quantumofire

Prose and Poetry

Sunday, 31 August 2014

TIME IS, TIME WAS... PART FOUR - SKELETONS (CH 6-10)

SIX

There I was, boarding the coach at Chorlton Street and off to good old Brum; bag of clothes in boot, bag of munchies and paper in hand. My watch said ten thirty am. Work had finished three hours ago. Made the dash home. Shaved. Showered. Changed. Brushed my teeth. Stopped off on the way down at the newsagents. I was tired and running on empty.

The sun was up and the warm air seemed to have taken the weekend by surprise. The coach wasn’t prepared. Inside overcrowded, and the air conditioning broken; so we sweltered in the dry air. I tumbled around trying to sleep. In and out of the airport, then Hanley bus station. Someone had bought a baby on board and it had shit itself. The nappy change filled the coach with the smell of excrement. At Stoke-on-Trent, a huge bloke sat next to me pressing me into a corner and I started feeling queasy.

I pressed my head against the glass and it bumped along. Behind me some idiot had his impersonal stereo on and it’s tinny beat grinds on my nerves. I tried reading the paper but I couldn't focus.

I recalled an old school trip, coming back from London, where I imagined we were in a rickety bus driving through a lost world being chased by dinosaurs. I was the brave driver. When the triceratops got bored of buffeting us the T-rex would burst from the undergrowth, rip the top of the vehicle off and drag some pain in the arse kid of the day up in its jaws, usually Peter Harper, and chomp him in half. All his entrails would splatter down in red rain on everyone. But I kept my cool and steered the bus to safety. Ah the good old days. Perhaps it wasn’t all as gory as that. Though it was the thought that counts.

As the coach left Wolverhampton on its last leg, I perked up. We twisted through Spag Junction and I heaped the last packet of crisps down my gob. It finally weaved it’s way around Birmingham city centre towards Digbeth Coach Station. The entire place was on the verge of becoming one large building site. In fact they had been um-ing and ah-ing about it for the last twenty years and now the sixties monolith was coming down. The rag market, where I used to hunt for clothes and knickknacks, the café’s where I used to sit and watch the women in headscarves, and blokes in flat caps doing the rounds of the fruit and veg markets, haberdashers and flea markets were all going, going…gone. I supposed it was inevitable. As for the Bull Ring, even I could shed a grey tear for that place which I used to trawl through as if it was huge jumble sale. For all its ugliness and over-familiarity it was my life, my jungle playground.

The huge bloke farted as the coach pulled in. I’d stopped being pissed off by then. It even made me smile. He stayed silent.

Once off, I sort my bags, and made a roll up. Instinctively I knew the route to the bus stop on the corner.

The double decker took me in a straight line down the Stratford Road; the artery cutting southeasterly out of Birmingham, and all the way towards upmarket Solihull. The road had changed dramatically, even during my youth: the Co-op had gone from charity shop to a discount carpet store; the cluttered Woolies became a cluttered Barnados; the pet shop, where once I had bought seeds for my first, and only hamster, was now full of sports bags and cheap shoes, and the ironmongers gave up its tempered steel shop display for mannequins dressed in flowing saris. Even the sweet shop was gone, replaced by a cheap clothes shop. Only the shops stocked with cheap household knick-knacks remain, but in different management. It had been the Aladdin’s cave of my childhood, with its three-penny mousetraps, bags of balloons, cheap fifty pence ornaments and tadpole nets which we used to fish with in the ponds and streams in the parks and dells, that have now long since dried up or been made toxic from fly-tipping.

The butcher, the laundrette, and wool shop had merged into Asian supermarkets that sprawled and spilled onto the main street: an Indian competing with a Pakistani for the cheapest bananas, boxes of mangoes piled high and bunches of green leaves and gourds with exotic names.

From Sparkbrook, out to Sparkhill, the area had grown out from town into one predominentely Asian constituency. Even before I'd left for Manchester I remembered passing my old infant school and seeing no white faces. In a strange way it reassured me because the games were still the same: the bumps and bruises, the shouts and chases. You never felt a moment of danger. I wondered if it was the same now. It had to be. You can’t become self-conscious too young - nature still wouldn’t allow that. There was not a pill to kill that yet. Only the adult world wanted them to grow up too quickly; then berated them when it all went wrong.

Jumping off the bus, at Stoney Lane, I recalled how twenty years back they'd pulled up all the paving stones, pouring out a liquorice tar and grit road. A rich burning perfume that in the lather of coal tar soap ran me back to a Meccano past, with all the chaos of cables and hammer drills. Over the years the roads were dug up again and the new pipes of privatisation and the new cables of mass communication buried, leaving the road a patchwork of uneven grey/black bandaging - dirty and degraded. Now they were pulling them up and re-laying bricks and paving slabs. Had they learned some lesson from all this folly, or was it just someone’s new gravy train? Progress and The Future spat out like hollow political slogans.

Just doing things for the sake of doing them?

Archie’s house was part of a pre-war tenement that stretches up a gentle incline. The frontages had all changed: the wooden-framed windows replaced with all-new plastic ones through some EU funded council scheme. I'd seen the work begin at number one the day I'd left for Manchester. The same weeping willow sprayed out like a volcano in the small front garden of Archie’s house. The door still painted bright green. I glanced over to Agnes’ house on the right. The small garden was full of wild brown grass like hair blown around in a mad storm. An emaciated grey cat sat upright giving me a barefaced, skinny-teethed stare. It let out a sharp, almost painful cry, as I rung Archie’s doorbell.

Archie had changed: his hair greyed out, and he’d put on some weight, but his face still exuded that shiny welcoming glow. He smiled and we kissed cheeks. ‘Come in, come in, my dear. Nice journey?’

‘Apart from the shitty baby and…’ I shrugged.

He let out a laugh. ‘Oh dear, one of those. Well, come and rest your poor self, my dear.’

We made our way to the end of the narrow hall, and turn right to go through into the living room. Nothing has changed much in the place: the same sturdy oak desk, and bookshelf with its gold-embossed volumes. On the wall hung his favourite landscape oils, and there’s still the plush wing-backed armchairs where he’d rest back and retire after a long days work. Through there, we passed into the kitchen.

Archie took my coat, and I dropped my bag in the living room. The house had been redecorated, but some time ago, obviously after they had replaced the windows. Archie buttoned up his brown cardigan and took a plate of sandwiches from the fridge. ‘I’ve fresh chicken from the supermarket. The last butcher around here closed a year ago…unless of course you don’t mind halal. I put it on about an hour ago so it should be done in another hour. I invited Agnes but she’s “not in the mood” as she says. Perhaps tomorrow.’

‘How's she doing? I mean, you sounded a bit fed up with…’

‘Oh, not too bad. She’s changed, quite a lot. I’ll tell you about it. Tea, coffee?’

‘Coffee, please.’

