Posts Tagged ‘death’

The Revolving Door

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“Step into the light, yes, that’s it, nearly there, let me get a good look at you… Welcome…”

The voice was familiar and reassuring, the very sound of love itself. She entered the hospital room as quiet and soft as a silk scarf sliding down a banister, but a slap on the back released the fluid she’d been breathing those past 9 months and begat a scream of creation, a mix of joy at being alive and horror at being born.

In a nearby hospital cubicle her great-grandfather heard the same voice, still familiar despite the passage of 93 years:

“Step into the light, yes that’s it, nearly there, let me get a good look at you… Welcome home…”

This time there was no screaming accompanying the pat on the back, only a fulfilled and grateful exhale of breath so soft that even the nurses rushing round him couldn’t hear it.

“One in ; one out.”

Outside in the afternoon sun people went about their business as usual, car horns honked, dogs barked, and the breeze blew through the revolving door carrying on it secret messages.

Our buzzing planet, so crammed full of unstoppable life continued to revolve uninterrupted in the infinite and empty silence of dead space ; much the same as the Entrance & Exit door of the hospital which my waiting family now rushed through…

Waiting for Gordo

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Short Stories
Tags: , , , , ,

Waiting for Gordo

 

A frozen bench on Hampstead Heath,  London.  19:45.  January 30th  2011. 

 

‘So what’s your secret to long life then?’ Alfred took the weight off his feet and collapsed onto the bench.

‘Always holding on to an extreme sense of bitterness’, replied George, ripping at the envelope in such a ferocious manner that he tore clean through the letter inside.

Sure enough it was another bill and this one had torn it, literally. A bailiff bill for over three thousand pounds arising from an original non-payment of two hundred, where was the justice? George stabbed the bill through its company logo and tossed it onto the pile along with a whole sack-full of final demand letters, all with an angry red border. He flicked the match with his thumbnail and checked to make sure it had caught before throwing it onto the pile of correspondence.

‘We’re both in our eighties yet they talk to us like we’re bloody stupid kids. I’m poor, not imbecilic. Do you know what I mean, Alfred?’

The bills ignited with a satisfying whoosh.

Alfred nodded his head sagely: ‘Bastards’.

Moving to the edge of the park bench Alfred leaned to the side, as much as his arthritic hip would allow, and picked up his hipflask offering it to his friend in the glow of their impromptu bonfire.

George responded, producing a small tartan thermos and unscrewing the dirtied yellow cap.

 ‘Well that hasn’t help over the years, has it? How about we have our last supper without the wine, eh?’

Steam rose from the flask. ‘Bovril’, he said proudly.

‘Why in the hell have you brought that?’

‘To help us keep warm, Alf.‘

‘We’re not trying to keep warm, we’re trying to freeze to death.’

‘I know, but there’s no sense in making it any harder than it need be, hey?’

Alfred shuffled back along the bench, facing away from his friend before taking a long and self-conscious hit from his hipflask. The last of the evening’s light had now disappeared into the trees and a silence had fallen, made almost supernatural by the snow.

‘Do you think he’ll bring it, Alf?

‘Of course he will. Gordo’s a lazy sod, but he’s also a greedy one, the deal is too good for him to pass up.’

‘What do you think it’ll be like…. the stuff?’

‘Like a stiff rum I’m guessing. Not really sure’.

From out of the silence below them the unmistakable crunch of boots on snow could be heard getting closer. Even with their failing eyesight the obese shape of Gordo was unmistakable waddling and panting towards them, his voice rasping and grabbing.

‘You better have the fucking money that’s all I can say. You’re killing me up here…’

George shook his thermos as a peace offering at the approaching fat man.

Gordo ignored him, ‘I don’t want your fucking tea, I want my money.’

George shrugged his shoulders and dug around in his overcoat pocket, pulling out a set of house keys. He held them straight up towards Gordo in the sign of a V and shoved.

‘Always a pleasure, Gordo. Don’t worry, a deals a deal with us, matey. Now look. This one is for the front door, and this the Chubb. Everything in there is yours…not that there is much, that’s why we’re here’.

Gordo stumbled up to the bench to get a better look at the keys.

‘Fine.’ He snatched the keys from the old man like a fox sneaking up on a chicken, sensing a trap.

‘Here’s your smack then. Although god knows what an old timer like you wants to be getting into that shit for at your age, sitting up here all alone’.

