Elizabeth Walker + Sarah Gledhill


Monday, April 27th, 2009

Some days, because he did believe in a joyous God, Luke wore striped socks. Today they are black and fifty per cent wool, but his feet are cold on the tile floor above the empty space of the cellar. The iron coughs and steam spits up into his face, blows the smell of mothballs against the back of his throat. Will he have to take the cassock off right then, while the Bishop is there? Will the Bishop sit behind his desk, or will he stare out of the window at the Cathedral, hands clasped behind his back. Luke puts down the iron, lifts the robe up and over his head. The cloth is finely woven and for a moment, until he finds the hole in the neck with his trembling hands, he is in darkness. It is nearly time. The new dog collar is the one he keeps for special occasions, but Luke reaches past it for the one he wore at his ordination, yellow around the top where it has chafed against his skin. His fingers fumble with the fastening and he retches as he lowers his chin, the collar tight around his neck. The Bishop will take it away, he knows that from Ridley Hall days, from canteen gossip. After this they will talk about him. Bubbles of gas whine softly, slither upwards inside the clenched ball of his stomach. It is time to go.

The room is hot and sweet with the smell of sherry and furniture polish. Luke is afraid to move, dizzy from the alcohol and no breakfast. The Bishop is smiling, stepping round the desk, leading him to the door. Luke’s right hand, cold, stiff-curled is picked up, held firmly in strong warm fingers. Shaken. The Bishop is smiling, saying something that Luke won’t remember. Outside, on the pavement, Luke stares down at the shiny black cloth stretching to his shoes, walks slowly, then faster and faster, the skirt of the cassock tugging his trousers, catching his legs. At the end of the road he has to stop; hands resting on his knees as his heart slows down, his breathing steadies. He still has everything. He has to go somewhere else, but that’s all. No-one need know anything. Everything is as it was. Inside Luke’s abdomen a space opens up. Some vital organ is moving, sinking down between the slippery folds of his intestines, squeezing against his bladder, lodging heavy and solid, deep in his pelvis. Oh God, Luke thinks, I should have prayed. This morning of all mornings, I should have prayed.


Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

It’s still dark when we get going and Ruthie’s driving too fast, so the bikes are crashing about in the back of the van and she’s swearing as the paint will be marked on her new Maran. We join the others, talking low, sour coffee breath steaming in the air and all around us the bikes lie down, their colours greyed out in the dark. The bag of nails is heavy in my hand. Ruthie she says we can wait and see the start. We’re stopping the cars at the end of the route, so if we’re quick with spreading our nails we’ll see the finish too.

The traffic starts to build and the first teams arrive. Ruthie knows two of the Sirens and we say hi. She tells them I’ll be in the team next year and I give a little nod, but I want to hug her. Everyone’s holding their phones now, waiting for the signal, when a striped van swings round the corner, music thumping out. Ruthie takes them on, walking straight up with her hands on her hips. A man gets out, a band round his hair and at first I think he’s wearing a mask, but then I see the markings on his face and people around me whisper his name just as I realise who it is. The word was Hector had left racing. He says something to Ruthie and she laughs, comes back with softer lips. The rest of the Trojans get out of the van, they’ve all got a V of the same markings down their foreheads, but he’s the one everyone stares at.

The racers are out now, big in helmets and pads. The bikes turn neon-bright as the edge of the sun spills along the road towards us. The first nail-drops are finished and we can hear it’s grid-lock from the car-horns and at last the signal comes and they’re up on the bikes, riding down the bank. Hector does a tail tap and his bike leaps out into the air. Everyone’s yelling, then his eyes are on mine and he throws me his helmet and shakes back his hair. The starters have the planks up on the cars and I hug the helmet tight to my chest and now’s the bit I love the best; the red faces shouting in their boxes of glass and steel while the bikes fly free across the tops of the close-packed cars and crunch down onto the bonnets.

My eyes are for Hector, the way he swings his bike up and over the gaps between the cars, right up on his toes high on a roof, finding the route. He’s out in front already, face naked, no pads, free with his bike. Ruthie’s beside me and we stand and watch his hair flying out for too long and have to run for our bikes and ride to the exit road.

We’re there. I tear the pockets off my coat, scrape my fingers raw inside my bag. I’m crying as the cars drive past and Ruthie puts her arms around me. I must have dropped the nails when I took Hector’s helmet.

The face I saw when we reached him was still beautiful, but Ruthie turned him over. The markings were in blue ink. Injected through the dead skin, into the living layer below. There for life. There until they were flayed by the black tarmac. All the other racers stopped when they saw the cars begin to spread out, but Hector just kept riding, leaping the gaps as they got bigger, then leaning forward into the wind on the moving car. He was smiling when he passed me, I’m sure of that.

Lots of people got marked after that, just a line or two on the backs of their hands or below their ears. Ruthie had a ring done round her ankle. Mine have reached my waist. It hurts more than I expected so I just get a few centimetres done every week. When I’m finished I’ll take the bike out, like he did, find a car and hitch a ride on top, nothing but dead skin between me and the air