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"Shiloh Road" by Max Dunbar 

Max is currently attending Manchester Metropolitan U.


© 2005 Max Dunbar


She was doing history at the University of Leeds; he was sociology, year above. They met at a New Year free party on the outskirts of Elsix. Most people who saw her would say that she was well out of Thad's league, and they would be right. Her best feature was her hair, dyed so you couldn't know where the blue stopped and the green began, heavy with plaits and clips and whorls that she played with when her mind zoned out. But Thad Johnson looked straight through that hair, the clear, flushed skin, the pendulous cleavage and sphinx-like contours of her face and was able to detect a fragile core of insecurity, a lack of place in the world. It was true that Mazzie Francis did not have nearly as much self-esteem as a woman of her age and beauty should- due to a bad uncle and some inventive ridicule at her grammar school, as Thad would have found out if he'd bothered to ask.

          By March they had become a couple. For her part, Mazzie was satisfied. The man was a reasonable partner and he made her feel safe. Thad would never cheat on her. This was not due to love or moral fidelity but simple fear. He was scared of being caught, and even more scared of being alone. Being alone at twenty-four, not having anyone to show off round the dinner parties of Leeds and the old man's pubs of his hometown- it was the worst thing in the world.

          It seemed natural that they should spend the Easter break together. Having taking an early set of exams, there was no point in Thad himself returning to Leeds until July.  Mazzie liked the idea of going back to Barnesfield with him- from what he told her, the place sounded great. Away from the noise, the drugs, the freaks, away from the sporadic electricity and transparent doors of her Elsix houseshare; long walks along the canal, pub lunches, essays done in tranquillity instead of on speed at the eleventh hour, and loads of sleep. It was just what she needed.


On March 29 the couple stepped out onto a platform banged halfway up a long, gruelling hill. It was a Saturday; Mazzie had quite wanted to go to Ragga Tip at the West Indian Centre, but Thad had been firm, insisting they get back tonight. Wants to see his old mates, Mazzie had concluded. Wants to see the Group.

          Thad's parents picked them up at the station. Thad's father worked as a council executive; recently he'd won plaudits for a massive profit-boosting exercise (closing down Barnesfield's only Job Centre and replacing it with a single computer terminal in the village library). The house was a Victorian-style detached with a circular walled garden, from the station you went down the big hill, past a street jostling with new-money restaurants, pubs with MAN U CHELSEA 3:00 BIG SCREEN written in chalk on the pavement outside, then up a long, curving road lined with high stone walls. Mazzie was pleased to find that her new boyfriend's home room didn't have that stench of warped testosterone she had come to dread in her short years of sleeping around.

          After a big meal of contrived homeliness they went out to meet Thad's friends. They walked down another weird, sloping road, Thad with his fingers gently hooked on her waist in that disaffectionate gesture he always used whenever they went out. The quality of the darkness unnerved her slightly; there weren't as many streetlights out here, up in this rural part of town full of backstreet allotments and ostentatious bungalows owned by men who tanned double Grouse at the Mellor club all day long and then bounced the Volvo back home to their mail-order wives. This darkness... it was wrong, somehow. Not scary but just plain wrong. Because-

          She glanced at her phone. 7:34.

          'Thad, didn't the clocks go back a couple of days ago?'

          'Yeah,' Thad said. 'And?' They were turning onto Shiloh Road.

          'It's just weird that it's this dark already.'

          'Come on.' Her boyfriend turned to her, his expression one of almost hostile irritation. 'It's not exactly summer.'

          'No, but it wasn't this dark this time yesterday. Don't you remember watching the sunset in the back garden? I know it was this time because Corrie had just started.'

          Again with that baleful look, as if he'd caught her hunting for his porn collection. Whatever he had to say was drowned out by the roar of a dusty white van with a tree painted on the side. She got a glimpse of four scallies crammed into the driver's seat, hanging out the windows, shouting something - a cross between a greeting and an insult thankfully borne away in the slipstream.


The pub was right down the road they'd turned on to. Combined with the amount of men smoking cheap cigarettes and cheaper rolling baccy and pipes, its claustrophobic size produced a compacted, smoke-filled nebula that would set off an apocalyptic coughing fit from anyone who came in out the fresh air- at least, as fresh as the air in Barnesfield ever got. Along its serving counter dwelt a group of men between thirty and sixty. They were dressed in grimed flourescent overalls, football clothes, TT Races souvenir shirts. They looked like a candid representation of everything age and time could do to you.

