It was the cruellest of wake-up calls. Floating blissfully downriver, the clockwork stars clanking into place far above him. And all the while, the cigarette was burning down in the corner of his mouth, glowing with each laboured sleeping breath ‘til it met and, in a fraction of a second, flash-seared his lips. He bolted forward in the seat in the white light of pain, spitting the butt, and the ash that had gathered on his chest, onto the carpet with the wordless caterwaul of the wounded animal. It was some time before he composed himself, shook off the urge to throw-up and remembered who he was.
The night before was a century away. She was a bitter mistress, the single malt. The record was still skipping a Tourette’s mantra on the turntable. A skylight, curtainless, shone the piss-weak light of a winter’s day down on the empty bed. Cracked plates and bottles were scattered about like a mad woman’s shit. A fish, the wrong way up, was slowly circumnavigating the bowl. How he got back to the flat was a mystery, staggering, eyes closed no doubt, some strange internal radar guiding him home as always.
It was late in the day. He could feel it before he even looked out over the rooftops. Hadn’t rained in weeks, the clouds swamping the streets. In the old days they’d read them for signs, messages, witness god’s psychosis as the sky cracked in lightning storms and hurricanes. They’d divine the future from cloud formations, flocks of birds, the flight of arrows, scatterings of dust. It was all a crock of shit of course. Nothing was predestined. God was gone. The future was only how far you could outrun the past before it catches up. Still he had a lingering feeling of dread, one worse than usual. He caught a glimpse of a mirror as he left, an old man looked back.
The café light was flickering, humming like a trapped insect. He took a seat at the back. A woman was gazing absent-mindedly into the cigarette smoke, looking for portents. There was a small sign above the dumb waiter, “Persons are forbidden to enter this lift/enclosure.” There’s a story behind that he thought, some idiot’s demise. The waitress placed the plate in front of him. He knew instantly he couldn’t eat any. His stomach was tied in a shroud knot. He nudged the food around, went through the motions of chewing, then finally pushed it away.
Night was falling early. The clocks had gone back without telling him, winter was in full advance. A plane came in to land out on the horizon. Three lights rotating in the dark; the father, son and the holy ghost. He took the first few blind steps into the bar, nodded to the barman as his eyes accustomed to the dark. Draping his coat round the back of the stool, he unfolded the paper from under his arm knowing he wouldn’t read it. A scattering of empty heads sat around the place, some stuck in blathering orbits, some exploring the sullen mysteries of the solitary drinker. You wonder what went on in the head of another, but that way lies madness. You barely know what goes on in your own.
Someone told him once, you pass the day you will die every year. An antichrist birthday. God knows who it was, another name gone into the ether. But they had a point. April Fools. All Souls. New Years Day. Or some dull Tuesday. Made you wonder. He knocked back the double, felt the familiar burn then the glow then the sink.
The kid was gone. He’d been giving him the evil eye across the bar. Tried to place him but couldn’t. Something familiar. Unsettled him. He’d felt his eyes burning into him. On the way to the bogs, he even swore he’d muttered something to him. When he returned, thank Christ, he was gone.
His head was fucked, memories all misplaced. What did he do last night? Where did his years go? Yet there were some things he could not forget.
He toasted his ghosts across the table. To hell with every last one of you. He ordered another. Make it a treble. Such thoughts wouldn’t unthink themselves.
When he ran out of scrap he belatedly left. Beneath the gloam of the streetlight, he was rummaging through his pockets for smokes when something stirred behind him.
“D’you remember me?”
He turned, focused. It was the kid.
“Do you fuck! But I remember you… CUNT!”
He held his hands up, “Listen, whatever it is…” but gave up without finishing. And he knew, without precognition, that in this minute, in this street, before the kid even slide the bottle down from inside his sleeve, that things would not go well for him. He’d run out of road. Things catch up.