Differential

On a gleaming piece of wasteland, I stood amid the dust and wished for water. I’d been here for a while now; not that I knew or could tell time, but I watched as the Sun lifted up behind a line of grey trees, before immediately deciding not to bother with this day and sliding away. People in brown and green clothes rushed around me. Everything crinkled and looked on the verge of breaking. I wished an old man good morning and he stared a hole through my neck, only glancing at my eyes when he was a safe distance away.

I closed my eyes and sat down on a cold slab. Dead roots clambered desperately up my feet, over my ankles, around my calves, over my kneecaps and to the tips of my fingers. I felt the wind change, from ice to damp, the shrieks of a gale softened into the whispers of a breeze, the cold of winter replaced with the indifference of autumn. A polite voice cleared their throat and I opened my eyes. The concrete had disappeared, replaced by dull greens and rich browns, and a rusty oil barrel as the plinth to an earthy statue.

She flicked a dead beetle, crushed like roadkill against the end of her filthy sneakers, and said it’s been a while. Her head tilted, as if to click out a knot in her spine, but those keen eyes lasered me down to my mottled bones. Just as all those years ago, I felt myself being sized up as prey. Worth the lunch, or worth a sniff and a pass… worth a second glance, or worth nothing at all.

I looked down at myself, swollen and ragged from alcohol and nostalgia. I have never been more comfortable than when I felt like a vagabond, an outsider, someone disgusted by those lucky enough to own shoes that don’t leak, clothes that don’t rattle in the wind, smiles that don’t leak brown and glutinously from the corners of their mouth.

She traced the outline of a line of bricks, hidden in the mud under our feet. A building once stood here that meant something to us, although I couldn’t remember why. Everything else shone now, everything blinded me. Skyscrapers made of ice, that never melted although I knew they could. A wise man – that is to say, a terrible man – once told me that he never trusted anything he couldn’t smell. Her bloodied toes dragged back and forth across the grime, sweeping lines like a heartbeat growing in strength. The damp and oil swelled.

As pre-teens we broke into building and construction sites looking for pornography. Scaling fences, using hair clips on the locks of diggers, even slithering inside the slivers of open windows in neglected worker’s cabins. We rarely found anything and neither of us had any interest when we did. The one time we found the half-chewed remains of a magazine, fluttering impaled on a thorn bush like a defeated flag on a battlefield, I looked at an image I hadn’t even considered could exist and hurled it into the air as though on fire.

She once told me how she’d seen a picture in an abandoned shop window. The image forgotten by its former owners and bleached almost white by the sun. She told me; I feel sunbleached sometimes… spending so much time searching for the light and the warmth that I don’t realise how much damage it is doing to me.

Fear drove us. Whether it was burglary, assault or vandalism, we always waited to be caught like the expectant lover waiting for the final act. I realised how few times in my life I had experienced having a heart – something that beats and pulses inside my chest, something I can physically feel as much as a twitching muscle or a thumping artery. My mind raced and my heart tried to catch up, until both fell into a desperate race in which only my resolve and my conscience could hold a flag to stop it all.

She told me; fear held me until I defined its boundaries… now I know where to go and where I can stay.

The idea of conquering fear seemed impossible until I heard those words. Until I walked down the cracked path to the harbour one day, and saw the last gasps of a whale washed up on the beach next to the fishing trawler it had expended so much energy in destroying. The boat lay, broken and ruined, the missing (presumed) dead crew still expected to wash up on the shore in the next week or so… whilst an entire town fought to free this bloodied and defiant creature so that it may destroy again. They couldn’t, they didn’t, it died…. the bones recycled into a monument whilst the boat became firewood, the crew simply an anecdote.

The dead beetle lay broken next to me. I picked it up, crushed its remains in my hand and smeared the poultice across my nose and forehead. Walking towards the oil drum, those eyes sparked into life again. Prey, or indifference.

I told her; I fear nothing… My palms sweated against a tidal wave of light.

She leapt off the drum. I want to believe you, she smiled. So, let’s find ‘nothing…