Lest We Forget
by David Hartley
Location: The Cenotaph, St. Peter’s Square
We huddle on the platform of St. Peter’s Square, working through our memory games, holding on. Around us, the once great city of Metrolink howls against winter but it’s a battle long lost. The city lies abandoned, forgotten, succumbed to the plague. We three are the last and we are struggling. I slip my fingers from their places in my gloves and fold them into cracking fists. Then Lance asks a question and any last warmth we might’ve had flees for the Pennines.
‘Why we here?’
He is the youngest and hence the most fragile. Percy tuts.
‘Waiting for Arthur,’ I say and the frown clears from Lance’s wrinkles, replaced in an instant by a flicker of fear.
Percy passes him the Thermos. ‘Keep it together gents,’ he says.
The Town Hall bell echoes out the hour like it’s trying to coax its citizens back, but each peal is lost to the whips of the wind and Metrolink’s empty buildings flatly ignore it. But then a new sound cuts in and we, at least, are stirred: it is familiar, it is remembered, even by Lance. A crackle, a shriek, like a distant banshee. Giddy, we lean out of the shelter and peer up the lines.
The squashed block face of an angry wasp descends from the Deansgate Castlefield hill. It heralds its own arrival with a soft toot.
Percy laughs. ‘Can only be.’
He always knew how to make an entrance.
Except it isn’t: not quite. As the tram slows and pulls to a perfect stop, we see a different face at the driver’s seat. It’s Gwen, togged up like Queen Liz, eyes glistening against the early morning, hunched over the controls but smiling.
She hits the button for the doors and beckons us inside.
‘It took him three sleepless nights but he got it.’
‘All of it?’
‘Where it is, how to get it and where it goes. I told him, I said; it wasn’t going to do his heart any good, I said; you’ll tire yourself out but, well, here we are.’
Here we are, three men gearing up for a quest, one woman to guide us, tram seats stocked with equipment, and one sleeping passenger. Arthur, our memory king; lying across two seats and barely breathing. His gummy eyes open and close, pearls inside decaying clams.
‘We can’t come with you,’ says Gwen, her husband’s tiny hand between hers. ‘He wanted to but we can’t.’ Arthur starts to mumble, something about a holy cross, but Gwen soon shushes him. ‘Help me carry him out chaps,’ she says, and we do.
We lay him on the seats of the platform and ice seems to grasp him as soon as our hands lift away.
For a moment, none of us move. We watch the fading clouds of Arthur’s breath, listen to the hum of the waiting tram.
‘Where do we bring it?’ I ask, eventually.
Gwen doesn’t answer.
‘Here,’ says Percy, frowning. ‘We bring it here.’
Gwen smiles a confirmation, waves us away.
Percy’s at the controls.
He glides us onto the Albert Line, up beneath the shell of Victoria station, then into a long curve along the Irwell, through the glittery vacuum of Spinningfields and past the old Opera House. The tram wants to stop at the Beetham but Percy overrides and pushes it on and we emerge on a slow stretch up Deansgate.
Throughout the whole journey Lance has clasped his head in his hands, blocking out sound and vision, nodding through some memory game. Alphabet football teams or stations of the Eccles line. Whatever it is he needs full concentration. A dangerous tactic. What if you don’t recognise the world when you come back up?
I count through our inventory. Three pickaxes, three sledgehammers, lots of rope, four heavy sheets of tarpaulin, three slices of Victoria sponge in three Tupperware tubs. Gwen’s own recipe, plenty of jam.
The tram lurches to the right and points us at the yellowed facade of Metrolink Town Hall. Prince Albert himself stands in the way so the track obliges and bends around to the left. Behind me, Lance whimpers.
‘What are we doing?’
Every bit of me drops. That’s it. He’s gone.
I sit down next to him and put my arms around his shoulders. ‘We’re getting the sacred stone Lance, remember? For Arthur?’
The collapsed-in features, the resistant brow, the deep quiver of worry. Long gone. He shakes his head. ‘We’ve forgotten something,’ he says.
‘What, Lance? What we forgotten?’
‘I don’t know. I’m sorry. Something bad, something we all did. I don’t know.’
I grab a Tupperware, pop the lid and dig out the wedge of cake within. We all go like this, eventually. There’s no point him fighting it anymore. ‘Come on now my old mate, have a bit of this.’ He nibbles at it, dots of jam and cream speckle across his chapping lips.
‘You help me and Percy, alright? We’ve got to get us the stone and take it back to Arthur; that’s all.’
The doors of the Metrolink Town Hall blink red then green then swish open. Percy slows us down. As we cross the threshold, he shouts back.
‘You start Lance.’
‘It’s just you and me now Perce.’
He swears and kicks something. ‘Fine, whatever. I’ll start. Altrincham Line: Piccadilly.’
The darkness closes in as the doors swish shut.
‘Piccadilly Gardens,’ I say
‘St Peter’s Square.’
Inside is a deep cavern of metal lines. Our tram is grabbed and clicked into automatic, as if we are cargo in some galactic factory. Percy tears himself from the cabin and smacks me across the shoulder.
