Lines

DSC_0004

We wander around this space age town, a place that time and progress forgot. History has a cruel way of dealing with optimism; tastes and ideas move on and it does not let the past down lightly. Our footsteps walk between the cracks of failure, and the very concrete seeps blood and shame. In one moment everything embraced a twenty year future, but now it is twenty years old. Everything is circles and discs. I ask this question aloud – why does everything have to be circles and discs – and you smile, clutch my arm and say honey, because everyone will kill themselves on the sharp edges.

Standing under a huge poster of smiling happy people badly faded by radiation, we place bets on rags of plastic bags dancing like drunks across an empty car park. In these abandoned places it’s not the silence that takes our breath away, it’s the noises. Not the noises that should occur; the hustle and the bustle, the screeches and the quiet conversation, laughter sorrow and elation. All we can hear is whistling and rattling, the desperate clapping of old metal unfastened and failed by fatigue and rust, as though the very structures themselves, assembled by humans but now neglected and forgotten, are trying to get our attention. You smile at this and say this is why people make so much noise. You pause and point a finger into the dank sky. Assembled by God, now neglected and forgotten.

As we say these things a single figure lays in front of us, sprawled on his back, swearing loudly at nothing. I want to break every unbroken window in this place. I want to put some feeling back into this bloodless pile of hollow fibreglass. I think about cutting my wrist and allowing the red oils to seep and soak into a piece of chipboard. I’d watch, fascinated, as it danced and blossomed in the soft woody mulch, forming its own tributaries. Everything swells. Everything swells.

This is a town too poor for the rich, too poor for the poor and too poor for the renegades and the leeches. It is a town for the lost, a town for people who are not aware that they are in a conglomerate. This is a collection of strangers and you and me – I close my eyes in bliss as a flick of your greasy, matted hair sticks to my cornea – we are the only connection of anything around here.

In the quiet moments you flick the lucky coin in your fingers, the one given to you by a dying tramp who lay decomposing in the back of an abandoned railway carriage. Forever clinging to a meaningless life, he spent his days wandering the blasted flat ruins of his old factory, remembering the lines of the walls and obeying a previous physical space that no longer existed. The security guards who patiently watched over this pointless acreage of bland concrete tolerated the poor bastard. After all; what harm can a person commit, or what harm can come to a person, on a flavourless plain of nothing with only discoloured lines to remind you of boundaries?

They used to laugh when he’d walk to one particular corner of the wasteland and unzip his fly to piss in fresh air. This area once housed the toilet block.

We’d checked our messages today but there was nothing. We’d been communicating with an anonymous person for six months now, all via chalk on the car park floor. We once asked; what happens in winter when the rain washes the chalk away? They’d assured us that we’d hear from them somehow. I believed this but you had your doubts. You cried with every message we received because you were convinced it was the last. You cursed the sky and threw your shoes up to hit the clouds.

The man lying on the floor started screaming, but then it turned into a song. I felt your pulse quicken and, in the brief moment that I caught your eye, I could see your pupil like an eclipse of cynicism. I could’ve kissed clean the humanity in your wrinkled brow. It passed. We relax. The trains will be late today I laugh, and you agree with a nod into my chest. When you fall asleep on me, I treasure the sliver of saliva that makes a tentative journey from the corner of your mouth onto my bare skin. I allow it to absorb and dry, in the hope of feeling humanity again.

*

In the tangled jumble of our collective memories, there is one that we can agree on. Two young barely-teenagers ripe with the freshness of grass stains and body odour, bumped by nettles and with brambles in our hair, we found her lying in the clearing. Overhung by shrubs and four young trees, she had clearly been placed with a purpose to absorb a midday sun. She lay on her back, eyes closed. Some attempt had been made to clasp her hands together in devotional post-mortis prayer but rigor-mortis had left her limbs at crazy angles. There was a dignity about her. Feeling this, you reached into your bag and brushed her hair, even as I rang the authorities to report this terrible discovery. When the coroner arrived, he pinched locks of her straight, untangled locks between his fingers and looked puzzled. I turned to you and the look you gave me silenced my face forever.

