The sky has that bruised tinge that comes when it’s dusk, and might rain. The clouds are thick with it but the sun’s still burning behind them, turning them fat and purple, casting a dim glow over the streets. It’s even worse up here, in the ruins of the old cotton mills; the red bricks reflect the light and turn it orange and shades of deep green. In the wasteland that used to be the shop floor, and most of the car park, it’s like standing at the edge of the world with an apocalypse on the way.
Gene shoves his hand in his coat pocket, and lights a fag. He’s facing away from the empty, half-ruined building, out into the sky because this is the edge of the city, nothing but scrub and waste until the canal. There might be civilisation on the other side, but you can’t walk to it from here.
His lips move silently. Just briefly, just once. But the question, or plea, or prayer, goes unanswered, because it’s at that moment he hears voices. They float from the wall that used to be one side of the building, only three bricks high now, and cut off in the middle. He can imagine the old swing doors that used to be there, before this place closed in 1916. He tries to guess how many years will have passed, but it doesn’t matter.
The voices rise. There’ll be a row in a minute, then a fight. His heart sinks. But he turns on his heel anyway, and looks – yeah, over there. Ten lads or so, a few of them starting to push at each other, a couple standing around looking awkward. A football, discarded and forgotten – so this must be serious – has rolled away and come to rest against a broken stone. He’s still a hundred yards away, but he knows how this goes. Any minute now, one of them will make a comment about someone else’s mam, and the first fist will be thrown.
‘..it weren’t in. It rolled over me jumper so it hit the post.’
‘You’re a bloody liar. Might’ve clipped it, but would’ve bounced in. Two-nil.’
‘Sod you, Harvey. Don’ count what it might have done. Still one-nil, an’ if you don’t shut your face, I’ll shut it for you.’
Gene smiles a little, and watches a car wind along a road far in the distance. He counts under his breath while they squabble on – when he reaches twenty, there’s a dull thwack and someone yells. Sounds like Harvey. By the time he’s at forty the scuffle is over, feet are running away and someone’s left behind, trying not to cry.
He looks back. The football is gone. Only one boy is there, curled on the ground with a small trickle of blood coming from his nose. His eyes are closed, so Gene can watch without admonishment. He wears grey shorts, even though it’s a bit nippy. A school jumper full of holes, and far too small – must have been turned into a play top when he grew out of it. The shirt underneath might have been blue once, but most of the colour has been worn out. Grey socks, battered old leather shoes. Uniform of the working class, then.
He walks over and sits on the wall, a few feet away. The kid opens his eyes when he hears footsteps, and sits at once, scrubbing his eye to make sure there’s no evidence of tears, even though none fell in the first place. His face fixes in a scowl, and he stares with suspicion. Gene looks at him calmly, then nods.
The scowl deepens. The boy draws his arms tighter around his body. The bigger kids must’ve got him in the ribs a few times too. That’s
normally what that stance means.
‘Your mates just leave you, then?’
‘They look like me mates? Did you see-?’ He cuts off, like it’s wussy to ask if anyone witnessed the fight.
‘Yeah, I saw.’
The boy nods, in a matter of fact kind of way. Gene’s heart twists. It wouldn’t occur to this lad to ask why the grown up didn’t stop it.
He pulls his fags out of his pocket. They’ve reverted from cigarillos to Players No. 6. Proper blast from the past. He lights another for himself, then offers the pack to the boy, who takes one at once. He lights it without speaking, and lets the lad draw in a breath of it like a pro. He must be about eight.
‘It’s getting late, son. You shouldn’t be up here on your own.’
The boy fixes him with a stare that screams, oh, please, but then the suspicion creeps back. ‘Why? Not a perv, are you?’
‘No, I bleedin’ am not!’
The lad shrugs then, and relaxes. ‘Mam’s lookin’ after me brother. She don’ want me under her feet.’
‘And Dad’s at the pub, I bet. What’s up with your brother?’
There’s a hesitation, then another shrug, different from the first. The casual drop of the shoulders is just a little too contrived. ‘He’s not well.’
Gene nods, and looks to where the wasteground meets the sky. It’s getting dark now, and it’s like he could reach up and touch the clouds.
‘You’d best be getting home, son. It’s going to piss down, and your mam’ll worry.’
‘Yeah, she will.’
