“For God’s sake, Choe.”
“Go left out of here. Left!”
After a mile or so, he made me take the narrow gated road of the local North West Water catchment area. There, a bulky Victorian architecture of revetments, ramps and spillways petered out among broken vernacular walls, eroded gritstone earth, unsurfaced tracks: as if, anxious to warn his audience about the natural world and its encroachments, the architect had designed a steady, homilectic movement from order to chaos. Soon we were bumping along two ruts, hardcored with brick and crushed tarmac, which wound up steeply beneath black rock outcrops. I couldn’t see much. Rain flew into the headlamp beams like insects. Wind tore through the sedges and rocked the van on its suspension as it wallowed and strained against the gradient. “Fucking hell!” complained Choe. “I fucking hate the outside.” His face was pressed up against the windscreen. He seemed uncertain, nervy. “Right! No, go right!” The rain stopped, leaving a few clouds to redistribute the moonlight, which had given them the colour of a fish’s skin.
“Yes!” said Choe suddenly. “Not bad for someone who’s only been here twice.”
He made me stop the van. He got out. “Wait,” he ordered. He slammed the door, then called: “You can turn the engine off.”
To the left I could see as far as the faint, ghostly sweep of Morecambe Bay. To the right, beyond a stone wall in poor repair, the ground fell away steeply to open space and very distant streetlights flickering on the eastern slope of the watershed–Blackburn, Burnley, perhaps Colne. All I could hear was the wind rumbling across some large obstacle; the ticking of the engine as it cooled. Choe was gone for some time. The rain started again, harder than before, rattling and booming on the back panels of the van. I turned up the collar of my leather coat and watched the big clouds rush across the moon. The moor smelled like cinders. The wall seemed to go on for miles in both directions, punctuated by empty gateways opening on to nothing but rough pasture and bog-cotton. Suddenly Choe was hammering on the offside window. When I wound it down he shouted:
“We’ll not get the van near enough to tip the stuff over the top.”
I could hardly hear him. The rain had plastered his T shirt to his bony chest. Water was streaming down his face, so that his cheeks looked as if they had been peeled for some cheap cosmetic enhancement. His nose was running, he was shivering uncontrollably, and his eyes were full of excitement.
“We’ll have to carry it down.”
“I said we’ll have to carry it down!”
“I can’t hear you!”
“Weather won’t be so bad down there!”
He vanished. The back doors of the van burst open on a gust of freezing wind. He started to drag the boxes out.
“Come on Mick,” he said angrily. “Don’t fuck about.”
Then he was gone again.
I took a couple of boxes and scrambled awkwardly over the wall. Two feet the other side of it everything fell away without warning into a deep quarry choked with rhododendrons and young oak trees. It was a hundred and fifty feet down into darkness. There was no wire, no sign. The edge was marked only by some crumbling red blocks of stone and two or three stunted birches. For a minute or two all I could do was teeter there in the wind, soaked to the skin, so close to falling I couldn’t even speak. “Choe!” I managed to call eventually. “Choe, why don’t we just throw them off the top ?” But he had already started down, so I was forced to slither after him, clutching at the tangled rhododendron stems. Damp, friable brown soil soon caked my hands and feet. I dropped one of the boxes and had to feel about for it in the dark. Later, the whole episode would seem hallucinatory to me, a descent in more ways than one.
At the bottom, worn aimless paths curved between heaps of spoil in the bluish, rain-dirty moonlight. Up under the steep sodden rock walls the earth was packed and hardened by years of use. Into it had been trodden a kind of light urban silt–layer after layer of smashed safety glass, broken battery cases, blue fertiliser bags, bedsprings rusted down to a powdery deposit, railway sleepers rotted and fibrous. Three or four burnt-out cars lay sprawled on their collapsed shock absorbers and rusty brake drums, as if they had maintained a perfectly straight and level stance during their fall from the ridge above, bounced once and come to rest. Burst laundry bags lay everywhere, children’s clothes spilling out of them across the standing puddles and flooded ruts.
I remember thinking, Who would want to do this ? Who would want to do this ? But the worst was still to come.
“Choe ? Choe!”
