120 A ring, two spires and a wedding gift

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120   A ring, two spires and a wedding gift

I wake for real, bumping my head onto the van's window. Alaia stirs in her sleep. It's funny, a week ago on the outward leg of this trip, I also sank into ominous dreams. Must be something strange about this van.

The Manhattan skyline appears in the distance, at the far end of a convergence of wires strung on a line of majestic electrical pylons stretching across these dirty marshes and industrial wastelands surrounding us. I contemplate that little clump of skyscrapers with love—a so-familiar beacon of home, civilisation and excitement, for both Alaia and me. This glad return to the approaching city reminds me of something Rik told us on Friday night, during the second or third bottle of red wine: "I tell you one of my favourite slivers of New York," he said. "There's a store window display that's been there for years, with this surreal line of miniature Barbie dolls, different ethnicities, each one dressed in a tiny fake-fur coat, to help sell the shop's furs—some coats are subtle colours, but others are really bright, like fuzzy electric green or blue. It's on the uptown side of Houston, around West Broadway. And every night after it's closed, you can see through the grating that this teeny-weeny chorus-line has been moved a bit further back from the window, or maybe they shuffled back to get out of the street-lights. Anyway, after I'd seen these fuzzy Barbies a few times, I realised an elusive truth. I don't know how I knew; I just did. A few blocks away there's a building where those honey-roasted-peanut vendors' trolleys are parked each night"—here he lowered the volume of his voice—"and I realised: every night, in the deeps of the wee hours, when nobody's listening at the crack of the door, when nobody's peeking through the grating of the window, this line of little fuzzy Barbies sneaks out the back door of the shop, and they tiptoe through the back streets to that other building, and then every little Barbie rips off her fake-fur coat and jumps into a peanut trolley and nuzzles compulsively among the peanuts for a hour or so, to relieve some of that fuzzy Barbie tension ... and then they slip back home to the window, in time for dawn and commerce."

Chuckling, I feel some unidentified object in my left pocket, reach in and pull out a small grey plastic elephant, the one I named Dotty after the woman in the bric-a-brac store, her trunk raised high as if greeting me. Leaving her in my lap, I pull out from my bag the other souvenir I've brought back from this trip—Pippa's envelope, still sealed as it was by her before she flung it away with all her ebbing strength, as far as she could up Fourth Avenue and into an unknown future here with me. I reach into my bag again, fetch out a key-ring, cut cleanly along the envelope's edge with the sharpest key and pull the note out.

It is as I deciphered it through her eyes, when she lay there fading, reading it for the last of what must have been thousands of times. "See you tonight!" say the urgent words addressed to Lucan, in Angel's delicate, jagged script, from some time soon after the two of them first met: his yearning hope and electrical excitement, in that instant several years ago, are still clear in the upward-soaring swoops and cruel downward whiplash of his purple ink signature, despite now being smudged by subsequent years of Pippa's kisses. I turn this bizarrely precious item around in my hands, contemplating the train of events it memorialises. I smile in wonder at the intricate tracery of bloodstains at its left edge, which I noticed through Pippa beside the carcass-building while some of these stains were still wet, doubtless from the gunshot wound in the right side of her back ... except that perhaps the stains were a little too delicate to have come from such a wound, even assuming the blood did make it across from her right side to her left side, and in any case why were some of the stains already dry beside the carcass-building?

A movement on my right makes me turn my head and glance across the van, where the vibrations of the road have just caused the sheet to slide partly off Angel before getting caught between his shoulder and his seat-back, thereby uncovering his knees and left hand. For the first time during this drive, I can see his face in profile, his left weaselly eye staring straight ahead at the seat in front of him. But what I find myself becoming more acutely aware of is the little waxy hand that he rests on his left knee, just across the aisle from here.

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