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A Slack Water Channel

1.

Spring, as they say, had sprung in that smoky, green, great–hilled part of the world. Trees were blooming, cherry blossom and white apple flower. In the mornings mist would roll in over the hills like a hazy blanket, wrapping up the bird–in–a–hand hikers who had woken up at three in groggy morning to drive in from across the plains, or over from the coast, just to walk up and down because, apparently, the sunrises were something like unimaginable. 'Do you know what I've noticed?' 'What's that?' Wild flowers, that's what they really came for, and free–spirited locals with a taste for Rock'n'Roll. 'Something that people don't say anymore.' 'What is it?' 'You know what people don't say anymore?' 'What don't they say anymore?' 'People don't say I've seen it all now do they?' Oh, and the drives, or the driving. The wide, sweeping roads that wound up and down the hillsides like a map of worms. 'Don't they?' 'People don't say things like to last a lifetime.' 'What do you mean?' 'I reckon it's because of like, travel mags.' Actually, the sunrises were gorgeous, it would be unfair to rank them as otherwise. They just didn't compare to the sunsets. The sky all purples and reds and oranges, colours that don't make sense anywhere else. What, a purple and orange tie? Coffee table? 'Travel mags?' 'Travel agents, travel mags, travel billboards.' 'Travel billboards?' 'Yeah, you see them around sometimes.' 'What about them?' 'Think about it.' 'I'm thinking about the road.' 'Well, think about this for a second.' 'Sure. Travel billboards.' 'Think about it. Image you're in 1800.' 'Where am I?' 'Well that's the point.' 'Who am I? Am I me?' 'Sure you could be you.' 'I'll be me.' 'It doesn't matter.' 'Are you there?' 'It doesn't matter. Point is, you're in 1800 and you live in some small town, I dunno, in the countryside or the desert or somewhere where they've only got small buildings.' 'In the mountains.' 'What?' 'I live in the mountains, in a log cabin, with a cosy fire, and furs on the walls. Stag heads.' He was a rock star. The latest of that breed, more like a rocket starlet. Born twenty years too late to be a famous guitar–smashing, vodka–downing, roadie–fucking, coke–fuelled, law–breaking, semi–murderous, emaciated, bedraggled, sexy, arrogant, passionate icon. What a voice though, and give that boy a guitar... 'Okay, sure. Doesn't matter. Point is, you live in this tiny place and that's all you've known for your entire life so far. Say you're thirty–five.' 'I'm thirty.' 'Sure, I know. It was just-; Okay, say you're thirty.' 'I am.' 'I know. It doesn't matter. Point is, you've lived your whole life surrounded by nothing but the small town where you live. The same people, same streets, same shop, same pub, same grandmas, kids growing up, river going dry, birds getting caught by cats, normal stuff. Everyday stuff.' The guy's name was Frank, or Rick, or something regular. He was a pretty regular guy all round, watched sports at home, worked a job that he sort of enjoyed, had a drink at the end of the day, most days. There were only really two interesting things in his life, one was his girlfriend, who was a musician, singing jazzy and bluesy renditions of well–known tracks back up in another city. She was pretty successful there at the time. 'Sounds alright.' 