Frankie Cleaver Junior disappeared from his father’s club almost a month ago. He had kissed his mother goodbye and left one morning without saying a word. And, although his father had gone hysterical, his mother suspected it was probably for the best. Cooping up your son in the equivalent of an underground nuclear bunker was bound to send him crazy.
Since he left, his mother has been wondering round the halls of the Rakish in a vain attempt to find him. The staff there have become accustomed to her as she hides in what little mind she has left. She holds onto the wall, distrusting her sight and balance. She slowly moves one room to the next, and when a person passes her, she squashes herself flat against the wall, unable to bare the touch of anyone.
Frankie Cleaver Senior has been sending out experts to track him down. He has sent them after his son’s friends, to every part of the city that could be hiding him, to the bus stops, the train station, he has even considered calling in the favour he is owed at the airport. He hangs up the phone after arranging a meeting with a man about a sniffer dog.
He is angry. His son is ruining the best laid plans. Everything is getting too close. He needs to find him before everything is lost. He is getting desperate.
Cleaver’s phone rings.
On the far side of town, Junior climbs up to the belfry; he has had enough. The priest has called the police, and a dozen cops come running down the narrow streets. A crowd gathers round the bottom of the steeple, several recognise the poor boy. Some know his time is up.
He cries out against the injustice of it all. He doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t want to live on. He holds onto the cross at the top of the spire and cries angry, bitter tears.
The chapel has the tallest spire in the Shambles, and from the top he can see all the world he has missed living underground. He can look the sun in the eye. He can see people living. He can see all the things he has only heard about from his mother. The shapes of the buildings, the way they lean in when they reach the top. He can see the mess of electricity cables taped to the outside of the buildings, the washing out on the lines, people filling the square, filling the walkways round the blocks of flats and crowding the windows, he watches as the police take statements from those gathered, he can see birds flying, the factories working and churning out smoke, he can see the iron railings around balconies, mounds of rubbish, and cafes full of people simply living.
He can see all this and still wants to die.
Zoe joins the crowd. She is on her way to her first day of work, but is early so decides to stop and watch. A young man at the top of a church spire. There are people taking photos of him. She takes one too.
The crowd mutter to one another. Every once in a while someone calls out to the boy, but they are, for the most part, quiet and respectful; one of there own is about to die.
Zoe watches as he lets go and tumbles forward, falling head first towards the stone flags. Someone screams out. The whole crowd holds its breath waiting for the moment to be over. They watch as he slams into the pavement. He lies in his own blood breathing out his last terrible breaths.
The police check his card, mark his death and leave when a removal team arrives.
The crowd stands in silence until the boy finally dies.
Zoe shudders at the thought of this happening to her.
She makes her way over to work. She is still excited about her first day. She woke up early and met one of her neighbours in the games room on the ground floor of her block of flats. They are planning on going out later.
The offices are haphazard. The cluster of ink-stained desks are covered in notes and old thoughts and words are stuffed into the drawers. There are computers, but most haven’t been turned on yet. Zoe doesn’t know yet that there is a severe distrust of the technology in this office, and for good reason; they don’t like being watched.
She hasn’t met her boss yet. She still isn’t sure what she’ll be dong. She hopes that she will have the opportunity to write something. She had never considered a career in journalism before, and even now, even though she is unable to take up a profession, she doesn’t really have an interest in the calling.
“Miss Green?” a middle-aged woman offers her hand.
“Hi, I’m Jenna Howul. I’m the editor. Let’s go through to my office.”
They walk through into the next room. A room the size of a cleaner’s closet stuffed with a desk and a small window.
“So,” Jenna begins, “ that out there is where everyone writes their stuff. This is my office. Downstairs we’ve got the printers. There’s six of us that work here. Nina, Charlie and Caddoc are our journalists, they report all the things that go on around here. Downstairs, there’s Dun and Herrick. Herrick is in charge of the printers and Dun is his assistant.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“A little bit of everything. Today, you’ll be on the phones. All you have to do is answer them and write down the information. If it’s for a story, you give it to the person writing the story, if it’s for the classifieds you give it straight to Herrick, he sorts out that stuff.”
She puts her handbag in the bottom drawer of her desk. “Come on. I’ll show you round.”
Jenna directs Zoe round the office, pointing out this and that. Her desk is near the door, she will be talking to any and all drop ins that make their way in off the street. It has a phone and a boxy, dust-covered computer. Across from her desk is an old, half-empty vending machine and a couple of filing cabinets. She is in charge of them. Round the side of the cabinets are the desks of Charlie and Nina, squished in such a way that means the two of them sit next to each other with their backs to the other’s desk. Whenever Nina needs to move she has to climb over her colleague. Fortunately, they both spend a fair amount of time out of the office.
