It had just turned three in the afternoon and Jack was stretched out across the threadbare sofa, head propped on one arm, legs dangling over the other, for this particular piece of furniture was built for two while Jack, laid out from head to toe, took up space enough for three. The room, as dusty and faded as the settee he now reclined on, was one of those shoebox style living spaces letting agents are fond of describing as ‘compact’, although Jack thought claustrophobic would be a bit nearer the money. Just behind him sat a doorway with hinges but no door, which led to a tiny kitchenette; a hotplate, two-slice toaster and one of those half pint kettles you find in hotel rooms. The red plastic bin was overflowing with crushed beer cans and greasy fast food wrappers, while the goldfish bowl of a sink was piled with dirty dishes, artefacts of every meal he had consumed over the past two weeks.
Jack picked at his left ear with the tip of a heavily chewed blue biro, pulling it from the lobe and examining the thick deposit of wax on its nib which, he mused as he whistled a half forgotten tune about a star man who was waiting in the sky, reminded him of congealed honey. For a brief instant he contemplated putting a piece in his mouth and savouring its sticky sweetness, but then came down on the side of better judgement and, with the dexterity of the junior tiddlywinks champion he had once been, flicked it across the expanse of grimy monkey shit brown carpet towards the general direction of the penis shaped lava lamp, a relic of his youth, when hair was long, trouser bottoms wide and blobs of heated oil making groovy patterns in a sea of red and purple seemed to be the key that would open the doors of perception. But no longer; for the lamp had dodgy wiring and had long ceased to function which, if Jack had took a moment to think a little deeper, may have given him a clue as to the general direction in which his own life was heading.
Reaching over with his left hand he patted the coffee and cigarette stained shag pile in a random motion until he found what he was looking for – a large notebook with a faded blue cover; the kind that you didn’t see much of now. The type that had ostentatious sounding names such as Remington Blue and Basildon Bond and were a throwback to the days when thoughts and ideas were recorded in pen and ink rather than keypad and Times New Roman 12. Jack opened the book about two thirds of the way through, placed the biro in his right fist and began scribbling at a feverish pace. Here was a man who, despite working a fourteen hour night shift in a hangar like building located on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town, sorting mail and parcels for despatch to all points near and far, had opted to forego the luxury of sleep and instead attend to the more important task of recording his thoughts on the blue lined watermarked paper.
For the past two hours Jack had been engaged in what he liked to term creative constructionism, a process that entailed the consumption of industrial amounts of cheap alcohol (on this matter Jack wasn’t particularly fussy, opting for whatever brew his current budget would allow) and hand rolled cigarettes which, if he was fortunate to have enough cash left over after paying the rent and feeding the meter, might just contain enough exotic herbal substances to feed his head to the point where the words simply spilled out of his mind and on to the page, although unfortunately, as is often the case where the mediocre attempt to replicate the masters, his writing, viewed in the cold light of the following day through hangover eyes and trembling hands, was well short of the mark. There’s an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but merely copying someone does not, in itself, turn you into them. The world of popular music was littered with the corpses of third rate guitarists who imagined a life lived through a haze of Kentucky bourbon and Bolivian marching powder while adopting the dress sense of an eighteenth century dandy would somehow transform them into Keith: The Rock God, veritable human riff, albeit one who had himself transformed into an ugly parody of his once beautiful self. For Jack it meant that, although working at the Post Office, getting wasted every day, living in a crap hole and falling into way too many fights in backstreet bars, he was never going to be Charles Bukowski for, despite all outward signs pointing to the contrary, all truly great lushes, from Baudelaire to Rimbaud, Fitzgerald to Hemingway, and Behan to Thomas, had a reservoir of talent to draw on. A talent that transcended the brawling and the beatings, the break-ups and breakdowns, and ultimately enabled them to get up off the bar stool long enough to be able to produce work of lasting merit. There was no denying the fact that Jack wrote words – lots of words. But whether those words would ever get as far as climbing off the page and into someone’s head was a bone of some considerable contention, although the pile of yellowing rejection slips pinned to the kitchen wall by a six inch rusty nail was testimony to his unswerving belief in himself, even in the face of ever mounting apathy. One day I’m gonna sell a God damned story he would mutter under his breath before passing out on the sofa, bathed in the eerie incandescent grey light of the portable black & white tv which sat on an upturned milk crate below the Day-Glo poster of Jim Morrison, kitted out in full Lizard King regalia.
