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