Lights from the City diffract through the train’s window and run circles around the drink bottle’s neck — this is miserable. The bottle shuffles the speckled surface of the fold-down-table, teasing its lipped edge. The train surges then halts, almost grinding, over and over as it drags west of here. The carriage sways out of sync with the light’s flicker; at first rooftops and then trees disappear as outside dims; in comes the cold to show up the drifts of breath that hang about the eyes — everything deftly nauseates. He folds into the warmest arrangement of limbs, hugging tight; thinking of this return; how it will be — eyes shut to steady the ship and he is smothered in sleep.
Frozen, into one strange piece to the plastic seats, he wakes, sprawled across them as if he’d expanded to the wall; completely attached at contact points. Attempts at movement reveal that others have already tried, and failed, leaving him part stuck, his clothes part torn creating flaps — where the skin meets the air, it is so very cold. He is shoeless; estranged feet feel the furthest they’ve been from the rest of the body. One arm dangles unnaturally low.
Sleep suggests itself but is chased away by a sense — one that rushes in — that he must return tonight. And without thought, allowing the mind to swell with blankness, he propels his frame away from the seat, flopping onto the floor and leaving behind patches of fabric — synthetic moss — to confuse the passing of time for tomorrow’s salvage party. His nostrils eat up the dead air to get to the fresh, dragging the body with it along the floor and then up. Some seconds to decipher the blur beyond the doorway, then through it, a dark shape into the dark.
The train had stopped up a slope. Below, in the distance, the beginnings of lights press against the black surface shared by the stars. He walks towards this, each step crunching the snow into the grass. Occasionally one foot plants on the metal track beneath sending it up into the sky. And, each time he picks himself up and shakes the snow from his hair, something tugs at him from inside, until it uproots — he no longer has his hat. Complete despair; opened wider by the sense of not being able to place when it was that it was lost. It may be in the empty carriage, or sitting only a few paces back hidden in the night. What of this return now? Every year, the same redemptive quest gone to tatters.
Brand new lumps form in his throat — impossible to swallow — thinking now, of all that risk of the night before: the decision to sneak it all in one go; closing the door as if it were something very fragile; the sound of his shuffled soles burnt across the carpet tiles to the exit — all one continuous instant; time falling off its face; going over the edge of the map. Then his light-feet down the stairs and out into the courtyard; where these quick steps turned to a slow stroll as a guard appeared, plunging his heart into his stomach and sending all the winged creatures about the rafters. Knowing that this was it; but not knowing how to speak, waiting for the worst — how it never came. The way the guard walked at his side in silence and then cut in front, bringing them both to a stop on the tiny earth-colored pebbles. The awkward angle at which the guard stood, his pink tongue slipping out the side of his mouth as he looked up into the shadows of the slanted rooves. Then he turned his head to say, ah, member of staff, we can go this way, lot quicker.
How he had followed dumbly, listening as the guard told of the canteen at his child’s school and of still not being used to snow. How his eyes grew in wonderment at the green dots made by the fobs; the way they all jangled from the guard’s chain and how he searched out the right one with his fingers alone, rotating them around. It all looked as if he was making some disappear into, and others appear from, the air between two as he crossed them over. How he was lead through all these unknown doors, i think this used to be hospital... behind i think is underground car park... this is storeroom of shop, you know the one... — wanting to hide in every dark corner, but instead, drowning in the lights of each interior. How they paused in one corridor — the electric blue light shimmering the white walls — where the guard said, ah, you must be used to the snow, you have sweat on your nose... The sense of distance here, as they both cupped an ear to the motions made on the other side of those walls; the sounds of machinery turning up the earth — at that hour? — as if they were tunneling to its centre.
Remembering now the utter confusion of last night, when he wandered in tow, the length of an impossibly long corridor; how it seemed to bisect the whole place from beneath and go back under the hotel, or perhaps the prison, but maybe not that either, as the next door opened into a workshop — little mountains of fabric growing on every surface. How he had thought then that the game was up, and that he’d been lured to his end; and how his breath had returned when the column at the back was revealed to be a spiral staircase. How they climbed this in single file and emerged through a tiny door into the foyer of one of the offices — somehow on the other side of the square — their feet keeping time on the yellow marble.