'Yeah but wait. Remember it's 1800. It's like... Like the modern Dark Ages? I don't know. There's no electricity, no fax, pager, no phones at all. There's no television, no movies, no radio. You can't swing down to the next town to see your latest beau because there aren't any cars. Mozart is the hottest thing, but probably hasn't reached your town yet.' The other interesting thing was that he'd been picked up hitching a ride by a young, handsome rocket starlet on the day he died. 'Okay, I follow. It's a shit-hole.' 'More or less. Most importantly though, there's no travel.' 'Right.' 'So there's no travel stuff, no-' 'Travel billboards.' 'Do you even care?' The driver had made it quite clear that he didn't care about anything the squat, red-faced man had to say the moment he'd picked him up, jump in he'd said just don't say a damn word, which had lasted about six, maybe seven minutes before the cavernous, bumbling mouth had slapped open with a big I've got something on my mind and didn't slap shut for hours. 'Yeah, go ahead. There's no travel anything, billboards, or mags, or agents, whatever.' 'Okay, right. So there you are in 1800.' He was a see-saw of at once sitting, leaning right back and stretching his feet into the well, and sitting right, bolt-up and near shouting to the man beside him. It was weary game that went on and on. 'Here I am.' 'And you've never seen the Statue of Liberty.' 'I don't think that-' 'Right. You've never seen the Eiffel Tower.' 'Sure.' 'You've never seen the Taj Mahal or a castle, or a palace, or anything like that.' 'Okay' 'You've seen nothing except the small town where you've lived your entire life.' 'I follow.' Seemed like he was starting to get interested, something about the shouty man's enthusiasm for travel was catching on. 'And then one day, a carriage roles into town with a couple of horses strapped to the front and a man leans out the side and asks which way to the nearest city and you're the only one there so you say it's near a hundred miles East of here and he replies many thanks young man, please will you join-' 'Where's this going?' 'Wait. He says please will you join me on my journey round the world and you've got nothing to lose, no family, or job, or friends really, so you say what the hell, why not and jump on in.' 'So you're going round the world?' The driver was definitely interested now, looking round a bit, and the jittery speed arrow was climbing ever so slightly. 'Round the world, sure. You go to the city and it's huge and towers over you and you say wow, that's unbelievable, and you're on a huge steam liner and you say this is simply unimaginable, and you're scaling in a giant, six master, with a crew of a hundred and the sea all pounding around you and you say I could never have dreamed of this, and you make it to shore and there's desert as far as the eye can see, yellow-white sand that blows in huge, sweeping storms, and you're tracking through the desert with a train of humped camels, and then there, out of the horizon, grow these huge, pyramids, bigger than anything you've seen before, more incredible than anything on your journey so far, and you say what are those and the man says the tombs of ancient kings, they are thousands of years old, and your jaw drops as you get closer and closer and you look up at those mighty mausoleums and you say, well, I've seen it all now.'

