Thursday night.

Ring Sadji, she said. He’s my friend. Tell him it’s Claire. Tell him to come get me. And she gave me the number. And stay with me, please. Stay with me.

Of course I said, and turned off the ignition.

******

I’d been all the way to Wolverhampton, and the band were rubbish. Sad and old, just a shadow of their former selves. When I’d seen them in the summer, their dirty, dark, paranoia-fuelled classics had made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck just like they’d done all those years before, but then in the summer I was pissed. On Thursday I hadn’t touched a drop, and that makes all the difference.

It wasn’t the end of the world. I don’t go to gigs to watch a band now, not often anyway. I go to see old friends working on lights or sound or backline, who put me on the guest list so I never have to pay. It’s a social event, a chance to catch up on each other’s news while we’re all in the same town, before the rock n roll circus moves on.

There are times when I still miss it, and that’s the truth. I miss the work, the camaraderie, the opportunity for excess. I miss watching the crowd go wild when a band play their big hit. I miss pitching up in new cities, falling out of my bunk in countries I’d otherwise have never got to see. I miss the adventure, and sometimes – as the buses and trucks pull out of town and I turn and head for home – there’s a part of me wishes I was going with them, again. I push away the memory of how it felt to be trapped on a tour bus for weeks with people I’d grown to hate the sight of, and find myself craving just a little of the intensity, a little of the fun.

This time it was easy not to do that. My mate working the backline was getting through the tour by gritting his teeth and thinking of the money, nothing more, and that was a little too close to the mark for comfort. After the show was over we chatted as he packed the gear away – sixteen days left, he told me, like a prisoner marking time – and finally I said my goodbyes, started the bike up, and left.

I was back in Birmingham in no time. The night was clear, the roads were largely empty, I know where the speed cameras are, and the bike goes fast. I dropped down into the city in the small hours, into the familiar welcome smell of HP sauce, and weaved through tunnels, flyovers, underpasses, almost home.

I was 400 yards from my door when I saw her.

******

Shock makes everything so vivid. So immediate. So sharp. One moment I’m dreaming of the old life, buzzing on the bike ride, thinking of my bed, and the next there she is. If I close my eyes it’s like a snapshot: bleached-blonde hair, face streaked with tears, lying stretched in the grass at the side of the road, screaming Help me! at passing traffic so loud my body jars.

And I hit the brakes. I hit the brakes and let some cars pass and I wheel around, back down the road, and I’m thinking If she’s a nutter I can always leave, and I pull across the road and pull up next to her and she says I’m a working girl. I’ve been attacked.

And I call Sadji. And switch off the ignition.

******

She said the guy had picked her up and taken her to the quiet streets in the factory units set back from the road, and then he’d started hitting her, and kicking her, and when he’d had enough of that, he attacked her. After, she picked herself up and ran to the road and screamed for help, but everyone drove by.

She was eighteen, maybe, and trying to be brave. But she couldn’t control her sobbing, or the trembling of her hands. The bruising on her face began to swell, and the blood clotted on her legs, and we waited for Sadji. I just want to go home, she said. Then an off-duty copper stopped his car, and her eyes went cold and hard.

He wanted her name, and she wouldn’t tell him. He said she should go to hospital, and she didn’t want to know. He called for a mobile patrol and she asked him to leave her alone. Please. I’ll be fine. Then Sadji arrived and she ran to the car and was gone.

******

When I was a kid I believed in happy endings. I’m older now, and I understand that happy endings don’t come easy. And when you’re a young girl and your friend pimps you out and the police won’t think to ask who attacked you then I guess it’s harder still. But in my mind I can still see her, see how she tugged at the hem of her skirt, pulling it down, trying to make it cover her, because after everything that had happened, this still mattered.

On sunday night I got a text

Thanks a lot 4 helping me thursday night im feeling a lot better now just cuts and bruises that will heal in time thanks again love clairexxx

Just cuts and bruises… and feeling better.

© Steve Pottinger