Graham Reiboe: Squalor

Squalor was the name of the place, the word painted across half-torn notices on its boarded windows, and I was the resident dosser. Many others came and went. I don’t know why I stayed. But I knew why they left. It was the heat in the long-day months and the rats in the cold ones. At night I lay and listened to the squeaking and the scuttering, my body dead tired, my attention wide awake, tracking the ghostly sounds that ran about the room over the few sleeping corpses. My breathing would slow to a stop as the noises neared one of two spots where Lombard set his crooked traps. The starving creatures took the bait no matter what he offered. Every night delivered a snap. After that I slept. I knew then that the other scurrying noises had something to feed on and that for the next few hours I could sleep undisturbed.

I may have been there a year; I’m not sure yet. I was on my way somewhere when I stopped at Squalor for a few days’ rest. I marked the corner furthest from the door on the third floor as mine. Lying in my corner, I watched the blinding sunlight, hard edged shadows and darkness come, go, and return, only to go again. I scratched lines into the wall with a rusted nail to keep track of the days. I told myself that I would leave at the end of each tally of three lines. But soon there were many bundles of these. And beneath these, I scratched bundles of five lines, and beneath those, bundles of seven. One day I found a felt pen. I used the pen to strike a line through the bundle of six scratches but the line wouldn’t stop, the day refused to be marked off, and the line ran on, and climbed, then slipped down the wall, skidded onto a window-sill, trailing lime-green across the dusty, flaking white before spilling back onto the wall and fading to no clear end that I could see however long I studied it. This bothered me. I went out to find another pen so I could get to the end of it.

Time ceased to exist outside that line, yet time was indivisible on it. With the blue felt nib I followed dizzy spirals, until I imposed order and created a series of fading geometrical constellations and a labyrinth that I lost my way in; and then as I picked it up with another nib the line burst into an angry orange that splodged, and two trickles ran towards the floor. I lost control. The line steamed away, shot back, and sped off again; it fattened into globs and exploded in splashes; it trailed out the gaping windows and, exhausted, crept downwards till it was out of reach and hung like a vine that had lost its trellis. I watched the line meet other lines and breed and blossom into a cornucopia of hyper-vigilant flowers, hard-boiled fruits and retreating giant rats; they swept upwards into tortured scythes held by bodiless arms that descended from the ceiling; and no matter how many times the line stopped and how hard I looked I could not find that end I needed.

No one interrupted me. Sometimes those passing through stood and watched me as I watched the line and followed it. Sometimes I returned from my hunt for pens to find a group of strangers staring at my walls. No one said a word. Or perhaps I didn’t hear them. If I begged or busked or worked, it was for paints and pens to chase my timelines. If I got money I bought colours, then food. The money rarely stretched that far. I didn’t mind. The hollow in my stomach spread through me; and that allowed my arms float and follow the happenings generated by their following. If I was lucky, one of the regulars left me half a pack of soft biscuits or a quarter bottle of cider. If I was even luckier, they dropped off a spray can with juice in its belly.

For a long time the nights were the same night. After the trap snapped, I slept. In the dream a photograph lies waiting on a table. It is browned, crenulated, singed and curled at two corners. The picture in grey and white. In it a child clutches a knife in its left hand. Beneath the knife is a cake with five candles and five white flames. The holder of the knife is the smallest of a group of eight. The others stand behind it and look over its head, staring out of the picture at me as I study them.

But the lines, they changed from day to day. They roamed the ceiling as gargoyles and livid lobsters in bubbling mud pools, and as a stream of gold with frozen cacti on either side, they flowed down to the second floor where magic occurred in the spaces between and around them. I watched as lines of paint, pairing up, squashed into existence lines of space; and when colours splodged and became shadows, the spaces about them took shape: a monk with shut eyes watches a girl in rags wield her scimitar. On the ground about her are pumpkin shards. A little boy and a little girl in night vision goggles study a compass and a forest map. Three little warthogs devour the remains of a boot. A harpooned whale erupts from the floor boards sending one hundred and eighty-two droplets of water across the ceilings and the doors, and a boto dives into the largest suspended drop. A giant beetle in the cat stance bares its wings ready for the salt water onslaught. And a weeping dragon with a sore hind paw limps towards the forest of fire flowers that spills into the main stairwell.

