When Lights Are Bright
The baying mass was outside. It had begun. It made him shiver to think of the communion with thugs and heavies who smelled like his father.
James Oisin stood in a satin nightgown, all hairy-legs, drinking from a shot glass. Last night, he had taken five minutes out of a boozy game of cards to debate on TV with a cabinet minister, a soap star and an academic on the rise of political Islam.
Under grey skies across the wharf, the visored head of Bridgewater Place leered over mills and boats on the canal. His editor’s girlfriend, Juliet, was shyly sliding on her briefs. He held her, warmth spilling. Her back was a subtle mass of curves. She perched, hands on his chest, smouldering, vodka-licked.
He lived for this. His pleasure was disgrace.
He could smell the sweet nectarine of wash and stink rush from her stubbled armpits.
She tussled away the bedsheets, pulling with both hands, his arms curled around her torso. They had different upbringings. He assumed her thoughts were less vividly stylised than his own. He was wrong. She was right. He was eager to please, shock, impress and scandalise her.
She smiled again, snuggling, eventually turning to his shoulder. He touched the griddle marks of her dress on her upper back, knuckles glanced with night-sweat, facing silent auburn hair. He fondled slowly into dark skin, dreamily, the broiled scent radiating on his touch. She was crying. He watched her fretful pulse, running a martini-dappled finger down the slope of her back.
He stood at the great window of his penthouse flat overlooking Granary Wharf. He could see the whole city. The metal and glass tenements. The low-slung roof of the train station, waves of gold above the concourse and a train soon to depart, miniaturising into somewhere. Something was going on. Protestors were gathered with placards, megaphones, wrapped up in scarves and coats. The banners and the horns. The undulations of dissent were a minor irritation, forgotten at this height, this distance.
For the first time he noticed a grey streak, a silver flash, in his swept hair. He had seen greys silver the sides of his head. But never the front. The upward vitality of his style. It was a signature of his own mortality.
He loped across the hallway decorated with rangy leaves, melon oil, a Che Guevara rug. He stomped his slippers dry over his rug-matted face, boot-trodden, mass produced.
People were gathering in sides on City Square. Drifters and thugs, men who wore their whiteness like football shirts. His head throbbed with vodka. What happened last night?
Juliet stood by his side.
‘People are protesting,’ he said.
‘Not against you I hope?’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised.’
‘Maybe this is part of the future.’
‘Maybe the protest is against the future?’
‘Is that what protest is?’
They showered at intervals and dressed in his bedroom. He wore a dark suit, open collared, brown shoes. He liked dressing this way, looking like a spy, disguised as an agent of capitalism.
He was almost anonymous, looking like somebody and nobody in particular.
The sound of the water in the shower reminded him of his need to urinate, to piss away the dream-fluids of the night. Juliet emerged with a towel around her head and he watched her climb into a floral dress, rushing a hand enliveningly through her hair, before pulling on a leather jacket.
They listened to the radio. ‘It is now twenty-four days since missing schoolgirl, Chantelle Bailey, was last seen. It is the biggest operation for West Yorkshire Police since the search for the Yorkshire Ripper.’
She had cherry-flecked toenails, flat-footed on the cold floor, and made a point of teasing him about his daylong stubble.
‘CCTV footage of Chantelle leaving school has been released and Detectives are willing anybody who might have information to come forward.’
The sky was blue-grey, cloudy through the window, and another train was departing from the concourse, closer on this side of the building.
‘Local residents have been hard at work fund-raising and today volunteers will join police officers to search for any evidence. The mother of the missing schoolgirl, Kerry Bailey, will make a public appeal this morning from Chantelle’s primary school in Leeds. In a previous statement, Miss Bailey has pleaded for her daughter to come home. Detective Inspector Mike Hanley, the officer leading the operation, has said Chantelle is a vulnerable nine-year-old girl. She is said to be shy and not very streetwise. There are now grave concerns that she has fallen into the wrong hands.’
They were ready to leave.
He disregarded the notes and booze left out from last night on the kitchen table, putting his sunglasses on.
Now he could re-enter the world.
They rode the lift to the ground floor. He led them out onto Watermans Place through a lobby and they walked side-by-side.
There were bars and restaurants in the arches of the underground network of tunnels that ran directly beneath Leeds Train Station. They walked through a gap below the DoubleTree Hotel and out over a bridge onto the mainland.
The protests had already brought traffic to a standstill. People sat unmoving in their cars, horns blowing. Under a bridge was an ever-changing light and sound installation playing discordant recordings of the city back to itself.
Coming nearer to City Square, they could hear the sound of protest. Police vans surrounded the plaza and the road had been closed.
Some people wandered by bemused. Others stood and stared.
‘You do know which side you’re on?’ she said.
She eyed him suspiciously.
He looked at the men in hoodies and football shirts on one side, waving England flags, and a counter-protest of mannered people on the other.
The was a low blaze of sirens and chants of We Are Leeds, We Are Leeds, We Are Leeds. Pigeons, grey, broke in a shatter. He looked skyward for his tower. A calm luxury of self prophesied in the twisted brick facade.
But all he saw were legions of clouds, white sky.
