A refugee from the 60’s.

That’s how he later described her.

She was a lovely girl, not strictly beautiful, but beautiful at times, and magnetic, always.

She had tangled blonde hair, slightly snaggeled teeth; she wore basketball boots and tattered jeans. Her favourite coat was a Chinese dressing gown.

He remembered seeing her at the Doghouse, the would-be American burger bar at the tatty end of the town square. The end that always had garbage clogging the gutters, fearsome motorcycles parked in a neat military row, and where there was often a greasy old man or two asking for money.

She would be there with her friend, a tall, young man with the pale skin of a vampire who was always smoking a cigarette.

She would never have gone there alone. Alone, she would have noticed the dirt, the smell from the nearby lane that was ill advised to walk down, the cigarette butts littering the sidewalk, but with him, the tall young man who talked incessantly and to whom she listened as though he was an oracle, she seemed to notice none of these things.

He watched them through the dirty window and shook his head. He loved her, but she was so enamoured of that tall gay man by her side, who flirted with her like the best of them.

It annoyed Little Tony. Why should a man who preferred other men also have such easy access to her beauty and to the sharp, interesting mind inside it? And anyway, why did the pompous ass hold her in such sway? True, he had a lovely voice, but after a while, it began to cloy, like an over-rich dessert.

He would pontificate at his chosen table at their cafe, “they” being the loose group of misfits and insomniacs who frequented this particular coffee house; she would glide around from table to table saying hello, dropping her magic all around. They all watched her, not everyone with kind eyes. Other women would smile at her face and look daggers at her back, making derogatory remarks to their companions in low voices.

Then they would laugh.

She heard them; how could she not?

She had never understood why she was singled out for such unpleasantness.

How little they knew or cared about the fear she felt when faced with “les autres.”

Someone famous and clever said there was no hell like other people.

It was true, but how she needed one of them. She would slide into the booth next to her friend, her David with the mellifluous voice. She felt safe with him, and so flattered that he favoured her company.

Those others, how surprised they would be if they could see into her heart, how she longed for protection, how vulnerable she felt! How hard it was to keep the smiling mask affixed to her face. How much she depended on it. The social face, the Marilyn face, the blonde bombshell beauty face. The further forward she could force the mask, the further the frightened self could retreat and hide.

He wondered later what it cost her to keep that mask so firmly fixed?

He was usually there, at the café; they called him Little Tony. He hovered around, with his big white handkerchief, his inhaler, and his ever present bag of papers. He was a scribbler, a writer lugging an unfinished manuscript everywhere he went like a talisman.

Maybe she would want to read it sometime?

He would watch her on the nights she was in the café. She would sidle up to a young gentleman who kept coloured cigarettes in a fancy case, producing them with a flourish for her. She would laugh and toss her hair; he would nod gravely in his suit and bow tie. Their masks smiled at each other; their eyes glimmered with pain.

Later, when Little Tony thought of him, he would remember the cigarettes, her tossing hair, and that the man with the coloured cigarettes had died. Committed suicide. But the one thing the gentleman may have hoped people would remember, he did not. He couldn’t remember his name…was it Robert?

But before that sad act, before the café closed, before everything changed, when they were all still young and had unreasonable dreams to buoy them, Little Tony often joined them when they left the cafe, hoping to have time with her.

Sometimes they would go to someone’s flat, someone in the “in” crowd, and listen to music and to David expound; others would join in the periphery of his lengthy interplay of words, but seldom her; she would just sit and wait for something; who knew what? Although he thought he could guess.

Little Tony would sometimes have to wave his handkerchief like a white flag of surrender and take his exhausted leave. Sometimes he would wait until the bitter end when David would offer to walk her home.

He guessed she was waiting to be alone with David’s attention. A needy child.

On the occasions he saw them at the burger bar, he’d go in briefly and she would offer him a fry, but he could feel her attention slip easily from him, back to her safety net, her David. So they would finish the French fries, play pinball, which David always won, and then at some unseen signal, or sometimes at the approach of dawn when the burger joint closed, David would sweep his arm in front of him, like an English toff, ushering her out of the filthy little eatery and would offer to walk her for miles and miles to her home.

They would talk all the way, and they laughed, and it seemed she felt cared for, almost loved. David would leave her at the porch, never asking to come in, then he would turn and retrace his steps.

She would quietly open the glassed door and turn left into her small childhood room. The room she’d had since she was six years old, where her dolls still graced the bookshelf. For one more night, she had escaped.


