Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Early Morning Walk

Turn left at the junction into Mulberry Gardens, a small development of starter homes built in the 1980s to house the commuters flooding into the area hoping to catch the coat tails of the financial boom encapsulating the nearby city. You’ll see the quaint, neat lawns, some levelled with concrete to provide a hard-stand for the car, even though the road sees little traffic thanks to its no-through-road status. The numbers run even on the left, 2-8, and odd on your right, numbers 1-9. There is a piece of wasteland, grown over with brambles and nettles where you may presume house number ten should have been, but it’s not. Perhaps the developer ran short of money; perhaps there is simply not enough room for another dwelling, who knows? It’s something to ponder while you locate the small path that runs between numbers six and eight. The sun is about to make itself known, beyond, over the hills. It’s time to hurry.

Find the oak tree. From here you can climb up through the larger lower branches and get an unobstructed view of the cul-de-sac. But there’s no moment to pause here. Listen carefully and you may catch the drifting clang of the alarm clock before it’s silenced by a hand, or pillow. There is a light in the upstairs window of number three, visible through a crack in the curtains where yesterday they were hastily tugged together to shut out the night. And, in a blink, the light is extinguished. Watch as it travels down the stairs and into the back of the house, because this is where the kitchen is to be found with its stainless steel kettle, crumb-coated toaster and the worktop stained with rings of tea from dirty mugs, spilled wine and the years of frantic food preparation while hosting amateur dinner parties.

The light travels to the front of the house again. As it’s scattered through the rippled glass panels in the UPVC door, you notice the empty milk bottles, a folded piece of paper conveying the cancelling of the daily delivery, or perhaps holding a cheque for payment of the monthly account, rolled into the top of one of the bottles awaiting the arrival of the milkman. An archaic tradition, one seen rarely anywhere but rural locations such as here in Mulberry Gardens, where the distance to the local supermarket makes even the high price of milk in glass bottles worth paying for. And then, in the flick of a switch, the light is swallowed by the eerie half-dark of dawn breaking.

Watch as a figure emerges. They turn right, coming towards you. The foliage of the great oak, and height of your perch, hides you even as the sun makes its first forays over the distant tree-lined horizon. Still you hold your breath as they pass, a smudge of black beneath you. It’s time to drop down and follow before you lose sight of them in the dark.

The soft, dew-dipped grass masks the clump of boots as we watch the figure move down the footpath towards the faint sparkle of the city, some half hour away by road. Brush past the creeping fingers of ivy that cascade like a swarm of locusts down the pitted brick wall and then you’ll be at the twisting lane that runs to the farm, its high banks sprouting thin tree trunks and hard chalk flints to catch careless drivers or distracted cyclists. And that’s when you hear it, the hoot of the train as it wriggles through the valley on its wheeled belly, so faint, like the smell of jasmine on the breeze as you pass the stile on the boundary of the fields.

Step across the wooden plank and down and in an instant long wet stems of grass shroud everything below your knees, the colour of your trousers darkening where the fabric’s weave draws in the moisture as you walk. There are large, drunken bees already out to harvest the pollen, buzzing amongst the half-opened blooms that are dotted along the hedgerows and across the grass of the fields. Solitary trees stand guard, acting as nature’s scarecrows; just as ineffective as the bundle of rags and straw flopping like a fish out of water when the wind whips unmercifully over the rutted earth, crucified on scaffold poles like some hideous parody of Christ. And there it is again, nearer this time, the same aching sound of wounded cattle too exhausted to fight against the mud that is claiming them, the train mooing out to warn early morning drivers and passengers that it is coming and to clear the crossings and prepare for arrivals and departures. It’s time to quicken our stride.

At the end of the field lies a gate leading to a tight, narrow path, the grass balding in the centre to show earth smoothed by the feet of humans and dogs. But you will ignore this and instead duck under the barbed wire to follow the figure ahead of us. The sun is up enough now that we can see it’s a woman. She is not hurrying, but she has purpose to her walk. She is dressed in a light coat and dress, her white shoes looking like rabbits’ tails bobbing in the grass. She has not noticed you and there is something in her posture to suggest she wouldn’t stop nor hurry if she knew you were there, behind her, stalking. It’s only now that you notice the rumble, the clack of the tracks as the train approaches.

