Burning rubber, that’s how humans smell, like the odour that hangs in the air after a car has just skidded to a halt.
I try to breathe through my mouth but a cough catches at the back of my throat.
“That’s nasty,” says the man. “Hope it’s not catching.”
I keep my hand clamped over my mouth until the fit subsides. I remove it and, careful to touch nothing else, bury it deep inside my pocket.
“I said: hope it’s not catching.” The man looks at me askance. He’s not kidding. We live in troubled times. Danger these days can take many forms. He’ll have seen the headlines, heard the radio. He’ll be thinking: you never know quite who, or what, you might pick up these days.
“Nah,” I say. “Just the arse-end of a cold, nothing to worry about. But do you mind if I open the window?”
“What? I smell or something?”
Nothing personal, mate, you all do. Despite your Polo aftershave, your Lynx effect, or maybe because of it, people always have that burning rubber smell to me. In truth, it’s not just rubber, but that’s a convenient catch-all for the jumble of perfumes and polymers, synthetic fibres and accumulated soot, which remind me your typical self-styled human is maybe not so human after all.
“Sorry,” I say. “Just a bit stuffy.”
“Go on then.”
As I’m reaching for the handle, the man says, “What happened to your wrist?”
I, too, notice the red rim beyond my sleeve. “Oh,” I say, thinking quickly. “Painting a mate’s house.”
The man is about to say something else when the rain surges against the windscreen. We brake in a blur of rear lights, slow to a halt.
I breathe in the cool air. The man pulls out his phone, sends a message.
At least it looks like he’s lost interest in me, which is a relief. What was it Magda said? “For a moment, I thought I might have to kill you.”
I can’t help but smile.
The rain rushes against the side of the truck, leaks in through the window. The man gestures for me to wind it back up again.
“Sorry, mate,” he says. “You’ll have to put up with my stink.”
But I know it’s not just in my interest. If you knew what I was, you’d want the window wide open, come rain or shine. The pair of us would sit here drenched, if you knew the odds. Not that you’d have picked me up in the first place. Friend—you would have, you should have, speeded up. Called the cops, alerted the military. They’d have had their helicopter gunships out in no time, bearing down on me, all guns blazing, chewing up the pavement as I fled from the forces of righteousness.
Because you never know who, or what, you might pick up these days.
Be aware then, be warned. This is how it begins: the signs, the symptoms.
Lying there like a wounded thing. Wheezing, fevered, shivery. I was thick with phlegm, my legs lead-heavy. Laid out, bowled over, I was a sick, sick, sick boy.
But of course, it could have been anything.
“Put it there,” said Summer. “Not there, there.” She had on her best Funk Me boob tube, low-slung jeans. She’d raided her mum’s makeup drawer again, with the opposite effect than intended: she looked about ten years old, although she was pushing thirteen.
“Drink this.” She lifted the warm mixture to my lips. It burned the roof of my mouth.
“What,” I gasped, “is that?”
“Honey, brandy, water,” said one of the wee ones.
“Pepper,” said another.
“Curry powder,” added a third.
“It was in one of those Ayurvedic books,” said Summer. “You know, from India.” She shrugged. “Maybe I got the amounts wrong. Anyway, it said you’re to have plenty of liquid. And eat. Here, we made you boiled eggs.”
“With soldiers,” added a weenie. They lifted the tray onto my lap and looked at me expectantly.
“Just . . . leave it here, okay. I’m not too hungry right now.”
“But the book said . . . ”
“Liquid . . . is good. But some water, okay? Now I need to sleep.”
“You need some peace and quiet,” said Summer. She began to usher the others out. Just before she disappeared, she turned back to me. “I’ll make sure they don’t bother you.” I nodded, closed my eyes.
A glass was being laid beside my bed but I pretended to still be asleep. The rustle of the beanbag, the hiss as someone sat down.
“Vereesh,” she said. Not Summer. Ma.
She leant forward with grim-faced intent, the laughing eyes I’d become so accustomed to back to their hard slate-grey.
“They said they found you in the dip,” she said. “How on earth did you end up there?”
And I, too, despite that great stretch of time, was back to where we began. “Don’t know,” I said. This was no time for evasions, appeals for sympathy.
