Wimbledon to Wood Green

Awarded first prize in Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2014.

Oh, hullo. Is that Stew? It’s Rog. Yeah, that’s right, Rog. Rog Molesworth. Bit of a shock, eh? This voice from the spirit world? No, honestly, it’s not a hoax call. Yeah, I know it’s been a long time, mate. Too long. And it’s all my fault, sorry. I meant to stay in touch, but well, you know how it is – you put things off, life takes a funny turn, you hit a bad patch. Oh look, I won’t bore you with the details. Anyway, I tried ringing Chaucer Road recently, but they said you’d moved years ago. Well, what did I expect? Then last week I ran into Chip Hines. He’d just knocked off. He’s working in Smithfield, apparently. Some building site in the area. Anyway, he fishes out his little black book. He says, ‘Stewart Penrose? That bugger? I saw him in the Greyhound, Walthamstow, just a few weeks ago.’ And he stabs a finger at an entry in the book. ‘As far as I know,’ he says, ‘that’s still it.’ So I write the number down on the back of my hand.

Yeah, I heard you got married. Chip told me. Nice girl, he said. Rose or Rosemary or something? Oh, Rosina, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I misheard. I guess I was a bit flustered at the time. It was meeting Chip so unexpectedly and he does tend to speak – well, you know, in that mangled rush of his. So your wife is ... ? Really? From Bologna? How nice. I love Bologna. Well, no, I’ve never been. It’s just that, well, it’s a lovely name and I think I may have seen – though I’m not quite sure about this – some photographs or paintings of it or something? At least ... Gosh, I’m wittering, aren’t I?

Well, nothing much, mate. I’ve not been too good, to be honest. Thing is, I lost my job at McBride’s shortly after you left. Yeah, that’s right, lost. No, it wasn’t redundancy or anything like that. To be frank, I don’t like talking about it. It was all down to – well, let’s call it an incident. You remember Gary Buck? Big, fat-nosed Gary Buck? Yeah, of course you do. Well, Gary got it into his head that I was always looking at him. Yeah, can you believe it? I mean, looking at him? Since when was it a crime to look at someone? In any case, it wasn’t true. I hardly ever looked at him. I was always trying not to look at him. Christ, if you wanted to look at someone, the last person you’d want to look at is Gary Buck. I mean, a sixteen-stone Neanderthal with greasy hair and spots?

Anyway, eventually he went to management and complained about me. Not only was I looking at him, I was also making passes, apparently, by peeking at his schlong in the urinals. Ha, what a joke! The truth is, I never went near the urinals when he was there – he always stood in the middle and with his bulk it was hard to squeeze in. Anyway, Tony Shaw interviewed me and played it by the book. He said sexual harassment was a difficult thing to establish, but he had to take the complaint seriously and issue a warning. Well, that was fair enough, but it wasn’t the end of the matter, of course. Word went round – you know what the place is like – and soon everyone was whispering and sniggering. Then Gary made a second complaint. And when I heard the news I went wild. We were queuing in the canteen at the time and he was just a few yards ahead of me. So I flew at him from behind, gripped him by the neck and punched his head repeatedly, like a maniac.

You’re right, Stew. It’s not like me. Not like me at all. We don’t know ourselves, do we? We’re an enigma mostly – we just learn a little more when we’re pushed. What’s that? Disaster? You can say that again. It was hell at the time and it’s been hell ever since. They told me not to apply for a reference. I couldn’t find work, didn’t even want work. For months I couldn’t even bring myself to look for it. The one relief was that he didn’t press charges, though don’t ask me why, otherwise I’d have a record.

Eventually? Oh sure, eventually. Bits and pieces, temping work, you know. But nothing much. And nothing at all at the moment. As I say, I’ve not been too good. I get a bit sunk at times. Well, totally sunk, to be frank. But fortunately I’ve got this very understanding doctor. He knows just what I need. Well, his signature, I guess, for the most part.

No, I left Albert Road years ago. I’ve had umpteen addresses since then. The thing is, I don’t seem to be able to settle. The last place I stayed, the landlord and his wife lived on the premises. They were fine, but their teenage son took a dislike to me. He may have thought I was always looking at him. Perhaps I was. He was certainly easier on the eye than Gary Buck. Anyway, we shared this kitchen and one day at breakfast he said, ‘I don’t know why I sit here every morning staring at your creepy mug.’ So I said, ‘That’s funny, I was just having the same thought. And yes, it’s a mystery. But relax, there’s a simple solution – I’ll eat alone in future.’ I have this knack, Stew, you may recall, of making people turn on me. What is this knack? You probably know, but you’ve never dropped a hint, have you? You’ve never let on.

That lot? Rarely see them. Bradford’s a long way off, thank God. I sometimes stay with Tom in Glossop, but that’s about the size of it where family’s concerned. Tom’s the best of the bunch, though we’ve nothing in common and his prissy little wife Lynn, with her ruched curtains, her china cabinet and doilies, drives me to nose bleeds. As for their kids, words fail me. They’re monsters, terrorists. They fight on the landing, tumble down the stairs and lie on the hall floor screaming. They slummock through the house looking bored and pinch the back of your neck as they pass. They trail in mud from the garden and never think to clear it up. Lynn runs around after them with a vacuum cleaner and a damp rag.

