THE RAT KING
Underground, in the dark wet hole that was home to the spiders and the rats, something moved. It had no right to be down there but it belonged nowhere else. Half drowned half alive it pushed the water ahead of it into the culverts and drains as it passed.
Right under the city and out into the suburbs and fields these tunnels fed into the river and the network of canals that had fed the industrial revolution. A thousand eyes, some blinded, that had never seen the sun strained in the soiled darkness. It struggled on and it listened with a thousand ears not its own and it cried.
Among the filth, the faeces, the discarded toilette debris and everything flushed down, there was fat. Fat floating, fat floaters, fat foaming in the clogged arteries of the city and with a thousand ulcerated mouths it snapped at the fat. It devoured, it gorged until its eyes watered and its guts burst and then it ate some more. It died and drowned and was born again. It devoured itself. On and on like some filthy cannibalistic religion it grew.
Not all of the ears worked but it listened from down there. It arched its backs and craned its necks and it listened. The bow wave surged on and the dirty water seeped away along the drains of the endless sewer. It listened when its eyes were blinded by urine and tears. It followed the vibrations of the city, the hum and the rumble and that old bass drum.
After more than a mile of scratching at the walls it stopped. Here where the tunnel opened up into a midnight cavern of vaulted arches and stone flagged stairs that lead to nowhere but bricked up doorways. In this forgotten, forbidden cell it stopped.
The water drip dripped. It plinked and plunked forever into the obsidian glass of the shallow pool. The bow wave ebbed away and it rested. Listening, somewhere up there in its black sky, beyond the Victorian arch, leaking through the vents like spring rain. Something it could not understand. Desire, despair something like hunger stirred a thousand bellies, it listened beyond the silence beyond the slip and the drip. It listened.
Under a canal bridge down on the tow path. You can hear the sound of the city echoing back off the still water. Neon lights are reflected in the inky blackness. Sum sa, sum sa, sum sa, shimmers along the length of the canal. This is high energy music.
Up above is Canal Street, some wag has erased the letter ‘C’ from the street sign but nobody minds. As was often the case, when Jaqui met the other girls she felt under dressed and a little guilty. Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette complemented her new shoes and then spent their time laughing at each other.
Fancy dress is all about context, we feel foolish at home dressed as wonderwoman and foolish at the party when we are the only one not dressed as wonderwoman. People want to belong, they want to fit in. Children don’t want to stand out at school any more than someone working in the city wants to risk there job by speaking out against injustice. This may be about survival of the individual but it is also about survival of the system.
This is the first day of Summer and current vogue is for an evening to start out with shots. Flaming Sambuca, a Slippery nipple or just Tequila and a slice of lime. Years ago this would have been the preserve of some hard drinking, dingy bar. A shot of scotch before a pint of heavy, a pint and a whisky chaser, anything to cut the tension and open the night to possibility.
The girls didn’t need the drink but it was the thing to do and it would help them all get just a little wild. This is not new. On Cross Street there had been stills selling cheap gin and ale before 1860. Nothing is new, although the press tell us about the epidemic. The industrial revolution was fuelled by small ale and gin. The workers where anaesthetised by it then as they have been ever since.
“Do you want another one here or shall we chip?” “Chip?”
“Get with it, Girl! ‘Chip’ ‘Do One’!”
“In it!” “Sorted!”
The music was very loud inside. All of these bars on Canal Street have serious sound systems and the music played on them is designed to move the air. It makes you dance. The girls swayed out to a clearing between the tables to dance still within sight of their drinks. (A wise girl doesn’t let
anyone tamper with her drink, as a wise traveller doesn’t let anyone else pack their suit case.) Sum sa, sum sa, sum sa.
Elisabeth I gently pushed Marie Antoinette as the two bobbed at the knees and rolled there heads to the beat. They both looked over to where Jaqui stood at the bar talking to what looked like … a straight male. Amy pulled a worried face but Jenny laughed leaned in close to her friend and shouted at the top of her voice;
“You are such a prude!”
Amy didn’t hear what her friend had said but understood the meaning. She smiled and shook her head. Jenny smiled and shouted:
“I thought we’d be safe in here!”
She gestured towards the surroundings, Amy not having heard a word understood her completely. They both laughed and continued to dance whilst taking occasional furtive glances at Jaqui and the boy.
Sound rises, the fact that it rises is just one of its many little known qualities. Different frequencies of sound have differing abilities to penetrate walls and windows. Its why from a distance all you can hear from a club or a particularly loud car stereo is the bass. That thrumming beat, that sometime threatening sound of the tribal drums. The Bars and Cafe’s of Manchester like any big city hum with bass. From outside you can always hear the windows shivering like teeth losing their fillings, whilst from down below you can hear the rumble and the beat of the bass and the drum.
All of the melody is lost.
Down in the rumble Amy and Jenny think its time to move on. “Time to Chip!”
“ Can we not just have one more here?” Shouts Jaqui, who is still standing near the bar where it is a little quieter and more conducive to furtive conversation with a smiling young man.
“I’ll follow you in ten minutes!” she shouts and raises her eyebrows.
The girls all laugh and Amy and Jenny link arms and attempt to navigate towards the door past several queens who were far more impressive with their make up and lots of smiling young men who were not smiling at the girls.
Outside it was brighter and more quiet. The street was festooned with lanterns stretched across from the trees on the canal side to the bars. The tables were mostly full and the sound of laughter and revelry rivalled anything from 1860. Two boys came by laughing so hard they had to hold each other up. It wasn’t clear if the laugher might have been chemically induced. Amy and Jenny watched them go, as they bumped into another gang who stood around smoking in the summer air. They all laughed and helped the two comedians on their way.
“Can you smell something?” says Jenny.
“I don’t know” the two girls look around them and through the crowd.
“I noticed it earlier when I walked up but I couldn’t see anything”
“I wish I smoked”
“Come on lets go to Legends!”
So they continued their promenade through the evening and into the night drinking laughing and dancing. Checking their phones for messages from Jaqui only to find that she had decided to stay and talk to “Damien” ‘Hope U don’t mind’. They didn’t mind. Elisabeth I and Marie Antoinette drank until they weren’t quite sure which bar they were in. Amy went to the Ladies and coming out through a different door was convinced for some time that she had entered a parallel dimension. It took her some time to realise that there was more than one door out of the Ladies and that she had inadvertently come through into another bar. She lost her shepherds crook and was the figure of some gentle ridicule until she caught sight of Jenny through what she first thought was a mirror but turned out to be the other side of the bar.
-We R Going U OK?- -Gr8-
-C u soon xx-
“Yeah she’s ok, come on lets get you home”
Under the canal bridge the bass beat could be felt through the wet wall and out from the darkness the inky black water reflected the neon signs and the lanterns hovering over the street. A steady drip and plop added some melody to the thudding hum.
“What is that smell?”
“Its there look … “
“Aw that really is disgusting”
“I thought they were still clearing the city”
“They haven’t emptied the bins near us for three weeks its a total mess” “Even so, this is the middle of town…”
From down here you can hear their voices fading away into the night. The beat goes on but there are fewer and fewer dancers. Every so often a lonely set of footsteps echoes under the bridge sometimes heels click, sometimes a steal seg under a boot but mostly the soft shuffle of expensive trainers. A pause in the footsteps and someone lights a cigarette the strike of the match sharp and hot against the damp stone echoes.
This is a short cut for some lucky enough to live in the city. Those who can dance all night and then walk home to their beds. No night bus full of drunks and the stink of chips and vinegar for them. City Living, a room at the top, a dream that for most turns into a cramped flat and an expensive service charge but tonight it is a dream to live in the city. It is warm and clear. The troubles of the town and its striking civil servants, the garbage uncollected on the street, they are nothing. They are nothing to Damien and Jaqui as they make there way down stone steps onto the tow path. He in silence smiles, she clicks on her expensive heels. His arm around her they laugh, stop and kiss.
She can smell his cologne and feel the stubble on his cheek. Their teeth touch for a second and then their lips have it. He can smell the make-up on her face and some sweet scent behind her right ear. He kisses her neck and can feel her small strong arms pull into him.
It is darker down here and the way under the bridge darker still. The excitement between them crackles static. His breath becomes shorter and the blood leaves his head.
Jacqui pulls away;
“Come on you! Show me this penthouse” she blushes and leads him by the hand down the path and away from the lights.
“Its not a penthouse!” he laughs, “I never said it was a penthouse!”
“It better had be!” she teases him and draws him on. “Are you sure it’s safe down here?”
She looks apprehensively into the blackness under the bridges.
“Of Course, I come this way most nights, anyway you’re with me!” he smiles at her “Just me and the rats…”
“Don’t say that!” she laughs at him “I can’t stand them”
He smiles and points “There’s one”
“Don’t” she squeezes his hand and digs her sharp nails into his palm. “Ouch! Steady on!”
Unfortunately for Damien at this point a small rat did in fact fall off a shelf on the other side of the water and land heavily in the canal. It swam to the side and out of site as if it were trying to escape something.
“Aw Damien! You said it was all right!”
“It is. He’s gone now, he’s gone. Come here” he puts his arm around her and they walk quickly on from one shadow to the next, from one bridge to the next. Jaqui holding tight to Damien and trying not to think of rats. Up above the last echoes of that Sum sa beat and the fading lights of the street. Down below the drip, drip of the canal and the black water.
“Is this the last one?”
“Yep, this tunnel is connected to the canal basin, they do midnight walks down here sometimes. It goes right under the city.”
It might have been the click of her heels that disturbed them it might have been coincidence, maybe the rats were just trying to escape too but half way down the tunnel bathed in yellow emergency light….
She would have screamed had she believed her eyes. Jaqui gasped and turned to run. The most insane thing. A moving carpet, tiny black shapes all moving together. “No!” Rats. She pulled away from Damien who swore and tried to kick out at them as they swarmed by. Then it was on her. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, first one then two, then more rats seemed to be running right over her.
“Jaqui!” he cried and ran after her but it was too late, she ran, stumbled and half reaching for the rat in her hair went spinning out over the edge of the path and into the black water.
“Oh my God!” she screamed and the rats ran on swarming out of the side tunnel along the path and into the canal. The girl beat at the water trying to get the creatures away from her face. The rats where drawn to her as if she were an Island where they might escape the canal. They clawed at her hair, her face, tangled in her hair, clawed past her eyes to climb onto her head, on to each other, the weight baring down pushing her under.
Damien beat at the creatures with his jacket, flailing and kicking out at them. They were too small to fight but to many to resist. He pulled one off his face and the stench of urine filled his nostrils the one in his hand bit him and another and another sank their tiny yellow teeth into his legs and arms and then as soon as the madness had begun … it was over.
She was in the middle of the canal her lips and face were bleeding but the rats had done their worst. They were gone. A few stragglers lurched down the tow path plopped into the water or clambered out and away into the darkness. The boy leaned against the brick of the tunnel and strained to see her through the blood and tears in his eyes.
The girl tried to looked up and gasped something unintelligible. She made to draw herself back to the bank. The black water grew still.
“Jaqui are you…?”
She didn’t feel it at first, thought her shoe had come off, her expensive shoes … she reached down to where her foot should be… Then something took her hand and pulled her down. She had no time to scream, only time to fill her lungs with cold water.
