All Architects Are Called Zach (Part 2, words, 1,756)
By Mark Burrow
2. First Love
The sun was bleeding. A boy and girl were sitting in the stairwell of the flats, whispering together. They were the only people he had seen since being refused entry to the last pub. “Hi there,” he said, turning sideways to walk by. They ignored him and carried on talking quietly, in cahoots. He paused, realising that he recognised the girl.
“Tara,” he said.
She kept talking to the boy.
“Tara, it’s me,” he said. “Freddy.”
That’s when he realised the boy was his younger self. He couldn’t believe how small he had once been. The two of them whispered. They were both nine years of age and they snatched every moment they could together. Meeting after school to sit in one of the stairwells of the flats and walking along balconies, occasionally holding hands, doing their best to hide from the eyes of other kids and nosy people who might tell their parents.
“Tara,” he said, thinking about touching her.
They were in the same class at school and became friends after she saved him from a maths meltdown. He had been close to legging it out of class. He couldn’t bear the thought of putting his hand up to ask the teacher for help again. The teacher was a total C-U-N-T and would sigh loudly, acting like Freddy was not understanding what to do on purpose, and the other kids would laugh at him and tease him for being as thick as two short planks.
Tara saw what he was going through. “Hey, shall I show you what to do?” she said, discreetly.
“I’m alright, thanks,” he replied.
“Let me show you,” she said, leaning over to look at the mess he had made on the pages. He had stopped bothering to solve the problem and had simply drawn numerous matchstick men, shooting one another with numbers for bullets.
“It’s like this,” she said.
There was something about her voice that made him feel peaceful. He took in and grasped what she was patiently saying and felt this sense of relief as his brain clicked into gear. He understood what it was the teacher had initially asked him to do, without feeling anxious and dumb and like school was a place where he didn’t belong. And the icing on the cake was realising Tara had the most incredible long black hair and deep black eyes and brown skin.
For six weeks or thereabouts, they were inseparable. They’d sit together in the playground during breaks and lunchtime and would try to arrange ways to meet up on the estate after school. Once, they even met up on a Saturday and went to a nearby park, where they lay on the grass, talking about their lives, which at that age meant their families and school. When they held hands, it set his insides on fire.
He trusted her completely and so it felt natural to tell her about the misery at home. He explained how his older brothers, who caused trouble on the estate and had a bad reputation, preferred to stay out because they didn’t want to be in the flat. Freddy wasn’t old enough yet so he generally had to be home by a certain time, otherwise his mum would lean over the fourth-floor balcony, hollering his name across the estate for him to come home.
“Freddy,” she’d bellow.
Tara laughed when he mentioned it, saying her own parents were horrified by the sound of his mother’s bellowing. She then told him about the pressure her parents put on her to be successful, making her study constantly. Her father set the rules and they had to be obeyed. She wished her mother would stand up to him more but accepted it wasn’t going to happen.
“Father would kill me if he knew I was spending time with you,” she said.
“Why?” he asked.
She screwed up her face. “Because you’re a boy… A Caucasian boy.”
Standing in the stairwell, looking at Tara thirty-five years later, he said, “Is that why you left? Did your dad find out about us?”
It was painful to remember her leaving as abruptly as she did. He arrived at school on a Monday morning, excited to tell her about his weekend. She wasn’t to be found in the playground or corridors. In the class, the teacher called the register, missing off her name. It was like the teacher already knew she wouldn’t be in that day.
Tuesday came around and her classroom chair was vacant. Freddy wondered whether she was poorly. He legged it back to the estate when school was finished. Where was she? What was going on? He knew something was up and ran to her block of flats, climbing the stairs to the first floor and ignoring her strict instructions to never, under any circumstances, knock on her door.
His heart was thumping and his legs shaking when he came to her flat. There were no curtains or blinds hanging in the kitchen window. Through the glass, he saw the kitchen was stripped bare of furniture. Opening the letter box, the hallway and lounge were equally empty. She had left without telling him. He turned his back and slid down the front door, covering his face with his hands.
