That was when Diane noticed his clerical collar. It was so out of place in the glow of the lights suspended over the street that it looked like an island in a sea of Christmas shoppers. She found herself looking for all four of the seconds that amount to intimate human contact in central London. Beneath these multicoloured lights, she realised with a tightening of her chest, he’d probably mistaken staring at his collar for making eye contact.
“Do you have a moment?” he asked her.
Diane hesitated. She’d lived in London for long enough that her instinct to disengage as soon as possible was finely honed, but he sounded so desolate that she didn’t want to walk away. He wasn’t carrying a placard, so hopefully he wasn’t completely deranged. “Well… just a couple of minutes.”
“Really?” The man sounded like he’d shouted down a hundred empty wells and just received his first reply.
Diane couldn’t help but smile. “What is it?”
“What is what?” The man slapped his forehead. “Of course. What is it indeed? I’ve got so used to everyone walking away when I speak to them that I’ve forgotten what I’m trying to tell them. To tell you, I mean.”
“Slow down,” said Diane, “and tell me.”
“Yes. Right. Good idea. Well, I just want to make sure everyone’s all right. Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because it’s Christmas in two weeks.” He spoke as though Christmas was a day on which something deeply unpleasant if not clearly defined was due to happen. “Top time for suicides. Just look around you. Hordes of people who have come here for no purpose other than to spend thousands of pounds they can’t afford for things they’ll barely get a thank you for. Isn’t that what you’re here for?”
“I promise I’m not going to commit suicide.”
A blue light flashed across the man’s face, robbing his look of consternation of some of its gravity. Diane still wished she’d been less flippant.
“It’s true,” she said. “I am going to Hamleys to buy presents for kids who will probably have more fun with the wrapping paper than whatever I wrap in it.”
The man shook his head. “I fear for what our Lord would make of this. Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of his childhood.”
“If he was a child today, he’d probably want to know why he was getting all that gold, frankincense and myrrh when he really wanted a new playstation.”
“Oh dear. I fear you’re right. I do so fear you’re right.”
“I’m sorry.” Diane wanted to kick herself. She hadn’t meant to make the man hang his head in despondency. She decided Hamleys wasn’t going anywhere. “Look, do you want to get a coffee? Sit down for a few minutes. You look like you need someone to talk to. I promise not to make any more silly jokes.”
Diane silently repeated ‘no more silly jokes’ to herself. This man was clearly in pain.
“I’d like to,” he said. “Really I would. But now I have to go and buy my Christmas cards.”
I was walking alone, at the end of a row of footprints in the snow that led back into the white. As long as they were straight, I was still heading east. My compass needle might point unerringly at magnetic north, but that didn’t help me walk in a straight line. The white out denied me any fixed point to ensure I wasn’t walking round in circles.
I counted my paces, fixing my gaze on where I thought that tree must be. Fifty metres. A hundred. Two hundred.
I must have passed it by now.
All I’d seen was white but, I told myself, landmarks weren’t the only way to find a direction. There was the wind. As long as it was in my face, I was heading east.
As long as the wind didn’t change.
Nothing I could do about that.
My feet had left my mind to its own devices, methodically sinking into the snow and pulling themselves out while I debated with myself and decided nothing.
Sometimes the feet are wiser than the mind.
The mind that was pointing out that while my feet were carrying me eastward, I hadn’t seen a single tree or bush or rock on a moor that was far from even. It was as if the blizzard had swallowed the features of the moor as it swallowed its colours, replacing them with featureless white.
No, not featureless. There was a flaw directly in front of me. A flaw that darkened and grew as it drew closer. It took shape as it approached, developing two arms and two legs but never a colour. It was a person, as wrapped and waterproofed against the winter as me, but the blizzard allowed no colour to whoever it was. I must have looked as monochrome to them.
Whoever it was drew toward me until they formed a shadow in the wind. It was only then that I realised I’d been squinting into it but even with my eyes fully open, the other person’s face was as hidden by their hood as mine must have been to them.
“A coincidence,” I said. “We must be the only people on this moor right now.”
“It is.” The words came to me stripped of any character by our hoods and the background roar of the wind
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“You’ve a long walk before you reach anything.”
