By: Will Jones
Great smelling food made my mouth water. I kept my eyes closed for a little longer. The spices reminded me of holidays I had been on. The smell of the meat took me to barbecues we had had in the back garden when there was the rare glimpse of sun. I took one hearty breath in and as I let it out, I opened my eyes to see a table full of all the food you could imagine. It was like christmas on steroids. All on a long wooden table, like one you see in medieval pictures. I felt like I was at the last supper — although I was in the middle, so clearly there were some major differences. I sat back in my chair and looked around the table to see all of my friends and family — I swear I hadn’t seen them for such a long time. It was amazing to have them all here, with me, now. I began to smile. And I could feel my eyes begin to well. Everyone was having a verbal tennis match; I couldn’t get a single word that any of them were saying. It didn’t matter though. In between breaks I could hear the voices of my friends and that was all I needed. My stomach soon reminded me of why I was there. It wasn’t to enjoy the company of others, oh no, it was to eat all the food I could. In the middle there was a large chicken, or turkey, a bird of some kind anyway and I reached out and ripped off one of its legs — feeling a little bit like a barbarian as I did it, I enjoyed it. I turned it around in my hands for a moment, watching the light glisten off of the crispy skin. There was no point in waiting anymore. I brought it to my mouth and took a great big bite and immediately began to choke.
I flung myself forward. My right hand around my neck and my other slapping my back — I must have looked like a mad man. A constant stream of sand flowed out of my mouth. And once it petered out, I reached in and scraped all the remnants out with my finger nails. It was grim. There is nothing worse than having sand in your mouth — well, there probably is, but it is pretty bad. I was gagging for water. My mouth was as dry as a desert. I looked around me to see if any of the bottles I had had anything left. One by one I picked them up, shook them about and hopelessly poured the last drop onto my tongue, which evaporated instantly. It was pointless to say the least. Although that didn’t stop me. I ransacked each and every bottle. I threw the last bottle down onto the ground and its emptiness echoed in my ears, reminding me of how hollow it was. My head hit against the wall behind me; waking up my headache that had persisted to reside in my head.
The wind continued to fly through the narrow alleyway where I sat, bringing the sand with it; coating me in a fine layer of dry dust. There was no getting away from it. Acceptance was the only way. It was clear that I was back where I started. No banquets or feasts where I was. No friends or family to surround me. Nothing but empty bottles of water and a mouth full of sand whenever I slept with my stupid mouth open. My fault really, I guess, you would have thought I had learnt my lesson. Of course though, I hadn’t. From the market stalls, in the centre of the town, wafted the smell of exotic foods — clearly what had inspired my dream. Again my mouth began to water as I fantasied about the foods that they would be selling, or at least the foods that could be made with whatever they had. The smells only added to my predicament. Luckily, I could find some solace in the smells of the dirty animals and people who were walking on by. Not forgetting to mention the general stench of the city, that shouldn’t go amiss. My rumbling belly quickly turned into a churning sickness. Considering my situation, I felt no pain in losing my appetite. My friends’ voices had been lost in the crowded alleyway and were by the mundane mutterings of the people going by. I understood nothing. Not because it all merged into one, but because I had no idea what they were saying. Every so often the sound of a distressed or screeching animal would cut through whilst it flapped its nostrils. To top it all off, there was the sound of multiple tellies that were in every single shop opposite me, and they were also in the flats above; blaring out their nonsensical crap to the brain starved population. The dream was truly over and all that surrounded me was a reminder of what I am missing.
There was no doubt of what time it was. The sun was high up in the sky, directly over head, making sure that it hit me with every bit of heat it was able to produce. I was sweating like nobodies business— and trust me, that is an understatement. There was no point in moving from my spot since along the entire alley the sun reigned supreme. There was no shadows to hide under and there were no clouds in the sky to defend my honour. I was alone in this battle, and it was certain I was losing. Half of my clothes were laying on the floor, either underneath me or my things. The clothes that I had on had pretty much fallen apart at the seams, with a number of holes dotted about the place. This, you would think to be a blessing, a form of ventilation: it wasn’t. All it did was allow the sand underneath and stick to my sweaty skin. It was a pain. The winds, that were channelled through, gave me some relief, for a brief moment, since along with them came a wave of sand, which, once again coated me. None of this was helped by the fact that I had no water. Despite all of this, I knew all I had to do was sit through it and endure whatever was coming my way, because at nighttime, when all of the market stalls were closing up, they would each pass by me and give me anything that they couldn’t sell. So, the lack of water and food was my own fault. I was never the best person when it came to rationing, and I was paying for it.
