Charles’ got his fingers in a squid’s ink fishing for its body. It’s turned out to be one of those nights. One you never plan but then one you don’t want to end. A little while ago I was trying to find polite excuses to leave, knowing I couldn’t afford to stick around and then Charles asked if I’d eaten. Sat next to him listening to a performance poet on the seventh floor of a multi-storey car park in Peckham I was bristling inside, the hair outside was feeling for something. I wanted to ask him to lend me a tenner. Thirteen days until pay day. I just needed a little money to buy some bread and soup to get me through. Inspired by an article in an American magazine about how fasting can lower your risk of cancer I once had fasted - for non religious reasons and anyway this was proper fasting, not eating in the night fasting, this was no food all day, everyday fasting - for five and a half days. The headaches were worse than the stomach pains but there was a lightness of being, light in the head and light in the body I’d feel like I could float but it had gotten to payday so I broke the fast. Water is all you need and that’s free at home and not many coffee shops will refuse you some water if you’re well dressed. And well dressed I always was so people made assumptions - that I wanted them to - that I was doing okay. Are you working out they’d ask, you look great. Thanks I’d croak. Thanks. Welcome to London.
I’d always been useless with money. The bank thought so too so they closed my account one evening when I was in a supermarket and then couldn’t buy the food in my basket. But that was a few years ago, surely I’d learnt? No. I hadn’t. Still bad with money and that’s why I was wearing a crisp white Armani shirt, Ray Bans, looking every inch the ‘the water’s just over there, Sir, not staying for a flat white, today?’ rather than a ‘water’s for the customers only, sir, so’s the toilet.’ But I didn’t eventually need to ask for the tenner. Have you eaten Charles asked as we left the launch of a literary review, no I haven’t Charles, I confessed and to be honest and I hope I can be honest with you since we’ve known each other a few months and swapped books and advice on poetry, I hope I can tell you that secret which poets and writers have probably shared between themselves for years, I’m a little poor and a little hungry so no I’ve not eaten but if you pick me up today I promise to do the same for you very soon, because it’s coming, there’s a book I’m writing, there’s hope for me. I’m meeting somebody he says and immediately I forget my hunger and remember my manners. I’m sorry, please, go. It’s okay, I’ve said too much. I needed a little help but I don’t want to ruin your day, your night. No, it’s fine he says, I didn’t mean that, come, I’ll feed you.
Well, that made me smile. He’s from Leeds, up my way. He knows what it’s like to be hungry and dressed in the best. Order what you like he says? It’s tapas. And in front of him is the deep dish with grey legs with little suckers on which he’s fishing out of the black ink. There’s some food in the car he says, from Michael, you can have it. That’s Michael Horovitz. I didn’t know Charles was going to be at the launch but I’d gone to it anyway. I always ended up meeting some other writer scraping the same barrel and we could compare splinters. Literary do’s in London were just about the most fun I was having right now. And there on the roof top of the car park was a baby seagull all grey and fluffy before it became streamlined and proud, stranded with one leg hurt. The adults swooped on us to keep away. But the humans weren’t for keeping away. They’d built a multi-storey car park and put a bar on top of it so as the seagulls swooped and cried the humans got their camera phones out and took pictures of the baby seagull hopping around while they drank beer in plastic cups, laughing.
And it was then that I saw Charles in a pink t-shirt and thought - great you’re here, maybe you’ll lend me a tenner. I wandered over and he introduced me to Michael Horovitz - not Winona Ryder’s dad, that’s Horowitz - who gave me a copy of his book. What’s your name he said through the side of his mouth. He talked with only right side of his teeth. It’s Alpha, Delta, November, Alpha, November, I told him and he gave me a copy of Wordsounds and Sightlines. We chatted about the good old days when he was at school and fighting because he was a Jew. I’d felt the same kicks in the head. Screw it, we’re here now. I didn’t know at this point that there was food in Charles’ car that was going to come to me. I liked him, here’s my details, please keep in touch, I said. We all went and sat down to listen to the poet who mentioned the War on Terror in every poem, just throwing it in there. They’re friends of mine you’re taking about Mr Poet, I thought. Watch your mouth. And Michael left. His old bones weren’t happy to sit on car park floors that hip youngsters’ were happy to. To my left were two girls, one blonde, one with a black hair. I didn’t know them aside from having seen them at other literary do’s. I wanted to chat to them but had to choose a path. Stay and chat to the girls or head out with Charles who followed Michael and maybe get that tenner, I left. And in the car on the way to food I laughed with Charles about being poor. Fuck it. I quoted Mary Oliver to him - ‘One can live simply and honorably on just about enough money to keep a chicken alive. And do so cheerfully.’ It’s true, I told him.
There I was sitting in my small room in London surrounded by books listening to classical music just the night before and feeling like I had everything I needed. The books? From the second hand book shops on Charing Cross Road where you can get a nearly new for three quid. The music? On the radio. It’s at times like these when you haven’t a penny to play with that you realise a cup of tea is a magical thing. Tea’s always been sacred to me since I joined the military, there was nothing a cup of HST (Hot Sweet Tea) couldn’t solve. Hours of digging a hole into Salisbury Plain to live in for a week could be made less miserable if there was a cup of tea at the end of the dig. It has to be in a bone china cup (plastic was the way in the military, but china’s a civilian luxury) with the tea bag from Yorkshire and the sugar from the corner shop. I like to squeeze the hot teabag between my fingers to feel the heat for a bit. I like the water running out of the holes in my grip and then a splash of milk. If I’m using soya, it’ll taste nutty which is nice, or if I’m being a traditionalist then only full fat cow’s milk will do, the army wouldn’t have it any other way. A few of these could easily see me through the day. Money’s great, don’t get me wrong but there’s a way and a means of getting by. Charles doesn’t buy me dinner everyday but he doesn’t need to. I can go five and a half days without food if I need to. The bill came and I left. Ray Bans on in the evening sun, food in my stomach. Another day down.
* This is not a cry for help, the author has just been lent sixty quid, thanks.