There was civil war here once, although official records are careful not to give it that name. If you look through the government-backed newspapers of the time you will find the language they preferred: subversives, agitators, extremists, disturbances, and then: Necessary Measures.
Location: England, the southern seaboard.
You should still stay out of this city.
Post civil-war life. Late November. Pre storm.
Jake stepped out of the warm fug created by the single portable gas heater in Eddie’s Café, its silver-coloured metal guard scorched brown, and down the three breeze blocks acting as steps, into the foul night. He’d felt better sitting up at the counter in Eddie’s, where Tajana had made his fried-egg sandwich just how he liked. Outside again, the filthy, wet night struck him hard in the face. A storm had been building for days, but this was not it.
Jake’s boots were provided by the flour mill but he wore them all the time – being the first perfectly waterproof footwear he’d ever had. He stared up into the oncoming rain to wash the flour dust from his eyes. If he went to sleep with that gunk in them they’d be stuck together when he woke, and still blurry for the early-morning shortcut to the mill, through the marshalling yards, then along the side of the rail tracks in the winter dark.
Frank, flush with prize money from fighting at the docks, had noticed Tajana clearing a small hole in the condensation on the café window with the back of her hand, and had watched her peer into the blackness after Jake. Frank had seen him before in Eddie’s. Smelt him. That flour dust.
The wind pushed Jake in the back, buffeted the café’s flimsy sides and juddered the padlocked metal cage containing the gas bottles, a ragged map of rust rising up around each of their bases; in the summer, kids regularly try to set fire to them. Jake hoicked up the collar on his long, thick overcoat, old army issue. A few, insignia removed, still turn up in the second-hand shops. When troops were deployed at the height of the Measures the city was nicknamed Khaki-on-Sea. But that was the past – as politicians on all sides insist – although not yet a past so far away it could safely be taught in schools. Jake hunched his head back down. There was salt in the rain.
Tajana squinted at him through the café window.
Several knuckles on Frank’s hands were newly broken. It made no difference to Frank. It was because he would keep punching long after his opponent was unconscious on the ground. But that was the part he enjoyed the most. There were fatalities at those dock fights. Frank enjoyed that too.
Tajana hadn’t known that Frank considered her to be his girl. She’d seen him looking at her, but other than telling her what he wanted to eat he’d never said a word to her, and she preferred it that way. Sometimes though, she would say something to a customer and immediately hear Frank’s laugh. Another thing she didn’t know was that Frank had been noting the extra care she always took making Jake’s sandwich.
A split second before Frank began his attack, he would tilt his head rapidly from one side to the other as though he was comparing two annoyingly similar weights inside his head.
Then, just before he unleashed, he would suddenly ask, “What’s your name?” A trick his sergeant had taught him – “Confuses them, Frank me old mate. And punch the vein in their neck.” The sergeant was the only friend he’d ever had, the only person who’d ever helped him. The first time Frank’s laugh had ever been genuine was in a foreign land watching the sergeant feed bits of his peeling sunburnt skin to abandoned half-starved dogs. An hour later Frank had to wipe what was left of the sergeant off his uniform. He couldn’t do it. He’d needed to ask someone help. “Pull yourself together, soldier,” he’d been told, “or you’re
no damn use.” From that day he showed no weakness. He didn’t care that on his return the promise “Jobs for our boys” was an empty slogan. He didn’t need any help, and later, the neat, wiry army chaplain at the homeless-veterans’ hostel who offered it to him, quickly agreed. He’d read Frank’s eyes and wasn’t prepared to risk his life contradicting him. So Frank had walked out of there leaving the chaplain shuddering at the only words Frank had spoken to him in an hour and a half: “I’ve killed for my country with weapons, and I’ve killed for money with my hands. It feels the same. Just one’s quicker.” Frank didn’t need friends now. And he would take what he wanted.
The city was on the coast, but there were no sands, golden or otherwise, here. No shops selling postcards and buckets and spades, although there was sometimes an ice-cream van.
No excited shouting and screaming of holidaymakers running eagerly into surf, no colourful holiday illuminations. This was not that kind of city. People did scream here though, and run.
It was a port, but in a storm you’d be better off staying out at sea. Tajana couldn’t forget the time Jake didn’t want his change and handed it back to her without the owner seeing. It had been enough for her to get an onion to go with her rice after work. It had made all the difference. Before she ate she’d attached a cheap earring she’d found onto a piece of cotton and hung it over her single candle. Her room had no electricity. She cooked in the tiny
fireplace with any fuel she could find – scraps of wood, bits of plastic. She’d used up the Warning Unsafe Structure sign the first night she’d spent there. She had a roof tile as a plate. Tiles fell off regularly in gusts of wind. She’d found one unsmashed in the street. Her idea had worked; the earring moved in the warm candle air and glittered. “I am lucky,” she’d said out loud in her tentative English, and curled up on the floor to sleep before anything could go wrong.
The city hadn’t built a new Memorial in the end, just added names to the old one. No need any more, though, for even a token guard against the Scrapers – those people who’d lost civilian loved ones and bitterly resented that only soldiers’ names had been added. But eventually a concession was made, and the names of the children who took messages through the city, and were killed for it, were officially engraved onto the bronze plaque. Such delicate compromises hold the taut peace that a succession of political leaders have pointed to as success.
The first child that died had been lifted onto the floor of the only vehicle that passed, an ice-cream van, but hadn’t lived to reach help. It had been hot. Blue sky. No clouds at all. Under the full glare of the sun the van went as fast as it could along a road dug up in parts so rubble could be used as missiles. And with every jolt, blood flowed silently out of a crack in a skull not yet fully grown, to the looped shrill desperate warbling of Greensleeves. In the panic no one had thought to turn it off. An hour later the driver had hosed the blood away and was plying his trade on one of the estates. Life went on.
The ignition buttons for the gas rings at Eddie’s Café no longer worked and Tajana had to use matches. She knew how Jake liked his fried-egg sandwich – the yolk runny – so she
scored the bread to help soak the yolk up; she didn’t want any of it wasted by dribbling out. All that protein – he needed it. She knew what job he did. And he liked pepper on the yolk but nowhere else. Tajana had burns from the spitting fat. She’d got used to the ones on her hands, but it was the sudden searing on the insides of her thin wrists that never ceased to shock her and made her want to cry. She didn’t, though.
When the gas bottles were getting low, cooking was the priority at Eddie’s so the washing up, even of greasy plates and frying pans, was done in cold water, leaving her up to her elbows in a film of scum. They’d had soup like that in the camp, until the whooping cough epidemic had brought the Red Cross and proper rations. In front of the sink, Tajana would dream about being a dancer at the Nelson. A lot of those girls used Eddie’s Café. They weren’t pestered there – nobody was. When a long haired fork-lift driver had said loudly about Tajana, “Oi, look, someone’s splashed skin on that skeleton,” Frank had followed him out, and that fork-lift driver wasn’t seen again until what was left of him washed up further along the coast, entangled in neglected sea defences.
The redundant dockers still used pilfered metal hooks to fight with, but now only amongst themselves, divided loyalties still raw and untreated. The old docks, with their dark corners and labyrinthine warehouse quarter where dissension first fermented, had gone, their leading part in The Unrest stamped on with concrete and steel, powerful floodlights, high nests of swivelling CCTV cameras. The myriad small yards where on bitter mornings lorry drivers had lit fires on the ground directly under their engines to unfreeze the diesel were replaced with a single massive, numbered and gridded, micromanaged lorry park. No vehicle, no load, no driver moved unobserved any more.
Unlike the other prefabs hurriedly built post civil war to feed the bused-in demolition crews and then the construction workers of the much-heralded, grandiosely named “Regeneration Era”, Eddie’s Café, caught in a blind spot between overlapping administrative areas, had never been removed. Its original name had been Feeding Station 874. It was a shell by the time Eddie acquired it for a few favours and a brown envelope full of notes, but it hadn’t taken him long to re-equip it from the dumps. Since Eddie there had been many owners, but the café always kept the name, Eddie’s Café. It was cheaper than repainting the signs, and Eddie’s was already well-known in that area, one of the first where the momentum of new development had eventually ground to a halt with the phasing out of government incentives, both financial and personal. There were no longer fortunes to be made, no more honours to be bought, no more committees with “Renewal and Revitalisation” proudly in their title and the words “urgent” and “dynamic” in their reports. No more money could be made from the city, and it was abandoned to its own devices, area by area. The same mistakes were being made again, and parts of the city were not as punch-drunk as they seemed.
