There's been a murder, a young girl, and now I can't sleep.
It happened a little over four hours ago. I woke up to a symphony of banging and screaming coming from the upstairs apartment. In the dark, I lay on my bed, listening to the ruckus. It was a wrestling match. Two bodies tumbling around, kneecaps and elbows making blunt thuds overhead, then someone scrambling to their feet and bounding heavy-footed across the floor, screaming. I lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out like the bored.
From within the melee above I could make out two voices. One was that of a young girl and the other a man. The girl was hysterical, sometimes shouting insults and at other times shrieking as if desperate to to be let loose. The man made mostly angry sounds, like something driven mad. His only comprehensible words were: “WHORE! SLUT! WHORE!” Both voices were ruined with alcohol, a hateful rasp that writhed through their insults.
Woken for good, my eyes adjusted to the dark. On my back I concentrated on the fight, following it back and forth across the ceiling while trying to work out which part of whose body had hit what. At times the thumping and screaming became so bad that I was unsure of just where the fight was coming from. It was as if my neighbours to the left, right, behind and above were all going at it, like the entire apartment block had gone insane and all the occupants were participating in some surreal, early morning, communal bust-up. My bedsit quaked. From the far wall a painting worked loose from its fixing and fell like a dead-weight. It hit the floor standing and stayed there. In a rage I hurled a shoe at the wall. That fell and stayed there too.
The light is on and I am up, sat on the edge of my bed in front of my laptop. A text screen is open. As I listen to the domestic above I try to type it up live. I cannot. When I try it comes out like this:
Two in corner, struggling. girl screams. Man enraged. Heavy thudding. Sounds like they're jumping off fucking bed. running, across room.. away. Voices not clear.. shouting. The man is shouting. Girl responds. an insult. Banging; footsteps??? Door slams shut. Someone (man) kicking door. Girls voice. Quiet.
I give up my live reporting. It's impossible to write and at the same time try to figure out what the noises are. It's equally impossible to decipher any words – not that I really care. Really I just want the dispute to end so I can get back to sleep. The fight starts up again. I light another cigarette and sit crouched over smoking and listening. Sad lonely shouts and screams accompany me and the night. I think fuck it and cook up a hit. With domestic violence on repeat in the background I slide a blunt, Sunday night needle into the back of my calf, pinning a newly surfaced vein which forks up from around my Achilles heel. After the shot the girl upstairs sounds like she's in the bathroom. Maybe she even is.
It was about then that things started breaking. I could hear them hit the wall and shatter as I sat trying to align a flame to my cigarette. In between the bombardment the man was bawling: “I loved you!!!!” I loved you!!!!” For his declarations of spent love he received an ashtray, or a plant pot, or some vicious reminder of the inadequate size of his penis. And so it went on... My apartment being battered by the fight above; my paintings all worked crooked from the vibrations. I sat on a chair near the wall, tranquillized. Like a change of light, a sudden melancholy came over me. The sounds of the upstairs domestic were then all too familiar – something I'd lived before. They romanced tears, though not totally sad ones. I closed my eyes and nodded forward. History filtered down through the walls and filled the room, and for a moment, I drifted away... … …
The room smells of spilled Martini, mint chewing gum, and the bottom of my mother's handbag. The noise of the fight sounds like it's coming out of an old radio. In the dark, behind my closed eyes, I can make out shapes; they scare me. I am back in time, alone, eight years old, standing downstairs in the cold, dark back room where the slugs live. My fingers are in my ears and I am humming and dancing to block out the sounds. Up above, mum and dad are going at it. When enough time seems to have passed I uncover my ears and hope to hear silence. Instead I can still hear the fight, my mother hitting off the wall and crashing down into her perfume cabinet, the bottles bouncing around and clacking together like beach stones. I re-plug my ears. The next time I uncover them I hear my father tramping down the stairs. I pray that it's over, that mum will keep her mouth shut and let him disappear to bed. But before I've even time to harbour any real hope there's a flurry of insults from my mother and then dad is bounding back up the stairs only to have the door slammed flat against his even flatter nose. Dad charges the door. He bursts in to furious squirts of Chanel 'bootleg' No.5, mum rushing at him, blinding him with perfume while screeching out my name. I replug my ears and dance and hum some more. I don't want to hear my name. My name means I must go and hit dad over the back with a cricket bat and I don't want to. The thought of hurting dad hurts me. It hurts so bad I could cry. It's not love because I'm only eight and don't know what love is. More it's that tomorrow Dad's promised to buy me new shoes. How can I hit a man with a cricket bat when tomorrow he'll buy me new shoes? Buy me something more than what I need with money more than what we have? I can't. I block out the sound and dance some more. Even at this young age I know the morning always comes and we must face up to what we've done in the dark. Filtering down from up above were those same sounds again tonight: the same chase; the same screams; the same foul, acerbic drunken insults – a lifetime of rotten love, piercing the night and floating off over the city. Real-life drama. Something to listen to and try to work out – that was all. So I sat there in the early hours, alone, listening to the past and the present and feeling kinda sad.
