Nicu had been staring at the ceiling so long his eyes felt like knuckles. By now he knew every fissure, every mildewed spot like the back of his hand. Exhaustion only made the view worse, but the less he slept, the less he cared.
‘You could always kill the bitch,’ said Nicu as he got up. Except he knew where that would lead, and he’d no desire to be dropped into one of the holes the city kept for its orphans.
His reflection in the room’s solitary mirror waited for him to answer. But all the thin youth with the red eyes did was watch him like he wanted to drill a hole through his head to somewhere else. He’d be patient. He’d been practicing his DJing nearly every day now, and he had time after all, that was something everyone seemed to agree on.
From church workers, to teachers, it sometimes seemed like the world had traipsed through the flat at one point or another; not to mention Mum’s boyfriends. All of them with plenty of ideas on how to solve her problems. Nobody ever really listened to his.
Nicu keyed up the power to the decks.
‘Now that’s a sad shower of rejects to have to deal with at the best of times,’ said the reflection in the mirror.
As far as Nicu was concerned ‘family values’ was just another way of saying a lot of people enjoyed getting involved in your pain.
He thought of the last man to have put up with Mum for more than a week. The poor bastard had all but run out the door after he’d woken up with a knife at his throat when Mum had had one of her suspicious turns.
Nicu put his ear to the wall, but the latest victim to have been treated to a wall shaking monologue must have left because the flat was silent.
‘Not a sound, count yourself lucky tovarisch. I have to listen to her every night. Thank god for music.’
The rants never varied either. Men were all shits and the world was out to get her. Nicu’s Mum wasn’t particular where she cast the blame.
‘You’ll never get out of here if you’re not careful Nicu,’ he reminded himself.
He could only breathe it. That was her favourite weapon, the one she used when she really wanted to hurt him, the one thing she knew would get right under his skin.
‘Course I won’t Mum.’ He looked at himself in the mirror again; and watched his eyes narrow. ‘You never did, did you? Spent your whole life in this dump.’
Nicu pressed his head against the cool glass.
‘Got to hand it to you though Mum. You keep going don’t you? You’ll be out there soon enough dragging them back, looking for the one magic prick that’s going to sort it all out for you.’
When you thought about it; it was a miracle she’d been cold and desperate enough to go through with having a little bundle of fun like him at all.
‘Not much Dad can do now he’s inside though. I wonder what he’d say if he knew you were up to your old tricks? You’re not as mad as you like to make out either. He’d have left you years ago if you hadn’t had me.’
Nicu’s stomach growled as he punched a crater in his bed and his Mum’s voice wailed through the walls.
‘What is it Mum?’
‘Nicuuuuu, babyyyy, come talk to me.’
‘…baby…come talk to me…’ The echo’s bounced round his head and Nicu felt his stomach lurch.
‘Go back to sleep.’
‘Bayyyyby, I’m sorry I was nasty to you earlier.’
He reached for the light and wondered why he was bothering. The city was in darkness most nights these days.
‘Ok, Ok, I’m coming where are you?’
Nicu didn’t really need to ask he could smell her even from where he’d entered the corridor, hot and sweet, like bile.
‘You been sick?’ said Nicu.
‘I don’t know sweetie, I can’t see anything, the lights are off and I can’t find the switch.’
‘I’m not cleaning you up again if you have.’
‘That doesn’t matter, my head hurts, come and help your poor Mum find out where she is. You know I didn’t mean any of what I said last night.’
Nicu’s fingers rummaged in his pocket. He had a lighter in there somewhere. There was a spark and he caught sight of her behind the sofa.
‘Course you didn’t Mum. It was just the booze talking.’
The warm wet smell of puke rose to fill his nostrils as she moved.
‘You’re not upset with me?’
Nicu shook his head.
Like he cared. What was lying on the floor didn’t deserve his rage.
‘No, you do wonders for me Mum.’
There was the sound of laughter, ‘You always cheer you’re old Mum up. Why won’t you talk to me anymore?’
‘Because you’re an embarrassment.’
He kept it low so she wouldn’t hear. He’d explained to her what he thought of her once. It wasn’t worth another sleepless night. Instead he said loud enough for her to hear, ‘I’m coming.’
