186. Candyman.

The shadows thrown by the shiny cars that nobody owns begin to lengthen in the car park and the long seconds tick by, each second becoming, like the shadows, longer and longer, as the people in the office fidget and watch the seconds, watch the shadows, until the shadows melt into one another, becoming one shadow, and the seconds melt into one another and become five o’clock.
The people of the office stop being people of the office and become people of the shadows, then they become people of the cars, then the cars leave, taking the people and the shadows with them, and that’s when I stop looking out of the window and look at my computer screen and try to do some work.
At ten past five o’clock I stop trying, stop pretending. I surf the net a little, a term I hate almost as much as I imagine actual surfers hate it. A past-time that requires skill, patience and prowess suddenly hijacked to describe an activity that requires none of these things, and even calling it an ‘activity’ is something of a stretch.
The reality is that I monged the net. That’s more fitting.
We mong it.
Or pehaps Belm it. Maybe we are all belming the net.
I’m certainly no surfer.
I’m much more of a monger or a belmer.
We are all mostly mongers and belmers. Let’s just accept it and leave the surfers to surf in the piss and shit and panty pads of the mongers and the belmers.
It seems to make them happy.
It is now twenty past five.
The cleaners will be round soon and so will Christmas.
The man who runs the cleaning crew – the weird man with the chip on his shoulder and the built up shoe on his foot – he seems to have bought a shipping container full of festive scented cleaning products from a car boot or somewhere godawful like that, because every time the cleaners come round and start to spray and polish and dust it smells like they are spraying and polishing and dusting with fistfuls of mince pies, mulled wine and Christmas cake. This is barely tolerable throughout the month of December, but you try getting a snoutful of cinnamon and mixed peel in the heart of a muggy, overcast, late Summer evening and you’ll know the true bleakness that a misplaced seasonal scent can bring.
Unfortunately this also has the effect of making Christmas feel like a shiny desk or freshly vacuumed carpet tiles, thus ruining two things for the price of one.
The one good thing about the cleaning crew is the girl who comes around and cleans our desks. She’s what I suppose people describe as ‘kooky’. Mid twenties or something, shy, good looking but not too good looking, not the kind of good looking that knows it’s good looking and blasts those good looks into your face like a cheap can of Yuletide furniture polish. No, I just like the look of her. She has a nice face and a lop sided grin. She’s Russian, I think, or something like that. I haven’t asked her where she’s from because in this post Brexit day and age it feels like you’re asking where in the world she’s going to be shipped back to in the uncomfortably near future.
And in a weird way I feel racist when I ask people where they’re from, like I know they’re not from here, even though they’re here now. Kooky girl is here and English is only a label, a label I feel very neutral towards, so if she’s not English then that’s fine, let’s leave it at that.
I look at the computer screen full of icons. Screen icons, but none of them are Faye Dunaway or Charlton Heston or James Dean. They’re little pictures of folders, printers, disks and drives.
The stuff of dreams.
Electric dreams.
I want to smoke.
I don’t consider myself a smoker but I smoke. I know I do. I can go weeks without smoking but then I’ll be walking, walking, and I’ll walk into a petrol station and buy a blue tin of small, thin, tight packed cheap cigarillos and I’ll smoke them all, loving them and hating them in equal measure.
That’s what I want to smoke now.
I want to push back from the desk, lift the ankle of one leg up to rest across the knee of the other leg, tip back in my chair and smoke a cheap fucking cigarillo.
I don’t.
I take a mouthful of very cold coffee look at the screen some more.
Work.
Got. To. Work.
I’m focussing, concentrating…
Something lands on my desk with a clatter. It bounces, rolls, comes to rest against the keyboard.
It is a sweet of some kind. Oblong, dark purple, gold twists at either end. There is writing on the sweet but I can’t understand it.
A foreign sweet.
I stare at the sweet for a second, slightly dumbfounded, and then I hear breathing.
I look up.
I press back in my chair.
“Fuuuuck…”
An enormous man is standing next to me, grinning.
He seems to be as wide as he is tall. Fat, but in a solid, enormously powerful way. He is bristly, somehow bristly all over, like how a hibernating bear might look if you’d gone at it with a pair of beard clippers for a midwinter prank.
He is panting.
He wears a tatty grey t-shirt and tatty grey shorts, tatty grey socks and brown sandals. He has a great sheaf of bin bags tucked into the waste band of his shorts, cheap bin bags, gossamer thin, wafting in the slightest breeze like a dead girl’s hair underwater.
He is grinning and panting.
He says “Party.”
His accent is thick, Eastern European.
I pick up the sweet and hand it back to the enormous man, presuming he has dropped it, but he shakes his huge head, waves his hands.
He says, “Pliz.”
Then he says, “Party.”
I look at the enormous man, then I look at the sweet again.
I hear him say, “Pliz.”
He wants me to eat the sweet.
I don’t want to.
My training kicks in. I call it training, but in reality it is just that drilled-in warning that my mother used to say whenever I left the house.
Don’t Take Sweets From Strangers.
To be fair, I was never offered sweets by anyone as a kid. Maybe I wasn’t attractive enough. Maybe I’ve matured into a more appealing target.
So this was it. This was the moment she had warned me about, all those years ago.
The Stranger was here, offering me his sweets.
My stomach clamped shut. My mouth went dry.
I shook my head. I said, “I can’t eat this. Sorry.”
I slid the sweet across the desk towards him.
The enormous man looks shocked. He says, “Pliz!”
I try to think of something, so I say, “If I eat this… I’ll… I’ll die.”
This is what my subconscious was really telling me. If you eat the sweet you will end up bummed and murdered and dumped in a ditch on the moors.
Thanks, mum.
The enormous man is confused so I perform an elaborate pantomime of eating the sweet and dying and the enormous man looks shocked.
He says, “Ah! Dia… diabeets?”
Fuck it. In for a penny. “Yes! I have diabeets. If I eat this sweet I will die of diabeets. Sorry.”
The enormous man looks saddened. He shrugs, picks up the unwanted sweet and puts it back in the pocket of his tatty grey shorts, where it will nestle in the dark with all the other sweets, warmed by the heat of his thick, bristly genitalia that hangs heavily just millimeters away, jostling the sweets for space within the crowded confines of his shorts.
I’m staring at his shorts so I look away.
I say “Sorry” again.
And then he lunges at me.
It looks like he’s going for his gun.
I let out a small scream and twitch convulsively.
He sprays Christmas spray across my desk and starts to wipe it vigorously, pinning me against the desk.
“Sorreee…” he breathes.
I don’t move.
He changes the liner of my bin, removing one cobweb thin bin liner, replacing it with another.
“Sorreee….” he whispers.
I don’t move.
He lumbers across to a Henry vacuum, fires it up, then slowly hoovers around my work space.
“Sorreee…” he pants.
I don’t move.
He switches off Henry. He says, “Thankyoubye.”
He lumbers away, whistling very quietly through his teeth.
I don’t move.
I want a trained counsellor to say, ‘show me on the doll where he touched you’.

Over the next few days I hear from other people who are terrified of the enormous man, or ‘The Candyman’ as he has come to be known.
He apparently likes to tell people that they can go home, as though he is giving them permission. Or he’ll say ‘party’ and start to do this weird little dance. Then he’ll laugh hugely and slap their back or squeeze their arm like it is his little joke. This is fine, maybe it’s just his way of being friendly, but it really does feel more sinister than this.
I talk to Mike TV.
Mike TV is an American who works on my shift sometimes. He’s fairly new but he’s catching on quick, he’s realised that he’s accidentally taken a job in a freak show.
Mike TV is shaking his head. “Dude, The Candyman is freaking me out! I mean, there’s some freaky dudes in this place but The Candyman is something else. Does he give you candy?”
I say, “He tried, once, but I told him it would kill me. I said I had diabetes.”
Mike TV looks impressed. “Wow. I wish I’d thought of that.”
He opens a desk drawer. It is full of sweets.
I say, “Shit! There must be… 200 sweets in there! What do they taste like?”
Mike TV shrugs. “Search me. I’m not gonna eat one. Some of the other guys call ‘em ‘Rape Sweets’. You eat one of those and you’ll wake up naked in a dumpster. Office Brian ate one. He says they’re full of some kind of booze. He felt spaced out for the rest of his shift. Drunk or something. Nah, man, I ain’t eatin’ these Mickey Finns.”
I feel a bit bad. Here’s this bloke, cleaning offices on minimum wage, trying to be friendly by handing out sweets to the people he works with. He only wants to fit in. And how do we thank him?
By insinuating he’s a bit rapey.
Not good.
I decide I’m going to try and make an effort with The Candyman.
This plan goes out of the window the very next day. I’m working and Mike TV comes into the office looking shaken.
He stumbles over to my desk.
He says, “Jesus, Luci. The Candyman just cornered me.”
“What did he do?”
He says, “Well, I was in the bathroom, takin’ a piss, and suddenly he’s standing there, grinning at me, watchin’ me, an’ I say to him, ‘Erm, like, dude, I’m tryin’ to take a piss here’, so he offers me a fuckin’ piece of candy, so I say, ‘Thanks an’ all, but I kinda got my hands full here’ so he just smiles a creepy smile, walks over, AND SLIPS THE CANDY INTO MY FUCKIN’ POCKET!”
I shudder. “What, your… your shirt pocket?”
Mike TV shakes his head. “Nah, dude. My fuckin’… trouser… pocket.”
I whisper, “He… he put sweets… into your pocket… in the toilet… while you were… pissing?”
Mike TV nods.
I say, “That’s pretty fucked up.”
Mike TV says, “I know. That’s it, man. I’m done with that guy. You just don’t invade personal space like that, y’know? You just don’t do it!”
I say, “Damn right. Wait. Maybe… maybe he knows it creeps us out? Maybe it’s, like, his thing, you know? Maybe it’s how he gets his kicks?”
Mike TV shudders. “Dude, you ain’t makin’ me feel any better.”
“Sorry.”