2.

The car was gently sloping down, crossing back and forth in a zigzag across the mountainside. When they reached the bottom they pulled over and the small man took a walk while the driver stood leaning with his back against the door, cigarette in hand, looking out across the trees and hills and sucking in the road-side, country-side air. 'Are you working then? In town?' Ruddy-face was stumbling back to the road, pulling at his belt with one hand, rubbing his nose flat with the other. The driver didn't answer but swore quietly and threw his cigarette down and walked away, on the opposite side to bumbling red who was still yanking at his belt and scratching his face. 'Hey,' he called across to the sloping figure, disappearing into the trees, 'where you going?' He looked nervously around at the car left on the road-side, then turned to check up and down, but they were alone, and had barely passed half a dozen others since they were in the hills. Shrugging, he followed into the bushes, pushing aside the tall grass and swatting at the flies that buzzed lightly in the afternoon sun-gauze. A root or branch caught him and he went sprawling into the grass and dirt, swearing and brushing himself down, rubbing a knee. He caught up just in time to see the driver ducking under the concrete beam of something abandoned up ahead. 'Where you going?' He called again but sort of in vain as the other disappeared into shadow. The underpass was from a disused road that had once been the main thoroughfare but was replaced by the wider track that the two men had been following. On the outside nothing remained of the dead street, the thick black had been pulled up and recycled on some other hillside. A perfect urban haven, the tunnel ran twenty or thirty feet underground with a low slope at either end. The smell of animals and their sweat hung faintly in the solid stone air, the pungent aroma of a forgotten place, maybe dead things as well. The image of rotting birds and rats came into the tiny pea mind of the squat face-itcher who was rubbing his legs and forearms from the scratch of a briar. 'What is this?' He stood a few paces from the entrance way, nervously shuffling his sturdy weight around in an anxious bounce. The driver shrugged, running one hand along the wall he was walking the length of the cool, concrete room. 'Have you been here before?' Again, the driver answered in mute, shaking his head, still walking until he reached the far end of the corridor and stood, blinking in the sunlight that struck in low under the overgrown roof. 'This kind of place creeps me out actually,' called the itching nose man, his voice echoing down, bouncing through the solid warren hole. Carefully stepping over brambles and fallen branches he worked his way to the cave's entrance, squinting to see into the shadows. The walls of the underpass were square-inch detailed in the various slogans and tags of whoever had passed by with their bags of spray and paint. Huge block letters hastily scrawled and rescrawled up over each other to map out the collage plan of the local youth who'd spent night after night in this hallowed urban oasis amongst the surrounding green. The new road had cut off their cloisters and they came in their dozens to populate the dank remnants, to do whatever they did that barricaded their chamber from the sun. Then one day as it must have been they all but a few decided never to come back and the last known survivors of the concrete office grew out of their adolescent shoes and took their needles and powder to the bathrooms of restaurants and city-watching hotel rooms somewhere far away. The new population of two stood at either end of the aisle, one full of trepidation, the other muddled with the stirring sadness for a generation lost. 'Oh Jesus. Shit. Jesus.' A profane reaction to the encroaching army of tiny six-legged things that were suddenly shifting perspective from the empty dead tree-stump of a nearby lightning strike. The blunt tip of a branch stuck out from the bushes and itchy squinty face tugged on it and, wielding the dead shaft as a mace, smashed back against the natural world that sought to slink in at his jean cuffs and crawl down to bathe in the growing pools of sweat on his back. By the time he'd backed out of his titanic struggle with the ant population of that particular hillside the other man, the one with the dark brown hair and deep brown eyes, had turned back and was brow furrowed watching the angry little display of the war on grass. Something in the ceiling corner caught his eye and he watched with some curiosity as a thick-bodied evil looking creature delicately threaded its way home to find out what was causing such a commotion on web-strand four. The intruder was an unfortunate fly who sat scared and rightly confused at the world around it, sucker for a buzz around he'd flipped his way stylishly in looping, spiralling, nonchalant flight-path into a surprisingly sticky landing zone. Now the dance began as the blind spinner, wounded in some previous millennia life, made a methodical journey from edge to edge, feeling its hairy caress along each and every strand in search for tiny bouncing supper. It was a dark waltz that sprang to mind, born of the insidious inevitably with which the spider worked. The driver stood watching this uncouth technique unfurl, the fly from the sky sometimes humming, sometimes buzzing and fuzzing without much clamour, calling out what's going on? and where am I? and why? to no avail. Gentle features turned to sweaty ones as the warrior against tree stumps finally caught up with proceedings and stood, heavy breath and pant, stick in hand nearby. 'What's that there?' He babbled, roughly swinging his trusty thwacker in the direction of dinner for one. The driver looked from web to man and, gently reaching over, took the branch from his unsteady grasp. He lifted the stick towards the web's centre where big fat black was still a little lost and ace-pilot fly was, naturally, still none the wiser to the impressively large death trap that was spindling around nearby. With one quick plunge the man drove the weapon into the web, catching the angry diner–guest on the branch's tip and, in the same deadly blow, crushing the eight legs flat against the concrete ceiling of the tunnel. 'Holy sh–' The web folded, crumpling around the wooden shaft and the fly tried a little angry buzz before finding itself wound right up with nowhere to go. 'Why did you...' The branch fell with a thick, hollow sound that echoed in the empty hall. Without looking down the taller man turned and strode out with long, purposeful steps, from darkness into light.

3.

