(Originally posted on Free Verse Revolution)
I watch as her fingers dance across the yellow keys. Greasy silver hair down to her waist, a tattered and frayed dress dancing around her knees and a pair of filthy ballet pumps pushing down at the ruined pedals below. When the notes emerge from underneath the rotting wood of the old Joanna, I want to wrap my arms around this strange creation, too messed up to live and too strong to die.
She flings her pale arms out and announces to myself and most of the oxygen that surrounds us; I will now play the Glorious 9th! I pick up a piece of crumbling stone and hold it up to the Sun. I scream into the sky – BYE THIS STONE, I HEAR THE NINTH – but we’ve both had far too many chemicals and yet not enough. Above us, the sky faintly hums with amber, and the clouds now rush past as though they have places they need to be, people they need to see… that are not us.
It troubles us not.
It troubles us, never.
Later that evening, on the hill overlooking the machinery, we recline and shiver in the cold blanket of progress. The ruined piano slumbers peacefully nearby as we point our legs towards the bright lights below. From up here we can see a sickly neon reflecting from the silver towers, the arc of the orange streets forming like the lank petals of a dying flower, dark smells of sticky macadam drifting up over the dead thistles and dandelions that lay around and under us.
I pass over the bottle of Lumberjack; a lethal, plain label affair with the colour and smell of dehydrated piss. She gulps, taking it like a shotgun blast to the chin and pulling her lips back to reveal red and puffed gums. I can almost see her hairs standing on end, like in those cartoons we used to love. She lies back down, softly counting the faintest stars ahead.
A scrunched nose
‘My feet are going numb.’
“twenty…. twenty…one? No? Fuck.” She hisses like a cat. Pulling her fingers into claws, swiping at the air… hisssssss! Hissssssssss!
‘I’m serious… where are they?’
“What happened to all the stars? Are they dying or are we just drifting away? Floating away from some kind of wonderful nirvana… where…”
She takes another swig and kicks her feet into the ground
“…we might live inside our dreams. Imagine that…” Tickling my stomach. “Inside a dream.”
I roll on top of her but she plants a knee upwards into my groin. We tumble a few yards down the hill and stop in a heap of tangled limbs and clothes, the bottle bobbling along pathetically after us.
What is the point of progress when it sends us not forwards but sideways, to a new reality but without going anywhere? We look down on the metallic tentacles sprouting from the ground, slumbering peacefully under a dead moon, cables and girders all anchoring to the old town like a seething blackhead. I rest my head on her shoulder and point towards the gleaming new glass covered office block, covered in Opening Soon banners like bloodstained bandages on a headwound. When I close my eyes I can see the fingerprint of the record shop that stood inside it. All around the glaring lights act like sacrificial bonfires as one by one a meaningful edifice is torn down in the name of…
The word dribbles out of her mouth like pus from a septic wound, shit from a diuretic arsehole.
“That’s all this place wants… progress.”
I nod. ‘Just trying to be impressive, like hiding behind the school bully and threatening the weak kids.’
She shakes her head.
“No, it’s not even that. It’s more than that. It’s a denial of… I dunno… history I guess, and a denial of an attainable future? They want to pretend that culture never happened. It’s a scorched earth policy y’know?”
She gesticulates, flinging her hands out.
“Burn the books, shred the music… extinguish anything that might give you a dream and give you an oversized glass coffin to march inside every day for the rest of your waking life until you are buried alive underneath MDF, paperwork and shit coffee. Wear a trouser suit, do your nails, cover your little plastic idiot box with pictures of the kids you wish you hadn’t squeezed out of your useless cunt. Fuck the milkman, fuck the nanny, swing your limp dick on the golf course… push it deep inside a cow’s arse and pretend you are still vegetarian…”
I sit up, resting on my elbows.
“Pull down the bookstores and the libraries… knock down the schools and build another supermarket… wait til the kids can walk and get the little bastards stacking the lowest shelves.”
I stare at her. She stops and looks back at me.
I take the bottle out of her hands and gently replace a shoe that has slipped from her dainty, blackened foot.
“Don’t you stop me when I’m in full flow, fucker.”
I hold my fingers up in a crucifix. ‘May the Lord Jesus compel you towards forgiveness’
‘You can’t, he’s dead’
She fights the grin that spreads across her face. “I reject all deities! I am a fucking woman and I outlive everything!”
‘He Died For Your Sins!’
“Then Why Do I Keep Doing It!”
She laughs and pounces on top of me. We roll through the dry grass, kicking out legs, our hair knotting together.
“Every time I try and say something you bring God into it.”
I tilt my head and put on my best angelic pout.
‘But God is everywhere…’
She takes a deep swig of Lumberjack and belches loudly into the ether.
“Not everywhere… just in here.” Her black nails tap against the bottle.
‘In all seriousness, what do you think it all means?’
“You’re asking me?”
I sit up and look across to her. We can hear the first tweeting of early birds and the black sky is turning a sickly mauve in anticipation of the rising sun.
‘Why wouldn’t I?’
“I ‘unno… I don’t have answers any more than you do.”
I look towards the town as the streetlights blink off one by one.
‘New beginnings… Prosperity, commerce, opportunity… it has to be a good thing, right? We’re a couple of wasters, but we aren’t the future.’
‘This…’ I gesture to the town, covered in cranes and construction. ‘This is reality. We… we’re just stuck… in here.’ I hold up the empty bottle and tap my forehead.
She looks at me for a moment, then leans in to kiss my cheek.
“Oh bless you. Three lovely words. Prosperity, commerce, opportunity. As if they have any relation to each other…”
She stands up, very unsteadily, and opens her arms out to the weak heartbeat of the town below. I get up as well, despite my head pounding with every intake of breath.
“This…” she begins. “This shiny optimism is not a new beginning. This is an ending. An end to culture. An end to the hope of escape. An end to an alternative way of being. See the old record store… gone. See the old bookshop… now just a pile of bricks. See the old school… now a 24hr mart. See the people… they don’t look up anymore, they look at their own shoes. See this sky that once blazed orange, now fluttering in lilac like a dying butterfly.”
“There is hope. We just need to recognise it.”
She cups her hands together, as though protecting a bumblebee, and offers them to me. I look inside, but there is nothing except her cracked palms.
“Can you see it?” she says, hopefully. I look deep into her bloodshot eyes, past the pockmarked cheeks and the yellowing eyelids, over her shoulder into the shiny metal town being assembled beneath us. A breath of wind rattles the dead weeds at our feet and rolls the empty bottle of Lumberjack down into the thistles below.
‘Yes’ I lie. ‘I can see it.’