Read by Paul Clarke
Edwin feels he is a no-hoper, a lost cause, a rock bottom dweller — hateful, spiteful and cynical — a misanthropic, talentless wretch with no redeemable qualities, forged from the dreadful ends of the world’s cruelty and pain, destitute and barren, unsung, unwept and unloved.
His writing career has not gone as planned. By the age of 36 he should have won the Booker and then publicly rejected the prize on grounds of its commercialism. He is nowhere close. He writes his epitaph:
Here lies Edwin Nicholas Shoemaker, fat failure.
The establishment he chooses is a hellscape of uncultured cretins, a rabble of cutthroat swine and debauched, feckless harlots going about dull days on narrow horizons in a paint-peeled, carpet-stained, stale-smelling shithole. There would be no talk of Beckett here, no discussion on Sylvia Plath—no comparing and contrasting Keats and Yeats. The tinsel-adorned rabble care only for double brandies and warm ale while carolling along to Last Christmas by Wham.
It is perfect and no more than he deserves.
‘An ale,’ he demands of the bar wench without a please. He has spent a lifetime trying to please and it has got him nowhere. He is a drinker now, a washed-up never-has-been, imbibing his cursed consciousness to the bottom of a glass. However, the glass size is not satisfactory. He will never be a washed-up alcoholic by drinking such small-sized libations. ‘What is this?’
‘It’s a pint of ale, love.’
‘Don’t you have anything bigger than a pint?’
‘Could get you the mop bucket?’
The wench gets a laugh from the rabble. Edwin is disgusted.
‘And another!’ he roars after takes his first sip from the measly pint.
‘Pace yourself, love,’ the wench says.
‘I cannot. I want to pickle my liver and die unsung as soon as possible.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Just bog off!’ Edwin shouts at her.
A table of bald, ne'er-do-well behemoths with oversized jaws ask the wench if everything is OK.
‘I think he needs to be shown the door,’ the wench says.
The ne'er-do-wells pick Edwin up from his stool then use his head to bash open the emergency exit door. He receives a kick in the arse for good measure and told not to come back until he has learnt some manners. He feels like Christopher Marlowe in his final tavern brawl. This new, dumbed down, low-life world of fists and fury is exactly where he wants to reside. Perhaps he could procure a daily beating from the ne'er-do-wells until he learns to handle himself. It would be like growing up, living fast and dying young on the mean streets of Marylebone—
Here lies Edwin Nicholas Shoemaker—bareknuckle boxer, street fighter and all-out nut-job.
He wakes up forlorn the next morning as it dawns on him his asthma would not allow his dream to be realised.
‘Nanny!’ he shouts from bed. ‘Nanny!’
‘Good morning, Edwin,’ says Nanny when she finally arrives with his camomile.
‘Nanny, I am forlorn.’
‘What’s the matter, Edwin?’
‘I am a no-hoper, Nanny! A lost cause, a rock bottom dweller—hateful, spiteful and cynical—a misanthropic, talentless wretch with no redeemable qualities, forged from the dreadful ends of the world’s cruelty and pain, destitute and barren, unsung, unwept and unloved.’
‘I’m going to my Church’s Christmas Eve Open House for the homeless this evening. You should come, Edwin. It would be good for you to see some real destitution.’
‘Oh Nanny, please, you know how much I hate the poor.’
‘Help yourself by helping others, Edwin.’
Nanny does not understand his pain but she may be on to something in a roundabout way—it would be a good addition to his autobiography to recount how he helped bums.
Here lies Edwin Nicholas Shoemaker—humanitarian and patron saint of hoboes.
The community hall is unbearable. It is a urine-sea of vagabond. They are torn, tattered and weather-beaten, all sitting in long rows of makeshift tables being served tea by holier-than-thou, goody-two-shoed bastards in Santa Claus hats. Last Christmas by Wham is playing on the sound system and Edwin wants to die.
‘Hi there, newbie,’ says Father Michael, leader of the goody-two-shoes. He is wearing reindeer antlers. Edwin hates him instantly. ‘So you’re the famous Edwin,’ Father Michael says, extending a hand. ‘We’ve heard a lot about you.’
Try as he might, Edwin cannot refrain from handing him back some of his famous rapier wit. ‘So what are you serving the masses this evening, Father? Apart from opiate that is.’
Edwin is delighted with himself. That was such a good one.
Here lies Edwin Nicholas Shoemaker—existential thinker and fervent dismantler of organised religion.
‘Ah-ha! Someone’s a fan of Nietzsche,’ Father Michael says, unperturbed by the slight.
‘Nanny!’ Edwin beckons. ‘Nanny!’
‘Edwin,’ Nanny says at his side. ‘There’s no need to shout.’
‘Nanny, this priest just touched my balls.’
‘Excuse me?’ Father Michael gasps.
‘I’m very sorry, Father Michael. I’ll get him something to do in the kitchen. Come on, Edwin, now!’
