He is still half drunk as the bus turns onto the M4. A light above the toilet cubicle has been lit up red for the last hour. There’s a man in there and in between bouts of vomiting, he says I die, I die, I die. They appear to be the only two words he knows in English. The motorway is slick with rain and ribbons of light blur past the window: hundreds, thousands of cars. People are leaving London in swarms. Returning to home towns they have not seen in decades. They are queuing at bus terminals, train stations, airports – going wherever they can find accommodation and work.
The river is rising. That’s what Cael needs to think about – not his sylphlike mother or the cinema he has just left behind (his family’s home), won in a game of poker at the turn of the century – keys prised from a corpse’s fist. His mother the moirologist – every sentence delivered like a eulogy – tales of Cael’s great-grandmother, a woman who ran her own pub and butchered her own calves in the cellar – hung them up to drain then went upstairs to serve cider. The river is rising and the footage is everywhere, on the front page of papers, in every newsflash. His river. His walking place. All those bridges of light and that bit where great red steel haunches jut out – a place where a bridge should have sat but now just those pillars remain – each big enough to land a helicopter on. Ship masts strung with fairy lights. Trees lit up by fat glowing blueberries. Strange fruit. Pickaxes in the walls to show where men have toiled.
It’s an ache. He has locked the doors for the last time and the devil would not accept payment of just his soul. Now, this chaos. Sirens, and thousands of cars, snitches of snatches, fat arms with a gold bracelet driving a jeep, blonde putting on lipstick in her mirror, an old man shouting at his daughter to shut up, four soldiers in a Mini, hundreds of thousands on the move in this strange corporeality.
A man with a thick neck is stood at the front of the bus. He nods at something the driver is saying and then he points ahead, navigating. His bag is bulky. He turns and trudges up the aisle towards the only empty seat left. Shoves his bag in storage and takes down a small rucksack. Sits heavily. Smells of camphor, sweat, deodorant. The man rummages until he finds a giant bag of Thai-chilli crisps, opens them and offers the bag to Cael.
A shake of the head. Legs uncrossed, recrossed. Cael’s scuffed Chelsea boots are so old that the stitching has come away. He tucks his hair behind his ear, it’s a reflex, his fingers hover where his thick polo neck is bobbled – where he’s picked at the cuffs. He’s a cuff picker. A cuff picker sat next to a crisp muncher in what appears to be the end of times. Crisp muncher shrugs, he takes Cael’s silence as a clear offer of companionship and possibly compliance. Uneasy. Not signing up for jackshit, mate. If anything happens. Crisp muncher watches him, a sidelong stare – he should just have accepted a crisp. A salty-spicy aroma permeates recycled air.
Cael brushes a bit of nothing off his jeans, finally opts to give the staring man a wide smile. Expects a response he does. Sat there with his crisp poised, chins florid. The wide smile confuses him. Cael can see confusion in the man’s eyes, a kernel of uncertainty. Who is who in times like this? It’s a valid concern. Cael stops his grin abruptly (just the same way as he proffered it) and turns to look out of the window.
The Internet is up so Cael scrolls through his phone and it’s all about Jesus – he’s everywhere. Jesus hides out at Elton’s. Jesus saves the ugly first. Another hooker and Jesus. He’s black! He’s Asian! He dresses as Elvis! He IS Elvis! He’s Elvis’s Dead Twin Jesse. The river is rising and he WILL NOT TURN IT INTO WINE. Inch by fucking inch, barriers being reinforced. Triple Red Alert, legally it’s only the – a blue ball rotates at the top of the screen.
A woman in front of them flicks on her reading light and the man next to Cael tuts. He tuts more – he might as well stand up and roar TUT MOTHERFUCKER TUT-TUT FUCKING TUT! The woman reads on. Next to her is a little boy. He stares, his eye in the gap between the seats. Pale blue eyes, almost no eyebrows.