So there he lay, Jack Miller, aged 52, twice divorced and currently separated from his third wife Wanda, a meeter ‘n greeter at the local Berni Inn, out of condition and a good stone and a half overweight, love and hate tattooed in school ink on the knuckles of each hand, nine points on his driving licence and one conviction for breach of the peace, all he had to show for a life lived in a constant state of quiet desperation.
He awoke with a start, shaken out of a shallow slumber where he was Richard Widmark in Night And The City, being chased by hoodlums through the bomb scarred landscape of post war London by the sound of an urgent rapping on the thin plywood door that separated his apartment from the narrow, dimly lit corridor outside. He sighed and wearily dragged himself to his feet, instantly recognising the knock as that of Janice, a casual acquaintance from the job who seemed to have latched on to him of late, seeing him as an emotional Zimmer frame, something to lean on during her increasing hours of needs. Hours that encroached into Jack’s precious time. As he pulled back the door she literally fell into the room, wafting in on a breeze of own brand perfume and high emotion. She was dressed in an ill fitting sweat top emblazoned with the logo of some American university he’d never heard of, baggy store brand jeans and scuffed white trainers. She’s been on another of her crash course diets thought Jack, as he noticed the clothes literally hanging off her. Still, underneath the red eyes and smeared mascara he couldn’t help but notice she was still a bit of a looker. It was a shame all that angst and anguish got in the way.
“I just found out the bum is seeing other women!” she wailed, giant sobs choking off her words.
Jack sighed. He would be her latest squeeze, a paint shop worker she’d fallen for big time on the strength of a few frothy exchanges over a friends garden fence.
“The lousy dog has been using me as a bit on the side!” she grizzled, plonking herself down on the sofa, slap bang on top of Jack’s book; his great unfinished novel. The masterpiece that was his ticket out of this shithole, an escape hatch that would free him from the lousy job, final demands, and the never ending trials and tribulations of Janice. Sweet thoughtful Janice, a woman who would do anything to help him and ask for nothing in return, but who always bet on the wrong nag when it came to men.
“Oh Jack, what shall I do? I’ve invested so much time and effort in this relationship, and I really, really wanted it to work. What have I done to deserve this, Jack? Why me?”
I’m looking at a three time loser he thought, reaching for a warm beer from the six pack underneath the Formica coated cupboard door that sat on a couple of breeze blocks and served as a coffee table. He popped the can with the nail of his left thumb and took a deep draw from the aluminium tube. The liquid was tepid and tasteless and did nothing to soothe his frazzled nerves. He must have looked confused because Janice began to sob uncontrollably. Christ, thought Jack, scratching his ass and belching loudly. I really don’t need this shit.
“You’ve got to help me Jack! He means everything to me. We’ve made so many plans and for once in my crappy life I thought I’d finally been dealt a half decent hand”. She mopped her eyes on the sleeve of her sweatshirt and gazed up at him from her perch on the sagging sofa. “I’m not asking for the earth. Far from it. All I want is a little piece of heaven I can call my own. Is that too much to dream for, Jack? Isn’t it what you want too?”
Jack didn’t like to say that, at this precise juncture in his life, the last thing he felt a longing for was the close companionship of the perfect other. Janice had simply put some Average Joe on a pedestal and polished him to the point where the radiant glow from his very being blinded her to the extent that she simply couldn’t see what was going on in front of her very eyes. Against his better judgement, Jack decided it was time to take a stand.
