Chapter One – A Calling
He got the call from his sister in the middle of the night. She called him home. She never had before. No one had. She ripped him from his dream, in which he was trying to build a fence in the middle of a moonlit field. The phone vibrated urgently under his chin. He lifted his head, utterly confused by the noise and the violent throbbing of the mobile leaping against his throat. Waking Up, by Elastica. He hadn’t changed it for years. The lyrics roared, the phone jumped and twitched, alive with one name and one name only. Gina. There it was. His lips recoiled over his teeth in horror, in dismay. His eyes blinked again and again. Her name, where it shouldn’t be. It had been so long that he had forgotten she was still in there. He lifted a hand, felt it trembling to life, swollen with pins and needles. He wiped the dribble from his chin. He answered it in a dreamlike state, half of his mind still on that field, wielding a hammer. “Gina?” The word emerged like a sulky accusation, the sneering utterings of a thwarted child. The sound of it, the feel of it on his tongue, brought back recollections of all the other ways he had once spoken her name. Gina, growled and low, festering with resentment. GeeeeeNAAAAAA! An enormous and outraged thing bellowed out at no one, at nothing. What was she doing there, inside his phone?
“Dad’s fallen.” Tight, quick, clipped. She didn’t want to waste breath or words on him. His ears refused to soak them up or absorb them. His eyes were always rolling away from things, up into his head, into dreams. He sat up now, slowly, rigidly, bones cracking and jutting into place, one hand roaming through his thick dark hair searching for something to hang onto. That familiar, uneasy feeling that he was falling. He resented that noise, that sound, her voice, in his room. He could do nothing but hang his head down to his chest and wait. He had no words for her until she had moved them both forward. He waited for the inevitable click of her tongue and he pictured her face in his head, doughy cheeks in various shades of red, while her thick black eyebrows crashed down over suspicious green eyes. The click came. He slapped a hand against his face. “Jacob? Did you hear me?” How could anyone not hear her? Had she ever been unheard, or unseen? He flinched, writhed slightly, felt the urge to curl up small. Her voice had crept up a level, strangled with self-righteousness. She was always right, wasn’t she? Some people are like that. Always right. They just are. It’s the way they see things. Unshakable. No doubts. He pictured her top lip rolling in distaste as she spoke his name. She had always spoken it as if it offended her.
“Yes.” His own voice let him down, and he groaned, squeezing his eyes shut. One hand found his thigh, fingers crawling outwards, clutching denim. Twenty-nine years old and his voice had belched out like the horrified squeak of an eleven year old caught with his hands down his trousers. He tried again. “Yes.” Firmer. Deeper. Oh Christ, what a loser. His eyes rolled again, his spine curled over. He shifted his legs, found the floor with his bare feet. Was she still there? Maybe he was dreaming. He opened his eyes and faced the floor. Saw that one foot rested on a damp copy of The Big Issue. Pain was yawning into life around his temples, and he remembered that last night had been a big one. Carnage. The pain seemed cruel, somehow metallic, as it crept in stealth from behind his ears and tightened its grip across his forehead.
“Dad has fallen,” she said. He felt his stomach try to shove something nasty up his windpipe. He swallowed it back down and tried to get his eyes to focus on the magazine beneath his foot. He remembered buying it from old man Sullivan on the corner of the high street yesterday morning. His toes flexed. They were being bothered by something sticky. “You have nothing else to do,” she told him. His mouth fell open, his eyes blinked at the level of disgust in her tone.
“No?” he asked her, scratching at his head blearily, trying to remember if this was true or not, and if it were, how did she know about it?
“No responsibilities,” she went on, and every sentence that she spat at him felt like she was picking up his faults and his flaws from a pile by her feet and hurling them one by one at his mind. “I’ve got a job, and the kids.” The kids. The kids. Oh yes. She had them forced upon her of course, one after the other. He rubbed the heel of one hand into his eye, willing them to unglue, to wake up properly. He then squinted towards the small square window on the other side of the room. The wooden blinds were only half drawn. Gaudy yellow street light lit up his desk, and aside from that, darkness. What the hell was she doing calling him in the middle of the night? He could do nothing but yawn, and allow his body to tilt back onto the bed, his big toe still poking at the sticky patch on the magazine, dipping in and out of it as he swung his feet up and down.
“You have nothing better to do,” she informed him again. He bit his lip and stared at the massive cobweb above his bed. It stretched from the broken light bulb, to the top shelf, and he had been registering its progress for some time now. His eyes followed the web to the shelf, and he thought about his books up there, probably covered in dust and mites, probably keeping an entire mini eco system alive. He found himself wondering, smiling slightly, about their tiny little unseen insect lives. “He’s really hurt himself this time,” she said, slicing into his brain, sounding angrier now, as if it was his fault entirely that the old man was hurt.
