Ghosts

There are ghosts in this town.

Thousands of them. Believe me. I should know. I’m one of them.

Now, I’m not talking about the kind of ghosts that appear in the raft of horror scare movies that flood out of Hollywood each year or even those that stalk the pages of Penny Dreadfuls or Stephen King books. No. I’m talking about those of us that walk the streets of a forgotten town, virtually unnoticed. Ourselves forgotten, ignored, relics of a previous life. Banished from the lives we once knew. Struck out from the existence that gave us our meaning, our identities. Our purpose. We drift through the deadened streets, our footsteps echoing through the silence, aimless and shorn of recognition.

Those of us that are still here that is. Those of us that still refuse to – or, at least, are unable to – leave this dying town. There’s not many of us though, I’ll grant you that. And there’s fewer and fewer of us as the days, months and years drift by. They say something like 30 or 40 thousand people have left this town in the last five years or so alone. Leaving to start again, perhaps. Fleeing the contagion of disillusion, maybe. But more than likely just searching desperately for the tiniest hint or prospect of a job opportunity.

It wasn’t always like this. The boarded up clapboard houses. The shops permanently shuttered. The factories, windows broken, exhausted and lifeless. Graffiti, rust, rot ruling over all. No, it wasn’t always like this. Not when the town’s steel mill was still in operation, anyway. Back then the town thrived. Businesses prospered, neighbourhoods grew, lives were built. All thanks to the steel mill. The steel mill WAS the town. In its heyday it employed upwards of 50,000 men and women of all ages. The vast majority, if not all, came from the town itself. Every morning around 8am the town’s doors would open en masse, spilling out thousands upon thousands of workers as we made our way to the mill on the edge of town. The soaring chimneys, visible for many miles around, summoning us like a beacon. I’m told it was a sight to behold, this mass migration of bodies. Much like a giant collection of birds flying south for the winter months only multiplied tenfold. And then every evening at 5pm every one of us would trudge back out through the factory gates again, shuffling back to the life part of the supposed work-life balance.

It was no-one’s dream job, no. No-one would claim that. But it was our livelihood. It let us make the transition from schoolboy to adult. It let us move out of our parents houses. It let us own a house of our own. It let us take out the girl we had set our sights on. It let us marry that same girl and start a family with her. It let us hit the bars every Friday night, letting us relax with a few cold ones after the rigours of the working week just past. It didn’t make us rich, no. Far from it. But it let us live. As Springsteen once sang ‘factory gives us life’. And in this town nothing was truer than that.

Until it suddenly wasn’t. We’d all heard the rumours of course but you didn’t want to believe them. I mean, most of us had known no other life than the steel mill. We would finish school at 16 in June and then a few weeks later we’d be walking through those factory gates, ready to begin the rest of our lives. That was certainly the case for me. I was barely a week out of school before my first day at the mill. But we’d heard rumours before. If the mill could survive the de-industrialisation era of Regan and Clinton then we could and would survive anything. We chose not to believe it. Decided to continue in blissful ignorance, if you like. An ignorance that was shattered to pieces one freezing cold Monday morning when we arrived to find the gates padlocked. We stood in our thousands, shivering. Waiting. Worrying. And then the word came. The mill had shut down operations. For good. Sold. Overnight. Just like that. Operations moved south of the border. Out of the US. All in the name of ‘cost efficiency’. It was for the good of the company, for the good of the economy. Etc etc. There was anger that morning. Vitriolic, unhinged, understandable anger. If it wasn’t for the police turning up then I honestly don’t know what would happened. I saw grown men – men you wouldn’t dare say a wrong word to in a bar or anywhere else – crying that morning. Tears flooding out of them. Almost as if the life was draining right from them. Me, I was numb. The cold had something to do with it maybe but it was more than that. How do you tell your wife? How do your kids? How do you tell yourself that you’re worthless? How do you reconcile the fact that to the company that you have given your life to you are nothing more than a faceless number, a bottom line crossed off a page all in order to boost that company’s profits just a smidge more. You can’t. Quite simply. You can’t.

