The promise of progress was stuck so thin, the glue on the billboards cracked wide in the harsh, March wind. By Central station – where lads like I’d once been left the northern city – the promise was of clean design, modern civic spaces: the developers’ computer dreams of how, one day, the city might be. The new Derngate, the new Moorbank, worthy of a twenty-first century town. Cranes and scaffolds, dust and diversions; smoky glass reimaginings of our filthy industrial days.
But the promise was thin as the table veneer in the corner caffs of childhood, where Mum would sip her tea and dream while I picked and prised the orange formica, intrigued at pearls of resin, grubby splinters, under the wipe-clean shine. Behind tomorrow’s facade, old streets lingered: Lake End, Nightingale Lane, older even than the sooty cliffs of factories and rackety flats crumbling behind Central station. Blighted bricks from a different clay to the sleek shops of Horsefair.
When I was a kid, the textile sheds of Endsleigh Street produced bluff women in pinnies, chiselled hair under scarves and nets, strong bodies in macs and those violent florals native to the north. There were still smooth bolts of cotton in the loading bays, still the taste of chemical colour in the air. But the women were in saris now, or jeans, or both, black hair gleaming through patterned scarves only vaguely related to fiercely-tied gabardine. Chatting on mobiles: I picked out some Bengali words, a few. About men and moody mothers; the chat of young women everywhere.
Only colour was fast in those streets, for all their industry. Like the whole city when I was young, they made solid things, things that took time making. In Bank Street, in Northern Square, strategic solutions suppliers grew product by the minute: wireless, always on. But persisting in the damp jiggers from Central down to the river, the sound of machines could still just be heard, in fixed rhythm of work where the number today was the number tomorrow. No wonder they were doomed. Acquired, said the peeling signs. Acquired for Development.
Mum let me explore: she was happy with tea and dreaming. I knew the whole city as far as the river. I didn’t cross the river. Us southsiders knew the stories: northside lads would stab you blind, northside girls grew knob-rot. I’d stand at the griffins of Union Bridge staring at the tall grey flats risen from bombed streets. I’d take a pioneer step, two, then three. Scurry to the middle. To the black iron plate praising Alderman Jacks and the Corporation, whose foresight and brass replaced the old bridge in 1852 with this monument to progress, worthy of a nineteenth century town.
Wary for northside monsters, I’d lean out over the river, over the drift of oily rainbows off the steel sheds at Dronhouses; the wood slats and inner tubes hoyed from back alley walls. I didn’t understand, when Mum lost the house, we had to move somewhere different. Never knew about going to work, paying rent. Nor did she. Didn’t know that living in a flat meant there was no hidden yard; no street to race; no stairs indoors to sled down. And the heirs of Alderman Jacks sent us northside. North of Union Bridge. In the grey towers where strangers shattered our terraced dreams. Mum withered, stopped going out. I got beaten, bad, often.
The towers were named for villages on the moors, and still kept a sense of grey behind their blue and yellow stuck-on panels, the new steel balconies, the community mural and concierge block that closed the tunnel mouth where I’d run, bruised and hunted. Now, burnt mopeds lay around instead of abandoned prams. There were basketball hoops, not goals. Shops boarded up, but the clubhouse still had its old-time sing-songs. Kids glared at me, like old times. But now, I didn’t care.
From bungalow town, an old boy, mountaineering on sticks, dragged along in the built-up boots of some morbid condition. He had a box on his head, a sign on the side saying This Space To Let. I thought he was some joker, till I saw, front and back, the smudgy handwritten adverts: a man-with-van; a lad who’d fix your flat-pack, no job too small. A tortoise billboard on his rounds. When I left, he’d have just got his lay off, fat redundo in his hand.
Buzzed the concierge.
“Alright?” Our town greeting.
“Visiting Clyster House.”
Twenty years catching the early tide vanished away: my voice was tight and spiny again as the day I hauled my kit to Central in the rain. “Flat forty-seven, right?”
“I don’t know you, pal. Could be anyone. Could be a nutter. All these got a forty-seven. Was’ name?”
He was being quite pally for those latitudes. But what was the name? Things change. “Litherland.” Tried to sound certain, throwing my weight at the vowels.
He buzzed me through. “Take your tin hat.”
