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.
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.’
‘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?’
‘Oh, so – what you going to do?’
‘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.
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.’
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