Extract

 

There was no sign of the girl in the alleyway by the health food shop but he wasn’t surprised. This was the last place he’d have wanted to go to alone, now that he thought about it, and he felt sure that even if she had considered coming to meet him, she would probably have taken one look at the dark entrance and changed her mind. He should have thought of a better meeting-place.

He looked around him uneasily. There had been several muggings in this part of town and all kinds of violent episodes after dark. The pubs had emptied some time ago but there was no knowing what kind of people might be lurking round here.

A car beam cut through the darkness, catching the side of the shops as it fanned down towards him. He stepped back inside the entrance to the alley and hid himself in the shadows. A few moments later, a police car swept past. And silence fell.

Then he heard a voice.

‘You’re late.’

He whirled round, startled, but saw nothing.

‘Here.’

The voice came from further down the alley. He walked to where the passageway twisted round at the end and saw the girl slumped on the ground, her back against the wall, her holdall beside her.

‘Have you got any food?’ she said bluntly.

He looked at her for a moment, then started to undo the rucksack. She spoke again, slightly less abruptly.

‘Sorry. Being hungry takes away your manners.’

‘It’s OK.’

He handed her one of the sandwiches he’d made up in the kitchen. She took it without a word and started wolfing it down with the same intensity as the last time he had seen her eat. He let her finish the sandwich, then spoke again.

‘Are you cold?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Only…’ He paused. ‘I’ve thought of a way of getting you warm tonight.’

She looked at him suspiciously.

‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘You can trust me. I promise.’

She held his gaze for a few more seconds, then sniffed and looked away.

‘Sorry. I know you’re trying to help.’

‘I didn’t think you’d be here.’

‘Neither did I.’

‘So what made you – ?’ He broke off, sensing a slight embarrassment in her. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I can find a warmer place than this.’

He stood up and waited to see if she would move, too. She started to struggle to her feet. He hesitated, having momentarily forgotten she was pregnant, then reached out a hand. She took it at once and he pulled.

Her hand felt cold but she was soon on her feet and let go of his hand at once. He picked up his rucksack.

‘Let’s go.’

‘Wait,’ she said.

He turned. ‘What’s up?’

‘Those men you told me about. Have you seen them tonight?’

‘No.’

‘Only…I don’t want to bump into them.’

‘Neither do I. So that’s not a problem.’

‘You don’t understand. This…’ She looked at him hard. ‘This…isn’t a game. It could be dangerous. I told you before. You shouldn’t get involved in my life. There’s nothing I can give you except trouble.’

He looked down.

‘I don’t want anything from you. You don’t owe me anything. You’ve got your troubles and you don’t need to tell me about them if you don’t want to. Anyway, I’ve…I’ve got problems of my own. I won’t burden you with them but I…’ He took a deep breath. ‘I’ve left home. I’m going to have people looking for me from tomorrow morning. Police, probably, and my parents, and maybe other people. People who know me. But…’

He looked up again and saw her eyes fixed on his. He went on.

‘I won’t be going home again. I need to get away, somewhere, anywhere, away from Ashingford. There’ll be too many people who recognise me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t got any money. I haven’t got any food apart from what I’ve stuffed in my rucksack, and that was meant for you anyway. I haven’t got any plan of what I’m going to do. I…’ He looked down again. ‘I’m a mess. A complete bloody mess.’

She said nothing and he didn’t look up. He felt sure, now that he’d told her all this, that she would walk on and leave him. With all that she had on her mind, the last thing she would want now was a lame duck on her hands. But she spoke to him.

‘So we’re both shadows.’

He looked up. ‘What?’

Shadows. I thought it was just me. But you’re the same, aren’t you? Maybe we need each other for a little while.’

‘But why shadows?’

She looked hard at him.

‘When you live in the shadows long enough, you become one.’