Cindy oh Cindy

He had woken up with a fierce headache, breath that breached the Chemical Weapons Convention, and a nasty sense of foreboding. His brain hurt. He knew something was wrong. He knew he would have spent the better part of the previous evening trying to impress the new girl on the till at the local drugstore, and that he would have, probably, likely, definitely, have said something stupid, claimed a non-existing ability, promised something he was now committed to and would never in a month of Sundays be able to deliver. This wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

The phone rang. It was her. “A great evening. Thanks for that. Hope you got home okay. And so you’re going to do that for me? Run the marathon? Raise money for the cancer fund? That’s really sweet of you. I’ll pop the entry forms through your letter box this evening.”

Thirty eight years old and not in his prime. Not that he had ever had  a prime or foresaw himself as having one. “Show me a minicab driver who has a prime, who can flex a muscle, who can even bloody locate a muscle,” he thought to himself. Too much time behind the wheel. Too many kebabs or hamburgers or parcels of fish and chips – snatched meals taken whenever there was a lull in the job. Not exactly healthy. Not exactly regular. Run a marathon? Could never happen.

But she was sweet. Cindy. That’s her name. Newly divorced, new in town, new at the job, new at the till. And she had treated him sweetly. Happy to go out with him, happy to sit and chat in an ordinary bar. Didn’t need to be taken to a swish club so she could spend all his money on overpriced champagne substitutes. Insisted on paying for a couple of the rounds of drinks. She knows what life is really like. She’s got a few miles under the bonnet herself and it’s made her generous, unselfish. He likes her. It seems he likes her a lot. He wants her to like him. He wants her to admire him. And so, a drink or two down the road and his head spinning with what might be, he says yes, yes to supporting the charity, yes to running the marathon, yes to doing it for her. How could he refuse her? Sweet Cindy.

He knew how many miles there are in a marathon. More than his normal minicab trips, more than he could run in a million years. But Cindy, oh Cindy, he wasn’t going to let her down, he wasn’t going to say no. The forms arrived, the forms went off, and he worked on his training strategy, his tactics, his battle plan. He would get the medal, get the respect and get the girl.

He pored over the route of the race, he studied the town map, he marked up all the rat runs, hidden alleyways, and illegal short cuts that he had learnt when he was doing the Knowledge and he reckoned that if he turned up at the start, he could cross the finish line in about four and a half hours with having run only five miles. He knew he could do it. The downside was the five miles, but for Cindy he could do it. And so for the next few weeks before his shift, he walked, then jogged, then cantered, then galloped until he knew that the five miles (and hopefully Cindy) were in the bag.

It all went smoothly. He crossed the line with hundreds of others with a time of just under four and a half hours.

“My best time ever,” he said to the official handing out the medals.

“Respect,” said one of the policemen helping with crowd control.

“Oh, thank you,” said Cindy, kissing him full on the mouth. “Let’s meet up later.”

By the time he had fought the crowds back to his home, washed and shaved and put on his second best casual gear (he would save the best for another time) the list of runners who hadn’t passed through all the check points and were consequently automatically disqualified, had been published and tweeted and retweeted and his name was third on the list.

No medal, no respect, and no girl.

Early morning. The phone rings. It’s her. “You owe me five miles of sponsorship and I like the way you kiss. Can we meet up again tonight?”

How can he refuse her? Sweet Cindy.

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Fish out of Water

 

His eyes water, the scratched plastic lenses of his sunglasses of little use in the mid-morning glare. He wanders aimlessly along the promenade, watching out for dog muck on the pavement and crazed seagulls in the air.