Edwin sticks two fingers up at Father Michael behind Nanny’s back.
Nanny gets Edwin alone. ‘Edwin! These are frail men and women that don’t come from the same privilege as you, carrying a lot of sadness.’
‘What do these bums know of sadness, Nanny?’
‘Talk to one of them. Find out!’
‘I’d rather they line themselves up and I give each one a lick.’
‘You really are incorrigible, Edwin.’
Nanny has gone too far.
‘Nobody calls me incorrigible, Nanny. Nobody!’
Edwin marches himself up to the dirtiest, smelliest bum he can find. ‘You there!’ he says. ‘What made you decide to become a bum?’
‘What’s it you?’
‘I am a writer, sir. I come with an offer of immortality.’
The bum begins to recount his life story. He goes into monotonous detail of heists and bank-jobs, tiger kidnappings, yarns of knocking over armoured cars with portable cranes and industrial sized angle-grinders, of graveyard scams, dirty cops, successful and unsuccessful drug deals, of surviving in the nick, of murder and revenge assassinations with twist-endings—then of just being tired of it all, of wanting redemption, of trying to be good rather than bad. It is uninteresting ridiculousness, not worthy of being transcribed and Edwin tells him as much.
He moves on to the next bum, an old woman of about fifty.
‘What’s your story?’ Edwin asks.
‘I was a prostitute,’ says the woman. ‘An alcoholic and drug addict to boot. Father Michael helped me give it all up. I thank the Lord every day for putting such a great man in my path.’
‘What a tosser,’ Edwin declares. Who is Father Michael to tell this woman what she can and cannot do with her own body? ‘Religion claims yet another victim,’ he tells the woman. ‘Yet again it manages to indoctrinate someone into believing their life is wrong and the Church’s way is right. You are your own woman, free to do what pleases you, Madam.’
‘I’m really content now,’ says the woman.
‘Wouldn’t you be more content with a little something-something to help you sleep at the end of a hard day on the streets? Surely there’s some childhood trauma that niggles on your mind when you’re all alone?’
‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,’ says the woman. ‘I mean, sometimes I wish I had something to help with the arthritis.’
‘Course you do,’ says Edwin. ‘You’re flesh and bone after all. Do what makes you happy, Madam. Our time on this Earth is fleeting. And I do believe that we happen to be under some mistletoe.’
Edwin throws her his famous come-hither lip curl.
‘Would you like some company?’ the woman asks. ‘I could provide that, I suppose.’
Edwin slips the woman a fifty and they make for the disabled toilet.
Here lies Edwin Nicholas Shoemaker—ladykiller and pimp extraordinaire.
Afterwards, the woman runs off to procure medication to help with her arthritis and Edwin starts to feel pretty damn good about himself. He hands out fifty-pound notes to all of the bums on the condition that they use it to do exactly the opposite of what Father Michael tells them. He tells them they are Father Michael’s dancing bears, his caged monkeys, whose sole purpose is to help Father Michael and his goody-two-shoed sycophants feel better about stuffing their fat faces with truffle.
‘That’s it, fly, fly my pretties, fly,’ he shouts as he throws out the cash.
‘That’s enough, Edwin,’ Father Michael says at his side. ‘A fifty-pound note will not solve these people’s problems.’
‘Be gone, turbulent priest!’ Edwin shouts.
‘Edwin!’ Nanny says but Edwin cannot hear her for he is on a different plane of consciousness now. He is consumed with purpose. He is a juggernaut of resolve.
Father Michael and the goody-two-shoed bastards pick Edwin up by the arms and legs then use his head to bash open the emergency exit door. He receives a kick in the arse for good measure and is told not to come back.
‘That’s right, cast out the truth-sayer. Your time will come you bastards. Your time will come.
Edwin sits down on the footpath. He feels dizzy. His noggin has taken quite the hammering in the last 24 hours.
Jesus sits down beside him.
‘Hello, Jesus,’ Edwin says. ‘Happy Birthday.’
‘Thanks, Edwin,’ Jesus says. ‘How’s it all going?’
Edwin tells Jesus everything—all about the drinking and fighting, the cheap sex in the disabled toilet, the falling out with the only person who actually loves him, about abusing the Church, about feeling lonely and betrayed and the hatred he feels for the goody-two-shoes and mankind as a whole, about how he tried to make things good but only made them worse, about feeling that the years are slipping him by faster than he can get a handle on, and about how he fucking hates Wham.
Jesus thinks on it all for a moment. ‘Christmas,’ he shrugs. ‘Come on, let’s go score some coke.’
(c) David McGrath, 2014
David McGrath has been published in Litro, Open Pen, Weird Lies and An Earthless Melting Pot. He's won StorySlam, came third in the Words with Jam Story Competition and was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize 2013.
Paul Clarke (right) trained at the Central School and always got cast as a baddie or a monster. Or, for a bit of variety, a bad monster. Now a photographer, technologist and occasional performer, he finds the League's stories islands of relative sanity in his life.