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Tome On The Range

Short Fiction: 'Northern Equinox' By Max Dunbar
Karl Smith , September 14th, 2014 05:32

New writing this week comes to you via Leeds in the guise of new short fiction by writer and editor Max Dunbar


Northern Equinox

Throughout my life I don’t think I dreamt at all, at least nothing I can truly remember, but for the last three months what sleep I get is in fits and starts, interrupted by kicks and mad visions and that sensation when you trip and fall in a dream. I don’t read anything about myself into this. Everyone will have been having the same problems. The only thing that unnerved me was the assumption, somewhere on Wilbraham Road, that this was a dream, that I simply dreampt of myself outside the 408 with Cal and Porick, and Mike made this joke about how your relationship is basically Twilight and there was a pause, I think everyone outside the bar paused, because up until then we had almost forgotten what we’d lost. Porick rallied to his friend, who hadn’t wanted to fuck the atmosphere. ‘Not quite. But I did put a vampire baby in Cal.’ ‘It’ll come out on my birthday,’ she said, and did an Alien-style mime. ‘Happy birthday! Vampire babies for everyone!’ I was still out there on the pavement sunshine and trying to get over the unreality of my assumption that I was dreaming, I thought this was sleep but in fact it’s real. The sun lit up everything. Our shadows were linear and well defined, I saw Cal pass her arm into her shadow for shade. It was half one. Not in the pm. In the am. For this was a land where light no longer fell.

At that time South Manchester was beginning to contract around me. I was a barman in the student ghetto, working long shifts in the Fallowfield Bar and Grill, twelve-hour shifts up at the Warehouse Project where I could get it. I had no ambition, I just wanted to live quietly and well, the only thing was my family (I grew up in the North West) who would periodically prod me into a law conversion – I mean, where the fuck was I going to get sixteen grand for a law conversion? Families, breeders, babies all over the newsfeed, made me think I should run, somewhere in London, the south of the river, back to local government, the state of grace where no one knows your name.

Last night we finished about three with a bottle of wine back at Porick and Cal’s bedsit in the Range – I tried to get off early, I love being around them but don’t want to invade their privacy too much. I jumped in a cab back down to Levenshulme, slept for a few hectic hours and woke up with the sheets soaked in sweat, so bad it was like I had pissed myself in my sleep. I did the standard four-mile sprint down the cycle paths, cleaned the kitchen and crashed on and out until it was time for the Bar and Grill shift. The shift was quieter than a Friday night should be.

At ten Darkside told me I should head. ‘We’re not going to get enough custom tonight. You should have seen this place during the day, absolutely packed, just me and Bronwen absolutely run off our feet.’

‘It’s the Change. People are getting tanked during the day because the weather’s fantastic, they run out of steam, they need to sleep, and then if they get their second wind it’s a houseparty or something.’

‘That’s it. That’s why I’m changing you to the dayshift tomorrow and letting you go now.’

I walked out into Wilmslow Road. Although we were almost into autumn, the standard street attire was fixed in mid July like everything else. It occurred to me that I could go to the flarf fiction launch up in town, so I jumped in a cab to the Sandbar.

It gave me a feeling of panic to be racing up Oxford Road’s twin lanes dead sober and with warmth and light bleeding through both windows. The Sandbar’s glass had been covered in thick burlap, secured with rope to the curtain rail; still so much of the sunshine got through that the bar staff hadn’t put the lights on, and drinkers moved through a soft murk that was, now, the nearest you got to darkness. Even closing your eyes you still had the images of the light outside, making planets and shapes.

Here’s the thing.

On the day of July 14, the sun rose in the sky and did not come down. There has been no darkness, no shadow, no sunset, no nightfall since that day. We don’t know why, and I don’t think we’ll ever know: scientists, politicians, street preachers flap around in thoughtless panic. From what I read, this has happened all over the world, not just in Manchester: there’s not even the Scandinavian two-hour day. Everything we thought about the planet is in doubt. The weather is unchanging and merciless.