‘What Nicu? Hurry up, I can’t stand, help me.’
‘I thought you didn’t need anyone, or maybe you don’t remember that?’
‘Don’t be nasty Nicu.’
He pulled her to her feet and realised he’d been right about her being sick when his hands came away wet.
‘Couldn’t find your way to the toilet again? You can’t have been very comfortable down there.’
He got one shoulder under an armpit, wrinkling his nose at the smell. Nicu had gotten used to putting her into the recovery position years ago, but this was something special.
‘Why won’t they fix anything anymore? I swear they do it deliberately. Years ago it was all different. People were kind then. They helped out, not like now.’
Nicu had heard it so many times he knew the words by heart and when he really thought about it the world had seemed different once back when he’d been smaller. But those days had vanished as inevitably as his Mother’s beauty. Now as he deposited her in her room she looked like what she was: a waste of space, sprawled on a mattress stained with drink, and other things better left inside your body.
‘Sweetheart,’ his Mum searched the creases of her unmade bed. ‘Will you get me some ciggies? I need my ciggies, I’m all out.’
Nicu’s eyes went to the window. It was dark. But he knew from experience the only hope of getting any more sleep lay in what was left of the bottle of vodka she was cradling and him doing what she wanted until she passed out.
‘You need to give me some money first.’
‘Bayyyyby…’ It was amazing how she managed to sound hurt even with eyes that couldn’t focus. ‘You know I will. I look after you, don’t I sweetie?’
‘I’ve cleaned the fridge out if that’s what you mean. You even noticed that?’
‘I was enjoying myself Nicu. I’m allowed to do that aren’t ?’
‘Didn’t sound like fun to me. Just give me the money and I’ll get you your fags; then go to sleep.’
‘I’ll be good baby, I promise.’
She tittered, and looked at him through her eyelashes. Nicu’s stomach did a somersault.
‘’Course you will Mum. I’ll be back soon.’
Time to leave, if he let her get wound up it would only end with the police being called again. He didn’t trust himself to get her through another encounter with the authorities without her blowing it.
‘Be careful Nicu, you’re my little boy remember.’
The words followed him down the unlit stairwell.
When he was outside he felt a little better. The night was cold, but it was crisp not Siberian, although that didn’t stop the shivers. Nicu’s clothes were shrinking faster than he could accumulate cash and the cross fader he was was saving up for ate most of what lasted more than a day.
He could just see some lights in the other tower blocks. Round here they were like roadmaps. You learnt to navigate by the silhouettes they cut out of the stars if you went out after dark.
He stepped into the square making sure to watch for signs of movement amongst the pillars; this early the gangs would be hungry. Most of them knew the faces of the residents and left them alone, but with another power cut underway he couldn’t be sure they’d recognise him. Or that they would care, past midnight was when things changed, the streets got hungrier when they’ d emptied.
Nicu burrowed deeper into his thin coat. Last week they’d found one of the youths lying on the pavement, frozen so solid they’d had to cut him off the concrete. He shivered, and took a short cut down the nearest alley. The quicker he made this journey the better.
‘Who’s that? This is my spot,’ it was an old man’s voice, full of a lifetimes tar and gravel.
‘None of your business,’ said Nicu. ‘Anyone can go through here. You don’t own it.’
Ducts spread down the alley from the fast food joints that opened on to it and at first he couldn’t see the figure wrapped in rags amongst the clouds of fat saturated air.
‘Go on then, try it.’
Nicu’s fingers felt like they had frostbite already, ‘Just let me past, and I’ll leave you alone.’
‘I might,’ said the man as he leaned into the light, ‘but the others won’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
Nicu looked about him. The alley was empty.
‘Saw some of them didn’t I? Shifty little beggars, always hiding, waiting for the next one to come along. That’ll be you I expect.’
Nicu stopped; the alley ended just ahead. But it didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.
‘Where are they?’
‘Up ahead, most of ’em anyway, like laying traps don’t they?’ Nicu could see teeth grin deep under the gutters where the light didn’t reach easily. ‘I know, used to do it myself. Why are you out at this time of night? You’re going to get yourself killed.’
