Published on December 22nd, 2012 | by The Alchemist14
Wish You Were Here
“WISH YOU WERE HERE”
Ah. She was back. He restrained the urge to leap to his feet. It wouldn’t do to appear too eager and besides, the old newspapers that made up his bed would rustle if he moved , a crackling soundtrack to how far he’d fallen.
“Oh. You’re back then, are you?”
He was quite proud of that. That nonchalance. Her face, which had started out hosting a tremulous smile, now fell- she was so easily hurt, his Cat. Too easily hurt. She’d always needed protecting and now, that he could no longer protect her the right way, he’d do it the wrong way. He lit up a cigarette, deliberately looking away from her so she wouldn’t catch the flash of guilt in his eyes. He didn’t want to give her any reason at all to hope. It was Christmas, people always got silly ideas at Christmas.
“I…I brought you something. I wasn’t sure you’d been eating well and so I…”
Her voice trailed off when he didn’t speak or look at her. He felt the weight of her anxiousness fall on him like an anvil. After a few drags, long enough to get his face back under control, he looked back up at her. She was holding out a bag- he noted the red and blue on it. Tesco’s. She’d brought him food again. He couldn’t stop his stomach from making a grateful rumble at the thought of proper food and it was all he could do to stop himself leaping on the bag like a savage. He may not have much left but he had his pride. And his music. He wouldn’t give those up for anything. Not even…
“It’s just some fruit and sandwiches, something hot as well from the deli…I think the lady said it was rotisserie chicken. There’s also some water, juice, cigarettes and a bottle of your favourite whisky.”
Her quiet voice somehow managed cut through the noise and chaos floating up from the tube station entrance behind her. He grimaced a bit- this was all his now. His office, his pub, his stage, his home. His new all-hours address, Number 1, the corner of Oxford and Regent Streets, Failureshire, London. He could always be found nestled up against the giant commercial beast of TopShop by day, then sloping off to sleep in a more hidden shop corner by night.
It was always busy here- full of people carrying small phones and big shopping bags- but now, less than two weeks away from Christmas, it was a glorified scrum. Still- the increased footfall usually meant that the empty cup at his feet filled up quickly so he shouldn’t complain. And he wouldn’t have, really, except that recently, the money hungry powers that be had added yet another source of noise to the already overwhelming cacophony- an enormous LCD screen which played music videos, advertisements and God knows what else on a 5 minute loop. It had only been up a day and he already knew more than he cared to about electronics he could never afford, holidays that looked so beautiful they may as well be dreams and all the lyrics to some new song by someone called Chris Brown. He particularly hated that last one- the song was called Don’t Judge Me, the most useless phrase he’d ever heard. Everyone judged. Usually unfairly and asking them not to was tilting at windmills. He supposed the bloke had a reason for singing such nonsense but he wished he didn’t have to listen to it all day. Not only were the lyrics daft, but the blaring sound drowned out his own music, which in turn meant that despite the manic crowds constantly swirling around him he earned little and ate less. People gave more money to a man with a guitar when they could hear him. He looked up, -yes, there it was. Playing again. His mouth twitched into a bleak smile- a fact he immediately regretted when he felt himself surrounded by the smell of lavender and soft, small arms.
“Oh Dad! Won’t you come home with me?”
Bollocks. She’d thought that smile was meant for her and…bollocks. He really ought to push her off him. It wouldn’t do to let her think calling him Dad was okay, hugging him was okay, caring about him was okay. None of this was okay. And he would…in just a couple more seconds. Ah, Christ. Now she was crying. He felt the gentle movements of her shaking shoulders and caved in, wrapping his arms around his Cat, his little girl…
How had he gotten here? He’d exchanged enough stark words with other bums around to know his tale wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A life that started out with enough promise, enough potential to suit any man. A job that paid, a woman who loved him, and later his Cat. Then in a bid to make a better life for her, he’d borrowed money from the banks to try and get his own thing going, just in time for the credit crunch. A silly name for something so ruinous- as if a sodding breakfast cereal had ruined his entire life. When the tide of bills had started drowning him, he’d borrowed more money, this time from the wrong people, the sort of people who didn’t accept excuses and didn’t bother with foreclosures or court orders. They only bothered with broken bones and missing little girls. But the banks couldn’t, or wouldn’t help and he’d felt trapped, so he’d taken the loan and worked harder. But the crunch had kept on crunching and when they’d threatened to use his Cat as ‘incentive’, he’d agreed to ‘work’ off his debt. Of course, that work had ended badly- so badly it had cost him 5 years in prison and everything he had- and now here he was. Nothing left but a few newspapers and a guitar that no one could hear.
