A Short Story
Last weekend the BoysBookClub went off to Palma and as well as having a great time with friends and reviewing our latest book, War of the Worlds, we also did some writing. We’ve done little bits and bobs before when we’ve been away, partly as it gives us a focus on one of the nights out but also to see what it’s like as after all we spend a lot of our time reading, thinking and discussing books so what would it be like to have a crack at writing something ourselves. This year we did something a bit different, we are soon to be joined by a new member so we got him to come up with a theme and we had to come up with something creative around that theme. It could have been anything creative so if someone had fancied doing some interpretive mime, kazoo playing or dance then that would have been cool but all of us did some writing in one form or another – poetry, essay, stories were all featured and we swapped them all and spent the Friday night discussing them and the creative process that we’d been through. We weren’t too harsh on each other, not like we are to proper writers!, but it was really interesting discussing why we came up with what we did and how we found the process.
The theme that we had to work with was Marked and I decided quite early on I wanted to have a go at writing a short story and particularly one with some dialogue in as I’ve never written anything like that before and to be honest had no idea how it worked. Of course I needed to make sure that I’d read the book before I had a go at doing my own stuff so I was left with two days, the good thing about that was that it left a clear deadline looming where I had to come up with something before I hit send on the email to send it round to the rest of the lads. That meant not much time for editing and at the end of the day no matter how much time you do or don’t have at some point you have to make a decision on what is good enough and put your ‘pen’ down. Now it’s one thing, and I must admit a pretty scary thing, sharing your efforts with your mates but it’s quite another putting it on here for anyone to read but that’s what I’ve decided to do (and you might find a few of the other lad’s efforts on here as well over the next week or so). This is my first effort but I’d genuinely like to get your views, good, bad, indifferent, constructive or not. (I can’t find a way to put in a first line indent in wordpress so the formatting is slightly odd but hopefully you’ll get the drift). So here you go Marked – my short story……..
“Usual Billy?” Tom was waving his hand in the air beckoning as Billy walked into the Sunday brunch crowd that were soaking up the milky autumn sunshine streaming through the large floor to ceiling windows of the bar. Billy drew a few curious glances at his mud splattered appearance from the hipsters, broadsheet scanners and media bunnies who now providing the bulk of the clientele in The Coal & Fish. He despised them in many ways with their braying tendencies and cod left wing views but if you listened in it was all private schooling and moaning about the cost of the winter skiing holidays. They had however kept the best bar in the city alive and thriving so Billy concentrated on giving thanks to that and developing the ability to tune out their staggeringly uniform voices. He glanced round as he made his way towards Tom, who more and more was taking on the appearance of those around him, but smiled at the warm glow to the stripped floorboards acknowledging how this bar always made him feel good and how he needed to be there now more than anywhere.
Scanning the row of pumps Billy mused with a furrowed brow “mmmm not sure mate not sure, what else they got on”
“How about that espresso stout? Two things you love there eh Billy coffee and a drop of the dark stuff in one brew”
Half grimacing half smirking “Oooo sounds a complex brew that Tom, maybe move onto that but need to quench a thirst first so yep usual I reckon”
“Marty…… Marrty…… Marty…….” Tom was trying to attract the attention of the fixture that was Marty, despite all the changes that had taken place in the redevelopment of the bar over the years he’d managed to ride with it although he did now wear his jeans with the obligatory two inch turn up. Tom was pointing at Billy who had wandered over to a warm looking table with a couple of spare seats on the far side of the bar. A nod from Marty indicated that he knew what Tom wanted and Tom sign languaged back to mark it up on the Tab for settling later before heading off to join Billy.
“Blimey look at the state of your legs, good ride this morning was it”
Billy looked down and below the knee of his shorts was a patterned daub of pink welts criss crossed with dried blood and razor thin gashes. “you can always tell a mountain biker from his legs Tom, hairy and damaged in some way” smiled Billy “the paths and trails are at their most overgrown at this time of year so you can’t avoid the nettles and the brambles, to be honest you don’t really notice it at the time but must admit they’re stinging a bit now mind. This’ll see me right though, bit of anaesthetic” Marty had placed the pints down on the table and after clinking glasses Billy took a large gulp.
It was a ritual they had to always clink glasses in homage to the man behind the quote inscribed above the bar and from which it took it’s name. In a weaving scroll high above the optics the following words had been painted “This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organizing genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time”. Billy could still remember his utter amazement at the first time he’d walked into the bar and seen that quote some 12 years previously, he’d been seduced simply by the odd name of the bar originally as he’d been trying the various bars and pubs in the area following the latest merry go round of office moves. He’d moved many times since as restructure followed restructure but The Coal & Fish had remained his spiritual home. He’d known instantly that the quote was by his hero Nye Bevan who he’d written his university dissertation on but had no idea why it should be here in a city a long way from Wales. Turns out after he’d done a bit of digging and contacted the local historical society that the bar was originally a pub called The Bridge and opposite it had once stood the city’s Royal Park hospital, long since demolished, moved and renamed The Princess Diana Memorial Hospital. The Bridge had been taken over in 1952 by one Hugh Roberts who’d moved up from South Wales and was by all accounts a larger than life publican, carouser, womaniser and rabble rouser who renamed the pub in memory of his roots and Bevan’s role in the establishment of the NHS and the Royal Park Hospital that had been established in the city as a result. Despite many changes of hands since and various refits Britain’s only pub with the name The Coal & Fish had remained, together with the inscription above the bar.
