A year after the end of World War II, Jack Smeaton has returned to Newcastle, a nineteen-year-old with bone-white hair and a memory that cannot be cleansed. After the eye-opening experience of war, he sees his hometown for what it really is: a city so blighted by poverty that it’s hard to believe his was the victorious nation. A visit to a socialist meeting puts Smeaton under the sway of T. Dan Smith, a future city councilman whose dream is to rebuild Newcastle. As they spend the next decades working to improve the lot of the working man, something sinister bubbles underneath the surface of their new city. In the shadows of the towers Smith builds to house the city’s poor, a psychopath lurks, ready to christen the Newcastle of the future with the blood of the past.
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The White Room
By Martyn Waites
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2004 Martyn Waites
All rights reserved.
The Old Country
At night he dreamed the city.
The same dream, the same city. The old city. Built on calculated malice, constructed with hatred, governed by fear. More than a city, a factory, a machine.
In the dream he was back there, alone. It was empty now, not full as he had found it. Full of life, half-life, death. He walked up to the gates, the road now cleared, heard the echoes: the crunch of bone underfoot, the slap and slip of boot on sun-dried leathery skin. The moans, cries and shrieks, pleading for help, some beyond help. The flies, dust clouds of them, droning and buzzing like approaching doodlebugs. It was all still there: in his ears, his nose, his tongue, his eyes, on his hands. In all his dream senses.
He approached the gates, pushed them open. They swung slowly back. He looked around, breathed in. He was alone.
The world was in black and white, the buildings black against the dead pearl-grey sky. Mist hovered, hung and clung like persistent ghosts to the low flat buildings, permeated the wood, brick and concrete, rolled up against the walls and fences, curled around the barbed wire. Left untouched the guntowers.
He saw his breath before him, cold and steaming, turn to clouds and join the mist. He called out. No one replied. He called again. Again, nothing.
He felt he was there for a purpose: to help, to save. He had to find someone, anyone, lead them away from this place. Help them to a future.
He moved quickly from hut to hut, flinging open doors, calling.
He knew there was someone there, someone he had missed, a life unfound. There must be. But he couldn't move fast enough, shout loud enough. His dream self was slow, near-mute.
He found no one. He slumped, exhausted, down by the side of a hut, heart like a large rock in his chest, defeated. They were all gone. He was the only one left.
His dream body closed his dream eyes, tried to will himself away from the huts, the fence. The cold mist. He tried to imagine a world beyond the city, untouched by this place, tried to go back to a time before. A simpler time, a gentler world. A place of moral absolutes. He tried to re-create that place, will it to spring up, burst rumbling through the earth, obliterating this city of hate, taking its place.
And from that gentler, more honest place, build the future. Find the blueprint for tomorrow in the fairness of the past.
He stood up; made to go to the gates, let himself out. Get as far away from this place as possible.
Get out of here, make the future happen. All things were possible. Heart daring to rise, mind daring to hope, for the first time in ages, he reached the gate.
And found it closed.
He rattled it; it stayed firm. He pulled hard, but his dream self lacked the strength. He tried to climb it but his dream legs stayed rooted to the ground.
The small kernel of hope he had been nourishing withered and died.
He slumped to the ground before the gate, bereft, trapped. He closed his eyes, tried to will the place before him to disappear. Told himself it was only a dream.
Threw himself around, rolled and writhed in the dirt.
But to no avail. He stayed where he was.
Then, slowly at first, he began to hear. The moans, cries and shrieks, pleading for help, some beyond help. He covered his ears with his hands. The sound came through. The flies, dust clouds of them, droning and buzzing like approaching doodlebugs. He closed his eyes: his eyelids became transparent. He felt the mist curl its ghost-like tendrils around his body, the city trying to reclaim him as one of its own. Another ghost in the machine.
He told himself it was all a dream, that he would wake up soon.
But he didn't.
He was stuck in the dream.
Stuck in his past.
The bull was terrified.
Eyes and mouth wide open, muscles straining, hide chafing against the rope, hooves digging in to the ridged stone floor, scraping along well-worn grooves. Pulling away, pulling back. Fighting for its life.
It took four of them to move it, Jack Smeaton on the back left flank. Head down, arms pushing hard, biceps straining. Legs firm but feet ready to jump, to dodge another load of bovine fear-shit or a potentially bone-breaking hoof blow. Two others pushed equally hard, the fourth pulled from the front, played tug o' war on the noose-like rope strung around the bull's neck.
The three other men were used to their work; Jack was not. Concentration allowing, he stole glances at them, looked into their faces, their eyes. He didn't know what he was searching for, couldn't articulate it. But couldn't find it either.
To them the bull was just meat. Walking meat.
Then the bull jumped, took them by surprise. The noose holder slackened his grip. The bull took its chance, lunged forward. A desperate escape bid. The others were on it, pushing, pulling, forcing the animal into the direction they wanted, to break its spirit, take its life. Jack joined them, put his back into it, pushing, pulling, hands firm on the hide, but fingers trying not to mark or tear.