Another drink, trying to see something out the window – some sign, too late for looking now though, all that time sleeping in his projectionist booth and getting up to shine a light in the dark. Selling old cinema posters. The signs. Sets of chairs. A popcorn stand. The price of light! The price of fucking light these days – unbelievable – what they want for light is a kidney – the firstborn – and heat? This bus is warm though, the engine humming and his hip flask half empty, trails of orange, yellow and white fly past the window, a violent beeping, Little Chef burls past, a garage forecourt, a multiplex cinema. Crisp man is on a roll now. Cael tries to tune him out but his voice just gets louder.
So then it was the oil rigs. Ten years, a stint in Thailand, don’t like the flying, don’t trust planes, don’t fucking trust them – how do they stay up? Can you tell me that? No, you can’t. Sinister shit. Don’t like trains. Fucking planes though. Steel fucking sharks. Circling. Fucking circling. Buses – you can trust a bus, don’t you think you can trust a bus? Solid fuckers buses are – do you want to SHUT-THE-FUCK-UP?
The man is up then, banging on the toilet door and the bus driver glances back and the passengers stare straight ahead hoping there will not be any violence. Crisp man sits back down. The retching at the back of the bus has gradually begun to abate, and now there is just an occasional whimper. The bus driver shifts in his seat – his sunglasses like bug-eyes in the rear-view mirror. The little boy is asleep now, his mouth open, his mother still turning pages.
Crisp man eyes Cael – the Chelsea boots, faded jeans, roll-neck, longish hair curled behind one ear. He shakes his head, now apparently disgusted by his choice of comrade – betrayed even by Cael’s apparent indifference to him. Cael rests his feet on his old brown suitcase on the floor, his coat is folded neatly on his lap, ready to use as a pillow. At the fringes of the motorway there is countryside – vague shadowy outline, old watermills, chimneys. In his suitcase is the urn. It’s a fitting place as any to be dead. Ashes to ashes. He wonders if they actually give you the deceased’s ashes or just some random dead people that they have cremated? All of them in there together. A crematorium austere and white and inhuman, with plastic flowers and a grate underneath the incinerator to catch metal hips and teacup hearts. He has the urn. A key. An address he printed off last week. He has the original programme from opening day at Babylon in 1902 – it was presided over by a lesser-known royal. There is a small chic audience in the picture too, all dressed up for a Saturday night in Soho, all smiling.
At a roundabout there appears to be a table set up. Right there in the middle. Place mats. Flowers. Just a glimpse of it and Cael wondering who would dine in the middle of a roundabout while car headlights blare by – the dinner guests would have to wear sunglasses – it could be on one of those programmes on telly – they could call it ‘Dinner on Location’. He slips the hip flask out of his pocket and takes a drink – a welcome burning in his throat – peaty, honeyed, smoky, the whisky warms him and takes away from the smells on the bus: rain, vomit, sweat from the man sat next to him.
I got a second place to rent out then, got some tenants, dirty – had to tell them, left their nappies on the stair they did, stacks of them, piles of shit. Could have rubbed their fucking faces in it. Should have. Fucking cunts. Need the money but. My missus. She goes to Brussels for lipo and that, lipo on the brain she has. New tits. New nose. Had her sagging moaning face dragged up around her ears. I own it though. Me. I own her fucking nose.
Cael unwraps a bar of chocolate. He’s never owned someone else’s nose. Not someone else’s sagging moaning face, certainly not, nor their nose. Not even an eyelash. The roads are sparser now. Sleep, a heaviness, a fug that he falls into, a density to it that means it’s a struggle to rise back up to the sound of an engine which drones louder and louder. That drone becomes everything. It is unbearable. Waking. Falling. Night lights flicked on shine down on passengers’ features. Road signs and roadworks outside the window.
Cael wakes up as Crisp man walks away with his bag on his back – the bus is pulling into an all-night diner car park – the doors hiss open.
