It was rush hour and we were packed like peaches on the Number 7. I was content with the closeness, but the brakes screeched horribly at each junction. I closed my eyes, willing them to sound more like the aging hydraulics they were; too afraid to look out the window in case I saw toes caught under wheels or little fingers lodged in screw-holes, screams teased out on the evening air as the bus pulled off again. Just wheels, just old and tired. We were all old and tired, and everyone ached for home and an end to the day.
‘But don’t you just feel so cooped up?’, she asked me as we travelled out of the true heart of the city and into its arms and legs. ‘I mean. In this city. I like to go sit in the park sometimes, somewhere without constant air-conditioning – doesn’t it hurt your eyes sometimes? – somewhere where I can see the sky. Makes me feel free, you know?’
I hadn’t the heart to tell her that her park is to my open spaces as an itchy toe is to a broken leg. It was true, though. It was nice to see the sky, sometimes. I liked that even at the death of night and birth of day, it was never really dark, just as it was never really bright. Too many things in the way; buildings and signs that hoarded the light after dark and cast shadows on the concrete during the day.
‘The canal’s good too’, she said, scratching at her eye. ‘For some open space.’
Someone sneezed behind me. It was loud and wet, and it was hard not to feel the germs creeping up the back of your neck, but that was the price you paid. ‘Bless you’, murmured a voice or two. I echoed them, a moment too late for comfort.
We pulled up at the next stop and the door sprang open for a moment, and air poured past us, into the cracks and wedges between arms and feet and torsos. Outside, a pigeon jabbed at a crisp packet, looking briefly up at us and cocking its head to one side before the doors snapped closed and it danced away like an overweight and aging boxer.
The woman spoke again, addressing the bus at large. ‘Hate them. Ugh. With their deformed feet? And they eat anything. I saw one picking at a pile of vomit, once. Urbanized, that’s what they are. Like, what kind of wild animal does that?’
What kind indeed, I thought. I wanted to contribute, to tell her about our birds, about the crows and the forest, about how the trees were crinkled, like wrapping paper. About how their branches would frighten me as a child, black and twisted and straining sky-wards in supplication. About how the crows would perch on the highest branches, screaming derision down on us. They would take flight in flocks, wheeling around in a giant circle before settling in a tree that looked no different to the rest. I wanted to tell her how our farm was built on a forest-bed. Centuries ago, they had dug out the roots and the trees and laid down soil and bricks and iron. Sometimes the trees would come creeping back in, spreading a toe or two across the boundaries, but we kept them in line with biting axes.
I wanted to tell the whole bus, to draw them closer to me. To tell them how the trees had a champion. A monstrous hooded crow, as long as a man’s forearm. Every morning he would come with the rising sun to dash his head against our window panes. He would perch on a rafter, and beat against the glass with his beak and skull, tap-tap-tap. If we chased him away, he would sit on the telephone wires and caw at us, taunting us, and would be back on his crusade as soon as the door was closed. He was trying to break down the house. Make it crumble to dust, piece by piece until the earth could reclaim what was hers. He was a thousand years old and one, that crow.
But what would she care of my crow? What would she care, with her pink plastic umbrella and sensible shoes, what would any of them care? They had their own things to do and say, things that did not require me to speak, or even listen, just that I be there.
‘Rats of the sky,’ she noted, pleased with her observation. ‘That’s what pigeons are. Except rats aren’t as brave as them.’
I looked away as we picked up speed and shifted my weight to my other foot. I pressed against an elderly woman’s shoulder gently as I turned and she frowned and slowly moved her arm to cover the opening of her small purse. Not obvious enough to suggest that I might be looking inside, oh no, just obvious enough to make me look away, ashamed of nothing.
‘Ugh, yes, rats. We had an infestation when I was in school. We ran from class to class with our skirts tucked into our socks in case they tried to run up our legs. Melodramatic as always. Comes free with the Catholic education, that. A taste for the obscene and a flair for theatrics.’
I smiled at that. She looked encouraged.
I caught the eye of a man with a melted face. It could have been a burn, or an accident, or simply old age and gravity that had let it drip and slide so. Like me, he was caught in the crossfire of her thoughts, but he had had years to learn how to let the flow of strangers wash past him; how to keep his head above the words and avoid the spray of spittle and irritation.
‘One girl was off sick for a week. We told everyone she had the plague, and we washed out her desk with bleach while she was away. Turned out she was allergic, or sensitive, or something. We all got detention and she barely opened her mouth in class after that.’
I grinned again; unsure of my role. I knew rats, too. I had found a nest under a blackberry bush when I was ten, a nest of blind eyes and squirming shapes and whipping tails. Of mottled pink bodies that shat as they fed and cried out for the darkness to return. Now I pictured them climbing the legs of squealing schoolgirls.
I waited for her to continue.
Instead, she frowned and seemed confused; confused by her hand grasping the bar above her and the almost-but-not-quite stranger at her side, confused by the people and the sounds and the time of the day.
‘Rats of the sky…’, she said again, softly this time.
She got off next, at a stop between a shopping centre and a night gym.