He stands up, and after a pause, offers a hand to the boy. The kid stares up at him a moment, then jams the fag between his teeth, and slaps his hand to Gene’s. It feels tiny, cold and hard, little jewels of gravel stuck to the dirty palm. He wraps his fingers around, and pulls him to his feet. He weighs nothing. For a second, he keeps hold. The kid’s other arm is holding his ribs, more than he should be from a few jabs from little boys. Unless they hit damage that was already there.
He lets go. The boy is eyeing him dubiously.
‘You sure you’re not a perv?’
‘Positive.’ He holds his cigarettes out again. ‘Here. You can have ‘em.’
They’re taken at once. It’s nearly a full pack, and his eyes light up. ‘Thanks!’ He’s clearly thinking that it’s worth taking a few punches if this is the kind of sympathy you receive. Gene smiles a bit, and shakes his head.
‘Go on with you. Straight home, mind.’
‘Yeah, all right.’
The boy starts to run, quick feet on his spindly legs, barely making a noise on the stones. He stops a few seconds later, and spins around. ‘Haven’ seen you around, mister.’
It’s a question, though not framed as one. Everyone knows everyone, and Gene knows his accent places him firmly in this city. But he glances to left and right, at the ruins that’ll be destroyed by a bomb in a few months’ time, and rebuilt a decade later.
‘Just passing through, son.’
The boy frowns, as though the phrase is new. But then nods, and spins again. He’s running by the time, ‘cheers for the fags!’ floats back, and gone before Gene can reply.
For a full minute, he just stands. His chest feels heavy, and there’s a weight on his shoulders. If it weren’t pathetic and girly, he could imagine wanting to cry.
He does not. He turns around, and walks back across the wasteground instead. He steps over stones, and weeds that have long since forced their way up through the tarmac. He doesn’t stop until he gets to the edge, and looks down the slope that ends at the canal, a hundred feet away. By the time he’s still, the sadness is contained.
He closes his eyes, and breathes deep. Breathes in his city. Impending rain, and chilly air. The canal, with all its rubbish and oil. The smoke that hangs in a perpetual fug; from the factories, the mills, the steelworks. From the few hundred thousand hearths that’ll keep everyone alive until Spring. If he walks down the street, there’ll be horse shit underfoot from the traders and rag-and-bone men, and hardly a car in sight. Manchester.
He’s never waxed lyrical about these days, but for different reasons than the poverty, and hunger. He never paid those much mind. He doesn’t want to face the real reasons he never wanted to come back to this. ‘Wake up,’ he murmurs under his breath. But Manchester remains.
He turns around, and starts to walk.
~ ~ ~
The corridors of the school smell like the corridors of every English school since time immemorial. A bit of damp, a lot of old clothes. Paint – kid’s paint, not paint on the walls, which are whitewashed for ease of cleaning – and school dinners. Cabbage, mostly. Here and there, near the cloakrooms, a hint of piss and disinfectant.
He’s not sure how he got here. He was walking down the street, empty of anything resembling life (and it reminded him of a day he never wanted to think of again), and had simply closed his eyes to blink. When he opened them again, here he was. Walking down the corridor of the main schoolhouse, feeling like his head could go through the ceiling. It’s ridiculous. The tops of the windows into the classrooms are about his shoulder level. Didn’t normal sized people work here? Or did they only employ dwarves to teach?
He glances into the rooms left and right – infant classes, tiny kids playing with glue and old Christmas wrapping paper. They look impossibly small. One or two are undeniably starving. But he walks on, through the door at the end, to the outside. Down the steps, and into the senior section. He stops at the first window to his left.
The room is small, not so much because of the individual desks in neat rows, six down by five across, but because of the people sitting at them. It takes a moment for him to work it out, because it doesn’t fit with what he thought he knew – but then it slides into focus. The desks are small, made for kids half their age. But these people are young adults – fourteen, fifteen. Maybe one or two of the lucky ones have made it to sixteen, and a shot at actual exams. The girls fill their blouses at the chest, some of the lads are lucky their shirts don’t split over the shoulders. He looks for hands – yeah, there. Worker’s hands. He counts ten of the twelve boys that are definitely in the factories or pits, and six of the fifteen lasses. The few empty desks speak of those who didn’t make it this far.