The undergrowth is getting dense and more of your clothes are wet now, but you know they’ll dry quickly once the sun pulls itself up above the surrounding hills, its rays breaking through the splatter of clouds that are skipping across the sky, burning away the moisture to leave a hot and humid day. But then without warning you’re clear of the trees, the fields and the snagging thorns and stinging nettles. There is no time to react. There is the train. Loud, black, engineered metal stampeding on the rails. It’s deafening, but still a single sound can be picked out, like a flattened note in a blues scale. It’s the sound that makes you look up.

Only then do you realise it’s you who has spoken. One word. Jump. By that time it’s too late to save yourself.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Unresolved (A Draft)

It was at the supermarket that Nathan first met Jon. He was Nathan’s manager. Squat body with bandy legs and chest hair that seemed to grow to his chin. No front teeth. Lost them to a lamppost that jumped him late one night. Bloodied his nose. He let Nathan look at the small white shards of tooth that poked from his swollen gums. Nathan recalled Jon’s meaty hands on his shoulders as he tilted his head back away from him; if Nathan hadn’t known him well he might have thought Jon had done it so he didn’t have to smell the stale cigarettes and last night’s beer on his breath.
Afterwards Jon had given Nathan a dressing down for wearing black shoes with his brown uniform. He made sure Nathan knew the difference between being friend and being boss.

On Saturday nights, once the supermarket had closed, a group of workers from the supermarket all piled to the pub, a shallow building looming over the graves in the local cemetery, it’s yellow lights throwing a malevolent glow across the tombstone-lined paths. Occasionally, someone – usually Jon – would run ahead and hide, jump out with banshee shouts to scare us. Once, he confessed to Nathan, pressing up uncomfortably against him at the bar, that he’d made a girl piss her pants doing that trick. Nathan excused himself and took his drink over to the flashing lights of the fruit machine, his free hand tapping the shrapnel in his trouser pocket.
Even though he wasn’t legally allowed to drink by two or so years, someone always slipped a double shot of vodka into Nathan’s cola. Often it was Jon buying the drinks, his gappy mouth and damaged gums grimacing as he called Nathan’s name.
Sundays, Nathan would have to sleep late to get rid of the dull ache in his head. Jon would like to ask how debilitated Nathan had been on Sundays. It’s not as if Nathan had to get to church, it was something he could handle.
Jon told him it was part of growing up. Like losing your teeth.

They huddled, like pensioners caught in a crosswind. The hubbub of the public house played out ahead of them. Apart from Nathan, there were six others; Nathan didn’t know all their names and he couldn’t recall them ever asking for his. Somehow they’d congregated, flotsam caught by a stray, snagging branch. Nathan was nursing a pint, surreptitiously slurping the bitter ale one of the others had seen fit to buy him.
Bryan was one of those whose name Nathan did know. Bryan worked in the Dairy section at the supermarket. He nodded at Nathan. It was the extent of every conversation they had ever had since Nathan had started at the supermarket with a Thursday afternoon, three-til-eight shift.
Bryan loved magic, the art of it. He reached towards Nathan, eyes winking. Then, sitting back, he nodded to the table in front of Nathan. There was a set of tarot cards, the pack decorated with detailed paintings of mythical beasts and topless women. Nathan scooped them up with his right hand, just as Bryan had taught him. Nathan showed his right hand. Empty. Grinning, he showed his left hand, palm up. Empty, too. Bryan smiled, gulped at a lager top in a knobbly pint glass with a handle. His eyes never left Nathan’s hands, watching closely as Nathan reached into his jacket, producing the cards with a theatrical flourish. Bryan stood. He promised to get Nathan a “proper drink” as he weaved his way towards the crowded bar.
Nathan pulled a card from the pack. Tonight, he would be Justice. Tomorrow he would find out how to do a reading. First, he had a pint to finish and a story that fat Tony was telling to listen to.