Jason banged the cupboard door shut. “where are the bloody CO-CO Pops?!” he opened three more cupboards and banged them all shut. Muttered under his breath ‘for fuck’s sake!’ Why was it like this? Everything had been ok, why did it have to be like this?
He was lying to himself and he knew it. It had never been ok. The flat was great, they both had jobs (sort of) they had enough money. They had Alex but it had never been right.
“ Alex get in here and have your breakfast we’ve got to get you over to your mum’s” and under his breath “and where’s the bloody milk!” Jason looked at the clock above the oven door. It was wrong but he could extrapolate the time to be just after nine. Sunday morning, they had had their weekend. They had avoided the heaps of rubbish left on the street by the strikers. He had taken Alex to the skate park with the new scooter. He was good on it, Jason had tried not to embarrass the boy but to no avail. It seemed to be the destiny of one generation to be casually disowned by the next. He was obsolete. His attempts to join in and ride the scooter were not appreciated, although he genuinely wanted to play it seemed that his playing days were over. They were long over according to Alex.
“Alex Come and get your breakfast we have to go!”
“I’ve had some” the boy casually wandered into the studio kitchen.
Jason frowned at his son “what have you had?”
Alex shrugged his shoulders and glanced over at the table where the cereal, milk and two bowls were set.
“Why didn’t you say you had it Alex! I’ve been looking for that!”
The boy shrugged and turned to get his bag. Jason flicked the switch on the kettle and banged three teaspoons of instant coffee into a cup. “Do you want a coffee?”
“No thanks… Mum sent this.” and Alex gave his father a crumpled blue letter from the bottom of his bag where it had been festering amongst the crisps and crumbs.
“What’s this?” He pulled open the ball of paper. “why did you not give it to me yesterday Alex?” Jason shook his head and took a gulp of the strong coffee, it tasted disgusting to him. Why was nothing ever right? He thought to himself as he read the note.
Can you give Alex the money from last week and he needs new black jeans. Alex knows what sort. Get the right size please.
“You should have given me this when you got here Alex! … what did she say to you?” The boy shrugged “Nothing, just said give you that. What is it?”
Alex finished the rancid coffee and cleared the milk and cereal bowls. “Are you ready?” “Why, what time is it?”
“We need to get going Alex. You should have given me that letter when you got here. We need to get you some jeans don’t we? and now its Sunday so you’ll be lucky if we can find anywhere now before I have to get you back.”
Jason left the room, he entered the untidy bedroom and thumped the wall with his fist a little too hard. He raved at her in his mind. Caroline! Why was she totally unreasonable? What made her think she was in charge? She demanded money off him on a whim as if he didn’t support his son, as if he didn’t love his son! Alex looked at the knuckles on his hand, they had suffered a lot recently. She was driving him mad. He pulled the bottom drawer out of his wardrobe and felt to the back of it for his tin. There wasn’t much in it. He never thought it possible that he could hate someone so much. Jason sat on the floor by the bed and rubbed his eyes. The bedroom door opened.
“Are you ready?” he stood and looked away from the boy towards the window “Get your shoes on Alex we need to get going.”
With the scooter in the back of the escort van and Alex beside him Jason pulled into the Arndale center multi-story car park. Someone had left a black bin liner in the space next to them.
“Leave that A, you don’t know what’s in it”
The boy reluctantly followed his father who paused for nothing and no one as he broke into a jog towards the stairs. Alex ran to catch up and was chastised by his father for not ‘keeping in’ and risking getting run over by the imaginary traffic in the empty car park.
“Dad, calm down, we don’t have to rush, I don’t even need jeans. These are all right.” Jason looked at the frayed trousers his son wore. “Never mind that” he said “Just hurry up.”
It was Jason’s belief that the quicker they were the cheaper the parking would be. He had not read the sign. He had one month left before the road tax on the old van expired and then he would have to stick to the bike. Another sign that his life was changing beyond recognition. The van had been useful when he had been a landscape gardener but for some reason the work had dried up. Fewer
people with the disposable income for garden maintenance. Less building, less new landscaping opportunities.
It was Caroline’s idea that he should apply to the Police. She had a decent career and a decent salary. Even the word ‘Salary’ was new to Jason. She had encouraged him to let the garden work go. Caroline said if he began as a Community Officer ‘The Force’ was more likely to take him on despite his lack of qualifications. So he had applied and been accepted. It was less money but it could lead to a proper career with the ‘Bobbies’. He liked being outside and didn’t mind the bicycle. The blue band around his hat signified that he was not a ‘proper policeman’ but he did feel that he was doing a good service. He was going somewhere. They were going somewhere. They were going somewhere until Caroline changed the game. Then game changer was called John. He was her sergeant.
“Zara’s over there!”
“We’re not going in Zara, that’s a woman’s clothes shop chum, you won’t get anything in there.” “No they do men’s as well, that’s where they are, the ones I need.”
“No they’ll be expensive in there chum, come on.”
“Dad, they’re not expensive. Thats where the one’s are that Mum wants me to get. I’ve tried them on and everything.”
“I can’t afford expensive stuff Alex, I’ve just bought you that new scooter, you’re never satisfied…” “I am … they aren’t expensive Dad they’re the same as the rest, I’ve tried them honest.”
Jason was, as ever, surprised by his sons awareness of the high street. He must do a lot of shopping with his mother, he thought and John. The thought formed like a knot in his belly. Maybe John shopped in Zara. Maybe Alex wanted to be like John.
Jason waited outside the changing rooms. The place was not busy. It was Sunday morning but there were enough customers to keep the vast Arndale complex ticking over. There were rumours that more shops would have to close. News headlines showed boarded up shops in less fashionable towns, alongside litter on the streets and reports of benefit cuts and reductions in the health service but today Zara had customers.
Jason watched as a young female searched through a rack of clothes for her size. She had come in off the street with a white carrier bag in one hand and a shoulder bag hung casually over her hip. She was dark haired about twenty eight, thirty? He couldn’t tell. She pulled an item off the rack, a bikini. She must be shopping for her holidays he thought. She looked well dressed, probably worked in a nearby shop, maybe managed a shop. The girl pulled another bikini off the rack a silver one, quite glamorous. Jason wondered where she was going on her holidays. It had started to rain outside the Arndale centre, you could hear it on the glass roof.
Alex appeared in the black jeans. “They’re too long buddy”
“No I can turn them up on the inside look” Alex fumbled with the hem of the oversized legs. “They’re too long chum, Just try the other pair or we’ll have to go somewhere else.” Embarrassed the boy shuffled over the spare material and back out of sight into the cubicle.
Jason looked up to see the young woman with the handful of bikinis coming towards him. He smiled with one corner of his mouth but she ignored him and went on into the female changing rooms. Jason watched her go. Maybe she would be going on a ‘winter-sun’ holiday to the Canary Islands? Not too expensive but a nice alternative at Christmas. He had been with Caroline. They had never been happier.
The girl disappeared and Jason let his imagination run on how she might suit the bikini, he thought the black one probably best. She had pale skin, the silver one … well… would she undress completely in there?… Suddenly feeling guilty he looked around the store for a shop assistant but the staff were thin on the ground. It was Sunday morning and costs were being cut. Where was Alex? and then the girl came back out. She still had the shoulder bag and the white carrier bag but no bikinis and then Jason notice the something stuffed into the top of the carrier bag. The girl made her way towards the cash desk, she was surely going to pay for them, she walked past the empty cash desk, was she looking for an assistant? Did she in fact work here and had been on a break? She walked out of the shop.
Jason looked around for the shop manager or one of the assistants but the place was empty and adrift, no one at the helm. Looking past the counter and out through the window he saw the young woman adjust the shoulder bag as she walked out of sight.
He was beginning to consider if she might be the manager of another Zara shop further into town when Alex reappeared “Are these OK?” he said. Jason looked at the expensive and crucially branded black jeans. “Go on then! Lets get going.” He smiled at his son and the boy smiled back at him they were looking into a mirror that showed them both the past and the future and they were happy.
Outside in the ‘mall under the laminate sky Jason had not given up hope of a cheap parking fee. He had Alex by the hand and was hurrying the boy towards the escalator. The new polishedmarble floor reflected the early shoppers and the chrome handrails shone like the jewellers windows.
Jason was not old but his face had seen the sun for over thirty years and showed those lines of worry and care that sometimes gave way to the kindest smile. His eyes were serious and a little sad these days but there were more than a few young females who would have been happy to be the cause of that smile. Alex looking like an old photograph of his father on which the lines and detail had faded to leave nothing but the sxparkle of those eyes, walked confidently beside him carrying the Zara bag.
Jason was approaching the exit near to Cafe Nero and there she was. The girl from the shop sitting at a table outside the cafe with her bags at her feet and her phone in her lap. He stopped. “What?” said Alex. Jason started to walk again but slowly. She had dark hair, not black. Brown, brunette but dark, yes, she had a pretty face, she was very pretty. Neat, he would describe her as neat, not in her attire but physically, neat like she would have energy to spare, a sprinter not a distance runner…
“Do you want a Coffee Alex?” “Not really, could I have a Pepsi?”
Jason casually altered his direction and tried not to catch the girl’s attention. He took a broad arc back to what passed as the entrance to the cafe. He negotiated several tables and came to rest at the table next to hers. She glanced up at Alex from her phone and, ignoring him, continued her text conversation.
“Can we go to “Scooters”
“What?” Jason had mis-heard his son.
“Scooters. I want to see if they have those MK3 forks.”
“Er, no chum we have to keep going. Coke?”
“Pepsi. But we’ve stopped…”
“Never Mind” Ignoring the boy, he laid their menu flat on the table. “Excuse me do you have menu there?” The girl looked up at him. “Could we borrow your menu?”
“Yes, ‘course here you go” she leaned across and offered Jason the cardboard menu. Her lapel fell open. She was a nurse.
“You’re a nurse!”
“Sorry, You’re a nurse.”
The girl smiled and frowned at the same time “Yes” she nodded and looked back to her phone.
“Who’s that Dad?” Jason settled back in his chair and shook his head at Alex “no one” he got up “OK! Pepsi, back in a minute.”
When Jason got back from the counter Alex was sitting on a chair closer to the girl, they were talking about ‘Angry Birds’
“‘Angry Birds’. Your son is a genius” Alex hunched over the girl’s phone and ignoring his father passed the phone back to her.
“Try to get the cage at the bottom with the first shot otherwise you’ll trap it under the rest and run out of ammo”
“Alex what are you doing?”
“He’s all right. He was helping me.”
She smiled up at Jason and Jason smiled back. Did the clock stop? Did the sun come out? Did the whole world fall silent in that moment? Did their twin souls leap out of their bodies and tumble over in a dance like butterflies or Halcyon on the wing? Was there time for all of this to happen in that tiny micro pause between his smile and hers?
But there was a pause! It did happen, something happened. At least they both thought it did… Would that be enough? Can a moment like this become the basis for a lifetime of adventure, triumph and disaster. Enough to combat the boredom, the pragmatic decisions and challenges of a myriad situations, bitter sadness and tears of joy? Sometimes and so…
“Angry Birds” “Yes”
“Alex here’s your Coke, Pepsi.”
The boy returned to the table and Jason sat back in his seat. He must not leave too long a gap in the conversation. He sipped at the coffee he did not need.
“No you were …”
“Yes” she frowned a little. Shook her head, smiled again.
