4. Betty

Night-time in London - or rather the electric dusk that passes for night in city, where the sky develops a perpetual orange glow that conceals all but the brightest stars, and a thin haze softens everything into indistinctness.

Patches of light from the street lamps intensify the areas of shadow under the long land bridge supporting the railway line, and cast doorways and corners into obscurity. Beneath the overhang arches curve along the pavement. The shops and offices are shuttered against the night, rendered uniform by the dark outlines of graffiti etched into them. The street is littered with the debris of daytime and has that peculiar sense of isolation of the shuttered outdoor market.

Save for the dim glimmer of reflection thrown from his lens, the Photographer is near invisible in his hiding place, black coat melting into the dark stone, dark eyes dim hollows in his pale face, camouflaged in stillness, checking for cameras.

His quarry, an old drunk entering the final stages of dipsomania, is about halfway down the street bedded down for the night in the entrance to the station. Like the market and the shops it's closed now, quiet and deserted, and she is only just visible through the metal cage that forms the stairwell. A near shapeless bundle in the darkness, even the filth and the stink of piss and stale cider have not been enough to dissuade her from the shelter that the stairwell affords in coldest hour before dawn. Shelter, the Photographer reflects, that will provide his activities with some cover too.

Everywhere these days there are cameras watching; cameras, hidden by them, tricks and feints. Even the concealed ones might be dummies, double bluffs, no escape. Watching me? He marks her and bides his time; there's no need to rush. Does anybody really see such people? Maybe not, but the camera catches everything.

The Photographer pictures a grand controller, seated in front of a giant switchboard, wired into a chamber studded with monitors in obscene symbiosis: a monstrous eye. Images flash on the screens, zoom shots, wide pans - from the grainy black and white of CCTV to the lurid polychrome of cheap porn.

Suddenly everything vanishes, every screen switches to a single shot, a magnified view of the very street, the very doorway where he is hiding, camera lens glinting in the streetlight, sight and senses straining. But what would they see? Nothing. For how can they see what they're not looking for? Blind. Blind leading the blind. Eyes closed to the patterns in the noise, fragments of the lost language. He's been watching this one for some time now, saving her up like a banquet, waiting for the moment of significance, the confluence of signs.

Even in the dark he can form a perfect mental picture of every contour of her person - from the filthy and crusted layers of petticoats, and blouses, and skirts, and coats, and cardigans, to the bloated feet wrapped in layers of plastic; conjunctival eyes squinting from the lined and bloodshot face. He is impervious to the decay, for this face still holds a promise of beauty for him, hints given in the high cheekbones, weathered cheeks, sockets spaced wide and eyes of an extraordinary colour.

He's observed her in all weathers: panhandling for change or drinking Tennant's Super on a bench by the library with the other regulars; shouting and spitting at the pigeons, at the government, at the rain, and at the great confusing conspiracy of it all; sleeping it off on the pavement, as oblivious to the passers-by as they are to her.

How many times has he asked himself: does anybody see such people? Really see them or just register their presence as they pass in the morning as an annoyance or obstacle or object of sudden pity, quickly forgotten? How many hundreds of pairs of eyes glance at this woman on a daily basis without ever seeing her at all? And if challenged to describe even one small aspect of her appearance, what would they recall? Naturally this last is an important consideration.

It's different for him, for them; he's intimate with her, close as no other. Who else could describe, as the Photographer can describe, the colour of her eyes, the moles on her face, the deep lines carved down to the mouth? Who knows the precise number of her teeth, and which are crowns? Who traces the lines on her hands, the varicose veins marbling the back of her calves, the tone and tenor of her voice, when she wakes, when she sleeps, where she goes?

Who had last touched her emaciated body - as he would - filled with a kind of awe before the microcosm of humanity; the machinery of natural language latent in her cells, like some complex DNA strand waiting to unfold? She will be more than the sum of her parts, society's discard, nameless and invisible. She exists for this, fragment of an equation that embodies that primary relationship between the identity of the individual, and the millions of dim reflections of the original form that people the universe, the fragments of Babel that she carries within her.

