Posted on February 13, 2012
I first met him in a squat near Hampstead Heath. He was wearing two pairs of sunglasses, one on top of the other. He sat at the end of the dinner table staring at me. His head was shaved and his face pink and scaly, almost as if it had been scrubbed dry. Small fragments of skin fell like snowflakes whenever he moved and settled on the shoulders of his jacket. He had long, almost translucent fingers with the nails nibbled to the core. He kept them interlocked and would twiddle his thumbs continuously, squeezing his palms together, almost as if he was in a permanent state of prayer. He never spoke nor smiled but devoured the food as if it was his last, scraping up the remnants with his knife and moving it menacingly between his lips.
In the candlelight, I could just make out the scar that dissected his cheek. When they said he was staying the night, I made sure that my door was firmly locked and slept fitfully with the baseball bat within easy reach. In the morning he had gone and I assumed that it was just a fleeting visit and that would be the last that I would ever see of him. When I asked what his name was and where he had come from, my friends just shook their heads and turned away nervously. When I persisted, all I could find out was that his name was Damian and that he had spent many years in a borstal for arson and other crimes.
Six months later, I returned home to my flat in Richmond one night to find the rear window wide open. A ladder was propped up against it. The floor was covered in a trail of paper, which led to the kitchen. Some of it was splattered with blood. I armed myself with a glass ashtray and moved hesitantly towards the darkness, then switched on the light. A huge rectangular shape lay on the floor before me. It was stained bright red. I stared at it for a while then noticed a tiny note pinned to it. I tore it off and examined the writing.
All it said was Back soon,, Damian. I tore at the paper expecting to find the head of a corpse or some other part of the human anatomy. Instead, an enormous slab of red meat emerged stamped with a label, Property of Zong Fei Hong Meat Company, Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China. I scarcely slept after that and surrounded myself with all manner of weaponry.
A week later, I answered the door and there he was. He was still wearing the sunglasses despite it being dark outside. He looked dishevelled and his shoes were caked in mud. He was carrying a large quantity of books. I froze.
‘Heard you were studying,’ he said, passing them to me, ‘thought these might help.’
He walked past me into the lounge and sat down. I followed, making sure the front door was off the latch.
‘Thank you for the meat,’ I stuttered.
‘Thought you might be struggling. Must be difficult on a grant these days.’
‘The books look really good. You shouldn’t have gone to such expense.’
‘Take it as a gift,’ he said.
‘Thankyou,’ I said.
‘A gift from the bookshop up the road.’ He laughed loudly and held out his hand. I noticed that there were fresh scratch marks on the fingers.
‘ We were never properly introduced,’ he said, ‘Damian.’
I hesitated, then took it. It was ice cold and his grip was like a clamp.
‘Drink?’ I asked, pulling away, ‘tea, coffee, apple juice?’
‘Vodka?’ he snapped, licking his lips.
I returned with a glass, handed it to him and watched him gulp it down. He held it out again. I re-filled it and passed it to him. He twirled the glass around, then swallowed the contents whole.
‘So how are things?’ I asked lamely.
‘Can’t complain. So, so.’
‘Where you living now?’
‘Vauxhall. Mate’s place.’
‘I’m glad you found somewhere to stay.’
‘Only temporary. Just passing through before I get a place of my own. Thought I might move back to Hampstead….or Richmond maybe.’
He crossed his legs and I noticed a large hole in the bottom of his shoe and in the sock beneath it.
‘Yeah, fine. Studying for my MA.’
‘I heard. Important to get an education these days. Don’t want to be scratching about the bottom. Thought of doing something myself. Latin, Greek, something academic. Something to tune up the mind so to speak.’
‘So what brings you round this way?’ I asked.
‘Just passing through. Doing a little job up the road.’ He smiled again and looked at his watch.
‘A bit. Get me. Keep me off the streets for a while.’
‘Have you eaten?’
‘Don’t worry. Be on my way soon as my mate gets here.’
My legs wobbled.
‘Got plenty of meat if you want it. Masses left.’
‘No. He’ll be here soon. Nice bloke. Barry. Done a bit of time but he’s OK. You don’t mind me giving him your address.’
‘No. That’s just fine,’ I lied.
He stood up suddenly and walked though to the front bedroom. I followed. He peered through the curtains, turned and went to the front door. He opened it and his mate came in carrying a large holdall.
Barry walked through to the lounge, looked around and flopped in the armchair. He was completely bald with a bright, shiny head. He had deep-set eyes and a jaw that looked as if it had been knocked out of shape deliberately. He was wearing a Crombie coat with a bright red handkerchief tucked into the top pocket, three quarter length trousers and Doc Martins, which were badly scuffed and covered in mud. He fingered in his pocket, pulled out a packet of Benson and Hedges and lit one of them.
‘Don’t mind if I smoke?’ he said, ‘giving them up soon.’
‘ Go ahead,’ I said, ‘used to be a smoker myself.’
‘A lot of people object these days. Can’t understand it myself. My Gran smoked fifty a day and lived till she was 86. Lungs clean as a whistle.’
His hand dropped to the side of the chair and felt for the holdall. He pulled it between his legs and relaxed.
‘Nice place, Richmond. Loads of toffs. Tons of dosh.’
‘You live near Vauxhall, Damian tells me.’