‘Er, Deansgate Castlefield.’
Above, thin wires squeal, screech, spit while tracks held high from the abyss pull us along a fragile rollercoaster; a turn, a rise, a fall, but forever locked at the edge of the place, pulled into a wide, lazy circle. Beyond, other wasps awaken and start to move. Sentries, pursuers, demons protecting some darkly held secret.
‘Cornbrook!’ shouts Percy, and he has to shout because the squeals have risen to screams.
There is something; some other thing, right in the centre, but I cannot draw my eyes from the lines and the lights and the hunting carriages, so I only catch glimpses, forgotten as soon as seen. Something tall, something strong. What was it?
Lance starts to scream and Percy grabs his mouth and muffles him: what if there is a beast in here that shouldn’t be awakened? What is this network guarding?
‘No!’ I shout, tear my eyes from the place to look at the transfixed Percy. Sale not Brooklands. He’s forgotten Sale. He blinks. He blinks. He blinks, then looks at me.
‘What?’ he says.
I lock close my eyes and fumble for the cabin. I don’t know the controls, wouldn’t remember them if I ever did, but I grab a thing that feels like acceleration and push it. Both of my friends fall utterly silent and so do I. After a too long a time, so does the tram.
I prise open the doors and clamber out.
I’m at the centre. There’s something here. A single, tall structure, engraved, embossed, quiet, reverent. I touch it.
I think hard.
Old Arthur likes stone. He’s always on about it. I could take him some back.
I heave one of the sledgehammers and use all my strength to strike the thing to bits. It is soft. It doesn’t take much.
I use a pickaxe to make the big pieces smaller then fill up the aisles of the tram.
Hours later I’m off again. Back and back and back.
To where? To St. Arthur’s Square to see a man called Peter.
I don’t remember this place. Some kind of city. There’s no-one around, so maybe it’s early morning. Some of the sounds are familiar, some of the smells. There was something bad here. Or maybe not here specifically, but everywhere, somehow. Something we all did. It weighs down on me; a sadness, a guilt, a shame. An anger.
I don’t like the city much; it’s all too yellow.
Someone has left a laminate map which guides me through the streets to where I need to be. St Peter’s Square, not St… what was the other one?
When I arrive there’s two people waiting on the platform. A woman and a man. The man is lying down; the woman is sitting with him. She raises an arm, crooks her finger.
What an inconvenience, I think.
I get off and stride over. She turns her wrist, straightens her finger and points at the track in front of my tram.
‘There,’ she whispers. ‘Stone.’
Her eyes close, her hand drops, her head droops. What is it she wants?
I go back into the tram. It’s full of old bits of broken stone and two blokes, fast asleep in each other’s arms.
I take a lump of stone and throw it outside. It skitters and falls onto the tracks.
It seems, somehow, to fit.
I take another piece and throw it down next to the first. The old woman opens her eyes at the sound, lifts her head. I take a bigger chunk and roll it off the edge.
It all needs to go here, I’m thinking. All the stone.
I take it slow and it takes me a while, but eventually a small cairn has appeared. The woman nods, smiles, then gets up from her seat and starts to help. Very soon there are two piles.
The men in the tram wake up. They watch us for a while then decide to join in. Must seem like fun. Like the right thing to do.
This stone, I think, is important somehow. Gwen carries it with such grace and care.
Gwen: that’s her name. I knew I knew her from somewhere.
Lance and Percy share a laugh over something. It’s nice to see Lance smiling again; he’s been so upset recently.
It takes us all day and our hands go numb, but we do it. Every last crumbling fragment of that beautiful stone lies heaped between the tracks.
‘Thank you, Gareth,’ says Gwen, with a quick peck on the cheek. ‘But there is one last piece.’
I’d almost forgotten the man asleep on the plastic seats behind us. As we take hold of him he seems to twitch awake, but he doesn’t resist.
‘Lay him on top,’ says Gwen, and we do.
Arthur opens his eyes. That’s his name; Arthur.
‘Hello chaps,’ he says, his eyes like a misted lake clearing with the sunrise. ‘I’m glad you’re all here. Gather round, gather round.’
We step into a circle around him, Gwen at the head, stroking his hair.
‘There’s something I need to tell you about.’ He pauses. Frowns. Waits.
It is a weighted moment; the fresh joy of waking suddenly sunk into the heaviness of remembered life. I realise I’m cold again. Bitterly. We all wait patiently as the silence rolls on for a minute or two. I’m not really sure what to think. Then, with a pop and fuzz, I start to remember things. Strange things. Distant things. Bad things. Things we did that we can never change.
‘There was this war,’ says Arthur, ‘And everyone played their part…’
David Hartley is a short story writer who lives between the raindrops in Manchester and never gets wet. You can read his weekly blogposts on davidhartleywriter.blogspot.
This story was commissioned for Manchester Histories Festival in 2014 as part of Ruined: Short short stories about long lost places, which took place at Blackwell’s Books.Stats: