Only Dickheads Ride Vespas


Alex watched a large brown fly circle the sticky perimeter of his glass, and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. The heat was stifling, and his focus had long since shifted from his parents’ conversation to the distant, silver spatter of the municipal fountain on the far side of the smouldering plaza. He imagined himself beneath its aquamarine deluge – feeling the cool water sweep into his armpits, and slick down, across the backs of his knees. He fancied he could smell the scent of chlorine and pennies from where he was sat, but the fantasy soon fell apart in the heat of the airless day.

He turned his attention back to his parents. His father was three minutes into one of his recapitulated monologues on how the game had all changed since the 1970s, and how Alex’s generation couldn’t possibly hope to recreate such a prodigious era. From the bits and pieces that he had tuned into, Alex knew that his father had already covered the problems with digital refereeing, and obscene player pay packets – “It just beggars belief, son.” – and would soon circle back to good old-fashioned love of the game.   

“V-A-R, lad.” He said. “It’s not what football’s about.”

His mother nodded – a silent but complicit audience to his father’s lecture – reapplying her lipstick before a plastic Revlon compact, which she had fished out of her handbag. Alex glanced across at her, as she did this, and watched as her prodding caused tiny beads of sweat on her top lip to pool and trickle. She dabbed at them with a tissue, fished from the endless recesses of the same bag. 

“Players used to get in there, tooth and nail. Injuries were just part of play.” His father’s voice became wistful. “None of this rolling around like sodding – like – like a bunch of poofs.”

“Derek.” Alex’s mother hushed, looking up, pocket comb in hand. He ignored her, and emptied the rest of his lager into his mouth. Before he swallowed, he held the gulp between bloated cheeks, and raised one finger to indicate the continuation of his disquisition. Alex flirted with a rogue image, imagined slapping his father’s cheeks with both hands and watching the warm beer burst from his lips. The look of disbelief.

“Beckenbauer.” 

At this, Alex knew to look his father in the eye. This was not to aid his understanding: Alex could recite his father’s speech about Beckenbauer’s broken collarbone, during the 1970 World Cup semi-final between West Germany and Italy, almost verbatim. He had heard it many times before, but his father took special delight in relaying the courageous tale for such occasions as these, on the eve of his only son’s A-Level Results Day, and Alex knew better than to risk the story taking longer than absolutely necessary, or taking narrative detours, as his apparent disinterest had prompted from his father in times past. 

Still, despite his fixed gaze and rhythmic nod of concurrence, Alex could not help his mind drifting. He tugged at his shorts, feeling moisture between his lower thighs and the red metal of the outdoor seating. His parents had insisted they have dinner outside on the first day of their holiday, to ‘get that proper Spanish experience’, and had done so, at the same bar, every day since.

After several hours of laying by the hotel pool, and one unsuccessful attempt to have Alex play table tennis with the other boys, his father had showered and scrubbed his puce, tumescent suntan to a glow, and marched them to the local market square, to eat. He ordered Alex and himself each a lager – his wife opting for a small brandy. As the drinks arrived, Alex watched his father slurp the first half of his first pint, and expel a deep sigh of satisfaction. From across the table, Alex could smell the carbolic scent of his father’s hair ointment, his chest hair poking slightly from the collar of his cream shirt. As the bar had become more familiar to them, his parents had settled into the small routines of the place, nodding knowingly at the wait staff, and making their way effortlessly to the same table, situated beneath a tattered, Coca-Cola patio umbrella. 

“Well drink up, lad – get it down you, for Christ’s sake.”

Alex thought once again about the heat, and wondered how long he could be expected to stand it. His father’s incorrigible lecturing was challenging enough, but this slow poaching was something else. He wondered if it were really more bearable than instant incineration by flame. 