‘They’ll lose,’ said Nicu.
‘What a surprise, every lad your age is a cross between God and Superman. I was trying to be helpful not piss on your pride. Now, what is it that’s got you roaming about when it’s as cold as this?’
Nicu let himself relax a little.
‘My Mum sent me to get her something.’
‘Ah, she’d be one of the all night variety?’ The figure nodded to itself like it knew exactly what that meant, ‘What’s her poison?’
‘Mostly booze and smokes these days. She wants me to go get her some.’
‘Or, she’ll be up half the night moaning? You don’t have to answer, I know the type. I might even be able to make your life a little easier if you’ll do something for me.’
Flames jumped high in the gloom as the man lifted the lid on an oil drum.
‘Stay a while; listen to a story. The fires hot, it’s got to be better then going and meeting them up ahead, don’t you think? They won’t wait forever it’s too cold for that.’
Nicu considered his options. It wouldn’t hurt to listen.
As he got closer he could see the man more clearly, although he soon wished he couldn’t. He was a good example of what the streets did to their tenants. It looked like battery acid had been eating at his skin.
‘How old are you gramps?’
‘Fifty last time I checked.’
He looked about ninety.
‘What have you got for me then?’
The tramp took another swig from his bottle and rummaged in his pocket.
He tapped the cigarette packet against his forehead and Nicu’s eyes narrowed.
‘My name’s Ilia, drink?’
‘No, I’m good,’ answered Nicu.
A thin stream of smoke escaped the man’s mouth as he sucked on one of the cigarettes he’d tapped out.
‘Not stupid are you? The stuff round here’ll take the years off you as fast as it’ll get you drunk. I’ve lost count of the amount of friends I’ve lost like that. Quit standing there anyway, if you won’t drink get closer to the fire’
Nicu stepped a little closer, careful to keep the drum between him and the tramp.
‘Where did you get the smokes? They’re almost as rare as food stamps these days,’ said Nicu.
‘I’m connected boy, been around a long time; a hell of a lot longer than you by the look of things.’
‘Give me one.’
Ilia grunted and slung the battered packet in his direction.
‘Smoke away; enjoy every puff. They’re the best cancer sticks in town.’ A grin spread across his face exposing a row of rotten teeth. ‘But you’re at my death bed so listen. There isn’t much time left. I deserve that much.’
‘Whatever you say.’
Nicu’s breath sucked between his teeth as he noticed something he hadn’t spotted before. It wasn’t just cataracts in the man’s eyes. He’d seen that look before, and the scarlet stains spreading across his cuffs.
Ilia noticed where he was looking.
‘Already started before you turned up kid. Didn’t hurt half as much as I thought. Saw you running by and thought I could do with some company for the last bit.’
‘What? It’s too late for the help I need, way too late.’
Ilia shrugged, and the knife tinkled to the floor, steel catching what was left of the city’s lights for a second before the shadows claimed it.
‘Ah, I was coming to that. You wouldn’t know what it’s like to feel really afraid, not yet, you’re too young. I never used to feel like that either, but I learnt.’
‘I’m terrified already,’ Nicu yawned deciding that he didn’t really care if some old tramp wanted to end it all. His life, his choice. ‘Better hurry up old man. You haven’t got long.’
‘At least I won’t have to spend another night tucked up with the scum round here. I’m better than that. It’s time to say goodbye. Nothing works anymore, not the tranquilizers they put in your food, or the rotgut that keeps you going. I can’t stop remembering.’
Nicu thought of his Mum, there wasn’t much longer she could go on like she was before something broke either, and she wasn’t anywhere near as bad as this reject. He moved a little closer to the fire and thrust his face over the drum so the man could see it clearly.
‘Why don’t you get on with it then? I’ve other things to do than listen to you.’
‘’Course you do boy. Your problems are plain as day. I bet you think it’ll get better if you tough it out, it won’t. I’m living proof of that.’
Nicu thought back over the amount of times he’d heard that before. His Mum made sure of it every time she got drunk. Nothing was going to get better, it was all somebody else’s fault. He supposed it made life a little easier for her to bear if everyone else shared her misery.
