A P U N C H T O T H E H E A R T
K M Elkes
If you were a stranger happening on Shoreham Street for the first time – particularly on a typical day, the kind of day that dawdles across the long yards between breakfast and dinner before the gathering slowness of evening – perhaps due to a faulty satnav or because you were a schoolboy (reckoning himself a master of bully-avoiding shortcuts), or one of those flaneurs who like to explore the neglected corners of no-mark towns; then you might think it a dull, dead-end kind of place.
You might conclude, performing your three point turn in the silent road, or hurrying on at the echo of your own footsteps, or back-tracking in your search for some edgy urban grit, that it looks a place where time pools and stills in littered corners, in shady doorways and the mossy wetness of back alleys.
It’s not an outlandish deduction. The street has suffered heavy casualties over the years. The train station closed a decade back, its tracks gradually nettled into submission. The pub went the way of boarded windows and the butchers was converted into flats. Though Klassy Kuts kept afloat awhile, the net curtains are now permanently closed and the window posters of glum hair models have been bleached to a pale, pale blue.
And yet, clinging on halfway down the street is The Railway Cafe, where the day starts, as it always starts, with Rose Delaney, sole proprietor, flipping the sign from Closed to Open at 7am sharp, then taking her station behind the counter, its surface already scrubbed to a monumental shine.
Our Rose is a smart woman of wedged heels and immaculate nails. Of roundness and pearl earrings and one eyebrow held a little higher than the other. Rose gives out to the world a certain knowing sassiness, though on her ‘bad’ days she has squatted by the plug sockets in her bedroom, scared witless that all the electricity will leak out, or sometimes at night lies awake scooping the air to her ears to hear its secret sounds.
Five minutes she waits before Landon McKenzie arrives, as he has done every weekday for longer than he bears to remember.
“A loaf-baker today, Rosie. An egg-fryer,” says Landon as he crosses the threshold. “Hot as curry shit out there.”
The voice is gravel, clotted with tobacco. Not an old man, Landon, but deep enough into middle age to be measuring its end. The demise of the pub was a godsend to his liver. Now he survives on Rose’s pitch-thick tea. He reckons himself a raconteur with a handful of decent yarns, but is not immune to the 3am bell toll of gloom.
There’s a dent in the seat at the window table, a cupping depression worried into the fabric where Landon takes daily residence. While the smell of bacon rises from Rose’s pan, he reaches up and begins to ease down the blind.
“Will you leave that alone man,” says Rose. “Customers will think we’re closed.”
“Customers? You know the door’s wide open. I’m tanned as leather sitting here. I’m a man of shadows and shades Rosie.”
“I’ll not tell you again,” says Rose. So Landon complies.
After breakfast he clicks his pen for the Cryptic. Most days he scuppers it easily enough, reading out clues to Rose, who ponders while he’s already writing them in. Then he reads the paper, looks out onto the street, watches Rose rearranging stock, making lists, always moving and improving.
When the paper is done, Landon pulls out a small radio from his jacket pocket, the old-fashioned kind with a greasy, off-white earpiece that reminds him of a tooth. If he tunes it carefully enough he can find the local station and keep up with the news: Plans for a crackdown on teenage drinking. A woman celebrating her 100th birthday. A lorry that’s shed its load causing tailbacks on the ring road. It’s enough, just, to remind him of a bigger world. It is the scratching of an itch, though he feels in the static crackle a separation from it all.
The hands of the old clock above him quiver their way through the morning hours and Shoreham Street wears its familiar face.
At lunchtime a group of lads bundle through the door, hot with noise, sniffing and coughing as they check the menu board. They wear fluorescent yellow tabards over bare chests, thudding boots and trousers starched with grime. They carry hard hats.
“Let me guess,” says Landon. “You lads are scaffolders? Pole monkeys right?”
They turn. One has a gold hoop looped through his eyebrow. He can’t be more than 18.
“You’ll like this,” says Landon, who shifts round in his chair and rolls up a trouser leg. The leg is thin and the skin corrugated where a scar runs up the full length of his shin.
“Like a Meccano set in there. Twenty pieces of metal. A drinking accident.”
The lads nod and smile. Landon feels wetted with a dab of pity that makes his stomach turn.
“Ah well,” he says, quietly. “We’ve all got histories, eh?”
While they make their orders, Landon folds his paper and considers these lads, their leather-skinned hands, thumbs that could persuade a nail into a wall. The animal smell of them. Their cocksure stride. He considers the ease with which they would throw themselves around the frame of scaffolding, fearless of height. The loose-limbed throb of life. The daring.