He leans on the door to watch. It looks like an English class. Most of the girls, at least, have a copy of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream open on their desk. A couple of the boys too. He focuses on one in the middle, who seems to have it open on the right page, but with an arm on top of it, so it looks like he’s not reading along at all. The teacher’s in full flow, giving it everything with arms and inflection – the girls are listening, apart from the one snogging one of the lads in the back row, but the boys are either staring out the window, or muttering to each other, or doodling on scraps of paper. They’ve got no business being here. Maybe they’re just killing time before National Service sends the call-up papers.
The teacher stops her reciting. There’s a blush on her cheeks, and she adjusts her blouse with a small cough. A couple of the boys nudge each other, but she doesn’t see. ‘Can someone tell me something about the role of the supernatural in the play?’
An answer springs, unbidden, to Gene’s mind. He watches the boys as most of the girls put their hands up. A couple are preparing ink pellets, and the couple that were snogging a moment ago are now contenting themselves with wandering hands under the desks. Only a few boys seem to be paying attention. The teacher ignores them, and engages the girls, right up until a pellet smacks Judy Braithwaite right between the tits. It splatters all over her white shirt; she screeches in shock and anger, and spins in her seat.
Gene looks at the one quiet lad in the room. Sure enough, another pellet flies out from the back – and someone leans forward, and whispers something in the boy’s ear. As if on cue, he stands up, swivels, and punches the speaker square in the mouth. Gene huffs a small, tired laugh, and steps back, until he’s leaning on the opposite wall. A moment later, the boy is ejected from the class. He eyes him with suspicion – always suspicious, this one – and takes his place by the door.
Gene lights a fag, and offers one over. The teenager hesitates, then takes one and slides it behind his ear.
‘You knew the answer to that question,’ he says to him, amiably enough. ‘Why didn’t you stick your hand up?’
The boy looks at him like he’s a twat. ‘That’s for girls.’
‘Oh, right. Of course.’ Well, it probably is. He’s not used to keeping his mouth shut, so what would he know? ‘So. Sent out? Stern talking-to later, maybe the ruler?’
‘Nah. She don’ believe in the ruler. She’s a soft touch.’
‘Might send you to the Head though. He’ll batter you without caring.’
He gets a shrug for that. And the boy’s right, because the headmaster with a cane doesn’t hold much fear. He nods, and leans his head back on the wall. ‘Let me guess. They made you take the fall for the ink.’
Another shrug. Gene sighs, and flicks his cigarette away. ‘Word of advice, son. You don’t have to punch every bugger that slags off the bird you fancy. They played you like a soddin’ harp.’
‘So why do it?’
Yet another shrug. Gene would quite like to grab those shoulders, and ram them through the wall. ‘Never thought you were a fool.’
The boy looks up. His face has defiance written all over it. ‘Because why not? I don’t need to answer questions about soddin’ Shakespeare. What good’s that going to do me? And if no one stands up for anyone else, they end up gettin’ crapped on their whole life.’
‘Oh, right. Very honourable.’ Who is this kid? ‘What about whether you get crapped on? And I swear to God, if you shrug at me again-‘
He doesn’t shrug. He stares, far too calm for a fourteen year old, even one as tall as him. He looks ridiculous, arms sticking out of a jumper too small for him, and trousers that don’t reach his ankles. But there’s steel in that gaze that doesn’t get taught at school.
Gene can’t hold it. He glances away, down at the tips of his cowboy boots. ‘Supposed to be you talking to me, I thought.’
The boy starts to shrug, then stops himself halfway, and relaxes again. ‘I am.’
Gene freezes, just for a second. By the time he looks up, the teacher is coming out the door with the class packing up behind. She takes the lad’s arm, and starts to march him away towards the Head’s office. But he manages to look over his shoulder, and tip a wink to the man left in the corridor. ‘Remember what’s important, yeah?’
He watches the door long after it’s closed, long after the class has disappeared. His stomach curls in on itself, and his heart’s somewhere in the region of his boots. He never forgot what was important, did he?
~ ~ ~
The sun’s shining. He’d be stripping layers off if he could really feel the heat. He doesn’t, because he’s not really here, is he? Or maybe it’s the cold sweat, so strong nothing can penetrate. He can barely breathe through the fear.
There’s no one here. Just a track, wide enough for one car. The hedges are overgrown either side. Toppling leaves and bushes close over the edges, sun-dappled and with a smell like summer. Honeysuckle, and…something else you get in the country. He doesn’t know. He’s a city lad. But it looks nice, and there are grasshoppers buzzing, and bees in the air. Everything calm, and quiet, with only the faint cheering of a party somewhere in the distance.