How they had both paused to watch — through the glass expanse — snow settle on the street. The stillness of the guard’s eyes and how he broke the silence again, its simple cover i like, makes you forget what a ruin this all is... The strange goodbye; his reflections in the rotating doors; the taste of the air outside — these, he fears, will never leave him.
At this low he is swept up in the automatic — one-after-the-otherness — somehow something would be muddled through, as ever, to get by. Time bore all its strange properties. From this nowhere he continues to walk, guided by something guttural, and all the while scrolling through the same image in his mind: a pattern of light that falls across a staircase, somewhere in a town.
All at once, it seems he is dragged from these depths as the crunch of the grass disappears, replaced by something flatter — the sounds of a sprawl. Buildings and lights step out from the sky. Still so cold, one arm is wrapped across the body, with the other acutely abandoning ship. The flaps of fabric open and close in the wind. He wanders on, across the slippy-ground, until something the size of a station — yet swollen — looms, and beyond this, a trail of familiar arches, chimneys and doorways that could only be the place where he went from young to other. How had he managed to find this place on such a night? Something dark fizzed away in the gape of his stomach.
Now through the desolate streets, the snow has made new forms of everything; cats or foxes slow-slink with appendages; the things that fell on them as the freeze moved in, crisp packets for a headdress. His mind unable to fathom the strange fire that must keep these creatures going. Orange from the lights sits on all this surface. Beneath is a blackness, he walks in this, where it has been trampled into lines of sludge by all those spectral beauties — made up for the waste.
Obeying these lines as they curve and mend around other-world-forms — strange guardians in immaculate coats — he plods onwards, ever-lessening the distance to the music; which is the only sound — stretching flat into the restless night. The lines meet many others — tributaries into a whole — as they converge in the wake of an open door; a deserted post; the hot air of inside steams in the gape of its frame. Surrounding this, the building’s surface is covered with windows of coloured tints, set into the wood-panelling at decorative whims, making them almost impossible to see into. He finds one — kinda-eye-level — and presses his eyebrows against it , moving through his reflection to take in the scene beyond.
Looking through the glass square’s deep-green-complexion, he sees nice-times unfold: Straight-Backs, Wastrels, Slow-Talks, Weathered-Cheeks, Mainstays — a real collection — all swim wonderfully as they put in a shift on the drench. Amongst this something familiar appears; his hat, he thinks, floating here and there, ruffled by the light, and then it is gone. His heart leaps about his frozen body making hollow sounds on the cold walls. Such luck; perhaps he can still return tonight.
Now, flitting between other windows — either crouching down or up on tiptoes craning his neck — he peers through the different colours at all this inside-life, following the hat as it moves, not knowing how; leaving hairs stuck to each frozen pane. Then as the smoke lifts he sees that it is in the mouth of a Wastrel, who has his hands up and cocked like paws, parading in a circle; a dog with a catch in its mouth, nodding vigorously, eyeballs rattling — all to the delight of his immediate surround.
One last look, then he dashes through the steam, stumbling as he goes on the bouncers cuddling for warmth whilst also being diligent to their purpose — just inside the doorway — which sends him foot after foot into the darkness. Lights off the back wall suggest a corner that he just manages to career around as he embraces the warmth and despair all set against pumping-disco-music. Unable to stop, he breaks into the nearest flock sending them up in a flutter, for mere moments, before they readjust plumes and close in around him; all very curious.
Neither the hat nor the Wastrel can be seen; just other Wastrels, Straight-Backs and so forth; and nothing through the folds of hot air made between their giddy bodies as they tease the sticky floors — betwixt — at once more digital in the smoke and the strobe. His body burns in this heat and then singes under the stares of desirous eyes that get forlorn on his torn up threads and purpling skin — a surface bursting.
Such a creature but where from and how... before it is too late he escapes: wriggling through chanced gaps, hands all over his shoulders — things bump’n’grind and order the flow. He goes from hand to hand, spinning whoever, being spun, the bad arm like a thick rope, always moving forwards; whispered apologies in ears — everything is clammy. Finally, a sight of the Wastrel, who still has the hat in his mouth as he makes ludicrous steps between the empty side of the bar, his arced audience and a mock-pillar-of-the-ancients. Lunges, bows, curtseys and sometimes a thrust; he is part of this sea.
Free from the final fingertips, he catches the Wastrel’s hand with his other and uses him as leverage to pull himself from the depths; going straight into twirling the Wastrel around, bringing him close, pushing him away, squeezing tight his moist paw — all is bliss. The Wastrel’s eyes fall in on themselves then resurface, unable to render the strange creature that has him in this spin — all the while the hat held proudly in the mouth. As the music mixes into a melancholic surf guitar overlaid with sirens, cut through with a base howl, this dance flourishes under the weeps of the lights.
Then in an instant, he draws the Wastrel close, gazes into his half-sunken-eyes, then swoons for the left lobe, lips almost touching this chamber as he says into it, that, he thinks about him all the time; that it was them two together and nothing else; but, that this sly act had crashed his heart in an unfixable way; that he could have had all this; that he would have loved him forever but now it was in ruins. And without pause removes his hat from the mouth, letting the jaw gape. He exits without looking back at the bemused Wastrel, whose eyes are still struggling to surface and fail to follow the stranger, disappearing through the alternating green-blue mists. The Wastrel immediately forgets it all and his limbs begin a slow flail as he rejoins the waste.
Outside the night had gone wicked: a furious wind had swept the creatures back to their furs — yet still they slunk on. Relics had been unveiled on the open streets that remained huge blank corridors, now stalked by less than ghosts. The air was full of white with white bits in it, dissolving on his outstretched tongue; continually thirsty. He kept peeling his eyes to render better views, but soon gave up, and pulled the hat down tight over his ears with both hands, refusing to let go. Again his mind conjures the same pattern of light falling across the stairs, somewhere — he knows — waiting in this town. With purposeful steps he creeps this blindness, along all the remembered pathways to the wake of a Scrapper, cutting its usual angled self, as its top vanishes into the glowing mist.
At the entrance, something had clawed away a line of snow to set the glass door away from its surrounding window. His hands, still tugging, had become part of his face. He presses the buzzer with the frozen tip of his nose: a crackle, then a voice — the first in his ear for an age — then the buzzer. He leans into the door and the catch gives, yielding him to the parquet waiting behind.
On impact a snap — the sound of his hands breaking free — echoes for the empty foyer. He scrapes himself off the floor; the hand of the good arm lifting from the collar, whilst the bad arm dangles in mid-escape. The exposed skin begins, again, its pangs into life. He treads the pattern of light all the way up the stairs until it is scattered at the top, where the corridor retreats into darkness; the one working light spluttering occasional shapes as the only guide.
Bumping wall to wall he arrives at the end where a door is slightly ajar. The outline of a once-dear-face, backlit a strange yellow is wedged in its gape. Moments spent wondering what the other is doing here. With his face still frozen he tries to say it all with eyes, until they goggle obscenely. She doesn’t speak, but he thinks almost a smile appears, which is taken with her behind the door as she opens it wider. One step, one stumble and once again, his bag of bones are inside these four walls.
It is one large room, full of no one knows how many people — the back is lost in the steam from the pots on the stove. There is no main light, just a scattering of pools from lamps and the leaning flames of candles. Bodies float towards from all sides and form a circle around him. Through this, a prune-like-aged-face squeezes and then ushers them all back, before conducting a sly silence. All around, the twitches of waiting mouths and eyes.
The aged-face then begins a going over of the new guest's worldly exterior; prodding at the flesh on show and pretending to mop his brow and wipe his nose on the flaps of fabric. He stops short of touching the shoulder that has slipped down and across the chest, his wrinkled palm hovering over this strange protrusion. He then places his palm on the breast beside it, saying, you could have saved up a bit more and had them both done... The circle trembles and sways. The wrinkled palm becomes one crooked finger that rounds on the new-comer’s face, as he suggests that he must be carrying the presents in the bags under his eyes, before walking away to consume his own laugh. All in agreement, they return to the commotion he had interrupted.
