Category: After Hours


For sure I’d tell you about Ted Silverstein if I could without fear.

Only I don’t know who he’s working for now and they could be dangerous.

When I first know Ted he’s a burn-out and a fallen piano player, a shoe man.

His son, so he tells me, is expense-account rich, a direct sales whizz-kid whose obsessions include a fetish for the softer body furnishings.

In effect, shirts.

Yeah, Ted’s boy is a shirt man.

Nevertheless, he is obviously a big part of Ted’s world, although I cannot recall ever hearing a mention of the young man’s name from his father’s lips.

No, it is for Miriam, the shirt man’s wife and the shoe man’s daughter-in-law that he reserves his fullest passion and his truest praise.

She is the only thing his son ever got right, to hear Ted tell it.

“It’s one thing to be an expert on collecting receipts and selecting shirts but to be a menche with the right woman?  Hah!” said Ted. 

You can’t walk far in shoes made out of silk and a leather shirt you can’t wear beneath a dress suit.

“She was hand made in Lewisham.”

Ted tells me this with his eyebrows arching like vipers ready to strike and his Havana-brown breath walking spanish around the last sylables.

Hand made in Lewisham.

For those of you who don’t know so much, Lewisham is a south London borough famous for murder, drug abuse, a writer of popular songs who squandered his genius on fast drugs and a slow-burning woman, and a Saturday market.

Yeah, I could tell you about Ted Silverstein, for sure.

If I could without fear.

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Animus

Had he not insisted on the move she might have died.

Her garden had been everything to her but all they had at the new place was a small square of paved-over back yard with a potted plant and some creepers.

She wasn’t happy and she deeply resented him.

All attempts at communication had failed.

There was a lot of door-knocking: a daily pageant of young men with large hold-alls full of dusters and dish-mops; double glazing and home improvements salesmen in bad ties; matronly market researchers with clipboards; prospective burglars, gypsy rug sellers and roof repairers…

He particularly disliked the evangelists.

They would hit the street mob handed, middle aged men and women in hats and overcoats, even in the summer.

They’d never simply rap once and then go away, sometimes they’d loiter for hours, flipping through their bibles, chattering about God knew what, periodically rattling letterboxes and knocking.

He peered at them through a crack in the curtain.

There was one of each: regulation hats, overcoats and bibles, big white teeth and cavernous eyes full of spiritual luminosity.

The man rattled and knocked and said something he couldn’t quite catch.

The woman giggled.

His breathing grew intense.

They must have known he was home.

Big T and The Badda-Bings blared out of the stereo – The Girl From Ipanema – and at one point the man came right up close to the window and peered in.

He could smell her resentment all over the house.

In the living room, the kitchen cupboards and the fridge, in the dust on the bookshelves and between the pages of the books themselves.

It was especially pungent on the first floor landing around the closed door of her room. 

Something had to be done.

He gathered together a saw and a kitchen knife, a pair of secateurs, some black plastic sacks purchased from one of the hold-all men, a large wooden chopping board.

She looked up from her pillow as he entered, watched in silence as he got to work.

There was a lot of blood, he almost slipped over in it as he positioned himself to begin sawing through the neck.

The spinal cord was tough but finally he succeeded in detaching the head.

It was while he was debating whether to remove the arms in one piece or cut off the hands first that he noticed the ring.

The flesh had swollen around it and it wouldn’t budge.

He snipped off the finger with the secateurs.

Once the head and limbs had been removed the middle section was light enough to be carried through to the bathroom.

He placed it gently in the tub and slit open the stomach with the kitchen knife.

The contents spilled into the bath.

Then he opened up the chest cavity and began to remove the various organs, laying them carefully on the chopping board.

These he cut up into small chunks and flushed down the lavatory in servings of about half a pound in weight.

He then cut out the ribs one by one with the saw and quartered the torso, placing each piece into one of the sacks ready to be taken downstairs.

He boiled the head first, followed by the hands, feet and ribs, in a big, copper cooking pot.

Once cleaned of flesh the bones were separated into smaller fragments, mixed with some general domestic waste and sealed away in another sack to be disposed of by the council garbage men.

It was nearly daylight.

He was left with several large bones – a pair of femurs, shoulder blades, other arm and leg bones – on which some flesh still remained.

Feeling suddenly exhausted and, deciding it was time for a break, he poured himself a whisky.

As he did so he turned, sensing her presence in the doorway. She said nothing, just stared at him with that I told you so look of hers.

He shrugged.

“All right, all right, I know,” he sighed. “If only we had a garden….”

Dear Arabella,

How is Arcadia?

I’m missing you too much.

I think I’ve been on the road too long this time.

