A SHORT STORY…
This is a story I wrote for an MA assignment. Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt spot many forms of transport contained in the words – see how many you can find… 🙂
‘What d’ya think, Spider?’
I almost asked for a fag, before remembering I’d packed in, then limped round the motor giving it the once over, keeping my good eye trained on Laurie. ‘Mud – nearside rear wheelarch,’ I pointed a gloved finger. Apart from that, the vehicle, a black two year old sedan with a 3.5 V6 supercharged petrol engine was clean, classy and perfect for springing our Mikey. My hip was hurting like hell, so I dropped a couple of black and white painkillers. ‘Mo’s sorted it?’
Laurie nodded, polishing.
Mo fixes autos under the railway arches. I’m like family. This is one of his specials, a mongrel, put together from write-offs. After welding, filling and spraying, it looks almost as good as new. Of course, appearances can be deceptive.
‘She’s beautiful,’ said Laurie, like the limo was his girlfriend. ‘One last date then wumpf!’ he laughed and mimed flicking a lighter. ‘Torch the mad cow!’
‘And the carbon footprint?’ I asked.
‘Always take my shoes off to drive,’ he said, ‘so it ain’t me boss.’
Laurie wasn’t much to look at and could hide in an empty lift. Nobody’d ever seen him eat. Rumour was, he lived, loved and serviced pushbikes on lager alone: a lifestyle choice which contributed to his dismal appearance. It’s fair to say the fashion train had never stopped at his station since I’d known him. He’d worn the same clothes for decades; brown boots, check shirt, jeans and tank-top. Other than dirty shoulder-length hair, he was a bang to rights skinhead. But you could trust Laurie when it kicked off.
I caught the time on the car stereo; Dawson was due. Folk said he was loco because back home his mama bashed his head with a broom to drive out the devil. Knowing her, you’d well believe it. She’d spent her life confronting evil, mostly in her husband who was proper bad; an enforcer for some northern gang, but well dead now. Word is, he beat his son until he was big enough to fight back. Now Dawson’s not the kind of person you want around most of the time – it’s bad for business – but we needed his help to release our Mikey. I wouldn’t be begging him mind; it was strictly cash in big black hand.
Painkillers kick in quickly on an empty stomach. I found myself leaning against last year’s tyre manufacturers’ calendar, watching Laurie slide from the driver’s seat, squint through the peep-hole, then whisper, ‘Fuck, an eclipse!’
Dawson appeared in wrap-around sunglasses, black trilby and a raincoat: he could have been a spook protecting the president. I’d forgotten how big he was in the flesh. Y’know that local comedian – the one on the mint advert – imagine him, swinging a cricket bat about his head; that’s how I remembered Crazy Nate – en route to battle the next estate. Luckily for the lads in our neighbourhood, Nathaniel Clarence (best not mention the middle name to his face) Dawson’s family moved into our street. He’d been our Mikey’s best mucker, and ran in the same gang. Happily, Nathaniel wasn’t carrying a weapon that day, but humping the mother of all sacks; stuffed full with helmets, vests and overalls, cones, lamps, fluorescent tape and cables. His weightlifter’s poise displayed when he squatted and gently lowered his burden to the concrete. Ho-ho-ho.
I waited while Dawson wiped each brow with a great white handkerchief, then slapped my doll-like palm in his big black paw. Still holding my hand, he looked me up and down and said, ‘What’s the plan, Prof?’ He nodded towards the street. ‘Scooterboys are ready.’
I’m a dealer, shifting stuff to earn a few bob; evading the law by fronting a bike shop known as Webb’s Cycles, but Nate still called me Professor. He’d landed in our manor from heaven and we were close at school. I did his homework in exchange for cassettes of classic reggae tunes. He’d have me say, ‘Reading, writing and arithmetic’, then double up at my petite voice. I took him back to our house once: Mum said, ‘What do they eat?’ ‘You ask,’ I said, ‘I’ll translate.’ After hysterical laughter, we had baked beans.
Fifteen years passed quickly. We’d meet at gigs and I’d hear of him flattening somebody or trashing a pub. I fenced things for him, but we never worked together. Lately, people said he’d found religion, but I didn’t buy that; he looked more criminal than clerical to me – Die Hard not Jihad. Facts were, Dawson was the best man for this job, and wanted in the moment he’d known the score.
I sent Laurie for chocolates and espresso, leaving us to reminisce about the Ringroad Boys and old friends.
‘My sister Josephine still harbours feelings for you,’ he said.