And all this contingent on the cameras, the CCTV, his present concealment and his long observation of her habits: Will anybody miss her? Will anyone register her absence, and having registered it, ask questions, instigate a trace, compile footage of her haunts to establish just when and where and how she disappeared? Will they delve into the black economy of the nameless and unrecorded to discover her true identity, that long forgotten National Insurance number, the place on the Electoral roll surely lapsed?

So much easier to suppose that she has moved on, succumbed quietly to the maw of the streets, been rescued to rot her days away in institutionalised peace.

All potential truths, all possibilities, all made concrete to confuse the pursuer - a paper trail laid for those who might be looking.

Black and white. Clear-cut. No, there is nothing preventing this: she is nothing. Camera never lies. People do. I must remember as life is art, she is symbolism. Nearly time now: woo her with the camera; always works, black and white: Camera never lies. Fool the eye. Time. Now.

When he was younger he relished these opportunities. Anticipation and the quick strike, snap, run. But this is only the first step in the process. Each element is deliberate, each a part of the ritual. Above all there must be no haste in his actions.

As with each of his victims there's an element of the lover's nervousness in this first contact. Despite all his observation, even having seen inside them with the eye of his lens, clear as the cross-section of a cell on a microscope, even then first contact is a shock, recognising in each of them a fragment of the true language. Whilst others dismiss their drunken ravings, he rejoices in their deafness to the language of Babel, the speakers of tongues - Have they no ears to hear? Here, in this dark and filthy street, shuttered for the night and watched by the blind lens of a score of CCTV cameras, here, would he hear the voice of God? Her cries could be the only remedy for the lost symmetry of his soul.

Not all of his subjects have been women: although there have certainly been a few. Outwardly they differ from each other, but linked by a common theme; the shibboleth latent in their musculature, in the juxtaposition of cheekbone and eye socket, the grammar of the sacred language encoded in each like a cipher. Each of these individuals could be prepared and reduced to their essence, the barest equation. Each would become an elegant notation in the vast and complex calculation, the answer to which is the original word, the knowledge the first humans stole from the Garden of Eden, which was lost in the destruction of the Tower of Babel.

It was time now, painfully, to reconstruct that language to unpick the myths and conspiracy theories of society's remnants, living on the borders of its conscience, and rework them into his own private mythology.

Time. Strike. Thrill of fear or is it anticipation? He feels himself becoming hard, the street silent enough to hear her gently snoring in the stairwell, his measured tread as he approaches.

The wedding dress is the most important aspect of a wedding. After all, the wedding dress is what makes the bride look outstanding on her 'big day'! However, the wedding dress must be carefully designed or picked. It must not only accentuate the bride's beauty, but must also suit her style and personality.

Softly he speaks her name, all reassurance - Betty come now dear, come with me, calming her with his mild voice and gentle hands, talking to her all the time as he gathers her up from her den. Somehow it's easier than expected to convince her that he poses no threat. She comes quietly, holding his hand in hers, grasping his fingers like a child, despite the illusion of bulk created by her many layers. She is so light and frail that a strong gust of wind could blow her away.

Her hand: cracked and slightly crusted - is it exposure, or some skin complaint worsened by dirt and lack of washing? The contact is uncomfortable, but necessary to reassure her; the last thing he needs is a scene in front of the cameras. He glances at her profile in the darkness, walking head-down, one foot in front of the other, and the next gets you where you're going; how many years of the same round? Deliverer.

The rented car is around the corner, but it feels like miles, like they're crawling, open targets on the battlefield. Finally they reach it. He opens the passenger door. -It's all right Betty, I'm going to help you, can't have you sleeping on the cold street at night. Got a nice warm bed and a few ciders for you at home, come along now, in you get. Slow, slow talking in a gentle monotone, reassuring smile, no sudden movements; in his pocket, the solution - just in case.

Once she's in he closes the passenger door gently and walks slowly around to the other side of the car, settling his large frame into the seat. Turns the ignition and starts the car; turns to look at Betty, already dozing, head on her chest in the comfortable seat. Good. They can drive for a while. After half an hour or so, sure that she is deep in slumber, he slowly brings the car to a halt in a residential street beneath a large tree. What infinite patience it requires to wait for a couple more minutes. The street is quiet and dark, and she has not stirred at all. Time. Now.

Chapter 5 »