Happens to me quite a bit. People think they know me. Perhaps they do. I wouldn’t know. I’m not a people person. I’m not what you call sociable. I’m happy with my own company, listening to my own thoughts. Not everyone is like me. Hardly anyone is like me. But still they think they know me. I’ve got one of those faces.
Take this morning, for example. I was outside the office in Stevenson Square, on my fag break. It’s a good place to watch people. In the summer I like to sit on the benches near the statue of Abraham Lincoln. You see all sorts in Stevenson. The haughty, tanned girls from the Eve Adam hair salon; office workers, puffing away at their feuds and disappointments; tourists, shoppers, students, the flayed and buckled drinkers, all of us dying in public.
It was raining this morning. Not many shoppers about. A few smokers gathering in doorways, shoulders tensed against the cold. A mucky day. You could hardly see the rain, it was so fine. The sort of rain that hangs in the air like an insinuation. Gets under your collar. Niggly stuff.
There was a pigeon on Lincoln’s head. I took cover under the archway by Lucky Spice, a gloomy Indian restaurant. How it turns a profit, I do not know. It’s one of those places that we keep saying we’ll go to, just for a laugh, but we never do, even after a skinful.
It’s been raining like this for three days solid. It’s not even proper rain. It’s like a web of wetness, it clings to you. It’s depressing. I’ve only ever seen weather like this in Manchester – and I’m from Hitchin, which isn’t exactly the Copacabana. It’s as if God, having created the weather, gave all the drab and dreary leftovers to Manchester. The slops, the offcuts. Here you go, have this rain, this dribbly stuff, no one else wants it. Still, it’s good if you want to buy an anorak. Even the newsagents sell them here.
So I was on my own as usual, enjoying a thoughtful cig. My boss, Beverley, was away at a meeting all morning, so I reckoned I could easily extend this break for another five, ten minutes. (My record is forty: I had two pints with Daz down Black Dog.)
I was lighting up cig number two – the pigeon flew from Lincoln’s head – and this bloke comes up to me. Wiry, sleazy, eager. I could almost see the words forming and twitching under the skin of his face, desperate to escape: all that chat, all those theories. I thought: here we go. I always attract them. He’s after something: sees something in my face. They always do. Daz says it’s because I look like a mug. I prefer to think of it as certain vulnerability or innocence, an indefinable softness. I don’t know what it is, but they see it. And by they I mean blokes like this scrawny chancer. He gives me that ‘our kid’ shit. He’s thin and handsome, with dirty, agile, scabby hands writing in the air. Pinstripe jacket and faded jeans, pointy white shoes covered in mud or worse. He has tired eyes, night-time eyes. He’s after something: directions, money, my skinny arse.
‘Good to see you! You all right now, man?’ He shows me his cracked and creamy teeth. His eyes are horribly blue, I can’t stop looking at them.
‘Fine, mate.’ I have no idea what he’s talking about. Just another loon, a refugee from the hours of darkness.
‘Sound, man, sound. Where’d you go? I was looking everywhere. I was worried.’
There’s a pigeon back on Lincoln’s head, a ginger pigeon.
‘Cheers,’ I say. ‘No need to worry.’
‘Who said I’m worrying? I ain’t fucking worrying. I was worried for you last night but I ain’t worrying now.’ He turned to the Square, to Lincoln and the pigeons, seeking approval.
I made to leave.
‘Chill, man,’ he said, gripping my shoulder. ‘Peace.’ He was back in my face. ‘I know you’re all right. You’re sound. We’re sound. Last night you was in a spot of bother. That’s why I was worried for you, chief. You stepped over the line. I had your best interests at heart.’
‘Last night?’ The loon, I feared, might be on to something. I’d got very drunk. I get drunk most nights. So do my friends. That’s why they’re my friends. I couldn’t remember anything that had happened after about half-eight. I wasn’t letting this character know that. You’ve got to play your cards close to your chest.
‘Can’t have been me, mate,’ I said. ‘I was at home, watching Taggart.’
I wanted another cigarette. He’d probably scav one and then I’d be in deeper: we’d be pals, bonded by fumes. But I needed a cig, he was making me nervous, so I took out my packet and offered him one.
‘Not for me,’ he said. ‘I’ve given up. During the daytime, at any rate. Everything in moderation. During the day. Night-time is different – a different game all together – as you know yourself. You had a spot of bother in that chicken place. Hollywood Chicken.’