Not many people around – he sees a few hungover left-overs from last night’s hen parties, discarded sashes, Team Bride t-shirts splattered with take away brown sauce and, maybe, evidence of throwing up. A few locals are walking their small, useless dogs – grey locals, grey jackets, grey trousers, grey dogs. Two middle-aged tourists – Japanese? Chinese? – looking bemused, embarrassed, disdainful. The donkey man, Union Jack hat at an angle across his slicked head, slouches on his faded deckchair, hoping for trade from bored parents with bored kids. A couple of part-time punks, breaking their fast with extra-large hot dogs slathered with mustard and ketchup, looking pleased with themselves for being anti-establishment for the weekend. A small group of homeless men, accents from not around here, cardboard and sleeping bags in a battered Aldi trolley, sit listlessly just beyond the candy floss stall sipping cheap cider from plastic bottles, their mongrel dogs on string. An empty tram rattles past. Nobody using the beach telescopes.

He has never owned a dog; he and Hazel had cats, those many years ago. Tibby and Tabby. Happy days. For a while. He recalls that they had to have Tabby put down. Cancer. Incurable.

Two days after that, seven month pregnant Hazel threw him out.

“Go, Ted,” she said, “I warned you. Too many last chances, too many final straws. The camel’s back is well and truly broken.”

 Hazel’s brother and father came around to make sure he didn’t make any trouble. With those odds, he hadn’t. The father had said that if he ever heard of him again, he would break his bloody neck. And he would’ve. Wouldn’t any father have behaved the same?

He didn’t even have time to grab his saxophone.

High summer, wearing unsuitable black and not used to being up before late afternoon. Unshaven, not recently washed, and shoes too tight. A half blind pimple on the side of his nose throbbed. He already could feel his nightclub pallor threatened by the hostile sun.

When was the last time he had been outside this early in the day, he asked himself. He felt he didn’t belong here, felt like an alien, felt like a fish out of water. He had had no time to prepare himself for this, no time to engineer a face that would act as armour against daytime. It was at eight o’clock this morning when they had knocked on his door, told him the landlord wants the place painted, fumigated, and that he had to be out, elsewhere, within half an hour, hadn’t he read the note slipped under his door sometime last week?

His landlord, Mr Blear, Mr Blear, his landlord for the last ten or so years, took his rent every week, rent for the one and a third rooms on the fifth floor, lift perpetually out of order, rattling pipes, rotting window frames, and mould colonizing the communal plastic shower stall, suddenly wants to decorate, can’t be bothered to give decent notice of the fact. And so he is here – out on the street, oppressed by sunshine, by the exposing light of day, by the denial of sleep in a darkened room. He is defenseless, vulnerable, open to deserved judgments by the guilt-free of this world. A fish out of water

He notices he has wandered close to the row of Victorian terraces that once upon a time had embraced him as one of its own, that had accepted him as being one of its tax-paying, Waitrose-shopping, Guardian-reading, theatre-going circle. He and Hazel were in those days much welcomed members of a liberal, literary, dinner party set, a couple that invited and, in turn, were invited. They had known the dining rooms and kitchens and upstairs loos of at least a third of the properties along here, along Kitchener Row, and those always genuine generous hosts and hostesses knew theirs. These mostly good friends, especially those in her book club, would also have known and understood why Hazel showed him the door and would have wondered why it had taken her so long to do so.

He changes direction, turns in the direction of the shorefront, towards those sleazy must-visit Kiss-me-Kate (and worse) stores and stalls catering for organisers of hen-parties and stag nights. He shakes his head, angry at himself for conjuring up the past, that time of stark contrast with the present. He thinks of his ten years as an outcast, the first three blurred by drugs and drink, the remainder marred by near poverty, loneliness, and cruel memories that refuse to give him the blessing of deep sleep; ten years of sharing a roof with sundry nowhere-men, sharing a toilet with three other misfits on that fifth floor. He has many reasons for embracing the comfort of his gloomy day-time room, one of them being that his four walls hold no reminders of what has been.

