Gates of Heaven, a short story by David Milner at
Tetiana Zatsarynna

Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven

written by: David Milner


He sits opposite me across the slatted wooden table. Short collar up on his pale grey slim-fit linen jacket. A faded Nike Just Do It tee-shirt underneath. He takes a gulp from his pint glass of Stella Artois. I’m warming my hands around a cup of black coffee. It’s an overcast type of day. He’s got blond streaks in his hair which, if anything, make him appear older. The waitress arrives, dark-haired and sultry looking, all of 20 years, waft of something this way comes like summer fragrance on her skin.

“Chickenburger and chips.” Says she.

“That’ll be me” says Leon, with his raffish smile. Fragrance only goes and smiles back at him, gives me a glance, as Leon adds, “He doesn’t eat.”

We were settling into our allotted spheres. Six months or so since I’d last seen him. There’s no sense of occasion here. Passers-by might think we were two middle-aged men on an old-style correspondence course searching for some idea of family.

“I’ve given up smoking.” I tell him.

“Happens all the time, Sean.” He uses a red napkin to dab the corner of his mouth. Slaps my fingers away from the scrawny blond chips on his plate, “Get your own, comrade.”

Most people don’t take us for brothers. We share the same biological father, as far as we know. Like most siblings, we’ve got our own version of events. Mind you, Leon’s memory is as reliable as a Ponzi scheme.

“Was that week in Yarmouth.”

We tend toward this fraught, knotted subject. Sniff around the air like dogs searching for something long buried.

“Wasn’t Great Yarmouth. Was Hemsby Beach Holiday Park.”

“She ran off with the hairdresser, all the same.”

“It wasn’t quite like that, Leon.”

“While Dad’s in Wakefield prison.”

He knew how to pull my thread, as I, in turn, knew how to loosen his. We’re more like old acquaintances.

Jackie and Billy – affectionately known as Bonnie and Clyde to the fellow travellers they met on picket lines – Mum and Dad to Leon and me, had come together in the tumultuous politics of the nineteen seventies, all super strikes, agitprop, and liberated sex. Billy was a coal miner from Derbyshire. Jackie was a nightclub entertainer from Bootle, Liverpool. So far so…. grim? Exotic dancer! They shunted and dragged us from smoky backrooms, debating halls, desperate I guess that one of us would carry on the (endless) dialectic. Many a night we were kept up late or couldn’t sleep from the adrenalin of fizzy drinks, from weariness, daring, neglect, forgetfulness. It was fucking great! Me and Leon growing through boyhood as Mum and Dad were growing into adulthood.

“We can’t ignore the fact they’re getting married.”

“I can if you’ll leave me alone!”

Billy had clobbered a copper during a street battle. Got 3 years for GBH. Because this capitalist world knows how to clobber the poor! Dad maintains that he was a political prisoner. That the trial was rigged. The fact was he put the policeman in hospital with a load of broken ribs and concussion. I’m certain it was Leeds prison. We never visited him. Dad forbade it. Not even when he was transferred to an open prison. Dad had been down the pits from the age of seventeen. He trained as an electrician and come the mid-seventies he was travelling between the collieries of South Derbyshire and Yorkshire working mostly on the surface buildings and electrical equipment. In the thick shit of it all, he likes to tell you. Never a good word for the “high-ups” in the National Union of Miners, Dad nevertheless rushed to the front once the battle lines were drawn. Men against men, right against wrong, going through the rituals of us against them.

“See that look she gave me?” Leon says, all mayonnaise chips in his chomping mouth.

And women shouldn’t fancy him, be drawn to him – he is my brother – not that I blame them…

“I did.” I reply, coz it’s true.

Jackie and Billy were never married, and Leon is convinced that she ran off to be with the hairdresser. It was that long summer of 1984. Leon was thirteen. Good looking then the bastard looked a bit older. I favour my mum’s side of things. Leon couldn’t care less (I almost believe him). I hand him an embossed wedding invitation. All he can do is stare at it.

