Rahul and Sweetie

Longlisted in WordswithJAM’s 2014 First Page competition

The only person to see Rahul and Sweetie that night was an elderly lady who passed away before she could communicate what she’d witnessed. She saw them coming across the field at the back of her house on what looked like one of the old boy Farrell’s horses. Rahul was sitting on the horse’s back in the normal way, although, dressed as he was in office shoes, he didn’t look much like a horseman. And how many horsemen do you see with faces and arms covered in brick dust? But Rahul’s appearance would have struck the old lady as a lot stranger if it weren’t for the sight of Sweetie, whose appearance really was odd. The child was riding the horse, too, but upside down. Which is to say she was straddling the animal’s belly in the same way that Rahul was straddling its back. It did not seem to be any effort to hold herself in place like this, nor did the horse appear at all distressed or burdened by the small, rucksack-wearing girl hanging from its underside. The horse jogged across the scrub of Farrell’s field to the short picket fence at the back of the old lady’s house. There, it stopped and snorted in the sneezy way that horses do. Neither of the visitors attempted to dismount from the horse’s back-stroke-belly. The rain had been coming down all evening, but it’d let up for now. Walk straight ahead out the old lady’s front door and you’d reach London; the wide field at the back faced north-east, into the vast skies of Essex. A little strip of blue light still gave out at the base of that field-side horizon, as though there really were a god and It had lifted the carpet to peep at the scene unfolding.

The elderly lady’s name was Esther Brim. She’d been fussing at her kitchen sink when, through the window, she saw an Indian gentleman appear out of the gloaming on horseback, along with what she thought for the life of her looked like a little white child hanging off the horse’s stomach. This was obviously a shocking and fearful sight for Mrs Brim because, quite apart from the upside-down child, she’d only ever known two Indian people, the Prasads, and they’d moved out to Colchester years ago. Her first thought was to run to her bedroom, lock the door and call her son, Duncan. But something held her there at the window. The initial feeling of terror passed almost immediately, giving way to something that, if you could have asked her, she would have described as more like a terrible combination of pity and resignation. The feeling grew the longer she looked at the pair on the horse. Even from her kitchen window, Mrs Brim could see nothing threatening in the man’s face. Like the upside-down child, he just sat there dumbly on the horse, like they weren’t sure what to do now they were here. The horse seemed happy enough grazing at the fence stumps.

Still wary, but drawn by this nameless sympathy for the mysterious man and his little upside-down passenger, Mrs Brim opened the kitchen door and stood on the step. In her nervousness she clutched the collars of her blouse together with one hand. The rain was picking up again now, enough to darken the man’s dust-whitened arms with teardrop-sized spots. The horse snorted and stepped about impatiently under the worsening weather. As its legs shifted, Mrs Brim caught a better look at the little girl. On one of her cheeks was a bruise as dark as a wallet. Her left eye was a fat purple plum, and her wrist on the opposite side was twisted outwards at a horrible angle.

“Oh,” said Mrs Brim, horrified. “Oh, my dear.”

The little girl’s face changed as she suddenly laughed. “Her dear!” The girl spoke in a scratchy American voice that sounded like it belonged to a woman thirty years older than she was. “Seems like I ain’t been nobody’s dear for a while, don’t it?” The child was six or seven years old at most. “Hello, lady? Fucking raining out here?”

At any other time, what she was witnessing would have made Mrs Brim slam the door and scream till somebody came. But tonight she saw herself stepping back from the doorstep and beckoning them in. Whatever fear she still felt, whatever confusion, it couldn’t dam the terrible pity that flooded her when the foul-mouthed, battered little girl finished speaking and, with childishness restored to her face, she reached out with the unbroken hand to pat the horse’s belly.

Mrs Brim edged away into the furthest corners of the kitchen as the visitors dismounted and approached (the girl slid off the horse like a drop of water). The man, stumbling and apparently only half-conscious, got as far as the stoop before slumping down there to rest, rain be damned. Between horse and house he’d produced a whiskey bottle from somewhere, and now he swigged from it as he slouched in his misery. The girl was livelier. She threw down her little rucksack and started hopping from foot to foot near the Aga, as if trying to warm herself. Her useless broken arm wiggled obscenely at the wrist as she danced about.

Without taking her eyes from them, Mrs Brim scooped up her big old mobile and rang Duncan twice, three times. No answer. She scratched at the scabby cap of an insect bite on her elbow. Then she reached for her diabetes tablets and swallowed a couple. It was a pointless thing to do, but somehow the act of taking medicine was reassuring. She’d been doing it a lot lately.

This injured child, this sorrowful man – they’d turned up here broken and lost, but apparently neither of them wanted anything from her. They seemed to perform one action at a time, with no ambition for its consequence. The man sat on the stoop, sighing and swigging. The girl hopped at the cooker. Events only progressed as Mrs Brim thought of them. The child’s broken wrist made horrible juicy clicking noises whenever she lifted it.

Mrs Brim bent down near to the girl, but not too near. “What are your names?” she said.

“Our names?” the girl replied, in the woman’s voice. “This feller here’s Rahul. He’s experiencing some severe psychological complications due to a wife in a collapsed building situation. As for me – Freddie said her name’s Sweetie. Least, that’s the name he heard them call her by in the mall. Sweetie. I am that, right?”

What did that mean? Whose voice was this? Was she possessed?

“Oh,” said Mrs Brim. “Oh.” She was old and spooked, but she was no fool. She thought she knew what was happening here. She knew what this meant. It was time.

“Are you here to – take me?” she said. “Am I – am I passing on?”

The girl doubled up and endured a minute of smoker’s cough. “What?” she said, when it was over.

“Am I dead?”

The girl turned her head and spat, but nothing came out. “Doubt it. You’re here talking to me, ain’t you?”

“Are you dead?”

“Fuck should I know? I just stepped out of a horse’s ass in a place I don’t know.”

None of this convinced Mrs Brim that this wasn’t the moment of her passing. She looked at the child. When she wasn’t speaking, she was beautiful. The awfulness of her condition – her torn dress, her crushed wrist, her bruised face. It was unbearable.

“Listen, my dear,” said Mrs Brim, not caring now who or what she was speaking to. “Did someone take you?”

The girl, or maybe it was her demon, shrugged off the question.

“Who hurt you? Talk to me. Who hurt you?”

The child lifted its tender face. In this light the bruise looked more green than black. “You asking who hurt me?” she said. “Or the kid?”

Mrs Brim left a message after the fourth call. She didn’t want to worry Duncan, she said, but she was feeling a bit funny so she wondered if he could call in. There was nothing to worry about, she said, but if he could call in, if he had time, that might be nice. Then, without actually laying a finger on the man, she gently encouraged Rahul to the sofa, where he sat and stared at his dust-sleeved hands. He’d do that for a while, then bring his hands to his face, choke back a single sob, pick up the bottle, take a glug, and then go back to staring at his hands. There was a pattern to it. If Mrs Brim’s attention hadn’t been so consumed by the child, she might have noticed that it was one of absolute repetition, with the sob-and-swig occurring exactly once per minute, as if his behaviour were running on a loop. Sweetie sat dangling her feet girlishly on an armchair. Mrs Brim had given her a cup of juice, which she sipped but which never appeared to deplete for it. When the girl looked over at Mrs Brim she smiled as politely as a child in church; whatever jaded adult spirit had occupied her earlier lay dormant now. Cars passed the house at a suburban rate. Each time one approached, Mrs Brim got up and went to the porch. All she knew to do now was to hope Duncan was on his way. But he never did pull in. Eventually Mrs Brim got tired of the hoping, and the scuttling to and from the porch, so she settled on the armchair next to Sweetie. The fattened eye above the horrible bruise had been forced closed, so at first Mrs Brim, on Sweetie’s far side, couldn’t tell when the other eye closed too as the little girl fell asleep. When she did understand that she’d drifted off, Mrs Brim moved to look at the child from the front. Were these ghosts? What else could they be? Was any of this actually happening? She’d seen dementia do its awful work on Tom, but where the disease had picked apart her late husband’s consciousness, age had frozen her own mind into clear and depthless body of water. She did not believe she would hallucinate. So who were these people? The questions refreshed and repeated themselves in her mind again and again, until fatigue grew too large and the words lost their meaning. Sweetie’s snoring sounded like somebody blowing through a straw. Mrs Brim slowly, slowly went down on her knees before the child. That the girl had been abused was obvious. But what brought the old lady finally to tears wasn’t the evidence of evil done to her but the innocence that remained just as plain in the face despite that evil. This girl, whoever she was – she was marked by hurt, but hurt couldn’t define her.

