Frelsi (Book Two of The Liminality), Page 2A. Sparrow
“That’s alright … I just want to get this over with.”
Traffic was light, the road straight and flat, lined by scrubby trees and the flanks of barren hills, their outlines only implied by the headlights. I tried turning on the radio but it didn’t seem to work. It picked up only static, so I turned it off.
Jess kept looking over at me, agitated, as if she wanted to say something, but couldn’t summon the courage.
“I know it’s none of our business, but Helen and I were wondering … might you be you gay?”
“You don’t have to answer, we just—”
“No, it’s okay. I mean, no I’m not. Not that I know of, anyhow. What made you think I was?”
“It’s just … you’re different. For a young guy like yourself … you don’t show much interest in girls.”
“Well, that’s because … I already have a girlfriend.”
“Oh? You mean back in the States?”
“No, she’s in Glasgow. I think.”
“Well, she might have moved on.”
“Without telling you?”
“It’s kinda complicated.”
“Are you separated?”
“Kinda. Not really. But kinda.”
“Well, it’s obvious you don’t want to talk about it, so I won’t press any further. But if you ever do … want to talk, that is.”
We rolled through Blaina, where the houses closed in tight on the road, like a canyon. At the other side the lanes parted around a traffic circle. Jessica gasped.
“You just went the wrong away around that roundabout.”
“Oh crap! Sorry about that.”
“No harm done.”
Another mile and we came to a crossroads. I suffered a moment of confusion, contemplating a right turn that would me swinging out wide across a lane. It felt unnatural. I waited for the traffic to clear, and when there was a nice, big gap, I went for it.
Second gear, third gear locked in just fine. Again, the dang transmission refused to accept fourth.
“Give it a nudge and hold it,” said Jess.
“I am nudging it and holding it!”
Jess leaned over and grabbed the shifter from me. “I’ll push it in. Put your hand over mine so you get the feel for it.”
“Wait. Let me try again. I need to—”
“Just do it!” she said sharply, as sharp as I had ever heard her speak.
I put my hand over hers. Her fingers were long and cool, but her knuckles were rough with callous.
She gave the shifter a little wiggle, and the transmission locked into gear. “Now come up easy on the clutch.”
I did as she said and the engine spun back down, as if relieved.
“Now did you feel how that went? That firm little jiggle you need to show it who’s boss?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You’ll get it yet,” she said. “You just need practice.”
“So you’ve driven this thing before?”
“No,” she said. “Not Renfrew’s But I’ve driven lorries in sadder shape than this. Bigger ones, too.”
“Hmm. Never took you for a trucker.”
“My Pa had a sand and gravel business. In truth, I’d rather be doing that than making stinky cheese.”
“So why aren’t you?”
“He got caught up in some bad investments. Had to sell. He’s early retired out on the isle of Jersey. Left my mom behind in Cheltenham. Divorced.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged. “They’re both better off for it. My mom would’ve made a good spinster. She’s like a middle-aged version of me.”
“Huh? You’re no spinster. You’re only like, what … twenty-five?”
She took a breath and pursed her lips.
“You think I’m twenty-five?”
“Just a guess.”
“I’m nineteen. I turn twenty in a month.”
She touched her face. “Is it the crow’s feet?”
“Not at all,” I said, scrambling to recover. “You have got a young face, you just act really … mature … for your age.”
“Mature?” She gave me this look of such disbelief and disappointment. I didn’t understand.
It killed the conversation. She just sat there the rest of the way into Cardiff, hands folded in her lap, her head tilted towards the window. I was on my own when it came to shifting.
Cardiff turned out to be nowhere near as horrible as I had imagined. I had pictured some destitute industrial city, grimy with coal soot, smokestacks and crumbling brick walls. Instead I found a place that looked as tidy as Inverness and maybe even a little more gentrified. But then again, the night had a way of making everything look shiny.
By now, I had gotten really comfortable with driving. Renfrew had been right. It was really no big deal once you got the hang of switching to another side. I still had trouble shifting, but if I kept at it, it would eventually snap into gear.
It felt so liberating to be here after all those weeks, stuck on the farm and Brynmawr. I wondered if Renfrew ever did any business in Glasgow, if I could volunteer to make a delivery run or something. The thought of going back up to Scotland gave me tingles.
“Take a left here,” said Jessica, breaking her silence. “Two blocks and it will be on out right.”
“And what are we looking for again?”
“Cardiff Central. The main train station.”
I took a deep breath at the mention of the word ‘train.’
“Um … well … I just have this thing about train stations.”
“You mean like a phobia?”
“Yeah, kinda.” I couldn’t very well tell her I was worried about bounty hunters.
“Scared of choo-choos, are you? Did you have a traumatic experience as a child?”
“No, it’s … it’s just this … thing. It’s not rational.”
“Well, I promise you won’t have to go anywhere near the tracks. You just stay with the goods and I’ll go find the gentlemen who’ll be taking the cheese to London for us.”
Cardiff Central was a modest marble building with ‘Great Western Railway’ carved in large block letters above the entrance. I parked in a lot around the corner. Each of us lugged one of the coolers. They were fairly small but remarkably heavy.
