Sunday, 12 October 2014

Wake in Fright

Donald Pleasance in Wake in Fright
There is a moment in Ted Kotcheff's 'Ozploitation' film 'Wake in Fright' (1971) when the melancholic and despairing protagonist John Grant (Gary Bond)  falls into a delirium brought on by a drink-fuelled binge in the wastelands of the Australian outback. In it, he sees Donald Pleasance as Doc Tydon, the embodiment of Grant's death-drive towards oblivion, appear as a manic Bacchanalian figure who seems to be revelling in the despair into which Grant has fallen. With two Australian dollars pressed into his eye-sockets, Tydon becomes a death-in-life figure, the coins his meagre payment for the ferryman who will eventually carry him across the Styx. The image is important in that it suggests that Tydon is playing the role of the psychopompos who is guiding Grant through the underworld that is Yabba, the desolate, hyper-masculinised outback town in which Grant becomes trapped on his way to Sydney to spend his Christmas vacation. Indeed, Tydon's first line in the film is to tell Grant that "all the little devils are proud of hell" as he checks off the occurrences of 'heads/tails' in the coin-flip game that has become, for the men at least, the town's favourite pastime.

In Yabba, Grant becomes caught within the macho world of endless drinking, kangaroo hunting and fist-fighting that turns the outback into a nightmarish doubling of the wild west. Beginning the film as a schoolteacher trapped in the non-space that is Tiboonda, he escapes for Christmas and on his train out of the village he dreams of returning to the city, Sydney, fantasising about his girlfriend who appears to him like Aphrodite from the ocean. The character of Tydon, a doctor of medicine who lives au naturelle from the freebies he gets from the locals in exchange for his medical expertise, becomes a mentor for Grant, teaching him the ways of the outback and watching as Grant spirals out of control. Ultimately, Grant tries to escape but finds himself unable to do so: even hitching a ride to Sydney in the back of a lorry ends up with him returning to Yabba. In the end, a botched suicide attempt enables him finally to get back to his life: but it is not life in Sydney, only a return to Tiboonda where he is fated to work through his bond to the Australian Education system.

Although Tydon as psychopomp is a persuasive reading, there is another way of seeing the image of the benighted doctor. In his blindness, it is tempting to see Tydon as a Tiresias figure, the oracular asexual who haunts Eliot's Waste Land (1922). "Old man with wrinkled dugs", Tiresias is blind and yet sees everything. In Eliot's poem, Tiresias as "awaited the expected guest ... the young man carbuncular" upon "whom assurance sits/As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire". The mythical figure of Tiresias has crossed between the world of men and women, a figure of transgression and liminality, as Tydon is in the film. Tydon's wisdom is emphasised throughout the film, even if it is relative to the boorish, feral nature of the company he keeps. He talk of Socrates, plays opera, discusses the functions of the digestive system whilst standing on his head and drinking beer. His approach to sex is casual: he takes Janette (the daughter of a drinking friend) - and she takes him -  as and when the need arises, pithily echoing the sixties hippy communes from which the world has just emerged. Yet it is also clear that he finds solace in the company of men and in a later scene there is more than the suggestion that he has had sex with Grant. Tydon removes the testacles from a kangaroo, asking a bartender to put them in the fridge. The bartender jokes with Tydon and asks him if they are his. It is easy to see Tydon, at the centre of Grant's journey into the heart of darkness, as a Kurtz-like figure: in the end, Tydon serves as a warning to Grant, perhaps even foreshadowing his own fall from grace. In the same nightmare scene discussed above, Grant sees his girlfriend naked in the arms of Tydon: the father figure has become his replacement, a doppelgänger. In this Freudian sub-text, Tiresias as 'father' stands for Grant's own insecurities (in a drunken state, he fails to 'perform' for Janette).

It would be interesting to read the film alongside Eliot's poem: from the parched mise-en-scene of the outback ("a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter"), to the unflattering presentation of working class culture and the sense of alienation that ultimately pervades the film. The absolute claustrophobia which fills the screen, despite the prevalence of wide-open spaces, offers little hope to the protagonists.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

An Inbetweener

I am a child of the edgelands. The Black Country where I grew up and where I still live is a perennial edgeland, a space on the border of the city of Birmingham and the woodlands that border the rivers Severn and the Stour which wind their way through its scarred landscape. The districts of Netherton and the Wrens Nest where I lived were themselves labyrinths of winding streets with pebble-dashed council houses piled up on one another, claustrophobic semis with paper thin walls. And yet within a few yards, a few moments walking, you could find yourself amidst unkempt scrubland, on the edge of motionless canals, scraping new trainers in the dust of dirt-tracks that opened onto industrial estates or scrap yards like a new book.

