I first met Ralun Dillinger a little over a year ago when we both began working the same job. I remember thinking something like ‘what idea of hell is this?’ because once again my eagerness and ability to lie convincingly had shot me in the foot. It certainly wasn’t my idea of a career, working in a cramped room alongside the faux professionals and the maladjusted taking phone calls from cunts who wanted to speak with other cunts about moving their cunt lives across the country. Ah now my language has slipped.
I was sat in the Garden house on that first morning, a bar a block down from the office, suitably pleased I could get a whisky at 8am if I wanted one but I soon left and began to walk. The sweat poured off of me almost immediately on what felt like the first day of summer in early May. The street the office was on seemed pleasant enough, a leafy suburb full of tall red brick houses and just on the horizon I could see the group of prospective job agency slaves, stood with glazed, vacant eyes enshrouded with early morning tobacco haze, sucking hungrily on Camels, Lucky Strikes and Marlboro’s as if they were lemon sherbets.
Behind the rabble though was Ralun. I liked him instantly and I had a feeling we’d be working together to get through the sheer disgust of the work and terrible fear of the maddening sexless characters that came with it. Above all else, he knew how to dress. He noticed me admiring his suit, ‘Italian silk, the very finest’ he said with a smirk. I peered at his shoes, which looked cheap. “You get those shoes from the discount warehouse?” I said, he smiled awkwardly and shifted,
“How did you know?” and I confessed that my mother had bought me the exact same pair. We roared with laughter, startling the rabble that was now staring at us. He told me that the suit was from there too.
We all soon filed into the office, everybody seemed cautious to not lift their head and make eye contact. The room was silent, tense. The only sound I could hear was the mantra running through my own head, this is not my destiny, not my destiny, not my destiny. Ralun turned to me and asked, “What the fuck are we doing here anyway?” Money, o money, cursed coin and paper. I returned to my mantra.
When the company introduction finally got underway we were being spoken to by a man who looked more like a football coach than a man who belonged in an office pushing pencils. I soon learned that amongst the rabble were disgraced pilots, conceptual artists, teachers and factory workers who saw this as a step up. We sat around a projector and watched videos on customer service and other related bullshit and were then made to answer questions about the videos to make sure we were paying attention. I couldn’t stand it.
At lunch, I saw the man who put me there, Vince Chariot. He thought of himself as a sort of employment law - man who wore sharp suits, gel in his hair and his word wasn’t worth spit. He was a dipshit who wasn’t used to being told no and held a non-existent superiority when one of his ‘clients’ walked out on him. Ralun told me how Chariot had sold the job to him, “That motherfucker,” I said, “He gave me the same lines!” We were both on edge from the mornings work and Ralun, angered, said, “Watch this,” and walked calmly over to Chariot and punched him in the face. The whole room stared and some of the women gasped. Chariot, on his knees pointed to the door and screamed at Ralun to get out. I followed. If this was what it meant to make something of yourself then I’d rather be a bum. We found the nearest bar and went inside.
I later learned that the assault on Chariot put an end to Ralun’s jazz career. He had been a talented jazz guitarist but had broken his left hand in a bar fight after a promoter had tried to rip him off. He’d only taken that job to pay his rent until his hand healed and he was able to play again. He seemed morose for a long while after, eager to get back to normality he’d taken the bandage off and in a fit of impulsiveness ruined all chances of the bones in his crushed hand healing. Ralun could be tough but fighting didn’t suit him with glass hammers for fists.
His playing had been extraordinary and I could now see why he was so upset. He had several home recordings that had generated some interest with a company in London that made soundtracks for movies but now he couldn’t form the shapes of the chords and his fingers couldn’t move as fast as they once had, the doctors told him that because of the impact of the blow to Vince Chariot’s chin, he would never play properly again.
He flitted in and out of a depression in the weeks after but he still became my first call whenever I had something that needed discussing. He was a good confidant. We looked out for each other and passed on work whenever we found some, if he found something out of the city he’s pass it onto me as I had a car and would be able to drive there. I looked at him sitting in a fold out chair in his two-bedroom, cold-water apartment; I could tell he was hungry, starving in fact. He sat rubbing his belly over his Bermuda shirt and smoked continuously, a habit we’d both developed to fight off intense hunger.
We were waiting for Ralun’s housemate to return. His name was Dudley; we didn’t know his last name, he’d told us it better we not know. He’d been a chef in the military but had skipped out halfway through his tour to marry his sweetheart and that’s how he ended up in Birmingham; he’d followed her down here as she went to study. He couldn’t live with her though as the army were looking for him and he wound up with Ralun because the landlord, known only as ‘the good doctor’ wanted fast cash, asked no questions and took no names.
Ralun stood and began to pace. Still rubbing his belly he squinted out of the window, looking for Dudley who’d ran down to the supermarket to steal us supper. I sat on the couch on the other side of the bare room, which smelled of cooking oil and cologne, fingering the 5 stringed guitar that gathered a heavy dust over the past few weeks. “Man, I hope he hasn’t got caught this time,” Ralun said as he returned to his seat,
“Don’t worry, he’s an expert,” I replied but I secretly had my concerns too, every time Dudley did this we both worried that he wouldn’t come back.
A short while later he returned. Dudley was a great bear of a man; over six feet tall and built like a lumberjack. He had a shaved head, oriental eyes and wore an expression of constant self - satisfaction, like he was concealing a great secret. He burst through the front door in baggy black clothes, his hustling uniform as he called it, holding two huge bags full of food, proudly holding them up and announcing that this was his most successful run to date. We walked over to kitchen table as he emptied the bags. It was full of meats, cheese, bread, fruit and a bottle of wine, I saw the colour return to Ralun’s face.
Sometimes we’d go with Dudley when he went to steal food. He swore there was an art to it; you had to wear baggy, lose fitting clothes, preferably something with plenty of hidden pockets. You couldn’t steal everything you picked up, only the luxury items. You’d put them in your basket and then locate the blind spot in the store. This would usually be the aisle that sold pet food or baby products – the type of products that nobody would steal and then once the coast was clear you would subtly procure the items down your waistband or inside one of the pockets then pay for the rest of your goods and walk out.
