She saw him leaning up against the lamppost at Altab Ali Park, which used to be called St. Mary’s Park (yet had looked much the same then, minus a few newer adornments), and froze with uncertainty. He was smoking, bearded, and larger than she remembered him, but still him. Should she greet him? It had been a long time. Maybe he wouldn’t remember her. Or, if he did, perhaps he wouldn’t want to see her. Or maybe he would, but what could she possibly say? She took some slow steps ahead of her, making to pass the park on entirely, but couldn’t help but look his way again.
He turned and glanced her way, spotting her staring. He stared back. Then smiled, and waved. Recognition made her choice for her- she couldn’t turn around and walk the other direction after he had seen her. Well, she could, but it wouldn’t be very ladylike. After making sure no cars were coming, across the street she went, stylish coat held closely against the autumn cold. It may as well have been winter, for all the protection the thin coat gave. The smokey leaves crunched underfoot in the gutter alongside the edge, and then she was there.
“Hell-hi-o,” they said concurrently, mixing the words awkwardly. Those were the only words for a moment, held still, before he dropped his cigarette and stamped it out.
“So, you’re back,” he said.
“Only for the funeral,” she admitted.
“Really? Gone so soon?”
“Well, you know how it is.”
“Sure,” he said gruffly, itching his right arm with his left. “Your mum’ll be glad to see you.”
“I’ll be glad to see her,” she concocted.
“Man, last time I saw you, you were as rough as this town was. As this town still is. What happened?”
“Bloody right, you did. Hey, you heard the one about the shrink?” She shrugged, shaking her head. When he asked if you’d ‘heard the one’, you didn’t tell him you’d heard it- he’d just get mopey, and tell it anyway. At least, she assumed he hadn’t changed in that respect. Not much seemed to have changed.
“So, a whole bunch of shrinks were attending a convention. Four of them went to dinner one night. One said to the other three, ‘People are always coming to us with their guilt and fears, but we have no one that we can go to when we have problems.’ The others agreed. Then one said, ‘Since we are all professionals, why don’t we take some time right now to hear each other out?’ The other three agreed. The first then confessed, ‘I have an uncontrollable desire to kill my patients.’ The second shrink said, ‘I love money, so I find ways to cheat my patients whenever I can.’ The third followed with, ‘I’m addicted to drugs and often prescribe more than my patients are really getting.’ The fourth shrink then confessed, ‘I know I’m not supposed to, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t keep a secret.’ ” He grinned at the punchline, and she brought out a slight respectful smile.
“That’s a good one,” she commented.
“Yeah. Heard it from James over on Copley Street.”
“Look, I’d better go.”
“Yeah? Funeral’s not until tomorrow.” How did he know that? No, of course he knew that.
“I’m just… busy. Have some work to do.”
“Okay. I mean, if you have time to spend, me and some mates are heading to the Castle.”
“Sorry, can’t make it.” She uncomfortably began to turn away.
“You know, you never were a great liar. Why not just say you don’t want to be here?”
She turned back around to face him.
“Ok, fine, I don’t want to be here.”
“Sure. Too good for us, now that you’ve gone and moved up in the world.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Well, go bugger off to wherever you were going. I’m sure it’s better than with the likes of us. With the likes of your people.”
She walked briskly away during that last sentence. She knew it had been a bad idea to come back, but her mum had insisted so pleadingly. Of course mum had. It was to her mum’s house, her own old house, that she was going anyways, but she didn’t correct the guy. Was her own mother even her people anymore?
“We didn’t leave! You did!” he called after her, a parting shot she barely heard.
She went to her mother’s house, which was over on Ashfield Street. A small apartment, lined up in a row with other small apartments, it spoke of brick and mortar, of old architecture, even though it wasn’t really all that old. The painted windows and steep roofs seemed almost a bourgeois mockery compared the cramped, clustering arrangement of living spaces. She would have called it home, only it wasn’t anymore. Thank goodness for that.
Her mother answered the door immediately after the third knock, as if she had been sitting next to the door. She was a lot shorter than her daughter remembered her.
“Oh, honey, it’s so good to see you!” the woman said, stretching her arms out.
“Hello mum,” the daughter said with half the enthusiasm, diving into the hug while closing the door. “How are you holding up?”
“Decently enough.” The two stood there silently, thinking about unsaid histories, before mum dropped the embrace and turned vibrantly to waddle towards the kitchen. “Oh, honey, I was preparing some hot water for tea, but didn’t know when you’d get here, so I’ll need to heat it up again. My goodness, you look beautiful! Come, come!”
“You drink tea now?”
“Of course I drink tea. What’s an old lady supposed to spend her time doing, besides watch theatre on the telly and read the paper?”
