Dan leaned closer into the picture as a couple pushed past behind him. Laughing at the framed photographs on the wall, they made their way along the gallery’s narrow landing. In their wake, voices and the waft of cheap wine welled once more up the stairs from the ground floor. Dan stayed a moment longer, focused on the nearest photo as the couple’s loud amusement at everything on offer disappeared around the corner.
The rainforest image had been miniaturised and crudely edited to show the jungle sitting on top of a barbecue. Garish flames, superimposed over the trees, reached up to the night above. Smoke and fleeing birds coiled into the sky. Beneath, a group of cartoon cows stood on their hind legs, laughing and chewing burnt vegetation from paper plates clasped improbably in their front hooves. Dan looked at the label again. ‘Eating out under the stars.’ Okay, that was it. The booze here was bad, yes, but better than the so-called art. Another drink might just take the edge off.
He headed on towards the top of the stairs, past a couple of kids; teenagers, he realised. Standing tight together, they had their arms wrapped around each other, the sides of their heads touching, attention fully on a group of photos. Insect after insect, wrapped in miniature shiny coats of mock paramedic’s rescue foil. Dan grimaced. Squeezing by, he glanced at one. ‘Recovery Position II. £500 unframed.’ Jesus. The girl moved slightly to let him pass.
‘Really filling up tonight,’ an elderly man said, coming towards him up the stairs. His long coat looked heavy on his shoulders. ‘Any breathing room up there?’
‘The crowd thins out when you get to the top,’ Dan replied. ‘I don’t suppose all the stuffed crows laid across the floor are exactly tempting people up there just yet.’ He smiled at the man’s hesitant frown, the suspicion that he was having his leg pulled.
‘Honest! They’re all laid out on toy hearses, so mind your step up there. The artist – she’s started radio-controlling them into a mausoleum in the corner.’ He shrugged, and heard the man mumble something as he moved past onto the landing.
The ground-floor crowd had swollen in the time he’d been upstairs, and Dan wondered where the hell Jonno had dug them all up in this backwater. The town’s finest arty-farties, no doubt, and he should be pleased for Jonno’s turn of fortune. From a distance, maybe he would be. He could see how a show like this might get the journos in – the local rag, at least. Though what the hell they’d make of this lot… He stepped down into the wide shopfront gallery, the full noise of the crowd doubling and distorting as it crashed back off the window fronting the dark winter street.
The makeshift bar was a cubby hole at the rear: a battered fridge, and wine crates now where Jonno usually kept the optimistic stash of flyers to mail to his ‘regulars’.
‘Carlsberg, wine or J2O?’ The young woman at the desk squinted through the spotlights glaring off a wall of glass cabinets. ‘Oh, Dan! Hi. Again.’
‘Carlsberg, thanks Sally. Cold one if you’ve got it?’
His tongue was still coated with the vinegary red wine he’d accepted earlier, and the warm sugar clinging from the white before that. He’d abandoned the last one upstairs, near what he’d taken to be a stuffed sheep sawn in half and rejoined via the thoughtful enhancement of three feet of reclaimed abattoir effluent pipe. On inspection of the label, that was exactly what it had turned out to be.
‘Show’s in full flow now,’ he said. ‘How do you think it’s going?’
She’d raved about it at the pub the week before, wide-eyed ahead of the ‘grand opening’ – her first as Jonno’s latest underpaid assistant. For her benefit, Dan had tried toning down his usual thesis on ‘conceptual wank’. Even so, he’d managed to put her on her guard. And to dent Jonno’s tolerance of his old friend’s outsider superiority – for the best part of a pint, anyway.
Sally laughed. ‘Buzzing! Did you see the crows upstairs? Brilliant! Hey – when you get hold of Jonno, tell him he needs to do some time behind the bar.’
Dan didn’t imagine that was going to happen.
‘So, how you loving all this, Mr Highbrow?’ She handed him the opened bottle. The slick reassurance of its condensation numbed his fingers. The poster behind her, a reproduction of the barbecue rainforest piece, shouted the exhibition’s theme: After Nature! Since he’d last seen it, some wag had marker-penned through it and scrawled After Closing Time. Dan raised his drink in salute.
