A Companion to Owls

Linda Bell

I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. Job 30: 29 

 

Joseph Dwight Robbins was jobless and spent a lot of time in bed. He had a cash flow problem. He didn’t have any. After rent there was only enough to buy some generic brand food. Joseph’s home was Windsor Apartments, a boarding house of sorts ruled over by a Mrs. Joan Jeffries - one of those late middle-aged women who straddle the boundary between the sexes. Joan Jeffries had a deep, raspy voice, chin hair and broad shoulders. What Joseph found most disturbing was her enormous breasts almost bursting from her faded cotton blouse which she would wear for an entire week, even in the sultriest of summers.

Three days ago Mrs. J., as she referred to herself, had knocked, unannounced, on Joseph’s door, startling him as he never had visitors. He always handed Mrs. J. his rent so that she didn’t have to call to collect it. He heaved his body out of bed and shuffled across his room. Hurrying didn't suit Joseph these days.

“Who is it?” he called. He wasn’t opening the door to anyone he didn’t know.

“You know who it is Jo. I need to talk.”

“I’ve paid.” Joseph called out, hoping this would send her away. 

“It’s not that, let me in.” Joseph fiddled with the rusted security chain until the door opened. The breeze from the open window in his room sucked the smoke from Mrs. J’s cigarette into his face. He waved it away. She didn’t apologise.

“I need help.” This statement launched Mrs J. into a mucous-filled coughing bout. Joseph stared at the floor in an effort to avoid the onslaught. Thumping her chest as she recovered she blurted, “There’s an owl in my kitchen. I don’t know what to do.” 

“Right,” was all Joseph could think of saying. 

“I know what you’re thinking, the booze’s done her brain in at last. Well it hasn’t - there’s an owl in my kitchen.” Joseph wasn’t sure about her brain or the booze or the owl but he knew the quickest way to get her to leave was to sort it out.

 

                                    A Companion to Owls 2

Joseph stepped into the hall next to Mrs. J. and pulled the door closed behind him. The narrow, greasy space didn’t offer much in the way of standing room for two. No matter how much Joseph squirmed and shuffled he couldn’t avoid being in contact with Mrs. J’s fleshy chest. ‘Chest,’ 

rather than ‘breasts’ seemed appropriate to describe the shelf of soft flesh between Mrs. J’s armpits and waist. 

 

Extracting herself from the situation, Mrs J. wheezed her way downstairs to her private ground floor quarters, followed by a reluctant Joseph. She let him in first. “Have a look, see what you think.” Her grubby hand felt the wall inside the door and flicked on the light. There was so much furniture and clutter in her living area that Joseph wasn’t sure where to look. “There, see, look.” She was jabbing a chubby finger in the direction of the window where a magnificent bird with huge dark eyes was perched on the back of a less than magnificent chair. 

 

Joseph had seen few owls in his life - maybe two in fifty-five years, so the sheer weirdness of the situation was what struck him. Here in a grimy, sleazy, inner-city-boarding-house-landlady’s living room was a creature of such majesty and mystery it made Joseph gasp. It didn’t move. Joseph was sure it was startled. “What am I supposed to do with it?” He whispered.

“I don’t know but it gives me the creeps. Look at it. It doesn’t move. It’s so big.”

 “I think it’s scared.” 

“Are they dangerous? I mean, they kill things with those claws don’t they?” Mrs J. hissed into Joseph’s ear.

 “Yes,” Joseph replied “But it’s not going to kill anything here.

“What shall we do with it?”

“Maybe just open the window and it’ll go out,” suggests Joseph.

“How’d it get in?” She asked Joseph as ifassuming he would know. “I don't know but I think two of us might scare it, how about I just see what I can do, eh?” He said, hoping desperately she would leave him alone with the creature.

“Ok, I’ll go in the bedroom and have a lie down and leave you to it.” Mrs. J. shuffled off into the 

only other room and shut the door rather too loudly. The owl didn’t respond. Its unblinking gaze was starting to unnerve Joseph. He sat down on the misshapen sofa and tried to breathe slowly 

                                    A Companion to Owls 3

and calmly and be as still as the owl. He realised in that moment that he’d reached fifty-two and knew virtually nothing about owls. His ignorance had caught up with him and now, faced with 

this beautiful and unnerving wild bird, he was unable to do anything because he didn’t know anything.  He knew nothing about its behaviour, its habits or its responses. He realised he could’ve lived his entire life and neverhave given a thought to this wondrous creature. He was quite overcome.

 

He sat as silent as the owl for a few more moments. All he could think of doing was ringing up a wildlife rescue group to come and take it away to some forest and let it go. There was a 

grubby phone on Mrs. J’s table near the owl. Joseph stood up as slowly and smoothly as he 

could so as not to startle the bird. He leaned over and picked up the smeared handset and dialled 

directories, holding the foetid mouthpiece as far away from his own mouth as possible. Then, he rang, Rescue Them Now.  A brusque woman took the address and details, saying, “Someone’ll be round soon so don’t do anything to make it panic.”

 

He replaced the handset and continued to sit still. He thought that opening a window close by would give the owl the freedom to fly away should it want to. He realised what an obvious solution this was and this gave him an excuse to berate himself for being so stupid in the face of the obvious. Joseph got up as slowly as he could and crept towards the window above the kitchen sink. He was surprised that the owl didn’t turn its head as he walked past. He fiddled with the rusty fastener and pushed the window open as far as it would go.  

 

Just as he was trying to push it even further he sensed movement behind him,  the owl’s magnificent wings brushed his head as it flapped frantically in an attempt to fly through the opening.  Joseph ducked instinctively and the creature struggled through the confined space and took flight. By the time Joseph leaned over the sink to look out and up, he could no longer see it. All that was left was a large splodge of sticky owl dropping on the window ledge and a feather in 

the sink.

 

 

                                    A Companion to Owls 4

Joseph stood for some moments, staring at the sky almost willing himself to see the bird flying free, but he couldn’t. It was gone. He felt moved, almost teary. For a few minutes he’d shared his life with a mysterious creature of the night. He didn’t even know what type of owl it 

was. Suddenly, like a wave of nausea, the sheer vastness of his own ignorance gripped him with 

full force. It was more of a shock to him than either the presence of the owl or its sudden 

departure. He felt in that single moment an unnerving sense of panic as something dawned on him. He knew so little. He had been given so much time. He had lived alone for the last ten years since Leila left him. He hadn’t worked. He’d had hours, days, weeks, months, years to himself in which he could have found out anything he wanted to know and he hadn't. He had filled his mind with the trivial details of existence. 

 

Returning to the present moment he was aware that he was still standing in Mrs J’s sordid living room and that she was still in her bedroom thinking there was an owl in her kitchen. He could not face her. Not now. She must have fallen asleep or she would be calling out wanting to know what was happening. Joseph found a used envelope and a pen and scrawled ‘Flew out of window.’ He didn’t close the window - fume-ridden city air smelt better than the stink of unwashed body, fried eggs and stale cigarette smoke. He closed her front door as quietly as possible and returned to his now fresh-by-comparison little living space, closed his window and took to his bed. It was 11am and he had just encountered and set free a wild and beautiful creature. 

 

Under his cheap and cheerful doona he pondered. What had he done yesterday morning? He’d woken early as usual with the light streaming through his unlined curtains at dawn. He’d stayed in bed with his mind blank except for the awareness in his body of wanting to go to the toilet. After attending to that he’d made a cup of tea. Then he’d returned to bed to lie and drift in 

and out of sleep for the next hour or so until he was again driven out of bed by physical need- 

this time his rumbling stomach. That was about ten o’clock. Then what had he done?

                                    

 

 

                                    A Companion to Owls 5                    

“You there? Jo, where’s the owl?” Mrs J. was banging with her pudgy fist and the door was rattling in its frame with the sheer power behind the knuckles. Joseph opened up and Mrs J. bulldozed her way in. “What did you do? Come on, you left without telling me.”

“You were asleep.”

“Yes well, tell me now.”

“I opened the window.”

“I saw that,” she muttered, “but what did you do? It’s gone.”

“So, it's really gone?” She sounded disappointed. Joseph had a silly thought that maybe she’d stolen it from the zoo. The spectre of Mrs J. charging through the turnstile at the zoo with a zipped-up travel bag containing a stunned owl, made him smile. “How did you get it out?”

“It flew out.” 

“Don’t be difficult, Jo.” She seemed exasperated. “I want to know exactly what you did to get it to fly out.” Her blotchy face was tilted back in all its puffed glory, pleading with him to tell her how he’d done what he’d done. “Mrs J. I’ll tell you what I did. I walked across to the window right.” He thought he’d act out the whole episode for her so he got up, walked over to his window and tugged at the fastener. The window flew open and a warm breeze blew in. “I leaned over your sink like this and I opened the window.”

“Right, yes, I know, I hadn’t got round to those dishes, I was tired this morning. She squirmed a 

little,  remembering the food-caked plates in the sink. “I pushed open your window and 

I was just about to turn round and the owl started flapping its wings and next second it was gone. 

Just like that.”

“Just like that.”

“Nothing to it.” 

“Well thanks, really. I did get a shock, I mean it was just there. So how did it get in?”

“Do you only have one window like me?” he asked. She nodded. “And I opened it.” Joseph frowned.

“That’s what you just said.” 

