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In Peckham, no-one can hear you scream. When the shriek rose from the alleyway into the clear night sky, it was lost in a cacophony of sirens, traffic, shouting, foxes and thumping music. If it weren’t for the light pollution, an onlooker might see that the stars in the sky above Peckham were looking down with their usual contempt. However, the stars this night might be seen to be looking on Peckham with perhaps a little more interest than usual. Paying just a little more attention that they ought to.
After all, murder was one thing, but this was something else — something they hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
Just North of Peckham town centre, a mile or so below Burgess Park, Georgie Macmillan was steadily pushing a pram, winding her way back home from her first class at Cross-Fit in central Peckham. Joining had seemed like such a good idea at the time – they offered free childcare whilst you were there, which even with just one child would be a great deal. Georgie, however, had two baby girls – twins. They ought to give parents of twins the Iron Cot as they leave the hospital, a double-breasted medal of honour for those about to enter a battle that no person can win.
Georgie had a strange sense of pride as she thought about the gym childminder – a battle-hardened, bearded man made of densely packed muscle who wouldn’t look out of place in a TV series about Vikings – but who today had nearly been broken by the girls. But right now, they were both looking at her unblinkingly with their large blue eyes, smiling broadly and bubbling with happiness. Occasionally a look of inner turmoil passed briefly across one of their faces as wind travelled in one direction or another looking for an exit. But at times like these (wind withstanding) Georgie just wanted to take a snapshot in her mind. She knew better than to bother trying to perpetuate that sort of rubbish on Instagram. That perfect motherhood moment? So very, very rare.
Georgie was exhausted. Today had been the first serious exercise she’d done since before the girls’ arrival, and the instructor hadn’t been easy on her. Wearing a far-too-tight t-shirt for his enormous frame, the hairy, muscle-bound hero leading the class had seemed to take great joy in forcing her to do one more rep here, another squat there. Part of Georgie – deep, deep down – felt good, healthy even. But another part – much clearer and a little more vocal – just wanted a gin and tonic and a lie-down. Getting the kids fed and off to sleep felt like life was dealing her an eternal ‘one more rep’. Every. Single. Night.
Looking up as she turned the corner she saw blue and white tape blocking off a section of the road. The tape was the usual police tape, signifying an area of mild interest to the local residents, but the scene itself looked anything but ordinary. Three large dark blue police vans, which Georgie generally associated with football riots, sat parked on the opposite side of the road, apparently unoccupied. A white tent had been placed on the opposite side of the road blocking the path. As Georgie walked forwards towards it, a large green truck pulled out and slowly crawled down the road, growling as it billowed smoke from its exhaust. As it passed her, she could see faint lettering along the side that must have been painted over in a slightly different shade of muted green. A dark red cross was still visible on the rear, which was made of tarpaulin stretched across instead of shutters. Everything about the truck screamed military.
Lost in thought, she continued walking towards the site when a policeman appeared in front of her out of nowhere, blocking the way. “Sorry ma’am,” he said, peering into the pram suspiciously, “where are you going to?”
“Potters” she replied, her eyes also fixed on the girls. They tended to become the mediator of any conversation. A momentary look of confusion passed across his face. Georgie pointed down the road, “It’s literally right there.” She could see the entrance to the Close, beckoning her home.
“You’ll need to head back around the block,” he said, a little more forcefully than was necessary. Georgie sighed and looked into his face. She drew back slightly as she saw his drawn features, like someone with all the life sucked out of them. They locked eyes, and she realised the effect was compounded by his pale, grey-blue eyes and two-day-old grey stubble. Everything about him was… muted. He continued, “You can’t come past. You can get around,” he paused, and after consulting his phone for a moment continued, “down past Calypso and back around. Sorry for the inconvenience,” he said with almost, but not quite entirely, no feeling whatsoever. He tried a smile, revealing two gummy red rows of stumpy teeth. The smile cracked, and he dropped it. He kept looking at her, through her, but she had the impression that the man had switched off inside.
Feeling uncomfortable, she turned, grumbling as she began the newly extended walk, before stopping abruptly, her frustration belatedly coming to the boil. Spinning back around she stormed towards the officer. The policeman, who had been watching her walk away, visibly tensed. “What’s this all about anyway?” She asked.
“Police matter. It’s under control,” he said dispassionately. Watching his face, she could see he was lying. She’d seen police cordons a lot lately around town. The other mums had been saying there was something sinister going on – gang fighting or something probably. But that was likely just town gossip – Peckham may have a bit of a name for itself, but it was pretty rare to see anything like this nowadays.
It was late August, and it had been a hot, heavy summer – fourth or fifth record-breaking temperatures in a row, she’d heard. That seemed to increase tensions – there were the stabbings in the park last summer, riots a couple of years before that. But this was something else. This was maybe the third forensic tent she’d seen this week, and in the ‘nicer’ parts of Peckham, too. Where was gentrification when you needed it?
She was about to press harder for more information when a couple of doors slammed in the row of houses to her right and two ladies, one very large, one small and wiry, came out of their homes angrily. They were yelling and cursing at the top of their voices, heading straight towards the officer.