The cleaning becomes more intimate.
The Candyman reaches around me like he’s giving me a reachround, and when I try to move he says, “NO SORRY NO! IS NO TROUBLE!” and sprays Christmas over the desk and over my screen and over my hands and then he wipes, wipes, wipes. He whistles through his teeth, quietly, hiss hiss hiss, then he will vacuum the carpet beneath me, the bottom of my chair, my shoes, my ankles, my shins, the long probing nose of Henry sucking where The Candyman tells him to suck.
It is horrible.
I start to realise that The Candyman’s jokes and actions are little set pieces – I hear him doing the same thing to other people in the office when they happen to be on my shift. The squeezings, the sucking, the wiping, all are practiced, all are part of a repertoire. I imagine The Candyman in the quiet hours of the afternoon, shirt off, practicing his moves in a full length mirror like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver:
“You can go home.” (produces bottle of glass cleaner, squirts.)
“Party.” (Does the creepy little dance.)
“Diabeet?” (Hurls strange foreign sweet with deadly force)
“Pliz.” (forces people to eat his rape candy.”
I am now frightened of The Candyman.

Next evening he is not there.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
I am on my own so I pop my earphones in and try to get some work done.
But then I feel a hand on my arm.
A huge hand.
It is The Candyman.
He is grinning. He says something.
I pull out my earphones and say, “Sorry, what?”
He says, You go home. It ok. I say so.”
He is grinning that idiot grin, standing over me, his large belly brushing my shoulder. I am trapped against my desk.
I say, “Ha. Ha ha. Yeah…”
His big hand is massaging my upper arm. I can feel the huge strength of the man. He reminds me of a Turkish wrestler, or one of those formidable masseurs who look like they could easily pull every single muscle in your body from the bone, like a roast chicken, and serve it to you on a plate.
He says, “You go home.”
He is still smiling, but… is it a threat? Is this a Brexit thing? Does he think that I voted to send him home, and this is his subtle way of saying, ‘Fuck you. YOU go home, I’m staying.’
I suddenly want to know where he is from. I want to know where home is, where he is sending me. In five years time will I be cleaning an office in Budapest, handing out Mini Mars bars to startled office workers and asking them to ‘Party’?
I feel unusual.
The Candyman suddenly laughs heartily and releases me. He slaps my back and walks away, wiping and cleaning and dusting.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead with a hand that reeks of Christmas.
The next evening I wait until half past five comes around, then I flee.
I tip toe down the corridor to a fire escape, creep down the stairs, and see a figure lurking in the shadows…
“Fucking Hell!!!”
He says, “Jesus, dude! You scared the livin’ crap out of me!”
It’s Mike TV.
I say, “What the fuck are you doing down here??”
He says, “What do you think I’m doing? I’m hidin’ from that big freaky bastard. What are YOU doin’ down here?”
I say, “Me too.”
We sit on a dusty step and get out our phones.
We scroll through news channels, read about Immigration and ISIS.
We are an American and an Englishman cowering in the gloom while a powerful foreign invader prowls the office, armed with dubious chemicals, taking pride in the domain where he rules for an hour very night, dragging Henry by the nose like a squire, his pockets bulging with offerings that say to those he crushes, “I Come In Peace.”
We have tasted our own medicine and it tastes of Christmas.

1-kk1

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185. Excess Baggage

The hot, Tuscan wind whips across the cracked concrete of the runway, mixing with the heat of the jet engines, the heat from the sun, the stored heat from the baked ground.
We are going home.
The tired Ryanair plane crouches in front of us, scoured by hundreds of thousands of miles in the air and I know just how it feels. I’ve been awake for over thirty hours, my eyes are gritty and grainy. The previous day I’d raced our car along the drag-strip roads of Italy to Pisa, from the potholes and gravel of the backroads to the sagging skid-marked tarmac of their dubious motorways, avoiding hurtling Alpha Romeos and murderous construction trucks.
Driving in Italy is like Mad Max in a nice suit, listening to opera on the stereo whilst trying to smash your enemy into the nearest field of bellissimo sunflowers. Not for the faint hearted.
The night was spent in a sixties tenement block in an apartment that had sold itself as a delightful ‘B&B’, but was in fact a sterile apartment with beds but no breakfast, in essence a ‘B’ without the ‘&B’. We laid in the stifling heat of our family room with the windows open in the vain hope of a cool draught, listening to the sports cars hurtling, the superbikes racing, and the ambulances screaming with their all too regular payloads of smashed meat, on their way to the hospital across the road.
As the traffic died – literally – we began to settle, only to be awoken by what sounded like a traveling German Oom-pah band who barged into the apartment. They would be our neighbours for the night, occupying the next room and ensuring that there would no more  sleep until dawn.
Their deep Teutonic voices rumbled like tubas and trombones throughout the apartment as they went about their thorough ablutions, and when they slept they maintained a steady triple-time rhythm of snores, farts and whistles that made me wish for cold litres of Bavarian lager to drown in.
My family lay awake like polite zombies, blinking greasily in the darkness until our phone alarms quietly chimed at 4am to tell us to get up, get dressed silently and make our way to the airport for our 7am flight.
We should have stamped our feet and chanted drinking songs of our own as we packed but we didn’t, because we are English, and we will probably die of a miserable little tumor made entirely of suppressed rage and impotent frustration.
And now, after shuffling with the yawning herd for two hours, we are here, walking towards a plane that might-or-might-not fall out of the sky through a mixture of metal fatigue, pilot error or just from a lack of will to remain airborne any longer.
Up the steps, past the grinning clown of an air hostess, jostling towards our sagging leatherette seats whilst holding our bags aloft like strange body armour, fending off the Samsonite wielded by the passengers coming from the opposite end of the plane.
My son and I are on one row, my wife and daughter behind us, to ensure both children get a window seat. We don’t fly very often so this quite the thrill for them. It is for me too, if I’m honest. There’s something I find very relaxing about flying, about hurtling into the sky, hurtling out of the sky, a brush with death that terrifies others but soothes me somehow. It’s a very strong feeling of ‘FUCK IT’.
In the aisle seat of our row I can see dark hair, balding at the crown to expose dark skin. A smallish man in a pale brown shirt. I’m not a smallish man, I’m well over six foot, and I don’t like looming over people. It somehow feels rude.
I politely say, ‘Erm…’ but the man is already out of his seat, smiling. He’s a similar age to me, I’d say, in his forties. Asian, trim moustache, dazzling smile, soft brown smiling eyes.
He looks at me, looks at my son, then quickly helps my son load his bag into the overhead compartment.
We thank him and he smiles, smiles,
We shuffle past, take our seats, slump into seats still slightly warm from the previous occupants. The dawn sun glitters into the cabin, reflected from the polished aluminium of the plane’s wing. The window glass is ice scoured, the interior cabin is sun faded yellow, like the photos in a barbers shop window.
I make sure the family phones are on airplane mode and I adopt an airplane mode of my own, preparing for a few hours in a seat that is too small for my freakishly long legs, of not pissing because I hate little toilets, of not eating because I hate eating tiny meals off a tiny tray, of not drinking because I don’t want to spill a scalding beverage on myself, on my son, on the smiling man next to me.
I go into a sort of torpor.
I shut down.
“Hello. my name is Faisal.”
I blink.
I say, “Sorry?”
The smiling man is smiling at me. He is leaning forward slightly, his hand is held towards me.
He says again, “Hello, my name is Faisal.”
I take his hand, shake it. I say, “Hello Faisal. I’m Luci, this is my son.”
He shakes both of our hands.
He says, “It is a beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
I think, ‘Oh shit. I’ve got a talker.’
I say, “Yes, yes it is. Beautiful.”
In a soft, unidentifiable accent Faisal starts to tell me where he has been in Italy, what he saw, how incredible Venice was. I agree, replying vaguely, hoping my shorter responses might discourage his disconcerting friendliness.
I just want to look out of the window. I just want to slurp on a Fox’s Glacier Fruit and watch the airplane taxi along the runway before thrusting from the earth’s surface, blasting through cloud towards space and the aquatic blue of Heaven. I don’t want to talk to Faisal about his trip to Venice.
He says, “I’m going to England to visit my relatives in Pendle. Do you know Pendle?”
I say that I do, that Pendle is famous for it’s witches but that witches don’t live there anymore, not that I know of, but I realise that I am babbling slightly as I often do in these situations.
Faisal nods politely, smiling. “Some of my family live in Pendle but I live in Canada. Toronto.”
I say, “Oh? I’d love to go to Canada. Is Toronto nice?”
Faisal’s smile widens. “Oh, yes! It’s perfect. The nicest place on Earth. I cannot tell you just how beautiful it is. It isn’t hot, not like Italy is hot, but the air… It is the cleanest air on Earth. You can almost drink it. And the trees, the mountains, the rivers… It is a wonderful place. So much space, so much greenery. I love it.”
“I hear it snows a lot though.”
Faisal shrugs. “Not so much in the city, but yes, in the mountains. And when it snows, well, we ski!” He laughs a small, polite laugh.
It is nice that Faisal is talking to me, but I want it to stop. I know I sound like a miserable shit for wanting him to stop, but I do. I don’t know why he feels the need to talk to me. Why he wants to tell me about his life. His life sounds great but in two hours I’ll get off the plane and never see him again so what’s the point?
I look out of the window for a minute as the plane begins to move along the runway and Faisal fiddles with his phone.
Then he says, “This is where I live.”
I look back.
Pictures on his phone.
Pictures of him walking in the forest with other Asian men. Selfies of himself and an Asian man by a waterfall. Trees. A mountain. Blue skies. The Asian men stood by a brilliant blue river.
All very nice. Faisal’s life.
Then he says, “And this is my daughter. She is eleven.”
A picture of a girl, the same age as my son. She is at the dinner table and she is smiling the same smile as her father, a beautiful smile.
And all of a sudden I realise why Faisal is talking to me.
Faisal is an Asian man, travelling alone on a passenger jet.
He is used to being treated with suspicion and fear when he flies alone and he has learned ways to reassure people that he is not about to scream “ALLAHU AKBAR!!” and blow his shoes up, or his underpants up, or pull out a wicked looking knife and stab me up in my budget leatherette seat at thirty thousand feet.
Faisal is showing me that I have nothing to fear, that I’m not about to die a horrible death and that I’m not about to become a newspaper headline.
He is showing me that he has family to go to, that he has family waiting for him in beautiful Canada, that he has a life that he doesn’t want to end violently.
I know this sounds pretty fucking presumptuous but it isn’t. I know this. I know it from Faisal’s smile, from the way he talks quietly to me and shows me his photographs. He is saying, “I mean you no harm.”
I suddenly feel glad that I’m sat next to him.
Then the plane thrusts from the earth’s surface, blasting through cloud towards space and the aquatic blue of Heaven. I talk to Faisal about his trip to Venice, about his family and what he will do in Pendle when he arrives. We talk about hiking in the hills, he tells me about walking on glaciers and I offer him a Fox’s Glacier Fruit which he politely refuses.
Then we are quiet for a while, and we look out of the window, and we can see the earth below us, and the light goes off above us to let us know we can undo our safety belts.