Something tapped my left leg. I looked down to see a football that was falling apart, some of the inner orange ball showing. As I looked around to see where it had come from I noticed a boy dressed from head to toe in white, long shirt, thin trousers and a square skull cap looking hat. He stood on the spot, staring back at me stunned, clearly having no idea what to do. His reaction made me chuckle since there was no reason for him to be as scared as he was. I picked up the ball and with all of my efforts threw it back to him, trying my best to miss the people who were passing on by — of course, some of them were terrified of a crappy leather ball and jumped out of the way, as you would expect. The ball though rolled to his feet. Without looking at it he turned away and carried on through the alley. Between the people he ducked and dodged as he kicked the ball from one foot to the other — I am pretty sure he thought that everyone was a defender and they were all in his way of the goal at the end of the alley. After getting bored of passing numerous defenders who didn’t seem to put much effort into the game, he flicked the ball up and started to bounce it; keeping it in the air for as long as possible. People began to shout at him as they walked by, shooting daggers out of their eyes as they stared at him, shaking their heads and hitting the air once they were completely passed and safe from being hit by the airborne ball. However, the boy carried on, keeping his focus on what he was doing, content with doing his own thing.
The good times could only last so long. A man fumbled the ball as he tried to grab it out of the air. The boy stopped immediately and stood up straight. He turned to look up at the man in front of him. The man’s eyes tightened as he shouted at the boy; his voice cut through the noise of the city. All life in the boy’s body left him and his shoulders dropped; his head followed. Once the man saw the boy’s eyes had left his, he wrapped his bony hand around his face, shaking the boy’s head as he shouted and screamed at him. When he was done, he threw the boy’s head out of his grasp and threw the ball onto a nearby roof; walking off and leaving the boy standing there, motionless, slumped on the spot. The man rejoined his friends, who had been waiting for him further down, each of them patting him on the back, laughing and looking back as they walked passed me.
Using the wall I pulled myself up. My arms shook as I pushed against the coarse wall. My legs were tensed and all they want to do was cave in on themselves and fall back on the floor. My teeth were clenched; my eyes closed, beads of sweat ran down my face; burning underneath my skin — it had been a long time since I had done anything strenuous and now it was showing, that and the lack of food and water. Once I was up I fell against the wall, panting, keeping my eyes closed. My body began to sway a little, and colours swirled in front of my eyes. I slowly breathed in and out, counting the length of my breaths, waiting for the reeling sensation to be over.
I opened my eyes. The world span slightly, but it was nothing that I couldn’t handle. I began to walk over to where the ball had been thrown, keeping my hands out in front of me as I wobbled from side to side, stumbling across the cobbles. Once I was on the opposite side of the alley, and further up by the boy, I looked up at the roofs to see if the ball had been pushed to the edge by the wind: it hadn’t. Clearly, I needed to remember which house the man threw the ball onto — from my experience, it was never usually where you thought it had landed anyway, meaning there was no real point in thinking to hard. I crashed against the side of the building and looked at the flat wall for a moment, trying to figure out how on Earth I was going to get up. All that there was was a small circular window, with a sill a couple of centimetres thick, meaning it was going to be a task and a half to climb up. Annoyingly though, I didn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. I placed my foot onto the wall and rested it there for a moment. My fingertips gripped onto the window, giving me a nice burning stretch in my joints. I whispered 1, 2, 3, and threw myself up. Both legs flailed in the air, hitting against the wall, each trying its hardest to grip onto something. They didn’t. I fell to the ground, a bit out of breath, with the world around me completely white. I couldn’t give up though. I waited for the world to regain its colour before pushing myself back up onto my feet and giving it another go.
Again I placed my fingertips on the edge: my foot rested on the wall, I breathed in, counted and launched myself up. As soon as I was in the air I threw my foot up and onto the window sill, pushing me up further; I reached out to grab onto the edge of the roof. I made it. On the other side of the roof, the ball hit against the side, rolling up and down as the wind pushed it against the edge. My arms and legs were shaking as if there was an earthquake going on. The tips of my feet were beginning to slip — I kicked the window once or twice each time they did. Putting all of my weight onto my shaky arms, I pulled myself up and rolled onto the roof and onto my back. I spread out like a star. I tried to gather up the energy to get onto my feet, but it was long gone. Instead, I rocked on my back like a turtle until I was on my belly. I shimmied across the roof and over to the ball. It tried to escape my grip, making me want to scream, however, I grabbed it and wrapped my arm around it. At the edge of the roof I looked over. There was no way I was going to be able to climb down. I was for sure going to lose my footing or my legs were going to cave in. My head fell once I thought of my only real option.
I threw the ball down, not caring if it hit anyone. Bit by bit I rolled myself off the edge, holding on for dear life. First, my left leg dropped down, dangling, putting me off balance, nearly overtipping me completely. Next to go was my right leg. This nearly took me out. I managed to hang on though. Finally, I was hanging there, over the side of the building. There was not much space between me and the floor so I let go — underestimating the gap completely. When I hit the floor, my legs — at long last — caved in. My chin slammed into my knees and my jaw crashed shut. I was knocked back and bounced over to the other side of the alley. I slumped into a ball, trying to breathe, my throat grumbling with each breath. My body ached. I could feel my feet tingle; some blood ran down my arms and my head began to throb. All I could do was lay on my side and try to regain some composure.
