April 2018 Contest Winner
Chip Shop Shaman by Benjamin Graham
He’s doing it again; spitting flecks of warm chip detritus from his lips as he preaches his nonsense to the bored gaggle of girls in the queue. I watch him with thinly veiled disgust from across the shop. He makes me sick. His scraggly beard is littered with tiny chunks of white potato and his olive green army jacket is matted with what looks like piss and dirt.
I lean back against the window, wet with condensation from the steamy heat of the deep-fat fryers lapping against the cold glass. I close my eyes and feel the bitter November night air from outside still clinging to my cheeks.
I glance around the cramped shop; groups of idiots chattering away as they wait for their order; the workers dashing to and fro behind the counter. And there, in the middle of it all, stands the man with his scraggly, potato-flecked beard. He’s got his chips, but he’s found an audience to listen to his drivel. Doesn’t want to go outside into the cold, even though he’s probably got a house somewhere. Either way, he’s staying fixed to the spot, regaling nobody with semi-comprehensible tales of past glories. As if anybody could give a shit what he did.
He’s spitting his drunken blather at the girls but they’ve gathered their order and want free of him. As they file out, I see the seat next to me is empty. Before I can shuffle myself across and keep my space free of his presence he wanders over. He reeks of hard cider and gutter mildew. His grey-ginger hair pokes out from beneath a stained grey beanie hat.
“Mind if I take a seat, laddy?” he asks with a grin.
I say nothing but shift my weight back to my own chair.
“I suppose yer waitin’ fer yer dinner, eh?”
Again I say nothing, but offer a token smile to acknowledge his incredible powers of deduction.
“Aye, best chippy in town, y’know.”
I’m already overcome from the stench of his body. It’s not just the smell of piss and alcohol and dirt and desperation; his entire demeanour enrages me. Why is he so happy? Just because he’s managed to save up enough of other people’s charity to squander on some deep-fried trash doesn’t mean tomorrow won’t be shit. In fact, tomorrow will be even harder than today, tinged as it will be by the sickly knowledge of how long he will have to wait until he can crawl back through this door with anything more than shrapnel in his pocket. Oh yes, the grease of those chips will be mixing with his guts right now, tumbling about in a whirlpool of bitter-acid. I bet tomorrow he’ll have to bound from his sleeping bag and find some dank alley sequestered from the cold sunlight of the street. There he’ll have to drop his stained tracksuit bottoms and squat to let a torrent of liquid shit pebbledash the pavement. He’ll probably pull those manky trousers right back up and climb back into his sleeping bag, dirty chapped hands squirreling away at a damp roll-up as he scrounges for coppers from the passing bleeding hearts.
“What y’got there, sonny?” he asks, leaning in so close I can count the red rivulets of his bloodshot eyes. He gestures at the note clutched in my hand. None of your fucking business is what I’ve got.
He arches his eyebrow and waits for my response.
“It’s a letter,” I sigh eventually.
“Oh aye, didn’t know people still sent them things,” he laughs, spitting more flotsam from his maw.
“Actually,” I mutter, letting the irritation show in my voice, “I was given it. It’s from my girl-my ex.” I don’t know why I told him that. I shouldn’t even engage him with pleasantries, never mind tell him about my personal life.
He whistles and sits back in the chair. “Oh I see. Trouble wi’ th’missus eh?”
I ignore him, but I’m in too deep now. I look to the counter, wondering why on earth I had to order a pizza instead of a kebab. When I look back, his big hangdog eyes are still fixed on me.
“Not exactly…” I pause. Why am I telling him this? Maybe I just need to get this off my chest to someone, someone who doesn’t know the history. Someone who I won’t need to confide in ever again. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’ve not talked to anyone about myself for months. “She found some messages, totally misread the situation, thought I was being…” I search for the right word, but I can’t grasp it with my tongue.
I look up into his stupid, hairy face. His suggestion, so forward in its naked explicitness, has knocked me off guard. I don’t know what to say, so I nod quietly.
“Ah wey, there’s nary a man on earth’ll find happiness in one woman alone. Just means y’figured out where y’stood wi’ her before it was too late.”
I sit there silently for a moment, digesting his casual overture of my complex relationship woes. Suddenly I’m disgusted. Disgusted with this man and his scraggly potato beard and stained tracksuit bottoms and evasive body odour. Disgusted with the greasy chip shop, the linoleum tile floor wet with the filth of a thousand late night revellers. Disgusted with myself, for allowing myself to be here. I go to stand up, but I know I’ll just have to stand awkwardly by the counter. Besides, he might get angry if I shrug him off like this. The man has finished his chips now. He’s running his plastic fork around the inside of the box to snare the last remnants of chip batter. I can barely hide my irritation with the sound of plastic scraping on polystyrene.
