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Rotted Iron

by Josie Gowler

I love the flat right up until I look out of the sash window. Apparently we’re just going to be here for a little while, until we get sorted and find something in one of the villages, but I can’t get the looming gasworks out of my head. It overshadows everything. It repels me, yet I cannot help staring at the redundant site out of the window, the gas tower’s twisted arms of metal reaching for the sky.

“A clean break, Denise,” David repeats, snuggling into my neck and hugging me. And he’s right: it’s a big opportunity for him, running the Institute’s experimental wing, supervising all those people. I can feel the familiar big cloud settling down on me, nearly as bad as last year. Pointless, peculiar. I’ve led a life untroubled by inconvenience, much less by tragedy. So why don’t the demons leave me alone to enjoy this new opportunity?

I try to smile and nod but I bet it comes out as a grimace and a twitch. Perhaps the view will improve once the spring showers come to an end.

It’s fine for him. He’s out all day. I’ve yet to find the holy grail of an interesting, well-paid job down here. I’ve yet to find any kind of job at all. It’s the sick leave. They don’t believe I’m well now, won’t take a chance. They come up with other reasons — they always do — but I can see it in their eyes. No-one will hire me. I wouldn’t hire me.

When the window’s open, the air smells of rust, a tang through the rain. The wind moans through the metal struts of the gas tower and the sunlight casts long shadows. An abandoned gasworks for an abandoned wife. That’s how it feels, anyway.

Years ago, I visited a country park whose beautiful gardens framed a once-splendid mansion that had been savaged by fire a hundred years earlier. All that was left of the structure were tumbled blocks of stone and the remains of the roof struts, blackened and twisted against the sky. The gasworks reminds me of that mansion.

David suggested last night that I should grow some flowers in window boxes, then I wouldn’t miss my old house and its garden so much. He’s very patient. It’s worth a try.

Why am I the only person who can smell it? I do my research at the library. OK, carbon monoxide doesn’t smell, but the proximity of the gasworks changes everything for me. I head for the hardware store right away. I place those little gas detection dots at strategic points around the rooms.

Not that David is impressed. “Dearest, the flat looks like it’s got leprosy.”

“But can’t you smell it?” I can hear my voice going up a notch.

“Carbon monoxide doesn’t smell, silly.”

I hate it when he calls me that.

I’ve lived with so many demons for so long. I decide to face this particular one, walk round the gasworks site through the dripping rain. A sickly greenish stream runs alongside me, near-stagnant with discarded bottles and bags, the detritus of modern life. The irony is that the plastic will be here long after we are all gone. Then a smell like a dead cat assails me. Black rooks erupt from the struts. Staring up at them, the world shifts for a moment in dizzying perspectives.

This was a stupid idea. I scurry for the flat.

I wonder if I’ll ever call it home.

Unlike last time, I am sleeping properly. There are dreams, though, so vivid I carry them around all morning, glimpses of an abandoned city of broken towers desperately reaching towards the stars like clawed rusty hands scrabbling for salvation. I wake early, and shudder when I see the pure sun rising over the rotting gasworks. Shame I’m too old to hide under the duvet.

Later, I get out my sketchbook, try to draw the city as it might once have been, but it comes out all flat and black, like tired inner-city tower blocks. It’s even worse than the decay I dreamt.

The geraniums facing the gasworks always die; those on the other side of the flat survive. Why am I the only person who notices this?

Even library books are mocking me: what I thought would be light-hearted chick-lit from the cover art ends up being dark, dank and miserable within. I notice that the bottoms of the flat’s door frames are bulged and twisted by some long-ago flood. Why do I now spot these little imperfections, these tiny hints at the sinister machinations of life?

The library’s local history display yields one useful fact: there was an explosion at the gasworks, that’s why it was abandoned. Two deaths, many injuries: lives ruined in years of crippled shuffling misery.

It might have been fine if I hadn’t broken my ankle.

David tries to make light of it when I come round in the emergency room, whilst still mentioning the error of my ways. “Denise, that’s what happens when you try to carry too much stuff down the steps.”

I roll eyes rheumy with pain, turn my face away. I know. I know it’s because I was looking at that out of the window.

At least here I’m away from it.

I dream again of the deserted place that was once a city. Creatures of rust and degradation stand guard over the tumbled hexagonal blocks of sandstone. They were once held in place and glory by iron superstructures, now rotten and twisted. Beggars who were once kings stalk the land in despair and insanity; queens prostitute themselves.

I poke at my breakfast until the consultant comes past on his rounds.

“Great news,” he says. “You can go home today.”

I feel like crying. The hospital is a haven this time round.

So I’m back home, even more hopeless than before. I shouldn’t have been so miserable when we first moved here — that was bliss compared with this confinement. David’s in the middle of his big project; he offers to call every couple of hours, but what is there to say to each other? And I won’t have my parents over, not after last year. The pitying glances, the pretended understanding, the scorn hidden behind a thin veneer of helpfulness.

Now I can hear music like the rattling of dented wind chimes. It sets my teeth on edge. I know there is no escape for me.

Dawn is grey in the east. Rolling black clouds are driven in by the wind. I’m terrified, but not enough to stop me going outside. My crutches are chilly to the touch in this early morning air. A whiff of sulphur carries on the breeze.

I stumble across the broken ground, past shimmering oily puddles, into the enclosing metalwork of the gas tower. The wind rattles and dies; all is still. Voracious green-black weeds grab at my crutches, my feet. Writhing crawling hands erupt from the putrid ground. Rooks squawk up into air thick with putrescence. They circle overhead: they know what’s coming. And then those rusty hands are dragging me down, down to halls of rotted iron, the beggars and the prostitutes and the never-ending despair.

Copyright © 2012 by Josie Gowler

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