“Your old guy’s been found dead,” said Rik, handing her a newspaper cutting. Angie’s heart sank as she read:
A NEIGHBOUR DIES ON THE SEVENTH FLOOR – Mr. Reginald Hogan, 70, was found dead in his seventh floor flat after council workmen broke down the door…
“Can I keep this?”
“Sure – hey, Ange…” Rik put a hand on her arm but she felt icy and distant.
“Thanks Rik, but not now.”
She put the cutting in her bag, made an excuse and walked away.
Rik stared after her, turning a crumbling, white polystyrene cup of cold coffee between his fingers. He wasn’t responsible for the system, he just had to bloody work in it – getting from one day to the next was about all he could manage. She had great tits, though. In fact, she rated quite highly on his personal smut meter. He sighed.
Back in her room she re-read the report, still feeling numb:
…from receipts found among his clothes police believe he died about six months earlier, in June or July…
She recalled that last evening on the 6th of June, Mitterrand standing by the monument.
…the council was aiming to evict him because he owed back rent. Neighbours said they thought the strange smells were the drains…
Outside the mid-January snow drifted in the half-light of afternoon as she looked at the date of the cutting – some Friday in December. She read on:
The council only entered the flat after complaints that water was leaking into rooms below. The police have yet to trace any next-of-kin. They found no photographs of Mr. Hogan or his family at the flat. A spokesperson asked: is it our job to be responsible?
Her suitcase and bags still stood unpacked. Bugger Birmingham. She shouldn’t have gone and now it was too late. It was over. She lay down on the bed staring up at the yellowed plaster through a haze of tears.
The place where Reggie had lived when Angie found him was for people with ‘high care needs’. But there was an atmosphere of malaise and lethargy.
She remembered him saying:
“My mother looked after us – me and Lucky – gave us things – now most times I smoke and watch TV, or listen to my radios. Yesterday I went for a walk on the Common and found some dog-ends. Sometimes I look up words in the dictionary.”
Residents watched TV, stared into space, chain-smoked and drank tea.
One man lay on his bed all day, the door open, his head at a strange angle.
Angie was told that he swallowed odd metal objects, but nobody knew why. Rik said that just two of them – Rik and Gorman – were trying to develop a ‘social occupation and work scheme’ for the residents.
“There’s no excuse,” he said, “it’s terrible. When we go off duty Reggie locks himself in his room.”
“There’s always a danger of aggro – you can’t stamp it out – only reduce it to some kind of minimum level…”
Angie recalled the case of Jennifer Pearce, another graduate volunteer, stabbed to death by a resident about a year ago. She put the thought from her mind and tried to think about Reggie.
As boys Reggie and Freddie had always been together.
Freddie – three years older – dominated everything. He enveloped Reggie’s world like a father. Sometimes he was bullying and taunting – he always took the lead. Freddie was the favourite. Reggie always got the blame. Reggie was never in the right place. Freddie always got a helping hand. Reggie had to fend for himself and turned to Freddie for help.
For some reason Freddie was called ‘Lucky’. Reggie was just Reggie.
He remembered how Freddie had shown him a dead cat in an alleyway, somewhere round the back – a stinking glassy-eyed horror. Reggie had had nightmares about those glassy eyes – and the smell of decay.
He could smell something now, as he lay on the floor. Perhaps someone will come soon. That girl perhaps. What was her name? Ah well, perhaps not.
He gazed up at the cracks in the ceiling. He gazed at the window of fear.
Memories closed in. Hazy, dim memories but also vivid, sharp, memories – like those glassy eyes, or his mother smacking him. He always got the ‘good hidings’ (perhaps that was why Freddie was called Lucky) and as she slapped him she shouted “I work my fingers to the bone for you!”
He recalled grazed knees and the cold floor of the scullery in that bad winter when milk turned to ice. He recalled the frightful cough – the never-ending coughing in the closed room upstairs. The he remembered the look on his mother’s face as the weeks of coughing turned into months punctuated by doctor’s visits.
Short trousers – cardigans with holes – wretched hours of boredom called childhood – all gone now, thankfully; it was all just a jumble of memories.
Faint noise downstairs.
The old woman next door died suddenly.
Then, his father.
At the funeral he stood aside but Lucky stood close to their mother.
It was a rainy London graveyard – a bleak, spacious but overgrown place, with wide, gravel paths.
“A blessed release,” muttered some female (she thought the boys couldn’t hear), dressed in black, clutching an umbrella and his mother’s arm. “Never liked that vicar,” she muttered under her breath.
“Yes a blessed release – never been the same since – well, you know…”
Reggie knew – they never talked about it, but he knew anyhow – the old chap had ‘copped it’ in France, in the lungs – and now, these fifteen years later, he had finally given up the struggle. His mother stared at the Victorian gravestones – she had a pale drawn, cruel face, a face like death. For Reggie she became the image of Death – what stupid memories!
It was that girl’s fault, always asking questions.
Why him? Perhaps she needed him to talk for some reason – still, she was quite kind.
“Call me Angie,” she said – seemed the right sort of name somehow.
He felt so stiff now. The floor hurt his back. He was still staring at the window of fear, there was a glittering sphere as well, it reminded him of those glittery mirror balls you used to see in dance halls.
Huh, dance halls; memories, stupid memories.
Wiseman hounding him on and on – that was persecution, that’s what it was. Wiseman was a bastard – and Reggie never got a proper job after that – not what you’d call ‘a proper job’ anyhow – not that Wiseman’s work was ‘proper’, everything off the back of a lorry – still, he was just the driver so why should he care?
He could still hear her (or was it Babs?) carping on and on “Why don’t you get a proper job?” All that was after Lucky had gone.
Dad gone. Lucky gone.
There was nothing left for her except him, and he was no good. Why was he the one to get through and come back? Why him? She kept asking. Why him?
He looked at the ceiling but it was all getting a bit wobbly.
He thought of Angie’s blue eyes and her notebook.
He was some sort of ‘case history’ – daft – what’s the use?
He could hear both of them. Not just her but the other old vulture-presence, croaking: “He’s no use, Jessie.”
He knew what they were thinking all right. Why couldn’t he have died instead? That’s what they were thinking; it was probably what they were saying – behind his back.
Rik helped Angie get him out of ‘high care needs’ and into ‘the community’.
“Are you sure he can cope?” She asked Rik
“Fine time to start asking questions like that”, he said. “It’s all fixed… anyhow he’s not actually a psycho…well not yet.”
Yes, she thought, he can cope. Just about. He’s not that dim. He’s seen a thing or two – he won’t talk to Rik – he only talks to me – and then not that much – still, anything’s better than ‘high care needs’.
He’s got his radio, and he’s got his TV. It’s quite a long way up, but the lifts haven’t been vandalized at least not yet – just covered with obscene graffiti like KROME HATE or FUCK YOU MISTAH or SHIT or HEIDI WOZ ERE and stuff like that. Still what do you expect? So long as he gets his bit of pension (or whatever) he’ll be ok. Look in on him – spend a bit of ‘quality time’ with him. You know the sort of thing.
Rik was thinking: good old Ange! – Nice figure, bit odd, though – bit of a ‘campaigner’ – still you never can tell… great tits.
What will he eat? Milk – fry-ups sometimes – Complan is quite good. He can still go out for his walks on the Common looking for dog-ends.
Getting him in was easy. He had no things to speak of. Place was sort of furnished. Bloody hot weather. They all sweated like pigs that day but in the end he was set-up ok. He’s got his radio (can’t get FM now, but so what?). He’s got his TV with its twisted wire aerial – Rik managed to get it going but the picture was a bit dodgy.
Nasty, cramped kitchen. Yellow Formica-topped table. Pale wooden chairs with dirty blue plastic seats – concave backs with slats that dug into you. There were some cups and a tarnished old kettle. At least the electrics worked. And there was toaster.
He’d be ok. Or, else he’ll end up on the Psycho Block… and so will workaholic Angie if she carries on like this.
“That cow Bottomly was on the box again last night,” said Rik. He did a passable imitation of Jeremy Paxman: “I’m sorry Mrs Bottomly, but it is quite a simple question, are you going to answer it or not?”
Earlier there had been an item on keyhole surgery and body-scanners. Mrs. Bottomly said how ‘projections’ show that three out of four NHS beds will be phased-out. Her sensual mouth curved up at the corners in a mocking smile: “We call it The Health of the Nation, thank you.” She was a just a talking head against a background of tower-blocks and distant lights of slow-moving traffic.
Rik got Gorman to hand over Reggie’s records for Angie’s case-study. It was the usual dismal saga. Occasional treatment for asthma. Hospital in 1969, aged 45. Broken arm. Broken fingers. Serious bruises: involved in some sort of brawl picked-up by police – couple of detox sessions while sleeping rough in Central London. By this time he was just another hostel dweller. A drifter on the welfare circuit – some sort of drink problem. Hospital for a second stay – this time with a serious chest complaint (emphysema) in 1973. He had a bad time during that stay – became very disorientated and tried to walk out.
Taken ‘into care’ on a ‘temporary’ ticket he seemed to melt away in the gray world of deprivation. The rest we know. Oh, employment? Says ‘van driver’ or just ‘driver’.
“Not very revealing, is it?”
Angie photocopied the papers and shoved them into her folder.
“Well, thanks anyway,” she said.
“Don’t I even get a smile?” asked Rik, “after all I had to twist Gorman’s arm you know.”
She gave him an exaggerated smile – she was really fed up with his predictable gambits.
“C’mon Angie,” he said, “ Lemme getcha cuppa coffee or something…”
“I wonder what happened in 1969?” She asked, looking at the notes again.
“Who knows, why not ask the old guy himself?”
“P’raps,” she said indecisively, sensing a taboo area. Reggie wouldn’t want to talk about it. “Well, thanks anyway…”
“Thanks a million yourself,” said Rik with a hint of sarcasm. She hoped he wasn’t going to touch her arm again. He didn’t.
Lights on all round the clock – but the staff were more human on the night shift. They hated him because he was the wrong kind of patient. But he learned not to ask questions.
There was a pain grinding into his back.
On the floor he was reminded of that awful bed – and the cold.
He hated the place. He hated the drug round, and the bedpan routines.
He spent all day yesterday seated in a chair, the slats hurt his back. They called it rehabilitation.
“Got to keep you sitting up now Mr. Hogan, haven’t we?”
The pain in his back was still there. The mist in his eyes was new.
The pain in his back was a black hole into the past.
Thump of letters through the door. Junk mail and demands for rent. Not anymore.
Memories of stinking hospital toilets mingled with gray, Victorian graves, a young lad wheeled by unconscious on a trolley, a transistor radio on all night in the next bed, Mr. Khan down by the door with his hysterical muezzin calls at three in the morning.
“Shut up darkie” bellowed a loudmouth down the ward, “We’re tryin’ to fuckin’ sleep aren’t we?”
Mr. Khan moaned audibly for five solid hours – the rest of the night and into the next day. Too cold – need another blanket. No chance with the strike into a third day. The laundry wasn’t working so they gave him a paper one instead.
Metal pain in his back.
He tried to move his legs.
All he could see was the ceiling or the underside of a blue kitchen chair.
Eyes can’t focus anymore. Close off into welcome, sightless blackness.
The pain in his back was like screwdriver skewered between the shoulders. It wasn’t Mr. Khan moaning all those years ago – it was him – now – his own voice – an enfeebled transmission across the wasted decades.
The others on the ward were all hostile. Yobs with tarty girlfriends, or smart-alecs chatting-up the nurses, indulging in macho exhibitions of injuries. They watched TV all the time – loud, violent movies – or read cheap paperbacks about the Russian Front – who wants to read trash like that in a ward full of broken bones?
Reggie kept coughing. He retched up his sputum into a dirty curved plastic dish perched on his chest.
During ‘rehabilitation’ time he would think about Babs – painful thoughts – she should have wounded his pride, but he didn’t have any.
He thought about Babs quite a bit but less now than he used to.
Where was she now? That tired old question.
There was a brief moment when he actually thought she cared about him. Is she shacked-up with some other fool? She was no-good that one. He had realized that soon enough. But he let it drag on, watched it fall apart, why not?
Last time he was in hospital was after that duff-up in the pub. That was her fault. Babs and her little, half-witted sister, they liked the leering NF skinhead Oi Boys. They went to football matches.
They picked the fight.
“Oo yoo lookin’ at then wanker?”
“Is this the geezer?”
“The one who walked out on our Babs?” And so on.
Babs had soon walked out on him. Left him with the bed-sit and her piles of cheap magazines.
“This country can do without you scroungers.” The NF moron said.
Now Reggie kept coughing: the weeks turned into months.
He was being poked in the ribs. He tried to back off, but in the end something snapped.
“Is this the geezer?”