I was savaged by dogs in Blackbrook Road in the early seventies. The animals had escaped from a compound: they were security dogs and like me they were displaced, the edgelands as a dead zone, the liminal space between. I had no place there and neither did they. They won.

The wasteland that surrounded the old Gibbons factory and the Burton Road hospital was a refuge for children aching for space and freedom from the confines of the Wrens Nest. They bordered the main road and swept back onto the old coal heaps that loomed like great mole-hills on Dibdale Road. We often stood on the wall that formed the boundary of the hospital grounds, the ‘loony-bin’ as we so unkindly christened it and from this vantage point you could cast your gaze across to the Black Hills, the Malverns.  Or else you could see high over the estate (if you wanted to) and then beyond to the Wrens Nest caverns. The estate where I grew up was trapped between these two areas of beauty, for there was beauty in the edgelands of ‘the top fields’ as we called them. Disappearing from home for long stretches of the summer, armed with a bottle of warm dandelion and burdock and a bag of Walkers, we would exhaust ourselves with endless games of football or cricket depending on the time of year. The old factory that squatted in the weeds and dust of the ‘bottom fields’ as we called it had always been abandoned, the ghost of a ghost of some past that we heard only our grandparents talk about. It was a magnet to boys eager for adventure and claimed the life of at least one poor soul who strayed too high, too far. The top fields have long gone, buried beneath red-brick middle class housing, taking with it the memories of a thousand children.

As a child I found a strange beauty in the Shaver’s End waterworks. Its sloping walls could have been the walls of a castle: so incongruous, this edifice that stood proudly between the main roads of Burton Road and The Broadway. I was told it was a reservoir, and I imagined an immense sea lapping at the edges of its green walls. It is still there, a relic of my past, and my story ‘An Inland Sea’ is based on this fascination.


And when I left home and moved into my first house, that too was an edgeland place. I remember the estate agent calling it a ‘semi-rural property’: an end of terrace that would have belonged to a mining family perhaps. It lay back from a dog-legged lane that led out to the main road out of Gornal to Kingswinford. There was no back garden: only a disputed track that backed on to open fields that had long withstood the developer’s advances and was home to a few sorry horses that my neighbour the scrap merchant kept for business. The view from my front window was of an electricity pylon that crackled with laughter whenever the rains came to form muddy red rivers that ran outside my back door. Lorries swept along the lane, shaking the roots of my existence, a short cut to the breaker’s yard that skulked at the end of the road. We had a coal fire that didn’t quite work for the draw on the chimney was shot and when the wind caught the house it caused smoke to belch back into the living room. We carted coal in an old wheelbarrow the hundred yards from the coal merchants. It was the mid-1990s but it could have been the fifties.

“Musing on primitiveness”: eerie presences within the British edgelands





“The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.” (Robert McFarlane).