photo-7

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184. Stress Relief

I huddle closer to the side of the house, smoking a cigarette, trying to avoid the fat drips of water falling from the moss-clogged gutters above me.
At the end of the garden, my garden, a large black poplar leans forward in the rain, cripple limbs reaching out to put most of the garden in shade. Not that it mattered. I hadn’t seen the sun for days and days and days.
I take another lungful of smoke and watch the leathery leaves drift free of the tree, flapping, water-logged, to lay limply on the lawn. By the end of September the tree will be bare and my lawn will be smothered in a thick layer of yellow and brown that will need raking and burning, raking and burning, a constant cremation of the dead year.
Over the fence I can see The Shrew’s underwear on her washing line.
Grey bras. Grey knickers. Frayed elastic. Tattered lace.
I can’t help but imagine her wearing them.
Sagging gusset, cups half-filled with puckered flesh, protruding hairs, blue veins…
“They’ll kill you, they will.”
My heart stutters.
I drop my cigarette in a puddle.
I say, “F…fucking Hell!”
It is The Shrew. She has been watching me watch her washing. She looks smug and knowing, as if she can read my thoughts, as though those thoughts had been somehow… pleasureable.
I feel a strange mix of guilt and anger.
I say, “What will kill me? People scaring the shit out of me?”
“No,” she says. “Them. Ciggies. Coffing nails, me nan called ‘em. You may as well be setting fire to y’money.”
I say, “Did she now. Quite the wise woman, your nan.”
I take another cigarette from the packet and light it, avoiding the stare of The Shrew.
We are both silent for a few seconds as we watch her rain sodden undergarments sag lower on the washing line.
Then she says, “Stress. That’s why people smoke. That’s why people drink. Stress.”
I agree. “Your not wrong, I suppose. Stressful times. Everyone’s stressed out.”
She snorts defiantly. “I’m not! Stress don’t get me.”
I look at her, all superior in her threadbare dressing gown and thinning, spider silk hair. I notice she has fingernails bitten to the quick. She she’s me see them and hides her hands beneath her drooping breast. I feel a quick flush of victory that doesn’t last.
“no, stress don’t affect me,” she continues. “You got to have something, see, not drink or ciggies. You got to have something else, something other than work. That’s the secret.”
That smug look again. She has an infinitely slappable face. It’s not in my nature to reach across a fence and slap a person – man or woman – right across their chops, but I am bloody tempted.
I blow out a stream of smoke that is quickly smothered by the drizzle.
“Go on then,” I say. “What have you got that keeps the stress at bay?”
“Horses,” she says. “My lovely horses.”
I forgot that she keeps horses. Two of them. One for her, one for her daughter. Up at five, down the stables, shoveling shit for an hour. Great stress relief.
She only rides her horses on the roads, which I find weird. There’s miles of bridle paths round these parts but she keeps to the roads. I wondered why for years, and then it occurred to me.
People can’t see you on bridle paths, but they can on roads.
She likes being seen on her horse. She thinks it makes her ‘somebody’.
This is a town notorious for it’s tupenny millionaires, folk who think they’re superior because they drive a car they can’t afford on the Never Never, or have a big detached that is bleeding them white each month, or have a fucking hot tub in their back garden so the neighbours can hear them drinking cheap fizz of an evening in the pissing down rain.
Or spending half the monthly income on stabling fees for pair of clapped out nags, just so you can pretend you’re part of the country set.
She says, “Yes, my lovely horses. Lovely big things.”
I say, “Have they?”
She says, “What?”
I say, “You said ‘lovely big things’. Have they got lovely big things then, these horses?”
She goes quiet for a minute. I finish my cigarette. A faint breeze blows a few more leaves off the tree, stirs her sodden knickers on the line.
She says, “Gentle giants, horses. They could trample you as soon as look at you, if they wanted. They don’t though. Gentle creatures. If people were more like horses there wouldn’t be no wars, you know.”
I think of her husband. Big teeth, daft brown eyes, wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
Definitely a bit horsey.
I wonder if that was why she married him.
I suddenly imagine her riding him around the front room in her grey underwear.
I shudder.
“Stress’ll kill you as quick as those ciggies though, y’know,” she continues. “No point just cutting out booze and fags without having something to take it’s place. You’ll have a stroke if you do that.”
I say, “A stroke of what?”
She says, “What?”
“You were saying, if you give up fags and booze you end up stroking something.”
She blinks her mean, watery eyes. Her mouth puckers. “I said, ‘a stroke’. You know, drooling, slurring your words, pissing your pants.”
I say, “To be fair, booze often does that to me anyway.”
She tuts.
I say, “So what about your husband then? If he hasn’t got fags or booze, what’s he got to keep him stress free?”
She barks a humourless laugh. “He’s got me!”
I look at her. I estimate that her husband will be in the grave before he sees fifty.
I also reckon The Shrew will easily see one hundred. She’s that type. Those who age early stay that way for decades. She feeds off the defeat of others, that means there’s an endless supply of sustenance for her.
We’re all defeated, in the end.
The Shrew looks out over her patchy lawn, dotted with small dark islands of dog shit. She tip toes to the washing line and starts to gather the drenched, greying underwear.
She says, “There was this lad, Ronnie, used to work with me at ASDA bakery. He were always stressed. We’d start at four with loaves, then breadcakes, then onto the buns and stuff. It were hard work, don’t get me wrong, but he were stressed all the time. He let it get to him.”
She unpegs the clothes without hurrying. Her thin hair plasters to her scalp in the drizzle. The shoulders of her dressing gown darken where the rain falls. She doesn’t seem to notice.
“He were always angry, were Ronnie. Moody. So I says to him one time, I says, ‘You need something else in your life, Ronnie. You only got loaves and breadcakes and buns. You need to get a hobby. An interest.’ ‘Like what?’ he says. ‘I dunno,’ I says, ‘that’s for you to work out, Ronnie.’
She drops a peg. It lands on an old dog turd. She picks it up and puts it in her pocket.
“Anyway, Ronnie come into work a few week back and he were happy as Larry. Life and soul, he was. Joking, messing about, but working hard too. It were a cracking day’s work. Him being happy made everyone happy, y’know? An’ I says to myself, ‘there’s a bloke who’s found an interest.’ His stress were all gone, see? He were like a new man.”
The line is now empty. Her arm is laden with heavy, rain-soaked bras and knickers. Her dressing gown sleeve drips, drips, drips.
I say, “He got a hobby then. Good for him. So he’s stress free now, knocking out loaves without a care in the world.”
She says, “I didn’t say that.”
I look at her. Rain runs down her heavily lined face, drips off her chin. Her jaw is clenched.
I say, “What, then?”
She wipes her face with one hand and says, “An hour before the shift was over the coppers turn up. They ask for him. The manager points him out an’ he goes with them, calm as you like. We find out later that he’s picked up some bloke in a gay bar the night before, taken him down by the canal, beaten him to death and chucked him in the water.”
I stare at her for a minute.
I light another cigarette. I say, “That true?”
She nods.
I say, “Fucking Hell. So the moral of the story is, kill someone else before stress kills you?”
She steps closer to the fence. “What I’m saying is, you got to have something, don’t you? I got my horses. Some people got train sets. Ronnie… well… maybe he should have tried jigsaws or something first, but in the end he was stress free, wasn’t he? It’s not stress that’ll killing him.”
I said, “No, some lag with shiv will do that for him.”
The Shrew shrugs. “Maybe, but there’s nowt he can do about that, is there?”
She goes indoors.
I smoke my cigarette and watch the rain falling on the grass and on the leaves.
I think about what The Shrew said to Ronnie, that if she hadn’t opened her horrible mouth then some lad would still be alive.
Then something else dawns on me.
What happened to all that bread Ronnie made that day?
We sometimes get bread from ASDA.
Murderer’s bread.
I feel a bit sick.
I flick my tab end into The Shrew’s garden and I go inside.

pegs

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183. How Spoon Is Now?

