An extract from the novel Look At What You Could Have Won:
“Zero Waste Park,” Danny had said. “It might sound like a load of rubbish but I want you to cover as much of it as you can over the next few weeks and we’ll boil it down into a feature.”
The student rag didn’t pay, but it didn’t feel like work either. Julie tracked Danny down during freshers’ week and plied him with shots she’d taken in her first few days in the city. She didn’t say much, she just showed him the pictures and they did the talking. He told her that he liked her style and the direct way she’d sought him out. He said it showed single-mindedness and that was rare. Danny was four years her senior – a postgraduate. From Julie’s perspective he was an old man. After a few drinks in Jabez Clegg he said he wanted to take a shot of Julie so that he could “take a closer look at someone with a true sense of purpose in life.” At first, she couldn’t stop laughing. Then she realised that Danny wasn’t laughing with her and she suddenly felt sick. She left him at the bar, staring at her photo of the graffitied rubble, mouthing the words Mutate to Survive as though he was trying to crack a cryptic crossword clue. Initially she would gather her own material and then there’d be an opportunity to work with some of the more senior faces at the paper – “Yeah, the third years,” he said in response to her indignation at the mention of any kind of mentoring.
“There’s only one thing,” he added before she made her exit. “The shots need to be in a digital format. I don’t take the risk on anything else. I haven’t got time to mess about, not anymore.”
At the top of Cross Street the slate grey sky began to recede and the late autumn sunlight, a pale, washed-out undercoat, began to leak through. Julie removed the camera from her backpack and leaned into a doorway, off the street, out of the way. Behind her the slim antennae of the turbine streetlight flickered on and off, aroused by the low light levels of the afternoon, and powered by the kinetic ebb and flow of the Aut-Ex vehicles easing past towards the Exchange. It wasn’t the Zero Waste Park, her destination for the afternoon. It was the part of the city that she could not avoid. It was the place where she found herself time and time again, no matter how far out of the way, no matter how long the detour to get there. Going anywhere else outside her room seemed like a foil, a cover, an excuse. Like the sun easing to victory in his wager with the wind, it was the place that drew Julie’s camera from her pocket every time. There they were, the Sentinels, through the lens, back-lit today in the reprisal of afternoon sun. Silhouetted. Imperious. Click. She shuffled around in the door well, adjusted her focus. Caught more of their profile. Click. She squinted at the sparkles that winked before they disappeared as more light poured through the clouds. Click. Click. No two shots the same. In the gap between her scarf and the nape of her neck, across the back of her shoulders, she felt the curves of their trunks like comforting arms around her. Click. Click.
Thick wet drops began to land on her face. She lowered the camera, replaced the lens cap, and headed off along the Street, resisting the urge to photograph, yet again, the post box. The famous post box. The symbol of resistance. How useless, she had thought. The city destroyed beyond recognition, lives torn apart, the injured, the dead, but at least our correspondence – not love letters, post cards or invitations, but bills, junk mail and invoices – remained intact. She imagined herself leading a chain of children, like the Pied Piper, towards the box, its door miraculously opening as they approached: “Come on inside, altogether, into the safety of the post box where the Crown will protect us for ever…”.
A small crowd had gathered in Exchange Square. Fifteen people stood close to each other staring up at the sky as the Aut-Ex cars drifted by, descending the ramp to the depot beneath the Exchange itself. The sound of brakes and the polite, impersonal chatter of strangers was interrupted by the increasingly urgent alarm calls of pigeons scrambling in the airways above. To the naked eye the endless walls of the tower were dull, pigeon grey, but through the telephoto lens, Julie winced at the reflective sheen of the photovoltaic cells cladding the final quarter of the building. Against the glossy background she saw the peregrine shooting through the air like a projectile fired from its scrape by some weapon of unerring avian precision. A large truck with a white cab shunted down Shudehill towards the Square, its breaks hissing as it pulled up outside a green grocers. Julie was reminded why she was there. The truck had a couple of out-runners alongside it. Two men in gold jumpsuits moved in and out of its ambit, reappearing with bags of rubbish and hurling them into one of several compartments in the back of the vehicle. The stripy banding, familiar from the miles of cordon that segregated the Old Town bombsites from the New Town, extended along the flanks of the truck, tied around its bulk beneath images of the equally ubiquitous Manchester bees. Julie watched as colour-coded bags emerged from the shop and disappeared into the rear of the wagon, before it moved on to the next pick-up point, cyclists circling wide to avoid it like the pigeons scattering in the ravenous sky above.