At night the glaring white from the dock’s new floodlights fell just short of Eddie’s, from where a dim nicotine colour managed to break out through the bare, grimy windows and spill across the uneven tarmac where huge puddles formed, sheened with petrol, oil, diesel. They rippled with the cold wind from the industrial-grey sea that slopped and slapped and gobbed against the dockside. Tajana had watched Jake disappear, swallowed up into the night, and then let the space she’d cleared on the window fill with condensation again. Frank had watched her.
As Jake walked away he heard the rain clattering on the parts of the café patched with tin. The rain blurred the intermittent lights of the chugging freight trains in the distance; they still moved cautiously out of the place. Some habits clung on, ingrained, just in case.
In unreconstructed backstreets, if you knew the right people, you could still obtain the motley and illegal memorabilia of The Uprising, from leaflets to tattoos, the police no longer having the manpower for periodic crackdowns. The selling of more deadly items was dealt with instantly, by a different force, from outside the city, with all the money and muscle it needed.
Post civil-war life. Early December. Post storm.
It is half past ten in the morning. Inside the shut pub, along the windowsills, there are still flies from the summer, mummified in dust. Tixe sits at the bar, wrapped in the Nelson’s faded surroundings, the parcel tape holding together the rip in the bar stool crackling slightly every time she shifts her weight.
She and Paul the barman are the only people there. Paul opens up every morning, and Tixe slips in behind him as he goes through the door. She knows he can’t say no to her. She is nineteen. There are still the faintest traces of puppy fat in her face. Her fingernails are bitten down a little and her red nail varnish is flaking, but her red lipstick has been newly applied. Once when she’d had to describe herself in a few words, another dancer with more experience had told her to write “petite”.
Paul hasn’t turned the lights on in the bar yet and it is duller than the December morning Tixe has just walked through, arms folded, quick little steps in high heels, short, tight, faded denim skirt, the cold strong wind off the sea reaching even further into the city than usual today, biting at her bare legs. Most of the debris left by the storm has been cleared now. Or scavenged. Her hair hangs down over her shoulders and strands constantly fall across the sides of her face or over her eyes and eventually, not straightaway, she will remove these by a toss of her head, or a perfunctory brush of her hand if nobody is there to see.
Last night Tixe washed her collection of soft toys in the sink in her one-room bedsit after she’d noticed they had mould on their backs from where she had leant them up against her window. It was unusual for her to spend that long in her room any more. She dried them as much as she could in her only towel, then pegged them up on her makeshift indoor washing line, making it droop. Then she lay under her blankets and listened to the vehicles swishing by on the wet road below, and to the rain’s muffled hissing. Tixe could see her breath, but she wasn’t going to spend money turning on the electric fire. She slept until morning, when outside, directly above her window with the rotten wooden ledge that soaks up rain like a sponge, a seagull called raucously as it pecked at something in the blocked guttering, the overflowing water escaping down the wall.
Paul, wiping down the bar and anxious to be part of things, wanting to appear “in the know”, says, “No one’s seen Tajana since the storm, or Jake. That’s over a week now. They reckon, down at Eddie’s, Frank got them. No one’s seen him either, but that’s not unusual – the stuff he does. I liked Tajana. She shouldn’t have danced here, though. And that Jake seemed OK. Sort of polite. But I don’t know what they’ve got to do with Frank.”
Paul puts another shot in Tixe’s glass from the huge Bell’s whisky optic. He is pleased he remembered not to say “Taj” this time. It has become the trend in this city to call New Permanents by their full first name.
Paul says, “Eddie’s is open again now – they fixed that quick.”
