The stranger was walking. It made a change.
It was late evening in early winter and the night was cold but dry. All around him the lights of the bars and shops of the city centre glared and glowed, a stream of colours flowing around him under a starless black sky. People passed by, couples and groups, a few solo travellers, mostly young people, mostly heading home. The only sounds to be heard were the heels of women’s shoes and transient conversations and occasional guffaws. He walked on, passing the late night food outlets, smelling onions and tomatoes and spices and meat, always meat.
Nobody looked at the stranger. He did nothing to attract their attention.
The route he followed took him through the alleyways and hilly streets that formed the little village at the centre of the city, and then out towards the east. In the city centre, people had been lively and chatty, and the place seemed warm and welcoming. Now, as he moved further east, there were fewer people, and they kept their heads down or looked straight forward, avoiding eye contact. It became quieter. It seemed colder.
After a while he came to a big island, a distribution point for traffic coming to or through the city. A footbridge spanned the entire roundabout, it’s walkways radiating out from the centre of the island like the spokes of a giant wheel. He climbed some steps to the footbridge and walked across, above the stream of traffic. Leaning against the railings, he paused for a few minutes to watch the vehicles coming off the Parkway. A beautiful woman in the passenger seat of a Jaguar looked up as the car she was travelling in passed under the footbridge. She smiled, perhaps at him. He turned and watched as the car drove out towards the motorway. She didn’t turn round. He stood there for a while, listening to the drawn out roar of tyres on tarmac, smelling the poisonous leavings of cars and buses and lorries and bikes. An ambulance flew into the city, blue lights in a maniac swirl, its siren sounding like a toy. When it was out of sight he started walking again.
Coming off the footbridge, he climbed up an incline and on to a long, straight road. Red and white lights from the traffic on the dual carriageway streamed below him on the left. On his right he passed a modern church that was dying and a working men’s club that was already dead. A many-floored block of flats stood behind the church and the club that had been built to serve them. Every window was darkened or covered with curtains or blinds. Lights shone in just a handful of the living spaces. The only thing moving on the street was a black and white cat searching for mice. The cat paused and sniffed the air as the stranger came closer before slinking away, ears pricked backwards, listening.
The stranger came to a junction with a side road. As he approached the junction he heard a voice. He looked around to see where it came from but he couldn’t see anything. He stopped for a moment. The voice came again.
It was a man’s voice, but there was weakness in it, and it trembled.
He looked around again and saw a long, thin arm lying on the pavement a little way along the side road. There was hedging along the side of the road and the arm stuck out through a gap. He hesitated for a moment and then saw the hand twitch.
“Help me,” came the feeble voice.
The stranger ran up to the gap in the hedge. As he bent down to the figure that lay on the ground, the twitching hand shot up and fastened around his throat. Another hand joined it and dragged him head first through the hedging. The stranger was pushed to the ground, his head bouncing off the tarmac before his face was pressed down into the dirt and gravel behind the hedge, out of sight of the road. A weight landed hard on his back and forced the air out of his lungs. His left arm was trapped under his body, the other twisted up behind him and held tight in a strong, bony grip.
The arm belonged to a dark-haired boy who carried no fat and whose bones seemed to be made of metal. He was kneeling on the man’s body. As they jostled on the ground, the boy’s knees burrowed into the man’s back. He banged the man’s head on the floor again and bent down to speak. He had a tattoo of barbed wire circling his neck. He smelled of drink and weed. His name was Damon, though he preferred Lemon but couldn’t remember why.
Lemon had seen the man as he walked alone in the night. Lemon had a bad habit that needed to be tended to, regularly and irresistibly. He had a bad attitude, too. If someone was walking around here, alone, at night, well, it was their own fault if something happened to them, wasn’t it? They should know better. Served them right if they got done over. He was just teaching them a lesson. Doing ’em a favour, really. Fuckers should say thank you after he’d done ’em.
“No noise, right?” said Lemon, twisting the man’s arm further up his back. “Don’t you make no fuckin’ noise, man. Right? Just give me your money, okay? Give me your money and I’m gone.” He shook the man.
The man laughed.
The boy paused. They didn’t laugh. They usually either put up a bit of a fight that Lemon quickly slapped out of them, or they rolled over and coughed up straight away. Nobody had ever laughed before. He dug his knees into the man’s back again, leaning hard on him. The man grunted. Then he laughed again.
“What you fuckin’ laughin’ at?” said Lemon.
“I don’t have money,” said the stranger. His voice was soft and deep, unaccented.
“I mean, I don’t have money,” said the man. “I have nothing. Nothing that you want, anyway.”
“Bollocks,” said Lemon.
With his free hand, Lemon reached into the inside pocket of the battered jacket he was wearing and took out a black cylinder and held it beside the man’s head. He pressed a small silver button on the side and a thin, pointed blade sprang from the cylinder. He wiggled the blade in front of the man’s eyes, the sharp ground edge glinting in the darkness.
“Money,” said Lemon. “Now.”
The man was looking at the blade. He was still smiling.
“Search me,” he said. “You can keep anything that you find.”
“Oh, fuckin’ ‘ell,” said the boy, exasperated.
He took hold of the collar of the man’s jacket and dragged it down and off. Lemon held it up and fumbled quickly through the pockets. He found nothing.
“Bollocks,” he said, throwing the jacket away. “What’s in your trouser pockets, then? Up you get.”
Lemon had been sitting on the stranger’s legs. He got up now. The stranger lay there for a moment and then he levered himself up and turned to face Lemon. The man moved very easily. He was taller than Lemon. He had dark eyes and dark hair. His face was square, with a wide mouth and a strong jaw. Lemon noticed that there were no marks on his face.
“Pockets,” said Lemon, waving the knife left and right in front of the man. He was getting twitchy now.
The man paused for a moment and then reached into the pockets of his jeans and pulled out the linings. There was nothing in them.
“Bastard,” said Lemon. “You’re fuckin’ potless, aren’t you? Skint. That’s why you’re walkin’, in’t it? Fuck me. Just my fuckin’ luck.”
He looked down. The stranger was wearing shiny leather boots with silver buckles. They looked new.
“Right,” said Lemon, pointing. “I’ll take them. Get ’em off.”
The stranger didn’t move.
“Come on, fuckin’ ‘ell. I am’t got all night.”
Lemon waved the knife around as though it were a magic wand.
“You don’t know anything about me,” the man said.
He wasn’t looking at the boy directly but at the empty space to his right. The expression on the man’s face was difficult to interpret. Lemon thought he saw sadness, though it could have been boredom. Lemon looked around as a car drove past on the main road. It was too far away to see anything and gone in an instant. He turned back to the man. He jumped. The man’s gaze had shifted from empty space and his dark, dark eyes were now fastened on his own. And he was closer. Much closer.
“You don’t know what I can do,” said the stranger.
He reached out. Lemon tried to pull his arm away but the speed of the man’s movements made his own seem heavy and slow. In a single motion, the stranger grabbed hold of the boy’s wrist and turned his hand backwards and pulled him forwards. He simply took the knife out of the boy’s hand. As Lemon fell past him and down to the ground, the stranger stamped on the back of his calf and then dug the heel of his boot into his thigh, deadening the muscles. Lemon squealed. The man bent quickly and slapped his open mouth, hard, with an open hand.
“No noise, right?” said the stranger.
“Umph,” said Lemon. Pushing with his one good leg, he scuffled backwards away from the man, coming to a halt against the screening hedge.
“What do you think I am, boy?” said the stranger, standing over him.
Lemon shook his head, unwilling to risk another smack. The stranger looked at the knife in his hand. He was holding it with two fingers by the base of the cylinder, the blade pointing downwards. He let go and the knife dropped. The blade pierced Lemon’s thigh and embedded loosely in the dead leg muscle. Lemon squealed, and the man hit him again, retrieving the knife with one hand as his other connected with Lemon’s mouth.
“What do you think I am?” the stranger said again, crouching beside the shivering boy.
“Evil,” said Lemon. Blood ran from his split lip and snot from his nose. His head was a thumping ball of pain and his bowels were growling and coiling and fighting to release the few evil remains of whatever food fermented there. “You’re fuckin’ evil, that’s what you are.”
“Maybe,” said the stranger.
Lemon looked around, desperate for a passer-by to provide the sort of interruption that he would have resented under other circumstances. Nobody was in sight. The night seemed darker and more silent than before.
“Perhaps I am evil,” said the stranger, “but you don’t know that. I could be good. I could be doing you a kindness here, teaching you a lesson, perhaps. Or I could be completely amoral, which is a word I’m sure you don’t understand. It means I might not care about right or wrong at all. Any of these could be true, but that’s not the point. The point is, what do you know about me? There’s only one thing you actually know, boy. What is it?”
Lemon shook his head again. The man waited, but Lemon wouldn’t speak. He saw that sad, bored look appear on the man’s face again.
“I’m a stranger,” said the man. “All you know about me is that you don’t know me. And yet you attacked me, not knowing what I might be capable of. That’s a big risk. That’s like stepping beyond the firelight and out to where the wolves wait. Sometimes you get away with taking that sort of risk. Sometimes you don’t. What do you think now, boy? Do you think the risk has paid off?”
Lemon said nothing.
“What’s your name, boy?” said the man.
“David,” said Lemon.
The stranger carefully placed his knee on the dead leg and leaned forward. Lemon whimpered in pain.
“Your real name.”
“Lemon. That’s what they call me. Real name’s Damon.”