I made two friends while I rested in Squalor. They lived on the other side of the road. The first, in a cafe in the middle of a row of little shops; the other, at a construction site further along. The first was a waitress. If she wasn’t inside waiting on customers, she waited outside with a cigarette in her mouth. She would stand at the end of the alley, with her back against the wall, and blow limp smoke rings. She had spotted furry arms and a mole on her jaw.  Whenever she had something for me, she whistled. It was usually a bacon butty or a doughnut wrapped in foil with a cigarette tucked in beside it. This didn’t happen often. But it happened often enough to keep me in my body. The sandwich half I ate would weigh me down. I kept the rest for later. And when I took a drag on the cigarette, the smoke shot through the space in my head and delivered a smack, sending a zing to the toes I had forgotten I owned.  And I would sit on the café’s side steps and know I was living.

The other friend was a foreman who allowed me watch his building grow. It was nine storeys tall. I never had to speak to him either; he did all the talking. He fed me fairy tales. His son was eight years old and played the piano. His wife baked pies. He told me the recipe of the pie all the way through to the level teaspoon of nutmeg and pinch of salt; and I could taste the as I listened to him describe it. He loved hot curries. They looked after a stray dog, Whoops, who had given him the scratches on his right arm, and they had a pet rabbit named Tibbet. As he talked I watched the hamsters in their fluorescent safety vests, riding up and running down their nine-storey maze, hollering, swearing, and dropping rods which sent out clangs that made my hairs stand.

On the days I had no paint or pens I sat at the construction site and imagined my own lines on the side wall of the nine floors. I gave the wall a coat of pearl white.  I rooted a sun in the ground and stretched it up over the side of the first two floors.  At the top I crammed a wodge of dark soil mixed with mulch and burrowing worms. On this backdrop my goliath would appear. Her feet are planted on the sun. Her eyes narrow as she looks down on the light. Her matted hair splays out, entangles in the soil above her head, whips about her face, catches the folds of her golden kaftan and creeps along one arm to a clenched hand. In her grasp is the handle of a dragon-green whip which hangs against the length of a leg, its coils sinking into the yellow and glistening where they cross her bare feet. The whip’s barbed tip pierces the sun. I would work on those lines as the shadow crept across the wall. A tassel of cowries hangs from the whip’s handle, and a lilac hue cools the crook of her left thumb.

It was at this construction site I sometimes worked. The night guard, hired because of thefts, would nip off occasionally for something important that smelt of alcohol and caused him to hum. All I had to do was sit at his post in case anyone called. He gave me a coin or two and sometimes half a pack of smokes when he got back. Once when I was there the telephone rang. I grunted and coughed, because I didn’t know if I could talk. The next time I was there he gave me a note. He didn’t smile at me that time or any other time.

One night the photograph from my dreams came to me before I fell asleep. I saw the photograph, and I see the morning of that day. I am told it is a special day. So I wait by the window for the special thing. It will come from the sky, I am certain. Maybe it will have one eye and fly with a cape, or ride a machine that shoots out flames. The man and woman interrupt my watching many times, but I keep returning to the window and to my watching. The man and woman try to distract me with wrapped toys. They call me away and ask me to sit with people I meet every day. I am afraid that I’ll miss this special thing because if I do, it won’t return. The man and woman make me stand behind the cake and move others about behind me. I sneak away. The woman pinches my shoulder, takes me back and makes me pick up the knife. Afterwards the man says that I shouldn’t have stabbed the cake. He makes me sit and eat the cake. I miss the special thing that day, and it never comes again.