‘Yeah – well, pretty much as expected. But this helps. Cheers.’
He turned to the cabinets as he drank, eyeing the ranks of stuffed field mice – tiny prosthetic wheels ready to bear them to some enhanced rodent afterlife – and lifted the lager to his lips again. He toasted them too.
And there was Jonno: halfway across the room, long moustache wilting under the lights and humidity, drunk and grinning as two suited bods from the local council gassed on at him. Reading their bland faces, Dan imagined the usual small-town ‘cultural boom’ blah – the trending demographic whatevers, draw-through from the transport upgrade yadayada, digital infrastructure bollocks – and wondered if Jonno was ready for rescue or was already beyond caring. He was starting to move towards the group when—
A voice he didn’t want to recognise, a low rumble like a sawmill chewing up rotten timber. He locked eyes with the occupant of the grubby black donkey jacket and baseball cap. The figure was waving him over, pointing at something.
‘Boris,’ he said, attempting not to commit himself.
A floodlight on the floor threw the man’s shadow back up against the condensation streaking the gallery’s dark window, giving him the look of a screenplay serial killer. And, Dan thought, if you could bad-breath a crowd to death, then Boris was the man to see this lot off. Quite a pleasing little exhibit they’d make too, when the garbage men trundled by in the morning: ‘Arty Tossers: The Cull of the Wild. Priceless.’ Dan took another swig to christen his private contribution to the show and, as he made his way over, nursed the bottle’s cool consolation to his chest.
‘Not drinking, Boris?’
‘Nah! Clear head for later. Hey, look at these, Danny!’
Later? For what? Dan watched as Boris lowered his face to within inches of a low cabinet. The man’s breath left long clouds of moisture across the glass top, misting the glare from a curved line of paired mini spotlights behind the display. Dan couldn’t see what Boris’s nose was pointing at inside the cabinet.
The gallery door rattled open behind them and a new wave of punters pushed in from the street, high voices and freezing air rolling around the crowd.
‘Hey Boris, isn’t that Mandy just come in?’ Boris had the creepy hots for Mandy, few reservations about reusing the same self-destructing one-liners on her, and none at all about crashing and burning in front of a crowd. Dan felt a minor twinge at trying to offload the creep onto Mandy, but it was minor enough to ignore.
But Boris just carried on staring into the cabinet.
‘Look at their spindly legs,’ he said.
Dan tried again to look through the glass as Boris wiped his grubby sleeve across to clear it and succeeded only in smearing more of his breath where he leaned over. Dan dug out a tissue to get the grease off. Despite himself, he was curious to make out what it was that had the other man so entranced.
What the hell was Boris doing here, anyway? He had threatened to come to the opening, boasting about it down at the Friendly Ferret, but both Dan and Jonno had laughed into their beers. Boris as peruser of art? The places they couldn’t avoid sharing with him were strictly the weekly five-a-side football and ‘their’ pub on those occasions he strayed this far into town for ‘a bit of brain combat’. His principal habitats were the areas the police called ‘challenging’, or else out in the sticks, cruising for a spot of poaching, a dog fight, or worse.
Boris prodded the glass top of the cabinet.
‘Like they’re all stood on sticks, Danny! Legs way too long for their bodies.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ Dan said then. ‘Foxes.’ He bent too, peering in through the glass. The group of figures in the cabinet cast crossing shadows from the mounted lights that curved behind and above them.
‘Lead foxes,’ Boris added, as if correcting him. ‘See?’
Yes, metallic. Maybe one inch high, two long and somehow heavy-looking for their size, they stood in a loose semicircle, staring down at—
‘And that dead one, curled up on the ground.’ This close, Boris’s breath was spiced with something Dan didn’t want to picture – mechanically recovered meat kebab, or some other unspecifiable horror from a roadside van. Dan edged away along the cabinet, catching how the creatures’ multiple shadows seemed somehow to shift, as if the lead creatures, or else the surface beneath them, also moved slightly. He counted.
‘Eight little foxes, and one dead one,’ he said, moving further, watching the shadows flicker as he bent to look through the end pane.
