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. Tel: 01524 62166. All works © their respective authors Unsaid Undone © Flax All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and the individual creators. Flax is the publishing imprint of Litfest Lancaster and District Festival Ltd. trading as Litfest. Registered in England Company Number: 1494221 Charity Number: 510670 Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and Layout: Martin Chester at Litfest Photography: Jonathan Bean/Litfest
The North West is a veritable hotbed for literary talent right now, and Flax provides a vital and innovative showcase for that talent. Here, we encounter five distinctive voices that are making waves far beyond the region. With their focus on the inner life and an agile use of language, they blur the borders between prose and poetry. Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Kelpie is an evocative description of a brother and sister recovering childhood memories in rural Scotland; at a time when their father would make “ladies knuckle away tears” with a tune on his harmonica. Brevity belies depth in John Siddique’s slant reflection of humanity, Prism, and Annie Clarkson’s Short Shorts: startling snapshots of “coat-hanger men” and a girl in a lime green vest top. Marita Over cleverly invites us to read between the lines of a seemingly small domestic drama to discover a chilling back story in Bread. Brindley Hallam Dennis’s richly observed The Bath Scene is infused with an undercurrent of repressed longing. A melancholic mood pervades the stories in the aptly titled Unsaid Undone – they are full of mourning for lost innocence or lost opportunities – but it is an intensity of feeling you want to indulge in. Cathy Bolton Director, Manchester Literature Festival
Andrew Michael Hurley Biographical information The Kelpie Annie Clarkson Biographical information Together in Electric Dreams Stairway Lodgers Reflections Petrified Brindley Hallam Dennis Biographical information The Bath Scene Marita Over Biographical information Bread John Siddique Biographical infomation Prism
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More and more I feel that everything influences my writing – other writers, people, music, art, history, a supermarket, boredom, love, death, my children. Writing for me is a way of finding meaning in everything, trying to preserve moments in the exterior and interior worlds that otherwise might slip by.
Dada died a month ago and left his harmonica to McBryde – a genius, a genius, Dada said, with any musical instrument, with any arrangement of string, reed and skin. Such a genius, he had tamed a Kelpie with his fiddle and put it to work in his fields. See for yourselves if you don’t believe me, he said. But McBryde lived on the other side of the mountains – the other side of the world – and Kelpies scared us, the way they would wait by the river in the guise of a beautiful tame horse with a coat that invited touch, but drag anyone who stroked them into the water, hooves smashing the surface as loudly as thunder, and take them down to the bottom to eat their insides out. Jamie opens the leather case, takes out the mouth organ, turns it over in his hands. He passes it to me. A Hohner Chrometta-8 in C. It smells of ‘73 Glenturret and Navy Cut and plummy old cologne. Dada’s breaths are preserved in the black gills. There is a faint thumbprint amongst the filigree on the tin casing, which has dulled at the edges from years of use. Because without fail, late in the evening at every family gathering, the harmonica would come out and The Fields of Athenry would make the ladies knuckle away tears from the corners of their eyes. The Juice of the Barley had them waltzing like debutantes and The Bold Fenian Men roused the old boys – the legions of uncles and the crinkled grandfathers over from Derry – and swelled their chests. “Do you think this is McBryde’s?” Jamie asks and goes back to the map of Scotland spread across the bonnet of his Volvo, tracing his finger from where we’ve been to where we’re going across the chewed landscape full of diagonal scratches and gaps – a badly drawn horse’s head that a child has tried to rub out. “I don’t know.” He looks at the wooden sign nailed to a tree; behind the moss and the bird shit, there is a white horse prancing. “It must be,” he says and tries to match up the Ordnance Survey with the sketch map in Dada’s address book. I say address book. There are no more than half a dozen numbers in there. All with quaint dialling codes. The people at the other end all long dead. The rest is made up of maps and notes. Left at the sheep field.
