'The Narrows' - Published Jan 2012

The Narrows are places where the skin of the world is thin.

Most cities have them, whether they’re called twittens, ginnels, snickleways, whatever. They’re the places where middle-aged office workers walk their dogs on Sunday mornings, where teenagers drink alcopops and snog each other on Friday nights. They’re also the Green Roads where off-road bog racers drive their huge four-by-fours and churn fields into muddy lunar landscapes, and the holloways where farmers lose their sheep. They are the places where ley lines hit the obstructions which we have placed in the earth - like acupuncture meridians being diverted by needles - and fragment, creating eddies, whirlpools, and back-currents which flow through other layers of reality.

The Narrowfolk use these fragments to travel between different parts of the city, through a shadowy Otherworld which is the realm of everything lost and discarded. But the Narrows are closing, and nobody knows why, and the things that live there are being forced out and onto the daytime streets.

'The Narrows' will be published by Snowbooks in January 2012; get Facebook updates here. In the meantime, here's a sneaky glimpse at chapter one...

Dead Nettles

         Andy Sumner tried to take his mind off the knot of cold panic growing in the pit of his stomach by studying the posters in the travel clinic’s waiting room.
         Do You Know your Hep A from your Hep B?
         We cannot immunise against the desire to wear socks with sandals. That one was actually pretty funny.
         Malaria Hot-Spots, a map of the globe on which all of the countries where one could get malaria were coloured a bright arterial red. Looming over it was a large pop-out mosquito, all spindly legs and grotesquely hunched back, the hungry needle of its mouth-parts ready to plunge into unprotected human flesh…
         Nope, not working. The panic grew bigger, threatening to barrel its way up through his throat and out into the world.
         ‘You okay, hon?’ Laura was looking at him with concern darkening her eyes.
         ‘I’m fine, I’m good, I’m good,’ he lied, and sat back down beside her. He picked up a dog-eared copy of Boat and Home and flipped through the pages without reading anything. ‘I mean, talk about rubbing it in. Do doctors actually think sick people want to read this stuff?’ Without looking up he could tell that she was regarding him with that particular female expression of bemused patience which said that she loved him even though at this moment he was acting worse than a child.
         ‘Is it the needle thing?’ she asked.
         ‘Oh, you know, just a bit. But I said I’d be okay, didn’t I?’
         Just a bit. He was certain that it wasn’t a fully fledged phobia; by his understanding a phobia was an irrational overreaction to something, and he wasn’t convinced that it was irrational to dislike having sharp bits of metal stuck into you. She’d even helpfully looked it up for him - belenophobia: fear of pins and needles. Thanks, darling.
         Yes, he’d said that he would be okay, but what he’d actually done was completely fail to realise exactly where it was she’d booked the honeymoon until it was too late, or that a series of jabs was going to be necessary to get him there. Not that he felt he could be blamed very much - as far as weddings went the received wisdom was to just let Her and Her Mother sort everything out, as long as you were smartly dressed and mostly conscious for the photographs. But Cuba was booked now. Had been for three months. More than just booked, in fact: she’d already bought a new swimsuit, and it was still only November. It was that booked. There was absolutely no way he was going to be allowed to back out of this now.
         Dear Christ, what was he doing here?
         The Practice nurse popped her head around the door with a breezy smile and said ‘Like to come in?’
         Her room was small, with just enough room for a desk, something which looked promisingly to Andy like a minibar fridge, and a narrow hospital-style bed upon which he and Laura perched as she bustled around cheerfully and took their medical histories. Laura knew everything about hers, and had even brought certificates to prove it. Andy, for his part, remembered one time when he’d put his hand through the kitchen window and had stitches, but couldn’t recall whether or not there had been any injections. As far as he knew he was inoculated against precisely nothing.
