Cloudy and good night
Ken sounded chirpy, ‘Alright?’ He motioned with his head at the blackened door. ‘Let’s get some timber from my hut. And we’ll board that up.’
‘No, you’re fine—the Council will get it.’
Cloudy stood at his side of the privet hedge and bit his lip to stop from smiling. Ken was the type of bloke that stored timber and old screws and nails in biscuit tins for just such an eventuality—in case you house burned down and you had to board it up.
‘Dreadful.’ Ken tutted.
Cloudy nodded in agreement. But he wasn’t sure if he was talking about the fire, the daubed message or Council workmanship. He suspected the latter. Ken being a stickler, but and he couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.
Ken liked to have the last word, his neighbour turned away. ‘Well, I’ll get on then… To my bed.’
The smell of charred wood remained pungent. Debris oozed water as Cloudy picked his way towards the front door where fireman had raked out debris, trying to be careful of standing on rogue nails.
‘Thanks Ken,’ rang out in the cold night, unanswered, as he stepped inside, choking on ash and dust.
Despite the damage, the flames hadn’t really got beyond scorching the walls in the lobby and setting alight the cupboard full of junk under the stairs. A charred door allowed him to reach in and gingerly flip upward the electricity switches and wait to be electrocuted. The front door had gone and the windows in the living room had been broken. He wasn’t sure if that was with the heat, or the firemen had broken them for some reason he couldn’t quite gather.
Gritty debris crunched under his feet. He stepped into the toilet at the bottom of the stairs. The door had been shut. When he ran a hand over the wooden panels, he found smoke damage wiped away on the tips of his fingers. But inside the toilet, the bath was beached by tidemarks, high and low. His grotty sink needing bleached, but he couldn’t blame the fire for hair and grit. And the mirrored medical cabinet reflected back his unshaven chin as he pulled the light cord. He ran the cold water and ducked down over the sink and gulped a drink to clear his throat. Tried the hot tap and let it run as he peed.
He clenched his teeth as he soaped the wound. Pearlescent blood blotted his skin and ran pink underwater. He held his hand aloft, and waited for it to scab. But he’d little patience and smudged the bath towel in passing.
Pots, cups, plates and saucers in the kitchen sink had him stuck for a clean mug and spoon. He sifted a mug out from the cat’s cradle of dishes, without toppling it and felt a sense of achievement as he flicked on the kettle.
He took his tea into the living room for a comfy seat and pulled his coat tight around him to keep himself warm. Street lighting cast shadows on the fake-leather seat, part of the suite, near the window and facing the telly. It was covered in glass and yeti-sized footprints, where firemen had stepped straight in and out of the window, making a passageway any fool could follow.
The remote control was perched on the throw beside him. He pointed it at the telly and the sound roared into life, before the pictures, too loud. Something he kept meaning to fix. He flicked through the channel, but with nothing on, he sipped his tea and turned it off.
He fell asleep with his feet up on the wee glass table smoking a fag. His eyes flickered open. The dout had spilled onto the carpet leaving a black mark. A crunching noise from the lobby and the stench of burning disorientated him. Somebody was sneaking into his house.
He grabbed the glass ashtray. It was full of crud and not weighty, more of a dirty bomb, but the only weapon at hand. He crouched as he tiptoed to the door, and he could hear someone breathing on the other side, as if they were listening to him.
Jerking the door open, Jane squealed and stumbled backwards, tripping and falling against the wall. Her blonde wig fell from her head.
Cloudy helped her to her feet. And when he picked up her wig and handed it to her, the blond mane was two-tone, covered in soot and inky stour.
‘Oh, fuck,’ Jane held it in her hand like a dead thing and started sobbing. She wailed, ‘That cost me a fortune.’
Cloudy pulled her into a hug, patting her shoulder and back. ‘I’ll get you another one,’ he assured her, before letting her go.
She cradled her thin wrists and squeezed out a few more tears. ‘But I loved that one.’
‘I liked it too pet, but if it’s any consolation, I’ve just had my whole house burnt down—and you don’t see me greetin’.’
‘Suppose,’ she put her hand over her chest.’ And she perked up. ‘I’ve got a wee red outfit with red shoes, although size 7, women’s size, is really hard to get. And I must admit it does look great... But I really need to use your ladies, right now, where’s your toilet?’
Cloudy pointed, ‘O’er there.’
‘No’ be a sec.’
Take your time. I’m no’ goin’ anywhere and you’re no’ meant to be here.’
She dipped a shoulder and marched towards the toilet.
Cloudy put the kettle on and waited for her sitting at the kitchen table. He moved books aside to create a space and pushed a mug of tea towards her. She’d sorted her lipstick and re-did the outlines of her eyes and makeup.
Sliding in to the seat across from him, her perfume closed the gap. ‘I’m letting my hair steep in the sink.’ She sipped at her tea. ‘I might be able to save it.’
‘That’s nice… But I thought I told you no’ to come back here.’
She grimaced. ‘Whit kind of tea is this?’
‘Em,’ she remained unconvinced.
‘So whit did you come back for?’ He sipped at his tea and it tasted fine to him. He kept his voice low and reasonable. ‘And I had to put on quite a performance, so you wouldnae get lifted.’
Then he changed his mind and rephrased it, getting louder, ‘So I wouldnae get lifted. I’ve spent years avoiding they cunts. Getting lifted every time some wee lassie or boy goes missing and taken in for routine questioning. Nothing routine about it for me. I can assure you. And I turn up wi’ my house burning down with a wee lassie, that’s really a wee boy in toe. How the fuck am I meant to explain that to them?’
‘Language,’ she put her mug on the table, slid it towards the pile of books as if she was finished with it. ‘I forget your name, whit is it, again?’
‘Ian-Ian MacLeod, but most folk call me Cloudy.’
‘Em, Cloudy, I like that.’
‘That’s no’ the point.’
She tickled his denim leg underneath the table. ‘Whit is the point?’
‘Don’t do that.’
She dipped her shoulder and tickled him again, clumsily, as he jerked his leg away and spilled his tea.
‘The point is, I can’t go home, because my da hates me. And he’d kill me if he saw me dressed like this. I hate him too. But we’re even, because I HATE MYSELF MORE.’
‘Calm down, hen.’
‘And if we’re being honest,’ she cried and looked at him through shining eyes. ‘You don’t care. You brought me here to fuck me up the bum. And you didn’t care if I was a girl or boy. You’re just a sad old man. And whit’s even sadder is I’d have let you. That’s how sad and pathetic… ’
Cloudy took a deep breath before speaking. ‘Let’s get our facts straight. I didn’t bring you here.’
He rubbed at the palm of his hand. The slight pain centring his thoughts. ‘You might have a point. I’m a sad old cunt. But we’ll make a deal, here and now—no sex.’