2. The raven tattoo

CrowsNest.jpg
 
 

ON THE DAY Anna released the bird, the bag lady detective was tucked away in her dark corner of the park on a bench beneath the trees, surrounded by plastic bags containing nothing of real value (bags she could walk away from if that’s the way things turned out). 

Anybody who did see her with her plastic bags under the trees would have been surprised to know that she lived in a  tidy, bright, little bungalow with a calico cat, and that at home Sally Anne Grimes (for that was her name) was always neatly turned out with her white hair captured in a bun and a faint smell of violets floating around her like a haze. She quite liked floral frocks too. Her favourite was white with red camellias on it.

In the five days she had been in the park she had seen Anna and Sasha, together and individually, on their way to and from work. She had warmed to Anna, a small, slim young woman with long dark hair and an easy smile.

She had watched Dr Stapleton too, and the misshapen woman she had decided to call Mrs Hodges. She liked to give people names, it helped pass the time and it lent a kind of soap opera quality to her stakeouts, with known characters entering and exiting the set.

Just at this moment, though, she was worried about the bird. She didn’t know why Anna had released it – although she understood that it had made Anna happy to do so – but she knew that it wouldn’t survive in the park. It was clearly a pet, a non-native species.

Sitting there among her plastic bags for hours on end, the bag-lady detective had seen several cats on the prowl, a fox and once or twice a hawk flying overhead. There were dogs too, running off the leash.

Poor little thing, she said to herself, it won’t last the week. 

And she decided to rescue it.

***

Sasha slept late and when he did get up, he saw the empty cage and wondered if Anna had taken the bird to a vet. Or perhaps the real owner had turned up while he was asleep. After a while, he stopped thinking about it: he hadn’t wanted the bird in his life, and now it was gone.

The day passed and it was evening before Sasha noticed Anna's absence. Where was she? Even if she had gone for a drink with friends, as she occasionally did, she should have been home by now. And anyway she usually rang to tell him what she was up to.

He called her mobile. It rang from the spare room. She had left it at home. He began to get really worried then. Freelancers never leave their phones at home.

He tried ringing her friends. Most of them hadn’t seen or heard from her in days. Nobody had seen her in the last 24 hours.

He had once come across a small piece of paper in her office containing her passwords for some of the popular social networking sites. He didn’t know why, but he had made a copy. It was a sly and shameful thing to have done, and he had felt guilty about it but he had kept the copy all the same. Now he checked Anna’s social media accounts. Nothing. There was nothing in her email inbox that looked like a clue either, just some holiday offers and a friendly mail from a client wondering what progress she was making on a corporate identity commission.

Should he call the police? No, it was too early for that - it hadn’t even been a full day yet. They’d just tell him to wait. They’d say he was overreacting. Should he go out and look for her himself? Where would he start?

There was a loud knock at the door. Without thinking, Sasha rushed across the room and opened it. A short, wide man pushed his way past him, scanning the room with narrowed eyes. He looked at the cage.

“Where’s the bird,” the man said.

Suddenly, Sasha was close to tears. 

“It’s gone,” he said. “Anna took it. She’s gone too.”

The wide man sat down on the sofa.

Sasha sat down on the edge of a chair. He looked at the man. 

“I’m James,” the man said. “James … Smith. Let’s say Smith. I was sent to get the bird.” 

“It’s not here,” Sasha said.

“I can see that.”

The man sighed. He wasn’t tall,  but he was very wide across the shoulders. Sitting on the edge of the sofa, he looked like something that had been left behind after a glacier had melted. He was wearing a grey linen suit and a white shirt. The suit would have been made for him, the shirt too probably. He wasn’t an off-the-shelf size. Sasha noticed the wrinkles in the man's trousers and wondered if he had hung them on a wire coat hanger.

The man who wasn't called Smith began to talk. He told Sasha that he had been a close personal protection officer to diplomats and oligarchs and once, briefly, to a royal family. He’d set up his own bodyguard business and for a while it had done well. “But the world is a safer place these days,” he said, “people don’t travel as much as they used to and bodyguards have become fashion accessories.”

“Do you know,” he said turning to Sasha, “Skype is killing my business.”

Sasha was mesmerised. He’d read a Victorian story once about a native American Indian who was calm and serene, at peace with himself and the world, until the moment he wasn’t, and in that moment he could commit terrifying acts of violence. For some reason, this man brought that story to mind.

After what seemed a very long time, Smith got up from the sofa. Sasha flinched.

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “I’m not going to hurt you. There’s no point. I was sent for the bird and it has gone. That’s all there is.”

He walked across the room to the door. Just before he got there he stopped and turned.

“I’m sorry your girl has left you,” he said. “I hope she comes back soon.”

Tears fell from Sasha’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks.

“She said it was going to be a big day,” Sasha said. “I never thought to ask her why.”

The man nodded and left, shutting the door behind him with a quiet click.

***

“In Tokyo,” the silver-haired tattooist was saying, “crows use wire coat hangers to make their nests.”

Anna did not reply.

“I’ve seen a picture on the Internet,” the tattooist said. “It’s not all coat hangers, of course, there are twigs and moss in there too. But because there aren’t many trees in Tokyo, the birds make use of what there is – and there’s a lot of dry cleaning in a city. Wire coat hangers are a by product of dry cleaning.”

The tattooist, a gaunt man in his 50s, was flicking through a book of tattoos, holding it up so that Anna could see. There were skulls and crosses, diamonds and rings, paisley patterns and feathers, spiders and tigers, dragons and griffins, slogans, cartoon characters and devils. 

None of it meant much to Anna. It all seemed rather tacky. And then she caught sight of a bird: an image of a bird in flight, its wings outstretched. She had been looking for a bird, she realised.

