is currently attending Manchester Metropolitan U.
© 2005 Max Dunbar
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.
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
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
'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.
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
'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.
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
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
'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
'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.
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
'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
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.'
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.
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.'
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-'
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.
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.
a missed us,' Thad shrugged.
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.
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)
(RUN GET THE FUCK OUT NOW JUST GO JUST GO LEEDS NEW YORK ANYWHERE
GO RUN NOW RUN NOW RUN NOW)
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.
'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.
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
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.
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
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
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'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
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
He wasn't there. The place was almost deserted.
'Where's that guy?' she asked the pudgy woman who worked
She described the bad-news man in exact detail.
'The man you speak of,' the barmaid said, 'committed
suicide. Last year.'
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.
© 2005 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved