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Posts from — August 2011

Ma James

T

his night is calm and black. Thorned shadows loop through the silhouette of railings; birds cry in the first touch of dawn; and Ma James hobbles along, head tilted, trying to see where the tarmac ends and the grassy verge begins.

Right now, she’s just some other shapeless, old blackbird wandering the hedgerows.

These are her yellow fingers.

She rummages about in a pendulous handbag – one of those big, black, Italian jobs, that hangs like a stallion’s scrotum on huge, looping handles – and pulls out a crumpled cigarette pack.

Moments later, she’s lighting another crooked cigarette.

With its broken, old body, that coffin nail is taking a little while to fire up – Jus’ like the rest of us – but she soon drops the skull-emblazoned zippo back in ‘The Swamp’.

The bag’s fastener snaps once more, like bolt-cutters on the gates of Hell.

Smoke curls.

Ah, yes, satisfaction –

For what, three, whole seconds, maybe?

There is a small, dismal pop: a snail shell imploding – the sensation somewhere between grit and gristle – under her heel. She grimaces, and sighs, and carries on.

An honest-to-God hit-and-run.

Swerve outta the way next time. 

A little grey ash drifts onto her eyelash. She gestures it away with the back of her cigarette-dangling hand.

But keeps lumbering on.

Cool air washes her face. Hellish tobacco – filter free – mixes up the herbal smell of damp dew soaking the long grasses; a long, cool, warming sensation, all at the same time: Gramma’s Old-country Menthol, as she likes to consider it.

It’s not long before her wooden shoes clatter onto concrete steps, past a cherry-red bin overflowing with tied-off carriers of dog shit – brown mounds looming inside their bags of many nations – and then she can just about make out the looping whorls of graffiti on the bridge foundations, demarking clan territory, calling out love: THE ZOPH MAN CLAYMES THES STARES – BE-ATCHES!

Tough, she huffs. Besides, who owns a bridge?

For a moment, the zip from her coat trails along the metal spars of the hand rail, with a clear metallic ‘tang’, ‘tang’, ‘tang’ until she folds the material in with a press of a gnarled hand; too startling at this – the God-awful morning – time-of-day.

Mood broken.

And now she’s looming on the overpass.  This is a metal bridge over an electrified chasm of concrete. Ruled lines lead up into the sky. She clanks along, squinting at the watery sodium lights on the motorway below, into the halo of electric light that bathes the block-like buildings beyond, into the faint lights of early-morning people in their concrete picture frames, and there – nature’s own dream – the diffuse light of the moon, like smooth paper beneath the watery shadows.

Then comes a smell of rotten lilies, sickly and fermented.

She pauses and tut-tuts.

Amassed grief has grown up here like ivy on kitchen ties. Attached to the bridge-railings are bunches of flowers, gnarled and collapsing, dark-brown and dead. Within a bouquet, something glistens like wet liquorice: a slug slipping through an enfolded world, the transparent plastic sagging, green with algae – a rose outwith the roses. Cards are pulped black marker, running with Indian ink. And amongst the rotting menagerie, a teddybear, size of a fist, blue and bloated, its woollen ears warped.

Ma considers the pink heart on the bear’s stomach. Wonders why a boy’d want a girl’s toy. Somethin a girl’d give a girl.

And this was a boy, by all accounts.

As she continues over the narrow span, she hears the occasional strip-strip-strip of a car racing by beneath the balustrade. A tour bus hollers under. She gives a little shiver, eyes alert; unsure as to chill of the morning and chill of the ‘other’.

And now she twists up the handles of her bag, bringing it close and tight to her fist.

Not fear.

Weapon.

A kid – late teens, probably – stands at the crest of the bridge, hooded top up, hands in pouched pockets, arms tucked in.

Kid’s looking away at the traffic tearing past.

Seems intent – wistful, maybe – so much so, doesn’t turn.

She clatters closer, wondering when –

Kid turns.

There’s a moment… a moment where the black hole in that hood regards her like a manhole into Hell, the body tense as picture wire. Then –

Oh Gawd. The little shit!

Kid is running for her – feet ringing metal through the thin crust of tarmac – and yet, strangely, he seems to flicker in and out of solidity in the striped bridge shadows; one step flowing into another, winding up faster and faster. His half-picked chicken carcass darts and lunges. The overall effect is a freaky Harryhausen stop-motion – a scheme-raised skeleton sprung from a suicidal dragon tooth.

Ma appraises him, eyes narrowed. He’s halved the distance between them, and the broken angles of his hands are holding knives. Rust spatters the blades like black frost. No way to avoid him now. Flickering metal is welded into a raging scream. The cigarette in her mouth flares bright orange in the foul wind that howls ahead of him.

Ma steps into the centre of the bridgeway.

The patch-work boy has both knives raised, seeking slices of flesh. Ash and sparks whirl, Ma spits out the cigarette and abruptly grunts, “Hold it.”

One gnarled hand up, knuckles arthritic… but it still says stop your ass right there!

The teen terror is motionless three inches away, no discernable braking or slowing down. Just is. Arms out to the sides, like a child holding skipping ropes, knives poised.

Nose to hood.

Kid looks down, slow and gnarly, shoulders hunched. Now she can see right up the throat of that hood: black and stained; encrusted.

Face falling off in strips. Eyes burn white, teeth hang snagged. The faint traces of a teen moustache on a lip curled back. Kid reeks of cheap aftershave and foul rot.

Ma finds her eyes watering, coughs at the stench, but she’s always, always, polite.

“Get the fuck-out-o-it,” snarls this shambolic job-lot of a kid. That top jaw smiling. “Shoo. Scatt, man. Fuck off.”