          These men now raised their heads at the two new arrivals. The youngfella, he was part of the Group. They knew him but did not entirely trust him as they trusted people who'd reached the twenty-year attendance mark. The lass was unknown. These men could remember a time where the only reason a woman would have call to be in here was at about six on a Sunday, when they would slip in with a dinner tray, place it reverently next to their husband, not expecting him to look up from his cards- and then return half an hour later to collect the empty dishes. They could remember a time when the only black people you ever saw were on the other side of the television glass. Not too long ago. Oh no. They remembered when Ben Turner got shot at the Littlewoods roundabout in '92; stepped on too many toes, said the only people who dared talk of it. They also remembered the boy, that kid who'd hacked up Edna Barnes in her hilltop cottage. Out already, was he? Jesus, this country's falling to bits. Loads of things you remember and talk about; loads of things you don't talk about and try to forget. Children with webbing between their knuckles. Women who wore sunglasses in December. If this town could talk, ah if it could tell you stories... it'd be the kind of stories you keep the light on at night for. One thing you'd never see though: a girl walking in like this, her hair all sprayed all mad-assed blue and green colours, Jesus Christ. The men of the Shiloh Arms conferred with glances and nods. It would be okay. The town would take care of it.

          Thad reached forward to place his drinks order with the barman, a tall, rangy guy with bulbous eyes and a shock of curly hair. He had been working here four months, after his old place of employment, the Concordance in town central, had been closed down due to a multitude of health and safety offences.

          'Luke. How goes it?'

          'Not bad,' said Luke Lombard. 'And who's your little friend?' He took one of Mazzie's ropey arms.

          'Girlfriend, Lombard. Girlfriend. And you wouldn't like her anyway. Wrong kind a shoes.'

          Luke stopped, his mouth poised over the back of Mazzie's hand. 'You at the uni, yeah?'

          'Yeah in Leeds.'

          'Luke used to teach there, didn't you?' Thad said in a smug tone.

          'Below the belt, man. Well below.'

          'I know. See ya.'

          They made their way to an oak table opposite the entrance to the pool room. The Group were in attendance; a bunch of men too old to be wearing their student clothes, plus two or three women. These were girlfriends the men had either grown up with or procured from their respective universities. Most of them were from the suburbs in Central or the old-style cottages up towards the Peaks. They had good degrees and jobs in town, and all agreed that Barnesfield was not exactly the place to be. They could have gone anywhere and done anything.

          A man called Kieran Wallace put it best. Kieran had a masters' degree in zoology and a research job in Stockport. Three years ago he had explored China and Vietnam. 'My mum keeps asking when I'll move out,' he said, in this pub a couple of nights ago. 'She expected me to stay in Liverpool after uni. But what can I say? I don't particularly like this town, but... it calls you back.'

          And the men of the Group had raised their glasses and laughed in a way that was not entirely ironical.

A couple of the girls looked about her age, the other one about ten years older. Mazzie could see this woman must have once been very beautiful, but now her hair was shot through with straw-grey patches and split ends, her pretty face cocooned in cellulite and old clothes.

          Introductions were made. Mazzie found it difficult to follow the conversation, centreing as it did on regional football, John Hughes films, and people of the Group who had fallen out of favour. Apparently there was also a spring storm headed this way. She struck up a conversation with the other two girls, who were shy at first but livened up when the dialogue moved on to relationships.

          'Yeah, there are no boundaries really,' Mazzie said. 'Love's the important thing. Look at that woman.' Emma, the pretty grey-haired lady, had just gone to the toilet. 'She must be ten years older than the guy she's with, and they seem really happy together.'

          The girl's eyes narrowed in suspicion. 'Emma? She's his age. Twenty five last month.'

          'But-' Mazzie realised anything else she said could only tighten the social quandary she'd got herself into. In need of a bathroom herself, she seized on the excuse to stand up.      

          The toilets could only be accessed through the pool room, which contained a couple of jagged-faced blondes and various men in their thirties. Mazzie squeezed past a youngish guy leaning on a wall.

          'Sorry,' she muttered.

