April is always cold. Albert Hicks had his mats and his cardboard and his old sleeping bag. The light was fading as he bunkered down in the shop. The irony not lost on him but here he thought he would be safe.
He ate his sandwich, given by a passer by, drank some water, rain water from a cup, and then rooted out the whiskey bottle. Three fingers left. One now, one with his cigarette, and one before sleep. But then if I wake freezing what do I do? Maybe save the one now?
Too late. The smell was intoxicating and it was gone, burning down the gullet. Maybe save the cigarette one.
Not possible. You cannot smoke and not drink.
He bedded down and drank the last finger. The wind curled around the blankets and the sleeping bag as he went through the drill. Close your eyes. Imagine a fire burning in your belly, growing, spreading up the torso and down tired limbs, tingling the fingertips. His legs jerk gently, the nerves firing off for the night, and he falls into darkness.
Some nights he would to feel the rain belting down on his sodden form, but not tonight.
When he woke he knew instantly it was morning because the light was blue as it entered his head. But there were boots in front of him. Black boots, boots that belonged to a uniform.
He looked up.
The cops had found him after somebody complained. “A man like that could die out on this cold”, the complainant had said, and so they were dispatched.
Albert was a gentle soul, it seemed, until he woke.
“What the fuck do youse want?” were his first words.
They explained to him that it was dangerous to sleep on the streets and when he responded with more curses they explained it was also illegal.
“So’s a lot of things”, he said quietly.
They helped him to his feet and put him in the back of the wagon.
He shared the padded interior with a drunk Chinese man who hung his head for the entire journey, dribbling and snivelling.
“Where’re you from?” he asked.
Not a hint of Chinese.
“The fuck you are – ”
The clanging of metal and the carbolic smell of the holding cells brought it back. His gut tightened, but this was a different kind of imprisonment, this was genteel imprisonment. No hands grasping your arms behind your back, no spit in your face, no smell or the proximity of violence or dirty flesh wanting to do things to you because it hated the world. But still it came back, twelve years of it, the memory a presence in his life of which he would never rid himself.
He was hosed by two lads in boiler suits who didn’t speak, then dusted down in a foul smelling powder. Then came the humiliation of sitting in a cubicle while an orderly fastened an electronic tag to his ankle.
“I’m not going anywhere -”, he grunted.
“It’s keeps you alive – “, the orderly explained. “It monitors your heart rate and skin temperature. If anything goes wrong they pick you up. It’s for you own good.”
Albert sighed. Always following. Someone.
They brought him in to office where he was interviewed by a stout woman with a starched blouse. She was a Home Liaison Officer, good Lord but you couldn’t tell.
“Albert Hicks -”, said she, “ Sixty seven, released from Arbour Hill four weeks ago. No family to take care of you?
He grunted. She leaned closer so he could smell the perfume that wafted off her large chest.
“ No family, no?”
“All dead. Except my sister who lives in Chicago. She can’t stand me.”
The woman went back to her notes. She didn’t seem bothered. Doing this all day, I suppose.
Next she read out a litany of medical complaints which were attributed to him, he concurred with each one, then she started flapping files around and slapping things on her desk. She lifted the phone and barked something about ‘respite’ to someone and then looked at him.
“Albert. I’m going to give you a house. You’ll never have to sleep on the street again. How’s that?
“What kind of a house?”, he enquired. Reasonable enough. She frowned.
Later as she ate in the sepulchral canteen with its swinging strip lights and baize notice boards advertising group outings, a colleague overhead her mutter the words “ungrateful little shit!”
By then Albert Hicks was sitting in the front seat of a HSE van. They sped through the countryside. It was grey and cold outside and crows swept in circles around the hard shoulders. The driver was a young man with a beard and tattoo’s, fleshy fists gripping the steering wheel.
Albert rooted for tobacco, prison issue, and found his pouch. He rolled a long thin cigarette.
“Can’t smoke in here”, said the driver.
“Out the window?”
A shaking of the head, emphatic that no rules be broken, a hint that implementing rules gave some small unacknowledged pleasure.
“I should have obeyed the rules”, Albert said.
They sped on, white lines swallowed up, grey clouds ahead, the occasional spatter of hailstones on the windscreen.
The fields around were greener than before. Spring was here, despite the cold.
“Could you let me out here?”, he suddenly stammered, taken by the notion that the wild countryside would be more welcoming than grey towns, into which he was most surely about to be deposited.
“More than my job’s worth”, came the reply. Which is fuck all, Albert thought quietly.