‘It’s lovely outside, isn’t it, Jack? Shame we don’t catch the sun on this side. It feels so cold in here sometimes. It’s my age, I suppose,’ he said a little whimsically.

‘You’re not that old Archie. Nowadays, it’s…’

‘Nowadays, nowadays. I’m nearly seventy - and I feel it. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my joints. This rheumatism, it’s murder sometimes, but…enough, enough. So, how long are you planning to staying for?’

‘Till Wednesday, if that’s fine with you? I’ve got a friend…er, he’s staying over at mine at the moment and er…I don’t to leave him too long by himself.’

‘Oh?’

‘He’s just a friend, Archie - nothing more – so…. Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch. I thought I lost your number and…just sometimes, you just…’

‘I know Jack, like with Ciss. So what happened to college and all your plans to do an Arts Degree?’

‘Money. I was running around trying to sort out some grant and stuff and…what can I say…I felt sort of abandoned and…. Then I was offered a full time job at a place in the Village. You remember I just started there the last time you came down with Ciss to Blackpool. I was doing that part-time course then. So I had to choose. The Uni kept passing the buck from one official to another, then from one department to another, and by the end my head…huh! It just all went pear-shaped, anyway, and so I just cracked - walked out and took the full-time job at the club. Regret some of it now, but, back then…’

‘So what happened?’

‘Same old crap. Fine, until the politics comes in and…oh, some of these tossers. Sorry, Archie but…brown nose, little pricks. But, so what, they’re all the same. Had it at the club, and now…you’ve seen enough of them yourself to last you a life time, remember Harvey?’

‘He treated the place like he owned it,’ huffed Archie. ‘Was this chap as bad as that?’

‘It was ten times worse. So now I’m working the nights filling shelves.’

‘Shit-shovelling. Isn’t that what Stan the Man called it?’

‘Yes. See any of the old lot around Brum?’ I asked.

‘No. Go out from time to time, but it’s all new faces - pretty young things. There’s no room for the old tack. Don’t worry, I don’t mind. It’s the same story, Jack, regardless of sex…or sexuality. I’m just left to admire the views. I don’t mind.’

‘And how come you lost touch with Ciss?’

‘I don’t know. Let me see. I tried calling her after Agnes died. Well, I went over to the house but no one answered. Mind you, if her mother had gone dolally then they might have moved or…I don’t know.’

‘Religious mania, wasn’t it – that’s what Ciss said when we last spoke?’

‘Yes. I never thought she’d go back. It surprised us all. She said, she did it for her father’s sake, and that poor sister of hers. That Sarah, wasn’t it?’

‘Maybe I’ll call over later in the week. Be nice to see her again…perhaps. Did you check the phone book just in case they changed number.’

‘I didn’t think to push it then. Maitland wasn’t it. Her father was…er William. Yes. We’ll do that after dinner if you like. Funny, I never really thought of that. Anyway, I came to the decision that if she wanted to she would contacted me herself, but…who knows. I better put the veg on.’


SEVEN

Archie Callaghan’s temperament came from working over forty years as an insurance investigator. He had developed that steady and sure politeness of manner interviewing the world through deep green analytical eyes. Enough characters and sob stories had past over his desk to make him an astute judge of character, long before the study of body language had become a discipline. He was never malicious about anyone, but could rib you at your own daftness, while casting his own misfortune away with a wry smile and a shrug of his broad shoulders. His patience extended to his two hobbies: philately and model making. A model of the Victory still stood on the old Georgian side table in the front room.

I recalled a conversation we’d had, five years back after we’d been around the city gallery. We were sitting having tea in his favourite patisserie. ‘You can’t fight all you demons at once,' he would say. 'Artists should never hate. It’s pointless to hate people, even the truly evil one’s. And to be honest there aren’t many of those about. You just can’t create beauty based on hate.’

‘I know you're right,' I'd said, throwing my arms up, 'but it’s difficult to chase those demons out. After all, half the things that make the world are based on the way people treat one other. What about those that scream at you; push you blindly aside in their greed for self-aggrandisement? The one’s that make casual promises and leave you high and dry and screwed you up?’

‘All they do is infect you with their own screwed up mentality. But,’ he'd countered, ‘what does it matter what makes them. It’s the fact that you let them get to you.’

‘Because I let it matter. Because…’

‘Because, maybe…maybe you’re jealous?’ He had said that with too much self-satisfaction, and now backed off with a hand gesture.

I searched for a kernel of truth in his observation. ‘But I don’t want what they have. Being them? I don’t want to be like them.’

‘I know, Jack. I’m sorry. It’s that you have to recognise, dear, that there are people in this world who never see the damage they do. And even if they did, they soon revert to type. Some are bad to others. Others allow them to get away with it. The meaning of good to them is a way of control. Getting what they want - making allies on false pretences. You allow yourself to be hurt, but these people don’t care. They never will. The question is can you let them go?’

‘Can I tame the beast,’ I'd answered with a slight flippancy, ‘or keep it at bay. Not end up drowning in self-pity and bitterness, you mean?’

‘Yes, my dear. They are gone. All that is left is a memory of them. Some people’s good is bad, like the Inquisition and vice versa. Jack, you remember Harvey? He fleeced me for a lot of money. I was angry, but perhaps more with myself. He was fun while it lasted. But later I put it down to experience. I thought - more fool me for trusting him. I’ve learnt to forgive, but never to forget.

‘Well, you remember that day when he turned up again. You see the truth was, and I didn’t tell you at the time, that these chaps were after him. I did a little checking around. I found out he owed them a lot of money, and they meant business. And as you guessed, I shut the door in his face, my dear. I left the rest of his life to my imagination over a warm brandy and my Telegraph. And in my mind I have a portrait of him somewhere lying there, alone, wounded and broken. I call it – ‘The Dying Lark’.

‘Well, dear, that’s what he always used to say when he was in trouble - "Oh what a lark". You see that is art. His whole life summed up in a mental portrait. Reality, well, that is just too much sometimes. Too much sometimes to dwell on. Along with all the maybes. I put my own full stop to that story and hung it up in my private gallery.

‘No matter how hard it is, Jack – learn to move on.’

All this time Anne had sat smiling and nodding in agreement. She had been the embodiment of Archie’s philosophy. He'd learned it from her a long time ago.

Anne Callaghan had been eight older than her brother. She had gone against her parent’s Victorian-girls-at-home wishes and took to a life on the stage as a dancer, scandalising her whole family. During the war she'd fallen in love with, and married, Tony ‘the Flash’ Stewart, a RAF airman. He'd died taking part in a bombing raid over Dresden. She'd always called him her only true love.

I recalled the photography of him in his smart RAF uniform, that she'd kept on the bedroom dresser in her house at Langthorne Road.

