Friday, 27 August 2010

They knocked it down

They knocked it down. Not with a demolition ball, but with a JCB clawing and pawing at the fractured walls like an over-sized robotic lion cub. I watched through the window as the great metal arm swung and then gently scooped. The bricks, timber and steel fell obediently. I was amazed at how controlled it seemed; almost balletic. As walls crumbled and fell, a doll’s house of new walls appeared behind. I tried to recognise objects amongst the rubble. I thought that I saw a fireplace but then the great yellow arm took it. I saw what looked like a china plate still intact, but the clouds of dust obscured my view.
I heard that there was asbestos in the building, which is why the demolition was delayed. They had to send in men with special suits and masks on to take out all the toxic insulation. I felt a dry scratch in my throat, which I itched with the back of my tongue, and looked down at my sandwiches, which had started to curl in the airless office.
I thought of the times I used to eat my lunch in the building, a long time ago. Even then the rooms smelled damp and were crowded with 1970s furniture. Back then I would sit in a low chair in the bay window, and hope that no-one would join me. I would spread out my belongings on the chair next to me, and the coffee table in front of me. One tupperware, one banana, one purse, one copy of the Telegraph, one spectacle case. Every time the door squeaked open, my spine would contract with dread. I must have looked quite insular to the other staff as they walked in. I must have looked lonely. Which, I suppose, I was. But it was a self-imposed isolation; an enjoyable loneliness.
I looked back to the interior of my office: aluminium, formica and Ikea-framed-artwork covering a calico wall. Next to my computer monitor, framed pictures of Alex and the kids.
I would have liked to walk back through those tiled halls, up the creaky wooden staircase once more. But it’s too late now. They knocked it down.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Swirling, spinning endlessly

I wanted to wake you just to show you, but I thought you’d be mad. And then you wouldn’t appreciate it. But really - you should have seen those stars.
Now that I think about it, I’d heard on the radio a few days previously that a meteor storm was forecast, so I guess I knew that it was coming. I’d gone to put the rubbish out. The bag wasn’t full, but it was starting to smell in the hot weather. As soon as I set foot outside, I could sense something was different, so I looked up right away. It was a crystal clear night. There were so many stars, but the street lights were getting in the way, so I dumped my rubbish, and walked to the end of the street where the alley intersects with the train track. Once away from the lights, the view was so much better. I just stood there; my neck craned back, my mouth agape, and took in the picture. Of course, there was too much to fit in my field of vision, so I began to circle around in my slippers to decide which direction provided the best view. I tried to identify some constellations, but got stuck at two: The Plough and Cassiopeia. I resolved to learn some more once I got back inside.

Then the first of the shooting stars just sliced the periphery of my vision. I turned to look, but it was too late. It only lasted for a moment, but it cemented me to the spot. I couldn’t leave now until I’d seen another. I lay down on the still-warm tarmac. The street was absolutely silent from down here. I glanced back up the length of terraces and saw that a few still had lights on, but there wasn’t a sound. Even the usual susurration of electricity from the rail track was notable by its absence. I didn’t have to wait long before another shooting star streaked the black. The line that the meteor drew seemed to run perfectly parallel to my body, and it baptised me in the name of the Father, and the Son.
I should make a wish, I thought. You know, I’m not superstitious normally, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. It made me think back to the time that we were in India, and we received the blessing by the lake, and the gurus that blessed us were really just conmen after some money, but they offered us a wish, so we closed our eyes, and made it. Later, it transpired that we had wished for the same thing. And sure enough, as soon as we got back, it happened. So wishes can come true. I thought about you lying there in bed, the cot by your side; the two of you creating a duet of snuffles and snores in your slumber.
Another meteor dissected the sky, and I realised that I hadn’t made a wish yet. Do you have to wish as the star is shooting? Because that wouldn’t leave you with a lot of time. No, I decided that you just need to wish soon after and it would be OK.
Right across the sky, a brighter cloud of stars formed a band from left to right. I thought of the logistics of the earth spinning around, but also orbiting the sun, which is orbiting the centre of the galaxy, but it began to make my head spin. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a dog bark, and I thought: I still haven’t made my wish.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

A Posse of Guardian Angels

June had been good but recently the summer couldn’t work out what to do with itself; one moment scorching sunshine, the next bucketing rain. Around mid-July Mrs Saldanha had taken to putting her washing on the clothes horse and placing it in the shelter of the back porch, so that she didn’t have to lurch out with the cane and take the clothes off the line soon as the weather turned.
On this day it was sunshine with few clouds but you couldn’t trust the skies and she sat in the porch by her hanger, reading one of those Jilly Cooper novels about rich white people getting up to god knows what with each other – they were the only habit she thought of as a vice; good trash to pass the inexplicable days.
Mrs Salhanda had worked for forty years as an auxiliary nurse at Christie’s before being medically retired in ’02; for a few years after, she’d done voluntary days on the SureStart reception off Albert Road, before the hip got too bad for her to hold down even those duties.
Even with the cane and the pills, there was a visible wince as she manoeuvred her body into a standing position; it happened slowly these days, in folds and cracks. Meter readers and parcel bearers learned the value of patience at Mrs Saldanha’s door.
Today Mrs Rasahdi was there. It was obvious that the woman had something to say, and the tension crept back into their discourse for the first time in fifteen years. Mrs Saldanha led her through the front room with all its photographs.

