Friday, 12 June 2020
Exclusive Short Story : The Other Side
With the recent demise of yet another on-line writer's group, this story is now only available here. I'll try and post something every week from now until publication. It's hard to believe that this story is set in my lifetime, yet for many people under 50, it's historical fiction. Anyway, please leave a comment to give your opinion, it doesn't have to be flattering. Warning; it's a little gruesome.
[Stephen McCulloch / Ayresome Park main entrance / CC BY-SA 2.0]
The Other Side
'I just can't hear the sound of their voices any more,'
Clitheroe exhaled, his lips vibrated like a child imitating a horse.
'It'll come back, it happens to us all.’ Palmester said.
His mouth tightened. He looked down at his nails. A manicure. Today. After Robert had finished moaning. And he'd finished humouring the idiot.Three empty bottles of imported lager stood on the round table in front of Robert Clitheroe. The lemon slices were arranged in a tri-lobate mush next to an unused beermat. Cliff was going to have one more black velvet and then he was off. Life was too short. Besides the table was full.
'It's alright for you,' Clitheroe stuck out a now thankfully immobile lower lip. Cliff sighed.
'Well,' Clitheroe began. Cliff signalled to the empty bottle and his own glass, then ran to the bar.
'Two more, Shane, then can you pretend there's a fire?'
'Too right, mate. Only canya pay off the bludger's bill?'
'Yes, yes, of course.'
'Ten bob, including yours.'
Cliff threw the red note on the bar and said, 'Better hit the fire alarm as soon as I get back to him then.'
The Aussie let him down. Some office girls came in. All mini-skirts and beehive hairdos. So Cliff listened to Robert complaining that the voices had stopped. He liked Robert. He was the only one of them to truly believe. Of course, he was quite mad. As mad as Leslie Flint. Doris hadn't been mad, though. Bad. Bad to the bone. It's no crime to give comfort, to allow the customers to believe. But you didn't try to fool a fellow listener. Not at all. Robert didn't try to fool anyone, except perhaps himself. And now he couldn't hear the voices.
They’d met up earlier in the day. All the way down Wardour St. the chatter had kept up. Cliff had wished he couldn't hear Robert's voice. A cab had almost run them both down outside the Coach and Horses on Greek St. He'd dragged Robert into the pub.
'I haven't got...'
'I've got enough for both of us.'
Three pubs later, Palmester looked at his watch. Blavatsky's would be shut in half-an-hour. Madame would wait for ten minutes and assume he wasn't coming. The nails would have to do until Monday.
'Palmester?' Robert slurred and mushed the 's'. 'Can I have a Mackeson?'
'Oh, for fuck's sake, Clitheroe!'
Robert crashed into the bar and knocked over two full pints of mild. Who drank mild in London? Cliff wondered. Then he handed over the cash to pay for the crew-cut fellows' drinks as well as his own. His friend had already sat down over by the piano. Thank God it was still early evening. The - frankly - burly King and Queen who insisted on singing 'Knees Up Muvver Brown' ad infinitum would have been too much to bear. Well, he was going to get Robert out before 8 o'clock, if it killed him. It was possible that Robert Clitheroe would soon drink himself insensible and that would do. Half-way down the Mackeson, Robert stood up, executed a few caracoles in the manner of a tired dressage horse and made his way to the Gents'. He bumped into a large man who seemed to be shouting into the wall-mounted phone. The penny coins seemed tiny in his fist as he pumped them one after the other into the slot.
'I'm dead, tell him not to call. Tell him to visit.' A voice said.
Cliff looked round. The two crew-cut gentlemen glared back at him. Neither looked likely to twitter in the quavering voice of an old lady. There was no-one else in earshot. The large man hung up the phone. Robert stumbled into him and bounced off, landing on the sticky carpet like a string-cut marionette. The big man lowered over him, but offered Cliff's friend a hand up. They came over to the table.
