Mark Wagstaff was born on the southern coast of England and has lived most of his life in London. He has around forty short stories published in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies and has also published four novels. Full details are at www.markwagstaff.com. Mark's latest novel In Sparta - a story of radicalism, conformity and resistance - is available in print or ebook from bookstores, the usual websites and also from the publisher www.troubador.co.uk .
The following work is copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
I got five hundred hours’ community payback and a hat from Countess Zara. It was a cold winter with the delinquent crew, pulling prams and tyres out the canal, the kids spooked by bled-out fish that had strayed too far from the river. Most of the grunts were kids: petty thieving, writing on walls, breaking stuff, nicking trainers. A couple for cars: spud heads on a handbrake turn too many. Just bored kids with an itch.
I was older, granddaddy of the gang. Professional thief, victimless crime: the big shops with insurance; steal and deal for what I can get. In truth, I should’ve been banged up, but my old social worker told a sob story, bless her. I’d got unlucky, see, over some music kit and a dodgy pocket.
Five hundred hours: harsh time shipping toxic water in a cold winter. Good time, though, to think, review, make decisions. Like when I got back to crime I’d be way more careful. Bitter cold, November. Coming in off the Urals, my old man used to say. Armed robber, my old man. Nasty bastard. Professionally, I mean. That’s how I was in some pony town: to get out from his long shadow. Down in the Smoke, I got nicked every trip to the sweet shop. Marked, you see, by British justice. He’s dead, the old man. I stick to shops. At least you get out with your kneecaps.
Bitter November but better than lock-up with some nutter, some psycho. Or an innocent man. I couldn’t keep my cool, banged up with an innocent man. I tried to be glad how lucky I was every rainy morning, the weather in my clothes, the baby burglars freaked from tangling with pond weed. And the almighty dumb team leader giving orders from his hut. He was a nonce, had this gay little hut: he’d hole up there when the weather was grim – which was always – shouting we should mind the eco-system. He had no humour and no common sense, which is why he got to shout orders. When the rain got bad we’d clamber out and stink up the bus while he lurked in his hut reading eco-garbage.
That week we were down by a bridge between two terraces; two bits of the same street cut in half when they made the canal. They took peoples’ homes for that canal, just knocked ‘em down. Every day the locals hung off the bridge to give us grief. They were not, you would say, grateful we cleared the crap they dumped on their doorstep. They treated us like the shite we were bagging out the cut. I seriously thought about turning their houses, but one glance said they had nothing to steal. Their kids were the worst. They’d stand around and call us names in a merry, adolescent way; the young offenders would get riled, there were threats traded. I got called a bald-headed bastard a lot: 'fair words from a friend, but not from the sort of juveniles less smart than their own dogs. When I was their age, our house was full of slick geezers who’d kill you for a wrong word. Just kill you.
One day, the rain dripping down my bastard bald head, comes a shout, a “Hello,” from the bridge. A woman shouting that old-dear way, like your make-believe aunties calling “Coo-eee” through the back door. Thinking she was going to bawl us out, we let it be. The team leader handled complaints with the same sureness he handled his trousers.
“Young man. Hello, young man; with the light hair.”
She meant bald. The only white baldy was me. I looked from the grubby water. She was dressed like your nan on a club day in a trim little jacket and fat glass beads faking pearls. Shabby smart, you might say. Keeping up the effort.
“You know,” she called with the direct rudeness of age, “you shouldn’t be out in this without a hat.”
I didn’t have a hat. I have had hats, as comfort from nosey cameras. But that time I didn’t have a hat. The more anger I got from the weather, the worse I liked it.
“I’m just round the way, I’ll lend you a hat.”
The others were starting to snigger. Someone said, “You’ve pulled,” and the troop made hooting noises, slapping their paws on the water.
We weren’t there to shine up the lonely; we were there to fix up the canal. “No, ta, love, you’re alright.” I always noticed my voice was different to everyone else’s. I still had the London sound; I didn’t want to lose it, but it marked me in ways I didn’t like. The police called me Cockney Lad when I was in their cells. My old social worker made a lot of the damage done me in the Smoke. She thought it was parental. But I just wanted to steal things.
“Nonsense. Look at this rain all down your neck. You’ll be rheumatic.” Hers was protected by a stylish plastic scarf. “Come ‘head, I’m just round the way. I’ve got all my lad’s old hats.”
She seemed to find it much easier than I did to ignore the laughter shredding the rainy air. The team leader was out, his sickening orange umbrella printed with the monkeyish scheme logo, advertising we were crooks. “Is there a problem?” his arsey, ineffectual voice suggesting a scene that ends with the neighbours saying he was always such a quiet guy.
“Are you in charge?”
He didn’t like saying he was, in case someone believed it. “I’m overseeing this project.”
“Well, you shouldn’t let that young man work without a sou’wester. He’s not a hair on his head and the rain’ll be in his spine. Believe me,” she added, loudly, “I know rheumatic pain.”
“I’ll tell him to bring a hat tomorrow.”
“You should provide him a hat, if he’s outside. I’ve got hats he could borrow.”
“Oh, no.” He had that distant, liberal, you’re-off-your-head voice, used for every challenge. “The trainees are not allowed in local houses. It’s for their safety and security.”
Us, safe and secure, waist deep in shit and salmonella. Of course they didn’t want us round the local reptiles’ houses. No one would. We were villains.
“It’s standard,” he added, like that answered everything.
“I think, young man, I decide who I ask over my doorstep.” She was on the towpath, her plastic scarf the battledress of stoic resilience or whatever old women are. I wanted her drowned and him with her. The young offenders had churned the slurry; you couldn’t see to work. I sloshed up onto the path.
“Please, madam, the police have been very clear we’re not to…”
“Young man,” to me, ignoring him, “I’ve got all my lad’s old hats. They’re no use to me. Come ‘head.”
The team leader, with that snide that made me hope his missus played him with schoolboys, reminded me: five hundred hours or threesomes in the showers. I remembered that, with every chocolate egg I trousered out the mini mart.
Her house was very old, tidy but worn like some old soak in his one good suit come Sunday. She had doily things on chair backs; bits of elephants carved as ciggie holders: sort of junk gets you the price of a beer at these local fairs. Little boxes on the mantle, maybe silver; chipped gilt picture frames; the pictures were mad. What pictures d’you see in an old girl’s place? Grinning, balding grown-up sons, waving a shark on fishing trips in Cyprus. Spud-faced kids with footballs. School portraits of blondes, hiding bullying and bulimia with a smile. Christenings and weddings, proud granny with the new baby. Always some twat in fancy dress, getting their degree. Her pictures weren’t like that. They were old, old as the frames: sepia men in big moustaches and tight, high collars. Women in dresses that made them look crippled, bloated out of shape. A row of children stood to attention across a big doorway. Crazy pictures: blokes in uniform, women in tweeds, smoking. A white-haired, shockingly proud-looking man, ribbons and braid down his front. A bright-looking girl with curls and wide eyes. Pictures of people who could only be dead.
“I can’t find the one I’m thinking of but here’s a woolly ‘un for cold, and a panama, proofed for water.” She held out the hats. “You can have ‘em if you like. My lad won’t be needing ‘em.”
“My brother. I call him my lad ‘cos he was the baby, d’you see.”
Behind her, what looked like a flag was tied in the corner. Crazy old woman.
“Step in for a warm when you’re done tomorrow. I’d make a brew but I’m going bingo.”
The hats were soft, smelt unused; in my bedsit - the lights out prison-early to save the meter - I made a shopping list of her house, the ivory geegaws and little pill boxes maybe a week’s drinking money. No use for the pictures. My family didn’t keep pictures: pictures were something that got passed round tagged Exhibit A, things they showed too real. Hers seemed somewhere make-believe where everyone was carved from their surroundings. Librarians’ wet-dreams; nothing you’d want.
The kids - funny guys - gave it the: “Seen you’re girlfriend?” I’ve my dad’s sensitivity to getting laughed at and went to her house dry-headed and determined on souvenirs.
“I’ve got the kettle on,” she told me. “It’s gone tea but there’s sandwiches left.”
I didn’t believe the sandwiches were leftovers. They were small and tired, but free. “Don’t know your name, love,” I spat through boiled beef.