Little Tony never walked that far, it seemed invasive, and anyway, his asthma made him less than able to make that journey after spending all night with smokers in the cafe. He would leave them at the entrance to the city gardens and the big rambling park that would take them half their journey to her little house. He would leave off there at the Mickle Gates and watch them go, the mist from the river, quickly turning them into a ghostly pair.

He would pause at the top of the bridge before the gates and look down into the white-covered water. There were eddies of sadness and wisps of loneliness whispering up from the little river. There was something heavy in this city’s winter, something more than the cold and damp; there was a sense of dread.

Little Tony clutched his bag close and hurried home.


One day he asked her, Little Tony overheard while apparently busy with his scribbling.

“Do you want to come to the country with me? We could visit my brother; we could go on the train.”

“Yes,” she breathed, of course she did, but there was a little hollow echo, like something small dropping, a pin, a paper clip, a tiny echoing warning of dread.

Little Tony heard it and it made him shiver. Had she sensed it there? He didn’t think she had.


The day was like magic to her; though they were just waiting for the train, she was going somewhere with her friend.

When they got on, she giggled at the whooshing brakes and settled next to him. She watched the countryside, but stole secret glances at her companion now and then. She wasn’t used to being with him in the day. He was her innocent night time friend; he made her laugh and made her feel she wasn’t alone.

Once, they had stayed awake all night at his flat making a blueberry pie.

She loved him and wished he loved her. But wasn’t it because he never asked anything of her? There was none of that ugly tension she ran up against with straight men. The tension she would acknowledge, even play to, though she hated it, really. The sex.  It always led to misery, and it was all an act for her, a tremendous performance. She would try to pitch herself above the action and direct it like a movie, or try to inhabit their minds and imagine what they were experiencing; it was a complicated folding of the psyche, like origami of the mind.

The only way she could enjoy sex was if she was stoned and could fly away on sensation only. But then she’d wake, her make-up run, and find herself in some strange bed which always led to self-reproach and bitterness. In 1986, they had not yet coined the term “The Walk of Shame.”

But she certainly knew it.

She always felt desperate; she didn’t know what for. Always lonely, seeking love in all the wrong corners of the world. Get stoned, affix the mask, send the dread and desperation out the door.

So she turned instead to David, but he made her a little sad; it felt like he was always holding something in reserve, because he was gay, she thought. I am not enough, I can never be enough.

There was an echo of a pin drop in her mind, but they were on a train, it was daytime, the country flickered past. She was safe.

And then it came, the brother-nice and the night. It was always in the night she felt despair the most; it crept under the blankets and crawled over her body, she would clutch at something, anything, to save her, if someone was there, they were clasped onto like the drowning cling to flotsam.

It was always misunderstood, the need, the desperation. He was her friend, her safety, but he rolled over until he was on top of her and kissed her.

Oh, no, not again. Dread had crawled into her head and it was laughing.

Her boyfriend had been much older and from a culture not her own. She liked his intelligence and the way he touched her, and she teased him, true, but girls don’t know the powder keg desire can be; they push boundaries trying to be different people, wearing different faces, different masks, but they are light and variable; it was part and parcel of being a girl.

But dread was on her trail. So men don’t always listen when a girl says no. That was something that she learned that night. She had hit her head against the wall, and worse than that was she felt so stupid, but the dreadful thing had been that the flatmates had heard her shouting “no” downstairs and had turned up the stereo.

She felt deeply embarrassed; way down inside, she didn’t know what to do, how to process. She had liked this man, but he was not her soulmate, and this act had made her angry, very angry; all she could think was what she had lost and that now he felt that she was his.

There was some major glitch of understanding between them for things to have happened so.

Later, she would realise it was partly cultural, but as a girl, she had no breadth of knowledge to assist her in her vain struggle to comprehend this turn.

That night, she felt so stupid; she was not too young to have a man force his way into her, but she was too young to drive, so young she had to take the bus. The incongruity was ridiculous, the ordinariness a slight.

She just hid in her childhood room, so quiet. Perhaps if she was small and silent, the shame and mounting dread would pass her by.

A few days later, she told her mother, but she was so embarrassed; the dread had snaked up and curled around her tongue; she never spoke of it again.

She didn’t tell her mother he was there every day when she biked home from school. He was waiting outside the dairy and she dreaded seeing him lurking there.