“So it was closed before that?”

“Always closed, can’t stand the traffic.” 

                                    A Companion to Owls 6

“So how did it get in then, if you never open your window?” Joseph voiced the question hanging in the air between then. They were oddly bound together by their shared confusion. “I need to sit down.” She set herself down heavily on Joseph’s only armchair. He imagined for a moment the strain on the broken leg at the back . She leaned forward and Joseph avoided looking at her well-

worn cleavage. “I had my breakfast as usual and I went into the bedroom for my cigs. Always have a smoke after breakfast to relax me for the day. You know, get’s me ready to face things. I came out of the bedroom and it was there.”

“Just there.”

“Yep, perched there. Thought I was going gaga I did so I stopped and looked at it and saw it was real. I got scared then and I came up to you.”

“And I came down and let it out of the window that you always keep closed.”

“Well I’m stumped. Must’ve been a ghost.” Joseph laughed.

“Don’t Jo, that’s mean. I’ll be scared now.”

“Come on, there’ll be some explanation.” 

“I need a smoke. I’ll have to go. I’m really nervous now though, going to my place.

If it got in with the window closed what if I go down and it’s there again? Or what if something else has come in?” She was frowning now and looking more wizened than usual.

“Ok, I’ll come down, but I’m not staying. I’ll just check the place.”

“Oh thank you Jo, thank you, you’re so kind.” He followed her down the stairs. At her door she gave Joseph the key so that he could go in first. He pushed open the door, looked around, checked the bedroom, embarrassed by the stale female smell the grubby underclothes strewn across the bed. “Looks fine, must fly.” They laughed together at his unintended joke. He hadn't laughed with Mrs. J. before. A squeamish intimacy hung between them.

“Thank you so much Jo. I can’t thank you enough.” She was smiling as if she actually liked him. She waved and as she closed the door she winked at him. 

 

Standing in the hallway, Joseph was about to climb the stairs back to his flat. He thought he might go back to bed to recover from the whole exercise. But he didn’t. Instead he walked down the hallway, stepped out into the street and started walking. He didn’t need to go out for food or 

anything. This was the first time he’d gone out for a walk for its own sake for longer than he 

                                A Companion to Owls 7

could remember. He noticed how busy the street was. How many people were out and about, living their lives, going about their daily business. He looked up at the blue expansive sky. He looked at the trees lining his street. He’d never really noticed them before. He realised he had never actually looked at them. Ever. What type of trees were they? He didn’t know. But he 

would find out.

 

For the first time in as long as he could remember he just wanted to be outside just for the sake of being out in the open in the fresh air. He didn’t know where he was going to, he was just going to walk and look

The Toad Who Loved Glory

Oliver Mitchell

In August 1918, Edith Sitwell wrote a letter to the poet Robert Nichols in which she described a living toad that had been found in a coal seam a few years earlier. It was thought to have been there for three million years. “Only that toad could even attempt to enter into my agonies, though only with partial success, as at least he had silence. With his advantage in that direction, I should have written better poems.”

 

For forty thousand years I lived in a bubble of my own flatulence. 

It took me a century to become accustomed to the particularity of the perfume, a millennium to grow to like it, another to become an addict, another still to mourn as this friend ebbed away. I tried, for a fleeting fifty life times, to recreate it, combining recipes of grubs and ground water, mildew and molecules of deep-rotted invisible filth, but in vain. I once came close, and there seeped around me that old Elysium, the scent of un-blackness, un-loneliness, non-coal, an essence of anti-toad. But this fragrance also passed into the porous rock that is my mother, father, coffin and grave. 

I was born mystically with an unnatural love of glory. From my earliest days I have longed to excel and for the first million years of my life, I strove to satisfy this insatiable desire. Perhaps I am the only toad in this coal face. Perhaps I have been deliberately imprisoned due to some incestuous vulgarity committed by my father, some unforgivable enormity which required his offspring to be unjustly interred, bricked up to contain a reptilian blood-guilt. Perhaps a mere shovel-blow away there is a world of glittering sugar-fountains where I am a god. It matters not. This love of excellence, which resides inside me as perversely as, say, a toad trapped in a coal face, has both sustained my existence and made it intolerable. 

Yes, I have attempted to suffocate on my own fart gas. Yes, I have attempted to hop into the rock around me with sufficient force to crush my skull. Each time a twinkling light, if there is such a thing, holds me back and fastens me to life. This dancing flame, by which I have been happily hypnotised, is the thought that I may become an excellent toad, the most excellent toad, philosophically unrivalled, lucid in rhetoric and masterful in oratory, baffling existence with my turn of phrase, dazzling the coal itself with my far-seeing quiddity, discussed, debated, sculpted, documented, carried shoulder-high, adored. For ten thousand years I asked “what do you want to make of this life, so blessed, so favoured by chance?” Although I strained my ears for another reply, only one came. It streamed through me, no more resistible than radiation, “to be an excellent toad, a most excellent, excellent toad...”

