“The assignment was to write a piece, where the story centers around a song”
Daniel’s story starts with a numb right arm and legs, a strong smell of oil and rubber and a head bang that opened a 2 tonne car’s trunk. Perhaps, it had started five hours prior to that, but since not much is clear to him from that time, I will skip through those hours like a stone on water.
Skip one – an out of town friend’s visit is celebrated with a night out,
Skip two – a full case of insipid pub wine over a few brief moments of genuine discussions (I have no doubt you know what caused those),
Skip three – a few whiskey-red-bulls after being thrown out of the first joint,
Skip four – a stolen kiss,
Skip five – a few reeks in a dark corner of a Chelsea street.
This reportage was assembled from phone calls with Daniel’s friends, taken the next morning. Figuratively speaking, the next morning. All next mornings like this, are in fact more afternoons than mornings. None of the mentioned subjects possessed a clear picture of what had occurred that night, each of them had only vague memories of a few disconnected moments I had to piece together.
Daniel came to due to the stiffness in his neck and the pain in his arm and legs. It wasn’t so much that he was awake, as it was that his mind slowly became aware of the various parts of his body, begging him to move. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t moved at all yet, or even opened his eyes. The sour taste in his mouth and the heaviness wrapping his head, brought with them an all too familiar realisation.
‘Again you drank too much and have no idea how you got home.’ his conscience said to him.
I am not sure why consciences are preoccupied with such things in the first place, but Daniel’s obviously had some underlying issues with the subject. The thought raised his awareness and suddenly the rubber and oil smell, thick as a blanket all over him, hit him. He whispered back to Dr. Nuisance:
‘Damn it! I’m not home!’
The reply accelerated his pulse. Still half conscious, he felt around with his fingers and realised that what he had hugged until a moment ago wasn’t his girlfriend, but a spare tyre of some sort. The lack of any light he finally opened his eyes to, did little to calm him down. In fact, it startled him so badly, his soul jumped out of the trunk, before his head cleared the way for it. Now, if you woke up to a loud bang reverberating through the air at the same speed as it did through your brain tissue, with a car alarm that seemed to blow from inside your groins, you would understand how getting out of the trunk hadn’t been the smoothest thing he did that night. He ended up in the middle of a puddle, on all fours, shocked eyes staring at the black limo, now stretching in front of him. His legs were incapable of movement. The thousand needles he felt going through them, as fresh blood was pushing its way through veins and arteries made him squeeze the earth under his palms, nails digging through the mud.
He crawled a few metres, before he could stand up and then, limping awkwardly, he made his way through a wired gate tied up with a heavy chain and lock, his heart still in his stomach. Just before turning around the corner of the first building to his right he looked back to check if someone was chasing him. All he could see in the dim, yellow light of the street lamppost, was the number plate’s irridescent white decorating the 20 feet long car. He didn’t really see it, but he swore to me it read something in the Cyrillic alphabet.
I cannot be sure he was right, but it certainly accentuated the uneasy feeling he had walking the dark street. The buildings were too small raise to be in a civilised part of London. The blue metal containers, stacked one on top of the other, which he was seeing all around him, didn’t help much either. It was the hand painted signage on some of the buildings, clearly in English, which did that.
‘At least I’m not in Russia,’ he thought and continued walking towards the next lamppost.
There wasn’t much he remembered about the night, but he knew it started, maybe also ended in Chelsea. He thought, that as long as he didn’t spend too much time away from the next street light, he was safe. He thought… Nothing the brain produces in a situation like that could be called a thought and if you got married in Vegas I’m sure you know what I am talking about.
He was tidying up when he remembered there were important things to consider. He slapped his pant’s back pockets, hoping for a wallet. He found none. A credit card in the chest pocket of his jacket and couple of coins he tossed up and down a few times was all he had. He was already picturing the battering he was going to receive from his girlfriend, arriving home in this state but then he turned the corner and froze in his tracks. There were a lot of things he could have imagined existed in these parts of London, but what reflected up from the wet road and raised his eyes from the ground, wasn’t any of those things.
‘They always end up coming here anyway. Just you wait!’ Vladi said to the woman next to him. Her head was resting on the till and by all signs she was fast asleep. She’d been the night shift waitress at this diner for three years and the man knew her well. He didn’t mind her sleeping while he was talking to her. He understood. It was almost dawn and the skies across the river, were getting ready to receive their morning colours. He enjoyed being awake, when everyone else was sleeping. He’d been a guardian of people all his life. A black suit and a white shirt were covering his large chest and arms, a big smile, his face.
‘You see, from the car park, the street is lit towards the diner and dark towards the town. Anyone sitting there would come this way. It’s inevitable.’ He put another coin into the table jukebox in front of him. ‘This is my favourite song. Six blade knives. Did you know? … I mean, what would you have done? Just leave him there on the street? I couldn’t! I didn’t have the heart to do that. Police would have picked him up and he would have gotten into a lot more trouble.’
There were two other men in the diner, sitting at a table on the opposite side of it, sipping their coffees and holding their heads with one hand. They were quiet, unbothered by the music or the discussion around them. They were nodding now and then in agreement more out of reflex than awareness.
‘This way, he’ll only get the scare of his life and hopefully stay away from drinking for a couple of weeks. Look at him! Fancy business cards, way too many credit cards, beautiful girlfriend and no brains,’ he said looking at the wallet in front of him. ‘As I said, here he comes! Linda, we’ve got a new customer coming up!’
Daniel wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or not. The two shapes he was staring at, were both familiar and out of place. The smaller, more distant shape, was the white dome of the O2 Arena with its supporting red pillars, confirming he was still in London. The larger, nearer shape, the one that made him raise his head in surprise was that of a genuine American Diner. Poorly lit by only a few yellow pulsing light bulbs and an old Pepsi sign, the metallic structure, half red half dirty aluminum seemed taken out of a pulp movie. Right above the entrance was a billboard that read: “Fatboy’s Diner”.
He was getting ready to head for the entrance when from his left, from somewhere in the dark corner, a man’s voice came out and startled him into jumping up, one leg in the air and arms to his face, as if the words had hit the puddle at his feet and splashed him with water.
‘Don’t go in there!’
‘Jesus man! Where did you come from?’
‘Listen to me! Stay away. Just turn around, walk the other way for five minutes to the DLR and catch the train. Do you have some change you could spare?’
‘What do you mean? What’s going on in there?’ Daniel said and knelt down to hand the man the few coins he found in his jacket moments before. He was lying down on a few layers of cardboard wrapped in a dirty, wet sleeping bag.
‘Thank you! Thank you! I can’t say what’s going on, but if I were you, I wouldn’t go in.’ He started to laugh. ‘Something’s waiting for you there! If you go in it’s bad for both of us.’
‘Ok. Ok. Get some rest now,’ he said and headed for the diner. The blurred vision and the laughter were clear signs that he was high on some kind of hallucinogenic.
Approaching the diner with weary, slow steps he could see through the door the waitress resting her head on the till, legs hanging from a stool. Two people were sitting at a table and another one standing a few feet from the sleeping lady. His entry didn’t make anyone turn, his nod went unnoticed. He headed for the first free booth and sat down on the red leather padded bench. He didn’t think anyone would mind, so he stretched his legs under the table on the bench on the other side of the table. Behind the ketchup and mustard bottles stood a table jukebox. The track it was stopped at said Six Blade Knifes – Dire Straits. He touched the pockets of his jacket and found some more coins. Pushed one into the slot and played the tune.
The Asian waitress spread on the counter woke with a start. She looked up, to the guy standing next to her and then towards where the music was coming from. She looked relieved and disappointed to see him. ‘I am getting tired of this song Vladi. I will throw all these machines in the river one day,’ she said and handed the man a fresh beer before heading to see what the new customer wanted.
‘Hellooo! What can I get yooou?’ she said unable to hide her sleepiness behind the tiny smile.
‘Two hotdogs and a large coffee, please. Oh, do you take cards? No! Of course you don’t,’ he said looking at her daaah face. ‘Sorry. Just a coffee then!’
She left and after her the man standing at the counter followed.
‘Do you mind?’ He pointed at the bench where his feet were resting.
‘No, please. Sit. You must be my driver. I would buy you a beer, but I am out,’ he said, meeting the smile and wave of a limo driver’s cap.
‘Vladi, my name is Vladi. Did you travel well? Was coming to check on you soon. Here, this is yours! You already got me two beers.’ The big man handed him his wallet.
‘Vladi, you are a good man! I’m Daniel but I’m sure you know more about me than I can remember right now. How did I get in your boot?’
‘I have no idea. You must be a good car thief when you are drunk. I found you sleeping there after I finished work when I parked the car here. Figured there was no point trying to wake you.’
‘Which reminds me, where exactly are we Vladi?’ The waitress came with the coffee and he ordered his hotdogs plus another beer for his new friend.
‘This is Trinity Buoy Wharf mate. You are a long way from anywhere.’
‘What is this place? How did this diner end up here?
‘I don’t know! Read those paper clippings on the wall. I am just glad it’s here. I finish my shift, clean up the car, usually throw the garbage in the trunk in the Thames and then come here for a few beers before the DLR starts working.’
‘God I’m tired of London!’
‘You know, a famous bloke here in London once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”’
‘I would very much like to meet the guy and punch him in the face! Do you know him?’ Daniel said, a weary smile barely making it across the table.
‘Well, kind of. He was a sickly kid, an infirm that spent most of his childhood indoors reading books from his father’s bookshop. That and his friend later in life are the reasons he died a 75-year-old man. Samuel Johnson was his name.’
‘How do you know him Vladi?’
‘A client of mine was talking about him once. You learn a lot of things, driving people around, taking care of them. You just have to listen well to what they tell you.’
‘I’m sure you do. How long have you been driving limos? Do you mind if I eat while we talk?’ he said looking at his hotdogs.
‘No. Go ahead. It’s been my job since I arrived in London 5 years ago. I was in the army before. A medical soldier in Afghanistan…’ he said.
‘Why don’t you work in a hospital?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe because I like what I do now. It suits me just fine. I work mostly by night which is great ‘cause I can’t sleep anyway. The people I meet are interesting and no one ever bothers me with personal questions. Plus, the pay is way better than being in a hospital. I wasn’t much of a surgeon anyway and the skills you get in war, you don’t need here.’
‘What skills are you talking about?’
‘Mostly the ability to improvise and having a tough enough stomach to wake up every morning and convince yourself that everything happening around you has a meaningful reason.’
‘It seems to me, you can’t run from what you are. You take care of people. And you seem to be very good at finding people in need of help.’
‘You don’t have to be good at it. The world is full of people needing it. The one thing people are best at, is hurting others or, for that matter, themselves,’ he said pointing across the table at Daniel.
‘Here, I’d like to contradict you Vladi. People are best at ignoring people in need.’
‘Perhaps.’ he said and grabbed Daniel’s shoulder, shaking it gently then tapping it as if to say ‘You’re welcome!’
Daniel suddenly realised he had felt the same grab and tap on the shoulder earlier during the night. He remembered the pavement, being lifted off it and put in the boot of the long black car. He remembered the improvised pillow and the tap. After a few moments of silence he looked up at Vladi and smiled. He knew his gesture meant that he wanted to end the conversation and he got up to leave.
‘It seems tonight you were my guardian. I must head home now. I know someone who must be worried sick about me by now. Do you think we’ll ever meet again?’
‘I’m sure we will. Here’s my number. If you need a limo, give me a call. Good luck to you and stay safe.’ He shook Daniel’s hand, gave him a wink and went back to the counter, humming his song ‘six blade knifes do anything for you’.
He went out into the fresh morning air and the sound of the river boats. It smelled like a brand new day. He was feeling better and had a strange sense of optimism in his soul. The song was going to bother him for days now. He found it impossible to stop playing it in his head. The beggar’s shack in front of him caught his eye suddenly. It was fading away from the dark corner, disappearing. He looked back on Fatboy’s diner and witnessed the last of the neon sign light fading in the air. A single word hurried after the diner as it vanished.
‘Did you say anything, sweetie?’
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