“Stay here, baby”, he barked, handing her the remains of the lukewarm ale. “I’ll be back before you know it”.
Slipping on his tatty old trainers and pulling on a frayed windcheater, Jack exited his apartment and took the fire stairs to the street. Turning right, he made his way across the promenade, pockmarked by the rusty remains of burnt out cars and balsawood windows of boarded up shops. Jesus, he thought, this place is going downhill quicker than an Alpine skier. How the hell had he allowed himself to slip so low, to the point where he was looking up at the gutter? Sod the mythology of the struggling writer starving in the garret. He needed to get out of this place, get his life in order, try to get things into perspective. He had a few good years left at best before the scrapheap. No trade, no family, no friends and no finances. You looked back over your shoulder and saw your past skipping merrily away in the opposite direction while life just stood there and laughed in your face. Why was it, he asked himself as he headed across the muddy patch that had once been a community garden, that the little people with the big hearts got passed over in the race for life’s prizes? Janice deserved an even break for once.
Jack pushed open the door of The Mermaid’s Tail, a community pub that had long severed any links with the locals, opting to become a drop-in centre for all manner of trash that inhabited the streets around these parts. The place was deserted save for a middle-aged couple propping up the bar; he dressed in blue blazer, chinos and loafers in a market stall approximation of a Ralph Lauren preppie, she in dangerous heels, micro skirt and a blouse cut low enough to leave little to the imagination. She was leaning towards him, laughing loudly at some crack he’d just made while his eyes fought a losing battle with her ample cleavage. It looked as if they were getting on like a house on fire.
Jack strolled purposely across the bar, ignoring the landlord’s enquiry as to what he was having. The man, deep in the heart of a story about how he’d once hung out at Glastonbury with Lily Allen and was on first name terms with her old boy, just didn’t see it coming. The first punch splattered his nose across his face and slammed him into the wall, while the follow up knocked him clean off his perch and on to the floor, an easy target for Jack’s size twelve’s.
As his companion whimpered in fear and the bloke behind the bar dialled 999, Jack reached into the inside pocket of the man’s jacket and pulled out his wallet. Flipping it open he extracted a thick wad of twenties. This will do nicely he thought as he tossed the wallet over his shoulder, turned on his heels and exited the way he had entered. It was all over in less than a minute, leaving Jack with a feeling of satisfaction in a job well done, a sensation he’d not experienced for a very, very long time.
“What happened to your hand?” muttered Janice as he returned to the flat, still sitting in the same position nursing the same beer, gently rocking back and forth as if in deep contemplation.
“It’s nothing” smiled Jack, grabbing her arm and yanking her up so quickly she caught her breath with an audible gasp. “We need to leave now”.
Janice looked confused but offered no resistance, taking Jack’s hand and exiting the dingy apartment without so much as a backward glance.
“Where are we going?” she asked, as they slipped through the fire door and out on to the rain swept street, heading west under a ten o’clock moon.
Jack looked across at the little girl with the big heart.
“Somewhere life won’t find us” he replied, the five hundred pounds sitting snugly in the back pocket of his Matalan stonewashed jeans.
On the floor of the now deserted flat lay a notebook with a heavy blue cover, the kind you don’t see much of these days. It had fallen open at the first page; a page that had a words written on it in scrawly blue biro. Words that constituted the title of what appeared to be a novel.
ESCAPE INTO TOMORROW by Jack Miller.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, a teetotal paint shop worker nursing a cold so heavy it had kept him confined to bed for the last six days in a state of almost monastic isolation, save from the odd visit from his sister, tried desperately to reach the mobile number of a lady called Janice, a woman who he worshipped with a passion so intense that he’d decided now was the time to make that life changing decision. In short, he was going to ask her to marry him.
So why, he wondered, as he heard the wail of a police car heading in the direction of that grotty old pub he wouldn’t be seen dead in, didn’t she answer her phone?