Which led to disappointment. 

I realise now the importance of experience. When a toad is five thousand years old, he can convince himself of anything. Was it vanity? I plead guilty as charged. I have never seen my own face, but my charlatan pride whispered from the darkness that I was a beauty. As a youth, I longed too much to triumph over others. There were no others, but this shyster, this charmer Mr Self-Love created them. I can offer you no guarantee that you would have liked my five thousand year old self, cock-sure, handsome and brilliant though I was. They were glamorous times. Life has taught me to become self-questioning and, should there be others, a ready admirer of their accomplishments. 

Why did I fail? I am quite able to acknowledge now, in the first years of middle age, that my coal bubble is no Parnassus. I was held back. “Who dared to do so?” you roar at the page, angry, outraged, disbelieving. Glory herself, kind, indulgent reader, that and a somewhat wordy prose style, caused by a weakness for inventing and solving crossword puzzles in my head, to which I surrendered too readily for fifty thousand years. Glory stopped me touching her because I loved her so. A world of five toad-lengths weakens one’s resistance to purple prose, and three million years trapped in a seam of coal can, in some instances, lead to a certain self-consciousness in sentence structure, a fatal self-awareness in one’s metaphors which blighted four hundred thousand years of villanelles, cast crystals of mediocrity over my first five hundred operettas and blocked my path as I set out on my pilgrimage towards the avant garde. As if they were children, overly beloved, I indulged my subordinate clauses until they grew up to confound every hope placed upon them. 

My predicament was, I discovered, somehow hostile to artistic spontaneity. 

“Announce success,” someone shouts from the back of my brain’s auditorium. “Trumpet your own triumph, no-one will ever know.” But I shall know, generous friend. How easy it would be to tell myself that my Dialogues On The Nature of Justice and Virtue, published and re-published in my memory, have broken new ground. How simple for me to tell myself that my discoveries on the nature of ontology, expressed as a series of immeasurably large Sudoku puzzles, each five thousand years in the making, possess the gleam of true originality. Dear friend, it would be a lie. Why clasp Glory in my arms at last, only to discover that she is a cheap, be-wigged mannequin of my own construction? Why sully with self-deceit the love that has sustained me for three million years, and will sustain me for three million more? Far better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. You see, dear reader? Even this feels as if it has been said before. 

Perhaps it is time to accept obscurity. How can I describe the tears I shed over my failed experiments with the sonnet? The hopes I placed on my first seventeen thousand novels – juvenile indulgences in retrospect, fatally autobiographical – were bright enough to make the coal itself gleam and sparkle. How often have I looked around these walls and pictured the life of fun I could so easily have spent here, the endless diversions, the millennia devoted to carefree, thoughtless pleasure? How often have I commanded myself simply to enjoy this playground, this pleasuredome, with which life has chosen to tantalise me? 

Never. I shall live true to my pledge. I am a toad trapped in a seam of coal for three million years. Naturally, frivolity beckons, joyosity bats her lids. I turn away. Of course, the first few centuries would pass in a flash, a dazzling carousel of amusement and gaiety, as I pirouette from one frippery to the next. After that, however, as youth begins to ebb away, and the big “four mill” approaches, I would look back on that frittered time and...well...

I am just not sure I could live with myself.

In the Shadow of Seven Martyrs

James Roderick Burns

I waited for the priest in the shadow of the trees. The churchyard was empty and quiet, soft orange light from the street lamps marking the edges of graves, Seven Martyrs silent above the evening traffic. I had seen him several times before, walking to the station or shaking out his umbrella in a doorway, and thought he had a kind and understanding face. I hoped he would be able to help me.

I pressed back further into the shadows and checked my watch. Just gone half-past seven. I wasn’t sure if I had been seen, or even followed across the common from my flat. I had to be careful – the man could be out there, anywhere, waiting for me. But where was the priest? I had followed his movements for a few days and usually he returned to the church before dusk. There was a loud clashing of gears – a London bus, tall and grubby-red, rumbling onto the High Road – then I heard the latch on the gate. The priest walked briskly through and turned towards the church, passing my hiding place. I followed him up to the door.

‘Excuse me, Father. Could I have a moment of your time?’

He turned round, startled at my voice. I took a step backwards to show I meant no harm. He peered at my face, then down at my suit and shoes, the briefcase at my side, and nodded with a half-smile. He unlocked the door with a heavy key.

‘Please, come through.’

I followed him down a cold and badly-lit corridor to the rear of the church, through a set of double doors and up a flight of stairs to his personal quarters. He put down his belongings on a hall table and ushered me into the study, turning on a lamp.

