Staring at the blank page

Short stories and flash fiction by Nick Armitage

I can pay you cash

(This short story first appeared in Lunate magazine)

A man squatting at the bottom of a set of stone steps with an M-14 rifle balanced on his knees is not the something that I expected to see on the path down to the beach, but there he was. The gun was complemented by a black beret, khakis, and high-leg tactical boots. We were in Zihuatanejo, not set aside in its own ‘beware’ box as a known war zone, in the Rough Guide to Mexico.

‘Did you see him?’ Bill said.

‘Rambo? Yeah. I saw him. He’s nicely accessorised, I’ll give him that.’

‘Odd place to see a soldier.’

‘He wasn’t a soldier, but that’s some fashion statement,’ I said.

‘Not a soldier? Really? You can always tell, you merchants of death,  always spot one another ?’

‘You can tell. It’s like a brotherhood. You can tell. How’s your hand?’ I said to Bill to stop him talking about that stuff.

‘Fine. Looks like I’m accessorising. Bandages can be beachwear. It’s my hand. I’ll be fine. And dry.’

‘I didn’t see the other knife,’ I said. ‘Sorry about that.’

‘You said. Still bleeding. Still hurts.’

After spending that day at the beach we walked back up the path. Our skin was hot and sand, whipped up by a late afternoon light wind, stuck to the errant sun cream on our legs. We walked slowly and sometimes into each other because we’d been drinking five-dollar buckets of beer all day. A child had ferried the beer to our sun loungers as soon as we waved a hand and this we found amusing and it had opened up our wallets.

‘How much do you think that kid makes?’ Bill said.

‘The beer kid?’

‘The beer kid.’

‘How much did you give him?’

‘A dollar a bucket. On top of the five. We’re going to need to make some money quick if we carry on like this. I’m nearly out.’

‘A US dollar a bucket in a third-world country. There were what, ten or so others on the beach?  So fifty bucks a day. Maybe we should work his job if we need cash. That’s good money.’

‘In a third-world country.’

‘In any country. He’s no more than ten years old.’

‘If that.’

‘What do you think he does with the money?’

‘Dreams big.’

We reached the steps where earlier we had seen the man with the gun. There was a man with a gun there now, but not the same man.

‘Different guy, same gun.’ 

‘Third world country, probably have to share the death. What’s he guarding?’ Bill said. ‘Looks like a house.’

‘It’s a hotel,’ I said.

I walked up to the hotel door. The man with the gun didn’t stop me so I carried on through and Bill followed me. Inside the hotel it was cool and I stood in the cool air and looked around. To my right was a corridor where the white walls and evenly spaced heavy wooden doors. To my left, the room opened out onto a terrace with a view over the whole bay and on the terrace, there was a party going on. A group of men and women evenly numbered and dressed in that expensive evening cocktail party drinks way that the rich slip into comfortably, were holding up glasses and talking and taking canapés from a circling maid.  In unison, their faces turned to us. Not one of those faces was under eighty and most of the men had hard, tanned, creased faces, most of the women didn’t.

‘Young people! Hello.’

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Sorry. We were  passing and saw the man with the gun, actually, we saw him this morning and I’ve been curious all day, so I thought I’d see what was going on and then we saw it was a hotel so we came in.’

‘Of course. Of course. Come in. Nothing. Do. I’m Francis.’

He moved away from the group and stepped towards us. He was tall and thin and hard-bodied and he was dressed in a garish Versace shirt, his sleeves billowed with gold and red. His trousers were made of white linen and they flapped around his thin legs like sheets in the breeze whenever he moved.

‘Do have a drink,’ he said. ‘And you,’ he said to Bill. 

‘That’s very kind. What’s going on?’ I said.

‘Not at all. It’s my birthday. We’re celebrating. What would you like?’


‘Beer,’ he said. Another maid, who I had not noticed before, came out from a room behind us, carrying two cold bottles of Modelo Especial.

‘Here,’ he said and he took the beers from the woman and gave them to us.

‘Join us,’ he said.  ‘Come and look. It’s spectacular. You’ve only seen it from the beach, haven’t you? Have a look from up here, from where we are, from the Gods.’ I followed him over to the low wall of the terrace and looked out across the bay.

‘Magnificent,’ I said.

‘How do you know we were on the beach,  Francis?’ Said Bill.

‘Oh. We were watching you. Your hand,’ he pointed at Bill’s hand. ‘It intrigued us. We played a guessing game. I guessed Puerto Vallarta!’

