Chapter 5 of “Up the Wooden Dancers” a novel in progress.
Ryan was just getting somewhere with Rachael when a knock on the door woke him. Stirring to his new world and another unspent hard-on, he took a minute to take in these surroundings, this comfortable double bed in a plush bedroom the likes of which he hadn’t known for years, before remembering it was the spare room of his new friend Chris’ cosy apartment in Manchester.
“Room service!” said the urbane voice from the other side of the door.
“Right I’m awake,” murmured Ryan, before turning over to kip again, hoping to resume where he and Rachael left off…
“Tea and toast only I’m afraid, I’ve no eggs,” said Chris as he gently toe-poked the door open. Blinking into life, Ryan saw the man was already showered and dressed neatly in trousers, shirt and blazer. “No point stocking the fridge when you’re going on your holidays.”
“How did you sleep?”
“It’s a comfortable bed my daughter always says. It was she who chose the decor.”
“She’s right,” Ryan said, enjoying the thought of sleeping where she slept and already forming a private picture of what she was like and what she was like in bed. The photos on the wall suggested she was pretty fit. But it would’ve been disrespectful to push the image further on account of her father and his new friend’s hospitality, and anyway such an image would, like his dream, be clouded by what took place last night.
“What time are you heading to Abersoch?” he asked.
“Soon,” said Chris, “Change at Crewe.”
“Bet you can’t wait to see her.”
“I miss her dearly, both of my kids,” he said, “I look forward to these trips. Don’t get much chance these days, she’s so busy, then my bloody colitis. Anyway eat your toast. You’ve time to get up at your leisure and there’s a spare dressing-gown on the back of the bathroom door when you need it.”
It felt weird for Ryan, nibbling toast and sipping tea in this bed, this spare bed of a new friend and benefactor, amid the décor chosen by his daughter. Nevertheless he did as he was told, then found the spare bathroom, where he pissed, had a quick swill, shrugged into the dressing-gown with a deja-vu feeling, then joined Chris in the living-room.
“So?” he said, “What are my instructions boss?”
“I told you last night,” said Chris, stuffing pre-paid train tickets into his wallet, “I’ll give you a spare key and you can come and go as you please.”
“You already gave me a key.”
“Did I? Well there you are, come and go as you please, otherwise keep it generally clean and tidy. I should be back within a fortnight, sometimes Christina likes me to stay a bit longer than a week.”
“I can’t believe you’re trusting me like this,” said Ryan.
“Where are we if we don’t have trust?” said Chris, “I’m a Christian. Too often we don’t see the good in people. I saw the basic decency in you, ergo I trust you. And I have every confidence you won’t abuse my trust.”
“Absolutely,” said Ryan, the key he’d had cut yesterday burning a hole into his pocket and conscience.
“Anyway, when you have friends the world’s a small place.”
When Chris had gone, Ryan decided to make another brew but there was no milk in the fridge. In fact there was nothing in the fridge except bizarrely a pair of underpants. He did, however, find the bread and decided to make more toast. He wasn’t famished – he’d always been wiry and able to fire off a diet of minimalism – but decided he was making up for the past few days when he’d eaten very little since the crisps in the pub with Rachael and Abi then cornflakes the morning after they’d spent the night spooning. His cousin Rob and his wife in Omagh hadn’t bothered with any sort of culinary offerings. When he thought of that, he now recalled Rob’s words about his father – things you don’t know about your dad – and his mind clouded. While two more rounds browned off in the toaster, he looked around this apartment with its musty smell of a lonesome man, its functional chrome furniture, the pictures on the walls of Chris in handsomer days before age and colitis, of Chris with Muhammad Ali who bought one of his shirts, of his son and daughter who looked fit and attractive.
“And when you have friends the world’s a small place.” He recapped Chris’ parting words, their meaning subtextual but clear. “Though I’m a Christian,” they said, “I wouldn’t think twice about having people I know track you down and throw you in the Manchester Ship Canal with your pockets full of bricks.” After the welcome alms of the day before, the pints of Guinness, the wine, the noodles and chicken, the comfy bed, the spare key, those words were comparatively ominous and dark tidings, and Ryan revisited his intention to do as he was asked and steer the ship in the captain’s absence. No more abuse of trust.
