by Max Dunbar
Content warning: racial slurs, violent imagery, miscarriage.
On the Thursday Bowman and Carmen had a party, they ordered Sukhothai and Bowman made a playlist for the occasion. Twenty or twenty-five close friends: Yinka and Jasmine with their kids running about, Carrie and Liv Ingle from the View, the Lord and Lady, Retro Bob and Julia from next door, Mark Bernstein from LSTronics. There was prosecco and Peroni (Bowman no longer drank but had laid in plenty for his guests) and they spoke of many things: the Paris terror attacks, the US election, the war in Syria, the state of the local grammar schools, the last season of Love Island, the football fixtures. Later, Bowman remembered the candle flickers on his wife’s flushed cheeks, the tinny reflections in her bright brown eyes, the laughter that echoed with The Herbaliser and Goldberg Variations and Corrine Bailey Rae and the other songs on Bowman’s playlist. He was surprised by how much fun he’d had, and how little he missed getting hammered.
It was a struggle to make it to the bells. Liv and Mark ended up kissing in the back garden before Carrie Sheard took them off to a girly firework night. The Lady came down in a hot flush and had to call a cab. Yinka ran the kids home at half ten. At a quarter to, Bowman and Carmen walked to the park. Even with Carmen toting her bulge, they managed to make it for the countdown. Voices by the hundred shouted out numbers. The view across the city struck him as it always did – roads, lights, towers, and sounds harmonising like a circuit board. It was gone midnight, the first of that year.
The next thing was the list of names: David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Harper Lee, Rob Ford, Garry Shandling, Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Seemed every other day the newspapers were full of tributes and social media was pitching a fit of grief.
“I’m sorry about Rob Ford,” said Bowman. “His calm rational nature is much needed in American politics right now.” The remark got a laugh from Mark Bernstein and Gloria and others who knew about the Trump campaign. Clark Ollerenshaw, who didn’t follow politics (and didn’t care for office banter), looked up from his phone and made a ‘turn-it-down’ motion with his palms.
Bernstein ignored him. “It’s overkill, I don’t care. There’s too much lachrymose bullshit in the world. Should be like the old days: a five-line obituary in The Times and a picture of the subject in military uniform.”
“And it’s so grim, man,” Bowman said. “It feels like – I don’t know, a funeral bell that rings for months on end.”
They all worked for a procurement and IT firm in the city centre. There was every chance that, when Roberson retired, Bowman would make partner. In the evenings, he worked on his interview presentation, accompanied Carmen to neonatal classes and meetings of the Chapel A residents’ association, played five-a-side, and watched Netflix.
In the spring, Bowman took up AA again. His cut-off date had been the start of Carmen’s pregnancy, and he’d now been sober for six months. He’d gotten through the holiday party week no problem, the Chapel A awards, even Mark’s birthday. He’d come to appreciate the boost in energy, the clarity of feeling and thought – not to mention all the money no longer being pissed away on cabs and tips and takeaways.
“It’s hard for you,” she said. “When we went into this, I swore I would never be one of those expectant mums who thinks the world revolves around me and my baby. I want to look out for you.”
“I’ll be fine.” Bowman was lacing up his boots. “I just need to be in a place once in a while where it’s okay to go on and on about myself and how much I used to drink.” The problem was the lighter evenings; during winter, you could stay in and work on, say, the Surbiton contract, but now the sun stretched through the afternoon into glorious dusty evenings – evenings for pints and wine in street-side city bars.
“Okay. But if there’s anything I can do for you –”
“You can quit your job is what you can do for me.” Bowman’s voice was mild. Carmen worked on attachment in the high-crime Eastern View estate, advising tenants on housing and benefits. Bowman had never lived in the View, but he’d grown up in a place like it and didn’t want his wife there.
“Bowman, it’s not downtown Raqqa. There’s security there, there’s a panic alarm –”
“Which’ll be a great comfort when some white, working-class dipshit stabs you because you can’t pull a council house out of the air.”
Carmen shook her head. “They’re angry. These are people who’ve been let down their whole lives, globalisation –”
“Sat there with their subsidised housing and their Sky TV and their tax credits. Boohoo. You’re trying to help, but it won’t stop them fucking you up for being black.”
“In the View, they say ‘coloured’. It’s academic, babe, because we need the money.”
‘No, we don’t,’ Bowman said. ‘I’m going to make partner.’
But Bowman did not make partner. Two days after the interview, he’d been informed by round-robin email that Clark Ollerenshaw had been given the job. Clark had sent a long, self-congratulatory missive and promptly updated his Facebook status.
Although Bowman now only drank San Pellegrino, Bernstein insisted on taking him for a ‘drink’.
“You don’t mind?” his friend asked, on his second pint.
“Not at all. Got off the booze, but I was straight on this stuff.” Bowman waggled his can. “Transference, they call it.”
This was what they in AA called a trigger point. Friday evening in a Park Row bar, the pavement shining with the sun, the laughter and conversation of women – and two men in suits, winding down. Bernstein scrolled through his phone, Facebook-stalking Clark Ollerenshaw, trying to find stuff to use on him.
“I know you’re pissed off,” Bernstein said. “And you’re right to be – you could run this branch much better than he can. But you don’t have the luxury of being pissed off. Clark will try to get rid of you.”
Bowman abruptly put the device back on the table, face-down. “I know,” he said before draining his glass. Five years ago, Clark Ollerenshaw had been divorced. That information had not been recorded on Facebook. Six months prior to this, Bowman and Mrs Ollerenshaw had had a one-night stand after the Harrogate conference. It had been at her instigation, had meant little or nothing, probably wasn’t the main thing that killed the marriage – but Ollerenshaw’s manner with Bowman had been mean and small ever since.
“Forget it. Move on and protect yourself,” Bernstein advised. “Don’t give him a reason. He’s big on the attendance policy. Follow the process.”
A couple women walked by. Both men looked up at the swish of hair and legs, then looked at each other, smiling. “It’s like Chris Rock said, the eternal conundrum: married and bored or single and lonely. I’m happy with Beth, but I keep thinking I’ll screw up, like with Carmen’s mate at New Year, and she’ll kick me back to Hyde Park. By then I’ll be old and decrepit and I’ll die alone.” Bernstein drank half his third pint in one. “It’s okay for you. You’re a black man; you’ll be beautiful forever.”
Bowman tapped his can against Bernstein’s glass. “Check yo privilege, baby. All you have to do is stay away from those CLP meetings so you don’t get tempted by all those three-pound bolshy babes.”
Bernstein laughed. “I won’t be there again. Last CLP meeting I went to, I couldn’t speak for being shouted down by idiots, accusing me of being part of a Zionist plot to undermine the great leader. One guy even spat in my face. The chair hustled me out before I could throw a punch back.”
“What? I thought Labour were supposed to be, like, the nice people.”
“That’s what gets me. All these people who say, ‘Oh, Jeremy, such a decent, sweet, principled old man’ – and all the time he’s building a Sturmabteilung inside the party. I went to my local in Hyde Park last Saturday and the regulars got in late with signs and placards; they had all been in town, at a demo for Jeremy. Good, smart people, wasting their time on this imbecile, keeping the Tories in power forever! It really fucking pisses me off.”
Bowman’s first sober summer wasn’t the shivering washout he’d expected, but rather a humid choking haze that went on and on. Retro Bob and Julia from next door moved out and were replaced by an elderly couple who were rarely seen on the street but watched television until midnight, like it was the 1970s and they were waiting for closedown. Carmen’s bump became more pronounced, and although she lost none of her spirit – Bowman had never met a woman who made him laugh so much, it was probably why he’d married her – she found herself unable to carry on with their weekend outings. So their trips to the Dales and their ping pong championships in the park and their appearances at day festivals all became things of the past.
Clark Ollerenshaw took over the company and introduced a raft of new processes and self-monitoring systems. It was the kind of bureaucratic nonsense that hacked Bowman off more than anything else, but he ground his teeth and jumped the hoops as best he could. His sleep began to erode; it took him a long time to get under, and once he was there, it wasn’t for very long. In the day, he felt foggy and unreal. On the sixteenth, he stopped off at the Meanwood Waitrose and checked groceries through the self-serve machine. It was the day Jo Cox was shot; everyone was talking about it. The machine’s voice reminded him of his first ever boss – a man called Josh Noble who’d had a sweaty complexion and a hoarse, quavering voice. A tightness settled in Bowman’s chest; even checking food through self-serve felt bureaucratic and cumbersome, like working a job where everybody looked down on you and you couldn’t do anything right.
