Something Changed. Mark Brown
Everyone remembers those days; I claim no special skill or knowledge.
This is the first thing I've ever written apart from letters to
landlords or job applications. I don't even know whether I have
anything special to say. All I know is that something has happened and
I no longer have a head big enough to keep it in.
It started with the explosion, everyone remembers that. All around the
world we saw it, in multiple angles, at variable speeds. Somewhere
three buildings fell down and then everything changed.
Or rather it didn't. That day it felt like the first wind of winter
had come, whirling wet leaves in vortices around me. Looking up, the
sky was grey and flat, the sun grainy and strained like cheap video
footage. I was walking, looking around, waiting for the grand sign, the
ultimate signifier, the punctuation on the world, but there was
nothing. The wonder of technology had brought the end of the world into
my tiny flat but that was the only place it was. Outside, everything
looked the same.
That afternoon I stood for minutes watching a man with a white
moustache wash his car, the white suds running around my feet and on
into the drain.
On top of the hill dogs still shat and kids smoking tabs sat on the
swings. Summer was over, autumn was moving slowly in.
Too many people have written too many things about those days, and I
cannot even begin to compete with them. When all of the minds in the
world mobilise to make comment on something, you soon realise that
there isn't that much left for you to say. Conversations become oddly
stilted, like poems made up from headlines cut from old newspapers. The
event feels like a great part of your life, and it is because you
devote so much time to it, but when you come to grasp it, there's
nothing there because it's not really part of your life at all. You
don't have real feelings about it, not real deep down in the guts
feelings because, despite your protestations, it didn't happen to
Someone, somewhere, said that the television was the retina of the
mind's eye, that what is shown on television is absorbed by a person as
raw experience. This might be true, but it is raw experience without
substance. All of the information without any of the visceral, meat and
gristle feelings of actually being there. Empty.
think that's what started it all off, the hole left by the lack of
real experience of the thing that we were all focused on.
But, I think, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I haven't worked for years, not really. A few bits on the black, a
couple of office jobs I soon got the sack from. For the last two years
I've been scamming the social, but I've been clever with it. I'm
depressed you see, except I'm not my sister is. I copy her, ask her
what she says to her doctor, how she fills in her forms, what pills is
it she takes. I then go to my doctor and say the same things, fill out
my claims forms the same way, collect a prescription each month, which
I put in the cupboard with all the previous months neatly labelled
In short, I pretend to be depressed. Luckily, there isn't really any
way to tell from the outside whether someone's depressed or not, no
spots or hair loss. I drink and smoke a bit of tac, which adds to the
effect I suppose.
The thing is, as far as the doctors and the Benefits Agency are
concerned, you're depressed if you say you're depressed, though I do
feel a bit guilty. Sometimes I see myself as one of those people who
pretend to be in a wheelchair, then in the final reel of the film are
tricked into standing up.
I've never told Kelly what I'm doing, it's one of the only things that
ever really kept a secret from her. She's my twin, my non-identical
twin. She's got fair hair, I've got dark. People always used to think
we were boyfriend and girlfriend, before she stopped going out.
We've always been close, always shared everything. When she started to
get depressed I felt like she was being selfish, like there was a
something she was keeping just for herself. Somehow I felt cheated that
she was going somewhere that I could never follow her.
She used to live in London, before she had to move back into my Mam and
Dad's house. I remember I went down to stay with her once and we stood
out on her balcony under the black sky, watching the foxes run across
the rooftops. Like liquid they are, she said, when they start moving
they stop being solid and they turn into liquid moonlight. She always
said things like that, really beautiful things that no one else would
ever think of.
She said she used to watch the foxes every night when she couldn't
sleep, silent like forceful shadows as they moved along the walls and
through the bushes. She said that was what she most missed about
London, the foxes.
When she moved out of my Mam and Dad's house into a flat of her own,
she said she would stand at the window every night, waiting, but
nothing ever came. Only newspapers blew silently between the rows of
Her flat's only about five streets from mine. When she first moved in I
remember joking that we should get a long piece of string and two tin
cans to save on telephone bills. She said that, for the first couple of
months, she lays in bed and tried to think thoughts into my head, tried
to make pictures in my dreams.
