I hobble down the street of memory. I trip, the paving stones greasy and uneven, flotsam piled in drifts against the pebble dash exterior of the terraced buildings, interrupted by side alleys. I hesitate, catching sight of my reflection in a grubby shop front, chipped mannequins leering from within—here, an adult male grimacing in a child’s school uniform and wiry, matted wig—there, the breasts of a bald adult female protruding through a dress shirt, hands folded beneath a striped tie.
A man emerges into the grey overcast day, pushing through double wooden doors that swing and whine, snapping at the tattered tails of his stained coat. I enter. The proprietor is lying on the wooden bar counter wearing a dark suit of clothes, an ironed white shirt and worn, polished shoes. His hands hold a miniature bottle of vodka upright on the barrel of his chest. Beads of sweat glisten on the patina of his skull between strands of black hair that have been combed from one ear to the other.
Steam rises from two aluminium pots on a double hot plate. Beads of water run down the peeling wallpaper. A woman with braided strawberry blonde hair lifts one of the lids and tests the contents of the pot with a knife. She replaces the lid and picks up a viola, cradling it in the crook of her neck above her full white bosom. She tilts her head sideways and looks at me with green eyes, smiling, sweeping the bow across the strings with her right hand, on the ring finger of which there is a golden love knot.
‘A pint, please.’ My voice rasps like the cry of a rook.
The proprietor clears his throat.
‘I have a lip on me like a motherless foal,’ he says, taking a sip of vodka, then cocking his head towards the row of pint handles.
‘No bother,’ says the woman, turning to face the mirrored back of the bar above a
glass fronted fridge which displays a carton of milk, a loaf of sliced bread in crumpled greaseproof paper, a block of butter in foil and a jar of jam. Her body is a sickle moon around the sweetly singing viola. Head still slanting sideways she glances left and right at the reflection of people assembled around the u-shaped bar then puts down her instrument and holds a glass at an angle beneath a brass tap, pulling down a white handle which releases a stream of dark liquid that froths as it hits the side. Once the glass is three-quarters full, she puts it to one side and begins to fill another. I watch the creamy head on the gleaming liquid settle.
‘Guinness time.’ She gives me her sideways smile and tops up the first glass with an angled stream until the head of the pint is thick and creamy. ‘Would you like a taste?’ she asks, tossing her head towards the hotplate.
‘Just a bit.’
She lifts one of the pots with a tea towel and tilts the lid, moving her face out of the path of steam that rises from the boiling water which she drains into a copper sink beneath the bar counter. She puts the pot back on the stove, sticks in a fork and lifts out a floury white potato bursting out of thick brown skin speckled with black spots.
‘New Seasons,’ she whispers, replacing the lid. She puts the potato on a side plate and drops a knob of butter onto it, then spoons out half a ladleful of food from the second pot. She places the side plate in front of me with a spoon and a fork. I eat. The juice from the ham joint and dark green cabbage is fragrant and salty, the rosy flesh tender and succulent.
The proprietor twitches his moustache.
‘A cobbler’s children go barefoot,’ he says. Without opening his eyes he raises his head and lifts the pint glass which has been placed in his hands to his full lips, raising his little finger as he drains its contents in five swallows. In front of the full-length window, a young man with a worn face squats with an open plastic bag on his knees, scooping out white powder which he inhales directly from his hand. He offers his cupped palm to his female companion, who shakes her head, staring at the floor.
Creatures beat dark wings in my mind. A second drink and I will succumb to their talons, become oblivious to everything but the dizzying heights of their flight until they release me mid-air in order to split open my skull, and I am dashed to the ground with a sour tongue of remorse.
I place my empty glass and some money on the counter and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.
‘None so pure as a converted hoor,’ says the proprietor, passing wind.
I walk across the smoky, ill-lit room with its bare concrete floor and metal roof supports and push my way through tacky painted hardboard flaps on rusted hinges. I blink in the glare of daylight. A man with a swollen red face, yellowed whiskers and straggling white hair is waving a plastic mug at vehicles moving down the street. He shouts unintelligibly, a bottle of cider on the pavement behind him. He lurches towards me. An odour of bile and urine rises from him and I pull my coat lapels together, stepping to one side in order to pass.
