:: Article

Meridian

By David Rose.

12.00 Right foreground broken by vertical bars of a wrought-iron gate of six foot height beyond which jets of water flower into plumes, blur of small bodies darting between. Across whole field of vision, distant railings to elbow height, glitter of water behind splinted trees.

Wide-angle: brick walls, windowed, at either side, at left paving slabs giving way to cobbles, recently laid. At extreme right the slanting plane of a stone plinth behind which stretch shadowed monumental wings.
(SAVE/DELETE)

With the non-appearance of my client I had time on my hands. I decided to walk back the long way, through the park, along the river.

I sat on one of the benches near the riverbank. On the next bench was a group of men of roughly the same age, probably alcoholics, certainly friends, not rowdy, not loud, simply conversing. I edged along my bench to listen. Maybe they noticed; I wasn’t aware of it. But after a few minutes there was a change in tone.

- I met Bob yesterday mornin. Said he’d seen Jim Anson go by in a stretch limo.

- Stretch limo my arse. That was a hearse.

- Jim’s dead? He didna tell me tha.

- He was winding you up. He’s dead alright.

Their talk continued in reminiscence of the deceased. But it struck me that the exchange was so stagy it could have been rehearsed. I had become, perhaps unconsciously on their part, an audience, a chance to shine.

Is there a sociological counterpart to quantum mechanics? Even by eavesdropping, however discreetly, do we alter others’ behaviour, even their memories? I was struck again by how essentially unknowable, unreachable, we are to each other.

The group broke up after a while, leaving one of them alone amongst the empties. When the others had disappeared, he examined the bottles, shook the cans, gathered and put them carefully into a bin. He returned, not to his bench but to mine, eager, it seemed, for more conversation.

Now I was quite definitely an audience. Without need of enquiry he proceeded to tell me of his life, his wife, who had long since left, his squabbles with neighbours, victories over officialdom. My facing toward him was all the stimulus he needed. I merely listened.

After a while he invited me to join him in a drink. I wasn’t keen, but noblesse oblige, and I did feel rather in need of one.

He stood up and walked carefully toward the railings on the embankment. I noticed what I at first took to be a tattoo on his back but which revealed itself to be a pattern of scars. His hair, though thinning, was shoulder length and surprisingly red in the sunlight, toning with the copper of his tan.

As he reached the railings a strange trick of light, caused, I now think, by the heat haze, made the air between us close behind him like a sliding door. I could just make out his shape as he knelt and tugged on a string.

He reappeared, shouldering through the density of air. He was cradling a dripping bottle of cider. He crouched and reached, pulling two plastic glasses from under his own bench, then sat down on mine.

I wiped my glass with a tissue as discreetly as I could, pretending to blow my nose, and held it out to the bottle as he poured. The cider was river-cooled, surprisingly good.

But he pulled a smaller bottle from the shirt at his feet, said ‘Splash of vodka in that? Can’t drink it neat,’ emptied a third into my glass before I could remove it.

Alcohol works quicker if you sip it slowly. I swallowed mine down. It made no difference. I tried to concentrate on remembering the density of air, aware of him talking, something to do with the Benefits Agency.

To the right of the bench the council have installed a water feature for children, sending six foot jets into the air whenever someone approaches. Someone had, and the light flashed and danced across the newly-relaid expanse of turf between fountain and benches. I heard him say grassed up and I said, Yes, they’ve done a good job, the public should be grateful.

I’m not sure why but he took sudden violent umbrage at my remark, swore effusively and snatched back the glass. I attempted an apology but by now he had sunk back into himself, into a remote zone of unreachable distrust. I got up and left him.

I looked back to the bench from the gravel path. He was already swallowed from my view by the shimmering heat.

Air pressure at sea level is 15lb. per square inch.

***

- I’ll go to the offy in a mo, get some reinforcements. It’s going to be a warm one this afternoon. These benches should be awned, or moved to the shade.

- They’re bolted down.

- Bloody typical, council. All that council tax, they worry about a few benches going missing, sod the taxpayer.

- You don’t pay council tax.

- Course I fuckn pay it.

- Your is paid by the government.

- Deducted out of my money, though. Course I fuckn pay it. Might be deducting even more soon. Someone’s shopped me to the Bennies.

- Who was tha?

- How should I know? Some nosy bleeder. Must’ve seen me doing that wall at 73, as a favour, like. Only repairing it to where those fuckn kids had pushed it over. Not like doing a whole wall from scratch, is it? They’re coming to interview me Tuesday. Early I hope.

- Tuesday Foxy comes out.

- Seen him, then?

- Wouldn’t let me in.

- Shouldn’t be sleeping rough at his age.

- He doesna have to. He’s got a gaff.

- Either way, no excuse for beating him up. What’d they expect to get out of him?

- You takes your choice, you takes your risk. Why sleep rough if he doesna have to?

- Likes the fresh air.

- Did I tell you this? I was talking to Jerry last week, says a mate of his knows of a bloke, younger than Foxy, living rough, dossing around, somebody bought him a flat.

- Flat what?

- A flat, a dwelling, an apartment, what d’you think?

- Just like tha?

- More or less. Touched him for a drink like, bloke starts asking him questions, how come he’s homeless, how long, and so on, so he tells him the story. Bloke takes him to an estate agent, buys him a flat. On condition he sorts himself out, cleans himself up. Only a small flat, course.

- Come on.

- True as I’m sitting here. Jerry says his mate swore to it.

- In the City, was this?

- Didn’t say. Only that the bloke’s rich, obviously, homes all over the world, appreciates his luck.

- Hedge fund?

- It’s a flat. No garden, is there?

- Christ, why couldn’t we meet someone like that?

- Because we’re not dossing, are we?

- So did he?

- Did he what?

- Sort himself out, clean up his life?

- Gather so.

- It’s no so easy, flat or not.

- T managed it, no help from no one. Will power. Put his life back on the even. Reckons he’s setting up a charity. Vagrancy outreach. Wouldn’t put it past him, neither.

- Yeah, but he’s still young.

- Too late, even so. Wife, pretty woman too, nice home, kids — she’s remarried now.

- So could T if he wants. Young enough.

- Jim Anson did, remember? Older than T. Doing well for himself now.

- I met Bob yesterday mornin. Said he’d seen Jim Anson go by in a stretch limo.

- Stretch limo my arse. That was a hearse.

- Jim’s dead then? He didna tell me tha.

- He was winding you up. He’s dead alright.

- But he was doing so well. On the wagon.

- There’s other things apart from booze kills you.

- I keep telling my doctor tha.

- What killed Jim then?

- There’s different theories. Don’t let this spill out. You know he married that woman, widow, with the ice cream business. Some say he was servicing the van, had it jacked up, like, jack slipped. But there’s word out he was cut up. Wasn’t just serving vanilla cones from that van.

- He was dealing?

- No way. Jim?

- Think he got those flash clothes from ice cream?

- You can make a fair pile in season.

- What about out of season?

- Told me he was out most of the year.

- Exactly. Who’d buy ice cream in the cold?

- Kids.

- It was the college he’d park himself by, not the infants.

- This really on the level?

- That’s the word.

- Christ. He’d ha lived longer staying drunk.

- Pity he ever met the merry widow.

- She didn’t come from the estate, though. Respectable road.
Semi-detached, curtains.

- When it comes down to brass tacks, most respectable people are fuckn bent.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Rose was born in 1949, living outside West London, between Windsor and Richmond. He spent his working life in the Post Office. His debut story was published in The Literary Review, and since then, has been widely published in small presses in the U.K. and Canada. Vault was published in 2011. Posthumous Stories will appear later this year.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 19th, 2013.