The Whisky Blot
Journal of Literature, Poetry, and Haiku
MORE THAN THIRTY years ago an old man stood on a street corner, hat held to his chest, as I passed by in a long black car. I have no idea what kind of hat it was, beyond a notion it might have been the kind detectives wore in the forties – a homburg; a fedora? – and even less whether it was new, an item purchased for the occasion, or something more routine and every day. It was black, I remember that much; so was his overcoat. As the man stood there, breath pushing out into winter cold, his hand trembled against the brim.
Not a month goes by that I don’t think of him, and that grasped, nameless hat.
Not a week.
I was eighteen, in my first term at university, and green as a fresh stick lopped off a branch and tossed onto a smoky fire.
The quad was attractive in the dim light – beautiful, even, with its flat baize lawns and manicured flower beds, arches and mullions, worn staircases branching away into history beneath the mellow stones of the chapel. By day, charming fops and teddy bears walked its gravel; by night antiquarians poking through cobwebby tractates or dislodging the wrong chunk of mortar.
If I squinted my eyes, I could almost see myself there.
But coming to, the JCR was crammed with braying Henrys snapping open the Times on lacquered sticks or chortling over faux pas and mugs of weak tea. They knew the routine of Hall and battels, who could be ignored and who respected, when to break out a crammer and when to properly engage. I never saw one in the library, or the English faculty, come to that, yet they seemed to sail around the quad like galleons on an unseen wind, their fathers’ hands on the tiller, eyes on the merchant bank or the next round of Pimms.
In my top-floor room, curtains closed against the spires, I made cottage cheese on toast and hated them one by one until I fell asleep by the fire.
I hadn’t much credit on the phone-card, but mum said I needed to call right away. As the connection went through, a flat lady robot came on to inform me – politely – that I’d only a minute left.
‘Eh? She’s what? No – no, of course not. I think so. Yes. I’ll bring it with me, don’t worry. Alright. No, up overnight. I can pack a bag and go straight from the coach station. Yes – okay. See you tomorrow, then. Bye – bye.’
It was almost eleven when I stepped over the high bottom of the gate back into college. Though the light was still on in the library portico, I knew it would wink out soon enough. In the next quad the sounds of oiled merriment tumbled from the Buttery, but here it was cool and quiet. Even the night-porter was out of his booth. I had a quick look at the clock on his wall, realised I still had time to get the midnight coach – if I didn’t mind letting down all my pals, that was, or the line of eager young women stretching out of the door.
When I came down, he was back in the booth: the jolly one, high colour in his cheeks, a single chubby finger marking his place in a book. I waved as I passed, lugging my sports bag over my shoulder. It was stuffed with books on Hopkins – monographs, biographies, chunky critical heritages – and got jammed up in the sides, so I had to rive it back and forwards a few times till it came free with a fat rasp.
The door finally closed, and remained closed, behind me.
There was space on the night-bus, and after a quick visit to the machine I had enough for a ticket and a big cup of takeaway coffee.
‘You studyin?’ the driver asked me, hefting my bag into the belly of the coach. It slid right to the end, between two wooden struts, and struck the wall with a bong.
‘Maybe.’ I took a sip. ‘Hopefully. Yeah – going home.’
He nodded, and after sliding in the cases of the other three passengers, pulled open the door to let us on. I settled down a few rows back, keen to watch the city unwind and the country begin. I sipped my coffee and waited for the engine to fire, then slipped the lid back on to save a bit for later. No stewardesses on the night coach, but no overpriced snacks, either. Finally, the door closed and the driver sat down and got himself situated, adjusting the rear-view mirror, lowering his seat.
‘Alright, then,’ he said.
It was apparent by the time we reached the outskirts of Oxford – no one got on at the final stop, by a darkened pub, the driver barely kissing the layby before pulling back out – that the journey would be a long one, as well as quiet. I listened to the gears crunch and the engine hum, a woman sniffing somewhere in a distant row, the last pattering of suburban tarmac. But on the motorway the tires began to sing and we each found our level.