Landon knows that lads of their age don’t suffer the curse of reflection. No listening to the sound of the wind rattling through a high garden fence and feeling the onset of a sudden, inexplicable fear. No walking down Shoreham Street in the early hours and seeing a fox nosing through a rubbish sack before it stops, looks, then carries on unperturbed. No tight-chested desire to weep at a pair of shoes slung over a telephone wire by their laces, moving gently, taking baby steps. No sitting in a cafe suckling a daily drop of optimism from the sole proprietor.
He wants to get up and shake their hands, feel the roughness in them, quash his jealousy of their purpose with a firm handshake. But he stays where he is. Of course he does.
Rose is natural with them. The men nod and laugh with her as they reach into the clear fronted fridge to pull out cans and cling filmed sandwiches. They flirt, though she could be a mother to them all. When one of them lets slip a ‘fuck’, she admonishes and they all quieten.
After the men leave he hears them going down the street, a roar of laughter like a motorbike starting up as they turn the corner. He scratches and mutters until Rose walks over with a tea he hasn’t asked for. And while it steams, then settles and cools, Landon sits, like a cat sighing in a sliver of warm sunlight, until Shoreham Street resumes its familiar calm.
Most days this same old, same old, would drift on while the afternoon unspools itself – beyond Landon’s excursions to the doorway for a stretch and a smoke, beyond a few regulars popping in, beyond Rose, never idle, calling out ideas: “What’s your take on iced coffee?” “How about a themed food day?” “Could you see this place as an intimate music venue?”
But today, when Landon braves the doorway (the heat like an iron held to his face), when he is thinking, the way he often does, of life running like a stream as he watches from the bank, when he looks down Shoreham Street, the whole empty, aching length of it, he sees an angel.
“What’s this?” he says.
This is a woman in a silver dress, iridescent in the heat shimmer. This is a pair of tattered, glittering wings on her back, spilling sunlight. This is a face turned away from chained station gates, to take in one end of the street then the other. This is a pair of dark eyes turned towards the cafe, looking at him, then walking his way. This is what this is.
Landon hurries back to his chair as she approaches, lowers his eyes as she enters, but one glimpse of the delicate straps round her naked ankles makes him pinch the bridge of his nose and shake his head. He feels bashful in the presence of this angel. He is gone, lost, beautifully lost.
The Angel drops into a chair. There’s weariness in the way she sighs then rolls her shoulders, loosening them. And he sees now the wings are broken, losing light around the place.
Landon hears the voice of another Landon, younger Landon, the Landon that was infamous among the barns and the back lanes of the village where he was raised, hair greased back, drainpipe trousers and carefree with his money. That Landon was about the tinkle of bicycles laid flat in summer fields, girls with low-slung hips and quick tongues. And once, mud on his trouser legs, deep in mid-winter, the Landon who lay with Mrs Marks, who had taught him at Sunday School. This Landon urges the older self to talk to the Angel, offer his name, take the chance to gaze at her face.
“Go on lad,” says the Landon who knew where he was going and which road to take. Older Landon listens, but dares not speak, scared to utter straw words that would blow away as soon as they left him. He watches instead in silence from his shadowed seat as she picks a mobile phone from her handbag, checks it, puts it down, then picks and checks again. Only then, does she turn her head towards him and he knows he has to speak.
“Partying last night?”
The smile she gives in return has summer in it, autumn too: “Yes. I suppose that you could say.”
Her accent is some entanglement of European. The sound of it makes Landon feel a heat about him that doesn’t come from the day.
Rose returns from the back kitchen to her counter. When she sees the Angel she runs a tea towel through her fingers and for a single glistening moment the tip of her tongue peeks from between her lips, just as when she considers the crossword clues.
“The heat that sun is giving off, I expect you’ll want a drink. Maybe a bite to eat?”
The Angel nods and Rose goes to the counter, puts on the kettle, hasn’t even asked the Angel what she wants. Rose knows. Rose always knows.
The Angel looks around the cafe, which is doing its best in the hard light. Landon sees she is not quite as young as he first thought. There is a cleat between her eyebrows, thin lines that graph the expression of her face. And just below the jawline he sees a faint scar on her neck, round as a mouth.