There was broken glass. The frightened landlord called the fuzz.
Too late. Down. How did he get mixed-up in this?
“Oi! Oi! Oi!”
They first met in a caff – she was waitressing – he wondered if she was On The Game but he never found out. She seemed to like him at first – but there was something. Perhaps it was him – he was no good.
“You’re no good if you can’t…”
He heard her tittering with her sister:
“Reggie can’t…get it up…” Titter, titter.
Something snapped. He went for the throat but they soon got him down.
Bit of a rukus. Bit of a barney. Get the boot in. Break him up.
Searing pain in the arm and fingers. They stood on his fingers.
Her pale face reminded him of death.
Rain-sodden cemetery – old Victorian headstones – croaking vulture voice.
More broken glass. Landlord pleading for calm. By the time the cops arrive the morons had scarpered into the dark – they smashed a window somewhere – happens all the time round here and what do the cops do about it? Nothing. Not a bloody thing. Sod all.
Never heard any more of Babs.
Rik had been landed with Hanna, a disabled girl with a swastika cut into her face. The girl had told Gorman how she’d been attacked by thugs – her mother told the community psychiatrist that she cut herself up with a flick-knife. Rik got all the good jobs.
No time to think.
No time to think about Reggie lying there on the seventh floor. Eyesight fading to black – the pitch black of another night – Johnny-boy screaming in the dark – tracer-fire across the sky – theirs was red, ours was white – what a bloody firework display –
“For Chrissakes Hogan!”
Oh god the screaming would give them all away.
He could hear the screaming again now. First time across the years.
Would Angie ever come? She was no good.
Somewhere a flare went up.
Not a flare at all. Johnny-boy was carrying phosphorus grenades. Oh God. Corp. was pinned down to the right. They were all waist high in some sort of field. Who’s mad idea was this anyway? Knacker, Blink and Jonesy all gone now – just Hogan, Jimmy ‘Crazy Jim’ Jensen, Dash and Maxie left and the whole bleedin’ Wehrmacht up ahead – now they had reinforcements pouring in – we‘ve had it easy up to now – this was worse than the previous day – crack shots in the darkness picking of the British, like it was some shooting gallery. They couldn’t believe their luck.
Just don’t know how we got across the beach yesterday – the beach was called ‘King’ – the one next door was called ‘Love’ – an insane whirl of action and dead-cat stink of death in the houses – blazing vehicles – and the nightmare memory of those glassy eyes. Shattered street sign reads LA RIVIERE – more smashed houses up ahead – paralyzed civvies liberated into hell. Knacker went stark-raving blood-mad, massacred anything and everything, chucking grenades all over the place.
“Keep that Knacker bastard out of my way,” snarled Jensen.
“You’re no good” The phrase hammered into his skull.
Knacker never came back.
Oh god, where was Lucky? Grok, the clown would get through.
Smithy was hit they second they landed. He pounded out, blazing away. One minute he was there shouting “Ok Reggie-boy?” The next second he was gone, a twitching blob drowning in the reddened sea, screaming. She was –
It was Johnny-boy, burning on barbed wire.
“For Chrissakes Hogan do it! Do it!”
It was Jensen. It was orders.
He didn’t think anymore. He just fired with cold precision. It stopped the screaming.
Dash grabbed hold of Reggie.
And dragged him to the ground – icy numb in the mind – no time – where was Lucky? Wrong beach. And it was Johnny-boy screaming, but then Reggie fired the shots – sometime afterwards, the War that is – it must have been about 1951 – Dash looked him up.
“You can’t just sit around here,” Dash said, “not after all that, Reggie-boy…”.
He was drinking milky coffee in the front room.
“What happened to Lucky?”
“Dunno – never did know – Reggie was vacant.
Dash had pulled him out as another flare went up – another stutter of deadly fire from behind – Dash had dragged him to the ground, screaming. It saved him then.
Who was screaming?
Footsteps on the concrete floor outside. Here, then gone.
His whole body jarring and shuddering. Torn uniform.
But Reggie seemed vacant – and that was the last of Dash.
For a time he saw their faces at night: Grok, Knacker, Jonesy, ‘Blink’ Potter, Smithy, Jacko, Dash, Maxie and Corporal ‘Crazy Jim’ Jensen – eventually he reverted to dreams of glassy eyes and dance hall mirror balls.