I brought out Hopkins from my pocket, tried to absorb a poem or two under the feeble spot angled above my seat. With a lot of effort, I ground around the housing till it gave up a dollop of pale light the size of a wagon-wheel on the page, but the words swam in and out of focus if I didn’t squint, and I knew if I carried on, a headache would barrel in my direction along with the road. Instead, I closed the book, clicked off the light and leaned my head into the faint, cool thrumming of the glass.
I’d only made the trip a couple of times, but already it was familiar: Oxfordshire fading to the Midlands; the suburbs of Birmingham, then into the city’s heart and back out of the other side after a quarter of an hour’s stop; picking up motorway again, and the dim, unspooling road with hours and hours of England still lying in wait.
Even with the coffee sloshing round inside me, I didn’t get out at Digbeth, and half an hour later we slid back into dark. The cool, vibrating glass turned cold in the rushing air, and I slipped out of one sleeve of my coat, bundling it up like a pillow under my ear. Now I looked like a child peeping out from a hastily-built fort, but who cared? The ladies, sleeping in the back, had turned off their spotlights, and we hadn’t picked up anyone else in Birmingham. I had the place to myself.
After an hour, I learned the full rhythm of the road: bump and hiss, as we crossed the joins in the motorway surface; black, black again, then dirty sodium orange – a row of lamp-posts heralding an intersection – and a forest of reflectorised green and white, the junction sprouting cat’s eyes as the slip-road dwindled away like the underside of a spaceship rising in the dark; then the end of light, bump-and-hiss resuming, the whole slow-motion slide slow punctuated by the driver’s cough, the tiny crackling of his starchy sleeve, a mumbled apology to no one in particular.
I wasn’t happy having to make the journey, but oddly wasn’t unhappy, either. In the shrouded dark things began to make a kind of sense.
If I peeled back the layers of college – perhaps myself – and took up a position at distance, like the great wave of divinity rearing behind Hopkins’ shipwrecks, or the sun peeping over the cold stripey stones of the library to warm its windows, I could find a way forward. The place was soaked in books, after all; built from books, caked like fields and ditches with them, after a heavy snow. What did a few Hooray Henrys matter, after all? I almost smiled till I realised we were halfway there, and the coming dark dropped like a blanket around my shoulders.
When we got to Middlesbrough it was six in the morning. The streets were busy with buses, full of pale, miserable faces shrouded in November steam, and it wouldn’t take long to get one to granda’s. I waited till the driver pulled out my bag on the end of his hooked pole, then thanked him and went into the terminal.
I was putting on my coat, stowing my wallet and zipping my book back into the sports bag when I felt a hand on my arm. There he was, no smaller than when I last saw him, but more concentrated, somehow, his face beaming out from under a flat cap. I felt the force of his grip through my sleeve.
‘Come on, son – we’re just across the way.’
I smiled, turning to follow. Even frazzled with worry he was already out of the door.
On the way to the car he filled me in: diagnosis, initial treatment, not wanting to worry me –university, and all – but going downhill. He’d talked to both sets of parents.
‘Did you bring yer study materials?’
He nodded at the bag. I was walking lop-sided, lurchy as a wolf who’d downed half a sheep. On the scuffed bottom of my sports bag, the lone remaining stud struck the pavement now and again like a fingernail catching on chipboard.
‘Yeah – Gerard Manley Hopkins, mainly.’
He nodded again.
‘That’s good. You should have time to read.’
As we made our way back to Stockton, he didn’t say much else. I was exhausted, my brain still tangled up in Oxford and the choppy cinematic stills of the journey. My bag sat in the footwell, its weight resting on my feet, and I dropped off into a thin dream of running along a jetty but being unable to jump off. I looked around, frustrated, my feet already cutting through the water but stubbornly sticking to the planks, and woke to granda knocking on the passenger window.