‘Yeah!’ The word was final, like Boris had scored a point in an argument, and Dan watched him through the corner of the cabinet. From this angle, at the end of the semicircle of foxes, their heads seemed bowed to Boris’s face looming above them across the corpse of their dead companion. His eyes beneath the cap’s peak were no more than reddish bruises, dull and broken in the reflected light as they glowered down at the animals. Christ! Forget the mass-killer look, this was more like some malevolent man-god lurking in the backwoods – all animal skins and headgear, looming dark as night. Dan fingered his bottle, blinked, tuning back into what Boris was saying.
‘Crap, ain’t it?’
‘Yeah, it’s bollocks. Not just their weird spazzy legs, Danny. They just wouldn’t all be stood round like that. Ever seen foxes bunching round a corpse? No, mate.’
Dan decided not to wonder too closely how Boris would know this.
Boris crouched, hands locked on knees. All his attention was on the miniature scene, his face screwed up in concentration or anger. Trying to think when he’d last seen a live fox, Dan felt a strange impulse to defend these tiny metal ones. All evening, everything in this gallery had left him cold and wondering how long he’d stick it out with these laughing, back-slapping types, just because Jonno was a good friend. But now… Strange. What was it he felt protective about? The foxes were wrong, sort of; Boris was right there. But they claimed – something, and he couldn’t work out what, or why it mattered.
‘Well—’ Dan looked up as laughter and shouts erupted near the door. A video was playing on the far wall: a plastic model airliner, fixed on a wire to what must have been a very cheap, badly held camcorder, lurched and dipped with the field of view of sky, looping above trees as the camera span and rolled in the unseen operator’s grip. Instead of its own, the plane had bird’s wings – real ones – and Dan remembered the stuffed gull upstairs, its undersized plastic Boeing wings. For fuck’s sake. He glanced back at the foxes, relieved to have something to look at which didn’t make him want to rip his eyes out.
‘Maybe they’re debating what to do.’
‘Do?’ Boris grunted. ‘Foxes? About what?’ His slick black hair poked out from under the cap, struggling for freedom from his sweaty forehead.
‘About all the crap around them?’ Dan waved at the gallery, not looking up. ‘About the bastard who just ran their mate down?’
Dan hoped the flatness in his voice might shut the other man up, but Boris just snorted.
‘You reckon it’s roadkill? Well – maybe. But more likely a little hunt has been going on there, Danny.’
Dan tried to stay tuned to the miniature creatures, irritated at how he was rising to an argument. What was the point of arguing about this – and with Boris?
‘Banned, remember? Anyway, Boris, this is more casual, isn’t it? More like some speeding twat motoring by with a wave and “Soz, Mr Foxxy!” Not posh tossers on horseback. So, maybe they’ve finally got to do something. To get back at us.’
Was he really coming out with this?
‘Not that sort of hunt,’ Boris laughed. ‘Not dogs and horses and shit. What century you from?’ Then, his tone lifting: ‘Hunters’ moon tonight. It’ll be well bright out there, later.’
Dan’s mouth was sour. He imagined Boris and his mates tooled up for a night out in the woods beyond the main road and the hill.
‘I do like the colour, though,’ Boris conceded. ‘Grey lead. And their shadows all over the place. Like loads of headlights behind them, yeah. But not roadkill. No, Danny, or why the spectators?’
Surprised, Dan took another look. Yes, the pairs of mini spotlights in a convex line along the wall at the foxes’ backs could be headlamps, sort of. The floor of the cabinet was plain and smooth, its own grey lighter than the foxes’, except where their criss-crossing shadows layered the space into darkness before them. An unreliable landscape, its textures shifting as he moved his head, illuminating the creatures’ own immobility…
‘The quick and the dead,’ he said, ‘everywhere, in the middle of nowhere. Just shadows: overlapping absences.’
The lead foxes remained still, silent.
Boris just grunted in response, and Dan was vaguely aware of the disgust in the man’s tone, the dismissal as Boris grabbed the peak of his cap, tugged it down and stood up.
