Tuesday 14 August 2012

I Found a Pound: First Story

Have you ever thought about money, and the amount of hands it passes through, the different reasons it is spent?
A while ago I had an idea about a collection of stories all connected by a pound coin. The characters would all range in age, background, personality and motives, highlighting the way we are all so diverse yet ultimately connected.
Here is the first story.

Brian Brown

‘…and don’t spend it all at once!’

All at once? Would it be possible to spend it otherwise? To cut the coin in half would take great effort; a helping hand from the world’s strongest man, a miniature circular saw. Brian, little bonny Brian, held the pound and squeezed it. It felt solid, as if it always was and always will be.  Much as he wished he could break it in bits to spend over time, he liked the feel of it, there was a finality to it. I either have this pound or I don’t, thought Brian.

Brian Brown turned eight today. At quarter to seven this morning, the stars aligned in a familiar sequence, Brian’s cosmic cradle bore yet again. He was fast asleep, dreaming of motion and shape shifting, the moment he turned eight. It wasn’t until nine o’clock that his mother, Frances Brown, rat-a-tatted on his door and cooed ‘Briiiiian, wakey waaaaaakey’, a sing song see saw that gently lifted him from his sleep.

Every birthday was the same, keeping with traditions and habits to create stability, to comfort against change. On the mornings of her birthdays, Frances Brown would think, ‘one year closer to death’. On her son’s, today, she thought ‘one year closer to life’. He was at the age where getting older was a celebration, each year a victory of height, strength, times tables and teeth.

As Brian stretched and yawned his mother set down the breakfast tray on his bed, cautiously popping her bottom beside it, careful not to disturb. On the tray there lay an array of treats. Instead of toast there was two halves of an English muffin, buttered and steaming. There were strips of streaky bacon, cooked to a crisp, and beside them three long chipolata sausages. In an ornate dish there was a pile of freshly washed berries. The star of the show was the tall glass full of frothy strawberry milkshake, a straw tempting its way out of it.

‘Go on, eat up’, Mrs. Brown said with a smile. She smoothed the covers around Brian as he shuffled upright and rubbed his eyes. He had never been the sort of child who gets the birthday jitters and jumps around at the crack of dawn. He was a reserved boy, sandy haired and meek, with a milky quality that caused him to blend into situations and cause little fuss. A handy trait in a child, you say. Mrs. Brown certainly agreed.

Many a summer’s evening she would drag Brian along to barbecues and dinner parties, dressing him in a miniature suit, with a shy smile to boot. He would follow her like a tail, feeling glad for the exclusive nature of adult conversations. He could just look down, stare at his feet, travel far into his head and mingle with thoughts and imaginings, a comfortable world. A world which was not filled with so many boring suits and the clip clops of heels. The times when he was ignored were the best times. The worst was when his mother’s friends would try and introduce him to their kids. Snotty, stinky, big kids who all knew each other and had new toys on every occasion. Why did adults think just because you were the same height you would get along? Brian had once gone to a petting zoo. Staring into the eyes of a goat had not sparked any mutual interest or communication, why should it be any different with a human child? Every time he was herded into the ‘play room’ or the sandpit so he could be with ‘people his own age’, he would get a shiver of electricity, a spark of panic, seeing his mother so far away and so engrossed in her own life. I’m scared, what do I say? Do I say anything at all? These kids seem mean…

The turmoil of youth and its social politics can go greatly ignored. When Brian returned home from school with bruises on his arms Mrs. Brown turned a blind eye and let the century old excuse, ‘boys will be boys’, ring loud and clear in her head. She always asked, ‘How was school?’, but never asked, ‘How are you?’

Brian is not the kind of boy who presents information to the world. He is the kind who sucks everything up, is open like a wound, and lets everything come and go. He is a watcher. In life, how do we explain these attributes? Are they ingrained or changeable? For Brian, there was a point, a pinnacle before this way or that way, which provided him with his introversion.  It was when his father, Benjie Brown, died in a car crash two years ago, when Brian was six. Brian remembers when he was told one morning at school. He and the other pupils were all sat in a half circle, facing Miss Jones, as she told them a story about a dragon who couldn’t breathe fire. Nanny Price the receptionist creaked the classroom door open and excused herself with a quivering lip. She beckoned Brian over, he almost felt proud for being selected. He was not usually picked out from the crowd.