Mrs Brim stared at Sweetie’s happy sleeping face; behind her came the clockwork sniff and sob of Rahul’s repetitive mourning. There was nothing for the old woman to do now but wait for whatever would come next. Her knees ached, but it didn’t matter. She doubted Duncan would come tonight. He could have turned out better. That didn’t matter much either. Still on her knees, Mrs Brim closed her eyes, and the world told her its sad and endless name. She’d be found in exactly that position the next afternoon, alone, an hour after Duncan finally checked his messages. The back door was still open. Rain spattered the kitchen floor. Farrell’s horse bucking around in the field out back.

(C) Martin Cornwell 2013

Everything was possible so nobody did anything at all

First published by Notes From The Underground in December 2012

The party was in a disused office block off Mare Street, sound tracked by a legendary Euro-DJ that Simon had never heard of. There had been no invitations and no explicit promotion of the event beforehand. Dunc had found out about it by ear-mail at seven, by ten he had convinced Simon to come and meet him here out East, and by midnight the pair of them had found the venue via a rolling bulletin of in-eye directions sent to Dunc by an unnamed party organiser that they did not know and would never knowingly meet. It was one of those kinds of parties. For ten minutes they had banged on a blood-red iron door at the back of the apparently empty building while chopping their hands against the cold and holding their jackets over their heads to keep dry. Simon became sceptical and told Dunc he’d been sold a dummy, but Dunc was insistent. Simon toe-poked the door one more time, his hands like snowballs in his jean pockets. Another two suspended minutes. And then at last a low grinding sound, like an old, 20th-century elevator descending, and the iron door opening out to what was indeed a works shaft. From inside the car a tall Afro-Caribbean man in a long leather coat gestured at them to enter, which they did. Evening, gentlemen, the guy said as he sloughed closed the grate. He had a BRKLYN accent. This was for some reason not surprising. Actually, it seemed appropriate.

The lift shaft rumbled through the dead storeys, the booming techno growing louder and more visceral as they ascended. The trench coat guy sat on a bar stool by the lift’s door and stared into the middle distance. Dunc looked at the man’s eyes, which had turned a blurred milk white, iris and all. Dunc made an open/closing gesture with his palms to demonstrate to Simon that the guy was reading a book. Dunc and Simon stood side by side in the lift, trying not to grin. This was the coolest thing either of them had ever done. The lift stopped at the sixteenth floor. There, the guy pulled open the gated doors onto pulsing white/blue lights and an arterial beat that made their teeth hum. Simon and Dunc gave the lift guy a manly nod, then ran into the room and onto the dance floor like schoolboys towards a swimming pool.

An hour later they were leaning on a windowsill with a beer in each hand, sweating thinly, meditating on the room. The dance floor was a welt of moving bodies, with the taller punters’ bobbing heads occasionally visible above it. The bar was an equally crowded mess, as rude and baying as the Hard Stock Exchange, full of thirsty males shouldering forward, waving their tenners at the bar people, not waiting their turn. And between the two, streams of young people wandered around, all of them Simon and Dunc’s age or thereabouts, and all of them cool as glass in their carefully careworn clothes and big spectacles.

Dunc turned to Simon. “Seen any New Eton birds in here?” he shouted over the music.

Simon laughed. “Mate, you are not going to pull a New Etonian, not here or anywhere else.”

Dunc half-shrugged, half-smiled. “What can I say? I promised my nan I’d marry up, rest her soul.”

“You’d know if there were any about. They’d have fifteen admirers each hanging off them – even the blokes. Anyway this place is probably a bit beneath them.” Simon drained off one of his beers and jiggled the empty at Dunc. “Shallow waters up ahead, captain.”

“Ahoy hoy.”

As Dunc muscled into the bar queue, Simon sucked on his spare beer and looked out the office window at the skyline over LDN. From this height, the lights of streetlamps and nightclubs looked dinky and festive, and made the city look romantic in a way that it hadn’t felt for the longest time. In contrast, the river was visible as a black absence of light, whose contours were marked by the position of the buildings along its flanks, by the big old bridge at this end of town, and then, further West, by Parliament and the Millennium Eyes. From this high up, Simon could even see the longtrains pulsing in and out of Waterloo from towns across the country, in from Brighton, out to Cambridge, in from LDS. But even at this height he couldn’t escape the sight of rain. It had been coming down for weeks now, not just over LDN but across the whole nation. It had been over a month, for instance, since the sky had been clear enough for advertisers to project onto. And didn’t the public just know about that. Every day for a fortnight the news had been full of dire warnings from business leaders about market collapse if the weather didn’t break – or rather, if the government didn’t do something to make the weather break. Which of course was countered by lame ministerial retorts that the government had no resources to address the ongoing issue in terms of the meteorological slump until business jumpstarted the economy again by doing its bit in terms of advertising. Meanwhile the public didn’t believe a word of it. LDN was the supposed to be the wealthiest city on earth – it was easily the most expensive, anyway. It was the hub of global finance, the home of the googolplectically rich. The flashes of white that could be seen through even this night-time cloud cover weren’t sheet lightning but the after burn of super-jets shuttling super-businessmen between the US and China for meetings, squash games; and the UK got a lick of cream every single time one of those flights passed over her airspace. Bullshit was there no money for decent weather. It was a fucking conspiracy, Simon told Dunc. Keep the little people wet and miserable, hike up rents so they’re too busy working to plan a revolution, and the elites, especially Dunc’s lovely fantasy New Eton dolly, will be quids in.

“You’re spilling beer on my shoes,” said Dunc, righting the bottle in Simon’s hand. “However I would also add: shut up about the fucking weather and let’s see about some of these hipster girls.”

“Ah, come on,” said Simon. “They’re not going to be interested in us either. I’m already drunk, and you, you’ve got a goatee beard.”

“Well we don’t have to talk to them, do we?” said Dunc. To his right on the windowsill was a girl in a very oversized Misfits vest, with blond hair cut into an asymmetric bob, as per. She was undeniably pretty. She was facing slightly away from Dunc, talking to a group of three friends. Dunc got out his phone and held it near the girl’s hip pocket, where a square-looking bulge indicated she kept her own device. Dunc’s phone flashed a dull green as he pointed it at the pocket. A moment later the girl, clearly having felt the thing buzzing with new notifications, pulled it out and read the profile. As she did so, Simon watched Dunc smooth down the fangs of his beard with his fingers, jerk loose his shoulders, put on a friendly smile. The Misfits girl looked at Dunc for less than a second before clapping closed the phone. Then she stood away from the windowsill and drew into her friendship circle, her back to both Dunc and Simon.

“Oh hush now, she don’t deserve you anyway,” said Simon in a mock-Southern US accent.

Dunc spoke to the back of the girl’s head. “Oop. Sorry about that. Wrong number.” Then, turning to Simon: “Right you bastard, watch this.”

Dunc went back to the mass of humans by the bar and Beeped at the backsides and purses of every woman standing there. Then he edged on to the dance floor, Beeping as he went, incorporating the profile-dissemination into his disco moves. He Travolta’d an arm diagonally in 2/4 time, Beeping at people all the while. He spun around on the toes of one foot, miming machine gun fire as he Beeped. By now he was declaring his availability to anyone in range, male or female. Simon watched as all around the room, people made urgent by new media dived into their pockets or bags. (The men were particularly alert to what they thought was incoming amorous info, Simon noticed. A lot of them had been dancing with their phones in their hands the whole time – but to be fair, he admitted internally, so had he and Dunc. The thought disgusted him mildly.) Simon gestured to Dunc that he was going for a piss. Dunc, who was straightening an imaginary bow-tie and smiling aristocratically to the general space around himself, waiting for responses to his Beeps, ignored him.

