Finn stood on the platform edge watching the taillights of the last train blink out in the darkness of the tunnel. Jarred from the smooth flow of his journey, he was full of "if onlys: if only the pilot had touched down 5 minutes earlier, if only his bag had been first off the plane, if only that old git hadn't doddered left and right across the travelator from the airport to station, blocking everyone's way - he would have made it.
And not be stuck, half-past ten at night, in a foreign city miles from his destination or his¦ point of origin, clutching his duffle bag and pulling at his frayed army surplus jacket to keep out of the cold. Dumbfounded by the sudden brick wall he'd slammed against, the trip in his trip which he hadn't counted on, he could do nothing for some minutes but stand on the platform, under the grim pale spotlight from a flickering fluorescent above him, his shadow dancing on the wet concrete at his feet. The next train wasn't until six in the morning. So it was a rough night's sleep on a chair in the station, or something else. He could always turn back. The last flight back to England was at midnight ' he'd checked. Perhaps, he reasoned, it was fate being stuck before it all went horribly wrong. But what would he be going home too?
He dropped his head and felt his body slump within itself. Then he turned and shuffled back into the main hall of the station building, emerging under a high Victorian dome, the stained glass hidden under layers of black soot, into a hall cluttered with made of ill-fitting pieces of an architectural jig-saw puzzle: roman columns of red and green, squat sixties portacabins serving cheap and easy food, a modern glass entrance to the airport with a smattering of still brightly lit shops, now empty.
People brushed past him, eyes turning on him from faces twisted into sneers and suspicion. He thought about that train, surging through the dark foreign countryside heading out into the mountains. Up into the mountains. They'd be expecting him tonight, at the hotel where he was due to start next week. There'd be a bed for him, and some food. Bastard!
He had to make the best of the situation. He had to do something. And so he put one foot in front of the other and started walking towards the cashpoint to see if last week's cheque had cleared. It better had. If it hadn't he'd be in shit. No money. Nowhere to stay. A cold night alone in a strange city. It better had cleared.
Home, like love, is one of those indefinable nouns. It exists, we know it does. We've all felt it at sometime or other, but we can't say how we got there or how it went away. And just like love, it comes and goes at will: one day you can be home, the next, the house you live in just isn't the same anymore. Who can say why?
Home can be a single room with a view over a tangled garden, or a coffee shop at the end of the road. Home can be a person. His home had been a white room, for awhile. No, the place he had been staying was a white room for awhile, his home, then, had been the inside of his own head. Until they'd persuaded him with therapy, drugs and a couple of bolts of lightening, that his own head wasn't really a healthy place to hang out, and they'd evicted him out into the real world again. Homeless. Standing outside the train station in a foreign city, there in the growing dark, considering his whole life like a journey that, somehow, had just gone wrong.
He walked around for an hour, through city streets, some crowded with couples, huddled together against the cold and darting from one busy bar to the next, others wide, empty, full of dark windows and shadowed doorways. He weaved around the city, spiralling around from the station, slowly getting his bearings, finding his way up the hill and out of the main city streets and deep into suburbs. Trespassing down these cosy tree lined streets, he walked quickly and quietly past the well lit windows of apartment buildings: a young woman bent over a keyboard, pencil in mouth, bathed in the glow of her desk lamp; a handsome young couple arranging a table for a late meal with friends; windows flickering with action from television screens watched in darkness. Scenes from a life he remembered, but remembered vaguely as if they he had not experienced them directly, but had seen replications of them before, on a TV screen or a dream.
Lost among streets which were beginning to look the same, where lights were slowly turning out and dogs starting to bark as he passed by gates and gardens, he thought about turning back and heading for the station again. He'd killed a few hours. It was time to go back and wait. His legs were sore and tried and the thought of 5 hours trying to sleep on a cold station chair didn't seem so appalling anymore. Then, as he turned the corner of another street that looked just like the last, he stopped. In front of him, bathed in yellow streetlight, stood a boy and a girl, holding hands, staring his way with large oval eyes. They both wore yellow, or perhaps white and the light was making it look yellow. The girl had dark hair, tired in pigtails which went behind her back. The boy had a bowl haircut cut just above his forehead frown. Strange as it was to see two children standing alone on a cold night in an otherwise empty street, it was stranger still to notice that, tethered to a thin silver cord which the girl clutched with her free hand, was a small, jittering guinea pig, its claws tapping nervously on the pavement and beady eyes following the children's gaze and looking directly up at him.
