An abridged extract from the novel Look At What You Could Have Won:
The whole city was running into the canal. The drips on the windows of the apartments had long since turned to shiny streaks, illuminated by interior lights, the mellow domestic glow of a city at night in the middle of the afternoon in August. The light through the rain distorted everything. The chocolate sofas and champagne carpets blurred and ran, streaming towards the Rochdale Nine, entire blocks of soft furnishings defecting to the canal like new recruits to a terror cell. Julie turned and got a shot of the teddy bear, still abandoned on the carpet, watery swords glinting above it. She caught the bear at the very bottom of the shot, the top of the block tapering up into the clouds, rows of windows replicated in ever decreasing proportions above. She lost her balance momentarily, shuffled her feet in panic and stepped back away from the edge. She had turned her gaze swiftly from the swirl of the clouds beyond the roof tops, the modest apartment block elevated to sky scraper stature by the depth of her perspective from the tow path, to the choppy undulations of the water beside her. She had done it all too quickly. In an effort to regain her balance, she threw her forearm against the wall and sank her face against her sleeve, breathing in the dank air, the rucksack pressing to her back like someone holding her. She slipped the thumb of her idle hand beneath the shoulder strap and pulled it tighter.
As the canal broadened out, she crossed a footbridge to reach a bench beside a brightly coloured duck house, below the tiered beer garden of an old converted umbrella factory. There was no-one home in the high-roofed abode, just a pile of damp straw and an exquisitely crafted gangway leading out of the arched entrance to the water at the edge of the tow path.
“What do you have to do to live here?” she wondered, admiring the extravagance. It had a simple, rustic charm and its combination of wooden slats and high pointed roof conjured up images of an Alpine lodge: basic, unadorned yet exclusive. She thought of the ducks that might live there and how they acquired their bespoke home with its enviable views of the waterway, much to the chagrin of the other birds who glided by thinking that if they had such a wonderful home they would never want to leave it.
The new term began in a few weeks. Julie had complied with everything Professor Adams had stipulated, including attendance of all classes until the end of the teaching programme. But now she could hear Horrocks running round the convolutions of her brain, there at every twist and turn, stepping out in front of her when she least expected it.
“… you know, focus. It’s a fucking full time job. You can’t be an artist for a few hours a week, Julie, not at this level. I think you need to commit to this, we need more from you, Julie.”
She looked across the canal to the new buildings on the other side: thin, spindly turbines twisting their helical blades through the downpour as though the buildings themselves were about to take off and boost out of their foundations, their gold and black stripes flickering in the wind. She saw the faces in the windows looking out at the rain, looking down on the city, over the canal. Women, men, couples, young and old; each one of them was Horrocks looking back at her, peering down at her over his glasses, shunting them back up to the bridge of his nose. His face distorted in every raindrop jabbing the surface, dispersing into pools, quivering, reeling, broadening his reflection, but always his eyes were on her.
Julie left the duck-house behind and ascended the series of ramps rising up through the tiered yard, past the empty tables and chairs, fat bulbs of rain dripping slowly from the sodden canvas awnings. She tried the handle, the door opened and the bar man looked up, surprised to see anyone coming in from the beer garden. She strode through the main bar, below the enormous TV screen, dragging the weather behind her, her footsteps darkening the floorboards.
“What can I get you?”
The barman peered at her over the pumps.
She looked at him from beneath her hood and kept on moving, down the steps and towards the door on the opposite side of the room.
“It’s not a cut-through, you know!”
But she was outside already, the heavy door slamming shut behind her, its frosted glass shaking.
She started to run, the buildings towering above her, too far from the bomb site to be destroyed, too intact to meet with the wrecking ball. Retro-fitted, every last one of them: geothermics, triple glazing, public use – now the granddaddies of the scene, living in the present but still dressed for their Old Town soirees; there was something avuncular about the shape of their windows.
A sound like waves smashing against a rocky shore grew louder as Julie approached the Oxford Road traffic slicing through the standing water on the drowned carriageway. A cavalcade of Aut-Ex’s ploughed through the deluge at funeral pace, the rain illuminated in the distinctive hue of their headlights. Along the road, towards the square, a number of cyclists skulked beneath awnings and in doorways, holding their bicycles before them like barriers against the elements, their helmets glittering and the headlights sparkling their spokes. Julie carried on moving, darting across the square without looking for on-coming trams. The few people she had encountered on the streets were running like her, making for bus shelters, cafes and doorways – anywhere with a canopy to take refuge.
