Their paths cross continuously on the trail.
They meet in leisure-centre foyers that reek of disinfectant and on factory floors that smell of salty bodies. They collide and speak and pass in airless town hall ante-rooms among trays of untouched dips, in school classrooms where the furniture is miniature, by rostrums in medieval market places and at the side of community- centre stages usually reserved for dramas of a more amateur variety.
They meet in Basingstoke and Hartlepool, in Harlow and Spalding. In Harrogate, Whitehaven, Bridgwater, Stoke and Stockport, both part of a nebulous flock of seagulls that follows the trawler seeking a morsel of information, an inch of leverage, a brief advantage. And they are always on the move, continually checking messages, fielding calls, locating decent coffee, filing copy, guiltily texting spouses, approving press releases, limiting damage and checking the polls.
Endlessly checking the polls.
He is campaign manager for the leader of the opposition, she the junior political correspondent for a newspaper that would sooner torch its premises than endorse his party.
They meet on his bus, too, its side emblazoned with the face of his boss, the candidate, who she grills during an increasingly fraught interview in which this lifelong guardian of the left, weary and exhausted from weeks of talking, frustrated at her line of questioning, only just draws short of calling her “an arbiter for fascism”.
As campaign manager, he steps in to curtail the interview, offer apologies, negotiate a nugget of exclusive (but wholly worthless) information by way of recompense.
Only now though, late in a long day, reclining in the soft, deep seats of the lounge of a golf-resort hotel several miles from Sunderland, are they alone for the first time. Outside, the floodlit course stretches into eternal darkness, and they are both prolonging their drinks.
Spent and incapable of small talk, he looks at his watch.
This time tomorrow, he says.
She swills ice around her glass and notices the ducks outside in the pond that, beneath the halogen lights, has the impression of being filled with gently rippling mercury.
And only another fucking seven towns to visit, he says.
They sit for a moment and then she speaks.
You know it’s over for your lot, don’t you?
He shrugs and takes a sip.
Nothing is ever certain these days. The polls say…
But you know, she interrupts. Let’s be honest. You can’t conceivably win.
Then you must be ecstatic.
Come on. No one ever really wins an election. It’s just that one side loses less than the other.
She reaches across and touches his hand. It withdraws partly into the cuff of his shirt, like a tortoise into its shell, but still she rests hers there. He looks out across the putting green, the bunkers filled with sand shipped in from the UAE.
I have to be up at 4.30, he says.
I have to be up at 4.15.
Outside, one of the floodlights flickers and cuts out.
The sun rises but its warming rays do not reach his bed.
The room is a box and he its contents.
Three storeys above, a flyover blocks out the light. Day and night, cars swish past unseen, their shadows occasionally flashing across a bedroom wall the colour of old milk. Sometimes, he closes his eyes and pretends the sound they make is that of waves breaking on the hot and distant shores of his childhood.
He has no need for curtains.
The sat-nav saves him. When he first arrived, he knew barely a word of the language, hated the weather, understood nothing of the geography of this town. But the small device let him tap in postcodes and addresses, and soon he came to learn his way. Also, his lack of language saved him from suffering the insults spat between the teeth of his customers, though the expressions on their greasy white faces said enough. He liked the soothing tone of the female voice that guided him.
He was paid in cash, carried a cosh, avoided eye contact, and he has long since learned all the shortcuts.
At first, he drove during school hours alone, then at night lay in the darkness listening to his son’s breathing, and stifling the sobs that worked their way up through his chest and out his mouth like a cat coughing up a ball of fur.
During those early months, his every moment was haunted by the detail of that day. He cannot remember his wife’s last words, only that she took their baby to the market and eight hours later, her leg was brought to him for identification. He recognised her toe ring. His son was a parcel of swaddled rags stunned into silence by the shock of the blast, his skin flecked and nicked with gravel and grit, but he made it through, for deep in that warm parcel of fabric was a beating heart, and though he did not cry for several weeks, the boy survived. Some called it a miracle, but all he felt was grief for the woman who held him together, and guilt for his unspoken wish that his son had been taken, too.
