by Ray Newman
When Chris realised that, quite by accident, he had wandered home again after twenty years, he knew he would have to go to the underpass. He had no choice.
Rainbow Pit – that’s what the kids had called the space beneath the motorway with its four subway tunnels, sticker-encrusted railings and graffiti-covered, rust-streaked concrete pillars. Years before he ever knew it there had been a mural of a rainbow, a remnant of an aborted community garden. Though the painting was scrubbed away, the name stuck.
He remembered the Pit filled with the sound of scraping skateboards, cider cans being crushed and the thin tap, tap, tap of portable speakers plugged into a knock-off Walkman. Deano and Melon wrestling, scuffed trainers scattering broken glass; Andrew and Dan telling filthy jokes; Nina chewing her nails to nothing and trying not to smile. She didn’t want anyone to see the steel of her braces. And overhead, the neverending waterfall roar of north-south traffic.
Now, he recognised it as just the kind of strategic location he’d sought all over the country, from Inverness to Penzance. It was a fairly dry, fairly clean, fairly safe place to set up camp. Nobody used the underpass anymore because there was no reason to do so: they’d knocked down the school, the bus station and the council offices. Now there was just rubble and brambles surrounded by developer’s boards advertising luxury apartments, coming soon. There was lots of air, albeit chewy with pollution, and plenty of space – no walls or ceilings with their restraining holds.
This underpass was different, though, because this was where they’d made The Dash. It was where the mental faultline he’d been built upon finally shifted. Rainbow Pit was where he’d last been himself, his old self – the self that slept in beds and smiled and had a sister, brother, mother. It scared him to be there, or was it excitement? The interference and talkback he always heard was more insistent as if trying to convey an important message.
‘I don’t fucking care, mate,’ he said to nobody. ‘I ain’t fucking bothered.’
It was just an underpass.
He parked his trolley and emptied it so he could turn it on its side as a cage for his head. He made his bed around it: foam roll, sleeping bag and foil blanket. As grey afternoon turned to purple, and sparse orange lights came lazily to life, he ate a meal of white bread and chocolate. Then he climbed into his sleeping bag and put his head into the trolley.
He tried to ignore the voices, images and impulses with which his brain bombarded him when he closed his eyes. The traffic noise helped. It was soothing, shushing him to sleep like mother used to. Rainbow Pit ain’t so bad, he thought, as sleep came down.
What woke him, after midnight, was a shrill laugh spinning out across the concrete.
Beyond opening his eyes, Chris didn’t move. He had been conditioned over the course of decades to freeze rather than to start at unexpected sounds.
He heard the laugh again. It was a sound he knew – a distinctive high whoop he’d heard a thousand times before, just like this, bouncing off the underside of the six-lane road above, double-tracked and amplified.
Slowly, Chris turned his head to look through the mesh of the shopping trolley.
Across the central well of the underpass, on the stepped verge, he thought he saw something shift in the shadows.
‘Fuck sake, Chris, fuck sake,’ he muttered. He closed his eyes and began the incantation he used when reality began to feel especially slippery: ‘If you lived in Pigeon Street… Here are the people you could meet… Here are the people who would say… Hello, goodbye, hello…’
The thing about Deano, the thing that set him apart from all the other boys with acne and shaggy hair, was his lack of fear. He had started talking about doing The Dash one spring evening not long before they were due to take their final exams.
‘Can you imagine?’ he kept saying. ‘Can you imagine it, though? It would be fucking immense.’
‘Fucking stupid, more like,’ said Melon. Chris, Andrew and Dan agreed.
‘Yeah, don’t be stupid,’ said Nina.
The boys, obsessively but unconsciously aware of every non-verbal signal Nina sent, felt a shift in the air. She didn’t think The Dash was a good idea, obviously not, but the very thought of it brought a flush to her cheeks.
Chris opened his eyes.
Yes, there was definitely somebody there, moving through the darkness, skirting the edge of the light cast from the road above. It was just a person, though – a normal, unknown, potentially murderous person.