I went through her depression with her, don't get me wrong. We'd sit
for hours, the room filling with smoke from her ever-present cigarette,
the ashtray overflowing. Sometimes there would be no noise at all, just
the soft clicking of the gas fire and the sound of distant sirens.
Other times she'd cry. Mostly she'd tell me everything and I'd soak it
up. She'd tell me that sometimes she felt like she'd died in the womb
so that I could survive, that she'd never really been alive at all. The
ghost twin she called herself.
One night she showed me a photograph of a calcified foetus. It looked
like a clumsy sculpture of a baby or an ancient, weather worn stone
cherub, all rough with no detail, stone eaten by rain. She explained
that when a foetus isn't expelled in miscarriage, it can stay in the
body where it is coated by layer upon layer of calcium, like a mummy or
cocoon, the body adapting to its continued presence. They can stay for
decades, increasing in size and weight with each successive coating,
until they are discovered and removed.
They call them stone babies, she said. Her face was pale and puffy in
the dim light of her living room. The orange of the streetlamp outside
caught in her pupils, making them flicker like tiny flames.
That's what one of us is, she said, a stone baby. I think she started
crying them, so I sat on the edge of her chair and cradled her head in
Still though, as much as I listened to her, I still didn't feel it. As
much as I understood in my head, there wasn't a little flame of
understanding in my belly. Nothing she said connected, I could
understand it but I couldn't feel it.
I'm sorry if I seem to be losing my thread but I think it's important
that you understand. I love Kelly, more than I've ever loved anyone
else. Sometimes I think we're on person split into two and other times?
Well, other times I just settle for loving her unconditionally.
I just couldn't tell her about the scam, it would blow everything
apart. I used to wish sometimes that I could join her in the desert,
see the world through her eyes, share the velvet dark places in her
But I couldn't.
So that's me, defrauding the social, sitting in my flat. It was
comfortable with my television and video, my books and record spread
around me. The flat's small, in the same sort of red brick terrace as
Kelly's, except that hers is on the bottom floor while mine's on the
top. Behind the front door stairs lead up, and outside the back door
concrete steps lead down into the backyard. Kelly always said that she
felt safer up a height and I could see what she meant. If I stick my
head out of the window I can see right down Canning Street, right down
the hill and over to the Metro Centre on the other side of the Tyne. At
night the orange lights hang in blackness, tracing the paths of roads
like a glowing spiderweb. If I stand on the back stairs I can just see
what used to be Rutherford School, now called Westgate Community
college, its fields replaced by giant primary coloured sports buildings
funded by the government. I can also see the broken glass and the shit
piled up in the backlane and the gangs of lads and lasses, but I'm up a
height and it doesn't seem to matter that much.
I got the flat off a housing association, who got it off the council.
So did Kelly. The rents nothing, since about half the houses round here
are boarded up. Five minutes away housing associations were selling of
houses for fifty pence and still couldn't shift them, so I suppose they
were glad of a few quiet dossers like the pair of us. It never really
bothered me living around here. Granted I've got the biggest, most fuck
off locks on all of the doors, and you have to be a bit careful around
hoying out time, but it suits me fine.
I was happy just sitting there, reading a bit, watching some telly,
seeing a few mates. Like I said, it all started with the explosions. I
was listening to records that afternoon, sat on the chair looking up at
the flat sky, when Kelly rang.
"Kelly?" She sounded like she'd been crying but that wasn't anything
"Chris? Chris, they've blown it. They've?" She was talking quickly, her
breathe escaping in tiny high pitched gasps. "Turn on the telly, just
look on the? Oh god, they've blown it."
"Hang on, just?"
"Turn on the television."
"Just turn on the telly."
I flicked on the telly, the sound turned down, the record still playing
in the background.
There it was. The telephone line popped and clicked. Neither of us said
First one tower, then the other. The explosions, the planes, the impact
didn't look like real life, they looked soft and paper thin, like
cartoons. Cardboard buildings and paper planes. If this were a story,
the music in the background, still playing on the record player, would
have some resonance or shed some light on the situation. It didn't. I
remember what it was though, it was 'The Selecter' by The
The record stopped turning, the stylus returned to the cradle. We
didn't say anything.
