I sat up from the stiff grass, kicking up white dust, and took a deep breath of thick air. Resting back on my hands I closed my eyes to the sun peering out between the huge trees of steam and smoke ejecting gracefully out from the tall chimneys. White also poured out from the ribs of the steelworks that I could see now as though the skeleton of an elegantly reclining nude. The smoke hissed out from the chest, the long arms of the coke chutes reaching to the sky. All around, the landscape was empty. A perimeter fence held nature back from penetrating the black ash interior of the works, or perhaps the fence was to keep the works from consuming the living ecosystem. Every surface was layered thick and dark on that side of the fence; itself blasted by erosion and packed with paper and debris crucified against the bars in the constant wind. On this side, the grass was sharp and ripe, coated only with a sulphurous dust which clung to your hair and clothes long after you’d left the site behind.
Katarina examined an icing-topped jam cake with the intense stare of a forensic pathologist. The wind whistled overhead, sheltered as we were in a low hollow with a great bank of torn up earth above us, so I could watch stray wisps of hair flick at her cheeks and eyes. Several strands tried to force themselves like unwanted fingers into the corner of her mouth. Around her neck she wore a cat’s collar complete with a circular bell that glinted in the sun.
“I don’t think these are the same you know?”
‘I don’t’ I smiled. ‘You are the Mistress of Cake, you tell me.’
The picnic, laid out on a checkerboard cloth, was a store-bought affair. No wicker baskets or elastic-topped jars, just plastic packets of artificial things. Sausage rolls, crisps, cakes, two bottles of dangerously cheap wine. Katarina took a deep bite with a grimace and tucked the invasive hair, now pocked with crumbs, over one ear. Still chomping, she went through the gamete of facial expressions between confusion and horror, finally ending on a smile and a wink.
She see-sawed her hand as if to say ‘so-so.’
I took a deep swig from a bottle of fizzy Hungarian Riesling, feeling the bubbles descend inside my chest like a stampeding rabble. I’d decided long ago to name the steelworks Lucy, for no reason that I could ascertain. Placing names on inanimate objects that you love seemed questionable to me, and I’d given Kat no end of jovial abuse for naming her successive cars ‘Derek’ and ‘Sebastian’. Naming a steelworks I had no claim of ownership over seemed both hypocritical and deranged. But even as Kat hastily consumed, ending on a phlegmy cough, Lucy drifted a steam cloud to block out the sun for a moment plunging us into a low gloom. I met Kat’s eyes and they seemed to ignite, like a freshly lit sparkler or the fuse of a firework. The steam dissipated and the sun glowed on us again. Kat’s eyes pointed downwards to the rest of our feast, and dimmed. At that point I had to concede; Lucy had a mischievous personality.
“Okay, I’m going to ask you five questions, and you have to reply. You can’t question the questions…”
“No!” Kat shot out an accusing finger. “That’s a question. You’re questioning the questions and I haven’t started yet.”
‘I question nothing’, I spluttered. ‘I trust you implicitly.’ I held up my hands in a mock surrender. ‘I’m stupid like that.’
“True… okay, first question. When was the last time you felt goosebumps…”
I opened my mouth to answer…
“…EXCEPT… when we first got here and you complained about being cold.”
Kat grinned and helped herself to a mouthful of Portuguese red. At least, that’d been the insistence of the counter-guy at the off-licence, who’d presented us with a plain, label-less bottle of red wine and insisted it was from Portugal. For three quid, Kat doesn’t allow doubts to get in the way.
‘You do realise you can buy lighter fluid for less than £3…’
“Answer the question…”
‘…if you’re that tight on budget…’
“Answer the question.”
‘Okay.’ I squirmed where I sat. ‘It’s a bit clichéd though. I’m not sure I want to say.’
“I wonder…” Katarina dangled the half empty, wide-bottomed bottle of red from between her fingertips. “…how wide your arse hole can stretch?”
‘Well… if you put it like that’, I laughed. Staring up into the dim sun, I wrestled with the words. ‘It was nothing really. I was…’ I paused for a moment, and studied Kat’s face. She appeared neutral, but listening. ‘You know that moment when you feel you have a synergy with the forces all around you…?’
