THE UNDERPASS

The boy slept in an underpass, one under one of many busy and soggy streets that he’d passed that night. He was drenched through and exhausted- tripping down the underpass steps over the pulps of dead autumn leaves. The place seemed warm enough to sleep in, furnished with dark, wrinkled mounds of sleeping bags. On the far side, the shadow of an unlit incinerator leant heavily against the tunnel wall. It seemed to the boy that he could hear the voices of its past tenants, alive in his insomnia, soothing, like a call from rough sleeper to rough sleeper that echoed to him up and down the curved walls. Sleep here. He would look into finding his father in the morning. He’d arrived at the new city that same early afternoon. That morning, before the boy had boarded the truck for his crossing, his father had instructed him on what to do now they would be separated. His words were rushed and tangled, a series of short and anxious dos and donts translated here for the reader:


1) Make sure you save your money when you get out.
2) Phone Alida and wait for me
3) Talk to no-one else.


The boy had nodded and the father faked a smile. He had little time for comforting words. With five more minutes, what could he have said? He would have reminded the boy of their dream, the fantasy country, the red letterboxes he’d seen in his mother’s old collection of postcards. Or ‘Big Ben’. Perhaps even the men with the black toilet brush hats growing out of their scalps-


‘Stay safe yeah?’


The only words he’d had time for, reaching in just one more time to hold the boy in a short, tight hug.
When the journey was over and the boy was let out the truck, his travel companions parted in different directions. Thirty of them, maybe more, young boys from who knows where and who knows why. They disappeared silently, away from the parked vehicles, out of the service station long before the truck had had time to disappear. Each made the choice, wood or road, but there was never any talking. Our boy decided on a four-laned and busy road which moved too fast and he began to walk, watching as the new city loomed taller and wider up ahead. Where a little piece of pavement carved out of the road, after a mile or so it disappeared, forcing the boy to walk as small as he could, one foot placed surely and carefully in front of the other.


It wasn’t that he didn’t see the buses, but trying those would mean having to communicate with someone. Then again, he thought as he walked, it wasn’t like his name was that hard to say, perhaps he would be able to communicate. He was usually friendly and optimistic, like most almost-teenagers you’ll meet. Suspicion was something he’d only just begun to learn, like the time you are first blamed for a sibling’s bad behavior, or when some feature of your face is suddenly noted on the playground with a stare or a smirk.


Only he hadn’t just had kids making stupid names, he’d had bombs and bullets.


You could say, then, that it’s pretty remarkable that solo-exploring lightened this boy’s footsteps. That, although the cold felt unusual, although his legs still ached from the journey, his arms still curved in a gentle swing that signalled his relief, his freedom. He’d made it to the new city, all on his own.


You could say as well, that it’s almost unbelievable that the boy smiled to himself as he walked, pausing every now and then on the tiny kerb to look up at the new city. Over grey concrete outlines and the odd lonely crane, he loved the familiarity of an early evening sky that moved slow. Perhaps he thought his father would be watching the sky too- after all it was him that had first make-believed with the boy that skies tell stories. When they’d make it back together again, maybe they could each compare their skies from when they had been apart. And this was such a happy sky, the boy thought he’d tell his father, with a heavy dose of silvery cloud that rushed for no-one. Greedy with its colours, just like skies always were at the close of an afternoon, it bragged six shades streaked across it all at once. From the top- red there, orange, then gold and maroon shading underneath pink and purple specks. A fantastic safari sky- very far from its home too.


London was a maze, as he entered he watched the single line on the horizon grow into a messy collage of glass turrets. There were people everywhere, bearded men with their hounds, with holes in the creases of their leather boots and white stuffing spilling out of their puffer jackets. These men interested him, perhaps they were street entertainers? He’d heard about those. He found them funny anyway, with their trolleys filled with cardboard and foil, or sometimes with a funny assortment of possessions, like ornaments from a lost mantel-piece: a book, a potted plant, an empty picture frame.


Down a street, then another, he watched as street lamps tore through the nice six-colour sky from before. In the slow then sudden motion of a sunset, night covered the city, a hazy-grey blanket trod in with grit. The boy began to notice his loneliness.


He stopped walking then, slouching under the weight of his rucksack. Looking up, he saw that in the sky there were only a few stars uncovered, as if missed by a careless God with an eraser. He thought that if there were stories in this sky, in the stars, they were totally unreadable now. Pieces of shrapnel.


He turned into the underpass then.


His eyes adjusting, the boy realised that all the sleeping bags, the ones he thought he’d heard voices from, were all deserted, like little hollow shells.


‘Hello?’ he tried. But he heard only his own voice in reply, booming back at him. His fast and gently purring dialect formed an unfamiliar frequency in the underpass.


Perhaps the sounds had been coming from above all along. City noises, sirens and drunken chants that drifted down and ricocheted off the urban cave. The voices confused him, fierce chatter curved into strange syllables. When he closed his eyes and blocked his ears, he could still feel the city grumbling and moaning. Had he gone all this way just to feel the same? It seemed there was no air left without breaths and coughs, splutters and chokes.


Shivering as he leant to sit on his rucksack, he remembered that he had his phone for calling Alida. The boy’s father had heard from many friends that her family had resettled well in the new city, and the boy and Alida had met at school, long before all the trouble had started. She was a little older. He remembered her well, a popular girl with that early-teen bravado of an ambassador for the world. But she barely recognized his name when she replied on the phone. He called her by her old nickname, Liddy (after an old Egyptian singer she liked), with a quiet familiarity that gained her trust. His voice steady, he explained his situation exactly as his father had told him to. He had nowhere else to go, and he wasn’t sure who to trust. Liddy said that her Mother had advised him to contact the authorities at a number she could give him, but the boy immediately refused- his father had banned all contact like this until he arrived. The argument persisted until she finally gave in, saying she was happy to stay one night with him, in the underpass, until the morning. Until his father was contactable again. Despite this, despite the hopes of the boy’s father, it seemed she still couldn’t offer him any other place to stay. The rules seemed different here.


She arrived with matches for the incinerator, sleeping bag and dinner in hand, and they talked as they ate, huddled together among the shadows.


‘So how did your family get here?’ the boy asked.


‘We flew, ages ago,’ she replied. ‘Before they stopped letting people out. You?’


‘Drove. Walked’


‘What?!’ she cried, ‘you’re joking.’


The boy stared at her blankly.


‘That’s so far! Why would your family make you do that?’


‘Don’t think they had a choice really’.


‘Oh. Okay.’


She paused before continuing.


‘Well I bet that took ages!’


‘Mm’


They stared at each other, both pairs of eyes wide.


‘Had they really come from the same place?’ the boy thought. ‘How could she know so little?’


This was something the boy’s father had warned him about. He’d called it the trickiness involved with getting on with the kids with bigger houses:


‘People don’t know dire until it’s on their doorstep son’, he’d say. Or, on particularly miserable days:


‘They don’t know dire until they open the door, the doorstep uproots itself and slaps them hard, right across the face’


Liddy spoke about the new city with a confidence he immediately envied. She promised he’d love it. He noticed the gestures she made when she spoke, the grand sweeps with both of her arms. He thought it amazing how graceful she was, someone from the same place as him, so detached from their old world now like a kind of exotic bird. He hoped he could be like her soon- had her arms, which were so perfectly well-timed with her speech, ever had to improvise? Had there ever been a time in her life where the arc of her arm had tired, fallen into a posture so not worth looking at that it grew invisible?
 

When she spoke about home, she spoke only about times before the trouble had began. But when this had been exhausted, it seemed the only thing left was to ask who made it. She asked about names of families that had been gone for so long, some so far into the past, so crowded with out-of-date faces, that he felt himself grow hot with frustration- he could barely recognise those names.


When she’d finished speaking, she said a quick prayer before wriggling into her sleeping bag, pressed close to the wall, and closing her eyes. Although he was still too shy, he wanted to tell her she looked just like a caterpillar- maybe to make her laugh again, but on purpose this time. Or maybe just to make her stay awake. He stayed quiet.