In the days after that I spent hour after hour watching the telly,
sometimes round at Kelly's, sometimes on my own. I was addicted,
watching the meaning of the events take shape in television space. I
watched the footage again and again, acquiring and claiming it in the
same way you acquire and claim favourite scenes in films. Without
thinking I remember saying to Kelly 'watch this bit, watch this bit',
as if we were watching some particularly well directed action sequence.
I found myself mouthing along with the words of the people on screen as
if it were well written dialogue. I remember them now, the cop with
white gloves and moustache motioning people down the street as if he
were directing traffic. The shaven headed man being interviewed who
said 'that's the guy all over me'. The woman with the video camera
pulled to safety into a caf? just before the dust cloud moved like a
solid thing down the streets, her disembodied voice screaming from
behind what we could see 'Oh my God, Oh my God, you saved my life, oh
thank you!'. Another disembodied voice running through the powder
white, snow drift streets shouting 'get to the subway', being answered
by a man running beside him, 'if you go into the subway you will
fucking die, if you go in the subway you will die'. All these and more
I remember, and to be honest, enjoyed. The most common thing that
anyone said at the time was that it was all like something out of a
movie. It was.
I started getting up early, going and buying the papers then going
round to Kelly's to read them. When I got there she usually hadn't been
to bed and would be sat, cardigan pulled around her, perched on the
edge of her chair, knees together, cigarette in hand. Since the
explosions her skin had become paler and developed a glossy look, like
something preserved. Her eyes looked flat and dark ringed. When she
talked her voice came out in a dull, echoey monotone, like someone
trying to communicate from a great distance.
Sometimes she'd be quiet, hardly saying a word as I read bits out from
the newspapers. Other times she'd talk almost without pause, each word
like the beat of a dull, slow rhythm.
To be honest, most of the time I was only half listening to her,
nodding and agreeing at the right times, maybe trying to set her mind
at rest sometimes. Most of the time her worries and fears were like a
low, constant note in the background. Only occasionally would something
swim through into the foreground, like one of those paintings of a
random group of objects which suddenly resolves itself into a woman's
face or a swan if you look at it long enough.
"Nothing going to be the same again, never ever. Everything's changed.
It's usually in my head, but this time it's not, it's not in my head.
There are explosions, but they're not in my head, they're out
"Everyone's saying how it doesn't feel real but for me nothing ever
feels real but this, this feels more real than anything. Nothing real
has ever happened before this, nothing else has ever happened?
"Those people, and they were waving, they were jumping, and falling,
and we'd seen it so many times but this time it was real, those people
knowing they would die, just waiting for the help that would never
come, but still believing that it would, that it had to?
I remember looking over the paper at her, stood facing the window,
framed in blue sky. I think I said something about how terrible it was.
She turned around, hand covering her mouth.
"You don't get it," she said. "They were waiting for help and it never
"Yeah, but a lot of people did escape. Not everyone died."
"You don't get it." Her eyes were wide and sparked as she looked down
at me, as if she were looking down from a great height. I tried to look
back as she started whispering. "Even though they trusted, even though
they believed, even though they knew the good guys were going to came,
even though it wasn't their fault, they still died. They didn't do
anything, but they still died. Don't you see? Don't you get it?"
Something inside me rose up, a kind of painful pressure in my chest.
"What? What do you mean?"
"You can't see it, can you?"
"See what? People died, it's sad. What else do you expect me to
Her face dropped even further, her body folding in on itself. "It's
like, you grow up and people tell you there's always hope," as she
talked her body seemed to be shrinking, getting smaller, dwindling.
"When you fell over when y' were a kid, you never, ever felt like there
was no one to pick you up. You never thought for one minute that no one
would come. Those people, even though THEY believed, still no one
Sobs started to catch in the back of her throat.
"Y' see, there's no one coming, it doesn't matter how hard you hope,
how special you feel, how hard you wish, there's no one. There's no one
She was crying by then, but her face wasn't crumpled up, it was flat
and smooth and calm, the tears falling out of her eyes and down and off
her jaw. She looked like she'd just seen the most beautiful thing in
I stood up to give her a hug but she just stared at me, as if I was
something she'd never seen before. I pulled her to me but she neither
resisted nor agreed, her body somehow like a meat object, just a body.