The dream has no beginning or end and I always wake up at the same time: just before the door opens and the tall man is about to enter the room.

The experience never lasts beyond this point and there is no continuation.

But it is the way with dreams that the dreamer is both actor and director and knows every aspect of the script.

I know that the tall man is beyond the door.

I know his tuneless whistle and dry cough, the bad tattoo on his right earlobe, the jingling of loose change in his trouser pocket against his thigh as he walks and I know that seconds after I wake he will be in the room and the pale, red-haired girl will blanch even paler and the young man in the light-weight khaki Summer suit tied by his hands and feet to the chair will scream.

And though I have never heard that scream I will always remember it.

And the dreamer will be gone, running through the dimly lit corridor into the lobby, past the fat key-man sleeping at the reception desk and out into the driveway like a tabloid sensation, into the road, crossing the intersection, caught in the squealing headlights, creased by the slipstream.

But there is no freedom.

He might run this road forever and never be even falsely free.

To run is not to find freedom.

To run is merely to express the desire for freedom and desire is of no consequence.

We are simply protozoa bursting, vainly attempting bifurcation, hopelessly blind to the impossibility of success.

I will never know why those people are in that damnable and accursed place, will never hear their names in anything but hellish tongues, will never know why the bed is strewn with spent matches or what it is that makes the girl turn away from the window and smile just before the door opens.

But I will sleep again and dream again and again and again and I will shiver.

The chill in that room: the same chill that lives in the marrow of the dwarf’s spine.

And my heart pounds with the relentlessness of a living steam-hammer, the shock-waves like bullets striking my synapses as I struggle to take in the scene from my hide in a corner somewhere deep in that room that has no right or reason to exist for anyone but me and the dwarf.

The Amok-man scenario, the Mexican Motel room sequence played in dumb-show by crippled actors on a broken set to a symphony of traffic whooshing through the rain and meeting and parting at the intersection.

The same monstrous tableau with the unmade bed in the smoke-filled alcove, its pale, dirty pink candlewick coverlet awry and its faded paisley-patterned mattress exposed and littered with spent matches, a purple wash in a jagged wedge of luminosity from the down-lighter.

And everywhere the chill.

A chill of homelessness and late night early morning train stations, of highways, of strange bedrooms and other lives and other dreams, of the commingled breath of unknown lovers…

A witch freezes the dwarf’s semen, murders his sperm moments before he comes.

Will write again soon.

Love,

Jon.

“Whore”

There is a time before fame, a time before the new universe is born, before the screen and the keyboard and the cell phone and 24/7 CCTV surveillance; a time before the absolute governance of celebrity, greed and gratuitous acquisition.

I am ten years old. I sit on a soft carpet in front of a small monochrome television in a terra-cotta room that exists not for human habitation but for the shelter and protection of the people in my father’s paintings.

It’s a room in a frame.

For the cobbler in the red fez it exists.

For the veiled women haggling over vegetables in the souk it matters. 

For the tall Arab girl gazing out across the rocky beach at Merkala, her djellabah blowing in the warm sea breeze it’s the future. 

For the kiff smokers drowsing at their pipes it is real.

For the fakirs, the snake charmers and the holy men and me?

I can’t speak for them but for me it is a vault for my father’s treasures.

Vernon thinks – A prison for his seed?

Vernon has known my father and has worked for him for a long time, since before I was born, but he still doesn’t understand him, his motivation, the way he thinks.

Craft is everything to my father: talent, intuition, creativity and art are delusions; know-how, workmanship, cunning, guile, shrewdness and trickery are more important than talent.

Talent, and to my father I think it’s more than just a word, is but a side effect of madness.

There are other pictures in my father’s house.

In the big hall, for example, are two full sized prints of original canvasses by a painter called Richard Dadd. 

When I was younger I would wonder if his surname was a misspelling of the other word for father.

Richard Dadd murdered his father with a kitchen knife, believing him to be the devil.

Is this why I am here, why I am constantly alone, why I am schooled privately by Sister Rose, why my father and I are never alone together, why he has never held me, smiled and called me his son?

Does my father fear that one day I might murder him because I am talented?

My father is in Hollywood, a place in America, working on a picture, that’s his craft.

He packages dreams and turns them into images that flicker on large screens in people-packed auditoriums. He has made many and they have made him rich. I watch them sometimes on television.

They seem to me to be all the same, although the settings are different. There is always a good man who usually has some kind of weakness, which he overcomes; and an evil man who seems to be strong in the way that the good man is not, but is ultimately shown to be weak.

Once, I ask my father if the dreams he packages are his dreams.

He smiles and tells me he pays talented people to dream for him, pays them well, makes them rich, pays them a lot of money.

