I pick the wild blackberries that grow among the untended late-summer overgrowth. Continuing down the path beside the canal, stopping only to collect more berries, I come to an opening. There I sit in the long, straggly grass, eating what’s left of the foraged fruit. The stagnant murky waters smell like a duck pond. A dull evening, shades of purple in the sky. A raggedy dog sniffs me. I think it’s a stray until its owner calls.
I take my journal from my bag and make an entry: I always knew it would come to this. Just not so soon. Purple twilight. Soft purple mournful sadness. Dog sniffs my sour clothes. I am the weeds sprouting from the cracks in the concrete path under this dimly glowing purple sky, slowly fading purple grey, a glowing purple grey, long-lasting twilight. These long, extended days don’t let night come this time of year. The sun can’t sink. Not completely. Not yet. I left everything I knew in New Zealand to be here, doing this. Spent everything I had. But I’ve achieved nothing, and I have nothing left.
The next day I walk into town along the canal. It’s a gentle day. This is the only canal here. It was built almost two hundred years ago to connect Edinburgh and Glasgow. Initially a commercial success, it lost its worth when rail became the more viable option. It once ran all the way down to the port; now truncated, it stops at the entrance to the city centre.
That’s where I am.
I find the Job Seekers’ office. I’m scrolling through the job opportunities. There. Immediate start. Bricklayer’s labourer. Weekly pay. I take the reference number to the counter.
“Do you have steel-cap boots?”
“Well you need them for this job. You can get a pair for ₤20 from Industrial Supplies – just around the corner.”
That ₤20 is meant for my food.
I turn up on site. It’s loud and dusty. Burly men at work. I’m given a hard hat, a high-vis vest, a pair of leather gloves.
“See these bricks?”
Big heavy-looking grey things. “Yeah.”
“See that wall?”
“You take the bricks from here to there. Stack ‘em so them bricklayers can easily get ‘em.”
I take the first brick. Hold out my left arm and let it rest there while I get another and stack it on top. I walk it over and place them behind the bricklayers. I do this again and again.
My novel. It’s unfinished, but worse, it’s no good. All this time. Nothing to show.
“Come on, son, you can work faster than that!”
It’s the foreman.
I don’t answer and I try to work faster. Uncomfortable scratches appear where the bricks rub the underside of my forearm. The foreman climbs the stairs back into the temporary office. I see him watching me from his window. His watchtower.
Do I abandon it? I’ve worked so hard. But who will read it?
The foreman opens the window and calls out: “That whole pallet of bricks needs to be moved by tomorrow – new ones delivered Monday.”
I look at how many bricks I’ve moved – I’ve hardly made a dent. The pile of ominous bricks. Sitting there. Looking at me. He’s looking at me, too. It feels like I’m in the Panopticon.
I take the stairs to my third-floor flat. I live in a housing estate. It’s grey and bleak. There are many buildings in this area just as grey, just as bleak. I have a bed, a desk, a laptop, a kitchen, a toilet, a shower. I flick the light switch. Nothing. I try a different switch and check the prepaid power meter in the cupboard: negative ₤10.
I lie down. I’m so tired I drift off to sleep without eating.
After getting a taste for lifting bricks, most people from Job Seekers don’t come back. I return and start on the bricks for the second day.
The bricks seem heavier. My sleeves have started to fray and tatter. The sharp corners scratch my skin. An early advantage is marked. Blood has been spilt.
I wonder how long I can keep up this battle. I could leave, sure. But instead I continue to move bricks.
It’s the weekend. My body aches as I walk across the field to the canal. There’s a wind from the north. The water ripples and gently laps against the concrete.
I pass an old bridge that opens up into a park with bench seats and trees overhanging the water. On the opposite side, a boathouse where canal boats moor. One of them has been converted into a restaurant. Beyond that, a line of pretty brick cottages.