“How was it out there today then, apart from the scratches” enquired Tom
“Alright I suppose” muttered Billy back, absentmindedly flicking bits of dried mud off his knees onto the wooden boards, much to the obvious disgust of the couple sat next to them tucking into their exquisite looking plates of Sunday sustenance.
“Three words? Three words? is that all you’ve got for me? I’m not ready for that Billy I’m girded for the usual half hour monologue of flow, weaves, dips, jumps, carves, berms, turns, scrapes and japes that you normally come out with. Never known anyone who can turn the humble act of pedalling a bike into some literary art form, it’s almost poetic what you do, always said you should jack in the social work shit and write full time”
“Come man what’s up” Billy had barely made eye contact with Tom since they’d sat down and clinked glasses.
Billy sighed and flopped back in his seat rubbing both hands repeatedly and vigorously through his thinning tufty mop of hair. “Oh I’m just sick of it is all, I’m never getting better and to be honest I don’t think I’m going to. I’ve reached the peak of my riding abilities and that peak is the size of the mole on my arse”
“Hang on mate you’ve been spouting a different story for years, you know it’s all about the ride, doesn’t matter how good or bad you are it’s the enjoyment, the best rider is the one that has the most fun etc. What gives”
“I was following Seb today and he’s an artist on the bike and it just sank in that I’ll never be able to ride like him and Richie’s kid was out with us, Christ he’s fourteen and he’s already better than I’ll ever be”.
There was a tone that Tom had not heard before, in fact not just a tone he’d never heard Billy moan about being on a bike ever but he seemed agitated and angsty since the moment they sat down. “Come on mate it’s just one of those things, Seb’s always been a better rider than you he was semi pro back in the day wasn’t he? He rides with you cos he likes you, has fun, a good laugh, he’s told me many a time that the rides you organise and plan are always the best different abilities out riding, pace chilled, few beers, that’s the heart and soul of it right there isn’t it?”
Marty walked past placing another couple of beers down, not even needing to ask as the Sunday ritual always involved a few rounds. “Where’s the rest of your merry crew today Billy?”
“Stuff on Mart, Stuff on”
“Ah well least there won’t be as much mud for me to clean up then, you know you’re going to have start changing before you come in few people have started to say something at the bar”
“Fuck’s sake Mart I’ve been coming in here for fucking years before any of these twats knew this place existed” Billy snapped loudly glaring randomly and accusingly around the bar.
Marty moved in and bent down closely to the pair, Tom was looking shocked he couldn’t remember the last time Billy had even raised his voice before, one of the reasons he liked him so much was understated cool and phlegmatic approach to almost any situation in life. “I’m just saying Billy things change, you know you are welcome in here, you’re a good bloke but all I’m saying is that perhaps it’s time to leave the mud outside eh?” whispered Marty in a steely tone “and while we’re at it keep your voice down”
Billy glared at Marty while Tom shuffled nervously in his seat, Marty was still bent in close and was not moving just looking straight at Billy. There was a silent tension between the two of them while the rest of the bar continued in it’s relaxed tipply fashion. It was why they came here, the atmosphere, always chilled, no arseholes, good service, Tom couldn’t work out what was going on. A fake smile crossed his friends face “Ok Marty, sorry, no problems, weird day” Marty spun smoothly away from the table and headed back to the bar without saying a word.
Blowing his cheeks out and swaying back in his chair Tom looked across “Billy man what the hell was that all about and where are the others anyway I thought they be following you in”
“To be honest I was a pain in the arse all the way round today they’ve voted with their feet”
“This isn’t the bike Billy is it? somethings eating you, everything Ok with the kids? Janey? what is…”
Before Tom could finish his line of questioning Billy heaved a massive sigh “I’m going to get fired tomorrow”
Tom couldn’t grasp the words that he knew he’d just heard, they were simply floating around in front of his eyes like a Matrix slow mo scene, he could see the words slowly moving around in mid air turning and spinning, he knew what each one of the words was but he could not form them into something meaningful, his brain was effectively saying “Does not compute”. The two friends were simply staring at each other Billy, vibrant, chilled out Billy looked like a deflated balloon, never had the words “had the wind taken out of his sails” rang truer. Tom on the other hand had turned into a cartoon character, mouth hanging open, colour draining rapidly from his features as if someone had tipped him up and poured it out, eyes seemed to be both popping out and unfocusedly dizzy at the same time.