Francis smiled at Bill and then looked down over the wall.

‘Down there,’ he said. We moved towards the wall next to Francis and looked down at a stone house built into the rocks, jutting out from it, like a saucer of water, was a swimming pool.

‘I don’t know what holds it up,’ he said. ‘Something hidden, I expect.’

‘Is this your place?’  I said.

‘No. I’m no hotelier. Not mine. Ten rooms. But if you want to stay here   you have to book them all. So I did. You should try it.’

‘Love to, but we’re off to Acapulco tomorrow before we run out of money.

‘And what are you doing there?’ Said Francis.

‘See the divers.’

‘Of course. Oh but there’s so much more to Acapulco than the La Quebrada cliff divers. Much more. But they are definitely spectacular, however, ultimately disappointing. You find them by walking up, at night is best, a street, a tight suburban street. I found it oppressive,  cars, high buildings, and then, suddenly, there you are. Like a breath of air almost. You could stumble over the cliff. There is very little in the way of guard rails or fence for such a popular spectacle. But you move forward and peer over and down and it’s like a ‘v’ has been cut into the rock. The waves come in and you can see the divers queuing and counting the waves. Timing them, I suppose. Waiting for their chance and then, like a knife, in they plunge. And there you are, and there the divers are and off they hop. One after the other. I counted. I think I got up to three. Three seconds. It’s a long time to be plummeting toward the water. I wonder what they think? A peculiar way to make a living. Perhaps they think that. There are other things to see. Rather good brothels, if that’s your thing. I’ve spent a bit of time there. Before.’


‘Of a kind.’

‘Maybe you could give us some other tips. Bars. Restaurants.’

‘Tips? Tips. Mmh. Avoid it, there are better places in Mexico, and don’t go wading in the water.’

‘Floaters?’ Said Bill.

‘Well. Yes. I was up to my waist, with a drink of course, and doing that sort of hoppy walking thing that one does in waist-high tidal water, like an astronaut. And I felt something bump my hip. Shark! I thought. I don’t know why I thought shark, I’ve never so much as seen a shark down here, but that’s what I thought, but it wasn’t a shark. It was a body.’


‘Indeed. He was floating face up and despite the injuries and the bloating, I recognised him as someone I knew. I didn’t know him well mind you, I’d met him the night before, outside a bar. One of those ghastly American ones. Senior Frog, I think. Anyway, chap had hit a woman and I stepped in and we argued and, I’ve had a bit of training,  I left him in a gutter in town, alive I might add, or so I thought. I’d made my point, so I went back to my hotel. Went to bed.  Next day, ouch, there he was. Quite the coincidence.  I’d seen a dead man before, of course, but this was odd. I saw it as a sign. It didn’t disturb me, not that, I took it as an omen.’

‘Could have been an accident? After you left him?’ Bill said.

‘Thank you. No. It wasn’t an accident. Another beer?’


‘Where else have you been in Mexico?’ Francis said.

‘Puerto Vallarta,’ Bill said. ‘But you knew that.’

‘We guessed. Something in the papers. Some rum business there a few   

 days ago. Some chap got his throat cut. By a gringo no less!’ Francis said. ‘They’re still looking. There are a lot of gringos up there.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was crazy, police everywhere, stopping everyone who wasn’t local. So we came down here. It’s on our way anyway.’

Francis looked at Bill and I looked at Bill.

‘How did your guy get in the water?’ Bill said.

‘My guy? Oh, I don’t know. I did wonder if perhaps I’d killed him and sort of forgotten about it.’

‘You’re joking,’ I said.

‘Did he drown?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. No.’ Said Francis. He ordered a frozen margarita from one of the maids and when it arrived he put the glass to his lips and pulled back his lips and hissed as the icy green sludge washed against his teeth.

‘Now I’m back. Twenty years later and I’m back. But I’m rich now. 

 I’ve been threatened recently, local thug types, quite serious and so I have to have the guards. But they’re patsies, stoned or drunk, like the one you saw. He was probably asleep when you walked in. I really need someone more lethal to send a message. What did you do to your hand?’

‘I cut it. An accident. On a coconut.’

‘A coconut, in Puerto Vallarta?’

‘In Puerto Vallarta. Yes. A coconut. Correct Francis.’

‘I thought so. I told Maggie I thought so too. You look like the type.’

Bill’s bandaged hand had begun to weep out through the gauze. 

