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Ben Byrne
Ben Byrne

Ben Byrne studied drama at the University of Manchester and later lived in San Francisco, New York and Tokyo, where he worked as a consultant, ethnographic film-maker and musician. He returned to England to dedicate his time more fully to writing, and his short fiction has appeared in Litro magazine. His first novel, Fire Flowers - a sweeping drama set in the war-torn streets of Tokyo in the aftermath of WW2 - is forthcoming in the UK and the US in February 2015, published by Europa Editions. He lives in London.


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Foxes


I met the blind man soon after I left University, while I was living in a dismal shared house in South London. I was unemployed for a time – it felt like a long time. I had no money, and the days had become a dreary succession of ashen grey and lamp-lit black. Autumn was being silently bludgeoned into winter: half-way through the afternoon the sky began to bleed away light; it crept back the next morning, but slowly, as if only there on sufferance, unwilling to stick around. The rain came down and as the season dwindled, day became unsure, and night unrepentant.

          The pub at the end of the street was a cheery lung of a place, enlivened by the lights of fruit machines, the warble of karaoke and the whack of plastic balls on the pool table. A shop next door sold magazines, watery bacon and milk. In the window, handwritten cards displayed the services of local women – ironing, cleaning and “hovering” at four pounds an hour; exotic ebony beauties, new in town, 48DD. No use looking, I thought – I could afford neither hovering nor beauties.

          Another section listed “services required” and I sometimes scoured it for employment opportunities. Fast growing cosmetic companies sought motivated team players, 50k+; telemarketing positions were available for committed self-starters with own phone. I called a few of them up in the early days. They all involved selling things – windows, health cures, cosmetics – selling advertising space, or even selling selling advertising space. You took the phone book and started at Aabramovich.

          I pictured myself in my box-room, the phone book open on my lap, cold calling housewives in the rain-sodden towers of South London – the concrete walkways permeated with the lonely smell of deep-fat fryers, the sky keening with the sound of car alarms and baby wailing, the staccato bark of dogs . . .

          A hard faced blonde woman was blue-tacking a card to the other side of the glass. “Russian blonde (19)” it said. “Need strict English lessons.” I glanced at her curiously, wondering if my English teaching qualification might finally prove of some use, but she glared at me and stalked out of the shop, rattling a pram away down the street.

          Next to hers, I noticed another card. It was written in elegant copperplate handwriting, like a wedding invitation, in intriguing, purplish ink:

          “Reader required for blind man,” it said. “Must have very high standard of English (reading) and pleasant spoken voice. Must be trustworthy, dedicated and reliable. Apply in writing.”

          Well, I thought. It was worth a try.

 

*

 

Two weeks later, I was walking up the hill to the blind man’s house, a mile or so away from my home. The houses took on a grander aspect as I ascended. In our gulley at the bottom of the road, the houses were crowded in upon each other like drunks struggling to hold themselves up. Here, they stood straight and sober, sensible distances apart, their bushes well trimmed and porticoes swept.

          Soon enough, I arrived. It was a soft autumn afternoon, silvery wisps of cloud in the sky. The front garden had been freshly dug, full of little whorls of loam. I rang the doorbell, and a steady tread approached, along with the scratching of claws on plastic. The door swung open. There he was, dressed in bottle green corduroys and a grey cardigan, smiling vaguely in my direction. His grey hair was brushed back neatly from his brow, and prickly red lines covered his face. At his feet stood the source of the scratching – a golden Labrador who gazed up at me with a lolling tongue.

          I explained who I was, slowly and carefully, as if the man was deaf as well as blind. He grinned and waved me inside.

          “Come in, come in.” he said. “Goldie will show you.”

          As I entered, the dog squeezed past my legs into a front room. A large picture window faced out onto the front garden and an ox-blood Chesterfield sofa sat against the wall, flanked by two deep, comfortable looking armchairs. The walls were lined with thick, old-looking books, and a gas fire fluttered over synthetic coals, giving the room a vaguely cosy feel.

