anyway, the invasion of the corvids was now nearly complete.  During the days they stood like conquerors grasping top branches and TV aerials.  Their sounds were not pleasant.  Their presence was malignant, he was sure of it.

Was he the cause of it?  Were they coming for him?

 

+The instant froze like it did sometimes.  He was leaning forward to flick ash from his cigarette, and a whole sequence rippled through his mind with its own time continuity, a memory interlocking with the present, producing a strong whiff of déjà vu.  He was sitting on a bench in the park.  It was a little chilly – not enough to fog his breath - and there was still a hint of rain in the air.  So there were few other people there.  A couple of walkers in the distance, near the pond.  A woman with a pram.  And – uh-oh - the Patrolman.  The Patrolman was in uniform – old weather-beaten leather jacket, Russian fur hat with flaps up, encrusted knapsack, dirty trousers and boots with well-worn heels.  Luckily the Patrolman had his head down and was probably muttering obscenities as he walked away towards the tennis courts.

Two crows in front of him were fighting over a dog turd.  It was getting ugly.  The bigger bird held the turd in its beak, as if it were carrying a pearl.  The other one wasn’t much smaller and wasn’t afraid of the one with the turd.  They made an awful noise between the two of them and were beginning to attract the attention of the rest of the flock.  Two or three others flew over.  When they saw the dog turd they were excited, as if by sex.  Almost as a team they joined in the attack.

Bishop continued to watch, mesmerised.  Why would any animal fight over a dog turd?  Even rats didn’t do that.  In fact he held rats in high regard.  They were intelligent, socially sophisticated.  But crows?  They would fight over dog turds.  Which meant they ate shit.  And that was maybe partly responsible for the general inedibility of crows.  Who would eat a crow?  As far as his knowledge went, even a starving hawk or eagle would turn away.  Crows didn’t need friends.  They didn’t even seem to want friends.  They stayed with their own, they played with their own.

The one with the dog turd suddenly taxied down the slope and took to its wings.  The rest of them took off in pursuit.

That’s when he heard the voice.

Won’t hold out.

 

That’s all it said.  The voice appeared to originate inside his head.  It was gruff but clear.  Bishop looked around him, searching for the speaker.  Who had said that?  Nobody.  But there was a crow.  He hadn’t noticed it before.  (It was a really big one, maybe as big as the one that later flung shit at him through his window.)  It wasn’t far away.  Ten feet?  Twelve?  He stared at the crow.

“Bugger off,” he said finally in a soft voice.  “Go eat shit with your mates.”

You won’t hold out.

Did the beak move?  Or did Bishop’s eyes flicker away for a split second?  Was that when he heard it the second time?  It certainly seemed louder, firmer, more threatening.  One thing was clear.  The bird didn’t move at all.  Its eye was as black as jet – and shiny like jet, too.  Bishop felt the hairs begin to rise on the back of his neck and wished he’d brought the air pistol with him.  But they knew, didn’t they?  They knew when you were armed and wouldn’t come close.  This one had a rictus mask of scorn round its face, as if it guessed what he was thinking.  “All-powerful humans, eh?” it was thinking.  “Move one step towards me, and I’m in the air.  You’ll never find me again.  But I’ll find you.”

Tom Bishop rose from his seat anyway.  Simultaneously, the bird unfurled its great black wings.  It was lazily airborne before he even made that one step.  Above him now, the crow wheeled, and he imagined he could see the eye staring at him, as piercing as an missile.+

Bishop flicked the ash into the tray and smiled ruefully as he then took another drag on his fag.  He could never predict them.  These little blasts of memory were poignantly real.  They were and they weren’t.  He was sure he wasn’t moving back and forth in time, but the episodes were palpable.  They had detail and acuity and accuracy, like no other memory.  He couldn’t find a mechanical analogy to satisfy him.  It was not at all like a video or tape replay, because everything was taken in.  There was no “camera” focus.  He could feel the change in temperatures, the sun on his skin, wind and a panoramic sense of everything.  Weird.

 

Bishop shrugged and leaned back in his chair to drag again on his cigarette.  Then he relaxed his head against the back of his chair and blew out the smoke towards the ceiling.  Weird.  Yet the world was full of weirdness.  All his life it had been hard to develop a theory about what was going on.  One thing was clear, though.  What was going on was not what they said was going on.  He had to find a place soon to drop some kind of anchor.  The disorientation and alienation made him giddy.  The co-ordinates were there.  He just could not see them properly.  There were the constant and continuing assaults, and now the crows.  They must be coming for him as well.  So who was it?

Tom Bishop realised that somehow he had to find out who owned the planet.

