Read an Excerpt
‘It was cutting me throat what got me this flat.’
Stuart pushes open the second reinforced door into his corridor, turns off the blasting intercom that honks like a foghorn whenever a visitor presses his front bell, and bumps into his kitchen to sniff the milk. ‘Tea or coffee, Alexander?’
He is a short man, in his early thirties, and props himself against the sink to arch up his head and show me the damage. The scar extends like a squashed worm from beneath the tattoos on one ear to above his Adam’s apple.
The kettle lead is discovered beneath a pack of sodden fish fingers. ‘How about a sarnie? Yes?’
Stuart stretches his hand to the other end of the kitchen, extracts a double pack of discount economy bacon from the fridge and submerges six slices in chip-frying oil. ‘Cooked or incinerated?’
It is a cramped, dank little apartment. One room, ground floor. The window looks across a scrappy patch of grass to a hostel for disturbed women.
‘One of the few times I’ve been happy happy, the day I got this flat,’ Stuart smiles at me. ‘That’s why I want you to write a book. It’s me way of telling the people what it was like down there. I want to thank them what got me out, like Linda and Denis and John and Ruth and Wynn, and me mum, me sister and me dad, well, I call him me dad, but he’s me stepdad, if truth be told.’
The bread starts to burn. Stuart pumps the toaster release and the slices fly high into the air.
‘Cos there’s so much misunderstanding,’ he concludes angrily. ‘It’s killing people. Your fucking nine to fives! Someone needs to tell them! Literally, every day, deaths! Each one of them deaths is somebody’s son or daughter! Somebody needs to tell them, tell them like it is!’ I move into the main room. There is a single bed in the corner, a chest of drawers, a desk — sparse, cheap furniture, bought with the help of a government loan. Also, a comfy chair. I drop into it. It is not comfortable at all. I flop on to the sofa instead.
A 1950s veneer side cabinet, with bottles and pill cases on top, is against the inside wall, and in the corner a big-screen TV standing on an Argos antique-style support. Stuart likes his TV. He has thrown it at the wall twice and it still works.
In return for a crate of Foster’s, Stuart explains from the kitchen, ‘the bloke upstairs has promised to make me a James Bond mattress base that folds up against the wall, which will give me more room. It’ll have big springs on either side what does the moving, and latches on the floor, because otherwise, it’s boing, boing, whoosh.’
‘Boing, boing, whoosh?’
‘Well, a bird’s not going to be too happy if she suddenly finds her face squeezed against the plaster, is she?’
Another friend is going to put up shelves, partition off the kitchen and repaint the walls gold, instead of green on the bottom half, cream above, as they are at the moment, like a mental institution.
The man in the bedsit above is a cyclist — a short, bespectacled Scotsman whose legs hardly touch the pedals; next to him a mute woman who beats out chart tunes on the floor with her shoe heel; and on the other side of the entrance lobby, Sankey, son of an RAF pilot — he sleeps with an aluminium baseball bat beside his bed.
The only problem Stuart has in his desirable new home is mould. It prickles up the bathroom wall and creeps across the ceiling in speckled clumps, so that he has to stand on a chair and scrub it back once a month as though he were stripping paint. Now and then it floats down the hall to his bed side and his clothes; he smells like a garden shed on those days.
‘By the way,’ he calls out, ‘I’m thinking of sticking a reflective sheet over that window.
What d’you reckon?’
‘It’s dark enough in here as it is — why make it even darker?’
‘It’s to stop them spying on me.’
‘Don’t be silly. No one’s spying on you. Who’s them?’
‘I’ve seen them but not seen them, if you know what I mean.
Red sauce or brown?’
He is also going to block up the air vent above the freezer because there could be microphones secreted between the slats.
‘Not being funny, you got to think about these things when you’re redecorating.’
Stuart has also had a ‘brilliant’ idea for a job. If it works, it will be the first honest work he’s been able to hold down in his life. New flat, new job, new Stuart. Already he has signed himself up for an IT course.
‘Think about it, right? For the foreign businessman what hasn’t got time to waste, what’s he need? An office! In a van! It’s lateral thinking, isn’t it? Gets off the plane at Stansted, straight in the back of me van and I drive him to meetings. No time wasted, see? It’ll have everythink, this van. Good-looking bird — one what can do shorthand — fax, Internet, mobile phone. His own office, just for the journey. Wires all over the fucking gaff. Brilliant!’
In the centre of Stuart’s table is a brown folder with his purple handwriting on it:
QueSTiOn’S & PRATCIL HELP
A moment later, Stuart is at the desk himself. He has remembered an important engagement with an Internet-savvy friend, and now has his diary out of its home-made plastic wallet and pressed against the table.
