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The Sun Sets, But...

by Benedict Esdale
0. 1. The Tube From Kings Cross to Golders Green 2. Sleeping Giants 3. Fox in the Mountains 4. Walking 5. Girasole/Sunflower 6. The Black Forest 7. SOHO 8. Rats and Mice 9. Night A Letter Home

0.

'Busy tonight?' 'Not too bad.' Get on an Express train outside a small run-down house on the wrong side of the tracks and wait till it arrives at the North Pole where you'll meet - 'How's business?' 'There's more taxis in Dublin than there are in New York.' Sit in a small rowing boat that drifts across a freezing lake in Scotland until it rounds the next bend and the castle appears. Knock heavy on the great wooden front door and when it opens you'll meet - 'Is that right?' 'They did a count. Not sure if that included private or...' 'Blimey.' Stand with an excited crowd, clamouring against the wrought iron fence, until a small door opens and a man limps out. He trips on the red carpet, then calls you forward and finally you get to meet - 'A party is it?' 'Something like that.' Amelia in the small plane that crossed first. Engineers in the train that one day will connect Beijing to Berlin. Huge frigates of dying French soldiers off the Egyptian Coast. Scott in a sledge that only went South. A boy in a van on his way to the station. Bus drivers, taxis, your parents in the front, you in the back. 'My daughter's there.' 'What does she study?' 'English. I did Engineering back in the day.' Get on an Edgware-bound Northern Line tube from anywhere in the City and wait till everyone gets off at Camden Town. Chalk Farm. Belsize Park. Hampstead. Then something magical will happen - as it does at many points on the great grey ring of Zone 3 - the Underground comes out into the open air. Watch me sigh and look out the window, properly look, not just stare into the rushing black that wails between Mornington Crescent and Euston and rattles the rest of the way. My headphones aren't very good at noise-cancelling so the volume's turned all the way up, which can't be good for me but this is an album I love and I want to get to a song I haven't listened to in a while before... I get off, walk a hundred yards and meet- 'What did you do?' 'Moved around a bit. But I didn't enjoy it.' 'How long have you been driving?' 'Forty years.'


1. The Tube From King's Cross to Golders Green

God it was hot. Cooling, but still you could feel the shirt stick to your back after just a minute out under the sun. The old station platform was empty and endless, the concrete blended into the sand and the desert stretched on forever. Wind rushed across the blasted ground and gave the dotted bushes little tugs as it passed by. I'll pull you up tomorrow it said, sure you've got roots but they aren't deep and the earth is crumbled and dry. The bushes just shrugged and held on tight. Spiders' webs stretched out in the tight shrub, their weavers' heavy-bodied and weightless in the bullseye. These were ancient creatures, much bigger than you'd find at home. Though you weren't afraid of them. As long as you saw their silver you could walk right up, crouch down and get a good look without fear. I guess the space around you offered multiple routes of escape. These weren't the plain blacks with their fur, skirting the corners or maybe dead in the small cupboard, crawling out of the shadows and into children's nightmares. These fat reds and golds were beautiful in their own way, glinting in the afternoon sun and swaying slightly in the gentle breeze. 'Where you heading?' He hadn't noticed anyone coming up and looked around sharp, almost losing his balance where he was kneeling down in the shrub. 'What's that there?' She pointed into the space between two bushes. Then, without missing a beat, 'Where are you going?' 'Well, which?' She frowned. 'Which what?' With a sigh he rocked back on his heels and scooped his head low for a moment. He had been totally engrossed in the fat, robust spider, marvelling at its thick, wire-haired legs and screwing up his forehead to remember what kind of venom it might carry. He looked up at the child standing, waiting, eyes flicking from him, to the bush, to the desert beyond. What's that? Hell if he knew. 'Eratigena agrestis.' 'What's that?' 'Spider.' She jumped away and held both her arms close to herself. 'Does it bite?' 'Only flies.' She opened her eyes wide and mouthed soundlessly. 'It can fly?' He frowned. Cocked head and he looked between the spider and the girl. 'Sure it can fly. Fly right up and bite your neck. Drink your blood and then you'll be a big swollen purple spider yourself.' 'I shouldn't like that,' she shuddered 'my complexion is mostly pale anyway.' He thought of his own, leathery skin, roughened into crags and troughs by the deep flat-plain wind. 'Well don't that just add up.' She put a hand dramatically to each ear, 'What was that? You mumbled, I didn't quite hear you.' 'I said I'm heading to Arco.' 'I don't know it. I'm not from here.' 'Hadn't guessed.' 'Ma's bringing me West while the sea's still warm. She loves the sea and she says if we had stayed up in the mountains all summer and missed the sea being warm then why would we live in a country that had an ocean? If we stayed up there and never went down and had a look at the water while it was warm then we might as well live in Switzerland and bury ourselves up to our necks in the snow each winter and only come out to check the time and make sure the trains were running.' 'Is that right?' 'I don't know about that last bit, about Switzerland.' 'No. I don't suppose you do.' The first of the day's cooler wind picked at the web, bouncing it gently. Both girl and man turned to watch the unfazed spider bob and sway until it came to a still. Then it moved without a sound to tie up one slack line and re-stake a loose holding rope. 'Where are you heading?' 'Arco, I said.' 'Is that a big town?' 'Not really, no.' 'Then why are you going?' 'Full of questions aren't you.' 'You aren't being very helpful, I just wanna know.' He sighed, recognising an insistent nature; there was no tamping this one down. 'I guess I'll find some work in Arco, then maybe go to the coast or head south when it starts getting cold.' 'What kinda of work do you do in Arco?' 'I don't do work in Arco. I've not been yet.' 'But then why would you go there to work if you haven't ever worked there before?' Jesus, would she ever stop - The distant, shrieking sound of rattling iron cut off his thoughts. The girl looked around then laughed and shouted out. 'It's coming! It's coming!' The train was some way off still but the earth all around was throwing up a thin layer of dust that sat in a low cloud just off the ground. The man stood up for the first time and looked north, shielding his eyes from the lowering sun with one long, lean hand. The train grew nearer and the slight rise where the old platform had been hastily moulded some decades ago gave them a view of the snake as it lengthened out from the sloping hills on the horizon. The trembling grew to a gasping, breathless shake and the train was upon them. Huge iron carriages like a string of immense metal boars ran in a tight pack, shouting and roaring their huffing skidding wheels through the dust that flew in a wake from the tracks. Too close to read the giant painted names of each car's corporation, the girl's head whipped from side to side, catching the colour of one and spinning eagerly onto the next. Miles and miles of huge cars slid by, the constant drone beating against the two dwarfed figures standing in the dust. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the final carriage split past the station and was gone. The groaning wail of the reverberating tracks deepened, then juddered, then was still. Piece by piece, the sounds of the desert floated back to them. The wind tapped back at the bushes, the crickets jumped back up at the highest leaves, the dust floated gently back to bed. The girl stood, hair splashed across her blushed cheeks, mouth open, wide and full of wonder and questions. He sighed when he saw her excitement, not that he'd admit to this little girl that he felt the same, that the train had ignited in him something thrilling too, something that had shaken him through and through and would pound against him the rest of the night. She didn't turn but called back over her shoulder, still staring at the massive empty space where the train had been. 'Where's that going?' 'Pocatello.' 'What's it got?' But before he could sound out the muttered curse another voice cut across the sand and all eyes turned to the figure striding towards them. 'Lettie, what the hell are you doing?' The woman was dressed modestly, traditionally, with a simple dress and a cardigan thrown across her narrow shoulders. Tired eyes hid behind large, thick-rimmed, tinted glasses, her hair tied up in a scarf. In this strange desert of dusty browns and burnt, warm oranges, this portrait of blue and cream struck through the afternoon light and shot brilliance down on the little girl who ran to meet her. 'Lettie,' she repeated, 'what the hell do you think you're doing?' The girl was folded up in arms and soft cotton but just now jumped out and sprang to introduce her new-found friend. 'I was just watching the train, ma.' Turning to the man, still behind her, awkward, half-hidden by the bushes, 'We stood and watched it together didn't we?' He nodded, dumbly, and drew one tough hand through the oiled mop of his hair, biting down the thumb skin of the other. He coughed a little. Dust or something else tied a weight to his blunt, dry tongue. The woman raised an eyebrow and went back to her daughter, 'Honey, you know you don't get that close to the tracks.' 'I know, ma.' 'You know they don't stop for nothing or nobody.' Lettie looked at the sand between her shoes and nudged a stone, turning it over to see if anything crawled out. 'I know, ma.' 'What if you'd been hurt, honey? What then?' Lettie looked up brightly, 'Why, I'd have been alright. I've got a friend to look after me.' 'Is that right?' 'Ma, can we help him. He's going to Arco and I don't know where that is but I'm sure it's not far, but still too far surely for him to be walking all that way, and don't we have space to take him on?' The two adults looked across at each other, Lettie beaming up at her mother between them. The woman's eyes narrowed behind her dark glasses. She recognised a softness in his hard lines, and knew her daughter would never have spoken up for him if she had found even an ounce of malignancy; she was wise like that beyond her years. Finally she smiled dryly, 'Arco is it?' He nodded again, still finding his throat dry. Maybe it was the dust, but probably not. 'Well, jump in the back, I'll take you as far as Atomic City, it's the next town that way.' Something like 'That's very kind of you' shuffled out but it didn't get very far. She nodded and turned back to her daughter. 'Come along now, honey.' The car was parked on the other side of the station. The woman reached into the open top and took a rag, getting to work wiping down the dust from the screen. 'That's a fine car you've got there.' And it was. The deep chrome guard caught the half-set sun, casting deep silver shadows across the sturdy, gloss-red body where clouds reflected up through the thin layer of sand that brushed away from the waxy coat. The cars of this age were pride rocks, settlements and statements. The long bonnet and the wide trunk were space for lions to lie out in the sun, their mighty paws resting up on the wind-shield, their long tails flicking the desert flies from the glistening hubs. Four squat doors, a single thin white stripe that ran from headlight to fender. This was a car designed for open highways, thick heavy streets, and the big skies of a country built with the room to take their time. The roof wound up and with a satisfying splutter and grumble they were away, rolling and bumping over the tracks, then finding the road and letting the wind carry them west. She drove with a practised grace, and spent most of her time leaning easily back, light touches on the wheel taking them in artful gliding arcs through this West-American savannah. Fields of potato crop turned to sand and back, to huge open plains, then small clusters of hills with stunted grass and picket trees. These smaller cousins of the mighty, arrow-straight pines and larches that grew to the north and west leant, bent by the sweeping winds that drove from the great barrel of the Mid-West. The woman sighed to herself as she took in the landscape dully passing by. Whatever drove her people to cross this place? What made them so sure they'd find paradise on the other side? 'What's your name?' Lettie was turned around in the front, staring at the stranger, who nodded coolly along with the bump of the engine. 'I'm Howard.' Her eyes lit up. 'Like the Brit!' Her mother frowned slightly. 'Which Brit is that honey?' 'Carter. Howard Carter.' No reaction so she ploughed on. 'Howard Carter, the British archeologist who opened up the tombs in Egypt. The Valley of the Kings it's called. It's where they buried them all. He was a pioneer.' Howard grunted something approving. A pioneer? He could get on with this new namesake. 'Is that right?' 'That's right. Tutankhamun was the big one. The best-kept tomb of any Egyptian King ever, and he found it, Howard Carter.' Her mother looked across again and smiled. She hadn't known that. Lettie went on. 'You like music?' 'I listen to the radio.' 'They found trumpets with his body.' 'With whose body?' 'Tutankhamun's.' 'Is that right?' 'That's right. One silver. One bronze. And in 1939, on the radio in Britain, they played the trumpets out loud for all the world to hear.' 'One silver, one bronze?' 'But the silver one was damaged after they played it which isn't really surprising to anybody given that those trumpets had sat with nobody playing them for three thousand years in a tomb in Egypt.' He whistled softly through his teeth. 'Three thousand years?' She nodded, solemn and slow. 'Can you even imagine?' 'I really can't, little lady. Can you?' 'Three thousand years, ma, can you even imagine?' 'I can't honey. Really, I just can't imagine.' Lettie sat down and looked out front, 'I hope I live that long.' The desert was slipping by, the trusty motor bumping only a little rough but making good time on the sun that was coming down low ahead and to the right of them. They drove quietly for a while, Howard sitting back, one leg bent up on the seat beside him, the other straight across to the well on the other side, his arm stretched out lazy along the rest. Lettie's mother was still glancing across at her, where had she picked all that up? Howard looked out and saw they were parallel with a river that was dipping in and out of view some miles across from the road. Inside he smiled to see that, something about the water reminded him there was life in this barren land. He thought of the lake and fishing, and a tidy boat that bopped by a stake at the water's edge. 'You got a girl?' Her mother coughed a little, smiled drily, then frowned across at the girl, 'Lettie, don't,' and to him, 'I'm sorry about her.' Howard chuckled. 'That's alright, ma'am.' 'She's only curious, she doesn't mean anything by it.' 'Don't worry about it.' The girl looked up at her mother. 'Yes I did. I did mean something by it.' 'Lettie, sit down.' Turning back to sit up and look at the man in the back, 'Do you?' They stopped at Blackfoot for fuel and Lettie had a soda then they turned North-West, leaving the river and driving into the deepest part of potato country. 'No. I don't have a girl.' 'Why not?' Her mother turned again. 'Really, Lettie. You shouldn't ask things like that.' 'Why not, ma?' Howard sat forward and grinned. Miles and miles in the back with just the curls of her head to watch and his dry mouth had found its voice again. 'Oh I don't mind, ma'am.' 'I wish you wouldn't call me that.' Lettie spoke up, 'Well, ma, you never did tell him your name.' 'The little lady's right.' Lettie frowned, 'But then again, you never did ask.' She thought hard for a moment. 'I must have cut you off with my story of the Brit when we were only just making introductions.' The woman nodded, 'I think you must have done, honey.' They drove for a while before Howard looked up to find Lettie staring at him. Both eyes were wide. 'Well?' 'Well what?' 'Well aren't you gonna ask?' 'Ask what, ma'am?' She pursed her lips and brought in her brow like she'd seen her mother do before. It made for a strange face. 'You shouldn't call me that either. You know my name!' 'I'm terribly sorry ma'am, I don't believe I do. Mary perhaps?' A silent 'O' formed then, 'Why - No! That's not -' The woman reached over and took her daughter's hand. 'He's teasing you, Lettie. Let it go.' The girl looked from one to the other, clocking the sly smile that had crept around the edges of the man in the back. She huffed a large breathy sigh then turned to stare out at the dunes. The miles rolled by and the lengths of field began to outdistance the stretches of dust and shrub. Battered, one-room mobile homes lay abandoned, old husks of huts where men hat sat in the cool shade with a bottle and made the rest of the day off to watch the sun come down. It was a strange dream, thought Howard, that everybody had believed in. There wasn't any land that wasn't owned anymore. 'Why don't we take him further west, Ma?' She didn't answer for a long time. Howard watched her from the back. He hadn't questioned it earlier but it had nagged at him since they had started off. There's only one road in and out of Atomic City, and it only went to Arco. Why wouldn't she take him there? The woman remained impassive, eyes staring straight ahead. Slowly the shine of neatly rowed teeth bit down ever so gently into the soft pink flesh of her bottom lip. Howard spoke up, 'It's alright. I never meant to trouble you even this far. I'll find a ride in the morning.' He watched her all the while, but she kept her eyes on the road. Lettie looked from one to the other and tried that frown again. Something had happened that she didn't understand, she knew that much. In fact, she thought about it all night, and forgot about it the next morning. 'You'll find a ride in the city.' 'Well, here it is.' She laughed again, the same dry laugh that didn't reach her eyes, then looked around and found Howard's gaze meeting hers, dark and sincere and full of something.
*
Atomic City, Bingham County, Idaho. Population: 24. Frank sat at the step of a one-storey that was part of a stretch along the road into town. Every other house was empty. A few empty bottles were huddled by the step, a plate with some crumbs and the ash of several cigarettes. As he looked up to light another he saw the distant drifting dust of a car coming along towards town. The lighter flicked and he dragged once. Then again. Then, after a pause, again. The dust cloud was closer now and he could make out the front bumper glinting in the sunset. 'Red, I bet.' He muttered to nobody. The car pulled over still a few hundred yards from where he sat and for a while nothing happened. Then he saw a door open on the right-hand side and a small figure, no bigger than a child closed the door behind them, and began walking away. 'Strange.' The girl walked twenty, maybe thirty yards then sat on the ground with her back to the car. Frank took another drag of his cigarette, held it, then let the smoke gush in a tight stream into the cool evening air. After a while a left-side door opened and a man stepped out, leant back against the car and Frank could see the tiny flicker of a light by his face, then the constant glow a cigarette. Someone must have called to the girl because she turned, got up, and with careful steps trod back to the car and was in. The man turned and bent down to talk to the driver. Whatever he had to say, it didn't take long; after just a moment the engine roared and the car accelerated towards the town, the man left waving the dust from his eyes. 'Real strange,' muttered Frank, watching the car come closer and closer, then shooting past. As the dull red swept by he caught a glimpse of a girl leaning sleepily against the window and a woman who still wore dark glasses, but glistened underneath them. As the car drove on following the main street, flashing in and out of town, Frank sat watching the small streak of red, then looked back to the man standing at the roadside, his eyes too following the car until they strained on the horizon in the low-evening light. 'Shit!' Frank jumped up and brushed at his hand. Something had bitten him sharply on the finger and he scoured the dirt at his feet for the snake or spider. Only cigarette dust scattered in the wind and he looked down to find he was still holding the stub which he'd let burn down to the skin. 'Shit,' he said again, feeling foolish. But the only person to see was still a hundred yards away and in no rush to get closer. Frank turned and went inside, grabbed his jacket and cap then left swinging the door loose behind him, turning into the town and the sunset, cap pulled down low over his eyes. When Howard reached the first houses he reached the last. Atomic City stretched out in a square-planned block half a mile along one road, the main thoroughfare from Blackfoot to Arco, with another track a few hundred yards parallel, and eight or nine streets crossing between to make one large rectangle where maybe thirty or forty houses sat amongst the dust. To the north there were the cracked remains of an air strip, nestled behind the old nuclear power plant that had once made the papers as the first of its kind. For a few hours one night, years ago, this tiny hole in the middle of Idaho's desert had been powered by something truly unholy and sinister. Two men stood across from Howard in the street; a large man and a nervous one. Their long shadows ran along and out of town. 'Anyone driving west?' The crickets answered with their bedtime chorus, warning him not to stay in this town for any longer than he needed to, not that he wanted to. 'Where you heading?' 'The next big town.' They looked like a comedy double-act in their worn white shirts and dark jackets. It was the large man who'd spoken and now he stepped forward to speak again. 'Thirty miles to Arco, then near two hundred to Boise.' 'That's right.' Another two on the corner, one with a light and Frank in his jacket, his cap pulled low for the last clinging rays of sun that sprang sharp across the empty horizon. The large man called over to them. 'Jack, when you leaving?' The man with the light looked up then came over from the corner. The cap stayed in the shade. The nervous man stood testing the ground with one foot, then the other, staying some paces behind his friend, and Howard started to imagine the large man as the bodyguard of the smaller, wondering what he might have done to need portection. The man with the light spoke, 'Tomorrow noon.' 'I'll be here.' 'Can you pay?' 'I'll work.' They liked his face now. Now they knew he wasn't staying long they didn't mind starting to like the look of him. After all, wasn't he just another guy like they were looking to make something with nothing but his hands? The large man put a large hand on his shoulder, it was a kindly gesture and one that quickly revealed his true nature as the gentle giant amongst them. 'Need putting up?' 'Sure, if that's not a problem?' 'I got a bed for you.' 'Thanks.' 'You can help out tonight or tomorrow morning if you like. There's a game on tonight. You play?' 'I play a little.' The nervous man smiled and fingered his glasses with a rag. 'It's only a small in.' The large man chuckled broadly. 'Small bets for a long time. That way you don't feel you're giving off and he still swindles you, wide as he likes.' 'Don't scare him off now.' It was the cap and he was looking deep at the stranger. He tipped back his cap and lit a cigarette. Howard noticed a red welt on his right forefinger where he held his cigarette, looked painful. Somewhere out West across the ocean a wind began to pick up and whip up small flecks of white water that bounced and splashed and rolled into waves that peaked and swelled and were carried to the shore where the sunset came low and bright on the white beaches of that shining coast. Gathering strength, the wind lifted sprinkled dust and carried it in swirling clouds through the night where it buried bushes and rocks and trees, scooping up the earth and sand and bringing it down in crashing waves on the car that pulled up under the shelter of three trees and the brow of a hill. Inside, the eyes of one looked drawn and scared while the other slept, folded in her arms. Five of them sat round the table and smoked and drank and turned cards, old crap chips stacking and sliding between them. They played like losers, letting everyone else take the rap, slowly picking and turning, licking their finger tips, sipping on whiskey and ice water. Nobody won and nobody lost. The same chips rolled up and down and the dealer went round and round as the night set in and grew thick, but when the bottles began to empty and the ash grew from dust to mound they looked up at each other and marvelled to see how clear and tired they could see, with the light beginning to seep around the cracks of the window screen. 'Put a record on.' The large man leant right back, slowly letting his weight swing into balance over two legs, his feet barely tapping the floor. It was a well-practised move and he hung there on the cusp a while, head bouncing hunched over his squat neck, cigarette just less than inch from the bare vest of his chest. Heads were low and someone started to snore softly from a corner. The large man eased back onto all four and gave whoever was there a shove up and up. 'Put a record on.' The chair tipped and his leg bumped the table as the cap got up to stumble across to the player in the corner. The small, forgotten stacks shuddered and one chip fell. A glass went to go but someone caught it. 'Jesus, man...' Howard was standing by the door, smoking, watching the other men dully blundering around the small, hazy room. He tried to remember what he was doing here with these people he didn't know and he found himself thinking about the girl in the car who'd told him all about that king and those trumpets. He saw himself in that room and them together in a safe motel where they shared a bed. Maybe if he left in good time tomorrow he'd find them again before they left for the coast. He smiled inwards and thought of his daughter and wife and the way the child's eyes had lit up at the sound of his name. Howard the Brit. The famous tomb of a King of... What was his name again? Something was coming up and Howard lurched a step forwards, catching himself on the edge of the dresser by the door. The smokey room was turning paler by the second as the rising sun glowed through the thin screens pulled across the long, low windows. He leant against the corner, then pushed back, still holding the pole. Someone else had come into the room, wrapped up in a big thick scarf. Howard looked to the nervous man to see if he'd react to the intruder but the small figure with the restless hands was far away now, fingers tapping at his wallet where he'd slid his card away before sitting down. The man in the cap was asleep, empty hands clutching at nothing between his knees. He lolled to the side and bumped against the large man who chuckled and shook the news, looking up only briefly before sinking back into his paper. The windows were still dark, the tunnel still flashed by, and the stranger looked out, staring into the black that rattled the rest of the way. At the next station, the man with the roll-up tucked behind one ear bowed out. A woman wearing a dull red jumper stepped on, hand held tight with her daughter, who jumped up onto the seat by the sleeping cap and sat staring at each man in turn, taking in their blurred eyes and their shabby shirts. The woman looked up at the stranger then, sitting beside her daughter, she took out her phone and began thumbing the screen, darting eyes hidden behind thick, dark lenses. The Underground came out into the open air. The stranger sighed and looked out the window, properly looked. His headphones weren't very good at noise-cancelling so the volume was turned all the way up, which couldn't have been good for him but this was an album he loved and he wanted to get to a song he hadn't listened to in a while.

