Sulham Close - ch1
By lisa h
August 31st, 2008
Mark took a pinch of Golden Virginia from the tin and spread it out on a Rizla. He rolled the tobacco back and forth a couple of times to make a thin sausage shape before licking the edge of the paper, sealing the rollup shut. He pinched out stray pieces of tobacco and lit his battered silver Zippo on the first flick. Mark put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled as the flame touched the other end. During the whole process, he didn’t look down once.
Two hours previously, a young lad had strolled up and sat on one of the long wooden benches near the front of BHS. Earlier that same day, Mark had laid out his tatty blue blanket on the cobbles. He always chose this spot as the sun would shine between the tall buildings opposite all morning. By the afternoon, the rays caught him as the sun arched over the roofs. Playing guitar all day long, hoping for a few coppers, was always more pleasant in the warm sunlight. Besides, he never seemed to be able to shake the chill from his bones. Right now the dull ache of hunger was stronger. The Sainsbury’s a few shops up would be marking cooked meats down soon, emptying the shelves for the fresh stock on Monday morning.
But the lad – Mark first noticed him three days ago while minding his own business and playing Stairway to Heaven, picked for cash-strapped mums. They flooded Broad Street dragging complaining kids in and out of shops, as they huffed and puffed under their cake-induced podge. Mark strummed, praying for their pity. But money was thin. Everyone was moaning on about the credit crunch. They should try sleeping on the street, he thought.
But the lad – his grin was what set him apart. He wore a wide smirk that never faltered. Almost like a painted on caricature of happiness. Each time he appeared, he had dressed in khaki shorts teamed with hiking boots. Was he planning on a ramble next? On Thursday, he wore a FCUK shirt. His hair had a tousled sexy look. The type of colour that should have been brown but too much time outside had bleached the tips dirty blonde. Women, and not a few men, checked him out as they passed. But the lad’s gaze never wavered from Mark and his guitar playing. Where the hell had he found the sun? And why had he come back to watch for three days straight? To sit and smirk while Mark busked for hours on end?
Mark dragged on his cigarette, idly strumming the strings on his guitar and nodding at people as they passed by. Catching the public’s eye was the first step. Half of them dumped a bit of change then, unable to cope with their guilt. He’d already pocketed over fifteen pounds. Not sufficient to sleep on a bed, but enough coins for a bag full of reduced pasties, maybe some sausage rolls, and definitely a new tin of Golden Virginia and a bottle of Strongbow.
The lad glanced at his watch. Mark didn’t need one. He’d spent long years outside, living rough. He told the time by the sun and shadows. Besides, the streets were emptying as four o’clock drew nearer. Bloody Sunday hours. His watcher stretched, and straightened from the slouched back, knees spread, position he’d maintained all day. Good. Freaky stalker boy was going to leave.
But then the unexpected happened – Freaky Boy stood up, shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and strolled across the cobbles towards Mark.
“Hi,” the lad said. He stopped by the open guitar case.
“Wotcha.” Mark squinted up.
“May I ask you a question?” Freaky Boy said.
“Sure thing, mate.” Mark took another drag on his roll-up.
“Do you like living on the street?” Freaky Boy squatted down, so they were on the same level.
“Course I fucking don’t. What kind of a fucked up question is that?” Mark glanced to the left and right of Freaky Boy. Maybe he’d bought some buddies along for a game of abuse the homeless guy. Wouldn’t be the first time.
“You’re right. Sorry. I haven’t done this before.” Freaky Boy’s cheeks pinked. “Mind if I sit down?”
Mark frowned, put the rollup to his lips and inhaled. “Suppose,” he said finally.
“Cheers.” Freaky Boy sat cross-legged on the pavement, and gazed up at the passing people for a few seconds. “It looks very different from down here.”
“You get used to it.”
“I’m Pete.” Freaky Boy extended a hand to shake. Mark stared at the hand for a moment, then up at the lad. “Don’t worry. Sorry. I’m a bit nervous.” Pete lowered his arm in a couple of jerky movements, as if he still half expected Mark to reach out.
But Mark stayed silent. This guy was a loon.
“My mother used to do the talking. But she died, and now I have to.” Freaky Boy put his arms around his knees. A momentary cloud of sadness seemed to pass across the lad’s face. Then it was gone and the grin returned.
Mark raised his eyebrows, pinched the last of the cigarette between his lips and inhaled.
“She picked someone. One person – to help. Each year. Get them clean.” Pete tapped a silent drumbeat on his knees. “She cured people.”
“Why?” Mark picked up his guitar and placed it in the case, the coins jingling in the bottom. He was going to need a quick exit from Freaky Boy.
Pete extended one arm, and held it out in front of Mark. “I was a junky. See the marks?”
Mark nodded. A mosaic of dark grey scars covered the skin, like a bad design for a new constellation.
“Mum cured me.” Pete withdrew his arm.
“What’s the cure?” Mark popped open his tin and shook the last scraps of tobacco into the corner. Hesitantly he asked, “Want one?”
“Cheers,” Pete said with a nod. “The cure? Good old fashioned cold turkey, a councillor and eventually, we’ll enrol you in college.”
“Me?” He finished the first roll-up and handed it to Pete.
“Yes, you. I’ve picked you.” A wide smile stretched across Freaky Boy’s face.
“Ha. That’s a funny one, mate. How much this gonna cost me?” Mark sealed his own roll-up, flicking his lighter for Pete before lighting his own. “I ain’t got much, just a handful of coins to my name.” He gave his guitar case a gentle shake for effect.
“Nothing – and you get to live in the cottage for as long as it takes.”
“This is – did you know a guy called Billy? Has dark brown hair and a hooked nose. Claimed to be Italian, but we knew he wasn’t.”
“Billy? Yeah. Disappeared last year. I figured he’d OD’d on something.”
“Nope. We got him clean. He’s got his own flat now, studying part-time to be a chippy, and we got him an apprenticeship with a local builder.”
“You’re fucking kidding me?” Mark sat forward. “So how come he never came by and said?”
“That’s the deal.” Pete intonated his words carefully, slowly. Losing patience, maybe. “You have to sever all contact with everyone you know. This is a fresh start. A new life. Your old ways end today.”
Freaky Boy’s smirk returned with this last comment. A chill flared in Mark’s belly, and shot up through to his heart.
“I’m not so sure…” The street was emptying. Four had come and gone, and he’d probably lost a few quid because of this joker sat besides him, yakking away. Sainsbury’s would be closed now. His stomach rumbled. Shit and fuck.
“We will fix you.”
“We?” Mark asked. He got up, and picked up the old blanket he’d been sitting on. “Sorry, mate. This all sounds a bit religious cult for me.” He folded the blanket and tied it to the bottom of his rucksack.
“No, by ‘we’ I mean my twin and me.”
Mark shook his head and bent down for his guitar case.
“Do you want to die a junkie?” Pete said and stood up to face Mark. “Is this what you want for your life?”
Mark swayed a little on the spot. He was hungry. And thirsty. He could get a bottle of Strongbow, go see Cliff and score some green. “I’m not a junkie. I’m a drunk.”
“There’s a difference?” he asked.
“I don’t touch the strong shit,” Mark said.
“And you’re doing so well by abstaining.” Pete laughed.
Mark narrowed his eyes at Freaky Boy, but the lad didn’t seem to notice.
“Come back with me, sleep on it,” Pete said. “We’re not bad or strange. We want to help people, the way my mum did. So you’re not a proper ‘junkie’. You still need drying out.” Pete leaned in closer and said, “You can call Billy tomorrow when you’ve woken. He’ll tell you.”
Mark thought about it. He’d sleep in a warm bed, after a long bath. And he’d have a hot dinner, his mouth watered at the thought. “Just one night?”
“Certainly. And afterwards, if you still want to come back here, you’re free to go back to your drunken ways.”
Freaky Boy had taken on the look of a confident salesman. There was catch, Mark thought. There’s always a catch.
“Can I let one person know where I’m going?”
“Nope, the separation from the junkie life needs to be complete. My mum always insisted.”
“Your mum sounds like quite the woman,” Mark said.
“She was something else.” Freaky Boy had his hands in his pockets again. He pumped his heels up and down on the pavement, as if he couldn’t wait to get away.
“One night…?” Mark peered over Pete’s shoulder at the entrance to Sainsbury’s. A young woman with a screaming toddler tied down in a pram was shouting at a security man.
“I just want milk for the baby!” she yelled.
The security guard’s reply was inaudible, but Mark could guess – four o’clock had indeed come and gone. The woman pushed the pram away from the shop, stomping down the road. The child’s screams finally faded as they turned off Broad Street.
Freaky Boy tilted his head back into Mark’s line of sight. “My car’s this way.”