He took another mouthful of coffee. “You don’t work here then?’ She frowned. “I mean you work at the hospital?”
“Yes but I don’t know for how much longer. Some of us are going” she pulled a face lowering her bottom lip to reveal small teeth.
“ Oh! Like redundancies?”
“Cut backs, they don’t call it redundancy in case they have to pay us more” she threw her head back and rolled her eyes.
Jason smiled at her again.
He looked at the floor under her table and saw the carrier bag. She moved her foot under the table and brought it to rest in front of the bag.
“Have you bought anything interesting”
Jason nodded his head slowly and searched her face.
“You?” she said
Jason inhaled to speak and Alex reached for his bag under the table.
“I got new Jeans” he said and proudly held up the bag. The letters Z. A. R. A shouted from the stylish brown carrier.
The girl looked at the bag and then at Jason, her eyebrows knitted together. Jason returned her look. “ I think I might have seen you earlier … in Zara”
“Oh?” she shook her head and finished her cup of tea. She seemed fascinated by her watch. “Well, I’m done, so…” she started to get up and in her hurry to quit the table knocked over the cup. It clattered. The table leg screeched across the floor.
“It might have been someone else?” he offered
“Must have been” she gave him a tight smile, all the brightness gone, her face now sad. She was leaving. Jason tried to catch her eye but she avoided his. Studiously arranging her shoulder bag, resetting the cup in its saucer all the while the white carrier bag with the stolen bikinis was held tight in her fist away from the table, away from the man. “Nice talking to you” she said and there was that clipped smile again. She was leaving.
Jason stood as she left the table, some remnant of chivalry his father had taught him. He stood but she did not seem to notice, the ebb and flow of Sunday shoppers was but a heart beat away and she stepped into it and was carried down stream.
“Bye …” Jason tried to see her through the crowd but she was not tall, she was lost. He had lost her.
“Dad … she’s left her phone” Alex pointed to where the phone sat on a chair beside the empty table. “Hang on.” Jason moved and grabbed the phone. “Come on, leave the drink. Get your bag.”
“Dad I…” he grabbed the boy’s hand and they launched into the crowd. “Excuse me” they ran and ducked in and out of the meandering parade of Sunday shoppers “Sorry… Excuse us, sorry …” Jason held the phone tight in his right hand his sons hand in the other “Sorry …” How far could she have gone? Maybe they came the wrong way.
“I think she went the other way dad”
Jason stopped. “Did you see her go the other way?!” “I think so”
“Why didn’t you say?!”
“You just grabbed us and started off. I tried to say”
Jason jumped up and looked over the heads of the nearest shoppers into the distance. There were exits and escalators, more shops and cafes but no sign of the young nurse. He looked at the phone. It was switched off. Jason stood for some time looking at the crowd, he wondered how many of them would know the moment if it came.
“Dad?” He put the phone in his pocket and looked down at the boy.
“I think she’s gone Alex. Lets get you back to your mum shall we young scallywag?”
With that thought Jason remembered his van, the car park and his unfeasible desire to avoid a heavy parking charge. He shook his head and led Alex into the throng.
Phone 0171 428 3792
Jennifer Jones 13 Minton Street
MD General Practitioners Sk4 0HM
Age 29 Date-24/06
SIG 3g Stat dose (1 satchet) – dissolve or mix with water and take between meals REFILL No
MD Richard C.
“I told you I needed to be away by twelve Jason!”
He tried his best to remain calm he nodded and curled his lip. Caroline took the bag out of Alex’ hand and pulled out the new jeans. “Do they fit?”
“Yes” Alex pulled them out of his mothers hand and made to go into the house.
“Come here Alex” Jason opened his arms to the boy. “I need to get going”
They made an awkward embrace, Alex hugging his fathers waist Jason holding the top of his son’s head.
“You got the note?”
Jason looked into Caroline’s eyes his face expressionless, he took a breath.
“We found someone’s phone!” Alex turned back to his mother.
“Did you?” She was always wearing her uniform.
“Show it to her dad”
“Its in the van” Jason reached in his back pocket for his crumpled roll of twenty pound notes. Whatever was left after he had paid the ten pound parking charge. Ten pounds!
“We tried to run after her but we lost her”
“Oh did you” Caroline reached out for the money. “Go inside and get ready Alex we’re late.” Turning back to Jason “You should hand the phone in.” He tightened his lip and waited. “You can’t just keep …”
“Of course I’ll hand it in!” he snarled at her.
“Or just phone the last number its usually a good start, thats what we do.” By ‘we’ she meant The Force.
“In case you’ve forgotten Caroline I am actually in the process of …”
“Sorry I forgot you were already a police officer.”
Jason shook his head and walked away.
Alex was inside the house, back in his other world, the world he was too discreet to talk about to his father, a world where he supported both of his parents, where he planned his life around their chaos. He was ready to go at a moments notice, his tooth brush in his little bag, a mobile phone to placate the absentee and a half eaten bag of sweets hidden for later in his ‘bedroom’ whichever house that might be in.
Jason went over the conversation, such as it was, as he picked his way back into town through the traffic. Always traffic even on a Sunday. He felt for the phone in his pocket. ‘Of course I’ll bloody well give it in!’ He glanced in the mirror, flicked on the indicator ‘…Phone the number that’s what WE would do’ ‘thats what WE would do’ the bloody woman! ‘Sorry I forgot you were ALREADY a police officer’ where did she ever get off?! Jason turned off the Mancunian Way wound his way underneath the railway bridges onto Chapel Street and pressed his key fob for the car-park gates. ‘Just ring the first number thats what WE do’ he mimicked her voice like a child. He had a parking space with the flat. They used to be able to afford it but Jason knew it would go along with the van at the end of the month. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the phone. A button on the top right switched it on the screen took a few seconds to settle, a small apple symbol glowed in the centre. It was an iPhone, one of the first, a bit worn and slow he studied the screen, tried to open it by pressing the button again and put it to sleep.
“What time do you call this?” Jack leaned out of the cab of the shabby vacuum tanker. “Did your mother not set the alarm lad?” Steve either ignored him or did not actually hear the comment. He took the long way around the back of the old tanker and, watching the traffic, reached high up for the door handle and clambered in next to Carl.
“All right mate” The atmosphere in the cab was tense. The two of them had been waiting for over half an hour for the lad who seemed oblivious to the situation.
“Did you forget you had to work?” Jack snapped at the boy. There was no response. Carl continued to read his paper in the middle seat and Steve cracked the window and proceeded to roll a cigarette. It may have been an accident when Jack mounted the curb at the junction but either way the tobacco had to be retrieved from the floor. There was not much room in the cab and so when the cigarette was lit it did not take long before Jack opened his window completely and the newspaper started to flip out of Carl’s hands. “Jack!”
“Don’t feckin start on me kidd! Tell yon feller! I can hardly breathe in here with yon feckin hippy fecker. You want to learn to get up in the morning son it will be brew time soon and we’ve done feck all!”
There was thick silence. Jack wound up the window as they took to the motorway and Carl pushed the dirty yellow waterproofs off the dash board and replaced it with his feet while Mike threw the end of the tiny roll up out of the quarter light and brought his boots up to rest on the passenger air vent. The lorry settled at a steady fifty eight miles an hour and Jack flipped on the radio. Non of the men knew what station they were listening to or had been listening to for the last year. It was a local commercial station that played “the hits of yesterday today!” Today it was playing ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ by UB40.
Carl turned away from the headlines about austerity and general strikes to the sports page, United had beaten City. He nudged Steve who glanced across at the headline and muttered “Twat.” Carl smiled and digested the hyperbolic report. The sound of the old engine was too loud to allow much conversation and Jack looked forward to the new tanker promised to all of the men the previous
year. Instead ‘the fleet’ as the boys in the office like to call it had been repainted in the new green livery of ESES. ‘Eric Simpson Environmental Services’ Green fuel recovery and Drainage.
In truth Jack had prefered working for the company in the early days when all they had to do was empty drains and septic tanks and deposit the results down at the sewage farm in Davyhulme. Today it was much more complicated. New fittings for the hoses lots of messy attachments depending on whos facility you were emptying. Mickey D’s had their own fittings that took nearly half an hour to do. At least the disposal of the stuff was just the same.
It was a fact only known by some of the more trusted crews that not all of the waste went where it was supposed to go. The lucky drivers and mates concerned found a bonus in their wages and a bottle of something special at Christmas from Eric the man.
Jack had known Eric’s father. A hard man capable of running the show on his own if need be. There wasn’t a job that Eric senior wouldn’t do and there wasn’t a corner he wouldn’t cut if he thought it would make the firm money.
Eric junior was his father’s image although he had never driven a tanker in his life. The men knew that Eric was going to grow the company but even the boys in the office were surprised by the European funding, not to mention The Clearwater Organisation who would have thought the Simpsons might start a charity?
Jack rolled the tanker off the slip road across at the roundabout and into the no man’s land of the estate. Hundreds of houses and industrial units all catered for by Micky D’s. He pulled the lorry to a hissing stop. After he glared at Steve for a few second the lad clambered out of the cab and walked stiff legged over to the cheaply constructed but sturdy gate at the back of the burger outlet. Steve stretched his arms above his head and yawned to himself before reaching around and pulling the latch on the gate. He swung open the gates and Jack eased the truck forward with a hiss of the air breaks. Watching carefully through his mirrors Jack avoided the poorly built brick built storage at the back of the shop and brought the tanker to rest just outside a double vented door that looked and felt greasy to the touch. Carl jumped down from the cab and jogged off around the corner to the main entrance returning in minutes on the other side with the manageress, who unlocked the doors and handed Jack a clip board.
“Can you send one of the boys back in with this when its done?”
“All right love” Jack watched the manageress as she walked away, there was something about a uniform that he liked.
He took the paper work and dropped it onto the drivers seat.
It was this paper work that made all the difference. The magic here as far as Eric was concerned was that it cost the fast food places money to get rid of their used oil and fat. They had to show that it was being disposed of responsibly. Mickey D’s and the chip shops and the Chinese take aways and the Indian restaurants all had to show their paperwork at the end of the year. Some bureaucrat would tick their box and they were free to go on charging their customers. Eric’s company, thanks to the EU, were qualified to provide this service. What’s more the EU also subsidised ESES to recycle the results!
Eric had a small facility that could refine the cleanest of the vegetable oil into diesel a facility that was vastly over capacity for the amount of waste ESES collected.
Jack soon had the hose connected and Carl turned the lever as the tanker engine responded to the call from the vacuum pump. Jack called Steve over to his side of the tanker and pointed out the ‘level’ indicator. “When that gets to within 8 degrees of the top you shout to Carl all right?” Steve raised his chin in acknowledgement, he had been shown this twice already. “You all right Carl?” “OK Mate” Carl watched the joints for leakage and tried to perch himself on the lorry’s wheel arch. Jack grabbed a newspaper from off the dash board in the cab and disappeared around the corner towards the entrance of the burger joint.
“Are we taking this lot back to the yard?” shouted Steve from the far side of the truck.
“I don’t think so mate” Carl looked at the sky over the top of the high fence around the compound in which they sat. “We’re just going to lose this one I think” he smiled as he said “I think that’s Sleeping Beauty’s fault!”
“Bugger off!” Steve laughed and shook his head as he watched the level slowly rise.