Kat’s face remained unmoved except for a newly raised inquisitive eyebrow.
‘…it’s when you’re walking along and someone else is walking to the beat of your music. Or, the other day, walking through town and I was just about to check my watch for the time and I realised the sun was beaming right onto the face of the town hall clock. So… like… time itself was illuminated for me. It’s those moments where you imagine that something… divine…is out there, making things happen for you. Like those old generals pushing the troops around on those long sticks… what were they called?’
“It doesn’t matter” smiled Kat.
‘Anyway, those moments. They give me goose bumps.’ I shrugged and started laughing. ‘Fucking hell, I sound like a stereotypical stoner…’ I threw up my fingers in a ‘V’ and put on a terrible mock-hippy accent and immediately regretted it. ‘Peace, man.’
Kat stared at me for a moment, still beaming a brilliantly white and toothy smile, and mumbled the word ‘dilating’. Swirling the contents of the wine bottle for a moment, she took a sip and placed the bottle down in front of her.
“Good. Very interesting. Question two; would you ever kick a puppy in the face?”
‘What!? Fuck no!’ My voice broke into a teenage screech.
“Good to know. Question three…”
‘Hey, hold up…’ I pointed a finger at Kat who held up the bottle of red she’d been drinking from and inserted my digit inside it. ‘That was some tonal shift there. You asked me something relatively profound and then that?’
She shrugged. “Just making sure it doesn’t get too heavy. Question three…”
‘Can you remove this bottle from my finger?’
“Of course, now don’t interrupt. Question three. You spoke earlier of divine intervention, but you put a twisted emphasis on the word ‘divine’, as though you were struggling to think of a better word. Soooo… I know you don’t believe in God… right?”
“So what is divinity to you?”
“Perfection. And don’t say ‘me’ because that’s obvious…”
‘And untrue. Divinity.’ I said the word aloud with the same emphasis I’d placed on divine, rolling the syllables around my tongue. It was true, I couldn’t think of a less religious word to describe what others feel is a religious experience. I looked back up at Lucy, the sun now sinking under the crook of her reclined armpit. All around her I could see thin fluorescent ants, workers in high-vis jackets and hard hats busying themselves at her base like tiny sculptors applying finishing touches – or perhaps their signatures for posterity.
‘I suppose divinity is perfection, but a perfection achieved from circumstances unique to that situation rather than from a sentient being… what?’
Kat was grinning, mouthing “wow”. “No, nothing! Carry on, I was enjoying that.”
‘Well’, I began suspiciously. ‘It’s about mixing the perfect formula or achieving the perfect arc. It’s a tightrope walker going over a deep chasm. It’s a once-in-a-million moment that cannot be replicated. Divinity isn’t… an all purpose thing. It’s singular. It’s a lottery win.’
“So, you associate divinity with chance and odds.”
“So like… if we imagine that there’s a thousand people preaching a message, and one gets heard and adopted, that’s a divine moment?”
‘I suppose so’
“Interesting” Kat nodded. “Do you want that last sausage roll by the way?”
“Mmmm… divine.” Flakes of pastry drifted onto her black tights. “Question quatre” she said, between mouthfuls.
“It’s French for four…”
‘French for four?’
‘French quatre quatre?’
Kat stared at me for a moment and then rolled her eyes. “Oh very good…”
My mouth was dry. The sulphur left a bitter taste on the lips. I looked at Kat’s, stained with dark red diamonds where the wine had burrowed between the chapped scars and the bite marks. Another mouthful of Riesling charged down my oesophagus like an angry pitchfork mob.
“Question four. Have you ever had sex with a washing machine?”
‘On what setting?’
Kat hacked out a cough, cupping her mouth to prevent the previously deep gulp of wine from escaping, as I lashed out a triumphantly smug smile.
“Bas…” Cough. “…tard…” She wiped the corners of her eyes, smearing her Cleopatra eyeliner with water and dust.
‘I like soft cotton personally…’
“Really?” she smiled. “I heard you were Quick Wash.”
I pulled a face at her.
‘No, I’ve never had sex with any machine. Washing. Tumble. Anything in the kitchen, factory or… wherever else machines are.’
