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Posts from — February 2011

Fitcher’s Curve

K

arly has a pair of bolt cutters as long as her arm, and so heavy she has to drag them up to the fence; there’s a trail of kicked-up stones behind her. Clipping the links takes a few grunts and heaves, but once she gets the hang of it, the blades press down firmly, smoothing themselves into the steel that cuts with a little ‘click’, like soft fingernails. Sections of wire slinky down the fence.

Dad always said that taking the right tools is half the battle.

Through onto the waste ground, she contemplates the massive ramp. It rolls up out of the landscape like a big ol’ dragon, running up and around – all smoothed-out concrete and tarmac that goes nowhere. But this is the place, alright. Everyone knows Fitcher’s Curve.

It’s four am and a white mist rolls across the fireweed, piled stones, and rusting coils of wire. It’s as flat as a table, high as her waist, finding the hollows.

She’s seventeen tomorrow – today, even – and if there was one thing she wanted to find out before this day had come, it was where Dad had got to.

Despite what they said on the stair, he wasn’t ‘that type’. Just wasn’t. He wouldn’t just vanish off and leave a three-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, now would he? Though with Mum, she’s beginning to wonder.

After all this time, Mum and her friends have the knife well-and-truly wedged between Dad’s shoulder-blades, but now that Karly’s older – been around the playground – it feels like a bitchy need for shared troubles, rather than the truth. None-the-less, his disappearance is not so much water under the bridge as acid rain burning its way down a steel culvert.

She starts to climb.

Along at the Akenside Working Man’s Club, they say Dad was the salt-of-the-earth. They probably mean he was totally normal: a dedicated man, who built roads and bridges all his life; Old-man McBride.

So it made it all the stranger, that one day, working on the bypass, Bill McBride and the rest of the men downed tools, came down and told the damned project planner, ‘where to stick it’. They weren’t going to work the Curve no more; not for any money.

Dad said no one should ever work up there. That Fitcher’s Curve was a bad lot; one of the worst projects the city ever started. Ran over budget, ran out of time. But, most of all, it just plain freaked him out; like when they saw the dancing men.

He was sitting on the end of her bed, smelling of tar and ground metal and it’s still weird to think that metal can burn. “The things I’ve seen, Karly.” And he gave a little shudder. “Worst thing is, it makes you question everything. If that’s true, then what else is true?” Though he never said what ‘that’ was. It gave her the impression that some things were better left unknown. And yet… he went back; perhaps to investigate his theories about what they were doing to the landscape.

Now I’m on Fitcher’s Curve.

The railing is chilled beneath her hand, wearing its patchwork of anodized zinc like stippled splots from a kid’s paintbrush. Weeds grow between the cast-lines in the concrete. As she curves up, starting to breathe a little heavy in her Nikes, the journey feels like some sort of fairground ride, cranking up and up into the cold morning air. The anticipation is the same.

Over the side, she can see reinforced embankments, built up with hexagonal bricks – showing handfuls of tousled grass – and the mounds of construction, and piled stones dragged from the ground, running out amongst the failed machinery. As the pigeon’s-eye-view develops, the heaps and troughs become huge earthworks; something akin to an ancient iron-age defense.

And then she’s here; at the summit. The slip has risen up two hundred feet and stopped. There’s just a workman’s hut, covered in graffiti, and the tangled mess of rusted, steel reinforcement sticking out where the road ends. As far as the eye can see, there’s city; one of the great views, perhaps. And a few hundred yards over, the finished bypass that left the Curve behind like a discarded tributary.

For an hour she waits, standing on that frozen wave, contemplating the edge; imagining Dad working up here; wondering what Mum will say if she doesn’t get down in time for school and presents. Mostly she wonders what she thought she’d find. Some unpleasant thoughts come, like, Maybe just a pile of folded clothes, which really hadn’t occurred before.

But it’s only when she picks up the broken half of a stone-mason’s chisel, kicking it free from where it had rusted to the road, and begins to scrape at the railing – the beginnings of a despondent ‘Karly Woz Here’ – that the world shifts.

The head of the chisel buzzes on the metal. She steps back, eyes wide. A chilly breath of wind stirs the fine hairs on her cheek.

The sound is muffled, but grows. She hears the sounds of drums, softly beating out across the landscape and feels their resonance in her guts. There’s an acrid smell of burning animal – fatty animal – curling around in the haze, blue trails, and sooty, black threads. And then the chants: back of the throat and nose, a guttural a-tonal, tone, that mumbles on and on in one breath of a multitude, to the clatter of bone, and bare feet whipping through the undergrowth.

And now she knows what he meant about the painted men dancing up here. But it can’t be ghosts – there’s nothing old here, only the Curve.

But then she remembers something else he said: that there’s power in things that rise up out of the landscape – the old knock hills;  a bend in a river; the boughs of a great, gnarled tree; a circle of stones dragged to a summit – and those were nothing on the scale of Fitcher’s Curve.

She can smell blood, and sweat, and cured leather, and charred herbs, blowing as ash on the wind.

