Needs answers.

I was pulling closed the midnight-black gloss painted wrought iron gate which allows access to the rear yard of the shop from the side road. You take two steps up from the back door and you’re there. It’s a masterpiece of concise geometry with an ancient flint wall on your left hand side, a sad yet proud remainder of when farmland stood where now cars and people make their ways, ignorant of what lies beneath.

Jules from the pharmacy was passing by, her long blond mane hidden beneath the hood of her coat. She was smoking a cigarette, causing a cancerous halo to linger above her head in the still evening air.

“Just finished darling?” she asked me. She always calls me darling. Jules always calls everyone darling, so I don’t take it as a come on. I would though. However, I’d have thought it was pretty fucking obvious that I’d finished for the day as it was gone 5.30 and my shop was in total and utter darkness.

“Yup” said I, as always at this stage of the proceedings of the day, loathe to waste words.

“You alright darling?” inquired Jules with a touch of the solicitous about her, a smile poking out from the fur trimmed hood of her ashtray scented parka.

“Ah now, I would be Jules my darling, if I didn’t have this need to go back and check that I’d turned off all the equipment which needs turning off, then checking and re-checking that I’d set and then re-set the alarm, then double check that I’ve locked the door. Every fucking night.” It’s because I’ve been doing it five or six days a week for over twenty years. It’s all been relegated to some subconscious sub-routine deep within the dark recesses of my everyday awareness. And I don’t register that I’ve gone through the daily routine. So I go back and check. It’s wearing.

“That’s your OCD darling. That’s what that is. See?” Jules was wearing a smoke wreathed smile of triumph and superiority.

“Jules. That’s not OCD. Sitting on the second step down in my front porch every morning before I leave for work, smacking each side of my forehead alternately twenty seven times each starting with the right hand side, with the heel of the pair of kidskin ankle boots what I wear when I go on Eastern and Central European city-break type long weekends between November and March every year, in order to ensure that I’m not tempted to call too many people ‘cunt’ through the day. That’s OCD. Nutting every third lamppost on the way to work so that I’m not involved in a tragic bridge collapse. That’s fucking OCD. Forgetting if I turned the oven off, that’s just my crap memory.

“Is it darling? Is that what you do? How are the family?” That was Jules’ answer. God I love that girl. She has pert breasts for a woman in her late forties and a deep black abyss where her soul should be.

I went on my habitual bike ride along the estuary footpath and then the esplanade on Thursday. Picking my way quite carefully through the deep drifts of  shingle, blown up from the shore by the winter storms what we’ve been having. When I got to the beginning of the esplanade, I was shouted at by an obese woman sitting in a car, eating a family sized tray of fish and chips. All to herself.

“You know you’re breaking the law?” She asked.

“I am?” I asked.

“You know that it’s illegal to cycle on the esplanade?” I’ve been cycling along the esplanade for fortyfive years, man, teenie and boy. Habituation should trump legislation. There’s a catchy motto by which to assert ones rights.

“It is?” I asked.

“You could collide with a walker?” I peered through the winter spray along the deserted esplanade into the misted invisibility half a mile away.

“I could? They’d have to try fucking hard to get under my front wheel, wouldn’t they?” I have to swerve to avoid the odd dog in summer occasionally, but that’s usually down to the innate stupidity of people who think that their beloved dogs are simply four legged people who can responsibly be allowed the freedom of an extending leash in crowded public places and who happen to like gulping down nuggets of other people’s shit. And then let them lick their faces.

“Anyway, it’s a bye-law? You shouldn’t cycle there?” And it’s a great shame there’s no bye-law regarding people who are repulsively fat and intrusive.

“Are you victimising me?” I asked her. “Because I choose to burn some of my calories?”

That was about it really. She was gone when I returned after doing my seven circuits of the martello tower and not finding anyone to mow down in a tragic episode of cycle-rage.

So I came home and had a grilled sea bass what I’d got out of the freezer last night. I had it with a bit of lemon to squeeze over it and a bread roll. The next bike ride will account for the energy content.

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Tattered Edges

It was as though the year had made a false start when I walked to work at my shop this morning. Some people call it the bakery, some call it Graham’s, and some call it the caff. I call it my shop, so that’s the way we’ll be going for now, if that’s alright with you.  The darkness had lifted earlier than it should have and the birds had started singing, even though it was 6.35 on an early January morning. The world was a small windswept island and X marked the spot on a treasure map of Mother Nature, and I knew, I could feel it as a chill trembling in my bones, that a bitter disappointment was lurking in the foliage of the trees and bushes surrounding me. For the birds who seemed to believe that Spring had begun, there would likely be few worms, few tasty grubs squirming in the undergrowth. Just more wind, rain and tattered plastic carrier bags caught on the branches. X may have marked the spot but there would have been no treasure to unearth, merely wasted energies and futile hopes. I’m a cheery fucker in the early mornings let me tell you.

I had just crossed the bridge over the river, when I heard someone call me by name. Looking up, I saw Tasty Ron, a fisherman of my acquaintance, calling to me from a spot next to the traffic lights. Ron was smirking in the pre-dawn gloom, and by his side was a fat ginger man in a mobility scooter.

“Here Gray, what time do you open?” He laughed. “This poor sorry fucker wants a cup of tea.” The poor sorry fucker is a person I recognised as an ex-customer called Rodney from years ago. He used to walk around with a look of startled expectancy on his face, a quite unconvincing limp, and a walking stick of convenience in his hand. The stick is now a top of the range scooter with chrome highlights and a dashboard flashing with blue and red LEDs which could put the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to shame, but the face is unchanged.

“Hi Ron,” I said to Tasty Ron. “Morning Gray.” Said he. “Alright?” I enquired. “Fucking Dynamic,” he replied. We waste no words but our meanings are clear. Ron walked off in the direction of the quays, a day of swaying and heaving on the swelling bosom of the briny deep ahead of him. I looked at Rodney.

“Eight o’clock.” I said to him. “I open at eight o’clock.”

“Aw, I wanted a cup of tea.” Said Rodney, his sense of entitlement keener than ever.

“The other cafe’s open, the one at the bottom of the High Street. Try there. Ertegun doesn’t know you, he’ll probably serve you.”

“Aw, but I like your place. Can’t you open and serve me a cup of tea?” Whinged the ginger one.

I explained, I know not why, that I couldn’t open early simply to indulge Rodney’s burning desire for an early morning cup of tea in my shop, for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was still an hour and five minute before I was due to open, I had tons of stuff to do and it’s still only the first week of the year and oh God what’s the rest of the fucking year going to bring and there’s a break in the early morning traffic, I’ll run across the road without bothering to wait for the traffic lights to change.

I spent most of the day in a twitchy state of agitation lest he should appear at the door of my shop, thirsting for tea. But I was lucky. I was spared. Lucky old Ertegun.

Every year at round about this time, I have a mystery. I have taken down the copious piles of Christmas cards bearing all good wishes and inviting me to partake of the seasonal joy which is supposedly hanging around all over the fucking place, both at home and in the shop. There are some people, quite a number in fact, who send me a card at the shop as well as a similar but rarely identical one to my home address. Do you know, can you possibly conceive of the stress, the anxiety, the sheer visceral self doubt and loathing that such popularity and guileless devotion brings? I should have been a Catholic. Or a serial arsonist. Anyway, every year, there is always one card in the pile at the home address and it always bears a wintry, non-religious image with silver glitter liberally applied, wishing me and mine love and best wishes from Alan and Irene.

There are no couples in my social circle called Alan and Irene. If there were I’d feel obliged to demand that one of them change his name. None of my family know of such a couple. Asking the staff in my shop brings looks of bafflement. But to be fair, saying “good morning” achieves the same result in one or two cases. I wish some fucking Romanians would come and settle in our town.

But this year the mystery solved itself. I bumped into Bob-a-Job, the man from whom I bought my house seventeen and a quarter years ago. He is a small man. He’s been a lifelong Elvis fan. He’s always had an Elvis quiff, as long as I’ve known him, steadfastly held in place with lashings of brylcreem, swarfega, lard, whatever he can get his grimy little hands on. Bob-a-Job, however, is a highly visible sufferer of I Shall Be Forever Oblivious To My Receding Hairline Syndrome. With the result that his Elvis quiff now peeks out nervously from behind his head, unless he leans forward in a conspicuous manner. Which he frequently does.

“Hey, Bob. Hello. I’m up here.” I said to him when I noticed him heading blindly for the door of the newsagents on his way out as I was heading in. He looked up. His quiff vanished behind his skull. We exchanged a few pleasantries, hardly meaning a word. I thought it might be worth asking him about Alan and Irene.

“Yes, they’re our best friends. We met them on holiday in Ryde once. Isle of Wight. We spent every evening with them and it was only on the last day  that we realised that I’d been to school with Irene and we’ve never lived more than three miles apart. They live in the village. Best friends. We do the rotary together too.”

I was confounded. “Bob, I’ve lived in your old house for seventeen years. They still send your Christmas cards there. Have you never told them that you moved?” Now Bob-a-Job looked confused.

“What? You’ve had our card from Alan and Irene every year? And you never brought them round to us?” He looked at me with distaste, as though I was the sort of person who intercepts and steals other peoples’ mail.

I got lots of wine, chocolate and biscuits for Christmas presents this year. What does that say about other peoples’ opinions of me? A chronic alcoholic with gout and type2 diabetes fighting for attention and waging an eternal struggle for supremacy? What does it say of their intentions and ambitions for me? Am I the sort of person who’d steal your Christmas cards? Well? Am I?