They were rushing down the motorway out of the city and the little girl in the red coat reached out a plump hand to the radio. The man winced at the sound of a cheery song he'd heard before and turned the plastic knob, sweeping through several more bands of pop before finding a voice. He didn't bother to think about what the voice might have been saying, something about someone visiting somewhere, but it's flat tone calmed him. "No music, sugar. Not today," he said in his soft expressionless voice.
The girl didn't seem to mind whether she heard music or about the strength of the pound against the dollar. She had a pretty round face with dimples framed by yellow ringlets just like her mother's. Her eyes were deep blue and empty. Smiles and frowns chased each other swiftly over her smooth face like ripples over water.
The man had a long face with a high, shiny forehead giving way to a receding line of frizzy blond hair. His eyes were china blue and a tiny muscle in the corner of one of them was twitching. He gripped the steering wheel tightly with sweating palms.
The girl tugged his sleeve. "What's up, honey? Are you hungry?" He paused, "Wee-wee?" A pair of deep blue eyes met his and not for the first time he experienced a slight feeling of vertigo. He looked away quickly. He never knew what she wanted. He sometimes wondered whether she had thoughts at all like everyone else.
At the service station he hesitated between the two doors a moment. She wrinkled her nose at a sharp smell like dried fish salted with Ajax. A row of men at the urinals turned, staring at him, the girl and back at him again. He went inside a cubicle and closed the door. She wriggled her skirt and knickers down and he caught a glimpse of soft little girl flesh before turning and resting his forehead against the cool wood.
He filled his head with sawdust and the smell of glue. Imagined the gleaming tools of his trade all laid out neatly on his bench. He saw the little study at Trish's house and the shelves he had been putting up there. Trish with her heavy blond ringlets, her rosy cheeks and maternal bosom. The sound of laughter came from next door where the little girl was playing in her wendy house. Then Trish came in spilling the cup of tea she'd brought him, cheeks wet with tears, bosom heaving.
He took the tea cup from her and held her in his arms. He could feel her desperation in the heat of her thighs. The embrace tightened as her lips fumbled for his, and ended amid rumpled sheets under the grey morning light. She told him about Stan. Not Clare's father, he was long gone. She'd planned the shelves as a special surprise but Stan had gone and spoilt everything. No way was she having that bastard back. He was thinking: I yielded. Does that mean I'm cured? But no, he wasn't cured and neither had Stan gone for good.
"Stan, this is Richard, Richard this is Stan." She smiled from one to the other proudly. Stan glared at Richard so he went back to the study to finish the shelves. He didn't mind, it wouldn't have worked anyway. But he did mind other things. The girl for one . . .
"Don't hit her," he said.
"What do you know about child rearing?"
"Nothing. But you shouldn't ever hit children. I know that."
Maybe that was why they'd left her with him. What they took as his concern. Just for a couple of hours, she'd said. When she didn't return he went to her house. Locked up, no one at home. He peeped through dirty windows at a bare room. In front of the house there was a skip filled up with old crockery, cushions, curtains and things. Partially buried by all this trash he spotted a chewed up mass of broken poles and pink plastic - the wendy house. So she's gone away for good, he thought.
That had been yesterday. Now he was sitting at a white formica table watching little Clare bite luxuriantly into a burger. This was her special day out. He didn't know if she had understood, but that's what he had told her. She was a lovely looking kid, maybe he could keep her. He didn't mind her being . . . quiet. After all, he too lived in his own closed world. They'd be silent together. She could be his little friend and he could be her dad, teach her things, bring her out little by little.
And they'd all live happily after, he thought bitterly.
He'd originally thought of taking her to social services at the local council. Naturally, he couldn't go round there himself but what was to stop him leaving her somewhere and then tipping them off? But then he'd began to worry that she might somehow lead them back to his house. He'd heard about the extraordinary things some of these children could do. Maybe she was taking everything in and later the authorities would get it all out of her. He looked at her sharply. She didn't look like a spy, but how could he be sure? No, he would have to take her outside the city. Only that way could he be sure that they couldn't trace him.
He became aware of the burger like a damp flannel in his hand, He laid it down in the polystyrene container. She chewed away placidly opposite him.
"Just be a moment pet. Wait for me here," he said.
The telephone box had a sour shut-in smell. He wiped the receiver with his handkerchief then dialled.
"There's a little girl who's been abandoned by her parents at the McDonalds in the High Street," he said. A man's voice began saying something but he interrupted. "She's wearing a red coat and's got blond curly hair," he almost shouted and hung up breathing heavily.
Richard sat down on a bench waiting for something to happen. For some reason the chewed up pink plastic and the broken poles came to mind. There had been a wendy house at little Annie's too, all those years ago. You could always hear her dad thundering away on the piano next door and the sound mixed in with the plastic smell inside. Annie would let her pet mouse out of its cage. It had pink eyes and a tail like string. Its busy little body would scurry over the hills and valleys of their naked bodies.