He came home eventually but she treated him with barely concealed contempt. Bombed-out while the boys were away, all she wanted now was new life, a life with Lucky safe and well. Living on sufferance in another’s house, she even said it to his face:
“Now I’m stuck with you…”
There wasn’t even a grave.
Lucky was a hero but there wasn’t even a grave.
Lucky’s group had been hit direct by mortar – blown to unrecognizable bits – he didn’t like to tell Dash about it. Love Beach had been no picnic for the British – there had been Crocodile flame-throwers and total mayhem. It was possible that Lucky’s bunch had been done for by our own side – these things happen – still she said he was a hero – and not even a grave – all Reggie did now was stare at the dreary streets of Slough – she called it Slough of Despond. He sometimes thought of Dash saying “You can’t just sit around here.”
But he did. Years trickled by with the hollow security of self-induced amnesia. He knew she didn’t care, even when he shut himself in his room and pulled the curtains because he didn’t like the window.
When she died he had her cremated locally in Slough because he knew she hated the place so much. He paid out for a shabby memorial rose bush and even visited it once – between jobs – driving for Wiseman. Not a ‘proper’ job – wherever she was he wanted her to disapprove.
He read newspapers. He got himself a room somewhere well away from Slough. Slough was a real dump in those days. Saw the ad in the paper. And that’s how he got the job with Wiseman. Delivering stuff. But after a year or so Wiseman started to needle him, putting the knife, saying he had his hand in the till, saying he was ‘the wrong type’. Too much the quiet type to mix it with the lads. Finally he was sacked and went down the boozer with some bloke (can’t remember the name now).
What else? Fish and chips, probably.
Faint noise from downstairs.
Rik was in the canteen drinking coffee from a polystyrene cup. Angie sat down.
“I’ve told Gorman I want to go for the Birmingham thing,” she said.
Rik said “This is a bit sudden. What about the case-study?”
“Gorman said that it’s okay. He thinks I’ve done enough to show them. It’ll probably help.”
“But – well, how long is it – it’s not a permanent thing it is?”
“Could be – you never know.”
We can’t get the volunteers now like we used to,” said Rik. “Cut-backs everywhere these days.”
“Oh, you’ll find someone – and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be back.”
“You know it doesn’t work quite like that Ange… Hanna’s a real handful,” said Rik, elbows on table.
“But it is a better job – I’ve got to think about these things.”
Rik had been dead sarky lately and chasing some other skirt – Angie didn’t like to think about him outside the work situation – it was better that she went to Birmingham – give herself a break – he was probably a bit peculiar with women, you know. Career move as well.
“You wouldn’t get back into ‘high care’ very easily”, Rik said.
“Well sometimes you just have to take a chance,” she said, lighting up. There was a small, metallic, blue foil ashtray on the table between them.
“Oh yeah, Enterprise Culture.” said Rik scathingly.
That evening she called on Reggie and found him watching the highlights – no sound – just the rather dodgy picture on the grubby Japanese TV set ‘borrowed’ from ‘high care needs’. The bent-up, wire indoor aerial wasn’t really up to the job, but even so she thought the war graves looked immaculate.
Tell him tomorrow.
Would he understand? After all it was a better job.
There was Mitterrand in front of the memorial sculpture making a worthy tribute speech in French. The Japanese TV mangled the subtitles. The picture flag-poled in both corners. Reggie just watched.
He had hardly said a word all evening. Not a good thing to watch, she thought – but what can you do?
She couldn’t really interfere – it was his TV after all.
“Oh yeah, Enterprise Culture.” Rik’s taunt stung her, but you had to be realistic. Rik was in a dead-end. The whole thing was a dead-end. They told her at University – don’t stay too long in one place, they’ll think you’re a no-hoper underachiever.
“They’ll close down the place and sell it off to Group 4,” Gorman had said once – it was supposed to be a joke but that was the way things were going these days.
Tell him tomorrow.
Gorman will get someone else to look in on Reggie.
Things weren’t that bad yet. She’d pop in and tell him tomorrow.
“But why Birmingham?” Rik had asked, incredulously.
“Because it’s where the work is,” she said, “don’t bug me, Rik.”
The war graves looked immaculate.
Angie mooched across to the window and stared pensively at the nocturnal panorama; at the gathering gloom and the sleeping city.
The urban sky was the colour of dust.
Not now – tomorrow.
A C Evans