I put a spell on you

John Burnside

In the spring of 1958, my family moved from a rat-haunted tenement on King Street to one of the last remaining prefabs in Cowdenbeath. It was a move up, in most ways; the prefabs had been built as temporary wartime accommodation but, to my child’s mind at least, the cold and the damp, the putty-tainted pools of condensation on winter mornings and the airless heat of August afternoons were minor concerns compared with the pleasure of living on our own garden plot, in what was, essentially, a detached house, just yards from a stand of high beech trees where tawny owls hunted through the night, their to-and-fro cries so close it seemed they were right there with us, in the tiny bedroom I shared with my sister, Margaret. Just beyond that stand of trees was Kirk’s chicken farm, where the birds ran free in wide pens and Mr Kirk, who lived in an old stone house that I took for a mansion, walked back and forth all day, distributing the feed, collecting the eggs and mucking out the henhouses. Later, when I was old enough, he would let me walk with him, and I took great pride in keeping pace with a grown man as he went about his business, peering into the incubators and manhandling heavy buckets of grain from here to there while he watched, with a soft, contained amusement. On the other side of the house, towards what I liked to think of as open country, the fields ran away to the strip woods, in one direction, and the grey, leechy waters of Loch Fitty, in the other, and I wandered out there whenever I could, imagining myself a child of the countryside, like the boys in picture books, or one of the chums from the Rupert annuals my Auntie Sall gave me every year for Christmas.

I was only three when we moved to Blackburn Drive but it wasn’t long before I grasped that we were ‘coming up’ in the world. By the time I was seven, we had a television set and on Sundays, even though it was school the next day, Margaret and I would occasionally be allowed to sit up, eating ice cream from Katy’s van and watching Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I don’t know why I ever thought of this as a treat: the show wasn’t very interesting to a seven-year-old and, though they sometimes had pop stars on the bill, it was mostly dancers and novelty acts. Soon my loyalties switched to Juke Box Jury, where you could hear the latest releases and the panellists were slender and nice-looking, with beehive hairdos and Mod dresses, like my cousin Madeleine. They weren’t as beautiful, though, and when Madeleine came round to our house, as she sometimes did on a Saturday, I would sit for hours at the kitchen table while she and my mother chatted, fascinated by her long, slim fingers and the cherry red or powder blue varnish on her nails. Every time she came, she looked different – new nails, new hair, a new dress – but she was always Madeleine. The very first time we met, at another cousin’s wedding, I had fallen in love with her – and I’ve been in love with her ever since, in various guises. She was ten years older than me and engaged to a merchant seaman called Jackie, but she was the one who made me see that the lyrics of all the love songs I’d heard on Juke Box Jury, or on my mother’s radio, actually meant something. I’d thought they were just words, snippets of gibberish and hyperbole that nobody could possibly take seriously, but now I knew different because, now, I was in love, and love felt very odd to me, like hearing the first few lines of a story I would never read to the end, because the end belonged to somebody else.

Even I knew I was suffering from a crush and, besides, there was so much to love back then, in the easy, boyish way that I suspect most men wish would last for ever. At nine, I loved almost everything, more or less unconditionally. The hushed theatre of the year’s first snow. Teeming thaw water in the ditches and gutters. The arc of a well-thrown ball through the summer air. That faraway look in Judy Garland’s eyes when the dull storyline pauses and she opens her mouth to sing. Kyries and the black vestments on Good Friday. The blur of the host on my tongue and the taunts of the high-school girls as I walked home along Stenhouse Street and up through the woods by Kirk’s farm. Most of all, I loved the older sisters of my schoolfriends; still slender girls turning into women more or less beautiful and undamaged, for now, by wedlock, they were wonderful, free creatures with money in their purses and sweet, lipsticky smiles for the soppy kid who crossed their paths from time to time. All these things made me happy, and it didn’t bother me that such happiness was an affair of the moment. A few minutes, an hour, a September afternoon in the park: the moments came, and then they were gone, so they remained mysterious and uncontaminated – a gift rather than a burden.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, just after Madeleine and Jackie got married, my mother took me to visit them in their new flat, and Madeleine played us a record she had just bought. It was ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Nina Simone, and in the space of two and a half minutes I reached the conclusion that this was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Everybody stopped talking to listen and, when it was over, we all sat round the table, dumbstruck, until Jackie put it on again. Never having heard the song before, I thought Simone’s was the original version and this magical, if slightly sad, afternoon stayed at the back of my mind for years, with the snapshots of my mother and Madeleine in Pittencrieff Park, and the sound of Janice Nicholls on Thank Your Lucky Stars saying, ‘I’ll give it foive,’ strands in the fabric of myself that remained more or less hidden, but were there all the same, like the creatures in a 1950s horror film, asleep for now in the Black Lagoon, but ready to be reawakened by the smallest shift in the weather or the tide.

