12 November 2014

Short Story: The Route (or learning to pay your dues)

The Route is another story from the Urban Jungle section of the book of short stories All of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas

It was originally entitled Playing With Cars (i'm not sure why I changed it) and most obviously the story concerns learning to pay your dues. But this story is also about how you can learn a lot more from that struggle to attain something - the old saying that it's the journey that counts not the destination and that the destination may not have been worth the struggle in the first place. It's also of course a trip down memory lane, revisiting those people and that place.

This is one of those 100% true stories, yes even the dog incident and if I'd been bigger back then than I was I would have kicked that cretin's arse.

The Route

I truly hated this paper route.
It hated it but I knew that suffering this route was the price I would have to pay until someone else gave up one of the better routes, the ones in the areas where you were actually given tips from the customers. The customers on this route didn’t tip, ever.
This paper route, my first one, was in an area that was considered a poor part of town. It wasn’t that the area was that bad just that it had a reputation of being bad and I wasn’t too sure where that reputation came from. All I knew was that no one else wanted this route and it was always given to the new starts.
“Start at the bottom and work your way up. Pay your dues.” Said the boss. “Keep at it and you’ll get one of the better routes, eventually.”

Every night after school I delivered the newspapers, walking along the long crescent stretch of tenement blocks that seemed to go on for at least a mile. Small flats piled one on top of the other, five high. In these tenement blocks you were only a foot up, down and sideways from your neighbour. This was the outskirts of town and if you walked behind the tenements you would see only fields stretching out into the distance. Five nights a week I would walk up and down the dark stairwells, smelling the cooking from behind the doors, hearing people shouting at each other, babies crying, dogs barking, televisions blaring, every night the same.
Mondays to Thursdays weren’t too bad, I didn’t have to see the customers but I dreaded Fridays because on a Friday I turned from someone who delivered the nightly news into a bill collector. Very few of the fifty or so customers I tried to collect from would answer their door when I arrived on a Friday night. A handful paid their bills on time but others would tell me to come back next week, they would pay double next week or triple the week after that, but most just simply didn’t answer the door. Some people hadn’t paid their bill in months and of course to the boss it wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t paid, it was my fault that I hadn’t collected.
Once the unpaid bill crept up to three months the boss would say to me, “Get the money this week or tell them they are cut off, no more papers.”
Why didn’t he tell them this? I’m only the person who delivers the news. I knew this area, I knew these people. They were the type to shoot the messenger. I had to pay my dues by trying to collect from people who didn’t want to pay theirs.

It’s true that this paper route was a pain but there were events that added some colour and while I delivered the news I also heard the news.
There was the couple who argued almost every night, “I know you’ve been out drinking, I can smell it on your breath.” Shouted the woman from behind the door.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, this again? That’s from last night. I didn’t brush my teeth today.” The man shouted back, hopelessly pleading innocence.
A week later as I was pushing the newspaper slowly through the same letterbox, I bumped into the presumed guilty man with the alleged beer breath. He opened the door slowly and quietly, removing the newspaper softly from the letterbox.
He whispered to me. “I’ll take that and good luck trying to collect the bill from her kid.”
I watched him walk quickly down the stairs, almost running, newspaper in one hand, suitcase in the other.
I stood at another door and listened as a woman shouted at a man, asking why he had flushed the goldfish down the toilet, to which the man shouted back, “Because I felt like it alright. I just felt like it.”
There was the girl who followed me around every night and would hand me love notes every now and again. I told her that instead of giving me love notes she should get her mother to pay her newspaper bill once in a while. She did of course tell her mother and when I went to collect the bill I was told to keep my big yap shut to her daughter about her financial affairs. She still didn’t pay her bill although she now probably felt justified in not paying due to my indiscretion and I had learnt a valuable lesson in keeping my mouth shut.
And then there was the man with the dog.
It wasn’t his dog, it was a stray dog that used to follow me around occasionally. I never used to let the dog into the tenements but one night it snuck in behind me, probably looking for some warmth. I went up the stairs to deliver newspapers and when I came down a shirtless man was standing at his door looking at the dog.
“Is that your dog?” He asked, not looking in my direction, just staring intently at the dog.
For a moment I hesitated, wondering why he wanted to know and then I answered, “No, not mine.”
The man disappeared behind the door for an instant and then returned holding a hammer. He brought the hammer up above his head and then lunged at the dog’s head but that dog was skinny and quick, and the hammer connected only with air and then the concrete floor with a bang that echoed up the stairwells. The dog sprinted to the tenement door, which I opened and we both ran out of.