Edgelands were a prominent feature of 1970s public information films that appeared regularly on television. In ‘Dark and Lonely Water’, the spectre of a Grim Reaper voiced by Donald Pleasance warns unsuspecting children of the dangers of finding pleasure amongst the canals and rubbish dumps of a Britain still being rebuilt after the ravages of the second world war. Or else there is the threat of electricity pylons and sub-stations which loom on the borders of council estates and draw children towards them like skeletal sirens. Train lines in the ‘Finishing Line’, farmland in ‘Apache’ all spell out the dangers of the uninitiated and the innocent exploring the edges of their community. Children’s literature of the Cold War period was also drawn towards such liminal spaces: from Robert Swindells’ Z for Zachariah or Daz 4 Zoe to Stig of the Dump and the folk horror of Alan Garner, In literature, suburban concrete dystopias of J.G. Ballard inscribed a degree of eroticism onto the high rise flat, the underpass, the airport car park, a compulsion to both desire and repel these images of non-spaces. And of course, the fascination with other spaces continued throughout the late seventies and early eighties with the music of new-wave/post-punk bands such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and Human League who all name-checked Ballardian dystopias in their songs, celebrating the ‘underpass’ (John Foxx) and urban wastelands. It seemed as if writers and film-makers engaged in a counter-response to the zeitgeist of annihilation and immersed us in both a nostalgia for a pagan past as well as preempting the anonymity of destruction by imagining narratives that resided within landscapes that effaced modernity.
And now the edgelands have become a focus for cultural interest once more. A plethora of web-sites that celebrate these heterotopias can be found in a quick search: www.derelictplaces.co.uk and www.abandoned-britain.com both offer images of run-down and neglected spaces, monuments, buildings that are decaying spectres of the past; elsewhere, gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-edgelands-a-zone-of-wild-mysterious-beauty/ offers the juxtaposition of objects such as iconic red telephone boxes set against a backdrop of urban desolation offering what Farley and Roberts call the ‘overlooked ordinary’. A recent London Short Film Festival offered within its programme a body of short films that engaged with Britain’s liminal spaces; and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book Edgelands appropriated Marion Shoard’s term and embarked on an exploration of Britain’s wastelands, abandoned buildings and non-spaces. Films such as Gallivant, The Selfish Giant, Byzantium and Eden Lake[1] engage with modern edgelands in ways that recall the desolate landscapes of Loach and Antonioni.
What is it about these liminal spaces that fascinates and lends itself to cultural investigation? Perhaps within the notion of psychogeography[2] we might be able to find some way of understanding our on-going discourse with these derelict spaces and unclaimed edgelands. As Alastair Bonnett writes:
“British psychogeography should be understood as a site of
struggle over the politics of loss within the radical imagination. …[It]
is an arena of conflict between two important strands within British radicalism: the use of the past to critique industrial modernity and the suppression of nostalgia.”[3]

Squeezed as we are for space in ‘this worryingly crowded isle’[4], the danger of Britain’s edgelands becoming subsumed beneath a narrative of progress and modernity has given way to an outpouring of nostalgia.

Folk horror and demonic presences
Folk horror encompasses a trend of films, television programmes and novels that appeared from the late sixties throughout the seventies that explored the demonic presences within Britain’s landscapes. Often rural, sometimes urban, they dealt with the unearthing of medieval relics or artefacts or the discovery of hidden sects, the landscape itself becoming a palimpsest of the uncanny. Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, the BBC’s adaptations of M.R. James’ ghost stories all explored the hidden demons that lay beneath the British countryside. Peter Sasdy’s The Stone Tapes explored supernatural narratives captured within the very fabric of an abandoned building. 

There has been over the last few years a revival of the folk horror genre. In September 2014, Queen’s University Belfast is holding a symposium on the topic entitled A Fiend in the Furrows that according to one blogger “looks set to be an important milestone on the journey to establish Folk Horror as a defined genre”. Ben Wheatley’s ‘A Field in England’ (2013) is an exercise in psychogeography that examines the impact of the landscape on soldiers escaping the English Civil War whilst recent revivals of M.R. James by folk horror enthusiasts such as Mark Gatiss have brought the genre to the front of cultural consciousness.

“Primal images … are but so many invitations to start imagining again.”[5]
Britain is crumbling into the sea – literally. With recent floods, the harbingers of doom claim that this sceptered isle is being eroded by the elements. Yet it is not merely Nature itself that is laying waste to the landscape of modern Britain: the threat of immigration, a nation opening its borders to the ‘poor’ of Romania, Bulgaria and other former eastern Bloc countries brings with it the rhetoric of decay, and with it a retreat into itself. Demonic presences reside within the British landscape once more.

Perhaps the reason we are fascinated (obsessed?) with our edgelands and with our derelict symbols of a ruined modernity is precisely because the landscape echoes our uncertainty with our own identity. There is no such thing as a folk horror revival or a new psychogeography. Truth is, it was there all along.




[1] In Eden Lake, the encroachment of new ‘yuppie’ property onto a rural area bordered by a housing estate emphasizes the presence of opposing cultural forces within the landscape.
[2] PsychoGeography: “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

[4] Headline in the Daily Mail, 27th December (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2530125/This-worryingly-crowded-isle-England-officially-Europes-densely-packed-country.html)
[5] Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space p.33