‘Have another drink, and tell me all about it. It’ll seem clearer then,’ said Nicu.
That got a response he hadn’t been expecting. Ilia tried to leap to his feet, and slipped, slumping back into the garbage instead. The bottle rolled from nerveless fingers.
‘Show some respect. I’m Chief Inspector Vladovitch: a hero of the migrant war. You’ll address me as sir.’
‘’Course you are…sir’
Nicu just about kept the smile off his face, it looked like you could knock the asshole over if you so much as breathed on him.
‘I’m sorry Inspector Vladovitch. All men who lived through the old day’s are like gods to me.’
That seemed to work, the man relaxed and dropped his hand, picking up the bottle and taking another swig as he did.
‘It wasn’t always like this you know.’
Nicu waited, mildly surprised when the answer he was expecting didn’t come. The old man fixed him with his washed out eyes. ‘No…it was a lot worse.’
‘It can’t have been worse than it is now.’
For a moment Nicu regretted saying it, but Ilia had already grabbed his chance.
‘You’re too young to remember what it was like.’
As far as Nicu was concerned that was no bad thing.
Ilia’s smile matched the wounds on his wrists as he spoke.
‘It was different back then, the whole of central Asia was on the move. I can’t say I blame them really, the seeds had failed for the fourth season in a row, and their wells had dried up. That pretty much took any hope of a future for most of them with it. The fighting did the rest as they tore themselves apart for what was left. They did what I’d have done; they moved. Not just a family, or two, whole populations upped sticks and hit the road. ‘The politicians and the far right tried to lock down the borders of course.’ Ilia’s laugh echoed off the walls flat, and hollow. ‘They might as well have tried to dam a sea.’
Nicu stifled a yawn, everyone knew how the war had started; you got it rammed down your throat every day at school.
‘I’ve heard this before, what’s it got do with you?’
‘Just listen, it was my job to deal with them when they appeared picking through the city like we were the lucky ones. We used to take them out past the suburbs and shoot them so they didn’t disturb the families that hadn’t left.’
‘You shouldn’t have bothered. You got sold out, same as the rest of us.’
The look that passed over the man’s face was gone quick, but he couldn’t hide it.
‘I’m not talking about the betrayal.’
‘Then what do you mean?’
‘Wait and I’ll tell you. We didn’t know what was coming back then. I’ve heard of a plague of insects that hits parts of America once every sixteen years; the war was like that.
‘People are more difficult to kill though.’
‘Yes, but we did anyway, in droves. Not that it made any difference; they’d come back twice as strong. When the leadership disappeared the army didn’t take long to follow. It’d have included the force too but we were too busy fighting each other for what was left. I shot them in the end before they took my share of the goods. How else was I going to start a new life?’
He took another swig from his bottle.
‘Anyway, they’d started up with the artillery before I decided I needed to get my family. The hills were black with them by then, and that was only a part of their army. At that point I was really beginning to sweat. The landlocked countries hadn’t had any food for weeks, and if there’d been a decent human being among them at the start there sure as shit wasn’t by then.’
Nicu had to admit he was pretty interested now. He shuffled a little closer to the fire and watched the blood try and swallow the light leaking from its sides as it spread from the man’s wrists.
‘I don’t think you’ve much time left Inspector.’
It didn’t look like Vladovitch had heard him. He was staring though the alley wall like it didn’t exist.
‘I did my best to hurry, but the streets were rammed with bodies. By then everywhere I went there were people begging for help. I had to use my gun so many times I ran out of bullets.’ He paused, ‘You should have seen the expressions on their faces. When I got home it had been gutted, and they were making my boys watch what they were doing to my wife.’
‘Did you kill them?’
Ilia turned tired eyes toward Nicu, ‘I bet you would wouldn’t you? A strong lad like you, but there was nothing I could do. I forget what happened after that. The world was full of bullets, and when I finally found my own I helped, just for the fun of it until there was nothing left to shoot at anymore.’
The Inspector paused, and stared at nothing for a moment. When he spoke again he was quieter; like he was scared to speak.