2. Sleeping Giants

He pulled his foot sharply away, the water was scalding hot. Biting back a yelp he went back to the matt and stood with one foot turning pink from the ankle down. He bent down and turned on the other tap, letting a frigid gush hit the bubbles below. Steam rose, hot and cold water in cold and hot air. Light ran around the room, jumping from window to wall and bouncing, elastic from the rippling surface of the bath. She pooled by the sill and basked around the lace edges of the narrow curtains. Light and shadow threw and caught each other, flirting together as they leapt from wall to Boy, splitting in bubbles and singing silently, brightly, on the taps and plug-chain. Awkwardly he watched where light flooded in through the open window. Outside, the strange city-country sounds were rumbles and birds, close trains underground and voices in a garden nearby. Inside, the naked boy with a pink foot and cautious eyes took of his watch and let it fall to the floor, soft sound lumping into the thick rug-matt. He stood facing the open world, looking down at himself and blinking. Steam rose. The sounds outside stayed the same. Light watched, patient and still. As the water cooled to a hot swimming pool he turned back to the bath and stepped in, finding the bubbles gather soft about his legs. He stood, water up to a line across his leg, back to the door, eyes blank to the steamy, warming room. The sounds from outside faded away until only light and bubbles glinted in his eyes and ears, light and the glimmer of her reflection on the wall. Light and he were standing with the water swirling above his feet, the water reaching up to pull him softly down, opening wide and pulling up and over his falling body. Water bobbed and heat rose. Light danced and chased the shadows away. The paint was peeling on the ceiling and he studied its various splits and cracks, taking in every detail, drawing the map of that faded white world into his mind. The main road stretched from the pipe in the corner halfway to the centre of the room, smaller roads splitting to the outskirts. Parks and town squares formed out of loose paint and plaster dotted the criss-crossing scratches. Life crawled through the cracks and spread out to the walls and down to the floor, a wave of this small town in miniature blackened the room, lifting it onto hundreds of backs. White ceramic cracked as the black channels patterned up to the lip where the still steaming water held back the tide. Gently he pulled a hand through the water and let the wave of steam blow the smudges away. Flecks of shadow floated upwards and the sun caught them and turned them in his gentle hands, caressing their shifting undersides. Boy reached his hands up and back, feeling the length of his whole self, soft under the warm watery blanket. As he watched the water shifted then the bubbles held, the mountains of his body creating perfect islands in the still water. Huge, puffing clouds descended and floated around the distant rises. Knees were twin peaks, then a valley before the chest, one smooth rise and fall. Neck falling ridgedly up into the tucked chin, a small blunt cliff before the badlands of the face, then the sea beyond. With bent legs he slipped downwards, head and back sliding along the bottom of the bath until the water lapped up and over his face, eyes closed tight to the heat. The water pressed warm and close to his ears and the small sounds of the world blurred and bumped against the edges of his smooth hollow. Space opened up around him with deep sounds thrumming from below and the clunk of silver as the necklace he wore slid round and landed chinking, metal against the white. Lifting his chin, his head tilting back, he felt the cool air above the surface and breathed deeply. Chest rising and falling with the ebb of the water, bubbles holding then bursting. The shape of his head, the long reeds of his hair, the light that passed through glass, steam, water, closed lids. Above the water, in the room and through to the outside, a deep breath stirred and without alarm Boy felt clumsy again; his knees bumped together and the sharp bone of his hip shifted away from the walls that tightened and clunked uneven. The water was closer still and the sounds in his ears were heavy and distorted. Something outside was pulling at the skin of the water, ripping up tiny ripples across the sheet glass water over his body. Something shone, overwhelming the sunlight with a constant blaze. Brilliant and striking, the light boomed then sighed. Something had glowed above the surface. Boy reached up and gripped the edges of the bath tight, pausing for a moment, eyes still closed to the sudden flash. Pull upwards, lifted head and a rush of water flowed back and around, swirling into the space left by neck, shoulders, chest. Sitting up against the back of the bath he rubbed his eyes and ears until the water cleared and the small sounds popped back into the room. He blinked hard and sat staring into the spiralling foam that licked around his knees. Leaning forwards he stretched out for the chain that limped gently between his ankles. The chain jumped and he tugged but the plug stuck fast. He pulled harder, water splashing, the chain cutting taut against his fingers. Giving up he let the chain go and sat back, sending a churn of water that waved then settled. He looked down at his hands where the chain had refused his tug, a thin red welt lined his wrinkled, fleshy palm. The memory of the brilliant light still blinked a burnt spot in both eyes. He rubbed hard and, finally, he looked up. There had been no music. No alarm. No heralding trumpet. Only that sudden light that had blurred in the backs of his underwater eyes. Serene and impossibly beautiful the angel stood looking out through the open window. Hard gold eyes tracked something outside and light span in dizzying spirals, swimming in two tiny, glossed circles. Neither moved. The small sounds faded away. Even light became still, watching the two silent figures expectantly. The angel turned its head. The movement was grace and benevolent power; the tide shifting with the moon, great storm clouds building on the horizon, the orbit of far-flung planets over thousands of years. The two golden circles took in the boy, the bath, the cracking yellow paint. Lips of faded gold curled into a smile that held nothing like kindness, but radiated a shimmering, power that relaxed the tense, shivering boy. Without realising he could move, he stood, and the two faced with four unblinking eyes. The face of heaven held still. Between Boy's feet the taps gurgled then gushed, water hitting water with a hiss. The scalding rush swirled around his bare legs but he felt no pain. Slowly the mark began to rise until the flood began to splash up and over the edge, steaming drops hissing on the cool tiles below. Soon the water was at the lip, for a second holding tension, then a great dome rising, breaking. Still they stood and, as the water poured out into the room, the angel's smile shrank and faded. The two perfect lines that could speak only the most gracious truths lay in wait. The water stretched further and further and met the ocean in a rush, stillness bound by a thin spit of land that curled the lake into a wide, open bay. On either side the hills rose heavy and green from the edges of the lough, spreading their wide feet across the earth far beyond this secret cove. Boy and angel stood side by side on the hard stone beach, facing out towards the cove's close and the boundless sea beyond. The lake stood still, and light lay with flashing eyes, waiting on her even front. Boy stood by angel and waited. Time passed. From where he was he waited. It looked a picture, someone had tidy brushed out this frame over a year or so somewhere in another ancient place. Two figures and the big blue round, and the long green sides, and the slim paler blue beyond that opened up and above into the dome sky. Flecks of oil froze the movement of the trees and angles and contrast and all the things that painters use like scratching and scrambling and sitting down combined to make something like water, grass, and the rest. Something like a breeze glossed over them and Boy counted the breathes he made as the breeze stepped in front of his small mouth. He counted and got to a hundred shivers, each with the rub of that wind and the nothing went on. The big ball went round as it always would, quicker than the longest, two-month-before, day. Sun wanted to hide behind the hills beside Boy's left side and his back. Light clambered over still and stretched the long way from hilltop to water, but hadn't it come a long way already to stop suddenly just before it got to where he stood? He thought about crouching down in the grass and holding his hand up to block midday from the beetle and watching it stop. Then he took away his hand and it scrambled again. The power of the sun in his small pink hand. Beside him the angel walked out along the beach, footsteps dampened by soft sand that he could not see. At the edge of the water they stood and ripples lapped against bare feet, a frigid blue caress. From across the sea, a pinprick of light broke the horizon and shone, blinking against the blur of sky and sea. Figures began to outline in the heart of the brilliance, others like the first detached and flew without aid, white against the sea and sky. All were simple, the golden images of the one he knew. All were silent, all with quiet gilded eyes, that were at once both stone and soft, full to the brim with love for and the love of mankind. They fell into line in a great ring, standing looking out to the heart of the lough. The cherubim stood to the south of the lake where Boy stepped forwards to the threshold of the water. Other lights appeared and swelled and rose and landed gently, the host growing to number several hundred standing at the water's edge. The valley was filled with the cloud, the whole sky brilliant with the glory of the light. The sound of the sparkling cherubim could be heard chiming across the sea; it was as if the voice of Light itself was speaking and singing out. Then stillness, and Boy looked from the angels to the lake, where the hundreds of high-natural lights were reflected in the glimmering pool. Look again. He took a step closer to the tiny white heaves and looked deeper into the lake. Amongst the echoing lights it was difficult to discern but another thing was there in the water, another light. As he watched the thing grew and grew, and grew brighter and brighter. The lights rose shining through the deep blue gloom, spinning and burning up and up, then breaking the water and rising still till they hovered above them all. A figure began to form in the glowing mass that stretched and shrank and blew, billowing outwards, wings spreading wide and free. The soft white of their feathers brushed hands against the cool air of the lake and light shivered with excitement, throwing her arms around the ghostly, gold-eyed silhouette. Boy caught a tight breath and held it, staring up at this new figure. This was not an angel like the throng that stood around, simple and composed. This was a being of golden fire and chaotic brilliance. Three sets of wings gushed six great swooping drafts across the surface of the wind, pulling and shaking, beating against the sunlight. Something brushed lightly against Boy's foot and he dragged his eyes from the wonderful behemoth to look down at the small streak of brown that had just jumped past his bare leg as it scuttled across the beach. A squirrel, down by the water, running with tail flicking behind. Leaping and panting it disappeared into the small rocks and stones of the shore. Boy looked up at his angel. 'Did you see that?' The figure said nothing, perfectly still it watched the Seraphim. 'There was a squirrel by the water. It ran across my foot.' Nothing. But now he noticed a low hum that must have begun when the flaming figure first appeared and built until only now could he hear the sound of the thousand soft voices. He looked around at the others, similar in their transfixed adoration. Meanwhile the burning soul beat gently, still out above the lake. A sharper noise cut through the building throb of the angels' song, a bird shrieked and Boy turned to find a gull standing with wings tucked. It looked him deep in the eye and called a soft, pained whine. 'There's a bird now.' Then, with eyes still tracking his, the bird lifted its glossy black white pattern wings and, with a beat, was gone. Boy watched it go, the sound of the hum growing into a thrumming rhythmic energy that rose and fell and bounced across the water in great shifting waves. He looked back to where the bird had stood and the flicker of other black and white shapes caught his eye. A whole flock of gulls were flying low above him, following the first and the squirrel before. As he watched more and more birds lifted from the trees around the base of the mountains and flew out across the water towards the flat fields on the other side. 'Where are they all going?' Not expecting a reply. The hum was an open song now, that rang out, bouncing from lake to mountain in heavenly chorus. Wonderful, aweful, beautiful melodies swung in and out of each other while a resonating drum-like drone beat from the beach and thumped through the stoney earth and on and on and on and on until the boy felt his heart begin to thump with the same calling song. More birds were flying overhead, more creatures, tails and fur, were running from the woods, fleeing in their hundreds as a new sound, a deafening, shrieking, grinding wail, sliced through the air that vibrated with light. From under the mountains the agonising, colossal clamour grew and grew and then there was silence. The humming stopped in an instant, a thousand mouths silenced by an unknown hand. No bird flapped its wings, no scuttling legs snapped a twig or leaf. The fields and the lake stood anxiously still... With a great booming crack, Boy felt a tremble that seemed to shake up and outwards from the earth, a single ripple speeding hard and fast from the mountains in a curling loop across the lake. Then silence again. He looked to his angel, stood still beside him. 'What was that?' The angel said nothing but looked up into the hills where the tops of trees still stood in the full light of the afternoon, though evening shadows were beginning to wallow and fold into the valley below. Far up above them the mountain creaked and groaned. From another invisible hand the animals' tumult was cued again as they ran and dived and flew in great swathes from the stoneside. With a cracking of trees and grinding of awesome, ancient joints, Earth grumbled and lifted His giant head from where it lay at the mouth of the lake. Stretching back His massive neck, He raised his stone eyes and looked down on the glowing throng below. What had been a brilliant light was a flickering candle to this time-worn Sleeper. Great cracks, deep as mine shafts ran through His long arms which stretched down to the earth below. So much wet-sand to Him, He pulled ragged trenches through the hard rock, gathering and turning over boulders the size of houses, taking up great fistfuls of towering trees and laying them down in a bed of destruction. Boy's mouth dropped open so that his tongue was flat and the back of his throat did a gurgle, as all manner of creatures fled from the devastation. Birds flew up in great clouds of chattering wings, their thin light frames battered and crushed by the tree trunks that fell from the great fists of the Giant. Deer and wild pigs came bounding and were trampled by the boulders that rained down from above, whole flocks and herds disappearing under the Dreamer who worked with huge sweeping hands to re-shape His pillow. When His bed was complete the giant lay down his mighty head of clay and stone, before reaching down towards the lake, scattering the tiny lights like so many fire-flies darting from the hand that gripped the edge of the water. With one vast throw he lifted the cover of the lake up and over, a tidal wave of blanketing waterfall that cascaded through the air, crashing down over the mountain range that fell, dripping, still and quiet. Water flowed in thin streams from the sides of the headland, coming together and parting in a stitching stretch that criss-crossed the hillside and gathered into the lake. Already it was hard to see the huge stone arms for the surrounding rock, the closed eyes of the sleeping giant were part of the blank rock-face that stood in the shadow of the afternoon sun. The imperceptible sound of a thousand feet leaving the ground brought Boy back to the lakeside. He looked to the centre of the water but the Seraph was gone, only the glimmer of the surrounding figures lit the surface of the cool blue. As he watched, the host lifted gently into the air and, as one, they flew out across the water, skimming the surface. In a spiralling arc they surrounded the shimmering peak of the giant's head, then in moments were beyond the headland and twinkling, nothing but dots of light, glittering over the open ocean. 'Are they going back to heaven?' The angel said nothing but watched until the last of the lights softened and the line of the sun reached out and gathered up the mountain's shadow, laying it gently out across the lake. For the first time the angel's mouth opened and the voice that came from the golden lips was thick treacle honey and birdsong, the chiming of sweet bells and the low purr of giant cats. 'You wonder why I brought you here.' 'Yes.' Boy stared up at the solemn figure who still looked out across the water, a thin wind beginning to whip flicking eddies and frosty white peaks. 'Why you.' 'Yes.' Boy could not look away, could not feel the tears that were streaming down his ruddy, glowing cheeks. The head turned, the old thin smile playing across gilded lips. Piercing golden eyes turned and looked back, past the boy to where I — 'Where have you been?' Boy turned and looked over his shoulder. Looked straight at me. 'How long have you-' The pipes groaned as the water gurgled and ran out, the last drops bubbling on the cold floor. The bathroom echoed dully around him. He was alone with the frigid air. Next door a lawnmower burred and somewhere in the house wood was creaking as it relaxed. Above the paint peeled, the same streets and roads of a yellowing, fading town. He sat up, shivering, and reached for his watch. Letting out a sigh he leant back, his bare spine stretching the length of the cold, hard bath. He let out a deep, frowning sigh and felt for the edges to pull himself up and out. Wrapped in a towel he sat watching a droplet as it ran down his leg and dripped with a tap onto the floor. He sighed again then stood and, without looking back, he left the room. Light from outside knocked and found her way in through the half-closed curtains, shining in a single beam onto the wall where she sat in herself, resting for a while before she began her slow, easy early-evening sweep across the room.