“Can’t I have some vodka?” Tixe says.
“No, Warren notices if I take anything from the others. This is the only optic big enough.”
Tixe says, “All right then cheers then.” Her bangles slide down her forearm towards her elbow, clinking as she takes a swig.
Paul wants to ask her out, but he doesn’t know how it works with girls like that. He glances again at the two scar lines on her left wrist, one heavier than the other. A third might have done it but the pain had been too much. Everything else now was extra; her form of optimism. She notices where Jake’s looking and moves her arm so her bangles fall back down. He doesn’t know where these girls get their strength from. He thinks, “There should be medals,” and then, “Or at least a good meal.”
Tixe grimaces at the whisky taste. She says, “I think Jake read too many books,” and drinks again.
Paul still floundered at times. He was used to holiday-season bar work in the resorts strung like tawdry decorations along the coastline of the English Channel. But this was a seaport brooding through winter, freezing sea mists moving in at speed inches above the massive expanse of dark water, swarming ashore at night to lay the first imperceptible corrosions in the buildings of the unfinished Reconstruction Areas. He watches the gulp in Tixe’s throat as she drains her glass.
She says, “Aww that’s disgusting.”
Paul says, “Why do you drink it then?” and immediately regrets it. There is that sudden silence he noticed you got sometimes with Tixe. He can hear her breathing.
Then Tixe says, “Be quiet now little barman.” She says it softly because she doesn’t mind Paul. She thinks anyone who hasn’t hurt her yet might be nice. A hope endlessly deferred.
Paul shoots some vodka in her empty glass, puts his own money in the till and leaves the bar to find the song on the jukebox that he’s heard her ask men to put on for her. Away from Tixe he notices for the first time that morning the familiar mustiness of the carpeting and the stink of stale tobacco.
With her back to him Tixe says sympathetically, “Tajana said chimneys instead of funnels.”
Frank had liked it when Tajana used the wrong words. He had laughed at her and not told her why. It was the first time he’d laughed since the army. Then he had started to leave presents for her at Eddie’s. He called her Taj.
Paul hides Tixe’s drink under the bar as Warren comes in talking to another man. Warren casually snaps a stray piece of chalk left on the bar. He has fat fingers. One day his signet ring would have to be cut off. You have to be careful who you call wharf trash.
“Lovely yeah,” Warren continues. “Powerful car. Only problem is soon as I get drunk the tyres start to squeal.” The man chuckles. Warren nods towards Tixe and says, “Oh well, back to the daily grind – and there she is now. Either too much lipstick or someone’s just shot her in the mouth,” and he laughs loudly and then the man does too. Warren’s experienced eyes check Tixe’s skin for the slightest hue of telltale yellow. There were always rumours it was back.
“Any ferry jobs yet?” Tixe risks.
Warren says, “There might be something coming up,” and adds, “if you’re good.”
The man nods towards Tixe and says, “Is it any good?”
Warren nudges him and says, “I’ll show you in a minute.”
From outside comes the noise of a young child who has just learnt to whistle. But the thin uncertain sounds are snatched away by the wind whipping through the streets before the chilled lips can form a recognisable tune.
Warren warns, “Tixe, get yourself changed now. Paul boy, wipe those tables.”
Paul under his breath: “No rest for the wicked.”
Tixe whispers back, “We get a lot done, though,” and remembers the first time she’d got drunk before stepping up onto the Nelson’s stage – the twelve-foot-square wooden platform, ten inches high – and how she hadn’t felt the usual humiliation scrambling around the stage afterwards picking up her clothes. Now she can’t sleep without a drink.
As Warren and the man move through into the back there is more laughter as Warren says loudly, “She knows what to do with the drunken sailor all right.”
Paul sees Tixe looking into her lap.
They hear the man ask Warren, “You still with that wife of yours?”
Warren laughs contentedly. “Nah, I chucked her out. Silly cow got herself cancered up.”