“Unconscious, they said. Had to carry you back. You can’t remember how you ended up there?” I shook my head. She looked exasperated. “Well what’s the last you can remember?” Her American accent pierced the BBC English she had perfected over the years.
“I’d been down the town,” I said. “Getting my stuff together. Got the bus back. I remember . . . ” I was straining now. “Taking the bags back into the room.” We both looked—there they still were, resting against my half-packed rucksack. “And then . . . ” I shook my head.
“And were you feeling poorly before that?”
I shook my head.
“Did . . . ” I noticed her bottom lip had a wee tremble. “Did anyone give you anything, Vereesh? To eat? To drink?”
I shook my head.
“Not the night before? This week? Come on, honey, someone must have stood you a pint down the Ku on Thursday.”
“Ma . . . ”
“Do you have stomach cramps?”
I shook my head.
“There’s been no blood when you go to the toilet? Palpitations? What are your symptoms?”
“Sounds like some kind of . . . flu to me.”
“Maybe it is.”
“Vereesh, you’ve never been sick.”
“I’ve had colds.”
“No, you have not,” she said. “Not even when you were a baby. All that time we were in India, not so much as nappy rash. It actually began to worry me; I took you to a doctor. He looked at me like I was mad.” Her expression began to soften. “Maybe it’s a sign—now you’re going away. My little toad is all grown up.”
“If you need me you’ll call?”
“And you’ll remember our code?”
“I know, I know. I’m just a crazy old bird . . . ” She smiled, leaned over, laid the back of her hand against my fevered brow.
“Hot,” she said. “Hot!”
I caught the coach from Sunderland Central.
Ma was there. Even Clive had made it.
“You’re sure you’re better,” said Ma.
“I’m sure,” I said.
The driver opened the trunk. I handed him my rucksack. “Take care,” said Ma. “Keep safe.”
“It’s only London, Ma,” I said, “not the Middle East.”
“Big city though, big man,” said Clive. “Watch yourself.”
“Here,” said Ma. She pressed something into my hand. The Swami, with his white bushy beard, his brown face grinning like he’d eaten all the pies, stared sublimely up at me amidst a nest of beads. She had given me her mala.
“Ma. I can’t take this.”
“I know you’ve . . . moved on,” she said, “but I thought now you were going away it would be good for you to have something familiar, from home . . .”
“Please, Vereesh . . .” She smiled. “Sorry, I mean Matt.”
The bus started up. “I’d better get going.”
“Go on then,” she said. She closed my hand around the mala. She gave me a big, long hug. “Write,” she said.
The coach whisked along the A1. The statue of The Angel of the North, grand and lonely on its hill by the motorway, loomed above us as red as fire, as red as rust.
I pulled out the mala, made the Swami spin between my fingers.
“What’s that?” asked the girl across the aisle. She was from the estates—tracksuit bottoms and boob tube. Hair pulled back and—a flash of stainless steel between her lips—tongue stud.
“A mala,” I said.
I knew better than to explain. “Just a lucky charm,” I said.
“What do you want one of those for?”
“My mum gave it to me,” I said. “I’m off to university.”
“What you studying?”
I hesitated. “Theology.”
She snorted. “What you want to bother with that for? Are you a priest or something?”
“No,” I said, “I’m just interested is all. About the way humans have tried to make sense of stuff. But it’s almost the opposite of philosophy, which reduces everything to a kind of . . . nothingness. Religion . . . reaches for the stars, if you like.”
The girl seemed unimpressed. “If you’re not going to be a priest, then how are you going to get a job?”
I shrugged. I’d never really thought about that.
“I got into the Royal Free,” she said.
“Aye.” She looked at me like I was thick. “The teaching hospital. Trainee nurse. They pay your fees and lodging and you get five grand a year.” She put on her headphones and picked up a copy of Glamour.
I turned around for a last look at the Angel but it was long gone.
LOST in London.
I’d reeled from the bus station, senses blaring, and by the time I’d got myself together again I had utterly no idea where I was or how I’d got there.
Rucksack heaving, I strode along the mansion streets, trying to look like I knew where I was going, put off from asking by the fuck-off expressions of the passers-by. I kept fiddling with my phone, but the message was still the same: there would be no Google Maps unless I could find a hotspot. My meagre data allowance was already used up.
