I spotted him a mile off. Staggering along, doing his best to stay upright. By the time I catch up with him he’s slowly sliding along the boarded-up windows of what used to be Woolworths, but is now just another stop on the fly-poster’s route.
“You alright there?” No reaction. “Hello. H e l l o,” I say, cautiously waving my hand under his downturned face. Nothing. I stay close to him in case he falls. He absolutely reeks of booze. Jesus, he must have drunk all the drinks tonight, I think to myself.
Bumping up against a column he comes to halt, turns his head towards me and heaves a big sigh. “Alright,” he says, as he slides down the wall onto the pavement.
“I’m alright, it’s you I’m worried about,” I say squatting down beside him.
“Don’cha worry ‘bout me… I’m hunky dory, mate. Hunky-bloody-dory me,” he says. Which is nice to hear, even if it’s quite plainly a fib. His eyes are all over the place and either he’s lost control of his bladder or else managed to sit smack-bang where someone has recently urinated. Either way hunky dory he clearly isn’t.
He raises his hand up and I instinctively go to high-five it, feeling pleased with myself to have made a connection so quickly. Then I spot the remnants of a burger clutched in his fingers and feeling like a fool quickly lower my arm. He doesn’t notice though, he’s only got eyes for his food.
He takes a bite and I watch in amused disbelief as the burger slips out from between the bread and down his untucked white shirt, leaving behind a red and yellow snail trail. They never show that on the ‘dangers of drinking’ posters up at the hospital, I think. He goes to take another mouthful but notices that something’s amiss. Shaking his head and grumbling to himself he launches what’s left of his burger out into the empty road, where it is quickly fought over by a couple of warring seagulls.
“You’ve had a couple haven’t you.” He looks over at me, I can see his eyes trying to focus. “I said, you’ve had a few tonight,” I add, a little slower and louder.
“Yeah,” he laughs, then mumbles something that I don’t quite catch. I stand up, my legs can’t handle squatting down for more than a couple of minutes at a time nowadays, and with the best will in the world there’s no chance I’m sitting on the pavement. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
“Blimey, so how much have you put away then?” I ask.
With a sheepish grin on his face he looks up at me. “Too much.”
“You want to be careful you know, walking around by yourself in that state.” He stares at me, mouth slightly agape, what I take to be dried ketchup in one of its corners. From the look on his face I’m certain what I just said didn’t sink in. “I mean it’s dangerous enough round here at this time of night when you’re sober…”
“Yeah, nah,” he says, “I know. I know.” He waves his hand in the air, batting away something that isn’t there.
“Have you got far to go?”
“S’just… up… road,” he says pointing in the direction of the conservation area.
“Well it’s on my way, so c’mon,” I say pulling him up onto his feet, “I’ll see you home.”
“Nah, youse… you’re alright.”
“Daft be daft, I’d kick myself if I read about something happening to you in tomorrow’s Echo.”
“You sure?” He asks, swaying, trying to find his balance.
“Where you…? Where you…?”
“Over Westcliff way, so it’s no bother. I’m in no rush.” I hook my arm around his and he immediately leans into me.
“You wanna get your boyfriend home before he conks out on ya,” a fat beer-boy shouts from the across the road. He’s one of a group of five who no doubt have been drinking all night in one of the grim pubs dotted along the seafront. By the looks of them most likely The Falcon or The Foresters Arms.
“Get a room ya dirty buggers,” another of the group cackles. Safety in numbers, I think. Let them go. Don’t throw fuel on the fire as my dad used to say. They walk on giggling to themselves, singing a song that I recognise but can’t quite put my finger on.
That’s what I mean, I can’t leave him, not like this, not in the state he’s in. People get beaten up around here all the time, or worse. A couple of weeks back a young girl doing her morning paper round found a bloke just off Hamlet Court Road, dead, wrists bound behind his back with cable ties. Twenty three times they reckoned he’d been stabbed. He was on his way home from the pub, a little the worse for wear according to his friends. Lived less than half a mile from where he’d been drinking I read the following day.
Right now when the pubs are emptying is the most dangerous time of night. That’s when the hawks are out, hunting for field mice. It’s the chips and a fight brigade you need to watch out for. Most people just want to stagger home to bed after the pub. I guess a few want a bit of the other, but there’s a certain element that always want to round the evening off with chips and a fight.
I look over at him. He’s still swaying.
“Shall we give this a go then?” I ask. He doesn’t answer just starts to shuffle forwards. Straight away it becomes apparent that this might take a little more time than I’d expected. His rhythm is all off, for every couple of decent steps he takes there’s a whole dance of bad ones. That little thing in your ear that helps you balance must have dissolved in his last pint.
“Where we heading then?” I ask, sounding like a taxi driver.
“Milton…,” he huffs, “Milton…”
“Place?” I eventually offer up, not wanting to let the conversation falter at this early stage.
“Blimey, nice part of town. I wouldn’t mind living round that way myself.”
“Flat is it?”
“A house. Many of you sharing?”
“No wife and kids?”
“Same here, I like living alone. Less hassle.”
“Yeah,” is all he manages. What he lacks in social skills he more than makes up for in mystery.
“Someone’s doing alright for himself. Marry into royalty did we?”
“Me mum’s,” he says. I give him a while to follow through with the rest of the sentence but nothing arrives. He’s hard work.
