Clockwork

Issue #16 of PUSH is out now; you should buy it from joe.england64@gmail.com because it’s brilliant. I’ve got a story in it, but here’s one I had in issue #15…

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Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art! There’s a dozen of us here and no cunt’s joining. Maybe the rest of them don’t know the words, but I do. It’s the first number I ever did at what’s now known as Buskers’ Night in The Railway. They didn’t call it that back then of course. Just the usual trad session in the lounge. Fellas with guitars and fiddles. At home they’d hitch from pub to pub for the chance of a session. Over here they came across town on the bus. Heading North West with tin whistles in the inside pockets of their coats.  This one time the singer didn’t show, so they started asking for volunteers. Trying phoning Gerry Adams shouted one daft fucker. Boppa Larven of course. Then I got pushed forward. Couldn’t say no, but didn’t have a clue what to sing. The lads holding the instruments told me to do something we all knew. Something I remembered from when I was a kid. That’s why they got this one. Every fucker in the room helped out on the chorus. All that shouting and roaring. Never heard such laughter.

None of that community or choir today. I keep my mouth shut and watch the relatives at the front staring straight ahead at Nixy’s remains. The sister, craving a smoke. Her ex-husband. Their pair of miserable grown up daughters and accompanying blokes, looking like something out that film where they all dress the same and knock fuck out every cunt they come across. Reservoir whatevers. Fat Chelsea boys in cheap, shiny, black suits. White shirts from Primark fresh out the packet. Polyester so thin their tattoo swirls show through.  Earrings. Too much gel on number 1 crops.  Look like new generation dart professionals. BDO sorts impersonating snooker players. Bill Werbeniuks. What the fuck happened to him? Died I guess. Like Hurricane Higgins. The Orange Dog, that’s what Boppa called him.

The song’s too fucking loud. Static bouncing off the walls. Track 6, The Best of Songs of Praise. Recorded in some big fucking cathedral years back. Half of those singing on it dead by now. Twenty years back, more, the programme went out Sunday tea time. Used to hear the theme tune as I was putting my coat on. Herself asking me every week if I needed to go out so early, while the young feller watched me comb my hair in the mirror. Explaining to her the lads were expecting me. Pick the young feller up and swing him about. Daddy’s big brave boy. Giggling like crazy and all she does is tell me to put him down in case he gets sick. Heading out the door for opening time. Remember that? Almost a quarter of a century ago. Nowadays I’m in The Railway from noon to midnight. Like clockwork. All day. Every day. Nursing the medicine. Watching the dust move. Thinking how it was and when it changed and where her and the young fella might be. Though she’ll be old and he’s no longer a kid. Alex she insisted we call him. Never liked that name. He’ll be halfway to thirty, maybe. I lose track of things.

Ashamed of the frayed cuffs on my same old Sunday suit. Years old. Since they left, the fit’s gone from tailored to tight to slack. Like my hair changing from brown to grey to white. Never get to see Songs of Praise no more. Don’t even know if it’s on. Back then Thora Hird introduced it. She’s dead of course. At least I suppose.  Great audience response to this track no doubt. Top marks on the happy clapometer so they released it. Would have been a proper album on vinyl or a cassette. Type you’d see end up in car parks. Broken cases and the tape spooled round bushes like brown ticker tape for failure parades. This is probably the CD though. More durable. Ease of storage. Makes economic sense in the long run. Maybe even an iPod or a download stored on some cunt’s hard drive along with the family holiday snaps. Possibly a mourners’ playlist they have ready done, so the grieving fuckers don’t have to worry about picking the hymns.