She arrived at Library Walks and leaned back against the enormous circular edifice, feeling the curve of its wall behind her, her chest rising and falling, her throat on fire. She looked up towards the point where the two parallel walls colluded to draw the sky into an elegant V and raised her camera. She kept the camera aloft, staring through the viewfinder as it speckled with raindrops.
“Think about your reputation. If you want to make your mistakes on the big stage, that’s fine for now, but it’s something we all might come to regret in Stephanie’s tomorrow. Remember that.”
Stephanie’s tomorrow. The words echoed in her mind, in the hollow space between the buildings, in the sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Road, of the university, of the rampant world that lay beyond, preying on her, pouncing on her, gnawing at her shins while she tried to find a way through. She lowered the camera and plunged on into the shadows. Stephanie’s tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that, and all those long, lonely nights in between.
Julie closed her eyes as she ran across Albert Square, the stone setts on which she had once lain, now squeaked and slipped beneath her feet. Her hood, drawn tight around her face, could not protect her from the music that started up every time she crossed this part of town. Her own private elevenseventeen stream, broadcast between her ears. She could stop it no more than she could stop the rain itself.
I heard a rumour that you started
no-one here is broken hearted
no-one here is 3 a.m.
Jamie’s notes buckled and bent, howling softly, mournfully below the words, mingling with the singer’s inflections like an incantation; summoning up long-buried truths from below the pretty stone setts. As she ran she felt the cracks between them pass beneath her soles, marking off each one as they passed into memory behind her, just as the rain, impossible though it seemed, would evaporate entirely, disappear from the scene. That something so cold, so wet, so manifestly capable of affecting change on a grand scale, could pass through her outstretched fingers now, in the midst of the monsoon, slowing down traffic and clearing the streets of pedestrians and yet by tomorrow, most likely, it would be nothing but memory, the tide-mark of the past, a grey stain on the porcelain of the present.
I am this city’s errant son
no-one here is open arms
false starts, false dawns
and false alarms
On Cross Street Julie skirted round the perimeter of enormous puddles and sprang chilly geysers from pivoting paving stones, the water shooting up the inside of her jeans. She stood panting beneath Newton’s awning and removed her hood, scraping her hair off her face to the amplified static of the rain lashing against the panes of the bio-domes above. The music had stopped, there was just the sustained cymbal crash of precipitation and the pedal-drum beat of her heart thundering in her chest after the exertion of her Oxford Road dash. She felt her shoulder shrug automatically to swing the rucksack round, but she kept it still. She felt the straps loosen as they slipped along her arm but instead it remained moulded to her shoulder blade. She heard the gruff little dog bark of the zip and felt her hand slide inside, rummaging between the damp canvas layers, the smooth leatherette of the camera case against her palm. But the zip remained closed: a tight narrow grin.
The Sentinels stood darkly in the rain, imperious in their confidence that the clouds would eventually part and the slightest glimmer of sunlight would be enough to make them shine and sparkle again. She wanted to believe the same. The yearning clogged her throat and she spluttered, trying to drink in the damp air. The blades turned steadily and the lights in the offices and shops burned on, spilling out across the street into the enormous puddles, reservoirs of illumination that spread across the city. Julie’s tears rushed to join them. Her fingers twitched. Her hands hung uselessly by her sides. Her camera remained in the rucksack, the weight of it pulling on her shoulder, bumping gently against her back as she passed beneath the Sentinels, her head down because she could no longer bare to look at them, turning away, taunted by snap shot reflections in puddles. There was nowhere to turn. No exit. No escape.
How do you feel now?
What do you most fear?
Being found out.
Julie emerged from beneath the dripping awnings and crossed over, walking slowly below the hum of the blades. She didn’t want to see them anymore, she didn’t want them to see her. She was tired of their questions and their ceaseless revolutions. She walked close to the buildings, hidden from their lofty surveillance, masquerading beneath her hood once more, the draw strings pulled tight. She kept her answers clipped, giving away as little as she could bear. There was little left to give.
Who are you? Identify yourself.
Just a ghost. A Floodplains drifter, passing through. Gone tomorrow like the rain.
Why make an exhibition of yourself?
Can’t bear these casual lies. I’m just trying to build the truth.
She headed through Exchange Square, past Aut-Exes emerging from below the Exchange, the rain already beading on their bonnets, activating their motion-sensor wipers. Julie rounded the corner and her heart sank.
Why do you expect so much?
I underestimate my capacity for disappointment.
The new building towered above her, the upper levels overhanging alternately, their shadows leaning over her as she looked up in amazement.
