The night they decided to leave London Bea had a dream. Dreams are like silent films; guns are fired without shots, people talk without voices. This dream was deafening. The noise woke Bea up, shocked breathless, and terrified.
She didn’t think she’d had the dream because they had decided to go away, it was more likely because of what had happened with the Italian leather holdall and the girl with the knife.
The holdall was made of dark red leather and looked too good for its surroundings. Bea had stopped walking when she saw it, in the window of the charity shop on the Holloway Road. It was lying beneath the long pleats of a nylon skirt on a headless mannequin, which had been styled with a pink jumper in a way that was supposed to be retro but was just old-lady. The red leather holdall was glamorous. It looked as though George Clooney had stopped by on his way to meet Julia Roberts at a little airfield somewhere, and forgotten it. Bea could see its quality but could not see its price. There were plastic-amber beads in the display, and some high heels and an enormous-looking evening dress, drooping on another mannequin. Bea shielded her eyes, her face close to the reflecting glass. Dan would love the holdall. It was stylish and cool. She went to the door. When she pushed, it moved, but didn’t open. There were bags of donations piled against it on the inside, and a pair of jeans wedged between the rubber seal and the floor. Looking through the glass she could see a woman and a girl at the back of the shop, talking. The woman was behind the counter and the girl had one hand on a pushchair. It looked like they were arguing. Bea pushed the door harder and put her head through the gap
‘Excuse me,’ she said.
Neither of them turned.
‘Excuse me?’ said Bea again. ‘Hi.’
‘Fuck off,’ said the girl, still not turning.
Bea couldn’t see them clearly. The air smelled musty and the street was very loud.
‘It’s all right!’ called the woman at the counter, but she sounded frightened.
Bea looked at the passers-by on the pavement, hurrying, unnoticing, then she put her shoulder against the door and pushed it hard, and squeezed through the gap into the shop. The door closed behind her.
‘Fuck off,’ said the girl, turning round to face Bea. She was holding a knife.
It wasn’t a fighting knife, it looked like a kitchen knife, and she didn’t hold it out, just gripped it in her hand. Behind her, the woman opened her eyes wide in a mute distress signal.
‘What do you want?’ said the girl.
‘Are you all right?’ Bea asked.
The girl was tall, with long legs in skinny jeans and trainers that seemed too big for the rest of her.
‘What are you doing? Go away,’ she said. Bea thought she looked high. She was speedy and scattered.
The woman behind the counter walked backwards, silently, disappearing into the darkness of a doorway. Bea smiled at the girl to keep her attention. She had been crying. Her make-up was smudged and her skin was very white. She didn’t look as if she knew she was holding a knife.
‘I just wanted to ask how much that bag in the window is,’ said Bea. ‘The red one?’
The girl was confused, eyes darting from one place to another. She wiped her face and tucked her hair behind her ear.
‘Sorry,’ said Bea. ‘You don’t work here, do you?’
‘I had to get out,’ said the girl. ‘Are you judging me? You don’t even know me.’
‘Can you put that away?’ said Bea. ‘It’s scary. Do you mind? Can you put it in your bag?’
The girl looked down at the knife in her hand. She jabbed it at the empty air, and laughed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s not funny.’
Still holding onto the pushchair, she knelt down and shoved the kitchen knife in the clutter of her gaping bag. Bea could see the baby’s feet sticking out but she couldn’t see the rest of its body. She thought the woman must have called the police. She walked towards the girl.
‘I’m on my lunch hour,’ she said. ‘I was just passing. Are you going to be OK?’
‘What?’ said the girl.
‘Are you OK?’
‘What’s your name?’ said the girl.
‘Bea,’ said Bea. ‘What’s yours?’
‘Emma,’ said the girl, ‘and this is Thomas.’ She nodded towards the baby.
‘Like the Tank Engine,’ said Bea.
The girl smiled. ‘Yes.’
Bea took a few more steps, and leaned over to look into the pushchair. The baby was very young, very small. He was asleep. His hands were curled up by his head, his tiny fingers were as clean as freshly shelled peas. Then they heard sirens. Emma tensed and stared towards the sound. Then blue light flashed onto the walls as the police cars pulled up at the kerb. Two cars and a van. Doors opened and police got out in what looked like a crowd, dark, heavy clothes, pulling on caps and jackets, talking on their radios.
‘Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit –’ said Emma, and scrabbled back against the counter, weak-legged, grabbing at her bag and the pushchair pulling them towards her.
‘I’m really sorry,’ said Bea. ‘It’s OK.’
A policeman forced the door open, another peered in through the glass.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Bea again. Emma was backed up, crouching against the counter with the pushchair.
Bea went towards the policeman in the doorway, her hands open in front of her and said, ‘I think a lady called you?’
‘We had a report of a weapon,’ he said, looking past her and seeing Emma.
‘It’s all right, she’s not – dangerous,’ said Bea completely sure, suddenly frightened. ‘She’s just in a mess –’
But then there were six policemen and a policewoman in the shop. Quickly, they closed in on Emma. They asked her where the knife was, and told her to keep still and asked about the knife again. They tried to separate her from the baby but she wouldn’t let go of the pushchair. Panicking, surrounded, she seemed to dissolve in front of Bea’s eyes, transforming from herself into an object. Bea backed slowly away towards the wall feeling sick with herself, and guilty. After a few minutes, a policeman came over and took her name and asked her what had happened, and then the woman who ran the shop came out from where she had been hiding, somewhere out the back, and gave them her details, while the girl, surrounded, began to fight.
‘You bitch, you cunt,’ she said, as the police took hold of her arms. They prised her hands off the pushchair. A policewoman bent to look inside.
‘What’s his name?’ she asked
‘Get off him,’ said Emma, crying.
