Life on the Suburban Fringe by S.R.Noss
Feature image is courtesy of Jon Nicholls (fotologic) on Flickr – click here to see more of his work
Chapter 3 – Escapism
Thursday November 2nd 1989
By morning the weather had turned. I laid in bed for as long as I could, snug under my eiderdown, feeling its warmth try to pull me back under whilst listening to the ratter-tatter of rain hitting the bedroom window. I wished I didn’t have to get up and go out into it but the red 06:30 on my Casio wristwatch told me I had to get up otherwise we would both end up being late.
Over breakfast I tried to broach the subject of the previous night’s mysterious phone call but Grandad didn’t seem at all interested. He was more concerned with spooning porridge into his mouth. When I asked why the caller had referred to him by name, he just shrugged his shoulders and said they probably got his name from the phonebook. That was the problem, we were ex-directory but as my brain felt like cotton wool and I didn’t have the energy to push it any further. If he knew something, he wasn’t telling, but I knew why though. He was always in a grump on a Thursday.
Grandad’s old Datsun growled into life the first time of asking even though growl was probably a slight exaggeration when describing the engine of a 1976 flame red Sunny Coupe. It was more a lawnmower rumble. But whilst not being the coolest motor there was it did still get us from A to B with monotonous reliability, so I couldn’t complain, well, not too much.
Grandad was waiting outside the house as requested. He was having an uncoordinated day. Ham fisted fingers fiddled with the chunky buttons on his old naval duffel coat. I wound down the drivers window and asked if he wanted help. A tirade of expletives were fired back at me as he stubbornly continued. I rolled my eyes and wondered if somewhere inside Al was watching and laughing. I waited a few minutes then figured it could be a delaying tactic, so got out of the car, told Grandad not to worry about it as we’d be late at this rate and shooed him into the back seat.
Our first stop was to drop him off at the day care centre. Angry eyes stared back at me in the mirror as we drove along the early morning roads.
‘It’s no good looking at me like that,’ I told him, ‘you have got to go and that’s the end of it.’
His bottom lip jutted out like a terrible two’s.
‘I no want to go. It smell of piss. It fulla bloody old people Marty! They dribble. The nurses, they shit, they no care for you, they steal my money…’
‘How many times have I got to tell you; they don’t steal your money because you don’t take any with you and its full of old people because it’s an old peoples home. Every time you do this, every bloody time.’ I thumped the steering wheel in frustration. ‘You gotta go Grandad and that’s that. One day, that’s all I ask, just one bloody day to myself. Keep going on like this and perhaps I’ll leave you there permanently one day!’
He went silent for a moment. I’d touched a nerve. When he spoke his voice was deadly serious.
‘You no do that Marty, you promise, never do that, you no put me in a home.’
I looked back at him in the mirror and realised how great a fear getting old and reliant on others for your independence must have been.
‘Of course I wouldn’t Grandad, I’m just being antsy that’s all…’
But his attention had already drifted away as he gazed at the houses rolling past. History slipped by his eyes. Seventies housing estates gave way to roads of thirties art deco, followed by lines of Victorian red rock until we were back full circle and entered into yet another tired modernist Council estate. Threadbare kids skived school to kick footballs on a scrap of scrubby wasteland. I slipped the Stone Roses into the tape player and sung along to ‘I wanna be adored’ so as to take my mind off of the view.
We rolled to a stop outside a squat concrete building. Someone had tried to cheer it up with pots of flowers and hanging baskets but was fighting a losing battle. Nothing was going to make the Daffodils Care Home look any better than what it was. We parked up and I ushered a morose Grandad through the centre’s doors. He was right; I did have that institutional smell of bleach and disinfectant struggling to mask a whole multitude of sins. I didn’t really like the place, but it was the best we could afford for day care, so it had to do.
A ripple of life went through the lounge when we walked in. Pensioners stirred in the chairs they’d only just slumped into post breakfast. For all his grumbling, Grandad was a popular man. Rubenesque carers hugged me to their bosoms and ruffled my hair as middle aged aunts would do. They were the Daff’s redeeming features. Grandad was handed a cup of tea and told him to go make himself comfy.
In the corner of the room sat his mate Alfie with an empty chair reserved for Grandad. Alfie was a retired dockworker, just like Grandad, who had been his friend for over forty years. He was a tough little bruiser in his day and was by then growing old as disgracefully as he could. Spits, curses, pinched bottoms and bawdy jokes were Alfie’s raison d’être. People liked him a lot, a proper salt of the earth guy who told you it straight and made life just a little bit more interesting. As we sat down he slapped Grandad on the back and began telling him a joke. The voice was still rich London east end after all those years.
‘Right Arthur, ere’s a new one for ya. There’s two blondes right, two blondes, an their aut takin a walk, ya nuw, in the cuntryside and whatnot, an anyway, they’re aut for walk and they cum across sarm tracks…’
I knew the punch line already. Alfie had told the same joke a hundred times and I didn’t have the time nor inclination to hang around and what for the train to hit them. I leant over and kissed Grandad on the forehead and said goodbye. His eyes stayed on Alfie. At the door I looked back across a sea of pensioners to see them both laughing at Alfie’s new joke, neither realising that they had both heard it before.
Outside it was raining again and water bounced off of the ground as I ran out to the car and got it started. I always felt a pang of guilt whenever I left Grandad in day care. I had to tell myself to not be so stupid. Grandad was always happy once there and I had to have at least one day of normality to keep sane. It was just the idea of admitting he was old and needed looking after that he hated. The rain was started to ease and up above the clouds parted, just a little, to let a few tentative rays of sunshine poke through. Perhaps it was going to be a good day after all. Then I looked at my watch and it said 08:30. I was running late for work.
With the back roads clear I made good time out of the eastern suburbs and into the city. Big Toni’s ‘Rare and Antique Book Emporium’ is located near the university, which itself sits nestled in between the parkland of the Common and the red lights of Bevios Valley. It was a bohemian sort of neighbourhood with plenty of cheap housing, pubs, coffee bars, charity shops and video arcades and was where, every Thursday, I escaped to work cash in hand and pretend life was normal.
It took me a while to find a parking space and by the time I arrived Toni was stood outside with a scowl on his face.
‘You’re fucking late again mush,’ he said, pointing at his watch, ‘I don’t need you being fucking late on a day like day. Kapeesh?’
I nodded my head in meek compliance and mumbled an apology. Toni was a big guy when he got angry.
‘Ok, well go get the shop opened up. The real customers will be here from one, so wave them on through. Ok?’
‘Ok Toni’ I said, ‘wave them on through. Got it. Dirty mac’ brigade today is it?’
‘Them and the rest Marty boy, them and the rest. Don’t matter who the fuck they are though, if the money’s good.’
He smiled and gold glinted amidst swarthy Cypriot stubble. Then a slap on the back to reassure me that he wasn’t really all that pissed at the lateness. He was like was Toni; all bravado and bullshit upfront but, if he liked you, a heart of gold inside.
Inside the shop was surprisingly light and airy and had that dry smell of aged paper blended with the aroma of the wood that clad the floor and walls in every direction. Every time I walked through the front door I stopped and breathed that aroma in whilst contemplating the vast array of knowledge and ideas just waiting for me inside all those crinkle covered books. It was a magical place for me back then.
Toni disappeared out back as I flicked the lights on and started to brew some coffee for the both of us. As it brewed I walked around through the shelved aisles, running my finger over spines whilst I looked for the one I would choose next for the things I should really have read.
One would always jump out at me. It might be a colourful spin or enticing title that caught my eye and intrigued me to know more. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Spirits of the Dead’ that fell into my hands that morning. The robed skeleton on the spine caught my eye and drew me in, so I popped the book on the cashiers counter to read once my chores were done.