Finally Tom spluttered “I… I.. I don’t….what on earth…..Jesus Christ…….what’s going on Billy, what’s happened”
Billy leaned forward taking a large gulp from his glass and placed his hands on the table “Feels good to actually say those words although I’m not allowed to say them as I’ve been under investigation for the last six months and have been forbidden to say anything about it. Doesn’t really seem much point in sticking to that agreement seeing as how it’s D-Day tomorrow”
“You’ve been under investigation for the last six months? what the chuff?” Tom was still stammering and struggling to come to terms with what his best friend was telling him.
“Yep been a bit stressful that’s for sure”
Billy beckoned for Tom to come in closer
“Look you can’t repeat any of this but it’s all going to be in the papers soon anyway. You remember that kid, the Daniels boy who died of neglect last year”
“Yes it was all over the papers wasn’t it”
“That’s right, well I was the senior social worker, he was not directly one of my cases but I managed the team so it happened on my watch. Pressure has been on for months to find someone responsible and that particular rosette is going to be pinned on my lapel. I’ve got the disciplinary meeting nine o’clock in the morning. It’s a foregone conclusion Tom the department needs to offer up a sacrificial lamb and I’m it and they are going to trash the work I’ve done over the last twenty fives years. Poooooof my career up in smoke”
“Hang on hang on why you if a) it wasn’t your case and b) what about some of the big cheeses with social services”
“Come on Tom you’ve seen The Wire haven’t you, shit rolls downhill from the top to the bottom and a whole heap of it has landed on me. They can’t go after the actual social worker as it she’s left the service and is too small fry, they need someone senior enough so that it looks as though they are taking action, I’m the bad apple they need to find in the barrel. They also can’t go after all the other parties that were involved, police, hospital staff, teachers they’re all angels we are the devils aren’t we, us social workers, dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t so one of us has to go”
Billy leaned back in his chair scanning the convivial chat and laughter taking place around them, waitresses all too cool for school were ferrying tasty morsels out from the open kitchen at the back of the bar. “The thing is Tom this lot around us” Billy wafted his arm pointing indiscriminately at their fellow drinkers and eaters “They need to feel that something is being done but they don’t want to know what we do, the desperate cases of human misery that we deal with day in day out, the decisions that we have to make that will affect a human being for the rest of their life. Every day I have to make a call about whether or not a child should be taken into care, sometimes the call is an easy one to make but life is not black and white and with the people we deal with it’s a complex kaleidoscope of murky, filthy greyness. No one thanks us ever, and no one is interested in what we do until it goes wrong and to be honest I’m amazed it doesn’t go wrong a lot more that it does, none of us have the time to properly work with the people who need it the most so any decision we make is flawed, I feel like a surgeon being asked to operate only using one hand. Well it’s over for me now, I know it is and everything I’ve ever put into this work, it’ll be trashed that’s for sure but I can put my hand on my heart knowing that I did the best I could to make a difference. No one noticed”
“How can they trash you Billy even if you get suspended or something”
“Trust me Tom it’s not going to be a suspension it’s the boot up the jacksie, I’ve been effectively on minor admin duties for months, laptop seized and my filing cabinet locked and wheeled away so they’ve been rooting through all the files looking for mistakes, procedural errors anything that will give them the opportunity to hang me out to dry. And don’t worry they’ll find it they’d find it in any good social workers cases because we have to cut corners, cut paperwork etc otherwise we’d never get the job done. They know that so they just need to piece it all together, a litany of errors leading up to the Daniels boy”.
“I just don’t know what to say Billy, what are you going to do, what….”
Billy downed the remaining few fingers left in the glass and stood up holding his hand out to Tom. “I’m going to go home and have a good afternoon with the kids and Janey then face the music tomorrow Tom that’s what I’m going to do”.
Tom stood up and grasped the hand extended towards him pulling Billy in and giving him a bearhug before watching him walk out of the door, dried bits of mud trailing after him. Tom picked up his coat and moved over to a bar stool sat down and ordered another beer which he sipped quietly trying to take in all that had just happened.
The next morning Billy understood the feelings that many of his clients and their families felt, waiting to enter a room where your future will be decided. Feeling that those on the other side of that door have already made up their minds and your arguments are futile, your card has been marked. The door opened and a smartly dressed woman in her early fifties peered over the top of her glasses and beckoned to Billy
“Mr Tavistock, the panel is ready for you now, please follow me”
Billy stood up, straightened his tie and walked through the door.
Two and a half hours later Billy walked down the main steps of the Town Hall unbuttoning his top button while simultaneously tugging at the knot in his tie to loosen it, he strode across the Bridge and while half way across reached into his jacket pocket, he plucked out his ID card and glanced down at the photograph which hadn’t been changed in over ten years a smile slowly appearing on his face. His pace slowed and then he stopped before he hurled the card as far as he could out into the water below. He waiting for a brief moment casting a glance at the cityscape before striding out again purposely across the remainder of the bridge.
“Hey up Billy don’t normally see you in here on a Monday, first customer in as well, and blimey you’re looking a bit smart there, no mud on them shoes” noted Marty looking him up and down as he made his way towards the bar, “Usual?”
Billy nodded and glanced around and when Marty placed the pint on the bar Billy picked it up and made the silent toast. Everything was the exactly the same as yesterday but it could not have been more different.