And then, the words, the words that sounded like a story. How could Nanny Price’s lilting hushed tone possibly encapsulate the horror of the words? Poor little Brian was only a boy, is only a boy. But he understood. He experienced a loss, profound and mystical, and all colour drained from the corridor and even from outside the window. Did he cry? Not physically. He was too shocked and incredulous to express any emotion. He was dumfounded. People underestimate the lengths a child’s mind can travel; we seem to think that we adults have the coherent thoughts, the capacity to rationalise and to predict what’s next. But that morning, six year old Brian’s mind travelled forward to years in the future. He imagined his mother without his father. He imagined a house with only two. He imagined the silence, the tidiness, the stifling cleanliness. His father, Benjie Brown, was a mechanic, a burly, manly sort. He epitomised his work, returning home at five o’clock with a dirty face that made him look tanned, and a jumpsuit that bore the marks of his day. He was like a surgeon with the blood and guts of engines splattered all over him. To Brian he meant mess- wild, playful, energetic mess. His mother would always be faffing around him, cleaning up the dirty footprints that he trailed behind him everywhere like breadcrumbs.

So, Dad was gone. Where did that leave Mum? Brian thought less about his reaction, and more about his mothers’. Her purpose was her ‘lads’, the two B’s, Benjamin and Brian. Blonde hair, blue eyes, blood bound. Brian was confused. Images of coffins and gravestones popped into his head. He had seen things like that on TV, and knew that it was sad.

Brian was whisked away from school in the receptionist’s car, and was driven to his home three miles away in a leafy suburb. All the while he was blank as a sheet, staring in front, eyes open, vision closed. Nanny Price was out of her depth, she alternated between chirpy words of false hope and long periods of solemn silence. She escorted him to his front door, and this was the moment, that defining droplet in Brian’s ocean, that made him shy away from the world. His mother’s wails seeped through the walls like a poisonous gas and shocked his core. Entering the stale living room sent a white-hot pain through him. Frances Brown was curled up on the floor, her clenched fists banging the carpet, her back heaving with sobs. Brian ran over to her and squeezed and squeezed.

‘Don’t cry, Mum. Don’t cry.’

He knew, from that moment, that it was just him and her now. He needed her because she was all he had, she needed him because he was all she had. It was a double act now, not a team. They would have to try extra hard to be a family. Brian thought, who would she clean up after now?

As it was on every birthday, Brian got dressed in his Sunday best and combed his hair into a sleek side parting. Mrs. Brown straightened his bow tie and brushed his shoulders, to rid of the dust that had accumulated since last year. She would chatter on meaninglessly, exhausting Brian with her incessant ‘Well isn’t it a lovely day! Well aren’t you looking bonny! Well could you ever wish for a better suit than this!’ He kept quiet and nodded. He saw his father in her watery blue eyes, he saw her loss and felt it too. Looking in the mirror, he tried to find some of his father’s traits. His square jaw, maybe? Certainly the hair, the wispy golden mop. But there was no laughter, no mischievous glint in the eye, only Brian’s reflection, a reminder of a life forgotten.  

At about half past eleven, Brian and his mother left the house looking like dolls. Mrs. Brown made doubly sure that she had locked the front door, and peered into the window to make sure all the lights were off. Nothing worse than waste. Nothing worse than forgotten light switches. She held Brian’s hand and guided him through the front gate, which she slammed close with a screech. Turning left towards the main road, the journey began, as it did every year, to Gran’s.

Gran was Mrs. Brown’s mother. Her name was Cynthia Wills and she stank of lavender and self-importance. Brian saw her as a large bony bird, a vulture. She had a nose that dipped into her teacup and a hunched posture that conjured images of witches and gargoyles. She was not a hag by any means, but Brian, in his eight-year-old innocence, could see right through her fancy frills. Her smile was not warm, it was grotesque. Her high head of curls was not tastefully styled, it was frightful. She wore Christmas tree jewellery and bright floral two piece suits that made Brian dizzy. She lived by herself on the posh side of town, with Waitrose round the corner and no kebab shops to be seen. Brian dreaded these visits. Perhaps this is why he was never particularly excited for his birthday. It meant stiff suits and fuss that grated on him, nails on a blackboard, that sort of feeling.

‘Oh, hello Frances, hello Brian! Don’t you look wonderful, the pair of you! Oh, what a sight for a dithering old biddy like me! Come in, come in, I have tea ready and Marcella’s just left so the house is nice and clean. Oh, Brian, won’t you smile for your grandmother? Cat still got your tongue? Frances, what do you feed this boy? Stinging nettles? Hurt to talk, does it Brian? Come on boy!’

With each rasping syllable Brian’s stomach tightened. It made him want to implode on himself and disappear. He looked down, and further down, until his neck hurt. His lips tightened until locked. Gran turned to go inside so they followed. Brian noticed that his mother became considerably quieter around Gran. She was the one that did all the talking at home, but here, at 42 Glenroy Street, she did a lot more nodding and mmming.

