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Voltage was placed 5th in the 2017 international Atlantis Award. In the same year it was one of 12 stories shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize and was subsequently published by Tangent Books.

Voltage

 

 

 

Smoke deep and with intent in the waste scrub by the train station. Smoke diesel-tinged resin through a crushed coke can stabbed with pocket-knife holes. Smoke danger into the safe suburban streets. Hold the naphtha hot breath. Ignore the sear and melt of alveoli. Mannish disregard for that. Quell the sick feeling with a metallic slug of brandless pilsner. Walk along surfaces. Through the poorly drained concrete lanes backed with unused garages. Walk along the tree-root busted path and the shopping centre tarmac bejewelled with glinting diamonds of carglass, over the low kerb wall and across a road made of ribbed concrete squares sealed with tubular squirms of black tar. Head for the margins, three abreast and hoods up. Your mothers left indoors and the other doors full of other fuckers mothers who are part of the stonewall gaze, the cold facade, the impenetrable lockout of a suburb at dusk. Walk between the joins of the estate. Dark descending with the stars lighting up in bunches over the wires of the train line and the broken floodlights of the tennis court.

Breathe the dull smoky red skyline and absorb the full-lunged damp power of it. Walk onwards to the graveyard wall that was here long before the houses came up flush with it. Organic stone on stone repointed crassly with council cement. Vault and land with the confidence of a stride barely broken. Don’t talk, just continue the road. Follow the track that needs no acknowledgement up to the leeside of the ruined church. Iron bars in the shattered walls and inconceivably old graffiti clinging somehow to the sandstone, spelling names of long forgotten thrash bands that must have been revered by the first ever kids to own this estate. Or before even when the sprawl stopped fields back to the west and they came stomping out here in the dusk in cutsleeve shirts and laced up boots to smoke and spit and sniff glue like men and venerate Dark Angel, Kreator, Corrosion of Conformity. Stop in the shadow of the wall, wrestle a joint into being and drink another can from the bag looking out over the dirty expanse of the bay, the strewn emptiness and braided channels and mudflats left behind by the egress of thousands of cubic tons of seawater dragged off to some distant shore. Consider the invisible immense net of gravity, the blurred out moon clawing its dues but don’t speak of these things yet. Drink and smoke and laugh lightness. Kick the hummocky sandy scraw, oblivious to the jags of crockery, the coffin nails and knuckle bones breaking the surface in a thousand tiny extrusions. Drink the energy, the rawness, the possibility of the night and forge on across the coast road with the yellow effluent of light disgorging from the streetlamps ticking on along the grand arc of the bay. Chew on the seawrack smell, the algae zest and mollusc and lugworm churned sands. Follow the bay seawards and descend down at the appointed place onto the foreshore and forge on through the shingle of dogwhelk and the knotted fists of seaweed and the humped banks of vomited bladderwrack. Slog alongside the back of the rich houses with their gardens running down to the shore, their boundaries of full rhododendron, buddleia, ortensia, chickenwire and driftwood driven palisades. Pass deep in the rhythm of your work, crunching draining steps, hoods down, the shush of the sea away to your right and the moon suddenly large and lounging in a bank of oily cloud. Grip cans of beer in your sleeve-sheathed hands, the convection numbing fingers – you have all mastered the slug and stride like men. Walk with entitlement, with mustered menace, with the righteousness of coming from over the tracks. From smaller houses fitted closer together.

