Staring at the blank page

Short stories and flash fiction by Nick Armitage

The perils of celebrity

I didn’t know how long he’d been in my house, he could have been sitting there since yesterday. 

‘Who the fuck are you?’ I said.

‘I bought you a gift. I’m your biggest fan. This is what fans do’ He held up his right hand, keeping the fingers tight in an angry grip around the object, keeping it hidden.

‘No this isn’t what fans do, it’s what mental people do and you’re not my biggest fan. She lives in Leicester. Her name is Joan. And it’s six-thirty in the morning. It’s very early.’ The sun was so low in the sky that half of the night was still on the horizon.

‘Old name. All the Joans I know are dead. Crawford. Of Arc. Collins. Is she dead?’

‘No, but it’s hard to tell. What do you want? I don’t keep money in the house.’

‘Not money. Your life. Not to kill you, not like that. The life you live. I want that life.’ He looked down at his straining hand. ‘You married a model.’

‘A supermodel.’

‘What?’

‘I married a supermodel.’

‘Why do you, you people?’

‘Because we can.’ His hand was tighter still. I wanted to see whatever it was. I pointed to his hand. ‘You could have posted it.’

‘No. The post office loses things. I don’t want anything to get lost. So that’s why I came here, to see you, in the flesh. To your home.’

‘You have to be asked into someone’s home. Like a vampire. But no one invites vampires in because no one likes getting the life sucked out of them. Like this.’

‘Sun’s up,’ he said and he smiled at me. I looked out of the kitchen window and watched the sun slide out from behind a cloud and shine on him.

‘And I’m not dust.’

His left hand dropped below the edge of the table and when he brought it up again, it was holding a gun.

‘I could blow you away,’ he said. He unfurled the fingers on his right hand and in his hand was a cork topped vial of a viscous red liquid. 

‘Can you see this?’

‘Yes.’

‘Type O.’

‘Leave your blood in the bin and fuck off.’

He put the vial down on the table and focussed on the gun.

‘I wanted you to see me. You people never see us. You say you do but don’t. You don’t know us. We don’t matter. But we’re somebody. And we know you. You take up space like gods. I made you. Do you see me?’

‘Leave your blood and go.’

‘See me,’ he said.  

‘I see you.’

‘Remember me.’

‘Why? I don’t want to remember you. Nothing about you is memorable.’

‘I will make you remember me, I will always be in your head, always on your mind.’ He put the barrel into his mouth so that only the dull handle remained visible and his head exploded across my kitchen and whatever else was on his mind filled the room with disappointment.

Ends

Mr. Ray is a sharp-dressed man.

Mr. Ray is a sharp-dressed man.

I’d finished my shift and then we’d sat about and somehow got into a discussion with Terry about old people. I was against them.

‘You’ll be old one day.’

‘Not like them. I’ll be a different old,’ I said. ‘Kinder. I won’t be a mean and bitter old person. They all are. Always. So condescending. You just make the drinks,’ I said to Terry. ‘I have to go up to them. Serve them. They can’t tell the difference between service and servitude. You’d think for all that I fought for men like you shit 

‘Why do you hate them so?’

I hate them because ‘well done’ they say as I take away an empty plate. Yes, look at me, I’m achieving! ‘Oh well done.’  It’s an insult in disguise, dismissing me,  talking to me as if I’m an idiot and it is always the old ones, patronising echoes of ‘I was in the war at your age and yet here you are, scraping my plate’, that sort of nonsense. Bullying because they are old and afraid and don’t understand and say things like ‘youth is wasted on the young’.  They should be glad I’m there to help them. And when one of them had said this to another one, not even to me, I said,  ‘Every whore was a virgin once.’ Then they called the manager to the table and I was fired. ‘Old people,’ I say to Jody. ‘Cost me my job.’

‘You cost you your job.’

Jody thinks she is right but  Jody is also a carer for old people so has some skin in their game but she is an honest friend so can’t diss her.  She says it’s great to be a carer. I guess she’d say that about anything that keeps her from going soft-brained. She’s a single mother with an annoying weird kid who runs everywhere and gets up real close when he talks to you, and when he’s that close you can also see that he’s got unfortunate skin. Any respite from him can only be a good thing so, to me, this makes her unfairly biased. 

‘Do you have to wipe their bums?’ 

‘It’s not like that,’ Jody says. ‘They’re not helpless. They want company or taking out. Visiting. Like, I’ve got one guy, Mr. Ray. He’s amazing. He’s blind but you know, he made films back in the day. So I go round, pick him up, we say goodbye to his wife and then we drive to his girlfriend’s place. And when he’s done, I dress him and drive him back.’

