I’ve stood up, stumbling around the picnic chair and away from the nightmare woman sitting behind the table. She’s shuffling a new set of shining and pristine Tarot cards.
Giddy, lurching; I want to be sick. My throat clenches.
Pushing the fake velvet drapes of the booth aside, I step into the shopping arcade.
It’s late and quiet. Shops are closing now. Paper blows along the ground as doors swish open somewhere.
I’m numb. Numb is so good. It’s like someone opened taps in my heels and my life just drained out. I’ve time to take stock, regroup, find some strength. No one ever told me that fear has a flavour every cell in your body can taste.
Did I escape that hellish woman or did she just let me go? I’d like to think I had the strength to get away but I doubt it. I stand still, take deep breaths, look around.
It’s not too wet in here yet, but hailstones are building up in the corners of the glass roof high overhead. Water drips, spattering around a broken pink flip-flop someone has left. The remains of a takeaway pizza is stuck to the glass of a shop front.
There’s only me here and the homeless person who still sits on the ground and seems oblivious of my presence. The woman in the Tarot booth will have vanished into thin air. She was only a manifestation, not a real person. Now that she’s decided to live in my heart and torture me she’s no need to use her own body.
I’m shaking, weak. I don’t feel safe, don’t want to walk away and be totally on my own. The man may be homeless and ragged but he’s still a person, still someone nearby.
The silence is broken only by the tap-tapping of water until the man grunts, barely audibly. His hand rises, beckons in a vague way and pats the floor beside him like he wants me to sit there.
Immediate conflict. Me, to sit by a rancid old man … homeless man … possibly an alchy or druggie? Fleas. Lice.
Yes, that’s the woman-fiend talking in my head. She’s always been there; I recognise that now. She likes people distrusting, judging, excluding. This is going to be one hell of a fight – and it starts with me sitting beside this bloke and going against everything society and my parents ever drummed into me.
I walk over, lean against the glass and let my trainers grip the floor. Slowly sliding down, my T-shirt and padded jacket ride up. I have to tug them back down to my waist. “Hi, I’m … people call me Mus … means mouse. Nick name…”
The bloke has a granite voice, granite scraped over concrete. “Bunjie is what I’m known as. It’s a wood I ended up in after I crashed my car. Pissed I was. Rent overdue, cops after me for having grass and stuff. Anyway, no money, shakes, people after me: bad people. I woke up in Bunjups Wood – no one there. No one – think of that. No one knew where I was. I was free! Left my old name in that place.” He picks up the can of Coke lying on its side near him and shakes it beside his ear. “There’s still some in here if you want it.” He peers inside. “ No fag ends either.”
Conflict again. Right, bitch, I’m going to sniff this Coke and if all seems OK, drink it. I take a sip. Don’t like Coke but hey, this is war.
He pushes the army surplus bush hat back off his brow. Sweaty greasy brow. He hasn’t shaved for ages … straggly and patchy, scars too, lots of them. The side of his neck and ear are all lumpy and tangled lines.
The Tarot booth collapses. There’s only a pathetic tangle of fabric and sticks left.
I’m sitting beside a homeless person! He rolls a fag. “You got any money? I’ve nearly run out of baccy.”
The demons in my head are all fired up now – telling me to get away from him. Life becomes so easy when you can actually see the demons. I dig around in my pocket, for the one or two pounds I have left, but find two twenties and a ten. What? “This any good? I … I didn’t even know I had that much…”
He snatches them. “They’ll do.” Jutting his chin at the collapsed booth, he says, “Wanker. He got you, did he?”
“She?” He snorts laughter, snot on an unshaven chin. Pushing himself up he says, “Never heard of the monster turning up as a she before. Come with me. All that git has is words. I’ll show you how to fight back with them.” He lurches, steadying himself against the glass shop front. Pushing the money back into my hands he says, “Get pies or something. I like apples too, eight cans of Special Brew or two bottles of Bucky. We’re going to need them. Get baccy and papers too. Big papers. We need to celebrate.” Straightening up he takes a deep breath. “The tobacconist by the chemist. Cheap but I’m banned. You get it all.”
I ask, “You know what went on with that fortune teller?”