Hollywood Chicken. I don’t know what appalled me more, being in a spot of bother or being in Hollywood Chicken. Even now, at thirty-six, after twenty years of solid drinking, I’m still surprised at what goes on when I’m drunk, when that other person, the me who isn’t me, starts causing trouble. The real me, the normal me, the one who sits in an office all day trying to look efficient, he’s the one who takes all the flak. I’m surprised that I’m still surprised. It’s best not to dwell on such misfortune. If you think about it too much – the drinking, I mean, and all the stuff that goes with it, the bad luck and the fractured nights, the waste – you just make yourself depressed, and then it’s time for another drink. Even if you don’t think about it, you’re going to end up drinking again. So you’re screwed. It’s hellish, the way everything keeps repeating itself, day after day, always a tattier version. Drink is the only solution.
I prefer not to know what I’ve done or said the night before. Or the day before. Or the week before. I don’t want to know about anything I’ve done since the age of fourteen. Sometimes you can’t avoid the truth: it’s there in front of you, the smashed window, the blood on the phone, the violent slogan scraped on the wall. It’s best not to know. This bloke, however, the moderate smoker with the scratched and grubby hands and zealous blue eyes, was determined to tell me everything about the night before.
‘You was slaughtered, mate.’
‘No shame in that. Got to be done. Done it myself. Plenty times.’ He stared at Lincoln. ‘I don’t know how it started, yeah, but you was getting grief, big time. Off this massive bloke. Pushing you around, you know, like this. In Hollywood. I was there. I saw.’
‘I only popped in for chips. I wouldn’t eat their burgers. Cats and all sorts. It was in the paper. Arabs. Then it all kicked off. He was a big bloke. Steroids, I reckon. You know the sort. He didn’t like you at all. Not one bit. He was like: I’m gonna rip your fucking head off, I’m gonna slice you up. Like I say, I don’t know what you did to him, like, but he wasn’t happy. I was a bit refreshed myself but even I could see he wasn’t happy.’
I didn’t like the sound of this.
‘My memory’s a bit vague,’ I said.
‘No shit. He was going: Come on then, let’s have it, C’mon c’mon, you fucking squirt.’
‘Squirt. Yeah. That’s what he said. On my mum’s life.’
‘I’ve got to get back to the office. I’m on my fag break.’
‘Yeah, he had the hump with you. Proper.’ As I made to leave, the man dodged in front of me.
‘I sorted him for you. I sorted him. Remember?’
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘I calmed him down. Spoke to him, like. Negotiated. I know how to do it. I’ve got the skills. It’s a process. You have to get into their mind.’
‘Ta.’ I couldn’t get away from him.
‘I was in the army. Secret stuff, behind the lines. Middle East, Ireland. Military intelligence. I don’t like to talk about it. I can’t talk about it. They’re still watching me. And if they’re watching me, they’re watching you.’
‘The tongue is mightier than the fist. You need to watch what you say. Yeah. He was proper mad. But I smoothed it for you.’
‘Thanks. I seem to attract loons. I’ve got one of those faces.’
‘I suppose you have.’
‘People take a dislike to me.’
‘I can see why.’
‘I’ve got to go,’ I said, looking at my watch. ‘My boss’ll kill me.’
‘See ya.’ I walked away.
‘So that’s it then, that’s the thanks I get?’
‘I have to go.’
I jogged through the rain to my office
‘Ungrateful bastard!’ he shouted. ‘I put myself on the line for you. Traitor!’
That encounter put me on edge for the rest of the day. The hours passed slowly. The early fizz of waking up drunk (a free gift, like finding a tenner in your pocket) gave way to the afternoon grind and ache of a hangover.
After work, my brain and body told me to go straight home, to eat a stodgy meal (steak, potatoes, gravy, peas), have a bath and go to bed early. But some tiny part of me, some maverick molecule or rogue receptor, said Sod that, and before I had even made a decision about what to do, I was sat at the bar, facing the bottles and optics, down in the neon dusk of Voodoo Hut. Two pints of Stella later and my mate Daz was sitting beside me.
‘Enjoy your burger last night?’ he asked.
‘Don’t start,’ I said.
‘What’s up with you? Boss give you another shafting?’
‘It’s been a very long day.’
‘It was a very long night,’ said Daz. ‘You need to take it easy. I’m putting you on a speed limit. Three pints per hour, tops.’
‘Sometimes I’m in the mood to go faster. It’s a shame to waste those moods.’
Pointing, Daz ordered two more pints. ‘You made a right tit of yourself in Hollywood Chicken. Do you remember?’
‘Of course not. I never remember.’
‘Never remember: the cry of the boozer loyalist. Cheers.’ Daz slid a fresh pint in my direction, the thin foam running down the side of the glass. ‘You’ll have to lie low for a bit, I reckon. Stick to cans at home.’
‘It wasn’t that bad, surely?’
‘You didn’t shit on the floor, if that’s what you’re worried about.’
