Restive this morning was Moira, his mother, and dressed way too cheerily in a pair of pink pedal pushers, complementing the cream and red-coloured short-sleeved sweater. Had a new fella on the go, perhaps? Steve was bleary eyed after the previous night’s revelry, though none too worse for wear that a bout of matutinal flatulence wouldn’t cure.
“What are we talking about?” Steve asked, finishing the last of his (burnt) bacon and toast; an offering that Moira had conjured all by herself.
“For God’s sake”, Moira sighed, stubbing a cigarette into the heart-shaped metal ashtray on the kitchen table, “The woman, I’ve been tellin’ you.”
It was a little after 10am, and too early for Steve to be dealing with his mother’s gibber. She used to get into states of agitation, flitting from one subject to the next, sentences left mid-air, scratching her elbows, forearms, slight buck of her teeth digging into her bottom lip, whenever she was expecting some form of contact with his father. As a kid it had been discomfiting to witness. Now it was the vagaries of middle age, or so he imagined. A psychic tango routine that might… never end.
“Uh uh”, Steve nodded, taking the packet Moira was proffering, as it crossed his mind that she might be in hock to some loan shark.
“The Devastated Woman, I was telling you last night or night before over the phone.”
“The Devastated Woman?”
“At the bus stop.”
“The Devastated Woman at the Bus Stop – now there’s a film title!”
“Oh, don’t be clever Steven, listen what I’m telling yer.”
Cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Steve picked up the plate, rose from his chair at the table and scraped the leftovers into the small plastic bin under the sink. He wasn’t in a rush to be anywhere else. He had all day, same as most days, to squander. “I’m all ears, mum” he said, returning to the chair and crossing his left leg over his right.
“I’ll all ears you in a minute! Listen, listen to this,” she was getting into her stride, “I’ve been passing her at the bus stop, most Wednesdays on me way to Pervy Patterson’s – oh, and she’s lovely looking Steven, fine looking woman, my age; my age-ish.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve added.
“Anyway, we get talking, after all this time,” Moira paused for breath, shook her head incredulously, “and strike up a conversation dead natural like we’ve known each other for donkey’s years, and she’s a fabulous looking woman. Same age as me.”
“And she’s devastated. ‘Devastated, I am’ she says, kept saying it, Steven, ‘devastated’, and you know me, love, I’m trying to stop myself from laughing. And listen, she’s been having it off with this fella; his mistress, kept woman like, and out of the blue, fifteen years, he turns round and it’s over like that!” Moira clicked her fingers emphatically. “Like that!” And clicked her fingers once again before adding, “It’s over, after fifteen years, a kept woman, life of fuckin Riley, everything bought and paid for, fifteen years, thank you very much – Over!”
“Go on”, prompted Steve, his interest piqued.
“You’ll never guess who it was. Who she’s been knocking off all these years, you’ll never guess …”
“How many guesses do I have?” Steve asked.
“Jack Burgess.” The amber pools of her eyes froze momentarily as though she were expecting the sky to collapse around them. A look that seemed to suppress as much as it revealed. “Jack Burgess.” she repeated.
It was a name he’d been hearing for as long as he could remember; a name that rarely failed to induce in his mother those hushed tones usually reserved for saints (of old) and the modern-day deities, the stinking rich, the fabulous and famous – the true winners in life’s tangled lottery.
“Jack Burgess,” Steve replied, the sibilance rattling his teeth.
“I nearly died… Jack Bur…gess.” She gasped, rolling her eyes, stretching the quivering fingers on her right hand to retrieve the super-king packet of cigarettes from the kitchen table, “Nearly died, I tell ya”, quickly lighting up in a flurry of middle-aged reverie, “…when that name came up!” Moira cackled, then coughed, then cackled a bit more.
“Jack – the millionaire, fund raising, pro-am golf playing, economic saviour of the region, all round pillar of the community – Burgess.
“I nearly died, I did.”
“Did you mention anything to the devastated woman?”
“No! Oh no. Where would I have started?”
“I suppose it was thirty odd years ago.”
“Hey, Jack Burgess could have been your father if things had – if the fates hadn’t intervened.”
“And that’s what I tell myself every time my benefits come through.”