The daughter stepped gingerly into the tenement. Something smelled mouldy. She tried to locate the source, but it didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere singular. She continued to the kitchen, where her mother was trying and failing to strike a match.
“Here, let me,” the daughter said, taking the box from her mother.
“Oh, thank you. Those things never did work when you wanted them to.”
“No, they didn’t.” The daughter struck a flame and lit the gas burner, waving the match out after it burst into life. “The same oven too.”
“It all still works- no reason to go throwing anything out now.”
“I guess not.”
“So tell me, tell me! What’s happening in the life of my bigshot daughter?”
“Well, work. A lot of work. Which almost doesn’t seem like work most of the time. My lines are selling well… I might even get a show in Paris one of these days.”
“Oooo!” her mother said, eyes twinkling. “Paris! I’ve only been once, when you were only three. You were a little horror then.”
“I don’t remember not being a little horror, ever.”
“Right you are.”
“Are you still seeing that one girl, the black-haired one…”
“No. Teresa and I split three years ago.”
“Oh. Oh dear. Well, I never did think much of her, she was always so haughty, so overbearing.”
“…She dumped me, mum. I’m not over it yet.”
“Oh. Oh, sorry. That was mean of me, your cruel mother, opening up fresh wounds.”
“No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I mean, you probably don’t much want to talk about Pa.”
Her mother stopped there for a second.
“Well, I don’t see why not. All they’ll be doing tomorrow is talking about him.”
“I do miss him though.” The kettle whistled, and was moved to the backburner while the daughter went to grab cups. Also where they had always been. “I mean, he was a mean jimmy, when it came right down it, but I did care about him.”
“After everything he did?”
“Well, that’s the thing about it. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did. I loved your father.”
“Mum, that probably isn’t love. That’s Stockholm Syndrome.” Her mother poured the water out, and pulled out some infusers.
“No, it was love. I don’t expect you to understand, not having found someone yet-“
“I’m taking my time. Too early and I might find myself locked down, for life. Like you were.”
“Oh, that is what all the young people are saying these days, isn’t it? They say romance is dead, and I have half a mind to believe it. But for all the things your father was, he certainly was romantic.”
Her daughter had no response, only writhing hatred. Her mother continued.
“Self-denial is the new thing. People stop themselves from feeling anything to operate more cleanly, perfectly. That’s what they’re saying these days. But not me… no. I married early because, well, if the goal is to meet someone really special, someone who you can’t get enough of… isn’t it better to love them for longer? Meeting them earlier is a head start that people who meet later don’t ever have.”
“Not like I could marry right now, legally anyway. Maybe in a few years. People you meet later are usually not the same person you would have met now. And what if you marry the wrong person?”
“I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t a wrong person. Maybe love is just forgiving all the pain and hell other people put us through.” Her mom took a sip of tea. “Or maybe, there is a right person, but you’ll never be able to tell whether or not that person or this person is them. So it’s a guessing game.”
“You’re really going to try to apologize for him, aren’t you. You can make any kind of argument to justify it all, and to make it seem like Pa was the hero you saw him as.”
“This doesn’t only apply to a romantic partner. It applies to all of humanity. You can love someone without intending to marry them. Why do you think parents love their kids? Because, believe me, you put me through plenty of crap in your day.”
“But when you said it, you meant it about Pa.”
“He did the best he could.”
“No, he didn’t. I don’t see why you never left.”
Her mum sat quietly, not offended, but not forthcoming either.
“I had you to think about.”
“And I left.”
“I suppose you did,” her mum replied. “Any case, the brute is dead now. Doesn’t matter much after all. Doesn’t matter when he’s six foot under.”
After talking to her, and then shouting after her retreating back, he went to Castle. It was a sports pub down on the corner between White Church Lane and Commercial Road. It sat on one of those thin corners that sometimes cropped up when city planners got a bit too busy, or tipsy, or playful. The two roads almost ran parallel to each other where they met.
The pub wasn’t particularly notable, though it could not be said to be trivial either. It served as a sort of meeting place for him and his outfit, where they could come and play pool and tell bawdy jokes and waste their nights away. He worked at a warehouse in town most days, and the time left over was just enough to hedonistically collapse before the following one.
This night, like all nights, they began appearing at around seven. He got there a bit earlier this time, started smoking outside. The first one after him was James.
“Hey. You look miffed,” James said.
“You remember Milena?”
“She’s a fashion designer now, was here maybe four years back.”
“The bird with the black-haired girlfriend?
“That’s the one. Showed up on the street today, looking all posh. Here for the funeral apparently.”
