The Venus of Preston Street
The sky was slate-grey by the time Alec completed his rounds. Squeezing the pack of cards into his imitation leather wallet, and cramming this into the already bulging inner pocket of his faded suit jacket, he angled across Preston Street to the greasy on the corner.
Not a bad night: Shane ought to be pleased with the exposure. Should he just stop by briefly for a tea and a bacon sarny, or could he justify an all-dayer? Egg yolks bleached by the sun – “£3.90 for any six items plus tea or coffee” - greeted him from the misted window, feeding him the promise of a much-needed protein injection.
All-dayer it is, then, he mused hungrily, trying to calculate how much that would leave him with until mid-week payday. A fiver for food; a tenner for fags; £4 for leccie; £7 for a bottle of under-the-counter, no-questions-asked single malt from Joey’s – what else did he need? Of course, his daily bus fare: at £3 a pop it was getting too pricey and, not being a bona fide codger (Alec was 62 next birthday), he didn’t yet qualify for an OAP pass. Okay, so adding that on for the next three days, what would that leave him? He made it £38 all told, minus the breakfast, saving him just over a tenner for this and all other eventualities. No all-dayers tomorrow or the next day, that’s for sure, he conceded reluctantly - at least not if he was going to put away that fiver he’d promised himself for his collection. He needed to do that whatever happened, for the good of his morale: the set he’d first spied three weeks back in The Lanes was still there, and if he kept up the self-discipline he’d managed of late he’d have just about saved enough for the whole shebang by next month.
Catching a comforting waft of grease in his nostrils, Alec turned the handle and nudged the front door open with his shoulder. Its frame had swelled in the clammy weather, necessitating a more than usually forceful shove. Once inside, he was greeted by the plaintive cry of a shrill-voiced waitress barking the latest variation on her perpetual mantra - “two all-day breakfasts, black coffee and capchino” - as if her life depended on being relieved of her perilously stacked tray, its content an invitingly evil riot of burned pinks, browns and oranges. Even over the cacophony of oafish chatter, hissing coffee machines and inappropriately feverish disco music, Alec could hear his stomach rumble.
Glancing round the cramped interior, he found a seat at a small corner table, a ring of red describing where his predecessor’s plate had sat on the cheap checked tablecloth. It reminded him of childhood picnics – at least, he felt as if it should have done. His eyes followed a thin trail of sauce from the main ring to the foot of a guilty-looking plastic tomato which squatted in the middle of the table, its once shiny outer surface dulled by smears of dried ketchup. Beside it stood a bulbous glass container, grains of sticky white sugar clinging to its greasy circumference. Ranged beside each other, the two looked like twin sentinels counting the days to oblivion.
“What can I get you?”
The shrill-voiced waitress was at his shoulder, her plump fingers pressing a red biro into her pad as if she were trying to bore a hole in it. She had a persistent smoker’s cough and a harridan’s face but beneath her short skirt, he noticed, the legs of a young girl.
Startled, Alec looked up at her. The blue eyes, scowling beneath a blotchy forehead crowded with wrinkles, were probably once thought pretty, he observed, wrestling against tiredness to form the words he needed to abate his hunger.
“I’ll have an all-day breakfast please, with a pot of tea for one.”
“All right – I can see you’re on your tod,” she said, chuckling at her cruel quip. “Number one, number two or number three?”
Alec winced. Too many choices. It hadn’t occurred to him his order could be so complicated. He found himself staring at the cracks in his hands, and became conscious of damp patches beneath his arms. There was a fleeting waft of stale sweat. Was it him or the waitress? He struggled to drag his mind back to the task in hand.
“What’s the difference?” he heard himself ask.
The waitress sighed. “Look, I’ll come back in a minute when you’ve read the menu,” she snapped, shaking her head as she waddled back to the counter. As she did so, she hissed “pot of tea for the, erm, gentleman, Irene,” in a tone that made Alec feel guilty.
Surely she can’t know, he thought to himself, feeling a sudden twinge of paranoia. As he scanned the laminated menu, trying to distinguish between the trio of all-day breakfast options, his ears were besieged by snatches of conversation. A youth with mottled skin and fanatical black eyes was ranting about Saturday’s football scores to a thin-faced teenage girl on the table to his immediate left, while three pot-bellied trucker types were exchanging views about Big Brother and fake breasts as they thumbed through copies of the day’s redtops at the next. By the window, three pallid girls, their hair thinner and eyes duller than they should have been, smoked lazily over their empty plates – punctuating their puffs with occasional expletives and rasping, throaty laughs. They can’t be half the age Rachel must be by now, Alec reflected morosely, remembering the daughter he hadn’t seen for thirty years. Eighteen, twenty? Certainly no older.
Still, at least no one seems to be looking at me, he mused gratefully, as he twisted round in his chair to scan the rest of the café. Behind a counter festooned with grease-stained, wafer-thin order slips; empty mugs with stubborn, refusing-to-budge, treacle-dark coffee stains; and chipped dishes containing meagre tips and individual sachets of brown and white sugar, salt and pepper; a slim girl with strawberry blonde rat’s tails at least half the age of the waitress who had greeted him was grumpily filling a cheap steel pot from a hissing tap. As if feeling the burn of Alec’s gaze, she shot him an acid glance, her widely spaced grey-green eyes – striking in their own weary way – reminding him of something or someone he’d need a good deal more caffeine to be able to identify.
