When I burst in, her hair looked auburn. Must have been some trick of the low, reddish light. There weren’t enough layers of make-up to hide the haunted look in her eyes.
“What do you want darling?” she asked, not meaning a word of it.
“You.” I showed her the picture on my phone. “You’re Yulia, right?”
“You have to leave.” She scampered backwards on the bed.
A footstep on the stairs three floors below. Heavy. That meant finding another way out. I flung open the curtains to the watery afternoon sun. The building pressed close to its neighbour, the flat roof a short jump away. In daylight, she was slighter, just the shoes made her seem tall.
“Yevgeny sent me. We have to go.” I pulled, but she was reluctant, disbelieving.
“You don’t understand. Yev…”
“Now.” I yanked her to her feet. Her sweat lay underneath a miasma of lubricants and cleaning wipes. Under all the men. Part of me wanted to lay on reassurance, to tell her I was here to save her, that she would be safe. I couldn’t get the words out for gagging. She wasn’t heavy, and the window wasn’t latched. She could have jumped herself if not for the heels.
This was my third find with the Diamond DreamGirls Escort agency. She looked nothing like her picture on the website. The punters would start turning away before the police took an interest in the illegals.
I left her in a bedsit on the Caledonian road. The landlady knew my handler cum colleague Rowley. I didn’t know the client, Yevgeny, but I guessed he wasn’t another pimp. A boyfriend, or a brother maybe. He wasn’t my problem. I called Rowley, and the job was done.
Careless of my neighbours, I took off every stitch of clothing outside my flat and left them in a pile with the smells they absorbed. The laundry knew to wash and rinse them over and over. I sank into a bath of plain, cool water and let my head drop below the surface.
Another day, another job. Another body to find, preferably living, amongst eight million.
London was killing me. Humanity, in all its heaving diversity, pressed together without the space to stretch its arms out and breathe. My senses faced a constant assault of detail. I dared not fill my lungs.
I don’t drive unless I have no other choice. I need to get where I am going, not sit in traffic. That means taking the tube, where in winter, the base notes are damp wool. An injudicious sniff outside the high wall of my scarf would douse my synapses with myriad layers: bodies spanning the spectrum of hygiene, wet Ugg boots, hair sprays, and nose-tickling perfumes. All this littered with breakfasts and the assorted brands of toothpaste.
The tunnels amplify the train’s rattle. The silence of Londoners is a fable. Headphones grind white noise like a radio in another room. Old ladies raise their voices, unaware or uncaring of the commuters trying to shut them out. Colleagues hide their disappointment at ending up in the same carriage with voices pitched to carry. Beneath it all, the susurrus of breathing. The heartbeat of a single organism made up of individuals packed in a steel cylinder.
In this mass of compressed flesh, I could not help but see everything. The dapper South Asian guy with the neatly trimmed beard, his grey slacks picked out with a subtle maroon check, confident in brown shoes. The sad-faced school girl in pop socks and flats despite the weather, weighed down by a rucksack more than half her size. The stout man balancing a tablet and coffee, my eye drawn back to the imminence of an accident. The pretty woman with the perfect nails who got on three stops after me, when all the seats were gone, for four days in a row.
The last morning, late in January, I saw her drop onto a still warm, just vacated spot and break out her make-up. Stifled, I could not say, “You are so beautiful, every swipe of brush and line of pen only mars the delicate perfection.” I watched, all other senses dampened by the growing well of defeat. No words would come, and I had no way of knowing what misguided aesthetic, or what pain made her slap on this mask.
I called Rowley, the only person who would care if I was alive, and that only for his commission. He plied me with platitudes and offers of time away. Then, he swore at me for leaving a job unfinished.
The next day, I landed in Seville.
Ali Abbas is a writer, carpenter and photographer born and bred in London. He is the author of Like Clockwork, a steampunk mystery published by Transmundane Press; Image and Other Stories,a collection of seven short stories that examine themes of love, loss and the haunting nature of bad decisions; and Hajj – My Pilgrimage, a light-hearted and secular look at the pilgrimage to Mecca that is at the heart of the Islamic faith.
His short story / love letter to London “An Absolute Amount of Sadness” was published by Mad Scientist Journal in their Fitting Inanthology, and his ghost story “The Girl Who Gives Me Sunsets” will be published in their forthcoming Utter Fabricationanthology.