THE MODEL

Chris R-1-227 Image by Christine Renney

If the model had been bigger it wouldn’t have survived, someone would have destroyed it years ago, taken a hammer and smashed it to smithereens. But the baseboard was a little less than a metre square and it fitted easily into the back of a small van or a large estate car and so moving it from place to place hadn’t ever been that difficult, not too much of a task. When it outstayed its welcome there was always someone able to transport it and somewhere else willing to take it. And so the model had survived and it had languished in little museums and dusty civic centres and draughty village halls. Over the years people had looked at it and a lot of them had been impressed. But no-one had really, really looked at it, not in the way he did. Jacob was the first to study and scrutinise it and to recognise just how delicate, how intricate and extraordinary it was.

The model was a sprawling cityscape of high-rise towers, a section of a much larger metropolis. It wasn’t a re-creation of a particular place, not New York or Singapore or Chicago or Hong Kong. This city was the model makers’ invention and no attempt had been made to conjure anything futuristic or other-worldly. No, this place was representative of the here and now, a city that had once been high-tech and ultra modern but was quickly fading, losing its lustre and its glow.
The model was constructed from molded plastic and the paintwork was exquisite. It had been the model maker’s forte, the masterstroke. At first glance the tower blocks appeared identical and it was only when you looked closely that you noticed the subtle differences and could see the wealth of tiny detail and Jacob couldn’t stop looking.

As he moved around the model that first afternoon and gazed down into it and it snatched the hours away from him, he wracked his brain for an analogy. The best he could come up with was that it was a little like staring at a computer generated image on a screen. A scene from a game perhaps or a video installation. A mid twentieth century city that has become jaded and has somehow lost its way. A place where no-one wants to be, certainly not somewhere that Jacob would want to go and yet he couldn’t stop looking.

Squinting in the bright sunlight, Jacob felt giddy and disoriented. Stumbling he managed to reach the bench in front of the community hall and he sat. Gradually he began to focus again and, looking up, he realised that it was a beautiful evening. After standing for so long in front of the model he needed to stretch his legs and started to walk.
Jacob had lived in this small town since he was a child and he couldn’t remember ever being anywhere else. But, as he walked through the narrow streets and alongside the rows of Georgian and Victorian houses, it began to dawn on him that he had not looked properly at the place in years. Moving out across the market square he felt like a stranger but no, not a stranger, like someone returning to their home town after a long journey and discovering it anew. It felt good and Jacob considered himself to be lucky, lucky to be here and yet he knew that, in the morning, he would re-visit the community hall and look again at the model. That he would look at it as often as he could and for as long as he was able.

GHOST LETTER 46

Chris R-1-127 Image by Christine Renney

I have begun to recognise the others that I pass on my route. Their faces have become familiar; men and women, mostly making their way either to or from work. They are visitors. They stay for their shift and then leave, going back to their homes and families, to their lives beyond this place. But, just fleetingly before they disappear into their places of employment they and I collide.
I watch them as they trek toward the smaller units of the industrial estates, built in the Sixties and left to wither. I watch as they shuffle toward the larger factories and warehouses, those that have survived. They seem small and inadequate and I wonder how can they maintain these scarred and decrepit structures. How can so few of them possibly serve these ageing monoliths.

GHOST LETTER 41

Chris R-1110409 Image by Christine Renney

To say I have completed the circle and made my way around again would be going too far, and yet these city streets that I frequent and where I linger they form a block and it has become somewhere. A place I can’t help feeling isn’t so unlike the one from where I began, the one from which I fled.
Each morning when I begin walking this block, I pass a man who works for the city along the same stretch of pavement. He is a street cleaner and glancing back I watch him at his work. If and when he isn’t there I am thrown. It seems, fleetingly, that the structure of my day has been tilted a little.
But I keep moving, pushing toward the familiar until I hear the City, or at least this small part of it, coming around and waking again.

