the invisible ones
St Luke’s Hospital
When I woke up, I remembered nothing – apart from one thing. And little enough
of that: I remember that I was lying on my back while the woman was straddling
me, grinding her hips against mine. I have a feeling it was embarrassingly quick;
but then, it had been a while. The thing is, I remember how it felt, but not what
anything looked like. When I try to picture her face, I can’t. When I try and picture
the surroundings, I can’t. I can’t picture anything at all. I try; I try really hard,
because I’m worried.
After some time, one thing comes back to me: the taste of ashes.
As it turns out, the memory loss may be the least of my problems. Technically,
I am in a state of ‘diminished responsibility’. That is what the police conclude after
paying me a visit in my hospital bed. What I had done was drive my car through a
fence and into a tree in a place called Downham Wood, near the border between
Hampshire and Surrey. I had no idea where Downham Wood was, nor what I was
doing there. I don’t remember driving through any fences, into any trees. Why
would I – why would anyone – do that?
One of the nurses tells me that the police aren’t going to pursue the matter,
under the circumstances.
This is what I try to say, but my speech isn’t too clear. My tongue feels thick and
listless. The nurse seems used to it.
‘I’m sure it’ll come back to you, Ray.’
She picks up the right arm that lies like a lump of meat on the bed beside me,
and smooths the sheet before putting it back.
Apparently, what happened was this.
A jogger was beating his regular morning path through the wood, when he saw
a car that had run off the road and come to a stop against a tree several yards in.
Then he realised there was someone in the car. He ran to the nearest house and
called the police. They arrived with an ambulance, a fire engine and cutting
equipment. To their surprise, the person inside the car didn’t have a scratch on him.
At first they assumed he was drunk, then they decided he must be on drugs. The
person in the car – me – was in the driver’s seat, but could not speak or, apart from
a convulsive twitching, move.
It was the first day of August, which went on to develop into a breathless day of
milky, inky blue, like August days are supposed to be, but so rarely are.
This much was relayed to me by someone I don’t remember, as I lay in my
hospital bed. Whoever it was told me that for the first twenty-four hours I was
unable to speak at all – a paralysis locked my tongue and throat muscles, as well
as the rest of me. My pupils were dilated, my pulse raced. I was burning hot. When
I tried to talk, I could only produce a gurgling series of unintelligible sounds. In the
absence of external injuries, they were waiting for the test results that would tell
them whether I had suffered a stroke, or had a brain tumour, or was indeed the
casualty of a drug overdose.
I couldn’t close my eyes, even for a second.
During that time I don’t think I was particularly bothered by what had caused
this – confused, delirious, immobile, I was plagued by a nightmarish vision that I
couldn’t pin down. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to pin it down. It disturbed me
because it felt like a memory, but that cannot be the case, because a woman,
however mysterious, is not a dog or a cat. A woman does not have claws or fangs.
A woman does not inspire horror. I keep telling myself this. I am confusing
hallucinations with memories. I am not responsible. With any luck, the whole
thing was – like the first three series of Dallas – all a dream.
Now, someone looms over me, her face dominated by heavy black-rimmed
glasses; blonde hair scraped back off a high, rounded forehead. She reminds me
of a seal. She’s holding a clipboard in front of her.
‘Well, Ray, how are you feeling? The good news is you haven’t had a stroke.’
She seems to know who I am. And I know her from somewhere, so perhaps she
has been every day. She’s speaking rather loudly. I’m not deaf. I try to say so, but
nothing very recognisable comes out.
‘...and there’s no sign of a tumour either. We still don’t know what’s causing the
paralysis. But it’s improving, isn’t it? You have a bit more control today, don’t you?
Still nothing in the right arm? No?’
I try to nod, and say yes and no.
‘The scan shows no indication of brain damage, which is great. We’re waiting
for the results of the toxicology tests. You seem to have ingested some sort of
neurotoxin. It could be an overdose of drugs. Did you take drugs, Ray? Or you
might have eaten something poisonous. Like wild mushrooms, perhaps ...did you
eat any wild mushrooms? Or berries? Anything like that?’
I try to think back, to those slippery, treacherous images. I ate something, but I
don’t think there were mushrooms in it. And I’m pretty sure drugs weren’t involved.
Not any I was responsible for, anyway.
‘Don’t think so.’
It comes out sounding more like: ‘duh...n-sah.’
‘Have you seen anything strange this morning? Do you remember? Has the dog
The dog... ? Have I talked about her? I’m sure I never called her a dog.
The name on the badge pinned to the front of her white coat appears to begin
with a Z. Her accent is crisp and loud – East European, of some description. But she
and her clipboard sweep off before I can puzzle out the collection of consonants.