Right at the dead oak. Cryptic stuff too. Rory died here. Marnie’s teeth. “I’m glad you came, big-sister-by-an-hour,” Jamie says suddenly and takes hold of my hands. We inspect each other’s palms, looking for something, how they compare perhaps. His acupuncture marks have almost gone now. Poor Jamie. After Rachel, the headaches got so bad he tried everything, every pill and abstinence, before we found the Chinese place in Glasgow and Mr Jin held his wrists like an ancient stringed instrument, just so, and with his eyes closed, moved his fingers over the veins and tendons to find the twelve pulses, the six excesses, the seven moods. He grasped Jamie’s head, opened his eyelids, poked into his mouth, lifted his tongue, felt behind his teeth, looked up his nose and into his ears, foraged in the roots of his hair, not looking for anything, but noting the losses and deficiencies. Jamie came away with three dozen punctures, a polythene bag of dungysmelling herbs that turned his bowels from cement to soup and back again, his head emptied of pain and re-filled with the aphorisms Mr Jin disclosed in a whisper as we were leaving, looking left and right as though someone who hadn’t paid might overhear and live longer than they deserved: Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness... What is springs from what is not... How can I be still? By flowing with the Stream. Maps in hand, Jamie wanders down the road a little way. I take out the binoculars Dada left me, look at the mountains and the river, then focus on Jamie as he comes back, whipping at the grass stalks with a stick. “I never knew you had a scar there,” I say. “Where?” “There.” “Leave it out,” Jamie says, touching his forehead. “No,” I say. “I like it.” I like it how, using the binoculars, memories are in close up and cannot be any other way. Like the pine forest we walked through yesterday, the firs brushing hugely over the lenses. Like the eagle we saw
over Rannoch Moor, its wingtips spread like an offering of knives. Like the snow we watched falling dulcimer soft on the telegraph wires. Close up is important. Certain myths are dispelled. The Man in the Moon: craters and mountains. The end of the rainbow: drizzle and sunlight. The Loch Ness Monster: driftwood or a swimmer’s arm. Jamie’s happiness: tissue paper and a candle. The beautiful Rachel: a fist for a heart. But there are some things so far away that nothing will ever bring them nearer: Like the little boy who loved the woods and built shelters from the things torn loose by storms. Who put innumerable villains to death with the ray gun, sword and karate chop. Who painted his face like Aladdin Sane and got caps after trying to file his teeth so he could be a vampire. Who tried to suck up the ghost in the cellar with a vacuum cleaner. Who was the sworn protector of his elder sister – the strange, curly-haired, laughing girl in dungarees who slit daisy stalks with her thumbnail and carefully licked rose thorns so they would stick on the end of her nose and make her into a witch. Who thought that gravestones grew out of the ground, and that babies simply started on their own inside their mothers like tumours. Who was certain that the Cold War had been settled with snowballs, and that a concentration camp was a place where you were forced to think really hard until you died. “You remember all that?” Jamie says. “Can’t you?” Jamie leans against the car. “There’s nothing there, not really. Nothing clear. Just leftovers.” “Like what?” “You. Dada. Mum up a ladder picking apples. Snowdrifts against the house. Didn’t we have a cat?” “Yes, Jamie.” He looks at Dada’s mouth organ again. “Where does it go? You never notice it going,” he says. “Where does what go?” “What we were.”
“You find it missing when you find it missing.” “You sound like Mr Jin.” Jamie smiles and wanders off, poking in the undergrowth for a road sign. I once saw a picture of time. Someone had worked out that it was the shape of a teardrop. I don’t know why. I forget the physics. But that’s where it all goes, caught behind us in a trawler’s net. And when you go looking for the past only then do you remember the beautiful white horse by the river. Only then do you remember climbing onto its back, its warm pelt under your fingers, pressing a cheek into its thick mane, and clinging on as the horse leaps into the river and the thunder spends itself flat against the water. That feeling you have, Jamie, that loss of things you barely remember having is the worst of all, that’s the horse’s mouth. That’s the brown square teeth ripping a boy to pieces.
The impulses behind my writing are small everyday moments; the unusual or dysfunctional; the complexities of relationships; memories from the past; jealousy, loss, loneliness and all those other difficult emotional states that we strive to understand.