Remember Brighton? Of course I do. How could I forget? It was a great day, every precious minute of it. The ice cream on the pier, the paddle in the sea, the open-top bus ride. You in your loud shorts, me in my panama. The thronged cafés, the kids building castles, the gulls strutting the promenade, the red sundown. And yes, I do go back; I go back often. And always alone, of course. I tread the same route, revisit everything. And when the time comes to eat I always go there. You know, that place. And honestly, it’s a miracle. I mean, how many years since we ate there? And not a thing has changed. Even the waiter who served us – that little old guy with his hair parted in the middle? – he’s still there. In fact he knows me well now and always greets me with the warmest smile. He says, ‘Alone again, sir? Where’s your friend?’ And I say, ‘Ah, who knows?’ And he says, ‘Same table, sir?’ and I say, ‘Yes, please.’ And I order the same meal every time. Oh, sometimes he tries to lead me astray, to tempt me from the one true path. He says, ‘There’s a very nice special, sir,’ and points to something on the menu. But I always wave the suggestion aside and he nods politely with ‘Just as you wish, sir’. And when I come to pay I always tip him generously. I’m rather stingy in that department usually, but I make an exception for him. He’s essential to the visit, after all. A vital link, an institution. He’s kin. He’s family.

The old crowd? Nah, scarcely catch a whiff. Meeting Chip was just a chance thing. I guess after – well, you know what – and then losing my job I couldn’t face people and turned in on myself. Oh, sometimes I have a brainstorm and decide to join something. I took up weightlifting at the gym a while back, but almost immediately I sprained my back and was laid up for weeks. So I switched to Spanish at the language school, but eventually came to grief on the present subjunctive. Then I decided that I needed to be more creative and joined a life-drawing class. And all went well until I got rather too chummy with Dale, a member of the class who sometimes posed as a life model. And I’m not sure I know what happened there. I just know that we seemed to get on splendidly at first – meeting for coffee in town, going for a swim at the pool, taking in a film now and again. Then one day, right out of the blue, he said, ‘Look, I’d be very glad if you’d stop pestering me.’ Yeah, don’t ask, I haven’t a clue. I’ve reviewed all my actions, ransacked my memory, tried every which way to make out what he meant. Was it a case of looking again? Anyway, I went right back into myself, snapped on the telly and sat there in front of it yanking cans from a six-pack. And that’s where I’ve been ever since. That’s where I am now, in fact – in front of the telly. Oh sure, I know that – but then, drugs have their uses.

Actually, speaking of the old crowd, I did see Kenny and Ange a while back. Yeah, just walked smack into them in Portobello Road. And what a pair, eh? They never change, do they? They’re still in that top flat in Stepney and still not married. He punched me on the shoulder, she pinched my cheek. ‘Good to see ya,’ they said. So we reminisced and they asked after you. ‘How’s Stew?’ they said. ‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘I lost touch.’ ‘What?’ said Kenny, holding up a pair of crossed fingers. ‘And you were like that.’ ‘Yeah,’ said Ange. ‘So close, we thought you must have a crush on each other.’ And they laughed; and I laughed; and we all three laughed and laughed. And when I got home that day I flung myself on the sofa and buried my head in a cushion and lay there for hours and hours.

Hey, mate, sorry to offload. You don’t want to hear all this, do you? I guess I’m beginning to sound like Dorothy after the tenth shot of gin. No, not Garland – the other one, Parker ... Oh look, never mind ... Anyway, Stew, I just want to say one more thing before I go. It’s about that other incident. You know, that one. And what I want to say is this. I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry. It was embarrassing, it was maudlin, it was self-indulgent. I get like that, as you know, when I’ve had too many. Which may be what I’ve just had. I mean, I’ve got a little Scotch right here in my hand and it’s not the first. But then I needed a few before I could make this call. Anyway, I repeat, it was embarrassing and I shouldn’t have said it. But what I want you to know is this. You’re the only person I’ve ever said that to. I’ve never said that to anyone else. Ever. Nor, I think, will I ever say it to anyone again.

Stew, are you still there? ... Stew? ...

Ah well, whatever the case, I guess it’s time for me to go now. So, if you’re still listening, it only remains to say that I hope you and Rosina will be very happy. Very, very happy. Honestly, I mean that – I mean that from the bottom of my heart. And I won’t call again, I promise. Give my regards to Chip when you see him. He’ll have all the details in his little black book, but please, I beg you not to bother. It’s best if – Oh Christ, I’m wittering again. Something is starting to interfere with my speech patterns. Look, I’m going to ring off now and then drift into the bedroom and lie down. And after a while I’ll roll into a foetus and keep perfectly still till dawn. Then I’ll get up, move to the window, pull the cord and the blind will fly up ... and I’ll feed the cat, make myself breakfast, phone the surgery ... and then ...

Stew? ... Stew, for the last time, are you still there? ...