Cambeth is a tall man, cool as a cucumber (his wife says) and with eyes as green (she has not said that for a long time).
He cuts a solitary figure amongst the closing stalls of Brixton Market. He runs his fingers over the woollen gloves, but a close observer would notice that he is actually looking sideways at the woman in the doorway; the colour of her skin obscured by tattoos and the dark of the night.
‘How much?’ he eventually asks, his gaze flickering like the tongue of a snake.
The woman shrugs in response to his question, the tendrils of a smile playing the corners of her lipsticked mouth.
‘It’s just one memory. An hour or two long, no more,’ he says quietly as he picks up the gloves and turns them over in his trembling hands. The winter air rasps at his face, clawing its way into his pores. His breath is the colour of the moon. He feels tight all over, as if his skin is shrinking.
‘Two hours?’ She drags her lower lip through her teeth, before using a fingernail to scratch a number on the back of her hand. She turns it towards Cambeth before it fades and he flinches from his feet.
‘Or the watch,’ she says. Her eyes shimmer.
His wife had bought him the antique gold Rolex for their last anniversary. It was still too loose. Every evening, she glares at its jangling against the plate.
‘I’m Gina,’ she says, stretching out her hand. ‘Although you’ll have forgotten that in an hour.’
He shakes her hand and Gina beckons him through the doorway. It would be like it had never happened. He could not blurt out a confession to his wife even if he wanted to. He could walk past the girl on the street without even knowing who she was.
The room is cold; lit by a bare bulb. There is a desk and chair, two grubby sofas set at right angles to each other and an oil painting of an Elizabethan battleship propped up against one wall. They sit opposite each other on the sofas.
‘I need the watch first,’ Gina says. ‘Otherwise you won’t remember to give it to me.’
Cambeth hands it over and she fastens it around her own arm above the elbow. He can hear it ticking. Tut, tut, tut.
‘When’s your next scan?’ she asks him.
‘Living on the edge, are we?’ She waits a while for a reply. ‘You’ll have to talk me through the event in some detail. I need specific dates and times.’
Cambeth had found the girl in a club beneath the vaults of London Bridge.
You can’t have me, she had whispered coyly in his ear. I’m only fifteen.
He could hear the flutter of her eyelashes over the house music. He told her that he did not care about the brain scans. She had looked flattered, the pink glitter on her eyelids flashing, witch-like.
The slick of cold gel on the skin just above Cambeth’s hairline pulls him back to the present. Gina draws a thin silver needle from somewhere on her person. He feels ill.
‘All you need to know is that it works,’ she whispers close to his ear. And she hits him around the head with something heavy.
The room slowly comes back into focus. Cambeth’s brain croaks like a bullfrog inside his head. A strange woman is looking at him, her head tilted to one side.
‘What’s my name?’ she asks.
Cambeth desperately wants to guess.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Good!’ She turns away, dismissing him with her back. ‘Now get out.’
Cambeth squints at the notes on the couch before he stops himself. That was the point. Not to know.
‘Whatever it was, I had no choice,’ Cambeth protests, the dizziness pulsing thickly at his temples. ‘I’m sure I just made a stupid mistake.’
‘It always fascinates me, how everyone says the same thing… You think you’re different? That the law doesn’t apply to you?’ She laughs and it emerges as a snort through her nostrils.
‘And you’re so above it all, I suppose? A woman who cheats the law for a few treasured possessions?’ Cambeth snarls.
‘I know who I am, I don’t pretend.’
‘And neither do I.’
‘Really, Cambeth?’ She purses her lips and he sinks back into the cushions.
‘Cambeth Buswell, isn’t it? You live on Corrance Road, right? In that brand new block. You work at that consultancy firm in the City,’ she says. ‘You love your job because of the salary, and because you get to lie to people all day. It makes you feel superior.’
‘Stop it,’ he says, rising to his feet.
‘You’ll pass your scan. You’ll never know what you did. You’ll die without knowing. But that feeling in your stomach? That’s the guilt. And that doesn’t get erased like a few neuron pathways.’
‘I’m not a criminal.’
‘No? You are now,’ she says, swatting the air with her hand, flicking him away like a fly as the Rolex swings around her arm.
Cambeth does not stay to hear the rest of it, or to see the amused smile skitter across her face.
He walks home through the unlit backstreets. He sees others, shuffling along, away from the streetlights, and notices for the first time a universal blank confusion scored between their eyebrows. Catching the eyes of one or two, he sees a desperation which mirrors that growing inside his own chest. He pulls his hands from his coat pockets and gazes at them, floating above the pavement, wondering what it was that they had done.
He has lived his life as an understudy for a real person, he realizes, and feels a regret that can never be revised; a gnawing need for forgiveness that will remain ever out of reach.