Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel (Wednesday afternoon. Morse Bum.)
A baby in a pushchair outside a café eyes you wearily. An old lady sits by the side of the fountain. She has a walking stick with a lump of rubber on the end of it. It is the saddest thing you have ever seen. That rubber will outlast her.
Marching, here we are, here we are, you swing your arms gaily. It is the second day in a row you have come to the shopping centre across the motorway from Hotel Flamingo. Sometimes you will come here as many as ten times in a single week.
The old turbaned Indian in the convenience store invites you to the back of his shop. You imagine he is running a poker game in there. Shady Persians pushing worn chips across a greasy baize. There is a cleaner who wears a coat made of feathers. You imagine removing this coat, then her blouse. There is another layer of feathers underneath.
You will ask her the secret of these feathers. She will tell you. You will fly away.
There is a concession stand from which umbrellas are sold. The owner looks knowingly at you, wagging one of his meaty fingers. He has piercing eyes and, although he is only young, the moustache of a World War I flying ace.
He used to speak to you, wish you a good day, tell you you looked in tip-top shape.
Then one day you arrived soaking wet from the rain and he attempted to sell you one his finest umbrellas. You did not buy one and he has not spoken to you since. Instead he looks towards you, looks away, the pointed end of his moustache mocking you.
Your favourite establishment is a novelty gift shop, Crackers! They have a rack of products in the shape of willies and you imagine buying them all and distributing them amongst your friends.
How funny they will think you.
Willy key rings.
Willy bottle openers.
Once, around Valentine’s Day, the willies were replaced with hearts and you had run from the shopping centre sobbing for what would make people love you now.
Loneliness is not a long distance runner. It is more of a jack-in-a-box. Ready to leap out at you when you least expect it.
But this is your secret history.
Between the ages of fifteen and sixteen you had lived in a shopping centre. While the other students returned to their homes after school you took the free bus to the retail park, searched through the bins in the food court for your dinner, and then, just before it would close up for the night you would hide out in one of the toilets, waiting until everyone had gone.
Then you would be home.
“Hello,” you used to shout out into the empty echoing space, “I’m here. I’m shopping. I’m in the nude.”
You weren’t in the nude but imagining you were in the nude was your coping mechanism.
It took you back not to a different time, not one when you were happier, but one at least when you had parents, when you didn’t scrub out your underpants in a supermarket washroom, didn’t curl up to sleep in a utility closet, didn’t tell yourself your own bedtime stories.
‘There were once three bears, a mama bear, a baby bear, a baby bear.’
In your story there was no Goldilocks. Goldilocks was a catalyst for change, a ray of light shining on a happy ending. Somewhere.
You did not have that.
So you called out, ‘Hey look at me! I’m shopping in the nude. Ha ha ha ha!”
When you were thirteen and a half your dad won three hundred pounds on a horse, Lucky Jim, and took you and your mother to the South of France. Your mother was in one of her down periods and while she had sat on the beach counting grains of sand, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita lying unopened next to her, you had read every one of the James Bond books in order:
Live and Let Die
Diamonds Are Forever
From Russia with Love
For Your Eyes Only
The Spy Who Loved Me
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
You Only Live Twice
The Man with the Golden Gun Octopussy
The Living Daylights
The lady in the second hand book shop, ‘10 francs a book, 5 francs for exchange’ began to call you Mr Bond. You called her Miss Moneypenny.
You imagined she was a little in love with you. You were a little in love with her, the rolls of fat around her stomach, the wispy hairs protruding from her chin, her dark misty eyes in which you could see romance, a ski slope in Switzerland, a Korean agent with hands as thick as cheese boards, a Walter PPK and a licence to kill.
You would stay with her forever.
You would have many children.
They would all become secret agents, so deep undercover even you did not know who they were.
One day after your mother had discovered a local heroin dealer, Artur, your father had decided you would all go exploring. You walked and you walked until you came to the next town which also just happened to be a nudist colony.
“Just look at that,” your mother had said. You were in a shop. There was a man paying for his goods. Because the weather that day was somewhat chilly he was wearing a thick woolly jumper and a pair of flip flops. However, he had no trousers or pants on.
“Well what do you know?” said your mother. Her eyes were pinpricks. Although she had no chewing gum she was chewing furiously.
“That’s the best goddam idea I’ve ever come across!”
Your mother then took off all her lower garments and said you and your father had to too.
It was like the time she had insisted you all go carol singing in July. You had refused. She had cut herself.
“Cucumbers half price!”
Your mother tapped the green monster against your bare bum.
“Button mushrooms anyone?”
“Swedish meatballs! Buy two get two free!”
You will never forget that image of your father. Face tanned and thick with stubble. Silently furious. His prick hanging level with a tin of Heinz tomato hoops. Looking disconsolate.
Two months later your father killed your mother by throwing her off the flat roof of Cash n Carry Beds, the boarded up shop above which you all lived in a small flat.
At first your father said it was an accident. Your mother had been having one of her turns. She had climbed out of the window stoned. She had tumbled to her death.
But then a witness had come forward.
Jacob Webb who lived on the estate opposite, had been looking at the roof of Cash n Carry Beds at the exact time the incident had taken place. He had been doing this because he thought he was going to see your bum.
What a thing!
You think you are going to see a bum and instead you see a murder.
Come on my son.
We’ve got you bang to rights.
You don’t know how it happened but when you were thirteen you started mooning to Jacob Webb, Webby!, who lived in a house on the estate behind the shop. The shop had a flat roof and because of where his house was situated Webby had a clear view of it from his window.
