The neighbourhood’s changed quite a lot since we were nippers. We were both born here weren’t we Jim ? He’s a bit older than me – we’ve been like brothers all our lives. We were brought up to believe in the same things weren’t we Jim ? Always look after each other, the value of hard work, obey the law, be loyal to the Queen. Thank goodness these are values that still resonate with the young folk. My brother Dave was a soldier. These are the things Dave died to uphold. Termite attack a month ago. Now he guards the great anthill in the sky.
Tuppence was the kind of girl who looked you in the eyes and demanded, without saying a word, that you justify yourself to her. Her world was full of words people had used but not meant, and yours had better not let her down.
I let her down.
It’s not that I didn’t mean what I said, it’s that I was too careful, too afraid, too … predictable.
It was her surname. Halfpenny. Pronounced “haypney” … that put me off for starters. Then there were her eyes – looking at me. Deep deep brown eyes you could curl up and lie down in but then the piercing cold demand of her right eyebrow. Arched. Imperious perhaps. And then her disappointed shoulders – collapsing as if two vertebrae had fallen away in a spinal landslide. The momentary loss of her gaze, the swift flare of her nostril and her eyes snapped back to lock on mine until I couldn’t take it any more and my eyes fell to the floor in shame.
I picked them up, dusted them off and put them back in their sockets where they belonged.
A tear welled on my eyelid: hot and fat and salty. It wasn’t the lint I had missed as I dusted off my eye, but the thought that she might never learn to trust me enough to just laugh freely.
I blinked and the tear rolled heavily to the corner of my mouth and the salty tang, the brine of my fear, let itself kiss my tongue.
I saw her chest rise as she prepared to speak. Pray God I wasn’t staring at her chest, that distracting plunge of skin and that mole – did God really need to put a mole just there – drawing my eye and. Oh no. I definitely looked that time and she’s still looking at me. She’s seen me look right at moley and then over correct. EYES. Yes. Got them – there they are. Completely devoid of mole, though I swear I can see it sitting just on the valley wall there, teasing me.
I could do with a drink. My mouth has gone from being perfectly functional to slightly salty and now it’s an oral Atacama; moisture a distant memory. Something cold and long. Something sophisticated perhaps to show her I have taste. Maybe iced water with a slice of lime and an olive. Maybe that would taste awful or be too showy. Maybe just a cold glass of water with the beads of condensation coalescing into tears of their own and tumbling to the table. I should probably get her something too. She’d like that.
I really need to fart. I’m not sure how much pressure I can apply before it defeats itself and turns a tiny gas slip into a trumpet fanfare. Hnnnh. Not good. And now I need a wee. Should I get these drinks in first ? Oh God I don’t know. To pee or not to pee …
Shit. She’s asking me something. What was the question again ?
Kitty Metcalfe scared the life out of me when I was a child.
She smelt of strong cigarettes and whisky and had a gruff Glaswegian accent which, combined with the deafening volume, made every incomprehensible utterance sound like a death threat.
She was probably in her fifties, and she was a grandmother.
I look back at photos of her with her best friend (my granny) and I see a woman who devoted herself not to preening, but to her family. A woman who stayed true to her roots even in deepest darkest Windsor. A woman not be feared, but admired.
The blades of the oars seemed to slip silently into the water and then, as old Bear pulled the handles towards him, the rowlocks let loose a little squeak just to let you know you were moving. Bear didn’t talk much. He just kept a-stretching and unstretching his arms, breathing nice and slow and, if you listened real close, you might just catch a little humming. Bear’s old head was full of tunes and given a pretty girl and a jar of whiskey he’d dance and laugh all night long. When he was younger I heard tell he’d dance a girl till she begged to lie down and rest; that he obliged many a wish for a lie down and never a wish for a rest. But these days he’s just Old Bear – a big old twinkly-eyed beast of a man who runs a boat and will take you out on the bayou for fishing or hunting or seeking the all-seeing eye of the Vieille.