I hear her say, “Where are all the teaspoons?”
I ignore her.
I’ve got a massive hangover and I’m suffering from The Fear. I’m sat at my desk tapping the keyboard with shaky, clammy fingers… grinding my teeth… watching the clock… counting off the seconds, minutes, hours.
She says, “I swear there were more teaspoons yesterday but where are they now?”
I mutter, “Fuck your fucking teaspoons.”
A fat face appears from the kitchenette. It’s Dimples. She looks mildly quizzical, like someone has enquired about the weather and not instructed her to fuck cutlery.
“Hmm?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I reply.
“I was just saying,” she says, “I was just saying that all but two of the teaspoons seem to have gone walkies. There should be plenty of teaspoons. We have got teaspoons, but there’s only two teaspoons left! Fancy that!”
Dimples waddles towards me. She is in her fifties. Her immense, sagging breasts rest heavily upon her even more immense, sagging belly. She has prominent front teeth and large glasses. She has dyed her sensible haircut a horrible purple colour in the hope that it might ‘jazz her up a bit’.
She looks like a menopausal beaver.
If she suddenly turned up at work dragging a flat, leathery tail covered in HRT patches whilst chewing a juicy length of birch wood I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Dimples is wafting a damp tea towel about. She is wearing pink rubber gloves. She’s been doing a spot of washing up, it’s something she does quite often. She cleans the sink on a regular basis with cleaning products that she brings in from home.
She routinely rearranges the fridge contents into a more pleasing configuration.
She potters.
She fusses.
She gets right on my tits.
She spends more time fucking about in the kitchenette than she spends doing the job she’s paid to do, not that anyone really knows what that’s supposed to be. I’ve asked her boss what Dimples does, but her boss usually just shrugs and smiles apologetically.
You see, Dimples is a Bun Whisperer.
At any time of day you can see her approaching staff members in a conspiratorial manner, glancing around to check that she is unobserved, before whispering to them, “There’s some buns in the kitchenette.”
She chooses her allies carefully. There’s a lot of greedy-nosed cunts in our office, the type of people who can eat two kilos of industrial grade packed lunch with a gallon of Roller Cola and be wheezing dangerously, blood pressure soaring, but still somehow manage to squeeze themselves into the kitchenette with Dimples and cram a dozen French Fancies into their slavvering pie holes.
That’s one thing I’ve learned in this factory – gluttony loves company. You might be dangerously obese, but if you SHARE your vice, well, that makes it all right, doesn’t it?
Of course it fucking doesn’t.
If I brought forty tins of Special Brew in and started handing them out in the kitchenette then I’d probably find myself supping the last of the tins on my way to the job centre before the morning was through. And If one of those scabby looking animals in the mail room brought crack pipes in for everyone, would people suddenly see them as a generous team-building funster?
No. They wouldn’t.
So why does crap like buns and cakes get such an easy fucking ride? It’s beyond me.
I have very little respect for people with a weakness for buns.
It’s like being an alky who only drinks egg nog, a junkie who’s hooked on Night Nurse.
It lacks moral character.
It lacks dedication.
I carry on working.
Dimples looms over me.
She smells like jam doughnuts. Sugar clings to her downy moustache. She sees me spot the sugar and a quick, thick tongue whips out and slobbers round her mouth.
“Elevenses,” she giggles.
“Diabetes,” I mutter back at her.
“Hmm?” She says.
“Nothing,” I say.
She leans closer. “I think someone is stealing teaspoons,” she whispers. Her mouth is puckered disapprovingly. It looks like a cat’s anus.
“Dimples,” I sigh, “if someone is so desperate for a teaspoon, let them have one. I mean, does it matter? But let’s be honest – who would really want a teaspoon from this shit hole?”
She looks around, eyes narrowed. She leans closer. I lean back. “Phil, that’s who.”
I say, “Phil? If you were worried about somebody drinking the Windolene or necking the hand sterilizing gel then I’d agree with you, but spoons? I grant you, he might be cooking up with them, but I somehow doubt the sad fucker is your spoon thief.”
Dimples looks shocked. “You think he’s stealing spoons to… cook with? Why doesn’t he take the knives and forks as well then?”
I shake my head. “Not that kind of… Never mind. All I’ll say is this,” I pick up a bent, battered spoon from my own chipped mug. “It’s not me. I’ve got my own spoon. OK?”
I carry on working.
Dimples wanders away, muttering.
She approaches Batley. Batley is a big lass who is on a diet in the hope that her third batch of scandalously expensive IVF treatment might work. I see Batley shake her head, smile weakly. I see Dimples lean closer, whispering fervently.
It takes a while, but I see Batley crack.
Together they waddle over to the kitchenette and start in on the Mr Kipling’s.
Around sugary mouthfuls I hear Dimples whispering, “Somebody’s been stealing teaspoons, you know. Now, I don’t like to spread gossip – you know me – but if you ask me who I think it was…”
Fucking teaspoons.
Is that really all she has to worry about? I’ve got shit going on at home, shit going on at work, any number of money worries.
But all this ridiculous woman can think about is teaspoons.
Eventually Batley and Dimples finish the buns. Dimples ambles back to her desk looking pleased with herself.
Batley plods slowly back to her desk looking ashamed and depressed.
I see another member of staff, Modelworker, stepping smartly across the office, china mug and herbal tea in hand.
He goes into the kitchenette, boils the kettle.
A moment later his head appears around the door.
With a bright, confused smile he says, “There doesn’t seem to be any teaspoons!”
I say, “Why the fuck are you asking me about teaspoons?”
He blinks, his smile weakening. “I… I don’t know. It’s just… you are nearest the kitchen, and…”
I say, “I couldn’t give a fuck about your fucking teaspoons.”
He stops smiling. He looks hurt. He disappears into the kitchenette.
Then I realise I’m not being very helpful.
I think, perhaps if I got more involved with the office community I might feel less angry towards them.
So I go onto the internet. Click onto ebay.
And search for bulk orders of teaspoons.

A few days later I hear Dimples say, “Where have these teaspoons come from??”
She sounds amazed, like water had just turned into wine, right there in the kitchenette.
I say nothing, continue working.
Her fat face appears around the door frame.
She has chocolate around her mouth.
She says, “There’s some new teaspoons! Do you know anything about these teaspoons?”
I say, “You’ve got shit around your mouth.”
She looks shocked, then her fat tongue darts out. She grins. “It’s only chocolate.”
“Bloody good job it’s only chocolate,” I reply.
She says, “There’s new teaspoons! Half a dozen of them!”
I say, “I don’t care. I’ve got my own spoon.”
She waddles down the office, spreading the good news about the spoons.
I go into the kitchenette and boil the kettle.
While it boils, I take another half dozen teaspoons from my pocket and dump them in the drawer. It feels quite satisfying.
As the day goes on the miracle of the teaspoons is the sole topic of conversation. Dimples tempts people into her bun-filled lair and shows them the teaspoon bonanza.
“There were two teaspoons yesterday,” she whispers around a mouthful of flapjack, “and I counted eight this morning. Now there’s fourteen! Fourteen teaspoons!”
Trevor Dullard from IT shakes his head and swallows some Millionaire’s Shortbread. “Who’d have thought it,” he rumbles in his deep, drab monotone. “More teaspoons than we’ve had in the last twenty years.”
The cutlery related banter goes on and on. I keep working.

The next morning I’m in the office first.
I put a dozen new teaspoons into the drawer.
I make a brew, sit down, start working.
Some time later, Trevor Dullard ambles in, puts his packed lunch in the fridge.
“Morning,” he says.
“Morning,” I say.
I look at the monitor.
I hear Trevor Dullard clattering around in the kitchenette.
I hear him open a drawer.
I hear a slight intake of breath.
Trevor Dullard says, “Fuck me.”
He walks slowly backwards out of the kitchenette. He has taken his glasses off and is  carefully polishing them with his handkerchief.
He puts them back on, looks again, then whispers, “Spoons.”
Dimples walks through the door.
She is carrying a number of large Tupperware containers that appear to contain bright treats within. She squirrels them away in the fridge in a secretive manner, closes the fridge door and says, “Morning!”
Trevor Dullard, looks at her, then looks back at the drawer. She gives him a quizzical frown. She shuffles past him, looks into the drawer.
I hear a slight intake of breath.
Dimples says, “Fuck me.”
She walks slowly backwards out of the kitchenette.
She turns to Trevor Dullard and whispers, “Spoons.”
I pretend to ignore all this.
Dimples turns to me and says, “Spoons!”
I sigh. “I know, I know. Someone is stealing teaspoons. It isn’t me. I’ve got my own teaspoon. Look.” I wave my old teaspoon in the air.
“No!” cries Dimples. “Someone WAS stealing teaspoons but now there’s LOTS of teaspoons! TOO MANY teaspoons!” Her voice drops to her usual whisper. “Where are the teaspoons coming from?”
I make a show of rolling my eyes. “You’re never bloody happy, are you? First there’s no spoons, now there’s spoons. Stop moaning!”
Trevor Dullard and Dimples look nonplussed. I return to my work.
They leave, whispering fearfully together.
I feel pleased. I now realise that I’ve taken part in group activities, contributed something to the office community.
I want to give more.
So when no-one is looking I put another dozen teaspoons into the drawer.
The day passes as normal, as long as your day normally involves dozens of spoons miraculously appearing in the communal cutlery drawer with no-one knowing where the fuck they are coming from.
Throughout the day, small groups regularly congregate in the kitchenette to peer down in wonder at the miracle teaspoons, like pilgrims at Lourdes.
The Miracle of the Teaspoons has given these lost people some faith, a belief that the Lord WILL provide… teaspoons, in their lunch hour of need.
I feel like I have found my vocation.
For the first time in my life I experience serenity.

The next morning I approach the cutlery drawer with a sense of great excitement.
I have twenty fresh, unused spoons in my pocket.
I keep them tied with an elastic band to stop them rattling in my pocket and betraying me  as the true culprit behind the Miracle of the Spoons. Imagine the disappointment of the faithful if they were to discover that the spoons were not the work of The Maker, but were in fact the meddlings of Satan?
I must be cautious.
Souls are at stake.
I furtively glance around, but I am alone.
I open the drawer, fumbling in my pocket for the twenty fresh spoons…
But then freeze.
I stare for a long time, my mouth dry.
There are only a dozen teaspoons on the drawer.
I am bewildered.
I do the maths.
There should be… thirty eight teaspoons in the drawer but there are only twelve.
I think about the conundrum, my mind working feverishly, then I come to a conclusion.
I whisper, “Some fucker is stealing teaspoons.”
I think about who it might be, then my eyes narrow.
“I bet it’s that shifty fucker Phil.”
I find myself enraged, wanting to destroy the kettle, the microwave, the dinky little jars of tea and coffee and sugar. I am consumed my teaspoon rage.
Bur then I calm myself.
I realise there is a solution to this problem.
I act quickly.

Dimples is in work early today.
She looks tired, like she hasn’t had a very good night’s sleep.
I look again and I see she has a slightly haunted look about her, a hunted look, even.
She fusses around the fridge for a bit, shifting other people’s yoghurts and sniffing other people’s milk, indulging herself with a spot of comfort tidying.
Then she opens the cutlery drawer.
There is silence for a while.
I tap my keyboard, keep my head down, take a gulp of tepid tea.
Dimples backs out of the kitchenette.
Her face is ashen.
She says, “Where have all the teaspoons gone??”
I say, “Hmm?”
She says, “The tea…teaspoons. They’ve gone! All of them!”
I say, “Well, that proves you’re right, doesn’t it? There’s a nasty little teaspoon thief in our midst.”
Her baggy eyes narrow to slits. “I bet it’s that horrible bastard Phil. I’ve never liked him. He looks a bit foreign to me. And he drinks. Did you know he drinks? Well, he does. You can smell it on him.”
I don’t look up from my work. I say, “Yes, I reckon it might be Phil. I’d say you’d best be finding out who’s been at the teaspoons, Dimples. Flush ‘em out. It starts with teaspoons, you know. But teaspoons aren’t enough. It’ll be your handbag next.”
Dimples is silent. I risk at glance at her. She is filled with a stupid, animal cunning.
I see her waddle around the empty room, furtively opening people’s drawers, looking for signs of pilfered silverware.
I know she won’t find anything.
I’ve already checked, and I’ve also gathered any misplaced teaspoons that might have been carelessly left in a coffee cup the afternoon before.
The room is a teaspoon free zone.
Now, it would have been a simple matter to have planted spoons in Phil’s desk, but I have no evidence whatsoever that Phil is the spoon thief. Also, planting evidence is a shitty thing to do, a grimy little crime.
No, I have all the spoons tucked away safely.
Waiting.