It's 3am. The fight above has been going on for over 90 minutes. I am back, perched on the edge of my bed, staring at the disjointed text I had written earlier. The main light is off and my standing lamp lights up the bottom half of half the room. The couple upstairs are taking a break from knocking each other's teeth out and for the moment are content with screaming at each other. But not only insults, there's some kind of dialogue going on, even if it's not what can be called conversation. Eager to know what has kept two lovers fighting for so long and what has woken my night I take to standing with my ear against the wall. From what I could figure it seemed that the couple had spent the night out drinking. At some time during the evening the man had begun seeing The Great Whore of Babylon wriggling through his girl – a temptress, her hand feeling out the contours of bulging erections through tight trousers as she swept past strange men; cocks crawling across the floor towards her; his sweet girl – dick-charming – her head thrown back in laughter, showing off a long sexual throat, a serpent for a tongue, her eye catching his and humiliating him further as he watched through the distorted lens of drunkenness: a 360° haze of people laughing and jeering, him stood in the centre, impotent, self-loathing, swaying while watching: his girl, drunk and loose and arousing cock after cock after cock. It all came out; an insane jealousy. Weeks, months, maybe years or torment and imagined happenings. The girl swore off his nonsense. That only enraged him further and brought him about her once more, this time with an ungodly screech like you'd maybe give while finally exorcising your nemesis. Heavy footsteps shook my apartment once more before the fight tailed off into some nearby room, culminating in an almighty crash against something. From the struggle worrying noises surfaced, the girl gagging and flapping as if being throttled while the man shrieked like something gone wild. The throttling sounds didn't last long. By the time I had placed them the girl was free and scampering across the floor, the man warning, “No, no, NO!!!!” In the room directly above I heard the window banging and rattling, and for a moment the girl's anguish was free and real, cutting the back of the city in two. The word “whore” was the last one to taste the night before the girl's scream was dragged back in by the ankles, the window pulled shut, and the fight privatized once more – now with kicking and full-combat violence. Stood below, my heart thumping, I seriously contemplated calling the French emergency services. I verified the number, thinking: “I should call the police.” Then I thought: “I certainly SHOULDN'T call the police”, that “someone else will surely do it.” But it's 2012, we've heard it all before. It's entertainment for those without cable TV. I don't have cable TV. No-one made the call.
At 03h37 the girl was on the floor and I think she was being kicked. I could hear her whimpering over in the corner and making scratchy sounds like she was curling herself up. It made me think of a hamster I used to have. Standing beneath the spot where I assumed she was I banged on the ceiling with a mop. Immediately the fight stopped and the man hissed something at the girl. I heard no reply. Her silence was answered by what sounded like her being stomped... one, two, three times. Listening to such stuff made my belly empty and nervous. My legs felt weak. I banged again. For a moment all was calm, and then there was movement and the girl pulled herself up. I thought of my mother, and it all started again.
During some moments the dispute would quieten down. Like when fighting dogs rest still, locked onto one another, froth and blood on their coats, catching breath before tugging and ripping at each other some more. It was like that. Only now, as the fight wore on, it was increasingly the man's rage I could hear. The young girl seemed done for, and soon she even stopped resisting, just succumbed, and like me was surely hoping for an end.
Listening to the racket of the fight was no longer fun. It hadn't been fun anyway, but at first it was something to do to after it had so rudely woke me up. Now I hung below, genuinely worried, a pained expression on my face, concentrating on the disturbing one-way violence from upstairs. I took my phone in hand and typed in the emergency number '17'. I stared at the number. SE-VEN-TEEN. It didn't seem as serious as calling '999'. I thought hard, paced the room and then closed the phone.
The problem was that by calling the police I'd risk being arrested myself. My apartment was chock full of used needles, heroin, old wraps, filters and black market methadone bottles carrying weird names that just weren't on my passport. And even if there are many police who'd wave that aside in lieu of a real serious crime, there are just as many others who'd arrest me, and maybe even suspect me of having something to do with the dispute I was reporting. So I thought about calling the police and then I quickly thought against it. I toyed with the idea of tidying away all incriminating evidence and then phoning, but that would have taken a good hour as I'd also need to scrub the blood off the doors and walls. Also, when you've been using smack for so many years and are accustomed to being around needles and spoons and wrappers and blood, you stop being able to see these things, and so tidying up and hiding it becomes impossible because you can no longer see what you're supposed to hide. So I left it. Everybody left it.