It reminds Landon of another summer, years before. There was a wisp of the old Landon about him still, back then. One night there had been the pub, drink taken, a clutch with Rose on the steps of The Railway Cafe. An invite upstairs. Landon was struck by the smell of her flat – cooked food, perfume, a little unaired. Her bedroom was buttered in yellow light from a street lamp.
She said “so then…” and he took the cue and held her to his mouth like a good, long drink. When he unbuttoned and untied her from her clothes he could see a narrow zip of raised skin on her stomach, the closed pocket of an appendectomy scar and on both breasts puckered seams where her nipples should have been.
“I’ve had more stitches than a marathon runner,” she said.
Yet there was a comfortable elegance in her plump, patched-upness, a life lived that Landon yearned to run his tongue around. She took him in her mouth while her cat yawned beneath the clothes airer. He stared at the ceiling, it’s cracks and lines hidden beneath a thin wash of magnolia paint.
When he moved on top of her, the cat rolled on its back and washed its legs, shooting him slutty looks. The streetlight softened Rose into one of those old film stars she loved so much. When his cheek brushed the puckered seams across her breasts he came, and how.
Later, at the door, she kissed him like she meant it, but there had never been a repeat of that night- it was as though he had summoned the last of his passion into it. When he thinks about it now he has to gather himself. He chugs cold tea, thirsty as an unwatered child running in for a gulp of juice.
“Staring must be thirsty work,” says Rose, eyebrow arched.
She brings out the drink and a sandwich for the Angel, who pecks at it like a hungry bird. After each mouthful she looks up, through the window at the white heat outside, then down to her plate again. When she is finished, she eases back her chair, stands and goes to the doorway, looking out at Shoreham Street, the torpor of the hot afternoon, the only thing moving the slow ease of shadows coming down from the rooftops.
“You’re waiting for someone love,” says Rose. It sounds like a question, but isn’t.
“They will be here soon,” says the Angel.
“Who will?” asks Landon.
The Angel comes back from the doorway, sits, pushes the empty plate and her cup aside and unhitches the wings from around her shoulders, laying them carefully on the table, where they settle into a glittering mess.
“Nobody important,” she says.
She stretches her arms out across the table and lays her head flat. The movement pulls her dress up her thighs and from below the hemline emerges the edge of a tattoo, a leafy branch and a hint of exotic birds.
It is beautiful Landon thinks, though the soft nap of her skin looks too delicate for the needle and the ink. Without the wings he can see above the scooped back of the dress the tattoo emerging again, flowing to one shoulder. As she moves it is as if the whole scene comes to life, glossy greens and reds, yellows and blues, birds he wished he knew the names for, perched, ready to fly from the branch that wraps and curves around her.
“You like it?” she says.
“Yes. Yes I do. Though that needle must have felt like a woodpecker’s beak by the end it.”
“Sometimes things are worth to suffer.”
“It brings a bit of colour in here anyway, I’ll say that.”
She frowns: “But this is a good place, no? I want my own business one day.”
“Doing what,” says Landon.
The girl shakes her head: “You will laugh. I think to say it out loud, it is a silly thing.”
“I want to grow tomatoes,” she blushes, holds her face in her hands for a moment. “It is strange? But my grandfather grew tomatoes that tasted like sweets in your mouth and when you bit, oh the juice! I want to grow tomatoes in a big glass house on a hill near where I was born. That’s all, to build a house on a hill, and grow things.”
“Tomatoes,” says Landon, as if rolling the word round his mouth. It doesn’t sound a stupid idea but right, the full sunshine burst, the smell of tomato plants, ripeness, the promise of something warm and beautiful. And though he doesn’t know it yet, it is this moment that will stay with Landon till the end of him, when most others have faded. He will taste ripe tomatoes in his mouth and remember a sad, beautiful angel with birds that flutter across her as she laughed. And he will remember Shoreham Street transformed for one strange, nothing moment into something beyond itself. It will be a cupped handful of water to his face, a punch to his heart.
The phone on the table thrums, hums, stirs like a waking wasp.
“Sorry,” she says looking at the phone, then at Landon. She slides the green answer button across the screen and puts the phone to her ear.
“Yes,” she says.
“Yes,” she says.
“Yes,” she says.
“Yes,” she says.
“Yes.” She says.
Eventually she clicks off the phone and lays it carefully on the table. Then picks up her wings and lowers them across her shoulders, tightening the straps that hold them in place.
“There,” she says, so quietly Landon barely catches it. And when she smiles at both of them again, it’s a smile of someone already moving on out of the door and down the street and round the corner and out of sight.