‘His wife, she’s on board with this?’

‘No. It’s our secret. If she found out he told me she’ll divorce him and he can’t afford another divorce. She’s very pretty. Younger than him. I can see why he wouldn’t divorce her. She’s very elegant.’

‘If she’s so fantastic  why’s he playing around?’

‘Habit, he says. He’s old school. It’s expected of him. But still, it’s best kept secret.’

‘It’s a fifty-quid a poke secret.’

‘Quite a secret.’

‘Extra?’

‘Extra.’

‘Maybe I like this oldie. How old is he?’ I ask.

‘Eighty plus. He was in Korea. He talks about that a lot. Never talks about the movies,’ she says.

‘Why was he in Korea?’

‘The war. He was in the army.’

‘What war? Where even is Korea?’

‘Next to Vietnam, I think. Around there.’

‘Eighty and blind? Poor bloke. What’s the point?’

‘He’s anything but. Sounds like he led a life. Still leading it, obvs.’

‘What kind of movies did he make?’

‘I don’t know. Cop stuff I think. Aren’t they all? There are photos all over his house of him with people and big cameras and umbrellas.’

‘Did he know the greats?’

‘I don’t know,’ Jody says and looks at me. ‘Like who?’

‘Ask him.’

‘I don’t know any of the greats.’

‘Ask him. More importantly, ask him what he does with this girlfriend.’

‘I think they do it. He’s very strict about routine. He lies down when I dress him and he always wears odd socks and you have to get that bit right. He’s pretty mean about it. I insist on being correct. That’s his excuse.’

‘Back up the old man truck. You dress him?’

‘Yeah. He’s naked. At his girlfriend’s place when I get there. So I guess they’re doing it or something like it. Dunno. But I do know, he wants his socks on first. Socks first! He’s put his socks on like that since his film days, for luck, he says. Red on the right foot, blue on the left. Always the same. Red on the right. Blue on the left. His wife told me that every day she dresses him, every day it’s been the same and he still tells her, ‘the red one on the right. I’m so scared to get it wrong. I keep repeating it to myself ‘red on right, blue on left’ even though I’m not supposed to be doing it.’

‘Sounds like a cult.’

‘Imagine getting it wrong.’

‘He wouldn’t know. How would he know? Somebody else would have to tell him. Your socks are on wrong! So? What about the wife?’

‘What about her? She doesn’t know anything. I don’t know where she thinks we go. To the cafe probably. She never asks me. Just says, did you have a nice time? Very pleasant he says. I mean, I’m just supposed to take him out and do whatever he wants. Then I get paid. Cash.’

‘Plus the fifty?’

‘Plus the fifty.’

‘This guy sounds great,’ I say and I rub my hands together because it feels right and it feels like the universal signal for making money.

‘Imagine that though Jody, years of that. Socks, they’re just socks. Poor woman. I like him though. I should meet him. Now I haven’t got a job anymore, we should set it up.’

Mr. Ray is wearing a grey Prince of Wales check suit, a  white shirt, a red woolen tie, and polished brown brogues. Jody introduces me and Mr. Ray turns his head to me. He’s movie star handsome, he looks like Montgomery Clift and I wonder if he knows and so I tell him. 

‘I know’, he says. ‘But how do you? You don’t sound old enough.’

‘Look at me, I’m not that young’ I say. It’s Jody who looks at me and mouths ‘blind, remember?’ 

‘I can look at you but I can’t see you. You sound too young to know any of the real actors.’

And now I’m wondering who he knew. ‘I’m big on the ‘fifties. I’m a film spoof too,’ I say.

‘A what?’

‘No. Not spoof. What’s the -’

‘Buff. Film buff. BUFF. Your friend is not very bright, is he, Jody? How do you cope with his ignorance?’ Jody says nothing, and now I’m wondering about that silence too. 

We drive to Mr. Ray’s girlfriend’s place and Mr. Ray goes inside, dismisses us with a limp but I notice a well-manicured hand, and then Jody and I  go to the cafe to wait.

‘And the wife doesn’t ask? How was your coffee, what did you do?’ 

‘No. I barely register. I’m amazed she knows my name.’

‘How long?’ I say to Jody.

‘An hour. We go back in an hour and I get him ready.’

‘Why doesn’t she do it? The girlfriend.’

‘I don’t know. I never thought about it.’

‘But he’s naked?’

Jody buys me another coffee and we sit and talk. After forty minutes Jody’s ‘phone rings and she has to go. It’s her annoying weird kid and he’s done something annoying and weird at school with another kid to back that up, and she has to go now and make things unweird, and so can I get Mr. Ray and take him back to his wife? 

‘Have I got to dress him?’ I say.

‘Probably. Tell him I’m sorry. This is important. Just go back when it’s time and ring on the door.’ 

‘No.’

‘Thanks.’ Jody leaves me the car keys and some money.

‘Eat something,’ she says. ‘You don’t look too good.’

When I get to the house the girlfriend shows me upstairs to the bedroom, where  Mr. Ray is lying on his back, naked. I’m not sure what to do so I ask him and I tell them that I’m there because something’s happened with Jody’s kid. The girlfriend leaves the room and I am alone with the naked Mr. Ray.

‘You made it. Well done. That fucking kid of hers is a nuisance. Should put the spastic in a home,’ he says.

‘He’s not spastic. He just won’t talk. And does weird stuff.’

‘Does it matter? He’s a problem child.’

‘Do you need help?’ I say.

‘What do you think? That’s why you’re here. Earn Jody’s money. I need to dress now. You’re in charge of wardrobe.’

His clothes are on a frame that is also a coat hanger and a trouser press, it’s pretty neat but also menacing.

‘It looks like an instrument of torture,’ I say when I see it.

‘I wouldn’t know. Get a move on.’

‘You’re missing a shoe,’ I tell him.

‘Under the bed,’ he says. ‘Did you find my socks?’

‘Yes.’ I take his left foot and pick up the red sock.

‘Red on the right and -’

‘I know.’ I hold up the red sock and flag it in his face and then because I think it’s funny and what does he know, I put the red sock on his left foot.

‘Don’t interrupt me. Red on the right,’ he says. ‘Say it.’

‘This is the red one see?’ I hold up the blue sock and put it on his right foot. 

‘Good. Well done.’

And there it is. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Well done me. I’m achieving!’

‘What?’

When he’s dressed, Mr. Ray takes a comb out of his inside jacket pocket and combes his hair and when he is done he looks exactly like he did when we picked him up. Everything is perfect, nothing is out of place and the break on his Oxford bags is enough to hide his socks and it’s like our little secret but he doesn’t know that we have one.

‘Achieving? I doubt you’ve achieved anything. If you had you wouldn’t be here. Let’s go. Action!’ he says. 

I get lost on the way back and when I pull up at his house, his wife is outside.

‘You’re late,’ she says. 

‘Jody had to go. I got lost.’

‘Jody’s never late. Or lost and I don’t pay her to go elsewhere’ she says. ‘Mr. Ray has a schedule. He likes to stick to it. I hope we won’t be seeing you again.’ I start to explain about Jody’s weird kid but Mrs. Ray tells me she’s not interested.

I stand in the doorway and help Mr. Ray across the threshold. Mrs. Ray stands back and she is scanning his body appraising him from top to bottom, but I’m wrong, she’s looking for clues. A warm, licentious murmur had slipped from her lips as he brushed by her, but there is a cold silence now because her eyes have reached his ankles and as he walks, the break is not enough and his trousers flap around his ankles and his socks are beacons of his deceit.

‘Stop Johnny. Stand still.’ She bends down and lifts up the leg of his trouser. ‘The red is on the left,’ she says. ‘Why is the red sock on the left foot?”

‘Is that true?’ He asks me. 

‘Oh. You’re asking me? Am I the judge? Let me see. Yes. Mmh. I guess. Why? Is it important? It’s a sock.’

‘Perhaps you got it wrong this morning,’ Mr. Ray says to his wife.

‘No. I didn’t. You promised me you’d stopped this,’ she shouts at his blank face. ‘You said that you weren’t doing this anymore.’ She turns to me.  ‘There’s nothing else for you here. Tell Jody I will telephone her. She’s complicit in this.’

When I meet Jody later Mrs. Ray has already called and she won’t be paying her for today or any other day. Me on the other hand, she’s instructed Jody to make sure I never set foot near her fucking husband again. 

‘That’s what she said, ‘fucking husband,’  Jody says before telling me that I have to help her look for a new job.

‘Well done’, she says. “Now I’m unemployed.’

‘You see, you say well done and, even though it’s sarcastic, it sounds okay coming from you.’

‘Something with the elderly. They soothe me. God knows they’re good. Young people just don’t care. Like you. Everything is a joke but not a funny one. Why did you do it?’ She says. 

‘He did that well done thing and you know how I am with that. It’s patronising.’ 

‘What?’

I try to explain again, but Jody won’t hear any more.

‘Well done? You idiot. When he says it, when he says well done, he means it. He was glad that you were helping him.

ends