*

I ask you if we should help the man screaming in the car park, but instead you bury your head in a weak sun and ignore me. In this strange town the tide never reaches the beach but the thick fog rolls in and renders everything in black and white. I remember how we first met and you forced me, with the carrot of friendship, to lick bricks in the disused public toilet you’d broken into. We will chase the old carrier bags, so ragged and flightless and free, and you will pull out your BB gun from inside your jeans and plug the back of my head so often I can feel blood trickling down my neck. Never turn around you say, whilst pressing the end of the pistol into one of my shoulder-blades, I love your eyes.

Later that evening your contact brings us wine, and we drink it inside a makeshift shelter of old pallets. Across the flat wasteland I can see the small bump that was once an old mattress you burned because you kept having bad dreams about it – about him. We go back to the old factory buildings overlooking the car park, smashing windows and roll in the dust. Aluminium bars and steel plates in our hands, we beat the shit out of things that cannot shit. We destroy nothing. We absorb the hollow echoes.

When I start singing a song from my childhood you march up to me full of sex and fury and I wonder if this is the moment. You have moist eyes (from the dust, surely) and you threaten to plant ball-bearings in my kneecaps if I keep singing these songs. I sing them louder, climbing up a rotten security light, but it collapses in my hands. I land with a snap, impaled on the junk. The pain runs through me like electricity and I vomit across my chest and stomach.

I expected you to walk away. I knew it even as I landed. I’m convinced that most of the sickness was in seeing you leave. You walk over to the man still lying on the floor where we left him and returned You offer to help him up. He tries, he grabs your wrist, but then you both overbalance and fall to the ground. When you get up, I watch you point the gun into his eyes and fire.

For a moment, I think he is laughing but it is just shock and surprise. Soon the wailing begins. He’s blind now, with two small burning pieces of metal buried in his pupils. He rolls over and ‘looks’ straight at me, blood running down his cheeks, and begins to drag himself in my general direction. I feel my skin sweat, my head swim and I decide to stop fighting my losing consciousness. I am grateful when my vision is filled with static and everything begins to go quiet – his useless moaning and your unbroken, unhesitating footsteps echoing across the clapping buildings. My body feels as heavy as a mountain but then floods with light and sighs. I lean back and close my eyes. You are gone. The man won’t make it to me and I can’t help him even if he could.

I wish I could see another sunrise. I smile at the dragging sounds of the crawling man. Aside from you, it’s something we both have in common.

Boots

DSC_0009

I’m flick-flick-flicking a lighter just so I can see properly.  It’s just past one in the morning on the building site I am supposed to be patrolling. I struggle in the bitter cold with my exposed fingers to open the stiff, rusted bolt to let me inside the metal container.  On these winter nights, starless and severe, it gets so cold my eyelashes freeze together.  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 and moisture drips from my eyebrows and runs down my cheeks like phantom tears.

 
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 the metal skeletons, precarious girders bolted together and 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 guard assaulted on a nearby site by a gang looking for tools.  They beat them over the head, tied them up and left them exposed to the dreadful, invasive night.

 
Up here though, everything is tinged with a strangely sexless beauty.  The cabins below are thrown together irregularly. 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.

Happy Meal

Flower Steps

We sit on the edge of the bridge, just a pair of imperfectly parrallel lines, a tectonic fault that no longer clicks together.  Staring over her shoulder, across the paper and plastic strewn car parks of the deserted shopping centres, she looks down at her dangling shoes and says shit like.

“Our entire existence is just the flicker of a candle.  And if we’re lucky, it might cause a dribble of wax to form and to roll on, to leave some trace that we actually disrupted everything and…”

…I’ve stopped listening.  In my head I say I’m sorry.  I can’t help myself and I certainly can’t stand the feeling of my legs slowly being broken from ankle to knee.  When she talks, or lies, or quotes, my bones shake and try to snap themselves into shards.  Sometimes I think she does it on purpose.  I know she’d keep a piece of my shin bone, put it in a necklace, and wear it whilst kissing her future husbands.  I know she’d scratch their necks with it as they leaned in.