Shit, I’d forgotten Jo – as beautiful as Nathaniel was big, and doubly dangerous. Call me over cautious, but becoming romantically involved with any of Nate’s relatives never seemed a sensible option. Luckily Laurie returned with drinks and we began to discuss the caper. Gulping coffee, I necked two of the anti-depressants I’d started on after mum died.
‘Our Mikey’s appeal’s been knocked back,’ I said to Nathaniel. ‘He can’t handle more bird so we’ve hatched a plan. He’s put his hand up to a few robberies and the law’s swallowed his story. Mickey’s being delivered to crown court for sentencing this morning: we’ll intercept the truck and lighten their load.’
‘Every little helps,’ agreed Nate. ‘What route they taking to court?’
Laurie produced the map, before putting a cigarette between his thin lips. Out of habit, my hand reached for the packet but I somehow stopped myself and said, ‘Give us what you’ve got, Laurie.’
Dawson suddenly pipes up, ‘Yes sir, step forward Mister Laurie Ashanti – sing for your supper.’ Nate considered Laurie a dead ringer for reggae star Manno Ashanti. Apart from ginger hair and vastly differing body types they could have been brothers. But Laurie stiffened, hating having the piss taken out of him.
‘Nate’s only joking,’ I said and playfully punched Dawson’s shoulder while raising my eyebrows as if to say, Come on boys! However, neither man smiled and I began to worry whether they could work together. ‘Remember guys,’ I said. ‘Today’s about Mikey – I’m all for a bit of sledging, but this is serious. He’s already served three, and looking at another five before being considered for parole. Losing the appeal’s crushed him – threatened he’d top himself last visit.’
‘Been following the vans for over a fortnight,’ Laurie muttered, eyes on the map. ‘They switch between two routes. Expected ‘em to be smarter, but it’s all about this,’ he said, rubbing his fingers together. ‘Since privatisation, they take the shortest route.’
‘Figures,’ grunted Nathaniel nodding. ‘We’ll pick a prime place to set up – gotta be spot-on for the sharp exit as well.’
While they discussed locations, I studied the samples my contact had dropped off the night before, expecting feedback from me within the week. These designer substances were so new they didn’t have street names: the big bosses apparently hoping the punters would come up with something catchy. ‘I mean,’ he’d said, counting out five innocent-looking white tablets with small symbols imprinted on one side, ‘who calls drugs by their chemical formulas?’
The caffeine had sharpened me up and I couldn’t feel my hip. Nate and Laurie were still arguing about tram termini and feeder lanes as I placed the tablets on my gloved palm. I saw an eye on the first and guessed a light bulb on the next. The third was easy; an arrow, but pointing where? The fourth held a hand and the last featured an airliner. I was relieved to see Laurie smiling, so put my thumb up, grinned back, then swallowed the pill with the plane. I could hardly sell the shit to my people without describing its effects and besides, my spirits needed lifting.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Nathaniel. ‘We’re doing all we can.’
Trouble was, I’d felt responsible for Mikey since we were kids. We were both tearaways, yet he always got caught. If we were chased and split at a fork in the road, Old Bill or the other gang would always follow him. And Mikey could never hold on to money. I set him up with all manner of schemes. Gave him a briefcase of drugs once, complete with scales, bags, phone numbers of people waiting to score, everything really: fortnight later, got a call, ‘Your brother’s in the nuthouse’. He’d done all the gear and was properly fucked up. I soon forgave him, because we all lose it occasionally. Just look at me.
I came to realizing the lads had reached a conclusion.
‘You’re not coming with us, Spider,’ said Laurie, avoiding eye contact.
‘My man and me have worked out where we’re going to make our play. And you,’ Nate said pointing two black pudding fingers, ‘I’m sorry to say, are the individual our friends in blue will most expect to be involved. So you take no obvious further part.’ He could see I was disappointed and added, ‘Hold your horses, Professor. Your role’s to relay information on the whereabouts of your kid and his chauffeurs to the road workers,’ He gestured to Laurie and himself. ‘And we need to avoid leaving a telephone trail for the law. Nowadays, it’s phones what get you bust. So put your skates on, visit the big supermarket and stroll round like you own the place, and ensure you get caught on the security cameras. That’s your alibi, innit? Buy a couple of disposable mobiles – disposable – get me? You can sling ‘em after.’ He nodded his head and winked. ‘Then go and sit in the coffee shop and enjoy a quiet cuppa.’ He gave me some numbers on a piece of paper. ‘Ring me when you get to the cafe.’ Then looking at me closely, like I was shining or something, he said softly, ‘You okay?’
