It was only when she was sick over my shoes that I was really sure who it was.
"Julie?" I said limply as she heaved once more into the gutter.
"Bollocks," she said standing straight again, squinting at me and sucking in some air awkwardly. For a second she assumed that pose of dignified respectability that only drunks on the edge can do. It didn't last.
"Jesus. 'Fraid I'm pissed. Pissed backwards." She wobbled and patted the pockets of her coat and concentrated hard. "Wouldn't have a ciggy, would you?" she said quietly with all the colour draining from her face as I watched, and she toppled back towards the queue at the bus stop swallowing hard. She didn't seem to be with anyone.
The easiest thing was to take her home.
I had to struggle with her up the stairs, first from the street and then inside to the front door of my flat. In a moment of not quite clarity, she stared at me with her dark eyes burning with hate and slapped me pretty hard, and then just went limp as though her backbone had dissolved. Her body slumped against me and reminded me of how female she was. Despite the fact that she could be sick again at any moment, I thought she might get affectionate before too long. I wondered whether I would object, and didn't come to a conclusion.
Then, when I was fishing out my front door key to get her inside, with one arm round her to stop her sliding down the wall, she found her backbone again, but this time when she opened her eyes, the hate had gone. She wiped her mouth on her coat collar and slobbered over the side of my face, ending up giggling with her tongue in my ear.
"Come on, big boy," she whispered, her hand snaking round my groin, "See how juicy I can be." Somehow, I got her in through the doorway.
I dumped her on to the sofa and went to make coffee. By the time I got back, she was snoring.
I put her straight on the cushions so that she wouldn't wake up with a stiff neck as well as a hangover, threw her coat over the top and an open sleeping bag over that, and sat down opposite her. Her dark hair was straggling down over her face, and her makeup was smeared round her eyes. A trail of brown saliva was running slowly down her chin.
I tried to remember how long I had been in love with her.
I must have sat there for an hour or so, just staring, because when I picked up my coffee it was cold, cold as love.
Then I went to bed. Sometime later, I woke up and saw her outlined in the doorway to my room. She pulled off her clothes and climbed in beside me, searching me out with her arms. I was tempted to stay, but I scrambled out and went to sleep on the sofa under the sleeping bag. I wondered vaguely whether she knew who I was.
I was woken before seven by a mobile going. She was sitting up and talking to someone when I took her a coffee.
"Yeah," she said. "I'll be there. No, it wasn't anything like that. No. No! Absolutely not. Just catching up with an old friend." She rang off.
I said, "Are you staying awake now? Because if you are, I'll pull the curtains."
She shrugged and shook her head to clear it.
"Or would you rather not have daylight at the moment?"
"Mikey. Where is the bathroom?" she asked quickly. I pointed. She scuttled off with a sheet round her.
Despite myself, I thought of the time when I had arrived at her flat to find her dressed only in her mother's fur coat. "Do you find this at all exciting?" she had whispered breathlessly at the door, opening the coat to show me exactly what to expect. We had made love on the floor in front of the gas logs.
When she came back from the bathroom, I had pulled the curtains and opened a window. I gave her a couple of aspirin.
"I'm going to have a shower in a moment. Then I'll be away." She paused. "Mikey? I don't suppose we did, but I just wanted to ask, did weâ€¦?"
"No. We didn't."
"Sorry. It's nothing personal. It's just that I've been waking up with some very strange people over the past few weeks." She brushed her hair out of her face and smiled weakly. "Christ. The things I do."
Half an hour later, she was on her way, her makeup scrubbed off, her hair washed and still wet, her tights in her bag. She looked vulnerable with the freckles showing on her face. Her eyes looked small and unfriendly. I watched as she skipped past some children, joining in their game for a moment on her way. She was, I thought, impossibly beautiful. And that was the last I saw of Julie for almost a year.
A few days later a parcel arrived. I hoped the bottle might have been a reference to one of our more successful evenings. The card said, "Thanks for the rescue. Keep walking those streets. I may need you again sometime." I sent her a text message to say thanks, and then I got on with my life.
That was around the time when I was travelling around Europe quite a lot. I worked for a software firm in marketing and there were a lot of presentations and events that I had to do my best to make a success of. I used to travel with Chuck, the European marketing VP, our man from Washington. I spent a lot of time in fancy hotels and bag-carrying round the streets of European capitals, which suited me pretty well. Chuck told me one night coming back from Germany that he was hoping to get a new job, opening up the organisation in the Middle East and Africa. He said that if he got it, he'd be happy to take me with him.
