She very quickly exceeded her daily dose of sunlight. It was plenty to just hang for a moment on the edge of the wall, which could be scaled quite easily after years of practise. Catch the rays as they brush the tracks. It wasn’t often that she made the climb upwards, foregoing the long walk round to the workmen’s stairwell, but when she did she was always struck by the magnificent views. The word magnificent being a funny one she remembered from school, along with say, bedraggled or botanical. Words so easily appropriated. Sometimes she woke up in her little cave, stretched as far as she could in the closed space and if it was a good day she’d say to herself, “Man, I’m feeling botanical.” She knew it meant something to do with plants, soil, and the way water made energy or something. It was a pleasant thing to say after waking in a damp alcove in the wall between two railway lines.
The word alcove. She first read it in a textbook about architecture she picked up in the library. It made her think of laundry detergent, chocolate, Egyptian tombs. Secrets.
She had an errand to run. Errands made her vulnerable to the kind of talk that invites questions. Like, “Did you choose this life, or did it choose you?” They asked her that often when she sat in the street, even if there wasn’t a cup in front of her; even if all she wanted was rest.
When the trains passed, early in the morning, the shuddering woke her irrevocably. With every half hour interval, the landscape cleaved a wounded time, the rhythm of breaking, passing, waking. She’d get up and follow the ribboning streets of the city, trailing loose threads for some knot of an errand, a moment in which to coil her body.
One errand always led to another.
The boys on the corner were different from usual. They looked impossibly young, as if barely a single streak of sun had scorched their moon-white faces. They looked at her with ancient cliché, but played a certain game that made her tasks difficult. They weren’t easy with their cash. Still, she finished the rounds by noon and took a minute to chill in the park.
In these scenarios, often she recalled previous interruptions. The man who sat beside her and asked about her necklace.
“Why only £2, baby? Surely you’re worth more—why not a fiver round your neck?” His snicker was palpable; the kind of skin-crawling thing you’d expect off a stranger in a postman’s uniform. Not that she had anything against postmen, just her father…
The problem was, she loved money. Not money in the modern, abstract sense—the accounts they taught you at school, the stuff discussed on the news—but actual solid cash. The stuff that weighed down your pockets, if you were lucky.
In the alcove, she kept hordes of it. Pyramids of coppers and nested black bags full of pounds. The faux gold of minted nickel-brass, how it still caught the light if you polished it good. She didn’t want to spend it, but there was something comforting about collecting. The longer she had the money, the less it represented financial possibility. Every coin evolved into something totalled, monumental. It was a shame she couldn’t invite anyone round to see it, knowing they’d steal as much as they could as soon as her back was turned.
You could trust money, maybe, but you couldn’t trust people.
It was still early, and she didn’t quite know what to do. The rain came on and she watched it bleed through the needling leaves of the lindens. Mothers were pushing prams and talking on their phones, but you couldn’t see the phones so it looked like they were talking to ghosts.
If she had any notes, she’d spend them. There was no use keeping paper money and watching it rot in your hands. She’d spend the notes on stupid things, like cigarettes or food. What else was there? She had a thing for blood-red pastilles, cola, and the crisps that stained your tongue. Like everyone hungry, she craved strong flavours. She would pace the streets night after night, absorbing the millions of scents in the city, burning off empty calories. It never occurred to her to take a heap of pound coins and order food from a restaurant, to actually set foot through the door of these places she lingered outside of—hungry for the idea of food more than the thing itself.
The alcove was on the outskirts of town; people only passed it when they were leaving, their faces pressed to the windows of carriages. Nobody got more than a fleeting glance of her alcove, since trains are always picking up speed, chugging and changing. It never occurred to her to take some money and get on one herself.
A meal was something you saw on advertisements. She was often snacking instead, grazing through the day. The boys carried unnourishing things, gum or sweets or cigarettes. They’d give her a bite if she asked, but only then. The men were more generous. In their cars there’d be opulent M&S sandwiches, chocolate bars, whisky. That way, she’d learned the taste of bourgeois flavours. Some suit once cracked a joke with that phrase and she thought it’d make a good band name. Her brother used to play guitar. At school, she would sing. Now, they won’t believe her, unless she breaks the rules and belts full pelt in someone’s fancy bedroom. They get the shock of their lives. It’s not what they want, or paid for.
At night sometimes she sings in the alcove, her voice with its pure and soaring coloratura. It resounds right back to the edge of the cave, the passage of space connecting the adjacent railway—the abandoned one, which nobody uses. Just the dealers, crawling around in the prehistoric foliage while kids scrawled haunted graffiti on tall brick walls.