“Don’t know yours.”
I told a lie, and she considered whether she knew that family name; I dimly grasped it was some social ritual: finding connections, gauging roots.
“I’m Zaralina Czermecka. Zara, for short.”
No doubt she’d cornered exotic in the phone book. “That’s nice.” She was ninety if she was a day, and why I was saying her name was nice was a mystery to me. I’d paid for the hat in grief; I just wanted quality time with her mantleshelf.
“Only part of my name. In my day, names told you everything about a person.”
“The hat’s very good.” I didn’t want to hear ‘in my day’. I’m young and feckless. I don’t give a toss for the past.
“My lad had a time with the weather. Rain or shine he suffered. I suppose nowadays they’d say it were some sort oftrauma.” She put odd feeling into the empty word, like trauma made you guilty.
My dad, who expected people resilient, used to say: kids nowadays cry for splinters. Unexpected, wanting old Zara to know about dad. “My dad said the world’s gone soft.”
“Don’t suppose he remembers the war?”
“He’s…no, he was born after.” Always ancient to me, he’d have been a young gun to Zara.
“No one remembers. If you remember, they say you’re mad.”
I should have known: mad and lonely. “You’ve got a nice place,” switching track to head off the pitch on how rotten it was no one came to see her.
Strange old woman: sat very straight, spoke very low; when I said she had a nice place, she didn’t whinge how the rain got in or the chairs were wanting varnish. She didn’t seem to care. “It’s where I am.”
She supposed I didn’t work Sundays. Not likely. Sundays I only fall out of bed for a beer or three with the lowlifes I call friends. We sit in our coats to save the heating, chewing cans and sucking spliff. She said I could come for my tea if I liked. Said there might be beef. The idea was taking shape: sell her heirlooms and skip town.
Good as her word: beef and celery; cake too: some thick coffee stuff – loaded with coffee, got my head buzzing – served on doily plates with a silver slice. Proper business. “Nice cake.”
“Where I’m from, they’d eat this in the morning with pots of coffee and condensed milk. They called it coffee milk.”
“No. Eleven o’clock. Everything stopped at eleven o’clock; everyone went to the cafes for coffee and cake. The men might have a taste of brandy. It was when you flirted and caught up the gossip.”
“You must have had an understanding boss.”
“It were tradition. Anyroad, I had lessons. I mean girls my sisters’ ages would go. That’s two of my elder sisters there, behind that snuff box.”
Two crinoline women, posed on photographers’ chairs in front of a cloth. Their hair was twisted in elaborate loops; their high-necked, lacy dresses gave a discreet hint of pearls. They looked a million years dead. “D’you have a big family?”
Good: I didn’t want anyone outraged after the fact. “I guess as years go by…” But I was too soon with the flim-flam.
“They went quick.”
I was starting to get there was something wrong with all the dead looks and trinkets. “Accident d’you mean?”
“Maybe.” She gathered herself to her feet, frail but wiry, creaking to the dresser, its open drawer piled with interesting-looking papers. She got what I thought was a wallet, sat stiffly back down. It was leather covers stuck on an ancient map, woven cloth pencilled pink and green. She gestured and I was kneeling by her chair, peering over her elbow. The map was all inky names that meant nothing.
“This is where I’m from.” She stabbed a large, square dot of a city. “This is my country. Least, as it was. Here,” she brushed across the east, “went to Russia. And south of these mountains were lost.” Her crinkly old finger traced a line. “I think that’s the border now.”
“Did you leave a long time back?” I was thinking buried treasure, forgotten deposit boxes.
“I were just a child, really. Just in my teens. Like them kids you’re dredging the cut with.”
I hadn’t thought she’d even noticed the baby blaggers, the halfpint racing demons. I looked at the spidery railway lines linking city to city; the jagged shading of mountains on three sides; the words I didn’t understand. “Was your family…in a war?”
“When did you leave school, lad?”
Not that I’d learned much: only to tell a good alibi.
“Pass us that picture.”
Another silver-frame sepia: a young girl in a smocky top, hair hanging wild off a sulky face.