Once day, she told him her father had got a job in an orchestra in Australia so they wouldn't be able to play together any more. That day in the wendy house he noticed her breasts were beginning to swell and a tuft of hair had sprung up between her legs. He felt the probing body of the mouse between his hip bone and the floor and, feeling a sudden curiosity, he rolled over . . . Shortly after that, he began taking piano lessons.
A police car drew up outside the McDonalds and two officers, a man and a woman got out and ambled slowly inside. A moment later, Clare appeared in the doorway. She spotted him and came running down the road laughing and skipping like it was a funny game. He looked around in panic expecting the police to come running out after her. An elderly couple sitting on the bench next to him smiled benignly. He forced a smile himself and went out to meet her.
"Let's go, honey," he said through closed teeth. He walked her swiftly down the street, seemingly a dad and little daughter like any other.
A sound of music wafted down to them. Clare's face lit up with happiness but Richard looked like someone was dancing on his grave. As they came nearer they caught sight of the musician, a skinny figure in a tail suit playing the violin. He was young and had a long pale face with dark, deep-set eyes. It was a Bach fugue, Richard recognised immediately with a feeling of despair. Clare was giggling, jumping around in ragged circles. He could feel that beautiful music soaking into his soul like unwished for oil, freeing him up, releasing the little wheels in his head he would rather were still.
As always, the music brought back the image of Katy. Darling Katy. Her agile little fingers skipping so gaily over the keys. Her quick smile. Her class alone made bearable the long hours teaching scales to bored children.
"You've got a very talented daughter there, Mr Bradley." The television volume had been dipped on his arrival but the man's eyes kept slipping back to the screen. The hot little house smelling of damp washing and food. The man with his piglike face, the woman fussing around officiously like a busy little dormouse. For the tenth time he wondered: could these people really be . . . ?
"No, you don't need to worry about the money, Mrs Bradley, it will be a pleasure to help such a talented young girl on her way."
So the private classes began at his house. Then one day, he could resist no longer. He placed his hand on her thigh and when she said nothing, moved it up higher, caressing the gentle flesh while her fingers skipped gaily over the keys. It would never have happened but for the music. It would never have happened.
He tugged on her hand, pulling her away, and Clare's dance of joy turned to rage. Her face crumpled and ugly howls began to tumble out of her distended mouth. Several members of a small group which had gathered around the violinist turned disapproving looks towards them. His desperate eyes roved around and fell on a poster pasted to a wall: "Feeling blue? Come to the zoo!" suggested the bold red letters over a collage of an elephant, a lion and a zebra and several other animals he couldn't make out immediately.
Sneers and endless interrogations, even when he'd admitted his guilt. Hour after hour sitting in a draughty police cell. The yells, the jeers. He cried when they gave him a cup off tea and his hands were shaking so badly he spilt most of it down his trousers. Then there was the trial. No Katy - his guilty plea saved her a court appearance - but the man with the piggy face and his dormouse wife were there, bunched up sullenly at the back of the courtroom. They only smiled when the judge read his sentence: seven years, no remission.
There was a fusty, clammy smell and the air was full of the snorts and cries of animals. Clare was afraid at first, but soon she was leaping about poking her little head up against the cages and clapping her hands. She gazed in wonder at some bored-looking lions lying in the dust like exhausted hearthrugs and an old sad-eyed orang-utan slouched against the bars of his cage. Then she pulled Richard towards the reptile house and her eyes opened up wide at the scaly world within. A keeper unwound a python from the branch of a tree and the crowd parted like butter before a flame. Its body was as thick in the middle as a woman's thigh and then tapered off to a stubby muscular point. It coiled and wrapped itself round the man's arm. Who would like to touch it, the keeper wanted to know. Clare took a step forward and stroked its tiny porcelain head. Then she wanted Richard to touch it too, but he shrunk back with the others. Something about the way it clung to the keeper's hand made him feel as miserable as if he had bitten into something rotten and still had the taste in his mouth.
Wipe-clean porcelain tiles, a bunk bed and a bucket in the corner. The guard came in with a plate on a tray, spat copiously and passed it to him, saying "See that? That's what I think of your sort." The jeers along the wing, the taunts. Savage dogs, he thought, straining at their leashes, waiting to tear me apart. Afterwards, when they let him out, they were still out there, snarling at him from the shadows, daubing his door with faeces, throwing bricks through his window.
Outside, he bought her a raspberry ripple ice cream and while she was licking it he slipped away. He felt like a kite, but there was no other way. All day his will had been seeping away and he couldn't trust himself any longer with her. As he drove by he saw her standing alone on the edge of the road. Her hand had fallen to her side and the ice cream had dropped from the cone onto the ground. The first telephone box he came to he'd call the police, he promised himself. She'd be fine.
