Illustration: Steve Larder
Our very own Canadian in New Basford, Rob Cutforth, has taken a small break from bitching about British culture and turned his creative juices to novel writing. Will Industrial Revolution be as warped as his LeftLion column? We certainly hope so. Here’s the second chapter.
“Large pizza, please.”
“Alright, mate,” Bill said.
Bill was a fat man who wore a white hat, white trousers and a white apron. He was the only man around who was overweight and the only one who wore anything white. I could have been an alien from a different world compared to him. Skinny and filthy with matted hair, shredded denim jeans and ‘I love Manchester’ t-shirt, I was barely the same species. By Manchester standards, he was a rich man. He had a functioning shop, he had gardens bursting with vegetables and a hunting rifle with which to protect them both. Practically everything I owned was contained in the old, black leather backpack swung over my shoulder.
Bill’s shop in the Northern Quarter was similar to most buildings in the city, the ones that were still standing. Chipped, redbrick walls rose up high above our heads to meet large wooden beams at the ceiling. The floor was also redbrick with chipped pieces of industrial tile spotted here and there. A large chimney stack stood behind him with a large hole punched into it at shoulder height that acted as a makeshift pizza oven. Orange and black embers in the hole were visible through the wobbly heat haze. Two long, wooden tables stood in front of him. They were mismatched and split, but had been carefully refinished in oil and polished to a shine. On the tables were arranged four equally spaced, spotless, stainless steel containers filled with red sauce, rocket leaves, eggs and pickled courgettes. Balls of mozzarella floated in water in a large cast iron pot. A number of shiny metal trays were stacked high on the end of the table closest to me.
Bill was a friendly man who laughed loudly and bragged about knowing the names of all his customers despite being ‘the only pizza place in the whole of Manchester’. I was taking a grave risk being in here at all, the doctor couldn’t know I was mixing with the locals. For weeks, I’d obeyed the doctor. I kept to myself and spoke to no one, but the threat of starvation had forced my hand.
It was summer in Manchester when Bill had first found me. In this dead city, I survived on things that could be scrounged or stolen. A jar of pickled broccoli when the seller’s back was turned, an ancient tin of beans under the rubble of an ancient newsagents. There were rats everywhere to eat, but they were difficult to catch and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with one even if I managed to catch it.
By the time Bill found me, I was little more than knees, ribs and elbows. The wild garlic that sprouted through the cracks in the pavement in front of my apartment block was the first food I had seen in a week and I was shoving it into my mouth by the handful.
“Oi, don’t eat that! I need that for the pizzas!” Bill shouted.
Before I had a chance to move, his hand was on my shoulder. I turned and tried to get away, but he held me in place. He leant down toward me and I put my hands up over my head.
“Give over, will ya? I’m not going to hit you. Here!” he said and plopped a pizza on my lap, the steel tray warm against my legs.
“Get that into you.”
I hadn’t heard Bill come up behind me and wasn’t sure that what I had just witnessed was real. For weeks I’d survived on terrible, miniscule bits of food, and then in an instant, I’d been presented with more food than I had ever known.
The smell hit me and my mouth was wet. A small stream of drool escaped my bottom lip.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Pickled peppers and hawthorne leaves, mate. Beautiful.”
I looked up at the man. Was it a trick? A mirage?
“Don’t worry, mate, I got plenty more. Lord knows I could do with a few fewer pizzas.” He laughed and rubbed his round belly. “Come by the shop tomorrow and I’ll sort you out with some more.”
The top of the pizza was hot. It was real. I pinched the melted cheese with my fingers and brought it to my mouth. The cheese was soft and the salt triggered a yearning deep within my bowels.
“You know where my shop is, don’t you?”
Of course I did. Not a day went by that I hadn’t dreamed of going in.
“Right, see you tomorrow,” he said before turning away.
“And stay out of my bleeding garlic patch!”