Noise came from the pens around them, like spectators at a wrestling match: grunts and moos, howls and squeals, cheering on the unfancied contender, knowing what the ultimate score would be, knowing any of them could be next.
Grunts and moos, howls and squeals. Communicating their fear, their terror.
They pushed and jostled, tried to escape, threw themselves against their bars, tried to force bolts and hinges to spring free. Tautened their necks against their ropes, choking themselves, stretching, trying to pull the metal tethering rings from the walls, the ground. Stumbling, legs quivering, collapsing from terror and exhaustion.
The men pulled, pushed. Muscles straining, faces frowning. The bull fought on but was weakening. The men were regaining control, guiding, manoeuvring the bull to where they wanted it.
The killing shop.
Jack and the other three held the bull firm. Another man stepped up holding a heavy dark object. It looked like a starting pistol but was more a finishing pistol. The bolt gun. He held it hard against the back of the bull's neck, felt around with the nozzle to find the right spot, used his other hand to steady and guide, and fired.
Two inches of heavy metal were punched into the bull's brain.
The bull staggered. Pained and confused, its body closing down, dead but not yet realizing it.
Nerve signals ceased. The bull shivered and shook, collapsed. Dead.
The noise from the stalls and pens increased. Grunts and moos, howls and squeals. Communicating their fear, their terror. Knowing one of them would be next. They pushed harder, stretched further, panic ratcheting up their actions.
The men were inured to the sounds. They ignored them, carried on working. A metal rod was pushed into the bleeding bolt hole, connecting with the bull's spinal column. Its legs spasmed.
Now just meat, bone and organs in a heavy bag of skin, it was hoisted on to a meat hook. The men sharpened their knives, ready for the bleeding.
This was the time they came alive, Jack thought, the only time they had betrayed emotion in their work. Metal sparking off metal as anticipation increased. Eyes lit by butchers' gleam.
Jack looked at them. Slicing carcasses, hefting trays and buckets of innards. Mostly middle-aged, with strong arms and big bellies, red-faced with greased-down hair. Their abattoir coats, once white, now ingrained with blood and guts. The secretions of dead animals formed a map of the world. Their world. Past, present and future. Jack looked at the designs, saw countries he had yet to visit, territorial boundaries he had yet to cross.
One of the men, Alf, looked over at Jack, smiled, held his knife aloft.
'What d'you think, Jackie lad? Reckon you're ready to have a go yet?'
Jack looked at the knife, the dead bull, the smiling butcher. His stomach began to rollercoaster, his legs to shake. He shook his head.
'No ... not yet ...'
His voice sounded weak, sapped of resonance.
Alf shook his head, turned to the carcass, slit it open. Organs, guts, stomach spilled steaming out. Others moved in with trays and buckets to collect the entrails and blood, splashing and catching them as they did so. Waste hit the floor trough, was carried away to the drain.
Jack looked at the blood, mesmerized. In that spurting and swirling, he saw other scenes, other slaughter. Other carcasses. He closed his eyes to block out the images but they remained, playing against his inner eyelids like a Pathé horror newsreel.
Other slaughter, other carcasses. Grunts and moos, howls and screams. Communicating their fear, their terror.
He felt his hair turn white all over again.
His head began to spin, pins and needles fracturing his vision. His legs shook further. He reached out to steady himself, found the top bar of a pen, caused a mini stampede as the animals inside jumped away from him, thinking they would be next to die.
Heat prickled his skin, blackness took his vision. His legs quivered and buckled as if the bolt gun had been used on him.
He dimly heard a voice, Alf again: 'How, Jackie lad.'
Then another: 'What's up wi' Chalky?'
'Get 'im, he's ganna fall.'
Jack felt arms, strong, smeared with and smelling of blood, beneath his armpits. He fell into them, felt himself being dragged beyond the killing shop. The air changed, the noise abated. Calm fell on him. Now sat on a chair, he opened his eyes.
'Y'all reet, young 'un?'
It was Alf.
Jack breathed fast, shook.
'Aye, gets you like that, sometimes. When you're not used to it, like.'
'Thought you would be,' said the other man, 'you bein' a soldier an' all.'
Jack said nothing. Just breathed, shook.
The men looked at him, waiting for him to speak.
'Think I'll knock off early,' Jack said.
The two older men looked at each other, looked at him, nodded.
He knew what they were thinking about him. He didn't care. Let them. They weren't there.
He stood up, legs still unsteady. Began to remove his apron, walk away.
'See you tomorrow, Jack.'
Jack nodded, threw down his apron.
He wouldn't be back.
Monica Blacklock walked down the street, coat buttoned up to her throat, hat pulled firmly on her head. Her eyes were down, looking at the pavement; she watched her shoes, old but shinily made up, step on the slabs, avoiding the cracks. It was important to avoid the cracks. Something bad would happen to her if she stepped on the cracks. She knew it.
He pulled on her hand, gently guiding her in the direction he wanted her to go. She crossed roads, went around corners, holding hands all the while. Sometimes he looked down at her, smiled. She avoided his face, looked straight ahead or down at her feet. Neither spoke. Monica felt cut off from the others on the street, like she was inside a bubble, one where she could look out, reach people, but no one could see or reach her.
