Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Right Stuff

"I have only one ambition," I said in response to Ron Stretcher's question. "And that is to be buried." I jabbed a finger towards him for emphasis and my elbow skidded in a puddle of beer and slipped off the edge of the table.

Trying to recover my composure, I went on, perhaps at greater length than was strictly necessary, to explain how the thought of rotting slowly into compost sustained me through times of uncertainty and gave me something to look forward to, some sense of purpose and usefulness in an otherwise barren and pointless existence; how I would pass through and be processed by the fat pink worms beneath the ground and recycled as fertilizer for the crops of future generations. Ron looked at me with saint-like sympathy as I rambled on, his eyes glazed and unfocused, his head swaying unsteadily.

"Don't let them cremate me, Ron. Whatever you do, don't let them cremate me. Not that, Ron, not that! Please. Okay? D'you promise?" We'd had a few drinks by this time, of course, and I felt that my interview for a job on the Clapham Ambulance was going swimmingly. The Divisional Superintendent put an arm around my shoulder and brought his face close to mine. His breath smelled pleasantly of whisky and cigars and a small tear had formed in the corner of one eye.

"Son," he slurred, as if I really were his son, and a favourite one at that. "I will never, never, ever let them effin' well do that to you. Dyunnerstan, son? Never! I will bury you myself, even if . . . " He paused then to belch loudly and at some length. ". . . even if I have to dig the effin' hole myself, son. I'll . . . dig . . . dig the effin' . . . "

He'd lost his train of thought completely and laughed suddenly, stupidly, and I raised a hand to wipe some flecks of saliva from my face.

"An' I'd do the same for you, Ron, you know that, don't you? Whenever you like. Tonight, if you want." We laughed like schoolboys and drained our glasses in unison.

"Shirley, Shirley!" Ron addressed his wife, who'd just sat down beside me. "Shirley, c'mere, listen. This is our new man, whaddya think, eh? Whaddya reckon, Shirl? Eh?" Ron squeezed me tightly around the neck and I grinned through the pain and hypoxia and raised my glass to Mrs. Stretcher, who smiled warmly and offered her hand.

"Nice to meet you," she said, a lascivious twinkle in her eye, her red lips parting slightly to reveal a lively pink tongue and a small gap between her teeth. I'd heard plenty of stories about Shirley Stretcher from her younger sister and I knew I had to tread very carefully indeed.

"You look like a big strong boy, I'm sure you'll go down well. Do you think you'll fit in all right?" Feeling my face reddening, I took her hand with its nails the colour of fresh blood, its shapely fingers adorned with several rings, enjoying its soft, strong, dry warmth, and holding on to it long enough to commit a definite breach of propriety; a sly secret shared already. My gaze followed the line of her slender brown arm up to her bare shoulder and across to her neck, her wry mouth, finally settling upon her wicked hazel eyes with their thickly painted lashes.

And suddenly I was frozen, petrified and paralysed, held fast and hypnotized, and I felt myself falling out of control into a bottomless void of helpless desire.

"Ron," she said, those frank, hungry eyes never leaving mine. "Get us another G & T, would you, love?"

"No," I said, somehow forcing myself to my feet, knowing I had to act quickly before the abyss swallowed me. "Let me get these. Ron, what'll it be? Whisky? Mrs. Stretcher? Gin and tonic, was it?"

"Thanks, love." She smiled with a grudging respect and handed me a lipstick-stained glass, empty save for a shrivelled slice of lemon. "Could you make that a double? I like a large one now and then." I gulped and made my way to the bar, feeling inordinately pleased and proud of myself, light-headed with relief, as if I'd just passed a particularly rigorous examination, and hearing Ron's voice behind me, I knew I'd made the grade.

"What a lovely fella, Shirl. Laziest bloke I've ever met. No ambition whatsoever. Whaddya reckon? Make a terrific ambulanceman, eh?"