         ‘Lovely!’ smiled the nurse. ‘A clean slate. I’m afraid you’re going to be a bit of a pincushion by the end of this, my dear.’
         The ‘needle thing’. Oh yes, just a bit.
         Nurse Barton was friendly and professional, chatting with Laura about the wedding plans and how romantic it was that they were even coming to get their jabs at the same time, as she dealt efficiently with the paperwork and turned to remove from the minibar fridge a pair of simple, one-shot,  disposable syringes which, to his surprise, were smaller than biros rather than the savage medieval instruments of torture he’d imagined.
         Didn’t matter. He still wasn’t going to trust them.
         ‘We’ll get the first of your Hep B’s out of the way to begin with,’ she said, ‘and book you in for the second in a month, and then we can get you up to date with your tetanus at the same time.’
         ‘That sounds great,’ he said with a tight, wide smile.
         ‘Lovely, then. Let’s take care of the bride first while the groom gets his shirt off.’
         Laura, as prepared as ever, had dressed in a sleeveless vest top which kept her shoulders bare, whereas Andy had come straight from work in his shop uniform - shirt and tie and name-badge clattering (Hi! I’m Andrew. Welcome to the Games Barn!) and he started to untuck himself as Nurse Barton approached Laura with the first syringe.
         Laura looked back at him over her shoulder, dark hair tumbling down her back, and tipped him a saucy wink like one of those Vargas girls painted on the noses of World War Two bombers. It might have been that which caught his breath, or it could have been the sight of the needle’s tip dimpling her flesh that did it.
         ‘Little scratch…’ said Nurse Barton, and the dimple disappeared as the needle broke the skin. A swift, sure plunge of her thumb, a small squish noise as the syringe’s contents were injected, and that was that. A single ruby-red drop of blood marked the spot, and Nurse Barton taped a wad of cotton-wool over it. Laura had watched the whole thing, fascinated.
         Andy suddenly found the room to be hot, stuffy, and claustrophobically cramped. Blood was thumping heavily in his head.
         ‘Next one. You don’t have to look if you don’t want to.’
         ‘Andy?’ said Laura, serious now. ‘Just stay looking at me, okay? Seriously, you cannot feel a thing. You’re going to be completely fine.’
         For a few moments he even managed to convince himself that this was true. It was going to be completely fine. How many of these were done across the country, every day? Millions, probably. Babies had them, for heaven’s sake. It was one of the safest, most routine medical procedures…
         ‘Little scratch…’
         …and then all he could see were mosquitoes the size of locusts swarming over his arm, feeding, feeding.
         The needle’s tip dimpled his shoulder.
         Andy’s recollection of what happened after that was not one hundred percent reliable, because although he didn’t technically faint, he did, according to one paramedic who attended the scene, ‘grey out’ for a while. He was aware of a sudden loud bang close by, like a large firecracker going off, and the sudden splash of something hot and wet against his arm.
         Plus, of course, the screaming.
         Laura was sitting on the other side of him from Nurse Barton and so didn’t see exactly what happened to the woman’s right hand, nor could she help the police later in figuring out how the syringe had exploded so violently as to tear off most of her thumb and first two fingers. This was only a bit less surprising than the fact that Andy, other than being covered in the woman’s blood, remained completely unharmed - not so much as a pinprick from the needle.
         Because his memory of this was so fuzzy, Andy kept to himself the impression - which was surely just his imagination, even though it had felt so real - that far from having anything injected into his shoulder, something furious had lashed out of it.


