Nowheresville was first published by Prole magazine, in 2014.
My sister christened it, when she was twelve and I was ten. It was November, and we were standing inside the glass vestibule of the service station lobby, watching the rain come in horizontally across the dimming car park. Beyond the tarmac there were the petrol pumps, then the dark hump of the bund separating the buildings from the motorway. The road itself was invisible, just a ribbon of reflected light on the clouds and a roar of white noise. Caro pulled her cardigan down over her hands and wrapped her arms around herself, stretching the pink wool over her thin shoulders. She gave a little sigh, and said, quietly, ‘Nowheresville.’
It was the first word we had spoken to each other in half an hour. It was the first word we had spoken to anyone in half an hour. One of the first things we learnt about Nowheresville was that we were invisible. We might loiter in the lobby for an hour, getting cold, peering without hope into the car park, and be ignored by fifty people, a hundred, maybe more. Nowheresville was understood to be ugly, therefore you did not look at it too closely. There was no point.
The place frightened us more than a little. It was big, and lonely, and strange. We wanted more than anything to be at home, or even at our father’s new house, damp and hopeless though it was. We felt affronted at being expected to associate with Nowheresville, when we so clearly didn’t belong there. Yet at the same time each of us wondered, privately, if we didn’t deserve it. It was during that first hour in the vestibule that we explained Nowheresville to each other for the first time.
‘Nowheresville’, I said tentatively, ‘is built on an old graveyard.’
‘And every night, at midnight,’ said Caro, staring at her own white reflection in the rain-spattered glass, ‘vampires get up and look for living people to eat.’
‘And when they get eaten,’ I said, slipping my hand into hers, ‘the new people have to be dead, like the others, and always live in the night.’
The first week, we spent a lot of time by the doors. We didn’t cry: we had already learnt that our sadness was of a lower order, tiresome and rarely justified. We just stood and stared at the cars, waiting for the right set of headlights.
We never thought to mention that our father dropped us at Nowheresville at eight, and our mother picked us up at nine. We had a simple faith—not a virtuous one, but one born of practical experience—that adults were taking care of us. We would no more have questioned travel arrangements than we would have written a shopping list, or paid an electricity bill. After the separation, our father picked us up from school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. At the end of these evenings he would drive us halfway home to the service station, bundling us hastily from the car lest he meet our mother. She came an hour later, happy each time to have missed our father. We never considered that there might have been a simple misunderstanding.
Other children, through the long evolution of adolescence, would try freedom and responsibility a step at a time, always able to return to safety. We, though we did not know it until years later, stepped neatly, unwittingly, straight from childhood to adulthood. Our faith had become passivity. We were expected to speak up, to discuss, to arrange. But we did not. And that was how we ended up in Nowheresville eight until nine, three nights a week.
By the third week we had become accustomed to abandonment, and our minds started to wander. We felt lost and uneasy in the noisy, adult, purpose-built spaces, and so, to begin with, we hid.
Nowheresville was full of small, warm interstices, spaces created by the presence of other larger and more important forms. It was simplicity itself to slide into the building’s cracks: the cubbyhole beneath the car insurance stall, the dusty gap behind the tray cabinet in the food hall, the flimsy cardboard tent at the centre of the confectionery stand. At first we simply curled up as small as possible, but as Nowheresville’s enormous, noisy rhythms evolved slowly from alarming to familiar, we diversified. Our habits developed. We spent hours in the ladies’ loos testing our skills of concealment, Caro hiding in the cleaning lady’s handcart amongst the oversized toilet rolls, I wedged beneath the long bench of washbasins. Success bred elaboration, and we used several weeks to hone our skills of mimicry until, perched on a toilet lid inside a locked cubicle, we could replicate almost any small, accidental noise from our neighbours. We stuck at this for four, maybe five weeks, until one of our victims located us and banged on the door, demanding to know where our parents were. We huddled together, watching the flimsy bar of the lock bounce in its moorings, praying that she would leave, but she was persistent. By the time she gave up it was ten past nine, and we were late for our mother.
We invented a ghost, and believed in him for a while. ‘He was an old man,’ said Caro, by now thirteen years old and squashed alongside me in the gap between a photo booth and a grab-a-toy machine, ‘and he came here every day of his life to play on the fruit machine. And he used to make his wife wait in the car. Then one day she got really cross with him and they had a fight in the car on the way here, and the car went off the road and crashed.’
We tucked our legs in close to our chests, and looked at the flashing forbidden land of the amusement arcade, across the corridor. ‘And his ghost got out of the wreck,’ continued Caro in hushed tones, ‘to walk the last mile here.’
I shivered, imagining the determined transparent figure working his way across the exhaust-driven grass towards Nowheresville. ‘What does he do now?’ I asked, though I had heard the story a dozen times.
‘He stands by the fruit machine and weeps,’ said Caro. ‘And when he sees a couple come in, he gets into the car with them when they leave.’
‘And makes it crash,’ I finished, as I always did. ‘Boom.’
‘Boom,’ echoed Caro, and the bright flashing lights refracted in her eyes.