Traffic had stalled down the imposing Italinate bank buildings of Park Row. People were drifting toward City Square, impossible to tell if they were going about their business or heading toward the rally.
‘If he asks,’ she said, ‘Just don’t say anything.’
‘What if he sees us?’
‘Then we met for a coffee to discuss the missing girl.’
‘There’s a press conference for that later today, you know?’
‘What about last night?’
‘I got too drunk and stayed with Vivian.’
‘Does it matter?’
‘I’m just impressed you know somebody called Vivian.’
The lying excited and disappointed him. The Art Gallery was edging into view. People on Victoria Square. Who were they? Camped out in crowds on a Saturday morning with umbrellas, anti-austerity slogans on sheets of cloth draped over a hand-railed entranceway, all to the sound of loudhailers.
They walked forward, past the red poppies of a War Memorial with its cenotaph and the jostling elbows, the physicality amid the rally. Did they recognise him? Inside, they passed a hall of mordant human sculpture through the ages. A brick man stood at the far end of the room, petrified.
She pulled him into the exhibition space, hand-in-hand.
“Who do we think we are?” she was reading from a sign. “How have we imagined the shape of our society?”
“Who do we think we are?”
They both laughed. He felt her hand linger on his then move away. In that moment he wanted to take it, redolent of musk and lick it length from length. Then the feeling subsided into something else. He simply wanted to hold it.
Another sign read, No Them Only Us.
Now we’ve got to the heart of the matter. Class, thought James Oisin.
A chain-mail giant with sword and sceptre. The centrepiece of the gallery. His eyes were on the cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan.
‘This is Edward,’ he said.
‘I was only kidding.’
‘Well, there’s no need.’
He noticed Edward had arrived and was outside in the foyer pacing circles on his iPhone. He felt scolded.
She had a way of speaking that pulled his eyes across her body.
Wrapped up in twitches and stares.
‘I think he’s outside. On the phone.’
‘We’ll give him a minute.’
There were charts of people separated into deciles and placed on graphs. Socio-economic status. There were Victorian pictures of society from gentry and lords down to urchins and salesmen. Whores and pimps. Juliet traced her interest along the wall. He studied the slung posture of her hip curve. The sum of her spirit.
‘Hey, that’d be you,’ she said, pointing to a vagabond dressed in warped rags, ‘there’s a likeness.’
‘That’s no way to speak to a working class hero.’
‘A working class hero?’
‘That’s what I am.’
‘And whatever gave you that idea?’
‘I’m a man of the people.’
She thrust her tongue behind her teeth.
‘You don’t have to be so cruel.’
‘No, James. I really do.’
It was all out in front of them, on display. Five-hundred years of English distinction, classification and rank.
There were maps of the world colour coded with bright spots to indicate wealth. Vivid and unequal allocation.
He saw pencil drawings of satanic mills and Victorian wharfs that were now occupied by arts entrepreneurs and creative businesses. The Contrarian offices on Aire Street were converted shipping yards and cotton mills. Why did this matter? It was a contingent advance of economic production and somehow felt insulting. To who? To the workers, to the past. The factory as a system of hell. The factory had evolved. The world was under a system of capitalism, invidious and totalising.
‘What is to be done?’ Juliet’s lip protruded for comic effect.
‘More capitalism, loads of it.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I knew you were a Leninist.’
‘It’s your will to domination.’
‘What’s your alternative? Formless radicalism?’
‘Struggle in itself. Struggle for itself.’
‘We should just have a revolution.’
‘And who will lead this revolution?’
‘Of course. Wealthy, male celebrities.’
‘Me and Bono.’
‘Does your struggle involve violence?’
‘We’re already in a war.’
She thought about what he could mean, then blurted out, ‘Those Nazis out there on the street?’
‘That’s a mischaracterisation.’
‘The EDL? I don’t think so.’ Juliet was wryly amused.
‘If it were a load of black guys out there, you’d call it a protest.’
‘Fascists are usually white men.’
‘And some women.’ He looked at Juliet.
‘You spent your advance yet?’
‘What you gonna do?’
‘I’ll play that.’ He pointed to a mock up of a Monopoly board in a glass case, called Polyopoly.
‘I think you already did.’
They went for a coffee, waving at Edward in the foyer as he protested into the receiver. While they took their seats, Juliet stirred her cappuccino, white-frothed. James stared at a steaming mug of decaf.
The aftertaste of last night’s drink on every sip, dark on his tongue. They were surrounded by Victorian tiles, marble columns and high windows.
He couldn’t remember what she had got dressed in this morning but her clothes seemed different, tonally, her heart-shaped sunglasses and flowery dress.
‘I’m not sure I can do this,’ he said.
Her crossed arms were an effrontery of elbows, jagged and hard.
‘It’s not easy for me, either.’
‘No, I’m just saying.’
‘Last night was a mistake, okay? Can we move on?’
‘I don’t know what you see in him. The guy’s a geek.’
‘That’s not for you to decide.’
She gave him a wide-eyed look, open lashed, scorned.
Edward strolled toward the table, Byronic shirt ruffling. His hair was Nordic blonde. He tapped his finger on the table with a watchful eye on Juliet, her behaviour, her red lips.
