Midwinter

Midwinter10.7°. The cruellest day. Already the sun hangs low in the sky and already the pale, lemon-yellow light has begun to fade. As streetlamps are lit, rainclouds can be seen forming. Faceless, geometrical, packed into neatly arranged plots, factories, warehouses and distribution points spread out across the land, annexed to the city, an industrial nether-region existing beyond the confines of the suburbs. Puffs of steam rise from the flutes of chimney stacks, white-coated workers tweak dials and plastic gloves finger foodstuffs. Puffs of steam rise from the flutes of chimney stacks, dispersing into the crisp evening air; the sweet aroma of baking descends upon the streets and lingers, warm, rich, enticing. Trucks are loaded and unloaded in concrete goods yards lit by sodium vapour floodlights; clad in their fluorescent jackets, the workers’ breath freezes upon contact with the air.

A few lots lie derelict: gap sites that have become the playgrounds of the disenfranchised, of urchins and deviants who lurk amongst the shadows; epicentres of decay, they form rare gaps in an overcoded space. These are the wastelands: spaces in which there are no laws; it is from their shadows that mythical beasts might one day arise.

Many years ago, in a bygone age when the full force of empire was still to be felt and the few were busy occupied amassing their wealth through the misery of the many, an age when tangible goods were still manufactured for use by our society and export to the world beyond, Kelburn’s forbearers would most likely have earned their living mining coal, extracting fuel to feed the furnaces of the factories and heat the workers’ homes. The years have passed: in some senses, the world has moved on, although in others it has not; the last survivor of that humble lineage now earns his crust mining not coal but data. By day his world is one in which the dark tunnels of spreadsheets and databases are dimly lit by depreciation coefficients and loss adjustment factors, a world of invisible money, of casino games, a world in which wealth exists as nothing more than numbers on a screen. Skeletal, gaunt, his skin pasty from lack of sunlight, often he finds bitter solace in the idea that the world has changed little since the times of his forbearers. He thinks of Marx: emolliated by the unprecedented rise in standards of living experienced by the developed world throughout the twentieth century, the working classes will never find the true path to emancipation; never shall they free themselves from the shackles of alienated labour and wage slavery.

The digital clock in the corner of his computer screen reads fifteen forty. Declining politely his colleague’s offer of a cup of tea from the drinks machine, he shuffles the windows of his workstation so as to occlude all but the last two lines of something he has been writing that morning. His concentration is broken only by his boss, a stocky man who, black suit and white shirt, reminds Kelburn of a villain from a Holywood film, the Penguin. His fat, bald head pops up over the partition separating their desks and, an unrepentant acolyte of modern methods of communication, he glowers over at Kelburn: I’ve just sent you an email.

Tomorrow the two will meet early in the morning to finalize the project he has been working on. It’s nearing the end of the month, he thinks, and he takes comfort in the fact that outside, the sun has already begun to set. In a few hours time, he’ll be in the pub with Morden, preparing themselves for the long night ahead.

 

For his part, twenty minutes before the clock struck four, Morden had been gazing out across the darkening sky, watching the rainclouds form from the window of his tenement, threatening the loss of months of careful planning and presenting him with a dilemma: to let this year’s opportunity slip by or to place their trust in the power of the flames.

At six o’clock he enters into the busy pub, noting with dismay that the rain has already begun to fall.

— Tennants, please.

The bartender pours a pint of gassy, chemical lager, skimming off a lean, miserly head. Morden takes a sip and watches him pour a pint of ale from the brass taps, placing it on the oakwood bar for the sticky beer to run down the side of the glass, collecting in a puddle at the bottom. The crackle of conversation grows as the nearby offices empty out and the boozer fills with punters. The financial district sleeps. Pushing his way through a cluster of suits, ties tied tight in knots that bring their wearers closer to god, Morden retrieves his pint and retreats to the corner to await Kelburn, who duly arrives at half past the hour, his face severe, its features wizened by the rain.

— Not looking good.

— Fires have been lit in worse.

— Indeed. Six gallons should do the job.

Six green plastic tetra-cans stashed in the bushes, the rich scent of the petrol held inside by their plastic screwtops.

— I hear Grum’s been taken in for questioning.

— A case of mistaken identity perhaps.

— I’m not convinced. They know him as a renegade, a heretic. His nocturnal activities aside, they find everything he stands for subversive, dangerous, a threat to their order.