Freddy looked at the estate spread out around him, with its interconnecting balconies and endless procession of windows and doors. When an architect called Zach designed this miniature city in the sky, he probably thought he was creating a paradise for the urban poor, with its bathrooms and indoor toilets. Zach was too much of a clever bastard to understand how he was devising a high-towered, shadowy maze for people to hide away and suffer in silence.
In a place like this, you needed to be paranoid otherwise you’d be robbed, usually at knifepoint. He looked at the playground, thinking about how it had to be avoided as there was a gang that hung around the swings and if they saw you, they’d kick your head in. He then gazed at the tower block in the centre of the estate, rising up into the red night, all twenty-five storeys of it. There was this one morning when he awoke and looked out of his bedroom window to check if it was sunny. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and noticed an object falling from the tower. It was a person, twisting and tumbling through the air like a failed acrobat.
The memory passed. He walked along the balcony to the flat where he had lived with his parents before running away and living on the streets. Some of the fluorescent lights, spaced evenly on the ceiling above, were coming on. A few didn’t because the plastic coverings and bulbs had been smashed by bored kids.
One of the few times the kids on the estate came together, aside from Bonfire night, was to hunt for rats. The kids would search the giant cylindrical bins on the ground floor, which captured the rubbish from the metal chutes in the flats. They called out to one another, working as a team, rivalries put on hold, to find a rat and then club it to death with sticks.
He felt anxious. Really fucking nervous. It didn’t matter that he was now a grown man. Some of that disgust you experience as a child stays with you. Any reminders cause the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck, making you as scared and afraid as you were when you were little. Home was a total fucking nightmare. End of.
The fluorescent light outside his flat was flickering. The Council hadn’t replaced the tube with a new one. Turn around. Get the fuck out. Stop walking, you fucking idiot. Go back down the stairs and walk until you buy beers to drown out whatever noise is in your fucked-up head. You twat. You moron. You don’t want to rake up the past like this. No good ever comes from…
…. The front door was ajar. He removed his Fila classics and threw them under the stairs. The smell of the Council flat turned his stomach. They had a smell to them, these places. An odour of dust, powdered baby milk and cranked up central heating. The television was on in the living room and his mum was in her armchair, feet on the fake leather pouffe, with a glass of orange juice, a bag of salted peanuts, a tissue and a toothpick, watching a TV show that had long since been axed.
He sat on the two-seater sofa opposite. It was pointless speaking to her when the show was on. He waited for the adverts and then said, “Mum, are you pleased to see me?”
She sipped her OJ. “I need you to go to the shops to get me some bits,” she replied. “I need a cabbage for dinner. A nice one. There’s change on the fridge. Don’t come back with a lettuce like you did that time before.”
“Mum, you haven’t seen me in donkey’s years. Don’t you want to know what I’ve been up to?”
“Buy some Neapolitan ice cream for afters as well. Not chocolate, like you did that time before.”
Some fucking welcome. There was never any getting through to her. She was away with the fairies, fixed into her routine of shopping, cooking, cleaning the house and her programmes. She tipped peanuts into the palm of her hand and ate them one at a time, using a toothpick on the arm of the chair to pick out any parts that got stuck between her teeth.
Freddy considered goading her into showing him emotion. Telling her what he thought. Not mincing his words. But that wasn’t how she rolled. Not mum. She’d tell him to piss off. Never any different. She wasn’t one for emotion. It was probably how she coped with the everyday fucking madness of their lives but still was it asking too fucking much for her to show any feelings whatsoever? One fucking time. Maybe ask how he was doing and show interest in his life? It did his head in. Why have kids if you were never going to let them know that you cared for them?
The front door slammed shut. “Your father’s back,” she said.
Freddy felt his stomach churn. History repeated itself, alright. Here we go again. All trapped together in a cage called home.
The dead were as set in their bullshit ways as the living.