When we ducked inside that lobby, the smells and sounds of that place made my heart rate accelerate. It was probably silly to be so worried. Weeks had passed since the run-in at Inverness. Bounty hunters wouldn’t still be monitoring every transportation hub in the UK. Would they? How big a grudge could those Cleveland bastards hold over small potatoes like me, a mule who tried to sell a truck packed with their dope
“You wait right here,” said Jess.
I stacked one cooler atop the other and stood behind them, as if Styrofoam and goat cheese could protect me.
The lobby was cool, but I was sweating through my shirt. My palms were slick. I knew I was over-reacting but I was powerless to stop it. It wasn’t like that incident in Inverness had been all that traumatic. Sure, there had been guns and a knife drawn, but not a drop of blood had been spilt.
My fear was proof that I had chosen life over Root. That was quite a step for a kid who had been regularly contemplating suicide a couple months before.
I scanned the crowd, homing in on a young guy browsing a magazine near the entrance to the train platforms. He wore a rakish hat with a narrow brim; another one of those ubiquitous loners I had been seeing at train stations all over Europe. He kept glancing up as if he were waiting for someone.
He caught me looking at him. Our gazes stuck until I could rip mine away. Oh crap! Next he would be checking his cell phone for the photo tha
t the Cleveland traffickers had broadcast to every corner of their cartel’s global network. And then they would have me.
I paced and fidgeted. Where the hell was Jessica? My breaths came quickly. I started to get dizzy.
“Excuse me son, but may I ask what you have in those coolers?”
I turned to find this guy in a uniform standing beside me.
“It’s none of your business!” I snapped, startled.
“Now, now. No need to get testy.” His salt and pepper mustache wiggled when he spoke. He showed a silvery badge pinned to the inside of a wallet. “I’m with station security. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a look inside those coolers.”
“It’s cheese, for Christ’s sake. It’s just goat cheese.”
“Maybe so, but from the way you’re acting, I think we had better make certain.”
Jessica came walking up with two men in tow, an older guy in a rumpled shirt and tie and that kid with the magazine. “What’s going on here?” she said.
“This guy wants to sniff our cheese,” I said, eyes flitting to the kid with the magazine.
“No worries, officer. We’re from Gwyrdd Cym Farm up in Brynmawr.” She peeled off a long strip of wrapping tape that sealed the lid. “James, this is Jackie Taylor and his son Ralph. They’ll be taking the cheese for us on the London train.”
“H-hi,” I shook their hands. My fingers trembled.
“Are you feeling okay James? You’re looking mighty pale.”
She pulled off the lid of the first cooler and went to work on the second while the security guard poked around through the little round cakes of pure white goat cheese sealed in plastic, each adorned with a sticker depicting a ruined foundry. Not the most appetizing logo, but it was distinctive.
“Alright then,” he said, nodding. “Everything seems to be in order.” He stood up and shook hands all around. He lowered his voice. “This lad needs to calm down. We get a lot of trafficking through here, and I must say his posture and behavior do fit the profile of a drug smuggler.”
“He just has a phobia,” whispered Jessica. “A fear of trains.”
My eyes had already fixated on another young loner who had walked into the station.
“Jess, can we go now? Please?”
Chapter 3: Dirty Laundry
The attic smelled of dust and turpentine. The odor had permeated all of their belongings, but to Karla it was the smell of freedom.
She gathered her and Isobel’s dirty clothes from the mass collected in the corner, sorting what absolutely needed a washing from what could be worn again. Linval had no washer in his flat. She would need to haul them to the self service launderette down the street.
Isobel lounged in a tattered armchair, engrossed in one of Linval’s George R. R. Martin paperbacks. Fantasy fiction was a revelation for her. That entire genre had not been allowed in the Raeth household. Not even C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling Especially not J.K. Rowling.
Karla peeked out the little grimy window in the gable. “Hmm. The sun seems to have come out. Isn’t that nice? I thought it was going to rain all day.”
She stuffed the filthiest of their filthy clothes into a pair of pillow cases.
“I’m heading off to do the wash. Do you need what you’re wearing cleaned?” Isobel did not respond. “Izzie?” The armchair was empty. Footsteps creaked down the attic stairs.
“Now, where has she gone off to?”
She grabbed the overstuffed pillow cases and hauled them down the stairs. Down in the main flat, the drapes were drawn to block the light. Linval snored on the couch after another late night gig. He had returned home barely an hour before dawn.
Karla knew this because she had spent a fitful night, full of anxiety for no good reason. That happened sometimes, when her accumulated worries caught up with her and bubbled to the surface.
A shape whirled to face her in the shadows of the kitchenette. Something clicked against the counter. “Izzie,” she whispered. “What are you up to over there? You’re not cooking, are you?”
“No,” she said, standing there stiffly with her arms by her sides. “Just getting myself a drink.”
“Well don’t bang around any pans. Don’t want you waking Linval.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.” Isobel stood there with that weird posture, sporting a strained smile. Karla stared, wondering why her sister was acting so squirrely.