Dusting, cataloguing, putting out new stock and ringing occasional transactions through the till was how my morning passed. I enjoyed the human contact of the Emporium’s customers, who were certainly a diverse bunch.
The first ones of the day would be the old, Macintoshed men, semi-retired from life, drenched from the rain and in need of a good book to fill the long days waiting for Godot. Most would amble around the shop, giving nods of hello whilst wondering if their pension could stretch to a couple more cheap paperbacks that week. Toni always made sure he had plenty in stock at bargain prices. His bit of charity for the elderly, he said, as he watched them happily rummage and root amongst the cardboard cheapies, never make a profit on them.
With mid-morning came the women of dread. Middle aged matriarchs in stiff brogues and no-nonsense voices requisitioned the shop and demanded to see the miniatures we held in stock.
The world of miniature books was a fascinating thing. Size was everything to the exclusively female clientele; three inches long and no disagreement. A millimetre more and they were no longer miniatures, just a small pocket book that nobody wanted. But fewer than three and the price knew no limits. On more than one occasion I’d winced with pity for those women’s husbands as yet another pulled out a measuring tape to check the authenticity of our wares before handing over a cheque for hundreds of pounds whilst Toni rubbed his hands with glee.
As afternoon beckoned browsers and just up students with dishevelled bed-heads would wander in, reading lists in hand and piles of pennies in their pockets for a few second hand texts before going out to meet their days, leaving me alone to eat my lunch and begin reading through the quiet of the afternoon.
Thursdays though were a special day at the Emporium. It was the day of the week when the special buyers, the ones with the real money to spend, came in. Everyone knew second hand bookshops didn’t make money, yet Toni still drove a brand new Mercedes Benz and paid for everything with thick wodges of elastic-banded cash. That was because his real trade went on to the rear of the shop.
For beyond the shop lay a small warehouse that opened onto a gated yard. It was a clever set up; buyers would have the veneer of legitimacy by entering through the shop, browse Toni’s merchandise discreetly out back, then have their boys load up and exit through gates into the anonymous alleyway beyond without anyone, the police mainly, being any the wiser.
The goods sold reflected Toni’s embracement of Thatcherism’s entrepreneurial ethos. One week would see black market booze and cigarettes recently arrived from Calais, another knocked off stereos and other assorted electrical goods. That week saw the turn of Toni’s lucrative under-the-counter trade in hardcore porn; direct and cellophane wrapped from Amsterdam, courtesy of an old Leyland DAF lorry driven by an alcoholic Croat named Boris.
Toni’s network of contacts was legendary and those who came to buy were serious businessmen who catered for a specific sort of clientele, not the rag-tag sort you’d expect to attend a dodgy back street sale. They were also hard men who had prospered in dark and violent worlds, so it was wise to treat them with respect and absolute care.
They arrived throughout the afternoon, one by one, everything timed with military precision by Toni so deadly rivals need never cross paths. My job was to greet the buyers and then show them through to back. Apparently I was good at that, according to Toni, which was why I was employed on a Thursday. Almost all were familiar names or faces: the world backstreet sex shops and porn sales world was a small one after all. Few acknowledged my existence as they entered, preferring instead to go straight through and get their business done as quick as could be.
The afternoons were lazy and slow compared to the mornings. The occasional afternoon browser may have wondered in but, beyond the steady timed arrival of Toni’s buyers, I was generally left to do whatever I wanted.
Normally that would have meant reading and drinking copious cups of coffee but I was struggling to focus on Poe’s poetry. Alone with my thoughts I could not help but keep returning the previous nights telephone call. Crank calls happened but never like that and the more I thought about it I came to realise that was what disturbed me about it all.
‘A penny for your thoughts?’