The launch itself had finished when I got there. A laptop in a back room threw electronic scenes onto black canvas – an iPhone text conversation, a BBM dialogue, a subversive poem someone had made of the LoveQuotes and positive affirmations people post all over Facebook these days. Porick caught me gazing at the projections. ‘Don’t tell me you understand this crazy shit. We’re too old, man.’ He gestured at the crowd, which was young and alternative and beautiful. All the MMU/Keele crowd were here. Cal was talking to Jimmy Ximenies, who had come up from London; he was a tall skinny figure in leather jacket, flat cap and odd stars and streak-tattoos on his neck. The Sandbar was doing a good business, even if the Bar and Grill was not.

‘Yep. Like, the flarf fiction defence is the new Chewbacca defence. ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is just like a load of YouTube comments mixed up into some kind of mad order with like a photograph of the Cookie Monster staring at a bunch of grapes and going ‘WTF?!?’ That does not make sense!’’ I mimed a juror’s head exploding.

‘I thought you were working the night.’
‘Fallowfield is dead. They sent me here.’

We wandered outside for a smoke. Dr Jones was out there alone with a Guinness and a cigarette, I beckoned him over. Dr Jones was the only one of us with a serious job, as a biologist over the road at the university: this was the uni local, but I hadn’t seen him here for weeks. ‘Hey! How’s it going?’

‘Fucked, man.’ It struck me how pale he looked. Most people now had serious tans from the constant sunshine. ‘They drafted me onto some kind of government contract. In fact not just me, every scientist at the university, even PhD students, anyone who knows the slightest thing about plants and crops – you can’t tell anyone about this, man.’ I think he grabbed my arm at that point.

‘Hey, listen, you know you can tell me everything.’

He shot a glance at Porick, who he knew less well, then continued. ‘Every scientist in the country drafted onto this big thing. I’m doing eighteen-hour days and doing loads of fieldwork up in farms, West Lancs, Cumbria for fuck’s sake. It’s like... we think that things need sunlight to grow, but not just sunlight, there needs to be a balance. There’s a thing called crassulacean acid metabolism. Plants coped with kind of, dry and arid environments by storing carbon dioxide during the night. When there’s a Change like this –’ again, there was a brief argumentative hesitation inside his head – ‘it can disrupt the whole thing. It’s a vital part of photosynthesis. Implications for the whole economy. The whole world. Some of the things I see on the farms – Christ, man. Those poor people. Heard about the suicides, has that got out, do people know about that yet?’ Dr Jones began to laugh. ‘Fuck it. All I can say, gentlemen, is stock up on readymeals.’

I spent most of that night outside in this crazy sun. After the Sandbar closed I headed down Oxford Road, meaning to jump on a bus and get some sleep before the shift tomorrow. Someone called from behind me.

‘Keller! How’s it going, man?’
I wheeled around. This was a Keele academic I vaguely knew. ‘Not bad, man. Heading.’
‘Coming to my party tomorrow night? Up in Chorlton. I’ll text the address.’

By now Porick and Cal caught me up and insisted we go to this squat party in Fallowfield, and I thought, what the hell, how would I sleep anyway? So we sat on the top deck passing a bottle of Victory Gin around and jumped off at the Wilmslow Road intersection. It was carnage around the Baa Baa and Revolution: straight thugs in packety high street shirts, who could barely hold their drink on an autumn night, were puking on the street, brawling like fishwives in perpetual daylight. A phalanx of police charged in with shields and batons and we headed quickly down Wilbraham Road, passing the bottle back and forth. The noise lifted.

The squat turned out to be in an abandoned church. The sun’s blaze played a merry dance on the stained glass. The whole thing was quite orderly, with running water and carpets and a guy selling cans from a cooler, I doubt anyone was on anything stronger than beer or wine. Porick led us through to a narrow corridor leading to a bedroom. At the desk was a guy, Damon Anaconda, who was a good artist I had known for some time but hadn’t seen for some time.

‘D! How’s it going, man!’

Damon turned around on his swivel chair with some difficulty. He had some kind of degenerative thing wrong with his legs, they were trussed in plastic and metal and he had some problems walking. ‘Ain’t bad. I kind a gone to ground a little, this new weather, it freaks me out.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘And you have to go through like the same conversation with everyone, barmen, cab drivers, acquaintances.’
‘If you want a vision of hell,’ I said, ‘imagine a time where no one talks of anything but the fucking weather.’
‘Where you guys been at?’