“What were you doing … holding yourself at arms length?”
“Leave it fat boy!”
“I thought you were looking a bit pale recently … can you still see that indicator or have your eyes gone?”
There was a pause and then “Knock it off!”
“No, I mean knock it off its nearly at the top!”
Jack had reappeared quite some time later with his newspaper crumpled tight under his arm. They left the manageress with her precious documentation and headed back towards the M60. Now, a legitimate run would have taken them around the motorway to their yard in Urmston but the more favoured route by Eric and by the crews was back into town. There was no room at the plant and so
they found it much easier to drop the hose down a manhole than to bother with all of the fiddly and sometimes filthy, always slow hose connections back at the plant.
Steve sat quietly with his feet on the dash and rolled another cigarette. He looked up as Jack left the M60 and took the Princess Parkway. Carl folded the crumpled paper in half and continued with the uppermost page. “Did you read about the rats Jack?” he said and glanced across at the driver.
“Aye, the dirty beggars. They’re everywhere now they are.” Carl looked at the picture a heap of rubbish over fifteen feet high it said, although the camera often lies. The rats could be seen dancing all over it. “They want to burn the lot of em.”
“I think they should just pay the bloody dustmen and then there wouldn’t be any problem.”
“They should sack the lot of em”
“Jack they’re just like you and me, they only want a living wage.”
“They are not like you and me Carl, half of them are not even from England…” Jack enjoyed the irony of his own statement. “…coming here taking our jobs marrying our women”
Carl shook his head at the Irishman and smiled “Bloody immigrants eh Jack?”
Jack leaned forward and flipped on the radio ‘Where ever I lay my Hat’ by Paul Young moaned barely audible out of the speaker in the passenger door.
“Where are we going” Steve looked reluctantly at Jack.
“My dear little friend we are going to unload this crap into the sewer where it belongs and then we are going to have a delightful lunch in one of Manchester’s finest hostelries accompanied by a first rate pint of ale. Will that be all right for ye?”
The tanker did not look out of place with its new green livery and the proud ESES insignia as it made its way between the refurbished mills and through the one way system. A small emblem on the door which looked at a distance like that of the Prince of Wales bore the legend ‘ESES proud to sponsor the Clearwater Project.’ The Tanker came to a stop on a narrow cobbled street between two tall Victorian buildings. Up ahead a cobbled hump backed bridge mounted over the canal. The way over the bridge was blocked by bollards.
“The end of the road boys” Jack killed the engine and pulled on the breaks air screeched under pressure. Carl and Steve climbed down from the cab.
“Carl grab the irons will ye?” Jack wandered over to a manhole cover lodged in the York stone pavement. He got down on one knee and started to clear the dirt from its surface with his fingers. Steve watched as Carl rummaged under the passenger seat and eventually withdrew two steel hooks each a couple of feet long with a handle at one end.
The Irish man grabbed both hooks and fit them into the top of the cover and heaved. Steve made note that the iron cover was lifted with ease although it was undoubtedly immensely heavy. “Bollocks” Jack stared down into the hole. Carl and Steve joined him although Steve had little idea what he was looking for.
“Its blocked ye gormless fecker” Jack shook his head at the boy. “Right; Carl get the key” With that he turned his back on the hole and strode towards a large black arched double door which was recessed into the wall beside the truck.
“Now young Steven, You go with Carl here, he’ll show you what to do. Carl take the shovel and some rods, you know what to do?”
“OK boss no worries, have we a wet suit for Steve?”
“Naw he’ll be all right. You’ll be all right won’t you kid? Not bothered about a bit o’ muck are ye?…. Grab your torch kid”
Steve nodded and looked back to his partner who was unlocking the doors.
“I’ll get the hose out and as soon as its clear I’ll switch her on so don’t hang around”
“We won’t hang around in any case Jack but don’t bloody drown us will you?”
The Irishman winked at the boys and walked off around the tanker.
“What are we fucking doing?” Steve reluctantly followed Carl into the darkness behind the old doors.
“We just have to go down to the culvert and free the blockage. It’s an underground storm drain. You can get down to it through this little black door here. We’re not really supposed to have a key but Jack used to work for the water board. Come on! It will only take ten minutes.” He looked back at his friend. “Its a bit dirty though”
“What kind of dirty?”
“Pretty dirty … its a sewer after all”
“Aw for fucks sake! You said all we did was mess with chip oil!”
“Well, normally we do, come on”
Carl opened a second smaller door away from the courtyard concealed by the archway doors. “Where are we?”
“This is the service stair down to the culvert. Its pretty amazing, you’ll like it.” He flicked on the torch. There is a massive warren of tunnels and canals down here. It goes right under the town …” “What the f..” Steve leaped back up the previous three steps.
“Its just a rat Steve for gods sake calm down there are loads down here. Its nothing” “I don’t like ‘em Carl”
“You’ll be all right they wont touch you, I’ll look after you princess.”
“Anyway as I was saying there’s a cavern down here that they used to shelter in during air raids and stuff. Thousands of people, they even have railway tunnels. Some say there are steam trains down here bricked up for safe keeping in case of a nuclear attack.”
Steve grabbed his friends shoulder “Aw for Gods sake what’s that?!”
“Nothing come on it just another little rattus rattus”
The stone stairway descended into he darkness and the walls became increasingly wet.
“I thought there was a canal just over there somewhere?”
“There is but we’re below that now, we’ll be out in the sewer after another few flights. Its Victorian this sewer you know? They were an industrious lot.”
Carl ignored his companion and increased his pace down the stone steps turning the last corner into blackness.
“Oh my god what are we doing?!” Steve bumped into his friend back as he came to a halt on the ledge beside the river of sewage. Everywhere rats ran for cover, some confused ran towards instead of away from the light, others just continued there leaky urine soaked business.
“Da Da!” Carl shone his torch at the wall several meters beyond them. A thin trickle of black water fell from an iron grating that was mounted four feet above the shelf on which they perched. The shelf was just wide enough to walk on during low water, in flood the whole tunnel could be submerged. Steve heaved audibly and tried to wretch. He spat into the filth.
“Here you go, you fasten these together with that screw section on the end.” Carl offered him the bunch of drainage rods whilst he raised his shovel and started to poke at the debris lodged behind the grating. Bits of sludge became dislodged and plopped to the floor at his feet, the flow of black water increased a little and then abated.
“What was that?” Steve strained his eyes in the darkness. “Did you hear something?”
“Probably something from above echoing through the vents. Can I have those rods?”
Steve came forward carefully along the ledge, his eyes wide searching for rats and cobwebs. He batted at his own forehead with the flat of his hand. “What was that?!”
“Nothing mate, calm down your alri…” There was a deep splash and a shrill screech out of site further out into the darkness.
“What the F…!”
“Did you here that?!”
“Yip!” Carl had heard … and could still hear. There was movement in the water further down the tunnel a slurp and the movement of waves lapping at the liquid edge. There was nothing down here, Carl knew that nobody came down in to the sewer, nothing lived down there but the rats, but the noise….
“Not sure buddy …” Carl strained to hear whilst trying to appear nonchalant. They both heard something … someone murmur something … was it a female voice?…
“Give me those rods” Carl grabbed the tool and started to plunge and twist the corkscrew end into the blocked grating like a prize fighter.
“Do you still need me?” Steve backed towards the little doorway that led to the steps.
“Hang on we both need the torch” and with a final push and a twist he pulled a tangle of rags and bags and sludge out of the grating. It was followed by a torrent of black water.
“Right! We’re out of here!”
The two men hurried with as much dignity as they could maintain towards the steps. The filthy black tunnel was behind them as they climbed.
“Can you hear that?”
“Its nothing” Carl continued to climb.
“No really listen” Steve grabbed his friends jacket.
Close to panic at being forcibly prevented in his flight Carl wrenched his coat out of Steve’s grip “Get off you nutter!”
“Listen!” Carl, forced to a halt took a deep breath and stared at the damp wall.
“I can’t here anyth …”
“Shut up!” Steve held up his hand in silence. Above the sound of the water emptying into the sewer, out of the oil black mess from deep amongst the rats they could hear … ‘The girl from Ipanema’ a thin tinny cry echoing out of the dark.
“What is that!”
Carl put his head closer to the wall of the stairway. The sound stopped. “Its gone.”
“What was that?”
“I Don’t KNOW STEVE!” Carl continued his way up the hard stone his footsteps echoed off the walls. Then it started again, a thin bossanova the same as before coming from…
“I think its coming from in there” Steve put his ear to the red brick, a small vent in the stair wall.
“It can’t be coming from in there mate. That doesn’t go anywhere, just into the culvert, the sewer …”
Steve nodded his head in the torch light “but it is.”
The sound stopped and then abruptly started again. “Its a mobile phone!”
“Come on.” Carl snatched the torch away and raced on.
“But…” Steve left in darkness heard the phone stop again. For a second he listened to the silence coming from further down in the sewer and then, close, much too close the sound of something heavy hitting the filthy water.
No sooner had Carl opened the black door at the top of the stairs when Steve burst through behind him. “Bloody hell!” he struggled to get his breath, gasping he grabbed his friends arm “B … Bugger me! Carl could you hear that?!”
Jack heard the door burst open and smiled at the filthy spectacle of the two white faced young men. “And what kept you fellas?”
“Nothing…, it was really bunged up”
“What’s going on down there Jack?” Steve confronted the big Irishman. “What the hell are we doing here? … there’s something fucking weird down there mate and I don’t appreciate being sent down some shit hole by you!”
“Watch yerself ye cheeky bugger or there’ll be a DCM for you, ‘Don’t Come Monday!’ ye daft eediot … talking to me like I’m the dirt on yer shoe!” Jack looked at Steve’s filthy inadequate boots and tried to stifle his laughter. The lad marched off to the cab of the tanker stepping over the pipe that dutifully pumped its cargo into the drain he reached with trembling hands for his tobacco.
“I don’t like it” he muttered to himself. “Shouldn’t even be dumping this shit”
Jack leaned on the open passenger door of the cab and looked down at the shaking boy. “You just mind yer language kidd, you have a job have you not? There are lots of hungry men who would give there right arm to be doing what your doing. Let alone having the chance to work with a fella such as me self.”
“There was something down there Jack” Steve held the Irishman with his stare.
“Oh lots of things go bump in the dark young feller… Its the beasts up here you need to be worried about.”
Steve lit his tiny role up. His hands shook. “I thought the whole idea of this recycling scheme was that you took the stuff back to the yard and processed it or something?”
“ Well, lad that will be one small lesson life has just taught you. Where there is a scheme there is a schemer!”
Jason tried the phone again. Still no reply, he listened until the phone went to voicemail “Er
hello … er … again, I called yesterday … er … and … well I just wondered if you got the message… My name is Jason Marsh and I.. I’m the person who found the phone … found this phone … so if you know who it belongs to call the phone and … well ok, call if you get this message … oh! My number is …” The message timed out. He dialled again.
“Morning Mr Marsh” The senior officer who had inducted Jason passed him in the entrance to the station.
“Brian! Where are they sending you off to today?”
“Oh I’m in the town centre today… Brian.”
