I stood before the open wardrobe and ran my eyes along the desultory collection of clothes huddled inside. Moving out was the perfect opportunity to get rid of my junk. There was stuff in here I hadn’t worn in years and couldn’t remember buying. I was going to have to be systematic and ruthless. Jonah had found some cardboard boxes and they sat behind me expectantly. I’d already packed my collection of psychology books and there was a small box of mementos, with bits of old jewellery, a couple of seashells and a pebble. I was surprised by how little I had accumulated over the years and even toyed with the idea of chucking the lot, but then found I couldn’t let go of the tiny pebble. Literally. I held it over the bin and stared at it.
I found it on the beach in Brighton. Mum told us we were leaving while we were on one of our walks beside the sea. Danny cried and clung to her, pleading and devastated. He didn’t want to leave his friends. I was listening to my feet clattering over the shingle and the sea rolling the pebbles, dragging them to their doom in the depths. I felt resigned. We were leaving and there was nothing I could do about it.
Up ahead I spotted a funny looking pebble and ran to pick it up. It was smooth and grey and shaped like a heart. A jagged line of white cut across the stone from top to bottom, like a lightning bolt. I slipped it into my pocket.
The pebble was small in my hand now. Maybe it was time to move on. I plonked it decisively on the window sill and turned to the open boxes. I took a deep breath and started to fill them with clothes, one for me, one for charity, and by lunchtime had everything under control. Everything except Danny.
I had been waiting for the right moment to tell him I was moving out and here I was, ready to go and I hadn’t said a word. I knew he’d be difficult, demanding and selfish. I was scared I would relent and stay.
I picked up one of the smaller boxes and carried it through to the front door. Jonah was waiting for me in the living room, sitting beside Danny on the sofa. Danny was already stoned and I wondered, with a pang of guilt, if I could get away without telling him. He puzzled as I walked past with the box, inhaled deeply from his spliff then offered it to Jonah, who waved it off.
‘You need a hand?’ said Jonah, as I returned for the next box.
‘I’m nearly done, but you could bring some of the heavier ones through.’
‘She’s doing her bit for charity,’ said Danny. ‘Buys her clothes, takes ‘em back. Like a library, but with clothes.’ He erupted into a fit of giggling.
As we carried the last couple of boxes out to the van, I noticed Jonah looking troubled and started to worry he’d changed his mind about me moving in.
‘Is there a reason he thinks you’re taking this lot to charity?’ he said.
‘Some of it I am.’ I slammed the back door of the van.
Jonah raised an eyebrow. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
‘D’you think I could move out without him noticing?’
‘Zoe, you have to tell him.’
I sloped back into the flat and found Danny almost passed out on the sofa. I took the spliff from his fingers and stubbed it out. He opened his bloodshot eyes and peered at me, with a crooked smile.
‘What would I do without you, sis?’
‘Danny, pay attention.’
He nodded lazily, eyelids drooping.
‘I’m moving out. Okay?’
Danny raised one hand and waved, curling his fingers over like a child.
‘Bye, bye,’ he said, and closed his eyes.
My insides had turned to sludge. I could feel them lurching and slopping about as Jonah drove us into town. I knew Danny’s reaction was temporary. As soon as he came to and realised I was gone, there’d be hell on. I didn’t want to think about it but my guts had other ideas.
The Mind shop gratefully took custody of my old clothes, (I’d have to be careful not to accidentally buy them back again in a couple of months), then Jonah took me home. I was supposed to be paying attention to the route so I could remember where I lived but was so caught up in a feverish rationalisation of what I was doing to Danny, it passed in a blur of traffic lights, bus lanes and shop signs.
Jonah’s flat was bigger than I remembered. The living room seemed enormous, two large windows filling it with sunlight. Last time I’d been too preoccupied to notice; now I could relax and spread out. We carried the boxes upstairs into the spare room. Jonah unlatched the futon sofa and placed it directly beneath the skylight so I could watch the stars. Then he ran back into town and picked up a basic clothes rail, while I stacked my books in piles by the bed. It was spartan, but brightened by my bizarre collection of mismatched rags hanging in the corner.
The flat was in a converted warehouse, an old boot factory in Ouseburn. Next door were the stables. I had already seen a line of ponies walking down the street, children carried aloft, riding helmets perched on their heads (the children’s heads, not the horses). And Jonah had warned me about the horseshit. You had to be careful where you put your feet in this neighbourhood.