She skipped her feet around a cracked paving slab, tried to keep safe, giving a tug on his arm as she did so.
'Watch where you're walkin',' he said, grasping her hand more firmly in his, as if to protect her, keep her upright or stop her from bolting.
She didn't reply, just nodded and kept on walking, looking for safety in the path.
Scotswood looked drab and ordinary to Monica. It was the world, all she had ever known. She looked at the other children playing in the streets. Skipping, running, chasing each other. Laughter coming from their throats in uninhibited screams. From within her bubble they looked a hundred, a million miles away. Alien and strange. She wished she could have been with them but wouldn't have known what to do, how to join in.
He guided her around another corner. They came to a stop before a terraced house with a green door. It looked like any other in the street, but she knew it wasn't. He knocked, waited for a reply. She looked up at him. He looked down, smiled.
'You goin' to be a good girl, eh?'
She nodded, eyes widened.
He smiled again.
'That's it. I'll get you somethin' nice as a present.'
The door opened. A middle-aged man stood there. Fat and balding with glasses. Braces and vest stretched over an expanded stomach, trousers dark and old, unpleasant-smelling. The smell coming from the house wasn't much better: old food and a filth that went deeper than surface dirt; dingy with closed curtains, only the smallest chinks of light breaking through.
'Evenin', Jim,' said the man. 'This her, then?'
The man looked down at Monica, smiled.
'By, you're a pretty one, aren't you?'
Monica said nothing. She looked at the ground, checked for cracks. Moved her feet away from the paving slab edges, tried to force her feet to shrink to stand safely within the protective lines.
'How old are you?'
She kept staring at the ground.
'Answer the man.'
She looked up at her father's voice.
'Seven,' she said.
'Seven, eh? You're a bonny lass for seven, aren't you? You just come from school?'
She said nothing.
The man looked away from her and back to her father.
'Quiet one, eh?'
His smile disappeared. He dug into his pocket, handed over some notes and coins. Her father took them, counted them, pocketed them.
'Right,' he said, 'I'll be off, then.'
He dropped Monica's hand.
'Aye,' said the man. 'You leave her with me. You know when to pick her up.'
The man went to take Monica's hand. She didn't move. He pulled at her, rougher than her father had been.
'Come on, then.'
Monica didn't budge.
'Monica,' said her father, 'come on. Be nice. Hey, I'll buy you a present, eh? An' we can have fish and chips on the way home. You like that, don't you?'
Monica stared at the ground. All the paving stones around her were cracked. There was nowhere to stand. There was nowhere she could be safe. Reluctantly, she allowed herself to be led into the house. The green door closed behind her.
Her father looked at the door for a few seconds after it had closed behind his daughter. Then, patting his pocket, smiled and walked off, surreptitiously adjusting his trousers so his erection wouldn't show.
Jack walked out of the slaughterhouse and on to Scotswood Road, his steps halting, tentative, as if he had just been given his freedom and didn't know what to do with it.
He walked, with no particular destination in mind, just wanting to move his legs, breathe in the air.
He breathed. The air was fresh with soot from the factories by the Tyne. He had the smell of industry in his lungs, but he couldn't erase the deeper smell from his nostrils. His mouth. Clothes, skin and hair, hanging on him like a carcass on a meat hook.
He had been in the job for less than a week, work being hard to come by for returning soldiers in the North-East. He hadn't had a hero's welcome. By the time he had been demobbed the novelty had worn off, the celebrations ended. He had been given his suit, his money, but no job. He had had to find that for himself. His brother had got him a job at one of the Scotswood slaughterhouses. Jack hadn't wanted it, but it was that or nothing. Now he had nothing.
He was conscious of the way he must seem to the outside world: his walk too hesitant for a young man, his hair all wrong. He pulled his cap further down on to his head, trying to cover his hair. Unnaturally white, leached of any tone or hue, lifeless, like thin fibres of bleached bone.
He took another deep breath, smelled carcasses, blood, skin. Skin was the worst. He had been sick the first time the skin lorry had turned up at the slaughterhouse. Bovine hide expertly cut, pig skin blowtorched to remove hairs then stripped from the dead animal. Waste, meat by-products, turned into coats, shoes, watchstraps, belts, anything. There was no limit to human ingenuity. The smell of the skin as it was loaded on to the skin lorry, the smell of the lorry from years of accumulation was rank. He had piled them in, gagging as he did so, vowing never to do it again.
He shook his head, tried to trade blood air for industrial air.
Scotswood hadn't changed. It looked just as it had when he had left three years previously. The river's-edge factories and gasometers still fronted a dark, sluggish Tyne. Chimneys still pumped out clouds, cloaking and choking the city, turning red brick to black, white paint to grey. Street cobbles worn and dusty, like seaside pebbles awaiting the splash of waves to shine them up. The lines and blocks of uniform, flat-fronted terraces stretching from factories upwards to Benwell and the West Road as if trying to escape.
Excerpted from The White Room by Martyn Waites. Copyright © 2004 Martyn Waites. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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