Out through the window gulls circled against the sky and she whispered
in my ear with words that caught in the back of her throat.
"The world's inside my head now. Suddenly it's not me it's the
Day by day I slipped into a kind of rhythm, absorbing all of the
information that I could about what was happening. I eagerly devoured
maps of Afghanistan, details of the struggle to forge an alliance
across the world. I learnt who were the hawks and who were the doves in
the White House. I watched the news reports on the high security in
London, the armed police at the airports, the changed flight patterns.
I found out about the mujaheddin and what a Pashtun was. I spent most
of the day soaking up information, wallowing in it, rubbing it all over
the surface of my body. Outside though nothing was different. Nothing
happened in Newcastle, no Canary Wharf to worry about, no City to
protect. As always, things happened somewhere else.
On the day when things really started, I got up, bought the papers and
walked round to Kelly's. She hadn't slept, so I made her some breakfast
and led her by the hand to bed, tucking her in and kissing her on the
cheek. She didn't say a word in all the time I was there.
I had to go and see the doctor that day to get another sicknote so I
went there straight from Kelly's. Opposite the surgery is a Hindu
Temple, with 'HINDU TEMPLE' written in orange on a five-foot sign at
the front. It's been surrounded by twelve-foot fences with those
rotating spikes on top for as long as I can remember. As I went through
the surgery door I noticed some graffiti on one of its exposed walls.
In white paint someone had scrawled 'REMEMBER SEPTEMBER II KILL A ARAB
Lies told, and sick note in my pocket, I hopped the 40 down the West
Road into town. The West Road is basically the old roman road, running
parallel to Hadrian's Wall way out into the countryside, straight, as
was the Roman way. Going into the town all of the roads on the right
slope away into the valley, Benwell carries on down, blurring into
Elswick, which then blurs into Scotswood. Workers houses for workers
long gone. Canning Street, Fairholme Road, streets of red brick back to
backs, meeting the West Road like ribs coming off a backbone.
The bus stops at the General, where the dark Victorian buildings are
being levelled and supposedly replaced. Where there had once been large
imposing structures, made of sandstone that'd turned black with
pollution, now there was just a vast area of rubble. I remember the
hours spent pacing around the overlit entrance to casualty there, the
first time that Kelly tried to top herself. We were seventeen.
Looking out the window on the opposite side of the bus, a group of dark
skinned men sat on the steps of the old nurse's home, most with beards
and moustaches. They looked on from behind the ornate railings, some
smoking cigarettes, as two children played in the fallen leaves in
front of them. I'd forgotten until then that the nurse's home was being
used as a hostel for asylum seekers displaced from the Southeast.
There's been some sort of uproar in The Chronicle, but it had blown
over, as most things up here seem to.
I don't know why I suddenly remembered then, it's as if you forget
about the rest of the world until it reminds you that it's still there.
Looking at those men and children I couldn't help but laugh. They'd
travelled hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, gone through immeasurable
hardship, and they'd finally arrived here, five to a room in a big grey
echoey institution with some rubble to look at and some vouchers to
spend. Grey buildings; grey pavements, grey people, grey sky.
I was still thinking about how grey and cold Newcastle must seem to
them as the bus turned down Stanhope Street, passing Asian clothes
shops and video shops and jewellers, St James Park squatting at the
bottom of the hill like some gigantic glass and metal tidal wave, the
massive girders that hold the canopy on making it look like a great
spider hung at the centre of its web.