A girl with long dark hair is sitting on one of the benches. She’s writing. Not once does she lift her head. There’s something unusual about her. She is so focused. So lost in her world. When I write, I’m frantic. I flutter like a sparrow, looking around the room for words as if they’re crumbs. What I’d give to have her composure.
I detour from the canal to the supermarket, where I buy a loaf of bread, an apple and banana. I have 38p left until I get paid on Tuesday.
I walk back. The girl is gone.
Back in my flat I eat some bread, have a glass of water and turn on my laptop. Its battery is running low. I open my work and read.
A woman came down the ramp of the boat. She and many anonymous figures, silhouettes in the Croatian dusk. Looking around the industrial port, she smelled the fish and oil and the salty Adriatic Sea. She took her camera from her handbag, taking a few shots of the setting. She had promised to document her travels.
As I read I want to scrunch up the pages. Since I can’t, I think about throwing the laptop through my bedroom window. It would smash the glass and fall the three storeys and break on the concrete below.
I’m back to moving bricks. I can’t get the image of the girl writing on the bench out of my head. I went back to the same spot on Sunday, but she wasn’t there.
On Tuesday morning I go to the cash machine to check my account. I’ve been paid! It’s the first money I’ve had in months. I take out ₤20 and buy a recharge card for electricity at my flat and some food to celebrate before returning to the bricks.
The work is exhausting. My arms and legs are sore. The bricks seem heavier. The day is a struggle.
I come home from work and open my laptop. I’m so tired I can hardly concentrate enough to read. My body aches, but I feel indifferent to my physical sufferings.
A tourist town in the off-season. All the colours seemed so desolate and sad in this abandonment. An empty swing sways in the sea breeze. She thought she should write an email to someone – that’s what people do on their travels. Yet something inside of her felt dreary. What she would write would not be full of admiration, inspiration, excitement. It would only be about herself. For that’s all she could see.
I don’t read any further. I right click on the file and scroll down to “Delete”.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” the computer asks.
I ponder before clicking “No” and shutting it down.
I walk the canal every weekend to the same spot, and she’s never there. I’ve almost given up hope. But this Sunday afternoon I go again. There she is. She has her book and she’s writing. Without thinking, I approach her.
She looks up. It’s the first time I’ve seen her eyes lift from the page.
“Do I know you?” she asks in a Slavic accent.
“No.” She just looks at me blankly, so I start to speak again. “I’ve seen you here before. I wondered what you were writing.”
She looks as though she doesn’t want to answer. “Sometimes I come here to write letters. Today I’m writing poetry.”
“Letters? Do people still write letters?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh … nothing.”
I look at her book. I’ve never seen a book like it before: its cover is stitched and sewn. Sun faded blue with green borders. The pages are dog-eared and coffee stained. On the open page are foreign characters: Es and As with tails. Cs and Ss with hats. All these Zs. Swivels and loops. Her handwriting is beautiful.
“Why do you come here? Do you like this canal?”
“I don’t think I like it. But it has a certain sadness that I like. It has the beauty of a neglected child. It has a history. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think I do.”
“I talk to the canal. I sometimes want to scream at it! It’s like God – it just absorbs everything.”
I don’t know how she can compare this dirty canal to God. But she sure seems interesting. I hesitate to ask. “Could you read me one of your poems?”
“They’re in Polish. You don’t understand.”
“Can you translate?”
“You can’t translate poetry.”
“Can you try?”
She pauses before she starts. “I’m looking at her / Who is she?”
Pointing at the line she’s on and translating in her head before she says it out loud. “I want to guess / I will ask / What she believes in / Who she believes in today.”
She takes a longer pause between lines. “So strange … I don’t know if strange is the right word? The Polish word ob-tsy means foreign or strange.”
I look at her paper and the word is spelt o-b-c-y and I notice that it’s not coffee stains but pressed brown leaves. I can’t tell if they’re real or printed.
“I think strange is better.”
She continues, “How do you say it when you used to know someone – you were close to someone, but now you’re not? You used to know them, now you don’t?”
“Do you mean distant, or unfamiliar, maybe?”