“Fairly answered. Questi…”
‘Have you ever…’
“Don’t question the questions… Question five.” She flashed a wicked smile.
A shrill wind scooped out our hollow, sending the picnic blanket waving in terror at the corners. Wrappers and paper escaped, whipped up to the heavens. We both craned our heads to a bruised sky.
‘Is question five, ‘what the fuck was that?’ Because I think I know…’
“Mmm.” Kat screwed the lid back on the wine and started to pile the remains of the picnic into the centre of the cloth. “This looks ominous. Come on, I know somewhere.”
I looked doubtfully at the sky. The wind blasted down again, the grass hissing as though hostile to us now. The smoke from Lucy which had watched over us now recoiled, pushed away by the sudden air currents. Black clouds marched in with malicious intent. And then, as if in a final warning, the alarm sounded. We heard the former air raid siren now used to warn workers about a pressure build up; a long wail starting low, climbing and then descending again. All around Lucy the workers were busy, silent finger pointing and grand gestures. Noises erupted from the ribcage, hissing loud enough to silence the grass pushing us away. Katarina bundled everything up inside the picnic blanket and scampered out of the hollow, nodding vaguely in a direction. I followed.
We scampered around the lip of a deep pit filled with murky water, thick and silver like mercury. The air suddenly felt heavy on our shoulders and we instinctively ran hunched over. We travelled over a plateau and realised we could jump up and touch the sky, grab handfuls of cloud and unravel them like loosely threaded cardigans. Kat darted left and right, picking up old footpaths and the remains of what may once have been a road. Jogging over the craterous potholes and lumps of rubble, I finally realised where we were heading.
It was an old bunker, one storey high and half buried into the ground with a bank of earth backing up over it, a defensive relic from 1940. Long and faced with regular glassless windows, it waited patiently for us as though finally glad of a responsibility. I tiptoed down treacherous steps and ducked my head inside. We were in a square tunnel now, with ash and dust built up into the corners. A low rumble hovered above our heads.
‘Nice find’ I said, trying to sound relaxed. Kat walked over to one of the openings and peered out. Across a lumpen, broken landscape of pits and winding paths, Lucy was now presented before us in full, no longer elegantly reclined overshadowing us but leeringly sexual from an unsafe distance, everything opened up whether you wanted to see it or not. Even from our vantage point, we could see the activity. A flash lit up the surrounding area causing us both to duck into a crouch. The rumble came from below, the floor dancing beneath our feet, sheets of metal bouncing on the flats of our soles. We were flanked now in a pincer – lightning above and thunder below.
“This might be a loud one” said Kat grimly.
We both peered up again gingerly like troops on a front line terrified by snipers. The clear blue sky of ten minutes ago now menaced and revelled in black. Lucy’s white smoke stood out absurdly, as though goading the weather to do its worst.
‘Have you still got cake?’
Kat looked doubtfully into the hastily assembled bundle inside the picnic cloth.
“Will wine replace cake?”
‘If you insist…’
Another double flash lit up the bunker. The rumble was loud enough to send us both sinking to the floor again, hands over our ears, feeling our eardrums punished by the frequency. Like an enormous truck driving over a thousand sheets of pliable metal, the rattle could be felt in our bones.
Then the hail started. Stones the size of golf balls shattered against our concrete shelter, splintering into water and running inside the openings. Mixing with the ash and dust, it formed glutinous fingers of waste that trickled and clawed towards us like long shadows. We crouched in the centre of the long shelter, shoulder to trembling shoulder, as hail bounced around the window in front of us. Framed perfectly, we could see the highest point of the steelworks – the tower of the main furnace – watching over us. Whether Lucy was a guardian or a warning, at this stage I could not tell.
‘Question five?’ I tried to sound relaxed.
“What? Oh yeah…”
‘You were going to ask me… oh!’
Another double flash split the grey of the bunker into a brilliant white that left us with spots before our blinking eyes. Instinctively we both buried our fingers as deep into our ears as we could. The rumble travelled up our spines, along our ulnas and finally danced through our fingers. The noise ricocheted through our skulls. We both buried our heads in our laps until the rumble wafted away, like a destructive ballerina returning to the wings of the stage, sated by her violence.