He cooked us a fine meal of steaks with steamed vegetables, he handed me my plate with a wink and said, “It’ll taste better with that added ingredient of crime”. He was a great thief, when he first arrived in the city he took us into town and taught us to steal books from the big stores, “Never steal from real people’ he’d say, ‘just from those who can afford to lose it.” Dudley also sold pot to college kids at the university down the road from the apartment so he could afford runs like this from time to time, he had the steadiest income out of the three of us but we didn’t care what he did, he’d saved us once again and Ralun’s spirits were clearly lifted as we ate and drank and talked and laughed.
The night wore on and I decided to leave around midnight. I didn’t live with them but across town in a one-room studio. I walked to my car, a beat up Ford that was older than I was. The cool air felt good as I breathed it into my full belly and I took the time to roll a cigarette before I climbed into the driver seat. I wound the window down, tuned the radio to a station that didn’t crack and drove home slowly.
When I returned I threw the keys on the table by the door and slumped into my armchair. I sat and reached for the bottle of rum that I’d left on the table. I took a sip straight from the bottle but decided I didn’t want to drink tonight and I felt my eyes grow heavy. I wondered for a while if I’d made the right decision to not go back to school, I’d been offered a place at the local college but had decided that I didn’t want to go, I wanted to make a name for myself as a writer and that school could wait. I looked over at the typewriter on the table by my porthole window and I felt a surge of determination to write something, a single line of verse, a letter to my mother, song lyrics, anything. But my heavy eyes and the sluggish feeling in my legs put an end that idea. So I closed my eyes and went to sleep feeling guilty.
I was back at Ralun’s apartment. It seemed I spent more time there than looking for work but Ralun, reluctant to go back to work after being told he’d never play again did the same. He sat at his typewriter most days and wrote articles for academic and business magazines that he had no interest in. It paid little and the effort it took to motivate himself was greater than the effort he put into writing the thing. When the mood struck him, or the fear of starvation took hold he’d type furiously with a cigarette protruding from the corner of his mouth, taking puffs without it leaving his lips and blowing the smoke out through his nose as he mumbled to himself. I’d sit on the couch with my legs up over the empty space next to me, listening to the rhythm of his typing but still nothing could seem to inspire me. More often than not we’d sit there in relative silence, only breaking it when one of us would make a trip to the kitchen to make coffee.
Some fumbling would occasionally be heard through the wall; Dudley was taking care of some work of his own, “Is his wife here?” I asked,
“I don’t know,” Ralun shrugged.
On slow days we’d take a walk. We walked down through the university campus and watched the girls there and talked about women we’d been with in the past, which had been a regular topic lately as neither of us had any money to go to places where you meet women. We stopped by a bookmakers to try and figure patterns out with the horses but neither of us were good with odds and if we had any money we would have lost a lot of it.
One day after one of these excursions we went back to the apartment and found a good-looking brunette girl standing in the doorway. “You wouldn’t be looking for me, would you?” Ralun grinned; the girl rolled her eyes and slackened out between us and off onto the street, “Didn’t think so,” he muttered as he watched her strut away. We walked in and found Dudley in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil in nothing but his underwear. “Did you just fuck that girl?” I asked,
“What answer do you want to hear?” Dudley replied as he adjusted his balls through the fabric of his shorts.
“What about Helena, does she know about this?” Ralun asked,
“Nah, we have an understanding,” Dudley replied.
We stood, unknowingly fixing him with the crook eye, Dudley was growing impatient and on the verge of flying into a rage. His anger was unexpected and Ralun tried to pacify him by saying things like, “No big deal, man, do what you gotta do.” He poured hot water into his cup and stared at us as he walked back to him room with a gaze that said try it again and see what happens.
We’d known that his track record was less than spotless anyway; Helena rarely came round to the house and when she did Dudley would often palm a note into Ralun’s pocket and tell us to hit the bar for a few hours. We would of course oblige but she’d always be gone by the time we returned. This bothered Ralun more that I however, when I was around we’d drive over to my place and buy a bottle but when I wasn’t there it’d be on him to walk the four miles into the city and back with no regard for the weather or time but he’d bite his tongue, just glad to have cash in his pocket.
I couldn’t believe it; Helena was beautiful. She had flame red hair, long, slender legs and was studying business. She was the whole package. He referred to her as his ‘baybeh’ in his thick Northern accent and made no secret of telling us what he’d do to any man caught sniffing around her. Dudley wasn’t typically a violent man but he had it in him to be if he chose, however powerfully built his temper was often docile and when he did threaten his demeanour often had a sinister hint of humour.
Ralun pulled a bottle of whisky out of the cupboard and poured us two fingers into coffee cups and we sat there sipping as if it were breakfast tea, not saying a word. The tension in the room burned, we both wanted to talk about what had just happened but we didn’t dare gossip.
Hours passed as we sat in front of Ralun’s black and white TV still sipping at the whisky. It grew dark outside and we were hungry, hungry for Dudley’s cooking but he hadn’t come out of his room since we saw the girl leave earlier. Ralun cocked his head toward me and said dryly, “Do you reckon there’s another one in there?”
“Nah, we haven’t heard any banging.” We laughed, it felt good to speak again but as we were laughing Dudley walked into the room, and we froze, overwhelmed by schoolboy guilt, fearing that he’d heard us, but he hadn’t and he proclaimed that it was suppertime. Once again he cooked us a magnificent feast. He seemed to have forgotten about what happened earlier. In truth, he hadn’t been angry with us at all, he’d been reading. He had a tremendous appetite for literature, much like Ralun and myself. He would devour Japanese texts on the ways of the samurai, French poetry, survival guides and he acted as my part time editor, banging his thigh with excitement whenever I gave him something to check over, he’d created his own language and used phrases like ‘Primosity in a bag’ and ‘Righteous,’ despite his braun he was incredibly well read and always receptive to learning everything he possibly could.