He turned, scowled at Damian and smiled.
‘Elephant and Castle more like it. Council Estate. Shit hole. Need your wits about you. Place is full of filth.’
The room filled with his smell. Sweat and Old Spice and something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something rubbery, latex even. He stood up suddenly.
‘Must be going. Really nice to meet one of Damian’s friends. Not got many. Tells me you and him go back a long way.’
I nodded and shook his hand. He squeezed it hard, almost crushing my fingers.
‘If there’s anyfink you want sorted out, just give us a call.’
His eyes fixed on mine.
Damian thanked me for the vodka and followed Barry out.
‘Let’s keep in touch,’ he said, looking both ways before scurrying up the road. I nodded, waved them goodbye and locked and bolted the door. I closed the curtains, switched off the lights and sat there in the darkness shaking.
I never saw him again until two years later. I received a large envelope in the post and recognised the scrawl instantly. I opened it with trepidation. A car key fell out and some registration documents and a short note. I read it.
I bought this car a few months ago and have had to go away for a while. Can you collect it from outside Barry’s flat in Vauxhall and look after it for me. It’s a blue VW Beetle, registration NBX 3FY. The address is: Flat 22a, Alderney Square, Vauxhall. Be in touch.
p.s Barry’s had some health problems and gone to stay with his Gran in Brighton.’
I left it for a few days trying to ignore it. But the thought of it being vandalised got the better of me and I went to collect it. I chose the early morning assuming that most of the residents would be asleep and there would be less chance of any trouble. It was a desolate place. Run down tenements, barbed wire everywhere, a solitary pub flying the Union Jack and wild dogs asleep in the roads. Alderney Square stood at the end of a cul de sac and comprised two 3-storey blocks of flats cramped together with their distinctive council house green doors. A few old cars littered the car park. Next to them stood the VW. It was surprisingly intact.
I approached it cautiously not knowing what to expect. Would this be a get away car crammed with money? Would I find Damian’s body in the boot? Would it belong to Barry and I had been well and truly set up? Or would the police be lying in wait for me?
I inserted the key and checked inside. It was empty apart from a discarded sandwich wrapper. I opened the front boot slowly and peered in. There was nothing. I drove away slowly and switched on the heating. The smell of Old Spice erupted from the vents enveloping me. I stopped, turned it off and wound down the windows. I got out and searched under the car convinced that Barry’s dismembered body was hidden somewhere under the chassis. But there was nothing. I parked it next to the house, poured myself a strong drink and relaxed.
That’s when the two detectives called.
They sat in front of me staring at my collection of books.
‘Interesting reading,’ said the smaller of the two. I noticed he had a twitch when he spoke.
‘Student,’ I answered.
Media studies?’ asked the larger one.
‘Nice,’ said the larger one.
‘We’ve come about a Mr. Kondov, Damian Kondov.’
‘Friend of yours?’
‘Wouldn’t call him a friend. Met him once or twice.’
‘He gave your name.’
‘He said you might help.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He’s been arrested. On his way back from Torquay. In Court on Thursday morning. Needs someone to vouch for him. Gave your name.’
‘What’s he done?’
‘What’s he not done?’ smirked the smaller one, his right eyebrow flickering.
‘Tried to commit suicide. Cleaner found him just in time. Two weeks in the Lido. Said he was a Lord. Owed about ten grand. Not a penny on him. Drank champagne for days. Tried to top himself. Sleeping pills.’
‘Is he alright?’
‘He’s OK but he’s going down big time.’
‘Just for not paying his bill.’
‘Did some checking. Interesting. Know a man called Barry?’
‘Met him once’.
‘Local villain. On the run now. Robbery. Think he’s left the country.’
My hands started to sweat.
‘Kondov lived with him. Accomplice. Burglary, shoplifting, pimping. You name it. They did it. Reckon he’ll get five years.’
‘So why me?’ I asked.
‘Said you might be able to get him a lawyer.’
‘ Don’t know any.’
‘Better find one if you want to help him.
They both rose. The smaller one gave me his card and smiled as he left
‘Stay in touch’.
I caught up with Damian as he was coming out of the police van. He was handcuffed. He nodded when he saw me but he had changed. I hardly recognised him. The glasses had gone and his eyes were badly bloodshot. He had a large bruise on his cheek accentuating the scar. The most startling change was that he had dyed his hair blonde and I could have sworn that there were smudges of lipstick under his nose. His swagger had deserted him and he looked forlorn and lost. He knew he was going to prison and his face had that look of a man on the way to the gallows.
The judge, however, took pity on him and released him on condition that he be placed on probation and my agreement to provide a secure home for him over the Christmas vacation. I tried to protest but the lawyer told me it was either that or he was going down for a long time. I acquiesced.
I took him home, ran him a warm bath and popped out to get some food. When I returned, he had gone. A small note was stuck on the door with Thankyou in that distinctive scrawl. I scoured the nearby streets but there was no sign of him. I knew there wouldn’t be.
I never saw him again.
That was 35 years ago. Then last week a message arrived on my Linkedin site. I froze.
It was a request to confirm my friendship with an old colleague who had worked with me…………Damian.
I locked the door, closed the curtains and waited. Just waited.
© Graham Walker 2012
Photo courtesy of Flickr user 1uk3