The night before pay day he’d be at the cash point waiting for midnight, and in work later that day people could tell he was drunk because he stank of it and had glassy eyes and there were traces of purple around his lips from finishing the night on rum and black. When there were still gardens in Piccadilly Gardens he’d crash out on a bench under trees and make it into work on time from there.
His name was Eddie Greenhall. He was forty five. His brown hair had turned quickly grey in his early thirties and a circle had emerged on the crown. He didn’t love his wife, Mary, and knew she didn’t love him, but neither could be alone and getting older. She looked after the kids and sometimes still accommodated his lustful advances. His face was forever red, and his nose a degenerating puce, but she closed her eyes and still needed to feel him, and they made a brilliant disguise of whatever they did like about each other in virulent arguments where Mary always had the last word.
A week after pay day Eddie would have no money left for drinking and so spend the rest of the month in front of the TV, or put on headphones and listen to his Roy Orbison albums. Most nights he’d read to his kids and watch as they succumbed to sleep in the glow of the bedside lamp, before treading lightly down the thinly carpeted stairs to Mary, sat silent and smoking cigarettes in the glow and better company of the television.
The warehouse stocked fixtures and fittings for industrial heating units, and Eddie had been there since leaving school at sixteen. He’d started in telesales but soon realized he didn’t like offices and telephones so they put him in the warehouse where he began on picking and packing, then did forklift truck driving until the accident, before coming back as the Goods Inward clerk, where he’d signed for deliveries and checked goods off against invoices for the best part of twenty years.
On the first day working in the warehouse he sat in a dusty armchair next to Tony Alcock, waiting for the foreman Keith Taylor to sort out the delivery notes for the drivers, and watching as drivers and warehouseman loaded steel pipes and oily bags and boxes onto the back of wagons. The steel shutter doors at either end of the warehouse let in the winter and Eddie kicked together the steel toe-caps of his new boots, trying not to look at the hands on the clock that didn’t seemed to move above Keith Taylor’s head.
Eddie sat next to Tony until morning break, when all the wagons had gone and the shutter doors had been closed and the other warehouse staff went for coffees from the machine in the office. He and Tony had to move onto even scruffier chairs that were less comfortable, and then sat listening to Key 103 on the radio. Some of the other lads read tabloids, some opened Tupperware boxes and ate sandwiches, and others waited until one lad came back from the butty shop, with either egg on toast, or bacon and sausage on toast, or whatever it was they’d asked for. Tony was told he’d be going to the butty shop from then on, and when the bell rang in Goods Inward, Keith told him to get off his arse and answer the door. Later that day someone called Tony ‘No Balls’ and he was shoved into a shopping trolley, then taped and bound into it with string, before being wheeled out and left behind the trade counter by Eddie, to be laughed at by the blokes waiting in the queue. No Balls found it funny and was happy to help when Eddie and the lads gave the same treatment to those who started in the warehouse after that, the majority of whom could take the joke, save one lad who cried when it came on top of a morning looking for sky nails and glass hammers, and who didn’t come back the next day, and who made that next day a bit grim until someone said he was a soft bastard and any guilt left was laughed away.
Sitting at his desk in Goods Inward, with the heater keeping his legs warm and his woolly blue and white striped Oldham Athletic hat covering his ears from the draft through the cracked windows, Eddie fell briefly into thoughts about the big picture of his life, until the bell rang and he got up to keep his finger on the button, watching as the shutter door furled open. He saw the yellow van with the red DHL sign, and the opened back doors and the one female driver that ever came.
‘All right, Eddie. Three for you. There’s the first two,’ she said, pointing to cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other on the floor that Eddie picked up and put on the back of a little flatbed truck. ‘And there’s your other, three of three.’
Eddie put the third box on the wooden truck as she flicked through her book and found where he had to sign, and then he signed and watched as she tore out his copy, gave it to him and climbed back into the van. He picked up the long metal ‘T’ of the handle and dragged the wooden truck towards his desk.
Every time she got him to sign the book she held it for him and he could see the outline of her bra through the yellow of the company polo shirt, and how she burst a bit over the cups, and every time she did it she had the same effect on him and must have guessed as much, and he thought that maybe she did the same all day to lots of different men starved of the sight of women in warehouses all over Manchester, and that it perhaps helped her get through the day too.
He kept his finger on the button to close the shutter door and started to get busy with the deliveries, lifted like he was after every time he saw her, and that every time the bell rang made him hope for her, even though it was usually just some little fat bloke stressed out and rushing, or lonely and rambling and keeping the conversation going long after Eddie had got cold and heard enough. He thought briefly of asking the DHL woman’s name, but then was aware of the belly that hid his own feet, and the itchy skin that blotched his face, and instead thought of the week after pay day, and the short walk to Three Coins and the first cool pint of bitter, and the ten more after that took him to serene sleep, via Tommy Duck’s, beneath the trees and stars on the soft as a bed feeling benches of Piccadilly Gardens.
On the night of his 21st birthday, after he’d turned down his parent’s half-hearted offer of a party and not told anyone at work about it, Eddie took part in the annual stock take at the warehouse. It started at 8pm on Friday night and carried on for twelve hours through that night until 8am on Saturday morning, so as not to affect distribution, and was paid at time and a half, and was referred to as ‘8 while 8’. For the best part of twelve hours, not including breaks, Eddie counted fixtures and fittings out of wooden lockers into bags before emptying them back into the lockers and tucking a little card behind the label, with a number on it that might be five, or five hundred, or five thousand. And it was when he was counting into the thousands of close taper nipples that he first felt the futility it; first felt that somehow the extra on his pay slip wasn’t worth it; first felt the regret that he’d always have of being too shy for a 21st party and not wanting to cause a fuss, until, eventually, he saw the hope of light at five in the morning - the first light shining on his 22nd year - and he wished he was drunk and anywhere but where he was, standing hunched over in navy blue overalls and steel toe-capped boots, with oil blackened hands and sweat cooling under his armpits and on his aching back, counting objects he didn’t know the purpose of out of splintered wooden lockers in shady corridors, over cold floors where poison sat in boxes in the corners and the air was damp with cold and rust under a sheet metal roof that kept out the sun and the sky.
When 8am came and everyone cheered up and the alarm was set and the warehouse door was padlocked behind them, Eddie made his way through the industrial estate and saw condoms and beer cans on the floor, and a bottle blonde with a fur coat and knee length brown boots getting out of a car, showing a long stretch of pale white, almost light blue, bruised thigh, the back of which wobbled with wrinkles as she adjusted her skirt and stood on the corner and asked Eddie as he passed if he wanted any business. But it was all Eddie could do to make it to the bus stop, where he swayed, aching for the 81 and sleep and the day he saw an affordable Escort in Exchange & Mart. And when he did get back on the bus he looked through the window at the woman and despite himself felt the beginnings of lust for her, and felt the sadness and desperation of that and her as he fell asleep and ending up missing his stop, so that he had to pay again when the bus turned around in Oldham town centre. At home he didn’t go straight to bed like he wanted to, but instead sat at the kitchen table and ate the bacon butty that his smiling Mum had left under the grill.
Feeling sad at both his memories and the thought of the DHL driver, Eddie switched on the cassette player and put in the For the Lonely tape, and sang into the handle of a sweeping brush as one of his favourite songs, In Dreams, reverberated around the white painted brick walls of the warehouse: ‘A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman, tiptoes to my room every night, just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper, go to sleep, everything is all right.’
A new lad had started, and was going to be helping Eddie in Goods Inward, and he looked a bit bemused as the forty five year old man with the beer belly standing before him swayed around with his sweeping brush. Eddie could see the lad’s bemusement and revelled in the audience, and when Oh Pretty Woman came on he picked up the sweeping brush and held it sideways like a guitar, and pretended to play it as Roy the boy’s haunted tones rang out over shrink-wrapped boxes and pallets piled with fixtures and fittings.
The new lad was called Nick, and Eddie saw how rapidly Nick’s enthusiasm had begun to fade as he fully realized the nature of the job and how tiring it was. Already Nick had had the piss taken out of him by the other lads because in his tiredness he kept sitting down, and soon enough there was a tell-tale black mark on the arse of his otherwise clean new overalls that showed him to be lazy, and maybe weak, and maybe not up to the work.
Eddie showed him what to do with delivery notes and invoices, and how to use a pump truck, and whereabouts in the warehouse particular fixtures and fittings had to go. He took him upstairs and showed him the idiosyncrasies of the goods lift that could keep you imprisoned for hours at a time, but that if you felt like a rest gave you the perfect excuse.