That night I stayed awake and listened to the supping of the rats after the snap.

The lines on the walls sometimes travelled without me, and I had to track them down. Sometimes they tiptoed and resembled a string of dot. But if I brought my face close to the wall, the dots blurred and touched, and I would see that the line hadn’t stopped after all. A family of coyotes slunk down to the first floor, towards a full moon of savage pink from which shelves of ravens sprang, dropping feathers as they flapped their rich wings; each feather as it touched the scrambled soil beneath them released stone warriors that walked out of the earth fully armed; so many feathers fell that an infantry soon marched on a city of dilapidated colonnades and porticos, on the far side of which a calm sea filled with flat topped rocks sunned itself. A crocodile and hippopotamus drifted in this sea without waking a ripple, and from their backs herons rose with scrolls in their beaks. Among them flew an albatross. The birds flew towards a mountain top on which a bald man with flaring eyebrows rubbed two feathers above a small mound of twigs and parchment from which a green flame flickered. Behind him the sun set.

In the nights, in the hours between the snap and the morning, the photograph no longer returned, and I began to dream.

On the first night I dream it is after the special day. I find a cigarette end. I try to find out what the bad thing is that lives inside. I suck on the cigarette. I can’t stop coughing. The man finds me and tells me I am bad, but he says nothing about the badness of the cigarette. He has changed his story. I wait for an explanation. I am corrected.

Another night I dream that my sister is sad. Someone has stuck toys in her hair. She looks daft. I take out the ugly butterflies. I bend and break them. I stick the pieces in my hair and cross my eyes. She laughs. I go to the man and woman to tell them that she does not want toys in her hair. I want to tell them that she is not a silly Christmas tree. They won’t listen. I am corrected.

Another night I dream I run away as far as I can, to a shed at the top of the street. I am found and corrected.

Later, I dream I run away again. I am older now. I am not corrected. I am sent to a secure school with a strict correcting doctrine.

The dreams weakened me. I fell ill. But I didn’t let the coughing and the shivering stop me.

The ground floor was dark.  In the dark, elves hung onto and buffed empty ornate picture frames, and dwarfs climbed and shined thin pedestals on which elaborate cages balanced, each holding an invisible bogeyman captive. And in the darkest corner oil lamps peeked out from beneath a tarpaulin. A black sun rose and flared. Its flares resembled stomach-thin pumas leaping, fawns escaping, half-risen phoenixes contorting in a sinking death; and shadowy figures with disturbingly familiar silhouettes stepped out from among them and stalked the walls. From flamingo pink clouds, fleshy cobalt blue raindrops dripped. Scorpions, moths and flies sought cover under a pile of rotting conifers.

As I followed the flies into hiding, I remembered two gates with a large logo across. These are gates to a university. The gates are rust red and rusty. I am standing inside of them, and a fly is buzzing round me. The gates are open. People and cars come in and go out. I stand and watch – puzzled; I am not escaping. I know I do not want to be here, but I cannot remember what I need to run from or where I wish to run to. People go in and out while I stand in my slippers and watch. The fly settles on my shoulder.

After I remembered the gates nightmares invaded my sleep. Even when I slept during the day. Even when I napped. In them the light chases the dark;  the space chases rushing lines and scurrying spiders; hammering and clangs leave ruler-edge marks on my legs and arms; cigarette smoke mixes with snores and the smell of sweaty, infected feet; buildings grow in my head, their borders running out to smiley faces and happy families and rats and furry arms; pointy pens and invisible lines burrow into buckling skirting boards; a bleeding toe nail and a bloodied spike; stale teardrops trickle down and mix with fresh black ink and my shirt front  is soaked when I wake up screaming in the dream.

But the lines travel undisturbed. Wizards, thunder gods and street fighters slowed me down, fighting me on every step as I descended into the basement. Then a lodger on the second floor gave me an extra-life, a pen torch that increased my speed and skill. I learnt to follow the line with my right hand while my left held the light. I ran after my escaping timelines and found them cavorting in a world of satyrs and snarling Dalmatians, gnomes and yapping ducks, chained howling bears and fairies with sodden, ragged wings; blood thirsty unicorns and grinning cats. Leprechauns in purple waistcoats and yellow breeches whispered advice garlanded with poppycock. Centaurs trampled the red heather and orange lavender, releasing vapours that dulled my mind. They demanded I let them out. Squatting in the dirt, I replanted the fields. During my third attempt, mongooses, skinks, bullfrogs and owls nuzzled and scrapped their way up through the earth and scampered out, leaving behind a scattering of mounds. And on the floor above, Aina walked in through the front door, went upstairs and set her sleeping bag down in my corner.

Aina stayed only so long and I met her three times: on her first night there, the day she bought me a coffee and the day she left, which was the day she held me.

On her first night she lay close. Our faces were turned together and we shared the sounds of the hungry scurrying paws. When the first trap snapped, she sent me a smile and turned to the ceiling and the bubbling pot of electric eels, lampreys and squids above our corner. The whorls of her left ear were as delicate as her eyelashes and eyebrows.

The day she took me to coffee she came to the basement with five full aerosols. She sat beside the fennecs. She looked like them. I was bandaging a hoof when she asked me to join her. She turned to go and I set down the line of crepe and followed. At the cafe she said,

‘Expresso?’

I remember the word exactly as she said it. She waited for my reply, so I nodded. We sat together on the café’s side door’s doorstep in the alley and shared a cigarette. That was before the contents of a stray can shot unto my face. It hadn’t been paint. The blisters were painless, but it scared those who were with me, I could see. I watched from behind the blisters and recognised their fear, and I let them do things that made them feel better, everything apart from take me someplace else.

The day Aina was to leave I watched her roll up her bedding. She came over to me. My face did not disturb her. She hugged me and left in me a feeling. My hands hung by my side. Words bubbled in my mind. I hope I smiled. I don’t remember.

Soon after she left fences went up, because Squalor and the next building had to come down. Notices, like those on the walls, appeared on the fences. No one else went in to squalor now. I stopped imagining lines and stuck to my walls, creeping out of the basement and up the back staircase on all fours; empty cans, jars, pens and paint buckets tumbling down to the ground floor as soon as they were used up.

I hunted in recycle bins outside arts shops and schools, and anywhere I saw scaffoldings and white vans. I discovered that I couldn’t steal, because I was too weak to run. I offered the coins I found in gutters, on grates and around market stalls in exchange for paints. I got more for the coins than I bargained for. And so in the attic towering graphite storm clouds thundered over an indigo sea; teal lightening splintered rose quartz rocks and mustard gases hissed out from the fissures. My friend, the foreman, found me tracking terracotta shards along the bottom of the wall.

‘The demolition’s tomorrow,’ he said. ‘You have to leave.’

I looked at the bare timeless walls and looked down at my paints. I had two half buckets and three cans left. But there was always blood red. I picked up my line.

My friend swore and left. When he returned, I was sowing the field of flattened purple corn and yellow poppies from which the dervishes that had whirled up this tempest would rise. He let drop a tumble of paint buckets. He set down a large yellow box.

‘A torch,’ he said. ‘And you must be out at five. The building’s coming down.’

I paused to listen. I could hear what he said. Beyond that I could hear wind and feet and colours streaming from the spinning mystics; and far off, a rebellious horde galloping towards us.

‘Five o’clock,’ he said again.

I followed my lines.

In the morning my foreman friend was standing outside the door, waiting. It must have been five. My time was used up; there was no need be there anymore. I gave him his box and the last can. He took the box, but not the can.

‘That’s not mine,’ he said.