“Big city, big man,” Clive had said. And now here I was, lost in its heart. Lost in its guts.
A main road, a high brick wall. Then: black railings, soldiers in red. I finally twigged, a gleeful grin smeared across my face. I sneezed.
“Ta.” I wiped my sticky hand down the side of my jeans.
“Where are you from, son?”
“Sunderland.” That wasn’t the whole truth, but I guessed he would never have heard of Hebdon-Le-Hole.
“Sun Der Land. Is that near Scot Land?”
“Aye,” I said. After all, he wasn’t far off. “It’s about seventy miles south of the Scottish border.”
The man looked relieved. “And you’ve just arrived?” He nodded towards my rucksack.
“Yeah,” I said.
“And you thought you’d check out the sights? We’ve been here since Saturday and can’t get enough of them. This is our second trip to your palace.”
“Aye,” I said. “Well, actually . . . ” I felt my cheeks begin to burn. “No. To tell the truth, I’m lost.”
An explanation. A consultation. A Texan tourist with a functioning smartphone.
“Good luck, son.” His generous smile. His firm handshake. “God bless.”
I was back on course.
I threw my rucksack on my bed. My room wasn’t much—I stretched my arms out and they could almost touch both walls—but at least it was all mine. Enough with sharing: for the first time since I was a nipper, I had a proper place to myself.
With a view, too. I looked down at the crowd gathered around the bus stop, in all their colours and cultures. Back home, me and the other residents of the commune, or “fucking hippies” to the locals, were about as colourful as it got. Not that anyone other than a local would ever have called me a hippy—I’d long since had my hair shorn to a close buzz, got into the skater thing—but I was a bit of a stoner, mind.
I took out my baccy, rolled myself a joint. Thin and tight—I didn’t know where my next stash would come from.
The cough caught on the first drag. It started light, a little stutter I couldn’t clear. I chanced another pull at the joint but now it came back tenfold, a real wheezing cough that bent me like a reed. I had to hang onto the desk as it shook through me, and when it had subsided that all too familiar hot-cold feverish feeling lingered.
So I wasn’t entirely better then, but I’d known this when I’d insisted that I was. After all, I wasn’t going to miss the start of uni, was I?
I sat down on the mattress and rested the joint on the windowsill. Dug down to the bottom of the bag and pulled out the mala, let the Swami swing pendulum-like between my fingers.
There was a knock at the door.
Shit. I looked around for somewhere to hide the joint. In a moment of madness, I thought about flicking it out of the window but instead pinched its smouldering tip and shoved it into the desk drawer. I stuffed the mala back into my bag and waved the smoke away.
“Aye?” No answer. I ushered the last blue-grey wisps outside and opened the door. A man stood there, smiling.
“I am sorry to interrupt you, but I saw you arrive,” he said. “I am your neighbour, Daniel.”
Daniel had just arrived from Ghana. If I thought I’d had it tough navigating the big city for the first time, Daniel’s phlegmatic account humbled me. The poor lad had never used escalators before, let alone rode on the Underground, yet he seemed remarkably unperturbed.
“Yah.” He grinned. “I must admit I waited a little bit to see how it was done, and when I finally stepped onto the stairs I held on tight. But then this man pushed me. I was standing on the wrong side! This city will take some getting used to . . . ”
“You’re not wrong there,” I said. “How about escaping this madhouse, going for a pint?”
“Of beer, man, lager.”
He laughed, nodding vigorously. “Sounds like an excellent idea.”
I may have had my own room, but even back home it was quieter—we kids had the barn to ourselves and curtained-off partitions gave us older ones a bit of privacy. Of course, they didn’t block out all the sound, but having grown up together, and having had to watch out for each other a fair amount too, I suppose we all appreciated keeping it pretty chilled.
Not so my new housemates. For a lot of them it was their first time away from mum and dad and they went for it big time. So it was with a wee bit of a jaded eye I viewed the high jinks of those early days, though I was careful not to appear too cynical or too much of an arse.
Daniel, on the other hand, was not up to speed on his group psychology. Or maybe he just preferred the quiet life.
I’d encounter a bloodshot Ghanaian in the common room the next morning.