She'd continued working until she remarried in her late thirties, a bloke some twenty years her senior. Bob ‘The Bloater’ had turned out to be, not only, a complete lush, but impotent as well. The marriage had never consummated and he died drunk in a drowning accident five years later. But as consolation, she'd inherited the house on Langthorne Road, and a considerable some of money.

She never lost any of her love of life and flamboyancy; any chance for party. That’s why Ciss took to her so much. In her life, Anne had mixed with many actors, and gangsters, had stories about waking up in the strangest of places, after many bizarre adventures, even hinting that she had once worked as a secret emissary during the war.

Originally, she ran the house on Langthorne Road as a refuge for down and out actors, many she had known in her youth, who had fallen on hard times. But the seventies and eighties blurred the lines, and by the time we arrived it was a free for all. Anne occupied the rooms downstairs where her invalid mother had lived. She had taken her in; despite having been renounced by her after she’d hit the stage. In fact, it pleased Anne that when her father Stanley died, they found out that he was heavily in debt to bookies and had left a string of heartbroken of mistresses. Anne’s mother, Maria, was left destitute and heartbroken, but Anne didn’t hesitate to help. ‘Secrets,’ she used to say, ‘we never know about anybody until they die, and then so what, it’s too late - half the truth is always lost.’

Archie looked after the business side of the boarding house. Anne, though shrewd with money, had her burst of ostentation and enjoyed her trips to London each Christmas and brought back, along with a new wardrobe, her Fortnum & Masons hamper. She would often disappear for a week or so abroad, returning in a designer dress, and announcing: ‘I’ve spent the weekend at Monte Carlo, and the whole place really has gone to the dogs’.

Unlike Archie’s short and portly frame, Anne had a dancer’s stature: tall and slender, and she kept it all her life. She never dieted though - exercise was her forte. ‘Dance!’ she said, and dance we did. I recall trying to learn the tango in her living room, with the record player blaring out, as Ciss and I swept through the French windows into the back garden, tripping over the rockery and into the pond. We ended up waking the neighbourhood.

Her house was pure art deco figures and bright colours, Mediterranean oranges and pacific blues. I noticed that Archie still kept some of the pieces in his house - the white marble bust of Diana and an ebony statuette of an African dancer. They were Anne’s favourites.

‘Regrets?’ - she never had any. ‘I was never that good an actress, but I could dance,’ she said dramatically. ‘Blagged most of it, though.’ Then she let out a slightly unhinged laugh and twirled around in a whirlwind of chiffon, enveloping the room in a spiral of smoke that wafted from her black Sobraines. So it was the tobacco that undid her in the end – lung cancer. Archie said her decline was sudden and without a hint of bitterness or remorse, only…she talked a long about Stewart, her ‘Steward’, her ‘Flash’. A handsome golden-haired youth in his blue uniform was the hand-tinted photograph she held close to her in those last days. Anne’s last memory of him was at Waterloo station as the train pulled away. ‘So many. So many young men. So much suffering. I hate war. I hate what people do to each other. Why can’t they all just….’

‘Then she stopped,’ said Archie, ‘and just smiled. “Archie, I’d like to be alone. Just leave the pills here will you. Please?” she said to me.’

‘You see, Jack, she…she didn’t want to suffer. She couldn’t bare that. And I couldn’t have… It was strangely, beautiful really. She was so serene about it all…even through all the pain.’

Archie’s eyes began to glitter and his smiled. ‘She was the best sister I could ever have hoped to have. Who could have asked for anyone more wonderful.’

At first sight, Anne Callaghan and Agnes Risdale were two people from completely different worlds, bought together by chance, but both had worked their long shifts in life. Anne, a little more in the shadows of compromised relationships, and Agnes in the long, hard graft of manual work; but both still shared a history of a generation without time for the regret of lost opportunities. The fate of a rigid social order had drawn the chariots of their lives. Drawn by circumstance, and their natures, they came to accept that this was how the world was, and lived, playing within its morality - as had Archie.

Archie spoke of the past as a dark secret. It was a time when homosexuality was illegal, blackmailers a-plenty, and exposure threatened shame and violence. His reserve never broke. He had his detached circle of friends, who arranged their lives through coded signs and silent glances, like generation passing on their histories unwritten.

We had passed places where Archie would pause and say ‘Wobbly Wyllie lived there - dreadful lush he was’, or this place was ‘this pub’ once, or this ‘private club’. And he’d talk of public humiliations and prison sentences. Yet, he missed it all.

‘It was fun. Like a cat and mouse game,’ he would muse. ‘Better now? I don’t know. Probably. So many detached friends. I wonder where they are now. Many had to marry back then, of course. Many had children. Many took their secrets to the grave with them. What miserable lives they must have lived. Yes. I suppose it is better now, but… It was so much fun then. An adventure. The danger…the underground…the game.’


EIGHT

As I tucked into the chicken and veg, Archie gave me an overview of Agnes’ funeral. ‘Well there wasn’t that many of old gang around. It was a pity I would have like to given have her a bigger send off, but I suppose all the old gropers have long since groped their last.’

‘So, what was all this business with Arthur’s funeral?’ I asked.

‘Oh that. Well, you know that Mikey always noseying around. I didn’t want to say anything because he always got on with Arthur. I don’t know why he never see through him.’

Mikey, as I recalled, was a rather over helpful creep, with a big red veined nose, who spent all his time looking for ways of fleecing the recently bereaved out of their savings. ‘I thought they had fallen out over some money he’d borrowed from Agnes once?’ I recalled.

‘Well, dear, that all blew over. When Arthur had his first heart attack he turned up like a dose of crabs. Arthur had been going downhill for a long time. His heart was really struggling. He was having trouble breathing, and he could hardly walk. Didn’t stop him smoking, though. Well, one small pleasure he had left in life.’

Archie began clearing the plates.

‘That was lovely that chicken. Thanks, Archie.’

‘Something light I think for desert,’ said Archie, and we tired to the living room.

He stubbed out his cig and topped up my drink as I munched on a sultana slice. He was still enjoyed doing his own baking. I gobbled like a hungry waif, with the best port washing it down in a rich burst of warm satisfaction.

‘As I was saying, when Arthur became seriously ill, Mikey was the first at her door, and always on the phone offering to help, here and there. And, in the meantime, he was casting his beady eyes over Arthur’s paintings and antiques. So, when Arthur suffered his final heart attack - it was a wet January morning as I remember - Mikey came knocking on the door of the poor grieving widow promising to take on the burden for the funeral arrangements off her heavy shoulders – and, of course, into his pockets.

‘We had all offered to help, but she wouldn’t have it. She did all the grieving widow business a bit too much, though. And I know in the last year, when he was very weak, she took her chances to rule the roost. Well, it was never a perfect marriage. It had its usual ups and down.

