Talulla Rising Page 41

A cubicle door opened and a heavy woman in a quilted overcoat stepped out between us, arms laden with items. Her face was flushed. She wasn’t the tutter. She was deep in her own schemes and anxieties. I had to stand aside to let her by. When she’d gone I half-expected the girl to have disappeared. Except the ether remained dense with her scent. So different from Jake’s. Breathing it caused a pile-up of feelings: excitement, familiarity, claustrophobia, arousal, a dash of shame. I could see the same in her face, the stunned compulsion, the forced immediate intimacy. It was as if someone had grabbed us and shoved us against each other.

‘Let’s go somewhere we can talk,’ I said. She stood motionless, face still struggling to accept. ‘It’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘I can’t believe you’ve got a baby,’ she said.

Zoë had assimilated her. The small body had relaxed. Now my daughter was just a hungry infant again. If I didn’t feed her in the next few minutes she would start crying.

‘How is this possible?’ I said. ‘I mean how did this happen?’

‘Was that you on the Great West Road?’


‘Were you in Hammersmith the other day?’


‘I knew it.’

‘Were you there?’

‘I’ve been...’ She couldn’t complete it. Too many thoughts. Too much.

‘Ever since I got here,’ I said, ‘I’ve had this feeling, in different parts of the city. I thought it was... I don’t know what I thought it was.’ Relief – joy, almost – was like a physical presence nearby, because whatever else it meant it meant I wasn’t – we weren’t, me, my daughter, my son – alone. Not alone! The dressing room, the cubicle, her hands and face and voice and her tight-packed wulf stink – all of it formed the point from which the world shifted again to let me back in. It was like a broken love affair against all the odds getting a second chance. I could have lain down on the floor and slept with relief.

‘Do you know about it?’ she said. ‘I mean do you know anything?’

Again I could feel my Heathrow questions leaping up in her: What does it mean? How did it start? Is there a cure? I remembered the sudden conviction as soon as I met Jake that since it wasn’t just me, since it wasn’t just a freak occurrence, then someone, somewhere, must have the answers. I felt sorry for her, since I could only tell her what Jake had told me: Don’t bother looking for the meaning of it all. There isn’t one. Unless of course Quinn’s Book turned out to be more than a bagatelle.

‘Let’s just go and sit down somewhere,’ I said. ‘There’s got to be a cafeteria in here, right?’ Zoë let out the first plaintive note. ‘Fuck,’ I said. ‘Listen, I’ve just got to – oh, to hell with it, I’ll do it in here.’ I went into the dressing room and sat down in the cubicle she’d just come out of. The dress she’d been trying on was still hanging there, pale green Twenties-style in silk with a tasselled hem. There was an olive green chiffon scarf to go with it. ‘I’ve got to feed her,’ I said, making the necessary adjustments to the carrier and my clothes. ‘Look away if it grosses you out.’ In a Wendy’s with Lauren once a woman had breastfed her baby in full view. Lauren had said: I think I’m going to puke my goddamned nuggets.

‘What? Oh, right, no, I don’t care. Jesus fucking Christ I can’t believe this.’

‘Language,’ the tutter said, half under her breath.

‘Fuck off, you stupid cow,’ the girl called out. She stood in the cubicle doorway, tense, both arms folded under the black coat. There was a lot of quick nervy life in her white hands and throat. I just sat there, incapable of picking a place to start. Milk came from the universe and bounded through me into Zoë – but the universe had changed. I thought: What if we don’t like each other?

‘How long have you...?’ she whispered. ‘How long have you been one?’

‘A year and a half,’ I whispered back. ‘How long have you?’

‘Nine months.’

Which brought the number of moons, the number of kills. What we were flared suddenly around us in the confined space. I got a mental flash of a teenage boy’s face with eyes wide and mouth full of blood. It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them. Incredibly, she blushed. Not so incredibly: I was blushing myself.

‘What about him?’ she said, nodding at the baby.

‘Her,’ I said.

‘What about her?’

‘She’s like us.’

‘Holy fucking shit.’

A cubicle door opened and closed. I couldn’t see who it was but I knew it was the anti-swearing woman. ‘Yeah?’ the girl said to her.

No reply.

‘Walk away,’ the girl ordered. I felt the woman obey. ‘God, it’s so weird,’ the girl said, turning back to me. ‘We knew there was someone. We’ve been saying for days.’


We .


An effect like an enormous fleeting change of light. A split-second eclipse.

‘Who’s “we”?’

‘Me and the others.’

‘What others?’

‘You know. Like us.’

‘There are others, like us, here?’

‘Aren’t there any in America?’

The milk and blood beat, steadily. My face was hot. In spite of everything I was still negotiating the effect of her scent. It was like the time in Lauren’s bathroom when Lauren had left the clothes she’d changed out of in a heap on the floor and because curiosity always won with me I’d picked out her underwear and smelled it. A cramped, profane little thrill with a fleck of disgust and delighted secrecy, but also a sprouting of species sympathy, a feeling of accommodating something you never imagined you’d have room for. At the time I’d thought: that’s what God wants us to do, find room for each other the way He finds room for Everything.

‘Are any of the other cubicles occupied?’ I asked.

She took a quick look. ‘No.’

‘Okay, one thing at a time. You’re telling me there are others, like us, here, in London, right?’


‘How many?’

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