A great frail wing of rock, like an eighty-foot razor blade, had caught itself years ago in the act of toppling from the main face and now, balanced precariously on a foundation of loose blocks, divided the quarry floor into two. When I walked cautiously round it, there was the real tip–one huge collapsing mound of plastic drums, bent strips of metal oxidised to white, cardboard boxes split and pulped by the rain, heavyweight plastic bags slashed open by the broken laboratory glassware inside, all resting in an expansive pool of water five or six feet deep and iridescent with escaped chemicals. There was a dead sheep in the shallows, bloated and grey. Around it floated literally hundreds of used latex gloves, their whitish transparent fingers ghostly as live squid in the dim light; swatches of asbestos waste like clumps of wool; detached biohazard labels the colour of willow leaves on a village pond. A thick, rotten smell came up, palpable as a touch, corrupt and chemical at one and the same time. But if I closed my eyes and listened to the rain, pattering straight down on half-submerged polyurethane and cardboard, it sounded as comforting and steady as rain on the roof of a garden shed.
I couldn’t see him.
“What ?” he said softly.
There he was–still as a lizard on a rock!–impossible to separate from his setting until I had understood the shape and size of it. He had got as close to the water as he could. His eyes were narrowed and one leg was tensed to bear his weight. The cardboard boxes rested negligently on his hip. I don’t know if I can describe the way he looked to me at that moment. He looked as if he was watching something, some animal that might be frightened away if we spoke loudly. At the same time he had the musing expression of a professional sailor wondering how he would navigate some small, newly-discovered sea.
And then, as if he had really said Don’t bother me now:
Then he was turning towards me in swimmy slow motion from the edge, his mouth opening, his eyes widening in amazement and wild surmise.
“Fucking hell, Mick! Look at it!”
He stopped, coughed, choked, clamped his hand over his mouth. With a violent, despairing overarm motion he hurled the cardboard boxes into the water–they turned over and over in the air, yellow tape flickering–and stumbled towards me. He clutched wildly at my upper arms.
I pushed him away.
“It wasn’t like this before,” he said. “It was nothing like this!”
I said: “I’m not coming down here again.”
“Oh yes you are, Mick,” he said. “Go on. You know you are. Eh ?”
“You know you want to.”
“I can’t do it on my own,” he wheedled.
We made six trips between us, cutting a furrow in that soft steep unpleasant earth between the rhododendron roots: and an hour later we stood on the edge of the pool to toss the final box on to the great stinking tangled raft of stuff in the centre. We were filthy and exhausted. It was like standing on the shore of a completely unknown future.
“The water’s warm,” Choe whispered.
A faint, milky steam lay above it.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Wait!” he ordered. “Look at this.”
Peeling a length of yellow biohazard tape off the box, he offered it to me. It was two inches wide and printed with bold black capitals.
BURN WITHOUT OPENING.
I hurled the box away from me as far as I could and blundered off across the quarry, straight up a short steep slope of half-stabilised spoil and into the stripped frame of a 1979 Vauxhaull Chevette, which had once been pale blue. I hung on to it helplessly, panting and groaning and peeling off flakes of rusty paint like dry skin, repeating, “Why would anyone want to do this ? Why would anyone want to do this ?” until I felt calmer. When I was able to look back, I saw Choe on his knees, his spine curved like a foetus’s, throwing up into the pool.
“Fuck off back to the van! I’ll catch you up!”
I had the engine going by the time he reappeared. He stood swaying and retching into his hand as I turned the van round to face downhill. He opened the passenger door and then stood there gazing in at me like a drunk, unable to summon up enough strength to get into his seat.
“I’ll need directions,” I said. And when he didn’t answer: “Choe, I’m just going to find the motorway, OK ?”
The van lurched forward, Choe’s door swung open. He didn’t say anything or do anything. He just sat looking tiredly ahead. He sat that way for thirty miles, then suddenly straightened up and looked around.
“Christ,” he said. “Where’s this ?”
“It’s the M6, no thanks to you. How do you feel ?”
“You should have stayed out of that water.”
“It wasn’t the water.”
“What was it then ?”
“Stop at the next services. I’ve got to drink something.”
“If it wasn’t the water, Choe, what was it ?”
He stared out of the side window.
“I had a look in one of them boxes.”
“Christ, you moron.”
It was raining again. From Chorley on south, both inner lanes had been jammed with vast ARC carriers hauling high-grade road materials from the great northern limestone quarries down to bypass projects in Sale or Oldham, daubed to their cab windows with white mud, shifting in and out of view in a groaning aerosol of water and red light. I moved into the outside lane to overtake; moved back. Lights flashed behind me out of chaos; flashed again.
Choe ducked his head and grinned suddenly.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what was in it ?”
This extract is from Signs of Life, Gollancz 1997.