‘Now this funeral service that Mikey so wonderfully arranged – my god what a farce. It was conducted by some half-wit: some drunken self-proclaimed missionary. He wore this long, shabby black jacket and had horrible smelly greased-back hair. He mumbled on about Arthur as though he’d been a close family friend. What nonsense. What a service! He mispronounced all the names of Arthur’s beloved cats. Well, Bobby the tortoiseshell became a tortoise called Booby. His two tabby cats, Winnie and Tigger, became Windy and Nigger. My god, you could hear the jaws dropping, and the false teeth clattering on the cold stone chapel floor that day, I can tell you, Jack. You couldn’t make it up.

‘Eventually, after singing some obscure hymns, we made our way through the Friday morning drizzle to the graveyard in god-know-where, and…my god, I could have cried. It was some newly half-developed burial plot in the back end of nowhere. We ended up sloshing and sliding through the mud, until, finally, we all stood there, peering into this waterlogged grave. The pallbearers’ staggered and slipped around, and one old chap nearly slid off the end onto his backside into that stagnant hole.

‘The coffin was finally lowered…well, it sunk and bobbed up and down, and up, and down…and up again, while this priest muttered the usual dust to dust nonsense. Eventually, we all cast earth and staggered away through all the slurry. What a relief that was all over, I thought. But my relief was only short lived.

‘The next journey was to the wake. Mikey was directing. He led us around these nondescript country roads, and past all these new expensive houses, to a large car park at this newly built pub. We lost half the mourners down cul-de-sacs. I think they were the lucky ones. The place was full of yuppie types in suits eating their pub lunches. We were shuffled away into a corner, but not out of sight, where we were served a starter of watered down tomato soup with very, very crusty rolls. Then came the sandwiches: cheese and pickle, ham and pickle and tuna paste on some grim bargain-basement bread. It was ghastly!

‘I made small talk with Agnes’ brother and some of Peter’s friends while Mikey played the smiling host. Oh Jack, it was more like a demented hallucination. You couldn’t help but notice the noise and laughter of the pub crowd talking about their latest business dealings and plans for the weekend. I could feel them starring at us. We where trying to retain some dignity. After all, I should have been a solemn occasion. There was a strange air of disbelieve and embarrassment at the whole debacle. Mikey was oblivious to it all. I threw back my brandy and tried to look as dignified as possible, but I could see, with the lunch crowd growing, that desperation and depression was settling in on the mourner’s faces. All except for good old Mikey of course.

‘So Anne and I made a dash for home. Agnes invited us back for a drink. I went home, promising to return a little later. Honestly, I needed a rest from it all. I was covered in mud. I had had no time to pull together my thoughts. No time for remembrance or… Well, Anne kept her mouth shut tight. I told her to. She was livid at that Mikey. It all came to a head some weeks later when the bill for the whole farce came through; as I said, it was nearly five thousand pounds in total. Well, dear, Agnes almost had a fit. Mikey had probably cut some deal with the undertakers. Let’s put it this way, I’m sure he didn’t do it out of the goodness of his own heart. He didn’t come out of it a poorer man. That’s his game - playing Good Samaritan to all those widows. In the end, she told me that Mikey had come around and said that Arthur had promised him that clock of his. You know, that skeleton one in that glass dome?’

‘I remember. Arthur once told me it was worth quite a few grand.’

‘And Mikey knew it. Well, Agnes asked us about it. We both told her he’d never said anything to us. Anne didn’t mince her words after that. She called Mikey a money grabbing, old idiot to his face – and that’s putting it politely. I mean…seventy-five. He’s seventy-five! Stupid, old fool! At his time of life! Still scheming for his family. As if that’s the only thing that keeps them from throwing him in a home for the bewildered.

‘Anyway, the will left everything to Agnes, so she just played innocent. Final straw came when he tried to pitch Agnes some scheme by which she sold him her house, and he would give her a monthly payment: some equity release rubbish. You know, Jack, she would live rent-free until she passed away, and then the house and - listen to this -and all the contents would go to him.’

‘Including that clock?’

‘Oh yes, he’d given up on the Arthur promised it to me angle.’

‘The sneaky old…whatever.’

‘I think the word that you’re looking for, Jack, is…wanker?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, surprised at first hearing Archie use such an expletive. ‘I think that’s what I meant to say, but…. So what’s going on now - where’s Mikey?’

‘She says she doesn’t keep in touch, but Gladys opposite told me she’d heard her speaking over the phone to him.’

‘I don’t get it, Archie - after all he’s put her through?’

‘Attention, Jack, that’s what she wants. And she likes a good gossip. So be careful what you tell her. Just smile and be careful. And don’t look at her antiques too much. Oh, Jack. She’s become very suspicious lately. It’s sad, but what more can you say. Anyway, drink up, Jack.’ Archie reached for the bottle. ‘And have some more cake.’

I sat back in the armchair and rolled up while Arthur turned up the gas fire. The warm, cloudless day began to fall into a cold, cloudless night. The room still had that old private club feel with the red/gold on cream-rose embossed paper and the heavy mahogany sideboard and desk that stood on the rich patterned Axminster.

Archie settled back in his wing-backed armchair. I caught the thuds of feet and childish giggles through the wall.

‘I thought next door was a student house?’

‘Well, they sold it on…I think. I could never make out what that Mr Khan was going on about. I think he sold it to some family friend…or they might have been relatives. Really, I don’t know. The husband just grunts “hello” and the wife just throws the odd smile. She looks very sad, though. I’ve counted three kids so far. They all look so very thin and emaciated. I don’t really know. I’ve never heard them speak English. Agnes always blamed them for poisoning the cats.’

‘Why would they do that for?’

‘I think they put down rat poison. The buggers have been coming back again. When I was out clearing the garden last autumn I found a few juicy ones bobbing up the path looking pleased as punch with themselves. The cats around here just sit on top of the old coal shed and ignore them. It’s Agnes’ fault, as well. She leaves the food out for the cats, so that attracts the rats. Mind you, there’s all the flytipping around here. You haven’t seen half the rubbish that’s been dumped in the passage out back. I don’t know.’

‘So what’s the situation with Agnes now?’

‘Oh yes…I forgot to tell you about the accident. Gladys found her on the living room floor. You see used to visit her regularly in the evenings with a packet of cigarettes, and sometimes a bottle of voddy. And in return Agnes cooked her tea and the two of them sat around and watched Heartbeat, or some other tedious tat, and exchanged over the wall gossip.

‘Now, when Gladys called one Sunday - just over a year back it was - there was no answer. Well, dear, at first she thought Agnes was taking a nap, so she waited and rang, and knocked again. Then she knocked on ours because she knew we kept a spare set of keys. Anne was on her last legs then, and, anyway, so I went around. I found Agnes sprawled out on the living room floor. There were streaks of blood on her forehead; still wet. They were running out onto the carpet…and that was filthy. The coffee table was on its side. The ashtray on the floor. Nub ends and ash was strewn about everywhere. I tried waking her, but she was flat out; so I called the ambulance. She was taken to the General where they managed to wake her but…ah, she was very confused. I thought it didn’t look good. I’d been expecting this for a long time. Gladys had a lot to answer for, always around with a bottle. Mind you, she’s in a nursing home now. Stroke. All down her left side.

