I had no time for vices. Sex, drugs, cigarettes–I’d kicked them all long ago. I had a vague notion that I could take them up again one day, once I’d got everything under control, but not yet. The only weakness I allowed myself was wine. So when I awoke that morning with a thumping great hangover, I put it down to the bottle I’d finished off the night before.
My stomach was playing up. It rejected everything I poured into it: orange juice, camomile tea, soluble aspirin. Muesli was out of the question. Dry toast didn’t appeal. It was only when I was in the cab on my way into work that I realized what I wanted. I’d thought junk food had been consigned to the scrap heap of vices, but my digestive system had other ideas. None of that freshly squeezed nonsense; it was crying out for a Fudge Tub. I’d never had a Fudge Tub before, but the desire was so overwhelming that I had to get out of the cab at Marble Arch and go in search of one. I was supposed to be getting down to business with the Belgians, and yet here I was, looking for a sweet-shop while the seconds ticked away.
I was going against the morning rush-hour tide; everyone seemed to be headed in the opposite direction. I wasn’t used to walking in such crowds. But suddenly they started giving me space. I could see pedestrians veering away as I approached, pressing into the doorways of shops or stepping off the pavement, and they were all staring at me. Or rather, staring at something just behind me. One or two of them giggled, but most of them looked slightly alarmed. One passer-by began to say something, then shook his head and moved on.
I glanced over my shoulder. What I saw made me stop dead. There was a man right behind me. When I stopped, he stopped too. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have attracted much attention, though his grey suit was creased and he was looking a bit wild-eyed. But the reason everyone was looking at him was that round about waist height he was clutching a Kitchen Devil. The knife was so big it was absurd. This was not a concealed weapon; you could have spotted it from a passing 747. I dismissed it. No. If some maniac was going to attack you, he didn’t creep up like a look-behind-you villain, not with a weapon like that. Not in broad daylight. Not in front of hundreds of witnesses. Not in Oxford Street.
Then I saw his chin was wet with saliva. It was this, more than the knife, that made me uneasy.
We stood and stared at each other. He mumbled something. I checked my watch and told him the time. One of the onlookers tittered. The man frowned and mumbled again.
I thought maybe he was lost and asking directions. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to speak up. I’m afraid I’m not really with it this morning.’
He seemed to make up his mind and opened his mouth and yelled. ‘Abomination! Queen of the Bitches! Whore of Babylon!’
I said, ‘I think you must be mistaking me for someone else.’
He shook his head, adjusted his grip on the handle of the knife and ran at me.
My life didn’t exactly flash in front of me, but I felt just the tiniest pang of regret for all those things I had given up because they were bad for my health. All that self-denial, and for nothing. Then the regret was replaced by a rather sluggish survival instinct. I thought about diving into the crowd, but it was too late. No one was going to step forward and help; I was on my own here.
The blade was very big, and the steel looked very sharp and it was coming closer. It was no longer six feet away. Now it was five feet. Four feet. Three.
The man emptied his lungs in a saliva-splattering yell and lunged forward. I didn’t see how he could possibly miss, but miss he did. He let out a sort of surprised grunt and froze like a mime artist encountering an invisible wall.
And then he did a sort of back-flip. It should have been an impossible manoeuvre, but he did it as lightly and as gracefully as any Olympic gymnast. You could tell from the look on his face that he hadn’t intended to do it, and at some point in mid-air all the lightness and grace left him and he bungled the landing. He stuck out a hand to save himself, but unfortunately for him it was the hand with the Kitchen Devil in it, and he fell straight on to the blade.
It turned out to be every bit as sharp as it looked. It sliced through most of his neck. There was a pause, and then it was as though someone had turned on a tap somewhere. The blood fanned out like fine spray from a garden sprinkler, and everyone said ooooh. Not quite everyone. Someone was screaming. Imagine my embarrassment when I realized that someone was me.
‘How are you feeling?’ asked the man in the tweed jacket.
I told him I was feeling groggy.
I was lying on a bed, fully dressed, but my clothes felt as though someone had been interfering with them. I tried to sit up, but it wasn’t easy.
‘I wouldn’t get up if I were you, not just yet,’ said the man in the tweed jacket, peering over the top of his spectacles at the clipboard he was holding. ‘You can relax. You’ve had a bit of a shock, but there is absolutely nothing to worry about.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘You’re feeling a bit woozy because we gave you a sedative. A perfectly safe one.’
‘What about the Fudge Tub?’ I asked, and then I remembered. ‘There was a man with a knife . . . ‘
‘It’s all right,’ the man said. ‘You’re in a hospital. You’ve been checked over and everything’s fine. I’m Doctor Webster by the way.’
‘Afraid so.’ He jotted something down. ‘Who was he, have you any idea?’