The Vieille lives far out in the bayou, surrounded by water and ungodly animals like snakes and gators and lizards and more snakes.
I asked Bear for an invite. It’s the only way. Only Bear knows where she lives on account of him rowing out there to take her food she can’t catch in the bayou.
I don’t know how long it took to get there. The sun was blocked out by the tops of the trees when we set out. When we left I had lost sight of it altogether. I had lost so much more, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. I was deliriously happy on account of her telling me I would find true love within the month and be married within the three and within the year, she had told me, I would hear the sound of my baby crying.
I paid her. Of course you got to pay her. She don’t use her all-seeing eye for you for nothing – you got to take gold or silver and you have to give her something your heart beloves so she can get the measure of your spirit. I gave her my Daddy’s old picture of him and me that Momma took and gave him. I found it stuck to the leather inside his old wallet after he died. I gave her that because my heart truly loved that picture and because I could close my eyes and see it even after it was in her hand so it didn’t feel like I was losing it when I gave it to her to keep forever.
I shouldn’t have asked for the lagniappe. The little extra they throw in when you buy something.
“Within the year” said the Vieille “you will know the true value of life.”
I thought she meant the gift of my little baby. Not the life my one true love lost in childbirth.
I should never have asked.
One saw-edged slice of paper on finger and a drop of blood sits ready squeezed on the surface of the skin.
Fat and glistening and red-black. A ladybird.
I could flick it away – send it flying across the room to land wings outspread on the wall.
I could squash it – crush the hemisphere on a piece of paper and see what Rorschach splat appears.
But instead, I suck my fingertip to taste the ferrous tang of blood on tongue like one of my grandmother’s old spoons or a nine volt battery as I short circuit the juice of life.
On either side of the kingdom of Fabulisia live two decidedly different beasts.
The Story Beast is a large, fruity toned monster, whose voice sounds as if all the words, however poetic or tender, were actually typed in bold.
The Gorey Beast, on the other hand, is a rangy creature who speaks entirely IN CAPITALS and whose manner would be described by an Englishman as ‘somewhat direct’ and by an American as ‘Goddam rude’.
I am, I must confess, equally fond of both of them. This is helped greatly by the fact that I have not actually met them, but on my visits to the kingdom I have heard the people speak of their beastly pair with a mixture of lemony wonder, earthy fear and a pinch of salt.
The Story Beast and the Gorey Beast are brothers, but as is often the way with siblings who are close in age, they are very very different in character.
Local legend has it that they fell out years ago and can only communicate with each other by remote telegraphic message – that if they met in person for confabulation, there would instead be conflagration. They are, to each other as matter and anti-matter, antipathy and pathy, pasto and … Well you get the idea.
They do however eat the same kind of food : stories; though the kind of tales they favour are quite distinct.
Story Beast favours tales of courage and hope, he loves to hear thoughtful little fables where peace and calm outs in the end.
Gorey on the other hand is restless and ambitious. He wants effort and brains to conquer all and many a tale of beauty has been hurled against the wall in a fit of rage and frustration.
They do share a scale of appetite that is formidable. Story after fable after tale is consumed by the beastly duo. Week after week they gorge themselves on fiction – sometimes they create plates of it stacked so high that they can’t even eat it in one sitting.
But as they have aged, so they have slowed.
When the beasts were youthful a week’s worth of stories would be devoured in but a single hour.
Now though the beasts are not so swift to nibble a narrative. Now they often pick at the stories for days – not really eating them at all.
What of the authors ? I hear you cry. Those poor enslaved scribes, tied to their chattering typewriters churning out tale after tale to the tastes of their beastly overlords …
They I am sorry to say, are destined to die. For without the scraps of encouragement thrown by the brothers Beast, they have nothing. Nothing but an excess of words and a diet of your own words is a thin gruel indeed.
Dear readers call for the beasts. Call them to the table to sup.
