The second of our runners up for the Cheltenham Prize is Christine Griffin of Gloucester with her story On a Clear Day. Both runners-up receive a £15 book token from the Suffolk Anthology bookshop.
On a Clear Day
Back where I started, thought Joe, shifting his weight from his damaged foot as he gazed out of the fourth floor apartment window. Abercrombie Gardens – who would have thought it? This new apartment must be just about where his childhood home had stood, cramped and mean, crouching in the maze of streets that ran up from the Liverpool waterfront. Forty years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to see anything apart from the neighbours’ back yards. Now with the slums all cleared, he could see right across the river to the blue-grey smudge of the hills of North Wales. On a clear day people said you could even see Snowdon.
Joe turned from the window, feeling the gnawing unease that had plagued him since he returned to Liverpool a few months ago. Something about that view troubled him and he couldn’t put his finger on it. There were posh people down in the Docklands developments paying a fortune so that they could sit and watch the sun setting over Wales, but he preferred the old view of lines of washing and grubby kids playing in the street. He felt safer with that.
Most of his life he’d travelled the world, rootless and unsettled, doing odd jobs where he could. The freedom had suited him. He would never have given up that way of life if it hadn’t been for his foot – an awkward, twisted stump below the ankle. When he was born, the midwife had told his mother that he had probably been ‘lying funny’ in the womb and as a result his foot hadn’t developed properly. Some of his earliest memories were of his mother dragging him to the old Southern Hospital where the doctors would shake their heads and say there was nothing to be done. His mam had given up in the end and he’d learned to live with it.
Then about a year ago, it had begun to get noticeably worse, and reluctantly Joe had conceded that he needed to live a more settled life. He’d returned to Liverpool a few months previously, distressed and troubled and come back to his childhood home, Abercrombie Gardens.
It didn’t take him long to find a job – his sort could always find work. ‘Those Little Extras’ the company was called. Their main brief was to find extras for the increasing number of films which used the dramatic Liverpool Waterfront. They liked Joe, who with his battered, weathered look and limp made an excellent sea dog.
When he wasn’t required for film work the company used him for advertising. He’d done sandwich boards and leaflet distribution. He’d stood at the entrances to alleys, holding an arrow pointing in to the hidden delights off the main street. He’d even spent a weekend walking the city streets dressed as a foaming beer tankard to advertise a new pub. He actually didn’t care what he did, so long as he could feed and clothe himself. He’d have preferred a job where he didn’t need to be on his feet all day, but beggars can’t be choosers.
This particular morning though was bothering him. He couldn’t settle and he resumed his stance at the window gazing over the Mersey to the hills beyond. You know, maybe he could just about glimpse Snowdon. He was sure he could make it out as the morning clouds lifted. Not that he’d really know though. He’d been all over the world, but he’d never actually been to North Wales. Funny that.
His doorbell rang, jolting him out of his reverie. That would be Danny from the office; no-one else ever called on him.
Danny bounced into the room, all youthful energy and hair gel, clutching a large box.
‘Great job lined up for you, Joe, for next weekend. Something a bit different. Bought all the gear with me. There’s a girl getting married next Saturday at St Luke’s. Suddenly decides she wants a lucky sweep at her wedding. Read about it in a book or something. What’ll they think of next, eh?’
Joe could see the bristles of a chimney sweep’s brush poking out of the package. His heart started to beat and his foot throbbed.
He tried to say something, but Danny cut him short.
‘All the job details are there. Just turn up outside the Church, give her a kiss and hang about for a few photos. Not bad for fifty quid.’
Joe’s reply froze in his throat as Danny headed for the door.
‘Hey, great views today. Is that Snowdon? Can’t beat it, can you. See you soon.’
And he was gone, before Joe could say anything.
He opened the package. There it all was, just as he knew it would be. The suit, the top hat, the brushes, and a box of fake soot. There was even a little figure carved out of coal which he was supposed to give to the bride to bring her luck for the future. Strange that he, who’d never really had a day’s good luck in his life should be chosen to do this. His hand shook as he lifted out the costume.
A little while later he gazed at himself in the mirror. Now that he was actually wearing the outfit, his panic was beginning to abate. It was gradually being replaced by a feeling that somehow the time had come. He wasn’t sure what that time was, but he knew oddly that he felt called upon in some way. It was no accident that he had come back to Liverpool; he felt sure of that now and it was something to do with this costume. Carefully he folded up the brush, changed back into his own clothes and packed everything away.
When Joe woke on Saturday, he knew even before he got out of bed that it was a beautiful day. He could sense the heat outside and the view from his window shimmered and danced before him.
‘As it should be,’ a voice inside him said.
He remembered how he had felt only a few days earlier when Danny had told him about the job. Every part of him had wanted to scream that he couldn’t do it. Now today, he felt calmer. In a curious sort of way, he was actually looking forward to it. He dressed carefully, sprinkling the fake soot over his outfit. As he slid his feet into the special sweep’s shoes, he noticed that his foot was hardly hurting at all. Good job, he thought. St Luke’s was a couple of miles away and no way was he getting on the bus dressed like this. He’d have to walk.
Joe was absolutely certain he knew the way. He remembered it quite clearly from when he was a boy. He had to go to the end of his road and then turn right into Faulkner Street. Then a left along Wellington Street and it was straight on from there. But when he got to Faulkner Street he found his way barred. A policeman stood by a taped cordon, ignoring reporters who were yelling at him for information. As they saw Joe, they gradually fell silent.
A reporter with a Liverpool Echo badge stepped forward,
‘Blimey mate. Good timing or what. How did you know about this then?’
‘Know about what?’
‘The little blighter they’ve just found. That’s why the road’s closed. They’ll be bringing him out soon.’
But Joe was hardly listening to him. He was staring in horror at the partly demolished roof of Number 35. Below in the road was a tent, and some official looking people in white coats were speaking on mobiles and writing on clipboards. The scene looked exactly like it did on the television when a body had been found in a cellar or dug up from under a patio.
‘Funny you turning up in that garb right at the critical moment,’ continued the reporter.’ They’ve found a young lad – well a skeleton – stuck in the chimney of number 35. Been there for about two hundred years, someone said. Poor little bleeder. Things they did those days – make your blood run cold.’
Joe felt the street stagger and spin about him. Time shifted a couple of gears and reeled back through the years. The houses below him were the same, but not the same. From his vantage point on the roof of number 35 he could see far below him, street vendors peddling their wares, children fighting and screeching and angry fishwives cursing anyone who came near them. The stink of fish mingled with humans and animals. But up here, halfway to the sky, he felt a sense of elation as he gazed over the rooftops. You could see real mountains. Bet there’s streams there and animals, he thought. He’d love to go there one day.
He felt his boss kick him sharply in the ribs.
‘No time for you to be staring into space. There’s work to be done.’
The boy smelt the man’s sour, beery breath as he was lifted and stuffed roughly down the chimney. As he fell, he felt his foot catch on the side. He swore he almost heard it break. Hours and hours he screamed for his boss to get him out. Hours and hours as the sun set over the Welsh hills. Darkness fell. No-one came.
Time stopped spinning and Joe turned to face the man from the Echo.
‘He was six years old,’ he said. ‘His name was Joe.