Mindy was turning the corner into Moyser Road when she felt the first spots of rain. She brushed them off the shoulders of her jacket and looked up at the clouds, wishing that she had thought to bring her mother’s umbrella with her.
She was on her way to Budgens store to buy some tinned tomatoes and mixed herbs, so that she could make her casserole. She had been taught how to prepare it in her cookery class at school, although at school they had used chicken breasts.
Mindy was feeling so hungry that she had retched over the toilet several times since waking up this morning, but after her experience with Sprout she couldn’t face eating anything raw. That was why she had decided on the one recipe that she knew how to cook. When she had proudly brought her casserole home for her mother and father to taste, they had both told her how much they liked it, and that made her feel much more at ease about what she was going to do. At least they were going to be cooked in a dish that they enjoyed.
She went into the store and bought everything that she needed, as well as two Mars bars and a box of Bakewell tarts. She had seven pounds in coins which she had taken from the jar in which her mother kept her loose change.
As she came up to the counter to pay, the Pakistani shop assistant smiled and said, ‘No school for you today, miss?’
‘School?’ she frowned. ‘I haven’t been to school for years.’
‘Oh. They teach you at home then?’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. Why don’t you just mind your own business?’
‘Well, I’m sorry, miss. But there’s no need for you to be so rude.’
Mindy counted out the money she owed him and placed it on the counter. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Five pounds sixty-five. It’s a pity it won’t pay for you to go back to wherever you came from.’
The shop assistant opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but then he thought better of it and simply shook his head. Mindy left the shop and started to walk home, although by now a fine soft rain was falling across the road like a funeral procession of nearly invisible ghosts, and she knew that she was going to get soaked through. She would have to use her mother’s hair-dryer to dry her jacket, because she wouldn’t be able to take it off. Not that she wanted to take it off – it felt as much a part of her now as her own skin.
She had almost reached the corner of Nimrod Road when a silver BMW drew up alongside her, and the passenger window was put down. A grey-haired man in thick-rimmed glasses leaned over from the driver’s seat and called out, ‘Hey there, darling! Need a lift, do you? It looks like you’re going to get yourself drowned out there!’
The collar of her jacket was already sopping, and Mindy knew how stiff velvet went when it got wet. She said, ‘Yes, thank you! I only live just around the corner!’
‘Hop in, then,’ the man told her, and she opened the door and climbed into the passenger seat.
‘Halfway down Nimrod Road, just past Spalding Road,’ she told him.
‘Well, you’re the pretty one, aren’t you?’ said the man, grinning at her. She reminded him of her Uncle Jim, with a bulbous nose and a prickly grey moustache. He was wearing a Tattersall shirt with a brown tie and a grubby khaki windcheater. Unlike her Uncle Jim, who had reeked of cigarette smoke and Voltarol liniment, this man had liberally sprayed himself with Lynx Dark Temptation, which smelled like chocolate, although Mindy could still detect a strong underlying odour of unwashed armpits.
‘You won’t mind, will you, if I nip home first?’ the man asked her, as he pulled away from the kerb. ‘I forgot my bloody phone, that’s the trouble, excuse my French. It won’t take a second for me to find it. You can come in and see my goldfish. I’ve got some really rare goldfish. One of them’s worth more than a hundred pounds. Can you believe that? A hundred pounds! Just for a tiny little fish!’
He didn’t wait for Mindy to answer, but drove straight past the intersection with Nimrod Road and carried on south-east along Moyser Road until he reached Pretoria Road, which was another long street with red-brick Victorian terraces on either side. He turned left, and drove another two hundred metres before he pulled in and parked outside a house with a luridly green front door.
‘I’ll wait for you,’ said Mindy.
‘Oh. I can’t let you do that, darling. I’d get into all kinds of trouble for leaving a minor unattended in my car. Besides, don’t you want to see my hundred-pound goldfish? It’s a twisty-tailed tosaku.’
Mindy was about to say, I’m not in the least bit interested in your twisty-tailed tosaku. And besides, I’m not a minor. But then she thought: He doesn’t know that. And I’m hungry. And perhaps he needs to be taught a lesson for picking up a young girl off the street with who knows what in mind.
‘All right,’ she said, and opened up the car door.
‘Good girl,’ said the man, and climbed out of the car himself.