A few months after he arrived, they made him take a test and somehow he passed. Time flowed like a river then. It just kept moving.
He made connections with those from the old country, suppressed desires, saved what he could and watched as his hair turned grey around the temples.
And his son applied himself well. Each night he studied in the shadow of the flyover and avoided trouble.
He excelled in his exams and now goes to a college where some of his friends are homosexual. Sometimes he colours his hair.
“You came here to learn and to live,” he tells him, “but not to become,” but the boy shakes his head and says, “Dad, I’m English,” and they do not speak of the subject again.
He sits up in bed. His polling card is propped up beside his glasses to remind him that he still has a say in shaping their future.
It trembles as a lorry thunders overhead.
The home is hot. Even now, in early June, the radiators are always on.
The stifling stench of urine in the corridor that leads from the lounge through to the residents’ rooms is so powerful that it hits first-time visitors with the force of smelling salts, yet the temperature serves its purpose in keeping residents lethargic, and soon guests and staff alike acclimatise to the odour. Their sense of smell recalibrates to tolerate the acidic funk.
She arrives a little late, as she has been to vote. Already waiting as the doors to the church hall opened.
It is the morning shift, which means a lot of stripping away of sheets soiled in the night and the giving of several bed baths. She picks up an armful of fresh towels. Runs soapy water into a worn plastic basin.
Her contract is what they define as zero hours, meaning she is on standby and when the call comes has to respond or run the risk of either being last in line next time or blackballed completely.
Some weeks she is offered thirty hours, but most weeks it is twice that, spent between a variety of care homes in the valley and beyond. She has to cover her travel expenses beyond a very limited mileage cap, though her income remains the same no matter the distance. £7.05 an hour. Sometimes, it takes that long just to get a resident bathed and dressed and down for breakfast.
They said that Britain offered the best in higher education, so this is where she came to study architecture and now she is working to pay off the thirty thousand pound debt that she accrued over the three years that it took to complete the initial stage of her qualification.
Today it is Ruby first. Ruby has been night wandering again, her walking frame scratching at the lino, her sagging underpants weighted with a pouch of wet excrement. Her shoes are on, but she is wearing no trousers.
Come on, then, she says gently, her hand at the back of the stooped old lady. Shall we get you back to your room?
She slaps it away.
“I can manage myself,” says the old woman, with a sneer and eyes that flash with flinty anger.
Once – just once - she called her “darky”.
You get knotted, darky.
She was told that Ruby was once a brilliant artist who exhibited internationally, but now she is suffering from dementia and sometimes she gets urine infections that make her tongue sharp and mood sour.
The best bit of advice she was given when she started was: pay no attention to insults. It’s not them talking. It’s the dementia.
So, now she views this process of deterioration as a mythical creature like a particularly insidious Anansi spider perhaps, weaving webs in the darkening cavities of the residents’ skulls, their failing bodies host to this invader that enshrouds their memories and fractures their cognition. Corroding them from within.
She helps Ruby out of her underwear and drops it into a carrier bag.
The old woman sways and smiles as urine trickles down her leg.
She smiles back, and she means it.
Little Mick wins big. Against all the odds – or 14-to-1 of them, anyway – his last thirty quid on a nag ready for the dog-food factory brings in enough to put him deep into day two of a session that shows no sign of letting up. Pay day.
It’s a little after a lunchtime that has seen nothing solid pass his lips and he’s sticking to the safe stuff. Beer for now, whiskey for later. He’s not a total animal. That’s what he tells the barmaid of The Shoulder when she passes him a fresh pint.
I’m not a total animal, he says.
It’s all relative, she replies.
Late afternoon and some of the boys arrive from the site. He would have texted them earlier, but his phone is broken or lost, dropped perhaps during a play-grapple with Tony sometime in the early hours.
