Sunshine and picnics and goofy shit like that, I see that kind of thing from afar and it all seems very nice.

But that’s for other people. These days, I just observe. I haven’t participated ever since I lost my script. I never thought of looking for a new one. I found the role I was born for but someone else pipped me at the post at the audition. It was then I decided to take a bow and leave via stage-left. I took my seat in the stalls, watching the play from a distance.

It’s ok.

Truly.

I like it here.

Ok, I’m not that ecstatic but I never get that sad and that’s the deal I’ve cut. Pretty girls may come, but pretty girl always go. That’s as sure as shit in a baby’s pants.

I remember that morning clearly, almost twenty years ago now….

*

I woke up that morning and was full of the broken promises of spring. Dead weeds and rusted supermarket trolleys fill my yard.

That’s just how it is.

I was supposed to go into work but I couldn’t be fucked. Eva was my manager and she was on always on my case. She never liked me ever since I refused to do a dumb mains check one day. This entailed crawling under every desk amongst the dust and rat nests of cables, making sure the date-label on each plug matched that of the device it was attached to.

It was unnecessary bullshit and I pointed this out but no one wanted to listen. Some even hated me for it.

I guess some people just like the security of a steady ship, regardless of its direction be it north, south, east or west.

Or even downwards.

I worked there for a year before my final year at university where I studied computer science. Sorry, I didn’t say – I worked as a junior computer programmer for BT. knew the gig was a sick one from the moment I started. I remember that first day as clearly as that time I nearly drowned when I was seven. That first morning, around ten o’clock I think it was, the entire new intake sat around a table. I looked around.

I never saw such a sorry circle of wet bags in one gathering that didn’t have the banner ‘Baptist Youth for Christ’ outside the front door.  Short back and sides, glasses and blue shirts and good old Ulster standard-issue double-chins a plenty.

A manager, Mike Lee sat in the middle.

He reminded me of then Home Secretary, Michael Howard. He did have something of the night about him too.

He laughed at his own lame jokes. His eyes darted from side to side. He was one of the scariest people I had ever met. His head looked like a shark that pulled the skin of man’s head over itself.

I then noticed everyone’s suits.

All dark.

Well cut.

Identical.

Unlike mine.

I was bumming around home that summer and hadn’t two farts of a starved rat to rub together. After a hot and heavy June and July spent chasing my best friend’s sister, a letter arrived from BT’s Engineering Centre.

Dear Mr Paulson, your employment will commence on Monday August 2nd. Please arrive at Royston House at 9am sharp.

I had no suit and I had no tie.

Dad lent me a few hundred quid and within days, I was back in Belfast, with a holdall and my Dad’s old grey suit.

The same old grey suit I now wore. It’s hard to say how I felt except I felt like a twenty-one year old man wearing an ill-fitting suit that belonged to a sixty year old man who was born in the 1930’s.

I stuck out like a poor thumb.

A series of senior computer programmers then came into the room to give very austere messages about the hundred and one ways I could be fired.

I listened intently for all the wrong reasons.

After a buffet lunch of finger food and stilted conversations, a series of managers came into the room to claim each of the new intakes for their own. One by one, I saw each of the mice being carried off in the talons of a grey suited hawk to some even greyer part of the building where they eagerly started a life of waiting for retirement and death

It’s the done thing.

It’s called aspiration.

Then Eva came in. She was one of the few women in the joint but to say she was a rose in a garden of thorns, well that would have been a lie. I used to nickname the office The Cactus, full of sap on the inside, full of pricks on the outside and my golly wasn’t she the sharpest prick of them all.

She never did take to me.

I was her second assignment. The first one under her charge was a born-again silver-spooner and the sun of Christ did shine from his perfect little arse. I was a rough cut and I didn’t fit into this beach of bland sand and smoothed down pebbles. She spent the rest of the year throwing acidic comments at how wonderful he was whenever I was in earshot. I guess she was trying to sprinkle my path with broken glass but she didn’t bank on my wearing Doctor Martens.

Sometimes, only sometimes, I felt something sharp but I never looked down. Pain goes away in the end, no matter how deep it is.

