There

This short story was long-listed for the Sheffield Author’s Short Story Competition 2019.

“What a pillock.”

The two boys in the seat in front of him turned to look at him. John turned to look through the window, his face burning at missing his stop and speaking his thoughts out loud. The bus had just turned on to London Road. He pressed the button and got off, chuntering at himself like a lost-it boy.

On the pavement, John paused and looked around. A few people were walking, cars were flowing up and down the road. He’d not been down here for a long time, years, perhaps, but it seemed to look about the same as it ever had. And then he looked again. Something wasn’t quite right. He wasn’t able to focus properly. It was as though he was looking at two photographs of the same thing, one overlaid on the other. That supermarket, Sainsbury’s. That had been a nightclub, hadn’t it? The buildings opposite, red brick buildings, when did they get built? Hadn’t that one been a car showroom? And the pub across the road, the one that was busy as buggery every weekend, where was that? What had happened to that?

Looking along the road, a stream of memories of people and past events came at John in a sudden flood. Things he’d done, things his friends had done, things they’d done together. The pressure of these remembrances became overwhelming. He felt an obligation to recall them, clearly and accurately, and at the same time an urge to let them go, to discard them. He began to feel dizzy, drunk on thinking. Deciding to head for the underpass that ran beneath the ring road, still lost in his thoughts, he set off across a pedestrian crossing before the lights had changed and got a brash blare from a lorry driver for his sin. John waved an insincere apology and walked on, down the steps of the underpass, past a homeless pile of clothes waiting for their owner to return. That wasn’t right, either.

The two young lads sitting in the seat in front of his on the bus had been excited about a football match tomorrow. They didn’t look like they were even teenagers yet. John had begun remembering being their age and as excited as they were about football. There had been a pinging sound. Both boys had stopped talking and taken out their phones and thumbed them mercilessly. John had zoned out. He had carried on thinking about when he was a boy. It had made him feel happy. Too happy. That was how he’d missed his stop. Perhaps that was what had started it; the remembering.

He walked around the monstrous Moorfoot building and came to the bottom of the Moor. John crossed the bus lane and walked past an isolated kiosk and stopped. Looking up the Moor, he again felt the sense of something not being right. That duality settled over the scene once more. He was seeing what he was looking at but looking through his memory. The Moor, a carved stone canyon of neat, straight, sheer facades ran away up the slight incline in front of him. A pedestrianised space, John saw cars on either side: a Ford Cortina; a Hillman Imp; old vehicles from so long ago that they had probably been scrapped and recycled and scrapped again by now. He rubbed his eyes. At the top of the hill he could see the Town Hall. John remembered that was supposed to meet his wife there at lunch time. He began walking again, quickly.

He passed Atkinsons and felt comforted and suspicious that it was as it had always been, doubting his memory. John had intended to call in at the Moor Market to pick up a Wateralls’ pork pie for tea but he just looked at the worked expanses of wood that framed the market and kept going. As he moved through the thin crowds of people, images flickered through his mind like shutter stock: Curtess shoes; Blaskeys; BHS; Debenhams. He was trying to remember what had been there before but seeing things as they were now at the same time. Big, bold, clinical buildings paraded on either side of him, bright stone and clean lines. Nothing has detail any more, he thought, and wondered why. He stopped.

“I’m losing it,” he said.

A young girl walking towards John heard him speak to himself and subtly changed her direction, taking a course further from him. Some other day he might have smiled at this, at the idea that he’d become the odd bloke in the street. It wasn’t funny today, though. Not funny at all.

I’ve already lost it, he thought, deciding against speech. I’ve lost the detail of my life. Why did it go? How did I lose it? A terrifying understanding came to him, and he felt the danger of public tears. John swore quietly at himself, and started walking again, as quickly as before, as though he were hurrying from something.

The top half of the Moor and Pinstone Street passed by in a blur. He couldn’t process the volume of images and thoughts that were storming his mind. Passing the Peace Gardens, the silver jets of the fountains sparkled in the sun and, somewhere unseen, a lone busker was playing a trumpet. The Hovis tune, he thought. The sight and sound settled him a little, and his frantic walking slowed.

He was in front of the town hall now, and he stopped and looked down, panting. Even this was wrong. There were names there. He was walking on stars. John felt faint. He edged towards the Town Hall steps and leaned against a wall. His mind was a glittering palace of lights, flaring and dying. He closed his eyes and wondered if this was how the end begins. He didn’t know. He knew where he was now, though. He was where he was supposed to be. But there, the place he wanted to be, wasn’t there any more.

WIP: The Flame – Chapter 1

I’d been back in Sheffield less than a month when it happened.

A flash of lightning came just an instant before a God Almighty thunderclap exploded bang above my head. I nearly shat myself. I looked up and as I did a sky full of water began falling on me. I was soaked to the skin in an instant. I was amazed. I’d never seen this sort of weather in England.

I was stranded in the open on Devonshire Street. There was a coffee shop further along on the other side of the road, a protruding cantilever roof along one side providing cover for an outside seating area. I ran across the road, trying but failing to avoid the puddles that had already formed. Everyone around me seemed to have had the same idea and we all headed for the same piece of cover at the same time. The cars parked along the side of the road were almost nose to tail, so people had to funnel through the tight gaps between the vehicles to get to the shelter on the other side. I was still trying to avoid the puddles and so I’d got my head down as I ran, which is why I didn’t see her until I flattened her.

She must have been running towards the same shelter that I was heading for, coming towards it from my left. I’d got my left arm up above my head for some reason, maybe trying to keep the rain out of my eyes, so I didn’t see her coming and just ran straight into her. She bounced off me and onto the back of the car she was trying to pass. It was a Volkswagen Beetle, one of the new models that look like toys. She landed on that curved rear end and slid down and landed on all fours on the pavement in front of me. Trying to avoid landing on her, I jumped into the air and over her and landed on my arse on the pavement beside her.

