Tuesday Man: A short story for January days

January mist glides in waves over the flat river. It drips from the blackened branches of the stately chestnut trees that line the long, straight path.

I can make out a figure a couple of hundred yards ahead. The elderly gent I see, every Tuesday, when I walk into town to do my weekly shift.

My route takes me first on a rough gravel turn through vegetable allotments, then out onto the flat Ings near the taut-drawn steel arc of the Millennium Bridge before bearing right, along the straight promenade – ‘New Walk’ – lain in Regency times for ladies of leisure and gentleman flâneurs to parade in their finery.

My shift starts at ten. If I’m late, I see him near the beginning of the path: if I make good time I see him further north, at its end by the little blue bridge below the flood barrier. Here two rivers meet in a letter ‘Y’: the barrier’s to prevent the main flow making a rearguard action – backing up the smaller tributary, into the city centre.

Today I make good time.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

It took me three years to get that much. Heaven knows how long it might take before a handshake – ‘My name’s Louise, but most people call me Ziss’. I suppose it’s a Brit thing.

*      *      *

January gales sweep the bare branches in broad gusts. Spindrift rolls over the choppy grey river. A year has passed and my new year’s resolution to find paid work has foundered again.

Perhaps it’s because I like my Tuesdays at the charity shop too much.

A few hardy joggers and determined dog-walkers are braving the storm. Here’s the gent, in his usual long dark coat.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

He always carries a cane, though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need one: his back is straight and his gait easy.

I’m early: I’m practically at the blue bridge.

After that the path roughens before passing under the bone-like arches of Skeldergate, along the quayside and in front of the two old pubs – the King’s Arms and the Lowther – that are always on the national News when it floods.

*      *      *

The pale sun of the New Year casts a long, indistinct shadow that leans left on the path before me. I’m once again enjoying my first walk in of the year. The river is blue and smooth. An eight glides like a blade, the coxswain calling the strokes.

Last June my number came up for an allotment. I noticed as I passed just now that the broccoli leaves have wilted. But it’s only frost: they’ll recover.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

Funny how, past a certain age, people don’t seem to get any older. It’s been six years now.

*      *      *

I can’t believe how mild it is this New Year: I’ve not even bothered with a coat. Several cyclists bowl by on the other side of the path’s white line. One of them has a breathless Staffy on a lead.

I wonder if this year will be as eventful as last: our eldest left home, someone burned down the shed on our allotment, and I found a book about wine-making in the shop and took the plunge.

I must be walking faster: I’m at the blue bridge.

The sky and the river are dark steely grey, but snowdrops gleam like tiny shields on the grassy bank between the two rivers, at the ‘Y’ by the flood barrier.

His face is quite distinctive: chiselled and triangular.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

*      *      *

January sleet drives like an onslaught. Just as well the Council reinforced the path last autumn. I wasn’t even going to walk this way: their site said Viking monitor was reading two metres above mean summer level. Water would have cut off my route. The river speeds, brown and whorled, but the earthworks have kept the walk clear, as promised.

When the path’s flooded I have to resort to the main road. I make the same time, but I never see him there.

Our youngest left home last year.

My wine won a prize at the local show.

“Happy New Year.”

I almost stop in my tracks.

“Oh… er, and you too!”

*      *      *

Rain lashes the bedroom window. It’s nearly 9:30, but dawn hasn’t gone past dark grey. My eyes are burning. I’m almost too weak to lean across and find the number.

“I’m sorry, Nick. I can’t come in today: I think I’ve got that ’flu.”

“Oh dear. Thanks for letting us know. Take care.”

It’s been the wettest year in a decade, the ground sodden since September. This storm’s so bad they’ve given it a name. It rages on for days. So does my fever.

I sit up in bed and scroll through the news.

The river’s breached its banks. Viking’s broken its record: nearly six metres up. Someone canoed through the top storey of the King’s Arms. The electrics of the barrier seized because water infiltrated the wheelhouse – bit of a design fault there – allowing the flood to overrun the city centre. The Army are on the streets, with sandbags and pontoons. The B.B.C. interviewed an historian from the University, who said the flooded roads used to be a fishpond in mediaeval times. Only human ingenuity defends them nowadays.

Days pass. The floods and my ’flu subside, as they must, and I’m back on my feet by the Tuesday.

Mild air greets me as I leave the house, almost as if in apology for the excesses of last week.

A tall well-built lad passes me near the Millennium Bridge: odd, his type are usually jogging, cycling, or on the main road instead, riding a motorbike or driving a van. I smile at him.

