The Diaries of Alan Benefit
the life and times of an unemployed freelance playwright
I've got enough reasons not to like this place, as I've already said. But there are some things in its favour, too. The people I know here ' those I can turn to for a chat, a joke, a listening ear. The connections I've got. The places where I can make a few bob if I'm short. A geography that's familiar. Some sense of belonging.
Alright, then. No more excuses. Everything else is done now. The stuff's cleared away from breakfast. My pants and socks are soaking in the sink. I've had a bowel movement and a wash, sprayed my armpits, changed my t-shirt. The computer's on and I've dumped Solitaire, Minesweeper and Pinball off the hard drive. There, on the desk beside the keyboard, sits my fuel supply: a fresh can of Tennant's, some ready-made rollies, a packet of plain chocolate Hob-Nobs.
"There's something about the place, Al, he told me one evening over a beer and a game of lop-sided snooker. He spoke very softly, almost reverentially. "It's the history or something. You can feel it in the air. It gets into you. Like fag smoke. Like, right in the blood. And it suits me. Being alone with it. I wouldn't want to live any other way now.
I was perched at the bar with Sherlock. We'd just got our second pints in and things were starting to bubble nicely. I'd been giving him the lowdown on work ' such as it was. The false starts. The saggy middles. The sentences written in gold in your head, but which turned to crap on the page ' a kind of alchemy in reverse. I had got one idea, though, that I was running by him. A play. Something inspired by my midnight walk around Mariner Plains, with all those dark, empty rooms.
So¦ old Lemon, eh? Fifties, works at the hospital, lives alone in the bedsit above the Pink Pagoda take-away, smells like Fried King Prawn Balls, pint of lager top, telly on without the volume, thin and shivery in his old raincoat, same yellow cardy from one year's end to the next, likes a bit of a flutter¦ A millionaire, but for the loose change.
No¦ real life's not about winning the Lottery. Not for most of us, anyway. It's about winning the other game. The daily kick-about. The old one-two. The passes and fouls. The offside shots. The penalties. The poxy decisions. The missed chances. The shouts from the stands ' from the few supporters who always turn out. The brilliant saves. And the occasional goal, of course.
Sherlock. Yoyo. Denise. Billy. Suzy and Trina. Lemon. Mole. Jinni and Fee. These are the people who make it worthwhile for me. Living here, I mean. The folks who dance to a jazzier beat ' who play out their lives in a different key. The folks who, in a population of over 30,000, have faces .
Tuesday Night at The Hippodrome. By invitation only. Me, Sherlock, Yoyo, Billy, a 4-pack apiece, Billy's cock-eyed snooker table, a couple of Sherlock's funny fags, Bruce's Lucky Town in good crackly vinyl on one of Billy's old stereograms¦ ¦tonight I'm steppin' lightly and feelin' no pain¦ Cookin'.
And there was something else I hadn't noticed, too. Above that window was another one ' much smaller, set into what seemed to be a half-size upper storey beneath the roof space. Instead of having a blind or a curtain, though, it was completely vacant ' its panes as dark as if they'd been blacked out. "What's in the top room, Ron? I asked. He puffed on his fag, creasing up his eyes against the sting of smoke. "Good question, he said. "I've never been up there."
So¦ Christmas Eve at the pub¦ ¦heaving like a blouser's bed-springs on pay-night at a poontang palace in Perth. So many people that you couldn't see the gaps between. Smoke. Booze. Heat. Sweat. Lights. Noise. The craic going at 140 beats-a-minute. Hieronymous Bosch on benzedrine. Beautiful!
It's my fault, of course. Too much booze, too little sleep. And then there was that other little matter of Sherlock's premium-grade blow¦
Sunday 4th December 2005 ' 5 minutes later Out of the Square I go and east along the seafront into the gusting afternoon ' my shadow loping off ahead of me like it's anxious to get somewhere. The sea's the colour of cold snot and as rough as a shag in a dock-side alley. But the air feels good ' stinging my sinuses like a snort of chilled vodka.
After much soul-searching, Lemon finally decided he'd lived in his bed-sit above the Pink Pagoda Take-Away for long enough.
...so far: Alan's still struggling to write his masterpiece, Lemon's spent some of his winnings on a new house, Billy's been served with a notice that the Hippodrome's up for auction.
Sunday 4th December 2005 ' 9:37 pm ...and so, Sunday night at the local, to swamp my miseries. Or so I thought¦ Mad Mack's (The Mad Mackeral to give it it's full name) is the only decent pub in town. It's opposite the clock tower on the seafront, at the apex of a triangle formed by Prospect Hill, Wrack Alley and Eastern Esplanade. The bar is correspondingly v-shaped, looking like the prow of a ship cleaving through an ocean of maroon carpet: Public Bar to port, Saloon to starboard. There's no dividing wall between the two, though. It's just a matter of furnishing and decor. The Saloon is cosier, with its sagged-out armchairs and nicotine-sepia'd pictures. The Public, on the other hand, has red leather stools and a juke box (a genuine Rock-ola 'Bubbler', complete with arching neon tubes and original 50s song list). There's also a TV set in the corner, a fruit machine, a pool table and a dartboard. These last two, given the snug size of the bar, overlap each other's floor space to some extent. If both are being used at once, the players of one have to give way to the players of the other in turn if dart-punctured buttocks or cue-shafted arseholes are to be avoided.
Monday 12th December 2005 ' 12:17 am A very good while later, after we'd put some more air in that whisky bottle, Sherlock and I stepped out into the night and Denise locked the door behind us. Everyone else had long gone. Sherlock stood in the lee of the door and fashioned a rollie, which he lit with the Zippo he keeps on a string around his neck. Looking up, I saw Denise's light go on in the room above the bar. Her shadow passed across the blinds and dropped out of sight as she collapsed on her sofa. I knew that feeling.
"Mr Benefit? I'm calling from the Daily Mail. "Really? Well, you can go fuck a camel.
I'd just cleared my stuff away and put some clothes on when there was a knock at the door. It was Yoyo, come to return a hammer he'd borrowed a couple of days before. He didn't say what he wanted it for and I didn't ask ' though I noticed, in taking it back, a dark red splotch of something on the head. I still didn't ask. His business is his business.
Sherlock had lent me a book, Worry Yourself Well , which said it was fine to think of yourself as a failure, anyway. It lowered your expectations of success ' so if you failed, you'd actually lived up to your expectations. Which meant you'd succeeded. Something like that. So I couldn't go wrong, really. I was prepared for failure. Whichever way you looked at it, I could only succeed.
We drank in silence for a few moments. Then Sherlock rolled his shoulders and sniffed. He lifted his deerstalker, turned it around, put it back on again ' tugging at the peaks like an admiral. Something was coming. "I'll give you a story, Al, he said. He took a last, lung-stuffing drag on his fag and blew his smoke at the bar top, where it spread out in a layer like dry ice. "Did I tell you¦ I actually was a detective once.
Three days. And what have I got to show? An empty coffee jar. An empty hard drive. A full waste paper bin. A raw thumb where I've bitten the nail to the quick. The start of a beard. A t-shirt that stinks like a gamer's laundry-bag. Sandpapered eyeballs. Indigestion. And an exercise book full of scribbles and doodles and crossings-out and¦ ¦and crap :