‘Honestly, Jack, the pair where drinking themselves stupid. One night I went over, and Agnes had fallen asleep in her own…let’s say, she wet herself. Well, you can imagine the rest. And, anyway, that wasn’t the first time she’d fallen. What with forty a day and hitting the bottle as well, it was almost inevitable.’

There was a few seconds of reflective silence. Archie realised, with the coming of old age, this was another moment marked out as a milestone of change, the decline of others and thoughts of ones own mortality laid bare. The two had been neighbours for over forty years.

‘Agnes fought her way out hospital. No place of comfort there for her in old age. She called it “a place of death”, not cold and sterile, but full of decay and suffering. She said, “when all around you is stripped away, and you turn and see one bed beside another, with no pictures, no clutter, no smell of home, nothing at all from your past to lean on, then you feel like you’re in a morgue.” I suppose when all sense of distraction is gone, in that stillness and bleakness, constant thoughts of death spill out. Time almost stops, and all that’s left for you to do is to count the time between the next drips of water. That’s the way Agnes always felt. Said she hated hospitals. That’s why she wanted to die at home…just like Anne. Agnes said to me “if I am going to die, then make it sooner at home then in this mess and confusion. I’m tired of just lying here and drawing pictures on a white ceiling. After all, I couldn’t leave my pussies to starve, could I? Who else would look after them?”’

Archie let out a small chuckle. ‘I’m sorry, Jack, I’m getting carried away. But we both thought she was going to die back then.’

Archie shook his head, coughed hard and got up to fetch another bottle from the sideboard.

Back in the Fifties the whole area belonged to private landlords, who, through agents, collected the weekly rent and spent as little as possible in maintenance. The properties around were left to go to ruin, until Agnes and Arthur had a windfall and were given the chance to purchase theirs.

Agnes’ home was a mirror of Archie’s. As I recall, the corridor stretched back from the front door past the stairs and front room but didn’t follow through into the kitchen. Instead it turned to the left and into the back room where a large bay window looked out to the garden. Here, I recalled, was the small portable TV, the armchairs, the cabinet with bric-a-brac, and the gas fire where the cats spread themselves out during the evenings. The kitchen was off on a separate door to the right. And, right at the end of it all, the toilet and bathroom - the only toilet and bathroom – built as an extension, stretching out into the back garden.

Whether or not the place had seen better times it was difficult to say. Perhaps in the beginning, but it had been a steady decline, and life, back then, was about having enough to cover the next bills and filling the larder for that week. For Arthur’s health, even then, was never good and he had trouble walking. The lack of children meant that, at the end, they only had themselves to look out for. And now Agnes was alone, but so was Archie.


NINE

I was given the back bedroom where Ciss and I had stayed after fleeing London. Archie had converted it into a storeroom and in one corner stood Anne’s large mirrored wardrobe still full of her clothes along with boxes of hats over which Archie had ‘um-ed’ and ‘ah-ed’ as to whether to shed or keep.

A small, domed, black-leaded, gas fire burnt and the white bones glowed orange from the blue flame. It was like old days. By the window stood the bed. It was the same single that Ciss had slept in. I’d had an old blow up camp bed that I inflated each night and laid out in the middle of the room. The carpet was the identical green and white rush of swirls, and the walls were still the old stiff embossed pattern; painted over with layer upon layer of differing colours to suit the mood of each decade. It was bright peach back then, but now a pale apple, which was bleach out by the carpet.

The duck down duvet and thick wool blankets felt heavy. I sat up for a while in my tracksuit bottoms and sweater and warmed myself by the fire. It gave that familiar hiss, that glow of comfort, and that memory of Ciss and I huddled together dreaming of better things to come; from the odd bar jobs we moonlighted, the charity shops we worked to save us from torpor. It was fun at the time, but still without direction.

Ciss had made tentative steps to contact Judith, her mother: the one with all the thoughts of turning her girls into princesses with dreams of glamour and fame. I saw her that day we both went to visit the house. It was just off the main Kings Heath High Street among a blur of semis. Ciss had shed her Goth mask. Anne, who shared the same slim figure, had weaned her off to a more restrained two-piece style that gave her the glamorous secretarial look. Ciss had been eager; she craved normality, the clumsy pantomime make-up had to go. So was the clownish, self-punishing clumsiness. The revolution against girlie glamour was tossed aside.

Our conversations in front of the fire came back.

‘You were doing it to spite her, and because of that you’re hurting yourself. We’re not young kids anymore,’ I said.

‘I don’t wanted to hurt her. It’s just…I don’t want to be like her. That’s what everybody is afraid of…even mothers - ending being like their mothers. Gran was down to earth and dowdy - always the critic. But she had a wicked way of putting mum down. Is that the way we hurt each other – “through coded signs and…” Have you still got that poem?’

‘It’s not that good.’

‘But it’s true.’

‘The one about how we pass things on without realising we’re doing it.’

I passed her the paper and she read it out.

‘See it’s not that bad. Make a good song. You’re right, you know. About that stuff we inherit without knowing until it’s too late. I resented mum for what she did to Sarah. Sarah was the opposite of me. To be honest I would have loved all that glamour, you know, but not the Pollyanna stuff. That was not really glamour.’

‘So that’s why you turned against her? With all that Goth and Punk stuff?’

‘Of course. But even that is glamour - of a sort. But I don’t want to stop having fun. I just want to stop hating myself.’

‘Why do we always end up there?’ I asked, knowing the answer.

‘Because what we are is always wrong. We can’t be normal, because being normal is not being ourselves. Only when we accept ourselves, then we can be honest to the rest of the world, instead of all this being stupid.’

‘We’ve tried to be something else and we’ve ended up being stupid? I suppose that makes us too normal,’ I said.

‘That’s what most of us want. A job we’re happy in and someone to love,’ she let out a roar, ‘Why can’t all those religious tossers just leave us alone?’

That moment I’d never seen her so angry. ‘This girl just wants to live, and be happy. Why can’t people just be happy? All these bloody thugs! I hate it! I hate them! Bitches with fists!’

‘That’s a good title for a song,’ I joked nervously.

‘Oh Jack. Let’s do one…come on.’ And I rolled a joint.

I shook my head and smiled. I was looking for Maitland in the phone book. G. Maitland was still there, the same address in Kings Heath but a different number. I wondered why?