“What’s he done?” he asked, genuinely interested.
“Fallen down the bloody stairs,” she responded, her brittle voice ripping into his ear canal, making him hold the phone away from his head as he winced from her poison. “Again.” A massive sigh followed. “Only this time he’s fractured his wrist and his bloody ankle. So he can’t do a thing for himself, do you get it Jacob? And you have nothing else to do in your life, do you?” He knew how she was stood. Arms crossed. Foot tapping against the floor. He blinked and waited. Was she expecting him to answer that?”
“I know you’re getting evicted.” Her tone had lowered, and came sneering through the telephone line. A level of contempt he thought he had escaped from years ago. And yet here it was, on the phone, in his room, inside his head. He answered her with silence. Listened to her sigh again. “Jan told me,” she added, speaking of their mutual friend, their last link.
“It’s not definite yet.”
“Yes it is,” Gina argued. “She told me you’ve got two weeks to get out because you didn’t pay the rent again, because you lost your job again, now if that’s the case, you know what you can do don’t you?”
Jake Morgan sighed. Unlike his sister, he was slow to anger, but he recognised the tight feeling now growing in his chest. “You tell me Gina.”
“You can go home and help look after dad.”
He thought of something then, thought of it and reached for it like a drowning man clawing out for a lifesaver. “Why can’t Jan do it?”
She laughed at him. It somehow both felt, and sounded like a cold wet slap. He closed his eyes against it, and listened to the sound of it, a laugh that made him imagine mirrors being smashed. Finally he heard her take a deep breath to compose herself. “Jan is seventy-six years old and riddled with arthritis, you selfish child.” He physically bristled at the scathing tone of her voice, his limbs stiffening one by one, and the urge to hurl the phone at the floor getting stronger and stronger. “You would know that if you bothered to see her, or stay in touch with her. You would know that is completely out of the question! There is nothing she can do to help Dad Jacob, nothing.”
“I do stay in touch with her actually,” he replied sulkily. “She never says she’s ill, or whatever.”
“The odd pathetic text message does not count as staying in touch Jacob,” she said curtly, and he could picture her now, though he was loathe to, though he did not want to see her in his minds eye, nor in real life, he still could, clear as day. One arm folded on top of her ample bosom. It was probably bigger by now, he reasoned, it seemed to get bigger every time he saw her. One arm on top, the other arm bent at a right angle, hand on hip. Hip cocked to one side. Probably wearing leggings. Her full lips pouting in between sneering. And she sounded bored now, bored of talking to him, bored of trying to reach out to him. He was boring her. “Look, you’ll have nowhere else to live soon, so go home and look after dad. You have nothing else to do in your life, and he needs you.”
Gina hung up the phone. He had been told. He dropped his mobile onto the bed beside him and stared blankly ahead. For a few minutes he just sat on the edge of the bed and let the time pass. He drifted between indignation and fury, to the more familiar guilt and shame, until he could stand it no more, and stood up. He reached out for the blinds, scrambled around until he found the cord and yanked it up. It was dark, but there were cars moving up and down the road, and as he peered through the smeared glass of the window, he could just make out the hunched figure of old man Sullivan, on the corner as usual. If he strained his ears hard enough, Jake Morgan could even hear the old man’s endless hacking cough. His bundle of sleeping bags and blankets was tucked behind the lamppost closest to him, and he wore his big khaki bag across his chest, already filled with the Issue’s he hoped to sell today.
Jake pulled back from the window and slipped his hands inside the pockets of his jeans. He yawned and grimaced against the growing mountain of pain inside his skull. He thought briefly of three rounds of beers in O’Neil’s, washed down by whiskey chasers and topped up by red wine and his stomach grumbled accordingly. He didn’t want to sit in his room and think about Gina, or his father, or going home, and he knew he would not be able to go back to sleep while his room, and his mind, were full of them all, so he decided to go down and talk to old man Sullivan. You have to have someone to talk to, he remembered the words spoken by some nameless counsellor, years and years ago, Barry was it, or Gary? Maybe Harry. Jake shrugged, not knowing.
