Middle Of Nowhere
Sprawled on the salt pan, static,
the outline of a man, thin
black sunshadow defines
flesh against sand.
Black buzzards circle high
on muscular thermals, dry
cries echo from cracked rock hot
enough to fry an egg.
Certainly it is a man, he
raises his head slowly, eyes
open from the ant’s view
the heat haze shimmers.
In the air, black, arriving,
a low hum, flickering beat,
four pitches overlaid, rotors
sweeping in harmony.
It lands, softly, flicks
spits of sand in his eye,
like a faithful dog, expectantly
drops a bottle by his nose.
He laughs, if he can, and thanks
the mechanical beast (no need),
unscrews the hot formed top,
lips puckered to receive.
The dry parchment slides without
effort, catches his lips, a paper cut,
deep, stinging with salty saliva,
Some of the passengers looked before quickly turning away. There was an older man sitting with his wife in seats quite close to them and Henry watched the old man's neck flushing red, saw his wife move closer. She pulled her scarf tighter around her and reached a hand to her handbag strap.
The loudest boy punching the seat was also the tallest. Henry recognised him from the CCTV. He was the boy caught on camera kicking Mickey's head like a beach ball. The other two boys sprawled back, listening to their phones as the tinny rattle bounced around the bus. They'd stare at anyone brave enough to look and pulled faces in return.
Henry was watching this from the back of the bus by the window. He rolled his thick shoulders inside the tailored suit he was wearing that day. It was unpleasantly warm. He could see the old man's head sweating. Henry pulled at his seventeen-inch collar, loosening the button as the heat on the bus increased. He turned back to his magazine and flicked through the pages, listening as the boys bragged on.
'I did her, she was well hammered..'
'I told her to sling it, slag..'
'What's she gonna do? Fuck it.'
The other passengers seemed to be ignoring them but Henry was clenching his hands into fists. He was a fighter, a strong violent man familiar with the boy's language but tonight he was dressed like a stockbroker. Tonight he wanted to blend in with the commuting crowd.
The bus pulled in before the petrol station, the last stop before the dual carriageway out of the city, out past the boarded up shops and into the middle of no where. It was getting dark outside and the streetlights were popping on as more passengers departed. The doors closed and the nearly empty bus continued on its way. There was only Henry, the old couple and the three boys left. An ambulance powered past on the outside lane, sirens calling and it reminded Henry again of Mickey lying in a hospital bed with a fractured face and a missing eye.
'Do you know who did this Mickey? Did you see?
Now Henry knew for sure. It was the tallest, loudest boy sitting five seats in front with his two skin head mates.
Their swearing and volume increased now the bus was almost clear and one of them spat a green glob of snot on the window which made them laugh.
'Do you mind?'
The old man turned, scowling at them. He was sweating, gripping his walking stick and leaning some of his weight towards them.
The three boys looked at him.
'There's no need to swear...' He pointed at the window, '...and that is disgusting. This is public transport. If I was the driver, I'd throw you off the bus.'
He dabbed his head with a handkerchief while the boys considered his words. His wife didn't look round, she was staring ahead at the seat in front. No-body moved. The spitting one noisily cleared his throat, while the smaller of the three thumbed at his mobile phone, head down.
'Fuck off,' said the tallest boy.
The old man didn't react. A few seconds later he turned away and mumbled something to his wife. They got up, the old man taking a while to steady himself using his stick. They walked carefully towards the front of the bus, supporting each other while the boys laughed. The old man turned before sitting down.
'You're a disgrace,' he said, 'and each one of you needs a slap.'
Henry checked the carrier bag he'd brought was still upright against his seat. The bus powered past the first stop at the end of the dual carriageway without slowing and carried on through the main road before turning onto the Shipway Estate. Here, Henry could see the waste ground in the darkness where the old Margarine Works had been. He remembered playing in the rubble from the demolished chimneys and recalled the fight, neqrly twenty years ago, which landed him in a Detention Centre at fourteen. Some kids from the Estate started it the night but Henry made a decision, there on the rubble of a demolished factory, to put a stop to the bullying which had ruined his early years. The Judge later ruled the violence Henry used was abhorrent and rejected his claims of self defence but Henry learnt an important lesson. Nobody bullied him again.