Dan could feel the dark scowl aimed down at him and took another chug from the lager. It was body-warm now and revolting, and he planted the half-empty bottle on the floor beside the cabinet. When he looked up again, Boris was staring across the room at Mandy; then he sidled off through the crowd on an obvious route to bring him up behind her.
At last! Dan smirked and scanned the bright sweaty faces on show around the room: glassy eyes, red wet mouths yapping away. Shit, he used to like people, didn’t he? He thought of the young lovers on the landing upstairs, quietly absorbed in the photos. Easy with life and with themselves. But with everyone else, all around him, the volume of self-congratulation had notched up as more alcohol went down – and any real interest in the ‘art’ with it. Fair enough, most of it was a bag of shite. But he felt another pang for this small, unshouty gathering of dull metal foxes. Why was no one looking at them? Why had they been left to Boris, of all people? And now, to him?
He thought of asking Sally to stick his beer back in the fridge for a minute, then changed position beside the display and bent down again to peer into the foxes’ night scene. The frozen moment of living and not living, light and not light. He was crouching exactly where Boris had loomed over them just now, the animals’ heads bowed slightly before him, tails straight out behind as they gazed at their dead kin curled at their feet. No, not that one at the back; it was looking up, head tilted slightly to one side, staring past the corpse and up. Into his eyes. He hadn’t noticed whiskers on the tiny animals before, but now he saw the long, wiry strands on the one facing him. Saw them because they seemed to twitch as the beast’s muzzle wrinkled, tasting the air between it and him. Dan swallowed, holding a pressure inside, his breath locked in. The light, he decided. It was something to do with one of the lamps: frequencies out of phase, or… His eyes were fixed on the creature that was observing, questioning – him. Questioning? Him?
The shadows stirred, trembling in the woodland air. A breeze lifted the shades of leaves beneath the headlamp beams. Without looking up, Dan caught the movement of branches overhead, a rippling in the pale, hazy sheen of clouded moonlight… room light, he corrected himself. His breath misted on the glass in front of him – but there was no glass, only wintered air between him and the motionless foxes. His ribs tightened in the cold of the quiet, waiting woods. Why couldn’t he hear anyone anymore? Who, though? The watchers in the cars? He squinted as the lights burned into him, through the moon-stained sheet of night. Was anyone there, or were the cars abandoned, their engines running on in that low rumble he could hear now? And, above that sound, swaying branches called like a distant river in the rising wind. He felt something behind him, pushing at his knees, forcing him down. Down to the foxes’ height – all silhouettes now against the car lights in his eyes. Large and heavy shapes, and still. Further out were the silent circles of forest creatures that he sensed directly through the hairs lifting on his neck and head, along his arms. Around him and above, unseen eyes – a silent gathering on branches high in the night air that seemed to pulse and press down on top of him.
What were they waiting for, the foxes? For him? Still, the one at the back of the half circle, its shape not quite a silhouette in the faint wash of car light reflected back from its fellows, looked directly at him. Dan wanted it to explain – something, but he couldn’t remember what… He tensed, feeling a space grow behind him and faint voices drift in on the air. Shouting? They were faint, far off. The curved back of the dead fox was close, the others’ shadows crossing and recrossing it and patchworking the woodland floor, the dead leaves and the roots. Layers of absence – of light gone, life gone. Still, patient, the furthest animal’s calm, dark stare continued to hold him, acknowledging him, enquiring of a shared liveliness. A whisper inside him – like the rustle of leaves when a long, low body moves fast, close by, searching, seeking.
You too? Why are you here? What are you for? And the others, behind the hurtling lights? You tear our light away, and the light of trees, of air and soil. Why?
Dan tried to shake the sensation of dead weight from his limbs and chest; his own presence ghosted by a separate aliveness inside his head, moving alongside his. What? he wanted to shout – and instead of the word escaping his mouth, he felt his mind slipping out along a line that held his eyes to the fox’s, stretching along a thread that started with What is this, where is here? and ended with thoughts he could barely grasp as they evaporated in waves of alien flavour, of a quivering maze of life all around.