I must have heard that song, in several versions, over the next decade or so, but I forgot it, more or less, till a girl called Annie leaned over the back of her seat and sang it to me, one Saturday afternoon in the Charolais café in Corby, her breath smelling of Bacardi and instant coffee, her painted smile just inches from my face:

I put a spell on you,
because you’re mi-i-i-ne,
You better stop the things you do-o,
I ain’t ly-ing …

I was startled by this. I didn’t know Annie that well, though I’d often noticed her when she came in, because she was always laughing, always making desperate, slightly hysterical fun of everyone around her, especially herself: a careless, naive, somewhat fearful girl of 19, clinging blindly to the sense she had acquired somewhere that, if you didn’t take anything too seriously, there would never be anything to worry about.

So I had noticed her, but I’d never paid her any obvious attention and I wasn’t attracted to her, which was always the dividing line, back then, between the girls you bothered with and the ones who blurred into the wallpaper. I did know one of the gang she went around with, a very thin blonde with smudgy blue eyes called Charlotte, and that day, I was aware of her, just off to one side, watching the performance with the rest of the café, while Annie carried on singing and I sat frozen, mesmerised by the proximity and the publicness of it all. I’d actually gone out with Charlotte a couple of times, but after a drunken night in Coronation Park, it had all come to nothing and, when she started turning up at the Charolais on Saturday afternoons, it was a relief when she decided to pretend we’d never met. Now, though, she fixed me with a grim, oddly vengeful stare and waited to see what would happen next.

The Charolais was a greasy spoon in Corby’s shopping precinct, where people whiled away the afternoon over a coffee or a bowl of ice cream. It was a short walk from most places, and almost next door to my usual Saturday hangout, a dark, faux-timbered bar room called the Corinthian, where you could buy anything from Benzedrine to a cut-price bridesmaid’s dress. For a long time, I spent every single Saturday at the Corinthian, right up until the bar staff threw me and the last malingerers out at 2.45. More often than not, I would be ekeing out that cup of coffee because I’d spent everything I had by last orders. That didn’t matter, though. I didn’t go to the Charolais to eat; I went for the company.

Or rather, I went there to wait, with the company, till Karen showed up. Usually, she arrived mid-afternoon, after a trawl round the shops with her friend Gail; because she was married, she didn’t sit with me, but we had evolved a Byzantine system of signs and prompts that allowed us to communicate across the room, a system that, nine times out of ten, was effective enough that, when the moment was right, we could slip away and meet somewhere, away from prying eyes. That day, however, she turned up just in time to witness the impromptu serenade and, when Annie broke off suddenly and slumped back into her seat to laugh at her friends, Karen was the first person I saw among the half-dozen amused spectators. She had obviously just stepped through the door and (still, I thought, more or less in role) was regarding me with what would have seemed, to an indifferent observer, nothing more than amused puzzlement. Yet something else was visible in her eyes and, for a moment, I thought she was hurt, not by some imagined romance with Annie, but by the fact that, because I was single, and a man, I could involve myself in any silliness I liked, while she had to stand by and pretend that she didn’t care, not just for her own sake, but for mine. Her husband, Peter, was well liked by the hardnut, Rangers Club toughs and, if our affair was ever discovered, she knew exactly what would happen to us both – especially to me. Still, whatever the emotion was that I had seen in her face, it quickly melted away as she nodded briefly, not at me, but at the clutch of girls round the next table, before she joined Gail, who had already found a free place some distance away. Gail knew, of course, but she had been sworn to secrecy, a secrecy she resented, partly because she thought I was an idiot, but mostly because her husband, Jimmy, was Peter’s best friend and, if things ever came out, she would have some explaining to do. Of course, Gail’s intense dislike of me would sometimes come to the surface, which posed a real threat to our shabby little secret because, as everybody knows, there’s a thin line between love and hate and, sometimes, a casual observer will mistake one for the other, with potentially disastrous consequences.