My first task was to write a price comparison program that compared the price of business and domestic phone calls between BT and Mercury Communications.

Nothing I did was ever good enough and holes were picked where there was no fucking fabric to pick a hole in. My year was spent pretty much in this vein of having my self-respect being slowly sucked into this vortex of soul destruction.

It was November when I met Sharon.

I was down visiting my folks in my hometown that weekend and it was the Sunday night bus back to the big city. My Dad dropped me off and sped on. I wanted to be there early to be first in the queue and to smoke a few Marlboro lights and have a good think. Most of my thoughts were about leaving but I was the first in the family to go to University and leaving would have broken my mother’s heart. Poor mother. She thought I was a little Bamber Gascoigne or a Stephen Fry, dressed in tweeds having erudite conversations with high minded people in the ante-rooms of libraries. Little did she know I was heading for a first class honours degree in alcoholism, debt and playing Russian-roulette with VD.

I had smoked a few cigarettes while sitting under the plastic hood of the bus shelter when I realised that it was only five minutes to departure. No one else was in the queue. It didn’t seem right. By now, the place would have been heaving with students and strange looking men with grey drawn faces who looked like they had cut out their trouser pockets and liked to sit beside young men.

But I was alone until Sharon arrived.

It was freezing cold. I was wearing a shirt, a jumper and a thick grey coat but the cold, like ill-will, always finds a way inside. The first thing I noticed about Sharon was how ill-dressed she was for the weather. She looked like a pretty icicle. She wore a skimpy white blouse that looked more like a christening gown and a thin PVC bum-freezer. I never saw a girl look more innocent in my entire life.

Looking back, I think I just wanted to meet an angel.

I asked her if she’d like a coffee and she said ok. The town was still a stranger to Sunday opening so the only place that was open was the Royal Arms Hotel, right in the middle of Main Street.

Inside the lobby, I remember how reassuringly brown the whole place was. The carpets, the walls, the furnishings. No-one objects to brown. It’s the colour no one loves. Funny how lowest common denominators are never really that common at all. It’s what’s left when what everyone really wants is taken away.

We talked about the music we liked. She liked Blur. I liked Depeche Mode. She didn’t like them because they wore leather jackets. I let it go. God knows what leather jackets reminded her off. I was old enough to realise that foibles are never chosen. We talked about the friends we had and what we did and what we wanted to do when we grew up. I was twenty-two and she was nineteen. To be frank, nearly twenty years later, I’m still waiting to grow up.

I checked my watch. Time had slipped quickly like a drunken bum in an ice-rink. It was nearly time for the bus. We hot-footed it to the station and boarded just in the nick of time. It was packed out and there were no double seats left so we had to sit on different parts of the bus for that ninety minute journey.

I have to tell ya that those ninety minutes felt like a thousand years. I kept looking behind me to where she was sitting to see her face. She must have been staring at me the whole time for every time I looked over my shoulder, there she was, looking right back at me.

When the bus pulled in, I made my way out onto street and waited for her. Down the steps she came. I asked her if she was cold. She said she wasn’t but I know a shiver when I see one.

So I took off my grey overcoat and draped it over her shoulders. She looked up me from under her eyes, smiling a thank you to me.

You’re welcome, angel I smiled back. Sometimes words break the spell. There was little magic in my life and I was damned if I wasn’t going to bottle that dust-devil of a feeling.

This was the early nineties and mobile phones were still the stuff of the TV show Tomorrow’s World. I lived in shitty shared house in the student quarter but at least it had a landline. We swapped numbers but she told me she lived in Bangor, twenty miles away. Neither of us owned a car but there was a decent enough train service so we agreed to meet the next day. I walked her to Botanic train station and we waited only fifteen minutes until her train pulled in. We embraced and kissed before I had to let her go.

Man that sucked.

It was a Sunday and I realised that I hadn’t booked the next day off but I hadn’t taken any sick days so I thought fuck it and spent that evening in my room smoking weed and listening to Radio One, counting the seconds until I fell asleep so I could time travel to Monday double quick.

Around midnight, after Bob Harris whispered good night, I crashed out.