Jake found a t-shirt on the bed, tugged it on, slipped his shoes on over his bare feet, and grabbed his black denim jacket from the hook on the door. He checked his keys were still in his pocket by patting them, and left the room. Outside the room was a long, narrow landing. The lights flickered on and off, making a drowning buzzing sort of noise as they struggled and failed to do their job properly. He crept past the other rooms on his floor. There was an eerily accusing silence following him as he tiptoed down the stairs, into the lobby, and out of the front doors. Outside, the cool sea air twitched his nostrils and he could breathe again. He pulled his jacket across his chest and stalked down the road towards The Big Issue seller, smoking his roll ups in the last dusky remnants of the night. Where do you go at night old man Sullivan? He placed the words as if a song, a lullaby in his head, as he headed down towards the white haired figure. Sully had told him once that he never slept at night, only in the day. Safer that way, he had said. Oh where do you go old man Sullivan, where do you go at night?
The old man had matted white hair he wore in a ponytail, and it lay on one shoulder, as Jake approached smiling gently. Old man Sullivan was sucking on his roll up, inhaling the life out of it, and adding to the nicotine stains that discoloured his thick beard and moustache. His blue eyes twinkled when he spotted Jake. His face was weathered, like the sea beatn bench he slept on in the day. His cheeks perpetually sunburnt, his eyes almost lost in folds of wrinkles and sagging skin. But when they caught you, you stayed still. “Oi it’s you, sunshine!” he called out with a hearty and grateful laugh which quickly disintegrated into a coughing fit. Jake arrived beside him and felt the urge to pat his back for him, but didn’t.
“Morning Sully,” he addressed him fondly. The old man hawked up a gob of phlegm in reply and spat it into the gutter. His shoulders shook sporadically and uncontrollably with the coughs that constantly threatened him. He tipped Jake a wink and did a little dance while he coughed. It was nearly always the same jaunty dance, Jake thought appreciatively. Both arms pumped up and down at chest level while his feet flew out to each side.
“You not been to sleep yet, sunshine?” Sully sucked the last bit of life from his smoke and hurled the butt into the road.
Jake responded with a sigh, his shoulders dipping. “I was asleep. Then I got a phone call from my sister, and that kind of threw me…Saw you out here, so thought I’d come and sat hi. You know, see if you needed anything.”
Old man Sullivan’s smile was so wide, and reached so high, that his eyes disappeared completely. “You know what I’m gonna’ say, doncha’ sunshine, eh?”
Jake grinned and nodded at the off licence across the road. “They’re not open yet Sully.”
“Damn and blast it,” Sully replied, stamping one foot. Jake peered down at his boot. Black. Scuffed to death. Army surplus. Bound up tight with silver gaffer tape. “You got any money?”
Jake sunk a hand into his back pocket, retrieved some change and delivered it into the old mans waiting hand. Another little dance followed. Jake watched Sully spread the coins across his weathered palm. “All I got,” he shrugged. Sully shrugged too. He shoved the money into one of the many pockets on his tattered green coat.
“It’s a start. Come to keep me company then, ‘ave you?”
“Don’t know what I’m doing up at this time.”
“Oi, the day waits for no man,” Sully told him sternly, one bushy white eyebrow raising while his mouth twitched behind his grubby beard. “You listen to me. I’m an old bastard now, I ain’t got much time left. I’ve got where I don’t wanna sleep at all, you know? You know what I’m sayin’ sunshine? Might not wake up one bastard day. Think about it this way. The more you’re awake, the longer you’re alive! Yeah?” He blew his breath out through wiry wisps of his beard and removed a packet of tobacco from one of the pockets. Jake watched as he begun to roll himself another smoke. His eyes remained cast downwards, the wrinkles on his brow deepening as he concentrated. Jake sniffed. Sully had a certain smell about him, but it wasn’t particularly offensive. It was a mixture of all of the things he loved; tobacco, Special Brew, fish and chips and sea air, and that was not a bad thing. Jake smiled. Found his pockets with his hands. His shoulders relaxed, his spine dipped. He opened his mouth and breathed in the salt. Sully nudged him with an elbow. “How ‘bout you?”
“What’s your excuse for this pointless and wasteful life you been livin’?”
Jake watched him finish the roll up, jam it between his grey and mottled teeth, and flick the flame of his lighter. The sky was rapidly growing lighter. The sun had reached the horizon, sprawling orange and red across the dark rippling sea. He remembered how fascinated he had been with the sea as a child. All that water. All that nothingness. Stretching on forever, just like the sky. “Well my sister…” he began to explain. The old man nudged him again, more sharply this time, as if he was running out of time and patience, and just wanted the gist of it…the short story not the long one.
“You don’t get on? Hate each other’s guts?”
Jake grinned. “Yeah, something like that. Anyway, she’s got wind of my recent troubles and thinks I should go back home.”
