by John Linwood Grant
with apologies to Matthew M. Bartlett
I won’t touch you, Matthew. Maybe it’s the sweat on your palms, the way your hands are shaking. Maybe I just don’t get the whole contact thing, the need to reach out. I didn’t have to reach out to bring you over, did I?
You can call me John. It’s easy on the tongue, if you have one. Some folk round here don’t, and they get along just fine.
Here? This is Leeds, Matthew.
Not your Leeds, of course. I’ve been there, and it’s a dark and dandy place, but it sings a different tune. Over there you’re too close to those silver-stringed gee-tars, those holy-rollers and a chance of redemption.
There’s no redemption here. No chance that if you turn that radio on, you’ll hear a preacher, or some sweet country gal with her panties dry and her momma’s cross hanging round her neck. The sounds on our airwaves are old, older than you’ve ever dreamed.
You hear that? That’s a legionary, pissing on a cross seventeen centuries ago, the night before the locals hooked out his guts and made him eat them. He was happy that night, because he was going home. He was leaving. Ten years of crotch-rot and sodden tunics, women – and men – whose diseases hadn’t even been thought of where he came from.
Not much has changed. We’ll drive a little, and I’ll show you.
These are the graveyards, edging the city, yellowed grass around soot-stained teeth. You can still read what it says on some of the stones. Twelve children, this one had, all dead before a year. Each tiny mouth chewed a part of her away, and she joined them before she was thirty. The cholera came that year, and played on her street, played hopscotch through the stinking refuse – this house, then that one.
See, she’s smiling at you. Or maybe not. That lower jaw’s probably somewhere round here, if we look hard…
No? Let’s go further in, then. Mills and homes, homes and mills. Each fed the other. Nothing Satanic about these mills, only the clatter of engines as they did the work of a fine new God. Limbs trapped in grinding gears, lungs clogged with fibre, backs breaking…
That man by the towering chimney? He’s no-one. Don’t nod, don’t look. He’ll unbutton his waistcoat and show you the cancers and ulcers that wealth bought him but wealth couldn’t cure. Wet things that cling to him still, whispering of new acquisitions and mergers, new sacrifices for the mills to the glory of…Leeds, I suppose.
There’s still money here, but it gathers in the fine quarters, chokes itself on cocaine and fancy gin. Brass plaques on the gates, and women in tight leather trousers, vomiting their children into schools to make room for another handful of tablets and a top up.
The radio? You really have a thing about it, don’t you? Let’s see… here’s a channel you’ll like. A local channel for local people. Stanley Earnshaw and his Dancehall Tunes. There’s nothing like a nice bit of piano music on a damp night.
Maybe it doesn’t sound right yet, but you’re new here. Stanley lost his fingers in the ice and cold of the Baltic convoys. Each blackened digit came away with his Royal Navy woollen mittens, and now he plays much better, hammering the keyboard and weeping because his wedding ring is somewhere north of Riga and the sea doesn’t care.
Where does it come from? Out in the woods, maybe. No, I’m kidding. They say there are transmitters, but that’s not true. We don’t need them. Our Leeds carries sound like diseased blood speeds the virus. I could turn the radio off, and you’d still hear Stanley, crouched over his piano and smiling for the microphone.
We’re not going to the woods to look, no. You’ll have to trust me. Alder and birch crowd the streams, trees with hate in their thin bodies and a passion for drowning. I have to look after you, Matthew. If I don’t, you might not want to come again.
Instead, we’re going deeper into the city, past the cardboard, mould-infested estates where the white boys cry in their beds, ready for another day of spit and prejudice. Boys who drown cats because their fathers are too strong, or too absent, for the real violence to begin.
Victoria rules here, grief-swollen source of monumental buildings, expensive boutiques like fancy escorts next to huge, stately matrons. The small businesses, the second-hand book shops and the grubby sex-stores have been bulldozed to worship the mall, and the man you saw by the blackened chimney is here as well, a double-breasted, fashionable suit holding his sickness in, hiding the leeches which cling to his greed.
And here we are, nearer the river. They called us the Ladenses, the people of the fast flowing river, but we built too hard and too high for the river to win. Watch yourself, now, we’ve reached the infirmary, see?
A thousand crooked eyes of glass, scanning the streets for the smallest wound or bruise, hungry beyond measure. A mall and a mill, a maelstrom of victims, so brave, so brave. The arterial roads bleed ambulance-diesel, bringing home the sheaves. Don’t even dare a paper-cut while it’s watching. There are miles of low corridors, hissing steam pipes, alcoves piled with the broken footballers left from United’s surge to glory, old men whose hips rejected them and the children of tough love on every estate. You don’t want to go there.
But you do want to be here, in the shadow of the infirmary. Why? Because it’s all about you, Matthew, and Leeds, Massachusetts, and the sucking fear of that figure by the river. You know it, because you write its kind. Lank grey hair, plastered to an ulcerous scalp, while the Stocktons and Whiteshirts and Gares titter in the woods.
You made a slight mistake, Matthew, and maybe that’s why you came so easily when I called. Maybe that’s why I’m John, paving the way for your glory. And making sure that you carry on.
Get out of the vehicle and I’ll show you. She’s here, in this neat little medical museum, and she’s been waiting for you. She’s not yours, you see. She’s the Leeds witch, Mary Bateman, hanged for her gifts and her sins, and she knows her colonial brothers and sisters very well. This is her skeleton, see, stripped of vanity, and around those bony feet the ant-men wait, guarding her until her skin returns.
They sold it, her skin, like swatches of cloth from the mills, like carpet samples from the malls. They stripped it from her in 1809, without a by-your-leave, but Mary knew that her time would come. She knew that you would come.
The ant-men are close, with their blades of broken glass, discarded scalpels from the infirmary. Their small eyes gleam red, like all good monsters, but they are kind, in their own way. They will only write on your skin this time, and mark it for future use.
What will they write?
Why, WXXT, of course.