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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Extract from White Skin Man

Extract from White Skin Man
Earlier she’d walked past Paragon Station and through the town to the statue of Victoria. The old queen had been guarding Hull’s central public lavatories there for a hundred years.

That day Katy Madika was trying out her new Nikon digital SLR. Katy had been inside Prince’s Quay capturing images of shoppers validating themselves. She’d changed the Compact Flash card, and was on the footbridge that spanned the dock, looking for something different. The town’s intellects and literati had infiltrated the street café on the other side of the dock and there was an abundance of colour and the hum of political palaver.

The water below the bridge reflected a young woman whose blonde hair skimmed her shoulders. There was a hint of make-up at her eyes and lips, a jade choker around her neck. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton top from French Connection, faded Paul Smith shorts and scuffed boots.
‘How do I look,’ she’d asked Daniel as she’d left the house. He’d placed his index finger to his cheek and rested his chin on the third finger of the same hand. ‘Kind of Jodie Foster,’ he’d said. ‘Away from the set. You’re not dressed for the fans. This is the real you on a day off. A day to yourself.’

She knew what he meant. The nightmare of her body after Chloe had been born was over. Everything was back in place, the muscles toned and only a few grams of fat in her entire system. She didn’t need to rely on designer clothes to get her through the day. Katy Madika was fairly well designed herself. At fifty kilos she was the same weight now as when she had been a student at the University of Edinburgh.

Katy scanned the old buildings on Prince’s Dock Street and came to rest on the profile of a man sitting at a table outside the Euro café. Thin guy with thin hair, early twenties, prominent nose with a hook to it. Light blue linen suit and deck shoes with no socks. Zoom in. There he was in full colour in the viewfinder, his head swivelling round to the left as if he’d felt the lens brushing against the surface of his skin. Sallow complexion, as though his head and neck had been dipped in a stagnant pond.

Katy held it there. She wanted the guy’s hand in the picture. People were attracted to faces but hands said more. Katy had a shoe-box full of photographs of the hands and feet and faces of the lepers that Daniel and she had cared for at the colony in Orissa. A catalogue of hands reduced to broken stumps, half-eaten noses and feet with missing and distorted toes.

She flicked the camera into continuous shoot mode and waited for the guy with the hooked nose to lift the cup to his lip. In a couple of seconds the camera had taken a dozen shots. One of them caught him narrowing his eyes, sipping coffee from the lip of the cup and at the same time scratching his nose with the index finger of the same hand.
Orissa, in the Bay of Bengal held a special place in Katy’s affections. It was where her eyes were opened to the reality of the wider world. The place where her innocence was trashed and the horror and majesty of the human condition were revealed. In Orissa Katy came of age. In the tiny leper colony on the coast she met and fell in love with Doctor Daniel Madika and began to recognize that special thread that set her apart from ordinary people.

The hook-nosed man left his table and wandered away along the street. He lifted his arm in an expression of gratitude to the harassed waitress, smiling to himself when she failed to notice. Katy followed him unconsciously, perhaps he would pose for her again or some other subject would present itself down by the marina.

There were few people around once they left the bustle of Prince’s Quay and the Euro cafe and as they approached the river a silence fell like light rain.

The man crossed Castle Street and passed the empty night-clubs along the side of Humber Dock, stopping before Minerva Terrace to talk to another man by an ancient cannon that poked its nose over the mouth of the dock. Katy veered off to the right and looked through her viewfinder from the bridge over the lock gates. She scanned the water, looking for a tramp or some other vessel that might make a photograph. In her mind’s eye she saw the wake of a boat like a fold in the river. But there was nothing close enough to be interesting and she swung the camera back to the couple of men, the only figures around, and clicked five times in succession.

A shadow fell on the scene and Katy looked up over the camera at the back of one of the men in a white gabardine raincoat. The man was wearing a Panama and leaning on the cannon, obscuring the face of the hook-nosed guy. Katy heard two dull explosions, one following the other. They sounded controlled, as though they had taken place under water. But at the same time they were more immediate than that, closer.

The man with the Panama walked away from the cannon, leaving the young hook-nosed guy slumped over it. Katy zoomed in and stared through the lens. Thick strings of blood uncurled from the man’s head into the pale brown morning and dripped in clinging globules to the pavement.

Katy Madika felt her knees go. The sky seemed to shift down, the bridge beneath her feet lost its secure mooring on the old dock. Consciousness and space and time and imagination coalesced together into an unstable alliance. Katy, out of horror and shock, pinned down the world around her, filtering out sound in an effort to simplify and grasp the situation. She watched her feet move on the boards of the bridge but they made no noise. It was like watching an old black and white movie, complete with the distant hiss of the projector.

She grabbed the bridge parapet with both hands and looked over to her left, in the direction the man with the Panama had walked. He was still there, standing with his legs apart on the corner of Wellington Street, his hands deep in the pockets of his raincoat. He was looking back, but not at the body of the man haemorrhaging lifeblood onto the cobbles around the mouth of the dock. He was looking at Katy, his eyes, like those of a lizard, flicking swiftly between her face and her camera.