Chris had been through this a thousand times. They were usually more scared of him than he was of them. They came near enough to see his form among the tangled bedclothes and heaped possessions before veering away, as afraid of finding a corpse as they were of him attacking. Sometimes, they shouted. Sometimes, they got close enough to piss on him or lash out with a boot. Once, there was lighter fluid and a flicked match that blew itself out as it spun, by which time the teenager who’d thrown it was gone.
Whoever this was, now, Chris could handle it. Even if, yes, even if he could see now that there were two of them. The laugh, again – Deano’s laugh.
The problem with the idea of The Dash was that it was addictive and became a shared fantasy.
‘Can you imagine, though?’ said Deano. ‘We’d be legends.’
‘People will want our autographs,’ said Andrew, his blue eyes gleaming behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.
‘Shame you’re all such fucking pussies,’ said Melon, turning it into a dare.
Working out how it could be done was half the fun. Between them, they came up with a dozen plans. Dan’s idea to do it at three in the morning when, statistically speaking, the motorway would be at its quietest, was dismissed all round as cheating. Melon suggested wearing hi-vis jackets for which there was some cautious approval until Nina frowned and said, ‘It’s lame,’ after which it was never mentioned again.
It was Chris who upped the stakes by suggesting a race. They would all go together, on the count of three, with the winner crowned king.
In his sleeping bag, Chris grasped for the penknife he kept in his pocket. For several minutes, even though he could tell they were taking steps, the two strangers hadn’t seemed to get any closer. Now, suddenly, as if the film had skipped, they were almost upon him. He couldn’t see them clearly, not only because his head was on its side, or because of the sliced and noisy light, but because they wore hooded tops which drowned their faces in shadow. Then he saw the tell-tale glint of a smile held together with metal tracks.
The Dash was a disaster. They only did it because they were post-exam, summer holiday drunk, but being drunk made it much worse. They were hesitant, their coordination was bad, they stumbled over their own unfamiliar limbs.
‘Get ready,’ Deano yelled, watching the oncoming cars, waiting for something like a gap.
There was no gap, or not as much as Deano thought.
Melon went a moment early and made it across all six lanes – bodily, at least – before his legs folded beneath him. Cars whomped as they passed, kicking grit and pearls of headlight glass into the air. Melon crawled onto the scarce kerb and curled into a quivering hump.
Andrew got clipped by a Ford Fiesta and rolled into the hard shoulder with a broken leg and broken arm, his face scraping across the surface of the road.
Dan made it to the central reservation where, quaking, he crouched by the crash barrier as horns dopplered around him.
Deano tripped and fell flat in the path of an Eddie Stobart that dragged him, instantly lifeless, halfway to the next junction.
Nina saw this happen and, panicking, stopped to cry out. She bounced off the windshield of a Range Rover and was thrown back against the concrete wall that overlooked Rainbow Pit, comprehensively broken.
Chris never got started. He just stood there on the start line, pissing himself and crying as sirens came near.
The two figures standing over Chris in the darkness weren’t broken, bruised or bloodied. Their faces, the high contours of which he could now see picked out in orange and blue, were perfect – no acne, no picked-at scabs, no adolescent shine.
Nina’s nails were perfect. They looked serious. Angry.
As he listened to the white noise from the road above, Chris knew what they wanted.
Struggling to his feet, he smoothed his filthy beard, cleared his throat and spat.
They followed him, at a distance, as he shuffled to the barrier and climbed over onto the road. Broken shoes flapping, he followed the curve, hugging the wall, onto the slip road. Up and up he went, the two shadows at his tail, passed by one car, two cars, a van, another car.
On the hard shoulder, he took his position. Nina fell in on his left, Deano to his right.
Chris looked at the blackness where Deano’s face must be, beneath the hood.
‘Get ready,’ said Chris.
A supermarket delivery lorry threw up a haze of rain and oil.
Car, car, van, car, car…