          'No problem,' said the young man. He had a pint in one fist and a paperback book sticking out of his tan jacket. 'You have lovely hair!' he called, raising his pool cue as she went through the toilet door.

          She stopped to chat with the guy a little while before going back to Thad's table. He said he worked bar at three different places in the district.

          'Must be knackering,' said Mazzie.

          'Mate, it's your break,' one guy called over.

          'I need to save up, though. I need to move away from here,' he said, leaning over the table. The cue ball split the triangle with a sound like gunfire.

          'Nice shot,' Mazzie said as two balls rattled into pockets.

          'Want a game later?'

          'Could do. Come and sit with us.'

          'Thank you, darling,' the young man said, turning to look at her. 'But I believe not.'

          Back at the table, Mazzie checked her phone. 10:39. 'Hadn't we better get a move on?' she asked her boyfriend.

          'How'd you mean?' Kieran had overheard.

          'I mean, if we want to move on somewhere else.'

          The Group looked at her as if she was a pilot's child who'd asked if she could have a go flying the plane. 'We can't go anywhere.'

          'Yeah, it's too late,' Thad informed her. 'The last train was at quarter past.'

          'We're kind of cut off here,' Emma said. 'Also, they've been doing engineering work in the evenings. So there's no trains.'

          Mazzie was a little disappointed; she'd wanted to go out in Manchester. She looked at her boyfriend and realised he would never have thought to take her out for a meal or to the theatre or anything. The Saturday night pub was about the upper reach of his imagination.

          'Don't worry, we'll get a lock in,' another guy said.

          Sure enough, come eleven the landlord walked over to the front door and drew the bolts with a thunderclap of steel.


She did very little over the next few days. They went for walks along the canal. Thad cooked extravagant meals- apart from pulling reasonable-looking girls, it was his only talent. In the evenings they watched DVDs, or drove in Thad's father's car to a country pub to get a meal.

          Although Mazzie had always lived a hedonistic life, she was not restless here. Almost the opposite, and to a worrying degree. She couldn't be bothered to start her essays. She felt like sleeping all the time, and no matter how much sleep she got, it never seemed to be enough. A lot of the time she felt the same eerie, wafer-thin lethargy she remembered as a kid, waking up after an operation on her kidneys.

          'It's weird, isn't it?' Thad said, catching her falling asleep one afternoon in the garden like an old lady.

          'Maybe all the mental nights at uni. Maybe my bodyclock's catching up.'

          'You'll get used to it.'

          Also, she wasn't coming on at the right time. Normally you could set your calendar by Mazzie's menstruation. But when Thursday rolled round, she realised she should have began her period two days ago.

          She did not mention this to Thad.

          The night before the weekend started, Thad told her not ever to talk to the guy in the pool room.

          'Why?' Mazzie asked. 'You jealous?' It was meant to be jokey, flirty, but Thad seemed resentful.

          'He's a bad-news guy.'

          'How'd you mean?'

          'Some things you don't need to know. He used to be a good mate in the Group, but now he's just bad news. He's hurt people. Don't talk to him.'   

           Mazzie was intrigued, and felt a little patronised. She pressed and wheedled and played with his dick, but Thad remained firm.

          At least he noticed my hair, Mazzie thought. Although, looking in the bathroom mirror that night, she could see that it needed a touch-up.


The storm had come. Thad said it would pass over but Thad had been wrong; it was flashing and raging all around her as she stood on the bridge over the railway lines where no trains passed after dark, she was fully clothed in the middle of the night, god night came here so fucking early, and the rain was hammering down-

          Either this is a dream, thought Mazzie Francis, or I've been sleepwalking. She had used to walk around asleep as a kid, so it was a possibility. The cold and noise were real enough.

          And there was a man stood a few yards downhill. The man from the Shiloh Arms, she saw without surprise. The bad-news guy.

          He still had his pool cue.

          'Don't worry. You're not pregnant.'

          'Well that's good news.'

          'Remember, little hair babe,' he called, his voice carrying easily through the din of the rain, 'you got only a few minutes to be young, but you got all the time in the world to be old.'

          'What the fuck are you talking about?' Mazzie shouted back, walking down towards him.

          'You should leave,' said the bad-news man. 'They tell you life is short, but they lie. In this place you get an idea of exactly how long life can be.'

          'What are you saying.'

He gave her a loose smile. 'Follow.'

