Eva drew back from the dying man. His breath was hot on her face, the grip he had on her wrist was tight, but she knew that he had just moments left.
Her heart was beating fast – too fast – and the adrenaline pumping through her body made her muscles burn.
There was now a large crowd of onlookers – it was Waterloo Station at rush hour – but no one else had stepped forward. People just stood and watched, texting or tweeting what was unfolding before their eyes, one eye on the departure boards. Don’t miss that train.
The man had collapsed only moments before. Almost in front of Eva as she ran from a tube train to a bus that would take her to the pub after an unforgiving day. For a split second she had almost swerved round him but the look in the man’s eyes – the terror – stopped her in her tracks.
‘Are you ok?’ she had said, breathlessly, as she tried not to stumble under the man’s weight. His eyes had rolled up towards the ceiling before settling on her once again as he tried to speak. His breath smelled of stale alcohol and he had the unmistakable odour of someone who had not been under a shower for weeks. But he was still alive. Just.
‘Are you ok?’ she had said, again, lowering the man to the cold, hard floor, requiring all her strength to prop up at least 180 pounds of bodyweight. Her muscles shook from the effort. No one helped. It was easy to see why the flock of commuters around her kept their distance. The man had string tied around his waist where the belt to his stained raincoat should be. His hat, now on the floor, was full of holes, and frayed at the brim.
Eva could see a sock through the toe of one of his shoes. Finally, she managed to gently lay him on the floor, took off her scarf and folded it, trying to make him a pillow. She heard mutterings in the crowd – ‘should we call the police?’ ‘tramps, I’m so sick of them’ ‘this problem is getting worse’ – and she saw a flicker of what looked like shame cross the man’s face. He looked at her, eyes suddenly lucid and clear.
‘Kolychak,’ he whispered firmly.
What was that – Russian? Czech?
‘I’m sorry I don’t understand.’
‘Kolychak,’ he said again. And then louder, but still whispered, ‘KOLYCHAK.’
He made a sudden grab for the front of Eva’s coat and pulled her face next to his.
‘Ko-ly-chak,’ he said fervently and tears started to fall from his eyes.
Somewhere in Eva’s mind, recognition flared. But she couldn’t reach it.
‘I don’t understand. Can you tell me who you are, what’s happened to you? We need to get you some help.’
Suddenly, the man let out an ear-piercing shriek that echoed around the station hall. Every person in the enormous space stopped; most turned to face the direction from which the unearthly sound had come.
Eva pulled herself away, stumbled, fell and then sat and stared at him in horror. The noise made her blood run completely cold. Then the man began to buck and writhe, as if someone was extracting his insides with a toasting fork. No one else moved. Liquid began to bubble and froth at his mouth. It had a bluish tinge. Abruptly, he stopped choking. His body became completely rigid, his eyes wide. Finally, he was still.
Eva heard her heartbeat thumping in her ears. She stared at the man on the floor. Reaching out a shaking hand, she felt his wrist for a pulse. Nothing.
‘Shit, is he ok?’ asked one of her fellow commuters. She looked at him for several seconds.
When she reached the pub – a ‘historic’ site just off High Holborn – she walked up to the ground floor bar and ordered a straight shot of brandy. She had barely reacted to the dying man at the time – the desire for flight had been too strong – but now she felt shaky and unsettled. Her friends, she knew, were in the bar upstairs in an area reserved for some birthday or other but she needed five minutes alone. Not that she would have it here. Even though it was only a Tuesday night, seething crowds had descended on the City and the man to her left appeared to be planning an imminent introduction. She turned away from him, looked out at the room around her and finished her drink. ‘Do you have a cigarette machine?’ she asked the barman.
‘No, love. There’s a supermarket round the corner though.’
By the time Eva returned to the pub, she was 20 minutes late for the party but still she didn’t go upstairs. She bought herself another brandy from the bar and leaned against the wall outside the building. She smoked three cigarettes in a row. After that, she felt pretty awful.
‘There you are! We thought you weren’t coming!’
Three of Eva’s friends tumbled out of the pub door, rosy cheeked from booze and laughing. Behind them came Sam, the man who had most recently shared Eva’s bed. She looked at him and he smiled. She smiled back but there was no stomach flip.
She made her excuses for being late but when she tried to tell the story of the man on the floor at Waterloo words failed her. She tried again when Sam went to the bar but she couldn’t. Ok, she reasoned eventually, why ruin their night with something she wanted to forget anyway. Sam returned with the drinks and then was at her side. He took her hand. She freed it to light a cigarette.
‘You’re smoking?’ He raised his light eyebrows towards a shock of blond hair.
She nodded and smiled. ‘Bad day.’
He gave her a hug. ‘Go on, give me one too then,’ he whispered in her ear.
She pulled back and then handed over the slim white cigarette and watched him try not to smoke it like a non-smoker.
Conversations in the group continued as one, and then two, more cigarettes were smoked to avoid a return to the cold for an hour at least. Then, the others drifted back inside. Sam pulled at her hand but she remained planted against the wall.
‘Are you ok?’
He came and stood opposite her, put his arms around her waist and stepped forward so that their faces were close.
‘I’m fine.’ She could feel that she was rigid in his arms. You’re still adjusting to being in a relationship, she told herself. It’s not him, it’s you.
He kissed her. ‘See you upstairs,’ he said and walked back into the pub smiling at her over his shoulder, attracting admiring glances as he went.
Eva turned the other way and leaned sideways against the wall. Her head hurt.
The word the man at the station had uttered was circling round and round her mind: kolychak-kolychak-kolychak. It was maddening.
She didn’t understand, she had never even seen him before. But she couldn’t forget what he had said – the incident had shaken her more deeply than it should.
She felt her phone vibrate in her bag and, grateful for the distraction from her thoughts, dug it out.
The display showed two words, starkly white against the blood red background she had chosen as a screensaver:
When she arrived at her flat that night, Eva double locked her front door and drew the chain across – something she never really did, despite living in one of the more ‘up and coming’ neighbourhoods of London.
Once inside, she stood with her back to the door and took several deep breaths.
As soon as she had seen that name on the display of her phone, Eva had started to run. She wasn’t sure where the instinct came from but she hadn’t even picked up the call. In fact, she had dropped her phone and had to rush after it as it skittered towards the edge of the kurb. A bus pulling up at a stop she hadn’t noticed was forced to skid to a halt, the driver sounding the horn angrily. She had been shocked, unaware of the peril so close, and had snatched her phone from the gutter and continued to run.
After that, a bus opposite Holborn station transported her to Camden, where she decided to walk home. On the way, a supermarket stop: a bottle of wine, another packet of cigarettes – a tin of tomato soup as an afterthought.
She’d made the journey home on autopilot. In her head the words ‘kolychak’ and ‘Jackson’ revolved mercilessly.
Jackson was her brother – her dead brother.