Born to Die
It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long, long time to be gone
and a short time to be there
- Box of Rain/Grateful Dead
Most countries have fallow lands. They are the places where once people lived, but no longer. They moved on. Maybe one day they'll come back and build houses and roads again, and those places will live. They might still be towns or villages or maybe a supermarket or an industrial estate. There's an option on it, somewhere in the future. It's not dead land, but tired, and resting. Just like a farmer might leave a field to weeds, or rotate their crops and so let the nutrients seep back into the soil.
There are fallow lands across the world.
There are also barren lands.
Quiet spots on the landscape, these. Places where people simply do not grow. It might be that a town stagnates and refuses to learn and adapt and evolve, a place where the people are rock-headed, the kids kick dogs or set them on fire so the warmth and light can touch the blackness inside. Or perhaps it's just a single street in a large city that makes outsiders unwelcome, the street where people don't smile. All about, people bustle and children laugh, yet on that one street, in that one town, no one goes unless it's on the way to somewhere else. Dead and cold, a dark spot on the landscape that seems devoid, though devoid of what, outsiders could hardly say. They walk in those places and feel eyes that aren't there but sometimes are - eyes watching them, distrust in those gazes. Those strange, uncomfortable places breed shell-people, hating those who are full. Hungry people, grown jealous of those with big, fat souls.
You drive through there on the way to elsewhere, and see two women leaving their quiet house, and you think they're twins...but then you see that one is older and one younger. They don't smile. Their faces feel strange, to you, who dwell in a town or a city. You're used to seeing different faces, hearing different accents and seeing different names on the tags the people who serve you coffee or sandwiches wear.
But here there are a hundred surnames, rather than thousands, or tens of thousands. In the cemeteries, those names are repeated, over and over, like sponsors' messages.
Here, people don't travel. Sometimes fathers fuck their daughters and make children who the daughters will pass off as their own. Maybe because they want a living doll to hold in the dark nights, but maybe just because that's all they've ever known.
And the outside-people don't ask, because they've got happy souls gorged on friends and love and light and they're afraid, too. They don't want to get involved, don't want to know, and more than anything they don't want the taste of incest or murder or rape to spoil their wonderful meal.
People don't interfere because those people are not our people, and we feel it in some ancient place within that we can't touch without looking sidelong at it.
We tend our affairs and the barren people tend theirs.
But if those affairs cross paths, it comes down to people willing to step into the other worlds beyond our ken to set things right. Ma Mulrone is like that. She's a woman who never was afraid to step over, to put a foot into the world of others and tend what needs tending. For a price, most often, though sometimes she does it for free.
Ma Mulrone and her brood, her endless clan of Mulrone children, they aren't barren people. Yet they know the barren places, just as they know the fertile and the fallow, too. They're farmers. And like anyone who tends land or crops, they understand that nothing should last forever.
The car is on the concrete drive of the last house of a short row of terraced houses. The paintwork glints from small places on a country night.
Two boys hunker down in the dark, looking at the car. They don't know that a row of houses all joined like this is called a terrace. They have an X-Box but never watch television, never read a book. The last books they read were the simple things they had to, when they were little children.
John Simmond, the older boy, isn't bright, but he is cunning. The younger boy, Barry Felts, is thirteen years old and several inches shorter than John. If John's the tank, Barry is the shell.
Barry carries a Stanley knife in his jean pocket. He only cut another boy once, but he's threatened plenty of times. He isn't worried about using the knife, if he has to...like if other kids or grown-ups think he won't. There's no sense in carrying a knife if everyone knows you won't use it. If people know you will, often you won't have to, he figures.
Barry's hair is a dirty, dark brown and he looks, in the dark, like a face with no scalp. John's hair is cut so close to his scalp you can see the scars from falls and fights, and long, ugly graze from a close call with a claw hammer. His head shines brighter than the car.
'Car's a piece of shit.'
'Don't matter, dopey,' says Barry. He clucks, sucking a little spit between his teeth. 'We're only fucking around, in't we?'
He says 'in't' in a country way, rather than 'ain't', or 'aren't'. Like people who talk alike might in the places away from the big roads and the big cities, the sort of places where accents stick around for hundreds of years, just like family names.
People move around in the second millennium. They move to get away from the bustle and noise of the cities, into the countryside. Or, they move from the countryside or dead-end, troubled towns where nothing ever happens that seems good, and they go to the cities. Like a game of hopscotch, but more expensive than when they were kids. People move to get away, then other people move to get away from them. Sometimes they move to places like this.
The owners of the car parked in front of the end-of-terrace house are wandering, hopeful souls. A couple up from London, trying to make a home and a life here in this broad, flat fenland. They're dreaming of a better life away from the crime and the gangs and the drugs, somewhere to raise the children they hope to have.