The group between him and the watching fox continued to sniff the air above the fallen beast: picking out his rising scents, seeking his essence in the shifting signals of the forest floor, their questing animal minds trickling through to his. Where was he, the fallen kin? Where was his foxness now, while theirs was still here with them, within them? Where had he gone, and the others before? And this other creature, the angular, upright one, frozen before them in fear and ignorance? Still they stood, silent, looking down, looking into the circle and beyond. What is it here for? And the other one – the black shapeless killer between the lights, with fireflash and sharp thunder?
Dan shuddered, a sudden clamminess in his skin, his insides heavy and slick, as if threatening to push and coil out of him in dark steam and gristle. He closed himself down onto his guts, gripping their cold pain. The shadow of the dead fox darkened, melting into a blackness, swallowing the ground, and—
A deeper shadow fell over the woods, extinguishing the criss-cross of grey-on-grey ghosted root-and-leaf-litter floor as the fire of the car lights died under the branches and the heavy cloud. Alone and dark – him, the foxes, the eyes above. The sound of far-off voices withdrew, sucked through some hole in the world to leave a muffled beating in air and earth. His own presence seemed to stall and begin to fade, then flickered back in: a memory returning to itself. The silhouettes had gone with the car lights, but he could feel the creatures’ presence on the fine hairs of his ears, his eyelids, his nose. He was falling inwards, into a space between his senses – and towards the foxes’ invisible grey. Their legs and snouts rose above him, lit briefly again as a cloud withdrew far above. Looking up, he saw the thick trace of winter branches dance over him. Revealed, a full moon spun a halo above it all.
Then – a harsh noise, a silence breaking under a different canopy, one of bricks and glass, glass and metal, and flat, dead wood. A different light, a wrong light, dim and with shadows of something moving.
‘You’ve been admiring this a long time. Is it your favourite?’
Dan’s head jerked back. He was on the hard gallery floor again, kneeling. Saliva weighed in a cold bitter pool in his mouth. Rancid air clung in his nostrils: old breath and beer, and dank bodies recently departed. Watery light from the dark street streaked the gallery window and filled his hands as he lifted them to his face. The leaves, the roots – where were the woods? The foxes?
‘Is it your favourite piece?’
The question again – and a woman appeared at his side, a greyness emerging from the shadowed depths of the gallery. Her sharp eyes were full of more than street light, open and enquiring. In the illumination from the window, red hair the colour of burning wood hung down by her long, tilted face, shading a half-smile. Everything else was grey – jacket, T-shirt, trousers. Long, pale hands folded in at her sides.
‘Sorry. I’ve startled you.’ Her laugh, quiet and soft, settled between them as fingers with elegant nails reached out to touch his shoulder. ‘You were quite caught up in it, weren’t you?’ She laid her other hand on the cabinet.
Dan lurched to his feet, unsteady. Reaching out, his own hand held onto the flat glass of the cabinet, inches from hers. He looked around, ready to gauge the spectacle: was everyone staring at him, the slack-jawed zombie, staggering and stumbling? But they were all gone. No one here. The lights were all off, he saw, feeling his own slowness at the realisation. It was far darker here than… Dan closed his eyes. Than out there, in the woods, under the clouded moon.
He opened his eyes – crazy – and faced her again. The crimson-grey woman waited, smiling, reassuring. Did he need reassuring? Had he done something – or said something, more like?
‘Jonno opened up his apartment, locked the gallery.’ She spoke as if at some signal deep inside him. ‘Everyone’s gone down, to party the night away.’
What had she said? Their life away? Dan focused on his breath, trying to clear his head.
And – she knew Jonno? In a way that didn’t make sense to him, he knew that this was wrong; or certainly, Jonno could not know her. No one could… He didn’t understand what he was thinking. He looked back to the stairs, to the door underneath that led down to Jonno’s basement hideout. He could hear far-off voices beneath and feel the music, subterranean and bass, a thick pulse rising through his feet. He pawed at his chest and frowned.
‘Are you okay?’ she said.