It didn’t take long for the town to start fading. To start dying. If the majority of your residents are without work it stands to reason that the local economy will be affected. And boy was it affected. And fast. Businesses struggled, businesses tried to adapt and eventually businesses left. Upping sticks to another more prosperous town, one still revelling in its own blissful ignorance. The high street, such as it was, started to lose its colour, its vibrancy, its custom. The shutters, the boards, the For Sale signs sprung up at a rapid rate. Houses began to empty, some simply abandoned. The town saw a sickening surge in suicides in the months and years after. Crime rates, alcohol abuse, drug abuse all increased. The thing is, when you rip the heart out of anything it shouldn’t surprise you when the life sustained by that heart starts to suffer. Starts to die. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the Rust Belt’ banded about a lot more these days. And it makes sense. You see the thing about rust is that when it sets in, when it is truly exposed to the harsh realities of time, it starts to fester and infect all around it. It poisons all it touches, rendering it irredeemable, confining it to history. Quite simply; a death sentence.

I take a seat on the bench across from the factory gates. As I do most days. The vast brick monster of the steel mill towers above me, casting a shadow over the street and its surroundings, as I stare across at it. The padlock, rusted and long-since broken, still hangs from the frail gates as they squeak ever so slightly and sporadically at the whim of the faint breeze. The mill itself, which once was a target for vandals or just kids looking for something to pass the time in a town bereft of entertainment, stands neglected. Forgotten. I lay my lunch box next to me and open it, the chill nipping at the tips of my fingers. Cheese. Always with the cheese sandwiches, my wife. And the wholemeal bread. I unwrap them from the cellophane and take a bite. She still makes my lunch every single morning, you see. Of course, for the last few months she thinks I’ve been going to the ‘New Skills’ course at that Community College just out of town. And I did, for a few days at least. They try to teach you computer skills, technical abilities, skills to ‘prepare you for the digital age’. But that’s not me. It’ll never be me. And lord knows we need the money but just who in the hell is going to take on someone like me these days? I mean, with jobs as rare as they are these days, what employer, faced with a choice between a young college grad with his life and career ahead of him or her, and computer skills coming out of their ears, or a man in his late fifties with nothing but 35 years or so in a steel mill behind him, is going to plump for the latter? And even if, by some miracle, they did take me on just how in the hell am I supposed to put my faith in any kind of feeling of job security? How can I give my all for a company when the last one cut me adrift, without a second thought, after a lifetime of work? Rust isn’t always visible you know.

So I’ll continue to walk these streets. I’ll continue to sit on this bench. And I’ll continue to eat the lunch that my wife lovingly prepares for me each morning. Every day. Eventually she’ll find out. Eventually she’ll realise the truth, of course she will. I’m not hiding. I’m not sneaking about in the shadows. I’m here, in this spot, every single day. Almost like a grieving spouse turning up to their deceased partner’s graveside, day after day. And there are others like me. I’m certain of it. Familiar faces. I see them wandering the town. Some of them, at least. Others stick to the darkness of the local bars. Drinking their way through the hours they used to surrender to the mill.

Clinging to memories, clinging to life.

Yes, as I said, there are ghosts in this town.

 

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Surfer’s Paradise

SurfersParadise

Waves still crash, soft on the hammered shore,
while people dance, and sing,
nursing what went before,
though why this long line in the sand?
Living in deep waters, riding high on a crest,
we always sang, and knew our place,
and our place in Paradise is close, but lest
you steal it away,
while grains of sand create a beach,
in our single, softly trodden patch, we sway
in rising storms,
and now, where merging waters kiss
under open skies, and warm sun bakes,
we surf,
and ask you journey with us,
for all our sakes.

Wedding Song

She gently presses her right foot down on the break pedal. Her left, trembling slightly under the strain of poised repetition, remains firmly clamped on the clutch pedal. A gentle sigh slithers out of her nostrils as her mouth remains closed, unamused. Another yard gained, she thinks to herself sardonically. Another yard gained in this never-ending funeral march of shuddering cars. The morning commute.