We passed over a railway line; barriers down and lights pulsing red, and the bus shuddered and we swayed with it, all strung together in an endless chorus line. A baby began to cry, upset by the rattle and clank, rattle and clank.
I got off the bus a stop too late. I hadn’t been able to make my way through the press of shopping bags and folded buggies before the doors snapped closed again. It bothered me; I had counted the stops carefully and had been prepared. But it was only another few minutes’ walk.
I found it on the side of the ditch, scraped off the side of the slip road that led to the dual carriageway. A car had taken its ribs; its black-grey body bent awkwardly, leaking onto the hot tarmac. I reached towards it instinctively, hoping perhaps to scoop its insides back in, to stroke it, or to selfishly ease my own soul with its soft fur, to quell the fear that had risen up in my throat. It tried to hiss at me, but it spat blood instead. It looked at me in surprise; in pain and terror and loss. Its mouth filled up with blood and it died.
I have heard that the last thing a person sees is imprinted on the dying pupils and remains there. I wondered if that held true for cats, and if a miniature version of my outstretched arm had seared itself into this cat’s eyes; his last glimpse of this world wasted on my useless gesture.
I told you about it that evening, in between the news and yet another crime drama.
‘Just a cat,’ you said.
And I thought of a lonely widow who would call at the back door for hours.
‘Probably a stray.’
A birthday present, I thought, an only child; a gift to fend off the sound of the midnight arguments.
‘Stop worrying about it.’
A bowl, dark blue perhaps, with a carefully chosen name picked out in black.
It ate at me. No order or plan or fate, just a cat, dead, and an arm, seared into a dying eye. On the side of the road that met the dual carriageway about a mile later and carried on into a web of concrete and overpasses that propped up the city and fed it with people.
I have heard tell of the beauty of the countryside. I lived there for half my years and now I yearn for glass buildings, metal grates, dirty gutters. I want angles, lines, and order. I want junctions that criss and cross and cross again. I want traffic lights that run on timers. I want people, people, people, to keep the terror away.
I came to the city out of fear. Not true fear, not fear that you stand and fight or run and hide from. Not anything tangible, nothing that I could read up about, or pay for six weekly sessions of company-sponsored counselling. But still, I came to escape it; I came for walls and angles and closed-in spaces, spaces that didn’t ache and pull at something in the dark pit of the bowels.
That’s the thing about cities. When you have walls and angles and facts all around, it keeps your thoughts penned in, and they stay tame, they lick your hand and wag their tails and they trust you. And you trust them.
But in the open spaces, out over there, their eyes start shining red in the night. And you don’t want to believe it at first, that your tame thoughts have gone sour. No one does. You ignore the yellow teeth and block out the spittle dripping from their chops, no, they would never hurt you. But if you take away the bricks and mortar and lines and logic, they start to creep. Not menacingly at first, just differently. Maybe they take a sidestep every now and then, or slowly turn in a circle. And if you duck back into your safe place, surround yourself with people and facts and logic, they might slink back to their normal routines.
But if you stay where the horizon bends and the stars ache, and you can’t tell where you end and the world begins, those thoughts will turn rabid. They will shred and tear until your mind is in tatters, infected with the grime and pus of unease. And you can take your shotgun; find your sense, and put them down, in the backyard of your brain, but you can’t put them out. They will howl outside your windowsills, steal the sweetest meat from your table, and wait for that right moment to pounce once more and finish what they began. That’s where that knot of tension comes when you can see the world’s end, when there’s nothing between you and oblivion. I felt it each time I looked up at the night sky, or out to sea; that ache of insignificance, that each time I had dipped my finger in the trough of insanity and licked it off.
I tried to tell you this, to explain about the fear, and to your credit, you tried to listen at first. But my words became clumsy and then you laughed and told me I grew more neurotic each day. You went to bed soon after that.
‘Come on,’ you said, letting your hand linger just long enough on my shoulder. I felt its weight long after you left, so I wouldn’t follow you to bed just yet, I decided. The city never sleeps, they told me before I came here. They lied, I think, they just weren’t awake to see it asleep. See? It sleeps when it’s too late to be late and too early to be early.
So I sat and smoked one of your horrible cigarettes but I choked as it burned my throat, so I stubbed it out and made tea instead. I sang myself a lullaby I had learned out over there, in the open spaces, as I watched the sky settle into its orange-black equilibrium; a toxic orange glow that folded into navy at the top. I sang a song of a crow and a rat, and now a black-grey cat had joined them. In my mind, they ran. The cat chased the rat and the crow chased the cat and the rat chased the crow. Until they fell upon each other all at once, and began to tear and chomp at feathers and fur, until each had swallowed the hindquarters of the other, and was being consumed, and still, and still, they fought for each bite and gagged and ate even as they were eaten.
It got dark quickly, even in the height of summer, but no more quiet than before. We lived by a canal that had been torn into the earth a lifetime ago, and there were no gates to keep it closed off from the world, and the dusk-crawlers would soon fall into darkness and metamorphose into disembodied voices that would drift, floating out of the night sky and into the out over there.