Michael Marshall Smith is the Sunday Times Bestselling author of novels such as Only Forward, Spares, One of Us, and - under the name Michael Marshall - The Straw Men (which Stephen King described as 'brilliantly written and scary as hell'), The Lonely Dead and Blood of Angels. He is one of the finest exponents of the short story working today and his collections include Cat Stories, What You Make It and More Tomorrow and Other Stories. He lives with his wife in London and his website can be found at http://www.michaelmarshallsmith.com/



'That was bollocks,' said Nick amiably, leaning on his cue. 'You've produced some terrible shots this evening, but that really has to take it. Go to the library, get out a book on basic physics. Start again from the ground up.'

I stepped back from the table and replied with a cheerful obscenity before taking a sip of my beer. I wasn't playing that badly on the whole, but the last couple of games had been very erratic. When I play a pool shot, it's either very good or abysmal. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground in my game, any 'fairly good' or 'not bad' shots. How I'm playing depends solely on the ratio of the sublime to the ridiculous.

'If this comes off,' Nick muttered, lining up an ambitious double cannon, 'You'll have confirmed your standing as the luckiest player in the cosmos,' I finished for him.

Not only did the shot not come off, it sent the cue ball clear off the table to bounce loudly on the wooden floor and rocket off towards the other side of the hall. Because I was nearest, I went after it. Players at the other tables watched impassively as I tried not to look as if I was scurrying.

The pool hall in the Archway Tavern is on the first floor, a large bare rectangular room with high ceilings that covers the area of the two bars on the floor below. There are two snooker tables and five for pool, an area of seats and tables around the nuclear-powered jukebox, and a bar set into the wall near the door. Not an especially prepossessing room, in a fairly rough Irish Pub (painted entirely green on the outside, just in case anyone should be in any doubt), but I'd been going there to play pool regularly for over a year, and there'd never been any trouble. While the locals are generally too taciturn to be called friendly they always seem fairly affable, and with discs full of the Fureys and the Dubliners in the jukebox the atmosphere on a good night is pretty good.

The cue ball made it all the way to the far corner of the room, banging to rest under the pool table there.

'Sorry,' I said, trying not to sound too English, and crouched down to retrieve it. The two youths at the table continued playing. Reaching under, I scrabbled with my finger tips and eventually dislodged the ball. I stood up rather quickly and felt my head dizzy for a moment as I turned to head back to the other side of the room.

Then suddenly the evening, which was already fine, took a turn for the better.

They had arrived.

I walked back to our table, trying to look nonchalant, willing myself not to look back at the bar.

'Two shots,' Nick conceded.

'No, really? I had to catch a fucking bus.'

I took my time putting the cue ball in position, ostensibly lining up the next break, but in fact covertly glancing up the room. The only free table was the next but one to ours. If they were going to play pool rather than just hang around and chat with their mates near the juke box, then they would be less than five yards away.

I sent the cue ball rocketing towards a stray red near the end of the table, not really expecting it to go in. The hidden agenda of the shot was to get Nick back on the table so that I could carry on looking up the room. Unfortunately I'd judged it too well and the ball smacked into the pocket. Nick tapped the handle of his cue sagely on the floor. Choosing a shot which would allow me to glance up to the bar, I lent over the table to see that, drinks in hand, they were indeed heading towards the free table, a gaggle of their mates in tow. I tightened up and missed an easy shot into the centre pocket.

Nick shook his head. 'Sometimes I wonder if there are two completely different people inside you,' he said. 'A twenty-six-year-old veteran and a five-year-old paraplegic, taking alternate shots. Oh.' Having noticed the new arrivals, he gave me a knowing smile. 'I see. Distraction.'

I grinned sheepishly, feeling like a fourteen-year-old accused of fancying a girl in the sixth form. This time the relationship was completely the opposite, but it still evoked the same mixed feelings of pride and utter stupidity.

