With growing unease, Elaine put the telephone receiver
back in its cradle. Opening the front door, she stepped
outside into the porch, absorbing the wail of sirens that
passes for birdsong in a London suburb. It had only been a
small white lie: something to put her husband's mind at rest.
"Oh, you know. Buried in her homework."
Their daughter had been doing her homework – would
have finished it by now – but for the small matter of
the postage stamps. And stamps were one of the few things
Elaine hated to run out of.
"Why don't you eat?" Graham had suggested. "I'm going to
be stuck in this meeting for another hour."
She tried to put a smile in her voice. "Well, if you
don't mind. Perhaps we will."
Judy should have been gone for ten minutes at the most
instead of – what? A glance at her watch suggested
– surely it couldn't be ten to six? She knew what time
dinner would be on the table. What could be keeping the
girl? The violet dusk had deepened to coal; the streetlights
were encased in orange halos. Arms folded, Elaine walked to
the end of the garden path, scanning the stretch of
Strathdale Road. Judy wasn't allowed to use the alley after
dark, not alone. Long and narrow, it was enclosed by high
windowless walls on one side and playing fields on the
other, the middle stretch unlit. Elaine's feet made the
decision for her. They walked back into the house, infused
with thyme from the Shepherd's Pie, stepped into her shoes.
It only remained for her to grab her keys. She would meet
her daughter coming in the opposite direction. Hurry her along.
Approaching the end of her road, Elaine tensed at the
sound of raised voices in the near distance, the odd order
shouted loud above the general background roar. "Come on!
Over here!" Must be the school football team practising in
the playing fields, she thought. Keen, at this time of the
evening. The sound of crowds, even spectators like these,
always made her slightly edgy.
Leaving the streetlight behind Elaine entered the alley,
picking up her pace, imagining that when her feet slid it
was leaf mulch rather than dog shit she was treading in. The
shouts escalated: if this was football, it was no friendly
match. Tension mutated to anxiety. Last summer the Brixton
Riots had spilled onto nearby streets after the police had
approached the Stop and Search campaign with hunger for
over–time. And they'd got it: 5,000 rioters, buildings
torched, looting, petrol bombs. Prior to that she had always
considered that the perimeter of her home territory was
encircled by a shimmering Ready Brek force–field.
Perhaps it had been irresponsible to send a
thirteen–year–old on an errand just as it was
growing dark. But she and Graham had agreed: a gradual
loosening of the reins; a little more responsibility; and
then the rewards.
Through filtered streetlight, Elaine saw that her exit
was blocked by haphazardly abandoned vehicles, more of a
hindrance than the flimsy strip of plastic that hung limply
across the alley.
"Excuse me!" she called out to a man who entered her
narrow view, and whose fluorescent jacket hinted at
Quick to confirm her assessment, his hand jerked into a
stop sign. "Do you live here?"
"No, but..." Elaine strained to look past him, between
the vehicles, their headlights employed as searchlights.
Columns of grey swirls were highlighted, just as sunbeams
highlight golden dust motes.
"Then you can't come through, Madam. The wall's come down."