It’s a risky business, the singing. People around here aren’t supposed to know she exists. There’s too much money involved, not to mention territory. She sings and the way she sings you’d think she wanted someone to find her, come back to her. She sings like a siren.
A man once heard her sing in the shower. She wasn’t supposed to use the shower; it was too risky, her boss said, relaying something about a film called Psycho, which in any rate she hadn’t seen or intended to see. It was nice when they let you use their shower. A gesture of goodwill, even when they joined you.
“You could make some sweet cash if you sang in the street,” the man said, putting on his shirt. She liked to watch people do up buttons, the way they fit themselves together, piece by piece, penny by penny.
“More than this?” she enquired, politely.
“Well…I guess I don’t know about that, honey.”
It was still early. She decided to visit her father. The park reminded her of Saturdays when he’d take them for the day, playing the role of injured party, estranged parent. What was estranged? Did it mean more than a week at a time? As far as she was concerned, the distance made everything. He lived right across the city. All those pylons and rippling streets between them. She thought of him doing the postal rounds, back and forth each morning. How folk would take one look at his drink-addled face and sometimes stick a tip in his hands, fat coins scattered in the bag among letters for strangers.
Her father’s flat was three subway stops away, though it was a while since she’d taken the subway. An hour’s walk did the trick. She remembered every street in the vicinity, all the crawlers that lived there; the narcotic treasures that did the rounds--in circulation, as her brother put it.
Already she’d anticipated the hallway, still adorned with the school photos: that awful picture from Primary 3 when she had a cold sore and her brother looked so handsome and her so rotten with her father’s complexion.
It had been a long time since last she’d come out here. Her hand shook as she held it over the buzzer, unsure whether or not to press it. Plenty of sunlight for one day; she needed to get inside. She pushed down hard and waited.
Things were different. Had it always been this smoky? The paint was peeling from the walls. She tried to drag up some memory of scraping it away as a kid.
“I don’t know why you came,” he said, by way of a greeting. “I’ve nothing for you.”
She sat in what passed for a living room. You could imagine it, pizza boxes with grease and empty bottles of beer. The bottles weren’t the only empty thing. The space had nothing, no legacy of investment. Even the waste negated itself by way of being in the room.
Once, he had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand and it had burned up the whole sofa. Woken by the smell of smoke, her brother found him, charred with mild burns, shivering half-naked at four in the morning, the sofa a pile of ashes on the carpet. She’d never found out who put the fire out, her brother or father. The memory made her nauseous. She was grateful for the blinds being drawn, releasing only sparse cracks of light. Many years ago, there had been a party in her father’s absence. Someone doled out lines on the mirror and along the way, in the passing round, the glass got shattered. She told everyone to take a piece home and he never noticed its absence. Without it, the room held less light.
They used to walk all day, she and her brother; along the lines, killing time. The unfortunate phrase.
This time, her father didn’t ask: “Still working?” He left her to the camp chairs, pottered about in the kitchen.
The little glass of whisky tasted like being fourteen again. As if he bought anything other than Bells, his grandfather’s cheap original, grainy on the tongue with fragrant bleach. A whiteout, a starlight whitey from the window while the rest of the building was asleep. How she’d crawled to her brother’s room and cried for hours. While on the phone to his girlfriend he’d mussed her hair like you would a child’s. She was a child then, a child for a moment.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he muttered, twirling the wire, “I just can’t come over. Tomorrow?”
There was no point, precious time. She counted the few notes she’d made in the morning, bought herself a bottle of sweet white wine. There was a tote bag she carried, a thing pulled from the trash near the student houses. Creased imprint of a band name, a pub--she didn’t know. It was a long while since she’d paid attention to such things.
She sat still by the bus stop bordering the westward turn. A blowtorch had left scolded holes on the Plexiglas, some primordial voice from the deep. She knew that blaze, the hot blotches of boredom. There were places all over the city where she could go back and check out her own graffiti. Useless engravings, tasteless pieces of personal history. She had nothing to say; the world prompted nothing. She hadn’t a tag. You had to be careful, precise, but in those days it was easy to go wild on the musing—teenagers being the cruellest poets, and so on.
The boy across the road knew. Even from here she felt his freckles, his Grecian nose, his perfect way of saying I’m yours like caramel in the mouth. This was the proper way. Nobody’s money stuffed swift into pockets. She watched as he crossed, heart in her throat as the traffic meandered around him. It was as if he walked through it, cars vanishing in his transient presence. The velocity made her nauseous against the sense of his slowness. He would come over and do the usual, ask for a light or comment on bus times like that was easy, sexy.