          The blind man shuffled in behind me, and reached for the arm of the sofa to perform an obviously well-practiced manoeuvre which slid him down onto the cushions. I complimented him loudly on the number of books he had, and he chuckled, as if I’d made a joke. Then he patted the sofa next to him and frowned, as if he had forgotten something. He turned his head in my direction and said, quite loudly, I thought, “Well, perhaps you’d like to make some tea?”

 

*

 

I had hoped to go to my grave without ever drinking a cuppa tea and so I turned on the kettle distractedly. The grill pan had an old piece of foil wrapped around it, like ours, stained black and bubbly with fat. It surprised me for some reason - I would somehow have expected a blind man to be more fastidious. As the kettle whooshed away to itself, I rifled through the cupboard, shaking the tins. One had a likely lightness and I twisted off the cap, hoping for tea-bags. Instead, I saw the paper edges of banknotes. It was full of money.

          I glanced along the hallway. Rattling a few mugs for the blind man’s benefit, I gently nudged the door shut with my foot. I slid out the wedge of notes and held it between my thumb and forefinger. There was a good inch of cash there, and that was unfolded. Scruffy old fivers, tenners, twenties – even a thin sheaf of big pink fifties. I felt the thickness of the stack between my fingers. Behind me, the kettle began to rumble.

 

*

 

There were no tea-bags, only old fashioned leaves, and the tea became quite bitty and dark as a result. The blind man sipped at his politely in any case, thanking me as he put down his mug.

          “Well then. Where shall we start?”

          He gestured at the table, where three books were laid out.

          “Take your pick!”

          Laughter in the Dark, I read. Crime and Punishment. Dead Souls.

          I looked at the blind man suspiciously. He was humming away to himself, innocently nibbling on a biscuit.

          “How about this one?”

          I picked up the first.

          “Which one is that?”

          “Nabokov. ‘Laughter in the Dark’.”

          He paused for a second, then nodded.

          “Good. I haven’t read that one for a while.”

          “It might be quite suitable!” I said, studying the cover.

          “Oh?”

          “For this time of year, I mean . . . “

          He turned his face toward the window politely.

          “Right you are.”

          I settled into an armchair and opened the book. It was a hardback edition, and on its frontispiece was an inscription, written in the same purplish hand I’d seen on the card in the newsagent’s window. The blind man’s name, and beneath it: Berlin, 1954.”

          Well, well, I thought. I turned to the first page and began to read:

          ‘Once upon a time there lived in Berlin a man named Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.’

          The blind man let out a snort of laughter, and I looked up in surprise. As I carried on reading, he gave a small, almost sensual moan, and sank back upon the sofa, his fingers reaching down absently to scratch Goldie’s head. I sank deeper into my armchair and read on, as the piercing sunlight stole silently away from the room.

 

*

 

It was dark when I left the blind man’s house, and the streets were empty and quiet. TVs flickered blue behind net curtains, and from up here on the hill, a few tiny stars could be seen glinting in the sky above London. I’d eaten a few biscuits at the blind man’s house, but I getting quite hungry by now.

          Dinner chez moi was a pretty dismal affair these days, cooked in the cramped kitchen, in a wok on the dirty stove. Pasta, noodles or rice, occasionally enlivened by a slice of bacon from the shop – cheap Dutch stuff that leaked watery pus into the pan. Cider from a brown plastic bottle, if you were lucky.

          Things would be different tonight, though. As I reached the shop, I slid my hand into my pocket and pulled out two fivers – crumpled, glorious, tattoo-blue. The Queen seemed to be smiling at me as I rubbed her face between thumb and forefinger. A few icy cold Czech lagers?, she seemed to be suggesting. That bacon that didn’t discharge so much? Why - a jar of pesto? Why not, ma’am!

          After picking out the ingredients for my feast, I strode over to the shelf of Eastern European beers. The shopkeeper marked the price ridiculously low by mistake. My worst fear was that one day he would realise his error and correct it - it would have left me literally high and dry. After I paid for my dinner, I slipped the change into my pocket with a deep sigh of satisfaction.

          Outside, by the bus stop, was a fox. It glanced up at me as I came out, before nonchalantly going back to clawing at a black plastic bag that spilled out of the bin. It worried out an old fried chicken box, and pawed and nuzzled it open. It looked up at me again, as if in challenge, before leaning over and going to work, jerking its head and cracking the bones between its jaws.