The town soon dropped away behind him and he was on the highway. No telephones around here. A light drizzle began to spot the windscreen. He kept seeing her standing there, a forlorn figure, all alone on the edge of the road. He swung the car into a roadway. He caught a glimpse of a gate through the hedge, and a little way behind a wood, before he swung the car round and headed the way he had come.
When he got back there she had gone. A pool of sticky pink liquid was trickling slowly down the pavement where she had stood. The ice cream van had left and the zoo gates were closed. He spoke to a man clearing away a hot dog stand. "Little girl in a red jacket? Yeah I saw her. Chap took her off that way."
"What did he look like?"
"Dunno, odd sort. Tweed hat he had on, think. Fisherman, maybe."
He walked quickly down the road, his eyes scanning ahead. The zoo stood on the edge of town in a semi-industrial landscape of warehouses and workshops. Where should he look? At the end of the road there was what appeared to be a bar. He walked towards it.
A sign outside said "Hot Pot Cafe", and underneath "breakfast served all day". He put his face against the steamy glass and there she was, sitting at a table holding a can of coke in both hands. Opposite her sat a middle aged man and there on the table was a green tweed hat. Richard pushed open the door and stood watching them. The man had little ferrety eyes and a sharp nose which was pointed towards Clare. He had a hungry look about him, but he wasn't eating.
Richard walked over to the table and took Clare's hand in his but she bunched up over her coke, not looking at him.
"Can I help you?" the man asked in a nasal voice. When Richard remained silent he said, " What d'you think your doing? Who do you think you are?" His waxy skin was covered with a rime of sweat as if he had a fever.
"Her father. C'mon pet, let's go."
The man stood up, his fists clenched, and took a step backwards. "How do I know you really are her father, eh?!" he shouted.
"Shall we call the police and let them sort it out?," said Richard, marvelling at his calm, reasonable voice. Reluctantly, the man sat down and glared in silence as Richard led Clare to the door, still clutching her coke.
Back in the car, Clare's hand slid out to the radio and a cheery pop song blared back at them. In a single violent movement, Richard ripped the box from its moorings and hurled it out of the window. "No music. I don't want any music," he said through clenched teeth. He felt fury welling up inside him. He wanted to punish her, make her suffer for what was happening to him.
No, calm, calm. He breathed deeply. He'd take her to the first police station he found. He didn't care any more if they caught him. What did his ruined life matter anyway? He breathed deeply, and each breath was a step through a beautiful wood in autumn. The pure air filled his lungs and the dry leaves rustled underfoot. But what was this? There was a half naked child with him there under the trees and she was crying. A shrill sobbing wail. It was intolerable. He put his hand over the child's mouth but the wails continued so he tightened his grip and tightened and tightened . . .
"Stop crying, dammit!" He pulled over into a roadway. There was a gate through the hedge and a little way behind a wood. Clare was bunched up into a ball letting out one long quivering wail after another. It was a maddening, scarcely human sound. "Stop it!" he yelled, but the howls merely grew in intensity. "That's it." he muttered. He threw open the door and seized Clare roughly by the arm. Her body immediately went limp. She was sobbing gently and trembling as he dragged her out of the car. Suddenly he realised they weren't alone. Car, hedge and gate were splashed with blue and red light.
"You the owner of this vehicle, sir?"
"Can I see your driver's licence and the vehicle documents."
"Yes, I think I've got them here," he struggled to keep a tremor out of his voice. Clare sat still in the front of the car while he took a wad of papers from the glove compartment. She was quiet now. He handed the papers to the policeman who seemed to be weighing him up with a shrewd pair of grey eyes. Now all he has to do is check my name on the police computer and that's that, he thought. If he'd arrived a few minutes later . . .
"May I ask you why you stopped here sir?" the policeman asked.
"My daughter . . . she gets car sick."
The policeman smiled and bent down at the window. He was middle aged with a gingery moustache and a slight double chin. A family man, Richard thought. "Feeling better now, I hope." Clare's eyes seemed to stare through him at the moving lights beyond.
"She's autistic," Richard said. "Doesn't always react."
"I'm sorry to hear that, sir, " the policeman said handing back the documents. "Go carefully, there's a storm coming."
Richard slipped his car out and pointed it up the road towards London. A mass of cloud hung up ahead where the city was. The last rays of sun bathed it in a curious pink light, making it look like pack ice piled up thousands of feet above the land. He had tears in his eyes.
"Isn't that beautiful?," he said, caressing her cheek. "Isn't that the most beautiful sight you've ever seen?"
Clare's eyes followed the direction he was pointing, but they seemed to be fixed on a point beyond the clouds, beyond the sky itself.
"Everything's going to be fine," he said, talking quickly, as if he had to say everything before the light went. "I'm going to look after you like no one has before. I won't ever let you go. Everything's going to be fine . . . I can feel it."
As he spoke, a fine veil seemed to fall over the sun and the colour began to drain away leaving a steely sky frowning down on a pitiless grey land.