For the briefest of moments, I considered saving the pizza, stretching it out, but the smell didn’t allow it. I ripped the pizza up by the handful and stuffed the hot dough and sauce into my mouth. I chewed as fast as I could to make room for the next handful, but it wasn’t fast enough. Hunks of pizza slopped out of my mouth and onto my shirt, I scooped it up and shoved it back in. My stomach lurched with the sudden onslaught of food, threatening to throw it back up but I kept it down by sheer force of will. Fistful after fistful I stuffed, stretching my cheeks and stomach to capacity; to beyond capacity.
To this day, I cannot remember what it tasted like despite devouring every crumb and licking the tray clean.
“Oi!, wakey wakey!” Bill was snapping his fingers in front of my face. “I said, Is it only one pizza today?”
He reached under one of the tables into a large white pail and retracted a handful of flour. The flour landed with a puff of white as he tossed it down roughly onto the table top and spread it out with both hands.
“I’d love to know what goes on in that head of yours, my friend,” he said.
I smiled. “Not a lot, I’m afraid.”
He stopped spreading and knelt down to grasp a metal ring in the floor, groaning as he pulled opened a large, wooden door to the cellar. He stepped around the open door, and clumped down the stone steps, breathing heavily as he descended. I shivered as the cool air flowed out of the hole in the floor across my bare ankles.
This was the place that saved my life. The pizzas were gorgeous, but it wasn’t just the food that caused me to return time after time. The short escape from the painful loneliness and depravity that existed outside the shop’s walls was the only pleasure in my life. It was the only place that made me even a little bit happy. I suppose ‘happy’ was pushing it, perhaps, ‘made me feel less like killing myself’ was more accurate.
Bill’s head bobbed up and down as he plodded back up the cellar steps. He was wheezing hard, carrying a small ball of white dough, wrapped tightly in cellophane. Where he got that cellophane I could only guess. He reached the top step, placed his hand on the open door and let it drop back into place with a loud ker-clunk.
“I would give me left bollock for a working refrigerator, I tell thee.”
I smiled again.
Bill unwrapped the dough and placed the square of neatly flattened cellophane carefully to one side. He then tossed the dough onto the table and punched at it with his meaty fists, taking great joy in the action. After a few great wallops, he stretched and kneaded the dough several times, before raising it onto his fists and tossing it expertly into the air, once, twice, three times letting it drop on the fourth toss onto the oak table with a hard slap.
I was his only customer on that day which was not an uncommon thing. Even a shop as popular as Bill’s rarely catered to more than one person at a time.
“I don’t suppose you’ve found me anything of value this time, have you?” Bill asked.
I shook my head.
“You know where the list is,” he said spooning and spreading red sauce onto the soft disk of dough.
I walked to the end of the table and grabbed the clipboard hanging on the wall. The list was scrawled on a ripped piece of cardboard in black ink.
1. Dried or cured meat of all kinds.
2. One stainless steel, industrial kitchen container. SEE ME.
3. Salad veg, tomatoes especially. ASK FIRST.
4. Soap and/or cleaning supplies, the stronger the better, ‘Mr Muscle’ Oven cleaner RICHLY REWARDED.
5. PROPER booze, for DRINKING. NO chemist shit!
1. Dishwashing 1 evening
2. Garden weeding 3 hours
3. Hauling water 4 trips
Will barter other services with PROFESSIONALS or SKILLED TRADES ONLY (Bricklayers especially).
I looked up from the list. Bill was sprinkling shredded pork and pickled courgettes onto the pizza. He drew a ball of mozzarella out of the water and sliced it up thickly, dealing the slices out around the edges, his hands a blur.
“How many pizzas does the weeding get me?”
“One. THIS one,” he said. He cracked an egg into the pizza’s centre, lifted it carefully with both hands and tossed it into the oven.
“Make it two and you’ve got a deal.”
“Two pizzas? Ha! For that, I want a day.”
I shook my head. “One afternoon, four and a half hours”.