“That one,” she said. “That one, there." She reached forward and touched the image.

Anna took off the blue duffle coat and she took off her sweater and pulled her tee shirt down, and her bra strap, to reveal her right shoulder.

She had been a little light headed when she left the park and had walked for a long time until a bus had pulled up at a bus stop just as she was passing. In one easy, unthinking move she had stepped inside, swiped her travel card, and sat down. She had no idea where the bus was going.

Time had moved at a strange, slow pace then. Anna looked out of the window at the commuters on their way to work, at shop fronts, parks and gardens, but there was little meaning for her in anything she saw.

She lost track of time altogether and when the driver announced that the bus had arrived at the terminus and asked the passengers to disembark, Anna had simply stepped outside.

It was warm and the air was full of salt and the smell of frying food and the sound of seabirds. The sea breeze blew her hair into her face. She brushed it away.

She was on a promenade. To the right there was a rocky beach and a stretch of grey water that might have been an estuary, although she could not see the other side. To the left there was a row of shops selling the kind of kitsch mementos only available in seaside towns, a coffee bar, a fast food outlet and an amusement arcade.

Anna smiled. She hadn’t intended to come to the seaside, but she was happy enough to be there. She loved the garish signs in the arcades, the comic-book typography, the clashes of colour, the flashing lights. It was amateur, chaotic and noisy: a world and a half away from the elegant, balanced graphics she produced for her clients. It was, she realised, a proper day off.

At no point since she left the park had she thought about Sasha, and nor would she. Not until much later anyway.

***

In her dark corner of the park, the bag lady detective had been thinking quietly.

Eventually, she rose and walked over to the wastepaper basket. She dipped into it – like any bag lady would – and retrieved the hat box. 

Back in her corner, she rustled her way through all of the plastic bags until she came across what she was looking for – a ball of dark green wool. 

Carefully, and with small deliberate movements, she set the trap. It was pretty basic, but she wanted to do something and setting even a slightly silly trap was better than doing nothing. She smiled a faint smile.

First she placed little pieces of her packed lunch in a cup-sized circle on the grass about five metres from where she had been sitting. She put the hat box over the pieces of bread and fruit and then propped it up using a forked twig she had found. She had tied the green wool to the bottom of the twig and now she let out a long strand that took her all the way back to her observation post.

It almost certainly wouldn’t work, she thought. It was like the kind of trap a seven year old would make; the kind of trap you might see in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. But what else could she do?

She settled down to watch the path through the park and she kept an eye on the hat box at the same time. Nothing happened.

People strolled through the park – mothers with babies in pushchairs, business men and women rushing to meetings, the occasional jogger – and she watched them with interest. Sparrows hopped towards the hat box and she shooed them away. A squirrel ran close by and she threw a ball of paper at it. It stopped and stood on its hind quarters looking into the shrubbery before scampering off.

The bag lady detective ate her lunch, and the afternoon slipped by like a river.

It was almost twilight when it happened. The mynah bird flopped down with a flutter of wings and began a strange zig-zagging walk across the grass, poking its beak into the ground, turning over leaves.

The bag lady detective held her breath as it moved erratically towards the trap. She had placed the hat box so that the food was well inside at the furthest point from the twig with the green wool tied to it. The bird would have to go completely inside the trap before she could spring it.

The bird carried on marching, moving in short sharp bursts in no direction in particular. And then it was looking into the box at the food. 

Steady now.

The bag lady detective yanked the wool and the bird was lost to sight as the hat box fell.

Well, said Sally Ann Grimes to herself, it wasn’t such a silly trap after all.

***

Anna’s shoulder was sore. She wasn’t entirely sure how she had found herself in the tattooist’s parlour. She was even less sure why she now had a tattoo, but there it was – she had seen it in a mirror, a bird (a raven?) in flight across the inflamed pink sky of her skin.

After she got off the bus, Anna had realised she was really hungry. She hadn’t given a thought to breakfast and now it was lunchtime. So, she stepped into a one-room seafront café where a large woman with blonde hair and too much make up called her ‘sweetie’ and ‘love’. The woman took up a lot of space in the café and the seats were crammed together around little tables on which stood glass bottles of sugar with silver pouring spouts and metal canisters containing tiny tissues.

It was like playing truant. Away from the apartment, away from work, all alone, Anna felt naughty, and she indulged herself with a sticky sweet chocolate dessert and tea. 

For the first time in a long time, Anna was entirely in the moment. There was nothing in the past to trouble her, and nothing in the foreseeable future she couldn’t handle. So, she just sat in a café at a table with a red gingham tablecloth eating a chocolate dessert, savouring the sweetness and staring at the sea.

The tattooist’s parlour was more or less next door. After lunch, she had stopped to look in the window without even realising what the shop had on offer, and the silver-haired tattooist had waved her in with a smile. Or, at least, that’s what she thought had happened.

Now, she was strolling along the promenade – the locals called it The Strand – heading for, of all things, a fun fair, with a raven tattooed on her shoulder. She hadn’t been to a fun fair since she was a child.

The memories rose like mist. Pink candy floss that left a sugary residue around the mouth; a coconut shy with a huge teddy bear as first prize; a pond full of yellow plastic ducks with numbers on their backs and hooks on their heads; darts that wouldn’t stick into dartboards; air rifles that sent pellets clattering either side of the target; Wurlitzer music and the smell of onions.

She stopped then and found herself outside a Ghost Train, lit up in glaring oranges and yellows with a giant skull and scrolls bearing garish hand-painted legends: “The Fun Machine”, “Fun of the Fair”, “Dracula” and – this one made Anna smile broadly – “Now Worse Than Ever”.

On impulse, she bought a ticket and stepped through the gate.