It was still raining, and so the man put his arm around her shoulders and hustled her quickly up to the green front door. He took out his door key and inserted it into the lock, but before he turned it he looked around as if he were making sure that none of his neighbours had seen him. Then he opened the door and almost shoved Mindy inside.
The house was gloomy and smelled of damp and something else sweetish and unpleasant, like unwashed socks. It didn’t look as if it had been redecorated since the 1960s, because the maroon and yellow wallpaper was faded and the paint on the interior doors was peeling.
‘In here,’ said the man, and ushered Mindy into the living-room, where there were two sagging Parker Knoll armchairs and a worn-out brown sofa. The man took off his windcheater and hung it over the back of one of the armchairs, and then he went over to the beige tiled fireplace and switched on a three-bar electric fire.
‘Want to be nice and toasty, don’t we?’ he said, chafing his hands together. Then he said, ‘Oh, yes! This way for the twisty-tailed tosaku!’
He led Mindy through to the open-plan dining-room, where the goldfish tank was standing on top of a cheap walnut sideboard. Outside, she could see a small back garden, densely overgrown with nettles and bindweed, with a broken deckchair lying on its side next to a weathered plastic gnome. The man stood behind Mindy and placed his hands on her shoulders, gently massaging her with his thumbs.
‘My name’s Barry, by the way,’ he told her. He spoke in a soft, hoarse voice, so close to the top of Mindy’s head that she could feel his breath in her hair. ‘What’s yours, darling? You’re a very pretty girl, aren’t you? Very, very pretty. You should be a model, do you know that?’
‘Which one’s the twisty-tailed tosaku?’ asked Mindy. ‘The water’s all dirty and I can’t see any fish at all.’
‘What’s your name, darling?’ Barry asked her.
‘Varvara. But I can’t see any fish.’
‘Varvara? That’s an unusual name, but beautiful. I’ll have to clean the tank out, won’t I, Varvara? Then you’ll be able to see all the fish. Would you like me to take some photos of you, Varvara?’
‘Why? Because you’re so pretty. And if I took some photos I could send them off to a magazine and you could be a famous model. How about that? Wouldn’t your daddy and mummy be proud?’
‘No, they wouldn’t.’
‘Oh, I’ll bet they would be. Their pretty young daughter Varvara, in a magazine. Why don’t I go and fetch my camera?’
Mindy thought for a moment, and then she said, ‘All right, then.’ There was no expression in her voice at all. She had already been working out what she was going to do from the moment that Barry had pushed her in through the front door.
‘You’ll be famous, I promise you!’ said Barry. ‘It’s upstairs, my camera, so I won’t be a moment. Why don’t you take that jacket off, for a start?’
Mindy didn’t answer. Barry turned her around and grinned at her again and gave her a wink. Then he left the room and ran upstairs. His footsteps quickly crossed the bedroom above the dining area, and she heard a wardrobe door bang.
You poor deluded fool. I’ve known so many men like you. And I know what they want from naïve young girls.
There was a door on the right-hand side of the dining area. She went over and opened it, and as she expected, she found herself in the kitchen. It was narrow and dirty, with a rust-stained sink and a draining-board heaped with crumpled shirts and underpants waiting to be washed. The enamel gas stove was at least forty years old, with three dented aluminium saucepans sitting on top of it.
Mindy opened one drawer after another, until she came across what she was looking for: a small wooden-handled paring-knife. She pressed the edge of the blade against the ball of her thumb, and even though she would have liked it to be sharper, it would have to do. She didn’t care how much pain it caused Barry, being so blunt. He deserved it, and she was so hungry by now that she could have been sick, if her stomach hadn’t been empty.
She dropped the knife into the pocket of her jacket and returned to the dining-room. A few moments later, Barry came back downstairs, whistling tunelessly and swinging a Leica camera with a flash attachment. By now Mindy was peering into the fish tank as if she really believed that there were any goldfish in it.
‘You haven’t taken off your jacket, darling,’ said Barry, setting down the camera on the dining-room table. ‘Do you want me to give you a hand with it?’
‘No,’ said Mindy, without looking away from the fish tank. She could see a phantom reflection of her own face in the dark green glass, but it didn’t look like her at all. It looked older, and more secretive. It looked sly.
