Tom Waits For No Man

I was a little unsteady on my feet as I strolled into the night chill. It had been a pleasant enough evening, yet I felt melancholy yawn within me. I knew perfectly well what the root of this sadness was. 

I was lonely. So lonely.

So I went to the Rattlers Arms night after night. I drank, met up with old friends, conversed with new ones; then the bell rang and I knew it was time to shuffle back to the cold, dark bedsit that had been my home the last six months, since Emma left me. 

I could not face that damp little room yet- I was not nearly drunk enough, so I decided to wander the mile or so to the city centre. Perhaps I would hit another bar, go for a dance, try to find some sliver of hope that I would not spend another night alone. 

Company. Music. Friendship. Love. Connection. These were what I craved. 

As I ambled across the Kole Bridge, listening to the rhythmic sibilance of the Lin so far below me, I noticed a number of silhouetted figures some way ahead. As I neared them, I ascertained that they were a small group, three in total. Two skinny young men, and a woman. Their laughter carried on the still night air.

“…sometime in the nineties, I think it was…” The woman’s voice reached me as I neared the group. I could see that the men were not paying her any heed. They were engrossed in one another. She tried to continue, “He wrote a song about getting head in the Minerva,” but her friends continued to ignore her. I saw her give a disappointed smile at their ignorance. 

As I went to pass the group, I smiled at the woman. She was beautiful, copper red hair swept back into a ponytail, her pale, rounded face framed by a light fringe. Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle like the waters of the Lin. 

I went to keep on walking, but something stopped me. Opportunity sang to me like the dawn chorus awakening me from the slumber of my shyness. I stopped.

“Sorry,” I said to the woman, “Were you talking about Tom Waits?”

Her eyes lit up, “Do you know that song too?”

I nodded, “I know the girl he wrote that song about. Love a bit of Tom Waits.” 

Now, as I tell you this story, I ask you to bear in mind that these events happened years ago, and that our conversation only lasted a moment, there on a bridge over the River Lin. 

In fact, that was the extent of the conversation. As I wished her a good night and walked away into the darkness, the woman went to speak, but my farewell interrupted her.

Sometimes I wonder what she was about to say. Perhaps she would’ve joined me that night. We could’ve hit some bar and talked all night about Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker. We could’ve had a boogie, got a burger after, arranged to see one another again. We could’ve fallen in love, or found that we were incompatible. 

Anything might’ve come of that conversation, and yet it didn’t. I turned too soon, walked away. I went to a bar and had a pint, but it did not taste as fresh or alluring or as intoxicating as those few sentences I swapped with a stranger on a bridge. 

For weeks afterwards, whenever I ventured into town or walked across the Kole Bridge, I looked for her; but I never saw her again. I never even learnt her name.

And yet her face is etched into my memory as vividly as it was there before me that night. I know nothing of this woman save her face and that she likes the music of Tom Waits.

I wonder sometimes if she was the one: the one I was destined to be with. My one true love, living side by side in the same city, and yet only ever having that one brief meeting that night. If so, I know I will be alone forever. And all I got from that meeting was a yearning heart, and this meagre story. 

Change For Hristo

Hristo died last night. Knifed by some coked-up kid by the offy, God knows why. He’d only gone out to get wine for Krystle, never came home.

It was my ritual for so long. Every Wednesday I’d leave the office early and go to the Koszorus Bistro for a bowl of Hristo’s legendary goulash. He would welcome me with a smile, his rich baritone rippling through the little restaurant tucked away behind the cathedral. He wore the most flamboyant shirts, variegated Paisley abominations set off by a garish silken cravat. They never matched but, with his crinkled, moustachioed smile and his hefty frame, it somehow worked. That was Hristo all over- a mish mash of styles and colours somehow gelling together to make something far greater.

