ONLY UP HERE

 

By Fernando Sdrigotti

 

Midday. I’ve been rolling around in bed since I quit last week. It happened out of nowhere: I pulled myself a double Jameson’s during a busy shift and sat on the other side of the bar. What are you doing? I’m quitting. You can’t quit. Yes I can: look. Go have a fag and come back behind the bar. I won’t — it’s too busy behind the bar. You’ve got to give me a week’s notice. Silence. I finished my drink and walked out of the pub with the voice of the Cypriot telling me I was barred. I left with most of my money in my pocket; not that they would ever notice — they could never get the maths right. And then I felt like I owned the world, that I could go anywhere. London was finally smiling at me: no more bars, no more mopping the floor, collecting pints, long shifts serving wankers. The beginning of a new era; then it was the future already and the future of that future was full of promises. The high lasted for a couple of hours. Soon I realised I was unemployed. And I hit the bed. I must have been in bed for five days.

Not exactly five days in bed but five days of leaving it only to go for a piss, grab something to eat, smoke a cigarette, have a drink of water. And the same happened to Leo: he fell into introspection at about the same time — two days before me, actually. My moments of ecstasy and sadness were probably a copycat version of his, after he quit his job at the Bricklayer’s Arms. He had come home hyperventilated, coked-up, speaking about his plans to go back to film school, how we should rent a car on Sunday and drive to Cambridge, Oxford, Kent, Cornwall, whatever, like Thelma and Louise. And then the bed. Just like I would some days later.

Midday all through this side of the studio flat and on Leo’s side too. I’m head-to-the-pillow when the sun comes through the huge window. The smell of feet in the room, burnt cigarette butts, lack of personal and general hygiene, the mess all around us. We ran out of cunting cigarettes too, says Leo. Go get some, I says. Fuck off, he says, and didn’t even raise his head from the pillow. Anyway, it’s only a matter of holding on until tonight. Maybe I’ll even fall asleep and wake up tomorrow.

By two p.m. I can’t take it anymore and I leave the flat. It’s stupidly sunny while I make my way to George’s Kebab, just around the corner. I walk into his place with my stomach rumbling and don’t even say hi until I’ve ordered my food: a large shish with humus and a can of ginger beer. Hello first, innit? Hello George! Sorry, I’m really hungry. No worries my friend we’ll feed you. Nice to see you; where were you? he asks. I was away, at a training course to join the Royal Marines, I say. I thought you had to be British to join the army, he says. They’ve changed the rules now; they need people from other backgrounds. How did the training go? I passed it! Good on you, son. But I’ve changed my mind, I don’t think the army is for me. Yes, don’t join those cunts on anything. I won’t! Large shish and humus and a can of ginger beer; there you go my friend, he says, and nods towards the back door.

Soon I’m sitting in the back room, watching my team “back home” playing a shitty football game; the commentary is in Turkish — it’s all very strange. Eleven thousand one hundred and forty-six kilometres away, I’m watching twenty two Argentine idiots chase a ball in real time. With three or four seconds delay, perhaps, but live. It’s mind-boggling. From Buenos Aires and across the Atlantic, over the Ural mountains, BANG!, Istanbul, then picked up by a Soviet satellite who-knows-how-many kilometres above the atmosphere and BANG! (again) on the telly before me. I tell an old leather jacket-clad Turk about this uncanny situation. I think he doesn’t understand me — he just smiles blankly and then goes back to his paper. I shut up and eat the kebab.

