Rush Hour

They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. Five years is not a long time, but it is long enough. It is long enough for weddings and funerals for those who cannot wait, for that walk down the beach, where he first holidayed with his family at St. Bees. It is long enough for work, long enough that the world still turns, for now at least. So he finds himself on a train platform each morning, stepping onto a carriage, staring through dirt-smeared windows as the world passes him by.

Sometimes he thinks he could sit there forever, watching the countryside slip past. Trees blur into fields, which seem to stretch, longer than any field should, until there are no boundaries, no roads, no thicket hedgerows, only a palette of greens and browns beneath blue shining skies. The carriage rocks beneath him, lulling him slowly in his seat, while far above cerulean clouds blossom with wind and rain. He has only eyes for their phosphorescence, their purple twilight tinge, and for the twenty minutes it takes him to reach the next station he is lost in their depths, rolling with them through the sky; a fish caught in their awesome ocean pull.

Then the train shudders, stops, expels its load, and he is back inside his business suit. His mouth sighs. His shoulders sag. The Underground drinks deeply of his soul.

People swarm up escalators, spilling out of the station into the road. Traffic screams after them; a chorus of sirens and sudden brakes. Women wobble past him on heels too high while men with faces shaven clean march briskly in their wake, and in between their legs dogs gambol, vagrants dance another day with life. He wonders when it began; when things first showed signs of ending up this way, then remembers he need not wonder about anything anymore, ever again, for more than the minute it takes to type as much online.

His offices are tall, grey things overlooking a grey Thames. His room is on the fifth floor, next to administration. At eight-fifty he takes the lift, in the foyer beside the stairwell. His shirt is hot and wet beneath his arms. Inside his office, he closes the door, sits at his chair, which sinks beneath his weight, and stares at the face reflected in the blank computer screen. Drawing a deep breath, he begins to type.

He does not know why administration is called administration, why it is singled out when they are all administrators; every man in his pin-stripe business skin, every woman with her pay-check pulse, record-keeping, number crunching, so that the world will keep on turning. He thinks about love, and what it might feel like. He thinks about death, and when it was that they all died. Sometimes he turns in his chair and stares at the plant in the corner with its plastic fronds, its sterile soil, its bright, synthetic stem, until it is all he can do not to close his eyes, ball his fists and scream at the top of his voice.

He does not remember weeks in terms of days. He does not remember working weeks at all. There is only one day repeated, in which he wakes up, travels by train, pushes through crowds, through streets made black with rainwater to stinking, sweaty offices built of old brick the colour of dried blood, peopled by corporate puppets in black suits with empty eyes and long thin fingers twitching by their sides.

They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. He wonders if it has not come already. Not by fire and smoke but a commuter contagion; this, the human condition, made better for a few minutes each morning by the birds in the sky, the distant glimpse of a dream in the clouds.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

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All These Voices

The sound of the tape slides soothingly into Nicholas’ ears. Not the music itself, although that is certainly pleasant, but the mechanical whir of the reels as the tape’s innards wind through the machine. He doubts if he could write so well without the quiet whirring. He doubts if he could write at all with the noise of the world at his window and under the soles of his feet.

The pub beneath his bedsit is busy tonight. Voices slice through the floorboards as though the wooden planks do not exist. He might be sitting at the bar himself, submerged in the chorus of cries and thoughtless laughter: the White Ship on stormy, booze-wracked seas. Pouring a glass of wine he sits back in his chair and drinks.

Sometimes he can make out word-for-word the different conversations at the bar. Drunkenness seems only to increase people’s volume, as though for a few hours the fugue imparts a sixth-sense: a glimpse of more than just the pub, the street, the city, the entire world as it really is. So the patrons below shout and scream, laughing madly into their drinks, looking anywhere but the frightened whites of their friends’ eyes, the hollow blackness of their mouths; the window panes, dewy with the cold empty night.

The unmistakable pop of breaking glass shatters his reverie, followed by a collective cheer. A bottle or a pint glass, perhaps, caught by an elbow or dropped from careless fingers. Putting his feet up on the desk, he breathes in deeply through his nose. Air inflates his lungs, his chest, the narrow curves of his ribs, forcing everything else out of him and away, except for the pinkish blur behind his lowered eyelids and the gentle flutter of the cassette in the player. Exhaling, he concentrates on the sound.

It was a week after he’d moved in before he discovered the tapes, in a locked drawer under the desk. There was no key that he could find but the wood gave easily enough when forced. The drawer has not been the same since.