Music and that, it’s all changed so fucking fast. Things move on. People move on and you’re left grasping the air where your world used to be. Nobody’s shoulder needs your arm around it.  When the telly was just after being black and white only, you’d go to a dance and there’d be a band on. Not lads in beards doing rebel songs. Proper musicians. Saxophones and keyboards and the gobshite singing. Always jealous of him and his patent leather kiss curls. Wondering what it was like, holding onto the mic and giving it a shot. Close your eyes, tilt the head and reach the top notes. A couple of sets. Fast ones and slow ones. Stuff to fight and ride to. Could you imagine it? Then when the live groups went out of fashion, it was the DJs. Sound systems. Carrying in huge boxes of records. Vinyl hod carriers. Singles. Twelve inchers. Remixes. Met her at a New Year’s Eve disco in The Constellation. Could have been 86 or 87. Can’t recall now. She was fresh and clean and quiet looking. Reminded me of home. Whatever that was. Wherever. She didn’t mind the attention, preferred to chat at the table than dance, which was fine by me. We sat the whole evening and I sang along to the numbers she liked. Told me I had a nice voice. I stopped talking to other girls from then on. I stayed home a few nights when the young feller was born, but not often enough. There were things said. Harsh words. A time or two I shaped up in front of her. Alex screaming Daddy no! So I didn’t, but regretted it when I caught the defiance in her eyes.

After a while, I didn’t have a home. Just the flat I got after it all went wrong. I tried a few dances after the break-up, but that soon finished. Then I stopped going anywhere that wasn’t The Railway or work or the flat. Electric music and the idea of women, their presence, the potential of what they promised, all got in the way of the pints and made me think too much. Raging inwardly at fellas with a one back home, but still on the hunt for birds and a grope. Not right.

Boppa told me one time that the DJs don’t have records now. Must have seen it at a daughter’s 21st or niece’s engagement or some fucking thing. Apparently they bring their music on one of those memory stick things. Dongles. Just plug it into the console and away they go. Console. Even sounds like a space ship. Fucking crazy. Ten thousand songs on a bit of plastic and metal size of your lighter. You’d drop the fucking thing getting your keys out. Next these DJs won’t bother turning up at all. Sit at home watching the telly. Email the set-list to an audience who are also in the house, listening to a stream of an empty room on their lap top. Drinking alone. Like I sometimes do. Like Nixy always did when dealing with people got too complex.

The song ends and a young one in robes and that goes up to the microphone. Earnest you’d call her. Guessing she’s the clerical equivalent of the duty solicitor for recently deceased chronic alcoholics of unknown religious affiliation. She thanks the family and close friends who’ve come to pay our respects, which is like a name check or dedication for Boppa, Kev Thomas, Frankie Owen and me. We’re sat on one side in the third row back, half listening to her struggle to find positives in the sink of dirty, broken crockery that was “our dearly beloved brother and friend Wayne Nixon’s life.” Strange to hear his proper name used. We’d known him from the very start as Nixy, or sometimes Nixa; his sister called him that. It didn’t matter which one you chose. He answered to both, or neither depending on his mood. The miserable fucker. Can’t remember when it was we first talked. Maybe a decade. Longer? No bother to any cunt, Nixy always sat by himself. Round shouldered over a pint. An old Nokia that never rang. A packet of snapshots and a baccy tin. Dirty white trainers. England 98 World Cup shirt marking him out as different from the rest of us.  Ah what the fuck. RIP to the lad anyway. 53 is no age.

No sign of that woman Nixy had broken up with when he first started coming in The Railway. Janice she was called. Had a couple of kids and a house up Westwood Hill. Threw him out when he lost one job too many because of the drink. Even got finished as a roadsweeper. Drunk in charge of a hand cart. I could have gone to hell in that he told me, coughing out a desperate, unconvincing laugh, followed by a dozen sobs. And whenever he started crying, he’d dig the creased photos of her, the kids and him taken in the garden one summer’s day out the packet, then start tracing his fingers over her shape, blurring it with salty ethanol tears.

Never met her. Blonde hair tied back. Skinny with a tight mouth and endless worry lines. Absence of smiles. Lived off coffee, fags and tablets. Nixy called her my Jan. Always talking like he’d just popped out for an hour and she’d have his tea on the table for when he got back. He confided once that on nights when he felt the emptiness bad, he’d get a bottle and sit on the bench in the park round the corner from hers and cry. Crying and drinking until he passed out. Waking up when he pissed himself. More than ten years he did that. Half the time I’d suffered; dignified in my drink.  No tea and no table for Nixy all the time I knew him. Dirt and sweat and nothing in a bedsit on Northcote Lane. Dead on the floor after one solo all night session too many. Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.

