1.Thick With Trees And Thunderstorms
North Carolina, where the old 70 that runs from Hickory to Asheville cuts across the 225 running up from the South, from Spartanburg and beyond, up through the Blue Ridge Mountains and a land that's thick with trees and thunderstorms. It's on the map, but it's a small town, or at least it looks it, hidden from the freeway, until you cut down past the sign that says Welcome To Marion, A Progressive Town, and gun your bike slow through the streets of the town centre with its thrift stores and pharmacy, fire department, town hall, the odd music store or specialist shop that's yet to lose its market to the Wal-Mart just a short drive down the road.
She rides past the calm, brick-fronted architecture that's still somewhere in the 1950's, sleeping, waiting for a future that's never going to happen, dreaming of a past that never really went away, out of the small town centre and onto a commercial strip of fast food restaurants and diners, a steak house and a Japanese, a derelict cinema sitting lonely in the middle of its own car park - all of these buildings just strung along the road like cheap plastic beads on a ragged necklace. She pulls off the road into a Hardee's, switches off the engine and kicks down the bike-stand.
The burger tastes good - real meat in a thick, rough-shapen hunk, not some thin bland patty of processed gristle and fat - and she washes it down with deep sucking slurps of Mountain Dew, and twirls the straw in the cardboard bucket of a cup to rattle the ice as she looks out the window at the road, hot in the summer sun, humid and heavy. The sky is a brilliant blue, the blue of a Madonna's robes, stretching up into forever, stretching -
- and she stands in front of the mirror in the washroom, leaning on the sink a second, dizzy with a sudden buzz, a hum, a song that ripples through her body like the air over a hot road shimmers in the sun. The Cant. Shit, she thinks. She must be getting close. She looks at the watch sitting up on top of the hand-dryer. The second hand flicks back and forth, random, sporadic, like one of those aeroplane instruments in a movie where the plane is going down in an electrical storm.
It's August 4th, 2017. Sort of.
Steady again, she studies her eyes, black with mascara and with lack of sleep, and pushes her dark red hair back from her forehead. Even splashing more water on her face she still feels like a fucking zombie. Fucking zombie retro biker chick, she thinks. Beads in her hair, a beaded choker round her neck, a chicken-bone charm necklace over a gold circuit-patterned t-shirt. Shit, she looks like her fucking techno-hippy mother.
She picks up her watch and slips it over her wrist, reels out the earphones from the stick clipped to her belt and puts them in, clipping them into the booster sockets in her earrings so her lenses can pick up the video signals. The Sony VR5 logo flickers briefly across her vision as she shoulders her way out through the door, tapping at the datastick to switch it onto audio-only. She doesn't need a heads-up weather forecast with ghost images of clouds or sunbursts, or a Routefinder sprite floating at every turn-off to point her this way or that. Not today.
She grabs her helmet from the handlebar of the bike and puts it on as she swings her leg up over the seat, flicks up the stand, zips up her leather biker jacket, kicks the engine into life.
The antique creature of steel and chrome growls between her legs, and another antique creature - one of leather and vinyl - screams in her ears.
- Looooooooooooooord! howls Iggy Pop, and the murderous guitar of the Stooges' TV Eye kicks in, as Phreedom Messenger opens up the throttle on the bike and roars out of her pit-stop on the way to hell.
Yellow Paper And Brown Pencil Lines
- Tommy boy, sometimes ye talk as much rot as I’ve got between me toes here. Sure and I don’t know what ye’re on about half the time.
Seamus looks at the small sketchbook that the boy treasures more than anything, more than any of them treasure anything, he thinks sometimes, more even than all the tattered, battered photographs of sweethearts and mothers, and the lockets, and the father’s watches, and all the decks of playing cards with the nudie women on them and all; and he thinks the boy’s daft, so he does, but, in a way, he understands. Seamus looks at the drawings that the boy spent so much time on, so much care, last month on leave in Lascaux when he could have been whoring it with all the rest of them, whooping it up, sure, the way a boy his age stuck in this shite to fight for someone else’s King and Country should be; and all that Seamus sees when he looks at the little sketchbook is yellow paper and brown pencil lines. But Tommy now…
Tommy reaches over and takes the book out of his hands, shaking his head.
- Ah, you’ve got no soul, Seamus, no soul.
But the boy is blushing shame even as he tries to play the old game of young lads, sure, they way they bandy abuse about but with a twinkle in the eye and a nudge of the elbow, because, aye now, ye know I don’t really mean it. The boy can’t really carry it off – too shy, he is, and too much of a young gent even if he wasn’t quite born with a silver spoon in his gob, not that he comes on all Lord Muck-a-Muck, like. He’s just… ach, he’s just a good lad what misses his mother and his home like the rest of them, only he shows it more. O, but he gets a right roasting from the other lads of the pal’s battalion sometimes, he does, just like he got back home, and where would he be without Seamus sticking up for him, as ever?
Seamus wanders over towards the door of the dug-out where, apart from the mud and the mud and the fookin more mud, ye can just see a wee blue hint of sky up there, if ye’re hunkered down a bit so ye’re looking up at the right angle, sure, which ye are anyways on account of the fookin low ceilings. He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket to pull out a cigarette from the crumpled packet of Gauloise in there - fookin nasty shite that they are, but what’s a man to do when he’s smoked all of his and the quartermaster’s as crooked as a British politician, sure, and he’s just putting it to his mouth-
- Jesus Fookin Christ!
Tommy’s howling like a fookin wean and it’s fookin dark but Seamus can feel the fookin dirt raining down on him.
- Jesus Fookin Mary and Fookin Joseph! Fooken shite! Fookin Hun fookin bastards! Seamus is down on the ground, hands over his head – Christ, and he wasn’t even wearing his helmet – and he doesn’t even fookin remember diving down there, but he’s sure as fook happy to be there and he’ll just stay right where he is for the time be, thank you very much, ma’am, and…
- Jesus. Tommy are ye alright there? Ye’re not hit or nothing, are ye?
The boy’s panting like a dog, gasping for air like he’s fookin drowning, sitting there, just right there at Seamus’s elbow, with his arms wrapped round his knees and his teeth biting into his trousers, panting and kind of whining like a sick animal; and as Seamus touches his knee, he flinches.
He looks at Seamus like he's looking right through him, eyes wide, nostrils flared, seeing and scenting his own golden, pouncing death.