She reached out and retrieved a glass from behind something he recognised and wished he didn’t. A rabbit sculpture that he dimly remembered wasn’t a sculpture at all, but the full skeleton of a rabbit, sitting erect on its hind legs. Dressed in strips of fur, with collar and lead, it had a fresh-foil pouch of pet food pushed in where its innards should be. The packet was unreadable in the weak light, but he somehow knew the illustration would be of coiled rabbit guts in a bowl, and a perky wide-eyed kitten or puppy ready to tuck in. Dan closed his eyes again as something moved inside him.
‘It’s only water, I’m afraid.’ She laughed. ‘If you need something stronger, I mean.’
‘Oh. Thanks.’ He took the water and knocked it back, taking in its unexpected freshness, its ordinariness. Stop freaking out, he told himself.
‘Think I had too much earlier,’ he said. ‘Beer and wine? Bad mix. Should know that by now.’
Red hair bounced lightly at her neck and spilled back onto grey shoulders. Dan pulled his free hand across his face, stretching the skin under his eyes. He blinked, trying to take in the shapes of the darkened room, and glanced again towards the foxes, now invisible once more beneath their glass. Gone too? All the time, she watched him, her smooth face tilted slightly to her left shoulder, inspecting him, waiting for him to speak.
‘I got a bit caught up in it, I guess. No idea of the time, or when…’
Inside his skull, more than a memory: car lights flicked off, watchers pulled away into the black, an emptiness gathered around him and the dead fox.
Dan started, came back to himself, to the room. Why was she here, anyway, and not with the others?
‘A bit loud for me, really,’ she said. Had he asked, then?
Her eyes picked out the street light again as she turned her gaze to the vacant world beyond the glass, then to the empty spaces of the room.
‘A crowd,’ she said, nodding to the floor and the noise from the apartment beneath. ‘I don’t think I’d belong down there. I’ve been having a good look around here, though. I got here pretty much as it was over.’
Then, suddenly, her attention was on him again, pinning him in the dark.
‘What do you make of it all?’ she asked.
Dan found himself needing, somehow, to apologise. For himself? For the art?
‘Terrible stuff, most of it,’ he said. ‘Dripping with death, and irony. Mocking.’
The after-smell of dank bodies and alcohol seemed to hang in his lungs, the wet breath of the glass gallery full of yapping humans.
‘“A mockery” – is that the right word for arty types? The collective noun? Oh, I… well.’ His own words seemed to implicate him suddenly and he was unable to look at her. He watched the whiteness of his fingers as he pressed them down, jabbing at the top of the foxes’ glass case.
‘They’ve got a point to make,’ he said then. ‘About their world, I mean. But changing it? Art doesn’t change it.’
Then, after her silence and his own, he added, ‘But some of it stands a second look. Once you get used to it, I mean?’
Dan was trying to find the foxes in the dark. Realising they were in his own shadow from the street light, he moved out of the way and glanced at them. Eight little foxes, and one dead one, he started to say – but the dead one, the one lying down was – where? There, under the shadows? He turned to her, wanting to ask – and saw her giving the display a long, considering look. Her eyes were wide, dark pools in the light from the window and its reflections off the cabinet.
‘I was there when they had the idea.’ He heard the words and only then realised she’d spoken them.
It was an admission, not a claim.
‘They collected the lead from old cars. Little weights used in the wheels for something or other. For balance?’ She shrugged away her ignorance. ‘They created the figures from that. Quite a process, I expect – getting even that much lead. It had to be from the right vehicles, you see. The right situations. And the lights, too. Adapted sidelights, apparently.’ She nodded at the array of darkened spotlights curving out from the wall, a shallow arc along the back of the cabinet. Her hair was a dark ripple either side of her face.
‘Everything had to come from road accidents, you see. Like the fox herself, you could say. The one they found, I mean.’
‘Balance,’ Dan said, puzzling over the remembered glare in the woods. The half circle of the headlights, the gathered foxes, the canopy of trees – all had had the same curve. All of them including him in their sweep as he’d stood there, then knelt – on the missing side of the circle, facing the curved back of the dead animal. He saw again the trees, the clouded dome of sky, the moon sliding above everything. There, all was curves. Here, the dead gallery and its black window, streetlight spattered through fading drip-trails, the echoes of territorial chatter and empty mating calls from the crowd of gawpers now partying below – it was all flat and hard. All levelled out. The room was as icy as his insides. The sudden need to retch returned, an urge to evacuate toxic entrails. Blood drained from his head and limbs as he staggered back against the podium of the bone rabbit.