And then he says:

“But not as much as the talentless people who pack the auditoriums to witness the talented people’s dreams pay me!”

Then he laughs a cold and unhappy laugh.

The talentless people, the ones who have made my father rich, are called The Public or, sometimes, The Fools or The Punters. 

The talented people, the dreamers, are referred to by my father as The Writers.

I decide at an early age that if I ever have the choice as to whether I am to be like my father or be a dreamer I will choose the latter.

A visit from my mother is promised, has been imminent since as far back as I can recall.

My mother is a drunk and a whore.

I read those words from my father’s lips one day as I watch him with Penelope in the garden. My mother lives in hotels and on aeroplanes with worthless men and sometimes tries to act.

An actor is another kind of dreamer.

My father has made a deal with other men of power in the dream business that they should never let my mother be a part of their packages.

I think perhaps this constriction on her may be the cause of her drinking and whoring.

Vernon enters the room. My eyes remain on the flickering images on the silent television screen. I know what he’s thinking.

He hates to be an agent of disappointment but it’s his burden, as having a drunken whore for a mother is mine, and I let him bear it.

It’s his own fault for putting off the moment: he should have told me immediately, this morning, after he had replaced the telephone handset in its cradle.

“Is it this afternoon, Vernon, or this evening?” My eyes remain attached to the screen, its silent images miniaturised in them.

He walks to the window and pretends to gaze out over the driveway.

The big metal gate strains against its chain in the light breeze.

I turn.

Vernon can feel the intensity of my stare on the back of his neck.

The question hangs in the air like dust caught in a shaft of sunlight.

 He turns and his eyes meet mine for a broken moment before they swerve downwards to the carpet.

His words, the pertinent ones, are almost out, struggling at the back of his throat to be released, but he fails them:

“Why don’t you switch it off, Jon,” he says instead, “how can you follow it without sound?”

The machine also has problems with its voice; a repairman is expected.

“It’s alright,” I say, “there’s a trick Sister Rose taught me… I can read the shapes the words make on the actors’ mouths, just takes a little practice. I’ve become quite good at it. The grey haired woman has just told her brother about the missing diamond…”

I’ll tell him, I don’t know how but…

His secret has become suddenly redundant, his burden is hollow; I can hear him thinking, his sadness and relief and something bitter that he recognises as shame: he knows I despise him for his cowardice, for his transparency.

“I know she’s not coming, Vernon.”

He kneels down and gently touches my face, his hand resting there a while before he raises it to my hair and self-consciously ruffles it.

His body shakes in a way that betrays the tremors in his heart.

There is nothing more to say about my mother’s latest aborted attempt at a homecoming but, like the fool he is he says it anyway:

“I’m sorry, Jon. She thinks she may be able to get back to the UK in a week or so, she’s reading for a part in a play. She sounded ok, but disappointed herself.”

I no longer feel disappointment. After all, it’s happened so many times before. You can’t be disappointed when disappointment is what you expect.

“Come and help me in the garden?”

I shrug.

The word “whore” is a word I’m not entirely sure I know the meaning of. I’ve heard it spoken on the television and I’ve read it on my father’s lips and I’ve called Vernon one in my head.

So my mother is a whore, but whores are not always women.

I know it must be something bad and sometimes, but not always, is about sex.

My father once called a writer a whore when they were arguing at a dinner party.

I think it has something to do with doing things that you don’t really want to do but you do them for money.

Mezuzah Soup

It’s Sunday morning in her kitchen and Alice is boisterous in that dozy kind of way she sometimes is after a good night out, still drunk, thinking and talking in pop song rhythms, BAPPA MAMMA BIP/BAPPA MAPPA BOOM, as she makes the toast and brews the tea, meanwhile the cross-worshippers in the distance striking up the band with a muffled HALLELUJA BIP BAM BOO.

“You believe in God, Gerry?”

No reply.

“You believe in God?”

“I don’t even believe in Sunday!”

Alice has a flash picture of Little Bo Beep. Then he’s in the kitchen, stroking the back of her neck. She smells cigarettes on his breath.

“Listen to them,” he whispers, and her spine tingles. “I mean just listen to that shit, all that cheap redemption crap. They’re all dead, like Sunday. The other lot too, kneeling shoeless with their ragged-up heads bowed towards Mecca.”

He walks to the window and shouts across the courtyard towards Alamandera Mansions:  “Fifteen Quid on the Hashasheen’s nose and lose the f**king lot. Like I did yesterday. That’s Mecca for you.”

Then he’s back at her side and smiling, arms round her waist, a soft kiss to the cheek. She pulls away and pours the tea.