          Mazzie thought of what this man might have done to set himself against the Group. Fuck it. Even if he rapes and kills me, it's probably just a dream.

          They walked down to the junction. The sign saying MAN U CHELSEA was still there. The man guided her towards a shallow stream that ran parallel to the road. Mazzie half expected to see that gardening van come roaring by.

          'This is a separate place. Look.' He raised his pool cue to the sky and was illuminated by a sheet of lightning. Mazzie thought it was a bit stupid, holding a long wooden instrument right up in the middle of a storm.

          'Wind, rain. and?' Mazzie said.

          By way of answer the bad-news man pointed his cue down to the water. She didn't see what he was getting at, and then she did.

          It was raining all around them. But there were no ripples or disturbances in the stream's water. None at all.

          'This is a separate place,' the man said again. He stroked a plait of her hair with a soft but dry hand. 'You should leave. Just get the fuck out. Anywhere. Just go. Run. Because you've got a short time to be young and a long time to be old. Just get the hell-'


She woke up next to her boyfriend, blood racing, head jangled. She lay there in the dark for a long time before sleep caught her again.

          Mazzie Francis remembered her dream only vaguely by the time she got in the shower that morning, and by half-twelve she didn't remember it at all.


They went back to the Shiloh Arms the next night. As they walked, Mazzie noticed that no puddles had formed in the potholed tarmac, although the storm had been all over Northwest Tonight.

'Must a missed us,' Thad shrugged.

The same bunch of people was there; Mazzie thought she saw a couple of new faces, but she couldn't be entirely sure. They just seemed to be identikit post-student types, full of the pretensions of the city and the prejudices of every small town.

          Wine and Stella made Mazzie wake up, seemingly for the first time in days. It amplified the foreboding she always seemed to get when the night rolled in, earlier and earlier; a dark trench cutting through her heart. She wondered what she was doing in this place, and thought that maybe it had been a bad idea to come down. She found herself playing with her hair, an unconscious habit when bored- she would never know how that habit, displayed in seminars, could reduce all the men (and a couple of the girls) to a dreamy, staring lust.

 To stimulate her mind she took a couple of the silent girlfriends aside and asked them about the bad-news man (back in the pool room, the ubiquitous pint-and-book combination on the shelf he was leaning on). The rumours ranged from cuckoldry to grievous bodily harm. Mazzie got an idea that the man had grown up in Barnesfield, but had been born somewhere else. He had been away for a few years, and now, through no choice of his own, he had come back. That's why the bad-news man seemed to stand out- he wasn't from round here and he wasn't from away.

          There was also a sense that the man had let the Group down, betrayed or weakened it in some way. Mazzie wanted to ask him.

          In the bathroom she noticed she was losing weight. She supposed she ought to be thrilled, but the skinny look didn't suit her. The nine stone she carried gave her presence, pushed her breasts up imperiously; she carried it well. Now when Mazzie looked in the spattered mirror she saw a distribution problem. Her ladybird top looked baggy, and she had the feeling her tits were about to go south. She felt like a child trying on her mother's clothes.        

          Also, her hair was bleaching out! She had to get more dye tomorrow. Maybe there was somewhere in Manchester like the Leeds Corn Exchange, where she had got the original job.

          She looked into her eyes and suddenly the urge crashed into her, the instinct to run galvanising every bone in her body. And something was coming back in her mind- a thing she'd seen or been told, some vital and terrifying information. Suddenly Mazzie Francis felt like some small woodland creature who suddenly looks around the woods at a different angle and sees the eyes and shadows of predators hidden behind every bush. Just run. Get the fuck out

          (this is a separate place)


          Mazzie wanting to flee the Shiloh Arms. Run from the pub, run all the way back to Leeds. Lunacy, of course. There were no trains and a cab to Manchester Piccadilly would be about thirty quid and difficult to procure. But she couldn't shake the feeling that it would be worth it.

          Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll get up early. Get on a train.

          The man with the pool cue had been watching her pint. 'Cheers, darling,' Mazzie said.

          'No problem.'

          'Haven't you got a girlfriend?' she asked. 'This doesn't seem the greatest place to be single.'

          'Probably worse if you're a couple,' said the bad-news guy.