(God Save the Queen!)
His knees are shaking.
How long has it been since he was so scared, his knees actually shook? Not since he were a nipper, and Albert frightened him so badly he pissed himself before the bloke even laid a hand on him. What was he then, six?
He’s wearing a uniform. The glare of the sun is blocked by the edge of his helmet, keeping the worst of it out of his eyes. If he looks up, he can see the rooftop of a farmhouse at the top of the track. Louder than the people behind, something crashes. A window breaking? Something.
The voice is to his left. He doesn’t look. Just shakes his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘You have to.’
There’s a sigh, like someone’s disappointed. ‘Fine. I’ll do it.’
Any protest comes too late, because suddenly he’s standing to the side, back in his suit and coat. He watches the lad in the uniform, who in turn watches the track, idly swinging his truncheon in one hand. Round and round in smooth circles, easy as you like.
‘Don’t do it. Don’t go up there.’ He can hear the panic in his tone, but the boy seems unmoved.
‘I have to.’
‘No. You don’t. You really don’t. Just wait, and Morr-‘
‘Oh, shut up.’
Surprise shuts him up. The lad’s voice is weary, like he’s talking to an idiot. Or a man who grew up wrong, and needs to be brought back to earth. ‘Listen to yourself. Walk away from something like this?’
‘You don’t understand. You don’t know what’s up there.’
‘Of course I – for Christ’s sake, who the hell do you think I am?’
The boy turns. And for a second, just a second, half his face disappears into a mess of blood and exposed bone, flayed clean of flesh by the whip of shotgun pellets. Gene freezes, but then it’s gone, and it’s just a face again. Both eyes. Thank God. That’s what always gets him, that eye blown away to an empty socket, and the blood flooding the back of his throat.
‘Don’t flatter yourself.’ The lad lights a cigarette, and offers it over. He takes it with a shaking hand. Player’s No. 6.
‘You don’t have to,’ he mutters. ‘You already did it.’
‘Yeah, but you forgot. Or rather, you don’t want to remember anymore.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I know. You can’t tell me anything I don’t know.’ The truncheon stops swinging, and lands in the boy’s outstretched palm with a dull thud. ‘Well,’ he says, and offers a smile. ‘Here I go, then.’
‘You don’t get it, Gene. I have to. Because at the moment, you’re not man enough to do the job.’
‘You bloody young bastard-‘
He gets a shrug. It still makes him grit his teeth. The boy couldn’t care less. ‘Listen to yourself. Look at yourself. I know you love her, but you’re not doing your job. And ask yourself-‘ he swings his arm, taking in everything around them, ‘would you really give it up? Without this, there is no her. There is no them. You’d just be another nobody.’
‘I wouldn’t. I could have done the job where I was.’
‘Yeah, you could. But you wouldn’t have done the job today, would you? You’d have been like Morrison, off getting pissed with the people he was supposed to look after. In your first week! Neglecting your duties. Doesn’t bode well for future career prospects, does it?’
‘Might’ve been a one-off.’
‘Might’ve been the start of a trend. Face it, Gene. You’ve got a weak seam in you, and you need the Sam’s, and the Alex’s, to prop it up. And me, when you’re falling apart.’
He can’t deny it. But the fear is still there. Another crash from the farmhouse, and he thinks he might be sick. The lad just smiles though, far too grown-up for twenty-two. And lays a hand on his shoulder. ‘Albert did teach us something, you know. That there’s nothing to be afraid of, as long as you face it.’
‘…alright Socrates, no need to get philosophical. I’ve got a bird at home for that.’
The smile turns sad, and the hand drops away. ‘Not at home, Gene. But yeah, alright. I’ll shut up.’
Albert taught them more than one thing, albeit by accident. Actions are louder than words, and all the shouting in the world doesn’t equal one decisive move. The boy nods, and starts to walk. Gene watches, and tries to force the words out.
But he’s gone.
~ ~ ~
He wakes to the sound of a shotgun, and his own wild yell. He can’t move, weighted to the bed, staring straight into the face of the ghost standing over him. He tries to tell it to piss off, but nothing comes. He can only watch as the thing points to the nearest mirror, and nods slowly, just once.
And then he’s gone, and Gene’s stumbling to the bathroom, just in time to throw up. He remembers everything this time. Something tells him it’s not going to be easy to forget.
He does not look in the mirror. He can’t.
And that’s the point, isn’t it?