In those last days before our final break, Ciss or Mary as she flipped back to, was in a strange, melancholy mood. Her father, Bill, suffered a severe heart attack, and Judith had taken her religious devotion to such a point of inflexibility that it threatened to rip the fragile seam of the whole family apart. During one visit I made, I noticed the jarring of intentions. Bill, in his late forties, and seriously overweight, struggled to make light of his misfortune. Judith, tall and disconnected, with a hard Thatcher face, was fussing and fidgeting with cups and saucers and constantly fingering her crucifix. Sarah sat hunched with dark lines around her eyes; shy and aloof in long flowery gown. She whispered, then giggled silly to some secret joke. In a moment, alone in the back garden, I’d asked Ciss, ‘Why go back to this?’

‘Who else is going to put things right,’ she shrugged. In her eyes I traced the whole gamut of her emotions: anger, pity, duty, love and hate.

The last time I saw her I was when she came to visit me in Manchester and we spent a day in Blackpool. Little was said of family, except when our group broke off to walk down to the sea. We sat on the promenade – just the two of us.

‘It was all that wanting to be…it was all my mother again,’ she burst out.

‘Why did you go back?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. Somehow I feel responsible. She is still my mother, and Sarah is still my sister. And dad….’But it felt she was hiding the other half of her reasons.

I let a pause hang in the air. She knew the signal in my pauses. She returned a knowing glance and smiled. I wanted to ask her to move to up Manchester and stay with me, but what could I offer…come and join me on the Arts course or…what’s the difference to what we had then?

‘Face my demons. That was what you wanted to hear? It’s not me. Or was it?’ We’d both reached some dead end.

‘Anyway…’ I said, struggled to make sense of the unravelling of our friendship, ‘it was when you always talk about your mother. I always got the feeling you wanted to…I don’t know…’ I let out a short laugh, ‘…kill her?’

Ciss wasn’t surprise at my suggestion, but replied calmly: ‘I thought about it. Or maybe…maybe just hurt her.’ It was her turn to laugh.

‘But there was something so pathetic in her. You saw it, Jack?’ I nodded. ‘I saw past that bubble. I suppose it’s like seeing yourself, judging yourself. You can only, you know, like - I was letting her hurt me. Anyway, there’s a difference between thinking and doing. We’ve all had dark thoughts, once in while.’

‘And now? Have you made peace - or is it to late?’

‘It’s never too late. It’s just that a little piece will always be out of place. That bit of trust, that…that broken egg thing that can never me put back together again. Anyway, forget about that. I came to get away from all this. I just… I really came to thank you.’

‘For what?’ I mused.

‘You saved my life when you bought me back to Brum.’

‘Did I? You would have survived it all somehow. It was all in the mind. You were making yourself ill.’

‘But I was just surviving - like Sarah. If I’d stayed in London with that lot any longer I would have ended up spending the rest of my life on pills, and plucking petals off flowers. I might as well have been dead.’

‘Is that what your frightened of?’

‘It goes down my mother’s side of the family, that mania and depression…and suicide. You were the sane and sensible one. You came good in the end.’

‘Sane and sensibility? I hope they don’t put that on my tombstone. Come on, let’s get our feet wet.’

‘Oh, you devil. Taking such risks. We could catch a terrible ague, darling,’ she said in her posh girl voice. ‘Or even get the crabs.’

‘Yeah, okay, Ciss,’ I said, ‘I haven’t seen any crabs but they say there’s a lot of jellyfish in the sea. One’s with big stinking testicles,’ I joked.

‘You mean, tentacles, Jack?’

‘Now who’s being sensible?’


TEN

I got up at ten, a bit creaky but fresh-headed and breathed in the air of a clear blue sky holding the most brittle white-haired clouds. Archie was getting the pork roast ready. He was amused at my early rising knowing of my long lie-ins of the past and especially of my previous nights shit-shovelling.

Archie percolated the coffee and warmed some croissants; Anne’s favourite breakfast spread along with Normandy butter and strawberry conserve. It was like hotel heaven.

‘I gave that number a ring.’ He said casually, as I savoured the fourth croissant.
‘And?’ I replied, wiping the melting butter from my chin.

‘I spoke to Bill Maitland. They’re still all there, except for Ciss - or Mary, as I should say now. She lives around the corner. She married, you know, to a Peter. Officially she’s now Mrs Mary Egerton.’

I tried not to show surprise, but Archie spied me reaching for my baccy.

‘When did that happen?’ I asked.

‘Two years back. And there’s more. She’s a nurse as well. Qualified last year. And you’ll never guess what sort?’

‘Surprise me.’ I was rolling frantically by now.

‘Psychiatric nurse. Not bad, aye? Bill sounded very proud of her.’

Archie poured me another coffee and I lit up.

‘Kids?’

‘No. Anyway, I phoned…Mary, and we chatted for a while. She sounded, let’s say, surprised, but thrilled. She’s working today, though. But tomorrow evening she’ll be coming over. I told her how you’d lost contact and everything. She’s really looking forward to seeing you again.’

I felt a pang of nostalgia at the thought of being reunited with Ciss; but how many years had passed, and how much had she changed, and I….

‘But what happened? How come she lost contact with you…and changed her number, too?’

‘We only talked for a few minutes. She was very tired. She said she’d explain everything when she comes over. This is going to turn into a proper reunion. Eat up and I’ll phone for a taxi.’

We took the taxi up to the cemetery, to see Anne’s grave. We laid fresh flowers. The clear days ahead marked a perfect break from the drudgery of nights. If going back to the past meant a moment of some good being carried into the future, then so be it. It was more than nostalgia; it was to pay respect to good friends – living and dead. But such things don’t last.

Archie had phoned Agnes and invited her to dinner. She had refused, asking instead that we come over later. Archie said she was playing the martyr again, expecting us to laud it over her.


Agnes had changed profoundly. She was pale, almost porcelain white, with pronounced veins running along the back of her hands. The long dress she wore hung on her jagged and bony frame; and her hair, which had greyed was, at once, both harsh and brittle like her features. But in her determined eyes were the real traces of her survival. They mirrored the very will that held her together. Her body had taken all she could punish it with, through hard graft, cigarettes and booze. What kept her was a sense of being, even to a point, which had driven her to hopelessness and self-destruction, and for want of, and denial of, pity. A force inside her craved for life as though there was still something that it owed her, some purpose, some duty to fulfil. But the truth also lay in that working class breed that had always toiled, falling back onto things mundane, like a cup of tea and a cigarette; which were now her only little comforts. It put rhythm into her life.

She smoked little, drank in slow sips and nibbled at her ham sandwich. She had neither the desire nor the strength to cook or clean, and the TV, she said, was now all ‘garbage’. What’s left? To stare blankly at the TV screen at the noise, the movement, the one-way conversation. You could sense that word had haunted her most of her life - depression. That ugly word that every cliché echoes back at you with oppression and disgust. Just pull yourself together - had rung in her ears for too long.