I didn’t mean to bump into her. I wasn’t trying to get to the shelter before her. If I’d seen her coming I would have been happy to stand aside in the pouring rain and let her scurry through in front of me in order to get there first. I hadn’t seen her though, so now she was sprawled on the pavement in the rain, probably hurt, her smart pastel green jeans marked forever or maybe even ripped. I had to apologise.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to get up. It was then that I realised I’d done something to my back. My wrist hurt, too, and my ankle. “Shit,” I said.

She raised her head. She’d been on all fours up to now so all I’d seen was the top of her head. Except it wasn’t the top of her head. It was a scarf or shawl of some kind that she’d wrapped around her head, a pashmina or something like that. Really bright orange. So I hadn’t seen her head until now, or her face. I hadn’t seen the blonde hair peeping out from under the scarf, the tight natural curls that were starting to drip with rain. I hadn’t seen the tiny ears and the chin with just the suggestion of a cleft, or the red lips that were now stitched together in pain or anger or probably both. I hadn’t seen the bright green eyes, a colour so vivid that it looked fake, like those contact lenses people buy nowadays to make themselves look more interesting or, perhaps more accurately, less dull. I hadn’t seen any of this. Not since I broke her heart, anyway.

Her eyes had always been that dive-in-deep green. Her hair had always been that kinky, curly, strawberry blonde. Her face had always been shaped like a heart. And her mouth had always, always had that slightly protruding upper lip that made it more kissable than any other mouth I had ever known.

I had known that mouth.

“Tuppence,” I said, and “You look great,” I said.

It was. It was Penny. The girl I loved, the one that got away, the wife I should have had. She was on all fours, bedraggled, soaking wet, probably injured and in pain, probably thinking that she looked like shit. I was on my arse, also wet and hurt, on a pavement, just sitting there like it’s a park bench in the sunshine despite the fact that it was pissing down. And the first thing I said to her was that she looked great. Which she did, even like that. Even in a mess like that, she looked absolutely fantastic.

She saw me then, realised who I was. And then something odd happened. For just an instant, so quick that I’m not completely sure it was there, a look flashed across her face. A look that said she was scared. And then it was gone, and in it’s place was a look of confusion and upset and I knew I needed to get up and do something.

“Sorry,” I said again, “I’m sorry, Penny. Let me help you.”

I managed to get off my backside and on to my knees. My back hurt, but it turned out to be nothing serious. Same with my ankle, that turned out to be a mild sprain. It was my right hand that was the problem. I didn’t know it yet but there was a hairline crack of something called the scaphoid bone in my wrist. I reached out to Penny to take hold of her hand to help her to her feet and when she took it, it was like someone was cutting my hand off with a hot scalpel.

“Shit,” I said, again.

I let go of her hand and she fell back to her knees. She looked up at me, on all fours again, me kneeling upright in front of her, mild disbelief on her face. We looked at each other, still on the pavement, still getting soaked, other people coming out of the coffee shop to help us, and then she caught my eye and I caught hers and we smiled and then we laughed. Oh, we bloody laughed. Just like we used to do.

“This is surreal,” I said as we were both helped to our feet by strangers. One of them was a worker from the coffee shop who had seen our mishap. He held an umbrella over us, mostly over Penny. He looked at us as if we were mad, laughing in the rain. He saw blood through the tear in Penny’s jeans.

“Come,” he said. “Inside. Please. We fix.”

He pointed to Penny’s knee and she saw it for the first time, the blood, and then the tear and the rain-smeared muck running from her knees down the shins of the jeans. That odd look came and went again. She looked up and down the street and then back to the man. She glanced at me.

“No,” she said to him, “It’ll be fine. Thanks. I’ll see to it. Really.”

“Please come,” he said to her. “Is blood.” He pointed to her knee. “Must clean. Stop affection.”

“Stop affection?” she said.

“I think he means infection,” I said.

“Oh. Right.” She looked at me again, and it was as if she saw me properly for the first time, recognised me and placed me in the context of her own life. We looked at each other, standing on the pavement, dripping. We looked each other in the eye. “Stop affection,” she said with a smile, and I’m suddenly swimming in a green, green sea.

We’d met at university in Sheffield. She came from the moneyed side of the city, and I didn’t. We both wanted desperately to be independent, so she’d clubbed together with some girls she knew to get a room in a house off Ecclesall Road, and I’d got a room with some lads in a house in Crookes. We were completely on our own for, oh, at least two weeks. That’s how long it took us to hook up, and after that we were hardly ever apart. We never officially moved in together, I don’t know why, but from about the second or third week in we were always at one or the other place. It had just seemed so natural. I’d bumped into her in a bar, literally bumped into her and spilled her drink down her front and got embarrassed. I was a little bit pissed and so I tried wiping it off. I was babbling apologies like a real noob and wiping away the spillage with my sleeve across her breasts and it was only when she gave me That Look that I realised what I was doing. I jumped like I’d had a shock and then the words just streamed out. “Oh,” I’d said, and “Sorry,” and “Oh, god, I was just trying to get it off, really I was, I didn’t mean anything, please, let me get you another one, what are you drinking, are you new here, my god I’m a twat.” She’d smiled and told me to get her a replacement for her prosecco (which I found out later was really just cider in a fancy glass) while she went to clean herself up, and when she came back we just started talking and didn’t stop. We just kept talking and laughing and loving for the next three years, right up to the moment when I completely fucked it up. When I did the unforgivable thing.

That was nearly ten years ago.

The man finally lost patience with us. He wrapped his free arm around Penny and almost carried her into the coffee shop. He parked her at a little table in the window and then disappeared into the kitchen. I trailed along behind like a good puppy, my head full of all the things we did together and said to each other, dream-walking through memories. I remembered how good it was for so long, and then I remembered how bad it went, how it ended. I got nervous and stopped speaking. We just sat and smiled while I thought of all the things I wanted to say to her, all the queued up words that I’d practised so many times in my head, and then I realised that we weren’t students any more, that we’re not lovers, we’re not even friends, that I don’t know her now, and that she probably doesn’t want to hear any of the words that are damming my mouth.