3. Fox in the Mountains

The apple tree stood tall and proud, rafters matching the beech on one side and towering over the holly hedge that grew along the garden wall. When she ran out of apples the man cut her down. Years later the seeds from the last few rotten fruit grew and the roots of the new forest tore his house down. In the middle of the garden the stump of the old tree dried and grew solid. The next owners thought she was ugly but their six-year-old son couldn't keep away from her; climbing and running and poking with a stick. They decided to keep her and cut a little bench into one side. They sanded and waxed, and carved a dedication to the tree she once was. The boy sat for hours on end until he couldn't stand anymore and his grandchildren carved the initials of the man he once was. Halfway up the mountainside the trees parted and the boy held his breath when he saw the fox standing in the enclave beyond. The two stood taking each other in for a good while until the fox, tail twitching, fled into the bushes. The boy chased the streak of scarlet for a while, imagining he could see her small white ears, hear the patter of her paws on the fresh, dewy leaves. He ran until he was out of breath and stood dizzy while the world span, slowed and stopped and he could breathe again. He looked around him and couldn't see the fox anywhere so he closed his eyes tight and imagined her standing proud and elegant, one foot raised. Or was it? He screwed his hands to his eyes and thought of nothing but her soft crimson fur. Or was it brown? Did she have black paws? Or white? The fox looked up at him and narrowed her eyes. 'I'm sorry,' he mumbled, 'I can't remember if you were crimson or brown.' The fox turned in a small circle and stood upright with the bush of her tail bunched around her small feet. 'Do you have black paws, or white?' But the fox wasn't listening now. She was carefully cleaning the fur along one slender leg and the boy was patient. He sat on a stump nearby and pulled his legs up, wrapping his arms around his knees and pulling them close. Now the rush of the chase was over he found he was quite cold and his coat was thin and his boots were damp and the sun didn't quite cut through the mist or the trees like it had done a week before. Autumn would still be green in this country but it already felt white. A hill, grassy with small flowers. Quick feet carry the child up to where the apple tree stood proud at the crest. She smiled when the child reached the top, panting and leaning bent on knees. She had watched the tripping and tumbling that began in the field beside her and went on, slipping and climbing up her hillside. Now the child looked up and gleaming eyes fell on the fruit that hung on the lowest branches, just where she'd spent the spring flowering. When he went home later that day he stoked the fire, stretched out on a thick rug close to the warmth and closed his eyes. The fox padded gently into the room and stood by the door, alert, taking in the boy, the flickering hearth, the glowing light, the shadows bouncing across the walls, the smell of burning wood and the faint hiss as the boy's boots dried by the fire. She crossed the room quickly and silently and sniffed at the soft face that showed no strain but smiled as it slept. Tucking into the arm of the boy she lowered her head into the soft pillow of her own thick fur. For a long time she watched the dying fire, reflected in the one sharp black eye she kept open, until she slept. With a grunt from the effort she tried again, leaning lower and lower. Her thick trunk creaked as she strained to bend her branches down towards the child who jumped to reach the fat red apple. If only I was was like Willow, whose slender arms brush the ground, or Yew, whose bows paint graceful arcs in the wind, springing back after the harshest gusts. If this child could jump just a little higher... A piercing noise brought him back. A scream, sharp and full of pain, loosed itself into the trees around him. Jamming the heel of each hand against his head he jumped to his feet and ran. The noise followed, throbbing through the ground and into his body. He ran and ran until the sweat made his hair fall angrily into his eyes and finally he stopped but the noise continued. The shrieking grew louder and louder. He thought he would faint, blood pounding in his ears. A warmth against his hand, he pulled it away and blinked rawly at the bright red drops. He tried to yell, to scream for help as he felt the blood trickle against his hot flushed cheek. Blood and sweat. But when he tried to open his mouth to shout he found his jaw locked, locked open, his cheeks stretched, tongue tensed against the back of his teeth, air rushing out and out over and over. He could taste the scream pulling from deep within him, fleeing from his shaking frame at any cost. With his eyes shut tight he pushed upwards with his jaw begging the pain to end, until with a snap his mouth shut tight and the howling stopped. The noise of the forest drifted over his heavy breath which came in a pushing sniff. He kept his eyes closed, listening to the soft, low leaves shuffling while the wind and the open air danced above the trees. There was water nearby, he could hear its drip and gurgle. With slow steps he was carried to the trickle of a stream that ran fast and deep, though not wide. It bubbled and chattered, splashing up and over stones smoothed to a flat gully that ran deeper into the forest. Concentrate. Ignore the birds that nest in my higher reaches. Ignore the ants that crawl over my thick roots. Ignore the wasps that bite and tear at my bark for nests. Ignore the sun that blushes my scooping leaves less and less as the days go by. Shaking blossoms scatter as the branches inch towards up-stretched fingertips. He dipped one foot into the cool stream. As his foot slid into the rush, frosty drips began to run up his bare ankle. More and more drops spiralled into the flow until he stood with one leg a network of frigid streams, joining and strengthening. The water surged upwards and soon he stood, the figure of a boy, drips and drops scrambling about him, slipping through his clothes without wetting them, finding each and every inch of skin to touch. The thin tracks reached his neck and circled around and around in a spiralling scarf that wrapped up and over his aching jaw, soothing the cheeks and bones. He felt his tongue relax, his jaw loosen. Slack open and breathing, the water held him. The branch snapped with a ripping crack and fell, with a flurry of bouncing leaves, to the grass below. He walked a while between the trees until he came to a place where the branches opened up in front and above him and he could see right across the valley that stretched for miles and miles from the foot of the mountain. Such a view. He pictured it as it was in front of him. Then closed his eyes and pictured it again, opening one eye to check he had it right. Then he turned away from the view and pictured it again. First with his eyes closed. The sweep of the fat river at the base, the plains that swung out on either side of the bend, the trees and open sky that framed the panorama. He could see it well enough and tried with one eye open, and could see the trees in front through right and the river behind through closed left. He tried the other side and the trees flipped with the plains and then with both eyes open, which was the hardest of all. He stood frowning, the image of what was behind fading into what was in front. After a few seconds he lost it completely and had to turn back to get it again. While he turned something shot out of the bushes to his left and sprinted in a ruddy streak across the path and into the thicket. Each leaf touched the soft earth for less than a second, less than half. Every brush of green an avalanche as the thick branch crushed and breathed out a whispering sigh, then slowly drew back in deep and rose, before softly settling. The girl stood by, apple clasped in two hands, her back turned to what had been.

4. Walking

Look up. Upside down. See the room. It's dark and warm, cosy. Deep red walls and the smell of burning logs in the grate. You should go. Where are you going? See the other side of the room. That's where you're going. The other side of the room. Look down. Tip. Roll. Lie on your front. Lift you head. One hand down. The other. Look up. Where are you going? See the other side of the room. That's where you're going. Look at your hands. Hands on the floor. Push. Push your hands. Push the floor. Look at your legs, your knees, your feet. Look at your hands and your knees. Look up. Where? The other side of the room. There, that's where you're going so you start to go. Lift one hand and move it forwards and down and onto the floor. Then a leg comes forwards, sliding to meet the other hand which goes up and down and onto the floor. Look down at your hands and legs going forwards and forwards. Look up. The room is moving as you go. Now you're crawling. Stop a second. Push with your hands. Breath hard and push. Push hard and you go up and up. Then you go over and back. Soft bump. Again. Hands and feet then push hard. You've seen it before. Push and up and up and over and back. Soft bump. This time. Hands and feet then push. Not so hard. Up and a little more up and you can see the other side of the room. Step. Soft bump. But a step. If you can step then you can step again. Hands and feet. Push. Up. Stand. Arms out to balance. Step. No bump. Step. You've seen it before. Step after step. Breath hard. Stop. Another step. Look up. Breath hard. Another step. Another. Find the rhythm. Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Look up. Step. Breathe. Now you're walking. Look up. Where? The other side of the room. You're there. Soft bump. The wall. Reach out and touch it. Place your flat hand on it. You got here, to the other side of the room. Turn around. Look around. See the other side of the room. That's where you were, the other side of the room. Hands and feet. Push. Up. Stand. Step and step to the middle of the room. Standing, in the middle of the room. Turn around and look up. The door. Long handle. Step to the door and reach up. Reach up and put your fingers round the long handle. Soft bump. Look down at your hand. No handle. Look up. Handle. Stand. Reach up and put your fingers round the long handle. Hold on tight. Lift up and pull down. Feel the handle tip down. Click. Fingers around the edge of the door which swings open. Soft rustle over the floor. Go on. Don't look back. The next room. Bright white light blinds from everywhere. Let go of the door and stand with eyes covered and burning in the flare. As they adjust you see a white floor, white plastic walls with white edges, a white ceiling with four white corners. The long, low lights are bright white and you think white thoughts with a white sigh and a white smell, the white feel of white cotton. The white door opens and a figure in white appears holding white paper, scribbling with a white pen. White ink flows and makes white notes, that are read with white eyes behind white glasses. A white flash snaps from a white camera held by another white figure who grins broad and white. The smile stretches across the white flush of their white cheeks and up, scrunched into the two gleaming bright green eyes. The next room. Pale blue walls. pale green ceiling. There are others like you here. They walk up and put their flat hands on your arms, your head. Look around. There's a big yellow flower and you walk over to it. All around you there a soft bumps. Little pushes. Sniffs and coughs. The flower gets bigger and bigger as you get closer. It's the whole wall. A big yellow flower. The biggest you've ever seen. It reminds you of a song and you blurt out some sounds. The sounds ping and pop and blib and dripdropdrup over the flower that spings sunny on the wall. Flat hand on the flower. Flat flop fleshy fumb touches the simsom sunflower. Both hands on the flower. Biggest ever seen on the wall. The burr big blue wall. The yellow hello flower. Others around you are are are with their small, their thingthom hands and pokes and peep prod they go around the room knocking and soft bumps and hard bumps and now there's a cry. Whip wiping against the flower and the blue, the cry sings spouting and cha ow red tongue around the room. Look around the sound and see pee where there where are you going now? Door. Dack. H T ca oh g g Step. g ow so Step. lap am sal pam Step and step. ooooooor or o o ord Step. ord or do door Door. Handle. Lift up and pull down. Door. Feet carry you from the room and out into the hallway. Look up at the pictures that hang there. You're there, dumb and smiling. Walk down the hall, fingers touching, tracing a line in the paper that waves up and down. Pass another door. The sound of one voice but muffled. Stand listening to the whispers. Look at the door. Place your flat hand on it. Pull away. Look around. Look back. Hand on the soft wood. Walk to the end of the hall and there's another door. Reach up and turn the handle, open the door. Next room. Green grass stretches on forever. You take a step, then another. Then, before the last had landed you take another. For a second you leave the ground completely. Then one foot lands but has taken off again in an instant, reaching out as far as it can across the luscious earth. Now you are running. Each pounding step takes you racing through the big green room. A bird flies overhead. You catch up and throw your arms into the air and grab hold but the bird is gone. You look down at your feet and they're the birds. That can't be right. Two birds for feet, that's got to be a mistake. So you look a different way and they're not birds anymore they're other animals, like a duck or rabbit or neither or both. Two animals for feet and two animals for legs. Two bodies in your one body, that makes six. And another two for each arm that still goes pumping back and beside and forth and beside and back again. Each animal, each one of eight is running and that's many legs, too many to count. Too many, so you throw them each away or gather them each up into your animal arms and at the next big hill in this long green room you let them scamper down and away off further round until you can't watch because they're gone too far or maybe a bend in the sloping downward flush. Coming across the hill towards you are animals all stacked up and racing together and it's very odd to see them all piled together and running. Next there's another jumbled pile some of them are birds. Another pile next to them, hopping and jumping it's mostly frogs there and toads that belch. Now a huge pile that is all animals that stand tall, horses and elephants and hulking buffalo with their shaggy manes and their snorting. All these piles run and jump and slip on up and down the hill and round and round they go until they get shaken off and there, standing in the grass which tickles up the backs of your legs with fidgeting stems are the people who's legs and arms and bodies were those safari affairs. Now your arms are arms again and with a quick look down to check you can your legs are legs again and you pat your body all over with little patting taps just to check and it feels like it's your body so you're you again but now you know there's something different about what you were and what they might have been. Next room. A hundred metres long and twenty wide, stretching up with huge walls on either side. Spaced along each are doors with different colours and numbers. Above each door, two windows, then further up, two more. Walk the room, stopping to look through the windows of each house. Inside there are people. They sit and stand and talk and cook and sing and wash and laugh and kiss and clean and read and look out of the window but they don't see you walking by. The street stretches out, turning gently underfoot. The sound of a car turns you, standing by the road you watch the taxi slide by. Then another, the other way. Another and another. Some stack up at the lights. They peel off one by one. One comes faster and then another slower. Keep walking. A lorry stops by the supermarket and the staff file out to unload. An ambulance wails from far away but turns down a different street to yours. Keep walking. A pack of motorbikes like a roaring heard of jaguars rip past, drivers laid-back and grim. The sound of a helicopter way overhead, but still below the vapour trails where small paper planes drift across the massive sky. A car stops close by and three black-clad figures tumble out. They run up to a house and go in without closing the door. You pass the house and behind you they come running out with shouts and the car screeches away. The next door opens as you walk by and you glimpse rows and rows of tables and chairs. The sound of squeaking ink and droning books. Another door and more rows, with bigger tables and bigger chairs. The same squeak and a duller drone. At the next house a girl you recognise from somewhere cries on the step. Someone comes out and gently puts an arm round and they cry and cry and cry. Then there's a party and two teenagers smoke outside. They smile too much and realise that they're getting on. One nods inside and the other laughs, shaking their head. Then they lean across and lips brush against lips. The taste of smoke lingers as you walk away from the giggling sound. From behind a park the granite obelisk of an office block towers over you. Coffee pours into countless cups. Fingers tap away at countless keys. Clicks and ticks and the hum of a fan. The sliding doors open automatically as you pass, a wave of air-conditioning sends shivers down your spine. The corners of the building crumble as you walk away and the building catches then crashes down. Another shoots up in its place. More tapping and clicking, and the sound of a scratching pen. More and more blocks, all the same, line up along the street. Pouring less, sipping more. Higher and higher the tap tap tap goes and peters out. The pen scratches on as the paper grows thicker and ink flows smoother. The next house is smaller than the rest and for sale. Then a block of flats where someone hangs out of a balcony with a cigarette. Then a house in a rough part of town. Then another town altogether and a cottage by the sea. Soon the greys of the city disappear and you pass the small, misshapen doors of thatched roofs. The heavy oak door of the church steeple stands warm and open. Opposite is a neat square house, painted white with a purple door that glows with red green yellow blue patterned glass. A brick-walled garden with a swing and a pond stretch alongside, a cat lying lazy and warm in the un-mown grass. Roses and raspberries grow up the walls around the outside. Tidy beds of vegetables sit between herbs that fill the air with lemon and mint. Birds nest in the beech tree and the silver birch, perching just now on the sun-bleached roof of the green-house where tomatoes and chilis dangle their ripe red fruit overhead. The cat lifts its head as you walk by the wall. Its fur is black and white and light brown, a blotchy painting or pebbles in the sea. It rolls back over itself and chases something small in the sun. This is the end of the street, the far wall on the other side of the long room. The last house. Door handle turns. A hallway. Another room, another hallway, another room. Look up. The other side of the room. Breath hard. Step. Another room. Breath hard. Another hallway. Step. Breathe. Another door. Reach up and turn the handle. Next room. Grey. Round and empty but for a wooden box. Long and deep, narrow at one end. Behind you the door swings softly closed with a click. Turn and see the door. Either side is another door. And either side another door again. Doorways circle the room with old wood, scratched and knotted by time, but not unkind. Place your hand flat against the door and smile. Then turn to the room. The box is gone. In the middle of the room, outlined by a shaft of pale gold light that cuts through the wisping dust from a high-up window, there's a desk, and a chair. The chair is simple wood with a rich purple cushion. The desk is broad and heavy, a waxed dark wood which shows wear at the corners. The top is inlaid with a deep green leather mat, outlined in dizzying golden spirals and the images of chalices and the face of an angel. The leather is worn too, the marks of decades of work scratched onto its robust skin. Pull back the chair and sit with both hands flat on the warm wood. Reach out and brush gently across the deep green, feeling its softness and its marks. Close you eyes. Tilt back your tired head. Let the warm afternoon light fill your cheeks and ears with the last rays of summer. Smell the sea. Hear its waves crashing mildly all around you. Stand and walk into the shallows flowing around the door. Another door. Different. Walk up to it. Halfway-up there's a hole. Tip-toes and look through the hole, reach in and push the flap and blink in the light that shines through. White. Reach out and turn the handle. Stand in the doorway with the light spilling in around you. Look out. Don't look back at the hallway, the corridor, the room, the hall, the room. Go on.
*
'The top of the mountain. That's where we're going.' She didn't answer, tears rolling and dropping onto the soft cotton bedding. He took her hand and sniffed in his eyes, 'That's where we're going.' He said again. The whisper fell on unhearing ears. He squeezed her hand tighter and reached up to brush away the streaks that flowed unchecked from her staring, red-rimmed eyes. 'We can still go. We can still climb and take those pictures from the top of the mountain.' She closed her eyes, listening. What was that sound? 'No-one and nothing above us, the world below.' He felt the tears break from his eyes now and he made no move to still them. A sound at the door. So quiet and soft. Had she imagined it? 'There are ways of climbing even when... There are special types of sledge. We'll get you to the top.' No, there it was again. A tap. No. A pat. Something small and soft that touched the door and was gone. 'I know there should have been three of us, but we'll still go.' There it was again. So light and yet... She listened and listened for the sound to come again. The pat of something small and soft. 'We can still go.' Why wouldn't he stop talking? Why wouldn't he just let her listen. He bent down and kissed her thin pale hand. With his head bowed, sobs shook his shoulders. Hadn't she been through enough. Could he not just let her listen. 'We can still go.' Listen for the small sound. The small soft sound of the flat hand on the door. The sleep of exhaustion was creeping over her and she let it come. She felt the hand in hers and pressed it weakly. 'No-one and nothing above us, the world below.'