They sat on the back porch and talked around it for a while – the Khan girl’s marriage, the latest mess Mohammed Afsal’s son had got himself into, this new government – before the thing was said.

‘He got his date,’ said Mrs Rasahdi.
‘That right?’

‘Right.’ Pause. ‘October seven.’

They watched the cats circle each other in the grass.

Mrs Saldanha lit a Dunhill.
‘How’d he take it?’
‘Ain’t spoke to him.’ Pause. ‘Wanted you to know before anyone else, cause it’ll get around, and you’ll get calls from the police counselling people, Victim Support an that.’
Victim Support. You work for forty years. You raise five children. You run the Neighbourhood Watch and the TRA. And then suddenly you are just a victim and that’s it.

‘They ain’t called.’
‘Nah, I thought they might have, but just in case.’
‘They ain’t called.’

‘They shoulda called.’

Pause. ‘Thanks,’ said Mrs Saldanha. ‘I real appreciate that.’

‘Thank you.’

They talked on. The Begum girl’s right of abode application had been knocked back again. They were doing something with the post office that had been boarded up the last six years. Aras Qureishi’s boy seemed to be doing alright at the law firm on Stockport Road.

After Mrs Rasahdi was gone to take the dog for a walk down the cycle paths, Mrs Saldanha finished her chapter of the Jilly Cooper book, marked her place with the sleeve, and went inside. It took fifteen minutes to get up the stairs to the bathroom and back down. She tied her scarf around her head, checked she had everything she needed and had done everything correctly, and left the house.
School holidays, and the 169 was full of kids being cheeky and messing around, but by this time only the silliest kid would have dared to cheek Mrs Saldanha or mess her around. She looked out of the window and marked the changes that were happening even now. More For Sale signs on the Princess Road semis. Another totalled bus station left a signature of sparkling blue dust. The Polish place on the Cavendish Road corner had its shutters down at three o’clock.
Normally she visited the Southern Cemetery on three calendar days: the nineteenth of January, the twenty-third of July, and Mother’s Day. This of course was a special occasion. Mrs Saldanha traced her steps to the stone, thinking about how this whole thing started, the pale and tentative woman courtside, and there had been some minister who had praised her after what she’d said, but to Mrs Saldanha her gesture hadn’t been about forgiveness or redemption or even the grace of God (although she did believe in God); she just couldn’t see the point of having this pain and horror extend any further.

She stood graveside for a long time. She moved when she remembered that they closed the gates these days, due to racist and anti-Semitic desecration, plus druggies stripping the metal for cash. Best to get going before the caretaker did his sweep.

Turning around brought a sharp pain above average. Through the trees the sky was still blue but somehow fragile looking, waiting to burst. And yet she’d lived with this condition long enough to know pain didn’t mean rain. Still, in the treelined air there were hovering points of phosphorescence where she tread, like the brightest stars of night in the day.

By Max Dunbar

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Water under the bridge

From the lodge, it was a short walk along a mud and gravel path down to the riverbank. The temperature outside was pretty mild for the time of year all things considered, Old Frank observed, but those clouds look threatening. He pulled his rainhat further down over his brow, swept his index finger over his moustache, and pulled the wooden door shut behind him. As he did, he sent his rods clattering over onto the floor, and down the track, into the nettles beyond.
‘God shit it.’
Old Frank grunted from his diaphragm as he blundered down the path, after his equipment. As he reached his hand into the nettles to retrieve his rods, he held his face away from the plants, looking up to the sky as his fingers explored the undergrowth. He curled his fist around the cold, smooth plastic, and pulled out the bundle of rods.
‘Got you.’
Pausing to catch his breath, Old Frank looked down to where the riverbank curved below him.
‘Yep. As good as it gets.’
In a nearby willow tree, a bird responded: ‘Scooree, Scooree.’
A smile dispersed under the length of that moustache, and slowly, Old Frank made his way down the path.

Once he got down to the river, to his usual spot, he carefully placed his rods down and opened up his tackle box. His pink eyes swept the surface of the water, as his brain performed the necessary calculations that had become almost subliminal by now. He reached into his box, and retrieved the necessary weight, bait, float and hook to land a good one.
As he cast his first line in with a satisfying plop, Old Frank afforded himself a look around the valley: first downriver, then upriver, then across to the opposite bank, then back up behind him to his own lodge. He could hear the family next-door opening their sliding doors, and clattering out onto the balcony noisily. They were shouting to each other about breakfast, about their sleep, about their day.
Old Frank scowled, and then slumped into his camping chair. Last year, when he had come to the lodge, he had been the only one here. The adjacent holiday apartments were a new thing; an unwelcome blight on the previously unspoilt landscape. It wasn’t that Old Frank didn’t like children – he did. He was always polite to the family. Told them where to shop, where to take a walk. It’s just that this used to be his place, and now he had to share it.
He returned his focus to the flow of the river. Sticks and leaves floated past his gaze, then on downstream. ‘Ignore them Frank,’ he told himself, ‘this is your time. Private time. Time to reflect.’
The orange float danced on the moving currents, and Old Frank tried to think back to the time that he was a young man shouting to his kids over breakfast, but the memories wouldn’t come: too long ago, too long ago. His thoughts tuned out. The float bobbed. In the willow tree, the bird reminded him: ‘Scooree, scooree.’