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Poverty excretes a distinct odour no amount of scrubbing can rid. It permeates your clothes and clings to your skin. It creeps under your nails and leeches into your hair. It seeps from your pores and is borne on each breath you breathe. Dire poverty stinks.
Eddie’s landlady didn’t take long to scent impending debt. The shrewd, old Andalusian had been stung once too often to be caught yet again. One week’s rent, payable in advance, were her terms. Sympathy for his predicament didn’t enter the equation.
When the Scotsman failed to emerge from his room for several days, she knew it could only be for one of three reasons. In the event of his death the corpse would have to be removed before it started to reek. There’d be all the tiresome paperwork the authorities would demand. The endless questions. Far better had he slipped off under cover of darkness. Either way she’d have to enter the room. Sooner rather than later. If only to let it out again. But the most probable reason for his non-emergence was he hadn’t any money. As none of her tenants ever had much money it was in her interests to sniff out when they did and when they didn’t. She’d developed a keen nose. Whatever the reason for his invisibility it was sure to end to her personal deficit.
Eddie fingered his ripped and swollen upper-lip absent-mindedly. Its deadened nerves and dried blood stitches fascinating his fingertips. Unsolicited mementoes of his fleeting encounter with a methed-up pimp’s blade in a dark alley. Doubtless the Argentine whore’s idea. A somehow fitting end to their last drunken binge. She knew his stash had all but run out. Her boyfriend simply helped the process along by stealing his wallet. For them it was just business. Cut up, and cut out the middle man. As his dad once said: some you never win and some you always lose. Never stopped him spunking his dole money up the wall down at the bookies. Whatever, Eddie had other unresolved matters to occupy his thoughts.
Lying on his unmade bed fully-clothed he gazed at the door. The same scene playing through his mind over and over. Like a video loop. The amphetamine stare in Rab’s eyes as they entered the Glasgow bank. His gun wavering in the air. An unfamiliar strain to his voice when demanding money. A terrified cashier handing stacks of crisp new notes over the counter one by one. However quick, not quick enough for Rab. Eddie stuffing them into a canvas holdall. An armed police officer bursting through the door, yelling at them to surrender their weapons and get down onto the floor. A deafening crack. The officer crumpling. The grin on Rab’s face. The second crack as the policeman’s gun went off. Rab’s grin transforming. The dreadful look of incomprehension replacing it. Those last few moments. Slow motion. Rab clutching his torn entrails, blood gushing between his fingers. Rewind. Blood gushing between his fingers. The horrible finality of the gun clattering against tiles. A sound Eddie would never forget. Nor the awful eternity of the ensuing silence, shattered by a woman’s scream. No matter how many times it played the end was always the same.
He knew he couldn’t stay in his room forever. And was just postponing the inevitable for as long as possible. “Ye shouldnae ha’ loaded the fucking gun,” he whispered. “I told ye not to. But ye wouldnae listen, wouldya? Ye had to go and load it.” But Rab was no longer there to hear him.
Expecting it at any moment the sharp rap on the door startled him all the same. Not waiting for a response his landlady barged in. Hands on hips, she stood at the foot of the bed looking down, contempt written across her face in any language. But however clear she thought she was making things, the foreigner appeared not to comprehend.
“Come in,” he said softly, staring blankly up at her.
To make her case plainer she began shouting at him in Spanish while gesticulating towards the door. Eddie might’ve been deaf for his lack of reaction. Not a muscle moved. She wasn’t getting anywhere. In a final bid to overcome the language barrier, she began stuffing his few belongings into the open suitcase she saw sitting on a chair. Lending her weight to close the lid, and snapping one of the hasps shut, she dragged it out of the room and down the stairs, bumping it over each step.
Her point made, Eddie slipped from the bed. Placing the few things she’d overlooked inside his empty holdall he followed in her footsteps. At the front door she heaved the suitcase onto the cobbled street, where it burst open, contents spilling. A knot of bemused spectators gathered to watch as he scrabbled round the cobbles collecting his clothes. When he looked up, she was filling the doorway, her arms folded defiantly. To demonstrate their dealings were well and truly done, she spat into the gutter and smacked her hands, up and down, before disappearing back into the house, slamming the door behind her. Eddie was out on the streets of Cádiz, his pockets empty. Not even enough for a drink.
Asked to imagine life on the streets, it might’ve seemed much worse. There were drawbacks to be sure, drifting about a strange and foreign city without a penny to his name. Yet, for Eddie, those were outweighed by an odd, but overriding sense of liberty. A feeling at last he’d managed to break free from the constraints of his former life. Without family or friends to eat at his emotions – apart from the ghost of Rab – things became so simple. There was no rent to pay, no bills, no need to impress.