We would make forays into the arcade, partly in order to try and see the ghost, partly because we weren’t allowed in. Most times we would be shooed out by an adult: someone’s dad, or a member of Nowheresville’s ever-changing cleaning staff. If we were lucky, it would be someone new. Most of them were not much older than us, interested in each other and whatever they were saving for, uninterested in the integrity of Nowheresville and its rules. Coming in to pick up crisp packets and receipts off the multi-coloured carpet, they would spot us and wave wearily for us to leave.
If we were unlucky, it would be Norbert. Norbert was not his real name, but a name I chose for him because it fitted him so well. He had a name tag, but neither of us dared to go near enough to him that we could read it. He was the only member of Nowheresville’s staff to have been there ever since our visits started, shuffling round with a white plastic bag and a dustpan and brush on sticks. We were frightened of him from the start because of his eyes, which were black. We had never seen anything like them, the whole iris glistening dark and pupilless, until we went to the aquarium with our mother and saw a shark swim by. This only served to confirm our fear. Being found in the arcade by Norbert meant having to walk past him as we left, which was closer to him than we cared to get.
By the time I turned twelve we were emboldened by adolescent energy, and developed a new game. We tracked Norbert around the clamorous food hall and through the concourse as he picked up litter and put it in his bag, seeing how close we could get to his yellow-jacketed back. When he turned we would flee, meeting one another, panting and exhilerated, at a pre-ordained spot by the magazines in the newsagent’s. He never seemed to notice this, but eventually we began to feel sorry for him, and to regret our unkind games. We left him alone, then, and even said hello when we passed him. We felt so bad about our prejudice that it came almost as a relief when he offered me sweets and asked me to get into his car.
‘What did he say?’ said fifteen-year-old Caro, sitting in the shade of the trees at the edge of the car park.
‘It was just like in the film,’ I said, meaning the safety video I’d been shown the previous autumn, when I started secondary school. ‘He came up to me in the picnic area and asked me if I’d like some chocolate. But I was really shocked he was talking to me, so I didn’t say anything. His voice was all thin and scratchy and he sounded scared.’
‘He didn’t touch you or anything, did he?’
‘No,’ I said, more thrilled than frightened. ‘And then he said he could give me a lift if I wanted to go home early, and he said Dad had said it was OK.’
‘Dirty old bastard,’ Caro said, and I was doubly thrilled to hear her swear.
‘Shall I tell Dad?’ I said, pulling at the grass between my feet.
She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. I didn’t need to ask her what she meant.
It was not long after that that our father moved in with his new girlfriend and changed our visiting times. There were no communication breakdowns this time, and our long visits to Nowheresville were over. We spent only thirty minutes a week there, if that; barely long enough to saunter round the food court and riffle the magazines. Our visits became nostalgic, and we would reminisce about old adventures. Norbert remained, but never troubled us again. Caro had perfected her hostile teen stare, and pinned him with it whenever he happened within our range. ‘Perv,’ she would hiss, as he came into view.
Whe Caro went to university, my Nowheresville visits stopped altogether. ‘It’s not right for you to be left on your own at a service station,’ my mother said, little realising we had spent hours of our childhood there, crouching in toilets, hunting ghosts and perverts. ‘Get your dad to drive you straight here.’
He did, but refused to drive down the street to my mother’s house. ‘This is close enough,’ he would announce grimly, pulling up at the pavement by the turning, leaving me to open the door of the car and lug my school bag out into the drizzle.
Caro learned to drive at university and bought a car, a broken-down old thing which I found impossibly glamorous. ‘A car,’ I said. ‘You’re going to drive to see me in your car.’
‘Not all the way,’ she said.
My father was bemused. ‘Why can’t she come and see you here?’
‘Maybe this is close enough,’ I said, and he gave in.
Nowheresville had changed a bit, but its essence was the same. There was a new coloured canopy over the petrol station, but as it hadn’t been part of our core territory it didn’t concern me much.
‘Look,’ said Caro, ‘they’ve changed the picnic tables.’
‘They wrote to me,’ I said, ‘and asked if it was OK. I said I thought so, but they should really check with you as well.’
‘Ah, yes,’ she said, putting on a serious face, ‘I recall the letter. Most appropriate. I recommended the blue.’ She ran her hand proprietorially, fondly, over the fresh smooth surface of the painted wood.
‘Shall we go and see if Norbert’s still here?’ I said, and we walked into the food hall side by side. He wasn’t, and though Caro was keen to find out what had happened to him, we didn’t know his real name and so couldn’t ask anyone. Instead we bought tea and took a tour of our old hiding grounds, Caro covering for me as I bent down and stuck my head into dusty, long-vacated voids.
We took to meeting there about once a month, and so it was at Nowheresville, a year later, that Caro told me she had a girlfriend.
‘What?’ I said.
‘A girlfriend,’ she said. ‘I like girls.’
I thought for a moment. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Tasha,’ she said. She smiled when she said the name, and I liked the sound of it. I looked around at the yellow trees and the rows of cars, and said ‘You should bring her here.’