She knew the high, uncertain lilt of his voice. Already they were tussling on the sheets in some student flat which was really a forest of bottles and sour smelling laundry. The cool hard metal beneath her fell away. She was twisted in the dirty scent of his skin, the rustiness of yesterday’s cigarettes, cloying high street aftershave. By now she could tell the difference. What was it she wanted, searching and familiar? They liked when you flipped it. They wanted to make a mockery of the mattress, score temporary marks on the permanent furniture. She would whisper pull my hair again and again, alone in her head.
As if she got the bus. It came and went. He got on, struggling for change while the driver waited. The boy with the Grecian nose, the boy who looked so much older up close, then suddenly younger. It made her dizzy, the way his face wasn’t freckled but starred with acne.
She started walking, the wine clinking glass against the studs of her belt. Every month it seemed she had to carve a new notch.
They were on the tracks at sunset. A melancholy quality of light in August, the smoke in the air that smelled of returns to school. Deep between the mesh of wood and metal he spotted a coin, bright glint of coppery gold. He wedged it between her fingers for luck. They didn’t speak of it. Home was a long way away, but they were children then and time was infinite. In the holidays, you could polish it to a still-life gleam, a certain lull.
“No-one’s really upset,” someone said at the funeral. “They’re all laughing in his honour. He was a sound guy.”
She had no idea he had this many friends. There was the woman who came every Monday night for the loan interest, the woman her brother would greet at the door, distracting her with charm while their father scrambled for notes down the back of the sofa—raiding his coat for coppers, silvers, something. She did not wear black, but a dark matte navy like the colour of midnight.
She sat on the swings by the canal. They locked the gates of the park after dark now, so you couldn’t sleep in the little playhouse that smelled of beer and piss and weed. The muscles in the backs of her thighs ached; ached so bad it was hard to keep momentum on the swing. She saw the distant lamplights glow sodium orange over the warehouses, then even further the factory smog and somewhere before that the screech of trains, coming and going.
He came up to her, hooded with two strangers.
“Got a light?” She scuffed the asphalt with her trainers. A hotness rose in her throat.
“No?” She couldn’t see his face properly, now that the park was starting to shadow. Soon the people in green would come to close the gates. He turned to his mates and shrugged, but she couldn’t make out the snide comments from their laughter. She wanted to lie fully bathed in the orange lamplights. She wanted dusk the way it was now; wanted it forever, the liminal moment before things alter completely, before the plunging. The boys would go back into shadow and she missed them already, almost surprised they had left her alone.
She unscrewed the lid off the wine. Tart in her mouth, she looked at the water rippling over the canal, silk-smooth and breezy. The sharpness as she drank reminded her of something. She didn’t do this often, not really.
It was a long way back to the alcove. He would have said: we better start walking. Truth was, she missed her money, the comfort and weight of it close beside her. She scratched out the we. He wouldn’t have minded.
They were on the tracks at night-time. Somebody in the distance was shrieking, playing the game they all once played; the endless chase and subsequent kisses or beatings. Nobody else was about at this time, unless you pulled away the overgrown foliage and found yourself close to the secret palace of shelters, built in the weeds and the gaps in the wall. The wood on the tracks was rotting and idly they’d tear great chunks of it away, mock-screaming at the sight of the festering insects beneath. Lift the surface away and you see the colonies swarming; whole communities of life that existed forever out of sight. Mostly, the bodies remained alive, strung out on whatever kept them docile till the last of moonlight.
They found an alcove, better than any of the other spaces and gaps, an alcove connecting the defunct line to the real one, with a tunnel at the back. It was their den; they would hide out there often in the days after their mother had gone, when their father’s presence was truly unbearable. It was the one place they never took any of their friends to, kept hidden from the homeless folks who paced up and down by the station at night.
A woman called Lucille sold them packets of cigarettes, which they paid for with money they’d found on the tracks. One day, she and her brother visited Lucille at the station as usual, but then Lucille began talking quite rapidly to her brother, gushing out words as if nervous. Even though the ticket guards were still out, Lucille slipped a hip flask of vodka from her jeans and passed it round. She watched him stand back, eyeing this woman whose age no one could guess, this woman in a leopard print coat which brushed her ankles. Lucille stood on her tiptoes to whisper something in his ear. She stood back, giggling stupidly. The hipflask was rimmed with a smudge of her lipstick.
“Hey Janie,” her brother said, “me and Lucille are gonna hang out awhile. You be okay getting home alone?”
She knew what they did in the overgrown land beside the tracks. As if she would take him back to her flat, a shrine to dead animals, everything fur-coated, glitzy and spotted. She saw Lucille for what she was: a predator. The little glass pipe in her inner pockets, the packets of blueish dusted crystal. That night she walked all the way home, listening to people spilling out of bars and shouting about football, terrorism, whores. She lay on her crumpled sheets, wide awake, clutching the £2 amulet and staring at the ceiling. She thought of her brother pressed close to the cold of the tracks. She thought of him falling away through a new reality, this sparkling place of the flesh; so far from the darkness of the alcove, the echo of their father’s drunken groans. Everything dripped with alcohol; she could still taste Lucille’s vodka on her tongue. She went to the bathroom to vomit. In those days, there was no feeling botanical; everything congealed into red.
The streets were uncertain, the people stared. She never felt safe until she saw the tips of buddleia, dying clippings of summer shrubbery, the rank hawthorn overgrown at the edge of the tracks. The city was alive with passing cars, windows leaking fragments of music. She didn’t understand the mix of sounds; couldn’t put a name to anything, where once she’d remember to check out what song it was with a certain lyric, I’ll split a bitch in two, or something. What was it, the urge for seething words? They had a power. Her brother listening to hip hop so loud their father would bang harder the walls.
He never beat him in front of her. She realised now the loud music was meant to conceal what was happening. It wasn’t the walls he was thumping. The beat of violence spread through the flat, followed her between school and the corner shop and the tracks. When she turned fifteen and Nathan from sixth-form eyed her up by the vending machines, it seemed inevitable that within a few hours she’d be on her back in the spinney, her spine pressed into leaves, fag packets, needles. The way he pushed his hand over her mouth to stop her crying out, as if she would; the sound of a beat, his breathing, out of sync with the odd trills of swallows circling overhead. She waited for elation, but it never came. She walked back to school, knowing this had to happen again and again. She wanted to get close to whatever it was her brother had found in the murk of night, the cover of shadows and shame. Whatever it was that made him dazed and serene, the bites on his neck, marks on his arm. She wanted her world to blur as his, to smudge out her name.
She could not make herself small enough. He said, “come into the phone box,” and that was a proposition she had to accept. It was dark enough to do it. Sometimes she wondered how they knew; as if they could smell it on her, as if she were wearing a lanyard around her neck. She had on an old black dress, still in trainers because last week she’d left the heels at some guy’s flat when he turned on her. Going down, she felt dizzy from the wine.
This would be the last lover, now she was closer to the edge of town. Coming up, she banged her head on the metal box where you put money for the phone. The shock made the box shudder and a few pennies spilled out of its mouth. The man zipped up his jeans.
“There,” he said, “that’s your tip.” She waited till he had gone before lifting the change and slotting it, coin by coin, into the machine. The rain was coming on outside again, fat droplets splashing against the phone box. She lifted the receiver and dialled his number.
Lucille had become a regular thing. She was even invited to the den, back then adorned with a small assortment of street furniture, road signs and food wrappers. The detritus of everywhere returned to nowhere. But it was a place to be. She would sit jealously watching as Lucille rolled her thin black cigarettes and reapplied lipstick in a little pocket mirror. Her brother would nip out for a slash and come back to find the two of them staring each other down, saying nothing, kicking dust around on the ground.
Once, she asked him, “what is it about Lucille?”
“The thing about desire,” he said cryptically, “is the lack of fulfilment. Lucille keeps me chasing. She’s there and then she’s not, coming and going.”
“But—” She thought she had something to say, something profound about the cynical reality of love; lessons long learned from their parents’ relationship. How trains were never on schedule, passing each other by, shadows in the night. He cut her off.
“Plus, the drugs are good. My god Janie, when you’re old enough…”
They grew a little estranged. Things got worse at home. He would disappear for days and their father would vent his rage on her. In the worst drunk moments, he would call her names reserved for—as he put it—the worst of whores. She spent hours cleaning the flat, scrubbing vomit from the toilet, mould from the kitchen sink. School was an absent possibility.
One day she went looking for him, after her father barged into her room to find Ryan McGilvray on top of her in a tangle of sheets. Her father slammed the door so hard all the old toys fell off the shelf. She could date that pretty confidently as the end of her childhood. Sliding down the drainpipe, she escaped via the window with nothing left to say to the man that had stared at her stark naked, beside this boy who was but a placeholder for the nothingness pressed on her life.
She went walking along the tracks but he was not in the alcove. A few cigarette papers littered the floor, signs of Lucille’s presence, but nothing more. She crawled through the tunnel and hid behind the dying buddleia to see whether any trains were coming. There were no lights flashing at the signals and the tracks did not whistle. She figured she had at least ten minutes, given that they came by every half hour. Enough time to cut across the tracks.
