We see her running every night of summer. It’s about the same time we finish the washing up, pour some wine and share a cigarette on the balcony. We close the sliding door but the smoke still gets through the glass.
Daniel works for the Department. He knows he should report her. It’s obvious even from this distance that she’s an &1. Gallops past like a prize mare, barely touching the ground. Always barefoot, too, like this part of London doesn’t always have shattered glass all over the pavement.
Truth is we’re mesmerised. We start to smoke on our off nights just to get a glimpse of her. Daniel always says it looks like she’s running from something, not doing laps around the park. Has that aura about her, he says. Classic Daniel, not worried about the dark magic, the near-levitating, just checking her out like she’s a local girl down at the pub.
When she comes close, she sounds like tambourines. Mum was a backing singer in a Motown covers band before Dad died and we used to always have a bunch of them in the house, sparkling on the living room table. Better than a Nintendo, she used to say to her sisters, driven out by all of us kids jingling and rattling. Years ago now, but you can’t forget the tone. It’s in her feet.
So we spark up in the dying rays of the day and watch her as she zips past, four loops of the park and jingle toes and no sign of slowing down. I offer to Daniel that she might be depressed. Fundamentally. Don’t be silly, he says, sad people don’t get out of bed. We get out of bed, I counter. Every day we get up in a world we can’t stand. Yes, he says through smoke. But we don’t jog.
One night we have too much to drink and decide to watch a movie so we can convince ourselves to have sex like we used to. The dying sky is slashed with pink and crimson. We know she’s out there, but Daniel chooses The Wedding Singer which we both know by heart so we can pause and take our clothes off if the mood takes us. I ask Daniel if he thinks Drew Barrymore was an &1. What makes you say that? he says. He is stroking my ankles, not like he used to, when we were teenagers, but he’s trying.
Look at her. She’s definitely got something going on.
She’s an actress. They’re paid to look like better versions of us.
No, I’m serious. Dark magic.
I wouldn’t bring her in.
‘Course you wouldn’t. Look at her.
Won’t you just shut up? You know you’re my favourite.
We miss the bit where Adam Sandler gets the girl and make clumsy, clammy love on the couch that doesn’t fit both our bodies. It’s one in the morning when I roll out from under his arm, slip on my Mum jeans and make for the balcony. The jingles are faint; she must be on the other side, near Baker Street or Regent’s Park Station. You can feel her without seeing.
It changes all the time, but the technical definition for an &1 is someone that lives an extra hour every day. Of course, the rest of us only have the standard amount so to make up for the extra time, they compress all that energy, which has to go somewhere. That’s how you get girls who can run forever without getting tired, men breaking car doors when they slam them, tiny kids kicking goals like Beckham. Dark magic.
They’re hard to pick, which is why Daniel is so good at his job and we can afford to live in a 2-bedroom flat in Primrose Hill. It’s also why I haven’t left him; staying married really is the only way to stop him finding out. Nobody ever looks that closely in their own backyard.
I catch her on the third turn, just as as she’s rounding past the zoo. It’s bloody difficult to keep up at first, what with all the cigarettes, but once I’m inside her slipstream, the power transference makes it easier. Locked in her orbit, I feel the peculiar sensation of running without running, dancing where my sneakers would ordinarily slap the pavement.
Huge head of hair she’s got, a lion’s mane of curls that reaches out past her shoulders and halfway down her back. So thick your hand would likely get stuck in it. She shouldn’t be moving this fast with hair like that.
We’re dangerously close to the flat, giving off all the red flags a Commander like Daniel looks for, but he’s working a big case across town. A sting, he says over breakfast, crumbs on his shirt. Someone we’ve been tracking for months.
She flips around on herself without so much as a pirouette. Doesn’t even break her stride and now she’s running backwards with tambourine toes, facing me and staring like we’re sitting opposite one another on a train. We’d make a strange sight if anyone could get a fix on us. But the electricity really comes through her eyes; deep wells of golden brown that sparkle at the base. It’s why &1s never look at you. Dead giveaway.
It seems like years we’re locked into this pattern, sleigh bell sisters whipping ‘round the park. She says nothing, but I understand everything. The hurt, the heartbreak, how hard it is to hold a good man down when you’re fucked up on an internal time zone that never lines up. At speed, in lockstep, we see it in each other. The loneliness of being different.
Daniel is waiting by the landing. He isn’t alone. They get her first, massive men the size of tree trunks tackling her to the ground before she can move. It takes all four of them to keep her down, screaming and thrashing with the &1 strength they’ve clearly come to to expect. She kicks furiously, twinkling feet losing their lustre, as one brute finally gets a grip around her neck and puts her under. She falls limp. All you can see is a mess of hair and soot-black toes.
The Officers drag her to the elevator. Daniel motions toward the ugly one, who looks like an extra from a ’90s action movie. Don’t worry, I’ll handle this. The doors close and the sudden emptiness is deafening. He holds my wrists so tight I think he might draw blood.
Close my eyes and wait for him to clobber me. It can’t feel good to be kept in the dark for that long by someone you love. He must be the laughing stock of the entire Department, his stellar &1 capture record wiped clean by this monumental fuck-up. I flinch and wait for a fist, hoping he’ll knock me out in one. Rather come to when it isn’t hard to accept the party is over.
But no, it’s a shove. A backpack being pushed into my arms. It’s the big one we sometimes used when we went camping, and it’s heavy. There must be enough supplies in here to last me weeks. I blink at Daniel. He’s pulsing with a sorrow so intense that I can barely breathe. It dawns on me that he’s had this ready to go for a long time. His own trick of dark magic, after all these years.
‘It’s warm enough for you outside, baby,’ he whispers, my lover, my hunter, my saviour. His face is cracking into a million pieces.