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23. Meeting the Queen 25. Facebook Friends

August 25th, 2020

Eelbrook Common

Stumbling off the 22 bus outside the New Kings Road Vintage Guitar Emporium come two hangers on from the crowd who left a basement club in Soho over an hour ago. They spent a while wandering the side streets between Leicester square and Piccadilly before flagging down the bus at a corner by Green Park, long after the others would be crashed out at home. On the top deck they slurred and swayed, gazing at each other and the streetlights that went gliding by. They talked about the stupid things that went on outside of themselves, and nudged their elbows together, their hands brushing accidentally, on purpose. The New Kings Road Vintage Guitar Emporium is closed of course, but a light in the back is still on and the single bulb is reflected across the glossy bodies of racks upon racks of guitars. One of the bus-folk is standing at the window, his hands cupped over his eyes, forehead on the shutters that clatter as he unsteadily leans against them to squint through the small gaps, red-rimmed eyes reflecting the brass knobs and switches that glint golden in the darkness. Long strings of wound steel glow with the promise of music, and the flashing vibration of headlights that shine, glaring beams through the Emporium's shuttered glass. The other is standing, lilting slightly to one side, watching the cars go by, stretching their face which feels stiff and tired. They catch sight of their reflection in the dead screen of the bus shelter and open their eyes and mouth wide, scrunch their nose, wink with each eye, stick out their tongue. There's an awkward conversation to be had, the prospect exciting in its un-said-ness. The implications of their shared journey hang in the air between them, thick and musky with the anticipation sparked in the underground club in a dirty-chic corner of Soho. Perhaps they won't have the conversation at all, and they'll go the whole night with undisclosed passion sealed in touch and feel. In the dark of his room they will fumble and laugh, a smile and a nod at the cautious question that says 'Shall I?' He turns away from the shutters and closes his eyes, yawning and leaning back against the metal which clanks loudly. He looks for them, and finds them watching him, still pulling and pushing the skin on their face, now wide, now wrinkled and narrow, now laughing, now shocked. He laughs and mirrors, shock for shock, tongue for tongue, puppy-dog eyes for the same. They laugh and he finally takes their hand, pulling them in to him, so they stand together, their hand on his chest. The laughter stops, as something brighter fills their eyes. They stand together, their hand on his chest. I didn't realise they were taller than me, he thinks, enjoying the surprise. The man buckles. Like dead sticks held together with sellotape he sags and folds over himself on the floor. 'What the fuck!' He turns and they're standing with their hand over their mouth, pure wide-eyed terror in their eyes. He knows what they're thinking because his reaction is the same, it was clear in the way the man had fallen. They stand, stunned, over the crumpled figure. Cars go by on the New Kings Road, a bus stops outside the Vintage Guitar Emporium and a few people get off. One of them heads their way, hands deep in pockets, hood up. The two stand, stunned, with the shadowy pile between them. Ideas flash through his mind, each wild and born from panic. He thinks about the river, starting a fire, running away and leaving the other to take it; of calling the police, calling an ambulance, throwing himself in front of the 22. He thinks about his sister, his mum, his job and his boss, he looks into the eyes of the judge and silently pleads with the jury, he talks to the parole officer, gets turned down at an interview, sees the streets where he walks with no name and nothing. He sees the face of God, he prays to the angels, feels the fire of the world below. He itches and burns all over and sweats from every inch of his skin. A screen in his mind plays the news and his face is dark and sallow as the other stands in the road under the pillars, tears in their eyes as he walks from the courthouse to the car which takes him down. He feels the scraping of metal on his wrists, the prickle of rough cotton on his back. In orange. In black and white stripes. A ball and chain attached to his left ankle, he feels it weigh him down until he sinks to the ground with a wild, animal cry and bangs his fists against his head, shuddering at the jolt of pain that shoots down his wrist from the swollen knuckles on his right hand. The other is standing by, tears rolling quietly down. The man stirs. From the bundle of collapsed skin and bones a murmur groans. They both jump, he yelps and leaps to his feet, staggering backwards. An arm emerges and a hand grasps at the muddy grass. Something like a leg kicks backwards, hideous and malformed. A swelling, bent shape rises in the gloom and from the shadows comes a rattling breath from the man who moments before was nothing but damp rags in the night. The two are moving back together, transfixed by the figure standing before them. From under the dark hood the eyes of the man open and squint, glaring like a rabid animal. The tattoo on his forehead, an inky triangle, black against the pale skin that catches the light from the street lamps across the park, and glows ethereally. The three stand, none of them speaking, eyes glued to each other. A voice snaps them out of their stupor. The passenger from the bus has reached them. 'You alright?' They say. They all look around. The passenger is talking to him. He just stares. He looks back at the pale figure, who shakes his head and rubs his jaw. 'What the fuck was that for?' He says. 'What happened?' Says the passenger. 'He fucking punched me.' 'Are you alright?' The passenger is asking the other, who's eyes are still red and glossy with tears. 'Yeah. Yeah.' 'What the fuck was that for?' He says again. 'I don't...' He trails of, his hand throbbing, his head swimming with the faces he saw in the dark. The judge, the other, his mum, his sister, the man before him with the triangular tattoo, his eyes gaunt, sunken cheeks. 'What happened?' Asks the passenger. 'I only fucking asked for some fucking change.' 'Alright, go on.' 'What?' 'Go on, get out of here.' 'Are you fucking kidding me?' 'Are you alright?' They asks again. The man is walking away, shambling into the shadows, one hand to his jaw. 'Fuck this.' He says as he reaches the river and turns under the bridge. 'Are you alright?' The passenger is standing with him now. The faces swirl in the night before him, the judge, his mum, the man with the triangular tattoo. 'Yeah. I'm fine.'

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