Something different happened on that route every night and there were times when sitting bored at my school desk that I actually found myself looking forward to the characters and events that would take place on my nightly visit to that street. But the dog incident stayed with me and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t understand what had made the man want to hurt the dog.
The dog incident was one of the reasons I asked my boss every night if a new route was coming up.
“Soon, soon.” Was always the reply. “Everyone…”
“…has to pay their dues.” I said.
“Now you’re learning.”

Fridays weren’t just about collecting the bills. Fridays also meant watching the drunks. Friday was pay-day and for the working men it meant a morning at work and an afternoon in the pub before heading home to the wife and kids. Most would just stagger home, eyes glazed and nothing else on their mind except making it to bed but now and again it would happen.
Now and again I would see a drunk guy playing with the cars. They would slowly walk along the pavement, sometimes staggering or weaving but when they came to the road they would straighten up and walk calmly across without looking. Any oncoming cars would be forced to brake suddenly but the drunks didn’t acknowledge what had happened, they would simply keep on walking while the driver swore or shouted or simply sat there behind the wheel, shaking, having almost run someone over.
I wasn’t sure if this was a death wish or a battle of wills between man and something bigger, something unstoppable. Maybe it was a test of manhood or simply a desperate last bid not to go home but in this game, with the drink providing Dutch courage, the drunk guy always won.

Eventually I moved to a paper route in a better area, one that I knew well because I actually lived on the street where I delivered the nightly news. This street had houses with well-maintained gardens in which well-fed dogs with collars chewed on bones and jumped up happily whenever they saw me. People paid their bills on time every Friday and I actually made more in tips than my weekly wage.
I had paid my dues and finally had the easy route with the easy money and someone else would be climbing those dark tenement stairs hoping to be next in line for the job I was now doing.
My new route was less than a 10 minute walk from my previous one and in all honesty, in all the time I delivered the news on the new route, nothing eventful ever happened.

All of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas is available as an e-book and paperback on Amazon.
Interview with Julian Gallo on Expats Post.

09 November 2014

Short Story: Kryptonite (or getting rid of the monkey on your back)

Contrary to popular belief and by popular I mean my friends, I don’t hate cats but I am allergic to them. 

But this story, included in the book of short stories All of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas, isn’t really about a cat. This story is more about that monkey on your back, the one you just can’t shake off and will actually go searching for when the need arises, even though you’re fully aware that it’s doing you more harm than good.

And with that cheery missive here is the short story Kryptonite.


Things had been going great and then one night she announced that she wanted a cat. As soon as she had said it, that cat was already in the room and I knew what was coming but I gave it a hopeless shot anyway.
“It’s out of the question, I’m allergic to cats. My ex, she had a cat. I used to wake up and it would be sitting on my head and I’d be unable to breathe.”
“We can keep it out of the bedroom. This is my house and I don’t ask for much else.” She looked out of the corner of her eye at me as she said this. Not much but always something else.
The cat wasn’t mentioned again and two weeks later we split over an argument that probably had a hidden subtext but was, on the whole, inconsequential.
Within a week we were back together and when I entered the house I saw the cat curled up on the sofa. It eyed me for a second and then looked away as if it had already risen above me, as if it is was saying prophetically, I was here before you and I’ll be here once you are gone. Cats are wise or so I’ve heard.
“Ah the cat has arrived.”

The cat was allowed free reign of the house and it never went outside. Why would it? Everything it had was right here. It shit in a tray in the kitchen and sometimes slept on the bed, the same bed that we slept in. I took some anti-allergy pills but they didn’t make much of a difference.
When the cat was near me for any prolonged period of time I became breathless, my eyes watered, my skin itched. And that cat always seemed to be near. When I noticed the cat was on the bed I usually threw it out of the room, with some force at times but as soon as the bedroom door opened a couple of inches it would run back in and jump on the bed.

One night I awoke gasping for air. It felt like I was breathing through a straw. I looked up from the pillow and saw the cat lying across me.
“The damn cat is on the bed again. I can’t breathe.”
“Okay, okay, hold on.”
I lay there waiting on her to throw the cat out of the room but instead she leaned over me and opened the window an inch.
“That’s not going to do any good.”
“The air will help you breathe.”
“Jesus Christ. When superman is dying because he is lying next to a lump of kryptonite do you think Lois Lane opens the fucking window?”
The cat lowered its head and went back to sleep.

