Maya Ranganathan 2016
He was born in the city. He grew up in the city. Tangled streets wove lines through his brain. Skyscrapers built up the towers of his mind. His eyes became dewy, rain-coated roads on a Saturday morning, sprays of water flying when a car drove past. He was born in the city and he grew up in the city. The city was his home.
The city has seen many things. The city is poetry, one piece of history typing every letter. Protests and parties, business and buildings, markets and music. When the boy walks to school each morning the city flashes its poem before him and each letter shines a different colour, watercolour droplets spinning around his mind. Everything the city sees, the boy sees too.
The boy walks through darkened alleys, cracked windows like shards of broken bone, cats skulking around corners with green eyes glowing in the black. The boy skips through muddy parks, dark grey Wellington boots, yellow raincoat, the sound of ducks in his ears. The boy runs on tired tarmac, angry shouts, teacher chasing, school kids laughing. The boy falls asleep at night and his dreams catch in his pillow and fall down into the city with its web of silver streets and it catches them and sends them away, fairy tales whispering, drifting with the wind. Down, down, down, his broken thoughts fall, and then they are away, twisting and turning, spinning and spiralling through the dark, settling like dust in some far away crevice, on an old ladies windowpane, in a homeless mans ear. Spots of sunshine that light up the city like the streetlights that dot every corner. The boy paints the city and the city paints him.
The sun rises over the city and in turn, it ignites the boy. His thoughts are awakened with the shiny gold light as a million other people open their eyes and twist their faces away from their curtains. The boy climbs out of bed and is kissed goodbye by his mother as she is whisked through the open door by the noise of the city, by the traffic lights. The bus stop crows in their black suits with their beaks immersed in the unnatural light of their phones. The homeless man wakes and rubs at his ear, an inexplicable joy flooding his heart like warm milk. The old lady attempts to brush the dust from her windowpane but it sticks like glitter coated in permanent glue. The boy sits at the kitchen table with his older sister, unaware of the things he has done in the night, for although he loves his city, he doesn't know that his city loves him back.
The boy wraps a scarf around his neck and runs off to school; hopping, laughing, skipping, jumping, puddles of rainbow collecting at his feet. His face is alight and his heart is on fire, and the city smiles at him and winks at him and kisses his tiny nose, and the city boy continues on his way.
“Why’d you run away?” is what they ask me. Ghostly people with hopeless eyes and faces so distressed from heroin it’s impossible to determine their real ages. Ashen skin that crumbles when you touch it and scatters with the wind. The worst aspects of society, crowded together in a dimly lit room, frail fingers clutching battered playing cards. They look at me with my pale, unwrinkled skin, thin legs and naïve heart and within their injured brains they scrounge up some emotion. Pity. Sorrow. They want me to go home. They don’t want me to fall into the black hole that the drugs pulled them into.
I tell them I didn’t run away, I was chased away. They shrug and accept it and the heroin clouds over those last shards of regret in their eyes.
That’s the best thing about these people. There isn’t anything they won’t accept. There’s no judgement amongst the people who are judged by the entire world.
The café smells of amateur curry and cigarette smoke. Back before he came, Mum used to make curry if she was sober enough to cook. It tasted a lot like this - bland, dry with a vague coconut taste. The volunteer who set it down in front of me had watery eyes and limp brown hair and looked at me like I was a puppy someone had left in a river to drown. I said nothing, just took it from her with a brief nod of thanks, but inside I felt annoyance itching in my veins, crawling through my body. I shouldn’t. It’s not her fault.
As I finish my curry, grateful for the substance, a large majority of the diners scrape back their chairs and head outside - to inject I guess. The Baptist church who runs this place decided that if people were going to use, they may as well do it safely, so they set up the alleyway outside as a safe site. They installed bright white lights and clean water and fresh needles and they appointed the locals to watch us like guard dogs.
I watch as the homeless wander out, all of them walking, talking tragedies, living in a perpetual state of disembodiment, as unsubstantial as the flimsy papery skin that bunches at their joints.
The itch of annoyance has evolved into something else. I feel the familiar hunger start to settle inside my brain, a thick layer of filth that collects in every crevice of my body. I want something. Want it more than I want to go back to school, to be ordinary. I want it more than I want my Mum to ditch him and the alcohol.
The grease and the dust is sinking into my veins and clearing them out. Look, my body is saying, so much space inside you. Do it.
My fingers have begun to tremble and I set down my spoon, catching sight of my reflection in it as it moves. I am paler than death, thinner than I should be. My eyes drag downward, purple shadows reflecting bruises that have long since faded. My hair is oily. I haven’t showered in weeks.
I wonder what people would say if they saw me. Wonder what my friends would say, their parents, my teachers? But she was such a bright girl. Why did she bring this on herself? I wonder what the girl who gave me curry will say when she goes back to college on Monday. The thought makes me bitter, not because I think it could have been me, but because I know I was never given the chance.
My body says, Go outside with the others, Elle. You want to stop thinking, stop feeling? Do it.
My mind says, this is ridiculous.