As they tear away, the room expands and he becomes a weathered statue at its center. Blood rushes to all his surfaces and his head floats off its perch. Here — beyond his tree — nothing is properly audible, whilst all angles appear visible at the same time. He thinks that all around they are chasing each other, although, this appears to be mixed up with the silent parts of greetings — everything has the energy of an argument. As he begins to thaw, the drums in his lobes fizz and conversations find their way in.
Another beast on the scrape.
Bet you rake it in though...
Pull all my legs then. Not with the broom i’ve got, sweeping it away more like.
At least you’ve got a broom, i’m trying to scrape it in with two bits of cardboard... wet at that...
Heard this place was going to the...
I’ve no doubts.
I’m sure some Straight-Backs have been eyeing it for months rubbing their hands together to the bone...
I’ve no doubts.
When did you land?
When are you leaving?
Then faces too, begin to surface in the sprawl, separate from their bodies. He searches: nobody, some kid, that guy, these ladies from, some such others — all caught in the spills of yellow light. Where it is at its most bright their skins are like paper, and beneath, almost a sight of something retreating.
After eternity on the periphery — mind prowling as a fox would a fence looking for a gap — the Weathered-Cheek strikes and wedges himself between the Mainstay's flow, with an overdone, But how...
Heard they smashed up the staircases...
I’ve no doubts.
Mice don’t even want it...
Like a flash the Weathered-Cheek pounces again, Don’t need stairs to lord-about the basement...
I’ve no doubts.
I think the tape’s nice
One set of eyes beam while the other set boil.
Got no socks is why... launderette owner has a coat hanger for a hand, if you hang yours on it, he’ll have it away... the madam too, think they’re all selective amputees in there, her stray hand lives in the drums and syphons off a sock a wash — they must have had at least a wedding gown out of me...
Still, the tape’s a nice colour though. Eyes still beaming.
Finally, all the numbness is gone, leaving nothing but strange sensations; the beginnings of toes from a block, eyelids from a sheet. The heads regain their bodies in translucent spindly forms, their eyes glossy and vapid for the uptake. Light wriggles in white arcs across the fabrics of their shiny-tops; glasses of liquid swill at their mercy; at ecstatic-moments they collapse into houses of cards, propped against each other teetering; then somehow manage to claw their way back to separateness — trees in a forest.
Had dreams got tatters you?
Had tatters got crumbs.
In bursts a Weathered-Cheek, more than my flat-mate who works in the Square, all year he’s gone glass tower to glass tower, fella’s like a hoovered out biscuit tin...
He now sees everything down to very last detail of this awkward dance, as they shuffle around one another, constantly letting others past. A Wastrel cuts straight through it all — as the crow flies but as a bulldozer moves — an opportune couple following in his wake; the man unable though to keep to the path, clipping the sides and upsetting liquid to the floor. His girl follows behind mimicking his absurd gait, settling the disruption as she goes, eyes dazzling.
Old familiars unveil in the rendering scene and at occasions tilt their heads at the statue in the middle. After a lengthy search he finds the once-dear-face that had opened the door, surrounded by Slow-Talks and Mainstays. Her mouth is mannered for them, but her eyes are for the distance. She stands half enchanted by the madness and half despairing at being back here. Her lips change sync as she begins to speak and in a panic he frantically tears off his ears and throws them at her, as if to catch the words — he’d settle for the sounds. But they get tangled up as they trawl through the air, and so, full of other words they are brought crashing to the ground.
The once-dear-face goes to shadow as she turns to let a couple get by and his attentions release and wander this scape, getting stuck on the commotion around the bubbling pots at the back; and fixate on the gurning faces unravelling in the steam. His brother’s — the-show-stopper amongst these — flits between something floppy and appeasing to the lady waving the wooden spoon above her head; and something concrete and worried, every time she looks away to deal with whichever pest comes a-knocking.
The pests tease the spoon from her hand and replace it with similar objects, one after the other, each one further in likeness. As she waves candles and flowers at the cracks in the white-ceiling, they pass the spoon to one another — faces stretched-ecstatic — scrambling to be the one to stir and sniff the mixture.