Caddoc spends a fair amount of his time in the office, his desk is in the corner near the staircase down to the printers. He checks off his death list, writing the obituaries in anticipation and, occasionally, checking facts with the deceased. He also writes sports.
“He often comes in late,” Jenna tells Zoe. “He goes to the matches in the evenings and does most of his work then. With the championships on just round the corner in The Flavium he’s got a lot on at the minute.”
This doesn’t help Zoe.
They go through the solid door at the back of the office and head down the brick stairs to the printers. She couldn’t hear the noise upstairs and is surprised by how loud everything is.
At the bottom she is confronted by a bric-a-brac of mismatching machinery. Metal painted black, stamped with old marks, worked with skill by an old man in a flat cap. He is covered in ink.
“Oi! Herrick!” Jenna calls him over the sound of his shunting gear.
He turns to face them, ink and oil have folded themselves into ever creek.
“Hiya, Jenna, you alright?”
“I’m not so bad, you?”
“Pottering on,” he smiles. “Who’s this, then?”
“Zoe, she’s going to be with us for a few months.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
He nods and smiles wringing his hand on an old rag. “I’d shake your hand but I’m covered,” he says gesturing to his hands. “Come down to see the old beauty have you?”
Zoe smiles and nods.
“Well,” he says. “Here she is. She’ll be a eighty-three this autumn, still going as good and strong as ever. Just got to keep her well-maintained and she’ll go on forever.”
“Where’s your Dun?”
“Ah,” says Herrick. “He was out for a last drink last night. Bit emotional. He’ll be in later.”
Jenna nods. “Do you need Zoe to help out for a bit.”
“Well, if the lass’d like to learn a bit of printing know-how, she’s more than welcome to stay.”
Jenna turns to Zoe.
Uncertainty muffles her words. “Yeah,” she says.
Jenna squeezes her shoulders and heads upstairs.
“Well, come now. See this,” says Herrick, pulling a wrench from a workbench in the middle of the room. “This here, this wheel here, it doesn’t turn as well as it should. So,” he sprays it with grease. “We spray it with grease.” He hits it with the wrench. “And hit with the wrench.”
“Doesn’t that damage the machine.”
“Nah, doesn’t do no harm.” He chucks the wrench back onto the table. “This here’s where the paper goes in. This bit’s where the words are put on. And that’s where it comes out and Dun wraps it.” he stands back and scratches his head. “Mind you, it’s a bit more technical than all that, but that’s the gist.” He points to the table. “Pass us the spanner, would you?” she passes it to him. “Have a seat.” She sits.
“So, you want to be a journalist, do you?”
“Ah,” he says, knowingly. “I get you.” he loosens a bolt, cleans and replaces it. He points to a strange tool Zoe doesn’t know. “Pass it me.”
By Lunchtime, they are all in. Jenna calls lunch at half twelve, and the lot of them head down to The Angle for lunch.
The midday crowd is a little more subdued than the night’s. Zoe hasn’t even heard the rumours that surround this place, but Mr and Mrs Cleaver are pointed out to her. They are sitting at their own table in the royal box.
“See if we can’t get an interview with the big man himself,” says Charlie, as they sit down at their own table. “I’ve been hearing all sorts.”
“Any of it printable?” Jenna asks, taking a sip of her beer.
“Is it ever?” he replies.
“How are you doing with the write up for the Gillies-MacKenzie Group?” Jenna asks Nina.
“I have some good interviews on tape,” she says. “But if the Group have anything to do with it, none of it will see the light of day.”
Zoe notes the frustration in everybody’s voices. She wants to know what’s gong on, but everyone round the table just nods.
“Why won’t they let you publish it?”
Nina turns to look at her. “It’s damaging,” she says. “They don’t like it when you print things that doubt their regime.”
“Your regime,” scoffs Dun, a young boy, who Zoe suspects should still be in school. Herrick clips him over the head.
“That’s no way to talk to no one.”
“It’s not censorship, as such,” Jenna explains, “we can print anything we want to, it just doesn’t mean that we can’t print anything we want.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Have you heard of the Hillside Gazette? The Ramstable Guardian?” Charlie butts in.
“Ipsley Evening Star? Bellefield Echo? Colton Visitor?”
“Don’t forget the Carmagh Reporter.”
There are nods around the table.
“Those papers printed what they wanted to, and were legally allowed to, but work was made very difficult for them, and they went out of business.”
