To continue with my selection of poems and stories which have won something for me in the past, today’s is a short story called The Eye of the Beholder. As the title implies, it isn’t always right to simply go with the evidence of the way things seem, perhaps particularly relevant at the moment as we find ourselves once again being edged into a war by the back door without Parliament apparently having anything to do with it.
To see a full list of the poems and stories which have achieved results over the last twenty years, please visit my site at www.bruceleonardharris.com
Eye of the Beholder
TRENT: I’m on the street, I’m minding my own business, and then I put the hood up. Why? Because it’s starting to rain. That’s all. But once the hood’s up, you get the looks. An old guy just narrowed his eyes at me as if I was about to knife him.
It’s weird, the way they make decisions about you. I’m just some guy. Everybody calls me Trent. I started as Derek Trent and dropped the Derek. I don’t like Derek. So sue me.
Weird things happen most days. I don’t make them happen, they just happen. Today’s the same. This old dear, about a hundred and fifty years old, is in front of me. I’m looking up to the guys on the scaffolding up there, fixing the roof or whatever. There’s a bucket of stuff right on the edge of the planks. One guy’s misplaced foot, and that bucket’s heading down. On my head. One splatted Trent all over the pavement. Good laugh for the street, at least. ‘Heavens, how did the poor boy die? ‘Bucket of stuff fell on him’. I don’t want to be either dead or the street’s latest good laugh. So I’m watching the planks. Very carefully. So I clatter into the old dear. Well, not even clatter, my shoulder sort of nudges her head. She turns right round. Dagger eyes again. Hand clutching on bag in case I try to nick it.
‘Sorry, right? Not looking where I’m going, is all. Sorry, really, er – miss’.
‘You will be if you try to snatch anything of mine. Stupid boy,’ she says.
We’re stood there looking at each other. But then, it’s sort of funny, the snatch anything bit and the stupid boy, like the guy in Dad’s Army. I grin. I can’t help it. And then, so does she. Can’t believe it. Twenty years gone off her. Lit up eyes. So it’s O.K. Everything’s O.K. Me and the lady.
ANNIE: Gina will keep going on about having the pension paid into my account. ‘Carrying that much cash about, Mum, it’s not wise, really it isn’t’. She’s always been jittery, has Gina. ‘Look, love’, I say, ‘if you let yourself be that terrified, you’ve got no life. Like old Mrs. Pearson over the road, who never goes out at all. She spends her life twitching curtains and drinking endless cups of tea. I know them at the Post Office; it’s a bit of fresh air and a chat. And if someone does snatch my bag before I fetch him a good one in his doodahs with my stick, he can have it if he’s that desperate. It’s only a week’s pension. He won’t be heading off to the Costa del Sol for the rest of his life’.
It usually shuts her up. But when I hear those footsteps behind me and I see his shadow on the cars and that hood, I’m starting to think maybe Gina’s not so neurotic after all.
Then he nudges right into my head, and my heart’s going like a drum. I get hold of the stick and start to swing it when he starts apologising, and I can see under the hood he’s just a lad, no more than eighteen, I suppose. The ‘stupid boy’ comes out like Captain Mainwaring. Now we’re both grinning like kids and a kid is all he is. They’re not all hooligans, most of them are just kids. This’ll be a story for Gina.
MAC: It’s the same old same old. Get the whole job done in no time and with hardly any people. Old warehouse, company went bust two years ago. Now it’s to be turned into a Community Centre, and we’ve got to make it watertight. In five days, with an old roof which is leaking like a sieve, and heavy rain predicted.
I’m allowed to take on three lads. Three. For a roof the size of this. And it’s no use telling the company it can’t be done. ‘Well, if you can’t do it, Mr. McMahon, I’m sure we can find someone who can’ – that smarmer Howson. ‘I would remind you that construction work is scarce at the moment; too few jobs and too many people’. Howson. One day, God help me.
But he’s right about the competition, and you’d think finding three roofers, even at short notice, wouldn’t be much of a problem. But lots of them are on repair work after all the weather we’ve already had, which is going to take a while, especially with another lot of bad weather on the way. So I’m landed with one Job Centre lad, one older guy half retired, and Mick Alston, who I’ve taken on before. Mick works hard, and usually well. He just has the odd crazy moment, when he forgets and does something stupid. Muck it up Mick, some lads call him. Though not to his face. Which is part of the problem; bollocking six foot four of solid muscle is not easy.
And today, of course, he’s at it again. We have to fix the plaster work just below the roof before working on the roof itself, and he keeps putting buckets of cement right on the scaffolding plank edges, meaning one nudge from his great plates will topple the bucket down into the street. I catch sight of one; I can see it right from the site office. Sod this; big lad or not, I’ve got to tell the burke. I’m half way towards him when he only goes and does it; boot, bucket, it’s wobbling, and then, God help us, it’s over.
