Pulp.net - Victoria

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008
VICTORIA

Roberta J Dewa
He says there used to be trains here. He says that if you stand and lean over the concrete wall at the north end of the car park and look down into the hole you’ll see where the trains once ran, you'll smell the smoke coming out of that blocked-up tunnel with the little door in it.
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It doesn’t matter what floor you’re on. Doesn’t matter that it’s just a hole in the ground that used to be a station, a hole that's now got a car park built inside it and grass and rubbish at the bottom and those purple plants growing all round the sides. Buddleias, he calls them. I lean over and count the white lines of concrete going down until I’m giddy and my thoughts kind of tipping out of my head and I can’t smell anything. He says I’m not connecting. He says if you can connect the past with the present you’ll be okay, you won’t go mad. Odd for somebody who could drink White Lightning for England and been in and out of Saxondale so often, I say, but he says that was after, and he knows what was before. He connects.

The way he likes to tell it, he came into the world on an express train from Sheffield in a carriage without a corridor, sitting all alone with his drama diploma on his knee in a compartment with the red plush seat stretched edge to edge across the train, with the windows shut and the smoke piling up outside like grey cotton-wool in his ears. Then bursting out of the tunnel. The sun flashing semaphore round the clock tower and peaked caps on the station platform and his luggage on wheels with the weight taken out of it, rolling him up on the lift bearings right to the top of the hotel. Fancying he can just make out the prow of the theatre and the top curves of his Christian name on the poster through the gap in the frosted bathroom sash. And after the first night, chatting up his pick of the Osborne groupies on the strength of a treble Pimms with the fruit salad sliced like only they can in the County cocktail bar. Dropping off to sleep with the 2 a.m. goods to Loughborough pummelling his limbs with a good slow solid pulse.

But he’s talking up the end of it from the footlights every night. Even Osborne’ll go eventually, the goods, the smoke, everything but the hole in the ground and the clock and the hotel. Maybe they keep them so they can say they’re connecting, maybe they lost their nerve in that clean concrete future at the last minute. You can shrug your shoulders and drive away or you can wait for the past to get present again. And he’s so well-connected, as I like to tell him, he just can’t leave it alone.

If some pissed punter gives us a tenner he’ll say, Let’s go to the Vic, and though they don’t call it that any more the porter lets us in if we’re not too scruffy, and we have proper drinks in a glass and talk about before. Or he does, and I just listen and think how I could have fancied him even more when his eyes were glossy and his hair not so worn out and he sat sort of pointing forward, like he is in his old studio photos.

After he’s had a couple of Strongbows he gets up and walks round and shows me where he used to sit when it was a proper lounge with plush seats for all the actors to pose in and wait to be recognized. He tries it out in one of those hard-backed chairs and he sways from side to side, like he’s in a fast train, like he’s looking for arms that aren’t there, and the porter comes to chuck us out. Sometimes he gets mardy and runs the back catalogue of the J B Priestleys and Agatha Christies he played at the Royal but he generally looks at me and calms down and goes quiet enough.

Only just this once he doesn’t move, he’s rewound to the beginning of Look Back in Anger, and he turns round so Jimmy Porter that for a minute the guy’s stopped in his tracks. But he can’t keep it up. I see it twitch on his face and it’s gone. The guy asks us to leave again and makes to get on his mobile and we’re walking out of there. And when I look at him, I know something’s changed in the minute he eyeballed that kid with the regulation braided cuffs who’s never lifted anyone’s suitcase in his life. Something changed.

Anyway. This is where he fell, about six foot from that white pillar with Man U sprayed across it. First floor. Not quite the top, but far enough up to make it a decent drop. And he would never have done it, if they hadn’t left this hole in the ground, if they hadn’t given him the chance to connect. Because he didn’t do it straight away, he waited till he smelt the smoke, till he saw the engine squeezing like black toothpaste from the tunnel, pushing up clouds as it braked. He reckoned he’d catch it while it was still moving, he thought it would be quick and it wasn’t. And I couldn’t lean over and see his face, I was looking round for something to hug and there was just cold concrete and nothing moving but those purple plants, clinging onto the side of the hole and waving with butterflies, dozens of them, flying all round them.

And I don’t fancy working this place any more. I know it’s a good pitch with people getting out their money for the car park but, as I said to the crowd down the Dog and Partridge, there’s too much of him, too many connections for me. In any case he’s snuggled up to me, cold hands in my pocket, whenever I smell smoke. Not 20 Dorchesters kind of smoke, but heavier stuff, what I like to call Victoria smoke, after him, or that old station, the one he took down there with him. Our smoke. We’re breathing it all the time.




© Roberta J Dewa 2005
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