‘You’ll have to take the jacket off,’ Barry told her. ‘These photos, you know, they’ve got to be glamorous.’
Now Mindy turned around to face him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, come on, you’re a girl, you know what glamorous means. Sexy. I know you’re only young but that’s what makes you so attractive. You’ve seen those girls from Love Island and those reality shows like that. And some of those women on Facebook like your Kim Kardashian. They know they’re pretty and they like to show themselves off. That’s what the magazines are looking for. Glamour. Especially the online ones.’
Mindy came up very close to him. She was only four feet six inches tall, and he was five feet nine, so she had to tilt her head back to look up into his face. In turn, he had to look down at her so that his double chin bulged over his shirt collar.
‘So what is it you want me to do?’ she asked him, and again her voice was completely expressionless – so expressionless that even Barry was slightly thrown off, and hesitated before he answered her.
‘Well, you know!’ he blustered. ‘You’ve seen these girls, haven’t you? They pose in their bikinis, don’t they, and their underwear? They take these selfies in their bathrooms, in their bras and their knickers. That’s what the magazines are looking for.’
Mindy said nothing but kept on staring up at him.
‘I mean, you’re obviously too young to be wearing a bra,’ he continued. ‘You’re wearing knickers, though, aren’t you? Or perhaps you’re not. I know some young girls don’t. But the magazines like that, too. We could take a few pictures without your knickers. You wouldn’t mind that, would you? All perfectly innocent. And you’re very, very pretty.’
Mindy still said nothing, and still kept staring up at him.
‘How about taking your jacket off, for a start?’ said Barry. ‘Let’s start off with some fashion-type shots, and see how those go. Then we can think about a few glamour shots afterwards.’
Mindy beckoned to him with her left index finger.
‘What?’ he said, and leaned forward with his hand cupped to his ear, expecting her to say something. Instead, she took the paring-knife out of her pocket, swung her arm sideways and stabbed him in his bulging neck. Then she tugged the blunt blade down towards her so that it ripped a ragged two-inch hole in his grey-stubbled skin.
She missed his carotid artery, but blood still spurted out of his neck, soaking his collar and splattering his sleeve. He took three or four staggering steps backwards, pressing his right hand against his neck and waving with his left as if he were waving Mindy goodbye.
‘You— gah!’ he choked. ‘What have you— gah!’
He took another two steps backwards, and fell onto the sofa, his eyes bulging and his whole right hand as red and shiny as a rubber glove.
‘Ambulance,’ he gargled, and a bubble of blood swelled out from between his lips and popped. ‘Nine nine nine. Please.’ He had been grey before but now he was ashen with shock.
Mindy came into the sitting-room and stood over him.
‘No,’ she said.
Barry shook his head. He tried to speak, but the knife had penetrated his trachea and he was choking on his own blood. He coughed, and a fine scarlet spray settled all over his face.
‘Am—’ he began, but then he coughed again, explosively, before wheezing his breath back into his lungs. Mindy could hear the blood crackling in his lungs.
She knelt down beside the sofa and laid her left hand on the fly of Barry’s grey chinos. She gave him a squeeze and then she smiled at him.
‘Well, well, Barry. How about that? You’re still half hard. It got you all excited, did it, thinking about pretty little Varvara with no knickers on?’
Barry shook his head wildly from side to side. He was beyond denying it. He was desperate for some way to stop himself bleeding, and for air.
Mindy put down the knife and started to tug at Barry’s zip with both hands. He gargled and tried to hump his hips sideways but she pushed him back against the seat-cushions and said, ‘Keep still, Barry! You’re not the twisty-tailed tosaku! Not that you really have one, do you, you fibber! I’ll bet you don’t even have a tin of sardines in that tank! Twisty-tailed tosaku – I ask you!’
Barry was panicking too much to notice how Mindy’s voice had changed. She no longer sounded like a nine-year-old Tooting schoolgirl at all. Every word was harsh, and cutting, in what used to be called a BBC accent, although some of her flattened vowels gave her away, like ‘twisty-telled.’ She sounded more like a seventy-eight-year-old Eastern European immigrant who had learned to speak English from the radio, and imagined that she was upper-class.
Mindy puckered her mouth in disgust as she reached into Barry’s open fly. She scooped out his penis, which was already beginning to shrivel, and stretched it upward as far as she could. Barry made no attempt to stop her. His eyelids were fluttering and blood was running from the side of his mouth.