The man reappeared, a first aid kit in his hand. He motioned for Penny to roll up her jeans leg and rest it on a chair and then he knelt down and took out a bottle of antiseptic and some cotton swabs. He wiped the grazed flesh clean with obvious expertise and then applied a large sticking plaster with similar proficiency. Penny just grimaced through the pain.

“Done this before, have you?” I asked the man.

He looked up. “Mam dzieci,” he said. “My children. Always bleeders.”

“Surely not,” I said.

The man just nodded and Penny grinned through the pain. He finished the dressing and stood up. He was smiling.

“Thanks very much,” I said to him, standing and shaking his hand. “You’ve been really kind. Let me buy you a drink or something.” I started fishing in the pocket of my jeans. The man put his hand on my arm and shook his head. He packed up the first aid kit and walked towards the kitchen. I felt the need to let him know how much we appreciated his help, so I patted him on his back as he passed. “Na zdorovie,” I said to him, with a grateful smile. There was a little stutter in his walk and then he gave me That Look, like the one that Penny used to give me. He disappeared through the door and I felt sure he was shaking his head.

I turned to face Penny. I was getting a bit sick of seeing That Look. I began to wonder how everyone in the world seemed to be able to do That Look except me.

“What?” I said.

“Cheers,” she said.

“You want a drink?”

She was shaking her head. “No,” she said. “I mean yes, I need a drink. It’s not that.” She began to laugh again, and I began to laugh with her. I had no idea why. “The nice man who tended to my knee just now, he’s from Poland.”

“Yes, I think you’re right,” I said.

“I am right,” said Penny. “Dzieci means children in Polish. Na zdorovie, on the other hand, means cheers or good health. It’s a drinking toast.”

“Thought it was something like that,” I said, nodding and feeling quite pleased with myself. “I wanted to buy him a drink but he wouldn’t have it. That’s why I said it. I wanted to say something nice and familiar to him.”

“It’s a Russian toast,” said Penny. “The Russians have killed rather a lot of Poles over the years. ”

“Ah,” I said. “Bugger.”

She was laughing still. This was a good sign.

“Did you say you wanted a drink?” I asked her. “Coffee or something?”

She hesitated and then nodded. “Go on, then. Coffee would be good. A nice latte with an extra shot or two, please.”

I went to the counter and ordered the drinks from the Polish man, who smiled at me and again declined my offer of a drink. He took the money and then wrestled two double-shot lattes from the spitting steaming machines and on to a tray. “Na zdorovie,” he said, as I carried the drinks back to the table. There was a little stutter in my step this time.

I placed the drinks on the glass table top and sat down.

“Poland,” I said. “Land of comedy. Who’d have thought?”

She laughed again. It was a good laugh, a genuine one. She seemed to realise this, that she was being open and friendly and unguarded. Then she stopped laughing, and I felt at least one of those properties leave her.

We were drying out now, settling down. I had to start a conversation. “How’s the knee?” I asked her. I thought, that’s not a conversation, that’s a question. Idiot.

She leaned forward and placed her hand on top of the sticking plaster and gently rubbed her knee. “It’s okay,” she said. “Stings a bit, but it’s okay. How about you?”

I replied automatically. “I’m fine, thanks. No problems.” My back was killing me and my ankle hurt and my wrist was on fire. She didn’t need to know that though.

She sipped her latte and I sipped mine and she smiled and I saw her eyes slide down to look at her big-faced watch. She began fumbling in the little brown leather handbag that has been hanging across her shoulders all the while. I noticed that it matched her shoes perfectly. She was building up to a departure and I started to feel a little desperate.

“Look, Penny,” I began. I hoped that she knew what I wanted to say.

“Incredible weather, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes, incredible. Penny…”

“How’s that brother of yours? Little Joe? Is he okay?”

“Joe’s fine, thanks and – look, Penny, I don’t want to talk about him right now, or the weather. I want to talk about, I want to…”

“I know what you want to talk about, Mac. Water under the bridge. Times past. Another life.” She paused and pulled the scarf off altogether and shook her head and her hair twirled all around it. She started to speak and then changed her mind and picked the little pink flower out of the vase in the centre of the table and twirled it round between her thumb and forefinger. “We can’t go back there,” she said, “even if we wanted to, we can’t change anything. And it doesn’t matter anyway. Really. It’s fine. Don’t worry about a thing.”

“That’s not what I wanted to say, Penny.”

She began to look uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I could see that she was afraid I was going to say something stupid, like I still love you or I will always love you or I can’t stop loving you. All of which were true. But none of which I could say right then.

“I just wanted to say sorry, Pen.”

She stopped fidgeting and looked at me again, stared inside me with those emerald eyes, saw my heart, saw it pumping like a maniac; saw that I still loved her.

“Mac…”

“That’s all. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. I behaved unforgivably, ruined a fantastic relationship, spoiled the chance for us both to have what would probably have been a brilliant life together; and, worst of all, I hurt my best friend. And for that I am truly, truly sorry.”

“Mac…”

“No, really, I am incredibly sorry. I was an absolute dung beetle to do what I did and…”

“Mac, I’m married.”

I looked down and for the first time I saw the gold ring on her finger and felt it fasten around my manic heart.

“Well, that’s great news, Penny. Great. I’m really happy for you. Really.”

I smiled as sincerely as I could but she knew I was lying. Worse, I could tell that she felt sorry for me.

“So, who’s the lucky man? Do I know him?”

Again! That scared look flashed across her face again. It’s the eyes. They open slightly wider for just the briefest instant and I can see she is frightened about something. And then just as suddenly she is back.

“No, you don’t know him.”

“Is he from Sheffield?”

“No, he’s not from around here. Actually, I was on my way to meet him when the storm broke.”

“Really? Could I come with you?”

Flash! There it was again. What is it?

“Some other time, maybe. Not right now.”