“More than one way to skin a cat,” Herrick chips in.
Zoe’s food arrives. She isn’t sure what to make of her colleagues as they settle into a conversation about politics and censorship. They are all very keen on their jobs, they see themselves as very important, and Zoe just doesn’t see it. She doesn’t think anyone would really care about what a scratty, old, chip rag would have to say.
She tries to follow the conversation but doesn’t understand half of what they talk about. She dozes off into her daydreams but is rudely awakened by the slapping down of plates of pie and chips. Small pots of mushy peas, coleslaw and ketchup are placed in the middle of the table, along with a basketful of cutlery.
Everyone tucks in. The only thing that jolts their attention away from the food and conversation is when the police enter and ask to talk to Frankie and Mrs Cleaver at their table. The writers suddenly quieten and strain their ears to catch a snippet of conversation to corroborate anything that they have already heard.
Whilst Mrs Cleaver holds her hands in her lap, turns her face to the table and begins to cry, Mr Cleaver goes red in the face, grinds his teeth and lets out an angry grumble. Ignoring his wife, he interrogates the policeman, who apologises that he doesn’t have any more information for them at this time, but will inform them, when suitable, about any developments in the investigation. He gives them his condolences and leaves.
Mrs Cleaver continues to weep quietly. She feels like a failure. Weak and guilty for her son’s soul. She tries to not distract her husband, knowing the state he is likely in, and worried that she will be on the receiving end on his temper later.
He slams his fist down on the table, the thud echoes round the still room. A moment later he stands up, straightens his jacket and leaves. His wife dutifully follows him.
“Looks like the police might actually do something about this one,” says Nina, but Zoe notes the slight sarcasm in her voice: a less than hopeful inflection. She doesn’t understand it, but she tries to remember to ask about it later.
The flatmate of a man at Michael’s work is about to pass away, and Michael has been asked to move in to help with rent. The flatmate has disappeared for his last month, off exploring some distant part of the country with the meagre savings he has managed to scrape together.
The flat isn’t far from the halfway house, he folds all his clothes into two plastic bags and walks down past the Angle to the far side of the square.
He can feel the past few years fade away with every change he makes. Staying out late, going for walks, moving house at will, meeting girls: it all leads to restoration of a normal life. He gets the feeling he may be speaking too loudly at times, that he ates too slowly, and that he chooses the food that would be impossible to get on the inside. He used to like running, but he still feels uncomfortable to walk quickly, he is thinking of joining work’s football team, just to get him moving again, or to go out to the countryside just to get away from it all and just let go; make a complete break from that time.
It is too late to catch tea at the Angle, so they head down to the Wayfarer’s for some dumplings and satay. One of the stalwarts, the Wayfarer’s has passed through a dozen hands since Michael was a boy, a fairly typical practice in this part of the city. A business keeps its name and is run much the same as before, except for the tiny addition each owner has made. Certain aspects make it very clear who owned the restaurant at one point. Michael can barely see any differences in the running of the place since he was younger.
The menu is a little different. He can’t pin down exactly what’s different, but there is something missing, or something new, or something renamed. He gives up trying to remember, and orders three liang of the beef and onion dumplings and a beer. His friend orders a load of shumai and toast. They pay and sit back to chat about the most recent rugby game.
Michael isn’t paying much attention, he still finds it difficult to concentrate on what other people are thinking. Trying to focus on the here and now, and resist being sucked back into the memories that he has lived in for the past few years.
His eyes drift to the wall. The décor looks much the same as always. A dour, almost grubby texture to the walls and tables. Scuffed up skirting boards with cracks caked in thick dust. Every other light bulb has blown and bottle-top,frosted glass keeps a murky air in and daylight out. The stone flags have been worn with years of use. And in the wall, a legendary bullet hole from a perfect shot meant to kill the owner that ended with the perpetrator’s death and released a new old adage: not even point blank can change fate.
The food comes on blue porcelain, their beers in glass mugs. The new flatmate enjoys talking so much that he doesn’t realise he’s only talking to himself. His voice carries, irritating the couple sitting quietly in a booth across from them.
“Eh, Max!” the flatmate calls the blonde owner over, “Could you get us a bottle for the road?”
“Sure, love. What do you fancy?”
“You got any Runner?” he asks handing her a couple of coins.
“Yep, two secs.”
She disappears into the back room behind the bar, down a half-flight of stairs to the storeroom and picks up a bottle. She can hear coughing coming from under the stairs.
“Cleo? Is that you?”