“Very good, remember, be assertive Jason, they won’t listen to you otherwise.” The officer smiled in what was meant to be a kindly and avuncular manner. Brian did his best to cultivate a modern friendly demeanour. He did not wear a uniform these days, not since he took on the training of the new community support officers. He would have retired under normal circumstances but as it was he offered his time for very little pay in order to bring on the new recruits. “Did you get the new bike?”
Jason pushed the phone back into his pocket. “Yes, I’m enjoying it actually … Came last week … not so saddle sore now!”
Out of the corner of his eye Jason saw a WPC turn onto the corridor beyond the front desk. He made for the door
“OK bye then? …” Brian watched as Jason hurried out and away from WPC Caroline Marsh.
They were supposed to patrol in twos but some of the CPOs were not as dedicated as Jason. He had grown used to being on his own as various officers called in late or just reported sick and tired. He liked to be alone. He felt like he was his own boss, a free agent come to do good. He was supposed to have a radio in case he needed assistance but much of the time there were not enough radios to go round or the batteries were old and not sufficiently charged. This gave Jason more freedom from control and for now, it suited him.
He cycled up the hill towards the Library and left Bootle Street station behind him. He saw Caroline’s car in the car park on his left as he passed by. He had to look. A pair of Alex’s trainers were on the back window ledge covered in mud. The passenger foot-well was full of empty crisp packets and there was used chewing gum stuck to the edge of the ashtray.
In the Dark
Sometimes it forgot itself. On these black days it itched. It burned where the sores from its previous collisions and incisions wept. When the pain was too much it cut itself and when the descent was gone it felt better. In those absent times it was diminished, it was small.
When it let go it could feel them slipping away, feel itself slipping away. The hurt was ending, the desire and the hate, the pain and the sweet stench of the fat were lost. It felt less and less as the weight lifted, the relief and the inevitable oblivion warmed it in the darkness.
Then always the terror the sheer panic as its mind was falling apart. The terror of loneliness in the silent rotting pit. Fear of the nothingness.
All of its hearts raced and all of its tiny black eyes burned and in those moments it cried aloud to itself, it screamed an imperceptible whistle that only it could hear.
The endless black hole like the fathomless vacuum of empty space was indifferent to it. Blinded it dragged at itself until the doubt was gone. Talking to itself it listened until all was listening and there was one voice. The deaf and the blind had their teeth.
Somewhere beyond the vaulted black there was something else. When it was whole it knew there was something … It could hear it.
Where Market Street meets Cross Street there is a covered area as wide as the original road. Above this there is the Arndale centre and a way through to the pedestrian bridge that leads to Selfridges. This wide tunnel is perfect for busking. For years since the IRA bomb and the re- development of the Arndale Centre entrance buskers have come here to take advantage of the great acoustics. The natural reverb helps to overcome the competing noise from the crowds of shoppers who filter through this gateway on their way to Piccadilly and the Northern Quarter.
The busker stood with his back to and just slightly underneath the new escalators. He was a flautist and so had no guitar case in which to catch any coins that might come his way, so a tartan blanket was spread on the ground underneath a suitably shabby top hat. He used the hat because it
made a good talking point and an even better target for the children from whom most of his wage emanated. Far from wearing a top hat himself, Jan (pronounced Yan his father was Dutch) wore a baseball cap to cover his freshly shaved bald head and a long overcoat with no sleeves. Although he was only twenty eight Jan had opted for the bald look some years ago. He didn’t know anymore if he had hair or not. There was something in him that prevented him from letting the hair grow … just in case it didn’t.
He raised his left hand high and brought the flute to his mouth. An Irish jig always went down well here. Jan sometimes played Bach’s sonata in B minor but the jigs sounded well under the tunnel section and the little children seemed to be attracted by his tapping foot. The hobnailed boot made a sturdy click as he kept time.
“Go on David, give the man some money!” The toddler released his father’s hand reluctantly and nervously approached the wild looking musician. Jan smiled with his eyes at the boy, winked and craned ever lower so the boy could see his fingers dancing over the stops. The child dumped the money in the battered hat and turned quickly back to his father. Jan nodded to the man and played on searching the passing crowds for more willing participants in this little urban ritual.
A little group of teenagers pushing along came down from the Piccadilly end of the street. Jan could hear them first. Whistling to each other, three boys dressed in trousers that fell down and exposed their shorts and hooded tops with sleeves longer than their arms. The image owed something to the ‘fresh out of gaol’ look adopted by gangsta rappers. The falling down trousers were to emphasis that their belts had been taken by the police. These boys were not rappers or gangsters and were still trying really hard to get arrested. If smoking dope at school was arrestable. The short one took the opportunity to demonstrate just how loud his whistle could be. It became a loudest whistle contest. They watched Jan for any signs of contention as they passed by. He played on but remained aware of his money there on the floor at his feet, he had chased youths before and he would do it again.
“Nice tatts man” the middle one shouted across to him.
Jan paused mid phrase and gave a breathless “Cheers mate” into the mouth piece of the flute before finishing the tune.
The boys thought he was cool, they whistled only because they wanted to touch this moment, they wanted to join in with the world around them. They saw the busker with his arms full of tattoos and the cool slightly lived in clothes and they wanted to be like him. They wanted to be older. Pretty soon they would start wanting to be younger but for now they just wanted to belong.
“Wanker!” One of the boys shouted as they approached Cross Street. Jan looked up but the boys attention had been taken by someone else.
“Special needs!” the boys sniggered and the tall one grabbed the middle one by the head and punched him repeatedly in the shoulder as they passed Special Community Officer Marsh and his bicycle. Jason turned to the boys and spoke assertively to their retreating backs. “It is an offence to abuse one of her Majesty’s officers whilst in the course of their duties.”
The words “…ing Queen!” could just be heard as the boys disappeared around the corner.
Jason pushed his bike up the hill and under the Arndale Centre tunnel. The sound of the flute carried right along Cross Street. He had been able to hear it from as far down as The Royal Exchange theatre (now showing William Wycherley’s raunchy Restoration comedy The Country Wife). It was the usual guy with the tattoos and the hat. Jason walked passed Boots and made his way across to the busker. Jan dipped his head in recognition and played on to the end of the jig. Jason leaned on the bicycle until the busker had finished. He clapped and looked around to see if there would be any money forthcoming for the guy.
“Nice” he smiled and offered his hand. “How’s it going today?”
“All right mate, its a nice spot under here, bad time of day for kids though, it will be better when the school run’s on”
Jason looked down at the hat, there was money in it, a lot of silver and one or two pound coins. There was no sign of any CDs for sale. “Thanks for not bringing the discs out mate, its a daft law but we all have to stick to it.”
Jan absent mindedly put his hand into the overcoat pocket, “No problem mate the law’s the law, we all have to make a living, I understand.” Jan thought about HMV a few hundred yards up the road from where they stood. Poor little HMV obviously needed protecting from gangsters like him, taking to the streets and robbing their customers.
“Seen anything interesting today?”
“Just a few scallies mate” he smiled “I think you got the worst of them!”
Jason blushed and shook his head. They smiled at each other.
“Oh well I wont keep you from your fans” he looked across to see a mother and child hovering expectantly. Jan muttered something into the mouthpiece of the flute and was already playing. He winked at Jason who pushed his bicycle out from under the escalators passed a pile of discarded bin bags and on up Market Street hill.
The mother and child watched for a minute or so before she fumbled in her pocket for some change and sent her little girl bravely up to ‘The nice man’ to drop some money into the hat. Jan smiled at the kid who was dressed incongruously in ballerina’s tutu and floral pink wellingtons.
She stood for some time staring directly into his face as if he did not really exist. They briefly hypnotised one another Jan always engrossed in the music, the child in some fantasy that now included a magical piper.
“Kimberley!” her mother laughed to herself and shook her head. “Kimberley come on!” the child heard nothing but the piper, Jan looked kindly into her tiny black eyes. The shoppers of Manchester poured down the street like rain drops and the sound of the flute echoed all around them. The light from inside Boots glowed a neon yellow and it seemed as the rain might come. The sky beyond the Arndale centre had turned to a purple bruise and the gathering clouds made all silent but for the sound of the piper. The child shone. Her pink and orange dress her floral boots glowed against the dark blue tarmac and cobbles of the street and the world moved in slow motion …
Her mother was there, an almost whispered “Kimberley.” She took her mothers hand and turned her body away from the busker. She was drawn gently away and finally she turned her head. Jan was no longer playing the Jig.
It was raining. It rained hard, water poured down the gullies and lifted the lids off the drains. Some people were glad to see it, some ran for cover when there was so much as a shower but it cleaned the streets they said. It washed away the filth and the stink but it could not wash away the abandoned bin bags that piled up everywhere.
“What a bloody mess” Jan overheard a guy in a track suit as he hurried back out into the downpour passed the rubbish that was gathering next to the escalators. The fellow nearly tripped on one of the sacks that had fallen off the pile and lay ripped by the passing crowds. He watched the man go. He wore a tight track suit and brand new Nike trainers that would surely be ruined in the flood. The man’s thighs rubbed awkwardly together as he scuttled away across the street towards a branch of Micky D’s. Jan considered the tracksuit and the running shoes and the man who had never been near a track or was capable of running any more than this heart worrying scuttle. “Thats it … a nice fat burger will do you the world of good”
Why was it that even though he had been a vegetarian for over fifteen years he was still tempted by Mickey D’s? Jan would no more enter the place than he would join the army but that smell … he needed to eat. The busker put his flute into the case deep inside the pocket of his overcoat and
pushed the top hat into the canvas shoulder bag along with the tartan blanket and the stash of his CDs he had managed to hide when the special constable had sauntered over.
There are two moments that buskers enjoy the least. The moment when they have to claim a part of the street as their own and the moment when they must relinquish it. For those few minutes they are neither a busker nor a commuter. They must break the convention. They must go from avoiding eye contact and keeping their head down to claiming the street as a stage. For the time before the music there is silence and this hypnotic spell they must break by casting a spell of their own. Until they have successfully woven this spell the busker is naked. An ordinary person about to do something unconventional. Once the music has started, once the tune has filled the air, they own it. Until then the busker is like a hermit crab between shells on the ocean floor. A crab, with no shell of its own floating dangerously between borrowed states.
Jan shouldered the canvas bag and slipped his hand into the pocket that held the weight of the coins. He turned his back on ‘his’ spot and plunged into the soaking crowd.
Phone 0161 439 7097
48 Hacking Street
MD General Practitioners M40OAU
Age 32 Date-
RX Penicillin G
SIG Penicillin G 125mg QDS for 7 days (28 tablets) REFILL No
MD M. Rolands
An Incident at the Hospital
Down by the river, just into the trees there is an overgrown flood channel. Only in use if the rain water is so copious that it must escape the city and run out into the River Mersey. Gyp, a border collie running through the trees leaping after the scent of squirrels. Like a trail bike bursting over the tops of the woodland paths its ears pricked in exhilaration. Twisting in the air changing direction in the beat of a tiny vibrating heart. He gallops out of the dappled shade and straight into a pool of yesterday’s rain water, mud. Plonks down splat without ceremony, steam immediately rises and curls around his breath already lingering over the water. He laps at the muddy pool gets up turns round and flops down again cooling those tight legs like a racehorse after the Derby.
The dog hears something, ignores it, laps at the water, looks longingly back at the wood, that sound again. He looks up. Something has intruded, he stares, distracted from his joy. He looks around for his man. There is no one. He gets up and gallops back into the trees leaping higher than necessary to see over the ferns and twigs.
