Welcome to the city of soft-focus. Blink once and miss nothing. The brick-and-slate vista forms a dingy skirting board below the rising fog. Can you taste it yet? Wait for it, it’s coming – and once the acrid twang of fag ash and river sludge begins to probe the meaty paunches of your mouth, you’ll know you’re here. I watch it smudge past me, from outside the taxi window. I wait for the sign, as if I need reminding. As if this place needs announcing. I can be nowhere else.
The taxi man is chewing a biro. He is an old hand, but he’s not actually as old as all that. Perhaps he’s fifty – fifty-five tops. Some of his back teeth are missing, and his fox-like grin pulls far towards his ears. He begins his patter. He asks me if I’m here for the holidays, his head cocked up towards the mirror. I meet him. I start to explain that I don’t live here anymore: that I’m here to see my brother. Asks me if I’m at yooni, if I like what I’m studying, and if I miss home. I say aye so many times it starts to sound like eye, and I wonder if I’m having a stroke. I ask him if he lives local. Oh yes, he nods. All me life.
He asks me why I left. I explain it quickly, as I’ve done many times before. Dad. New Job. A Long Time Ago Now. He asks and I tell him about the city I live in. It’s name sounds like a law firm. Tastefully urbanised. The kind of city built to be a city, like a pop-up in a child’s book. He nods and doesn’t know what I mean, and I think – why would he? I barely know myself. Moving between the two is like stepping in and out of a painting.
At a set of battered traffic lights, we stop opposite a pub – one I recognise, though it could be any of them – cordoned off by Police tape. There is a man with blood on his face being interviewed by two young coppers, still clutching a bottle of ale in his hand as he gently see-saws back and forth. Those last few swigs aren’t going anywhere. I spot the driver’s flickering gaze, and he shifts in his seat. Uncomfortable throat clearing. Spose ye see things like that everywhere ye gan now. He sounds speculative, and uncertain. The man being interviewed wipes his face on his tee shirt, leaving a smudgy face print. It’s no Lucien Freud, but it’s not bad. He swills the bottle and downs it. It’s not midday yet. The lights turn green.
As we pass into the next estate, he falls to camaraderie, telling me of the nice sense of community up here, what with the footy and that. I see that my silence has embarrassed him, and I’ve not realised. I am quick to agree, my voice rising. He senses the insincerity – possibly he thinks he hears sarcasm – and answers with a tight smile. I duck down so that I am no longer visible in the rear-view, and watch the rain slide down the glass.
We sit in silence for a while, both refusing to look at it. But it isn’t hiding. You see it, lurking around most corners and rearing it’s many ugly faces in as many different forms as you care to notice – it is sitting in front of a tired laundrette. It is walking down the high street in a pair of stolen shoes. It is hurrying its children out of the house in uniforms that have been mended too many times – or never – before the bell rings. It is standing at the bus stop, sucking the last desperate dregs of a roll-up into itself. It has no money in its pocket. You can see it everywhere without looking. You want to look. You daren’t.
We are close now. I see the painted black barrels of pansies making their desperate marks across the roadsides, like crude full stops on a crumpled sheet of newspaper – barely noticeable amongst the backdrop of wrought iron railings and boarded shop fronts. He knows just the right estate, but winds the window down to check the street. It is bitter cold, and as we pull up there are kids on their bikes knocking about on the corner. He shifts his body around to face me for the first time. There we are. Nine. I give him ten.
As he drives away I can see that the pansy barrels are full of beer cans and spent tab-ends. The house is a little way along the back alley, but I could walk to it blind. Not that I’d dare. I wait a while to see the taxi whip away past the bingo hall. The kids have moved off now, and I am stood watching my breath halt before me in heaped gusts of pale wetness. I briefly think I can hear music somewhere, wondering where it is. Then silence, and I look towards home, still wondering where it is.