The source of these emotions was the girl at the next table but one. She and her virtually identical twin sister were regulars at the Tavern, sometimes playing pool, sometimes just hanging out with a group of other locals. The twins were both tall, extremely slim and unnecessarily pretty. The difference between them was that my one had slightly more prominent cheekbones, and her long wavy brown hair was cut slightly shorter than her sister's. Her skin was pale, and her lips were red. She and her sister were, I guessed, about seventeen.

'When you're ready. In your own time.' sighed Nick theatrically.


'It's your shot.'

Down at the other table they were racking up the balls, the second twin talking to another of the regular girl players. My one was standing slightly apart, taking her jacket off, causing a simultaneous feeling of joy and despair in me. The loose jeans she was wearing I could cope with, but her top appeared to be the upper half of a grey leotard, and clung to her like a swimming costume. It wasn't worn smugly, which made it even worse. She was just wearing it because she could, and I knew that faced with that length of slim perfection I was going to find it impossible not to keep looking at her.

'Jesus wept,' I whispered to myself, and tried to concentrate on the shot. The centre pocket pot was easy, but I had to do some work to get position on the next shot. Aiming at the bottom of the cue ball I dug in hard for maximum backspin. The white leapt neatly over the red and left the table, nearly hitting Nick in the stomach.

'Shame,' he said, when his hysterics had subsided, 'they were watching.'

I smiled at him, hoping he was joking. He didn't look as if he was, and my smile turned rather tight-lipped as I sat down to wait. Given two shots and the position of the yellows, he'd almost certainly finish up with this break. As he moved methodically round the table, potting, I sipped my warm Budweiser and looked up the room.

Intent on her shot, she was bending over the table, her back to me. I let my eyes wander over the slim strength of her lovely long back, and felt a crushing weight of unhappiness settle into me. I felt like I was watching her through glass, staring in from the outside, as she chatted with a friend, waiting for her next shot while her sister made a creditable attempt at a long pot. Her voice, which I heard for the first time, was pure London, though the accent was pleasantly mild for the area. As she leant over to take her next shot, this time in profile, the misery I was feeling deepened. There are some things I find unbearably attractive in a woman: cheekbones, a definite nose, long and thick brown hair, slim upper arms and shoulders, a long back and willowy stomach, a small chest and graceful hands. She had every single one of these. And she was seventeen, and I was pathetic.

A resounding thwak signalled the end of the game as Nick drilled the black into one of the end pockets. He was having a very good evening.

'Your set-up,' I said, climbing to my feet. 'You ready for another?'

As I was waiting for attention at the bar I wandered over to the juke box and put on my two favourite songs of the time, Heart's 'Secret' and Bruce Springsteen's 'I'm on Fire.' I was obviously in a queue, however, because the next to come on was a delightful piece entitled 'Yeah Baby, Do It Again,' by some American heavy metal band. Returning to the table I shook my head at Nick to signal that this wasn't my choice.

'Thought not,' he said, accepting his cider, 'Can I guess what you've put on?'

Probably,' I grunted, and broke the pack. Nick always gives me a hard time for the songs I select, claiming that they are without exception morbid and about failed relationships. Nick is in a position to laugh about things like that, because he's happily married. He has someone who cares about him, someone to love, and he's not so fucked up that he can get obsessed with slim girls he'll never speak to who are ten years younger than he is. 

As the game wore on my play improved. Reds are usually a good colour for me. The girl sat out the next game as her sister played the blonde-haired regular. She sat staring into space, semi-expertly dragging on a cigarette. I wondered what she was thinking about. I forced myself to be more cheerful, not wanting to spoil Nick's evening.