They did sometimes walk across to the Lord and Lady’s place overlooking the village, Carmen waddling and laughing about it, then scrambling for the toilet every twenty minutes. All the talk was about Donald Trump, and Bowman grew sick of it. Trump won key states, secured a delegate majority, left battered protestors and failed opponents in his wake. It was no longer a joke – it was that funeral bell tolling in almost a war-drum rhythm, and it gave Bowman the shivers. Something Liv Ingle said at one of these gatherings chimed with him: “I can’t watch the news right now. If you really thought about what was happening in the world, you’d think of nothing else.”
The next week, there was a referendum party at the Lord and Lady’s place. There was a fabulous buffet spread featuring dishes from all over Europe and matching wines. Guests ridiculed the Vote Leave campaign and predicted a comfortable Remain win. Bowman saw a different truth in his Twitter feed, which had reports of City traders lining up to sell sterling, and in something Carmen had said: “I was driving back through the estates, and it took me five minutes to get onto Harehills Lane for the coaches. They were all going off to vote. They had their kids in pushchairs, ice creams and cans of beer; it was like a gala day.”
Over that evening, the atmosphere worsened. Social media started weeping into its hands. “Well, what’s done is done,” said the Lord. “We’ll just have to make the best of it.”
Carmen shook her head. “What will people do when they find out they’re not going to get zero net migration and the magic money tree?”
Bowman and Carmen drove home, then sat up for the rest of the night talking about what it would all mean for themselves and for the baby. Next morning, he was held at the Headrow lights. Outside a JB Sports, there was a clutch of young men, late teens or early twenties, all pigeon chests and baseball caps. They began shouting, but Bowman couldn’t make out what they were saying. He wound the window down, but the lights changed and the car behind him started honking, so he drove on.
At work the office was split down the middle: half his colleagues celebrating, the other half cursing the result. Bernstein said it was the same in his local. None was happier than Clark Ollerenshaw, who bragged about the vote at length. It seemed irrational to Bowman, because the German and Swedish contracts made up sixty percent of their business. He read the financial pages every day, and today they had reports of capital flight and interest rate hikes. Elsewhere, the news was no better: a Polish mechanic beaten up in Halton Moor, a Romanian shop firebombed in Armley, a temple ablaze in Harehills.
In the bar that night, Mark Bernstein said: “A door has been opened.”
Bowman was sleeping through perhaps two nights out of every five at this point. The rest of the time, he just lay there, listening to the television from next door or the bells and drums in his head. He missed days at work on occasions when he had slept so badly that Carmen forbade him to drive. She herself had six weeks to go until mat leave and came home every night exhausted from the suffering and the bitterness and the grief she dealt with all day.
Towards the end of July, on the four o’clock of another endless afternoon, Bowman got a phone call from the View.
Bowman gunned the Volvo at the speed limit all the way to the LGI, thinking about what he knew and the worst-case scenario. She had been kicked in the stomach, the dipshit housing team leader had said on the phone. Then started bleeding. And didn’t stop. Don’t say, ‘I told you so’, Bowman thought.
“I know where to get a gun,” said Mark Bernstein.
“Why are you telling me this?”
Bowman didn’t need to hear talk of guns. He’d just been chewed out by Ollerenshaw over his absences. Redundancies were coming. Carmen was still under obs in the LGI, and the house felt empty and surreal without her. He’d had ten hours of sleep in the last forty. When he was under, his dreams were febrile horrors in which bells rang and drums boomed on and on.
“You and I are both ethnic minorities. We’re gonna be fair game.” Bernstein banged the edge of his glass against the newspaper. Bernstein was drinking more than ever these days. Who could blame him? “More attacks, more property damage, people running. Applications for Irish passports are through the roof. Turns out we needn’t to worry about immigration – it’s going to be a job to keep citizens in, never mind keeping immigrants out.”
Bowman knew that if he stayed with Bernstein in the town local, he’d start drinking, so he drove back. He was out of San Pellegrino, the blood orange flavour he liked. With no chance of getting to sleep without it, he stopped at the Waitrose. There was a queue for the machines – people panic-buying tins and rice. When he finally got to a machine – the Noble machine – it jammed, telling him in its quavery Josh Noble voice to remember to top up your loyalty card, remember to do this, that and the other. Bowman kicked the machine. He kicked the casing out of whack, smashed the display screen with his fist, shouted something. Two men tried to drag him off while Bowman threw more punches. The arresting officer kept saying he was surprised how sober Bowman was.
The cell hadn’t exactly been comfortable, but he’d had the best night’s sleep in some weeks. After work, Bowman went to the LGI to collect Carmen. She’d changed. She no longer followed the news with the avid fever of a political junkie, no longer argued, no longer made him laugh. He thought of telling her to look on the bright side – she didn’t have to wait five weeks for her mat leave to kick in, there didn’t need to be any mat leave because they weren’t going to have a baby they could no longer afford.
Ollerenshaw found out about the Waitrose arrest and fired Bowman. It was ten years of his life at a company he himself could have run, but who cared? Redundancies had kicked in; other colleagues had returned to their own countries. Ollerenshaw gave him a cheque for three grand. Bowman shook his hand and left.
He took the first job he could find at a distribution barn in the Kirkstall Forge. It was seven pounds an hour, and he had to walk to and from work because Carmen had taken the Volvo to her sister’s place in South Manchester. Two hours, there and back. Twice a day, he died in the heat of that endless summer.
Every morning and every evening, his route took him through the estate in Little London where he’d been raised. It had barely changed: people sitting on porches, children playing on the rec, older boys razzing around on illegal quad bikes. Smells of dope and cookfires and burning rubbish. He started thinking about Grampy Bo, who he had been named for. Grampy Bo had been a farmer from Lagos and had come over in the 1960s and used to tell tales of old Leeds and the stacks and the shebeens and his Chapeltown pals, including a dancing, laughing man they called Yankee.
Grampy Bo had had a set of almanacs from his farming days. The almanacs told you the weather and conditions for the coming year. Bowman wondered if there had been an almanac for 2016, and if even Grampy Bo could have seen this storm coming.
Days passed, one of which was his thirty-fifth birthday. He had to be the oldest man in the distribution barn by at least five years. The work involved picking and packing delivery orders, with floorwalkers ranging about to make sure you got it right. People were docked for lateness, talking back, missing tiny details. One of the floorwalkers reminded him of Josh Noble.
One Friday, he was too tired to walk back to Chapel A. The bus strike was in its third week, and one of the lads invited him out. What the hell, he thought. They hit the Hyde Park-Woodhouse strip, drinking in various bars. The team was mainly hipsters and graduates and Hawkswood hustlers and they got on well. Through them, he met and copped with a postgraduate student named Germaine who had just spent a year in Berlin.
“I go away for, like, twelve months,” Germaine said, “and the country goes mad.” It was around the time when the Labour leadership contest had started getting very nasty – several journalists had been killed that month, two further MPs had been murdered and a third had been relocated to a police safehouse after receiving what was described as ‘specific and credible threats to life.’
He spent most weekends with Germaine, even inviting her to sleep over in the Chapel A house. They drank wine and talked of books and politics – the latest immigration crackdown or fuel shortages. In normal circumstances, this would have been a mid-life crisis or even the beginning of another life. But these were not normal times. Queues began to develop at chemists, newsagents, petrol stations. When he went to the supermarkets (not Waitrose, as he was now barred from all 344 UK branches), there were signs asking for customers to be patient with ongoing shortages of luxury items – said ‘luxury items’ included fresh fish, cold meats, fresh fruit, chicken, potatoes, and print newspapers. Carmen showed no signs of returning to the city and didn’t even call anymore.
In October, they burned the distribution barn. Bowman had not been on shift to see it, but he turned up the following Monday to find his workplace a charred ruin. The floorwalker who looked like Josh Noble was lain half in and half out of the electric central doors. The man’s neck appeared to have been snapped, and his face was swollen and discoloured.