Finn looked behind him, across the street. There was no one else around. Then he dropped down to hunches and said, "Are you okay? O.K? Speaking slowly and making a sign with his hand. The girl cocked her head and opened her mouth, and a scratchy, distorted voice drifted from her, like a record played backwards at half speed. She spoke with intention for a minute, then looked at him expectantly, and when he just stayed there, squatting, his mouth opened and the hair on the back of his neck tingling, she and the boy turned away and started to walk out of the streetlight and away from him.
"Wait. He stood up, but they didn't look back. The last thing he saw of them was the guinea pigs' fat bottom wiggling away into a thick blackness and then they were gone.
The sight of the strange children had brought the cold and dark into focus. He wanted out of here, and back to the fake, comforting light of the station concourse. He walked quickly down the streets, panic growing within him with every corner he turned which seemed to lead to another avenue of trees and looming apartment buildings, now dark and silent. Out of breath, he found himself at last at the edge of the hill, looking over the city, a cold wind blasting him from the side. The city splayed out before him, and he saw in the near distance the lake on the other side of the station, a deep patch of darkness rippling around the edges with shimmering streetlights. He sensed, standing there, the enormity of the mountains which surrounded him, looked up and saw the odd star force its way from between the tatters of thick clouds. He shivered. Wanted to have his breath taken away by this sight below, but felt nothing inside accept fear and an aching sadness, as he imagined how different this would have been if only he had not been alone. No. There was no excitement to be had in the world now. The electricity they had sent through his body had dragged out with it any
spark that he had once had. It was over. This foolhardy adventure, a pathetic attempt to kick-start his heart one more time, had failed. He was going to turn back, wait for the next flight out and go back home.
And so there, on the ridge above the sleeping city, he gathered up the fragments of dreams and collected the last dying petals of hope and he blew them off the hillside, closing his eyes and letting them free. And with them he sent all his despair and fear, freeing himself from any sense of commitment to this life, he knew, come light of day, he would be on his way home to try and piece some sort of bearable existence together. A place to live, a desk job with no responsibilities, food to eat, a healthy addiction. Anything to take him as quickly and painlessly to death as possible.
And then, as he walked through the city park, heading towards the station, he saw an angel.
Well, he looked like an angel. Standing by a lamppost in a white tracksuit, his shaved head shimmering in the bright light above him, with one hand on his hip while he smoked a joint with the other. He took a long, slow drag on the roll-up, then titled his head back to let the smoke billow out of his stubble peppered mouth. Finn stayed by the park gate. Watching. Then the angel dropped his head, looked Finn's way, smiled and offered out the joint.
Finn lurched forward. His palms sweating, his cock immediately erect in his jeans. He squared up to the angel, who was two feet taller than him and almost twice as broad. Fuck it, Finn thought, knowing that this bloke could be looking for a wandering queer to gay bash or slaughter. He didn't give a shit. He took the joint without a word and inhaled. He was either going to get beaten up or get a blow-job. The angel smiled as the smoke slipped down Finn's throat. Finn sighed, went to exhale and closed his eyes. And then everything changed.
Because it must have been good shit. He was tripping before the smoke had even left his body. He reached out and found the angel there, his hand held out to support him as the city park faded into a milky haze. He took in a panicked breath and chocked, coughed up and closed his eyes again. Opened them, and the smoke was clearing, his vision steadied. He was in a damp alleyway, the angel was just behind his shoulder. They were still holding hands.
And the twins stood before him again. Back in their yellow tainted clothes, still tethered to that ridiculous pet. This was some fucking drug. And he'd tried them all, proscribed and illegal. But this was like nothing else. Now the haze had gone, his mind was clear, his vision steady, there was no doubling up, now phasing in and out. Everything was sharp, as real, more real, and raw as anything he'd felt before.
The twins were weeping. Holding on to one another, looking back down the alleyway and then at him, speaking in that strange backwards tongue, imploring something of him. Then the girl reached out to him, dropped the end of the silver chord and groped for his hand. He moved forward instinctively, but stopped. Frozen. A cold wind shot out of the alleyway and a stench rose up around him. Darkness was bubbling up, wrapping its way along the brickwork of the buildings behind the children, obscuring the single light just behind them, leaping forward and curling thick tendrils around their legs as the erupted into terrified screams.
"No! Finn stumbled forward, leaving the angel behind and pushing his way into the dark, but as quickly as it had appeared, it receded again, sinking back into the brickwork, taking the children with it until only the guinea pig remained, quaking at Finn's feet, and staring up at him with unblinking, black eyes.
He turned to the angel. "What does this mean?!
But the angel didn't answer. He walked a few paces in front of Finn and then beckoned him on to the end of the alleyway with a flip of his hand. So Finn swiped the still-trembling animal from the ground and stuffed it, and the silver lead, into the pocket his army jacket and followed on behind.
The vine covered doorway at the end of the alleyway was sheltered from the street under a looming arch, and walking along the street, a few feet away, you'd never know it was anything more than an ill-lit corner in a not particularly attractive, piss smelling alleyway.
The angel stood before the vines, parting them to reveal a cracked and peeling green door, which he opened by pushing a rusting handle. Light spilt into the alleyway along with the smell of pipe smoke and hops, and the rowdy cacophony of a bustling bar. Then the angel stood aside and beckoned him on.
Finn stepped forward nervously, blinking back the brightness of the candle lit room, tripping through the door which closed silently and swiftly behind him. He looked around the room at a bizarre assortment of people and started to break into a grin. He was, after all, only tripping. And was actually impressed by what his doped up brain was capable of achieving.
Nearest the door, a large group of men in dark suits and black ties were sitting around a long trestle table. One of them turned as Finn entered, and Finn looked his way and smiled as a way to say hello. The withering old man looked horrified, turned away and whispered urgently into his neighbour's ear.
Then the crowd near the bar, who looked like they'd recently ransacked a local charity shop, caught Finn's attention. They were wearing a gaudy assortment of colours and fashions including bell bottoms, flares, kipper ties, ruffles, fur trimmings, ripped jeans, white denim jackets and platform shoes. Some of them wore t-shirts with old slogans slapped across their chests, things like "Frankie says Relax and "YMCA. As soon as they saw Finn, they raised their champagne flutes in a happy welcome and beckoned him towards them. Apparently they all spoke perfect English and a chorus of "hellos and "how do you dos went up as he approached.
On his way over he saw someone else skulking in a dark and smoky corner of the bar. He was sitting at a small table on which a single candle burnt, casting flickering shadows across his lowered face. A dark haired man, attractive, with thick rimmed retro glasses, a smart white shirt with the collar turned up and stubble across his prominent chin. He seemed to be considering the other patrons of the bar with some amusement, and he was chatting away but to no one that Finn could see.
He reached the bar and an impressively tall drag queen in a shimmering green ball gown turned to him and opened her arms to greet him with a brief hug and a delicate kiss on his cheek. Her face was angular and slightly stern, it reminded him of someone he knew years ago in Pompey, who used to perform a drag act at a local nightclub and for a time shared a house with him and¦ others.
"Darling, welcome, she enthused. "You must have a drink. Here! And she thrust a flute into his hand and started to fill it up.
"Thanks, Finn said, looking around the room. "What¦ what is this place?
"What does it look like love, an abattoir? It's a bar day. Now drink up and tell us all about yourself.
The whole group had stopped talking and turned to face him. Finn looked around at their smiling eyes and raised his glass, took a sip of the champagne which was rich and sweet.
"Well¦ there's not much to tell really, he replied.
"Of course there is, said a diva standing next to the drag queen, opening her arms to reveal veils of pink and white chiffon hanging from her opera gown. "Tell us, said a man, advancing, dressed from head to toe in the garb of a Spanish bullfighter.
"Well, my name's Finn. I come from England, and I'm here to work¦ up in the mountains. That's about it really. He looked around the crowd, wondering what they were expecting to hear.
"Oh, tish tish, said the diva. "I'm sure there's more to you than that.
"What, for example, said the drag queen, "was the happiest time of your life?
He was taken aback by the tangent of the question and sipped his drink while he thought about it. "Well, he said after a moment, and the group closed in around him, intent on listening. "I guess that would be how¦ I met¦
And he told them. He told them how they met in Manchester on a hot spring afternoon. He told them about the bed-sit which smelt of fish. The cafÃ© at the end of the street where they served the best Columbian coffee in the city. The six month road trip around Britain in a cranky camper belonging to his father. The flat in Chelsea, where they went when the travelling was over. The three years that they lived there, locked inside their love. He told them about every special day he could remember, every birthday, every Christmas, every holiday. He told them things he'd never told another living soul: about the smell of his lover's hair, the touch of his fingers, the softness of his kiss.
Lost in a reminiscent haze, he told them everything about before. About life when it was happy. And in returned they encouraged and prompted, their smiles swelling with every anecdote. "What was the house like? "How did you first meet? "What was the first kiss like? They laughed and clapped and sighed with every tale, and swept up in their joyful celebration of his past, he sat with them at the bar and drank more, talked on, drank some more.
The room grew hazy and indistinct. They had surrounded him, and he could hear nothing but their voices and see nothing but the smoke from their cigarettes and pipes as it settled over the bar like a thick fog. The old men at the table near the door were gone, and he could no longer make out the features of the man sitting alone in the corner, but only see the flickering of his candle.
And when he had told them everything, they started to tell him, and one another, their own stories. Each another tale of past wonder and beauty. The diva spoke of her time as an opera singer in Paris, how she'd sung Juliet with Gounod watching her from the wings. Then the drag queen took centre stage and regaled everyone with lurid accounts of her days at the Black Cap in Camden, and her many lovers from around the world who came to her dressing room after every show to lavish her in praise and more besides. She dwelt with deliberate pleasure on how, once, a gang of drunk Russian sailors had shown her a good time in the alley outside the stage door, every one a gentlemen of course. After her, a world war two fighter pilot, who looked a little like Finn's late grandfather, talked about his days at camp, and his love for a prostitute in a local town. And with every tale told, the group rose and fell with sighs and groans, and things outside were forgotten as the room grew warm and the champagne flowed ever faster.
And when all of them had told their tales the opera singer tuned to Finn and said, "Tell us again, dear. Tell us everything beginning to end.
Finn smiled, started to talk again, that first day in Manchester. One of those days that was rare up there, when the sky had hardly a mark on it. But something fidgeted in his pocket and sent a shock of static through him. He put his hand in his jacket and felt the animal twitching there, the long silver chord slipped through his fingers.
"There was one day, he said, finding a tale that he had not yet told, as he had only just that minute remembered it himself. "We almost brought a guinea pig from a pet shop in Hove. It had been sitting all alone in the corner of the pen, while the other animals were huddled together in the opposite corner. We were about to go and rescue it when two children came barging in, dragging their mother behind them. Before we could do anything the children had latched their attention onto the animal and they were imploring their mother to buy it. We waited around until the sale was over, until the little creature was lifted safely from its pen and placed into the arms of, first the boy, and then the girl, and then we left the shop. And we drove to some remote spot up on the cliffs, and made love while the sun set over the sea. You know¦ I think it was the last time¦ just a week maybe before he¦ Finn looked up, placed his champagne glass on the bar and said, "I need to talk to someone. It's important. They had been taken by the dark. God knows where. Suddenly he could hear their screams again rising from the alleyway.
"Oh huff huff, said the opera singer, still knocking back the fizz. "What could be more important than a lovely drink and a chat about the good old days?
"But there are these children¦
The crowd turned away disinterestedly, even the drag queen seemed upset that he'd spoilt the fun and turned her chin away. He leaned over the bar, pushing away the smoke with a wave of his hand as he searched for the barman, but he was nowhere to be seen. So he turned and ran over to the table near the door. The old man looked up together, their grey heads all turning his way at once, their mouths opening at the same time as they spoke in one voice. "Shut up! We're thinking!