So once he’d eaten his dry toast, he washed the dishes from the night before, then looked around again. Though it was clean and tidy he could see mosaics of dust and hair gathered in the corners of the wood-block floor, so hunted for the Hoover and found it in the airing cupboard in the hallway, where he noticed for the first time a book case. Alongside titles such as The Godfather, One was Not Enough, The Moors Murderers, The Krays and Ghost Story Anthology were rows and rows of travel books, no doubt chronicling Chris’ foreign exchanges: China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, The South Americas, USA and Moscow. And on the bottom shelf there were vinyl albums showing equally eclectic musical travel: Slade, Pink Floyd, Queen, The Stone Roses, Radiohead, Coldplay, Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Abba, The Kinks, Bach, Elgar, Orff… Ryan pondered these a moment then hunted for a record player which he found in Chris’ bedroom, where he smelled the familiar smell he’d smelled on the man. The bed had been made regimentedly and the en suite shower stunk of Aramis. And then he began to Hoover the entire flat to A Night at the Opera at full blast, livingroom, hall and two bedrooms off. His life these past few days had been full of unexpected turns, this the latest, weirdest and the most fun of all. He knew very well he was playing at being a homeowner, but after living rough for what felt like years he was determined to enjoy the game – this was the house-proudness of a homeless young man.
When he’d cleaned the place up he decided to head into town, have a walk down Deansgate to try and find his old mate Michael in the Northern Quarter. Last he heard he was running a business there, selling vintage clothing, probably a spin-off from his Jewish father’s tailoring outfit. He knew it was a longshot but he had a tenuous notion of having a few pints together, watching the perfunctory game against the Belgians. It felt odd leaving this swanky block, using a key to lock a door, the first time he’d done so since living with his Auntie Doreen and her wanker of a boyfriend, which was ages ago. But it felt good too, like it felt good to speak to Chris’ neighbours, a gay German couple on the stairwell. Chris had given him the code to the front door so he was able to deftly leave the building as if it were his own, as if kipping on the streets was a world away.
It was another warm morning promising a scorching afternoon as he headed under the Deansgate railway bridge, across Whitworth Street then along towards the Beetham Tower which glistened richly in the sun, standing up tall and proud as if to say fuck the impoverished. He gazed over at the Indian restaurant that used to be The Pig and Porcupine where he’d played pool with Michael Ellenberg all those years ago when they were apprentices. He passed the cafes and bars on his right before crossing the road at Central then further down to the business end of Deansgate, where he’d cut the key that burned a hole in his conscience, and where there were further bars offering pavement culture to those who could afford to be so cultured. He fancied a pint but had no money, and was reminded why he was here in the first place – to sort his life, get a job, stay clean and find his dad. But a drink was the main thing right now, the walk had worked up a thirst along with the familiar resentment of not having money to get so much as half of Guinness.
By the time he reached the Northern Quarter, now alive with shoppers, petty businesspeople and drop-outs lurking in the smell of skunk, it was 1pm. He headed for Oldham Street where he believed Michael’s business to be, and after scoring a miss at one or two establishments he eventually found what he was looking for, a small independent tailor above a large premises that looked like it was once a buzzing factory. Over the door it said Ellenberg’s, and an arrow went upwards, now faded. He headed up the stairs and vying with the mustiness he could smell the sweeter smell of cloth amid the whirr of sewing machines and conversation. At the top of the stairs he turned left towards an open door and followed the voices, then saw they belonged to two Asian women sewing effortlessly while one spun some yarn about her boyfriend’s cock and the other laughed. But suddenly they saw Ryan and instantly stopped their labours.
“Can I help you?” said one, blowing a bubble with her gum and clearly surprised that someone should darken the door.
“I’m looking for Michael,” he said.
“Yea, Michael Ellenberg.”
“He means the bloke did a runner a couple of years ago,” said the second woman.