‘Where’re ye off to?’ he cries.
Though uncertain of my destination, I quicken my pace. I roll and tumble with the slipstream of the street. At first the flow of traffic propels me forward. Debris knocks against, then covers, me—a rusted car door, the chassis of a truck, a bent fender, a cracked rear-view mirror, a shattered windscreen limp inside its rubber casing. I attempt to surface but am struck by wooden planks, cast-off rubber retreads, metal pram wheels, bicycle tyres and jagged umbrella spokes. The warped hand-tooled wheel of a cart hooks me, broken crockery scrapes me, remnants of garments and shoes graze me—a leather boot with no laces, bent upwards at the toe, a child’s raspberry and white striped woollen mitten, a red plastic purse, a silver hairclip. Torn and empty plastic animal feed and coal sacks, polystyrene containers, faded newspaper and wrinkled greaseproof covers from long-since digested meals wrap around me but the pressure from behind is too strong, the peristalsis churns and presses until I shoot forward from the blockage hindering my progress.
I find myself at the feet of a middle-aged man. He turns around and looks down at me, nods, then stares ahead, a folded newspaper under his arm. I stand up and lean out from behind his anorak-clad back and realise that I am at the rear of a queue of people which extends around a corner. We shuffle forward. People driving past crane their necks, staring at us. Some in the queue hunch their shoulders, pull their chins into their chests and look down at the pavement. Others wear sunglasses though the sun is not shining, or pull umbrellas low across their faces.
We pass a bookmaker’s shop. People cut through the queue in order to enter, the door banging behind them. They throw crumpled pieces of paper on the ground as they leave. Next is the location of an antique dealer. I attempt to avert my eyes but am drawn by the interior scene. A man at the rear of the shop opens a glass case. A woman in a fur coat and leather gloves stands next to him. The man holds up stainless steel instruments of amputation to the electric light, then hands them to the woman, who examines them closely. She selects three, which he wraps in brown paper. Reflected in the window from a corner opposite, two small dogs mate on the pavement.
After an hour, my position has advanced and I approach the doorway on the street into which the queue disappears. People have continued to line up behind me since I first took my place. I look back and cannot see where it ends.
Glad to be out of the view of passers-by I enter a small room which contains a wooden counter with three partitions. The letters ‘A – M’ are written on a sheet of paper taped below the furthest counter, the letters ‘N – Z’ below the middle one. A woman stands behind the third counter paging through forms and avoiding eye contact. There is no one behind the first or the second counter, the latter being the one I assume I should approach, as the letters on the sign include that with which my surname begins. I wait for what I consider to be a respectable period of time and then look at the woman.
‘Excuse me,’ I say. The woman ignores me.
Two teenage girls in velour tracksuits and fabric ankle boots burst into the room, each pushing a pram. Wearing hoop earrings and rings on most of their fingers, they smell of fried food and are conversing loudly. The woman behind the counter looks up and smiles, extending a hand to indicate that they should approach. Their toddlers bawl and arch their backs. The girls sign papers handed to them by the woman. She asks them for certain documentation which they say they do not have but are told not to worry and to come straight back to the counter when they return with it. The queue moves to one side to allow them to leave. The man behind me shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
Encouraged by the woman’s changed manner I approach her. ‘I’m not open,’ she says.
‘Which counter should I go to?’ I ask.
‘You’ll have to wait. They’re in the back.’
The man behind me pushes forward.
‘I’ve had enough!’ he shouts. ‘I haven’t worked for two months.’ He punctuates the air in front of the woman’s face with a pointed finger. ‘I’ve been coming down to this office every week and waiting for hours in the street. Each time I come down I’m given a different story. I’ve got bills to pay, children to feed, a car to fix. I’ve been paying my unemployment insurance for twenty-two years and I’m sick of this!’ A vein is raised on the side of his forehead.
The woman’s face is expressionless.
