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Fire One

The tube train was packed with bodies rocking to the disrhythm of ancient tracks. It was six thirty. Evening rush hour. Helen Jencks stood in the middle of the carriage, hands free, perfectly balanced. Eight years on a boat and she could keep steady through the worst lurches the train had to offer. Between her feet lay two bulging carrier bags from Marks & Spencer, threatening to spill their cargo with every jolt. One joint of best Aberdeen Angus rolling down the carriage, leaving a bloody trail, pursued by bouncing red peppers and new potatoes, was all she needed. Bodies swayed against hers, some less inadvertently than others. The smell of sweaty cotton and wool mixed unpleasantly with that of the Camembert cheese, oozing in her shopping bag.

She hated the tube. Usually she cycled to work, but her bike had sprung a flat tyre on her overnight. On the rare occasions when she did submit to the underground, there always seemed to be a lunatic on board. Today’s version, an evil-looking skinhead, sang loudly, football chants, over and over, the same mindless drone. Helen took bets with herself on how many people in the carriage wanted to kill him. The tube doors opened at Baker Street. Commuters thronged off the train. More forced their way on. The skinhead remained and increased his volume. He was at the other end of the carriage, far enough away, but Helen could feel the hairs rising on the back of her neck. Edgware Road. Tides of people ebbed on and off.

An old man limped aboard. Helen felt as if her heart constricted, just for a few beats, a burn of memory. Mid-sixties, about five foot ten, slightly stooped, thick grey hair, just as her father would have been, could be for all she knew. Something in the wisdom of compassion in his eyes, something in the puzzled gentleness of his smile as he caught her staring at him dredged up the flash of yearning; decades old, would it never go away? Helen wondered with a brief despair. She followed him with her eyes as, with awkward grace, he made his way through the throng, excusing his passing. A City slicker held back from the last spare seat. The old man said a relieved ‘Thank you’, but before he could sit down, the skinhead had dropped into his place. A few people inhaled sharply. No one said a word. The skinhead took out a packet of Marlboro, lit up a cigarette and blew smoke into the old man’s face.

Helen pushed through the carriage till she stood before the skinhead. She stared down at him. He wore jeans and a black leather jacket. He smelled of beer and contempt. Small blue eyes narrowed and looked up at her. 
‘It’s no smoking, and I think you took this gentleman’s seat.’ Her voice was low, her eyes blazed with a cold rage.
Conversations stopped. The attention of the entire carriage focused on her.
‘Oh yeah? And whatcha gonna do about it, girlie?’
In answer, Helen reached out, took the cigarette from the man’s mouth, dropped it to the floor and ground it out with a twist of her heel. The lunatic leapt to his feet. He stood inches from her. She could feel his spittle spray her face as he spoke.
‘Who the fuck d’you think you are?’ His face strained down towards hers, veins bulging. A faint sheen of sweat slicked his upper lip. ‘Help the Aged? Who gives a toss about some old fart anyway?’
‘I do, shitface.’
‘You just asked for it, bitch.’ The man aimed a punch at her face. With a movement so fast it was almost invisible, Helen stepped out of range. She caught the man’s punching hand, turned it back on itself, her fingers inside his palm. The skinhead yelped with pain. He struggled then yelled louder.
‘Don’t struggle. You’ll only make it worse for yourself.’ She exerted more pressure on his hand, and began to push him sideways through the carriage. Those in their path backed away, pressing into those behind them. Helen forced the man up to the doors of the carriage. He stood on tiptoes, body rigid, straining away from the point of agony his hand had become. Everyone in the carriage shrank back as if expecting an explosion of violence. There was none, no sound for the next two minutes, save the whimpering of the bully as Helen held him in position. The tube stopped at Paddington, the doors opened.

Helen increased the pressure on the man’s hand. She spoke to him in a low, menacing whisper. ‘You’re a coward, aren’t you, like most bullies? See how you like it.’

She hurled him from the train, releasing his hand at the last moment. With a sickening crack, his wrist broke and he sprawled onto the platform. Warily curious, the new passengers got on, while others filed out, necks swivelling. The tube doors closed and the entire carriage burst into applause. The old man nodded to her from his seat down the carriage. There was admiration, a little fear and a quiet sense of avenged dignity in his eyes. Helen gave an awkward smile and went back to her shopping bags. She could feel everyone watching her until she got off the tube at Ladbroke Grove.