I strained to discern any age or gender, but all I could filter from the blizzard was meaning.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“The unsought,” said the figure. “Welcome.”
Some impulse made me turn back to see the line of my footsteps, zigging and zagging into the edge of the white out.
I faced forward again. “Where did you come from?”
I was alone. My feet refused to move while I watched the blizzard erase the line of footsteps heading westward toward me.
He placed his hands in his pockets and slunk across the floor to 20th Century History to peer at spines, darting the occasional look over his shoulder to see if anyone was taking an interest in Self Help. It was a few minutes before he saw anyone so much as pause but then a woman marched into the section with purpose that announced that she would not be leaving until she had bought something.
He snatched a book off the shelf and turned around so he could watch his potential readership while looking as if he was considering buying a book on fake tanks deployed in Kent before the D-Day landings. No, he told himself firmly, not his potential readership. Potential was a pastel shade. No one notices pastel in a multicolour world. She was his future readership. Future was the bold shade he needed. Better still, she was his imminent readership, which was downright garish. Much of the book was about applying the critical difference between pastel, bold and garish to selected situations.
The woman’s hair was dyed blue, which was a good sign. This was someone who wanted to stand out and would want to be better at it. Frank’s lips moved, silently repeating, ‘imminent is garish, imminent is garish’.
The woman slid a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People off the shelf and headed for the checkout.
Frank didn’t know he’d groaned aloud until the woman frowned over her shoulder.
He covered the moment by waving the book at her. “Wooden tanks. Fascinating stuff.”
The woman strode away at a faster pace, leaving Frank to wonder how she’d missed How to Stand Out. Perhaps the cover designer’s idea of placing his name in bright red over a swirl of pastel shades hadn’t been such a good idea. Looking at it from this distance, it risked going beyond garish into ostentatious which, as Chapter 14 explained in great detail with examples from the world of celebrity and politics, required a seven figure inheritance to carry off.
The more he looked at it, the more he wanted to ream his publisher out. Never mind ostentatious. Look at it for a couple of minutes and it was close to psychedelic.
A woman on her way from Maps to Gardening made a hard right turn into Self Help. She wore a nondescript brown coat and hunched her shoulders in a way that took a couple of inches off a stature that was always going to be diminutive. If she’d been any more pastel, she’d have been invisible which, now that Frank thought about it, made her more likely to be his target reader than a woman who showed she knew a thing or two about standing out by dying her hair blue. This was a woman who needed some advice on standing out, which she proved by reaching directly for How to Stand Out.
The cover must have got her attention. Perhaps the publisher knew their business after all. Frank punched the air and dropped the book about fake tanks. That definitely crossed the line into ostentatious, which he recognised a moment after the opportunity to curb the impulse had passed.
The woman didn’t spare him a glance.
Frank took his time retrieving the fake tanks, watching her back as she turned the pages. He straightened slowly and turned a few pages of his own. The book didn’t just cover wooden tanks, he noticed. There was something about canvas aeroplanes as well.
It didn’t matter.
Frank was watching an imminent reader. Any minute now, she’d take that book to the checkout and within a week, she’d be making that blue-haired woman look so pastel that she may as well have been grey.
The small woman put the book back on the shelf and turned around shaking her head. She caught Frank’s eye and shrugged. “I hope that book’s better than the one I was just looking at. I’ve never read such drivel since some Prince Unpronounceable asked me to look after his lost millions.”
On reflection, Frank decided she was better at standing out than he’d expected.
He made for the coffee as soon as he was released, poured a cup and started his ritual with milk and sugar. He didn’t take sugar in coffee he drank at weekends but since he’d realised that nobody gave much thought to how much time he spent fiddling with sachets, he’d cultivated the most complicated coffee-making ritual he could come up with. The longer he drew it out, the longer he was away from his cubicle.
“Hi, Colin.” The intern spoke from behind him.
He wished he’d seen her coming so he could have made a show of being startled and knocking over his coffee. He could have drawn out the ineffectual dabbing with paper towels for a full ten minutes before starting the coffee-making all over again.
By the time the thought crossed his mind, it was already too late to carry it off. He settled for saying, “hi. Can I make you one?”