Nick took it all in pretty quickly and Eddie thought about the job he was doing that could be easily learned in a matter of days, and was only surprised that it took so long for Nick to leave. He said he was going to University, and Eddie wished he’d done something similar when he was young enough, but with the hard work and the boozing and the family to keep he’d not even considered it before. He knew too late that the best jobs, and more importantly the best paid jobs, were the ones where you used your brain, and that the job you had would always sum you up to people, right or wrong.
When he’d moved out of the office and into the warehouse the idea of physical work appealed to Eddie more than being cooped up behind a desk waiting for the telephone to ring, or talking on that telephone to people who’d never have the bravery to talk to him like that in person. But now, in his forty sixth year, with big sloping shoulders and strong arms still, a permanent niggle in his back, a cantankerous ulcer and an occasionally aching liver, he sometimes thought of how his life might have been, working in a job where he wasn’t physically knackered every night and that dulled his brain’s reactions with fatigue and under-use, and where he still had the energy to do more than just go to the pub and drink deeply, feeling a pleasure in and reliance upon the refreshment of booze that only men who work with their hands can really know.
During the second year, when sleep was even more troubled than in the first, he looked at the thin line of light under his door and remembered a school trip to the Peak District, and seeing a man with a border collie seemingly floating across the heather, and thinking to himself how that would be a great way to be. That youthful day in summer, on a weekday in Edale, with nobody around save a gang of schoolmates and Mr Miller, they’d got off the train and into the landscape that had emerged and risen from the windows in the minutes before, among green hills beneath blue skies marked by fading vapour trails. They walked through the village and up Grindsbrook, following the stream that started in a gush and turned into sparkling trickles until they reached the top of the climb and a plateau of dried black peat and thick heather. He could see all around to Oldham and Manchester, and Derbyshire, and he remembered aeroplanes that seemed so low, and as they walked along the spongy peat filled with overlapping footprints he listened to all the birdsong and looked down at the white flowers around his feet that shook so slightly in the freshening breeze. He saw hares springing among their camouflage, and grouse rustling away through the heather, and birds swooping and rising and teasing in a tiny air show all around them; and as he lay on his bed he thought that he should go again; get the train back there, if only to confirm such dreams of freedom and youth.
It was the accident that gave Eddie another and bigger reason for his drinking. It had been a long time ago now, and only Keith Taylor, who was still foreman, remained from those years before. It was the accident that meant he no longer drove the forklift; and the accident that meant he lost his driving licence and spent two and a half years inside; and that left him so fearful of getting behind a wheel he’d never driven a car again.
It was that first week after pay day, and, as was his habit at the time, Eddie had a few pints of bitter after work before driving his battered Ford Escort home, having something to eat with Mary and then going back out without the car to his local. That particular night he decided to drive home a slightly different way than usual, to avoid the extra traffic in town caused by a European game at Eastlands.
The white blur bounced up off the front of the car and into the windscreen before him, which cracked, and he watched the football flung into the air from the boy’s hands. He pulled the handbrake on and put the gears into neutral and switched off the engine and left the car where it was, in the middle of the road, barely five yards from the body. A boy racer came speeding up behind and revved his engine and beeped his horn for Eddie to move the car, somehow not seeing. And Eddie remembered the screaming woman, and the man who punched him into bushes; and he remembered sitting dazed among those bushes until the police came and told him to blow through a straw.
When he came out to graffiti on his house, and dog shit and worse dropped through his letterbox, it took him a further few months of abuse before finally Eddie and his family were able to move to a town where his picture in the local paper had been less memorable, and where most if not all people just saw him as a bloke in his twenties, with a wife, who didn’t have a car and so caught the bus to work. And as the years passed only Keith Taylor remained from that time and never said anything to anybody about how and why Eddie got his job back.
Kevin Whitley had been unemployed since losing his job at a bakery outside Oldham, and had long since stopped having to get up in the small hours to drive through dark silent streets to Park Cakes. The people at the dole office sent him on adult literacy courses, but he just sat there looking at the jumbles on the white board and getting lost in the nervous words of the tutors.
Once, when he’d put his head down on the desk in exasperation, the bloke with thinning hair and beads around his neck and black denims on standing at the front told him to read some of the words on the board, and when he laughed and was nervous and couldn’t, the tutor made him try not once, not twice, but three times to read the words out. And so for the next few Tuesday afternoons Kevin sat attentively in his chair, entirely co-operative and learning nothing.
He lived in what the Housing Association called a maisonette. It backed onto a canal, and sometimes he would sit in the yard with a fishing line thrown over the fence. In summer he could see when barges were coming because of the ripples that preceded them, and he’d frown at the people on those barges – most often old couples, sometimes with a little dog – as he lifted his line out of the water.
For the last ten years his only intimacies had been on holiday in Thailand, and the last time he’d gone he’d been close to bringing a girl back with him. She was called Theva and he met her in Bangkok and she cost him 500 baht a night. He’d seen her first on the stage, where she put razor blades inside herself and took them out again, and magic markers that she took back out and drew childish pictures with. She emptied a bottle of milk inside herself and then put the bottle in too, and looked right into his eyes as she did it. He knew it was crazy but he had the money, and the first night he took her back to his hotel she went down on him like nobody had before, and made so much noise and made herself available in so many different ways, and was so intense, that when he sobered up he was a bit scared, at least until the end of the next night’s show when he waited for her again, emboldened by a dozen tequilas.
On the last night of his holiday they had unprotected sex. She asked him for his home telephone number, and suggested that she come to England, and he remembered everything during the flight home and felt disgusted. But for all that, when he lay in his own bed alone with his hands on only himself, he still wished he had the money to go back to Thailand.
Now his mind was opened up to the things that Theva did, he started looking for them again in the privacy of his bedroom. The broadband connection had come in a cheap package with the TV and telephone, and through it he could find women who would remind him of Theva but didn’t want his money or a visa. He looked at many different websites that catered to a variety of tastes, and soon he was filling the base of a coffee mug thanks to all kinds of women; and one in particular called Camilla Lopez, and he watched her so much and on so many different websites that even his dreams began to contain her, and he saw himself doing to her what he’d only ever seen other men and women doing on a screen. On the street, or in a shop, he began to look at every woman as though she were performing a sex act, looking particularly at her lips and thinking of what he had to put there.
With a limited amount of money to last him every fortnight he couldn’t afford to go out much. When he’d been out with the one or two friends he’d known from Park Cakes it was obvious that now they didn’t work together they no longer had that in common, and so after a few old jokes the conversation died. And when one of the lads phoned up again, Kevin thought of how little money he had and said no to the invitation, and just went to the off licence for four cans of lager.
Awake in bed because he’d done nothing to make himself tired, one day in particular kept returning to his mind, and he began to see it as the day that had led into all his others. It seemed to him as though he could remember exactly what had happened.
‘Come over here, I want to show you something,’ said the foreman. ‘Now I know we’ve been having a bit of a laugh with you this morning, but we need you to have a look at this shopping trolley you were using before.’
‘This isn’t another wind up is it?’
‘No, no. Look, Eddie says there’s something wrong with one of the wheels.’
Kevin bent over to look, and when he did so, Eddie and Tony grabbed his back legs. He fought against them, but then Nick and Keith joined in too, and he stopped kicking like a struggling pet and subsided as though injected, trying and failing to smile as Tony picked up a tape gun and went round and round the trolley with it, and Eddie loosened a ball of string and fastened that round his waist, and across the top of the trolley and right round and under it, tighter and tighter so that he felt it on his ribs, and then they stuck the yellow cone on his head, and taped his mouth and with a marker pen drew a moustache on the tape and a beard on his face, before finally Eddie wheeled him out behind the trade counter, where Kevin sat watching as the queue of men, young and old, laughed and laughed, until finally, one of the company directors heard the noise from the office and came out and laughed briefly too, before wheeling Kevin back into the warehouse and, stifling a smirk, telling Keith to get Kevin out of the trolley.
Tony and Eddie were still laughing as they got knives and cut away the tape and the string, and Kevin pushed them away and struggled out of the trolley on his own, tipping it over before standing up.
‘He looks like one of those Amish fuckers!’ said Keith, pointing to Kevin’s face, and everyone cracked up again.
In the toilet, Kevin scrubbed and scrubbed, using Swarfega and hot water, and his cheeks were red and dripping by the time he got most of the marker pen off. That afternoon he felt like people were laughing at him still, even people who’d only heard about it in the office and who came out to smoke and to snigger.