“No. You’re right. Daft idea.”

She reached into her handbag again and pulled out her phone and checked it for messages. Her lips tightened for a moment. I couldn’t tell if it was because she was concentrating or if it was something else.

“Hey,” I said, “I can see you want to get away. I’d love to see you again though. Would that be okay? Could you give me your number?” I dug into my jeans and I got my phone out. It was a new phone, a contract upgrade, and I’d not worked out how to use it yet. “Give me a minute, Tuppence. I don’t know how to add contacts with this new software. I wish they wouldn’t change things every time they upgrade.”

When I’d managed to find the contacts I raised my head and a man was looking through the window at me. He was wearing a waxed green jacket and the lessening rain was running off it, and off his short-cropped hair and down his face, dripping from his nose and his chin. He didn’t seem to notice the rain. He was smiling, but without humour. He had dark eyes, and I saw that the irises were a deep brown, a colour so dark that they looked like enormous pupils, like a bird’s. He was a big man but he was standing behind Penny so she didn’t see him.

“Don’t look now,” I whispered to her, still looking at my phone. “We’ve got an audience.”

Penny looked around the half-empty coffee shop and saw nothing. She turned back to me. I did the old rub-your-nose-and-point routine and she turned and looked out of the window and I heard her gasp, a real old-fashioned gasp, like a sob. She stood up too quickly, banged the table and knocked over what was left of the drinks.

“I have to go,” she said. “I’m sorry. I have to leave. Goodbye, Mac.”

“Penny?”

“Goodbye, Mac.” She walked quickly to the door and out into the street. She didn’t look back. I got up and started to follow her.

“Hang on a minute, Penny. I didn’t get your number.”

I worked my way out from behind the table and stepped outside. Penny was already twenty feet down the road. I started to jog after her. She turned a corner and I followed and then there was another bang and a flash and I was lying on the pavement again, staring up at the clouds roiling above me. I could smell an odd sort of hospital smell, high up in my nasal chamber, and felt a jab of pain in my right cheek. I realised that my eyes were swivelling wildly. I knew this because everything else, all the buildings and the cars and the people, all the world seemed to be moving around as my eyes rolled uncontrollably. I realised that I’d been hit. Hit really hard.

The dark-eyed man was standing over me. He was still smiling.

I could see behind him an angel, a strawberry blonde angel, pulling at him, dragging him away. I saw him open the passenger door of a car, a big car, and push the angel inside. He walked around the car and passed me. He spat on me as he passed. I saw the sputum coming towards me but I couldn’t move to avoid it. It landed on my face. The car sank under his weight as he got in on the far side, the side I couldn’t see. On this side, the face of the angel was pressed up against the glass and she was looking at me and she was crying. She looked away and then the back of her head hit the glass, bang, and bounced off it, her head wobbling loosely like a marionette. And then her head hit the window again and rebounded once more and there was a squeal and the smell of diesel fumes and they were gone.

That was the first time I lost them.

Angel Street

There he was. Arthur Scargill. Sixty feet high and wearing a miner’s helmet.

It wasn’t Scargill, of course. It was a mural in brick of a steelworker who looked a bit like him. The mural had been made when the gable wall was built in the eighties. At that time the man was living in another city, and so he hadn’t seen it until he came back home to Sheffield. The first time the man saw it he’d assumed it was Scargill because he thought it looked a bit like him. He’d only discovered it wasn’t Scargill a few months later. He’d read the story about the miner’s union paying for his luxury London flat for so many years. It had made him wonder why anyone would commission a mural of a man like Scargill. He’d had a look on the internet and found out that they hadn’t, that there were no monuments to Arthur Scargill anywhere. He felt that this seemed appropriate.

He scrubbed the condensation from the window with the sleeve of his coat. The bus had driven past Arthur Scargill. It had passed the pound store and the cheap hotel. They were approaching Angel Street, which meant…

There she was.

She stood at the bus stop wearing a white raincoat that looked like it was made of some kind of plastic. It should have looked cheap and tawdry but she somehow made it look smart and tasteful. She had knee length black boots and a black hat and a pair of black gloves and she should have looked common but she didn’t. She never did. She looked fabulous, as usual.

He twisted in his seat to keep her in sight for as long as he could. The bus whirred past her and on towards West Bar. He wondered where she came from to catch her bus here. He wondered where she was going. Hardly anyone got on or got off at the stop she used. The road from here headed north from the city centre. He guessed that this stop served the area around Hillsborough but he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. She was from somewhere else, going to somewhere else. She was not here.

He’d seen her, at that stop, at this time of day for the last couple of weeks. He’d started this latest contract at the Bank at around the same time. He’d seen her on the first morning. As soon as he saw her it was as if she was familiar to him, as if he already knew her. She stood in a queue but it seemed to him that there was nobody else there, no other people around her. She had bright blue eyes and cherry red lips and a smile like a painting. When she smiled her eyes squeezed tight, leaving her squinting like a beautiful baby. She had a way of standing that emphasised her hips, her body loose-jointed but elegant. That was the word for her. She was elegant.

Infatuated was the best word for him. It was an infatuation; there was no doubt about it. He’d never had one before but knew he’d got one now. He’d always thought of people who succumbed to this kind of thing as being weak-willed or weird or both. He was neither. He was almost sure of that. And anyway, what was wrong with infatuation? It wasn’t a bad thing. It just meant that he thought a lot about her. A lot.

He got off opposite the Law Courts and headed towards his office. He decided to pick up a takeaway coffee from the cafe on the other side of the street. He was still thinking about the girl. At the pedestrian crossing he pressed the button and waited to cross the road. The sign of the green man walking appeared and he set off across the road.

There was a screech of brakes and a car halted three inches from his leg.

Get the full story in Steel Works.

The Peace Gardens

The gang could be heard before they were seen. Their shouts echoed off the walls and buildings surrounding the Peace Gardens. It was a mixed group. There were different sexes, different races, different styles of dress and attitude. Some were quiet, uncomfortable to be part of such a group. Others enjoyed the attention they attracted. Most were more or less drunk or drugged. A weedy fug trailed in their wake.