She treated my appearance with neither smile nor surprise.

‘Oh you poor thing. They missed me, you know,’ she said.

This big black and white cat stared up at me in apprehension; then slinked around Agnes’s bony tapered legs as she squirted cream into a worn rose-patterned saucer that matched the lino beneath.

‘You love that don’t you, Bertie?’

The cat lapped furiously as Agnes deposited the canister back in the fridge. She hung on the door for a moment and looked down. ‘Yes,’ she muttered to herself. Then looked up at me. ‘You see all my pussies? Where would they go? Who would look after them?’

All the cats she had looked after with Arthur over the years had all been strays. Few had settled in, except in old age perhaps, where here was their last refuge. And to wonder what they ponder in the last years of their lives is a strangely sobering vocation. Their lives are not cartoon characters but a collection of emotions more viscerally expressed then our own: fear, need, shock, disinterest. What they express with reason, language took from us and made us all into liars. Some people hate cats. Me? I find them the least demanding of vagrants to have around.

When we first entered the house we were intoxicated by the smell of cats…the usual things. The carpets held that odour, and no matter how many times you cleaned them, the residue still hummed about. But the place had stayed much as it was the last time I’d been, and it was that messy familiarity that made sense to Agnes. Some would baulk, but it was not for me to judge. After all, my flat was even more untidy and colder, with no sense of belonging; no sense of past or future.

Even so, Agnes had closed herself to the future. What sort of future for her was it anyway? Her future is about forgetting about what’s to come - it is not a list you want make out. And if you look past the front door, the streets are still the same: the corner shops, the logjam of parked cars, the bright red letterbox… Only the inhabitants have changed over the years.

Agnes didn’t care for progress. The scar on her forehead just needed a little iodine. The prescribed painkiller for her twisted ankle could just as well be aspirin…and what’s this? ‘I don’t want to take these. Why the bloody hell should I take these and mess with my head?’ She passed them to me.

I openned up the insert and read the blurb. They were antidepressants except for one lot - they were sleeping pills. ‘Do with them what you want. I don’t want those bloody things.’

My history was short, as though we had parted yesterday. When, I mentioned that I worked at a department store she was off on one of her stories.

‘Anyway, I once worked at Woolies. They were all really friendly when I was there. Well, one day, though, one of the floor managers, Betty, invited me over for Sunday lunch. The house was lovely. Big detached place and it was, all set out beautifully. It was immaculate, you know…full of ornaments and knickknacks. The dressers and cabinets were full to the brim. And the carpets. Now what’s the word? Pile. It was all lovely and thick. Her husband Geoff also worked in Woolies…in the storerooms. He was a manager there, or something.

‘Well, after lunch she showed me around their house, and I tell you, every room was the same. All laid out like a palace it was. And when we got upstairs and I saw the master bedroom, well…quilts, velvet curtains, those thick carpets…all brand new furniture. I couldn’t believe it. Then this Betty say: “come with me”, and she took me to a room at the end of the hall, and she opened it with a key she kept on a chain around her neck.

‘Well bless me. It was like Aladdin’s cave. Every bit of that room was full of stuff from Woolworth’s. You see, Jack, they’d pinched it all. So, this Betty turns to me and says: “Help yourself love. Anything you need.” Well, I said I couldn’t. I’ve never stolen anything in my life - what, with hell and damnation still in my head. “Don’t be silly,’ she goes on, “How do you think Geoff and I can afford to live like this? We have three holidays a year." And they did you know. All over the Mediterranean they’d been…and it was dear in those days, wasn’t it, Archie?’

Archie nodded and lit Agnes’ cigarette.

‘Thank you, Archie. Anyway, this Betty says the whole store is in on it. “Who can live on what they pay us?” she says. And you know she was right…the whole bloody place was on the fiddle: money out of the tills, goods out of the stockroom…and friends of there’s would come in and just pick stuff off the shelves and just pretend to pay. And the security would all turn a blind eye. Oh Christ, I loose track of all the fiddles.

‘So I packed up that job. I couldn’t get involved. What could I do? That Betty said to me if I told a soul then I would be for it. And she meant it. So that was that, and good riddance to the lot of them. And they talk about shoplifting nowadays. Mind you, I don’t blame anyone. All they paid was peanuts. And to think they must have still been making money even with all fiddles going on. Come on, Jack, have another piece of cake. I’ll top you glass up.’

The doorbell sounded.

‘Who the bloody hell is that?’ Agnes motioned to get up. I offered but Archie insisted.

‘Be careful Archie, there’s a lot of funny people about… Who is it?’ Agnes’ head popped up. I moved sideways so she could see. ‘Oh. Mikey…come in.’ The door opened to a tall, old white-haired man.

‘You know Jack, don’t you?’ Agnes motioned him in. We had met once or twice, but they were all fleeting occasions and I couldn’t recall, but for the big red-veined nose. So I faked a memory and nodded a yes.

Archie was distant, just throwing me his disgruntled fatalistic face.

‘I just come around to see how your doing Agnes,’ he said, rubbing his hand together.

‘I’m fine, just a little bump and a sore ankle again. Tilly got under my feet and…’ Tilly being the grey cat with the teethy cries I’d encountered at Agnes front door when I’d first arrived. ‘They wanted to keep me in again for a few more days and I said - not bloody likely.’

‘There’s some funny people in there,’ continued Agnes, addressing me. ‘There was one old dear who kept staring and staring at the ceiling. Gave me the heebie-jeebies. One day she turned to me and says, “I haven’t got anyone. They’re all dead. No one will be coming to see me. No one to bury me.” Well, she was a barrel of laughs. Enough to make you want to top yourself.’ And she swished her hand across her throat.

‘Come on, sit down Mikey and have a brew.’

Mikey made his apologises saying he couldn’t stay; just came to drop off some cigs, a bottle of cheap vodka and six tins of cat food. The conversation between Archie and Mikey ran like bad business. My eyes ran off it and I glanced over into the living room at the pictures and prints on the wall. An old embroidered sampler hung in a corner, 1884, the usual alphabet and numbers. The cabinet was full of china, Edward the Seventh souvenirs and plates mostly chipped. But it was over on the sideboard that stood the monstrosity in the glass dome: the skeleton clock. I stared at the metal bones of its mechanism still turning, still counting.

The sideboard was dark mahogany, nothing special, mass-manufactured Edwardian with heavy drop handles. Inside the top draws, as I recalled, had laid a clutter of paperwork. The cupboards below full of clinking glasses alongside bottles of spirits; the full ones pushed to the back and in front, half, third, quarters of vodka, brandy and gin – supermarket brands and more expensive gifts.

I scanned the row of birthday cards all lined up on top between the knickknacks and trinkets of glass and brass and carved wooden animals – one a black bear with a metal collar rampant staring back a me.