It made him recall the time, in middle school, when a local firefighter had been roped in to come to give a talk on fire safety to all of Year 6. He had demonstrated his equipment, impressed everyone with the thermal imaging camera he used on the job, and even let Stephen Henderson try on his yellow helmet and visor. Outside the school, the fire truck had been parked all morning and, at break, its sirens rang, to the puerile delight of all. Alex had been so blown away, not least by the man’s death-defying anecdotes, that he had come home with the idea that he might become a firefighter himself, when he was older. For the rest of the term, he filled an A4 notepad with drawings of fire stations, and burning buildings. He absorbed VHS recordings of Backdraft and The Towering Inferno, played on repeat – even humouring a taped copy of Fireman Sam – picturing himself scaling endless flights of stairs, to rescue the helpless and the feeble from imaginary blazes. Then, that August, the worst heatwave in thirteen years struck the UK, and it took Alex only two days of hiding in his bedroom to realise then that his dreams were just that. He just couldn’t take the heat. 

The bar front, across from where Alex and his parents were sat, was situated across a small, and rarely used road that separated the somewhat humble establishment from its seating area: it faced out, towards the plaza, with its cheery tangerine awning, and unchanging menus. On their first visit to the café, his father had asked the perplexed teenage waiter for a ‘99, trying to explain the concept with hand gestures. The youth shrugged, lowering his pad and resting his pencil behind the ear not currently occupied by a cigarette. Alex felt a fat bead of sweat make its slalom way through to his hairline, and caught it as it rolled to his cheekbone. He had felt himself screaming inside his head, in the unbearable wait, as his father repeated the words once again. The waiter returned the unintelligible offering in kind, smirking slightly, as Alex’s mother winced at both the sun, and the waiter’s attempt to decipher the meaning of Choc-Ice.

The holiday had been his parents’ idea. 

“It’ll take his mind off it all, Derek.” His mother had said. “Then he can come back and celebrate.”

Alex had no idea whether or not there would be cause for celebration. The entire exam period had passed much as the preceding two years: unspectacularly. His chosen A-Level courses had left him ambivalent to begin with.  He had dropped Politics after the first year, following what his teacher had described as a ‘particularly uninspired’ final essay on Socialism and Its Global Ramifications. His mother had wanted to speak to the head teacher but Alex had persuaded her not to. After all, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a politician anyway. 

“Load of tossers, politicians.” His father had confirmed. “You’re better off out of all that, and getting a real job, like your old man.”

Alex had shrugged. 

“Let him alone, Derek, would you. Please.” His mother had said, using the fragile, tight-lipped tone of voice reserved for ending conversations. She sipped her brandy.

His father paused his oration to undo another button on his shirt, and Alex took the opportunity to excuse himself to the toilets. He made his way across the road, and into the shade of the bar front, embarrassed by the thwack of his tourist’s flip-flops against the asphalt. He heard his father’s voice call him.

“Order me another beer, while you’re in there.”

He made his way through the bar area, and was just about the turn the corner towards the toilets, when he noticed a girl in an apron, writing what he assumed were the specials on the chalk board by the door to the back room. She had climbed up onto the end of the bar, and was then shifting her weight from one knee to the other, as she scraped the chalk across the smoky black slate. He stood still, and felt the familiar, humiliating throb of longing find its way to him. She turned, licking the corner of a napkin to correct an error, and Alex watched her brown arms twitch as she steadied herself against the countertop.

In the toilets, he leaned against the basins and looked at himself in the mirror, running his hands under the cold tap. With wet fingers, he pushed back his ginger hair, to expose his full face. His eyes were reddened by sun exposure: a stark contrast to the white eyebrows and lashes he had so often loathed. Alex thought to himself that he looked not unlike a magician’s rabbit: white and pink-eyed and weak. Quivering. He imagined being dragged out of a hat by a pair of strong hands.

He thought again about the girl at the bar, and closed his eyes: imagined the life of her, and her routines. He pictured her shift ending, and saw her hands reaching behind, to remove her apron – her fiddling with the strings and laughing with the other staff. Would she walk home, or drive? She would walk, probably, as most of the locals seemed to. Perhaps she lived in the apartments above the bar itself. How cool, he thought. Or, if not, perhaps her boyfriend would give her a lift home. Alex imagined an impossibly handsome man pulling up, and nodding in her general direction, as she climbed on the back of his Vespa. What kind of a dickhead rides a Vespa, he thought. He’d be laughed out of Kirkdale if he pulled up on one of those. Alex tried to picture the scene, but couldn’t apply the image of the bronzed pair against the drizzly backdrop of Sterling Road. He imagined the girl’s hands reaching around the man’s stomach, as he drove her away, her fingers knotted. Her chin on his shoulder. Laughter.