“Pour me some of that, I gotta catch up,” he said slamming a cup onto the coffee table. And there we were again, the three of us, eating and drinking and talking and laughing. Dudley was frank and open about his affairs with us, he confessed that as an adolescent he was fat and hadn’t lost his cherry till quite late, he loved Helena but as they grew up together he always saw her with other boys who would tease him, in his own way he was evening the score and he’d proved his love by marrying her. Ralun spoke of a woman he’d loved in Spain, she’d hurt him bad when she left and he still felt the scorn since she moved out.
We all had our issues with women; we liked them too much but never knew what to do with them. Most of our schemes seemed to centre on meeting them and getting them but we were too locked into this malaise together to do anything about it but we were handsome, and we knew it, never starved for attention for too long and in that we took solace.
Many nights were spent this way, bonding and growing closer over old records, good food and fine whisky. During the day we were nobodies but at night we were kings, we had the world all figured out and would make grand plans that we knew would never happen but excused it by saying ‘some day’. It was a golden age.
One thing that always surprised me about poverty wasn’t the hunger, but the boredom. We listened to the same records, to the point where the words lost all meaning, drank the same cheap whisky so much that it now tasted like water and read the same passages of the same books to the point where we could recite them in our dreams. I was now living at the apartment now and sleeping on the sofa having fled my place across the city after a misunderstanding with my landlord.
Ralun’s articles were few and far between, he would write sporadically and smoke endlessly, my savings were down and I was having trouble finding work, even Dudley struggled, with the students down the road going home for summer he had no contacts to sell pot to anymore. He would occasionally ask me to drive him around town to find groups of youths to sell to, some nights were more successful than others but even on a good night there wasn’t much scratch to be made.
Every now and again the phone would ring and the good doctor would be on the other end demanding his rent. This haunted Ralun, he’d always been able to pay his way in the world and if he couldn’t he’d always managed to charm his way into buying some time for himself, he felt terrible about owing the money, but in truth neither he nor Dudley had paid since they placed their deposit.
One morning I was woken by Dudley, he pulled me straight to my feet and dragged me to his room; he locked the door and put his finger to his lips. His eyes were wild and he pointed to the window. I looked out and saw a heavy-set Chinese man walking toward the apartment - the good doctor was coming. “What about Ralun?” I whispered,
“His door was locked, I slipped him a note,” he replied.
We sat on the floor in nothing but our underwear, trying to make ourselves feel weightless, that as if we imagined ourselves to be invisible then it would be so. The good doctor hammered the front door: we could hear his muffled shout. As no one answered he used his key to enter. He paced around the front room and down the hall, overturning the unopened mail on the table and kicking the empty wine bottles by the bin. He tried the doorknob to Dudley’s room, I gritted my teeth, fearing he had a key for that door too, but Dudley just shook his head in supreme confidence. The good doctor walked away and tried Ralun’s room. Either Ralun was fast asleep or he had read Dudley’s note and was sat in the corner of his room trying to make himself weightless and invisible like we were.
What seemed like an hour was in fact only ten minutes. As we heard the door slam Dudley rose to his feet and squinted out of the window watching the good doctor get in his car and drive off. He looked at me, ‘thank fuck for that,’ he said. We walked out and saw that the good doctor had left a note on the table, his handwriting was unreadable but I guessed that it was a warning that they owed a lot of money and he’d be back with his goons if they didn’t pay up. Ralun came out of his room holding the note that Dudley had wrote for him. He chuckled and handed it to me, it read:
An apple a day keeps the doctor away, lock yr door and
stay low, I’ll get you when it’s safe… We need more fruit.”
Despite the threat of the good doctor we were in good spirits. We sat around the front room and drank coffee; joking of ways we could get him off our backs. Dudley got up, he was going to go and see his ‘baybeh’, Ralun and I were just glad that he was going out instead of bringing her here.
He was gone for three days. When he returned it was 7am, I’d slept lightly, the air was hot and I struggled to settle and I was roused by him rushing through the front door and up the stairs. I only caught a glimpse but I’d noticed that he was carrying a black motorcycle helmet under one arm and under the other was a long thin object that at first I thought was one of his prized machetes. I heard him shuffling vigorously though a plastic bag and slamming a cabinet.
When Ralun came down I told him about what I’d seen, he didn’t seem to think much of it but when he went upstairs to ask Dudley if he wanted a coffee, he answered the door cautiously, opening it only slightly, as if he were concealing another mystery girl in there. He seemed distracted and jumpy, which he never was and he couldn’t wait to get rid of Ralun and go back to whatever he was doing.
“Very strange,” Ralun said, “Are you sure it was a motorcycle helmet? I didn’t know he owned one.”
“Positive,” I said, “It may have been early but I definitely saw it.”
Another three days passed before we saw him again, I tried to catch him when I heard his door open to go to the bathroom but he was too fast, he strategically timed his trips to the kitchen for food when we went out or when I was in Ralun’s room learning jazz chords on his old guitar.
On that third morning he emerged tentatively, asking if we wanted anything from the supermarket. He wasn’t in his hustling uniform, “Are you alright?” I asked,
“Fine, mate, fine,”
“Are you sure? You’ve been a little off this week,”
“I know, sorry lads, been a bit distracted,”
“Anything we can do to help?” Ralun asked,
“Nah, don’t worry about me, I’ll see you in a bit.’ He looked at us both as if it were the last time he’d ever look at us again. He inhaled deeply and for a moment I thought he was holding back a tear but at the last moment he said again; ‘right, you sure you don’t need anything?”
“Smokes,” I said, I quickly rooted around in my pocket and handed him a crumpled five-pound note. I didn’t need cigarettes, I’d bought some yesterday but I wanted to make sure he’d come back, even if it were in the smallest way possible. He took the note and left.
Ralun and I discussed his behaviour with a strange mix of confusion, sadness and a little anger. He’d been so secretive during his time at the apartment but this was different, this was on a whole other level, we’d bitten our tongues so frequently about his affairs and we decided to say something to him when, or if, he came back.
