Moving to the Sticks — Lizzie Nunnery

A single tin of sardines in brine. Cruickshank considered it tactically, squinting through a headache. Up four hours with only nicotine and black tea in his system. He’d need something if he was going out tonight. But the thought of the fish flesh on his tongue – his acid stomach twisted. Swallowing dryly, he ranged about the decaying ground floor bedsit, scanning the stained carpet, the cracked windowsills, shoving aside crumbling pot plants and ragged stacks of magazines. He always meant to save a drop of something from the night before, but waking in the afternoon he’d always find the bottles empty. Supplies were getting low. Mickey usually kept things vaguely stocked – but Mickey had been gone a while. Some girl in Brighton or Bristol: a bird he’d met in Marksys in Lime St Station and he flew after. He’d be in some warehouse conversion right now painting abstracts named after her. He’d be back of course. Mickey was good at romance, bad at love. Nice line that: ‘Good at romance, bad at love’. Cruickshank filed it away compulsively. Nice opener for a song. Except Cruickshank didn’t write songs anymore.

He slipped off Mickey’s flannel dressing gown and shrugged quickly into a blue embroidered shirt a bit grubby round the wide collar but passable, well cut. He sniffed it, shifted from left to right in the long mirror, shivering in the chill. The central heating had been out a week or so. In a flash of imagination, he saw himself frail, transparent, hollow-eyed. The stillness of the room struck him suddenly with panic. He had to find some proof of himself: see and be seen. Tugging on his leather jacket, his ancient winkle pickers, he ducked fast into the soft light of the April evening, heaving the ornate front door shut behind him. Quick as he could he was turning on to Canning Street, its grand terraces stretching to clear sky, traffic skimming by, the city opening like a stage. As soon as he was out the door and over the centuries-old cobbles, who was to say he hadn’t strolled out of a townhouse worth half a million? Who was to say he didn’t have some chrome and leather rented pad? He enjoyed the momentum beneath his soles at he headed downhill past the Anglican, cutting the same old figure. He was getting older but crucially he was still skinny. And his hair was thinning but he had no grey. He ran his fingers through his wisp of quiff unnecessarily as a gang of dolled-up girls climbed stalk-legged from a taxi on to the curb. In the dusk with the light behind him he might be his former self. Of course, he was himself. He was Cruickshank. He still heard it muttered fairly regular, people glancing… ‘It’s him. It’s you. You’re him’. Sometimes fellas his own age: their eyes lit up with recognition, their youth relived in an instant. Sometimes lads and young girls with guitars on their backs. Performing Arts students. Cruickshank curled his lip as he thought of that. He was art: living, walking, breathing – and they all knew it.  All the hipster posing bastards faking being interesting, they couldn’t help but know it. He was tapped in to the life force running under the city: the music and the magic. Cruickshank shambled light-headed across the junction, half on tiptoe, waving the blaring cars to a stop with a pale hand. He jaggedly glanced at the uni on Pilgrim Street as he passed, moved mumbling into the Saturday night noise: ‘Performing fucking arts…’

He was art: living, walking, breathing – and they all knew it.  All the hipster posing bastards faking being interesting, they couldn’t help but know it. He was tapped in to the life force running under the city: the music and the magic.

Rounding into the taxi jam of Slater Street, this was an old route. Cleaner and quieter to drink on Hope Street at the top of the hill of course: but Jesus he’d had his fill of the pretentious bastards up there pretending not to know him, or not to care. Ex-band lads he used to own turned artistic directors or marketing managers or effing jazz musicians, all glancing him up and down, giving him blank tolerant eyes. No, Slater Street was where the real people were: the still-permed women once teenagers in the front row of his gigs, whose faces still flamed when he walked in; and the kids who still knew how to give a shit. He was possessed of a young soul. He knew that about himself.

The Jac was usually a safe bet and he needed that tonight. As he darted across the porch the heavy-eyed doorman gave him a smirk and a half wink. Unsettling. Was there some incident Cruickshank should have remembered, some previous debacle he’d be better to lay deep? Inside, his shoes tacked against the dull parquet floor. That smell of bleach and last night’s ale. He liked how the Jacaranda was dark. And the age of it. He could stand in the corner and squint and be in any decade in the last forty years. Could imagine himself young and ageless and infinite. Time was a drag. A drag. But with a little wine, a little angling of the light, the right company, he could lift it clean off.

Cruickshank scanned the drinkers at the bar, keeping a lid on it, psyching himself up, like always. Scanning, positioning, casual. He was studied in this but not slick any more. Not in the first hour or so. The quivering hand passed through the hair compulsively, grasping at exposed scalp. He needed the first drink to find his way. But he needed to find his way if he was ever to get that drink. Regain. Regain… He drove his knuckles deep in to the fluff and fray of his pockets, stared hard in to some false well of preoccupation.  Outside the street pooled with linking lovers and prowling lads, all seen in the window wide as a cinema screen. He lifted his chin to catch the light: a glimpse of the free and phenomenal. ‘Wait. Wait’. Never make eye contact first. Wait for that dart of the eyes, that double take. Then, only then turn slowly towards them, grant them a flicker of confirmation, a hint of invitation.

He could feel her at his elbow, nervously searching for beginnings:

‘Are you…?’

He flashed her a sideways look, showing teeth.