“I hardly got a moment’s sleep,” he’d say. “How can they stay up so late? Don’t they have lectures to go to?”
I’d sympathise, say it would cool down sooner or later, although to be honest I didn’t mind that much. Truth was, I had my own little thing going.
We’d clocked each other by our tribal markings (well, t-shirts) and an appreciation of the weed, begun to venture out together, take in some gigs, check out the skating action along the South Bank. Stay up in my room until all hours smoking and talking shit.
“And this guy, he wakes up and, like, he’s changed into this giant kinda bug,” said Gray, short for Graham.
“Sheeet,” said Cal, a Canadian. “That must have been some kind of trip!”
“No,” said Gray earnestly. “It was before they’d discovered acid. It’s from the 1920s, by some Russian.”
“Czech,” said Jane, who was doing lit. “Franz Kafka. The Metamorphosis. Jew, died in a concentration camp.” She screwed up her nose. “Or was that Freud?”
“Ain’t there that other book, about bug drug people?” said Cal. “The Naked Lunch, Burroughs. Now that was about acid, but in the Fifties. Made into a film. Fucking weird man. There was some English guy too, back in the old days. Some writer—loved the stuff so much he took it when he was dying.”
“We should get some,” said Jane. “Do you think you could get some, Vereesh?”
I took a toke, shrugged. My sannyas name still sounded funny in her posh accent. Funny she was using it at all, in fact. But there it was on my certificates, registration forms, hall register, and although I’d introduced myself to my new friends as “Matt”, as soon as Jane saw it she took to using it because “Matt’s so boring; I know loads of Matts but only one Vereesh”.
I kind of resented her assumption that I was the obvious one to score the acid though.
A door slammed in the corridor. There was shouting.
“ . . . cannot stand this any longer . . . like children . . . ”
“Sounds like your mate,” said Gray.
Through the thin partition we could hear squeals of protest from the clubby chicks, gruff monosyllables from the lads. Daniel had picked a bad night—Thursday. No one went in on Friday mornings, except would-be accountants from developing countries like Daniel.
There was a crash and the tinny dance beat we had grown accustomed to stopped. I winced. Now the shouting was coming from both sides. There was a thud, the scrape of furniture, then silence.
Bugger. I began to pull myself up, half hoping that the others would do the same, but no such luck—they stayed slumped, avoiding my gaze.
I opened the door.
After the initial commotion, everything now seemed eerily subdued. The only light was coming from the kitchen at the end of the corridor, where I could hear muffled, panicked whispers. I approached it with some difficulty, bouncing off one wall then another, stoned out of my socks. Was I actually wearing socks? I looked down.
This was not good, not good at all. I was definitely in no state to mediate between my fired-up friend and coke-fuelled clubbers.
But then I was at the doorway. I blinked in the glare, the strip lights bleaching the scene like a budget horror. There were the girls—paper white, charcoal eyed, lipstick-smeared, all clubbed out. The boys were standing behind them, pumped up, their shirts still clinging with sweat.
Daniel was on the floor, propped against the fridge, his head bent back, a hand covering his nose. Bloody spots splattered his white t-shirt. I crouched beside him.
“Danny,” I said, “are you alright?” He opened his eyes, looked blankly back. He didn’t seem to recognise me. “Where does it hurt?” He took his hand away from his nose, a bloody mess. It was then I felt the dampness through my jeans and looked down. I was kneeling in a raspberry red pool.
“Jesus,” I said, “this doesn’t look good. We ought to get you to casualty.”
“He started it,” one of the girls piped up. I looked at the group again. They seemed sobered by the violence, or at least afraid of getting in the shit.
I went over to the sink and grabbed a couple of towels from the dispenser. I handed them to Daniel. He dabbed listlessly at his face.
“Does anything feel broken?” He gave me that blank look again. “Maybe you’re concussed,” I said. “How does your head feel? I’d better call an ambulance.”
“No,” said one of the girls. “What I mean is, he only hit him on the nose, once, didn’t he? Then he sat down, didn’t you? He’s alright, aren’t you … ?” She didn’t know his name. “You’re alright, aren’t you?”