Suddenly the waitress was at his shoulder again, this time minus her pad. She had evidently decided his order would be so insignificant – whichever all-dayer he chose – that she wouldn’t need it. Plonking a steel pot and a mean mug with a faded blue ring around it before him, she glared at the top of his head expectantly: “Well?”
“I’ll have a number three,” he said spontaneously, having resolved to leave the precise content of his fry-up to fate. He had never been any good at visualising the subtle distinctions between one plate of near-identical stodge and another - and, frankly, he didn’t care. He was far too hungry to quibble about whether his brekkie came with fried bread or hash browns. Either would do.
“Beans or tomatoes?”
Christ, not another decision. Hoping this would be the last one for the day, he managed a weary “beans”.
With a curt nod, the waitress sloped back to the counter. Alec felt his taut buttocks ease as he leant back in his chair, finally able to relax.
One of the pot-bellied truckers, a large tattoo bearing the mis-spelt legend “original meet-eater” visible on his right bicep, just below the sleeve of his grubby white T-shirt, was glaring at a story on the front page of the local rag. It bore the headline: “Phone Companies Call Time on City Call-girls.”
“Locking up’s too good for them,” the man continued, aggressively. “They’re no better than fackin’ pimps; sticking those cards in phone boxes and sneakin’ off to leave the girls to fend for themselves. Not that I’m defending prossies, mind. It’s just you don’t know what nutters are out there, waiting for the chance to get their hands on these birds’ tits, but they’re fackin’ left to deal with it all on their own while some perv who hasn’t got the balls to be a real pimp pockets the dough.”
His equally thick-set, shaven-headed companion, hitherto silent on the evils of prostitution and phone box pimping, nodded sagely.
Having had their fill of the local paper, the truckers appeared to have turned their attention back to dissecting the redtops. One of them was glowering thunderously at the front-page headline. “I thought robbery was supposed to be illegal!” It was a story about unexpected tax rises in the Budget. A po-faced Chancellor glared from the front of the paper, his arched eyebrows and heavy jaw preaching prudence.
But the man’s companion was preoccupied. He was wrestling with the central section. Something about it seemed to be disturbing him.
“She’s young enough to be my daughter!” he spat. “Look at that picture. She’s just a teenager. She’s got her baps out and everything. It’s not right. It’s perverted.”
A hazy headshot of a pretty girl in a halter-neck top, substantial cleavage prominently displayed, stared from the page – her face a mask of blasé complaisance. Alec had no idea who she was, but beside her gazelle’s face a headline screamed: “Suzi was Red Hot Lover, Says Ex.”
The angry man’s companion seemed less fazed by the young woman’s generous show of flesh. “Ease up Nige, it’s just a bit of fun,” he said, grabbing the paper. “Anyway, she’s not exactly a shrinkin’ violet if you read what this says. She may only be 19 but she’s certainly been round the circuit a few times, if that Roddy Natch is to be believed.”
Roddy Natch, Roddy NatchWhere had Alec heard that name?
“E’s sposed to be transferrin’ to United next season, ain’t he?”
The (formerly) angry man seemed to have been easily distracted by mention of what Alec presumed to be the “ex”. From the way the pair’s conversation was going, it sounded as if Roddy Natch was some kind of footballer. It had been years since he’d followed the League, though, so none of these names meant anything to him.
As he poured a cup of rosy, clumsily spilling the weak yellow liquid over the tablecloth, Alec’s mind drifted back to work. He was supposed to be helping out with a house clearance that afternoon, so he’d best head off soon to make sure he grabbed a few hours’ kip before heading out. Jacko, his half-brother, had said he’d be round to pick him up about four, and being cash-in-hand it was too good to miss: it was just that, Jacko being Jacko, the cash tended to take rather longer to reach Alec’s hand than he would have liked. Still, a no-questions-asked £50 was not to be sniffed at, and it would come in handy whenever it did finally surface. Perhaps he’d try to sneak in a couple more hits on the way home too, to squeeze Shane for a bit extra.
His thoughts were interrupted by a surly “number three” from over his shoulder. It wasn’t the older waitress this time, but the equally moody-looking younger one; her potentially pretty face marred by a down-turned, thin-lipped mouth and hooded, too-much-caffeine, too-little-sleep eyes.
He made a vain attempt to clear a small space in front of him, knocking over the sugar container as he did so. The waitress picked it up for him, tutting under her breath, and plonked a plate of angry grease in front of him. He had pains in his chest just looking at it, but the smell wafting from it couldn’t have been more alluring.
As the waitress slunk away he caught a fleeting glimpse of her profile. Her hips seemed to sway slightly, something like a dancer’s. And was it just his tiredness that leant her slightly upturned nose and widely spaced grey-green eyes an air of familiarity, or had he really seen her somewhere before? Not here, surely; he seldom dined at this greasy, and every time he did the waitresses were different – all, that is, except for the menacing matriarch who so charmlessly ruled the roost.