We shook hands on it.
“Fine, scratch that one off. You can have the other pizza after the weeding is finished.”
I pulled the pen out from under the clamp on the clipboard, and scratched Garden weeding off the list.
“I’m glad you chose that one if I’m honest,” he said. “You may want to scavenge yourself up a pair of gloves. Thistles taller than you. Thicker too.”
What the big man didn’t know was that I actually enjoyed weeding. Plunging my hands into the soil, grasping a plant at its base, pulling slowly, consistently until the roots pop, pop, pop under the ground releasing their grip one at a time. To clear a plot of land; to make something clean and perfect in a world of such decay helped to keep a person’s mind sound. It wasn’t as good as standing here watching Bill assemble a pizza, but it was a nice distraction from scavenging.
Bill slid a large wooden pole into the oven and hooked the pizza onto a steel tray in one smooth movement. He sprinkled the rocket onto the bubbling cheese, and passed the pizza to me, tray and all.
“See you Saturday.”
I nodded my thanks at him, turned and opened the door to leave.
“And bring me back that tray!”
The city outside was empty as usual. I looked up and down the street twice to make sure no one was watching. If the doctor caught me in here--talking to a local--it would be the hospital bed and the leather restraints again. The bruising on my wrists was gone now, but the pain was still there in places.
I could never let them take me back to that room. In my backpack I carried a large knife. When I packed my bag in the mornings, I always placed the knife so I could feel its hard edge against my back through the leather. In front of Bill’s pizzeria on that muggy, summer’s evening, I could feel it and its comforting presence settled my heart rate and spurred me on. With that knife, I could go anywhere. Seventy days the doctor had given me to recover my memory. 54 days from today. If they came for me before then, they would not take me alive.
Satisfied there was no one else around, I stepped out of the pizza shop and moved quickly down Oldham Street toward the centre of the city. A strange pink light fell on the wrecked streets, making a nice change from the usual grey. The derelict and crumbling buildings on both sides of the street were there as always. The old tattoo parlour with its windows blown out, its rusted and mangled venetian blinds rattled through the open windows softly. Inside, the walls blackened with mould and fire.
Next door stood the remains of a trendy coffee shop. Another windowless redbrick building. Rusted metal stools with ripped upholstery, deadened coffee machines and sharp pieces of shattered crockery were strewn about the place. Bricks, tiles and rubbish filled every corner. The ceiling on the second floor was caved in and the pink light streamed in from above.
Every morning, when I woke up I had the same thought: maybe this was all a bad dream. Perhaps if I spun around three times and blinked twice, everything would return to normal. Whatever normal was.
The street itself was potholed, what little you could see of it. The streets of the city centre were buried under a thick layer of broken brick, glass and twisted metal. Rusted, burned out and overturned cars lined the streets and pavements, their wheels jutted out at odd angles and steel shards poked out from the rotting rubber tires. Large, thorny weeds and bushes pushed up through large cracks in the asphalt and grew off the sides of the buildings, their roots clawing the redbrick like skeletons fingers. There were many of those as well; cracked and broken human bones were littered everywhere.
On one particularly grim scavenging trip, I discovered a makeshift graveyard at the edge of the city centre with bodies stacked in graves so high, the top couldn’t be reached by earth thrown from a shovel.
There must have been thousands of people in this city once. Millions. Once the dead outnumbered the living, the chore of burying people in graveyards must have become overwhelming and pointless. The smell of the decaying corpses must have made the city centre uninhabitable for years. The doctor told me I was lucky to have showed up now and not ten years ago. I didn’t feel lucky.
Up ahead, the end of the street opened up into an enormous square. A large, empty fountain laid dormant behind a stone statue of a headless Queen Victoria. Three and four storey buildings in redbrick, white stone and black slate lined the square on all four sides. All in similar states of decay. Roofs caved in, chunks missing, windows smashed. Anything of value looted long ago by scavengers.
This was where I lived.
