Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 8

I was to remain wondering for a while to come. When I was woken by Collins purring like a compressor in my ear it was eleven a.m. and Sarah had gone. There was a note propped against the alarm clock. 'Didn't want to wake you, I had to get back. Call me soon or I'll call you.' Her telephone number followed. 'PS Thanks for last night. PPS. I have desire but no aim.' The last line referred to the poem I'd recited. She had more Irish on her than she pretended. I smiled.

I turned the radio on. The DJ was talking to a woman from West Derby. His platitudes and her singsong accent drove me from the bed. Collins led the way into the kitchen as I pulled on the crombie overcoat that doubled as a dressing gown. In the daylight the room looked even more of a tip than it had the night before. I put the kettle on to boil and rinsed out a mug. I promised that today would be the day I cleaned up. It was nearly Saturday after all.

I sat on the sofa with my coffee and looked around for the remote. It was across the room on top of the telly. Where else would it be? Placing the crockery on the carpet I walked across the bare wood floor to retrieve it. As I sipped and ate, Richard and Judy enthused vapidly about some special, last minute ideas for Christmas they'd come across. They reminded me that there were only seven shopping days to go. All that meant to me that there were six days before I started panicking. I decided I didn't have to worry. And there’d be two fewer presents to by this year.As the show cut to Fred out on his island, the telephone rang. It was Breege, Tom's daughter.

'Hello, U. How are you? Did I wake you?'

'No, I've been up and about for ages' I lied. 'How are you? I'm sorry about your Da.'

My condolences sound hollow and insincere. Why was it always so hard to find the words appropriate to the grief of others? You'd think a death-cult like Christianity would have a vocabulary to deal with it. They’d had two millenia to work on it.

'I'm fine. I still haven't got used to the idea yet. I know it'll hit me soon, though. I suppose the medical training hardens you a bit.' She paused and I said nothing waiting for her to continue.

'Look, I need to talk with you. Can we meet?'

'Of course. When?'

'How about lunch today?'

'That's good. Solid or liquid?' She laughed. It was an old joke between us.

'Solid, I think, just to be on the safe side.'

'Okay. One o'clock at the Everyman, then. In the Bistro.'

'I'll see you there. Bye, U'

'Slán, kid and give my love to your mum and Cait.'

'I will, bye.'

I finished my toast and rolled my first cigarette of the day to smoke with the remains of the coffee. The smell of tobacco smoke brought Collins rushing onto my lap. He was a nicotine addict, the most active passive smoker in the world, feline or human. He purred loudly and tried to get near my face as I smoked. He obtained far more pleasure out of my habit than I ever had. I'd given up giving up, but I tried to ration myself. He stretched up from my lap and gently bit my chin trying to pull my face nearer to his so he could obtain more of the smoke. By the time I finished my coffee he was curled up on my lap sleeping off breakfast. I lifted him off and standing up placed him into the warm spot where I had been sitting. He glowered at me balefully, curled into a ball and went back to sleep.

I walked to the bathroom then showered and shaved. During the latter I examined my face in the mirror. I didn't look as tired as I should have, but my brown eyes were bloodshot. There didn't seem to be any more lines on my face or grey hairs amongst the black on my head than there were the day before. My hairline hadn't receded in the night. I did notice that I had small fair hairs growing in my ears. They would have to go. In the sink there was silver amongst in the black stubble.

Wrapped in a white towel that Linda had stolen from Raffles in Singapore, I walked into the bedroom. The phone-in was over, replaced by music for housewives. I looked around at the clothes scattered about the room. In the end I settled on a black Aran sweater with the same colour 501s. Both were covered in Collins' grey hairs.

I pulled on my boots, removed my wallet and loose change from last night's jeans and hunted around for my keys. Under the rules of our co-habitation, all shiny things left lying around became Collins' property. I found them pushed under the tv unit where he put all his acquisitions sooner or later. I was glad they hadn't ended up in his other hidey-hole behind the fridge.

It was close to twelve forty-five by the time I was ready. I decided that the dishes could wait until tomorrow. I smiled and thought of the old joke about the Irishman and the Spaniard. The Spaniard is trying to explain how latin people are more laid back than northern Europeans, about the culture of manana. If it isn't done today, it will get done tomorrow. The Irishman smiles, shakes his head and apologises for his lack of comprehension. We don't have a word in our language to express that degree of urgency.

It was fine day for mid-December. The sun was shining thinly and the air temperature was mild. I thanked God for global warming and the ameliorating effects of the river. Another tanker had replaced last night's departure over at the jetty. The tugs which had guided it into place were heading back to their own moorings down-river.

I repeated my walk of the previous evening. A solitary prostitute stood on the corner of Hope St and Canning St within spitting distance of the police station. She jerked her head at the driver of every car which slowed at the junction of the two streets. Even from a distance I could see the black roots of her blonde hair. She was older than the girls of last night and wore the winter uniform of Liverpool female sex-workers. Cheap leather jacket, black mini-skirt and stockings, high heeled court shoes. Incongruously, on her hands she wore bright red, hand-knitted woolly gloves. I wondered at their erotic possibilities and then realised that the last thing punters want is cold hands on their vital parts. It didn't matter how warm hearted the girl might be if she made your mickey shrink on contact. She stood alone. There was no sign of a Kev-type protector. As I passed her, she turned towards me.

'Are yer doing a bir o' trade, luv?' she said as I passed her. The usual greeting. I smiled and shook my head. 'Not today, girl, thanks.'

A look of disappointment crossed her face, which was careworn but had been carefully made-up to hide the obvious damage the years and her life had done. Her eyes were lightly shadowed in blue and looked tired. The were tiny lumps of mascara on her lashes. She'd been a pretty girl once, I thought.

'Sorry'. I said and in a sad way I meant it. I walked on towards my destination.

Hope St was buzzing with student pedestrians moving from mid-day lectures to refectories, cafes and halls. The street formed the boundary line between the two University campuses. It was easy to tell students from natives. Who said class wasn't marked on the body?

Apart from headgear, student fashions seemed to have changed very little from my time. Skirts were shorter and the jeans a little baggier. I appreciated the former and regretted the latter as I walked behind a gaggle of female undergraduates. It seemed that flares had come and gone, in a mercifully brief interval, but platform boots were in fashion for the women again. I remembered my own period in those absurd stilts during the 1970s. I wondered if they knew how clumsy they looked and then recalled that I hadn't in my time. At least these days they weren't being worn with twenty-eight inch bottom Oxford bags. The gods of retro-fashion are merciful in small ways.

At the entrance to the John Moore's University car park I crossed the road and started down the stairs to the Everyman bistro. In the alcove stood a kid of about nineteen. His face and clothes were unwashed and his skin was the colour of newsprint. As I passed him he held out a battered McDonald's cup in my general direction. I dropped some loose change from my pocket into it. He thanked me in a distinctly cockney accent. As I walked down the steps into the bar I pondered on the thought that Liverpool was now importing its poverty and homelessness from the rest of the country. It was one of the few growth areas of the local economy.

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