He passes the scruffy nocturnal door of his workplace, the cheapest and shabbiest of clubs along the strip, catering for the Keynesian unemployed refugees from the hitherto thriving industrial towns of the north. No sanctuary here – the doors are locked and will be so until just before midnight when the pubs start closing and the forgotten and the damned form an unsteady queue anticipating the watered down beer and spirits the club serves up. He knows all the bouncers by name, he knows they let anyone in – young or old, dealers or users; all they really care about is an opportunity to use their fists; he doesn’t care – it’s none of his business – he is a potman and cleaner, that’s all that’s important. He takes no notice of what happens inside, on the dance floor, in the toilets, in the manager’s office. He’s seen depravity before, it doesn’t bother him, he has the t-shirt. Each week he earns a poverty-level wage plus any money he finds in handbags or on the floor. He also used to take home little plastic bags of white powder, but those days are now over – he either bins them or slips them to the bouncers. He has a chair next to the cupboard used for storing the mop and bucket and other cleaning materials, a chair where he can rest and roll a cigarette when he chooses – it’s a place of refuge. But not for now.

He hadn’t noticed the darkening sky. Now feels the raindrops, shelters under a leaking bus shelter; three dog walkers join him talking loudly. They look at him, stare, are silent. He moves off. Scans the shops. He knows he’ll be ejected from most.

One looks likely. Squeezed between a betting shop and a tattooist. Windows need cleaning. Pavement outside is scruffy. He can just make out the faded sign over the door, “Second Hand.” Apt, he thinks. He steps in. The bell over the door tinkles.

He looks around. An Aladdin’s cave. A stuffed lion. Bric-a-brac. Brassware. Glassware, mostly cracked. Chinaware, mostly chipped. Clocks, neither ticking nor tocking. Thermometers and barometers, not measuring. Broken dolls and stuffed teddy bears not wanted. At the back, a desk, a young boy, reading, reading a second-hand book.

The boy looks up, “Good morning, can I help?” Polite.

He looks at the boy’s football shirt. That’s my team, he thinks. Or it was.

“No, just looking. Getting out of the rain actually.” His voice sounds strange. A long time since he’s spoken to anyone.

 He examines walking sticks, umbrellas. Two umbrella stands. No, more. Cameras, film type, early digital.  Spectacles, spectacle frames, empty spectacle cases. A prosthetic leg, for the left side. Where’s the glass eye, he wonders. Coats, jackets, shoes. Books, bookcases, cabinets. Cassette tapes, CDs, long playing records in a box labelled “Vinyl”.

“What’s all this then?” He asks, “The detritus of other people’s lives?”

The boy shrugs, “It’s what you see. Some of the lives were good. Maybe.”

Cricket bats. Pads and gloves. Wooden tennis rackets with old fashioned wooden presses. Balls for rugby, balls for football, balls for the young and balls for the old. A tailor’s dummy. Two sewing machines, one electric, one treadled. Suitcases, tin trunks, backpacks, briefcases, handbags, kitbags, rubbish bags. An upright piano, guitars with strings, guitars unstrung, violins, violin cases, a trombone. A saxophone.

He picks it up. Recognizes the strap. She had bought it for him in LA. They were on tour together. Recognizes the slight ding on the bell. She had thrown it out the window after their last gig.

The boy moves across, “Not for sale, that one. Sorry. Belonged to my father.”

 He puts it down. Carefully.

“You play?” says the boy.

“Used to. And then some.”

“The reed’s missing,” says the boy, “Otherwise…”

“No problem. Probably too rusty.

“Where’s your father now?” he hears himself ask.

“Gone. Before I was born. Gone. Mum doesn’t know. Just gone. Before I was born.”

“And your mum?”

“My mum? She’s around. Most of the time, anyhow. Visiting her sister in Leeds right now. Back tomorrow.”

He looks out of the window. The rain has stopped.

He says, “I’ll be getting on, leave you to your book.”

The boy says, “Come again. Bring a reed with you.”

The bell over the door tinkles once more.

“Maybe,” he says.

He finds the toiletry section in the supermarket, surprised at the range of products. Buys himself shower gel, a new comb, toothbrush, deodorant. Walks into the barber shop. “Shampoo and tidy it up. And a shave.”

The end of this week he’ll buy himself a new shirt. Save for three weeks for shoes. Scratch around in his cupboard for his sheet music. And reeds. Get some exercise. Learn to love life again. Get the fish back into the water.

