Slow River - Nicola Griffith Page 0,3

first night it seemed to Lore to be miles and miles from the city center to Spanner’s flat. She learned later that it was barely a mile and a half. It was not that she had a hard time moving—on the contrary, she seemed to skim along the pavement without effort—it was more that the journey stretched endlessly and the false dawn blended with the sodium streetlamps to form a light like wet orange sherbet that always seemed just a moment away from fizzing, boiling off, leaving no oxygen. Lore knew she was ill. She remembered the blood, hers and his, the sharp plastic tick as it dripped onto the plasthene.

She had a vague impression of a shop window and railings, and then stone steps. The stairwell was made of unfinished brick. The mortar looked old. Spanner must have opened the door then, because she found herself inside.

Spanner did not turn on any lights; it was bright enough with the streetlights washing in through unshuttered windows. Lore swayed in the middle of an enormous L-shaped room. Several power points glowed at one end, like red eyes.

“You need to sleep,” Spanner said, “not talk. Here’s some water. Some painkillers.” Her voice sounded different in her own room, and she seemed to appear and disappear, reappearing with things—a glass, some pills; showing Lore the bathroom. It was like watching a jerky, badly edited film. “Here’s the mat.” A judo mat, by the west wall, under the windows opposite the curtained opening to the short limb of the L, the bedroom. “I’ll turn up the heat. You won’t be able to bear anything on that back for a while. I don’t think we can do much about it tonight. Looks like it’s scabbing over. I’ll get a medic for you in the morning, and we’ll talk then.”

Lore knew she must be saying things, responding in some way she assumed reassured Spanner, but she was not aware of it. Spanner touched a pad of buttons on the wall. “I’ve set the alarm. If you need anything, or want to leave, wake me.”

Then Spanner went into the bedroom and closed the curtain behind her.

Lore was alone. Alone in a room filled with shadows of furniture she had never seen before, things that belonged to a woman she did not know, in a city that was strange to her. Alone. A nobody with nothing, not even clothes. It was like being kidnapped again, but this time she had no escape to dream of, nowhere to run to. Her sister had killed herself. Her father was a monster who had lied to her, year after year after year.

She stood in the middle of the room, aware of the strange smells and temperature, and knew clearly that she needed this woman, Spanner; depended upon her, in a way that was shocking. Lore’s fear was sharp, undeniable as a knife pressed against her cheek. It woke her up a little from her dreamy shock state. She was thirsty.

The bathroom was enormous, its window bare. It was too dark outside to see much, but she thought there were perhaps walls, and the remains of a path. She did not want to put the light on, but she could make out a yellowing, old-fashioned tub and huge, cracked black and white tiles. The water ran from the bulbous taps under low pressure, twisting like crossed fingers. She let it pour over her fingers automatically, tasted with the tip of her tongue. Salty. Ions: probably chloride and fluoride and bromide . . . and suddenly she was crying.

Her fingers turned cold under the tap as she wept. She would have to drink this water that wheezed out from old lead pipes, would have to accept what she was given from now on, and she would have to like it.

When she had finished crying, she splashed her face with water and dried herself with a towel—Spanner’s water, Spanner’s towel—and went back into the living room.

In the street twenty feet below, a freight slide rumbled to a stop but everything else was quiet. She looked down at the judo mat and imagined trying to sleep on it, facedown, back toward the closed curtains of Spanner’s bedroom. Horribly vulnerable.

The judo mat probably weighed less than twenty pounds but it was awkward to handle. In the end she had to drag it behind her like a travois. Several things fell as she barged fifteen feet over to the east wall. She lay on her stomach facing