Coming into the city proper you can see the new boulevard, supposedly
safe and spacious and modern, pink concrete and brushed steel
streetlamps, in reality barren like a motorway service station
forecourt. Newcastle in the early twenty first century is going through
another regeneration, another game of catch up. Looking around from the
bus, buildings have just winked out of existence at random, as if
silent bombs had fallen in the dead of night, levelling certain
buildings to the ground and leaving others standing. Everywhere it felt
like you could see the absence of familiar buildings, like ghosts. The
town centre itself seems to be getting flatter, more spaced out. It's
like Newcastle is removing unwanted parts, and can't decide what to
replace them with. Regeneration in Newcastle is always both vicious and
violent. Once you start levelling, it can be hard to know when to
Walking around the town itself, nothing seemed different. It still
reminded me of a town after the goldrush, empty and flat. The smell of
wet concrete. People were walking around, shopping, doing what they
always do. No armed police there. Not even a headline on The Chronicle
seller's board. Nothing was different. I'd read about the apprehension
and sadness on the streets of London, the wariness in the square mile,
the false alarms and threats. Like some many other things, they must
have ran out long before they reached Newcastle. If I had to put a name
to my feelings, I'd have to say disappointment.
That night I went round to Barry's house down near Pendower School, or
the 'special school' as my Mam and Dad used to call it. It's only about
a quarter of an hour's walk from the flat, so I used to pop in often,
just for half an hour or so.
Barry still lived with his Mam. Once years ago, he'd moved in with a
lass that we both knew from school. It lasted three weeks. I remember
trying to ignore the footmarks in the bedroom door when I went round
there to help him move his stuff out.
I'd know Barry for years, on and off. As is the way with blokes, we
were friends because neither of us felt strongly enough to feel
otherwise, the way things were meant we didn't need to make an
I remember his Dad used to get pirate copies of films and we used to
skive off school and watch them around at his Da's flat in Blakelaw.
His Da, thinking about it, really didn't give a fuck.
Barry'd always wanted to be in the army but never made it. Once he'd
even tried out but couldn't get through the physical. He made up for it
by keeping up an almost fanatical interest in all things violent and
military. Replica guns, air pistols, samurai swords, 'Guns and Ammo'
magazines, Andy McNab and Adolf Hitler.
When I got round there his Mam answered the door, tartan slippers on
her feet, gold St. Christopher dangling outside her black jumper, arms
crossed over her large breasts.
"Hello Mrs Prentiss. Is Barry in?"
"Ee, hiya son. Ah divvn't kna whether he's in or not. Ah'll just give
him a shout." Holding the door open as she always did, she turned and
shouted up the stairs. "Barry? Barry? Chris is here to see y'."
A muffled answering shout came back down.
"Ee son, A' think he's in the bath. D'yu want t' come in and wait for
him? Ah'll make y' a nice cup a' tea."
She ushered me into the living room, shouting up the stairs again.
"Barry, hurry up man, y're always keepin' people waiting", then talking
to herself as she went through into the kitchen, "Ee, that lad, he'd
miss his own funeral if someone didn't tek his hand and walk him
In the living room, I sat down on one of the armchairs, looking at the
photographs propped up on the mantelpiece. Some of them had bits cut
off them. All of them were Barry at various stages of his life, from
plump little lad to plump six-foot man. The ones with the bits missing
were family photos, weddings, parties, days out, holidays. 'Look North'
was on the telly, a report about an arts renaissance in Newcastle; the
Baltic Flour Mill Arts Centre. A gigantic white cube of a warehouse
being converted into a centre for the arts.
"D'y take sugar, pet?"
"No thanks Mrs Prentiss."
The North East Eye bridge across the Tyne shone on the screen like some
space age cats-cradle as Mrs Prentiss came through the door?(Insert
Outside no stars pricked the black sky and I could see my breath. If
I'm honest, I was glad to get away, away from the heat, away from the
closeness, away from the cloying femaleness of the house. It was like
Barry had never left the womb, floating all wrapped up in warmth.
Something about the air, the coolness resonating and radiating into me
through my bare hands and face felt cleansing.
I say cleansing, but that was only at the start. As I walked up the
street I first felt cool, washed through with cold, a few more steps
and I was numb but tingling like pins and needles, a few steps after
that and I felt like a void, empty, weightless.
Now I can say something about how it felt, but at the time my first
thought was heart attack, but strangely I wasn't worried. I felt like I
was floating, drifting forward without effort.
Turning into Broomridge Avenue there's a fenced off, sunken piece of
ground at the end of a row of houses. I'd never really paid much
attention to it but that night it seemed to be obscured, fuzzy like a
poorly exposed photograph.