“Yes. Unfamiliar. So unfamiliar / With her own helplessness / She becomes friends / She cries / And you would like to cry over her / But she is so unfamiliar / I’m looking at her since a long time.”
“For a long time,” I interrupt.
“No. Since a long time. I’m looking at her since a long time / And it is a long time / That I stand next to myself.” She pauses and looks at the page. “It doesn’t sound good in English. You have to read it in Polish. You have to learn Polish.” She laughs.
“What’s it called?”
“It’s got no title … I can give it a title … what should I call it?” She doesn’t give me time to respond. “Call it ‘Ona’. ‘She’. No. Not she. Call it ‘Her’.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
“I never let people read my poems. Maybe because if I say it in English it means less to me.” There’s silence before she closes her book and ties it shut with a piece of string. “I have go now. My shift starts.”
“OK. Where do you work?”
“I look after a disabled man. He can’t talk.”
“Oh … Do you like your job?”
“No. Not really. It’s very lonely. But I can write.” She holds up her book.
“See you round?”
The days grow colder. Mornings are especially frosty. Streams of early sun cause steam to rise from the pile of bricks. My fingers are so cold it feels as if they are going to snap off. I rub my hands vigorously – it takes some time for them to thaw out. Once I’m warmed up, I get back to moving bricks. It’s much easier now: my body is used to the physical labour.
I’ve actually started admiring the bricks. I see they are a team, a community, and they just get on with life. Nothing to complicate it. They are laid on mortar – one brick to the next, side by side, one on top of the other; they are cemented, and clearly contented, in their place. When a brick needs to be cut to finish off a line, they accept that too – an individual sacrifice for the greater good.
I’m up to date on my rent and no longer hungry. I’ve even bought myself proper, heavy-duty clothes for the job. I’m starting to feel fit and healthy. I no longer think about my novel, my writing. I’ve given up and I’m better for it.
But I still think about that girl. I walk down the canal every weekend hoping to see her again – I never do. I didn’t even ask her name but I asked her to read me a poem. How absurd. It feels like she’s a figment of my imagination.
I turn to pick up another armful of bricks when I hear a terrific thud – then rumbling. I spin around. The wall the bricklayers are working on has collapsed. It’s fallen away onto empty ground. Bricks and mortar are scattered. Everywhere.
“What the hell! How did this happen? You imbeciles! Quick. Clean it up. Quick.” The foreman yells before addressing me. “Stop what you’re doing and tidy this mess up before someone sees it. Quick!”
After clearing the mess, the site is abnormally quiet. It’s like someone died.
I come home on the bus unsettled. I get off, but instead of going to my flat, I walk across the field to the canal. I take off my steel-capped boots and look around to check no one’s watching before hurling them into the water.
I watch them sink. They fade until they’re out of sight. The canal is only about a metre and a half deep, yet I can’t see the bottom. I can’t see my boots. Only a few bubbles surface as if to say goodbye.
Years have passed. I’m back in my home country. I sit at my desk and think of the canal. The water that doesn’t move. I picture the reeds. The path. The weeds sprouting from the cracks. The straggly grass. The green overgrowth.
I imagine what’s inside. A rusting tricycle. An engagement ring. A supermarket trolley. I picture my boots. My steel-capped boots on the canal floor. I instinctively know, as if it’s a fact, that they’re still there.
I remember the bricks with an unusual fondness.
I think of that girl. The nameless writing girl. Writing her letters, her sad poems. Sitting on the bench beside her canal, comforted by its obscure, forlorn beauty – like that of a neglected child. Her canal, absorbing all of her woes. Absorbing everything that gets thrown at it. Going nowhere, simply absorbing.
Nick Fairclough lives in Masterton, New Zealand. He has had work published in Flash Frontier, Blue Fifth Review, Rangitawa Collection and Takahe. One of his stories has been nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize and another for the 2018 Best Small Fictions. Learn more at https://nickfairclough.wordpress.com/
Image: pixel2013 via pixabay