excerpt from 'The Bricks that Built the Houses'

The Bricks that Built the Houses

By Kate Tempest

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2016 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-62040-901-5



It gets into your bones. You don't even realise it, until you're driving through it, watching all the things you've always known and leaving them behind.

They're driving past the streets, the shops, the corners where they made themselves. Every ghost is out there, staring. Bad skin and sunken eyes, grinning madly at them from the past.

It's in their bones. Bread and booze and concrete. The beauty of it. All the tiny moments blazing. Preachers, parents, workers. Empty-eyed romantics going nowhere. Street lights and traffic and bodies to bury and babies to make. A job. Just a job.

People are killing for gods again. Money is killing us all. They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things. They exist in the mass and feel part of the picture. They trust nothing but trends. The most that they can hope for is a night out smashed to pieces, sloppy-faced from booze and drugs that hate them in the morning.

But here they are, leaving the stress and shit food and endless misunderstandings. Leaving. The jobcentre, the classroom, the pub, the gym, the car park, the flat, the filth, the TV, the constant swiping of newsfeeds, the hoover, the toothbrush, the laptop bag, the expensive hair product that makes you feel better inside, the queue for the cash machine, the cinema, the bowling alley, the phone shop, the guilt, the absolute nothingness that never stops chasing, the pain of seeing a person grow into a shadow. The people's faces twisting into grimaces again, losing all their insides in the gutters, clutching lovers till the breath is faint and love is dead, wet cement and spray paint, the kids are watching porn and drinking Monster. Watch the city fall and rise again through mist and bleeding hands. Keep holding on to power-ballad karaoke hits. Chase your talent. Corner it, lock it in a cage, give the key to someone rich and tell yourself you're staying brave. Tip your chair back, stare into the eyes of someone hateful that you'll take home anyway. Tell the world you're staying faithful. Nothing's for you but it's all for sale, give until your strength is frail and when it's at its weakest, burden it with hurt and secrets. It's all around you screaming paradise until there's nothing left to feel. Suck it up, gob it, double-drop it. Pin it deep into your vein and try for ever to get off it. Now close your eyes and stop it.

But it never stops.

THEY LEAVE TOWN IN a fourth-hand Ford Cortina. It's night and the city is full of itself. There is thunder in the sky. The kind of clouds that make you bow your head.

They are heading for the motorway. Leon is driving. His shirt damp with sweat, his arms sore at the wrists from gripping the wheel. He sits low down in the driver's seat but the top of his head still kisses the roof of the car. Leon is muscular, built like a fighting dog. Six foot two and light on his feet. His movements are liquid-slick. His face is screwed up with worry as he turns left down the roads he's always known and pushes the tired engine up Blackheath Hill, towards the A2 roundabout, weaving between the clattering suction of the heavy-goods lorries.

Harry's in the back, one arm stretched across the top of the seats, drumming her fingers, shifting her weight. She is small and getting smaller every second. Her little body hunched in the back of the car, her limbs splayed like the arms of a broken umbrella, jittering. She clutches the brown suitcase that rests on her lap; she grips the handle so tight its stitches are imprinted on her palm. Fear knots her shoulders and they spike together at her back like folded wings. Becky's in the front, her legs are crossed tightly, her elbows are tucked into her hips, she's biting her thumbnail. Her body is taut as a trip wire. Her features are soft and generous like the faces carved in stone on temples. Nose pierced with a shining stud. A mouth that turns up at the corners. Tall and straight-backed with a commanding presence. Her dark eyes stare at the dark road while the dark car shakes on its wheels. Becky watches the wing mirrors, noticing every movement, every fierce headlight. Harry watches the cars behind. Leon keeps his eyes on the road; if someone is coming after them, there isn't much they can do but keep going.

