(1100 words) It was evening on a cold, windy New Year’s Eve as Stephen Stein made his way along the drab downtown high street. There were few people about and the shops were closing or closed. Stein caught a glimpse of himself reflected in a dark store window. A wild mop of straggly grey hair, a thick beard of matching grey with touches of white, a black greatcoat, stained and smelly, and heavy brown boots, scuffed by hundreds of hours of tramping the streets. Stein adjusted an incongruous chequered yellow scarf at his neck, brand new, it even had the price tag – thirty pounds. He’d found it in a bin, put out for collection. Now he rolled it and put it in a pocket in case someone had second thoughts and came looking for it. “Hi Stevie boy, Happy New Year!” It was Robbie, the owner of the laundromat, a genuinely kind-hearted guy and one of the only people in this small town full of small-minded people who’d give him the time of day. Stein pulled his gaze away from the window and his eyes glinted at the twenty-pound note held out to him.
I headed upstairs to the reference library, further annoyed. There was just one other person there, a down-and-out type reading The Sun, having chosen to eschew the nearby pile of ‘erudite’ newspapers.
I went to an interesting section on ‘supernatural’ subjects: ghosts, UFO’s, angels, demons and the like. Perusing the shelves, I noticed a large tome with Demonology in red gothic lettering on the pale blue spine. There was no dust jacket. Seating myself on a comfortable chair, I began to read. Well, seems there was something called The Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous 17th century ‘grimoire’ apparently, that included the ‘conjuration of demons’ ...
“Say it ain’t so, Joe, please say it ain’t so,” Samantha Muir sang whilst hanging out leather belts in the Ladies’ Clothing department of Jacksons. “That's not what I wanna hear, Joe. Ain't I got a right to know?” She hesitated. Why was she singing that? Her mind flashed back to a scene when she was nine years old, her little brother Joe coming to her with blood pouring from his nose. An older boy, Terry, had punched him in the face at the bus stop after school.
“Excuse me, young lady, are you serving or dreaming?”
“Well, lookee here, we’ve got ourselves a midget!” laughed Tanner Sutherland, standing behind her in the dinner queue on her first day.
She turned around. “Well, lookee here, we’ve got ourselves an ugly moron!”
There was laughter and a few soldiers gathered around to watch the scene. Tanner’s face was red with rage. “There shouldn’t be no women in our army, especially not little shortarses, you’d be no good in close combat.”
Rowena pulled out of the queue and stood facing Tanner, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet.
“Hey, lay off her, Tanner,” said Norton Breakspear, “it’s brains, not brawn we need in the Corps. You seem to be lacking in the first department, bud.”
Tanner ignored him. “Looks like we got us a feisty one!”
Rowena knew she’d have her work cut out to beat up this creep. “Tell you what, soldier, you know anything about pie-eating?”
“Can I help you, sir?”
It was an older man, not one of the ‘dolly birds’ who normally grace the teak-veneered desks of such establishments. He had long grey sideburns, sliver rimmed glasses, short grey hair, cut neatly with a side-parting, and a look of resignation. A desk sign said ‘Mr. Jack Seddon,’ followed by a string of post-nominal initials.
Danny looked around. ‘I’d like a house, a big one with a garden, trees, that sort of thing.”
Seddon looked the youth up and down. Skinny blue jeans, black loafers, a black T-shirt with the logo FCUK and a black leather jacket that looked like it had previously belonged to a hell-raising ‘Rock ‘n’ Roller’ – or two. “I see, sir, and are you a first-time buyer?”
“Rumours are, the Jones brothers are coming back,” said Christine, my wife and best friend.
I put my coffee down onto the table in slow motion. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“Sorry Tony, that’s what Shirley just told me.”
Christine had just returned from having her hair cut by a lady with her ear to the ground, and her head up her arse. But Christine’s hair looked nice, I had to admit.
“I heard they were doing alright in The Smoke.”
“They were, or are, I should say. Shirley keeps in touch with Babs. Says they control south from The Monument down as far as Cannock Town. They’re leaving Smiler in charge. He’s rounded up some new men, … real hard men, she says.”
I looked at my face in the mirror. It was almost white. “Oh,” was all I could say.
“Yeah, anyone who doesn’t pay on time gets three strikes. The first is on the body, so the bruises don’t show. Second is the face, so everyone knows.”
I hesitated to ask what the third was, but Christine told me anyway.
“What time do you get off?” the girl had asked me. Surprised, I’d turned from flipping a burger. She was tall, slim, with blonde hair in a short pony tail.
“I’ve a break in twenty minutes. Why?”
“Can we chat? I need a favour.”
The next twenty minutes had crawled past. I could see the girl sitting in a corner, fiddling with her phone. What the hell did she want?
“Look, my name’s Martha, I come here sometimes, you’ve served me a couple of times,” she said when I was free to join her.
Now I came to think about it, she did seem somewhat familiar, but then we served a lot of people.
“You seem a nice guy and I need someone to do me a favour.”
“My sister phoned me to say she’s mislaid her house keys. I’ve got a spare but I’m a nurse and I’m needed on the other side of town, I’ve really gotta go. Like, now.”
“D’you know, I went into Mellors this morning,” said Sandra one night. “Susan was serving old Mrs. Mutton, didn’t even look in my direction. Then Trevor Simons came in, in his filthy overalls, and she served him next!”
“You should have said you were there first.”
“Well, I was taken aback … and embarrassed. He never spoke or looked at me and Susan didn’t apologise. In fact, she was quite abrupt with me. I asked for two pounds of their local sausages and she practically threw them at me!”
I sighed. “I don’t know what their problem is, I’ve never met such unfriendly, miserable buggers.”
Sandra came and put her arms around me, hugging me tight. She laid her head on my shoulders. “Mike, darling, let’s move away, somewhere nice. Somewhere where people give you the time of day, you know, chat … and smile even.”
Lawrence from IT had always seemed so quiet. We tried hard not to stare when he arrived one morning with two black eyes, a bandaged ear, and his hair dyed green. He avoided eye contact with us and sat at his desk, turning on his computer and staring at the display as if it were showing the latest Oscar winner.
My phone rang. I answered. “Hello, Julie Dawson, accounts.”
“Jules, where are the sales figures? They were supposed to be on my desk by nine!”
I suddenly remembered there was a big sales meeting at twelve. My mouth went dry and my stomach felt hollow.
- - Link to part 1: Clarissa’s Missives - (1100 words) - I awoke. Had I heard a noise? Naked, I was snuggled up to Clarissa’s equally naked back, one arm around her, my face up against her nest of blonde hair. Then the sound of clomping boots and laughter. My heart thudded. The bedroom … Continue reading Clarissa’s Missives – Part Two