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‘Billie had a baby?’ he asks, obviously surprised.

I look him in the eye. ‘Yeah, a beautiful boy,’ I lie straight-faced.

His lips twist derisively. ‘You girls sure have it figured out. I suppose she is now being housed courtesy of the British taxpayer?’

I say a silent apology to Billie. ‘I believe we have had this conversation before.’

‘OK,’ he says.

‘OK, what?’

‘OK you got the loan.’

‘Just like that?’

‘There is one condition.’

I hold my breath.

‘You do not get the money for the next 42 days.’

‘Why?’

‘Because,’ he says softly, ‘for the next 42 days you will exist only for my pleasure. I plan to gorge on your body until I am sick to my stomach.’

I swallow hard. ‘Are you going to house me in some apartment again?’

‘Not some apartment, but the same one as before.’

I lick my lips and surprise myself. I never knew I could think so fast. That lies would come so easily to me. ‘There is one small complication. Billie goes to see her girlfriend three, no actually, four nights a week and I take care of her son.’

He doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Tell Laura what you need for the baby—cot, pram, bottle warmers whatever. The baby can stay at the apartment.’

I stare at him. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Do you have a better plan?’

I pause. My mind racing. ‘One more thing. Billie must be able to come to the apartment.’

‘Done.’

‘And Jack. He is the baby’s godfather.’

He looks bored. ‘Anything else?’

‘No.’

‘Fine. Have you anything planned for tomorrow?’

I shake my head.

‘Good. Keep tomorrow free. Laura will call you to go through the necessary arrangements with you.’

‘OK, if there is nothing else…’

‘I’ll walk you out.’

Heads turn to watch us. Their eyes slide off when they meet mine. I feel my face flushing. Hell, I’ll never be able to come back here again. I see the bank manager hurrying towards us, the material of his trouser legs slapping against his ankles. Blake raises a finger and he stops abruptly. Blake pulls open the heavy door and we go into the late summer air. It is a gray day, though. Drizzling slightly.

We face each other.

‘Why did Billie call her baby Sorab?’

‘It’s from the great epic Rustam and Sorab.’

‘Yes, I am aware where it is from, but why did she choose it?’

‘It was a tribute to my mother. It was my mother’s favorite story.’

‘Hmmm… That is the most admirable quality in you. Your unshakeable loyalty towards your mother.’

For a moment we look at each other. I realize that I have never seen him in the light of day. Not even in this dull light. Strange. We have always met during the day at the apartment and only ever gone out at dusk or at night. And in the light of the day his eyes are storm-blue with moody gray and black flecks. A gust of wind lifts his hair away from his head and deposits it on his forehead. Unthinkingly, I reach a hand out to touch the unruly skein, but he jerks his head back as if dodging a wasp.

‘This time you won’t fool me,’ he bites out.

We stare at each other. Me, astonished by how close to the surface his fury lives, and he, contemptuously. My hand drops. I feel exhausted. There is a ton of bricks inside my chest. Cotton wool inside my head. I can’t think straight. I look down the road at the bus stand. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then,’ I say.

‘Here’s Tom,’ he says, as a Bentley pulls up along the curb.

I shake my head. ‘Thanks, but I’ll take the bus.’

‘Tom will drop you off,’ he insists, and I have a flashback of him from the first night we met at the restaurant. That same inbred sense of confidence and superiority.

‘No,’ I snap. ‘Our contract doesn’t start until tomorrow. So today I’ll decide my mode of transport,’ and I swing away from him.

His hand shoots out and grasps my wrist. ‘I will pick you up and put you in the car if necessary. You decide.’

I feel anger bubbling inside me. ‘And I’ll call the police.’

He actually laughs. ‘After everything I have told you about the system—that’s your answer?’

I sag. ‘Of course, who will believe me if I claim that a Barrington tried to force me to take a lift.’

‘Please, Blake.’

‘Very well. Tom will go with you on the bus.’

I don’t argue. I simply turn around, open the car door, get in, slam it shut and stare straight ahead.

‘Good morning, Miss Bloom. It’s good to see you again,’ Tom greets, pretending not to notice my puffy face.

‘It’s good to see you too, Tom.’

‘How have you been?’ he asks as the car pulls away.

‘Fine,’ I reply, and twist my neck back to look at Blake. He is standing on the sidewalk where I left him. His hands are hanging by his sides and he is staring at the moving car. On the street teeming with some of the most dispossessed people in Britain he stands out. Tall, impressive, separate from the crowd, a ruler; and yet he looks alone and abandoned. I remember what he told me a long time ago.

I trust no one. No one.

Four

The traffic is bad and the car crawls slowly down Kilburn High Street. I stare blankly out of the window. I know I’m not dreaming this. This is actually happening and yet...it has a dreamlike quality. The street looks the same only there are many people staring at the car and into it, at me. Their eyes seem unfriendly. The rich are resented here. I feel restless and disturbed. I need a bit of time to think. Walking always helps. I ask Tom to drop me off by the shops.

‘Are you sure, Miss? I don’t mind waiting, while you pop in. I’m free until much later.’

‘Thanks, but I’ll be fine, Tom. I’ll probably see you tomorrow, anyway.’

Tom nods. ‘All right then. Mind how you go.’

I enter the newsagent and buy a bottle of vodka and a packet of cigarettes for Billie. Then I walk home slowly, taking the long way home so I pass by my old house. I stand on the street in the drizzle and look up at it. At the blue door where we once lived, my mother and I, for so many years. Some of them happy, but most of them filled with stress and worry and fear. Now she was gone.

For a moment I stand there, my face upturned, pretending that my mother is still there. That I could, if I wanted to, simply go up those stairs, put my key in the door, open it, and find her in the kitchen. Bald and thin to the point of skeletal, but happy to see me. Then the blue door opens and a child about seven years old comes out. She has brown hair cut very short.

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