An extract from my latest novel
The Viaduct called Home
A small market town in England, 1965.
Winter had arrived, stealth like, in the sleepy market town and stayed far too long. It was now mid March and frost was glaring, on roof tops and bare fields and leafless tree branches; sticking like glue and glistening like diamonds in the bright moonlight. The north-wind was bitter and unwelcome as it unashamedly pushed its way around the small town like the playground bully, swirling dead leaves into neat piles in its wake as it moved from street to street looking for gaps in doors and window frames. Dark smoke, camouflaged by the night sky flurried in the wind as it escaped out of the neat rows of blackened, sandstone chimney pots; below, coal fires blazed red in open hearths.
A youth watched as a panting steam train trundled overhead, belching steam and smut into the star-lit sky as it pulled its seemingly reluctant load of wagons laden with iron-ore. In front of him, in the greying darkness the viaduct’s Victorian brick arches dominated the landscape; their symmetry towering above; a lasting monument to the industrial revolution. The lad paused and sighed as the cutting wind nudged him sideways. In his hand he held a crumpled paper bag. Hesitantly at first, he walked into the gloom and immediately suspicious eyes followed his every move. As he reached his place in the candlelit corner the sound of the heaving train had faded into the night. The quaking of the clay beneath his feet had subsided, breaking the imposed harmony of trembling ground and body. Shadows danced on the dirty walls and familiar voices mumbled crass comments, braking the uneasy silence — but he ignored them. 'I've got you an apple, a piece of cheese, some bread and a cake,' he said.
The old man smiled at him and held out his grubby hand like a street beggar.
'If you don't eat you're going to die.' The youth sat down on the floor opposite him and watched as the old man squinted at the piece of Cheddar before finally biting off a chunk and rolling it around his mouth; his cheeks giving away its position. When he finally finished the last morsel he nodded his approval to the youth and wiped his mouth with the greasy sleeve of his jacket.
The acrid air under the arches was ripe with the smell of sulphur from the nearby coal yard and the smoke from the gang's oil-drum fire. Dark fumes hovered in the roof-arch like a menacing storm cloud.
The old man finished the chunk of bread and washed it down with some meths from his gin bottle.
The youth forced a smile through tight lips. He liked the old man's weathered face, even if it was gaunt and lined from a life of hardship. He had kind, resilient eyes that somehow refused to accept his inner sadness. Something terrible had happened to him; something that had torn him apart — The youth could sense it. 'Are you okay, he asked?’
The old man nodded, staring at the green bottle that he kept in a brown paper bag next to his battered old leather case. He pulled up the collar of his overcoat in a vain attempt to keep out the intrusive cold night. He then put his case behind his back, as if it was a cushion. The flickering candle-light reflected in his watery, yellowing eyes. He managed a toothless smile, which crinkled his bulbous nose.
He didn't know the old man's real name, so he called him, Mike. He'd been caring for him for more than twelve-months; he never questioned why he cared for him, he just did.
The youth was different to the others over in the far corner, huddled around the fire; they really were nasty bits of work; straight out of Oliver Twist; the kind who'd rob their own mothers. It really annoyed them that the ‘posh little fucker' didn't drink or smoke, and they hated him because he could read. And if he didn't join their thieving band soon, they threatened to kick him out, or slit him, more like.
A little while ago, one of them, called Will, a filthy, churlish man approached the youth angrily: 'You — Pretty Boy — how come you can read?' he snarled.
The youth looked into his slitty eyes and answered nervously:
'I don't know.'
And that was the truth, he really didn’t know. He'd always been able to read and write, as long as he could remember, but his memories were so fragmented — but he didn't tell Will that. Will's menacing stare, tobacco-brown teeth, swarthy skin and bad breath quickly convinced him that he wasn't the sort of person to have an intimate conversation with, so he turned and walked away, praying that Will wasn't too angry. He'd experienced, first hand, Man's enmity to Man and it wasn't pleasant. Slashed faces or stabbings were common amongst this lot and normally over no more than a cigarette.
On that occasion, for some reason, Will decided to let him go and the youth thankfully escaped his wrath.
One night in February the youth was awakened by a scream, only to find Will had cut someone's ear off.
Occasionally, down in the town, you'd find the young lad glancing through the windows of the pubs at the ruddy-faced drinkers inside, playing shove ha'penny, darts and skittles: noisy, smoky dens, full of laughter and conversation, which turned to arguments and brawling at the end of the night. He kept promising himself that one day he'd do it — he'd go in one; early in the evening, before the fighting begun and chairs got hurled across the room.
But now, most of the urinating drunks with their flailing arms and slurred rhetoric had somehow staggered home from the pubs to their beds, leaving a few to sleep it off in the shelter of shop doorways or park benches.
A light rain began to fall as the wind continued to push decaying leaves into swirling piles, but under the brick viaduct it was at least dry. The porous brick walls, impregnated with the smell of sulphur, transferred acrid odours to clothes and lungs. The trains had abated until the early morning when once again the ground would tremble like a communal alarm clock and tired stiff bodies would reluctantly stir.
‘Tomorrow's market day and that means a bit of fruit. Goodnight, Mike,' the youth said as he settled on his old mattress and covered himself with a blanket. He touched his hunter's knife, tucked in his belt, and asked himself again, why would anyone want to rob him? He had nothing. And once again he convinced himself that he would see the dawn.
'It's time to get some sleep,' he said quietly to himself before blowing out the candle.
In the darkness the old man nodded in agreement. In his clenched hand he was holding something — something very precious.
The youth opened his eyes and sat up. The sun was shining outside and there was Mike with his back propped against the wall, in a pool of urine, staring straight ahead — open mouthed and clutching his gin bottle in his stiff hand. His cold, dry eyes and pallid waxy complexion told the youth he hadn't made it through the night. He went over to him, holding his breath. With straight fingers he gently closed Mike's eyelids. Something on the youth's chest glinted from the sunlight and he looked down at a little key, hanging from a chain around his neck. Quickly he tucked it inside his shirt. Where did that come from?
It was time to have a wash before going to the market, so, after saying goodbye to his old friend he headed out into the sunshine. As he passed the others he said to them nonchalantly, 'Mike's dead.’ They didn't see the tears in his eyes as they rushed past him. The youth knew they were wasting their time. Mike had come into this world with nothing, and he had left with nothing.
As he walked, he felt into his trouser pocket and pulled out a roll of something wrapped in an elastic band. The youth glanced at it and quickly put it back. His heart started pounding and holding his breath he covered his mouth with his hand. His pace quickened as he strode away. A few moments later he glanced back nervously to see if he was being followed. He could still hear the bickering voices echoing from within the brick arches and he realised he could never go back.
'Thank you, Mike, — Thank you. Rest in peace, my dear friend,' he said with an expression of wonderment and shock.
As the youth walked he pondered on the old man's life. Did he ever have a wife? Children? A job? Sadly, he realised, it was something he'd never know; it was too late, he was gone. To a better place, my old friend, to a better place.
In his right hand he was carrying Mike's little brown-leather suitcase.