George inspected the paper wrap, poking around in the brown crystalline powder with his gloved finger.

‘I’m sure she looks fine, Gordo. Now toodle-pip, old son.’

Gordo didn’t understand.

‘Fuck off, pal!’

This he understood and grumbled off into the darkness to retrace his leaden steps. George and Alfred watched him go, relishing the contemplative silence once more. It felt good to be in control again after all these years, finally calling the shots if only for one last evening. It was unspoken between them but they could both feel it. Alfred articulated the sentiment first.

‘I won’t be missing him that’s for sure.’

‘Ah, fuck Gordo. What will you miss though? I mean really?’

Alfred took on that look he always got when he was lost in a pleasant reverie.

‘I guess it’s only right to talk about such things now. Ok then… I think I shall miss a sunrise in the country. The sound of birds outside my window on a spring morning, the white curtains billowing the smell of cut grass into the room, and knowing that I’ve got the day off. Or no, maybe I’d like to hear waves crash onto rocks again like where I grew up in Dungeness, a beautiful bleakness. A simple life. You?’

‘Simple pleasures my old son. I’d like to hear a woman moan in ecstasy again. It’s been a while. Last time I tried something like that I think she said: ‘ If you try to put that brittle ol’ twig anywhere near me I’m going to snap it off!’

Alfred cackled so much that he brought on a coughing fit, his bronchitis kicking against the cold.

‘The more you get, the more you got, the more you want some more,’ he spluttered.

‘Uh-huh. Isn’t that the truth of it? Applies to anything really. Money and trim especially, and we’ve certainly learned to get by without having much of either, hey?’  George unwrapped the package again. studying the brown granules.

‘It looks like gravy…’

‘Gravy for the brain?’

‘…and would you believe it, he’s wrapped it up in a picture of a spitfire!’

‘No, you’re reading too much into it again, as always. He’s just ripped a page out of a magazine. It’s coincidence.’

George conceded the point. ‘It’s turned. I’m getting a bit nippy now. What say we cook her up and see what all the fuss is about?’

Alfred watched his friend fiddle with the package. George’s mind drifted back to when they’d first hatched the idea of coming up here to end it all, rather than live a half life of only two bars on the heater but many more to their prison cell, having to beg for charity at every turn and always unable to pay the latest fuel bill. Was it really to be life at any price? His father had died proud and strong as an ox a week after his seventieth birthday having had four glorious years of retirement spending the money he’d saved, before exploding off the planet with a drink in one hand and a woman in the other. This was the correct three score and ten, but to endure a life rattling with pills, pain and frozen peas each night, what was the point? Was it some competition he was subconsciously taking part in to see who can be the oldest most miserable bastard in town? Who had decided that quantity must always beat quality? Why shouldn’t he be able to end it without guilt when he’d ceased having fun?

Deciding to freeze up here was the last choice they were free to make without asking someone else’s permission. Alfred’s voice had sounded so authoritative to him when he’d broached the idea last week, like it used to before he’d been humbled and broken by poverty.

Alfred snapped George back to reality. ‘Have you ever been really cold? I mean really, really cold? It’s not a bad way to go all things considered, numb and then pleasurably sleepy.’

‘Like this smack they always talk about’, responded George.

A large crow pecked at a copy of the Watchtower in front of them, trying to get enough paper to soften its nest.

‘Only thing it’s good for. Jehovah’s Witness, blow it!’ Alfred pointed at the crumpled magazine.

‘I didn’t witness anything! You don’t believe in afters then?’

‘Well we’re sure as hell going to be finding out in about an hour. Do you fancy a wager on it?’

‘What’ll you give me?’ George became exited.

‘First of all you’ve got to say whether you’re for or against’.

‘For’

Alfred slapped the bench with his gloved hand. ‘OK, I’m against, I’ll lay odds of ten to one that there isn’t an afterlife, or any of this enlightenment bollocks neither.’

‘Done. I guess it’s like changing a car tyre though. If you got the right tools to fix it then it ain’t a problem, but without them you may as well just shout at it’.

‘And you’re saying I wasn’t born with the right tools to find enlightenment, and you was?’

‘Bah, I’m not saying anything, Alf. Me teeth are chattering too much. I think in the moment we die we’re shown all the good things we did and all the differences we made in our life. Like a picture show, a final treat before the curtain draws. It’s a short show for some I’m sure.’

