Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Old Man And The Cheese

Pic: Patricia Varela/Flickr

The door squeaked behind him, as it did every evening when the old man walked in. He turned and smiled at Mr Dutt, who was teaching his granddaughter how to add using two ivory dice.

The little girl was counting each dot and Mr Dutt was trying to get her to remember that two and six are always eight, and five and four are nine - whichever way round they are. She preferred her way. It was more fun counting each dot, and she could spend more time with her grandfather.

The old man shuffled down the aisle, between the tins and racks of dusty birthday cards to the fridge at the back of the shop. He stopped for a moment at the cat food. Jessie still had half a tin. It was enough for tonight.

He opened the fridge door, pulling harder than he needed to, and felt the temperature of the cider tins. Mr Dutt was still doing five for four. Nine percent. Almost as strong as wine, but without the flavour. Just the distant notes of sour apples and cheap alcohol. It was enough for tonight.

He pulled ten cans from the back of the fridge and balanced them under his left arm in the crevices of his raincoat. It had been worn once by a country gent and spent its first year folded in the boot of his vintage car, before eventually finding its way to a charity shop where the old man had bought it three years ago, when his luck had changed.

The smell of five-star petrol had long been replaced with cider fumes and ripe cheese. The old man adjusted the cans and then stopped at the milk section as he did every night. He coughed frantically, hacking away at his lungs, and then stumbled towards the milk, and with his free hand grabbed a block of cheese and put it in his pocket. It had the curved shape of Edam.

He turned again unsteadily, regaining his balance, and shuffled towards the counter. Mr Dutt rolled his eyes and then the dice again. One and one. The little girl put a finger on each dot.

“One. Two!” she said.

“Snake eyes,” said the old man.

The little girl looked up at him and then giggled.

“Snake eye,” she said.

The old man pulled a handful of coins from his pocket, and waited for any change. The girl picked up the cans with both hands and slid them into a plastic bag.

“Put another one or the bag will split,” Mr Dutt said gently.

The old man opened the garage door and Jesse ran to greet him, rubbing her tail against his leg and mewing for her tin. He spooned out the pink sludge and collapsed on a grimy mattress on the concrete floor. It was the only thing he had left from the fire.

He pulled the cheese from his pocket, broke the wrapper with his two good teeth and then bit off a chunk, dissolving the cloying fat with a mouthful of cider. Then he bit off more, turning his mouth slowly, and grimacing at the pain in his back.

The old man woke with a half-empty can in his hand. The rest were crushed next to his mattress. Jesse was purring next to him. Winter was setting in. The embers from the tin can he warmed his hands on were long cold.

He gathered his coat around him and shut his eyes, hoping to sleep through the hangover. Not that he really had hangovers any more. He slept because it meant less time worrying about food and drink. I’d sleep all the time if I could, he thought. But who would look after Jesse? Besides, he didn’t have the strength.

The old man was praying in the railway arch, with a cardboard sign at his feet, as he did most days. The rain was pelting hard. The shoppers had their heads down. It was a bad day for begging. It had been a bad week for begging.

He was bent forward on his knees, his hands clasped in prayer as he’d seen the beggars do near Charles Bridge when he had money. Some of them could keep it up for hours. Cardboard the only cushioning for gravel-dented knees.

Some sat inside the cathedral and held their hands over candles. That’s too hard, he thought, even in this cold. It’s not the pain, it’s the blisters. Too long and they come out like yellow gobstoppers.

A woman looked down at him, and then looked away quickly. He could feel her pace quicken. An hour or so later, perhaps two, there was another drop. It sounded heavy - perhaps a nugget. Too light for a two-pound coin, and not a 50p - they give a different tinkle; something to do with the edges.

If he was right, and it was a pound, he had enough for four ciders and two tins of pink sludge. Or three cans and one decent tin of cat food with delicious jelly and juicy bits and gravy like the advert said.

Jesse was going off the pink sludge. She’d seen the advert as well. She stared at the telly and drooled. The woman snipped the pouch and had a whiff of the lamb casserole and poured it into a bowl, the jelly glistening away, and none of it had been lost on Jesse.

She’d seen that cat tucking in with its fat little cheeks and Equity card. There was more to the world than pink sludge. Her eyes had been opened. The Bishop was right. There was too much pester power in the world, and it wasn’t just what kids wanted for Christmas. Cats were in on it too.

Two cans of the strong stuff and a pouch of coq au vin with baby shallots, he thought. Then there was a double drop. A pair of 20s probably. They had the tinkle of 50s, but not the thump.

Then another drop. A heavier clatter this time. You often found that with begging, the old man thought. When you get a good drop another one follows. Someone sees someone give and it catches on. People are like sheep, he thought, especially in London.

No room to move, just follow the ones ahead. Works the other way too, mind. If people are in the mood for walking, looking you hard in the eye and shaking their heads, it catches on too. The herd has decided - it’s not a day for milking.

That’s why he liked to beg with his face to the floor. He didn’t get the hard looks, or the pity either. But there were always more hard looks than pity.

His stomach was rumbling. I bet Jesse’s is as well, he thought. Bad day for begging. People give more when it’s sunny. Hasn’t stopped raining for weeks. That’s what happens when the world gets warmer. The ache in his back was getting worse. He didn’t dare look in the bowl. Not yet.

Perhaps it was more than he thought. He remembered the time he’d spent an afternoon with his face to the floor without a single drop, and then got up to find a crisp £20 note in the bowl.

There wasn’t one this time, but there were a couple of nuggets. He counted the coins as best he could - £5.47. Not the worst day he’d had. But there were far better ways to make a living.

Two cans and a pouch of braised monkfish in gravy stock, or perhaps chicken in cheese with chives. His stomach gurgled again at the thought of the cat food. The only thing he’d eaten all day was half a sandwich he’d found in a bin and a few scraps from a box of fried chicken. Amazing how many people leave the skin.

He put the coins in his raincoat and held on to the wall as he clambered to his feet. His legs were numb, he couldn’t feel his boots. He held on to the wall until his head stopped spinning. The sickness was coming back, but he’d have to eat something first.

He hobbled down the street, his neck hunched against the rain, and his collar pulled tight. He heard the cheery jingle in his pocket.

The old man pulled open the door harder than he needed to. Mr Dutt was teaching his granddaughter to read. She looked up from her book and smiled.

“Snake eye,” she said.

The old man grinned and wandered off to the fridge. He picked out four cans of cider and then looked at the gourmet pouches. They were more than he thought. More than the advert said. He put back two cans. Ocean delicacies with whole shrimp, or duck and turkey?

He walked towards the counter, and staggered slightly at the milk section. But this time he couldn’t do it, however much he coughed. It wasn’t the new cameras. He’d stolen cheese a dozen times since then. It was something else.

He stood there staring at the milk. He couldn’t look at the cheeses. But he knew they were there. Wedges of Edam and amber blocks of Red Leicester, glistening under the lights, clammy moisture beneath.

He staggered again and did his trick, but his hand was still empty. The little girl walked past him, book in hand, and disappeared through the beaded curtain where her mother was cooking.

The old man put the cans and gourmet pouch on the counter. He reached into his pocket and began counting out the coins, staring at the green display. He hobbled to the door, his stomach gurning at the smells from the kitchen. The sickness was setting in. He looked at the rain thundering on the pavement.

He pulled his collar tight, and felt a tug on his trouser leg. He looked round. The little girl was looking up at him.

“You’ve forgotten something,” she said and handed him a block of cheese.

1 comment:

bill said...

This is a great piece of work - I really enjoyed reading it and wished it were longer... which is always a good sign.