Ugly as fuck she was, but an arse to die for. Buffed her from behind, she… Nathan switched off, knowing that Tony was embellishing almost every word of this story with a double helping of bullshit, topped off with a cherry the size of London. Everyone knew Fat Tony liked men. Everyone except Tony; he wouldn’t admit it - even to himself - thinking that other people saw him as a hard man, a likeable nutcase who wouldn’t want to get down to the dirty business of licking a puckering, shit-flavoured hole. His two convictions, the whole sorry saga of being caught on his knees, another man’s cock in his mouth, in a foul-smelling public toilet, broadcast in the local paper. That’s why he was known as Fat Tony, so no one had to mention his real name in public, lest someone who didn’t know him by sight wanted to vent some pent up rant about homosexuality. Nathan distrusted anyone that didn’t like Fat Tony; that he was gay didn’t matter. Not like it did to Nathan’s father.
Fat Tony was once welcome at Nathan’s house. That was before Nathan’s father had learned that Fat Tony’s real name was Gordon Franklin. Bum bandit, turd burglar, cocksucking queer, poof, homo. A tirade directed at Nathan, as if it were an accusation made of him. He never told Fat Tony why he wasn’t welcome anymore; something passed between them in a quick glance that somehow prevented Fat Tony from asking and Nathan from explaining. Two years had passed them by since then. A little longer than the last time Nathan had seen his parents. The last time they’d seen him.
The clunk of a full pint of lager being placed in front of him brought Nathan out of his daydream. Drink up, someone said, we should get going soon. Nathan gulped, the lights of the pub swirling and dancing through the amber liquid as it cascaded down his throat.

They were running from the police. No headlights. Scarf at the wheel of the coach. They’re buffeted like tourists on the underground at 8am. Trees screech their branches against the windows. Scarf says he needs the lights on. He flicks his finger and the cones of bright lights come on in time to illuminate the tree with which the coach is about to collide. Scarf wrenches the wheel to the right but it’s too late.
The coach stops and all they can hear are a distant owl hooting and the tinkling rain of broken glass. I guess we’re camping here for the night, says Scarf. Voices laugh, a way for people to announce they’re okay. Nathan joins in.

Over the next three hours they set a fire and wait for the rest of the group to join them. They sing songs. At some point, Nathan walks away from the celebrations, winding his way through the trees. He can see lights in the distance, knowing before he’s even close enough to verify that they belong to his parents’ house. His home. He wonders what they are doing right now: mother, watching Eastenders, father asleep in his chair. Predictable, even though Nathan hasn’t seen or spoken to them for almost two years. This is the closest he’s been for a long time; possibly since the day his mother pushed his bloody, squawking mess into this world.

Just because something blows you away it doesn't make you a lightweight. That's what Nathan told himself as he faced Bryan across the blackened grass that only hours before had held the flames of the campfire. There were words coming at him, head-on; spittle following, fists clenched and ready to come at him too. So Nathan shouted his thoughts, momentarily confusing Bryan and a crease to cut his angry face in two.
Nathan shut his eyes, expecting the punch, waiting for the feel of sweaty flesh and bony knuckles to split his skin, spill his blood. There was nothing, although he could hear Bryan’s laboured breathing, the stale breath making his stomach knot and churn, so he knew something was about to happen.
Squinting, Nathan opened one eye. Bryan was no longer in front of him, he was off to one side, hands limp at his side. Taking his place in front of Nathan was Katie. Just as he was about to speak, she cut him short with a slap. The sting, the redness that was more than embarrassment, the shock of it, all combined in one huge emotional burst and with a quick turn Nathan was running full pelt from the camp. Words rang after him: Don’t. Come. Back. Her voice.
Again, Nathan found himself the outcast.

Leaning back against the gnarled trunk of an oak tree, its leaves whispering peacefully in the weak breeze winding through the woods, Nathan thought back to the day his grandfather had passed away. How, walking back towards home, the clouds had grown sullen, frowning as the news sank in. There on the corner, leaning like a council labourer against the bowing dry-stone wall, was Mrs Kirkbride.
Homely; a word Nathan thought was surely invented to describe Mrs Kirkbride – Gertie to her very close friends (and half the village behind her back, she being the gossipmongers’ choice for their daily tittle-tattle and rounds of spitefulness they liked to advertise as ‘Coffee Mornings’). Closely permed hair nestled under a grubby cloth cap; pinprick eyes cushioned by crinkled skin, so small Fat Tony called them “piss holes in the snow”; a smile that showed no teeth – because, even though you couldn’t tell, Mrs Kirkbride didn’t have any and found dentures uncomfortable. The worst thing – and at that precise moment, a nightmare Nathan was about to endure – was the way she greeted any child in the village.
As Mrs Kirkbride held Nathan in an embrace tighter than a wrestler’s leotard he could feel her nipple pressed against his forehead like a bully’s finger, accusing. Right there and then he knew he’d made the right decision. He definitely needed to get out, get away, escape, to run from something so big he couldn’t face it. The thing that had led him to people like Bryan, Katie, Fat Tony and the rest of the travellers. He'd had enough of the small town mentality, the pain of growing up in this goldfish bowl. It was time for adventure.
Some adventure it had turned out to be. So far.
For Nathan, it was only just beginning.