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Issue 10




The wind blows right through Manchester, hurling itself down Deansgate, pulling at coats, turning hair into mad mobile sculpture and slapping faces cold. It flows past sandstone, glass and redbrick buildings, filling every gap in its path. The city is a sponge, riddled with pathways, may as well not be there at all.

At the southern tip of the city centre a crane assembles itself. It hauls fresh pieces up from the ground and slots them into place beneath the cab. They are bolted there and the crane crawls up itself to reveal a new gap. This repeats. The crane grows skyward. This high, the noise arriving from street level is hushed and flattened. The water passing in the canal, the patter of shoes on pavement, the growl of engines, all drop to a single low murmur. All the way to the ground, the wind whips and whistles through. The crane rocks gently.

From the point the crane connects with the ground the city spreads for miles. From the cab the entire city is visible, dotted with dozens of other cranes, reaching up, the city growing, building itself around them. Manchester is liquid, rising and alive. These cranes are very important. Every bit as important as the millions of bacteria who live in your gut.

You do not imagine your gut to be filled with cranes. You enjoy a walk for a bit of air and a pleasant view. It has not occurred to you that Manchester is alive, that it must grow. What you believe, in fact, is that this crane (and the concrete lift-shaft it promises) is interrupting an otherwise perfectly picturesque view of the sky. You’re only on your way home after a Saturday spent doing Saturday things in the city centre but something about this latest slow addition to the skyline hits a nerve. Perhaps the site of construction was a patch of grass where you had your first kiss or once found a convenient tree behind which you vomited. Perhaps this is just one metric tonne of concrete too many for this particular Saturday.

You can’t be certain when your feet changed direction, but now they carry you with purpose. You march into the yard.

You there! You demand, rudely, what are you building? Why are you building it? Who gives you your orders? The construction worker displays a remarkable amount of patience and asks you to leave the site; you are not wearing a hard hat and it’s really none of your business.

But where did all this come from? The construction worker replies calmly that this is a city. Cities have big populations and all those people have to go somewhere. That’s what the buildings are for.

But it was so beautiful here before! You are now close to tears.

The construction worker explains, their job is to build the buildings, not to decide where to put them. They are sorry, but if you have a problem with the construction project then you will have to take your complaint somewhere else.

On the way out, you note the name of the construction company: Stoss-kopse. The name hisses.

Deeper, near the centre of the city, you stand at the foot of a large tower. It is fully built. The name of the company sits on the window at the top of a column of others. You walk in, declare the name of the company confidently at reception and are directed to the lift. It takes you to the eighteenth floor and you step out onto a single, large, wood-panelled room. On either side are galleries of empty wooden seats, facing each other with a thin gap of empty floor between. The metallic, engine-room warmth of the lift is gone. It is cold here. The room seems longer than the width of the building should allow. The floor echoes.

The lift doors shut behind you and you hear it leave. The curtains are drawn. Only a little light bleeds around their edges to light the room. You find a light switch on the wall beside the lift. You flick it.

The curtains snap tight against the window frames. Your breath is the only thing you can see – it clouds in front of you, luminous, hanging still like the inside of a balloon. As you keep breathing it grows. From cracks in the wood and gaps between the panelling and floor, more gas emerges. It glows and hangs in vague shapes among the seats in the gallery, above the floor. These individual pockets of gas grow too, until they are each the size of you. You take a step and the pocket in front of your face moves with you. You think you can see faint traces of limbs inside the cloud, but when you try to focus it is just pale mist.

The galleries on both sides are filled with rows of clouds now. You and your cloud stand facing each other and the others watch.

You have come here.

You nod. Yes.

Why. The clouds seem to thicken. They glow more intensely and you realise you can see the room clearly now by their light. Stoss-kopse, you manage.

Yes. Yes, that is a subsidiary of one of our operations. Construction.

Yes, construction. That’s why you’re here. You want to know why-

It is not of your concern why we do things. You are not capable of understanding. We are far larger and older than you. The construction is important for the city. The cloud in front of you feels too close. You take a step backwards but it moves with you.

But you live here, and-

The city is hollow. There is plenty of space for the wind, for birds, foxes, worms. Let us pick our places to build and we will leave plenty of room for you. You have your places to live, give us ours.

But they are ghosts! Surely they don’t need space?

When you are a ghost, they reply, then you may have an opinion on what ghosts do and do not need. The clouds begin to thicken. They glow brighter and float toward you. They swamp you and you can no longer see the room. You open your mouth to speak and your lungs fill with ghost. Your vision is a flat, sepia film. You feel yourself gently suggested backwards, toward the lift, open and waiting for you. As you pass through the doorway, the mist clears and you catch a glimpse of the empty room before the doors close. The button has already been pressed and you are carried to the ground floor.

Back on street level outside the tall building the wind whips at you, blowing past and at the same time trying to take you with it. You walk away. On your back you feel the gaze of those ghosts who have after all lived here far longer than you.


James Varney


Commissioned by Read Manchester for 6 Minute Reads delivered by the Writing Squad and Manchester Literature Festival in 2017.


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