by J.N. Thorpe
The most wasted of all days is that during which one has not laughed.
“Trace,” Tommy mutters, “where are ya, girl? Down to me last tinnie here.”
He looks down with an unsteady gaze and a solemn frown into his last can of Special Brew. There’s just a mouthful of the russet-coloured lager swilling about in the bottom. With an oath he downs it, dropping the empty can by his side. His half-closed eyes settle on the heat haze rippling off the brown, boxy haunches of the cattle across the common. The afternoon sun is blistering on his back and shoulders through the taut-stretched, cracked leather of his biker’s jacket. His cap keeps his brain from boiling, but he’s red-faced and squinting all the same. He tries to ignore the human herd – the joggers, cyclists and tourists. Every shout or laugh makes him wince, as if directed specifically at him. Some of them cast glances his way and turn up their noses or whisper. And the sun beats beads of sweat from the crags of his face.
Fumbling around in his pockets, he fishes out his tobacco tin, prying off the lid to pull out a couple of Rizlas. He sticks them together in the windbreak formed by his crossed legs. With trembling fingers he lays a thin trail of tobacco on the papers, then some of his last dregs of weed, laying it out sparingly. He tries to stop his hands from shaking so that he can roll the thing up, but he can’t. His teeth grind with the effort of it. And for an instant he hears maniacal laughter from somewhere close by. When he looks up at the passers-by he sees the raw, peeled faces of inhuman things leering at him, their wet, toothy grins fixed in mockery.
“Trace!” he shrieks, and the sick visions disperse. His cry draws some stares, but he just scowls at anyone who looks his way. Scotty rocks up on his mountain bike, all smiles and suntan in an England t-shirt and baggy shorts. He lets his bike clatter sideways onto the grass, and Tommy eyes it with a look of silent reproach.
“Alright, Tommy? How’s it goin’ mate?”
The skinny Brummie settles himself next to Tommy, who acknowledges him with a nod and a grunt before returning his attention to the unfinished spliff cradled in his quivering fingers.
“You er, need a hand there, Tommy, mate?” asks Scotty.
Tommy licks his lips and tries to focus, but his cracked, grubby fingers won’t do what he wants. He hears that malicious laughter again and he winces.
“Gis it here, mate. Come on.” Scotty reaches over and carefully lifts the half-made spliff out of Tommy’s grasp, and rolls it up in moments. Tommy watches with a scowl, then looks down at his own hands and sighs.
“Trace not about?” says Scotty as he lights the spliff.
“Cow’s fucked off, ain’t she? Sent her up the offie half hour ago with all me cash.”
Scotty shrugs. “Maybe she’s just bumped into Dougie, like – or Craig?”
“Yeah, an’ maybe she’s gone an’ got herself a ten-bag. Can’t trust a junkie.”
“Don’t talk about her like that, mate. I thought she’d got clean, anyhow?”
“Why the fuck should you care, eh?” Tommy growls.
“Aww, come on , Tommy, mate, don’t be like that. Only asking.”
“I’ve seen the way you look at her, ya lanky streak of piss.”
“Steady on, Tommy, mate. Keep yer hair on!” Scotty smirks and takes a long toke on the spliff to get it going. “Anyhow, I’m off up the Pound Shop in a sec, like. If I see her on the way, I’ll tell her you’re waiting, yeah?”
“You smoking that or what?” Tommy growls.
Scotty hands the spliff to Tommy, who cradles it jealously.
“Skunk, my arse,” Tommy mutters, taking fast, nervous jabs on it. He sneers at Scotty’s indulgent smile.
“There y’are. You’re alright now, aren’t ya, Tommy, mate?”
“Trace!” Tommy yells again, “Where are ya? Come on, ya cow!”
Scotty rolls his eyes, then stands, grabbing his bike.
“Right, then. Cheers, Tommy, mate. Like I said, if I see Trace, I shall inform her that you’re awaiting the pleasure of her company.” He grins, and with a cheery, “Seeya,” is off down the sun-baked, hazy tarmac path. Tommy waves at him like he’s swatting a fly, eyes slitted as he watches Scotty weaving through the knots of pedestrians.
“Cunt,” Tommy declares, then takes another toke. Inside his baked head the demons are laughing again, and his face creases into a bitter scowl. He stares past the cows to the gently rippling ribbon of silver and green that is the river. The undulating dance of that thin, sparkling sliver of water soothes him, and abrogates the taunting horrors in his head to mere echoes. Something approaching serenity causes his taut features to relax, the spliff in his right hand held steady. Languid curls of smoke float away unnoticed, and for a time, at least, his madness subsides. The afternoon lingers, stretching in the heat, and Tommy drowses, drifting with the tranquil currents.
Evening steals into his consciousness as a polluted stream of chatter, cold splashes of laughter forcing him to surface from the comforting depths of sleep. He opens one eye and growls.
