You head out the flat door and onto the landing, turning to twist the key in its hole, your back turned to the world as the metal spins. Going down the stairs your breath quickens at each corner of the stairwell, though you try to control it. But someone might be coming up. The postman with a letter for you or the neighbour who always hawks back phlegm and gobs loudly whether he's coming up the stairs or down. The young guy from the end flat with the girlfriend and the children. They've made a kennel outside their door for their collie dog, Beezer. Beside him there's the bin that they've brought up from the shed/washing-line area below. You're supposed to take your black bags down to the big, green wheelie-bin with your flat number on. Then every Wednesday you wheel it round to the front for the bin lorry. But this young guy, he's carried the heavy bin up the stairwell and put it at their door for convenience. It stays upstairs now. That is how he wishes it. When it's full he or the girl take the Supermarket-brand bags out of their green bin and throw them over the balcony railing, to land below outside someone else's door. Children play there and letters have been coming in from the Council to every flat, saying whoever is throwing bags full of dirty nappies away like that must stop because rats may come. You know that before they had that flat there was a woman in it with a Maori boyfriend and when she got into a row with the single mother in the flat next to you she sent her boyfriend down the landing to knock on the other woman's door. And you know that he told her he would throw her over the landing if she didn't shut her mouth.
You know that in the flat between the two feuding women there'd been a mysterious couple you seldom saw. That outside their door for months there'd been a cooker and a washing machine, standing so that there was just room enough to squeeze past them for the wee, quiet guy who'd been in the end flat before the woman with the Maori. You know that one night you'd been watching a Richard Harris film at 3am and there'd been this explosion of sound from outside that you could almost feel. And you'd been worried for a bit but experience told you to just keep watching your film. Then the next day you saw there was only a washing machine on the landing. At the bottom, where the bags with dirty nappies would be falling later on, you could see the cooker's fragmented bits scattered all over and you could see that the man below would have been dead or broken if he'd been heading out his door for a 3am walk. But you don't stop to look, you just take it in as you pass, on your way somewhere else, thinking about other things. A couple of days later you hear the story from old Hugh, that the man's girlfriend had asked him to put the cooker downstairs and he'd just lobbed it over the landing. And weeks later you hear another explosion of sound in the night, and it's louder because you're in the bedroom just above the landing. The dull enormity of metal meeting concrete. But you realise you're not worried this time, that somewhere below consciousness you'd understood that where the cooker had gone the washing-machine must follow.
So, as you go down those stairs you know all these things, so there, maybe, is the cause of the accelerated breathing as you take the corners on the stairwell. You walk on the pavement, past the bus-stop and, if you're me, you notice the woman staring a bit too much. You short-cut through the Carpetworld car-park, looking out for cars reversing at the odd unexpected angle that could break your legs. You find yourself walking behind a girl with the backpack on, like the ex-girlfriend used to wear. She's doing the single-minded walking and you want to overtake, not to have to witness it any more. Crossing Telford road, where you'd been in that car that crashed and you'd all run away from, you notice a car crossing the other way, accelerating a little too sharply, but you try not to think about it, not to look at the driver.
On Abban street you pass the house where the wee, white dog, the terrier the girlfriend had nick-named Pompous Pilate, used to live with the old white-haired man you'd seen driving one of those pavement cars. You realise you're thinking about the girlfriend. You walk faster.
Just past the Salvation Army Hostel you see the mad guy with the broad shark-face and thick dark hair, wearing his denim jacket and jeans tight at his forty-something arse and hips. He's going under the Friar's Bridge just in front of you. You slow down, let him get ahead, see him catch up with a woman, see him slow down so he can walk just behind her and make coughing noises, hawking, spluttering, almost grunting and gurgling. You see her clothes are good and the stiff neck doesn't turn once. You see that she knows she's become a form of prey. She doesn't need to spin round and make sure.
You turn right when he goes straight on after crossing the Grieg street bridge. You cross the road before the lights and head past Littlewood's. Then you're in the door of Oliver's, avoiding eyes, you don't want to see the woman who makes you nervous. The girl is looking with the eyes so you say,
Eh, just a tea, please.
She goes off to run water with the back turned and you look off to the left but hostile eyes deflect you. You feel, as she runs the water into the pot and onto the loose bag, that she is looking at you in the mirror over the machine. You don't look to make sure. She's back facing you and saying,
Anything to eat?
She says a price but you don't hear, just hand over the pound coin. She gives change and you say,
You don't look up at her but pick up your cup and saucer, your pot, with deliberate slowness and turn away towards the big, street-windowed area at the back that you've sat in on and off over many years. The bit you like to sit in is empty so you put your pot and cup and saucer down carefully to avoid spillages. You take your new, blue fleece jacket off, checking to see no-one is hurtling in too fast from your blind side in the till direction, carrying a tray and careless. You put your jacket on the empty chair beside the one you'll sit on, brushing away at the last moment a crumb you've noticed with unerring peripheral acuity. Then you sit and face the communing Oliver's brethren, trying to be one with the situation. You start pouring your tea, checking it's dark enough, surprised that it is because in this place it usually isn't. You pour quickly, almost recklessly, feeling the muscles in the shoulder and tricep bunch with a satisfying sensation of padded weight. You look quickly at a woman opposite. Glasses and white hair, talking loudly in a Birmingham accent about her cleaning job to the woman she's sitting with,
Yes, you see there were no pads provided, that's another thing you see, there were no pads provided, although I was told we would get them...
You don't like looking at her so you decide not to do it again. Over to your left there's a couple in the window seat. The man's in his fifties, talking loudly to the woman who slumps back, almost as though unconscious, in her seat. The man is almost shouting,
Well, I'll have to go along to the office in fifteen minutes, Margaret. It's today I pick up the magazines. Last time I was there I saw Iain...
Then he starts coughing. The coughing becomes very violent and you make sure you give no sign of reacting as you feel the waves of disapproval being given off from a couple of women. The coughing doesn't stop. It has the deep, hopeless sound of emphysema, tuberculosis, pneumonia. The instant the guy can stop the woman who's sitting closest lights a cigarette from a lighter that gives off a heavy click sound as though she's making a point or sending a message. The guy's talking again,
Yes, I've been selling this Big Issue now for too long, Margaret, too long. I'm not as young as I was...
You see a woman pass the window outside and feel a slight attraction. She has the long dark hair, the black coat, something southern about the sheen on the skin of her cheek. You look away, look back when she'll be passing the next window...then you realise...she looks like the ex-girlfriend. It's been 8 months, you can't think along those lines, you pick up your blue fleece, hunt in the inside pocket for your pen, your pieces of numbered paper. You're going to write your thoughts down. You're going to try to magnetize good thoughts as you sit there in the coffee-place with your tea in the cup. But all you can see is her Snoopy, the one her parents got her when she was born. The one she gave you and when you were clearing out your room the other night you found it and looked at the label that said 1968. You held it and looked at its smiling face and kept holding it for an hour, having thoughts and feelings and tears. Then you had to look at her 40 letters promising to love always, that you could trust her, that she believed in you. 3 years of letters and gifts and even the shells she had collected for you on a beach in India and brought back to you. So you'd phoned to find the number had been changed, that she was Ex-Directory.
But you keep trying and the image of Snoopy does fade. You have a thought about the sunlight on the metal of the phone-box beyond the window in front of you. To your left, where the couple are in the window-seat, you hear the man again. He's talking to a woman you've seen in this place before, introducing her to the woman he's sitting with. You glance quickly but she still seems barely conscious, even further down in her chair with the long hair dishevelled from more than wind and the eyes hooded, sleepy. To your right you feel movement as you look down at the words on paper in your jagged script. You concentrate on your task but somehow you get the idea that a young, attractive female has sat there. You don't look. When you feel that she has looked at you it's like an imperceptible heat at the edge of your right eye that's staring at a letter. You don't look back. You think you can feel annoyance, a wave of it. She doesn't like that you don't look up, that you only stare down. More than that. You think that she actively disapproves of you in some more fundamental way. You keep looking down and a thought comes, to do with the phone-box outside again. Then another disconnected thought about time. You write these thoughts down slowly, stretching them out, but not so slowly that you destroy the potential flow of thought that might come, that does sometimes come...but it doesn't come. It's over. You look up quickly at her face. You were pretty accurate. Physically, she is interesting. But, even while you were putting the thoughts down you were dismayed at the aggressive, abrupt way she shovelled the food off a plate and into her throat. She ate the way your mate, Joe, said some people drove their cars when they had accidents. Joe said they weren't thinking about where they were, but about where they wanted to go. That's how the female was eating and you could smell that she was eating some dead animal. That had been one good thing about the ex-girlfriend. She didn't eat the animals and you had eaten fewer of them the longer you'd known her. But she had still done the abrupt eating, hadn't wanted to be mindful as she ate, like a Buddhist, but had wanted to shovel it in and not even chew, preferred to take a glug of water and swallow the wet mix. You had to admit that had annoyed you. And now this woman is annoying you, shovelling in the flesh like that. And you think you are annoying her by doing the writing, the looking down, the not looking back at her when she checked you out. You decide you'll get another tea, though, try to get back the flow of thought. You put your paper away, your fleece on, and head up to the till. There's a queue so you get in line. The plump woman is friendly to the ones in front. But when she turns to you and says,
the face changes, closes off, and you know you've sacrificed the easy social flow for your oh-so-precious flow of thought. People are taking exception to something in your appearance.
Just a tea, please,
you say and she spins away towards the machine with the water. You hold your position, tight, controlled, like in that good, strong, light headstand you'd pulled off a few days earlier. She comes back,
Is that everything?
You give the money and manage a wee edge to the coin exchange, a wee kind of throw of the coin into her palm. Almost nothing, but she looks up, the eyes softer so that you look away immediately, your mind or soul positively snorting with a useless contempt that would have been better hidden away, suppressed. It only takes you further from that social flow you can never afford to lose touch with.
She gives change and you say,
your eyes on your pot and your legs manoeuvring already for the torso-turning fulcrum point that will allow you to shoot off into the waters again, round the corner and back to that coveted seat with the phonebox view.