Joseph Collins’ latest obssession was the litter that peppered the paths and roads of our city, so much so, he eventually wanted the outside to be even cleaner than his own lounge carpet. The littlest tab from a beer-can wedged between the pavement slabs was enough to knock him off his rocker in the neatest rage. He did not actually give himself the task of removing the detritus, but, possessing a pocket-sized narrow-feint notebook - one that was purchased for 37½p from his favourite emporium with the ancient aroma of childhood treats - he was able to enscribe an aide mémoire - almost a map - of where the different throwaway items lay or lodged. He then gave this notebook to long-suffering Annie, expecting her to venture out late at night with dustpan and handbroom - but, of course, not before she had done the housework at home.
Fortunately for Annie, his obsession only raged for a week, during which time she managed to pull the wool over his eyes by taking herself off to the makeshift shed at the bottom of the garden. She spent the small hours there when she was meant to be scouring the streets. Furthermore, this being a very windy period - trade winds gusting fitfully upon the gulf stream - the assorted flotsam and jetsam were naturally made into fresh meaningful patterns by break of light. Joseph was then able to draw up revised maps of what he considered to be a quite different crop of litter.
Upon this obsession eventually becoming merely a memory, Annie still escaped to the shed, come bedtime. She really liked the comfy deckchair she had set up there and, being an unusually mild winter, it was preferable to sleeping with Joseph’s snoring log of a body next to her. And who could have blamed her? He had told her that his new preoccupation was to count her body hair and, with tweezers, pluck out sufficient to bring the grand total remaining to exactly one thousand. Annie threatened to fetch her mother home, since her mother would have lots of old woman’s long curly sort of hairs that he could pluck. But Joseph was on to a new plane of obsession: imitating the state of death, like a ventriloquising corpse. He should have gone on the stage (and he did after Annie finally left him) and on the stage there was plenty of mileage in such acts, since the stand-up comedians had lost their voices in face of the competition from television.
When the applause sounded out, Joseph tried to count each individual clap - including those of the two one-armed chaps sitting next to each other in the front stalls. The more popular Joseph became - advertised as the only comic who could die every night - the more difficult it became to differentiate the various constituents of the audience’s ovations. However, when his popularity eventually waned, the audience threw ill-separated mushy leftovers from their shopping-bags upon the voiceless dummy which he had left as scapegoat and decoy on the stage - whilst Joseph himself crouched in the prompting-booth desperately trying to itemise the muck that spilled over from the stage. The two ladies, who looked uncannily similar to his memory of Annie and her mother, did not throw anything at the stage, but only because they had nothing to hand except, of course, their wigs.
Many years before, more than even Joseph could count, he courted Annie, with a vengeance. She need weaning from her own beliefs...
“Can you be more specific?” asked the priest.
“I don’t know how I can, because God is the most unspecific thing to talk about,” the woman’s voice replied.
“Just try, my dear, and I’ll be listening.”
“Promise you’ll be listening then, Father Arthur, even if I close my eyes and think there’s nothing in existence except myself.”
“I promise - don’t worry your little head about whether I am here or not - I’ll be listening come what may.”
“How long can you give me, Father?”
“Till you finish, Annie.”
“How can anyone actually finish talking about God?”
The Confessional grille separated the two voices. The fitful silence of the church was overbearing. The trappings seemed to move of their own volition as the rippling light stained the flags.
Joseph, hearing the voices in the distance, knelt upon a hassock amid the pews, making pretence of prayer. But he knew he had brought Annie here and was waiting for her interview with the Pope’s puppet to finish. Joseph was scathing of anything religious except God Himself. Joseph wondered if Father Arthur could sleep at night. Annie’s words from behind the purple drapes were not undergrunted but sharp-keyed and precise enough to reveal a relentless self-unwrapping which she punctuated with the clicking together of her stilletoes. Joseph’s own tongue clicked to himself in unison. His own ears burned in Hellfire.
“God is in everything,” continued Annie. “I often feel Him inside me, larger than life. In the clouds, too. Are you still listening? I hope so. So if God is in everything, each one of us is in turn a part of God. Even the greatest sinner owns a little bit of God.”
There was nothing in response from Father Arthur. Annie’s voice itself was strangely squeaky, almost unreal in the heady incense-laden air. Joseph progressed on all fours down the aisle towards the Confessional, knowing he would need to figure in her words sooner or later. After all, he was her sin, so surely he had the right to be party to its absolution.