A squirrel skitters down the trunk of the nearest tree. So light, he has to drag himself down to earth, tiny claws capable of carrying him upside down from tree to tree. It creeps into the path oblivious of the dog’s owner who pushes through undergrowth and calls for him. The man does not speak English. He shouts, first for the dog … and then in shock. The squirrel disappears in an instant and the dog courses around the corner into sight and stops abruptly at the edge of the wood. The man is no longer calling for the dog but crying, pleading with someone or something.
Gyp barks. He stands with one forepaw off the ground ready for flight and barks. What? What? He barks the question What?! over and over in fear and shock at what he has seen. What?!
The collie was still barking when a golden retriever galloped up to him followed by the woman who called the emergency services.
Jenny ran down the long main corridor of North Manchester General. Since the changes the nurses were often expected to receive incoming patients from A&E despite their round duties on the ward and as a reletive newcomer she often found herself volunteering to go down.
“Hi sweetheart, what have we got here then?” she did not know all of the ambulance crews by name.
“He’s come a cropper down in the woods at Chorlton Brook a mister …” he read the name from the wallet in his hand “Mr… Chen I think”
“I see, lets have a look at you then”
“Careful love he’s…” It was too late. Jenny came passed the ambulance driver and recoiled in shock at the site of the thing on the stretcher.
“What did you say had happened to him?” she said quietly.
“We can’t really tell love, one of the dog walkers found him … we thought he might have fallen in the culvert … or something … you know…”
The man’s face was largely missing. It was difficult to tell if he still had both of his eyes.
“What?” The man was trying to speak. “Sh.. Not now sweetheart lets get you upstairs and comfortable” she addressed the waiting porter who looked on in shock “Come on as quick as you can!” together they guided the trolly down the long corridor towards the lift. The man rasped something barely audible and the nurse turned to him as they hurried down the long corridor. “you’re all right now sweetheart, we’ll soon have you feeling better.” She looked desperately ahead and called a passing nurse “Grab the lift for us will you sister!” The nurse stopped briefly and called the elevator before hurrying on “Thank you!”. Jenny and the porter brought the hospital trolly to a gentle stop careful not to disturb their fragile load. The man tried again to speak. Suddenly he grabbed Jenny’s arm from beneath his blanket and pulled her close. He fought for breath and through his tattered lips whispered
“Der Rattenkönig….Tausende von Ratten…. Der Rattenkönig! Der Rattenkönig kommt… Der Rattenkönig kommt!”
“What’s he say?” the porter stood a little further away and looked anxiously for the lift to arrive.
“I don’t know … it’s German I think or…”
“Tausende von Ratten…” the man lapsed into unconsciousness and the lift doors opened. The lift was already full. A patient prepped for theatre. She would have to wait. Jenny knew that her patient had lost blood. She made fists and stamped her feet in frustration as she waited, perhaps too long.
“ What was he saying?”
“I don’t know” she said “Tusen vonraten…?” Ratenkonicom?.. something…”
“I think we could get a translator couldn’t we? For when he wakes up?”
“Yeh …” Jenny looked doubtfully at the forlorn state of the man on the stretcher as the lift arrived.
Jason nearly fell of his bike. The phone was ringing. It took him a moment to realise that it was not his phone, but the one in his left outside pocket. It was her phone. He had forgotten that this morning he was going to leave it on the front desk ‘You can’t just keep it Jason’ what did she think he was going to do with it, did she think he needed someone else’s phone? Had she so little respect for him? He pulled on the breaks and coasted to a stop just outside the Central Library. Jason stood with one foot on the ground still astride the bike as he fumbled for the phone. He hopped and came down on the cross bar nearly doing himself a nasty injury as he brought the phone to his ear and answered urgently “Hello?”
“Ah.. Hello … who is this?”
“Oh.” Jason had thought this out. “Yes, hello, this is Special Community Officer Marsh … Can I ask who is calling?” Jason felt beads of sweat gather on his brow as he listened.
“Oh … hello, this is Amy Domenico, I’m a friend of … the owner of the phone?…”
Jason felt his heart rate increase a little. “Oh that is excellent, we have been waiting for someone to call … er …”
“Can she collect it or … what do we do?…”
“Can you confirm the name of your friend please?.. er … for our records…”
So her name was Jenny, she was a nurse and she worked at North Manchester General. The girl, her friend Amy had been a little surprised that the officer was going to return the phone in person but Jason had managed to make it sound routine, given that his beat took him through the North Manchester General grounds. It didn’t.
Jenny hung up the phone in the corridor outside B3. Her casualty was awaiting surgery. He was not a well man. She looked out of the window down into the back of the loading bay and thought about Amy. Jenny had been feeding coins into the pay-phone, a novelty in these times. She had thought the call excessively expensive until Amy mentioned that she was in fact in New-York. “New York! Honestly Amy I’m on a pay phone here!” Jenny had given up being jealous of her friend’s globetrotting. Most of the time Amy was back stage somewhere dark whilst the glamorous events she administered where taking place. Never the less New-York was a long way from the poverty stricken corridors of North Manchester General.
Beyond the window down by the loading bay a green lorry had parked. Three fairly scruffy looking men wearing various mismatched bits of green uniform where opening the shutter doors at the back of the truck. A sudden stifled cry from beyond the partialy glazed doors caught her attention.
The doors swung closed behind her and Jenny turned the corner onto the ward. Jean, the Ward Sister was already by the bed holding the man’s hand. She reached for a plastic beaker of water and offered the spout to the man’s damaged lips. His face was bandaged now but where the skin was visible Jenny could still see the unusual scratch marks.
“Is he all right?”
“His temperature and heart rate are way up. Better call Doctor Edwards”
“B7? I’ll go and get her.” Jenny turned and started to run. The beaker of water crashed to the floor. “He’s arresting Jenny!” She had time to glance toward the resuscitation unit before Sue Edwards who had also heard the cry, came onto the ward.
The three women silenced the monitor alarm and went to work. With perfect efficiency and speed they all followed a procedure that has saved thousands of lives. With their counting and timing and carefully measured electrical charge. They held their breath whilst trying to encourage their patient to draw his own. The four of them caught in this world of life and death together. Like a driver turning the key that until now has started the family car. Until now … but why the silence? Where the familiar splutter and hum? They began with each passing second to fear the worst. Just one more time, one more turn of the key and the beauty of the engineering would turn over and tick quietly away as it always had … but there was no spark, no tiny electrical jolt enough to start the miracle. The science, the maths, the will and determination, the breath of god. In this order they all failed. The four became three. The women stood back and each tried in her own way to find a way to carry on with the day. There was even a procedure for this eventuality, accepted practice, the availability of counselling seldom taken up. Meanwhile Mr Chen grew cold and became not Mr Chen but something else.
This was not how he had planned it. Jason thought of calling it off but he had told the girl he would drop the phone off today so … here he was. She hadn’t been on the ward, they’d apparently lost a patient and the nurse, Jenny, had been sent down to the canteen for a brief respite. He felt foolish. What if he saw someone from the station out here? What would he say about being so far off the beaten track, his beat?
The canteen was halfway down the main corridor and off to the left through some sort of glass atrium. Posters on the wall advertised charity events and concerts. One poster announced The
Mayor’s Gala at the Bridgewater Hall another offered ‘Midnight Walks into Manchester’s secret past’ whilst a third warned ‘Sexually Transmitted Diseases are Passion Killers!’ Jason was reading the latter when he saw the Nurse coming out of the canteen straight towards him. He moved his head in an odd angular fashion to make it look as though he were reading something else and then it occurred to him that he might be able to move as if he hadn’t stopped to read at all. As a consequence he craned his neck awkwardly and lurched in slow motion toward the canteen.
“Are you all right?”
“Certainly!” Jason flexed his neck a little and bounced from side to side on the spot. “Just ah..” He took a breath “Looking for you actually” he was about to use the smile when Jenny suddenly looked shocked. “You!”
“Yes.” Again he nearly got to the smile.
She looked at the uniform. He was a policeman, sort of. Jenny looked around for a means of escape. If the staff sister knew she was in trouble with the police she would lose her job. “I didn’t know you were a police man I was going to …” She tried to think of some sort of reasonable excuse for what this man had undoubtedly seen her do in Zara.
“Yes … I spoke to your friend, they told me on the ward you would be down here.” He pulled out the mobile phone.
Jenny looked at the phone in his hand and then into his face. Now, he smiled.
“Is that … my phone?”
“Yes, I’ve been calling your friends to let you know… We have been calling … your friends.”
She smiled. “I thought you had come to arrest me.” She smiled at him and then the corners of her eyes filled with tears. The smile stayed but she started to cry uncontrollably. “Sorry.” Jenny wiped her face on her sleeve.
“Are you OK?”
“I’ve had a bad morning, I’m ok.” she wiped her face again. “This is stupid I should be able to handle this.”
“Come on lets sit down in here for a minute’ Jason put his hand on her arm and they returned to her seat in the canteen.
“You are arresting me.” Her mouth smiled though her eyes were still blurred with tears.
“You have the right to remain silent” he grinned “but I’d prefer it if you would tell me all about it.” She watched his back from her vantage point in the canteen as he chatted to the woman at the till. He put the change carefully back into a wallet that was stowed in an inside pocket and hitched up
his trousers a little as he waited for the coffee. He was not a very tall man but he had a sort of athleticism… ‘Nice arms…’ she thought.
Tony heard rather than felt the loud snort. It sounded like a particularly loud pig, a boar. ‘In more ways than one’ his wife would have said. It jolted him awake with a vague memory of some dream that ended in a pig stye. The snort had been his last snore, just one snort? Had he been snoring all night? The back of his throat felt tender. The soft pallet underneath the epiglottis was sore. He opened his eyes. What time was it? Tony reached across to the bedside table in the dark and hit the clock. It did not light up. “Bloody thing!” he jogged it, nothing. When he had bought the clock of a deaf mute in Skiathos it lit up when it was touched but as soon as he got it home that function ceased. How could you tell if someone was deaf mute anyway? The little bugger was probably just some fucking gypsy praying on the gullible. Sandra had been taken in. “Aw go on Tony get one, bless him look at him…” They had watched the young man leave various glowing LED lit items on the tables in the open air restaurant by the Aegean sea and Tony had reluctantly parted with five euros and given the guy his card back that proclaimed
‘Deaf and Mute, all funds collected go towards providing a safe environment for those less fortunate. Thank you. Al items five euros’
Tony hit the thing again. It glowed emerald green and the clock read nine fifty five. “For Gods sake!”
“Mm?” His wife murmured beside him “What’s up Tony?”
Tony was out of the bed leaving his wife partially uncovered by the sudden movement. He pulled the curtain and squinted out onto the drive. It was raining. Sandra pulled the sheets back over herself and turned over.
Tony felt the usual hard pain in the centre of his head and cursed the second bottle of Merlot and then remembered the beer. He needed to be at the council offices in less than an hour. Tony was not an athletic man, at five feet nine inches he weighed an impressive sixteen stone, four pounds and two or three ounces. He watched his weight or to be more accurate here, he watched his weight go up. As a consequence nearly every item of clothing he owned was just a little tight. Tony showered
in the new wet room, shaved and applied a small piece of tissue to the razor cut on his lip. By the time he had pulled on the pink shirt and the blue suite trousers he had already started to sweat again. “Why do you have to have it so bloody hot in here … I can’t fucking breath.”