Outside, the last splinters of the jetty blew away and I got out of the car near the fresh pinkish brick of the garage. Granda had already gone inside, so I left my bag for a minute and wandered around. The place was much the same as I last saw it, at least from the front –
small turning circle, four similar bungalows around the curve of the cul-de-sac – but behind it looked different, pinched somehow, and not just because autumn had begun and winter wasn’t long in the offing. The tiny greenhouse was stippled with condensation, and had a strong, reedy whiff; he’d left a spade leaning against the back fence, streaks of mud welded to its blade, and an empty spot in the soil, hollow as the socket of a tooth, spoke of some project started but abandoned without much thought. Their bedroom window, too, was closed, the curtains drawn across to their full extent.
I didn’t stay long.
There were all the usual jobs – cooking, hovering, tootling around Safeway and down to the newsagent’s for the papers, the corporation for the gas bill – but without her there, walking about in broad daylight in a familiar place, no smell of the stacks in my nostrils, was strange, disorientating, peculiar. Granda, I sensed, was on autopilot, making sure there was no time to think about the next thing while he saw to the current one. At first, he wouldn’t let me come to the hospital, left me with a stack of books and a longhand-pad in a chair by the window.
‘You know where the kettle is, don’t you,’ he’d say. ‘Bread and butter, biscuits and whatnot?’
‘When d’you want me to come?’
‘Oh – you know. Soon.’
Before his voice could trail off, he smiled and put on his cap, pulled the door to behind him.
A few days later it wasn’t a matter of choice. The evening before, he’d come in silently and taken off his coat, hung up the cap at a funny angle, turned on the TV. News at Ten was starting, and he clicked up the sound with the remote.
‘D’you want some tea?’
I closed the Collected Poems. Even though Hopkins was an Oxford man, who might even help me push on through when I got back – as well as the sort of tortured soul whose life wrung out of him the kind of knotty poetry in which I exulted – he took some getting used to. I was grinding through ‘The Wreck of the Eurydice’ for the fourth time in as many hours and needed a break.
‘Granda – tea?’
‘Eh? Oh, er – go on then.’
The thin smile he offered didn’t reach his eyes, and he sipped the tea long beyond the cooling point, a chocolate hobknob untouched. When the news ended, with the usual bongs and clarions, he put down his mug.
‘I think you’d better come tomorrow.’
‘Alright,’ I said. I didn’t need to ask. ‘Alright.’
From the fifth room window of the hospital, I could see everything: a row of trees lining the car park (granda’s blue Renault saloon sitting neatly in the middle of a bay), the estate opposite, its gardens rather sad and depleted, as though beaten down by the rain, a road stretching round the corner in a series of speed bumps, a pelican crossing.
A child pushed out his scooter wheel as I looked away.
She was in bed, smiling and holding granda’s hand. I hadn’t said hello as we came in; it felt like an intrusion, somehow. But now I dragged up a metal chair to her bedside. She smiled again, took my hand, but still didn’t say anything. It was the one without the drip spiked in the vein, and I could feel the bumps and hollows of her bones, cold to my palm. I remembered her sitting in her high-backed chair when I was a child. The living room was warm; hot, really – she always claimed she had no circulation.
‘Look,’ she said, taking hold of the skin on the back of my hand. It lifted, changing colour briefly, then snapped back into place, the chubby flesh around the webbing of my fingers moving with a ripple as it fell. Then she took her own hand and did the same. The skin puckered up, much the same; she’d given it a good pinch. But this time it stayed up for a moment – like playdough thumbed into ridges, or a wave stalled out at the top of its curl – before subsiding slowly into the back of her hand.
‘Why?’ I’d asked.
‘Oh, you’re young,’ she said, ‘you’ll see.’
I went out on my bike and forgot all about it.
Now that same hand lay inside mine, unmoving. I wasn’t so young, not anymore, but still I didn’t see. Perhaps I should look up from the books once in a while. I clasped her knuckles in both my hands and smiled as hard as I could. I wished she’d speak, nod or raise her eyebrows; anything at all. But her fingers sat bunched and inert between mine, and she smiled on in silence. I looked at granda. Before he could speak a nurse came in and checked something on a chart, then bent to the IV and clicked around a dial.
‘She’ll sleep, now,’ the woman said. She was about forty – gigantically, impossibly middle-aged – but had a kind face above a reassuring shelf of bosom. Her upside-down watch clung on like Harold Lloyd to its cliff face. She gave us a brief smile, turned almost inappreciably towards the door, then shook her head.
