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Next please

16 Dec

“That’s Oh Ess. Sant-OS”. He peered at me belligerently down his long thin nose, through the heavy rimmed glasses. Two black eyebrows, meshed across the top. Long spidery fingers tapping on the thin cardboard folder holding his CV and references.

“Yes, indeed. So I see, Mr. Santos. And may I ask which vacancy are you here for today, sir?” Another glare, daring me to pass comment. He drew himself up to his full height, clearing his throat. I could feel the blush, rising inexorably up my neck.

“I submitted an application for the Retail Security Operative position that was advertised in the Crawnforth Gazette”. Each capital letter carefully enunciated, to emphasise the obvious gravitas of the position. “I applied in early September; I must say I was somewhat disappointed not to receive your invitation to interview until late November”. Another cannonade from the spiny finger tips.

“Indeed, Mr. Santos, and I apologise, of course. It appears there may have been a certain…” Breathe. Swallow. Think from the diaphram. “A certain administrative misunderstanding within the human resources system. But we are so fortunate that you have been able to attend for an interview today, and I do hope the delay hasn’t inconvenienced you at all”. And breathe again. I could feel the full incandescence of the blush burning in my cheeks. “Do take a seat Mr. Santos, and the interview panel will see you shortly”.

On the home straight now, I allowed my clenched facial muscles to relax a little. He turned, and haughtily eyed the single remaining seat. He folded in his elbows, and slid his spindly frame into the letterbox gap left in the row of rotund, bearded gentlemen. Suddenly, I recalled a pressing and most urgent need to visit the stationary cupboard.

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By starlight

28 Nov

You can trace his methodical progress, step by shaky step. He’s always been a determined old bugger, my granddad Johnnie. The trail starts on the bedside table, the bedtime slot in the pillbox full of last night’s tablets, just where the last carer left them for him, untouched. The bed guards are still up; the catches must have been too fiddly for his arthritic fingers, and you can see the scrunched blankets where he shuffled down to the foot of the bed and turned onto his stomach to lower himself to the floor. His emergency alarm hangs off the bedpost, no more assistance required. A few unsteady steps to the walking frame, stowed in the alcove out of the way since his last fall.

The peg on the back of his door holds a crumbled medical gown, abandoned in favour of the much-loved threadbare brown dressing gown. Scratches on the door frame recount an argument with the recalcitrant walking frame, and the skewed hall table tells a similar story. A discarded potato masher lies in the centre of the kitchen floor, incongruous until I spot the floral tin with the spare door key, dented from its undignified retrieval from the top shelf. The key swinging from the lock, door still ajar.

Outside, the frame sits abandoned at the point it became a liability, at the bottom of the steps he hasn’t managed to ascend in more than a year. Once he’d conquered his Everest, he must have perched on the garden wall for a rest. A barren winter patio pot has sprouted a couple of hated cannulas, their colourful tops poking up like crocus buds. And then onward down the path, footprints in the snow merging into a jumbled groove as his tired feet began to drag.

I know where I will find him; right down at the bottom, out from under the trees with a clear view of the sky. His face has a knowing peace, without the pain and the bedbound frustration. I know I should call someone, but not yet. I lay down on my back next to him, just like we did when I was a child. Thinking back; a winter evening, last night he must have seen Orion march proudly overhead. Now the dawn is already bleaching the sky, but the morning star, Venus, hangs on the horizon. I lay back, holding his hand, and together we watch it rise slowly over the shed.

Stop

28 Oct

The unfamiliar gears crunch as Jerome misses second on the turn into James Street. Everything is set up wrong, but it doesn’t feel right to adjust the wing mirrors and tweak the seat height and settle himself in. This isn’t his bus. His bus is in for repair…

And he tries to shrug off that thought, pushing back the pictures which crowd into his mind, battling the seasick queasiness rising in his throat. Left from James Street into Taunton Road. Red lights on the crossing. he waits, willing them to stay red. Wishing they’d been red yesterday. Twenty seconds delay to the journey. No penalty for late runnng, but just enough time, twenty seconds more…

Focus on the road. Right from Taunton Road into The Westway. Through the chicane. A beaming lady in an incongruous orange dress marches proudly on at the Green Dragon. Her cheerful humming follows her on, but then Jerome hears it fade, stifled by the silent staring eyes of the regulars on board. As he pushes up Windmill Hill the shuddering growl of the engine sounds eerily loud, without the usual babble of voices. Right into Nesbit Road. Right again onto South Parade. He feels, rather than hears, the collective flinch as a police car wails in the distance.

