the big malky
Frank took two days to hitchhike down to London. The Big Smoke. First night sleeping in a plastic bin bag sheltering from the rain outside Piccadilly Circus underground station, with what seemed like every dosser in town. His canvas rucksack split at the seams and a loop of torn leather strap lopsided him, made him a poor man’s Quasimodo, but offered a change of clothes. He carried it like a ball, but it made a goodish pillow, raising his head above the stink of pee. The Sally Army came during the night, nipping between sleepers and wakers, parcelling out cartons of hot minestrone soup and doughy white bread. The police arrived later with Alsatian dogs, a dim presence with walkie-talkies, but did nothing about the two Jakies fighting, long coats flapping. The stouter combatant was a thick-set woman, her shrieking in an Irish accent, ‘she’d fucking kill him,’ rather than their grappling wore both them and onlookers out. They lurched arm-in-arm, bypassing dark uniforms and dogs held tight on the leash, swaying through a concourse of glistening security lights and toilet-white tunnel bricks and disappeared round the corner and up the stairs.
Frank spent most of the day sheltering from the steady downpour and wandering about before he found Kings Cross. If he’d the money he’d have loved to jump on a train and went home. Outside the station, with his bum pressed against the metal railings with cars whizzing past, Frank noticed somebody loitering and casually studying him with soft brown eyes. He was a baldy wee guy, ginger beard tight to his face, oddly dressed in a shirt and tie, but with hiking books and knee-length woollen socks pulled up over manky denims.
‘Just up from Glesca?’ he asked.
Frank clutched his rucksack close to his chest, his Parker hood pulled up, peering out at him. ‘Nah, been here quite a while.’
The wee guy smiled with crooked teeth, closed the distance between them, his hand outstretched, ‘Malky Mukherjee.’
Frank hesitated, swapped his rucksack to under his left arm, before shaking his hand. ‘You don’t look like a Paki.’
‘I’m no’,’ he said, his shoulder twitching, his shirt soaked through, red tie stuck to his thin chest. ‘You lookin’ for work?’
‘Fuck off,’ said Frank, dropping his hand and taking a step backwards. Black Hackney cabs took the turn off the station sharpish, tourists with their suitcase snug inside staring out at them.
‘You don’t have a jacket in that bag I could borrow?’ said Malky.
‘Nah, fuck off,’ said Frank.
‘Where you been?’ Malky stood motionless as a cigar-store Indian as Frank towered above him.
‘Nane of your fuckin’ business.’
Rain ran down Malky’s face, but he made no move to wipe it away. He coughed and coughed, hacking up green sputum with his spit, bent over and drooling it onto the tarmac. Frank unpicked the buckle and clasp of binding leather straps and reached into the bottom of his rucksack and pulled out socks and pants before, finally, a balled up Wrangler jacket. He handed it to Malky.
The sleeves were too long, but Malky folded them backwards on themselves and he stopped shivering.
‘You got a hotel picked yet?’ asked Malky.
‘Look, I’ve nae money. Nothin’.’
‘That’s no’ whit I asked yeh?’
Frank dug into his coat pocket, fishing with his fingers, pulling out a fifty-pence piece. ‘Here. That leaves me with seventy-five pence.’
Malky hardly glanced at it. Slipping the coin into his side pocket. ‘There’s a social security office not far from here.’ He was all business now. ‘I’ll show you where it is. Tell them you’re homeless and require an emergency payment for accommodation tonight. You’ll need to hing about a few hours, but they’ll pay you a giro. Cash it there.’ He pointed through the traffic. ‘And I’ll show you a good hotel, just round the corner, Cardington Street, run by some Polish bint. Cheap, but clean. Bed and breakfast, thirty quid a night.’
‘Whit’s in it for you?’
He shrugged. ‘You’ll see.’
The Grange hotel wasn’t far from Kings Cross and Euston. Frank paid the landlady a week at a time when his Giro came. He slept as long as possible, right up until cooked breakfast was no longer served. He ate cornflakes and ham and egg and toast and beans and filled up on orange juice and tea. In the better weather he napped on bench in Russell Square nearby, before swapping green grass for holy ground, and walking to Westminster Cathedral.
Sometimes Malky was there and sometimes he wasn’t. The old man acted as an unofficial guide for visiting tourists. Frank had grown into his role of deaf mute boy. He acted a bit soft in the head and walked stiff legged behind them, a constant presence. He preferred the Japanese, they were the most generous always surprised—but not at surprised as Frank—and delighted that Malky was fluent in their language. Fluent in any language. Frank had heard him speaking German, Spanish and French. The only thing he couldn’t work out was how he wasn’t a millionaire. In addition, he seemed to know every inch of Poet’s corner. He’d given him a quick rundown on the first day, before latching onto a pair of middle-aged women, red Gore-Tex zipped up to their chins. Foreigners in anybody’s language.
Frank’s job was quite a simple one. He was to dart away and lead the way, stamping like a horse before a tomb and making strangulated noises, he’d gotten rather good at.
Malky interpreted the fool’s folly, and it all began with Geoffrey Chaucer, he explained to his guests in a foreign tongue, buried in the hallowed grounds of the Abbey around 1400. Now home to many of our greatest writers. He deciphered the grunts and groans that Frank made and disputed with him whether Shakespeare’s remains could actually be interred in a tomb as there was some uncertainty who he was. Dryden, Cosgrove, Tennyson, Macaulay, Browning, Thomas Hardy, even the actor Lawrence Olivier. He made a face when The Wasteland and T.S. Eliot were mentioned with John Milton. No one could doubt his knowledge of the great and the good. Frank’s pièce de résistance was mooning over the grave of Old Parr, a seventeenth-century poet whose fame rested on living to 152, or so it was said. Malky embellished, added a whimsical smile here, as if debating with himself, and the visiting tourists.
No money changed hands, not on such hallowed grounds. It was all done for love, love of poetry, love of his fellow man. Malky acted shocked that they could think such a thing.
Frank’s job as a ham actor was a matter of timing. It was to tug on Malky’s shoulder, make anguished juddering noise and pull him towards the bemused couple they’d just left outside the cathedral. Malky castigated Frank in broad Glaswegian, pushing and pulling at him, telling him snippets of things he had picked up about the marks. The plot thickened with each strangulated and anguished cry of what was going to happen to him. Psychic links. Fools and their money.