‘I remember sitting there in my cruiser for an hour, maybe two. Anyway, I was calm when the rats that had been nibbling at my city for weeks finally arrived in force. Behind them they’d brought their tanks. Those things were horrors. Even back then they were as big as houses. God knows what they’re like now.
‘Did they fire at you?’
Nicu had to strain to hear him the next time Ilia spoke.
‘No, I think I had some idea about surrendering, but most of all I didn’t want to die in that car. I wanted the air on my face and something heroic on my lips. I’d been looking at the square’s statue you see, it was of a revolutionary general, and I was trying to find something inspirational for my last words. That’s when it moved.
He stopped, like he was waiting for Nicu to say something, maybe to laugh, or call him a liar. But Nicu kept his mouth shut; this was far too entertaining. He’d never seen a copper bullshit their way into death too.
‘At first I didn’t believe my own eyes; cracks were running over it everywhere I looked. I thought maybe it was disintegrating, damaged by shell shot like a lot of the buildings back then.
Ilia paused, and drained the bottle.
‘But, it was coming to life.’
He looked straight at Nicu then like he hadn’t lost nearly five pints of blood. ‘I know what I saw. Even if they tried to drug, burn, and beat it out of me. I know what happened. I see it in my dreams.’
Nicu held his hands up, palms out.
‘I’m not arguing.’
The Inspector grunted.
‘He wasn’t the only one, either. There were more crawling from the houses, all the things the stonemasons had carved into the cities corners. Some of them weren’t human, some of them were. But they all seemed pissed, and they were all headed one way – towards the new comers.’
Nicu hadn’t heard this before. The official story was the migrant army had been beaten back by the brave actions of the cities police who’d been the only ones not to run when the fighting got really bad.
‘To their credit the enemy at the end of the street didn’t stop when they saw them. They were men of God I suppose, and they didn’t give up their belief that they were protected even with gunfire skipping off the statues like hail. It was only when the things had gotten close enough to the migrants that the ricochets were digging holes in the fighters ranks that the men tried to get away. One of them managed to get a decent shot in, I remember that. But all his target did was pick itself up and replace its limbs like it was picking up sticks.
The enemy found out pretty quick that they had even worse problems. Because those tanks had gotten in the way by then. It’s not like you can reverse one of them down a street in a hurry – particularly when the drivers hadn’t been trained in their use. By the time the worst of the screaming was over there wasn’t a man left standing outside those machines. Then the statues moved in to finish the job.’
‘But you were a hero, weren’t you? You killed them and saved the day, I expect?’
Nicu smiled, the man would bleed out soon and his little fantasy would be over. He wondered how many times Vladovitch had told it.
‘No, I got back into the car. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I was terrified. I watched them climb back onto their ledges, one by one, praying to anything that was listening that they wouldn’t notice me.’
For a moment Nicu thought it was over, the man was breathing so shallowly it was hard to tell he was doing it at all.
‘Thanks for listening kid, I needed to get that off my chest one last time. I told them all before they chucked me in the nuthouse. They couldn’t shut me up though. Now you can tell them too.’
Something cut the last thread that had been holding Ilia’s chin off his chest, and he slumped still clutching his bottle like it was the last thing that meant anything to him. It didn’t need much for Nicu to tell he was dead.
It had to be one of the crazier stories he’d heard decided Nicu as he rifled through the tramps pockets for the rest of his smokes. Nicu’s stomach growled, but there were other more important things to worry about. Mum had to have passed out by now.
‘Come on, you’ve got to have something else to make all that worthwhile.’
He gave the dead man’s corpse a kick.
In the morning the body would be found and if the tramp was lucky, reported.
‘Got you, that’ll do nicely.’
Nicu rattled the change he’d been praying the man would have in the palm of his hand.
‘Enough for a decent breakfast, spasibo tovarisch.’
But, that wasn’t all his fingers had found. As he rummaged through the rag the man had been using as a wallet his fingers found something unexpected.
Nicu could feel the nubs of embroidery under his fingers as he pulled them free. He had to be sure.
He was looking at a Chief Inspectors pips, old and frail, but unmistakeable.
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