GHOST LETTER 34

Chris R-0210 Image by Christine Renney

I have managed to settle at last. I sit on the pavement and look up. The buildings above the shops, once regal, are now in disrepair. The City glares back at me in the windows but one of the blinds is broken. Where the slats have fallen away I can see an old filing cabinet. It is standing just behind the glass and there are cardboard boxes stacked on top of it. I wonder are all the rooms up there like this one? Used for storage and filled with junk?
This is the busiest part of the City or at least it soon will be. I am often here, in this place at this time before it all begins. Standing I can hear the clash and clatter of the metal shutters being raised up from the front of the shops a little further along the street.
I walk toward this sound.

GHOST LETTER 32

Chris R-0355-2 Image by Christine Renney

I know this place. I have been here before. Is it possible I have been heading for this particular city all along? That the idea of the road as endless was merely a conceit and no matter how often I have stopped and turned myself around, that the walking in circles was, in effect, little more than an effort to prolong it. To put off the inevitable. And no matter how protracted and arduous the journey, my intention had always been to come here, to this city that has been forgotten. A place most people pass on their way to somewhere else, that they circumnavigate. And here I am – at the edges, stepping out a boundary, desperately trying to make it real and still prolonging it.
Looking up I see I am walking along a street of terraced houses. I look back toward the city but the only view I have from here is of the roofs of the derelict factories. There is a bicycle leaning against the wall to my left. In the garden beyond it I see an inflatable paddling pool filled with rusty rain water.
Somehow I have stumbled and strayed to here, to ‘somewhere’ and although the street is deserted and quiet everything now feels weighted with possibility and I begin to panic.
I can hear a crowd in the distance, but the jeering and cheering is safely contained elsewhere. And I am reassured by this, by the fact that for the duration of the game at least I am alone out here. Convinced all the houses are empty I push on and I am getting closer, making my way toward it.

SENTINELS

Chris R-0470

The homeless have always been prevalent in the City. We pass them on the streets every day, stepping around them on the pavements.
But the Men were different; they simply stood, like sentinels, on the corners or in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, almost anywhere in fact. They didn’t move or at least hardly at all. They certainly didn’t move for us. They didn’t step aside and give us the road.
At first, we didn’t mention the Men. And even as more and more of them began to appear in the City, the place where we come to work, still we tried to ignore them, pretending they weren’t there.
It seemed impossible to me that the Men could stand like they did and for so long and I attempted to steer clear of them and keep my distance but this wasn’t easy. The Men tended to take up position at the most crowded of places. They blocked our way, causing us to slow down and holding us up. It was fleeting, I suppose, but it was an inconvenience nonetheless. And on the busy streets we were jostled and pushed up against them and forced to stand alongside them.
I was unnerved by the Men and this was only compounded by the fact that we didn’t talk about them. All of our questions and the speculation had been stifled and the silence had become an entity in and of itself. Not only in the City but also in our homes, with family and friends and it quickly turned into something sharp and pointed, something dark and foreboding.
The Men, with their arrogance and indifference, were an imposing and intimidating presence. It wasn’t unusual for the homeless to come into the mid-levels; it is easier pickings here, I suppose, for the beggars and the hawkers. But the Men didn’t ask for money and they weren’t trying to sell anything. They hardly seemed to notice us at all. It was as if we weren’t there. And when they talked it was only to each other and those moments of camaraderie were few. It was unusual in fact to see more than two or three of the Men standing together, although I often spotted one of them alone and talking to himself, mumbling incoherently, as if locked in some inner conflict.
The Men were always dressed alike. This again wasn’t unusual. The Salvation Army provides clothes for the homeless but the Men appeared different, they had achieved a uniformity. I suppose it was because we were looking properly at these clothes for the first time, taking in these garments, the heavy overcoats and woollen hats, the crudely cut jeans and working man’s boots.

The Men stood out. They were clearly defined both when it was busy and when it wasn’t. I still tried to avoid them, but not to ignore them as this, of course, would have been impossible. But I was determined to maintain that distance, to keep them away, apart.
I was almost entirely pre-occupied with the Men. I could hardly think about anything else. Even in my office on the fourth floor I couldn’t settle, couldn’t concentrate. I would stand at the window gazing down until I found the Men, located them. I needed to know where they were and if and when one of them moved along I needed to know when another appeared.
Perhaps if my office had been up above, somewhere in the higher levels and I hadn’t been able to see what was happening down there, my work wouldn’t have suffered.
Eventually, however, the Men began to leave. Gradually there were less and less of them. And so the Men became much, much more difficult to pinpoint.