Once my breathing normalised I began to count each breath. Taking in long breaths and letting them out very slowly. A voice came from above me — having no idea what they said. As I looked up I saw a figure all dressed in white. ‘No bother,’ I mumbled before placing my head in my hands and laying back on the floor.
I carried on focusing on myself and my pains, ‘English?’ his high pitched voice pieced my ears, ‘you speak English?’ There it was again.
Using my right hand I pushed the ground away from me. I rubbed my eyes incessantly before opening them and trying to focus on the boy. It was all a blur still, ‘Yeah, I speak English.’
He bowed, ‘thank you for ball.’
We stayed in silence for a moment. He began to roll the ball around in his hands and I tried to focus on who was in front of me, other than a white robe.
‘What you do here?’ He asked.
‘I am trying to earn some money.’
‘What?’ he said as he crouched down, turning his head towards me; I moving slightly away.
‘I try to get money,’
‘You need money,’ he shouted in my ear, ‘what you sell?’ he reached into his pocket, I could hear the change getting shaken about.
‘Nothing,’ I waited, ‘nothing for children.’ I shouted as I waved my hand, persuading him to stop.
The jangle of the coins stopped, ‘why no for children?’
‘It just isn’t.’
He stood back up and looked away into the distance before walking off and over to where I had been sat. I saw him kneel down and move my things around, the bottles scraped against the floor, and then I heard a rattling noise.
‘What in orange bo…’ He stopped and looked away. His head turned around as he watched the people in the alley stop everything that they were doing and walk away in the same direction.
He knelt down and put the bottle back down next to me, ‘I go now. I be back to help, later, yes?’ I could feel his smile.
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘No, I help.’ The football fell to the ground and he began once again to hit it between his feet as he made his way through the sea of defenders who were all walking away from where I was. Slowly, I crawled along the floor until I was back with my things. The alley was soon empty. There was no more chatter in the streets, all that I could hear was the occasional animal in the distance. I rested my head in my hands and closed my eyes making the most of the peace that I could.
When I opened my eyes I was shivering. The streets were completely empty and all of the shops were shut. Along the alley candles were lit. The moon’s glow only made it so far into the streets, creating a blue night above — some of the stars were out, more would have been if it wasn’t for the candles. Despite the cold I stared up at the night sky and lost myself for a moment. My rumbling stomach reminded me of my hunger and with that came back my thirst. Luckily for me, a couple of the market venders had dropped off bits of food and a couple bottles of water whilst I was asleep. First though, I pulled my jacket out from underneath me and popped it on. As I looked down at the feast of cooked meats, various vegetables and fruits, I rubbed my hands together and blew on them to warm them up. It was time to dig in and get rid of any hunger pains. I couldn’t wait to begin.
As I tucked into my midnight feast footsteps echoed down the alley. I thought nothing of it. It was normal — of course. They began to pick up speed. They began to get louder. I looked left whilst I necked a load of water, but nothing was there. I looked right, but still nothing. The bottle cracking as the air gushed back. I took another bit. It was like the footsteps were coming from someone next to me. From left to right my head shot back and forth until they stopped and I saw at the end of the alley, someone stood dressed in all white completely still, with only his white shirt moving in the wind.
I couldn’t see for sure, but I was positive that it was the boy. I tried my best to focus my eyes, squinting them to get a better look, however, it didn’t make much of a difference. ‘Hello,’ I shouted — couldn’t think of anything better to say. I waited for a reply but nothing came. The idea of shouting again crossed my mind, but if they didn’t reply the first time, what was to say that they would reply the second? Instead, I put the food down on the pieces of cloth that were beside me, took another swig of the water and placed my hands against the sandy wall to pull myself up. My legs were totally stiff as I got to my feet. I almost fell back down. I stayed against the wall for a moment, rotating my feet and hitting my thighs to try and help. As I looked up, I watched the boy turn to run away. His left foot rotating on the spot as he lunged to the side, pushing himself way. My legs weren’t back with me yet.
Against the cobbles my feet dragged. My arms were held out, using the walls every time I lost my footing, which happened more often than not. I could feel the food and water dance around my stomach, getting sloshed about with each step. Despite this, I carried on following the foot steps, shouting out every so often, but getting nothing back. My feet started to fly in front of me, pushing off the ground, propelling me forward. My arms left my side and straightened up, leading me towards the echoes. I was back with it, the food was still sloshing about, but my body was no longer dead, that was the main thing. Around each corner I saw his foot hang in the air, thinking I was getting closer, that I was catching him up, only for him to be miles ahead as I got round.