'I know who you are, by the way.' The driver didn't answer for a long time, but kept his eyes on the road, taking his time with the cigarette he'd lit sitting back in the car, staring out at nothing beyond the dash. 'Is that right?' The small man was snatching quick glances across at the young guy with the mid–length hair, and thick, dark brows. He shuffled slightly and coughed a little, trying not to look too much. 'Yeah, I didn't at first but then you said about... Well I know.' The driver nodded and tapped his thumb on the wheel. 'I actually saw you play once.' 'Is that right?' 'Well, my girlfriend brought me, I don't really remember. She took me to loads of gigs up there. I must have seen every up–and–coming band in the country by now.' He laughed a nervous, awkward chuckle that hung in the silence, then died. 'You seeing her in town?' 'No. I er– Well, no.' 'Shame. Might be nice to have someone to talk to.' 'Yeah, very funny. I know I talk a lot, it's just– Well it's not every day that you– If she knew where I was...' He trailed off, and looked quickly out the window, rubbing his nose again, and wrinkling it side–to–side. The sun was coming in real low now, and both men had found thick, square sunglasses that reflected the brilliant oranges and reds that filled the car with a fire–like warmth and colour. They sat, two laser–eyed, stoney–faced creatures in a ball of red sunset, speeding through the low hills, the hairpins and stomach jerking curves evening out into wide sweeping bends that looped in smooth gliding curls through the newly green trees. 'Do you mind if I... I've got a CD that maybe– well it's got some music that you might...' The driver's eyes narrowed behind his glasses, music he thought is the last thing I want to think about. He grunted and pushed eject on the player that beeped and clicked, a silver disk sliding out. 'Thanks, I think you might– Well...' 'What's got into you?' 'What's got into... Sorry? Me?' 'Yeah, what's wrong with you, you've gone all... Oh er–sorry, do you mind–oh, er...' 'Have I? I didn't mean– I mean, I didn't– sorry.' 'There you go again.' 'Can I play this?' He was holding a CD case, a rounded square of soft black felt or plastic with a zip around three sides. 'Sure, go ahead.' The drive buzzed as the CD clicked in and hummed for a while, whirring round to laser on the start. The music man hesitated then reached forward and pressed the next/fast forward button to skip on a couple of tracks. 'That's my favourite sound.' Muttered the driver, not really to stutter–bluster man. 'When the player is looking for where to start, and it's humming a little like that. The anticipation. And then...' As if on queue music sprang from the car speakers. An acoustic guitar and a tap, a simple rhythm, the cover of something old and classic, a spiritual song. 'You know this track?' Asked the shuffly man. 'Oh yeah, I know it.' Came the reply. Then she started singing, a pure soul melody that promised redemption through the washing away of sin. The two men sat driving and listening till the sun went flat–rouge and the CD buzzed and clicked out. They talked only very little and of not much consequence except one would say I really like this one and the other would say that's one hell of a voice and when the first chords on track nine chimed out the first man said this is my favourite, but also... and trailed off. When the album was over the stout man pushed eject and slid the disk back into its soft, black case, zipping up the three sides. The road was laid out Roman before them and they went along for a good while in easy silence, the signs flashing by as they passed out of the hill–country and into the plains, then on past towns, over rivers, through forests and the sun cut in half, then thirds, then fifths and the driver reached down and flicked on the beams as the digits on the signs ticked down.

4.

