At first, he thought he’d been punched. A dull thud, low in his back. He spun around as hands yanked at his jacket, scrabbled for the inside pocket. He’d hidden the book just in time. The man yelled in his face, demanded to know where it was.
He pushed back, fingers jabbing for his attacker’s eyes. With tremendous effort, he broke free of the man’s grasp, staggered towards the road and tried to shout for help, his voice ragged in his ears. But his legs felt heavy and unreliable, as if he were wading through water.
His assailant was gone, a shadow dissolved into the dark of the churchyard. He tried to get his breath. It was cold. His heart began to thump faster, a panicky, urgent rhythm that told him something was wrong. Really, properly wrong. He fumbled to loosen the tie that constricted his throat. He needed help. There were lights close by: a London pub. He stumbled to the door and pushed his way in. It smelled of warm beer. A handful of men looked up.
‘Shit! You’re bleeding, mate.’ A man with wide eyes, staring at the floor beneath his feet.
His trousers were soaked through, he realised, sticking to the back of his thighs. He brought his hand round from the ache in his back, held it before his eyes; it was gloved in red. A million flies buzzed in his ears as he struggled to make sense of what he could see. The glare hurt after the dark churchyard. The world lurched.
He fought to stay conscious as hands helped him into a chair. Voices were raised, calling for someone to ring a bloody ambulance, there’s a bloke here’s been stabbed. A woman emerged from the wall of bodies and pressed a cloth against his side. The buzzing was so loud now, he couldn’t hear the words coming from her pale lips. She was trying to help. Surely someone would know what to do, someone could stop this. He looked down, saw a dark pool around the chair. Oh, Christ.
He didn’t have much time. He needed to tell someone. He reached out, saw the woman recoil as he smeared crimson onto her white T-shirt.
‘Cut,’ he said. ‘Cut is …’ His chest heaved and his mouth filled. He leaned forward and spat. A string of bloody mucus hit the floor, splashed onto work boots and trainers. He looked up at the woman, apologetic. He searched her face for a sign of compassion. She was young and frightened. Tears started in his eyes.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. ‘Cut is the branch,’ he said. ‘Tell her. Cut is the branch …’
He felt pressure building in his chest. If only he could get his breath. But he knew, now. His mind fixed for a second on another woman’s face, troubled and uncertain, sweet. Is this the face? he thought, words swimming through his brain. Was that the face?
The smell of booze and sweat receded. A Deptford pub, he thought. How very appropriate. He wanted to laugh. The laugh became a cough, and then the blood came.
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