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Page 8




Leaving the tv on, he cleared away the plate and cutlery into the sink and went upstairs to change his clothes. After rummaging in the wardrobe he managed to find an old pair of jeans and a black pullover which he hadn't worn for a while. He put them on. He unwrapped the balaclava he'd bought that day and unfolded it. Standing in front of the mirror of Anne's dressing table, he slipped it over his head, sliding it round so that the holes were over his eyes and his mouth. His scalp itched under the cloth. He stood there and stared at himself in the mirror and wondered if he could recognise himself. He thought that he could.

He sat down on the bed. After a few minutes he went and got a stepladder and climbed up into the attic. He came down with a small cardboard box sealed with duct tape. He opened it and took out an old crash helmet, black and speckled with dust. He had last worn it a little over eight years ago. Anne wouldn't remember it.

He went downstairs, taking the crash helmet with him. Catching sight of himself in a mirror, he realised he was still wearing the balaclava, so he took it off. In the kitchen, he took the cap off the bottle of washing-up liquid and emptied it down the sink. He ran the hot water tap for a long time after it, to clear the last of the suds away. Opening the cupboard, he picked up the bottle of car battery acid and carefully placed it on the kitchen floor. He thought for a second, then put on the pair of rubber marigold gloves that were lying beside the sink. Crouching down, he unscrewed the cap of the bottle of battery acid and carefully poured it into the empty squeezy bottle. When the bottle of acid was empty, the squeezy bottle was still only half-full. He looked in the open cupboard and found at the back an old bottle of paint-remover. He added that to the squeezy bottle and screwed its cap back on.

"There," he said. "Ready."



He parked the car round the corner from the off-licence and sat at the wheel for a long while, watching the passers-by as they walked along the street in the cold evening air, their faces glowing with the light from the shop windows. There was a fragile stillness inside him that he didn't want to break.

He reached over and clicked open the glove compartment, taking out the balaclava and a pair of leather driving gloves. He put the gloves on and slipped the balaclava over his head. Reaching back, he scooped up the crash helmet from the back seat and put it on over the balaclava. It felt snug. He kept the visor open.

He got out of the car and, before shutting the door, leaned in and picked up the squeezy bottle from the passenger seat. He held it under his jacket like a kitten as he walked towards the off-licence. When the shop came into sight, he found a spot midway between two streetlights and sat down on a low garden wall. He leaned his back against a tall, springy hedge. In the dark, its leaves looked black.

The front of the off-licence was a single sheet of glass, and from outside he could see every square centimetre of the interior. Anne was standing behind the counter at the far end of the shop, facing the front window. She looked bored, but he saw that she never took her eyes away from a group of three customers who were browsing among the stacks of beer cans.

Two of the customers bought something and left. The other one continued browsing. David looked at his watch: nine-forty-three. He couldn't get out of his head the expression on Anne's face as she had served the customers. She had smiled and chatted with them as though they were old friends, and although he couldn't hear what was said he knew she was happy. She should smile like that at me, he thought. She should chat like that with me. He felt the weight of the squeezy bottle against his ribs.

He waited there on the brick wall in the dark until the off-licence was empty. He looked left and right: the


 
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