The bus stopped next at Longfield Park and the old man and his wife got off. Now it was just him and the boys. He knew which stop they'd be getting off. he checked the contents of his bag once more. Waiting now. As the bus approached Ferry Hill, Henry pressed the bell and moved down the aisle. The smallest boy, who looked like a boxer's younger brother left his leg trailing and Henry knocked into it as he walked past. He turned and looked at them. They stared back. Henry smiled.
'Sorry mate,' he said, walking on. The doors opened to let him off and he heard them talking as he felt the welcome fresh air on his face.
'Suit's got a death wish.'
'I'll fucking stab him,'
and so on.
Henry stepped onto the pavement, at the foot of Ferry Hill in the dark. He had to hurry now. The plastic bag was rustling so he gripped the handle of the baseball bat inside to stop the noise and stepped up his pace. The boys would be off at the next stop and they'd be getting home by cutting through the derelict Square on the old Precinct. Taking the path between the church and the bowling green he then sprinted up towards their stop, smiling and blowing for breath when he reached the road in time to see the bus pulling in at the shelter about 50 yards ahead. He watched them getting off from a safe distance then followed, keeping the length between them at 50 yards or so as the headed towards the Precinct. He saw the spiked mast looming, overlooking the Square with its four CCTV cameras. Henry knew none of them were online.
Ahead, the boys turned left into the Precinct so Henry sprinted to catch them up. The streets were empty here and most of the tenants in the flats opposite wouldn't see anything anyhow. On reaching the end of the street he slowed left into the abandoned concrete shops. He was now in the Square. An overgrown paved arena surrounded by boarded shop fronts and littered with junk food wrappers. It was quiet. Henry's heart was beating hard as he sucked in air. Looking around.
The boys weren't there.
A thud in his chest. A can rattling in the gloom.
'Hey big cunt'
The tallest boy moved out from behind the wall in front. The other two stepped out next and moved to Henry's side.
He nodded at them. 'Sup lads?'
'Fuck all mate.' The tall lad walked up to him, standing feet to feet. They were a similar height although Henry was twice his bulk.
A few seconds. Then,
'I know you,' he said. ' You're Mickey's brother.'
Henry looked as the other tow boys moved behind him. He let the bag dangle by his side, his grip tightening around the bat handle. He looked the boy in the eye.
'Yeah,' he said, 'and I know you.'
The tall boy pulled a face. 'Do you steal money off people too? Or, ' He looked down at Henry's bag, 'is smacking school kids with bats more your thing?'
Henry leaned a heavy shoulder towards him. ' Mickey doesn't steal he just...'
' Sells dodgy mortgages, screws people over. He's a scummy bastard.'
'Lined his own pockets, cunt.' The boy nodded towards his friends. ' See him, his Dad lost everything. House, pension, the works.' He paused before sweeping his arms around the concrete arena ' Your generation mate, are a bunch of thieving bastards, whichever way you look'
Henry shook his head, looking at them, ' Even so, Mickey didn't deserve that, he didn't deserve to lose his..'
'Eye? ' The boy was moving away now, his friends following. ' Yeah well, I'm sorry mate, sorry for everyone.'
There were voices and Henry looked as a group of fifteen or more boys emerged from the furthest corner next to the boarded up florist. The tallest, loudest boy opened up his palms to Henry and smiled.
'Looks like the cavalry's arrived,' he said. 'Now...why don't you take your bat and fuck off?'
Henry watched them walking to their friends. Some on bikes, some smoking, most of them staring in his direction.
Within a minute though, they were gone.
“Where do you think we go when we die?”
I had been lying in silence and the abruptness of my question startled Ana, making her sit up from the slumped position she had taken on the bed. I felt the sheet pull taught from her movement, its light crumples drawn into tight ridges.
“Nowhere” she replied after a moment’s reflection. “In the ground I guess” she added dismissively. “Where do you think we’d go?”
I shrugged. I knew she wasn’t particularly religious. “Maybe I’ll go somewhere else” I mused.
She laughed, “You don’t get to decide you know.”
I considered this, hoping she was wrong, but knowing she probably wasn’t.
“I don’t think I could bear that” I replied, after another quiet moment had passed between us. “I’ve already spent far too long living in the middle of nowhere”.