"But there're these children¦
"We know, they said. "We're thinking it over.
He realised quickly that there was no use trying to persuade them, and time was ticking away. It felt as if he'd spent days reminiscing at the bar, and he had no way of telling what time it really was. Gritting his teeth and clenching his fists, he stormed over to the only person left to speak to and stood by his candle lit table, trembling with anger. "And you, he asked, "will you help?
"Of course I'll help, the man said. "Just as soon as I've finished this drink.
"No, we have to leave now, he pleaded.
"Well, we can't leave without making a plan first.
"We can plan on the way, we have to get moving.
"We'll need to discuss tactics first. And then we'll have to decided where's best to attack from. You have to know your angle of attack you know, it's the most important thing.
"Would you stop talking and come on! His voice echoed around the room. Hadn't he felt a tremor beneath his feet? The crowd at the bar had stopped chattering and all turned his way. "Come on now, the drag queen said. "There's no need for that.
"But we have to do something! And the glasses and bottles behind the bar knocked against one another. Now everyone was looking at him in horror. All the grey old men lifted up their fingers to their lips and went "Shhushhh!
"Listen! And a crack appeared beneath his feet and snaked up the wall behind him. "The children are in the danger. We have to do something¦
Now glasses tumbled from the bar and bottles tipped and spilt across the wood. More cracks appeared in the walls of the room. "We have to do something, we can't just sit here and make promises¦ a tearing sound, a huge crack ripped across the ceiling, "or worry about what's out there, a window smashed inwards, everyone screamed, "or just live in the past like we're already dead. The door was ripped off its hinges an icy wind screamed in.
"Oh you've done it now! the drag queen cried. "We're for it!
"Don't panic! the dark haired man next to Finn shouted, getting to his feet. "Everything'll be fine!
Then the light in the bar went out with a bang, and a crack of thunder ripped through the room. "It's here! the grey men wailed, and Finn sank against the wall, his body drawing itself together in fear.
"I don't want to leave, cried the opera singer, "I haven't told you about the time Garbin and I duetted¦
"Oh shut up, said the dark haired man. "If I hear one more story about bloody Garbin¦
"Well you're one to talk, said the drag queen. "We have to sit here listening to you make up your cunning plans night after night.
"Yes¦ said the old men together.
"Well at least I'm thinking about the future¦.
"Oh that's all you ever do, said the bullfighter.
"Ha! You're one to talk¦
And then at last, unable to stand more bickering, Finn pushed himself away from the wall and screamed, "Will you all just shut up!
And there was silence. And the light in the bar flickered back on. And the last champagne bottle behind the bar slipped from a tilting shelf and smashed across the floor.
They marched from the steadily collapsing ruins of the bar and out into the cold grey night with flaming torches held high. There was no one to see them on the damp and empty city streets, the bars and shops were all shut up, and on the white face of clock suspended from one doorway Finn saw that it was four a.m.
When they reached the lake, the drag queen, ball gown held up in her immaculately manicured fingers, pointed to a fleet of pedalos bobbing in the water. With a triumphant cry she urged Finn towards one and, with her peddling furiously, they set off across the lake in a line, the flames from their torches sparking in the dark waters sloshing beneath them.
On the other side of the lake the procession reformed on a path which wound up the side of the mountain side. The drag queen led the way, her face lit by the torch, she had the chiselled and determined appearance of a bohemian queen leading her tribe to war. Her make up held perfectly in the torrential rain that had just begun to fall. Just behind Finn, the man with dark hair continued to chatter and make plans.
"When we get there, he said, "we'll light a fire¦ and then perhaps we should¦
"I think it's time for a song, interrupted the opera singer and launched into a rendition of Climb Every Mountain in a high falsetto voice that echoed over the lake. Everyone approved of this, and all started singing along, even the grey old men, who were huddled together in the centre of the pack, cowering and squinting out into the night.