He came back an hour later with a large bag of groceries. “Who’s hungry?” he said, and at the mere mention of food our courage folded back in on itself. We both nodded meekly.
He emptied the bag onto the kitchen table and made small talk. The bag this time contained ingredients to make a desert and he asked if we wanted to watch him and learn to make honeycomb. We both obliged and stood behind him as he baked but we both knew it was a front for something that he couldn’t face us with yet.
He was in his element in the kitchen, he spoke with passion and made flamboyant hand gestures, his enthusiasm was infectious. He poured the honeycomb into a dish to let it set in the refrigerator and disappeared back to his room. Ralun and I opened bottles of beer and sat on the couch. I was eager to taste the honeycomb; I had a sweet tooth that couldn’t be satisfied as often now I was broke.
Dudley came back in about forty minutes later, the honeycomb was set and he took it out of the fridge. He also pulled out a giant bar of chocolate and broke it up into a pan. He melted it into a gooey sludge and brought it over to the coffee table in the centre of the room. We sat, picking away at it and scooping up the chocolate, it was very sweet but the sugar tasted good, I’d eaten nothing but cheap noodles lately and it was good to eat something else.
Dudley pulled out a leaflet from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to Ralun, “You speak French don’t you?” Dudley asked, Ralun nodded with a mouth full of honeycomb and looked the leaflet up and down, “Shit, the legion? You want to join the French foreign legion?” Ralun spat, sending a plume of honeycomb crumbs from his mouth. Dudley nodded hesitantly but surely, not a thread of doubt in his eyes.
“I’m drifting, I can only do nothing for so long,” he said. I grabbed the leaflet and studied it as they talked. I had only a basic understanding of French but I understood enough to make out that you would earn fifty thousand a year, be set with a fine pension and a French passport at the end of a five-year tour.
I thought for a moment as Ralun raced around the room, running his fingers through his hair in complete disbelief at Dudley’s announcement. What the legion offered sounded good. I knew Dudley was bored and needed to take his life in a new direction and to be frank so did I. I’d been sleeping on a couch for the best part of six months, I couldn’t write a thing and was still turning the idea of returning to school over in my mind, which in truth, never appealed to me in the first place. Dudley had recounted us with many Army stories and like when he was baking it was infectious. The only problem was I was no good at taking orders, I hated authority figures and I was underweight, my diet had mostly been smoke and whisky but something needed to happen and perhaps this was the ticket I’d been waiting for.
Ralun was still reeling from the announcement. He picked up a cigarette and lit it with a shaking hand. “How are you even going to get there, man? The Army are already after you,”
“As long as you’re not wanted for murder they’ll take anyone,”
“What about Helena?”
“She doesn’t know, and I’d appreciated it if you didn’t say anything,”
“You broke up?”
“No, but she doesn’t need the kind of trouble I get into following her around, I’ll explain it to her someday and hopefully she’ll understand.”
Everything they were saying swirled around in my mind, going in one ear and out the other, I felt sick and everything went quiet. I looked at Dudley, if there was one person I could trust with my life it was he; he wasn’t afraid of anything and I wanted that, to be like that. I stood up. “I’ll go with you, I’ll do it!” I was greeted with silence, “Fucking say something then,” I barked.
The next hour was spent debating why we should and shouldn’t go, Ralun was trying to convince me to stay more than Dudley, he knew there was nothing he could do to stop him, but I was unsuited to the military. The conversation raged and Dudley sat saying nothing now, rolling a joint between his thick fingers. He lit it with a black Zippo lighter which had a crude picture of a skull in war paint and headdress with the words ‘Indian Runner’ emblazoned across the front. He passed it to Ralun who took a long drag and collapsed into his chair. “Why don’t you come with us?” I asked, He laughed and shook his head.
“Seriously, what are you doing with your life? We’re drifting, we’ve got nothing and we are nothing.” Silence. “You really think that what we do now is better? Fuck, man, as a writer, use the experience, and tell the greatest story you’ve ever told.”
“I just can’t do it, man, I’ll crack and you will too!”
“Maybe I will, but right now I’ve got nothing else, no job, no woman, no home, cracking up is all I’ve got to look forward to,”
“I just can’t, I’m sorry, I’d come to Paris though,”
“Then come with us that far! Walk us to the door, take my car and drive back, you can sell it and pay the good doctor,”
Ralun exhaled and passed me the joint, he still wanted to try and stop me from going but he knew that that wouldn’t happen tonight and he agreed to come with us as far as the legion’s door. Dudley said that he was leaving tomorrow, with or without us. He’d found our whole debate quite amusing, he ran on impulse and didn’t understand why our argument had taken place and had sat watching us the whole time with that familiar smirk.
We stayed up all night, a strange mix of despondency and togetherness, smoking Dudley’s pot and drinking Ralun’s whisky. If this was our last night in the apartment then we were going to get ripped and enjoy it. We talked about past jobs; Ralun and I both reminisced about the job at which we met. Dudley told us about the brief time he spent as a butcher’s apprentice, slicing through the bones of chicken legs. I recounted my last job as head of wine at a department store in the city. The whole time I was there I was told my focus would not be on wine but on pushing store cards on unsuspecting customers. The store cards were a form of credit card that would pile more debt onto poor souls who didn’t need it. It carried all manner of statistics and figures that no real person would understand. For the first few days I simply refused to mention them, slipped them out of my mind like they didn’t exist and it wasn’t until I was apprehended by a manager for not doing my part that I found out that the store’s across the country had a target to reach. The company were required to sign a certain number of people up for these cards (I forget the actual number) and if successful the central bank would give the company, tax free, £130 million. I was outraged, politics had never been a strong point of mine but I did know that the money could be distributed better to hospitals, schools, reform programmes for jails and such, I tendered my resignation immediately. Of course that was when I still had integrity.