“I were about eleven there: last picture I had took. This photographer by Mikaelis Square.” She unsnapped the picture from its frame; the yellow paper had some crazy writing: all kays and zeds and lines and dots hovered round them. “That says, ‘Countess Zaralina Ninakova Czermecka-Krzywinski, twenty-third of August; the gilded Czermecka dreams of her lessons’. His little joke. I was called gilded for my light hair, and I looked so sour that day he said I had to be thinking of my governess. But those were sour times.”
I’d dropped out for a second or two: I thought she said countess. Countesses lived in big houses, not terraced slums in the dead north. “Countess?”
“No, you said countess?”
“Aristocracy, lad. World was full of us then.”
“Did you have a big house and that?” And loot?
“We, meaning my father, owned most of this region here, as well as our town house and a couple of crumbling castles in the south. Ruins, really. My father was brought up on the estates; he hated it, loathed farming. Politics was his alibi for moving to the city. I was brought up in the city. I remember my sisters taking me on trams of a summer’s morning, all the gents standing up to give us a seat. Everywhere was clean and beautiful, everywhere the trams went. Men would take off their hats to us, and ladies would tell us we simply must remember them to our mother. We never went home without an armful of invitations. Sometimes, we’d go to the opera with my father. He hated opera – he used to listen to jazz on a little wind-up phonograph in his study – but you hadto go, to get seen. He was a duke. He had to be seen. You’d meet other families. Get business done. I quite liked the opera; well, the dresses anyroad. Pour us a cup will you, love?”
Thick end of the pot, but she didn’t seem to mind. I was itchy for beer but couldn’t go without hearing more. I still thought I’d get a laugh, where spliff was taken, for robbing out the crackers duchess.
“The city was full of politics and being a duke my father was in with it all. He weren’t a cheerful man, my father. He were always angry with someone: the Chancellor, the Marshalls; never the King, he always spoke most reverently of His Majesty. That summer, though, he were short with all of us, always. He’d be out till two, three of a morning – I knew, I stayed awake; I heard him talk of nothing but The Situation.”
“The Situation. It were all in his newspapers. I’ve got a couple, still, if they’re not dust. The Situation and The Loyal Wolves.”
Now she was off her trolley, talking about wolves. “Were they pets, like?”
“You wouldn’t know.”
She could see through my shabby skin of a shit-sorry scarecrow. “Please tell me, Zara.”
“The Loyal Wolves were patriots, meaning they were young men who liked uniforms. And fighting. The sons of all the dads who didn’t come back from the War. Young men who felt cheated. This map’s out of date; all these empires and such, they was already gone. We, meaning people like my father, wanted the country modern like England or France. We were scared of the Germans, the Bolsheviks. We wanted better friends.
“But the Wolves, they wanted glory, they wanted some make-believe time when our little country was Great. They wanted someone to blame for their dads. And when you look, you always find someone to blame. You’d know, wouldn’t you lad?”
She had me more in the slammer than all the cops I’ve skipped out on.
“The Wolves weren’t common, dear me no. They had connections. Right up to the King, through family lines. Didn’t matter what the Chancellor said, or the Deputies in the Assembly. The Loyal Wolves, they spoke for the people, they spoke for us all. The King, who was a weak, vain, silly man, hiding in his palaces, playing with his train sets, he were flattered that all these fiery young men were telling him he could be a great leader, that only he could face down the Communist devil. He was simple-minded enough to see a Communist plot behind every democrat meeting; a Jewish conspiracy every time a man lost his job. Blame, you see. It sticks. Like these young men who come round here, always neat, always polite. Wearing the flag. Asking who you think’s to blame for all that’s wrong.”
My dad gave them money; I don’t.
“Men like my father, they were schooled to politics as a game for gentlemen. With rules that were obeyed. They didn’t recognise someone saying, ‘These people are bastards, let’s kill ‘em,’ as politics at all. So they couldn’t keep up. A few demonstrations here, a few Assembly seats there: soon every street had its Wolf Committee, to make sure loyalty was maintained.”
She pointed at a fresh-faced lad with a shock of black hair. “That were my older brother. He got killed in a street fight with a patriot gang. They’d all been drinking. I think his friend had a family feud with one of the greyshirts or something. My father went to the Chief of Police, to the Minister of the Interior. They weren’t about to catch any bugger. Higher orders, you see. Then we knew.”
