St. Margaret’s bus station; glass, concrete and blue-painted metal. I’m staying out of town at my parents’ house and my job sucks so I’m waiting an hour at the station until ten-past ten so I can get a ride out of Leicester.
A man wearing an Islamic robe sings something. He half mumbles, half sings. I can’t tell what he’s singing. Some of it sounds like ‘I love you more than a …’ but I don’t know. Maybe it’s not even English. Some kid in a red hat sits next to me and starts playing Angry Birds.
There’s a zombie-apocalypse feel to this place. The lighting makes everyone look grey-skinned and ill. The bleak decor fits the theme. Plus, there’s the unspoken but overwhelming feeling that no-one wants to kick up a fuss, but everyone really wants to be somewhere else right now.
Where I want to be isn’t my parents’ place. Nothing against them, I just think home for me is somewhere else now. There is someone out there in the world who makes me want to do stupid clichéd things and just sit up all summer drinking coffee on the balcony outside a single room apartment and have weekends where we just stay in bed and it wouldn’t be trite and clichéd because doing all that stuff with her makes it better somehow, like for the first time it isn’t tired and lame, it’s incredible and every day will be better just because we’re both there. One of the buses from here goes to the airport. Maybe tonight.
Outside it is New Year’s Eve. Mum and Dad don’t know I’m awake. Upstairs is quiet and my room is very dark. I can hear people downstairs laughing and talking. Grown-ups never sound like they mean it when they laugh.
My bed is next to the window. I stand up on my bed and put my head and body behind the curtain. There is snow on the sloping bit of the roof outside my window. I feel like I’m outside in the snow in my pyjamas, only not cold. I put my hands on the glass.
The town’s Christmas lights are still out on the high street. I can see them from my room since the tree in our back garden was cut down last summer. They’re different coloured lightbulbs that Mum says are tacky. I like them anyway.
Downstairs, people are shouting five, four, three, two, one and just like that the old year is gone and this is the new year. I thought I’d feel different.
Fireworks are going off all over town. I watch them with my hands and nose pressed against the glass, like an urchin outside a toy shop in the stories Mum used to read to me. My breath fogs the window and I wipe it off with my pyjama sleeve.
I want the fireworks to go on all night. I’ll stay awake and watch them until morning. One day I’ll grow up and laugh without meaning it. Before then, I want to watch fireworks and have a good time and laugh for real, only not on my own.
She was a very happy child, but in her mid-teens a listening cloud settled over her. It followed her everywhere, and listened to all her thoughts. It often rained and drenched her. It hovered over her as she went about her day, and waited at the windows of her house and school when she was inside.
She just accepted it as bad luck. She had a cloud that followed her everywhere. Some people had leprosy or got cancer, and that wasn’t anyone’s fault either, and the cloud wasn’t going to kill her. It just rained quite a lot. Apart from the cloud, she told everyone, she was actually pretty happy most of the time.
She could have told the cloud to go away, but she didn’t know it was a listening cloud because listening clouds look just like regular clouds and only a few people know about them. People who know about listening clouds know she was very lucky, because listening clouds take away people’s sadness and turn it into rain
She died aged eighty-six after a very happy life. Her eldest daughter inherited the listening cloud, along with a sizeable collection of umbrellas.
I stole my dad’s pen knife and we cut our palms and became blood brothers, even though you’re a girl. It was June and we were little kids. Under the one tree in the middle of the field with the long grass, sitting there with our palms pressed together, wondering how long we had to do that before we were officially blood brothers.
We grew up together. We went to the same films, hung out in coffee houses and record shops. When we could finally get served, we drank together. Shared our lives and pitchers of Alabama Slammer in off-high street bars in the nearest town.
You had boyfriends, and sometimes I had girlfriends, but I was always a little bit in love with you. I liked to think that, of all the blood rolling around my body, some of it was yours and that’s something I had that the guys you were going around with didn’t.
Once we were drunk out in the same field where we became blood brothers, and I told you that. You said that you thought about you and me that way sometimes, but you didn’t say how it made you feel. You held my hand and it felt a little bit like when we’d cut our palms with my dad’s pen knife. I thought about how some of your blood was my blood, and some of my blood was yours. If we ever had become an item it would have been too much like incest.
The first time I remember seeing them, I was eighteen. I’d just finished school, and they were everywhere. All over town, even in the suburbs where I lived. People with suitcases or rucksacks. The walked with purpose, eyes forward. Always looking ahead.
I told my parents about them, and they were sad. They said they remembered when they saw people travelling.
‘They’re always there,’ my dad said. ‘But when you notice them …’ he tailed off.
I asked him what happens when you notice them. He didn’t say.
Two nights after I talked to my parents about seeing the travelling people everywhere, I packed a holdall with clothes. I put my guitar in its case. I had a few hundred pounds saved from working crappy part-time jobs. I took the holdall and my guitar and went to the station.
Three years passed. I was happy in a new town. I made new friends, and really got into life. I played in a band for a while, but that went south. It didn’t matter too much, though. Life was good and I felt happy a lot.
A few months after my band split up, I was in a bar with my friends. My feet started to itch, this really persistent tingle in the arch. I took my shoes off to scratch, but even that didn’t help.