Every time you blink the world begins again.
Every time I blink I cry for what is lost.
Every time you cry you lose a part of yourself to the past.
Let it run into the river. Let it all flow away.
Offices. Corporate logos above the door. Civic departments. Tinted glass. Security. Receptions. The upper floors hanging out like the open drawers of an immense filling cabinet. Court rooms. Heavy tables. Hearings. Judgements. The hum of the blades in the quickening wind still slicing through the atmosphere from across the square, beyond the Exchange. She wanted to go over, climb the steps and touch the freshly set stone to prove it really existed. Beyond the darkened glass of the main entrance, a face appeared as a man stepped forward, peering at the weather, reporting back to reception. Julie squinted to discern his features. Spectacles, a smug arrogance, an unfashionably intermediate hair length… no: grey hair, receding, a uniform, and he was gone, back into the foyer. She conjured up the photo in her mind that corresponded with this site: the rubble, the dust, the half fallen walls, MUTATE TO SURVIVE in red spray paint capitals. That was all it was now: a photograph, a simulacrum, a fragment of the past.
“It’s just… we thought, right from the beginning, that you and us – Northern Quarter and you – could evolve together. That we could… we could grow together, Julie. You know, move forward?”
Move forward into tomorrow? Stephanie’s tomorrow? Horrocks’s tomorrow? It was all that was left. The past had gone. She was stepping through someone else’s city, negotiating the rubble left by other people’s lives. Just as she’d suspected back in the early days at Grosvenor, she was late to a party that had long since started. The Julie that stepped off the Fastline almost a year ago, buoyed across the Floodplains from one world to another with a surge of liberation, her feet eager to dance with the rhythm of the city; she was gone too, as irretrievable as the Old Town itself. It couldn’t be recovered. It no longer existed.
She peered over an iron bridge, its giant rivets bumpy beneath her elbows. The Irwell gloomed below the blank stares of windows bricked up long ago, sprigs of vegetation emerging from the crevices from which platforms once protruded. To the north, the gates of the ARC clanged shut behind the last service truck of the day. A few streets away, the hoardings of the city limits rose high above the weed strewn concrete wastes on the edges of the Floodplains, once given over to mills and factories colonised by wholesalers, labyrinths of terraced housing, high-rise flats and sheltered accommodation. More than her loathing of the Old Town girls, the Old Town boys and their Old Town ways, it was the promise of a new life and a new beginning that had energised Julie that got her onto the Fastline in the first place. The scholarship had been a sign, a good omen that she was on the right track. The breath she breathed on leaving the station for the first time had been fresh, after-the-rain. She was imbued with something clear, something sharp. Manchester had been like the sun in the fable, but instead of removing her coat, it had coaxed out her camera, teasing it up to her eye with its hungry autumnal narcissism. The city had changed so much so fast that many of those places now only existed in her photographs, forlorn exhibits in the zoo of her hard drive, an entire swathe of the city shrunk into zeroes and ones. The places that remained – Cross Street, Albert Square, the Hanging Gardens: all relics, not of a city that no longer existed, but of a former life she could no longer live. She would see them again but she could never truly look at them.
Below, on the rising heft of the river, the remains of a swan’s nest sped past, bound for the wilds of Salford and the Mersey that flooded the basin beyond. She imagined herself spreading her arms, leaning over the bridge and feeling the thermals guide her down until she felt the prickle and crunch of the reeds beneath her back, the unfettered swiftness of the raft upon the swelling surface, the spray of the rain upon her face and the silver clouds swirling above as she glided across the Plains. But as the clang of the old prison gates rang in her ears, any last vestige of liberation drained into the river, disappearing fast beneath the next bridge, out of sight, like the dismembered nest.
Julie started walking, her body limp and numb in the rain, her arms swinging forward in front of her, as though she was suspended from the rucksack on her back. She let her feet navigate and lolled her head back, resting it against the hump of the rucksack hood pocket, feeling the rain sting her eyes and splash on her cheeks. Her fingers were pink and shrivelled. Her whole skin felt tight. The city clung to her, wrapped round her like cling-film. The sodden air pressed against her face like an intrusive wet-nosed dog, striving to get ever closer.
She moped along ramped walkways, over stone flags and pedestrianised squares. She stumbled across roads to a cacophony of Aut-Ex hazard sirens, to which she brandished two shrivelled fingers and carried on moving, acting only on a vague hunch to avoid walking in complete circles. She found herself skirting the grounds of The Temple, the svelte atheistic shrine built on the devastated grounds of the former cathedral, buildings old and new huddling around her like a rugby ball in a scrum: Cateaton Street, Fennel Street, Hunts Bank, Warrender’s Croft, Connell Street.