The next day the cat had vanished. The window in the bedroom had been left wide open and it appeared to me that it had wanted to experience life on the outside. I had been called in as part of the search committee. That cat could stay lost as far I was concerned. If it was never found it would mean I had a better chance of not dying in my sleep. But I could see the worry on my girlfriend’s face, she was even considering putting up ‘reward for lost cat’ posters around the neighbourhood. It had only been gone an hour.
So I trailed the streets looking for a cat that I didn’t hate but wouldn’t be altogether unhappy if I never saw again. People on the street looked at me as if were crazy when I shouted out its name, repeating the same word over and over again. I was looking for a cat but to everyone else I was simply a guy wandering the streets shouting out the word Monkey. I doubted this cat even knew that its name was Monkey and if it did, it wasn’t the sort who would accept that as its name.
I made sure not to look at anyone directly when shouting out the cat’s name.
After searching for a few hours I went back to find that the cat had returned. It had been hiding under some bins only a few feet from the house. The big wide world had been too terrifying and it was back, settled in nicely on the bed, recovering from the trauma of leaping from a window and hiding under some bins. The cat raised its head an inch, looked me over dismissively and then went back to sleep.
It’s no doubt still there on that bed, content with its life.

All of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas is available as an e-book and paperback on Amazon.
Interview with Julian Gallo on Expats Post.

07 November 2014

Short Story: London - Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

Strange things can happen if you wander alone at night or even early in the morning in London and you can find yourself in some weird situations. But sometimes angels can appear when you least expect them – metaphorical angels that is. 

This little tale is taken from the novel Leaving London but was published as a stand-alone short story by the literary magazine RoadsideFiction. I then placed it in the book of short stories in the Urban Jungle section. 

London - Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

Why am I in King’s Cross again?
The taxi driver had said something about not going south of the river but there are no trains at this time of the night from here. Maybe a late night pub will be open. And then I see it. A line of people by the side of what looks like a warehouse. I join the small queue of people being let in to the building two at a time. There is no sign outside of the entrance to say if this is a nightclub and when I get to the door the man simply asks for five pounds entrance fee. Entrance to what?
“Can I get a drink in here?”
“Drinks just inside the door.”
The entrance corridor is pitch black and I practically bump up against another man standing with crates of tins containing alcohol of some sort. He also has a stand with bottles of spirits with measures hooked to the top of it.
“What do you want mate?” Says a voice with a face hidden in darkness.
“Just a can of lager.”
“Nope, no lager, got cans of cider.”
I buy two cans and he tells me to proceed up the pitch black stairway. This is obviously an abandoned warehouse, there are no carpets on the wooden stairs, no wallpaper or paint on the exposed brick walls and there is absolutely no lighting whatsoever.
“What you waiting on man? Get going. People is waiting here.”
I proceed slowly up the stairs in the darkness, trying to adjust my eyes to see something, anything, my arms out in front of me, guiding myself by the wall. After climbing the first flight in complete darkness and now moving onto the second flight I begin to make out figures on the staircase.
I can see people lining the stairs, their faces illuminated for a split second by the flame from the lighters they are flicking on and off. I glimpse their faces looking at me for no more than a second and then darkness again. This is similar to walking through the haunted houses that were always the highlight of any carnival arriving in town when I was a child. I continue climbing and climbing the flights of stairs. How high does this go and where is it leading to? As I climb higher and higher I can still see the faces, the flames of the lighters illuminating men and women for only an instant. Eventually, finally, a darkened landing appears and I grope my way to a door that once opened leads to an immense wooden warehouse floor.
Once inside I take in the view of what looks like hundreds of people filling the floor, no music, just people sitting, drinking, talking, sleeping and shooting up. A couple are having sex by one of the huge windows that line one side of this cavernous room. The woman has her hands against the sheet of glass while the guy pushes into her from behind. No one else seems to be watching this, no one cares at all, it’s no big deal, the other people are just content to occupy their little spaces on the warehouse floor, oblivious to anything else going on, happy to zone out.
I sit down after finding a space and open one of the cans of cider. What the fuck am I doing here? I look around and see a woman cradling a baby in her arms and as I stare at her, wondering why anyone would bring a child here, two pairs of legs appear in my line of focus. I don’t look up.
“What are you so happy about man?” Comes the male voice.
Am I smiling? I didn’t realise. I don’t answer and there is silence for a few seconds.
“If we ask nicely can we have one of your cans of cider?” Says the other male voice. The voices sound familiar to me, South London, Jamaican fake but given my state of mind I have no intention of answering or looking up at their faces.
“Ah come on man, he’s fucked, let’s go.”
And with that they are gone.
I sit alone once more staring into space until the early morning light begins to creep through the huge windows, over the wooden floors, like fingers creeping over the near comatose people covering the floor, almost reaching the spot in which I am sitting. I don’t want the morning light to reach me so I push myself up and through the door and once on the landing I see another flight of stairs heading upwards, and from somewhere, I hear music.
There are no people with lighters guiding my way this time as I proceed once again up the narrow dark stairs but now I’m being guided by the muffled music that becomes slightly louder the higher I climb. The stairs end abruptly at a white door and music floats through from the other side. I can either leave now and get out of here or I can continue through this door to the next level like some sort of drugged up game show contestant. I push open the door.
The room is tiny, windowless and similar to an attic flat. A man stands behind DJ decks and music pours out of the huge speakers. Torches are attached to ropes hung from the ceiling, illuminating different sections of the small room as they swing from side to side when pushed by people. There are about 10 people in the room, male and female, some topless, dancing in the middle of the wooden floor in front of the DJ. No one turns round when I enter, no one acknowledges that I am here, they simply continue to dance as I once again find a corner, sit down and swallow another tab of E, washing it down with my second can of cider. The music sounds good, it’s pounding through my body, I have this feeling that I am smiling as I watch the people in front of me emitting light trails behind them as they dance and jump around the floor, illuminated by the swinging torches. The alcohol is keeping me balanced but I know I’m too high.
Too high for what?
Isn’t this an opportunity taken?
Sophia’s line that I was an empty book waiting on someone writing the pages for me comes back to me. Didn’t I see a door and proceed through it without thinking first? Isn’t this what life is about? New experiences? Can you see this Sophia? You didn’t write these pages for me, I’m here, writing pages for myself.
The dancing people look happy, this is all they want at this moment. They decided they wanted to dance tonight and made it happen and hundreds of people came, and I came and that’s the point. Maybe this is where the workers bees end up at night, dancing in warehouses around London. But I have to leave them at some point, I have to get home, I’m going to be in New York on holiday in two days. I need to leave.
Get up off the floor.