‘We’re just stones in focus’ I offer.  ‘Nothing more.  Just inanimate objects with ideas above their stations.  If I had a decent sized pebble right now, I could hurl it with all my force into the windshield of a car passing under us…’

She audiably sighs and stares up at a mucky blue sky as I continue.

‘….and I could kill the driver.  Then they crash and kill the occupants.  Maybe the people they hit as well.  All from a stone, in focus.  There’s nothing more total than that moment before you sleep forever.’

“True” she mumbles.  “I read somewhere that plastic bags don’t biodegrade for decades.  It’d fucking suck to be outlived by a plastic bag.”

She takes a big mouthful of her burger.  I’m not hungry, I’m just throwing chips at an empty can of beer next to me.  I daydream about building a time machine and going back to the moment before I met her, taking another street and living my life observing her from a detached distance, rather than being so deeply involved.  I’m not sure that’s how time travel works but fuck it, it’s my fantasy.  I’m missing the can with every single chip.  After this, I may never eat again.

She pokes my ribs.
“Can I set fire to you later?”
‘No.’
“….okay.”

She sounds hurt.  Fair enough.  She told me about a dream she had recently where she covered herself in spray paint and camoflaged herself against some graffiti on a wall.  She dreamt that in the middle of the night, artists came to add to her body and when they stepped back they’d turned her into a goddess with multiple arms and legs and a divine halo.  The image in my mind was that of a spider under a single yellow light bulb, the shadow casting it’s size many times larger than reality.  Some would call it cynicism, a word I used to confuse with cunnilingus; a mistake she was in no hurry to correct me on.

Fair enough.

She gives me a sideways look and says,  “I could swallow you whole.  Like this burger.  Full of junk and lifeless things.  Even the vegetables are dead.”  I have to laugh.  There’s something to be said for honesty that flies in the face of social graces.

‘You’d never keep me down’ I say.  ‘Even your stomach would reject me eventually.’
“I’d try.  I’d absorb you.”

‘You can’t.  I don’t degrade.  I’d just sit in there, clinging to your vital parts, until you threw me back out, and I’d take everything with me until you’d be inside out and I’d be looking at you, with you in my hands.’
She chuckles, picking meat from her teeth.  “I knew there was a reason I dated you.”

I smile and we meet for a kiss but accidentally bang our heads together.  I pull out my lighter, roll up my arm sleeve and show her a portion of skin that isn’t already blackened or covered in a bandage.
‘Go on then.  Be quick about it.’
She smiles – no, she grins – a big bread-bun stained beige crescent of undiluted joy and, believe it or not, it’s actually a beautiful thing.

Mercury Preachers

img_3858

We sit down together, scraping our chairs over the decking and looking below to the granite river glittering like a malnourished catwalk model.  You brush a lock of hair over one ear but I know this isn’t flirtation.  The wind is kicking around us and your eyes struggle to focus on mine as they are whipped by strands.  Mother Nature is mischief today.

 
Last night I spent in the Old City, where my faded young ghost still bounces on his heels over well worn paths, my feet disappearing slowly as the roads are resurfaced and the original level consumed.  I walk through boarded up doors and create chills between courting couples sitting on benches who squeeze together for warmth.  I leech from the energy, looking for the faint echoes.  I drift past iconic places but the long rope of time is fraying badly.  I know these places are meaningful, and I can remember events that surround them, but I cannot remember my thoughts and feelings at the time.  I remember blind kisses in a dark alleyway, but I cannot remember what these kisses felt like in my mind. So I assume a memory that is pleasant.  I remember sitting on benches reading all the important things I felt I needed to read at nineteen, but I can’t remember what each page felt like.