He passed a few more minutes by watching her sleep, making shadow silhouettes on the walls by her head, shaping them with two hands into birds and horses, then a fish, a creepy crawly.  But with all the lonely and caterpillar-less sleeping bag cocoons, the underpass felt more like a memorial than a refuge. Taking a sleeping bag for his own and placing it next to Liddy, the boy remembered one of the stories his father had told him, about a type of worm that spun silk into a home:


‘Silkworms are tiny precious things’, he’d say. ‘They spin a material as light as clouds. But they are always killed so humans can get at their silk-cocoons. Sad, don’t you think?’


The boy would agree- together they’d enjoy grimacing at the stalls selling silk scarves on market days. And even when those market days were long in the past, his father told the silkworm story more and more. The boy never understood why, but sometimes he’d obsess over it for hours, even cry as he told it. This made the boy angry. Crying wasn’t fair. Not when his father had often told the boy that crying wasn’t allowed, that their’s was a home with little time for it.


'We’re the same, his father would say. 'Us and those silly little silkworms. Wriggling around for someone else, spinning in circles for someone else, for nothing, except to be destroyed ourselves.'


The boy hated his stories then. Or he demanded he told other ones, happy ones, his favourites. Like the ones about the migrating moths that flew to the moon when all the lights in the world went out, just like they would to the new city. Why couldn’t he just tell those?


The boy closed his eyes, desperately trying to sleep like Liddy, folding and squashing another person’s pillow onto its cooler side. It felt terrible to take a home. Even this sleeping bag he was using was someone’s home, someone else’s familiar thing. And for all this new city’s hope, the boy couldn’t help but return in his thoughts to those silkworms, to his father’s sky and to hoping it wasn’t too far away.


He thought he’d ask God if he could be a boomerang- returning, no matter how far he was thrown, swinging back into the hands of his old home. Even if that place didn’t want him.


‘Liddy, the people who own all these sleeping bags, where did they go?’


Liddy yawned, woken by the boy’s voice.


‘Well I guess they all found somewhere better to sleep’.


‘As in they managed to find a place of their own?’


‘Sometimes, or someone took them in. People always take pity, if they know where you’re from, if you look happy enough to help and say you’ll be useful. A useful member of society. They resettle you, that’s what happened to us.’


The boy paused, unconvinced.


‘But are you sure they’ll take me?’


‘Sure’


‘Me and my father together right?’


‘Sure.’


‘Thanks Liddy’


She stretched her arm out, awkwardly through the head hole of the sleeping bag, where before only her face and a few loose ringlets of hair had been uncovered. She tapped a cold index finger to his nose.


‘You know I’m glad I found you. Not sure you’d last long here otherwise.’


The boy wanted to reply with something brave, but he felt his words might crack. He thought again of his father. He wondered where he was now, whether he’d crossed the border yet. Whether he was ten minutes away, ten hours. Ten days.


Maybe tomorrow he could tell Liddy everything about their journey. She’d know then just how brave he could be. He’d tell about how he’d been lied to, separated from his father by men with too- white polos and silver watches that caught on your skin as you were shoved in line. How it was the boy that had first found those men, advertising their route to the new city on the street-side table of a café, because he was so scared that he’d never forget those men’s laughs, they were so loud, so over-done that they’d made their coffees ripple and spill with the exhales, leaving nasty brown rings that stuck and stained. He wanted to tell Liddy all this and more, he wanted her to understand. To reassure him. With everything that had come before pounding up inside his heart, he wanted her to know that he was so much braver than she could ever imagine.


‘I’m sure I’ll be fine,’ he replied. ‘I’ve survived worse.’


And he found this was all he could say.


She smiled at this boy she couldn’t quite understand, and reached both arms out.


‘It’s okay if you don’t want to be brave tonight. You’re safe.’


She held him for a while after that, until he fell asleep, half in his sleeping bag half in hers. Then she slept too, the city swallowing both of their breaths in its terrible, crazy noise.