The cold sweat begins to from as he heads across New Square, the rock sitting solid in the pit of his stomach. He can see down the hill to the turning into Mill Street, the lights, the beginning of the hedge bending away round the corner. The bus lurches violently as he fumbles into first instead of third; there’s an intake of breath from the passengers, but none of the usual griping. His foot sinks heavy on the brake, eking out the closing distance, oblivious to the queue of traffic building behind him. Wishing the lights will stay red, to buy a few more seconds. They turn amber, and he makes the turn.

Now he’s committed, the curve of the hedge draws them onward down Mill Street. Carpenter’s Rest. Queue outside the post office. Fresh red paint on the pillar box. Just the same as yesterday, as every day. He rounds the corner, and rolls into the bus stop. The doors shudder open with a hiss. Jerome waits. The draught circles amongst the motionless feet, blowing a discarded sweet wrapper in a slow spiral. His tries and fails to drag his gaze away from the alleyway across the road. The hand on the dashboard clock flicks decisively onto the hour. A leaf falls from the conker tree, pirouettes for a second, and then catches in the windscreen wiper. She’s never late. Never. Except yesterday. The pictures crowd back. The blue car, hurtling out from behind him onto on the wrong side to overtake. He sees her turning towards him, realising she’s keeping him waiting, stepping out.

He can feel twenty eyes, drilling into the back of his head. The open door shudders in the wind. A slow shuffle of feet begins at the back of the bus, punctuated by a tapping stick. The shuffle persists, row after row. He sets his jaw; clenched teeth the only thing keeping his tenuous grasp on composure. A hand sits lightly on his shoulder.

“Katie isn’t coming, Jerome. Time to go”.

Wanted

14 Oct

It runs, and runs. Over, and over, and over. Like a movie.  Twenty times? Back-projected on the inside of my lids. A hundred times? More. Jessie rattling pans in the kitchen becomes smashing glass. Again. The reversing van outside summons the screaming alarm. It wasn’t meant to be that way, it wasn’t supposed to happen. Each time it spools, the same excuse. The same accusation, the same feeble recrimination. Each slam of a door and I find myself, again, ears suddenly full of cotton wool and hissing static, and somewhere, distant, the faint underwater screams.  Each time, holding the empty gun.

I can feel the chill sweat sitting in the nape of my neck, and the small of my back. The muffled screams crystalise; Jessie singing over her baking. I smell brownies, incongruous through the lingering cordite. I grip the cold enamel sink beneath my fingers, anchoring myself here, and now. But leaning over I see his reflection not mine peering up at me from the basin, eyes wide, glassy, reaching out to me even as I recoil, silently mouthing my name. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t. An empty mantra. He bought the gun. He planned the job. He knocked over the chair. All I did was trip. But I can’t say it to his face, I see his eyes and it withers on my lips.

The first few hours were easier; plenty of adrenaline, plenty to do. Crash out through the back, drive fast but not conspicuous, torch the car, ditch the gun, lose the clothes. Put some distance between myself and the scene, but not too much, so I won’t appear to be fleeing. Stick to the plan, think methodical, look ordinary. But then the waiting began. Noting else to do, fate out of my hands. The niggling doubts – did the mask slip? Did a traffic camera spot me? Did I remember to wipe the gun for prints? The police would be milling around like ants, looking, checking, measuring, threading together the shreds of the afternoon. No job is perfect, there are always traces.

Scratching through the channels, hoping there’ll be something, hoping there’ll be nothing. News reports, all chewing over the same sparse details. Then the hacks find a name; a younger Danny stares out from a slack-eyed mugshot, taken the first time they put him away. No trace yet on his face of the wrath, the panic. Next to him a greyed-out silhouette, the wanted man. Does it have my chin? My nose? A press conference, the stone-faced DCI, speaking in precise, clipped tones. Laying down the facts, piece by meticulous piece, hinting at leads. No begging aimlessly for information, body language very much a hound with the scent. I can’t run, I can’t hide, all I can do is wait.

