Weidenfeld & Nicolson
There’s no chair, even. The room is blue-grey, fluorescent-lit, like the rest.
‘Property ?’ the man at the counter asks. Well, they’ve already taken his proper clothes: Simon’s standing there in a striped shirt, a pair of thin jeans that won’t stay up. ‘Anything that might get nicked or trashed,’ the man says, ‘Give it here – ’ he’s done this a thousand times, has the timing just so – ‘We’ll seal it up nice and tight… then we’ll lose it for you good and proper… Ha ! Seriously, there’s no liability…’ Oh, he’s proud of himself, all right. His white shirt glows almost violet. The breast pocket is stretched over a pack of twenty fags. The top of his bald head shines in the light. He taps the side of his nose, leans forwards:
‘What you got then,’ he says ‘Mummy’s ashes ? The bleedin’ crown jewels? Spit it out, we don’t have all day/’ There are six more behind me, Simon thinks, there’s fuck knows what ahead.. In the end, it can’t matter much what happens to these two particular items of his. Except that this way he doesn’t have to look after them and if the are lost, whatever this bald bastard says, it won’t be his fault… Plus, the sooner he gets through this the sooner he might get to lie down. He could sleep on a bed of knives in an earthquake, so long as he was lying down… So, he grins back at the big-headed, fat-fingered man with a sense of his own sense of humour; he keeps his thoughts to himself and puts his goods on the counter. First, the envelope.
‘It’s sealed,’ he says. Well, says the slow look he gets back, opening your sodding correspondence is the last thing on earth I’d do, because, like you, it’ll be a piece of –
Simon’s too beat up to react. His eyes are so sticky he can hear every blink, feel it too. He had the shower after the strip search, but it was cold and he can still smell his own sweat. He stares at the counter top, dirty oak edging with Formica inset, remembers how the envelope was given him by a washed-out dyke type woman who watched him tear it open, unfold the single sheet inside, then read it to him, all two lines of it: ‘I am sorry. This is the way things had to be. I hope things turn out well for you, Sharon.’ That’s what the woman said it says. Then she said he needed counselling, gave him a list of phone numbers as long as an arm; he was so fucked off with her that he nearly binned the thing, but in the end he smoothed it out and resealed the envelope, kept it for years in the lining of his pilot jacket. Well, as a matter of fact, things turned out just about as badly as they possibly could, and this lot can lose the fucking thing if they want to, he thinks. He’s moving on. In.
‘One watch,’ fatfingers observes.
‘It’s a Rolex,’ Simon tells him. But it’s not. He got it with his first month’s proper pay, from someone he met in a pub. It looses. He was ripped off. So, good riddance. He’ll travel light: washing things, plate, mug, bowl.
He does his squiggle with the pen. The joker opposite turns around to lock up, then pushes over an empty envelope: brown with black type, official looking.
‘Your Free Letter,’ he says.
‘What for?’ Simon asks .
‘Well, son, you can wipe your arse with it if you want!’
‘Right, mate. Maybe I will,’ Simon spits back. His hands are fisted and he’s woken right up now.
‘Keep you head down’ the man says, pleased, turning away. Simon shoves the envelope in his pocket, collects two sheets and a blanket, stuffs them in the pillowcase, moves on.
The man in front of him has a moustache, the one behind a full chin’s worth of hair. He can hear the creak of both of their pairs of shoes, the rattle of their key chains, their breath, his own. They pass through the next pair of doors, solid, then barred and the next, and the next, pausing each time to wait for the key to slip in and do its work, two openings, two closures. He thinks how he could die here. Be killed. Start using drugs and do the job himself. Just get old… and all of a sudden, how badly he wants what he’s not had, all of it, even not knowing what it is! How much he wants to throw the switch, de-materialise, re-appear somewhere else. His heart is already fighting to escape from his chest when the last set of doors opens on to the wing and the stench and echo of captivity smashes into him. It’s like the opening of a furnace door. A wall of heat. They have to push him through.
‘Go on,’ says the bearded man behind, ‘go on now, son, this here is a one way street.’