“Daniel?” He looked me in the eye for the first time. Covering his nose with the towels, he began to get up. The boys and girls drew back. But Daniel was no danger to them. He was no danger to anybody. He rose, surprisingly steadily, and made for his room. It was only as he reached out for the door knob I noticed his hand was trembling.
“You’re sure you’re alright?”
But he didn’t seem to hear. He went inside and closed the door behind him.
The night made a mirror of the carriage window. The creaking first-class cabin, the comings and goings of the char wallahs, the sweetmeat salesmen, bewhiskered ticket collectors—they all played their part in our drama. The fat businessman, his well-fed wife and their chubby offspring who pressed me into the corner and no amount of elbowing would shift; the straight-backed Sikh army officer who acted out heroic deeds in my imaginings; the American missionaries who unsettled Ma the most with their friendly inquisition.
“You’re from the West Coast?”
“California,” said Ma. “San Bernardino, originally.”
“And you’ve been in the country long?”
“A few . . . weeks.”
I frowned. I thought it had been longer than that, but then, maybe not—I wasn’t so good with time. Christmas still seemed months away, that much I knew, even though we were already in December.
“It’s a glorious land, isn’t it, so full of colour,” said the nice white-haired lady. “Are you hungry? We brought some fruit.”
I held out both hands.
“How old are you, son?” asked the nice white-haired gentleman.
“Four and three quarters,” I said.
“Well, let’s cut this apple into four slices—it’s alright, isn’t it, ma’am?” Ma gave a strained smile. “One for every year . . . how about you, Tonto?”
“I’m not Tonto, I’m Matthew.”
“Matthew. That’s a nice name. Do you know who Matthew was?”
“Yes, you, but Matthew was a disciple of Jesus. Do you know who Jesus is?”
“The Swami? Who’s the Swami?”
“Matthew, honey,” said Ma, getting up, “it’s time to go.”
“To the bathroom, honey, come on, take my hand.”
“But I don’t want to go.”
“You need to wash your hands before you eat, remember what I’ve been teaching you? Off we trot.”
She led me along the corridor and into the bathroom. First class or not, it smelt of poo. She took my hands and washed them in the warm, rust-coloured water, crouched down and wiped them on a fluffy white towel. Stopped. Held my hands hard. Hard like her face.
“Remember what I said, Matthew?”
I looked for clues in her expression. All I knew was it scared me.
“No . . . ”
“Remember the special thing we talked about?”
“Ma, you’re hurting . . . ” But she didn’t let off.
“Remember what I told you, Matthew. It’s very important. About talking to strangers, about talking about the Swami. We don’t do that, do we, remember?”
“No, Ma.” I began to cry. “No. Please, it hurts.”
“What do you remember?”
“Ma . . . not to talk. Not to talk about the Swami.”
“You’ll remember now? And not say to people? Like those in the carriage?”
She let go and pulled me to her. “Come here, little toad, come here.” I was back against the softness of her breast, safe in the forest of her hair. “I’m sorry, little toad, I’m so sorry. But you’ve got to remember . . . ”
I pulled the sheets back, gasping. I was lying there in the dark, slick with sweat, my heart racing. I fumbled for the bedside lamp, found the switch, pushed back the night.
I propped myself up, gulped down some tepid water. Christ.
I waited for my breathing to slow, for the reality of my gloomy cubicle to overwhelm the images imprinted upon my retinas. Slowly they faded; the solid, temporal dimension asserted itself. The past had passed. I was back in London, England, in the here, the now. The Rizla papers and spilt tobacco on my desk. My jeans hanging over the back of the chair, their knees dark with Daniel’s blood.
I wheeled my feet off the bed and onto firm ground. Rose unsteadily, testing the heat of my forehead with the back of my hand. Burning. I was burning up. Oh Christ.
The sheets were soaked right through.
Suddenly all my strength seemed to leave me. I sank to my knees, held on to the edge of the bed to keep myself from succumbing to unconsciousness.
Tried to keep my eyes open.
I concentrated on the sheets, glistening now, I noticed. Rivulets were beginning to run between the creases—rippling, they were. I leaned closer, watched the water run, the beautiful swirling, snake-like shapes it made.
My solid twenty-first century world didn’t seem so solid after all. I lurched upright, but the world was still wobbling.
This was not good.