We told him about the flarf fiction night. ‘I have been flirting with all the flarf poets and making Porick very jealous,’ Cal said.
‘That’s the trouble with having a younger girlfriend.’ Porick took a deep swig from the bottle and passed it to me. ‘I can’t compete.’
‘Yeah, you’re there with your duelling pistols,’ I said, ‘and this flarf poet, Jimmy Ximenies, he’ll just say ‘Look, I’ve written a poem based on a Twitter search for ‘cat meme’ and your head’ll just explode.’ I did the ‘juror’s head’ mime again.
‘Exactly. No one understands flarf poetry. What is it? No one knows.’

I played along, but really the trend seemed comprehensible to me, it was basically the Burroughs cut and paste style, updated for an accelerated culture; it was just the implications that fucked your head, but who knew what Joyce would have been able to come up with had he lived in the digital age? Damon had manoeuvred himself onto a cushion and was talking to some Brazilian girl so I got up with the bottle and over to the desk, check out what Damon was working on – he did all these lush cityscapes and portraits of local characters, you could find his work in Fuel and Font and all the South Manchester hipster bars.

Cal asked me again if there was work in the Bar and Grill.

‘Not last time I checked. I’ll check again. What happened with the trade union job?’
‘I didn’t get it, and only a three month temporary role anyway. There were like one-oh-nine other candidates.’
‘I’ll check out.’

Cal had been unemployed for months now but least, I figured, she had a good love life, and was loved, which meant people would always look after her, make sure she had eaten, share bottles of wine. This is what I meant about South Manchester closing itself around me. ‘The private sector is fucked, loads of people are being let go, no new businesses are springing up. The public sector citadels are closing their doors and shedding people who don’t have the right connections. The only reason I’m still drawing a wage is because I sell alcohol, which is an elastic product, people will always find the money to drink. Managed decline, baby. And now this new weather.’ I put a friendly arm around her. ‘Sorry to depress you, but I think soon the three of us should move on, if there’s anywhere left to go.’

She squeezed my hand. ‘I miss the night,’ is what she said.

Cal wasn’t alone. People peeled and burned in the street, I saw a guy collapse with heatstroke on the Transpennine soon after the Change happened. Everything was warm and flickery, I dreampt, I felt like I had dreampt awake, and of a gentle and significant presence, someone I knew but couldn’t identify, almost a shadow themselves. On my run a community payback group was spraying the undergrowth with water.

I had a half hour lunch break at the Bar and Grill and I went out for a newspaper to eat with my club sandwich. Again the Change had pushed the Middle East off the front pages. Formerly a joke, single-issue and sideways-posting department, DEFRA was now briefing the Prime Minister directly, and you could read between the lines. Shit going on with the ice caps, EU fish quotas, bad information coming out of remote polar outposts, interim working group convened to investigate long term ecological implications. They really had no idea. And what was in it for them? Vote for me and I’ll bring you darkness?

The shift was fairly busy, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Towards a duskless early evening a couple I had known from the council hailed me at the bar. They had a kid now, and looked shattered. ‘I mean, we expected a disrupted sleep pattern during the first year,’ Amber told me, ‘but, like, literally days without sleep? And the doctor says, because of the Change, that natural balance, there’s no telling how long it’ll go on for. His sleep pattern could be permanently disrupted.’

‘Isn’t there, like, you know people who get seasonal affective disorder, they have special kind of lamps?’ Saying all this and pulling pints for the day crowd and keeping orders straight in my head. ‘Isn’t there some kind of way of simulating the darkness of night, with technology?’

‘I think so,’ said Ric, ‘but there’s a three-year waiting list and they reckon the PCT’s going to stop paying for it after two. So we watch a lot of CBeebies, don’t we?’ He held the kid up in its little pouch, nine weeks old, child of the Change. ‘In the Night Garden, the guy who came up with that idea should be knighted, man.’

When I clocked off an hour later, they were still there, looking at the papers and eating meat platters; Ric came over and sat on my bench, even though I had clearly just finished and had a pint and Dorothy Parker book with me. ‘So, what’s going on with you, mate?’ Ric was saying.