5. Girasole/Sunflower

The Italian café stood out between Loughram Solicitors on one side and Parker's Property Management on the corner. Pale green with hand-painted sunflowers, a Taste of Italy. The owner was a large, olive-skinned woman, with dark, tightly-curled hair pulled up tight and an open face that made you think of grandmothers. Giulia would ease herself around the small main room of the cafe talking anything with anyone and singing sparkling duets with the light Italian pop that played all day long. Everyone who came to Girasole loved her and she loved them, her hungry children to feed, to bring into the warmth of her small haven for a brief respite from the big bad world. Her husband was large as well; Monolo would make coffee and sit in the window or stand just outside and smile at passers-by in a way that made them smile too. Girasole was famous for its rigorous approach to customer management which began with mornings for the few regulars who would sit at the tables around the outside of the room, backs against the walls, feet spread wide, coffee steaming on the table. Not much milk this early in the day. Lunchtimes were busy, the regulars slip outside for cigarettes and stroll up and down, talking about their families and English football. The cafe fills with the smells of fresh tomato sauce, basil, flaky pastries, pistachio, cream, oil. The sounds of satisfaction and giddy chatter buzz in waves, jumping from table to table as Giulia and her small team squeeze between chairs and children, filling water, clearing plates, laughing and chatting in Italian, French, Spanish, jokes for the regulars, jokes for the bemused couple off the street. A humming energy of excitement spills from Giulia that makes the room swell and chuckle as the visitors find themselves warmly swept into the heart of what, in the diary, was meant to be twenty minutes, but subtly went on to nearly an hour of how about another coffee, and what are those called, the crunchy ones, or please, just one more slice, and all laughing all the while. In the late afternoons the regulars would wander back in and take their regular places by the walls and nod to each other over tables stained by empty coffee mugs. Once upon a time this room would have filled with gentle smoke but today these stolen moments were reserved for the river and, honestly, I was glad of it. 'Congratulations!' A regular. He's beaming and trying hard not to laugh. 'How did you know?' 'I saw one picture, in the hospital.' There are hugs and now he lets himself go with a shake of the head. 'We called him Manu.' 'Like me? Manolo?' 'Short. Just Manu.' You can tell he's imagining him now, little Manu. 'Okay.' Manolo laughs and the three stand for a moment smiling and shaking their heads. What an extraordinary thing. Giulia speaks first. 'Coffee, babbo?' They sat at the round table close to the door, Giulia and the father talking about little Manu, who has his grandfather's eyes and such small fingers. Manolo leans back and looks out the window, listening and not saying much, nodding along softly. For a while the boy lost himself and his head span with the cream that he swirled into his coffee even though he liked it without. He wanted to watch it turning and turning and then, when it was a perfect spiral, he would unturn and watch the coffee spout cream back up out, and pour thick and white into the small pot that he set gently down on the table beside the sugar and glass bottles of olive oil. He would raise the cup and coffee would run hot and steaming, cooling him inside as it spilt sipping back down into the cup, and he'd place it down again. He'd stand and his jacket would float gently onto his shoulders, bag jumping into hand, looking up away from the empty table. He'd pace, toe-first down and out then be back on the road with Girasole in front of him, inviting. Back, away and further still watching the blue glass door grow smaller and smaller catching sight of birds before he backed around the corner and was gone. When he looked up Giulia was bringing a fresh tray of pastries through from the kitchen, the swinging door blinking glimpses of a hot, floury white and silver room. Chocolate, icing sugar-dusted, light and crispy, piece by piece she tonged the still-warm crusts onto the counter, stacking them into a fragrant pyramid. As she placed the last pastry delicately on top to complete the pattern she turned and caught the eye of the boy who sat alone now, the afternoon sun just beginning to cast ceiling shadows the length of the cosy room. Manolo was outside watching the river and the view of the old town ahead of him and the old cathedral across the island to the right. A slight breeze drifted in from the left bank. Manolo shivered and lit a thin cigarette. The door bumped coolly closed. Giulia looked up at the noise and her eyes narrowed, nose lifted, sensing the night's weather to come. She turned and the music seemed to slow as she looked directly into the eyes of the boy who sat, mug raised to lips frozen in a silent pursed blow. They stood and sat and stared deep into the eyes of the other. The music turned and whined and out of the noise came a single note, brassy and thick and then a low thrum, cymbals splashed softly and as the rhythm swelled it began to rock the room gently, then a voice. Light at first, without words the lullaby pulled the two together and as the musicians played the pair danced. The tables pushed aside, hand in hand without looking away they moved through the room, gliding across brushed wood. The fading light still picked out their cheeks and arms and the glint of the cool brass, the flicker of the fingers that flowed across stops and mouths that breathed hard and each piercing perfect unplanned note that sang out into the room and said: 'I didn't know that this was where I belong.' The throb of the bass drum and the heavy twang of the upright began to beat faster and the dancers quickened their step. Moment by moment they matched the music and the light and the breath of the man who sang and watched with closed eyes, one hand tight to the microphone held close to his lingering lips, the other loose on the neck of the stand. Drifting through the other couples that rolled and lifted and danced they found space before the stage where they held each other, swaying together till the end of the song. The man who sang opened one sharp golden eye and looked down on the boy and on the woman whose hands were still dusted white from the kitchen. As they spin and spin and the room turns slowly around them the dust begins to fill the air, settling in slight whirlwinds onto their shifting, twirling shoulders and the tops of one joined head. The dust falls thicker and thicker, caking the scene in thick icing snow, sweet and cold, soft bed for the music that rolls gently across the sloping walls of the room and falling, dripping in the thaw down down into the river below. On the street the music continues, the glint of brass from four doors where, between Five, Six, Fourteen, and Fifteen, everyone sat out in the sun and says they saw someone sitting there once who went on to be someone. Four cafes that house the blinkered images of the leavers who came to find home in a swirling, intoxicating palace. Not at the time though, what was a cafe before it was made more? What was two francs a coffee is eighty euro a bottle and up. The doors open and close and nobody is any the wiser. The music continues and he finds the lights inside luring him from the river-side, deeper left into the bank. Images of cool glasses of white wine on warm summer nights, of stepping out in just a shirt buttoned up three-quarters and shorts, light shoes. Hand-in-hand he swirls with his chérie italienne until they reach the heart of it all and they swing in and out, laughing and calling to each other and everyone who'll listen about where they've been and who they've seen and the blind naivety of it all never lifts, not tonight. Quick, round the back of a building where it's dark and lips find each other again and there's passion now against the wall and the door beside them bumps open in the wind and she grabs his hand and slip in. Soft carpets and chandeliers, smooth marble walls and the silence of the grand hall draws them further and round a corner, painted eyes following the two intruders as they dart further up and further in. Panting to the top of another staircase and the landing closes at a door where they sweat and feel skin and then a sound and she says stop, stop, can you hear that? With the taste of her and wine on his tongue and in his nose he turns away from the wall, wide-eyed to the single, dying strain that cuts through the air from somewhere below. The door opens with a soft click, he and chérie step through to the gantry that clatters in a wide metal ring around the top edge of the cavernous room. All around them are the facades of old stories full of nature, and the body, and God with his angels, their hands outstretched to the pangs and leaches of human pain. At the far side of the room and below, the stage is lit with a thin bright, white spot that cuts through dust to find the face of the voice that has just grown quiet. Behind her the strings begin again, the melody rising and falling, sad and full of night. Each note reaches out into the darkness above the hundred headed beast that sits beyond the stage's edge. Each string sings its sweet, burning note with another, joined by another as string joins string and thick twine joins thicker and thicker, richer sounds hum together. The wash of vibration burrs out into the room as another sound, a sorrowful chord of brass and wind swells and hangs in a tumultuous cloud of fifths and harmony; anticipation in a growing bulb of music and passion that builds and builds until it breaks with the single voice that rings out above the rest; a note that clutches at the hands of God and the angels who reach down from the roof where the two watch with open mouthes and eyes, one desperate, clammy hand in another. Then silence. He looks at... chérie. Georgia? Gi... She's looking down at where the beast has risen up on hundreds of legs and begun it's clamorous roar. There are tears, one tear in each eye of each head of the beast and... chérie... Outside the sun has set. It glints, flashing along the river; this string of sunsets that meld into one and have done all summer long. He bumps the handle against the spoon of the cup where the cream sits in his mouth and his eyes open. Giulia is there on her knees beside the empty tray and the smoke cloud of icing softly falls across the cafe.

