'I’m telling you, man, this guy was butt naked, walking down a country lane at two in the morning and whimpering for someone called Bunny. Scared the shit out of me, I can tell you. I mean, it’s not what you expect is it? Fuck, there I am outside this big house, minding my own, and I’m edgy enough if you know what I mean, when I hear this weak, tinny voice coming out of nowhere. I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or any of that shit but, I tell you, man, at that moment...
'“Bunny! Bunny!” he calls, “Bunny!”
'Then he emerges from the darkness like a white ghost and the fucker hasn’t an item of clothing to his name and he’s got his hands out like he’s reaching for something, like a little kid who’s just learned to walk, and he’s repeating over and over, “Bunny! Bunny!”
‘Okay, Winston, I get the picture. Can you just lower your voice a little? People are staring.’
We’re in Maggie’s cafe in the precinct, sitting by a window which looks out into the pedestrian area. It’s crammed with tourists, it being summer and the school holidays underway. The cafe is full and most of the customers have spent the last few minutes listening to Winston. I mean, you don’t have much choice. Winston is loud. It’s like he’s unaware of anyone else in the whole world, as if there’s just you and him. He doesn’t suffer from embarrassment. He never has.
Not for the first time, I want him to shut up or lower his voice or maybe just go away.
Yeah, go away would be really good.
Only Winston has never learned to take a hint. You could drop a hint by clubbing him with a cricket bat, you could scream in his face. It’d make no difference. He’s always been the same. A nuclear warhead would bounce off Winston.
‘Hey man, what are you worried about? It’s a great story for that paper of yours. You should be thanking me. But I haven’t told you the best bit.’
He snorts with laughter and leans forward as if he’s going to whisper but then he doesn’t.
‘I mean, whoever this Bunny is, this guy is really hot for her, if you know what I mean. He’s got a dick like that leaning tower – what do they call it?’
‘Pisa,’ I whisper, ‘the Leaning Tower of Pisa.’
‘Pisser?’ Winston rolls back his head, opens a cavernous mouth and roars with laughter. ‘Well that’s fucking appropriate. This guy is signposting heavenward with the most enormous...’
‘Okay, Winston, okay, there’s no need to get graphic. I’ve got the picture.’ I glance round and heads turn instantly away as people pick up conversations they left moments ago. ‘Everyone in the room has got the picture.’
A couple of older women leave their afternoon tea with a haughty look and head for the door but plenty more remain there over empty cups and plates. They’re listening and pretending not to and suddenly it’s like I’m on a stage and we’re improvising this scene and I’ve no idea what’s coming next or how it’s going to end and everyone is waiting for my contribution.
Then I see Maggie over by the counter and I know exactly how it’s going to end, and what I have to do. She’s formidable even when she’s smiling but she’s not smiling now. She’s dusting her heavyweight hands on a tea towel and flexing her muscles like she’s preparing for a fight. She isn’t even looking at the old guy who’s talking to her. Her eyes are trained on me and Winston. I look at my chest, expecting to see a little red light targeting me for destruction.
It’s understandable, I guess. Winston isn’t her regular type of customer. This is more of your middle-aged, middle class, genteel, tea and cakes sort of establishment, the sort of place my mum likes. Maggie doesn’t like tourists and she can’t abide anyone with children. She looks warily at anyone under fifty as if they’re about to spring a trap. She only smiles at them when they’re leaving and that’s more relief than anything else. Winston is in a category shared by drunks, dog owners and people who don’t pay. She looks at him as if he’s trodden both feet in something unpleasant with the sole intention of bringing it into her cafe.
When she hears his latest outburst, she’s had enough and now she’s rolling our way like a lumbering, doom laden cloud.
‘Come on, Winston, it’s time to go.’ I drag him to his feet and head for the door. ‘Sorry, Maggie,’ I call over my shoulder. ‘We’re leaving.’
He’s still trying to cram the last of his cream cake into his mouth as I push him through the door and into the stream of pedestrian traffic.
‘And don’t come back!’ Maggie shouts after us. ‘We don’t want your sort in here.’
Winston looks back with an enormous grin.
‘Is it a race thing?’ he calls.
If she was holding a knife she’d throw it, I swear.
I steer him round a couple of corners and only slow down when I’m sure no-one is looking at us.
‘What the hell, Winston. I could be a column in my own newspaper tomorrow.’
‘No-one reads newspapers anymore. No offence.’
‘My mum and dad do. And what do you mean “Is it a race thing?” Do you know how many times I’ve heard you say that?’
‘Shuts the fuckers up though, don’t it?’
We’re walking slowly now and getting jostled by tourists in a hurry to get nowhere special. I direct him to a seat just vacated by a large woman with an even larger shopping bag. There are flowers in a circular bed just behind the bench, contained by a low, brick wall, part of the town centre improvements. I like flowers, especially brightly coloured flowers in a town centre. My boss, Liz, says they’re incongruous. She says it’s like sticking a candle in a turd. But I like them.