I shook my head. ‘Never seen him before in my life. He must have been nuts.’
Doctor Webster nodded. ‘It certainly looks that way. Well, it’s for us to find that out. Now, would you like us to phone your husband?’
‘I’m not married,’ I said.
‘I don’t have a boyfriend,’ I said. ‘But I should phone the office. Good Lord, is that the time? Jesus, I was supposed to be having lunch with the Belgians.’
I tried to get up again. This time, I got as far as a sitting position. The doctor frowned.
‘Father, then. We can phone the father, let him know everything’s fine.’
‘You can’t phone my father,’ I said, feeling slightly miffed at his insistence on bringing men back into my life. They were another of those vices I’d given up. ‘My father died.’
The doctor frowned again. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Miss–it is Miss, isn’t it? Miss–’
‘Oh, it was seven years ago,’ I said. ‘Loughlin, Nancy Loughlin.’ The attack had dwindled into a distant dream-memory, but I was getting a bad feeling about the here and now. ‘Why do you have to phone anyone? I’m OK, aren’t I?’
Dr Webster shrugged. ‘I thought you might want the father to know that the baby’s fine.’
My attention wandered off. It wandered all the way past his left shoulder and fixed on an anti-smoking poster on the wall behind him. Suddenly that poster seemed fascinating.
I heard myself saying, ‘Excuse me?’
‘The baby’s fine.’
Soon after I’d recovered from a second dose of perfectly safe sedative, Dr Webster and I had a long chat. I learned fast. I learned it was useless to protest that I couldn’t possibly be pregnant. There was no way at all I could be having a baby, because I was a born-again virgin; I hadn’t had sex for years. I told Dr Webster, but he didn’t believe me. He thought my refusal to acknowledge the situation was due to moral confusion and deep-seated guilt.
I began to question my sanity. Had I been living an illusion all these years? Maybe I’d got the facts of life muddled. I’d always assumed it was intercourse that made you pregnant, but what if I’d been wrong? What if it was kissing or sneezing or shaking hands? Maybe I’d never really known what sex was. Maybe I’d been having it all along without realizing. Or maybe I was suffering from some rare disease which mimicked all the symptoms of pregnancy.
I couldn’t even remember having missed a period, though I’d never bothered to keep track. But I was definitely pregnant. Dr Webster showed me the results of the scan. I demanded a second opinion, and he rolled his eyes and sent for a nurse and she double-checked and told me yes, I was definitely pregnant and congratulations, how happy I must be. I burst into tears but it didn’t change a thing.
‘I can’t possibly have a baby,’ I said. ‘What about my career?’
Dr Webster got bored and drifted away. I said I couldn’t wait, I was quite happy to go private, and the nurse gave me some telephone numbers and I slipped her a tenner and we phoned up and made an appointment for the next morning. Then I rang the office and told Jamie I’d be taking a couple of days off. This was unheard-of, but I let it slip that I’d been attacked, and then he suddenly came over all concerned and tried to persuade me to take the next fortnight off. I said no, that wouldn’t be necessary, I would be in at the end of the week, and Susie was to take over with the Belgians for the time being, but she should call me at home if something came up.
The nurse was smiling sadly as I replaced the receiver. ‘It’s a big decision,’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t you like to think it over?’
I thought about the embryo that was growing inside me, and wondered whether it had tiny arms and legs and fingers and toes. I wondered if it had a face yet and whether it would take after me or its non-existent father. I wondered if it was some sort of miracle and I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.
I told her I didn’t need to think it over; I’d been thinking about it all my life. She looked taken aback at this, so I added something about how bad I felt about it all, and she nodded sympathetically.
There were no taxis. I was going to have to take the tube to the clinic and it was pelting with rain. On my way to the station I had the feeling I was being followed. While I waited for the train I kept glancing along the platform. There were a couple of dozen people waiting with me, but as far as I could see none of them had a knife. I decided I was being paranoid. Being paranoid, after what had happened, was perfectly natural.
The indicator board announced there was a train approaching. There was a distant rumble and a rush of air. As I took a step towards the edge of the platform, I felt myself being pushed. I clutched at empty air but there was nothing to grab. The word unfair flashed through my brain.
Then the man who had been doing the pushing sailed past me. He did a double somersault and landed on his back across the rails. As he tried to sit up, I caught a glimpse of his shiny white face staring at me. His mouth moved but I didn’t get a chance to work out what he was saying because the train was suddenly there and it was making such a noise that I must have imagined the squelch as it mashed into him.
Doors slid open and people got off, unaware that anything had happened. I wondered whether I should be screaming but I didn’t because I didn’t want any more fuss. There was no way I was going to talk to the police again. I knew they would give me a hard time. The man with the knife had been bad luck. But now this–it was starting to look suspicious.