The old woman watched as the group approached the fountains. Children played on. They were too consumed by their play in the cool dancing waters on this hot sunny day to notice the newcomers. Most people did as the old woman did and watched as the gang invaded the peace of the gardens.

A tall blond boy in skinny jeans and an equally tall black boy wearing low-rise sweat pants led the group. They walked past the old lady and the other people sitting on the low wall outside the Town Hall. The others following behind him in couples and clusters. The blond boy looked into the eyes of the people he passed. He spat little drops of insolence on the ground as he walked. A young couple and a family got up and walked away from the gang, leaving a space of the wall beside the old lady vacant. The gang began to occupy the vacated space, settling and rising like birds roosting.

The girl at the back of the group was young, perhaps sixteen. Her hair was a warning. It had been dyed day-glo red and was draped around her pimpled face like a curtain, something to hide behind. Strands fell down over her face and from between them a pair of too-blue eyes stared as she passed. Something about the eyes seemed false and it took the woman a moment to realise what it was. They were incredible, the brightest blue she had ever seen. Right now they were unfocused and permanently moving. The old woman noticed the irises, black, wide and of different sizes.

“Wotchewlookinah?” said the girl, her words all slurred into one.

The woman realised that she had been staring. In some other summer, she and her husband had sat here. Here, together, on a bench made of knife-scribed wood and coiled iron snakes. They had talked of the here and now that was there and then. Children ran and squealed in joy as jets of water flew from the ground beneath them. This was the place where her young self and her younger husband had held hands and talked of the future. Bare feet splashed through her memories. Children’s voices, the music of the present, sang to her past. The sights and sounds and smells of today overlaid those of yesterday, of other days. She and her husband had been happy here, watching people. She watched these young people now. She watched this girl.

“I’m sorry, dear,” said the old woman. “I was looking at your eyes. They’re beautiful.”

“Yeah?” said the girl.

She hit the old woman with the back of her hand. The blow was hard and fast, the young hand whipping across the old face, arms sweeping wide like a matador with a cape. The old woman fell sideways like an un-strung puppet.

“You twat,” the blond boy said to the girl, standing behind her. “You stupid, pointless twat.”

The old woman levered herself back up into a sitting position. She placed a hand on her reddening cheek. She looked down for a moment. She saw the neatly laid grey granite paving blocks. She raised her eyes to look at the torch of a girl blazing in front of her.

The girl was standing on the balls of her feet. She was almost hopping, adrenalin and alcohol and amphetamines rioting in her body. She waited for a response, for comeback from the old woman.

The old woman placed her hands on the top of the wall either side of where she sat. She pushed herself up, with care, rising to a standing position. She brought her hands together and clasped them in front of her, her smart leather bag dangling from one arm. She looked at the girl.

The bouncing girl looked into the old woman’s eyes. She could see no anger in those eyes. There was not even fear. All the girl could see were eyes almost the same colour as her own, though they were weaker. The whites were yellowed in places, the irises less delineated than her own. She felt as though she were seeing through the old woman’s eyes now. She saw through eyes that had seen so many things, seen war and death and hurt and loss, eyes that had seen enough. The old woman was done with fear and anger and blame, and she would see no more of them.

The girl stopped bouncing.

A bald fat man in a food-stained vest came up behind her. “All right, love?” said the man to the old woman. He was looking at the blond boy and the others in the gang. “The wife’s called the coppers. They’ll be here in a minute.”

The blond boy looked at the fat man and spat carefully on the floor.

“We don’t need this, man,” said the black boy. “Come on. Skip.” He began to walk away. The others followed him, walking slowly backwards out of the gardens. The blond boy looked at the girl and then at the fat man and then bent and spat once more before following the others.

The old woman held out a hand to the girl. The girl looked at the hand and saw the wedding ring. She saw the swollen knuckles and the liver spots and the fine, fine skin. She looked up again, into the mirror of the woman’s eyes. The woman opened her hand and turned it palm upwards.

The girl took the hand. The old woman drew her in. She put her arms round the girl and hugged her.

“There, there,” said the old woman.

The Moor

“Can you help me pliss?”

The woman was smiling at him. She had the whitest teeth he had ever seen: and the blackest skin.

“Pliss. Can you help me?”

He took the note from the little old dear he’d been serving and handed over her change. He thanked her and told her he’d see her next week and then he turned to the woman.

“Yes love?”

“Hallo. I need you to help me pliss,” she said. She had a deep and warm voice that sounded like a smile.

Another deep voice came from behind him.

“The first thing you need help with is your English, love.”

His father came round from the other side of the stall. He was rubbing his hands to keep them warm in the chilly autumn air. He had a look of doubt on his face. Perhaps it was scepticism. These two looks are hard to differentiate. Neither is welcoming.

“It’s please,” he said. “Not pliss. Please.”

The woman nodded, her smile continuing to shine. She was tall and solid. The way she held herself suggested a strong frame beneath her bright green and gold turban. She wore a matching wraparound under an incongruous grey coat. They protected her from the cold English weather.

“Thank you,” said the woman to his father. “Can you help me pliss – please?”

His father sniffed. “Depends what you want,” he said.

“I am from Ghana,” said the woman, “From Accra. I am a market trader like you.”

“Like me?” said his father. “You don’t much look like me.”

The son turned to face his father. His father looked at him and looked away, back to the woman. He rubbed his hands again and blew into them. The woman glanced from father to son and back, her smile unwavering.

“A market trader, eh?” said the son, turning back to face the woman. “What kind of trader?”

The woman looked down. There were trays and containers stacked in neat display rows across the front of the stall. She waved a hand across them.

“I am like you,” she said. “I sell fruit and vegetables. The freshest: the best.”

“Second best,” said the father. He pointed at the sign attached to the awning above the stall.