“I’m ok,” Cleo calls between bouts. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Max doesn’t pressure her. There’s no point. The rough, hoarse coughs have returned, and this time they won’t be going away. She has spent the past few months trying to sort everything out and nothing is panning out.
She calls over the little girl from the kitchen and gives her the bottle.
“Em, love, can you give this to the bloke in the hat by the window.”
Then she curls up with her loved one and tries to comfort her as she cries.
The little girl, Emily, watches the two men at the table. The one in the sporty peak cap talking ad nauseum, the other slowly eating. She watches him as he picks up the dumpling and places it in the oil, watching it drown and swilling it round as the poor thing loses its innards and leaves a spiralling trail of debris in its path. He picks up the scrambles of egg and finishes the lot.
Lost in his thoughts, he doesn’t even notice when she drops the bottle off on the table.
Emily has finished for here for the night, and is on her way to pick up a package from her second employer. She has no love of the work, but until the day they start carding the likes of her, she has little choice but to do what she’s doing.
She takes her brown coat down off her peg and kisses her brother on her way out the door. At one point she had wished that she had settled down when Cleo and Max had taken Micah in, but, even though they had encouraged her, she had never felt at home with them. Her brother comes with the pub, she doesn’t.
What’s worse is their time is nearly up, and she worries there won’t be a home for either of them. She knows the signs, they won’t last long now, none of them ever do.
It is hard not to love her brother, everyone says so. He has a sweet disposition and loving demeanour. He tries hard and is always giving. She knows herself to be prickly, aggressive even. She tries to make friends but she finds it difficult to keep them.
As she walks round to the Angle, she pulls a textbook out of her bag and flicks through the pages. She tries to study every moment she isn’t working. It stems from her favourite legend, the one about Laurelita, a young nobody who won the right to be carded when she proved to be the most intelligent person who ever lived.
Fanciful stuff, she is beginning to doubt the story. There has never been a nobody who has been carder in her life time, nor has anyone ever spoken about a person they know to have been carded out of obscurity. She hasn’t spoken about it to anyone since she was a small child, but the naivest, still innocent part of her hopes that it is true. So, she studies, she learns and she reads as many books as she can.
Ultimately, she realises that she is nothing impressive. It sometimes haunts her how average she is, and sometimes the dread of never amounting to anything drags her spirit down, but she continues nonetheless to acquire as much knowledge as she can.
She reads the science and tries to get her head around it, but she hasn’t got very far when she arrives at the Angle.
She walks past the front door to the set of stairs that do down to a cellar door. She pushes the door open and walks into the millers. A dozen or so ageing nobodies work the machines, making and fixing costumes, cleaning the stains out of the sheets, and taking in the Shamble’s dirty laundry.
Em hopes to God she doesn’t end up in a place like this. They don’t talk to each other and they don’t smile. They don’t even know how long they have to keep doing this. Every drudging day they turn up, put in their hours and return to their squalid rooms before returning the next day.
She does wonder why they don’t all just give up.
Through the back, she finds Asrid, the cook, boiling up another batch of Lizsud.
“You up for a long run?” Asrid asks her, looking her up and down.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Emily says. They always put her on the long runs, she suspects they don’t like her, and that they don’t care. She knows the score, there won’t be a trial if she’s caught; she’ll be put down straight away. It is probably why Cleaver uses her kind to mule; to make it this far they must already have their wits about them.
Asrid gives her a package and an address on the far side of the city. It will probably take a good few hours to get over there without being seen and make it back.
She doesn’t stay for a chat.
It is going to be a long walk, seen as she has to avoid being seen. Out of the Shambles and into the fire. There are many paths to chose and the wrong one could be the difference between life, death and worse.
She hugs the shadows as she walks down the poor, but law abiding road just east of home, and makes her way down the alleyway to the main street that runs at right angles to the long rows of red brick terraces.
From the far end of the lane, she can see a man in a long coat coming towards her. After a momentary glitch in her defence mechanism, she climbs over the wall and onto the outdoor lavvy and lies down onto of it, listening to the man’s footsteps as he passes her by, holding in her sigh of relief in case he comes back. She closes her eyes and listens. No one is coming. She climbs down and runs down the street, trying her hardest not to make a sound, but leaves a quiet, tapping echo in her wake.
The industrial estate stands between her and the drop off point. Three square miles of squat, squalid factories and office buildings where, during the day, workers would mill about, labouring for the good of all. They work there, they pay taxes and they reap all the benefits society can afford them, trapped living in relative comfort which allows them a certain dignity.