I steel myself to pick my way over treacherous, slimy mud – the floods’ usual aftermath. But it’s not necessary: the Council have already been busy with the clean-up. The path is dry.

The usual cyclists breeze by: students, suits; shoppers. I overtake elderly couples, dog-walkers; young lasses with rucksacks.

I’ve reached the blue bridge.

No gent.

He’s not on the rough path to Skeldergate, or on the cobbled landing by the pubs, now both back in action after the floods.

I’ve never before not-seen him on my riverside walk in.

I’ve even given him a nickname: Tuesday Man.

He isn’t on the steep street up to the shops, past the Dungeons museum with its display of grizzled Viking fighters. Funny how we still invoke their old Gods in our weekdays’ names. And how Tew – God of war – is the one nobody remembers.

I don’t mention it at the shop.

*      *      *

When I walk home I face the low sun – piercing white.

The river glitters, silver and gold. Tiny translucent spears of grass poke up through new mud on the banks. I screw my eyes: can just make out a silhouette crossing the Millennium Bridge.

As I get near, I recognise the lad from this morning.

I wonder why he’s carrying a cane.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

First published April 2019, in the Cabinet of Heed: https://cabinetofheed.com/2019/04/01/tuesday-man-c-l-spillard/

The path not taken

“That Rich,” scoffed Nathan as he turned to his wife, “is a freaking Narcissist.” He scowled, waiting for confirmation about the President’s mental health.

“Yes, dear.” His wife didn’t take her eyes off the T.V.

Sam and Olivia burst in, home from school.

“Hang your masks up on the hooks, SamAnOllie, and go wash your hands.”

The children pulled off their RichMasks, decorated with the flag and the slogan “We’re All Rich!”, and disappeared to the cloakroom. Strains of the world’s hardest-to-sing national anthem came, as they made sure to count the full twenty seconds.

The President’s speech continued:

“Today I announce zero deaths this month. Zero. Zero deaths total since the first case, and zero new cases. Aren’t they beautiful, those zeros? Aren’t they the best? And all because of my team.”

He threw a big, clumsy arm round the slight, bespectacled figure beside him. He patted the sheepish cheek with the other hand, knocking the glasses askew. The face behind the glasses blushed.

“Dr F. He’s the best Scientific Adviser. And I chose him – y’know that? Other people said, ‘Don’t pick him, he’s only worked on African viruses.’ But I ignored them. So it’s all down to me. I let him get on with his work like no-one else; I told him. When he came to me needing money for masks, PPE; PatriotTrace, I organised it. I told the Treasury Secretary – she’s the best, by the way, a real cutie – I said ‘Get the guy the money; get him all the loot he needs,’ and she did it because she always listens to me – she’s got brains. I like brains. I like a woman who can handle figures – know what I mean?”

“What’s for supper?”

“I’m cooking tonight.” Nathan rose from the couch and flipped the T.V. off. “Pizza.”

“Pizza’s unhealthy. They said so at school. President Rich wants us to eat healthy.”

“And salad. From the veg box.”

The veg box, delivered twice a week and adorned with the obligatory flag and slogan, had become an object of contention in the family. The kids loved the novelty, but their parents said it ‘made us look like we were poor. And anyway, poor folks need it more than we do.’

When her husband had left the room, Christine picked up the remote and quietly put the T.V. back on. The President was talking about the continuing Quarantine rules (‘Patriot Protection’, organised by ‘His Border Force. Y’know everybody used to hate them but since I took charge and put my guys in there, now everybody loves them!’), and the erection of a monument to ‘victims of the virus. Y’see, it’s just gonna be a plinth. No victims! We got zero victims. So it’s gonna have my name on it – my face because I’m the one who saw to it that there were zero deaths. It’s gonna be a big, beautiful monument to zero deaths!’

He moved on to what ‘his team’ intended to do to get the economy back up and running…

They’d have sunk – family and country – without the quarterly Freedom Checks: freedom, in their case, to stay at home and not risk going to work – two crowded 20-minute subway rides there, two back, and open-plan air-conditioned offices. They may look well-off – she did her best to make it appear so (don’t we all?) – but like everybody they were only one pay-check away from disaster, and there’d been talk of ‘downsizing’ at both her and her husband’s workplaces – she in Event Planning and he in Advertising.

Sure, the President was a narcissist – a real hard case. But who else would have grabbed the wheel and got the country through this mess? Who else would shout and bluster to make sure everyone – like her brother and sister both in Healthcare – got the protective kit they needed, every day? Who else could have gotten away with telling all the malls and bars to shut up shop, making everyone register for tracing, and above all persuading folks that wearing face-coverings was an act of patriotism? Look at England, France; Brazil – tens of thousands of virus deaths, and economies in meltdown.

Sure she’d vote him out at the next election, the egomaniac that he was. But for now…

 

A little Christmas tale: All Bar You

mistletoe

I hadn’t meant to go.

But the rest of Engineering talked me into it. “Come on, it’ll be a scream.”

So I put on my jolliest clothes, and I went.

Engineering weren’t there.

I glanced round the room – didn’t recognise a soul. It looked like only the higher-ups: short, pasty middle-aged men; and their P.A.s, all younger, smarter made-up than me.

Work’s Christmas do.

Executive ballroom, Montague Hotel; near the city walls. Lavish deep red-and-gold garlands, huge tree; myriad tiny lights. At least the venue had class.

I headed for the mulled wine. Thus armed, I mingled – find an interesting conversation.

A group discussing local fee-paying schools: Tadcaster Grammar, St. Peters; Bootham. Another arguing the finer points of some tax-avoiding scam. House prices.  I rolled my eyes.

I noticed mistletoe.

Fat chance, guys.

He stood out, directly beneath it. Golden-blond hair, ponytail: tall, slim, straight; severe.

And he turned and looked right at me.

I made my way towards him. Set down my warm wineglass and gazed up at him.

Crystal splinters of eyes: golden lashes.

Frisson.

I didn’t know what to do with my hands as he embraced me. Sparks shot across my palms. I closed my eyes.

Deep: dark.

Lost…

I gaze up at him again.

“Do I…know you from somewhere?”

“I know all in this room: all bar you.”

He’s kissed everyone? The blokes too?

He shakes his head.

“Oh…sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“I am Fear: the sum total of all these people’s fears. Fear of ageing, cuckolding; ridicule. Status anxiety. Fear of poverty, death: of time itself. So intense, here in this room, that I am able to materialise in human form.”

I’m lost for words.

“What if I told you this was your last day?”

Strange thing to ask at an office party. But different, at least.

I concoct some witty answer-

But those eyes: he’s serious!

That’s not fair!

“I’m only twenty-five! My friends! My work! My parents! I’d leave my brother an only child!”

“Are you not afraid for yourself?”

“No! I’d be dead, wouldn’t I?”

“Then I don’t know you.”

“No. You don’t-”

But he’s gone.

A short tale for Guy Fawkes’ Night

“Mu-u-um…”

Oh-oh. That’s five-year-old-speak for, ‘I’ve got one of those questions.

“Yes darling?”

I tuck her in.

“What’s Torcher?”

I balk. What the heck have they been teaching her at that school?

“It’s what they did to Guy Fawkes. We learned about him today. He couldn’t write his name afterwards: after the torcher.”

Why can’t she ask the standard stuff like ‘where do babies come from?’, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ or even ‘why are there rich people?’

I gather my wits.

“Well, er, it’s… for example when they shine bright lights in your eyes when you want to go to sleep, or… erm… hurt you if they want you to tell them something… something they want to know.”

“Like, who helped you with the gunpowder?”

“Yes.”

“Guy Fawkes didn’t tell them.”

Dear God please don’t let her ask me what ‘hung drawn and quartered’ means…

“He must have been very brave.” Hmm: that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.

“Is that why we have fireworks? Because we want to remember how brave he was?”

Er… “No… no, that’s not it.”

Something whizzes overhead. The drawn curtains flash white, a split second before a deep boom echoes, outside and in.

Wait

“Did your teacher tell you how Guy Fawkes was found? In the cellar?”

“Yes! One of the Lords was… a friend, of the gang who wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And he wrote him a letter saying, don’t go. Pretend to be ill. He didn’t say why. But the man thought… anyway he told someone. Like a policeman. And that’s how they found Guy Fawkes.”

“So they found him out without having to ask anyone anything.”

“Yes…” She frowns, puzzled, then brightens: “Without having to do any torcher!”

“Yes.”

I’d never thought of it before that question.

So now, whatever other people may be celebrating tonight – the saving of hundreds of lives; the confounding of Treason; the preservation of the Mother of all Parliaments to live to fight another day – when I bite into that lump of pitch-black parkin and gaze at the fireworks that light the sky, I lift my glass of blood-red punch to the tale that shows by example:

Torture doesn’t work.