Of snow, Christmas & Trouble
At three pm the clock in our town square chimed four deep tolls. Faces turned to the clock sitting high in the tower of the town hall with a communal look of befuddlement. I retreated from the lull in the Christmas festivities, stumbling backward into the frigid dark of Smelly Alley, and collided with old Fred, the fishmonger, as he locked away the rancid odor of fish for the day. His keys fell with a sharp clatter to the worn cobbles, and he cursed with a hiss. I held my hands out in apology, and bent to retrieve his keys.
A frigid wind rattled the drawn shutters of the shops housed in the narrow alley. Litter cavorted with the folk heading for the celebrations occurring in the square. The old fishmonger craned his head upward, opaque eyes staring at the clock in the town hall. He pulled a gold watch from his waistcoat, shook the time piece and placed it to his ear.
‘Yer making me late, you good for nothing pup.’
He snatched at the keys in my hand.
Seriously. Pup. Late. How could he possibly know? The silly old bugger walked with a white tap-tap-tap stick and the town hall clock was arse up.
I pulled my coat tight, and brushed at my hair, eager to enter the town square and chance a meeting with the bar maid from the Old Poet Public House. The butcher’s boy blocked my path. He carried a dead pig across his narrow shoulders and seemed intent on sharing his burden with me.
‘Easy, eh?’ I said. ‘You closing early?’ I stepped backward, not keen on touching the blood stained apron, and alarmed by the manic look in the dead pigs eyes.
‘It’s anniversary, isn’t it.’ He grunted, and tried to smack me with the pig’s trotters as he turned into the shop.
What bloody anniversary.
A shout greeted the fish monger’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 intellect but my diet did lack fiber for sure. Most days I woke with the shakes so bad, I had to breakfast on alcohol, pouring until the shakes left me hands.
I pulled the hood over my head and followed the old boy’s steps. Fairy lights shone bright in the afternoon gloom and sad droopy loops of tinsel glittered between the stalls. Folk traipsed over the frozen dirt wearing caps of green and red with white trimming as vendors battened the hatches against the chill wind invading from the frozen north. Carol singers armed with a battery of flat sounding tunes wandered through the crowd sharing their festive bliss. Faces beamed with Yuletide cheer, welcoming the snow bloated clouds lumbering across the sky and dreaming of a 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, following the perimeter of the square, watching for trouble and a glimpse of the girl. A large video screen preached of ‘good times for hard working citizens.’ I laughed at the message as a Slotvak girl smiled at me, winking as her petite hand relieved a tourist of his wares.
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, eh, and they liked to shoot stuff. A glass broke, a curse followed, and a punch inspired a melee of drunken proportions.
With a quick two step I passed the Drunken Duck, keeping 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, choosing 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 concerning recruits not willing to front a bullet. 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 walked on, ducking ahead of a line of 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, her father shook my hand, and Marvin stood with pride beside me holding the rings as my best man.
A family crossed my path, and I used the two children, straining on leashes as cover. Marvin struggled to stand, his back stooped as he searched for my sorry arse. The smaller child dropped her floppy eared rabbit, and I stepped forward and retrieved the toy, tucking back beneath her arm.
I crept along Church Lane, my head turned from the town hall camera, watching a gaggle of coffee addicts sat at the tables outside Sylvia’s Coffee House. Tilly, the young lady I sought, stepped onto the sidewalk, allowing more customers to enter and the deep, rich aroma of coffee to escape before closing the door. She sat next to Sylvia, and warmed her hands on the steaming brew. On special occasions me and Tilly shared the odd bottle of wine. I broke bread at her dining table and 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, so she said, but she harped constantly on the prospect of her little Harry having a stable influence in his life. By stable she meant a man with a job and a roof and a car and maybe a dog. I struggled with her criteria, but my mate Blacky owned a hound and I walked it on occasions.
The large cup dwarfed her petite face. She pushed her dark curls back behind her ears. As her gaze approached my position I turned my back and cut behind a crowd gathered before a half-naked man juggling flaming sticks. His child assistant shook a hat in my face, the scattering of gold shekels jingling and taunting me to contribute. I had no money and the little shite understood there was no jingle to my pockets, but he continued to hound me. He stamped his foot and pretended to cry when I patted his head, bawling to the world like I’d hit him.
No one cared about my protestations, so I cut across the square with haste and collapsed on the seat between the undertakers and the Ostere Gazette. Damn child knew I was hole-in-the-shoe poor, and the little shite thought it clever to make me out to be a prick for not giving.
Fuck him. Fuck them all.
Above my head camera three, yes I’d numbered them all, craned out into the square with its lens panning across the populace relaying images to the large screen. I pushed the black hood off my head and released the vodka from my pack, lit a cigarette and kicked back against the cold brick wall.
My life wasn’t too tragic, I reasoned, and I felt at peace. I’d dodged the past, leaving Marvin crippled in the dirt. I’d seen the future, represented by Tilly, and I had a pouch full of tobacco and a chilled bottle of vodka.
Marvin broke through a crowd of folk gazing at the large video screen, tugging 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 back over my head, took a quick sip on the vodka bottle and bunkered low in my seat.
Walk on by.
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