He opened his eyes.

She was gone, by the time he returned from the toilets. Heading back outside, the shock of the sun across the terrace caused him temporary blindness, from beyond the cover of the awning. He paused, wincing from the shade, as his mother and father emerged out of white obscurity. He had forgotten the beer.

The Edge

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The night before, it was supposed to be Lucy’s turn to close up the shop, but she’d had to nip off early because the baby had the croup, and Tim had a work thing to go to. I’d offered to do it for her, because I actually quite liked the silence; the soundlessness of the shop floor as order is once again restored. Like a big jigsaw. In a way, I thought it would do well to prepare me for the following morning. Something practical, to take my mind off things.

At closing time, Arthritic Maggie had said Rather you than me, petal, and asked if I had plans for the weekend. How’s your fella, the one from Hull? She’d asked, and I’d told her he’d gone back home for a while because things around here were too depressing. So, he went back to Hull, of all places? She’d laughed. I laughed too. Why not, I thought.

Then I’d gone to Mam’s for tea. I cooked. After the fourth brandy, she’d started on about grandkids and living in a bedsit, and how just because he’d sodded off it didn’t make it too late to do something. It was like her to make him the cause of all that had since unfurled. His leaving was something tangible. Nothing chemical about it. She could sink her teeth into a dumping. When I mentioned what Dr Farouk had said about treating the mind not the symptom, her lips pursed, as though the very mention of anything to do with the hospital had wrung the moisture from her mouth. What did he know, she’d said. He’s not even from this country.

I knew immediately I had to forgive her because, at that point, she didn’t know what I was going to do, and all she could see were the desiccated remnants of my youth spread out like an upturned refuse sack. But then, she was going to have to forgive me, too. When I left, she brushed a spec of dust from my coat and told me to comb my hair. You’ll never find a man looking like that.

As I lay in bed that night, I made a mental checklist of what needed doing. I had left out enough food for the cat, to last until they came to sort out my things. I had checked the train times and calculated roughly that one left the station every four minutes or so. My clothes were laid out on the folding chair beside the desk. A sense of small satisfaction came upon me as I marked my own efficiency, when I noticed the digital display of my alarm clock, mapping a ghostly neon hatching across the far wall. It reminded me of the paintings in Dr Farouk’s office. Abstract, he’d called it. Much like the human brain. Both complex, both beautiful. We need to analyse to understand. I thought about how many hours I’d spent staring at those paintings, as Dr Farouk laid his delicate fingers on the desk between us, and tipped his head to one side. I thought about the garish, lazy colouring of them. If that’s my brain, I thought, I don’t want to understand.

I turned over, away from the clock, and felt my back stiffen. It occurred to me that I was far older than I’d once felt, as though the number had been allocated a different meaning, displaced by more important considerations. It crept upon me, with the realisation of a slow winding down.

The next morning, I deliberately didn’t wear my boots, despite the cold, because heels attract attention. I knew that the irresistible sound of hard foodsteps on concrete platform would be a problem, and would command the attention of onlookers. I stuck to soft soles and silence. Platform four, being the furthest from the station entrance, would be the least fuss to decommission for the rest of the afternoon.

It was one of those days when the sky is cold milk, and your breath is hung before you in wet heaps.

Four trains arrived and departed before the right announcement shook its metallic din from the speakers above. The platform master appeared, and it was then that I could see he was only a boy. He wasn’t what I’d pictured. The next train arriving at platform four does not stop here. Perhaps he was twenty, or twenty-one. He still had acne on his face. Please keep back from the platform edge. I wondered if he had ever seen a dead body before, on the internet. Whether his mates had shared something like that with him on their phones. Keep back from the edge. Did he have mates? The train now arriving does not stop here. Would he know what to do? Had he been doing this job long enough to know? Keep back from the edge. Would he forgive me?

I didn’t stand up straight away.