My mother didn’t like television to begin with; she preferred to stay in the kitchen and listen to the radio. She would sing along with novelty items from her own era – ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy’, say, or ‘What did Delaware, boys, what did Delaware?’ – but when a love song came on, she would stop peeling potatoes or sifting the flour, and stand by the window to listen. Her favourite, as I recall, was Andy Williams’s version of ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love’ – which, in some ways, is the flipside to ‘I Put a Spell on You’. To fall willingly, helplessly, under that possibly malevolent spell had, to my child’s way of thinking, a troubling innocence to it and, for various reasons, that innocence has beguiled me ever since. Time and time again – helplessly, inevitably – I have rushed in ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ (another Andy Williams favourite) and then wondered vainly how to rush back out again. Time and time again, I haven’t worked out how to deliver the appropriate goodbye and, like my mother, perhaps, I have waited – because waiting brings a grim satisfaction that, while it isn’t quite penitence, can feel awfully like it.

It’s terribly dishonest, of course, this penitential condition. Soon, we who cannot leave our proverbial better halves begin to sneak around, helplessly smitten, or at least diverted, by some passing stranger (in my mother’s case, I am sure, these affairs were purest fantasy, imaginary moments shared with matinee idols, newscasters and, possibly, the odd Catholic priest). The only thing to say in our defence is that we know the other’s fear is not of being left by us, but of being abandoned, in the abstract, by anyone. It’s an ashes in the mouth conclusion, when it comes, but it cannot be avoided and, perversely, it offers just that little bit extra to our penitential hearts: what could be better than a banal and, at bottom, pointless sacrifice? To stay, in effect, not because the other needs me, but because he or she needs somebody, and I am better than nothing. It didn’t take long to discover that Karen was also a longstanding penitent, the bored wife who would never leave, though she probably prayed every day to be saved by some hypothetical other woman, just as, in the years that followed, I learned to imagine the perfect other man, a suave, sinister, yet oddly likeable chap who wandered through my daydreams in an Abercrombie & Fitch scarf and Italian shoes, confident and solicitous and ultimately shallow, like some CIA operative (played by Cliff Robertson) in an old conspiracy movie. I don’t know what kind of woman Karen imagined as her rescuer – but I know she imagined someone and she knew that, if this someone didn’t come soon, she would never escape.

An hour or so after Annie’s serenade, I was in a clearing in the woods behind the civic centre, waiting for my secret love. It was one of our special places, and we used it often: there, we could be safe from prying eyes and, should anyone stray from the network of paths that wound between the town centre and the new boating lake, we would hear them coming through the thick undergrowth. As usual, we had left the Charolais separately, taking different routes through town and out, past the swimming-baths and the delivery area behind the civic; I was, as always, the first to arrive. Gail, meanwhile, would be taking a stroll around the shops, or sitting in the library with her invisible companion, providing the basis for whatever alibi might be needed later. It was a matter of principle for us, and perhaps even pride, that we chose to be very careful adulterers, more careful than most in that town – and I don’t doubt that we saw ourselves as both guilty and cunning in the conduct of our affair. In truth, however, we were complete innocents.

It was a warm day. Karen always looked her best on warm days: she disliked the cold, hated damp, and thin summer clothes emphasised a figure I can only describe now, with a mixture of regret and nostalgia, as lithe. A slender, rather girlish woman in her mid-twenties, she had light brown hair and amused, searching eyes, but it was her voice I liked best, a sweet, slightly singing voice that, without a hint of affectation, could reduce me to helpless craving whenever she decided to ‘talk dirty’ (which she did, from time to time, enjoying the effect it had on me a little too obviously). Today, though, she wanted to play another game, a familiar, play jealousy routine that I never quite knew how to take.

‘You want to watch out for Annie James,’ she said, as she emerged from the trees and came to stand facing me. ‘She’s spoken for already, so I hear.’

I didn’t say anything. I just stood watching, waiting to touch her – but Karen had turned unexpectedly serious. She shook her head. ‘She’s such an idiot, that girl,’ she said.

‘How so?’

‘She’s going out with Kenny Wilson now. Which is bad enough. The thing is, Kenny hasn’t told Agnes, and when she finds out, it’s going to get nasty.’

