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There’s a stranger walking down the street. His skin is plastered with a thick layer of dust and worn out at the knuckles. Like a wild cat, he treads lightly and barefoot on the wet asphalt. When he keeps still, he’s almost invisible, hidden in the thick paper and food waste undergrowth of the city streets shrouded in dense smog and a cloud of bad breath of eight million hungry commuters. He pauses, he breaths in the hot air – it stings the soft tissue of his lungs, like molten metal. It smells like deep fried fish and chips – thick like oil, salty like the ocean.
He walks a well trodden path on his familiar territory. To the right a bar where people fill ashtrays, empty glasses and their pockets and the contents of their stomachs and where they soak dirty consciences in antibacterial spirits. To the left, a fruit and vegetable stall. Apples, red apples, lovely, rosy-red apples, shouts the vegetable stall trader, opening his mouth so wide, the stranger can count all of his gold fillings – one, two, three, four (and a shredded leaf of lettuce, and a poppy seed and a thick yellow coating on his tongue…). The stranger keeps alert, poised for quick escape. The thick canopy of the city centre is ever-changing, the skyscrapers keep sprouting new shoots, climbing upwards, one floor per year in a desperate fight for light and cool breeze above the city’s skyline. But he’s been spotted. The treacherous river of exhausted commuters flowing down the street gurgles, seethes, overflows the sidewalk banks and spills out on the road. Who is this, they murmur, what is he doing here, where did he come from, where is he going, no, be careful, he can see you, he’s looking at you … Click… click… click, the thunderous rhythm of high heels quickens, clock, clock, clock… Women purse their lips and tighten their grips on the clasps of their leather bags. Keeping their heads high and eyes fixed on the empty space between him and the sky, they grope their pockets for keys (check), wallets (check) and bottles of pills for their nerves (check, and a collective sigh). Who is this, mummy, asks a little one in a white dress and kitten heels with a golden buckle and a ribbon in her hair, tugging at her mothers’ cashmere sleeve. Be quiet, her mother barks, be quiet now, he can hear you, she growls, like an angry sheep dog she ushers the little one and her brother from the same litter in front of her towards the warmth and safety of the nearest well-lit bus stop.
A city man stops in his tracks, sputters and spits with contempt. He is wearing polished black shoes and a crisp white shirt. He has clean cut hair, and clean cut morals. Standing six feet tall, he can watch the stranger from a safe, high- altitude vantage point. He is the hunter, not the prey. He can sense weakness. At a glance, he measures the circumference of the strangers’ arms and thighs, he calculates the volume and air pressure in his chest, and the range of his fists. He shakes his head, and flexes his muscles. Look, just look, this is not a dangerous, exotic wild cat, escaped from the zoo, look, it’s just a stray kitten…! A kitten, exclaims a young girl perched on his shoulder, wearing a parrot feather print dress. Her strawberry lips bend into a sympathetic frown as she counts out her loose change.
There are no sharp fangs in the strangers’ mouth, just a grotesque yellow outline of a chipped front tooth. No claws either, just brittle fingernails, black with dirt and bitten, chewed and spat out almost to the bone. With each deep breath a small, dark red bud of his nipple blossoms through a hole in his rain and sweat soaked t-shirt. Dirty looks swish past his ears like enemy bullets. Limping, he heads for cover towards the underground station.
On the subway train no one seems to pay attention to the stranger, now the stowaway. The passengers fall silent, bury their heads inside their coats and suits, empty crisp packets rustling and chicken bones crunching underneath their nervously shifting feet. The rumbling noise of the engine stirs the droplets of last nights’ rain to life. They tremble and climb up the window, back towards the sky. Beside him, clinging to the rail and swinging limply, stands a boy – long and thin, his bare ankles protruding below his clean but unpressed work trousers. The boy (a son or a grandson, maybe a friend, but not a boyfriend or a lover) shifts his body weight from one leg to another, he stares at the floor. His face is covered in inflamed pinkish mountain ranges and craters like the surface of the moon. The train halts, doors growl open, coats rustle. The thin, long boy leaves the carriage one hundred and fifty grams of a mobile phone lighter than before. Zero new messages, reads the stowaway. Avoiding eye contact, the passengers stare dully into the deep, dark cosmos of triangular red dwarfs and rectangular blue supernovas dotted on the upholstery. Look, there, an ink-stain-black hole, can you see? And over there, where the fabric is worn out, eaten away by wool coats and jumpers, there’s the shimmering, translucent-white lattice of Milky Way. The sky above the city is starless, but glittering, illuminated by navigation lights and tie-dyed by contrails, like marble, or marbled end paper. The night sky like a lid for a box full of toys, or a thick stone slab of black marble, suspended on the roofs of skyscrapers, thinks the stowaway as the train pulls into a tunnel.