Mum was twenty when she had you, I’ve told him this before. I know he hears what I tell him. I mean he knows this well enough. Gave up a modelling and dancing career. And he’ll shrug and say something like she put it on hold, blunting the sharp edges of my arguments.

“After all these years…” I think he’s going to let the thought hang limp as a leaf of lettuce, but he adds, “They embrace the sanctity of marriage.” He takes a bite from the chickenburger, smacking his lips as he chews. All these years and still a noisy eater!

Billy had clobbered a copper, hand-to-hand combat up and down a street of terraced houses. Dad swore blind it was a calculated raid on a legitimate meeting, set up by the double-dippers in the middle ranks of the NUM. He saw spies everywhere, passing on information to Government agents. Mum was angry at him for still finding the money to piss away on drink. She argued that the strike was turning people against each other, “It’s what the Tories want, Billy.” The rows were bitter and sad. I remember her tears and entreaties, “Don’t let them win… Don’t let them win.”

And lies can be evasions. Ask a policeman! And rationalised, ask a politician. Remember Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. Or Tony Blair. Sometimes the truth gets lost in the facts.

“Julian Assange…?”

“Long time though, Leon?” We pick up conversations from wherever they were left.

“Could have let his information out with a bit more circumspection.”

“That’s what you always…”

“I don’t waver from my lines, little brother.” He devours the last chunk of chickenburger, licks his fingers.

“Five years he’s been in Belmarsh prison.”

“He should be getting over himself by now.”

“After how many years at the Ecuadorian Embassy?”

Leon cracks up laughing, “Assange hasn’t been anywhere but his own fucking mind for twelve years, it’s beautiful.”

I swear he’s holding a chip the shape of the Gaza strip in his fingers which he turns ruminatively before sticking in his gob.

“It’s beautiful, you were saying?”

“He’s spent a lot of his life in rooms, hasn’t he? Walled in, his bug eyes flickering in the fake light of a laptop.” I give this a moment, let Leon continue… “Now he has made himself the object of veneration like he’s a Dostoyevsky type of great man.”

“You think?”

“You don’t? He loves it. Glamorous celebrities visited him in that shitty embassy.”

“Locked up for a dozen years, man.”

“Pamela Anderson and whoever the other…”

“Lady Gaga.”

“They’re not helping his cause… Celebs and their specious concern shit.” Leon is shaking his head and begins to bang the wooden table with the side of his balled right fist. “And here’s what I think, this is what I reckon… that we, well the British judicial system is actually protecting Assange.”

“You’re losing me, Leon.”

“This piss stain is just a hacker. And this common hacker has breached the military system of a superpower.”

“With good reason.”

“Bullshit. Whatever your moral stance, political persuasion, no one, no one should be getting away with that.”

“He isn’t… Hasn’t got away with it.”

“We must be shrewd with our global reach if we are to retain any influence. Let our nation be the bulwark of reason then, navigating the tension field with our inherent sense of proportion. Keeping smarty arse out of the clutches of the vengeful Americans.”

“Donald Trump might not see it that way.”

“And with Joe Biden, it’s Julian Asswho?” Leon breaks off into his eye-swivelling piratical laughter. A routine he’s been pulling for as long as I can remember. Sometimes he throws in the squawk of a naughty parrot. “We get the legal system we deserve. And here endeth the lesson, my child,” he intones. Stabs his left hand through the sign of the cross, grabs the pint glass in his right, gulps the last mouthful, “OooArrr.” He stands back from the table, glass in hand, “Come now, little brother.”
The easy smile gently crinkling the corners of his eyes, like we understand the way things are. I turn my head toward the grocery store across the road. I want to smoke a cigarette. I don’t want to buy a packet. These days you search high and low for a shopkeeper willing to sell singles (oh, for a cash economy). I cast my eyes about the tables hoping to see a packet or pouch of baccy among the plates and glasses of the other patrons but there’s nothing doing.

“I’ll buy you a pint of Guinness, Sean.” And he pats my shoulder as though we’ve been understanding each other for years.