The stranger looked at the boy. “Damon. But you couldn’t pronounce it properly when you were young, could you? It came out Lemon and it stuck.” He thought for a moment. “You can’t read, either, can you? Dyslexic? You were a problem at school. Fell in with the bad boys. Became one of them. Mother gave up on you. Father gave up on both. Now it’s just you and that nasty little habit of yours. About right?”
Lemon was entranced. The man was reading out his life. This stranger knew all about him. It was like magic. He nodded.
The stranger nodded too. “This is as low as your life is going to get, Lemon. Mugging strangers for their shoes. That wouldn’t even get you enough for a packet of fags, never mind anything else. So, in spite of your silly little stunt, I’m going to do you a favour. I’m going to give you a way out of this situation. Two, in fact. You interested?”
Lemon nodded, though his head hurt worse than ever by now. He was going to be sick soon, too.
“Well, here you are, then. The first way. This is the hard way, but it’s the best way. What you do is you go home, or wherever you hide away, and you go to sleep, and when you wake up, you go to the drop-in centre in town and ask for help. You ask them to put you on a rehabilitation programme and you see it all the way through. And then you get a job as a counsellor and you help other people in your situation and you feel better about yourself. You will. You’ll even like yourself. That’s the first way. Okay?”
Lemon nodded again. He’d lost interest after the word ‘rehabilitation’.
“Okay,” said the stranger. “So here’s the second way. This is the easier way, but it’s a bad, lazy way. You don’t have to put any work at all in with this way, no effort of any kind, and it’s guaranteed to work. All you need to do is just let me slide this shiny little blade of yours in between these two ribs here and it’s all over. No more comedown jags, no more worries about where you’re going to sleep or how you’re going to eat. No heartache ever again. All done. Over and out. What do you say, Lemon? What do you say to a little bit of eternity? Just give me the nod.”
Lemon looked down. The man was holding the tip of the knife against his chest, on the left hand side, just below the level of his armpit. He hadn’t seen him put it there.
In a sweat of fear Lemon wrapped the man’s hand with his own and gripped bone-hard, with all his strength, so that the knife couldn’t move. He looked up at the man’s face and into his eyes. Lit from above by the dull glow from the street lamps, Lemon was close enough to see his own face reflected in those dark, shining pools. He saw a scrawl of hair above a pale mask, a thin beak of a nose, an open, dopey mouth. He hadn’t seen his own reflection in a long time, and the face he saw now was the face of someone he didn’t recognize. It was the face of a stranger.
A memory came to him then. He was a boy, a young boy just starting school. He remembered the little wooden chairs with the seats made from formed plywood and the bright colours of everything in the classroom and the whirling noise of voices shouting and whispering and laughing and crying. He remembered the children running round, talking to each other, playing. He remembered the teachers, the grown-ups, bending down beside the children, showing them things, telling them what to do, how to do it. He saw himself, sitting on one of the little wooden chairs, alone, in the middle of the room, with the life of the school happening all around him, other children doing things, working with the grown-ups, working with each other, talking to each other, and him sitting there and not moving and not speaking. Not knowing what to do. Not understanding what was expected of him. And he realised then that he’d always been like that, that he’d always been apart from everything because he didn’t understand, he still didn’t understand, what he was supposed to do. He didn’t get it. Being in the world, being alive. He didn’t see the point of it. And he knew now, seeing himself, a stranger in a strange man’s eyes, that he never would.
“Oh, fuck it,” said Lemon.
He yanked the man’s hand. The blade stroked a rib as it entered his body but he was surprised by how little it hurt. He pulled hard, making sure it went all the way in, stopping only when the hilt hit the rib and the tip had pierced his heart. He was surprised now by how quickly he began to fade and by the intensity of death. The sound of traffic in the distance and the whomp of his own blood in his ears both became intimately clear. The smell of the place invaded his nostrils: cat scat and dog shit; the piss of men; rubber; engine oil; and, carried on the wind, the smell of food, of fried onions and garlic bread. He felt his clothing wherever it touched his body, the hard grains of asphalt under his buttocks, the burgeoning ulcer on his tongue. His mouth tasted suddenly foul. He wound down without another word, understanding no more of his death than he had of his life. His last thought was of his mother.
The stranger didn’t move. He looked down at the treacle black slick shining on the boy’s dirty sweatshirt, at the unseeing eyes staring at the handle sticking out of the unmoving chest. A sliver of drool had spilled from the boy’s lips and a dark stain had begun to spread around the crotch of his track suit bottoms. The stranger freed his hand from the boy’s grip and took both of the boy’s hands in his own. He felt them cooling. He felt nothing more.
A dog barked in the distance and the stranger rose to his feet.
“Humans,” he said, looking at the dead boy and shaking his head.
And he smiled, and he walked on.