          Headlights shone over the brow of the hill. The fox pricked up its ears. The light tipped toward us and it stood there for a moment, as if mesmerized. Then it broke cover and skittered over the road, disappearing into the dark bushes by the railway embankment.

 

*

 

Sometimes I took a fiver, sometimes a tenner. Sometimes, if it was Friday night, and I longed to lose myself in the pub as everyone else around me screamed in drunken abandon, I took a twenty. Better the guilt than to sit there, knowing I could only afford another half pint, before going home sober and alone.

          It was always as I was making the bitter tea, just as the kettle was boiling. I’d pull down the tin and flick through the notes, plucking one out almost at random and slipping it into my hip pocket. Sometimes there’d be a woof. I’d turn – and there would be Goldie, sitting by the door, gazing at me with a cryptic grin.

          Somehow, though, it was never enough. Even with the money the man’s carer sent me for the reading, when the first of the month came round again, the rent was never there. One evening, the TV and lights flicked off all at once. The next day, the electricity people came round to put in a meter we had to top up with a card, paid for in advance at the twenty-four hour garage.

          I started to look forward to my visits to the blind man’s house. And not just because of the money, either. His house was like a refuge from the slanging matches and music and manic depression of my housemates, to the point that I didn’t really want to go home. There was something so mollifying about that front room on those clear winter afternoons, the blind man lying on the sofa with Goldie stretched out in front of the flickering fire. The pale light drawing tidally away, the sound of my own words flowing and fluttering until the air itself seemed to softly thrum. The feeling of peace that descended upon me then – like the clarity and contentment that comes of a quiet railway carriage, a good book, and many miles yet to travel.

 

*

 

We broke the back of winter. Slowly, the days began to lengthen. We’d done Nabokov, and Gogol, and we were getting to the end of Dostoyevsky. One afternoon, before I left, the blind man asked me to wait for a moment. He sat up on the sofa, and clasped his knees together.

          “I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” he pronounced.

          The skin on my scalp prickled.

          “What is it that you mean to do with yourself? With your life, I mean?”

          It was the question I dreaded. My dreams – so grand and ambitious in those glorious months after I had left University – all seemed to have dwindled and decayed that winter, almost without me realising. How flimsy they must have been, I thought – how gossamer.

          I didn’t answer for a while. Finally, I said, “Well, I had thought about trying to become a writer.”

          “Oh, ho!” he said. “Oh ho!”

          “Not that there’s any money in it.”

          “And what have you written so far, then? Have you been beavering away all this time? I hope that I’m not the star of one of your stories!”

          I chuckled politely. I hadn’t actually written anything yet, I explained. It was as if I had hoped that someone might give me the job of a writer first, and that then I could get properly stuck in.

          “I’ve been having a few problems,” I explained. “Finding inspiration.”

          He looked confused.

          “But surely there’s inspiration all around us?”

          “Apparently not,” I said. Apparently not.

          He waggled his head, as if he was angry.

          “But, you can see! Is there really nothing? Nothing at all?”

          I didn’t know what to say.

          “My goodness,” he said.

          A deep furrow wrinkled his brow. He looked up at me then, with his washed-out blue eyes. For a moment, it seemed that he might utter some terrible curse, or prophecy. But instead he just leaned over and patted the dog.

 

*

 

I wandered slowly down the hill, the last chill of winter upon my cheeks. In the distance, the charcoal slabs of the tower blocks were studded with lonely squares of light. I felt tears stinging my eyes.

          I had to get out of here soon, I thought. Something, somehow, had to change.

 

*

 

On the first day of spring, I read the last sentence of Crime and Punishment and slammed the heavy tome shut. The blind man let out a vague yell, and Goldie leapt to his feet with a woof of alarm. The blind man crumpled down the dog’s ear, grinning. Then he gave a big dramatic sigh.

          “How about that, then. So that’s the end.”

          “Yes. That’s that.”

          “So. You still think you’d like to be a writer? After reading that?”

          I wondered.