The city rose up out of the last dregs of the sunset, the broad flat roofs bouncing the last shafts of gold back up into the sky. The driver bit into the back of his bottom lip and swore, jerking the wheel across to the right, catching ruddy off guard, sending him bumping against the window. 'What the–' The car bounced along the dirt track that curved round and down past empty shacks and burnt–out cars to the river. Slamming on the brakes, they skidded to a gravel stop by a wide, flat stone and mud beach that stretched right down to the water's lapping edge. 'Come on, let's swim.' The ruddy went red again and muttered some nothings. 'Well, sit on the side then.' The reply was with a smile. He pointed to the back seats, 'Bring the radio.' As stout–belly scrambled for the door and to reach behind for the radio buried under sheet music, scratched discs, a walkman, and crumpled road–maps, the taller was heading round to the back, opening it up and lifting something out before slamming it shut and striding down to the river. The water was dark and cool, a rich blue in the evening's closing light. Stout–belly stumbled, tripping and slipping with bag and radio to join the other on the stones. The driver was sitting with one leg out, the other turned underneath, the guitar from the car resting on the bent thigh. The sun was coming, almost already was, down. Wind rattled the trees way over on the opposite bank. 'Hey, you er– You want one of these?' He was standing with his bag open, holding a bottle that glinted in the lowering sun. The young man waved him away with a shake of the head, his hands gently gliding over the strings that thumbed out a simple sound, all quiet bass and light tones. The other sat down and put the radio beside him, he looked out at the water, the bend of the channel tide that was turning in or out, but stood quite still between the stones, mud and trees. 'You swum here before?' 'Yeah, a couple of times.' 'Looks cold.' 'Oh, it is quite.' The music shifted, the simple undertones joined by a melody that span, singing in tender, mellow tones into the night. They sat there, two strangers by the river, one with his guitar, the other taking long drags from a bottle. The water flowed nowhere before them, the sounds of the city rolled in from a mile upstream, the occasional car along the main road back up the slope behind them. The music shifted again, something with a pulse, and the pale face with the angel's voice was bent low over his guitar, his ear close to the velvet, rhythmic sound. 'Is that Led Zeppelin?' 'Whole Lotta Love.' The drinking man nodded softly, quietly pleased, but with a curious sadness that sat growing from somewhere deep between his liver and heart and was starting to spill up behind behind his eyes. He blinked hard and fought it down. 'One of her favourites. You'd never have guessed.' 'Is she in town?' 'No, she's... She's not.' 'Some other place?' 'Yes. She's– Yeah. Last year... Mela... Melanoma.' The music stopped as the thick brows sloped, eyes widening, mouth forming a quiet Oh. 'I'm sorry, I didn't–' Tears were starting to curl up in the corners of the red–faced red eyes 'No. Don't be– I just wish she could have,' he laughed a little, 'God, she was such a fan of yours. And you should have heard her. I mean you did, actually. In the– Her voice– Hell everyone should have heard it. Everyone in the whole, goddamn world should have heard her! She could sing like... like you. And when she– when she played...' The wind picked at his shirt and stung his smarting eyes. 'That's why I'm going to town.' Reaching into his bag he pulled out the thick, padded disk case. 'It's one of her records. I want to– I don't know. I want someone to hear it, someone who'll know how special she was.' 'Well maybe I could...' 'Oh, you don't have to– I've gotta– It's a drive, you know?' 'Yeah, I know.' The driver stood, placing the guitar down by the radio and walked to the water's edge. 'I'm going to swim. You coming in?' 'Just like, just in your boots and...' 'Yeah, hell, why not.' With a quick spring he bounced onto his heels and then went striding into the river. The ruddy man looked up and smiled as the Led-singing figure, boots and all, splashed up to his waist then flung himself into the mill-sound. Blinking away the tear-sting he leant back on his hands, feeling the smooth stones of the riverbank before reaching over and switching the click button of the radio to FM, and turning the main round turn to find something to tune across the water. The voice of the man with hair draped in wet slicks across his face came singing out from the river, something tuneless and for nobody but the open channel and the banks either side. As he bobbed and star-floated another sound joined the evening's gathering darkness as the radio fizzed into life and mingled with the splashes and laughter, and the deep motor hum of a tug that was lazily winding round the bend. The boat pulled slowly across the flat bay, sputtering and churning the turning tide, a long, thick wake dragging behind. The wave scoured the water's edge, mulching the stones of the bank and sending ripples flying out across the mirror glistening palate of pebbles and wet mud. As it drew closer the squat face crumpled in a frown and soured, wiping away tears he jumped up and grabbed the radio that squeaked and hissed a little as the arial swung in his hand. With the guitar, that had been left by the side, in one hand and the radio in the other he scrambled back up the slope away from the encroaching wake, the sound of the fat tug's blubbering motor growing and overcasting the small splashes and wordless voice that sung from the darkness. The water slowed and stopped, settling back into the river-channel-;bed with a sigh and the night sucked up the sounds of the tug as it wound away and grew silently glowing off in the gloom. The radio still burred from where the shaky hands had left it down. The blushed up face turned back out to the water, listening for the distant sound of splashing and that tuneless, wordless, perfect song. His ruddy heart began to beat up into his head as he clicked off the FM and strained and strained to hear the man sing. Muttering started questioning out of his bubbling lips that couldn't form a word or a shout or terrified cry. The tight eyes were wide, the breath haggard and oh my god he thought, over and over in his thoughts he just said oh my god. Shuffling feet poked around in the black as squinty eyes felt through the dark for his bag which he found and having found opened and having opened reached in and took out that thick padded case and turned it over and over in his hands, feeling the weight of it and from the silence hearing only her voice in the night.

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