But you know what? As she stands here, listening, smelling, wondering, at this otherworld rolling through the mist, she sees what the builders were scared of; terrified of. It’s not a horror, but something that is wild and passionate; primal, but not primitive. It’s not behind but parallel, and there is a sense of lost secrets that are worth knowing.

As the sun begins to rise, turning the sky to orange and purple and red, in great swathes of fire, she knows her father has more to answer for than she thought – in the choice that he made – but now she, too, wonders whether to walk back down the Curve, or stay forever.

February 25, 2011   10 Comments

The Star

T

auri had a real scare of bright red hair. Her momma was sticking it down with a comb and a cup of water. It was about as futile as licking a flame to put it out; it just kept springing back up there.

The sky was dark; black almost.

“You got to look your best, Tauri. Don’t you let your momma down.”

“Sure, momma. I don’t mind doing this. Just give me the stupid thing.”

“’Kay, but he’ll be here soon.”

Tauri held a fistful of red and started dragging the comb through.

Momma got back to looking out the window at the gathering crowds. “I’m gonna get that rat for what he did to us.”

“But he’s a star, momma.”

“Star or no, he’s gonna pay for what he did. Look at you, so young, just out of school. Startin’ some dead-end job – hairdressin’ or somethin’.”

“Hey, momma, I like hairdressing.”

Momma sniffed. “That’s not the point, now, is it?”

“You shouldn’t want to be no hairdresser. You should be wantin’ college or some such. If he’d been around – been around with some money, even – then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“It’s not a mess, momma. We got a home, don’t we?”

“But it would’ve helped to have a man around. I’m just sayin’.”

But he’s not a man, now is he, momma?

Momma had cashed in whatever amounts of jewellery, sold the antique dog over the fireplace, and gotten them a hotel in the city. It was a rush and riot and Tauri had never seen so many people busy-bein’-busy; going up and down on the moving stairs or swinging through the revolving doors with those funny, little plastic cups of coffee they have. But momma wasn’t interested in coffee. She wanted restitution. That’s what she said, and she’d looked that word up special in the dictionary.

If you listened to momma’s side of it – and how could you not – Tauri was an immaculate conception. Just like that lady Mary, but on some beach up at Lake Havasu, on the ‘Arizona Riviera’. It was a hundred and ten, a real hot summer, and momma had been sunbathing. Then she’d come over kind of funny, felt too warm, had a cold drink and that was it. Nine months later she had a child with red hair.

“And nobody in the family had all that red, now did they?”

When she was eighteen – old enough to know what leads to what – Tauri had asked: “You wasn’t drinking were you, momma?”

“Now how can you ask your momma a thing like that? Course not! And there was nothing in that water, neither. It just happened, and it was him – I knows it – and that’s the end of it. Too damn warm. I shoulda known.”

So here they were.

With about ten minutes to go, they took the lift down to the foyer, and momma barged them past the merchandise. “Fifty bucks a T? They must be crazy! Stay away from them.”

Outside the hotel, all those press-men were getting ready. According to momma, it was a goddamn free-for-all. “We better get past this. Now you smile, Tauri. And I’ll point you out, and then we’ll say what we’ve come to say.”

It was midday but the sky was growing dark and the heavens were beginning to show – a billion pinpricks of light. It had been happening for around two days now.

A murmur went round the crowd. The TV vans began pushing up their satellite dishes on hydraulics, cameras swung to the skies, presenters threw pieces to the camera and were pointing back and up and over their shoulders, as they talked excitedly to the viewers at home.

And then he was there: a blazing light, with four white horses, trailing fire and flame, impossibly bright to look at. The smell of seared tarmac filled the air, and then the arc-light flared and vanished. A white limousine remained, with a few wisps of blue smoke trailing off the paintwork. A tall man, tall as a barn door, stepped out in a dazzlingly white suit.

This was the most famous face on earth.

Of course the crowd surged forward, and momma got her elbows out and sharpened, and started elbowing whoever got close; she could be real fierce. Problem was she wouldn’t let go of Tauri’s hand, and Tauri was getting squeezed between a policeman who smelt of pastrami and a woman reporter who was slippery with sweat, and worst of all she could feel that shock of hair springing back up.

But momma was determined – another force of nature – and before Tauri could draw a breath, they were squeezed up against the still-scalding metal barriers, and there was flashguns going off, and automatic cameras winding on, and reporters screaming, and momma screaming along with them and pointing down at Tauri. But it was so loud, Tauri couldn’t hear a thing momma was saying. In fact, it was a little scary.

Tauri woke up with a slurp. With a jolt of embarrassment, she found the back of her hand was already sliding across the dribble on her chin.

“Uch.”

There was a smell of leather and the fleshy, plastic feel of it beneath her cheek. Where the hell are we?

“Momma? Momma? What …? What happened?”

Muzzily, she pushed herself upright. It was way too bright.

“You got squeezed a little, girl. But we got you out.”

Unaccountably, she sounded pleased.

“Where?”

“You’re in the car, Tauri. In his car. The celestial car, is it? Where do the horses go? Is that one of those mini bars?”

Momma was sitting propped up on the back seat, as prim and proper as a queen.

“It’s all sorted, Tauri.”