She glances from left to right, from landscape to neighbouring car. One paints a picture of encroaching winter; the trees skeletal and bereft of leaves, the farmland and distant hills glistening with the decoration of gradually thawing dew. The other works almost as a reflection; another female sits stony faced in her car, bored, unamused, head and neck wrapped warm with hat and scarf, remnants of an earlier defensive strategy against the early morning chill. A fellow victim, she thinks, a fellow traveller on this perpetual tarmac-laden nightmare. A temporary kindred spirit, even. Until she flicks that indicator light on and tries to jump in front of me, she thinks as she riles herself slightly with the hypothetical scenario. Her ‘kindred spirit’ can sod off if it comes to that.

Too warm now, she decides. She spins the temperature knob anti-clockwise, allowing it to settle halfway around the gauge. Perched finely between blue and red. She flicks her windscreen wiper up a notch, letting it clear the last of the fading condensation from the glass, before flicking it off again. Another sigh trickles from her nostril as she sees the clock on her dashboard pass the hallowed 09:00 start time for her work. Another late start.

‘I’ll be lucky to make it in for 10 at this rate!?’ she spits as she raises her fist in pent up frustration, allowing the anger to dissipate only at the last second, sparing her steering wheel from an underserved assault.

She angrily rips the hat from her head, freeing her scalp from the multiplying strands of heat which had been nipping at her in tandem with her growing frustration. The brake lights of the car in front dissolve suddenly into the dull, sweet colour of progress. Her hopes rise. Movement. Forward. Onwards! Before the bright red lights flash back on again, blinding her slightly and momentarily, the car jolting to a stop without the taking of any precious yards or even inches in the ongoing tussle. Aaaaargh! She allows the screams to rattle about her mind aimlessly, the whitening knuckles on both her clenched hands the only indicators as to the anger filtering through her.

‘Fuck it!’ she snarls, reaching over to the handbag sat on the passenger’s seat and rummaging harshly for her iPod. She untangles the cable wrapped carelessly around the device and connects it to the USB port. Music! Songs! Anything, she thinks, I’ll listen to any damn thing so long as it takes my mind away from this eternal ordeal! Not that though…or that…she skips through a myriad of songs as the tracks shuffle and flicker briefly on her car’s dashboard display. That’ll do, she decides, I’ve not heard that in ages, as a pop song from her youth blasts through her speakers. She turns the volume knob up slightly, the thundering bass pulsing through her bones, engulfing her snug 1 litre car. She fails to notice the scowling look from her once-potential ‘kindred spirit’ in the car to her right as the juddering sounds of early 90s pop music sneaks out of the red metallic shell, through the crispy morning air and to the earlobes of said ex-kindred spirit. She belts out the lyrics, word for word, note for almost note – her voice still slightly crippled by the phlegmy croak of the early hour. God, she exalts to herself, it’s been years since I’ve properly heard this. When was this released? I must have been, what, Primary 7? No, First Year of High School? Second maybe? Ah what a time, she smiles, as the summery tones course through her veins, filling her with a hundred thoughts, dreams and feelings not felt since those younger days. Things were so much easier then, her smile fades slightly. Choices, decisions, the little things, the big things, just…well…everything. The brake lights in front fade again, catching her attention but not her hopes. Only for the car to begin moving. Slowly, gradually, but moving all the same. Flustered by this almost unexpected turn of events she scrambles for the gearstick and pushes it from neutral into first, the rev of the engine screaming hideously as her feet slip between the pedals. As she slowly edges forward the sound of her youth fades to a close.

‘Well that was worth the wait…’ the sarcasm melts from her voice, filling the car with her scorn, ‘…was maybe a good four of five seconds of travelling time there…’ she glances down at the time on her phone exaggeratingly for her own benefit, ‘yep, a good four or five seconds I would say…at this rate I should make it into work at about…’

The words, the skit, drop from her mouth as she hears the first clangs of the next song creep out of the speakers. Her expression drops, the colour drained from it almost instantly. Our song, she trembles. Our wedding song. For a moment she is entranced, locked in paralysis by the lush strings, controlled by the measured beat. A car horn, erupting briefly and malevolently from amidst the gathered vehicles, breaks the spell, wresting her mind from the song’s meaning. She turns the volume down slightly, some part of her unwilling, even afraid, to allow the bass to throb against her bones as the previous, more carefree, tune had done. A tear trickles down her cheek. A rogue unexpected tear, almost unshackled by feeling or decision, an automatic reaction sent scurrying down her face as if it had been under the spell of a hypnotist and prompted only by the song’s opening notes.