‘My name’s – ’ I began. He smiled again, held up a hand.

‘I do not need to know. You are troubled; that is enough. Would you like some tea?’ Already I was feeling reassured – by his calm and patience, the safety of this small room, the precise modulation of his voice, which still carried a trace of the islands. I shook my head. ‘Something stronger?’ He got out a bottle from the sideboard and poured two quick fingers of whisky. ‘Now tell me, what can I do for you?’

‘I think I’m being pursued.’ I tensed in anticipation of his response, but nothing happened – not the trace of a smile or the movement of light in his deep-set eyes. He sat with his fingertips touching. After a few seconds’ awkward silence I realised he was taking me seriously, and waiting for the rest of the story. He nodded for me to continue, his face lined and solemn in the subdued light from the lamp. I picked up a little confidence, sat upright in the chair. ‘It happened a couple of weeks ago, in town. I was looking for – I needed to acquire something, you know, for a piece I was writing. I do a column on ethical matters in my spare time, and I understood a man like that might be of some use to me. I thought it would be quick and simple and it was - quick, at least, but ...’

The priest leaned forward. ‘Why don’t you tell me how it happened?’ I sat back again, moving out of the light. How exactly had it happened?

I had taught ethics at the university for almost thirty years, and rarely moved beyond the comfortable parameters of lecture hall and seminar room, committee chamber and college bar. I filtered my understanding of the world through newspapers and my colleagues, one or two of whom I called friends. In short, the university comprised almost the whole of my world, and Ihad little opportunity or inclination to change.

Then six months ago an acquaintance with whom I’d lost contact got in touch with me from out of the blue. He confessed – sheepishly – that since I had first known him he had married and had a child, and that his job editing trade publications was no longer sufficient to make ends meet. He confessed even more sheepishly that he had assumed the editorship of a gentlemen’s magazine, and was in need of a principled man to write a problem column every month. He had naturally thought of me. At first I was reluctant, but after a delightful meeting in town where we renewed our acquaintance with great vigour, and rather a lot of malt, I allowed myself to be persuaded. The honorarium, £500 for as many words, finally nudged me into acceptance.

Initially the problems were quite predictable - with all this talk about the environment, should I feel guilty about driving my car? What’s wrong with spending all the money I earn? Should I invest in companies that exploit cheap labour in the developing world, or that trade in arms? Usually there was a neat ethical answer to hand, clean and tidily wrapped in conventional moral arguments, and I typed away for several months, hardly giving it a thought. My friend was happy with the column, and always complimented me on my concision and respect for deadlines over a drink or two on the day we went to press. It seemed innocent enough.

Then one day a letter arrived at the college, the writing on the dun-coloured envelope small and slanted. Ordinarily I received the potential questions for my column in a package, typed up and alphabetised by a secretary at the magazine, but this one found its way to me on its own. I sat by my window in the college and read it as the sun went down. The writer wanted my advice on an aspect of his life which he was honest enough to question: greed. Not material gain, or a love of money, but simple old-fashioned gluttony – he loved to indulge himself in fatty meats and cheeses, sweets, cakes and ice cream, drink of any and all sorts, and he hated exercise or anything else which required him to fatigue his body. This was remarkable for its honesty, but overall seemed quite ordinary; though he argued for absolute dominion over his own body, I had no difficulty countering his points with standard arguments founded in social responsibility and the tenets of religion, and was half way through my reply when an image crowded into my mind. A half-eaten chicken leg torn from the carcass, its skin pricked and glistening, juices running from the creamy flesh around the bone.

Why should such an image trouble me? I looked out over the rooftops, the slates catching a deep red from the sun, and realised I had no idea what kind of mania had seized the man. To me this food was abstract, dry and theoretical, but it surged through his mind like fire through chaff. I felt like a fraud, a seller of snake-oil. I deleted the half-dozen lines I had written and locked up my room, taking the letter with me. The next morning I had a graduate seminar, but called my secretary to cancel it and caught a bus to Knightsbridge. At a cash machine I withdrew six twenty pound notes and walked through the gold-tinted doors of the Food Hall. I walked the aisles filling a basket with food and drink – wild smoked salmon, pâtés and cheeses, a bottle of cask-strength malt – then peeled off five crisp new notes to pay for them, lugged the bulging carrier bag back to my flat.

Inside I pulled down the blinds and laid out my purchases on the coffee table. They didn’t look like much, certainly not what I had paid for them, and I briefly wondered again about the power of such things over a man’s mind. But when I opened the salmon, laid a sliver on the edge of a cracker, the whole flat bloomed with a rich salty river smell. I felt a quick hunger dart through me, and pulled off the wrapping on the pâté and the cheeses, poured a generous measure of scotch. In an hour I had finished almost all of the food and made a dent in the whisky, and my brain was spinning with delight. My throat felt warm and honeyed, my stomach heavy with a golden weight; I had no desire to do anything but close my eyes, and fell back gratefully into my chair for a rest.

