A damaged, tiny, hopeless figure stood at the bus station like thousands more in this wicked, dangerous world. I could imagine all too easily the events that had led her to this wasteland of a city on a bitter winter’s night: a sudden break with her mother and the latest ‘stepfather’ after months or years of conflict and abuse; a failed love affair that any comfortable, orderly person could see was heading towards a limited menu of ruinations. Perhaps it was an attempt to escape the ‘family life’ of a mother who had been identical to her daughter at sixteen but who was now married to welfare or dependencies even less healthy and a succession of ‘men’ for whom the word manhood represented little more than brief and bloody moments with drab and available girls. This one had most likely been rendered incapable of imagining anything significantly better by the useless and immoral education system and was too dull to remember hurt or was even now seeking its endless, predictable sequels. I was going to change that for her tonight. Only blood can wash away certain kinds of pain.
She was so thin and draped in the uniform of victimhood; a micro skirt and badly bleached hair that semaphored a welcome to pimps or other exploiters. Base metal rings in the shapes of dragons, serpents or goat’s heads imprisoned hands that had been made to comfort her children when they were hurt and tearful. Battered Doctor Marten boots and torn, grubby tights completed the livery of vulnerability. Everything about her cried out: Use me up and throw me away.
Or Kill me.
She turned dull eyes toward my headlights; eyes that could be seventeen or a hundred years old for all the childhood that survived in an existence that was focus of pain for me to cure. I turned the music down a little. “Going into town?” I asked through the window of my unmarked and unremarkable panel van. “I’m heading there on business if you don’t want to pay for a taxi fare. The buses are all done at this time of the night.” It was morning, really; an hour or two before dawn.
I wondered if her mother had ever given her the advice that you, dear reader, must be willing her to remember and follow right now. I respect your compassion… but some injuries require surgery.
“Yes. Are you going near the cathedral? There’s a club there I want to see.” Alas, there had been no advice about cars and strangers.
“Sure. My work is close by the cathedral. Hop in.” This was going to be easy.
As she slid the van door open there was movement behind her and another waif; smaller still and younger-looking, emerged from behind the obscurity of the bus shelter’s advertising poster for sexy lingerie. “Can Dora come too, please? We both want to visit the club.” Perhaps someone had indeed given her the other half of The Talk – the one about not travelling alone at night. It was going to be a little less easy but I know my work and if a man can’t handle them in pairs then he might as well give up, go home and get a less emotionally intense hobby like dog-fighting or kickboxing. Nothing in the world keeps me alive quite as splendidly as The Concert.
“What’s your name, Miss?” I said to my first guest who was now settling down onto the heavy plastic sheeting that waterproofed the van’s windowless rear compartment. Dora shut the passenger door.
“Vina, sir,” she replied. “We’re sisters, you see, Theodora and Hervina: Sisters of Shadows.” She giggled at her Gothicism: a joyless noise. I turned the music down further so the powerful rear speakers that are a bachelor’s compensation for lifelong celibacy did not spoil the discussion that I always think of as the Overture.
I turned off the main road and onto a trading estate that at that hour contained little more than darkness and privacy; both of which I needed tonight, however briefly.
Had I been able to see Vina back there in the gloom I would indeed have driven them both to the homeless people’s shelter that I manage in the Cathedral close. I’d also have tried to persuade them not to seek Club Midnight’s perils but rather to accept professional help in the morning when they were safely rested, cleaned and fed. But this was the other kind of pick-up and the salvation I had to offer would be still less welcome than the unsolicited advice of a do-gooding and fussy English clergyman would have been to a pair of teenage runaways. “You don’t look like sisters,” I said. “But your names are similar. I like them: they’re pretty but very old-fashioned.”
Vina growled behind me. “Not when we were young they weren’t, sir. Not when the Old Queen still ruled.” I heard saliva flooding as Vina’s mouth reshaped itself: invisible in the rear view mirror. My van’s dashboard has two extra controls: one to lower protective covers over the speakers and the other to pump an aerosol mist of Holy Water throughout the interior. The stereo still worked splendidly even so and I turned it up as loudly as possible so The Hallelujah Chorus would drown out the screams.