Around them were the Saturday papers: the culture sections of all the nationals, random pullouts, book reviews illustrated with images of dust jackets and hyperbole. He blew uselessly on his coffee, breath warmer than room temperature. Angled from the windows were seraphic bolts of daylight, dividing about the cafe in knots.
A knock on his foot. Edward’s tapping stopped. He started moaning about the state of the economy, funding cuts to the magazine, the future of The Contrarian. The downward pressure grew on the bridge of his foot.
He saw the way Juliet squirrelled her drink.
‘So yeah, we’re focked basically.’ With Edward’s intonation the word ‘fucked’ came out ‘focked’. He was comically posh.
Juliet asked, ‘Isn’t there any way to raise sponsorship? How about we get some students in to cover some of the labour?’
‘Well, it is illegal. Any suggestions other than exploiting some poor students?’
James sighed, ‘You’re gonna have to get yourself some bollocks.’
‘Typical. You’re only happy when you’re going against the grain.’
‘Just saying it as it is.’
‘Just putting it out there, you know?’
‘Yeah, you remind me of those bigot comedians who’re always going on about saying what everybody’s supposedly thinking.’
‘Fuck off Edward.’
‘Have you heard this? How do you put up with him?’ Edward’s arm reached out to delay his point. Juliet creased into giggles.
She nudged James’ leg, ‘I think you two need to kiss and make up. You’re a pair of old women.’
‘What did you make of the exhibition?’
‘It’s a bit patronising, no?’
‘I wouldn’t say so.’
‘I mean, does it matter? Does class matter today?’
‘We’re so class-obsessed in this country. I’m not sure if that might be part of the problem.’
‘Let’s put it this way, Edward. You’re a middle-class wanker. I’m a working-class cunt with an interest in the arts. You lack credibility. I lack know-how. What the fuck are we to do with a predicament like that?’
‘It’s a crude framework.’
‘The world is fucking crude. The world is cunts and cocks and blood and piss. It’s money and power. It’s me hating you more than you hate me.’
‘Can we go now?’ Juliet asked.
‘That’s a brutal vision of the world, James. Brutal. Borderline mentally ill.’
‘You two should calm down.’
‘Are you medicalising social problems, Edward?’
‘Only if you’re intellectualising your hatred?’ After a night of heavy drinking and contortions in her bed, the quilt too heavy, Juliet’s limbs were unable to free themselves, to give herself away to weightless sleep. She was tired, and tired of them.
‘Yeah, let’s get out of here.’
‘I’m gonna take some more calls.’
‘I’m getting the fuck out.’
‘Well fock off then.’
Edward looked angry. ‘Don’t think I didn’t see what you did at the press conference. We need to discuss your conduct.’
‘You’re representing The Contrarian.’
‘What did I do wrong?’
Juliet blushed, staring into her cup.
‘It was a show-trial. Have you any idea how bad this makes things for us?’
‘Our readership. The Arts Council.’
‘You’re being upright.’
‘I thought this would be a story that you couldn’t fuck up.’
‘What? If what you mean by ‘fuck up’ is investigative journalism.’
‘I thought this was a chance for you to write without being you. All the showing-off and the contrarianism.’
‘Okay, right, before you totally admonish me. Give me until the end of the day.’
‘You don’t even ask, do you? Do you really think I’m stupid enough to randomly attack a supposedly grieving mother?’
Edward raised his hands and eyebrows, shaking his head speculatively.
‘If the magazine’s fucked anyway, what do you have to lose? Imagine how good this would be if I am right?’
‘The magazine isn’t focked.’
‘Why did you even give me this story?’
‘Because it could bring out the best in you.’
‘To patronise me. To make me the sort of writer you want me to be. Like it was in the old days, before I went my own way.’
‘Which is, exactly?’
‘It’s loud. It’s shoddy. And we don’t have the money to pay for legal costs. This is why we can’t afford yourradicalism.’
‘Then what do you want me to write?’
Juliet said, ‘You boys. You can cut the sexual tension with a knife.’
‘I have that effect on people,’ James smiled.
‘Shall we get a drink?’
‘Where do you fancy?’
‘I don’t know. Let’s go for a wander.’
‘We can see the riots.’
‘The city is being occupied. I want to get up close.’
They set out across Millennium Square, alpine mist and a green shimmering concrete still wet from an earlier downpour. Competing for foot-space with suits and shoppers, push chairs and drunks, their feet crisscrossed in a medley of legs. Somewhere in the near distance a chopper droned.
A chaos of noise.
The football-chanting of faraway voices. We are Leeds. We are Leeds. We are Leeds. Hairs along James’ neck prickled. He felt Juliet’s hand wrap around his as they quickened pace across the square. Broadcast on the big screen news was Chantelle Bailey, her face enlarging, noiselessly.
Wes Brown is a 29 year old writer and his debut novel, Shark, was published by Valley Press. He is the young writers’ co-ordinator at the National Association of Writers in Education and Editorial Assistant at Magma Poetry. He has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme and is a visiting lecturer in creative writing at the University of East London.