The following day I tried to revive my arguments for moderation, but found them nerveless and uninspiring. The taste of that buttery salmon returned, smooth and delicate as oil on my tongue, and I found myself looking more kindly on his indulgence. Food was a necessity, after all, and why shouldn’t we take pleasure in its consumption? Perhaps not to excess, but certainly enjoyment didn’t seem beyond the bounds of what was reasonable. As I walked through these steps in my mind the words began to flow, and in an hour I had completed four additional questions, more than enough for the next column. I stood up when I was finished, stretched – an excellent morning’s work – and left the college to get something to eat.

The next batch of questions seemed more slippery, somehow, less clear cut, more challenging. Was it acceptable to see too much of a friend’s wife, and still enjoy the company of her husband? Were there occasions where cursing could be forgiven, even praised, if it relieved intolerable pressure on a tormented soul? I didn’t know, and vowing not to duck the question, I decided to try and find out. With each new challenge I edged further away from the light and clarity of my former certitude and into a murkier world of compromise, of unseen give-and-take. The more I experienced men’s sins the less clearly I was able to see them. I found myself looking sympathetically at a problem, seeking to understand its perverse twists and turns – pardoning it – and it became clear that nothing was simple when you found yourself inside it. My solutions became weak, compromised, even indulgent; I stopped shy of recommending the behaviour, but certainly condoned it. What else could I say, once I understood?

And thus I found myself sitting beneath the ticking clock in this darkening room, talking to a silent priest. His voice, when it came, was sudden as a noose.

‘What about the man you believe is following you?’ He locked his fingers together, turned them inside out, and brief shadows flickered on the wall. The light paled like a summer storm.

‘I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him.’

‘What did he do for you?’

‘He lent me a large amount of money. Thousands of pounds, in a dirty envelope. I took it from him in an alley behind the station.’ Even saying the words brought back the terror, then the awful excitement of it. I had wanted to abandon myself to fate like the debt-haunted correspondent who had sought me out. I needed to feel his desperation in order to help him.

‘What did he look like?’

‘I don’t know. I never saw his face. He stayed back in the shadows, scraping something against the wall and smoking a cigarette. His voice was low and menacing. I thrilled to it. He said I should just take the money, that he would know where to find me when it was time to collect.’

‘And what do you want from me?’ The priest raised his craggy face into the light. I thought I saw a spark of pity in his eyes. Outside the wind caught up the branches of the trees into a sudden rhythm. A shutter flapped in the breeze, battering through the hall like footsteps. Under its brittle shade the lamp snatched at the light. I swallowed.

‘I want you to forgive me.’

The Johnston

Fiona Marshall

We start off following the Johnston, the mechanical street sweeper, along the seafront at 6am, like seagulls after the fishing smack. No: like walking robots, lurching along in our yellow coats, scavenging any trash the machine might miss. Black as hell, and white flakes are coming off the black sea. 

‘Don’t look at them,’ I tell Mick. ‘Make you giddy.’

A grunt from Mick. No time to stop and stare in any case. The Johnston goes just that bit faster than a man can sweep, its little wheely brushes twiddling and spinning. We have to run to catch up, clobbering our brooms along the promenade in a kind of awkward doll-dance. 

‘Don’t rush it,’ I tell Mick. ‘Don’t rush it.’

The sea puffs breaths of ice into our faces, and we inhale ice. A vast ocean of nothing, just to our right. We ignore it.

‘Got your thermals on?’ I ask Mick. 

‘I’ll say!’

And big navy fleeces hanging straight and heavy, zipped up to the neck. The big, padded high-vis coats, black wool hats tight round our ears. Socks for crossing Alaska in. Red thermal gloves, fingers sweating but the tips still stiff and cold. Only Ugly Dudley wears a scarf, wound round his mouth. He don’t talk much at the best of times though. He’s working ahead of us. Mick and me, we can’t bear scarves. We want air.

‘You breathing all right?’ I ask Mick.

‘’Course I’m fucking breathing all right.’

‘Now, now, no swearing in uniform, mate. The public might be listening.’

A rough half-laugh. The beach is a black desert and the wind coming off the sea would make any member of the public cry. I don’t know if it’s snow or sand grains stinging at our cheekbones and eyelids. The lights of the Johnston are two big cats’ eyes ahead and there are the lonely lamps, whirling snowflakes in their circle of pale light. Thrown-away chips, frosted in their ice paper, stuck to the railings, dog turds frozen to the ground. Ahead to the left is the low shed of the amusement arcade, and beyond that, the castle wall of the Pleasurama, a cinema stood out to sea. 

‘I just meant… you know, you don’t want to breathe too fast, Mick… in these conditions…’

‘Fuck off. - I’m okay, Paul…’

 

The geezer driving the Johnston looks out, behind him. I don’t even know his name; the council sent him down. Built like a brick shit-house and very unfriendly. We half-run again. Although it’s below Mick’s dignity to run. He prefers to walk fast, and fast he can be when he wants, like the wind. I don’t run well either, what with the old foot and all. Mick’s taller and better made than me. He walks even. I don’t really exist below the left knee. I don’t call a club foot existing.

‘Not too bad this morning, though, eh,’ says Mick. ‘The wind’s done most of it.’

‘Yeah. Keeps the public indoors too.’

Mick doesn’t laugh again. He just gives me an old-fashioned look. The snow keeps coming off the sea, caught in the lamplight and then on, and always more of it. It’s not settling yet, though. 

 

The Johnston’s gaining pace ahead.

“Fucking slow down a bit, mate.’

‘Yeah, going it this morning.’

‘Who’s Fatso?’

‘What, the driver? God knows. He doesn’t speak to me. I’m just a roadsweeper.’

There’s a genuine curl of bitterness in his tone.

‘Yeah, but roadsweeping’s a vocation down here, mate. You know that.’

 

January’s always a bad month for Mick. He’s a year older again, for one thing. He hates that. I mean, it happens to us all of course, but he really, really hates it. I don’t mind being 36, but he can’t bear being 46. And to be honest, some mornings, like this one, he looks a lot older, and I can tell he’s had a bad night. Although woe betide me if I ask him. Then, he got married in January. But above all, his turns are worse. It’s the cold, the cold brings them on. He usually has them in the morning, soon after getting into work. Comes into the depot all fine, on his bike, and then… he don’t get much warning. Says he feels light-headed just before. What can you do? Clear a space and let him get on with it. I got to keep an eye; well, we all look out for him really. He gets pissed off, but we make a joke of it. See him coming along the street and start hissing, ‘You all right? You all right?’ – ‘Fuck off,’ he goes. You can have a laugh with Mick. Sometimes.

 

‘How was your Christmas, anyway?’

Mick’s silent and for a moment I think I’ve gone too far.

‘All right,’ he says at last, slow, defiant.

I know; I’ve seen it. The house on the St Lawrence estate, overlooking the railway line and the playing field, the heating turned on too high. The little pink tree, the silver-wrapped parcels, the wife and mother-in-law red-faced with drink, staggering round the kitchen, leaning their heads together and laughing, laughing, taking selfies; the teenage daughter slit-eyed and spotty from weed, drowned in rock music upstairs with her other pothead friends. The two sons conspicuous by their absence; not that you’d want them around. The big flatscreen TV belting out CNN; Mick slumped in front of it, on the cream faux-leather settee, newspapers piled on the shiny parquet floor. 

Member of the public wanted to give Mick a Christmas card. She gave it to me to pass on. I called in on my bike on the way home that night, came in to use the loo. Their beige bathroom, beige shower curtain; all a bit too clean. That’s what a nurse and a cleaner do together; get a pristine house. Clinical, like. That house of Mick’s feels like a cross between a fort and a nursing home somehow. Blue carpet on the stairs. Not that his wife hasn’t tried. Little Buddha figures sitting on the sink, a dream catcher hanging from the window. Framed pictures of Red Indians in the hall, with big, feathered head-dresses. His wife said to me, she thinks they look like Mick in another life. Now, that’d embarrass me.

 

‘Did you keep the card?’

‘Ripped it up.’

‘Oh. So, this lady, she’s the one who…’

‘She’s the one.’

‘She won’t be out now, though will she! Not in this!’

‘Wouldn’t put it past her!’

‘Oh fuck. Is it that bad?’

 

Again Mick’s silent. The Johnston waits ahead, eyes blinking. A shout comes down wind.

‘Come on, lads!’

Ugly Dudley’s caught up with the Johnston, goes up and starts talking, to give us time to catch up. That’s an effort for him, and we’re grateful. The stripes on his trousers glow ghostly as they catch the sweeper’s lights. Tall, square-shouldered, he walks not with a limp exactly, but dragging one foot and he’s all over stiff, from polio. Dudley can’t run.

 

‘Wife didn’t see the card,’ says Mick. ‘Any case, she was on duty over the rest of Christmas, on the ward.’ 

‘Oh. Well, that’s good.’

‘Yeah. Could’ve been problematic.’

