Short story: Everywhere’s The Middle Of Everywhere

This story was written while I was the Northern Short Story Festival’s Writer in Residence at Middleton Park in Leeds. It was published in the anthology This New North (SJ Bradley and Anna Chilvers eds, Valley Press 2021) – you can (and should) order a copy here.

When I look at them I can feel the humming in my ears. Feel it, not hear it. It rattles the little bones that live in my ears. Eggborough, Ferrybridge, and Drax. Holy things come in threes.

There was a young lad by the pond the other day, fishing. I say shouldn’t you be in school. He says he’s on climate strike. I say pull the other one lad, and he says no, for real, climate strike, it’s legit, look at that Greta Thunberg, has every Friday off, and I say I don’t know who that is but I bet you you don’t see her stood by Middleton Park pond with a fishing rod and a tupperware full of maggots. He says fuck off.

So it must have been a Friday. You lose track.

From up here at the top of the old golf course you can see all three and on clear days you can see even further. Not as far as the sea I don’t think but who knows really. You can see the sun, can’t you, and that’s a good way off. I mean a good way off. I’m not sure what’s beyond the sea exactly. What if I started walking and just didn’t stop? What if I just swam across the sea like it was nothing more than that fishpond and walked up the beach at the other side and then just walked and walked. Where would I get to? Persia or one of those places. India? I don’t know.

The thing is though that it’s easy enough to walk and walk and not get anywhere at all. Walking’s easy, it’s walking straight that’s the trick. I can’t tell you much but I can tell you that.

Dog chased a squirrel in here seventeen year ago and here I still am. Dog’s long gone but I’m still here.

Found a stick earlier, a good one, three foot long, beech I think, nice bit of knobble at the heavy end. Had to chase off a feller who was at the mushrooms. They grow along the old fairway, in the old rough, dozens of them at this time of year. I know they’re not mine exactly but they weren’t his either. Lad with a curly moustache and a satchel. Said he was foraging. I said forage somewhere else. Forage in Morley or Carlton, I cried, as I chased him down the fairway. Forage in Tingley or Rothwell or Ouzlewell Green, forage in Churwell or Flushdyke or Gomersall or Gildersome, forage in Methley or Kippax or Allerton Bywater.

I ran out of breath before I ran out of places for him to forage. Anyway he was out of sight before I got to Kippax. Quick as a squirrel.

Don’t forage fucking here, I shouted. Don’t forage in fucking Middleton.

Middle of where? Middle of nowhere. Middle of everywhere. Everywhere’s the middle of everywhere, really.

The thing about mushrooms is they’re fine, they’re all fine, you mustn’t listen to those who say oh they’re poisonous, oh they’ll kill you, they won’t kill you, they’re fine. The worst they’ll do is give you a dizzy spell or a few days of the runs. The thing to remember is that hardly anything kills you. I can’t tell you much but I can tell you that. Look at me. Still here.

The sky rolls over and over, white as a sheep, boil-washed, and the energy of the world rushes upwards into the tall bodies of the trees. You can’t stand where I’m standing, here on this dirty grass, among these screaming birds, and tell me you don’t feel it too.

*

I wake up from a dream with my face half-buried in leafmould.

I remember, after a while, why I fell asleep like that. In that part of the woods is where the coal miners used to hew (a funny, whistling word, that – hew!). I remember pressing my cheek into the mulchy earth to listen for the coal miners down there below. Of course they’re not there in person. I suppose their old bones might be, some of them. But do you know, astro-scientists tell us that, somewhere in the universe, we can still listen to the echoes of the noise made by the very beginning of everything. The very beginning of everything. And of course that was a good long time ago. So I lay down to listen to the echoes of the miners: their talking, shouting, banging, clattering, weeping, singing (surely they sang, everyone sings).

I don’t remember hearing anything.

Then a bit later, while I’m walking with my stick across what I think was once the fourteenth hole, I remember the dream.

I’m up at the top of the fairway again, but I’m not by myself, not like usual. There’s a bunch of people, mostly men, some women, all in smart dark suits. They’re listening to me. I’m telling them things and they’re listening.

What I’m talking about is energy, power.

Do you mean, they say, the energy of Eggborough, Drax, Ferrybridge, because yes, it’s as you say, we can feel it – we can feel it in our earbones (anvil, hammer, stirrup: holy things come in threes, it’s as you say).

My voice is big when I say no, no, and (with a sweeping arm gesture) say that I mean this energy, the energy of this wild place – this crucible of life, east of the Dewsbury Road, north of the A654. And by that – I know this in the dream – I mean the uprushing of the blades of grass, the hydraulics of the trees, the untiring bellows of breath and birdsong, the uncheckable momentum of the seasons, the clenched potentiality of rock and earth and clay and coal, the strength of flowers, the perpetual motion of midges.

Let Ferrybridge run to dereliction and be overrun by deer and rosebay, I cry. Let roosting starlings blacken the walls of Drax. Let Eggborough lie dead and cold, let the grass grow over. Let us no longer hew (I whistle the word like a lapwing) and burn. Let us tap instead the energy of life, gentlemen, ladies, of life.

They are all silent, the people in dark smart suits. They nod, with slack jaws.

All except one, a man, whose suit seems not quite as smart as the suits of the others. In the silence he says, This is not correct, Mr (he calls me by a name I forgot a good long while ago). This energy, this power of wild things. Let us consider it, he says (does he draw out a notebook, a ledger of accounts, a spreadsheet?). The labour of the squirrels, let us say – the hard work of this or that caterpillar, the toil of the growing hazel. What is it?