The form under the covers did not respond. Tony stood by the window and looked out across the fields as he tied the knot around his neck. This was his second year as leader of the council. Since the changes the new post of leader had given him more power than many had thought possible. He was a popular figure in some parts of the town. His marketing campaign based mainly on his work as a councillor and before that as a local business man had focused on ‘Tony the Man’ rather than any awkward policy decisions he might have to make. This was where his opposition had failed. They had been bogged down in detail. ‘Budgeting’ for this, ‘Saving’ that. Tony had just been himself. A local celebrity in a world where celebrity was the highest form of currency. It was a walkover.
Since the elections two years ago Tony had found ways to thank those who had helped him achieve power. He was not a clumsy man, few would have noticed how subtly the various contracts he had supervised had been allocated. Some of the sharper opposition had been critical of the changes in the local building regulations that had allowed the demolition and redevelopment of some once cherished hospital buildings into luxury apartments but so far no one had even commented on the rather nifty allocation of the recycling contracts to ESES. Saving the environment was, after all a worthy occupation and even the opposition had bigger fish to fry and less interest in what happened to the oil they were fried in. Tony left the bedroom door open and a draft lifted the curtains as he slammed the front door.
Would this headache never leave him? He had taken four paracetamol, twice the required dose. As with everything Tony did he exceeded recommendations. Lunch with Eric at Cicchetti’s had been excellent but the chardonnay had only made the headache worse. He needed a proper drink. Eric had been happy with the new hospital contract. Since the budget cuts the hospitals had been given the power to ‘outsource’ their waste disposal. Tony had been surprised at how squeamish most of the council were about hospital ‘Waste’ and the details of the scheme had been pushed through relatively untouched and as Eric had first drafted them. ESES was really starting to look like the modern European multinational that Eric had dreamed of.
Gyp spent the next few days trying to find Mr Chen. He sniffed around the overgrown culvert at Chorlton Brook but dare not go inside. The smell was wrong. He spent time in the bracken at the edge of the wood until hunger drove him to approach strangers in the park. One over eager female
took hold of his collar and Gyp did the unthinkable, he bit the woman. He was hungry but he was not going anywhere without Mr Chen. The woman screamed in shock and Gyp saw a man in a grey anorak come running towards them. That was when he decided to see if Mr Chen was inside the big black hole.
“Excuse me I’m sorry to ask you but can you tell me what this says?”
Jason looked around at the young woman who had approached him in the park near the fountain. He had seen her before with her boyfriend and assumed they were alcoholics or addicts of some sort. She offered a dog eared letter to him.
“No of course not, no problem” he smiled at her. “let me have a look what you’ve got.” He took the letter and unfolded it, smoothing the edges of the crumpled sheet. The woman was in her forties or possibly younger. She walked with a limp, her body just slightly twisted to the left as she moved. She wore an old black tracksuit and an anorak, her hair scraped back tightly against her scalp. She had a pretty face, a little too thin and bare of any make up but for a smudge of forgotten eye liner. “I can’t read that good, I need to know where he is you see.”
“Oky doky lets have a look then”
“Don’t mind this, I’m just stressed out thats all. I know its only eleven o clock or something.” Jason acknowledged the can of larger she held in her left hand.
“Well this is just a release paper love.” He quoted the type in front of him “You have been released on Police bail and must return to Mote Hill Police station on the date below for further enquiries. Failure to abide by the conditions of Police bail will result in prosecution under bla, bla…” he flipped the paper over. “…and this is to… ‘Paul Lee’ is that your boy friend?”
“He’s not mi boyfriend he’s mi husband really, we’re not married but its common law husband” “Right” Well you should really give this back to him love.”
“But I don’t know where he is, that’s the thing” she drank from the can.
“I’ve got to find him, I didn’t know where he was and then he got arrested and he hadn’t done anything.”
“Right, well …” Jason looked over the woman’s shoulder and saw that they were being watched by a couple on the bench opposite the fountain and the lilypond.
“All right then come on” he pushed his bike on up the hill away from the spectators. “Well, he can’t have gone far can he? Where did you see him last?”
As if he could find a man in the same way that one can find a pair of lost gloves Jason began with Lizzie’s recollections of the last time she had seen him and their usual haunts. Probably Paul Lee was just drinking with the usual suspects on the graveyard steps overlooking the river.
“Are you a real policeman?” She asked him.
“Well … yes. I’m a Special Constable”
“Thats not a real policemen though is it?” she meant nothing offensive by this enquiry she was just confused.
“ Let’s see if I can help you and then decide, how about that?” Lizzie seemed to like the idea, she had in fact played Jason very well. She had learned that sometimes the authorities needed a little extra manipulation in order to achieve the results they were capable of. This guy now had his pride at stake. Far more incentive than just doing his job she thought.
“Do you think you can find him? I can’t manage on my own without him…”
Jason sighed, he smiled reassuringly at the woman. “We’ll do our best.”
He left Lizzie with the guys on the cathedral steps. The soup kitchen would be opening soon and a sizeable group had gathered for their dinner.
Many of the homeless made their way to the Victorian arches along the canal banks. Maybe he would stumble across Lee down here. The bike bumped and jolted down the small stone steps onto the tow path. The gears clicked and the peddle hit the last step. Jason mounted the bicycle and pushed off. Within minutes he was scraping to a stop beside a great viaduct arch. Sheltering at the back he could see bundles of rags and the remnants of a fire. The archway looked lived in. If Paul Lee ever slept rough out here, this was as good a place as any.
“Hello?” he leaned the bike against the red brick and glanced around for potential bicycle thieves. His first bicycle had gone when he left it propped up outside the flat. Losing this one would be a disaster. Jason walked in to the archway. “Hello?” The back of the arch was full of damp old blankets and piles of cardboard. The cardboard was used every night around the city to keep human bodies safe from the life sucking chill of the street. There was no one here. He kicked the blanket over with the toe of his boot. Nothing. The ashes of the fire were cold and damp. The remnants of a plastic bottle of ‘Strongbow’ cider lay half melted at it’s edge.
“Oi!” Jason wheeled around in shock “Leave that!” he saw a man in silhouette against the entrance to the arch. “What are you up to? That’s mine that!”
“Oh, sorry mate” Jason raised his hands as a gesture of good will “I just wondered if there was anyone here … sorry” The man advanced and Jason could see that he was a skinny man in what
looked to be a padded ski suit. The man was filthy. It was summer but obviously too cold too wash out here by the canal.
“What you after?” Yellow rodent teeth escaped the man’s black beard.
“Just looking for a mate. Thats all … a friend of … a friend”
“Well, they’re not in here”
“No, yes sorry about that. I don’t suppose you know him? Paul Lee? His friend Lizzie’s looking for him and I said I’d help.”
Jason shook his head and reached for the bike “Right.” He mounted the bike, Jason gritted his teeth and muttered to himself. “Thank you so much for all your help.”
“No need to be sarcastic mate”
Jason looked back at the little homeless figure. “No?” he snapped and then “No … You’re right sorry. I just thought you might be able to help.”
“Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I know everybody else who’s homeless you know.” Jason looked at the man standing amongst the debris under the old arch. “That’s the problem… I don’t know any one do I?…” he looked forlornly at his cardboard to make sure it was still all there.
“Yes, Sorry mate” Embarrassed Jason pushed off and the little man heard the click, click tick of the bicycle as it faded away.
So the girl who had called him had been calling from New-York! He laughed out loud as he peddled along the tow path. The red brick arches gave way from time to time to lock ups and garages that backed onto the canal.
A scrap yard crane heaved an old Vauxhall onto a pile of shattered vehicles, their windscreens buckled, their body work rusting. Everything crumbles in the end, ashes to ashes. The cars, once objects of desire, now piled forgotten one atop the next like some nightmare motorway carnage. Every one of those machines once purred smoothly out of the show room to make someone proud. Now rust. Try turning the key in the ignition now. Jason could smell the acrid scent of the cold engine oil as he passed on by, his soft rubber tyres crunched cinders and ash.
Why had she stolen those things? He could see her now clutching the white carrier bag as she upset her tea cup and hurried from the cafe. He could n’t talk to her about it yesterday. She seemed so ashamed. She knew he knew, thought he had come to arrest her! Little did she know how lightly the offence was taken, how common it was. The city was a swarm of petty theft,
shoplifting was a way of life for so many. The stores accounted for it. Factored it in to their projections and made vast profits despite the ‘natural wastage.’ People fed on a diet of celebrity lifestyle and consumption who lived next door to the scrap heap. Listening to the clock counting out the days of their lives until one day the ignition fails.
He noticed a little more green now as he started to leave the city centre behind him. The back streets of Stretford giving way to the suburbs of Sale and the water park. These people had escaped the city, or their parents had. Before long he would have cycled back in time, through the fields once worked by men who’s wives spun at a wheel before King Cotton.
Jason had given up on the idea that he might find Paul Lee out here. He was looking for nothing now. A vague sense of guilt that this was not his beat was assuaged by the hour. This was his lunch time break he could do as he pleased. The sun tried to breach the light cloud cover as the path deteriorated. He picked his way more carefully between the pot holes and tufts of grass and then he came out from under a small road bridge and the urban sprawl was all behind him. Jason noticed wool caught in the teeth of the barbed wire fence which ran all along this stretch to the next bridge. It was quiet.
There half way along the stretch to the next bridge, something hanging from the wire. A black shape. It looked like … he got closer. It looked like some sort of … It was a rat. Was it a rat or a mole? He got closer still it was definitely a rat, a big one. Quite dead it hung by its tail from the top wire. Jason drew parallel with the thing and pulling on the breaks he screeched to a halt. The animal had been tied on by its tail. He muttered to himself ‘That is a big rat … how did you get there Ratty?’
“Does that look right to you?” Jason looked back startled. Losing his balance he hopped sideways dragging the front wheel of his bicycle across the tow path. There was a man behind him. Bearded and wild looking the man raised his eyebrows and grinned at Jason.
“Have you seen one like that before?” The man was dressed in a ripped green waterproof jacket and had his muddy trousers tucked into socks that concertinad out from a pair of extra large German army boots. He had what seemed to be an old leather gun-case swung casually over his shoulder. “Well …” Jason regarded the dead rat. “To be honest I haven’t seen many rats at all, really I wouldn’t know.”
“Have a close look at it, see if you can tell me what’s wrong with it.” The man played with the hair on his chin and waited for Jason to inspect the rodent.
“Well, its dead” Jason attempted humour, he smiled sideways at the man.
“Mmm” the attempt had failed.
“Its … a very big rat ..?”
“It is, but that’s not it.” The man pushed past Jason and grabbed the rat in his fist. He lifted it up pulling on the tail that was still attached to the barbed wire. “Its black.”
“Oh …” Jason nodded as if the information meant something to him.
“This, me old cocker is a Rattus Rattus the Black Rat!” he let the rat go and it dropped down to swing gently by its earthworm tail. “And why is that unusual you might ask?”
“Yes … is … is that unusual?”
“That my Special Officer friend is very unusual. The Black Rat is no longer known in these parts. Hasn’t been for over a hundred years. Look at the length of its tail! You don’t get tails like that on our rats!”