I think about brain damage. I have a lot of time to think, lying here – I can’t really do
anything else. It gets dark and it gets light again. My eyes burn with lack of sleep,
but when I close them, that’s when I see things, creeping towards me, stealing out
of corners, lurking just beyond my field of vision, so on the whole I’m grateful to
whatever is keeping me awake. The slightest muscular effort leaves me gasping
and exhausted; my right arm is numb and useless.
I can see out of the window to where sunlight hits the leaves of a cherry tree.
From that, I deduce I must be on a first floor. But I don’t know which hospital I’m in,
or how long I’ve been here. Outside, where the cherry tree is, it’s hot, with a heavy,
breathless torpor. After all the rain we’ve had, it must be like the tropics. Inside, it’s
also hot; so hot that they finally crack and turn off the hospital heating.
My temper has been better. It’s like being catapulted into extreme old age –
eating mashed food, being washed by strangers and addressed in loud, simple
sentences. It’s not much fun. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of responsibility.
Another now: another face above me. This one I definitely recognise. Soft fair hair
that falls over his forehead. Steel-framed spectacles.
‘Ray... Ray... Ray?’
An expensively educated voice. My business partner. I don’t know how I came to
be here, but I know Hen, and I know he’s feeling guilty. I also know that it’s not his
I grunt, trying to say hi.
‘How are you? You look much better than yesterday. Did you know I was here
yesterday? It’s OK, you don’t have to talk. I just want you to know we’re all thinking
about you. Everyone sends their love. Charlie made you a card, look...’
He holds up a folded piece of yellow paper with a child’s drawing on it. It’s hard
for me to say what it represents.
‘This is you in bed. I think that’s a thermometer. Look, you’re wearing a crown...’
I take his word for it. He smiles fondly and props the card on my bedside locker –
beside the plastic cup of water and the tissues used to wipe up my drool – where it
repeatedly falls over, being really too flimsy to stand up on its own.
Gradually, I find that I can talk again – at first, in slurry, broken phrases. My tongue
trips over itself. In this, I have something in common with my ward mate – Mike, a
genial homeless drunk who used, he says, to be in the French Foreign Legion. We
make a good pair – both of us partially paralysed, and both prone to screaming in
the middle of the night.
He has been telling me about the alcoholism-induced stroke he suffered a few
months ago. That’s not why he’s in hospital. The stroke led to severe sunburn on his
feet because he couldn’t feel them burning, but he didn’t notice anything was
wrong until the sunburn turned gangrenous and started to smell. Now they’re
talking about chopping bits off him. He’s remarkably cheerful about it. We get on
pretty well, except when he lets rip in French in the middle of the night. Like last
night – I was jolted out of my sleepless trance by a shrill scream, then he shouted,
‘Tirez!’ Then he screamed again, the way they do in war films when they’re
bayoneting a bag of hay in uniform. I wondered whether I should start making my
escape – with my legs in their current state, it could take me five minutes to get out
the door if he starts acting out his nightmares.
He doesn’t want to talk much about his time in the Legion, but is fascinated when
he finds out that I’m a private investigator. He badgers me for stories (‘Hey, Ray...
Ray... Are you awake? Ray...’). I’m always awake. I tell him a few in a mumbling
monotone that improves with practice. I start to worry that he’s going to ask me for
a job, although, on reflection, he’s probably past that point. He asks if the work is
I pause before saying, ‘Not usually.’
It begins in May – a month when everyone, even private investigators, should be
happy and optimistic. The mistakes of the last year have been wiped clean and
everything has started again. Leaves unfurl, eggs hatch, men hope. All is new,
But we – that is, Lovell Price Investigations – are broke. The only case we’ve had
in the last fortnight is a marital – that of poor Mr M. Mr M. rang up and after much
humming and hawing asked to meet me in a café because he was too embarrassed
to come to the office. He’s a businessman, late forties, with a small company
supplying office furniture. He’d never done anything like this before – he said so at
least eight times during that first meeting. I tried to reassure him that what he was
feeling was normal under the circumstances, but he never stopped fidgeting and
looking over his shoulder while we talked. He confessed that just speaking to me
made him feel guilty – as though admitting his suspicion to a professional was a
corrosive acid which, once unstoppered, could never be put back. I pointed out that
if he felt suspicious, talking to me would not make it any worse, and, of course, he
had plenty of reason to suspect his wife of infidelity: abstraction, unusual absences,
a new, sexier wardrobe, a propensity to work late... I almost didn’t need to gather
evidence; I could have said, look, yes, your wife is having an affair – just confront
her and she’ll probably be relieved to admit it. And you’ll save yourself a lot of
money. I didn’t say that. I took the job and spent a couple of evenings tailing the
wife, who kept a small shop selling knick-knacks on the high street.