Let us feast on words once more till our imaginations burst the belt buckles of our minds.
But wait … Is that the sound of pawsteps ?
Mrs Pargeter lived in 32B with an immortal budgie called Bob.
He was yellow and green and chirruped at odd intervals as though passing comment on the old woman’s behaviour. He would swing manically back and forth on a trapeze looking for the catcher in his dirty hexagonal prism mirror. The floor of his cage was littered with feathers, poo and Trill. He lived his lives behind thin, plastic coated wire bars.
Every now and then Bob died, the cage got a scrub in hot soapy water and a new Bob moved in.
Much, thought Mrs P., like Flat 32B.
It stands to reason that where there is treason
There’s mistrust, suspicion and doubt
If you suffer temptation to damage the nation
I strongly suggest : leave it out
It’s really no mystery why all throughout history
Treason would earn you the rope
If the law of the land goes and falls at your hand
I very much doubt we would cope
We’re British we two, and the things that we do
and the thoughts that we think are alright
These are rights we enjoy, every girl every boy
And to mess with that’s just impolite
In the grounds of the Children’s Benevolent Trust was a large pond, cupped by willows on three sides, creating a curtain of green and willow-white. It was under this curtain that the warden Mrs Chattenoire hid her refrigeration unit – a small diesel engine that pumped heat from the pond, leaching it of vital centigrades. As a result, there was always a layer of ice on the surface – thick enough to hold the first few steps of a curious child, but thin enough to crack and swallow them whole.
“That ice” chuckled Mrs Chattenoire, “is mostly malice.”
He’s a tetchy old bugger.
He bloody hates commuting you see. All those wide people and men with overspread knees and headphones susstattering at you when you haven’t really woken up yet.
People who turn the page of the newspaper noisily. Man he really gets riled by that. Every flick and crack of the page is worth five or ten heartbeats a minute.
He’s not good when he’s hungry either – it seems to irritate him and nudge him towards the spleenventingly unfuckingreasonable.
Once he’s had breakfast he begins to behave like the world wasn’t invented for the sole purpose of pissing him off. Until he sees the morning’s emails.
Emails. They breed overnight. You leave two or three of them sitting in your inbox and by morning there’s fifty six of the little buggers all clamouring for attention. Needy little chicks all beak-wide-open cheeping at you begging for you to feedmefirst.
You can’t just kill them all. Control A Delete stamping on the nest with your boot and crushing the chirpy wormgobblers into a silent pulp because it’s not polite and it’s cruel and there are rules about that sort of thing.
Old grumpyboots is unconbloodyvinced. He’s pretty certain that an email that isn’t a reply to one he sent first is bloody spam and deserves to die. Left to his own devices he’d sit there hitting DEL fifty six times, and the best I can do to prevent him is to let him fire off one really massive over-reaction to some perceived slight.
That done, he’s got time to bubble up some proper resentment against the idle little bastards who rock up at nine o’bloody clock in the morning when you’ve been there for an hour and a half already and then potter around having a piss and getting a coffee and logging on and don’t even start being bloody productive until gone half past.
Then a morning of fuckwittery and dumbuggery as a never ending stream of people who haven’t got a fucking clue book his time just to torture him with their stupidity.
By lunchtime he’s got hungry again so he stops being quite so reasonable and his instinct control gets a little weak.
A good lunch calms him down some, provided he doesn’t eat at his desk and catch up on the emails again – usually the replies from the idle buggers who weren’t at work yet when he wrote to them before nine o’clock.
The afternoon’s often a little quieter, some of his pent up fury is wrapped up in tackling the afterlunch snoozies, but by five the pressure’s built up again and it needs an outlet and if you let him he will target you and everyone else and most of all himself until he’s spent and the day is done.
I’d like to think that that tetchy old bugger was my alcoholism – my addiction, and that he was somehow someone else entirely, but that’s not true. That grumpy bastard’s just me, unfettered and furious. All I have to do is to remember to check the locks every day.