With the skylight open, if I stood on my tiptoes, I could see across the valley to the scrap metal yard hidden behind the old flour mill, now called The Cluny and home to artists and creative types. To the left was the huge brick chimney of the old forge, and behind that, the farm with its grass roof and solar panels, and beyond to the three bridges: brick, iron and concrete. The whole area was an evolving time capsule, an oasis of animals and art in the centre of town.
I flattened my cardboard boxes and took them down to the recycling bins. Stepney Bank’s equestrians were hard at work, but with the shutters down I couldn’t see them. The shouts from the instructor mingled with birdsong and the low hiss and hum from the road bridge, and I felt a noisy kind of peace creeping up on me. Jonah had been right: this could be my sanctuary.
‘What d’you think?’ Jonah shouted.
I turned. He was watching me from the long Velux window.
‘I want to explore,’ I shouted back.
‘I’m coming down.’ He disappeared and shut the window.
We sauntered down to the river Ouse, navigating the lumpy cobbled pathways. Shaggy goats munched grass in an enclosure under the Byker Bridge, the tall brick archways vaulting over us, carrying the traffic away into the city.
‘Did you know, all round here used to be fields?’ I said.
Jonah grinned and leaned over the edge of the stone footbridge, watching the river bubble and swirl beneath and away to the Tyne.
‘I’m serious,’ I continued. ‘It started out agricultural, outside the walls of the city, then the industrial revolution happened and it was all barges and slums and shitting in a bucket, and now it’s gone creative.’
‘Listen to you. Little Miss Ouseburn.’
We rounded the corner, following the cobbles, and stopped at the seats beside the river. Four curved concrete slabs were arranged in a circle, etched with one word each: DREAM WITH OPEN EYES. A pair of white willow trees leaned over the seats from the riverbank, their branches stripped clean and nodding in the wind. With the gentle bleating of the goats and the rush of water flowing past, my mind fell into stillness. I wandered into the centre of the circle and stood, turning on the spot. I felt strangely drawn to this place, like I was meant to be here for something important.
I closed my eyes and the stillness rippled. Goose bumps rose on my skin despite my jumper and jacket. A change was coming, a new life, a new way of seeing. But that meant something else too: death. I opened my eyes but found looking at the seats gave me vertigo. I lurched towards Jonah, and pushed against the encroaching darkness in my mind. I am not going mad.
‘You okay?’ said Jonah, as I stumbled past him.
I spun round and gave him the brightest, least mad smile I could muster. ‘Fine.’
We walked back along the river past the ramshackle collection of warehouses and pigeon lofts, some dilapidated, some renovated. Everywhere I looked, nature was reclaiming the buildings, growing anywhere it could get its roots down. In the spring and summer it would come alive even as the buildings decayed. A crow cawed and swooped overhead, and I looked up. A flock of pigeons circled round and round, surging at the rooftops and then over, playing in the wind.
‘I reckon I belong in a place like this,’ I said. ‘Shabby and neglected.’
Jonah gave me a sidelong glance and smiled.
‘Not so much of the neglected,’ he said, and took my hand.
You could almost believe the houses weren’t there, such was the darkness spread all about us. It was as if the terraces had turned their faces from us as we passed in our little car. Jonah was driving and I sat beside him, staring into the gloom like I was searching for a lost treasure. All the streetlamps were off; the only light came from the headlights on the car, but these barely illuminated the road before us.
In the murk up ahead I could make out a shape. Our pathetic lights reached out, throwing back wild imaginings. What was out there in the darkness? As we drew closer, I could see the form of a man emerging out of the shadows, as if he were made from the night itself. He was standing with his back to us.
The car sped forwards; the man loomed closer. I shouted at Jonah to stop and he hit the brakes, just in time. The car shuddered and stopped right in front of the man. He didn’t seem perturbed and calmly turned to face us. In the headlights, I could see he was in his 60s with greying hair, and was well-dressed. In fact, he was wearing a full pinstripe suit, including a waistcoat with tiny buttons and a lilac cravat. He looked at us curiously, like we were animals in a zoo, but when his eyes fell on me, a smile exploded across his face. A smile unlike any I had ever seen.
I woke with a start and sat up. I was struggling to get comfortable in my new bed and the dreams had been wild and erratic. This latest was the strangest. There was something familiar about the man but I knew I’d never seen him before. I felt sure I’d remember that cravat.
I lay back and gazed up at the stars through the skylight. It was so peaceful here despite being in the middle of the city. My mind turned fuzzy and heavy again, sleep tugging at my consciousness. A star winked, my eyes drooped. I pushed aside a thought about Jonah sleeping in the next room, and allowed the warmth and softness of the bed to pull me under into oblivion.
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