. . Old Avenger is being led into the number five post. Riding on board is the jockey in two shades of blue and he’ll be racing as a major underdog here today. The atmosphere is buzzing with excitement now as we near the start. It seems like all of the horses are into the gate and in line and, wait, yes… there goes the bell and here we go!
It was raining outside. The old man was sat in the corner of the coffee shop staring into his mocha latte, the vapors warming his face. He was yet to take a slurp. He’d unpacked his tattered old radio from his satchel and placed it in front of him on the table. It had seen a lot, the radio. The steel of the aerial was bent and stuck in place with a binding of masking tape and glue. The volume knob was gone, lost to a long ago; and one of the speakers hung loose from its socket causing it to distort. He looked briefly at the waitress, her hair and curves, and the nodding heads sat opposed at the myriad tables. Rings of worlds still whole. Like the radio, the old man’s mind was distorted in the atmosphere. Phantoms he’d never known to exist had risen from the mists of his mind but an hour ago and were dancing enjoined with glee in a macabre ballet. They had smeared grins and their bodies were wisps of black streaking along his frontal lobe with ineffable grace, circling wisp to wisp in mantric song.
He knew of names for these ghouls: philosophy, religion, spirituality, conscience. People had created so many of them over the millennia, but now he knew they were all one of the same thing. Poor Kurtz knew it at the last, no one was immune. Incredibly, plenty of people dance with them early in their lives before they really need to. Embracing them with a somewhat Faustian uneasiness. Poets and writers for instance, those of the church too, make a decent living from immortalizing their activity – materializing their presence. But if anyone on the face of the planet could have avoided them, it was the old man sat at the coffee table that evening. Born to die
The waitress wandered over. She was all ivory and gold and spoke in an accent. Probably from Ukraine, he thought. Lots of them were in the city, their names scribbled beyond the dotted line. Would you want coffee? More, more? she asked, brandishing the pot like a weapon. He analyzed her gaze: it was glacial, unblinking, and in the manner that only those children of the eastern bloc can know, those who can make a stone bleed and dance. Even for a choice as banal as this her stare had been groomed for generations never to falter. But he saw something. He caught from the wall a twitch of her small mouth as if to underline the gravity of what she was asking. If only she asked something different with the same pitiless intent. This can’t hide your loneliness my ice queen. What goes on in that little foreign head of yours – I should be foreign – amongst this rabble whose nuance you’ll never understand and certainly never love. Why are you here? Will you love me?
He looked back longingly into her wide blue eyes, not able even at the very end to converse, to woo, to blackmail, to ravish – to prop and people his fantasy and take her into the back kitchen and sink within the enigma of her slender waist.
He turned cravenly back to his coffee without answering. He felt her presence and the cascade of that stare a few moments longer before she gave a low uuummph and tottered off in between the tables, drawling her alien tongue under her breath.
You could suppose that the old man had led a divisive life, if only recently. It was one that fundamentally fractured only an hour ago in the consultancy ward of a hospital, and subsequently, in the creamed swirl of a mocha latte. Before that life was one of routine, a retired plumber: he got up, made a brew, ambled to the bookies, lost on the dogs and the horses, roamed to the tavern, spirited himself away to fumes and the paralysis of empty nostalgia. Then he staggered home – home was a two-room flat in a council tower overlooking the unspectacular – ate a microwave meal, watched telly, unwound to porn, then limped to his bed. He was one who existed on the earth, gazing at the world indifferently with eyes on stalks. A crustacean scuttling from the shadows of rock to rock not sad or lonely or confident or mysterious, just alive.
He took one of his hands from the cranium of the coffee mug and fingered the old radio into life. A shrill voice streamed from it amidst a constant crackle and buzz. Talking heads from the other tables glanced over with steel in their eyes and frowned before falling back into their worlds.
. . And already they near the completion of the first half of this grand circuit and the leading pack have formed a strong lead and trailing them still is Old Avenger at the back of the field as expected. His rider onboard is whipping frenzily, trying to get his horse into gear, get it moving. I’m sure the board will be taking a retrospective look at this after the race, but he’s got to do something to inject some life into it . .
The illness had been consuming him for two years now but for only one hour was he aware of its presence, the thing buried deep in his loins. He had come to the coffee shop straight from the hospital. It was newly built, a super-hospital the local press so indelicately called it upon its unveiling: large and domed. It replaced the old royal one close to town and the old man had to get two buses to make the journey. He’d sensed by the phone call they were not going to merely advise more vitamins.
