Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
THERE WAS A BAND PLAYING somewhere not too far away. I could hear them above the noise of traffic, long before I left the café near my workplace. I should’ve simply turned right and went straight to the office, but instead I turned left. I would like to say I was drawn by the beautiful music, but that’s not true. It comprised sounds that would not normally be called harmonious. To be honest, it was bloody awful. There were trumpets I guessed – certainly some sort of brass instruments – and there were drums also; too many drums for the weak melody, if that jerking, shrieking sound could be called a melody at all.
The music seemed to be coming from a small square in the centre of what was called the docklands quarter, although ships no longer berthed there. It was a popular place for office workers to congregate during lunchtimes, to eat their sandwiches and chat, or stare at the still water in silence. I rarely went there for lunch. In summer there was never any room on the benches or along the low wall that surrounded the ugly fountain which occupied the centre of the plaza. In winter it was a bleak and cold place. Now – in the dead heat of a July day – as I turned into the square, my eyes seeking out the source of the terrible music, I could see only a wall of men in shirt sleeves, office girls drinking coffee from paper cups and families – mothers and fathers with children in shorts or sun dresses, the vestiges of ice cream on their chins and cheeks. It was some kind of festival I guessed.
For a moment I was perplexed, as if I’d suddenly found myself on a street in a foreign city. The music – if I can call it that – was louder than ever, but I still couldn’t identify its source. All I could see were people of all ages and they seemed to be laughing and talking or calling to one another. It was so unreal and yet it was familiar, like a scene from a film. That’s it, I thought, I’ve wandered onto a film set, but I knew that wasn’t right either. Still, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a director appear from the crowd and shout ‘Cut!’ and then, “Positions please for another take!”
I would’ve liked to ask someone about the music, but I wasn’t sure who to ask or how to frame the question. What if it was only me who heard it? Perhaps it was a kind of tinnitus I was suffering from. I began to feel unwell. The sandwich I’d eaten earlier at the cafe was covered in Emmental cheese. I don’t like cheese much, but the girl behind the counter had obviously misheard me when I asked for tuna and I didn’t want to cause a fuss so I ate the sandwich. And of course she was pretty and gave me a bigger smile than she gave the man ahead of me so I wasn’t going to complain. Now I regretted my readiness to accept the unacceptable.
It was after two and I guessed I should’ve been back at the office by now. The manager would have noted my failure to return from lunch. He spent his days watching us as we went about our work. That was all he had to do. It was well for him, I often thought. My head began to throb; the usual dull headache that I’ve learned to live with over time, now exacerbated by the burning sun on my bare head.
I was about to turn around and make my way back to the office, beginning already to formulate a flimsy excuse which I knew my boss would easily see through. Just as I turned my back on all the activity something flickered in my peripheral vision; a barge or boat some way off out on the water. How did I not notice it before? This was the source of the music that filled the air; a band of maybe eight or ten musicians, some banging on drums of different sizes and others blowing trumpets and other brass instruments. Others again didn’t seem to be playing anything at all, but they danced in time to the beat and they turned from one player to the next and smiled broadly, waving at the crowd, shouting encouragement and receiving surprisingly loud cheers in return.
Against my better judgement I was drawn to the spectacle, rooted to the ground, and for a moment I had a vision of myself among the dancing, laughing crush of the crowd, as if I was a part of it. But this was never the case with me. At no time ever was I willingly a part of anything. My reluctance to turn away was that of the passerby who encounters a road traffic accident and is drawn by a morbid fascination.
Then I saw him; Monks, from Accounts, walking idly through the crowd like a tourist. I knew that he was skiving too. He paused a moment and stood looking out at the musicians on their floating stage. He took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one, tapping his foot all the while to the crazy music. I had no wish to be seen by him, but I found I could not leave the square. My headache had transformed into a constant throbbing. It was as if I was there and not there at the same time, if you can believe that. I grant it is hard to explain. So I stayed where I was until he caught my eye and smiled at me. As a rule I would have panicked under these circumstances, seeing someone like Monks, knowing that he had clocked me, outside of the workplace. But I remained calm, even as I watched him make his way through the crowd in my direction, smiling and nodding politely to fathers and mothers as he approached.