I racked my brain. I tried to picture Kenny Wilson, but I couldn’t place him, and I didn’t know, then, that the Agnes referred to was Agnes McCrorie, a deceptively sweet-faced woman of around 30 who had already built herself something of a reputation. I didn’t know either of them and, at the time, I didn’t care – what I wanted was the moment, now, with Karen, in the spring sunshine. ‘I’m not interested in Annie James,’ I said. ‘In fact, I’m not interested in anyone but you.’ I stepped forward and put my arms around her – and she let herself be gathered in, her body warm and live against me, at once familiar and strange in a way that, at the time, I could have imagined lasting for ever. I touched her face and she tilted her head to be kissed but, as she did, she gave a brief, rueful smile and murmured something that I didn’t make out at first. It was only later, when we were getting ready to go, too aware of ourselves and of the possibility of someone stumbling, unexpectedly, into our hiding place, that I worked out what I’d only half-heard and, when I did, the words stayed in my head for hours afterwards.

‘But I’m spoken for, too,’ she had said. As with all sinners, she had allowed herself a moment’s sympathy for someone who, as unlike her as it was possible to be, was equally smitten and, one way or another, barring some strange and unlikely good fortune, equally doomed.

I look back now and see that, as innocent as we were – and as fascinated by the risks we were taking – Karen and I were acting as much from boredom as from romantic or physical attachment. I was a barfly, drifting from one bad deal to the next; she was a more than averagely intelligent factory worker, with a hopelessly disappointing husband and a sense that, while she knew she was too good for Corby, she suspected that she wasn’t good enough for anywhere else. Of course, we wouldn’t have admitted it then, but we both knew that, having come together as we had, from boredom and disappointment, it was only a matter of time before we grew bored and disappointed with each other. This no doubt explains why, over the next few weeks, I found myself watching for the moment when Annie arrived at the Charolais and, from time to time, in spite of Charlotte’s sour presence, drifted over to her table to make small talk. I understood that she’d had no special reason for choosing me as the recipient of her voodoo serenade. It had been a piece of theatre and I had just happened to be handy, that particular Saturday afternoon. I knew I wasn’t really a character in the story Annie was telling herself about the world – and I don’t think, now, that I ever wanted to be – but I couldn’t help being drawn to her, because I sensed a mystery in her choice of song. Or rather, there was something about the way she sang it that went beyond her initial, essentially ironic intent. Her friends had been going on about what Agnes McCrorie might do when she found out Kenny was two-timing her with a teenager, and Annie’s song, directed at a random onlooker, was her derisive response – but there was something more to it than that. She had only sung a couple of lines, and the first had been harsh and mocking, but something in her voice had softened, halfway through the second, so that ‘I ain’t lying’ had come out more like a felt melody: wistful, sustained, almost painfully sweet. I imagine that somewhere, in school perhaps, she had discovered the power of the sustained note, and she had obviously sung like this before, for herself more than anyone. She was trying to deflect criticism, no doubt, but at the same time to reassert some vague hope she had, a hope that, as the songs all begged to know, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, love is real. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words back then, but I see now that that was what I was responding to: that hope. All either of us wanted was a chance at something new, something our parents hadn’t already failed at. A blind bit of luck. A clean break. A sense that other people – the fortunate sons, the better-offs, all those whose good luck distracts us from the hard acceptance of grace – didn’t have what they had because of some natural law which said, as it carried them along with their many blessings, that we, by contrast, were by nature undeserving and, so, justifiably ill-starred.

I heard about the murder on a bright Sunday morning later that spring. It was around ten o’clock, and I was on my way to the shops. I had stayed overnight at my sister’s house on Station Road; Karen had planned to sneak out and find me there, but something had gone wrong and she hadn’t showed, so now I was trying to cheer myself with the old Sunday morning routine, fetching orange juice and fresh baked goods and a pile of broadsheets to fill the gap in the day till the pubs opened at noon. I imagine Tom Lusk was doing much the same thing when we met. A spare, rather too matey former schoolfriend with a mop of thin black hair and NHS glasses held together with Sellotape, he was one of those people for whom the unlicensed hours, no matter how well disguised with noisy activity and extravagant carry-outs, had become an existential problem. Seeing me outside the Spar shop, he hurried over, glad of diversion.

‘Hey, Dicko,’ he said, using an old nickname that still made me wince. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Good,’ I said, and he nodded heartily to show that he assumed I was lying. ‘What’s happening?’

‘Not much,’ he said, then added, as if it were an afterthought. ‘Some girl got stabbed outside her house, down on the Danesholme.’ He looked at me. ‘You probably know her,’ he said. ‘Annie James. She’s one of Charlotte Walsh’s friends.’

