At Colonus

At Colonus
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Picture by David Blackwell (copied from Flickr)
Picture by David Blackwell (copied from Flickr)

Expanse of grass to left and right, extending to a perimeter railing of corroding wrought iron. The view is limited by a series of trees: regularly-spaced urban plane; horse chestnut, leaves browning, crisping prematurely; a solitary beech.

In foreground, in contradiction of the grass worn bald by summer use, an expense of grass close-mown, striped in the mowing, watered daily and still dewed in the heat. In its shrubbed borders a rustle of wings.

A figure seated in partial shade. Another hurrying toward it.

-What do you think you’re up to? Strictly no dogs, there’s a notice prominent at the gate.

-Dog? I have no dog.

-Then what’s that lead for?

-A keepsake, a memento mori, a comfort to the hand, a habit.

-Let me see your ticket.

-Ticket? I have no ticket.

-You need a ticket to enter this enclosure.

-This is not a public place, a park?

-This is the putting green. You need a ticket, obtainable at the office, along with putter and ball.

-I did wonder at the quality of the sward. I was enjoying its refreshment.

-It’s here for the enjoyment of golfers. If you’re not intending to play, I shall have to ask you to leave.

-Would that I could.

-Play or leave?

-Both. I was a mean opponent with the clubs in my day. But my ingress through the gate was of the nature of a hole in one, that is to say, a fluke. My egress, I regret, will require assistance. Your arm?

-You’re blind?

-I was hoping for tact and a friendly touch.

-So this lead here? Guide dog?

-Another hole in one. Far more than man’s best friend. More like a daughter to me.

-What happened?

-Killed by an unskilled skateboarder. Below the Hayward Gallery. Attempting some sort of pirouette, was his explanation. Broke her neck. A clean break is all I hope.

You find this funny?

-Surely they would give you another? The Guide Dog charity?

-I could never replace her. Besides, another would outlive me. Who’s to take care of it? I’ll muddle through, it isn’t long.

-Well. Still, rules are rules, and if you’re not a bona fide golfer I’m obliged to, here, take my arm, I’ve spread a tissue, tell you what we’ll do, I’ll deposit you outside the enclosure but in the shade of the shrubs. You’ll get the benefit of the sprinkler but within the safety of the rules. How’s that?

Two figures move slowly through the sunglare, glint of a chain still visible as their shadows merge into shade.

***

Two figures, one seated, one stooped. Only one of the figures is familiar.

-You move fast for an old man. You sure you’re not exaggerating your visual impairment? How’d you cross all those roads?

-By stumble and grope and listening for the pips. I had a head start; I left at dawn.

-How’d you know?

-By the intersection of the milk delivery and the refuse collection. And the freshening of the breeze, the dawn wind.

-But why’d you go, why’d you check out?

-It’s an overnight hostel, is it not? Night was over.

-No, it’s all-day too. And there’s breakfast all day.

-I prefer to picnic. I like the variety of the unexpected.

-But you didn’t sign the register.

-You forget what a hit-and-miss procedure that is for me.

-There’s always someone there to help, a qualified warden. It’s one of the conditions, signature on the register. That’s why I’ve been sent to find you, escort you back.

-Coercively?

-Why should it come to that? It’s what’s best for you, it’s in your own interests. You’re all on your own, unprotected. Look, you may be a senile old fool, but surely you see that?

-“Senile” and “old fool” are tautological. I best know my own interests. I’ll not budge from this spot.

-You can’t stay here by your bloody self.

A third figure approaches, his peaked silhouette recognizable.

In the distance behind the beech, a faint boil of cloud.

-I’ll ask you to moderate your tone and volume. You’re close to committing a public affray. The bye-laws as displayed at every gate are explicit in this. Are you being bothered by this person?

-He wishes to drag me back to the hostel.

-Hostel?

-We prefer the term Short Term Sheltered Accommodation.

-Known to fellow inmates as Boris Bunkers.

-They’re provisions of the Mayoral Outreach to the Undomiciled.

-They?

-There’s a chain of them across the capital.

-The M&S of the underclass.

-There you are – a tribute to the quality of the care we offer. Good food, clean bed, hot water and soap…

-The catch?

-No catch. We just require a signature in the register and their agreement to return for a minimum of seven nights.

-Hence the coercion.

-Why the coercion?