Basically, in most areas, I'm fairly together. I have a reasonable job as Editor of a video trade magazine, and pick up good money on the side as a freelance journalist. I don't have that many friends, but the ones I have are good, and I'm not lonely much more often than anyone else, I don't think. Emotionally things aren't quite so good, but I don't really want to talk about that. I've been over my last relationship in my head so many times that it's boring even to me, and I've given up hope of ever making sense of it or exorcising it from my mind. It's no big deal, just another relationship that started off well and then took a very long time going off the rails. I was hurt, and now it's over. So what.

Nick missed an easy black and set me up nicely to take the game.

'Once more the God of pool craps on my head,' he said mildly, reaching for the chalk.

I like playing Nick because he doesn't care who wins, and for a non-competitor like me, that's essential. As I bent to take the shot the song on the jukebox finished, and after a pause I heard the piano introduction and then the crashing opening chords of 'Secret.' Nick groaned from behind me.

'Not again.'

I smiled, feeling buoyed up by the music, and slotted the penultimate red down. Songs about the trials of love and how much grief it is to be alive always cheer me up, and as I lined up the last red I felt my heart loosen. Mooning after a perfectly ordinary, if unusually beautiful, seventeen-year-old was beneath even my currently sterile life. I was just lonely, and being silly. Fuck it, I told myself, relax. Forget about it. As the song slammed into the first chorus I glanced up at the girl, a wry smile at myself unthinkingly on my lips.

She was looking at me.

For a long moment time stopped as our eyes met. The moment went well beyond a casual coincidence, and far into extra time. Around us the chorus raged, telling of a love that must remain a secret, ooh yeah, and still we looked down a long tunnel at each other, unblinkingly staring into each other's eyes. Her eyes were blue, and beautiful, and there were no scars round them.

'You better come quickly, Doctor. The patient's blown a fuse again.'

When I looked back after registering Nick's crack, she was looking the other way, talking to the blond-haired girl. For a moment I doubted that it had happened, but from the tightness in my chest and the perspiration on my forehead, I knew it had. I cracked the cue ball down the table and the red zipped into the pocket as if pulled on a piece of taut elastic. The white reversed with perfect backspin and edged the black off the cushion and over a pocket.

'My friend's body has been taken over by an alien force,' Nick said, tapping his cue on the floor again, 'one that is considerably better at pool than he is.' Grinning, I ignored the open pocket and doubled the black into the opposite one instead, to Nick's good-natured chagrin.

'Flash bastard,' he muttered, slotting in another 50 pence.

My streak continued and I took the next two games easily. During the first I looked up to see the two sisters in a huddle by the side of their table, and got the very clear impression that it was me they were talking about. She could, of course, be saying that the weird bloke down the end was staring at her, but 'I'm on Fire' was playing and I didn't believe she was. She had looked at me just as much as I had at her. Then, looking like someone in a video for the song, she raised her head slightly and our eyes met again. There was a faint smile curling on her lips. I was right. It was mutual.

Halfway through the second game they left the pool hall. Something immediately went out of the evening and my game lost some of its sparkle, but I was on enough of a roll to win. We were about to set up again but Nick noticed that it was nearly eleven, and, doubtless keen to get back to Zoe, called it a night. I gave him a dose of my running joke about him having to get back before curfew, which he accepted with good grace while giving me one of his customarily alarming lifts home in his mad Mini.

While I waited for the water for a final cup of coffee to boil, I looked at my face in the bathroom mirror. It's not especially good-looking, but it's alright, apparently. I genuinely can't tell. I have greeny-brown eyes and a high forehead, prominent cheekbones and dark brown hair that insists on a slavish adherence to the laws of gravity. My lips are full, my nose is definite and my skin is generally pale. I hate my face, and have done for as long as I can remember.

The kettle in the kitchen pinged electronically to signify that it had boiled, but I ignored it for a moment, just to piss it off.

Around my right eye there are a number of scars. I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but by far the majority of people have a little scar somewhere near their eyes, the remnant of some childish fall. Most people can remember how they got them, and the ensuing frantic trip to the hospital, panicky parents and ice cream afterwards for being good. I can remember how I got mine too.