You. With your lime green vest top. You blowing bubbles with pink gum, the ultra violet picking out your bra strap, knicker-line and me. Almost too shy to say much apart from, want another drink, until we were two shades from lie-down-drunk and the disco ball made us dizzy. We stared at it, stared at it, and then you said, let’s sit down, Mikey. You were seventeen, snow wash jeans tight as your skin, and legwarmers stretched down across your feet and oh. Those high heels. Blue curaçao staining your lips, I couldn’t stop looking at them and you said. Go on then, kiss me, Mikey and I laughed, leant forward too quickly, my chin colliding with your nose. We both said ouch and I looked away towards our mates dancing to that song by Human League, you know the one. And I thought, yes that’s what I want to say, if I could say it, that’s what I feel inside. I mean we were off our heads. But I’d always thought you were way too. Oh so. Gorgeous. And here I was. Unable to even kiss you. You prodded me. You giving up on me, Mikey? And I shook my head, said, nah don’t be daft. But I was embarrassed, you know. Kind of awkward. I went to get us another drink so I could calm my nerves, needed to lean against the bar. Steady myself and, well. My heart was beating out of my chest in time to that song and I pushed. Across the dance floor, back to you, lying in a pile of coats. A tall lad chewing the face off you, like he knew. He knew what girls with lime green tops needed.
Nobody calls me Effe here. I am the Girl in Room Number 4. No questions. No names. Room Number 4 is small with damp stains on the ceiling. I painted the walls nicotine brown. Nobody would be able to tell the difference. Sometimes I go to the market and buy okra and sweet peppers. Sometimes I eat chicken from a takeaway. Most times I eat rice and beans. I eat until my stomach hurts. The Woman in Room Number 5 has people visiting all night. There is so much noise I feel the walls shake. Every morning, I leave my room and walk down the red painted stairway. I take my belongings with me, telling myself today will be the one.
In the back of the car, we guard the food and Grandma will guard us from those coat-hanger men, rough as Cumberland stone in their crumpled suits, creases of grime on their shirt collars. We help Grandad pull carrots from their garden and shell peas. Inside the men hand over their dole so they can be rationed with cans. They watch racing, read their papers. Watch us with our white arms bare to the sun. We are butterflies dancing around the cabbages, a sweet smell from the mintcake factory coating our skin.
When we crossed the line, it was winter. A mild day where grey sky met grey stone met grey pavements where people walked towards unknown destinations. We watched the city from our window. We listened to car tyres shushing through puddles. We could see our own reflections in the glass. Your face was tense. Mine showed small signs of fear, the biting of a lip, eyes unsure of themselves. We undressed each other with the slowness of day becoming night. I wanted to tell you to wait, to stop perhaps, but each press of hands, each slip of a button or zip led to the next. When we crossed the line, we knew it might alter the shape of trees, the way shadows fell. This was a city of lines, ones we could cross, and others we should have avoided.
Inspired by ‘La Ville Petrifiée’ Max Ernst
When you say, lay down on this concrete block and look – really look – at the blocks of flats down there below this hill, all I can see is moon. I know what you want me to see – the pattern of high-rise/low-rise, windows lit/unlit that shifts every time one person goes into their kitchen and switches the light on. You want me to know that this life is always changing. This city that we live in, with its cranes and building sites, its dispersal schemes, renovations, conversions, will never be the same as how we see it in this second. I try to focus on the buildings and find myself imagining a woman living alone, not knowing her neighbour even though the wall dividing them is brick-width. Her bed and his bed corner the same space. They never speak, a nod perhaps or a smile, but she doesn’t know his name, and when he passes out drunk one night and chokes on his own vomit, she doesn’t call an ambulance. She hears noises but doesn’t feel she can go next door to knock on, or shout through the letterbox. So, when I lie on this concrete block and stare down at our city - all its dustbins and graffiti, neighbours stealing from neighbours and nobody sharing the price of a meal - all I can see is a moon above all this, full moon in a dark sky, a polluted glow making this moon a peach. And I wish it was all I could see: moon over fields or flattened land or a different kind of place, not the emptiness of a city - because that’s how I see it - the loneliness of being surrounded by strangers who might let me choke on my own vomit and later say, it sounded like someone was dying but I never thought to find out. A train rattles on the tracks below us. We lie on this concrete block and talk about how we are city and moon, how different city and moon are, how a city moon is different from any other. You hold my hand as though this concrete block might subside, bury us both, before we get the chance to find out whether strangers will start listening to each other.