Normally, on a weekday morning, the Forge would be busy with families, children, delivery guys, construction workers, trolley collectors, and security guards. Today there were only a couple middle-aged men in t-shirts and jeans. One of the men called over to Bowman. There was a smugness to his face, the small delight of the pedant who sees an opportunity to pull someone up over some trivial error. “Smashed it, mate. Scragged the gaffers. There’s no work here, so you can get the fuck outta this country now, ya nigger cunt.”
Bowman turned. “If only it were that simple,” he said, conversationally, and hit the pedant with a right hook.
He walked through the precinct without looking back.
Winter came hard. No streetlights tempered its darkness, no city corona polluted its black sky. The view from Bowman’s garden was a crowded moonscape of craters and flares.
A year ago tonight, he’d had a party. The house had been filled with people and life. Now even Germaine had gone, escaped over the border to Scotland (her father was in the consular service, he remembered her saying). He felt like going out, to mark this occasion somehow. He took a tote bag Carmen had got from Latitude and packed a bottle of screwjack red, a glass and a knife. He blew out the candles and fixed the deadbolt over the front door and padded through the silent suburbs.
As Bowman walked, he checked all visual quadrants and scrolled through his feeds. There was a medicine riot on the LS6 side of Meanwood, police checkpoints on the Stainbeck Road. Twitter proliferated with zombie parodic accounts and appeals to trace the missing.
He skated through its backstreets and ginnels. The Sugarwell depot was busy with clandestine movement. Sentries with rifles were posted outside. Bowman regretted not taking Bernstein up on the gun offer. He wondered where Mark Bernstein was now.
He passed a council building. A transit van screamed into its forecourt. A man got out and threw some kind of missile. The building went up, and the man got back in the van and drove out on a three-point turn, tyres biting the road.
Bowman cut through the valley trail where things were more settled, though he smelled campfires and knew people were sleeping there. He scrambled up to the Ridge, and a voice called out to him: “Who’s there? Friend or foe?”
Bowman strode across to the bench. “Friend, I guess.”
The figure offered a hand. Bowman shook it and sat down. It was dark, even on this high ground, but Bowman could see this man was probably younger than he looked, small and almost wizened. He had a tea light and a book; Bowman could not make out the title. The stranger’s voice was light, said his name was Henry.
Bowman played music from his phone and shared his wine. Together they watched the horizon and commented on what news there was. London had closed its borders, Manchester had declared itself a republic, then been taken over by political militants. The med riot had spread to the city centre; a council tweet loop declared AVOID HEADROW, BRIGGATE, ALBION – RISK TO LIFE – FOOD POINTS AT MERRION CENTRE CAR PARK, LS2, STATION APPROACH. Bowman’s iPod shuffle played Rae and Christian’s ‘Swan Song (For a Nation)’.
“It’s a turn up, isn’t it?” said Henry. “I’m rather old, and I think that the older I get, the less I know, and the less I can predict the future. There is a real sense, don’t you feel it? Of history taking over.”
“History is all there is, no?” Bowman said. “I mean, this is it, right? Apocalypse. Meltdown.”
“I would say it’s a meltdown, I’m not sure if it’s an apocalypse. No one at the beginning of the twentieth century expected what would happen – the Somme, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the gulag. Who thought our silly little ape species would survive such horrors? But the capacity of human beings to make a total bloody hash of things is only exceeded by our ability to somehow regroup and work together and get things back on track.”
Bowman laughed. “Come on. A self-correcting mechanism and everything will be back the way it was?”
Henry shook his head. “No. Nothing is ever the way it was. I think the darkness will come to an end because I prefer to be optimistic, though I’m too old and ill to live to see whatever end will come. But you, my friend, you’re still young. You’re fit enough to fight and be a part of whatever comes next. This is very good wine, by the way.’’
The Counting Crows came on, Adam Duritz singing about the smell of hospitals in winter and one more night up in the canyon. Bowman started laughing: it was the ultimate teenage white boy’s soul music, but it seemed to somehow fit the mood.
“They’re building a safe zone in LS6,” Henry said. “From All Hallows to the Chemic. They have barricades and viable trade routes. LS6 is where the migrants went, when things went bad. We’ll see in the bells, young man. Then you get some sleep. Tomorrow, there will be work.”