“I wish you wouldn’t gamble, Gerry. We needed that money,” she tells him, a possibility of tears in her voice.

“There are those who kneel and there are those who deal,” he replies, rummaging in the fridge. He finds a carton of orange juice. “Anyway you can go out and get some more, can’t you? A bit later, maybe.”

She lays a cup of tea in front of him on the worktop.

“You got any cigs, I’m out.”

It’s not a question.

“On the floor by the bed,” says Alice, “get me one too.”

In the bedroom Gerry takes two cigarettes from the packet, lights them and puts the packet in his pocket. From her shoe, half hidden beneath the bed he takes two twenty pound notes and puts those also into his pocket. Back in the kitchen he passes her one of the cigarettes, takes a long drag on the other and lets the smoke sigh out.

“They’re out there Alice, they’re out there all right, waiting, keeping order in the courtyards and the squares, hustling for the muezzins, just as sure as those Jesus freaks with their dead-beat tambourines.”

“What’s one of them, Gerry?”

“What?”

“A mue… whatever you call it.”

He smiles, swallows a piece of dry toast and swigs a mouthful of tea.

“Come here.”

He leads her out to the hallway and the front door. Opening it, he gestures to a gap in the paintwork on the outside door frame:

 “You see that? You know what that is? I’ll tell you. Before you came here, before the Bengalis arrived, these flats were mostly let to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They have… it’s part of their religion – Jew voodoo, if you like – these little containers attached to their door posts with small parchments inside inscribed with religious texts, supposed to scare off evil spirits or something. Anyway, along come the Muslims. They don’t like the jews, so they form themselves into gangs and start roaming the estates at night, nicking all these little cases from the Hebrews’ doors. They take them to their bosses, the muezzins, and they break them open, take out the parchments and use them in their rituals, make mezuzah soup out of them, which they sell to the Christians from their corner shops. The soup puts a hex on them and they all lose their faith and get drunk. The Jews get rich selling them the booze and move to Golders Green and the Bengalis take over the east end. Ethnic and religious cleansing by voodoo, got it?”

“You’re full of shit, Gerry.”

He laughs and leaves her standing in the hallway, slamming the door shut behind him. Alice goes back into her kitchen. She leans across the draining board to fill the kettle again and knocks a dirty glass with her elbow. It falls to the floor, shattering on impact.

Outside the sun has almost completely disappeared and soon it will rain, rain all day, and the courtyards and walkways will be quiet.

Alice watches television, eats toast and drinks tea.

Someone sees her down Roman Road market with the bruises on her face and they tell her sister.

“One day he’s going to kill you Alice.”

She comes round to the flat to find out what’s going on.

“I’m worried about my sister, Gerry.”

But Gerry doesn’t let her past the door.

“The house is infested with fleas,” he tells her, “you know, since the dog ran off? Best stay away. Alice is fine, fell over that’s all.” Then back indoors with the smile again and the running of fingers through her hair, softly stroking on the nape of her neck.

“I could kill you Alice, if I wanted to, and no one would care.”

Five dream people laughing in the early evening, brandies and coke and sitting by the window at a table facing the bar, Alice in the doorway wearing the Ativan veil, Toni’s plunging neckline in the big bevelled mirror behind the bar.

She wears a gold crucifix low-hanging on a braided chain. It catches a spark on Gerry’s sovereign ring and relays it back to the sleeper in her ear, completing a triangle. She fingers the chain as she speaks, smiling, rubbing her arm from time to time – a small insect bite there – as she shakes her loosely bubbled hair and sips drink from a pint glass.

Strawberry Fields Forever on the speakers and nothing forever no more. The song keeps revolving, revolving and repeating like a carnival carousel, contradictions whispering in a thousand undervoices, sneering and squinting at Alice through the smoke and the mist like tacky coloured bulbs at a funfair.

The bar buzz, the children screaming outside in the street, the devious pleasures and the false securities that bubble up through the brandy and the whisky and the vodka and the rum and the beer and the undervoices and the overvoices at once alien and lustily her own.

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER.

And the song ends and the last notes echo. Alice and the Ativan veil still in the doorway, searching through the clamour for him.

And sometimes my head just spins, my mind is a city, a totalitarian state, an autarky whose economy depends on the currency of human secrets.

Then she finds him and he hears the words and the secret is a secret no more.

I DON’T WANT THIS, cries a torn voice that moments before had been loud and confident and laughing, before it sank and a blowsy jeer shaped shout loomed up in its place.

IT’S THE SAME EVERY TIME, EVERY F**KING TIME. WEAK LOUSY BASTARD.