Picking up the paring-knife, Mindy cut into the side of Barry’s penis, slicing through the skin and then the spongy tissue inside. Because the knife was so blunt, she had to saw hard to separate the last stubborn web of skin, but then Barry was left with nothing but a ragged stump. For a few seconds it pumped out blood, but then his veins went into spasm and the bleeding was reduced to a steady leakage which gradually spread across the front of his chinos.
Mindy stood up, holding Barry’s severed penis between finger and thumb. She dangled it in front of his face, and said, ‘Look, Barry! Look! You won’t have any more problems with young girls now! Don’t fall asleep, Barry! Look!’
Barry opened his eyes and tried to focus, but Mindy could tell that he didn’t understand what he was looking at. Because he had been keeping his hand pressed against his neck, she could see that the flow of blood had subsided, and it gave her a shiver of satisfaction to think that he could well survive this ordeal. Not only would he never be able to assault a young girl again, but he would have to explain to his doctor what had happened to him. What could he possibly say? That his hedge-trimmer had slipped while he was gardening in the nude? That he had decided to castrate himself?
She left the sitting-room and went through to the kitchen. She dropped the paring-knife in the sink and then she opened up the overhead cupboards one after the other until she found a willow-pattern plate on which she could place Barry’s penis. She thought that it looked more like a purple-headed slug than a part of a human body, and she could almost imagine it crawling off the plate and painfully trying to hump its way across the draining-board.
She washed the blood off her hands in cold water, and then she opened the fridge to see if she could find some butter. The fridge contained nothing but five tomatoes, a litre of milk and some curled-up luncheon meat. In one of the cupboards, though, she found a half-empty bottle of sunflower oil. She took it out and poured a little into the bottom of one of the saucepans.
When the oil was hot, she tipped Barry’s penis into it. It sizzled sharply and shrivelled up even more. She prodded it with the handle of a wooden spoon so that it would crisp evenly all round, and wouldn’t burn. It smelled like the pork katleti her grandmother used to fry in Serpukhov when she was a girl, only a little younger than Mindy. It brought back so many memories of who she had been before she died, and she could feel her true personality flooding even faster into Mindy’s mind. It was like a dam breaking apart, so that Mindy’s nine years were swirled helplessly away as her seventy-eight years of pain and hate and suffering came pouring out.
Once Barry’s penis was fried, she lifted it out of the saucepan and dropped it back onto the willow-pattern plate. She carried it into the sitting-room and she was pleased to see that Barry now had his eyes open, although he was still lying on his back on the sofa and his face was still so white that it looked as if it had been dusted with flour.
She knelt down beside him again, and held up the plate so that he could see it clearly.
‘Please,’ he croaked, and coughed up more blood. ‘Ambulance. Please.’
‘Do you know what this is?’ she said.
Barry tried to focus on it, but then he shook his head.
‘This is you. This is your wacek. And this is your punishment for thinking that you could have your way with me. Your punishment but my reward. You know what we say in Vilnius? Głód nie jest ciotką. Nie przyniesie ci ciasta. That means, hunger is not your aunt. It will not bring you a pie. If you want a pie, you have to cook it for yourself.’
‘Who are you?’ said Barry.
Mindy picked up his penis and smiled at him. ‘You poor sad man! What a клоун you are! My name isn’t really Varvara, I can assure you of that. And I am not what you think I am. Look into my eyes. Who do you see there, Barry? Who do you see?’
With that, she bit into his glans and started to chew it with her mouth open so that he could watch every bite. It was much more gristly than she had expected, and after she had chewed it for two or three minutes it had lost all of its pork-like flavour. She shifted it from one side of her mouth to the other, and eventually she had to swallow it, stringy and lumpy as it still was.
Barry’s eyes closed again, and he started to shudder. Mindy sat beside him for a few minutes longer, but then she put down the plate and stood up. She didn’t feel like eating what was left of his penis, even though she was still hungry, and what was the point if he wasn’t conscious, and couldn’t see her doing it? When her mother had beaten her, when she was a child, she had always made her stand in front of the long mirror in the hallway so that she could witness her own distress.