“Is it drugs?”
I was being rocked. Harder. I opened my eyes.
“He’s awake. What’s your name?”
“Matt. Vereesh. Can’t say.”
“He doesn’t know his name,” said the woman cop.
“You alright, mate?” said the man. “You with us? In the land of the living?” Lights. Blue, white. I realised now: a police car.
“Aye,” I said. “Sorry.”
“What happened?” asked the man. “Do you know where you are, Matt?”
“Where I am?” I looked around. The toughened glass, the mobile phone ad. The red plastic bench. “A bus stop,” I said. “I’m at a bus stop.”
“And where do you think you’re going?” asked the cop, a smile beginning to play at the corners of his mouth.
“Where?” I was trying not to go anywhere, concentrating on clinging on. Staying conscious was enough for me.
“Cos I don’t think you want to be going anywhere, dressed like that, Matt, do you?”
I looked down. I was naked except for my boxer shorts. “I’m cold,” I said.
“I’m not surprised,” said the cop. “Where do you live?”
I looked around. Realised. “There,” I said. I pointed across the road.
They were alright, the police. They walked me back to the reception, saw me into the lift. I went back to my cubicle, sat on the end of the bed, shivering. I wrapped the duvet around myself, but it wouldn’t seem to stop. I slumped into the corner of the room. My teeth, now . . . I tried to stop them . . . My teeth were rattling as if I was hooked up to the mains, but I knew, I knew, I knew this was not electricity.
Just try. To hang on.
Awake. My first reaction: relief. I was still there, in the corner of the cubicle, lying on my side. The shaking had subsided. I checked my temperature. I seemed to have cooled down.
I remembered the fever, the dreams, the double-bluff . . . what was real? Unreal? The bus stop came back to me with a shock. Surely that was just a dream?
I eased myself off the floor, pressed my palms to the bed. Well, that much at least was true—it was definitely damp. I examined the soles of my feet. They were black, pocked with grit.
I went to the window, pulled up the blind. It was still dark, but London rumbled on. A bus drew up at the empty stop, a dark figure stumbled out. Cars, cabs, motorbikes weaved around each other. An ambulance zoomed by, its siren muted but blue lights flashing.
And beyond all this, there I was, staring back out of the darkness.
I was lying on the hard, scratchy carpet, the duvet covering me like a corpse, when I heard Daniel leave for college.
I tried to get back to sleep, but it was no good. I crawled out from beneath the duvet and surveyed the crumpled scene. Memories of the long, lonely night came back to me, unsettling and unreal in the morning light. I tested the bed: drier, but there were still traces of damp. And the dirt on my soles.
“We’ll call it sleepwalking, shall we?” The policeman’s wry smile as we sat in the backseat of the squad car, the woman writing out the report.
“Poor love, first time away from home?” She handed it to me to sign. “You just take it easy, alright?”
And there was the receipt, crumpled on the desk. I shuddered. First the dip. They found me, they said, nestled half naked in the woods, wreathed with leaves. Now this. I fought a flare of panic.
I couldn’t be having this, I thought, I just couldn’t. London wasn’t like home, surrounded by acres of woodland. There was fucking traffic here. I could get killed.
Cool, I thought, just be cool. Alright, so it was a bit fucking weird but . . . look: maybe it was just the weed. Some dodgy super skunk or whatnot. In any case, it wasn’t so bad this time. I mean, I wasn’t all sick and fluey, knackered like before, laid low. I was just a wee bit . . . light-headed, euphoric even, in a weird kind of way. Actually, BURSTING with energy.
Fuck it. So I probably just overdid the whacky. And even if this flu, this bug, this psycho-flu-bug wasn’t properly out of my system just yet, it was certainly on the way. I would be alright.
I coughed, cleared my throat. “Fuck it,” I said out loud. “Let’s clean this place up, get a bit of order.” I jerked myself upright, got onto my feet, but had to sit back down again as the world spun around me. I waited until it had stopped and took some deep breaths before trying again, this time taking it more slowly.
That was better. I opened the window, stripped the sheets. When the room was back in shape, I took a long shower.
Stepping out, I felt fine. Better than fine: great. I could feel the energy surge through me. Heavens, I thought, I might even go to uni.