The urinals were retro to say the least. While he went, Simon’ drunken mind spun, but soon landed on the thought that he was not having much of a time up here, that he never did have much of a time at any party, really. Within a second, though, it had flown again and lit down, apparently randomly, on the memory of Julia, and the realisation that he hadn’t heard from her lately. Breaking up had been the right thing for Simon and her to do – he knew that. The relationship had been going nowhere for a long time. For months it had been hanging around up there, circling on a current of air, just waiting for someone to bring it down and allow its tired but euphoric passengers finally to step down into their new lives. In Julia’s case, that new life involved moving to Scotland and becoming engaged to a media-trained oceanographer. For Simon it had meant staying in the same job and coming home to an empty flat. Most of the time he was fine, but sometimes, sometimes, after a four-pack and a Friday night comedy torrent, Simon would creep into a hole with the old ache and hurt for Julia‘s absence. Pitching to and fro at the urinal, trying to dissolve the little yellow pill in the pan, Simon could feel the dull weight of that low mood leaning into him tonight.

He’d finishing pissing, he didn’t know when. When he looked up, he saw his neighbour at the trough was looking down at his inactive member.

“Almost as handsome as yours, ain’t it?” said Simon, zipping up. On the way out he clapped the guy on the back, kinda hardish to be honest. “You have a good night.”

You had to hand it to Dunc, because his tactic had worked. When Simon saw him again, he was talking to a very young-looking girl back over at the window. Simon guessed she must have been foreign, maybe over from the Continent for the night or something, since she and Dunc were evidently conversing through their phones’ translators. Dunc would say something into his phone then hold it to the girl’s ear; she’d giggle or frown or smile or whatever at what he’d said, then speak her response into her own phone and hold it out for Dunc. Simon knew that’d be the last he saw of Dunc for at least an hour, and that when he did finally return, the girl would have brought over some acquaintance that he – Simon – would have to make effortful translated small talk with for who knew how long. And he just did not have that in him. So Simon just jotted a brief in-eye to Dunc to say he was leaving, and made for the grinding old lift. He took a last look at Dunc on the way out, and saw him give a thumbs-up to the space above his head, acknowledging the text for Simon‘s benefit, wherever he was. Dunc didn’t actually look up from the girl’s face.

*

You can do anything, so why not do everything? The Tube ad blinked on and off above Simon’s head like a light bulb. It wasn’t even clear what the ad was promoting, consisting as it did of just that one statement, nothing else. Simon stared at the ad without thinking anything about it as such. Then, for a mad minute before the train pulled into KGX, he thought about getting off there, just splurging his wages on a longtrain ticket and surprising Julia up in Scotland. He knew she would like the surprise, especially since she’d done the same thing to him last year soon after the oceanographer had proposed. Simon had been genuinely touched that he was the first person she’d wanted to tell. But when KGX did scroll into view he’d faltered, stayed sat down. The whole thing had suddenly just seemed like too much effort. And let’s face it, he thought, he could hop on a longtrain any time he fancied. He could do that kind of thing any time at all. There was no need to do it right now. Simon bungeed in and out sleep as the old train rumbled through the five stops between here and his home station. In the streets above him, the rain water folded into the drains in muscular coils. Meanwhile, the lives he could have lead and could still lead multiplied like fractals and invisibly shot and arced through everything, everywhere, all at once.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2012

Shell

First published by Paragraph Planet on 15 November 2013

I walk to the boat across a low-tide carpet of mud. It’s nothing much, just a fifteen-foot fibreglass shell. But it belongs to me. I sit in it till the water comes in. The tide lifts us, balances us, centres us. We’re more than a quarter of a mile from land. When what’s there is found I can still hear the screams, but water and distance calm us, keep us from what they mean.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2013

Big day

First published on 2 July 2013 by Paragraph Planet

He had the box with the product and the wires. I had the box with the product and the patent for the product, but not the wires. He wanted to talk about it over coffee. I said here’s fine. He said he had an offer I might find  interesting. I said I doubt that very much. The big man showed up calling okay which one of you fellers wants to make me happy.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2013

Fable

Later we discovered that it was her own animal that had killed her. She’d had to keep it in a cage in her flat since she moved to the city. She felt bad about that, but what choice did she have? She had to work. At night she brought it treats and sang it to sleep – I’d heard her at the mic on office nights out; she had a decent voice on her – but it wasn’t enough. She used to live by the sea. The animal, recalling evenings running along the beach, had rose in rage and pulled her to itself through the bars.

