Barrett was his last name but everyone used it like it was his first. Ever since he was a lad. His first name had faded in people’s memories and even in his own, so that when it came to doctor’s appointments, electoral registers or a court trial, the shape and sound of this other word in front of Barrett would give him an uncomfortable feeling, as though he were standing in for someone he didn’t really know.
He had tried out the idea of marriage. Had knelt down on the faux fur rug in Carole’s flat, had presented her with a ring and had said the required words with the necessary effort and emotion. She’d said yes on the Friday, with wet eyes and an overwhelmed blush on her cheeks. But by Monday morning she had packed her bags, removing her possessions from his spare drawer, leaving the ring on Barrett’s bedside table. It was the first thing he saw every morning for five months. Evidence.
That particular disaster (he never saw her again) had turned into a good few stories at the pub. His favourite version was the one where she left for California to become a glamour model. Sometimes he got closer to the truth. He cheated on her with another hot blonde. She turned psycho. Usual crap.
He was pitied for it by the others. They all had wives. Drab ones with cigarette breath and brittle hair, women who loved them tirelessly, even when they came belching home with beer-stained shirts.
Once, a while after Carole, Barrett had felt a soaring in his chest when a girl with soft curls had come into The George. Stacey she was called. He’d bought her a drink and there’d been a feeling in the air like summer was coming. He’d walked her home and they’d shared a kiss in the dark. It had been urgent. Out of his control.
Months later he thought he caught sight of the back of her. She was pushing a buggy with a man by her side. Remembering her brought on the sensation of rising and falling, like a plane coming in to land from a trip he didn’t want to end.
In the early days of his life, he had spent a lot of his free time at the park with Lenny. His best friend. The only one who would consistently spend time with him. Lenny was younger by three years. Easy to influence. They’d swap cards and stamps, play truth or dare and rate girls out of ten. Barrett did a lot of good trades with Lenny.
Most of his time was spent hanging around the tyre swing. It was where he’d tried his first cigarette, his first joint too, and was also the place where he’d been with a girl for the first time while Lenny looked out for passers-by. Angela she was called. A heavy-set blonde from the estate. Big boned. A regular fighter. She said she didn’t have parents.
The tyre, hanging as it did from a gnarled piece of rope, always made him think of the trip he’d taken to the zoo with his uncle when he was a boy. They’d looked at the sad dimpled faces of the orang-utans with their close-set eyes and copycat expressions, so that all the events that unravelled at the tyre were salted by the imagined presence of his uncle’s cloth cap and slacks, and the sense of watching a trapped thing.
Barrett was always inclined to show off. As a child he ‘acted up,’ as a teen he ‘fooled around,’ as a young adult, he was ‘attention-seeking.’ He saw a visiting psychologist once, when he was eleven, who suggested it was all in reaction to the incident with his mother and that man who wasn’t his uncle at all.
Balls Out Barrett, his mates at the pub would call him. Game for a laugh. A joker.
Outside of the shadow of his mother’s hometown, far from the tyre and the terraced house of his childhood, miles from the lingering home-smell of grease, cheap air freshener and Lucky Strikes, he flourished.
He moved down south. To London. He made small-talk friends easily over pints and matches, picking the right teams. The winners. He felt safest when surrounded by strangers.
His gullet, he found, could be opened up if he got the angle of his throat just right, and down it he could pour several pints in succession. It entertained the bar. Each time a new memory of open mouths and red faces cheering for him.
It wasn’t a surprise to hear that Lenny had committed suicide. In a place like Widnes it was hard to think of anything else to do, Barrett joked. The lads tried to put on a good show back home, but their sadness was palpable. He came back from London to sit with them at The George for a while and join them in their silence between sips.
Barrett knew Lenny’s trouble. All that concrete and dirt. The endless view of mud on mud from the grubby window of his box room at his parent’s place. The perpetual presence of the tyre. Some people never move on with their lives.
It was a grim way to go. He’d chosen a sharp-edged kitchen knife and the shower room on a day when his mum was at the WI. Despite Lenny’s precision with his veins, copied from a diagram on the internet, Barrett couldn’t picture Lenny’s final moments without attaching a noose of twisted, dirty rope around his neck, and visually swinging him from the bough of the tyre tree, feet still twitching.
He couldn’t cry for Lenny. He didn’t cry for Carole either, all that time ago. There are some people who come into your life and some who disappear.
Not long after Lenny’s final trip to the bathroom, Barrett took up gambling. He wouldn’t have said the two were connected. On Tuesday nights it was always quieter at the bookies. He’d watch his fingers slide silver into the waiting slot. Press the button. Slip in another coin. Lose it. And repeat. Until finally the noise of success tumbled into his ear canal. The best sound, for a while, was metal falling on metal, loot tipped into the dish for futile retrieval.
He’d tried the horses at first. He liked the names. Flirt In A Skirt, Best Way To Go, Remember Me. Scanning through the names his attention would snag on words that would make their own stories, like messages from another dimension.
Wolf Moon, Girl Talk, Everyone’s Friend, Our Secret.
When he had a big win he’d stumble up to the pub and buy a round for everyone.
It felt like success.
“One time… you won’t believe it… just like that…. This crazy thing happened. Unbelievable….Told ya – it’s a good’un.”
The stories he told, tall as he was, were always taller. False reports. Details spun into strange shapes. Always a contradiction. A moment of doubt. He loved it. Hated to disappoint.
“Most sickos are silent types right? You’ve seen them in movies, all tortured like, living alone with their mothers, never socialising. This guy, he’s not like that. He’s a fucking nut job. But you wouldn’t know it. Just came into the shop one day, looking totally normal – stabbed this woman in the leg. I was there. Blood went all over the show. Worse than a bloody abattoir.”
No matter whether the stories were true or not, as long as he was telling them and as long as the words were caught with both hands by his audience, he’d spin whatever came to mind. Fictitious women he’d slept with, men he’d got into fights with, bets he’d won. Place’s he’d been, matches he’d watched.
“Got the gift of the gab this one,” they’d say.
Never had much luck with women though.
After a good story-telling session he’d return to his bedsit, dirty magazines on one side, ashtray and cigarettes on the other. TV kept on low all night, for company’s sake. By day he worked as a security guard at the supermarket. Watching several screens, mundane lives on loop.
Grief struck him down suddenly in his forties. It felt like cement closing in on all sides and setting, firm yet brittle. Like old bones. He remembers a rain-drenched road, car lights and street lamps casting ripples of colour onto the watery ground. When he thinks back on this moment he has an out-of-body experience, watching himself laid flat on the pavement, his bloated mass casting a wet shadow in the dark, like a whale washed ashore in the city.
He can never forget the song of the ambulance that came to collect him – a shrill melody of urban angels saving his life. Screaming at him not to stop.
He’d caught pneumonia, which made crying difficult. And he had never wanted to cry before. All he could think about was this girl he’d met. Lucy. Face crumpled. The red stemmed tooth on the ground. He could have left it there in the woods for nature to claim and bury, for future generations to excavate. But he kept it instead. A souvenir.
It had all gone wrong when he got barred from his local. Had just about turned him crazy. He wouldn’t have said he was an alcoholic but the feeling drink gave him was second to none.
He came across God much later in life, when the ache of his actions, both conscious and otherwise, had become too much to stomach alone. He felt the throb of guilt surface as soon as he went dry.
He’d hoped to destroy a lot more of his mind with drink, but a moment with his eyes shut could conjure vivid faces with twisted lips turned downwards, sobs jumping out from between them. Or worse, flesh exposed in the wrong place; outside, among dead leaves, under a lid of cloud.
The Lord is the truth. Jesus is the truth. The gospel. Truth. He fell to his knees on Sundays to receive the pastor’s blessing in a concrete church in Hackney. His neck and head slumped forward in prayer. Wordlessly giving up his sins for the silent, inconclusive examination of God. We have no written experience of the Day of Judgement. A thing that Barrett fears at night.
When the police came he was an old man. They said they were interested in events that had happened in his younger years. In his hometown, they said. Widnes. He couldn’t remember a thing.
“Possible early dementia,” he’d joked, “maybe I should get my head checked.” He ran a hand over his bald patch, the stroke of his palm slipping over the soft, fine down.
He didn’t know what they were talking about. He hadn’t touched anyone against their will. Had never had much time for women at all. Was a man of the church these days. And before that? The pub. Mostly the Horse & Groom.
Had never met an Angela.
Had never heard of Carole.
Couldn’t remember a Lenny, a dead suspect apparently. Rape and assault. And worse.
Didn’t know a Stacey.
Or a Lucy.
He didn’t know a thing when they cuffed him and put him into the back of the police car. Didn’t even know his name.
(c) Ursula Dewey, 2014