He buys a round and three grams from Patrick, who throws an arm around the little man’s shoulders as he slips the paper folds into his arse pocket.
So, who will you be voting for then, Michael?
Aye. In the election.
What bloody election?
Sure, you’ve got to vote, says Patrick. Me, I’m with the workers every time.
Well, me too, says Little Mick. So long as I’m not expected to work.
Patrick inhales on his e-cigarette then exhales a plume of cherry-flavoured smoke.
You know if you don’t vote, you can’t complain when everything comes on top. That’s democracy, is that.
Who’s complaining? says Little Mick. I’m on a lucky streak.
Lucky streaks don’t last, though.
Neither do politicians. Let’s do this bugle.
The two men go to the toilets and snort two long lines each, and then Little Mick buys more drinks. He finds he has switched to whiskey earlier than planned.
Come on, says Patrick, his arm around his shoulder again. I’m taking you to do your civic duty.
To the polling station.
That’s miles away, says Little Mick. Probably.
It’s next door, you plank.
A minute later the pair are barrelling into the community hall, their feet squeaking like trapped mice on the polished parquet floor. The hush of the room is further disrupted by Little Mick as he strides over to the registration table, misjudges the distance and stumbles into it. A stack of pencils clatters to the floor. One rolls several feet.
Two doubles of your finest firewater, he says to a woman with a clipboard. And a packet of pork scratchings.
Behind him Patrick roars with laughter.
Do you have your polling card? the woman asks.
I’ve got a credit card and rocket in my pocket, love.
Patrick laughs even harder, and then he walks round to a polling booth, away from the eyes of those manning this operation, and whistles his friend over. Little Mick follows him.
Primo spot for another toot on the bugle, no?
His eyes light up.
Indeed it is Patrick, says Little Mick. Indeed it is.
He pulls the wrap from his pocket and chops out two rails right there in the booth.
To democracy, he says with gusto, then leans over and hoovers up the white powder.
And all who sail in her, says his friend, as he takes the note from his hand and enters the booth.
He dreams not of the usual gallery of trauma that flickers through his sleeping hours, but the little things that came before. An unexpected road-side feast. Watching the sun set over a field near Subhayat. A song from that time; a big tune by a soul singer, he forgets her name now. Facetime calls with the little one. The arid beauty of the outer Al-Fallujah province. Pelicans soaring over the drained marshlands. A piece of pink coral he carried in his pocket for weeks.
He dreams of these moments from his doorway as people pass, a forest of shins.
He rests not at night when the city’s drunks are on the prowl and think nothing of kicking a prone form until it screams, but during the day, when people leave him packets of old sandwiches – cheese, normally, or tuna that soaks through. Sometimes an apple or a banana.
A lot of the others out here are mad on this new smoke. You can spot them perched on park benches, lolling and then slowly folding in on themselves like wilting flowers. The spice boys. You’ll see them asleep leaning against bins and lampposts, or falling arse-up in the street while the suits sidestep them as if they’re nothing but dirty puddles.
He knows that some of them will never come back from this; their heads already blown at nineteen, twenty. The damage done.
The Arndale is a lifeline. He washes in the bathrooms there every day. Brushes his teeth, has a comb. Keeps a routine. A regime. Reads the papers. All of them. The tabloids, broadsheets and flimsy freesheets, alike.
He feels that this gives him a comprehensive overview of various geopolitical situations, and has been following this particular general election campaign closely. Where the two leading parties are concerned, it seems a case of snake eat snake. Head to tail, just another circle closing in. Nothing new.
Unlike some, he’s got no time for the dingbats, either – the hate spreaders who’ve never seen a foreign shore beyond a week on the Costa, who wouldn’t know a burka from a kofta and want to preserve an imagined past by wrapping it in U-Jack flags and suspending it in aspic.