Holding out that he could get jobs on the ferries for the girls was Warren’s way of having power over them. Most of the girls saw a job on the ferries as a step up. Warren knew people, and his connections went back to The Unrest. There was always a high turnaround of ferry girls; the shift hours and their cramped cabins, with the bunk beds, near the engines, wrecked them. He could arrange a job on one if he chose, and then the girl would “owe him big time” – a phrase he loved to use. Tixe stayed working at the Nelson because she thought it was her best chance of a ferry job. It excited her to see them leaving for France at night, all lit up, and she shuddered with the glamour of it all. Tixe was one of Warren’s best girls – and by best he meant most explicit – and he’d noticed the rise in takings when she was on. She was an asset, a word he also liked to use. Tixe was going nowhere. He didn’t mind her getting free drinks from Paul. It was something he had over his barman, a little bit of power in his back pocket for casual use later, like some people would swing a sag – the local improvised cosh: you took off a sock, dropped any coins you had into the bottom of it, tied a tight knot just above them. No doorman was going to take both your socks and all your change off you before you entered a club.
Warren hadn’t needed a weapon since he’d left school, where he’d unscrewed the blades from pencil sharpeners. He had other ways now of getting what he wanted. “Got anything to eat?” Tixe asks Paul.
Paul chucks her a packet of salt-and-vinegar-flavoured crisps, the ones they couldn’t get rid of. Warren always warned him not to feed the girls for free. Tixe fishes in her little purse for coins, handing them to Paul on her open palm, looking up from under her fringe, her big brown eyes presented to him in black mascara.
“That’s OK,” Paul says.
She knew the effect that look had on men, and once, before she’d got work dancing at the Nelson, a woman: Molly. Tixe had told herself, “A girl needs to eat.”
Tixe had waited until Molly’s eyes closed before releasing a yawn. In the morning, Molly brought Tixe breakfast in bed. Tixe hung around in the woman’s flat as long as she could bear it, but in the end she had to ask bluntly for money. When Molly became tearful, Tixe pretended she’d just meant a loan for a taxi. Molly gave her a handful of change from the bottom of her handbag, some loose cigarettes she’d forgotten she had, and a quarter-full box of England’s Glory matches.
Tixe’s look hadn’t worked on Frank, though, alone in that place with him, in between the coils of gigantic black chain and the piles of girders waiting to support a structure that had been paid for but was never going to arrive.
Tucking into her salt-and-vinegar crisps Tixe consoles herself yet again that anyone would have told Frank what he wanted to know, about Tajana setting her sights on Jake, about Tajana dancing and the men who shouted at her – no she didn’t know their names and yes she would find out. She would. Yes. Yes. Yes. She’d known she was in trouble when she’d seen Frank’s wide intense smile with the gums showing above the teeth. Frank’s threats were never veiled. If Frank asked you something it wasn’t a question, it was a test with a right or wrong answer. Even Warren was afraid of Frank, however much he called him wharf trash behind his back. Tixe told Frank about that too. Frank had needed to bend down to place his knuckles under Tixe’s chin, using them to turn her head towards a grubby discarded holdall with a broken zip, twenty yards away. “You’d look good in a rucksack,” he’d said. “You’re little enough to fit in that,” and walked off. Tixe could have cried with relief. She knew Frank didn’t make jokes – that she’d just heard a direct threat. But she remained physically unharmed. She needed her looks. She knew what they all said: cheap but pretty.
Tixe finishes her crisps, rubs her fingers around the inside of the empty packet, then sucks them. Jake had once told her, grinning, “Human beings have nine thousand taste buds. You have two. One for salt and one for sugar.” She starts to drum along to the song Paul has put on the jukebox, using the rings on her fingers to bang against a green glass ashtray that is heavy enough to kill someone. Paul puts another whisky shot into her glass. She doesn’t grimace at all this time.
Tixe had chosen her own dancing name to look good on the blackboard – the shorter the name the larger it could be chalked. It didn’t take long before some girls became known even outside the Nelson by just their blackboard name. Tixe didn’t mind, though. She liked her dancing name. If the blackboard wasn’t moved into the porch in time the rain made a mess of even the shortest name.