“Bollocks,” he slurs under his breath, shifting his bulk in the plastic chair by the wall in the night shelter’s cafeteria. Ragged fragments of his dream persist, transforming the chair into a throne of burnished heartwood, and his tatty clothes to robes of dark silk and ermine. His subjects cease their babble of urgent debate, all eyes fixed on him in quiet supplication, waiting for him to speak.
“So, then. It seems that the Desolate One chooses to ignore our warnings. This was to be expected. The beast wishes to force our hand, to divide our forces and thereby weaken our resolve. This, also, was to be expected. Lord Marshall, where are the enemy’s forces strongest?”
Lord Marshall Hallstrom, his forefinger and thumb poised in the act of stroking his trimmed, grey beard, turns to him, his bushy brows knotted into a frown.
“Majesty, they are spread evenly across our borders. Their numbers are vast. Many outlying villages have already been lost. The local militia are sorely pressed. These,” he gestures to the gathered throng before them, “are but a handful of those who come to petition for aid.” Neither his tone nor his troubled features convey any great optimism.
“They mean to annihilate us entirely, then?” he asks, though he already knows what Hallstrom’s answer will be.
“Indeed, Majesty,” Hallstrom answers with a weary sigh, “that would seem to be the case. What are your orders, my lord?”
“We will hold fast against them!” He slams his jewelled fist against the trestle before him.
He starts awake with a drooling yawp, his eyes flashing fierce around the small cafeteria, taking in all the other patrons arranged in small clusters against walls stained the colour of drained cabbage. Old Georgie nods his way from under a yellow sou’wester, his grizzled, bristling cheeks bulging into a grin made of fag-stained teeth.
“Tommy, y’old fuck, what’s up now, eh? Pissed yerself again, ‘ave ya?” Georgie cackles and nods down at Tommy’s lap. Tommy looks down. The cold slops of his tea in the white, plastic cup he was holding have spilt, leaving a dark stain down the crotch of his jeans. He rolls his eyes.
“For fuck’s sake…”
He rises unsteadily and bumbles off to the toilets, scraping chairs aside with mumbled curses. He rounds the corner and May swaggers by, wearing a low cut t-shirt, and he claps an eyeful of those great, milky white tits.
“Alright, Tommy, love?” she croons, then glances down at his groin. She smirks and runs the point of her tongue under her bottom lip. “Seen something you like, have ya?”
He blusters past her, muttering darkly. She wiggles her hips at him and he barges the door to the gents with an image of those jiggling boobs in his head all the way to the cubicle. He makes to pull some toilet paper from the dispenser, but it’s empty. He looks around for a roll, but there aren’t any. He looks down helplessly at the wet patch on his jeans. A hand appears under the wall of the cubicle, clutching a few sheets of paper.
“Here, friend. This is what you need.” The voice sounds oddly dissonant, inhuman, but Tommy puts that down to his hangover, which is steadily taking hold. He reaches down, groaning, and takes the sheaf of paper.
“Cheers,” he mutters, and sets to wiping his jeans as best he can.
“Might as well look your best for the end, eh, friend?”
He grunts, momentarily confused. Then he shrugs and turns to go.
“Good thing it’s not ermine, eh? You’d never get the stain out.” There’s a chuckle that makes Tommy shiver. He stops in his tracks.
“What? Fuck y’on about? Who’s in there?”
“Well I ain’t the Lord Marshal, Tommy boy!”
Enraged, he boots the door of the next-door cubicle, and it quivers open. There’s no one inside. He doesn’t know what to do. He stares at the wall, the ceiling, the floor. He presses his hands to his pounding temples, and breathes hard, waiting for his burgeoning panic to pass.
When he’s feeling calmer, he staggers back out to the to the warmth and chatter of the cafeteria, in need of a hot, soothing cup of tea. He rounds the corner and the place is empty. The lights are off, and the counter is shuttered up, all the chairs stacked in rows against the wall.
“Fuck’s goin’ on?” he murmurs. He shudders at the silence and the cold creeping up his spine. For a moment he sees the place filled with familiar faces, all laughing at him from the warmth and comfort of what should be a normal Tuesday evening in Jimmy’s Night Shelter. Then he’s alone again, staring in disbelief at the empty cafeteria. He looks up at the clock on the wall, but the hands are racing so fast they’re just a blur. He shakes his head and blinks to clear his bleary sight, but nothing changes. He looks around, but there’s no sign of life anywhere.
“’Allo? Fuck is everyone? Some kinda joke, eh?” He feels the panic rising again, pernicious and cloying. His hands shake, palms turned clammy. He wanders out to the reception desk, which is deserted, then tries the front door. It opens onto a banshee-howling wind so fierce and cold it stings tears from his rheumy eyes. He blinks and looks around. The street is empty – the buildings along it lifeless and ruined. What cars remain are burnt-out shells, flakes of rust torn from them by the incessant wind. He looks up at the sky and it’s hung low with clamourous, roiling behemoths of thunder clouds. There are other things in the sky – shrieking, hideous things with eyes of cold flame, tearing through the night on tattered, black wings. He cries out in terror, and one of them wheels away from them rest, swooping down toward him. He doesn’t wait for its arrival, but slams the door and runs back to the cafeteria, stumbling and flailing at the cheap, metal-framed tables in panicked desperation. A terrific crash from the main doors causes him to freeze in abject horror. He waits, heart stuttering, barely able to breathe, too terrified even to turn his head. He doesn’t have to.