          “Yes. I suppose I might give it a try.”

          He drew his hand over his face – stubbly today, I noticed. He nodded to himself.

          “Well. Good luck. The very best of luck to you.”

          “Thank you.”

          “Are you off now?”

          “I suppose so.”

          He paused.

          “Just one more thing.”

          “Yes?”

          “Before you go.”

          “Yes?”

          “Perhaps you’d like to make us some of your lovely tea?”

 

*

 

As I switched on the kettle, I glanced up at the tin. The stack inside had grown scanty these past weeks, and, sure enough, when I took the tin down and shook it, there was only the faintest rattle, like there was a dead moth inside. Warily, I unscrewed the lid. To my horror, there was just a twenty-pound note left, and a fiver.

          I gulped. It would be the last time, I told myself. Well. It would have to be, wouldn’t it? I wouldn’t be seeing the old man again. I stuffed my fingers into the tin and clawed out the fiver. I hesitated. Then I took the twenty as well.  

          There was a bark. I spun around, crumpling the notes into my fist. Goldie was coming through the kitchen doorway. Standing right behind him was the blind man.

          “Sorry to interrupt,” he said.

          He stepped toward me, fingers bobbling along the wall and I pulled away, as the kettle started to boil and steam. He suddenly lunged forward and I shrank back against the formica. Then he twisted around, grasping for the fridge, as the switch on the kettle clicked off.

          He took something from the top of the fridge and held it out toward me. A box of PG Tips, wrapped in cellophane.

          “I forgot to tell you! I bought some tea bags.”

          Gingerly, I plucked at the box and he released it.

          “I thought you might find them easier than those leaves.”

          I laughed, and he laughed and he turned and shuffled back down the hallway.

          I opened my fist and stared at the crumpled notes in my palm, my heart still thumping. The tin stood empty on the sideboard, next to the box of PG Tips.

          I picked up the tin and turned it around in my hand.  

 

          Later, I sliced open the box of tea bags, and popped three into the pot. I poured out the tea into a mug. Then, experimentally, I poured another cup. I stood there for a moment, leaning over, inhaling the pale scent rising into the air.

 

*

 

We stood outside in the front garden and the blind man thrust out his hand, clumsily poking me in the stomach. I took the hand, and shook it slowly.

          “Well, thank you,” he said.

          “It’s been my pleasure.

          He held limply onto my hand.

          “When you get to my age, you’ll understand what it means. To have company during the winter.”

          I nodded slowly, though I knew he couldn’t see me.

          “You take care of yourself.”

          He made a breathy sound and grasped my hand more tightly. Suddenly, he brought his face close to mine. I could smell the milky tea on his breath; his eyes were the colour of lavender rags, bleached away by the sun.

          “Get yourself out of here, son,” he whispered hoarsely.

          I tried to speak, but all that came out was a croak.

          “Get away, you thief.”

          He dropped my hand suddenly and strode up the path. I stood there for a second, dazed. Finally, I forced myself to move. Goldie barked just as I reached the street. I turned. The blind man was standing at the doorway, stooped over, his hand resting against the jamb. Then the dog slipped inside, and he disappeared after her and the door closed.

 

*

 

I went straight over to the Czech lagers and took out two bottles from the fridge. I only had two quid in my pocket after putting those last notes back in the tin, but I thought this would just about cover it. As I placed the bottles on the till, the man rang them up. My heart froze.

          “You sure that’s right, mate?”

          “Sorry. New price.”

          “They never used to be that much!”

          He wagged his head.

          “New price.”

          With a deep sigh, I put one of the bottles back in the fridge. I paid for the remaining beer, took my penny change and walked outside into the rain.

 

*

 

At the bus stop, the fox was there again, working its way through its eternal box of fried chicken. It glanced up at me for a second, uninterested as ever, before going back to its dinner. There was the noise of a car, and, as usual, the fox glanced up at the headlights as they came over the hill, before scuttling across the road to the safety of the darkness.

          I gazed at its retreating shadow, and then at the greasy box of old abandoned bones on the pavement. I walked slowly back in the direction of my house, my solitary beer dangling beside me in its black plastic bag.


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