In order to keep track of his newly busy life, Stuart has devised a special colour-coding for this book: green highlighter for family, yellow for social, orange for duty. His handwriting is not excellent. Even when there’s only one word to be got down, he sometimes begins his gigantic letters too far across the line and has to pack the end into a pea-size, as if the letters had bunched up in fright at the thought of dropping off the page. At other times the phrases are neat and slow. His spelling is part phonetic, part cap-doffing guesswork: ‘Monday: ADDanBRocK’s.’ ‘Tuesday: QuiSt going to Vist VoLanteR service’s. ASK for NAME & ADReSS For AwarD organation.’
March: SAT’S LOTTO 5 10 17 20 44 48
7.30 Cam. 2 meeting Bath House if not Brambram.
April: Phone to DR P––. CAnCell if in court.
2OCLOCK go TO ALEXDER’S BooK must go
ScriPt PicK 200 100.
May: MuSic FesTervile.
STUART LOOK SET ALRAM.
MAKE SURE ALRaM Button is up not Down. When WeaK up is needed.
‘I still don’t know me alphabet,’ he calls out blithely. ‘First place I get stuck is N. I only remember the S, T, U bit because it’s me name, Stu.’ Pages stiff with Tipp-Ex in his diary indicate appointments made too far ahead, subsequently cancelled, because events take place with startling swiftness in Stuart’s life and he can never be certain that, though happy and full of plans on Monday, he won’t be in prison, or in hospital, by Friday.
‘ADDanBRocK’s’ is Addenbrooke’s, the hospital complex of beds, smoke stacks and research departments on the edge of Cambridge; it looks over the wheat fields and the train line to London, like a crematorium. ‘Brambram’ is Babraham, a village three miles outside Cambridge. You’d think he could get at least that one right: he’s been a local boy all his life. ‘When WeaK up is needed’? Who knows what that means. ‘ScriPt PicK 100’ refers to his methadone prescription. 100 ml is high. Between 60 and 80 ml is the average for street addicts. 200? In his dreams.
‘ALEXDER’. That’s me. In speech, Stuart is careful to give my name its full four syllables. But in writing, he always drops the third syllable: not Alex, but Alexder.
Stuart’s backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing a biography of a man who is not famous. Even with a well-known person it can be boring work to spend the first fifty pages reading facts and guesses about Grandpa, Granny, Mum, Dad, subject aged one, two, three, seven, eight. But introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he may just grab their interest straight away. By the time they reach his childhood, it is a matter of genuine interest how he turned into the person that he is. So we’ll move backwards, in stages, tacking like a sailboat against the wind. Familiar time flow — out the window. Homogeneous mood of reflectiveness — up in smoke. This way, an air of disruption from the start.
Will it work? Can a person’s history be broken up? Isn’t a life the sum of its pasts? Perhaps Stuart’s approach is possible only with Stuart, whose sense of existence is already broken into fragments.
At long last, the sarnies arrive, drippling marge and ketchup, the top slice of bread moulded into the shape of Stuart’s palm. Stuart Clive Shorter — the first time I saw him, in 1998, he was pressed in a doorway next to the discount picture-framing shop, round the corner from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He had an oddly twisted way of sitting on his square of cardboard, as if his limbs were half made of rubber.
Pasty skin, green bomber jacket, broken gym shoes, hair cropped to the scalp and a week’s worth of stubble; his face, the left side livelier than the right, was almost mongoloid. Several of his teeth were missing; his mouth was a sluice.
I had to get down on my knees to hear him speak.
‘As soon as I get the opportunity I’m going to top meself,’ he whispered.
He picked at the sole of his gym shoes. The tattoos on his hands were home-made. A huge ‘FUCK’ began on his bicep, right arm, and ended just above his cuff.
‘Yeah, I’m gonna top meself and it’s got to seem like someone else done it. Look, if you’re not going to give me money, do you mind moving on?’
The legs of Christmas shoppers and delayed businessmen hurried beside us. Clip, clop, clip, clop — a pair of high heels rushed past, sounding like a horse. It was, it struck me, comforting to be at this level: a two-foot-high world, shared with dogs and children. Adult noises dropped down with the context of the conversation missing and sibilants exaggerated. The smell of street grime, the wind and hot underwear of passersby, was not unpleasant, rather like salami. Someone stooped and dropped a coin; another person threw across a box of matches. A third declared he would buy a sandwich, but ‘I won’t donate money. You’ll only spend it on drink and drugs.’
Stuart opted for bacon and cheese.
On Christmas Eve a beggar can earn £70 — 120 in Cambridge.
‘But how are you going to make suicide look like murder?’ I asked.
‘I’ll taunt all the drunk fellas coming out the pub until they have to kill me if they want a bit of peace.’ He slurred; it was as if the words had got entangled in his lips. ‘Me brother killed himself in May. I couldn’t put me mum through that again. She wouldn’t mind murder so much.’