‘Of course I’m pale, I’ve always been pale – our Mikey’s pale and all my cousins are pale,’ I said. ‘The Webster’s are a pale family.’ I felt talkative and a little lightheaded, but unusually calm. I argued, but it was useless – they wouldn’t take me with them. After loading Nate’s van, Laurie followed him in the mongrel motor. I locked the unit and strolled, only slightly unsteadily, to my little silver two-seater.
I’d shut the door and was sitting trying to remember how to drive, when I realised something was missing: music. I pressed a button and an orchestral concerto crashed against the shore of my already-heightened senses, utterly overwhelming all notions of self, just as a breaking wave obliterates yesterday’s footprints. I was a magnificent eagle, soaring aloft and far beyond the moonlit, snow-capped, rocky peaks; gliding effortlessly over green, green grass, then circling, weightless, serene, above vast deciduous forests, before plunging directly down, dropping dead as stone, to pluck with plash, and grasp, with talons sharp, the splashing, thrashing fish from deep beneath the surface of some storming tropical sea. I was understandably reluctant to return to as mundane an activity as driving, then remembered our Mikey, so started the car. The throb of the engine harmonised with the music, and the scherzo section spurred me on. I considered myself in a race, and fully intended to win.
In retrospect, it’s obvious the new drug had kicked in. I’ve this memory of piloting a powerful motorboat through the pedestrian precinct and across High Street, before roaring round the council buildings and finally plunging headlong into the gaping maw of a fearsome subterranean monster, (probably an underground car park). I don’t remember the rest of the journey to the supermarket, but somehow made it alive.
At 8.30 the retail park was empty apart from an old tramp, so finding a space was easy, however I was wary of alighting from the roadster, thinking myself still at sea. I had to drop my keys from the window before having the bottle to open the door. I studied the four remaining pills before pushing the arrow to one side, leaving an eye, the hand and light bulb. I could see well enough so saved the eye for later. I swallowed the light bulb, pocketing the others, reasoning I was bound to need a hand sometime.
The sun, brilliant behind the buildings, was pale and lacking in warmth. Shops were decorated for the holiday period, and little lights winked at me from the shadows. I winked back at a few then aimed myself at what I hoped was the entrance. Closing my eyes, I could hear carols playing close-by and for a moment almost believed in the mystery of the season. Upon opening them again, the shopper’s faces gave me a right surprise. Everybody’s features were exaggerated; eyes were impossibly bright and bulging, noses longer, lips redder and teeth sharper – it made me think of illustrations for old fairy stories. There were mirrors on the pillars but I was afraid to look at myself. Leaning on a trolley, I toured the aisles trying to remember why I’d come. My sense of smell being extremely acute, the vegetable section and bread and cakes were a delight, but I avoided the cleaning products and pet foods. Each shopper had a distinct odour. I realized something about dogs that morning.
While watching a girl with unfeasibly long ear lobes using a mobile I remembered my instructions. Everything became very clear. I made my purchases, then strolled to the cafe. Finding a table adjacent to an electric socket, I connected my new telephones, and called a number.
‘Laurie’s done one,’ growled Dawson. ‘I’m gonna break him like a cheap pen…’
‘Why, what’s happened?’ I asked. However, my mind was working so quickly I answered the question before Nate. ‘Manno Ashanti’s new single Let Go! came on the radio and you argued.’
‘How d’ya know?’ Nate said, tough manner forgotten momentarily.
‘Call it intuition,’ said I, enjoying his surprise. ‘Where’d he jump ship?’
‘The old shopping centre.’
‘He’ll be in the saloon of the shitty little boozer round the back – the Wheatsheaf,’ I said. ‘So please turn round, pick him up gently and remind him this is for our Mikey.’
I rang the other number, while absentmindedly counting the metal lightshades hanging from the roof of the cavernous retail cathedral then multiplying the total by the combined wattage of the lamps. Nate’s mate answered; they were following Mikey’s wagon from a discreet distance, now crossing the estate where we’d once lived.
I pictured myself looking through the windows of the van and wondered how Mikey would be feeling, seeing these places again. The oak he monkeyed about on’s been cut down, but most of the houses in the lane have hardly changed. Some are privately owned – he’ll glimpse porches and double glazing, and maybe see the sun shimmer off new roof tiles. Our Mikey’s always been radical and can’t stand selfish bastards who bought council houses. His soulmate Mary’s family lived in the next road. So he’ll be reliving the run-ins he had with her father, a wide bloke, fag in mouth, mad hair and a stained vest. The old fella’d been a miner, and always seemed startled by daylight as if just up from the pit.