The question seems what’s the word, rhetorical, and I don’t answer.

It is not surplus, he says. It is used, it is spent, it is needed. Every ounce, every inch. All at once the man, in the dream, seems to be standing very close to me. It’s apparent all of a sudden that this is an important man, more important than the rest (are the rest even still there?).

Look at you, Mr (that name again, like a swear word). Consider yourself as a wild thing. Do you, sir, have energy to give away? Look at you. Can you spare a bone, can you spare a breath?

In the dream I consider myself as a wild thing, a life composed of unlikely odds, a creature of extremity, all edge, all twitch, and I say (fearfully, I think) – no, no. And the man makes a mark in his book. The others – they are still there, then – have already turned away from me, and talk among themselves.

I think of the dream again when in the middle of the night I wake up half-curled in my form beneath the holly, shivering hard beneath the conversations of the owls, and again I think – in fact I think I might say it out loud – no, I can’t, I can’t spare a breath, sir, not a bone, not an ounce, not an inch.

*

I look down at the city in the aching blue dawn. The tall buildings like big teeth. Chimneys trailing steam, pink in the sunrise. It’s so small. I can’t look at a city and not think that. Look how little, how low. All those years and all that work and all those people and look – how we barely reach a finger’s width into the sky, how we’ve barely raised ourself off our elbows. You can lift up your thumb, held sideways, and blot it all out. I do that now. Gone. Nothing. Just one westward rising drift of steam.

I collect some mushrooms. I pick some berries. I find a dead magpie, not too far gone. I lay some traps (my traps are shit, and never work). I gather fistfuls of what leaves are left.  I fish the body of a dead cat from the pond – it has a collar, a name, George, and I bury it beneath waxy beech leaves up by the mines.

I lie on my back on the cold soil and watch woodpigeons and aeroplanes crisscross the sky. 

I wonder if I’ll be here forever. What’s forever?

 It’ll be okay in the end, they say – they say, cleverly, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Well if I’m not still here maybe it’s not forever. Does that make sense? My mouth is dry from the mushrooms.

To keep going is the thing. Whether you wind up in Persia or India or under a hollybush in LS-ten or wherever. Keep going. There’s an old collier’s train down the arse end of the park, a hundred-odd years old – that’s still going. No coal to carry but it’s still going. Never mind the why, there isn’t a why. The trees, they’re even older than that, half of them. The world: the world’s a good age, a good age. Still spinning. Still going.

Beside the old cart track in the woods I set the sole of my boot against the trunk of fallen tree and roll it over on to its back – peer at its wet belly. Woodlice all across the pulpy bark. They remind me –

They remind me that I have other dreams, dreams that feel more like memories than dreams. It’s not quite gone, all that (nothing’s ever quite gone, is it – ask the leafmould, the clay, the rock, the atoms of the air).

An industrial unit, not far from here, lined with humming mesh cages, where they breed soldier flies for food (fishfood, pigfood, dogfood, until the licensing laws change, and then just food) – was I there, did I do that, raising the young maggots on bakery waste and coffee grounds, drawing up tabulations of carbon outflow and protein content?

Or a factory floor in a salt-washed town beyond the power stations where the air’s a reek of fish and bunker fuel – was I there, was I a builder (a menial, probably, a worker ant) of the great encrusted marine turbines that catch this wind, this same cold old Middleton wind, and ratchet it tight into the earth, into batteries, copper cables, capacitors, I don’t know what?

Did I nurse young hazel saplings, tubed in clear perspex, hundreds of them, hundreds of thousands of them, green-timbered and limber and bending their backs in the easterlies, to be chipped for biofuel, did I clear the open meadows in the east (they were bad pasture, anyway) and dig in footings for the solar arrays?

I don’t know what I did. They seem like more than dreams though, don’t they. I watch the woodlice. I wouldn’t want to eat them myself and that’s saying something.

If they’re dreams, these, they’re dreams about persistence. About keeping on. Maybe everything’s gone but that. Not just for me but for everyone – everyone down there in that city I just blotted out with my grubby thumb, everyone way over there in Persia or India or wherever it was, and everyone in between – everyone everywhere, we’re just keeping going, never mind what for, where to, good or bad, it’s just that, keep going.

People talk about ‘keeping the lights on’ but I think if the lights went off we’d all just keep on walking in the dark.

On days like today when I stand in the ankle-high grass and reach down through myself to feel whatever it is that’s coming up through the roots and the fungus – on days like today, I feel like one of those polythene men you used to see on car-dealer forecourts, those ones with the compressed air rushing through them, making them stand upright, wave their arms, dance, bend, beckon. That’s me. Without the energy I find here I’d just collapse to the ground, a heap of dirty clothes, an empty bag of skin and hair.

Who knows, maybe it works the other way too. Maybe if I wasn’t here the whole place would just go spiralling downwards into nowhere like water out of a bath.

Another reason to keep going. I’d hate to see that happen.

In the dusk of whatever day it is today I stand at the top of the fairway and squint across at the distant lights of the power stations. Feel again the thrum, the tremor – wherever the bloody hell it comes from.    I think about lying down once again and pressing my ear to the wet earth and listening once again for the old songs of the mining men. I don’t, yet. I will eventually. But for now I stay standing up and looking over at the lights, because as long as I’m still standing up I’m still standing up. I can’t tell you much but I can tell you that. As long as I’m still going I’m still going.

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