I spent the first three months of last year living with a half-Japanese girl called Tori in a split-level flat above a butcher’s shop on Gloucester Road. It was more my flat than hers. There wasn’t much furniture. We slept on a mattress in the attic, beneath four skylights. There were movie posters on the walls, spider plants and glass jars of dried pasta by the kitchen window. I kept a portable typewriter on the table and there were takeaway menus and yellowing taxi cards pinned to a corkboard by the front door. On a still night, there was music from the Internet café across the street.
Tori had her laptop set up by the front window. She wrote and drew a web-based anime about a radioactive short-tailed monkey called Ack-Ack Macaque. He had an anti-aircraft gun and a patch over one eye. He had a cult online following. She spent hours hunched over each frame, fingers tapping on the mouse pad.
I used to sit there, watching her. I kept the kettle hot, kept the sweet tea coming. She used to wear my brushed cotton shirts and mutter under her breath.
We had sex all the time. One night, after we rolled apart, I told her I loved her. She just kind of shrugged; she was restless, eager to get back to her animation.
‘Thanks,’ she said.
She had shiny brown eyes and a thick black ponytail. She was shorter than me and wore combat trousers and skater t-shirts. Her left arm bore the twisted pink scar of a teenage motor scooter accident.
We used to laugh. We shared a sense of humour. I thought that we got each other, on so many levels. We were both into red wine and tapas. We liked the same films, listened to the same music. We stayed up late into the night, talking and drinking.
And then, one day in March, she walked out on me.
And I decided to slash my wrists.
* * *
I’ve no idea why I took it so hard. I don’t even know if I meant to succeed. I drank half a bottle of cheap vodka from the corner shop, and then I took a kitchen knife from the drawer and made three cuts across each wrist. The first was easy, but by the second my hands had started to shake. The welling blood made the plastic knife handle slippery and my eyes were watering from the stinging pain. Nevertheless, within minutes, I was bleeding heavily. I dropped the knife in the bathroom sink and staggered downstairs.
Her note was still on the kitchen table, where she’d left it. It was full of clichés: She felt I’d been stifling her; she’d met someone else; she hadn’t meant to, but she hoped I’d understand.
She hoped we could still be friends.
I picked up the phone. She answered on the fifth ring.
‘I’ve cut my wrists,’ I said.
She didn’t believe me; she hung up.
It was four-thirty on a damp and overcast Saturday afternoon. I felt restless; the flat was too quiet and I needed cigarettes. I picked up my coat and went downstairs. Outside, it was blisteringly cold; there was a bitter wind and the sky looked bruised.
* * *
‘Twenty Silk Cut, please.’
The middle-aged woman in the corner shop looked at me over her thick glasses. She wore a yellow sari and lots of mascara.
‘Are you all right, love?’
She pushed the cigarettes across the counter. I forced a smile and handed her a stained tenner. She held it between finger and thumb.
She said, ‘Is this blood?’
I shrugged. I felt faint. Something cold and prickly seemed to be crawling up my legs. My wrists were still bleeding; my sleeves were soaked and sticky. There were bright red splatters on my grubby white trainers.
She looked me up and down, and curled her lip. She shuffled to the rear of the shop and pulled back a bead curtain, revealing a flight of dingy wooden stairs that led up into the apartment above.
‘Sanjit!’ she screeched. ‘Call an ambulance!’
* * *
Ack-Ack Macaque rides through the red wartime sky in the Akron, a gold-plated airship towed by twelve hundred skeletal oxen. With his motley crew, he’s the scourge of the Luftwaffe, a defender of all things right and decent.
Between them, they’ve notched up more confirmed kills than anyone else in the European theatre. They’ve pretty much cleared the Kaiser’s planes from the sky; all except those of the squadron belonging to the diabolical Baron Von Richter-Scale.
They’ve tracked each other from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and back. Countless times, they’ve crossed swords in the skies above the battlefields and trenches of Northern Europe, but to no avail.
‘You’ll never stop me, monkey boy!’ cackles the Baron.
* * *
They kept me in hospital for three days. When I got out, I tried to stay indoors. I took a leave of absence from work. My bandaged wrists began to scab over. The cuts were black and flaky. The -- [End of Preview.]