Her anger and her shame fell from her like falling pebbles from a pocket, and there they sizzled on the ground turning into tempered dread. Dread to stab herself with internalised self-loathing. For what becomes of dread when the dreadful has come to pass? What is the journey from there? But there is always something else to loosen from the self, some new particle to slough off, until the self can only run from one bad choice to another, trying to escape from a desperate dread machine inside. The infernal, internal dread machine that sets up house in a fractured psyche, an awful parasitic angry dread.

This was some years before the café culture, before the bleached blonde hair, before the mask intended to protect, but only sheltering and feeding the self-mutilating machine inside.

Now they were in the brother’s car, going back to the city. She didn’t know where to look or what to say; her friend was not her friend. She had taken this act of his as a betrayal of her safety. Of course, she could not say, not now; she was behind enemy lines. So, you would not know from the smiling girl, but the angry dread had eased its way into her heart. The dread machine, like some awful virus, was replicating itself in every crevice of her body and her mind.

Her father gone, her mother a ravaged soul now living through her daughter. There was nothing to hold onto. Sex was just the price you had to pay. Not for a meal, a party, or a dress, but for the very safety of your being. It had become the currency of desperation and of dread. To escape the dread inside, she had to lay herself open to attack from the dread without, hoping, that in some strange stalemate, they would cancel each other out.

It was 1986 and for her, dread was everywhere.

Little Tony could tell that things were different; he noticed how she held herself more tightly than before, how her hands shook as she accepted a coloured cigarette, how her shoulders lifted at the sounds of women’s laughter, how she and her friend were different now, barely looking at each other, voices clipped like china breaking.

Then she got a job; she seldom came for coffee anymore. He went to see her in her flat. She wore a purple dressing gown over absolutely nothing, smoke curled around her head as she sat in front of her typewriter writing recipes of dread.

The fear was in her eyes, and anger. He brought out a joint and they walked by the river, laughing, but she was not the girl she had been before.

He read her his manuscript, trying not to notice the gaping dressing gown, the bleached blonde hair, the dread and desperation stealing from her eyes.

He left her there, in her flat on the corner of the square. She lived close to the river, and she filled her pockets with stones and jumped in the water, clambered out, covered in green river weed and loneliness. She swallowed pills, turned on her gas oven, and lay her head inside until driven to crawl up the stairs, driven by the self-preservation of dread and the smell.

She woke to a thumping headache and the dread was climbing up the walls. No longer a dread machine, she had become a factory of dread and infected everything and every one around.

How could she kill the dread and not herself?

She never managed; it lay there still coiled in her belly like some worm. The mask she wore became more brittle every day; her fear of people doubled and redoubled; she could let no one in. If people knew her, they would not like her; she kept herself apart, so twined together with her dread she no longer knew what or who she was protecting.

And the dread had a magnetic pull: she woke to find a man climbing into her bed with his workman’s boots; she found herself trapped in a strange locked room with men forcing the window.

No. Had it really come to this? The thing she feared the most was what she manifested; that’s what the dippy hippies of 1986, longing for the hopeful 60’s that would never come again, would say, but she knew it was dread calling unto dread. There was a current of fatalism in her now; she would never be released. But the anger was still there; it forced her up and out, and words flew out her mouth.

“How dare you, Dread, you gaping, ghastly fool.”

Perhaps her anger was not her friend, but perhaps now, it was her only tool.

She made the leader of this dirty band of men take her home on his snorting motorbike, although she gave him a false address. She was not so stupid after all, but exhausted from the visitation of the most dreaded.

Again, she tried to kill it; how could she kill it and not herself? She didn’t know. They had become entwined, and in 1986, there was no-one there to say “me too.”

But there were good Samaritans and she woke in hospital, and called her next platonic friend, one she leaned on, talked to on the phone, who made her up and dressed her like a doll and took pictures of her beauty.

Only once he asked her out, but unspoken, they never tried again. He could feel the dread unravel from her mind and chose instead to be her friend; he never asked about her present situation or the dread.

“I don’t want to know,” he said, and they talked of writing and of art and left the dread be,

they let it rest unwoken and instead ate biscuits and drank tea.

She was so grateful to have found another friend.

Little Tony saw her sometimes in the distance, but his vision warped with sadness. He never spoke to her again, and as he left the bookstore that had been hosting his latest author’s reading, he sighed again.

Over the years, he thought of her sometimes, and most when he heard the echo of a dropping pebble of dread or imagined he could feel it wrap its way around his memory.

She would always be, to him, the tragic dread machine of 1986.