‘… a very short show.’

‘Anyways.  I don’t want to spend my last hour on earth arguing with you.’

‘No, I guess not. But you will be spending it with me. Who’d a thought it? All those years ago, things sure didn’t turn out as we planned, did they?’

George leant back on the wooden bench and stretched his arms, ‘So this is our death bed, death bench. It isn’t true what they say you know: I wish I had spent more time in the office, at least it was bloody heated.’

‘We’ve had a good run though. No complaints.’

’You’re kidding aren’t you? I’ve got a few complaints I’ll be raising  with the chief, thank you very much.  I never reached my potential, never really fulfilled what I could’ve, no, should’ve been.’

Alfred took another hit from his hipflask, wiping his lips before the cold could get to the residual liquid. ‘I’ve no complaints. You get out what you put in don’t you? I’ve got a few regrets though…’

‘Women, you’re talking about women aren’t you?

‘Ha. Sure I am… you remember Claire Riddick?’’

‘Which?’

‘Used to work in the butchers. Always stank of blood, but looked like a princess. I got her to go back to my digs once. But didn’t have the guts to make a move.’  Alfred’s eyes narrowed and he whispered conspiratorially, ‘I’ve never told anyone this… but I met her years later at a train station. She was all dolled up to go to some party. I diverted her for a drink and after about five gins she told me that if I had’ve made a move then she would’ve gone with it. Gutted.’

Alfred became self-conscious. ‘I’ve said too much, feel foolish now.’

‘We’re dying, Alf me lad, bigger fish to fry.’

‘Even so, tell me something for the balance of things’.

George took a deep breath and leaned forward on the bench, resting his hands on his chin,  ‘It’s the strangest thing for me to worry about after all these years, but I still do. My mother used to cook a stew each Sunday for the vagrants down at Marble Arch, you remember?’

Alfred seemed to nod but it might’ve just been the cold shaking him.

‘There was one Sunday morning when I’d come home from a drinking session, starved I was. And I ate all the juicy meat out of that pot. All of it and it was a huge pot too, mind. I fished around in that cornflour gloop with me bare hands till I’d got all of it, every last morsel.’

Alfred’s shiver turned into a belly laugh that seemed to warm the whole frosted bench.

‘Christ, I bet those tramps were cursing you that day!’

George shook his head, ‘I’m serious though, I mean those people had nothing. It was the one thing to get them through their week’s drinking, and I ate it out of pure greed.’

‘Jesus, you really are upset by it aren’t you? It happened over sixty years ago and you still can’t let it go?’

George flicked the cup of his thermos flask tetchily.

‘No, I can’t as it happens’.

Alfred gave a little play-punch to his friend’s shoulder. ‘Well, just view these last ten years as karma then. You haven’t even had the money to put a decent bit of meat in your belly since the Nineties, so think of that stew as your getting a head start on the lean years ahead, son.’

The last of the natural light had long since faded and below them the orange glow of an illegal bonfire was becoming visible. Shadowy shapes danced in the firelight and the sound of lager cans being opened carried up to them, mixing with the coquettish giggle of drunk girls. The noise dislodged a murder of crows sending them skyward, only slightly darker than the growing night. George watched them fly, he was reminded of when he and Alfred had been kids too, stealing road signs and sledging down this very same hill. They’d had such hope and energy then. Now that was all done with and he mused that although they might still get one last ride on a sledge it would only be bringing their frozen bodies down to the waiting ambulance.

George sighed, the world had got so complicated one day when they hadn’t been looking. Since that moment they’d just been passengers on the back of life, gradually getting more isolated and fearful. It had been a slow process of letting go control of the world around them and reverting back to some infantile state, dependent on others for everything. He wanted to share these thoughts with Alfred but couldn’t quite find the right words, he didn’t want his friend to think him foolish. Perhaps some things weren’t for sharing anyhow, he reasoned.

Alfred kicked up the settled snow with the toe of his scuffed boot.

‘I’ll tell you something. I remember when the snow was red with blood. You know what I’m talking about. The war. Poland forty-five, liberating the Concentration Camps. My battalion was first into Dachau, a particularly nasty one. I’ve never really talked about it. The dying prisoners, starved clean out of their minds, lurching towards us arms outstretched begging, no more than living zombies, and I was given orders to shoot them because we couldn’t save them. We didn’t have the doctors or even the food. I guess in a strange way it was a sort of compassion…’

His voice cracked and he quickly turned away from his friend to hide swollen tear ducts. He pointed down in the direction of the bonfire, ‘What was it all for, eh? What did we really fight to save anyway? Kids play war games for fun now and spit at me in the street. If they only knew what we’d sacrificed for them, what so many people lost so that they, they, can break into my house and shit everywhere. If they only knew, they’d switch off their machines and run into the street exultant to the sun, while it still shines for them.’