A quantum of solace

16 Sep

Think steady, stick to the rhythm, one-and-two, one-and-two. The assault rifle slips slightly on its shoulder strap, and I try to shrug it back closer to my centre of gravity, without losing my grip on the bar above my head. I fix my eyes firmly on the chimney, and try not to visualise the limp, futile crash mats four stories below my dangling boots. Just a few more feet to go, and I can swing up onto the relative safety of the roofline. Crouch, run, straighten up, and edge round the ledge on the chimney. As I slide down the gable end, she sees me, and her hand flies to her mouth, wide-eyed in shock.

My eyes measure the gap, and I rock back on one heel, tensing for the jump. “It’s too far”, she whimpers, horrified. “You’ll fall!”. Her saucer eyes locked on mine, beseeching, her arms reaching out. I’m glad, now, that I declined the wire, despite the drop. A breath, held, and then a hefty push and I’m airborne. I grab my pistol from it’s holster and hold it high, pointed skyward, as I arc out across the gap, landing into a studied crouch on the rail of the balcony. A moment, poised, and then a short drop down to her waiting at my feet. I fold her fluidly into my arms, drinking in the scent of crushed lilies as I bend in towards her.

“Cut”. She stiffens, and pulls sharply away, wrinkling her nose at the perspiration moistening my collar. “And swap. Change angles ready to roll on the closeup”. He elbows past me, chin held high, and I catch a whiff of freshly-doused Italian aftershave. He steps up onto the provided box, to match our heights, and clasps her face with his pale, manicured fingers. “Oh James” she sighs “You came to rescue me”, and she pouts her soft scarlet lips up to meet his.

Cutting wit

16 Sep

“It’s all in the name, dear. People will still come whether you paint it peach, pink, or pomegranate”. He gestured towards the grimy green wall daubed with a blotchy rash of tester pot indecision. “But a good name will hook ’em in. You can’t waste the opportunity. There’s no other profession that manages to pun quite as well as hairdressers.”

“And what’s wrong with calling it Hazel’s?”. She picked absentmindedly at the pitted lino with the toe of her sandal.

“No, you’ve got to do it properly. No point taking a short cut early on and ending up in a tangle. You need to show people you’re not some hair-today gone-tomorrow business. A good name has to be the root of your marketing strategy, people need to know about you’re about keeping a-head of style with a fresh dye-namic, word won’t just spread by hair-say you know, you need to get a good buzz going.”

Hazel scowled witheringly at her husband across the salon.

“And what would you suggest?”

“Oh there’s loads to choose from. You could go for one of the stalwarts – your ‘Hair jinks’ and ‘Dye versity’ and ‘Hairway to heaven’, but they’re getting pretty grey these days. We could do a bit of a Hollywood theme and try ‘Hair’s looking at you kid’ or ‘Last tangle in Paris’ or ‘Follicle attraction’, or maybe ‘Hair force one’?”

“It’s only a small shop, most of those wouldn’t even fit on the sign!”.

“You want something snippier then?”. The glare intensified. “Oh come on, hair me out! I know it’s a knotty problem but I’m sure the right idea will comb. They’re better than your hair-brained plan.” He deftly dodged the incoming hairbrush. “What about ‘A cut above the rest’? ‘A brush with success’, or ‘Comb hither’? ‘Cliptomania’? ‘Bucks Frizz’? ‘High rollers’? ‘Bleachcombers’? No, wait, I’ve got it – ‘Give us a wave’!”

“Oh give it a rest. Did I tell you I’ve decided to take on an assistant? Just for a few months to start with, but I’ll maybe keep them on longer if things work out well. That way I can leave them to do the curling while I concentrate on the cuts and colours. You could at least make yourself useful and print me a sign for the window”.

“How about ‘A snip at half the price’ as your first marketing slogan?” A comb followed the hairbrush, and he ducked, and obediently turned towards the computer. “Hey, since I’m putting up most of the money, if you’re determined to name it after someone, how about me?”