Out on the crowded thoroughfares it was easy to blend. The police were no bother. They disliked troubling themselves as much as they disliked troubling scum like him. He became indistinct, just another of the downtrodden in a city filled to bursting. Whenever he got hungry or thirsty he would beg, squatting in doorways of convents, or churches, as he’d seen others do. His beat-up suitcase at his side, an unfeigned tale of tragedy etched deep into his battered and sunburnt face. As soon as he’d raised enough he’d sidle off for a bottle of wine to cheat his recall yet again. A loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese. When he got tired, or could no longer squat, he slept on benches or under the old promenade by the sea.
He’d been wandering the lanes and back alleys for almost a week when he stumbled across the derelict house. In a courtyard, hidden behind a rickety door in a crumbling wall held together by withering weeds. A family of skinny, orphan kittens seeped in and out of a hole in the brickwork. Seeing it otherwise unoccupied he started sleeping there.
Arrived the stage whenever he thought of moving on there didn’t seem much point. Everywhere would be the same. No matter where you were you had to survive, and he was surviving after a fashion. Playing the eternal game. Then he thought about it no more.
Summer nudged spring aside. The days grew unbearably hot. Eddie settled into a routine. His favourite place to beg beneath the meagre shade of an orange tree not far from the derelict house. A discount supermarket further up the narrow street drew a constant stream of shoppers. He learned to crouch on his haunches for hours; his head hung low, staring down at a freshly mended patch of road, an upturned palm held out. It rarely took long before he had enough change for his first drink of the day, as it slipped its moorings towards nightfall on a growing tide of alcoholic oblivion. From which, he would be washed up on the arid shore of restored memory next morning. No matter how late, never late enough, and always bang on time for the endless cycle to repeat itself. Even through the mists of alcohol he could see he was son of the father he hated.
There were times he couldn’t beg enough to drink, or to drink enough. Life became living hell. The nights were always the worst. For nights without drink he found impossible to sleep. Not a breath of wind to shift the weighted air it was as though the oxygen had been drained from the abandoned house. He would lie awake, gasping, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filling with visions of Rab and all the times they’d spent together. They’d been blood brothers; their brotherhood sealed in drops of boyish blood. And should he snatch a few moments sleep he would suffer the same nightmare of Rab’s stomach exploding in a burst of liquid crimson. He would wake with a start, shivering uncontrollably, his sweat turned icy cold. Blood brothers; their final moments of sanguine fraternity extinguished in a fountain of blood. Muffling his sobs into a snotty blanket he would agonise over the senselessness of the death. “Ye shouldnae ha’ loaded the fucking gun, I told ye not to.”
One of those days was hotter than ever. Desperate for a drink, he dragged himself from the derelict house. His head felt strapped by tightening bands of rusting steel. He hadn’t slept a wink. His mouth so dry not even a drop of spittle remained to moisten his cracked lips or clear the mucus cloying his throat. Each time he tried he might’ve swallowed tiny shards of shattered glass. Temples pounding, his thoughts stranded in a parched desert of self-loathing and paranoia, he longed for the sanctuary of sleep. Without drink, it continued to evade him. His ears throbbed so loud he became convinced others could hear. And when at last the throbbing ceased long enough for his eyelids to droop, they were as mottled blood screens, jiggling with myriad amoebae. Coalescing into glistening red cockroaches, they stretched to form tangled knots of writhing serpents glistening with slime. Slipping in and out amongst themselves till he saw a skull half flayed. A mush of pounded flesh and skin sprouting clumps of grizzled hair clinging to cracked and splintered bone. Gouged and bloodshot eyeballs dangling on sinewy threads: fat, juicy maggots oozing in and out of vacant sockets. The image began to spin uncontrollably. Eddie filled with the impulse to vomit. His stomach having long emptied, even of bile, each retch ripped at his intestines so painfully he begged to be able to spew them out. Forcing his eyelids apart he managed to stall the dizziness, as he struggled to stifle the increasingly agonising and futile convulsions. He desperately needed a drink. If for nothing else, to stop the curtain on insanity from rising again. Finally, as the convulsions gradually subsided, a drink was the only thing he could think of. So far, he hadn’t managed to beg a coin.
Even then, seeing a woman weighed down by shopping struggling on the other side of the supermarket door, he lurched across the road to open it for her. Setting her bags down, she reached for her purse. Might as well have opened the door herself for all the trouble it took. Seventy-five centimos. Enough for a drink.