“And now it’s over to Kirsty in the studio…”
“On this week’s programme we take a look at the new millennium by numbers: from post-war years until the end of the last century, excessive wealth and expenditure was expressed in millions. In the final years of the last decade talk turned to billions, in the form of huge state deficits and the unimaginable value of the mega-rich. But in progressive modern cities such as Manchester, regarded by many as operating at the vanguard of new urban living, zero is the biggest number of them all…”
Another vehicle approached the wagon from the opposite direction. It was a smaller, flat-bed truck loaded with a stack of golden boxes. There was a brief impasse, where the two vehicles blocked Cross Street as the drivers exchanged greetings through the windows of their cabs, before they parted and the smaller truck pulled up outside the grocers. Another man in a jump-suit headed down to a side entrance, carrying one of the boxes in his arms. The door slid open, a woman in her mid-thirties appeared, nodded in recognition and signed some paperwork before taking delivery of the box. Through the slim, elongated windows Julie could see the woman heading up to the roof with the box, and moments later she re-appeared, hunched over amongst the leaves and branches of the lofty urban farm, struggling to shove the newly arrived compost into storage. Julie started down the street at a brisk pace, the gold black stripes on the rear of the flat-bed truck threading past the Exchange, beyond New Manchester Station with its retro-fitted wrought iron colonnade and past a handful of the remaining rubble strewn areas, cleared out after the secondary devices exploded – the ones that were hidden, for which there were no code words, no warnings. It was darker now, and the kinetic activity of the late afternoon, end of week traffic, began to illuminate the road as the truck ambled onwards.
“To discuss some of these issues with me here in the studio is Jed Horrocks, the entrepreneur many refer to as Mr Manchester, recently described as being as ubiquitous as those images of bees buzzing round all things Manchester these days – I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or a criticism – but Jed Horrocks, thank you for being our guest on this programme…”
Passing beneath the falcons’ scrape, Julie felt their beaky gaze needling into the back of her head as she approached the gates of the Zero Waste Park. This isn’t it, she thought, despairing at the fading light. This isn’t going to be what they want.
“You’ve got to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that despite being Cottonopolis, despite being this great mercantile city, parts of Manchester were even more famous, notorious even, for arousing horror and indignation in those who chose to visit the place-”
The gates, elongated by their lengthening shadows, looked more like the entrance to a prison or a cemetery as they closed automatically, silently, behind the now empty compost delivery truck disappearing down the driveway. But as Julie approached, expecting to speak into an intercom embedded somewhere in the gatepost, she found the gates parting for her too. Pinned to the railings flanking either side of the gates was a small plaque bearing the modest, yet incontrovertible letters: H.M.P. STRANGEWAYS. A path of chipped, mixed stone crunched beneath her DMs. Green, grassy embankments unfurled either side of the driveway, littered with leafless trees beneath the boughs of which stood the totemic silhouettes of figures, sculpted from reclaimed materials and transmuted into haphazard way-markers.
“– and a short, brutish life for those who had to live there-”
Julie paused to shoot the old prison gates, zooming in on the lettering before they swung closed with an inevitably cold, metallic clank of confinement. She stood still for a moment, the lens of the Canon cupped in her hand. Only several metres into the Park and the sounds of the city were surprisingly muted, replaced, reassuringly, by the hum of the facility vehicles busying about beyond the immediate horizon, and the shunt, crush and bustle of waste being deposited, manoeuvred, filtered, compressed, recycled and transformed.