Dudley stared at me, “Good man, good man,” he’d say over and over. ‘I’ve got an idea, a way of leaving our mark on this town for good.’ In our drunken stupor we tried to goad him to tell us, “When the time’s right fellers, you don’t need to worry about it now,” is all he would say. We teased and probed until 6am but he gave nothing away, just shaking his head and laughing. He went to bed and Ralun followed. I collapsed on the couch and dreamed of Paris.
I awoke around midday with a sore head and a queasy feeling in my stomach. Dudley was already up and making breakfast. The smell of something like pancakes invaded the air, which was still thick with smoke from the night before. I sat up and groaned, cursing the sunlight that radiated the room. The hangover clearly had no effect on Dudley as he danced around the kitchen clattering the pans. He offered me pancakes and I had just one, dry, to put something in my gut. Dudley sat opposite me and leaned in, asking if I was still serious about going with him and I told him that I’d slept on it and I still wanted to go but in truth I wasn’t prepared and in no fit state for a conversation about it then and there.
He’d be spending the day packing and he wanted to get it all done as soon as possible so that we could get on the road, he didn’t want to hang around. I hadn’t noticed the night before in my inebriation that he still wasn’t acting right; it was only now in the daylight that I still sensed that something was wrong.
He finished his stack of pancakes and told me to rest up; I’d need my strength if we were going to drive to the South coast tonight. He disappeared back to his room, I could hear him clearing out his things, banging and crashing against the wall. Ralun was still asleep so I walked to the bathroom to shower.
The cold water rehabilitated me; I’d been sweating in my sleep and felt a cleansing wave shake me from this cell of a hangover. I stared into the mirror and checked my beleaguered appearance. I looked tired and worn. My face had a gray tint and the bags under my blue eyes made me look as if I’d been beaten. There was an unused disposable razor on the windowsill. I picked it up and began to mow the coarse little hairs on my chin and when I was done I found a bottle of Helena’s moisturising cream so I applied a thin layer to my new face.
I felt better now, back to normal. I ventured back to the kitchen to claim the leftover pancakes. Ralun was awake and sitting in his chair. He looked as I had done half an hour before. I pointed down the hall, “Shower’s free, you’ll feel better.” I said, Ralun, under the guise of sunglasses took a long pause,
“In a minute, I’ll puke if I move.”
The sun warmed the hardwood floorboards until they became hot, I began to feel fine again as I sipped a coffee and ate pancakes. I cranked the window open and let the breeze float in. I walked back over to the couch and sat down, the apartment felt almost European.
Dudley’s door opened and he peered through the crack, he beckoned me with a nod of his head, I walked over and he slammed a pile of screwed up papers into my hands, “Do me a favour, type these up,” he asked. I turned with my eyes on the page and went and sat at Ralun’s typewriter. They were letters to his parents, Helena and a few of his friends. When I finished his, I typed my own.
Night fell, a huge pile of Ralun and Dudley’s surplus belongings rested in the bins on the street in front of the apartment. Four bags lay by the door. One for each of us containing the little we all had left. The fourth bag contained a tent and some of Dudley’s survival gear. Dudley wanted to be done earlier but we had more stuff than expected but he didn’t seem to mind so much once Ralun reminded him about his surprise from last night.
We congregated in the front room, which was now even bear; looking at it you could tell that the previous tenants had fled quickly. Dudley had a map sprawled on the floor and planned our route to the coast. We’d be taking my car but I had doubts it would make it that far and we’d have to ditch it anyway because Dudley wouldn’t be able to catch the ferry like everyone else because he had no passport.
We had piled all of our money onto the table. £215 was all we had till Paris. I figured we’d be better off trying to sell the car at the coast, if it made it, as we’d probably need to bribe someone to carry us over the channel. Ralun now seemed edgy and restless, he had the feeling that we’d still try to convince him to sign up to the legion, or get him drunk and sign up for him. All day I’d felt that he wanted to talk to me, to pull me to one side and convince me not to go but once Dudley had stripped his room there was no chance to do this.
It was midnight when Dudley suggested we leave. We slowly gathered our bags, folded the map and pocketed the money. We stood at the door and looked around in a misty minded reverie, sad to leave the place that had sheltered us for the best part of a year, knowing that soon enough someone else would move in and it’ll have been like we were never there. Part of us was glad to be out of there though, the place represented a stale part of our lives, as long as we knew each other we could have fond memories about it but whilst there it held us back, too safe to leave, too familiar to do anything we normally wouldn’t. The house of blues was closing and would never reopen again. We composed eulogies in our heads and said them silently as we made our way through the door.
The mood in the car was mournful; Ralun sat in the front with me as Dudley spread out over the back seat, fumbling with something in his huge rucksack. The windows were down and the wind calmly blew through the car as we coasted at a steady speed toward the city. “Let’s find a bar, one more drink before we leave,” Dudley said,
“I thought you wanted to head off straight away?” I said
“No that was earlier, we’re not in any rush now.”
He told us we should park outside of the city so we could walk in the warm air. I found a spot on a quiet street just off Newhall Street and pulled in. As we walked, Dudley was hiding something under his baggy shirt. Whatever it was; was tucked into his waistband and it made a clinking sound like glass. “What’ve you got in there, man?” Ralun asked,
“Nothing, nothing, just keep walking,” Dudley said. I knew that he’d been keeping some special bottles of beer in his room, he’d been ageing them in fact, trappist beers from Belgium that he’d inherited from Helena’s father on the last time they met. I thought it would be a nice touch to toast the journey in such a way
We walked along with Ralun still keeping one eye on Dudley; he didn’t know about the beers and thought he was up to something. We carried on further into the centre of town, past places where I’d spent time growing up, I didn’t know what bar Dudley had in mind but it was a nice evening and I was happy to walk around my hometown that I probably wouldn’t see for another five years. We walked past the paradise forum where a blonde girl gave me my first kiss as a teenager, passed the fountain in Victoria square that had been overflowed with bubble bath more times than I can remember. Past the innocuous looking building on New Street that housed the scientologists. Past the church on Colmore row where so many summers had been spent idling in the gardens until we stopped outside of the department store I’d talked about the night before. We stood, kicking our heels, whilst Dudley rolled himself a cigarette. I looked up at the sky and inhaled deeply, soaking in the city, “Got a light?” Dudley asked. I pulled it out of my pocket without thinking, handed it across and continued with my thoughts.
