We walk past a row of shops like the broken teeth inside a malevolent smile. Sheets of wood for windows, panes of glass filthy green and scarred by half torn circus posters, old wrestling shows and club nights. Nothing here lives, certainly not the elderly women who shuffle past collecting pigeon shit on the tips of their shoes, leaving brown smears on the pavement behind them. Everything is rotten wood and rotten concrete and there’s nothing shiny apart from the weak glow of a diseased and suffering sun on the wet manhole covers.
I scramble up a drainpipe, burying my feet in the brickwork for extra leverage, and she follows. I grab hold of a piece of masonry, wrap the piece of carpet we’d brought around my fist, and punch through the bay window of a first storey living room. I look back over my shoulder, and haul her in through the gap. Shards of old paint flitter down below. No one looks up. They wouldn’t dare anyway.
She unzips her rucksack, pulls out a three quarter bottle full of Scotch and vodka mixed together into some cocktail that makes the glass tremble. Throwing it to me, she retreats to a dark corner and squats to piss, so all I can see are two pricks of bright light from her eyes, like a fox caught in a car’s headlights. I stand in front of one of the remaining panes, opaque from filth, and run my fingers through it leaving five slashes in a swoop. This is our Tag, and we own this now.
Something flies past me clumsily and there’s a loud smash. I instinctively flinch away and look behind me. She’s wiping her hands down on the front of her dress and walking towards me. At the street level below I can see more broken glass and a smashed table lying on its side next to its dislocated legs. She’s hurled it through one of the other windows in the bay.
I take a drink of this horrible liquid and brace for the taste. As it violates my sore gums, I feel the first warm wave glutenously flow down my chest like creeping lava. My shoulders and arms bulge and tense and I’m ready to fight anything.
We’d heard a rumour of the pair and picked this spot especially. The street below us pulsed a deathly grey, the sky above us hung lank and brown like rotten curtains. Two specks walked confidently in the middle of the road, in our direction. I sat down cross-legged on the floor and she followed suit. One of them appeared to be carrying something, either in their hands or across their back. We passed the bottle between us and watched as the street emptied. The silence of oppressed and scared people gave way to the steady throb and hum of imminent violence, coupled with an accelerating wind and the general howls of derision and pain from a stripped and barren sky. She muttered something next to me and I didn’t hear it. When I looked over, her lips were moving in a silent mantra. From the look in her eyes, she could only be mouthing a prayer of excommunication.
We’d been on the road for four days now, and now we’d returned to what was our hometown. Just a series of partially burned images, others faded by the sun or water. Everything was familiar and nothing made sense anymore. Old roads led to new places. Recognisable buildings were filled with strange things. No trees, no birds, just dead gardens and green weeds sprouting desperately from between the cracks in the tarmac, some clinging here and there to walls or out of gutters. Apart from blood, we rarely saw any other colour.
The two figures drew closer. One taller, carrying what appeared to be a tall lamp, complete with the lampshade and wearing a peaked hat, a camoflague outfit and boots. The other, smaller and dumpier, had his thumbs hooked inside the straps of a tall shoulder bag that seemed to be carrying a weight – he walked leaning forwards. They were staring at us now, but continued to walk at their own pace, in the middle of the road, unconcerned. Next to me, she slowly and deliberately started pointing towards the one remaining window, emblazoned with our Tag.
The boy holding the lampshade placed it across his companion’s chest to stop him and they both halted below us. She continued to point at our tag but then brought her fingers up to her mouth and licked them derisively and began waving at them. The dumpy boy put his bag down, picked up a nearby rock and hurled it through our Tag. The glass hovered for a moment with this perfect hexagonal shape in the middle before the cracks accelerated and everything fell away. Neither of us flinched. We knew they’d do that.
I asked the fat one what was in the bag. I shouted trade! and then repeated, what’s in the bag. She added, you fat fuck. Lampshade boy ran underneath us and started kicking in the door. We felt the floor shivering beneath us.