Joseph recalled the horn-rimmed glasses he had tenderly removed from her face, rather than risk breaking them. Her eyes had spoken of a nudity far more significant than that of a whole body’s bareness: even greater than death’s final disvestment. Joseph had licked the tears away. She must have then realised that the virginity she had painstakingly preserved for God Himself was in mortal danger. He had ridiculed the spuds in her ankle socks, when he removed her spinsterly shoes. She was remarkably open-hearted with the goodnight kiss she had granted him. Tomorrow, she would confess this failure towards God - then she and Joseph would be free to marry and have children. He had helped burn her nun’s weeds in the back garden, making the sky accept the smoke like a blessing. He shook his head in an attempt to eliminate this memory.
Without premeditation, Joseph tugged aside one half of the purple drapes. He wanted to put his side of the story. The thus revealed Father Arthur turned with the abruptness of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“What do you think you’re doing, Joseph?”
“I belong in this confession. I need to clear up the litter of its loose ends.”
“Another’s sins are for God’s ears alone.”
Joseph winced. So, the Priest was the wearer of God’s ears, was he?
“But her sins are me.”
“You have no right...”
“Do you mean I have neither a right to be her sin nor to be party to its absolution?” Joseph’s ironic tone was lost on Father Arthur.
“Joseph, let go! You’re so compulsive!” chimed in Annie from behind her side of the drapes. “Leave us, your turn will come later. I need to understand God to the very bottom before I surrender Him for you. You will own the rest of my life, so let me have these last few precious moments with God my once intended.”
“God is always with you, whatever you may offer Him, be it the whole of your being or just part of it,” said Father Arthur, turning back to the grille with the crack of brittle bones. “You are not surrendering God, merely postponing Him.”
With a lump in his throat, Joseph closed the drapes, to conceal Father Arthur who, if his face bore any emotion at all, was riven with mindless fright. The words belied the priest’s ashen demeanour. God could no longer ensure that the lips synchronised - nor the sin absolved. As a feminine grunt of sorrow sounded, Joseph opened the other side of the drapes to remind him that there was nobody there, or nobody as a whole - only a squirming pile of maggoty meat glistening in the light which slanted like translucent girders from the stained gass windows. Joseph went home to tidy up the rest of Annie.
Uncountable years beyond, Joseph drove along Brown Street, hoping to find it led into the road he wanted. The map said it did. So, hope was a bit unnecessary. He wore a mackintosh whatever the weather, mainly because it had huge pockets. His mission on this drizzly day was one of ghost-spotting. This was his latest obsession, ever since Annie returned to him as a memory - a memory he had failed to recognise until it had donned its wig. But then it disappeared.
So, yes, he believed in ghosts. Black ones. White ones. Smoky grey ones. He had heard told of a whole clutch of sickly ones in a cul de sac which led off from Brown Street. Whether they actually laid about on the cobbles coughing or had a roof over their heads in the two-up-two-downs was uncertain.
He was unexpectedly forced from Brown Street into one called Lloyd Street Gardens which did not seem to be on his map at all. It seemed to be the only way he could drive following the one-way arrows - not a proper cul de sac, because he could see an escape route where two back-alleys joined forces, further down. Albeit narrow, he could see it was possible to take the width of a car.
He pulled up outside some well-kept terraced housing, with bowls of flowers in their bay windows. The exteriors had been spruced up with front doors which would have been far more suitable for posher joints. Some sported storm-porches that Joseph was convinced were bigger than some of the rooms inside - or, in one incredible example, roomier than the whole house itself. A broad-shouldered lady stared at him from her postage stamp of a front garden. Joseph stared back. But why stare so hard?
He gained confidence from his high-collared, knee-length mackintosh. There was nothing she could have on him. In fact, he probably knew more about her than she did him, because he had seen where she lived. That gave him even more confidence.
He strolled over, stretching out the map: “It says Tipping Street down here...”
She continued with her gardening, which consisted of prodding the soil with a dibbler and dropping a large seed into each hole. The biggest seed Joseph had ever seen. He started humming a song called Four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire in mock lilt. He could see she had not been at it long, nor had she much more to do.
“It says Lloyd Street Gardens up on the side of that house,” he said, as if it were her fault.
“Tipping Street’s just round the corner,” she said as she stood up again, hands placed on the small of her back.
Wisps of wig had fallen over her eyes which she did not bother to brush aside. Joseph scratched his head as he pored over the map. It was admittedly a little out of date, but all these streets looked pre-first world war in any event, and they probably didn’t have televisions in the parlours - despite the wire spokes decking the chimneystacks.