Over the years, I watched the Bistro change. The changes were incremental, but still I noticed. I saw the cask ale pump clips that adorned the walls slowly fade in their exposure to the sunlight, and saw as they were replaced with framed images of Hungary. I saw as the counter was gradually swallowed up by cake fridges- rakoczi turos and zserbo glistening temptingly in the light that poured through the window like honey. I saw as Hristo and Krystle grew old and plump, their skin crinkled with age, the smile lines deepening around their eyes. I saw them grow together, converge, become as one person in two bodies.

All that is now gone. I went to the Koszorus Bistro this morning, and somehow- although I knew- I expected to see Hristo in his blue and purple paisley shirt, an emerald green silk scarf around his neck, arms spread wide in greeting.

The Bistro was closed. Krystle will no doubt reopen the place after the funeral, but it will never be the same again. Those incremental changes that took months or years, all superseded by this one enormous change.

Hristo is gone, and I do not know how to deal with it.

The Promise (part II)

John Sutton gives his broadest smile as the woman seats herself across the desk from him. He watches her face closely as she returns the smile.

“I wanted to welcome you to our little council,” she says, her voice light and airy, like the song of a starling.

John notices a slight movement from above, at the very periphery of his vision. A spider spins its web in the top corner of the office, its legs contorting and contracting as it pumps out its silk. He ignores it, and waits for his visitor to continue.

“I understand you hail from Ashford,” the lady smiles, “And wish to pull that district from the sorry state it is presently in?”

Whilst her statement is worded as a question, John senses that its poser requires no answer. He simply nods, still smiling at the woman.

“I would like for you to consider me an ally in your endeavour. Ashford has struggled too long. It is time we did something to alleviate the sufferings of its residents.”

Finally, John speaks. “I am glad to know so illustrious a personage as you takes such interest in the area. Thank you, Lady Plume.”

The woman smiles still more broadly, and bows her head in subtle genuflection, “Please, call me Vagina.”

“Very well, Vagina,” John says, angling his head to match her genuflection.

“My dear husband, presently holidaying in the Maldives, is a man of considerable influence. I may be able to persuade him to invest in the old Corn Exchange as a gesture of his benevolence, and of our devotion to your cause.”

John is already all too familiar with the dubious reputation of Sir Gordon Plume, a man who is said to have amassed his wealth and influence through nefarious means- gun running, drug smuggling and the like. He looks closely at Vagina’s face, waiting for her to betray her true intentions. Sir Gordon, it is said, ran away to the Maldives after impregnating the housekeeper. How can his abandoned wife hope to hold any sway with him? Nevertheless, she seems sincere.

John arches his fingers into pyramidal form as he ponders Lady Plume’s offer.

“All I would ask in return,” Lady Plume continues, tilting her head coquettishly, “Is a simple favour to a friend. My darling sister Urethra is in need of work. If you acquiesce to allow her to become your assistant, I will guarantee you an investment of half a million pounds into your Corn Exchange rehabilitation centre project.”

John cannot hold back his surprise. That money could change lives, could save lives. It would go a long way towards absolving the guilt he feels about poor Kate. It is a huge investment, and at so little cost. And yet…

This is blood money, raised by enabling the slaughter of the innocent and by enslaving the vulnerable into the web of addiction. Sir Gordon fed his wealth through the very vehicle which led to Kate’s death. Can John allow dirty money to be used for clean purposes? Can his dream of future Ashford be founded upon blood?

As he examines Lady Plume, he sees an innocent, ageing woman. She spoke of John’s Ashford project with genuine passion. She seems sincere, seems to genuinely care about the lives of the people of Linfield.

In that moment, John Sutton decides to trust Lady Plume. He extends a hand.

“Vagina, If your sister is as kind-hearted and warm as you, she would be a welcome addition to my staff. Thank you for your investment in the Corn Exchange, and thank you for agreeing to join me on my quest.”

Lady Plume takes John’s hand with a warm grin.

“My pleasure,” she beams as she glides from the office, her kitten heels clacking down the marble hallways of Linfield City Hall.