She murmured something inaudible and began to move restlessly around the room.
Her confusion was understandable; I had grown up in a southern district of the city, in a neighbourhood that was constantly bustling with the energy and support of a community that struggled and prospered together. After Ana and I married we moved into the block we now inhabit: a tall building at the centre of town. Our street runs down to the river, on one side looking along towards the bridge, the other backing onto a narrow road strewn with restaurants and bars. Their long outdoor patios stretch across the pavement like shadows at dusk, Ana says, late into the evening providing a continuous melody that drifts up to our apartment. Ana doesn’t understand what I am trying to say: for her, together we are surrounded by the ingredients of our lives and the lives of others, but on my own, I am living amidst nothing.
Ana’s keys jangle softly as she lifts them from the table by the door. The sound is comforting and I am reminded of wind chimes, blowing about in a garden. On her way out she passes my mother in the corridor coming out of the lift on the landing. Their exchange is brief and soon my mother is hovering by the foot of my bed. She announces her presence, as if she could be anyone else with that familiar musky scent that she has worn for the past 40 years, and the raised vein on the back of her hand that she places in mine.
I love her but it is difficult when she visits. Alongside a suffocating sense of pity, she seems always to bring news of friends from my childhood, and though she means well, I cannot help but feel compared with their successes. David Moore from number forty-seven - “you remember the Moores?” - had just set up a new company and Jenny Davies and her new husband - ‘the Davies, remember, from over on Clarendon Drive” - were moving again: with another baby on the way the little house on the corner of Eelbrook Road would be far too cramped.
Ana and I did not have any children: I never really considered it a possibility and, though we never discussed the idea, I felt that Ana’s spontaneity would not have allowed her to be tied down by such a responsibility. The care she took of me was restrictive enough as it was. My mother, however, would have loved a grandchild. I felt that she was disappointed in this respect, yet with the extent to which she underestimates my ability to care for myself I cannot imagine that she thinks I could look after a child.
“So what’s this Ana was saying about you being fed up of living in the middle of nowhere?” she asked, walking over to the window. “You better be careful your nonsense doesn’t drive that poor girl away”. The sash made a low rumble as she pushed it up, letting the sounds of the street flood in with the summer air.
I smiled sadly, thinking of Ana and how I would manage if she left me. I wished she could have stayed this afternoon: her cynicism and dry humour always relieve me when I struggle under the sense that my mother is mourning for my life.
The mattress beside me dipped as my mother sat down. Taking my hands in hers this time she asked more sympathetically what was going on.
Feeling sorry for myself I leant against her and drew together the energy to explain. I told her about the blackness, how everywhere I go I am met by a dismal shade of nothing, an absence of light. How I long constantly for some variation. The jealousy I feel when people speak about beauty and how I resent the limits of my imagination for not allowing me to see it too. As I talk with my face resting against my mother’s shoulder, I feel the fabric become damp, sticking to my cheek. I explain my misery that there is nowhere I can go to escape the fact that, looking around me, there is nothing, that I constantly have the feeling that while beside me Ana is experiencing the world, I am stuck in the middle of nowhere.
“Well,” she replied softly when I had finished, taking a deep breath, “Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere we find ourselves.”
I could sense from her tone that she believed she was offering support, but I was exhausted of people trying to ennoble my condition.
I wished I knew where the greeting card or tea towel was on which that slogan must have been printed, and made a silent vow to find it and burn it.
When I was eventually alone again I lay down on my back, my face turned up towards the ceiling.
Today is a charcoal day, I thought. I often measure my days in their degree of blackness. Today was charcoal. It didn't have quite the hollowness of jet black but it was fragile and was crumbling by the hour. I hoped Ana would be back soon. She lives in a different shade to me. Her life is how I imagine the colour orange to look. Warm and intense, like the feeling of the sun on your back when there is no breeze to cool you down. Full of vibrancy and life, sometimes bright and shocking, this is the colour that I feel is Ana.
I rolled over, and because I cannot escape in space, I escaped in time. The past does not console me much, so I pictured the future. I wished Ana were wrong and that after this life there were another, where she would welcome me into her orange haze and open my eyes to her world. It might be this one or it might be another: it doesn’t really matter where it is, as long as it is in the middle of everywhere.