Sitting on the sofa with my coffee in the silent flat, I noticed that the answering machine was flashing. It was a message from Jane, my ex-flatmate, asking if I was doing anything tomorrow night. I called her back, knowing that she went to bed late, and arranged to play pool with her in the Archway Tavern. The girl might be there again, and now that contact, however nebulous, had been made, I didn't want to miss a chance of seeing her again.

I took the remainder of my coffee to bed with me, and drank it with a cigarette, staring across the bedroom. It's far too large, the bedroom, given that nothing interesting ever happens there any more. There's a huge walk-in wardrobe down the end, crammed with my junk from the last two years, and a large dresser up against one wall. Stuck in the mirror are two photographs, one of my parents and one of Siobhan.

She left me, is what happened, if you want to know. Several times, indecisively, intermittently, and painfully. The reasons were complex and various, and not all her fault, but by any scale of reckoning, she done me wrong. As I've said, I've thought about it too much now, and never expect to be able to untangle it. It isn't even the leaving that I hold against her. People fall in love, meet someone who strikes a deeper chord: that's the way life works, and I could have respected that. Siobhan didn't have the courage to do what she wanted to do, however, and so she played the percentage game with me as the comfortable option. She left, and as soon as she had gone, called me up to say she loved me. When she was with me I never had her, and when she was gone, she didn't let me go. I wanted her back, and couldn't break free, but when she came back each time it was unwillingly and incompletely, and that felt even worse. I couldn't have her, but I wasn't allowed to have anyone else. And then finally she left for good. So there you are.

I dreamt that night, of my mother. I was in our old house, looking out into the garden at night. My mother stood alone in the moonlight, her back to me, holding a long stick that looked a little like a pool cue. She turned back towards the house and when the wind moved her long brown hair from her face, I could see that she was crying. When she looked up at my window the light glinted on the tears round her eyes, making them look like shining scars.

Thursday at work was long and tedious, as Thursdays always are. The chief graphic designer on 'Communiqué' is a bit too hip for his own good, and for the third week running I had to remind him with some vehemence that our first priority is getting all the words on the pages they're supposed to be on, not just making pretty pictures. I later overheard him describing me as a philistine to the chief sub-editor, so I accidentally spilt some coffee on some personal work of his he'd left lying around in the office. Just another morning in a small organisation.

The afternoon was less fraught. I spent most of it at my desk, the neatness of which I know irritates the chief graphic designer immensely. By five o'clock I had nothing to do except stare at the photos I keep there, one of my parents and one of Siobhan, and so I went home early.

Jane was already there by the time I got to the Archway Tavern, and clearly somewhat relieved to see me. I've never felt directly threatened there, but I suppose for a lone non-Irish female it's probably different. Once we'd bought our drinks we set up camp round the table in the top corner. The twins weren't anywhere to be seen, which was both disappointing and somehow a bit of a relief.

Jane is actually bloody good at pool, and by nine we were fully absorbed, conversation chugging along in a pleasantly desultory fashion. We've known each other since college, and shared a platonic flat for eighteen months a couple of years ago. I think we're probably both the only person of the opposite sex we know who we can be just straightforward friends with, and that's nice.

Then at ten o'clock they came in. I was coming back from the bar with a couple more beers, and passed just in front of her, holding my shoulders back and trying to look like a potentially desirable human being. She didn't look directly at me, we were too near each other for that kind of risk at this stage, but there was a definite atmosphere as I passed. I arrived back at the table with the smell of her perfume wraith-like round my neck.

'Are you alright?' asked Jane, who didn't know anything about the twins. 'You look like you've been punched in the stomach.'

'I'm fine,' I said, and I felt it. Something was going on. The look yesterday had raised the game, and now, however tiny, something was going on. She was still seventeen and I still felt stupid, but it was exciting all the same.

I gave her time to get settled before I glanced over in their direction. By dint of an inspired potting streak Jane won the game and only as she was setting the balls up for the next did I look over.