“Really?” Jason watched as the man parted his moustache with his finger and thumb and reached into his pocket. “How do you know this stuff … mate”
“Sam” The man shifted a pouch of tobacco from his right to his left hand and offered his right to Jason who gave the man his name in return. “Oh I’m paid to catch ‘em mate” he winked and pulled out a cigarette paper which he proceeded to fashion into a thin cigarette. “Yon fella pays me per tail.” Sam gestured towards some large grey industrial looking farm buildings.
“Here she is!” at that moment a small wire haired terrier burst out from under the hedge. The dog sniffed at the man’s right leg and then skittered past him and jumped up at the rat where it hung. “Oi! Leave it! Leave it! Meg!”
Without dropping his tobacco Sam skilfully grabbed the dog by its tail and dragged it backwards away from the fence “Behave!”
The dog licked its lips and looked eagerly about the canal bank. She appeared to have a huge smile on her face and Jason could see the rows of tiny white teeth in her mouth as she doubled back and started to sniff the air along the hedgerow. “Stop being so keen you daft dog!” Sam licked the cigarette paper. “Good dog that” he nodded toward the dog and lit his roll up. “We’re not supposed to have these buggers in this country” he gestured to the rat. “Plague rats”
“Really?” Jason frowned
“Yeh it were these buggers that carried the plague … you know The Black Death?”
“I thought that was down to the fleas …”
“Yeh, the fleas, but these were the rats that had the fleas if you will. That’s all there is round here now. I’ve been taking hundreds of em, she’s worn out!” He nodded over to where the dog had made herself a nest and was watching them from under the hedge. Now Jason noticed tiny flecks of blood on the dogs white muzzle. “I don’t know where the brown rats are any more, its all this lot.
They’re coming out from town I think. There’s always more of them down by Chorlton Brook culverts, the storm drains and they come from central Manchester don’t they?”
“Well, yes I suppose they do. “ Jason looked back down the canal towards Manchester. “There have been a lot more rats about recently. I even saw some in the town centre yesterday but thats because of the rubbish strike I think. They should soon disappear as soon as it all gets cleared up.” Sam blew smoke audibly out of his nostrils and into the nicotine stained moustache. “Not as simple as that mate, for every rat you see there are thousands that you don’t. They are shy, nervous things, good at hiding. If you’ve seen ‘em on the street then you can bet your life the place is swarming with ‘em. I followed Meg up a storm drain … its about a mile down that way.” He gestured towards Manchester. “You’ll have seen it as you came past. You get a lot of tramps down there sleeping rough?”
Jason thought of Paul Lee and whether this might be worth a look. “I didn’t see it I don’t think?” “Its opposite the scrap yard on the other side of the canal, you can get over using the lock gate if you watch your step… Any way… I followed her up there and I’ve never seen so many. The further we went the more there were. That’s where there all coming from. I’ve told yon fella” he nodded to the farm, “but he says the council won’t accept responsibility. hes been on at them for weeks. If they don’t do something he says he will!” Sam drew on the cigarrette and spoke on the inbreath. “So he pays me to keep the numbers down.” he exhaled a stream of blue smoke. “I’m thinking of getting a lad. Its more work than we can do, just us.” The dog licked her lips and appeared to wink at the man.
Phone 0171 432 1097
Sam Mathews Oak cottage Carrington
MD General Practitioners Cheshire OL
SIG 3g Stat dose (1 satchet) – dissolve or mix with water and take between meals REFILL PM
MD Dr Roberts
Age 59 Date-28/06
“Look I don’t give a toss!” Said Tony “I don’t want to keep hearing all this crap about what you can and can’t do!” We’ve got Bobbies on the beat haven’t we? I want the streets cleared. I will not have scroungers bothering the delegates. Look until after the Expo I want no bloody Big Issue, no bloody busking and definitely no bloody sleeping on the street! Do you get me?” Tony stared at the Blackberry as though it were responsible for the irritating phone call. A tinny voice answered him from the phones loudspeaker.
“Tony, I’m a solicitor not Judge Dredd. You can’t just lock everybody up! They’re not criminals Tony, just because they’re in the way.”
Tony brought the phone closer to his mouth unaware that he was actually spitting into the mouthpiece, very quietly he said “Sort. It. Out. Or I will go to Ramsbottle and Ellis.” The silence that followed let him know that his lawyer did not want to lose the valuable council contract to the opposition. Tony heard the solicitor breath heavily into the phone.
“I’ll see what I can do within the existing law Tony … maybe noise abatement, maybe littering… I don’t know … but the Big Issue sellers will have to stay Tony … you can’t …” Tony hung up. He had always been the sort of man who got things done. In Tony’s book you did not get things done by pussy footing around making excuses. If the Expo went as it should it would be because Tony created an environment where business could prosper. He would make Manchester the envy of the world. Eric brought him a large scotch.
“There you are Mr Marsland, here’s to you!”
Tony took the drink and savoured the cold peaty flavour, the clink of the ice and the familiar scent of it. The headache was almost gone now and he raised his glass to the owner of ESES. “Cheers Eric. What time do you have?” he looked at his own Rolex.
“Five-ish we’re all right here for another one or two before we need to go to the Hall. Are you going to say a few words tonight?”
“I always do Eric. Reminds them who’s in charge!” he winked over the brim of the glass. “How’s the Hospital contract working out?”
“Very well Tone. We have n’t got the incinerator up and running yet but thats no real worry. The stuff’s largely bio degradable so we have several options until then…. You get the share certificates for Green Co?” Green Co. was the commercial wing of Clearwater. Clearwater was a registered charity and was therefore free from taxation. The decisions about which income was taxable and which was not was made by the trustees. After they had paid their own expenses of course.
Tony nodded briskly and sucked on an ice cube. He bit down hard and the ice cracked. “What about Mickey D’s?”
“Oh yes I meant to thank you for that one.” Eric turned a little red “They gave us the whole chain… I owe you”
“It will take more than that” Tony gave him the empty glass and turned to look out of the window onto the street. A pile of rubbish was being blown by a draft from an air vent. Tony looked at the black grease coating the wall under the vent. It must have been a kitchen ventilator. Even the pavement and the walls here were sticky with the tar-like deposit. As he watched and to his astonishment, a large black rat pushed out from underneath the pile of discarded bin bags and seemed to stare at him from across the street. People continued to walk by but the rat did not flinch. It sat and cleaned its ears with its forepaws and then just settled and watched Tony, it’s yellow whiskers twitching. Tony looked away to see if there was any one else coming along the street who might also see the rat as it glared so provocatively at him but no one came. Just Tony and the rat.
“I brought us a large one”
Tony, shocked out of his reverie turned to Eric. “Have you seen that!” The two men stared out of the window together across the street to the pile of debris.
“Yes its a mess Tony but what can we do? They won’t go back to work and you can’t afford to pay them their demands” The rat had gone. Tony was not listening.
It was, legally speaking, trespass. There was obvious damage to the grating that was supposed to cover the entrance but it was hard to tell whether it had been kicked in or forced out. Jason left his bike just inside the tunnel out of sight. The bike lock was back at the station and so he had to take the chance that the bike would be safe. He wanted to see how far back the tunnel went and if there was a chance that people might actually shelter under here. So far it looked unlikely. There were definitely a lot of rats down there. The guy, Sam had said that people slept rough in here but people believed odd things about the homeless. You would have to be pretty desperate to spend a night in here.
After walking no further than twenty meters into the dark he kicked a bundle of rags and flattened cardboard boxes. Surely not? Jason flicked on the Maglite that Alex had bought for him at Christmas. He focused the beam at his feet. It was definitely a pile of bedding. He played the light further up the tunnel and could see other such similar little nests. Sad little piles of blankets and cardboard. In the centre of the tunnel another thirty meters along he could see what looked like the remains of a fire. The torch lit up the curved ceiling of the tunnel and he considered the craft of the Victorian engineers who had lined it with brick. The walls were salted here and there with white minerals that had seeped out of the brick for a hundred years. The rest was covered in soot. In the silence he could hear water dripping. Jason remained perfectly still and watched as a solitary rat made its way out from under one of the piles of blankets and came towards him. It trotted along the edge of the tunnel oblivious to his presence. Jason’s heart rate increased a little to his embarrassment and he banged his foot hard on the ground. The rat stopped and raised its whiskered nose. It seemed to tremble as it waited motionless. Jason banged his foot again and the rat tore away from him in a panic back down the tunnel out of site.
‘Right’, Jason held the torch to his watch. He would give it an hour and then head back to the station with or without any sign of Paul Lee. It would be better if he could show something for his day’s work and a recovered missing person would make up for a rather slow start to the week. It was becoming increasingly difficult explaining where he had been on these solitary days but since he and Caroline had split Jason wondered if he would be better off minding his own business and leaving the policing to those better suited to it. He glanced back at the silhouette of his bike and decided to take the risk and leave it there. The inhabitants of the culvert were nowhere to be seen and he figured that they would probably only come here after dark.
Jason walked until he could no longer see the tunnel entrance. He was aware that he was not alone in the tunnel but as long as his little friends kept out of the torch light he couldn’t see them. He didn’t want to see them. He knew that they couldn’t hurt him but even so a swarm of rats is not a pretty sight. The floor of the tunnel was covered in a light dry black soil, probably silt from the last overflow. It would sit there on the bottom of the culvert until the next heavy flood when all of the debris upstream would be washed out onto the flood plains. When that happened anyone sleeping in the tunnel entrance would have their bed washed away. It wasn’t safe. If anyone were foolhardy enough to be camping out further down the tunnel it was his duty to bring them out. Any charge for damage to the property was not foremost in his mind.
“Hello?” Jason called out ahead but he was greeted by nothing but a short echo. Shouting into the dark seemed pointless. If there were anyone down here they would probably keep quiet anyway.
He walked on, flicking the torch light around the curve of the arch as he went. Occasionally a splash of water would find its way onto the back of his neck and he would quickly whip his hand up and wipe it off before it got chance to run down the back of his shirt. “Dirty place” he whispered to himself as he saw several rats dart away to the sides of the tunnel. They were definitely increasing in number just as the countryman had said. Maybe they were coming out from the city?
Whether it was because the culvert seemed to be slightly lower here he could not tell but there was definitely water under foot now. Puddles of stagnant water and occasionally larger pools mirrored the drip, drip from the arched ceilings and Jason stepped more carefully. He was fascinated by just how far the tunnel might go.
For no real reason he had the sudden feeling that he was very alone now and wondered for the first time how long the torch battery would last. There was no sign of it giving up yet. On an impulse he took out his phone and flicked it on. The screen lit up beautifully and he compared the light to that from his torch. Not as bright but definitely adequate should he need to resort to it. Before he put it away Jason noticed that, unsurprisingly, there was no reception.
He stepped forward and immediately felt something soft under foot. The rodent screeched and Jason knew that he had damaged it severely. Although it had been only a fraction of a second his mind recalled the softness, a small round body the crack of what must have been tiny bones. The screech still sounded in his ear as Jason lifted his foot and swore at the thing in frustration. “For god’s sake keep out of the way then!” He felt bad for injuring the thing but they were everywhere and did not have the sense to get out of the way. He moved forward and saw several more black shapes skittering out of the torch-light and into the shadow….