6. The Black Forest

She accepted his admiration. The girl in a million took his long look to herself, and cherished his stupid love. 'Sorry, sorry. That took way longer than I thought it would.' 'That's alright.' 'I'm going to get a coffee. Do you want anything?' 'I'm alright, thanks.' 'Are you okay?' 'Huh?' 'Are you okay?' 'Oh yeah, it's just... I didn't know that I could fall in love.' 'Right.' 'More than that, I didn't know I could fall in love with the girl in a book.' 'A book.' 'It took less than ten pages.' A book he had read when he was fourteen, then again at eighteen and at twenty-two, a month before his birthday, he lay on his bed and read the last chapter again and fell in love again, with the girl in a book. 'Her name's Lou.' But his friend had gone into the cafe and the pigeons didn't care. The wood of the table was warm in the sun and he slipped his jacket off, hanging it loosely over the bench beside him. He took out his notebook, the same one that, decades later, he would find tucked between two other, bigger volumes, and flick through in the garden, trying to put together the plots and plans squashed into the small, brown card covered book, with the airplane in gold and the one word JOURNAL that began with travel times. Thursday 2nd Flight from London Stanstead to Keflavik, Iceland. (3 hrs) 1hr 40 layover Flight to Newark (6 hrs) Train into Penn Station, walk to 42nd Hotel 2:00am 18.5 hrs Friday 3rd Up 7:00am, walk around WTC, down to Battery Park Grilled cheese + coffee - Cafe Plaza Deli Walk Washington Square Park Stonewall That went on for a week or so, listing names and places in thin black ink until it reached Monday 6th where the word Teal was underlined in teal and it continued in teal for a few days before: Port A 21:00ish Newark express 22:20. That didn't seem to add up. Must have missed a train. The names of bars and clubs didn't mean much anymore, nor did all the bus routes or the times of arrival at museums. There were a few stories in there; Slow start. Worked with Dan, that had to have been one of those early projects, maybe even the first that they'd cooked up over that summer from London and Dublin and here in New York. JAZZ Misty, the time he'd sat at the keys with a band and played a few drunken standards in the back room of a bar with nobody watching. There was the early evening spent sipping, Sangria 241 Cocktails. Cards Against + 2 guys. Him and three friends plus two strangers. One of them had brought a freezer bag full of green fruit and passed them round; they were juicy with thick rubbery flesh that felt like brains around a tough stone. They didn't go down too well so he pulled out a bottle of Jack that had to be put back straight away when he found out that one of our friends worked the bar. Later, when they'd left the boys with the fruit and whiskey, and said goodbye to their friends, the two girls, the young man walked with Dan, the writer, and confessed. 'I still fancy the hell out of her, you know.' Dan had just laughed, 'You didn't need to tell me that. Your eyes already did.' He'd smiled and blushed a little but inside he was jumping up and down and shaking himself silly. It was all very matter-of-fact, the names of past lovers separated by a comma from the guy a friend had been seeing for the summer. Nothing to hint at how special some of those afternoons had been, holding hands under the hot American sun. After New York it was mostly ideas for stories that never got written mixed in with electricity readings, dividing up broadband payments, notes for pizza sauce and dough, reading suggestions, and a whole page devoted to the words Write at it written in small letters in black overlaid slightly to the left in teal so the small mantra popped, underlined, again in both black and teal. Half the notebook was empty of course, he'd never finished one in his life though they stacked in their dozens taking up all his shelf space at home. On the centre page spread was a delicate map of the world in black, drawn out with various locations labelled in teal, 1. London, 2. Warrenpoint... And that was it. He thumbed through the rest looking for doodles or notes. There was nothing but faint ruled lines, not even on the back page where he had always blotted something, a stick figure or a shark or a square that he turned into a cube, then another cube or some circles. There was nothing at all. The back cover was the same brown card, and when he closed the small book: CRANE & CO. in small gold at the bottom. Thanks Crane & Co. he muttered to the pigeons that had settled on the lawn while he read. Pigeon and Co., he chuckled. Pigeons and Coffee? He pencilled the three words under the world map before he could forget, wondering if all the ideas he'd forgotten to write down could have filled up those empty half notebooks. Yes, he thought. And half again, and more. But that was all still to come. Now the young man sat with the empty notebook in front of him as he done for a week or so in various places at various times, staring at the brown inside of the cover on one side and the first blank page on the other, faint ruled lines and all. He looked around the park and frowned, trying to paint what he saw into something worth writing down. There were people sitting drinking coffee, so what? Birds chirped in the trees. Did that warrant describing in print? Birds were always chirping in trees, and he wasn't a poet so he couldn't turn it into something else. Someone was mowing the grass. The smell of freshly cut grass. Novel. Nothing new under the sun he thought, watching the cuttings blow out in a clumpy cloud behind the motor, nothing new on God's green earth. Someone threw a ball. He tracked the curve of the red rubber as it sailed through the air and landed amongst the leaves, shortly followed by the bounding brown dog that clamped its wet dribbling jaws around the toy, giving it a loud squeak, then lying down with its tail flicking, eyes wide and mad, before jumping up to its name and running lollopy back to deliver its special red parcel. The young man sat watching the owner delicately pick up the ball, avoiding the saliva. Did that make a story? Ball. Leaves. Dog. He didn't think so. He cast around for something else. His friend, the one who'd been late. The fact that she was late? That wasn't interesting, or, he quipped to nobody but himself, at all surprising. He chuckled a little. If a pigeon could have raised an eyebrow... But maybe something else about her? He thought about the ten or nearly fifteen years they'd known each other. Over half their lives, all of their young adulthood. The things they had put each through over that time. Would people read that? Maybe. Did he want to write it down? Maybe not. It was too long to be a heady, throwaway romance of a story, where he chased her across Europe, and not long enough yet to be old friends sitting by a nostalgic fire or the pale hospital bed. As she came back out he watched her hold the door for someone going in and smiled. More of an everyday muse. 'When do you go to New York?' She was looking at the brown book that he had closed when she came over, but that was cheap, she knew there was nothing in it. 'Two weeks. No. Next Thursday.' 'Take the journal. Didn't it come from America anyway?' 'It's not a journal.' 'Really?' 'It's a notebook or a pad or something.' She raised an eyebrow. That was it, he thought, perfect. Pigeons might still be learning that skill, but she had disapproval down to an art. 'It says JOURNAL on the front.' 'Yeah but that doesn't make it one, it's just a book.' 'Make it a journal.' 'What?' 'Take it to New York. Make it a travel journal.' There was no use arguing. They'd argued before, countless times. It had mostly been late night texts that went flashing back and forth under the covers till the early hours. That was how kids fought these days. He sighed, 'It does have a plane on it.' 'Exactly. It knew. It's not stupid.' 'It's a book.' 'It'll save you. Slump Under or whatever you said.' 'Unslump.' 'Yep. It'll unslump you in New York.' He thought about it. Actually he'd been thinking about the exact same thing for a while, but he didn't want to admit that. If a trip to the big city didn't unslump him then what would. 'I might see Laura out there.' A flash of something he didn't recognise came across her face but whatever it was, it was gone in an instant. Then the eyebrow again. She didn't need to. Really, she'd given him enough stick for all that. He wasn't even going to mention Laura but she'd have found out somehow. 'I thought she was from somewhere else?' 'Portland.' 'What's she doing in New York?' 'I dunno. Seeing a friend I think. She's got a cousin there too or something.' 'Huh.' 'Sorry. One sec.' Bending down he tugged on the end of a shoelace, the knot pulling then opening. His foot wriggled free and he picked up the shoe, turning it over and knocking out the stone that he'd been poking at all afternoon. He looked at the shoe, put it on the table. Could a shoe be a story? 'Put it back on.' What the hell are you doing, said her face. Apparently a shoe could not be a story. He made a mental note to make a shoe a story, or rather, make a story a shoe. Could he wear a story? He looked up, she looked at the shoe. He put it back on. 'Who have you fallen in love with?' 'Lou, Louise, Louisa.' 'Which?' 'It's just Lou for a while so he doesn't know. Then he reads her name in a book of Tennyson poetry. To Louisa, from a teacher. Or something like that.' 'Why are you in love with her?' 'Because he is, I guess.' 'Who is?' 'Dylan. Or young Dylan. Or not young Dylan but the young man in the story.' 'Dylan Thomas?' 'Yeah, have you read it?' 'No.' 'It's magical.' 'Apparently so... What happens?' 'Well, he's at the beach and everyone's having a whale of a time except him because he's being eaten up by some sort of guilt or something.' 'What did he do?' 'Can't remember. I only read the last chapter the other day.' 'You only just finished it?' 'No. What? I reread the last chapter.' 'Why just the last chapter?' 'I dunno. Thought it might inspire me.' 'Right. So he's at the beach?' 'Yeah and he joins in with this cricket game with a tray and has a drink and he really hates everyone who's out there in the sun. You can tell it in the writing, he calls them pathetic and stuff. That's it, he calls the husbands pathetic.' 'The husbands?' 'Yeah, the husbands paddling in the sea.' 'Imagine calling all husbands pathetic. You'd have to have a pretty dim view on things.' 'Well he does, or did. The young man does in the story.' 'Go on.' 'So he's leaving the beach and he walks past this girl sitting reading on a bench by the edge of the beach, where it ends and starts being land again.' 'And?' 'And he falls in love.' He gets up from the side of the road and walks past the single lamp that still glows in the dawn light, on and on, out of the town. Out into the fields and across to the woods. 'Just like that?' 'More or less. But he walks away without saying anything. Just leaves. Ends up meeting her again in a pub later with some of her friends and they all go back to her place, her room in this big tenement.' 'Well for some.' 'Not so much. They're all getting good and drunk and he's properly in love with her now. And she is too by the way. He keeps talking about, or thinking about, or like, writing about, you know it's like his thoughts?' He crosses over to where the earth is dry and no grass grows, just fallen twigs, ferns, and needle leaves. 'Yeah, I get it.' 'Sorry, so he's thinking about the future all the time. Like, he talks about her bed where they're all lying about as though it's their marriage bed or something. And the room like it's a room that he'll get to know. It's all future thought, and because it's a retrospective narrative you have to believe him.' 'But he doesn't.' 'Doesn't what?' 'Get to know it, the room.' 'Oh right. Well. He has to leave, he feels sick or needs the toilet and he goes out into this like construction place next door and then he can't find his way back.' He looks up and the stars disappear behind a canopy of trees and vines. He walks further into the forest. The sounds of the quiet night fields die away behind him. 'Next door?' 'He finds the house alright.' 'But can't find the room?' 'It's pretty mad. He's searching in the dark and he's completely fucked by this stage and he's waking people up and shouting Lou, Lou, have you seen Lou? And everyone's telling him to piss off and he ends up leaving without finding her.' 'Shit.' 'Yeah. And that's the end of the book. Just him outside in the night.' The air grows thicker and heavier as he pushes through the dense branches, twigs and dried leaves snapping and crunching underfoot. 'Pretty bleak.' 'The way it's written though, it's like a fever. I read it so fast the first time, I had to go back twice, or three times, and I just couldn't believe it. I didn't want to but there it was. He couldn't find her.' A small clearing ahead. A huge old tree, twisted by the centuries. The floor around is shifting and seething. Hundreds of legs run across the forest floor. 'Right.' She frowned. 'And now you're in love with her?' 'I guess' 'Are you really?' 'Yeah. I am.' 'Lou.' 'I don't know anyone called Lou.' The rats scuttle to and fro from the foot of the tree, up and over the huge roots that stretch out into the surrounding bushes. They begin to approach the forlorn newcomer, begin to crawl over his feet and legs. He turns but there are branches there blocking his path. 'Probably for the best. You might fall in love with them.' 'Very funny.' 'What's the book called?' 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.' 'What?' 'It's a joke. It's originally The Young Man. I think it's a painting, or a different book.' The walls of the wooden prison grow all around him. He struggles further into the trees then stops and listens. But the only sound is his own heavy breath that fills and warms the small den. 'I see.' 'The chapter's called One Warm Saturday. The last one, the one with Lou. Isn't that perfect? One Warm Saturday.' 'Is it?' 'It's like... Just Now, or, An Afternoon. Summer 1967. Swimming in the Sea. Light in the Trees. That Time Then. It's so simple but so sure of itself.' Close your eyes and imagine lifting your arms. In the darkness you can reach forever, there are no walls. Imagine flying up and away from here. Leaving it all behind and just floating up and away till you drift out of time. 'Are you coming?' He jumped and opened his eyes. The woods were gone. Just the trees in the park. The pigeons, coffee, the dog further off. 'Are you sure you're okay?' 'Yeah, sorry. Let's go.' 'No rush. We're already late.' 'Where are we going anyway?' 'I'm not sure. They said something about a new place that's just opened round the corner so thought we'd check it out.' He pocketed the notebook. 'Sounds good.' 'Shoelace.' The light of the one weak lamp in a rusty circle fell across the brick-heaps and the broken wood and the dust that had been houses once, where the small and hardly known and never-to-be-forgotten people of the dirty town had lived and loved and died and, always, lost.