I’d not been taught any of this.
“We were no longer friends with England or France. We were best friends with the Germans. You’d think after the last three hundred years we’d have chosen our friends more wisely. But no one remembers, not beyond last teatime. We should have retreated. My family, I mean. One of the Wolf dukes made an offer for the estates; we should have taken the money and gone to America. But my father had his head full of duty. Not to the poor sods who worked the farms. Not to his family. He had to serve his country, rescue his King from folly. So he went on, drawing more and more attention to himself. My sisters didn’t go out anymore, not with getting jeered on every street corner. We couldn’t go to the opera; people spat from the balcony.”
“What happened, Zara?”
“Well,” she rubbed her knees, like an old dear telling a story, “the Loyal Wolves, they got their comeuppance, though not as you’d expect. When the second war came – and I tell you, I prayed for war, prayed for it every night – they thought when the Germans came marching through these passes here, they thought they’d get on nice: safe jobs and split the spoils. But that’s not how the Germans played. The Germans trusted no one. They thought everyone as two-faced, deceitful and stupid as they were. Put their own people in charge, didn’t care who they upset, what solemn oaths they broke. They just wanted the land, to feed their people like always before.
“It were a joke on the Wolves; joke we all suffered. Aristocracy, you see. Old power. Germans didn’t need old power. Didn’t try to buy it. Everything was taken and everything was lost. My sister, her, the beautiful girl, thought our father should’ve resisted, should’ve stood up, to be shot. She went with the Communists. To the eastern hills. That were a dirty war. Nobody here knows. The bastards got them all.”
“The other bastards.”
None of this had been told me. We were taught how neighbourhoods changed when the movies arrived. We learnt men on the moon, and pop music.
“My father never understood he was marked. He always thought the ones in charge were gentlemen; of course: how else would they be in charge? He couldn’t grasp that some Military Governor could base a decision on his kidney stones and not have to answer to anyone. Even with the King under house arrest, he still thought there was some process to be worked through. I’d like to think he got wise in jail.”
“What was he in for?”
“Just because,” she shrugged. “We weren’t allowed to visit. I never saw him again.”
I looked at the white-haired man, his braid and ribbons. “What happened, Zara?”
“Oh, every time you went to the prison, or the Ministry, they spun you a line. No,” she corrected herself, “they told you bullshit. They didn’t have to let us see him, and they were too busy piling up trains with gypsies and Jews. It was their obsession, you see. Their undoing. They forgot to keep fighting the war.
“I prayed every night for something to happen to the Germans. And it did. My god it did. From the eastern hills like a plague. The Germans, they were efficient, but the Russians were efficient a whole other way. Of course, I waved my flag when the liberators came. And it was good to see the Germans kicked and kicked. But we weren’t liberated. We weren’t even given a day to believe things might go back as they were. My lad, my little brother, was killed by a tank. Waving his flag, he thought they’d stop. But nothing stopped them. Not the Americans, not my brother’s flag.
“We thought they’d open the prisons, but they seemed to have a curious regard for what the Germans left them. Seemed glad there were people locked up. They killed my father. We never knew why, never even saw his body. We got a letter, weeks after, from the sub-ancillary clerk to the workers’ justice committee. I told myself he maybe stood up to them. Maybe not. My mother died of a fractured heart, scrubbing toilet floors in the barracks. I tagged along with the Russians, made out I was Red, till I reached the American army. They passed me on to the British, and three years later I ended here. I brought some of this stuff with me. Other bits I’ve found through the years. So far as I know I’m the only Countess Czermecka.”
I looked at the map prone and harmless on her knees. The places were real. “There might be others.”
“Oh, there are. Cousins and uncles and such who went in with the Russians, thinking they’d get cheap land. What a joke. The Party kept it all.”
At last, something I knew from TV. “Won’t the Party be over?”
“Oh, yes; they’ve had elections and all sorts. The new Prime Minister’s grandfather was tight with the Loyal Wolves. I’d not go back, even if they came and asked. I saw the King’s bloody grandson in the paper the other week, in the business pages. He’s an entrepreneur of hydro-electric power. Clean and green. What a joke. The arses won it, lad. This room is my country.”
It was late, much later than I thought. “What’ll you do with all this?”
“When I die, d’you mean? It’ll go to the dump. What museum would take it? It’s a little story, d’you see? Just one small story. The new government wants into Europe: they’ll westernise. All friends together. No need for this past, this story.”
My feet understood the empty roads of Sunday night in a northern town. But my head was in another world, where governments could shatter, where wars and geography changed what yesterday was. Violence, liquid in men’s veins, against my life of empty threat. The barman was old: he’d know. “D’you know an old girl up by canal bridge?”
He looked me over with the distrust that appeared organically whenever I opened my mouth. “I don’t know old girls.”
“Zaralina, I think. The countess from…” I stumbled the country’s awkward name.
“Countess?” He gave the bushy-browed gawp that passed for wit in those parts. “Met the Countess has tha? I wouldn’t be expecting no blue ribbons, son. She’s a weaver’s girl from Cragside. Got left by an American airman, sent her crackers. Been in and out the nuthouse half her life. She used to write to the local rag till they stopped her letters. She’s had a few fooled with her yarns.” He chuckled. “Countess.”
Week by filthy week we cleared the canal. Pulling crates and bicycle shanks; getting freaked by sharps. I sacrificed beer for some internet time. Found all sorts of Czermeckas: in Australia, in America; right across that country between Russia and the hills. There was a Czermecka in government, Deputy Secretary of Energy. I emailed the embassy, to ask if he was related; got nothing back. It was wading alphabet soup, trying to read the names. I finally hit Ninakova on some aristocracy list site. ‘Ninakova, a younger member of the Krzywinski branch, known as golden for her beauty, disappeared in 1946 during the failed anti-Stalinist rising. Her body, like thousands of others, was never found.’
It bothered me, getting folded by some old crazy. I hadn’t lost anything, except the feeling when I left that night there might be things beyond nicking consoles and flash wheels. The feeling I’d woken to something that was a fraud. I wanted to see her, to get it straight.
Her door was open; I’m no burglar but I know when an open door isn’t saying welcome home. I should’ve walked away; it couldn’t look good, framed in an old girl’s parlour with five hundred hours just up. But criminal by nature, I can’t leave well alone.
There was noise in the parlour. Not an old girl’s scratching and creaking: the sound of purposeful business. I wasn’t about to step in on some light-fingered crack-head. But she gave me her brother’s hats. Ready for a beating, I tried looking large in the door.
Two men in undertakers’ dark suits and slicky hair were going through Zara’s things: opening drawers, leaving them open, unfolding and dropping papers. They looked up together. They weren’t scared or surprised.
I realised it was me to speak. “Where’s Zara?”
“Who are you?” He spoke quiet, horrible quiet, like the worst of cops who’ll take your kidneys in the dark.
“I do the garden,” inspired by my life of lies. “I’ve come to see to the weeding.”
“Miss Czermecka doesn’t need a gardener.” He continued turning out her books, flicking through the pages, searching in broad daylight like he really didn’t care.
“Where is she?”
“Moved,” his friend chipped in.
“Somewhere where gardening is part of the service.” And blatantly, he put some papers in his pocket.
“What you doing?” My voice squeaked; I’ve not been more scared.
“Us?” He tipped a drawer out. “Tidying up.”
“We’re busy.” His mate’s look spoke of accidents at playtime.
“Perhaps,” said his snaky friend, “you’d like to run along.”
Down the road before I realised he called her Czermecka.
Cops didn’t want to know. Missing persons: two a week, lad. Blonde children, yes; pregnant girls. But an old dear with no family? No mileage to that, lad. No media. The desk sergeant diagnosed Alzheimer’s and an open door.
The local rag didn’t want to know: they’d stopped her letters. Wasn’t she some weaver’s girl? Everyone said.
Five hundred hours payback. I trashed the team leader’s hut, stole a car and moved on. Drifter, you see. Self-sufficient. I can go anywhere, anytime. Nobody came looking: I’m just a little story. I’m not weighed by duties, family or blood. I’m one of the not found, the debris of forgetting, in the long erasure of our unfinished wars.