I thought then that working abroad for a while might solve one or two immediate problems. I needed to make a dent into the desperation loan I'd taken out to get a deposit on the flat. I could do with making a bit of progress in my career as well, and some overseas experience wouldn't do any harm. On top of that, I just wanted to get away for a while.
I hadn't exactly become a solitary when Julie and I went our separate ways, but girls had come and gone with a frequency that was worrying if you thought about it too much. Maybe they sensed unfinished business. Maybe they shrank away from the uncomfortable frozen knot that I couldn't seem to get rid of. Or maybe Julie had just pissed around my doorposts, marking out her territory like a feral cat. Whatever, I thought I could do with a change of air.
Meanwhile, I heard the odd report about Julie from friends who encountered her in clubs, in bars, in theatres. She seemed to be having a good time.
Around that time too, my Dad came to stay with me to do some decorating in the flat. He liked it in London. It wasn't too far from where he had grown up. He'd been on his own since Mum died a few years before, and I couldn't get down to visit so often with all the time being away working. The first evening he arrived, we went out for dinner at a local pub and somehow we started talking about Julie. He told me then that he thought I was just clinging to wreckage. We talked about the job. He said I should take it. I think he was quite looking forward to keeping an eye on the flat.
He liked Julie. I knew that. They had spent hours chatting on the back porch of his house, looking out over the fields and talking about things he'd seen, things he'd lived through. India, where he'd been not long after independence, or Middlesex cricket in its heyday, or what the sixties were really like.
No, he liked Julie all right. He was just clear-sighted enough to understand it would never work.
Then, Chuck got the job he'd been angling for. We were on the early plane to Amsterdam, blinking in the sharp sunshine above the downy peaks of cloud, when he told me. I said I'd go with him if the offer was still open. I spent the next few weeks tidying up to leave for Cairo.
I was in the midst of that when Julie called and asked if I would go out for a drink with her the following evening. It seemed like a good opportunity to tell her what I was going to do, not that she would have any particular interest, but for me it would keep things tidy. She named a time and a place.
The place was etched in my memory, although she had probably forgotten the evening when we had met there before.
That was when we couldn't decide whether we were together or not. We agreed to meet and talk it through. Something though had happened between her phone call and the bar. She arrived dressed for the West End. When we sat down, she started looking around her every two minutes, almost shaking each time the door opened and someone came in, drinking quickly and twitchily in that way she had when she was excited. And then she had told me about her new lover. Though I tried not to show it, I felt as though I had walked through the wrong door, and instead of finding myself amongst carefree evening drinkers in the bar, I had wandered out onto a polar icecap, the starless darkness swept by a howling gale.
What she might want now was anyone's guess -- a signature on a passport application, the opportunity to pass on news, advice about money -- anything was possible. I didn't much mind. That evening, I was steel. I was adamantine.
I was amazed to find her already sitting there when I arrived. This was unheard of. She was always late. Many times she had not even bothered to show up at all. She would phone or text hours later and say that she was going somewhere with someone. By that point, I would try to be too drunk to care.
She poured me a drink. Her eyes were sparkling and for once she showed no desire to talk about herself, instead launching into a reminiscence about a girl who had for years been a particular friend of hers, until there was a row about a man or money or something. Now it seemed that her friend Cassie was some kind of force in television. Julie mentioned the name of a TV show. I didn't know it, but then I hardly watched anything apart from the news.
"Anyway," she said, lighting a cigarette and smiling oddly, "I'll say you said hello when I go hospital visiting."
Cassie was having a baby with her bloke. I remembered him all right, a weak-chinned bond dealer with a red Porsche and a laugh like a horse.
I told Julie about my new job, about what I hoped for the future, about Cairo, Johannesburg, Nairobi; the rivers flowing over dark, rich earth; gems waiting to be plucked from the mire. She nodded.
"The funny thing is," she said, "that I've been shagging Cassie's old man for the last six months, and it's just been this week that I've decided what a fucking little shit I am," Julie looked away, toward the carved angel that perched triumphantly on the end of the bar next to the wine list. A tear wriggled down her cheek.
I was amazed at her ability so easily to insert the stiletto deep between my shoulder blades. The metal I was made of yielded like butter. The pain was coming out through my eyes.
Time stopped. Her eyes were like amber. They were deep enough for me to discern another universe in them. She smiled weakly and took my hand across the table. Her fingernails were bitten and her touch set my hand on fire. In Africa, I would resort to voodoo, witchcraft, ancient magic, the life of the will. I would eventually forget, like a legionnaire. The reflections from the candles glittered on her hair. There were flames in her eyes.
"I don't know what I can bloody well do," she said, looking up at me as though I was actually there; as though I was actually sitting there with the glass of wine in my hand; as though I was someone who could say something.