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Saturday Storytime: The Upstairs Window

Not all speculative fiction requires future technology or magic. Nina Allan is the author of multiple short story collections.

After Laura I stayed single. I don’t mean I didn’t have women. I was even serious about some of them. I just made a deal with myself never to try and live with one again. Work and women don’t mix. When I come back off a job I’m exhausted. Sometimes I’m not fit for human company. I like to unpack my kit, junk the worst of it, steam-clean the rest, lie in the bath for hours just listening to the pipes grumble. I like to enjoy the sensation of feeling safe. Sometimes, in London, I used to ask myself whether I did what I did precisely because there was always that illusion of safety at the end of it. That was rubbish of course, it was simply the tiredness talking. If all I’d wanted was some uninterrupted downtime I’d have found a job that was less likely to get me killed.

It was during one of these furloughs that Niko turned up at my flat. To tell you the truth I hadn’t expected to see him again. He’d made a mistake, and a bad one. Such actions have inevitable results. I mistrust idealism. I’ve seen enough of it in practice to know that it’s rarely about the other man. You might even call it the ultimate expression of arrogance and whatever it is it isn’t worth dying for. It was eight months since I’d seen him and he looked awful. He stank like he hadn’t washed for days and there was an ugly cut just below his right eye that had only partially healed. I wondered if he’d been beaten up while in police custody but it turned out he’d got himself into a fight in some pub in Soho. Looking at it made me feel tired. It was one stupid thing after another with him.

I’d kept abreast of the case, of course – his girlfriend Mica had emailed me all the press cuttings – but I was in Kuwait while it was actually going on and pleased to be there. I didn’t want to get mixed up in it, least of all as a witness. Mud sticks. The last thing I needed was to draw the wrong kind of attention to myself. A journalist who draws the wrong kind of attention to himself soon finds that his sources begin to dry up. For all his talk of spies and secret agents Niko never seemed to grasp that.

I wondered if I’d be able to lie convincingly enough to tell him he couldn’t stay.

“You’d better come in,” I said. “Let me pour you a drink.” I reasoned I could let him have a couple of hours’ sleep and then tell him I had a plane to catch.

“A drink would be great,” he said. His arms were limp at his sides, and I noticed he had some kind of grime under his fingernails. It looked like motor oil. I wondered what it had been that had finally made him begin to give up on himself: the threat of execution, the crap they printed in the newspapers, or the public destruction of most of his works. I poured him a Scotch. He held the glass up to the light, and when a moment later he put it down on the sideboard I could see his greasy fingerprints on the crystal.

“I’m going to make a run for it,” he said. “I know someone who can get me out.”

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