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Climb Up The Years 

Max Dunbar 

 Max Dunbar


Max was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He also writes criticism for 3:AM and Butterflies and Wheels.

He blogs at


and tweets at


Max Dunbar lives in Leeds and can be contacted on

The woman outside the Hyde Park had been drunk for a long time. She hollered something at Alex as they walked by, then got in Alex’s face when they made for the lights. Alex was more irritated than scared.

          She and Dale pushed past, crossed at the lights, left behind the Hyde Park pub and the congaline of students headed towards it, dressed in animal onesies, Hawaiian shirts and cheerleader pompoms, dazed and lairy from the Otley Run – the Woodies, the Three Horseshoes, The New Inn, the Havana, the Taps, the Trio, the Arc, the Box, the Skyrack, the Oak down to the Hyde Park, a noisy yellowcard barn that stood out in the sophisticated enclave of the Corner with its retro boutique and cafe bars.

          ‘We should go in there one time,’ she said. ‘Just for comedy value.’

          Dale laughed. ‘Bad idea. It’s just too messy. Maybe for comedy we could go to that place in Meanwood, the True Briton –‘

          ‘The UKIP Arms.’


           It was the first fine evening of the year, the grass panoramic on both sides of Woodhouse Lane, solitary joggers in bodywarm wraps, couples hand in hand, clusters of houses and trees. The air was taut and cold against the setting sun.

When they got to the restaurant Dale discovered that his wallet was gone. Alex turned from the bar at his shout. Dale was flapping and tearing through pockets. ‘Fuck! That cunt outside the Hyde Park! She dipped me!’

         ‘Honey, keep your voice down,’ Alex said.  

         ‘But my cards!’

         Alex was in no mood for this. She had worked hard all week and wanted to let go. ‘Listen, there’s two choices here. We go to the nearest police station and get messed around and get a crime number and nothing else happens except that we’ve let this tramp – if she really did this – ruin our night. Or you ring and cancel your cards, I’ll pay your share and we just chill out. Okay?’

         Dale stomped outside with phone in hand. Alex could already see Jag’s spiky peak in the entry crowd and headed over to join them.


        ‘You should never marry a man,’ Victoria was saying, ‘who has a name for his penis. Even if it’s a comedy name, like ‘Captain Crunch,’ or ‘Rod Hull,’ but especially if it’s a more refined name. ‘Lance,’ say, or ‘Stormsbane’ – you know like they’ve put too much thought into it.’

          ‘It’s true,’ Dale said. ‘I knew some guys at uni who named their dicks and were completely upfront about it.’

          Victoria pointed at Dale as if to say: QED. ‘I once slept with a guy who was in that Puppetry of the Penis show. He had all his costumes in his room and used to wake me up with Das Boot impressions.’

        ‘You girls are all about the cock,’ Jag said. ‘Stop talking about cock!’

        ‘Oh, does it make you un-com-for-ta-ble,’ Alex said in a teasing voice.

        ‘Can we just get off the whole penis subject altogether.’

        ‘It makes you feel uncomfortable.’

        ‘It makes me feel cold and violated.’

         In truth they were having a great night, one of those evenings when you’re laughing so hard people stare from other tables. Dale had been hacked about the loss of his cards (and why not, Alex figured, men were sensitive about finance, the idea of getting taken, getting ripped off, was anathema to them, stole something pale and secret from their hearts) but his sulk hadn’t lasted. Normally they all just bitched about work. Jag and Victoria were both housing officers, Alex a CPS barrister. They worked themselves into the ground and then at the weekend they dragged themselves to the Pot or Seven Arts and they drank pint after pint and bitched about work. The management. The clients. The cases. The bureaucracy. The processology. The darkness. The horror. They would get drunk and bitch and she would wonder how they had got so cynical and she would go outside for a cigarette and inhale the pleasant exhaustion of the Sunday dark. Only Dale was spared all this. He was a rep at a gym equipment firm and travelled a lot around the region. Dale always looked fresh and happy. His work kept him young.

         Jag picked up on this now. He poked Dale with some kind of chopstick. ‘Hey, with all the travelling you do, all those gym bitches, do you never get tempted?’

         ‘He gets tempted,’ Alex said, ‘but he knows that should he have sex with any of these women he will then have to decide which testicle he doesn’t need.’

         ‘Don’t worry.’ Under the table, she felt her heel nosed off her foot. ‘Women who are gym addicts aren’t attractive. They’re all in late middle age and they’ve never exercised in their lives and they’re suddenly realising the impact that’s had on their heart and bloodstream and their relationships. Or they are like hardcore bodybuilders. Arms like bags of rocks. Ain’t a turn on, believe me.’

