by Sasha Saben Callaghan
Format: Short Story | Genre: General Fiction
Content warning: sexual assault.
Once, I had my own Year of Living Dangerously. It wasn’t like the film.
What does ‘dangerous’ mean? I didn’t get up every morning thinking I might die, although I sometimes wished it. I wasn’t starving, just dragged down by a constant low-grade hunger. I was scared nearly all of the time, but that’s how most people have always lived. Continue to live. I mean, it was nothing exceptional.
I was staying in one of those marginal cities. The kind of places only holding on by their fingertips. I don’t need to mention where it is because it’s just another of so many almost-nowheres. In the past, things had been very different when old-money complacency rubbed shoulders with up-and-coming arrivistes. I visualised it in its prime: a portly uncle wearing a silk dressing gown, rubbing his hands with delight as the profits kept rolling in. Until they didn’t.
By the time I got to Almost Nowhere, everyone capable of escape had left.
While I was there, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe this accelerated flight. The wild depopulation. Now I know its name. The rationale behind the process. The ideology. Decades before austerity, there was managed decline. Politicians stopped trying to make water flow uphill. They refused to cast more seeds on stony ground. Intractable cities, the ones that obstinately turned their faces against regeneration, were discarded. Left to their own devices, they fell in upon themselves. Riots. Disorder. Decay. The self-fulfilling prophecy of desperation.
Some people say the city I come from is vast and unknowable, but I wore it comfortably, like an old overcoat. That was my life. I worked in securities. I was secure. Safe and sound. And it might have continued, but there was an incident at work. A discrepancy was flagged up. I was at the periphery. Mine was a walk-on part. I could have weighed up the risks, taken my chances. Stayed.
I chose not to.
I cleared out my bank accounts and told the taxi driver to drop me off at a mainline station. I don’t know why I said that particular terminus. It was the first to come to my head. On the concourse, I read the departure board. All the trains were northbound, and I bought a ticket to the end of the line. I’d never been there before. What I wanted – what I was looking for – was distance.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of my situation. The sheer alien quality of the landscape was unnerving. Whole terraces of houses had been half built, then inexplicably abandoned. There were acres of disordered wasteland, violently splashed with cobalt and cadmium, adorned with burnt-out cars and shattered televisions and nameless things hidden in plastic bags or secreted under frayed tarpaulins.
I had only been in the city for a day or so when I heard clattering outside. I went to the window to see what the noise was. Horses, maddened with thirst, were cantering along the street. Later, a man walking unsteadily in front of me collapsed without warning and lay vomiting on the pavement.
Of course, given time it’s possible to get used to anything. The secret is to have low expectations and to ruthlessly suppress one’s imagination. I’ve said I was scared, but quite often I was bored. I’ve learnt over the years the two aren’t mutually exclusive. These little wars we must constantly fight are tedious and terrifying in unequal measure.
Interesting or unsettling events happened but only occasionally. A sewer in the next road collapsed, and a frenzy of rats with sequin-sharp eyes scattered down the embankment. A boy, glittering, golden as Icarus, jumped from the balcony of a nearby tower block. Two cars were fire-bombed and exploded in a dazzle of molten glass.
Mostly, the days blurred into one. Fate didn’t step in to lend a hand. Just as the city withdrew, growing smaller and smaller, so did I. In the end, all that was left was a tiny thing inside of me. Hard and smooth as a worn pebble.
It got colder. Dwindling resources had to be eked out. I could barely afford to heat my tiny room. It became essential to stay out for as long as I could bear it, then come back and get straight into bed. Not to read or to think. It was too bitter for anything beyond simply being. Sometimes I wandered in a desultory way through the railway interchange or the shopping centre. Mostly, I sat in the library or visited the museum.
As winter closed in, almost imperceptibly I stopped talking. I wasn’t the only one. It was a city of sporadic noise, a cacophony of random things and crowds. But everyday interactions took place in muteness. No one said please or thank you at the local shop. The first few times I tried it there was no response, so after a while I didn’t bother. It became an increasing effort to speak aloud, even to myself, and eventually I surrendered to the cool expanse of silence.
One evening I stayed late at the library in order to keep warm and it was well after nine when I left for home. It would have been far quicker to take the path through the deserted factories, but I decided to be sensible and walk along the main road then over the ill-lit footbridge. The steps were vaguely disorientating; I could never remember how many there were. Every time I counted them I reached a different total. It still felt safer to go that way.
I could hear shouting as I crossed the bridge, long before I turned the corner into the narrow street. I hesitated, telling myself not to be such a baby. I guessed the noise must be coming from outwith the derelict pub.
I’d watched the landlord and his family flee weeks before, joining the wash of fellow economic refugees. Workmen came to bar the windows and nail the doors shut. They put up notices that said THERE IS NOTHING OF VALUE LEFT IN THIS BUILDING. As soon as they left, people broke in as if to make a deliberate point of proving the brewery wrong. Floorboards, cupboards, a cast-iron bath, copper piping and lead from the roof were taken away in a succession of anonymous vans and rickety flat-bed trucks.
What remained descended into an unlicensed drinking club. In other cities, there would have been complaints, petitions to the council. The polis might have felt obliged to clamp down on the rows and dealing, the wrangles and run-ins that spilt onto the road. In this city, nothing. There were no interventions. The once-clandestine now functioned in plain sight.
As I passed the open door, I held my breath, deliberately looking straight ahead, determined not to give anyone inside the impression I was making eye contact. I knew showing fear would mark me out a victim. The only thing to do was to keep going, even though I felt an almost irresistible urge to turn around and retreat to the uncertain reassurance of the bridge.
A mean little alley led to a cobbled yard at the side of the building and a group of men, maybe seven or eight, were milling around. I realised, from what they were yelling to each other, at least one was pissing into the overflowing drain. The nearest of them came at me, and before I could stop him, began pushing me towards his friends. He was shouting. Laughing. She wants to look. Go on, look at that, that’s what she wants.
He grabbed both my wrists, grasping them tightly in one hand. Then he forced my arms above my head, using the full weight of his body to press me against the courtyard wall. He began to maul my face and neck, and when I tried to turn my head away, he caught my hair with his other hand to hold me still.
A deep, wrenching circle of pain tore around my forearm as my silver bangle ground into soft flesh.
I opened my mouth to say the first words I had in months, and he rammed his tongue in. He tasted of cheap lager and something intensely sweet.
After he let me go I didn’t run.
But I did walk very fast.
Sasha Saben Callaghan is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by Tommi Sopenperä, NVW Editor, and Sonali Misra, Co-founder at The Selkie. A special thanks to Contributing Editors, Kat Herron and Jack Ferguson, for their initial inputs in this piece.