 
I tell you this at length; how it occurred to me that part of the nature of nostalgia is not knowing where is home anymore.  You sip your coffee, your head angled in such a way that your right eye has stepped confidently forward whilst your left retreats behind the bridge of your nose.  Everyone is looking for a foundation, a ground zero that they can pivot their life around.  Even those who claim to have the wanderlust, who claim no patch of earth as theirs, are actually searching – not for adventure but for stability.  It’s why we fall in love, and why we crave it and why we fear it.  My foundation was once the Old Town and it was destroyed.  The Old City has been reoccupied by new faces, and to walk around now carries the air of the intruder.  And yet, because it remains tangible, I go through fits of wanting to try and reconnect.  Even though, from now on, I know I will always be the stranger in the room, the guy at the party that no one can remember inviting.

 
So we sit in the sunshine, and I have deliberately turned my back to the past – to the train station that will take me home – and I am looking upstream at the future and a platinum, alien sun.  All today my heart has been lifted by music – from street performers, ice cream vans, cafe bars and fashion stores.  Even the crap old man with the shuffle and the balloon animals singing Sinatra made me smile.

 
I decide to tell you about a young woman I’d seen at this very table a few days ago.  She’d been reading intently but the rhythmic swing of her leg indicated anxiety.  I know she hadn’t seen me but perhaps she could listen to my thoughts, which even as I looked down at my blank sheet of notepaper, every line formed into a perfectly shaped calf, languidly dangling a ballet pump from her pointed toes.  I wanted to know what her favourite line in her favourite film is, what jokes make her politely laugh and what can make her bray loudly with shoulder shaking tremors.  To kiss her hidden freckles and creases would be a privilege I could never adequately reciprocate – a priceless and infinite debt.  I wondered who she thought of before she closes her eyes and how fortunate he or she is.

 
I didn’t add that I wondered the same thing about you, albeit for different reasons.

 
I’ve cleaned up today but I was a mess that other day; probably frighteningly dishevelled.  I trembled with the previous night’s wine and a lack of sleep.  I smelled worn, covered in a thin sticky film of memory and pollution.  I desperately needed to shit the alcohol out of my system.  My shirt was covered in holes.

 
I look down at my empty cup and I can feel a new tremble in my fingers, a caffeine vibration.  I’m suddenly aware of my heart which thumps against my chest so hard I can see it through my shirt.  You say to me patiently; that I’m always searching for answers but I haven’t even worked out what the questions are yet.  That finding the answer is both pointless and impossible unless I’m clear in what I want to find out.  You flick your gaze from me to a point over my shoulder as the sounds of raised voices fills the air.  On the river below us, a small group of preachers in an inflatable dinghy is chasing down a tourist cruiser, yelling tales of damnation and salvation at the confused passengers.

Eastern

DSC_0004

Mina pushes another penny into the arcade and it flares into life, the music crackling through the fading speakers.  Around her the floor smells of stale soda and gum trodden in like an indecisive patchwork mosaic.  The machine is almost as old as she is, and so familiar, the light gun practically moulds into the print of her palm.

She’s dead by Level 5, too soon for her talents, distracted by a memory of playing the same game crossed-legged at home in her Nanna’s house.  A two bed place above the weird family, who tried to ‘sell’ them t-shirts by shoving the damn things through the letterbox in the middle of the night and demanding payment, hammering on the door at first dawn.  The arcade is too warm, and as a bead of sweat runs from Mina’s hairline down the bridge of her nose she is back in that stifling living room next to the gas fire, rippling malevolently from behind a copper cage.

That warm memory triggers another; a hot summer day with the neighbourhood kids, including two from the family under Nanna.  Liam; blonde haired, as pale as a newborn fish with bright red lips, and Sebastian; pockmarked with brown freckles, jet black angular hair and eyebrows that seemed to weigh heavily on the rest of his face so you never really saw where he was looking.  On that sweltering afternoon Mina and the gang had been playing football on the green, in the centre of the semi-circle of welfare housing that made up the Estate, when a door flung open, and a grotesque crackling voice blared out into the blue sky.  The ball hung high in the air, as though not wanting to land until the trouble had passed.