She reached the other side, close to the suburban sprawl of houses painted red and white, and then she saw him. Knocked into a quarter circle, several feet from the tracks, crusted with so much blood he was barely recognisable. At first, she thought the body belonged to a deer, it looked so small. A familiar, metallic taste entered her mouth and she vomited, promptly in the long grass and gravel. When she bent down, uselessly, to feel his pulse, she felt the painful twinge where Ryan had entered her, again and again in frustrated thrusts. This was her brother, her beautiful dead brother. He lived and died by the tracks, like an animal. Nothing ever looked so vulnerable.
It was Lucille that phoned the police. It must’ve been. Nobody else came down this close to the tracks at night, when all the engineers were resting easy. Not even the junkies. There was a transient panoply of sirens, lights, people in uniform scuttling out of an ambulance. She hid behind a signal box to watch them. She’d checked his pockets but there was nothing, not even a wallet. In the end, there were very little enquiries. A common sort of accident, the ideal moralising topic for a school assembly; except she had stopped going to school a long time ago.
From then on, movement was a luxury; she went only where she wanted to.
The line connected with a terrible click. She listened to the rasping breath awhile, biding her time. There was none of the familiar litany: tell me about yourself, baby. What are you wearing?
For once, he spoke first. It was quite a miracle that he happened to be there at the right time, on this late August night with the coolness set in around the orange smog. She pictured him in the phone box, somewhere deep downtown, one hand slipping gradually southwards.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered sweetly. Her voice was hoarse by this point, burned out from all the moans.
“Tell me about your day,” he said. She almost misheard him; the answer she’d prepared for his usual question trembled.
“Well, it was awful hot outside. My gosh, I practically melted. I walked around town in my red panties... ” She began in earnest.
“No,” he said abruptly, “what did you do man?”
“Um…I guess I saw a bunch of people. There was a boy at the bus stop. He had this nose, you wouldn’t believe.”
“Go on.” His breath rasped close to the line.
“I just wanted him to hold me. It was different. Well, maybe not really. I walked a few streets past the new restaurants in midtown, the fancy Mexican ones with all the colours. Looked like some sort of concert was going on in the square by the mall, people crowded round. Everything felt louder than usual. I skirted the high street and nearly got hit by a fucking skateboard, which sounded like guns going off when he landed an ollie off the pavement. It made me feel old, getting freaked by a skateboard.”
“You’re still young, baby.”
“I guess I don’t feel it…” The sly comment about maturity never arrived. “What did you do today?”
“I need to see you.” She froze. This had never come up before. She pictured some homeless guy, his semen-stained sleeping bag. He sounded so hopeful that it physically hurt when she hung up. The ache in her chest, a heaviness. She longed to be home.
It could’ve been any time when she trudged along the tracks. Probably it was slappy hour, the kids getting high on top of the wall. The little orange tips of their spliffs like so many stars in the murky sky. They came in from town just to smoke, to smoke like that was the only thing left in the world. Her limbs were so withered by this point she could barely lift aside the overgrown vegetation, drag her feet over the tracks and towards the alcove.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. It felt inevitable, this stench of gasoline and dirty smoke. All her life she’d waited for it, passing scrapyards or industrial estates where the thick plumes rose in poisonous coils, like some filthy spirit leaving its earthly corpus. Somebody had burned her out at last.
She checked the alcove but she couldn’t get close enough, the smoke stinging her eyes. There were no flames left, just this terrible, pungent grey and black. All her money, melted into one big gloop of ersatz gold. Oxidised stone, liquefied zinc. All the sun, her days and hours. She thought of Lucille, cackling as she bit her brother’s neck, the savage fire of her gaze in the gloam. Too many times, too long alone. She curled up among the buddleias, the moon-glowing bindweed, her body doubling the ghost of her brother’s. As the black smoke slowly dissolved above her, rending apart two halves of reality—light and dark, the before and after—she knew she was truly homeless. Wild in the world, tangled, botanical. The ash would settle on her golden hair, and in the morning she would rise again, wouldn’t she?
MARIA SLEDMERE has just completed her Masters thesis on dark ecology and the curatorial novel. She is assistant editor of Glasgow-based poetry zine SPAM and founder of Gilded Dirt. She regularly contributes music reviews, interviews and features to Ravechild and GoldFlakePaint, and is currently working on a mysterious mythology-based exhibition project with producer Lanark Artefax. Her writing has appeared in Bombus Press, Datableed, Fluland, From Glasgow to Saturn, Robida, the murmur house, Thistle Magazine, Quotidian, and Zarf. She tweets @mariaxrose and blogs about everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at musingsbymaria.wordpress.com.