‘I really don’t think she was going to do anything,’ said Bea to the policemen, but nobody was listening.
They took Emma out into the street, three of them holding her, having to drag her with them.
‘Don’t worry about it. We know her,’ one of the policemen said to Bea, smiling. ‘She’s always around here.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’ said Bea. ‘I work in psychotherapy, just down the road.’
She wouldn’t normally have said that, like she thought she was important, but she felt embarrassed by her humanity, and interfering, and she wanted him to know she wasn’t just a member of the public being sentimental. Even as she thought it she knew that was exactly what she was.
The police stayed around for a few minutes and unstrapped the baby from the pushchair and put him into one of the cars. They couldn’t work out how to fold it up, and struggled with it, and with Emma, getting her into the van, demonstrating to the small crowd gathered that they were not taking pleasure in overpowering her. It was easy, they were so much stronger. The matter-of-fact way they dealt with her looked more brutal than if they had been angry. They forced her into the van calmly, and slammed the doors on her, then the van and the two cars drove away, and the people on the pavement carried on and the life of the street was normal again, with nothing to show they had been there except for Bea, standing there, watching, until they had disappeared. A violent criminal would have gained more attention. There was no easier person to discard than a damaged girl. The woman who worked in the shop came out and stood next to her.
‘I can’t believe how quickly they got here,’ she said.
‘Only because of the knife,’ said Bea.
‘You were brilliant,’ said the woman.
‘No, I wasn’t.’
‘Do you want a cup of tea? I’m Veena.’
They went inside.
‘Bloody donations,’ said Veena, stepping over the bags. ‘They’re the worst part of this job.’ She kicked them away, ‘You wouldn’t believe the rubbish people give us. Bags of dirty clothes, like we’re a laundry.’
They stood together in the silent aftermath, the musty air and shadows of the shop.
‘Do you need a hand?’ said Bea. ‘I’ve still got twenty minutes, and I only work down the road.’
She and Veena drank tea and sorted clothes until it was time for Bea to leave.
‘Thank God you came in,’ said Veena.
‘I was looking at the holdall in the window,’ said Bea.
‘The red one? That’s Italian leather. I’ll give you half price.’
Even at half price it was more than she could afford but Bea bought it to cheer Veena up, and because she knew Dan would love it.
In the afternoon there was the safeguarding meeting with the rest of the practice. Safeguarding was always the same: we can’t be accused of this, because we’ve done that; did you see the letter from the Trust? The guidelines from NICE? Bea took the minutes, and tried not to think about where Emma was or what would happen to her baby. She tried not to remember his defenceless hands. Then, after the meeting, back in her therapy room she waited for her half-past-two clients, a couple with their teenage son. The son gave Bea despairing looks as his father talked. The mother pretended to listen but her hand kept going for her phone, like a gunfighter. Then at four fifteen Bea saw Jill, whose husband had died of cancer, and at five thirty, Lily, who suffered from anorexia and whose family’s distress was nothing in the face of her feeble, unbreakable rage. From half past six Bea wrote up her notes and from seven she was alone. Her colleagues went home to cats and dogs and children.
‘You won’t get a medal,’ they said.
‘Bless you, love.’
A personality quiz had once told Bea to stop being self-sacrificing. Don’t be a doormat, it said. It had struck her as a particularly modern assumption that giving diminished the self rather than nourished it. She didn’t equate giving with sacrifice. And she wasn’t a doormat, she was a psychotherapist. She left her desk with a note for the morning – Chase up Lily’s psych assess. Finish safeguarding mins – turned off the lights, and shut down the office. She went up the basement steps, the pristine hoarding hanging on the scaffold above, swinging in the wind. 200 Luxury Apartments. Rooftop Terrace. Pool. Gym. 24-Hour Porter. 36 Retail Units. 46,000 Sq. Ft. The cold air hit her face like a drink of water and she saw her bus and ran. Foot in a puddle. Banging on the doors. Thanking the driver, tripping on a backpack, looking out at the crowds and wondering about all the lives and thoughts behind the faces. Holding tightly to the rail. Jostled in the crowded bus her thoughts drained away like a wave from the sand. Air between the grains, quiet in her head as the sounds receded. Peace. A voice, a cough, bus stopped, and off. Bus stop. People surging right when she was heading left. Someone banged her shoulder – stranger, not thief. Off the kerb. Cross the street. Reach the house. Bag. Keys. Front door. Inside. And stairs. And she could smell cooking from the ground-floor flat. Cumin and onions. She hadn’t been to the shops. Her shoes were wet. She would put them on the radiator. She got to her door, at an angle on the landing, and their neighbour’s bicycle next to it, dripping, just home too. Home. She went inside and there was Dan. He was in jeans and a paint-spattered T-shirt. There was paint all over it. Green and blue from wiping his hands or cleaning brushes, and red, splashed like a Jackson Pollock on the white cotton. She couldn’t see if the paint was wet or dry.
‘Have you been painting?’ she said, happy at the thought and holding his present behind her back.
‘No.’ He sounded angry she would ask. ‘I haven’t been painting,
I’ve been at work. I just wanted to get out of that suit. How can I come home and paint, after what I do all day?’
‘Oh. OK,’ she said. ‘How was it?’
‘My day? It was the normal shit. Yours?’
‘Mine was – interesting,’ said Bea. She told him about the girl in the Oxfam shop, and about her clients. ‘I’ve got a present for you.’
She gave him the Italian leather holdall.
‘Oh shit,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, babe.’
‘Why do I always end up apologising?’
‘You don’t need to. It’s just hand luggage.’
‘Yeah,’ he laughed. ‘Hand luggage. But we never go anywhere.’
‘I love you,’ he said. ‘You’re beautiful.’
‘No, I’m not,’ said Bea.