As his friend splintered the door, the boy crouched down and opened the bag. It was filled with books. He began to take them out, reading aloud the titles. They were all classics; Dickens, Shakespeare, Eliot, Joyce, plus a couple of cookbooks and car manuals. Once he’d emptied everything, he turned the bag upside down and shook it to show there was no more. As he did this, we heard the door implode below us and we knew we’d have company soon.
She put her rucksack down and opened it. I knew we carried another bottle of our whiskey/vodka hybrid, a pair of sneakers, a half-filled journal, a bag of ripening fruit and three cans of soda. She laid them all out on the edge of the window for the fat fuck to see. Meanwhile, I heard a thumping coming from the stairs and turned around as a door at the back of the room flew open.
The boy entered the room lampshade first, then the rest of him followed. Staring at me, he unscrewed the shade and dropped it to the ground so he had only a wooden pole in his hands, with the round base at one end and a broken light bulb at the other like a vicious crown. He pointed the sharp end towards me and began to advance slowly. I took a step forward and withdrew a long breadknife from the waistband of my jeans.
The boy began to circle but I didn’t follow – I knew I had to stay where I was and not let him get close to her, or everything would be lost. Sensing this, I watched as his face showed flickers in the gloom, first of doubt and then frustration, as he pivoted in a semi-circle around my centre. He made a few half-hearted lunges towards me, but they were all several feet too short. I stood my ground and waited. Your tubby fuckbuddy is getting lonely I said, and tried to hide my wincing disappointment. As attempts to goad someone into attacking it was weak, and yet the idiot took it. He stood momentarily upright and then resumed his fighting stance with a palpable increase of anger.
I switched the knife from one hand to the other and spun it in my fingers. Years and years ago I watched a nature documentary where the antelope jumped and preened in front of a lion to show that they were full of energy and that it would be a waste of time to attack them, because they’d never be caught. I wanted to show the boy I was better with a knife than I actually was. He had all the time in the world and I couldn’t stand on the edge of this window forever. He didn’t react, but I could still feel a seething from the earlier jibe.
From under his cap he gave a little laugh and made another half-hearted jab towards my chest. The tip of the broken bulb grazed my shirt but I already knew I’d won. The laugh was nervous and uncertain. It wouldn’t be long before he made his mistake. As the poor fool lifted the remains of the lamp to strike me, he may as well have put up a sign showing his intentions. I took a step forward, with the sharp end pointing far away from me, and slashed hard at his thigh. In my wrist I felt the loose resistance of his camo-trousers and then the firmness of flesh as it is cut deep. He let out a cry and I threw my knife down. Grabbing him by his neck and the back of his shirt, I threw him towards the open windows. The boy practically did the rest for me, as adrenaline shot through him and he realised he needed to escape. He tumbled out head-first, landing hard on his neck and shoulders. I watched his body bend backwards like an arch and hold there for a moment, before he crumpled into a heap. Everything was still for a moment until one of his legs began to twitch and then his entire body began fitting violently, uncurling itself from his horrible landing. All three of us watched, transfixed, until he gradually fell still, lying on his front with his legs out straight behind him and his arms rammed to his sides, blood and other fluids pooling around his head.
We made our bargain. The boy below us wanted a can of soda and the pair of sneakers. We threw them down to him. In exchange, he hurled up three books. Two Dickens and one Eliot. Repacking his belongings, he didn’t even look to his fallen comrade. I moved to the back of the room, picked up the wooden pole and hurled it down to him. Putting the pack over his shoulders, he looked at it lying on the floor, dismissed it with a crooked grin and a shrug and began to walk away down the street. I followed him until he was just a round speck again. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a person scraping along the pavement, then two, then three. People began to emerge as though a storm had just blown through and now sunshine beamed down. I looked up. The sky still hung brown, the sun just a faint beige disc struggling for breath. No one paid any heed to the body in the street. By morning it would be gone anyway.
I picked up the book of Eliot and she picked up one of the Dickens. We moved to opposite corners of the room, away from the window, and we sat, silently reading, until fatigue overcame us and we slept under darkness.