“You’ve got to go down there.” She pointed with her own wiry finger along a side road that he had not previously noticed. “Turn left at Bold Street, follow along Byrom for its full length, and the road forking both ways is Tipping.” She hesitated. “The car will do you no good, though.” She took one of the fat seeds from her apron pocket, placed it under her tongue and, in an irritating fashion, as some people do, sucked noisily upon it like a boiled sweet. Joseph returned to his car, not bothering to say anything further to the likes of such a creature. He cursed, upon spotting a traffic warden who was now peering at his windscreen. The double yellow lines had been painted under the tyres of his car’s nearside wheels since he had parked it.
“I won’t be troubling you,” he said, “I’m just off.”
“Hey, wait a mo-mo, I’ve a good mind to lay a ticket on you, mate.” She too jabbed with her sharpened spoke of a fingernail. Joseph thought: give them a uniform and they think you’re desperate for a dose of good old humiliation!
“I”ve only been here thirty seconds,” he remonstrated.
“Thirty seconds is a long time to someone who is dying,” said the seed lady who had left her garden to join them. “Yes, mister, you might think it boring to wash a potato in the kitchen sink, under the rattling cold tap. But you should cherish every moment, every eye and nodule of its substance. You should savour every second of life for what it is and relish, as I say, even the scrubbing of an earthy spud, for such chores are tantamount to Heaven on Earth.”
She screeched at a small girl she called Annie who was smearing her face with dirt at this very moment halfway down the otherwise empty street.
“I simply wanted to get to Tipping Street and my map says it’s here.” Joseph held out his map - which he suddenly remembered was home-made.
“You must have it upside down.”
Joseph raised his head to stare back at the perpetrator of that last statement. He still had the security of his mackintosh. There was a fibrous green shoot starting to protrude from one of the women’s left nostrils. Joseph had had enough. The women had really got his goat. They were lucky he wasn’t a mackintosh flasher. And as he drove down Brown Street out of that part of town, missing little Annie by the skin of her nose, and having left both the parking ticket and the map in the outlandishly deep gutter, he thought he saw coils of black smoke wreathing along the terraced roof-ridges, meeting flourishes of white smoke from other chimneys. Newly lit fires. Ancient fires. Clean-as-a-whistle chimneys. Ill-swept chimneys. Foul flues. Sweet-as-a-nut flues. Whatever the case, they all produced their variety of smokes and so forth. Joseph determined he’d write a serious history of television aerials. Or hair styles. Or the romantic avenues of déjà vu. It was amazing how things changed shape from time to time. Even beyond recognition. And he winked left, suddenly knowing who the seed lady was. Or, even, who he was. So exhausted, he couldn’t think properly. Yet he retained enough hope for his car to reach beyond Lloyd Street Gardens towards his home. Choke still full out.
But true stories concern more than just one. Joseph never knew Hugger, but their fates intertwined remorselessly.
The bouncer died at his doorpost. The crowd of joysters remained oblivious of his predicament, if predicament’s not too lightweight a word for being trampled underfoot into an ugly early decease as a stand-in for a corpse. The dance band played on, in dire need of at least a single brain to share. The wild-eyed drummer, for one, witnessed the accident in its raw state - yet he maintained a relentless tattoo upon the tomtoms, as if he wanted to stir the voodoo-man who he supposed crouched within all such barrels of beat. The skin-pounder was probably “on” something - and that wasn’t simply a drum-stool.
Then, an older yet unwiser Joseph made his flourish of arrival in the ballroom - the one who came every month: the heart and soul of the party, and that didn’t count the rest of him: the man whom everybody feared as they pretended to like him. And he saw straightaway that the bouncer, amid the jungle of legs, was deader than his doornail.
“Ey, Jo, ows fings?” asked Hugger, a sucker whose nose had come off from too much snorting. A village idiot with no village to call his own.
“Looks as if old Father Arthur’s sitting out this dance?” Joseph pointed at the extrapolated body-bag which would have been crying out for absolution, given the chance to postpone reincarnation elsewhere.
“Blymee, Jo, dya fink ees ... ded?” The questioner never worried about having the nickname Hugger, for obvious reasons. His speech, too, was bereft of nasal resonance, making the meaning something he’d lost from the tip of his tongue before thinking it, let alone saying it.
“Yep, Father Arthur’s dead, OK, Hugger - and he gives Last Rites here as well as being a bouncer, doesn’t he?” Joseph, never at a loss for words, very rarely asked questions, unless they were rhetorical ones. Didn’t fit with his new found unmackintoshed image, otherwise.
“Cor ... eck ... corz e duz ... oos goin bleedin elp im up to find God, then, Jo?” asked Hugger.
Joseph shrugged, before taking his place on the floor, where people of whatever persuasion could watch him swaggering through a jitterbug as if he were his own dancing-partner, his own self being someone whom he really fancied beyond even the wildest masturbatory dreams of celebratory celibacy. Meanwhile, Hugger, who was kinder than he looked, if thicker than he sounded, crouched down to listen to the bouncer’s mouth. Eventually, Hugger cradled the ex-priest’s head in his arms. The cringing at the smell of incipient body-rot was, of course, a case of reflex rigor mortis rather than anything else. Which could have well been the end of everything, except Joseph, as ever, had to have the last word. Or was it the last dance? Whatever the case, Hugger, for once in his life, wasn’t a gooseberry during the smoochy number that the dark shapes of fused couples performed amid the slow-flickering revolutions of shattered light.
You see, the dead bouncer, propped up as Hugger’s dancing partner, even won the spot prize - a great big green patch having spread ever wider from the corpse’s belly-button which a virulent case of heavy-snogging had inadvertently revealed from below his vestal dungarees.
Joseph’s newest obsession of acting out personalities that didn’t suit him was fast fading and he snatched the corpse from Hugger and French-kissed it. The voodoo drums were quietly drumming still, even at the deadest dead of night with all punters gone puff. It went without saying, too, that pied pipers and piebald pounders always returned to their raw state - until another month, another dance, another set of loose-limbed lovelies and, hopefully, a bouncier bouncer at the doorpost.
Hugger was not exactly a “village idiot”, more a slouching shadowy shape that threaded the blind alleys of the city - both by day and night. Friendly, too. Too friendly, by half. Hence perhaps the nickname. Women in particular avoided him like the plague. He was cared for by an Aunt in Lloyd Street Gardens. An ex-Traffic Warden. She’d simply discovered the tousle-headed urchin in their dustbin where he had crawled for shelter during a particularly smoggy night.
No memories. No hopes. Hugger simply existed without trying: it was difficult to die without trying. But the Aunt was decidedly pleased with the foundling who had readily wrapped his arms around her neck - as if a strangely affectionate angel had dropped from Heaven.
“More a demon that’s slithered from Hell!” said a gossiping neighbour. But, thankfully, nobody was within earshot when this neighbour made this unwarranted statement - except Hugger himself squatting in the coal bunker nearby and he could not follow the spoken word. But even if he failed to differentiate such sounds, nobody had guessed Hugger could actually read the same words in print, especially with the Aunt being mostly illiterate - thus keeping overtly written tracts from his reach in the confines of the backstreet hovel, other than the possible exception of an odd soup packet which none bothered to read.
There was indeed no story about Hugger’s life: not even an eerie one around a campfire. His life began. It subsisted. It ended. Supposedly.
Nobody kept a record of Hugger’s doings, because nobody in the vicinity could write. Except Joseph. And he only wrote statistics and exhaustive studies of chance. Joseph, now living under the motorways, as an obsessive dosser, had evidence for only one further glimpse of Hugger - the rest of Hugger being mere surmise. Failing all else, surmise is surprisingly dependable. Joseph’s new subway home was where pedestrians used to undercut from one side of the city to the other - assumed to be the longest walk-through subway ever built. The mazy motorways above it barely intersected without sprawling further than their own hard shoulders and the glittering array of white and red jewels darting up and down them went as far as any eye could see. Hence the need for a foot-tunnel. The Council, however, had, of course, forgotten about it, thus allowing a gathering of the underclass and the undead to incubate there amid their own self-perpetuating litter - a close community stringing along in a series of Chinese whispers. Real foot-passengers no longer used the underpass, taking their chances with the hoovering hordes of traffic above. People in the smoky cars should have their bumpers felt: because it was far safer down there.
Joseph and his cronies would never have harmed head or tail of any drifter coming into their enamel burrow, but simply helped him or her along by means of rumour-mongering and ground-swelling. In subsequent years, Joseph and the other subwayfarers, becoming accustomed to their privacy, cherished their near oblivion by resting quiet. Fulfilled simply by not needing to be fulfilled. Sublimely content. And one day Hugger stumbled down there. He happened to crouch by Joseph’s particular clutch of cronies, with his eyes still bright from being outside in the sun. Hugger had started making friends by cuddling each one in turn.