“ – but that was the Old Town, Kirsty. Everything’s changed. Zero may be criticised by some, as a concept… but you know, this is Manchester: the practical city; the city where people get out and do things that change their lives, change the world. You can’t analyse zero too much as a concept, Kirsty – and this is what I keep telling people – it’s an attitude, it represents something to reach for, the act of that reaching itself. It’s no compromise, Kirsty: that’s what zero means.”
Julie turned round to look at the gates once more. Fragments of the skyline were still visible beyond the Victorian bars that once segregated sections of the infamous prison interior, and beyond the red-brick, Old Town walls opposing each other across the street. If she crouched a little, she discovered that the CIS tower became framed within one of the rectangles demarcated by the bars. Twiggy orchards formed a rough rooftop canopy across the next rectangle and the tips of the blades of the Cross Street Sentinels blurred the horizon to her right. Click.
“Realistic? I’ll tell you what’s realistic, Kirsty: when people position themselves, when they set themselves to a goal in life, when you get a whole civic movement gathering momentum they tend not to over-reach. If anything, history tells us, it’s incredibly difficult to affect change on that scale – here in Manchester we’re used to thinking big. Zero has to be the goal. No compromise, Kirsty. No compromise.”
Bob pinched the duck-billed peak of his baseball cap between his thumb and forefinger. He barely touched it. It barely moved. Momentarily, in Bob’s mind, on his head, it was corrected. He conceded it had long since become a habit for which he was easily recognised, remembered and mimicked.
“Julie, there is, along that driveway, I’m sure you will agree, an abundance of plants.”
His broad Lancashire brogue came through teeth that were permanently clenched in emphasis, his head nodding negatively to affirm every word he spoke, accompanied by a narrowing of his eyes and a frequent parting and drawing together of his hands, as though he was constantly gauging the size of some indeterminate object in a parallel conversation no-one else could hear.
“But amongst that abundance of foliage and flora, you might notice, should you care to take the time, that rarely – I’m not saying never – but rarely do you encounter, any two plants that are the same.”
“Oh, that’s er-”
“To me, that’s one of the reasons, why Zero Waste Park, is, if you like, a microcosm of the City of Manchester itself. You follow?”
“Well, what I-”
“You see, Julie, if you walk down the street, any street in the City of Manchester, as you probably did earlier today on your way over to this municipal waste facility, you will be surrounded by people, the populace of the city, and those people, all around you, are in such super-abundance and yet if you look closely, heh-heh, not that closely mind, some of them may look similar, superficially, they may even have a lot of things in common, and you remember Julie, the human brain, actually perceives objects like the faces of people, by shoehorning them into common templates that it recognises, even if they’re unfamiliar faces, people whom you’ve never seen before and might never see again, but you will find as many nuances of character, and physiognomy, physiognomy, as you could … as you could… possibly imagine. In the world.”
After a short pause, Julie attempted to cut in again: “That’s-”
“More. Yes. More, in fact, than you could possibly imagine.”
Bob touched his peak again. No firmer than last time. Then he led Julie over to the ARC.
“Artists’ Reclamation Centre. You can see what we’re trying to do. We wanted to make a statement with the name, really. You might think it’s a bit weak?”
Julie figured it wasn’t a question: “No, I-”
“But the whole theme is salvage really, salvation if you like, that’s the grand narrative we’re dealing with here, from a small scale like the bits and pieces you can see around you on the workshop floor, to the bigger picture in terms of salvation for the soul, the souls of the artists who are working here, the souls of the people who are sponsoring us, if you like, by refusing to live in a throw-away world, an Old Town, and having their refuse sent here instead. There’s none of this two by two though, we take all-comers here! Frankly,” he continued, dropping his voice to a theatrical aside and leaning in, despite the fact that they were alone, “We’ll take anything they’ve got, anything we can get our hands on and as much as they can give us, because although these are the materials we work with, Julie, our fuel is ideas and that’s the kind of fuel that never runs out. Now, are you an artist yourself, Julie?”
He touched the cap. Fingers barely squeezed then gone. He stared at Julie. An emergency stop in the monologue. Julie felt herself still catching up with the words he’d spoken several incessant sentences ago.
