Annie looked up, startled. Nothing ever happened in the East End. She should know. It was her home. Yet, there she was, standing alone under the awnings of the Docklands light railway station only a stone’s throw from her school, intent on returning home after a class outing, except that the only path not blocked by crash barriers led across the park and the football pitch through a raucous crowd sporting badges, waving blue banners, screaming, “Kard, Kard, Kard.”
Sure. She’d noticed the posters plastered on the walls around her community school and on the deserted houses and warehouses awaiting renovation. Bright splashes of blue amid darkened bricks and vacant windows, but their gaudy colour did nothing to allay the ever-present battle between decline and gentrification.
She might be studying sociology alongside English Lit at A level, but she was not much interested in politics. All that bluster and the many broken promises got on her nerves. It seemed so pointless and fake. Why didn’t they get on and do something?
She glanced over her shoulder admiring the ethereal architecture of the station with its stainless steel curves. Well, they did get some things right. Opening the railway had been a real boon. But there were no shops around the school. In the scramble to build high-value accommodation, shopping had been neglected or relegated to malls. There were many more estate agents in the area than shops. What about the old or those who were handicapped or school children like her? If she wanted a snack, she had to bring it with her or walk miles for one.
Peering over the heads of the swirling masses, the main building of her school rose above the newer buildings that had spawned at its feet like a weary matron from another age scornful of the noisy crowd. Annie enjoyed attending school even if it had its limitations. That very morning, during their outing, she’d complained to Ms Denovic, their sociology teacher, how few computers there were for sixth formers, only to be promised that more were on their way. Not that Annie would benefit from them. This was her last year.
A brass band struck up nearby, blaring trumpets and trombones, even a saxophone, and the incessant battering of drums. The noise was so loud and strident it rattled every bone in her body. It conjured images of war and devastation. During break she’d heard them parading the streets, but she’d paid no attention. It was frankly not her taste in music.
On the walk to school that morning, she ran into several groups of rough-looking youths sporting large blue badges loitering down narrow streets, a fag in one hand, a can of beer in the other. Thank heavens they hadn’t been in the underpass. They ogled her with a mixture of desire and disdain. Terrified, she had been so busy keeping out of their way, she’d had no time to wonder why they were there.
Of course, she’d heard of Kard. Who hadn’t? You couldn’t open a newspaper without his face leering out at you. The man had a regular spot on all the talked-of TV chat programmes. He reminded her of a stuffed pig. A thick-set, blundering oaf who constantly cracked jokes, most of which were in bad taste, often at the expense of women. Some of her friends thought he was a laugh. A few found him handsome. One even claimed to have met him. Her mother called the man a buffoon and was clearly amused. Her father said if he was a buffoon, he was a dangerous one. Ms Denovic said Kard hailed the end of history. Didn’t she mean the end of the world?
Braving the crowd was out of the question. She chose to skirt the pitch, threading her way down the narrow passage between the high barriers designed to stop balls careering into people’s backyards and the fences and hedgerows that bordered two sides of the park. She was going to be late and she had hours of homework to do. She should have known Denovic would give them a massive essay to write over the weekend. The decline of democracy. What a joke! The subject would have taken a lifetime to explore and she had just two days. That was school for you.
The press of the mob stamping and screaming only feet away was scary. Hopefully, the barriers would hold good. Kard’s supporters were more brutish than human. Where had they come from? Her neighbourhood might have been home to a kaleidoscope of races, as was her school, but most of the people were open and friendly, not like this uncouth mob.
Reaching one corner of the pitch, she turned and prepared to squeeze behind a giant blue bus with ‘Keep London Straight’ scrawled across it in bold letters. Goodness only knew how it had got there. Driven across the pitch most likely. What a cheek!
A roar went up from the crowd. Apparently, Kard had climbed onto the stage. “Hello,” he shouted. A rich baritone, not at all the high-pitched squeal you’d expect from a pig. “Be with you in a tick,” he said, his amplified voice slithering through the audience like a caress. “Important business to settle.” The crowd took up the war cry “Kard, Kard, Kard” getting wilder with every repetition. It was like a nightmarish pop concert.