Rank

No, there’s no reason to go home, not when home is a town like Southend. I’d left in a blaze when I was twenty, and in the eight years since then I’d avoided going back at all unless forced by the big things – Christmasses, deaths. But I’d got in a state one night after my marriage ended and called Stokes, a mate from when we were kids. He suggested coming home for a few days, just get out of Brighton and clear my head. “A few days?” I said. “All right, one night,” he said, which, after a great deal of further bargaining, I agreed to. I had been drinking.

Stokes wasn’t at the station when I arrived. He’d never been very reliable. Part of me was even hoping he wouldn’t show up at all – that he’d forgotten I was coming, or was somewhere else altogether, hungover and phoneless – because I was nervous about seeing him again. We’d been pretty tight as teenagers, loping around town and trying to avoid the trouble we drew for being camp (me) or genuinely gay (Stokes) in such a dirty, violent little resort as Southend. I’d got out and shaped up, doing most of a degree in literature in Sussex before getting production work with a web magazine down the road in Brighton, where I still lived. Okay, it wasn’t exactly glory, but it had to be better than ending up here, like Stokes had. Whatever kept him here – a lack of ambition, or maybe he was just masochistic like that – it made me wonder whether there was too much open ground between us these days.

I stood and watched the May Day shoppers go by in the High Street. It was grim reading: hard-faced men with sunglasses on top of shaved heads, their hands balled into permanent fists; skinny young guys in polo shirts with astonishingly bad hairstyles; frowning, tired women. Even the pigeons looked depressed. One walked up and beaked at a discarded chip by my feet. Then, apparently finding it all too much effort, it just stopped and stared ahead of itself, puffing out its little chest as it did so in what I swear was a sigh. I was about to turn back to catch the next train out of there when someone whopped me on the shoulder from behind. It was Stokes. No backing out now then.

“Here he is,” he said, and leaned in for a hug. If I’d been anxious about our meeting, he obviously wasn‘t, and it helped me relax a little. “Jesus, Jim, you look healthy.”

“Thanks,” I said, and pulled back to take him in. He was as small and thin and ragged as ever. He was wearing the same leather jacket he had on the last time I‘d seen him. It was new then, but now it looked cracked and coarse and old. The dirty blonde roots showed in his dyed black hair, and his left eye was shockingly bloodshot. Apart from the eye, though, he hadn’t changed at all. He still looked like a divorced cat with a drink problem.

“You look awful,” I said.

“I’ve changed everything but my ways,” he said, grinning. “Right, think you can face a pint on the seafront without jumping in and swimming off?”

“We’ll see how we get on.”

“Good boy,” he said, and stepped off, pointing as he went to a dog turd the size of a croissant. “Come on, we’ll take the scenic route.”

 

The eye thing had happened about a year ago and was probably permanent, Stokes explained on the roadside patio of a dubious pub overlooking the beach. Some old boyfriend had gone nuts in a restaurant and attacked him with a chopstick. The thing had ended up embedded an inch into Stokes’ eye socket.

“The paramedics make you hold it in place like this,” he said, holding a palm flat over his face but with the middle fingers slightly parted, forming a cradle to secure the chopstick.

“It’s so you can’t move your eye. If you don’t keep it still, you’re going to lose it.” He was fascinated by this fact, as though the most remarkable part of the story was the science of it, not the awful injury he had experienced. I bet that’s exactly how he was in the ambulance at the time too. “And do you know what happens then?”

“What?”, I replied, wincing.

“You keep your fucking eye still, that’s what.”

Stokes always talked like that: in punchlines, and for the benefit of not just you, his official audience, but of anyone else in earshot too. You were never quite having a private conversation with him. We were standing next to a table of three other drinkers – a couple and their male friend. They’d missed most of Stokes’ anecdote, but the force of his delivery, and the story’s gruesome detail, had brought them into his orbit in time for the pay-off line. The two men shook their heads in amusement and laughed into their pints. The woman made a play of being appalled but was blatantly as entertained as the others. She asked Stokes to show her the eye. He happily bent towards her, widening the lids with his fingers to show her the eyeball and its streaked red fullness, like a halved grapefruit.

“Oh, that is rank,” she said, shuddering. “Who was it did that?”

“Just an old mate,” Stokes replied.