“Oh. He’s not here love,” said the first, killing another bubble with an accomplished pop and without the merest smudge of her lipstick.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?” he said, thinking even while he was speaking it was a stupid question.
“Shouldn’t think he’ll be back at all if he’s any sense,” she said, “hadn’t paid the rent in yonks. Place is run by Abdul now. We’re like his seamstresses.”
“Last I heard he was in London or somewhere,” said the other.
“Less he’s been shot,” said the first, “buried underneath a block of flats,” and then they both started laughing again.
“Right thanks,” said Ryan, and headed disappointed back down into the sun.
Less he’s been shot? He didn’t like the thought of it but wouldn’t be at all surprised. Along with his disappointment and concern he felt a selfish frustration; he was hoping for a float, or even a job, but now that wasn’t likely. Still, he considered, it was a longshot, there was no saying Michael would even remember him let alone welcome him with open arms, and perhaps with his run of luck of late with Rachel and Chris, he’d used up all his credits. So with these existential thoughts he began to head back to Chris’ flat. For some reason he was feeling hungry again, and though there were only underpants in the fridge he knew there was a bit more bread left. Chewing on a piece of that, he’d think again about the next step forward.
After the fuggy cocktail of down-trodden art deco, dusty streets and weed, the commercial end of Deansgate offered a marked contrast; more traffic, better-heeled where litter, beggars and spice junkies would be made to look and feel out of their league. And once again it was here that Ryan wished he could walk in a bar and order a drink like it was some sort of normality, like he was still playing the game of ownership; the Living Room, the Moon Under the Water, why couldn’t he just walk in there, and why did he have to feel that though he was dressed in his new jeans he couldn’t go in because he still didn’t have a pot to piss in? And then he was soon here, approaching a new apartment block that contained the wealth of upwardly-mobile thirty-somethings, using the code Chris had given him, using the key to Apartment 13 as if he were one of those thirty-somethings.
He’d planned on having his bread then another go of that comfy bed, but when he entered he was surprised to hear a voice.
“And is Christina alright?” it said.
Cautiously Ryan entered the living room, where confusion turned to shock to see a woman on the settee, in her sixties, dressed and made up immaculately, on the phone. “Who the hell are you?” she said, startled by his presence.
“Christopher there’s a young man here calling himself Ryan. Would you care to shed some light?”
Not knowing precisely what to do, Ryan just hovered, listening to what was obviously Chris’ voice muffled on the other end of the phone.
“Right,” she said, “And did you not consider telling me this? … Listen, I’ll call you later when I’ve dealt with him, OK?” And with that, she ended the call and looked at Ryan. “So? You’re here to water the plants?”
“Well, to sort of house-sit,” said Ryan, “I’m a friend of Chris’s.”
“Really?” she said, rising from the settee and coiling her blonde hair around an ear as if she needed to hear him right, “And would you like to tell me since when this friendship began?”
“Since yesterday,” said Ryan.
“Since yesterday?” she said, “You go back a long way then?”
“He let me kip in the spare room last night.”
“I see. So are those your underpants in the fridge?”
“No I assumed they were his.”
“I worry about that man,” she said.
“You must be his wife,” said Ryan.
“Ex-wife. So he gave you a key is that it? Or are you a squatter?”
“I told you. He asked me to look after the place for him. Look, I’ll give you the key if you want me to do one.”
“No you go for it,” she said, “If he wants you to look after it then look after it. The man probably forgot that I drop in on things once in a while.”
“Have to admit it was a bit weird. I only asked if he knew of anywhere with a pool table and suddenly were were having a couple of drinks then he was cooking for me.”
“And getting pissed as a fart on wine by the look of things,” she said, stabbing her finger at the two empty bottles on the balcony.
“So do you want me to do one or not?”
“Oh sit yourself down,” she said, seemingly relaxing, “He owns the place and if he wants you to mind it for him that’s his business. Least I can do is find out who you are.”
“My name’s Ryan,” he repeated, still standing.
“I recognised you from the pictures. Your daughter looks like you.”
“Christina?” she said, “Yes I suppose she does.”
With these fundamentals done and an uncomfortable pause, Ryan finally sat down at the kitchen counter where he and Chris had eaten their chicken and noodles the night before.