I never saw either of them again.
Things went on, for a while at least. Shopping was done; meals were cooked; dishes washed, stacked, put away. The TV came on for the news at lunchtime, now, when we got home from another task. We visited the council offices, to amend records, and the registrar’s, to create another. I heard granda on the phone with a thousand different people, getting arrangements made. I felt useless – just a mouth, a few flailing limbs – but at least the house wasn’t empty. Now and again, I thought about my tutors, but left the sports bag zipped.
On the morning of the funeral, he brushed off the spots from my interview suit, gave my only tie a sponging.
‘There you are,’ he said.
‘Are you alright?’
He looked around the front room, through the door to the kitchen at the wan light breaching its long window, grandma’s chair.
‘No, not really. But I might be.’
Then he stood back, eyes glittering, and shook my hand.
‘Let’s go, shall we.’
I don’t remember much of it – the dark smudge over the building, from the last service, presumably, dampened by a light rain and spreading out into the trees. The rose garden where we scattered her, the chilling rattle of the rollers as the screen came up and swallowed her coffin. Egg sandwiches and tea. But as we passed out of the gate, spread over three cars, there he was, hat in hand.
An old man, I recall, but not so old – in his mid-sixties, maybe; seventy at a pinch. We had swung round the gentle final curve of the driveway, where it tacked away from the entrance road, and no one seemed to be paying much attention, but as the driver pulled out into a gap in the traffic, I noticed him. Had he been walking away, and heard the low respectable hum of the engines, all three slipping into gear and waiting to pull out? Did his usual route – for a paper, or a pint at lunchtime, now his wife had passed away, or to pick up his Jack Russell from the vets, where they’d been administering ear drops for a nasty infection – take him down this way, past the crematorium? Why was I interested?
As we passed, he stood stock-still, hat removed, one hand dropped smartly to the side of his overcoat, the other gripping his hat brim and pressing it close to his collar. His head bowed till his chin touched the top of the hat, making a soft divot in the cloth. Though I couldn’t see his face, I watched the slight tremble of his fingers in the cold, the curls of his breath puffing out, fading into nothing.
It felt wrong to wrench around in my seat and watch him as the car sped up, so this figure is all I have: small, partial, a man with no face paused at some moment in his day as a group of strangers in a hired limousine drove by. But I think of him often, fingers trembling on the brim.
When I got back, I got the bollocking of my life.
‘Where were you, last week? I got Costello’s thoughts – marvellous, as usual – but not yours, and the office has no record of you.’
After I explained my tutor relented a little, explained I should have left word with the office of my whereabouts. Wouldn’t have been a problem, he said; could have accommodated a week, made up any lost ground, he said; then he said nothing and lit a king-size Rothman’s to calm himself down.
‘Come on, then – let’s have it!’
‘Your thoughts. On Hopkins.’
‘Why not? I assume you did do some thinking, wrote down a bit, did you?’
‘Well – yes, I did. D’you want to hear it?’
The Rothman’s dipped in silent command, so I pulled out my notes and gave it to him.
Back in the library, where the fug of old paper, the faint striplight-buzz of my favourite alcove pulled me back into their embrace, I mulled things over. Not bad, he’d said when I finished. Now what about next week? I still wasn’t used to this week-to-week determination of the next essay but thought I might do something Gothic. Across the quad, a pair of foppish Henrys staggered into view, their scarves long and ostentatious, steps a little uncertain, even though it was well shy of noon.
I rolled my eyes and made ready to give them the finger, but then thought better of it. I pushed up the gossamer hat on my brow, instead, and walked on knightly legs down the mean streets of the stacks.
James Roderick Burns’ novella and story collection, Beastly Transparencies, is due from Eyewear Publishing in spring 2023. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives. His work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including The Guardian, Modern Haiku, The North and The Scotsman. He can be found on Twitter @JamesRoderickB and his newsletter offers one free, published story a fortnight at abunchoffives.substack.com.
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