“So that’s why you’re stroppy? A toffed up girl comes by and ruins your day?”
“Not just comes by. Starts acting like she’s a stranger. Like she didn’t run with the other kids when she grew up here, like she just forgot it all.”
“Don’t worry yourself. She’s a slag anyways.”
He stared at James strangely
“No. If you knew her at all, if you’d known her back then, you’d know why you need to take those words back.”
“Ok, fine, whatever. She’s not a slag.”
“So she left here the first chance she could. Could you imagine leaving the East End?”
“No way. This place is the best dump on Earth.”
“True enough. Not so much a dump these days though.”
“Anyways, I don’t know why I let it get to me. Made me feel I wasn’t worth talking to, wasn’t worth even a second thought. I knew this girl when we were kids; we ran from dogs and ate apples in the summer and shot the breeze! And now… I don’t know. She doesn’t want to be here.”
“Are you sure she’s not a slag?”
“Absolutely sure. Don’t say that again.”
James shut his mouth, began messing with his eyelids.
“Sure sounds pretty slaggy to me.”
Without thinking, he punched James in the face, and before he knew it, they were fighting. It had been a while since he last fought, but he was no stranger to them. The East End wasn’t all rough, but he had grown up in the rough part of it, and that meant getting into the occasional tussle. The fight lasted almost three minutes before anyone tried to pull them apart, and James leaned up against the bar’s wall silently staring at him.
The warehouser simply left back to his flat rather than wait for coppers to show up. He hadn’t meant to fight James, he just had to. Getting home was a relief, after not even passing through the gate of Castle. He slept early, though it was the right time to go to bed for a work day. It was the weekend now, but he just did not feel like celebrating.
Seldom is someone ever impugned during their funeral, and never with something that hasn’t already been said thousands of times before in planning. The man’s funeral was, as was probable, littered with praise.
After the funeral, as the sun began to set, she walked aimlessly. Aimlessly eventually brought her to the lamppost at Altab Ali Park. She knew she should say something, but didn’t have anything to say. She waited for half an hour before he came walking by though, which gave her some time to think. She walked over, and then noticed the bruises.
“Not much. Doesn’t matter. Got mugged.”
“Did you lose much?”
“Only five quid.”
“Weren’t your fault,” he said, pulling out a cigarette. “Want one?”
“I quit a few years ago.”
“You quit a bunch of things a few years ago.”
“Yeah. Listen, I’m sorry about the other day,” she said.
“Are you really?”
“Yes. Well, I did intend the thing about not wanting to be here. But here is just a place. You may consider yourself to be a part of the place, but I really wasn’t trying to hurt you with that comment. It was an oversight.”
“You did hurt the East End’s feelings.”
“Come on. I come from here. Anything in the East End can take a hit, especially the place itself.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So, are we cool?”
“We’re cool,” he said, taking a drag and blowing a ring. “Hey, you hear the one about the queen?”
“Nope.” She had.
“So, the queen and the archbishop of Canterbury are touring the royal stables, and as they pass one of the horses, it lets out gas so loud that it could not be ignored. So, the queen, being as proper as she is, says ‘Oh, how embarrassing! I’m dreadfully sorry about that.’ And the archbishop, says, after a moment: ‘It’s quite understandable,’ and after a moment added, ‘as a matter of fact I thought it was the horse.’ “
She giggled. “You’re so immature.”
“Maturity is a stupid idea. It’s growing secure within insecurity.”
“If you say so.”
“Hey, the funeral’s over, right?”
She tensed up. “…Yeah. Don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Want to go desecrate the grave?”
“You know, just draw on it or carve into it or something. Not like anybody’s going to visit it otherwise. Just a rock.”
She was… actually severely tempted. But her mother might want to visit, now that she thought about it. What if mum got nostalgic? Seeing a carving would be, to a woman like her mum, a travesty. And then she thought about that.
“Let’s do it,” she said. He grinned.
“Come along, then.”
They went to the graveyard, and by that time, all of the funeral-goers had left. It had grown dark, and the pale moonlight shone grey from behind a cloud, obscured along with its starry brethren behind wispy blankets of cotton.
It was a short walk to reach the fresh grave. Covered in moss (by the funerary service, not time), it fit in with all the other graves, a front-door for the deceased.
“Well?” she asked.
He pulled out a pocketknife and stepped towards the grave.
The cloud moved, and then she looked at her arm.
“Oh….oh. Right. Completely forgot about that. Ah, hell. Well, I’m really very sorry about this. It was nice knowing you.”
“What?” he asked. She turned, hairs sprouting rapidly all across his skin, and before he knew it, she had turned into a hirsute beast.
“RAWR,” the werewolf went, and she ate him up.