A thick-set bodyguard in an ill-cut suit stepped out in front of her as she went to squeeze behind the bus. “Excuse me,” she said. He didn’t move. “Excuse me,” she repeated, trying to ease past but there was no way around. “Let me by,” she said, trying to push him. He wouldn’t budge. So much for freedom of movement. She’d have to mention it in her essay. “I’ve got homework to do,” she complained. He lifted his watch to his mouth and grunted at it as if issuing orders.
A slender woman dressed in a pinstripe suit and high heels appeared at his side. She stared at Annie, licking her lips in a way that gave Annie the uncomfortable feeling she was about to be someone’s meal. “Nice,” the woman murmured. The bodyguard stepped aside and the woman, taking Annie firmly by the arm, led her to a small door in the side of the bus. She tried to tug free, but the woman was insistent and her hold unbreakable. “You won’t regret it,” she said as she pulled open the door with her free hand and shoved Annie inside.
Two carpeted steps led up to a plush lounge with a number of armchairs and a settee. A large bottle of whiskey stood on a low table along with several half-empty glasses, a gold lighter and a box of cigars. The lights were dimmed and the windows tinted making Annie half blind after the bright sunlight outside. Despite the gloom, she could make out a man sprawled at one end of the settee. She knew that piggy face. It filled her with dread.
“Found this one lurking at the back of the bus,” the woman said casually, as if nabbing stray girls was a regular pursuit. Kard dismissed her with a lazy wave. Annie heard retreating footsteps and the click of a door. She was about to explain when Kard spoke.
“You know who I am?” He drew deeply on his cigar and puffed a large cloud of smoke in her direction. She coughed. Beneath the smell of cigars was another more unpleasant odour.
“I like your uniform,” he said, his eyes riveted on the slender gap between the bottom of her pleated skirt and the top of her long socks. His insistence made her feel exposed. She wished she’d opted for trousers that morning. “The local community school?” he asked, glancing at the school crest on her blazer.
“Not very talkative,” he said looking across the room at a camera pointed straight at her. “Few people get a chance to talk to Nelson Kard.” He pronounced his name as if he were handing her a precious gift.
Pompous fool. She couldn’t help it, she snorted, immediately trying to conceal her scorn with a cough and a hand over her mouth. Speaking her mind had got her into trouble several times at school. Only that morning a few critical words to a school inspector had earned her a summons to the Head’s office.
Luckily Kard didn’t seem to notice, no doubt still revelling in the sound of his own name. Close up, he looked even more like a bloated pig. Repulsive. And he smelt bad. Who would ever want to talk to him? Who would ever vote for him? She certainly wouldn’t if she’d been old enough.
“Sit down,” he said, patting the settee next to him. “Many important people want to see me. So I am glad I was free for your visit.”
What visit? She’d been forced to meet him. If she’d had a choice, she’d be at home now. Blasted man. She stayed stubbornly where she stood, glancing around for exits.
“Don’t be shy,” he said, his voice sinking to almost a whisper, and he got to his feet. What a giant. He must have been at least six-foot-six.
She took a step back, beginning to feel afraid as he loomed closer. Her next step had her bag, which was still slung over her back, press against the wall.
“There’s no need to be afraid,” he murmured. Stepping closer, he laid a proprietary hand on her shoulder. The touch of his podgy fingers made her shudder. This was not right. It was the very scene the woman doctor had described at school in her talk about harassment and abuse. Face to face with an abuser, the talk seemed desperately short on practical advice.
His fingers glided along her collarbone as he leaned ever closer. Panic and revulsion surged in her and she froze. What could she do against such a massive brute? When he pursed his lips for a kiss, fury tore through her. How dare he? She refused to be his victim. Ducking to escape his lips, she angled her shoulder and shoved outwards and upwards with all her might. Her shoulder sank into his paunch, catching him off guard. He huffed, releasing his grip. She scrambled under his outstretched arms, jumped down the stairs and tried the door. It was unlocked. Hearing Kard in pursuit, she swung it open with all her force and darted out.
There was a sickening grunt from behind the door and it slammed shut, narrowly missing her but clipping her bag. The blow sent her spinning. For a moment she was all feet and legs, then she flung out her arms to steady herself. Kard fared less well. He screamed when the door smashed into his face. A groan at her feet had her looking down. The bodyguard lay clutching his bloodied nose. On the other side of the bus, the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy screaming Kard’s name. All hell would break loose the moment they saw his mangled face. The carnage would be on every TV and she would be blamed. Annie swallowed hard. Was she in big trouble! She ran.