Then the torn voice groans back to the surface, a twisted, ragged moan and the door slamns shut, footsteps disappearing and the jeer shaped shout:

“Hey Gerry, don’t linger in the moonlight too long, there’s a hangdog f**king moon out there tonight!”

“Moondog!”

“What?”

“Moondog! It’s called a f**king moondog, when the clouds are over it that way.”

“F**k off!”

Leaning across the bar drooling over that slut, speaking his soft words to her. She can’t make out the words. So she pours some more vodka into her glass and empties it then repeats the whole thing like Strawberry Fields Forever. But she can’t taste it.

The music booms through the wall from the living room.

The drink tastes of nothing and she can’t make out the words, can’t hear those words he stole from her and gave to Toni but she follows the shapes his mouth makes in the big mirror, watches as the sleeper in her ear flashs, its ricochet sparking a corona on his ring as he sweeps back his hair from his forehead.

Her back in that mirror. That cow. Don’t linger in the f**king moonlight. The phrase echoes in her head and no one’s there to answer, so she swallows some more pills and fixes another drink.

It’s his indifference that hurts more than anything. It feels like dying: imagine a fear so intense as to make the sufferer too scared to face it, even to admit to it. She’s always been frightened, since she was a little girl, way back, when she first let the fear into her life. Now she embraces it. It has a space inside her, as if it is breath to her.

She’s in bed, smoking, her broken hair hard and ruined from too much hairspray. It has mixed with her sweat and solidified during the course of the night.

She stares at the room, at the bottle on the floor by the bed and her discarded underwear.

She reaches out, hoists up the bottle and drinks, then she lights a cigarette.

She’s been awake most of the night waiting for Gerry to come back, going over and over in her head what she’d say, twisting and turning, thinking from time to time that she might get up and have a bath.

The nuns used to say that a body always sleeps sounder when freshly scrubbed.

She gets up and pulls on a pair of green cotton cut-offs with broken belt loops and a torn pocket, pulls up the zipper, cigarette dangling, its smoke curling up into the stream of sunlight through the gap in the curtains and commingling with the dust.

The zipper traps her hair and stings her slightly but with only semi-conscious pain beneath the undertow of the vodka and the pills and a sleepless night.

A notion of a song in the sunlight lightly brushes her breasts with its beam and makes her think of softness, softness like a glow that is gently warming yet unsure in a cute kind of way, like a baby’s first smile, a baby like Gerry maybe, or a little Alice made of her trickle and his juice.

The photographs in an old National Geographic in Dr Leahy’s waiting room bring back something like memory to her. Leafing through its pages she recalls a child’s fingers and they become her own.

She poses in the mirror, head back swooning gently, brushing the hair back from her forehead, her eyes sinking back through teenage and misty, through the smiling lines, through the frost on the mirror, hair tingling at the middle of her back.

She fingers her small, neat breasts with their brown nipples. The dark hair beneath her belly peeks out above the half fastened zipper.

When the bump gets bigger will she still be able to see that?

She sighs. Her breasts sigh, the African women from the magazines, now trapped forever behind her eyes, sigh.

Because they are spent, sucked dry and desperate, disqualified from life, hopelessly drowning in mezuzah soup.

Murder

It’s Halloween. Billy the Pill, Zimmerman, Crazy Alice and Charlie The Mute are having a few in the June Bride. A body has been found in Banglatown. Billy the pill tells Crazy Alice and her boyfriend Zimmerman all about it:

“So Charlie’s having a curry in Brick Lane and he’s just about to order another couple of poppadoms and a beer when all of a sudden the Abduls are running about like headless chickens and there’s coppers all over the gaff, creeping all about and eyeballing all the punters…”

He pauses for a swallow of his pint and a drag on his cigarette and Charlie The Mute nods to Carol to confirm what has already been said.

Charlie isn’t too good with words, having had his tongue removed some years before by some rather nasty face who had been extremely upset at Charlie for speaking out of turn regarding the sexual politics of the said face’s girlfriend.

“Anyway,” Billy continues, “It seems one of the Abduls has been out the back dumping some dodgy leftovers or something and he’s having a crafty inhalation, when he sees this pair of legs sticking out from behind a f**king wheelie-bin. Well, he comes back into the gaff shaking like a leaf and whiter than a sheet. Ain’t that right Charlie?”

Charlie nods. A dribble of beer runs down his chin. Alice and Zimmerman follow its progress to the lapel of his jacket. Billy takes advantage of the natural pause for dramatic effect. Then he lowers his head level with Carol’s and draws his finger in a slow arc from ear to ear.

“Throat cut!”

Then in an awed, theatrical whisper:

“Almost took her f**king head clean off.”