Tixe had got her name in an alleyway down the side of the derelict cinema where she’d seen the word “Exit” reflected in her compact mirror, litter blowing against her ankles. The corner of a torn poster on the opposite wall had flapped manically, the only band names still distinguishable: Empty Vessels, Bulkhead.
Paul hears the loud footsteps of Warren and the man on the narrow wooden stairs in the back.
Tixe says, “One more and I’ll go and get changed . . . Please?”
Paul wants to keep her with him downstairs. He pours her another whisky before he passes her the duffle bag she keeps behind the bar. She knocks the drink back in one.
Paul remembers something Jake had told him and says, “Did you know they put Nelson’s body in brandy?”
Tixe shrugs and says, “Why the hell not?”
Outside a child is whistling again. An older child this time, whistling unmistakably one of the old Resistance songs. It sounds ghostly in the cold air and only a few hear it in between
The deep slow barks of a reclamation yard guard dog before both sounds are drowned out by a rumbling convoy of lorries. Only a few people recognise the tune, but one of them begins to mouth the words under his breath.
“I better go up then,” Tixe says matter-of-factly, wiping her crisp-greased fingers on a bar towel.
Paul sees Tixe wince as she gets off the stool. The stage isn’t sprung. Warren doesn’t let the girls use liniment on their pulls and sprains because of the smell, and Tixe daren’t mix painkillers with alcohol again. Warren had advised her, “Ignore your pain, girl. I am.” She walks into the back and Paul listens for her light tread on the stairs as outside the heavy sky lowers itself down possessively over this city. It’s quarter to eleven in the morning. Time to turn the lights on. He still doesn’t know why they call themselves dancers. He wonders again what’s happened to Jake and Tajana.
Post civil-war life. Late November. Storm.
When Tajana had arrived at the Nelson, Tixe showed her to the toilets. They’d walked along a narrow corridor amongst the peeling paint, the damp, the dirt. The thin raggedly cut lino laid directly onto uneven flagstones was mapped with the marks of stiletto heels. The ceiling was low and when they reached the toilet door they were standing directly under a botched repair in the flat roof. The repair was made of corrugated Perspex that trapped rainwater until it turned to a sludge of algae. It had bathed Tixe and Tajana in its dark-green light. While they talked, heavy raindrops had begun to plop and splatter above their heads, like plump insects hitting a windscreen.
Tajana had whispered, “I have no water at room, I must wash face at café in washing up before plates. Can use water here?”
“Yes,” said Tixe. “Help yourself.”
Then Tajana confided, “Frank gives me prizes. I’m worry.” She mistook Tixe’s puzzled look and said, “You know, Frank? Big.”
“Yes, I know Frank,” Tixe said, and then realised. “Oh, presents. Not prizes, Tajana. Presents.”
“Thank you,” Tajana said. “Presents,” and she had placed her hand for a second on Tixe’s shoulder. Tixe was shocked at how light it was – she hardly felt it – and how cold.
Tajana said, “You lucky with Jake. Is kind.”
“Oh, no,” Tixe said, surprised. “We’re not . . . together.”
“Oh, I’m mistake. Sorry,” and for the first time Tixe saw Tajana smile, just a little bit. “I make his egg,” Tajana had added, then disappeared into the toilets, and just before the door shut she’d said, “Thank you.” At first Tixe wasn’t sure what for, but then she’d had an uneasy feeling in the part of her stomach where she sometimes felt hunger. Nothing that another drink couldn’t get rid of, though. Alcohol worked when she was hungry too.
Tixe had assumed someone else would have told Tajana to change her name for the blackboard – Tajana wasn’t her responsibility anyway. All Tixe had done was tell her where the Nelson was and what to say to Warren to get what he called an “audition”. Another word he liked to use. Tixe couldn’t imagine what you’d have to do to fail, but that was before she’d seen Tajana on the stage.
One of the men next to the stage had bellowed at Tajana, “Oi! Put ’em away for the lads!” and his friends had laughed. Then they booed her. She hadn’t known you should choose a different name, so her real name had been chalked up outside for everyone to see, on top of the smear where another girl’s name had been rubbed out by the palm of a hand.