GO WEST FOR THE BEST

WEST AND SON

FINEST FRUIT AND VEGETABLE MERCHANTS

“Go West for the best, it says,” he said, enunciating, reading the words out slowly. His son bit his bottom lip. He looked down at the trimmings and loose paper scattered around the floor of the stall. George pointed to his son and back to himself. “We’re the best: West and son.”

“I’m Joe,” said the son, holding out a hand to the woman. She shook his hand, her stark pale palm cool against his own. She smiled at George, who put his hands in his pockets.

“How can we help you?” asked Joe.

“Thank you,” said the woman. “Thank you indeed.”

Joe smiled. “We’ve done nowt yet love. What can we do for you?”

The woman laughed a bass boom of a laugh. It tailed off with a high pitched fading sigh.

“No,” she said. “I mean yes,” she laughed again. “I mean I would like to have a market stall too. Can you tell me how to get one pliss – please?”

Joe laughed along with her. Her body cavorted when she laughed. She rocked backwards and forwards, sidestepped left and right, wriggled her hips. He couldn’t help joining in.

“I used to have a stall in Accra, in the Makola market,” said the woman, her mouth forming each individual word. “It was a big market; hundreds of stalls, very busy, very busy. Very good food; very good: fresh every day from the farms. And that is only one of the markets. There are lots of markets in Accra. There is one market, the Circle market, it is open all day and all night. You can buy things, get something to eat, anytime of the day, anytime at night. Anytime.”

“Sounds like hard work to me,” said Joe. “Long hours.”

“Long hours, yes,” said the woman. “Ghana is so hot that we sleep in the day and work at night. But I like to work. I like it!” Her laugh boomed again.

“You’ve got no chance,” said George.

The woman stopped laughing. Her smile was still broad and bright but it no longer reached her eyes now. Her head tilted to one side as she looked at George.

“No chance,” he said again. “All the pitches have been taken.”

The woman turned to look at the collection of pitches and stalls laid out along the Moor. Around half of the pitches were occupied by working stalls. Of the remaining pitches, about half had frames erected. The remaining pitches were completely empty. She turned back to face George.

“Who says?” said Joe.

George turned his face away from his son. “Mester Johnson,” he replied. He began arranging the pile of butternut squash in the box marked PRODUCE OF GHANA. “Markets manager. He told me the other day. Going like hot cakes, he says. It’s this new indoor market. Rents in there are too expensive so everyone’s after one of these outdoor stalls.”

“Really?” said Joe. “I thought Johnson was off sick?”

“No, he’s back now. He’s re-coop-er-ated.”

“Has he now?” said Joe. He turned back to the woman. “What’s your name love?”

“Efie. Efie Ansah.”

“Well Efie, the best thing for you to do is to contact this man.” He took a wallet from inside his jacket and picked out a card and wrote on it. “Mister Johnson. If he isn’t there someone else will answer. He looks after the markets in Sheffield. He’ll be able to tell you if any stalls are available. Come back and see me if you have any problems.”

“Wouldn’t waste your time love,” said George, arms folded across his chest.

“You are very kind, Joe,” said Efie, shaking his hand once more. “Thank you for your help. And you Mister George: thank you too.”

“You won’t get anything,” said George.

“Perhaps,” said Efie. “I will try though.” She blazed a smile at him.

“Best of luck Efie,” said Joe. “Let us know how you get on.”

“I surely will,” she said as she moved away, waving and smiling. “Thank you again, and God bless you both.”

The two men watched her head up the Moor. She had a dainty way of walking, placing one foot in front of the other, as if on a tightrope.

“That’s the last time,” said Joe.

George stood with his back to his son, watching Efie glide up the Moor towards the Town Hall. She was like a royal barge decked in green and gold livery.

“How d’you mean?” he said.

Joe paused. “I’m sick of you,” he said. “This is my stall now. I don’t want you around anymore, not after today. You’re done.”

“I were only trying to stop her being disappointed,” said George. “She’ll not get a stall. And anyway, we don’t need any more stalls doing fruit and veg, do we? We’re going to have enough on when the new market gets going.”

“You know what you were doing,” said Joe.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said George.

“You know exactly what you were doing.”

Division Street

She was like a balloon that was too pumped up.

She even felt tense, her skin too taut when he accidentally touched her as they passed each other in the small kitchen of the small apartment. He could feel himself stiffening and tightening in response. He noticed that he had unconsciously planted his feet, anchoring himself.

They stood near each other, him at the sink, her at the hob. The only sound was the dull clink of cups in water and meat frying in the pan. The only light came from the grey winter sky outside the window. It seemed to enter the room horizontally. She was staring thin-lipped through the window and he thought the setting suited her. He thought it made her look like an actress from an old film.

He stacked the pots and put the cutlery on the drainer and sat down at the table. He picked up the newspaper and began reading. Something banged behind him and he raised his head. He heard murmured words and another bang and he asked if there was anything he could do. There was a cat-fight sizzle as she poured the passata on top of the meat. She said something else. He said I’m sorry and she said no you’re not. He said no, I mean I didn’t hear what you said.

She walked out of the room.

He stared at the door for a few minutes. The meat sauce had been left on a high heat so he got up and turned it down. He turned on the extractor fan and the overhead light and stirred the sauce and then he boiled the spaghetti and cut some bread. He laid the table and opened the wine and then put out the meal. He opened the door and shouted that it was ready. He waited for a few minutes and then called again.

He sat down and looked at the food. He poured out two glasses of wine and took a big mouthful from one of them. After a couple of minutes he began eating. He finished his meal and his wine and then poured out another glass. He stood up and clasped his hands on top of his head and looked out of the apartment window as the day died outside. He saw people walking along the wet pavements of Division Street. He wondered how they lived.

After a while she came back into the kitchen. She had been crying and her eyes were red. She sat down in front of her food and folded her hands in her lap. He stood up and took her plate and warmed it in the microwave and put it back in front of her. She took a sip of wine and said I’m too upset to eat and he said what are you upset about. She said you know what and he said I don’t. I don’t.