Image by Christine Renney

THE COLLECTOR

Chris R-1110366

Thomas collects the needles. It is an unpopular job but is open to all. No qualifications are required or prior experience, not even a recommendation. One has simply to turn up and register at an Agency office, take to the streets and, using the bags provided, start Collecting.
The needles are everywhere, at least here in the lower levels where they are a part of the landscape. The Refuse Department is desperately under-funded and can’t cope. The Cleaners sweep up the needles, gathering and moving them to the designated areas. These, at first, had been tracts of wasteland; a part of this part of the City, but now almost anywhere that has been abandoned and deserted is used as a dumping ground. Many of these places have become so rancid and rat infested that even the hardest and most dedicated of Collectors won’t venture in.
The progress the Cleaners make is so slow as to be almost impossible to detect. In the interim they gather and pile the needles wherever they can find a space; where the pavement widens a little at the end of a street or on a busy corner for instance. Even on traffic islands or grass verges that run alongside the roads. At the communal areas on the housing estates, the needles are, of course, a constant. The Cleaners can do little more than push them into the middle until they resemble unruly bonfires that can’t be lit. The hypodermics are made from a hard plastic that won’t burn easily; it is inflammable although, if the heat can build up enough, they will melt and meld. And where this has happened strange shapes appear, grotesque sculptures with the needles protruding like the spikes of some medieval weapon.
It would be wrong to assume, simply because there are so many of them and that they can be found almost everywhere, that collecting is easy.
The main body of the hypoderms and the plungers are susceptible to being crushed when trampled on and so don’t last for long. They are easily cracked and squashed and the needles, which are delicate, get twisted and bent out of shape and are quick to rust and corrode.
The Opportunists are also a problem. They aren’t attempting to make a living from Collecting but are always alert and whenever they spot good needles they will snatch them up.
Thomas has heard that, in the mid-levels, all the users bag and return their own needles, collecting the cash for themselves. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened here. But some of the users do make an effort to dispose of their needles in a reasonably responsible way. Separating them from the rest of their trash at home, they take and dump them on one of the countless piles or heaps that are littered throughout the city.
The Opportunists often stalk a User, waiting for him or her to drop their needle and, like vultures, they will swoop in, grasping and grabbing and yet the needles that make it into the rubbish heaps they choose to ignore. Many of them are merely chancers and it is a way for them to make a little extra. If they see a good needle laying in the street why wouldn’t they, and why shouldn’t they, pick it up? But there are others who appear much more desperate and are quite obviously Users.
Thomas wishes that he didn’t feel so resentful toward them. He doesn’t want to be judgemental – after all, everyone is using, although there are levels of course, especially here in the lowest of places. But the Opportunists won’t get their hands dirty and they don’t grub and sift through the garbage because they don’t want to be mistaken for Collectors or Scavengers.

Thomas began collecting closer and closer to one of the designated areas. At first he kept to the perimeter but gradually edged his way in. The work was slow, laborious, but there were still good needles to be found and at least he didn’t have to compete with the Opportunists or with any of the other Collectors in fact.
No-one came here now, not even the Sweepers who had long since stopped using this particular site. There had once stood here a large warehouse or factory of some sort, but it had been demolished and levelled in order to create a space. Much of the debris from the original building remained. Brick rubble and broken glass and such, which made the collecting even more difficult. But Thomas was determined and started to clear a path and make his way toward the middle.
He dragged old pallets and broken packing cases from close by and shored up the sides to prevent the needles from falling in on him. Eventually he had to add a roof section, using sheets of corrugated tin. And as he pushed his way deeper and deeper into the heap he added another of these sections and yet another and another. And from this vantage point Thomas hacked at the rock face, as it were. He collected the needles in heavy hessian sacks, rather than the flimsy plastic bags provided by the Agency, placing the good needles in one and in the other those that were misshapen and blunt. And as he worked below the needles rained down from above, covering the roof until the tunnel was entirely hidden.

