Friday, January 11, 2008

Shorter Story

Once More the Wind.

None of them stepped out much these days. Their reasons remained personal, as well as varied. Some had succumbed to dementia, some to wracking coughing spells that lasted forever. Whereas, for the majority, there was nothing to compare with the comforts of the flashing blue tube, a thoroughly comprehensive telly guide and a pantry full of tinned salmon, and sliced peaches. The combined ages of the occupants of the 13th floor of the sheltered accommodation which was Devon Court alone, was in excess of 516 years. The whole tower block boasted a rough total of just over seven thousand years. That’s a lot of wrinkled faces.
Staring out of his high-rise bedroom window, Arnold felt he had risen up in the world. His early years were spent at ground level, where things crowded in upon you.
Whatever future lay ahead felt like a sea of possibilities washing over you, and yet dribbling through the fingers of your hands as you wasted the early possibilities of hope. Now he had tired eyes and a weakened resolve to do almost anything apart from drawing his next breath.
His hands hung by his sides. As useless appendages go, these were pretty useless. He lifted them to within inches of his face, examining them closely. Brown and spotted, wrinkled and veined. Age was doing its work on him. It was an unremitting fact of life. Nobody was exempt from this creeping, unrelenting disintegration.
He shifted his gaze towards a horizon that had changed little in thirty years. He had moved here in his late fifties and aged dramatically from there on in. Losing all he had was an occupational hazard with him. He was born at a loss for words, and continued to be at a loss for everything else ever since.
The gas works was where it always was. So too the print works where at the age of twenty something he worked as a trainee print setter. He had a bookshelf full of coverless novels. Floppy un-proof read book that he rescued from the pulp machine. Genet, Dostoevsky, Sartre as well as other forgotten Penguin Classics.
Snaking through the grime and the smoke, the railway. Besides which a croft of brick strewn earth that was his haven when he was barely 14. He played football and cricket and set fire to the occasional abandoned car amongst the rubble on this waste ground, all that was left of the youth club that was demolished for reasons nobody knew. One night he had played and watched a table tennis tournament there, but was knocked out in the first round for giggling. Sylvia, an older girl from across the street from him, who he loved beyond compare and to whom he wrote soppy poems, took his hand and led him through the kitchen and out of the back door, past the smokers den of reprobates, and towards the railway embankment.
On a slope beneath the railway arches she broke his heart. With her dress hitched up and her kisses open, hot and different, she unfastened his belt and pulled his pants half down, his bottom goosebumpy in the cold night air.
As the trains thundered by, people going somewhere else could glance down, and maybe catch a glimpse of two small figures writhing about on the embankment, their efforts illuminated by the flashing lights of the carriages. He glanced up as they passed by, wondering what was going on in his life, and wishing himself in the buffet car a can of shandy and a meat pie instead. She changed from the sisterly friend from the youth club knocking a ping pong ball back at him, to a panting person, biting and scratching. She held him inside until they rolled down the slope coming to a sweating halt amongst the empty cans and crisp packets that congregate by fences. It was a first and last time with Sylvia. After this, they only saw each other at bus stops or in corner shops, but both would blush and mumble something or nothing under their breath before hurrying off into a life that didn’t contain each other. He often thought of Sylvia over the years, and wondered did she ever think of him at all? The boy from across the street, who wrote silly words in his school books, and who she made love to on the grubby grass?
Then there was the canal that wound its way through all this dereliction. Another place of dubious adventure for kids. Walks beside deep dark waters and reeds. Upended bicycles and Co-op shopping trolleys. One school friend who had swung on a rope beneath the canal bridge, his duffel coat a temporary swashbuckling cloak, wearing roller skates, was pulled into the dark waters when the rope snapped and he drowned. The story was that he was impaled on rusting spikes beneath the surface of the waters, and even though he struggled in complete darkness to free himself from what was to be his early grave, the dank, stinking waters entered his lungs, and choked him to death. His insides flowed with the filth and detritus of a stinking inland waterway. He drowned alone and too young by half. Gazing, distractedly out of his window more than sixty years later, he realised that given a million pounds and everlasting youth and happiness in which to enjoy it, he couldn’t even remember the boy’s name.
A gang of older boys used to pull leeches out of the canal, and hunting down younger children, would hold them down as they applied the bloodsucking creatures to their bodies. Pulling down their underclothes. Putting leeches in private places. He lived in dread of being captured. Although truth be told he was more afraid of being roped into the lunchtime ballroom dancing club they set up for charity at his junior school. It cost two PG Tips tea wrappers to get in, and the head mistress, Miss Pinfold taught you how to make a fool of yourself doing the foxtrot.
He meandered the tiny warden controlled rooms of his flat. The rumble in his stomach indicated a hunger that had soon to be assuaged. He opened the fridge. Try as he might, he found nothing appealing. Besides jars of things, rancid Salad Cream, the top so curded he couldn’t get the top off with his next to lifeless fingers. The plastic bottle flew across the room and clattered off the top of the swing bin as he tossed it away. There were some silverskin pickled onions, so insipid he may as well be chewing the carpet than rolling them out onto a plate with a slice of cheddar.