They sat together for a long time without speaking.

Later, when the police asked her why she did it, she just couldn’t find the words.

The Stranger

The stranger was walking. It made a change.

It was late evening in early winter and the night was cold but dry. All around him the lights of the bars and shops of the city centre glared and glowed, a stream of colours flowing around him under a starless black sky. People passed by, couples and groups, a few solo travellers, mostly young people, mostly heading home. The only sounds to be heard were the heels of women’s shoes and transient conversations and occasional guffaws. He walked on, passing the late night food outlets, smelling onions and tomatoes and spices and meat, always meat.

Nobody looked at the stranger. He did nothing to attract their attention.

The route he followed took him through the alleyways and hilly streets that formed the little village at the centre of the city, and then out towards the east. In the city centre, people had been lively and chatty, and the place seemed warm and welcoming. Now, as he moved further east, there were fewer people, and they kept their heads down or looked straight forward, avoiding eye contact. It became quieter. It seemed colder.

After a while he came to a big island, a distribution point for traffic coming to or through the city. A footbridge spanned the entire roundabout, it’s walkways radiating out from the centre of the island like the spokes of a giant wheel. He climbed some steps to the footbridge and walked across, above the stream of traffic. Leaning against the railings, he paused for a few minutes to watch the vehicles coming off the Parkway. A beautiful woman in the passenger seat of a Jaguar looked up as the car she was travelling in passed under the footbridge. She smiled, perhaps at him. He turned and watched as the car drove out towards the motorway. She didn’t turn round. He stood there for a while, listening to the drawn out roar of tyres on tarmac, smelling the poisonous leavings of cars and buses and lorries and bikes. An ambulance flew into the city, blue lights in a maniac swirl, its siren sounding like a toy. When it was out of sight he started walking again.

Coming off the footbridge, he climbed up an incline and on to a long, straight road. Red and white lights from the traffic on the dual carriageway streamed below him on the left. On his right he passed a modern church that was dying and a working men’s club that was already dead. A many-floored block of flats stood behind the church and the club that had been built to serve them. Every window was darkened or covered with curtains or blinds. Lights shone in just a handful of the living spaces. The only thing moving on the street was a black and white cat searching for mice. The cat paused and sniffed the air as the stranger came closer before slinking away, ears pricked backwards, listening.

The stranger came to a junction with a side road. As he approached the junction he heard a voice. He looked around to see where it came from but he couldn’t see anything. He stopped for a moment. The voice came again.

“Help.”

It was a man’s voice, but there was weakness in it, and it trembled.

He looked around again and saw a long, thin arm lying on the pavement a little way along the side road. There was hedging along the side of the road and the arm stuck out through a gap. He hesitated for a moment and then saw the hand twitch. 

“Help me,” came the feeble voice.

The stranger ran up to the gap in the hedge. As he bent down to the figure that lay on the ground, the twitching hand shot up and fastened around his throat. Another hand joined it and dragged him head first through the hedging. The stranger was pushed to the ground, his head bouncing off the tarmac before his face was pressed down into the dirt and gravel behind the hedge, out of sight of the road. A weight landed hard on his back and forced the air out of his lungs. His left arm was trapped under his body, the other twisted up behind him and held tight in a strong, bony grip.

 

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Paradise Square

The stars seemed to be moving oddly. Some of them flew by quickly while others stayed still. One or two were circling around each other. Some of them were quite big and then quite small and some trembled and some wobbled. There were orange ones and purple ones and green ones and he thought that was odd too. There were smells: mothballs; petrol; blood.

He opened his eyes and saw a scuffed and scruffy wheel arch that was once white. It was now various shades of finger-printed grey. His face was on the floor of a vehicle close up against the metal of the wheel arch. It was so close that he could see little else apart from a dirty brown cloth or blanket that his head was laying on. He didn’t know what he was doing there. His mouth tasted bad. He tried to open it but something had been stuck across it and it pulled his skin when he tried to speak. He lifted his head and the stars moved even more oddly, dancing like flies in evening summer sunlight. He felt sick.

He tried to get up but he couldn’t move his arms. They were behind him. He felt something tight around his wrists that stopped him from trying to lift himself up off the floor. He tried using his legs but they’d been tied at the ankles too. His jaw hurt badly. He began to feel panic and to breathe heavily through his nose. He rolled onto his side and saw a man with hair spread out like a halo all around his head. The man leaned forward and punched him in the mouth. He punched him harder than he’d ever been hit in his life.

When he woke, the stars came back again and moved around even faster. He felt dizzy and even sicker. The hairy man leaned forward.

“Wanker,” he said in a whisper. “Listen to me, wanker. Every time you move I’m going to hit you. Do you understand? Every time you make a sound I’m going to hit you. OK? Do you understand me, wanker?”

He nodded and the man hit him again, on the side of his head, as hard as the last time.

“You nodded,” said the hairy man. “I told you I’d hit you if you moved.”

The man’s voice seemed to echo, as if it came down a tube or a drainpipe.

He lay on the floor of the van, his head bursting. He was trying to keep down the bile rising at the base of his throat, trying to stay still and to keep quiet. He closed his eyes and tried to work out how he’d got into this mess.

 

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Lady’s Bridge

It was too cold for the clothes she was wearing; a smart black skirt and a tight white top under a thin grey coat. She’d chosen the skirt because the way it was cut emphasised the shape of her hips, which were rounded and full and not like the square, hard hips she saw on the skinny bitches in the magazines these days. She’d chosen the top for the same sort of reason; she had good boobs and they were looking even better of late. The tight white turtleneck showed them off and the new seamless bra underneath made them look fantastic. And black and white felt right. She was glad that she’d picked the long leather boots too, but she knew now that the coat was a mistake. It was quilted and stuffed with feathers but it was too thin and the autumn wind whirling along the road cut right through it. The cross wind that ran along the river and over the bridge made it worse, although she could hide from that by standing close against one of the pillars on the bridge and pulling up the hood of the coat. He’d said he’d meet her here anyway, at the pillar with the plaque on it that said something about Richard Hawley. So here she was.