Julie felt something tighten across her thigh. She looked down to see the familiar black and gold cord stretching either side of her, blocking her path. A heap of rubble lay on the other side, water dripping from its jagged promontories as it spilled out from a shattered wall towards an open lot, protected from the main street by the backs of some older, more fortunate buildings. She raised the barrier and stepped amongst the rocky shards, crouching down to view the skyline to the north east of the city. She retrieved the DSLR from the hood pocket. It felt clunky in her cold fingers and far away she felt a feint nag of concern that it might slip from her wet hands onto the broken stone below. She took a couple of shots, but she couldn’t feel, she couldn’t see. The city was flat, disappearing into the evening like the Irwell itself. She turned to step out of the rubble but the fragment of wall she had leaned on gave way, causing her to jump backwards and stumble onto the shattered ground. She sat up, still cradling the camera and looked into the abyss behind the fallen stone.
She ducked her head beneath the exposed lintel and felt the cold, still air reach her face. An anti-iceberg of jet black darkness drifted silently below the surface of the city. A helmet and a discarded hi-vis vest lay amongst the rubble. Julie stripped the head torch off the yellow dome and clicked the button with her thumb. The lens glowed white. She widened the elasticated strap around her head and waded into the depths, feeling the darkness rush up to her thighs before engulfing her whole body, the tunnel ahead illuminated only by the beam of the head torch.
Beyond the rubble of the entrance, the floor beneath her feet was even, levelled out deliberately for whatever subterranean purpose the tunnel was created. The walls ahead and to her left were coated in the remnants of a pale plaster, flaky patches spreading out to form a cryptic atlas of the terra incognito that lay ahead. The vaulted ceiling arced above her as she approached two more recently constructed brick pillars, the pointing rigid and distinct. She paused at the top of a spindly bannistered stairway that disappeared into the blackness below. Her head torch illuminated the far wall at the end of a long chamber where the cables of ancient light fittings hung long and still, their bulbs lifeless yet beady in the torch-light like cold, unblinking eyes. Julie could feel the vast expanse of the room before her, she could sense it like a swimmer heading out into deeper waters, she could feel its silent stillness surrounding her. She reached up and adjusted the angle of the beam downwards. The tiled stairs beneath her feet were cracked, chipped and covered in dust, but mostly intact. She clutched the uppermost banister tightly as she descended, ancillary beams running below the main handrails like skeletal fingers curling around the lowermost spindle in a death grip. Rigor mortis had long since set in and it was impossible to tell whether the banister was still strong enough to support the weight of a person, or if it would crumble into the dust and rubble that obscured the lower steps. Beneath the glow of the torch, the rails were rusty red and encrusted with yellow and green, as though metamorphosing into a different state altogether, a state of advanced decay.
Porcelain urinals flanked the wall to her left, shallow dividers demarcating each one, a thick rusty streak running along the gutter below them. Rows of pale tiles encased the walls to the height of the landing, topped with a border of a thin red line, a row of the pale tiles and then a thicker final trim of green. No gold. No black. No bees.
The stalls to her right were tiled with dark wooden doors and panelling, in various degrees of dilapidation. Above the ventilation grill and below the smashed frosted glass inlay of one of the doors there was a notice bearing the words CONVENIENCE CLOSED FOR REPAIR. Some doors swung off their hinges to reveal seat-less toilets rising up from the rubble within the shadows, others lay battered on the floor like defeated sentries.
Julie set up the remote flash and took a few shots from different perspectives, stepping over the pile of wooden corpses in the ramshackle remains of the office at the far end of the chamber. She activated the shutter release and felt her whole body stiffen. A shadow, a flicker of movement, a silhouette defined in the momentary blink of light. So brief and yet significant enough for her eye to register the outline of shoulders and head. She stood still in the darkness for a moment, listening to her own quickening breathing, then pressed the release again. Nothing. She exhaled and grabbed the flash. There was only one way out of the chamber – the way she had entered. With her eyes fixed on the wall at the top of the landing, she began to mount the stairs.
The corridor twisted and turned away at the limits of the torch. She walked beneath a massive round pipe suspended from the low ceiling, handrails running either side of her, mounting and descending steps as the tunnel traversed the depths. She passed a sign, stencilled on the crumbling brickwork in large black capitals – LADIES – beneath which an elongated arrow pointed the way.