I looked across the bar. A guy with a huge rucksack was ordering a Hemingway daiquiri. I looked at my friends. They hadn’t noticed him. I realised there’s a lot of the world I still haven’t seen.
Last night, I dreamt there was someone in my bed with me. I don’t know who, but she was short and smelled nice, a strawberry scented perfume. It reminded me of home, a place where there things just grew and didn’t have to be planned and planted by a city council.
We were two spoons. I remember dark hair, soft. I held her. Her left hand was in mine, fingers interlocked. My right arm was stretch out of the bed, straight under her neck, like an extension to my pillow.
She was quietly reciting the lyrics to Kind of a Long Way Down.
This is the only dream I’ve had in my life that I remember clearly. I woke up and my room was cold and bright. The window was open and the blinds were drawn back. My bed was empty apart from me and I felt more alone than I ever had, but I could kind of smell strawberries.
They both got the 36 to school. They were the only kids who got on that stop. For a few months, they didn’t say anything to each other. One day in January, rain hammered into the pavement and everyone waiting for the 36 huddled into the bus shelter.
Mitch said to Chloe, ‘did you have a good Christmas?’
They got talking. They both sort-of knew who the other was. They had a couple of classes in common. Mitch knew Chloe as being kind of a badass. She and her friends hung around with a couple of punk guys who showed up on BMX bikes and sold weed outside school. Chloe thought of Mitch as being kind of a bookish, quiet guy. They were both right, but only a little bit.
At the stop, they talked every day. Sometimes they showed up early to talk about things that were important to both of them; the new Less Than Jake CD, or the Tarantino film that opened that weekend. For three years, they met and talked at the stop, until the 36 arrived.
On the bus and at school, they never talked. Chloe had her friends, and Mitch had his. It was probably best like this.
I’m home from university. This is the last time I’ll come home to live with my mum and dad. I’ve said that before. Now my course has finished. My mum and dad and my brother and the cat and now me again, we live in a suburban semi. Our house is bigger than the student apartments I lived in. Bigger than the apartment I’ll rent when I find a job and move out again.
I walk out of town a little way. That’s something I miss. Every road out of town here has some kind of memory attached. Normally Dana memories, but sometimes Jimmy or Scott memories too.
The grass is still tall in the field next to the sports field of my old high school. I wade through the tall grass. I stop a section flat and lie down. I look at the sky, cut into slices by power lines and jet trails. I’m invisible to anyone on the ground, until they’re nearly standing on me.
I came out here with Dana three years ago. We had beer and I thought about trying to kiss her. I didn’t. Not trying to kiss her bothered me for a long time. Now I just think about it, and it’s a thing but it doesn’t matter.
Maybe I’ll phone Dana and we’ll go out and drink coffee and catch up. I don’t know. If she’s seeing someone, I will. That way, when I’m too scared to try to kiss her again I can just tell myself it’s because she has a boyfriend.
The parade is a washout. So much rain all the drains overflow. Most of the high street is ankle-deep in water. Flowers picked and arranged tastefully on the floats are battered down by the water.
Miss Nowhere takes off her shoes and rolls her jeans up. Everyone else has gone inside. Miss Nowhere walks out, water rippling around her ankles. She sits on the float where the May Queen was supposed to wave to onlookers.
A little boy sitting under a table in the diner at the side of the road is looking at Miss Nowhere. She smiles and waves. The little boy smiles too, then looks away. Miss Nowhere gets off the float and walks back to the pavement.
She puts her shoes back on and goes home. Her apartment is one room, with a double bed, a table and chair. She has a stereo and a computer. No TV. On the table, there is a note that says you are Miss Everywhere to me. It’s from someone a long way away.
Miss Nowhere towels herself dry, then gets into bed and pulls the covers over her head.
It started out so easy. Just a throwaway idea when the writer was twenty-seven. Not the great literature he made a living trying to teach bored teenagers about. Not even anything that he would read himself. A silly idea. A made-up world with endless possibilities.
His hero was named Matthew. A man on a quest. Matthew began the first novel young and innocent. The writer knew that by the end of the series, Matthew would be lucky to be alive, and so scarred by the things he’d seen there would be nothing left of this optimistic little boy.
The first novel was published. The writer’s friends were surprised. The writer was surprised. He wrote a second novel, and a third. Then, the fan mail started. His fourth novel established Matthew’s quest as a big deal.
Then came the movie deal. And more fans. And money. The writer stopped teaching, even though some of the kids in his class were reading his books and paid attention to him.
The writer was comfortable. He didn’t watch the movies made from his books. He knew how Matthew’s quest was going to pan out. He saw people on the Internet debating whether or not Matthew would die at the end.
Working on his sixth novel. The last-but-one novel. A letter came from a teenage fan. She wrote Dear Mr. Walcott, I am a huge fan of the Matthew Saga, and have followed it from day one. I don’t want to bother you with my problems, but I’m very ill. I have a brain tumour, which the doctors say is inoperable. They’ve given me about a year to live—fifteen months tops. I don’t expect you to finish Matthew’s quest in that time, but could you please tell me how it turns out? I promise I won’t tell anyone.
The writer put down the letter. The day before reading it, he had given an interview where he said a short story he’d published under a fake name was the thing he was most proud of. Now, he felt like a bit of a dick for saying that.