Inside, the block hadn’t changed. Walls painted, lights brightened; CCTV watched the corners that, once, were my nightmare. But the block was the same. Walked up steady, didn’t run, didn’t look over my shoulder. Met every eye that glared my way: “Alright?” Swaggered the deck like a Home End lad at closing. Nobody knew me. Nobody knew why I’d come.
Forty-seven. Door was heavy, self-closing, spyholes top and centre. Recessed hinges. Security. Built for a serious kick. Went to the end of the balcony, leaned over far as I could. The waste at the back of the flats, down the embankment, was tidied. They’d cut the stray trees to nothing; lifted the disused tracks and paved the cinders. I guessed it was a Community Greenspace Leisure Challenge Resource Link or something. Sort of thing we do, for niceness. Sectioned off a bit of the rough for a kiddies’ playground: boat swings, tiny plastic slide; too small for big kids. The grass looked hoovered. I felt sick. I knocked the door.
From the sugar-glazed South, through the business park Midlands, to the cheerlessly hopeful North, I stared out the train, deciding what I’d say, not thinking once what I’d do if no one was home. Knocked again. A lad stopped too close behind me. “Alright?” He went his way. Lads his age chased me down as a kid, beat me to feathers. No more.
Some rat-like scratching in the wood; a bone-dry cough; a stumble. The clink of keys. Hesitation. “Hello?” A choking rasp. Swearing. “Who’s tha’?”
I looked at the wheezing door. This one, I’d have to talk my way through. “Janice?”
“Who wants her?”
“Is that you?”
“Who wants her?”
“Me. Philip Bradshaw.”
Audible drawing-breath. Swearing. Disbelieving swearing.
More of the same.
“Ask me something.”
“Ask you what?”
“Owt about what?”
“Me.” My cover gone, my camouflage. I didn’t care. Knowing she was alive was the bullet I’d not dodge. I’d scuff-up her doorstep long as it took, a day, a week, whatever.
More breathing, building to words. “Name-rank-number.”
“Three-six-one-treble-four-two-nine Lieutenant Bradshaw, Philip Michael, Advance Surveillance, Royal Engineers.”
“Rita. Rita Skelton.”
“What you most feared of?”
In some foreign field, crazies shooting rockets blind? On the redeye and under the radar, two days from sleep? Black mambas on the roof? HIV? “Horses.”
A riot of coughing, keys dropped and cursed and dropped again. Locks jiggered. The door creaked.
What was I thinking, twenty years gone? That she’d be preserved, like Mum’s make-believe wedding cake in its moonshot souvenir tin? The air had got to Janice. The rain and cinders. Northern light and dust off the moors. She was there, maybe, behind the cracks, beneath the stringy hair. Maybe inside the shapeless clothes, a butterfly returned to stodgy larva. Her polished stillness was there, maybe, between the tics and twitches. What was I thinking, she’d be seventeen, fresh off a night at the Roxy? The scent from the doorway said, maybe, she’d been home a long time.
“You’re in civvies.”
“Don’t do fancy dress.” Places I go, best not.
A convulsion shook her down. They seemed to come clockwork. Her face sagged as the tremor worked through. “D’you wanna come in?”
Did I think she’d be pleased I was there? Did I reckon on full honours?
The place was filth as I knew it would be, everything mould and rotten. Stench ripe as blood, as bodies. Boarded windows splintered the light onto towers of papers, stinking plates, stacks of who-knows-what that seemed to churn and shiver, in mirror of her skin. Never enter a building alone without reporting your position: upcountry touring, one-o-one. “How’s you?”
She peered through the gloom. “T’is you, in’t it?”
“Yeah.” Tried a smile. Didn’t fit. “How’s you?”
“Seen your Mam?”
“Yeah.” In echo of some young day, she pushed a hand through her hair; it jammed in the knots. “Not gorrit done lately. Too much doing.” The spasm welled and passed. She brought out the knife I knew she had behind her back: it snagged a thin diamond of light. She saw my reflex. “Can’t be too careful. There’s all sorts knock the door round here. Get careful, on your own.”
Last I heard she was getting hitched, some fitter from Crowndale way. Some Johnny No-neck. “How’s Johnny?”
“You’re running behind it, mister. Left me, six year back. When this,” she shivered, “got killing.”