‘Another drop, Jack.’ Agnes caught me unawares. For a moment I was sure she had been watching me all the time. I almost made a comment about the clock…its craftsmanship…how glad I was she still had it. But there was something in Agnes’s look, a sharp spike of suspicion, as if I had avarice in eyes.

‘Come on, Heartbeat will be on soon. Archie! Mikey!’ she cried.

Mikey was going.

By now I’d acclimatised to the stench of feline excrement, but as I leant forward towards the ashtray I spotted lumps of desiccated cat shit behind the armchair where Archie sat, though I didn’t look too long. Agnes gave a running commentary over the characters and events of the TV drama. It went over my head. I gave Archie that look, and he gave it me back. The cake were stale, the vodka she poured was strong - one part lemonade nine part alcohol. Two cats were spread in front of the gas fire, one with pus dribbling from its ulcerated mouth.

By eight my head swirled and my stomach churned. Agnes began with the same stories from her youth. She told the one about the pub and the prostitutes. The old flourish hadn’t gone. Archie laughed along in his laid back way. By ten we were ready to go. Agnes was ready for bed. I was ready to be sick.

Back at Archie’s I tumbled upstairs for the toilet. Archie made me a light tea consisting of sandwiches and bicarb.

‘Can’t she see through that Mikey?’ I said, after I’d recovered my balance.

‘She can see through them all. But she sees too much sometimes. Or to put it another way, she sees too much of the same in everybody.’

‘So why does she put up with him?’

‘You mean why does she use him?’

‘Oh, I see. So why doesn’t she use you?’

‘I help her out when I can. Do a little shopping for her. But I think she likes to be surrounded by flatterers.

‘At her age?’

‘At any age. Anyway, I don’t want anything she has. Mikey does though.’

‘Still after that old clock?’ I sighed. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Neither do I. And I don’t really care anymore. It’s all gossip with her. It’s all…ah! Do I care?’

Archie looked fed up and tired. ‘I’m sorry Jack. It’s just…just that she wears me out a bit. You can be a friend to someone only so much. Help her out, and then what? Then she calls you behind your back and… She’ll be on the phone to Mikey now, going on about you, I bet.’

‘What’s there to tell? Still living - still working in Manchester. It’s not perfect but, I make a living.’ I shrugged.

Archie gave one long resigned shake of the head.

‘What’s changed Agnes so much?’ I pondered.

‘Arthur,’ replied Archie. ‘He had a big thumb…yes. Well, a little port before bedtime Jack?’

‘Are you turning into an old lush as well?’

‘I wonder sometimes. I wonder.’

‘You miss Anne, don’t you?’

‘Yes. She was the Yin to my Yang. Or is that the other way around? Yes. I miss her energy, her frivolity…and always coming up trumps when it really mattered.’

‘Is it me being here? I suppose I can be maudlin sometimes, bringing up the past.’

‘Things have to change, Jack. Life is rarely full of happy endings. I think Anne had a happy ending. At least she died being loved by everyone. Good memories, aye? Here put that tobacco down and have a cigar.’

He went to his desk opened a large copper box and past me a corona.

‘You will keep in touch won’t you, Jack? Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. It’s not fair. You have your own life.’

‘I wonder sometimes if I really have. Anyway, wait till summer. Come up to see me. I’ll promenade you down the Village. We’ll get pissed and call everyone names.’

‘I nearly forgot, I’ve got something of yours, Jack. Wait here a minute.’

He vanished upstairs, returning with a Kwik Save carrier bag. ‘I dug this archaeological relic from my bottom draw last night.’

It was my old red and black jumper that had journeyed down to London and back with me. I broke down in hysterical laughter. ‘Why didn’t you just throw it…it must be hanging?’

‘Smell it?’

It smelt of weed. Not only that, but also the bedsit land of Edgbaston, of the East End, of Anne and Archie’s parties.

‘Nothing is ever lost, aye, Jack?’ said Archie with a warm smile. ‘That’s worth more to me than all the skeleton clocks put together. Life.’

Friday, 18 July 2014

UNTITLED



Climbing
Falling
Thinning
Stuffing
Running
Sinking
Smiling
Worrying
Believing in the moment
Drowning in the future or the past
Counting up to going down
Burning
Cooling in the ground
The planet grinding
Churning
The beetle rolling dungballs
The love you compartmentalised
In a false move
Cowards always running
Brainless in a loop

I know your are living – out there
But you are with the dead to me
The real dead outgrow my life
The living dead outlive the real
Cold and clammy
Dishonest and cancerous

Friday, 4 April 2014

Remembering



1.

Winter sunsets fall with an imperceptible gloom
Like the memory of a dead friend that slides
Heavily over my eyelids, tingling my skin

Places become old plays - comedies, histories, tradegies.
And  I hold his voice - but never too long and turn

Everything turns and we trim ourselves to necessity
Horrified by the ugliness of a newborn day.

2.

And our blood screams bound by rusting iron chains
Screams to the depth of the earth
Shattering the cries of gulls
Cracking the crows' cawling

See no more, no more I see
Those plays were true, never crude.
Those worlds we know now are trivial
No great things ( and only I should not think of it)
(It is true)

Screw your stupidity
Screw your cowardice

3.

Reason is not about the status quo
not weighing x against y.
it is about an understanding of the human  condition
Justice, Fairness and Openness 
Nothing above reason.



Borrowed

I borrowed your (insincere) smile
The way you walked
The turn of (company) phrase
The blank look on your face.

The aloofness of denial
Nothing said, the shrug
Of buried dread.
The feel of coldness in another's bed.

the face that showed a lack of sleep
That inability to weep
The skirting drunken head
That talked of maybes never said.

The borrowed grinding teeth
The borrowed field of weeds
The borrowed silence of graves
All the ways - they were borrowed
All the days - they were sorrowed
Sewn together in a seamless heap.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

XXX


Fuck they’d shout out everyday
It’s over here it’s is everywhere
Bloody this and effing that
Kick the dog and drown the cat
Pissing up the pissed up walls
Punching glass and tossing balls
Waking from a tits up scrape
The same old shite the same low pay

With mum and dad shoved in a home
Who’ll shit their pants and no one knows
No one’ll care with magazines
Of soufflé celebs in see me scenes
Who’ll sell their wank to wanker’s riles
To do fuck all with fucked up smiles
While shelves are drown in same old shit
Just who remembers Jade or jif 

It always flatters love or hate
As long as they get paid the rate
You down the prozac and play the game
Until you find the coming train
So it’s fucking this and pissing that
Its cunt or dick or whatever hat
Blown ‘tween your lips or out your arse
Just make it pay for t’will never last

‘Cause everybody’s cut their throats
Everybody’s cramming loads
Spending every dragging hour
Out the mouth and down the shower
And when you’re dead they’ll score the lot
Your life pissed in a broken pot
That final drop the final gasp
You know the score sell off the past


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