A stranger followed her off and came up to her. A tall man in a City suit with a kind smile.
‘Well done. That was really impressive. Nice to see someone getting what they deserve for once.’
‘Thank you.’
‘How’d you do it? It all seemed so effortless. You just sort of held him paralysed.’
‘Sankyo,’ said Helen. ‘It’s a particular hold. Move a millimetre, it’s agony.’
‘What is it? Karate?’
‘Aikido.’
‘I thought it must have been some fancy martial art.’ He held out his hand. ‘I’m Jim Haughton.’
‘Helen Jencks.’
She waited, and sure enough it came.
‘No relation to Jack Jencks, are you?’
Jack Jencks: crooked financier and supposed fugitive. Ex-director of one of the largest privately held banks in the United Kingdom. Two days before Helen’s seventh birthday he and a large sum of money disappeared, never to be seen again. Living it up in some foreign hideaway, so thought the press.
‘Yes,’ she answered defiantly. ‘I’m his daughter.’
As always, she saw the quick reevaluation in the stranger’s eyes — reflected notoriety, distrust. She heard her mother’s voice. Change your name by deed poll. I’m going to do it. It’ll be better, Hel, c’mon.’
‘And you,’ asked the man, moving on valiantly, ‘what do you do, apart from aikido?’
‘I’m a banker too.’ She smiled, challenging him. Like almost all the others, he caved in to prejudice. He smiled, knowingly. Yet again she was centre stage of a joke that moved her to rage. After all these years, still the sins of the father . . . Did it run in the blood, sedition? Could a climate of distrust nurture it? She almost wished it, but she had never felt like a law-breaker, never saw her father or herself in that role. Even if, as far as others were concerned, she could play it, unknowingly, to perfection.

She walked away from him, losing herself in the crowd, disturbed by thoughts of her father, seeing again the face of the old man on the tube, wondering if in some distant part of the world, some corner she hadn’t searched, her father made a lonely train journey, searching the faces of young women for his daughter.

Not once in twenty-three years had she heard from him.

Interpol’s file lay dormant. There were occasional reports of sightings over the years, but none led to anything. As far as the world was concerned, Jack Jencks was dead. Helen’s mother had long ago given up hope, but something in Helen refused to relinquish her father.

She left the station and walked out into the busy evening streets of Ladbroke Grove. She wore a long waterproof coat of the type favoured by Australian cattle herders: brown, stiff fabric, side splits, a slight smell of waterproofing oil. It came down to her ankles, and gave her something of the air of an outlaw. She wore trainers on her feet.

Her walk was athletic, poised somewhere between that of dancer and weightlifter. There was a powerful energy that hovered about her. Her face seemed to have been moulded into life by a sculptor’s thumb. Flaring, slightly snubbed, pugnacious nose; full lips, gently curled as if at some ironic amusement of her own; rounded chin; voluptuous cheekbones. Her eyes were dark-blue ovals, deep set, under winged eyebrows which sloped down sharply to the inner corners of her eyes. Two deep, short, vertical grooves cut into her forehead above her nose. Her gathered eyes and brows gave her an air of thought or preoccupation. It was a reflective, resilient face; her skin was creamy pale, her cheeks rosy, a blood and milk complexion. Her body was strong, compact in its five-foot-six frame. Her breasts were firm and high set, her bottom rounded and high, Africanate. Her leg muscles bulged down to hard, strong knees and ankles. She had a dancer’s arched feet. Her natural blonde hair was wiry, permanently tousled, no matter how she tried to control it. She had long since given up and allowed it liberty. It curled thickly around her shoulders, parted off centre, framing her face, with clumps of tendrils curling above her eyebrows. She had a slightly fierce Nordic look, a throwback to the Viking forebears of her Danish mother. Hers was the face of someone you wanted to know, someone who would amuse, intrigue, provoke, rarely complain, never bore. Someone who would be ferociously loyal to those few who gained the intimacy that the furrowed brow seemed designed to repel. She was very much her own woman, with an air of quiet competence about her, as if she could mend your punctured tyre in four minutes flat, and not worry about dirtying her fingernails. There was something else too that only those who got close saw, an incompleteness, a searching, eyes flickering towards the horizon.

She loved this walk home. She could have taken a different tube to Notting Hill, which was closer to her flat, but she had planned a detour via her favourite flower shop, and this longer walk served as a demarcation zone, separating work from home with every extra yard. The route held the familiarity of years, each landmark a comfort: the Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, Have It Off; the video stores; the soaring overpass of the Westway, rumbling with rush-hour traffic; the off-licences better secured than banks; the budget supermarkets; the men with glorious dreadlocks — God, that one was gorgeous, he caught her eye and gave her a wink. Where was he in the discos of her teens? Then there were the teenage girls in fashion’s thrall, teetering perilously in platforms; the old and the poor, fighting the cold; and the well-wrapped, weary yuppies, intrepidly heading home.