Wanting him to be under no llusion as to the conditions, Joseph pointed to the make-shift corner of the tunnel that had grown even darker than the rest of the place. A glistening black lobster-like thing pulsed there and clucked. Only one piece of yet uncounted muck among several.
Hugger could not see as well as subway stock could, because his pupils had not yet sufficiently swollen. Yet, Hugger seemed to think he knew what the pulsing piece of muck was, and Joseph corroborated by describing its evolution: once a little girl, with soft cheeks, who caught a common cold. And Joseph told Hugger that incurable illnesses, even mild ones like the common cold, could, through its very incurability, eventually turn the whole sufferer into the illness itself: not much more than a stewed knot of snot maggots. Hugger nodded, knowingly, as if he had actually understood Joseph’s logic, and left. Hugger was not to be one of the underclass, after all.
Joseph was confident Hugger did not leave so as to reveal subway secrets but to make them even more secret. A secret couldn’t exist, after all, without somebody to keep it.
The Aunt welcomed her Hugger back. She had taken advantage of his absence to have the attic decorated for his own bedroom, using a wallpaper with a rock-pool design - where he lived happily ever after, despite giving him pens to suck but, thankfully, no paper. She yearned for a daughter to keep him company, but the Aunt had a hysterectomy episode instead.
Hugger became to be called the winder man - “cos I cleen winders” was his stock answer to everything. Mrs Collins was, of course, rather more select than the way her winder man happened to speak. She was a widow, not a rich one, because, unlike other husbands, her own husband had failed to make it big in waste management during the Thatcher years. She had unfond memories of those days, and the eventual loss of her husband had made her feel happier with even less.
One day, she sat and sewed in her Tipping Street parlour - without really thinking. Most widows didn’t dare think any more because, if they did think, their thoughts would be unwelcome. She might have thought of that pestering priest who often came round to gold-dig in her muckheaps. Looking for the green shoots of recovery, he had maintained.
She suddenly looked up and spotted Hugger smearing his chamois leather across the parlour winder - and smiling. He smiled, not at the window’s widow sitting and sewing, but at the frostily reflected image of his own face in the glass. Yet, she assumed the smile was for her. The Autumn day had started as clear and sparkling as a new polished mirror, but fog, like smog used to be, returned for a second bite of the stagnant air, closing in at the loose end of the grief-littered afternoon. The houses opposite were blurred, resembling the ready-mades which an impressionist could cut out to patch up his painting. The trees became abstract splodges of brown and green, the sky a backdrop for an old silent movie. She returned Hugger’s smile. She considered Hugger hers because the whole world was hers - well, at least the world that she saw at any one moment through her eyes. Indeed, the world, through her eyes, was quite different from the world Hugger saw through his. She turned a blind eye towards her long-lost little Annie Junior. The girl had played in the cold streets, because there was no television to keep her at home (like other girls). Nothing to prevent her from going missing, possibly abducted...
Hugger had left, not without dropping his invoice through the letter-box, on the assumption there was nobody in the house. The widow sighed with a combination of relief and regret. A breeze on the brink of a wind fast dispersed the bad breath of old fog, which had infiltrated even as far down her chimney as the parlour itself. Smoking her out.
She coughed behind her handkerchief. The houses opposite would have been much more clearly defined if it were not for the young darkness swirling between the various versions of vision that addressed their roof-topped shapes.
The young man returning from college, clutching the same satchel he had as a child, saw everything one way. The late-delivery newspaper-boy saw everything differently. Hugger’s Aunt, with choke full out, sniffed snootily and saw nothing but her sooty prey. Hugger himself, on his ladder, rubbing at the oblong eyes, was indeed seen by many bystanders as a shifting shadow that had absorbed most of the darkness into itself rather than wait for night to hide it, the shadow thus failing to realise that such a method increased its premature prominence as a silhouette.
Through her own newly buffed window, the widow perceived the shape of the winder man on his ladder, scraping the muck off the roofs opposite - the same stock of accumulations that had made fortunes during the Christianity era. Then, there was bright coition of such yet untidied muck and a chimney’s sudden suck-out of sparks: and the TV aerials bent and wilted like stick-insects melting - or like ghosts with wire spokes for bones. Her wispy hair, like ghosts of maggots (or seeds), tried to tug free one by one: to escape a body that now counted for nothing. An empty skull called Annie Collins.
Applause fluttered and flittered with a million almost visible wings.
(published ‘Palace Corbie’ 1999)