Reach the place. Push in the chainlink fence close to the rusted post. Bull in through the bushes. Retrace the steps of two weeks previous. Up the overgrown curving way between the ewe and alder, past the massive pampas grass in the lawn. Past the glasshouse where you came that first night, egging each other on, quietly undoing the latch and drinking inside in the darkness and in restrained quiet as the rain burst itself on the corrugated glass panes and you lay down along the desiccated leaf litter of dead tomato and courgette plants and filled the place with silvery smoke, feeling the cold seep into your kidneys and eyeing her occasionally and stretching out antennae, filtering her speak from the low babble and the slight, tinny sounds from the walkman turned up full playing Mudhoney. Alive to the slightest move in her direction or a hand up the back of her massive purple jumper. Coyle had gone out well-oiled towards the end of the night to confirm what you all knew. What you could all scent by the dock infested lawn, the barrow full of clippings brimming with pungent water, the silent three stories of Edwardian bay windows vinyl-black and lifeless and unvexed by your presence. Empty. Bravado pushed him to it. And a nervous system overloaded with the crystal shudder of eight cans of lager. He built it up, searching the garden gone to seed for the right sized rock and the camp was split evenly between the conscientious ah for fucks sake man sit down and the anxious give it over Coyle you arsehole to the passive onlookers wanting the smash and whatever came after but not wanting to say. He was amped by the attention and when he had the stone in his fist and the lot of you looking out from the doorway of the glasshouse he had no option but to stride purposefully towards the back of the building which inhaled him into its cavernous black bay eyes and draped his approach with the sobering aeons of silence step that took him step to the precipice step of action step or inaction. Smash. And at the tittering chime you all ran, fighting through the shed door, haring for the bushes in a choked effulgence of strangled laughter, shouts and tangled hands on shoulders on smalls of backs on napes of necks of lips on the thin crest of ear of her reaching behind and finding your fingers and shearing off into the buddleias. And suddenly they were a continent away in mad tangles of rhododendrons fighting through the chainlink fence. Dark. Jet black giving way to the grainy pixelated greyness that cushioned yet somehow exaggerated sound. Breaths mostly. Hands found the perches of her hips and you bent to find the tongue that was waiting in her mouth full of voltage. Bestowed its electricity on you. And you gave back you don’t know what, struggling with her rhythm, losing your breath, heavy nose breathing and bringing your hands in at her waist and following up her back sliding beneath the jumper feeling the apparatus of brassiere beneath her t-shirt and up to her shoulders and palping the back of her neck and hoping to Christ this was ok and that she wasn’t looking for more - or less and swelling when she responded slipping her arms inside your jacket and around your ribs. You emerged when the others came creeping back into the unexploded silence, drawn by the catgut line of curiosity through the chainlink fence and up the overgrown path and past the mildewed glasshouse to the shard-fringed window frame exhaling wounded energy, exhaling a longing, exhaling the dust of a stifled past, of lives lived into the damp, moon-bright youth- buoyed night. Coyle despite his amped up trajectory had not aimed wild and smashed one of the stately bays but had gone for a small sash window that opened into a space beneath the back stairs. When you cleared out the frame and climbed in, Coyle deferred and you took the initiative brimming with recent events. The place was immaculate. Dry, empty and covered in a film of chalky dust that you knew had settled after the comprehensive removal of marble mantle pieces, wrought iron fireplaces and period furniture. A noise out front. A thump of panic like a bird against a windscreen. Coyle’s voice through the letterbox let me eee-iii-ynnn. You opened the front door and there he stood, with her, framed by the gothic shape of the overhanging trees. In the hall, the majesty of the staircase and the red and black tiles laid on the diagonal. A heavy black rotary dial phone riveted to the wall – still working. The bare light bulbs hanging in their sockets – operational. The toilet flushing. Bare boards upstairs. Rooms over rooms of unspoilt space and you were all, even Coyle, in awe of the nobility of the place. Of the third floor up in the rafters with the lattice and plaster walls and the dormer windows out onto the roof with its doughty chimney breasts. When the moon had passed low and the frost set in and the beers run out, you all left by the front door, not before coming together in the hall, all twelve of you. Acknowledged paradise. And you gravely undertook, one and all to maintain the secret. To not abuse. To be respectful. To not spread the word, pollute desecrate or damage.

Go now up the overgrown path. Past the pile of stagnant clippings weeping on the paving. Past the smashed glasshouse with the upended barrow jammed in the frame, through the yawning maw of the empty bay window into the rain-splashed and beer can-obliterated back room. Say alright to whatever lads are in, talking shit and drinking fast and flinging cans off the walls. Pass into the hall with the stereo pumping shite metal and empty cans and broken glass skittering across the tiles and some fuckhead kicking out the balustrade posts and the black phone in pieces against the foot of a wall scored with deep meaningless gashes. Push past the bodies on the stairs up to the bare boards of the bedroom with wax candles melting into the timber and a conclave sitting around a creep with long straggly hair holding court about this great weed he’s rolling into a baggy joint and counting out mushrooms from a paper bag. See all of the lightbulbs smashed out and the bath full to the brim with detritus and the heavy porcelain toilet broken into big wet chunky shards. Up again to the top floor and Coyle is there in the raging dark, stereo blaring with his shirt off ramming a balustrade post through the lattice wall as goblins crawl into the night through the skylight howling over the reluctant suburb. Howling for the police to come which sure as fuck they will in the end and run a surge of sixty, half-dressed, tripping heresiarchs through the brutalised shell of the building, cramming through the back window, down the overgrown path and over the uprooted chainlink fence like sand hoppers churning through heaped banks of bladderwrack and chief fuck among them with a purple woollen jumper tied over his naked shoulders and her smell on the fingers of one hand and not fucking one of us will ever vocalise the fact, put words to it, make it real with sound – that this was the house where Ben our Australian classmate would bring us in our dozens for tea and computer games during long lazy lunch breaks all through transition year as his ailing grandmother boiled the kettle or sent apologies and warm greeting down from her bed above. Not one word of it uttered. Not one evocation of his name to humanise the space. To spell what we had done.

Photo P.Duffy