“It’s not right,” yelled the larger woman, red in the face, “he shouldn’t be hanging out with them. Why’s he so interested? They’re just kids!” Her eyes were closed as she yelled, as though the force of shouting would make her eyeballs pop out. Having finished making her point, she nodded, harrumphed, folded her arms and popped open two piggy eyes, staring the smaller woman down. It was a comical gesture, presumably intended to be intimidating. Georgie quickly suppressed a smile – she’d seen these two around, and their families were often at each other’s throats in the road. There was nothing quite like a bit of Peckham street theatre.
“Only a couple of years older,” retorted the other, “and the way your Mercedes carries on, strutting around like a peacock in those little skirts… I’ve got belts bigger than them skirts! Anyway, it’s nothin’ to do with me—or you for that matter. He’s his own man now, they can do what they likes.”
“Yeah, like pushing drugs on my kids—”
“Take that back, slag! He ‘ent done nothin’ of the sort! Anyhow they ‘ent kids no more—”
“—and taking them to parties, getting up to all sorts—”
“They followed him! It’s not Tyler’s fault!”
“He bullied them into it! I haven’t heard a word from them since they went out last night! I told ‘em! I said ‘don’t you follow that scummy trash’! It’ll end in tears, I said.”
At this, the small woman sucked in a deep breath and launched into a tirade of expletives. Georgie flinched. People could be really creative with swear words in Georgie’s neighbourhood.
It was amazing that someone so small could shout so loudly without the cigarette leaving her mouth. The first woman returned the gesture with hand signs. Georgie gave a slight cough.
The skinny woman gave a looked sharply at Georgie, then noticed the pram, her face switching instantly into a broad, genuine smile, as she said, “Hiya love,” in a thick Geordie accent. Georgie returned a tired smile and the usual British response – great, thanks – she’d always made an effort to greet the neighbours. The subtext of course being; life is not great, but I don’t want to burden you with my troubles. The skinny woman turned her attention back to her neighbour who was rolling her eyes infuriatingly while rocking her hand back and forth.
The policeman gave a nervous glance towards the white tent behind him, trying to look preoccupied and important. After a moment though, his shoulders sagged, and he reluctantly walked towards the two women, visibly unexcited about the prospect of dealing with this new intrusion. “Ladies—” he began to say weakly, but before he could get another word in, they turned on him in unison.
“Who do you think you are?” Said one, then turning to her previous assailant said, “who does he think he is?”
“Some copper ’n all,” said the other, looking him up and down, “what are you doing standing around here when my boy—our kids are out missing?” The hot-tempered new best friends put their arms around one another and began a pantomime of drying each other’s eyes. The policeman took a step back, flustered. He started by taking names; Tyler, Ellie, …Mercedes (this one got an eyebrow raise), their relationship; Ellie and Mercedes are sisters, got it, then asking questions about last known whereabouts, last time seen, occasionally pausing as he tapped on his phone.
The officer now well and truly preoccupied, Georgie decided that this theatre had run its course and took the opportunity to quickly wheel the pram off the kerb and started walking down the middle of the road, straight past the tent. The kids were pretty notorious around there, and they’d be able to look after themselves. It was probably just some ill-conceived all night lock-in or something. The policeman’s reaction seemed so unsympathetic though. They must see awful things every day, but there was something a little off about it— Georgie sighed as she peered into the dusty windows of the riot vans parked up against the road, but there was no sign of life in there.
Continuing down the road, she glanced at the white forensic tent that had been erected in the middle of the police cordon. The entrance was flapping in the warm summer breeze, and as it opened briefly she froze. It was just a glimpse, but she’d caught sight of something – an animal, several animals perhaps – lying in a pile in the centre of the tent. Ginger fur matted with dark red streaks.
“Under control”, she thought, dubiously, looking back over her shoulder. This seemed like a mess to her. Who would do something like this? Thinking about it, quite a few people she knew around here would run over a fox if they had the chance, the beasts. Foxes in Peckham were pretty cocky — it was common for them to walk alongside her on the town path, utterly unfazed by the presence of humans. She looked at the officer who was standing vacantly as the two women verbally assaulted him and each other. A fresh wave of weariness washed over Georgie, overtaking any sense of intrigue she had felt even moments earlier. Home was just around the corner, so she upped her pace a little – the aim now was to get the girls (and herself) to bed, and fast.
Feed. Bath. Change. Story. Feed. Bed. Collapse.
As was often the case the neighbours two doors down – a very friendly (and equally loud) family of Brazilians were having a party. Adults sang along to blaring samba music as children screamed and played in the garden, throwing things and pushing each other into the paddling pool. Georgie caught herself grumpily looking forward to the winter – the street would at least be more bearable during the winter months as the parties and late night barbecues gave way to quiet nights in, away from the cold. God, she sounded like a boring old hag – how had that happened? Unconsciously Georgie looked down at the girls who were finally beginning to drift off to sleep and felt her heart swell. Maybe it had changed her, but she wouldn’t give this up for the world.
Slowly but surely Georgie fell into a long night of disturbing dreams. The screams of the children next door rolled into eerie yapping foxes with empty eye sockets, their skin hanging loosely from them. They chased her in the streets as the pavement rolled under her heavy legs. She tried to escape, but there was an impossibly heavy barbell on her back, the weight of it forcing her legs to sink into suddenly sticky, muddy ground. Then she was lying alone in quicksand in the centre of Burgess Park, mist enveloping her, animal sounds all around. She tried to push herself up but the harder she tried to escape the more trapped she became, the noise building to a deafening, echoing roar all around her.