“What the fuck is that?” Ralun cried. His shout had startled me from my daydreaming and I turned and saw Dudley holding a bottle with flames spouting from its top. He hurled it at the store window, sending it through with a crash. The bottle burst and the fire spread across the floor. “Now the wankers’ll have a reason to use £130 million,” Dudley said and he reached around his back and pulled another bottle out of his trousers. I scanned the sides of the surrounding buildings looking for security cameras as Dudley lit the rag in his second bottle, I could hear Ralun screaming, ‘get the fuck out of here’. Dudley hurled the bottle through the hole in the window; it crashed to the floor and exploded. The fire burned seriously now and gave our faces an orange glint. “Fucking run, back to the car, stay together,” Dudley commanded and we set off on a sprint. We ran down an alley with a pungent smell of trash and past a cook from one of the local restaurants taking a cigarette break, we tried to hide our faces from him as we ran and I thought I heard him call after us but I didn’t want to stop to find out.
It was a Sunday night and luckily the streets were deserted but we had to stop and look around to make sure the coast was clear every time we came to a new road and we’d strafe in single file to the next shadow. Nobody spoke and all that could be heard was our heavy breathing. I laughed to myself thinking this was good preparation for the legion. We heard sirens in the distance but they were close enough to make us run faster. We reached the car and dived in, “Drive, drive, drive, go man go!” Dudley said and I turned the ignition and screeched off into the night and out of the city.
I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or the sheer disbelief at what had just happened but we laughed. Ralun first and then Dudley and myself last. It descended into hysterics and we had tears in our eyes as we sped over the expressway.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Ralun asked,
“Like I said, we’ve left our mark on the city now,” Dudley replied,
“And that was how you thought we should do it? You’re insane! If any camera’s caught us then we’ve gotta keep our heads down whilst we get to the coast, if we even make it that far, we’re screwed,”
“Pipe down, we’ll be alright,”
“Whatever, man, you’re a fucking psycho, I’m not the one with anything on the line here, if you get caught it’s all you, the Army will fry you and I’ll go back home, roll me a damn smoke,” Ralun demanded. Dudley had been subdued, along with the laughter. He rolled Ralun a cigarette and passed it through the gap in the seat. “We’ve gotta take the back roads, we’ll get found out for sure if we take the motorway” I said, nobody said anything but they nodded in agreement. I turned the radio on in the hope of alleviating the bad vibes but all that was on at that hour was talk radio, somebody quietly jabbering about gardening or something.
Ralun wasn’t’ really annoyed, I’d caught him smirking to himself and rubbing his hands together softly, something which he did when he was excited. I knew deep down he was digging the ride already but he had never been one for concealing his uncertainty since his accident. The chatter continued for about an hour and Ralun and Dudley fell asleep, so I put my foot on the gas and hoped that we’d make it through the night.
I had no idea how much time had passed, the clock on the dash had stopped working a long time ago. My eyes were heavy and my mind drifted. Ralun and Dudley were still asleep but I couldn’t go on much longer so I pulled over to the side of the road and leant over the seat and shook Dudley at the leg, he stirred, trying to focus his eyes, “What’s up?” he asked as he sat up rubbing his head.
“You’ve gotta switch with me and take over for a while, I’ll get us killed if I carry on,” I said. Dudley groaned but agreed. We got out and exchanged places; he strapped himself in and yawned, “Where are we?”
“I saw a sign for somewhere called Chipping Norton a few miles back,” I said. He started the car and turned out onto the road. I sat in the back looking out the window as the shadows of black trees rolled by, getting lost in the hypnotism of the road. I passed out.
When I came to, the car was still and we were back on the hard shoulder. I rubbed my eyes and looked around, the car was empty. The hood was up and I could see Ralun at the side of the car with his hands on his head and a look of pained tension on his face. I climbed out and walked to the front, the colour drained out of Ralun’s eyes as he saw me coming.
“What’s going on?” I asked,
“Something’s blown” Dudley replied,
“Do you know what’s blown?”
“Can you fix it?”
“Don’t think so, I only know how to drive these things, not fix ‘em,”
“Shit, me too.”
We stood and debated over what to do about the car. I wasn’t a member of any automotive club and I couldn’t call them if I was anyway, we didn’t know if anyone was after us yet. No cars had stopped to help us but we’d had a hand full of honks. I didn’t want to just leave it at the side of the road, I was sure it’d be spotted and picked up in no time and the authorities would have a foot on our tail. Dudley sat in the front seat and turned the radio on. He tuned the knobs until he came to a news broadcast. He turned the volume up and we wound the windows, listening intently. When the fire was mentioned my eyes grew wide and I could barely hear the sound of the newsreader over the sound of my heart beating through my chest.
“Police are today investigating a fire in Birmingham city centre after a department store burned down in the early hours of the morning. It is suspected that the fire was an act of arson but so far police have no leads, next up, sports”
Dudley clapped his hands; “There we go outlaws, free and easy.” We sighed with relief but at the same time my heart raced and I was excited. Ralun sat back, “Outlaws,” he snorted.
We talked more about what to do with the car. Pushing it was out of the question, it would slow us down and we didn’t have the money to repair it anyway so we decided it would still be best if we didn’t try and call for any sort of help, if they somehow did find out it was us that started the fire that we’d be long gone by the time they figured out who the car belonged to.