‘Let me see,’ said Francis. Francis moved fast and took Bill’s cut hand and squeezed it so hard that blood streamed onto the adobe tile floor.

‘I thought so,’ said Francis. ‘I know who you are. Now, before you go, I want you to do something for me. I can pay you, cash.’

Sunday night is the loneliest night of the week.

After her divorce, my mother’s life dissolved so rapidly from the steady, solid life she’d had with my father that it was if she was astride a rocket of self-destruction. Her alimony was spent on daily drinking and filter-to-filter cigarettes, smoking Benson & Hedges, those deadly gold boxes with the flip-top lid went everywhere she went, day and night. So unconcerned was she that she was reduced to living in a shared bedsit with a stranger. On the occasional Saturdays that I spent with her, having caught the train up from my father’s townhouse in Bromley,  we had nowhere to go and she had no money to do it with so we walked around parts of North London, not too far from her bedsit but still far enough away for her to make a whole day with what she called ‘sweet Fanny Adams.’ As a seven-year-old, every one of these days was an adventure.

  One day we walked through  Canonbury Square to the house where George Orwell had lived. I didn’t know who George Orwell was but I learned that day that he’d written ‘1984’ and that he’d died of tuberculosis.

‘I don’t think people die of TB anymore,’ my mother said. ‘Lung cancer, sure. Smoking, that’ll do it.TB is an old disease.’ We stood for a moment and then my mother took my hand and we walked together like this through the residential streets of Islington to 25 Noel Road. 25 Noel Road was where  Joe Orton had lived and died. Despite learning from her that Orton had been bludgeoned to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, my mother made the life of a playwright sound like the only job in the world worth doing. 

 ‘Joe took a long time to die,’ my mother said. ‘Kenneth took an overdose after he thought he’d killed him. Kenneth was cold when they found him. Joe’s bed was still warm. He was dying. How awful. If he was dead he wouldn’t have known. Poor Joe. His ashes are in the crematorium at Golder’s Green. I don’t know why though, Golder’s Green is Jewish. I’d like to go there when I go, like Joe.’

‘Maybe he was Jewish,’ I said.

‘No. He came from Leicester.’

Because of this perhaps, in my twenties I wrote a handful of plays, none commissioned or performed, not even by an amateur dramatics society in some airy village hall, and the desire of writing plays died. Still keen to avoid a career, I traveled, to Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden and I wrote about my travels in Moleskin notebooks. I wrote anything that I thought sounded good aware that should anybody see me writing and ask what it was I would quote something that I made up, heard, or stolen. My hope was that someone would find one of my notebooks, see my genius filling up the pages in consistent black ink and hail me as the next Cheever or Stoppard. My mother knew that I had written things and she always asked how my writing was going and I always lied to her. She wasn’t curious about the country I was in or the people I was with, just that I was writing, so I had to make that up too.

She died on a Sunday. I was working in a bar in Stockholm the night she died. It was one of many bars that I’d worked in on a Sunday night somewhere in the world. By anybody’s measure in the bartending business, Sunday night is the loneliest night of the week. On Sunday nights most of you are getting ready for the week to come, making to-do lists, looking at emails, meal planning, thinking of what to wear and wondering where your weekend went, and looking forward to the feel-good of Wednesday, when you know you are on the home straight to your next weekend. You are hoping that the week to come will be better than the week just gone. You are out of the trade and tonight you are doing the right things, drinking water, watching Sunday night television, rethinking that to-do list, looking at your partner, and hoping that this week you will rekindle what has been left to burn out. Me? I’m in the bar serving other bartenders who will spend their whole night complaining about how shitty Sunday nights are because no one is out.

‘Everyone’s busy getting ready to be busy. No one is out,’ he said.

‘You’re out,’ I said.

‘I mean real people. Not people like us. Look at them. Just look at them. Pale, neurotic, drunk, probably still fucked up from the rush of last night. Tattoos everywhere, with shit like ‘Bandido’ or ‘fallen’ or some shit, written in big three-d letters on their pasty skin They think they’re outlaws but they’re part of the biggest bunch of conformists ever.’

‘Where do you work?’ I say.

‘Tiger. Upstairs bar.’

I know Tiger, it’s a club downtown, it’s the new club and it’s hot and all the great women go there now.

‘How is it?’

‘Like this place used to be. Pussy’s off the scale until you look close.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Coke whores. Table flies, you know? The guy with the most money 

 gets laid.’

‘That’s me out.’

‘Yeah. Me too. Skanks most of them.’ I’d been there. It was full of beautiful women. Maybe he worked at a different Tiger to the one I was thinking of. Maybe he didn’t work there at all. He looked at me and then looked around the bar. ‘Get busy ever anymore?’

‘Not on a Sunday.’

‘Nowhere does. I’ll have another.’ He was drinking Amstell with short rapid tilts of the bottle. I guessed he was coming down from something or surfing on the alcohol from last night, holding onto that high until he crashed.

‘What time you close?’ He said.


‘Shit.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Three hours away. I’d better have another. No. Scratch that,’ he said.

‘But I’m closing soon anyway. They’re going to call me,’ I said. To this day I don’t know why I said that or who was going to call me. Looking back it was weirdly supernatural but I didn’t know that then. He didn’t hear me. I served somebody else and watched him leave. If I’d stayed open later, he would have been back and I knew that I’d never get rid of him and he would sit and drink and get drunker and stupid and offensive and I’d have to throw him out and he’d start throwing punches and one of us would hit the deck. When he left, I locked the door. I walked home through falling snow and every so often stopped and looked back at my footprints and marveled at how quickly the dented evidence of my journey was filled with fresh snow and I disappeared.

I had been in my flat for a few minutes, enough to take off my coat and my shoes, put water in the kettle, set up a teabag in a cup, take the milk out of the fridge and leave it next to the cup before the telephone rang. It was my aunt.

‘She’s gone,’ she said. 


‘Not long ago. A nurse told me at eleven tonight. No pain. She was on morphine. Asked after you but told you not to tell you. Don’t tell the kids she said. I reminded her you were forty.’

‘I’ll come over,’ I said. I am her kid. 

‘She wants to be cremated.’

My aunt asked me to finish the funeral arrangements and take care of the flat, register her death at Somerset House and talk to the bank. She’d contacted an undertaker and given them instructions and now I had to do the rest. 

In her fifties, my mother had got her life back together and through a charity for London’s homeless had found a flat in a Victorian housing block Shorts Gardens in Covent Garden. The fruit and vegetable market was gone and the money that ruined Covent Garden was yet to arrive. The area was still a rundown part of London, hidden from any glamour, pockmarked by undeveloped piles of rubble, some from the Second World War. She lived there for the last twenty years of her life and watched it change. She liked the young people that began to swarm to the area and she went out walking day and night to be amongst them. Punks, musicians, magicians, street performers, all of them, this wave of youth that she let wash her.

Five years ago the trust had wanted to sell the block and the residents were offered alternative accommodation, modern flats out of central London. They all took the offer except for my mother and Rose, a woman of ninety-one, who’d been born in the flat in which she still lived. They both refused to move and there was nothing anybody could do about it. The trust offered them more money, a larger bribe thinly disguised as a ‘re-housing cost’ which my mother refused, which surprised me.

‘I don’t want to move,’ she told me.

‘What are the new flats like?’ I said.

‘Lovely. But I don’t want to go. I’m not going to be bullied by these arseholes, these little people.’ Looking back, I guess that she already knew that she had cancer and this was her last hurrah. This was her last stand and a chance to be seen again, to be important to be someone again, to affect someone’s life.

‘I shall treat them with ignortion,’ she said.

My mother was sixty-two years old when she died, and she’d smoked for fifty of those. When they told her that she had cancer she stopped smoking but it was too late. She detested the chemotherapy and refused to continue with it and she knew that very soon she would die. Her body would crumble, her spine first, then her legs and then her lungs, and then the rest of what was left of her. Her brain would fight only so far and then she would admit defeat to an enemy that she couldn’t wave away. She’d waved a lot of other things away though; my father, her career,  most of her friends, even some of her family, it was as if she was determined to be alone.

She had lived alone for the last fifteen years of her life and she liked it that way. She’d had a boyfriend for a while when she first got the flat, a younger guy, a poet who wrote dull poems and kept the drama of his life just for her, or so she told me. There were other women for him. The week before I went into the army I stepped into one of their rows and I knocked him to the ground with a single punch and she never saw him again. She heard a few months later, from one of his writing group friends, a woman who wrote monotonous poems about black horses crashing through white waves,  that he’d taken up with a much older Greek woman.

‘She’s only got one leg,’ my mother told me. The last thing she’d heard of him was that he’d got AIDS.

The undertaker’s offices were gloomy and the walls were paneled with unpolished dark wood, it looked heavy and lifeless. Joyless men in equally dark waistcoats and crisp, white shirtsleeves that were ruffed with gold armbands, moved quietly in and out of the rooms. These men were careful not to let you catch their eye until to do so was made necessary by the unpleasant business of your loved one’s death. When I was ready one of them appeared in front of me, this one was all business and he was wearing a buttoned-up jacket. He introduced himself and took me to a room full of coffins. There were no prices on the coffins and I felt like a losing contestant in a  game show as the host cheerfully reveals the price of my chosen box. Each one that I touched was more expensive than the last until I was back to the first one, the second cheapest, that I had tapped on. 

‘I should take the cheapest one,’ I said. ‘We’re only going to burn it.’

‘I must apologise. The handles aren’t very good on that one,’ he said.

‘Will it need handles?’

‘For a time, yes.’

‘We’re cremating her,’ I said. 

‘Yes. You’ve chosen Golder’s Green.’

‘I’m not sure who is carrying her then,’ I said. ‘Do you get carried at a cremation? I’m not sure there will be enough of us to carry her ourselves.’

‘That can be arranged,’ he said. ‘We can provide people if needed.’ How sad, I thought, to not know enough people that knew her to warrant Joyce’s six angels.

My coffin shall be black,

Six angels at my back,

Two to sing and two to pray

And two to carry my soul away.

 I had been absent from her life and now, back in it, my presence didn’t matter.

At the crematorium, there was a service before ours and we stood around in the West Chapel car park. A priest came out and spoke to us to tell us that there was some delay.

‘Marie’s service will be along shortly.’

‘Mary,’ I said.

‘Mary?’ The priest said.

‘Yes. That’s Marie,’ I said and pointed to my aunt. ‘I don’t think she’s ready for the pyre just yet. She smokes,’ I said. ‘But it’s not the same thing. Mary, that’s the one we’re burning. Mary is  my mother’s name.’ The priest told us that smoking was only allowed in the designated area of the car park and that we’d have to move there if we wanted to smoke and then he went back inside.

‘Weird, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘A crematorium has rules about smoking. You’d think that they’d be more understanding.’

My brother lit a cigarette and then offered the packet to my aunt who passed it around. An ex-girlfriend who’d ended up living with my mother for a while, whilst I was in Israel with another girl, was at the crematorium too. She took the packet and offered it to me.

‘I don’t.’

‘You give up?’

‘Fifteen years ago.’

‘I thought you were gonna run for it at the church,’ she said.

‘Me too,’ I said.

‘How are you?’


‘No. About you. How are you?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘How’s Sweden?’

‘Yeah. You know.’ 


I didn’t want to talk to anybody.

‘I’m gonna find Joe,’ I said.

‘Who’s Joe?’

‘Orton. Joe Orton. The playwright. He’s here.’ 

‘We’re going in soon,’ she said.

I tipped my head towards the door that the priest had entered, ‘he didn’t think so.’ She nodded her head and walked over to my smoking brother and my smoking aunt and she took a cigarette from the packet, lit it, and joined them in puffs of grey air.

Golder’s Green crematorium is made of red brick and the front is a series of arches that welcome you into the Chapel of Memory, through to the Shrine of Remembrance, and then into the columbarium, a space that looks like a multi-level groovy shop for unfired earthenware pots and crockery. On top of the building is a tall, thin, square chimney and with the sun shining, as it was today, the building looked like a friendlier version of Auschwitz. I went to find Joe.

  Orton’s ashes were mixed with Halliwell’s and scattered in the Garden of Remembrance and this was the first place that I looked. ‘A day in the life’ played at his service and Harold Pinter read the eulogy. It sounded like a fun day rather than a funeral. I walked around the buildings and lawns but couldn’t find what I was looking for because I didn’t know what it was.  

When I got back to the West Chapel everybody was still standing around but now in the smoking designated area of the car park. In front of them four men, clones from the funeral parlor, were taking a coffin out from the back of a hearse. In a smooth motion, like a dance, the coffin slid with a dull bump into their gloved hands and was then lifted up and put into place on their shoulders. They paused to balance the weight and then each man touched the shoulder of the man in front of him and they turned and walked towards the Chapel doors. I nodded my head toward them.

‘Shall we go in?’ I said.

‘There you are.’ My aunt said.’ Where have you been?’

‘Talking to Joe. Are we going in?’ I said. ‘We’re supposed to follow the coffin, aren’t we? They’re going in. We don’t want to lose them.’