The other guy is here as well; the guy with the weird little eye, the second-in-command. He calls me “my friend” too. He soon spots me and sits on the table with me. He asks where I have been I tell him I’ve been working overtime, managing the pub isn’t an easy job, you see. Then I tell him they fired me. He seems confused, puzzled, or perhaps just drunk. He says something about these fucking English cunts. I tell him the owners of the place are Cypriots. He says they must be Greek Cypriots. I say I am pretty sure they’re Turkish Cypriots. He doesn’t reply and stops talking to me for a while. Then he says that there are cunts everywhere — he’s absolutely right. He’s drinking Raki and his eye, the funky one, gets smaller with every sip. By the end of the bottle he’ll look like Thom Yorke. But before that happens my team scores a goal and I celebrate by closing my fist and saying yessssss. Little eye celebrates too — he hugs me and gets a bit overexcited and drops his glass on the floor. He curses in Turkish and leaves through the front door. The accident doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the guys in the room — they’re all busy looking at a laptop. Kebab people love gadgets — they are technological people. Little eye comes back and sweeps the floor with a broom. Stumbling and singing something in Turkish.

This incredible universe of brands, shelves, smells, little- and medium- sized tins and cans, unpronounceable names and inedible processed meals.

The off-licence guy asks me where I’ve been. I tell him I was on a meditation retreat on the Isle of Man. I don’t even know how I come up with this. He doesn’t say anything for a while. Then he asks me about my job, did I take a holiday? I say I’ve quit and he frowns. I pay for the beers, the Supermalt and the Jaffa cakes. Thanks. You’re welcome. A frown, a clearly annoyed frown. He says that I have to work now that I’m young so that I can retire well when I’m older. I knew he would come up with some shit like that. I tell him that I’ve got a job interview in the City this week, for Royal Bank of Scotland, and that’s why I quit my job at the bar and went on a meditation retreat. He says I should have quit only after nailing the job. I say I needed time to prepare for the job interview — god, I hate hard-working people. He asks me what sort of meditation I practice. I ask what does he mean with what kind. Vipassana, Zen, Mindfulness? he asks. It’s all the same, I say. No, it isn’t. He seems to know all about it. I say Singing Yoga Meditation. Singing Yoga Meditation? He seems confused. I tell him we do yoga, sing and then meditate. I don’t think he buys it. It’s a sort of New Age thing, very popular in Argentina and Liverpool Street. Never heard of it. It’s a new thing. Then he asks me about “my friend Leo” managing to sound the quotation marks, the homophobe. I tell him that he’s still at the retreat, that he decided to stay a bit longer, he’s getting good at the singing yoga but needs to improve on the meditative side of things. He quit his job too? Yes, he did. He has an interview at Warner Brothers the same day I have mine at Royal Bank of Scotland. You’re doing fine, he says. It was about time, I say. He tells me to remind Leo that he owes him twenty pounds. I say I will. When’s your interview, he asks. On Wednesday, I say. Good luck to you both. I thank him and walk out.

It’s three p.m. and still very sunny. I cross the road and walk towards St. Leonard’s churchyard. When I’m halfway there I feel I need to go for a piss. So I backtrack and head to the public toilets on the corner of Columbia and Hackney roads, some hundred metres up. There aren’t many people around save for some hipsters carrying flowers and plants from the flower market. Perhaps I should go and buy a plant or just walk to the market, see people, maybe bump into someone I know, have a coffee, get some clean air.

A couple of minutes pass and the door remains locked. I look at a couple passing by, a girl and a guy; the girl with skinny legs, flat ass and huge tits, the guy very tall and pale, quite good looking, but he’s wearing flip-flops and has huge bony feet. They stare at me when they pass — it must be my plastic bag. And they’re gone. Some more people carrying plants, the phone booth; I start to get bored. I remember when I called Guido from this phone booth soon after I arrived. I called him crying, paying for the phone call with pound coins, saying that I was freaking out because I was feeling suicidal and was missing Buenos Aires. It was a very expensive phone call. Why do you say that? I don’t really know; it’s just this horrible idea I can’t get out of my head: I think I’ll kill myself. Have you been using drugs? No. Since when do you have this in your head? Since I arrived, I said, London is a shithole. I don’t know why I called him, of all the people back home. I guess I needed to speak to someone and his was the only number I remembered at the time. Suddenly I ran out of coins and the call ended. It must have been a disturbing phone call, because he started emailing me like mad afterward, saying that I was very selfish calling him out of the blue like that, after we had agreed to let things cool down, that he had to ask around to find out if I was still alive, that I should have at least called him back to tell him I hadn’t topped my head. I never replied to his emails but he kept sending them. I thought he would just let it go but he didn’t give up. So I blocked him. He changed his email and I blocked him again and he changed the email address and so on: the whole process went on for a while. Until I tired and changed my email and gave it only to my mother and father. But he got hold of my phone number and started calling me until I changed my number too. I should have never called him that day: he’s insane.

The door finally opens and one of the local crackheads leaves. He bows in a friendly way and I say hi. He’s high as a kite and looks very happy. The door closes behind him and there’s a sound of water; the word “cleaning” starts flashing in red on the door and we both stare at it and it’s fascinating. He gets bored and walks away. When he’s walked some twenty metres he turns around and waves with a broad smile. I wave back at him, just about the same time the word “cleaning” stops flashing. I put 20p in the slot and the door opens and I walk in. It looks pretty clean: no sign of drug paraphernalia, no weird smells, no small pieces of cotton. Perhaps he was really in need of a toilet.

I struggle for a bit first but then manage to piss with my plastic bag in one hand. A nice piss, longer than expected, but a bit dark, perhaps from having my kidneys crushed during my last few days in bed. It feels great to piss in a different toilet — I can see things are beginning to move. When I finish I leave without washing my hands because my dick must be cleaner than the faucet. The door opens and I leave. The door closes behind me and the flushing sound starts once more.

Sunny, so sunny. The traffic as a background mantra and traces of fumes in the air. I’m just sitting on a bench in the middle of the churchyard, checking out the tombstones in the distance and drinking my Supermalt. There are a couple of crackheads — others — loitering about. A guy, around thirty, and a girl, who could be anything from seventeen to forty-five. They’ve been around the yard, picking cigarette butts and putting them in their pockets and scavenging who knows what from the trash bins.

Now they’re arguing by the church entrance. I can’t hear what they say, but she shouts louder than him. She moves her hands like a Neapolitan, a lot of hands being thrown into the air in all directions — crack makes people very expressive. Or she must be communicating something very important, or maybe she just talks like that, like a Neapolitan; or maybe she is a Neapolitan. I’ve seen this couple before many times since I moved to Waterson Street. They hang around with the public toilet crackhead, mostly around the churchyard, although I’ve seen them walking up and down Old Street, frantically begging for money and tobacco from the wankers late on Fridays and Saturdays. Crackheads are always in fast forward, always in a rush to get somewhere. Many times I’ve thought I should stop one of them and ask them what’s the rush. So far I’ve never done this and perhaps I’ll never will: you don’t want to stop people when they’re on their way to score.

It’s getting hot and humid now; it’s getting dark: it’ll rain. I light up one of my counterfeit Polish Marlboro. Smoking feels funny: smoke gets denser and the cigarettes smokier. The fag doesn’t taste right, and it smells weird, and I can’t tell whether it’s the humidity or the taste of Eastern Europe.

Back in the off-licence I buy a new lighter, a can of tuna, mozzarella, baked beans and crisps. I ask the guy to swap my cans for cold ones. He agrees but gives me an evil eye and checks the cans haven’t been opened. I know he thinks I’m a lazy fuck and that he doesn’t trust me; I don’t trust him either. He’s always checking the CCTV screen when I walk to the back of the shop and I’m always checking the expiry date on the products. He tells me once more to remind Leo about his twenty pounds. I say I will, and think to myself that he’s bound to live out his days behind the counter of his tiny shop, until he gets his throat cut from ear to ear by one of the churchyard bums. But I don’t tell him that.

Things are better next door. No need for CCTV when you have a large kebab knife behind the counter. I buy three more packs from little eye. Palenie Zabija. Palenia Zabija I say, chcesz papierosa. Eight pounds my friend, he says. Three for eight pounds. Even if they taste like shit: long live the EU, long live Poland and continental cancer.

Soon I get home. I open the door. Leo is still tucked under the sheets. He looks at me when I enter the flat. Morning, I say, I got us food. Morning, he says. It’s four thirty. He doesn’t reply and I’m starting to get tired of his self-pity. I’ll cook some food, I say. More silence.

I walk towards the kitchen area and open a drawer and get the tin opener. I open the can of tuna and empty it into a medium-sized bowl. I open the baked beans and mix the beans with the tuna. I put the mix in the microwave oven, set it for three minutes. While the tuna and the beans are turning I put the beers in the fridge. Then I get the mozzarella out of the pack and lay it on a plate. I watch the bowl turn in the oven and soon the thing beeps a couple of times. I cut the mozzarella in two and then open the oven and get the bowl out and empty some of the tuna and beans from the bowl into the plate; then I put one of the halves of mozzarella in the bowl. There you go, you need to eat something, I say, holding a plate to Leo’s face. I’m not hungry, he says. Eat anyway; I’ve got cigarettes, a lot of them; but no ciggies until you’ve eaten. Which ones? George’s or the cabbies’? George’s. Lights or reds? Lights. I like reds, he says. I don’t, I say. I leave the plate next to Leo’s bed and go to my side of the room. I’m hungry and I eat fast. Before I finish my plate I see Leo grabbing his. He starts eating, slowly.

It’ll rain, I say. Yes, he answers. It’s very muggy out there. Yes, it feels muggy in here too. I got us some beers; I thought we could go to the roof, drink beer, smoke, listen to music. It’ll rain, he says. We can hide under the water tank. I’m not sure I want to go all the way up, he says, sorry. No worries, I say, I’ll go by myself.

I finish eating from my bowl and leave it by the side of the bed. I move my clothes around until I find my small CD player. I press play to see if the batteries are still good — it would seem so, at least the CD seems to be moving: THESUNDAYSTHESUNDAYSTHESUNDAYS. The letters become one large white lump and I press stop. I can feel Leo staring at me but I don’t look back. I get my cigarettes and keys, grab the beers from the fridge and leave. I’ll be on the roof, I say before I close the door.

The parking lot and the flats all around. Three blocks in a square of which the fourth side leads to an alley, some more workshops, or the end of the world for all I know. And here four floors of huge windows, reconverted workshops, tall ceilings and cold lofty spaces — places never meant to be lived in. There are traces of fabrics scattered in the lot and some weird cylindrical props. A huge cardboard palm tree lays next the overfilled garbage skip. A flash flares in one of the few flats with curtains. Someone shouting in Italian below me. A girl laughs somewhere. And five cool-looking people are barbecuing something on the roof to my right. People are going about their lives in their flats and the sky is bright yellow. I haven’t opened a can yet, I haven’t lit up yet, I haven’t even pressed play. I’m just sitting here, under the water tank, looking.

Thunder, finally, and Leo’s hand resting on my shoulder. He sits by my side, wrapped inside one of his sheets — a stinking greasy-haired Jesus Christ. I pass him the Polish Marlboros and he lights up. I’m glad you came, I say. It’s breezy up here, he says. Beers are opened — no need for a toast. We drink in silence and smoke. We both look at the sky. It can’t be long before the clouds fall down like sacks of potatoes. But the barbecue people on the other roof don’t seem to care. Perhaps they haven’t even realised or perhaps they’ve reached an ideal state of unawareness of the things around them. Shit, he says, it will rain like in the Bible. Yes, I say. I’ve left the windows open, he says. Don’t worry Leo, we’re only up here. He nods and I press play. We stay there under the water tank, listening to The Sundays.

And then it starts raining.

*           *           *

First published as the Open Pen Issue Seventeen cover story.

Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario, Argentina and has lived in London since the early noughties. He is editor-in-chief of minor literature[s], a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine and senior editor at large at Numéro Cinq. He is the author of Tríptico (Dunken 2008) and Shetlag, una novela anunciada (Araña editorial, 2014), and has a forthcoming collection of short stories in English, Dysfunctional Males, of which this story is an outtake. Twitter: @f_sd

We spoke to Fernando Sdrigotti for our new podcast. Listen here.

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