I can only describe what follows as feeling like a dream but without
the feeling of unreality, only the complete acceptance of all the
events that occurred as normal at the time. At no time in those three
or four minutes did I feel anything unusual had occurred.
Moving toward the fenced off ground I first of all thought that all
the streetlamps were broken, the area being in perfect darkness, a
darkness so black that it looked like it would stick like tar to your
body. I noticed a single light.
I can see it now, my vision moving like a camera, panning upward,
smoothly framing a sky so full of stars that it was like it was
scattered with layer on layer of beautiful dust. Stars behind stars
behind stars. Millions cold and hard. Too many stars, no hint of orange
from streetlamps, no discolouring.
Looking back down I was facing a squat building, all around me an
immense feeling of space, looking left and right, the houses of the
estate were gone, the land black until it hit the horizon, the stars
above it. No lights, the tracery of orange lamps across the valley had
disappeared. There was only me, the building and blackness.
From nowhere a crushing sadness descended upon me, gripping my insides,
almost doubling me over. The blackness around me suddenly became filled
with threat. Suddenly I knew how lonely I was. My bed and my wife were
in another world, thousands of miles away. My daughter I had never
seen, only a tiny bump when I left. They didn't want us here; they
never had, no matter what they had told us at home. They hated us here,
even though we'd brought them civilisation, given them a hand out of
the dirt they had been grubbing in. No matter how many times we offered
them the benefits of joining us, they would just smile then slit our
throats in the night. Barbarians, all of them, no matter what
I knew what I had thought before I left the warmth and the order.
Everything had worked, the Empire strong, the world made to make sense.
There had seemed to be an eternal path gloriously upward, new
conquests, new glories, a good and just power exercising a good and
just strength. I had been comfortable and proud, fiercely happy to be
part of the greatest nation the world had ever seen.
Out here, in the black and the cold, all that was gone. In the bleak
land where no lush plants grew and settlements sank back into the
jagged ground almost as soon as they were raised, the eternal order
seemed a joke. We weren't strong and virile, we were weak and senile
and brutal, too many staring, never to be closed eyes attested to that.
Nothing worked out here, supplies from home never came, orders were
old, corrupted, wrong.
I stifled a bitter laugh. I had thought I knew why I was here but
really I didn't have a clue, hating them but also hating us. The
picture was far bigger than the likes of me could ever see. A soldier,
unless in heat of battle, belongs nowhere.
Out of the entrance to the building came a man dressed as I was, armour
polished, sword clinking at his side. His skin was almost as black as
the land. I called him Brother Nubian and we talked of our loneliness
and the incompetence of generals and of our wives and of the brutal
ways the people of this land treated their women. We talked of the
leaders back home, of what they were telling our children and wives of
us. We laughed at our own stupidity. We had no business here, and going
our separate ways, we returned to our lonliness. It did not occur to me
that neither of us was talking English. My duty at the wall began at
sunrise, so I went into the building, the temple, to make offering to
our gods, hoping above hope that they were more powerful than
Then, as soon as it had begun, it ended. Like opening your eyes after
shutting them for a second, the orange light washed back in. I was on
my hands and knees on the concreted-in stones at the middle of the
indentation. I must have climbed over the railings. Two stone plinths
flanked me at either side, crushed beer cans and cider bottles
surrounding them. Standing up, still nothing struck me as odd. I
absentmindedly read a small moulded iron plaque on the side of the
indentation, where it was shored up with old looking bricks.
'This site was the location of the temple of Antenociticus.'
I did my best to quietly climb the railings. It didn't even cross my
mind to go back to Barry's house and tell him what had just happened.
All I wanted to do was get home because I was cold.
Coming to the top of Condercum Road something clicked into place, as if
a gate holding back the full intensity of what had just happened
opened. Condercum. Condercum Fort. Pons Alieus. Hadrien.
Somehow I'd just been a soldier on the Roman Wall.
I ran the last couple of streets, nearly running into an arguing couple
on the corner. By the time I made it to the door I could hardly get the
keys in the locks for shaking, my face feeling waxy as I rubbed
When I got inside I turned on all the lights, and fiddling with a box
of B+H on the table, picked one up and lit it. I'd not smoked a tab
since I was fifteen. By the time the sun came up there were none