‘South Manchester is South Manchester, man.’ I lit a cigarette.
‘You got your bar job, yeah, your little rented room, no life partner and no kids, hey?’ I think Ric had had a little too much to drink today. ‘How old are you? Thirty?’

‘Around that.’ I tried to explain to Ric that while he didn’t think much of my life choices, his own could also be called into question; what’s the point of working yourself into the ground for twenty years, to pay for a house that loses all its value once the bankers crash the market again? ‘And then the council throws you in some shitty care home and takes what’s left to pay the Egyptian pimp who runs it. I mean, do you think just because you work hard and play by the rules, the state’s gonna say, hey, we’ll reward you? The state couldn’t care less about you, or me.’

‘I’m not naive,’ Ric said. ‘But what about commitment? What about responsibility?’
‘Fuck that. I’m with those gangster rappers. Live the life, love the life, leave the life.’
He sniggered in condescension, and opened his mouth to respond, but then Amber called from her table across the way. ‘Ric! Where’s the Ambre Solaire!’
‘Check my coat,’ Ric shouted.
‘I’ve checked it. He’s burning up, dickie!’
‘Well, it’s got to be there, because –’
They were still arguing when I left.

The bus dropped me at Oddest and I had a couple of beers there, managing to get into a better place and forget all about breeders and slavery, before going over the road and hitting the party. I didn’t know where it was, but I ran into a couple of people from the literary crowd and we wandered halfway down Wilbraham Road before realising the apartment was the other way – ‘we have been going in the wrong direction, very slowly’ – this hipster in glasses and cat face paint was saying. The party was thrown by a novelist I had run into now and again over the course of a chaotic life; he had just got a creative writing lectureship at Keele off the back of a self-published novel that had come out last month to huge local comment but no real impact outside the Manchester scene. The apartment was spacious even with a party in it, and I spent around fifteen minutes looking at the bookshelves with a glass of wine in my hand. There wasn’t much there apart from old copies of David Foster Wallace, and copies of the self-published novel, which I had not read, and amidst the clamour of networking I picked it up and checked out the blurb:

Naughty Moments is the story of Ian Bastardmerchant, who works in a local office. One day, for no reason, Ian Bastardmerchant doesn’t go to work. He goes and sits in Cafe Nexus in the Northern Quarter, drinking coffee and talking to his best friend Ian Jellybaby about how he is going to write a novel and how he is not getting enough sex.

‘Dazzling... [novelist] is one of the freshest and most original voices writing today... this book comes from outside the mainstream, and establishes [novelist] as a worthy successor to Beckett or Blanchot’

  • Lee Rourke

‘A playful tale of urban alienation’

  • Nicholas Royle

It was nice to be without Porick and Cal for a bit, I loved them, but Cal had disturbed what little sleep I got with crisis calls about her relationship, she loved Porick but had fallen in love with this Jimmy Ximenies guy as well, and he wanted her to come down to Brixton, and all I could say was that she had to follow her heart. An entire bedroom, walls and ceiling, had been covered with black paper, the windows blacked out with painted gaffer tape over card, and those little glow stars and moons had been stuck to the surface of the walls and ceiling. People were staring at these little glowstars and glowmoons, an Asian girl in glasses ran her finger over these stars and moons, and I wondered how many people were thinking, as I was: will we ever see real stars again, in the night sky? Will this endless day ever end? The thought made me cry a little, but the party was too good to keep me down for long, and I had to remind myself to leave when the first person left. You could smoke in the flat, but the novelist wanted us to come down the spiral and into the courtyard; he was talking about the social atmosphere since the Change and told me that, in London, the rich were building complexes with bars and restaurants held in tinted glass, star-simulations on switches and relays, reinforced backdrops to hide them from the death of the night. ‘It’ll be like the Printworks,’ someone said, and that got a laugh, and we stayed outside a little longer, and talked of circadian rhythm.