Yourself. Now. An artist. Julie? She suddenly felt the weight of the camera in her hand. Fingerprints. Perspiration. Julie. Artist?
“Julie? Are you an artist yourself?”
Bob tapped the edge of the camera with the forefinger he used for not adjusting his cap.
She snorted, shrugged. “I… take pictures.”
“Julie, it’s not a question to trip you up, it’s not some test to see if you’re worthy of admission to some sacred place, some cordoned off enclave or bohemian community that doesn’t really exist, in fact, Julie, it’s not a question anyone other than yourself can answer – no-one else can answer that question for you, Julie: it’s yours because it defines you and it’s not for other people to say. Now, some people might like the pictures you take and they may pay you many compliments, Julie, but to you, you might see through them because you know those are just snap shots to you, fulfilling an assignment, an obligation, for picking up that cheque at the end of the month. Now, others, they might take umbrage, deride and decry every print you might sell, she’s a charlatan, a fraud, is it really art – that’s one we’ve all heard before, isn’t it? Nobody can decide if you’re an artist, that’s up to you – and really, you don’t get to choose, in most cases you know what you are and you’re stuck with it, like all this rubbish that now never goes away! It’s not the quality of your photos, Julie. It’s not the quantity you sell. It’s the way you hold the camera, the way you squint one eye closed as you look through that viewfinder and the way it wrinkles your soul inside. Nobody else can replicate that because…”
He leaned in towards her and dropped his voice to a whisper, “… they don’t know how it feels.”
Bob led her through a maze of cavernous rooms stocked with every item of household waste imaginable, sorted by material or object type. Some items had been disassembled and their parts dispersed into distinct areas. As she moved past the coils, tubes and circuit boards she found herself trying to reassemble them in her mind. She passed some disposal units which contained hundreds of the same items, identical apart from their states of disrepair, indicating how widespread their use must have been. But as hard as she tried to recognise those mechanical organs, those key components of modern life remained a mystery to her.
“I wonder sometimes, Bob, you know, if the world came to an end tomorrow… you know, if some kind of catastrophe, some plague or environmental disaster suddenly struck and decimated the human population leaving just a few stragglers behind…”
Bob halted and looked down at her from beneath his cap.
“Me being one,” she added with a knowing smile, “obviously… Well, I look at all these, these things around us here, all the things that make life work, and you know, I couldn’t even tell you what most of them are called let alone what they do. Society would be in big trouble. I can barely use a computer, let alone build one.”
Bob started nodding and humming in contemplative agreement. She’d obviously struck a chord with the old man.
“This place certainly has that kind of effect on the people who pass through here. There are a series of stages, of steps in the procedure, if you follow, and those steps, Julie, they mirror the journey these goods take from their commercial inception to this place and beyond. D’you follow?”
Julie narrowed her eyes and tried to speak, to articulate something. She felt that she was catching just a glimpse of this man and his gist as he disappeared through the labyrinth of the Zero Waste Park ahead of her. She was trying to grasp at threads of his clothing and when she reached out to grab him the loose threads just unravelled in her hand. He was standing before her, scrutinising her face to see if he was making himself clear. His own face bore the hallmarks of a lifetime of thinking this through, however long he’d actually been doing this job. Living seemed to set them apart. Studying his face now, she realised how little she knew. The identification of items of household waste was child’s play in comparison to all the rest.
“Somehow, being surrounded by all this stuff…” he almost spat the word, “… this stuff that has come to the end of its life in this form… at first it makes you think of finitude, it brings you, Julie, if you will, to the edge of the inestimably cold shore of your own mortality and to the conclusion, as clichéd as it may be, that you really are just one tiny pebble on that shore, with its fierce waves and unfathomable ocean. You start to feel the vulnerability of your own tender form, the fragility of skin and bone. You start comparing it to the rusting exhausts, to the sharpness of the VDU shards, the stainless sheen of the steel. They’re on the rubbish heap and you know you’re made of softer stuff. They say you feel it more the older you get, and that’s what everyone expects, but it never hits you then like it does when you feel it in your teens, in your twenties, in your prime. When you really feel it for the first time. When you first start to conceive of time as the time you’ve got left. Even if you still have the luxury of youth and you can measure that time in decades rather than years or months, you know inside yourself that the days will never be as long as those summer holidays from school anymore. And here we are feeling the spray from those waves.”