Landon feels the tempo of the afternoon has suddenly risen, and though the day stays bright and Shoreham Street looks as it has always done, thick with heat and sluggish, there is static in the air, the low roar of something beyond the rooftops and the back alleys. An unexpected threat of clouds.
“You should stay,” he says.
“It’s okay to stay,” says Rose.
“Best not,” the Angel says.
Landon feels the drain of time and panic. He knows there is something amiss here, something beyond his comprehension. He wants to tell the Angel, before she goes, something that will stay with her, like a bright coin in her purse that she might not spend too fast. He wants this so much he barely hears the car when it pulls up outside, black-windowed, sleek as a panther.
“I need to pay,” says the Angel. From her purse comes a wrap of notes, bundled with an elastic band. She unpeels one.
“Please, no change,” she says.
“I’ll do no such thing,” says Rose. There is a tremble to her voice and in her words.
“You should stay,” he says again, for want of anything better. He hears the voice of old Landon, who might have strode out to the car and rapped the window with his knuckles, but he cannot make out the words.
Landon understands that there will be no beep of the horn from this car. And that whoever is in the car has no need to leave it. There will be no-one standing on the pavement or coming into the cafe, blocking light, a hand outstretched to the Angel saying: “Come. Come on now.”
They won’t stare at Landon, or light a provocative cigarette or move to take her arm at the elbow, not harshly, not with any violence, but enough. None of this will take place because they will wait in the car until the Angel goes to them of her own accord. She may hesitate, but she will go.
Landon, caught between the slick young man he once was and the old one he is, goes to her table and takes her hands in his and whispers words about the alley round the back, a back gate and a friends house. Or how they could just lock the cafe, pull down the blinds, shut out the street and never mind about the car, which sits and waits in a pool of its own dark time.
When he runs out of words, the Angel nods. Then she gets up, kisses him on the mouth.
“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you.”
“Next time you come, bring some tomatoes for us,” says Rose.
“Of course. It will happen. I believe it,” says the Angel.
Then she walks out, winged, to the brightness of the light, and the darkness of the car. Landon tries to see inside when she opens the door, but there is nothing. He wishes she would turn around one more time, but she doesn’t. He remembers that he never asked for her name.
The car reverses, pauses then pulls away without fuss, moving away down the street until it reaches the junction at the end, where, with a distant guttural roar, it turns at the junction and disappears.
The flaneurs and the faulty satnavvers and the bully-avoiding school-boys would see all of this if they tarried long enough. Just a woman in fancy dress, sitting in a cafe, then leaving in a car. A man inside returning to his seat. A woman wiping her hands on a tea towel and going behind the counter.
They might even see that the sun stays late this evening, slanting in sideways as if through church windows, lighting up inside a whole hanging universe of dust motes and the odd bluebottle ever hopeful against the glass.
But probably, most likely, bored by now of the dusty redbrick stillness of Shoreham Street they would move on and miss that at 5pm sharp, Rose turns round the card from Open to Closed. That instead of waving Landon off down the street and then retiring upstairs to remove her shoes and massage her feet, she steps outside the door and locks it up.
And instead of a stiff-legged stroll home, something warmed in a pan, a bit of telly and a remembrance of a life so distant he feels he cannot touch it any more, Landon walks with Rose across Shoreham Street, past the place where the butchers used to be, past Klassy Kuts and the boarded up pub, to the gates of the railway station.
They giggle a little, like youngsters, as they pull at the gates, wrenching open enough space to wriggle through, chips of rust sticking to their clothes, rust on their palms, rust their faces.
They clear a path through the muddle and knot of brambles, saplings and weeds, until the crumbling concrete lip of the platform is reached. Landon hauls himself up then holds out a hand for Rose, who scrambles aboard.
They dab at nettle stings with spit-wet fingers then find a place to sit, in the rubble and the brokenness, easy together under a sky of deepening blue. They turn their faces to the late sun, finding warmth in it, though the shadows are long.
They lift their eyes for what is beyond the rooftops and the shadows, further out across the city and beyond and watch, in wonder, as birds lift from trees in the dusk.
KM Elkes is an author, occasional journalist, full-time redhead and sometime teacher of short fiction. His work has won international short and flash fiction awards, been published in more than 20 anthologies and used on school curricula in the USA, Hong Kong, China and India. He is co-Editor of the A3 Review Arts Magazine and is currently working on his debut short fiction collection and a novel. He lives in Bristol.