The intern looked confused. He was going to have to help her to understand that in this office, an intern’s job was not to make the coffee for the staff but to help the staff procrastinate. If that involved smiling and saying thank you for the gallons of coffee that would be made for her every day, she could either develop an iron bladder or pour it into the pot plants when no one was looking. He favoured her with a smile so amiable that she’d understand that refusal was not an option.
Instead, she said, “Can I ask you… what is it about that colour of shirt you like?”
Colin frowned and looked down. He couldn’t remember which shirt he’d chosen this morning and now he’d looked, he’d have described it as ‘nondescript grey-blue’.
The intern was frowning, which made Colin feel sorry for her. She was trying to strike up a conversation in an office where she didn’t know anyone, and here he was staring at his chest as if he was startled to find himself wearing more than a pair of budgie-smugglers.
He wished he’d been paying attention when her name came up in that meeting. “How do you like your coffee? Or do you prefer tea?”
“Thank you,” she said.
It wasn’t exactly an answer, but making a shy intern feel comfortable was shaping up to be a better excuse to be away from his cubicle than spilling his coffee.
“There must be something about that colour you like,” she said. “You wear it almost every day.”
Colin shrugged. “I got a discount for a bulk buy at a surplus shop. Hang on, how do you know I wear them every day? We’ve only just met.”
“I know. But it was those shirts that brought me here.”
“I saw you on the bus a few months back, and something about the colour of your shirt… it’s hard to forget.”
Having had to remind himself of the colour of the shirt while he was wearing it, Colin didn’t know what to say to that.
“So I took that bus every weekday during the rush hour until I saw your shirt again and followed you to work. When I saw your firm was looking for interns, it had to be a sign.”
Colin took a step back.
“I’ve been looking for the colour of your shirt for weeks. How could I not take the opportunity to work in the same office as it.”
Her hand darted forward to take a pinch of shirt between her fingers, catching a pinch of Colin along with it. He flinched back and knocked his coffee on to the floor.
The intern put her hand over her mouth and giggled.
“Clean that up will you?” Colin waved at the coffee spreading across the floor. “I need to be back at my desk. Right now. Urgent… something very urgent. Must not be disturbed.”
The intern was still giggling.
“Right.” Colin nodded decisively and strode for his desk.
But I hadn’t spoken to anyone for a few days and I was only wandering up and down the high street to get out of my flat. When he asked me why I’d overvalued my company’s shares and sold up before anyone noticed, I thought it was a bit weird but I played along. Told him I was partial to a large macchiato and I had to pay for it somehow.
I probably should have realised it wasn’t some sort of prank when he asked if there was anything I’d like to say to the thousands of people who lost their pensions. It’s not the sort of question someone asks as a joke but I didn’t think of that at the time. I told him I was sure they’d manage with a small cup of tea and threw in something about how you can make a pension last longer by re-using tea bags.
It was only when he asked if I’d grown a beard to disguise myself and I told him I’ve had my beard for more than ten years and he shouldn’t be cheeky that the penny dropped: he thought I was someone else.
He frowned and went quiet, which made me think perhaps he wasn’t doing one of those joke things when some overpaid comedian runs out of material so he makes the sort of people who watch his show look stupid. When I thought about it later, I realised he was frowning because it had just occurred to him that you’d been on the telly a couple of weeks ago with no more than that silly goatee of yours, and there was more than two weeks of growth between you and me.
I’d seen you myself. Not much to do but watch the news, so I tend to know what’s going on. I knew about your pump and dump, as they called it. So now I knew that this boy reporter, who was still a few years away from your level of facial hair and a lot more years away from mine, had got it into his head that I was you.
I probably should have set him straight instead of ducking into Starbucks for that coffee I didn’t want – a straightforward latte, if you’re interested, not a macchiato – and leaving him to get over his moment of doubt. So yes, I’m the beardy bloke who is all over the news this morning under headlines calling you a callous and insensitive fraudster who makes bad coffee quips.
I’m writing to say I’m sorry about that. Not that they’re calling you a callous and insensitive fraudster, because we both know that part is true. I’m only sorry that you got blamed for my bad tea and coffee quips. They were awful.
The answer, it appears when the New Delhi police find the body of a raped and mutilated woman, is nothing at all.