Carol shivers and grips Zimmerman’s arm. He mutters:

“All right girl, all right,” and strokes her hair. Then he orders her another half of bitter and a double Jack Daniels for himself.

“They know who did it?” he asks.

“F**king hell mate,” retorts Billy, “give them a bleeding chance, it only went down not less than two hours ago. Ain’t that the truth, Charlie.”

Charlie nods and holds up two fingers at Zimmerman, who responds with an uncomfortable shrug, handing Carol her half pint and pocketing her change.

“Bet it was a f**king Abdul, anything you like. Any takers?”

It’s the Dwarf. He’s just come in, edging his way between them to get to the bar.

“Can’t stand that shit they eat!”

“No you’re wrong, boss,” Zimmerman objects, “They don’t eat that shit. They just make it for the punters. And they’re mostly all English… like us, like.”

“Here we go,” chortles Billy, laying his forefinger lightly on the side of his nose and eyeing The Mute conspiratorially.

“Here’s the man! Now we’ll get the inside story. What do you know, boss, no, put your money away. I’ll get that. Come on, you’ve heard something, haven’t you?”

“All in the fullness, young man, all in good time.”

Billy passes him a pint and the Dwarf takes a long pull on it before reaching up and ceremoniously placing his half empty glass onto the counter. Meanwhile Crazy Carol, Zimmerman and Charlie look on.

“As it happens, I had reason – one of my little helpers got a bit careless – to be entrammeled for a short period of time this evening in the rather unpleasant environs of Lime Street nick, wherein I stumbled upon…” He reclaims his glass and swiftly eradicates the remainder of its contents, “…a little whisper!”

Billy the pill bites the crook of his thumb. Charlie is trying to lick the beer off his chin with his absent tongue. Carol and Zimmerman stand open mouthed and transfixed. The Dwarf’s eyes meet Carol’s.

“It seems the unfortunate young lady is an acquaintance of yours, a part time brass, lives in a flat down Shandy Street with some nonce?”

Carol’s eyes pop with shock and disbelief and her features freeze.

“F**king hell, boss. It can’t be. Not her, not little Alice.”

Zimmerman mutters:

“Poor cow. Don’t get upset babe.”

He makes to apply a sympathetic embrace but Carol shrugs and shakes her head, pushing his arm roughly away as she fishes a packet of cigarettes out of her bag. She lights one and blows the smoke in his face.

“Poor cow my arse,” she growls, “c**t owes me fifty f**king quid!”

After about a microsecond of stunned silence Billy the pill starts to laugh, closely followed by the Dwarf, Charlie and Zimmerman, in that order, and then Carol too starts giggling. Billy chortles:

“F**king hell Carol, ain’t you got no respect for the dead?” At which point she loses control completely, collapsing into whoops of hysterical laughter and spraying everyone with beer and spit.

“Yeah?” she splutters, “well I’ll tell you something else Billy boy, the bitch was three months gone!”

Gales of hilarity shake the big bevelled mirror behind the bar, glasses rattle on the shelves and the guffaw echoes like scandal all through the pub and out of the big swing doors and into the street. Somebody says later you could hear them laughing all the way down the Mile End Road.

Subway

Down there in the big black beyond the turnstiles and the ticket machines and the spies, the grey trains stop and go and stop and go.

Always in endless revolution, they pick up and drop off and pick up or don’t, just like the boys, the endless boys, making it and losing it, with the grime and the pain and the  emptiness and all the money gone, lost or wasted or cheated away.

Picking up and dropping off, picking up and dropping off.  The natural rhythm of the trains. They don’t care, they don’t sing, they don’t see, they are just used by bodies to get from A to B.

Some soft hidden knowledge, some weird sense of a hidden possibility in the dark, a soft sensibility, a possibility of the existence of solace in the act of leaving, someone to kiss you goodbye with the promise of their return, a new beginning in the face of a new arrival. It all seems to exist here but you can’t tell why.

On the street there is no promise. You hit back and you lash out, at a thought or a face or a lie, to humour the beast, all the while knowing that nothing that hits or slashes or harms you in any way will avoid you. For avoidance is not the will of demons.

The concourse is middle ground. The concourse is no man’s land. The concourse is purgatory. Here the stationary expiate their sins while they wait for movement.

Here he finds her.

She’s networking, begging for pills, demanding money with promises, drinking, loving, seeking security, searching for pain like a screamer out for sentiment and babies, as if all those are one and the same.

The gesture that starts from within becomes a look and then a beckoning smile and a head movement that cannot be ignored and then he is there, like a falling angel at the mouth of the subway, swimming in the smell of urine and tobacco.