Friday, 13 December 2013

An Inland Sea - a short story



Penelope pressed an ear against the green rough-cast wall of the water station. Often she came here, drawn towards this strange edifice which rose up like a fortress in the middle of her world, and dreamed of a time when she would stand triumphant atop its battlements, to look out across a vast bowl of blue water. Like Tess throwing herself upon Stonehenge would hold herself to the cold stone to become part of it, part of its mystery, its otherness, listening hard for the lapping of water on the other side.
She hadn’t noticed the boy until now; he had slipped out of the door that opened into one of the small watchtowers that flanked the corners of the water station. Had he been watching her? She was sure that he had, for as she had turned her head to the east he had darted back into his lair, staying long enough for her to see his wiry frame, a shock of red hair. Leaning back against the wall, she felt the pulse in her forehead, thrumming the beginnings of one of her headaches again. What had he seen? How long had he been watching her there, pressed against the stone? She felt a surge of embarrassment, of ridicule, which filled her brain with an urgent flow of blood. How dare this boy spy on her, she thought. Or did she speak it out loud, to herself? She was never quite sure; so much time did she spend alone.
She was at the foot of the metal staircase now that led up to the doorway; like a medieval princess hunting for her knight, a fantasy in reverse.
“Hello,” she called. “Who are you?” Heels clanking against the black steel as she ascended the stairs, winding round, now facing east, now south and each step taking her closer to the dark portal. What if he was in the tower itself? What if, when she crossed the threshold into the darkness he was there, inside, waiting for her? She shuddered and called anew. “Hello, hello! I know you’re there.” The one forty bus crawled by, plume of grey smoke from its tail, a red dragon swallowing a queue of people.
This time her call was answered.
“You shouldn’t be here, you know. Shouldn’t be here. “
Penelope stopped. It was the boy’s voice, slightly deeper than the other boys at school; older, more brutish. She stopped at the landing and gripped the rail, for the first time seeing the sun-bruised grass through the slots in the metal beneath her feet. A dizziness passed over her and she felt for a moment that she might fall.
“Neither should you,” replied Penelope, still holding onto the rail.
“Yes, I should. I live here.”
The boy’s voice became more confident, as if he had played a trump card against an inexperienced player. Now the blood was in the porches of her ears, tiny canals of dull sound. She looked down at the cracked paintwork which mapped out time and weather on the rusted surface of the railings; pressing her palms onto its dirt, she felt the pock-marks, the abrasions, the rust-toil of years.
“Do not,” said Penelope. “How can anyone live here?”
Still the voice from within answered: “I do. Look there, just over the wall. The house. The white house. That’s mine.”
The breeze brushed against Penelope’s skin and she felt the sickness pass. Feeling a little bolder, she took a step forward towards the entrance, perhaps to see through the gap between door and frame; to see and not to be seen. Like mother used to do. But the voice inside cried out.
“You can’t come no further.”
“Why not?” said Penelope, feeling now that she had the upper hand, for she felt the fear in the other’s voice. Through the gap, she saw a shape prowling in the darkness, caged and cornered.  From inside, the voice trembled.
“Because.”
“Because?” scoffed Penelope. “That’s not a reason.”
 “I know,” said the other. “But that’s my reason.”
“Okay,” said Penelope, backing away from the door. “I’ll sit here then, until you come out.”
“That will be a long time,” said the other. “I know a short cut down to my house from here.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Penelope. “There is no other way down. You’re stuck.”
Penelope arched her back over the railings to peer round the other side of the little green turret and raised one leg up higher, just a little, like they do in the movies; her cotton skirt above her knee, small welts, their scab-masks having fallen away that morning.
                  “Well,” said the voice, “maybe I am. But you are too.”
“Why’s that?”
“Because I know who you are, I’ve seen your face and if you don’t go now, when I get home I’ll tell my father that you’ve been trespassing on his ground and then you’re in for it.”
Trespass. Penelope bridled and straightened up immediately. She had seen the word, trespass, on signs everywhere. Trespassers will be prosecuted. Trespassers will be fined. It was a fearful word, trespass.
 “Not so cocky now, are you?” he said.
“Then I’ll go,” said Penelope. “But not until I can see your face. After all, you’ve seen mine.”
Down below, a child rode past on his scooter, the wheels clattering over the cracked paving stones. Penelope ducked down, although the boy had eyes only for the ice-cream van that was singing its siren song at the end of the road.
“I can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t? You mean you won’t.”
“Won’t then. Why do you have to be so picky?”
“Then I’ll come back tomorrow, and I’ll wait for you at the foot of these stairs.”