The day after I met Mr M., he rang me – she had just rung to say she would be
stock-taking after work. I parked down the street to watch the shop, and followed
her when she drove over to Clapham, where she went into a house in a genteel
neighbourhood popular with families. I couldn’t say for certain what went on in the
two hours and twenty minutes before she came out, but the next day, the man I
photographed her holding hands with in a wine bar was assuredly not the girlfriend
she had claimed she was going to meet. I called Mr M. and told him I had something
to discuss with him, and we met in the same café as before. I didn’t even need to
start talking; knowing what I was going to say, he began to cry. I showed him the
photographic evidence, explained where and when the photographs were taken,
and watched him weep. I suggested he try and talk calmly to his wife, but Mr M.
kept shaking his head.
‘If I show her these, she’s going to accuse me of spying on her. And I have. It’s
such a betrayal of trust.’
‘But she’s cheating on you.’
‘I feel like a horrible person.’
‘You’re not a horrible person. She’s in the wrong. But if you talk to her, there’s a
good chance you can straighten things out. You have to get to what’s behind the
I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I felt I had to say something. And I have
done this a fair few times.
‘Perhaps you’re right.’
‘It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?’
He wiped his nose and eyes on a dirty-looking handkerchief. His face was a ruin
of its former self.
Yesterday, Mr M. rang to say he had talked to his wife. He didn’t show her the
pictures at first, and she flatly denied having an affair, then he brought them out,
and she screamed at him with all the vicious rage of the cornered adulterer.
Adulterers usually blame their spouses, I’ve noticed. Now his wife says she wants
a divorce. He cried again. What could I say? He didn’t blame me, or her, but himself.
In the end I told him that it would be better in the long run; if his wife wanted a
divorce now, then she had wanted it before he spoke to her. At least I didn’t spin
out the process to charge him more; and there are some unscrupulous investigators
out there who would have. Those sorts of cases, which make up the majority of our
work, can depress you if you let them.
Today is grey and undistinguished. It’s nearly five o’clock in our offices above the
stationers on Kingston Road. I tell Andrea, our administrator, to go home. We’ve
been killing time for hours anyway. Hen is out somewhere. Through the
double-glazed window with its double layer of dirt, I watch a plane emerge from
the clouds, uncannily slow in its descent. I have drunk too much coffee, I realise,
from the sour taste in my mouth, and am thinking of calling it a day when, just after
Andrea leaves, a man walks into the office. Sixtyish, with grey hair slicked back
behind his ears; bunched shoulders and pouchy dark eyes. As soon as I see him I
know what he is: there’s an air, a look about him that’s hard to put into words, but,
when you know it, you know. Large fists are pushed into his trouser pockets, but
when he removes his right hand to hold it out to me I see a roll of crisp new notes –
deliberately on show. I guess he’s just come off the races after a good day –
Sandown Park’s less than thirty minutes from here. He doesn’t have that nervous,
slightly shifty look that people usually have on walking into a detective agency. He
looks confident and at ease. He walks into my office as though he owns it.
‘Saw your name,’ he says, after shaking my hand with a crushing grip, unsmiling.
‘That’s why I’m here.’
That’s not what people usually say either. They don’t usually care who you are or
what you’re called – Ray Lovell, in my case – they just care that they’ve found you in
the Yellow Pages under Private Investigators – (confidential, efficient, discreet) –
and they hope that you can fix things.
We have a form, in duplicate – yellow and white – that Andrea gets people to
complete when they come in for the first time. All the usual details, plus the reason
why they’re here, where they heard about us, how much money they’re prepared to
spend... all that sort of thing. Some people say you shouldn’t do this stuff formally,
but I’ve tried it this way and that way, and believe me, it’s better to get it down in
writing. Some people have no idea how much an investigation costs, and when
they find out they run a mile. But with this man, I don’t even reach for the drawer.
There’ll be no point. I’m not saying that because he might be illiterate, but for other
‘Lovell,’ he goes on. ‘Thought, he’s one of us.’
He looks at me: a challenge.
‘How can I help you, Mr...?’
‘Leon Wood, Mr Lovell.’
Leon Wood is short, slightly overweight in a top-heavy way, with a ruddy, tanned
face. People don’t say weather-beaten any more, do they, but that’s what he is. His
clothes look expensive, especially the sheepskin coat that must add a good six
inches to his shoulders.
‘My family come from the West Country; you probably know that.’
I incline my head.
‘Know some Lovells – Harry Lovell from Basingstoke... Jed Lovell, round
He watches for my reaction. I have learnt not to react, I don’t want to give
anything away, but the Jed Lovell he’s referring to is a cousin of mine – my father’s
cousin, to be precise, who always disapproved of him, and therefore of us. It occurs
to me that he hasn’t just seen my name – he’s made enquiries; knows exactly who
I am and who I’m related to. To whom. Whatever.
‘There are a lot of us around. But what brings you here, Mr Wood?’
