Monday, 6 October 2008


Matthew Munday

As he walked along, the carrier bag hung heavy on his fingers. He had tried resting his hand inside his pocket with the handle twined around his wrist, but the bottom of the bag only clunked rhythmically against his knee as he moved. There seemed to be no other way but to endure one cold hand. He stopped. At the end of the road, in the distance, where the cracked tarmac dipped away, he saw a greygreen band of light on the horizon. The sun was coming up. The light which melted upwards showed a bare morning sky: no milky wisps of cloud, no winking Cinderella stars. Just an upturned bowl.

He shifted the bag from his right hand to his left, looking at the stripes of bloodless skin it had left across his fingers. As he blew into his fist, the tins he’d bought clinked against his thigh. A car sped past. Treating his right hand to a spell inside its pocket, he wiped his wet nose on his other sleeve and carried on, hunching his shoulders against the cold, and whistling vapour into the freezing air.

As he strode along, he looked down at his feet, picking his way through the oily puddles in his path. Presently he looked up and, with something of the squint, peered forward to see where, far up ahead, a figure moved jerkily towards him. No harm in being careful, he thought, and crossed the road. A streetlamp, bent at the base by some collision, arched awkwardly over the road and flickered silently to itself. He stopped again to change hands.

He could now see the figure was pushing something in front of it – something like a pram or a small trolley – and that it was the erratic jumping of the wheels on the potholed ground which caused the person to move so strangely. The figure itself looked short and robust, and was zipped up from knees to head in a thick jacket. He stood and watched as it drew closer on the other side of the road. Over its head was a large fur-lined hood, leaving only a small porthole. The figure kept this hole constantly focused on the ground in front, making sure to pre-empt the more violent bumps of the pram with see-sawing arm motions. At the crossroads ahead it stopped and stared fixedly downwards, its hands never leaving the pram’s handle-bars. All lights showed green in all directions. The figure hesitated a moment, listening he supposed, and then abruptly began again, pushing out with confidence into the empty road. As the pram trundled crazily past he saw its contents – a huge plastic bottle of water, the kind which he’d once seen bubble and gurgle in the corner of an office. Around twenty litres, he guessed.

As he approached the crossroads on the other side, with the pram now moving off some way behind him, he glanced both left and right. Nothing coming. He took a light step down the kerb and spun around, letting the bag’s weight and momentum take it in a wide circle around him. With his arm extended fully, the bag swung in a circle wide enough to encompass both lanes of the road, its loose plastic fanning and rippling in the wind. He slowed down, stopped, and then stood for a moment, looking south down the huge hill towards the motionless rubble of the city. A pigeon flapped lazily along. It was getting light. Setting the bag down at his feet, he wrapped one fist over the other and blew warm air into both of them. It made a broken duck-call noise. He did it again.

He picked up the bag and skipped up the far kerb towards home, staggering happily from one side of the pavement to the other like a drunk. Far behind him the streetlamp stopped flickering.

At the corner of his road a bus lay on its side. None of its windows had survived, and scattered around were a few remaining cubes of glass. He kicked lazily at one of the wheels, trying to make it spin. It didn’t move - it never did. Clambering onto the side of bus, he sat down and fished about in the bag, eventually pulling out a tin of tuna. This he opened slowly, pulling the ring-pull back, enjoying the feeling and sound of metal scraping on metal. He dug two fingers into the oily contents and brought them quickly up to his mouth. He did it again, licking his lips. After scraping out the remnants and sucking his fingers clean, he threw the tin off to the side and jumped down from the bus, landing with a glassy crunch. Yawning and scraping his boots against the tarmac, he set off towards home.

In his front garden a path led from the gate to the front door through a large patch of bare earth. The gate had long ago disappeared, as had its hinges, leaving four rusty holes in the stone pillar which had once held it up. He looked up at the first floor windows. They were tinted brown at the edges. Through a small gap in the curtains he could see the piles of newspapers that they kept up there. These were vast, like haystacks – bundle upon bundle of grey paper right up to the ceiling.

He made his way along the path, inspecting the contents of the bag as he went. Everything seemed to be there. Tinned this and that, wads of cloth, sterilising powder. When he reached the door he shifted the bag to his left hand and with his right pumped the door handle three times, up and down. After a ten second pause he did it again. Through the frosted glass he saw her moving towards him down the hall, laying her hand on things to steady herself as she went. And after a moment he listened contentedly to the rattle and clicks of their seven locks being carefully undone.