“Oh people like to say that don’t they? Go home, go home, never mind that some bastards never felt at home in the first place!” Sully started to cough, and reached out to grip Jakes arm. He steadied himself, leaning down and forward, the coughs ripping through him, high pitched and wheezing. Jake winced, and waited. When he had finished, the old man straightened up, released his arm and wiped his mouth on the back of one sleeve. “Thing is, people can say that all they like, these people, these people that care and worry. But what the fuck is home anyway sunshine? Means one thing to one bastard, another to someone else. Go home. Ain’t as simple as that. Bollocks.” Sully smiled a wicked smile, and his pale blue eyes twinkled under the curls of hair that danced across his forehead.
“It’s not just that. She said our dad’s had this bad fall, and can’t do anything for himself. She thinks I should move back in and help him, or whatever.”
“Oh. See.” Sully’s eyes seemed to narrow in on him then, as he stuck the roll up between his teeth and puffed on it continuously. Those things are gonna’ kill you one day, Jake thought about telling him, but didn’t, because who was he to tell anyone anything? “Well then, there’s a dilemma my lad. A little moral dilemma for you to question on this dawning new day. Bet you didn’t expect to wake up to that?”
Jake shook his head, suddenly feeling increasingly grim about it all. The news, the information she had given him, the request, (or was it an order?) to go home, it all seemed to be sinking through his body, dragging him down to the ground. He felt like sitting down on the kerb, but instead he took a long deep breath, dragging the sea air up into his nostrils and taking it deep inside him. What an endless child you are, Gina told him inside his head, running off to live by the sea! He watched a trio of huge gulls came flapping lazily in from the sea, squawking too loudly for the silence of the rising sun, and settling themselves on the roof of the off licence where they continued to bitch and bicker.
When he looked back at Sully, he could see the old man staring at him intensely, his sharp blue eyes somehow giving Jake the impression that he could see right through him, right into the core of him, right into his soul. “You not got many options left round here, sunshine, that right?” Jake made a face, fuck knows. Sully remained unimpressed. “I heard you fell outta’ favour with the big boss man. Spies tell me he’s got people lookin’ for you.”
Jake swallowed a groan, and brushed his hair from his face. He wished Sully had not brought it up. He did not appreciate worries, concerns, entering his mind or his thoughts. There should always be a way to chase them away, he mused, chase them away, duck and dive, drop low. Avoidance. “I was never gonna’ be any good at that job,” he tried to defend himself. He gave a small laugh at the absurdity of it. “Collecting debts? First you have to be a big muscley bastard for work like that, or people just laugh in your face! And secondly, I’m too big hearted Sully!” Jake placed one palm over his chest, just below his neck and made another face, what can you do? “I kept feeling sorry for the bastards and letting them off!”
“Ah well, best out of it then,” Sully agreed. “You’re right about one thing. You are too big hearted to be running errands for the likes of them. Mixing with the Brandon brothers was a wrong move from the start sunshine. So now you can’t pay the rent.” He said it as a statement, and again Jake shrugged at it casually, flicking it away with a jerk of his head, a shake of his hair. He swatted it away before the truth of it could permeate his mind, or infiltrate his guts, where he knew it would lie low and curl up, waiting for the chance to cause untold pain.
“I’ve got a bad stomach,” he threw out the age old excuse, the mantra of his boyhood days. He grimaced at it regretfully. What a shame. What can you do? What do people expect me to do? “Plays me right up when I get stressed. I can’t be doing stressful jobs like that.”
“All jobs are stressful,” Sully scoffed at him, with a dry eyed wink. “Life is stressful, you young fool. So now what? You got no home and no job. Ain’t that just what you arrived here with?” He grinned as Jake frowned, then released a loud and raucous laugh and clapped him hard on the shoulder. “You fool sunshine, you fool!”
“Lay off,” Jake said. “I had a job in the chippy for ages.”
“Til you nearly set fire to the place!” howled Sully.
“Then I worked in the bloody Bath hotel! I was a porter!”
“Oh aye, didn’t you quit that one after a week? It wore you out. You’re your own worst enemy lad!” Jake said nothing. He could see that the old man was enjoying this. Instead of attempting to defend himself, he blew his breath out steadily and stared back at his building with a mounting sense of dread. Where would it all end? See, that’s the thing about life I don’t like, you just want to relax and not worry and it won’t let you…”You won’t want those Brandon brothers to find you if you can’t pay the rent, son.” Sully’s tone was softer now, and for that reason it made Jake shiver. He didn’t like it one bit, this homeless man feeling sorry for him. “You’ll have to do something else for them sunshine. Things could get nasty. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
“There’s always the YMCA,” Jake murmured, looking away. “They might help me out again. Help me get sorted.”