The next day, I phoned in sick, using the best dreary woe-is-me-phone-in-sick voice I could muster. No-one talks like that when they really are sick. I hammed it up so much I nearly tasted bacon. Eva said see you tomorrow in a downbeat I-know-you’re-bullshitting-but-I-don’t-care kinda voice.

I ran down the Stranmillis Road, through Botanic Gardens and all the way down to the train station. I was forty minutes early for the train but I couldn’t wait. I chain smoked like a chimney on fire.

The train pulled in and I hopped on. It was 10:40am. There weren’t too many people on the carriage apart from myself. A well dressed elderly man in green corduroy trousers, checked dark twill shirt and matching tie and brown tweed jacket was reading the Newsletter. In the seat to my left across the aisle was a fat dude in a tracksuit, deafening himself with that rave racket that passed for music. No harm to him but he looked like he would do himself a favour by losing the map to Mickey D’s now and then.

The sound of thump-thump leaked from his ninety-nine pence headphones like an aural oil-spill and it was rapidly drowning the cormorants of my good humour.

I cast him a glare.

He returned a smile.

He then started nodding his head in time to the music and closed his eyes and sank into chav-reverie.

I sighed and resigned myself to the train-travellers hazard of Other Passengers and looked out the window as the train cut through the city like a voyeur’s knife, passing by endless rows of unkempt backyards and curtainless windows.

Half an hour later, the train pulled into Bangor train station. I glanced over at the raver dude. He was reading a book. It looked quite thick. I was impressed. I got up and I noticed the edges were coloured gold.  He looked up and smiled again.

Fuck me; this dude wants to be my friend. He lifted the book and showed to me while removing his headphones.

“The Bible” he lisped.

“Uh huh”

“I’m a friend of Jesus”

“Uh huh”

I grabbed my bag and scurried off like a mouse in front of a dozy cat. Strange country.

Her you can find Jesus in the strangest of places. They should twin this hellhole with Alabama and be done with it.

I found a cluster of BT and Mercury payphones inside the terminal building so I went to one of the Mercury ones on principle. I lifted the handset and rummaged in my pocket for a clatter of silver and shoved a bunch of ten and twenty pence pieces through the slot. I then reached inside my jacket pocket and took out her number that was written on a folded white envelope.

I memorised it and dialled.

“Hello” answered an old lady.

Sharon boarded with an old lady.

I said hello and introduced myself and asked to speak to the girl.

“I’m sorry but she moved out last night”

I explained that I only met her the day before in my hometown and that we arranged to meet.

“I’m sorry young man but she’s moved in with her friend Chris on Dufferin Avenue. I can give you her address if you can wait a moment”

My mouth dried up. I think all its moisture went to the palms of my hands. I felt sick.

“She never mentioned this”

“She never mentioned it to me neither. She told me this morning after breakfast. She packed her case and called a cab and off she went. I have to admit, I was a little surprised. She is usually quite a sensible girl for her age. She came downstairs, had her toast and cup of tea like she always does. Then she told me. I didn’t know she had a friend Chris. Do you know him?”

“No, I don’t”

“Oh, well, I hope he’s good to her but I do worry. Well, she left a forwarding address. Let me go to my address book”

I thanked her and waited.

Dufferin Avenue.

Nicknamed Sufferin’ Avenue. Twinned with Skidsville. A lost soul of a street full of the lost souls who wash up on its rocks from their shipwrecked lives. A half-way house between here and hell. Runaways, dropouts, on the runs, ex-children’s home kids who make the mistake of turning eighteen and have stopped being cute.

And my angel face.

What the hell was going on I wondered. I repeated this question to myself like a neurotic mantra.

The old lady returned to the phone and gave me a house number.

21c

Dufferin Avenue. To this day it’s the kind of place where every address ended in a letter.

I thanked the old lady and slammed down the phone. I didn’t bother retrieving the change. I heard the coins fall into the tray like a win on a fruit machine but I sure didn’t feel like a winner.

Anything but.

I couldn’t waste a second.

I ran out of the terminal building and saw a taxi rank to the right. I jumped into the cab at the head of the queue and gave the driver the address.

