Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Resurrection Bureau - Part 4

‘Eddie?’ Betty Weywood’s voice curled out at Halcyon like a cat’s tongue. ‘I had a dream about you last night.’
Halcyon turned and looked into Bettie Weywood’s wicked brown eyes – but oddly, the sensation he felt was not his usual one of vague erotic embarrassment, but a thrill of fear. ‘Um. Right, err...’
‘I dreamt you were speaking to a very old man by a very hot fire,’ purred Betty.
‘And did he have a cat?’ chipped in Emily.
‘A cat,’ Vera cackled. ‘And a robin too.’
Betty nodded, her large brown eyes never moving from Halycon’s, ‘A red, red robin,’ she breathed.
A red, red robin. If you get in trouble, whispered an old voice in Halcyon’s mind, do tell a robin.
The old man in the Titanic deckchair – how had he forgotten that?
‘How did you...’ he began, and a smell so noxious and noisome that Halycon felt his voice melt as if by airborne acid, surrounded him. The Weywood sisters all wrinkled their nose of various sizes and designs and leant back on their exercise bikes. ‘Hello Jack,’ said Emily as cheerily as possible.
‘Sorry son, I missed the bus,’ said Mr Tree. He was dressed in a white tracksuit splotched with grey, yellow and brown stains, a brown woollen suit jacket and a brown cloth cap. Halcyon did not want to guess at how Mr Tree had acquired those stains, but the funky smell that permanently surrounded him was a pretty good indication. ‘Any chance of a cuppa?’ he asked hopefully.

Thursday was always one of Halcyon’s busiest days, with back to back clients, starting with Mr Tree (stroke) then Mr Charles (heart attack) Mr Fyne (fractured pelvis) and finishing with Mr Trump (heart bypass, stroke, arthritis). Inevitably all of their sessions overran, or one or more of them was late, or didn’t turn up at all, which usually meant a 30 minutes phone chase for a nephew, niece, son or daughter who usually managed to stay just on the right side of exasperated and shared all of their woes with Halcyon. Halcyon really didn’t mind. He knew he could get a job at a better gym in town relatively easily, probably with more money, but he liked the old and damaged men who came to see him at Sam’s, no matter how bad their lives outside, once inside the gym it was his job to help them.
Debbie had considered his job demeaning; even though she had grudgingly acknowledged that it was “a good thing” that he was helping out those recovering from various illnesses. That was the thing about Debbie, he had realised, she was ninety per cent horrible – cold, mean spirited, thoughtless and selfish – but there had always been that ten per cent of her that had been thoughtful, kind and forgiving. But, Halcyon had begun to realised even before Debbie met Clive and his black windowed Cleo, it was very hard work loving ten per cent of someone.
So the day had passed at its usual awkward and exhausting pace at Sam’s Gym and Solarium and it wasn’t until Halcyon had stepped out of the Day-Glo green door and back into the rain that he remembered the old man in the deckchair again.
‘Eddie Ambrosius,’ he murmured, ‘middle name definitely not trouble.’
It was funny how he had forgotten about the old man. It wasn’t the usual ten pint black out forgetfulness either. Halcyon, though undoubtedly drunk at the time, remembered what had happened with perfect clarity – the old man and his tale of Titanic, the island of cat headed-women and dog-headed men, his cat Bas and the little red robin – but the memory seemed slippery somehow. The moment he stopped thinking about it the memory seemed to ping to the back of his brain as if attached to the inside of his skull by elastic, and it was very hard to start to remember it again.
Halcyon crossed the road to Sign’s Paper shop and General Dealers, the only other shop or house on the windblown hill where Sam’s gym sat, and bought a local paper. Mr Sign asked him again (as he did at least twice a week) how much it was to join the gym and what the opening times were, and assured Halcyon that he would pop in next week, and Halcyon assured him that he would give Mr Sign a tour round – though both men knew it would never happen. It was just one of those curious conversations you had with people you didn’t know, but, because you saw them every day, you felt you had to be polite to them.
Halcyon crossed back over the road and waited for his bus. He didn’t take his paper out of his pocket – he bought it out of force of habit and barely ever read it – but simply stared blankly ahead thinking about the funny old man with the forked beard and the tea cosy hat until his bus came.
He did not notice the headline on the newspaper hording outside the shop – it read simply:

‘Tetley? Did you see me talking to that old man last night?’
Tetley paused in the act of counting his change (a considerable challenge for Tetley at the best of times) and squinted at Halcyon around his smoking cigarette. ‘What? Old Joe, you mean?’
‘No, not him.’ Old Joe lived a semi-permanent existence under the Bitter Drayman’s dart board, a flat cap on his head and a toothless grimace indelibly on his face, as he strove to completely ignore the darts whizzing over his head, and on occasion landing in his beer. ‘I am that old man I was talking to in the garden?’
Tetley sighed and held out his hand to Halcyon, who quickly counted his change. ‘Fine,’ he confirmed. Tetley dropped his change in his jeans pocket. ‘I didn’t see no old fella. You was sitting in that garden in front of a smoking fire. Did I get those smoky bacon?’
‘In your pocket,’ Tetley gave a grunt as he discovered the crisp packet, and picked up the two pints off the counter. ‘But there was an old man there in the garden with me?’ Halcyon persisted as they walked back to the pool table together.
‘What was that, Ghost?’ asked Jaffa, taking his pint from Tetley.
‘I was just asking Tetley if he saw me talking to that old man in the garden last night,’ Halcyon said.
‘Man, you were steaming last night,’ Jaffa chuckled. He took a slurp from his pint. ‘Where are my crisps?’
‘So you didn’t see any old man?’ Halcyon asked as Tetley threw Jaffa’s crisps to him.
‘These aren’t barbecue beef!’ Jaffa exclaimed.
‘You asked for smoky bacon,’ Tetley replied.
‘You daft git, I asked for barbecue beef!’
‘No you bloody didn’t!’
Halcyon sighed and made his way around the table to where Young Brian sat in the shadowed alcove smoking a yellow cigarette, his hands shaking slightly. ‘Cheers, Eddie,’ Young Brian took his pint and Halcyon sat.
‘Did you see that old man I was talking to last night?’ Halcyon asked.
Young Brian frowned beneath his mop of curling hair. He took a sip of his pint. He took a drag on his cigarette. ‘I don’t remember that,’ he said at last. Young Brian, Halcyon knew, was fiercely intelligent, but took great care to both hide the fact, and also to damage as many brain cells as humanly possible with both alcohol and various other substances. He was sort of odd, but in a relaxed, likeable way. For instance, Young Brian never looked at you when he spoke to you, except when in the extremes of drunkenness (a frequent event) or when being extremely serious (an extremely rare event). But when he did speak it was with such languid humour that no one seemed to mind. And Young Brian was extraordinarily handsome, almost femininely beautiful, and as much as he scruffed down beneath his curly hair, his unshaven chin and his misshapen t-shirts and jeans his good looks were impossible to disguise. Halcyon had known Young Brian since secondary school, had known his dad Old Tom who had been a friend of his foster family, and though he loved him like a brother, could not help but feel slightly jealous of his good looks and easy manner. You could not help but feel slightly eclipsed by Young Brian, even though Young Brian himself would have been mystified and slightly annoyed if you ever told him so.
‘Was there something about a bird?’ Young Brian asked suddenly. ‘A bird sitting on a cat’s head? Really? I thought I’d dreamt that.’
Yes, that cat was called Bas. It belonged to the old man, he was called Eddie Ambrosius.’
‘Ambrosius?’ Young Brian raised an eyebrow, and took a slow sip of his pint, and a slow drag on his yellow cigarette. ‘That was Merlin’s name.’
‘Yeah, you know, Merlin. King Arthur’s court. Merlin, maker of saints, slayer of dragons and witches. Merlin, who put the sword in the stone, and brought Arthur back from death—‘
‘I bloody know who bloody Merlin is, don’t I!’ Halcyon exclaimed in exasperation. ‘Do you think that old man was Merlin, then?’
Young Brian grunted. ‘If he was Merlin I’m Saint Lancelot,’ he replied. ‘Still, it’s not exactly a common name, is it, Ambrosius? What did he say to you?’


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