Afterwards, Tixe had watched Tajana through the Nelson’s water-blurred window. The rain had become torrential. She saw her run outside. Then she’d seen her bump into Jake, and at that Tixe felt better and turned away. A man had come over with a vodka for her. There’d been a piece of lemon in it.
“Where’s your coat?” Jake said loudly to Tajana through the torrents of rain.
After a long pause Tajana said, “I have not got one.” Jake had offered her his.
“No,” she’d said. Her bare arms were mottled with cold, and her teeth were beginning to chatter.
Even though he disliked the place, Jake had been about to go into the Nelson to give Tixe the Maritime Employment leaflet he’d spent weeks trying to get hold of for her. He’d been shocked to see Tajana coming out of there. He’d realised he hadn’t seen her anywhere else but in Eddie’s. In the cold, the constellation of burn scars over her hands and wrists were a vivid purple.
Tajana spoke as though remembering each syllable just in time. “They did not like my dance. But I cannot do cooking more. It hurts me. Too much. But your egg – I am sorry. But I’m go home now,” she’d explained.
It shocked Jake that he’d never thought of her as living anywhere. Tajana’s clenched jaw and the determined look in her eyes – as though fixed on something way in the distance – reminded Jake of a propaganda poster he’d seen in a book in the library; another showpiece project, another concession.
After a second refusal of his coat he decided he’d have to walk her to Eddie’s. The flow of water in a roadside gutter had started to carry away pieces of broken glass, and litter was piling up over the drains. He opened his coat and moved Tajana – already bedraggled – in close so that some of the heavy material would be covering her. Their faces touched for a second – he could smell on her skin a mixture of pub smoke and fresh new chilled wet air brought into the city on an increasingly powerful wind, from far out at sea.
Behind them the deluge had extinguished Tajana’s name on the blackboard, and all over the city a cascade of roof tiles was falling and smashing.
As they rounded a corner, storm rain, sweeping in all along the shoreline, appearing in the distance as drifting smoke, had driven straight at them. A cat with a wound on the side of its face had flattened itself, anchoring its bony body to the ground against the gusts of wind. Tajana had stumbled, shivering violently all over him, clinging on as they passed the old wharf with its tang of sodden rusting iron and its abandoned military watchtower. Children still played the old game – daring each other to lick the railings. They tasted like salt, blood and iron: the history of the port on the tip of their tongues. They spat it out, but the taste stayed with them.
Jake and Tajana were now nearing the former front line of the city’s indelible near past, horrifying, or glorious, depending on your allegiances, where after two sweltering, breathless days and nights one late June, the long-smouldering Insurgency had finally ignited.
By the time a CCTV camera picked up the two bedraggled figures crossing the old battleground – now a vast exposed span of cracked and stained concrete that in summer was criss-crossed with the shadows of cranes, elongating and contracting with the movement of the sun – Tajana’s arms were wrapped so tightly around Jake’s waist that she was walking sideways with the front of her body moulded to the left side of his, making them constantly veer off course through pools of quickly gathering water. Jake had felt the wetness seeping through his boots.
Certain historians will tell you there are bodies under all that hastily laid concrete. Locals know that’s a lie; that’s not where the bodies are.
The CCTV cameras had picked out Frank, fists clenched, teeth bared, now a hundred yards behind Jake and Tajana, his rapid marching stride making no allowances for the full-frontal assault of the accelerating storm.
Staggering along now in weather pounding the coast and smashing sea defences, all Jake had wanted was to find somewhere safe. For them both. He’d thought of the abandoned shacks further inland along the estuary. But he knew in this storm they’d be grateful just to make it to Eddie’s.
Out to sea a distress flare had shot up through the grey air. Tajana had begun to weep. Not for herself, for others. Always for others. Then, in the middle of it all, instinctively, they had stopped, and clung on to each other. It was all they could think of to do.
Tim Goldstone is a published and broadcast writer. ‘The Year Unknown’ first appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review Anthology 15, in 2018. He has roamed widely, including throughout the UK, Western and Eastern Europe, and North Africa, and currently lives in Wales. Loiters in twitter @muddygold