As soon as I did, I knew something was wrong. She wasn't playing, but sitting to one side while her sister did. She wasn't staring dreamily into space as yesterday, but looking down at the floor, her expression hard. Distracted, I broke the pack badly and Jane settled down to pot some of the many available balls. The girl was still staring, and one leg was now jogging up and down in obvious anger. Maybe something had happened over in her world. Maybe it was nothing to do with me. But it didn't feel like it.

The answer came when I straightened from taking my next shot. My eyes were drawn over to their table and I saw that she was no longer staring at the floor, but over in our direction. She wasn't looking at me, however. She was staring at Jane, and her eyes were flashing, her jaw set in a tight smile. Immediately I understood.

When Jane next passed me I took great care to stand back as far as possible from her, making it as clear as I could that we were not a couple. There were some lads in the twins' group this evening too: surely she could understand that being with a girl didn't necessarily mean that there was anything going on. As the game progressed Jane seemed almost to be conspiring against me: she was in a good mood, looking at me and laughing prettily, playfully jogging my cue and generally destroying the impression I was trying to create.

This reached a peak as I chalked up before breaking in the next game but one. I take good care of my cue. It used to belong to my father, and every inch of it, right down to the dent in the wood near the base, is very dear to me.

I'd only dared to glance across at her twice in the last fifteen minutes, and both times she was talking to someone, her back to me. Just as I was bending down to break I saw her slowly start turning towards me.

'This may help,' said Jane, and covered my eyes with her hands. Dumbfounded, I broke, and she took them away again. I couldn't believe that she had done that. We've known each other for six years and tonight of all nights she had to behave as if we were lovers. In the centre of my wildly staring gaze was the girl, and she was looking right at me. For a moment I stood still, transfixed. That's done it, I thought, that's fucked it up for good.

Then, amazingly, the girl's face softened. Something in my face must have communicated my distress to her, and I could see that in that instant, she understood. She tilted her head on one side and looked for a moment longer, and then turned back to her sister.

They left as Jane and I finished the next game. Just before she reached the door, and without breaking her stride, she quite clearly turned and looked at me. On her face was a quizzical expression, a combination of raised eyebrow and crooked smile that I understood perfectly. I'd got away with it, but only just. Long experience with Siobhan had shown me that the longer any problem is left unsolved, the more likely it is to leave a scar. What I had to do was find some way of healing the rift.

A means of attempting that occurred to me on the way to work the next morning. What I would do was ring Nick and ask him, applying pressure if necessary, to play pool with me that evening. If she was there, and saw me playing with him again, she'd have proof that Jane didn't mean anything to me, was just another person I played pool with. We'd be free to recommence the progression that the meeting of our eyes on Wednesday night had started.

I didn't get round to calling Nick until the afternoon, because of a long and extremely acrimonious row with the chief graphic designer.

What happened was this. I walked into the office, feeling almost cheerful now that I'd thought of a way of making things up with the girl, to find that someone had been at my desk. Not only that: the person had taken the photo of Siobhan out of the frame and had torn it up. They had also taken my parents' photo out and cut the half with my mother in to pieces.

I stared at the fragments for a long time, unable to move, unable to think. It was only when I noticed that I had tears running down my face that I pulled myself up. I looked at the pieces strewn across the desk and realised that there could only be one possible culprit. The graphic designer must have found out that it was me who had spoiled his personal work, which he should on no account have been doing in office time, and this was his revenge. For slightly messing up some piece of rubbish he had taken the photos of the two people who mattered most to me in the world and cut them up with a scalpel.

I immediately confronted him, and was so worked up by then that I almost punched him in the face when he denied it. He denied even knowing it was me who had messed up his work. The argument spread into unrelated areas and within ten minutes we were standing shouting at each other. In the end he stormed out to lunch. Ignoring the covert glances of some of the other staff I sat heavily back at my desk, and tried to piece the photo of my mother back together again. I couldn't stop myself from crying, and soon I was left alone in the room. My mother died five years ago, and I still miss her every day. I loved her very much.