He found other things in the drawer, besides the tapes: yellowing sheet music scratched with skeletal notes, a ragged doll with faded red hair, a desert of seashells still coated with grit. When he had finished inspecting these things, he let the drawer keep them. As much as he loves music, he cannot read it. If he was in the doll’s place, he would not like to be brought from out of the shadows looking so sad. The shells are sharp, and he finds them repellent in the way all things decayed seem to repulse. Mostly, the drawer tells a story, and he respects that. A hundred possibilities might have led to these cast-offs finding their way into the locked confines of the desk. Who is he to disturb their tale, their private narrative?

Finishing his glass, he pours a second. The wine is cheap but not altogether unpleasant. Downstairs, the party continues to bloom.

When the noise reached new heights one evening last year, he left his room to complain to the owner. Screams echoed up the stairs and down the hallway. Shrieks ricocheted from the walls, laughter bouncing into his ears, over and over. As he moved down the corridor, he heard chanting and a count-down; a human rite reaching completion, a spell to keep another day at bay, or to guide it in, like a pale boat coming to moor. The owner – his landlord – had laughed in his face. He can still remember the bite of the sound in his chest, the cold spittle as it sprayed his cheeks. The argument had been short and one-sided. As ever, Nicholas had not won.

“Why take a room above a pub if you don’t like noise, or a drink now and then?”

“I like a drink,” he had replied. “I drink often. But there’s no excusing the disturbance tonight.”

“It’s a pub,” repeated the landlord, “and it’s New Year’s Eve, for Christ’s sake. This is where people come to make noise. If you don’t like it, you can bloody well leave.”

It is true that he likes a drink while he writes. Sometimes he celebrates a moment’s peace with a finger or two of single malt. On the nights when he cannot hope to hear himself think, let alone lift pen to paper, he knocks back whole bottles of wine; crisp, heady reds that stain his lips and dazzle his tongue before soaring to his stomach and his head. Sometimes, when he is two bottles down, he returns to the broken drawer. He imagines that he can read the music sheets, and that they are the same dulcet sounds drifting from the cassette player. If he is especially drunk, he imagines their script tells of a different sound; the last, sonorous cry of a world beset, heard by some lonely composer, a man not unlike himself, and recorded here in ink where those who chance across it might read of its agony; its submarine moans.

He did not leave, that night on New Year’s Eve, because there was nowhere else for him to go. There is nowhere else when he hears every ragged wheeze, wherever he is; the shuddering breaths of a world on the brink of expiration. As best he can remember he has always heard these sounds. He did not always know what they were, or what it meant to hear the death-rattle of the stones and the trees and the earth, but he felt them all the same, and stood slightly apart from everyone else because of this, while the others ran laughing after one another, or played hopscotch, or made daisy-chains in the grass, oblivious.

A rare few people are not quite so blind. He read about them in newspapers and on the internet, when he still wasted his time with such trivial things. These men and women scrabble through the soil, digging the earth, scattering seeds, which they hope might germinate, take root, become trees and so heal the world that other men and women have made sick. Give a dying man a cushion, feed him painkillers, sit at his bedside and pray for his soul – he will die all the same, trembling alone as the last of his sorry life departs from his veins.

Sometime after midnight the pub falls quiet enough that he can hear his tapes and write. There will always be noise, but at times like this he is not really aware of it; lost in the depths of his literature. Some men and women write to create. Others write from personal angst, or to entertain a crowd, or perhaps to remember who they are, or were at another time. Nicholas does not know much about these things except that he writes to feel.

On paper, darkness shines. Words convey savagery with the finesse of bright bouquets. Language illuminates the broken back of the world, its atrophied limbs, its eyeless face: a rotten leviathan floating in space, quivering with parasites while it sings its last whale-song through an ocean of distant stars, almost inscrutable except by those who dare to pause in their furious lives and, for a moment, listen.

The tapes whir, his pencil scratches, and something not quite happiness but more like contentment simmers in his chest, until he can write no more and, with a slight smile on his wine-stained lips, he climbs into bed, and dreams of sweet oblivion.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

Distant Shores

“It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to that matters the most.” – African Proverb

The nightclub vomited its occupants onto the cobbled streets. Laughing figures tumbled through the cold, some falling to the pavement while others sought to sate themselves on warmth and food, drawn to kebab vans like chimpanzees to weak, wounded prey. Their shrieks filled the night; wild, simian noises that would not sound out of place in the hot darkness of the jungle. She knew those sounds well, and the mindless acts that followed; cannibal-banquets partaken by those same primates, orange eyes staring from beneath low brows as they licked clean the pink bones of their own.