7. SOHO

The city is alive now. The last rays of the sun shoot through the air, the buildings along the main street rearing up to warm their faces in the last of summer's spent heat. Four now walk together spreading and collapsing, reforming, a single living thing that rolls from street to street, corner to corner. Honey glowed in a round tube. Sweet, sickly golden drops that stuck and were licked up and glistened still on lips and cheeks and chins. Greedily they swallowed up the gloopy delight until they burped and giggled and licked their lips again, looking from one to the other, eyes bright with excitement and sinister glee. The walls pull tighter and tighter, no trees now, just hard brick, stone, metal, and endless sheets of glass. Pulsing, hurting rhythms beat through the hard dirt ground driving up into bouncing feet. The music drags them deeper and deeper into the steel labyrinth and soon they lose themselves, eyes wide to the hordes and no thought of the blue sea or green grass. Smog steals from door to door and seeps through cracks under grates and clouds the sky beating back the last rays and turning the sickly twilight a greenish, pale red. The streets narrow, squeezed breath pushed through tight, tight alleys, crawling, jumping, flying through the city streets passing shades and dead eyes blearily thrust skywards. Deepening fog curls upwards around the steep sides of a low black hill and the four scramble to the peak. For a moment the heaving swells clear and their faces are brightly lit from below. Eight glinting eyes stare black, bright and living down on rust red walls, ears hear screams of joy and pain, and the manic laughter of ten-thousand hungry bodies rings out above the constant driving pounding, pounding music. Eight eyes stare wildly as eight feet leave the ground as eight mouths begin to chew and eight poor songs beat time down the hillside. The road is a blur as they speed through the outskirts, faster and faster, their feet tearing at the hard, black-cracked tar. Faster still until they begin to stumble and as their hands reach out nails extend and harden, palms stiffen and hair thickens and lengthens. With pounding paws they yap and snarl into the city, froth collects and sweeps away, matted blood stains bleeding shins and forelegs, the deep, bright red flickers above the burning streets. Deeper and honey-deeper they fly, biting at heels, snapping with their wolfish jaws, snarling with the snouts of chasing dogs that strain at the leash and, muzzled, snap and growl for fresh freedom and the hunt. Rounding a corner and there are the doorways, three great claws that stretch up and over the dirt mire of the street before plunging back down sharp and stabbing into the blackish mud. Colossal bricks, carved from the rusted iron hulking bodies of beached ships, rise up above and behind, casting thick shadows that swarm out and overlap. The great, dark entrance arches breath foul crimson smoke, pitched wails ringing out from the shadows. This is The City, the great red behemoth. This home of heaven's rejects, of the beautiful and the damned. The promise of honey thick, rich delights and the constant burring hum of that music drag four across the threshold and as their bouncing, hopping feet cross into the shadows at once — Music pounds along, heavy feet on the hard dirt ground, stringing together the unguarded and the sick that line the narrow roads. Eyes, mine, follow you from the smog that clings and snags as you push deeper and deeper into the cavern. All of life is here in this blasted, rotting, dungeon labyrinth. Sliding creatures and scuttling ones; howling, stinking beasts that yap and snarl through the streets, at once biting and mating and dying at the verge. Swarms of daggering flies and gigantic insects with the bodies of fat lizards glimmer and shriek, flitting in and out of the gloom. Sleek black dripping stings swinging venom, growling bloody maws bursting with ranks of blinding fangs. Unfrozen gargoyles with crunching claws and sharp-taloned wings. Looking down from each corner thick, punching tongues lick the line of glistening beaks, hungry panting icy breath, lidless eyes absorbing the revelry below. The streets cut and snap, tightening, running, twisted and knotted towards the molten centre of this black place. An opening ahead, blasted black earth and twisted dead wood. On five sides the close walls are lined with black glass and mirrors so that everywhere the four see themselves, multiplied and copied and grinning the drips of sweet, thick honey. The mirrors curve and as four become twenty then a hundred and more and more round, dead, smiling, eyes begin to laugh, a host of writhing figures throwing back their matted manes and roaring the sound of this primal bliss. 'You're beautiful.' Heavy breath on the back of the neck. 'Where are you going?' Turn quick but there's no one there, just the constant mass of shouting and laughter. 'I'll be waiting.' They shrug through the crowd and are shrugged themselves and kissed and pulled again. The glass is behind them now and the thick smoke descends, hot and smothering. Shooting, flickering flames spark and die and are burnt and catch at once. Sloping narrow tracks lead further still into this new stone world of hard grey. Hot slabs of scratched marble mosaic swirl in dizzying spirals growing out from the feet of the shadows that stick and suck on the walls of ashen rock. A crossroads blooms from the near horizon and the eight feet sound comes to an echoing stop. One head looks one way, another stares into the gloom another. All eyes are bleary and red from the smog and the burnt cinder press of the narrow streets. A third head knocks back and a swinging jaw gurgles as nothing-seeing eyes see nothing above. There's no sound now. You strain to hear the city that wraps all around you beyond the blank, muffling walls. There's no sound now. In an instant the hairs jab up on the back of your neck as a cold wind stings sharp through the fog. Clouds of white-hard smoke like a curse roll around your ankles and wisp, licking against your leg, your feet disappearing as you watch. Up to your waist you look each way again and again and one still looks up and now one looks back at you, blank eyes boring into what is left of you. You, with the cold wind smoke wrapped around your bare greyscale body. With the tendrils tapping at your skin, then with rough touch pulling and stretching and you're running again. One now, split from the others by freezing sheets of grey metal and the chasing ghostly snakes curling and bounding behind you. A maze appears, shifting walls that pull you through back streets and alleyways. Dully lit windows flash past above, streetlights that barely bloom through the thick grey. Ghostly faces leer out of the gloom, empty eyes and clawing hands that grasp blindly at you, tugging on your clothes and you skin. The foul dust of their breath makes you cough as you struggle on, stumbling and staggering. At the next corner, Pale Grey wrapped in black splits apart and becomes two. A voice like the rasping slither of knives against glass seethes and clicks from four frozen jaws. 'Where do I stop and you begin?' Two mouths become one then two again. Arms are legs, and chests are breaking into each other. 'You love me love you love me love you.' Transfixed you stand with the bleached, cold ocean lapping below. The Grey slips from the wall then blurs and begins to sweat and drip, thick drops of silver and slate splashing to the ground. Arms of softening steel reach down to collect the pooling jet that bubbles and spreads as the shape melts into the dead, rich earth. As the last glinting shards of soft smoke are enveloped the hungry black rises up coughing, spluttering out clouds of coal-soil. The earth all around begins to tremble as the shape of something breaks itself from the surrounding fog and a hulking body curled by the same smoke-flickered flames reaches out one long, tapered, spinal limb. Up into the air then bending, snapping down and shattering the solid smog that cracks against the marble ground. More razor-forged legs fly up and out and, hot as lightening, they shoot down, a rain of drumming snaps that ring out across the face of the stone sea. The smoke shifts and the world around you slows a hundred-fold. The wind's seething rasp drags to a hum and the ocean bays heavy and slow. A deep shout kicks thumping against the side of your head and you blink hard, turning with painful steadiness to see the other three. They must have been with you all along, tripping and laughing in the fog. Two are already turning and one stares with wide, terrified eyes, mouth opening to shout again. Why are they shouting? The smoke circles around your neck now, pressing closed as your eyes start to gloss and their colour seeps liquid, two thin streams drifting out into the night. What are they running from? Grey shapes flicker against the backs of your eyes, and you feel the lids begin to close. Soft white holds you now, closely pressing at your arms and legs and lifting your back and slipping into your hand. Hold me close, now. Drift me away. A breath escapes your lips as they part to let the air slip out. You look down to see your body floating below. How peaceful it looks, hair gently drifting in this cold, holding wind... But as you rise higher and higher, feeling yourself dragged closer to the great monstrous, many-legged beast above you, a figure breaks through the icy walls that surround you. Another hand grasps at yours and pulls hard and you're running again. The white clutches after you and the wind roars a storm as you pound the earth, you behind one, behind one, behind one who leads blindly, crashing against the cold stone and shouting up at the endless, impassive steel. Except the walls have begun to redden and blue-black muddy and you've seen these streets before, the earth beneath your feet is rich and dark and bubbling and crawling with deathly life. The cold creature pants heavily, painfully, angry at the escaped prey. The walls are glass and reflecting again. You see me running ahead and it's a surprise to see the excitement in my eyes, wild and guilty with the thrill. The walls begin to glow blue with heat as you run further from the cold, grey sea bed. The creature is roaring in pain now, burnt shards of its frozen legs spray against the hot black night sky. A sharp turn down another street and now the glass is glowing white hot and as you hold up your hands to shield your burnt-out eyes the light flares a booming, roaring, infernal, guttural scream. The ring of the explosion whispers waves through alleyways and up into the electric red, blue-black sky, then dies.
*
All four are giddy with the heat from the city and the thrill of the chase. They tumble down an alley and look greedily at each other, breaking out into body-shaking laughter. One leans against a bin which crashes down and the others laugh more. As they pick themselves up with the dirt and damp they pull another down and soon a third is rolling in the street, laughing and pulling and throwing light punches and tugging on jacket sleeves. The fourth stands apart, back against a door off the backstreet. They look up and squint with one eye to stop the lights pitching as they focus on the moon. Funny moon. Pink moon. But it's not a moon, the red round glowing neon circle with three pink dots. Eyes light up and everyone is on their feet and trying the door which doesn't open. Then one is running and crashing against it and the thin metal buckles, bending slightly at the lock. The bolt inside holds but the small screws don't and with a splintering crunch the door swings open. They stand by the doorway, nothing but darkness inside. Eyes flicker dim and gold, from one to another and then they're stepping in, pulling the door behind them with a crash. The corridor is narrow and damp and the musty smell of the street lingers in the darkness. Giggling and spitting the four feel their way down the hall, tripping on a short flight then feeling for a handle to the door. They tumble through into another room. Even in the darkness they can feel the size of it, stretching away from them, long and low. 'The fuck is this place?' They fan out looking for clues. One of them stumbles and nearly falls, feels soft carpet below. 'Jack, what is this place?' She finds a chair and sits, head falling and jerking up, then bouncing down again and she hits the floor. 'Shit.' Someone else laughs. 'Fuck off.' But she's laughing too. She's feeling her way back up the seat, it's hard plastic and stirs a memory somewhere, some childhood feel and taste. Colours rush into her head, red and black stripes on shoes, blue and red mixing to make purple in a plastic cup with a straw, white surface with a floating red puck. 'No way...' She feels her way along the half circle of chairs and onto the floor beyond. The wood is smooth. Switch flicked and the lights shutter on over the vast expanse of sixty feet long, eight lanes wide. Nobody wants to play, but someone goes behind the desk and hits every button, flicks every switch. The alleys buzz and hum into life. The ball-belts burr and rattle, spinning the length of the room. The cogs at the pin end shift and clunk then the fat mechanical hands swing down and eight sets of ten pins are held on the track. The hands swing up and eight fresh lanes glow with electric blue light on polished light brown wood. 'Wait. I'm gonna-' He puts one foot up onto a seat, then steps onto the ball rack. 'Jack, don't.' Claire calls from where the couple are leaning together against the pool table. She's buried in him, with huge jumper and scarf arms wrapping her up in a Let him. 'He'll-' 'He'll be fine.' Jack stands with both feet on the rack, he goes to step up onto a ball, but thinks better of it. 'What are you doing?' The buzz of the run is searing through him, pushing his eyes up and out, glaring glee that laughs and sings and will die before sunrise. 'When we're out here-' A voice calls out from the back and a bottle goes up. 'When we are out here!' There's some shushes and grumbling, then they settle again. 'When we're out here, in this place where not a soul can touch us...' What a speech it was that followed. You standing up there by the ball rack, or you sitting in the half-ring of plastic chairs, or you standing with your arms wrapped around, or you wrapped up drifting away. The next day you tried to remember what he said, or what you said. It had been so... mesmerising. Rifling through the scraps and sheets. Where is it where is it? Written down on one of these- where is it? For God's S- Ah here it is. A list of... This isn't it. Keep rifling, keep looking under the- Oh did you take it down... No, it's got to be somewhere- It isn't. Nobody has it, a record of what was said or done. You stumble around blearily searching for any clues as to... Forget it. What would you do with, whatever, anyway. Pick up your phone and check if there's any... there isn't. Not a picture or word. Start to doubt yourself then laugh, oh laugh. Grin up at the ceiling and flop back and- deep sleeping sighs and- sleep.