The man in the Panama took a step towards Katy and a rush of adrenalin brought life and strength back into her legs. She turned and fled back the way she had come, past the marina and into the anonymous glass and plastic facade of the shoppers paradise.
She ran through the main deck, dodging happy shoppers laden with the prizes of an advanced capitalist society, past the central atrium and out by the Carr Lane exit. Over the road Queen Victoria stood on a plinth with a pigeon on her head. Katy glanced behind to confirm that she’d lost the man in the Panama, then she ducked into the Ferens Art Gallery.

Quiet in there after Prince’s Quay, not a hint of muzak; and space everywhere, cool air, lofty ceilings, marble and oil paint, the breath of times gone by. A couple of guides chatting in whispers by the desk, reassuringly attired in uniform. An armless torso in the corner, a porcelain head on a display stand, and not a trace of blood.

In the washroom she leaned against the tiles and closed her eyes. Her heart was pumping hard, priming her organs, keeping the whole system on alert. Katy concentrated on her breathing, remembering the anti-natal lessons, regular breaths in and out. Don’t panic. Chloe had been born so quickly that she had never got around to thinking about the breathing. The baby had knocked once and slipped easily into the world with never a doubt that it held a place for her.

Katy fought to obliterate the picture of the snakes of blood gushing from the man’s head, the still and intimidating image of the assassin standing with his hands in his pockets on the corner of the street.

He was a big man, rendered shapeless by the raincoat. But as he took that step towards her Katy had watched the coat flap open and in the horror of the moment her photographer’s eye had taken in the symmetry of his body. Long legs and arms attached to a steady V-shaped frame. Above strong shoulders his head was squared, his hair dark, almost black. There was a wispy moustache and the impression of blue eyes, though he was too far away for Katy to see the colour.

She drank handfuls of water from the tap. She filled the washbasin and immersed her hands in it, ensuring that her wrists were submerged, bringing the cold liquid up to her face and neck. She patted herself dry with paper towels and inspected the image in the mirror.

She was making him up already, the assassin, reconstructing him. She had witnessed the killing only a few minutes before and already she’d given the man blue eyes without it being possible for her to see what colour they were. What else had she added? The moustache? Could she be sure about that? And if her imagination was capable of adding these details where did the invention begin and end?

Was there a man in a raincoat? Was that blood issuing from the hook-nosed man’s head? From the perspective of the ladies room in the Ferens Art Gallery all that she had witnessed seemed remote, like a dream or a nightmare. But the idea that it might not have happened unsettled Katy in a more real and immediate way than when she had witnessed it unfolding in front of her. If she had not been at the scene of a brutal and horrifying murder, if she had imagined it, then she was capable of swamping and replacing external reality by a brain malfunction, a kind of synapsal upheaval. And that loss, of the certainty of her perception, was infinitely worse than to have witnessed a murder.

But she was hysterical. The horror of the event had rocked her sense of self. She would need help to interpret it. In the meantime she could return, now. She could walk back the way she had come, through Prince’s Quay with all the shoppers, go out again onto the bridge, past the marina. Only minutes had passed. The body would still be there, dripping blood onto the pavement. Or if it wasn’t there, there would be an ambulance, paramedics, police. There would be commotion enough to recognize that she hadn’t invented it. That what she had witnessed was horrifying and unthinkable, and yet nevertheless real.

Instead she went to the gallery’s café and ordered a large cappuccino. Apart from the youth who was serving at the counter the place was deserted. She took the drink and sat at a corner table. She pinched the end off the paper vial of sugar and sprinkled it onto the foam of the coffee. She brought the cup to her lips and remembered the hook-nosed man doing exactly the same thing and despite herself she narrowed her eyes and scratched her nose with the index finger of the same hand.

There was something about the episode that was like a movie set. The hook-nosed man was a bit-player, someone who was not going to feature in the unfolding narrative. He didn’t have a speaking part. The big man in the raincoat could have been a De Niro character, one of the gangsters he played, wholly evil. And Katy was Gwyneth Paltro or Julia Ormond, an innocent bystander sucked into the plot by chance. Someone who had no training or experience of the dangers of the criminal underworld but who would survive by her pluck and invention.

Katy wasn’t sure if she was beautiful enough to hold down the part, if she had the confidence to maintain the suspense at every twist and turn of the plot. There was something deeply unpleasant about the way film-makers always used a beautiful woman in her part. Katy had argued regularly with friends that they should use someone less striking, someone more ordinary. But people didn’t want ordinary, they wanted excitement.

Not this much, though.

Anyway she was stuck with the part now, like it or not. She was the heroine. And she wasn’t ordinary. She was not always sure that she would describe herself as beautiful, but she was not ordinary. She was special and when she walked along the street men looked at her. They always had. And women too.

Katy knew what she should do next. She should go to the central police station on Queen’s Gardens. Either that or she should return to the scene of the crime and talk to the police who would surely be there by now.

Another sip from the cappuccino, and it was while there was still contact between the cup and her lip that the man in the raincoat came into the café. He walked in slowly, casually, something exotic about him, as if he was a tourist from Chile or Argentina. If Katy hadn’t witnessed his destruction of the hook-nosed young man she would never have guessed at the violence that ran in his blood.