She looked into the window of a streetside flat and caught the eye of an old man, sitting patiently staring out with a look of gentle sadness on his face. She smiled at him. He nodded, and light came into his eyes. There was an unexpected gentleness to her. People often caught her eye, people who didn’t want to be living the lives they were, or perhaps were just enduring a bad day in a good life. She had an empathy for the underdog.

She passed a tandoori takeaway, longed to go in, get a rogan josh to enjoy alone with a thriller in her bed. She stopped instead at the Flowered Corner, waiting happily in a long queue, her nose delighting, her eyes gorging on bright orange tiger lilies, brilliant violets, luscious roses, bird of paradise flowers with tangerine beaks. God knows where they came from at this time of year, or what they cost. She went for the birds of paradise which she carried out like a trophy onto the streets. Her present to herself.

She passed the council block on the junction of Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park Road where her best friend, Joyce, lived with her husband and three children. She toyed with the idea of going up, giving the flowers to Joyce, playing with her children for hours, sinking blissfully into family life, making herself horribly late for her own evening.

Play fair, Hel, she said to herself, walking on along Ladbroke Grove, up the steep hill, into the gentrified parts of Notting Hill, where the cars and the people were younger and the houses whiter. She skipped home to Dawson Place.

Home was the ground floor of a large, white, stucco-fronted house. Rose bushes flanked the door. A big old oak threw dark shadows over the white steps. The gleaming facade always seemed to welcome her, to offer refuge. The lights of the basement flat blazed and she saw the stooping figure of her eighty-eight-year-old neighbour, Mrs Lucas, standing in the window waving to her. She grinned and waved back. She walked down the steps to the basement flat. Mrs Lucas opened the door with a gap-toothed smile.
‘’Lo, luv. ’Ow are you?’
‘Yeah, I’m well, Mrs Lucas. How’re you?’
The old woman gave a thumbs up. ‘Not too bad. Chest’s playing me up a bit. Can’t wait for summer.’
‘You ’n’ me both.’ Helen put her shopping bags on the table. ‘Got you some steak. I know it’s your favourite. Aberdeen Angus. BSE-free herds, so you won’t turn into a mad cow.’
‘Oh, get away with you,’ said Mrs Lucas, hand on hip. ‘Mouth on you!’ She peered inside the bag and pulled out the joint. ‘You have too. You shouldn’t. Costs a fortune that beef.’ She started fumbling for her purse. Helen caught the old woman’s hands gently in hers.
‘Come on, no need for that. I drink my way through enough of your gin. It’s already marinated, bits of garlic stuck into it. Just bung it in the oven, three hundred and seventy-five, one hour.’
‘Stay and have a bite?’
‘I’d love to, but I’m going to a dinner party.’
‘Anyone nice?’
‘Not really. I’d much rather stay here.’
‘Why you going then?’
‘Who knows, maybe I’ll meet someone gorgeous.’
'If he’s lucky.’
Helen bid Mrs Lucas good night, and headed up to her flat. She let herself in to a noisy welcome from her Persian cat, Munza.
‘Hi, babe, how are you?’ She scooped him up in her arms, stroking his deliciously soft fur.
‘Hungry?’ She put him down, opened a tin, of Kitekat, poured a saucer of single cream, leaned her hip against the kitchen cupboards and watched him eat. Satisfied on his behalf, she arranged the birds of paradise in a tall glass vase, contemplated changing out of her City clothes, decided she couldn’t be bothered. She chose a pair of four-inch ankle-strapped stilettos, put them in a plastic bag and headed out to meet her old lover.

She walked slowly down Notting Hill Gate, browsing in the shop windows, continued down Holland Park Avenue, crossed over to Campden Hill Square. She climbed the steep hill, with the square on her left, fenced in by ornate, black railings. The trees cast dark shadows on the pavement. Lights glowed softly in the expensive houses. Shiny cars gleamed dully in the street, the red eyes of alarm systems blinking at her as she passed. The smell of building work and dust tickled her nose as well-maintained houses were subjected to yet another refurbishment by owners tired of last year’s interior design.

She aimed for the tall skinny houses that sat upon the brow of the hill. Many of these were adorned with blue plaques, denoting the famous authors or playwrights who used to live in them. Here the square was quiet, the roar of the traffic on Holland Park Avenue diffused by the trees. The lonely did not sit at their windows gazing out here. There was nothing to see, save the darkness or the gleam of a BMW. It was another world, separated by a gulf of millions of pounds.

Fire Prologue

Fire One

Fire Two

Fire Three

Fire Four

Fire Five