“Gotta get every drop in my age, pal,” he mumbles with a dumb grin.
I shake my head and look back to the counter. The line has thinned but the few that remain look at me with pity, grateful they themselves haven’t been snared by the gibbering bundle of rags and refuse sitting next to me.
“So what d’ya do then eh?” He’s finished with his polystyrene box now. Probably lingering with me to soak up as much of the warm oily air before he steps back out into the frigid black night.
I resign myself to his presence. He’s probably angling for change at the end of this, like some kind of tip for having blessed me with his drunken consideration.
“I work in finance. I’m the team manager.”
“A bank,” he whistles again, “very swish. I used t’work in one n’all. You’ll have to put in a good word f’me.” With that he bursts into an embellished chuckle completely out of proportion to the quality of his joke.
He looks back down at the letter clutched in my hand. I keep turning it over and over, the ink from “Michael” written in perfect cursive on the front has rubbed onto my hands. I thrust it back into my jacket pocket.
“Plenty more in the sea, pal,” he whispers with a smile. “I had a lass once. Said I drank too much ‘n I was no good f’nobody. Now she’s in South o’ Spain, sunning hersel’ by some beach no doubt.”
I don’t know what to say, so I nod noncommittally. I wish he would stop talking, or at least get his face away from mine. Eventually, I proffer up a throwaway question. “So what would you be doing if you were with her now?”
“Probably lying right next t’her on that beach, pal. Probably wouldn’t be makin’ my money from the generosity o’ strangers, and probably no’ sleepin’ on benches ‘n under bridges.”
I try to hide the misery on my face at hearing this. He seems to spot it and offers a consolation.
“I’m sure she’ll come round.”
I look around the chip shop again. We’re the last ones left. I walk to the counter. “Excuse me, I ordered a pizza about ten minutes ago, is it almost ready?”
The man looks puzzled. He isn’t the one who served me. “There’s no pizzas in, mate. Someone else might’ve took it while you were talking,” he nods in the direction of my unsolicited acquaintance.
“Right, well I’ve been waiting ages. Can I just have a kebab?” I ask with a sigh.
“Sorry, pal, we’ve turned everything off now. I can give you some chips and your money back?”
The disappointment in my belly swells into anger. “I ordered a fucking pizza! I didn’t want chips, otherwise I would’ve asked for chips! Is it too much to ask to get the one thing that would make me happy tonight?” The shop has grown insufferably hotter. The steam licking against the windows is beginning to fog up my eyes.
“Look, pal, I don’t know who gave your pizza away, but all we’ve got left is chips. I’ll give you all the chips we’ve got left for free, but I’ve knocked everything else off now, so it’s take it or leave it.”
“Fine!” I snap, “I’ll take the chips.”
With a box of lukewarm chips clutched to my chest, I turn to leave. I spot the man, still sat in his chair, watching me with his pitiful eyes. I ignore him and walk out the door.
As I step outside, the cold air stings my face like bare branches scratching against a windowpane. I open the box and proceed to my empty one bed flat.
“Hey, wait up, pal!” His voice sets my teeth on edge. I can hear him shuffling after me but I don’t break stride or look back.
“Hold up, mate, I’ll walk wi’ ya for a bit.”
I look back over my shoulder. He’s hobbling along, huge stinking jacket clutched up tight to his unkempt furry chin. I slow my pace but only slightly. He catches up to me and walks in silence for a moment.
“Y’gonna eat all them chips, pal?”
I can already feel the anger rising in my chest but I ignore his question and continue to eat.
“Alright, fair ‘nuff there, pal, you paid for ‘em.”
We walk in silence for a while, but I can tell he’s angling for something. I finish my chips and drop them in the bin, making sure to look him in the eye as I do so. I can tell something is coming.
“Look, pal, I don’t suppose y’could see yer way to helpin’ me out wi’ a hostel the night? I just need a bit o’ cash and I’ll be warm all night.”
The bile rises in my throat. “Oh right? And that food you bought at the takeaway couldn’t have gone towards keeping you warm?”
He sounds taken aback, as if he’d expected me to walk him to the cashpoint and empty my account. “No- I mean- aye, pal, I just needed a wee pick me up. I didn’t think I’d be gettin’ anythin’ the night, but a wee bit o’ cash would see me gettin’ a proper night’s kip in a warm bed fer once.”
I look into his big stupid eyes, barely visible beneath the beanie and the bush of scraggly hair. For some reason, I can’t hate this man, not like when I didn’t know him.
With a sigh, I pull the ten pounds from my wallet. As I press it into his hands, his face lifts to look into mine. His eyes are watering, although that might be from the sting of the late autumn wind.
“Thank you, pal, yer a saint, a real saint!”
I nod, “It’s fine. Get yourself somewhere warm.”