A store employee, wheezing behind slipper eyebrows, began wiping my table. His breathing reminded me why I’d given up cigarettes. I smiled, handed him a couple of coins then swallowed the rest of my pills, except for the one with the arrow.
There were two boffin-types messing about with books and pamphlets on the next table. I couldn’t help overhear their conversation. The bald bloke with the glasses said, ‘Nothing spiritual about it – simply an excuse to sell rubbish.’
His partner, a woman, thirtyish, slim and very sure of herself, said, ‘Correct, Neville: another small step towards the commodification of everything.’ She shuffled her folders and sipped coffee. Her make-up was perfect. I examined the remaining tablet. It looked so lonely; sympathy got the better of me, and I swilled it down with the last of my latte. On route to the loos, I casually knocked their paperwork off the table, trying hard not to snigger as sheets see-sawed to the sticky floor. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a stuck-up bitch.
I saw my reflection in the lavatory mirror and turned to face myself. I was pale, but black nonetheless. I’d been in denial for too long. Now I could see only a person looking back. Understanding grew – my body was a vehicle for the consciousness residing within. I spotted some graffiti on the wall; nicely written but nonsense. It read, “Sic transit”, and was signed, “Gloria Mundi”. I’ve never heard of her – she certainly wasn’t local. Unfortunately someone came into the toilet and the moment passed so I washed my hands and left.
Back at the table I heard several beeps but couldn’t locate their source. I gazed around; the café was full, and people’s faces were still far too freaky. Then I remembered the mobiles – it was a text message from Nathaniel, ‘Lri bk. Rdy. Uok?’
I texted back, ‘Me ok. Mky on way, ta x.’
I didn’t need to close my eyes to see our Mikey passing the entrance to the garages and the small park with the playground. He was bullied when I wasn’t there. I remembered us climbing into the allotments when the owners had gone. We all stole but he often got caught. We’d pick rhubarb and kids who lived closest would fetch sugar. Mikey will be tasting it now, I thought; the contrasting flavours of the crisp red stems and the granulated sugar. My imagination took over and the bitter taste grew and grew in my mouth. I waited till nobody was watching then spat on the floor between my legs. It didn’t help.
A phone rang. I answered and a boy on the back of a scooter said, ‘The coach’s just passed in front of a two storey brick-fronted building and behind what looks like the council depot. ‘Hang on,’ he said, ’I can see a sign – it says Local Business Centre.’
Used to be the dole office; Mikey’s former haunt. I couldn’t remember when it changed use; I should know; he worked there for years.
Nate rang. ‘We’re gonna whack ‘em in the underpass.’
‘Underpass, in the underpass! You sure everything’s right Professor?’
‘Fine,’ I replied, moving my fingers in an intricate pattern. ‘It’s noisy here.’ In truth, I felt like dancing and sang every word as Manno Ashanti’s latest hit played from hidden speakers. “If you love somebody – let them go, just let them go!” I thought about Laurie and Nate on the road and focused on Mikey in that prison transport.
Suddenly I could see him; it didn’t feel like imagination, but an actual vision of my brother. I was so moved, I called his name. To my great surprise he turned his face towards where the imagined sound came from, but couldn’t see me. I repeated his name with more urgency. He jumped and said, ‘Victoria – can it really be you? My sister; I thought I heard your voice. Surely I’m losing my mind?’
‘No, you’re not,’ I said quietly. ‘I’m talking telepathically. Don’t speak; somebody’ll hear you – just listen. Nate and Laurie are waiting along the route. They’ve set up temporary traffic lights that’ll stop the van. Laurie’s got a radio jammer, so the guards can’t call for assistance.’
The van with our Mikey must have passed a burger restaurant because I could smell the fat as it oozed through the air vents.
‘Nate’s got a Santa suit,’ I said, wondering why my voice sounded slurred. ‘Laurie’ll be dressed as a reindeer. When you stop, Nathaniel will push a jack under the front wheels, lift the van, walk round and cut you free with a special saw. Laurie will drive the getaway and you’ll be gone in seconds. I’ve organized a passport and ferry tickets for you and Mary…’
Without warning the experience ended and my awareness swung back to the cafe. I’d tried to re-focus on the van but couldn’t see our Mikey. The nerdy couple on the next table were staring at me, so I glared back and they quickly turned away. I remembered what the woman had said about the commodification of everything, and was starting to understand when my eyes became heavy and I had to rest my head on my arms. Realization dawned: I shouldn’t have taken the tablet with the arrow. It was pointing down: it was a downer. I thought about my body again, and realized we were all a mixture of male and female, black and white – a bit of everything really – just like one of Mo’s mongrel motors.
Then I fell asleep.