‘How are you, Michael?’ he said. ‘I saw you and I thought to myself, I must say hello. How long has it been?’
He was smiling, extending his hand. I was perplexed. I took his hand in mine because it seemed the right thing to do, even if I felt a little foolish in doing so. He squeezed my hand firmly and didn’t release it immediately, but continued to speak as he held it in his clammy grip.
‘We often talk about you back at the office. We wonder how you are getting along.’ He laughed. ‘Does he miss us, we ask ourselves. Not bloody likely, eh!’
He finally released my hand, and perhaps noticing that I had yet to speak he cocked his head and stared at me. I never liked to be stared at. I let my gaze fall to my shoes. I would’ve liked to speak, just to end the awkwardness of the moment, but I had no idea what to say. I was on the edge of remembering something important about work.
‘The boss will be looking for you,’ I said finally, pointing at my watch.
‘Yes, yes, some things never change, but I’m on legitimate business at the moment. I’ve been promoted since you left,’ he said.
‘I see,’ I said, and I suddenly understood that I no longer worked at the office, although it was not apparent to me what I did now to fill the days, and what the hell was I doing here today pretending to take a lunch break.
I looked towards the water again where the band had started up a new tune that was the match of their previous in terms of its shambling cacophony. My headache intensified and I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. I wanted to leave.
‘I have to go,’ I said.
‘Already? I thought perhaps we could grab a coffee and catch up properly.’
Catch up with who or what, I thought. I tried and failed to smile at him as I moved away.
‘How is your mother keeping? I know you left to look after her, didn’t you?’ He put his hand gently on my forearm. I couldn’t reconcile that tender gesture with the Monks I knew to be a pedlar of gossip and a spiteful busybody. Now I found I was moved by the mention of my mother. There was something about her too, now that he’d mentioned her. Perhaps Monks was a decent skin after all; I really ought to be more careful in how I judge other people.
‘She’s just about the same,’ I said.
‘That must be so hard for you. Do you have any other family?’
‘Well, if you ever need to talk, you know where to find me.’ He smiled again, nodded briefly and strode away across the plaza in the direction I had come.
The heat of the sun seemed to intensify as I stood at the water’s edge watching the awful band. The crowd continued to dance and cheer along with the music. I thought that there was something terribly wrong with all of this; the day, the heat of the sun, the cheese sandwich, the music, and then Monks and the peculiar things he’d said to me about my job and my mother.
I watched him leave the square, but as he did I noticed he was stopped by two men. I couldn’t make out their faces, but I saw how one of the men reached out and put his hands on Monks’ arm and shook his head vigorously when Monks tried to look back in my direction. When they walked around the corner out of sight I had the impression that Monks accompanied them against his will.
My head grew light and my vision clouded over for an instant. Then I was kneeling by the waters’ edge. I had the sense that I was being watched. I leaned forward and vomited copiously into the water, the force of it wrenching my gut as I puked up cheese, coffee and bread. My eyes watered and I rubbed them, impairing my vision further. No one came to my aid; in fact, those people who were nearby moved away from me, creating a semi-circle of space between me and the crowd. I used the hem of my shirt to dry my eyes and looked out once more at the musicians on their makeshift stage. They were still engrossed in their labours. I stared hard at one of them; a tall dark-haired young man with no shirt on who beat a random tattoo on a tribal drum. I kept my gaze fixed on him until he returned my look and held it. His smile broadened at first, but as I continued to stare it fell away. He beat the drum irregularly at the best of times, but now he hardly hit the thing at all. After a minute or two he stopped altogether; he no longer moved or beat the drum, but just stood there looking at me.
A murmur rose up out of the crowd. I could hear people asking each other what was wrong. There was a subtle panic in their voices. No one likes when things happen that they can’t explain. I don’t mind at all. I’m used to it by now. The drummers’ fellow musicians exchanged worried looks and whatever basic rhythm they had been achieving was thrown off kilter as each one hesitated in turn until the whole ensemble finally lurched to an unceremonious halt.