My literary life splits into two distinct halves, having published extensively in the 1970s as poet Mike Smith, and since 1998 (after a decade of silence), adding fiction under the name Brindley Hallam Dennis. Neither name is a pseudonym.
from Icebergs Bath night was twice a week for Derek Fitton, on Tuesdays and Fridays, after he’d closed up the workshop. The bath stood under the kitchen table, which was fastened to the wall by a beam and two hinges and supported on fold down legs, each with a patch of green baize fixed to the bottom to stop it from marking the linoleum. When the bath was in use the table swung back up, with the legs folded away and the heavy board secured at a steep angle by a metal hook and eye. It hung above the bather like a coffin lid, and because the hook was out of sight from below it seemed to the naked body in the water to be in danger of imminent collapse. When the bath was not in use, a green chequered oilcloth lay over the table, hanging down low to hide the claw feet. You had to be careful not to pull your chair too close in under the tabletop, or you would bang your knees against the cast iron hull. One day he would have a proper bathroom put in, Derek told himself, where you would be able to go and bolt the door. He would have proper brass taps, and running water, hot as well as cold. He would have an indoor toilet too, and not have to worry about the cistern freezing up in the winter. He hated it when that happened. He always had. Always having to remember to light the paraffin lamp and leave it on overnight. It was not the cold in the outside privy that upset him, but the fear of being unable to flush away his waste. Proper latrines were the best, dug deeply, and covered up after every use, as they’d done on the airfield at Kanchrapara. Well screened. He remembered the night soil men visiting in the early morning, when he was a boy. His grandfather had always wanted to save some for the vegetable plot. Always water the compost heap, the old man used to tell him. He couldn’t keep himself clean towards the end. How his mother could bear it, looking after her fatherin-law, he’d never know. His wife, Alice, had emptied the hot water geyser, jug by jug, into the bath, and with it four saucepans of water from the rainwater butt that she’d boiled up on the stove. She had laid an old towel on the linoleum for him to stand on. The back door was locked, and the curtains were
drawn because it was already dark outside. Mist formed on the mirror and steam hung over the top of the geyser. The room was hot and humid, but the surface of the folded oilcloth was cold and slick with condensation. He shook grey soap flakes into the bath, not good for the skin probably, but it softened the hard tap water. He foamed it with his hands, like twin propellers putting a launch into reverse, backing out of trouble. He always meant to drain the geyser and refill it from the rainwater tub, but always thought of it too late. That was soft water, like silk on your skin. Derek lowered himself into the shallow tepid water and closed his eyes. He let his spine unroll against the cold cast iron and slipped deeper in. The geyser would come back to the boil soon and he would be able to top up the bath with hot. Charles Bury would not have to wait for hot water. He would have it out of the tap, as much of it as he wanted. He would be able to fill the bath to overflowing if he felt like it, and to lie back in it, almost submerged. There had been bath-houses like that in India. Where are you going Dek? Blackie had asked once, when he was climbing out. To see a man about a dog. Don’t be daft, he’d said. Just do it in the water. Another time, when Blackie wasn’t there, he’d leaned back against the tiled sides of the pool, arms out of the water, watching two sergeantfitters (aero-engines), and let his bladder empty under the surface. No one had known. It had been oddly comforting, like being a child again. It had made him think of flying. He wondered if the bath was deep enough, sensed himself half floating, half submerged, among the archipelago of suds between his thighs. He hoped that Charles Bury would not call, or the lady from next door, but there was no light over the front door and the five-barred gate was closed. He pictured slow dark waves on a black sea and heard the hissing of the gas jets, like distant trains. His legs folded slowly and he slipped, like a sinking ship, further down into the water.