‘Well, Mr Lovell, it’s a tricky business.’
‘That’s what we do here.’
He clears his throat. I have a feeling this could take some time. Gypsies rarely get
straight to the point.
‘Family business. That’s why I’ve come to you. Cos you’ll understand. It’s my
daughter. She’s... missing.’
‘If I can stop you there, Mr Wood...’
‘Call me Leon.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t take on missing persons cases. I can pass you on to my
colleague, though – he’s very good.’
‘Mr Lovell... Ray... I need someone like you. An outsider can’t help. Can you
imagine a gorjio going in, annoying people, asking questions?’
‘Mr Wood, I was brought up in a house. My mother was a gorjio. So I’m a gorjio,
really. It’s just a name.’
He jabs a finger at me and leans forward. If there wasn’t a desk between us, I am
sure he would take my arm.
‘It’s never just a name. You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office
behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us. Where are your family from?’
I am sure he already knows about as much as there is to know. Jed would have
‘Ah. Yes. Know Lovells from there too...’
He reels off more names.
‘Yes, but as I said, my father settled in a house and left off the travelling life. I’ve
never known it. So I don’t know that I would be of much help. And missing persons
are really not my speciality...’
‘I don’t know what’s your speciality or not. But what happened to my daughter
happened with us, and a gorjio won’t have the first clue about how to talk to
people. They’d get nowhere. You know that. I can tell by looking at you that you
can talk to people. They’ll listen to you. They’ll talk to you. A gorjio won’t stand a
He speaks with such vehemence, I have to stop myself from leaning back in my
chair. Flattery, and poverty, are on his side. And maybe there’s a touch of curiosity
on my part. I’ve never seen a Gypsy in here before. I can’t imagine any
circumstances in which someone like him would go outside the family. I idly
wonder how many other half-Gypsy private investigators there are in the
South-East for him to choose from. Not many, I imagine.
‘Have you reported her disappearance to the police?’
Under the circumstances, this might sound like a stupid question, but you have
Leon Wood just shrugs, which I take for the no it’s meant to be.
‘To be honest, I’m worried that something’s happened to her. Something bad.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘It’s been more than seven years. We’ve heard nothing. No one’s seen her. No
one’s spoken to her. Not a phone call... not a word... Nothing. Now... My dear wife
recently passed, and we’ve been trying to find Rose. She ought to know about her
mum at least. And nothing. Can’t find a thing. ’S’not natural, is it? I always
wondered, I did, but now...’
He trails off.
‘I’m very sorry to hear about your wife, Mr Wood, but let me get this straight –
did you say that you haven’t seen your daughter for over seven years?’
‘’Bout that, yeah. Leastways, she got married back then, and I never seen her
since. They say she ran off, but... now I don’t believe it.’
‘Who says she ran off?’
‘Her husband said so, and his father. Said she ran off with a gorjio. But I had my
suspicions then, and I have more suspicions now.’
‘Suspicions of what?’
‘Well...’ Leon Wood glances over his shoulder, in case we’re being overheard, and
then, despite the fact that we’re alone and it’s after hours, leans even nearer.
‘..That they done away with her.’
He doesn’t look as though he’s joking.
‘You think they – you mean her husband – did away with her – seven years ago?’
Leon Wood glances upwards.
‘Well, more like six, I suppose. After she had the kid. Six and a half maybe.’
‘Right. You’re saying that you suspect your daughter was murdered six years
ago – and you’ve never said anything, to anyone, until now?’
Leon Wood spreads his hands, turns his eyes back to me and shrugs.
I don’t often think about my – my what? Race? Culture? Whatever word the
sociologists are using these days. The fact that my father was born in a field in Kent
as his parents picked hops during the Great War. His parents stayed on the road;
travelling and working round the South-East with his brothers. My one remaining
uncle is now on a permanent site near the south coast, but only because his health
deteriorated and made life on the road too arduous. But after the second war –
during which my father met a gorjio girl called Dorothy, and when he drove
ambulances in Italy, where he was interned and learnt to read – after that he
deliberately drew back from his family, and we didn’t see that much of them.
My brother and I grew up in a house; we went to school. We weren’t Travellers.
Dorothy – our mother – was a brisk Land Girl from Tonbridge who was never going
to be seduced by the romance of the road. She was a fanatical believer in universal
education – and my father was quite an autodidact, in his dour, humourless way.
He even went so far – much too far for most of our relatives – as to become a
But, despite them, we knew things. I (especially I, as the dark one) knew what it
meant to be called a dirty gyppo; I know too about the long, petty battles over
caravan sites, and the evictions and petitions and squabbles over education. I know
about the mutual distrust that stopped Leon from going to the police about his
daughter – or to any other private investigator. I have some inkling of what made
him come to me, and I realise that he must be desperate to do so.