8. Rats and Mice

A man is sitting in the corner laughing and beating his fist against his chest. He coughs wet and painful. His eyes are wide and bright and he looks bleak between the floor and passers by. The floor is wide and dark, the passers by in their long coats and dripping hoods are slim and gaunt and look straight on. They are the imposter, the French hypocrite who sucked the family out of each other and left the house expensive, cold and empty. I should say we are, but we're not thinking about that tonight. Water splashes onto the street and Yours Truly (that's me and my name) holds out my hand, looking up to see if it's raining. The palm stays dry but behind me another splash. Twenty floors up a woman stands with splashes of her own not yet dripped from the bottom of damp cheeks. Something sour has sucked the life from party number two-seven-four of three-six-five. They're all staring at him and her as she lifts her chin and meets the monster's eyes, the drippings building from her little pools and spilling into the one around her feet. With a rush the monster stands from the water and wades out with a wake, grabbing a towel and pushing roughly through the watching, angry eyes. She looks away and thinks Oh God have I done this as her friends go to her and cry Oh God what has he done. The wake swells and rolls back and tips gently over the edge, a splash to the sidewalk below. Is someone singing? Way down below it sounds like there's a voice but Yours Truly shrugs and moves on. Wait! Come on. The steps are damp but not so much to slip, they tap down and around and into the main hall where three other holes open into the warren, two from the Garden side and one from the Hippodrome. We beep through with cards and phones and stand chatting on the escalator that takes us with our cards and phones and bleary eyes onto the platform. The sign reads 1 Edgware on the left and 6 mins on the right. Then underneath; 2 Edgware and 16 mins. Somewhere someone sat and thought up how far apart the trains should be which is easy at rush hour you just pump them through the tunnels as fast as is safe but at this time, how did they chose? Four minutes of people are already waiting, sitting on the three-wide benches or standing on their phones. A couple look up at us new-comers who look at the big paper ads on the opposite wall; the massive faces of new smartphones, online estate agents and a bank that reminds us that WE ARE LONDON. Sixth months ago it was decided, in an agency somewhere, that purple was in. A lovely, deep, regal purple features as the background to two, and significantly in three others. The way to stand-out is to stand-in, though mostly it seems to be bigger is better. When it's money on the line and competition... Bigger is always better. 'I just want to take them home and give them a good shampoo.' 'Could be rabid.' 'They don't carry rabies.' 'They carry tetanus though.' 'Like roses.' 'Really?' 'I can't do mice.' 'I can do a really good goat.' The platform looks up at the strange noise, then goes back to itself. 'That's actually a really good goat.' One sitting, two standing in each others arms, the other peering into the dark below the tracks. 'I can do a dolphin as well.' 'That's not natural.' 'Good pigeon too.' 'I think your dolphin was best.' Sickboy, OneTwo, and Yours Truly (and that's my name) makes four lolling about on the side and kicking at the whatever, we've had a cool night alright, sweating in up in the air somewhere where the sun kissed last. They've got nothing on tomorrow and I've got nothing till three or four, (I should check) so we've gone later than usual? Maybe just as late as we have been all week, it's been a special week yeah. Special alright. When God (or Time) made rats he made them twice, the other half smaller. He saw all the cruelest parts and took them away, put them in vultures. Penelope kept rats, Elizabeth and Margaret, but her name was really Laura and the rats' names were just rat and rat, white rat and brown. Funny how she named them after we named her. It might seem like I chose mine (Yours Truly or just Yours, or just Truly, but never Truly Yours; they say I was saving that) but really the others did, probably Two, she named One before she was Two so that was funny when I came out with it, funny old names for funny old friends which came out some one at a time, some all at once; there was the day, when they became OneTwo not just One and Two, that Penelope had come out to the park and swung on the swing and cried stupid breathy tears over rat or rat (I don't remember which) because it was dead, so I said yeah haven't you seen dead yet? and Two shushed spikily and One went to her (Penelope that is) and said the theretheres and Two was watching One be all friendly and caring and lovelovelovely and I think that was the moment, watching him be such a darling, a sweetheart (even though it was for the other, Two was never jealous, still hasn't been, though One has), that was the moment she thought yeah for sure and later, when Penelope was calmed down and Truly here had said all the sorrysorrys I could muster, later on Two went to One and said how about, well... OneTwo was formed that rat Day of the Dead day and now here they are still but it's not Penelope who's with us it's Sickboy and I don't find his complexion quite as agreeable (if agreeable is the word), and I'm watching him from behind going down and round the stairs, his stupid greasy skin tapping through to the next bit, his stupid ugly hands, and going down and round the stairs again, his dumb, big, ugly eyes staring after the ads by the escalator and he's standing on his fucking two dumb big feet on the fucking platform and there's OneTwo and Yours Truly and FUCKING Sickboy. If it was Penelope... I shake my tired head and look up around. Sickboy tells a joke and I laugh (and I mean it because it's funny), and actually I love him and take my hand we do a little dance on the platform there and actually he's quite nimble on those two dancing feet, and his grin has got that childlike quality that brightens up a room and yeah, yeah he's not Penelope but neither is she really. Opposite a man carrying stacked pages slips on the last step and stumbles onto the platform. People laugh (we all do) until he loses his footing and it looks like he'll fall but his leg kicks up on instinct and he's sitting with a jolt. From his arms the papers fly up around him and he clutches bewildered at the air above, grabbing and snatching sheets, throwing them behind him away from the distant sound of the train. Sheets flutter onto the tracks and on our side there's a silence when he stands and looks down at his lost pages. The station holds its breath tight and waits. 'Don't be a fool.' It's deep and rich and everyone turns to see the woman sitting at one end, gently easing herself up. Stick to the ground and weight on top of that she takes a few steps and looks across to the forlorn figure on the other side. 'I said don't be a damn fool.' The man looks up. He might be crying and looks pleading at us on our safe side. He looks down again and takes a step towards the edge. 'Will you listen to me?' Deeper and richer she mirrors his step. He looks up and reflected in the darkest part of his glistening eyes are the lights of the train that rushes past on his side. We all try to see but then ours comes too and we're all getting on and realising we'd held our breath and looking at each other and thinking thank god for that woman right? So we've had a good night alright. It's cool at last on the train and it's alright, don't worry, there's plenty of seats. Some hard, some soft, with a few others (not with us) swinging or swaying or holding the bars. So we're four and it's been a good night alright. We've had a good time alright and now we're all feeling pretty loose and friendly and in our own worlds. This isn't a first, and it won't be a last but it's got a special something about the night that's made it real cool to be... to be out and about... This is real cool. This is a... Brooklyn Bound A Train, next stop: Canal St. It'll take us all the way home for three and close enough for the other. Sickboy the sick boy is standing up next to me. He's the one who drank that dare in a horrible cocktail and chucked it up before eleven, groaning about Fireballs and aniseed. He's grinning now on his own, his eyes red and half-open. He's sticking his tongue out, talking about Freddie Mercury. Low under, One is singing softy, I've been writing stories, You've been walking across the page. Something about clouds and daffodils, More like waiting with my phone by the shower, And staring blankly at floors and walls. 'Post Malone will lose his voice in two years. He smokes and drinks every day.' OneTwo are sitting opposite me, eyes only for each other, and Sickboy because he's distracting them. They were locked in but One is locked and Two pulled back once and when she did he just flopped down and had to catch himself halfway. Two laughed at that, alright, she laughed so much and snorted and clapped a hand and then OneTwo were laughing so much. But now One is singing Led Zeppelin falsetto, he's got a whole second blow before he crashes out in twenty under a bench or tree or wherever the hell he lies out. Welcome mat, scuff your shoes, Hang up your coat in the room by the door. There's water in the kettle if you've filled it, There's food in the fridge if you haven't eaten it. 'Mick Jagger never lost his voice.' 'He never really sang.' Two is a mezzo soprano but she's not showing off now. 'The secret to pop music isn't to sing well. It's just to make songs people can sing.' 'Ariana Grande. She can sing.' The train stops. A group of language exchange students get on and stand by the door pushing and laughing. Their smiles are brilliant and I found myself smiling too, brilliant. I look up a bit and smile into the window that smiles back, brilliant. They get off at the next stop. Would have been quicker to walk, just look at the map. 'On Slash's album the singer hits a high F sharp.' 'Good to have in your repertoire.' One has moved onto Rock 'n' Roll. He's not listened to a word so far. He's listened to his own high F sharp but it was more like a... something flat. Driverless cars going emptily by. Planes without passengers or pilots in the sky. Phones without wires, bombs without tanks, Trains underground, road-trips to space. 'You're such a dad.' 'I love that.' Two and Sickboy have started talking about an old boyfriend. She introduced him to her dad and he pretended he had tourettes. The first time he ever met him. Cashier no.4 please. Sickboy's dad wore pants on his head. 'He took a tab at a Pink Floyd concert. Back in the 70s. Lying back and watching a flyover with the first chord of Dark Side of the Moon. The colours, the lights, Breathe (In The Air).' 'Your eyes look super blue.' That's Two with a smile. 'Do they?' He (Sickboy) turns around to stare at his reflection in the dark windows. 'Is he alright?' That's One to Two. 'I think he's still thinking about her.' I forgot your birthday Because you took it off Facebook. Does anybody give love on Bebo anymore? They laugh for a while before I realise they're looking at me. I laugh too and shrug. They were right, I was still thinking about her. The warm-up act for a gig that a friend of a friend had suggested the night before. When she looked into the crowd it was easy to image she was looking at me. A solo act at a pub/venue in the NE, an area that used to be dodgy and still had a bad name but really now it's all cafes and cafes and a shop that designs bespoke teddybears. Three of them (three of us) standing at the back by the bar whilst the friend of a friend talks to the girl she knows on the door and people trail in, filling the small back-room. She's tall on stage and blonde. She sings and the music she plays from her laptop sings with her, the lights are rare and blue and the crowd are silent while she sings, even the guy behind the bar stops and listens. Afterwards we sat outside, four or five of us friends of friends, chatting about the music and the industry and things we didn't really understand because we were only at the edges. But actually one of us did because she did a year of journalism, and someone was going into radio and they'd heard someone talk about someone who was up-and-coming and the sound was similar to this but unique. Fairy lights criss-crossed the rafters of the smoking area. Red. Blue. Green. Gold. One of us was tired and I don't know why I didn't leave. Just get up and go. Walk and keep walking. My friend was talking to his friend who had been the journalist and she was looking across at another who might have been in the band, might have played the bass, but might have just been in the crowd it was hard to tell from the angle. Would they have noticed, really noticed, or maybe even cared if I'd got up and walked away? They would have thought I was going home probably, out onto the street and back home on the bus. But I could have gone anywhere. How much was the train to the coast? And the ferry to Calais? How long before someone realised I was hitch-hiking through fields in eastern France and down the Rhine to the Alps, an Alpine idyll and down into the lush green hills of Italy. They still giggle and I let thoughts of her go. Bridges are lit up on the left, Queensboro, Blackfriars, Rosie, Williamsburg, great waves of light that stretch in huge half circles from shore to shore. I look right but there's another train going the other way, heading south into Downtown. I check my watch. Who's going west at this time? Tired faces slump down on sleeping chests and weary early-early-morning travellers cuddle up to strangers who lilt away. Streets where it's warm to walk about, that's nice, that's just fine. Where it was too warm at midday, now it's warm enough to come back up in the dark and still enjoy the walk from the station; out at Camden Town, up to Putnam or back down to that bar on Nostrand. Or was it Parliament? Where out back there's three playing jazz like something from a movie and the kid with the floppy hair gets up to sit at the soft hammers and all four blow the minds of the empty room. These four are coming out into the night and breathing it in, stumbling back to the floor where they lay, wrapped arm in arm, one shifting up and out and, ignoring the sounds, he steps carefully through to the next room where the glow shuffles behind the window from across the river, and lights the small sofa room and kitchenette with a dim gold highlight. Boy rubs his eyes and flicks the thick switch that goes red for coffee. Not caring about quietly they're asleep he goes to the door that opens onto the narrow balcony where he breathes the night in again, hands two hands apart on the cool warm rail. The sky is switched to purple, the streets to blue and gold, but everything's muted, and so much bigger. He watches the planes coming in and out of Newark. Him, tomorrow, looking down on him looking up like a thousand other dots in so much light. Elsewhere the parties continue, the trains keep running, people like him stand out and smoke and look at the city, marvelling at it or shaking their heads. Taxis roll and stop, people shout and laugh and inside are hot, loud, quiet. A man cries into paper at the edge of a track, a woman stands dripping by a rooftop pool, rats run from woods to streets, to skin. On the seventeenth floor of a hotel where someone famous died a young man in a jacket and a sweaty shirt climbs the metal steps that lead to the roof and stands blinded by the brightness around him before he turns and makes his way down the stairs and out into the heavy, bright night. And the end of that songs goes Hum hum hum hum. Listen to the sound of the Hum hum hum. Breath in the night Look out at its eyes Walk up to the moon Silver surprise. A bird that lifts off And lands once a year On October the first When the cool sky is clear. Wings, feathers and beak She takes off with a hum A burr in the heart Cold claws that go numb. Listen to the sound of the Hum hum hum. The end of the song goes Hum hum hum hum.

9. Night

He put his back to the door and stood against it with his hands pressed flat to the flaking paint and held his breath. A sigh slipped out and he pushed from the door and stood for a moment in the middle of the room, listening to sound of the others laughing and singing downstairs. The curtains were open and the moonlight made the room cool and serene. He walked over to the window and looked out at the garden, tracking the paths out across the grass and into the forest beyond. He lingered on the stump where he'd sat earlier that day. It had seemed so clumsily misplaced, tucked under a bush where surely no tree could have grown. The trains rumbled underground somewhere nearby. He shivered and closed the curtains. What next? His brain was dumb. Slugged from those long nights he barely registered carrying himself around the room, tripping over stray clothes as he picked them up and threw them together over a chair. Standing by the bed he closed his eyes, reached down and pulled his jumper up over his head. He sat on the edge and pulled off one sock, then the other, letting them drop to the carpet beside him. He stood again, loosed his belt, pulled it through the loops and dropped it. Slowly by slowly he lifted himself and freed his battered skin, bearing it out, pulling and tightening and loosing it to the empty room. He peeled and rubbed and roughed the edges away until he slipped out and stood by himself standing by the bed. The other he stood rigid for a second then slumped and crumbled and was dust to be swept away in the morning. He stood facing himself naked like a soldier in the mirror, head high, hands loose. Only his eyes moved, carefully taking in his bare chest, arms, hips, legs. He studied each part of himself quietly and thought about the man who sat on the street and beat himself. What would he have given for this body, he thought. Not a paragon, not much muscle or even definition where he knew others liked it. No, what would that man give for this body that could stand and breath and take itself in and draw itself up to its full height without, what, shame? He stepped closer to the mirror and met his own gaze, breathing heavy now, the room around him fading away. Another step and his breath hit the mirror and the fog made him blink and look down and notice again his nakedness and he almost laughed when he saw it. He looked back into his eyes and smiled. The room slid away and the two boys stood one before the other looking into each other's eyes and laughing and breathing into each other's mouths and when they touched hand against hand they felt the coolness of the other and the heat in themselves. Soon their arms were wrapped around each other and they kissed the way lovers do pressing hard against each other, one falling into the other who held him tight and could not let him go. For a moment they broke apart and, gasping, they sank down and into the deep pool below them, folding into and over each other, hands and arms and legs and chests against chests and the pool rose and covered them and they sank deeper and deeper and kissed again and again and again and loved each other and themselves until they reached the bottom of the pool and stood back to back with their arms held wide, each finger touching lightly against the the back of the other. Slowly they let their arms fall and turned to face each other and one smiled and the other did too. He blinked and the room was around him and he laughed at the fog on the mirror, but when he looked down he frowned and twisted his body and looked at how it moved and thought nobody would want this body. The boy in the mirror turned his back and walked away. In the kitchen the others were still up and talking about the night and the argument from before was still going on and at once voices were raised and then suddenly quieted and there were whispers, then muffled laughter, then quiet and the boy could hear footsteps in the hall, on the stairs and then doors opening, and closing, then nothing. The light of the city outside began to glow through the curtains and the room crawled back out of the darkness and surrounded the bed and seeped under the covers where the boy shivered slightly and rolled over. And rolled over. He pulled the covers tight to his back and tucked the edge under his feet which he curled up, pulling his head under and breathing heavy until he felt the warmth of his breath fill out the cocoon of his body. The air grew tight and with one last breath he thrust his head back out into the cool air and, closing his eyes, let his head fall back into the pillow. He woke and sank back into the arms of the girl who held him and woke with a start. He woke suddenly and two men stood by his bed and as he looked up their faces sank into their necks and crumpled and he tried to scream but he woke and shivered and fell again. He woke and the blaze of the stars lit up the room like daylight and when he closed his eyes he saw the two suns that rolled across the face of the earth and balled together and the ground opened and swallowed the fire which spat up and was gone and the room was dark again and the bed was wet with his sweat and he pulled the covers away and lay for hours sweating in the darkness. Several times he woke and fell and woke and looked around his for the girl whose arms had held him so close. The men stood and sank and the girls arms held him and the bed began to sag with his weight and his eyes were suddenly wide and he couldn't breath and above him the men sank into the floor and rose into great winged creatures that swooped down and landed beside him and the bed sank lower with their weight. He cried out and woke and felt the arms around him and a soft voice in his ear and his eyes drifted closed and when he woke again the bed was dry and his eyes dropped. The mirror shone as it stretched flatter and wider; he stood staring into the glass and saw the back of him in the mirrors that glared beside and behind him until he was surrounded by his image in which he stared pale and looked around and looked back and with a sudden breath the mirrors clouded and cracked and he fell back into the the bed which lifted him now, and from the foot it flew upwards and turned until he rose underneath the bed which pressed him up and down as the room rushed away from him, skimming the blackness and swimming into the fog. For the third time that warm October Night he studied himself and found the rise and falls of his naked body to be soft, warm mountains and steep, full hills. The Mirrors circled him now and became one full circle, one round sphere of light and flashing colour that pounded inwards, stretching streams of electricity from his four arms and four legs and the— March for Student Lionsgate Is He Marriage Material Man ask why women Work with us! Michael Myers has escaped Capital Jack Jack Make your own Rules No need Boring man Birthday birthday birthday March Yellow Raincoat March Make your own Lionsgate Michael March Students Jack Jack Captial has Escaped Work with Women No need Boring Myers has Marriage Material Jack March for Yellow Work with Birthday Michael Birthday Wake Up Michael Lions Lions and Tigers Capital One Escape Wake Up Michael is the Material is He no Need to Wake Up Michael Wake Up. 'Wake up.' The arms around him. The bed dropping down. The mirrors, the light shining around his head bowed back into the pillow that took his weight and lifted him gently into sleep. 'Wake up.' When he woke the room was cold and a dim light glowed under the curtains. He lay for a while looking across to the window and waiting for the men to appear, for the arms to take him in, but they didn't come. Outside he could hear birds and somewhere in the house another was awake and even as he listened he heard the radio chatter in the kitchen below. He heard the great black wings that had landed heavy beside him and shivered a little, closed his eyes, and slipped away.

10.

Dad, At the end of the play we were all in the room together, sipping and saying nothing. We listened to the song, and when it was over four became two and two, and one shouted and another cried and as the audience left the room we all lay together and were quiet.









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