* * *

It happened that evening while he was hanging upside down in his gravity boots.  The bar he hung from was just underneath the trapdoor leading to the loft.  Directly above that trapdoor was the roof window.  For ventilation Bishop had removed the window earlier that evening.  He loved his gravity boots.  The Red Yank gave them to him last Christmas because the big American knew it was the one thing Bishop wanted but could never afford.  He could hang from the bar and feel all his organs slowly rearrange themselves like a nest of eyeless creatures on the bottom of the sea.  But it was his spine which benefited most.  When he finally relaxed the muscles of his back, he could feel each vertebrae separate and release stored energy, which radiated from his being like rays from blazing suns.  His eyes were shut.  He was still naked, and his arms hung lifelessly like fins.  Inside he was calm, breathing slowly – very slowly – and methodically.  His heartbeat had slowed by now, and his energy-body was just beginning to move outward and upward when it happened.

 

It was a heavy thunk.  Something hit the floor of the loft and bounced twice before landing a foot from his head.  He looked at it, every nerve now on stalks.  It was a ragged piece of brick.  Bishop glanced quickly up into the darkness of the trap door.  Hanging upside down he was helpless.  On the other hand he didn’t sense any immediate danger.  Danger was past.  Gone, for the moment.  He quickly gathered back in his energy-body, realising he had been aware of a rustle of wings just before the stone was dropped through his roof light.  The crow!  It had to be the crow!  And that was ludicrous, because crows were not nocturnal flyers like owls or bats.  They couldn’t see at night.  Nevertheless, it was a crow.  The crow.  He was as certain as he would have been if he actually saw the bird drop the piece of brick.  So it was some kind of message.  No doubt about it.  Bishop reached down and picked up the object, turning it round in his fingers.  An ordinary bit of brick.  There was even a trace of mortar clinging to a corner of it.  A rationalist would surely say the brick dropped after being slowly loosened by time, a fragment of the exterior wall.  Or maybe from the chimney rising above the roof.

But he knew better.  He knew it was the crow – somehow.  However, he realised he would probably waste the time later trying to match up the brick with something upstairs.  He wouldn’t find it, but he would try, even though the crow would be laughing at him somewhere.

 

Then he, too, laughed suddenly, at least partly at himself.  Was the crow now hanging upside down?  Like a bat?  Like he was, with his gravity boots?  Was there a dark, hidden cave somewhere – maybe a hole that opened with a moist yawn in the surface of the earth at nights.  Inside this hole, as dark as a black hole where all light was sucked in and destroyed, hung the ranks and rows of hideous demons – the agents of those who owned the world.  In various forms the demons would pour from the hole at nights to seek out the human nectar from the dying blossom of life.

* * *

 

It was hard not to gag as Bishop watched the drunk Irishman put one hand on the wall, lower his head and vomit out his guts onto the wall and pavement beside one of the pubs on Junction Road.  It was just after closing time, a bad time.  It was raining - a slow, steady, north-of-England sort of rain.  There were no puddles yet because it had just started.  Bishop glanced upward, flickering his eyelids against the rain, and the deep, electronic yellow of the streetlights caused him to squint harder.  It was settling in.  It had that feeling.  It was going to rain for days, a kind of rain he never liked.  He didn’t mind a downpour, and he loved storms – but these clouds felt as if they had found a home, just here over London – and probably they had settled over the whole of the country like dark, unwholesome wet dreams.

He stepped carefully on the pavement to avoid the patches of snot blown straight from the nose to form treacherous tubercular oysters that would cling to his boot.  There were always plenty of hazards on Junction Road.  Pieces of onion, pickle, chilli and doner kabob mashed by dozens of feet into a dark pulp.  Add a bit of rain, and it became as slick and ugly as oil.

 

He didn’t particularly like coming out this late at night because beggars were arming themselves now that the government was shaking them off the dole and trying to guide them towards the cattle pens of slave labour.  Beggars were becoming active instead of passive.  They didn’t ask for money any more.  They took it, usually brandishing a Stanley knife.  Bishop had his coastguard out, though.  Little fingers of consciousness that felt their ways into dark doorways and shadows looking for resentment and hatred and fear.  The fingers searched behind him as well, and his ears were finely tuned for footsteps that were coming too quickly or too close.

Abruptly he caught a glimpse of himself in a shop window.  It startled him as it was meant to startle anyone who might approach him in this hostile environment.  The boots caught the eye first.  They were heavy, polished, laced to the knee, made of fine leather, and his trousers were tucked neatly into the tops of the boots.  The bomber jacket and peaked leather cap completed the portrait of the hunter, not the hunted.