‘A successful night, then.’ I downed my old pint, started on the new one. ‘I know all about it, anyway,’ I said calmly. ‘Some meathead took a dislike to me. A few words, a few jibes. Worrying, yes, but hardly a rarity and not remotely catastrophic.’
‘You must be thinking of something else. Some other fuck-up. Don’t you remember the skinny bloke?’
‘Pinstripe jacket. White shoes. Spiky hair. Manic little squirt.’
Daz told me the story. We started off in the Black Dog as usual, then mooched over to Voodoo for the five hour happy hour. I can remember the first hour or two in Voodoo. The Eve Adam lot were in, drinking white wine and lurid cocktails. Not much happened. I was drinking fast, enjoying myself: I had the rhythm, the mood. After closing time, which I definitely don’t recall, we went over to Hollywood Chicken. I chose the Eastwood Deluxe, with extra bacon, Daz went for the Spicy Tarantino. There’s a television up in the corner, above the counter, showing rolling news. The Americans were losing another war in a desert on the other side of the world. I was grumbling a bit, saying Yanks this and Yanks that, trying to get matey with the blokes behind the counter who weren’t even Arabs. Then this scraggy bloke comes in, wearing a pinstripe jacket and distressed jeans, shoes like Turkish slippers, a bit of a berk. He puts his arm around me (according to Daz). The bloke is hugging me, kissing my cheek, tousling my hair. He seems to know me. There you are, man! We’re you been? I been looking all over, thought I’d lost you. Oh man. You coming? What you doing? Don’t eat here. Give you gut rot. Come Silks. Like we said. Silks. And he’s hugging me and calling me his mate, his buddy. He thinks my name is Christian. He’s wired, his pupils large and dark, pulsing. All this is going on, there’s bombs exploding on telly and the blokes behind the counter are laughing, and then this meathead comes in, some bruiser in a black tracksuit, got a head like a slab of concrete. He tells the pinstripe bloke to get out of his way, calls him all sorts. So the scrawny bloke starts arguing back.
‘Doesn’t sound too bad,’ I said.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ said Daz. ‘Then you started crying.’
‘You thought the bruiser was attacking your girlfriend.’
‘Straight up. You were going: don’t hit her, don’t hit her. You were out of it. The guys behind the counter were laughing.’
‘No, no. I wouldn’t have done that.’
‘You did. So then both geezers turned round and started giving you verbals. Called you all sorts. I feared for you. Then you sat on the floor. Weeping.’
‘Shit yes. It was embarrassing. That’s when I bundled you out of there. I didn’t even get my Tarantino.’
I ordered two more pints.
‘Sorry, Daz. I’ve got to stop. Tomorrow I’m stopping.’
‘Tomorrow you’ll be hungover. I think it was the hugs that confused you. The affection. I keep telling you to see a brass, get it out of your system. Funny thing is, that first bloke, pinstripe, he really seemed to know you, like you’d just been in the pub together.’
‘Spaced out,’ I said. ‘Like I was.’
‘Or else you’ve got a double. A double called Christian.’
‘Don’t like the idea of that.’
‘He could be going round causing all sorts of trouble, smashing up pubs, goosing pensioners. Next time you go in the Wellington, it’ll be Sorry son, you’re barred, and you won’t have a clue why.’
‘I don’t like the sound of this Christian. He sounds like a tit.’
‘He must be a tit,’ said Daz, ‘if he’s hanging with pinstripe.’
‘He’ll get me barred from every pub in Manchester, this Christian bloke.’
‘A loose cannon,’ said Daz. ‘Dangerous. Promiscuous.’
‘I hate him and I don’t even know him.’
‘He could be down the Crested Grebe right now, making eyes at big Pete.’
‘I detest him.’
‘So does half of Manchester by the sound of it. He attracts trouble.’
‘He’s probably got one of those faces.’
About the Contributor
Stephen was born in east London and now lives in Manchester. Three of his stories have appeared in Black Static magazine: World of Trevor (which can be read on my website), The Bury Line and The Visitors. Author Nicholas Royle described The Visitors as “subtle, well observed, beautifully nuanced”. He has performed at the Verbose Literary night in Manchester and is currently working on a novel and number of non-fiction projects
Mendelssohn is on the Roof - Jiří Weil
A painful, at times grimly comic work, populated with sadists, collaborators, schemers, grotesques, toadies, chancers, money-makers, thieves, the tortured and the merciless. Prague is is ruled by a brutal Nazi bureaucracy which poisons and distorts all around it. The book progresses swiftly as a series of sickening twists push us into ever darker zones. It's a book about loss of identity, loss of dignity, loss of reason. The title refers to an incident which sees Nazi functionaries charged with removing a statue of the Jewish composer from a prominent building. Not knowing what Mendelssohn looks like, they decide to remove the statue with the biggest nose - Wagner.
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds