FICTION: Wash by Joe McGuire

The old man closed the case and shut the clasps at each end. It felt heavy in his hand and as he bent to pick it up someone stepped onto the stage and covered him in shadow.

You done? a voice said.

He picked up the case and stood to look the person in the eye. The woman in front of him was taller and looked down at him through a pair of sunglasses that balanced on the end of her nose and hid her eyes from view.

Yes, he said, coughing through the cloud of cigarette smoke she blew from her nose and mouth when she spoke.

You were good, she said.

Thanks, he said.

Looking past her shoulder he saw the barman standing behind the counter drying a glass with a stained tea towel. Rubbing the glass the barman nodded at him and he nodded back from the stage.

You play here often? she said.

Once, twice a week, he said. Whenever he wants me.

You’re good, she said.

Thanks, he said.

How long you ‘been playing? she said.

He smiled and looked down at his feet. The leather on his shoes was starting to dry and crack along the crease where he bent his foot and from the way he stood he could feel the soles wearing through.

All my life, he said.

Who taught you? she said.

I did, he said. Listening to the radio.

The radio?

He nodded.

In the evenings, he said, after work.

She put the cigarette back into her mouth and the end turned from grey to white to orange and back again with the colours reflecting in her glasses. The smoke curled up towards the ceiling and spiralled in a string that disappeared in the darkness above the stage.

You’re good, she said again.

Thanks.

I’d like to hear you play again, she said. Where do you live?

Not far, he said.

Can you come here tomorrow?

I’ll see, he said.

Call me if you can.

She reached into the pocket of her coat and brought out a small white card with silver letters written on one side.

He took it from her hand and from the touch of her skin he felt her fingers were cold. He shivered at the touch and put the card into the back pocket of his trousers.

Thanks, he said.

She nodded at him and stepped aside to let him past. He walked through the cloud of smoke that hung in the air and stepped down from the stage and headed towards the bar. He sat down on one of the stools and rested the case between his feet on the floor. The barman nodded past him at the woman.

Who’s that? the barman said.

Not sure, he said. Some woman. Said I was good.

You are good, the barman said. Why I pay you what I pay you.

You don’t pay me anything, he said, smiling.

Well, the barman said, I try to.

He laughed and tapped the counter.

What do you want? the barman said.

Whiskey, he said.

He turned to look back at the stage.

The woman had gone. His stool and the speakers sitting either side of it were all that stood on the stage overlooking the bar and the drunken people sitting at the dusty scratched tables pushed against the walls.

There’s your drink, the barman said.

He nodded his thanks and looking back down gripped the drink tightly in one hand and felt the glass touch his lips. He shut his eyes and sighed. His arms and legs felt tense and he tipped the glass back and felt his tongue start to warm with the whiskey washing away the taste of the day.

Thanks, he said.

She ‘give you something? the barman said.

He leant to one side and reached into his back pocket and bringing out the card put it down on the counter. The barman put down the tea towel and the glass and picked up the card, reading it once and flipping it over to look at the back. The silver letters shone in the light and he finished his drink and put the empty glass back down.

You read this? the barman said.

Nope, he said.

Seems important.

How come?

Take a look, the barman said, handing him back the card.

He looked at it and cast his eyes over the letters and started to nod.

Fair, he said.

What’d she say?

Told me to call her, he said.

When you get home?

When I play next, he said. She wants to hear me play again. Asked me who taught me.

Why’d she ask you that? the barman said.

Not sure, he said. Guess she thought it might be someone important.

Was it?

Nope, he said, smiling. Taught myself.

Is that right? the barman said.

That’s right, he said.

How’d you do that?

Radio, he said again, after work.

The barman chuckled to himself. He grabbed another glass and started to wipe it with the tea towel.

Ain’t that something, the barman said. Just listening to the radio.

Yep, he said.

She didn’t say anything else?

Nope, he said. Just said I was good.

You are good, the barman said. Like no one else I ever heard.

Thanks, he said.

You want another?

Thanks, he said. But I better get going.

The barman reached underneath the counter and put an envelope down in front of him.

For the month, the barman said.

It’s fine, he said. You don’t have to do that.

You’ve got to take it at some point.

You let me play, he said. And you let me drink. That’s enough for me.

The barman looked at him for a few seconds before nodding. He looked in the old eyes and saw the green flecks in the grey glitter in the light from the bar.

You’re a good man, the barman said.

I’m just good, he said, picking up his case and patting the side.

That you are, the barman said. Goodnight, Roy.

Goodnight, he said.

He walked through the doors and out onto the street. A wave of sirens swept through the city and he turned and started to walk down the pavement and round the corner towards his home.

The steps outside his block were worn smooth and dipped down slightly in the middle. He took them one at a time and pressed the button for the flat below his.

Hello? a woman’s voice said. He heard a baby crying in the background.

It’s me, he said. Forgot my keys again.

He heard a sigh through the small speaker at the bottom of the box mounted on the wall.

I’ve got things to do, you know, the woman said.

I know, he said. I’m sorry.

Next time I won’t let you in, the woman said. Might teach you to start remembering.

Okay, he said. Sorry, he said.

The door buzzed and he pushed it open. He took the stairs slowly and stopped when he reached the top. His breathing was heavy and rattled as he walked towards the door at the end of the corridor. He kicked up the mat outside the door and stooped down to pick up the keys.

He unlocked the door and dropped the keys back down and kicked the mat back over them. Closing the door behind him he put down his case and hung his hat on the hook on the wall. He moved into the kitchen and put the kettle onto boil before sitting down in his chair in the lounge.

A picture frame sat on one end of the mantelpiece to his left. The woman inside the frame was smiling. Her hair was brown, curling across her neck and down her shoulders and her teeth shone white, creases forming around the edges of her green eyes as she smiled.

Looking at the picture, he smiled with her.

A smaller frame sat at the other end of the mantelpiece. Like the woman, a girl sat smiling at the camera with her white teeth shining bright in the black and white picture. The knot in her tie was too big for the collar of her school shirt.

He looked at the girl and reached into his pocket. Taking out the card he put it down on the small table in front of him and went into the kitchen to make his tea. He poured the water into the mug and looked through the window at the street outside. The road was bathed in the orange light of the streetlamps and he watched a cat trot across the road before hiding underneath a parked car.

He saw himself in the reflection.

He sighed and took a sip of his tea, letting the warmth spread through his head and chest before walking back over to the table and sitting back down. Turning on a lamp that hung over the back of his chair he looked down on the table and picked up the card. The letters shined as he moved it in the light.

The card was small. Two lines of letters crept across the top of the card with a telephone number at the bottom. It felt nice in his hand. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and the corner felt sharp. The card was thick and matted slightly with the smoothness of the letters rubbing on the tips of his fingers as he moved it in his hand. He sipped his tea and looked at the letters with the steam curling past his face, warming his cheeks.

Putting the card down he sat back and rested his mug on the arm of his chair. With his head back he shut his eyes and listened. The clock in the hall ticked on and outside he could hear the sounds of the city.

People walking,

people shouting and talking in the flats above and below,

footsteps and the clinking of bottles in the street outside.

He listened.

The handle of the mug in his fingers felt warm and he brought it to his lips. He opened his eyes and with the mug sitting empty in his hand he got up from his chair and washed it out in the sink. He looked outside the window for the cat he had seen earlier but couldn’t find it in the dark.

Switching off the lamp he walked into the bedroom and sat down on his bed. The springs creaked as he kicked off his shoes and lay down on his back. Orange light spilled through the window and brushed over his wardrobe door and the small bookshelf in the corner. With the sounds of the city outside washing over him, he closed his eyes and slept.

He woke up early. He lay on his back and opened his eyes, squinting at the light shining on the ceiling. Rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands he swung his legs off the bed and sat, hunched forwards over his knees. He yawned and readjusted his clothes and raised one arm and sniffed the armpit before doing the same with the other. He sat for a few seconds before standing and waited for his arms and legs to stop aching. With a groan he walked towards the bedroom door and made for the kitchen.

The roads and buildings outside his kitchen window were cast in a grey tint that made everything look cold. Mist hung above the buildings and a fine spray of rain fell from the dark clouds above. Outside a bus roared along the road and stopped with a hiss. Its wheels splashed through the puddles.

Standing by the sink he pulled down the blind by the window and took off his jumper and shirt. He unbuckled the belt to his trousers and pulled them down past his ankles. He kicked the pile of clothes on the floor and grabbed a flannel from a nearby drawer. Turning on the tap he held a hand in the stream, waiting for it to warm. He grabbed a bar of soap from the drawer and folded the flannel over it, rubbing and forming a thick foam of bubbles.

He ran the flannel over the back of his neck and over his face and shoulders, his arms and legs before rubbing his torso and back. He rinsed the flannel off under the tap and wringing it dry wiped away the suds. Water trickled down his skin and he leant against the sink with both arms, his head down, looking at the floor.

He closed his eyes and sighed.

He dried the flannel twice more and wiped away the warm water. He let the tap run as he grabbed the kettle and filled it before turning off the tap and putting it onto boil.

It crackled and he picked up the pile of clothes from the floor and returned to his room. He opened the cupboard and picked a pile of neatly folded clothes from the bottom. He put them on the bed and dressed slowly, listening to the rain outside.

Pulling his jumper over his head he heard the click of the kettle from the kitchen and made himself a cup of tea. He pulled the blind back up from the window and watched the road as he drank.

The cat walked along the side of the pavement in the shadow of the buildings. A man at the bus stop put out a hand and rubbed his fingers together. He could tell from the look on the man’s face that he was trying to call the cat but it continued walking and quickened its pace as the man called after it.

Watching it all through the window, he smiled.

He finished his tea and sat down in his chair. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked and he watched the time as he tied the laces to his shoes. Pulling them tight he stood and grabbed the case from the chair. He looked at the pictures on the mantelpiece and put on his jacket.

Outside, the air felt cold. An old woman sat at the bus stop wearing sunglasses. A white stick in her hand tapped against the pavement and she turned her head in his direction as he sat down.

Good morning, she said.

Morning, he said.

How’re you?

Not bad, he said. How’re you?

Old, she said with a smile. You sound tired.

I am tired, he said.

You don’t sleep?

I sleep just fine, he said. Just never feels like it when I wake up.

She smiled. Her teeth were stained yellow and the wrinkles around her mouth and cheeks twisted.

I know the feeling, she said. These damn buses, running all through the night.

They keep you up? he said.

She nodded.

Don’t understand why they make them so loud, she said.

He smiled.

They’ve always been loud, he said. They used to be even louder.

And the men, she said. Screaming all the way home when they close up for the night.

He laughed.

Well, he said. They’ve always been loud too.

She smiled.

I suppose you’re right, she said.

They sat in silence for a few seconds. He looked up at the board.

Are we old? she said.

He looked at her.

Only, she said, raising the white stick in her hand, I can never seem to tell.

She tilted her head back and smiled. He saw their reflection in the shop window across the road.

I think we might be, he said.

She smiled and they laughed together for a few seconds.

They listened to the city around them as it woke. Eventually the roar of the bus swinging round the corner forced them to stand. He stuck out his hand and watched the bus pull to the side and stop in front of them.

Tapping her stick the woman nodded in his direction as he stood to one side to let her on before following and taking his seat. With his case resting on his lap he looked out the window at the streets as they rolled by. In the cold grey light of the morning with the rain starting to worsen, he smiled.

It looks beautiful, he thought, my city.

The prison guard nodded and with a buzz the grey metal gate swung to one side and let him through. He walked into the room. Rows of plastic chairs and tables stretched out before him in a large grey room. He took a seat and the chair squeaked slightly as he made himself comfortable. He felt the case between his feet and listened.

The guard by the door coughed and he sat and waited.

After a few minutes he looked up as someone sat down on the other side of the table. He looked at the woman sitting opposite him and noted the scratches and the lines on her face. The ill-fitting jumper and baggy trousers made her look smaller than he remembered. The woman looked back at him, her eyes flicking towards the worn suit jacket and the fine white head of hair.

Hello, she said.

Hello, he said back, pressing the sides of his shoes against the case.

They sat in silence for a few moments.

Haven’t seen you for a while, she said.

I know, he said. I’m sorry.

She shook her head and shrugged.

You don’t have to apologise. Just saying I haven’t seen you for a while. You look older.

So do you, he said, rubbing the material of his trousers with his thumb. He looked at the scratches on her face and frowned.

What happened? he said.

The woman looked down.

He could see her fists clenched on top of the table, her knuckles shining white.

She rubbed her chin and looked up at him.

Nothing, she said. It’s just this place.

No one try and help you? he said.

She shook her head.

Not how things work here, she said.

You mean to tell me they just turn a blind eye?

She slammed her hand down on the table and glared at him. The guard in the corner told her to settle down and she moved her hand away from the table and dropped it down out of sight.

Do you honestly care? she said.

Course I do, he said.

She shook her head. You’ve left me here for months, she said.

I know, he said. I’m sorry.

She pointed to the marks on her face. That’s how things work, she said. It’s how things are, in this place. They turn a blind eye. They turn deaf and dumb when you scream.

He looked down at the table.

She turned away and they sat in silence.

The clock ticked on.

He looked at her and touched the case with his shoe. It scraped slightly on the floor and she looked up at him across the table.

You still play? she said.

He nodded.

Sometimes, he said. Whenever he wants me to.

He?

The manager.

You have a manager?

He shook his head.

The manager of the bar, he said. Where I play.

Does he pay you? she said.

He’d like to, he said. But I don’t take the money.

She looked up at him. Why not?

Not sure, he said looking back at her and casting an eye over the worn and wrinkled jumper. I don’t do it for the money.

So what do you do it for?

He opened his mouth to say but the words fell flat in his throat.

What? she said.

He paused and took a deep breath.

I do it to forget, he said.

She clenched her jaw and brought her hands to her face. She sat there for a few minutes in silence, rubbing her hands over her head.

He looked at his daughter and swallowed.

I didn’t mean to upset you, he said.

She sniffed and he could see the tears dripping down her nose and falling to the floor.

Why did you come? she said.

To see you, he said. To make sure you’re okay.

She looked up at her father. Shining stripes lined her face.

Regardless of what happened, he said. I care.

She nodded.

I’m getting better, she said. I feel better.

That’s good, he said.

She nodded.

I can understand why I’m here, she said. I can understand why they do things like this. I can understand that I hurt a lot of people and I can understand why you feel the way you feel.

He nodded.

I still have your picture, he said.

Next to hers?

Yeah, he said, next to hers.

Thank you, she said. I’m surprised.

She wiped her face with the back of her hand and blew out her cheeks. She looked at the guard at the end of the room and sniffed.

Do you still go to the lessons? she said.

He shook his head.

Why not? she said.

I don’t know, he said. I just stopped going after a while. Couldn’t see the point.

How do you manage? she said.

I just play, he said. And when I need to know something, I just ask.

He reached into his jacket pocket and took out the card. One of the corners had bent slightly in his pocket and he turned it round and pushed it across the table for her to see.

What’s this? she said, looking at the card, her cuffs scraping on the table.

Not sure, he said. Some woman gave it to me the other day. She heard me play, said I was good and gave me a card.

You show it to anyone else?

He nodded. The manager, he said.

What did he say?

Said it looked important.

He didn’t tell you what it said?

He shook his head. I was hoping you could tell me, he said.

She looked at him for a while and turned back to the card, reading it aloud.

When she was finished, he nodded.

You going to ring her? she said.

Not sure, he said. She told me to ring her when I play next. So she can come see me.

You should, she said. She’s right, you know. I mean I know you’d never admit it but she’s right. You’re good. Always have been.

He looked down and smiled.

Thank you, he said.

Sometimes at night I think of the songs you used to play, she said. Helps me sleep.

He nodded and moved the card away from the glass and put it back in his pocket.

That’s nice, he said, looking up at her. I didn’t think you’d remember.

The guard at the end of the room coughed and started to walk towards the two of them. He rested a hand on her shoulder and told her that it was time to go.

Wait, he said, one last thing?

The guard nodded and backed away.

Write to me, he said.

She smiled and nodded.

Okay, she said. But you’ll have to go back to the classes.

I know, he said. I’d like to. Give me a reason to. Write to me, he said again.

He put out a hand and turned it upwards in the middle of the table. His daughter did the same and their hands matched in size as they held one another, the cold metal cuffs cool against the inside of his wrist. The two of them smiled as the guard came back over and put a hand on her shoulder.

Goodbye, dad, she said. Make sure to call that woman.

I will, he said. Goodbye, love.

He watched her walk away through the window, the cuffs around her wrists clanking as she moved.

As he sat alone waiting for the guard to return, he put his head in his hands and wept. He looked up at the ceiling and with tears in his eyes he said

She’s okay,

she’s okay.

It was still raining as he walked down the street towards the bar. Stepping inside he wiped the drops from his jacket and put the case down by his feet. The barman stood behind the bar and smiled as he walked in.

You alright? the barman said.

He nodded and smiled back. He stretched and picked up his case, making his way towards the stage.

Not bad, he said. Not bad.

As he stepped up onto the stage he turned to look out at the bar. A few people sat in the corner smoking and drinking and watching the TV. A couple sat close by, talking loudly.

He sat down on his stool and took off his jacket. Folding it, he set it down by his feet and picked up the case. He opened it and held the instrument in one hand. Putting the case down with the other, he took a deep breath, brought the instrument to his lips, and began to play.

glasses

Joe McGuire

joe

Joe McGuire recently graduated from Bath Spa University, and now lives in London.
If you enjoyed ‘Wash’ leave a comment and let Joe know.
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