An empty wheelchair by a pond, next to a bench. A man sits with a vacant expression. His arms are at imperfect right angles to his body. One on the back of the bench, the other on the rest by his side. They hang placidly from flaccid wrists. A mallard shuffles groggily in the sun, making intermittent attempts at furious action before quickly settling down each time. A large goose sits in the shade and calmly surveys its public. A woman cradles the man and herself, her hand on his stomach, her head on his chest, protecting him with a silent desperation.
“Before you start, Al, could I have a quick word with you?”
“Um. Yes. Yes, absolutely”
Matt arched an eyebrow but made sure not to turn his head. He would save any comments for later.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, I’m OK thanks. I just had a coffee”
“Where from? The place on the corner?”
“Yeah, yeah. That one”
“It’s great, isn’t it? They’re really nice in there”
“Yeah. Should I take a seat”
“This shouldn’t take long. OK, well... You’ve been here for, what? About, three months, now?”
“And how do you feel that you’re getting on?”
“Pretty well, yeah. I like it”
“Getting on with everyone here?”
“Yeah, actually. It’s a nice working environment”
“Yeah? No problems with anyone? Members of staff? Customers?”
A screaming child, unable to be calmed. An angry face. Someone told him we had a title. This year’s Beano Annual. That we’d put it aside. No one did. No note. Not my shift. I just started. I didn’t know anything. Doesn’t matter. Of course he doesn’t want fucking Desperate Dan. He likes the Beano. He won’t stop screaming. He won’t stop screaming. And the man won’t stop shouting. There’s a queue, but he doesn’t care. The man won’t stop shouting. He says you’re laughing. It was just nerves. But now he says you’re laughing. Shallow breathing and a dry sweat and he just won’t leave.
“No. No, it’s all fine”
“Great, because I think you’re doing a really great job here and I wanted to ask you if you would consider staying on for a permanent position”
“I... Well, yeah, I mean. Um”
“It’s OK, you don’t have to answer now. Have a think about it and let me know sometime tomorrow”
“No problem. Have a great shift”
I left the back office. I was later told that my hands were shaking.
“Holy shit, Al. Looks worse than I thought. Look like a ghost. Was it about that guy from last week?”
I shut the door on the toilet, hung my head back and closed my eyes. My forced work smile, my ‘game face’ instantly disappeared. My face, my eyes felt sore. I just let it hang. The light of the energy saving bulb seared its way into my brain. I let the light burn through the thin membrane, all that was shutting out the rest of the world. And all I could see was the face of a woman.
NOT THIS AGAIN.
AND YOU WERE DOING SO WELL.
The specific detritus of the Sunday chor bazaar was something I was still getting used to walking through every week. Smashed, rotten fruit, smeared along the pavement. A single, heel-less ladies boot. A case for a straight to video action film starring Cynthia Rothrock. A Dreamcast controller. A broken CD case. Bits of other lives, already three times thrown out or stolen from people who no longer cared. Products not cool, bad or retro enough for the irony-set or of value enough for anyone else. Plastic orphans.
But my, how it pales to the real chor bazaar. Real haggling. Thick incense. Fresh spices. Live animals. Woven and printed fabric acid flashbacks. Sweet ,alien fruit. Men begging with withered limbs. Doped children, holding out their hands.
I’d be a fool to start thinking about that again. So I DON’T. Not YET.
“Pint after work, ey?”
“Ah, I dunno. Yeah. Maybe”
“Man, I don’t know, I’ve got to get up, and...”
“Just one, go on”
“Ach, I don’t know. I don’t really drink so much anymore. I can‘t really”
“Ah, lightweight, eh?”
“No, it’s not that, it’s these...”
“Yeah you are”
“Fuck it, go on then...”
A morning spent picking myself together again. I can’t say ‘no’. I won’t. By the second pint I was slurring. By the third I was staggering. I should know better. I do know. “Cuts your alcohol tolerance in half”
How many letters does he have after his name? And how many do I have after mine? Yet I know better, apparently.
Apparently there aren’t enough times throwing up rum and the unrecognisable remnants of the last meal I’d eaten some 14 hours ago can teach me this.
It’s OK. Another pill. I’m only taking half. I can’t do it anymore. Only half. But it should still be enough. A wave of clarity through the swirling, tobacco stinking horror.
Half a day. Half a day for two weeks. Then every other day. For a week. And then, back to nothing. That’s the plan.
And I’m level again.
Wish you were here. I wish you were here.
The sun is attempting to shine through a heavy overcast sky. The novel serenity of an English summer. Moments of perfect weather, always spoiled sooner or later by a shower. The gentle spell of pollen. The thick smell of ozone. Do you remember that? Do they let you remember things like that? What do you take with you and what do you leave behind? Do you get to bring these with, or is it just the smell of incense and opium and death that hung over the room...
DON’T DO IT
BUT IT HELPS
Life is constant and relentless and I’m scared that I will always need a cushion for it. I’m scared of taking my armour off and I’m scared of putting it back on again. You should have seen the look on your mother’s face. I didn’t even mind that your dad tried to punch me and had to be held back by the officers. I wanted him to do it. I’m sorry.
I miss you. I wish I’d known you longer.
I wish you were here.
“You got that book in?”
“Oh yeah, hello. You got that book in, yeah? You know, the vampire one an that?”
“No, we don’t have any copies. You might want to check Waterstones”
“Yeah, we sell out pretty quick. Small place”
“Ah. Right. Ah. OK, you got Fight Club in?”
“Yeah, I think we might have a copy”
“Under ‘F’ yeah?”
“No, it’s by Author’s surnames. So... P. Palahniuk”
“Wicked. Is it good, yeah?”
“I haven’t read that one”
“But it’s good, yeah?”
“I don’t know”
“But is it as good as the film?”
“Sure. Why not”
“Wicked. Here, let me ask you something”
“I got this book yeah. It’s a first edition. Think it’ll be worth anything?”
“Well, what is it?”
“Harry Potter. First one. First edition”
“Um... well, I don’t really appraise books and we don’t buy them second hand, so I’m really not the best person to ask”
“But, you know...”
“But, considering its one of the biggest selling books of all time. Aside from the bible, might even be the biggest...”
“I wouldn’t say it was worth much, no”
“Oh... oh... well, thanks for your help, yeah? It’s been very informative”
The ragged ‘customer’ left ‘Fight Club’ untouched as it was, sitting comfortably on the shelf and went outside to loudly recount his conversation with and equally ragged woman.
“Uh. Danny. Danny?”
“Sorry can’t here you”
“... checking on some stock”
“Uh, yeah, listen, I’ve just got to pop out for a second. I just need to get some fresh air”
“Doesn’t come much fresher than American Spirit, ey? Go on then, I’ll keep an eye on the till...”
“No, it’s not that, it’s... cheers”
I waited until the couple were well out of sight and smoked ‘til the butt, tugging at the corner of my threadbare cardigan with my free hand. Another anxious habit I picked up along the way. A couple of euro-crusties sat busking Beatles songs on the pavement across the street. Terrible. But they always drew a crowd. One of them wore a top hat. Both had dreadlocks. A community support officer asked them if they have a licence and moved them on to a chorus of muted boos. The crowd didn’t care, they were just happy to embrace a bit of safe, consequence free dissent. They quickly departed.
This place is a circus sometimes. A joke of itself.
I zapped and juddered. Down to every other day. This is just a preview. A cold wave of muscle spasms through my back and arms, spread to and from my stomach. ‘Brain zaps’, the internet said. My vision blurred. It’s a split second electric shock without the pain, nausea without the sickness. I’d love to think this was the worst drug experience I’ve ever been through.
A man sits on a bench. His cardigan is worn, a hand-me-down from someone else’s dead grandfather. He leafs through a broadsheet paper, indulging in spreading out and re-folding the main section, taking his time to read it cover to cover, chain smoking as he does. He tuts and clucks over the obituaries, taking this tradition to a third or fourth generation. Then he gets a pen out of his cardigan pocket and begins the quick crossword on the back of the small supplement, remembering how his family would all sit around and do it together. After ten minutes he loses interest, twirling the pen in his fingers. He produces a postcard from the other pocket and reads both sides, examining the picture, then staring and the blank side, then back to the picture. Repeating. He thumbs the corners and uses them to clean his nails. He doodles on his hands. Anything but write on the thing.
A nurse appears from behind the bench and softly puts her hand on his shoulder. He smiles with a look of acknowledgement and lets her lead him back inside.
I see all these beautiful things. All around me. Everywhere. People doing amazing things in amazing places. Photos. Beautiful buildings and sunsets and smiling face. Documents of a happiness I know has nothing to do with me. They are so removed that it makes me want to weep.
Weep in the abstract.
I tell him this and he’s talking about trying me out on something else, finding something that works. He’s been saying a short spell somewhere might not be completely out of the question.
Thank you for your letters. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you and I’m sorry about not wanting visitors. I made up that stuff about the doctors not letting me. I think you knew that, but thank you for playing along. I’m feeling a bit better now and would like you to come and see me when you can. But please don’t let anyone know I’m here.
Lost of love,
(ha ha, just saw that typo)
“Come in. Oh hi, Al. Come in, take a seat”
“Can I get you a glass of water?”
“Yes. No. No, I’m fine”
“It’s no trouble”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you”
“So... Al. Let’s have a little chat about how you feel you’re getting on”
“You’ve been here about... 6 months now”
“And James. He say’s you’re getting on really well. You’ve been working hard and you’ve made a lot of progress”
“Well... I suppose”
“Now of course you can stay hear as long as you need to, but reviewing your progress I think it might be time that you start thinking about how long you’d like to stay here. About when you’d feel ready to move on”
The flight home. Dead eyed staring. I felt like everyone knew.
“... so I guess all that’s left is... when can you start?”
“Fantastic! Straight away! Monday? Monday! Excellent!”
“Great- come in at 9 and we’ll start training”
“Thanks so much! See you then! Thank you!”
Smiling, I put down the phone, thinking I would treat myself to a beer, maybe a trip to the cinema. Maybe, maybe all the pieces were coming together again.