“And I’ll tell my father and he’ll chase you away. He doesn’t like girls.”
“Well my father doesn’t like boys. Or fathers who chase away girls, so maybe you’ll want to take it up with him then.”
Penelope thought for a moment.
“You say you live over there, in that cottage?”
From inside the gloom, there was a mumble of agreement.
“So are you the caretaker?”
“My father is.”
A plan began to form in Penelope’s mind. She wanted adventure and it had found her.
“Then I’ll go. I know when I’m not wanted.”
“You must. Don’t look back. Please,” said the boy; this time Penelope detected something besides defiance. It came from far away, that sound, she had heard it in her mother’s voice once. At the end.
The mid-morning sun warmed her neck; she unpinned her hair to protect her skin from its searching gaze, pirouetting on her right foot towards the stairs, so graceful; she hoped that the boy had waited to see her do that. Her father said she was his princess; he liked to watch her dancing in the kitchen as he made tea and toast for breakfast, laughing as he bowed down before her with a flourish of his long wiry arms. On her right, the curtained wall, a jealous guard holding captive the fierce waters of the reservoir and she too felt jealous; jealous that the boy should be able to see the secret that lay behind the walls. But he would show her today for didn’t her father say that if you don’t ask, you don’t get? The heavy wooden door snicked to and she turned, breaking her promise, to see only the boy’s burnished hair sink behind the other side of the turret like a sad sun.
Penelope marched up the rough paved path, stepping over the clumps of gorse and gyp that gathered between the cracks, careful not to scuff the brown leather sandals that her father had polished the evening before whilst they listened to the story on the radio. It had been her father’s favourite, of a beautiful princess (was she a princess? she should have been) buried alive by her mad brother and their house that crumbles into the water just as she arrives to claim her revenge. Penelope had asked whether the priest had made sure that her mother was dead too; her father tried to smile and kissed her on the forehead. All through the night she had wondered about the girl in the story, Madeleine, and how she had clawed at the thick oaken lid of her casket, tearing her skin down to her fragile bones and screaming and screaming until it was the power of her soul itself that had broken through the darkness. Of course, when the thick dust motes gathered around her window in the warm light of day, Penelope knew that her mother had been truly dead. She knew.  
This was the house. This was where he lived.
The front door was set back into a small porch which shut out the warmth of the sun; she wished that she had brought her cardigan. After knocking against the blistered paintwork, she stepped back, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt, pulling it down below her knees to hide her bruises. There was no answer and she imagined shades of people gathering around the hallway, like in The Listeners which she had copied into her scrapbook and which reminded her of all the times when she and her father hid behind the sofa from the rent collector, stifling their laughs as the old man pressed his bearded face against the window. “I know you’re in there, Ellis,” he would say. “It’s no good hiding”. This time, she pushed against the metal letterbox to peer through and saw only a long hallway with pale green tiles that made it look like the public toilets in the market place. From somewhere behind the door, out of sight of her searching grey eyes, she imagined shadows laughing at her confusion. Fearing what was behind its dull grey lid, she let the steel flap close, careful not to trap her fingers, until it sealed the hole in the door before stepping back into the sunlight to peer up into the upstairs windows. Perhaps the boy is alone, up there watching her. Or perhaps he isn’t there at all. With the sudden realisation that she had been outsmarted, she turned back towards the watchtower, at the pathway that led down to the house.
The door to the little turret room was open again.  A panic caught in her throat and she wanted her father, caught as she was between the house and reservoir walls. The front of the house seemed to lean in towards her, its shadow lengthening across the ragged skirts of pebble and weed that spread out before it; she imagined a scar tearing across its face, like in the story from the night before; imagined it falling down around her, and the gun-metal letterbox clattering to her sandaled feet, opening up its cold grey lid and staring at her, accusing her of that word, trespassing.
She ran.
Head down, watching as the hem of her dress flapped against her thighs, bringing her bruised knees as high as they would go. Up to the foot of the stairs which led to the watch tower, clambering up the stone steps, fingers gripping their ragged ridges, back to where she had come from.  When she got to the top, out of breath, her chest damp with sweat, she began to gather herself together. From a little pouch in her dress, she took out a handkerchief which carried her name, Penny, embroidered there by her mother, and wiped the soil from her fingertips, the grit that had lodged into the palms of her hands, before pressing her dress back into shape against her body.
