Ever since Dickens, it’s been a Christmas tradition for short stories to abound. Some ghostly, some sad, some filled with good cheer. In keeping with this tradition Blabber’n’Smoke are proud to publish this seasonal offering from a good friend of our blog. Read on…
The Rough Sleeper
By Ken Irvine.
It felt like May. Why did I keep hearing that?
Worse still why did I keep passing the knowledge on. Everyone could feel the wet balmy remnants of Storm Francis. They could hear the spring-like chirpings of the blackbirds and starlings in the bare trees. Why did I insist on sharing that – in the back of taxis, in bars, in the barbershop?
Warm beads of sweat trickled down my back as I trudged towards the building, weighed down by my heavy load. The river and the houseboats on my left. The sound of the geese on the little islet in a vocal battle against the traffic. I thought of the relative tranquillity of the island and the successive fringes that surrounded it.
The river, a thin channel between the north bank and the island, too shallow for the pleasure boats that used the south channel, but the occasional rower would stray in there when the tide was right.
The houseboats, really the best real estate in the area, the few eccentrics who staked their claim here decades ago, in what was a downbeat , industrial part of town were now sitting pretty, but it was a tenuous existence –tethered to the bank against the ebb and flow and constantly warding off city hall bureaucrats who wanted to wipe them from the map permanently.
The pretty little park, fringed with willow that mothers and toddlers would frequent this in day time, and when night fell it was the haunt of the local teenagers, smoking dope and drinking cheap alcohol, skateboards and chrome plated BMX’s discarded around them.
The busy main road, angry cyclists in the narrow bike lane and smug, frustrated commuters in cars ploughing their way home for Christmas in the rain.
Then, the rows of apartments, containing and contrasting all aspects of humanity, from billionaires in penthouses to eight-to-a room migrants in basements.
I sniggered to myself as I thought of my appearance. My heavy parka with the hood up against the rain. The large blue Ikea bag slung over my shoulder and my stooping gait balancing myself against the weight of its contents. Like a grim alcoholic King Wenceslas minus the snow.
Bruce Springsteen – Atlantic City was playing in my headphones. I needed supplies if I was going to do this and the bag was full of food, some festive treats at knock down prices, but mainly staples -cartons of orange Tropicana, cereal bars, assorted tins of fish- mackerel, sardines, salmon, cans of strong beer- 7,7%. I had reckoned that would be enough. There would be no waste and I wouldn’t starve.
My building had few lights on when I arrived just after nine. It wasn’t the kind of place where people went to bed early, far from it. The students who rented in there had parties any night of the week, well into the small hours of the morning. But they were all away. Most of the other residents were away too, to families in other parts of the country.
They hadn’t told us about that in the sales pitch. That by choosing a first -time buyer shared ownership block, that I was buying in to a world where parents faked their first-year kid’s applications, these kids graduated and moved on, leasing the apartments to other students. These became neglected and the prices stagnated as all the other genuine residents moved out. I was the longest running tenant – or so it seemed. Twenty-six years old and I’d been here two years.
I switched on the light and hit the remote. The Allman Brothers – Stormy Monday – Live at Filmore West ’71. I smiled, it seemed apt, and I sat down – there was no need to turn the heating on.
I looked out of the window – It wasn’t the same for the surrounding blocks – those with proper concierges and strict rules about how the apartments were decorated and what could be placed on the balconies. Those with large brightly light Christmas trees in their windows, and tasteful fairy lights clipped professionally to the balustrades.
It was time.
Everyone was going away, no pubs, no meals, no socializing – no temptation to smoke until things started up again in January. I poured myself a large glass of Fino that had been on the “Reduced” shelf and went out to the balcony and lit up – my last one of the year. Yes, by January I would have quit, and the album would be in the bag. I felt the warm glow almost immediately.
Although he was on the other side of the building I could see him, a reflection on the mirror glass in the building opposite. Sat by the river wall – wringing his hands, running his thin fingers through his long black curls. I had seen this ritual many times – but still, it surprised me when he started. I guess after spending all day sitting in the underpass that linked the shiny office buildings, his hat on the ground receiving a few coins, it was a relief , once the daytime office crowd had gone – it was a freedom to sit by the river and play his heart out, his djembe drum secured between his knees, his head rolling, trancelike.
I took a long drag of the cigarette as leaned on the balcony. It tasted good, but I was resigned to what I was about to do.