‘Annie James? When was this?’

‘Friday night,’ he said. ‘So you know her then?’

‘What happened?’

Tom gathered himself up, glad to have a small piece of drama to share. ‘It was really weird,’ he said. ‘Some bloke was walking her home and then his ex-girlfriend came out of nowhere with a knife. Just like that. Stabbed her six times, then just stood there screaming at the bloke.’ He shook his head. ‘Right at Annie’s front gate, it was,’ he said. ‘In front of witnesses and everything.’

‘So – what happened?’ I said. ‘Is she all right?’

He stared at me for a moment, as if he suspected it was a trick question, then he shook his head. ‘Fuck, no,’ he said. ‘She bled out. Right there. Died before the ambulance even got there.’

I stared back. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was too obvious. Everybody had known something would happen and now it had happened. But that wasn’t how things happened. We stood in silence for a minute or more, turning this thought over in our minds, then I looked at him. ‘What did she say?’ I asked.

‘Sorry?’

‘What did she say? The girlfriend?’

Tom began to look troubled at that point, as if he thought he’d maybe said too much. As if the girl he’d told me about meant something to me after all. Though she didn’t, of course. She was just a girl from the Charolais. ‘She was screaming at the boyfriend,’ he said. ‘From what I heard, she was saying something like, “You won’t want to kiss her now.” Something like that.’ He thought for a moment, suddenly touched by the story he was telling. ‘Fuck me,’ he said, apparently saddened and yet, at the same time, faintly impressed by this small detail. ‘You won’t want to kiss her now,’ he said again, shaking his head. ‘I mean. Fuck me.’

I saw Karen that evening, at the Open Hearth, which wasn’t that far from my sister’s house. We would go separately, of course, she with Gail and me with a friend I knew I could trust, and we would sit for a while at opposite ends of the lounge, till it felt safe enough to slip outside – me first, then her, always in that order – to talk and fumble with one another in the car park. Sometimes, we would sneak off to my sister’s; mostly, though, we plotted our next liaison in the woods, or at her house, when Peter was on back shift or nights. We had a system for that too. On certain days, I would walk over to hers and watch for a prearranged signal: lights going on and off in an upper room, the back door left ajar, some object placed conspicuously in a window – it was always changing. When it came, I would let myself in and find her waiting for me in the living room, behind closed curtains. A good deal of planning went into this system; on that particular night, however, she found me at the shadowy edge of the car park and, stepping in close, said, ‘Hold me’ – and though I knew she was repeating a line she’d heard in an old movie, I also understood that something had scared her. I put my arms around her shoulders and we stood for several minutes in complete silence, not even bothering to look around and check that we weren’t being watched. Finally, she pulled away and looked up as if she wanted to tell me something. I waited. I assumed it had something to do with the murder, and her sense of a shared doom but, after a moment of trying to find the right words, Karen gave up and turned away. ‘What is it?’ I said.

‘Nothing.’

‘You heard what happened –’

She spun round. Light from a nearby streetlamp fell on her face. ‘Of course I heard,’ she said. ‘But that’s got nothing to do with us –’

‘I’m not saying it has,’ I said. ‘I just thought …’ I didn’t say any more, because I didn’t know what I thought. Or maybe I realised that what I’d thought was trite.

She smiled, then; a wise, all-encompassing smile that was probably half real and half light-effect. ‘She was careless,’ Karen said. ‘They both were. Careless – and stupid.’

I shook my head. ‘It was just bad luck,’ I said. ‘Nobody could have predicted what would happen.’

She gave a soft laugh, then, and stepped forward slightly, out of the streetlight, into the shadow. ‘You make your own luck,’ she said. Then she softened again, and stepped in closer, to lean against me.

I knew I shouldn’t have said anything, then, but I also knew that ‘you make your own luck’ was enemy wisdom, something the better-offs put about to justify their inappropriate good fortune – and I couldn’t help myself. ‘And how long does that last?’ I said.

Karen didn’t answer – but I think, at that moment, she realised, perhaps for the first time, that I’d never placed much stock in either the luck or the doom that she lived by – and a month or so later, for no good reason, we stopped seeing each other, drifting apart with a vague sense of having been disappointed, but not quite understanding how.