Moira’s phone began to trill its tinny rendition of “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and she hurried through to the lounge to answer it. One of her business calls. She traded in second-hand goods, buying cheap, and selling cheaper, or passing on for what was never more than a meagre profit. It often seemed more trouble than it was worth. An ongoing battle with the conditions of her material existence; every other week there was a newish-looking sofa to fawn over, or a reclining armchair, or a glass cabinet – all things she’d finagled from some place or other, stuff that wasn’t going to be around long enough for the dust to settle, so that the new flat had come to resemble nothing less than the showroom of her restless mind.
Standing at the kitchen sink whilst washing plates, cups and cutlery, Steve looked out through the lead-latticed window and let his eyes roam dolefully over the placid lawns, the grass verges and undisturbed flower beds. It was a far cry from the North Road Flats where they had lived, mother and son, amongst the dusty old brick and rising damp, amongst the mayhem and tainted, desperate laughter. A far cry indeed, yet still the place he thought of as home. He didn’t blame his mother for accepting the first flat the council had offered her. The North Road was no place for a middle- aged woman. Not on her own against the rowdy, feral neighbours, half-arsed lazy prostitutes, thieving postal workers, obese children, distempered dogs, obese and distempered clouds! like you’d never guess the estate had been condemned for years. He only wished she’d let him know, consulted him, canvassed his opinion. It wasn’t a lot to ask. From his only mother!
He’d been away, what, barely two years? Bartending, and handing out leaflets, promoting club nights to intoxicated women in Magaluf and Torrenova. Getting only a suntan to nowhere fast. He came back to find Moira ensconced in a one-bedroom flat. There was no place called home for him. His mother’s main concern was focused on the fact that he’d managed to save five hundred pounds, like getting-by money. As if she had saved a penny in her life? When it came to deflection, and other iterations of bold denial, his mother was world class.
Steve’s hands were trembling, felt like the tendons and veins were coiling round the delicate bones, trying to break through the blessed skin barrier. He clasped them together in the warm foamy water. He wasn’t quite at the stage where the sight of a pretty flowerbed brought him to despair; he was merely on the verge of tears.
Tracey – his on / off girlfriend – was adamant that his mum moving into a one- bedroom flat was a symbolic act. Well, you’d never guess! It was an act, alright. Of defiance, rejection, and no amount of reasoning made it easier. His mother was incapable of putting her mind to anything that didn’t offer immediate gratification these days; had always been able to close her mind to troubling thoughts, like debt, guilt, negligence. What was done was done. The burden was his. Steve needed to get back on his meds.
A woman wearing pale blue dungarees, long grey hair partially tamed by a darker blue bandana, ambled barefoot across the lawn, carrying a brass handled watering can. The Hippy Chick (or Jennifer Juniper?) his mum had named her. Moira made fast friends; most of whom were soon out of favour. The Hippy Chick began to water the pinky blooms in one of the flower beds. He didn’t notice the shiny black Fiat 500 pulling into the parking bay…
He heard Moira’s voice from the lounge, “You’re here.” A moment later she comes gamboling into the kitchen, removing her housebound slippers, while breathily straining her neck to peer through the window. Steve’s eyes followed his mother’s and alighted on a tall svelte woman in a pair of shades covering most of her face. She was wearing a palish, floppy, wide brimmed hat and a lilac-coloured trouser suit. She pushed her backside against the door of the car to close it. (A coquettish blink and you’ll miss it move). Steve turned to his mother…
“This is the Devastated Woman?”
“You can drop that now, if you please.”
“I’ll get properly dressed.”
“Yes…” said Moira, distractedly, “…have a bath first.”
“I smell or something?”
“Frankly, you do.”
“What if she wants to…?”
“She’s not that type,” came a gnomic reply.
A ton weight of darkness covering thatched and slated rooftops, treetops, electricity pylons, sinking into the earth of the fields and spreading inexorably to cradle the distant, low-lying hills. Steve hated the countryside, and the ways of country folk. Inhibited within the bucolically beamed bedroom, Steve struggled to summon something essential to his need. She was alluring, had allured him, from the moment she removed those fabulous shades. (A week had passed). Steve scrunched his eyes, cleaving to the image of that first look, as a dull headboard against wall thud accompanied his sluggish thrusts, as vowels stammered and tapered over his collar bone….