“You can’t be an artist for a few hours a week, Julie, not at this level. I think you need to commit to this, we need more from you, Julie.”
Horrocks’ face confronted her in the dank light. He had looked her straight in the eyes as he said those words, the rim of his glasses cutting across them.
She thought of the Atrium with its transparent walls, of Adams’ office, his impassive features, the comfortable cut of his clothes, his tan. The long laburnum arch seemed a million miles away, the chatter and bustle of students, the slow hiss of tram breaks, the sky bleeding through the leaves: all another planet.
THIS PASSAGE MUST BE
ALL PERSONS MUST PROCEED
TO THE SHELTER OF THE ARCHES
She continued past the vivid yellow sign graffitied with names written with fingers rubbed through the grime. Not real names. Names that ended in y. Abbreviations. Aliases. Identities corporate and personal, public and secret, the imperative and possessive clamouring over each other, claiming the same space yet separated by generations each utterly alien and unknowable to the other. Another Bangor Cave Wall, thought Julie, here in the substrata of the Zero City.
She set up the flash, clicked the release button and there it was again: the silhouette of a man cast against the wall ahead.
She glanced behind her to where the passageway fragmented at a staggered crossroads. She had entered via the tunnel on the right… or had it been the second tunnel on the right? She felt her breathing quicken as she gathered the flash and replaced the camera in her rucksack again, moving on cautiously, her eyes scanning the furthest wall for any signs of movement.
She thought of her legs curled beneath the ergonomic desks of Theatre B, the sleek surface of the bench beneath her as she stared at Professor Adams, watching his mouth move, being aware that he was speaking, that a man was speaking, that there was the bubble and babble of monologue, its inflections and hesitations, aware of someone scribbling nearby, of industriousness occurring all around her, while she sat motionless and silent in the eye of academia, fingers turned pages, laughter occurred in the right places, hands and questions were raised, attentiveness validated; outside the traffic on Oxford Road continued, Aut-Exes ploughed through the rain, cyclists squeaked their brakes and cut across tram tracks without looking, Horrocks harried the troops, greased the palms, smarmed across TV screens and Stephanie fucked George in the lofty seclusion of Julie’s own home, keeping one ear out for the door and one hand over his mouth.
NOs 1, 2 & 3
The new term would start soon and old habits would resurface. She could already feel the duvet covering her head, wrapping around her neck as she burrowed into the bed. She realised that she had envisaged herself back at Grosvenor but that too was gone now, another walled-up tunnel, another blocked-up passageway. She thought of Tracy Tailor Waite and the letters in her pigeon hole. She winced. She pulled the duvet closer around her head and closed her eyes. Julie turned off the head torch and let herself sink into the darkness. It was easier, always easier in the darkness.
Movement to her left. A sudden change in air pressure. Something, someone, brushing against her arm. She shrank in on herself, her shoulders scrunched tight.
The silence, the stillness continued. Just a passageway without answer, darkening behind her in the wake of the head torch.
She stepped forward onto the landing between a staggered crossroads of doorways, chambers and passages. The torch-light cast the space into a confusing tangle of geometry, of rectangles, recesses, archways and tunnels where it was unclear if they ended abruptly or plunged further into darkness. After turning round several times to peer into the shadows, the way back was as uncertain as the way ahead. Footsteps. I don’t know what I’m doing. Loud and far away? Quieter and closer? Louder. Closer. I don’t know where I am. Someone coming, running hard. Echoing. Mounting steps, two at a time.
Julie gasps, lurches forward, stumbles. The camera is on the floor. She is about to take a shot, to capture all the shadows, fix them into place, to tame them. In her haste she spills the contents of the rucksack forward, she’s on top of it all now, crouching in the dust, clawing the kit back inside. Deal with it later. The sound of running feet, storming endless passages. The head torch flickers, shadows grow, everything acquires a darker hue. The batteries, though rechargeable, are coming to the end of their cycle. Down here in the dust that cakes her clothes, that blackens her hands and whitens her jeans, that smears across her face like camouflage cream. Down here in the dark amongst the fetid hum of the covered, the consigned, the buried, the past. Amongst the decay of the unseen, the slow rot of the Old Town, the crumble and the crack. She is running now, the crunch of debris beneath her feet, her footsteps contributing to the hasty cacophony. She pauses, breathless, trying to listen in to the footsteps of her pursuer, trying to hear them clearly above the sound of her own panting, trying to discern the direction of their approach. At the next junction she spins abruptly, catching a glimpse of her own shadow projected onto a wall as she moves, stretching across the crumbling brickwork, elongating across the irregular terrain of plaster whose empire has long outlived that of the hands that skimmed it, seeing herself portrayed crudely, by the most primitive means possible upon the walls of this urban cave of uncertain origin. She flinches, screams, not recognising the image as her own, but as she turns the simulacrum sneaks away behind the beam of her torch, blending into the darkness that lurks behind her shoulders like an inky ocean welling up around her. Deeper. Deeper.