The peelers called me after they’d kicked in his door, when the couple upstairs complained about the smell. Mine was the last number he’d rang. Two weeks before. No surprise. Nixy often went missing and nobody called round to see how he was. His landlord texted me to say I had a couple of days to clear Nixy’s room, before he claimed his belongings in lieu of unpaid rent. Took me an hour to bag up Nixy’s estate and take it down the tip. Clothes too raggy for a scarecrow.  Blankets you’d not let a dog sleep on. Empty bottles and cans. No books. No letters. No keepsakes. Apart from the packet of photos of him in the impersonation of family surroundings that went in the coffin as well. And who the fuck am I to judge? What else can I, who have lost the family I claimed to adore because of my own selfish weaknesses, dare hope for at my own end?

The coffin’s away and we file out, leaving a limp shake in the hand of the Vicar girl. See ya Dibley, jokes Boppa, then mutters 100% rugmuncher that one to Kev, who nods in agreement.  Cold Thursday mornings in late November are just the worst time to be stuck in a near deserted cemetery, trying to pay your respects. Burials are no good. No fucking good at all. Clenching your jaw to stop the teeth rattling like something from a cartoon. Flexing your hands to keep the blood moving, seeing their colour go from pink to white to purple. Wiping the dirt on your strides. The wind cutting you in half. Shaking from your core outwards and not being able to stop. Scorching the lining of your flimsy jacket, trying to stay lit for a surreptitious smoke. Thank fuck we’d none of that. Who the fuck would come up here afterwards and put flowers down for Nixy? Or me?  Cremations always bring out the best in me. That’s what I tell the lads.

Twenty minutes later the four of us sat round a dirty table in the lounge. They’ve put the Christmas decorations up since yesterday. Glasses everywhere and it wasn’t quite twelve. Silent because the Angelus is going off in your head. Sombre affair. Nobody asks for the racing on the telly. The fat lads pile into the buffet, checking their Betfair and Paddy Power apps instead. Maybe they could find out when Bill Werbenuik and Thora Hird died on Wikipedia. Google the cunt. I don’t know about that sort of thing. Technology and that. Nixy reckoned I knew nothing about the horses either. Or women. And he was right. Poor cunt.

Time passes. Pints. A few sandwiches. Quiche. Crumbs on the carpet. The constant banging of the door as people head out for a smoke. Gusts of wet, dirty air and car noise.  The lads keep asking me for a song. In Memoriam. Wanting to please them, but waiting for the dissolving fragments of Nixy’s family to head off. A bit of respect you know. The sister looking tired. Her ex checking his watch every thirty seconds. Designated driver on the orange juice. Bored. Wasting a day’s pay on a bloke he’d never had a good word for. It’s well after three when they start putting on coats and shaking hands. We’re sorry for their troubles and they’re grateful for our presence as the greyness thickens outside. Sleet. Standing useless in the car park to wave them off. We know we’ll never see them again. Coloured shop signs blinking. Red buses. Blackening sky. The last of Nixy. Another round of pints and doubles. Brandies. And then the singing starts. My boyhood friends and my own relations have all passed on like the melting snow.

For a while it’s great. We’ve the room to ourselves and the jokes and stories are flying, though none of them mention Nixy. We’ve gone back before we even met him. Back when we were new to the place. Young. All single, though I still am. Sometime after 6, other people start arriving. A band are setting up. Some tribute act. Setting Sons. Stick on classic FM. Let’s have a bit of culture barks Boppa and the lads with the amps and cymbals all laugh.  Kev lines up a final row of shorts, before phoning his missus for a lift. Twenty minutes later he’s gone home to eat and talk with family. Boppa and Frankie have headed off in search of a curry. So I’m alone. No wife. No son. No Nixy. No reason to go or to stay.

