I was invited to a friend’s house. We were to play games, drink, the usual stuff.
On the way there I wasn’t happy. It was a long hot bus ride and I was fazing out a bit- I believe I hallucinated. All the people were shouting, banging on the floor of the upper deck with their feet, opening windows and making obscene gestures to girls, you know the kind of thing.
Then I heard a man below. A group of women turned on him like a flock of harpies, one woman especially seemed to be the leader.
“Make him get off Driver, he’s upsetting all the girls.”
“I’m not doing anything, I’m not upsetting nobody.”
“There’s women on here, there’s China women on here, make him get off Driver, he’s upsetting everyone.”
The woman’s voice was shrill, she sounded like something out of Monty Python, she couldn’t be taken seriously surely, the man’s voice by contrast was heavy, lazy, gruff and fed up. What had he done, I wondered, flashed someone?
“Fuck off”, he started shouting. ”I ain’t done nothing.”
The bus came to a halt somewhere in Camberwell and the commotion continued and I got up to look down the stairwell but then the man ran up and I jumped out of his way. He went to the back, opened the window and called out “bitch” to the woman who was now on the street. He called her bitch several times. He was not how I expected- dressed in a shirt, jeans. He looked like he could be a landlord of sorts, or some kind of property owner. No one dare say anything on the bus, it went very quiet.
As I say I was beginning to hallucinate a bit, what with the heat and the noise. The hallucinations weren’t nice- the one I remember most was a big laundry basket appearing in front of me. You know, one of those old style whicker basket types, tall off the ground, the type you expected a cobra to rear its head out of when you were a kid. Anyway somehow I knew there was someone inside who needed rescuing and it was up to me to do it. I lifted the lid and was about to reach in my arm to pull them out when something warned me not to. Instead I peered inside and saw, crouching at the back, a small child. All I could make out were its eyes, glowing yellow in the dark and I was paralyzed with fear.
Anyway I got to the friend’s house. It was by the river and the water coolly lapped the edges of the old warehouses and I felt a little relieved. But I was feeling at a distance from things, as though nothing was really happening, you know? I thought it might be the effect of summer but at the same time I was feeling really nervous.
I banged on the door and joined all my friends who were playing Uno loudly and raucously. We spent a few happy hours being particularly competitive, even though Uno draws on no skills at all, except the ability to be lucky. But I could see something was wrong, my friend looked particularly anxious and kept throwing little glances out of the window. At first I couldn’t understand what she was looking at but then I realized she was staring at the house opposite. To begin with I couldn’t understand why, it seemed a perfectly normal house- it was of a strange design granted, one of these sort of Neo Bauhaus styles with long tall wide windows. Yet there was a certain atmosphere about it, which suggested that something was wrong. For instance, the water sprinkler had been left on in the middle of the lawn and was on a constant spin- that would be OK normally except that it was splattering full blast onto a washing line of already drenched clothes. There was also a row of three cats sitting expectantly by the front door and gazing intently at it.
When my friend got up and suddenly went outside I decided to follow her. I found her looking in through the windows of the house.
“What’s up?” I asked, still a bit nervous from the hallucinations.
“It’s really weird,” my friend said, “A little girl lives here with her foster parent and I haven’t seen him for more than a day. But I kind of get the feeling that the little girl- Tamara she’s called, is in the house but every time I knock there’s no answer.”
“Hmmm” I said not knowing what to say, and moving my head round to the sprinkler. My friend followed my look.
“Oh that’s been like that for an over a day” she said, “ he really doesn’t like us interfering otherwise I would have switched it off by now”, she also added when she saw my puzzled look.
“It is odd”, I said. “Have you had a look around the back?”
“Oh no”, my friend whispered. “He really is an odd ball, he doesn’t like it.”
“Come on” I urged, my strangeness to the man in question made me feel more courageous than she.
So we made our way around the bits of shrubbery onto a green lawn at the back and looked through the kitchen window.