We were just outside a small roadside village called Chilton. We weren’t far from London but figured it would smart to stay out of the centre and go around as best we could so we picked up our bags and I said my goodbye to the car that had served me well for the last five years and we began to walk. We climbed over the barrier that ran along the side of the road so we weren’t walking on the hard shoulder and we filed the length of the bank alongside it in a trench that bobbled unevenly. Whenever we came to any sort of bridge or suspended platform we were faced with the treacherous task of dealing with balancing over the narrow beams that ran next to it. With our bags it made this challenge almost impossible and it took nearly an hour to complete three of the damn things safely as the hard shoulder had stopped for the duration of the bridge, so if we decided to bail out and climb over the railings we’d land in the middle of the road and be killed. Ralun struggled, we had to pass slowly and his hand would cramp. He was in the middle and when he stopped it meant I had to too. I could sense Dudley’s frustration and once he was on safe ground again he’d shout instructions like a father watching his bookish son play football.
We walked until we came across another roadside village called World’s End, which lived up to its name. It was the kind of place that didn’t have many visitors other than truckers. We found a small pub and went inside to eat but they didn’t offer much until the kitchen opened in the evening but the barmaid said she’d make an exception after Dudley had charmed her. We ordered bacon sandwiches and beers, this was only to be a short stop and we soon paid our bill and left.
A little further down the road at another village called Chieveley Dudley got talking to a trucker at a service station who agreed to give us a ride a little further East. We scrambled into the cab but Ralun and I had to climb into the cramped sleeping quarters at the top. We sat with our bodies contorted into strange and uncomfortable shapes, praying that the road stayed smooth for when the great beast ran over a bump the whole truck shook like an earthquake and jarred our spines.
We had rode the cab for hours and the sky was entering its twilight, my body was beginning to seize from sitting in that awkward position for so long and I wanted to smoke. The truck driver was coming up to his destination and told us we’d have to jump out before he got there but said he’d leave us in the town of Farnham instead of at the side of the road somewhere.
We climbed out and thanked him for the ride. He waved and left us with a cheerful honk of his horn. We stood and stretched, my back was in stiff agony and Ralun’s legs had cramps. Dudley said we should carry on walking as we were making good time and were now only a few hours away from Dover if we were lucky and got another ride. He said the walking would be good for our bodies, to get used of endurance training and so forth. Having been cramped in that tiny space for the past four hours, Ralun and I protested, ‘We aren’t in the legion yet so let’s take it easy,’ I said. Dudley looked disgusted with us, we looked weak and feeble but he knew we’d only slow him down if we walked much further so he agreed to set up camp for the night somewhere.
He ended up getting his own way as we walked again along a back road leading out of town. The sky was turning black now and the wind was up, I stopped and pulled a ragged blue Harrington jacket out of my case and zipped it up but had to stumble and feel my way along to catch up with the others in the near pitch darkness.
We stopped walking when we heard what sounded like lapping water; we were at the shore of a lake on a large square of yellow grass, even in the darkness when you looked over the horizon you could see patches of it all over the surrounding fields. We didn’t know which lake it was because it was too dark for Dudley to read his map and the wind only made things harder. What made matters worse was that we now had to construct a tent. I hadn’t set one up for around a decade; Ralun had never done it before at all. Dudley pulled out a small lantern and stood barking orders but once again in a fit of frustration ended up taking over as soon as the words had come out of his mouth. I was amazed that he did things so quickly in the dark; he’d had enough practice when he was in the army though and now his skills were being put to good use.
When the tent was up he placed the lantern on the ground and pulled out a travel stove. It was impossible to know how and when he procured most of his possessions, how much he’d stolen or inherited but you were always glad that he had them. He fumbled with it and then produced a tin of pork and beans; ‘Dinner time,’ he said as he poured its contents into the tiny pan. It made a limp slooping sound as it hit the metal floor, and it stank! I’d better get used to this I thought to myself. Dudley lit the burner at the base of the stove with a lighter that all three of us had to huddle around to protect it from the wind. He eventually got the thing lit and turned the heat up. The flame was disappointingly low and it took a long time for the food to cook. To pass the time we played the band game in which somebody would start off with an artist or band and the next person would have to think of another artist who’s name began with the last letter of the previous name and several extensive rounds of ‘who would you do?’
The food was ready and to my surprise it tasted good. For that brief moment that rancid slop was my God in the sky, after six months of sitting on a couch and doing nothing much else the days traveling had come as a shock and I was happy to sit with my friends and let the beans fill my belly. Ralun pulled out his hipflask, a dull and worn tin with his initials, R.A.D, engraved into the front. He took a hit and passed it around, which was filled with brandy and warmed my stomach even more. We sat around for a little longer, still engrossed in our game of ‘who would you do,’ smoking cigarettes and taking hits from the flask until it ran dry. It must have been around 2am before we decided to climb into our sleeping bags and wrestle for room. Dudley pulled the lantern up to his face, the sight of his breath as he spoke was a testament to how cold the night had become, ‘We’ll move as soon as we get up and stop for breakfast somewhere along the way,’ he said as he blew out the light.
It was the kind of night that you could really do with a woman, not for kind of physical gratification, for the night was too cold and the tent too crowded to entertain thoughts like that anyway. So I dreamt of her, holding me close against the wind, singing me into a peaceful rest. She was beautiful. She loved me and I her, even though I didn’t know her yet. Her hair fell over my face as I looked into her big brown eyes and she searched my soul and saw everything, good, bad and ugly and would tell me not to worry, that as long as she was around I could sleep easy. Then I wept silently in her absence. I fell asleep and dreamt about her and when I woke in the mist of the country morning and sat sipping coffee over the stove I wondered if she was out there and had dreamt of me too.
We’d only been on the road a day and already the travelling was becoming tedious. I was no longer carefree and the notion of being on the road had a different connotation for me this time around. I’d travelled a lot in my teens but this was different, I was either running toward or away from something, only I couldn’t decide which. I craved a home, a base, somewhere to lay down the thoughts that floated through my mind like debris in a river.
The soles of my feet felt like they were burning and I had blisters forming around my heels and between the toes. Again Dudley sat checking his map, sipping on the coffee I’d boiled, Ralun stood on the shore of the lake, smoking a cigarette and taking in the view. A small notebook poked out from his back pocket and as he walked he’d take it out, scribble something down and put it back until inspiration came to him again as he nodded his head with a finger aimed to the sky.