And so they climbed through raindrops as big as pebbles, drenched and shivering, singing their way up the mountain path. A crack of lightening split open the sky, and for a second everything was visible, the city gathered close to the lake shore, the lake itself, a shimmering reflection of the lightening, the mountains rising high above them¦ and there, there for a second, something else too. A dark swirling void that ate up the light from the lightening and obscured the sky around it.
Finn's heart jumped. He could hear them, the children, crying out from the heart of this darkness in a high screaming voices which rolled over one another and twisted their way around him through the cold, wet, black night. The song died as they came to a stop on the mountainside and the drag queen thrust her torch over the mountain edge towards the nothingness.
Terrified voices and heartrending wailings, hysterical laughter and pain-filled groans greeted them. "What is lost! the darkness cried. "What will come! it howled.
The twins were before them, suspended twenty feet away and hundreds of feet up above the lake, reaching out with pleading hands, their faces chewed up with fear, "It's you! they cried, looking at Finn and turning his blood to ice.
"How can I help? he cried as the roar of screams grew louder in his ears.
"You must! the twins cried. "You must!
"Must what!? he replied.
"Take it back! they said.
And the ice in his blood touched his heart and sent frost crackling through his flesh. All that hurt. All that pain. Everything he had rejected hours ago was still there, swirling before his eyes and growing larger by the second. All that darkness.
"No! Finn screamed.
"You must! the twins replied.
"I don't want it!
Another crack of lightening sliced the sky in half but the darkness leapt up and took it, swallowed it whole and all of the lights in the city below blinked out as the group surrounding Finn screamed and backed away from the mountain edge in terror.
"You must, said a voice closer him and he looked around to see that the drag queen had taken off his wig. His make up was smeared across his old and tired face, black tracks were weaving their way down his cheeks.
"I can't, he muttered. But the drag queen just smiled and took his hand, guiding him towards the rocky drop at the path's edge.
"You must take it back, he said. "It's the only way.
Finn looked again at the darkness. It was his. He knew those screaming voices within it. They were his own voices. And so, his fists clenched, he took one step off the cliff face and onto nothing but misty air. And for a second, everything went quiet. He looked back, the drag queen lifted up her hand and tears were rolling down her caked faced, dragging lines of black mascara with them. This was the last time he would ever feel such peace, he knew. He reached out for the children, as the darkness rose up and closed in around him and he remembered that day on the cliff top, making love in the little red fiat as the sun reddened the sea and a flock of seagulls swept above, their cries mixing with his. And as the void touched him, he felt the shocks they had given him in those white rooms rip through him again. But these shocks acted in reverse, so, instead of draining away all fear, they filled him with such feeling that he could do nothing but scream out in agony as he remembered the day his lover suffered a brain haemorrhage and died in his arms.
And when he looked up, he saw snow covered peaks glinting in bright sunlight and liquid fire streaming above him as fingers of light snaked across the lake below, caught on every rooftop, winked back in every window of the city below.
He watched in stunned wonder, his breathing slow, his heart, heavy with blood, beating steadily. Then he closed his eyes to the brightness, but saw it still, an orange glow through his eyelids. Is this the end? He wondered. Expecting to open his eyes and find himself back in the park.
But when he opened his eyes, he was still on the mountainside and the sky was a clear morning blue. His hands were frozen to the frost covered earth, he pulled them up and stared at his own skin, amazed. The frost was burning his fingers. He was freezing. He stood, pulled his arms around himself and shivered. The city was awakening with sound: car horns blurting out, church bells ringing. A wonder. A miracle.
Finn stumbled wearily back down the path, vaguely remembering the procession up here, the flaming torches and the singing. He found a ferry port at the bottom of the path and a ferry waiting to take him back to the city shores. The boat glided across water, and he sat outside, looking to the distant mountains where wisps of dragon breath rose into the morning sky, feeling the cool wind slice through him. They passed a flotilla of pedalos floating free in the middle of the lake. A man in a donkey jacket stood on the deck of a nearby boat, scratching his head in puzzlement. Then a ticket collector approached asking for the fare, and Finn looked up into a familiar face, a rugged jaw, a smoothly shaven head. He paid with the last of the change, finding at the same time a thin silver lead curled up inside his jacket pocket. But no guinea pig.