The memory of this ignited the slow embers of shame that were never fully banked inside him and he succumbed to the strange male alchemy that turned humiliation into rage. He shoved at Cat. Seeing her land awkwardly on her bottom, now sitting on the filthy floor he lived on only made it worse.
“Don’t touch me! And get out! Get OUT of here! I’m not your Dad and I’m not coming home, you stupid girl! This is it, you hear? This is all I am now and I want nothing to do with you! So take your stupid rotisserie chicken and get back on the fucking tube!”
He infused this last sentence with all the spitting, scathing fury he had and took grim satisfaction when Cat winced. She looked as if he’d slapped her. Good. Maybe this time she wouldn’t come back, maybe this time she’d understand that he was dirty and damaged and being with him would cause her nothing but pain. Her mother had learned that lesson easily enough.
Cat slowly got to her feet. She didn’t cry or plead or even dust the filth of the feet thousands of Christmas shoppers off her hands, instead folding them into her coat pockets with quiet dignity. When she spoke, Ben found himself proud of the strength of his girl, his Cat.
“You are my dad. And you always will be.” She said the words unequivocally. As if they were plain facts. As if she wasn’t ashamed of him, when she had to be. How could she not be? “You can stay here if you like Dad, singing at people who won’t hear you and don’t care about you, feeling sorry for yourself and staying angry at a world that disappointed you, that’s your right. Or you can have something more. You can come home with me, to my flat, and you can let me help you.”
Her words hung in the cold air, stabbing at him like little ice picks. Agony, because he now knew she thought she meant every word. Ben realised she really did want him with her, and she would do everything she could to help him. And the thought of being near her, of being a real father to her, a real man again was….But eventually, it would all fall apart. She’d see that cleaning him up and sending him to interviews wouldn’t work- no one hired a man with a prison record and only basic education. He wouldn’t be able to get any benefits because, one way or another, he’d be told he wasn’t ill enough, or unfortunate enough to deserve them. Then he’d be stuck with Cat, a burden she shouldn’t need and couldn’t afford and he’d be worse off than he was now. Today, she thought he was just being stubborn. If he went with her, soon enough she would see he was worthless. Ben knew what he was doing now wasn’t living- he was just surviving, doing no more than the rodents he sometimes had to fight off at night. But losing Cat’s respect, seeing the same look in her eyes he saw in the eyes of some of the passersby who flung coins at him? Ben knew he wouldn’t be able to survive that. By comparison, this was heaven. That would be hell.
“I said go, Cat. And don’t come back. Because if you do, you won’t find me here.”
A weary threat, an empty threat, one he’d made before and would make again. Where else was there to go? But it was the way he ended these little interludes, the lines he spoke to close the scene and let her that it was time to go, she wouldn’t be getting her way today. He didn’t notice he’d spoken the words with less than his usual force.
She gave him a sad little smile and leaned down to make sure the Tesco bag was within his reach before turning away. She never said goodbye to him, never begged or made a scene. Today’s hug had been his fault; he shouldn’t have smiled. A mistake he wouldn’t make again. But even though the hug had opened up a chink in his armour, letting in futile and silly dreams, it was a mistake he couldn’t quite regret. He’d gotten to hold his little girl again, just for a moment, and that…well. That was worth something.
In the heartbeat of calm between the insistent sounds of an ad for a dishwasher and another for an all-inclusive week in Bali, a husky voice singing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here drifted down the staircase and into the tube station. “How I wish, how I wish you were here/We’re just two lost souls singing in a fish bowl, year after year…” Cat, wiping her eyes and fishing in her pocket for her Oyster card, heard it and smiled. He was softening.
She’d be back tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, she get her Dad home in time for Christmas.
And now for some preachy stuff- I hope you all make the most of the family you have and remember not to give up on people who haven’t given up on you. Life is rarely fair but making the most of what we have, and the people who love us, generally makes all the other crap worth it. Two last things- if you aren’t a fan of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, get involved as it’s one of the best songs ever written and I hope you all have a glorious Christmas!
My gift for the next writer is a red box filled with black and white photos.