I was grateful. I wanted to smile, but the pain in my stomach and head would not let me. I tried to stand up but the ground was suddenly uneven, or else it was moving; perhaps I had stepped onto a boat.
And then I was being lifted up by either arm. Strong hands gripped my upper arms and walked me through the crowd. I heard a susurration of words as I passed among the throng, saw how mothers pulled their children close as I passed by propelled by my attendants.
I imagine it was sunstroke, or food poisoning, or a mix of the two. I was taken to hospital and allowed to sleep it off. The air in my room was cool, the temperature controlled by a dial on the wall just inside the door. I shivered. I would have like to get up and make some adjustments, but I felt so weak. I lay back and tried to relax. I wondered about work, and if I even had a job, reassuring myself that, if I did, I had a good reason now for my absence.
After some time drifting in and out of sleep a nurse came to visit me. I had been dreaming, strange dreams that seemed more like the memories of disturbing events that had occurred in the distant past. She looked familiar also, but I could not place her. She was older than me and not very pretty, but there was something about her, the way she smiled and looked me in the eye that I was almost embarrassed by. She called me by my name, but did not tell me hers, assuming I suppose that I knew it already. I was thinking how this was quite unfair and consequently missed the first few things she said to me.
‘You’ll soon be well enough to go back to your room,’ she said.
‘That’s good. I’ll need to phone work.’ I paused. ‘And home too, she’ll be wondering where I’ve got to.’
She said nothing for a few moments, but looked at me closely, concerned. She looked back in the direction of the door where I could see a man’s face peering through the glass panel. I recognised him as one of the men who’d accosted Monks on his way out of the square. My heart began to race.
‘How is my mother?’ I asked.
She made a face then, as if I’d asked a trick question. She shook her head.
‘We’ve been through this, Michael,’ she said.
‘I need to see her. She relies on me,’ I said.
She came around the side of the bed so that she was right beside me.
‘Don’t you remember what we talked about this morning?’ she asked. I ignored her, but I knew there was something about mother.
‘Everything has to be just so,’ I said. ‘She gets angry if things aren’t the way they should be. She has to get her breakfast on a tray and then I make sure she’s comfortable before I leave for work.’ I knew what I was saying wasn’t right, but I went ahead and said it anyway.
‘And then there’s work; I can’t be missing for too long or they’ll let me go again.’
I knew that if I kept on talking she would eventually have to stop me and tell me what was going on, even if it was simply to correct me.
‘Work is work, I know,’ I went on, ‘but it’s the only income we have these days.’
She looked like she was just about to speak, when the door sprung open and the man gestured to her. She rose, reluctantly I thought. I didn’t want her to go. I didn’t want to be on my own.
‘Isn’t there something you want to tell me?’ I asked.
She turned and looked at me again. The man at the door coughed hard and shook his head and she turned towards him again.
‘I wasn’t at work today,’ I said. I almost shouted the words. I was surprised to hear myself say that, and at the same time I was pleased that I had the power to make her turn around again. When I thought she was about to turn away again, I ventured more.
‘I haven’t worked in months,’ I said. ‘I just pretend to go, you see.’ This was great stuff, wherever it was coming from.
She stood there watching me silently for a few moments after I’d spoken.
‘We’ll talk later, okay?’ she said. This time she didn’t look back and stepped outside with the man. I heard the door click shut and the key turn in the lock.
I stared at the door for a very long time. After a while I stretched out again and let myself relax under the covers. I thought about mother again, about one of her bible stories. How the prophet Elijah, or maybe it was Elisha, was hiding away in a cave when a voice told him to go out and stand on the mountain before God. A hurricane came and split the rocks, but God was not in the hurricane. And after that an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. Then a great fire, but – you guessed it – he wasn’t in the fire either. Then there was a gentle breeze through the trees, and when he heard this Elijah covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.
I pulled the sheet up over my head. I decided I would tell them nothing if they ever came back.