I know he remembers. I know it’s been with him all this time since the summer of 1984.

“That barmaid….”

“She’s at least forty, Leon.”

“Look at her though.”

I look at her. She’s wearing a pale denim nicely cut studded shirt buttoned primly at the neck. Her reddish-coloured hair styled in a neat bun. Irish descent would be my first guess, and she’s probably into alt-rock. Leon’s approaching the bar, tapping the glass to indicate he wants the same again in the same glass. She’s already smiling, and she’s rather lovely. I spot a Cash King gaming machine by the wall at the far corner of the bar. You don’t often see them in pubs these days. Rattling spare coins in my pocket I head towards its bubble gum pink logo. Maybe I’ll strike lucky.

I know he remembers.

Growing up we weren’t allowed to drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi. The animated monstrosities of Walt Disney never got an airing in our (cramped, by memory) living room. For a while, we didn’t have a television set. Got smashed in, I think, during one of Jackie and Billy’s passionately protracted bust-ups. We were allowed to watch Scooby Doo. And Charlie Brown was OK (mum and dad were equivocating Trotskyites). Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s were boycotted. As kids, me and Leon had a lot to rebel against.

I know his memory like my own. No. I’m grafting mine onto his impaired stem in the hope it will take. I’m all metaphors, eh? Coz Leon’s feelings have calcified, and I’m chipping away… She’d left dad already by the time she took us to the Norfolk coast. Leaving the old ties and ways for a seaside romp where there was nothing to be obeyed or abide by just sun, sand, and the tides of the moon. Men were coming round the house, offering to take care of her, all wanting the same thing. I can still remember the venial smiles and smell of them. Late one night she packed the rusted, rickety Austin Mini Cooper with family essentials, and off we set eastwards for a long holiday by the sea, leaving a trail of debts and broken promises behind her.

Hemsby wasn’t like any seaside resort I had experienced. Had a religious or extraterrestrial worshiping cult needed a place to call home, this was it! The very skies seemed closer to the ground. Looked as though it had been thrown together as an afterthought, perhaps it was an overspill of cheap materials they couldn’t use in the better-known Great Yarmouth a few miles north along the coast. It was mostly chalets resembling small portacabins. There was a hairdressing salon that looked like a shed plonked on the beach. A grouping of arcades and little shops straight from a (technicolour) movie of the 1940s. I remember a tarmac car park and in the middle of this a cabaret club. One weekend a whole load of bikers descended on this crappy village by the sea. Rather well-behaved they were. I loved the place. Mum was happier than I’d seen her in ages. She started working at an ice cream parlour. Soon she was singing at the cabaret club. At the age of thirty-four and mother of two, Jackie looked good in a two-piece bikini. She had a glowing tan. Bleached her light brown hair to a thrilling platinum blonde. The compere at the club was soon introducing her as Hemsby’s very own Debbie Harry. Fun times! Jackie was reawakened. And our mum.

The Mini Cooper was a mid-1960s model and cranky. Always breaking down. A couple of blokes wanted to get under the bonnet. It was Danny who got the wheels rolling again. Good with his hands in more ways than one. The attraction was obvious, a surface-level shock of tingles and blushes. I guess she took him as an extra dollop of strawberry flavoured ice-cream on top of the cone. I wasn’t thinking of dad. Can’t remember writing a letter. Had no sense of him in a prison cell. The miners’ strike was reduced to half-heard news bulletins on the radio, lost in the cacophony of fairground attractions. Maybe mum didn’t want him knowing where we – his family – were. Leon has no answers. As far as Leon is concerned this period of our lives never happened.