“Get lost! I’m doing all the hard work, why on earth would I want to call my salon after you?”. There was a pause; he waited. Another comb flew over his shoulder. It was accompanied by a giggle. “Nice try. You almost got me there, Bob!”. Another giggle. “You wretched hairetic. You’re a braid man. One of these days I’ll show you my true colours. I’ll beat you from hair to eternity, then cut you loose and leave you to curl up and dye! Consider this a close shave, next time you’d better scissor chance and run!”

He turned back with the freshly printed sign for the window, and passed it to her with an innocent smile. She glanced at it, and dissolved, helpless. ‘Staff wanted: temp to perm‘.

Sins of the father

14 Aug

Raindrops scud across the windscreen, like shoal after shoal of startled cobalt fish, shying away from the strobing lights. They spit and crackle as the wipers fight them, and subside, hissing around the wheels on the wet road. I’m running without sirens, just the growl of the engine as I plough through the puddles. Elderly male, query collapse, off Marlborough Road. A red call, requiring an eight minute response, but no house address at this time of night is never a good sign. Another drunk, peacefully asleep at a bus stop? A frequent flyer, feigning another improbable malady in the hope of a dry trolly bed for a few hours and a swig of hand gel from A&E? Or an empty road, with a crowd of sniggering kids? I plough on through the deluge.

“Did you call for an ambulance?” I peer grudgingly through the rain at the bedraggled youth, clutching an open can of cider and weaving gently.

“It’s the vicar. He won’t get up”. He chews on a filthy sleeve, beckoning me across the road towards the bypass.

“The vicar?” This place hasn’t seen a well-meaning dog collar in a long time; the soup runs don’t make it this far out of town.

“He won’t get up, he won’t talk, didn’t even say anything when old Morrin stole all the smokes from his bag. Just lays there, shaking, and shaking, for hours”. He gnaws, anxiously, avoiding eye contact except the little glances needed to make sure I’m still following. A seizure? I quicken my pace. A couple of hours is a long time to be fitting. We duck into the shelter of the flyover, watched by a snaggle of wary eyes.

“Oi vicar! Vic! Look who the kid has brought you”. I step sideways as a a languid sideswipe lobs a beer bottle across my path. The shards clatter away into the darkness, and elicit a muffled curse from a heap of plastic bags and rag.  Further across, I see a pair of holed shoes, poking out the bottom of a greasy blanket, and the kid tugs wordlessly on my arm.

“Hello there, I’m from the ambulance”. I pull a box closer to preserve what is left of his privacy, and guard against the next salvo from Morrin. “Can you hear me? I need you to open your eyes for me, sir”. As I move closer, I see he isn’t seizing, but sobbing. Not the great, wracking, rolling sobs of cathartic release, but the gentle shuddering of inured despair. A scrunched fist, clenched to his chest. The tears have scrawled tracks through the dust on his face; his eyes, when they drag open, are yellowed, underneath the puffy red.

“Can you tell me what’s happened, sir? Are you injured, at all, or feeling unwell?” He blinks wordless incomprehension.  “I’m Simon. What should I call you? Are you Vic?”. A little shake of the head, through the silent sobs. I try again. “The chap who rang for us, he called you the vicar?”. Another weary shake of the head, and then a croaky whisper.

“I was, once. A long time, now”. The tears roll onward, accompanied by the soft gargling of water in the choked culvert. “Malcolm”. The fist loosens, slightly, and offers me a scrap of damp newspaper from within. I peel the soggy folds apart. Collins, Mary, of Jeremiah Street, passed on last week after a short illness. Fondly remembered by brothers Geoffrey and William. Funeral arrangements on request to Fitch and Sons.

“Mary. You knew her?” Fresh tears bud at the corners of his eyes.

“My Mary”, he whispers, half to himself. “My Mary”. And then, slowly, through the sobs, “She left me. I had my pride, my high ideas, my right and wrong “. The words are mingled with another wave of sobs. “The things I said to her, such hurtful things. My Mary. What did right and wrong matter, without my Mary? I saw too late. I thought I’d win her back. Too late. And now it is”. He lets his eyes slide shut, and lowers his head back onto the concrete. A gust blows in under the flyover, flinging another torrent across our backs.

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