That night, at home in his bedroom, in his parents’ house, he did press ups on the floor until he was exhausted and went to bed planning a defiant return the next day. But when he got up in the morning, to the sound of the alarm in the dark, his first thoughts were of the laughter, and his stomach sank and he lost any conviction the press ups had given him, and when his mum came in thinking he’d slept through the alarm he told her he was ill, and listened to her unquestioning sympathy and the muffled argument she had with his dad, before his dad went off to work.
He remembered seeing the picture in the paper and connecting it immediately to that workplace, and now it seemed like something he could do; something he might be capable of; something that might redress a kind of imbalance.
Careless of his lack of insurance and tax, he put a few quid in the petrol tank of his car and drove into town before rush hour, parking up on a side street of the industrial estate. He didn’t quite know what he was doing there, but he did know that he wasn’t interested in the hookers who lingered, shivering in the glow of streetlights.
After the first week he put a few more quid in the tank and spent another week watching the door of the warehouse. He saw the fat man, who all the first week had gone straight to the bus stop. Now the man was going to the pub first instead, and he realized the bastard was still drinking. With his hands sometimes whitening on the wheel, he waited and then watched as an hour or so later the fat man crossed over the road to the bus stop. It must be him, Kevin thought. It would be too much of a coincidence for it not to be; he must have just been losing his hair; put on weight, grown a lot older.
Rain covered the windscreen, and he flicked the wipers when he could no longer see through the spots. It was dark, and had been for most of the day; was like that most days now. The workers came out in the same order every night, never noticing him as they rushed into their cars, or off to the train station or bus stop. And almost to the second, there he was, the old bastard, waddling past the pub as he’d hoped. Kevin started the car and drove it to the junction near the bus stop, and when the fat man started to cross over he put his foot down and swung left onto the main road, where he was crashed into from behind and sent across the chevrons into the line of oncoming traffic, one car of which hit him side on and spiralling into a brick wall next to a betting shop.
He opened his eyes to see the roof of the car inches from his face and drifted in and out of consciousness as the firemen cut him from the wreckage. When he was lifted into the ambulance by the paramedics he saw the bus stop where the queue had been.
It was the middle of the night, and as a result of a combination of painkillers he was feeling both drowsy and ill at ease. His neck was still in a brace, and in front of him were motionless lumps of bodies under white sheets. When the nurse came she stopped and picked up his bedpan.
‘Is everything all right, Kevin?’ she asked, softly.
‘Are you sure?’ Let’s have a little look.’
She pulled back the sheets and looked down without disgust. Kevin was brought more fully to consciousness by his embarrassment and could only sit there as, smiling, she quietly slid away the spoiled white of the bedclothes and clothing and he waited on the moonlit ward as she came back with clean replacements.
When he left he waved to the nurse on his way out, but she just busied herself with another patient. He smiled to himself as he walked into the cold air that showed him his breathing, and then considered for a moment before getting into a taxi.
A few weeks after returning home, when the silence of his rooms became louder than the fear of leaving them, he had a few beers in Oldham before getting on the 81.
‘So who’s Tommy Duck?’ he said to the barman, a wiry man with jam jar glasses and smudged blue tattoos on both arms.
‘If I had a quid for every time someone asked me that.’
‘They reckon that when some bloke came to do the sign there wasn’t enough room to paint Tommy Duckworth’s, so it ended up as Tommy Duck’s.’
‘Oh right. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Afraid so. That’s all I was told anyway.’
‘Well, cheers, now I know. I’ll have another one.’
It was near closing time when the old man turned up, swaying and glassy eyed. He stood next to where Kevin leaned on the bar, beneath the collection of yellowed knickers hanging from the ceiling, and asked the barman with the jam jar glasses for a drink.
‘I was thinking you weren’t coming,’ said the barman, but before the old man could get his wits together enough to reply, Kevin said, ‘I’ll get these. And I’ll have another Carling, cheers.’
The old man thanked him and sat down in the corner on his own, at a table that was glass on top of a coffin, and with his face lit by the glow of the television. At closing time he got up and waved goodbye to the barman, and Kevin followed him out as the door was locked behind them.
Kevin didn’t feel the cold as he walked towards the centre of town through a trail of fading footprints. There was only a small queue at the taxi rank so he didn’t have to wait long, and after wiping condensation from the window of the moving cab, he saw the old man, shuffling towards Piccadilly Gardens, slowly disappearing in the snowfall.