“That you Finlay? Your momma teach you talk like that?”

“What?” Kid peers forward. “That you, uh… Missa James? That you?”

A hand, gleaming white, knuckles up into the hood. There’s a slippery sucking sound. “This eye ain’t working so well.” Shakes his head. “Not well at all. Man, sorry, no offence, man.”

“S’okay, Finlay. No offence.”

“Jus wait a minute, I’ll put on my happy face.”

More slurping sounds, fingers wet. Whatever that face is, it can’t help but smile…

Ma’s lips compress. No point whacking about the bone yard. ‘Sides, kid owes me a cigarette…   

“Finlay, son, I got a wee bone to pick with you, in…ah, manner of speaking, that is.” Wind sags and bows in that hooded top, and the shape of it is all wrong.

“You has?”

“Yup.”

“Ah.”

Ma lets him jig around a little. Then she says, “Kicking and screaming at the people on the estate – it’s not right, Finlay. You’ve got to give it a rest.”

Finlay breathes out, heavy – even kicks the railing with a blood-stained Nike.

“I’d like to Ma, I’d like to. It’s just, well, I guess you’re the first person to come speak to me proper. The rest of ‘em, well, they just start screamin’ and I can’t help myself.” There’s that friendly smile all fixed and everything. “They’re all assholes.”

The aspirated ‘ho’ in ‘assholes’ exhales as putrid rot. Ma blinks.

“You just take a bit of getting used to, is all.”

“I guess that’s the truth of it.” A slippery chuckle bubbles up between them.

Ma considers the dark shadow within the hood that hints at exposed bone, and thin, paper flesh. Finlay waits like a skeleton bird, hands in pocket, arms wings. He even experimentally bounces a couple of times on his trainers, bone and sinew squeaking.

After a bit, Ma says, “There’s always something, ain’t that true, Finlay?”

“As what keeps us?”

“You know it.”

“I knows it.” He creaks into thoughtful. “I guess most on-accounts are clear. I got stuff to serve, stuff to suffer, stuff to feel good about, too, I guess. Places to go. Hell, maybe. But…” his hood twitches. “I… took summit.”

“What?”

“… Car.”

“Uh, hu.”

“Fuss sake. Don’ look like that Ma. I ain’t proud of it, at least not now. Car’s gotta go back. Figure that’s the whole failure for takeoff. No the pissin’ about, no the…” – he mimed a hand snaking a jump over the high railing, accompanied by a merry little whistle – “but, s’ cold iron. Steel, whatever. Sweet wheels, plenty of fibre trim, yellow as a milkshake, but… but, cold iron… where it counts.”

“Thought as much.”

“Always was clever, Ma.”

Was clever, be back n’ ma bed…  

She looks him right in the… shredded cornea. “Them’s the rules. Live or die.”

“Maybe. Maybe.” Finlay nodded thoughtfully. Turning, he pointed towards the black tower blocks, all the world a gnarled scarecrow in a tracksuit, with tyre-prints that splash the black, gun-metal material. “Leave it outside Moto’s – I mean Liam Chang’s – up the back of the estate. Know the block? Bannockburn, I think. Anyway, I did… I did wrong and it needs sorted.”

Ma nodded. “I will.”

“You’ll look pretty sweet ‘ahind that wheel, ma.”

More wet laughter.

There is a rattle of keys, for a moment echoey and distant, and a change in the wind that smells of all the dead everywhere. Icy metal is tossed into her hand, with an abrupt, teeth catching clink.

The car keys are bathed in a slippery corpse-sweat.

Finlay nods. “That done, I guess I have two other things.”

“You do?”

“One, tell Matty that he ain’t gonna get far takin’ the piss with what he’s doin, right now. He’s goin’ the long way down, you know what I’m sayin’? And I knows as much as anyone, have’n… well, thrown ma junk offa bridge.”

Ma made a face, but nodded. “Okay, I’ll tell him, though ain’t sure he’ll believe who from.”

“Sure, you’ll find a way.”

A few words in the right quarter, perhaps: Mathew’s mama, some black bun, and a cup of really sweet tea.  

“And the other thing?”

“Well, that’s for you,” and, touching her shoulder, he whispers frigid words through sticky, phlegm-encrusted bone.

Then the cold lets go.

Ma is pretty shook up, but stoic, standing there in the rising, golden light that stains the world all orange. When she looks back at him – caught between ire and thankfulness – he ain’t there anymore.

 

***

 

So here’s the thing, Ma got that car returned. She didn’t get behind the wheel of no drag car, and she didn’t go get it out of that old lockup on Beech St., but she got it sorted and back, just the same: some kids good with locks; Panda an’ her girl-racers doin’ the driving.

An’ then she got right down to livin’ up to the day Findlay said she aught’a die.

‘Course, he said it was no doubt at all, but Ma being Ma thought of it more as a general ‘guideline’ than a ‘must-have-happen’, but took plenty enjoyment out of knowing the exact time and place. If she was ever formidable before, she was even worse knowing what everyone else was only dreading: that she weren’t about to let go any time soon.

Findlay, well, once that cold iron he stole was parked back outside the tall tower at Bannockburn Court – still half wrecked after his police chase across the fields – he never did come back. Some folks still avoid the bridge, though – even jump the barrier on the motorway and get chased by the cops.

Matty, thankfully, he got hisself a job and did straighten out a few kinks – guess he kinda knew things might take a sinister turn – though Liam didn’t live too long past getting his wheels back.

Them’s the breaks, I guess.

August 4, 2011   11 Comments