Minutes later I was in Dufferin Avenue. I had never seen it before but its notoriety preceded it.

Now it was in front of me.

Jesus Christ. The Devil has a colony.

It didn’t me long to find 21c. The front door had seen better days. It was once painted blue but now long chipped and weather worn. Two of the six glass panels were broken and replaced with cardboard. One of them had the Kellogg’s Frosties logo facing outwards. I couldn’t help thinking of the policeman’s elbow that punched the glass in to enter the building on the way to find a body.

It has been known.

Bangor, a glamorous ex-beauty-queen of a sea-side town who no-one has had the nerve to tell that the pageant ended years ago. It sits on the Ards coast like an aging divorcee in a party-dress with a moth-ball still stuck to its hem.

The grand old townhouses had long since been degentrified. The wealthy had moved up the road to Cultra and Helen’s Bay and the vacuum was filled by property developers with a hard-on for multi-occupancy and Housing Benefit cheques. Each building was divvied up into a rat’s nest of bedsits and studios. A plastic sub-city of blue and black council bins sat outside each building on the street like an out-door mausoleum of punk-rock penguins.

Litter would have looked better.

I looked for the buzzer for 21c.Beside the lock was a plastic mount with each of the flat numbers written on a small piece of light green cardboard.

I buzzed and waited.

Seconds later, I heard a door opening from inside the building followed with a shamble of voices, followed by the sounds of feet thudding down a thin-carpeted stairwell. The shape of a person fell upon the opaque glass panels on the front door.

The door opened.

It was angel face.

She looked at me as if I was February the thirtieth.

“What, I mean, how did you find me?”

“Your landlady told me”

She pursed her lips and looked uncomfortable.

“She told you about Chris then”

“Uh huh. News to us both”

She looked so sheepish she could’ve grown wool.

“Chris, he’s upstairs. Do you want to come in?”

“Is he your boyfriend?”

“No” she whimpered, looking down at her feet.

Disappointment has morphed into curiousity. I wanted to meet this Chris character and see what he had to offer that I didn’t.

She led me upstairs, and I remember more than anything else..

The Smell.

It was a dog’s cocktail of old takeaways, rancid booze and damp. A bomb would have been an act of mercy. The staircase was as I imagined, 1970’s remaindered carpet and peeling wallpaper. We turned a corner and she led me into her flat.

And that’s where I met Chris. A fine figure of a man if you are thinking of the number 8, font size thirty.

Comic Sans Serif

He sat on the sofa in a tee-shirt and boxer shorts eating noodles from a paper plat. The TV was on at a low volume. The cheerful sunny English voices of the presenters provided much needed dissonance to the situation.

“Jack, this is Chris”

“Hi Chris”. Those words dragged their feet from my throat like hungry soldiers returning to a losing war.

He still didn’t speak. He just stared at me and then looked at the TV. I looked at angel-face.

“What’s going on?”

She didn’t say a word but the silence said it all.

I nodded a silent goodbye and saw myself out.

*

Later that day I returned to the city and sat down by myself on a park bench in Botanic Gardens. I opened my bag and took out the picnic I made for two. I spent the afternoon people watching, thinking and smoking.

I noticed the flower beds. They were pretty but flowers are only beautiful when you’re happy.

The daffodils seemed peculiarly vulnerable; their bright yellow heads sitting on long tall stalks like the refined heads of refined women on refined necks that begged for hungry, hungry kisses.

I was starting to get hungry and I looked at the food I had prepared but it didn’t seem right to eat it.  I didn’t prepare it for me.

It was for me and her.

I left the lunchbox on the bench, looking around to make sure no one saw me. I didn’t want some well-meaning stranger chase after me shouting ‘hey, your lunch box’. I didn’t want the lunchbox. I filled it with hope and now its contents had gone bad.

Disappointment.

That’s one smell I never did learn to wash away completely.

It hangs around like the smell of a lonely guest with nowhere else to go but your spare room.

I went home and flopped out on my bed and fell asleep.

*

The next day, I returned to work, back to what I know.

Back to a land of benweed and nettles.

At least I know they’re real.

I never did see Sharon again. She’d be in her late thirties now.

I hope.

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