         ‘Depressing,’ Victoria said. ‘That’ll be us one day, mark my words.’

         ‘Not me,’ Jag said. ‘I plan to have a mid life crisis, buy an open-top car, get Inca tattoos and start taking pills again.’

         ‘That creepy older guy at the club.’ Victoria was sniggering. ‘That’ll be you.’

         When I was young I wanted to be that guy,’ Jag said. ‘That guy’s like my hero.’

         ‘Seriously though, it’s tragic,’ Dale said. ‘You see like divorced men at the gyms tryna pump themselves up, perving on younger women, married guys as well, it’s pathetic. You got to accept that you’re young and have your time and then it ends. Anyone who don’t is someone who has something to prove.’

         ‘But people do it,’ Alex said.

         ‘Yeah. Men compartmentalise things,’ Dale said. ‘Like, guys who have sheds at the bottom of the garden.’

         ‘Like in The Bridge,’ Victoria said, ‘where Saga and her boyfriend have separate rooms.’

         ‘Not just men.’ Alex was thinking of her cycling holidays in Latin America and her collection of retro zines and her three previous terminations and other things about her Dale didn’t know.

         ‘I mean I had a great time at college, great bunch of lads, drinking –‘

         ‘You were Unilad.’ Victoria’s eyes glittered with hilarity. ‘You were like –‘

         ‘I always say that if me and Dale had met when we were twenty we would have hated each other,’ Alex said. ‘We would have actually murdered each other!’

         They had been together for three years. She had met him after going out drinking one night with an old university friend. Alex and Maxine, Aximus and Maximus they called themselves, and they had been druggy bohemians as students, veterans of the Brudenell and the Social that was and the Hyde Park houseparty culture, but that night for some reason they ended up in one of those terrible rapey clubs on Millennium Square. ‘This is the place where they had that ‘Fresher Violation’ event that got banned,’ Max had said. ‘It’ll be comedy in a bap.’


She had picked Dale off the dancefloor that night because he was fit and toned without the orange roidal pallor of most of the guys in there. She had taken him home for the sex, but it was when they were having breakfast in the Pit, and he had revealed a sensitivity and sense of humour that she hadn’t expected from someone with his looks, that she knew something had changed: when she realised she didn’t want the afternoon to end.

        Under the table she felt Dale’s toes squeeze the bridge of her foot.


The next day Dale’s wallet came back. It was nine in the morning, Dale was on his five a side and Alex was sleeping off the espresso martinis. She’d always had vivid dreams and this morning she went through a fearful tremulous vision, something she ended up thinking about a lot, a man in a car, viewed from the back, driving hither and yon down an A road, very fast. There was something scary about the set and determination of this dream-figure whose face she could not see. The dream became a memory, the four of them stepping outside the restaurant, really quite drunk, Jag shouting: ‘Where’s my coat? Where’s my coat! You’ve got it!’


          Someone was knocking at the door. Alex pulled on her Hello Kitty robe and went downstairs. Opened up. The woman from the Hyde Park stood on the porch.

         ‘Hello,’ Alex said. ‘Can I help you?’

         ‘Came to give you this back.’ The tramp flung Dale’s wallet at her bare feet. The woman was wearing cords and a backpack and a cloche hat and some kind of fluorescent vest that might have belonged to a roadworker. Her face had the fierce pursed indignation Alex had seen staring from the dock a thousand times.

         ‘So you did steal it. Thanks for coming back. I suppose the cards and shit are still there?’

         ‘I didn’t rob him for the money,’ said the tramp. ‘There was information I needed.’

         ‘How’d you find this address?’

         ‘It’s written on the back of his Yellow Card.’ It was crazy, but the girl’s voice was losing its council estate rarr-rarr-rarr accent. The tone was more layered and precise. Like the voices of the students she heard in the Clock Cafe.

         ‘You need to sort yourself out,’ Alex said. ‘I can make referrals. What I don’t want is to ever see you here again. If you don’t get off my property now I’ll call the police. This is Chapel Allerton. They come quick.’

         ‘Alright, chill.’ The woman raised her palms and took a step back.

         ‘Who the hell are you, anyway?’

         ‘An old acquaintance of your fiancee’s,’ the woman said in perfect pitch. And then she put her head down and got walking down Alex’s drive.