All the kids scattered, milling around the confines of the Green, never crossing the dreaded threshold of the Dangerous Road.  Except for Sebasian and Liam who stood frozen like statues where everyone had been moments before, as their father cursed and swore towards them.  Waving shirts above his head, some flecked with paint, he looked like Mario, except a decayed, verminous version of Mario; a piece of fleshy wreckage the result of spending the past twenty years trying to find his misbegotten teen years at the bottom of every bottle he could get his hands on.  Looking back on it now, he reminded Mina of a deranged medieval herald, planting the battle flag of a hopeless hundred before a mass of bloodthirsty thousands.

The Father pushed Sebastian aside, who realised the power of his legs and scampered towards the rest of them hovering before the inevitable spectacle.  Liam had flicked paint onto some of the hundreds of crap stolen shirts that littered the house, and now this was his public execution – as brutal to a kid in front of his friends as being torn to pieces by horses and chains.  Over the father’s knee, pants down, Mina and the gang watched as he belted that pale arse with the heel of a slipper until blood peeked at the edges of the purple horseshoe shaped marks left behind.  When it was over, and with Liam in too much pain to even begin crying, he was hustled inside.  Gradually, tentatively, Mina and the rest of the kids made their way back into the middle of the Green, avoiding the spot where the horror had occurred.  Someone kicked the ball into the air, running alone towards the goal, but the game was gone from their hearts and everyone shuffled home.

Back in the arcade, Mina pushes in another coin.  Wiping the sweat from her brow, she lines up the first three bad guys and pop, pop, pop, lays them out with three head shots.  Another dude appears from behind a door, floored before he can even get a shot away.  The game moves down a narrow corridor, opens another door into a small room, and on screen Mina sees what she has been looking for.  Another bad guy, a Mario lookalike, with a bulbous gut and beady little eyes.  She ignores the head and shoots for the legs.  The character falls to the ground, groaning loudly through the speakers and going through the jerky animation of someone in horrible pain, as text appears on the screen imploring the player to FINISH HIM, FINISH HIM.

But Mina doesn’t finish him… lost in a memory, she just lowers the gun and smiles.

 

 

Bunker (via FreeVerseRevolution)

jesus-is-an-ok-guy

(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 creationtoo 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.  

 

“…fifteensixteenseventeeneighteen…”

A scrunched nose

“…nineteen?”

‘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…

 

Progress…”

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.  

“What?”

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’

“Fuck Jesus!”

‘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.’

 

My Little Empire

DSC_0017(2)

Our hands clasp warmly, despite our mutual cold, as we push through the narrow door.  One small tinkle of that familiar bell signals our arrival – our place as refugees in a town of crumbling faces and grey buildings, where rusted cars compete for supremacy and hearts are broken against nightclub fire escapes.

Behind the counter a lady with a pair of beaming teeth and a row of yellow eyes bows cordially to us, her long black hair running like an oil slick down her shirt.  We release our grip and scan the shelves – column upon column of strip neon cuddled between deep brown wood.  Lone figures stand solemnly here and there on the fetid ugly carpet, noses deep in words; still wrapped up against the outside but here full of colour, glowing from their shoes to their foreheads.  Some corners have sickly lights, some have asthmatic candles dancing unsteadily on their wicks, but mostly the aisles are drenched in warm shadow – the kind of place you want to get lost in.

The Bookshop was our Sanctuary from a race that didn’t read, from a society that burned things it didn’t understand and a generation that preferred to stare at their own faces warped and reflected through tinted shop windows.  Inside this time capsule were the collective imaginations of thousands, gathered from the experiences of millions; an endless galaxy of connections and hearsay, of meanderings and meanings, of feelings and fears.  Inside The Bookshop there existed no fast right or hard wrong; you just simply were, and the words simply existed to be absorbed by those with the right eyes, or jumbled by those with the wrong ones too.  It didn’t matter.  As long as it happened, as long as a dusty page got to see light again, who cared what it meant long term?  What is any story without the tale and only the teller?