My reverie was disturbed by Mr Samson standing at the counter. I smiled; happy to be interrupted because Mr Samson was one of Thursdays little pleasures. He was looking as dapper as usual in his brown crombie and trademark tweed suit, a man left over from another age. But this time something was different.
‘Why the walking stick Mr Samson?’
‘Auch, I wish I could say it was the ravages of old age catching up with me Marty but sadly it was nothing more than an old fool taking an unexpected fall.’
He smiled weakly as he lowered himself into a chair. He appeared in some discomfort.
‘But we must soldier on Marty, soldier on like Xenophon.’
I mentally smiled at the reference to the endurance march of the Greek hoplites and clicked the kettle on behind the counter. Once sat down he appeared more comfortable and a twinkle of excitement was apparent in his eyes.
‘I have some interesting news to share with you Marty. I have just spoken on the telephone with an old friend of mine in Berlin. There appear to be most exciting changes developing Marty. I thought once the Hungarian border opened last month that we would see some sort of reaction but the unthinkable appears to be happening. With Honecker gone people are talking of revolution. The East German government is struggling to cope.’ His own eyes blazed with the passion at the thought of witnessing such a moment. His voiced dropped to a conspiratorial whisper and he lent closer towards me. ‘Perhaps the unthinkable will happen and the Wall will fall Marty!”
He paused again to take another sip of his coffee.
‘That’s big news indeed Mr Samson, but do you really think it will happen?’
He seemed very sure and pretty excited at the prospect.
‘So how is your literary endeavour developing young Marty?’ he asked, pointing his walking stick towards the book of Poe’s poetry resting on the counter as I brought over his coffee, strong, just the way he liked it. As I set the mug down I told him that I was struggling to get into it today and explained the reason for it.
‘How intriguing,’ he answered, ‘but also very strange. I take it you can think of no reason why the caller said what he said?’
‘None at all. Grandad didn’t seem to know anything about it this morning and our number is ex-directory, so I don’t see how a random stranger could have picked our number out of the air. The only thing that I think I have an answer to is the language he spoke. I think it was German.’
I could tell Mr Samson’s interest was piqued from the Cheshire cat grin that had spread across his wrinkled face.
‘But how do you know it was German the caller spoke if you speak none yourself Marty?’ he asked.
I went over to the counter and fetched the little English-German dictionary I had found in the book shelves earlier that day.
‘Well it wasn’t Polish,’ I explained, ‘I would have recognised that. But the language was similar; it had a sort of hardness if you know what I mean. So I guessed it may be German and looked up the only word that seemed familiar.’
I opened the dictionary and pointed to the word on the bookmarked page. Mr Samson leaned over to look. Gott: Meaning God. He smiled.
‘Well done Holmes. Now I assume you require me to fill in the gaps for you.’
I passed him the sheet of paper on which I had attempted to write down what the caller had said. Mr Samson glanced at it and laughed out loud.
‘Wyre steson unsure vertroon nicked mir af gott.’
He looked at me school-teacher style over his glasses. A mild admonishment was due.
‘I think you mean; Wir setzen unser Vertrauen nicht mehr auf Gott. Nine out of ten for effort Marty but you clearly have a woeful understanding of the German language. An interesting phrase though.’
‘You can translate it then?’ I asked. The look on his face told me he did.
‘Yes, but not quite in this form. You see this would translate as in God we trust no more but I don’t think that is not how it would have been used.’ He paused and stroked his chin in thought. ‘Mind you it does sound familiar, but for the life of me I can’t think where I’ve heard it before. Would you mind leaving it with me for a couple of days Marty? The memory is not what it used to be but I’m sure it will come to me eventually.’
I took the piece of paper with my rough translation on and scrawled my telephone number on the back then passed it across the table.
‘Well here’s my number so give me a call when inspiration strikes.’
He paused for a moment then smiled as he slipped the note into his coat pocket.
‘Of course I shall Marty,’ he said, ‘As you say, as soon as inspiration strikes.’