I worked a ten-till-ten at the Bar and Grill, with an hour break in the middle for pizza, papers and pint; that evening was the film night, and the windows had to be curtained up; every time someone went onto the balcony for a cigarette a ray hit the screen, lazy dust highlighted in it. After this I powerdrank at the Corner and ran into a couple of students, Deathhead Tucker and his mate, who asked me about books, and about the Change; it was almost unnerving, the way they listened to my opinions, they really seemed to look up to me, possibly because I have been around for so long. I crashed, awoke at six, spent two hours cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, worked out to weights with ITunes and social networks up, then went back to bed an hour, listening to the stir and rustle of unseen housemates around me, feeling that special thing of self-sufficiency outside the nine to five. There had been a picture of a sunset on the Facebook newsfeed, a gauzy ice-cream horizon of holiday romance, and it struck me that this simulacrum of natural beauty was all we had left now, and this knowledge lent some poignancy to the image that played on the inside of my eyelids.

I put on a pair of Levis and a long shirt and walked the Transpennine. Was it just me, or was I seeing fewer animals than there normally were on these miles, only a couple of friendly bounding dogs and no cats at all, and the birdsong, did it not jar on the head, seem a little confused, a little random? Remember, I hadn’t slept properly since the Change three months ago, and I thought that there was this friendly shadow from my dreams walking by me, and in the dream I dreampt this was my significant other, but it was weird, I met more women than ever but never felt any yearning or even special notice, so there was no one from reality for this dreamshadow to be based on. I had a few drinks at this lesbian place in Whalley Range to try and puzzle this shit out, what I had dreampt, what you dreampt, dreampt you were me, dreampt I was you, and I wondered whether I had died and not realised it, maybe you die and this is hell, hell is light. Porick texted, asked if I was coming up to the beat night in the Deaf Institute, and I remembered I had the night off; Monday’s not the most promising night but things still happen here.

I took a bus to Rusholme and walked up from there. The drink and constant exercise sent my head into a light tornado and I read my Dorothy Parker book while the poets performed; halfway through, one of those crazy shambling Oxford Road street preachers, more and more frequent since the Change, came in and placed in avid silence a badly photocopied leaflet on my table, promising lavish damnations; I looked up, and realised I was the only person in the room who had been given one. I spent half the night having a passionate conversation with this girl Lorna who I think ran the drunken book group at Fuel Withington. Town was full of drunks in suits, I overheard two HR people talking on this outside the Hogshead, apparently offices were fucked by the Change, lateness and absenteeism had soared. ‘It is actually grammatically incorrect,’ I said to this Lorna girl, ‘to put ‘am’ or ‘pm’ to the suffix of 12:00, when you’re talking about midnight.’ We talked about Frank O’Hara and Mad Men for another two hours. I woke up Tuesday at six with no memory of how I got home.

Journey to the End of the Night. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Night of the Hunter. Midnight’s Children. Night of the Living Dead. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Mother Night. Nights at the Circus. De Nachtwacht.
        You’re the night.
        Goodnight, everybody –
        Night.

Split shift Tuesday, get to the Bar and Grill by eleven, set up, work until five, go home, shower, sleep for fifty minutes or so, then back to the damn bar for the open mic, which ain’t so bad, as I have popularised it to the poetry crowd and now as well as all the regulars you get Porick, Cal and everyone playing music and reading poetry. The only dull note was some arsehole doing a cover of The Smiths ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ which reminded me of how I hate that miserable, whining piece of shit, that retarded Manchester’s music scene for a generation, and I went onto the balcony and lit a cigarette and thought: soon, I will steal all the money from the bar safe, and what I’ll do is leave this city, walk away with the shadow-figure I keep seeing in my dreams, which is odd, because I’m no longer in love with anyone, and while I still love women there are no longer any individuals that register with me, it is like I’m a ghost and they are ghosts, so how can I be seeing someone in my dreams, or else this is just a presence born of the desire to love, the joy of being in love that we all recognise on some level, so what the hell, walk with your shadow-love, and don’t stop until you find somewhere that’s dark on this shimmering magnifying glass that our planet has become. Sleep was heaven.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He also writes criticism for 3:AM and Butterflies and Wheels. He blogs at http://maxdunbar.wordpress.com/ and tweets at http://twitter.com/MaxDunbar1. Max Dunbar lives in Leeds and can be contacted on max.dunbar@gmail.com.

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