TRENT: So I walk off, shaking my head. All this stuff about age. Generation gaps. People are just people, right? I can’t resist it, turning round to wave goodbye to the old lady. I can be a seriously soft sod at times.
Then this huge geezer on the scaffolding finally does what it looked like he was going to do before. His boot nudges the bucket; it’s tottering, and it’s going to go, God, I’m thinking, it’s going to go! And the lady with the smile hasn’t moved; she’s standing right there under it.
Now, she might be nearing the end of her life, I don’t know, but a bucket of stuff on the head ending it is just as cruel for her as it would be for me. The only way to stop it now is to shove her out of the way. No time to talk about it. So I run right at her, ignoring the scared eyes and the way she’s swinging that bag.
DENNIS: I suppose all men wonder, in their vulnerable moments, what would happen if something violent breaks out in front of them, even if it doesn’t actually directly concern them. Turn away? Pretend nothing’s happening? Get involved and potentially get hurt?
Maybe badly hurt?
You rather hope it will happen quickly, so there is no time to think about it. And on this occasion, it does. I’ve no sooner turned on to the main road, and I see a tall youth literally charging at an old woman. A youth probably less than half my age, and perhaps armed with something or other. But just standing, or even strolling by, is simply not on. I would never forgive myself, and, in any case, there are people around who can see what’s happening.
The youth pushes the old woman with extraordinary violence, and a blind anger rises in me. I run towards him, my fist already clenched; the bits and pieces I can remember of self defence from school judo come back to me in case he draws a knife on me. But as the old lady is lying on the pavement, breathless and near tears, a large bucket, filled with something very heavy, I suspect, hits the boy right in the small of the back, his body still stopped after the push; he screeches, a scream like a hurt child, and lies on the ground, moaning and with his body twisted at an awkward angle. Justice is done, and seen to be done, I think.
A burly man is descending the ladder from the roof nearby at a surprising pace for a large fellow. I am clicking on my phone to summon the police.
MAC: I get to the ground and some suit is standing there like a tin of milk, clicking on his mobile. ‘You getting an ambulance?’ I say. ‘I’m getting the bloody police!’ he says. ‘Look, you pillock’, I say, ‘he was trying to shove the old lady out of the way of that bucket. I saw it all –‘ ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ shouts daft Muck it up Mick from above, and I lose it. ‘Shut it, you’, I bawl at him. ‘You’ve got nothing to say about anything, you burke; it’s your cards that are coming your way’.
I’m ripe now to talk to this clown.
‘My mobile’s in my hut, pal; yours is in your hand. Call a bloody ambulance now, or me, I’ll take your posho phone off and do it myself, and when I’ve finished, I’ll shove it down your stupid neck, so help me –‘
ANNIE: So, two big silly men are standing on the pavement shouting at each other, while the poor boy is writhing about in agony, possibly with a broken back. I go to him; I daren’t try to move him, as if I could anyway. His poor back; he is lying in a kind of arch, and his face is all screwed up with the pain, but he’s both alive and conscious, thank goodness.
‘What’s your name, dear?’ I say, taking his hand. The skin is cold, the fingers painfully thin.
‘Trent’, he says. ‘I was trying to help –‘
‘Yes, dear, I know –‘ Just then, a small trickle of blood comes out from where his shirt has come loose from his jeans. I get back to my feet, not without a struggle, and turn on these useless articles beside me, as other bystanders start to gather.
‘Will you for goodness’ sake stop arguing and phone a blanking ambulance’, I say, only just managing to avoid a very naughty word indeed.
‘I’m doing it, I’m doing it now’, says the idiot in the suit. ‘But it’s more than he deserves –‘
Which is when I really do lose my temper, and I’m afraid a few naughty words do emerge. I have my stick in my hand, and it’s only a whisker away from landing on his head. I only stop when I hear the boy, Kent, whatever it was, chuckling in spite of himself, even as he lies there bleeding. More of a man than any of them.
ISOBEL: Of course, I’ve abandoned the idea of driving into town some time ago; both the traffic and the parking are impossible. A taxi is the only way, and it does have the added advantage that one can see what’s going on.
Not that much usually is around here, still a good half a mile from the shops. But some kind of fracas seems to be going on as I drive past. I catch a glance at some skinny boy lying on the ground, and a fierce looking old lady standing next to him, waving her stick about. The back of the boy’s head is turned to me and it’s shaking slightly, as if he’s crying. Some young hoodlum looks like he’s bitten off more than he can chew. It looks to me as if she’s given the boy his comeuppance with that stick and is now giving those two big standing men some grief for not helping her. And I should think so too.
Good for you, love, is what I say. Good for you.