A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation
“It’s no good,” he said. “I can’t take this any more”. Groaning, the pot bellied grey moustached sixty something rolls out of his camp bed, scattering empty bottles onto the floor. It starts raining outside. Normally the gentle drumming on the van’s roof would comfort and relax him but today it just makes it worse. Realising the time he swears, the morning has long gone.
Opening the sliding door he lurches out letting loose the fetid air. Breathing in something cooler and cleaner he looks out from the car park at the reservoir and dam in the valley below. Stomach grumbling he grabs a cold pizza slice and a can of beer. Looking at the dam he feels that same old coiled knot in his gut, he swallows as the guilt, regret and bile rise. Raising the can as if in salute he downs it and belches. “Just another day Toad,” he mutters, “and you ain’t missing much.” Sighing he turns and looks at the van, the rusting tin can being his only possession and the last ties to a life he’d rather forget.
The rain has washed some of the dirt off the side of the van revealing the outline of a faded picture. It’s some kind of caricature of two men holding wrenches standing atop a large green pipe, their arms over each other’s shoulders, as if they were brothers. A phone rings from the front of the van tearing him from thoughts.
“Hey old man Mario where you been?” Grunts a nasal and indignant voice from the speaker.
“You’re late, you supposed to start two hours ago, you getting real close to losing this job Mario.”
Swearing silently to himself Mario grits his teeth. “Sorry Mr Koopa, I’ve been ill…”
“Ill! Don’t you give me that!” The voice blares with a crackle of white noise. “You’re a drunk Mario, a damn dirty drunk! No one else in this town gonna give you a job but me!”
Mr Koopa starts to giggle but then growls. “ I own you Mario, so you get here now, or your fired!”
Mario slams the phone onto the dash board, and slumps into the worn seat. “Ah Toad if you could see me now, it ain’t like I’ve got much choice.” Looking out the window his eyes hollow. “That stinking lizard’s right, no one else’ll hire me.” That sliding darkness Mario knows oh so well stirs behind his weary circled eyes. “I need a drink.” He grumbles and starts the van.
Bill boards and street lamps flash by painting the hunching Mario a greasy yellow. It’s been a long night and the smell of deep fried food permeates the van. Only a few more pizzas left to deliver. Sighing at the fact that this is the only job he can get and the only human contact he has these days Mario plasters a grin onto his face and dons his fake Italian accent. People always tip better when they get a little theatrics. Though he was the son of Italian migrant workers he had never picked up their accent. His was from the melting pot of the slums, something thicker and earthier, an accent with an edge.
Driving the van slowly he finds the next drop off. He’s weary, it’s in a bad part of town. Mario’s heart beats a little quicker as he sees a gang of hooded kids nearby. An echo of excitement stirs in his chest. “That takes me back Toad,” he mutters with the echo of a wolfish grin, “I wouldn’t go through that again but damn I haven’t felt alive since them days. But these kids ain’t like us Toad, gangs these days ain’t what they used to be.” Pausing Mario looks back over years that have slipped him by, at the faces of friends and foes. “You, me, Princess, and…” He falters, a lump suddenly in his throat., “…and my brother.” The very brother Mario had not seen nor heard from in forty years, a hurt he struggled to carry. Grabbing a bottle, he drinks deep, the amber liquid numbing the world for a little while.
Mario glances up at the bill board behind the gang, and growls. It’s an ad for a large building company but it mocks him, flaming old anger and resentments. B’Howzer Industries, a construction empire that had started from just a humble little plumbing company in this very town. It had been a family business, Mario’s family business, till B’Howzer had taken over. Mario looked out into a hazy night of regrets he could not escape, at all the things that could have been that never were, and never will be.
Mario glares at the man giving a thumbs up on the billboard. It was all his fault. They’d been friendly rivals as kids, he and B’Howzer, in the slums to begin with but over time vendettas had built up till it had culminated in that one terrible night, at the dam. It was meant to be a negotiation to make peace. Mario shivers remembering the roar of the water in the dark; the roar that still haunts his dreams. B’Howzer had known the tunnels better, he’d got his whole gang out of there quick, but Mario had panicked. Nothing but bad luck had brought down that freak of a storm. Thinking back Mario grinds his teeth. The flood gates that should have been closed weren’t. They said it was an accident but he blamed B’Howzer, it must have been a set up. It must have been.
That was the day Toad died. Mario had found him face up in the reservoir after he himself had crawled from a storm drain into the weeping night. It was his idea to use the tunnels as a meeting place, they were a symbol of a time before the gangs formed, when they were all innocent, when he used to look up to B’Howzer.
Mario’s heart was pounding, his knuckled grip of the steering wheel tightened as if to choke the guilt he could barely repress. Yeah, he led the gang into the tunnels and he had panicked, but it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t.
After that night life had spiralled out of control for Mario. He’d sunk into a lust-less rut in which he still rotted. The drink, the drugs, those bloody mushrooms, the loss of the family business, and the fights with his brother, had all been inevitable. They had always competed, he and his brother, but after that night they fought, Mario losing all sense and reason. He had blamed everyone else for what had happened, but he knew it was his fault, and with that poison in his veins all the little resentments and jealousies towards his brother had built up, until he pushed him away, his brother and everyone he cared about. They had all moved on and made something with their lives while he had wallowed in his.
The thirst grips Mario, clawing at his throat, but before he can even think about satisfying it his phone rings. One last job for the night and this time it’s a strange one.