I suppose we all thought someone else would call the cops, or they'd just arrive. They always arrive when it's you. So the fight went on, and though it didn't escalate or seem to get any worse it never stopped, lingering on like a dying fire, occasionally flaring up before settling down again. And it was on that flame that tragedy blew in and gave this night to history.
* * *
First there was a thud, then the ceiling shuddered; and then there was silence. Mid-fight the dispute suddenly stopped and I was left sitting on my bed with my head cocked listening for any sound at all. There wasn't a tinkle. Not a footstep; not things being picked up; not exhausted voices calling a truce, not the bed rattling as the two lovers made up – nothing. I sat there in the strange silence, trying to figure out what had happened. I eyed my unaligned paintings as proof that I hadn't imagined it all. Death or injury never entered my mind, more I imagined that the lovers had burned themselves out, or that the alcohol had worn off and they were sitting across from each other huffing and bleeding and all punched out. But it was weird, like a film that just ends with no music or closing credits. It's over and you wonder if it's a mistake or artistic choice while waiting for some kind of confirmation either way. For some time I sat on pause too, and when nothing happened I hit the light and climbed into bed.
It was a good twenty minutes later when I sensed that the world outside was astir. It was nothing distinct, nothing audible, an intuitive understanding that sat in the air, like when a door is left open or someone is staring at you on a packed train. It just didn't feel lonely enough for it to be 4am in a french ghetto. I got up and made my way to the double set of front doors which lock me in. The outer door leading to the street is on rails, and when closed there's an inch gap on either side which is perfect for spying from. In the dark I stood peering out. Fifty yards down, outside the entrance to the main building, were two police cars. Past the police cars and falling out of shot there was a loose crowd with more arriving. As I watched a twirling blue light lit up the night scene and an ambulance drove into view. From the apartment blocks way down lights were on; whole families up against their windows or out on their balconies staring across. For a moment my view blacked over as my neighbour came out in his bed-clothes, barefooted, and stood there smoking. A man, a stranger, joined him. He asked what had happened. My neighbour mentioned the earlier fight then threw his hands up as if not sure if the two incidents were related. I wanted to go out and take a look at the action, gauge if this was worth staying up for or the anti-climax to what had seemed a pretty decent if terribly sad bust-up. I thought again of the drugs and paraphernalia lodging with me and stayed put. In the pitch dark I lit a cigarette and hung there silently like some guilty spectre watching the mayhem it had caused. Not being here was about the best thing I could be tonight. Up above there were noises afresh; not fighting, footsteps, some other activity going on in the apartment.
For some time nothing happened and then two cars came slowly up the forecourt. They stopped a little distance off. Three plain clothes officers wearing orange police armbands got out and made their way down towards the crowd. Almost immediately there was some out-of-sight commotion. An armed, black-booted, uniformed Policeman briefly appeared, made some kind of a gesture and then went running off back into the building. The three plain clothes went running after him. I decided it was time to get dressed and get outside. I rushed into my bedsit, pulled on some clothes , wrapped up my gram of smack, and pushed all the drug paraphernalia into a bin bag. I gave my hob a quick wipe down for traces of blood, carbon, and cooked heroin, and then went outside to join the crowd and act as innocent as everybody else.
Outside I greeted my neighbour who was now standing a good way down from his door right on the outside edge of this side of the small crowd. He was visibly excited with wide night eyes. Over in the entrance of the building there was a lot of commotion and activity – police and a number of residents. My neighbour told me that the police had just taken a boy away, and that some time before that the paramedics had entered with a stretcher. I asked some questions but they didn't register. My neighbour was too preoccupied with what was happening inside the building. His worried and dramatic behaviour infected me. I stood peering anxiously over towards the entrance, which was now unofficially a no-go zone.
“Did the fight upstairs wake you too?” my neighbour suddenly asked.
“Yes;” I said, “I thought my ceiling was gonna come down!”
“Do you know why they were fighting? Over what?”
“God knows,” I said, “I think they were drunk.” He gave a bored, tragic look, like alcohol and domestic violence was a given, even in France. When I mentioned just how long the fightc had raged on for he seemed surprised. Like me he had heard the fighting but unlike me had drowned it out with a set of headphones, only to wake hours later with his R&B then replaced by police radios and oscillating lights. I stood with him for a moment and then worked my way around the crowd to where I had a proper view into the foyer of the building.