If he was in there, he was trapped, she thought. She had him now and he would have to show her what it was that lay behind the green walls.
The door was open just wide enough for her to slip through without disturbance. Inside was a space no bigger than a telephone booth and her senses were assailed by the smell of nasty things in the darkness. She thought that this must be what a tomb felt like. Pale light speared through one of the little slits in the wall, and Penelope could read the dirty things that had been written there over the years.
Something rose up towards her from a corner.
“I thought I told you to go home?” The voice was stronger this time, because nearer. Penelope turned around to find the boy slumped against a wall, his head against his chest, face hidden beneath an upturned collar.
“I didn’t want to.” Voice in the cold darkness. Her voice. “I called for you.” To stop herself from gagging, she buried her face in the crook of her arm, and tasted her own moist flesh on her lips.
The boy gave no answer; instead his head seemed to collapse inwards until he was just shoulders. 
“You’re alone, aren’t you?”
The boy sidled crab-like along the wall towards the open door, and the edges of his red hair caught fire in the sunlight.
“Don’t go,” said Penelope. She didn’t want to be alone; not in this cold chamber. The boy’s curls licked at the darkness and she was drawn towards them, like a moth to a candle. But she stopped herself, and held out her arm as a barrier, to stop the boy from leaving. Only a sliver of light crossed the floor between them.
“Don’t go,” said Penelope. “I can keep you a secret.”
A shadow inside a shadow, the boy edged back towards the other corner of the room.
“What do you want?” His voice emerged from the stone, like a moment of time escaping from inside its tiny cavities.
Penelope knew what she wanted. She wanted him to show her the secret behind the wall, she wanted to see the smooth waters of the reservoir and feel the warm breath of summer glide across its glassy surface. And he would take her there.
“Perhaps we can be friends. You are alone, aren’t you? There is no-one in your house. You’re the king of your own castle.”
“Perhaps it isn’t a castle. Perhaps it’s a dungeon.”
“But you’re not locked in here, silly.”
Then he laughed and Penelope heard a jangle of keys.
“No, but perhaps I can lock you in here.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” said Penelope. There was no intention in his voice, no malice although she edged just a little closer to the door, just in case.
There was moment of silence.
“I can be your friend.”
“You wouldn’t want to.”
“Why not?”
“Because I’m ugly,” declared the boy, his voice daring her to deny this.
“I’m sure you’re not,” she said “and it doesn’t matter anyhow. We can be friends.” It was true, she thought, it didn’t matter. But she had to get out of this place. “I’m going outside. It’s horrible in there. I don’t know how you can put up with it.”
Before he could answer, she opened the door, wide this time, and stepped into the sunlight, breathing in the scent from the lavender bushes that hugged the green stone walls. Even as she did so, she turned around and saw that the boy had turned his face towards her in defiance. Or revelation.
“God.”
The word fell out of her mouth like an insect before crawling away into the shadows.
 “I told you,” cried the boy and was about to return to his lair when Penelope dashed between him and the door. The boy turned away, hiding his face from the light as if it might turn to ash.
“I’m sorry,” said Penelope. She felt opportunity slipping away, and this time she dared to touch the red flames that licked out from the boy’s collars. Beneath her fingers, the hair was soft, silken even, not flaxen the way it really should have been, exposed as it was to the filth and stench of the dark parapet that he had made his home.  “Really I am.” She turned her gaze to the green walls of the reservoir, noticed for the first time dark stains around its upper edges as if it had been weeping. She would be his friend, the kind princess. She can brave the taunts. What does she care? After all, she is the witch-child. She let her hand fall onto his shoulder, and as he began to turn around, she steeled herself once more against the sight, locking away all expression.
“My father...” said the boy, the rest of his sentence carried off by history.
“I don’t know your name,” said Penelope, looking at the seared flesh without inquiry.
“Jason. It’s Jason.”
“Like the Argonauts?”
“Like the Argonauts.”
Penelope followed Jason’s gaze which had turned towards his father’s house, felt his weakness trapped between the clashing rocks of his new friend and his father’s prohibition.  A dog barked, high pitched, discordant, and somewhere off in the distance she heard music carried on the breeze.
“What happened?” said Penelope.
“There was a fire.” The boy lifted up his face towards hers.
That day when she had found her mother in her pyjamas, outside, crouching amongst the milk bottles, the rain settling in pools around her shivering frame, dark rings forming around the hems of her trouser legs, spreading further and further upward, turning sky blue cotton to grey slush as if her mother was being absorbed into the elements. That’s what Penelope remembers. She shouldn’t have listened to her father; she shouldn’t have gone to school, and he shouldn’t have gone to work. When he had finally collected her from school, after the long wait in the walnut panelled room outside the headmistress’ office which smelled of musty bed-sheets like her grandmother’s bedroom, the rain had stopped. Conflagration. That was the word they’d used. Her father said that her mother had made her own funeral pyre and Penelope thought this made her mother sound like a Viking warrior. Penelope had liked that. And now this boy with the melted face; this is what her mother would have looked like. And beneath the flame of his hair, beyond the hunched silences, between these two remnants of ash and smoke that stood frozen in the July sun, something flickered like the smouldering embers of last night’s fire, enough to make her reach out a trembling hand and touch the bubbled flesh. The girl felt the presence of the walls behind her, felt their impassive gaze as she stared into the deep set eyes of the boy with the marbled skin, her dirty fingertips exploring its scars. There was no resistance from the boy; it was as if the moment were a continuation of his own history, an inevitability that in the end it would be pity, as his own father had warned him, which would find him at the centre of things.
There were no more words for she understood his pain. And what could he say in return for her silences? For in them was acceptance without judgement; and as she let her hand fall from his wounds, he fell softly to the ground and laughed as he cleared a patch of grass from pebbles and dried dog droppings so that together they may sit down and pass the mid-day hour together in silence.
Mopping her brow, Penelope smoothed out the lap of her dress and picked at a rash of daisies, breaking open their juicy stems to feed one inside another until she had a crown of wilting flowers that she placed ceremoniously over her head. She saw that the boy had begun to grow in the light and even though he remained just a little behind Penelope, scared perhaps that he might turn her to stone if she were in full sight of his horror, he began to yield to her.
“They normally stare at me. Other kids. Not you. You look at me differently. Like you don’t see the scars.”
Finally, she stood and walked towards the shade of the green stone walls, placing her hands once more on the surface.
“That’s what you did earlier,” said the boy. “Why do you do that?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Because I’m ugly?” mocked the boy.
“Because you don’t live inside my head.”
She turned to face him, resting her back against the wall. It was in her blood now, in her veins, the sound of the vastness behind these walls. She must see it, she must.
“Can you take me to the top of the wall?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been up there before. My father forbidded me.”
“Forbade,” said Penelope. “ You said forbidded. It’s forbade.”
“Does it matter?”
“Well can you?”
“Are you still my friend?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Even if I didn’t take you to the top of the wall?”
Sighing, Penelope turned her back to the boy. “My mother died in a fire.”
Jason lifted his head and put a hand to his scarred brow.
“So, I understand,” she continued. “They call me a witch-child. Say that my mother burnt at the stake.”
“But it doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?”
“It bothers me. I can’t look in the mirror; I despise myself. They call me yoghurt-face.”
Penelope laughed.
“They didn’t let me see her. It would have been too distressing. Do you think she would have looked like you?”
“I’m not dead.”
“Would she have suffered? Did you?”
“I don’t remember. It was the smoke.”
“She set fire to herself. Paraffin.”
Jason shifted uncomfortably, felt the skin around his eyes and mouth tighten.
“I like it here, but I stay out of the house as much as I can. That’s why I go up into the tower. It’s cool, away from the light.” He laughed again. “It makes me sound like a monster, doesn’t it? A vampire.”
“What do your parents say?”
“It’s hard for them. They feel responsible. I suppose they were, in a way.”
His words seemed to trail off and Penelope understood that the subject had drawn to a close. And she too wanted to get away from this death. Jason stood up and held out a hand which Penelope took and together they walked in the shadow of the green walls.
“How come you’ve never been to the top?”
“Perhaps I’m not as adventurous as you. What do you expect to find behind the walls?”
“My destiny.”
Jason laughed again. “I like the way you talk. You talk like you’re in your own story. You must read a lot.”
“It’s my father. He’s a writer and he likes to read stories to me. We write down all the good words, the juicy plump words that you can squeeze and squeeze.”
The boy’s finger closed tight around the girl’s hand and with his free hand he opened the gate which led on to a flight of green iron steps that dog-legged back on itself; ugly, brutish things that reminded Penelope of a prison that she’d seen on television.  Even as he warned her to watch her step, her foot slipped through the open riser, grazing her shin on the ragged edge. Blood trickled onto her polished sandals.
“Do you want to go back?”
“Of course not, Jason.”
At the sound of his name from her lips, he smiled and vowed that she would not fall again. Raising his face to the sun and mindless of the heat, he marched on, looking back at every step to make sure that his new friend was safe. She saw him turn around, saw his watchfulness and she knew that the time had come. Warm blood fell in the dark spaces between her toes but she would not turn back. In a few moments, she would be there with the tremulous grey-blue waters filling the vast expanse of her imagination. The prospect of this made her dizzy and she threatened to fall yet again until Jason grabbed her wrist. Only in her father’s hands had she felt protected before and she looked up to this boy, his red hair haloed by the full sun. She felt the blood in her cheeks, in her throat; she felt its pulsating rhythms and imagined the waters beyond swelling in sympathy to her body, as if she had become the moon itself. Through the open risers, she could see the boy’s house far below, no longer a threat; instead its blank white face stared up at her in admiration at her courage, at her determination. A procession of figures crossed the landscape of her imagination: princes who climbed towers to liberate enchanted maidens; poor village boys clambering blindly up magical beanstalks in search of lost treasure; Babylonians in a tower of stone, reaching blindly for God. And all was one to her now and they would no longer mock her for soon she would have possession of the gold at the end of the rainbow.  
“Here we are,” said Jason.
They were on the parapet and Penelope looked across the estate below them, slate grey roofs spreading out on all sides, a sea of black caps pronouncing a sentence of death or worse on all those who stayed there. The wind picked at her hair and wrapped it over her eyes to save them from the trouble of seeing.
“We just need to go up this ladder here,” said the boy. It was his turn to make contact, lifting the hair from her face, folding it behind her ears, stroking it into place. They smiled to each other and Penelope knew that here indeed was a friend. Her heart beating anxiously, she imagined her mother and herself standing at the edge of this man-made lake, the water cooling her mother’s searing wounds, extinguishing the pain of memory and loss.
“Thank you,” she said to the boy, pressing her lips to the hard ridges of his forehead and placing his hand on her heart. Jason looked away, angry at his unforgiving skin, at its taut, leathery response to something so soft. He let his hand fall and mounted the three metal steps onto the tiny wall.
And waited for her to come to him.
Following in the boy’s footsteps, she took the three steps slowly and deliberately. In the stories she had read, the princess would close her eyes, or else she would be blindfolded and the hero would tell her when it was time before revealing the glorious sights to her. But she wanted to absorb every moment, wanted to be able to write down each second so that she might relate it to her father and to her mother, in her prayers that night. As she ascended the staircase, the green walls on the opposite side came into view and surely now she would behold the vast expanse of water that had called to her daily from the other side.
“What do you think?” asked the boy, oblivious to the chaos in the other’s mind from which no form or design could be made.
She could not speak.
In front of her was not the inland sea that she had hoped for, that mighty expanse of water tamed by the hands of man; not for her the sunlight glinting off ripples of grey-blue that caressed its stone boundaries. She began to cry.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” said Jason, fearful for her safety and already regretting  the fact that he had brought her to this height. If she fell in, he’d be for it from his old man. “What’s wrong?” He followed her gaze to the labyrinth of pipes and tubes that spread out before them, the cold steel innards of some huge beast left open and naked to the skies. If he bent forward, he could hear the steady hum of the motors or the pumps as they worked tirelessly to flush out the waste and the filth, cleansing and remoulding the detritus of the estate into something else. He saw the beauty in this act of rebirth. He smiled again at Penelope but a fierce darkness had crossed her face; her hair had fallen down around her cheeks and she had the look of a Maenad.
“What is this?” she cried. “What have you brought me to?”
Jason looked back at the pipes and the machinery then at Penelope, confused.
“But this is it. This is what it is. I ... I thought you knew.”
“It’s vile, ugly. I thought ... I thought ...”
Jason could only repeat himself. “It is what it is,” he said, chanting it as a mantra and pointing at the sight before them to help his new friend to make sense of it all. Penelope screamed and tore at her hair and Jason, beginning to fear for his own safety, backed away. She turned to the boy and saw his weak smile collapse into the stunned flesh that barely covered his grotesque face.
“Ugly, vile,” she whispered. “How can it be?”
In the chasm below, the sun flared off the steel pipes. The boy crept away into his isolation, fulfilled in the knowledge that all things will be, just as his father had said so.


Lance Hanson – May 30th 2013ness. o too Beth would press her young frame to the cold stone in a desire to become part of it,