The day passes in pandemonium.
People are making hot beverages with the use of pudding spoons, the end of a knife, or by simply pouring coffee from the jar, resulting in staggering caffeine highs and jittery, weepy rages. Senior managers are summoned and are presented with evidence of office thievery, but when it transpires that the teaspoons are not company property, that the teaspoons were not provided from company funds, it is concluded that the teaspoons had genuinely appeared of their own accord and were therefore quite free to disappear in an equally mysterious fashion.
Nothing could be done.
This continues for a day or two.
A new spoon or two appears in the cutlery drawer, begrudgingly brought in by staff members from their own cutlery drawers at home. These bent and tarnished specimens don’t cut the mustard with the office community though, and they are used with a bitter sneer, beverages brewed whilst talking sadly together in low voices, remembering the halcyon days of teaspoon plenty.
I bide my time.
Watch the office staff.
Check the cutlery drawer.
Listen to the banter and bickering.
Waiting.

It is Thursday.
I am on a late start today and as I enter the office there is a carnival atmosphere.
People mill around the kitchenette area, openly eating pastries and buns, flaunting mugs of hot tea and coffee.
I drop my bag by my desk and fire up my computer with an air of utter indifference, although my heart is racing.
Has it happened?
Has my plan worked?
Dimples approaches.
She’s obviously on her third or forth coffee of the day and is off her face on numerous slabs of Rocky Road.
She leans close. She smells like Willy Wonka’s laundry basket, all E numbers and sweat. She has a wild look in her eye.
“THE TEASPOONS ARE BACK!!!” she hisses jubilantly.
“Hmm?” I say.
She leans closer. “The teaspoons! The missing teaspoons! They’re back! Whoever stole them must have got cold feet! Twelve shiny teaspoons, back in the drawer! Oh, everyone is so happy, Luci! Do you fancy a coffee? How about a bit of cake?”
I shrug coolly. “Nah, I’m good Dimples. I’ll just have a glass of water in a bit. You enjoy yourself.”
Dimples rejoins the party. I watch them, cavorting like fools, drinking their hot drinks and stirring them with shiny spoons, my shiny spoons, spoons stolen from me and now returned, a thief amongst them, a spoon thief, a thief who lost his bottle.
A coward.
I tap gently on the keyboard, do my work quietly, bide my time, ready to strike.

The office empties, empties, and is finally empty.
The cleaner comes, empties the bins, leaves.
The office could not be emptier.
Except for me.
I am on the late shift, the graveyard shift.
I work on for an hour, two hours.
Then I stop.
It is time.
I go to the kitchenette.
I open the cutlery drawer.
I look down on the twelve, shiny teaspoons.
I say, “Hello my pretties.”
I decide they look lonely in there.
Twelve is a healthy amount of teaspoons for any office, but this isn’t just any office.
No, an office such as this one, an office that fetishizes the humble teaspoon, well, it deserves more teaspoons, doesn’t it?
Many more teaspoons.
I go back to my workstation.
Open a drawer.
Reach underneath to the heavy package firmly Selotaped to beneath.
I go back to the kitchenette and open the drawer.
I release the remaining eighty eight teaspoons in my teaspoon army into the cutlery drawer.
I slam the door shut with great satisfaction.
It is by far the best eighteen pounds ninety nine I have ever spent on ebay. It was worth every penny.
I pack up my things.
I turn off my monitor.
I turn off the lights.
I go home.
I wait for Friday.

