Chapter 1: Of snow, Christmas & Trouble
At three pm the clock in our town square chimed four deep tolls. Confused faces turned to the clock in the tower of the town hall. The juggler dropped his blades. The cries of the vendors quietened and Santa’s Ho turned to an impotent Ha.
I retreated into the frigid dark of Smelly Alley, the last toll of the clock putting me on edge. Was it three o’clock or four? Old Fred the fishmonger chose that moment to cross my path, our bodies colliding with a dull thump. Fred stumbled against his shops metal shutters, his keys dropping to the worn cobbles with a sharp clatter. I grabbed his arm to steady his gait, but he shrugged free and glared at my intrusion.
‘Yer making me late, you good for nothing pup.’ He hauled a large gold watch from his waistcoat, shook the time piece and placed it to his ear.
Seriously? Pup? Late? How could he possibly know? The silly old bugger walked with a white stick and the town hall clock was arse up.
The wind rattled at his drawn shutters. Litter cavorted with folk heading for the celebrations in the square. I stooped to retrieve his keys and he snatched them from my hand before I could stand.
‘Be gone,’ he muttered. His cane tapped at the cobbles as he turned and tottered toward the square.
I pulled my coat tight and readied myself for the festive madness. I was eager to chance a meeting with the bar maid from the Old Poet public house. Her shift had finished and she was known to purchase a coffee on her journey through the square. With luck I hadn’t missed her.
The butcher’s boy blocked my path. He carried a dead pig across his narrow shoulders and was intent on sharing his burden with me.
‘Easy, eh?’ I said. ‘You closing early?’
I sidestepped his blood stained apron, alarmed by the manic look in the dead pig’s eyes.
‘Is anniversary, in’it,’ he grunted. He turned into his shop and tried to smack me with the dead pig’s trotters.
What bloody anniversary?
A shout greeted the old Fred’s entrance into the square, causing me to flinch, jump even. Man I hated random noises. My nerves were pretty crap to be honest. My mate Tommy said it was my diet being inadequate. He reckoned living on cigarettes and vodka had to play havoc with your nerves. Tommy was no intellectual but my diet did lack fibre for sure.
I pulled the hood over my head and followed the old Fred’s steps. Fairy lights shone in the afternoon gloom. Sad droopy loops of tinsel glittered between the stalls. Vendors in Santa hats called out their wares and folk traipsed the frozen dirt bartering for a deal. Beneath the video screen a group of carol singers shared their festive bliss. Faces beamed with Yuletide cheer, welcoming the snow bloated clouds lumbering across the sky. The weatherman had promised all good citizens a merry and white Christmas.
‘Bugger their perfect bloody Christmas,’ I muttered. I was well aware my tatty coat and I stood no chance of surviving the festive season if snow dumped on our town.
Sam the snake charmer pushed past me rushing to book his pitch by the sad old tree outside the Ostere Gazette. I kept to the awnings of the trader’s shops watching for trouble and a glimpse of the girl.
The large video screen preached of ‘good times for hard working citizens.’
I laughed at the message as a Slotvak girl’s petite hand relieved a tourist of his wares. She smiled and winked at me before joining the flow of traffic, the wallet secure and her mind settled on her next kill.
A band of soldiers sat at the tables outside the Drunken Duck Hostelry. Their songs sounded loud and lewd. Ale mugs clinked, bodies embraced, but the boisterous play set the world on edge. Soldiers ruled and they liked to shoot stuff. A glass broke, a curse followed and a punch inspired a melee of drunken proportions.
I kept my head low, dodging the ruckus and the camera trained on the Duck’s tables. Me and the army had issue with my role in life. On my eighteenth birthday conscription called and I ran. I chose to live rough on the streets rather than fight the Man’s war on terror. The army and the Man have long memories and zero tolerance with recruits not willing to front a bullet. And drunken soldiers tend to shoot, badly for sure, but I didn’t want to be testing their aim.
