A man came to me as I was locking up for the night. He brought in a gust of cold air, hugged himself warm on the bench by the donations box. The high crackle of tyres on wet tarmac screened out as I closed the door.
“This isn’t a church where I come from,” he said. His face was familiar though I could not place him, covered as it was in a layer of dirt.
“Are you hurt?” I asked. “Hungry? I can call the hostel. They usually have beds.”
“How long has this been your god’s house?” he asked.
“This has always been a place of worship. Are you lost?”
The man laughed. “Is that him?” he asked, pointing at the crucifix with an expression of less-than-sacramental amusement.
“It is. An equal part of him anyway.”
“Then I’ve met your god,” the man said. “He drinks at the Bricklayers Arms on Warren Road and he’d find this behaviour puzzling. Do you have a Warren Road here?”
“Listen, friend. It’s late -”
“I found a map,” he continued. “Of where I live, only different. I found it here, in the basement of this building. On a bend in Willow Street it showed a path I’d never seen before. I went there and turned — just a little to the right, or was it left? — and here I was. In this city, not mine. Cursed by curiosity!”
“Can you show me this map?” I asked. “Perhaps you will remember where you live?”
The man stood — taller than me by a hand — and took out a folded sheet of paper. On it I could see my city’s streets, the familiar blocky representations of shopping centres and car parks. I felt confident we would find his way home. The longer I looked, however, the less the map made sense until all that remained was a jumble of oblique corners and patches of static. All, that is, except one name, dissipating where the collector roads of estates danced in jagged scintillations.
I don’t know how long I stared but at last I was forced to sit and hang my head from dizziness.
“Doesn’t make sense, does it?” he said. “You don’t belong there anymore than I belong here.”
“What do you want?” I demanded.
“Have you ever been invisible?” he asked. “I have learned in just a few days that you can become…unreadable to a place as that map is unreadable to you. ‘Awful to lose your home,’ I’ve heard some say. ‘Terrible luck, but perhaps if he didn’t drink so much?’ And the headaches, the stumbling. You feel it.”
My mind was swimming in disconnected junctions and overlapping slip roads. I tried to get to my feet but there was a weight in my bones keeping me down.
“Look, I don’t think I can help you.”
“I think you can. See, not everything is different here. Take this building: mostly the same but with different furniture.” He gestured to the altar pieces shining with the day’s last light from high windows. “This is a place of shelter in my city.”
“As it is here,” I heard myself say.
“I need to look in the basement,” he said. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Please?”
He offered a hand grimed by nights lost in streets he could not navigate. I took hold and he led me to the basement door, flicking on lights as he went.
“After you,” I said. I could lock him in maybe? Make a call and have someone pick him up. I had all of the numbers but none of the courage.
“Can you manage?” he asked, looking down the stairs.
“If I trip, you’ll break my fall,” I said.
In the basement, stacks of broken pews awaited repair. There were paintings propped up here and there of miscellaneous holy figures. The stranger identified them as we passed: that one, his next-door neighbour; there, the man who runs the off-license; the young paramedic who came when his mother had a fall; that doctor who never minded the clock running over if it was serious.
Their names and deeds were all known to him. To me: strangers.
We found the map in the elasticated pocket of an old leather suitcase. It showed my city, though a half-century older. The streets and buildings were smaller, more crammed in. “See for yourself. I can’t look at it,” he said, and busied himself tidying the clutter while I searched.
It couldn’t really be there, could it?
What I found was impossible to deny. Our Trap Street was near to where the river ducked into concrete culverts beneath the industrial parts. I led him down and through that decaying district to the plain brick wall of an abandoned factory where no such road existed.
“How does this work?” I asked, but before he could answer, the ring of a bell. I stepped back from the approaching cyclist, looked again but the stranger was gone.
Could I really say all this happened, if following my natural inclination for the truth? I do not know and anyway who would ask?
What should I say, then, about those who wander by choice? The curious; those who cry against the slow crawl of the day or sing to themselves in empty rooms? Easy to deem them artefacts of folly to be removed completely from sight. Perhaps only when we can turn — to the right, or was it the left? — and see from slantwise vantage the prisons in which each of us is incarcerated will we see it is the other that proves this world true.
Could ours not also become a city of saints?
Perhaps the stranger would destroy his map. Would he expect me to do the same?
I could not and it waits there now amongst the junk and sacred icons, left to dust and darkness until needed.
PETER HAYNES lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared in Unsung Stories, Reliquiae Journal, Litro USA, Spelk Fiction, Hypertext Magazine and elsewhere. In 2016 his writing was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award in short fiction. You can find him on Twitter @ManOfZinc.
Image: Hnyja via Pixabay