I think of life as a young girl, when my mother treated me like an old rubbish bin she could dump her mess in. When I hid bottles of wine and dirty needles in the hope she would never find them again. I think of life a year ago, when my mother brought him home and I heard and felt nothing but tears and pain and hid my bruises under thick jumpers. I think of the time when I told my mother she would have to choose - him or me. I think of sleepless nights on Laura’s sofa, of Laura’s mother catching us drinking and telling me that I either get out or she turns me in. I think of Laura’s eyes as she hugged me goodbye, a mixture of resentment and relief. I think of myself, 15 years old and on the streets, sleeping with older men to obtain the drug that will finally let my eyes close, gentle, slow, resolute. Cause and effect. A ripple I couldn’t stop turned me into a tsunami.
I stand up, my chair scraping against the floor.
I am walking towards a drug that is both my friend and my enemy.
It will lift a fog over my brain like a blanket, and I will hide in the dark and dream of colours.
And then I will wake, and the curtains will be pulled back and the past will hit me straight in the eye, blinding in its intensity, every red and purple and blue and green swirling, rippling, spinning into a vortex of murky, mixed up emotions.
I walk away.
The First Time I saw the Accordion Boy
When I saw the accordion boy, it was late at night. The Earth was squirming beneath my feet and the hazy strokes of my vision painted the leaves of the trees into flat portrait paintings of indistinct landscapes. I had been at home, lost in dreams of harsh liquids, the bottles babbling as jovial as an old accomplice as they released their bronzed intestines straight into my waiting mouth. There was a tense expectancy within the usually imperturbable night-time air; some higher power somewhere was crossing their fingers, twisting the atmosphere into something suspenseful. It made it harder to walk somehow, my feet pushed back with every forward step- though perhaps that was the alcohol, back at it again with its old tricks, directing my stumbling footsteps with a malicious disposition cleverly disguised as mischief.
Somewhere within the depths of my inebriation I had decided to go down to the shops to look for history’s faces. My fingers trembled, my lungs ached, and as I pushed forward, the night pushed back.
And then I saw him, and it was as if the night let out its breath. Tiny feet lost beneath the folds of filthy jeans. Stick fingers clenched around an accordion far too big to rest against his hollow chest. A scarf wrapped around his tiny head, which was tipped back, mouth open wide, a tuft of hair sticking out from the hurriedly combed blonde mass on his head. What drew me most towards him, though, was his eyes- the world inside him, the place in his gaze. He pulled me far back in time, drew up childhood as if from a well; and the night sung with a blue nostalgia and a pink melancholy that was oddly pleasant in the icy breeze.
For a minute I stood there, enjoying the feel of the air that had softened its touch on my cheek and now felt almost gentle as I watched the little boy. He stared back at me insistently. It was then I noticed that the world was silent- as though all the sound had been sucked up through a drinking straw like the ones that littered the ground around the coffee shop on the corner. The boy was not playing the accordion; in fact, the dust that had settled around the mouthpiece implied he had never played it in the first place. Looking at him, though, my mind remembered riots of sound, lighting up a colourless sterile world with tuneless notes and empty chords.
My old friend the bottle nudged the corners of my mind insistently. “go and talk to him. Move closer. Say hello. He’s just a boy…”
But something inside me was frightened of this little boy with so many realms inside him. Someone so small was not meant to contain so much. I wondered if he would feel heavy if I lifted him. I wondered what would come out of his mouth when he spoke. I imagined a stream of sounds, ranging from year to year- the ringing of a church bell, a snippet of conversation, the terrified bark of a dog.
For now, I was content in watching him, imagining. He was a painting of a person- something to be admired, to show people different colours. A mere reflection of humanity, but something strong enough to make you think. My mind spun; I wondered if he would feel solid to touch, or whether my hand would pass through him like water. The world had taken on a dreamlike quality and I felt suddenly weightless. Hard, hot blood pounded in my forehead. I floated forward.
Steady, steady, my hand found his. My fingers ran over grainy skin, clearly humanlike but also cold, dead. My thumb found the hollows of his eyelids. I felt his eyes shut. My hand moved down, touched his lips and his chin, felt his body hum, felt him pulse with the weight of something I couldn’t quite place.
He opened his eyes, and I saw that up close they were dark; so black that I was unable to see anything within them, but at the same time so open I saw too much. And steady, steady, he lifted the accordion to his tiny white lips, coating them in years of grime, and began to play.
And suddenly I saw.
In his hands I saw a woman, perhaps only 30 or 40 years old, face clenched as if to shield herself from something dangerous with lines on her red tough hands that spoke of hardship and fear. In his lips I saw a baby, a newborn, chocolate brown skin rich with the quality of something fresh, mouth opened wide in a joyful cry. In the strands of his hair I saw an old woman, knees bent at an odd angle, brushing the hair of a laughing child with shaky but certain strokes. In the bones of his arms I saw a young boy, head tilted back to look up at someone, half of his face hidden their shadow, body tired from spasms of tremors. In his tiny feet I saw a teenage girl, mouth open wide and soft in her laughter, the jewels on her sandals cutting lines in her tanned, polished feet.
The music continued on, and I felt the town drop down around me, and the people of the world scrutinized me, ensnared in the little boy’s eyes.
I closed my eyes and felt myself fall.
When I woke, the leaves on the trees above me were blurring into the sunlight, indecisive strokes of sunflower yellow and murky swamp green. An ache was written into the inside of my head in black permanent’ marker pen.
The accordion boy was gone.