Alice bathed in the mornings while he was over in the workshop. He used to lift the table top for her, and then they’d stand, awkwardly for a moment until she said, I’ll leave the back door open in case you want to come in. That had been before the war, but she had learnt to manage on her own. There had been no choice. She could hardly have asked one of the other men they knew to help her. Sometimes he thought he might peep in through the window and catch her undressing. He imagined her unbuttoning her dress, slipping out of it, folding it over a chair in her underskirt. Then she would sit, to take her stockings off, her hands unfastening the suspenders at the tops of her thighs, and stand again, pull the skirt up and over her head. She would bend over the bath, to test the water, in her brassiere and panties. It wouldn’t be fair, though, to see her like that, without her knowing. He had never seen her undress. She always did it in the dark, or before he had gone through to the bedroom. If only he could ask her to pretend she didn’t know he was watching. Are you ready for some hot? His hands flew to cover himself, his legs straightened and with a bow wave splash his back slid up the white hull of the bath until he was upright again, eyes wide open. Yes. Be careful. She always was. Alice poured slowly, holding the jug low over the water, into the space beside his hoisted feet. The thought arose of how his skin would shrivel and blister should the near boiling water fall upon it. The heat flowed up his legs, over his hips, around his waist. He flapped one hand, like an exhausted survivor trying to manoeuvre a rubber dinghy towards safety. That’s fine, he said. I can manage now. I’ve got some mending to look at, she said, putting the jug down and leaving the kitchen.
I’ve spent the last twenty years writing poetry. I was concerned with the unit of a sentence or phrase and its relation to the line in space, which may sound pretty academic, but every word and the space around it mattered. Recently, training as a counsellor, I have become more and more curious about other minds. It is as if I had looked up and noticed all these other people.
The dough was rising too quickly. The bread would have no flavour. Penny had placed the bowl in the sewing room by the north-facing window to slow it down, but it probably needed to be even colder. A patch of steam was forming on the glass. The phone rang out in the hall. It was her neighbour, stuck in traffic asking her to pick up Mylene. Something came down in her like a metal blind protecting a shopfront. “Sorry, I couldn’t think of anyone else. I found your number in my mobile from last time. Three fifteen, in the side playground?” Last time, Mylene had been in Reception, which finished earlier. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” her neighbour was shouting between blasts of static. “It’s a mess here. Police all over the place. Must have been an accident. Do you know where to go? I’ll call school now and tell them it’ll be someone else.” The house fell silent when Penny hung up. Someone else, not ‘my friend’ or ‘neighbour’. Still, she slowed herself down - if she was being asked to have Mylene again…and there would be no Keith this time hanging around on gardening leave. In fact, tonight he wouldn’t be home before six. It occurred to her that this call was what she had been waiting for. No more sweating in the dark when they heard voices through the wall; no more scanning the street through the voile curtains. If only it didn’t entail seeing the girl. Still, you couldn’t keep on living next door to someone and hope never to see them. Perhaps she was being given a chance to put things right. She thought of the little objects pushed through the hedge all summer which she had artfully pushed back when no one was around. Mylene had even left a pink bicycle sprawled at the foot of their drive. Perhaps it was all just a game for her. Or perhaps Mylene had completely forgotten. But whenever Keith cut the grass Penny would find a flowerbed to weed. When he washed the car, she would clean the windows. “Why is it grey?” asked Mylene, poking the dough with a green and
purple finger. They had it tipped up on the kitchen surface. Mylene was wearing Penny’s apron turned over twice. Her pigtails were already doused in flour and her eyelashes had taken a dusting. Penny had forgotten how pretty she was. Standing on the back-to-front chair, her tummy pressed up against the counter. Penny broke off a piece of dough. “Here,” she said, “You can make a roll for your tea with this. Copy me.” She began kneading the larger lump of dough. Mylene coughed and wiped her face with the back of her dimpled hand, then set to with her smaller piece of dough, her attitude not one of determination nor enthusiasm exactly; something cooler. Surreptitiously Penny glanced at the nape of her neck. The silky blonde hair had strayed out of the bunches and a few strands were tucked down inside her collar. She glanced at Mylene’s legs, straight as poles in their rumpled socks. The fur-lined, diamond-studded boots with purple cats had been abandoned at the front door. She shaped the loaf and plopped it in its tin. Mylene decorated her roll with a carefully cut ‘M’. “Now, where’s the magic wand and the film thingy?” said Mylene sliding off the chair and clapping her hands to clean them. Penny nearly dropped the tins. He had sworn to sell the camera on ebay. She closed the door of the oven and folded the tea towel. “I threw the wand away,” she said as lightly as she could, with Mylene’s eyes on her like a gundog. “I wonder what’s on the telly ...” “Where ‘away’?” “Oh, just out in the bin. The dustmen took it a long time ago.” She led the way into the hall where the glass door to the lounge stood ajar. Mylene followed, but at the foot of the stairs stopped and swivelled her head to glance up to the landing. Penny pushed the lounge door further open and stood back for Mylene to pass. Still hovering, Mylene looked as though she would like to go up. Her mouth had fallen open, her eyes were searching beyond the top step. Penny reached out, put a hand on her little shoulder to pull her in the direction of the glass door.