Crime fiction at its best uses crime as a periscope to peek around the dark corners of a society, where the things we prefer not to think about lurk. The first sign of what’s behind the corner that You Beneath Your Skin is looking round is the crime itself: the dead woman’s face has been burned off with acid, revealing what’s beneath her skin in the gruesomely literal way possible. When an ambitious policeman, Jatin Bhatt, is persuaded to investigate he is confronted with what lurks beneath the skin of the society he owes his success to.
The theme of the shattered façade runs throughout You Beneath Your Skin, alongside its protagonists’ exploration of the layered power structures of New Delhi. We see the upper echelons of the society as Jatin curries favour with his well-connected father-in-law, but we also see the byzantine hierarchies of the slums. The ruler of that hierarchy may not live in a palace, but his power is more absolute than the prime minister’s: if those with influence have no regard for the most powerful man in the slum, they’ll have even less interest in helping whoever is under his sandal.
While it’s the exploration of power and society that makes You Beneath Your Skin stand out, I kept reading it because it’s a rollicking good crime thriller. The plot twists and turns as it throws its three protagonists around those metaphorical dark corners, and a few literal ones as well.
Different readers are likely to have different favourites, but I found Jatin the most engaging of the trio as he struggles to maintain a joyless marriage that he maintains for the sake of his son and his father-in-law’s approval while wondering if his ambition is worth the sacrifice of his happiness and the fundamental decency that he’s never quite got used to compromising.
On a different day, I might have picked Jatin’s sister, Maya, a private detective troubled by her own uneven skin. Then there’s Anjali, Jatin’s lover, a clinical psychologist who does her best to help the troubled children of New Delhi while frustrated by her inability to connect with her autistic son.
You Beneath Your Skin is a rollicking read of a crime thriller, but it’s something much more than that if you accept its tacit invitation to peek behind its own façade.
“You’re looking very pleased with yourself”, she said.
“Am I?” Piers hoped he’d get over feeling intimidated by Margaret when he’d been in Whitehall a little longer but for now, it was all he could do to stifle an urge to apologise. “I think I’ve got the cuts he was looking for.”
Margaret raised her eyebrows, which made Piers want to go over his figures one more time. He forced himself to stand straight. He’d double checked his calculations and Margaret hadn’t seen them at all so if she looked sceptical, it couldn’t have anything to do with his spreadsheet skills.
“Where did you find these much desired cuts?”
“Well, I… here and there.”
Margaret looked Piers in the eye, which made him want to look down and scurry past her. Unfortunately, she was between the water cooler and the photocopier so he couldn’t get any closer to the minister’s office without touching her. He could at least keep his head up and look her in the eye.
“Piers, I’m not going to steal your idea,” said Margaret, “I’m just asking you what exactly it is that you plan to stimulate the minister’s enthusiasm with.”
“I was looking. At the, er, figures.” Piers swallowed. This was not how to talk to someone three bands above him who would be involved in his next performance appraisal. “I realised we can cut the fire brigade. That’s the sort of thing the minister was asking for last week.”
Margaret didn’t step aside. “How did you get to that?”
Piers shuffled his feet, wanting to get to the minister’s office as soon as he could. The minister was a Magdalen College man who had once played rugby for Harrow. He’d understand immediately, but that wasn’t something he could explain to Margaret.
It was easier to answer her question. “I looked at the figures and they were very clear. The more firemen attending a fire-”
“Firefighters,” said Margaret.
“The more firefighters attending a fire,” Piers forced himself not to sound irritated, “the greater the cost of the damage. There’s an obvious solution: reduce the number of firefighters responding to every call and we’ll reduce the damage. If we do that, we can cut the staffing numbers for the whole Fire and Rescue Service. It’s a full half billion off the annual budget.”
A note of triumph crept into Piers’s voice, much as he didn’t Margaret to think he was too self-satisfied. Still, he felt he’d earned the right to be a little pleased with himself.
Margaret’s frown suggested that she didn’t agree. Perhaps he needed to repeat his explanation slower.
“How long have you been here, Piers?” asked Margaret.
