Walk a Crooked Road
A Chinese watcher
I wake up this morning yawning. I didn’t sleep well at all last night to which you will no doubt say that it is hardly surprising and that my conscience must be troubling me, but you would be wrong. It is not. I do not think about Graeme or his girlfriend. They deserved what was coming to them and they are history. But I am curious, I suppose, about what happened during the police investigation. I assume there was one. There would certainly have been a post-mortem, of course, and I would be interested in what the report on my ‘death’ had to say. I must go online and find out. It is almost certain to have been in the papers.
No, that was not the reason for my insomnia. Curiously, I found my mind churning images of Chinese students staring at me with unblinking eyes, all mixed up with ‘Mr Hostility.’ Why does that guy bug me so much? What is going on with the students? Why were they all staring at me? Is it all in my imagination?
While I think about it, you must be wondering about the hat pin concealed down my trousers. I must admit I don’t always include it on my anatomy, but then I don’t always wear trousers. It really stems from a previous life in Ireland before I joined academia when I mixed with people of a violent nature. More about that later. Anyhow, I quickly learned how to protect myself and, I can assure you that I earned a reputation of someone not to be messed with. The hat pin was ideal. It was easy to conceal and quite deadly when used carefully in the right places. And I can guarantee you that I know exactly where those places are.
And now, although I live a completely different and theoretically safer life, I have taken to including it again because there are so many attacks on women on the streets of the UK these days. Have you noticed how many murders of women there are? It is truly shocking. We are not safe on the streets.
Anyway, I am having a day off and have only recently discovered that Liverpool has a Tate on the waterfront in an old sugar warehouse. I was always quite good at art at school and my art teacher in Cork, which is where I grew up, at one time thought I might take it up seriously. But the beauty of mathematics has always been my first love, and at best, art would only ever have been a hobby.
There are two exhibitions on now that are a must. The first is a Lucian Freud show, a slightly controversial British painter known for his portraits. I like controversial. It’s my middle name. I remember reading how he was a deeply private man who painted the people closest to him. What I always liked about his stuff was his ability to capture the mood and inner essence of his sitters.
The second, by complete contrast, is a gallery devoted to Emily Speed, a Scot, who explores how a person is shaped by the buildings they have occupied and how they occupy their own psychological spaces. It all stacks up to a really cool day in which I can forget all about university but not, perhaps, the Chinese. Let me explain why.
I was leaving my apartment building at The Print Works on Henry Street in the Ropewalks this morning, ready to walk down to the waterfront. I stood at the doorway yawning hugely and blearily when I noticed a figure draped casually around a lamppost almost opposite. At first, I paid it no attention. The city centre is full of dropouts and rough sleepers, so it was no surprise to see people hanging about.
I had decided to go for a coffee. I needed a good slug of caffeine before I did anything else and so I set off and then stopped and stared at the figure more closely. He was obviously not a rough sleeper or a drop out and, and more ominously perhaps, he was Chinese. Why would a Chinese person be perched on a lamppost studying my apartment building? I decided to go and ask him, so I dodged a couple of cars to cross over the road but when I reached the other side he had vanished.
Was he really watching me? If so, why? Is it because I’m Irish? I know the Troubles cast a long shadow, especially here in Liverpool where there is a tradition of Irish emigres. Or am I just becoming neurotic and imagining things. Maybe it is my subconscious acting up and I don’t realise it. The students are probably just curious and nothing more and Mr Darke is no doubt just an embittered middle-aged lecturer who is going nowhere. I have met the type many times before.
I sit at a table in my local coffee shop and sigh as I spread marmalade on a teacake and sip a large latte as I stare sightlessly out of the window idly people watching. My reverie is gradually broken as I am aware of someone standing at my table talking to me. It is a man, probably in his early twenties. I stare at him blankly hoping he is just on the scrounge and will go away when he gets no response. He stands there and stares at me. I realise he has stopped speaking.
I realise he is not on the scrounge and sit up and apologise, saying I was miles away. He treats me to a lobsided grin and announces he is Joe Halsall and a post graduate student at Liverpool uni. He is saying he enjoyed my lecture on an introduction into Forensic Psychology and intends to do a Masters in the next semester.
I look him over and smile. He is what my mum would have called scruffy, with a half-beard, uncared for and straggly, wild, uncombed black hair and an old pair of worn jeans that could not be confused with the designer variety worn by the smart set that have ready-made holes. Joe’s is undoubtedly the real deal. His most striking feature is startling blue eyes that are studying me curiously.
I invite him to sit and ask him what his original subject was, and he replies that it was biochemistry and that he worked in the industry for a while but hated it and returned and did a degree in psychology which he enjoyed. I said that biochemistry could be useful in forensic psychology.
‘I had to get out of the corporate rat race,’ he explains. ‘They don’t like you if you don’t fit into their idea of what you should think, wear, or behave.’ He shrugs. ‘I got pissed off wearing a suit and a tie and all that bollocks.’
‘So I see,’ I say, smiling, noting that he evidently reverted to a student ‘uniform’ as soon as he possibly could.
‘Who the fuck wants to sacrifice their lives climbing a ladder to nowhere. To be successful, you must be a really good rat in some corporate race or other for maybe thirty years of your life, dreading Mondays, keeping up with the Jones’s and all that crap.’
I burst out laughing. ‘Maybe that’s why I’m a lecturer,’ I say. ‘But this can be a rat race too, just a different kind of rat race. Maybe everything is in the end. Targets are everywhere, even in universities. Perhaps the only way of escaping it is to live in a cave and become a hermit.’
It’s his turn to laugh. ‘I have a friend called Naomi who has the right idea. She’s an artist…among other things,’ he adds almost as an afterthought. She is on her way here. You’ll like her. She’s really cool.’
I am intrigued by the ‘among other things’ which opens up a vista of possibilities. I look at the street beyond the window to see if there are any Chinese students lurking, or anyone else for that matter. There is nobody, just cars and vans passing by. I am about to stand and announce that I am on my way to the Tate when I notice a striking, slender, woman obviously heading for the door. Could this be Joe’s friend Naomi?She is tall with casual, shoulder-length blonde hair wearing a denim jacket, bright red jacket and brown boots.
‘Could this be your friend?’ I ask Joe, who turns and waves. She heads for our table and looks at me curiously with two brown eyes that have a strange, magnetic, quality.
‘This is Naomi,’ says Joe and then, before he can continue, she asks: ‘You must be Maggie Taylor.’ I nod, a little bemused.
‘Somebody stopped me outside and asked if I would give you this.’ She digs into a pocket and hands me a folded sheet of paper.
‘Was he Chinese?’ I ask. She gives me a searching look and says: ‘Don’t think so. Could be a student. I’m not sure.’
I open it. There is just one line of text which says: ‘We know who you really are.’