Panic costs him his breath and he begins to drown in that wonderful redolence of fear and power and expensive leather coats, now safe in the big black half way to Knightsbridge, Earls Court, Fulham, Chelsea…

He asphyxiates in the stink of the sweat and the breath and the alcohol that is the miasma of all the subways of the world, in the fog of which the same events are occurring or are about to occur and will endlessly repeat.

She greets him as if he is an old acquaintance and he invents a name for her out of the air while a man to whom she has been talking shuffles his feet and coughs.

His hands obscure his features from the beam of the overhead cameras and passers by.  He knows the situation isn’t right and he senses his own fear but fails to walk away, just as the boy knows that she isn’t quite right and he also fails, because she fascinates and transfixes him with her swaying rhythmic motion and strange accent, which he thinks may be Greek or Italian but with East London vowel sounds.

And then she’s offering a drink from a bottle of cheap brandy mixed with something sweet and slightly carbonated, but the neck hardly reaches his lips before she snatches it back with terrible laughter and hands too large to be feminine, then it’s in her mouth and a sense of weird sex, devoid of tenderness and existing alone and dangerous for its own sake entrances him and he sees the demon.

For a moment he is repulsed but it draws him back and holds him close and firm and he cannot break away. He grabs the man’s arm and pulls him close, too close, so that their faces almost touch and he can smell the fear on the guy’s breath and the power in his own and in the demon’s voice he’s screaming:

PAY HER, PAY HER, GIVE HER THE F**KING MONEY, GIVE HER
SOME F**KING MONEY NOW, F**KING PAY HER OR I’LL F**KING KILL
YOU, I’LL MESS YOU UP FOR GOOD, I’LL F**KING KILL YOU F**KING
C**T, PAY HER, PAY ME, PAY US, PAY HER, GIVE US ALL YOUR
F**KING MONEY, DON’T LOOK AT THE CAMERA, DON’T YA LOOK AT
THAT F**KING CAMERA YOU F**KING SICK TWISTED RICH BASTARD…

And the man’s coat collar clenched tightly now in both the boy’s hands as he head-butts him once then twice then once again and pulls him by the hair deeper into the subway out of range of the camera with the hair ripping from his scalp and the sound of his own screaming and the man sobbing and choking in panic echoing in his head and the boy head-butts him again and again until there is a sickening crack as the man’s nose bursts and the back of his head hits the wall and a ragged swathe of blood explodes across the white tiles before he slides to the ground with the girl’s big hand and horrible nails tearing the wallet from his coat pocket and the boy finishing him off with a final, fatal kick in the head.

They exchange a glance and leave the subway by the stairs up to the street. At the top of the stairs she links her arm into his and smiles.

He flicks a blur from his eye with his middle finger and a bloody tear dissipates in the night air.

I met Suzanne outside the Hawley Arms in Camden in 1983. She had big sad eyes. I asked her what the problem was. Bridget was embarrassed. I was drunk.

“Why did you leave us?” she asked.

I said, “What do you mean?”

There were tears in her eyes. I lit a cigarette and offered her one.

“I haven’t smoked since Chinatown,” she said. Bridget shuffled her feet.

“Buy me a drink.”

I said, “Do I know you?”

“Two Barley Wines,” she replied, “buy me two Barley Wines and I’ll forgive you.”

“Forgive me for what,” I asked.

“I’ll have that cigarette after all,” she said, taking one from the pack. “Two Barley Wines… one for each of your dead children.”


Amazing space, a raindrop for every tear, an epic queen’s lament (we dare not speak her name): ‘Fear the bandanaed man,’ she cries.

Dragona Hartley’s Rose of Sharon, like a swallow hovering over the city, sweetly but darkly and out of context.

My friend thinks she may be a bat.

She hesitates not, however, to pencil in, like the artist she is, a movement’s exploration through a savannah ruin: a farm, a Spandex hill, the high- lands to the right, the Union delicately defining the horizon…

I am a turtle with a violin, dying, a mouthless man with a trumpet, falling over, as everything falls into place, or space, or doesn’t.

I’m at the bottom of her steps, the restaurant screams and stinks above me, endless labyrinthine corridors around me leading here, there and where…

And a possible opening that declares, in obvious, un-white horror:

‘This Door Is Alarmed!’

I kiss her, softly at first, then, as I sense her soul yielding and her flesh heating, my tongue parts her teeth and devours her palate, with extreme prejudice, and, fearful still, she opens.

Get me?

Homeless in Vermont

I must apologise for my lack of input recently. This is mostly because I’ve been spending most of my time and energy on my novel. I’ve posted the first three short chapters here and will add chapters from time to time. Check it out.