Onwards. A town approached. The road by passed through fields, a grey spire moving in the distance, a filling station looming and disappearing. All grey. They pull away from the town onto roundabouts and hard shoulders. He felt a tightening in his chest as they swerved off the last roundabout and down a long straight road, flanked by hedgerows and brambles.
He recognised the road. It led to the site of his first endeavour.
They slowed and the tightening engulfed him, sweeping upwards into his neck and arms. The van swung into an estate, passing a low granite wall and huge sign, hanging crooked on two metal poles: LEIGHLIN DOWNS. PRIMROSE HOUSING PROJECT. HSE.
They bumped over holes in the asphalt. Every house was tiny and shabby, gutters hanging, windows blanketed. An Indian couple wheeled a bin out into the middle of the road. Cheap lace where it could be afforded twitched as gloomy eyes, unseen, watched their approach.
Oh sweet Lord no.
They pulled up at a Portacabin where a slouching middle aged skinhead with a garish football shirt leaned against the door frame, leering. He was beady eyed, the flesh rolls visible on the back of his neck as he turned to get the register.
Albert stood on the road beside the Portacabin. The van was parked and the driver loitered, waiting to be released from his charge. A child with bad teeth circled on a bicycle, predacious. Albert signed an electronic form, the van shook itself into life and headed for the exit, while Albert followed the skinhead to his new abode, a few doors up it seemed from the Indians.
Bursting with indignation. When will these fools realise who I am?
The skinhead fiddled with the key, then stepped into a dingy hallway. Before them was a threadbare blue carpet with stains like a map of the world, a fly specked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a rusting radiator. He followed the skinhead down the hallway, both of them into the festering light.
Grimy walls, splintered hole in the bathroom door, cracked toilet bowl, chipped mirror. The skinhead’s rough accent was dull, words delivered by rote:
“Electricity and gas are taken out of your allowance at source, there’s a mobile shop Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and you can order for free on the net. Buses into town Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Fuck.”
He stepped in something dark that clung to his shoe.
“I’ll get that cleaned for you.”
Albert followed the skinhead into the living room. Cheap couch sagging in the middle, three legged table. More bare bulbs. Cracks the like of which you’ve never seen running across the yellowed plaster of the ceiling .
“I can’t live here -”, he said.
Albert knocked on the outside wall.
“Look it here, plasterboard and breeze block, no insulation, cost a fortune to heat in the winter – ”
His eyes fall to the wainscotting –
“- one mains running down there – that‘ll overload and trip the circuit – ”
Into the kitchen, his deadman’s shoes squeaking on the soiled lino. Both taps turned on and off, spattering the sink with a hollow metallic splash. He waited until the overhead pipes answered with a dull hiccup.
“Half inch piping, should be three quarter inch but half inch’s cheaper. In the winter that’ll freeze.”
He shuffled to the window overlooking a patch of overgrown grass and weeds enclosed by a small concrete wall; rubble strewn fields beyond, pointed at.
“Down the back there there’s a river. It runs underground the whole estate. It’s causing subsidence all down this side – ”
The skinhead is curious about him for the first time –
“How’d you know all that?”
“I built the fucken’ place. A nightmare. Pissed rain every day and only sold four units in the first year. I can’t live here. ”
Bubbles of spit appeared on the lower lip of the skinhead.
“You’ve nowhere else to go, mate -”, he said, gloomy, momentarily caught up Albert’s despair.
Albert sat down on the chair in the middle of the floor. The skinhead left.
Albert scratched with distraction at the plastic security tag which chaffed his ankle. Four more estates had followed, more successful than the first, and then an industrial park. Then a hospital led by a consortium. Fella’s he’d never met, best pals to him now, back clapping, booze, cocaine. The tent. The back of a chopper, a young one on each arm. The minister in your pocket. He could still taste the glut of power that swept them all away, still see it, even in the way he tied his shoes in the morning. The judge had used the word greed, so had the press, and they were right. No friends, no friends at all, when it fell. Not one.
A flash of anger, unrepentant, resentful. They’ll blame the likes of me for the whole lot of it, so they will. Schools and houses and hospitals. Not enough of them. Stick insect kids living on crisps, well I suppose that’s my fault too?
He rummaged for his tobacco, found it, but as he did so the energy drained from his body so that he found he couldn’t roll the bloody thing. His fingers had gone dead. More tightening, crawling round his chest, this time spreading like fear through his entire being. A fearful stabbing pain in his jaw.
The sun crept down behind the back wall of the yard. Sky stained with crimson, floating dust in the room catching the rose light. Albert hadn’t moved. The smell of turmeric wafted in across the yard. Good for the heart, they say. The light on his ankle tag blinked.