The man on my side of the table, the friend of the couple, put down his beer. “Bet you ain’t mates now though, right?”

“Nah, we still see each other sometimes. He’s got a nice big cock he lets me suck now and then, so I let him off.”

I was worried he’d do this. Stokes was an antagonistic little fucker. If there’s any place in Southend that’s unproblematic for an openly gay man, a pub on the seafront is not it – which was exactly why he’d said it, of course. As he delivered the line, the two men pulled their faces back as though confronted with a rotten smell. Stokes gave them a wink and lifted his drink, letting the sentiment hang in the air. And then the bastard went inside for a piss, leaving me standing there with the rough, offended threesome.

But they didn’t react. The woman busied herself with her phone; the two men started talking to each other, although with voices slightly lowered. I tried, but couldn’t make out what they were saying – probably planning to cut our heads off, I thought. Stokes returned, and that was that: we just walked away without consequence, two free men.

“Thanks for leaving me with those animals,” I said as we walked into the next pub.

“Get us a bag of crisps while you’re at the bar,” Stokes said.

“I’m serious. You know what people round here are like.”

“Yeah, stupid and prejudiced. Not like you, thank God,” he said, in a tone that flew as cleanly as a bowling ball between sincerity and sarcasm. “Get the crinkly ones.”

It was a surprisingly hot day, given the time of year, and it took only a couple of pints to render us silent and dumb in the unseasonable warmth. But the silence between us was comfortable, like it had been when we were younger and sat in parks working hard to smoke ourselves into addiction. Stokes turned a cardboard beer mat over and over in his fingers without boredom. I watched the sea. When a cloud hid the sun, the water went dull; when the sun shone the sea was a floor of lights. I had to remind myself I was separated from my wife and in a place I despised.

After a while I spoke. “You know, the hardest thing is you can stop them whenever you want – your thoughts. It’s that easy. You just choose to stop them. If I tell someone today that I’m happy, they don’t know that I’ve ever felt differently.” I had no idea what I was saying.

“Sarah’s a lovely girl, but you two got married too young,” said Stokes, which may or may not have been relevant.

I went into the bar and got us two more beers. When I came back out, people were standing around the bench we’d been sitting at. I pushed through to see Stokes lying on the pavement with his shirt half pulled off, his face a bloody mask.

I dropped the drinks and went to him. He looked at me, but the eyes behind the mask were uncomprehending, mindless, like those of a deer or a very elderly person. I lifted his head and told him his name many times. Slowly the mind returned to the eyes, and eventually he was able to let me help him sit up. For all the blood, he didn’t seem badly hurt.

“Was it those blokes from before?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, moving his jaw around in his hand, testing it for damage. “Someone else.”

“Someone else.”

“Yep, that’s the feller.”

I turned to the other drinkers. “What happened?” I said. But none of them gave anything like a reply. They’d already lost interest and gone back to their separate groups. They were more of the same people I’d seen and avoided all my life – sunburned, topless Essex skinheads, all of them smooth and red as crabs, and built for aggro. They’d seen all this before. It could have been one of them. It was one of them. It was all of them, always.

“Did you say something to somebody?” I said to Stokes, who had now wiped most of the blood away from his cheek and was, incredibly, sipping his new pint and smoking a roll-up, savouring them, like a man who‘d just finished a tedious but necessary piece of work.

“What’s the time?” he replied.

“That’s what you said?”

“No, I’m asking you. What’s the time?”

“Five forty. What happened, Stokes?”

“Drink up then, it’s two for one at the Minerva from six.”

We looked at each other. Suddenly I felt we’d already lived for a very long time. We weren’t yet thirty, but were we still young? Could we still say that?

We drank up and went to the Minerva.

 

(c) Martin Cornwell 2011

Mr Funny Guy

Mr Funny Guy cracked wise and got the playground bullies off his back. Mr Funny Guy got a gig. Mr Funny Guy got a lucky break. Mr Funny Guy got his own show. Mr Funny Guy got rich. Mr Funny Guy got the girls. Mr Funny Guy got lazy. Mr Funny Guy got in debt. Mr Funny Guy got caught in a bad situation. Mr Funny Guy got got.

 

(c) Martin Cornwell 2013