“It is?”

“Sure it is. Your pappa’s a gentleman. I always said as such.”

I keep telling you momma, not a gentle man, a gentle sun. The Sun.

Helios sat in the back of the car, reclining on the leather, just looking at her; an irresistible presence, tied to every living thing on the planet. He could be of any nationality, or all of them. He was incredibly handsome. His olive skin gleamed with a faint iridescence and his frame was lean and muscled. Above all, though, he was crowned with the shining aureole of the sun.

I read this in the Sunday paper: he drives those horses all day to the West, circling Oceanus, and at night it’s through the world-ocean to the East.

He leant forward and held out a tiny clump of red berries. The green of their stems was emerald and translucent, like crystal, and the berries scintillated beneath the surface like hot coals; flaring red and yellow; revolving within their own skins.

“If you like, Tauri. Only if you want to, I can take you with me.”

“Where?” she whispered.

And his smile was rich and golden, and could put a better complexion on anything, and he said, “Up there, Tauri. Where you belong.”

February 21, 2011   12 Comments

Snowbathing

C

laire is snowbathing. It’s the only way she knows how to protest over the weird-ass weather we’ve been having. As far as she’s concerned, global warming sucks polar popsicle.

It’s not entirely clear who suffers more: Claire, or The Multinationals, with their evil-hearted excesses of Freon and centrally-heated boardrooms, but either way, she’s out there now on the flat roof of her city-centre tenement, sunglasses frosted, getting a ‘whitey’ while the snowflakes fall.

So what are the best-dressed arctic-activists wearing this holiday season?

The height of polar chic is almost certainly Claire’s two-piece bikini with snowmen on it. She made it herself with a cerulean-blue, hipster tie-side from La Senza, on which she painted snowmen (and snowwomen) with Tippex for bodies; black bull-marker for arms, eyes and buttons; and a little orange nail varnish for carroty noses.

Surprisingly, none of her friends want a ‘snowkini’, even with this cheery design, though Claire hopes it will be a ‘grower’ once word of her ‘direct-action cum zero tolerance over isobars’ is championed by the press. I mean, who else could be this cool, right? So far, the broadsheets are as empty as the horizon, but she has high hopes.

She lets the white flakes drift down and settle on her tummy. At first they simply fizzled out into droplets of water, but now they are gathering as little islands with a flake of ice in the middle, and where the islands meet, larger archipelagoes are forming. Her bellybutton is a small, chilly lake, entirely filled with melt-water and a few particles of grit, while the material of her bikini-top is growing an ermine, fluffy trim. She’s fifteen minutes away from being crowned Miss December – this month’s polar play-bear.

In the meantime, luxuriously, she’ll contemplate flipping over and doing her back, loosening a few straps – it wouldn’t do to get a frost line. At this angle, staring down her front, she can see plenty of fine, blond hairs pulled upright as her flesh turns turkey. Soon, she may have to slap on some of her homemade SnoTan – goose fat mixed with a healthy dash of antifreeze – because really, chipping oneself off a sun-lounger with an ice pick isn’t much fun.  Last time, she ended up with a partial Monet stuck to her behind, trailing lounger springs.

By her side, a radio is playing Christmas favorites. Beside this is an alpine skiing magazine suggesting a few, seasonal treats – though it’s turning fat and pulpy, like a paper lasagna, as the melt water gets at it – and an icy-blue cocktail made with crushed ice and a cobalt-blue liqueur, that could be hydraulic fluid cut with a ‘V’ of sky.

Despite hacking away at the glassy surface of this cocktail with a twizzler and a frosted cocktail umbrella, Claire has had to boil a kettle, just so she can put her lips to the thing. There has already been one skin-flensing incident of ‘lip stickage’ and a trip to A&E. She should probably use an antifreeze mixer, like one of those dodgy Austrian ‘alcopops’ she read about. Those in the know say diethylene glycol has a pretty smooth finish.

An eddy of snow blows up onto the roof, and few feathery clumps drop onto her cheek and shoulder. Her towel is turning a little soggy under her backside, while to her sides, it is becoming a spotless, white blanket – like one of those fluffy white bath towels you get at health spas; so soft, that you want to disappear into them and have the staff dig you out with a snow shovel and a sniffer dog.

On her sunglasses, frosted flowers are growing. Her eyelashes brush the underside of the black plastic, where the ice is rough and undulating. Languidly, she slides the glasses up onto her forehead, scraping up a slushy wedge of snow. Most of it dribbles and wanders away down the back of her scalp.

Now flakes of snow are tickling her eyelashes, making her blink.

The radio starts singing ‘the weatherman says it’s snowing’, and she smiles a deep smile of satisfaction, wriggling a little into that freezing moisture on the towel, finding that perfect spot of relaxation. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself while waiting for a few more signatories to the Kyoto Climate Treaty is there? Or that personal apology from those more reticent ‘Annex I’ countries?

Better keep the thermometer close, though, in case of a snap thaw – then it’ll be a flip-flopped stampede inside for a stretch in the chest freezer, cradling a butterball turkey. Slushbathing isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds.

February 7, 2011   6 Comments