It started off that you would wave to each other, ‘good night mate’, ‘here I am!’, or you would make rude gestures, sticking your fingers up in the manner of teenage boys while mouthing, ‘up yours mate. Stick that where the sun don’t shine.’ But then one day Webby decided to show you his bum.
Hey ho you thought and not to be done, you showed him your bum back.
At around that time you were into the Hardy Boys books and as a companion to the fiction series you had a book called The Hardy Boys Survival Book. It taught you all kinds of useful things, like if ever you got lost in a desert you knew how to get water using only the mechanics of condensation and the hubcap of a car.
One of the other things in there was the Morse Code and, boys being boys, you copied this out for Webby and you started to flash messages to each other by flashing your bums.
‘S-E-E Y-O-U A-T S-C-H-O-O-L T-O-M-O-R-R-O-W-K-N-O-B-C-H-E-E-S-E.
It was in this fashion that you learned of your mother’s death.
‘I-M S-O-R-R-Y M-A-T-E Y-O-U-R D-A-D H-A-S J-U-S-T T-H-R-O-W-N Y-O-U-R M-U-M O-F-F T-H-E R-O-O-F’
It was a 30 foot drop. She had landed on the rusty spikes of an iron fence. You had had to pass two of the attending policemen tissues after they had thrown up.
You had held your mother’s hand one last time.
Despite everything you had loved her.
You imagined how things might have been different.
You had imagined.
The only hairy time in the shopping centre is between two and three in the morning when the security guard does his rounds.
Where he is the rest of the time you don’t know, checking out other shopping centres or factories is a possibility but what you really believe is that he spends the rest of the time snoozing in the security office, sitting at his desk reading The Sun newspaper, eating bags of crisps while watching old VHS tapes of Cary Grant, Bringing up Baby, Houseboat, Notorious, His Girl Friday, Suspicion, Father Goose, Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House, To Catch a Thief, and his masterpiece, North by Northwest.
As you also like the films of Cary Grant you develop a soft spot for the security guard. You give him a name, Clyde Corduroy, and you imagine details about his life.
His mother and father are from The Gambia. They came to England in the 1960s hoping they would have a better life but they found only cold dreary weather and jobs that no one else wanted. His father, George, works as a hospital porter, his mother, Prudence, as a cleaner at the railway station.
Clyde is married but he hardly ever sees his wife. He works nights and she works days. While she is on her own every night she puts on records by Cole Porter.
She knows all the tunes by heart, the words, her English not being good, escape her.
She has a beautiful voice.
At first you were scared by the security guard’s arrival into your space each night but soon you long for it, to see the face of another human being in this most empty of nighttime spaces.
You believe yourselves to be two lonely travellers on the same journey. You are cut off from your parents, one is dead and one in prison and he is cut off from his country divided as it is by a violent and bloody civil war. (You know nothing about The Gambia, not even that there is no civil war there but that does not matter to your fantasy.)
And you imagine telling Clyde, the security guard, about your life, how your father is not a bad man, just as your mother was not a bad woman, and that the time when he asked you to lend him two pounds, on your birthday, and then gave you back one pound and told you to go to Mace and to get yourself a present, ‘anything in the whole world that you would like’ is only because he was having a bad day.
Just like on the day that he killed your mother. Not that that was a day. It was a night. The longest night of your life.
Rushing down the stairs and finding your mother’s lifeless body by the bins.
The sounds of the police cars and ambulance arriving.
A hand being placed on your shoulder.
Your father being led away in cuffs.
Your first statement in which you told how Webb had told you with his bum what had happened.
“You know,” you said. “Dot dot dot, dash dash dash. Only with a bare arse.”
You start to follow Clyde as he does his rounds. Whereas in the past you had kept your distance, snuggling back in the cleaning cupboard where you made your bed each night, now you get as close to him as you can without being seen.
He is in the habit of sitting by the fountain and eating his sandwiches and you crawl to the other side of the fountain, hide behind its lip.
The weeks pass and in those weeks you come to the conclusion that you and Clyde could become friends.
In later years you could write it down and it would become a heartwarming children’s story like Goodnight Mr Tom or Stig of the Dump.
It just requires that first magical encounter.
One night you can stand it no longer and while Clyde is sitting by the fountain eating his sandwich you collect stones and you throw them into the water. Gradually you launch them nearer and nearer to where he is sitting until finally he leaps up.
“Nancy,” he says. “Is that you? Nancy. I promise you I was born with seven toes. I didn’t make no pack with Beelzebub, or the Devil as you like to call him. There was no need to go and drown yourself. I promise you. Nancy. Is that you? Are you calling me from the other side?”
The next night Clyde Corduroy, your security guard is not there. Instead there is another black security guard, but this one is tall and thin and has a mean face, like he would have no problem escorting a toddler to the security office for shoplifting a lolly and before you can stop yourself you are going up to him and asking him what he has done with Clyde.
That is when he starts to chase you.
He is fast and mean but you are faster and younger and you know the shopping centre better than he knows his own house and you manage to get away but even as you sprint into the distance you hear him shout.
“You may have got me this evening but tomorrow, or the day after that or the day after that I will get you.”
There is a passion in his words and you believe him.
You do not go back to the shopping centre again.
You are homeless and sad all over again for the death of your mother.
You cry for her.
You cry for your father.
You cry for yourself.
You have heard of other children slipping through the net. You have not even seen the net.