The Sludge

Gunfire rattles from afar. The crest of the hill so close glows orange as mendacious Jerry fires off another round. Alfred Jinks throws himself into the mud, hands across his head, cowering in the sludge.

A crunch and an unearthly groan as a bullet cracks into his best friend’s skull. Poor James, he feels everything as the bullet tears through bone and detonates in the depths of his head.

Alfred does not see the look of terror spread sudden across his friend’s face. He does not see that expression wilt as the light in the man’s eyes quickly fades. He does not think of James’ ailing wife and six children at home. He does not feel the hot blood splatter across him.

Instead, Alfred thinks of home. As the mud clogs his eyes and ears, he thinks of the pretty, ivy-draped cottage he left behind. The perpetual stench of blood congealing in the Passchendale turf fades, and he catches the floral aroma of his garden.

The stench and aural bombardment of warfare becomes the dream, and picturesque Linfield the reality. He hears little Anthony and Ursula frolic on the banks of the Lin. He hears his wife Virginia call to him, her voice rich with mirth and love.

That is another world. Linfield no longer exists to Alfred. The Lin is a torrent of blood, the delicate trees that nestle around Owlerton Park are the charred and brittle bones of bombarded oaks in no man’s land; the civilised world of cricket in the park and tea in teapots is dead, superseded by blood and mud, by explosions that ripple through the very Earth, by the howls and moans of the dying lost between the trenches.

That world that Alfred and his friends fight to save- the world James fought and died to save- no longer exists for the men in the trenches, for the men torn apart by bomb blasts in the field, drowning in sodden craters, hacking up blood from lungs shredded by noxious gases. This is all that is: pain and death and terror.

Even when the Great War is ended, Alfred can never go back. He has seen the truth now: domesticity and politeness and civilisation are but an elaborate lie woven deftly by some wicked trickster.

Alfred springs to his feet at the sounding of a whistle. He steps over James’ still-twitching body, raises his rifle, and prepares to leap the parapet, to trudge through the dissected muscle of the Belgian soil and towards the guns that would slay him without a thought for his children at home, without a thought for the grief of his wife, the scant memories he retains of childhood games, of climbing the tallest tree in all of Owlerton Village; the guns care not that Alfred was an integral member of the cricket team, or that he made lunch for his widowed mother once a week, or that he once stole half an ounce of tea from the shop.

As the crest of the hill glows orange and the sludge quivers with reverberating death, Alfred claws the mud from his eyes, and joins his brothers pouring out from the trenches.

Somewhere in the distance, far beyond the ridge, a murmuration of starlings take flight.

The Promise (part I)

John Sutton knew he was finally where he belonged. The grand marble hallways of Linfield City Hall echoed with the clicks of his Cuban heels as he marched steadily along towards his office.

His office. It still did not feel quite real to John. Born and raised in the slums of Ashford, a district of the city abandoned by council and police and civilisation, a wilderness of poverty, addiction and gang warfare; and now, here he was- a councillor, a member of the establishment.

John had made a promise many years before, and now he would make damned sure he fulfilled it. He swore to break up the gangs and to bring peace to Ashford. He swore to drag the district from its poverty, to throw everything he had into rebuilding and restoring the beautiful old Georgian terraces and the Silva Arcade, the Art Deco shopping centre that had been long since abandoned to decay, to tangled weeds and graffiti, to nests of rats and addicts sheltering from the rains.

John Sutton had vowed to save his home and its people, and that was what he intended to do.

He swung into his office and slid his briefcase onto the grand old oak desk. He opened the case and pulled out sheaves of paper that would see him fulfil his pledge.

He would repurpose the long-derelict Corn Exchange off Magnolia Avenue as a shelter for the homeless. He would encourage addiction charities to enter the district. He would force the council to invest in the area, to bring industry and thus jobs to Ashford. He would save his home and its people, and he would do it for Kate.