A hand reached out and clutched at my arm. I swiveled on my right foot and buried my left knee deep inside my assailant’s gut. A loud oomph sounded as he doubled over and dropped to the ground. I ducked behind a bedraggled line of school girls, curious, but no way keen to learn my assailant’s identity.
‘Good times indeed,’ I muttered.
‘Ben,’ a voice called out. It sounded strained and urgent, yet familiar. I quickened my pace, keeping clear of the main camera and stopped by the first aid tent. Marvin sat leaning against the town hall clutching at his stomach.
‘I hope it hurt,’ I mouthed as he found my face through the crowd.
I hadn’t seen Marvin, my mongrel childhood mate, since he married the love of my life. Two years ago, the same day the army called, I ran from her rejection. For two long years I cursed the girl’s indifference to my passion. I buried my pain in the gutters of Ostere and wished plague and pestilence on the happy couple.
Over the top for sure and dead bitter, but it helped me sleep at nights. On bad days, with the alcohol flowing, I dreamed the sad, lonely dream of what if? And that scenario always turned out well for me. The wedding made the social pages and her father shook my hand. Marvin stood beside me holding the rings as my best man. There was a three tiered cake, speeches and me and her danced to a waltz type tune.
A family crossed my path and I used the two children as cover. Marvin struggled to stand, his back remained stooped as he searched for my sorry arse. The smaller child dropped her floppy eared rabbit in a mucky puddle. I stepped forward and retrieved the toy, brushing the dirt from its ears. With a smile I tucked the toy beneath her arm. She reached for my hand, but her mother, alarmed at my actions, yanked the leash and pulled her close.
I crept along Church Lane, my head turned from the town hall camera. A gaggle of coffee addicts sat at the tables outside Sylvia’s Coffee House. Tilly, the young lady I sought, stepped onto the sidewalk. She held the door for customers and the deep, rich aroma of coffee wafted into the square. She sat next to Sylvia and warmed her hands on her steaming brew. On special occasions me and Tilly shared the odd bottle of wine. I broke bread at her dining table. Many times I dreamt of breaching her inner sanctum, climbing the rickety stairs and surviving the night, waking tousle haired and hungry for the fry up in the morning.
Tilly liked me, but she harped on the prospect of her little Harry having a stable influence in his life. By stable she meant a man with a job, a roof over his head, a car and maybe a dog. I struggled with her criteria, but my mate Blacky owned a dog and I walked it on occasions.
The large cup dwarfed her petite face. She pushed dark curls behind her ears and smiled at the festivities in the square. As her gaze approached my position I turned my back and blended into the crowd and cursed my cowardice. Maybe later, after a drink, I thought, when the square was less crowded.
A half-naked man juggling flaming sticks blocked my path. His child assistant shook a hat in my face. The scattering of gold shekels slithering and clinking in its bottom taunted me. I had no money and the little shite understood there was no jingle to my pockets. He continued to hound me, stamping his foot and pretending to cry when I patted his head.
No one cared about my protestations and I didn’t need the drama. I cut across the square, weaving between dawdling bodies, and collapsed on the seat between the undertakers and the Ostere Gazette. Above my head camera three, yes I’d numbered them all, craned forward into the square. Its lens panned the populace relaying images to the large screen. I pushed the black hood off my head and released the vodka from my pack. The cheap liquor calmed my nerves. With a cigarette burning I kicked back against the cold brick wall, took a deep breath and calmed my heart.
My life wasn’t too tragic, I reasoned. I’d dodged the past, leaving Marvin crippled in the dirt. I’d witnessed the future, spying young Tilly sitting by the Coffee House. And my present status found me with a pouch full of tobacco and a chilled bottle of vodka.
Marvin broke through a crowd of folk gazing at the large video screen. He tugged a large black carryall as if it were a reluctant child. His grubby trousers stuck to his ankles and his thin summer jacket froze to his body. Raw fingers clawed at his trouser pocket and mucous seeped from his nose.
I pulled the hood over my head, took a quick sip on the bottle and bunkered low in my seat.
Walk on by, I pleaded.