I wa….nt you…Steeve…you waaant…th…is… Steeee….
His body lumbered. Rain falling. Heavier by the second, in syncopated sheets… A rhythm, granted from above, he could harness…
To a song he’d heard a million times, its beat pulsing through him surely and steadily now, keeping pace with the falling rain,
…Car Wash Wohohwohohwohohwoha Car Wash yeah.
Steve spread his fingers gently over her forehead, his palm across her open mouth, warm breath shuddering onto his wrist.
Into the darkness he cried her name.
Steve couldn’t remember falling asleep. Reflexively he stretched his limbs and yawned, ran his tongue over his dry lips and, opening his eyes, became aware of the noise.
“Alison,” said Steve, sleepily.
“Dead to the world you – you’re not on heroin, are you?”
Auburn hair fixed in a neat, tidy bun, wearing a loose fitting black and white striped shirt and a pair of powder pink, toweling shorts, Alison was lightly rouging her cheeks at the large, oak paneled dresser.
“Is it usually this noisy in the country?”
Alison’s head tilted backwards as she laughed. A fat rolled joint lay half-smoked atop the dresser, Alison picked it up and stuck it tight in the corner of her mouth. The noise had grown into a strange conflation of rattles, rolls and what sounded like… female anguish?
Sitting upright on the mattress, Steve demanded, “Hell’s goin’ on, Alison?”
Swinging her rump and long, bare legs over the cushioned dresser stool, her delicate feet landing wide apart at the edge of the bed, Alison took the fat joint from her mouth and calmly replied, “Take a peek out there, why don’t ya?” Naked, Steve opened the curtains at the (double glazed) window, “Oh Shit” was all he had.
A blue Volkswagen Beetle bobbed by. Desperate, baffled people in varying states of distress. A police helicopter hovering. Another helicopter, from a television station, no doubt, circling above an antiquated clock tower.
“Some night we had, eh, Steve?” Alison cackled. The whole village, everywhere he looked, waist deep in dirty brown water. “Shall we make this a regular thing, you and me?” She was saying, “no strings, of course, no hassles.”
She was a remarkable woman. Taking this so remarkably – and what about her motor, the nifty Fiat 500 with its tinted windows?
Steve turned to face her, but Alison was leaving the bedroom, to Christ knows where. Sheets and pillows were strewn across the plaid tartan carpet. Steve rubbed his lower back and noticed teeth marks on his left forearm. Alison was singing. Singing. Her melodically modulated voice falling and rising amidst the outside turbulence. Steve didn’t recognize the song; sounded like a show tune, confected by the likes of a Sondheim or Lloyd Webber. Remarkable, she was, though it crossed his – more than crossed – his mind, that Alison might be barking mad?
He had an impulse to tidy the bedroom, which, if asked, Steve would have described as neurotically enhanced pastoral. So, he gets to lifting a pillow from the floor, and Alison, she’s building to a show-stopping finish, when he remembers that he and her had shed their respective clothing in the lounge downstairs; that his clothes, cash he carried in his pockets, his pills and his phone would all be submerged, and lost, lost, lost. Steve clutched the laced cotton pillow to his chest and sank to the carpet. He heard a woman wailing, and a voice, managing to sound stentorian, through a crackling megaphone.
Hip swaying in Karen’s toweling shorts, boobs jouncing in one of Jack’s shirts, the smoke from her joint a wispy imitation of dry ice, Alison Hayward was reaching the climax to a long cherished, world-shaking song… Somebody Up There Likes Me…
Bowie wrote and recorded this track during his Philadelphia soul period – Luther Vandross on backing vocals – you can almost hear the whoosh of coke.
On a diminishing final note, Alison flicked the butt of the joint across the… Marital Bed? Karen Burgess was fifty-eight, and for years, according to Jack, had suffered with health problems. Mother of his three children, through how many years of crippling resentment, the pale-skinned mousy thing had earned her place in the dynasty. Alison wasn’t without sympathy.