It felt slightly forceful, but Mylene was placid enough. Afternoon light obscured the screen so Penny drew the curtains. Mylene appropriated the television with a flick of the remote and began going up and down the channels in a trance. Penny patted the seat beside her on the sofa. “Come and sit down. You’ll see better,” she said. But Mylene stayed where she was. Penny looked at her watch. “Would you like a drink and some crackers?” “What’s crackers?” asked Mylene, her gaze fixed. “You know, savoury biscuits.” “What’s savoury?” asked Mylene, rubbing her nose. Penny was only gone a minute but when she came back with the tray Mylene had vanished. She drew a deep breath and walked quickly to the bottom of the stairs. Not a sound. Mylene could be in the room already. She might be looking under the bed. She put the tray down on the floor and strode up two steps at a time. Their eyes locked as she rounded the top of the stairs. Mylene was standing at the bathroom door. Behind her, the tap was trickling. Penny tried to smile but the child had seen her fear and was aroused. “Where is he?” Penny felt her neck stiffen. “At work.” The girl rubbed her hands inexpertly on the towel and it slipped through the hoop onto the floor. With a straight back she bent to pick it up, concentrating to thread it back, but it kept slipping. Penny took it out of her hands and folded it back through the hoop. “When is he coming back?” “After you’ve gone home.” “What about the magic?” “There won’t be anymore of that.” Penny crossed the landing, closed the bedroom door and turned and led the way back down the stairs. After Mylene had gone Penny strolled back to the lounge to watch
Blue Peter. She tucked her feet up under a cushion. There was a freshly baked loaf sitting in the kitchen under a tea towel. She could cut the end crust off and smother it with butter, but she found herself poking dry crackers in her mouth. On the screen someone in a harness and helmet was climbing up the glass front of a building. She couldn’t see what for. In front of that was another picture: Keith’s movement in the dark, the bluish light from the laptop swinging suddenly away in an arc, his other hand reaching out to steady it so it wouldn’t fall off the bed.
I was thirty when I heard my first ever poem, properly. Then it was two poems in one week, as if they were trying to get me. They were a call to life. There’s something in literature that gives room for a wild part of me to love and have life. I wanted to know: Could I do it?
I had sat in the chair for long enough. I had to find something to do with myself. They’d turned the city to glass. I was tired of seeing myself. It was morning. It was night. Fuck you, I cried. Glass. Total internal reflection. It was morning. I had money in my pocket. The newspapersellerdidn’t touchmyhand as he passedmemy change. Coins ringing off the ground. It was night, perhaps The Angelus. If I could pray – stick to The Angelus. Matthews and Donovan convicted of a nine police search. Shannon and Shannon after newspaper reward. But the mother finding her neighbour’s divan bed kidnap charge. Mum life sentence. Devoid of emotion. That should down to her. Get life. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want this,” I answered him. “I want more than it offers.” “Wait then.” I told him my name. He didn’t touch my hand as he placed the coins down. Manners maketh the man. I was polite in each establishment. I should be tired of making the rounds. I found that by treating each day as a cloistered walk, by tipping my hat at each establishment, by using the slightly informal rather than the formal, by relying on poise, graciousness, manners – I could pass through the city leaving barely a wake. Each day I made the rounds. The city had turned to glass in this time. I could remember. Don’t you remember? But he wouldn’t touch my hand as he passed me my change. I went for pasta. I was more than hungry. I could have made this for myself. The waiter was wearing a face made from his face. I asked him about his time in the city. Polite conversation. I left the change as a tip. Little kingdoms. Each and everyone. Little kingdom, cloister of glass, cloister of manners, cloister of masks, each and everyone. I crossed the canal. Even though I’d eaten, I was thin. A thin day. I crossed the boundary and walked along the towpath. Rosebay Willowherb clumping roots growing from the cobbles, and an iron ring where horses were once tied, or perhaps boats.
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