All the while a child has been pulling at her shirt, gradually un-tucking it; and is now hiding under its hanging front. He bursts out — a creature from a faraway land — with a fierce roar upwards at his mother then smiles, mouth open wide, eyes expecting. After three times without response, the child skulks back through the jostling legs carrying his magic in pieces.
He continues to watch as his brother’s rubbery face glitches on; from something very pale at the aged-face whose crooked finger wags the air centimetres from his eyes; to something like blunt daggers, when he looks beyond at the pair throwing ingredients into the pot from a distance; with little grins to the side of them at another pair licking their lips with every plunge of a mushroom or a raisin into this opaque lagoon; and at everyone else, all vying to fill his lobes, something like a blank wobble. This gathering, like the room itself, and beyond that this building, was falling apart from within.
The front door flaps with all the comings and goings; some guests making straight for the pot, taking the spoon right out of the hand of the person paddling its depths, swirling the contents around a few times in another direction and then passing it on for someone else to do likewise. He could now hear everything, but the rate at which it was all being put out made it a flat wall, just tall enough that he couldn’t peer over. Unease and dismay moved about the place. All the windows shimmered with condensation. The heat in the room took away any possibility of stillness. His brother’s face is now something just hanging off its frame as he takes earfuls from them all with the resignation and remove of a clerk, who just files it all away in the recess of his cluttered-noggin, to be sorted through later.
In the middle of all this the child now stands rooted to the spot, stamping his feet and howling at the sky as if to bring it down — tears streaming. Without hesitation he wades through the squirming-bodies, scooping the child up in one movement, bending his body over to one side so that the child can rest on the hip of the other, letting the child lie at an incline, the tiny ear over his own mouth. Then as two welded beings they sidestep in a neat square, spells and little rhymes pass between them; and with such strange magic he teases the child back from the most unreachable of rages.
Shattered, he slumps in the nearest chair — liquid from his wet clothes spreads across its fabric. The boy climbs on and off his lap — tirelessly — eyes so wide they are a source of light.
His brother appears and throws a towel over his shoulders; noticing the dislocation of one of them. The look they share makes footprints in the past. His brother crouches to whisper but he cuts him short and says, slowly and with effort, put the hat in the pot, that is all. The brother removes the hat and sneaks through the chaos to the back where his wife has regained order over the boiling pot of various and unknown things. To her annoyance though — with smiles and points and stray eyebrows — he distracts her from this and drops the hat in. Then continues being a nuisance, as he keeps her eyes and everyone else’s away and looking beyond the main crowd to the shadows on the other side, such that they think something horrific is going on there.
The hat comes apart at its seams in the heat and bank notes float to the surface forming a thin layer of faces; an iced-overed lake concealing what is beneath. He desperately searches the immediate for another spoon; for anything, but all is hopeless. They have begun to murmur their doubts about what is going on in the shadows. And before they fully return their attentions to the pot, he takes a deep breath and plunges his hand in — scraping up all the forever-staring eyes. It is so very hot that he could have ended it all there and then. Quickly, he scoops out the last and puts them into his trouser pocket; transferring the heat makes his mind walk a blankness.
They all turn on him as the fool, to see him blowing at his scolded paw.You couldn’t wait could you... his wife says as she leads him away to the sink. A Straight-back seizes his day and begins stirring the pot, adds a little salt, ladles some up for a sniff and declares that it is ready. By the sink his brother asks for something like a biscuit tin, to which his wife replies, I agree lets chop it off and keep it in storage... He shows her the dripping-wad of notes and her whole being breathes. She kisses the red paw then hurries the notes into a tin and takes it away to hide. In her absence the contents of the pot is put into mugs then passed around and is utterly warming. A calmness spreads throughout the room and the conversations drift on.
Two Slow-Talks eye-ball and straight-mouth in the dwindling night.
All year, all across the City still dragging my balls.
Both of them.
Makes no sense to leave one.
Not as much as a quiver in the lips or a dash of light across a retina so they continue.
I guess it saves having to wax them...