Onto the bed she laid out a pair of slacks and another of Jack’s shirts. Steve was roughly Jack’s size, but Alison picked out a slim leather belt from the burnished metal clothes rail. M’laddo had all but torn her clothes off in the time it had taken to close the front door. So, all that lot was gone for good. Alison had kept hold of her Louis Vuitton soft leather handbag (vitals intact). The Fiat was no skin off her backside; a second-hand car every birthday, through fifteen years? Love you too, Jack. Earlier she had waded in the rising waters and rescued several bottles of expensive hooch, comprising, Courvoisier, Plymouth Gin, port, sherry, Johnnie Walker’s whisky. Mercifully, the flood hadn’t banjaxed the plumbing. Shower working, hot water running, so somebody up there recognized and appreciated a girl on a do-or-die mission. She was incandescent, underneath layers and years of superficiality, she stood for something greater than herself! Alison’s mind had the clarity of a sniper the moment before the trigger was squeezed; she was sublime; and she was dangerous.
Mr. and Mrs. Jack Burgess were holidaying in the Algarve. Building another fat joint of quality grass, Alison laughed, imagining the sight of Jack’s daughter, Rosalyn, in a frenzy of freckles, phoning Daddy B with the news that the detached, luxury, Grade 2 listed cottage was… devastated! Someone was banging on the front door. Alison’s eyes filled and sparkled with laughter.
“I feel terrible, Jack, just….” The language, or code of acquiescence she had learned through many a year…
“I’m sure you do.”
“Steven’s not criminally minded, Jack, every time he’s tried to, you know… he gets caught so easily.” …Managing the oversized egos (and fragilities) of men, like Jack Burgess…
“He volunteers at that homeless shelter in -”
“It’s on her, Jack, that fucking slag – sorry, I’m that annoyed – annoyed for you, Jack, goes without sayin’”. Akin to navigating a minefield, saying just the right thing at just the right time, most women, worth their weight in pearls, call it experience.
“She’s tricked the lad, that’s what it is.” Moira halted for breath. She glanced at the wide screen Panasonic: Lorraine Kelly was interviewing a guest, who wasn’t famous; even with the sound down, Moira could follow the gist.
“A strange coincidence though.”
“Isn’t it?” Moira shifted her weight from right to left foot as though readying herself for
a series of blows.
“And this coincidence takes some beating?”
“You’re within your rights to suspect everyone in your path. I respect that.” Her voice switched to a sombre tone, she continued, “As would anyone who’s ever known you.” Holding the tip of her right thumb between her teeth, she listened intently, for anything nuanced in the silence.
“I’ve decided not to involve the police,” Jack resumed, adding, “for now.”
“You have?” Moira tried not to sigh with relief, as she pictured him sitting in a dark leather chair, a long cigar in his fingers, ash thickening at the tip. She couldn’t recall the last time they had spoken at length. Steven would have been just starting at school age. “And how’s…?”
“Karen is holding up, thanks.”
“Bless her. You were saying, Jack?” There followed another pause. It was like playing chess, not that Moira had ever played, she imagined Jack knew the movements for his knights and pawns, though knowing him it was something fancy, like baccarat, he played now. “Jack?”
“What has she told you?”
“Crystal, or Alana or whatever her friggin name?” She had to stop herself laughing coz this Devastated Woman she’d met, had shafted old Jack, and shafted him good and proper!
“What has she told you?”
“Nothing. Nothing much that mattered to me, Jack.”
“Whatever comes out of her mouth, you cut it in half, Moira.”
“Oh, I’m hearin’ you. I’m hearing you there.” She’d recently bought a framed movie poster – The Maltese Falcon – an old, classic film starring Humphrey Bogart. Total fake some arsehole had put together, but someone would buy it. Lorraine Kelly off the telly would call it a “lifestyle purchase”. Hang it on your kitchen wall above the bread bin!
“Have you any idea where she might be?”
“Jack, as I say, I don’t know the woman.” Picturing his eyes narrowing as he thinks, or pretends to think, like he used to, getting ready to make a deal, buy a car, house, or pounce. Quick to temper back then. A casual cut of violence in him. His father (Jack snr.) had made his money in the slaughtering business; King of the Abattoirs, they called him.
“You’re at home, Moira?”
“I am, yes, not the old North Road”, she laughed, nervously, stalling, trying to figure out what this alpha male might have in store for her son.
“Belvedere Gardens, isn’t it?”
“That’s right, it’s marvellous, I’ve never been happier, Jack, it’s marvellous really.” she said in the same breath. “I’m sure we can sit down as old friends and work this problem through, because whatever the trouble is, my Steven is not the root and cause.”
“Oh, here’s me thinking we’re twenty years younger, we had our times, Jack…”
“What’s the address?”
“Twenty-Nine. Webster House, flat Twenty-Nine. What time will-?” Moira began, but Jack Burgess OBE had rung off.
Jack stared into the black hole. Wonder she didn’t remove the bricks in the shape of a heart. Missed a trick. Bitch. Was a time with you, old Jackie boy, when you couldn’t bear to think of her, left, on her own. Getting up to. Dirty laughter in crotch-less tights. Impossible nights you couldn’t be with her. Forensic grasp of detail she possessed. Cutting the house key. Simple. Working out the code to the security system. Cunning. Clever. Quietly strategizing for months. Seventy-Eight thousand. Pounds sterling. In 20’s, 50’s. Stash of cash. Real. Sexy. Old street style. Deep in the gut. Smell of it. In wads. Wrapped in clear plastic. Cracked the security code. Ready cash he needed. Jack heard the tilt and shuffle of furniture, tilt, shuffle, tilt. Rosalyn in the upper hallway. Ready cash he needed. Rosalyn to be married in three months. He’d let Karen design the interior. A project. Axminster carpets over the old wooden floorboards. Varnished the beams. Buffed stonework. Aga. Open fire. Polished brass. Rooms of burgundy and grey. Of hunting red and British racing green. Rosalyn had transformed the quaint sun house into a Japanese style tearoom. All turned to shit now. Getting married in three months. He fitted the loose bricks. One by one. Into the hole.
“Dad… Dad? Your phone!”
“Might be Mum.”
“Down in a minute.”
Old, discarded things filled the loft.
“What are you doing up there?”
Lehman Brothers. Royal Bank. Household names. Dead Wood. Toxic waste. Corporate maladjustment. Junk Bonds. Stock failing to maturate. Dwindled. Swindled, haven’t we all. Mervyn King, Stiglitz, Soros, didn’t see the second coming. Capitalism’s comeuppance. Who’s left to shoulder the consequences? Hogs to a bad market. Needed the money. Here and now. Costs to cover. People to pay. Off the books. Cracked the code. Bitch. At Glyndebourne and Ascot not a hair out of place. She looked… like she belonged there.
The dipshit seemed genuine. She’d told him the cottage belonged to one of her siblings. More concerned that he’s shagged the bitch. Nervy eyelids. Seemed genuine. Dipshit would be asked again. Take him to the gym. Pressure of a different kind. She couldn’t run forever. He’d find her. Woman like that. She’ll come up for air. Get to her when she is least expecting it. And all the sweeter for that, Jackie Boy.
“Dad, come on, it’s half past.”
Jack ran his fingers through his hair. “Ready, sweetpea.” Ash-blond, greying gently, sixty-two years of age. Ran his fingers through his hair, displacing dust. Grilled trout with almonds. Bottle of chilled. Turbot, maybe. Restaurant, On the Cliff. Under new management. Have a look. The loft was a place where old things ended up.
Moira hated the words, I feel humbled. She couldn’t stand the phrase. Scowled at the sentiment falling so readily from the mouths of television presenters, politicians, actresses; all friggin’ humbled when they meet, or hear about, some ordinary doing something extraordinary.
Peter had worked wonders, “You’ve worked wonders, Peter.” Moira said, happy for him, impressed by his efforts.
“It’s alright, Moizy, aye?”
“It’s more than alright!” Moizy, he called her. She liked it. Peter was a Glaswegian. Willie Winkie was her name for him. That was before. Before she herself had settled and got to know the lad. Homeless, on the bones of his arse, but was pulling through, blossoming even, with the help he was getting at the Faraday Centre.
“Aye, so yers reckon we’ll get a good price on it, Moizy?”
“Depends on what the auctioneer kicks off with.”