spoon2

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182. Androgyne

Sitting in the pub on a Saturday afternoon.
I’ve got a pint on the table in front of me, the first pint of the day. I remember that Ian Fleming once wrote how James Bond’s favourite drink of the day was the drink he imagined before he’d had his first drink of the day. I take a mouthful of beer and it tastes pretty fucking good, better than I expected, which goes to show that most of what Ian Fleming wrote was bullshit, albeit fairly entertaining bullshit.
I check my watch and it reads ‘1993’.
This makes me happy.
I like 1993. It’s a pretty good year as far as I remember. The fact that I don’t remember very much of it proves that it is a pretty good year. It’s a year of parties and girls, staying out late and living on my own. I’m earning a fairly decent wage and I have few responsibilities. What more could a twenty year old wish for?
I take another mouthful of beer then I light a cigarette and look around the pub.
It’s called the Pig & Whistle. It’s a big room tarted up to look vaguely old fashioned, but in reality it’s not even thirty years old. It’s a pub built into a 1960‘s shopping centre, a huge concrete beast that smothers a good part of central North Leeds. I like this shopping centre because it’s a crazed warren of tunnels and walkways, poorly devised precincts and hidden secrets. There’s a nightclub where they say Goth started. There’s a huge cinema tucked away in it’s belly somewhere that has been closed off for nearly twenty years, the lights switched off in 1977 after a showing of Gone with the Wind. Apparently there’s still film posters up on the walls and litter under the seats. A ghost cinema.
This pub squats beneath the hulk of a Morrison’s that clings to the side of the precinct like a tumor. Inside the pub it is… well… a pub. It’s dressed up to be like any pub, every pub. The view through the windows is of a hideous piece of modern sculpture and the concrete battlements that support the shopping fortress – squint your eyes and you can imagine zombies shambling by, bumping against chrome and glass, trapped in revolving doors.
My fellow drinkers keep a respectful distance from each other. That’s what I like about city centre afternoon drinkers – they’re often there to get out of the way of whoever is at home so they’re not in a rush to join anyone else.
An old bloke with an old dog, another bloke in a chunky knit cardigan eating a pie, two blokes playing dominoes, a bloke with long, lank hair wearing a scuffed leather jacket called Greebo who’s been knocked all wonky by a horrible motorcycle crash years ago and can now barely lift his pint.
I’m the joker in the pack, in a way. I’m too young for this kind of lark, sipping pints in characterless taverns on a Saturday afternoon, but it beats the shrieking harpies who inhabit those wine bars that have started springing up, or the big screen pubs filled with fucknuckles trying to out-bellow the word LEEDS at each other. Then there’s the student holes where rugby lads are trying to poke hockey girls at full volume, and not forgetting the Towny pubs where cunts in slip on shoes with white socks are trying to pass their sexually transmitted diseases on to lasses from Bolton who are there on a hen do.
I take another swig of beer and relish the quiet.
It’s a funny pub, the Pig & Whistle. It’s a bit of a No Man’s Land. I’ve never known there to be a fight here, ever. I remember popping in to Leeds one time and accidentally getting caught up in a massive Anti Nazi League rally that was starting to turn ugly, so I ducked into the Pig & Whistle until it all simmered down, only to find about thirty Neo Nazis in there, supping pints and comparing Doc Marten’s and bomber jackets and swastika tattoos before taking to the streets to twat some lefties. I was fucking terrified, of course, but they left me alone. If they’d caught me on the street they’d have kicked my teeth out, but not in the Pig & Whistle.
Sanctuary.
The smoke haze sits in the air along with a fine mist of dust, Gerry Rafferty sings about Baker Street on low volume in the background, the fruit machine makes the occasional gentle bloop, Marion the barmaid smiles politely at an old bloke in a Trilby who nurses half a mild and tells her again about his time in the catering corps during the Suez crisis.
My pint is running low. I’m gear myself up to buying another when the door opens and Vince Nero swaggers in. He’s got long, jet black hair. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, and a Misfits tee. Black jeans, studded belt and black winklepickers finish of his ensemble. He’s got a black guitar case under his arm, covered in faded, peeling stickers.
I sigh to myself, price up the cost of two pints instead of one. Vince Nero is a decent bloke, don’t get me wrong, but he’s also a tapping cunt. That’s musicians for you, though. They’re always skint. They put everything on the tab that they promise to pay off when they hit the big time.
Vince Nero scans the room, spots me, tips me a guylinered wink. He’s part of a heavy Goth Rock outfit at the moment so black is in vogue, but that could all change by next week.
I start to slide out from behind the table to head to the bar when Vince shakes his head. He points at me, does the invisible pint glass tipping gesture, and I suddenly realise he’s buying. I’m momentarily shocked, then I give the thumbs up. Vince then points at the empty space next to me and does the same gesture.
The empty space shouts, “Lager!”
I jump.
Greebo is there.
I say, “how the fuck did you get there?”
I don’t really need to ask. Greebo is another tapping cunt, but I can forgive him that. After the bike crash there is no way he can work, his body is too shattered. These days he just mooches round the pubs, hobbling from pint to pint waiting for someone to take pity on him and get him a refill.
His bent fingers scuttle across the table and tease a fag from my packet.
Greebo nods his approval. “Lucky Strike. Man of taste, Luci.”
I shrug, offer him my lighter. He gives me a slightly mournful look.
I say, “Sorry,” and light it for him.
He inhales. “Cheers, man. I can smoke ‘em but can’t light ‘em. Thumbs.” He shows me his thumbs. They’re all wrong. Poor fucker. Thumbs are the first things to break when you hit something at seventy miles an hour.
We watch Vince Nero ostentatiously ordering the round, showing off to Marion. He wriggles his hand into the front pocket of his incredibly tight jeans and takes out some crumbled notes. He glances at Greebo and I again and waggles his eyebrows before handing a tenner to Marion.
Greebo grunts. “Player. What’s Vincie doing with money? The fucker’s skinter than I am! You reckon he’s been doing some busking?”
I drain my glass. “Nah. People don’t come out of Debenham’s and chuck their change at some cunt knocking out a Cradle of Filth guitar solo on a Saturday morning. They want to hear stuff by John Denver or Ralph McTell. Something nice and safe. Besides, he’s got paper money. If he’d been busking he’d be paying with coins.”
Greebo nods. “Get you, Luci. Sherlock fuckin’ Holmes. You know a lot, don’t you?”
I shake my head. “Not yet I don’t, but I’m working on it. I do know Vince Nero though and he’s been up to something.”
“Maybe a gig? What’s that band he’s in now, Shy Talk?”
I shake my head. “That was his last band. They were glam, a Happy Shopper version of Hanoi Rocks. All scarves and make-up. Pretty wank, if I’m honest. He gave them up when he realised they were known on the scene as ‘Shite Hawk’. No, I think this new band is called Cock Socket or some-such. Goth rock. Heavy stuff. Black clobber.”
Greebo screws up his face. “Eww. I wouldn’t pay good money to watch a band called that.”
We watch Vince Nero struggle to carry three pints, two packs of Mini Cheddars, some pork scratchings and his guitar case. We could help, but there’d be no fun in that.
“Afternoon, bitches!” Vince Nero makes it to the table and deposits the goods, slopping beer near my fags. I move them to a dry patch. Vince sweeps long black hair from his face.
I give him a nod. “Afternoon, Vince. Cheers for the bevvie. Someone died?”
Vince Nero looks temporarily bewildered. “Dead? Died? Who’s dead?”
Greebo giggles through broken teeth. “He’s wondering where you got the folding, knob head! Sayin’ you must’ve come into money!” He takes a big swig from the pint that Vince has just bought him.
Vince Nero is relieved. “No-one’s dead, ladies, no shit like that. I’ve been workin’, yeah? This is honest cash!”
Greebo helps himself to the Mini Cheddars. “Giggin’? You an’ Cock Socket been playin’ the circuit?”
Vince looks shocked. “Woah, don’t be knockin’ my band, Greebo! We’re The Black Rockets, dude! Where you be gettin’ the idea we’re called Cock Socket?”
Greebo nods at me. “He told me. Said something about being black and heavy.”
“Cheers Greebo.” I sigh, then say, “Sorry, Vince. I got a bit mixed up. The Black Rockets. I remember now.”
“Yeah, you sisters better remember that name.” Vince sneaks a cigarette out of my packet and lights it. “We’re goin’ places, me and my boys. We’ve been layin’ down some heavy licks in the studio, got enough material for an E.P. You better make the best of the time you got with me – The Black Rockets be down the mean streets of London soon, playing The Marquee and shit!”
I look around the pub again. The man eating the pie is now smoking a pipe. A balding bloke in his forties with a stubby ponytail pumps fifty pence into the juke box and Dire Straits begin noodling out Sultans of Swing while ponytail man air guitars along with Knopfler. The pub door opens and three stunning women walk in, look around, laugh, then walk out again.
I light a cigarette. “Send us a postcard, Vince.”
Vince drains his glass, belches. “I sure will. You bitches ready for another?” He slaps another tatty tenner into a puddle of beer.
I slide out from behind the table. “I’ll get these.”
“Nah, man!” protests Vince. “I’m flush!”
I walk to the bar, saying over my shoulder. “So it seems, but London prices are high. Save it.”
I order another round and Marion brings me the drinks along with a side order of a small smile, and I pay for my drinks and tip her with a small smile of my own. We’ve slept together a couple of times in the past but it was nothing. Everything seems to be nothing.
I say, “Your hair looks nice.”
She says, “Not as nice as yours.”
I say “Frizze Ease, John Frieda.”
She says, “I know.”
I take the beers back to the table.
Greebo is counting off on his bent fingers, “So you got money to cut a record, you got money to record tracks in the studio, you got money for beer an’ Cheddars an’ shit, so where you gettin’ the money from, Vince?”
I suck beer off my thumb and say, “I thought you and the Black Sockets were gigging, Vince?”
Vince Nero looks wounded. “Jesus, Luci! How many times! Black ROCKETS, man! Rockets! I mean, Black Sockets sounds like a dirty… a dirty…”
“Arsehole?” offers Greebo round a mouthful of Mini Cheddars.
Vince shrugs. “Maybe. Anyway, I said I was workin’, not giggin’. Big difference, yeah?”
I had to agree. Working was shit and it was something that both Vince Nero and Greebo knew precious little about. I’d been working at the factory for a few years at this point and if you told me I’d still be there in twenty years time I’d finish my pint, smoke a fag then throw myself under the nearest passing bus.
I say, “So what’s the job then, Vince? Where you working?”
Vince huddles forward, a sly grin on his face. “It’s  a doddle really, yeah? What it is, Johnny Rocket, lead singer of the band, he asks me if I’m interested in earning a few quid. I was on my uppers at that time so I snatched his hand off. Johnny says that him and the other guys in the band would get a call from this bloke they knew in London. He’d tell ‘em to catch a train down, all paid for. When they got there, they got a Tube to this address somewhere in Camden. It’s, like fifty quid, cash in hand, y’know? I been down a few times now and the other lads have been plenty, so we’ve got a decent little fund going on! This could be big for us, y’know? Start of something MEGA!”
Vince takes another of my cigarettes and lights it with a smug look on his face.
Me and Greebo exchange a glance. I say, “So when you get to this address in Camden, Vince, what is it exactly that you have to do for your fifty quid?”
Vince Nero shrugs. “Easy really. We just go in, grab this bloke, drag him upstairs and call him a ‘fucking faggot’, then we tie him to the bed, whip him a bit, spit on him, then we go downstairs and watch telly for half an hour.”
The juke box must have run out of money. I can hear a clock ticking, muffled traffic noise in the street outside, some bloke with a pathetic voice wailing, ‘Evening Post, Evening Post’ in the far distance. In the corner, the old bloke with the old dog leans sideways and lets off a fart. The old dog wines and folds down his ears.
Greebo puts his pint down, careful not to spill it. He says, “Sorry, you do what again?”
Vince sighs. “We go in, grab him, drag him upstairs and call him a ‘fucking faggot’, tie him up, whip him, spit on him, then we go downstairs and watch telly. That’s the gig.”
I shake my head. “Fuck me. Your C.V. must look brilliant.”
Greebo is spluttering. “What the fucking hell are you carrying on like that for, man? I mean, Jesus, isn’t that against the fucking law?? What did this poor cunt do to deserve that kind if shitty treatment, Vince?”
Vince shrugs again. “He pays us fifty quid each and our train tickets down, Greebo. That’s what he’s done to deserve it. He’s the client, yeah? He fucking loves it, man! It’s his bag, y’know? It’s how he gets his jollies!”
Vince takes a pull on his cigarette and sips his beer. He’s shaking his head like he’s talking to a couple of amateurs.
I say, “Okaaay. So you watch telly, then what?”
Vince says, “Oh, we get up, shouting ‘WHERE’S THAT FUCKING FAGGOT” and we stamp upstairs and kick his bedroom door open and he’s there in the bollocky buff on the bed…”
I say, “I didn’t realise he’d have his cock out.”
Vince says, “Didn’t I mention that? So anyway, we do it all again. Whip him a bit, spit on him, call him names, that kind of shit. Then it’s back downstairs for more daytime telly. He gets us some beers and crisps in too, which I think is pretty decent of him.”
Greebo is aghast. “How long does this last then?”
Vince thinks about it. “Couple of hours, I suppose. Till he’s finished, anyway.”
I say, “Finished?”
Greebo says, “Finished?”
Vince nods. “Finished. Y’know…”
Greebo and I say together, “We know.”
Vince Nero slaps his thighs. “So, who’s for another pint?”
Greebo empties his glass, wipes his mouth. “Not for me, thanks. Best be pushing off. Good luck with the prostitution though, Vince mate. I hope the career really takes off for you.”
Vince chokes on the dregs of his beer. “Whaaa?? Just hold up there, Greebo man! Don’t be spreading shit like that around! I am not a prostitute, dude! That’s not what this whole thing is!”
Greebo snorts. “Be real, man. You’re like one of those… what they call ‘em? Domiwatsists.”
I say, “Dominatrix.”
Greebo nods. “Yeah, one of them. You’re in a kinky arsed dominatrix band, Vince. You and your freaky mates in Cock Socket are whipping queers for cash money, until said queers blow their custard. That, my friend, is what being a prostitute is all about. You are a male prostitute. Get used to it.”
Greebo is hobbling to the door. Vince stands up and calls loudly after him, “Greebo, I am not a male prostitute!”
Greebo waves over his shoulder. “Man whore, then. Whatever. Take precautions, dude. See you around.”
The door closes.
I look around the pub.
The old bloke and his old dog are staring at us, the bloke in a chunky knit cardigan smoking his pipe are staring at us, the two blokes playing dominoes are staring at us, Dire Straits air guitar bloke is staring at us.
Marion is staring at me.
Something about the look on Marion’s face tells me that we won’t be sleeping together in the near future, far future, any future.
I sigh. “Let me get another beer in, Vince. What you having?”
Vince grips my arm. He looks mildly devastated. “Am I a prostitute, Luci? Is that what I am?”
I try to think of a nice way of putting it. I say, “Yes, you’re a prostitute, Vince. Do you want a bag of nuts?”
Vince shakes his head. He says, “That’s fucked up, man. I mean, how did this shit happen? I only needed a bit of money and it seemed so easy…”
“I reckon that’s what all prostitutes say, mate. They needed a bit of money, it seems easy, next thing you know your eating crisps in a stranger’s lounge and spitting on him until he spunks. There’s worse jobs out there. I mean, you could work in print.”
I go to the bar and get two more pints.
When I go back to the table, Vince Nero is gone.
I put the pints on the table, sit down, take the last cigarette from the pack and light it, dropping the match dead in the ashtray.
Air guitar man puts fifty pence in the juke box and The Police sing Roxanne. Marion is cleaning glasses behind the bar. Her back is to me, but I see her looking at me in the mirrors behind the optics. The old man with the old dog stands up and walks outside. As they reach the modern sculpture the dog trembles, then curls off a long thin shit onto the pavement.
Everyone’s a critic.
The man looks at the shit then he looks at the sculpture then he looks at the dog and says something I cannot hear before they both shuffle away.
I slowly drink one beer, push the glass away, then start on the next one.
There’s always another beer. Always another last cigarette.

sculpture

Glenn Hellman, ‘Androgyne’ 1965

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181. Armley, Wortley and the Surrounding Districts