The morning was hot, a million miles from the freezing night before and we sat by the camp with bare feet and I let the long grass tickle the skin all the way up to my ankles. Dudley had strewn the map behind him and lay on his back with his shirt off. In the distance we could hear the traffic of the road we’d walked along, over the horizon the yellow patches of grass shone in the sunlight and stood out against the blisteringly bright sky. A police car raced by and turned its siren on for a brief moment, we sat up with a jolt and looked in its direction but it soon passed.
Ralun came running back toward us, waving his hands above his head and shouting something, he’d walked further down the shore but we hadn’t noticed that he’d gone. ‘I found something!’ he said breathlessly, we stood and asked what had gotten him so excited. ‘There’s a boat,’ he said, we looked at him with blank stares but he continued; ‘It’s empty, abandoned, but it looks good, there are paddles too, we could use it, it’s just sat there wide open!’ Dudley looked at me, nodded, and we began packing the tent and supplies away to walk down to where Ralun had seen it.
We half expected it to be gone by the time we arrived but there it was. Rotting, stinking and glorious. We climbed aboard, slowly, to make sure it didn’t sink under our weight, set our bags down and rocked it gently. Dudley seemed intent on making sure it would carry us part of the way at least. It stank and part of the back had broken off. I’d had doubts about my car but this didn’t stand a chance.
Once Dudley was satisfied that it would prevent us from an early bath we adjusted ourselves into position. Dudley and I would row as Ralun’s hand was still giving him jip so he sat at the front facing us. I’d never rowed before, neither had Dudley for that matter but he took to it naturally like he always did. It took us a few strokes to develop a rhythm but once we got going it was actually quite enjoyable. Ralun would intermittently feed us cigarettes and light them for us. He felt bad about not being able to row, he’d ask over and over if we wanted water, ‘pipe down, just enjoy the ride,’ Dudley said.
Ralun did as he said and sat back watching the Surrey towns pass by in the breeze. He closed his eyes and began singing an old jazz tune, which made for a nice accompaniment whilst we worked. My back began to ache and I couldn’t feel my arms. The sun was high and my shirt was drenched with sweat. I had no idea how long we’d been rowing for but it felt like long enough to ask for a short stop. Dudley agreed and we guzzled down a bottle of water.
We sat there in the boat in the middle of the lake as Dudley checked the map. ‘Where are we taking this thing?’ I asked,
‘This canal goes as far as Guildford, we’re gonna have to jump off somewhere,’ Dudley replied. He sat back and thought for a moment, ‘y’know, I could do with a beer he said,’
‘I could do with a few,’ Ralun said,
‘How about we have a night here, before we cross over, we never did get to have one back in Birmingham’. Ralun sat up, as excited as a child in the car on the way to Disneyland, I hadn’t seen him like that for a while so I agreed too, I knew that we could all do with a break and blow off some steam after the last few days.
‘Do either of you know anyone here that we can stay with, if we could get away with not paying for a room then that’d be great,’ Dudley said. I thought for a moment, my heart burned at the thought, I couldn’t breathe, though only momentarily, snapping back to reality the way you do when you’re in bed and get that sudden sensation of falling. ‘I do’ I said, ‘I know someone’.
Sammy was a French girl I’d met when she was studying in Birmingham. We’d been out a few times but she’d left take up a teaching role at a prestigious boarding school after she’d graduated. I told her that I would go with her but at the last minute I panicked and left her waiting at the train station. She’d written to me telling me what a coward I was but at the same time she gave me her number and told me to look her up if I was ever in the area, which I thought strange, considering her anger. I leant over to my bag and opened the zip, riffling through my clothes until I found my black address book. I flicked to S and there it was, I still had her number and told Ralun and Dudley that we could make it all the way to town. Sammy would hopefully give us a place to sleep for the night until we figured what our next move would be. I just hoped that she was still there and wanted to see me.
The boat moved slowly and around 5pm we saw the numbers on the signs for Guildford getting smaller until they vanished altogether. On the horizon we could see a dead end, a large number of barges all docked, facing a promenade. Dudley and I gracefully guided the little vessel into a vacant dock, dropped the oars and roped it to the shore. ‘Maybe it’ll still be here one day,’ he said as he patted himself down. We gathered our things and slipped away quietly, walking along the canal side as the evening work crowd began to fill the bars that ran alongside the waterfront, keeping an eye out for a pay phone.
We found one in the centre of town and I searched for the number in my pocket. I lifted the receiver and felt my pulse race. What if she knew I was involved in blowing up that department store? What if she’d found a lover and couldn’t put us up for the night, what if she’d moved and we then knew no one in town. I dialled the numbers and waited. The phone rang twice before being broken by that familiar voice,
‘Hi, it’s me,’
‘Oh, hi, I didn’t think I’d hear from you again,’
‘Yeah, sorry. Look, I’m in town, can we meet?’
‘Straight to the point huh? I’m at work, give me an hour.’
She gave us directions to a bar close to where she lived and we found the place almost immediately, ordered a round of beers and sat in a booth by the window. Dudley made sure he sat with his back to the wall, ‘Doc Holiday style’ as I called it, something he’d do whenever we were in public places. We stared at the girls through the window who sat outside drinking cider. We drank our beers and I walked over to the bar to order more, ‘Wyatt?’ I heard a voice say, I turned and there stood Sammy. We embraced awkwardly and I looked her up and down, she was stunning, tall, almost as tall as I was at six foot and her blonde hair seemed to be brighter than I remembered. I bought her a drink and ushered her over to the table to introduce her to the others. Dudley stood up, took her hand and bowed, I could see his mind working already. Ralun stood and shook but didn’t bow. We sat talking and told her that we were touring the country and came into town before we headed to London. I wasn’t going to tell her that she was harbouring three fugitives on their way to join the French Foreign Legion to escape all their troubles. I kept catching her glancing at m
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