That night Thad Johnson's new girlfriend sat bolt upright in bed and started screaming. It was 3am. Mazzie was going, 'YOU CAN'T! I SWEAR TO GOD! I WON'T! YOU CAN'T MAKE ME! I WON'T! I WON'T!'

          'What's wrong?' Thad asked, but the dream was already fragmenting. She grasped for the memory, trying to understand, but it was like trying to catch rainwater as it sluiced from the gutters into the gratings. 

          That day Mazzie slept until half two, and when she got up, the hangover was so bad that she couldn't think of going back to Leeds.


          More walks. More DVDs. More pub lunches.

          Mazzie's hangovers were getting worse, and she still hadn't started her essays. It worried her; she had to be back by the end of the week, and it looked like she was going to be behind at uni.

          Thad said not to worry about it. He said practically anyone could get a 2.2- what they called a drinker's degree.

          Mazzie still hadn't come on. She bought a pregnancy test from the Boots in town central. It was negative. She made an appointment to see the doctor in his practice beside the church on the road next to the stream. They didn't seem to understand.

She also asked about her weight loss. She had dropped to nine stone since coming to Barnesfield- strange, since she'd been eating twice her own weight in free-range chickens and didn't have much of a metabolism.

          'Perhaps all those Atkins people should move here,' the doctor said. 'I've seen cases like this before. Perhaps it's something in the water.'

          Mazzie didn't laugh. She started pressuring Thad to use condoms. She told him they could fuck only if he told her what exactly the man with the pool cue had done to get such a bad press.

          One Wednesday night, after half a bottle of Chablis and some heavy snogging, Thad relented. 'He beat up a guy. A good friend of ours. Went round to his house after the Shiloh Arms, beat him up bad. The guy had to go the A + E in Stepping Hill. Our friend was so scared he left the area. Now are you satisfied?'

          'I guess,' Mazzie said, though she wasn't. She was counting the days until Friday, when she would have an excuse to leave.

          Leeds! Elsix, the Social, Hyde Park in summertime, the Hi-Fi club, the West Indian Centre, MDMA, being able to get a drink after eleven!


Mazzie missed the half-five train by two minutes. Thad had been going on at her to stay. Said it was someone's birthday this weekend. Said it'd really make a good impression, mean a lot to him if she stuck around. Said missing the first week of lectures would be okay, loads a people did it.

          But Mazzie insisted on heading to the city. After glancing at her essays for the first time in weeks, she realised she needed the uni library for research. The internet was useless here, you could barely get a connection even on broadband. A couple of her housemates had phoned, probably to discuss plans for the weekend (or perhaps the trip to New York they were gonner take this summer) but after a minute or so the network fucked up and no amount of wandering up the hill could get it back.

          'It's hard to get a signal round here,' Thad said in consolation. 'It's fine if you're calling someone from down the road, but the network just dies over long range.'

          This is a separate place, Mazzie had thought then in a voice not her own.

          She felt really strange, full of a fluttery yearning, but pinned down to the earth by lost sleep. When Thad was taking one of his thrice-daily showers, she went out of his house and ran to the Shiloh Arms.

          He wasn't there. The place was almost deserted.

          'Where's that guy?' she asked the pudgy woman who worked days.


          She described the bad-news man in exact detail.

          'The man you speak of,' the barmaid said, 'committed suicide. Last year.'


Oh if this town could talk it could tell you stories, and you would listen no matter how bad they made you feel. This is a separate place, and it calls to you- its call as steady and implacable as the ultimate compromise at the end of our lives.

          The third weekend of April Mazzie Francis will follow her boyfriend into the Shiloh Arms and will raise no eyebrows from the old men at the bar; they will glance over with a bitter satisfaction, she is no longer a threat, the town has done its job. Just after eleven the landlord will slam the bolts from the inside. The men of the Group and their silent ladies will talk of football and the 1980s and people who aren't around any more. The gardening van will come rattling down the Shiloh Road, scallies hanging out the windows spraying cans of White Lightning over the pavements...

          Two months later, the University of Leeds, having not heard from Miss Martine Francis since March, will presume her de facto withdrawn. Housemates and friends will phone, but there is no signal.

          Mazzie will get a job in the off license on the road near the stream. Watch DVDs, take some walks with her boyfriend. Not remember her dreams. Finger the encroaching grey in her hair.









All work is copyrighted property of Max Dunbar.






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