“And did you take three minutes to wonder why no one, in the many decades in which the civil service has been scrutinising the emergency services budget, has made the brilliant deduction that fires attended by more firefighters are more expensive because it’s the firefighters that cause the damage?”
Her tone of voice made him take a step back.
“I, er, I did wonder, yes.” Piers wasn’t going to admit that it hadn’t occurred to him. “I, you know, I’m new. Fresh pair of eyes.”
Margaret’s frown did not soften.
“We did stuff like this at Oxford. My dissertation was on…” Piers heard himself starting to babble. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Margaret, “because it wasn’t on the nature of correlation, was it?”
“Not exactly. It was on public service cuts under the Thatcher government. Got a first.”
“I’m sure you’ll go far.” Margaret’s voice was laced with something that might have been sarcasm or might have been resignation. “But before you put anything in front of the minister, I suggest you go back to your desk and Google ‘correlation’ and ‘causation’, and stay there until you properly understand the difference.”
“You don’t want me to take this to the minister?”
“No, Piers. I don’t want you to take that to the minister.” Margaret spoke carefully enunciated every word. “I want you to learn about correlation and causation. Have you got that?”
“You think the minister won’t understand it? That he won’t like it?”
Margaret rolled her eyes. “The minister’s a Magdalen man who expects people to be impressed that he played rugby for his school. I’m sure he won’t understand it. That’s why I’m afraid he might like it. Now go back to your desk and stay there until you understand what the problem with your brilliant suggestion is.”
Piers couldn’t help but hang his head. He wasn’t getting to the minister today.
Margaret wasn’t finished. “And I don’t want you to see the minister – about anything – until you’ve run it past me. Your job now is correlation and causation. Run along.”
She expected the frowning horde to charge the three gates in the same orderly queues as the horde disgorged by the 1757 had formed and the horde delivered by the 1827 soon would. She expected them to frown past her without a second look because a woman in the Southern Rail high-vis jacket was a part of the station’s interior along with the public intercom that has last been answered on Brona’s last day at primary school or the anti-pigeon spikes on top of the dot matrix indicators of the trains that would soon arrive and the trains that had broken down and never would.
Brona expected someone to get their timing wrong while coming through the gates because someone always did. This time, it was a woman in a trouser suit who looked like a lawyer or a banker. She swiped her card at the middle gate just as the wheelie-bag of the man in front jammed sideways, forcing him to take the extra couple of seconds to turn it sideways that disrupted it took for the gates to snap shut immediately behind him.
The trouser suited woman’s frown darkened. She slapped her card on the reader with resignation that showed she knew it was pointless. No gate would open for the same card twice in a row however hard the card was slapped on the reader, and every commuter passing through the station knew it.
The frowns in the queue behind her darkened as the queues on either side of them flowed past unimpeded, presenting them with the sort of knife-edge dilemma that they hoped they’d left at work. Should they hold their place in the middle queue and endure the agony known only to a commuter watching someone else getting home faster than they were, or should they shuffle to the back of one of those freely flowing queues only to watch the gates reopen a moment later and the person who was now standing behind them gambol through them while they had a full twenty or maybe even thirty seconds of this new queue to endure.
Brona expected them to waver for around fifteen seconds before the first of them switched queues, and for frowns to turn to scowls if it took her twenty to get the gates open. She strode for the impacted queue, the frowning horde parting in front of her with the alacrity borne of knowing that not stepping aside quickly enough be to risk physical contact, which would oblige them to acknowledge her existence with a grunted ‘sorry’.
She had the gate open in twelve seconds and received the grunted thanks she expected from the woman in the trouser suit. She allowed the horde to bear her back to her place by the exit, once again becoming part of the architecture of the station.
A man heading from the exit stepped aside from the commuter flow to stand in front of her. “Thank you. I don’t know what we’d all do if you and your colleagues didn’t keep us all moving.”
Brona said, “That was unexpected”.
In a change from Saturday’s usual hooptedoodles, it feels like a good day to remember an old story. I remember writing The Endocrine Tyranny in Cape Town’s Obz Café, trying to conjure the brutalist architecture of the English Midlands, so well that I’m rather shocked to see it was published seven years ago. It’s still up on the Buzzy website, and the author notes are still up here.
Hope you enjoy it.