Sean had left the summer of the bomb and it was fifteen years before he came back, and only then because Sweeney was dying. The git had installed himself in a suite in Wythenshawe but Sean didn’t want to be an onlooker, one of many waiting around for that last swish of the curtain, the rattle in his old friend’s throat, so took his time, avoiding the moving footpath in Piccadilly Station, as clean and bright as the future they’d been promised, trusting his old feet more.
As soon as he stepped outside he was lost. Oxford Road still ran from east to west, but Sean recognised little, not even the Midland, the sooty glow it had once given up at twilight replaced by a corporate shimmer. The ruin of Central Station (a vision of the future they hadn’t been promised, he’d once thought) had remade itself in the image of commerce, a replicant dedicated to globalised commerce and piano-driven power ballads.
Walking south, he tried to find the place they used to live, but that had gone too, the whole street. Even when he’d lived there with Sweeney, they’d changed the name by rearranging the letters, and found they lived in Burn Out Close. (It had seemed appropriate, though in truth the letters didn’t quite match, so the sign read Burn Oertt Close, but the name had stuck, aurally at least.) Now everything had changed, his Crescents replaced by the kind of endless low-rise that gave him nightmares.
It might have been the drugs that had made him love the Crescents, not the ups or the downs but those in-between comedown states, dreamlike and nightmarish. The endless walkways and vertiginous depths, the tiny front doors and windows. Sean had argued with Sweeney in favour of brutalism, of clean lines, exposed surfaces, modern materials and big windows, but even then knew these were no machines for living: rackety tenements sprung from the unholy alliance of bent councillors and private construction companies, flat pack slabs of badly-poured concrete, the damp built-in, rusty bolts shooting skidmarks into the walls. Perhaps it was better gone.
He remembered their days of walking, off their faces, from one end to another in slow graceful curves, across bridges that made him think of Venice, though when Sean reached out his hand he touched the top of the number 80 rather than a passing gondola. The names spoke to him from the past: he had no idea who Charles Barry, William Kent or John Nash were then, but liked imagining whiskered patriarchs accompanying them on their rounds, helping the old folk fumble for keys and complain about the damp. Back then, Sean would find auguries in bird shit and stained ceilings, parse the graffiti: Live – don’t exist, Pray for war, Fight the Satanist State, all the ‘A’s circled. Sweeney, black-hoodied, spray can in hand, added to the city’s mute speech: Sinn fein amhain, Hands off Malvinas. Now there was nothing for Sean to read; he felt illiterate.
He wondered what had happened to those old ones, forgotten even by themselves, living on alongside those who’d called themselves vocalists or percussionists, explorers or renegades, postmodernists or expressionists. The shambling grey figures hadn’t left so much as a ghost while the squatters had moved into property, media, urban regeneration. Sean had seen Sweeney featured in the backpages of a broadsheet, fatter around the face now, the hoody swapped for a Paul Smith suit, but those soft girl’s eyes still intact.
When they were feeling adventurous they’d go into town, flaneurs of the Arndale giddy on cheap class As. This is all coming down, Sweeney said, pupils the size of ten p pieces staring out from under his cowl. One day soon, washed away. They’d go back and watch his worn VHS of Taxi Driver or First Blood, and even Sean would worry, make his excuses and leave.
They’d known each other since school, the kind of friends who could never quite shake each other off, sitting at the back, sharing detention, finding themselves on the same Vincent de Paul camping trips, sneaking off to smoke B&Hs he’d nicked from his dad and avoid fiddling Father Patrick.
While others were content to hang around the estate, Sean and Sweeney fare-dodged into town, loving the grit in their eyes, nicking stuff from Kendal’s or the endless building sites on Oxford Road, imagining London or New York, places they told each other they’d go to find work when they left school. Sometimes a walkway appeared, from Marks’ on Cross Street or at Deansgate station, and they’d stop themselves getting bored for an hour or two, running back and forth above busy roads, delighting in the city from a new angle, gobbing on peoples’ heads with greater accuracy and invisibility. Once they had a school project to do and went to the Central Ref, nicking books because they had no idea how to borrow them.
Sean never got to New York, though had tried London for a few weeks and hated it.Sweeney, he’d read, had stayed put. Aged sixteen they’d signed on and got the flat, thought the world theirs anyhow. They went to see bands at the Caribbean Club, Sweeney scoring bags of weed and smoking what he couldn’t sell to students. Blood, he’d mumble, when stoned, blood and fire!, turning up the bass until the speakers quailed. Zion! Redemption! Sean amazed to find his spindly mate talking like an Old Testament prophet.
Once, Sweeney had turned up in a car, told Sean to get in then raced round the streets, their laughter louder than the squealing tires. A murder weapon waiting to happen. They junked it on one of the greens; its torched carcass would reappear as an art installation, hanging from the roof of someone’s flat.
As he wandered a place he no longer recognised, Sean tried to remember how many years they’d spent with no heads. Time had vanished; the drugs had worked. Sweeney got politics in him, something Sean had never given a toss about, and moved in with some random Fenian smackheads. They’d still see each other, but cautiously now. Sean never fitted with the artists or the anarchists but found himself in demand from all of them, being handy with power tools, unfucking blocked toilets, knocking out walls, running cables from one flat to another.
The building sites had turned into nothing more than crappy shopping centres and empty offices, boarded up before they were even occupied. Security guards appeared, uniformed and logoed, jobs for the boys back from Ireland. Cameras sprouted on barbed perimeter fences and lampposts. One guarded the row of shops at the end of the street, worth more than the contents of all of them.
Sweeney knew someone who watched the feeds, got hold of tapes and turned them into an endless art project: they’d sit there watching their own fuzzy ghosts wandering around. Later, it would be the only way they could remember having gone to Nuttall’s for milk or the Spinners for weed.
Ninety-six, he’d got up that summer morning, hot and shiny, bright and soft. Football on, people in town. Then the bang, followed by a slow boom, the sudden shiver of everything. He’d walked into the centre, found it as empty as the morning after a party, shattered glass and overturned bins, pale shock on the few faces he saw.
It was time to go.
He’d headed south, to Brighton, as far as he could travel without actually leaving the country, made his money doing up places for those who couldn’t afford to live in London anymore. News dribbled down to him from time to time, the police trail of mobile phones and a stolen second or third-hand van, journalists going down for refusing to reveal sources, a blurred figure on the security camera feed. Letters forwarded from several addresses sometimes arrived, but Sean wanted nothing of Sweeney’s entreaties to come back and share in his millions.
Sean had brought the last one with him, yet still hadn’t opened it, wanting neither to hear nor ignore his friend’s final confession. When he got to the hospital, Sweeney was still alive, the fat skin Sean had seen in the picture falling off him, revealing the skinny boy he’d known, there again, after all. The girlish eyes opened, lashes longer than ever.
“I knew you’d come, you fucker.”
The lids closed, and Sean knew they wouldn’t open again. Coke, probably, that was what would have caught up with him.
He went outside for a fag and opened the letter. The one thing they’d never been able to trace, that figure leaving the van, caught on the cctv. It was me, it was always me. And even this far along the corridor, Sean could hear him, his old mate Michael Sweeney, laughing as he croaked.