Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Unexpected Flow

Ross Sutherland

Breaking free from a class photograph outside St Paul’s Cathedral, Connor races ahead, red rucksack bopping behind him. Once on the Millennium Bridge the boy accelerates like a bullet in the barrel, weaving through holiday snaps, hurdling dogs, dislodging clusters of tourists preoccupied with each other’s zips. Connor’s walkman clicks. The Thames thumps beneath him.

Best rapper alive,’ says Jay-Z. 

Connor paces down the ramp towards the converted power station. Against the grey sky, the art gallery looks spectral, almost unreal. Its vast chimney fades into a pencil outline. Fat couples lurch out of the fog. 

Best rapper alive,’ says Jay-Z again, synth line shaking the trees. 

Once inside the cavernous Turbine Hall, Connor attaches himself to a French school outing, only three variations of jacket between them. Connor stares blankly upwards. The sheer size of the room is exhausting. 

The French teacher turns his huge rubbery mouth towards his class, Jay-Z’s voice mumbling on his lips.

I’m gonna leave you in someone’s cathedral,’ he dubs, ‘I’ll let you see where that bright light will lead you’.

Connor follows the class up the escalator towards the first gallery level. At the top of the stairs an employee is distributing walkmans. Each child complies, uplinking themselves into the gallery’s prerecorded curation programme. Trying to look as French as possible, Connor boosts his volume and tailgates past, entering the ‘Material Gestures’ wing.

Soon he is in a grey room, flanked on all sides by giant red canvases. The pictures are empty, just a square inside another square. 

Fuck perception,’ advises Jay-Z, ‘Go with what makes sense’.

Connor examines the bench in the centre of the room. The bench is wooden, but spined with rubber, so it bounces when you sit on it. Connor lies down on it, back arched over his rucksack.

Young Hova gives his exposition: ‘No two days are alike,’ he drawls, ‘and trust is a word you seldom hear from us. Hustlers we don’t sleep, we rest one eye up’. 

Connor opens half an eye, letting all four walls liquefy in his peripheral vision. The red paintings stare back at him doomfully. He tries to imagine himself inside a water flume, a house fire, a decompressing airlock, zipped inside his own ruck-sack, a coffin about to be cremated. He waggles his legs frantically as if trapped inside his own blood.

Jay-Z pans emotionlessly in Connor’s ear, ‘Grown man, I put hands on you. I dig a hole in the desert, they build the sands on you; lay out blueprint plans on you’.

Connor sits up, feeling a bit sick. A young man in thick-rimmed glasses is looking at him suspiciously.

Fuck critics,’ says Jay-Z dismissively, ‘you can kiss my whole asshole’.

The French school have vanished into a scramble of metalwork. Connor’s mobile buzzes with an unknown number. Re-pocketing the phone, he wanders into ‘States of Flux’ with its purposeful-looking robots and detonations of paint. Connor reads the walls like a comic strip, working left to right, building the story as he goes. Plane burns. Cyborgs guard wreckage. Cyborgs rust into metal fields. Aliens land disguised as fruit bowls. Planet burns.

The rapper explains, ‘Now if you shoot my dog, I’m a kill yo’ cat. Just the unwritten laws in rap. Know dat. For every action, there’s a reaction. Don’t have me relapsin’.

After the Earth is destroyed for the third time, Connor abandons his adventure. His phone is vibrating constantly now, a permanent dull throb against his thigh. Standing on the balcony of the impeccably white café, Connor sees his school assembled in a mathematical grid on the grass below, as if primed for a bout of Warhammer. Connor frowns, chin resting on the railing. He calls down to his teacher, but the boy is shrouded in mist, alone in his viewing box, voice compressed down into a crunch of drums.  

I’m like Che Guevara with bling on. I’m complex,’ Jay-Z says, godishly. 

Connor heads back into the art. The gallery is thickening now. Legs tiring, he knows that every step forward is one he will have to make back. 

At every door a security guard’s walkie-talkie cracks. This is ‘Poetry and Dream’. 

No matter where you go,’ sing-songs the rapper, ‘you are what you are, player. And you can try to change but that’s just the top layer. Man, you was who you was before you got here…

People swarm around the paintings, pushing out their bums coquettishly as they interrogate the boxes of text. In the cracks between their arses, Connor catches flashes of madness: deformed birds, exploded heads, nonsense machines screaming then quickly retreating back into the crowd. 

Connor holds his aching stomach. Each time he turns away, a new horror slashes out at him, nightmares fighting for territory. On the far wall, a space clears. Three grotesque monsters stare back at him, hideous worms with sharp teeth. The leader extends its spindly tripod legs, its neck twisted around to face him.

These fucks,’ it hisses, ‘too lazy to make up shit. They crazy. They don’t paint pictures. They just trace me’.

Connor’s legs stumble out from beneath him. A foreign hand grips him under his armpit, and Connor gives in to it, head rolling back. A thunder of shoes and suddenly the boy is gone, floating upwards towards the ceiling, back soaked through with sweat. 

Seconds pass and Connor is looking up into the huge nostrils of a security guard. One earphone swings down by his side. The other is pushed deep into his ear, pressed against the man’s coarse jacket. As they bob downstairs, a voice whispers to him conspiratorially from deep inside the guard’s chest,

You know what?’ it says, ‘Soon they forget who they plucked their whole style from, and try to reverse the outcome’.

Soon they are both outside, back under the jurisdiction of the Thames and its distinctly British ice-cold flows. The cool September air rushes in through the boy’s burning ear, dampening the bounce of sticky hi-hats and klaxons, freezing the track level by level. Until there, distinct at the bottom of the mix, the lost voice of his teacher, hollering his name over and over and over. 

Far above their heads, a graphic equaliser of starlings rides silently into the hook.



Connor is listening to The Black Album by Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella Records, 2003).
In order, he listens to:

‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’
‘Moment of Clarity’
‘December 4th’
‘99 Problems’
‘Justify My Thug’
‘Public Service Announcement’
‘What More Can I Say’