The retirement home is quiet and dark, the air stale and humid. Sweating and swearing Mario heaves himself up the stairs to the penthouse. There were staff and nurses around somewhere, but this wing of the home seemed to be self-contained. Some old fart with too much money but maybe, hopefully, with a good tip. An intercom buzzes Mario into the voluminous flat, and he whistles at its decadence. A spluttering cough is coming from a smaller room at the back of the penthouse. Walking cautiously into the dark room Mario hesitates before the silhouette of a man propped up in bed. Machines and pumps flash by the bed, more animate and lively than the wizened thing they are connected to.
“Your money’s on the table boy.” Croaks a dry and gravelly voice, catching Mario by surprise. The voice is oddly familiar.
“Turn on the light if you can’t find it boy and leave the pizza on the bed, my eyes aren’t what they used to be but I can still recognise that smell anywhere.”
With a creeping dread Mario turns on the light and almost doubles over as the shock hits him. It’s B’Howzer.
Mario squints at the once powerfully built man, a man not more than ten years his senior, only recognising him for the dragon tattoo and the crocodile teeth necklace. The old red tide would swell up and engulf him if not for the pitiful and humbling, mumbling and drooling, of the old man. Anger falls, leached to void, leaving Mario standing empty.
“It wasn’t meant to be like this Toad!” Mario moans, scrunching his cap in his hands. “Cause it ain’t just B’howzer’s eyesight that’s gone.” Mario whispers struggling to accept what fate has gifted him.
The clattering of a trolley in the distance startles Mario. An auburn haired bun of a nurse entered the room.
“ Who are you? No don’t you tell me.” Cries an auburn haired bun of a nurse pausing in the door way. “That better not be pizza! Honestly I don’t know how he does it! He can barely string a sentence together most days and yet every week he somehow does this? Most times we stop your lot at the door but I was busy.”
She levels an accusing purple fish hooked finger at Mario. “You must of snuck in.”
The old man coughs violently and the nurse rushes to his aid. Mario can only gape at what time has done to his old enemy. Knowing B’Howzer was still around had always given his spleen some kind of vent, all those vague daydreams about paying him back him for Toad, and for all those years he’d lost. But now, now those twisted dreams that he’d chewed over bitterly for so long were gone. He felt sick.
“He’s in a good mood at least. Must like you Mister.” Fluffing a pillow she winks at Mario. “Sometimes he’s nothing but roaring and spit, other times just crying, crying about some dam and some storm”.
“ A dam?” Mario almost shouts.
“Yeah, some storm that killed someone he used to know, something about gangs. He mumbles about it all being a mistake, though what was a mistake I don’t know, but it troubles him. Though to be honest.” Glancing at the old man then lowering her voice. “I think it must have been something he saw on TV or some computer game”.
“Could be Ma’am.” Mario nods, wishing it had all just been on TV or a damn computer game. “Game Over” was never really game over in a computer game though. You could always start over with all that knowledge of what had gone before, knowing every trick and trap along the track. Not in real life though, no second chances, no going back.
The nurse leaves the now calm B’Howzer and sidles up to Mario, gossip twitching her lips. “Thing is when Mr B’Howzer knew he was getting worse he started trying to get in contact with his old friends. Said he had a lot of apologising to do. He even hired someone to track them down but they couldn’t find them, and now it’s too late. Poor old Mr B’Howzer’s gone, but he still keeps the letters he wrote to them folks with him.” The nurse points to some crumpled paper in the old man’s hand.
Mario leans against a bed post, his mind reeling. “B’Howzer troubled and an apology!” Mario is struggling to breathe. “This is too much for me Toad. I’ve got to get out of here.”
The nurse eyes the slumping Mario.“Now I’ve been talking too much, for too long, and I’ve got lots to be doing and you Mister look as tired as I feel. Best if you were going.” She says pointing at the door.
A machine starts bleating and the nurse turns her back. Mario gathers up the pizza quickly and stops. The papers on the bed right in front of him. Before he can even think of looking at them, the old man lurches out of bed and grabs Mario’s hand.
“Take a lesson from an old man.” Wheezes the old man with caustic breath. “Turn your life around before it’s too late boy. Don’t end up like this old crocodile.” Milky eyes glint with something mischievous and B’Howzer snaps his jaws open and shut, roaring and giggling.
“Oh mercy!” Yells the nurse. “Is he pretending to be a crocodile again?! Good lord you better leave right now mister.”
Mario flees the room, regrets and confusion dogging his heels. Outside the building, he can only look up at the faint glow of the old man’s bedroom and wonder at what has just happened.
It starts to rain again. Mario runs over to the van, searching his pockets for the keys. His fingers brush against something that wasn’t there before. He pulls it out. It’s a piece of paper, torn from a corner of one of the pieces the old man had. A piece of paper with a name and phone number. Reading it Mario laughs. “You old snake!” He shouts up at the lighted window. “I knew you were faking! Don’t you think this makes us even!”
Laughing he jumps into the van and turns on the cab light. Putting the note up to the light he reads it again, marvelling. “Don’t waste time you don’t have, take it from an old crocodile who’s time is almost spent.”
Shaking Mario picks up his phone and dials the number, to the one person he’s hurt and missed most all these years. “Hello…” Mario says, hesitating his voice raw. “Luigi…it’s me…”
In the old man’s room, the nurse is long gone. B’Howzer holds a picture to his chest. It’s yellow, the figures on it almost faded and gone. Three boys, one older and taller with a crocodile tooth necklace, his arms about the shoulders of two smaller, similar looking boys. All three are smiling and grinning, thick as thieves. In the dark the old man mumbles and whispers. “Wasn’t the same without you boy. You super brothers were the only family I ever had, friends or foe.” The old man yawns and smiling softly slips into a final slumber.