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Seeing Things

He saw himself as an international cat burglar wanted by Interpol for a number of daring fourth floor robberies of the rich and famous holidaying in the Mediterranean playground of St Tropez and Monaco.

Grace, his long suffering wife, saw him as a low-life toe-rag of a window cleaner with a penchant to grab whatever he could through any unlocked window of a second floor lower middle class 1960’s semi on the outskirts of Dagenham.

Unsurprisingly, the magistrate saw him as a repeat petty thief stealing from his struggling neighbours and sentenced him to twelve months in jail.

Said Grace, “You should have seen the look on your face.”

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The Patriot

Photo prompt: Douglas M MacIlroy

He had always reckoned there was something subversive about Mr Wells and the room at the back of the old man’s high street watch and clock repair emporium.

The well-oiled lock offered little resistance.

What he found, no decent person should see. He sat down heavily, slumped, head between his knees, fighting the nausea. It was a machine, not of this time, but of another, a machine to bring together the poor and the rich, the clothed and the naked, the peoples of the south and the peoples of the north.

Knowing his civic duty, he reached for his sledgehammer.

Written in response to to Flywheel Wisoff-Fields’ weekly 100 word challenge found here.

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Snow

Image © Na’ama Yehuda תודה חברה שלי

There were never enough prison guards, there never would be, so they spent most of their time banged up in their cell, just the two of them, roommates by chance, friends by choice.

They read a lot (Zane Grey, Elmore Leonard) and from time to time spoke a lot.

They discussed many things including sealing wax and cabbages and kings, but mainly about snow, Walrus because he loved skiing (he had been a contender for the Olympics), and Carpenter because he once killed a man and it was the blood in the snow that gave him up.

Different strokes for different folks.

Written in response to Typewriter Wisoff-Fields’ 100 word challenge found here!

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Safe as houses

Today I’m wearing my alt-right face. For obvious reasons.

It was a few months ago that I thought it was going to be a close call and that my usual caring, leftie visage could put me in danger if the vote went the other way, so I went on line, sought out alt-right sites, browsed their Alt ID shop pages, and after considerable soul searching selected three QAnon t-shirts, a selection of temporary tattoos (swastika, MAGA logo, othala rune) and this clip-on ID filter facemask, clicked on Buy Now.

The mask is really comfortable, light, gossamer thin, easy to fit and remove, and hardly noticeable. I ordered the Version 1.12.01, only a few bucks more, as it gives additional filters such as apologetic wife beater, humble road rager, and climate change scoffer, over and above the standard alt-right and white lives matter convertors. Switching ID simply takes a couple of taps on the smart phone; it’s Bluetooth, no wifi needed – big advantage.

So today I’m wearing my alt-right face. For obvious reasons. The atmosphere is febrile, dangerous. Have you seen the mobs?

But I’m okay, take a look at me, I’m as safe as houses.

And when I get home, the mask comes off and I settle back into my ineffective, keyboard warrior, pinko mode.

Outside, buildings burn.

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Windfall

By the time we get out of bed at just before midday, the morning wind and rain has eased.

“More apples in the yard,” I say.

She just nods, too busy looking for the gin bottle; she needs help with her hangover.

We normally throw them back over the fence. It’s the neighbour’s tree and so it’s their mess. I once tried speaking to them about it but things got out of hand and now there’s a court order saying I’m not to approach them.

Later on when we’ve got ourselves dressed and medicated, I say, “Go throw them back over before they stain the concrete.”

“Do it yourself, knucklehead,” she says.

She’s been calling me knucklehead since last New Year’s Eve when she hit me with a claw hammer leaving a knuckle-shaped indentation on my forehead.

I rub the mark, feel depressed.

“I’ll warm up some soup,” I say, looking around for the can opener.

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Starlene

You’d think that being abducted by aliens would involve a trip in a spaceship and being strapped onto an operating table to be x-rayed and probed by some tiny green two-headed creatures who are looking to colonise earth and strip us of our resources in order to replenish their war ravished home planet.