That’s when I knew. The thought infects her mind. Dark. Dull. Poisoning. That’s when I knew I didn’t love him anymore.

The song had once brought so much joy, so many memories. It was their first dance; it was their wedding song after all. In the years following, whenever it would unexpectedly nudge itself onto a radio’s playlist or onto her iPod’s shuffle, it was as if the song’s notes would tug at the corners of her mouth. A smile would break out, spreading across her face on cue. She remembered his face, his smile. She remembered her smile, her happiness. The feeling that everything had clicked. Finally. And eternally. She’d remember the whispered ‘I love you’, his hands around her body. She’d remember the faces, the smiles, the smells, the clutter on the tables. The deserted dance floor. Apart from them. The two of them. Just the two of them. Her. And him. Together. Always.

But slowly, gradually, frustratingly, the memories started to blur each time she heard the song. The happiness of the day, of that dance, started to become infiltrated somehow. It seemed, somehow, artificial. Buried beneath the rubble of years of daily strain. Of arguments. Any joy brought on by the first chords of the song were quickly wiped away by the damp cloth of unpaid bills. Any happiness brought on by the first soothing vocal swiftly brushed aside by the bristly stab of failure to compromise. Before long the only things to linger were grudges rather than memories. A moment so happy, so joyful, such as that dance, with that song, now nothing more than a moment of nostalgia. To be tucked away alongside a favourite toy, children’s TV programme or the taste of a now-defunct fizzy drink or teeth-rotting sweet. Nostalgia. No longer a moment that infuses every other, now just a postcard from a previous time. A previous feeling.

And then one day, maybe six months previous to then, maybe longer, she’d heard the song again. And that time even the tint of nostalgia had dimmed. They were different people. Different actors in a strangers’ play. When the lush strings cascaded around her mind, and the memories of the dance flickered by one by one, she saw only another her, another him. Two beings not even loosely connected to the man or woman currently existing in their bodies. Connected not by love but simply by image. Conjoined not with passion but by the choices they made. And it was then she knew. It was then she knew that she no longer loved him.

She crunches the handbrake up and palms the gearstick into neutral as the traffic settles back into its frozen image of congestion. The last bars of her wedding song softly fade into the darkness of the sound system. Her hand shoots up to the dashboard and hovers over the Back button. Something in her telling her to play the song again. To try to regain that feeling? To claw back the memory, to reclaim it? To confirm her blank feeling of loveless nothingness? Her finger trembles slightly as she holds her finger only a millimetre or so from the button. Unable to press it yet equally unable to withdraw. In her mind the dance replays over and over, the music slowing and faltering until a warped, tuneless dirge sprawls through each image. She see’s the face of her husband. Of the man she married. Of the man she kissed goodbye to this morning. Of the man she’ll kiss hello to again tonight. Of the man she no longer loves. Of the man she is certain no longer loves her. She see’s it and let’s her finger drop meekly away from the dashboard, allowing the next song to freely step into the car and fill the dreaded, demanding silence threatening to engulf her.

As the next song harmlessly tip-toes into her consciousness she keeps her eyes trained on the brake lights ahead, willing the journey to progress, to alter, to end. She turns the volume down another slight, half-turn or so. The beat now whispering hoarsely for attention or recognition as it slips out of earshot. She looks left again. The hills, the bare trees, the beautiful desolation. And looks right. The reflection. Her mirror image; frustrated, bitter, defeated. She turns back suddenly, afraid to look, afraid to accept. With a rapid movement she rips the cable from her USB port, silencing the music, banishing the images from her mind. She throws the iPod into her handbag, prodding it down to ensure its landing in the out-of-sight out-of-mind chasm of darkness.

Silence, she decides. For the rest of this ride, no matter how long it takes or how mad it drives me, silence.

The brake lights fade as the car in front edges forward slightly. She releases the handbrake as she prepares to claim another yard or so on this unending, unrelenting, unforgiving journey.

The Super Amazing Marvellous Comic Book Hero Man

SurfersParadise

 

DARKNESS!

Embrace it. Allow it. Immersed within it. Darkness. Every superhero, every vigilante, needs a shade of darkness tinting their soul. My eyes closed, my mind existing with the darkness. Calm, serene, placid. Thoughts racing through my mind. Villains to vanquish, days to save, hearts to win. Perched, a hint of strain whispering out from the muscles in my leg, threatening to soil my meditative state. My hand clutches tightly for support, veins pulsing, threatening to hack through the skin of my wrist. Strength. Unrelenting strength. Immovable resolve. I sigh, content, warmed by the darkness, and slowly open my eyes…

WOW!!

The city stretches out below me. Vast, sprawling, intricate. Buildings of all sizes burst into the air as far as the eye can see. A thousand varying steps thrust out before me. A million windows glittering and reflecting at every height as the mid-morning sun timidly creeps out from behind the obligatory cloud cover. To the right the ocean nudges the coastline, the limited beach, ever so gently. Almost threatening to unleash its tide but never quite following through on its threat. One hundred something stories below cars, buses, lorries weave their way through the streets, feint blasts of angrily-battered horns make their way up to me. Pedestrians gather, scatter, mill disparately through their own lives, problems and mornings. Nothing more than specs. Dots. Ants, even. Ants aimlessly burrowing back and forward, listless in direction, aimless in ambition.

And I perch here. On the edge of this roof. A slight breeze brushes through my hair. Fading tiles quiver unsteadily below my rigid feet. Hundreds of feet above the ground. Above them. Looking down on them. Looking down on all. Watching over. Protecting. Saving. They’re beginning. Beginning to realise my worth. My cause…

KAPOW!!

They never saw it coming! A one-two, straight from the shadows. No time to prepare. No time to reconcile. This is how I operate. This is how WE operate. All vigilantes. All superheroes. Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock; they spend their life in the shadows. Cloaked by the night, veiled by the city. Ready to pounce, to liberate. The villains, they’re different. They hide in plain sight. Eased by their arrogance, their treachery. Strengthened by their belief that they’ll never be caught. Tried. Convicted. Defeated. But the shadows is our dominion. Our territory. In the dark we are all the same. Sightless, unsure, afraid perhaps. We are equal, unbound by the constraints of the daylight, unfettered by the power that comes with our daily existence. I look at all those ‘glittering’ windows. Behind everyone a crook, a criminal. In this part of town anyway. The Financial District. The cesspit of the city. The swamp of society. Fraud, extortion, embezzlement stalk the halls and staircases of these buildings. The stench filters all the way from the ground floor reception to the upper reaches of these sky-scraping behemoths. Particularly in this building below me. More so than most.

And so I did what needed to be done.

WHAM!!

The authorities will be dealing with the culprits now. Led away. In cuffs. In chains. Their eyes filled with tears, fear dripping from their trembling lips. Ruing the day I ever entered their lives. Cursing my very existence. My cause.

I see them far below, gathering, huddling. Ants. A few have spotted me I bet. Many will be cursing, more will be in awe. Such is the life of the superhero. You take the hatred with the love. The villainy with the adulation. But I will not hide. No longer. Those who try to discredit me, to bad name me, will not succeed. The people need to see their hero. They need to see the one who will always have their back in these poisonous times. They need someone they can trust. Someone they can look up to. Someone who allows them to live their life without fear, without torment.

That someone is me.

My cause.

Me alone.

I AM THE…

 

 

‘…WHISTLEBLOWER!’

‘WHAT!?!’