He walks with surprising speed to the exit of the shopping mall. “Fortune teller, my arse.” The automatic doors aren’t fast enough for him; he kicks them as they open. “You just spoke to the fucking devil.” He looks me up and down, rain battering off his bush hat. “You survived. That’s amazing.” He nods. “That shop there.”
I get cigarette papers, Golden Virginia and two bottles of Buckfast – I’ve never drunk it but this is a new world. I like this man. There’s a strength about him, sincerity and warmth.
He’s waiting outside, a gust making his clothes flap. “Do you want to know how this hat got burned?” He digs a bottle from the carrier bag.
“Not really.” I smile. He’s going to tell me anyway. Taking my arm he points with his chin. We walk down an alley and into some rain by the river.
“Hang on.” Head tilted back, his throat pulses with wine. “Wankers like to set fire to homeless people.” He stops walking. I stand by his side. With the neck of the bottle he points, more or less at everything in front of him, the quay, river and the skyscrapers beyond. “Fucking petrol bombs on sleeping people. It’s all shit, innit.” He winks at me. “Scars. Fuck it. Scars is life.” He prods my chest with the bottle. “You spoke to Satan.” He looks around as if he is lost. “This way.” He halts, arm outstretched to stop me. “You on tablets?”
“Yes … tons.”
“Keep taking them. They weaken the monster.” It’s a narrow alley. There’s so much rubbish here my feet don’t actually touch the ground. Plastic crunches. “Rules, watch out. There are rules here.”
We’ve come to an open space filled with fires. People toast food on sticks. Metal barrels with holes punched into the bottom serve as braziers. The air stinks of burning rubbish. “Don’t talk to these people…” He drinks more. “These people. Look at them. Don’t share your wine – you ain’t a saint yet. Neither am I.” He points to the collected figures lit by fire, and to the tower blocks supporting penthouses pouring light from huge windows high overhead. “Don’t end up like this lot. Ignore, if you can, what Satan said. Especially about that card – I saw it on the sign outside the tent. Everyone needs to step off the cliff but it’s insanity to play that card until you know for sure the others are worthless and throw them away. You can’t fly if you’re carrying weight.” He elbows me. “You flew in style. How’re you doing?”
I run a hand over my face and through my hair. “Really confused: frightened … so frightened. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to fight against what that woman … Satan … did to me.”
“Satan runs the fucking world. Bastard. Half of these people never met him; they’re here because… It’s like they just felt the evil and had to get away. You found Satan with your brain, brain and words – that’s when he turns up and actually wants you to kill yourself. He hates people like you. Don’t talk about it because half of the people here won’t understand and the other half don’t need to listen to old news.” He shoves me forward. “Look at this scene. The best artist could possibly cope. Could you paint this and get it right?” He falls silent.
How does he know I’m an artist? Yes, I could never paint this and really capture the shuffling, the murmurs, maybe the jealous looks as they see his bottle. Light glimmers on abandoned faces. There’s suffering in dull eyes. Cruel, inhuman luxury dominates the skyline. Christ: if I could only do this one painting and get it right. I’ve never had the time to work on anything nearly this important or demanding. I paint for money and that means pretty girls, seascapes and meadows. Even if I did paint this scene would anyone want to look at it? They certainly wouldn’t buy – not in the galleries that take my work.
Bunjie kicks a section of torn plastic sheeting into the air. Silhouetted against the fiery glows, it scatters glittering hailstones before rattling to the ground again. He laughs and punches my arm. “See, I can do art too! Did the old bastard … bitch … whatever … drivel on about how you are so selfish, made yourself sick and caused so much worry and pain to other people? Don’t bother to answer. She’s a poisonous tosser and always talks crap like that. So what if you did cause worry to others? So what? Like if someone else drove a bit too fast and got injured or even not too fast, just drove and hurt themselves nice and legally, or got into the wrong crowd and made themselves sick on drugs, in trouble with the police … or worked too hard – drove themselves into the ground … or… OK, I’ll shut up. If you haven’t got the point now you never will. People suffer when a loved one suffers. There is a weird taboo, mixed with ignorance and fear, all about madness – which boils down to you not fitting in with them, behaving like them, thinking like them – but that’s not your fault! The question is ‘can you get back in’?”
He stops and chuckles. “You are allowed to hit me with sticks when I shout.”