— You’d better watch, they’ll be after you next.

Morden shrugs off the remark with a wry laugh and the conversation dies out. Outside they smoke a cigarette under the awning then return inside to finish off their pints. When they’re done, they don their jackets and venture out into the rain.

 

Spigot mounted wheels. The wet rubber tyres of the bus plough through the grimy smirr-fed puddles that have collected in the gutter. A leather briefcase in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a mass of beige raincoat steps forward, extinguishing the cigarette on the kerb. The pneumatic hiss of the opening doors, engulfing them in dry, musty air, bathing them in the warm glow of tungsten light. Exact fare please. The clinking of successive coins in the machine. The whirr of the dot matrix ticket printer.

— Two singles, please.

The voice is harsh, confrontational; eye contact evasive. The two climb the stairs to the upper deck.

Foggy, steamed-up windows. A pack of teenagers holds the rear. Tracksuits and designer labels; golden hoops and sovereign bling glisten dully under the sterile glare of fluorescent lights. Urchins, radges: rebels without a cause. Brows furrowed, their menacing stares bent on conjuring up provocation. The pair emerge from the staircase. Eyes click. Nasal curses echo round the empty chamber. Laughter: the snarls of hungry jackals, hyenas hunting in packs, schemie centaurs lusting on violence. The group lie in wait. Older, unintimidated the two take their seats. The war cries fall on deaf ears and the vessel moves off into the night, making its way stealthily along raindrenched streets, out towards the suburbs, on past

streets leading to dark alleyways and dank closes

resplendent cobbles glistening in the rain

gothic spires carved from stone

couples taking shelter huddled under umbrellas

doors opening into snug bars with smells of beer and wet wool

sandstone tenements four floors high

the son of an Alloa shipman winking atop a watchtower

men in white aprons stirring vats of bittersweet brew

a canal and a gang of kids swigging cider beneath the tracks

tower blocks growing to dominate the skyline

bleak city schemes

bodies slumped in piss-soaked stairs

minds sunk in a fug of inertia and lost dreams

bruised purple limbs

burnt matches

syringes

screams

voices howling in the night

dear god make it

stop. The sound of the bell.

The doors swing open and clatter shut behind them as the pair step down and out into the night. The rain has begun to ease off. Heads bowed, hoods up, they make their way boldly along the deserted streets that criss-cross the patchwork of factories and warehouses, dormant buildings entrusted to weary sentries until daybreak. Inside security booths and portacabins, boredom hangs heavily in the air; neglected television screens flicker in silence. Turning off down a side street, a shadow looms large: black, tenebrous, forbidding. It’s a derelict lot, guarded by cast iron gates and barbed wire fences. Shards of plastic bags cling to the knots of metal, fluttering in the breeze. A sign hangs below. In bold capital letters, the words: TRESSPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.

They proceed all the same, slipping through a hole in the fence, entering into their kingdom: druids, warriors, lords of the wasteland, the high priests of flames.

Six cans of petrol stashed in the bushes. Caps unscrewed, the smell is not long in escaping. The silhouettes of the building tower over them in the night: their stillness beckons. Inside, smashed glass and industrial debris litter the floors; a smell of decay permeates the air. Doors long since battered open, metal shutters hanging loose from rusty hinges.

They start with the second floor, traversing narrow corridors by torchlight, distributing the petrol evenly throughout the rooms. Morden stumbles against a door. G264 Roof Access. He pushes his body against it but it won’t budge. They force it with the crowbar and climb the stairs, entering out into the night. The two figures silhouetted against the skyline, vapour spilling from their mouths. The clouds have lifted. The rooftops bask beneath the canopy of stars.

Back inside they continue with their work and by eleven o’clock their preparations are complete. The building is rigged.

They retire to a safe distance and each lights a cigarette.

Kelburn speaks first:

— It’s at times like this I think of Endrick.

Morden replies:

— It must be over two years now.

He lights a cigarette. Kelburn pauses and takes a drag of his own. The smoke hangs in the air as Morden continues:

— Yet to me, his death seemed all the more tragic for its untimely nature. He too was a product of this post-solar generation. The deepest foundations of our greatest civilizations have always rested upon the movements of the sun and the heavenly bodies, and yet the progress of the twentieth century has served only to dismantle them. Where once we might have talked of an explosion, our generation stands witness to a catastrophic implosion.