“You got more than one mum then?”
“Nah, me mum’s,” he says with a fair bit of effort, “it was… me mum’s.”
“I’m only pulling your leg.” Then it dawns on me. “Has she, your mum I mean, has she, you know…”
We walk on in silence until we reach the bowling green. Before I know what’s happening he makes a bee-line for the phone box on the corner and starts having a wee against the door.
“Bloody hell, couldn’t you have waited? You’re almost home.”
“When you’ve… You’ve… When,” he tries to explain.
“I know what you mean. But a phone box?” He doesn’t reply, just makes a sound that I presume is meant to tell me to mind my own business. I watch the stream of urine run across the pavement, changing direction as it runs along the edges of the paving slabs, pooling in places but eventually reaching the kerb then the road beyond, where the darkness makes its progress impossible to follow.
Then we’re off again, shuffling through the night. We head up Cambridge Road, he’s still not very chatty so we walk in near silence. It’s left to me to initiate any sort of conversation due to the state he’s in. Which to be honest gets a bit tedious after a while. There are only so many monosyllabic answers you can hear before deciding that it really isn’t worth the effort. Besides, right now he needs all his concentration just to stay upright. I think about asking him his name, but then realise that I don’t really care what he’s called. I’m not looking for a new best friend, that’s not why I’m seeing him home. Not everything has to be about something.
So instead of talking rubbish about the weather or the state of English football or whatever passes for conversation nowadays I take in my surroundings. He’s lucky to live around here. Well maintained Victorian semi’s sit proudly behind gardens that all look like they’re taking part in a village horticultural competition. The cars are all clean, there’s no plastic bags in the trees, no needles in the gutter or empty beer cans left on walls. Most of the houses are now in darkness, their occupants either tucked up under expensive linen sheets or else shutting the world out with heavy drapes.
After stopping for another wee break, this time against a keep-left bollard in the middle of the street, we finally make the right turn into Milton Place. Like a well trained dog he trots straight up the red and black diagonal tiles that lead to his front door. At first I think he must be mistaken, since the house looks huge, at least three bedrooms. Far too big for one person.
“Right well here we are, safe and sound,” I say. “You got your keys?”
“Yeah, they’re… they’re… in me jacket.”
“Jacket? What jacket? You’re not wearing a jacket.”
He looks down at himself and seeing the huge mustard and ketchup stain on his shirt attempts to wipe it off with his hands and a bit of spit.
“You’re probably better off doing that tomorrow,” I suggest. “A bit of washing up liquid’ll work miracles.” He ignores my advice though and carries on rubbing away at his shirt.
“Ruined,” he eventually says.
“Keys?” I remind him, trying to get us back on track. He reaches into his trouser pocket and pulls out a few crumpled bank notes which he stares at intently before stuffing them back where they came from. Rummaging around in his other pocket he eventually produces a set of keys.
“Thanks for walking us… walking… us…”
“I’m just happy to be able to do something nice for someone.”
Leaning against the front door he attempts to guide his front-door key into the lock. I watch him, his face full of concentration, a child trying to force the triangle block into the round hole. Unsurprisingly he drops his keys. After a bit of foraging around by his feet he rises again, holding them triumphantly aloft. Take two, he drops them again. This time I bend down and scoop them up.
“I’ll do it, the birds’ll be singing by the time you get the door open.”
The key slips into the lock with ease and within seconds his front door is wide open. He totters past me and after a bit of feeling about in the dark manages to switch on the hallway light.
“Do you wanna tea… Scotch… one for the road?” He asks. No one’s ever asked me that before, I thought ‘one for the road’ was just something people said in old films.
“Uh no thanks,” I say as politely as possible. I’ve never really seen the appeal of drinking if I’m honest. “Thanks anyway,” I add. He looks disappointed. More than that though he looks like someone who in the morning is going to regret drinking so much. “Okay well…,” I say backing away from his door, “it was nice chatting with you and everything.”
“You… sure?” He asks.
“Yup absolutely. Tell you what though, do you think I could use your toilet before heading home?”
“Yeah,” he says visibly perking up. He steps back from the doorway allowing me to pass. As I step in he closes the door and waves towards the end of the hallway. “S’down there,” he says as he stumbles off into the front room.
“Cheers, I’ll find it.”
I leave him and head down the hallway. His home is nice, decorated to a high standard, a tasteful mixture of period detail and modern touches. Wooden floors and floral wallpaper that is just the right side of old lady. It smells pleasant in here too, not artificial but fresh. I wonder what he does for a living?
I quickly deduce that the unlit room at the end of the hallway is the kitchen, which leaves the door to my right to be the toilet. It is. Tucked under the stairs, it looks like something out of a style magazine. It makes me envious that people live like this. I lean on the ornate sink and stare at my reflection in the mirror, fixating on my eyes until my face changes form. Then I turn, flush the toilet and make my exit.
I walk back down the hallway to the front room. Even before entering the room I can see that he’s fallen asleep on the sofa. He’s face down, his right arm draped across the small of his back the other next to his face. I hover in the doorway watching him sleep. He looks childlike. Innocent.
Not wanting to wake him, I walk over to where he’s lying as stealthily as possible. I lift his limp arm from beside his head and gingerly place it on his back next to the other, then from the inside pocket of my jacket I pull out two cable ties and bind his wrists together.