It was to she he had sworn to save Ashford, twenty years or more earlier, just a few days before her death. They had been friends since childhood, Kate and John. Their mums were friends, and so they were too, almost by default. The two children had bonded over their commonalities- neither had a father, both raised by mothers who enjoyed a tipple and a punch-up of a Saturday, both dreamed of getting far away from Linfield- but neither managed it.

Kate was only twenty when she died, alone in the old Corn Exchange. She had fallen in love with an addict and, as so often happens in Ashford, she picked up his addiction. She had been working since she was old enough, saving every penny she could in the hopes of buying a ticket to somewhere far away, to another life, a better life of opportunity and of hope. She never bought that ticket; instead her meagre savings went into a needle.

John can still hear their parting words, the last time they met in the beer garden of the Rattlers Arms, a pub in nearby Norsteth.

“If you can get clean,” he told her, “I’ll change this world for you.”

She had taken offence, still denying her heroin addiction even as she rattled for a fix, and stormed off, through the pub, onto the street and into the grave.

It took twenty years and it might take another twenty, but at last John could begin to really fulfil the promise he made to his friend so long ago. She may not have had the strength to conquer her addiction, but he was determined to make sure nobody ever suffered the way she had again.

Little Finger

Larissa Johnstone already knows it is going to be a bad day.

Whenever something terrible is about to happen, she is warned by her finger. She will notice an ache in the joint of the little finger of her left hand. That is how she knows.

She first became aware of her premonitory finger when she was just eleven years old. It had throbbed with pain so persistently that she had been completely unable to concentrate on her schoolwork. Diligent little Larissa, always so hard-working and quiet, found that the pain prevented her from doing even simple long division, from conjugating her verbs properly. When she got home that afternoon, she learnt that her lovely little dog Elspeth had been hit by a car and died. As her heart broke for the first time, the pain in her little finger stopped.

Larissa wonders what her finger could be warning her of. She runs a quick check of her loved ones in her head- mum, Hannaline, Georgie, Henry the cat… Well, Henry is happily purring at his bowl, and a brief perusal of the others’ respective Facebook accounts give her no reason for concern.

And yet her little finger throbs. It hurts as it did the day her parents announced their separation . It hurts as it did the morning her beloved grandfather passed away. It hurts as it did the first time she was dumped, the morning of Princess Diana’s death, and all of September 11th 2001.

As she dawdles along Kings Road to work, she feels anxiety rise within her. This strange portent from the extremity of her left hand causes her pain both physical and emotional. She tries to prepare herself. Will she lose her job? Might one of her close friends suffer some terrible accident and be seriously hurt, or worse?

She sees their faces in her mind. She sees her mother’s scornful scowl as she bemoaned Larissa’s abortive love life. Would that prove to be their last conversation? She sees poor Hannaline, her oldest friend, still struggling to deal with her widowhood. Would the strain of her loss lead her to do something terrible?

As her mind churns up such terrible possibilities, her amble pace becomes a steady march. She strides out across Kole Bridge, before finding the weight of her thoughts dragging her down. She pauses, and casts her eyes over the rippling waters of the River Lin so far below.

The pain in her little finger has spread. It now throbs through the whole of her left hand. Whatever horrors are coming, she realises with a shudder of foreboding, they are going to be huge.

At the far end of the Kole Bridge, where Kings Road gives way to the myriad winding pathways of the city centre, the tin roofs of Moor Oaks Shopping Centre glisten in the morning sunlight. Glancing at her watch, she realises that if she doesn’t hurry she will be late for work. The wrist behind her watch now aches with the same insistence as the hand and wrist. She shakes her head to steel herself, and boldly marches off to work.

By the time she reaches the clothes shop she manages, Larissa’s whole left arm is addled with pain. Her head spins with it. She feels the tension in the left side of her face give way, and she slumps as the shop keys clatter down onto the concrete.