‘As I was saying…’
“Yeah. Well.” Kat sighed audibly.
“I was going to ask you something deep. But… I’m thinking… was this a stupid idea?”
I flicked a small pile of gravel clinging to the knees of her tights.
‘No’ I smiled, unconvincingly. ‘It’s been fun.’
Katarina finished off the Portuguese red.
‘What was the real question five?’
“I can’t remember” she laughed.
‘Well, think of something’ I replied, gently.
‘Deeper than ‘have you ever fucked a washing machine’ yes…’
A single bright flash lit us both up. I saw Kat’s face illuminated, her pupils just pinpricks in a sea of milky white. The flash arrived with the horrible grinding noise of two rusty metal panels pressed together. I covered my ears for the inevitable rumble but Kat was already climbing up off the floor, which duly shook like a waterbed ridden down a cobbled street.
“Look at this…?”
I got up to my feet. Long tentacles of water mixed with dust now elongated across the floor, barely respecting a narrow dry space where we sat. At the window opening I shielded my eyes from bouncing hail, now smaller but still relentless. As I looked across the wasteland I could see consternation from the fluorescent ants, hard hats thrown aside. Trucks were being frantically started. Amber lights were flickering. Lucy was on fire.
The high tower was sparking, but a line of flame ran down one of her arms as though drenched in a line of petrol. Separate alarms now competed against each other as workers scrambled to get into slow moving vehicles that desperately chugged away.
I sat back down on the floor. Kat joined me. We picked up our respective bottles of wine and clinked the necks together.
‘Well, this is dramatic…’
“Mmm…” Kat had a mouthful. “Exciting. They seem genuinely alarmed.”
I nodded. ‘Are we safe here?’
“Well…” Kat looked across to me, resting her chin on her shoulder. Another bright flash lit her up like an x-ray, the bones shining under her skin. We both ducked from the rumble that ran through us like a runaway boulder, clearing everything in its path.
“…this is an old war bunker. It was built to withstand the Luftwaffe…”
‘Did the Luftwaffe ever drop a flaming steel works from bomber aircraft?’
“No…” Kat nodded grimly. “Not as far as I’m aware.”
I glanced over to her and noticed a clear pale line running from the corner of her eye down to her jaw. It was the path of a tear, destroying the grime and dust that had been thrown up by the elements and which now clung to her cheeks. Then I realised I was crying as well, my own wet cheeks not from the splash of hail and rain but from genuine fear.
‘This isn’t good is it? I mean, genuinely. This isn’t a good place to be right now.’
Kat shrugged and gestured to the open cavity of the door. “You can always try out there.”
The sky lit up again, but the flare was orange rather than white. A loud rumble advanced on us, not bucking the ground but travelling in the air. Lucy was ablaze now. The chimneys belched fire as she tried to release the hot gasses in time. The spherical furnaces smouldered and shook like eggs desperate to be hatched. The hail was now heavy droplets of rain exploding on the windowless frames.
Steam burst out from under the tall, stiff grass. Any release was an opportunity. Rabbit warrens spewed white smoke as the lucky animals that had made the surface scampered around confused. The ground erupted as though a dormant volcano had woken suddenly and in a terrible mood.
‘I still feel like cake’ I said, attempting bravado. Looking to the mess of food in the picnic cloth, I picked out half of a cupcake and finished off the white wine. Lucy started to implode with a series of metal tearing noises. Her arm fell, dislocated and languid, crashing into one of the furnaces, releasing a torrent of white hot liquid metal. Losing consciousness, Lucy slumped into a heap. The furnaces blew out and the sharp, crystal rents and tears were replaced with something more guttural, more fundamental. The sirens abruptly died as the electricity failed.
I tapped the concrete wall behind us.
‘Still confident this will stay upright…?’
Kat shrugged. “Only one way to find out”. She grinned again through the tears. The pressure built and finally released as the fire plunged deep into Lucy’s abdomen, and the entire steel working plant lifted from the ground like a huge tree uprooted in a storm. I grabbed Kat’s hand. Kat ignored me and grabbed the bell of her cat collar. We closed our eyes to the dust storm whipping into the bunker, felt the ground beneath us wildly buck and then all was still.