Continued from “First Pair of Football Boots” from the novel “Up the Wooden Dancers”
Ryan never bought into the Liverpool Manchester rivalry bollocks. He actually liked Manchester, he’d spent happy days there – when in the Everton youth team he’d stayed at a house belonging to one of Manchester United’s youngsters, a kind of foreign exchange for putative footballers. The boy’s family lived in a house in Prestwich, a soaring Georgian mansion bursting its seams because there appeared to be dozens of them, Jewish. The boy, called Michael, was a good player, a right-winger and Ryan often wondered why he never made it. Right now he was heading towards Deansgate because he remembered their playing pool together in a pub called the Pig and Porcupine – if it still had a pool table, that’s where Ryan might earn himself a few quid. But there was no pool table, there was no Pig and Porcupine, the Pig and Porcupine was now an Indian restaurant.
“Excuse me,” he said to a man in his sixties, well-dressed and inexplicably carrying an umbrella with temperatures in the twenties, “Do you know of a pub around here with a pool table?”
“Don’t tell me,” said the man, “You’re from Liverpool.”
“Kind of. But
do you know where I can find a pub with a pool table?”
“A pool table?” said the man, urbanely, “Bit of a struggle I’m afraid.”
“OK,” said Ryan, and would’ve moved on had the man not taken his arm.
“There was bar billiards in the Knott I recall,” he recalled, pointing his umbrella in the direction of Deansgate Station, “but not any more. I believe they got rid of it to make way for more diners.”
“Right,” said Ryan.
“I drink in the Deansgate mostly,” said the man, “the beer is cheap. I’m going there now.”
For some reason Ryan felt this was an invitation more than a statement of intent, and so minutes later he was standing at the bar with this man.
“However I normally drink white wine,” he said, and duly ordered one from the barman whom he knew, “What’s your poison?”
“Guinness,” said Ryan, “thanks.”
“I take my wine on the rocks. Some people call me a philistine but I like it that way.”
As the man behind the bar crashed into the icebox,
Ryan scanned the seemingly unused pub he’d found himself in. Oldy-worldy, he remembered his dad might say
of a place like this – mahogany-dark wooden panels, bench seating and such. Bunting hung patriotically overhead, a nod to
the World Cup, the flags of many nations rubbing shoulders and splashing some
colour about, but as far as he could tell there was no TV to show how those
nations were faring.
“Cheers,” the man said as he found a seat in the corner by the unlit fire and introduced himself as Chris.
“Ryan,” said Ryan and they shook hands, Chris with the firmness of a man used to business. And they talked, Chris explaining he lived in Castlefield in one of the first new developments of the past twenty years or so. He’d bought the flat when his marriage crumbled and hoped it was a sound investment but he wasn’t so sure now because there are apartment blocks going up every five minutes. He was once in the rag trade, owning a shirt factory and sold all over the world, sometimes to the rich and famous. His wife went out with George Best before him – so in modern parlance she’d be a wag, he said, oddly proudly, and added that he was well shot of her but is happy to have two beautiful grown-up kids who visit him often.
“And what do you do Bryan?” he asked.
“My name. It’s Ryan.”
“Ah. Little hard of hearing I’m afraid owing to a fall. So what do you do, Ryan?” Though he knew this was bound to come, Ryan felt uncomfortable, not wanting to say he was homeless, but said he was homeless.
“Really?” said Chris, astonished, “Well I must say you’re a smart young man to be living on the streets of Manchester.”
“I’ve only just got off the train,” said Ryan, “I’m here to find my dad.”
“Ah,” said Chris, “He lives here?”
“So I believe.”
“Perhaps I know him,” said Chris, inexplicably, “Do you have a picture perhaps?”
But Ryan said he didn’t, only in his mind, and Chris opined ruefully that a picture might’ve helped, he could show it to people and ask do they know this man? Or copy it and put it out there, like people do in circumstances such as these, in the Evening News or Metro or on lamp posts or Missing Persons websites.
“I don’t have much to go on,” said Ryan, and Chris said his story was sad.
“Skint I’m afraid.”
“Not to worry young man, this one’s on me as well.”
And so they drank another, over which Ryan gave his story about how he came to be homeless and was once a gifted footballer and his mum got killed by a car and his dad had gone missing, how he’d lived for a few years with his aunt but came to blows with her fella so became homeless, but he’d just had a stroke of luck when a girl called Rachael gave him a very generous float in Formby.
“That’s a very kind young lady!” said Chris, “Very Christian of her.”
“She said she wasn’t much of a church-goer,” said Ryan, “even though that’s where I first met her. It was a miracle really.”
“Well it just goes to show they happen,” said Chris, “And when you find your father, which I’m sure you will, that will be another one.”
“It would,” Ryan summed up, and amid the pause he looked at this man, once fit, strong and successful, now the leathery skin showing signs of age and stooping when he rose to get more drinks, leaving his keys on the table he noted.
“What say we make this our last and I feed you some dinner?” he said on his return.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I know I don’t,” he said, “but I can’t be outdone in the Christian stakes by this young lady in Formby. I like to be charitable and should add, by the way, that my invitation is in no way sexual, though you are a very handsome young man. But I am not a homosexual you understand.”
“I used to make shirts but have never lifted them!” he quipped, and laughed and Ryan laughed too.