At the nearest bar his hand could hardly steer a tumbler of wine the well-travelled path to his scarred lips for shaking. Once there, he knocked it back in one. Little point in attempting the same arduous journey twice. It wasn’t nearly enough. The desperate craving for drink unsated he returned to the street. But instead of crouching in the shade of the orange tree he stood by the supermarket exit. No longer holding out an upturned palm, he began opening the door as over-laden customers approached. Few of them spared him so much as a glance. Many avoided his gaze. Some nodded their thanks. Most gave nothing. But the odd one stopped to root in pocket or bag. Five centimos, sometimes ten or more. Sometimes even fifty. In less than half an hour he had more than enough for a drink.
As the weeks passed he became a regular fixture. Seeing others do it, more and more shoppers spared him a coin or two. Occasionally, pausing to light a cigarette, someone might pass the time of day. Eddie would smile and tip his head. For all his months in Spain he’d scarcely picked up a word of Spanish.
One old woman persisted. Each time she saw him she’d stop briefly to remark on something or other. He knew she must be asking how he was, or complaining about the heat. There were only so many things sane people said to strangers.
A silver-haired, timeless-looking woman, she could’ve been in her seventies. Or in her nineties for all he cared. Always dressed in threadbare, widowy black, she spoke down to him, like she might a doorman. Perhaps she thought he was a doorman. Then she would dip into her purse to tip him fifty centimos before moving on. Yet, by the look of her, she hardly had enough money for her own needs.
Came an afternoon, when setting down rather more shopping than usual, she began talking to him at length. He couldn’t understand a word. By her tone of voice she seemed to be giving him instructions of some sort. She kept jabbing a finger at her bags. Eventually he realised she expected him to pick them up and carry them for her. He couldn’t believe the arrogance. She wasn’t asking, she was telling. He wasn’t there to take orders from anyone. Besides, knowing his luck, she was bound to live miles away.
Maybe there was something in her bearing, or even her very nerve. He liked to think his belated response came out of a sense of pity. Whatever it was, as she strode off, he picked up her bags and followed.
All the way she kept a couple of paces ahead, neither looking back, nor deigning to utter a word. Eddie scurried along in her wake, almost as though on a leash.
She lived on the third floor of a careworn block of flats a few streets off. It could’ve been fashionable once, but had long since fallen into disrepair. The flights of stairs he struggled to climb, she seemed to skip. By the time they reached her floor sweat leaked from his brow as he fought for every breath. Showing him in she directed him to take the bags into the kitchen and put them on a table, before bustling him into a dimly-lit room smelling of dust and furniture polish. Making it quite clear she expected him to stand and wait without touching anything, she returned to the kitchen. He assumed she was getting him a drink of sorts and, against all odds, prayed it’d be an ice-cold beer.
With his hands clasped before him in the attitude of a schoolboy awaiting chastisement, he stood very still, staring down at the fraying selvage of a worn Ushak carpet. A few moments passed before he dared peer up into the gloom.
Shutters drawn, the dark and spacious interior reminded him of a small town museum. On a table in one corner a wind-up gramophone sprouted a large green horn. An ancient three-fold screen, plastered with browned magazine cuttings of faces he supposed were long-gone national celebrities, stood in another. Between them, a great stuffed bear eyed him suspiciously from the other end of the carpet, mouth gaping, paws outstretched. Parked beneath a window an old-fashioned treadle sewing machine waited patiently in vain to be put to use again. Everywhere he looked the walls were lined with framed photographs. Mostly black and white, some were sepia, and a few polychrome.
His notice was taken by a group of moustachioed horsemen. Five in all. Perched on finely-tooled saddles. Their boleros skilfully-tailored to reveal ruffles and cuffs of fancy shirts tucked into tight trousers, protected by leather chaps fringed with tassels. The chisel toes of ten cuban-heeled boots peeked through clumpy stirrups, while five pairs of shadowy eyes stared from beneath wide-brimmed fedoras and into the gloomy room. Moving along there was a party of hunters. Some half-leaning carelessly against shotgun barrels, others had stocks tucked beneath their arms. A sea of slain game fowl stretched out on the ground before them.
Another photo depicted the interior decades before, but filled with light. A long dining table stood set on the Ushak carpet, the centre of which, a candelabrum blazed. A gathering of smartly-dressed diners sat smiling towards the camera, some with wineglasses raised. They almost seemed to be reaching out, entreating Eddie to join their celebration. He was filled with an impossible yearning to step through the thin veil of time he felt separating them.