‘I was telling my mate you are,’ she said, ‘but he’s not sure.’

‘You’ll have to help me out, love.’

‘You are.’ She laughed then, flicking her heavy black hair. She was pretty probably: young enough for her plump pale features to be pretty.

‘I love your stuff – your lyrics. Like, I… I just wanted to say thank you.’

She was staring at him hard, searching him for clues. And Cruickshank felt it once again: that power he had beyond himself, the symbol he carried with him. He surveyed her group. Fellas most of them – a lot of corduroy and facial hair. A couple of girls in flowery tops and big round glasses. They were all circling, setting up camp, talking at top volume about F-all. The floor seemed to dip suddenly away from him as his gaze fell on the half-full bottle of red beside the plump girl’s elbow. She had her fingers on his sleeve now, quoting lyrics from some B-side he recorded in 1985. Like he bloody remembered. He concentrated on not staring at the wine. She was saying something about his ‘cultural contribution’. Jesus Christ. Name-dropping Patti Smith and Irvine Welsh and my God… He caught her hand, stopping her mid-sentence:

And Cruickshank felt it once again: that power he had beyond himself, the symbol he carried with him.

‘It’s heart, not head. What I did. What I do, darling. You’re coming at it all wrong.’

She followed his eye then and nodded easily, pouring him a glass, still talking.

‘But don’t you think the head has to organise the heart? Isn’t that what you mean?’

He drank deeply and there is was: the relief. The ethanol rolling round inside him, the chemical wash balancing him, returning him to himself.

‘Sweetheart, don’t tell me what I mean.’

‘I mean to write songs like you’ve written,’ she said.

‘See, this is the problem…’ Cruickshank refilled and drained his glass in a three-second turnaround. He didn’t know what she was talking about but he knew what he wanted to say:

‘This whole town’s too organised. This is what I can’t take: no air, no space. Filled up. Monetised. Every inch. No one can write a decent song in this city anymore.’

‘That can’t be true.’

‘It is true. I’m moving to the bleeding sticks.’

She laughed at that: laughed so he had to press his fingernails in to the varnish of the bar to keep himself from swearing or walking off.

‘I don’t know,’ she shrugged happily. ‘I only just got here.’

He tried to pin her with his gaze then, but couldn’t somehow. She seemed only made of shadows in the movement of the bar.

‘This city,’ he told her, ‘it used to be a wasteland. Anything could happen.’

A shock rose from his gut then: a rush of saliva over his tongue. A less practiced man might not have made it across the parquet in time, scooted neatly into the loos before the great wave hit. But there was Cruickshank again, leaning his head against the cold chipboard of the toilet cubicle, emptying his guts to the raw lining. He’d handled it though. That was the main thing. He had it covered, always.

Splashing his hands and face in the basin, dabbing at his shirt with a piece of toilet roll, he avoided the mirror now; keen to get back out there, anxious the kids might leave. But moving through the shadow crowd he saw them bunched near the back door, falling in to each other with some joke, play acting something. His plump-faced girl was gripping a shiny-haired lad round the waist saying, ‘Don’t, it’s not funny,’ but she was laughing through the words, shrieking: ‘He’s a legend, I’ll have you know. The man’s a bonafide legend,’ the others all taking that as the punchline. Cruickshank stopped short a few feet away, an extra suddenly in the wrong scene. The juke box was playing some jumpy American tune, all fast riffs and African rhythms, and it was too much, too loud. The girl was squealing and wrestling the boy, pinning his arms to his sides, shouting, ‘It’s like this anyway.  Watch this.’ And at first Cruickshank didn’t know what he was looking at. The girl hunched over, sucking in her stomach to form a hollow ribcage, walking on tiptoe and throwing back her head, as she ran her fingers extravagantly through a non-existent quiff of hair. He got it then – clear as a punch to the gut.

Cruikshank took a loop of the room, ambling from the front so the kids had a chance to see him coming. Like maybe he’d been out for a smoke, like maybe he’d been chatting to some mates in the street. He slid in beside them against the bar, pouring himself another glass of red. And if they smirked as they shifted conversation, they didn’t know he knew. If they exchanged glances, they didn’t see him see.

2am, slumped in the corner of a black leather booth, bloodshot eyes rolling to a close. At timeless intervals a voice rises in his throat and sinks in to silence, buried in the bassline of the stereo. And their young bodies are hot and tight about him, their young voices are harsh and bright, while the city outside the window sprawls in layers of decades and diversions. And of course, there’d be no leaving. Not from here. The city would keep him. The city would carry him. The city would feed him. That was the devilish pact.

Lizzie Nunnery is an award-winning playwright. Her work includes Unprotected (Liverpool Everyman/Traverse Theatre) which was awarded the Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Expression), The Swallowing Dark, (Liverpool Everyman/Theatre 503), a finalist for The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and Intemperance (Liverpool Everyman), shortlisted for the Meyer Whitworth Award. Her play with songs Narvik (Box of Tricks Theatre National Tour) was described as a “thrillingly enigmatic memory play” by the Guardian and won the 2017 UK Theatre Award for Best New Play. She also writes extensively for radio and has penned numerous original dramas and adaptations for Radio 4.

Image: Beverley Goodwin, Lost in the Mist, Creative Commons, Flickr