“Again?” Sully shook his head firmly. ““That’s the problem right there sunshine. Are you special or what? They won’t let you back again. You blew it. They sorted you out with the chippy job, and the hostel. You’re meant to pay them back by behaving like all the other fine upstanding citizens around here! You’re meant to do the mind-numbing soul destroying job, pay your measly rent, and sit in your little square box of a room eating beans from a can and being bloody grateful!” Sully spat the last two words out angrily, but his blue eyes were still twinkling with amusement at it all. He stuck his roll up between what was left of his teeth, and thumped his chest with a fist. “That’s what they want son, that’s what they expect, that and taking the Lord God as your saviour, you know? Didn’t do that bit either did you eh?” He threw his head back and cackled joyful laughter at the sky. Jake could hear it echoing up and down the dark street. He looked down at his feet and felt like sobbing. Sully straightened up and slung his arm across his shoulders. “Oh you’ll be alright,” he said then. “Go home and see your old man why don’t you then? Time you gave it another try maybe, eh? What do you know? Things might have changed. There’s folk on these streets would do anything to have some place they can run back to if they need to, you know.”
“I know.” It was all he could say, and he knew that it was true, but the truth of it all pressed down on his shoulders with an unbearable and deadened weight, numbing his mind for a moment as he tried to mentally prepare himself for it. “But I’ll come back,” he looked at Sully and told him, and he suddenly wanted to give the old man a proper hug. The kind that friends shared. But Sully had already pulled away from him, and turned on the little radio he kept inside one of his pockets. Jake watched his scruffy black boots shuffling back and forth on the pavement, as he danced along to The Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice.’
He walked away without saying anything. People were like that on the streets, he thought. They had their minds on other things. He looked back up at his building, one of the many crumbling Victorian dwellings that lined the road, and decided that if he did go home, he would get Sully something nice before he left. A decent meal maybe, and some cans of Special Brew. The hostel had links to the YMCA at the other end of the road. People spilled over from there into the hostels and the half way houses, when they were more or less able to stand on their own two feet. Local businessmen like the Brandon brothers owned a lot of the rooms and bed-sits though. Jake sighed in misery as he keyed his security number into the keypad and pushed his way back through the doors.
Before long he was encased in his room again, Sullys’ words about square boxes and tins of beans ringing in his ears as he found himself back at the window, staring out. He realised he had spent much of his life staring out of windows, or staring up at skies, or across seas. Staring and thinking, and dreaming and wondering, and where had any of that got him? Well, he argued, that wasn’t the point, some people don’t want to get somewhere, some people just don’t want the hassle. At the same time though he wanted to tell someone that it was not really his fault. All this failure. All this standing still. Floating. No one had showed him how to make a success of life, had they? No one had pushed him on or encouraged him to do his best. When he thought of his family, a twist of pain started to tighten in his belly and he remembered how good they all were at watching you fail and then berating you for it. An echo of an old song marched accordingly down his ear canal; Shed 7 singing High Hopes. His lips curled in response, he blew out his breath in annoyance. And I don’t have either, I never had either, not high hopes or roots.
He looked down at the street, where a white builders van had pulled up in front of next door. They were renovating that one, he remembered. The old dossers and tramps had been moved on long ago. They had a sign up already, even as they ripped and tore the guts of the old house out plank by plank, brick by brick, a big sign reading; ‘luxury penthouses with sea views available soon.’ Available for some, Jake mused, watching the first burly builder hop out of the van. He wondered how long it would take the Brandon’s to flog off this building, and replace it with these modern, open plan fats, with balconies overlooking the sea. No room for the likes of us anymore, he thought, his breath misting up the window pane, we’ll all be shoved out and moved on anyway before long, so what does it matter?
He decided not to be in a hurry about it though. There was no rush. He didn’t want Gina to think she could control him like that from afar. One phone call at an unreasonable hour, the usual insults and judgements, and he would come flying back home to please her? He snorted at the idea. Make her wait a few days, make her sweat a bit, he decided. Make her call again. Maybe she would offer to pay his train fare. He chewed on his thumbnail for a long time, lost in his thoughts, wanting to rail against it all, them forcing him out, and her forcing him back. He had no choice and she bloody knew that, and he knew it, but try as he might to feel neutral about it all, Jake let his shoulders drop in defeat and knew the fact was he was not ready to go home. It didn’t matter what Sully said about trying it again. About other people wishing they had the choice. He was not ready to go back there. He didn’t want to go home.