I’m flick-flick-flicking a lighter just so I can see properly. Just past one in the morning on the building site, I struggle to use my exposed fingers to slide across the stiff, rusted bolt to let me inside the metal container. On these winter nights, starless and severe, it gets so cold my bleach freezes and I have to wait as it oozes out of the bottle like gel. I move like I’m wearing a space suit, five thick layers and counting.
I look across the site to the churned up mud, frozen into place in deep ankle-twisting chasms and valleys. The searchlights above glare but provide only shadows on the ground. I can see clearly above me but fuck all below my waist.
When I need to rest, I hide in the drying room amongst the filthy boots, coats and fleeces. The air is thin with dust, under a sickly yellow light bulb. Standing still for a moment, I can feel the warmth enter through my fingertips. By the time it has reached my elbows, my fingers are burning, red raw.
When I emerge back outside, she’s tiptoeing across the girders that make up the frame of the unfinished building like a dreadful ghost, pale and moving unnaturally quickly between the light and the shade. I walk over, disappearing momentarily into the gloom, feeling my way for a rough wooden ladder. When I finally make it up, she’s sitting down with her legs dangling over the edge, her hands jammed under her thighs.
I shuffle next to her as we look across a wasteland. Everywhere are metal skeletons partially lit by searchlights that seem interested in anything else. The air is so still as to be unnatural. Nothing moves below, no cars pass. Rows of yellow dots mark out roads and avenues in the distance. I’m anxious up here, not because I’m worried about falling, but because of the story I heard last week about a cleaner who was assaulted on a nearby site by a gang looking for tools. They beat the woman over the head, tied her up and left her exposed to the dreadful, invasive night.
Up here though, everything is tinged with a strangely sexless beauty. The cabins below are thrown together irregularly. I can see below the toilet cabin up on stilts with the tank beneath. Last week the workers on the site kicked a hole in the corner and took turns to piss and shit out of it, leaving the rim of the hole caked in the foul detritus of the working man. Cowards, I thought as I scraped on my knees, my back to the cubicles covered in swastikas and other savagery.
She looks down at her swinging feet and begins to sing Ave Maria softly to herself, so I put my arm around her and squeeze. She leans in and her voice goes silent but her lips continue to move. I reach into my pocket and pull out a hip flask, taking a deep swig of vodka; when I pass it to her she shakes her head dismissively and then takes it anyway, drinking deeper even than me.
Imbibed by spirit, she regains her voice, now louder, and I see colours below me seeping between the dark shapes of the cabins like a river surge. Alien mercury, greens and deep blues swim beneath us and begin to rotate like those Dutch Starry Nights. As the song begins to surge towards its glorious climax, she takes a faint breath and goes quiet and my boot drops off, tumbling into the metallic algae below us. My foot begins to freeze but no matter.
“You love running away” I say softly in her ear. “You just need to define exactly what you’re always running away from.” She looks up at me. “You have no target.”
She leans into me harder and then falls forward to rest her head in my lap. I unzip my first coat and wrap her head in the tails of it to keep her warm, so she is buried up to her shoulders in my abdomen. When she begins to sing again, I can feel the vibration in my spine and I find myself singing as well.