There were three of them, in all, if one counted very carefully. Him and him and her. A self-adoring trio, of carnal inclinations.
Some might say the one from overseas, she whose passport had expired, the female of the little group, the one endowed with mammaries, was actually the cause of what ensued, the spark and catalyst of all that was to follow. But that would be too harsh a view, a shade too unforgiving, of one whose single and abiding vice was her sweet, obliging nature.
In any case, she came to them by chance. She landed at their feet without quite knowing why. She could have chosen somewhere else. Anywhere, in fact, that wasn't where she was. She even might have stayed, she never would have left, had she felt more cherished by the natives. But the natives hadn't wanted her. They'd been getting rather restless, and it meant she had to go. (When natives want to get you out, you often have to go.)
It was only the burning that made her leave. She'd been contented, up till then, though not ecstatic. She'd stayed inside her concrete space, and listened to the radio, and lived her undemanding life, but the burning meant she had to go. She wasn't one to whine, but she couldn't bear the thought of being burnt. She'd always had this ego thing, this self-indulgent sense of who she was, and she didn't want to roast, if she could possibly avoid it. She didn't want her tender flesh to blacken in the flames, nor did she want to be there when they stormed her block of flats. Confrontations, and other aggravations, were not, alas, her cup of tea.
So when she met a man who said he'd take her to the coast - a slim and charming man, of muscular dimensions - she readily agreed. He swore he'd see her safely right across the water. (And furthermore for free, he added, not without a hint of modest pride.) He wrapped her in his overcoat, and hid her in the cabin of his lorry, feeding her with scrambled eggs and wholegrain toast from the ferry cafeteria. My treat, he said, and brushed away her thanks.
Secreting her beneath his legs, he drove ashore at Harwich, and Customs waved him through without a murmur. Once clear and on the road again, she sat beside him, prim and grateful, silent on the plastic seat. She liked to watch his forearms at the wheel. Being of a pure and simple nature, she was moved by manly forearms on a leather-covered wheel.
But what impressed her most, the aspect of her saviour that touched her most profoundly, was the way he quoted from the classics. He seemed to know whole chunks and slabs of verse, he'd memorised entire and perfect passages. Reams of it, he knew, and prose to break your heart, pumping from his mouth in rhythmic bursts of erudition. A self-taught man, he promised her, can always be relied on.
They rolled through Essex, the happy pair, exchanging mild asides, and watched the sunlight flicker through the trees. With polite and total lack of interest, he didn't ask her where she came from, he never questioned why she'd left. He didn't seem to wonder what had made her so combustible. A gentleman, she realised. He'd rather not be thought intrusive. He felt it better not to probe. Whatever, she was grateful. His sensitivity appealed.
He detoured down the A13, went past the Hornchurch marshes, turned off at Castle Green, and then the self-taught man applied the brakes and pulled on to the verge.
"Is this London?"
"More or less," he said. "Near enough," he added. "The locals call it Dagenham."
He came around the front, and held her by the arm, and helped her down the metal steps. She thought it rather kind of him, to consider her like that. It showed a rare imagination, to know she had to stretch her legs, to understand her need for air upon her skin. For she was of a type that has to spread its limbs, from time to time, a type quite disinclined to stay cooped up too long. A type quite partial to the random kindnesses of strangers. So she let him take her by the hand, and lead her down the slope. Conscious that her passport had expired, the unprotesting alien, the displaced person from abroad, let him lead her down the steep and grassy slope.
Then there came a blank, an absence of sensation, a sudden comprehension that you couldn't gorge yourself, you couldn't stuff yourself with wholegrain toast and scrambled egg without regretting it much later. You couldn't tend to be inflammable, and hitch a ride with someone erudite, and let him pay for breakfast on the ferry, and not expect to have him pull on to the verge, and help you down the metal steps, and make you kiss the fertile earth of Dagenham.
When he'd finished being kind to her, he wiped himself, and wished her all the best. Then he buttoned what was open, and climbed back in the cab. He wound the window down. It was her last and final sighting of his gentle, sated face.
"So long," he said. "Be seeing you."
Ignition on, and into first. The hiss as he released the brakes.
"Be careful, next time. Taking lifts."
And he waved a cheery cheerio, and eased on to the road, and drove away.
So that, in short, was her. That was how she brought herself to England. By such a route, in such a way, the nomad from across the sea, that fragrant little vagrant, the menstruating section of the tight and clammy troika, had finished up quite near her future friends.
She doubtless would have claimed her motives were the highest, for like many blessed with ovaries, like many of the female inclination, all she ever wanted was a bit of ready cash, a heap of printed paper she could call her very own. It was a pure, untainted yearning for her private share of paradise. But what she wanted wasn't what she got.
What she got was something else entirely.
Initially, she found a well-bred man called Max. And then she found another man called Bruno. And then she found she had them both, she found that they could operate in tandem, she found that they were capable of being kind together.
(She never kept the money. She had it, for an hour or two, but then she lost it. They took it from her, plucked it from her sticky grasp, and bent her down, and taught her not to steal. A salutary lesson, and she learnt it very well.)
But all this came much later, once they'd interacted to the full, then let her out to see her she would manage. It happened somewhat later in their special kind of bonding, once the boys accepted that she'd have to earn her keep. First she had to find her feet. She had to navigate a route across the capital, stumble through the rain-washed streets and try to look like she belonged.
Another type of woman, one more suited to privation, might have found a furnished room, or felt a sudden urge to take a job. But she didn't have the patience. She had different kinds of urges.
She was young, and poor and needy. Her neediness was palpable: she needed someone rich. How fortunate, therefore, how vastly providential, that God created Max.