I shuffle slowly over a bridge, I don’t know which bridge this is or how I wound up moving from south of the river to north. I feel as if I’ve been walking for hours but it must still be early judging by the absence of people. I have severe brain freeze and aching feet. All I want to do is find a cash machine but even after wandering for what feels like hours but may actually only be around thirty minutes I still can’t find one and I gave my last five pounds to get into that warehouse.
At the end of the bridge I climb down the stairs towards an embankment and start to walk along by the river wall.
Four people, two couples, are walking in front of me, chatting amongst themselves as if out on an evening stroll by the Thames. They are well dressed, wrapped up in long overcoats, scarves and hats to protect themselves against the morning chill. They look middle aged and the four of them stop and throw their heads back and laugh when one of says something that I cannot make out. The four stop and stand by the wall, looking out at the view over the Thames, arms around each other’s waists, drinking some sort of clear liquid from what looks like champagne glasses. They don’t look or see me as I pass by behind them but I stop as my gaze is caught immediately by something I have never seen before and which takes a few seconds to comprehend what exactly I am looking at.
In front of me, stretching as far as I can see is a line, a line made up of bodies lying by a wall. I realise from the snoring and coughing and whispering that these people, in sleeping bags or under cardboard boxes, are actually sleeping here by the river, have been sleeping here all night and I stand transfixed by this sight as the two couples once again overtake me, move on in front of me, laughing and sipping intermittently from their champagne glasses, completely oblivious or intentionally ignoring the sleepers in the open air by the River Thames on this freezing November morning. And then I too move on, following slowly behind the two couples but looking down now and again at the various faces as the four in front of me continue to chatter amongst themselves on their early morning stroll.
My feet are now fucked.
I cannot go on. I’d give all my cash for a cash machine. I just want to get home to some warmth and safety and something to drink and my duvet and…
“You need a ride?”
A taxi appears in front of me, the driver looking out of the side window shouting over to me.
“Hey man you need a taxi?”
Pushing myself off the wall I have been leaning against I cautiously peer through his window.
“Look I don’t have any money. I’ve been trying to find a cash machine.”
“Don’t worry about it, get in son.”
Climbing into the front seat, I thank the man and we set off.
“Where do you live son? You look as though you’ve had a rough night?”
“Wandsworth. I’ve run out of cash, which is why I’m trying to find a cash machine.”
“Wandsworth okay,” he says, “I’ll drop you off at the bus stop that takes you to Wandsworth no problems.”
“Yeah but look I have no money, I can’t even pay the bus fare until I get a cash machine.”
“Man, I’ll give you the bus money,” he sighs, shaking his head, “it’s okay, just get home.”
“Thanks.” I decide to ask, “Why are you being so nice? This seems a bit unusual.”
“Shit son. I’ve got kids not that much younger than you. I’d hate to think of them wandering about not able to get home.”
This saviour parks across from the bus stop just east of Trafalgar Square, rakes in his bag and hands me some change.
“Just get yourself home okay.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate this, thanks a lot.”
He waves and I watch him drive off, and the line regarding angels in the city comes to me, even in this city. Right on cue the bus to Wandsworth pulls up to the stop. I’ll be home in thirty minutes. A nice warm bus ride home and then bed.
I look down at the change in my hand and realise there isn’t enough money for the bus.
But it’s the thought that counts right?

All of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas is available as an e-book and paperback on Amazon.
Interview with Julian Gallo on Expats Post.