         It was always a relief for Andy to get out of the shop, even if it was on one of Laura’s endless list of wedding-related errands.
         Birmingham city centre on this particular bright midwinter lunchtime held an odd kind of stillness. The flat, white, directionless light of winter filled the gaps between each thing as the city rested from itself, taking a breather from the summer months when everything was so hot and sweaty and rushed that it all seemed to blur together at the edges. The cold made each thing draw tighter into itself, to huddle down into the very essence of its own existence - every bin, lamppost, pigeon, or pedestrian - even the individual bricks and the cracks or straggling weeds between, so that it seemed a miracle that they didn’t just crumble apart, frozen.
         The incident at the travel clinic had been such a randomly violent intrusion into their otherwise ordered and sensible lives that it was simply a lot easier to draw a line under it as one of those bizarre and tragic events which sometimes struck like lightning, and just get on with things. It dampened Laura’s enthusiasm over the wedding preparations for almost a week before her sense of urgency renewed itself and he was sent out on his errand. From his point of view it made more sense to worry about making arrangements for Christmas, never mind next summer, but there it was. A Mission was a Mission.
         He could have caught the bus, but walking somehow made everything more real. In fact, there was no reason why he couldn't have done this every lunchtime - except that you never did. You wandered out for ten minutes, bought something slathered in mayonnaise from the nearest Pret-a-Manger, went back to the shop-floor and got on with more work - though if anybody happened by you made sure that you were doing something far cooler like updating your facebook status or surfing for porn.
         He remembered watching one of those How-Foul-is-Your-Workplace-style programmes where a small bespectacled Scottish woman had taken swabs from some poor sod's computer keyboard, and proceeded to demonstrate the wide variety of spectacularly gut-squittering bacterial flora and fauna where he ate his lunch every day. As if that were the point. What did Andy's head in was the fact that that was what this guy did, every single day. Rain or shine. Never even took a break - because what would have been the point? He didn't even smoke.
         Ordinarily that was exactly where Andy would have been too, slogging through invoices and emails and playing gastronomic Russian Roulette with his own keyboard - except that today was different. This time he had a reason to get out into the real world. This time he had a Mission.
         Marinated vine leaves.
         This, as Laura's tone had made clear, was a serious business, and not one to be shirked or taken lightly. A dinner party for their parents - a proper dinner party, one which would celebrate their engagement as a transition to a more mature and sophisticated stage of life (Dear god, he'd thought, I think I've just been compared to a pupating caterpillar) - required actual food - dolmades, to be precise - the preparation of which would at no stage involve reheating anything from the freezer or use of their phone's speed dial. And absolutely no place for anything random.
         Lost in such thoughts, he didn't realise how completely blocked the footpath was in front of him until he almost walked into a red-and-white striped scaffolding pole.
         Workmen were busy in a deep trench which ran the length of a new office development. The sign propped across the pavement, barring his way, requested him politely to use the other side of the road, even though the road in question was a section of the Smallbrook Queensway: three lanes of fast-moving traffic in either direction and a four foot concrete barrier between.
         He briefly considered climbing over the pedestrian railing to his left and skirting the edge of the scaffolding, but the traffic was roaring past so closely that he gave it up as tantamount to suicide (Wage slave kills self to avoid embarrassing dinner engagement; body found covered with marinated vine leaves). Sighing, he resigned himself to backtracking to the roundabout and taking the underpass, until he noticed the short cut.
         Back past the construction site, between it and the corner of the next building, was a scrubby, litter-strewn strip of ground which couldn't even be dignified by calling it an alley. It was only a few feet wide - not at all surprising that he hadn't noticed it before - and he thought it should easily lead him back onto one of those little service streets that ran behind the pubs and nightclubs of John Bright Street. After which it was not much more than a spit and a jump to the Pallasades shopping centre, the Games Barn, and his invoices.
         Congratulating himself on having found such a handy short cut, he stepped off the footpath and the darkness of the alley's mouth swallowed him as if he'd never existed.
         The first thing he noticed was that it was much less cold, which he put down to the insulating effect of the buildings on either side. The going was a lot rougher underfoot than he'd thought, too. What had at first seemed to be simply cracked pavement was little more than broken chunks of concrete. The dead, dry-yellow stems of old weeds rattled and hissed as he passed. His shoes were soon badly scuffed and his trouser-cuffs muddy. And by the way, said a small voice inside his head, have you noticed how long this is taking? Yes, but he told himself that it was because he was being forced to walk much more slowly than normal. He looked back towards the Queensway, thinking that this might not have been such a good idea after all.
         Behind, traffic flicked past the alley’s narrow entrance. Up ahead the alley was choked by a screen of dead, black nettles, but beyond that it seemed to be lighter and more open.
         That had to be John Bright Street. Face it, you've still got a big detour if you go back. Plus, your shoes are already buggered anyway. He pushed past the nettles and out into the street on the other side.
         Except there was no street.
         A wide expanse of overgrown waste ground stretched ahead of him: mounds of rubble thinly scabbed over with moss and wiry grass. A faint path twisted away into this humpbacked terrain, and far off (much further than he would have believed possible), ran an enclosing rampart of what looked like the corrugated iron roofs of factories or warehouses. He stopped, at a loss.
         Alright, so he had miscalculated. Either the buildings between which he was walking weren't quite so wide as he thought, or this city block was bigger than it looked from the street. He wasn’t a bloody chartered surveyor; how would he know?
         Because something wasn't right here.
         For no reason that he could imagine, his right shoulder - the place where Nurse Barton’s needle had failed to stick him - suddenly began to throb with pins and needles. Absently, he rubbed it and turned back. No way was he heading out into that wasteland, to be mugged or worse.