In the meantime I’ve decided to feature some posts that strike me as worthy from friends’ blogs. The first is this great piece, written by my good friend Mike E at the Open Container Speedway.

ONE STINKING DOLLAR

“I’m sorry sir,” I respectfully informed the bus driver. “but I don’t have a dollar.”

My next line was well rehearsed. I’d gone over it time & again in my mind. Not so much to memorize it as to talk myself through a crisis of confidence. How would I get on the bus with no dollar? I panicked. Then reassured myself thus:

When I see one I know it – I’m a connoisseur of these things – and I happened to have handy a smashingly good excuse.

“I’m homeless,” I explained, “and literally on my way to church.

How ’bout it? I ask you, Is that a good reason to ride the bus for free?”

“No,” said the bus driver.

Maybe he thought I was lying. I admittedly didn’t look like I was on my way to church. I looked homeless, I smelled, and probably came off a bit crazily.

But Quakers – the self-anointed Religious Society of Friends — are exceptionally good people. I trusted them to accept me, as I came, as a friend in need.

I had a pitch, also well rehearsed, that I wanted to make them. Quakers have an admirably deep sense of service; they are a people devoted to peace. They’ve worked tirelessly to end the Iraq War. That is tireless work I admire. Alas, for all their tireless work the war rages on unabated.

I know how it feels when one’s benevolently tireless efforts fail. I’ve had no success in my own quest to stop another, equally frightful, injustice: homelessness. Specifically, my own.

Now, maybe it was a long shot but I thought the Northampton Quakers – do- gooders that they are – would want to do a bit about the homeless problem in their own community. I genuinely believed they’d appreciate the unforeseen chance to help me.

And thus gain a boost in confidence, from one problem well solved, that may help them bring more peace.

If not – no matter. The hour of communal silence that is a Quaker Meeting for Worship would be reward enough for my journey, providing me with the strength of spirit required to contend with my plight. Because in the midst of their silence, at least, I am not homeless. Not hungry. I am among friends.

And friends don’t let friends go homeless & hungry.

I asked the bus driver: “Please?”

I aimed admirably to better myself. Was mine not a compelling case of need?

The bus driver said no. Fair enough. This is America after all. Where nobody rides for free.

“I know,” I tenaciously proposed, “I’ll ask someone at church for $2 bucks and pay you for the round trip when I ride back to Amherst.”

Maybe the Northampton Quakers couldn’t help me not be homeless that particular Sunday, but pay my bus fare? I personally guarantee it!

Again the bus driver said no.

I grew flustered. But quickly regained my composure. I am after all a professional journalist. And if this jerk wouldn’t let me ride a near-empty municipal bus to church – I suppose that’s the Story.

I tapped the lap top computer – my one worldly possession since I lost track of my clothes – that was slung in a bag over my shoulder. And informed him that I was writing an article about homelessness for the Valley Advocate (local free/leftist weekly).

“Look,” I proffered smartly, “we can do this the easy way or the other way.”

The other way, I promised, would be hard for us both, because I’d have to hitch hike to church, and he’d have to deal with what I say about him in the article I suspect he did not believe would be written.

I pointed my thumb to Northampton. I thought I should seriously thank my new bus driver friend, because writers need dumb-snot-butt-wipes like him, To excentuate our point, prove us right, and help us sell stories.

No one picked me up hitch hiking.

I struggled beneath the awkwardly gravitated weight of my lap top computer. Slung in a one-strap bag. First across a painfully slumped shoulder. Then across my other. All the way to Northampton on foot.

It hurt.

I’d not slept. Nor could I remember the last time I’d eaten. The no food thing worried me. I grew aware that I lacked the recent caloric intake required to comfortably fuel the demands I placed on my body. I’m very skinny. And not as young as I used to be.

About the same age, I realized, as Neil Cassidy – when he died in mid-step on a long walk after some nights of no sleep and who knew how long since he’d eaten.

But there was no turning back. No time to rest. Not even a sip of water to drink. There was only me & the Story. And to sell the story I’d need proof, a witness, one who would verify my unavoidably late arrival at Quaker Meeting that day.

I had to show up before the last Quaker straggler closed & locked their Meetinghouse door.

To professionally cover the story.

The last straggler was friendly. Gave me apple juice & a snack & patiently heard my tale of woe. I’m certain she would have gladly tossed me a buck for bus fare, as well, but I forgot to ask.

Somewhere along that 10 mile walk back to Amherst I decided not to thank the bus driver after all. Because every homeless person who can’t ride the bus will not write an article about it. And the article may not sell.

But every homeless person has somewhere better to go.

The Northampton Quakers may have helped me. Who knows? But for my lack of one stinking dollar I might be already home.

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