Kelburn considers his reply:

— What you say may be true, but I disagree. What we are seeing is nothing more than a necessary reconfiguration around our recent interpretations of the cosmos, the realization of a universe in which neither the earth nor the sun stands at its centre.

Morden speaks:

— Indeed, yet perhaps we run the risk of collapsing under our own weight. Our wisest sages are taught to live cooped up in neatly segregated spaces, pursuing parallel paths, locked in the confines of their individual labyrinths.

Kelburn clarifies:

— You refer of course to the compartmentalisation of knowledge: that we can no longer conceive of ideas outwith a system of neatly disciplined categories. Was this not a direct consequence of expansion?

Morden counters:

— No, it goes beyond that: the foundations lie much deeper. It is a striation which permeates our culture at every level. Few are those who would dare to defy it, yet they too seem doomed to become trapped in a sort of paralysis. Endrick knew this: he perceived these problems. Ultimately, he could never accept such a system and he too became trapped, weighed down by the inertia of those structures.

— Thus are the times in which we live.

— Perhaps, yet we must continue in the hope that the paths we create will allow us to break free. We owe him that much.

— We do.

The lunar midday approaches; the appointed hour draws near. Kelburn looks at his watch and the two fall into silence as the hand creeps forwards.

— Time, Kelburn says suddenly, it’s time.

Morden takes a final draw on his cigarette:

— For Endrick.

— For Endrick, Kelburn replies. May his soul rest in peace.

And as the words echo in the deserted goods yard, Morden’s cigarette arcs towards the ground and the trail of petrol catches light. Flames chase the vapours across the concrete yard, bolting rapidly towards the dark silhouettes of the warehouse. In a few more seconds it will be ablaze, the flames tearing through the two floors and devouring their contents.

Then the moment of triumph. Euphoric, a rush of pure adrenaline, two black shadows bolting rapidly across the yard, fugitives slipping away into the night, running through the darkness, down towards the railway. There, crouched in the dank air of the tunnel, they will behold their creation in all its glory, plumes of smoke billowing upwards from the storerooms, giant flames illuminating the night sky. And for a brief, fleeting moment, the derelict plot will become the focal point of the ex-kingdom of Alba, from the heavens high will be seen a bright orange glow, lighting up a land surrounded by black icy seas.

Eventually blue flashes will mix with the miasma and foam will douse the flames. Only then will the two turn and make their way back to the city, stealing away amongst a network of clandestine footpaths and abandoned railway lines.

Morden will dream. He will dream of flames engulfing the night. He will dream of walking among them. He can hear their crackle. He can hear them roaring around him. He can smell the scent of the petrol, of the acrid, chemical smoke. From the depths his dream, their heat nourishes him. From the rooftop of the warehouse, he looks out over the city’s skyline as the flames rise up around him.

He will dream. Yet at eight forty, he will awake to see the winter sun, to watch it rise slowly above the horizon, bathing the land once more in its pale, lemon-yellow light. Returning to the warmth of his bed to sleep soundly, only then will he be sure that the time has come to begin afresh.

 

Awaking to the sound of his alarm, Kelburn will pick the scabs of sleep from his eyes and grope his way towards the bathroom. From the upper deck of the bus, with twenty minutes to spare before his meeting in the office, he will watch the rising sun through bleary eyes.

The day will pass slowly, his meeting will go badly and his Marxist incantations will offer him scant consolation. Yet none of this will bother him; the fire will live on in his mind. An isolated rite within a patchwork of subcultures, whose arbitrary rituals can never begin to fill the voids left by the great orders of years gone by. Yet at the same time, they are the same rites which provide what little nourishment there is to be found in the bleak midwinter of a once mighty but now decaying civilization.

Dawn will break to reveal the smouldering structures of the warehouse. By twenty to nine the blaze will have almost been extinguished completely, the police seeking two males in their mid-twenties: one tall, medium build, the other short and stocky, both dressed in black and last seen heading down towards the railway.

Yet they will find no one. Nor will they register the events as part of a pattern by which we have forever lived.

The fires will continue to burn in the hope that others might follow.

Burning to purge the structures of the old.

Burning so that something new might emerge from the ashes.

Burning for Endrick.

Burning for us all.

Burning.

First Published in The Radgeworks Miscellany, 2010

 

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