         The alley seemed darker and more cluttered than before, and there was no longer any sign of traffic at the far end. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t hear any either. At all. The blank white noise which sounded so much like the blood whispering in his ears late at night was absent, and in its place fell an absolute silence which was profoundly unsettling.
         He checked in his coat pocket, took out the jar of marinated vine leaves and squinted at it, unimpressed. ‘These dolmade things better be bloody worth it,’ he muttered.
         On top of this he now saw the straggling black stalks of dead nettles ahead of him, instead of behind, and his reassuring interior monologue died away in utter confusion. Obviously he'd somehow got himself muddled, probably with too much wool-gathering. Trying to ignore the voice in his head which was asking him how exactly one got muddled walking in a straight line from A to B, he carried on past the nettles to make certain, and, instead of the road, found himself facing the waste ground again.
         It was much wilder than when he'd last seen it. The piles of rubble were now completely overgrown, some even supporting a scrubby undergrowth of small shrubs, and the roofs in the distance were more rusted and rent with holes.
         ‘Right,’ he decided. ‘Um...’
         He about-faced and marched back in the opposite direction - even though he was no longer entirely sure where that was supposed to lead him - determined at all costs not to run. He might be lost, might even be losing his mind, but he would absolutely not panic.
         It was almost more than he could manage, because the alley was now so narrow that the walls scraped against his shoulders on either side and he was forced to shuffle crablike to avoid getting stuck, and when he saw the dead nettles impossibly ahead of him for the third time (deadnettlesdeadnettlesdeadnettles his mind sang crazily. Good name for a band, that) the panic burst free and he ran, even though there was no room for him to run, and so he stumbled, tearing the knees out of his trousers and the skin off his palms, picked himself up and ran on until he broke out into the waste land again, wild-eyed and panting.
         It was unrecognisable as the same place. The distant warehouses were little more than fire-ravaged ruins, their blackened rafters jutting brokenly at the sullen sky. The faint path which he'd noticed the first time was now a clearly defined and well-trodden track which led away into the undergrowth. Waist-high weeds and grass blanketed the rubble completely, punctuated with small thickets of bushes - their foliage green in defiance of the season. Andy suspected that wherever this was, it treated the seasons with the same casual indifference as it did several other fairly important laws of the universe, and this realisation, though he wouldn't appreciate it until much later, was the start of his acceptance of a wider reality which he had literally only just scratched the surface of. As if to confirm it, he looked back at the alley and saw that it had shrunk to barely a handspan's width.
         And the silence. Around, between and under everything, the silence.
         ‘Talk about random,’ he said to himself, and laughed a little, not liking how it sounded. He couldn’t go back, because every time he went back it somehow became forward, even though that was plainly impossible. Not only that, it also became wilder - he wanted to say deeper, without knowing why. This left him with only one alternative, and he found that he really didn’t want to see what was at the end of that trail. There could be anything down there. Anything at all.
         He put his hand in his pocket and felt the smooth, sane glass jar of vine leaves. Suddenly, getting this thing back where it belonged became the most important thing in the world. He imagined the kitchen cupboard where he would put it, inside his normal kitchen, inside his normal flat - like that nursery rhyme about the ‘dark dark house’. He started slowly forward, his heart thumping, and his eyes scanning every branch and shadow for threats.
         After the panic and terror of finding this place, Andy thought that it was all a bit of an anticlimax in the end. The patch of waste ground turned out to be barely more than a few hundred yards wide. Of course, the path was uneven, and twisted randomly around the overgrown rubble, but for all that he reached the other side surprisingly quickly. Nevertheless, it was a measure of how tightly strung his nerves were that when he heard traffic murmuring past in the near distance he sobbed aloud with relief. The burnt-out warehouses on either side marched steadily together and met ahead in a ramshackle gate of planks tagged with the inevitable graffiti.
         He dragged it open and went out into the street on the other side.
         At first glance everything seemed to be gloriously, blissfully normal. Pavement: check. Terraced houses: check. Stray cat being sick in a doorway: check. It was a typical suburban Birmingham street, with bin-bags on the pavement and a blue and white number seventy-two bus rumbling along under a bright winter sky. His relief was so profound that for a long moment the reality of what he was seeing completely failed to sink in.
         He was supposed to be in the city centre. There were no streets like this anywhere near where he should have been. There should be skyscrapers all around him, but he peered at the rooftops and couldn't even see the BT Tower.
         In spite of the fact that his head felt like it had been screwed on backwards, his watch wasn't lying to him and it said that he'd taken less than five minutes to cross that waste ground. It had only been a few hundred yards across, not much more than a football pitch, and there was no way that he could be anywhere which looked like this. He wasn't at all sure where 'this' was, anyway. The number seventy-two bus coming towards him (seventy-two? He didn't think he'd ever even seen one of those), read ‘Orchard Road to Lowes Hill via Borton Lane’ - none of which he'd heard of either.
         Andy's stumbling mind was very nearly at the limit of what it could cope with; he couldn't seem to hang on to his thoughts, they kept spiralling off in all directions like blind birds with too many wings. The only reason that the bus stopped for him at all was because he simply walked straight in front of it, dazed. He climbed aboard, paid his fare and sat down like an automaton as his brain twittered and flapped.
         It was the maths of it which he couldn't straighten out - the whole distance-time thing. If he could just work it out, the how of where he'd gone wrong, everything would be okay. But the small ticking traitor on his wrist wasn't going to have any of it, and by the time he'd got back to work he knew he'd been beaten.
         It had taken him two hours and three changes of bus to return from an outward journey of half-an-hour by foot. Somehow, in a way which hurt to think about, that little five-minute, football-pitch long detour had skipped him five miles across the city, like a stone across a lake.