Where shall we go? Mohammed asks. The car is a silver Fiat Quibble, with Cadillac fins, retro boosters and punk upholstery. Los Angeles, says Douglas. I’ve always wanted to go there. Don’t be ridiculous, snorts Mohammed, whispers Mohammed, Mohammed nods. Even if it floated, this car would never get across the Atlantic. We’d run out of legendary gasoline. Also consider the breakers, the sperm whales, the world war two hedgehog mines. We’d break up. We’d sink and go drown. Go down, down, down, all the way to Davy Jones’s slurred place. Be realistic, Doug. I say Scotland. I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland. The tartan transvestites. The Loch Ness monster. Castles on little islands. My aunty has a Views of Scotland calendar. It’s lovely. Sure, Scotland, why not? If you’re sure the fins aren’t retracted wings. I was certain I saw a bone structure there the other day. Perhaps feathers. I’m almost positive I saw some movement there when I looked in the rear view on Tuesday. Remember Tuesday? So how do we get there? You know how to get to the Green Man? I’ll direct you from there. Cigarette, my man? The turbine vibrated. Condensation dripped from the windshield. Thanks, squire. Mohammed ducked to avoid a fragment of Sonnet 77 (the first line, he realized, as it shot past with a crackling noise). Mohammed wore a leather shirt with tassle fringes. An hour later they are past Stansted and heading north for the A1(M). There was lassitude in plenty. Look at that! What? Mohammed is hunched over the steering wheel. He seems to be staring at the dashboard. In the sky. That plane. A jumbo. It looks like it’s going to crash. It’s so close. Nah, it’s just landing. They come in low. Like at Heathrow. If you say so. Cigarette, squire? I don’t mind if I do. They reach the A1 (M). Its four lanes have almost no traffic. Then it narrows and turns into the A1. Roundabouts appear like blood clots in an artery. Fancy a slug of whisky? Douglas unscrews the cap, takes a few glugs, and offers it to Mohammed. Are you corrupting me, squire? No, I’m offering you whisky. But it won’t be any hassle if I have to fight this thing myself. Hand it over. Mohammed takes more than Doug, Doug can’t help noticing. Later they stop at a service station for a piss. Here, for two pesetas, they gorge themselves on beer and shrimps and a paella of rice, sweet peppers, saffron, snails, crawfish and little eels. As they eat they watch the local fishermen sitting in their black felucca-rigged boats watching a DVD of Jaws. Yorkshire is dreary, with views of distant slagheaps and a bunch of cooling towers on their left. A nuthatch whistles from a derelict paragraph. The sun, becoming warmer and warmer, drinks off the dew, and what were once tall candlesticks, silvery with white bloom, are now tall jade candlesticks of leaves beneath the blue cathedral of a sky leaking from the pen of William Faulkner. It’s not long before they are in the border country. Here the air is fresh and translucent. The young grass glows with a happy emerald brilliance. The ringing voice of the chiff-chaff resounds overhead. Shortly afterwards they go under a bridge where someone has spraypainted ‘Blair is a cunt’. Now the trees fuse into large blackening masses. An oriole gives a sad cry. Soon they reach the Great Glen. Look at that! The monster! Mohammed says: I can’t see it. Where? Over there, by the castle! Three enormous humps. A head like a dragon! Fucking fantastic! Wow, yeah. Cool. A little over a third of a matador’s sword, properly placed, will kill a dragon that is not too big. Half a sword will reach the aorta of even the biggest dragon. St George taught me that. Cool. Hey, look! There’s the Queen Mother! She’s dead, idiot. There’s the ghost of the Queen Mother! Sort of luminous! She’s ascending to heaven! And they’re playing that Led Zeppelin song! How very retro. Can’t we have something more modern? Where’s the Eels tape? Jack borrowed it. Anyway it wouldn’t work in this car, remember? Damn Jack. Where is he these days, anyway? In Sheffield, I expect. That’s where his girlfriend lives. Ooh, look! That sign. ‘Sheffield 4 miles.’ Let’s go there now. OK, guv. But Sheffield is empty. No sign of Jack anywhere. There was complete silence in Jack’s girlfriend’s room. Somewhere in the same building a gramophone began to play. It played and played. Something sweet and onomatopoeic by Mendelssohn, full of waves breaking in echoing caverns. I think one of those bombs must have been dropped. The sort that kills people but doesn’t damage property. The ideal American bomb. As a matter of fact I think one’s been dropped in Leytonstone. I can’t see anyone in the street, can you? And no cars being driven. That’s weird. No it’s not. Colworth Street is always like this. The road humps put people off. None of these cars go anywhere. You look tomorrow. Mine will still be here. And so will Mr Smith’s outside his house. And that couple next door with the camper van. That never moves. Yeah well obviously yours will still be here tomorrow, Mohammed. It’s because you’ve taken the fucking battery out. What I want to know is if it’s ever coming back. That battery. So’s we can really go somewhere. Shouldn’t think so. Who needs a battery? I like sitting here. As that Shakespeare song says, all you gotta do is dream. Plato. You what? Greek bloke. He said everything was a dream. He was right. Anyway, I better go. My uncle wants me to help out in his fucking shop at four. Better do it, for the sake of family values. Also with luck I can nick some ciggies. Coming? Nah, think I’ll stay here and finish the spliff. What will you say if he catches you appropriating his cigarettes? Forgive me, dearest uncle! It was an error. I vow never to do this again! A wilfulness in my nature has drawn this calamity down upon me! But it was not intentional. Can you pardon me? O wound not my agonizing soul! Incidentally, Doug, you bloody well remember to lock the door when you go. I don’t want people pissing in my car. Will do. Douglas waves goodbye and settles back into the passenger seat. He closes his eyes. The heat of Los Angeles beats against the windshield. The bass frequency of his heart is murky and rich. Observing the steady fall of the barometer he realises there is some dirty weather knocking about. Yes, it was the sweetest thing, that hyperventilating day. You helped the chokes to go away. Iron in my soul, a bloodied hole. Blue collar rhythms and muscular spasms. Aeroplane glue, what’s it to you? Gastric juices and toxic sluices, elephant milk and faraway ruses. Overcome by mist and a voice that hissed. Let me tell you, let me toil you. Let me trick you, let me spoil you. Tales of girls and all that fails. That arch in Whitby, a girl named Anne. Of empty rooms, capsules at night. A total absence of delight. Bleached bones, beached whales and all that fails. Fish paste and dirty fingernails. Drunken laughter and mornings after. Emaciation and dehydration. Hepatitis, then bronchitis. Descriptions of repeat prescriptions. Doctor’s appointments and pills and ointments. Bouncing cheques and sunken cheeks. Fried afternoons, injected moons. The dentistry and the sophistry. Dynamite banana and Futurama. Political tosh, economy wash. Bloody feuds and posturing dudes. Shivers and slivers and rivers and liver. Sallow skin and a cheesy grin. Dandruff showers and springtime flowers. Hairsprays and clichés and two-thrubber frith. Cough syrup brands and punk rock bands. Jubbs and dubs. Quaaludes and preludes. A kneeling nude, a moment lewd. Mona Lisa, just a teaser. Ultrasound scans and wedding banns. R. Budd Dwyer and the dyer’s hand. Methadone and Al Capone. Sound box and detox and all of the gold locks. Exhaustion, contortion, and narrative impairment. Ink penitentiary, blue velvet stationery. Coke-snorting daughters and tabloid reporters. Prefab and rehab and rosewater blubber. Musicians’ physicians. Empty TV and vacant sky. Irreversible heart disease, the lees. Backwards, down the birth canal. In The Cusp of Modernity we drank ourselves sick, took some stick. Then headed for the Red Dragon, off the wagon. That’s where you’ll find me, you bet. Listening to the Cliff Trotsky Quartet.
Ellis Sharp lives in London. Dead Iraqis: Selected Short Stories of Ellis Sharp was published by New Ventures in August. He is currently completing his fourth novel, Bomb Island.