He would vote for the party whose leader had experienced war rather than started one, or whoever says that they would solve the homeless crisis that has hit the city, but not one of them has mentioned it, because here is another country called the North. Besides: to vote he needs get on the electoral roll and to get on the electoral roll he needs an address and to get an address he needs help. And there is no help. Just old, wet sandwiches, broken glass and young men pissing in his doorway while he is gone.
Tonight when he wakes, he’ll roll up his kit and go to check the result on the plasma wall in Samsung’s window, and wonders now whether he will be bathing in the muted digital glow of ice-blue or deepest blood-red.
He likes his White Russians done just so.
His new wife doesn’t know to mix them but the staff do, though he has recently had to switch the cream for milk. Dodgy ticker. Doctor’s orders.
She reclines beside him on her lounger, her long, nut-brown body still firm at fifty. She is his Texan Rose, newly plucked from a very messy, very public divorce from a ridiculous English actor that he has never rated.
He sits up and sucks on his straw as snakes of sunlight wriggle at the bottom of the pool. Sweat gathers around the inner band of his fedora. He emits a small belch.
You should pace yourself, she says.
Screw that, I’m celebrating.
But how can you be sure?
He looks at his wife over his drink.
You’re still rather naive aren’t you?
She sits up as he sucks at his straw again.
Because I believe in the process?
He snorts at this, his drink bubbling into a thick froth in the tall glass.
The process is, I decide who it’s going to be, then I set the editors to war. It’s not bloody rocket science, love.
All the reports says the polls are even though, she replies. No one can call it.
He puts his glass down and lifts his hat. Wipes the sweat from his brow.
Christ, I am the polls. They’re my reports. They print what I fucking well tell them to print. It was decided months ago.
Don’t get worked up, she says. Think of your heart.
He feels something land on the back of his neck and he slaps it. His wife reclines beside him once again, then yawns.
He looks down at her and asks, What do you fancy for dinner, love? Anything you want. Tonight we party and won’t stop for the next five bloody years.
When she replies, her voice is a murmur that is nearly lost in the haze of the glaring afternoon.
It was all going so well.
The prime minister is alone for the first time in days, weeks. Even on the rare moment when there has been a toilet break, there have been messages to check, speeches to vet, stats to remember. The carousel has kept spinning.
A pair of trainers is set to one side and the carpet feels deep and soft beneath bare feet.
Tomorrow’s papers are spread out across the desk and there are more on the glass coffee table. Seven weeks of campaigning has lead to this point, to this photograph. The same image relayed over and over, shot from different angles and printed in different tones and hues, like a hall of mirrors, but all selling the same narrative.
In it the prime minister is walking down the tiled walkway of a post-war shopping precinct cast almost entirely from concrete (where even was it? Peterlee? Billericay? Newport Pagnell?) with a hot dog raised towards an open mouth. The right foot, clad in very expensive Italian shoes, hovers an inch or two above a very large, very fresh, deposit of steaming shit. A heap. Or perhaps mound might be a better word for it. Yes. It is a mound.
Below the lead photo is a series of insets depicting the grim slapstick aftermath: the shoe connecting with the mushy mass and sinking into it; the slip and then the twist of the ankle; the bodily contortion and the grimace of surprise giving way to a scowl of disgust; a hand reaching out to grab at nothing but air; the cruel indignation of the heavy fall; the prime minister folded into a crumpled heap, excrement smeared halfway up one well-tailored trouser leg.
And finally, as a cruel punchline, a close-up of the flung hot dog, forever abandoned, untouched until, perhaps, a foraging rat will arrive at dawn, around about the time that the first results are announced, to tentatively pick at the fried onions, touch a tongue to the sugary ketchup, nibble at the simulacrum sausage, before attempting to drag the oversized bun towards a hole at the base of a bollard several metres way.
And beyond it, a pallid, silver sun bolted like a plate of metal to the sky will rise on a new era.
Benjamin Myers’ new novel The Gallows Pole is out now.
Photograph by Paul Lawrenson / Alamy