Further up the platform, the driver leant out of his cabin and was violently sick. There was a certain amount of scurrying and shouting but no one took any notice as I lurched towards the exit. One or two people had seen some poor sod lose his balance, but none of them had seen what he’d been doing to me just before he’d lost it.
The collector shot me a quizzical glance as I handed in my unused ticket. ‘Someone fell under the train,’ I gasped. Outside, I propped myself against a wall and took big deep breaths. I stood there feeling queasy until the thought of a Fudge Tub floated into my head and made me feel a whole lot better.
It didn’t stop there but I was beginning to grow blasé. I’d always been good at adapting to suit the circumstance, which was why my business had thrived while so many others had gone under. I bought a Fudge Tub from the confectionery kiosk, barged in front of a couple of tourists who had just managed to hail a cab, waved cheerio as they stood there gawping and settled down in the back.
I felt I was ready for anything now and I didn’t have to wait long. Around Knightsbridge, I watched with interest as a Ford Fiesta came screeching through the red lights and tried to ram us. The cab driver swerved sharply, but I knew the Fiesta wouldn’t hit us and it didn’t. One moment we were on a collision course, the next it was careering across the road and straight through the window of Harvey Nichols. My driver took it in his stride. ‘Guy must’ve had a coronary,’ he growled as we drove on. I finished my Fudge Tub and twisted round to watch through the rear window as the wrecked Fiesta went up in flames.
Nothing else happened on the way to the clinic. I was sifting through my memory trying to come up with clues. Maybe I’d inherited a fortune without knowing it, or inadvertently rubbed up against the Cosa Nostra on that last Italian account. Maybe the local council had tipped toxic waste into the water supply. Maybe people were wigging out all across town.
But I doubted it. I was starting to think I was a special case.
The appointment went smoothly. I watched Dr Madison carefully, half expecting him to whip out a scalpel and launch himself at my throat at any second, but he was polite and professional. He didn’t waste time on ethics. I filled out some forms and wrote out a cheque and agreed to come back in two days’ time. I would book in before noon, have the op shortly afterwards and then my best friend Belinda would come along to see me home. With any luck I would be back in time for the Nine O’Clock News.
‘I had no idea abortions were this easy,’ I said.
‘It’s a woman’s right to choose,’ said Dr Madison, and neither of us mentioned the fat fee I’d just coughed up.
The body count mounted steadily. My journey home was like a Roadrunner cartoon with my assailants in the Coyote role. They tried, how they tried, but none of them came close. The next man was carrying a syringe, but no sooner had I spotted it than he did a clever little pirouette and keeled sideways into the path of a number 88. Ten minutes later and another man was striding towards me, tugging something metallic out of an inside pocket, when there was an almighty yell from up above and an ornamental clock which some workmen had been cleaning sort of toppled off its perch and came plummeting down on to his head with a sickening crunch. I was just beginning to think I was mistaken about the next man when two pit bull terriers came barrelling out of a shoe shop. They hurtled straight past me and I didn’t bother to look round, not even when the snarling stopped and the screaming began.
There may have been other attempts, but I didn’t notice them. I spotted a cab on Brook Street and went straight home. As soon as I was inside the flat, I double-locked the door and turned to find myself staring down both barrels of a shotgun.
‘Whore of Babylon!’ spat the man. ‘You shall die!’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ I said. ‘Why? Why me?’
His suit was crumpled but had it not been for the saliva and the bloodshot eyes and the hair that needed combing he might have passed for a perfectly respectable businessman. He lowered the gun, seemingly taken aback that I wasn’t on my knees begging for mercy. But I felt quite safe, even now. Especially now.
‘Nothing personal,’ he said.
‘You just called me the Whore of Babylon,’ I said. ‘If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.’
I could see doubt creeping into his face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Really I am. We know you can’t help what happened.’
‘Brothers of the Divine Order of the Dead Saints.’
‘So what did happen, exactly?’
‘You mean you don’t know?’
‘All I know is, I’ve been walking around all day with a “please kill me” sign pinned to my back.’
‘You’re carrying something . . . ‘.
‘Now you’re telling me.’
‘You’re carrying something that must be destroyed.’
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I have no problem with that.’
‘You have no idea,’ he said and began to cry. I almost felt sorry for him. ‘You don’t know what it means.’
‘Try me,’ I said.
His head jerked up and he started getting all wild-eyed again. ‘The end of everything,’ he babbled. ‘The end of life itself. The trumpets will sound and no one is saved.’
A thought suddenly occurred to me. ‘But whose side are you on? And what about me? Are we talking about the Second Coming, or is this a Rosemary’s Baby situation?’
