A BOTTLE AND A FRIEND
Bryn McLarey, The Outerlands
The Outerlands of the Bubble were leik a giant shanty toon, built from rubble and part remains of buildings that’d withstood the Weathers. People came and occupied a small space (a fookin rabbit hole), and survived on a strange mixture of good neighbourship, and distrust of strangers. The unspoken rules seemed tu be, if you knew someone’s name and they said hello tu yuu in passing, it wus bad form tu rob them. In fact you ought tu be sharing your loot, offering them a cup of rotten Tetley from a soggy box you’d ‘found’.
People were there for many a reason. Sum were hoping tu get approved for the Bubble (or at least get their kids in), others came because there were other people, and they only knew how tu survive in a big filthy community. They could scrounge off whatever got smuggled out of the inside. They could sift the great rubbish heaps for things they could sell or use, and they could guilt trip their neighbour intu sharing their pet goat’s milk (in exchange for keeping a lookout tu make sure nobody tried tu steal the goat). There were still bars and gambling dens for people tu waste away in, if they had anything left tu waste.
Smelling even more pungently of these dirty beasts and their toilets in the ground, it made the commune seem less like hell by comparison. We rolled up with our sacks of tins and were surrounded by the fookin vultures in minutes, trying tu barter their shit and shoving grubby-faced children towards us tu beg with doe eyes.
“Stand tha fuck off,” I said.
They half ignored me, but moved off a wee bit.
“All we want is a tin opener, lots of tobacco, clean water and a bottle a’ whisky.”
Some ignored this, still calling out what they had.
“Why the fook would we want dandelion seeds?!” I asked. “Soas we can grow our aen wee patch of weeds?”
A short fellow pushed forward with a rusty tin opener.
“Five cans,” he haggled.
“We only have ten between us. You can have one can, cause we can open them with knives, it’s just more hassle.” I held a tin of baked beans just out of his reach.
“Done,” he said, handing it tu me.
“I can get tobacco… and rizla,” a woman said.
“Meet back here in an hour?” I suggested.
“Done.” She scuttled off.
“Bottle of Paddy.” A child held out some Irish whiskey. Someone else in the crowd tried tu snatch it, so I grabbed his wrist and twisted a little, then kept a hold.
“Where did you get that, young lady?” I asked the child.
“I took it off my daddy when he were asleep, pissed. Only two thirds left…”
“Clever girl. Where d’you live?” I wus aware that if I gave her food in front of all the others, they’d follow her and steal it. She pointed down the track sculpted from trodden down rubbish and debris.
“Away with the rest of yuu.” I let mae grip free of the thief and turning tu follow her. The crowd all still hung aboot mae friends, until Claudia herded everyone after me. We trod the street, our shoes clumping over the flat mosaic of rammel, my eyes avoiding the bones and the shite-smeared newspaper which squelched hideously under foot. We passed a group of cobbled together huts, all perched on the edge of a murky pond, the smell of which made me choke on mae own realisation.
“That’s the nearest toilets,” Flossie said casually.
A few minutes’ walk brought us tu a brick hut, with an old iron gate serving as a front door, scraps of cardboard selotaped on, in a pathetic attempt tu keep the cold out. The girl unlocked the gate and let us in tu the small room, where I had tu duck mae heid. There wussa wee fire burning in a roasting tin in the middle. Though the building was full of holes, there wus nowhere tuu specific for the smoke tu go, so it hung in the air of the room, sneaking out here and there in search of oxygen. The girl’s dad wus asleep on the floor and looked near unwakable.
“May we sit awhile and get warm?” I asked her.
She nodded. She had wisdom beyond her years. She neither wholly trusted nor distrusted us. We shunted in around the fire cheek tu jowl. I unpacked a selection of ten tins tu exchange for the whiskey.
“You said you only had ten tins all together,” the girl said.
“A little white lie on mae part. What’s your name, love?” I asked.
“Flossie,” she answered. “Because of my hair.”
Her hair was afro-curly, but looked reddish underneath the dirt, her skin freckly and olive brown, paled by long winters and weak light. She picked up a tin of soup and peered at it. She probably cudnae read, she wus likely a toddler when the Weathers kicked in. She took out a small knife with a blade shaped like a shark’s fin and sliced a hole in the top, then held it in both little hands, tipped back her head and drank from it hungrily.
We all watched her with the quiet admiration you can only have for a child who has survived very bad things. She took the remaining tins and hid them aboot, leaving just one in front of her Dad for when he woke up.
“Will he be angry you took his whiskey?” Claudia asked.
The girl shook her head and pointed tu another empty bottle of the same stuff.
“I just tell im he drank it all, he can’t never remember. He thinks I just get us food from beggin.”
“How is it, livin around here? A’ya tryin to gerrin’ta the Bubble?” Claudia continued.
“Alright,” she shrugged. “Most people nice to me cause am lickle. Dad don’t want me to leave im and go in Bubble. He not like what people say about it. They won’t let im in, ees useless.” She studied our faces, as shamelessly as children du, and we waited quietly. “There’s a free hidey hole next door if you want somewhere to stay. Be bit small for all of you.” She shrugged.
“Thanks,” Claudia said. “We’ll have a look.”
Simian coughed as smoke swirled intu hus face.
“Why don’t you free say much?” Flossie pointed at Roxy, Simian and Wolfgang.
Roxy shrugged and said nothing. Wolfgang, as if having been given permission tu speak, smiled widely leik a slightly frightening clown and said.
“What lovely hair you have, my dear.”
The girl screwed her nose up.
“Err…” she said. “You’re weird!”
* * * * * * *
*Yes I did steal the title from a Rabbie Burns poem