With that, the man turns and trots away. Not even another word. I turn to realise I’m stood at the end of my street. The wind howls between the buildings as the siren of an ambulance echoes somewhere in the distance. I think about my bed, the miserable studio flat, the emptiness of it all. I remember the sink is blocked and heating is almost certainly still on the fritz. I look back at the man, almost skipping down the road. He’ll probably piss that tenner up the wall within an hour. And he gets to do it all again tomorrow, relying on the generosity of idiots like me. He doesn’t have a care in the world. He can live from day to day, taking from others and wallowing in self-pity.
Suddenly I’m gripped with a rage that twists up my insides like a corkscrew to the gut. It wraps around my esophagus and makes my eyes water. Before I realise what I’m doing, I’m jogging. This tramp thinks he can throw some platitudes my way then beg for money? I work every day for that money and he thinks spitting moist chunks of food into my ear over the din of post-club drunks is enough to earn his share? I don’t even think about what I’m doing when I grab the loose brick from the garden wall. He’s still muttering to himself when I catch up to him. He turns and there’s a brief flash of cheerful recognition before I bring the brick down on the side of his head. He stumbles and grips the wall. For a second, I think he’s going to turn around and fight. Instead he holds his hand up in silent surrender, the other clutching the wall. I bring the brick down again, hard on the back of his head. His knees give way. He tries to curl into a ball. I land some hard kicks on his spine, causing him to contort. After a moment, I move around to throw a boot to his face. He screams out and clutches his mouth. I kneel down and pull his hands away to reveal a bloody mess of matted hair and mangled miserable skin. I climb on top of him and bring the brick down directly on the bridge of his nose. He turns his head to the side and gasps out for air, but I push down hard on his jaw with my left hand and smash the brick into his temple. He stops wriggling and goes limp, but I can hear his desperate breathing. I bring the brick down again. The dry red stone shatters, so I throw it to the floor and begin to throw my fists, knocking his head from side to side with each blow.
After a minute, there’s only the sound of the wind. The man lies there, his face black and red and twisted. I clamber up and look around for witnesses, but there’s nobody. I rub my hands on my jeans and walk back to the flat, breaking into a run towards the end.
When I wake, condensation glistens on my lips and my chest feels as if I slept with a cupboard on me. I stumble up and feel around for the light switch. Nothing. The floor is hard and cold. I open my eyes to the blinding sunlight of a clear November morning. My hands are swollen and black with blood. I’m outside, I don’t know how. I must have fallen asleep before I reached the flat.
I try to find my way but I don’t even know where I am. My entire body feels heavy and sluggish, like I’ve been tranquilised then given a lead coat. I stumble down a cut and out onto the high street. I recognise this place from last night. There’s the chip shop. It’s closed, but I walk up to the glass door. There’s a man stood inside, staring at me. Dark, swollen eyes sit deep in a face of dark red and blue. Mangy ginger-grey dreadlocks poke out from under a blackened beanie. His broken frame seems to sag beneath the weight of his olive green camo jacket, marked with streaks of brown. I turn away and stumble on.
I see a newsagents I recognise. An insatiable thirst spreads upwards from my throat and crawls across my tongue. I need something to take the edge off. I wander in and take a bottle of White Lightning from the fridge at the back. The man behind the counter looks away when I approach, but rings up the sale anyway. I reach inside my jacket for my wallet but it’s not there. Distraught, I feel around inside the pockets until I grip something. I pull out a crisp ten pound note and my entire body feels lighter. I go to pass it to the man behind the counter, then see I’m also clutching a crumpled piece of paper. I pay for my bottle, walk outside and sit at the curb. Turning it over in my hands, I can still just about make out the name.
Michael. Perhaps today I’ll open it and see what could have been.
That summer was dry. Dry, and hot, and long. Relentless sweat seeped from my back and chest and hands, and wouldn’t leave. It clung like blood congealing on a wound. Sticky. But my mouth stayed dry. I didn’t say much after it happened. Not for a long time. We’d left school for good, and things had seemed ok. But there was a sort of vacancy present, now that we were out of doors. Beyond the town the miles of dust lay, as it had always lain, since the time this land...
She eased her husband onto the wicker chair. Tucked a blanket over his spindle-legs and wiped the silver trail from his chin, careful, all the while, not to catch his glazed, unseeing eyes. Only when he was settled did the woman take up position behind him, her hand resting on his bony shoulder. Only then did she turn to face the narrow-lipped occupant of this small, woodland cottage. “You have payment?” the crone demanded.
People close to you in life - family or friends - will always tell you that they will be there if they need help, but when the time comes, they’re not around, or they’re too wrapped up in themselves and their own grief to be of any help to you at all. Sometimes you have to heal alone, sometimes you heal together. Sometimes all you need is a bit of catharsis. I suppose that’s what Whittling, Man was about, and that’s what it was for me as well.