She runs, half skipping, through the car parks and yards, knowing that security will be around. But tonight she is lucky, no one comes for her and she makes it all the way to the canal before she sees another soul.
A stagger of drunks waddle their way to and fro along the tow path back up town to the Shambles’ closest taxi rank, a good two miles from the centre.
She avoids them; ‘lads will be lads’ and all that – what a terrible world, but she thinks nothing more of it. That’s just the way it is: she doesn’t have the power to change it.
She manages to find the house, one of the big, new, architectural feats on the side of the hill. She goes through the gate and up to the front door, knocking on it twice.
Back at the Wayfarer’s, Max turns the sign on the door and wpes down the bar. She picks up the glasses left on the tables and places them on the side ready to go into the sink. She passes Cleo on her way down to the basement to change a barrel.
Cleo’s old Roller Derby team has swung by after their game in their trackies and full-blown make-up. They gossip and giggle, throwing food back and forth across the tables they have clobbered together in the corner. Bloody wounds are tended to. The vicious bout with their old rivals have left them battered and bruised. No broken bones though, which is an improvement on the last time when half of them spent the night in hospital and their best jammer missed the next few bouts.
They are surrounded by backpacks and roller-skates. They chat loudly, thumping eah other on the back, and nurse each other’s wounds. One girl has her leg propped up on the table, a vodka in her hand, and gripping onto the wooden arm of the chair as a woman in a shirt with ‘axe’ scrawled across the back dabs antiseptic across her gash whilst another sterilises a needle and thread.
“Fourth jam were a nightmare, Max, you should’ve been there,” says one, leaning over the table and grabbing a beer.
“They’ve got a new jammer, Gonzala. She is the fastest thing I’ve ever seen. But they started with this really slow start, so Icky couldn’t get into the jam. It gets going and their Kaytana whips Gonzala round, Ivy is walled up by their blockers. And in the fifth, Klitta were westerned back twice whilst Mayhem got whipped round four times. Tiny bloody blonde got 14 in a minute and an half.”
Max pours another round of drinks. The jam-talk means nothing to her, but she likes watching Cleo’s face light up when they talk to her. She likes the way they keep on including her even now. She brings through the pints and a couple of pies and portions of chips. Everyone fathers round the table for a session.
Little Micah wonders in in his pyjamas, Klitta sits him on her knee and he steals chips from everyone’s plate to make up a potion of his own. The girls coo over him and he tells them about the things he is learning and shows them a picture he has drawn of Cleo, Max, Emily and himself. He falls asleep after he has eaten. Max carries him up to bed.
“Can I have a word?” Cleo pulls Klitta into the main part of the bar. “I, er,” she doesn’t know how to ask this. She tries to remember how she was asked. “We don’t have a lot of time left… me and Max, we’ve not got much time left. And we’re trying to find someone to look after Micah, and Emily, when she’s around. Now, I know it’s difficult cos they’re nobodies, but Micah really likes you and…”
“Cleo, I… I can’t,” she says, avoiding looking Cleo in the eyes. “What you and Max are doing is amazing, but I,” she searches for a reason, “I can’t do that. I have a boyfriend and if we’re good and play by the rules, we can have a kid ourselves. I can’t jeopardise that.”
“No, of course not, I understand,” says Cleo, smiling. “ We should get back to the others.”
Cleo keeps out of their way for the rest of the evening. She could be sulking, but then again, she has reason to. The thought has been plaguing her since she and Max took Micah in, keeping her awake at night and causing her to take moments away from the bar when it all got a little bit too much at work.
Micah was given to them when he was 16 months old by the midwife who delivered him. They had gotten hold of clothes from jumble sales and charity shops, always local places and never where people would ask questions; they couldn’t go into legitimate shops. Children like Micah had to be kept secret.
They didn’t know about Emily back then. She was being cared for by her father’s younger brother. But he was no good and a year ago she had turned up on their doorstep after he had been sentenced to a lifetime in prison for existing. She had escaped after he had shoved her out of the window on the fire escape and she had managed to evade the police. She rarely stays overnight with them and they don’t know where she goes.
The teams leaves at about four, most of them have work in the morning. Max is still awake when Cleo joins her.
“I asked Annie to take Micah.”
“She said no,”
Cleo turns her head from Max. She doesn’t want Max to see her cry. Max pulls Cleo closer to herself and puts her arms around Cleo’s waist. Cleo digs her head into the pillow, still unable to bring herself to look at Max.
“It’s ok,” Max whispers in her ear, pulling Cleo’s body into her own. “We’ll find someone.”
Emily finds her way home as a dawn breaks and crawls into bed.