That certainly wasn’t my experience, not at all, not at all. My captors simply wanted to learn how to play poker, so they took me off to this pub, the Kings Head, just behind the bus terminus, sat me at a table, fetched me a pint, and told me to shuffle the cards and start teaching. They were a pretty smart bunch (well, two brains apiece) and we soon graduated from playing with matches to hard cash. And they started winning. I thought they were dealing from the bottom of the deck or slipping aces up their sleeves (so many sleeves on so many arms) but I couldn’t catch them at it. At one point I said I was skint and had to withdraw but they suggested a cash-point and the opportunity to win it all back.

So I emptied both mine and Mary’s accounts. Fool thing to do. Lost it all.

They said, Thanks for teaching us. Dropped me off at the corner.

Mary didn’t believe the story. Threw me out. Forever. I’d had my last chance, she said.

I read about Abductees Anonymous, went to a meeting. We sat in a circle on hard straight-backed chairs, no obligation to say anything. Afterwards in the pub I said hello to Starlene.

It’s worked out for us. Happiness ever after. Who’d have thought it?

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Oh my my

He hadn’t experienced so much positive media exposure since appearing as a key prosecution witness in the Cock Robin murder case. And that was some while ago.

To be honest, despite what he put out on Flitter and the fluff his new agent is saying on the morning chat shows, landing on Pence’s head while the cameras were rolling hadn’t been planned, wasn’t a clever ploy to revive a flagging career, nor was it anything to do with the book just about to come out in time for the Christmas market. It was all really serendipity. Having heard there was some shit going down, he had flown into the venue from the local piggery not two blocks away, buzzed around awhile, and then feeling somewhat overheated by all the camera lights, he felt in need of a rest; Pence’s pate was the nearest landing point, and the rest is histoire, as they say.

His agent is currently doing the rounds, playing off the Donald against Sleepy Joe, see if either of them would like some help with the numbers.

Negotiations continue.

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Downs and ups of lockdown

“Nah, we’re fine, making do. We go for walks, do a bit of Facetime, spend time on the phone, keep in touch with kith and kin, read a book or two. Watching a lot more telly, Netflix and the like; learning a bit of basic Hungarian online – Duolingo, you know. Well-being wise? Total A plus 100 percent, no probs. Not like him next door.

“Him? Maybe headed for a mega breakdown, he can’t cope, need to keep him away from the knife drawer, know what I mean. Lockdown’s okay for most people like office johnnies working from home, or yoga teachers giving zoom classes, or people on furlough. But for him. Well, he’s a paid assassin, works for the government and a few large corporations. But what with social distancing, face masks, and people moving in support bubbles, he either can’t find and identify his targets or he can’t get close enough, and so he can’t accept any commissions. He tried a bit of telephone contact tracing to stave off boredom but there hasn’t been enough work to keep him motivated so he jacked that in.

“He’s also worried that he’s getting rusty, losing his skills, needs to keep practicing. Ordered a dozen or so live chickens which he released one by one in the garden so he could improve his tracking and garrotting. But Amazon said no more as they make a mess of the vans and some drivers are alektorophobic, and so that was the end of that. Anyhow, he says that he needs the real thing, chickens are no substitute.

“Actually he’s been okay for the last few days, a lot more relaxed, less pacing and growling. Haven’t seen his missus recently which is surprising; she’s normally around, cheerful and friendly. Maybe gone to visit her mum.”

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Can it be that time already?

The gentle beeps from the monitor surprised her. As did the almost imperceptible vibrations in the tube leading into her digestive system. Using the controls built into the armrest of her pod she raised herself to a seated position, looked at the clock on the screen opposite. Feeding time! She hadn’t noticed she was hungry, but then again, that’s what the algorithm was there for – to pre-empt its client’s needs – to know when to switch on the food pump, when to extract waste, when to activate the LadyBliss-ClimaxIvator.

Next week is her 300th birthday.

Maybe a text from the Kween?

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