'Come on. Just a jolly, right?' says Barry, decided.
He thumps John's bare head, then creeps forward across the deserted road, staying low. John stays low, too, though he's still around five feet tall even crouched. He's a big lump, strong and tough, but he's not built for stealth.
Barry runs his fingers along the rubber seal at the base of the window. He cracks the car door easily enough with a flat, long tool he stole from an RAC recovery driver when he was eleven. The car's slightly newer than he'd like, but it doesn't have an alarm and it doesn't take him long to figure out how to get it off the drive. They get it down the drive, turn it gently at a shallow angle so they don't engage the steering lock. The boys push the car away from the house so it's quieter and they don't wake the owners. Barry figures on leaving the lights off, too.
While Barry's starting the car like people still can in 1989, like in a movie, John gets in and slams the door.
'Fucking hell, John.'
'Sorry,' says John.
Barry checks back at the house, his fingers twisting and pulling beneath the steering column. There's no movement at the house - nothing for a whole minute. Then, upstairs, a light comes on and a curtain shifts.
The car starts, under Barry's nibble, grubby fingers.
'And they're off!' Barry laughs, and drives. John likes Barry when he's happy, so he's happy, too. Both of them, happy.
The car's just a little hatchback, but anyone can drive a slow car fast if they're heavy enough with their feet. The road is long, straight, and at night it's really dark. The houses around are spread thin, there are no road lights, no cats' eyes, no other headlights but theirs.
Barry's foot is hard to the floor and the engine labours as hard as it can. Pretty soon, he's up into fourth gear, and ignores fifth completely...because he wants the engine to blow. He wants the fire, the noise, then the hot roaring run through the flat fields and over bridges and canals and back home, laughing while his heart pounds in his chest and the chill air stings his lungs, alive.
In the England that was, 1989, it's mostly kids stealing cars. They drive them hard and fast, call it a joyride. When they're done, they burn the car out. Around the cities, their suburbs, on country lanes and lay-bys, it's common enough to see the black shells of dead cars waiting to be shifted elsewhere - wherever dead cars go when they die.
The police don't care. To them, it's petty crime. There are bigger, grown-up crimes. Muggings, rapes, murders, football hooligans, small riots, pub brawls, people getting punched with shattered glasses and bottles held in fists. England, and the whole of the United Kingdom, is still under the shadow of Thatcher, of conservative power. For some, it's a kind of paradise, but mostly those with money. For others, it's a big fucking pit filled with animals trying to claw their way out.
A car's a little more important than a stolen bike, or dog shit on the street...but not by much.
Sergeant Darren Jones moved up from Swansea, and like the couple whose car was just stolen, he moved to the fenlands on the east of the country for a better life. He's thirty. He's seen a bit of action, he supposes. Been in fights, talked people down, brought down a guy with a replica samurai sword in Cardiff City centre once. He doesn't care about joy rides.
His partner, in the car beside him, Rachel Bowyer, comes from Peterborough, at the western end of these fenlands. She moved to Cambridge after finishing her training to be nearer her family. Her father's arthritis and her mother's aortic aneurysm brought her home, but while she lives with them she's saving money for a down payment on a flat.
That's what she tells the others at the station, but Jones knows that's only part of her reason for moving back here.
Three months from now, Rachel's going to be knocked up by Jones, which is how her father refers to it when she get the courage to tell him.
'Got yourself knocked up? Jesus.'
That's how he puts it.
Two weeks before her baby is due, she'll stand before the local vicar in the family church where her grandparents were married and put back in the earth, and become Mrs Rachel Jones. Her father will proudly give her away despite his dislike of Jones and his misgivings about her marrying within the force.
But all of that is yet to come. Tonight's business is just two young lads who drive past in a stolen car.
'Fuck's sake,' says Jones, who was perfectly happy in this dark lay-by, hoping to get laid by Rachel Jones-to-be.
'That the one?'
'I should think so,' says Jones. He starts the car, puts on the roof lights and tears out of the lay-by flicking gravel up into the air and into the long canal that runs right beside the road. The fenlands are cut all across with these surgical waterways, long ago when longboats carried coal atop the still waters.
'Nope,' says Jones. He knows Bowyer's had a run in with a travelling family before, a run in that turned bad. Those kind of run-ins always seem to. Ended with a little girl being re-homed, taken into State, and Bowyer working out here. 'One big, one short, wiry? Two local lads, I think. Felts and his crony, some big dullard called Simmonds. Trouble, but only small time.' Jones has been working these flatlands longer than Bowyer.
'Just local,' says Jones. He thinks about touching her shoulder, to comfort her.
Cock, he thinks immediately after, but he's disappointed and man with sex on his mind whose not going to get it can be a cock indeed.