The black cab is cold. Cael shows the address and pulls his coat tighter around him – shoves his fists deep into his pockets and realizes his mouth is dry. The driver doesn’t say anything. They drive out of the city – across a different bridge where tiny orange lights on either side indicate that there is land. The cab turns onto country roads with no lights on them at all – then hulks of buildings appear – industrial units – then some trees and they turn in between two tall wooden gates. Cael pays the guy and watches the cab lumber off. He turns round and the shock of how cold it is slaps him back into life.
The caravan park is in total darkness down here but lit up behind it is the mountain range – seven peaks and the middle two are on fire. Right up the top sparks fly up and out, flames bite at the black like a vengeful halo. Nobody is up. None of the residents here are coming out to see it, so it must be normal. A garden of gnomes, ruddy-faced, malevolent, one launches a fishing line, another waves, and Cael walks on, past a charred building, a Shop Closed sign. It’s hard to tell if the fire is travelling up or down. It’s a Zen riddle – which way does a fire go? Like how big a box is. Marina’s wee boy asking him that – how big is a box, Kayell. Well, it depends on how big the box is. Yeah, but how big is that, how big is a box? It’s gone now. This is it. Every step forward causes the road behind him to disappear. One step back and it would be an endless fall. Like that falling man who never stopped falling – he never did stop falling, did he?
Frogs begin to hop along the road, migrating away from a fire that must, realistically, be miles away. It must be miles away. It will burn out by morning. Cael scoops up a frog. Its throat thrums; a clear membrane slides down across the round eyes; it pulses in his cupped hands like a heart. Keep walking on, up through the back lanes looking for the sign. The stars are so clear and the moon is full and each crater stands out starkly – up here it looks so much more like a planet.
Eventually it makes itself seen – the caravan hidden by briars.
No. 9 Ash Lane has a garden so overgrown he has to turn sideways to get along the path without the thistles snarking his coat. The gate is rusted shut. He climbs over it, trudges up three steps that buckle – to a metal door, key in lock, and it opens.
The hallway is one step wide and there is a reek of ammonia. The door in front opens on a shower cubicle and a toilet. To the right, a bed space with a window. To the left, the longer room with a kitchenette on one side. Fucking hell. Fucking Jesus and the saints. Fake wood panelling. Painting of a plough horse. Melted microwave. Scabby sink. Bunker two-cupboards wide. When he switches on the lamp it bathes the room in an orange glow. The carpet is crunchy underneath his boots – like it’s covered in small stones.
Cider, that’s what this requires. Vodka would be better but he’s not got any. But he did get four cans of cider. He takes them out and drinks the first one down in one go. He sits on a flowery armchair and stares back at the plough horse. He gets up to look for a tin opener. A bar of chocolate and a fresh packet of rolling tobacco, another can and a tin of beans. He tries to get the old square television to work. At five in the morning he falls asleep while fuzz flickers light on the walls.
It sounds like a bomber – the sound sputters then roars in again. Cael lurches upright, his heart hammering, thinking of death – the only thought he ever has now when he wakes in the night.
His neighbour’s caravan door flaps in the breeze. A BMX bike leans against her porch, a pirate flag on the back of it. The roar is louder as he steps out onto the path and there is a woman hoovering up the road. She is hoovering up the miles between herself and what? Her pyjamas are on all wrong, the bottoms dragging on the ground and the knots of her vertebrae exposed like a fine rope.
The Hoover is ancient, she aims a kick at it and the thing stops pelting pebbles out the back and sputters into silence. Cael’s heart drop-kicks as she turns round, her face pale – almost no eyebrows, hair fine, neat, straight, tucked behind her ear. He guesses it is almost white although she is young, or youngish – his age. She is sleepwalking and he is somehow on the fringes of her dream – trespassing. She pads back up her path and into her caravan then out again onto her porch with a rag. She reaches a slim arm up into the sky – and polishes the moon.
Photograph © Nadav Kander