He remembered the huddle of family photographs standing between seaside souvenirs on a shelf above the TV at his grandmother’s flat in the Gorbals. The wartime picture of the father she never knew: Eddie’s great-grandfather. Clothed in ill-fitting khaki drill he posed self-consciously in front of a granite tenement. Nine weeks before he died on the beaches of Normandy, according to Nan. Not that she’d know for sure, she was hardly a bump in her mother’s belly. His boots had yet to touch French sand when he suffered a massive heart attack. Only twenty-two. Literally terrified to death. As Nan put it: “What the fuck di’ the Sassenach bastards want wi’ him? Look at the poor, wee bugger. Pissin’ his pants, he is. And tha’s with his wee war more than a coupla months away. Even a poncey English bastard dinna need a fuckin’ microscope to see tha’. Scrawny as a highland chicken, he worr.”
There was the picture of Eddie’s mother. Taken before she got hooked on smack. He was eleven-years-old when he found her on the kitchen floor in a pool of vomit. Her own. Choked to death on it. Her arm was still strapped with the plastic belt Rab had nicked from Woolworths to give Eddie for his birthday. With one sleeve of her jersey rolled up, a syringe dangled from a trickle of blood amongst a network of bruised and collapsed veins. Roadmap to a particularly Glaswegian sort of death. The thought of her made him feel like sobbing his heart out. In the photo, she shields her eyes against bright sunshine, as she stands so very alone on someone’s back lawn, smiling shyly. Next to it, the shot of his grandparent’s wedding snapped with Nan’s Kodak Brownie outside the registrar’s office. Neither of them smiling, the teenage couple gawk dejectedly from beneath an umbrella through teeming rain. As Nan never tired of pointing out, that was the day the marriage foundered. Finally, three photos of himself taken at various ages while at junior school. Out of all the pictures, only he grins broadly, the innocence of youth yet to be swiped from his face by the desertion of his father and the discovery of Mam’s lifeless body by the gas cooker.
Eddie hardly noticed the old woman’s return, marked by the slight rattle of the tray she rested on a sideboard. She’d brought him a glass of iced water and a plate of biscuits. Bidding him sit on an uncomfortably high-backed chair she drew up a small table and placed the tray beside him. Eddie nodded his appreciation through faint disappointment.
He was already wondering if she kept any money in the apartment, when she went over to a shiny bureau and pulled out a small drawer. Reaching inside she withdrew a five-euro note and held it out to him. Eddie stared at it for a moment. Only seconds before he’d considered robbing her. He filled with a sense of shame. Five euros was a lot for such a small task. More than enough to get completely drunk. And she just a poor old woman. Glancing down at his scruffy trainers he shook his head. He couldn’t possibly take it after thinking to rob her. But she insisted, fanning the note disdainfully in front of his nose. Though he didn’t understand her words he knew it had become a battle of pride. The language of hierarchy was the same on the streets of Glasgow. It all boiled down to saving face and knowing your place. Sooner or later, he’d have to cave in. Accepting the inevitable, he extended his hand, grubby fingers enclosing the money. Just in case he was wrong. Before she could change her mind. Without looking, he stuffed the bill into a pocket and murmured his thanks.
The old woman lowered herself onto a chair facing his, examining him in silence as he gulped his water and munched on a biscuit. Avoiding her eyes he stared at the photograph of the moustachioed riders.
From that day, she often got him to carry her shopping. Eddie seemed unable to prevent himself from bending to her will. Taking it up, he would follow in her footsteps, always a couple of paces behind. She never spoke a word more than necessary. With his lack of Spanish he knew better than to attempt at conversation. At the flat he’d put the bags on the kitchen table or wherever else she commanded, slipping into the role of subservience as effortlessly as had it been his birthright. Then she would make him stand and wait in the dismal room while she got him a glass of water and plate of biscuits. It always took her an age. He would while away the time peering into the shadows, the room holding a morbid fascination. Detail, most people crammed their lives with pointless detail.
A heavy brown sideboard, waxed to gleaming, stood against one wall. Its surface protected by linen runners and lace doilies, virtually every inch was crowded with ornaments. Occasionally, a stray sunbeam breached barriers of slatted blinds and fluttering lace, to light them as players on a stage. Porcelain figurines would spring to life and dance in golden rays sprinkled with dust motes. China cats and dogs would play, crystal ware would sparkle. The ornaments reminded him of the bric-a-brac shops Nan used to take him to as a lad. She got him to stuff similar items under his jacket while she distracted the shopkeeper’s attention. “Just a pound is all we need,” she’d whisper. “Enough for the gas and a wee drink, then we’ll call it day. He can afford it. Tight as arseholes that bugger.”