I looked across at the smart block opposite. The facing apartment was fully illuminated, floor to ceiling windows. A young couple probably no more than 5 years older than me. From what I could see she spent all her time at home chilling, with an expensive pair of Beats headphones on. She was my dream audience, someone who clearly liked her music laid back. I poured another glass of wine and lit up another last cigarette.
Chastity Brown – Colorado, played and I thought about what it might be like there – better than here.
Beats woman really had nothing to worry about. Not like me. She had no addictions, I knew that much about her. I could tell that she was shrewd. She / they had bought well. Not up against the fumes of the High Street like me – no, they were in the young wealthy professional set who had mainly invested in the blocks that were set in the middle of the development. Despite being set back, they still had river views through the gaps between the street front properties. She had it all – seclusion, glimpses of the river, wealth. It didn’t cross my mind that she might want more than that.
To the east the incoming flights appearing to hover motionless over the city. Stacking up. Within a few minutes they would be passing by the front of the building.
Was I ready for this? I had been checking the prices over the last few days and they had been going up. It was getting close to the tipping point where I had promised myself I would do it. It was puzzling that they should go up – totally counterintuitive. Why would someone want to come to a rain soaked city over Christmas, and even if they did , why weren’t prices cheap when the inhabitants of the city were all elsewhere, in Auckland, in Mumbai, in Salzburg, in Capetown, in Geneva. But the little meter on the website showed demand was high and availability was low.
High demand for this dump ? I thought. Who would want to pay that – but the fact was they did – there were no hotel rooms available. Soon I would get the offer I wanted. The money would be in my bank account, and I could proceed with the next stage of my life. The key would be in the keysafe. I wouldn’t have to meet them. But the place would be beautifully clean and tidy for them and they would be blown away by my personalized welcome notes and quirky, friendly handwritten guide to the best parts of town.
They would leave, noting how friendly, generous and welcoming I was even though they didn’t meet me. There were enough photographs around the place for them to attribute a personality to me. One of prosperity, fitness, talent and humour. Me: surfing (or at least carrying a board); on a yacht; with a girl; strumming a guitar. That was the one that they would remember.
I had already written their review. Glowing. About how respectful they had been, about their excellent communication and about how clean the flat was on my return. I would submit that within minutes of them returning the keys. So that before they had a chance to write anything negative – they would read my erudite critique of their manners and fastidiousness and be stunned into reciprocating with their own positive review, and so it would continue.
Then I lit another last cigarette. The rainwater was swilling in the gullies below me and the massive drips from the broken gutter above, I dreamed of the lake. The frozen lake in Minnesota. I would be wrapped up properly, warm and snug, auguring the hole in the ideal position, near the cabin, but far enough out in the lake to be alone, remote, to see nothing but white.
The wine was working well. I was feeling fuzzy and relaxed. I started playing with lyrics in my head
against the snow in the winter light. Her warm brown eyes and her breath frosted and white.
Bu that’s where the daydream ended. Who was I kidding? How could I pull off a song about a frozen lake when I’d never even seen one? What was the draw of America? in particular the frozen wilderness that made me want to write about her – rather than go there – what was stopping me from going there. There was so much wrong.
I moved onto the next track “Yola – Faraway Look”
I had tried to spark up a conversation with Beats woman in the Spar before. It was in the first year of moving in – almost exactly two years ago. The developer had been trying to get as many sold before Christmas as they could. I had been one of the first. Hopeful , 24 years old, owner ( or so I thought) of my first property . I had watched the neighbouring flats fill up too. On the first day I had seen her and her partner instruct their removal men to carefully place their expensive looking furniture. The pre-lit tree placed in their window and they had got the removal men to neatly entwine the white lights around the balcony, so that by the end of the day their apartment, tastefully lit and sparsely furnished with choice items had resembled a John Lewis advert.
We had talked about the suggestion that the ground floor units were going to fill up quickly , the Spar was already there – good for cigarettes and alcohol – but we were going to get a hipster bar, a Korean barbecue place , a posh brasserie, a dry cleaners, barbershop, a bike shop with a paddle board hire franchise and a branch of Wholefoods
I had been excited about it, she had been slightly cynical. Turned out she had been right. It was too late to rectify things.
So, in the end I had made no lasting friendships in the place. Those that I had met in my block had moved on, and those who lived in the other blocks looked at the residents of our block as a hindrance, something bringing down the tone of the whole estate. I owed too much to move, my salary had not gone up for years, but the rent portion of the shared ownership was steadily rising.