This far on, I can hardly picture Karen’s face at our last meeting, down by the boating lake, when we realised we had nothing left to plan for, but I see Annie James in my mind’s eye as if she had died only yesterday – and I really don’t know why I am haunted by that particular death. I never really knew Annie, and there are other killings, other ruinations, to commemorate from that time and beyond. Still, after three decades, it’s this one bad luck story that stays with me. My sister and a couple of friends from that time still remember her as pretty, likeable, somewhat plump, and more than a little silly, but I recall a plain, fairly desperate girl with no distinguishing features other than her bright, somewhat overactive eyes – eyes that lit up, that day, when she leaned over the back of her chair in the Charolais and sang a few lines to me from one of Madeleine’s favourite songs. No doubt the association has something to do with it – after all, Madeleine was my first real crush, and I still remember the way her eyes lit up when the orchestra faded and Nina Simone started to sing. Yet there’s something else, too, the hint of feverishness in both their eyes, the sense I had that they were both as disappointed as I was with the life they had inherited and that they were engaged, moment by moment, in a desperate effort to reinvent the world as they went along. I didn’t really know Madeleine – I was too young and too much in awe of her – and I didn’t know Annie either; but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the story. Annie’s wasn’t a particularly unusual one, but it was real, because it happened to someone I knew, more or less, and mourned, after she died, for much longer and much more deeply than anyone could have expected. It might sound sentimental to say it, but we are blessed by the dead, and we know that we are, in spite of our protestations to the contrary. They leave spaces in our lives that, for some of us, are the closest thing to sacred we ever know. They are there and then they are gone and, after a time, we come to see a certain elegance in that – the elegance of a magic trick, say, where the conjuror rehearses the vanishing act that we must all accomplish sooner or later.

Nobody in my remaining circle of Charolais acquaintances remembers Agnes McCrorie. This isn’t a choice we have made; it’s got nothing to do with the tired cliché that the criminal doesn’t deserve to be remembered. I suspect that several of these old acquaintances share my there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feeling about such events. In one – and only one – sense, Agnes was luckier than some of us have been: she knows what her crime was, because it was witnessed and because she was punished for it. There are some for whom that knowledge never comes: we carry on through the half-lit, haunted days with the vague apprehension of some wicked act hanging in the dank tunnels of 20 or 30 years ago, a vague apprehension lit very occasionally by a sudden flash, in which a bloodied face, or a knife blade, or the sudden fatigue that comes after brutal violence is almost, but not entirely, illuminated. In some cases, this partial memory is of an act that, strictly speaking, may not be classed as a criminal offence, but the shame involved isn’t about illegality – it’s about sin. I used to believe that the notion of sin was a throwback, something carried forward from Sundays and feast days, when my mother took me to Mass and we implored the pretty lady in the blue headscarf to pray for us sinners, but I don’t think like that any more. Now, I think that, if anything distinguishes us from the other animals, for better or worse, it is sin. Sin binds us to others, it makes us companionable, and the only people I fear are the ones who believe they are innocent, the ones who assume either that they are acting for the greater good of all, or that they can’t help themselves.

So, no: it isn’t righteousness that erases the killer from my memory, it is the simple fact that, like most killers, she wasn’t very interesting. And this is where real life and the movies part company: in serial killer films, even in Agatha Christie, the murderer is a nexus of fascination, often attractive or charismatic, a superior mind or a wilder soul than the other characters. In life, however, he or she is more often than not a dull, even pathetic individual, someone from whom we feel compelled to avert our eyes, quietly and almost automatically, a little ashamed of having looked in the first place and offended, somewhat, by his or her shambling ordinariness. In life, if we have souls at all, and if we are able to surrender our presumed innocence, it is the deceased who command our attention, the deceased who are glamoured by the crime, stepping briefly into the spotlight to become more interesting and complex than they ever managed to appear in their beautifully abbreviated lifetimes. It’s a bit like that game children play – our version was called Dead Man’s Fall – where they pretend to have been shot or blown up and then, for the briefest moment, can see themselves from the outside, more real, more vivid, as if lit by a sudden flash of lightning while they strike the dying pose and hang for a moment beyond luck and doom, before they fall into a place where clock time is suspended and anyone might come to grace. It’s a necessary game, a child’s version of repentance, and I wish, as she crumpled and bled away at the gate to her mother’s house, Annie could have played it in her mind’s eye, just for a moment, touched by grace and no longer aware of the heat and the noise in the bad luck story from which she had just been acquitted.