The car slows at a red light and Becky sees TVs blazing brightly through the windows of some flats. One man's adjusting a younger man's collar. Sorting the edges out, smiling proudly. What am I going to do about the rent? Work? Her thoughts are wringing their hands and pulling their hair. Kaleidoscopic slides, repeating. Pete's face, fuming. The hotel room where he set her up. She holds on to her knees. Harry is watching from the back seat. She sits forwards and reaches and finds Becky's hand and holds it. Becky looks at her lap. Her fingers look so much rounder and wider than Harry's. Her skin is tough and calloused from work. Her fingernails are bitten right down; the remnants of some bright blue varnish cling to two nails on her left hand and one on her right. She notices how soft Harry's skin is. The backs of her hands are intricately lined. Becky strokes them, squeezes Harry's fingertips. Investigating all the routes, from nail to knuckle to wrist, until her thoughts slow down.

The suitcase full of money sits fat and happy as a baby. Harry can't stop glancing down at it. Noticing its shape. Nobody has spoken in a full ten minutes. The silence is loud and getting louder.

Eventually, Leon's voice limps from his chest and staggers out of his mouth. 'Out of town? Or what? Out the country?' He hunches over the wheel, nobody answers, the seconds pulse as they pass. 'It's a mess,' he says ruefully.

Harry thinks hard, breathing carefully. 'How serious are your uncles, Becky?'

Becky sees them in her mind's eye, smiling and blood-covered. She speaks calmly, without ceremony. 'Depends what you done.' Her words smash through the floor of the car, rip the undercarriage into pieces and leave their feet exposed, skimming hot tarmac.

In the moments just before they ran off, she'd found her uncle Ron leaning down into Harry's face outside the pub and he'd looked so sinister; his snarling mouth, his finger stabbing out his words, his eyes weirdly gleeful. She'd seen his face twisted up like that once before. He'd been in the caff, out the back by the store room, and she'd only popped in to get the phone charger she'd left in the corner socket. She'd unlocked the door and walked over, and as she bent to unplug the charger, she saw her uncle through the open doorway, with a boy she didn't know who must have been about seventeen. Uncle Ron was gripping the boy by the shoulders and speaking sharply into his face. Becky couldn't hear the words, but she saw how scared the boy was; she watched her uncle take him by the throat and squeeze; she saw the colour draining from the boy's face: white then red, then darker, purple. She wondered if he was going to die. She was paralysed by the thought for a moment, fascinated by it and afraid, about to jump up and shout and stop it happening when her uncle let the kid go. The kid spluttered, rubbed his Adam's apple, tears in his eyes, and half staggered, half sprinted out the back door while her uncle walked out of eyeshot and she sat there hunched up by the power socket under the corner table, terrified, not sure what it was she had seen.

She tries to send the memory back to where it lived when it was still forgotten, but its echoes reverberate inside her skull.

'Think they know you're with us?' Leon asks Becky.

'Pete might work it out,' she says, and Pete's name hangs in the air like a shot bird, about to fall out of the sky, then, true enough, plummets softly into their laps, and sits there, warm and bleeding.


'What a little cunt,' says Leon, with affection.

The car returns to silence. Each alone with their panic rising, falling, rising higher. The tension clogs their mouths.

Becky turns in her seat to look at Harry. Her face is lit by passing street lights.

'We'll be OK.' Becky smiles and all the streets in Harry's heart are on fire, all the windows in all the houses smash at the same time. A tidal wave charges in and puts the fires out and the water floods the houses and comes pouring through the broken windows, carrying debris on its waves. Becky turns back to the window, stares at the brief white lights of the shops they pass. Seen then gone. Seen then gone. Brutal blazing flashes like someone shouting swear words in your face.

The road behind is darker than the road in front and the street is warped with memories. The routine, the working, the practising patience, the sitting with people and not saying anything. Auditions and stage lights, the pull of her muscles. Her face staring back from the lenses. The make-up and powders. The nausea like an endless empty corridor inside, hands on her knees, deep breathing backstage. Doing her hair and waiting for buses and clearing the tables. The ring of applause. The endless exhaustion. She can see it all, out on the street, getting smaller as they drive away. She opens the window and smells the storm coming up from the tarmac and spouts a gasp of laughter.

The roads are getting broader, the houses are getting bigger, fewer chicken shops now, more gastro pubs. Their city is loosening its hold. They're turning onto the motorway. On the radio, Billy Bragg is singing 'A New England'.


Excerpted from The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest. Copyright © 2016 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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