Andrew McCallum Crawford: One Absorbent Parasite Per Song
Andrew McCallum Crawford
He picked up the phone. ‘Neh?’ he said.
‘Cut the crap, Dave,’ said the voice on the other end. ‘Speak English.’
This was all he needed. He looked nervously round the room. That hunted feeling. The shutters were closed. ‘How’s it going, Joyce?’ he said.
‘Not good,’ she said. What a surprise. ‘You going down the Astoria?’
‘Don’t think so,’ he said. It was a quick decision.
‘Could you lend me a thousand?’ she said. ‘Just so I can get a Guardian and a coffee.’
Yeah, right. He barely had enough for the rent and she was asking him for a loan? She still owed him from the last time. She was into him for a lot more than a thousand drachmas.
‘Love to help you out, Joyce,’ he said. ‘But like I say, I won’t be in the Astoria.’
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Another git cramps my lifestyle.’
‘See you, Joyce,’ he said, but the line was already dead. Lifestyle. They all had one. Coffee and beer down the Astoria, doing the Guardian crossword. That was it. They were in a rut, the lot of them, and they couldn’t scrape together the plane fare home. Wherever that was. They’d been away too long. This was it, whether they liked it or not.
He heard the bike on the path. It was her – he didn’t know any other cyclists. Joyce was scary even without the bike. She banged on the door. He had the option of not opening up, of pretending not to be there, but he wasn’t going to hide from her. That wasn’t what he was about. Not by a long way.
She battered the door again. He opened it. She pushed past him. ‘Christ this place is tiny,’ she said. ‘Any chance of a coffee?’
‘Hi, Joyce,’ he said. He was aware of his eyes straying towards the desk. The bottom drawer, specifically. Where he kept his money.
‘I’ll be in your toilet,’ she said. He heard her pull the curtain across, then the hiss. He quickly got the envelope out of the drawer and crammed it into the front pocket of his jeans. Joyce had a habit of being in three places at once. You had to keep an eye on her, but it was impossible.
The swish of the curtain.
She was back, wiping her hands on her T-shirt. ‘Do you never do a washing?’ she said. ‘Your towel’s bogging.’
He was standing next to the door. It was open. It had been open since Joyce came in. He stepped out onto the path. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to go.’
‘The thousand?’ she said.
‘I’m skint,’ he said.
‘Fuck off!’ she said. ‘Everyone knows you’re loaded.’
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’
‘Private lesson?’ she said.
‘Private,’ he said. ‘But not a lesson.’
‘You’re a fucking liar,’ she said, and swayed out onto the path. He made way for her; he had to. Joyce was a big girl. He watched her unlock her bike. Fifty gears, front and rear suspension, disc brakes. State of the art. He noticed a blue blotch on her left ankle. ‘Is that a tattoo?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ she said, and pulled up her trouser leg. It was a cog, complete with the teeth. ‘Good, eh?’
She cycled at his shoulder till he spotted an open door in a block of flats.
‘This is me,’ he said. ‘See you, Joyce.’ He climbed the stairs to the first floor and waited in the semi-darkness. After five minutes he chanced a glance round the banister. He couldn’t see much. It was too soon to risk it. He sat on the top step and lit a cigarette. He’d give it another few minutes. Until he finished his smoke, at least.
Her bike was parked outside the Astoria that night. She was sitting with that idiot, Benson. She had three empty bottles in front of her, and a smile on her face. ‘Here comes the cheapskate,’ she said.
‘Hi, Joyce,’ said Dave. He sat down and got stuck into the crossword. Rufus. Anagrams. Piece of piss. He was aware of a bottle and a glass being placed at his elbow. He didn’t look up.
‘That’s from Benson,’ said Joyce. ‘Seeing as you’re skint.’
‘Oh, come on, Joyce!’ Benson laughed. ‘I’m not made of money!’
‘You’re a honey,’ said Joyce. Aye, aye, thought Dave. If Benson didn’t watch out, he’d be getting his end away. Maybe that was the plan behind the three beers. Maybe no plan was required. Joyce had a reputation. She was a woman who got what she wanted, eventually. Difficult to please, though. Demanding, that was the word they used. It was hard to keep up with her. All that cycling, right enough. Those thighs. Stamina.
Dave flapped the paper. ‘Get this,’ he said. ‘One absorbent parasite contained per song. Seven letters.’ He was trying not to smirk.
‘Let me see that,’ said Benson, and closed his fingers round the corner of the page.
‘Take it easy, mate,’ said Dave, and tugged. ‘I’ll give you a look when I’m finished.’
‘Ooohhh,’ said Joyce. ‘Touchy.’
‘Fucking pleb,’ said Benson. ‘That’s another beer you owe me.’
‘Aye,’ said Dave. ‘In your dreams it is.’
‘Oh, fuck off,’ said Benson.
‘I didn’t ask you to buy me anything,’ said Dave. ‘If it’s a chore, I’ll pay for it myself.’
‘I thought you were skint,’ said Joyce.
‘Same as you, Joyce,’ said Dave. ‘Did Benson sub you? Or haven’t you asked him yet?’
‘What the fuck is it to you?’ said Benson.
Dave held his gaze. Benson, of course, was right. It had nothing to do with Dave. It was between Joyce and Benson. Whoever was putting the bite on who, whoever was screwing who, had nothing to do with Dave. That was the size of it. He folded his paper and walked out. He would leave them wondering about the imaginary crossword clue. Who was he kidding? They would have forgotten about it already. But the small things get magnified. This was what he couldn’t take. The gossip, the niggling fucking tittle tattle. It was why he lived on his own in that shithole up the hill. He set off for the seafront. The Majestic. Full of wasters, but they were local. Same problems, same bullshit, but they spoke Greek so fast he couldn’t understand a word. They would leave him alone. This was what he was looking for. This is what he wanted. To be ignored in a foreign language.
He was on his own.
This was his lifestyle.
He owed nothing to no one.