As if on cue a soundsystem started up from around the bonfire, spraying hot noise into the cold silence.  George threw his thermos flask in their general direction.

‘Bloody kids. Ingratitude is the worst of all. Even so, I envy them with it all ahead and to play for. Remember how it felt to be in heat? Everything’s sure frozen up now,’

‘It has been for years, my cock has been nothing but a sewerage outlet for as long as I can remember. Did joy and life ever shoot down it?’ Alfred looked for signs of life in the lap of his bunched-up overcoat.

Geroge licked the last traces of Bovril from his fingers. ‘If I’m honest I think I was always a bit of a wimp. Not about running into burning buildings or knocking a bloke out if he needed it, but with my feelings, you know. I was always too scared of getting hurt or being made to look foolish with the ladies. But hell I’d like to have one more day though, you know, in my prime. A day to run on the shoreline again with Katie, maybe finishing up at a fish restaurant on the beach at Brighton, watching the sunset and thinking about the endless years to come. Thinking about our future.’

Alfred nodded and looked up at the stars, which tonight seemed unusually bright and clear.

‘The future, I remember that. That’s one thing that surely ran out on us, I can’t recall the exact day it packed its bags and left but all of a sudden I wasn’t looking forward to a better time, I was only able to look back.’

George poked Alfred’s pocket.

‘Perhaps I will have that drink now. Life doesn’t seem so bad when you look back at it seeing the whole finished picture. I mean January 1965 was probably the best month of my life, and January 2004 was probably the worst, but it all blends into one now, doesn’t it. Nothing lasted forever, good or bad.’

Alfred passed his friend the whiskey, ‘It certainly didn’t’. He began looking through his empty leather wallet, cracked and worn through years of use.

‘Totally empty you see. Not a bean. Look at someone like Rembrandt or Van Gogh who died in poverty like us. Do you think if they’d realised that one day their paintings would sell for more money than their whole town was worth it would’ve brought them some comfort at the end?’

‘No, I think it’s just cruel irony that they died penniless depressed and hungry, like us. Unable to take anymore shit, just like us. At least we’re taking a stand like soldiers and going out fighting’.

George took another hit from the whiskey, sucking up the harsh sting. ‘Maybe things would’ve been different without the booze?’

‘Well we’d have got more things done. So it would definitely have been different… but better? Who in the hell knows?’

Without warning, the hipflask fell from George’s hand and he began to shake uncontrollably.

‘Alfred… I know I’m an old fool, but I’m scared, Alfred.  Hold…my…hand…’

Alfred reached across to his friend. He took the old and scarred hand in his own and squeezed it tightly. George could feel Alfred’s fingers tighten round his knuckles. It was unspoken.

‘No second thoughts, George? This is the point of no return for you.’

‘You too, Alf…’

‘No George, not me…. I went a long time ago, you do know that deep down, don’t you?’

George looked across at the empty bench next to him and hung his head.

‘Yes, I know really. I know you’ve gone Alf, I spoke at your bloody funeral didn’t I? I couldn’t have sat here without you, that’s all. I needed to pretend a little while longer, I just didn’t want to do this all alone, see?

George screwed his eyes up tight and lent his head on Alfred’s imaginary shoulder. He knew his friend wasn’t really there, but now with the stupefying cold it seemed to be getting easier to believe.

‘Of course, I understand old friend’, came Alfred’s soft reply, ‘don’t worry, not long now…’

George opened his eyes to take a last lingering look over what had been his allotted time.

‘Did I make a difference Alfred?’

‘I honestly don’t know George… but you made a difference to me.’

But George was now silent, his eyes glazed staring off into the middle-distance. His voice when it finally came was faint and dreamy, almost childlike.

‘Nighty Night then. See you in the morning old chum…’

No-one, no passing dog-walker or evening  jogger was there to see George falling slowly across the empty bench. as crumpled and out of time as an old one pound note.

 

 

 

 

© Michael G. Zealey