Nick professed himself able and willing to go out that evening, which was good. After the morning I'd had I didn't feel up to applying any pressure, and certainly didn't want to cite the real reason for my escalating interest in pool. During the day I had to try not to think too hard about the girl. In daylight the image of what I felt about her wavered, was dissolved by the vestiges of pride. I couldn't believe that I was getting myself into this state over some seventeen-year-old I'd still not spoken to. It wasn't reasonable, it wasn't normal. Only at night could I believe what I had seen in her eyes, know that a bond was forming between us, a special link.

I went home early, walked straight into the sitting room and dozed off on the sofa for a couple of hours. I hadn't been sleeping too well for the last couple of weeks, and coupled with the morning's furore it had just got too much for me.

As I struggled back towards wakefulness, aware that it had become dark outside and that I should shower and eat before Nick came, I felt the shards of a dream fade around me. I had once more been looking out of my window in the old house, the house we lived in before my mother went away. My mother was standing out in the garden again, and this time I ran downstairs and rushed into the garden, feeling the damp grass beneath my feet in the darkness. As I got closer she turned and I saw that again she was crying. My mother had some minor emotional problems, and seeing her crying is one of my earliest memories of her. But as I looked at her I felt my skin begin to crawl, because although it looked exactly like her, though every line, every bone was in the right place, it wasn't her. It looked as though someone of the right general shape and build had been given the world's most perfect plastic surgery until there was no surface difference, none at all. As I stood looking at her the wind whipped the hair across her face and a dog barked somewhere nearby. She was tall and very slim, my mother, and as she bent down towards me I had plenty of time to turn and run. But I didn't. I never did. I loved her. The hair cleared from her face, thrown backwards by another gust, and I saw that it wasn't my mother after all. It was her. It was the girl.

The last thing I saw as I woke up was that she wasn't crying any more. She was smiling, a hard, tight smile that I recognised from somewhere.

I stood up slowly and wandered clumsily across the room, rubbing my face with my hands. I knew I should remember that smile, but couldn't. I looked groggily over at the clock, and saw that I still had an hour before Nick was due to arrive. Shaking my head against the heavy residue of afternoon sleep I walked into the bedroom.

At first I couldn't tell what was different. After a moment I realised it was that I could see the whole of my face in the dresser mirror, and then I saw.

The picture of Siobhan had been shredded, and my mother's half of the other picture was a slashed and tangled mess. The chief graphic designer passed through my mind for an instant, but I knew that it wasn't him who had done this.

On impulse I flung open the doors to the wardrobe and dropped to my knees, flinging things out behind me as I dug for the box I kept in the back. When I'd found it I sat back cross-legged and opened it on my lap, trembling.

Every photo in the box had been slashed. Every photo had either Siobhan or my mother in it, and every one had been reduced to small strips of meaningless colour. My graduation photo, with Siobhan on my arm back in the days when she loved me, was in pieces. The photo of me on my fifth birthday, sitting on my mother's lap with the bandages still round my right eye, was little more than confetti.

Spilling the petals of colour out onto the floor I lunged and stuck my hand under the bed. In a box within a box within a box I found my special photos. Nobody knew I kept them there, nobody. I opened the cigar box that should have held my favourite three photos of my mother and the best two of Siobhan, and inside was nothing but a tangle of photographic paper. They'd not been cut calmly, neatly, but mangled, ripped and gouged apart, slashed and shredded with utter hatred.

I got the message, as I sat there surrounded by ruin, I understood. There are no compromises, there is no middle ground. You are with someone, or you are without them. You either have them or you don't, and if you have them, you have them and them alone. There can be no-one else, ever. This was a warning, a message, a sign of the way things would stand. This was no normal girl, and if I was to have her, it was to the exclusion of anyone else, past, present or future.

The phone rang. Without thinking, out of pure reaction to the jangling sound, I snatched the bedroom extension. It was Nick. He couldn't make it. He was doing something else. He'd forgotten. He was sorry. Monday?

I put the phone down, and stood up, grabbing my coat from the wardrobe. I had to turn up, to show that the message was received and understood. If I had to do it alone, so be it. I called a cab and waited outside for it, swinging my cue case impatiently. It was full dark by then, and a dog barked somewhere nearby.

It was crowded in the Archway Tavern. By the time I got there it was after nine, and on a Friday it's just swinging into its busiest period by then. All the tables were taken, the air was laden with smoke, and the twins were nowhere to be seen. I bought a beer and waited, sitting near one of the tables at the far end of the bar.

They came in half an hour later, surrounded by their friends. The blond pool-playing girl was there, as were the two lads from the previous night. I fought down the urge to get straight up and go across. That wasn't the way to do it. There is a right way to do everything, and everything must be done in the right way. I hadn't eaten all day, and the beer was going straight to my head. It was very noisy and hot and smoky and there were people all around shouting happily at each other and I sat there with my cue case on my lap waiting for the right time, waiting for the sign.

Then suddenly a ray of quiet cut across the bar as the song on the juke box ended. After a moment of relative silence I heard a distinctive piano riff, and then smiled as a familiar guitar chord scythed through the smoke. It was 'Secret'. That was it.

That was the sign.

I stood up and walked down towards the other end of the bar. The twins were standing in a gaggle round a pool table there. I worked my way round the back of the group, feeling my heart swell. I would let her know that I understood. When I was behind her I tapped her on the shoulder. She turned and looked at me. For a second I thought I read something in her eyes, and then all I saw was distaste.

'Hello,' I said.

'Who the fuck are you?'

The others in the group were staring at me. I smiled at them and then turned back to her.

'I got your message. I understand.'

'What message? What the fuck are you talking about?'

I saw the others' faces again. Some of them were looking embarrassed. The blond pool player was giggling behind her hand. The twin sister was looking at the girl, eyebrows raised, shaking her head. I began to feel very bad.

'You know what I mean. The photos.'

She gave an angry and embarrassed laugh, and shook her head.

'I don't know what you're talking about. Now piss off.'

'Yeah. Piss off.' This was from one of the lads. Maybe he fancied her. He reached out and shoved my chest. I wasn't ready for it, and fell backwards, banging into a table. The group turned its back on me and laughed. The blond girl kept giggling, giggling.

I staggered upright, feeling the chorus of 'Secret' reverberating through my bones. The barman looked at me sternly, but it was okay. I was going.

In the car park I smoked some cigarettes and waited for an hour. Just after ten the group came out, and the girl separated from the rest of them and headed down the Holloway Road. I followed her, pausing for a moment to pick something up from outside a house.

I understood. I had made a mistake. I had brought it into the open in front of her friends, in front of people who knew nothing about it, who didn't know that she was special, that she was capable of unusual things. When I saw which house she was going into I went round the back and carefully climbed up the drainpipe to the balcony.

I understand things, you see. I learn very quickly. When I was four I dropped a bottle of milk on the kitchen floor. When my mother saw what I had done she got out my father's cue and calmly screwed the two halves together. Then she swung the cue with all her strength and smashed me round the face with it. That's how I got one of the scars round my eye. I told you I could remember. When I was six I said something wrong and she grabbed my hair and banged my head into the corner of the kitchen table six times, once for each year. I had to go into hospital that time, with concussion. I didn't tell anyone what had happened. It was our secret.

I never dropped the milk again, and I never said anything wrong. I learn.