 

He had to make a phone call.  His own phone had been cut off years ago after the last of his money ran out, and his mobile battery needed replacement.  So he needed to make trips out to the local phone boxes.  Or were they called phone “stations” now?  The old red boxes had disappeared, and now everything was glass – reinforced naturally against everything but really heavy hammers.  Like much else in this “new” world, they had a phoney glitziness about them that ensured their cultural banality.  Bishop thought of how the public telephone system developed over the past few years with a crooked smile curling his lips.  Naturally it was much more expensive.  In earlier times the phone company provided public telephone boxes as a kind of break-even service.  In more recent days, this part of the business had been sold off.  Now it must make a profit.  So the new glass boxes were covered in wrap-around advertising – which meant a caller could be mugged inside one without anyone outside noticing.  When the handset was lifted, animated advertising on the telephone itself twisted past the eyes.  He was convinced it was a devilish way to create fear and stress – the fear of physical and the reality of sensory assault.

All the new phones were supposed to be “hi-tech”, but one thing the highest of technologies was unable to solve was the creation of an honest call box.  Of course they never tried to make one of these, because public telephones were just another income stream.  This particular sort was nasty because it was designed to squeeze money out of the poor.  Those using phone boxes were only people who could not afford either a land line or mobile.  The rootless.  The riff-raff.  It wasn’t faulty technology at all.  It was a design feature.  Public phones eat your money.  They eat phone cards and they eat coins.  Try and get your money back, and the operator blandly suggests deducting your lost ten-, twenty-, fifty-pence pieces from your telephone bill!  Why would you be using a public phone if you had one at home?  Bishop did a serious study of these matters only a few months ago.  He started a notebook, listing every trip to the boxes, every call.  The average charge for a call, completed or abandoned, was £1.26.  Along with that, frustration destroyed all but the blackest mood.  And – this was the twist of mercantile genius – it was unavoidable for those without the means to afford a proper phone or a mobile.  So you could squeeze dole money from the unemployed and even shake loose spare change from the beggars.  He had a grudging admiration for the sheer satanic artistry of it.

 

He opened the door of the call box and looked inside.  His nose twitched with disgust.  A piece of burger, bun, relish and French fries had been squeezed out onto the floor.  To these ingredients were added the rainwater leaking in from the hi-tech roof of the booth and a mixture of body fluids from previous occupants.  Bishop could not bring himself to enter.  Instead he picked up the receiver with two fingers and stood outside in the rain, holding the door open with his body.

He held the receiver up to the light.  With his other hand he reached into his bomber jacket pocket for a tissue.  Stuck to the centre of the earpiece was a greasy, wet, greenish plug of ear wax.  He wiped it with the tissue and tossed it away.  Then he withdrew a plastic bag from his other pocket.  In this he stored a flannel damp with disinfectant.  He wiped the receiver with the rag, paying close attention to the earpiece.  Finally, he leaned inside the booth and dialled the number.

He spoke with Hussein, his Persian friend for many years.  Hussein was a connoisseur of fine drugs and had good sources for both hash and opium.  Bishop would collect money from friends and take their orders.  In a casual code he and Hussein developed over the years for safety, the drugs were ordered and an evening was set aside for Bishop’s visit to his home.  Bishop never charged anyone for his services, and he was scrupulously honest with both money and drugs.  The only thing he added in was the cost of a Travel Card so he could use the bus or underground.  He couldn’t bear to make a profit from friends.  Besides, it was corrupting.  It interfered with the magic of the drugs, a crucially important element in his life.  Everyone in his little “circle” knew his way of doing “business”.  And in gratitude, they either donated a piece of the delivery or invited him to sit and smoke it with them.  For him that was so much cleaner than the usual methodology – adding a fee to the cost.  Or stealing.  Stealing from those called friends.  Absolutely unacceptable.

Hanging up the phone, he glanced up the street towards Archway Roundabout.  He focused on a group of drunken teenage kids near an all-night shop.  Or “nite” as they were spelling it now.  Nite, lite, shite – it all came from America wrapped in huge corpuscles of yellow fat.  The kids were coming his way, but they had stopped to argue among themselves.  He quickly crossed the street.  He was not afraid, but the best strategy was always to avoid.  Avoid things until you had no option.  Then attack with every wild devil in your body.  Switch to killer mode.  No mercy.  In the meanwhile he would put some space between him and the drunken teenagers.

 

Tom Bishop didn’t like drink or drinking.  He hated the way those people behaved.  They could be violent or sentimental, and one was as bad as the other.  It was really part of the savagery of reality.  A civilised gentle drug like cannabis was banned, while alcohol was aggressively encouraged at every social level.

Hussein told him the delivery would be ready for tomorrow.  He hoped the rain would stop by then.  He did not fancy standing for hours at a series of bus stops.

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