Inside the building the police were talking to two girls. One girl, maybe nineteen with distressed mousy hair, was squatted down under a payphone on the wall, crying, with a blanket pulled around her shoulders. The second girl, around the same age, was also visibly upset. She stood over the first girl and every now and again would wipe away her tears with the backs of her thumbs. Around the foyer of the building there were similar scenes with other neighbours, but they seemed more shocked than upset and even while being questioned kept looking over at the two girls and the policemen near the phonebooth. From what I could pick up the two girls had been in the room next door to the fighting couple and had called the police. I think they had also entered the room where the fight had been, but that wasn't entirely clear. After taking in all there was to see in the lobby I made my way back around and reported it to my neighbour. He in turn told me that he'd spoken to a friend up on the second floor and apparently the girl who'd been involved in the domestic was quite badly beaten and shocked but it didn't seem any more serious than that. He spoke of the amount of time the paramedics had been upstairs, and said if it was serious they'd have been out and gone a long time ago. So as not to complicate things I agreed. I hung around for another quarter of an hour, and with nothing moving, and the cold starting to bite, I called time and returned indoors.
Inside, out of the cold, I lit a cigarette and hung around in the dark once more spying out the gap in the door. For some time nothing happened and then the police were pushing what was left of the crowd back and making space for something. My neighbour, still outside, was now speaking on his phone, relating to someone what was happening. A paramedic left the building and backed the ambulance right up to the doorway of the building. With the view blocked, I left my apartment once more and joined the hardcore gore seekers hoping for a nightmare or two.
I could tell by the attitudes of the police towards us that no good news was going to go into the back of the ambulance which we were rallied around. They treated us with a kind of contempt, like we were criminals, trespassing in on something that should be given space and some kind of private dignity. I suppose most of us were there only for the drama, I was, but equally, many of those with guns and badges had only taken the job for the promise of such excitement, and more: to be the good side of the police line... even closer to the gory, bloody details. Neither of us had to be there, and even if we did, we didn't have to look. I eyed one of the policemen, a tall, athletic thing in black with a little paper-boat cap on his head. He looked like some militant Mcdonalds' employee. He stood there with all the indifference of duty in his posture. Now that WAS cold; my heart was racing.
To the back of the foyer the lift door opened. We all jerked to get a look but it was only a single paramedic and nothing more. He rushed over towards a door leading to the stairwell. The door opened and he helped manoeuvre a stretcher through the narrow space and into the lobby. On the stretcher was a body. The night hushed and drama became a mighty sad vision on four wheels, the sound of squeaking metal and solemn paramedics going about their work.
I couldn't see too well as the police were doing their best to block the view, and anyone idiot enough to try and force through was liable to be arrested. But I saw enough: a small body, supine, covered neatly with a white sheet, the sad and unnerving contours of the body beneath letting me know how slight the young girl was and bringing home to me that I had stood below and done nothing as she'd been systematically beaten lifeless. Death was in those elegant, covered shapes... something much more horrific than blood and guts, as it showed not the horror but only the consequence. There was no time to notice anything else. As quickly as the stretcher had appeared it was just as quickly gone, and then one paramedic rushed around to the drivers side of the ambulance as the other two remained in the back. The ambulance moved away and soon all there was to see were the other people on the other side of the crowd, all silently trying to process what they'd seen. The night suddenly seemed weird, like it really was the middle of the night. I left the crowd for the final time and walked the fifty yards back to my door. On the way I passed my neighbour. I looked at him. He looked at me. Without saying a word we both lowered our eyes to the ground, and then I was home.
- - -
The crowd is gone now but the police are still here and more have arrived since. I suppose that there will be a lot of work for some people through this and the dark nights to come, and I know a family will be woken up to tragic news and one young boy will not see freedom for a very long time. It's hard to take in and make sense of such an event when it happens, and although by tomorrow the world outside will carry on as usual, in here, something has changed and I'm sure this place can never be the same again.
It's now almost 5am. The morning is still dark and no hint of light will reach here until seven. I turn my light out and retire to my bed. It's dark outside, but not as dark as it should be. It's quiet outside, but not as quiet as it should be. Once again the world has been broken and I go to sleep to faded screams. Through the gap in my door I can see the blue light of a police car. It's hypnotic and sad, and soon in this grim night I shall find my peace.
Thanks for bearing with me Everyone... Shane. X