Nan got sectioned the day Mam OD’d. The woman next door told everybody it was the phone call pushed her over the edge. Coming out of the blue from some tight-arsed, old crab sitting behind a hospital desk. She was in such a rush, she forgot to mention Mam was dead, just telling Nan she to get word to the undertakers as soon as possible. They were running short of slabs at the hospital mortuary, it being a Saturday night and all, the woman next door said.
Locking herself in the bathroom. Nan washed down a couple of handfuls of Nembutal with half a bottle of Bell’s. A fireman took an axe to the door. Mam was the only child Nan ever had. The ambulance came just in time to save her life, for what it was worth. Nan didn’t want it saving. She swore at the neighbour, who raised the alarm, as she was being stretchered out. Fuckin’ do-gooder!
To all intents and purposes, Eddie lost his entire remaining family that night. From the day he walked out the door Dad no longer counted. For five hours he was left sitting on the kitchen floor next to where he’d found his mother’s still warm corpse. The police had forgotten him. It was well after midnight when the woman from social services came. She got him to pack a small bag before taking his hand to lead him out of the only home he’d ever known forever.
Oddest of all in the dismal room were the dozens of clocks. Armies of them. Dotted everywhere. Eddie had never seen so many. Alarm clocks, desk clocks, wall clocks, travelling clocks, and mantel clocks. In direct contrast to the tidiness of everything else, all were coated in dust. The only objects in the room appearing to suffer studied neglect.
Aside from their dustiness, the clocks had one other thing in common. Not one appeared to be working. Like clocks in a clockmender’s workshop, most were in varying stages of disrepair. There were clocks with bent hands, clocks with one hand, and clocks with no hands. Each face showing a different time or no time at all. Movements quieted, they stood on shelves and tables in ranks of muted obsolescence. Their very silence seemed to shout a soundless rebuke louder than all their tickings ever could have. Apart from one large bracket clock hanging on the wall above the gramophone. He could see its shining brass pendulum swinging behind a glazed door. Its low tick alone marked the slow passage of time till his refreshment arrived.
Despite the many curiosities, his eyes were always drawn to the photographs. Shots of matadors on tiptoe parrying bulls. Holding their breaths as horns grazed wasp-like waists. Flamenco dancers caught mid-swirl, white frills flouncing. There were pictures of carnivals, fiestas, theatres, bullrings, weddings and campfires. Taken inside and out. By day and by night. The blur of a guitarist’s fingers. Singers mouthing lyrics. Fiddlers wielding bows. All speaking of a former age bursting with life so at odds with the suspended animation of the stayed clocks. Here and there, softly-focused faces of artistic-looking people strained beyond the camera plate. Their exaggeratedly thought-laden expressions lending the impression they were actors, writers or painters.
One composition caught his attention time and time again. A family of tousle-headed gypsy children standing uncomfortably by some caravan steps. From out of tiny, grimy faces wide eyes stare into the camera lens. Displaying mixed feelings of foreboding and wonder, they could’ve been staring into a crystal ball. He’d seen similar grubby young faces hanging about Glasgow’s Barras nearly twenty years before. Young faces like Rab’s, young faces like his own.
“Ye shouldnae ha’ loaded the fucking gun, I told ye not to.”
He never did see Nan again. They wouldn’t even let him go to her funeral. Too upsetting, they said. Like her actually dying wasn’t.
Though the deceitful clock hands in the shadowy room are incapable of admitting it, time moves assiduously forward. And with time growing familiarity bestows a sense of ownership. Eddie comes to know the many strange objects as intimately as were they his own. Each stick of furniture, every ornament, the pictures on the walls, all begin to form part of his domain. Nothing changes. Nothing moves. Everything always in its assigned place. Unappointed and unaware, he gradually assumes the role of their curator.
Copyright 2012 Bryan Hemming
The second in a series of short stories intended to be read independently that eventually may build into a novel. Click here for Chapter three: Enough’s Enough. Click here for chapter one : Enough for a Lifetime
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It’s hard not to wonder about those who roam the streets. How they ended up there. What pushed them over the edge.
That’s exactly how the story began. I kept seeing a man standing by a supermarket door in Cádiz, holding it open each time a customer approached. I began wondering how he ended up there and three short stories were the result.