I went across to the café’s front step and sat down. My girl friend gave me a pasty once she had opened the shop. Together we watched the trucks come alive and the engine with the monster ball move forward, me sitting on the front step holding my pasty and she leaning against the wall with a cigarette between her lips. My foreman friend came and stood beside her. I tried to move over so he could sit, but he jumped forward and pressed me back down.

‘Don’t do anything silly,’ he said.

The monster ball liberated them.

On the first swing the gargoyles across from where I slept roared on their release and jeered at the ball as it swung back to cave their faces in; the storm of dervishes rose as dust and shimmering particles, leaving behind the winged Mongols on horseback which were decimated and scattered on the balls return. The raised scimitar took two strikes before it splintered; the exposed vampires bore the blows unflinchingly before disintegrating in the morning light. Jackals and pumas, scarab beetles and dragonflies flew into the air, shooting off in every direction, disappearing in the cloud of colour and confusion. A giant black spider entangled in pipes and wires clung on after a direct hit, then cracked, and slumped, and sank. The battling snakes in the back stairwell were too preoccupied to make a stand. The pythons crashed, one on the other, to continue their struggle in the rubble on the ground.

I looked up and found my friends watching me. My girl friend squatted. The fronts of her ankles wrinkled. She wore old tennis shoes. She wiped the wet off my face. I wanted to say something kind to her, so I did. It sounded like, I am lovely.

‘Yes. Yes you are, pet,’ she said. ‘You haven’t touched your pasty. I’ll go get you coffee.’

Behind the fence a machine with big jaws swung from side to side and knocked down the familiar shadows. The cobalt rain fell for good. The monster ball struck the side of the next house. I wondered what the rats would do.

She brought three coffees. I blew on mine.

As I watched the ripple on the dark surface, the university gates returned. I am outside the gates, but not free. I am trapped, but I am not trapped here. I must be trapped somewhere else. I have escaped to the wrong place. I escaped when no one, not even I, was looking. And no one noticed I was gone, not even me. And if haven’t been found, I must be somewhere only I can reach. All this is suddenly clear to me. So I move my legs and move away from the gates. I move to find and rescue me from wherever I am hiding.

I drank my coffee. It was extra sweet and tickled. I held on to my pasty.

‘I’ve got to get back,’ he said.

The woman was lighting another cigarette. I stood up.

My foreman friend looked like he wanted to speak, and he walked off. I waited so that I could still be there when he returned. He returned. He was scribbling on a scrap of paper.

‘Details of a friend of mine,’ he said. ‘He could always do with an extra pair of hands. Number, name, see?’

He shoved the paper into my shirt pocket. I was holding my pasty with both hands. I wanted to say something. I croaked. I didn’t recognize the sound, but he understood.

‘No worries,’ he said. ‘Take this.’ He pushed a note into my pocket. ‘Get a change of clothes. Go see him.’ He tapped me on the chest where my pocket was. ‘There’s help out there. I got this for you as well, I forgot.’

He looked worried. There was nothing I could do about his worrying. He took the white papers sticking out of his back pocket and stuffed them under my arm.

‘There’s help out there, okay. People to help you.’

I smiled. He didn’t seem to notice.

‘Take care,’ he said.

He walked away in his thick soled boots. I balanced my pasty in one hand, took the papers from under my arm and tucked them in the pocket of my trousers. I turned round, but my girl friend had gone inside. Some of the men from behind the fence had entered the cafe. I picked up the can, shook it and flicked the cover off.

The pasty was crumbly and squishy at the same time. I felt a purple dribble escape from the corner of my mouth. I licked it back. I had told no one I was leaving that day at the gates. I decided to return and let them know I was all right.

As I set off I pressed on the nozzle, and a fresh new line in obsidian black appeared on the walls and gates I passed. I stubbed a toe. It hurt.

Graham Reiboe is part Nigerian, part English, usually a doctor and always a writer.
He writes mainly short stories and essays but has also ventured into the
world of screenplays. This story was inspired by a demolition
he watched in Leeds.

black tree

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