Chapter 2 of Tripping
I like this city. It’s full of misfits and no-one gives a shit about what you do, who you are, or where you’re from. Work in a car repair place, been here since I left school. Saw a sign in the window, red felt pen on a sheet of A4:
‘ASISTeNT Wanted, must be abel too Cownt.’
I was in.
Am here now, behind the counter, working out the mark up on the latest orders. Kojak, the owner, has gone off to another of his ‘meetings.’ Which means he’ll be at a supplier haggling over a refund or a discount. Finds fault in a lot of things.
‘He’s got to be related to Buddha?’ I tell Mo, another asistent. ‘ He’s got the belly, the bald head and the ear lobes.’
Mo works on the cars and laughs like a naughty little girl – covers his mouth with his hand and smans. He’s sniffing around reception looking for pens customers might have left behind. They always ask. We just point at the half chewed pencil dangling from the grubby bit of string nailed to the worktop. They soon find their own. Think he collects them to send home, back to India.
‘Stick the kettle on,’ I say, throwing my pen down. Mo’s eyes lock onto it and I’m quick to pick it up again. I wink and make a show of putting it in my top pocket. His teeth flash through grease and dirt as he goes to fetch his brother.
‘Bout time man,’ Malik says when he walks into the office. He slaps me on the back as I rinse out the cups. He’s the handsome one. Looks like a Bollywood star even in his overalls. ‘So where’s Fat Boy?’
Out the corner of my eye I see Mo fidget. He gets nervous when Malik talks like this. ‘Gone to a supplier,’ I say, bending to take the milk out the fridge. It’s only small and sits on the floor in the corner of the room. It’s covered in a grey film, like most things in here. I notice how clear the thumbprints around the handle are. The police would have a field day. There’s nothing else inside apart from the pint of full fat. I like it when the fridge is empty, gives out more light. Malik kicks me for the milk. I unscrew the top and smell it. It’s OK, just.
He snatches it, gulps at least half of it down, wipes away his white tash and burps. ‘So you got a girl yet?’
Mo twitches again. The kettle comes to the boil and I go to pour the water into the cups but Malik nudges me and the water goes everywhere. I tell him he’s an arse and Mo covers his ears with his hands.
'Should get down to Tiger Tiger. Plenty of flesh on show there,’ Malik says, sitting the wrong way round on his chair. Thinks it makes him look cool, the way he straddles it, his chin resting on the back. He thinks I’m not answering because I’m embarrassed. He thinks because I don’t talk about girls, don’t talk about where I go, what I do, that he knows me. Just sup my tea and look at Mo.
‘Get yourself out man. Strut your stuff. Good looking guy like you, you’ll have no problem. There was this piece the other week. I’m telling you.’
Take my pen out of my top pocket. Hold it up. Mo’s eyes dance. They’re as black as his hair but they can shine like the sun.
Kojak lets us pack up half an hour early. It’s Friday and we’ve got through all the booked jobs and he wants to lock up and get away. There’s two jobs down for tomorrow but I won’t be in. Fancy a day off. Haven’t had a day out in months.
When I get home I can hear music playing upstairs. Celine’s got some dance mix bumping through the ceiling. Don’t mind, it’ll keep her occupied. Have to think about what I’ll need and think up an excuse to borrow the car in the morning.
Ring Mum on her mobile and offer to pick her up from the tube, save her legs. You’ve been standing all day I tell her. Say we can do a shop on the way back and then she won’t need to do it over the weekend. She doesn’t argue, she sounds tired. Tell her to make a list. Don’t mind shopping for food. Shopping for things you need is OK. Don’t do any other kind.
Leave Mum in the supermarket café with a tall latte and a Danish. When I get to the trolleys I look over. She looks good in her outfit, the navy suit and patterned blouse suits her. Can see she’s still got her name badge on. She should’ve taken it off. Not good having people know who you are, strangers knowing your name. Forget how small she is, she looks tiny sitting at the table, like a little doll. Her legs just about touch the floor. That’s what he used to call her. His doll. He cut her hair when she was asleep once, just hacked it off on one side, like Celine did to Chatty Cathy. All that lovely long hair. She gives me a wave. I wave back. Won’t be long. Am good at this. Know where stuff is, which aisle to go to first. Unless of course they’ve changed things around.
The girl on the till’s talking to her friend on the next one so we’re not moving. There’s another till further up. It’s got a bigger queue but this is doing my head in so I decide to go. Someone’s shopping won’t scan and wish I hadn’t moved now because this queue’s going nowhere. Then, right by me, another checkout opens. I’m first off the mark. Don’t know if that’s luck or fate or what but sometimes that happens. Think I’ve messed up and then find out I haven’t.
Pack my stuff into carrier bags that I’ve turned inside out. Saw someone do this once. They said it was a protest against free advertising. I’m doing it so I’ll know which bags are mine.
Spot mum. She’s moved to sit at a table next to the window. She’s on her own and looks like she’s in one of those paintings by that artist. The one that paints lonely people in diners. We did him at school. The sun’s really bright and her hair’s all glittery, like it’s made of gold. Wish she could see how beautiful she is right now. How the sun makes her look.
She sees me and gets up. Before I know it she’s taken the trolley and we’re heading for the exit. Knew before she did that. Knew by her twitchy smile she was in a funny mood. Bet it’s him. Bet she’s been thinking about him.
When she gets to the car she stands, hands perched on the trolley, like a little bird. Remember it’s me who’s got the keys. Point them at the car, the lights flash and the doors release. Love how they do that - Bond style. We unload in silence. Make sure my bags go right to the back. Don’t know if she wants me to take the trolley back or not. When she’s like this everything’s awkward. Nothing goes the way it should. I touch the trolley, she grabs it and pushes it away. I walk to the back of the car and slam the boot really hard, lock it and climb into the driver’s seat.
‘I’m driving.’ She’s like an air stewardess, standing there in her uniform, holding onto her shoulder bag, that tone in her voice.
‘Thought you were tired.’
‘I’m not arguing about it.’
What the fuck’s this all about? She let me pick her up from the tube, drive her here, do the shopping. It is him. He can still screw things up even though he’s hundreds of fucking miles away. Can’t wait for tomorrow. Not asking for the car though. She can keep it. Don’t need it. I’ll shove the stuff in a rucksack, take the bus.
We drive back in silence. Want to put the radio on, listen to the weather forecast. Can’t. Just have to sit there. Be driven.
Lean forward and look up. The sun’s sinking behind the buildings and the sky’s a thin pinky blue. When we turn into our street this blinding flash bounces off the bonnet. Our road’s dead straight and there’s a park at the end. The sun’s going into meltdown between the trees and the sky’s already turning red. It’s going be a good day tomorrow.
I smile as Mum swears.