‘Where’s your card?’ she asks the man. He hands her a plastic card and she flicks through a cardboard box containing alphabetically-ordered index cards.
‘You’re not in here,’ she says. The man’s breathing is laboured. His neck is red.
‘Oh, I see they’ve put you in the wrong place,’ she says, pulling out a card, ‘sign here.’ She pushes a pen towards the man, pointing at a space on the index card with an acrylic fingernail.
The man signs the card and is told to return the following week. He leaves, his shoulders slumped, and I follow him out.
We are struck by an avalanche of paper as we step into the street. Bank statements, accounts, printed forms, tax returns, receipts, curriculum vitae, insurance claim forms, job applications and debit order authorisations engulf us. Letters of demand, invoices, school reports, certificates, draft separation agreements, income and expense statements, rejection letters, sick notes and prescriptions weigh us down. I crawl on my belly to get away from the man, whose load of paper is even heavier than mine.
I look up and see that I am directly in front of the stuccoed façade of a bank. I stand, brush myself off and enter through its carved stone pillars.
The interior is air-conditioned. My movements are monitored by a security camera that whirrs and clicks in a corner, near the ceiling. A man unclips the brass hook of a rope partition suspended between waist-high poles, bowing as I pass through. I notice a splash of blood on the polished marble floor.
I inhale sharply as I feel a stinging sensation in my upper arm. Turning my head I see the man withdrawing the needle of a hypodermic syringe from where he has jabbed it through my sleeve. His face appears to twist and distort as I fall to the ground, paralysed but conscious. People in white coats and surgical masks appear from a door in a wood-panelled wall. They lift me onto a trolley and wheel me down a corridor, their rubber-soled shoes silent.
We pass a doorway with a sign which reads ‘Personal Loans’. Inside I see a woman in a dental chair, a row of bloody canine teeth on a metal tray next to her. Further on is a doorway displaying the name ‘Remortgaging’. It contains rows of people lying on folding beds, needles in their arms attached to plastic tubes leading to blood bags suspended above their heads.
The trolley turns a corner. As I am wheeled through a doorway I notice a sign above it that says ‘Arrears’. I am placed under a bright light and my clothes are removed. People peer down at me in masks and gowns, signalling to each other with their eyes. I see the glint of a scalpel and am aware of a pressure against the skin below my ribcage. My torso moves up and down as gloved hands push and search inside the cavity of my chest.
Something is removed from my body and dropped into a white enamel kidney dish. I catch sight of the glistening organ as it is weighed, then placed in the drawer of a filing cabinet. In exchange I am given a bank card, which is slipped inside a plastic wallet and placed on my pillow. I am wheeled into a corner of the room as another trolley is wheeled in.
When I regain my senses I am in a small wooden boat, dressed once more. My tongue feels thick in my dry mouth. My head and body ache. A hooded figure stands in the prow, rowing with a long oar. We float down the rising current of the main street.
We sail past a butcher’s shop with salted pork and black and white puddings hanging in the window from metal hooks. We pass a church networked with scaffolding. In the churchyard two boys clean gravestones then lean against the church wall, tie tourniquets around their upper arms and inject needles into their soft white skin. We drift past a housing estate and glimpse young men in nylon tracksuits and shaved heads brandishing swords in a concreted clearing.
The boat reaches the opposite side of the street and I disembark.
Weak with pain, I limp towards the only person in sight. His body is lean, with a slackness of skin around the neck. Present with his work at hand, he power-hoses the pavement outside a semi-detached house. He is cross-eyed and when I speak to him I attempt to look into one eye, but find my focus moving between the two.
‘Where should I go?’ I ask.
‘You must decide,’ he says, looking in two different directions at once.
I force my limbs to move until I reach a side street. I see mountains in the distance, trees reaching into the sky against the horizon. The sun breaks through scattered clouds. I take a step on the route leading to the valley which lies ahead, staggering at first, then gaining momentum as my heartbeat quickens. I recognise the path, realise I am retracing my steps. Striding briskly, I weep. I make my way towards the home I had left, to discover what remains.