I think Danny had been fired from a job as a Bluecoat at a nearby holiday camp. He was 22 or 3, working as a hairdresser through the summer. Nice looking, great hair. Into the electro-pop grooves of The Human League, New Order, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk. I thought him cool. Leon barely said a word to him. There was friendliness and no little sympathy in Daniel. He was no threat to a ten-year-old kid. Mum had a new friend. It was great. There was a chasm of raging hormones between me and Leon, and he was having adventures in Great Yarmouth. I spent most of my time on the beach with a sketchbook and pencils. I wasn’t a mixer. There was no one I wanted to knock about with. I ate loads of ice cream, chips, crisps, drank Coca-Cola and 7up! Put on weight (Leon remembers this). Leon talks a lot of shit. You see that summer of ’84 was a kind of re-birth for him. He looked older than his thirteen and half years and he cut a swathe with his sun-kissed pompadour. He styled himself between James Dean and Eddie Cochran. Older girls fancied him. Leon was a rockabilly. The Stray Cats, King Kurt, old Jerry Lee and Elvis, even older Howlin’ Wolf was Leon’s required listening. He wasn’t a hard nut, but he held his own. I was his kid brother; the fat budding Impressionist staring out to sea…

I know he remembers. He’s full of shit he says he doesn’t.

My coins eaten up I take my loss across the floor toward the toilets. Memories in the blink of an eye, like a movie that I’ve seen a thousand times retaining its capacity to surprise me. We’d taken adjoining chalets, mum in one, Leon and I sharing the other. Didn’t see him for days on end. Leon was getting back at all hours or not even coming back. When we were together it was oppressive. He didn’t want to be there.

“Danny is a ponce.”

“He’s okay, Leon.”

“A ponce.”

“Say it to his face.”

“You think I wouldn’t?”

Unity was broken. The three of us were growing apart. Not that I was fully aware of the facts or was able to express my feelings. Leon had replaced dad it seemed to me with his miserable face and raring up at mum. I had a load of sketches and drawings. My technique was improving. My personal favourites were the detailed drawings of the gas and oil rig situated a mile or so off the coast. To me it looked like it had been placed precisely from the skies. A challenge to my sense of perspective.

“You know what symbolism is, Sean?”

“What do you think, Leon?”

“You don’t know what symbolism is, do you. What does she think of this?”

“Mum? She thinks it’s great. Look at all the detail.”

“This fucking oil rig is the final nail in the coffin of the British coal industry.”

It was difficult as you might expect keeping sand out of the chalets. The sand would come in from footwear, clothes, towels, even your hair, not to mention open windows and doors left ajar. It was my job to sweep and clean the place. Didn’t mind, it was kind of comforting. Used to borrow a vacuum cleaner from some woman, I can’t remember her name.

I put on over a stone in weight that summer. A lot for a kid. Puppy fat. I never took my shirt off when I was on the beach.

Leon was at his best when he sneaked back to the chalet late at night. He’d wake me up. Or I might be half awake, already waiting just in case he returned. I’d smell alcohol on his breath, and the smoke on his tee-shirts, jeans or trapped in his rockabilly hair as though he’d smoked a hundred cigarettes at one go. It might have been hash or weed I was smelling, though Leon would not have mentioned this. I was his little brother. Leon was never a braggart. He was funny, relaxed, sleepy drunk, and very silly.

We never spoke of dad. In my drawings of the oil and gas rig I’d include a small simian figure crouching in a cage.

One night thinking I’d heard Leon sneaking into the chalet I hid behind a cabinet, intending to play a joke on him for a change. In the dead of night, you get used to the whispering sea. Waiting to surprise Leon, I heard the whisper of voices, the creak of a door, soft footfalls on the floor of the wooden porch. My heart was racing, I remember, and I remember thinking: is Leon bringing a girl – an actual girl – back? I peered out of the window. And they were naked. And they were rushing toward the sea. I left the chalet, leaving the door open behind me. As they picked up the pace Danny was whipping a beach towel across the tan lines of her bare backside. Her shrill laughter was unrecognisable. She jumped onto Danny’s back, her platinum blonde head rivalling the summer moon in the starless night. Danny moved quickly along the water’s edge… they stumbled into the sea, righted themselves, all arms and long legs, the wet towel a harsher whip across her flesh… they veered leftwards toward the grassy sand dunes, the laughter diminishing into impenetrable darkness. I didn’t follow them. The truth was undeniable.