“Those jeans you’re wearing. Need them washed?”
“No. They’re good. They passed the sniff test.”
Karla rolled her eyes. “I’ll be back in an hour or two. Stay out of trouble, you.”
She tied a kerchief around her head and bolted down the back stairs. Her newly shorn hair still felt strange. Both girls had shed the shoulder length locks they had possessed since they were little and sold them to a wig maker. They had gotten top money for what the dealer had called ‘virgin’ hair, never exposed to chemical treatments.
Their new butch cuts were cool and much lower maintenance. As a bonus, it had altered their looks dramatically.
They had also shed the long dresses their Sedevacantist family required them to wear, replacing them with jeans and low cut tank tops from a secondhand shop—items blasphemous to their extreme Catholic sect.
Five Sundays in a row now they had not been to mass, although Karla had caught Isobel simulating one under her blanket, humming the hymns, whispering recitations from memory. She couldn’t even bring herself to visit a mainstream congregation. As far as she was concerned, if she ever went inside a church again it would be too soon.
She pushed the door open and stepped out into the alley, pillowcases beating against the doorframe. After the morning sprinkle, it had turned into a balmy day by Glasgow standards, a veritable heat wave. She skipped across the street, heading to the commercial district by the roundabout.
Linval’s neighborhood straddled the Springboig and Barlanark wards of East Glasgow, one of the poorer parts of the city, but not nearly as bad as its reputation among upscale Glaswegians.
Karla felt more at home here than she ever had in Inverness. It was almost like being in Rome again. She had independence and anonymity, luxuries she could not enjoy up north, where her father’s cultish friends and acquaintances seemed ubiquitous.
She passed a grocery, a news agent and a medical clinic before veering into the propped open door of the launderette, steamy from the wall of spinning dryers.
Only one of the smaller washers was available and she pounced on it. It would have been better to split the load into lights and darks, to separate delicate from heavy, but beggars could not be choosers. She stuffed the contents of both pillow cases into the one hopper, poured in a small packet of detergent purchased from a vending machine, fed three pound coins in the money slot and pushed the button to start the cycle.
There were some plastic chairs beside a table bearing a stack of ravaged, coverless magazines. She took a seat and thumbed through a glamour rag, taking note of any person who came into the shop or even walked past the window. She had yet to relax her public vigilance and had come to realize it might never happen.
That magazine was a window into a world more alien than any she knew. People lounging by pools, drinking, dancing and loving so openly. Were these real people?
And then she hesitated on a picture of a shirtless young man in a vodka advert. The guy looked like James—a prettier, more stylish version, of course, but the geometry of his face sent a pang jabbing through her.
She had stumbled into traps like this before. Faces in the crowd, the way certain men walked, American accents—each was enough to send her soul sinking. When it happened she became aware of the shadows of roots lurking just beyond her perception.
She found it ironic that thoughts of James were about the only thing that could bring her down these days. It was he who had wanted her to give life a chance. And now that she had, he was gone from her world.
She enjoyed her day
s now, no matter how poor they were, how dependent on Linval for food and shelter. James had been right. She had given up prematurely. There was hope enough in this world to build a tolerable life.
She had grilled Sturgie for news of James when he had come to Glasgow for one of Linval’s gigs. But Sturgie was useless. He was not on speaking terms with his uncle, so he knew nothing.
James was probably long gone from Brynmawr by now. If he was smart, he would not have let anyone know where he had gone, not with bounty hunters on his trail.
She wondered if James still visited Root, if he wandered the tunnels in search of her. But she could not afford to indulge in the deep funks and fugue states that brought Root calling in a situation as precarious as theirs. She needed to remain present and aware in this world. When she couldn’t push him out of her mind completely, she tried thinking nice thoughts of a happy James, content wherever he roamed.
Isobel, as well, had not been back to Root. She was out of the woods, so to speak, now that she was out of Inverness and away from Papa. She was moody as any pre-pubescent girl, but her moods were no longer extreme, never suicidal. Her epic silences had pretty much evaporated. She loved their modest life in East Glasgow.
Karla picked up another magazine. The theme was food this time, another alien world of gourmet delicacies, a world beyond boiled eggs for breakfast, bread, butter and Marmite for lunch, cheap pasta for dinner
A man came loping down the walk, a tall man, wearing a tweed jacket despite the warmth and a long, blocky beard, black with a grey strip down the center.
Karla threw down the magazine and scrambled on her knees down the row of washers, crawling behind the one at the very end. An old, black woman folding clothes glanced down and glanced away without a word.
Karla chanced a peek. The man came up to the door, perhaps attracted by her sudden movement. She ducked back behind the washer. The ache of remembered damage spread through her bones. It was Edmund—her father.
Karla did not dare look again. She gazed up at the old woman. “That man, is he still there?”
For the moment, the old woman kept mum, folding her clothes, eyes straight ahead. “He just stepped away from the window. Just now. Who is he, darlin’? Your landlord? Your boss?”
“He’s … my father.”
Calculations cycled behind the old woman’s gaze. She nodded, as if she had deciphered Karla’s life story from three words and a look.