He tucked into the feast of flesh before him, puncturing the soft orange yolk – done to a turn like mother’s, he noted approvingly – until it bled a trickle of gold round the outline of the tinned tomatoes beside it. His mind drifted to more rarefied realms. How many more weeks would he have to wait before he’d raised enough to buy his precious set of Carreras’ Glamour Girls of Stage and Film cigarette cards? He could see those glorious images in his mind’s eye now, all 54 of them, from Rochelle Hudson through Mildred Law to Pat Paterson – names long since upstaged by the Turners, Grables and Monroes – arrayed like leggy beauty queens in their all-in-one bathing costumes, little black dresses, floral print summer skirts, and capacious prototype bikinis. They had subtlety back then, he mused, recalling the ever so faintly coquettish poses of the girls featured on the handful of cards from the collection he already possessed – rescued from a skip in Portslade, where they had nestled among a pile of chipped china and broken lampshades. None of that crudeness, he reflected, glancing at the busty girl whose image (despite the truckers’ protestations of disgust) remained face-up on the table between them as they ate.
His favourite was a faded shot of Rita Hayworth, her glossy mane cascading behind her as if a wind were blowing from somewhere in front of the camera. The hem of her otherwise gorgeous dress looked strangely threadbare where the corner of the card had been creased by a previous owner (in the act, he imagined, of tearing it from the cigarette box like an impatient child dragging a doll from its wrapping). In the languid downturn of her shoulders, the set of her hips and the faintly coy positioning of her left hand over the inviting fold of fabric beneath her waist, had he known about such things he might have seen something of Boticelli’s Venus.
Alec wolfed down his second sausage and swept a half-eaten slice of fried bread around the rim of his now all-but empty plate, like a window cleaner banishing a final smear from an otherwise spotless pane. No sooner had he guzzled it than the young waitress was back again, this time at his elbow, to heavy-handedly scoop up his plate, mug and teapot and rub a grubby flannel over the patch beneath where they had sat. She seemed to be consciously clearing the whole table in one no-nonsense visit to avoid ever having to return.
She sashayed off again, and he felt something stir in him – whether recognition or longing he couldn’t be sure – at the sight of the graceful movement of her hips, so ineffectively disguised by her unflattering skirt and apron. It was the movement not of a sullen teenage girl tolerating a grim Saturday job in between studies, as he had first surmised, but of a blossoming young woman who already knew she was too good for this: a woman accustomed to using her body for other things. The reddish tint of her hair and those grey-green eyes definitely recalled someone else, whether Rita Hayworth or another he couldn’t be sure.
He glanced up at the clock on the far wall, a cheap plastic one like those they had in school classrooms and GPs’ waiting rooms. It was nearly 9am, so he had to be going or he’d have to chance of getting any shut-eye before Jacko came round. Casting a final glance at the girl, now languidly bundling dirty crockery into a dumb waiter, he got up and left.
It was when Alec was halfway down the street that it finally dawned on him where he might have seen the girl before. At first he wanted to dismiss the idea as a tired man’s irrational suspicion, but by the time he’d reached the top of Preston Street and was turning the corner into Western Road he could no longer shake the unsettling image from his mind.
Ducking into a side alley between a poorly stocked off licence and a shabby newsagent, he slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and fished out the small oblong packet he had sequestered there on entering the café. Shaking a wad of the luridly illustrated shiny rectangles out of the pack, he fanned them out in his palm like a hand of playing cards. There they lay, a whores’ gallery of spread legs, exposed genitals and outsized breasts, arranged in an array of pneumatic poses, their accentuated wide-eyed stares and painted, pouting lips lending them a range of expressions to suit any mood; some dominant, some submissive.
He leafed impatiently through the first three or four – “hear me moan and talk dirty while you masturbate” to “massage my tits till I cum” – failing to find a picture worth lingering over. Then he reached one that held his gaze; the one he had hoped not to find but somehow knew he would.
From behind, her gynaecologically arranged body, buttocks glazed and thighs wide, could have belonged to any one of the other girls: all disgustingly sluttish and infinitely, carnally desirable; all firm and healthy enough, seen clothed and in a different light, to be his own granddaughter. But studied more closely the face was a wholly distinct one: the widely spaced, grey-green eyes betraying a hint of melancholy and the glossy lips, parted in an imitation of drowsy ecstasy, settled in a natural downward curve. Only the dancer’s hips were devoid of their familiar grace – coiled, in the absence of a table to squeeze by or a trashy disco rhythm to sway to, in a grotesque parody of Babylonian excess, above the words: “Hear me wank while you play with yourself.”
Alec could taste egg-yolk again. He guiltily bundled the cards into a makeshift stack; squeezed them, complaining, into their pack; and returned this, in turn, to his inside pocket. Then, stumbling out of the alley, he angled down the street towards the bus-stop, passing an A-board outside the newsagent emblazoned with that same headline: “Phone Companies Call Time on City Call-girls”. But Alec failed to notice. He was bewitched by a mental image of the face on the card in his pocket transposed to the head of a Carreras glamour girl: porcelain, demure and as graceful as they come.
James Morrison © 2008