The night started to get darker. The air was cooler, thinner. The candles that lined the alleys were being blown out, two at a time. I looked up to see the moon covered by a dark cloud. The stars had been lost to the dark night sky. I could no longer hear his footsteps. They were no longer leading me. Instead, I could hear a squadron of boots behind me, marching in unison. I needed to keep going. I knew that if I followed the alley, followed my gut, that I would find where I needed to go. I dropped my head, and tried to pick up speed. Within minutes I was out of breath, my feet scraping against the floor, my arms flailing at my side. I kept my eyes in front of me, willing me to keep going, knowing that I did not have much further to go. The boots were getting closer though. I daren’t look back.
Around my ankles I could feel a cool breeze. I looked down to see wisps of black smoke wrap around my ankles; spiralling up my calves; pushing up my legs. I kicked my legs in every direction; breaking their grasp. I focused my mind once again. Straightened my arms and leaped from one cobble to the next. However, it was not to last long. The smoke wrapped itself around my ankles once again. Running up the inside of my trousers. Though the holes in my jacket it sneaked in and curled around my arms. I tried to break free, but this time, I couldn’t lose its grip. It had me. The cool wisps wrapped tighter around my legs and around my arms. It reached in through and covered my entire torso. Its grip got tighter. I gasped for air, as each bit of oxygen was being forced out of my body. The smoke raised me into the air, pushing me through the maze, blowing out any candle that was still lit. I kicked and punched. I tried to let out a scream. Although, I couldn’t, and only choked instead. The night became pure darkness and the marching boots faded away.
Before I opened my eyes, I could feel the cool uneven cobbles against my face as it rested in the cracks on the floor. My forehead was pounding. I took a deep breath in and got a mouth full of sand. As I picked myself up, to give myself a little more space, a sharp pain ran up my arms from my hands, forcing me back down. Under the moonlight I could only see the dark scratches on my palms and nothing more. A throbbing pain came from my knees. I rolled over and sat up. My trousers were more or less in shreds around my kneecaps. Some strands were stuck to my legs. I tried to pull them off, but each strand was determined to stay stuck, sending sharp pains through my legs each time I tried. I gave up in the end. I brushed some of the sand from off my face, although again, not all would come off and I looked up at the moon. It was no longer hidden.
I looked up to see I was in the market square. There were shops around the sides — closed now of course — flats upstairs and a couple of arched alley ways leading you out on each corner. It was all a dark pale blue, kind of like being under the ocean. Except for the boy. He stood in the centre; not moving, planted on the spot. His white shirt was swaying in the gentle breeze, but that was all. The best I could, I picked myself up and walked over to him, making sure I did not scare him away. With my right hand I reached out, wishing him to come closer, ‘it is going to be alright,’ I kept repeating — I had no idea what else I could say. As I began to get closer, I saw that he was staring out into the distance, never blinking. His mouth was completely straight, as was the rest of him. No emotions, only his wide open eyes. I moved to make sure I was in his eye line, although I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me for sure. But it made me feel a little bit better about the situation. One step at a time, I pulled myself closer, making sure I was a little huddled over, not wanting to look like too much of a threat. He raised his arms. They completely covered his face. His high pitched screams were deafening. The crack of a gun shot flew through the air. Blood splattered out from his chest; knocking him; shaking his body. Another shot cracked. His head was knocked back. His whole body fell to the ground. He was now completely lifeless.
A drone of voices surrounded me. From one alley to the next, I saw a sea of people, all dressed in long black shirts, some with hoods, others with hats, others with nothing covering their heads or faces at all. Most had their hands held out, as if they were ready to receive something. Through the drones I heard cries, wails and screams. As they moved in towards the boy, I began to walk backwards, through the parted crowd, my head going from side to side, watching all of the people descend on the lifeless boy who laid on the cold ground. The drone became louder the closer they got. All of them muttering in total unison. I couldn’t make a word out of it. They repeated the same words, same sounds, over and over again, as if chanting a prayer. A woman pushed her way through the crowd. Her screams raised above the chants and the other cries of the people. Beside the boy she fell to her knees. Dropped her head into his chest; crying out louder than before. She clung onto his shirt; rocking him on the ground before holding his head in her arms and hugging him as tightly as she could, continuing to rock her and his body. Slowly her eyes looked up. She saw me move away from the boy. Her eyes met mine. Her lips quivered. Her eyes were tight together. Her body was shaking all over. I could feel my mouth open and close involuntarily, making the sign of the cross endlessly, not knowing why, but not able to stop. Around my ankles and wrists the smoke began to ravel itself round again. I did not shake it off. I let it carry on up my legs and along my arms. I was lifted into the air and pulled away. Our eyes locked.