“Auctioneer?” Peter blinked incredulously under the peak of his baseball cap, so limp and sweat-ringed it looked like he slept in it.
Originally, Moira had a 70/30 – in her favour – split of any profit made. Now it was a straight 50/50, no question. Turning on the heel of her Reeboks, Moira moved through a stream of sunlight across the workshop’s hardwood flooring. At the open doorway, she called along a corridor toward the kitchen,
“Steve…. Steven, you got a sec?”
Steve shook his head softly as he looked over the reupholstered chaise longue. The leopard print shouldn’t have worked.
“Bran’ noo, ay, Stevie?”
Steve looked from Peter to his mother. “It shouldn’t work.”
“Shouldn’t, Peter. But it does, it really does, mate. It’s double Ace.”
“Didn’t know what a chayz long was did I Moira?”
“Thought it was a type of cheese!”
Moira’s phone began to trill its tinny rendition of “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, and she stepped aside to answer it. Steve sat in the chaise longue, stretching his arms across the back. He smiled at Peter. Moira was laughing. He was beginning to see his mother in a different light. Felt as though he was getting to know her, edging closer to a deeper, practical understanding. She seemed freer, less guarded, happier with her lot and daily grind. Whether or not this was a truer reflection of herself, he couldn’t say. Perhaps he was witnessing a late flowering maturity. Or is this how forgiveness feels? Indignation giving way to pity and mercy. Edging closer means precisely what it says.
“What’s fi’ breakfast this mornin’, Stevie?”
“Frittata, what’s that again now?”
“A Spanish Omelette in other words.”
“No garlic though.”
“Not on my watch.”
“Just another name, eh?”
Leaving the workshop, Steve glanced over his shoulder, and watched from the doorway as Moira and Peter turned the chaise longue toward the light streaming through the window. The thought that she had facilitated his tryst with Alison turned his stomach, but this didn’t stop him turning it over and over in his mind. Tightening her lips white with denial at his desperate entreaties, Moira wouldn’t countenance the idea. On the eve of his invasion of Troy, in need of clear skies and calm waters, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. Steve couldn’t find a male counterpart to Iphigenia. Steve couldn’t find his own part in his own story! Whatever his mother’s involvement, whatever she knew, or had concocted with this phantom woman known as Alison, Steve felt certain that he’d be the last to know. A trial of innocence through experience. In a thick sulphurous fog, we rely on our hands and feet to guide us.
He’d told Jack Burgess all that he knew: he’d carried a large canvas bag, which Alison hadn’t arrived with, zipped and bulging with belongings she’d saved from the flood. It was nothing to lie about. He had succumbed to the (fatal) charms of a Vamp, man-eater, plain old confidence trickster. Jack had hung her out to dry, hadn’t he? Dispensed with her services. Alison had wounded Jack’s pride and whatever else he could mull over. But men like Jack Burgess are built to bounce back quicker than most. Jack Burgess didn’t own the bricks and mortar, the steel and the wood and the glass of the Michael Faraday Centre. But the earth beneath was his. He owned the land it was built on. Had money measured in urban acres. The world economy shaken to its foundation yet righting itself and tilting favourably toward the men with power and land to lease, as the many of us scramble like ants collecting leaves.
In the kitchen, Steve is delicately peeling an onion – and happy he has the time for this – when his phone begins to ring. He briskly washes his hands and, using a paper napkin to dry fingers and thumbs switches his phone to speaker, allowing Jack’s gentlemanly mid-Atlantic sounding drawl to surround him. The man needed a driver. Steve was always available. Got to steer the wheel of a burgundy-coloured Daimler Super Eight (pure class!). Paying off a debt, as he might be for some time yet. He had cash in his pockets. Steve wasn’t making plans.
David's stories have appeared in Duality books, Friday Flash Fiction and performed on Resonance FM radio (UK). He was commissioned to adapt and direct his short story 'Into The Breach' for the 2021 Rise of the Resistance Festival, screened at Bloomsbury Theatre London. For several years he has worked in the public sector, mostly with homeless charities, in hostels and supported housing units. David was a founder member of punk band Vee V V. He finds his stories while he's out and about, or they find him... He lives with his wife and family in London.