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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