We didn’t say anything for a moment or two and then my friend made a strange choking sound. I was less fazed however.
“It’s only chicken,” I said, pressing my nose against the glass.
It was only chicken but lots of them- chicken and chicken, bought from the shops and defrosted but not cooked and shoved into every possible vessel big enough for them to fit in. The heat had shriveled up their pimply pink skin, some of the carcasses had even split, spilling their insides, and above each one a cloud of meat flys buzzed happily like a dark halo.
“Yes but why?” my friend finally asked. “Chicken is her favorite!”
“Are you sure the little girl is inside?” I asked.
“ Quite sure, I am certain I’ve seen a shape at her window.”
As if to give support to that conviction I saw a flash of the curtain above me and a black face momentarily peering out before quickly disappearing again.
“She’s from Nigeria”, my friend said. “Or at least her parents were. Gerald’s Caucasian and a bit- well Tory you might say, perhaps even more right than that. We were all surprised when he took her on. He didn’t seem the right kind of person you know, but she seems happy for the year she’s been here. I used to baby sit.”
“Tamara?” my friend called out. “It’s Ruth. Do you want to come out and play?”
Ruth repeated this a few times but the face did not appear again.
“I think it is best to call the police” I said, loudly, hoping that Tamara might hear.
“Yes OK”, said Ruth catching my drift.
We turned our backs and waited at the front door, hoping that the threat would make her come out but there was no movement. We went back to Ruth’s house and rang the police and then carried on with our game. But none of us now- Ruth having related the events to everyone else- could concentrate or rest easy, we all kept looking out of the window at the house.
Then there was a knock at the door. We shot glances at each other, we hadn’t heard any vehicles stop outside. Ruth went to open it and in walked Tamara. She stalked straight up to our table, picked up some cards and looked around expectantly.
“Can I play Ruth? What is it, Uno?” she asked evenly.
Her tone was cold, even hostile and her composure was so collected it at once suggested to me that something very out of the ordinary had happened at the house across the road. Even though I guessed she was around 10 or 11, I took an instinctive dislike to her, she was slender and tall like a tree but her face was round. With a shock I saw big dark patches on her face, I realized they were bruises and I immediately felt pity. Someone, obviously Gerald, had been severely mistreating her.
Instead of answering Tamara, Ruth immediately bombarded her with a series of questions despite my best efforts to prevent her – I felt she needed to be led gently into revealing what had gone on over the last day or so. But Ruth ignored me and so did Tamara, who pretended she hadn’t heard and proceeded to play the game. Not having much choice we all joined in wordlessly, staring at the little girl all the while and wondering.
Finally the police did arrive and Ruth, unseen by Tamara, slipped out to talk to them. She and they then went to the house and were in there a long time. To keep Tamara busy we kept playing game after game until Ruth reappeared, looking very white. At that moment the police entered our house and as if knowing, as if she had known all along, Tamara stood up and slowly turned to face them.
“He raped me at dinner,” she said to the policewoman, as if that explained everything.
She held out her puny arms as if expecting to be handcuffed but when one of the constables stepped towards her, trying to muster a half smile, she instead turned to me and flung herself in my arms. I had no choice but to slowly return the embrace although I was chilled, the thought occurred to me she could stab me perhaps, no one knew what she might be capable of. But instead she cried and I held her, melting bit by bit. I still felt she had committed a terrible act, I was certain she had murdered Gerald in revenge, yet the child was only 11 and alone. I felt sorry for her though the earlier feeling from the hallucination returned.
When the police had taken her away, Ruth told me they found Gerald on his bed, his throat slit. She was shaking her head in disbelief and crying, “Poor, poor child, if only we’d seen what he was like”. Me I felt very sorry- sorry that he had raped her, sorry she had been forced to kill him. Both deeds would weigh heavily with her for the rest of her life.
I left Ruth soon after, thinking I would not return for a while. I couldn’t get the image of the chickens and the child in the whicker basket out of my head.