The house was shiny with polish and smelt of synthetic freshness. Cotton Delight, Lavender Dreams, Lemony Zest. Brian hated it all. Everything looked like a photograph. They walked through into the lounge, where there was a tea set arranged on the glass topped coffee table. The teapot and cups and saucers all matched (naturally) and were decorated with flowers. Gran and Mrs. Brown sat next to each other on the sofa, Brian on the large armchair opposite. Everyone went through the birthday motions, handing him his cards and his presents. From his mother, socks and a new shirt, blue and crisp. He also got a few story books and a large tin of boiled sweets. From his Gran, it was always the same. A card with a pound stuck inside it with sellotape. She was still stuck in the era where a singular coin meant a lot, so gave it to Brian with an air of pride. He thanked them politely.

As the grownups chattered on, Brian planted his hands beneath his buttocks, and clenched. He tapped his shoes together, click clicking, and indulged in his imagination. Where was he now? Outer space, floating in a bubble, trapped but warm. Or the Wild West, on a horse, galloping and free, cowboy hat bouncing in the breeze. He was a mouse now, burrowing his way into a bed of leaves, knowing it was his bedtime because of the owl’s twit-twoo.

‘Brian! Brian! Will you answer your Gran please? He is an awful dreamer, he really is!’

Brian gazed up hesitantly.

‘Yes Brian, what I was saying was, wouldn’t it be lovely if all three of us could go on a trip away somewhere? How about Cornwall? There are some lovely beaches down there. Great tea rooms as well, very tasteful, very tasteful. Frances, you really ought to discipline this boy! All he’s doing is looking up at me like a simpleton! Have you had him tested? For disability, I mean. They can help you, you know, in schools now. I’ve never met someone so quiet! There’s a fine line between shyness and rudeness you know…’

Brian listened and stared. What was this feeling that was building up in him? It was bubbling and squeaking like an overheated stew. He fidgeted on his chair. Suddenly things were getting a bit much. The steam from the teapot was rising and the grandfather clock behind him was loud and oppressive. Everything sharpened and a rage seared through him, vital and real. He closed his eyes and in his head straight lines began to appear, pointing somewhere.

On an on, the women’s voices droned, rising and falling with put on emphasis, stirring Brian’s stomach into a sticky slush. Who were these people? He knew what family meant, he knew that you were born into one, and you had to stay there, but if they didn’t understand you, who could? He looked outside through the large bay windows that faced the street. It was quiet out there, a nothing day, the sky was an inoffensive pale yellow. A van drove past with ‘Mike’s Motor Rescue’ written on its side. Mrs. Brown looked up and her eyes flickered. She cleared her throat and reached over to her tea cup, which shivered in its saucer. There was a prolonged silence which rose and fell with each of their breaths.

‘Oh yes, Mike, I thought I recognised him! He was friends with your Benjamin wasn’t he? Bad apple though, that Mike’, Gran interjected. She looked about the room for an answer but even Mrs. Brown had frozen up. This was a sensitive subject which Gran seemed to be completely immune from. This was not the first time she had mentioned Brian’s father with nonchalance. She had never been fond of him, thinking him working class and brutish, even his death had not redeemed him.

‘Although Benjamin was always well behaved, which is all you can expect from that kind of family!’

Brian was determined not to cry. He welled up and it felt like there were oceans under there but he swallowed and managed to say with a teeny tiny voice, ‘I’m going to the toilet’. As he stood up from his chair he glanced at his mother and felt sorry for her. Gran was still talking, how did she have so much to say? There were too many words floating around the room, words like time machines. He had to go.

Brian never broke the rules. He was never late back from school, he had never stole a sweet in his life, his homework was done on time. It was curious then, that instead of turning left up the stairs to the bathroom, he carried on walking, past the picture frames and the sign that said ‘Welcome’ and through the front door which opened with a click. He stepped out into the world and thought, so this is what it feels like to be a bad boy. It felt good.

Without doubt or hesitation, he walked briskly past the hedgerows and sounds of lawnmowers, running his fingers along every wall he passed, taking note of every texture, liking the heat that the friction was causing. He looked down at his feet at the shiny shoes and stepped on every crack on the pavement. He saw a puddle of oil on the road and dipped his foot into it, with caution at first, and then with force. People passed but didn’t notice. He wondered if his mother had noticed he’d left yet. He liked the idea of her worrying, he could imagine her shock, Gran’s disapproval. He suddenly wanted them to disapprove, he wanted them to treat him like a little rascal not a little gentleman. He took off his bow tie and flung it into a bin. His mother would be so angry. How delightful!

Time had done that funny thing of going on without you, and before he knew, Brian had reached the Edge of Town. The Edge of Town was always mentioned by his Gran with a downturned mouth. It was where the rich suburbs ended and the outskirts of the city began. This was where you found your disillusioned delinquents, your dirty drug addicts, your dim witted doleys, according to Gran. Stay away, she would say. But she was at home, and Brian was feeling brave. He could tell it was the Edge of Town because of the people. There were more of them and they looked like they were in a hurry. He recognised this street; a memory was creeping back to him. His father had taken him here once, in his work van. Brian loved to sit next to him in the front seat, even though his mother said he was not allowed. Benjie Brown would always say, ‘What your mother doesn’t know won’t kill her.’ That day was a special treat because Brian was allowed to be with his father all day, it was a weekend. He didn’t remember doing much, only driving around; his father’s whistling a suitable soundtrack.