She nods her head and we descend into the cellar, down a steep, swirling and crackling wooden staircase.  In comparison to the warmth above, the cellar was always cold and reeked of damp.  But, with the exception of the coffee machine burbling away in the background, everything here was old and waiting to be found; a collection of orphans in their Sunday best with tags on their coats.  Second hand and classics, antiquarian and raggy vinyl.  The ceiling hung oppressively low, the wallpaper brown and ragged with war stories to tell.  Even the couches looked both homely and yet distressed.

We split up and scanned the titles; so many names who had made it, who had broken free.  Thomases and Annas and Gerards and Eves, names that would have otherwise been carved into a stone slab one day, and condemned to being weathered out of existence.  Here those forgotten names shone out in gold plated ink from tattered sleeves and shoulders.  Their bodies might lie in grey now, under overgrown and forgotten mounds, but I can pick apart their thoughts, run my finger over their words and kiss the dust from the tip of my finger.

I picked out something from an Augustus Ligier.  On Temperence And The Common Man.  I opened up the yellow pages, taking a deep sniff of the stale air.  Halfway down a page about the rucks of old navvies, how one beserker had taken hostage of an alehouse in 1855 with a coal scuttle and nineteen pints of mild because the landlord called time, she calls me over with pink cheeks buried somewhere between a hat and a scarf.

“This is filth” she tells me excitedly.  “Proper Edwardian smut.”  I follow her finger as it traces a wonky line.  She reads aloud to me.  Her pendulous bosoms left me in a daze as I mounted the footstool and awaited distinction.  She approaches me and, heaving away, I buried my lips over a single nipple like a barnacle attached to the hulk of Nelson’s Victory.” 

Snapping the book shut with a puff of fibres, she asks me.  “Do you ever mount a stool before you suck on a tit?”

‘I don’t think so?  Then again it has been a while…’

Her hands pinched my cheek through her fingerless gloves.  Awww.. you little barnacle. 

I swatted her hand away.  ‘Are you pendulous?  Have you ever compared your breasts to Royal Navy frigates?’

She cupped herself thoughtfully for a moment, scrunching up her nose.  “It’s weird you should ask me that…”

‘Really?  Why?’

“No reason” she smiled.  “It’s just weird.  You fucking weirdo.”

*

We take the shortcut through the cemetary home.  She points out her ‘favourite grave’; a coupled called Rita and Tom who she thought were called Ita and Tom on account of the ‘R’ going missing.  They died on the same day in 1973.  I hope they were holding hands when it happened, even if it was during a car crash, she always used to say.

We sit down on some old stones, having checked to ensure they didn’t have names carved into them, and compared our finds.  I had a small yellow and purple book with maps of Sub-Saharan Africa (just because I liked the hand-drawn maps), a copy of Mirabeau’s The Torture Garden, and a dog-eared flaking edition of Little Women bought just for the inscription on the inside cover – To Millie, with love from Mummy, Christmas 1901.  On page 65 I found a photo used as a bookmark; it was the top half of a distinguished looking gentleman in woodland, wearing a tin hat and a thick black moustache.  On the back, someone had written Alfie Ypres Nov 1914. 

She put her rucksack down at her feet and pulled out her haul.  Lucia Berlin, Elizabeth Gaskill and… I put my head in my hands… oh god…. she’s clearing her throat.

“No seriously, read this bit…

Clarissa’s buttocks massed before my very eyes.  I could only see the enormous mounds of jiggling flesh backing towards me relentless, like pale tides.  Trying to gather my senses, I mounted the stool and awaited her on…”

‘Fucking stools!’

She tweaked my nipple.  “Don’t interrupt me.  I am trying to read you literature.”

She gestured with her hands.  “Lit-err-ah-chure darlhhing!”

‘How many stools!  Seriously!’  I tried to fight off her squirming hands, fumbling for my chest.  ‘Does this cunt not know that other furniture exists!?  Stop it!’

Her hands reached under my jumper as her fingertips grabbed at me.  Shouts and cries, boots kicking into the cold air, rolling off the stones and across frozen brown leaves.  Our laughter echoed around the cold stones, and those cold faces, as the rest of the world passed us by with indifference.