The smell of the pizza was again becoming too much to take. I tip-toed across the square avoiding the glass and rusted metal. I was starving but I didn’t want to eat just yet. It wasn’t every day you got an evening like this, I wanted to enjoy it.
I knew this road very well; I had to. I recognised every stray nail and shard of glass. I’d spent many an evening pulling things out of my feet. I had to become adept at avoiding hidden hazards in the junk piles. Being crippled in this place could kill you: Bill’s didn’t deliver.
The smell of the pizza was fading and the tray was cooling; I didn’t have much time. I moved as quickly as I could, almost skipping, into a large, darkened department store past vast, empty shelves. The ceiling tiles were long gone, exposing large, broken pipes and vents. The escalator stood frozen in the darkness. I launched myself onto it, dancing around the twisted metal cleats that extended from the escalator steps.
The first level was empty. Most of the floor had burned away with only the steel joists remaining. I left the escalator and walked toward the large open window at the front of the building facing the square and the setting pink sun. Across an exposed beam I moved, one hand held the pizza aloft, the other extended sideways for balance. As I moved toward the edge, I could see the square come sharply into focus through the huge, gaping holes where the glass windows used to be. I didn’t look down through the missing floor, my gaze was fixed on the buildings in the square. At the window, I sat down with my legs dangling over the edge.
From this height, the scale of the destruction was deathly apparent. I always felt a strange, almost sick sort of fascination with this sight. Like I was only a visitor here. One day a helicopter would swoop down and take me away from this place, take me back to America. ‘I hope you learned your lesson,’ a man in an orange jumpsuit would say.
‘Oh yes, sir, I sure have. I will never take my life for granted again!’ And then I would be whisked back to my old life somewhere to be greeted by a family waiting at the airport.
There would never be any whisking. This was where I lived. This was where I would always live. This was where I would die.
Still, I didn’t get many evenings like this. The square spread out before me, a wide, endless, sea of broken stone, brick and twisted metal. The last of the sun’s pink light reflected back off the jagged, cracked glass of the city’s few modern skyscrapers and down through the large cavities of the old Victorian banks and cathedrals.
I tore a strip off my pizza and began eating. Pizza in a wrecked department store was far from fine dining, but it was slightly more civilised than scrounging for wild garlic. I scanned the nooks and crannies of the busted buildings for people, but could see no one. I had the place all to myself. In the few, brief hours between day and night, the city was mine. It wasn’t long until dark and I would need to get home, but for now I was safe.
Often, I saw a teenager wandering through these rubbled streets always with an armload or two of garbage. His clothing was strange, a long purple cape and hat with an elongated brim and pigeon’s feathers stuck to the side. His eyes were always down, scanning the ground before him as he moved. He was the only person I ever saw around the town centre at night and I was always careful to keep my distance. But even he seemed to have taken a night off. On that pink night there was no movement, no sound at all; not even a breeze. The stray plastic shopping bags that often brushed past me like urban tumbleweeds lied dormant and unfettered in the muck and stagnant water of the streets.
I could hear nothing but the sound of my own chewing.
After finishing the last piece, I put the tray into my backpack, stretched out along the beam and closed my eyes.
What did my mother look like? Did I have a girlfriend somewhere? A wife? Did I have an embarrassing middle name? I would have taken anything my mind was willing to give me, any crumb of a clue as to who I was or what the hell I was doing in such a desolate and desperate place. But my mind didn’t cooperate; it never did. Smeared faces, muffled speech was all I was ever given by my addled mind. The answers seemed painfully close.
I wanted to reach out and touch those weak visions, to throttle them into focus, but they were always just out of reach. I scrunched my eyes together tightly, trying to will the faces forward.
A cool evening breeze grew up from the ground and flowed over me, fluttering my hair. My body took advantage of what little rest I’d get, for it wouldn’t be long before the terrible dreams would come. It was the same every night; always the pain, always the torture, always the doctor.