He grabs my shoulder, steering me towards another alley. “Some of these people are waiting for death or desperately trying to delay it. Fucking idiots. Like death is anything at all.”
I’m in pain still. “Please…?” I don’t even know why I said that. I’m as insubstantial as the smoke from these paltry fires.
Bunjie looks at me. “This way. Looks like you need to talk. Talk is all we have – just like Satan.”
We pass a cold rusty oil drum, the stench of burned plastic still lingering. Ahead, a police car races past, siren and lights cracking the air. We turn right again and head towards the old docks. He looks around as we cross a road. I’m not sure what he’s searching for; it’s all shadows and scrap here. He says, “Looks safe. The worst is the cars with tinted windows. Drug dealers. They don’t like people getting too close; they think we’re cops.”
He leads me behind a rusting container so we can’t be seen easily. We sit on the quayside, feet dangling over oily black water. He looks at me. “You don’t talk much.”
“I’m thinking. What did you mean about not getting back in?”
“Not getting back into what people think is real life.” He takes another swig. “Drink, relax a bit. You just had a bad time.”
“No … thanks but not with the tablets I’m on.”
“Strong you!” Bunjie laughs. “You got pies did you?”
“Only those weird rolled up sandwiches: wraps.” I open the bag and show him.
“Grilled avocado? You trying to kill me?”
“Not on purpose. It’s all they had left.”
“You can actually joke after meeting it … her? That’s unusual. What’s going on with you?”
“You … I think.”
“Right, but can you get back in?”
“I think so but it would be tough … not sure it’s important any more.”
With the delicacy of a neurosurgeon, he tears wrapping off the food. “What about when you meet a young person with a new job and he or she says to you, ‘What we believe at Blah & Co…’ like they think Blah & Co’s ideas are theirs? What about when you see schools churning out happy little workers instead of people? What about when you see and hear political spin and twisted statistics, people getting rich from selling missiles, when you see parents burying their dead starved children?”
I hiss, “You total bastard!” He’s chewing now, studying me. I go on, “Yes he, she, it – is everywhere – very much in me. I’ll keep taking the tablets as long as I need them, as long as I can get them even if it takes my whole life. It’s going to hurt to see all those things you said. But I’ll fight the demons in me. I am not going to be beaten by that bitch.” I wriggle back and stand up. A car roars behind us; another follows, then there’s another bloody police siren. After a while the sounds are swallowed by distance. Now it’s sort of peaceful here, water lapping. I shudder for a moment as freezing rain lashes in a squall, dimming the lights of skyscrapers on the far bank, hissing on water.
Bunjie doesn’t seem affected by rain or wind. “How are you feeling?”
“Exhausted, triumphant, relieved, really exhausted. Like a pilot who just landed safely after a storm had ripped engines and bits of wings off the plane.”
He asks, “You got a job?”
“No, well, I don’t earn much. That was part of the problem in the first place. I thought I needed something … some truth in my art. I found it. I’m so glad I did … despite all it’s caused. I will get a job eventually.”
“I hope you get what you want. Think: you get a job and earn money but never enough to give away and when you’ve saved a scrap of it you get a phone because everyone else has one and expect it of you, and then you have to work longer hours to pay for calls and stuff, and then you meet someone you like and life together gets really expensive … saving up for a mortgage.” He crumples the wrapper in his hands and strokes it with his palm – a bit like his words are crushing me but soothing too. He knows the truth – and he’s not afraid of her!
He twists the knife. “And all that time people are starving…” He looks up at me. “Two things. First: you just got burned and you’re never going to stop hurting. The beast is never going to give up torturing you. It’s in you and you are surrounded by it and you’re weak. It’s called being human. Second: if you go back into the real world and tell people you can see the monster, they’ll think you’re deranged because they can’t understand. They can recognise evil and greed, sure. Just don’t talk about Satan: they will find out their own way.”
“It’s been nice meeting you, Bunjie. I’m going back to my bedsit. Here, take the bag.”
He snorts with laughter. “I don’t need it.”
“No … you don’t. I can see that now. Thanks for everything.”
“I’m always around if you need me.”
I turn away, not looking back: I know he won’t be there.
©Gary Bonn, 2017
©Gary Bonn, 2017