She reached into the inside pocket of Barry’s windcheater and took out his brown plastic wallet. She found two £10 notes, a £5 note and an Aqua credit card, as well as his driving licence and a photograph of a woman with frizzy brown hair and a squint. She took the money and dropped the wallet onto the floor.
‘Do widzenia, głupcze!’ she said to Barry. ‘Goodbye, you fool! Have a happy life!’
She went to the front door. She would have to retrieve her shopping from Barry’s car, but then she could walk home and start to make her casserole. Her house was only about five minutes away, and from what she had seen from the sitting-room window, the rain seemed to have eased off now.
As she reached up to the handle the doorbell rang. She hesitated for a moment, but then she opened the door a few inches and looked around it to see who was out there. It was a black woman police officer, in uniform.
‘Are you all right, young lady?’ the WPC asked her.
‘Sorry. What do you mean, “all right”?’
‘Can I speak to the man who lives in this house?’
‘Are you related to him?’
‘If you’re not related to him, can you tell me what you’re doing here?’
‘I’m just leaving. I have to go home.’
‘Just round the corner. Nimrod Road.’
‘What’s your name, love?’
‘Can you tell me why you’re here? One of the neighbours saw you entering the house with the man who lives here, and she was concerned. Is he still here? I’d like to speak to him, if I may.’
‘Let me come in, please. I only want to have a few words with him, just to make sure that everything’s OK.’
‘There’s nothing wrong. I have to go home now.’
‘Yes, love. But why are you here?’
‘He gave me a lift because it was raining.’
‘All right. But I still need to talk to him. It won’t take long.’
‘Why can’t I? He is still here, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, but you can’t speak to him.’
The WPC said, ‘I’m sorry, Mindy, but I’m going to have to come inside and talk to him. He’s known to us, that’s why. I can’t tell you what he’s done but it gives me reasonable grounds to enter the property and ask him some questions.’
‘Don’t you need a warrant?’
The WPC frowned at Mindy and said, ‘How old are you, love?’
‘Nine? Really? When I was nine I had no idea what a warrant was. But since you’re asking, I can enter the property if I have a reasonable suspicion that a breach of the peace may have been committed or is about to be committed and that the offender is the owner or occupier and still on the premises.’
‘He didn’t touch me, and I have to go home now.’
The WPC said, ‘Come on, Mindy, don’t make this difficult.’
Mindy said nothing, but looked across at Barry’s car, wondering if she could run across and grab her shopping before the WPC could stop her. After a few seconds’ thought, though, she decided that she probably couldn’t, and in any case the WPC would chase her up the street. She let go of the door and stood with her back against the wall, so that the WPC could step inside.
‘Where is he, Mindy?’ the WPC asked her.
Mindy nodded towards the sitting-room door.
‘Mr Williams!’ the WPC called out. ‘This is the police! Can you hear me? I’m coming in to have a quick word with you!’
She entered the sitting-room while Mindy remained in the hallway, her back still pressed against the wall, her eyes closed. There was no point in trying to run away. The WPC would only follow her home, and then they would find her father and mother. At least she could say that she had stabbed Barry in self-defence, because he had threatened to strip off her clothes and take pornographic pictures of her. His camera was still there on the dining table, as proof, and she wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had a computer with indecent images of young girls on it.
Almost at once, the WPC came back out of the sitting-room, her mouth wide open in shock.
‘My God, Mindy, what happened to him? Who did that to him? Was there somebody else here? Or did he do it himself?’
Before Mindy could answer, though, she switched on her R/T and made an urgent call for paramedics and for back-up. Then she said, ‘Stay there, love. Please don’t move. There’s help on the way.’ She went back into the sitting-room and Mindy could only assume that she was trying to stem the bleeding from Barry’s neck and his severed penis.
She was bored now, and she was still painfully hungry. It was more than a feeling that her stomach was empty. It was a gnawing sensation as if parasites were crawling inside every bone in her skeleton and devouring the marrow. Her pelvis, her thighbones, her ribcage. She felt as if they were inside her skull, too. If she didn’t feed them, she didn’t know how long she would be able to survive, and she didn’t want to go back to being dead.
To distract herself from her hunger, she started singing a nursery rhyme that her mother used to sing.
‘There was a gypsy who had a long nose
She was asking how to shorten her nose!
She was told to buy some butter
Put it on her nose, and then
Cut it with an axe!’