'Ge'm a drinkkk, I bummedinna 'im.' Clitheroe fell into his chair.
'Yeah, sorry about that. What can I get you? Pint?'
'I'd love a Babycham,' the voice was a rumble that must have started a long way from the mouth it came out of, maybe the seat of his trousers.
Cliff returned to the bar. The barman put two tiny bottles on the bar next to a half-pint mug. 'On the house.' He looked at the barman, a local this time.
'Reggie drinks on the house,' he shrugged and Cliff took the glass and bottles back to the table.
The three of them scarcely fit around the table. Reggie looked as though he was sitting on a child's chair. His suit looked very well cut and probably wasn't hooky. It was certainly better than Cliff's from Burton's peg. Was the man's name really Reggie? Or was it a bit of hero-worship for a namesake? The man was about the right age, but there was no twin in tow. Reggie picked up the Babycham bottles in one hand, the necks grasped between index and ring, middle and pinky; he poured them into the half-pint glass with some delicacy. He sipped from it as though it were fine bone china, little finger extended. Robert was snoring gently.
'Bit under the weather, your mate?' He flicked a glance at Robert's open mouth.
'Ah.. he's not exactly...'
'Ah, like that is it?' Reggie's mouth turned up at one side.
Palmester looked at Robert, eyes wide, 'No, no, nothing like that, it's...'
Reggie laughed, 'I don't care.'
'We're colleagues, of a sort.'
The big man looked from one to the other, 'Policemen?'
'What? No... haha! Something else, something else entirely.'
Palmester took a drink. 'Umm, Did you finish? The phone call, I mean, before...' he nodded towards the dozing Robert.
'No, well, I got through.' The Babycham was gone. Reggie stood, 'but no-one answered, not even heavy breathing. Just dead air. Drink?'
Palmester waggled the glass in his hand. 'Same again, don't bother with his,' they both looked at the string of drool joining the corner of Robert's mouth to his lapel. Reggie came back with the drinks.
'Ah, and the call, who..?'
'Oh, just Mum. Just felt the need to call, haven't spoken for a while. Don't ring that often, but regular, you know... usually once a fortnight. I just, well, I needed to call, don't know why.'
'Hmm, maybe you'd better go round.'
'Ha! Don't think so, she lives in Middlesbrough.'
'I don't have that accent.' He said the last two words in what Palmester supposed was an approximation of how people spoke up there.
'Well, yes. Can't you go, though? Shouldn't you go?'
'What's it to you?'
Palmester held up his hands. 'Yeah, you're right. None of my business.'
'I could go, I s'pose. Only... no car at the moment. MOT.'
It came out, surprising Palmester himself. 'I'll take you.'
'No, I couldn't. It'd take hours to get there - and what about him?' '
Don't worry about Sleeping Ugly, they'll wake him up at chucking out time and chuck him out. He'll get home. He always does.'
Reggie stood up, 'well if you're sure...'
Palmester wasn't sure, but he said 'it's the weekend' anyway.
Reggie slept from Peterborough to Scotch Corner. The big man could not possibly have been comfortable from the moment he folded himself into the seat next to Reggie. He'd looked at the Imp and asked if it was a Dinky Toy. Said he'd never seen one so close-up before.
The voice had come just north of Doncaster. 'Hurry,' it had said. While Reggie slept on.
'What time is it?' Reggie yawned, thought about a stretch, then thought again.
'Not bad, seven hours. We'll be there in an hour or so.'
'I've no fuel left. We're pulling in here.'
Palmester steered the Hillman into the grounds of the Hotel.
'I'm going to have a kip. We'll sort out some petrol in the morning.'
Reggie glared at him, but Palmester went to sleep anyway. He woke up at seven. Reggie wasn't in the car. The petrol might have stretched to Middlesbrough if he hadn't been in the car from the beginning. In which case, the car, and Palmester, would not have been parked outside the Scotch Corner Hotel at all. He laughed, quite sure he was still tired. It looked like rain, it should have been lighter by now. He jumped as the car rocked and the door swung open.