“Terror. It’s an interesting sensation, isn’t it?” The voice is cultured, deep and eloquent, every vowel full and rounded, every consonant clipped and precise. Tommy’s eyes swivel in the direction of the speaker. He manages a whimper before his voice fails him entirely.
The thing before him is a man – wizened enough to be in his eighties, but tall and straight, his hair and beard thick and full, and a dazzling white like his robes. His eyes sparkle with wit and intelligence, betraying the stellar depths inside them. The image flickers, replaced momentarily with something that looks as if it’s been flayed and burned, standing in a pool of its own black blood.
“It goes beyond simple fear – the animal instinct toward self preservation which prompts the ‘fight-or-flight’ reflex. No, terror is something philosophical, initiated by an encounter with something that defies what one would normally attribute to the real world, the natural order of things. It challenges one’s very beliefs, throws them out of kilter, so to speak. Wouldn’t you say? So, Tommy, do you still maintain that you will hold fast? You know who I am, of course, don’t you?”
Tommy stares, his mouth hanging slack, eyes wide and his whole body trembling, hands gripping the edge of the table he’s leant against so hard that his fingernails have turned white. A sliver of drool crawls from his slack jaw. His arms are quivering, pressing down on the table so hard that its legs are beginning to buckle. Then something happens.
Fuckin’ Trace still owes me a tenner.
The thought pops into Tommy’s head from nowhere, and he’s surprised to hear a deep chuckling escape his throat. Then he’s lifting the table, and with a determination borne of his most primal, essential self he charges forward, a barbaric roar tearing from his throat. He thrusts the table into the image of his ghastly tormentor. He catches a brief glimpse of a bloody smile splitting a face made of raw meat. He rams a table leg into it, closing his eyes and thinking only of frosty, sharp cider.
“Tommy? Tommy! Oi, wake up, you dozy sod!”
He hears a girl’s laughter, like the music of a mountain waterfall in spring, and he opens his eyes. The sunlit sky is dazzling, and he has to squint against it to get his bearings. Trace is standing in the grass beside him, her smile as bright as the sun.
“Trace!” For a moment there’s nothing more he can say. Then he claps his eyes on the bag she’s got, two bottles of White Magic in it. He lunges clumsily forward to grab the bag, but falls short and has to throw his arms around Trace’s skinny hips to steady himself. For barely a heartbeat, Trace goes rigid. Then he feels her stomach relax beneath his grizzled cheek, and the ripple of a peal of giggles as she smiles down at him.
“You alright, Tommy? Got your cider! ” Tenderly, she strokes his face with her small, cool hand.
Tommy looks up, and the blistering, white sun is momentarily eclipsed by her silhouette. He lets go of her to better take in the image of her soft face and her cornflower bright eyes. The wind catches her copper-coloured hair, making a fiery halo around her. He can’t speak. He can only flop back into the tall grass and stare up at her, awestruck. Trace frowns at him as he tries to wipe away the tears budding at the puffy, raw corners of his eyes.
“What’s up with you, you soppy old git? Oh, and I got you some baccy, too, ‘cos you said you was running low.” She pulls a pouch of Golden Virginia from the pocket of her tight, faded jeans. When he doesn’t react, she shrugs, and chucks the packet down beside him in the grass, then turns to settle herself next to him. She stretches her long legs out and kicks off her sandals. Tommy turns slowly to look her in the eye.
“Give us the cider, then,” he says quietly. Trace hands him the carrier bag, and tears open the packet of tobacco, then sets to rolling herself a cigarette.
“Saw Scotty on the way back, said you were waiting for me. Said you were getting arsy again. You had your pills today, sweetheart?”
Tommy shrugs and grunts, too tired to remember.
“Well, you’d best have some now before you forget. You know what Doctor Hallstrom said happens if you don’t.”
“Ah, fuck him,” Tommy spits.
“Now come on, you don’t want them demons coming back again, do you?”
Reluctantly, Tommy unzips his jacket pocket and plucks out his medication. His fingers fumble with the childproof lid, and he scowls.
“Give it here,” says Trace, tutting and rolling her eyes. As she takes the bottle from his shaking hands, she kisses his cheek and nudges his shoulder playfully. With her long, deft fingers, she clicks open the lid, and flicks out two of the little capsules. She waits until Tommy’s got the lid off one of the cider bottles before dropping the capsules into his calloused, leathery palm. He knocks them back quick with a mouthful of sharp, frothy cider.
“One day. One day we’ll beat them, you’ll see.” Trace nods as she lights her cigarette.
Tommy looks at her and frowns for a moment, then chugs back more cider. She passes him the cigarette, and he smiles, briefly, waiting for the world to turn fuzzy, and the numbness to set in.