A Dr Tambling broke the news, a square faced man of mid-thirty or so who seemed garishly joyous with the world he worked in. He smiled a Hollywood smile and was flanked by two pretty but reticent underlings. His hair was expensively cut, his back straight, shoulders square, and he held a penetrative but casual gaze that looked through you to titles and awards and leggy dolls looking for ‘Doctors’. The old man disliked him. He opened his arms and invited him into the consultancy room. Would you desire a tea or coffee? he asked. Desire. No he wouldn’t, so he began. Okay Mr Davison, I’m afraid we have your test results back..
The next moments remain a blur, rather like a scene from a drama sitcom or the movies where they point the camera at the Doctor staring straight back from the perspective of the poor soul he’s condemning.
Then it unfolds like this: the scene is fast-forwarded so the Doctor convulses with alien speed, he is stood still but his arms jut and bend spontaneously like a beetle rolling dung, his eyes gaped wide, white and shatteringly still – as still as the drones either side of him paining their wooden features, straining to look sympathetic – and his lips puck and quiver like some animal furrowing in the dirt to a high-pitched rabble and all you, the patient, can hear is your own narrating consciousness commenting on the very scene patiently and catching from the miasma the ostensibly grand but dreadful sounding nouns of medic-speak. This was how it went for the old man. The moment introspection dawns on even the most idle.
The Doctor stood firm with his invincible ease and entered into the crescendo, his hands now knotted together in front of him, crafting the stark of the truth with pearls he threw into the air called “prostate glands,” “radiation,” “hormonal treatment” and the odd piece of coal like “infertility,” – not that he cared about that. And then grabbing more pearls called “battle” and “desire” and “prolong” and juggling the clichés in with the medical jargon, arcing the deathly mist thickening the room, a drawn grin on his otherwise contemptible face as he performed his tired act of rallying the patient in the same suave and declarative manner that he’ll, only hours later, pronounce a death to desperate colleagues over a corpsed bed in ICU; praising their effort and “all they could” but whistling the tune of mortality and how it is that some things are dictated and unfortunately “that’s life” before going home to sip a glass of red and screw a beauty over his four-poster. His act was as flawless as ever as he looked at just another coffin-dodger dead in the eye and composed his sonnet on existence before bringing it to its grand and exhilarating climax: Terminal, he said.
The old man was sat down holding a betting slip in both hands and he felt only the cold of the chair through his chinos. The talking head drifted somewhere after that, leaving Davison alone with the density of life. The room was quiet but he could see through the double-glazed glass the ward outside in its daily tumult, the doctors, nurses, interns all leaned over countless horizontals, examining their plight. Pipes and instruments protruded from different coloured flesh, searching for souls. The immutable buzz of energy light bulbs, the panorama of endless, blinding white, and high ceilings, impersonal and alien but animate. The whole place looked seemingly alive as if the architecture of it was itself some great, fatted beast breathing in death as people rushed around in white coats baying to its gluttonous command. Agents and workers to the harvest.
The inks of the betting slip rubbed blue onto the old man’s thumb and forefinger as he absorbed the news. He’d put the bet down on the way to the hospital, a horse called Old Avenger. His usual stake of five quid. He broke the silence with a trembling croak.
Fifteen to one, he said. Three miles, two furlongs, good to soft. And he had an operation a week ago too, trainer said he wasn’t breathing well in his last race. Good earner if it comes through.
He sat nodding. The Doctors looked sheepishly at one another before the old man stood up. He crossed to the window and stood gazing out. A row of elms were swinging in the wind and the sky behind them was softly streaked in a burning crimson over the roofs of the city. It was so peaceful and distant from the glass on the other side of the room and he felt something rise. A single, crystal tear presumed extinct – melted from the dewed orb of the old man’s left eye and clung to a withered lash, hanging a moment before it plunged down onto the tweed of his cardigan. Erm, Mr St Clair? the Doctor asked quizzically. He turned from the window and placed his tartaned flat cap over his head, shaping and cocking it before walking toward the main lobby and the exit, drowned in his world entire. Where are you going? they said. The Doctors watched him leave.