I don’t know what it was that distracted me – something was afoot with Beats woman, she was dressed up for a night out. Her balcony door was open, she still had her headphones on, but was singing along to the track. Her voice – strong and soulful drifted across the gap- I strained to work out what it was.
“My baby’s gone, I have no friends” , The traffic drowned her out for the next minute or so , then she drifted back strong , “there’ll be no more sorrow , no grief and pain” I got it! The Eagles Please come home for Christmas . Picking up my guitar I quickly worked out the key A ? no, b flat ? yes , and started strumming along . The instrumental break came and I continued strumming along and sang the guitar solo – a high falsetto echoing across the chasm between the blocks. The drumming from the riverside started to sync, – she came out on to balcony and lifting one side off her ear, listened for a second, and then sang at the top of her voice “there’ll be no more sorrow no grief and pain and I’ll be happy, Christmas once again”. For a moment she seemed to be three feet away rather than fifty. She took off her headphones and stood motionless gazing out at the river .
I heard the little ding from my laptop, I went in and I looked at the screen. The offer had come in. A couple from Brazil, seventeen fifty for twelve nights days starting on Christmas day. Perfect.
I moved back to the outside. She was still on her balcony, staring down at the car park. I gazed over at her – I didn’t notice the weather report behind me on the flickering TV in the corner. Storm Francis was being pushed out. As of tonight, a cold front was moving east from the Arctic, over Russia, down the length of Finland, across Sweden and Norway. It was already sweeping across the sea towards us.
She raised her head and looked around her at the other buildings as if assessing her situation then noticed me standing on the balcony, smoking my third cigarette. She stood motionless for a few seconds, staring. Then she shivered and moved inside and hit the button that closed the blinds.
As I walked down into the underpass, Sam Cook – A Change is Gonna Come was playing from his little speaker. He was lying wrapped in a couple of blankets, his head on the drum, dead still. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the letter that I had prepared for him should I find him sound asleep like this.
This is Alex, you know, the office worker guy, the one with the beard and locks, who comes through here five past eight every morning , and leaves at five past 6 , I say hi to you every evening , and on Wednesdays when I go through with my guitar on my back you always yell to me – “ I wanna be in your band Man !” I’ve never said this to you, but I always dream that one day I’ll just sit down beside you and I’ll play my guitar and you on your drums and we’ll sing the world to right!
Anyway, I had some bad news last week. I got told that I wasn’t shaping up to the company’s expectations on the shitty job that I’ve been doing for 4 years – and I got told that somehow they were going to let me go – I didn’t think they could do that , but now it seems man that they can do anything these days.
I always wish I had said something to you face to face, I see your grin and that glint in your eye and the way that you don’t care how the f*ck your hair looks – I don’t know what your story is why you choose to live in this underpass, maybe you’re like me – estranged from anything resembling a family – but man I just think that you deserve better.
– ok so here’s my point. As I said I’ve got no future in that building above us, and I’ve got no money- but I sure know how to do a deal – and what a deal I’ve just done, Man !!
I’ve just let out my flat over Christmas on keys.com – for a sh’t load of money –it’s probably illegal cos I don’t own it , just rent it from the builders – at same time I went on Gumtree and started looking up recording Studio hire . It’s so cheap this time of year – in the end I managed to book a studio full of analogue equipment with a great desk too – the owners are away in Barbados for Christmas and they have basically handed over the whole place to me – it’s got a kitchen , a shower and a couple of sofa beds too – I’m basically gonna spend the next twelve nights there and record a track a day – I’ve got most of my stuff written but looking forward to writing some on the hops – I’m interested in all kinds of old time stuff like Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, John Fogerty and the Byrds – maybe you don’t know any of them , but the main thing is I’m not making a tribute album- I want to come out of there with something that’s urban , gritty , psychedelic and relevant’ It’s gonna be recorded in the city but it’s as much about nature and a longing for remote wild places as anything – all at the same time.
I’ve thought about you a lot man , about the rythyms that you put down – come down when you read this and help me do this! The studio address is below – it’s gonna be quiet here over the holidays and at one point it will probably get real cold. I know some other musicians I’m gonna ask too – who knows maybe we will end up with that band – a great big , clunky, band in the back of a van – touring round doing what we love .
Peace on earth
I placed the letter beside his speaker and walked up the steps back to the street. The air had turned chilly, the clouds were disappearing, and the sliver dust of moonlight settled coldly on the night.