'Drive.' Reggie said, cramming himself into the car.
'Petrol... we need petrol. It won't even start on the fumes in the tank.'
'It's sorted.' Reggie glanced over at a Daimler Sovereign at the other end of the car park.
Reggie pointed out of the windscreen. Reggie's suit looked rumpled. More than sleeping in the car would make it. In the gloom, Palmester thought there might have been a stain on the jacket. Perhaps he'd spilled some of the syphoned petrol. Palmester swerved to avoid the jerry-can that most likely had come from the Daimler's open boot. He looked at the petrol gauge. The needle was showing full. Reggie must have filled the can more than once. They took the A66 eastbound towards Middlesbrough.
'We're looking for Ayresome Park Road, when we get there, it's near the football ground.'
Then Reggie went back to sleep.
Palmester pulled to the kerb in front of some terraced houses. Further down the street were some red-brick industrial units and at the end of the road the main entrance to the stadium.
Reggie shook his head like a dog bothered by a fly, 'Hate football. Always have.'
'What about your Dad? Didn't he take you?'
'Hated him too.' Reggie pointed out of the window, 'You need to go a bit further down, number 43.'
Palmerston turned in his seat, hands on the ignition, 'Now look-'
'Just get on with it.'
Reggie knocked on the green door.
'Haven't you got -'
'No, haven't lived here since I was twelve.'
Palmester guessed that was at least 20 years ago, just after the war. A shout through the letter box flap produced no reaction whatsoever. Reggie straightened up, balled his fists and ground them into the small of his back.
'I'll see if Mrs Jessup still has a key,' he knocked at the door of the next house along.
Mrs Jessup had moved on, apparently. A young woman came out, headscarf around her head, cigarette glued to a bright red lip and a toddler on her hip.
'Whatta yiz want, like?'
Reggie coloured up, 'Ah, do you have a key for Mrs. Duncan's next door?'
'That old witch? No, no ah don't.'
The door was shut firmly but not slammed. Palmester was surprised that Reggie hadn't jammed a foot in it. 'What now?' he asked. Reggie stared down the street at the football stadium.
Palmester heard the wavering voice again, 'Hurry UP!' He ran a hand across his face. This was ridiculous. He'd always laughed at Robert Clitheroe's fancy that he really heard the voices. Every show was a disaster. Even the fools at the Spiritualist Churches thought that he was faking. However, they lapped up every cheesecloth ectoplasmic manifestation that Palmester and all the others paraded before the gullible bereaved. And now he was hearing voices.
Palmester jumped as the green door swung inward with a crash. The Yale lock had parted from the frame with the lock-set still engaged. The smell was bad. Mostly cats. 3 arched their backs the minute Reggie stepped inside. Palmester couldn't smell death or corruption. Just strong cat's piss. The stairs went straight up from a tiny square of flooring. To the right was a door to a lounge. No carpet or linoleum was visible. Every square inch was covered in piles of newspapers. A door on the far side led through to a kitchen. More a scullery, Palmester reckoned. Reggie was shaking his head.
'What a fucking state! She'll be upstairs.'
The stair-case was narrow, Reggie hardly fit between the adjoining wall and the banister. Palmester followed him up. There were two bedrooms upstairs’
'Loo's outside,' Reggie said. One of the doors wouldn't open more than an inch.
'More newspapers,' Reggie said.
Palmester tried the other door, it swung wide. There was an extremely obese woman in a single bed. The room looked tidy, if not clean.
'Mum!' Reggie's voice sounded like a twelve-year-old's. Palmester recognised the other voice,
'Took yer time, eh?'
But the mummified remains' lips did not move.
Reggie's hands were round Palmester's throat,
‘thanksmum,thanksmum,thanksmum, long time since you got me one, thanksssssss!'
Palmester heard the old woman's voice for the last time,
'Welcome to the other side, Mr Palmester.'