Alex closed the porch door, locked it, closed the front door, locked that too. She opened up the wallet. The cash was gone but the cards looked to be all there. She pulled them out. There was a Visa debit and a Switch (Christ, she thought, who still has Switch?) Nectar, a membership card from the White Ridge golf club, a business card from a letting agent and another card that looked to have been made up from a local printshop. It said Congratulations love – you have just met the Headingley Bantz Boys. Over the last year they had been going out less and less, and cooking and reading novels and drinking red and watching The Bridge and Borgen under the sofa blanket together, and been happy. But when Alex saw this card there was a feeling of jarred assonance, like something had entered the sleepy conviviality of their lives together.

          Maybe she should run them up to him. The man would like a pint after his game, he would be too proud to ask his friends for money and it would be her doing something ladylike maybe, for comedy value, like the stir frys and the brownies she sometimes baked. She went upstairs, into the room they shared (his share of the bed was always made up with the frightening precision of a soldier or a nurse, clothes folded into plump squares or hung like dim battalions in the closet by the window, whereas her side was a mess of creases, coffee cups, old t-shirts and half-read books piled on top of each other in a Jenga rubble) and found no papers addressed to him.

          She realised she was getting into that hungover state where she burrowed down into a single anxiety until it stopped making sense. She should either sort it out now or go back to sleep for a bit. She decided to go and see Dale.


He played football on the Bracken Hills ground off Harehills Lane. Alex was halfway up Potternewton when she realised she probably shouldn’t be driving either. One of Dale’s stories ran through her head: he’s about sixty, had a spell for United but been doing this ever since, coaching the lads, and he don’t take any shit, some of the younger ones, they get cocky, but old Birch, he don’t take any shit. A spill of nausea worked its way up into her throat and she swerved, pulled over by the dead Hummingbird site and vomited into the pavement. A woman on an electric bike looked over, then looked away, but Alex didn’t care: it had been pavement pizza or Prius upholstery.

          It was that same almost-spring chill and the walk cleared her head. He says to me: Dale, I don’t know how much longer I can keep up with them. On the Bracken there were men in the distance. Familiar formations. Isolated shouts. Walking toward these men, she was reminded of her childhood in Stocksbridge, when she’d been into football (still was, she was a Blade, Dale was LUFC, and wasn’t there some banter about that) and she had an uplift that felt like a memory, headed towards a field of men outlit and shadowed against a quiet cityscape beyond, the grass like a plateau, the ultimate foreground, the world’s highest point. The feeling ebbed as she grew closer, and made out the faces of the players. She did not recognise any of these men.


‘Dale Ullswater? No.’ The coach wasn’t sixty years old but a lean balding man of about forty-five. ‘Hasn’t turned out for years.’

         There was some laughter. ‘I’m not sure he’d make the grade now. Too much beer.’

         She didn’t understand. Dale rarely drank. ‘But he used to play for you? The reason I’m here is because he said he’d be playing here today. It’s like, this is where he goes, every Saturday. It’s a ritual with him.’

         The players looked nonplussed. They were mainly guys in their twenties and thirties, guys with wives and kids, a couple of student jocks. The coach said: ‘I’m really sorry, love. I don’t know what to tell you. The last I saw him was one night in the Taps, in Headingley, about six month ago.’

         God knows what they were thinking as she walked away backwards, arms spread in apology or dismissal, and halfway to the road she took out her phone and cycled through the contacts. Bliss, Canadian Craig, Cariss, Jag, Jay, Martin, Teemu, Thommo. She realised now that all their friends were her friends. Over a hundred entries, and Dale hadn’t known a single one before their relationship.

            In Seven Arts she ordered onion bhajis and looked again at Dale’s cards. The one from the Headingley Bantz Boys

(Congratulations love – you have just met)

         had a URL on the card, to a Facebook page. She punched it into her phone.

         The page had hundreds of threads, aggregated and concertinaed over days. There were a great many shots of young women, taken at furtive angles. She opened up a thread. spotted in met Library – I said slap that and ride the ripples! had a cheeky dangerwank... I would hit that fittie like fucin Ron Jeremy. rag all over the hob. i was horny, she was there. she was a *big girl*. any1 got this bitchs address? pls let her be 12!

          Others, just as sordid.

          Dale’s name was all over these threads, but she couldn’t tell the extent of her fiancee’s involvement. She didn’t feel particularly oppressed by the patriarchy or kyriarchy or heteronormative cis culture, but this kind of thing was just pathetic. And if Dale had taken shots of women without their consent, then uploaded them to social media, he had committed a crime.    