*

It was only fortunate for Larissa that her colleague Barry was early for work that morning. Had he not called the ambulance when he did, Larissa would almost certainly not have survived her stroke. Indeed, Barry was rewarded for saving her life in a manner of speaking- when Larissa stepped down from her management position in order to concentrate on her health, he was the one who stepped into her shoes and took on her role as the store manager.

Funny how things sometimes work out.

Salad And Sauce

“Do you want salad and sauce with that, mate?”

Mo flips the burgers on the griddle and tries to still the thoughts that swirl round in his mind.

“Salad and sauce?”

As he slides another meat feast into the pizza oven, he can hear his father’s voice. The heat beat down upon his little head from a cruel sun, hotter even than the blast from the fryer beside him now. The old man was proud, never backed down or admitted defeat, and yet, that day, there was fear in his eyes.

“Salt and vinegar on your chips, mate?”

Mo was only five, and yet that day was etched in his memory fresh as a new oilburn. His father leaned down to him and stroked his face as he explained to his son that they needed to leave.

This land, with its parched earth and crumbling buildings, its scorched blastmarks and the constant rattle of gunfire, was all the boy had ever known. Normal, to him, was waking up to find his neighbours stolen away in the night. Normal was hearing that his school or the hospital where he was born were gone, blown to debris by a bomb flung careless from on high. Normal was ducking under tables as militiamen stalked the streets beyond, searching for flesh puppets to scythe down or take away.

“You want salad and sauce?”

His father told little Mo that they were leaving. England was their destination- where no guns sang their death songs, no bombs teased dust from the roof of the family home, where trees flourished green rather than the blackened skeletons they became here in his homeland.

“Salt and vinegar, brother?”

Mo could not have known. The journey to England was long and treacherous. The family were welcomed nowhere, seen as outsiders and crusaders, terrorists and strangers. Many in their train died, left lying where they fell. Starvation, thirst, disease, violence. Mo’s own mother did not make it to verdant England, dying from thirst in the green fields of Tuscany.

“You want chips with that?”

Mo’s proud old father became haggard after that. He was defeated by life, by the loss of his home and his wife and all that he had ever known. When the two finally reached England and were eventually accepted as asylum seekers, the old man found he could not settle. He moved his boy from town to city and back again- Birmingham, Swindon, Wigan, Middlesbrough, and finally to Linfield.

“You want salad and sauce, love?”

They settled finally in Leighton, in the north of the city. It was a crumbling, near-abandoned district, populated mainly by other asylum seekers. The council thrust these interlopers together, out of sight, where they wouldn’t have to interact with them in any but the most perfunctory of ways. Mo’s father established a corner shop on the Kings Road which thrived, until Tesco opened a supermarket across the road and stole all their business.

“Salt and vinegar, mate?”

The loss of his business killed Mo’s father. By now, Mo himself was seventeen, and had acclimatised well to England. His homeland seemed as a dream to him, a dream of sandstone mosques bleeding black smoke to the sky as they crumpled under yet another blast. A dream of school friends and neighbours who vanished by night and were never seen again- whether to the grave, the camp, or a better life, none could tell.

“You want chips with your burger, mate?”

His father has been gone nearly two years now. Mo spends every evening in the takeaway, flipping burgers and frying frozen chips. The asylum seekers have been forced out of Leighton as the area becomes gentrified and the students take over. Awful, ill-mannered little shits who talk to Mo as if he were either a child, or their friend. He is neither. He has seen more of life than these moneyed oafs ever will, and yet they pay his wages, so he smiles politely, he laughs at their jokes and ignores their jibes, and he flips burgers.

“You want salad and sauce, mate?”

The community his father built up with his little corner shop, the camaderie of the asylum seekers from all corners of the globe in their tumbledown ancient houses, the sense of belonging in their not belonging- all of this is gone, replaced by arrogant youth and money and privilege.

“Do you want a drink with that, love?”