SA light went on inside as the girl went into the kitchen. She opened the fridge and there was milk inside. She drank some and then put the bottle back. I eased the latch on the balcony door open and stepped soundlessly into the flat. As she came out of the kitchen I could see her face, and she was smiling a tight, hard smile. I remembered it now. It was the smile my mother had when she picked up the piece of broken glass from the milk bottle to run it across my stomach. It was the smile she had when she pulled my head up from banging it on the table and pushed her fingernail into the new gash by my right eye. It was the smile she had the first and last time she met my first girlfriend.

The girl walked into the living room and sat on the sofa without turning the light on. She was waiting for me. She knew I was coming.

The only girlfriend I had before Siobhan was called Sally. She went to the same school as me, and we went to the films a couple of times. Then I brought her home to meet Mum and Dad. Dad was in the garden so we went into the kitchen first to meet Mum. She was sitting at the kitchen table. There was a milk bottle on the table. When she saw us she gave that tight hard smile and stood up. I introduced them to each other, but I don't think I did it very well. I was distracted. I thought I could see blood on the corner of the kitchen table.

'So this is Sally,' said Mother, leaning back against the table, arms folded.

'Yes. Hello,' said Sally, smiling sweetly.

Moving carefully, I edged closer to the living room. I could hear the girl humming, and the tune was 'I'm on Fire.' She had sent her twin off with the others just so she could be here alone.

Mother smiled at Sally for a moment, and then gestured me to come and stand next to her.

'She's a bit fat, isn't she?' Mother said, putting her arm round my waist. 'He normally prefers slimmer girls, don't you?' She turned to me, smiling, and ran a finger along the biggest scar by my eye. 'Tall and slim with long brown hair.' Then she pulled my head towards hers. Sally backed out of the kitchen as my mother pushed her tongue into my mouth, sucking my lips and sliding her hand up under my shirt. She pushed herself up against me and laughed as Sally ran out of the house. I never spoke to Sally again. Then mother bit my face and shoved me away from her. Off-balance, I fell and banged my face on the side of the fridge. That's how I got my final scar. I learnt. I understood. I couldn't have her, but I couldn't have anyone else either.

I walked into the living room of the flat. The girl pretended to be surprised to see me, even screamed a little, but I wasn't embarrassed any more. I knew how things worked, knew that this had to remain a secret between us. I pulled my cue out from behind me and belted her across the face with it. She went down onto the floor. She tried to speak but her nose was broken and blood was running into her mouth. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but it didn't matter, because I knew what the score was, and I was doing what I was supposed to. I didn't need instructions. I smashed the milk bottle I'd picked up on the Holloway Road on her forehead, and pushed the broken neck into her right eye. Now she had some scars, and I pushed my fingers deep into them, feeling the bone beneath, feeling what mum had felt. I pushed my tongue into her mouth, sucking her lips, and slid my hand up her shirt. She struggled as I pushed the bottle into her stomach, and screamed as best she could as the soft skin there punctured and my hand fell in. I knew there wasn't that much time so I pulled my hand back out and linked it with the other one round her throat. I put my face as close to hers as I could as I squeezed, watching the blood from her scars trickle into her eyes and down her cheek.

As she gasped I looked up for a moment, looked at the room, the chairs, the carpet. This was our place now, somewhere only she and I had been. Blood and saliva ran out of her nose and mouth as she choked and I put my cheek right next to her mouth, waiting to see if I could tell.

And I could. I knew which was the last breath, I could feel it on my face, and I sucked it up into my body. I held her for a while, rocking her close, and we shared a happiness that I cannot describe, that is impossible to explain. She'd needed to be the only one, to have me completely, and she did. As we sat there we were the only two people in the world, and I thanked God she'd had the ingenuity and the magic to give me a message I could understand. This place would never stop being ours, and its power would never fade. I felt her slimness against me, and pushed my hands through her hair, looking at the scars we shared.

She was special, and she was the only one I could ever love. The fact that she was dead would not stop her having me forever.



(C) Michael Marshall Smith 2005



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