‘I…SAID…THAT’S…THE…WHISTLEBLOWER!’ a suited man screeched through the everyday city sounds – car horns, a pneumatic drill, a myriad of lorries reversing seemingly simultaneously – in an attempt to be heard by his colleague standing next to him.

‘What? The one that snitched on his colleagues!?’ came the softer reply as the drilling ceased momentarily – the attention of the ‘driller’ arrested by the sight of the man currently perched a hundred-odd stories in the air on top of the high-rise towering above the streets below.

‘Yes.’

‘How do you know it’s him?! He looks like a bloody ant all the way up there!’

‘It’s him. He ran through the office before we were ‘evacuated’.’

‘What’s he doing!? Is he going to jump!?’

‘Who the fuck knows!’

‘Why would he jump!? I mean, it’s the others that’ll be spending their next four or five decades cooped up behind bars, not him?’

‘Doubt it.’

‘Why would you say that?’

‘Because that bastard was in as deep as any of the others! That’s why! He embezzled millions! Price-fixing, money laundering, the lot. He only turned grass when he was caught!’

‘Bastard. But surely he’s done a deal? You know, to exonerate himself?’

‘Only for a handful of the charges, not for the rest. There’s a whole host of charges against him. The other bastards are guilty as sin, and deserve to fucking rot, but this guy? This bastard was the worst of the lot! Pensions, savings, mortgages. Everything. There’s no way the prosecutors could let him off without charge. No, he’s got a long, long stretch ahead of him I would think.’

‘If he makes it that far…’ nodded the colleague distractedly as he turned to see police officers running from a hastily parked patrol car and forcing their way through the now-large assembled mass of onlookers. All craning their necks, some shielding their eyes from the glare, as they stared skywards.

‘It’s always the quiet ones,’ the suited man rubbed his neck to relive the strain as he stared toward the heavens ‘well…it’s the arrogant, brash bastards aswell but the quiet ones are the ones that surprise you.’

‘I don’t think I ever worked with him, come to think of it. Never even came across him.’

‘I did, once or twice. Quiet one. Worked towards the back of the 33rd floor, in ‘the shadows’ as we call it. One of the light bulbs there has been knackered for years you see and never replaced so it’s slightly darker in that part of the office. He would slink about like a bloody phantom sometimes. Odd bugger. Not very sociable. The only thing anyone seemed to know about him was he was a massive comic-book nerd. And even that’s only because he would wear Superman or Captain America or whoever-the-hell t-shirts on dress-down Fridays. Every week a different one, without fail.’

‘Superheroes for god’s sake!’ scoffed the colleague. ‘He’ll need a bloody superhero to get him out of this mess!’

‘Yeah, he’s…oh shit…’

The crowd surged, sporadic screams and intakes of breath shooting into the air, as the figure perched on the building roof hundreds of feet above them suddenly let go of the pole he had, until now, been clinging to so steadfastly for the best part of an hour. He seemed to edge forward ever so gradually, raising himself slowly to a standing position. His arms suddenly outstretched.

Stomachs, hearts, throats in the assembled crowd took another lurch as he edged closer and closer to the edge. A dark cloud crept slowly above the building as the speck of a man, arms outstretched as if preparing to take flight, stepped off the roof of the building.

Union

With my fingers all a quiver
She sings
And we begin our merry dance.
What wondrous chance
Has sought us two out
To come together in this way.
And soft sounds silence the air
As we sway as one
Entwined, a love so rare
My heart-strings pulled, stretched, fulfilled,
Overcome as we ignore all other types.
There’s just me, with you,
My fingers dancing
On my Irish pipes.

My Voice

Finding my voice, in this choir of calamity,
each chorus a mystery,
singing parts I can not reach
is a task I’ve been set

by choristers and masters alike,
demanding I find it, own it,
look for it in places I find hard to seek,
so fail

and instead settle into
my comfort zone, humming, drone,
soft circle of my personal scale
and feel some nurture there.

Distance

Heart strings are pulled

every which way,

the love of two countries

always at play,

 

A constant tug-o-war

with a list of pros and cons,

I will never know

where I really belong,

 

Family spread over two lands

separated by sea,

thousands of miles

between them and me.