At first he thought he’d been punched, hard, in the kidneys. He spun around as the bag was ripped from his shoulder. He cried out, heard his voice coming hoarse from a distance. His back hurt.
He took a step, then stopped, short of breath. He scrabbled to loosen the scarf around his neck. Metallic saliva flooded his mouth. He staggered forward, towards the pub and pushed his way through the doors, into the warm beer smell, light and noise.
‘Shit! You’re bleeding, mate!’
He brought his hand round from the ache in his back. He held it up, gloved in red, in front of his eyes. A loud buzzing, and too much light. Nausea rose to his throat.
Hands helped him into a chair, voices were raised, calling for someone to ring a bloody ambulance, there’s a bloke here’s been stabbed. A woman emerged from the wall of bodies and pressed a cloth against his side. The buzzing was so loud now, he couldn’t hear the words coming from her tight lips. Someone would help, someone would stop this. He looked down, saw a dark pool around the chair. Oh, Christ.
He needed to tell someone. He reached out. The woman’s face contorted as he smeared blood onto her cream blouse.
‘Cut,’ he said. ‘Cut is…’ His lungs heaved with the effort, and his mouth filled.
He leaned forward and spat. A string of blood and mucus hit the floor. Men jumped back. He looked up at the woman’s frightened face. Tears started in his eyes. For pity’s sake… He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. ‘Cut is the branch,’ he said. ‘Tell her. Cut is the branch…’
He felt pressure building in his chest. If only he could get his breath. But he knew, now. Words echoed in his head. Have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us. Eyes closed, his mind fixed for a second on another woman’s face, troubled and uncertain, sweet. Is this the face? he thought, as words swam tiredly through his brain. Was that the face?
He tasted the smell of booze and sweat. A Deptford pub, he thought. Finally, he realised. He started, silently, to laugh. The laugh became a cough, and then the blood came.