‘What do you think of my story?’ Winston asks. ‘Is it worth a few quid?’
‘No disrespect, Winston, but I’d need more than your word for it before I’d write a story about a naked rambler. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of admirable qualities but honesty isn’t the first that springs to mind. You’d lie to your mother.’
‘Yeah,’ Winston grins.
‘Besides, I can’t help wondering what you were doing on a country lane at two in the morning. Hardly your scene is it? I mean, when I think of you I don’t really picture nocturnal nature walks. What were you doing there?’
‘Just a bit of private enterprise.’
‘Nah, with Benny.’
‘Benny Jarrett? Jesus, Winston, you mean you were burgling the house?’
‘Me? No. I was just standing at the road end, waiting for Benny. I was his driver, man. He lost his license, you know.’
‘Yeah, that happens when you drive at ninety down the promenade and swerve into the concrete seating. They reckon if he hadn’t been pissed he might have killed himself.’
‘That’s always been Benny’s trouble. He likes a drink and he likes cars. But at least it wasn’t his car. Every cloud...’
‘He likes burgling remote houses too, doesn’t he?’
‘Benny’s okay. He never hurts anyone.’
‘I’m not sure his victims see it like that. Did Benny see your mysterious nudist?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean, you don’t know? Didn’t you discuss it on the way back? I mean, it’s the sort of thing you might mention. “Hey, Benny, guess what I just saw...” – that sort of thing. Wouldn’t it make an interesting conversation, even for a couple of dough-brains like you and Benny?’
‘He was in there for fucking ages. After the naked guy turned up, I figured I’d split before someone came looking.’
My head is starting to spin at this point and I feel I’m in danger of following Winston’s stream of consciousness down a meandering lane towards a cliff edge. I think maybe I’ll keep to the important points.
‘So where were you when all this happened?’
Winston hesitates as his fine-tuned, automated instinct for self preservation kicks in.
‘Maybe better you don’t know,’ he says.
‘Come on, Winston, I don’t betray my sources, not even when they’re thieving bastards like you and Benny.’
He relaxes and the big smile returns. You can’t offend Winston. God knows, I’ve tried. I used to think if I was offensive enough often enough he’d get the hint and leave me alone. He didn’t.
‘We we’re out towards Westleigh, a few miles after the railway crossing. There’s this house behind trees – Westleigh Lodge. Single glazed windows in a couple of rooms round the back – I mean... shit, man... in this day and age - Don’t they know there are thieves about? I mean, it’s like a fucking invitation.’
‘Yeah, I know the place; near Westleigh Hall, isn’t it?’
‘So this guy...’
‘Yeah, just like I said - “Bunny! Bunny!” - fucking weird, man.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ve just seen a naked man walk past you on a country lane calling out for this...’
‘Will you stop doing that, Winston, putting on that simpering little voice? It’s getting really irritating and people are looking.’
‘Hey, chill man.’
‘So you’ve just seen this helpless guy walking down the lane. Forgive me for stating the fucking obvious but did you call the police?’
‘Fuck no. Think of Benny, man.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘I figure sooner or later someone will see him. Then I think maybe I’d better get out of there before the police arrive or someone sees me and starts asking questions. Like you say, - it’s not easy to explain being up there at two in the morning. And Benny up there at the old house... You catch my drift?’
‘With both hands, Winston, with both hands - so you get in your car and drive off, leaving the naked rambler and Benny to sort themselves out.’
‘You’re all heart, Winston. You know that?’
‘Yeah,’ he grins again.
‘Did you pass the guy on your way back to town?’
‘I went the other way. I didn’t want to meet anyone coming to throw a towel over him. It took fucking ages, nearly got taken off the road by this four by four too. You don’t expect it on a country lane, do you? The bastard thought he owned the place.’
‘There are a lot of things you don’t expect to see on a country lane at that time of night. You’re pretty high up the list yourself.’
‘Yeah, I guess.’
‘So what did Benny think when he came out with his sack of loot and found his driver had done a runner?’
‘I haven’t seen him. I’m keeping a low profile till he calms down.’
That grin is starting to really irritate me. I think it’s time I took my leave.
‘Yeah, I can see the sense in that. I’ve got to go, Winston – work, you know.’
‘Yeah, see you man.’
I stand up and head towards the promenade. I figure I’ll walk for a while and get Winston out of my system. Only I don’t get far before I hear him call after me.
Everybody within a hundred yards hears him.
‘Fucker had electrodes all over him too, and he was covered in gel,’ he shouts, ‘head to fucking toe. Even his fucking...’
I turn a corner but not my head and walk towards the fresher air of the Sefton sea front. The word follows me and I imagine heads turning and watching me all the way to the sea.