‘We’ve been in. That’s not her. You’re mum’s gone,’ my Aunt said. She pointed up at a tendril of light smoke drifting heavenwards. ‘That’s probably her. She’ll never forgive you,’ my aunt said.

She’s dead, she’ll never know. Poor mum.


I’m your mother now.

Aldershot, January 1981.

The barracks are gone. Modern grey blocks, six stories high, concrete plinths with tiny square windows, one window for every two bunks have been built in their place and one day, looking up as I passed, a squaddie was thrown through the glass of one of these tiny windows, on the fifth floor, they must have squeezed him out, I thought.  But we were marching and so we couldn’t stop.

‘Eyes front!’

We were marching to the armoury, because today was weapons day, the first time that any of us would hold an army issue weapon and, after we had learnt its basic mechanisms, it would be ours to take and hold and keep in our lockers.  Learning this weapon is known as the ‘naming of the parts.’

Before the naming of the parts, we learned each other’s names and, as the barracks are gone, so are some of the names and I wonder if every intake is the same. The same men, the same characters, the same love.

In my intake already a soldier Jim Tunn, six-foot-five Galswegian who did not tolerate fools gladly, his  wings ‘up’ already and waiting to go for the second time to Westbury for officer selection which he would fail again and only fid his place as a Lance Corporal, shot in the arse on Mount Longdon. James Mangles, son of a pastor, a questioning recruit who was told two Fridays in a row by Corporal Sam that that was his last day and when Mangles  told Corporal Sam he’d ‘see him on Monday’ for the third time, Corporal Sam told him to fuck off or he’d shoot him himself. And Coton, glamorous Graham Coton, thickset and pop-star pretty with an earring and a purple triangle dyed into his newly buzzed hair. He lasted with us until he was turned around away from barracks, with so many of the others on that day in March, sent home to his waiting wife Buffy, ‘she slept with two of the Boomtown Rats’ he told us, a threesome, as if that were a cherry on their layered wedding cake. Dunridge, who, as a newly passed out Marine Commando officer woke up one morning and decided that he no longer wanted to be a Marine Commando officer,  but that was a year ago and needing the structure and the other men, he was in another military now, brimming with new confidence, knowledge and old and quick camaraderie. Andy Stone, dark haired and made of smooth rock, this was his destiny from which he never faltered. He became, in the end,  a Sergeant-Major and in return for this recognition he bawled and bailed out the men who in turn loved him. And then Dart, odd Stuart Dart, a lanky liar who would return from weekends with the unlikeliest stories of impossible sexual conquests, all consumated over the bonnet of his mother’s Ford Fiesta. In the barracks Dart  kept a small transistor radio that played on every night until he was asleep and his comfort annoyed me and then comforted me too, a radio is a friend and the distant voices that spoke lulled me too. It was a distant, unfindable  static like an unearthed noise maguffin from a Hitchcock film. Wright was here for the second time, tough looking with a head of straw and a moustache to match and a voice deep and poetical. With him he carried a copy of ‘Other men’s flowers’. Dudley, a man out of time and out of place, too soft for the barracks life, not made for our regiment and so we left him on the ground in a pub car park one night and told the medics where to find him. King, who made it through all the way to jump school then Brecon and beyond, to  the Falklands, where he was sent on a path split to fetch more ammo and ran onto a Claymore and with his legs blown away drained of the blood of life all the while asking his oppos to shoot him. They sent his campaign medal back.

Hovering above all this was Corporal Bird, ‘Dickie’ to his mates, and to us when  no staff could hear, even though his name was not Richard. All seeing, all knowing, all things to all people. He stalked our barrack room day and night like a boot polished house-breaker  prowling for an open window of opportunity, looking always to catch us out, to steal our army future back. Many times he’d thrown the contents of my locker to the floor.

‘I’m here to fail you,’ he said.

Tidy your room,’ he said, ripping out  the contents of my locker and scattering them between my bunk and Coton’s.  ‘It’s a mess. You’re in the army now.’ Or ‘Have you shaved today?’ ‘Yes Corporal.’

‘Try standing closer to your razor.’ 

And then he came upon me writing this letter.

‘Who are you writing to Mannion?’ 

‘My mother,’ I said.

‘Put it away son, I’m your mother now.’

All things, to all people.


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.’


‘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?’


‘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.


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.’



‘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.’ 


‘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!’


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.’ 


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.