-Our funding depends on it. This venture represents a commitment to long-term solutions to vagrancy, weaning people off charitable dependency and the streets. People like him, fly-by-nights, jeopardize the funding. Drift in, hot meal, use of the lav and off; it’s taking the piss. Spoils it for everyone. Anti-social.

-I was once pro-social. Attitudes change with circumstance. Pro, anti… I wish for peace, no more.

-You’d have your own cubicle, own locker, a bath, disposable razor. Christ, what more does a man want?

-Dignity and a peaceful death.

-I just said, you’d have your own cubicle, needn’t be disturbed. How could you hope for a peaceful death with the foundering of the Mayoral Outreach on your conscience?

-With so much on my conscience already, I’m sure I could squeeze it on.

-For fuck’s sake.

-You’ve been warned.

-Does my bag of bones mean so very much to you?

-It’s for your sake too. Even in this weather, nights are cold, old bones chill. Don’t be so bloody stubborn.

-If you want my two penn’orth, he has a point.

-That’s it, you try to talk him round. I’ll be at the gate.

***

Above the beech, cumulonimbi are building up.

-Has he gone?

-He’s waiting at the Main Gate. He does have a point. Cynicism is fashionable but there are people who care. Care workers become care workers because they, well, care. Take my sister-in-law, now, she’s a social worker, years of training…

-The Big Society, room for all in the tent. Welcome the Other, the Alien and Stranger. Hug-a-hoodie, remember that? A sentiment I of all should favour. Unfortunately I was robbed by a hoodie, an off-duty squaddie. A Cameron Highlander, I was told, to add piquancy. No. “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” The passage from one to the other is but one-way. There are border guards. Notices at every turn. “Persona non grata” around one’s neck. Never more so than in the care of the carers.

-But surely you’d have the companionship of…

-Of one’s own kind? The camaraderie of the forgotten? Brothers-in-alms? The parry and thrust, the mutual joshing?

-But you’d have your own cubicle, didn’t he say so? And he’s right about the weather. My knees are a constant reminder. Would it hurt you to stick it out for the week? Rest up, clean up. The sprinkler’s helping but it’s no substitute for soap and water. Not to be personal, but…

-No, quite right. None taken. You think having no access to mirrors, I’m unaware of my appearance; the ill-assorted jib, runnelled visage, a head more crust than hair?

-Nothing that a good bath and a rummage round Oxfam wouldn’t cure. I’ll ask my sister-in-law, she’s bound…

-And the inner man? The reinforcement of one’s invisibility? A week of such?

-God, you’re a stubborn man. He was right about that too. What makes you so stubborn?

-A gift. Nurtured through adversity. Is the ruffian still at the gate?

-He’s still waiting.

-He’ll wait in vain.

-We’re in for a storm. Why not return for just the one night? Sleep on it.

-You’re a kind man. You have my welfare at heart, I acknowledge that. Don’t think me ungrateful, man to man. Yes, I smell the storm. A last favour. Save the ruffian from a soaking. Tell him I’ll be staying put. And for yourself, a parting gift.

-I couldn’t possibly accept anything from…

-You will, in time. God bless.

A peaked figure moves through the curdling light.

A prone form rises, stumbles once, moves toward the beech, a slow, unsteady progress.

The trailed chain – wet – coruscates.

Lightning flicker. A puncture in the atmosphere.

 

At death the world does not alter but comes to an end. (Wittgenstein)

David Rose

About David Rose

David Rose was born in 1949. After attending a local Grammar, he spent his working life in the Post Office. His debut story was published in the Literary Review in 1989, since when he has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories (Salt). He was for some years co-owner and Fiction Editor of Main Street Journal. His first novel, Vault, was published in 2011, followed by a story collection, Posthumous Stories, in 2013 (both Salt). His second novel, Meridian, appeared in 2015 from Unthank Books. He lives just outside West London, between Richmond and Windsor.

David Rose was born in 1949. After attending a local Grammar, he spent his working life in the Post Office. His debut story was published in the Literary Review in 1989, since when he has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories (Salt). He was for some years co-owner and Fiction Editor of Main Street Journal. His first novel, Vault, was published in 2011, followed by a story collection, Posthumous Stories, in 2013 (both Salt). His second novel, Meridian, appeared in 2015 from Unthank Books. He lives just outside West London, between Richmond and Windsor.

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