There was nothing that would constitute a meal. He steadfastly refused to buy either packets of dried mashed potato, small tins of minted garden peas, pineapple chunks or tinned salmon. The latter was a sure sign that the grim reaper was just about to knock on your front door, like ‘septic knuckles’ the rent man. As soon as your gnarled fingers wrapped that tin opener around the rim of a tin of salmon, your number was up.
So nothing. Dried bread sitting on the Formica and merely a scraping of margarine in the Stork tub, ushered his mind towards a foray towards the “One-Stop Shop’. It was now or never. He would have to give it a go.
The lift clattered him to earth. Stainless steel and cavernous. People were traveling up and down shafts of coiled darkness in steel boxes towards tiny living spaces called home. Places where people shared nothing more with themselves than the isolation of old age.
Gales were blowing and clouds quickly scattered, and as he stumbled along, the world turned almost pitch black as a particularly dark cloud was driven into view. This is the time of the plastic bag. Wrapping themselves around legs, catching in tree branches. Tin cans leap frog your feet tinkling and clattering across busy roads before being crushed beneath the tyres of passing cars.
He hated the ‘Buy One Get One Free’ scam. He once went into Safeway for a tin of peas and a loaf, and ended up staggering home with more tins of hot dogs and ‘Wash and Go’ than he could shake a walking stick at. A small fortune he didn’t posses in the first place came and went. Although it was preferable to the small corner shop where you almost had to pay to get in. A Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pie, instant mash and a tin of carrots could set you back a fiver, easy. It’s no wonder they go out of business the prices they charge, he thought. It was always cheaper in the long run to go to the supermarket, even if you had to get the bus. It was only a question of time. Time was, and wasn’t on their side. It was on your side when you had hours, days and weeks to kill, but maybe not when you were on your last legs. You could turn a small shopping trip into a mission if you wanted to.
On pension day, even though he set off at what felt like the crack of dawn itself, there was always a massive queue of the elderly and the jobless snaking from the front to the back. And in this weather the unlucky ones stood and were drowned in the January downpour outside the butchers next door, whilst the lucky few inside messed about dividing their pensions and benefits between gas and telly licence stamps, second class postcards to distant relations and dithered counting, ever so slowly, what was left of their loose change. The chorus of ‘tuts’ and ‘dearie me’s’ was quite overwhelming when you eventually made it indoors. Like a mobile doctors waiting room, the people in the queue ahead coughed, wheezed and complained their was towards the windows, where the tired and unhelpful assistants stamped your book and doled out your cash before disappearing into the back for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Pulling down the ‘position closed’ sign just as you made it near the front, you were left behind a phalanx of the extremely feeble, deaf and doddery, mumbling and grumbling as they fiddled with their walking sticks, revved up the occasional Shopmobility cart, with a cacophony of muttered obscenities, disappointed sighs, and walking sticks clattering against the counter as they scratch away with their 10 pee coins at the Lucky Dip lottery cards they could ill afford.
Cursing, he navigates once more bloody time the rain drenched, wind-ridden road. Cars that cant be bothered to indicate their intentions, full of irresponsible drivers managing the steering wheel as they talk rubbish on mobile phones, pressing hard on the pedals to speed up when a slow moving pedestrian threatens to slow down their progress. He stood, lambasted by breath-taking fully-fledged gales, all the debris of the world being swept by him.
‘Bugger this. Bugger it’ he shouted to the skies, standing on the kerb, three bags of shopping jostling his legs, the bottles clanking and the bread squishing against heavier objects, such as the gin bottle or the ‘buy one get one free’ potatoes he had tried to avoid buying. He crossed regardless of the winking indicator lights or no. He just stepped out willy-nilly not caring less one way or the bloody other. The bags made their presence felt clattering his knees, as he swayed in the breeze of indifference swirling about him. He turned left into a side road believing it to be the car park, but realised it was just a cul-de-sac of sad houses, a maelstrom of litter whirling dervishly in the middle of the road.
‘Christ Almighty!’ He turned back into the storm just as a loosened roof slate flew through the air, tumbling and spinning and slicing cleanly through the side of his face, opening up a gash so wide that the insides of his head became clearly visible to passers by. Where once there was a thought pattern going on inside his head, it was now visible for all to see. The entrails of thought and of blood, bone and gore on full display. He sank to his knees as the bags hit the pavement with a mixture of breaking glass and squashed crumpets groaning under the weight of his lifelessness, with the sound of another clattering tin can being driven along by the wind, the very last thing he heard in this world.

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Bored with the world's obsession with celebrity and popular cultural garbage. Want to finish my book, ride my Vespa in the sunshine, learn to speak fluent Italian, and go back to being happy beside Lake Como. Oh and this Blog has nothing to do with badgers per se.