‘The blood of the Lamb!’ he blurted, which didn’t leave me any the wiser. He was pointing the shotgun again but his hands weren’t terribly steady. I offered to make him a cup of tea. He shook his head, tears running down his cheeks. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘Really sorry. I’ve got to do this, it’s the only way.’
‘No it’s not,’ I said, reaching into my bag. ‘Here, take a look.’ I handed him the forms I’d filled in at the clinic.
‘Day after tomorrow,’ I said. ‘I don’t want it any more than you do. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.’
At first he couldn’t see what I was getting at. Then he lit up. ‘You mean–?’
‘No problem,’ I said. ‘Whoever it was, they made a big mistake picking me. I’m just not the maternal type, never have been. I mean, I have my career to think of.’
I made him a cup of tea and we had a long chat, and then, at last, he went away.
There were no more attempts on my life, not for the rest of that day, nor the day after that. The man with the shotgun had been as good as his word and called his Brothers off. They knew I was on their side, maybe for secular reasons, but working towards the same end. It had been an extraordinary adventure while it had lasted but now it was over and all that remained was for me to get shut of whatever it was that had been planted inside me and get back to work.
On the morning of the appointment I woke feeling refreshed and optimistic. I travelled to the clinic with a light heart, changed into a nightdress and settled down in my small private room to flick through the latest magazines, though they were so dull and trivial I ended up going through one of the reports I’d brought along with me instead.
Just after noon the nurse popped in to take my temperature and blood pressure. ‘Feeling nervous?’
‘Not in the slightest.’
‘Of course not,’ she said. ‘It’s just a routine procedure.’
Half an hour later they trundled me into the tiny operating theatre, arranged a sheet over the bottom half of my torso and stuck my feet into some straps. Dr Madison peered down at me and smiled. I hadn’t noticed his teeth before. They were very shiny and white, like the theatre walls. ‘All right Miss Loughlin?’
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘This is Arthur. He’s our anaesthetist.’
Arthur stuck a needle into my arm and told me to start counting. ‘One,’ I said. ‘Two. You will make sure I’m unconscious, won’t you?’
‘Of course we will,’ he said. ‘Just keep counting and before you know it . . . ‘
‘Three,’ I counted. ‘Four . . . Five . . . ‘
I was feeling groggy again. I knew there was something I had to remember but I couldn’t work out what it was. I opened my eyes. The light was too bright and I was cold in all the wrong places. Where was my Fudge Tub?
‘Nancy? Nance? Are you OK?’
Someone was leaning over me. I blinked rapidly, trying to see who it was.
‘Belinda? Here already?’ I felt a rush of relief. It was all over.
‘Oh Nancy,’ she said.
I blinked again. I’d never seen Belinda look like this before. Someone had drained all the blood from her face and replaced it with porridge. ‘You look awful,’ I said.
‘Hey, let’s get you out of these straps.’ There was a wobble in her voice.
I tried to disentangle myself but my limbs weighed a ton and I couldn’t make them move. ‘Where’s the nurse?’ I asked, and at that precise moment everything swam back into focus.
‘What the–’ I said, trying to sit up.
‘Oh no, you mustn’t look,’ said Belinda, pushing me back. Then there was someone else alongside her and I was being rolled on to a stretcher and covered with a blanket and wheeled away from the bright lights, and there seemed to be an awful lot of people milling around. Some of them were in uniform.
Belinda bent over me and took one of my hands. ‘Well, at least that’s over,’ I said and noticed her looking at me anxiously. ‘It is all over isn’t it?’
And suddenly I knew that it wasn’t over at all. The operating theatre, when I’d gone into it, had been white. But now it was mostly red. Now I had one doctor, one nurse and one anaesthetist to add to the Roadrunner tally. It hadn’t been their fault. They had meant well.
The police tried to give me the third degree but I told them I wasn’t going to talk until someone had brought me a Fudge Tub. And even then I had no intention of telling them what was really going on. They knew I was guilty of something, they didn’t know what, but they couldn’t very well beat a confession out of a pregnant woman.
I had to hand it to the Brothers of the Divine Order of the Dead Saints. At least they gave me a breathing space; it was forty-eight hours before the attacks started up again. They tried, how they tried, but none of them came close. I didn’t know whose side they were on and I didn’t care because as far as I was concerned it didn’t make much difference either way.
I was beginning to look on it as a unique opportunity. I could tackle the North Face of the Eiger or explore the bottom of the Mariana Trench. I could saunter through Central Park at night or dine on the liver of the Japanese blowfish. I could tell hulking great men with big biceps and menacing tattoos to pick up the litter they had dropped. I could do anything.
There were another seven months of this to come. I thought I might as well take up smoking again.