Image by Christine Renney

CONFINES

Number 2-0155

Despite the confines we are encouraged to want and to have things. Although we can only achieve so much, it is instilled into us, at an early age, just how important it is that we are successful.
Anyone who works hard can have a house, a home, and is able to fill it with all that they need plus a little more; with trophies, big, bright and shining things. A flat screen TV, surround sound and a car in the garage, something sleek and stylish or bulky and reliable. Whatever one may want, despite everything, despite the constraints and the cut off point, at least here in the mid-levels there is still a whole lot of choice.

We are middle-management material. We can work only for particular companies and corporations and in particular government departments and we can rise only so far in the ranks. We are allowed to achieve and succeed but at a certain point, we are stopped, cut off. I think it is harder for us here in the mid-levels because we are so close and many of us could easily make that little leap and continue onwards and upwards.

I often stay on at the office after my colleagues have left for the day. I don’t use the computer, not even my own devices. I don’t want my presence to be monitored. I am not breaking any rules but I am aware that my behaviour would be considered more than a little odd.
The lighting drops to an energy saving low level and in the half light I sit with a newspaper and try to read. But mostly I listen to the noise coming from the floor above. Long after we have completed our day’s work they are still hard at it up there. At regular intervals I fetch myself a drink from the vending machine. Carrying the little plastic cup, I wander as I sip from it. The coffee is always too hot and bitter. I listen to the laughter coming from above and I try to pick out individual voices, one sided telephone conversations. I can’t make out the words but it all sounds so focused and urgent.
I hear those that leave out in the lobby and I always flinch but they don’t look in through the glass doors. They don’t see me. They are far too pre-occupied, eager to get home or perhaps they are heading for a restaurant or a bar. Maybe their day’s work isn’t over, not yet, and they still have much to debate and discuss, to decide.
Eventually I have to think about leaving myself in order to catch the last train. It is still a veritable hive of activity up there and I am annoyed by this. I want to outlast them, to be here when they aren’t. I consider booking a hotel and staying overnight in the city or even sleeping here in the office. A clean shirt and a different tie and who, come the morning, would know, who would be any the wiser.
But I don’t make the necessary arrangement, I don’t bring that shirt and tie. Perhaps I don’t really want to know whether or not it does stop up there. After all, it’s only one floor and even if there were a lull, in the early hours of the morning, what would it prove? This block is tall, fifty two floors in all. The wheels don’t ever stop turning and from down here I just wouldn’t be able to hear them.
Many in the mid-levels decide not to enter these tall building. They don’t apply for jobs with the most prestigious corporations or with the government. Despite the fact that they have garnered the necessary experience and have ticked all of the right boxes they choose to coast, to keep working for the smaller companies, those that operate out of the storefront offices both here in the city and out there in the suburbs. They don’t have the security or get the retirement plans and the extra holidays and the end of year bonuses but if they are good at what they do and work hard they can earn almost as much out there. They call it the ’Real World’ and those above us don’t like it; it is frowned upon and they groan and gripe but ultimately they haven’t any choice but to accept it.
I made that step from there to here as soon as I could, as soon as I was able. And that is all I have managed to do in almost five years of working here. I step into the lobby, push through the doors and make my way across the ground floor office space and I sit at my shared desk in the far corner. I haven’t ever been moved up, haven’t been required elsewhere, I haven’t even as much as stood on the stairs.

Image by Christine Renney

PLAYGROUND

Sign of the Times-0823

Image by Christine Renney

Two girls play a game of
Sister and Sister
The smallest carries the pieces
One at a time
Up and down the
Steep concrete steps
The other lays out the parts
On top of the
Corrugated roof

Something cardboard
Refashioned, hardened in the sun
A plastic bottle
Crushed and crazed
A take-away drink carton
Logo faded and lost
Straw still sticking out
From its lid

Head down
Not looking up
Not looking at
The waste ground below
Focused she shuffles
Waiting for her sister
For the next part
For the next piece