They walked on out of the covered storage bays and across a large forecourt.
“Part of what we do here, Julie, might be regarded as a kind of recycling of the soul. Whether the artists who work here are aware of it or not, the work they do is closely connected to what we were just talking about. Being artists of course, you expect they’ve considered this from their own angles, but you never know. You can never get a straight answer from any of them.”
Voices could be heard as they entered the building and a slight young man looked up towards them, distracted from what he was doing.
“Hiya Danyon, how you doing? This is Julie, she’s our guest today, so, you know, we really want to make her feel at home here at ARC. In fact Julie, you really shouldn’t need to feel like a visitor anymore, because in a sense we’re all engaged in the same process, Julie, if you’ll allow me to be so bold, because I feel, and I don’t know what sort of conclusions you’ll be wanting to draw from your time here for the purpose of your final article, but I feel that we’re all in some way sharing in the artistic process of creating works of art here in the city. You know, just as you’re expressing yourself through what you’re doing with these materials here, Danyon, you know, by assembling this gorgeous dress from disposable bottle tops – and it really is something else that – it’s like the city ultimately expressing itself through you and these materials as a medium, it’s as though the city speaks to us, it’s using your voice, Danyon, if you will, to communicate with us – it’s absolutely insatiable it is, it has the most ravenous appetite – and now, along the way, it’s co-opted the wonderful Julie here to document the process. It reminds me, Julie, Danyon, and I don’t know how familiar you are with atomic theory – but I tell you what, if you’re not familiar, you’re in the right place to learn – but it reminds me of a quote from the great physicist Neils Bohr. He once said that a physicist is just an atom’s way of examining itself. Something along those lines, anyroad. It really makes you think that, doesn’t it Danyon? Really makes you think? But not too much, eh! I wouldn’t want to disrupt your flow. Julie, can I make you a brew, is there anything I can get you, love?”
Bob touched his baseball cap and disappeared in the direction of the kettle.
It was like a magic eye picture. Julie had been struck by it as soon as she entered the workshop. The place was busy and Bob’s constant spiel didn’t make it easy to concentrate on anything else but her eyes fixed on it straight away. Amongst the broken office chairs, the monitors and mice suspended by rigid cables to form strange smooth fruit dangling from unlikely trees, between the paint splattered benches of barrels, oil drums and patchwork wood, a mannequin rose imperiously above the surrounding clutter, the subtle features of her pale face forever beyond scrutiny. At first glance she wore a close fitting threaded dress that clung to her body, accentuating her curves and corseting her waist before pooling out on the floor to a train that disappeared behind her. As Julie walked across the room, the figure had been intermittently concealed by Danyon, who had been stooping to arrange some finishing touches before stepping back to consider his remarkable handy-work. But as Bob got carried away and they all stood before the mannequin, Julie began to realise that the dress was made entirely from plastic bottle tops affixed together in such a way as to give a stylishly crocheted effect. She turned to the artist to see him carefully observing her own face, watching her surprise as the realisation dawned.
“It’s amazing,” she said quietly.
Danyon furrowed his brow and nodded proudly. “Thankyou. Thankyou very much.”
Julie felt that any compliment she could give would surely be an insult to such staggering ingenuity and craftsmanship. She just stared at the dress and then stared at Danyon. They stood there for a few moments in a contemplative silence broken abruptly by the return of Bob, laden with mugs of tea.
It was dark by the time Bob said goodbye and after the gate had closed for the day behind Julie, he turned off the motion sensors in his capacity as site manager – his other job, as he called it. As he retreated back down the drive to the ARC, the gravel crunched and the H.M.P. STRANGEWAYS sign shuddered until the gates were motionless once more. She had her photographs for the assignment and she had the gist of the story too. The scrap sculpture silhouettes had become shadows amongst the bare branches and Bob blended in with the scarecrows in the night.