Still they come. Louder all the time. Closer. Chopping seconds into halves, into quarters. Counting down.
She plunges through a doorway off the passage (that’s where the footsteps are coming from, they’re coming from the passage), the torch is fading now, the beam is short. Cabinets flank the walls like flashers, their doors open wide like the wings of rusted raincoats, their contents exposed: electrical mains switches, fuse boxes, primitive circuitry. They flash their credentials, revealing their impotence, their connections are dead.
The smell is now almost overpowering. Mould, bacteria, sewerage and the river beyond. As she plunders through the endless labyrinth, Julie starts to worry about other sources of the stench, about methane, the rotting eggs of hydrogen sulphide and the more insidious dangers of the odourless, colourless carbon monoxide, seeping through the foundations of the city, expanding in the dark nothingness that appears to recede further with every step she takes. PRECAUTIONS. The head torch is so dim now that if she moves fast enough she cannot see clearly and she needs to run her hand along the tiled wall to steady herself. OTICE Is the passage getting narrower? The rules for GOOD CONDUCT of She can see the headtorch reflected off the white tiles as a small yellow glow, the reflection allowing more illumination than it would off the brick or plasterwork, yet growing ever dimmer. Her feet feel clumsy as they work against the sandstone below. She starts to wretch, her hands going straight to her mouth instinctively. I’m going to die here… I’m going to die. SMOK INSOBRIETY GAMBLING OBSCENE LANGUAGE ROWD UNSE NDUCT Julie’s fingers splay against the poster, sliding down the tiles as she slumps onto the brown grit below. Human scratch marks, finger prints on the paper, DNA analysis reveals a woman in her late teens/early twenties, late twentieth/early twenty first century. It is unlikely that she used these passageways for shelter and very probable that she sought this kind of subterranean refuge for illicit activities, but what they were we can never know as her remains have never been found. The footsteps pounding the tunnels now, hammering above, hammering below, beating inside her temples, her stomach reeling. She sinks her head into her thighs, her knees raised high above her face, her back against the cold, hard tiles. She turns off the torch to conserve what remains of the battery. The torch will only lead them to me, maybe they won’t see me without the light.
The footsteps stop suddenly, she hears the crunch of grit beneath feet as her pursuer turns on the spot. There is no light, she is afraid to turn on the torch and give herself away. She holds her breath and keeps her head tucked into her legs, her back to the wall. Slowly, determinedly, the hidden figure approaches. She can hear his breath, she thinks it is a man, he is working his way along one side of the wall towards her. She shuts her eyes tight. She hears the rustle of his clothes, his jacket sleeves, as he walks past. She waits for the footsteps to pause, for there to be nothing other than his breathing in the darkness as he realises where she is sat, midway through the chamber, against a wall, the exits equidistant, escape impossible. The footsteps resume, he returns the way he came.
She waits, time spilling out like an oil slick, seconds stretching into minutes, possibly hours, it’s all the same. She stands, feeling the damp through her jeans from the ground. She is stiff, exhausted, a metallic taste at the back of her mouth. With her back to the wall she traverses the side of the room, finds an exit with an outstretched hand and slips through the threshold, a sudden change in the air around her suggesting a chamber of considerable size. For a brief moment, she turns the torch back on, its dying beam illuminating the arched chamber, soda straws and stalactites descending from the high ceiling like swords reversed. She wanders over to the far side of the chamber, from which there appears to be no other exit. The soda straws snap and disintegrate with the slightest touch of her hand. She steps backwards, surprised by their fragility and feels the conical mounds of stalagmites more sturdy beneath her feet, hard and slippery like ice. She crouches down amongst them, inspecting them more closely, mesmerised by their gleam down here in the darkness. She closes her eyes and turns off the torch.