From the narrow alleyway across the street, Oyotunji watched as one girl, dressed in shiny leopard print, fell to her knees in the road. Bent low she began to heave, a cocktail of stomach lining, sangria and hot digestive juices spewing from her lips. The rank aroma carried through the night.

“What?” shouted the girl, when she finally stopped heaving and could speak again. Her glazed, unseeing eyes challenged the world. “Come on, then!” she screamed, struggling to her feet, “have at it! Come on!”

Stepping back from the street, Oyotunji huddled deeper into her fur shawl. It was an intimate, elderly gesture; the last frail twitch of a small sparrow, but then she was an elderly woman. Her lips pinched as tight as the mouth of the alleyway in which she stood.

“I cold,” she said suddenly.

“You not cold. You don’ feel cold now. Not for many year have you felt it touch.”

Wambua stood a little way behind her. In the darkness her twin brother was almost invisible, except for the fur draped over his shoulders; a matching leopard skin that gave him some substance in the shadows. She did not need to see the aged contours of his face to know how he was feeling. His discontent sang in her heart, her blood, in the jelly of her bones.

“I don’ feel cold like dat. I feel cold for dem. I feel cold for bein’ here, in dis grey place.”

A flicker of lightning, vague and indistinct, flashed overhead, illuminating the slumped, misshapen street. Opening her hand, Oyotunji felt for the rain that would inevitably follow. She knew it was the same rain that fell back home, she knew the air around her was the same air, the clouds the same clouds. And yet they were not. These things were different here. Pollution clogged the sky, saturated the earth and the wind. The city was a watering hole, where once her brother and she would have come to slake their thirst, now tainted; corrupted by twenty-first century carrion.

The first fat drops found her palm, and she realised she was not comforted.

“We have slept too long, sister, and missed many things. De British Empire has grown rotten.”

“Dis is de Empire we once feared?” She gesticulated wildly, arms, little more than bones, thrown to the sky. Lightning flickered again, followed by thunderous discontent. “Dat cannot be. What has happened here?”

“De world is spoiled meat, crawling with flies.”

Even as her brother spoke, Oyotunji smelled again the woman’s sick, heard the mad laughter of the inebriated, felt anger rolling like waves through the night-time city. More screams carried on the wind, and she remembered the troupe of chimpanzees feasting on their own. Inspired by those screams she remembered other things too; man as he forced himself into her on the river bank, the raging faces of the white folk as their weapons spat death into the village, Wambua’s body, limp where she clutched him to her wounded chest. As they had lived as twins, so  they had died a twinned death, and were reborn together when the rains next fell; brought back by Africa to slake their desert thirst on the lifeblood of those who had despoiled the land, dealt death beneath the burning sun.

“Do not despair, sister. Dis place look grey, you speak truth. But look deeper, look past stone an’ noise an’ misery an’ you got some’ting more. Some’ting you an’ me both know.”

“An’ what be dat, brother of mine?”

“A jungle,” he said, his eyes shining like discs in the darkness. “A man-made jungle, Oyotunji.”

“A jungle?”

“Hear de roar of de people as dey struggle to make themself heard, each man an’ woman de hog, de antelope, de buffalo –”

“An’ we de cat.”

He nodded, and in the darkness of the alley a mouth of yellowing teeth appeared. She smelled them as much as she saw them, rotten and real; a sharp, pungent smile in this city where everything else was synthetic and stale. Together their mouths knew more life and death than the rest of the city combined.

“Exactly, sister. We de leopard. We will stalk de street like shadow, invisible, an’ in dis grey, decayin’ place we will have our retribution. Dey dug us from our sleep in de earth and brought us here, to dis place where dere is no earth, where de wild is silenced. So we will speak for de wild again. We will roar –”

“An’ it will be bloody,” whispered Oyotunji. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked, and she cocked her head, eyes closed, savouring the sound as it reverberated in the hollows of her head.

When she opened her eyes again, her brother was standing beside her. He screamed first, and in the flash of answering lightning she saw his face, tortured by the angst of a continent, a land with no outlet for its pain except the voices of the dead things in its soil. Then she joined him, her own voice rising leonine into the night, before brother and sister eschewed their human shapes, wrapping their flesh with real fur, and fled together through the streets in the guise of great cats; Mother Africa awakened, and alive.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2013 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.