‘I need fresh air,’ he managed to say, choking, and felt her warm, slim hand on his shoulder again.
‘Come.’ From vast distances, her voice was quiet, but clear and calm. ‘Why don’t you step through the back?’
He shook his head, the back of his hand against his mouth.
‘Need to get home,’ he said. His face and scalp were numb and his eyes pricked. The room was wavering in and out of focus.
‘Take the shortcut, then. The front’s locked, anyway; you’d need to get the key from…’
He sensed rather than saw her gesture to the thumping from the flat below.
‘Jonno. Yes, I guess.’ Dan was thinking he should say goodbye to his friend, but he couldn’t work out what she meant. What shortcut?
‘It’s not far from here,’ she said. ‘The air will do you good, as you say.’
‘There isn’t a way out the back.’ Dan held his guts tight. Was there?
‘Yes, see?’ She pointed to a recess and a metal door beside the desk and its mess of empties and bottle caps strewn over wine-stained programmes and postcards. The exhibition poster had slipped from the wall and was threatening to slide from the desk too and disappear into the darkness beneath it. The door had a metal bar, a sticker saying Fire Exit. Dan squinted. Had he seen that before? He couldn’t remember. He felt resistant to it, to the idea of a door, but couldn’t decode whatever it was he was thinking.
‘My stuff. I gave it to Sally.’
‘Is this it?’ She moved to the desk, leaned over, lifted a heavy coat from the chair. She edged the desk back, away from the door, and held up the coat, opening it for him.
‘Right. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was over? That they were going downstairs? Was I that out of it?’
Still holding the coat, she tilted her head in the direction of the exit.
The shortcut home, she’d said? How the hell did she know?
‘The air’s stale in here – stuffy.’ She smiled, showing white teeth in the dark. ‘It will be cleaner under the trees, and you can clear your head. Just a short walk.’
And he was turning, slipping his arms into the sleeves, accepting the familiar weight and warmth as she smoothed the coat around him from behind, pressing herself against his back for an instant. He closed his eyes and her breath on his hair and neck was midnight woodland and dead leaves.
The woods, Dan was thinking.
‘They’re not that way,’ he muttered, and turned towards her. ‘The woods are way across town. Too far, the wrong direction. Don’t you know? Weird night…’
She was guiding him, her touch on his shoulder now different through the thick coat, a hint of something harder, sharper than before. She reached past him, pushing at the door with her other hand. Pale light flowed in through the crack as it opened into the night.
‘Boris!’ Dan called out then, a random cry, but he remembered – something, about the light outside.
‘The ugly one in the cap?’ she asked. ‘He went already. Said he had business. He’s not a friend of yours, though, is he.’ Her voice was low, unquestioning.
‘No. No,’ he had to admit, and sadness welled up in him, though he couldn’t think why, for what. For Boris? The door was open and he stepped into the winter night, cold and cloudless now, and bright. A full moon sat above the backyard. He looked up and out over the low brick walls. The town lights seemed to have been swallowed whole; the night went way back, far back above the woods—
But there are no woods here! Dan laughed, in spite of the sickness in his guts, the push of his insides slipping as he stepped away from the back of the building.
‘Are you coming too?’ he asked, facing back into the gallery, into the distant street-glow from the front window sliding off the walls and glass cases inside the building. Why were these the only lights now: one far-off, refracted and distorted street lamp, and the moon, full and clear and high above? Why was there nothing else out here, between the shop-backs and – and what, the next street? Beyond was nothing, dark and silent. Just trees. A breeze lifted.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Why not? A little way, at least. I said I’d meet friends around now.’
Her grey, elegant shape was – now, a street-light silhouette against the fading window light inside; now, as she pulled the door shut, a moon-shadow on the gallery’s threshold; and now, as she passed him, a blank space where the yard disappeared under the trees.
‘Good,’ he said, and followed her into the woods.
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