Riding my bike on my way to work,
I don’t touch the brakes ‘cause here dragon’s lurk,
Stopping at the traffic lights could cost me a wheel,
You could say this part of town is down at heel,
Where industrial estates meet the housing estates,
And the human states and their drug dealer mates,
I don’t like riding here but I’ve often risked it,
I’m in Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

It’s eleven in the morning and outside the boozer,
There’s a long line of punters and each one’s a loser.
There’s blokes with the tremors and tavern tans,
A variety of ASBOs and driving bans.
Sipping with care at their first morning’s beers,
Squinting in the sunlight and handing out leers,
To the Chavalcade of mothers and their flotilla of prams,
Who stopped taking the pill instead of taking exams,
And they swap cackled catcalls that turn the air blue,
Swapping scandalous rumors of who’s knocked up who,
But the fellas have no fear of the CSA,
They can’t take nothing when they’ve got no pay.
And what money they do have they’ve already pissed it,
Up Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

There’s a sweaty looking bloke who’s incredibly fat,
Sitting on the ground outside the laundromat,
And he’s smoking a fag and he’s drinking a Stella,
In Wortley that’s a sign of a sophisticated fella,
And I feel sorry for for him, think he’s down on his luck,
Till he asks a passing teen if she fancies a fuck.
And I realise then that he just another misfit,
From Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

The lad in jogging bottoms and a baggy white vest,
And his mate without a shirt who flaunts a xylophone chest,
Are sitting in a garden smoking weapon’s grade skunk,
Surrounded by the crushed cans of the lager they’ve drunk,
And a girl with curls hurls up into a skip,
Caught out by a whitey or another bad trip,
All this on a work day, but nobody’s working,
I figure it’s a shirk day because everyone’s shirking,
They’re on a gravy train but I seem to have missed it,
In Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

There’s a little old man looks in fear of his life,
While he’s holding the arm of his fragile wife,
But the scag jackals clock them and begin to measure,
The couples net worth in sale-able treasure
And they follow the pensioners round a corner,
And later that day they’ll attempt to pawn her,
Wedding rings and her precious things,
A butterfly brooch with emerald wings,
The assorted contents of the old gent’s pocket,
While he’s sat in A&E with a fractured eye socket
Just another mugging, if you blinked you’d have missed it,
In Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

A Pakistani shopkeeper is having a fight,
With a skinny looking kid who’s incredibly white,
I say it’s a fight but it’s more of a twatting,
It seems to me that Pakistan’s the only team batting,
By the looks of things he’s caught the kid thieving,
Grabbed him by his tracky top just as he was leaving,
Batteries and porno mags all fall to the floor,
As the shopkeeper lays in he says, “You want some more?”
And as he gives the kid a good crack to the face,
The kid screams ‘FUCKING PAKI!” which don’t help his case,
So when the shopkeeper finally let’s the kid go,
Says he can’t come back to his shop no more,
And as he staggers away the kid sticks two fingers up,
Shouts, “If you tell me mam I’s gonna cut you up!’
And I can’t help but admire that ‘V’ he’s flicked,
Down Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

A lass pushes a push-chair whilst dressed like a hooker,
And she shouts at her toddler, ‘Come on you little fucker!’
As he dawdles behind with a bottle of coke,
And she lights a up fag, stares at me through the smoke,
And her glance is a challenge, defiant and cold,
And I think how’d a young lass start looking so old?
Her life can’t be easy, raising kids on state handouts,
She’s living alone now because her old man doubts,
The nippers are his, and they don’t suit his lifestyle,
He wants this shit sorted on Jeremy Kyle,
But she’s nobody’s fool, she’s used to his tricks,
In Armley and Wortley and the surrounding districts.

So I’m off down the hill and I’m going to work,
To a fact’ry where similar animals lurk,
And some ten hours later I’m heading for home,
Feel drained as i cycle through the Wortley war-zone.
And in Armley and Wortley its Mardi Gras time,
As they stagger from Lidl with bottles of wine,
Tubes of cheese Pringles and cases of beer,
And packets of baccy for smoking their gear.
And the take-away queue snakes right out of the door,
Selling more chicken buhnas than ever before,
Pizzas and burgers and Donner kebab,
Before heading for home in a black and white cab,
And their kids tea tonight is a packet of biscuits,
In Armley and Wortley and the surrounding districts.

I’ve no cash in my pockets, no cash in the bank,
My entire life savings are not worth a wank,
Yet it seems like these people have money to spare,
Live lives without consequence, problem or care,
So I leave the environs of Armley and Wortley,
Cross over the river and cycle through Burley,
Then head up to Rawdon and Horsforth and home.
Where no dragons or pissheads or drug dealers roam.
And the streets smell of grass, not the narcotic kind,
And the people seem gentler types of mankind,
But nowhere is safe, the doors still need locking,
And the house prices round here are really quite shocking.
So who’s got it right then? The wasters or me?
Work for a living or get it scott free?
I don’t have a clue mate, I’d go ask a mystic,
From Armley and Wortley and the surrounding district.

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180. Raging Gull.