So, I take my place on the barstool beside Leon. The pint of Guinness settled in the cool of the glass. The barmaid is wearing tight blue jeans and open-toed white strapped cork-heeled sandals. She’s serving a customer. Leon winks his right eye at me.

“You alright, Sean?”

“I’ll have a vodka.”

“Oh, yeah…?” Leon raises his eyebrows.

“It’s summer.”

“And there’s a summer of love ahead of us.” Leon says, raising his pint glass. I see the young sultry waitress passing the far end of the bar; she’s carrying a plate in each hand, one of which is piled with chips and what looks like lamb cutlets. The red-haired, double-denim woman is smiling right at me, and before I can speak, Leon is telling her, “A double vodka for my younger brother, please, Kim.”

It doesn’t surprise me that he knows her. What nearly knocks me off the stool, though I don’t show it, is the fact that she is holding the embossed, laminated wedding invitation card between her pale and dainty fingers.

“Hi there, Sean,” she beams, “It’s nice to meet you.”

I’d guessed she was of Irish descent, but her clear, pleasantly modulated voice carries no trace of an accent. I’m happy to leave it that.

“Sean this is Kim. Say Hi, Sean.”

“Don’t fall for that one!” she giggles, then asks, “And tonic?”

“He takes it neat.” Leon answers for me. I try not to notice the almost imperceptible look he gives her; but it was given and shared. It’s a quiet afternoon. The sultry waitress takes over behind the bar while Kim joins us.

“It’s not a renewal of the vows…?” She hoists herself onto the stool at my left.

“They were never the marrying kind, I’ve told you, Kim.” Says Leon at my right.

“Well, I think it’s just wonderful, wonderfully romantic.”

“A marriage made in heaven, eh, Sean?”

I want to kick him in the shin, “Or a little place within shouting distance.” Leon laughs heartily, I finish the vodka, and take a gulp out of the Guinness.

“What’s a fortieth anniversary known as, Kim?”

“Ruby. Why?”

“It’s forty years since the miners’ strike began.” Sean slides his left arm across my back and pulls me toward him, “Nice to see ya’, to see ya, nice, brother.”

“Well, it gives me the perfect reason to buy a hat!” She hoots with laughter, takes a sip from her glass of lime-flavoured sparkling mineral water. Leon loosens his hold…

“How is Felicity?” He smiles.

“She’s good, good, sends her love.”

We share a look we’ve known for years. A bearded guy with longish dark hair calls Leon by name, and Leon gets off the stool and goes toward him. I feel Kim’s fingers on my forearm.

“He’s thrilled, thrilled to bits.” She raises her bum from the seat of the stool and slides the wedding invitation card proprietarily into the back pocket of her denim jeans. “Not that he’ll let on.” Seated this close, she looks younger than forty. I imagine her singing over an acoustic guitar; a lilting ballad to compliment the double denim combination.

“Do you smoke, Kim?”

“No, sorry.”

“Of course not.” I smile and wonder if she has any acting experience.

“I can get one for you. The chef smokes.” She points her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the kitchen.

“I don’t want to buy a full packet, you know?” I can’t help shuffling my arse in the seat.

“You’re lucky.”

“That I smoke?”

“No,” she laughs and playfully slaps my shoulder, “with your mum and dad being… so vibrant and colourful.”

“I guess…”

“Sorry. I’m probably speaking out of turn.”

“No, Kim, you’re not.”

“I can’t wait to meet them.” She seems genuine.

I want to reply, ‘be careful what you wish for’, but settle instead on, “You will.”

Kim slides gracefully from the barstool, “Back in a mo” she says.

I glance across the bar and see Leon and his bearded mate; they are laughing, running through the tropes of brash sociability, or so it appears to me.

And he remembers how it all was.

I take the phone from the side pocket of my jacket. I send a message to my daughter Felicity.

with uncle leon. he sends his love. I’m ok. later. love x dad

Latest posts by David Milner (see all)