There’s a certain level of isolation you reach when you’ve been on the batter most of the day, once circumstances dictate that you’re forced to enjoy your own company. The point when you become anonymous and silent. Almost invisible. Barfly turns wallflower as you watch the dynamics of the pub change, while it fills up with young, smart sorts. My glass is all but empty and I need more. The time for pints has gone. The need is for the burning and oblivion that spirits bring. Climbing off the seat, trying to move in a straight line, but weaving badly across the floor, I notice I’m drunk. I hope to be drunker, but know I need the security of my own four walls for that. Keeping myself upright, I lean into the counter as the lad behind the bar catches my eye. With a brief nod, I incline my head towards the optics and he spins round to fill a large one. Places it on the counter with a nostalgic half smile of almost convincing sympathy and regret. On the house. For Nixy. Before you head off. I bow in gratitude, heed the warning and snuggle the glass into my chest before slow staggering back to the seat.

There’s more traffic around. Some of the new lot in polo shirts and jeans; ordering bottles of Stella.  One squad are different, in black suits, sunglasses and hats. Stag or fancy dress? It’s not clear. Almost funeral attire, but smarter in every way than the fat boys from earlier on. This gang are confident. Handsome. Sculptured. Endless shots of coffee vodkas. Whooping and punching the air as each measure hits home.

I’m walking on my ankles not the balls of my feet. The journey across the room is endless and impossible. My in-flight navigation system’s out the fucking window. Can’t stop myself from thumping into the side of this big lad, broad as a door, who’s just about to launch into another shot. I jerk his arm out of position. The shot glass spirals from his grip, lands unbroken on the carpet and the drink goes everywhere. Not deliberate. Not my fault but the vodka’s stinging the freshly mown pores of his angry pink cheeks and chin. Dribbles onto the collar and front of his shirt. That fucker’s going to stain when it’s dry. He barks an angry Watch it and turns 180 degrees, balling his fists and I know he’s not playing as he appraises my wrecked countenance. There’s more than just the fury caused by a spilled drink in those eyes. There’s more than just contempt as well. You stupid old pissed cunt. My slurred, mumbled apologies are no good. Fucking drunken Paddy arsehole.  His mates crane over his shoulder, happy to back him up rather than take the heat out the situation. The bar’s thronged with strangers in for the night. Solitary and vulnerable. The lads are at home with their loved ones, or dead in a box like Nixy.

With no-one to aid my cause, I proffer my untouched drink in an approximation of diplomacy, but it’s ignored. The big lad brushes past and through the front door, with his gang in tow. I offer a gaze of piteous guilt and hope I’ve not spoiled their night, though I almost forget them as I retake my seat, staring deep into the screen that silently displays sports news. I drift off. Thoughts of the past are doing me no good, so I snap upright, half alert. Time to go. I finish the dregs of my whiskey, hearing words and songs from the past as I leave, ignored;

Of all the money that e’er I had
I’ve spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas it was to none but me,
So fill to me the parting glass.
Good night and joy be with you all

Outside it’s raw. Snow flurries and bitter wind telling me I’ve forgotten to drain the bladder one last time. Too late to go back indoors, I weave through the car park for the back steps down to the path by the train lines and the river, ready to take a solitary slash, zip already down. Mid-stream, the coffee vodka squad appear. Surround me.  Aroma of skunk. I risk an alright lads, but the silence tells me this is no pacifying joint. I remembered the last time this happened; crawling home from wetting the boy’s head in a blizzard. She opened the door, screaming baby in her arms, to see my face bruised and swollen. Our message lost and our plans forgotten. A handful of teeth, lost in a car park. This time, pushed, falling down curved, concrete stairs. Surrounded by young men in suits, and heavy black shoes. Moving in, kicking, stamping. Do him Alex. Finish the cunt off.  The big one looming over me. Glinting blade reflecting pale in the street light. Bland expressionless face. Holds my gaze, then lowers the knife and turns away.

You’re not fucking worth it, old man.

Through the clouds of pain and drink and memory, I know he’s right and I lie back to drink in the sky, reflecting on the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely, falling faintly through the universe upon all the living and the dead.

westcrem

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