‘Could have been, mate. Could have been even worse. This lady… She could’ve delivered it herself. She was going to. Asked me if she should or not. Oh, I said, I’m sure he won’t mind, but I’m happy to take it myself, seeing as I’m passing his house anyway. Oh, says she, I’d be ever so grateful… I don’t want to intrude, she says. - You was poorly at the time, remember. She knows where you live, you know, Mick.’

‘Yeah. I know.’

‘Do you know where she lives?’

‘Yup.’

‘Oh, so – what you going to do?’

‘Nothing.’    

‘She seems nice. Quite distressed at missing you that day, she was, Mick.’

‘She’s nice enough. In small doses. – How was your Christmas?’

‘Me? Oh, turkey and tinsel in Eastbourne. As per usual. Five days away. Very nice.’

‘Five days? You bastard!’

‘Didn’t want to come back.’

‘Well, you got to come back to work some time, Paul! You and your fucking trips! When do you ever do any work?’

‘That’s fucking rich, coming from you!’    

 

The sea’s so black. A few lights winking out there. Dudley falls back from the Johnston as the beast starts moving again, gives us the thumbs up. We’re approaching the harbour, and our noses are already sniffing for the smell of coffee off the stand. Old Andreas, he sees us coming, starts brewing up, time we get there the drinks’ll be on the counter, boiling hot. Though the ends of my fingers are throbbing now, and the first sweat of the day gathers and trickles down my back. 

 

The Johnston’s going too fast this morning. This new geezer, he doesn’t know the score, though you can bet Dudley tried to tell him. Slow down, he’ll have said, or there’ll be trouble with Mick. They don’t understand until they see it. They just think he’s messing around. Throwing a moody, or just work-shy. Be so much better for him if he were just bolshy. Mick’s sweeping up alongside of me and seems to me he’s moving too quick too.

‘You okay?’

‘Yup.’

‘Sure?’

‘I’m okay.’

 

I know he’s not. Mick can be, let’s say a little bit obstinate about his turns. If we can only make the coffee stall. Another seven or eight minutes to go, I reckon, at this rate. Mick’s banging his broom along, panting a little, and my heart sinks. He’s rushing it.

“Oh my fuck.’

I hear it from his voice and then he gives like this sigh, and then this sound like someone’s punched all the wind out of him. There’s a clatter as the broom drops and he goes stiff, eyes rolled back in his head. Then he’s gone, dropped to the ground in the blowing snow, jerking and threshing about like a puppet on a string. I look out to the sea where the flakes are all whirling round in the dark in a kind of slow circle, winding round like a shell, going in to a point in the middle that I can’t see. I curse myself for talking about that bloody woman. You got to be so careful with Mick. 

 

By the time the Johnston’s realised something’s wrong, we’re far behind and Mick has stopped twitching. The driver wheels the Johnston round so the lights are on us, drives back, gets down, heavily. Comes over and prods Mick with one foot, like he was a rag doll.

‘What’s all this? Is he drunk?’

‘He’s had a bad turn, mate.’

‘What’s the matter with him?’

‘He’s got epilepsy.’

‘Fuck.’

He prods him again with his big booted foot.

‘Don’t fucking do that. Leave him be.’

Mick’s hat came off and snowflakes are already gathering on it; I bend down and ease it back on his head. His face is pallid in the lamplight, with a trail of spit from the side of his mouth, but I can’t see any damage. The Johnston waits, throbbing noisily.

‘He’ll be coming round in a minute. The council should’ve told you. Bet they didn’t, did they?’

‘No one said a fucking word.’

‘Then maybe you wouldn’t have been going so fast.’

‘Fast? Can’t go any slower, in the Johnston. That is the speed. The Johnston won’t go any slower.’

 

The Johnston. Sometimes I hate that fucking thing. Dictating the pace to us. We do all right when it’s just us pushing broom, Mick, Dudley and me. 

‘I better report this,’ continues Fatso, getting out his mobile phone. ‘Call the supervisor.’

‘You don’t need to do that. We never report it.’

‘Get onto the emergency services first.’

‘No you don’t, mate. Both Mick and his wife have said to us: on no account call an ambulance. She come down special to tell us. She’s a nurse.’

Mick’s sitting up now, holding his head in his hands, groaning. ‘Oh fuck – oh fuck. Please don’t call an ambulance - please don’t call an ambulance -’

Dudley appears out of the dark, bringing a coffee from the stand. Mick stands up shaky, spills half of it, sits down again. I call his wife to come down and take him home. I want to tell her how it was all the Johnston’s fault, and how it was going too fast for Mick, but can tell from her voice, sleepy, resigned, asking where we are, it’s not the moment. She gets there just before the blue lights arrive.

‘You silly cunt,’ I say to the new geezer. ‘Why d’you have to call them?’

But that’s nothing to what the wife says to him