Matt Turpin’s short story Tom’s Eyes appeared in our second collection. Matt is a Scottish-born writer living in England. After various careers as a postman, a labourer, a barman and a tout he now earns a living running communications for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. He also publishes a long running local magazine, The Beestonian, has two plays in development and writes the occasional short story. When not playing with words he plays with his two-year-old son and writes unfunny tweets at @beeestonia.
Before we move onto our third collection and start announcing editors and contributing author, we thought it would be a good idea, to put some new work out there from some of our favourite writers.
I walk the canal about once a week. In winter, where I am now, this cut looks like a flattened slalom: bobsleigh bikes hammering by you, horizontal skiers panting iced clouds as they jog, elbow nudging close, the coots, the ducks, the astute swan: they swim close, eager for bread, hating you by your refusal and this artifice they are forced to cruise.
I like the canal. It never floods.
The pubs are better in Beeston, and there is more chance I’ll meet one of the lads from the APC. Those fellow night sorters whose idea of what is day, what is night, has irreversibly bin changed by decades of night work. That 8pm – 5am shift does summat to a man – and we were mostly men – that you never really shake off.
So it’s the usual early walk home. A sofa (if lucky, if able to fold out – sofa bed -but not tonight) was the usual rest after a night reminiscing with retirees, of which line- leader had been most of a twat. I am invariably younger by them, but not by that much: they retired with pensions; I was retired with dishonour and just the state to prop me up.
My own fault of course: moved onto Walks after a decade on flats. You tell me you couldn’t push away the temptation not to pocket the odd stuffed card, to steam open the curiously packed envelope? Have a few months on it. Then tell me I was wrong. I’d done the night sorting for two decades: the parcels, thrown into a grid of bagged bins and the non-flats passing through the hands pulsing with possibility: how could one resist?
There were never ever harm meant: each item steamed open carefully, and glued back when found wanting – there was no menace here, no pissing on sentimentality. I just needed a few bob to keep whatever wolf was at the door. I wasn’t even that good at it. Hours spent, cross-legged on my duvet, suffering paper-cuts for nothing but lavender smells, good wishes in spidery script, the odd voucher for a long dead concern…. diligently prittsticked back into innocence and slotted into the appropriate destination. The £20 notes? The quarters of weed? All too infrequent, but enough to keep me with the furtive glances and the steaming kettle, the small glories and the hard disappointments.
Then one day, the summons. A meeting where I dismissed the union rep, not wishing to take his time, and was then myself dismissed: if I went without qualm, no police. I accepted. They demanded my uniform back: the three pairs of polyester-rich deep blue trousers, the shirt as blue as the days a night shift worker would seldom see, the tie, the hard boots. To this day, that was the hardest part. Not my colleagues, though they were brothers of sorts. I missed the uniform. It was me, and when I gave that up, it dragged stuff away from me.
So home down the canal. A Tuesday morning, which I only recall as knowing that Monday night had started as an afternoon city centre session down Weatherspoons Monday Club, which then found me early evening by the tram stop – I walked out, and I swear I left it to the gods: squeezed up my eyes and told them that if after a count to 20 there was no tram to Beeston I’d just have one at The Bell and then head back to my flat in Sneinton, perhaps with a visit to the cheap offy just past the ice stadium for some 2 for a fiver red wine or a howitzer of strong cider, home to telly and booze and perhaps some porn on my phone if the spirit rose; but if a tram was due ….well, it would be rude not to hop on to say ayup to my old mates.
A tram had been due, and I was on it. Into the Beeston ’Spoons on arrival, that place where the sorting office once was. It’s called the Last Post. I like to call it The Past Lost, though the joke never seems to have pushed through to nickname. Not in a sentimental harking back to its Royal Mail past, more that there were occasions where I’d stumble out with no recollection of going in. A good place.
Postal workers past and present still ghosted it, spending the pensions they’d earned there on loss-leading lager and flaccid, wilted lunches. Of course I found friends, and we laughed. They knew I wasn’t innocent, they knew I’d been daft, but they knew it really wont that bad, really wont something you should lose your job over, but that’s what happens when you put on the uniform. They knew I missed the uniform.
And of course I accepted their invitation to come back to theirs; back to the flat where the divorced, retired night shift line manager for outgoing -p
lats put on that Mike Reed tape on his grinding workhorse VHS, a tape that never lost its funny if never viewed sober; and drink a gravelled whiskey with Lidl cola and feel like kings. A pair of cigars would be bought out at some point, lit and savoured.
Former managers and line-leaders are called out, part of a rage that will envelope all as it burns: the Pope (cunt) Donald Trump (fucking cunt), Muslims. The latter is uncomfortable, and swiftly qualified. We like the ones we know, but fucking hell. An argument breaks out on Christians that fuck them too, if you ban the hijab then ban fucking nuns. But the peak of passion has long passed, the video grinded to its spool, and now winding back with the thrashing noises of a cotton mill. We laugh, bring out that joke –
Here’s a crossword clue I’m not happy with
How many letters?
Too fucking many!
And the hours go, the day now another.
Then we’re broke. A stroke, a temporary stroke that paralyses thought and response and instead routes all brain electricity towards a pillow; there it will hit the switch and goodnight, goodnight.
A void. Shocked out of with
Dreams come to escape from.
Awake, a piss, then out, key posted, into the vulgar glare. Always get up and go, that I live by. Take your troubles home; never be caught in the away end with them. Hangovers at home are blankets, an excuse for oblivion. Elsewhere they’re futile, painful, a crab cut from its shell. Yer get home before that. Not easy on the launch, but once up and out, you’re up and out.
Then a sort of fight, a box, as the first breathes burn the throat as cold air is sucked in. Each stride, an assault on the lungs, a breath that hurts. A pace is set, the pavement a steady provider of pulse that echoes up each side and explodes in the ear. Spit is rare, and I struggle to gob enough into my mouth to rinse my mouth of the night, the baccy, the booze. Onto the canal.
Intent drives the porridge-hued path further behind me, pushing me on. Narrowboats puff out wood smoke; early cooking smells of fat and pork tease, the brass window frames call out a comfort. I could beg entry, and probably get: the residents on the water recognise a fellow outsider. But my ringed hob, my proudly blackened pan, my bacon – the block that would spunk out half its weight in white goo when heated – was home. Maybe toast. Eggs: they mop up the booze, an idea that perks me. I stride on.
The canal steams gently in the watery light. I pull my lapels close to my face. As I leave Beeston, the Boots factory dominates the opposite side; a sprawl of dismantled industry, pipes and vats, now leading to nowhere and containing nothing but rusted flecks of paint.
A curve, and then the flanked scrap yards, already busy crushing down the tide of metallic crap that spews from the roads, from the houses: skeletal cranes moving tighter and tighter bricks of metal around, the smell of diesel rank. The fag factory, which reeks in today’s still, low air of nicotine and tar to the point of gagging, the taste when a rolly bleeds into your mouth, the brownness of the taste, the bitter purging spit amplified and air-borne.
We used to love this time. When on nights, we’d knock off at 5 and have the day for ourselves. This was often a walk round the nature reserve with a few joints. You see stuff then. Foxes, with cubs in summer. Birds we’d guess at naming, knowing we were safe from contradiction. Shimmers in the Trent we’d convince each other were an otter sighting. We saw a badger once. Really, not a stoned thing. I was never much into the drugs, but would take a draw, to be friends, so know what I saw – what we saw. They were special days, emerging from the paths onto the roads as the early commuters sank off to work as we headed home to duvets.
There will be no warm arms when I get back to my duvet today. Don’t get all daft about it, I’m happy this way. I had my fun, I had my women, and it’s best this way. I’m not some sad case man in his late fifties who feels left behind. I could try, and I would get, I’m sure. I’ve never been the most attractive man, with looks. Used to do alright, the booze used to work well then, not now, but it’s no loss. Urges otherwise can be killed with a wank, which afterwards enlightens to the stupidity of it all. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve liked women, lived with one for a while. I never can say when it went wrong, but it did, and what was a nice compromise with some romance never got further. She has two teenage sons now. I saw her shouting at them at the Viccy Centre entrance a few years ago, when they were still boys. She is probably happy, as I am, probably.
Past Castle Marina, and into town proper. Here, towers of glass and steel rise up, windows stuffed with computers or curtains; offices and balconies with bicycles strapped to them, pathetic sculpted gardens cut as a teenage shavers goatee in this grim season. I’m nearly home, once past the magistrates court and the chrome and glass canalside clump of bars. Under the station bridge, pass the lock, and up the steps to the road.
This is town proper now, a scram of traffic and noise. The air tastes of old pennies. The canal, which seemed for the past 45 minutes almost like a silver slither of nature now is exposed for what it is; a sick trickle under an angry city of cars and vans and no one will be happy until this all ends, till they get away from here. It rages, traffic accelerating from the roundabout up the hill and remorseless. To a driver this is nowhere, just traverse. I’m insignificant to them, a flash of flesh against the concrete and sky.
When I drove, I never knew this place existed. Then I wasn’t allowed to have a car, and the city took a new shape and a new vulnerability as my metal shell would no longer shield me from the streets. The BBC buildings are ahead. You don’t get many famous faces round here. A sighting could serve me well when the next drunk exchange of anecdotes starts. I struggle otherwise. Not much happens now.
Then I see him. He’s on a bike, and he’s not on the road. I read the papers, and I know this strip of pavement, and know that he shouldn’t be here. This is pedestrians.
He’s bearded; he’s got hair over his collar. He is dressed in an overcoat, plastic, shapeless, it’s reflective patches null under the strained dawn light. He has an expression on his face of benign happiness, and I want to punch it out of him. Why? Because this strip of pavements isn’t for bikes. He should be on the road and he is not.
He is approaching, and he’s noticed me, and is moving to the curbside of the pavement. But why should he be here at all? Why should he not do what he should do and ride on the road? Why is it me who has to think this? Why me? Why should I have to step in? Where are the police, where are the cameras, where is the justice?
I have to step in. That bounces round my head a dozen times before I am resolved; so many times I’ve let it slide, let the fuckers get away with it; and each time I’ve gone home with a sort of nag like a numbed extracted tooth; the sharp pain; the constant draw back to the moment, the lessening. Then the unconscious quell into acceptance. No.
Not today. I am not perfect, I know I’m not perfect, I’m far from perfect, but I’m in the right right now and where else are we? He should not be here. I am here. All I’ve done wrong, all that I’ve done, it’s all here, in this I inhabit, this body burnt from the inside out, these eyes sore and this skin raw, rubbing, holding me in as it reddens and flakes. I am not this. I need to stop it all, this all. I need to do something.
And I grab him and his clothes scruff around my hands and over his shoulders, and his bike falls away into the traffic as his legs lose the grip and he is suddenly all of me, over me, and I have my face by his, as gravity drags us down and close, and as my mouth and eyes and jaw form into a clenched fist of hate I see his face before it drops out of focus, and it is serene, hatefully serene, it is staring down at me and then on me and as my chest convulses with a mule-kick of pain I slip into something away from the beers and the fried eggs and the blue comic turns and the pure sear of here and now, not the refined polished edge of what I could have been, but the sheer smouldered smithereens of what I wasn’t, and the chest pain is a body pain and all is switched off, my journey home undelivered, lost and forgotten.