“They’re at it again,” he says.
I pretend not to notice.
He sighs an Intense Ginger sigh and shakes his Intense Ginger head.
“Always them, at it. Fucking animals, the lot of ‘em.”
Intense Ginger Bloke is on the internet. He sits opposite me, our desks separated by a blue divider littered with the instructions, warning notices, guidelines and specifications that my boss is so fond of printing out and pinning up. It forms a wall of meaningless collage, above which Intense Ginger Bloke’s head pokes like a frowning Belisha Beacon.
I pretend to be concentrating on my work but in reality all I can think of is that big, orange head, the angry way his fingers batter the keyboard and the frantic, metronomic jiggling of his leg under the table.
And now he belches. He does this thing when he belches where he bobs his head up and down, his cheeks and eyes bulging, looking for all the world like he is about to regurgitate whole the slimy and glistening corpse of his last kill – a large rat, for example, or perhaps a young rabbit. Instead, a baritone BOILK and a waft of fetid air drifts over the partition to titillate my senses.
“Excusé Moi.” he says.
Classy.
I wince, but I don’t say anything.
There is no point saying anything. He is what he is. He was set in his ways from the moment of birth, each new task learned then becoming set in stone. When he eats he eats like a child, knife and fork gripped clumsily in a large fist, his mouth open, showing the masticated contents like the window in a washing machine door.
When he walks he looks like he has a rolled up carpet under each arm, and I can imagine him walking like this as a child in a playground, trying to look bigger than he actually is in a vain attempt to discourage the focus of the bigger boys.
His opinions are the opinions of a man from 1979, namely his father. I’m convinced that for his tenth birthday he was given a well thumbed Hayne’s Manual called, ‘How to be Manly – a Concise Guide to Manly Opinions, Manly Actions and Bigoted Generalisations’.
He learned it by heart. It is his bible.
“Someone should drop a bomb on the fuckers and be done with it.”
I look at him.
He is reaching back, scratching his arse with great rigour.
Every task he takes on is tackled with that same, frowning concentration of a boy putting together a particularly challenging box of Lego Technics.
It repulses me and fascinates me in equal measure.
When he is making these ambiguous statements he wants me to get involved, to ask what it is that’s rattled his cage so that he can merrily vent his spleen about the state of the world, mouthing opinions formed from the half-chewed remnants of tabloid headlines and right-wing soundbites. Usually I pretend not to hear, mainly because it winds him up, but also because I don’t want to waste my energy trying to reason with the utterly unreasonable.
But I can no longer remain silent. I know who he thinks deserves a jolly good bombing and I need to hear it from his own mouth.
I say, “Who needs a bomb dropping on them? Not the Welsh again?”
This has the desired effect. His head pops up. He stops smashing his fingers on the keyboard. His leg ceases to jiggle.
“Huh?” he says. “What you mean, ‘Welsh’? I’ve got nuffin against the Welsh. Who said I’ve got anyfing against the Welsh?”
I shrug. “Sorry, my mistake. I thought you hated the Welsh.”
His eyes are flickering. I can see his mind flitting through past conversations, opinions, images of Welsh people, what Welsh people might have done to deserve his righteous ire.
He says, “No.”
I say, “Sorry. Who do you want to bomb then?”
He rolls his hideous blue eyes. “Them Muslims. It’s always them. You read owt in the news  about owt bad in the world and you can bet your bottom dollar it’s them lot who’s behind it. Now I’m not a racist or owt, but…”
And so on and so forth.
I interrupt. “Ok, ok. So where would you drop this bomb then?”
“What?”
“I mean, you’ve got one bomb. You want to drop it on these evil Muslims. Where do you drop it? Which city or country are you going to nuke to halt this Muslim scourge for good?”
He blinks some more. His eyes are the palest blue, but not a nice blue. They look like watered down anti-freeze. A chemical blue. Pale redness rings his eyes from lack of sleep and he has long ginger eyelashes, like a pig’s.
He frowns at his computer screen, clicking the mouse madly. Then he nods and says, “Syria. I want to nuke Syria.”
Syria. Where hundreds of thousands of displaced people already swarm into the sea to avoid death, where war has ensured that disease is rife, where many other nations are already dropping billions of dollars worth of bombs, where several different factions of Muslims desperately struggle to fight for a place to live, each one believing that they are in the right. Just one Muslim nation in fifty that are predominantly Muslim nations, eighteen million Syrian Muslims amongst one and a half billion Muslims worldwide.
I say, “Well done. That’s that sorted then,” and I turn back to my work.
Intense Ginger Bloke briefly looks pleased with himself, then the frowning begins again.
And the jiggling. And he throws in a bit of nose whistling too.
He has a great beak of a nose that has a large bulge in the middle. I imagine it is a sounding chamber, used for trumpeting across the plains to his kind for help if ever he is in peril.
I realise I am spending too much time near Intense Ginger Bloke, but I spend all day with him in front of me. I can’t help it.
I try to ignore him.
A minute later he snorts and smiles.
“Here, look at this.”
He tilts his computer screen slightly towards me. I can still only see the back of it. I stand up, lean over the partition and look at the screen.
There is a picture of a toddler. She is chewing a toy. She has white blonde hair and the same disconcerting blue eyes as Intense Ginger Bloke. I have seen this girl in pictures many, many times. He is a proud parent and likes to share pictures of his daughter but I’m not interested. Why would I be? I like my own children, but I’m not so keen on gawping at pictures of other people’s. I find that a bit weird. Besides, whenever Intense Ginger Bloke wants me to look at a picture of his daughter, I always have to adopt this same, awkward pose. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a picture of her where I wasn’t at a ninety degree angle, craning my neck awkwardly. Intense Ginger Bloke has a huge monitor, so together this gives the feeling that I am looking up at a vast pale child with laser beam eyes who is forever looming over me in a variety of poses, usually gnawing something, perhaps a car or a passing pedestrian.
I say, “Aww.”
I sit back down.
This is repeated three or four more times before he is satisfied. I am left feeling defeated, crushed beneath the chubby foot of a giant albino overlord.
I do what I usually do in these situations and leave my desk to go hide in the bogs for ten minutes.
A toilet timeout.
It helps, but only slightly.
When I return Intense Ginger Bloke is chuckling to himself.
“He’s a right character,” he says.
I say nothing.
“He speaks a lot of sense,” he says.
I say nothing.
“If only more politicians were like him,” he says.
I sigh.
I say, “You on about Jeremy Corbyn?”
Intense Ginger Bloke screws up his russet face. “Who?”
I say. “Jeremy Corbyn. you know, Leader of the Opposition.”
He shakes his head. “Never heard of him. No, I’m talking about that Nigel Farage. Ordinary fella, talks straight. He likes a pint. He’s my kind of bloke.”
I say, “He’s a fucking cunt. He’s a conniving racist who postures with a pint to persuade gullible punters into thinking he’s normal, rather than a power hungry loon who wants to brick up the channel tunnel and bring back hanging.”
Intense Ginger Bloke’s shallow forehead furrows into a series of deep ruts and his eyebrows beetle. His shoulders hunch defensively. I can feel his leg jiggling. It feels like a steam engine is operating in the room below.
“Sounds alright to me,” he mutters sulkily. “He don’t seem racist…”
I say, “He is.”
We work in silence for a while, which is bliss.
But Intense Ginger Bloke gets distracted and he’s drawn back to the internet like a big ginger moth drawn to a shit-fueled flame.
He’s got an email billing him for work on his boiler.
He’s got a text from his girlfriend telling him the kettle is fucked and to buy a new one.
He’s got a car insurance quote that is BANG OUT OF ORDER causing him to shop around feverishly for an hour until he comes back to first the quote and bitterly accepts it.
Now he’s in a bad mood.
He is muttering and jiggling and mouth breathing and nose whistling. He’s belching, but there are no ‘Excusé Moi’s’ offered.
You see, Intense Ginger Bloke likes spending money, as long as he’s spending the money on treats for himself. He’s a selfish fucker and the needs and comfort of others are completely beyond his understanding. He doesn’t shower on a morning because he likes to roll out of bed at 5.50am to get to work for 6.00am. It’s a fifteen minute commute that he does in seven minutes because he puts himself first and any other fucker that gets in his way last. Or dead.
Because he doesn’t shower as frequently as he should he often stinks, but he combats that with a deodorant that smells like a cross between a maiden aunt’s knicker drawer and fly spray. The deodorant is about as close as he gets to consideration for others.
Now that he’s getting all cross and flustered he’s getting too hot – another favourite beef of his. It’s always ‘sweaty’.
“Who’s been messing with the air con? It’s getting well sweaty in here.”
No, Intense Ginger Bloke. We are not sweaty, the room is not sweaty, it is you who is sweaty, and your maiden-aunt-knicker-drawer-fly-spray deodorant is reeking the place out. It smells like someone has dug up Dame Barbara Cartland and hid her talced, desiccated corpse in the ceiling space.
But as Intense Ginger Bloke gets more angry and uncomfortable he begins to resemble someone I’ve seen recently, but I can’t put my finger on who it might be. I’m good with faces too, but it escapes me.
His fingers are really testing the keyboard to breaking point now. I have no idea why he needs to type so feverishly and I’m presuming there is someone on the internet who is WRONG and Intense Ginger Bloke is putting them right. He administrates a caravanning forum on Facebook and he wields his power like Thor, cutting down all those who oppose him. I imagine that each hammered sentence is the death knell for some poor camper and his four berth tourer, cast into the darkness of forum banishment where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth…
BZZZZ BZZZZ BZZZZ.
His huge phone skitters across his desk as it vibrates. His phone is the biggest on the market, naturally.
He picks it up, jabs the screen, then he frowns.
His eyes bulge. I think he’s about to belch again but he doesn’t.
The strange transformation into something tantalisingly familiar continues.
“NO!” he booms.
I’m momentarily terrified. I really do not expect this. His entire body has become a twitching, contorting mass of frustrated rage.
“NOO!!!!” His big, pale, hairy hand bangs down on his desk. Cold tea splashes out of his mug.
“You are kidding me. YOU ARE FUCKING KIDDING ME!!!” he screams at the phone.
The only other person in the office, Mike TV, has stood up to watch what’s going on.
Mike TV is alright, I suppose. He’s American, but he can’t help that. He’s possibly the most American person in the world. He’s got a Californian accent, he surfs, he calls everyone dude, he’s got a buzz cut, a big jaw bone and little close set eyes. The only thing he doesn’t have is American citizenship. It turns out that Mike TV’s parents aren’t American at all, they’re English, but moved to California when Mike TV was little and just forgot to tell him. Trouble started when Mike TV applied for a social security number and couldn’t get one. He, and his family, were illegal immigrants. They all got deported.
Deported from the only country he’d ever known, from sunny California to piss wet through Yorkshire.
The poor bastard. It’s a fate so cruel it’s almost funny.
“Erm, you okay there, dude?” calls Mike TV. He’s wandered over, holding a steaming cup of joe.
Intense Ginger Bloke swivels his terrible eye towards him. The hand clutching the huge slab of a phone is trembling.
“Okay? OKAY?? I’m pretty fucking far from okay, Mike TV! I’m ANGRY is what I am!!”
I’ve never seen him like this.
It must be like how the residents of Naples feel when Vesuvius suddenly starts belching  out a million tons of hot lava after a century or two of dormancy.
I find my voice and say, “Erm. What’s wrong, Intense Ginger Bloke?”
Those eyes. Almost reptilian.
He growls, “It’s her. Our lass. She’s… she’s just texted me… She says… can the young ‘un have a hamster.”
his lips draw back when he says ‘hamster’ to reveal his weak, grey teeth.
I say, “Sorry, I thought you just said ‘hamster’.”
“I DID SAY HAMSTER! SHE WANTS A FUCKING HAMSTER!! NO NO NO!”
He slams the desk again, snorting out loudly through his immense nose. It actually make a parping noise, which somehow pleases me. I look round quickly, half expecting a dozen  or so Intense Ginger People to stampede.
Mike TV looks bewildered. He sips his coffee and says, “Jeez, it’s only a fuckin’ hamster, dude. Let the kid have the fuckin’ hamster!
I reach slowly under my desk for my kevlar helmet but I remember I don’t have one, I only have my bicycle helmet but I’m not putting that on because everyone looks a cunt in a bicycle helmet.
Intense Ginger Bloke is growing. He’s turned a deep brick colour and he’s rising from his seat. the air is vibrating. I can feel the heat coming from his body and there is a sharp metallic odour in the air.
It is a spectacular thing to witness.
He explodes.
“THEY’VE BOUGHT THE HAMSTER ALREADY WITHOUT ASKING ME! SHE JUST WHATSAPP’D ME A PICTURE OF THE FUCKING THING AND THE FUCKING THING’S FUCKING CAGE IN THE BACK OF HER FUCKING CAR! I WAS NOT CONSULTED! THE HAMSTER WAS NOT DISCUSSED!! WHAT KIND OF SICK WORLD DO WE LIVE IN WHERE SOMEONE BUYS A FUCKING HAMSTER WITHOUT TALKING THROUGH THE PRO’S AND CON’S OF HAMSTER OWNERSHIP WITH THEIR FUCKING PARTNER?? THAT’S HOW WARS START!”
The heat from the blast singes Mike TV’s eyebrows, the shockwave momentarily disrupts the power supply to three thousand homes within the South Leeds area. The fluorescent lighting in the office flickers and becomes steady again. I pick up my chair from the other side of the room.
And suddenly I want to slap him. Just reach across the desk, wind my arm back and give him a good hard whack around the chops, because the preposterous man is having a tantrum. A thermonuclear tantrum.
His body writhes and twitches with impotent rage, his rage a rage which seethes constantly below the surface, a rage of frustration and stupidity that is brought to the fore by any kind of petty indignation, imagined insult or the slightest lack of that most modern of apparent essentials, ‘respect’.
Intense Ginger Bloke is a man of no importance. He is a buffoon, a boor, filled to the brim with righteous indignation. He is the living epitome of the new Middle Englander, under informed and over opinionated with a pathological need to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected, whatever the cost.
He shouts, “I don’t want a fucking hamster, hamsters rattle in their shitty little wheels making horrible repetitive annoying noises, hamster smell as well, that horrible hamstery smell that hamsters make, I don’t want a fucking hamster…”
Pot. Kettle.
And I’m staring at him, and I suddenly recognise what he reminds me of, what he looks like.
In the news a week or so ago there was this big seagull that got into a skip behind a supermarket and fell into a vat of curry sauce. They rescued it and hosed it down, but the end result was a dark orange seagull, furious looking, with this hideous blue eye that stared out at humanity with a terrible hatred.
Intense Ginger Bloke looks like Curry Gull.
And I can’t help it.
I start to laugh.
I just burst out laughing and keep laughing and Mike TV starts to laugh too at this ridiculous, tragic, frustrated man making a spectacular tit of himself, squawking and flapping over the purchase of a tiny mammal.
Intense Ginger Bloke looks stunned. He snatches his car keys from the desk and lurches to the door. He turns, still seething, and squawks, “I’LL TELL HER!! I’LL TELL HER THAT ONE OF US IS GOING, IT’S EITHER THE HAMSTER OR ME!!
The door slams.
He is gone.
Mike TV shakes his head in a pitying way. “Jeez. I mean… dude.”
He returns to his desk and I sit back down at mine and I look at the empty chair opposite me.
I imagine a little hamster cage there, the cute little thing trundling in his wheel or nibbling a sunflower seed, nuzzling through some fresh hay and watching me with his bright, black, bead of an eye.
I think of the ultimatum that Intense Ginger Bloke is about to deliver to his girlfriend.
I envy her.

Curry Gull

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