She was early though; much too early, really. He’d said he’d be here at three and it was only half-two now and he was always running late anyway. It might look like she was a bit too keen, getting here this early. But he knew that she was keen; very keen, absolutely mad keen in fact. She couldn’t wait to see him and tell him her news. So she stood, in the cold wind, on the old bridge, and she waited.

They’d only met a few months ago, up in the little park off Devonshire Street. She’d got sick of sitting in her dingy little council flat waiting for something to happen and so she’d put on a pair of denim shorts and a white lace top and gone to the park to sunbathe. It wasn’t really sunbathing weather but it was warm and dry and anything was better than being in that crappy little flat on her own. It was Wednesday and she was always skint by Wednesday and so the only things she could do were things that didn’t cost anything like that; sitting in the park and watching people. The little park was called Devonshire Green and it was a good place for that kind of thing, for people-watching. All sorts passed through here on a summer day: students; residents from the nearby flats; workers from the offices and shops in that area; boozers getting tanked, and lovers getting petty.

She always tried to imagine where all these people came from and what they did, tried to picture what happened in their lives. Where did the bearded drunk in the unfit suit go to sleep? Did the too-pretty blonde girl sitting reading on the bench clean her toilet properly, scrubbing it and bleaching it and scenting it as she did herself? What about the two lovers on the grass beside the path? Were they a couple or did they have other partners, ignorant of their cheating? She made up answers to her own questions as she sat on the grass, her knees hugged tight to her chest, her head rested on her arms. Sometimes these answers made her smile or even laugh out loud as she sat and watched these other lives meander past her.

Looking at other people was a way of avoiding looking at her own life. She had only arrived in the city last year, having trailed up here from Nottingham to be with her mother only to be abandoned again when her mother had found a new man and buggered off to Brighton with him. The council wouldn’t let her stay in the family house that they had been living in and so they had shunted her into a flat in the city centre. It was handy for the nightlife but she didn’t have a job and so she didn’t have the money to make the most of it. She’d tried to get a job a few times but she didn’t have a great employment record because she was always having to up sticks to follow her mother everywhere she went, and there were hundreds of other people after every job anyway, so she’d decided to give up trying for a while. She’d given up on her mother, too, now. She was sick of being deserted every time she managed to snare a new man. She wasn’t going to go running all the way down to the south coast to mop up the tears and the blood this time. Stuff her.

She’d been watching a little old couple having one of those silent fights that couples have when they’re in public, all snatched hands and held glares and spat whispers. It had been so funny that she’d laughed out loud again and they’d looked at her and she’d looked away and that was when she’d seen him.

He was laid out on the slope of grass to her right, hands behind his head, legs spread wide like a welcome. He wore jeans and a short sleeved shirt, unbuttoned so that everyone could see his muscled stomach and almost hairless chest. He was wearing sunglasses but the sun was almost overhead and the angle of the light got behind the lightly coloured lenses and she could see that his eyes were on her. She looked away but she knew he had seen her look at him. If she looked back again too soon he would know that she was interested, but that would be something only common, easy girls did, so she watched the furiously silent old couple again instead. After a little while she took off her sunglasses and made a show of polishing them, although she was really trying to look at him in the reflection of the mirrored lenses. She couldn’t find him anywhere, no matter how she angled the lenses. Instead, she held them up to the sky and then polished them against her top and held them up again and made a show as if a speck of dirt had fallen from them and landed in her eye. She turned her head to the slope of grass to her right and he was gone.

 

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Love Street

The street lights shone through the front window of the stationary car. It painted their faces the glowing yellow of cartoon characters. Her skin was smooth and unlined and on her face the light seemed like the background wash of a watercolour. His face was pocked and unshaven and on him the light gave the rougher, grainy look of an old photograph. The lights drew thick, delineating shadows around their faces. It made the scene seem even more artificial, like a page from a comic book.

He glanced at her. She had looked at him once or twice. Most of the time they faced forward along the deserted back street where the car was parked. The street had been re-surfaced at some time in the recent past to service the new buildings up ahead of them. The old buildings around them were decaying and crumbling into ruin. Buddleia and bramble spilled out onto the patched and uneven pavement. They seemed to have been sown to fill the spaces between the derelict buildings around them.

“Do you know the name of that road?” he said, pointing straight forward.

The road in front of them ran past some old brick buildings on the right. It curved left at a crossing towards a large modern building.

“No,” she replied. She hadn’t spoken for a while so her throat had dried and it made her voice crack slightly. It made her sound nervous.

“Workhouse Lane,” he said. “Somewhere around here was where they built the first workhouse in the city.”

“Really,” she said. Her reply was automatic. She seemed to be thinking of something else.

“Yes,” he said.

They were silent again. They listened to the irregular sound of the cars running along the road behind the brick houses. The rain made the tyres of the cars sound sticky as they rolled along the road.

“Do you know the name of this road?” he said. “The one we’re on now?”

“No,” she replied, shaking her head.

He smiled. “It’s called Love Street.”

She looked at him, raising her eyebrows.

“Honestly,” he said. “We’re on Love Street, looking towards Workhouse Lane.” He laughed. “Love really does lead to the workhouse. Very Gabriel and Bathsheba, don’t you think?”

“Who?” she said.

“Not a Hardy fan then?”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

He flicked the windscreen wipers to clear the drizzle that had settled on the windscreen. They squeaked backwards and forwards three times before coming to rest again.

“What are we doing here?” he said, leaning forward and resting his hands on the steering wheel.

She looked down and gripped her small handbag with both hands. “I don’t know,” she said.

He leaned further forward and placed his mouth on the back of his hands. He looked up into the city-lit night sky, at the trickles of rainwater running down the windscreen.

“I think we’ve made a mistake,” he said.

 

Get the full story in Steel Works.