Plus the trail of hairs act like breadcrumbs so I never get lost...
And just next to them — through delicious grins — a Wastrel goes for the heart of a Mainstay.
To what honour do we owe such a dress?
The best of times...
I’ve often thought so...
And this shelf you’ve been sat on for an age, how’s it holding up?
The child now stands in the middle of a circle of objects he’s arranged, and at moments of changing light, when a body passes in front of a candle, one can almost see the parade of strange demons that are with him — infinitely in cahoots; full of whispers; smiles break across his gently concerned face.
His brother returns and begins to thank him. The towel hasn’t moved from the good shoulder so he picks it up and begins to rub from top to bottom. As he does so he says, You should really ask for mechanical assistance instead of trying to get to all those hard to reach places... He pauses then replies, Well, I thought I’d got something stuck up their for good this time, there was no time to wait for the necessary authorities and I didn’t want to cough up a small rodent in public, not a nice guy like me... His brother smiles and begins to check the arm and the shoulder, reading how it moves, delighting a little in the winces. He then begins to say, Well I suppose these things... But interrupts this with the dull thud of putting the shoulder back into place and starts a new sentence, Why the hat? Only way to get it out of the place, it has all become very unusual there...
The windows are beginning to produce light and any new arrivals have to swim up a stream of all those departing. Some flow through, kissing all on the cheeks, swept away, unable to linger for more talk. Others have drifted to the door in groups and await their turn to embrace one another, shuffling their feet in the silence — running out of new distances to gaze into. Here they stand the ticking down to absence — don’t leave it so long next time — the preciousness jilted and so too the sorrow; all is kept at bay to happen very soon.
He can now hear music, which must have been playing the whole time but only now has command of the room, as the master of all those who are drenched into slow sways and sturdy cuddling. They dance — faces on the slip — around the child, who has fallen asleep on the floor, his bottom in the air. Someone appears and takes the child to a mattress that has been laid out near the back corner. Then one by one, the dancers are either led to the exit or gently to some bedding — that has been rolled out all over the room — to be left horizontal. He sees the once-dear-face offering her cheeks for kisses by the door, as his brother leads him away to a tiny makeshift cupboard at the back where he can change from the tattered clothes.
When he emerges the music is gone and the flow to the door has become a trickle. The once-dear-face now stands before him. The once awkward manner, in which she’d carried herself, as if deftly moving an immense but manageable weight from shoulder to shoulder had stiffened into something very conscious. Together they waited the silence into a gape; and in the gape fell the dumb regard with which she now held him, and so too, tumbled all his fears about the casting of spells. She finally speaks, I think you’re missing an eyebrow, to which he replies, I’m sure its missing me too. But that’s as close as they got, as they chit-chatted in trodden patterns — somewhere beyond, a wide-eyed funny eluded. More silence, then they close with a formulaic embrace, the ease of which showed the normalness of the air that now existed between them. She then leaves, tiptoeing around all the beds that lay about in tiny islands for the shipwrecked, and he closes the door behind her.
A year’s worth of stories now hung in the air of this room amongst the smoke of the gone out candles. The early light wanders about faces taken by sleep. They — his brother and his wife — ask him to stay, a bed can easily be fashioned... you should sleep, doubt those eyes can take any more sag... But he cannot, don’t worry, I think its natural, like a kind of second puberty but a bit higher up the body... He then begins his goodbyes, and as he does so, there is a realisation that it will always be this mad, this frantic — all too brief — one could only be known in these ways and so would always have to ceaselessly entertain. To stoke the fire enough that it would keep going until next time. All through the towns that surround the City — eager to be eaten by it — and all over every city, an infinite amount of fires gently smoke.
Outside, all had gone still, a pale blue stretched overhead. Everywhere the most strange tracks had been pressed into the fresh snow. Pigeons with things frozen to their backs hop this surface; one pursued by a Wastrel, who must have got stuck out and had now thawed into something ravenous.
With a clump of ice in each hand, like two halves of a bun, the Wastrel creeps behind the bird. It always manages to hop away as he brings the buns down together, in a pincer movement, tumbling to the ground, then rising, never giving up.