Winning short story: Veins that carried blood and water by Jennie Bailey

In the summer the city dies. The sun bleaches the bones of the street. You’d be a fool to go out during the day – you would be tinder in the sunshine. Although it’s just past 5am, the fingers of dawn are reaching out for their next victim, I have a few hours before the sun reaches full strength.

Below: the remains of the AMC, something called a cinema. A few years ago, they got one of the screens working, some film about the weather. It was hilarious.

On Deansgate, ice block cubes of glass from the Tower, kids took out most of the bottom floor windows last spring. There’s a splinter of rectangular sheen higher up. I heard that the Architect may still be up there. No-one goes in. Haunted they say.

I followed the tram lines to get here; it’s a journey I’ve made before – “for safety’s sake”. It was easy, even dodging the familiar buzz of the automated trams.

There are sixty metal steps down to the Wharf and this is where it gets tricksy. Although I do not expect it to be guarded at this time, the sharp teeth and hot meat breath of a hound in chase is something I don’t need. The bite of the heavy rucksack into my shoulders is enough for me for now. Some of the Wharf has dried up, when it rains it’s beautiful: a riot of fuchsia and violet, of willowherb and bittersweet nightshade. The last allotment isn’t too far from here, it’s at the Quay at Peel. There’s water there. A reservoir it’s rumoured.

Peel will certainly be guarded. It always is. I will have thirty minutes to get in, get as much as I can, then get the hell out of there.

The trick is to follow the canals, veins that carried blood and water. Ashton, Bolton and Bury, Bridgewater, Rochdale. An alphabet we learned as children. These courses are fed by the dribble of rivers: Irwell, Medlock, Tib.

You can see Peel from the Ship Canal, a quicksilver blur. There will be razor-wire and guns, lots of guns. If I don’t succeed, then the best I can hope for is a hail of pain and plastic. It will not be quick. I’ve heard tales of Allotmenteers who didn’t make it back. The last one that made it out alive came back with a meagre bagful of brassicas and was scared into silence. We tried to joke with her about it. One starved Christmas, we found her dangling from a tree like a decoration. It was almost funny.

I will succeed.

When I get back it will rain. It’s only appropriate, and would be so typical. I’ll have bags stuffed with produce, maybe even fill the flatpack carafe with some of the pure, fresh water. We will reclaim this rain with its storm scent of stone. The rain will dance again against the curled ironwork of Platt Fields. The canals will overflow, the boat lake will be pregnant with ducks, spawn, biting insects. There will be rain. The Rainy City will rise again.

But here, in the Wharf are the remains of the once great canal network. Bordered by wilting buddleia, a rotten purple against deep orange. The mouldering remains of boats that once moved coal up the Ship Canal, that transported reams of soft cotton. People lived and loved on boats. Brightly coloured boats chuffing out coal smoke. Carrying life.

Like many, I cannot carry life, so I became an Allotmenteer. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s a damned sight more appealing than a Landfiller. I’d rather take stuff gleaming fresh from the ground and shake dry soil from its roots, than pick shit off used plastic.

At least it’s not so bad for Landfillers now, they like the dry. There has been no rain for weeks, the heaps won’t stink of piss.

I am not afraid, I do not sweat easily.

On days like these tempers rise along with temperature. I’ve seen people kill for a splot of water on these hot days. I prefer the nights. I crossed the city at night. A taboo. Out of curfew, but there are so few cops left now to enforce arrest, or bother with a tasering or mild torturing from the end of a metal baton.

Not afraid.

Grandmother told tales of flying. Of visiting places whose names glot at the back of the throat: Corfu, Kefalonia, a place called Greece. This was before the rise of fascists closed off communications from the country. She spoke of beaches, of skimpy clothes. Of Hawaiian Tropic, a bronze, unctuous liquid to brown the skin.

I never believed her. You’d be a fool to leave your dwelling without Block. Carcinoma, a rosary of tumours freckling skin, a long painful death There’s plenty of doctors but no-one to work Christie’s machines.

The small radio we share between us picks up London. There are talks of a return to the old days. Of holidays. Of roses, bread, and circuses. Grandmother spoke of exotic words like poetry, solidarity, Vostock, glaciers. She told me tales of creatures that exist in my imagination. When I tried to sleep at night my fear was toothsome. Fierce in white, fur dip-dyed with the blood of cat-like marine animals. Red wine on cotton.

I don’t believe in fairy tales

We look for a past that never existed

Maybe

I will tap the water, that will show them that they cannot keep stealing something that is precious, that belongs to no one.

and I will show them that

I am not afraid.

***

   The yellowing paper was stained, perhaps rain had seeped through the brickwork. The ink had dried in blue tear-drops. Finn half understood it, so he placed the letter back in the crevice. Covered it up with a brick like a tomb.

His grip firmed on the black handles of the bolt croppers. He paused. Drew the handles back with both hands. The metal melted like butter under the gleaming blades.

3 Responses to Winning short story: Veins that carried blood and water by Jennie Bailey

  1. hannah says:

    do we need an author biog?

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Industrial Revolution by R.T. Cutforth #Manchester writer | manchester climate monthly

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