Short story – George takes the Biscuit
This is the story of George. A shorter version was published earlier this year in Dundee New Writers 6. I can’t thank them enough for their support and encouragement.
The loner is a regular fixture in art and literature.
One day I learned about a tramp, found dead outside a London station. No one had any idea who he was, not even a nickname. Enquiries were made but there was no breakthrough. The man was buried by the City Council and forgotten. Years later a note arrived from the Garda (Irish police) saying they had identified the man by his fingerprints. He had been arrested for stealing a pint of milk in rural Ireland decades before.
The following story is about George, one of these lonely, shambling men:
To the regulars he is George. He shuffles along the path, bulging carrier bags scrunched in his knuckles, feet splayed like a penguin. He wears a donkey jacket and a candy-striped woolly hat, despite the sticky heat. A loose sole on his shoe hangs like a dog’s tongue, slapping against the flagstones. He stops for breath, leaning on a post outgrown by a sapling. The soil in the borders is parched and dusty. There are rutted tracks where boys have raced Matchbox cars in figures of eight round the rose bushes. George gasps and his chest rattles. He checks no one is looking and hawks a ball of phlegm. It spatters the earth gathering grit as it rolls. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, takes a deep breath and trudges on, wobbling from side to side with his stuffed bags as counterweights. He heads for the bridge in the park. The bridge is painted chalky white. It bears a brass plaque from its opening by Alderman Sidney. Its gentle arch reflects in the ripples of the shallow river. George grips the cool stone with his pudgy fingers and leans out. A family of ducks traces a path between the reeds. A road sign lies rusting in the ridged sand of the riverbed. It has the Men at Work symbol on it. Students, George thinks. The ducks thread their way past a drifting cider bottle in search of bread crusts. Duck Patrol, George calls them. He likes to make little jokes to cheer people up. As a young man George had quite the reputation for being a joker.
‘Here’s George,’ people would say.
A trace of yolk
Back in those days George was a street-sweep. But it was a long time ago and his back put paid to all that. George scratches the corner of his mouth where his razor has missed. Under his fingernail is a trace of yolk from last night’s egg and chips. He is plagued by mouth ulcers and probes his gums with the tip of his tongue. He closes his eyes, lets the morning sun bathe his forehead and sighs. A car toots its horn outside the law courts. A distant train rattles into town squealing across the points. A pigeon ruffles its feathers and pecks at a dropped cornet. A baby shrieks for its bottle.
‘I know how you feel, kid,’ George mutters.
His belly growls beneath his machine-knitted sweater. George doesn’t eat at home. Years of early starts means he doesn’t need an alarm. Each morning shafts of sunlight pierce the stitches in the thick velvet curtains and George blinks, reaching for his teeth. He drains a tumbler of tap water and pops codeine for his back. Radio One booms through the wall. Minutes later he’s out of the house.
He shuffles along the bridge, taking care to avoid a melted lolly. He slumps onto the bench opposite the bandstand, stretching his arms along the back – the way you did with a girl at the pictures. The bench has been freshly painted a shade of nut brown. George wonders what happened to bottle green gloss. There was a time when everything in parks was painted bottle green. Someone has etched crosses into the new paint with a blade. George lifts one of his bags onto the seat and rustles inside. A teenage boy and girl are holding hands under a nearby willow. The boy is gaunt with sharp cheekbones and a pale face. He sniffs. George has a stiff neck. He’s smeared wintergreen and camphor where he can reach and trails the smell like a racehorse. The teenagers frown and gather their folders and head back to college. The boy’s faded black jeans are belted halfway down his backside. His girl wears a cropped checked shirt. She glances back at George and giggles. He gives her a regal wave.
‘Cracking bit of crumpet,’ George says. ‘You look after her now.’
Sent to Korea
The boy glares at him and throws an arm over his girlfriend’s shoulder. George shrugs. He’s a boy acting the man, just like George was when they sent him to Korea. The boy flicks a cigarette from the packet and lights up. It’s a practiced motion, but the boy fumbles.
‘Sad old bastard,’ he mutters.
George doesn’t hear. He reaches into his carrier bag, rustles about and lifts out a thick square of silver foil. He’s cut thick doorsteps from the last of the loaf and smeared dripping on, lacing it with salt. George salivates as the foil crinkles at his fingertips.
‘Nice day for it, George!’ He winces as he turns sharply. ‘It always a nice day for it,’ he calls.
But Trevor passes in a blur. Trevor delivers the post in the High Street. He whizzes past George in a dizzying blur of pedals and spokes, his red and navy Royal Mail satchel swinging behind. George wishes Trevor would stop to chat. George would like to pick Trevor’s brains about his post round. Is the High Street round the prize, coveted one? What are the hazards for a postman? George guesses corns and bunions. And he’d love to hear Trevor’s war stories about dogs. ‘The Royal Mail must get through,’ Trevor says, and mimics blowing a trumpet as he wheels past. George scrunches the foil shut and drops it into the bag. He licks his lips, needing something to wash it down.
‘I’m spitting feathers,’ he says.
Wet teaspoons in the sugar
He picks up his bags and trudges to Carol’s cafe. Carol is setting out scones and fairy cakes in a cloud of steam. She’s had her hair done in a frizzy perm. She doesn’t see him and turns her back to tend to the boiler. George creeps up to the counter and waits. He smiles, seeing Carol has put out an old ice-cream carton for used teabags. It’s one of his little suggestions. She has also sorted separate mugs for wet and dry teaspoons. He doesn’t think this is a good idea. It relies on people keeping wet teaspoons out of the sugar bowl and that’s never going to happen.
‘Surprise, surprise,’ George says as Carol turns. ‘Morning George,’ she replies, without looking up. She wipes the counter in an S, collecting spilled sugar in a cupped hand. ‘Cup of rosy,’ George chimes.
She slides a mug across the counter. She asks new customers whether they want a cup or mug, but George gets the same chipped little mug with the blue cornflowers each time. George heaps three sugars in and gives it a good stir. He dinks the mug twice with the teaspoon so it rings like a bell. ‘Seconds out, round three,’ he says.
Carol watches him while she dries a saucer. George leans on the counter, smearing the clean surface, chin in his pudgy hands.
‘What are you hiding down there for, Cyn?’ Cynthia helps out in summer. She puts a tinned dish of water out front for the regulars’ dogs.
‘The fridge doesn’t load itself,’ she says.
A man coughs. George steps aside and ushers him forward with a theatrical bow. The man wears a spotted handkerchief in a linen jacket. George sniffs. He’s never liked snappy dressers. Flash Harry types, he calls them. Flash Harry asks for two teas.
‘Sugar’s over there,’ Carol says, handing over a cup and saucer.
‘I’m sweet enough, love,’ he replies.
Cynthia snorts with laughter. She runs a hand through her hair. George frowns and retreats with his mug. He heads for the shelter where the clock is stuck at five to ten. The thatched roof has been charred by a stray cigarette. He finds a spot where the sun has bleached the bench. The paint is chapped and cracked. George shifts his bum along so the heat seeps into his bones. He opens the foil and bites into his sandwich. The bread is dry and hard, so George takes a swig of his tea.