Nowheresville’s population grew to three. Caro must have explained to Tasha about it before they got there, because she didn’t seem at all puzzled about being driven to a service station. When she got out of the car she was a tangle of bright colours and jewellery, the brilliant red of her nails matching the advertising banners which snapped in the wind above us. We walked her through the concourse and the food hall, then found in the ladies’ loos that we could just about fit all three of us into a cubicle. We stood together, shaking with laughter, jammed against one another’s bodies, belonging absolutely nowhere else.
I went to university a year later, and studied anthropology. I didn’t miss home at all, but for months I visited Nowheresville in my dreams, sometimes nightly. In my sleeping hours I would walk through the nondescript glass doors and across the car park, towards the sound of the motorway. Cresting the bund, I would find that the murmur was not of cars but of water: there, where the motorway had been, flowed a river. In the clear, warm water were people swimming, and they waved to me.
Caro and I wrote to each other regularly. ‘Nowheresville,’ I wrote in my final year, inspired by my dissertation research, ‘is a liminal place. It is the wilderness, a place on the edge of things where any being can transform into another.’
‘You are very serious,’ she wrote back. ‘It will wear off.’
Caro married Tasha as soon as it was legal to, by which time I was twenty-two. My mother didn’t go to the wedding.
‘She’s still telling people that you went to university and ‘came back gay’,’ I said, as we drank champagne and threaded pearls into Caro’s hair.
‘As if I caught it there,’ said Caro, and we laughed.
‘It used to matter to me,’ she said after a pause. ‘But I don’t think it does any more.’
They were married at a registry office, in the spring. I had briefly, and half-seriously, lobbied for a Nowheresville wedding, but Tasha pointed out that it wasn’t licensed for ceremonies. ‘Not that it isn’t lovely,’ she said, reaching out and touching me on the arm. ‘And it would be very convenient for parking, obviously. It’s just the catering, you see.’
‘I see your point,’ I said, imagining a Nowheresville wedding breakfast: cardboard-packaged sandwiches, oversize packets of crisps, energy drinks.
Tasha’s family cheered when the couple kissed, and threw dried rose petals over their heads. The womens’ arms flew through the air, clattering with bangles, and the men made trumpets with their hands and whooped until the ceiling rang.
‘They’re lovely,’ I said afterwards, as we ate cake in the marquee.
‘Don’t worry,’ Caro said, hugging me, ‘I’m not leaving you for them. They are lovely, but I’ll always love my little sister and my hometown.’
‘Nottingham?’ I said, surprised to hear it referred to with such affection.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, planting a kiss on my cheek.
When I got serious with Nathan, we discussed whether he needed a visa for Nowheresville. ‘Tasha’s OK because she’s married to me,’ said Caro. ‘She has citizenship. Nathan doesn’t.’
‘Tasha went to Nowheresville before you got married,’ I objected. ‘And I’ve been seeing Nathan for a year. You’d only just met Tasha when she crossed the border.’
In the end we made him a visa from a petrol receipt. ‘It’s not from Nowheresville,’ said Caro, ‘but it’s in the right spirit.’ We both signed it at the bottom, and ceremonially rubbed chips on it. ‘So that it smells like the food hall,’ I said.
‘Perfect,’ she said.
It was early winter when the four of us drove to Nowheresville together. Nathan, small, slim, limber, a pursuer of the outdoors, took one look at the landscape and declared that we should all climb the bund. ‘I shall call it,’ he said, taking my hand, ‘Mount Nowhere.’
‘We never went there,’ I said, thinking of all the hours we spent staring at its distant bulk.
‘Then we’ll need a flag,’ he said. ‘We’ll use your scarf.’
We set off across the grey concrete, a band of explorers bound for a peak in Darien. The bund was coated in rough turf and peopled with little leafless trees , dusted lightly in snow. It took us minutes to reach the top.
Nathan shook out my scarf and tracked across the ridge to its highest point, where he ceremonially attached two corners of it to a sapling. It whirled and flapped out in the cold wind, a patch of startling colour against the dull winter grass. ‘I claim this bund,’ he called, ‘for the Crown of Nowheresville.’
Caro and I watched him strike a bold pose against the sapling, whilst Tasha, giggling, recorded the moment in a photo. Behind us lay Nowhereseville, in all its compact mundanity; ahead of us and below ran the motorway. The sun broke suddenly through the white haze and rang off the tops of the cars beneath us, and in the pure light it seemed for an instant that every one was a shade of silver, like waves on choppy water.
Beside me, Caro shivered and rubbed her hands together. ‘Do you want to go in?’ I said. ‘We could get some tea.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, smiling. ‘What about the ghost?’
Voices blew over to us on the wind, calling to us, waving us up to join them on their flagged peak.
‘It’s the strangest thing,’ I said, pushing my hand through the warm crook of her elbow, ‘but I think that he might have gone now. Don’t you?’
‘Oh, ages ago,’ said Caro, and, arm in arm, we stepped forward.