“He said he was going to Abersoch to see her.”
“Yes he’s there now.”
“I’m from Liverpool,” he said, “Well, not far away.”
“I guessed,” she said.
“But I came here to find my dad. I’ve been homeless you see?”
“Have you eaten?”
“He did some toast before he left.”
“Bed and breakfast.”
“Well I haven’t eaten at all and I’m starving.”
And so it was that ten minutes later, Ryan found himself in one of the bars on Deansgate Locks, a swanky place with mock-industrial décor called Bar Tram nestled into the railway arches, ordering a pint of lager because there was no Guinness, and a burger with something called slaw.
“So what do you do?” she asked, pouring her wine, “I’m not being rude. I meant what did you do before you were homeless?”
“I was a footballer.”
“Are you pulling my leg?”
“I’m a bit of a Liverpool fan.”
“That’s your problem,” he said, and they laughed. “So what do you do?”
“When I’m not taking the day off to come and check on my senile ex-husband I do as little as possible, darling,” she said.
“I think I understand that,” he said.
“I’ve been on at him to flog that apartment and move on. The newer apartments are far better than the tiny one he’s got.”
“He said something about that,” said Ryan, “It’s a nice place though, he keeps it nice I mean.”
“Reasonably I suppose, though I worry underpants in the fridge are the thin end of a wedge. He bought it when we split up, thinking he’d have himself some city life, man about town and all that, while I remained in the family house in Styal.”
“Living in Styal eh?” he said, and she laughed and said quite.
Amid a short pause and a sip of his lager, he really looked at her and thought he would. Tall, slim, long blonde hair carefully tongued, blue eyes and from where he sat he could see a tanned thigh as her shortish skirt had hitched up, in all honesty making something go on in his pants. He couldn’t help feeling she knew he’d clocked this, and couldn’t help also feeling delusional excitement that she made no attempt to rectify matters.
“Thank you Dianne,” she said, as the waitress arrived with his burger with something called slaw and her smoked salmon with asparagus. And so as they ate he began to relate his tale, about how his dad had encouraged him from an early age, bought him his first pair of football boots, taught him how to play and then one day upped and left, and how his mother turned to drink and got run over. He told her how he’d lived with his auntie for a while but came to blows with her boyfriend and ended up moving out. And how he’d lived rough, drifted, ever since, but always had some nagging doubt about the circumstances of his father’s disappearance, and that his cousin in Omagh said there were things he didn’t know.
“Intriguing,” she said, simply.
“It wasn’t sudden,” he said, feeling self-conscious, not least about eating in front of such a classy woman, “wanting to find him like. I always felt the pain, always wondered where he was, always wanted to find him. Then recently…”
“Recently what?” she asked, taking a sip of her wine.
“I found myself in church. It was last Christmas Eve, and this girl gave me a tissue because I was crying. I think I told her I expected him to be there, but of course he wasn’t. And then the other day I saw her again, and she’d recently lost her dad as well, but he was dead, and she wanted me to spend the night with her, in her house in Formby.”
“Really?” she said.
“Nothing like that. She just wanted company like.”
“And then you travelled to Ireland?”
“And then I travelled to Ireland. But my cousin said he’d gone back to Manchester owing money. We had words, he said there were things I don’t know but wouldn’t tell me what. I hate that bastard. So I nicked his dope and he texted me to say I was a thief like father like son, so I threw my phone over the side of the boat and said good riddance.”
It was a long and desultory speech, but Judy seemed to have taken in every single word and watched him with growing interest.
“Thank you Dianne that was lovely,” she said as the waitress came to clear their plates, “And could you tell Pierre I’d like a word?”
“’Course I will, Judy,” said Dianne.
Confused, Ryan said he’d noticed she seemed to know the waitress and asked if she was a regular in this bar.
“A regular?” she said with a laugh, “Darling I own it.”
“Right,” he said, beginning to wonder if he could get his head around it all.
“And I was wondering,” she said, “Besides football and flat-sitting, do you have any other experience? Bar work for instance?”