          It had to be sorted out now, sorted today. She was thinking more like a prosecutor, an investigator. She studied the business card, from something called Monopsony Properties. In Headingley. Her one remaining lead.


A 91 took her across the border. Saturday in Headingley was cars and buses and guys toting tables out of Wilkinsons and glossy orange supermarket bags and niches of bookshops and little galleries and jazz cafes. She found Monopsony with no hassle, perched on the upper edge of North Lane. Its main office was an overdesigned mess of thick carpet and glass partitions. The intended atmosphere had been one of discreet and self-satisfied efficiency. Men in cheap Next suits and women in shapeless blouses argued with groups of Hyde Park hipsters.

          The woman began the standard data protection spiel before Alex had finished her opening questions. But Alex had experience of dealing with evasive landlords through her own years in LS6, and more experience as a prosecutor working with the council’s PSH team. ‘Don’t interrupt me,’ she said, and flashed her work ID. ‘This man’s wanted as part of a serious investigation, and if you attempt to delay me, I’ll get your name and job title and it will be known to the investigating officers that you obstructed our inquiries.’

         That did the trick. A skittish clatter on the keyboard and she had an address.

         ‘Mr Ullswater lived here?’

         ‘He’s a current tenant,’ the administrator said. ‘He’s been resident at that address for four years.’

         ‘That can’t be right,’ Alex said.

         ‘He has a direct debit there. There have been tenancy issues at the address, complaints of anti-social behaviour, disrepair, aggression – as you’re working with the police, you’ll already know that. He had one of our staff in tears.’ The administrator pushed a flop of hair from her right eye. This girl had an angular face behind glasses that were a little too big for her. ‘In all honesty, apart from the fact that he pays promptly and in full – the man is a nightmare tenant. We won’t be sorry to see him go.’


The house was a terraced three-storey in one of Headingley’s lesser suburbs. The garden was a small patch of stony scorched earth. A wheelie bin lay on its side, and on the stone wall was a woman’s stiletto, large for a girl’s shoe. The door gate had been wrenched off its casings.

          She had a skeleton key off the admin girl. The smell hit her like a warm rinse. It was a smell of sheds and dens and cheery self-neglect.

          It was one of those houses where the door opens directly onto the front room. The first thing she saw was a map of West Yorkshire. The legend SLUTDROP COUNTY had been written above this in permanent marker. There were pins on the map, marked with smaller capitalised writing. The odd pair of ripped knickers dangled from the pins.

          There were men sleeping on sofas, men crashed on the floor. The TV faced away from her, but she could hear a thrust and yelp, repeated again and again as if whatever was playing had got stuck on some glitch or gremlin. The table was piled with polystyrene boxes and half-empty Basic Whisky bottles.

          There was one man on the sofa who was fully conscious. He wore a HEADINGLEY BANTZ BOYS t shirt, the pale shoddy kind of thing you got at the union printshop, splattered with some kind of milkshake. A hand rummaged idly in his balls.

          ‘Is Dale here? Dale Ullswater?’

          ‘Dale?’ The guy had a Middlesborough accent and a fringe that hung down like spiderlegs over his forehead. ‘Maybe at the shop.’

          One of the men on the floor muttered ‘Shop...’ and then gave a high sinister giggle.

          ‘Or maybe he’s upstairs.’

          ‘Upstairs...’ That high zithering snigger went through her.

          ‘And he lives here full time?’

          ‘Oh yeah,’ said Sofa Man. ‘Travels a lot for work, but he’s one of us.’

          She picked her way across the sleeping men. The carpet squelched under her feet. The far door led to a narrow staircase interrupted by landings and locked doors. In this kind of HMO... the doors are locked because no one trusts each other.

          Dale’s room was at the top of the house. She used the skeleton on the door. A room not much bigger than the custody suite cells in Pudsey cop shop. And not as tidy. The bed was a mislaid ruin. Old copies of FHM, more polystyrene boxes, empty cans, stacks of DVDs in blank sleeves, piled and sliding all over the desk, the chair, the carpet. Used sports clothes in sorry tangles. Something that looked like a shift rota taped to one wall. A built-in sink with greenish trails.

           This room was the epicentre of that smell. Sheds and dens and secret compartments. A wedge of papers on the chair. All official-looking post, all addressed to Dale, some of the envelopes from companies she’d never heard of saying things like


           A fusillade of footsteps on the stairs.           

          Sheds and dens and locked doors.


          It took her a moment to recognise Dale. He looked like a child, a child that had got old. He appeared to be holding something behind his back.

          ‘You’re in my room,’ is what he said.

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