He was too young then. He felt older now, walking by himself, dodging the people and prams. He could smell something strange, delicious and meaty, coming from a take away. He felt his father all around, this was his territory. He heard his voice in the gruff tones around him, and saw his weather beaten face in the men that stood smoking outside the pubs. There was dirt and scum stuck to the pavement, chewing gum dotted around like pebbles on a beach. Even though he was a little scared, he was on a risky high, he hadn’t felt this kind of excitement for a long time. He did what he did best and watched. There were fathers and sons, girlfriends and boyfriends, mothers and babies, and they all looked like they didn’t care about afternoon tea and trips to Cornwall. They were getting on with everything, he wished he knew how to move that fast.

Glancing to his left, a colourful sign drew his attention. ‘Toys for Boys’ was written in jaunty rainbow colours on the dirty window. It was hand painted and was starting to peel and crack. Brian looked in shyly, not wanting to appear nosy. The shop was empty, apart from a hunched figure at the desk. All the shelves were packed with bits and bobs, old train sets, wooden guns, big glass jars of marbles. The floor looked dusty, the floor boards were bare, and it seemed like a place forgotten. Because there were no customers Brian decided to go inside.

There was a bell attached to the door which rung with a trill when it was opened. The smell of dust and must came over him instantly, and he was reminded of the saloons of the Wild West he’d read about in books, he imagined they would smell like this. Like the inside of a vacuum cleaner.

‘Hello son!’

The hunched figure had turned around and was now facing Brian a few feet away at the counter. He was an old man, withered and wiry, with glasses perched on his nose and white hair that was fighting to stay on. He looked friendly, and was leaning against the wooden counter with a casual stance, a cloth hanging from his jean pocket.

‘Looking for anything in particular?’ asked the shopkeeper. Brian shook his head. His shyness slapped him in the face, reminding him that he was in an unfamiliar place, that this was a stranger, that he had run away. He looked down at his shoes, the oil was seeping on to the floorboards.

‘Just want a look around then do you? No harm in that. You can’t steal with your eyes can you!’

The shopkeeper turned around, whistling a tune that sounded like a lullaby. Brian didn’t know what to do. Adults made him uncomfortable, but there was something calm and unassuming about this one that gave him some confidence. He looked around and after a while he couldn’t help but move towards the shelves that lined the walls of the shop. It was a mosaic of tin and wood and cardboard containers. Everything looked washed out in colour but there was a brightness to it all, a magical antiquity that fascinated Brian. He walked up and down, catching glimpses of old boxes.

The Ultimate Adventure Kit

Jungle Jigsaw- A Thousand Pieces, A Thousand Creatures!

Biggest Yo-Yo in the World

What was this place? The strange, dusty treasures that lay here were new to him in their age. Never had he seen such adventure, it did not seem to matter that outside the window was a grey world of concrete and fumes, in here he was a little boy set free to be.

Then his eyes were drawn to the corner of the shop. He walked towards it and in front of him was a large blue truck, about the size of a cat. It looked in much better condition than all the other toys, but Brian could tell that it was old because of the style. It was a truck from the fifties, round-edged and classic looking, with big round headlights that looked like eyes. He crouched down and was compelled to touch it, to run his fingers over the cool metal and stroke the rubbery tyres. In a flash, he felt his father again, his love of cars and engines and messy machines.

‘You like that do you, son?’

Brian was startled, and quickly drew his hand away, standing upright.

‘Sorry sir, I…I didn’t mean to touch it.’

‘Don’t be silly! Touch it all you want! These toys are meant to be touched, not to sit here and rot. No one ever comes in these days. All boys want is computer games and bang bang shoot the zombies!’

‘It’s a nice truck. My dad liked trucks.’

‘Did he now…A real man. Do you want to buy it, son?’

Brian looked down at the truck and thought of the time, what time was it now, was his mother worried, had she called the police, would it be back to school, back to silence, back to crusts cut off and Sunday lunch and Gran who dribbled poison from her tongue. Brian nodded at the shopkeeper and reached into his pocket.

‘I only have this though…It’s not much.’

He handed over the pound that he had been given earlier that day. The shopkeeper took it from him and gave a light chuckle which echoed in the room.

‘Well, it is worth more than that, I have to tell you. But do you know what, you look like you’ve taken quite a fancy to it, I haven’t seen wide eyes like that since I myself was a kid! That’ll do just fine, son.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

Brian walked back to where the truck was sitting and picked it up. He had to use both arms, wrapping them around it like a newborn.