The sound of static ushering in the unseen tide. Closer. Louder. Lapping her toes. The whispering waves washing over her. Erecting every hair on her body. She is borne away upon ancient currents. Again the footsteps. Louder. More regular. The deliberate rhythm of a drum beat. Solid and firm. Fattening to fill the space. Resonant. Awakening, blinking drowsily into the darkness, waiting for her eyes to adjust, the dryness of her mouth, the sand, the dust beneath her nails, across her cheek, caking her clothes, coughing, spluttering, remembering where she is. Her palm against the smooth calcium carbonate of a stalagmite, primitive to her touch, channelling the cold along her arm and through her body. She is cold. Her head throbs to the footsteps. They are inside her now. Marching home, ever closer. Through the darkness. Below the city. Below zero. Within the sub-strata. Between the ages. An open safe gapes in the corner of the room. The only deposits calcified. One side of the strong box has been removed completely. Neither strong box nor safe anymore, its meaning redacted by the darkness. Buried deep beside the river, its treasure long since looted.
… cannot know what precise meanings such artefacts held for those who made them…
Hi-hats step together, shimmering out of the blackness. They are not footsteps now. They are drum beats. The rough arpeggios of an electric guitar crawl sideways through the chamber like a rusty crab: crackling, distorted. Julie gasps. Urgent, inchoate phonemes escape. Bubbles of air from a drowning mouth. Someone sweeps past her. So close. Phantom breath against her cheek. The undertow of movement in the still, dank air. A face illuminated in the darkness. Pale as the Manchester sun. The singer floats towards her. Her mouth heavy and wide, her lower lip fattened with scarlet lipstick. Her green eye shadow stretching back across her lids, her long black lashes flicked out at the ends. Her hair lost in the darkness as it was lost in the poster on Julie’s bedroom wall in the darkness of her Old Town world.
She is beside me now. She moves without walking. She is borne upon the static. Between the beats. Between the notes. Between the words. Between worlds.
… can only make a rough conjecture….
I am on my knees. I cannot move. I cannot turn away.
… like casting stones into the darkness of the chasm and trying to interpret the echoes…
She sings softly, a whisper below the music, below the blades, below the city. I can see her eyelids, heavy beneath their jade shadow, her long lashes spider black. She opens her eyes as she draws towards me. I look through her pupils to the darkness of the room beyond. I see the shadow on the wall near the doorway. The shadow of a man, his profile familiar. Slowly, deliberately, she blinks her eyes, the jade blind lowers, he is gone once more and she is upon me, her face close to mine, red tongue behind white teeth, her jawline fine and strong as she raises her head, her white throat soft, the tendons taut, anchored to her collarbone, a pale swathe of skin cut off by the neckline of her dress disappearing into the blackness that enshrouds her. She draws closer still, impossibly so until I turn my face away. Her hands are upon me, white and real, suspended in the darkness, her arm across my chest, one hand gripping my right shoulder, the other hand clasping my left arm, compelling me.
“Julie, you’re dying place is… deep below the city…”
Angeline whispers, speaking in metered lines as the riff buzzes and jangles repeatedly. She wants me to hear this secret, she must tell me this secret below the guitar, below the drums, below the rumble of the deepest bass. She must unburden herself. She must release this secret like a gas that must escape down here amongst the stalactites and stalagmites, amongst the shadows and the footsteps, the passageways and the tunnels, the posters and the tiles. Amongst all these pasts and tomorrows and the rancid stench of failure, of waking up crippled, unable to move, barely breathing beneath the bedclothes, squirming, writhing around between the stalagmites and stalactites on this palate of the beast, waiting for the teeth to meet, to be cut into pieces and swallowed. The guitar grows in its insistency, the bass swells and the drums kick on. The dank, stale air is rushing now all around us, her voice scrambled by the chthonian breeze.
“A place for crawling and for crying… for running for hiding… curling up am st leaves…”
I turn towards her, my eyes widening, hers now unblinking, intent; the drums trying to cut in and overpower her advice, the chamber swirling about us, the nausea rising in my stomach, the bile at the back of my throat, my lips dry, I crumple before her beauty, my clothes are soiled rags, sand, mud, dust, sand, mud, dust, still the room spins on, she pins me at its centre.
“A place for clicking…” she’s grinning, “for whirring… m k ng sssssilent insect scr msss…”.
She has turned me now, turned me to face her. She holds me squarely by the shoulders but my neck, my head is limp. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t… The bile chokes my speech, closes my throat, I look away.
She is suddenly behind me. I am staring once more into impenetrable darkness. Her chest is pressed up against my back, her arms are reaching round me, she is grabbing my forearms, raising them higher. The camera is in my hands. I am holding it before my face, I am staring right at it but all I see is her scarlet mouth, lips thick and parted, filling my vision entirely, the white teeth, the red tongue, the insinuation of a smile, impossibly close, so close I cannot see the rest of her face.