“He’s a fool.”
“No he’s not. Runs all through, this. Shakes and poison. He said it were like dipping his wick in battery acid. How were I to know? He’s best gone.”
Twenty years, signed up. Been keen a bit. Been stupid. Been thinking what’s to come. Nothing happens back home till you go there. “Town’s changed.”
“Don’t get to town. They done it all up round here. New kitchens and bathrooms and that. I didn’t have it. Didn’t want…Done out the back. The green.”
The flats were on old pit streets, the back land of the mines. Been left waste since ‘45. “They chopped our green.”
The spasm left her twisted: a ghost burnt by daylight. “They cleared it.”
“What about the horses?”
A reedy kid from south of the bridge and a tomboy no one fancied. Had no one but each other. Needed no one. Reaching for fields, for space from mothers gone claustrophobically mad.
“You’re running behind it, mister.” She sparked up with dancing hands. In the airless room smoke hung, creamy as a low day on the moors. “Don’t reckon you’d fear ’em now.”
“On the job, you’re either scared or dead.”
A moment’s stillness. “You killed people?”
“S’pose it gets easier, eh? They killed all them. Horses. Meatman from Flixton came round. Fed ’em t’dogs.”
I got tripped by love when I was nine. That was a miserable birthday. No cake, no toys: Mum too skint and all the imaginary aunties long gone. Mum’s card like a joke, by itself on the mantle. Worse than none at all. Then the letterbox, the scuffed envelope I kept for years after. Janice drew me a card special. Wrote ‘Phillip’ with two ‘l’s, then realised and stuck a careful oblong of paper over the wrong one. That’s when I knew she cared. Janice mended me, from the horses. The dead horses. “Thought they’d go sanctuary or summat.”
“Had their day.” She struggled some pills from a jar, gulped without water, grimaced. “These do no good. Meant to block it. Signals. No good.” Sparked up again. “Jacked it, didn’t you? Clean living, you. I need it. For my nerves. There’s always summat. D’you see all the ladybirds been coming out, waking from the woodwork? They go out a bit, come back when day gets cold. In the night, there’s ‘undred of ’em, crawling in my mouth. Choking black and red. Come to and I’m dreaming. Have it dark so they fly to the light. But they don’t forget. Not like people forget. People, horses, turned loose and best forgotten.”
We slid down the embankment, ran across the empty sidings, the tracks still in their black Christmas of coal dust. Wild barley and thistles brought lively cuts to our skin. We were explorers, pioneer corps: me and my beautiful friend. We saw the old winding gear in distant fields, but never thought what became of the horses when they closed out the last shaft. “I haven’t forgotten. Here, in’t I?”
“You’re late.” Her fingertips strummed the stack of papers. “I check every week, to see you been killed.”
“Just not told it yet. Weren’t always the hero, were you?”
Forgotten horses, turned loose in the waste, surprised by nettles and marigolds from a life of yards and dust. Free. Terrified. The miners thought pit horses could learn fields, though the miners could learn nothing new. I didn’t know horses ran wild; didn’t know how fear provoked them. I wanted to show off to my friend and got bit to the bone by a creature as scared as I was. Janice saved me. I’d’ve died for blood on my own. My ignorant, little-boy blood dirtying the flowers. Where I learnt that pain, that whispers of death, are just words. “They killed the horses?”
“Bolt gun. Said they were good for nowt. Some folk made a fuss. Some got Sunday roast.”
I’ve had worse. You cut what’s left for curry.
Pills and smoke and a sudden, hard look. “No white knight, are you? Years, you been gone. Years too long, mister. I got to go out, get money.”
“No.” Sharp as the blade. “I got ways. I’ll find.”
“You saved my life when I was bit.”
“What does that mean now?”
The door let through a scruffy sun on her forgotten existence. A ladybird flickered by.
“I’ll keep eye out for the funeral.”
At Central, I jumped on the fast. I’d argue the rights when they caught me. Sat in First Class. I’d argue that too. Read the letter again. Straight choice: get paid off, or sign for five more years war. Must advise you: likelihood of increased risks. Dangerous days. What do I care? Took out the little box, the ring, fragile-looking in my hands. Hoyed it below for the cleaner to find; stared out as the train hit speed, as fields and horses vanished into the blue.