He slept briefly on the bus back into town. The image he’d created of his cancer raged in the dream: he was drowning in the black of the Atlantic during a great storm, foam was crashing over his head and he battled against the ocean’s beat bobbing between the depths and the surface. He was watching a cruise liner only a few miles distant shaking violently within the swell as screams funneled from its portholes. The screams mingled with the horn and the groans of the dying boat and the crash of snapped metal reverberated from under the sea. They grew louder. He’d just resurfaced from another wave, gasping, his lungs and eyes flooded with salt, when he saw them towering high through the murk. Two great tentacles battening the air. Spawned in the deep colds and now rising from the sea to languidly wrap them around the girth of the vessel. The giant squid was at least thirty times larger than those measured by man and was slowly disemboweling the boat from underneath: its serrated cups sucking air tight against the polished steel of the hull, mated against it. The vessel rocked and swung and glinted under starlight until it swung no more and the squid performed the death roll, its great mass appearing for only a few seconds jellied and greyed by the murk. It spun exposed to the moon and the old man could see the two glassed eyes of the beast mute and godless. He saw it clearly; saw its gills contracting with air. Saw its anus inked and black. And he saw its beak, a relic of myth, hungrily shredding the metal which twisted from its mouth, winnowing the bits of viscera it didn’t want and which were carried away with the tide to become rafts for the stranded wailing on top of them. The scene submerged beneath the surface to silence and oblivion.
This was where the dream ended, where he woke up against the cold glass of the bus window. But he didn’t need to know the next episode for it was clear in his mind what the squid was to consume after the ocean liner, it lay between his legs.
. . and now as they come galloping into the home straight we have five riders separated by less than a length. This could be one of the great finishes, one of the great races. All but one jostling for glory with only one fence left and here they all are the fearsome quintet. They all make it safely over the fence and on they go, triumph in sight. And.. oh a faller! We have a faller! So we’ve lost one, Old Avenger in a desperate blunder has gone at the final fence and is stricken on the floor. The jockey is down too, neither of them moving. Old Avenger, having never threatened at all in this race has gone down at the last. He is out! He is out! HE IS OUT!
Hours then passed in the coffee shop and day sank into night. The betting slip lay limp on the table and the old man looked around at the emptiness and the cluster of waitresses grouped at the counter, leaning with unease as they eyeballed the stranger. He stood from the table with his hat in his hand, and walked quietly over to the exit leaving the untouched latte to congeal and the radio to crackle into eternity.
Once outside he lit a fag and looked out from the pavement, a swinging anvil with medieval lettering proclaiming the coffee shop creaked to and fro overhead. The night was alarming and he looked up with sad eyes and leveled the cigarette at the brightest star to the north. He pointed it upwards in his eye line so the end of it burnt in a quadrant of space next to the star. Considering, musing: noting its nooks and crannies with a summarizing eye. It was winter. It was black. It was endless. The stars seemed brighter than they had before, at least to him. And the outer reaches of his cone of vision, that haze that can so bewitch a man with ghosts of nature and memory, conjured silver lines of half-ling comets soaring to other destinies he didn’t know were true or not. It was as if the sky was traced with spider silk and the spider was hiding clamped to the dark side of the moon, as stealthy as his cancer.
He shivered from the chill. The wind was bitter and invisible and it clawed at his face, whistling along the deltas of his wrinkles. He saw it propel congregations of exploded clouds that were pale and blue and clung together in disparate anatomies and speeding westwards in a faint whoosh. They knew something.
He threw the fag to the fate of the world and wandered in the direction of nowhere in particular. The street lonely and his to rule. He cried as he walked, reckoning aspects of life and nature, not just himself and the sudden startling awareness of time – the great deadline; but passions of people, his enjoyments: sports, a treacle pudding, birdsong, the daughter he abandoned. Each, however casually enjoyed by the subconscious over the endless and immortal years now raged as beacons more blinding than the dots above and with an orderly line marshaled and formed strictly behind them. Time so nearly up. This was why he looked up at the night sky, not to whine and ball over the beauty of it but staring at it, into it, stripped bare of all its tags of mystery and cliché and the fraud of romanticism. He saw everything plainly for the first time at the very end: the unconditional breath of the cosmos, the nightingale singing from a veined leaf, a rugger ball cutting the air. The round faces gobbling up sugary treacle and his nameless child bouncing through a field to play, the petals of daffodils holding her knees. He walked down the lonely pavement and into the blackness until his existence was visible no longer. Consumed in annihilation. Everything would stumble on without him.