Chris’ apartment was in a complex of three behind Deansgate Station a short walk away, a journey with commentary on how things have changed since he first moved in. The communal front door was to be found up thirteen steps, where Chris said he’d fallen one night after happy hour and cracked his head and woke up half-deaf. The apartment was on the third floor via a lift, number 13, Ryan noticed. He also noticed it was locked with only one key.
“Only noodles and ping I’m afraid,” said Chris as they ventured in, “I only ever use the micro.”
“Nice place,” said Ryan, gazing at the chrome furniture and the pictures of Chris in his younger days, a handsome man, and his kids, and even one of him with Muhammad Ali.
“Ah yes, he bought one of my shirts,” he said, “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. These are my kids. My daughter would be about your age I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Yes that’s about right.”
“Absolutely. Blessed with her mother’s looks.”
“I like your balcony,” said Ryan.
“Not much of a view I’m afraid. Chester Road. But if you look carefully you can see Old Trafford. There we are. Ping!”
Chris put down two plates on the kitchen breakfast bar and they sat to eat, Ryan suddenly realising he hadn’t eaten in days since a bowl of cornflakes at Rachael’s house in Formby, so the simple fare of noodles with chicken was welcome and didn’t take much demolition. And they talked at length, Chris telling him all about his kids, his son the eldest a lawyer and his daughter Christina a teacher living in Abersoch where he was going tomorrow to spend at least a week.
“No wine I’m afraid,” he said, having worked up a thirst with his familial tale.
“I’m afraid it does,” he corrected, “I never have a meal without wine, stupid of me, but I didn’t anticipate having guests. Perhaps when you’ve finished you’d be kind enough to go and fetch us a bottle or two? On me of course. Not so good on the old legs nowadays. Take this twenty quid. And now I need the loo, bloody colitis as well as deafness!”
Emerging from the block with a full belly and a faded Tesco bag Chris had given him on account of refusing to pay 5p for another, Ryan blinked at the sun bouncing off apartment windows and reflected that this was the second time in a few days he’d been trusted with money, and that strangers were more apt to be charitable than family, and it was to be neither underestimated nor abused.
“You were a long time,” said Chris, when he returned.
“Hope you didn’t think I’d run off with your money,” said Ryan, taking a couple of bottles of white from the Tesco bag.
“I never countenanced the idea,” said Chris, offended, eagerly and deftly opening one of the bottles and filling two glasses that were stood waiting. “In fact I only have good ideas, and there’s one I want to share with you, young man, in fact.”
“Right?” said Ryan.
“I can’t have you sleeping in a shop doorway. I know we’re doing well with the weather but it gets damned chilly at night and it’s dangerous out there, I’ve seen it on the news. So you can stay here. In the spare room of course I hasten to add.”
“You sure?” said Ryan, disbelieving his luck.
“And more to that, what say you stay while I’m away at my daughter’s in Abersoch? You can feed the fish, as it were, or at least my beloved lily plants. Think of it as your HQ from where you’ll operate the search for your father. While I can think of it as someone to man the ship, see she doesn’t get burgled. Chin chin.”
“Cheers,” said Ryan, looking around for the aforementioned lily plants and seeing none.
“They’re in my bedroom,” he said, reading Ryan’s mind, “Which is I’m sure where I’ll find the spare key.”
As he went off down the narrow hall to his bedroom, Ryan was speechless, marvelling again at the kindness of strangers, this act of generosity from an old fella who barely knew him.
“There,” said Chris, returning with a metallic sound and a grin, “Your very own keys. I trust you’ll take care of the ship? No wild parties and orgies, or crack dens I believe they call them? Good man. Now let’s take these onto the balcony.”
Lying down in the spare room that night, enjoying the cool smoothness of the bed, Ryan watched the city lights searching the ceiling. He could hear the faint urban splash of late-night roisterers outside, and the traffic and the periodic rasping farts from the bedroom nextdoor.
They’d downed both bottles on the balcony, and Ryan had smoked a spliff courtesy of his cousin lost at sea, which Chris neither condoned nor condemned. They’d talked about the World Cup, England’s chances now they’d qualified for the knockout stage, the game versus Belgium academic, though Chris was more a rugby fan being a graduate of Manchester Grammar. Football, in his opinion, was ruined by money. They’d gazed across the sunlit sky towards Old Trafford, its stands rising palatially as if to prove the point, and Ryan had said he was once lucky enough to play there, though his dreams of returning as a pro had long vanished. They’d talked about their lives as they now were, Chris feeling tired and fit only for the “knacker yard”, and Ryan feeling lost.
“I know what lost feels like,” Chris had said, “Sometimes I feel like jumping off this balcony. Only the thought of my son and daughter stops me.”
Ryan had felt sorry for the man, who said again he wasn’t a homosexual, he didn’t want to share his bed, just to have “a little bit of love”. So he’d taken him in his hand and done what he was asked, allowing the man to find some relief amid his sorrow.
Lying gazing at the ceiling of this sparse but tasteful spare room, Ryan reconciled that what he’d done was in some way alleviation of his guilt at betraying the man’s trust. Earlier, when Chris hurried to empty his bowels having dispatched him for the wine, he’d taken his keys, left the building, passed Sainsbury’s for the business end of Deansgate, and looked for a place to have one cut. So now he was lying awake, kicking himself for planning to squat in the home of this harmless and kind old man who was giving him a roof anyway. And gently, during the moments between wakefulness and sleep, he allowed the idea of having a home again, even for just a week, saunter in and cross the threshold of his mind.
To be continued…