Her whispering voice fills my mind, I hear her tongue touch the roof of her mouth, tapping the onset of the word.
The room explodes into light. His silhouette is there again. I blink my wide, wide eyes expecting the darkness to return but the light remains. The static is gone. Just the drip drip of water. Of stalactites and stalagmites slowly forming. I can see the brutality of this place in this unforgiving light. The black and the white of the mould on the walls, across the floor, the greasy crumbling floor where I am slumped. I see him staring, poised at the top of the steps.
The light goes out. The darkness again. I fumble for my head torch. The beam is low. I stagger across the room. The steps materialise as I advance towards them. I grab the cold, rusting hand rail. The landing is vacant. Where his shape was only seconds ago, there is now nothing but the indifferent black rectangle of the doorway. I stumble towards it, trying to speak, trying to call out, spluttering, coughing, choking on dust, the camera still in my hand.
I am running now, the thin passage tightening around me in the light of the torch, flickering wildly as my feet hit the ground. The way ahead is exposed before me like the reel of a primitive film. My throat is raw. My shoulders career against the walls. Railings dig into my side as I ricochet through the twilight.
I hear the sound of cattle, of hooves and grunts, snorts and bleats. I can hear them being driven along beside me, beneath me, somewhere close by, their jostling bodies reverberating through this maze of tunnels. The drover’s cries. Syllables. Unintelligible to human ears. Indistinguishable from mine. On and on through the endless passageways, shunting my shoulders from wall to wall. I drop down steps that are not there, the torchlight dimming, the darkness thickening, quickening, gaining all around. I fall, I feel my knees sting, my hands outstretched, fingers splayed upon the greasy damp ground. Spores float past me, illuminated in the dying light like plankton moving through Pacific depths, endless summer holiday mornings staring up at the screen, the mysteries of the oceans revealed, the vista so dark, so limitless, like space, like death.
Coughing, spluttering, I stop at the foot of a ladder, its slippery rungs ascending to a manhole above, rattling every time the wheels of an Aut-Ex roll over it. I turn my head and discover that I am standing on a platform, there is no wall opposite me. I hear the roar of water, the clang of boots on metal. I peer over the edge. The rails of the ladder are so cold against the skin of my palms, soothing them from the fall. My fingers lock tighter around the rails as my boots twist and slip from rung to rung. The stench is overpowering, my forearms are aching, I feel the concrete floor beneath my feet. Shit is splashing everywhere. A thick film of waste coats the edges of the sewer. I do not linger. Retching, I move through a tunnel to my right, stepping through a thin trickle of water, bracing myself, arms outstretched full length to the curving walls either side of me to stop myself from falling again. I am trudging through a massive concrete pipe, into the darkness ahead, away from the darkness behind me. The surface of the pipe is featureless, uniform, with nothing to distinguish one step along this journey, one moment from the next. There are few signs of life, little to reassure me that I am still living, yet with every step I take I am one step closer to death. I am stepping through the empty eye socket of an enormous skull. Somewhere ahead of me, I hear footsteps moving quickly, splashing through the water. I strain my eyes, my ears. I know it’s him. I know he wants me to follow him. I am picking my way through so slowly, trying to stay on my feet.
A cool breeze wafts past me. I am at a junction. The concrete gives way to brick. My hands grapple with streaks of mould clinging to the mortar as the brick pipe widens to become a cavern, the water deepening, the narrow banks like minute tow-paths growing further and further apart. I can see movement, off the path on the opposite side. Off and on, off and on. Rats. Chunky and lithe. Slipping in and out of the stagnant stream. The breeze intensifies and the mould turns to moss. Light illuminates more and more of the interior. I squint to get a better look at the rats but they are only stones, motionless and silent, poking out of the water. I feel sick. Light headed. An umbrella is upended, wedged between the stone rats, its silver pole handle glinting in the last of my torchlight, a waymarker, a crude cairn heralding the resumption of civilisation, or as close as I can get.
The tunnel, the stream, is bending, arcing to the left. I round the corner and squint in the dreary light flooding the chamber, marvelling at the enormous egg-shaped entrance. Outside, I pick my way through the undergrowth and scramble up the steep embankment, handfuls of reeds and tall grass ripping out of the moist earth as I try and gain purchase until I reach the rusting railings and haul myself over onto the road.
From the debut novel, Look At What At You Could Have Won, by Lee Ashworth