An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicester is a collection of poetry and short fiction compiled by Jon Wilkins. Inspired by Georges Perec’s three days observing that which passed unnoticed in Saint-Sulpice Square, which resulted in his writing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, this collection asks if it is possible to wring out everything about a city so that there was nothing left to write?
It collects submissions from over 70 writers, featuring ghosts, memories, dystopia, humour, loneliness, nostalgia and much more against the backdrop of the exciting, inspirational and culturally rich city of Leicester and its county.
Below is a short extract from Homecoming, the submission I made to the collection.
The buildings of the University dominated the skyline, striking the chords of Sarah’s memory. Her relentless trudge became a determined hike. In her mind’s eye she was with Katie and Surita in their first year of University. The long stretch of Queens Road before them, dipping down towards the fish and chip shop and then rising past the garage and the shops before erupting onto the vista of Victoria Park. The University, their destination, was always visible ahead of them, if only by the tip of the Attenborough Tower protruding above the turn of the century terraces.
The memory of those walks stayed with her as she made her way down the hill in the centre of the road. The tarmac was cracked and crumbling. Cars rusted in front of the houses on either side. Some cars had been abandoned, doors flung wide open. Sarah gave them all a wide berth. It would not be the first time someone had tried to take her by hiding in the boot of a car. Once or twice she had thought about taking a car instead of walking, but they were noisy and would draw too much attention. Besides, fuel was scarce: the petrol stations had long since been drained dry.
She took her water bottle from her backpack and unscrewed the top, searching the road for any signs of life. Grass grew wild through the paving stones. Weeds sprouted from the guttering of the houses, unchecked over the years. She looked with significant misgivings at the houses themselves. The windows were like eyes watching her. She hoped to be long gone before dark. If it hadn’t been for the beacon, she wouldn’t be here at all.
The water bottle scuffed her already chapped lips and she tasted blood. She wondered if the shops would still have supplies but she didn’t get her hopes up. Even the rural places she’d passed to get here had been looted. She remembered the winter days when she, Surita and Katie had walked into University sharing beeswax lip balm or the red and yellow stuff that Surita used that made Sarah’s lips tingle. It had been easy to be free with things in those days of plenty.
She screwed the top back on the water bottle and tried not to worry about how little was left. The beacon had promised shelter and safety. She was almost out of water. She had only a few scraps of food. Hunger tore at her stomach between waking and the fitful sleep she had in the night. She had not slept properly for weeks. Walking towards the University, she could almost imagine that it was exam stress keeping her from her dreams. Almost.
The first shop she passed was nothing but toppled shelves and broken windows. Strip lights hung on exposed wires and the till lay in pieces across the cracked tile floor. A sweet stand stood empty on the counter, another had been knocked onto its side. She could see no one inside and no reason to go inside.
No corpses either. She was relieved about that. It was almost all her human contact these days. The bodies of those that didn’t survive the virus. The bodies of those that had not survived the months after. The world wiped almost clean, as if by the wrath of God. Everything had failed, civilisation included.
Sarah felt the sickness rise, the burn of bile in her throat that always accompanied thoughts of the virus. Everyone had caught it. She remembered the ache in her joints that were the first symptom. Sitting at her desk in the office and feeling like someone was trying to prise her bones apart with a red-hot poker. The muscular spasms as she’d gone home on the bus, her fingers jerking out of time to music that played out in waves of pain. The fever consuming her as she’d stumbled in her hallway, the front door left open. Crawling to the bottom of the stairs before falling unconscious. No one helped her up. Everyone else was sick too.
Recovery had been agony. More than once she’d wished she’d died, like everyone else on her street. The stench of death filled her village. When she had been well enough to stand, to hobble to the window and peer out, she had seen dead parents in the playground. She had hitched the curtains shut before she had to see dead children. She tried to sleep, but she saw her neighbours’ faces in her dreams. The broken blood vessels in white-filmed eyes. The skin peeling from skulls. Nightmares no worse than the world outside her door.
There had been others in her village who made it through. The survivors of Scraptoft banded together and burned the dead in the field opposite All Saint’s Church. It had been called the Edith Cole Memorial Park. Now it was just the Memorial.
She had hated the work. They had all taken it in turns to collect wood and collect bodies. They took keys from the pockets of the dead, leaving keepsakes and clothes to burn. So many dead. So many of them children. After the burning, the dead left her dreams in peace. She hoped that they had found some peace of their own.
Many of the Scraptoft survivors had stayed in their houses. Some were too weak to travel. They had survived the virus, but it had taken its toll. Some stayed for their children, wanting them to grow up in houses they knew rather than on the road. Others moved away. Those who had lost family members. Those whose family members lived elsewhere but had survived. By the time Sarah left, there were only a handful of people left and supplies were dwindling every day. There had been plans to turn the area near the playground into an allotment but those had come to nothing. People grew their own food and guarded it jealously. Suspicion of neighbours became commonplace. Sarah got out before the rising tension could become killing.
She continued down Queens Road looking east, as if she could see the five miles to Scraptoft through the houses and over the land. That small village that she had made her home. She’d lived in Leicester, in the shadow of the University, since graduating. When she realised all her friends had moved away and she had no stomach for late nights out on the town, she’d decided to move out to the suburbs. Somewhere with trees and fields.
She hadn’t expected it to be forever, but the village was idyllic. She could sit on by the duck pond and watched coots and gulls, moor hens and mallards fighting for food scattered from children’s hands. She could watch buzzards quartering the fields, soaring above small flocks of sheep and cows. Songbirds flittered through the hedgerows as she walked down the lane. At dusk, bats swooped over the pond as fairy lights from the house on the opposite bank twinkled above the water. The place had lodged in her soul. It had been worse than dying watching the village she loved die. She would never go back.